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….