School is Literally a Hellhole

Arthur Chiaravalli
Jun 12, 2018 · 9 min read

Although I never personally saw it, the title of this piece was something scrawled on the wall of a school restroom. A couple of my AP English Literature students brought it to my attention because we spend a lot of time in class examining the possible figurative significance of literal things. They rightly recognized that, unless by an unfortunate coincidence our school is built over one of those fabled portals to the underworld, it is, at worst, figuratively a hellhole.

Still, that’s a pretty bad statement. As a teacher at this school, I have to ask myself, why liken our school to a hellhole?

I’ve never seen a literal hellhole and I hope I never do. Maybe we can get at its meaning through the transitive property of equality: Google, what else is a hellhole?

School is literally Brussels

Trump thinks Brussels is a hellhole. We know he considers other places shitholes. Maybe we should take people who invoke these comparisons with a grain (or shaker full) of salt. At any rate, it’s clearly bad that a student would call school a hellhole.

I hesitate to give my own opinion because it runs counter to most of the popular opinions about the hellishness of school, most of which have us looking ever outward to “the real world.” Oh yeah, and forward to “innovation.”

My point is that many of these solutions are neither helpful nor innovative and may actually contribute to the anguish that can be school.

Hell is Other People

Garcin, the war deserter in Sartre’s play No Exit famously quips, “Hell is other people.” This hell is a problem of existence, the fact that we, who experience ourselves as subjects, are objectified — willingly or unwillingly — under the gaze of others. Obviously, we experience a lot of this in school. Ultimately, we have to continually broker some way to maintain our ephemerality without slipping into solipsism. Between human beings, at least, a kind of intersubjectivity remains a difficult but not impossible goal.

But what if it’s a machine (or cyborg) doing the gazing, one that cares only for what can be objectively measured or certified, one that needs you to express your learning and growth in rows of bubbles, algorithmic steps, or by mastering a body of knowledge that preexists and outlives you? Under this power dynamic, aren’t you definitively objectified?

Technological innovations have often made these situations worse, not better. 24/7 online gradebooks invite the constant gaze of parents and administrators, objectifying both the student, whose performance is reduced to rows of numbers, and the teacher, whose diligence in continually “populating” these cells is on display. As with the Foucauldian panopticon, we feel we’re being watched whether anyone is watching or not.

Commenting on the larger phenomenon of the modern “digitalised worker,” Phoebe V. Moore observes:

Workers are asked to become self-experimenters whilst not escaping precarity. An ever-invisible management sometimes becomes entirely machinic and a new cadre of specialists and inventors develop and implement new technologies to measure our labour.

Innovative edtech tools partake in this same dynamic more often than I’d like to admit. Video applications that allow students to “share their learning,” like Flipgrid, Recap, or Seesaw, often pivot on a pervasive sense of outside observation. Add to this the constant encouragement to share our work with “authentic audiences,” and you create a situation that maximizes oversight while minimizing the cost and effort needed to provide it.

We Must Imagine Ourselves Happy

Further, students and teachers are increasingly told that they must discover, develop, and demonstrate passion for something that can be “harnessed” toward organizational goals. The much-maligned factory model of schools, with its deadening rules and routine, is replaced by an “engaged” workplace where employees are, as Benjamin Doxtdator writes, “passionate and emotionally committed to the company and their mission”:

In teaching, it’s the difference between being accountable for your students’ performance on standardized test scores, and being accountable for your identity as a passionate teacher and a ‘connected’ educator. It is no boon to teaching to move from a statistical regulation based on standards to a therapeutic one based on identity.

Explicitly or implicitly, we are told that the safest bet is to “show up,” passionate, obliging, and hard at work on multiple platforms. You can find me posting assignments and materials in Google Classroom, sending out progress reports via Skyward, creating Quizlet sets of vocab words and terminology, sharing my lessons on Google Drive, peeping in to comment on a Google Doc, flipping my classroom on YouTube. And after all that, you can find me airing my progressive pedagogical views in a Twitter chat or thread. If I’m really special, you may find others live-tweeting their appreciation as they sit in my conference session.

Take on blogging as your job and you have an iron-clad alibi as a passionate educator. This educator is an evangelist of life-long learning and continuous improvement. Gone are the days of punching in and out; teaching becomes an all-encompassing lifestyle. It isn’t lost on me that even this blog post supports my identity as one of these engaged educators.

Why does Google want to know my location when I look up ‘alibi’?

Not surprisingly, these educators are also often the foremost apostles of the authentic audience, cajoling (and often requiring) students to identify and communicate with audiences outside the walls of the school. This doubles as a new, more effective strategy of control. As Plan C asserts, “In this increasingly securitised and visible field, we are commanded to communicate. The incommunicable is excluded.” Here we have ostensibly moved on from the operationalist maxim, “If it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist” to “If it’s not online, it doesn’t exist.”

Who knows, perhaps one day you arrive at that valueless Valhalla called Verification — a rarefied state far stranger than its pre-Internet predecessor, the heaven of secular saints. While that prior heaven was characterized by the roughly humanistic hagiographies of its inhabitants — Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gandhi, Einstein, Mandela — this new pantheon is populated by the merely popular — think of the strange bedfellows in Kanye’s “Famous” video.

Ironically, experiencing this apotheosis — this supposed salvation from the entanglements of existence, this definitive deus ex machina — amounts to a kind of suicide, a willing sacrifice of one’s humanity to the mechanistic god. Does this explain the seemingly paradoxical pairing of celebrity and oblivion, the way flirtation with fame can make one into a soulless doppelganger, a wax facsimile of oneself?

By continually privileging and training our eyes on a horizon “beyond the walls of the school” — whether that be achievement, authentic audiences, the real world, the future, even buzz or fame — have we inadvertently impoverished school of its value and meaning, turning it into a wind-swept platform where we do nothing but gaze into another world or brace ourselves for the inevitable? Here we have less and less patience for the platform itself, for learning to live with others who will be nothing more than competitors in that future marketplace. As John Dewey noted:

…if I were asked to name the most needed of all reforms in the spirit of education, I should say: “Cease conceiving of education as mere preparation for later life, and make it the full meaning of the present life.” And to add that only in this case does it become truly a preparation for after life is not the paradox it seems. An activity which does not have worth enough to be carried on for its own sake cannot be very effective as a preparation for something else. By making the present activity the expression of the full meaning of the case, that activity is, indeed, an end in itself, not a mere means to something beyond itself; but, in being a totality, it is also the condition of all future integral action. It forms the habit of requiring that every act be an outlet of the whole self, and it provides the instruments of such complete functioning.

Admittedly, many of us do protect our students from the pernicious mindsets of performance, publicity, and popularity. But even we feel the constant tug of the devices we carry, windows on a world so much more interesting and real and idyllic than the one we inhabit. I’m not going to heap any more scorn on social media or the Internet, but I don’t think our job is to open this portal any wider. I think our job is sometimes to disconnect, to unplug, to tend this garden — finding ways to invite and even entice our students away from that other world. Because when we flow off to water those distant or imagined gardens, what becomes of this one?

To what extent does it become a desert, a hell?

A Formula for Human Greatness?

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche articulates his idea of amor fati —love of fate — as his “formula for human greatness”:

There is a lake that one day refused to flow away and threw up a dam at the place where it had before flowed out and since then this lake has always risen higher and higher. Perhaps the very act of renunciation provides us with the strength to bear it; perhaps man will rise ever higher and higher when he no longer flows out into a God.

Unlike Nietzsche perhaps, I think that the God is the least of our problems. Instead, transhumanism — the belief that we can transcend our human limitations through technology — is now the primary way that we “flow away” from the anguish of our humanity, subjectivity, and responsibility. It is the secular “other world,” the modern-day “afterlife” on which we pin so many hopes, impoverishing and devaluing the human sphere in the process. Worse, it is the longing for this other world that keeps us in a cryogenically frozen state of anticipation, suspense, terror.

This is not to say that we and our students can’t find very real solidarity and support in these other worlds. This is not to say that they don’t interpenetrate our current one in ways too complex to fully explain. This is not to say that we don’t need to attend to the many injustices that happen beyond the often narrow sphere of our own experiences.

But whatever our hopes for those worlds, can we at least say this: If those hopes don’t manifest in the conversations, relationships, and very fabric of our daily encounters as teachers and students, they will have little or no value to any other worlds. Like Viktor Kemmings in Philip K. Dick’s story “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon,” we won’t believe it when we do truly arrive in that distant, longed-for star system. Constantly replaying some myth of arrival, the present eventually ceases to have meaning, value, or sustenance. As the ship’s computer explains to Kemmings, “I have no food and no air.”

What would be possible if we instead were to wall ourselves up with one another, fostering community and care among this unlikely confluence of souls? Does privileging the proximate, present world render any critique of or contribution to the larger world impossible?

I don’t think so. Learning to protect, foster, and value the humans in our care will often automatically put us in direct conflict with the many forces that disrupt or diminish those values. More than reflecting the real world or the future or some outside standard or imperative, kids need to see themselves reflected and recognized in these rooms. This is true even in the most privileged of environments. Providing recognition means valuing students' perspectives and experiences, but also helping them gain critical consciousness of themselves and their world, which they often intuit.

These tasks aren’t disconnected from the outside world, but often need a smaller, more human-sized community in which to flourish. The impulse to test and measure continually intrudes upon this process. But so do other prying eyes, ones that cast our students as entrepreneurial, capitalistic, future-ready, self-motivated, passionate individuals — and that often shame those who can’t or won’t conform to this ideal.

We should ask ourselves to what extent those outside standards and ideals are antithetical to the values of education — civic discourse, collectivity, cooperation, care. I realize this post is short on specifics, but let’s be more cautious about always forcing one another out into unforgiving gaze of others, commending the merits of a world beyond this one.

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Next Post: AP English Literature and Pedagogy of Whiteness

Arthur Chiaravalli

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Teacher, learner, thinker. Exploring what’s possible in education.

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