Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Replacement Federalist Papers

Education must have an end in view of the kind of person to be educated, but speaking of such an end is surely grandiose and pretentious. In egalitarian fashion you might ask, who the hell are you to educate anyone with a view toward such an end regardless of what it is?

So let’s get more prosaic and talk numbers. In Texas Rick Perry has introduced the idea of a baccalaureate degree for the cost of no more than $10K. You may wonder how does this work? Let me explain.

The $10K college degree is related to “dual credit” courses, and it’s a “win-win” situation in terms of the least common denominator. Parents save a lot of money for general education courses for their children, in that their high school kids can take college credit Math, History, Government, English, Psychology, Sociology, and a few other college transferable courses offered from the local community college. Usually this means that the “dual credit” class meets at 7:00 AM, in order to fit in with the busy schedule of these young high school students. The local community colleges like this because it puts butts in the seats, and butts in the seats is the basis of their funding, so it increases their enrollment. If the high school student does it right, he graduates with nearly 30 to 60 hours toward an Associate’s or Bachelor’s college degree. And if the college does it right, it can put nearly 25% to 35% of the student body in enrollment for requisite state and federal funding. With regulations making for uniformity of coursework in all classes in terms of measurable student learner outcomes, such students can graduate from high school with most, if not all, of their college level “general education” credits.

It’s “win-win” situation for both parental and college budgets.

Everyone is educated (or accredited), and no one learns anything. Or at best, what used to be taught in high school is now given college credit.

Against this “dumbing down” one could speak of an education in the great books, Plato and Aristotle and such, and with good texts one could raise the question about the best life simply. One must study such things in a way to know how to ask the right questions, and it seems that the $10K college education classes meeting at 7:00 AM in high school could meet this criterion.

In Government class, we read the Declaration, the Constitution, selections from the Federalist, the Anti-Federalists, Calhoun, Lincoln and Douglas, Wilson, T and FD Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, and many others. We read many good and great current political scientists and political commentators. We try to understand the debates of American politics as it has been handed down to us, and as it currently exists—even if it means watching Stephen Colbert. As a gentle guide, I always try to point toward an understanding of current issues as best as we can with a view to the common good in terms of the best that has been thought and done in the American political tradition.  We have debates in my class. We have guided debates that are open to whichever opinions are expressed. We ask how can those expressed opinions point to the common good (which is a thing in dispute). It’s a big deal in my class.

But this is all idealizing.  Usually it is a challenge to get Johnny to stay awake in class at 7:00 AM. It is all a joke. And if these basically illiterate students fail it is all the instructor’s fault, even though no one does the reading or studies for the tests in the first place. So the teacher engages in serious grade inflation. In class, the teacher may speak of the importance of deliberation, but these eighteen year olds (or sixteen year olds) at 7:00 AM have only deliberated with the forearm that their heads rest on. To be sure, one could fail them all, but then one would be fired. At 7:00 AM one is just glad that the students show up, and they get college credit for taking multiple choice scantron tests where everyone is wasting their time. But they get college credit.

It’s the best of the best, and one ought to be impressed with such eighteen—or sixteen—year old dedication that shows up at 7:00 AM.

So I think of the band the Replacements. They were were an ‘80s band who raised questions regarding how one ought to live one’s life in a way that mattered even if it were, or especially if it were, at 7:00 AM. The album Tim (1985), for instance, had many songs, such as “Swinging Party” which required one to think about how one lived one’s life up to 7:00 AM . This song speaks of keeping the party going, but it also speaks of those who are exhausted by the party itself. So the party is what it is, but it also not enough to truly satisfy deep spiritual longing. Another song, “Left of the Dial,” speaks of a way that such a party can’t be captured on the radio that everyone else is listening to—it is left of the dial. Whatever it is you’re looking for, it is music left of the dial. It’s played on 88.7, or even more left than that. “College music” it used to be called, and it was often listened to at 7:00 AM (or 3:00 AM), but it wasn’t listened to in class. The music on the left of the dial played music that wasn’t the usual music, and you loved that music in part because it was outside the mainstream class even at 7:00 AM, or more reasonably at 9:30 AM.

You were looking for something else, and the Replacements sang to that desire—especially at 7:00 AM. Dual credit courses teach you to wake up early and nothing much more than that. It’s worth $10K.

Peter Lawler would call such music as the Replacements “emo,” and he’s probably right about that, but that’s only because he has found out or at least opened a question regarding the truth of what it means to whine about one’s own. The truth about who we are is another matter beside whining, but who we are and what we are supposed to be doing is a worthwhile question even at 7:00 AM.

So the Replacements may not have serious lyrics. Carl Scott would provide plenty of reasons to place the Replacements as a nothing in seriousness. After all, they sang songs about a “little mascara” that left you crying.

The Replacements have no songs about brotherly love, and being an ‘80s Gen X band, they do not speak to the great task that a generation must take on. Instead they sing personal songs about experiences with flight attendants.

I realize that all these points are ridiculous, but that is the point. It is a matter of taking such great texts like Plato and Aristotle or Augustine or even the Federalist Papers, and attempting to show how their questions address current concerns. The Replacements happen to be a band that make Pascalian questions of diversion in the face of human finitude and infinity for real. I see no problem with bringing this issue up, except for the fact that for some reason the Replacements’ music doesn’t speak to this younger generation. They’d rather listen to the Boomer music like the Beatles than the Gen X music of which the Replacements is an exemplary case in point.

Surely it’s the web and globalization that makes the Replacements a forgotten band. The youth listen to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys and Motown. I’m glad that the youth know all about this great music, but why don’t they know of the Replacements, and more importantly, why do they not feel the importance of the Replacements?

The Replacements provide a view of the kind of person that is to be educated.  While their music and lyrics may be knowing and even prudent, the person speaking in their songs has no deluded grandiose vision. Trying as best as he can to live a good life in terms of personal relations, this person doesn’t obsess about political matters. It’s a music that speaks to ambitions apart from political ambition. These songs could, a la Springsteen, try to speak to matters beyond his personal matters. But the Replacements remain eminently personal and particular. Short of speaking to pubic matters, they don’t impose their personal as political. Are they libertarian? Far from it! There is a good beyond subjective morality. But their songs recognize a limit to politics by carving out a private realm to which politics cannot and ought not touch. In that sense the Replacements speak of that which transcends the political.

I suppose I ought to teach my students more Springsteen and less Replacements, but at 7:00 AM I just can’t seem to care. As it is I teach nothing, even when we read the Federalist Papers. And at 7:00 AM it seems that my students cannot care for much anything either. The foreheads on their forearms are more important than even the Replacements or Springsteen or the Federalist Papers could ever say.

But they get a college education at 7:00 AM regardless, and at the end of the day it will be worth $10K. These students will discover the intricacies of their forearms, if only they could listen to the Replacements or, even more, read the Federalist Papers.

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