August 14, 2010

Is Ignorance Really Bliss?

One of my students asked, which invariably happens each semester, why they had to write about such serious topics in Composition and Rhetoric.  Topics like "Gay Marriage," "Racial Profiling," "Women in Combat," and "Sex Education in Public Schools."  This particular student wanted to know why they couldn't just write argumentative papers about "sports or something."  So I told him what I have told countless others before, so many times, in fact, that I have memorized the whole monologue.

I said, "The reason why we discuss, argue about, and write about subjects that might upset you is because these topics are alive in society and upsetting us all whether we like it or not.  The purpose of this course, like countless others in higher education, is not to make you comfortable.  In fact, the purpose of higher education as a whole is not to simply reify and reaffirm everything you have been taught until this point.  The purpose of the academy is not to prolong the cocoon-like state you have been subjected to for the first 18-21 years of your life.  Indeed, the purpose of higher education is to disrupt, deconstruct, and decenter the very core of who you think you are.  The academy exists to force students to call into question everything they ever "thought" they knew.  The purpose of higher education is to create living, breathing, thinking humans who are actors and doers rather than passive receptacles who are acted upon." At this point, there is always dead silence.  And for particular dramatic effect, I usually time this monologue so that it falls at the end of the hour, and I can dismiss the class afterwards.

I think that the current generation of students, kids born in the 1990s (especially in the southern United States), have been cultivated in communities that seek to reinforce the status quo.  These students have been bred by an educational system whose primary goal is to instill certain essentials (reading, writing, math, history, and science), and build a patriotic "good" citizenry.  By design, these educational systems have kept students anesthetized by the trappings of pop culture, which have left their brains impoverished and their palates satiated.

There is an analogy for this phenomenon to which I often refer.  It's really not an analogy but rather the re-imagining of Jean Baudrillard's philosophies through film.  The first Matrix film posits the notion that humanity is trapped in a facade, a simulated reality, asleep, and kept ignorant to the "real."  Of course this anesthetized state is quite literal in the film, as Neo and Morpheus engage the mind/body question via the blue pill-red pill.  If Neo, the representation of the seeker of knowledge and truth (the student) chooses the red pill, his mind will awaken, and his body will be born into the real world for the first time.  If he chooses the blue pill, his mind will remain asleep, and therefore, his body will remain asleep, cocooned from the "truth" forever.  Of course, we know how it ends.  Neo, "the One," the good student, chooses wisely, saving humanity irrevocably.

More and more of my students want to remain in "the matrix", asleep, anesthetized, and cocooned from knowledge and truth.  But, is ignorance really bliss?  Are they happy or just asleep.  Nevertheless, as their professor, I am responsible for "educating" them.  As such, I cannot sit idly by and pacify my students with the same benign and banal thinking they have been immersed in all of their lives.  I would be remiss if I did not at least offer them the damn red pill.