Recently I’ve been thinking of a presentation that my colleague, Sarah Thomas, a professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, gave at the Nebraska Writing Project Summer Institute. The problem that she brought up, as I understand it, is: how do we still have authentic writing and writing instruction in the classroom in an era where the assessment culture, driven by neoliberal notions about the purpose of education, dominate. One of the audience members, Adam Hurig, who teaches at a community college, had the courage to say that he didn’t get the formative and summative assessment jargon that we were talking about. I think it is the confluence of these two events that has clarified the direction of my continuing research and my decision to go back to school to get a doctorate. To be clear: we have to fight the assessment culture that has become the dominant force in education. And, concurrently, we have to train the teachers who will be practitioners at community colleges with the background and methods that will make them more than just content experts, but also able to talk back to their own institutions and to the education culture in ways that serve students.
I’m sure that these two items seem very different, so let me spend time with each of them and then try to synthesize them in a way that makes my “mad bomber” activism and perspective seem, I hope, a little more sane. First, I think that most educators would agree that NCLB is a disaster, a failure of epic proportions. I say that without hyperbole. And I should be quick to add that by most educators I mean K-12 educators and professors in education departments. Interestingly, while faculty in English and math departments at colleges and universities bemoan the preparation of their incoming students, they don’t know why the students are that way. Really, I know it sounds like an over-generalization, but most of the faculty, good and smart people for the most part, know abstractly that NCLB and the testing culture that it has spawned are bad, but they don’t know why exactly and deeply. Charles Simic, who is one of my favorite poets, is a good example of my colleagues’ attitudes. In a post called “The Age of Ignorance” on the New York Review of Books website, he lambasts the public’s ignorance and their belief in conspiracies, creationism, love for foolish, yet attractive politicians etc., which he sees as a result of the dumbing down of the high school curriculum over decades. When I posted this article on my Facebook feed, many of my professor friends were quick to like it and comment with something like an amen. Of course, Simic fails to mention that we educate more of our populace than we ever have before and that many more students take an advanced curriculum that was only available to the rich 100 years ago. His post smacks of elitism and it’s just wrong. The curriculum isn’t to blame–it’s the assessment culture that has made the curriculum huge, but which also precludes the time to investigate deeply and creatively. He’s right in a way, but for the wrong reasons, and his call from the ivory tower is condescending. I would love to invite him to the high schools that my colleagues teach at or to the community college where I teach–it’s a different world.
But all of this doesn’t get rid of the fact that my students at my college are shockingly unprepared. Unfortunately, because of our ignorance, college and university teachers are largely unprepared to undo any of the damage that has been committed to these students because of the test culture. This fact brings us back to Adam, who I’m using as a cipher, with apologies, who teaches at a community college in Lincoln and to myself who teaches at a community college in Omaha. We are both highly trained content experts. We understand the deep teaching of writing, reading and thinking, and we work hard with our students. However, he and I, like most teachers at community colleges, and I would bet like most teachers at universities haven’t had any methods training or training that gives us a background in the current issues in education. Teachers like us only know and engage with the rhetoric of education and the current issues surrounding our national discourse on education if we are interested. And there are many many Charles Simic’s out there who would rather blame the curriculum than look deeply at real causes. Of course, this isn’t new; Joseph Harris in Composition: A Teaching Subject since 1966 speaks directly to this as a cycle rather than something new. When the sons of merchants entered Harvard in the 1800s, the professors were quick to point out that these students didn’t measure up. Mike Rose in Lives on the Boundary tracks the increasing numbers of students being educated at higher and higher levels. And never mind that, while my students cannot do the critical thinking that I want them to do, that they instead have digital literacies that astonish.
Simic writes that “A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business” and this is true. The neoliberal ideology and corporate kleptocracy that run our country see students as human capital rather than as human beings to be developed. Educators fall into this trap too, especially when we talk about the point of education, or the major outcome at the minimum, to be getting students “career ready.” We did not push back on the argument that our culture had about the purpose of an education. And, unfortunately, we have substituted an education that prepares students to be citizens, activists and better humans, for an education that is interested in mere preparation to be a part of the economy. We must never forget that those who run the economy aren’t interested in their subjects’ resistance to these systems.
All of which brings me to a recent conference that I attended in Austin Texas called NISOD–I was receiving a teaching excellence award that the organization doles out to its member colleges every year. One of the keynote speakers was a woman from the Lumina foundation. She explained that the goal of the foundation was to help 60% of Americans receive a degree or certificate by some date in the near future–the current rate is a little less than 30% nationally, so it’s an ambitious goal. And it sounds laudable right? But this rhetoric is insidious. For colleges to judge the quality of their offerings, she suggested that we will have to engage in much more assessment, what Sarah called the “data culture” in her equip. The speaker also made it clear that the reason why we needed 60% of our citizens to be educated with a degree or credential was so that they could engage in the 21st century economy–there was a little talk about being a good citizen, but it was clear that her version of a student was one who engaged with, rather that critiqued and resisted the global capitalism that has resulted in the larges income inequality in history and brought the world to the brink of environmental disaster. Lumina comes from the latin for light. As I sat in the darkened auditorium with 500 other award winners though, I could see very little of the light going on with the education professionals there. It sounds harsh, but community college instructors are largely unprepared to meet and resist the current rhetoric of education which is permeated by the assessment culture that has already overwhelmed and undermined my K-12 comrades. I was the proverbial canary in the coal mine, but it might be too late.
When I add this up, it this makes me even surer that my research work will revolve around critical pedagogy at the community college. How do we make sure that our instructors have a broad view of the purpose of education? We often talk about the poor persistence and completion rates at our community colleges. And Vincent Tinto, the guru on student retention and success argues in Completing College that it all comes down to engagement. We see engagement very narrowly in our culture–we see it as enticing students with the promise of future success in a competitive economy. Perhaps though it is the students’ unconscious resistance to joining the rat race that makes them drop out. What if instead we taught the whole student, what if we gave them the tools to be activists in their community against those unjust systems rather than worked to conform them in some way to fit within that system?