Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Getting that desire to flee again?

It seems like a lot of folks are, these days, and it’s showing up in all the usual US ways—hipster fantasies of “living off the grid” and lefty dreams of “moving to Canada” and artist rants about the new hot place they have to be (is it Joshua Tree or Berlin, these days?) and newbie grads planning their exits via extended study abroad (MBAs in St. Petersburg!), the Peace Corps (mosquito nets in Belize!), and fellowships (anywhere away from here!).

I get the vibe, I’m not immune. School closings, teacher firings, fees at every public museums, and on and on—I see why getting out is a seduction for those who have options.

Education is hard ground to work right now. It’s painful to care about these days, if what you really love is the public part of it, all the places and structures—schools, museums, libraries, art, archives—that we have created and cared for and benefited from in the US. And then there’re the people who work in those places—I mean, I’m a geek for librarians who can find anything about everything; I love teachers who crazy-love what they are teaching; I am thankful that someone hired every WPA muralist who ever painted something sublime in a post office for me to look at…for a very long time…while I wait…to buy stamps.

Because I love public education, public art, and public cultural institutions, and think that public dollars should support all this, I am not interested in the recent re-drifting toward “un” and “open” schooling. To clarify—of course I am in favor of self-education, but that’s like saying I’m in favor of breathing. People just learn; we are all engaged in self-educating, whether we think we are or not. What I find irritating isn’t this constant, albeit often haphazard exploring that we do, but the opting out of public education structure-work by the privileged. Re-warmed 1970s impulses seem to be resurfacing: leave “the system” and make your own! It’s a “private ideas as salvation” agenda, which is a lot like what the neo-liberal right has been offering up—I’m thinking of the impact of Bill Gates and the Walton family on public education policy, presto-change-o, privatization all around!—so why does the left seem to like it so much? I don’t want to spend much time thinking about making a new private university or elementary school with all the families and intellectuals that think pretty much like me, even if our schools are going to be hipper and cooler than the old ones down the block.

I get that making your own everything might make it all feel more controllable and thus, better—though I’d also dispute that in control is always better. And when it comes to education, I think that surprise, proximity and accident is how we learn the most.