Dropping Out of the Dumb Bell Derby: a Call to Study

Every seed spends many nights in the earth.
Give up the idea that the world will get better by itself.
You will not be forgiven if you refuse to study.

— Robert Bly, from Advice From the Geese

Average Americans know nothing, even in barest outline form, of the stories of Haiti, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua or of any country south of the equator, yet we are all too well acquainted with the babbling of ignorant fools about those tortured lands. From most of us, the hallowed names of revolutionary leaders from these nearby countries, Toussaint L’ouverture, Farabundo Marti and Augusto Sandino, would draw blank stares. To be fair, most would also know next to nothing about our own revolutionaries like Nat Turner, John Brown, Frederick Douglas or even Thomas Paine. A young friend, who just began teaching seventh grade in a local rural school district was distressed to find that many of his students did not know who Martin Luther King was beyond that he was the reason for a day off from school. (Even the whitewashed, harmless version of Dr. King, Paul Street laments in his recent Counterpunch essay is fading from our collective memory.) Such appalling historical ignorance has consequences beyond Santayana’s famous dictum about inevitable repetition often quoted by those who have no clue who he was either. One of the more regrettable of those consequences is presently squatting in the big shack, largely built by slave labor, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Ignorance begets ignorance.

We have arrived at this sad juncture, not by chance, but by an ill-conceived design gone awry. As teacher and educational historian, John Taylor Gatto has painstakingly documented in such books as Dumbing us Down, The Underground History of American Education and Weapons of Mass Instruction, the compulsory American public education system, adopted from a Prussian model, was created to deprive the majority of the population of the ability to think for themselves by an economic elite who feared that Italians and other then arriving immigrants were incapable of self-rule. The model, when running efficiently, was meant to educate an upper-class 15% needed to run the country while the lower 85% would learn only those basic skills needed to be a work force and more importantly learned to stay in their seats and obey. What Carnegie and his co-conspirators did not foresee was how thoroughly their dumbing-down project would be aided in the second half of the twentieth century by the arrival of television and then computer technology. However, I doubt that the systems creators wanted so many of us to get this fucking dumb, or that they could foresee how the disease of mass ignorance they created would eventually infect their prized 15% as well, to the point where we are now ruled  by a pack of ignoramuses near as illiterate as those they govern, rule by the worst and dimmest.

The morass of vacuity in which we find ourselves mired is made even more dangerous by the fact that most Americans are equally clueless about our own stories beyond the basic facts that will appear in our obituaries and as unfamiliar with the geography of our souls as we are with the geography of Africa or South America. We are by and large an unreflective people, caught and entranced with the images of ourselves in the screens into which we endlessly stare. Snared in the monotheism of the ego we vacillate between poles of childish grandiosity and acute victimization. Veins of American exceptionalism and white supremacist ideology are so deeply embedded in our national psychic substrata that we are for the most part ignorant of the influence these forces have on our thoughts. We do not know ourselves and thus tend to get caught in fantasies of ourselves as essentially good, well-intentioned, misunderstood people, and thus become a pack of well-meaning dolts innocent and largely ignorant of the crimes committed in our names. Our shadows personal and national are immense. And, since we do not  know our own propensity for laziness, lasciviousness, violence and hatred, we project those sins on others. We threw out God and don’t believe in the devil, and so the father of lies now rules us.

What I want to explore here is how we drop out from running in this Dumb-bell Derby that has turned the clubhouse corner and is in the homestretch galloping toward oblivion. I begin by confessing that I do not have an easy answer. Thirty or so years ago when I had the opportunity to briefly work with and get to know, John Taylor Gatto, one of the things that impressed me most about him was that he included himself in the legion of the dumbed-down. He confessed to Kim and I that his education had not taught him to think and admitted that he had to study and to work very hard to develop cognitive skills beyond those of rote memorization. I believe that our efforts must be grounded in similar admissions and humility.

Few if any of us have had the sort of classical liberal arts education that was once the standard. Though the best instruction then was reserved for the upper classes, a sense of what being well-educated meant filtered down sufficiently to the hoi polloi that America then produced countless remarkable autodidacts such as Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Herman Melville, Thomas Edison, Emma Goldman (Russian born), Kenneth Rexroth, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Wright and Malcolm X who did quite well in their respective fields of endeavor despite a lack of formal schooling. Gatto convincingly argues that literacy rates in nineteenth-century America were higher before the advent of compulsory public education. Just look at the letters home from ordinary farm boys serving in the Union Army during the Civil War and you’ll see convincing evidence for that claim. Compare their sophisticated diction and command of syntax to what we see now from college students who cannot write a simple declarative sentence or compose a coherent paragraph, and you’ll see that our schooling can be viewed as working only if its goal is to make us stupid. As a former English teacher, who during just ten years in the classroom went through at least three different reform efforts in New York State, each in turn making matters worse,  I can state quiet confidently that that the answer to our dumbbell dilemma will not come through public school reform no matter how many millions of dollars we flush down that toilet.

Writers as disparate as Richard Wright, George Orwell, Robert Bly and Ivan Illich have pointed to the importance of tradition in the transmission of culture. The intellect of the population in any given place tends to reflect what is truly valued in that place. Eastern European Jews, for instance, valued scholarship, Talmudic and secular, and the results are evident in their accomplishments in the arts and sciences wherever they went. We give plenty of lip-service to education in twentieth-century America, but what we truly value is money; thus, education is now equated with practical job training and with preparation for a career. Since there is little work now offered that anyone in his or her right mind would want, education is a big puddle of nothing, a jumping through hoops to acquire an expensive but increasingly worthless piece of paper. By and large, Americans now go to college not driven by a burning desire to learn but because we believe we have no choice and because we can’t imagine anything else we might do. Moreover, the theory-bound, deconstructive asininity of academia in the second half of the twentieth century, along with its turn to censorship through political correctness has lead to a growing national disdain for the intellect and for study. But I am convinced that a new dedication to study is just what we need at this time and that all of our activism and resistance to corporate hegemony will come to naught if we refuse the task at hand.

I arrive at this conclusion largely through personal experience. I tell the following story not to ring my own bell but to illustrate my point. Many people here in Utica, NY, an abandoned rust-belt enclave, wonder how my wife, Kim and I have accomplished  what we have in a place like Utica over the past 25 or so years. We have in that time ran a lively, well-attended salon for seven years; a successful, arts-centered anarchist cafe (with very good coffee) for 15 years; published Doubly Mad: A Journal of Arts & Ideas, on and off for 12 years and, for ten years, have run The Other Side, an independent, not-for-profit arts center with no paid staff that features top-shelf jazz from NYC and upstate, speakers, big names and small, academic and political; poetry readings; monthly art exhibits; reading groups etc. all while raising a family,  (children and now grandchildren living here and living creatively too), buying and artistically remodeling an older home in a borderline neighborhood, and both doing regular writing, poetry and prose, while living on an income that some might call voluntary poverty. The answer, I believe, is largely in the studying we have done together over the past forty years of marriage. Our accomplishments, such as they are, are dreams fulfilled, imagined castles in the air with foundations now built under them, all rooted in the inspiration provided by our many mentors: Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, D. H. Lawrence, C.G. Jung, Gustav Landauer, W.B. Yeats, Emma Goldman, Josef Pieper, George Orwell, Dorthy Day, Dwight MacDonald, Paul Goodman, Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, James Hillman, Robert Bly, Ivan Illich, Wendell Berry, Lewis Hyde and Curtis White, to name but a few.

Though we both earned graduate degrees from Ivy League schools, we each left the career paths our degrees led to and consider our formal schooling close to irrelevant to what we have together done. (I consider the self-guided study I undertook during the near  two years I spent in prison on a bogus drug rap in my early 20’s more essential to who I have become.) The studying we do singularly and together never ends. Having jettisoned television some twenty years ago and seldom watching movies, we spend a good deal of time reading alone and to each other. Our reading aloud sessions in the past two years alone have included works by Tolstoy and Stephan Zwieg, great swaths of the work of Lawrence and Orwell, as well as political texts by Staughton Lynd and others. We read not simply for entertainment, to pass the time, but rather for the nourishment reading provides for the imagination where disobedience, resistance and rebellion are born.

I want to differentiate between the simple pursuit of reading as a pastime and deliberate study. We have many friends at the cafe who are never without the latest book they are reading, who pour over the Sunday Time’s Book Review and listen to Terry Gross on NPR looking for reading leads. They ingest prodigious  piles of books by revered contemporary authors, some pursuing “serious” writers, others romances and fantasies, largely for the sake of entertainment, that is the momentary occupation of their minds. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this sort of reading, which surely beats watching TV, but study involves a different sort of zeal, another strain of application. Kim and I spend a great deal of time reflecting upon, discussing and often writing about what we read. We follow out strands of historical or philosophic interest like bloodhounds sniffing out a trail. For instance, we followed the  reading of the two volumes of  Red-Emma’s autobiography, with a novel about Joe Hill, then several books about the wobblies and the labor struggles of the twentieth-century. To be honest, we are not great dedicated scholars, as our busy lives don’t allow for that sort of total engagement, but we are dedicated dilettantes, that is ones who pursue knowledge for delight or for love and in our case to make of ourselves better, more effective revolutionaries. And, to the extent that we might be called intellectuals, we attempt to be public intellectuals, ones who apply our learning in the public sphere to the pursuit of the common good.

Kim presents regular provocative, challenging Sunday-morning talks at The Other Side that are developing a loyal following and that are followed by an hour or so of lively discussion that through practice goes continually deeper. In all our endeavors we seek to promote conversation, particularly on those issues (racism, capitalism, militarism and imperialism, for instance) that are seldom part of our public discourse. We have over the years started several reading/study groups where we together take up serious texts. Most recently forming, with a group of young wobblies and anarchists, an anti-fascist reading group known affectionately as the anti-fascist coffee club. We often encounter pressure or criticism from those who are eager to jump into “doing something” about those issues, who do not see that study and real dialogue are doing something and are essential forms of activism.

Our scholarship has been rooted in what might be called the western mythopoetic tradition beyond which we have our individual areas of pursuit, Kim’s in western esoteric religion, mine in poetry, music (jazz and blues) and cultural history. We are probably weakest in our knowledge of Marxist economic and revolutionary theory. We would not dare or care to prescribe a curricular path for anyone else. In the new, non-academic intellectual tradition I here envision there is plenty of room for individual  areas of interest, passion and pursuit. The global, mediated, corporate, techno-culture we now inhabit is, at best a faux culture, that is no culture at all. Real cultures are indigenous, grow from the relation of people to the land in a particular place, like lab cultures in a petri dish. The recreation of real community in abandoned places like Utica must run deeper than the rebuilding of local agriculture and business. We need also to work in the realm of arts and ideas, to build a new intellectual tradition, one in which each individual is encouraged to know his or her self (soul) and to fully develop his or her ability to study and to think. We need to build new traditions of learning to pass on to the young, so that they might first imagine a better world then build it. We will not be forgiven if we refuse the call to study.

Orin Domenico is a poet living in Utica, New York. His latest volume is My Rap Sheet is Long (Black Rabbit Press).