Saturday, December 22, 2012

On Doing Democracy: A Final Lecture 2012

Endings are always a time to look back. At the end of one’s life, one looks back on the life lived while those around one’s self do the same. At the end of a relationship, one looks back to see what went wrong along with what went right. And here, at the end of a course, we look back to see the journey - the intellectual journey - we have been on. So, as we end this class we might look back at our experiences and rehash what we read, thought about, discussed, and seen these past 15 weeks. We might literally RE-VIEW the class by going from week to week, reminding ourselves of what we “did” and perhaps should know upon leaving this class. Such an approach would begin with thinking about “democracy” through John Dewey, remembering the importance and limitations of educational policy, contemplating again the position of being an observer, a spectator, a viewer, the representations of gender at the American Girl store and Andi Zeisler...and so on and so forth.

Yet, such an approach seems rather outdated. It assumes, I think, that you as students need me as teacher to “explain” to you the readings and what is important from them...Rather than say allowing you to review and think about the readings on your own time as you see necessary since learning happens not in a linear fashion but in strange ways.

As such, I would rather start with the assumption that you don’t need me to explain this course to you because you are capable and intelligent individuals who can make sense of this course in any number of ways. Instead, I want to use this final lecture to “review” the course by viewing it differently, to demonstrate - rather than explain - the implications of this course as I see them myself.

There are many different ways to conceive of and think about the educational project. We can think of it as an act of transmission, an act of liberation, an act of oppression. We can think about and conceive of education as maintaining the status quo, as a mode of social reproduction, or as a push for social justice. What I think I have learned by thinking through the various materials of this course is that the way we frame the issues we talk about impacts the attitudes we take towards those very issues. And those issues are always inevitably connected to the bodies of our students, ourselves, and our community. I think perhaps Biesta illuminated this best when he asked us to leave open - quite radically - the question of the “human” and so here at the end, I want to use Biesta’s work as a frame to look back on our course and time together...

We might see that what we read, discussed, and experienced was not so much a quest for knowledge - although it was not devoid of knowledge I hope - but rather a quest, an adventure to think about and imagine the ways in which we might relate to the self and others. While we did not always read work that showed positive examples of how people relate to one another - think back to the film “Please Vote for Me” where we saw that even grade schoolers could be coercive and manipulative of one another. Or think about the various struggles for rights and recognition that undergird much of our reading - civil rights, women’s rights, and gay and lesbian rights. We see in all of these “movements” a struggle to relate to the self and others in less violent, less harmful ways. We see that Democracy is a struggle, a constantly evolving and perhaps at time de-volving political theory that plays out in everyday experience in complex and contradictory ways.

We see in all of this - the struggles and successes - the immense vulnerability that exists in being human. Humans are precarious beings. We can, at any given moment, be violated to the point of death. Yet, we can also, at any given moment, experience immense joy and happiness. Precarity shows us not only our vulnerability but also our excitability. Our readings this semester and our explorations of what it means to “do” democracy not only I think exposed the struggles of surviving in the world but also asked for, I hope, that we imagine and create ways to thrive in that very world. They have demonstrated ways in which people have related and might relate to one another.

For instance, while Eve Sedgwick showed the violence inflicted on non-gender conforming boys in the late 80’s and early 90’s - calling it open season on gay kids - we can see simultaneously the ways in which gay kids can have technicolor lives in the 21st Century. The stories we tell about, in this instance, gay kids cannot be centered entirely on the “gay kid as victim” but also the ways in which gay kids lead lives that are exciting, pleasurable, and perhaps most importantly worth living...There is, to return to Chimamanda Adichie, a danger in the single story asking us to constantly be vigilant in the representations, the stories we hear, read, and create. To, as Foucault asks, that we remain in a state of perpetual critique.

There are of course other ways to think through Sedgwick or any of the other readings and films we “read” this semester - perhaps the implications in The Weather Underground look different now at the end of this class. But, I think for me I see that “doing democracy” and the ways in which we think about “doing democracy” impact how we can relate to one another and ourselves. I would argue that we are at a strange juncture in American Democracy where the ways in which we relate to one another are narrowing ever so slowly...where public spaces are becoming privatized, where people interact less and less, where poverty increases at the same time immense wealth increases, where politicians are more concerned about being elected than doing anything productive for the ever growing list of problems we face as a nation and a globe, where intellectualism is in decline and being “smart” seen as a liability.

Yet, such challenges are opportunities to “do democracy” - to be a part of the process. And, it is my belief that how we frame and engage these issues is the challenge we all face leaving this classroom. Do we frame these issues as ethical? As political? As aesthetic? As a combination? And how does that framing impact what lives we can and cannot see?

While such a challenge might seem overwhelming and impossible, it is what we have before us. I hope that we can, in our own ways, rise to the challenge and imagine, create, and struggle for a more just, more humane, and a more livable world for all of us. This is not some utopic hope, but it is a call to “do democracy” in a way that allows people to see their power and their responsibility to one another and to, with that power, do less harm next time.

I conclude then by thanking you for this opportunity to learn from and with you...for your patience and kindness as kinks were worked out and I myself learned through democracy. While I am sure it was not the smoothest of rides and that I had my own share of failings...I do hope it was rather enjoyable and intellectual ride.

Teaching is, I believe, an incredibly humbling act and being with you all for this term  has been incredibly humbling. So, thank you for this journey.

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