Educating for Absurdity

By Stone, Lynda | Journal of Thought, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Educating for Absurdity


Stone, Lynda, Journal of Thought


Introduction

Many of us working in education today have named its current state "absurd." In her recent book, Happiness and Education, philosopher Nel Noddings offers a pertinent description of schooling conditions within the accountability movement:

   In schools ... [we find among other commonalities] ... zero
   tolerance rules ... metal detectors ... random drug testing and
   locker searches, armed and unarmed police ... locked doors ... [as]
   clear hazards, high stakes tests ... [that are terrifying],
   ridiculously short (twenty minute) lunch hours ... lists of rules
   and penalties ... [displacing] general civility, a pathological
   level of competition ... building designs ... that make every nook
   and cranny visible for surveillance. (Noddings, 2003, 54)

Noddings's claim is that students and teachers are unhappy living with these practices; agreeing with her, my own take in using the label "absurd" is to promote educational change as she does but from a different point of view. Responding within a postmodern condition generally and a conservative era in education, I want to educate for absurdity. In this essay I define absurdity from the standpoint of an intellectual history, reinterpret its meaning, and suggest educational and ethical import. Educating for absurdity entails understanding and positive action out of meanings of discrepancy, as forms of indeterminacy. (1)

Intellectual History

"Absurd" comes from Latin and French roots meaning out of harmony with propriety, taste, and especially reason. Philosopher Hazel Barnes points out classical connections to religion. From Tertullian in the second century, it was inharmonious to believe that humans could know God's divine plan for salvation, as Kierkegaard put it in modern times, "[that] there could be any meeting between finite man and infinite God" (Barnes, 1959, 156). According to Barnes, a way to understand the absurd is from its connotation of "discrepancy" (ibid.), returned to subsequently. Also as part of her own intellectual situating, she picks up the use of absurd from Kierkegaard, an existentialist. It is this philosophical group along with literary and theatrical cousins who brought the concept to prominence in the mid decades of the 20th century. Work from two sources, the Theatre of the Absurd, and the writings of Albert Camus, provide an all too brief intellectual base for the present reinterpretation. They indicate elaborated conceptual thematics as well as forms of discursive attention.

First, in his now classic history, dramatist Martin Esslin (1961, 2001) identifies the Theatre of the Absurd as part of a larger intellectual movement including literature, drama and painting as well as philosophy beginning in the twenties, following on and from two devastating world wars. He names as central the writings of playwrights Beckett, Adamov, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter, who were part of an international group of expatriot "individualists," living largely in Paris. Here is Esslin's definition: "The Theatre of the Absurd strives to express its sense of the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought" (24). The role of language is primary in distinguishing dramatic contributions on the absurd from those philosophical. In the former are seemingly random, concrete, poetic images in which there is a "radical devaluation of language ... [wherein] what happens on the stage transcends, and often contradicts, the words spoken by the characters" (26, emphasis in original). Another commentator summarizes that "[language] in the theater of the absurd is not a cohesive force, a bond linking civilized man. Rather it is the ultimate entropistic force, isolating each man ... [in] his own inability to communicate and of society's inability to communicate with him" (Cahn, 1979, 22). According to Esslin, the philosophical distinction from the work of Sartre, Camus and other existentialist writers is that, although written brilliantly, they "proclaim a tacit conviction that logical discourse can offer valid solutions" (24) for man to live with absurdity. …

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