As I contemplate, as Solnit does, the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno’s notion about how I will go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to me [you]?, I realize that I’ve written quite a bit about this (and others). And I figure that it’s because of something Solnit says: “Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form of the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found.”
A place where I find myself lost – along with students – is in the writing classroom. That’s right. I try and create an environment where something – preferably the self – has to be found, the nature of which is totally unknown to you. “Children seldom roam, ” says Solnit,” even in the safest places.” I find this to be the single most critical impediment to finding that thing that nature of which is totally unknown to you. Students, for the most part, have been sold programs, prescriptions, answers and ways through the confusion; and they prefer these, it seems, rather than lurking, losing themselves, having no answers. Self-reliance is alien to kids today. Solnit wonders – as I do: “…what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.”
The ways through writing students bring to the college classroom are forms of house arrest. Students fear letting go. Students don’t want to let go; they don’t want to get lost, though it’s fundamental to learning. “Lost ..was mostly a state of mind, and this applies as much to all the metaphysical and metaphorical states of being lost as to blundering around in the backcountry.” I want students – with me – to blunder about the classroom, crossing the quad, in their rooms, searching, looking and not finding yet finding. I want students to wander – but wandering is not privileged in our culture. Efficiency is. But discovery – which is what, after all, education is about – requires time; in turn, time requires that an individual gain some distance from the lived experience. As Solnit says, “Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.”
So, the place where I find myself lost – along with students – the writing classroom, is fraught with obstacles to getting lost; it comes with a history of “knowns”, of “answers” that suggest, always, that getting lost is not very effective, a waste of time, not too efficient and costly.
Funny. As I think about this getting lost, I’m also looking at a few other books – David Shields‘ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, Verlyn Klinkenborg‘s Several Short Sentences About Writing, and Henry A. Giroux‘s American Education Deficit and the War on Youth.
Let’s just listen:
Shields: I know all the moments are “moments”: staged and theatrical, shaped and thematized…Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.
Klinkenborg: Write these things down – the contents of the noise in your head as you write.
You can’t revise or discard what you don’t consciously recognize.
These assumptions and prohibitions and obligations are the imprint of your education and the culture you live in.
Giroux: There is a need to invent modes of communication that connect learning to social change and foster modes of critical agency through which people assume responsibility for each other…At a time when critical thought has been flattened, it becomes imperative to develop a discourse of critique and possibility – one that recognizes that without an informed citizenry, collective struggle, and dynamic social movements, hope for a viable democratic future will slip out of our reach.
All three writers – Shields, Klinkenborg and Giroux – are calling forth for the removal of impediments to our getting lost. Shields asks for new forms, new experiments to blur the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction – always already determined by economics, not creativity; Klinkenborg speaks about “the noise” that is formal education and how it impedes creative thinking and writing; and Giroux, not unlike the others, is asking for a more engaged critique of ourselves and others, which cannot be done without the time to get lost, to wander.
All three writers – and Solnit, too – are the reasons why I find myself lost in the writing classroom alongside my students. But, like Solnit, I’ve chosen to make this the subject of my classroom’s inquiry. I want to make sure that, as Solnit says, students realize that history – and their lives – are “made more of crossroads, branchings, and tangles than straight lines.” In-between the crossroads, the branchings, and the tangles is where we get lost – and it’s what we have to capture. And what I hope, after this first posting, others will write about.