The year was 1986. Kindergarten. A larval Fly on the Wall refused to sing or perform the actions of the classic kiddie tune “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” He was told to go sit in a chair in the corner. What a pretentious kid, or was he precocious? Maybe he was channelling his inner Reagan and sensed that the song originated in a 1937 Soviet musical. He felt like a lemming or a bison being herded over a cliff of conformity. Only years later did he realize that within every act of collective solidarity there lies the implications of joy, rambunctiousness, and uninhibited fun in addition to the potential for violence, both social and physical. Whenever congregation occurs the consequences are real for all who resist.
He’d seen firsthand the shame and embarrassment of the teacher handing out ‘birthday bumps’ to the kids as their number came up on the calendar. Asking, and receiving, in advance a reprieve from the discomfiture of bumps he realized that to every rule there is an exception. But when song time rolled around everyone participated; were but naptime so un-punctuated with rebellious acts! He noticed how music lent an air of brainwash to the classroom. And then there were the lyrics. Just consider how quickly being happy and clapping one’s hands is transformed, a few bars later, into the more dire demand that if you’re happy and you know it you must stomp your feet. Happy hands, jazz hands or otherwise, convey vastly differently emotional textures than does a foot stomp. Boots on the ground, that’s what the song demanded. And whenever the general will of a group of people are concerned, what Jean-Jacques Rousseau termed the volonte generale, there’s potential for mass hysteria, public lynchings and witch huntery. Or at least a sense of being a pariah for not participating.
Take May Day, or, to sort its origins, a cry for help in French: M’aider! In Medieval times spring was serious business for anyone seeking to grow dinner for another year. As such, the First of May had been a calendar festival celebrating the joys of spring for thousands of years. It began as a pagan celebration and survived cultural evolution by shifting its meaning and content. What bound May Day together over time was collective participation regardless of the specific means of production. The imperial Romans, for instance, held an annual five day celebration of floral emergence known as Floralia. And for early May the earthier Celts used the more guttural name of Beltane.
Key to this holiday everywhere came to be the symbolic May Pole, around which numerous coloured ribbons were wrapped as dancing participants circled the wagons of spring. One considers here the unity of multiplicity whereby many become one, and stronger. Bound together by their participation in the act of walking in circles, medieval people ennobled the Maypole as a rite of spring. Its origins remind one of a key symbol in Roman times: the fascii. This was a bundle of wooden rods that, lashed together with an axe affixed to one end, symbolized jurisprudence and authority and the just bearing of laws. The law of the many goes back, way back.
So one might say that wherever groups abide, no matter the occasion or general tenor of the proceedings, there’s the potential for fascist behavior if we consider that the rules of social engagement are what combine to form an event. Classrooms are ripe for this rampant growth of authoritarianism because, after all, no one wants to be picked on as a member of a performative minority group. Happily, AU minimizes these challenges: no classroom means no enforced conformity, although we do have to abide the rules of scholarship and grammar as well as demonstrating fidelity to the learning objectives of a course syllabus.
Yet overt discursive oppression is a small part of what can make brick and mortar colleges stultifying; social norms and values and their external and coercive essences often obscure perfectly noble themes and meanings. In short: where people abide textbooks and countervailing viewpoints are sometimes both silenced, or their words reduced to a mute, mouse-like murmur. When some truths seem unassailable or self-evident, and especially when such truths become clear because the teacher has spelled them out in dripping, sardonic tones, they tend toward not only law but gospel. Exasperation with educators preaching to the choir is a big reason why so many great minds take flight from school in the first place.
Fortunately, we at AU can tease out truth for ourselves from the course material on offer; our tutors guide us loosely and give us free rein to learn directly from the horse’s textual mouth. Freed from social pressures of classroom dynamics we can really sink our teeth into the material and draw our own conclusions. After all, we aren’t back in school as adults to brown nose, grade grub, or major in ass-kissing. The so-called real world has enough of that already! Nope, we’re here at AU to learn and above all to learn to think critically, creatively and dynamically. So next week let’s consider a modern incarnation of the pagan ritual of spring-adoration.