But it also makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, because the traditional advice to writers is "Know your audience," and deliberately addressing a mixed audience is something that serious writers are advised to avoid. I am not supposed to have it both ways here; unlike the fictional narrator of Salman Rushdie's Midnight Children who declares, "I refuse to choose," I am supposed to make up my mind. Who am I talking to?
To some extent, I understand why it's important to target a specific audience. Here, for instance, readers outside academia might grow bored with an analytical piece like the one below that parses my reaction to Adam Gopnik's defense of the humanities, while those who "profess English" for a living might cringe at my not-so-scholarly response to Dead Poets Society. For years I've pondered writing about the mirror-relationship of the micr0-community I was raised in (fundamentalist religion) and the one I joined (academia)--the fact that my once-home community resists "intellectualism" while my professional community resists "sentimentality." A couple of years ago when I told a friend I might write about this, he told me, "Wow--you're in the unique position of being able to offend everybody you know, and all at the same time."
The point isn't to offend anyone, but academic readers who expect this blog to be about the plight of the humanities in the bureaucratic age may sometimes wonder exactly what I'm trying to do here. (To paraphrase Spamalot's Lady of the Lake, it may seem I've "really lost the plot.") What's the relationship between celebrity deaths and what linguist Noam Chomsky calls the "Walmart model of education"? (As an aside: In some ways Walmart does work as an analogy for the current direction of higher education: as Chomsky points out, a small, well-paid management class holds power over a cadre of lower-paid workers who are treated as interchangeable and dispensable. But there is one flaw in the analogy: at least Walmart does keep its prices low, however ethically problematic its tactics might be. With higher education embracing a similar model, wouldn't one expect the cost of higher ed to go down, rather than reaching unprecedented highs?)
Pondering this question led me to think, once again, about Robin Williams--this time, the persona that he often played in his starring roles. The "Woody Allen persona" is privileged yet neurotic, unlucky in love, and prone to witty but whiny existentialist observations; the "Harrison Ford persona" is arrogant and emotionally distant, yet ultimately charming and loveable despite himself. The "Robin Williams persona" is typically a creative, high-energy maverick who is forced to operate in a highly traditional and repressive environment--a New England prep school, a hospital, a psychiatric office, his estranged wife's house, and so forth.
Not every film follows an identical plot trajectory, but in many of them, Williams' protagonist energizes those who have been stymied by rigidity; everyone falls in love with him, except for the tradition-bound bureaucratic individual who views him as a threat to the status quo. When one of his "followers" (or, as in Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams' character himself) makes a serious mistake resulting in some kind of disaster, the traditionalists blame the Williams character, who--depending on which effect the screenwriter is going for--either triumphs or departs in shame, his spirits nevertheless buoyed by the praise of those followers who truly understood what he was trying to do. (Actually, this is also the plot trajectory of just about every "creative teacher fighting against the system" movie out there.) Cliche alert!
But I prefer to explore concepts like "cliche" (as with "sentimental") in depth, rather than using negative labels as a way to shut down discussion. I'm not one of those who believes that anything "popular" must therefore be artistically inane. If a cliche resonates with broad audiences, I'd argue that there are reasons, and we'd do well to consider what those reasons might be rather than assume something is drivel just because a lot of people like it. I'd suggest that audiences respond to the Williams persona--and to the "creative maverick fighting the repressive system" plot, hackneyed though it may be--because these are not just fictional gimmicks. They dramatize a question many of us live on a daily basis: Will we act as humane people, serving fellow human beings through systems designed to meet our various needs? Or will we serve the system itself, sacrificing the humanity of others--and, ultimately, our own humanity as well--to the machine?
How we experience this issue depends on where we are positioned in society; power is unevenly distributed, and some people have more opportunity than others to make decisions that affect the lives of others. All of us, however--albeit to widely varying degrees--know how it feels to be treated as something less than fully human. (Try calling any company and finding an actual person on the end of the line; watch your computer as it decides it's time to "install updates" without your consent. Now magnify this feeling of "not mattering" several zillion times if you are young, old, poor, disabled, under-employed, a member of a minority group, and so forth--and apply it to more earth-shaking situations, like whether you have clean water, health care, or enough to eat.)
As power and wealth grow increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, and as such dehumanizing beliefs as racism and sexism appear to grow more socially acceptable, the system dehumanizes more and more people. Consequently, as Naomi Alderman points out in a 2011 Granta article, it's no coincidence that the monster du jour is the zombie. To quote Alderman: "Zombies are the horrifying crowd of the urban poor, the grasping hands reaching out for something which, if you gave it to them, would destroy you. They’re the interchangeable anonymous people we encounter on our daily commute, those whose humanity we cannot acknowledge."
Joseph Campbell posited in The Power of Myth that Darth Vader is evil precisely because he is "a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself but in terms of an imposed system." Campbell posits this as the dilemma of contemporary humankind: "Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes?" The Robin Williams movie persona is Darth's inverse; his characters typically attempt to humanize a system that is "flattening people out" (much like the societies imagined in dystopian novels). The humanizing effects of interpersonal connection, dignity, creativity, humor, and other qualities found in the "Williams persona" are the antidote to the zombie apocalypse.
De-humanization takes many forms. It happens when human beings are treated as "human resources" (we used to be called "personnel," with the root word "person," but nowadays we're just "resources"). It happens when we're conceptualized merely as "consumers", or as "producers," or as "budgetary line items." It happens when we write off the humanity of anyone we perceive to be different from "us" (for whatever reason) and therefore "inferior." Dehumanization lies at the heart of just about every social ill, both now and historically. When one society goes to war with another, the propaganda typically constructs the "enemy" as an animal or a monster--something other than a human being. Slavery was justified for centuries on the basis that those of other races were "partial" human beings who "don't feel pain like 'we' do," or who "don't love their children the same way 'we' do." Genocide is justified on the same principle, that "we" matter and "they" do not. (Such attitudes have hardly disappeared.) When multinational corporations justify exploitation, low pay and appalling working conditions, the machine is at play. The apocalypse is here; the apocalypse is now. As Alderman puts it, the zombies "won't just kill us, they'll turn us into one of them."
The question of whether we serve the system or vice-versa also lies at the heart of today's educational dilemmas. When the real challenges faced by K-12 students--poverty, illness, learning disabilities, chaotic home lives--are disregarded in a never-ending quest for higher test scores that neglects context and measures only one narrow aspect of learning, the system is winning. When "accountability" leads to assessment practices that stifle creativity and openness in the classroom, the system is winning. When a bottom-line-above-all-else mindset gives short shrift to the arts and humanities because they are "insufficiently profitable," the system is winning. When teachers at any level lack a living wage, appropriate benefits, job security, and the kind of autonomy and trust normally accorded to well-trained professionals, the system is winning. (The latter is, of course, true for those working in other sectors as well.)
When the system wins, all of us--not just teachers and students, but the families and communities in which we all live--become zombies, walking around undead, as the Darth Vaders of the world control the ship. (Yes, I know I'm mixing my metaphors here.) Those of us with stakes in the educational enterprise are not alone. The process of dehumanization--the zombie apocalypse--is something we all face if we do not begin to work, collectively, toward a more humanized approach to education as well as to all other realms of life.
That is why I'm consciously committing several "sins" in this blog: addressing a mixed audience, boomeranging between scholarly and not-so-scholarly sources, mixing metaphors, coming at this "why save the humanities" question from multiple angles. For it's not just the corporate model of education that threatens our collective humanity; those threats are everywhere. We will do better to address them in solidarity rather than in isolation.
If we wish to make progress in wrestling education back from the bureaucratic Darth Vaders, then those of us who are educators--at all levels, from preschool through PhD--should be as comfortable discussing what we do with construction workers, plumbers, janitors, doctors, lawyers, hairdressers and accountants as we are with each other. We will only be able to stem the current march toward zombie education when those from all walks of life understand that all of us have a stake in creating an educational system that humanizes everyone, not only those who formally received a particular kind of education from a particular kind of place. If we care about these issues, we need to know how to speak to a broad audience about why they matter.
Of course there is a time and place for more specialized academic discourse, and I still believe and participate in that. But when it comes to re-humanizing our current approach to education, educators can't do this alone. Everyone, regardless of occupation, needs to understand what's at stake. We don't have to be as outrageously iconoclastic as the Robin Williams characters that collectively defined his cinematic persona, nor will the plots of our own lives be as predictable or as simple as the Hollywood formula. But if we dismiss as "hackneyed" or "cliche" the response of audiences to those characters, we will fail to grasp the crucial point: the need for humanity in the face of a mechanistic system.
Now that I think about it, perhaps I'm following the time-worn advice after all: "Know your audience." It may not fit traditional definitions, but this audience is one I know: it includes both academic and non-academic readers, and I'm fine with that. So long as none of them have already turned into zombies. I want to believe it is not too late.