Thinkers Making Shoes: Plato, deficit thinking, and the Artist-Philosopher

I spend my days in a small liberal arts college. Faculty meetings, blended and face-to-face courses, and student advising are the stuff of my daily experience. Some days I think we’re getting it right, and I walk away from a particular ‘aha’ moment or connected experience absolutely loving what I do. Other days, I feel like higher ed reeks with inauthenticity and I wonder how long I can play here without becoming part of the stratified, hierarchical, stultifying trends that pervade the academy. Once, in a search committee I was serving on, an applicant spoke eloquently about being careful not to reproduce ‘deficit thinking,’ and this idea has become part of my interior monologue.

I’ve long considered myself an ‘alt-ac’, or someone in an alternative academic career. Most people use the term to denote the fact they are trained to work in higher ed by way of their academic PhD, but found themselves outside of the academy in another sort of job. My path may be the opposite. I always imagined working in education in the non-profit sphere, but fell into a full-time faculty role with a masters degree. This means I’m the peon of the academic world. While I have amazing colleagues and a consortial network of endless opportunity, I’m reminded of my under-credentialed status regularly. I’ve always believed that institutions are changed from the inside— by rogue individuals with new perspective and ideas— and I’ve come to accept the fact that I really need a Ph.D. if I am going to do this work over the long haul. And the push to further immerse in theory and scholarship is enticing.

After a long, slow search for a program that I could get my intellectual kicks in while keeping my current faculty role, I decided to join the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (Maine). It’s a program designed for creative practitioners, scholars, and folks with studio-based MFAs who want to take their theory to the next level. The residencies are immersions in international contemporary and historical art scenes— through a heavy dose of continental philosophy and art theory through a lens of topographical studies in a consideration of the ways the “present is shot through with the past.”

While I’m terribly excited the decision comes at a high cost, promising to impact my family, my relationships with students and colleagues, my sense of perceptual time, and my aspirations to make things. My apprehension lifts like a fog, then descends again.

I received a package with a letter of congratulations and a book this week from the founder of the program, Dr. George Smith. His article, The Artist-Philosopher and the New Philosophy, was heartening after a week of design-build sessions on my campus where students expressed, time and time again, that they wanted applied skills, engaged and embodied activities, and to make things. A passage that underscores the particular significance of the artist philosopher meta-narrative of the program’s curriculum spoke to me:

According to Rancière, before a renewed partnership between art and thinking can get underway, there is much work to be done. First, we need to overhaul philosophy— or better yet, leave it behind for something else. The main trouble with philosophy is its hierarchical structure, and the trouble with philosophers is that they are custodians of an elitist tradition. In Rancière’s telling, the problem goes back to Plato. Only certain kinds of people can make shoes and only very certain kinds of people can make philosophy. More to the point, those who make shoes cannot make philosophy, and those that make philosophy may not make shoes. Each is expert at their singular task. On the basis of task specialization, Plato establishes the hierarchy of the state. The maker stands at the bottom, and the thinker, especially the philosopher, stands at the very top. Thus the notion of equality , whatever philosophy might say in its praise, is a bogus philosophical proposition.

I’m currently serving as faculty assembly co-chair, and read this aloud as a performance of sorts called, “I Think I Heard They Want to Make Shoes.”

I’m pretty sure I’ve landed in the right place, if I should be working towards a Ph.D at all.

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