I advise doctoral students and one student this year is doing a project on surveillance capitalism and education technology. I told him he should look up Frank Moretti who was a professor I took courses with in grad school. He taught a year-long seminar called The History of Communications at Teachers College and was interested in possibilities of technology for education.
The whole idea behind the course was that to understand educational technology and communications, you have to understand the history of consciousness itself, since technologies are just ablated pieces of consciousness. It was wild.
To use a technical term, Frank was awesome. Anyone who took his courses saw this guy from Jersey had such a powerful command of the classics and contemporary thinking and education, but he was so inexorably warm and supportive and creative—it was great to learn with and from him.
When I took his classes he was an old man. He’d had several heart surgeries. But he kept teaching. I could feel his greatness in how he spoke, all the people he said he’d known and influenced, and the power he had at Columbia. So I recorded our classes to have them as a record. He didn’t lecture, but rather did little spontaneous ‘homilies’ (he talked a lot about how he grew up Catholic) and it was in these homilies where he shined.
He agreed to be on my dissertation committee but died before I defended. A few years went by. I was getting a new ipad and transferring files from the old to the new one and I found the recordings I’d made of his classes. I started listening to them and felt that fond awe of Frank again.
I couldn’t find a ton of his published writing. I don’t think he wrote much, actually. So a little like Plato did for Socrates I started transcribing his homilies. I thought maybe I’d publish them as a tribute.
I never got around to finishing the transcriptions (it’s really hard!), but I did get to a few homilies. I sent the document to my doctoral student to see if he could find anything useful in it and started rereading it myself. I thought I’d post a piece of one of the homilies here from January 19th, 2011. I think it’s sort of liberatory, particularly the way he talks about learning and studying. Plus I can hear his voice, which is wonderful and also sad since he’s not here anymore.
Does anyone know what the Roxiar Studiorium is? When the Jesuits were first founded—I was a graduate of Georgetown, so I know this—they created a roxio estudorium, or the logic of study. Just the fact that they used study as the primary focus is very important. Because what you’ll hear more often than not if you’re a Teachers College person, or even if you pay attention to the insipid contemporary discourse around education, from the chosen chancellors to the appointed minor administrators, you’ll hear “teaching and learning.” And “instruction.” Sometimes “training” when someone really slips. But the roxio estudiorum is about study, and “study” comes from a Latin root studio-studere. It emphasizes the energy that comes from within a person based on their interests and desire for engagement. It focuses on the internal energies of a person who wants to know something. That wanting to know something comes from a passion that you have.
Now the Jesuits as you probably know them were disciplinarians, so a natural response would be to say “well, but the Jesuits were real taskmasters.” You think of a guy going around with a stick as children do their declensions, but their premise was that that energy exists, but what people need is that they need to be subjected to a discipline. Effectively the roxio estudiorum is a contract that you make with students where you agree to be the taskmaster and they agree to engage in study. I was introduced to the RE, it was handed to me, in the summer of 1966, by a Jesuit at Fordham University before the very first year I ever taught, which was at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City. They said, “here’s a guide. It’s 450 years old. Still works.”
I bring this up because I really think of that as a kind of guiding principle. The only difference is that I don’t put myself above the group. I think of me subjecting myself to the same discipline that I hope you’ll subject yourself to as we engage in really trying to penetrate, understand and interrogate, five complicated books by five very important thinkers. The key to our class will really be your engagement and your willingness to engage in that study.
I think of us all as having the opportunity to do little soliloquies as we engage in the study of these texts. So we subject ourselves as engaging our natural inquisitiveness and our desire to understand and know. The questions we’ll raise in the context of our study really should be questions that are not things that are important because they give you leverage within a predefined discipline that has its keepers, priesthood. But the questions we’ll try to raise will be the questions we live with on a daily basis.
Those questions can be deeply personal and have to do with our own view of the world but the questions are also larger and have to do with the public discourse that we are constantly surrounded by. And developing the intellectual tools to penetrate and understand and evolve that public discourse. The challenge for us will be to define the relevant questions that we want to try to answer. To see whether or not any intellectual tradition that these five thinkers represent, whether we can find resources that have utility.
Because the entire intellectual tradition is one long extended conversation. One long extended conversation that people have been having with each other throughout generations. And the interesting characteristic of that conversation they’ve been having is that it’s completely analogous to the conversation you have with yourself as you try to pursue an education.
If you think about your education as something that actually includes you rather than excludes you in a Cartesian scientific manner, the biggest challenge you have is that you become something before you’ve chosen it. All of a sudden there you are. At a certain point in time you begin to develop the capacity to not only look at the world, or learn things, but to begin to see yourself as a complicated mechanism—I don’t mean to be mechanistic—something complicated, complex, that you’ve made. But you’ve made it in the process of a set of choices interacting with a set of circumstances around you.
Then the challenge to living on that individual level is to engage what it is you’ve become, and to try to begin to gain some kind of control over the momentum of your own personal existence, but understanding what is incontrovertible and rooted in who you are, what isn’t incontrovertible and rooted in who you are, and can be inflected, so that you can change your direction and develop and evolve.
If you could use that simple metaphor, albeit not a simple activity, as a way of thinking about how we think about the world, when we’re engaging the problems of humanity as the problems of the collectivity. The intellectual tradition that we will engage will focus more on collectivity: the constant effort to figure out what we’re becoming and how we are creating it and how we can recreate it.