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.