There are books we seek out and books we discover by accident. And once in a while, if we are lucky, there are books that seem like they were written just for us. When I first read a description of Megan Erickson’s Class Wars, which discusses education issues by way of a socialist/feminist analysis of care work, family, and the public sphere, I had that feeling: here was something for every piece of my own socialist/feminist/mother/teacher soul. Read more
Over the course of my sabbatical, I’m hoping to write a range of personal reflections on teaching. It’s a hard topic to talk about. A lot of the formal scholarship is notoriously bad, which makes a lot of teachers hesitant to read about it, which is a shame. One aspect of teaching I think about a lot is how our own histories as students shape the way we teach and, especially, how we relate to our students. One of the reasons I think faculty diversity is important, despite being an inadequate method of addressing institutional racism and sexism, is that people tend to mentor students who remind them of themselves. And one thing most, though not all academics have in common is the experience of being told they were “smart,” of doing well on tests, and, crucially, getting the message that intelligence wasn’t just a tool, it was an identity. At its best, this identity can help people develop and take pride in their capacities and curiosities and resist our anti-intellectual culture; at its worst, it can foster smug superiority, the belief that if one is brilliant, everything one does must be brilliant too. When too many people who’ve been told this their whole lives are put in the same place, you get this.
“You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”
If you’ve been reading the news lately, you might think this came from a particularly blunt self-proclaimed truth-teller following the chorus of millinial-bashers, telling the young’uns to buck up and stop expecting life to be fair. Stop thinking you’re special! And enough with the trophies already!
But I suspect a certain generational subset (late X, early millennials) will instantly recognize this little bit of “tough love” as the wisdom of Brad Pitt, aka Tyler Durden, aka the “every nice-guy’s” alter-ego anti-hero of the 1999 cult film Fight Club. (I suppose film buffs would say it was too mainstream and popular to be a cult film, but hey, some cults have lots of members.) Back before the 2008 crash, before the 2001 crash, before two wars, Tyler bellowed out his cry against the spiritual emptiness of nineties prosperity and consumerism. We haven’t had a war he says. We haven’t had a Great Depression. “The Great Depression is our lives.”
Looking back of course this seems like a dark joke along the lines of the prescient Onion headline marking Bush’s election: “Our national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over.” You want a depression to give your life meaning? Done! My friend Ben Balthaser has a smart article about (among other things) how Fight Club combines strains from the nineties global justice movements, a concept of rebellion as a form of hallucination, and a healthy dose of wounded machismo. (Is there another kind?) Even during a time of prosperity, the film suggests, young men need to realize that the world is dark and violent place and overcome their domestication at the hands of doting mothers, absent fathers, and leather sectionals. (My extensive research shows that nearly everyone who was a young single woman during the peak of the movie’s popularity had at least one boyfriend quote Tyler Durden asking why a “guy like him” should know what a duvet was when the subject of cohabitation, a trip to IKEA, or the possibility of buying one’s own furniture arose.) Fight Club appealed to a certain kind of young man, I think, in a kind of masochistic way: it accused them of being emasculated wimps, offered them a fantasy of a way out, then rebuked them for falling for it. In this context, the “not a special snowflake” line serves to critique the hypocrisy of consumerist individualism while also offering a different kind of distinction, the brave world of the ones willing to live without illusion.
I don’t know whether college and post-college kids still go in for Fight Club. That line about snowflakes came to mind recently because now, when you hear about someone talk about how the young must realize they are not “special snowflakes” it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with resisting coy marketing come-ons. It’s become a way of dismissing the impact of economic crisis as the result of so much permissive parenting, and noncompetitive soccer games, something like when people blamed the hippies on Dr. Spock. There are certainly some quirks of contemporary parenting in certain social strata that could be described as permissive, and there’s interesting points about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to talk about. But the subtext of the snowflakes/tropies thing is not about that: it’s about the notion that parenting should be about initiating kids into a world of hierarchies. In a country with shameful levels of inequality and child poverty, it seems a sick joke to try to diagnose a cultural pathology rooted in being too kind to children and having too much equality.
The most terrifying book I’ve read in recent years is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. The novel begins in a boarding school where the students there are treated well. Their lives seem innocent and their surroundings beautiful, but we are ill at ease from the start. Ishiguro’s tight, unshowy writing has a light touch – the opposite of Fight Club – but the doom is unmistakable: a terrible fate awaits these children. They are in fact, the most un-unique of snowflakes: clones being raised to provide organs for donation. When you summarize it that way it sounds like that’s the big “reveal.” But what’s fascinating – and terrifying – about the book is that it’s not a sci-fi dystopia, much less a staging of some bioethics debate, as much as an allegory for our world so close to the actual thing that it barely needs its premise. The faculty at the school who clash over how much and when the children should be told about their fate resemble earnest liberal parents and teachers: is it better to shield them from what is to come, if just for a while? Is truth-telling less cruel? But it’s a hard world, after all and we best be prepared. You can almost hear them saying “In today’s global economy, every clone-child must be able compete.”
Crucially, no one in the book rages about the injustice of it all or plots for a Hunger Games-style revolt of the clones. Not because they believe it is just or they have internalized their oppression or some such but simply because that is normally what happens, and Ishiguro is interested in working through how we push against our knowledge of the unthinkable. The children’s one hope lies in the illusion that, in essence, they will be recognized and judged as “special snowflakes.” The boarding school has been collecting their artwork for display. The rumor is that, like in some twisted fairy tale, if two students fall truly in love, they will be spared, and the artwork is the key to their souls that will allow that truth to reveal itself. Of course, there is no such way out. The art is just something for the kids to do, some fuel for their illusion that they are cared for, that their inner lives are cherished. Not long after I read the book I came across a cartoon in the New Yorker where employees of a slaughterhouse are looking out over a pen of cattle. “Just before they’re slaughtered,” one says, “each one gets an achievement award.”
I suppose you could read this as endorsing the crusade against participation trophies. But part of what works about Ishiguro’s novel is that it isn’t about scoring points against the liberal position by pointing out its hypocrisies. On some level, you could say, it’s a conservative novel, showing how we all accommodate ourselves and our children to what is unthinkable: here, that they will die young, the rest of us, that we will die. But I think he also wants us to understand what makes the children take their “art” so seriously, and believe so dearly it will save them. Middle-class and upper middle-class parents get mocked a lot for wanting their kids do art and music, for thinking that they must be “gifted,” for not realizing that talent and the right to do creative work must be reserved for the very few. When decent futures and meaningful work are scarce, expecting them is seen as an exercise in entitlement, and we try to repress all the evidence of how powerfully we desire them. If we can’t make a world where they are available to all, we could at least stop making fun of parents for wanting to shield their kids for it just a minute longer.