Friday, 14 December 2007

Why the only true schooling is a vacation (or "What I didn't do in my holidays")

It has been a week already since I got back from Mexico. I returned with all kinds of things to post about and no great desire to get posting.

Among the pleasures of the Illich colloquium, one was the almost total withdrawal from electronic communication. My reluctance to begin reporting back is partly a reluctance to complete my reintegration to the technological matrix, and partly a sense that the experiences and conversations at Cuernavaca took place not only in a different time zone, but in a different sort of time. Whilst there, they made perfect sense, but a process of careful and unrushed translation is needed, or they are in danger of becoming nonsense. (Leastways, that's my excuse for having been so inarticulate when people asked me how my trip went...)

The pleasure of withdrawing from technology would have been no surprise to Illich. One of the consistent strands in his work is a call to askesis, the discipline of freely chosen renunciation. The purpose of such renunciation is not self-punishment, nor does it imply a judgement on those who don't choose to join us in renouncing a particular habit, activity or technology. Rather, it is a way of making room for the pleasures of otium (of which, more in a moment).

All this, though, is foreign to us. When 'asceticism' is referred to today, it generally signifies a (probably perverse) religious practice. It suggests masochism - or, at least, that hatred of the body which the secular often regard as an essential feature of the religious. It is worth highlighting, then, that in Illich's writing, this aspect of asceticism is not simply downplayed, but explicitly countered. In a 1989 proposal for a five year course aimed at recovering 'the perceptions of self and other which led to the formation of ascetical disciplines,' he writes:

I will place the body rather than the mind at the center of my lectures, not because I can distinguish the two, but because I need a term, the term "body" to engage the student's interest in the traditional habits that cultivate personal centers which they might never have adverted to, such as the heart, the eyes, the limbs, the stomach, the flesh, the ears and the spirit.

'Ascetical habits' once stood in balance with 'critical habits' in the western tradition of learning, but were marginalised from 'the foundation of the University in the late Middle Ages'. Though he doesn't spell it out, I suspect Illich saw a direct connection between this and the disembodiment of knowledge characteristic of modern science. (An idea which deserves fleshing out in a post of its own.)

For now, back to the pleasures of otium, for which askesis makes room. In Latin, otium is leisure, peace and quiet, freedom from responsibility: something looked forward to in retirement or time off from worldly duties. It is the term used by Augustine to describe his calling to a life of study and contemplation, and it characterises the atmosphere required for learning in the monastic tradition. The connection is ancient: the Greek for otium is schole, from which we get 'school'. (And according to Strong's Greek Dictionary, schole is 'a vacation from physical work' and scholazo is 'to take a holiday', so the truest form of schooling really is a vacation!)

The opposite of otium is negotium, literally nec-otium, 'no-leisure'. This is business, occupation or employment - but also pains, trouble and difficulty. Such affairs may not be ultimately escapable. (For Augustine, the calling to otium is in tension with the negotium of ecclesiastical responsibilities.) Yet the value of escape, temporary or permanent, is not in doubt - and it is seen as essential for the pursuit of learning.

All this is of interest to those of us who enjoy the dance of words and ideas to the rhythm of history. The more practically minded may find it 'otiose' in the modern sense: idle, useless and a waste of time. (Mind you, those changed connotations do offer a striking measure of how values have shifted.) Yet there may be meat here for those of us who would negotiate the world of education today.

Both personally and on behalf of School of Everything, I am keen to take part in conversations about the future of the university and of higher learning in general. I share the opinion of those who see in the current crisis of Higher Education, not merely a need to defend the older professional model against managerialism (or to mourn its passing), but the hopeful possibility of new, marginal spaces in which we can explore other ways of organising learning. So I was intrigued, earlier this year, when I heard about the EduFactory project to explore the 'Conflicts and transformations of the university'.

Yet, not for the first time, I found myself disappointed by the conversation that ensued (through the medium of an unfortunately unarchived email list). A great volume of words was produced, theoretically dense, often leading to bad-tempered exchanges, yet suggesting also a great deal of intelligence and good intentions. It was perplexing. My friend Anthony, who has the advantage over me of being a certified academic, lost patience, told the list what he thought and went elsewhere. Essentially, he told them they were suffering from collective verbal diaorrhea, and he wasn't wrong, but what I hadn't located until I sat down to write this was the source of their incontinence.

Bearing in mind the concepts of otium and negotium, the problem may be seen from the name of the project, or from the prospectus for its second round (which began last month):

The first round of discussion on the edu-factory list showed that, despite the many differences between universities and countries, it is possible to identify a global trend and common experiences in the world of the university. These stem from the pervasiveness of the market and the processes of corporatisation that universities in many parts of the world are undergoing. But they also involve the struggles and movements that have contested academic borders as well as wider power structures, claiming the free circulation of knowledge and practicing alternative forms of knowledge production.

For the radicals of the edu-factory list, just as much as their supposed enemies, the university is conceived of as a factory for 'knowledge production'. No wonder they are so industrious in the manufacture of neologisms, or such Stakhanovites in their output of emails!

Government ministers often see universities (or, to be more precise, Oxford and Cambridge) as feudal anachronisms, holding out against good, rational, business management. The truth is stranger. The very roots of the modern university, as early as the 13th century, are in the turn away from otium as the proper atmosphere for study, towards worldy negotium. So the contemporary crisis is rather more like that of an old family business, run for generations on gentlemanly terms, which finds itself suddenly under new ownership and having its assets stripped.

After going on for eight centuries, most inhabitants of the university can barely imagine it as anything other than a factory for the production of knowledge. Yet the grounds for such imagination are just what study-as-otium can offer. Illich, again:

I want to cultivate the capacity for second thoughts, by which I mean the stance and the competence that makes it feasible to inquire into the obvious. This is what I call learning.

And, in another essay, 'The Cultivation of Conspiracy':

Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness that is acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge. I remain certain that the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship.

Is there any hope for learning as a quest, rather than a production line? For these strange concepts of askesis and otium? 'The asceticism which can be practiced at the end of the 20th century,' Illich wrote, 'is something profoundly different from any previously known.'

I find hope in the company of those I met in Cuernavaca, but also in a series of encounters since I returned with some of the smartest, most technologically adept people I know. One is giving up sending email from his thirtieth birthday. Another will spend ten days over Christmas and New Year in a silent retreat. The third claimed to have spent the past few months 'shitting myself into a twelve inch screen' and to want reminding that she has a body. The possibilities are there.

Anyway, the great thing about otium is that you don't have to wait for the fulfilment of a grand project to enjoy it. You can start by switching off your computer, turning off your phone, stretching your work-cramped body and deciding to dedicate the weekend ahead to meditative idleness - which is just what I plan to do now.

1 comment:

Dan Aktivix said...

This is nice and very loosely connected. From Nick in Miami.

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