On Learning and Context

There is a joke about the problem of reading a book completely out of context.
A man was looking into the Bible for some guidance. Not knowing where to look, he simply opened the Bible randomly and point his finger at a passage. Wherever his finger lands, he will take as advice.
Here’s the first: “Judas went out and hanged himself”. Not knowing what to make out of that, he tried again.
This time it is: “Go and do likewise.” Completely baffled, he tried a third time.
“Whatever you are to do, do so quickly.”

One of the first insights I picked up on in college was the importance of context.  Context determines meaning, a lesson easily learned from this well-worn joke about the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop and says, “Can you make me one with everything?”

Context sets the table, if you will, for the way we come to understanding; it’s the horizon of meaning without which meaning is lost.  But it’s not that I’m looking for pure, unadulterated meaning in a pure undistorted way.  Meaning is neither guaranteed nor perfectly pure.   But a reader looking to know must attend to the work (sometimes hard work) of understanding and to do that understand context is essential.

When taking a hermeneutics course with the Cambridge Professor, Nicholas Lash, I remember he would say nearly everyday, “Words take their meaning from the company they keep.”  This was another way he stressed what Hans-Georg Gadamer called the “hermeneutical circle.”  Think of how many meanings the following sentence has:  “I never said she stole my money.”  The complete thought can thus only be understood in the context in which it is spoken (with tone and stress of voice etc.).  Thought can never happen in an ahistorical “fantasy” space.

The point is: the material context is essential to know in order to understand.  Similarly the context in which learning and education takes place can largely dictate what is learned.  Having taught in a college classroom for nearly 14 years (at James Madison, University of Virginia, Rollins College, Silesia (Poland)), the Global Center for Advanced Studies among other places) one lesson materialized in my mind several years ago while teaching Marx’s theory of Communism.  So there I was teaching Marx to a class in which more than 85% of the students were taking out student loans just to participate in class.  And I realized that to learn to be critical about basic things in culture whether it be economics, politics, history, religious, philosophical and so on, students had to go into debt.  Now this may sound obvious to you, but for me, as a professor this lesson began to eat at me and I soon started asking myself, “Does the context of a university classroom undermine the material import of taking subjects like history (etc.) seriously?”  For Marx, ideas, religion, art, architecture are determined by the material modes of projection (i.e., the capitalist class).  And with this insight, I began to seriously wonder if ideas, no matter their historical significance or existential truth, could be undermined by the material conditions that give rise to them.  If you’re paying 40K a year to attend 10 classes in college (4k per class) I wonder if learning historical facts, no matter how compelling they may be, is enough to transform someone’s life.  If you’re paying 4k per class, it seems to me that the sheer amount of debt and resources (future labor power you must do in order to work that debt off) already neutralizes the material possibility to change one’s life in relationship to those historical and economic realities.  In short, what I am saying is that the debt you must incur is so determinative that it undermines actually taking the material you’re exposed to in class, seriously.

Said differently, the material context of learning in a university, can largely dictate the content of what is learned.  And this to me is one way learning in college has been undermined.  A student no longer has the ability to really engage the material, and, in that encounter, be open to adjusting their lives to historical realities.  In other words, debt-student-culture has undermined history and political action to change our world, because, at the end of the day, when a student graduates they must pay that debt off.  There’s a certain bewitchment that the university is pulling over on its students, a trick that is not realized until it’s too late to actually use that knowledge to change our world for the better.  And think about the coercive affects of that debt, both in school and after graduation:  it forces one to take a cynical and blithe stance to the material of history, philosophy, religion etc. Why?  Because you cannot possibility take the lessons of history seriously if you have the government knocking on your door to pay your debt off.    This lesson started to formulate and began developing and finally led me to want to create a different context in which learning was an act that could be taken seriously (in and of itself) with all it’s transformative and infinite power with limited financial coercion.  If a universities force students to go into debt to take classes then their very policies can all too easily compromise the learning process itself, the very heart of the university’s mission.  It is time we took context seriously in relation to the material conditions that articulate the very “presence” of students in classrooms themselves.  It is time too, it seems to me, to give students a chance to actually be transformed by history, ideas, concepts so that our world can have a chance to make the world a better place to live.



Six Lessons Learned from Starting GCAS

imagesIt’s been one year since I cashed in my early retirement in order to start a new school that by August became known as, The Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS).  Here are six basic lessons I’ve learned.

Lesson 1:  For the most part, “multiculturalism” as presented in privileged spaces in universities in the States is a farce and toxic.  Actually engaging with otherness, diversity, poverty, and struggles outside these elite posh spaces of universities not only does not exist but the sterilized presentation of other cultures, ethnicities, histories and so forth is a mockery and just insulting.  Universities have taken on a zoo like effect in which the student is able to engage with otherness but from a safe distance that, by definition, neutralizes issues like poverty, women’s struggles, and political resistance, turning them into pleasantries.  What this means is that otherness is really just a projection of one’s own privilege–the other is violently turned into the same.

Lesson 2:  Just because a theorist or professor writes about global inequality, poverty or is a self-proclaimed “feminist” or some other “ist” doesn’t make them an advocate for justice and equality.

Lesson 3:  There is a need to create a space in which education can no longer hide behind the Ivory-Tower walls of privilege and protection.  We live in a world in which we are all part of each other, but to truly be part of a global community we need to be able to share in each other’s struggles and joys.  We need to hear voices from different parts of the world in which struggles are happening.  In this way, one’s own presuppositions are challenged and a new form of a wider consciousness opens up so that actions and ideas are not disjointed from each other but work together to better our world as we draw strength from each other.

Lesson 4: By creating educational classrooms in different parts of the world in which struggles are taken place a real from of knowledge and action comes to the fore creating a solidarity among each other.  Strength is found, joy is discovered.

Lesson 5:  Diversity and inclusion is necessary for education to thrive.  By diversity, I mean most especially, economic diversity–class representation in ratio to how the world is divided with the majority of the world’s population steeped in poverty struggling each day for basic needs: food, clean water, shelter.  A school should be devoted to health above all:  health for our planet, health for each person, health for communities working together to make our planet a safe place to dwell.

Lesson 6:  Starting a non-profit school is very difficult and for it to survive there must be a community that supports it from it’s missional and materialist point of view.

Let’s unite to really believe in education and action not just continue paying $50,000/year to protect students (and faculty) from really confronting the world’s lack of health.  Learning the truth of the real issues will only bring us joy as we organize ways of living well in community otherwise known as Planet Earth.



The Great Surge in the Creative Power of Spring

Ishtar Vase (Louvre)

Ishtar Vase (Louvre)

We are motivated by surges of energies, intensities of desire, and great unexplainable joys that flow through our bodies at unpredictable times.  Spring marks such surges of the creative powers, a power to create, creation itself.  And yet, although the spring season is predictable, like a repeating pattern, it contains in itself a power of surprise.  Often the creative process takes on a life of its own as if you are the one entering a holy space.  It is like writing a story in which you have a vague idea of where the plot is heading, but as it unfolds the end-point shifts on you, and you are forced to follow it wherever it leads.  The master is turned into its opposite: a slave to the story.

One of my favorite ballets is Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps translated in English as The Rite of Spring, but a better translation might be The Sacrifice of Spring in which Russia was united by a mystery and great surge of creative powers embodied in the season of Spring.  And here you can start to see the logic:  Spring (that great season that gives forth life) is the very thing that is sacrificed.  To give birth is death, in death there is life (Easter).

Easter is celebrated in Spring, the precise date of which was decided on in the year 325 at the famous council of Nicaea.  There they decided that Easter would fall on the 1st Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox (March 21).  The central symbolization of Easter in Christian terms is significant:  Jesus alights from the tome of death (i.e., Winter season) and is born anew (Spring season).  The tome here is representative of a woman’s womb.  And the pagan roots of Easter too are significant –arriving from the goddess of fertility, love, war and sex, Ishtar.

Stravinsky’s The Sacrifice of Spring enacts a contradiction because, after the first part, The Adoration of the Earth, comes the second, The Sacrifice. Here a young woman is chosen and she proceeds to dance herself to death.  To spell this out bluntly: The surge of the creative power of spring in the ballet that gives life can also take life.  This is the power of being overjoyed, where something is so pleasurable that this very pleasure can kill you.  This paradox unfolds in the act of sex, which as the French call it, Le petite mort “the little death” –you know that feeling of transcendence that arrives after a “life-force” surges forth.  Roland Barthes described Le petite mort as the feeling one should get after reading great literature.  In any case, you can see that in moments of ecstasy there is, at the same time, terminal moments of death.  This is embodied in Ishtar who is at once the goddess of love and of war (the two are often indistinguishable); or, to but it differently: In the very moment of birth–where new life happens it is often times the most fragile time of life.

But too notice, and this is where Stravinsky’s revolutionary musical style is important to identity, that the surge of a paganism (a celebration of the power of life) can quickly go too far.  The early 20th century certainly was a time in which the celebration of being liberated from a certain “God” gives birth to new creative formations that invent new and never before known possibilities.  Think of Nietzsche’s powerful insights.  I admire Stravinsky for this, and even Freud for discovering the “unconscious” and even Vaslav Nijinsky’s dances (which Stravinsky hated).  For me these dances in the ballet are so full of possibilities–they led themselves to going beyond the limits into death itself.  Stravinsky, “The Rite of Spring” part 2

Enjoy your Spring (but not too much!)

Contemporary Continental Philosophy of Religion Seminar: The Global Center for Advanced Studies

1010197_264315870410690_259011654_n (1)God, No-God, Non-God, God’s negation of God, Human’s negation of God, God’s negation of humans–Why do we keep repeating this “a/theological” symptom?–a perversion to be sure.  But repetition, as Professor Caputo reminds us via Kierkeggard, only ever repeats its own unrepeatability.  And it is with this perverse-pleasure that John D. Caputo, Thomas Altizer, Clayton Crockett, Peter Rollins & Jeffrey W. Robbins will lead a seminar from the “Death of God” theology, made famous in the 1960s, to our contemporary moment in the wake of Derrida and Zizek’s return to religion and beyond.   You can read the syllabus here:  http://www.globaladvancedstudies.org/2014/02/ctpe-840-contemporary-philosophy-of.html

Here is the schedule:

March 6: “Death of God” theology (guest Thomas Altizer). Required Reading/Viewing.

  1. The New Gospel of Christian Atheism, Thomas Altizer.http://www.amazon.com/The-New-Gospel-Christian-Atheism/dp/1888570652
  2. Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps:
 March 13: “The Return to Religion” (Derrida/Zizek). Required Reading.
March 20: “The New Materialism”. Required Reading.

  1.  Clayton Crockett & Jeffrey W. Robbins, Religion, Politics & The Earth: The New. http://www.amazon.com/Religion-Politics-Earth-Materialism-Theologies/dp/1137374217/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1393531389&sr=1-1&keywords=Crockett+The+New+Materialism(Introduction, Chapters 1, 2 & 3)
March 27: “The Caputo Twist” (John D. Caputo & Peter Rollins). Required Reading:

  1. John D. Caputo, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps (Chapters 1, 2, 7, 11-12). http://www.amazon.com/Insistence-God-Theology-Philosophy-Religion/dp/0253010071/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1393531482&sr=1-1&keywords=John+D.+Caputo
  2. Peter Rollins, Insurrection: To Believe is Human to Doubt Divine.http://www.amazon.com/Insurrection-Believe-Human-Doubt-Divine/dp/1451609000/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1393531570&sr=1-1&keywords=Peter+Rollins

Into the Abyss: We Go Together

The nagging, a tickle, the haunting of some other voice.  A trace.  But you have developed ways to repress this secret voice calling you with its faint barely audible voice.  But it lingers still.  What to do?  Ignore it?  Too late: you can only do this for so long.  Reject it as irrational?  But it remains there all the same.  Irrational or not, there is a calling from the abyss that no language however analytic and clear can finally do away with it once and for all.  Finally, one must confront it, to acknowledge it and engage it–to tarry with the negative.

Recently, about 70 students signed-up to the inaugural Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS) seminar, “Introduction to Political Economy: The Crisis in Higher Education” and we immediately found ourselves opening up our lives with one another even before our first meeting.  We opened with the freedom to voice a fundamental contradiction found within the heart of each and everyone’s experience as we traversed through the “educational” process.  What we found was that although we were being “educated” we found something wanting in that experience.  We all passed the “tests” we all achieved the “success” of degrees (BAs, MAs even PhDs) attached to our names, but in the very appearance of the these letters we realized we had lost something too.  What did we loose?

There is a sense in which what we have lost was something much more profound, something barely audible–a whisper even.  I think, and I am summarizing here, that what is lost is that we had to put aside the fire and inspiration of the joy of collectively arriving at something as like a journey whose destination is the journey itself.  In short, this contra-voice emerges at the precise moment when the degree is granted and the journey is hijacked by the socially marked terminal point of a “degree”!  Congrats!  You have made it!  But in the “making it” to an end–we’re realizing a great dissatisfaction that we have been made premature “masters” of a subject whose end can never be arrived at.  We have come to realize that in the journey of learning there is an infinite endeavor that keeps requiring our lives, our attention, our desire.  It requires something more than ourselves.

In short, all I wish to say is that it is a joy to be part of a community, a mere seminar whose aim is not just about achieving something great, but more importantly it is a joy found in each other, and to realize that you are no longer alone.

A Student’s Interview on Why He Joined the GCAS

Sergio Andrés Rueda

Sergio Andres Rueda

Sergio Andres Rueda

What is it that attracted you to study at the GCAS?

A1: This question could only be properly answered with: everything.

We can then try to separate this answer into parts:

Part of it is the globally renowned faculty, which allows us to engage in a critical dialogue with the thinkers that we would normally read, and then bring this back to our home countries and environments, some of which desperately need this sort of intervention.

Another part of it is the ideals of the GCAS, as it is the first institution of higher learning in the world whose ideas about education coincide perfectly with the claims of millions of disenfranchised people in Latin America and in the entire world that are dissatisfied with an educational model created by and for the wealthy to maintain their structural position through the segregation of students into functional stratums.

What program are you studying at the GCAS?

A2: I’m going to start by transferring credits to my home institution towards the completion of my BA. This will provide the double opportunity of being both in a global environment (the GCAS) and local activism. This will include courses on the Crisis of Higher Education and Critical Theory.

What research goals are you seeking to accomplish at the GCAS?

A3: I hope to research mainly three areas:

  • The philosophical foundations of the category of Ideology in order to understand the way in which societies, such as Colombia, are fundamentally divided by a constitutive antagonism that is expressed through both discourses and material practices. This would help me explain a conflict of over 50 years which still divides most of the population and the causes the perpetuation of violent political imaginaries.
  • The possibility of access to the absolute through the materialist defense of a mathematical ontology.
  • The Colombian Armed and Civil Conflict itself in order to end the silence and invisibility of its victims.

What opportunities are you seeking after you graduate from the GCAS?

A4: I hope to be able to return to Colombia with better tools to continue working for the transformation of our society into a tolerant and peaceful community, where we can start the long work ahead of mending our differences, forgiving the culprits and joining the international community in our common responsibility to protect the Amazon and build a better world.

Concretely, I hope to work towards the creation of an open access editorial in order to combat a situation in which people can only access texts through piracy and photocopying, which is illegal, thereby criminalizing a population that wants to learn. Furthermore, after the end of the conflict, it will be necessary for the democratic and social forces of Colombia to unite for our common ideals, although it is still unclear exactly how.

Finally, we must document every painful episode of our past, not only our current civil war, but also the previous ones that go all the way back to the colony.

Here’s the Spanish:

P1: Esta pregunta sólo se puede responder correctamente de la siguiente manera: ¡todo!

Podemos, entonces, tratar de separar esta pregunta en varias partes:

En parte es por tener una facultad de renombre global. Esto nos permite  encontrarnos en un dialogo crítico con los pensadores que usualmente leemos, para entonces traer  todo esto de vuelta a nuestros países de origen y a sus ambientes, algunos de los cuales necesitan desesperadamente de este tipo de intervención.

Otra parte de ello son los ideales del GCAS, dado que es la primera institución de educación superior en el mundo cuyas ideas acerca de la educación coinciden perfectamente con el reclamo de millones de personas excluidas en América Latina y el mundo entero que están insatisfechas con un modelo educativo creado por y para mantener su posición estructural a través de la segregación de los estudiantes en estratos funcionales.

P2: Me gustaría empezar transfiriendo créditos hacia mi alma máter para la terminación de mi grado universitario. Esto proveerá la doble oportunidad de estar tanto en un ambiente global (GCAS) y el activismo local. Esto incluiría cursos sobre la crisis de la educación superior y la teoría crítica.

P3: Espero investigar tres áreas principalmente:

  • Los fundamentos filosóficos de la categoría de la ideología para poder entender la manera en la cual las sociedades, como en Colombia, están fundamentalmente divididas por antagonismos constituyentes que se expresan tanto a través de discursos como de prácticas materiales. Esto me ayudaría a explicar un conflicto de más de 50 años que todavía divide a la mayor parte de la población y causa la perpetuación de imaginarios políticos violentos.
  • La posibilidad de acceder al absoluto a través de la defensa materialista de una ontología matemática.
  • El Conflicto Civil y Armado Colombiano en sí mismo para ponerle un fin al silencio y la invisibilidad de sus víctimas.

P4: Espero poder volver a Colombia con mejores herramientas para continuar trabajando por la transformación de nuestra sociedad en una comunidad tolerante y pacífica, donde podamos comenzar el largo trabajo que nos resta para sanar nuestras diferencias, perdonar a los victimarios, y unirnos a la comunidad internacional para trabajar por nuestra responsabilidad común de proteger el Amazonas y construir un mundo mejor.

Concretamente, espero trabajar hacia la creación de una editorial de acceso-abierto que pueda combatir la situación en la cual el pueblo solo puede acceder a los textos a través de la piratería o las fotocopias- lo cual es ilegal- y por ende criminaliza a una población que quiere aprender. Más aún, tras el fin del conflicto, será necesario que las fuerzas democráticas y sociales de Colombia nos unamos por nuestros ideales comunes; aunque todavía es incierta la manera en que esto ocurra.

Finalmente, debemos documentar cada episodio doloroso de nuestro pasado, no solo en nuestra guerra civil actual, sino a través de todas las anteriores que se remontan hasta la colonia.

What is the Global Center for Advanced Studies?

CFASbannerwwJust five months ago my friends and I began organizing a new school, which took on the name, The Global Center for Advanced Studies, (now directed by Jason Adams and me).   But why a new graduate and undergraduate school?  When something new happens it is a response to the present situation, a situation which gives birth to needs that are not available.  When you look at the culture of colleges and universities today you will immediately notice several very disturbing trends.

1- Skyrocketing tuition costs: rising 1,120% since 1978, while real income has declined.

2- Skyrocketing student loan debt: now over $1,000,000,000.

3- Skyrocketing postgraduate unemployment: 53.6% are now unemployed or underemployed.

4- Skyrocketing use of adjuncts: 75% of faculty are now low-paid and temporary.

5- Skyrocketing use of administrators: administrators now outnumber professors by 125,000.5 6- Skyrocketing pay of administrators: most are now paid between $300,000-3,000,000/yr.6.

When you take these basic facts into consideration there is only one reasonable conclusion:  Not only is higher education in the United States in crisis (this is a conclusion everyone agrees with), but it is, for the most part a very dangerous institution.  Yes, it turns out that entering through the gates of most (but not all) universities in the United States is toxic and dangerous not only to the individual student who participates and reproduces this crisis (i.e., by taken out student loans etc.), but also for the kind and quality of education with which a graduate acquires.  And here is the simple reason why:  Education in America has been radically reduced to acquiring one thing:  a job.

Getting a job of course is meritorious, but the problem is that colleges have radically shifted their courses to a business and vocational model, especially since the financial crisis of 2008.  Again this is not a bad thing per se’ but where it has become a problem is that colleges and universities are no longer places that inspire, but have become vocational technical schools.  Again this is not a problem, but the overwhelming trend is that these colleges are competing with each other, and with tuition being so out-of-reach for average Americans, colleges are forced to give students job skills and have increasingly no time or resources for fostering creativity, critical thinking, writing skills etc., that is to say the basic skills to be an informed citizen.  In short, colleges and universities are literally training a public to not acquire the essential skills to become fully developed human beings equally unable to engage in reproducing a free and open democratic society.  The graduate may have job skills, but they are neither able to create their own jobs nor their own future.  And they are increasingly unable to work with social diversity and no longer have the skills for creating solutions to the fundamental problems that confront us today such as an impending ecological disaster (food, water and energy shortages), new forms of poverty in the first not to mention the second and third worlds, skyrocketing unemployment, new forms of apartheid, persistent gender inequality, and new dictatorships forming  around the world at an alarming rate including the unchecked power of multinational corporations.  This with the growing disparity between the rich and the middle, working, and poor class in America can only spell one thing: doom.

Stop to think about this: if the very means of making one’s life better via education is compromised by undermining the educational sector (i.e., by only training students to become good workers without giving them a means of empowerment and inspiration) then what you end up with is a very dangerous trend that further compromises democracy, free speech, justice, not to mention foreclosing giving students the resources for creating new healthier and peaceful ways of living.  The upshot is that nearly all forms of education happening in America are so uncreative,  so servile and because it has lost it’s imagination and vision it has fallen prey to the fear and enslavement of the existing job market (that can’t even employ nearly half of college graduates anyway).  The upshot here being, something different needs to happen.

So the GCAS began putting together a new model for a school, a model that would address each of these problems confronting the toxic-wasteland of what amounts to the majority of the education sector in America and now rapidly spreading across the globe making the prospects of democracy daunting indeed.

-1 Tuition:  The tuition costs for attending the GCAS is 1/8 the cost of attending comparable universities.  The ultimate goal of the GCAS is to provide a free education for everyone and thereby not discriminate against one’s economic class.  And let’s face it: despite the claim that universities don’t discriminate, they do in fact because you can’t attend unless you are in a certain economic class.  And if you’re not, you take out loans thereby enslaving yourself to banks and corporations and you do so most likely for the rest of your working life.  Think about the intimate relationship between banks (the wealthy class) and universities and colleges and you can’t tell me they’re not working intimately together to enslave their very students.  Student debt is the physical means of enslavement to the wealthy and “Ivory-Tower” class.  Your education is about enslavement not empowerment; about indebtedness not about freedom; about getting a predetermined job and not about creating your own life.  What’s more, the GCAS  has financial aid and work -study programs that allow students to work off their tuition.  This is provided by generous donations to our non-profit organization.

-2 Faculty:  We have recruited what is widely believed to be the world’s best faculty in the humanities (philosophy, literature, critical theory, theology etc.).  Studying with world experts, poets, artist, theorist that foster creative energies that we have been taught not to believe in.

-3 Living Life: The GCAS is already a global community in which to forge exciting and new networks and be encouraged that to believe in a different future is a healthy way to live and learn.  Think about what a community can produce when it gives joy to different ways of thinking, new ways of being and acting in our world.  The opportunities are immeasurable and exciting.

-4 We don’t believe in using unqualified teachers to make a profit for the owners of universities and colleges; indeed the GCAS is a non-profit in the truest sense:  We are not out to make students into reified alienated commodities only hoping, praying for mercy that some wealthy, white man or corporation will have grace on them and grant a job.   We believe jobs are for humans not the other way around.  The priority of this must be turned upside-down.

-5 Everyone  of our administrators are first and foremost professors, and will never be compromised into fulfilling an administrator’s role which in today climate amounts to enacting the dirty work of the rich boards of directors (lawyers, bankers etc.) looking to make more and more money.  Our administrators from the President, Dorothea Olkowski, to the Vice-President, Azfar Hussain are committed to the vision of GCAS to provide the best education for little or no tuition.  We are committed to Justice in Education!

-6 Hybrid courses (distant & in-residence).  I was totally skeptical of any on-line learning until I realized that the GCAS is able to connect up with hundreds of students around the world who are reading and discussing what it means to be human in our time.  Yes, there are weaknesses in distance learning, but there are strengths too.  Furthermore, students are required to take courses in residential seminars that are organized around the world from Mexico to Europe, from Istanbul, North to South America, and from Africa, Asia, Australia to New Zealand.  In other words, just as elite universities are quickly jumping on the trend for on-line learning, so are we.  The only difference is that we are not making a profit off of it, but rather actually empowering people from around the world who would otherwise have no access to education.

Last week we officially became a school and now we already have over 160 students enrolled (half of which are from the developing world).  And one amazing lesson I’ve learned as I’ve help organized this school is that it is already so much more than a school–it is a movement that’s fighting against the injustice of our educational system, the injustice that is the lack of access to education that systematically oppresses people, opportunity, freedom, and the joy of life.  Some of the letters Jason and I have received have opened our eyes to the need for uniting all peoples around our fragile planet in the spirit of democratic empowerment–of learning together who we are and refusing to be determined as merely an indentured slave to the 1%.  I cannot share with you some of these letters, but here are two passages  from two enrolled students from Colombia and Asia responding to the question:  What will you do with an education from GCAS?:

“I hope to be able to return to Colombia with better tools to continue working for the transformation of our society into a tolerant and peaceful community, where we can start the long work ahead of mending our differences, forgiving the culprits and joining the international community in our common responsibility to protect the Amazon and build a better world.”

And another letter from Asia said, “Silenced are the women in my country.  Men do not allow education for us.  I hope I can be educated in your centre so I too can educate girls to be strong.”

So as we embark on our first seminar  in just 10 days on “Crisis of Higher Education” with world renowned experts (Andrew Ross, Diane Ravitch, and Henry Giroux).  And we hope to open up a new world through the emerging community of learners committed to the idea that humanity still exists and we no longer have to be determined by old ideas, but can live for a better future a better life together.

Why is Philosophy Sick?

Creston Davis is Professor of Philosophy at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, Skopje. He is the coauthor (with John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek) of Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology; coeditor (with John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek) of Theology and the Political: The New Debate; editor of John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? and author of the forthcoming novel, Ghostly Icons.  He has recently co-founded, The Global Center for Advanced Studies.

Creston Davis

Why is Philosophy Sick?

Peter Sloterdijk's new book on Philosophy

Peter Sloterdijk’s new book on Philosophy

What is wrong with philosophy today?  On the face of it, unlike other disciplines in the academy, the very nature of philosophy inherently resists a foolproof definition.  Of course that’s not to say it hasn’t been defined.  From the birth of the academy in both ancient Greece and the Middle Ages, philosophy has always been at the heart of any education worthy of its name.  For example, when I was an undergraduate at Oxford this lesson became eminently clear when I stood in the center of the Bodleian library quadrangle (1613-1619) and the Tower of the Five Orders from which four of the main exit doors were devoted to the core subjects that comprise philosophy: Schola Metaphysicae, Schola Naturalis Philosophiae, Schola Moralis Philosophiae, and Schola Logicae.

Philosophy, in other words, was irrefutably foundational to the very existence of university education.  When you compare this to the contemporary academy that purports to be devoted to the liberal arts (i.e., the arts that free us vis-à-vis the servile arts, such as pluming and business) you would be lucky to locate a department that does not reduce philosophy to little more than business ethics.  This raises the question: What’s wrong with philosophy especially if its nature is completely unrecognizable within university settings today?

One explanation is that it’s simply outdated, and like modern theology will dissolve into the dustbins of history out of sheer irrelevance.  Philosophy, so this stance believes, is antiquated because it is redundant as it only teaches students ancient techniques of logical thinking and analyses, which, so administrators argue, can easily be acquired in a single humanities course.

The problem with this explanation is that it misconstrues philosophy by reducing it to an anemic skill sets all made relevant if and only if they enhance a student’s ability to get a job.  So it is not difficult to see why philosophy is dying (along with the humanities) because it is inversely related to the dogma of corporate culture.  Moreover, this trend has the unfortunate consequence of forcing philosophers to create courses that are relevant to getting a job.  In short, philosophy becomes enslave to corporate culture.

But should philosophy fold so easily to this prosaic corporate totalitarianism that has subverted all non-corporate methods of thinking and practice?  Think of the two basic functions in which the academy has traditionally served a free democratic society: one is negative and the other positive.  The negative service provides free and independent critiques of the inevitable abuses of power (both political and economic) that threatened the security of a democratic society.  And as the corporate financial crisis in 2008 proved beyond a shadow of doubt unchecked greed threatens the founding truths of democracy: of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Seen in this way, independent journalists and filmmakers also provide this “watch-dog” service protecting us from the abuses of barbaric greed mongering.  This is why a professor’s tenure was so crucial because they were protected and could thus publish their independent and objective research recommendations without fear of being fired.

On the positive side, academia once served a free society through its independent research that can give genuinely new and creative solutions to the rudimentary problems facing our planet such as, among many other problems, ecological sustainability, imperialist power, and the waging of unjust wars.  For example, an independent professor would recommend solutions to obverting ecological catastrophes by inventing new energy, economic, and political possibilities in order to avoid totalitarian greed from taking hold like the kind that corporate capitalism has installed in the United States in the 21st Century.  And this does not even touch one the psychological tyranny that the government and employers use when they violate our basic privacy rights by monitoring our intimate conversations from our mobile phones, to our emails and other social networking communications.

This gets us back to the question:  What’s wrong with philosophy today? Why is it sick?  Pondering this it becomes clear from the above analysis that the problem with philosophy is that it has forgotten it original modus operandi namely, the freedom to arrive at solutions to our existential situation. This is why philosophy must live into its truth so that it can arrive at new possibilities and alternative worlds unencumbered by the political and economic tyrannical powers that seek to protect their own interests at the cost of enslaving the majority of the population to the servile arts (i.e., enslavement to making money).  And here I’m not even mentioning governmental and corporate surveillance on the populous.  This is why philosophy’s genius is found in its infinite procedure, and this is because the ability to think, act, and invent is infinite in nature (i.e., free) which is why philosophers from Heraclitus to Diogenes, and from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle couldn’t draw a hard and fast demarcations between the disciplines distilled in the modern academy we see today from economics to politics to ethics.  And the reason for this is because the disciplines were all grounded in living a life for freedom and justice geared toward the search for wisdom and truth, and not, as is the case today, where everyone is taught to seek out their own wealth at the cost of dissolving social unity.

The illness of philosophy today is all too evident when viewed as a discipline that is wholly enslaved to the corporatized academy.  That is, the academy has become an extension of the corporate workforce precisely because the latter has determined not only what subjects are taught but also how those subjects are taught.  In other words, the corporate world has literally redefined the learning and discovery process thus undermining new and creative ways of thinking and living that would provide us with a healthier peaceful future.

Therefore, the days of an independent academy as the watchdog over potential totalitarian regimes are over.  This is especially evident with the recent publication of a “major report” in the New York Times in which professors argue that the humanities are worth saving basically because they teach students the skills essential to getting a job in the corporate world.  You know it’s over when humanities professors gut and sacrifice their subjects to the god of capitalism.

In light of this, it is now time to return to philosophy’s true nature devoted to freedom and justice for all.  Perhaps embodying a “Robin Hood pedagogical ethic” in educational process might be one means of stealing from the rich and giving a life back to the poor.  And what would a professor or teacher steal exactly?  It would steal back the possibility of freedom that has been hijacked from our youth preventing them from exploring alternatives futures other than the greed of capitalism, which turns our students into monsters.  It is time to free philosophy and the other subjects in the humanities from the chains of the corporate world and the administrators and lawyers who peddle them. The fact that philosophy remains indefinable to the bane of many gives us hope that this revolution is already afoot and that is taking place concretely by the opening of a independent graduate and post-graduate school, The Global Center for Advanced Studies.  

Distinguished Harvard Professor Joins our Faculty

Professor Jackson

Professor Jackson

Distinguished Professor at Harvard University, Dr. Michael Jackson says: “This Global Center for Advanced Studies is what many of us, languishing in established academic institutions, have dreamed of for many years. I will seize the opportunity to show how the intellectual life can be engaged in the life of the world, how scholarship can escape the sclerotic and alienated language it passes off as edifying, and how critical thought can develop new forms of writing that speak to those outside of the academy and to those inside it who have been waiting, like pupae, for spring.”

Professor Jackson will teach a seminar with us in May.   If you would like to reserve a seat in the seminar please contact my assistant.   Details forthcoming.  

Here’s what Wikipedia says about Professor Jackson.

Michael D. Jackson (born 1940) is a New Zealand poet and anthropologist who has taught in anthropology departments at Massey University, the Australian National UniversityIndiana University Bloomington, and the University of Copenhagen. He is currently distinguished professor of world religions at Harvard Divinity School.

Jackson is the founder of existential anthropology, a non-traditional sub-field of anthropology using ethnographic methods and drawing on continental traditions of phenomenology, existentialism, and critical theory, as well as American pragmatism, in exploring the human condition from the perspectives of both lifeworlds and worldviews, histories and biographies, collective representations and individual realities. The struggle for being involves a struggle to reconcile shared and singular experiences, acting and being acted upon, being for others and being for oneself. But rather than polarize subject and object, Jackson emphasizes the intersubjective negotiations at the heart of all relationships – whether between persons, persons and things, persons and language – and shows that being-in-the-world consists of endless dilemmas and constant oscillations in consciousness that admit of only temporary, imagined, narrative or ritualized resolutions. Insofar as anthropological understanding is attained through conversations and events in which the ethnographer’s prejudices, ontological assumptions, and emotional dispositions are at play, the ethnographer cannot pretend to be an impartial observer, producing objective knowledge. Jackson’s published work fully discloses the contexts in which understandings are negotiated, arrived at, or, in some instances, unattainable.[1]

Jackson’s recent books have explored diverse topics such as well-being in one of the world’s poorest societies (Life Within Limits), the relation between religious experience and limit situations (The Palm at the End of the Mind), the interplay between egocentric and sociocentric modes of being (Between One and One Another), and writing as a technology for creating connections that transcend the limits of ordinary communication (The Other Shore).