Governor Ron DeSantis has declared himself ruler of the kingdom in which Woke comes to die. In the process he has skillfully pulled off a language coup which he and his friends on the right have proven themselves adept at – taking ownership of words and phrases in ways that distort and misrepresent their original meaning and intent. It’s no secret that language is a powerful instrument in shaping people’s thinking about their worlds; in this instance, the governor has taken something we should all aspire to and dipped it in a vat of tar, assuring that only negative connotations will adhere to it.
The governor has capitalized on the association between wokeness and the pronouncements of groups like Black Lives Matter, one of the perennial targets in his campaign against evil actors; he called for any mention of them to be expunged from the AP African American advanced placement curriculum. I would like to restore wokeness to its proper position as a virtue, rather than a dangerous virus.
I first encountered “wide-awakeness” as the great philosopher of education Maxine Greene, termed it, in her article in Teachers College Journal called Toward Wide-Awakeness: An Argument for the Arts and Humanities in Education. What I love most about Greene’s work is the way it roots education in the arts and the humanities, rather than in the too-often soulless language of the social sciences. Greene sees wide-awakeness as the quality out of which the greatest works of our civilization have sprung. Let me share some of her examples:
This from Thoreau’s Walden – “Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness, they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”
And this from the philosopher Alfred Schutz – “By the term “wide-awakeness” we want to denote a plane of consciousness of highest tension originating in an attitude of full attention to life and its requirements. Only the performing and especially the working self is fully interested in life and, hence, wide-awake. It lives within its acts and its attention is exclusively directed to carrying its project into effect, to executing its plan. This attention is an active, not a passive one. Passive attention is the opposite to full awareness.”
This powerful concept of wide-awakeness drew me back into my adolescent years when my senses and my thinking seemed to be at the height of their intensity. Looking at the adult world, I was most fearful of the prospect that this intensity would fade, as seemed to be the case with so many of the grown-ups who surrounded me. The recognition that “all the lights are on upstairs” for so many young people is one of the things that has drawn me to working with them, perhaps as a way to keep that flame flickering within me.
There’s one more quote from Greene’s article that brings me full circle back to DeSantis’s attempts to extinguish awareness of the reality of our shared history:
“Hallett Carr’s conception of history as dialogue: Carr talks about the historian’s provisional interpretations of provisionally selected facts, and about the subtle changes that take place through the ‘reciprocal action’ of interpretation and the ordering of those facts. And this reciprocal action also involves reciprocity between present and past, since the historian is part of the present and the facts belong to the past. The historian and the facts of history are necessary to each other. The historian without his facts is rootless and futile; the facts without their historians are dead and meaningless. My first answer therefore to the question, what is history? is that it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, and unending dialogue between the present and the past.”
Although the term wide-awakeness does not appear in this quote, the implication is that for us to be fully awake to history we must have access to the facts that constitute the past. It is these facts that are most endangered in the Trump-DeSantis vision. Depriving us of them is the key to controlling people’s reactions to the present reality. If you are ignorant of lynching, of mass violence against Black people, of redlining, of exclusion of Blacks from the benefits of the GI Bill, you are not awake to understanding the systemic racism which has created the current plight of people of color.
One of my favorite discussion questions that I posed to my classes when we read Fahrenheit 451, The Giver, 1984 and many other novels was this: Which do you prefer – being happy and ignorant or being fully aware and unhappy? I don’t have data on where students landed on this question, but my impression is the preference was for awareness and its attendant grief.
The attack on wokeness and the ban on introducing students to anything that causes discomfort aims to create a society based in ignorance, a society infinitely easier to control and manipulate by cynical leaders. Instead, we need to return to Maxine Greene’s ideal of wide-awakeness, which may make us more aware of pain, suffering and injustice but which also gives us access to the enduring virtues of, apologies for appearance of sentimentality – Truth and Beauty.