“The price one pays for entering a profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.” ~James Baldwin (quoted in Tananarive Due’s African Immortals Series)
I like what this quote from James Baldwin leans towards. The questions remain: what do you do with this intimate knowledge? And what kind of world does that ugly side create?
Following through on Sylvia Wynter’s “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter To My Colleagues” means taking very seriously her claim that our very disciplines need to be interrogated for the ways that these fields discursively ignore, legitimate and, therefore, create/sustain the kinds of social hierarchies that inevitably mean racial violence. Though her letter was written in 1992, her claims seem all the more relevant and all the more difficult today. With academics and their work being more and commercialized and commodified (some folk like to call this being a “public/mass intellectual”) where you can become as instant of a celebrity as on cable television/youtube, the kind of deep critique of the academy that Wynter asks for seems all the more elusive. Her frequent quote from Carter G. Woodson seems approprate here: “There would be no lynching if it did not start in the classroom.”
I’ll quote Wynter extensively here based on my favorite subsection in her “Open Letter” essay called: “The New Question, From Woodson to Wiesel to Orr: What is Wrong with Our Education?”
Which is of course, where we come in, and the new form of the question- what is wrong with our education? Environmental educator, David Orr, pointed out in a 1990 commencement address, that the blame for the environmental destruction of a planet on which we are losing ‘116 square miles of rain forest or an acre a second,’ and on which at the same time we send up ‘2700 tons of chlorofluorocarbon into the atmosphere’ as well as other behaviours destructive of our ecosystemic life support system, should be placed where it belongs. All of these effects, he argues, are the results of decisions taken not by ignorant and unlearned people. Rather, they were and are decisions taken by the ‘best and brightest’ products of our present system of education; of its highest levels of learning, of universities like ours here at Stanford. Orr then cited in this context a point made by Elie Wiesel to a Global Forum held in Moscow in the Winter of 1989: ‘The designers and perpetrators of the Holocaust,’ Wiesel pointed out, ‘were the heirs of Kant and Goethe.’ Although, ‘in most respects, the Germans were the best educated people on earth, their education did not serve as an adequate barrier to barbarity. What was wrong with their education?’