If you haven’t read Thomas Friedman’s Op-Ed column, “Obama’s Homework Assignment” in the New York Times from the 18th of January, then take a minute and do so. Then come back here because I think it’s something we should talk about.
As I read this I realized that not many readers would find much to quibble with here. Friedman covers ground that is often traversed in our discussion of education in the United States. We might sum it up as follows: kids don’t work hard these days; kids don’t care; the United States’ educational standards are low; we are falling behind other countries. And because of all of this, we had better get it together or we’re doomed. Moreover, he aims this at the President who has little power in education because education is largely controlled by states in our system.
And he’s right: my fourth grader probably doesn’t know as much math as fourth graders in a number of other countries. What’s more I have students in my community college classroom every day who don’t do their work and who don’t seem to care or who seem so resistant to the kinds of writing and thinking tasks found in the college English classroom, that I have despaired about why they are there at all. But this doesn’t really tell the whole story. And what Friedman is leaving out is really worth our attention.
First, this business about low standards is pretty relative. One of the most succinct accounts of this comes from Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary where he notes “statistics are often used to demonstrate educational decay” and that in “1890, 6.7 percent of America’s fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds were attending high school” rising to 94.1 percent by the end of the 1980s. He notes that the definition of functional literacy in the 1930s was “three or more years of schooling” in the 50s it was sixth grade and it was only “by the late 1970s [that] some authorities were suggesting that completion of high school should be the defining criterion of functional literacy” (6). And now I can’t think of a week that goes by without hearing someone, especially the last two presidents, call for community college or some college as the benchmark of education. And while this isn’t a comprehensive view of standards, it does show that, in general, we are asking more of students than ever before and we are educating more of our population than we ever have. Joseph Harris in his great book A Teaching Subject: Composition Since 1966 tracks a similar trajectory in writing instruction. And anecdotally, I’ve been doing pre-algebra with my nine-year-old son and I’m sure that I didn’t see this kind of math until at least the sixth grade. Really, folks, standards are going up, not down, but it’s too easy to talk about education in terms of crisis. And it’s easy to manipulate people because we want our children to be well-educated and able to navigate the world. But as Rose points out, “it’s our cultural fears—of internal displacement, of loss of order, of diminishment—that weave into our assessments of literacy and scholastic achievement” (7). This position isn’t to say that there aren’t dire problems in U.S. education, there are, but we need to have a complete picture rather than run from one Chicken Little argument to the next.
Second, why are all of these kids so darn de-motivated? Could it have to do with 13 years of No Child Left Behind? Could it have to do with students not seeing real opportunity out there? After all, why work for it when structural oppression will prevent many students from getting to where they want to go anyway?
Not doing homework is a form of resistance; it is a form of disengagement and I would argue that it’s intentional. When students’ knowledge and experience isn’t taken into account, then students disengage. It isn’t that the students are bad, rather it’s that they don’t see themselves as vessels to be filled by the teacher. We’ve known this too, for a long time. But still, we insist on engaging in what Paulo Freire calls the banking model in his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In this model, education is seen as the depositing of knowledge into passive students. Friedman’s choices for his two models seem to reinforce this. The first teacher is giving them extra practice and trying to make education fun, but nowhere is there a move toward authentic engagement or negotiation of power in the classroom. Go back and read what Friedman quotes the teacher as saying. Isn’t the teacher really presenting her instruction as “a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. … The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence (58).
And then, when the teacher isn’t successful with the banking model, she is blamed for not filling up the students correctly. Both the teacher and the principal misunderstand education on a fundamental level. They are still predicating what composition scholars call the “current rhetorical tradition,” which concentrates on old forms that limit the role of the writer and real thinking, often reducing writing to mechanistic five-paragraph essays, which no one likes to write and no one likes to grade. Is it any wonder then that Friedman’s second example of the teacher who laments that more and more students don’t turn in work is in that situation? It’s a bitter irony that Friedman has written so much about 21st century market realities but uses what are ostensibly teachers practicing 19th century methods as his example.
Finally, Friedman does not tell us what all of this education is for in our society. I take it from his concentration on competition with other countries and his selection of work ethic and responsibility, that he is inferring that education is for workplace readiness. Friedman is really predicating his neoliberal fantasy that everything is going to be fixed by the market—heck just look at The World is Flat for an explication of his ideas on the subject. So it is this deep theoretical underpinning of his op-ed, finally, that I resist. Education isn’t just to make us competitive in the world—it isn’t just to prepare us to succeed and survive in the marketplace. There are other uses for education. And perhaps it is this overemphasis that students unconsciously resist. Perhaps they don’t want to be mere agents in the marketplace. Perhaps they want a different world. I know I certainly do.
I want to add that I do not want to set Friedman up as a straw man here. He is certainly right to point out that increasing numbers of our students are apathetic and disengaged in the classroom. But I think that the lack of engagement and apathy comes from a lack of hope in students, rather than a lack of responsibility. I think that many of my students see how difficult the world is and cannot see a way forward, especially when much of school is so invested in the banking system of knowledge all the while using 19th century pedagogy. It’s simply a bit disingenuous for Friedman to not tell the whole story with standards and to leave hidden the motivation for education in his and other neoliberal estimations.
I’ll end with this: I remember a colleague of mine who taught drama at high school. She was called on the carpet one day for not taking attendance—the principal said that she was marking a student there who had been marked absent in the rest of his classes. My colleague explained that he was, in fact, there. The student was engaged in her class and her teaching methods. She didn’t use the banking system and the student responded. She was training him to be a better person, rather than just a worker and he responded. So perhaps the question isn’t what’s wrong with kids these days, but rather what are our motivations for educating students and are they the right ones?