Two huge posters of Kafka and a portrait of Nietzsche drawn by a former student hang over the desk in my office, my two constant “spiritual” companions. I’ve been living with both of them for a while at this point, but it’s only been recently that I’ve come to understand how closely connected they are—and their guidance has been—to my current thinking about education.
It started with Nietzsche, who I discovered early in my college travels. His concept of the “revaluation of all values”—his charge that we look deeply into the systems we ascribe to, acknowledge that we’ve constructed them, and then reevaluate whether they’re taking us where we want to go—bowled me over when I first learned about it. The charge made (makes) so much sense to me, and, when I look at it, seems to drive pretty much all of the work I’ve gone on to do both in and out of the classroom. There’s a section in the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where Nietzsche’s prophet describes the “three metamorphoses” of the spirit. “Behold,” he tells his rather confused audience, “three metamorphoses of the spirit do I designate to you: how the spirit becomes a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.” He goes on to explain that, to undergo the kind of spiritual awakening he’s preaching—to become better humans, to become more self-aware, conscious, creative, psychically healthy and compassionate people, a process that he thinks is urgent on both the personal and collective level—we need to move through these various stages. First we take on the burden of culture. At this stage, we’re carrying the “heaviest things,” the weight of everything we’ve been conditioned to think, even in terms of how we’ve been conditioned to process and make meaning of these things. The next stage is the throwing off of that burden, the wrestling with and victory over the internalized sense of obligation to carry that burden, the triumph over, as he calls it, “Thou Shalt.” It’s a space of absolute freedom, but it’s a lonely and ultimately empty space, a space of disillusionment and rejection. We need to get to this point, and to sit with it a while, so that we can come to understand the “illusion and arbitrariness even in the most sacred things.” But we can’t stay here if we really want to be healthy, Zarathustra tells us. Instead, we need to move past this nihilistic space to “become the child… a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘Yes.’’’
I’ve read this passage any number of times, but it only really started to make sense to me in the context of rethinking what a classroom might look like when one of my students led a discussion on it in class, asking us to consider it alongside of Perry’s developmental model of education. Her question to the class. which has become my question: what could a classroom that nurtures the transformation to the child look like? What would it mean to create a space that values the kind of “yes-saying” that Nietzsche’s child manifests?
Then came Kafka, who confirmed, in the most visceral way for me, how simultaneously difficult and necessary Nietzsche’s revaluation is. Since meeting Kafka, I tend (for better or worse), to view everything that happens in my life through the lens he provides. The older I get I just see more and more evidence that he’s right… about virtually everything. Sometimes I find it amusing, how right he is. The endless bureaucratic red-tape he envisioned threaded through every cultural institution, the systems that are constructed to minimize the red tape but in fact exacerbate it, the inherent absurdity of adhering to these systems that crush out creativity and innovation, and the human toll it takes to navigate such absurdity. It’s amusing, but also devastating. Most of the time, it’s frightening how fully he saw into the way we construct—and are constructed by—our social/cultural systems.
The Trial is the novel that best captures, I think, the particular brand of absurdity that Kafka saw into. It begins with the main character—Joseph K—being “arrested” for no apparent reason and ends (spoiler alert) with the kind of bizarre and enigmatic death scene so typical for Kafka’s characters. Just before the end, Joseph K enters into a church, looking for answers concerning the nature of his arrest and this “Law” that seems to persecute him. The priest, trying to help him, delivers this parable. I cite it here in its entirety, because there’s really no way to excerpt it:
Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper and requests admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he can’t grant him admittance now. The man thinks it over and then asks if he’ll be allowed to enter later. “It’s possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not now.”
Since the gate to the Law stands open as always, and the doorkeeper steps aside, the man bends down to look through the gate into the interior. When the doorkeeper sees this he laughs and says: “If you’re so drawn to it, go ahead and try to enter, even though I’ve forbidden it. But bear this in mind: I’m powerful. And I’m only the lowest doorkeeper. From hall to hall, however, stand doorkeepers each more powerful than the one before. The mere sight of the third is more than even I can bear.” The man from the country has not anticipated such difficulties; the Law should be accessible to anyone at any time, he thinks, but as he now examines the doorkeeper in his fur coat more closely, his large, sharply pointed nose, his long, thin, black tartar’s beard, he decides he would prefer to wait until he receives permission to enter.
The doorkeeper keeps giving him a stool and lets him sit down at the side of the door. He sits there for days and years. He asks time and again to be admitted and wearies the doorkeeper with his entreaties. The doorkeeper often conducts brief interrogations, inquiring about his home and many other matters, but he asks such questions indifferently, as great men do, and in the end he always tells him he still can’t admit him. The man, who has equipped himself well for his journey, uses everything he has, no matter how valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but as he does so he says: “I’m taking this just so you won’t think you’ve neglected something.” Over the many years, the man observes the doorkeeper almost incessantly. He forgets the other doorkeepers and this first one seems to him the only obstacle to his admittance to the Law. He curses his unhappy fate, loudly during the first years, later, as he grows older, merely grumbling to himself. He turns childish, and since he has come to know even the fleas in the doorkeeper’s collar over his years of study, he asks the fleas too to help him change the doorkeeper’s mind. Finally his eyes grow dim and he no longer knows whether it’s really getting darker around him or if his eyes are merely deceiving him. And yet in the darkness he now sees a radiance that streams forth inextinguishably from the door of the Law.
He doesn’t have much longer to live now. Before he dies, everything he has experienced over the years coalesces in his mind into a single question he has never asked the doorkeeper. He motions to him, since he can no longer straighten his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend down to him, for the difference in size between them has altered greatly to the man’s disadvantage. “What do you want to know now,” asks the doorkeeper, “you’re insatiable.” “Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “how does it happen, then, that in all these years no one but me has requested admittance.” The doorkeeper sees that the man is nearing his end, and in order to reach his failing hearing, he roars at him: “No one else could gain admittance here, because this entrance was meant solely for you. I’m going to go and shut it now.”
Welcome to Kafka! Everything he writes feels just like this, clarity emerging at the edges, only to tilt and slide and slip out of focus. A Zen koan that slaps you in the face, a moment of revelation that never translates easily into a discernible course of action. Every turn in the parable takes us to the “lesson,” cryptic though it may be.
I have read this parable about a million times. This time as I read, through the lens of broken educational models and with my student’s question about child-nurturing hovering over the thing, two passages stick out to me that never really did before:
- The last line of the second paragraph: “The man from the country has not anticipated such difficulties; the Law should be accessible to anyone at any time, he thinks, but as he now examines the doorkeeper in his fur coat more closely, his large, sharply pointed nose, his long, thin, black tartar’s beard, he decides he would prefer to wait until he receives permission to enter.”
- This paragraph: “The doorkeeper keeps giving him a stool and lets him sit down at the side of the door. He sits there for days and years. He asks time and again to be admitted and wearies the doorkeeper with his entreaties. The doorkeeper often conducts brief interrogations, inquiring about his home and many other matters, but he asks such questions indifferently, as great men do, and in the end he always tells him he still can’t admit him. The man, who has equipped himself well for his journey, uses everything he has, no matter how valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but as he does so he says: “I’m taking this just so you won’t think you’ve neglected something.”
I’m struck by the fact that the man from the country has this fleeting instinct—that “the Law should be accessible to anyone at any time”—that he immediately talks himself out of. It’s as if, in that moment, after experiencing difficulties he didn’t expect to experience, he does a cost-benefit analysis and decides it’s just easier to sit down and wait. Only he convinces himself that he’d really “prefer” it this way. And I’m struck by the relationship that develops between the man and the doorkeeper. There’s a kind of empathy (or at least, the possibility for empathy) there that I didn’t see before, on the part of the doorkeeper, who asks the man questions about his home and, presumably, about his life, even if he’s “indifferent” about it. He also seems to have at least an inkling of how this guy thinks and operates, of how powerless he must be feeling in this situation, taking his bribes almost as a measure of mercy, so that the man will feel like he’s done everything he can. It’s intriguing to me that the man has equipped himself with such foresight, but that, instead of using his equipment in the service of his intuition—getting into the Law that should be accessible at any time to him—he squanders it on the doorkeeper.
And, then, of course, there’s the big reveal at the end of the parable: it was always a door just for him. He started out with all the power, but he gave it away, and now the all-powerful doorkeeper is shutting the door in his face. And then, as all good Kafka characters do, the poor guy dies knowing what he should have done, but without any chance to put that knowledge to use.
Ah Kafka. Such a sense of humor.
But still, the way that the man from the country second guesses his intuition and the way that the doorkeeper—placed by the man into a position of power that he submits to—loses connection to his own better instincts capture for me the essence of the brokenness at the heart of our prevailing educational models. How many different ways has the testing culture we’ve collectively submitted to broadcast to students that they need to curb their own intuition? How many different ways has it privileged the camel, the beast of burden, over innovation?
I can’t help but see this parable through the painful lens of my own rejected attempts to build a culture of student-generated learning at my institution. And I can’t help but think of it in terms of the implications that this rejection has for students. The man from the country has bought fully into his own counter-intuition. And the doorkeeper has taken advantage of a lapse in the man’s self-confidence. It’s a perfect storm, and a vicious cycle: we throw students into a system where they are taught to show their mastery of a given subject in precise terms determined by us rather than them, dulling their sense of their own voice. And then we talk louder, barraging them with our power (which only comes through the game we’ve all committed to play, and the roles prescribed in the context of that game). This all becomes clear to our students early on, in the same way it becomes clear to the man from the country, this dawning recognition of lost opportunity. In this recognition, the doorkeeper grows mammoth in the power he wields, the power that was given over to him and that he took on so eagerly, and he plays his part to fulfill all of the characteristics written into it: he demeans the man for his thirst for knowledge (“you’re insatiable”) and rejects his sense of good will and shared humanity (“everyone strives to reach the Law”). He relishes the last blow: the paradoxical moment where he reveals to the man that his intuition was right, that he has had power and uniqueness and access all along at the same time that he slams the door, capitalizing on the weakness he has helped to cultivate.
It's a bleak picture. And not really a perfect analogy. I am definitely projecting my own experience onto this. But still… there’s that one moment where things might have gone differently. That moment when the doorkeeper asks the man about his life, his family. What if he asked those things in a genuine way? What if he really wanted to hear the answers? What if he believed that the asking of those questions and their answers were somehow connected to the man’s ability to get into the Law? And what if he relinquished his power, even if the man handed it over to him so readily?
What if there were an educational model that worked to hone intuition, with gatekeepers who saw their role in this regard, using the power that the system gives them to help students resist the temptation to hand over their own power? What if, instead of conceiving of the classroom as a hierarchical space, we conceived of it as a conversant space, a space of open-ended dialogue of every member of the class with one another and with the course material?
I’ve only recently made the connection between this parable and my pedagogical philosophy and strategies, and, so, I’m a little giddy with it all. Rarely has Kafka felt so close. But I’ve taken it at face value and begun to see my role in the classroom as a doorkeeper who asks questions I want to hear the answers to, not just for the sake of information, but because I believe the conversations that grow out of these questions are precisely what help students to find their “why.”