Sunday, August 17, 2014

Acoustic Grace: Thank You, Josh Ritter

Over the past decade, artist and songwriter Josh Ritter has provided the soundtrack to my life. Because blogs operate in a weird space between public articles and private journals anyway, I thought I'd be allowed to lean heavily on the latter today and write him a weird little thank you note.

Dear Josh,

I meant to write this years ago. Specifically, I meant to write it when one of your songs, "Still Beating," got me through the toughest year of my life.

Your work has been a constant source of grace for me, a difficult word for our times but one that gets legs with the kind of beauty your music embodies.

The depth of your storytelling in "The Temptation of Adam" and "The Curse" has spurred my imagination. I have become friends and enemies with your characters and I've become lost in the worlds of these stories. They are all so fleeting, lasting only the length of a song. But the gaps and crevices of music frees its listener to supply the colors and smells, and all of this world-creating has allowed me to know myself and my world so much better.

The sincerity of your poetry in tunes like "Right Moves" and "One More Mouth" (and nearly all of The Beast In Its Tracks) has given voice to the contours and shadows of love and friendship. So much of your art speaks in gracious tones to the joy and tragedy of love. For this, I am immensely grateful, and the details of my own failings in love bear witness to the depth of my gratitude.

I have used "Lantern" to teach students about life's great questions. I have prayed with "Thin Blue Flame," a song that elevated my mind and heart into ineffability. I have laughed with "Joy to You Baby." I have benefitted greatly from your thoughtful, self-effacing and excellent art.

Thank you.


[Here is the Spotify playlist for this post.]

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"Life Experience"

A rather innocuous PBS commercial for the network's online content got me thinking today. In the commercial, a teacher of social work says that she has many students who lived through Hurricane Katrina, and that these students possess "life experience" that requires that her material be "relevant." As a person who is currently undergoing the process of learning how to teach, I find the phrase "life experience" to be not only redundant and nearly meaningless but also quite dangerous for many college students.

One of the most shocking things that happens in my classroom is absolute silence. Even the brightest students will refuse to express an opinion on a topic, however interested they may be. They are seemingly very content with thinking absolutely nothing about any number of issues including race, poverty, gay marriage, and war. I work very hard to ask the right questions to get them to say anything one could construe as an actual opinion on these things.

I think this deafening silence--one of the cruelest of stabs in the pedagogical heart--is related to this "life experience" thing. "Life experience" (I've typed it three times now and it's like nails on a chalkboard in my internal monologue) means something like having gone through something tough, be it the challenges (and drudgery) of working a job for many years or the hardship and sufferings of a natural disaster or other calamity, personal or otherwise. The problem is that limiting "life experience" to this understanding--an understanding with which you can certainly argue but that I believe prevails not only on college campuses but in all kinds of business settings--is that it relieves privileged students of their responsibility as human beings to think about the world as a person who actually lives in it.

My fear is that most of my students assume that they do not have "life experience." What this blinds them to are the very cultural assumptions that they need to reflect upon in order to be critical thinkers. In a way, it exempts them from reflecting on their own "life experience," understood as simply being a human being who has a body and lives in the world. Their experiences may be banal, but they are experiences had during one's life, and they need to be recognized as formative. The danger is that students aren't able to see themselves as formed by dynamics of class, race, gender and more. They are able to float free, claiming a lack of "life experience" and succumbing to the silence of apathetic existence.

This is not a millennial problem. This is a cultural problem that runs deep in our collective anthropology. Before older folks go blaming those pesky kids for their apathy, they would do well to examine their categories for adulthood. We think we know what we mean by "real world" or "life experience." Perhaps we do. But perhaps that meaning is an insidious component of the deepest flaws in our view of what it means to be human.