The College As Experience

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The family's function is to repress Eros; to induce a false consciousness of security; to deny death by avoiding life; to cut off transcendence; to believe in God, not to experience the Void; to create, in short, one-dimensional man; to promote respect, conformity, obedience; to con children out of play; to induce a fear of failure; to promote a respect for work; to promote a respect for 'respectability.'
—R. D. Laing, THE POLITICS OF EXPERIENCE

Laing's description of the family's function seems all too extreme; then particular families come to mind and it no longer seems extreme. What if "school's function" were substituted for "family's function"? Too extreme? It would seem so—until particular schools come to mind.

When I think of my own schooling now, from grade to graduate school, I see it as serving two unintended purposes: setting me a notch above kids from working-class families in my home town and creating in me the most debilitating conformity. This conformity to the demands of my social caste, this slavery to assumed moral codes, to philosophical speculation about the "meaning of it all," this wretched pride in "intellectual accomplishments"—all served well to turn me into the grotesque, death-in-life figure that I was as the graduate.

I wonder how many kids, like me, have run to the dimestore in late August to load up on paper, pencils, erasers, notebooks in eager anticipation for school—then find that enthusiasm killed the first or second week of school. When I started to prep school, I couldn't stand the three-day orientation period; I wanted to start the Latin, the ancient history. Two weeks later I knew it was bad, but I also knew that "one simply doesn't quit." Not that the four years was a complete waste as a learning experience. I learned how adolescents will turn on each other when frustrated by a system based on terror and discipline. I learned that those in charge had to keep the gap between them and the students wide; the few "liberal" and loving instructors were despised much the way that Blacks today despise the plump matron in charge of a committee on fair housing.

Yet even those who can tell similar tales of horror—and even top them—usually find in their educational experience one teacher who was free and loving, a free man or a free woman. But that one good experience is often negative for it breaks, temporarily, the "us versus them" protection virtually every student needs. That one good experience makes the next bad one unpardonable. The more I think about my own experience in school the more I wonder that graduates can dredge even one good teacher from memory.

NEGATIVE ASPECTS For it is not so much the discipline, the terror, the boredom of a particular experience in school that makes it so bad. It is the success the system has with a student in inducing guilt in him, in making him see the world around him as a laboratory experiment, in forcing him to criticize books instead of enjoying them, in forcing him to write correctly in preference to self-expression. That is the bad part. And teachers, for the most part, are "successful" in school. The gap between them and the students is wider at graduation than it will be—with a little bit of luck—their last year before retirement.

I recall when studying for my master's exam that I was particularly taken with Milton's PARADISE LOST. I began to sense with great excitement how a "Puritan mind" could translate all experience and emotion into ideas, how a writer obsessed with meaning could attempt to "justify God's ways to men." But what was really fascinating about PARADISE LOST to me was the poet's failure to control his materials, his inability ultimately to subordinate the experiences and emotions of men to theological truths. When Milton describes Adam's "fall," he is really describing how Adam becomes human, a lover committed-to hell or Eve or both! Everything Milton can muster to indict Adam, to show the world his "sin," fails. Suddenly I became aware how the Puritan can lock himself in narrower and narrower tiger cages of abstraction; suddenly I sensed why Milton was such a bitter, righteous man, impossible to live with.

My excitement diminished, however, when the thought occurred to me that, as far as the master's final was concerned, I was wasting my time. These insights were of no concern to the people who would test me. They would want to know about Milton's sources, the critics' commentaries, the structure of the poem. So I left off idly speculating about Milton and Adam and "studied for my exam."

With the acquisition of a master's degree, I left college for a position at a high-school boarding school. I really did not know what to do with these students, so I did what most of us have done: I created the same discipline I had suffered through for eighteen years. I squelched enthusiastic freshmen. I knew it was wrong somehow, they tried to tell me in various ways that it was wrong, but high-school administrators love a good disciplinarian. And I wanted to keep my job. In short, I was afraid—of students and administrators.

There's enough fear going around these days. It may be worse now. When I first began teaching I could always put the students down and please the administrators. The students took it or got out. It's different now. I'm not thinking so much of the Free Speech Movement, student boycotts of particular classes, teach-ins, Black studies, riots. I'm thinking of some of the students at my community college, those few people in a class who let me know when I am tying myself and the rest of the class in abstract knots, when I am being hopelessly irrelevant, when I am an instructor, not a person. When I first came here, there were only one or two in a class. They were resentful, usually dropping after a week or two. The four or five in each class now are not resentful; they simply want to help. For if they allow me to abstract a powerful novel into structure and form, to transmute an emotional impact into dry academese, then they lose. And so do I. These are the students who want to experience me, the class, and the subject. If I cannot experience them, they cannot experience me.

UNSTRUCTURED PROGRAM During the last summer session I discovered that it July 1973 was not only possible to conduct a class as if all the students were like the usual four or five: it was a fantastic teaching experience. True, I lost four students the first week and almost lost a few more who complained to others (I heard about it at coffee breaks) that "he doesn't know where he's going." In a sense that was a fair complaint. I simply refused to "teach" poetry, the novel or drama. If they had nothing to say about a particular work, we talked about something else. About the closest I came to teaching during that session was to write the assigned papers with the students. Ordinarily I would have been delighted that some of the students would emulate my style and logic; last summer I found that those who ignored my classroom-perfect papers and explored novels, plays and poetry their own way surpassed me in every way—except the classroom-perfect way.

I believe now that a number of students attending my college are ready for something different in the way of education. I believe that some—I have no idea how many—are ready for a totally unstructured program where students can pursue the things that interest them with faculty members who want to explore those things with them.

Before the irresistible impulse to structure this unstructured experiment overcomes me, let me say: what the program will be must be between the student and the instructors who will learn with him.

The experimental college will indeed be a chaotic world in an orderly, academic world, as chaotic, no doubt, as the world we live in.

What all education has been, it seems to me, is an attempt to provide a clean, well-lighted place from the terrors of the unknown. In a grosser age education was calculated terror to match about anything the unknown could muster. Things have changed for the better in recent years, but the advances can be seen only as faint glimmers of light—and the shadow is only too ready to cover.

As chaotic as the world we live in. "I have seen the Bird of Paradise," wrote Ronald Laing, after a harrowing psychic trip, "she has spread herself before me, and I shall never be the same again. There is nothing to be afraid of, nothing. Exactly."

Joseph Collignon teaches in the Humanities Division at Fullerton Junior College in California. He has degrees from St. John's University (Collegeville, Minn.), University of Arizona, and Arizona State University. Collignon has authored various books and articles, including THE SOUND OF PROSE (Glencoe Press), a college textbook which sets forth a method encouraging students to experience their language rather than to study it.