Whenever I begin a new academic term I’m consistently reminded of Franz Kafka’s splendid parable “Before the Law.” I believe it adequately sums up what Mike Rose in Lives on the Boundary calls the “mismatched expectations” of students who attempt to gain entrance into the academy. School is made for their edification and enlightenment but too often they are barred from gaining a foothold. They’re stuck in weird institutional power relations of which they have little say and investment in. They’re required to comply with expectations, requirements, and obligations that are considerably extrinsic to them.
Here is the end of Kafka’s parable:
Finally his eyes grow dim and he does not know whether the world is really darkening around him or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. But in the darkness he can now perceive a radiance that streams immortally from the door of the Law. Now his life is drawing to a close. Before he dies, all that he has experienced during the whole time of his sojourn condenses in his mind into one question, which he has never yet put to the doorkeeper. He beckons the doorkeeper, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend far down to hear him, for the difference in size between them has increased very much to the man’s disadvantage. ‘What do you want to know now?’ asks the doorkeeper, ‘you are insatiable.’ ‘Everyone strives to attain the Law,’ answers the man, ‘how does it come about, then, that in all these years no one has come seeking admittance but me?’ The doorkeeper perceives that the man is at the end of his strength and that his hearing is failing, so he bellows in his ear: ‘No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.’ “
This passage echoes Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in that we’re often deceived by our own perceptions and assumptions; a foible of the human condition is our vulnerability to false beliefs. I often wonder how we can encourage people to eschew the chains of unreason by stimulating resistance to various modalities of power–resisting compliance and conformity by questioning, interrogating, and evaluating the requirements, the rules of the game. In bureaucratic institutions, there will be gatekeepers and enforcers of the rules–at no point does the man before the law question why he’s there, why he needs in, why he’s been summoned, and what he expects to gain from his entrance. In other words, he doesn’t challenge his own complicity or conformity with the machine, the matrix (Paracelsus, not the film), the paradoxical reality that culminates in the nightmare of his days.