A Curtain Raiser:
Transcending the Totalitarian Classroom
Setting the Stage
They don’t know me from a Professor -- and neither do you. though I look like the freak from down the block -- when I walk into this classroom of college kids, tell them my name, and say:
"I want to lead you through a learning game called the Totalitarian Classroom. Whoever plays must agree to a few rules and roles. These create a stage. Upon it, we'll hold a real discussion of a critical subject: how people act out their parts as Good Students in the classroom game. Maybe we can go on to consider what, if anything, this game has to do with good learning."
I think they expect a lecture. What else, from the Education Department? All they've been told is that I'm a resource in educational reform who's worked with many student groups around the country and wants to talk about the way students and teachers alike have been conditioned to play the social games that dominate education. But I want to do more, especially since some of them are organizing a Free University off-campus and looking for new ways to think about learning.
So I decide to take us through a de-conditioning game, make a theater of our experience to give a new perspective on the roles we normally play in the learning game.
"I start by assuming you're each a Good Student. I take this to mean you're independent, critical, you have your own unique viewpoint. So I'm always free to ask you to express a view that differs from one someone else gives -- say, by extending or contradicting his. Likewise, I assume you're in command of the material and can make connections between its parts. So I can call on you to explain the connection between any two points other people make. These are the only rules. And they're reasonable, right?"
I think of how they'll feel when I indicate that the connection between A and B is quite clear, and ask by words or a look why they can't see it. I don't need much idea of it myself -- no one will challenge me to describe it. Who wants to beg for a lecture and see his ignorance further displayed? But for now they are eager to play. So I ask for volunteers for the three formal roles of the Game.
"One way to present yourself as Good Student is to display your command of the material. So we'll want a Scribe, to take absolutely verbatim notes. Another way is to brown-nose, to agree with the teacher. So we want a Yes man. When I ask him about anything, 'Is that right. Mr. Yes?' his job will be to say, 'Yes, that's right,' and then explain why. Likewise, since you also win points for creative disagreement in the classroom game, we'll want a No man, whose job will be to answer, 'No, that's wrong,' and then explain why. Is all this clear?"
"Are the rest of us supposed to play roles?" asks someone.
"No, no one else should be trying to play-act a role. Everyone should respond as who they are -- even the three volunteers, except when they're called on in role. So let's be our natural selves and try to make the discussion as real and substantive as we can."
I too will be natural, though they'll find this hard to believe afterward. They'll point out the way I use the rules to punctuate or speed the game and advance the discussion. But these are only the formal traces of the control the group grants to the role of Authority. Like a grading system, they create a stage for totalitarian theater. Simply establishing their power is enough; I can run the classroom game to my desire while calling them rarely into play.
As I ask for volunteers for Yes man and No man, I can tell by the way people shift in their seats who depends on these strategies in everyday games. I do not pick the most promising candidates. Later I will use them unofficially to shape the discussion, for their responses are keyed to me; and then lead them to recognize their unconscious roles.
But no one wants to be Scribe, it's an enormous dirty job.
I state that the richest examples of Good Student behavior lie in the precise words people choose for their responses, which is true; and then drive the group into a "democratic" election to stick someone with the role. They spring gladly to pinning the tail on a donkey; I can see all sorts of trivial antagonisms surface in joking nominations. They choose a girl, of course. Later she'll cry when I press her with questions and she tries to explain how impossible it is to think or respond while she's recording material for playback. But she'll go back to taking notes when I demonstrate, by calling on people, that no one can remember accurately anything anyone else has said.
Act I: The Classroom
Already, as discussion begins, I'm in total control. Marked as the Expert, bankrolled with special Knowledge, I'm the Man Who Knows What Should Happen. I ride with the illusion as I lead our theater through its acts. In the first, I get them to describe in detail ways in which Good Students act out their roles.
"Okay. What are some ways in which people project themselves as Good Students in the classroom theater?"
"They come to class on time."
Someone else: "They hand in their homework."
“Yes. Yes. Some other ways?"
"Eye contact with the teacher is very important, so is volunteering information."
"So is coming up to him after class to talk about anything."
“And if you dress neat."
Too many people are trying to talk all at once, they start raising their hands. I call on the girl who puts hers up first. "Good Students sit in the front row," she says primly.
“But you can also use not sitting in front to show you're a Good Student, don't you think?"
She looks worried. "Well, I guess so . . ."
Toward the back of the room I see Mr. No twitching in his seat. I shift my eyes to him. "It's because sitting in front looks too phony," he says.
"That makes sense, doesn't it?" I ask her. She nods uncertainly.
"What about the way people look?" I ask the fullback type hunched in his chair. ''How do you look when you've just been asked a question you can't answer, but you don't want the teacher to know you haven't thought about it?"
"I sit up straight and wrinkle my forehead, searching, Maybe he'll speak first. "
"I lean forward a little and look earnest and try to talk about something else."
"And you . . .?"
Soon our discussion reveals that different choices of where to sit, of posture, dress and expression, of docile or cocksure attitude, etc., are rich elements in a variety of styles of projecting oneself as a Good Student in the classroom. I lead us on to recognize complete strategies.
"What might go with sitting in the back row and looking out the window, to project a whole Good Student image?"
"Missing a lot of classes, but seeing the man in his office, maybe not during regular hours."
"You, can you give me an independent opinion? No? Well, you, then?"
"Being casual with your homework, but sparkling on the final."
"What's the connection between the last two answers?" I ask the one who seems to be class Cynic.
"Both times you're showing that you know what's important."
"Very good!" Actually, it isn't, but I like to give praise, It makes them feel appreciated. "This strategy will work with every teacher. Is that so, Mr. No?"
"No, that's wrong, it'll only work with some."
"Because some teachers are uptight about petty detail."
"In other words," I say, reading his reply to suit my prejudice, "what's important is what they think's important. I take it you use this strategy yourself?"
"Something like it," he admits.
"All right. So it's clear, different strategies work with different teachers -- and with different classes, they're part of the audience too. Now the question is, why? What determines whether a particular projection of yourself as Good Student will be successful, besides your skill in acting it out?"
"If it helps the teacher play his own role well, if your role complements his."
"Hmmm. Is that right, Mr. Yes?"
"Yes, that's right. Because then it satisfies his image of himself, it feeds his ego."
"Is that your real opinion, or your role speaking?" He hesitates and then says, "Yes."
"Then does the image or role of a Good Student necessarily resemble that of the good teacher he's facing?"
"Can anyone give an example?"
"What about the acid-freak in class, and the scholarly prof who translates the freak's occasional insights -- which of course he recognizes -- so the rest of the dull class can understand them?"
Act II: We Look at Ourselves in the Classroom
Now we are caught up fully in the roles and rhythms of the classroom. I respond to each person, each thought, with genuine interest, and by this incessant validation keep the group's energy always focused on me. I am overdoing it, of course -- I only need react to every fifth interesting thought, and grunt or smile in between, to control the space.
From here I take the Totalitarian Classroom into its second act, in which it becomes reflexive theater, play that begins to comment upon its own performance.
"How long does it take to figure out what a teacher expects and what Good Student strategy you can play with him?”
An indistinct buzz. The lowest estimate: "Maybe like three weeks."
"Anyone think the time is shorter?"
"You can tell where most teachers are at inside the first hour or so," says the fullback.
"Can you tell him why you think it doesn't take three weeks?"
"The way he talks about midterms and homework, how he's dressed, whether he wants to bullshit a bit or get right down to it, things like that."
"Why did you say that looking at me, when I asked if you could explain it to him?"
"Because ... I don't know."
I ask the other one: "Did his explanation make sense? Do you see why three weeks is too long an estimate?"
"Yes, I can see that it starts right at the beginning, like whether he asks the class questions about themselves."
"Wait." I ask the group, "What is there about what he
just said that presents him as a Good Student?"
"He admits his mistake."
"Anyone have a sharper answer?"
"He not only admits it, he shows he's learned by adding something new."
"Right on! Now go back. When I asked how you look when trying not to show you don't know the answer, five people gave me different answers -- showing they were individuals, that's fine. But everyone answered in words. No one demonstrated their look itself, even though we all know how many words a picture's worth. How come?"
"You wanted us to answer in words."
"How do you know? As a matter of fact, I hoped some one wouldn't."
"It's because you're articulate. I think."
"How is that a Good Student response?"
"He was uncertain and afraid you'd tell him he was wrong, so he took care to qualify it."
"Right. But I think he's right. Can you go on? I mean, how does my being articulate work?"
No one follows me. "Let's get at this differently," I say. I can change ground whenever I want. On the familiar territory of my specialty, I need never appear at a loss for words. "The other side of the Good Student game is the Good Teacher game. So: in what ways have I been presenting myself as a good teacher here?"
"You're confident, you seem to know what you're doing," says a natural Yes man. "You care what people say and try to draw them out."
"Thanks for feeding my ego. Something more impersonal?" Or personal?
"Well, first, you stand at the front and you're always moving," says someone, "that way we have to focus on you. Secondly, you look people in the eye -- that's how you call on them to speak, too. Third, you keep trying to probe deeper for answers. Fourth, …"
"Stop right there. Can someone say: how is he projecting himself as a Good Student?"
"I'm not playing Good Student," he protests.
"I don't think you're trying to. But I'm not asking you. Someone else?"
They guess. He volunteered, he's observant, he's original. I ask for something more original.
"He said 'first, second, third …'" says a blonde girl.
"Right. How does that present him as a Good Student?"
"It shows he has an orderly mind."'
"Do you always say, 'first, second, third …?'" I ask him.
"Why do you say it here, how do I cue that response?"
"You speak like that yourself, even though you don't say the numbers."
Hmmmmmm .... "How was that a presentation-of-self-as-good-student?"
"He gave you a sharp answer," says Mr. No, "even though it might have offended you."'
"How do you know that strategy's a good one to choose with me?"
"Because of how long your hair is."
"Yes, I do pride myself on my tolerance. But I talk like a pedant still, so you know to give a pedantic answer. Right?"
Ah, we are all so deeply conditioned! We cannot discuss the classroom game without at the same time playing it. I am acting out the role I was trained to assume in a context of directed and goal-oriented learning, and so is everyone else. But here with a difference, for I call our attention constantly to this. Unlike the theater of the standard classroom, here the rules of the play are on stage as a focus of the play, not politely unmentioned. And we are thus forced to a doubled consciousness, within the play and of the play as play, simultaneously, which painfully opens a new way of seeing.
(You might notice the family resemblance to Brecht's notions of alienation in the theater. It's not accidental. Totalitarian Classroom Game was first designed by a young professor of English, Neil Kleinman, who was deeply involved in the study of modern theater and reflexive form.)
By now, late in the second act, the pressures and pain of this new consciousness are mounting. The players become confused and frustrated as they struggle to keep going on by responses whose conditioned character someone may at any time point out, eagerly and accurately. I ask someone again whether it's he himself speaking, or a role, He complains in anguish that he doesn't know. Not even the Teacher's Pet is at ease.
I've never seen a classroom game without a Pet relationship, if not two. This time the Pet is the willow blonde with quick eyes, though it takes me almost an hour to figure this out. Now I understand what happened to the brief sexual flash which passed between us as our eyes met when I entered the room and continues to echo. But I'm still surprised to recognize how the fact that we respond to each other as man and woman has acted below the surface of our awareness to make her a protected person, keep her warm in the cold classroom climate, and leave her free to play with her mind. And be my Teaching Assistant, in effect -- of course, that's part of the bargain.
"Oh, I see how it happens," she says now, without even raising her hand. ''The 'first, second . .' business, I mean, it's a closed system. The men who run the School of Ed happen to be good at explaining things analytically. So they teach us that's the way to deal with teaching. If you can't fit to their style, too bad. But I'll get my credential and super recommendations, because I've learned to understand things their way and forgotten other ways. And then I'll go teach little kids. I'll smile when they explain in a way I can understand, and I won't smile when I can't understand them. And they'll grow up to be like me. Or Professors of Education."
"That's the way it goes," I agree. "That's why two million kids have dropped acid; it's one of the ways to learn that there are many ways of knowing other than the ones they leach us in the schools."
I look at her again. Our eyes merge. I pull away, switch into reflexive mode, and ask around the room for people to comment on what they observe here of my relation to her, hers to me. No one feels like volunteering much by now, even on safer topics. So I spell it out, about the sexual dynamics and her being my T.A. and all. She colors. The room is eager and fearful. No one feels comfortable, talking about the rules or about the processes they mask.
"I don't like what's going on!" someone bursts out. "I can see we're learning, but the way of it's messing over my mind."
"Can you see another way to learn about classroom process?" I ask him. 'This is the only way I know that's not simply rhetorical."
He is silent. "Oh, he's just playing the Rebel role again," someone informs me in eager support. The rebel retreats in indecision, slinks down in his chair.
I marvel again at how instantly ready they are to tear each other down after 15,000 hours of conditioning in the competitive classroom, worshipping the gods of Success and Failure. I call on a girl who has been watching in shrinking terror to tell us what kind of game the rebel-watcher is playing. She starts to stammer out an accurate indictment. Then she realizes that in this context she is simply compounding the violence. She breaks down crying. The rebel jumps up and slams out of the room.
Either way, an act of defeat. But also the blind start of an act of liberation, saying in angry pain, "I won't play your game any longer." At last someone moves to comfort the girl, and I announce that the Totalitarian Classroom Game is ended. And just in time: the invisible bells ring, another group of inmates has to use this cell. I ask whoever cares to continue to come on over to the cafeteria.
Act III: Dealings with the Feelings
Late afternoon, the tables are almost empty. We gather over coffee in the formica desert. And Act I II begins, the one without a program. I ask people to say what they were feeling in the classroom, read out their emotions instead of their thoughts. There is a long silence.
"At first I was open and curious," says a guy who sat near the front, "and excited by what you were driving at. Then I don't know, it was like I just got bored somehow, and my mind quit following, and I started looking out the window."
"I was so frustrated!" exclaims the girl beside him. "Every time I thought of something you called on someone else, or on me only to follow up some point you were making."
"It was suffocating," he agrees. "You never let the talk get very far off the subject, and you kept it moving along. There was no place for me."
"But he had something to teach us," someone objects, "and only the time of the class. I think what he pointed out is useful"
"Emotions, emotions," I say. "What were you feeling?"
Finally the girl who cried says, "I was afraid of you. Right from when we started, I was scared to volunteer. You were so quick, you knew just what you wanted. I felt stupid, if I gave an answer you got someone to give a better one, or took mine and twisted it."
"He helped us take what we see every day and put it together to see in a new way. I don't think I'll ever see the classroom the old way again, as if it were some benevolent paradise."
Emotions, emotions. We go around the table. Now that Fear is named, many confess to it. Early on, our classroom became for most a place where reward is to be left alone; and punishment, to be called upon to answer by the finger of Authority. They argue: was our last hour a parody, or did it simply expose the main features of the classroom process in high relief? How we hide our feelings!
"What about anger?" I ask. Silence. "Surely the guy who slammed out was angry. No one else?"
"Well, I was very frustrated," says someone. "But I wasn't what I'd call angry." Some nod in agreement. Most sit in their chairs rigid with hostility.
"Is thaaaat so?" I drawl mockingly, sorry to have to go through it again. "Well, I think there's so much anger here with the fear that people are afraid to show it. Because I've been doing a lot of violence. And everyone has been helping me do it. You're eager to give a better answer than the next guy. You believe me, or at least back down, when I tell you you're wrong and give you any old quick argument. You don't address each other, and you meet only my eyes. I attack people, and no one defends them. No one touches anyone. Someone has to break down crying to get a little support. And you're still choked with anger. Clearly."
Learning is mostly silence -- but this live kind, not the other.
Finally Willow Blonde says, "It makes me think of Kitty Genovese. The girl who was stabbed to death on a New York street-corner while thirty-two people watched. And no one did anything."
"And it's like the Milgram Experiment that you read about in Psychology," I remind them, "where they took people off the street and had them give electric shocks to strangers to punish them for getting wrong answers to a test. One in three would shock someone into unconsciousness. Just because the researcher told them to. All that obedience conditioning, it gets to be a habit."
The Free U kids wear anti-War buttons. I can feel the guilt rise in the room. Then Willow breaks out in confusion. "But I've done it again! The same behavior. Haven't I?"
"I don't know," I tell her honestly, "it's a hard game to break. I think we need to behave differently to break it."
"It goes on and on like a nightmare," says the ex-Scribe.
"This is unreal!" says the fullback, now openly angry. "I think it's you that's playing the game. You're faking the situation, you want to keep control of everything. But we aren't in class any more."
"We may have changed the way we sit to a circle, but it takes more to change the game," I tell him. "Even more than my not wanting control. Your body wants to hit me now, but it half-raised an arm for permission before you spoke. You're still making me the focus of attention, reacting to me. You give me the control.
"And do I want it?” I go on, enjoying it. "Damn right! Because I'm using it for something. You see me playing a destructive game. I think I'm trying to drive an old form past its limits and into something new. Maybe we're both right. But I wish you'd recognize how real our situation is, and believe that I'm not faking.
"For you're here freely to learn, so am I to help you. I come in with some specialized knowledge I've worked to help generate. I know some find it useful. You know about this, but don't know quite what it is or really what you want to know. So you treat me as an Expert. And I share what I have the best way I'm able, by sharing the experience instead of just describing it.
"For what we're doing here, reflexive theater -- though it feels like torture more than we can put into words -- is really two tools pushed to extremes. One is our awareness of the process of our learning."
Do you sort back, watch yourself reading this, to think of how that has been, of how you display yourself as the learner you are?
"Paying attention to process is a consciousness, there are ways to develop it. It's the strongest tool I know for creating a different and healthier way of learning. The other tool is theater itself, which leads into many new learning-forms.
"But my helpfulness in pointing this out doesn't change the fact that our experience in this new form is an old game: I'm still running you through my program. And your anger is still unaddressed. And the pain is still happening. I know because I am in pain, because I too am forced to see by the theater we create.
"I see that to teach you tools that empower, in the best way I know, involves putting you through painful changes." Is this better than the lecture's safe tedium? "And that I also am willing to do this, to give you a little pain with your illumination -- for your own good, of course." Sometimes it terrifies me, how naturally I can play the Professor, cop to all those hallowed liberal rationalizations.
"And I see the part of me that always wants to lecture, to cram in some more information, get it all said now, instead of waiting for people to develop in their own time and ways." But do you have the patience? "And the part that needs constantly to be proving, in your eyes and mine, that I am a 'good teacher.' " And what is the style of your need for proof? "And the part that loses patience when you do not see what I see, and by informing you steals your discovery. And the part that rises up angry when you see something that matters differently than I do and threaten my view of myself and the world's order
“For I see my soft fascist, who believes he must control all and tries even now with the power of my words to coerce you into agreement.
"Because I too am afraid of the dark and the Chaos beyond the mirrors we make. And I see also the part that fears what you will think of me for all this and struggles in me not to meet your eyes."
Late afternoon, in the wilderness of the cafeteria. "We're paralyzed as much by your confession as by your reasoning," says Willow wonderingly.
The fullback is growing angrier. "You're still playing the game!"
"No, you are," accuses someone.
And then Mr. No stands up, his hands behind his back, and announces, "I think I know how to break the game." Laughter and anger struggle on his face, triumph and fear, as his hands whip into sight: one with a fistful of sugar packets from the table container, the other throwing one that stings my ear with a soft spat!, and another that misses as I duck down by my chair.
In a minute the air is busy with flung missiles. I get my appropriate share of attack, most thrown with real feeling. And so does everyone else; an indiscriminate bombardment forces even the reluctant to join in self-defense. You wouldn't believe how much sugar they set out for dinner. For ten minutes we go at full tilt, tipping tables and hoarding our stockpiles behind their barricades. Packets are splitting on the ceiling fixtures and showering sugar in our hair, and finally we all collapse in general laughter and shouting.
We are tidying up when the building manager arrives, huffing and puffing. He's outraged, he wants to know who's in charge, we can't do this here, etc. I set my Responsibility instinct to work counting packets, and wait. "There's no one in charge," Mr. No informs him. "We're a class in experimental theater, we're rehearsing. And you can relax, we'll clean it up. Do you think you could find us a broom?"
Could he have apoplexy? His assistant arrives. Someone warns him: "Careful, man, this is liberated space,"
"That's right," says the girl who was Scribe, tossing him a handful of sugar. "If you stay, you got to play." Two or three kids get set to throw at him. In jest?
They have no program for even a sugar rebellion. Jealous of their dignity, they retreat, warning us to clean it up and threatening us with their return. As they leave the manager is asking his man who the Chairman of the Drama Department is now.
"For a moment there," says the fullback, "I saw a flash of pure hate cross that guy's face. He's even worse than he is" -- pointing at me -- "about giving up control. Or maybe just more transparent."
Heady with disobedience, we straighten the tables for our own comfort. "That's really the problem," says Willow. "He controls all the space. We're always forced to deal in his terms, whether or not he's the one talking. I think we need to learn how to share space. As well as take it over," Another silence. We are easier with them by now.
The girl who always sits on the outside breaks it. "I don't think it's by having no leader," she says. "It's by each of us leading in his own way when he should. Like me, I watch people. I see lots who relate differently to books than the ones who talk easily in class do. Sometimes I hear what the teacher and talkers don't. I could translate it for them or tell them something about how they see differently. I don't because there is no support. But I should."
"I'm curious," says the Cynic. "That's the first thing I've ever heard you say. Why did you start talking now?"
"I guess being in the sugar fight opened things up. Inside me, as well as between us. It was partly just moving. I think it's sick to sit in a room and hear things that make you angry or sad or happy and not be able to move your body or yell."
"I can dig lettin' it out," he agrees. "But it doesn't help change whatever messed us up in the first place."
"Well, it does." she says. "I threw sugar at you because I like how you think but not the way you cut people down in class. Next time you do that, I think maybe I trust this group enough to throw at you again. And now that I've gotten angry, I don't feel so choked up. It's like I have energy, maybe to do something different."
"There's so much anger," says someone in wonderment, looking at the mound of packets we have piled up. "If it's getting built up like that all the time, I can see why more and more campuses are exploding."
"Sure, people don't like having nothing to say about what they have to do,” says the fullback. "In the army I heard of whole battalions refusing orders. They try to hush it up. When I got out I went into business. But it was all the same. So here I am now. Whaddaya know, it's like high school was."
"Maybe we should all be in encounter groups," suggests the Scribe, "Like this one."
"But that doesn't change who has the power and who's in control," says the Cynic. "I see people using groups and 'sensitivity' to avoid dealing with real issues."
Willow agrees, "I feel groups are like a playground for the emotions, where they're isolated, just like class is an isolated playground for my mind. But I want to bring them together -- that's part of the power and control I want. And I don't think this is an encounter group. What excites me here is that we are working with our ideas and our emotions at the same time."
What excites me here is you, my dear, plus about seven other people so far. And the notion that, unlike encounter groups, this game doesn't work to adjust people to the established power structure.
Act IV: Moving On
''The idea in this that gets me is theater," says Mr. No. "Like, I knew when I threw the first packet that I was picking a way to act out my anger. Like it felt very theatrical. But it gave us something we could all do together, to focus on what we were dealing with and then talk about afterward. That kind of sequence excites me. I'm not used to learning that way. I can see that it's a strong tool. What I want to know is, what else can we use it for? Someone said we need to learn how to share space. That's true in the Free U too, we're free of a lot of the old restrictions but we still need to learn how to cooperate. Is there some kind of theater we could do around that? Would anyone like to try something like that'?"
A murmur of general agreement. Now that the lead is flexible, I can share it if I'm careful. Grateful for the chance to make what I know useful instead of paralyzing, I say, "The people I share work with call that sort of thing a learning game. It's not hard to get the hang of making them. One way to start is, you divide into teams on some basis, and then pick a tangible way to represent what you're trying to think about."
They ponder that. "Each team could dance together, to act out cooperation," says the outside girl. "Or maybe build something together, like we could build it here, with these tables and chairs. Each team could have half the space."
"Yes, but they should have to compete for materials," says Mr. Yes. "Because that's how it is."
The fullback digs that. "When we get done building, each team could take turns attacking while the other defends what it's built."
People object, “That'd be dangerous."
Someone says, "Maybe we could do it in slow motion, to make it safe?"
"Hold it, hold it," I urge. "Already we've got a very rich game. See, when we construct something, we're also building a team society at the same time, with some balance of competition and cooperation; and it'll go through a lot of changes in attack and defense. We've got to force ourselves to make the theater slow. Slow motion's a beginning."
"What about doing everything without words, only noises and gestures?"
"And we could do it in a time-jam. Like give ourselves twenty minutes to build, and maybe some time to plan strategy, and then ten minutes each for attack and defense."
"What about we have one team women and the other men?" says Willow. I notice for the first time her Women's Liberation button.
"What about we get some dinner first," I suggest. "We need a change of rhythm. And it looks like it's going to be a long night."
Later this evening we play our game and study how men and women tend to build, compete and cooperate in different styles. In slow-motion conflict the subterranean tangle of hate and love borne by the sexes for each other reveals itself in brief violent tableaux among symbolic architecture. Talking this over among themselves, some more of the women realize with delight and some fear that they like each other, that they find what they have to say to each other interesting -- more interesting now than the men.
The men talk about politics. The activists start to see how, despite the partial liberation of its anger, their campus movement is still shaped by the classroom conditioning; how people paralyze their energies by recreating old Authorities to make their decisions. Together we talk of how political meetings display the aggressive ego-struggle of the seminar stripped of its velvet gloves, of how even the women's team in our game fell back to this behavior under the pressures of time and attack. And then it is midnight.
In the morning I type out Sylvia Plath's incredible poem "Daddy" with its brilliant imagery about teaching and the macho figure. And I leave it on the stove for Willow to find, with a note: "To let you know who else has been leading my learning. Love, Michael."
By the time she wakes I'm sharing a ride to another campus some hours away, to be with friends who have moved along one of the roads Willow and her friends may follow up if they choose to keep working together. They organized a collective, to learn to share space and work. My sisters there used the faculty to force the administration to establish a Women's Studies Program. (Sometimes they took their brothers' aid.) The men are setting up new media for the unheard voices.
Together we want to work out a series of learning games to probe the aspects of our sexuality and connect them up with our political behavior. The sisters are starting a Free School for community children. Its staff will be a learning group of the Free U; they will work on the problem of reformulating education, of freeing its perspectives and methods from the dominant style of the exploitive male ego.
I don't think higher education as we know it will survive. It is designed around one way of knowing and learning. But each group of young people I see work seriously to figure out what they want to learn and then how to learn it, come to share a common experience. To learn together, they have to reverse just everything about the totalitarian classroom. Instead of meeting as strangers at arbitrary times to touch only minds, mutual interests draw them deeply into each other for long open periods. Instead of a society centered on Authority and its punishments/rewards, they work for a democratic peer society that generates its own motivations. They grow toward becoming a family, an intimate collective of learning and action. I don't think such a learning family can survive inside a classroom, however the walls be redecorated.
The liberation of education is only now beginning. In headlines and in secret, on a thousand campuses and in many ways, people are figuring out what to do next. So was I, in I968, when I had to speak at a conference on educational reform, and remembered Neil's Totalitarian Classroom Game. Now on strange campuses I meet students who learned it from someone who learned it from someone who learned it from someone who was there, and they explain how they're designing the freshman orientation program around it. Thus our learning games spread.
If you're still in the classroom you can close this up, treat it just like another book, thinking, "Pity he talks so much." But if you're looking for something to start with, you might consider the T.C.G. In this theater we share right now, you watch me watch you reading what I'm writing. You try to understand whether this play of our interaction has been reflexive all along, and whether this would make sense of my odd awkward phrasings and redundancy. What are we doing here? Is this the old Totalitarian Essay game again, where I exhort and you uh-huh? But we see that you have the option to open another act, if you're tired of all this repetition and you want to provoke a new experience, Take it from me: reflexive theater is a form, not a specific program, and anyone can lead it. We've all been well trained, all it takes is figuring out the style in which your own soft fascist works, and being willing to meet him or her in public, if you haven't already. For you know how to introduce it after that: you walk into class, and begin,
"I want to lead you in a learning game. . . ."
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