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Joe Beatty


By Deborah Grose

The Winter Study of My Discontent

I arrived on campus as a freshman member of the class of ‘75 at the ripe old age of 19. My senior year of high school had been upended by the dissolution of my parents’ marriage and I had mysteriously lost all my college applications the day before they had to be mailed. With no copies and no time to recreate them, I took it as ‘a sign’ that what I really needed was a gap year (though that term had not yet come into common parlance). In hindsight I had no cause to feel smug about joining my class with a superior resume of life experiences that consisted of a hodgepodge of gainful employment (waitressing), acquisition of a training certificate (teacher’s aide), independent living (rent-free in the vacation home of family friends), and a backpacking trip to Europe (using savings that had been intended for tuition and living expenses). But smug I was nonetheless. And a bit rebellious; ready to push back against requirements that I did not like. Sign up for physical education classes? No thanks, but tell me about your independent study program, Coach Samuelson. Take a Winter Study offering from the catalogue? Not when I could accept the invitation of some upperclassmen to drive to Mexico with them. All I needed was a project.

My pre-internet research turned up the existence of Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico. CIDOC was co-founded by Ivan Illich, a onetime Roman Catholic priest and social critic, for the purpose of countering what he saw as the harmful effects of the church’s efforts to develop and educate the poor in South America. It was a place where some of the most brilliant and radical thinkers of the day such as Paulo Friere, Paul Goodman, Susan Sontag, and Erich Fromm would gather and converse. It offered loose seminar-style classes to international development workers, missionaries, and the occasional smug college freshman. Somehow I communicated my intention to spend the bulk of January 1972 at CIDOC and somehow the institute let me know that was acceptable. The next step was to find a faculty sponsor.

Enter Joe Beatty. A relatively new member of the Philosophy Department, Joe was a family friend to one of my entry mates and a regular in the Prospect dining hall. He took his role as pedagogue very seriously. Lunch with Joe was like being a character in a Platonic dialogue. He would tease out your assumptions, find flaws in your logic, carrying it to its sometimes absurd conclusions, and then sprinkle in some ideas from Spinoza or Kant. It was always lively and thought-provoking. Those lunches may well have influenced my decision, three years later, to add a philosophy major to my declared one of music. When Joe agreed to sponsor my proposed Winter Study project (I never took a formal class with him and so always thought of him simply as Joe), I was elated. We discussed what I would do for the credit: just write a paper.

And off I went from New York City with Fred Harris, his girlfriend, and Chris Tower in Fred’s green Volkswagen Beetle. Four days later they dropped me off in Cuernavaca. Cuernavaca is justly known as the City of Eternal Springtime. I had never been to Mexico, much less in the middle of winter, so the Garden-of-Eden-lushness of the town was beyond seductive. CIDOC was positioned at the top of a hill with a glorious view. Small stucco buildings with thatched roofs were the classrooms. I spent most of the month reading and learning about the ideas presented by Illich in his book, Deschooling Society, published just a year earlier. An Illich protégé named Dennis Sullivan was the acolyte who walked us through the concepts. In Illich’s view, when you transfer your responsibility for education (or health care, or social welfare) to an institution or to a system, you turn it into a commodity and society pays a very heavy price. The “institutionalization of values” as he put it, “leads inevitably to physical pollution, social polarization, and psychological impotence: three dimensions in a process of global degradation and modernized misery.” A schooled pupil, he claimed, was one who had come to “confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.”

Just because I was smug did not mean I wasn’t impressionable or that I had learned to think for myself. My total immersion in the anti-institutional mindset helped make the ideas compelling. They seemed self-evidently true and I was completely enamored of the radical shift in perspective that they required. I consumed them voraciously, and my teenage crush on Dennis Sullivan only fueled a passionate conviction. The fact that this transformation was taking place in an environment filled with palm trees, mariachi music, open air markets, and homemade mezcal did not hurt.

It was a potent and heady month. But it caused some serious cognitive dissonance. After all, I was at CIDOC to fulfill a requirement at Williams College, an irony that was not lost on me. How could I continue my Williams curriculum while finding a way to honor the deep questioning and skepticism about formal education had been incubated at CIDOC?

Upon returning to Williamstown I went to see Joe. I told him that it would completely contradict the principles I had been studying and that had so influenced my beliefs about education to write a paper for credit. Could I please have a dialogue with him, or a debate, or make a presentation designed to communicate and persuade--as a truer reflection of what I had assimilated? But he held firm on our original agreement. I would write a paper or receive a failing grade for my freshman year Winter Study.

That much of a rebel I was not, so I wrote the paper; bitterly dubbing it the first step in my subsequent Reschooling. At the time I resented Joe’s inflexibility but I bear him no grudge. The fact is, writing is difficult and laborious and I would gladly have punted on that paper. But I appreciate the rigor that writing it required. And I feel fortunate to have had ample opportunity at Williams to formulate and evaluate arguments of all sorts. Even radical ideas have to stand up to scrutiny and vigorous challenge. Sadly, Illich’s seem not to have done so. When I revisit them I think I understand why. He had a keen ability to analyze social problems. Certainly the conditions he diagnosed--pollution, polarization, degradation--have only become more acute. But he carried his ideas to their own somewhat absurd conclusions in the form of romantic and impractical solutions. What might have happened had he had a Joe Beatty as interlocutor? We’ll never know.

Nevertheless, when I hear mariachi music or catch the scent of tamales I can be taken right back to Cuernavaca. I am conversing with Illich and with Sullivan, and am ready once more to expound on the notion that equating formal schooling with education feeds into the belief that ever-increasing production and consumption are proper yardsticks for measuring the quality of life. Indulging this intellectual nostalgia has not eroded my warm memories of Joe Beatty nor my gratitude for my Williams experience. But neither has it made me long to write another paper.

Joe Beatty
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