by B.J. Delas Armas on 7/17/2005 08:26:00 PM 0 comments Print this post

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The Institutional Man Knows All

Shawshank Redemption. Morgan Freeman's character.

He said the word: institutionalize. In the context of describing what a life-time prisoner had become. The prisoner got used to living in the prison to the point of becoming dependent on it and not knowing anything outside in the "real" world. Institutionalized.

I'm afraid that's what I've become with regards to not prison, but school.

So for me it would be: the student got used to living in school to the point of becoming dependent on it and not knowing anything outside in the "real" world.

Unless you're browsing with Windows Explorer 3.1 on your Windows 95 Packard Bell with a 14.4 connection, you can see to the side of this blog blinking letters that reveal my school. U. . .C. . .L. . .A. UCLA. I spent a whole 3 days figuring out how to do that.

I have not only defined myself by my school but I am also assuming superiority over those who may not have had the chance to go to school. I'm supposed to be loud and proud of the institution I metriculate at, and I have been for the most part, but what am I really celebrating ?

Am I celebrating that I know more valued knowledge than other people ? That I go to the same school once inhabited by people who got popular for putting a ball into a hoop ? Am I celebrating that I'm going to get a good job ? Or am I learning a certain something here that I couldn't learn somewhere else ?

The last question is the one I would respond the most positively to, but while I'm learning different things, I'm still learning things in this institution called college in a certain way --- via writing.

College. School. Largely constructed by centuries of Europeanness and writing. A place valued by the government and military mainly because it produces the most valuable knowledge to the government and the military, and not necessarily intellectual or societal development (despite efforts from those within the departments to get students to do so). A place valued by the citizens because it enables it's consumers/the current college students (still low amongst ethnic, racial, and other kinds of minorities) to monopolize the high-end job markets and economic mobility. A place that emphasizes only one way of knowing things: through written tests, written essays --- writing stuff down. Writing.

Writing. I think it's rare outside of academia that people think of writing as something that has a history to it, mainly because writing has become so "natural" and almost second nature. All you need is paper and some kind of marking untensil. That's all over the place. All over my damn place.

Writing stuff does make sense for this place and age --- the info age with computers and a mass population.

But think about how it was with cultures that did not have writing. There was no writing in those environments and cultures probably because it wasn't needed in such an environment where people learned to survive for centuries maybe even millenia without writing. In other words, what's the point of rocking the boat by integrating writing into your culture if you're sailing smooth by just passing stories by word of mouth ? Think about it more: these are not big societies but rather small scale which are bound together by family lines. They don't move to Jersey for the purpose of avoiding their relatives or something white like that.

So anyway, in those societies without writing, I assume knowledge they could not write down was passed down orally. For example, the Hmongs from Laos, as described in the most awesome book ever: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, passed their knowledge down orally. The Hmong knew tons about surviving in their environments: what herbs have medicinal benefits, what are the poisons, the patterns of animal movement, stuff that no matter how many books they read, a western biologist or chemist would have trouble figuring out.

We in the West, particularly the United States of A, know stuff from reading books and articles about people, animals, astrophysics. B ut in those reading materials we still don't gain any intuitive knowledge of whatever it is were trying to learn. An intuitive knowledge in which they know it in their hands, their legs, their feet where they can basically feel their knowledge in every part of their bodies. We in America have been learning things by having things dictated to us, making metaphors, emphasizing the important points and patterns to notice being dictated to us by some middle-class white folks in class and in the books. Then as our form of learning we regurgitate what those important points and patterns were. It follows that in this society where we want people to "get to the point", we often forget context, the time and place and just about everything little detail, when we do something.

An example of that last point: you can buy a cookbook with plenty of dishes and detailed instructions from the ingredients to how much you have to put, and make something like yo mama's fried chicken. So you use the same ingredients, the same amount, but if you're trying it for the first time, you practically know it's not going to be quite the same no matter how much you stick to the book. You won't have that intuitive, knowing knowledge of your mom's fried chicken until you've been and keep doing it and have internalized it to the point where you just know little details like the angle to place your fingers when your pouring the salt.

And that's what were like in the US of A right now: instructions to lots of things like in the sciences with "universal" language for the masses, but nothing really internalized to the point where we know the little "unimportant" details. We are a culture defined by writing where our language explains "everything important" but tells you nothing else. It affirms principles but no context.

But those principles contain much power. It's in writing that affirms and sustains the existence of my going to school, knowledge, and the existence of these "modern" institutions. Institutions like prisons, hospitals, and school. Just think. . .if you didn't have any notes, tests, transcripts or report cards or diplomas, what else would you have to show for your education in school ?

In this society it's as if you can't know things away from those institutitions, when many a society without writing like the Hmong have shown that you can know things.

Knowing things in that internal small-scale society way away from "modern" institutions with those skills can get a job, but you need to be certified by those institutions. . .in writing. . . to actually make money with your skills in this society. Making money by getting a job is virtually the only way people are permitted to live in this society of choice. They have to know writing. And unfortunately a lot of minorities don't have that access to the institutional experience via college or any other choice they may want.

They know things, but no one cares to extract it and make use of it.

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