As I sink into another semester, deep enough now to sense the risk of drowning as I become aware of the depths to which I shouldn’t have gone, the students still floating on the surface, stopped there, dazzled or exhausted, my attempts to guide them down only acting as a riptide … and as we hear echoed again and again that going to college opens the doors to greater careers until we mistake what we’re hearing as a mantra that higher education is job training, I was reminded of a passage I glimpsed a few summers ago from the essay “Fantasia and Simulacra” by Herbert Blau in which Blau reflects on what an arts education could and should be:
Remember, too, that we are teaching art in the context of a university, whose major purpose in life, I still take it, is not to get people jobs or to gratify parents but the pursuit of learning, for people who like to read and think and believe that while these activities can be hazardous in other ways—as with Nietzsche’s wild and dangerous territory of the mind—they are not necessarily corrupting either in life or art. Some of us remember the time when the arts were looked at rather disdainfully by other academic disciplines, as if they had no legitimate right to be in the curriculum (that bias may still prevail, for the most part, in European universities). To this day, against my own allegiance, I sometimes think they are right. I worry about our legitimacy when, unlike the sciences, we do not know how to relate the most advanced research in our fields to what we teach at the lower levels. I see no reason why the arts on a campus should not be at least as audacious and experimental as high-energy physics or marine biology or fractal theory in math. One would like to be as charged with possibility as a radiation laboratory, which is not to say that art is science, only that it should not be less.
It is a struggle to implement this spirit in a community college, which, though college, is approached with such diminished expectations brought on by that echo chamber of job training, more so, I’m sure, than at universities, though they’re certainly not immune, as I recall meeting a friend of a friend who, upon hearing I was a music major, asked me what corporation I planned to work at with that degree.
And as Herb also said, what he is talking about “applies not only to art but to literary study and other disciplines in the human sciences as well.”
One is ready to stage an Un Chien Andalou of the intellect, razor poised over the mind’s eye as the moon’s illumination is obscured, lacerating habits of seeing, splitting open the pupil, but the hand is stayed. It hurts too much. What is being asked for is not a keen aesthetic—nor even anything kinesthetic, if by that one might mean truly moving students—but rather anesthetic.
A nation mourns.