This is not exactly the Bunny Colvin scene from The Wire I was looking for, but it will have to do for now. The scene that I was looking for is where Bunny discusses his impression of the Junior High School. Against the common impression that the kids are not learning, Bunny responds that the kids are learning just not in the way that the teachers imagine. The kids are learning lessons that are relevant to their world, to the world of hoppers and corners; they are learning how to negotiate the world of rules and authority, to get away with stuff, before breaking those rules have any real consequences. As Bunny makes clear, in the scene I am thinking of, as well as the scene above, the kids are always learning, but what they learn and how reflects previous lessons. Education always already begins before the school bell rings. The educator must be educated.
It is admittedly quite a leap from the inner city school depicted in The Wire to my experience at a state university. Despite that difference I found myself thinking of Bunny’s remarks this week. We are in the final weeks of classes, and the final philosopher we are reading in my “intro to political philosophy class” is Paolo Virno. This follows a semester of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Marx, Arendt, and others, all of which sets up Virno: a philosopher that I consider to be offering both an interesting summation of that history and an engaging take on the current conjuncture. Class went well. I reviewed Aristotle, Marx, and Arendt in order to set up Virno’s argument about contemporary labor and its connection with politics. I could tell that they were struggling however, especially with Virno’s idea of “intellect in general,” the diffuse intelligence underlying production.
After the class I had a bunch of students who wanted to talk to me about their final essay. Some had actually questions, but others wanted extensions or wanted to figure out how to get through the essay with as little work as possible. It occurred to me that this is what many students learn in college: how to negotiate the bureaucracy, how to get by, how to brown nose a little, and how to navigate the structures around them. This lesson will probably serve them more than reading any “great mind.” For most students college is bureaucracy 101. This education, the education in how to follow rules, bend rules, and keep up appearances is perhaps what will best serve them as future employees. What I wonder is how they learned to learn this, I suppose that it is the lesson of all education.
The irony of it all is that the very students who were struggling with Virno’s concept of cynicism in theory demonstrated in practice that they understood it all too well.