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Kuusisto on culture

January 4, 2010 Leave a comment

If people are things, more or less, then we need not worry much about them; if we are teachers we need merely speak in their direction, test their recall, and so forth. The process can be almost entirely mechanical. But if they are people, watch out.

Stephen Kuusisto‘s 12/13/09 posting, “A Largely Lonely Triumph: Disability and Contemporary Higher Education,” however, exposes the cost of treating people as less than full members of the human community. Carefully picking quotations from a Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann, Kuusisto points to Keller’s loneliness and the awkwardness of most members of the college community in her presence. Keller herself found a metaphor for portions of the experience, saying that the instructors were as “impersonal as Victrolas” — people who had found largely mechanical means of relating to this student who they had an ethical obligation not just to educate but to treat decently and humanely.

Against what he calls an “Autocracy of the Victrola” that is commonplace in higher education today (see his list of linked examples), Kuusisto places the idea of culture: the webwork of meanings and rituals and agreements that make up civil life. He suggests that a cultural movement belonging to people with disabilities challenges the foot-dragging of academic culture, and that a better arrangement will require that the one culture be influenced by the other. He writes:

The issue of inclusion for people with disabilities in higher ed is a matter of culture: far too many colleges and universities fail to imagine that people with disabilities represent a cultural movement. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the powerful statistical urgencies represented by the finding that nearly 10 per cent of matriculating freshmen are self-identifying as having a disability.)

A cultural understanding of disability means at its very core that students or staff with disabilities are our children, our sisters, daughters, sons, fathers and mothers, our veterans, our colleagues. But it means more than that: an academic or curricular awareness of disability means that our nation’s institutions of higher learning will finally sense that what they “do” they do for all and with no oppositional and expensive and demeaning hand wringing. Such a position requires that disability services and academic culture–matters of curricular planning and cultural diversity be wedded as they should be.

With these words Kuusisto makes clear that the solution to the Autocracy of the Victrola is cultural, a process of connection and recognition and reconciliation, a process of learning akin to that required in order to be “wedded,” as he says in the closing sentence. None of us had better get married if we aren’t ready to acknowledge the experiences of others, or run colleges or stand at the front of classrooms or sign up to live in a dorm, I’d guess. None of us can contribute to the upkeep of our culture without that same skill, most likely, if culture is the webwork of meanings and rituals and agreements that make up civil life and if it is at the same time a process of connecting with and recognizing the identity of others.

Postscript. From another Kuusisto blog entry published on 12/11/09:

I say this not because blindness is a bad thing–far from it, for indeed I’ve been writing for over a decade now about the ways that blindness functions as a form of epistemology–all disabilities offer the normative world riches of mental diversity.

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