Monday, February 13, 2017
Educating for Mediocrity
The paradox at the heart of middle class lives is this - it is an unending pursuit of mediocrity.
I know we want to see it differently. The great middle class dream is the pursuit of happiness, in Jefferson's classic formulation. Happiness is about setting an achievable limit and being content with that. Happiness is an end, it is about stopping at a reasonable level, and not aspiring for more. It is about being what you can comfortably be. Which is, seen the glass half empty way, mediocrity.
Surely, pursuit of unhappiness would not inspire anyone. But this is indeed at the heart of educational enterprise, of the idea of an examined life. It is about continuously testing one's limit, a pursuit to escape the comfort zones. Even when everything seems content, the point of education is to question the very contentedness, and to introduce perspectives, spatialities and temporalities: No happiness is complete, all encompassing and lasts forever, is the inevitable verdict of education.
One could see the pointlessness of education if one only pursues happiness. My lessons in this came early. When I was young, I was fascinated by history and I wanted to study it. I was told, by my parents and others, pursuing a subject that has little career prospects is pointless. My arguments were that I was quite good at it and perhaps I could become a distinguished historian one day. The unassailable counter-argument that I faced is that if I pursue a more useful subject, I could perhaps get a job even if I am just mediocre. This was evidently more certain.
Mediocrity is the most terrifying certainties of middle class life. If one wanted to be mediocre, he will be. It is the easy option - the happy option, one may call - and it comes to everyone without even trying. And, yet, this is one of those big paradoxes in life. As in driving, as everyone thinks that he or she is an above-average driver making for a statistical impossibility, middle class lives are built around desires for certainty and distinction, a combination designed to produce only a fragile happiness and bland variety of envy.
Mediocrity is also one of the biggest follies at this time in history. Books are being written with titles such as 'The Average is Over' and the certainty that my parents were seeking has proved elusive (unfortunately for me, I embarked on the journey of certainty in mid-80s, which was already the end of time; fortunately, I did not care). Yet, as herds must follow the herds, the sacrifices in the pursuit of certainty continues.
Benjamin Franklin said, in another context, that once we are ready to give up liberty to seek safety, we should deserve neither liberty nor safety. This could as well be a verdict on middle class condition: We, like squirrel in the headlight, are being caught out by the fast developments of technologies of automation and globalisation, and scrambling for more safety, not less. The imminence of the end makes us give up aspirations even more readily than was in earlier generations: In a world where creativity rules, we plug up our ears and peel our eyes on textbooks, limiting rather than expanding our vision, expelling rather than embracing any imaginations of being different. The average may be over - we make average the new special!
If you think this is not making sense, it does not. If you think this argument is going in circles, it is. Perhaps this is not new. But our new perspectives let us see the futility of the middle class life of chasing one's own tail. The whole enterprise appears a paradox - all the oneupmanship to be average - and the conversation turns to pointless pursuit of education.
Satyajit Ray makes one of his characters say, "Learning is futile as there is no end of it". But its sarcasm is missed, as we arm ourselves with a sufficient number of degrees and declare the end of knowledge. Education's point is a job, and one can spend rest of one's life discussing the increments and cost-to-company, goes our thesis: Just that it isn't, not anymore. The endless of education resurfaces all too often, redundancies are discussed more than perks and illusory nature of happiness becomes all too apparent for ever so many.
I grew up to reject mediocrity, but we are indeed condemned into one. Even if the veil is lifted all too often, even if I know that all certainties are illusory, even if I know the settlement into happiness is an act of wilful blindness, being middle class is to maintain an illsuion of certainty. And, to square the circle, the only certainty available to us is to be mediocre, to be un-special, which is the distinction to covet for.
And, education, in the condition of mediocrity, is inconvenient, if it makes us ask questions and push the limits, if it commutes our desire for certainty for a quest of understanding, and if this makes us wish to change the world rather than accept and live by its rule. Indeed, this is why we are inventing an education of convenience, one built around limits, a technical one concerned with skills of living in the world rather than questioning its existence.
This is as futile as it can be: We indulge a teacup storm and no more just as the epochal shifts hit the continents of the mind. Just as certainties disappear, we cling to an illusion of it. Just as the world is about to change, we cultivate a mastery of its affairs and commit to an obedience of its rules. We endeavour to be non-endeavouring, freeing ourselves to reach a limit and blindfolding ourselves in a search for treasures. The educators huff and puff, and their political masters even more - pretending a great effort and little yield - in the effort to keep the world the same.
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How To Live
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Roosevelt
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T S Eliot
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