Swamp Monster Betsy Devos: Nominee for Secretary of Education

Going to protest the possibility that Betsy Devos could become the Secretary of Education of this country tomorrow at BMCC in lower Manhattan. Watch her avoid responding substantively to any questions about equal protections for all students who have disabilities, who suffer bullying, who take out student loans, who are taken advantage of by for-profit career colleges.
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Here are some of the reasons why I’m demonstrating tomorrow:
  • Devos is a dominionist, which means she believes in Christian education and doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state
  • She is a billionaire whose family has funded anti-LGBTQ social actions in the South
  • She is pro-charter school, pro-privatization, pro-voucher (which Senator Hassan (D, NH) in the first video pushes Devos to say she will make available to students with disabilities, instead of signing away their rights to protections they have now), anti-public school and anti-protection at the federal level of fair and decent public education for American children
  • She still has not completed her ethics questionnaire and thus has dodged the proper vetting procedure needed to evaluate her fitness as the country’s lead figure in determining education policy
  • She has never worked in a public school as an educator or an administrator
  • Her work has signaled a desire to protect corporate profits over the needs of children of color, children with disabilities, children who are poor, children who are non-Christian, and other children whose civil rights have consistently been compromised and attacked historically
  • She clearly is unfamiliar with federal laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and debates about “growth” vs. “proficiency” (see the Franken video)
I love this last exchange in the first video:
Hassan: “I would urge you to become familiar, should you be nominated, with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, and I do have to say, I’m concerned that you seem so unfamiliar with it, and that you seem to support voucher schools that have not honored, you know, have made students sign away their rights to make sure that the law is enforced. That’s very troubling to me.”
Devos: “Senator, I assure you that I, if confirmed, I will be very sensitive to the needs of special needs students and the policies surrounding that.”
Hassan: “And with all due respect, it’s not about sensitivity, although that helps. It’s about being willing to enforce the law to make sure that my child and every child has the same access to public education, high-quality public education, and the reality is that the way that the voucher systems that you have supported work don’t always come out that way…”


Since I’ve started taking classes at the Graduate Center in 2014, I’ve consistently gone outside my department to swim — awkwardly — in new fields. I’ve taken classes in the areas of philosophy, sociology, and Hispanic-Luso Brazilian studies and am pulling from these fields as well as linguistics, social and critical theory, and others to construct the interdisciplinary theoretical lens I’m working with. It’s a daunting growth process in some ways, not least of which because I have a complex about my limitations (which are compounded by the cognitive overload of being a grad student), yet I’m finding increasingly that I can see no way back. How could it make sense that in education, we focus only on classroom-based practice? We must understand the importance of education policy in determining schooling priorities, which implies the study of history and political economy. Further, we have to look into the design of pedagogy (the practice of teaching and learning), which calls for an understanding of ontology and epistemology, dimensions of philosophy that deal with being and knowing and which are intrinsic to understanding how learning occurs and how learners and teachers participate in the learning process. And we can’t forget about learner identity, which is inherently sociological, philosophical, and even political in nature.

Am I making things too complicated? Probably. But I tell my students that the stratification of theory, empirical research, and practice — which Bourdieu,Freire and others have argued is inherently valueless — is an artificial division in the field of education, one that disempowers classroom teachers and renders academics disconnected. Why not pull together ideas that help us speak in many different idioms, many different repertoires? Why not learn the speech of the policy-makers, the theorists, the giant-killers, and the worker bees…because they and we are us all?


© Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Transculturation: a new culture of signs, new signs of culture

Cultural transformation and the movement of immigrants into, among, within, and across cultural repertoires is an idiom, un modismo, which requires a shift in thinking. Those of us whose realities are nested, in earlier contexts if not the current one, in mainstream thinking, being, and knowing must challenge our assumptions about what is truewhat is valid, and, in fact, what is, period. Ofelia García refers to Fernando Ortiz’s conceptualization of this disruption to cultural standards in Theorizing and Enacting Translanguaging for Social Justice as a process of transculturación, which she says “dissolves solid differences while creating new realities. We are not in the presence of a synthesis or even of a hybrid mixture. Rather, we are in a space that creates a new reality because not one part of the equation is seen as static or dominant, but rather operates within a dynamic network of cultural transformations.” While García’s discussion refers to the dynamic potential of translanguaging, a framework for theoretical and pedagogical change that prioritizes the voice of minoritzed language speakers in majority classrooms, the possibilities can be extended to many other spheres and intersects with different cultural practices. The “trans” mode of thinking serves to provide new ways of perceiving the education of immigrants; as people who have cultural ways of being and knowing that are pluripotential, iterative, dynamic, fluid, and anti-categorical (compared to American stock categories of race, ethnicity, ability, and even language use), they are different learners from those born and raised here. It could be argued, even, that disruption is less an act of political change and more of an uncovering, a challenging of fixed categories that perhaps never really describe any of us except to confer power to those who name, separate, and fix us into receiving postures.

Where else do we see transculturación, translanguaging, transculturing, and disruptions of meaning in spontaneous and heretofore unseen fashion? Many places, but one of my favorites is hip-hop as a dance form. I’m no expert, just enjoy watching the videos online. But considering how a hip-hop dancer becomes a spontaneous user of a cultural idiolectic by observing some traditions, dashing others, and creating new ones, there is a lot to be said for the new culture of signs, and new signs of culture, that occur in every dance. One of my recent favorites: Missy Elliott – WTF (Where They From) @_TriciaMiranda Choreography – Filmed by @TimMilgram I recommend watching all the way through, and again. 

Islamophobia and a call to action for ESL teachers

On the recommendation of a committed and insightful professor at the Graduate Center of City University of New York, where I am now in my second year of study, I am resuming my blog. Thank you, Steve Brier!

This came from the NY Times the other day, regarding the Islamophobia that many Muslims across the country are facing now as a result of GOP candidates’ racist commentaries and xenophobic reactions by other Americans across the country to the tragedy in San Bernardino (also see http://www.ibtimes.com/what-cair-muslim-civil-rights-group-…):

“Muslim Americans are now confronting the fact that to many Americans, Mr. Farook [one of the shooters in the San Bernardino massacre] and other terrorists do represent Islam — especially since polls show that most Americans know no Muslims and little about Islam.”

You know who among Americans have had personal relationships with Muslims, native-born and visitors alike? ESL TEACHERS, especially those of us who have taught in non-profit education. This is something to consider when we hear people make ignorant comments about Muslims by people WHO HAVE NEVER MET A MUSLIM.

How can we contribute to this conversation? How can we add a pacifist, yet activist response to the anti-immigrant, nativist vitriol that once again comes into our civic space? Remember that Muslims are not the first religious group to face persecution and invisible-ization in this country; anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic movements are not that far in our country’s past.

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk


Reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk was, for me, a delight. After recently encountering various works of political economy by Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and Mill, the beauty and power of Du Bois’ masterpiece, at once a philosophy and a treatise on the rights and needs of America’s freedpeople in the decades following the Civil War, held me in thrall.

Du Bois, the first Black man to graduate with a PhD from Harvard University, became an intellectual leader widely known throughout the United States starting in the late 1800s, a time dominated by waves of education reform which attempted to respond to “the Negro problem” – a general term used to address the poverty, inequity, and political uncertainty of newly freed former slaves – which was, he argued, deepened by post-war government apparatuses such as the Freedpeople’s Bureau, Sumner’s Bill, and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. Problematic to the freedpeople’s self-view, Du Bois averred, was the concept of “double-consciousness” (9), the objectification of one’s own self through the subject position of another, the duality of being both Black and American. (I pause to reflect on this process of self-objectification of Black Americans through the dominant White American gaze, which seems to have reached a new level in modern social media outlets that trivialize and reduce the lived experience of 45 million people to a consumable product.)

Du Bois describes the recursive, complicated processes of establishing schooling in the post-Civil War South, lauding the central though complicated success of the Freedmen’s Bureau in establishing free schools for Southern Blacks along with elementary education for all Southerners (29). What was intrinsic still to the American mentality, according to Du Bois, was an inevitable contradiction: that freedpeople were officially emancipated by decree, given the right to education and the right to vote, and yet these concessions were limited by social, economic, and political realities. Du Bois critiques Booker T. Washington, whose prioritization of industrial education over social and political equality (given through voting rights, the ability to own property, and access to higher education) distinguished the two thinkers in the new millennium. Washington’s unwritten “Atlanta Compromise” united radical and conservative groups together under what Du Bois observed as the burgeoning national prioritization of economic growth, especially in terms of education. These were times which foreshadow our more modern concept of human capital, i.e., seeing human beings as generators of value for the economy; a Northern philanthropist in the late 19th century, William J. Baldwin (as cited in Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South), stated:

In the Negro is the opportunity of the South. Time has proven that he is best fitted to perform the heavy labor in the Southern States. ‘The Negro and the mule is the only combination, so far, to grow cotton.’ (82)

Du Bois, rather than accepting the sacrifice of political and civic rights for young Blacks, asked whether economic progress was actually possible under such marginalizing political conditions (42).

I referred to certain Western political philosophers in the beginning of this post because I believe that Du Bois’ intellectual views, reflective of Enlightenment thinking about the cultivation of the mind, seem at times curiously at odds with his social philosophy. A clearly powerful writer, he uses allegories from Greek myth to describe the growing American obsession with profit and argues convincingly for the need for Black schools as sites of intellectual cultivation. Yet I struggled with a subtext also included in parts of his commentary: that of “the rule of inequality:– that of the million black youth, some were fitted to know and some to dig.” (62) He saw himself as a member of the “Talented Tenth” (78), an intellectual class of Black men who had graduated from college; though he advocated a liberal education to develop men, not just workers, among all classes, he also seemed to support hierarchical vision of labor premised on a naturalistic view of inborn intelligence (which from the post-modern/social contructivist perspective can be difficult to swallow). For me this resonated with a comment made by Dabny (again in Anderson) about the education of Blacks: “Nothing is more ridiculous than the programme of the good religious people from the North who insist upon teaching Latin, Greek, and philosophy to the negro boys who come to their schools.” (Anderson, 85) I suppose I struggle in general with the notion that certain people should receive an education of higher ideals or knowledge and others a lower one, divided by future work and social class, a reality documented by Jean Anyon in “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work” (seehttp://www.jeananyon.org/docs/anyon-1980.pdf).

Nonetheless, Du Bois’ passionate commitment to the improvement of American life for his people was clear. Irrespective of whatever intellectual or even geographically-derived biases he might have had, he was convinced that Southern Blacks, free under law but unequal as “inferior” and “ignorant” wards of the State, needed more than basic industrial training to begin to move beyond the initial promise of the Emancipation Proclamation. The teachers and schools of the freedpeople, thus, needed to be grounded in learning in well-developed institutions of higher learning – “by founding the common school on the university, and the industrial school on the common school” (66) – in order that the potential for civilization, growth, and enlightenment could one day heal the American nation and its varied inhabitants.

The savage is back

Happy 2015! I haven’t gone the way of the dodo/post-inspired blogger who realizes how much she’d rather stay in bed/stay out/stay away from the keyboard than write her daily post like she damn well said she would. I did take two weeks off at Christmas, during which time I was sick and then disconnected from the Internet…and here I am again.


Last week I wrote my hardest to produce what is no doubt a blindingly mediocre political philosophy paper for my hardest and most stimulating course this fall at CUNY. In spite of my self-deprecation, I learned quite a lot in the process…

The Abstracted, Subordinated, and Uncultivated Savage as Rhetorical Device and Justification in the Work of Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and Mill

Since ancient times, philosophers have struggled to find answers for both the current and universal questions asked since the waking of man to his capacity for intellectualization. Such questions explore the nature of the universe and humankind’s place in it, the existence of a Supreme Being, the possibility of free will versus fate, the definitions and limitations of morality, the nature of happiness, and so on. An important philosophical question of similarly broad implications is that of the relationship between the individual and the State, which has been of particular important in Dr. Uday Mehta’s class this fall at the Graduate Center at City University of New York; reading the works of Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and Mill requires one to explore such challenging territory through the lens of each thinker and to absorb his particular ways of establishing what is generally “true” within his social and historical context vis-à-vis political life within the nation where he lived as well the geopolitically complicated context within which his nation was situated. So it is no doubt true today with modern public intellectuals.

The following may be asked in attempting to articulate how the individual exists as a member of the body politic: What constitutes a “citizen”? He[1] who is recognizable, he who acts according to the values, principles, and laws of the land, he who contributes meaningfully to the body politic. Seemingly simple, the counter-question might be posed: Who and what remains to be legitimized outside this body politic, and how? Each of the four writers makes use of a rhetorical device, the conception of the savage – a category forged in contrast to the norms of the times in which he wrote – in a subtle, powerful response to this question and to questions of moral rightness, education, equality, liberty, and progress, among others. The savage in the works of Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and Mill is used rhetorically to persuade others of the verity of his work, an entity characterized as: 1) idealized, abstracted from reality in order to offer a contrast to dominant modes of thinking and being; 2) inferior vis-à-vis these dominant modes of existence; and 3) having the possibility to be made useful and/or converted into a more useful state for accommodation/assimilation into the dominant paradigm. Such an articulation implies power relationships and historical context in which this definition has particular meaning, ranging from Hobbes’ anxieties about man’s potential for self-destruction in the State of Nature to John Stuart Mill’s vision of the savage as a subject in consequence of European imperialist expansionism. It could further be argued that the development for some of the justification of paternalistic and expansionist policies vis-à-vis the conquering of peoples and lands and the colonized territories that resulted was rooted in Hobbes work in the 1600s, progressing into a sort of logical philosophical ethic by the time of John Stuart Mill.

Hobbes’ Leviathan, written in the mid-17th century during the Civil War in England, is generally understood to be a response to the anxieties he felt at a time of great political instability. In writing a work which employed Euclidean logic – an approach which Hobbes believed would provide the incontrovertible structure required for the sort of philosophical work he was undertaking, rather than follow earlier modes of thought in philosophy which argued that on the basis of Divine Righteousness or on history and civil discourse which were considered inscrutable in their elaboration of new territories of thought (Mehta, Class Lecture on 9/2, 2014) – Hobbes undertook in Leviathan the resolution of a most profound question in social existence of its time, namely, by what means can man exist in contact with others and yet avoid the “violent and painful death” that would result from remaining in the State of Nature, a death that Hobbes clearly dreaded. (Hobbes, 1651, p. 110)

In entering into the social contract — a mutually agreed-upon shared existence in which all participants are bound to the rules of the contract in order to benefit from the protections it generates – Hobbes argued that man sacrifices his natural freedom to acquire the protection afforded by the Commonwealth (the Leviathan), as his main motivation of self-protection superseded all other desires, including those Passions which drive men to act in ways or to make judgments which may be contrary to this motivation for safety. (pp. 30-31) The absolute and unified power of the sovereign as the soul of the Leviathan provided this protection; thus, Hobbes’ work constituted a defense of monarchy through what Sanford Lakoff termed “an equality of domination” (Lakoff, 1964), an idea which created political tensions for him at a time when the notions of royalty and absolute power were being challenged. According to Hobbes, “[t]he attaining to this sovereign power is by two ways. One, by natural force: as when a man maketh his children to submit themselves, and their children, to his government, as being able to destroy them if they refuse; or by war subdueth his enemies to his will, giving them their lives on that condition.” (p. 152) The relating of power to the subject-as-child is significant, and this allegory finds echoes in later works by philosophers and political thinkers justifying imperial expansionism and the treatment of native peoples.

Hobbes in fact directly references the savage peoples of America – whose existence had been discovered in the century preceding his work through the explorations of John Cabot and others who wrote travel journals and accounts to provide much of what was considered common knowledge about native Americans – and cautions the reader of what may occur when men are left to exist in the State of Nature:

“For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small families, the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust, have no government at all, and live at this day in that brutish manner…” (Hobbes, 1651, p. 111)

Avoidance of the “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (p. 110) existence of a man living in the State of Nature was primary to securing a stable social existence in Hobbes’ view; Hobbes employed the allegory of the American native, a savage who, without the protection of a centralized, unified government, Hobbes argued, remained subject to the caprice of the innate Passions of all men. (p. 58, 119) This position, Hobbes argued, was one of perpetual vulnerability and existential uncertainty, leaving man with a simple decision: to accept the social contract and sacrifice one’s freedom, in the form of obedience to the dictates of a unified, absolute authority (a sovereign taking the form of an authoritarian monarch), for protection from an uncertain and potentially bellicose existence like the one experienced by the savages abroad, an abstraction based on travel logs and accounts from returned voyagers but powerful in its exoticism and seeming opposition to civilized society. (p. 195) Not only a cautionary tale as to the fate of civilized man if he chose not to submit to the conditions of the Leviathan, it might also be argued that underlying Hobbes’ argumentation lay a cultural superiority vis-à-vis the less developed savage and his form of existence. Indeed, later in the text, Hobbes refers deprecatingly to native Americans as “savages” and “idolaters,” describing their less developed understandings in areas of construction (p. 299), philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge (pp. 603-604), and religion (p. 621) in contrast to those of the British; he also uses the term “brute beast” in discussing the limitations natural beings (perhaps including native peoples) would have in entering into the sort of covenant he proposes:

“To make covenants with brute beasts is impossible, because not understanding our speech, they understand not, nor accept of any translation of right, nor can translate any right to another: and without mutual acceptation, there is no covenant.” (Hobbes, 1651, p. 120)

Such a commentary likely reflects the Eurocentric thinking of the times about the contrast between citizens of European powers and the savage peoples they found in their imperialistic explorations, a perception which would set the stage for future visions of discovered savage life as unequal and in need of conversion into useful forms in order to be accepted.

An important parallel thread which reflects first a literal meaning and then a metaphorical one vis-à-vis the savage in Hobbes’ Leviathan is his consistent mention of children as individuals requiring guidance and custodial protection. This might be seen as an obvious statement irrespective of the times in which it is written, but Hobbes’ wording is important as it outlines the ways in which children are “ignorant” of the rule of law due to their undeveloped rationality, a viewpoint to be echoed by Locke and Hegel later:

[C]hildren, fools, and madmen that have no use of reason may be personated by guardians, or curators…” (Hobbes, 1651, p. 143)

For the uneducated, undeveloped, uncultivated mind – that of “children, fools, and madmen” – reason is useless, a fact which requires the subordination of these individuals to the custodial protection of a guardian. As reason is the means by which man is able to define his own salvation from the State of Nature (by choosing to exist within the social contract of the Commonwealth), those who do not possess and/or cannot employ this faculty must remain the ward of a guardian. This form of power over one’s children is named “paternal” by Hobbes, a dynamic which he deems “the right of dominion by generation” (p. 176), heralding later descriptions of imperial power and their presumed custodianship over their colonies. In fact, Hobbes’ following claim might be said to act as a harbinger of such a vision:

“The procreation or children of a Commonwealth are those we call plantations, or colonies; which are numbers of men sent out from the Commonwealth, under a conductor or governor, to inhabit a foreign country, either formerly void of inhabitants, or made void then by war…[T]he right of colonies, saving honour and league with their metropolis, dependeth wholly on their license, or letters, by which their sovereign authorized them to plant.” (Hobbes, 1651, p. 224)

Thus the lands conquered by an imperial power – and their residents – are like “children” according to the Hobbesian view of colonization; in order to expand, to develop beyond one’s own limits, one must continue to generate and cultivate new territories from untilled, “uncivilized” lands which await the reason and guidance of an occupying power such as Hobbes’ Britain in the 1600s. While children – or those existences for which the metaphor of “child” stood – were not explicitly called savage by Hobbes, the differentiation between the child and the parent, likewise the colony and the imperial power, was based on characterizations that places the former of each pair into a position of inferiority, of awaiting the process of being educated/cultivated in order to be transformed into participants/territories useful to the larger community (empire).

As in the work of Hobbes, the savage factors as an effective rhetorical device undergirding the development of the political philosophy of Locke. Writing during the latter part of the 17th century, in a time when imperialistic expansion was well underway not only in connecting Europe to new economic and geopolitical opportunities but also in creating new dialectics of “civilized” vs. “native” life, Locke’s work, including Second Treatise of Government (1689) championed freedom, equality, and property, concepts that would be reappropriated almost 100 years later by Thomas Jefferson in crafting the Declaration of Independence for the establishment of the United States as a nation free from the imperial control of England (though Jefferson famously changed out the principle of property for that of “happiness”). Locke controverted the support of a monarchy advocated by both Hobbes and Locke’s contemporary, Robert Filmer, arguing instead for a limited government rather than an absolute one, and established that the people use their rationality to legitimate those in power – through the democratic relationship between the citizens and the government – and to establish a set of laws which would provide the means to and the convenience of a safe and stable society. Through the human capacity for reason, Locke averred in Second Treatise of Government, did men “join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives” (p. 66) as well as preservation of their private property; this notion of property was particularly important to Locke, who stated that “the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men” and further, that this common possession may be transformed into private property through one’s labor. (pp. 19-20)

Locke described what he saw as categorical power relations in human society, including those taking place within the family, in professional activities, and in political life, a move which established him as one of the forefathers of what is now known as modern sociology (Mehta, Class Lecture on 10/8, 2014); in particular, Locke contrasts the political relationship typified by “the power of the magistrate over a subject” to that of “a father over his children, a master over his servant, a husband over his wife, and a lord over his slave” (Locke, 1689, p. 7). Each of these power relationships illustrates a different form of political limitation necessary to its success within the framework of political society; for example, a father educates his child until such time as the child has developed his capacity for reason and can therefore participate in democratic society, while the husband in a “paterfamilia” is the master of his wife and children in order to act as a representative in greater society outside their household. (p. 71) In terms of the relationship between children and their parents with respect to education, it has in fact been suggested by modern thinkers that Locke’s envisioning of childrearing could be likened to the cultivation of the raw, natural mind of a child through “tutelage as a necessary stage” of their development without which they cannot enter into contractual agreement as members of the polity. (Mehta, 1999, p. 32)

In using the lens of the savage – an entity which is abstracted from its true nature, seen to be inferior, and made to be of use to the dominant paradigm – Locke also appears to establish in his philosophy a proto-political relationship between man and his natural environment as well, what modern non-Western thinkers like Russell Means (Means, 1980) might characterize as a hopelessly Western view of Nature as a source of sustenance, opportunity, and growth for expanding civilizations. In Second Treatise of Government, little direct allusion is made to other peoples as savages; rather, Locke alludes to “wastefulness” and utilizes the prospect of the taking of virgin lands in territorial acquisition and the subsequent creation of productive colonies and lands in order to “improve the common stock of mankind” (p. 23), thus contributing to a means to peaceful human civilization (p. 25), illustrating Locke’s paternalistic vision of the acquisition of lands to be used in the service of the population of men in the acquiring, “rational” nation. Locke’s reasoning is that property (“estate”) is one of the natural rights of man, along with life and liberty; taken through the lens, it is not the outsider-as-man but the outsider-as-virgin-territory in which Nature is savage, to be subjected to the moral imperative of the acquisition and conversion of territory into property:

“[I]n the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America, left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniencies of life, as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire, where they are well cultivated?” (Locke, 1689, p. 24)

It is not coincidence that this paternalistic, expansionist view leads to the support of colonial acquisition, which Locke supports, stating that “the increase of lands, and the right employing of them, is the great art of government” (p. 27).

Any a priori claim to such lands by their inhabitants remains a question mark in Locke’s work, though it could be construed that because these foreign peoples did not employ the Western form of reason that Locke so prized as a means to freedom and peaceful social and political existence, they would require the care of a paternal European power to guide them. Ironically but perhaps not oxymoronically, another form of savage contained in the worldview of Locke’s philosophy of natural rights is attributed a form of nobility while his lands are critiqued as relatively unproductive. The archetypal “noble savage,” to Locke and his contemporaries, provided a model for a form of political coexistence that contrasted Europe’s tradition of monarchical government undergirded by Adamic law, as “American Indian societies were working democracies that drew the attention, and often the admiration, of Europeans from the time of the first contacts” (Grinde, Jr., 1990); these models surely played a part in Locke’s envisioning of harmonious communal existence both on the Continent and in the colonies of the New World:

“[W]e must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.” (Locke, 1689, p. 8)

The savage appears to be the source of the origins of mankind whose shared social existence is one of the freedom to which each individual is born. It is through the formation of government – the conversion of this savage social organization into a mutually agreed-upon contractual political system – that the “inconvenience” of living in the natural state is removed (Mehta, Class Lecture on 10/8, 2014). The existence of American Indians in a body politic founded on mutual decision-making could represent a clear example of what might be possible when the older European model of absolutist government, which could incur abuse of the rights of their subjects like those of Europe, was rejected; in contrast, “[t]ribesmen in North America seemed to be free of such abuses.” (Grinde, Jr., 1990)

The word “seemed” in the above quote is not a coincidence; the author chose well to use a less affirmative word in the sentence as it implies, too, the distance with which European thinkers like Locke viewed native American life. The process of idealization is important to the image of the savage in modern political philosophy as doing so strips it of any concrete, local examples, making it both incontrovertible and universally applicable (and, thus, particularly effective in philosophical discourse). However, while Hobbes’ allegorical characterization of the savage brought validity to his claim that life under an absolute and unified authority was preferable to the life of the native inhabitants of America, Locke derived the essence for his political philosophy through an envisioning of conversion, of adoption for use, even perhaps of subordination of that which is natural, savage, to the forms and ends of freedom in Western colonizing powers.

It bears mentioning that Locke’s idealized vision of freedom for all men was aided by the inaccessibility of first-hand and objective evidence[2] as to the way colonies were managed by occupying powers, thus permitting an application of his ideas of freedom and equality of all men that acted to serve the mission of the conquering imperialistic forces in their colonial territories. According to Uday Mehta:

“[F]rom the seventeenth century onward, the British, the Dutch, and the French rightly conceived of themselves as having elaborated and integrated into their societies an understanding of political freedom, and yet during this very period they pursued and held vast empires where such freedoms were either absent or severely attenuated for the majority of the native inhabitants.” (Mehta, 1999, p. 7)

This seems to indicate the tragic flaw in much of philosophy: that a formalism such as the notion that all men should be equal and self-governing in the eyes of the law – a generally liberalist view – becomes a substantively different version of itself depending on where and when it is applied. (Lakoff, p. 6) Mehta goes on to suggest that while this may appear a form of hypocrisy, the reality is that the conflict between the view that all men are born equal – an a priori political vision of humanity – and the relative value placed on the worldviews and ways of being of the various constituents of an empire (Anglo-Saxon versus Indian or Native American) – a sociohistorical and geopolitical position – is nonetheless accommodated by Locke and others after him. According to Mehta, “[Locke’s] ideas were no longer the vehicle for making people equal, because here they were assumed to have been born equal.” (pp. 10-11) While problematic and of course establishing a justification for the abuse and exploitation of native inhabitants of occupied territories during the colonial era, Locke’s writings inspired much of the foundational text of the new nation of the United States of America nearly 100 years after he proposed such radical thinking, text which persists even into what might be described as America’s move into a decidedly neoliberal version of itself in the last 40 years.

Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel’s seminal work Philosophy of Right (1820) articulated a vision of society where individuals pursue particular interests, in turn willing the good of mankind as the primary universal human desire for freedom, mediated through the existence of a State which supports the actualization of this desire. Hegel believed strongly that at the sociohistorical time of his writing, mankind had been progressing towards this realization of the desire to be free, a fact which finally became possible in Prussia (his home country) in the early 19th century; the collective self-consciousness of humankind, engaged through the “intrinsic rationality of the state” and its institutions (Hegel, pp. 202-203), indicated a reflective ethical order necessary for the fulfillment of its political destiny. Notwithstanding the fact that Hegel held as a core value of actualized human existence the desire for freedom, he did not agree with Locke that man is born free. Hegel instead asserted that the priority and definition of freedom as a universal had developed over time through various sociohistorical moments localized in certain places in the world (Hegel, pp. 201-202); this was achieved, according to Hegel, as the universal Spirit thrust man toward his destiny, motivating him to develop over time the power to ratiocinate and, consequently, achieve awareness of the universal human objective of freedom.

Rationality is thus a key feature of Hegel’s writings and it is in his comments about reason and the rational mind of man that we find references to the abstraction of the savage. Hegel saw the State of Nature of the uneducated mind as a locus of savage existence, the starting point whence came the rational man, moving into self-consciousness of his quest to be free:

“[A] state of nature is a state of savagery and slavery. Freedom is nowhere to be found except in the return of spirit and thought to itself, a process by which it distinguishes itself from the natural and turns back upon it.” (Hegel, 1820, p. 162)

The rational man is not a slave, according to Hegel, though the savage state into which he is born is in fact inherent to his nature; likewise, the enslaved “natural” man is only liberated through the application of his own capacities, developed “through the education of his body and mind” via which “does he take possession of himself” as a subjective being. (Hegel, p. 65) The savage has moved from outside the political subject – as in the case of Hobbes and Locke – to within him.

Hegel argued that just as education was a means to becoming a rational being, it was through work that one is a rational contributor to society; in order to characterize this perspective, he invoked the contrast between the “barbarian” and the “civilized” man:

“The barbarian is lazy, and is distinguished from the civilized man by his brooding stupidity. Practical training consists in habitual employment and the need of it.” (Hegel, 1820, p. 163)

What can Hegel mean by “barbarian”? Is it someone who has not reached the level of rational ability that Hegel so champions in viewing human progress as a means to achieving its potential for freedom? The obvious question to follow up would be whether man could ever be civilized outside of Western Europe (if outside of Prussia at all). Wendy Hamblet (2008) might say in her discussion of Hegel’s view of African cultures that Hegel would be decidedly against this possibility, on the very basis of his arguing for the development of the reason of man through the conversion his savage and untilled intellect into the civilized, rational mind:

“In Hegel, the Cartesian cogito becomes governor of the world, and since every governor needs its subordinates, the Africans serve nicely as the primal point of reason’s initial moment of unfolding…they could be said to be ‘primitive,’ having no history, no culture, and no development.” (Hamblet, 2008, p. 139)

This issue becomes especially complicated when attending to the unavoidable preeminence of Western economic and military might derived in part from the possession of colonies. While Hegel avers that “[i]n modern times colonists have not been granted the rights possessed by the inhabitants of the parent country,” he still accepts this as a necessary evil of his times. (Hegel, pp. 190-191) He still, however, veils his judgments of the relative civility of men by establishing the priority of education and work, a perspective which cannot avoid implicating itself to an extent as an ethnocentric, paternalistic, and even classist view that puts Prussians at the top of the scale of the process of self-actualization and other, more “savage”/less cultivated peoples below them, as in the case of the Lazzaroni population in Italy. (Hegel, p. 188)

The paternalism of Locke and Hegel – justified at a profound, almost unconscious level by characterizations of the inferior, abstracted savage needing conversion into usefulness – extended into the 19th century in the work of John Stuart Mill, though like his predecessors, Mill was powerfully committed to notions of self-governance and/or the limitation of government, equality, and the freedom to define one’s existence according to one’s will. Mill, a British writer in the 19th century famous for continuing Locke’s prioritization of the limitation of government (also known as liberalism) and for developing, along with Jeremy Bentham and others, the concept of utilitarianism, conceived of a philosophy based on the idea that the pursuit of happiness constitutes a foundation for moral existence. The determiner of the value of a particular action, according to Mill, is its utility, what some call its “the greatest aggregate good”; when an action promotes happiness (goodness) for the greatest number of people, it is considered a better, more moral act than something which produces less happiness or happiness for a smaller number of people. (Mill, 1861, p. 5)

Mill appeared to step forward to clarify the position of ethnocentric judgment of the undeveloped intellects of savage peoples in other countries and their need for saving from their “natural,” inchoate state that Hegel seemed to espouse; Mill argued that he was “not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilized.” (Mill, 1859, p. 109) Yet Mill, in a seeming contradiction, also makes it clear that there is a hierarchy of civilization via the intellectual superiority of citizens of civilized countries (Mill, 1861, p. 10) in contrast to those who come from places less “developed”; further, he goes so far as to suggest that despotic rule over “barbarians” insofar as they can benefit from such governance (a judgment made, of course, by the ruling power), which would seem an illustration of the claim of utility in questioning the morality of particular actions:

“Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.” (Mill, 1859, p. 14)

This consequentialist argument obviously contains problems, to be articulated by post-colonialist scholars such as Uday Mehta and others; Mill in fact leaves the door open for broad and potentially dangerous interpretations of his writing in making statements like the one above or in his claim that all people deserve to be treated equally except in the case of “social expediency.” (Mill, 1859, p. 32) Such a broad statement might well have found concrete examples of the need for differential treatment based on “social expediency” in the case of colonial subjects in occupied territories such as India; the obvious paternalism implied by such a posture which refers to the people living in “less developed” parts of the world seeks to abstract the native occupants of the colonies into pre-converted, “barbaric” territory. According to Uday Mehta:

“[F]ollowing Locke, there was a broad consensus that linked the exercise of political power with the rights of citizens, and yet the existence of the empire meant that British power was overwhelmingly exercised over subjects rather than citizens…by the mid-nineteenth century among radicals and liberals, the conditions for good government had been recognized as intimately linked with the conditions of self-government, and yet in someone like John Stuart Mill, who most forcefully articulated this argument, it applied only to the Anglo-Saxon parts of the empire.” (Mehta, 1999, p. 7)

The sum of a nation’s political subjects equated philosophically to one body and yet was split into a separate group based on geography, racial distinctions (according to Mehta and others), as well as modes of existence that didn’t fit categorically with British definitions of progress and civilization. It was not, of course, that the savage in this view was irrelevant or rejected; on the contrary, he was to be protected, made a subject of the occupying power while adopting the values espoused by this power’s leading intellectuals, all for the greater common good.

Mill even went so far as to argue that the subordination of the colonial subject to the power of invading forces (like, perhaps, the British in South Asia or the Spanish in Central and South America) was an event which expressed much about the capacities of the vanquished to embrace the more civilized form of self-rule that the British supported. He wrote:

“[L]et them be left without a government, every body of Americans is able to improvise one, and to carry on that or any other public business with a sufficient amount of intelligence, order and decision. This is what every free people ought to be: and a people capable of this is certain to be free; it will never let itself be enslaved by any man or body of men because these are able to seize and pull the reins of the central administration.” (Mill, 1859, p. 133)

Could it be that Mill was attempting to show that because the native peoples of America, of India, of parts of Africa, of other occupied/colonized territories conquered by the British, they were incapable of “intelligence, order and decision,” let alone freedom and self-governance? If resistance to a foreign invader (in the form of an imperial power, for example) proved impossible, their inequality and need for governance by this invader might according to Mill be justified, a perception that again defended the paternalist vision of British expansionism.

This rather complicated and problematic posture would be impossible to support without making clear that the overriding imperative of imperial expansionism paired with cultural superiority to establish a vision of the savage as an abstract entity in need of saving, of inferiority desperate to find a means to the “progress” – meaning, in some respects, cultural assimilation and even indoctrination – raised as a banner under which colonizers flew to expand ever outwards into new and undeveloped territories. Uday Mehta moves to articulate this ethos of progress that undergirded Western imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries and its articulation of the uncivilized native as subject to its claims:

“I believe that liberals…view the stranger merely as the embodiment of an abstract type that is then judged, reformed, and often assessed as moribund in his extant situation; all this, by reference to another set of abstract ideals of rationality, individuality, the morally sanguine, the imperatives of politics, and most generally, to the requirements of progress.” (Mehta, 1999, p. 25)

Mehta goes on to suggest that such liberalist thinking denies the colonial subject the validity of what Oakeshott deemed “modes of experience” (as cited in Mehta, 1999, p. 25) let alone his option for self-definition under the occupying aegis of the empire, and maintains his position as an abstraction belonging to the category of “uncivilized” and savage, inferior, culturally and intellectually lost without the intervention of the imperialist rescuer, whose coming brings conversions and subversions into strangled forms of being under the auspices of European progress.

In the syllabus for Modern Political Thought at City University of New York as taught by Dr. Uday Mehta in the fall of 2014, the following question is asked: “Does the organizing of political life do violence to other conceptions of human potentiality and social order?” (Mehta, Course Syllabus for “Modern Classics in Political Philosophy”, 2014) Through the creation of the abstraction, the allegory, the rhetorical device, and the colonial subject embodied in the savage in the work of Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and Mill, the response to this question appears to be a decided “yes.” Before liberalism took hold as a dominant political philosophy, Hobbes employed the image of the childlike savage in Leviathan as a warning to those who did not heed his admonitions to adhere to a monarchical sociopolitical structure; while his ideas did not create the direct opportunity for justification of violence and oppression, it would not be long after his writings were known that the seeds he sowed would begin to grow. Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, published decades later and inspirational to new democracies like the United States of America, revisited the notion of the savage as unexplored, virgin territory to be developed for use, “child-as-future-citizen” awaiting intellectual cultivation through the guiding hand of the guardian, and the “noble savage,” an idealization which he attributed to native Americans and yet appeared to tolerate the exploitation of occupants of colonized territories so long as the idea that all men were born free could be maintained, either through the distinction between the political and the sociocultural or through the mystification of distant lands. Hegel moved the discourse of political philosophy to the internal, arguing that the cultivation of the savagery of the mind was the means of liberating man, a perspective that would honor well-educated citizens in his native England and depict as “barbarian” those living outside of the Continent in a more “primitive” point in history, a history based of course on the support of Western progress and expansion. Lastly, Mill’s liberal consequentialism supported the expansionist imperative of imperial powers reaching their zenith implicitly by turning a blind, ethnocentric eye to the unequal distribution of rights and the pejorative vision of life in India and other colonies under the British flag as “barbaric” and subordinated to the utilitarian view that the machine of growth stemming from Europe would benefit all of her subjects in time. It would be warned by David Hume in the 18th century that “though free governments have been commonly the most happy for those who partake of their freedom; yet are they the most ruinous and oppressive to their provinces” (Hume, 1752); through the conception of the savage – as abstraction and representation of barbaric, uncivilized life, as inferior to the central and occupying power, as territory, both proverbial and literal, to be cultivated – this commentary leaves the reader of modern political philosophers of the highest caliber and fame with an important supplementary text.

Works Cited

Grinde, Jr., D. A. (1990). Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy. Retrieved December 1, 2014, from The Six Nations: Oldest Living Participatory Democracy on Earth: http://www.ratical.org/many_worlds/6Nations/EoL/chp4.html

Hamblet, W. (2008). Savage Constructions: The Myth of African Savagery. Retrieved December 29, 2014, from http://books.google.com/books/about/Savage_Constructions.html?id=tfdfn28ezWYC

Hegel, G. (1820). Philosophy of Right. Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books.

Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan. Retrieved September 1, 2014, from Renaissance Editions (University of Oregon): http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~rbear/hobbes/leviathan.html

Hume, D. (1752). Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary. Retrieved December 14, 2014, from The Gutenberg Project: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/36120/36120-h/36120-h.htm

Lakoff, S. (1964). Equality in Political Philosophy. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Locke, J. (1689). Second Treatise of Government. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

Means, R. (1980). “For America to Live, Europe Must Die”. Retrieved October 12, 2014, from Black Hawk Productions: http://www.blackhawkproductions.com/russelmeans.html

Mehta, U. (1999). Liberalism and Empire: A Study in 19th Century British Liberal Thought. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Mehta, U. (2014, October 29). Class Lecture on 10/29.

Mehta, U. (2014, October 8). Class Lecture on 10/8.

Mehta, U. (2014, September 2). Class Lecture on 9/2.

Mehta, U. (2014, Fall). Course Syllabus for “Modern Classics in Political Philosophy”.

Mill, J. S. (1859). On Liberty. Retrieved November 15, 2014, from A Publication of Penn State’s Electronic Classics Series: http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/jsmill/liberty.pdf

Mill, J. S. (1861). Utilitarianism. Retrieved November 15, 2014, from Early Modern Texts: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdfs/mill1863_1.pdf

End Notes

[1] The author of this paper submits an apology for what seems like an overuse of the masculine pronoun as a gloss for the citizenry – who were of course adult, male, and European – these writers described as political participants as they penned their philosophies.

[2] This claim to objectivity, of course, is one that progressive academics argue is impossible to substantiate in the process of observation of one people by another in, for example, anthropological or ethnographic research.

You know you want one more GIF of weird dancing…


Intelligence, emotional or otherwise

In common discourse we separate the emotional from the intellectual, as in, “He’s brilliant, but he can’t have a regular conversation (the “lonely genius” syndrome, so to speak). A dichotomy was introduced with “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ” written by Daniel Goleman, in which the term “EQ” was coined, reassuring millions of people in the world that they, too, had a form of intelligence that had value, even if it didn’t mean book learning or school success. From this distinction – which incidentally was inspired by Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory – have emerged discussions about marital compatibility, daily meditations, writings on disability, and workplace communication, among others.

Like MI theory, the EQ theory is problematic for me. (Vis-à-vis Gardner’s work, I have posted one of my papers from my Applied Linguistics MA program entitled “Analysis and Critique of the Multiple Intelligences Theory as a Pedagogical Approach and Educational Method” on this blog for further explanation.) I take issue with the fact that, as in so much of academic thinking, the attractiveness of creating clear boxes for certain components of human existence prevents a conceptualization of what I believe is a much more fluid and dynamic relationship between human feelings and human thinking. While Aristotelian in origin, the process of categorization severely limits both individual interpretation and appropriation of an idea, as well as the possibility for mutuality; though we could say that categories like “cat” and “dog” are conventionally agreed upon based on physical evidence, how do we make such clear distinctions about cognitive and socioaffective changes in the brain, especially as one person’s ways of making meaning and creating society with others differs from her neighbor?


I think there is common ground between the intellectual and emotional life we all have within us, in no small part because both involve a primary imperative in being human: our need to be seen, to be validated. When we are understood, and understand each others – by whatever emotional or intellectual means necessary – we build social connections, relationships with people that lay the ground work for future intimacy and safety in our constantly changing environment. And if I discuss my feelings, I am still using cognitive processes that include language, memory, engagement with one’s theories about the world, etc.; likewise, if I speak with another person about the philosophy of John Locke, this creation of human connection, of kinship, however temporary, is an emotional bridge that crosses the gulf between us and reassures me that I exist.

Both “intelligences,” if we can even call them that, may be strategic, used to create or change social environments, and both may differ not only from person to person but from situation to situation (recall, if you will, a time when you spoke with intelligence or sensitive insight when comfortable; in contrast, you’ll also remember a time of stuttering or speaking wrongly in less reassuring company). Such a few, I guess, makes me a socioculturalist. At best, one might be able develop certain skills that fall on either the more emotional or more intellectual end of the spectrum…but even there, I feel uncertain about making distinctions. In terms of how we interact socially, the two are very much inextricably woven into our ways of thinking and ways of being.

I suppose I’m challenging the social norms laid out for us to assume, like the belief that women are more intuitive and nurturing, and men are more analytical and logical. Such norms are culturally bounded and can change over time. The more we embrace such a possibility, the sooner we can allow ourselves a fuller range of experience as human beings that think and feel all at the same time.