At the time of my high school graduation, I embodied minority educational empowerment. I was a poor, Mexican-American boy, a first-generation college student; itinerant and bright, raised in the Catholic Church, full of pious ideas and wet dreams and, thanks to the philanthropy of Bill and Melinda Gates, enrolled at a devout Catholic college to study the great books, philosophy, and all that jazz. I was even invited to pray at a LULAC banquet, as an exemplar to the Latin@ community.
I sometimes overstate how hard I worked during the undergrad years, but I really did read and study and learn far more than I should have, given how hard I partied and all the other things I was doing. The point remains that I left Franciscan University of Steubenville with a serious foundation in the Western canon, Franciscan thought, and personalist phenomenology.
I matriculated to the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, recently married and teaching K-8 Spanish, to study education. I learned on my first day how awful St. Augustine (a North African) was, and what a waste of time it was to read books by white, European men. So we read more white, European men, beginning with Marx and Weber.
Then we got to critical race theory (Cornel West’s Democracy Matters had just been published) and all that “Can the subaltern speak?” kind of stuff. I learned—primarily from white men—what a wretched thing my newly acquired Western canon was. And how disempowered I had been at the hands of Homer, Augustine, and Dante. Doing the very thing I once thought was the path to socio-political empowerment, I came to find out, had been a total waste of time. I’d sinned and was in need of redemption. I was a miserable Mexican wretch who needed to wallow in the mud of injustice to be cleansed from too many bubble baths with Don Quixote.
I was to abandon it all and start anew with fresh, critical ideas. But the freshness wore off quickly and the ideas became more and more predictable. Vocabulary was key. The lexicon of “hegemony,” “privilege,” “problematizing,” and so on. I learned it all and was quite open to it, but when it came time to select a Ph.D. program, I went to study with this crazy, old Deweyian progressivist—a “bourgeoisie Liberal,” as Richard Rorty once put it—because he called me out at a conference, whilst I proudly wore my guayabera, for implicitly referring to myself as “underprivileged.” He told me to feel privileged for being intelligent. I went to Ohio State and found Nietzsche, Foucault, Jean-Luc Marion, and most of all William James. More white men.
These men left me more suited than ever to mount an argument against the patriarchy of Western metaphysics within its institution par excellence, the modern university. And for much bigger and more serious reasons than demographics. We cannot experience folklore, real life, the flux of the commons, by importing the folkloric into this institutional space, like a museum or mausoleum, nor by walking out the front door. The only way to find it is like Alexandre Dumas’ mad priest in The Count of Monte Cristo: digging and scratching one’s way through the Western canon with passionate fidelity. This is the dogged spirit of Ralph Ellison’s classic Invisible Man.
R.R. Reno published a review in First Things some time back that greatly influenced me entitled “Theology After the Revolution.” The gist was that today’s critical theologians, unlike practitioners of the nouvelle theologie, had lost their footing in the object of their own critique. In class I often draw a comparison between serious, intentional disobedience and accidental disobeying; an “I reject you” and an “Oops!” If one is serious about being critical, in the tradition of
(post-)Enlightenment critique, then one cannot dissent clumsily or by accident. One must understand the object of one’s departure as much as possible. You’ve got to do your homework. Period.
This is why I have become so fed up with shallow, popular academic trade books. You know what I mean: Mexicans CAN!: A Critical Approach to Teaching Brown People How to Find Their Inner Aztec Komodo Dragon in the Marginal Diaspora—A (Post)Critical Approach. If you don’t know what I mean, go to an academic conference book display. They’re everywhere.
Unlike theology, however, educational theory may not have been subjected to a sure-footed critique to begin with. William James agreed in his day. In a letter to G. Stanley Hall he wrote, “Pedagogic literature seems to contain such vast quantities of chaff that one hardly knows where to seek for the grain.” The reasons for the chaff then may have been different than they are in today’s academy, but the void they leave behind is akin to the hollowed-out, mendicant imagination that produces that icon of late modernity we see right now in Halloween displays: the zombie. The living dead. The ultimate dead white guys. A ghastly, pop-cultural projection of the present predicament of the West: we are so afraid of our inevitable demise, we must commit suicide to prevent it.
Samuel D. Rocha is an assistant professor in the educational foundations and research graduate program at the University of North Dakota. He blogs at Patheos.
R. R. Reno, Theology After the Revolution
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