"We Are All Crap Artists Now"

The last line of Philip K. Dick’s underappreciated novel Confessions of a Crap Artist is probably one the best warnings to all of us who think we know something:

And on the basis of past choices, it seems pretty evident that my judgment is not of the best.

The reports, this past week, that the melt of Antarctica’s ice sheet is irreversible and that it will lead to significant rise in sea levels make it clear—once more—that, collectively, our judgment is not of the best. Individually, I don’t think we are much different.

Individually, in face of all evidence to the contrary, we each flatter ourselves that we, personally, are not crap artists. I know I do—and I am sure you do, as well. But we are.

Jack Isidore, that crap artist of Dick’s and one of the narrators of the novel, starts the book, as one might expect, with a load of crap:

I am made out of water. You wouldn’t know it, because I have it bound in. My friends are made out of water, too. All of them. The problem for us is that not only do we have to walk around without being absorbed by the ground but we also have to earn our livings.

Actually there’s even a greater problem. We don’t feel at home anywhere we go. Why is that?

The answer is World War Two.

Isidore spews so much crap that it is difficult, for some, to read on. But we should for, by the end, Isidore has realized what all of us ought to have learned—not about him but about ourselves:

I realized, sitting there, that I was a nut.

What a thing to realize. All those years wasted. I saw it as clearly as hell; all that business about the Sargasso Sea, the Lost Atlantis, and flying  and people coming out of the inner part of the earth — it was just a lot of crap.

I have always felt that it was the fact that Confessions hits a little too close to home, not that it isn’t science fiction, that kept it from publication in 1959 (the book first appeared in 1975). Over the years, the book seems more pertinent still.

Just look at the news. Friday—or, rather up until Friday, there were believers in the idea that ten million people, up to thirty million, would descend on Washington, DC as the start of an “American Spring.” By that afternoon, May 16, they should have been facing, honestly, like Jack Isidore, that they are crap artists. The evidence is irrefutable—or should be. But, no. Like the rest of us, rather than looking to the crap within, they are busy re-ordering their vision of external reality to fit what they imagine.

There are many of us shoveling crap. No, all of us. In Kentucky, there is even a museum to the crap science of creationism. Our very rich have all convinced themselves that they “did it” all alone: family and background and luck were impediments, if they factored in at all. In Congress, “Bengazi” becomes more important than the minimum wage. Crap artists from across the political spectrum have served up No Child Left Behind, with its unattainable goals, and Race to the Top, which is more of the same. Jeb Bush, Bill Gates, and Arne Duncan have shepherded in a new load of crap, Common Core State Standards, based on the dubious assumption that standards of any sort are better than none (they should ask themselves, would a 200 MPH speed limit be better than none? A 5 MPH?), convincing such staid organizations as The New York Times and even the Southern Poverty Law Center to support them without investigation. Of course, when any of us loses anything, these days, it is the result of a conspiracy.

Our political pundits are paid not to grow, but to wallow in the same crap day after day, year after year. Learning, changing their opinions, will only lose them their positions on the carefully orchestrated talk shows. They have chosen their crap so are stuck with it.

We may have thought this happens only at the fringes, but it is certainly part of the mainstream, too. The assumptions of all of us are, to at least some degree, crap—even in higher education. Why do you think that hoary old joke, “Bull Shit, More Shit, Pile it Higher and Deeper,” doesn’t die? Right now, we are spreading the crap of the efficacy of the business model of education, one that mistakes our students for consumers (among other things) and that equates learning with “outcomes.”

Genuine inquiry starts with the self and with the assumptions we hold most dear. Yet we instruct each other never to challenge core beliefs, to say that each person is entitled to her or his opinion. We skirt the real core and value of education, avoiding the issue of crap belief.

If we are going to become real professors once again, we are going to have to learn to challenge assumptions—even, like Jack Isidore, our own. We’re going to have to learn that we are often wrong, that we are as full of crap as anyone. When students challenge us, we need to respond by allowing them into our self-examination—and not in a facile or showy way. We have to be willing to be wrong right from the start of class. Our authority should not rest on us being right but on lack of fear of proving ourselves wrong.

Only then can we begin to help clear away the crap that is burying our society as surely as the rising waters of the ocean are going to bury Florida.

Or so I believe. But let’s examine that….

6 thoughts on “"We Are All Crap Artists Now"

  1. Reblogged this on society & education and commented:
    I’m not sure what brought on this post, but I like it; clearly Aaron reached a point of frustration and/or clarity this week. Whatever the cause, in terms the links between education and society, his musings demonstrate the power of educational processes better described as diffuse* relative to those of formal education (or schooling). In a less pessimistic moment, Aaron might illustrate more positive outcomes of social learning than those that focus this post.

    Folk wisdom and common sense are often good things indeed, although the mistake is made when these are elevated to the level of supreme principle of all knowledge. Mistake becomes crime, however, when those who know better deploy populist tactics in which folk prejudice and common nonsense are allowed free reign, at present very much evident in the Canadian debate over the temporary foreign worker program (TFW). If you have a moment, have a close look at a recently created Facebook page, Canadians Against the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, a strange amalgam of diverse political orientations as ever there was. Garden variety xenophobia rests uncomfortably (for me, at least) alongside genuine expresses of support for those abused by employers. Such events lead the reflective Isidore’s of Aaron’s post scratching their heads or blogging in frustration at the ignorance, malice, and/or social conditions that conspire to lead us to such manifestly unjust territory.

    • Thanks for your comments, Dr. Yochim. There was not, I hate to admit, anything this week that was the end of any rope for me…. When I was reading about the “American Spring” people, I couldn’t help but think of Jack Isidore, couldn’t help but feel he has become the American standard rather than a character was out on the fringe. The post comes from that, and from end-of-term discussions with my students about relations between them and us professors.

      Positive outcomes of social learning? They surround us. All of our art and entertainment stems from it, and much more.

      Certainly, I must look at the Canadian debate on temporary foreign workers. I know nothing about it.

      • Thanks for the comment, Aaron. RE temporary foreign workers, I suppose the debate here is anywhere near as rancorous as it can be in the US. Likely this is due in part to a more polite (or passive aggressive?) political culture and less dynamic (or polarized?) media culture. I think also that most people here left, right, and centre (accepting for the moment that those labels are actually useful descriptors) are quite attached to a Canadian exceptionalism grounded in differentiating ourselves from America/Americans. At any rate, I really appreciate your comments on reflexivity and how that can and should generously and genuinely extended to our students. I think is both theoretically consistent and practically significant.

  2. Two comments, one more professional and one more personal:

    At the joint CBC Midwest/Ohio Conference meeting in Columbus in April, the lunch speaker was Chad Hanson, a sociologist from Casper College in Wyoming. He has written articles and now a book on the topic of his talk, “”Talking Higher Education: Metaphors That We Live By.” It was a terrific talk, surveying many of the metaphors that have come to define not just how we address current issues in higher education but how we are able to–permitted to–address those issues. These metaphors, many of which are of course related to corporatization, now go completely unchallenged as premises, as starting points, for the discussion of critical issues. So the discussion has become, in many ways, an exercise in circular reasoning.

    Now the personal reminiscence. I had a very close friend whom I met early in grade school and remained close to until he passed away from AIDS in his mid-30s. He had a terrific, very sophisticated sense of humor, but he was not much of a drinker. In at least those two ways, I was very nearly his complete opposite: that is, I have a peasant’s sense of humor and, at that age, I could drink more beer than now seems conceivable. His family had a cottage on a small lake, and one evening, starting at about sunset, we sat out on the dock and got thoroughly sloshed. During a lull in our running conversation about nothing, he suddenly started to riff on the titles of popular songs, substituting the word “shit” for a key word in each title. It was a very juvenile kind of thing, but he did it for over an hour, running effortlessly through hundreds of song titles, with the insertion of the word “shit” seeming to become more artful as he went along. It was so extended and effortless that it became a kind of tour de force exhibition of real wit. It was one of the funniest riffs that I have ever heard. The Dick novel is the closest thing to that riff that I have ever come across in print.

    • I was saying, my skewed perspective is: we are so obsessed with the western concept of personal responsibility for everything that happens to us, that we blow the circuits of our minds attempting to dream a rational narrative to cope with the the barrage of irrational information we collect (willingly or not) on a daily basis. I appreciate your crap article, or crappy article, because it begs the questions. Who gives a shit. Why don’t we accept that we can only control what we do today. If each one of us did only harmless things every day, nobody would get hurt.

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