Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ruskin’s 21st Century (an educator’s rant)

“You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. All the energy of their spirits must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves….On the other hand, if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make him a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing; and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out come all his roughness, all his dulness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure, pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only when we see the clouds settling upon him.”
–John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice (1853)

The language is strange to us today. The dichotomy, of course, is too easy, naïve. Ruskin was a product of his times, as we are products of ours.

On the one hand, apart from perfectionists, that neurotic lot, nobody really speaks of human excellence anymore—or, at any rate, “excellence” as anything more than a tool of advertising or the cant of sports writing and awards shows.

But what Ruskin is talking about, besides Gothic architecture, is education … and what it means to be a human being, not a machine or a tool, calibrated for factory work.

So, on the other hand, as humanly flawed as his prophecy is, Ruskin, the Christian socialist, enchanted with a romanticized concept of pre-industrialized Western culture, could tell a thing or two about a world that would plow under humanism and the humanities for the sake of mechanization, Social Darwinism, and a soulless grinning Christendom cut off from any real concept of or concern for human suffering.

Today, in a post-industrial world, what would Ruskin make of the Internet … and consumerism? More generally, of the mass media?

We live in a society devoid of the humanistic folk element Ruskin and other eminent Victorians bemoaned the loss of, in an age of industrialization and laissez-faire capitalism.

Beginning with the English Romantics Wordsworth and Coleridge, conscious of regimentation of the displaced peasantry (with the “enclosure” of the “commons”—unowned tracts of land, on and off which peasants could live, without ownership), through the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, British intellectuals mourned the loss of what (they knew) could not be recovered (or remembered with any accuracy) and awaited whatever was coming next—an age of dehumanized machines, they feared, and of unbridled greed among the captains of industry (in whom Thomas Carlyle had put his faith for civilization’s future—a little gingerly, I suspect).

Humans reduced to statistics—human labor and imagination reduced to the calibrations of efficiency experts and test audiences—art in an age of mechanical reproduction, cool and perfect objects without the human messiness—inhumanly scaled ideals of beauty and success—intellectual discovery as corporate property—shrill, gaudy entertainments that could shut out nature, including homemade human nature, and streamline the existential muddle of chance, flux, and passion into manageable story “arcs” and simple, understandable motives, with laugh tracks and opinion polls to cue us towards the appropriate affects—consistent and reliable cheeseburgers—a clockwork sense of right and wrong—it’s the world all of us grew up in, so pardon us if we think of Beethoven as background music in a nice restaurant.

It’s in this world that we will leave no child behind. Every child has the right to be made into a decent tool of the state—and, above the state, global corporations. Standardized tests and teachers teaching to the tests leave no room for music or field trips to insect zoos. Team sports prepare young people for the military and management teams. Multiple-choice tests prepare young consumers for the “freedom of choice” provided by a remarkably homogenous set of manufactured products. Every pleasure, even every holiday and vacation, requires a blueprint, planned activities, and rubrics for evaluating the “fun.”

Abstinence-only sex, zero-calorie food, risk-free adventures, virtual reality, role models as heroes.

Perfect tools.

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