Midterms at the Midterms

Midterm exams are overhyped, stupid, and a mode of social control to remind students that they are in the “to be disciplined” category by a group of people (professors and such) that know more than them and will always know more than them. It’s such a waste of time.

Midterm elections are quite similar here in the U.S. where all my usually intelligent, critical, and thoughtful friends become hucksters of angry discipline, making fun of everyone who questions the need to vote, angrily shouting (if possible) across social media that voting confirms ones existence and is the only way to justify having any opinion on politics whatsoever. There’s even a number of people who believe that they are participating in the conversations that will steer the future of the country. I know, I know. You’ll just have to believe me when I tell you that they are normally very, very smart.

Moments of discipline are fantastic for reinforcing social control schemes under the rhetoric of “advancement,” “improvement,” or the more conservative modes of “duty,” “rights,” or “obligation as a citizen.” It’s funny that in any other given time of the year I would see posts about the absolute ridiculous ideologies held up by relations to the state and how those ideologies are best gone and forgotten. But not VOTING oh no. It’s the best thing ever. Ever I say.

Well enough about that. Herbert Marcuse has questioned such angry disciplinarity toward voting in a much more nuanced way than I ever could. And I’m sure you are tired of hearing me go on and on about how a simplistic, binary relationship to voting is exactly what the political establishment wants. All that money time and energy spent to give people a pittance of a selection of who will go to Washington or the State Capitol in their name and accept special interest money. What a waste.

Discipline is something that we teach more than anything else in formal education. Discipline, not creativity, not questioning, not curiosity - we complain that students don’t come to the classroom with these things and then we spend the whole time on 15 page writing guides that tell them how many points a misplaced comma will cost them.

In argumentation and speech we teach a discipline of tearing apart, something that Peter Elbow calls “the doubting game” in composition, but in rhetoric we teach the “cynicism game.” It’s the teaching that no set of proof will ever be enough to prove something, so tear it apart, the argument is meaningless.

I think the doubting game could be good if it were actually teaching doubt. What I mean is if it just hung out around the questions: How do you know? Where does that information come from? What’s the alternative?, etc. Instead we have to take these questions and militarize them toward the destruction of the argument in question.

Not accepting an argument doesn’t mean we have to destroy it. A moderate position is often the most critical and informative position that can be taken in politics. Being uncertain is a great way to approach most questions, but it also affords you the ability to see new possibilities. Instead of camping out on the destruction of the polar opposite of your view, you can pick up some of the other elements of the position and use them for other purposes.

Peter Elbow suggests in Writing without Teachers that we should teach a believing game to counter the most negative effects of the doubting game - namely, cynicism. I think this is the right move, but I prefer the uncertainty game, or the ambivalence game. In how many ways can we interrogate the position offered until we begin to feel the irresistible pull toward affirmation, negation, or a third way?

I think ripping ideas apart has chilled people’s desire to read new ideas, after all, they are probably all wrong. It has also chilled people’s creative urge to express themselves for fear they may be wrong (read: will be wrong). Without curiosity about what others are saying and the creative urge to assemble new texts, you cannot have a successful variant of any form of democracy. You have to generate texts upon texts, assess them, and create others. You have to be generating discourse, not just tearing it apart.

But we’d rather have the ease and familiar fear of discipline in our classrooms and hold those grades up high because then we won’t have to sit in a classroom on a warm afternoon at the end of the fall, silently stare at one another, and realize that we don’t know what we think we know. Maybe this is what it really looks like to be on the edge of Burke’s abyss?