The Search for Illumination: Education In the Penal Colony
By HECTOR VILA
for my mother, on her 91st birthday, 12/19, who tells me she wishes she were 30 so that she could once again teach kids about this world today and take to the streets
“I don’t know. I don’t think I can go to study abroad in Paris,” she says and hesitates and grins.
When she sits across from me, her shoulders are barely higher than my desktop. Her hijab frames her face perfectly: wide, inquisitive, dark eyes that are alive, dancing, penetrating; high cheekbones; her lips are full and when she smiles she gets small creases at the sides of her mouth that resemble ripples edging from the shore of a serene lake.
I ask why not?, though I know the answer: She’s from Sierra Leone and a Muslim.
“Even when I flew to Kenya,” she continues, still smiling, “the police at the airport stopped me — it was very scary — because they thought I was Somali. No one is safe — no one that looks like me. An African Muslim.”
She giggles a bit, this time as if to call attention to the tragic irony of it all.
This young woman, but nineteen, left her family and traveled from Sierra Leone to Hong Kong to the United States to the state of Vermont and Middlebury College for an education. She’s earned scholarships all the way. She’s brilliant and will undoubtedly do great things in the future.
But reality is harsh; the world she — and all of us, really — navigate is dark, foreboding, threatening, many parts forbidden.
How then do we justify this world to our students? What do we tell her? Where’s opportunity now?
What is the educator’s role in addressing the harsh reality that not everyone has the right and capacity to move about freely in what we still falsely call the free world?
The “disobedience” of the prisoner in the story, for which HONOR THY SUPERIORS will be written in needles on his body, involves a threat against authority, Lucifer’s challenge to God, the very “crime” also implied in Kafka’s The Trial.
Like in The Trial, “In the Penal Colony” is Kafka’s effort to discover some ultimate or absolute truth that lies below deception. This is where my questions lead — the nature of deception.
Education has had a hand in this.
My mentor, friend, and literary biographer, the late Frederick R. Karl (1927–2004), in his Franz Kafka, Representative Man: Prague, Germans, Jews, and the Crisis of Modernism says the following:
The intensity of Kafka’s quest for illumination in “In the Penal Colony” gives rise to a symbolic reading of the final days of the empire. A deeply personal statement about knowledge, truth, absolutes, illumination, the story is a psychological profile of early twentieth century. In its depiction of “final days,” when traditions have outlasted their function, the story depicts man’s failure to accommodate what is occurring, but also recalls the grandeur that comes from hanging on to the old ways regardless of their meaning.
I thought of “In the Penal Colony” because I find it addresses my students in these early stages of the twenty-first century where we are likewise experiencing the “final days” of ways of being that have “outlasted their function.”
When there is failure to accommodate, there is punishment instead. These are punishing times and education with its stratified architecture and its stringent assessments and judgments punishes.
In Neoliberalism, Education, and Terrorism, for instance, Jeffrey R. Di Leo, Henry A. Giroux, Sophia A. McClennan, and Kenneth J. Saltman, contend that “Neoliberalism, the discourses on terrorism, and contemporary educational policy all share a denial of politics, a redistributive economic dimension, and a tendency against democratic culture and toward fundamentalist thought.”
The officer who is to apply the punishment to the “disobedient” prisoner in “In the Penal Colony,” when questioned by the explorer about his qualifications, says, “My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted.”
In 1919, we were very much inclined to lump “figures” into a single meaning without much thought — traditions holding on, as Edward Said argues in Orientalism (1978):
The Orient and Islam have a kind of extrareal, phenomenologically reduced status that puts them out of reach of everyone except the Western expert. From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.
One of the most harrowing conditions of our world today is the silencing of the most marginalized, the most invisible, such as my young student from Sierra Leone looking to do as much as she can for her education — her illumination. We want her to “pass through … the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work,” don’t we? Be this Guantanamo, some immigration holding tank, or to scale a wall. Justice is always kept from the marginalized, which is why justice comes with a price tag.
The explorer asks the officer, “Does he know his sentence?” And the officer responds, “No…There would be no point in telling him. He’ll learn it on his body.”
This is our world, isn’t it? It’s where we’re headed.
My student, and countless others around the world, don’t know that there has been a sentence passed onto them; they don’t know that because of fear, xenophobia, and racism we are legally, literally, and figuratively, though immorally, incarcerating the innocent.
And as the officer also says when the explorer wonders about the condemned man’s defense, “He has had no chance of putting up a defense.”
In “In the Penal Colony,” we are the explorer aghast that the condemned don’t know that they have been sentenced and that there is no avenue for a defense. This is justice. Conditions already exist — the always already — that condemn and sequester one’s mind and one’s movements; we are in a global police state, a totalitarian reality — in the penal colony.
And where is education, you ask?
Let’s allow Henry A. Giroux to tell us:
Higher education should be one place where young people learn to question the framing mechanisms that allow them both to be turned into producers and consumers of violence and to become increasingly indifferent to matters of social and moral responsibility. Military modes of education, largely driven by the demands of war and organized violence, are investing heavily in pedagogical practices that train students in various intelligence operations…Connecting universities with any of the 15 US security and intelligence agencies replaces the ideal of educating student to be critical citizens with the notion of students as potential spies and citizen soldiers.
Few students at Middlebury College, maybe anywhere, know the plight of their colleagues from distant lands, particularly of those from Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Asia. Most students assume that their American mobility is everyone’s. The American student’s mind is elsewhere, but in particular it’s in gaining a foothold in an always shifting economy.
Higher education’s insistence on the conveyor belt to materialism, called excellence, which is nothing but a mirror of our harsh socio-economic model, compels educators to not ask questions, not invite dialog across differences, and to repress, most of the time, the dramatic stories students bring with them. We figure that our role as educator-experts, again taking from Said, is to make sense of the extrareal, phenomenologically reduced status that puts them out of reach of everyone.
We know this world. It’s always repeating itself.
At the end of “In the Penal Colony,” the officer, not the condemned man, places himself onto the machine that kills him.
The explorer stares at the corps and notices that “It was as it had been in life; no sign was visible of the promised redemption; what the others had found in the machine the officer had not found; the lips were firmly pressed together, the eyes were open, with the same expression as in life, the look was calm and convinced, through the forehead went the point of the great iron spike.”
Indeed, “the same expression as in life,” which is the nature of deception: to create a convincing calm where there is none, where there are questions. It’s the truth about deception.
At the very end of “In the Penal Colony,” when the explorer is bargaining with a ferryman to row him to a steamer so he can return home, the soldier and the condemned man rush to the boat to be taken aboard, too. “They could have jumped the boat,” Kafka tells us, “but the explorer lifted a heavy knotted rope from the floor boards, threatened them with it and so kept them from attempting to leap.”
These could be refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea or in Greece and France, or they could be international students from places in crisis wanting to stretch their imaginations, reach for a better life, enlightenment — but we threaten them with our own heavy knotted ropes. Don’t we?
This is evidence that we’re in our “final days” and we have indeed outlasted many, many of our ways. It’s time for something else.
It’s time for us to revisit our creative records — literature, the arts, film — and retrieve the messages, and antidotes, we may find there; it’s time to revisit the questions and the consequences we find here so that we can engage in Resistance, so that we can transgress, to take from bell hooks. It’s the beginning of a way towards illumination, I think.
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