Tag Archives: education

Narratives, our stories: Empathy and Presence in the Face of Madness

I haven’t written a blog post in a while—I could blame lots of busy-ness, or a host of other things, but the truth is that it’s sometimes hard to know what to focus on, what to write about as a teacher and father in the 21st century. But here on December 5th I find myself feeling sad. I know lots of other people are angry; angry about unarmed black men and children being killed by police, angry that our society is alarmingly unbalanced with competing narratives of class and race, angry at stagnant wages and income inequality, angry at sickness and disease, and angry at what is an inadequate response to all of these. But also we are angry that we can’t seem to have a conversation about these things without dismissing one another and demonizing the other side. There is a great deal to be angry about, but I find myself to have a heavy heart. I spend a great deal of time with teachers and graduate students who share many of my views on race, social justice, and education. I am also lucky enough to spend time with lots of working class folks, usually coaches and other parents I know. Finally, I am blessed to spend lots of time with students. While most of my teacher friends and many of my students have been outraged at these deaths, I have also read and heard accounts and had conversations that blame the people who were shot. They blame them because they should have followed police instructions, or because little boys shouldn’t have toy guns that look so real, or for a lot of other reasons. These folks are some of the same ones from whom I hear that it’s people’s own fault that they are poor, and by implication, it is African-Americans’ fault that they are poor. I hear, too, that if you’re not doing anything wrong, then you don’t have anything to fear from the police. I find these to be naive views that don’t fit my or my students’ experience. Many of the people from whom I hear things like this work hard and are good community members, good parents, good church members, good people who often absolutely refuse to see the role that racism has in these events. It’s disheartening. It’s complex. It’s hard to understand. One of the things that I’ve realized is that I can’t fight all of those battles or have all of those arguments and, while I disagree with their sentiments from my toes to the top of my head, I don’t think it’s ever made clear that these attitudes seem to be the prevailing ones. In fact, my non-teaching friends, especially my friends who are working class, often feel like they are the ones being persecuted. I often feel like voices that speak out against systemic racism and classism aren’t heard or are dismissed. Every one of these interactions is exhausting—overt and coded racism are everywhere. Unfortunately, in my experience, it’s most overt with white men when they’re together with other white men. Perhaps it’s the blaming that I find most difficult. After all, it isn’t as if I wasn’t in trouble all the time when I was a kid and it isn’t as if my own children have been angels either. I could tell people that I ran around with a BB gun that looked just like a rifle when I was a kid and that no one shot me, or that my stepson, who is 20, shop lifted at a Wal-Mart and was simply told to come back inside and was released with a ticket when he was 18, or that he stole a truck and that the wide response to that was that boys will be boys. I could write that I am the same size and shape as Eric Garner, and I can’t imagine a police officer speaking to me that way, much less three of them attacking me. I, too, have asthma, like Mr. Garner did, and know well the constriction of airways brought on by panic or highly emotional situations. I could be Eric Garner; my stepson could be Michael Brown; and my 10-yr old, who is big for his age, could be Tamir Rice. Yet, we couldn’t. Some of the reason for that is class privilege, but a greater portion of it is our while privilege. Having this conversation outside of classrooms and teacher offices is exhausting and difficult. It isn’t always worth it. I know that some people will be angry at that statement, but it’s true, the conversation isn’t always worth the trouble. Therefore, I’ve been searching for some narrative, some story, to be able to explain just what many of my students face that my own children don’t face. Here is one example that I think is worth thinking about. We began classes at Metropolitan Community College this week. It’s our winter quarter and I’m teaching two sections of students who are in our dual-credit high school completion program. I love them already. The afternoon group happens to be made up entirely of African-American women. I am a double minority in that class. This week we’ve been talking about definition maps, vocabulary acquisition strategies, note taking and all of the other things that go on in my blended reading and writing section, but we’ve also been getting to know each other and learning to trust each other. This task isn’t easy—it never is. But I wanted to write and share about some of the things that I’ve learned this week. One of the texts that we read is Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos, who I will hug if I ever meet him. It chronicles Jack’s mistake of selling drugs in the early 1970s and his subsequent incarceration. But Jack is also a writer and the book chronicles his literacy journey and his work to become a writer. My students love it; I love it. And it gives us a great deal to talk about. Jack tells us in the beginning of the book that he’s been to nine different schools. When I read that the first time, I was stunned. That’s a lot of schools to have gone to, especially given that he’s not even out of high school yet. I went to three schools. I had never considered the advantage of the stability of my school life, but here it was. About four years ago, I began to use Jack’s number of schools as a writing prompt. I was interested in having the students count up the number of schools that they had gone to and to have them write about why they changed so often. It’s been an immensely successful prompt and lets us talk about their story and their wounds from school (see Kristin Olsen’s important book, Wounded by School). So what did the students say? The numbers are high. Usually, Jack’s nine schools isn’t even close to the top. Yesterday, one of my students could count 20 schools, the lowest number was 8 and the mean was 13 (if you trust an English teacher’s math). Why is it important that students switch schools so often? After finding that so many of my students, especially students who are economically struggling, and who have other disruptions in their lives move so much, I became suspicious that it affected their learning in a detrimental way. This revelation is one of those “well, duh” findings, but I hadn’t really considered it and I wonder how many of my colleagues at post-secondary institutions do either. We don’t necessarily get to see those disruptions or see the history of those disruptions. But we are often bitter and upset about students’ lack of preparation for our classes and we’re often disheartened by how many of our students begin in our developmental classes. The research shows that my “well, duh” moment is accurate. Students who move frequently have trouble succeeding academically for a variety of reasons. A study authored by scholars at Portland State University and Center for Community Research and a study by an Economics Professor at Notre Dame make the effects of frequent moving quite clear. Academic growth, social integration, and variety of other items are negatively affected by frequent moving. These studies don’t quantify the losses as simply as I would like, but my students are often three grades behind in reading according to our measurements at the community college and are even further behind in math. My students report going to different schools and starting in the middle of a curriculum, or having to relearn something they’d already done, or that a school was much easier or harder than the previous one. It’s easy to generalize that these disruptions are difficult and are catastrophic in their accumulation. So, one of the takeaways here is that my students, who are dropouts, who resist and dislike school for the most part, are students who have had a great deal of disruption. This disruption is a kind of wounding and requires our empathy rather than our contempt. There are many other wounds, which require our empathy too. What else have I learned about my students this week? I have learned that substance abuse has ravaged their families and their own lives in many ways. I learn this every quarter, actually. I hear stories from my students who are recovering alcoholics and addicts. I hear stories about their parents who are still addicts and alcoholics. Often these students have had to live with their grandparents and have been bounced around the foster care system, to say nothing of the moves that they’ve had to make with parents in the middle of the night. At the end of last quarter, the administrative assistant told me that one of my former student’s mother had overdosed and died. She probably could have been saved but for the fact that, while she was choking on her own vomit, her partner was passed out on the couch and unable to help her. This week, one of my students told me about how both of her parents had died of drugs, and that she is now in recovery herself. Another student’s mother is working at a halfway house after getting sober herself. And I know we’d like to believe that these are isolated incidents, but they are not. They are the lived reality of the students in my program. And it is the reality of my students regardless of race. Substance abuse, poverty, frequent moving, and the resulting low-academic ability/achievement form a powerful and mostly inescapable combination. All of this, the racism, the classism, and the frequent moving, the substance abuse, combine to make my students’ lives challenging. I haven’t even touched the trauma of violence and rape. It adds up and is staggering. I respond to my students with empathy most of the time, but sometimes I don’t or I struggle with it. When a student cannot keep still or quiet, sometimes I remember that she is the daughter of two drug addicts, was abandoned by her father, and has been to 20 schools, all of which has combined to prepare her very poorly for my class, and sometimes, despite my training and reading and experience, I respond with anger and frustration. Sometimes I cannot hear students in these circumstances. I have to practice what Mary Rose O’Reilley calls listening like a cow in her book Radical Presence. That kind of listening and acceptance of a student where they are at is hugely difficult and goes against my training as a teacher in the current-rhetorical tradition. Am I not supposed to make students learn? I don’t think that anymore, but I feel like it’s hard wired in there sometimes and that some of the old wiring just hasn’t ever been removed. All of this makes me wonder if my friends see my students and the victims of police violence completely; have they really heard and considered their stories? Would they call public safety or the police on my mentally ill student who got under the table and curled into a fetal ball and cried? I didn’t; I couldn’t. I think the value of the story of my students isn’t that it’s sad or exploitive like some kind of dystopian narrative, but that it evokes empathy. If I am at my most present, my most human, then I must listen to and respond to my students’ humanity. I wonder that if we could tell their stories, then we might just raise more empathy for the worlds that we live in, which are so often segregated by race and class. I don’t know the answer to this, but I know that I’m a better human being for trying to listen to my students rather than to exercise my authority over students. Of course, my authority, to my knowledge has never killed anyone directly. I’ve never choked anyone to death or shot them. But I think of Sherman Alexie’s Character Mr. P in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Mr. P apologizes to the protagonist Jr. telling him that he and other teachers did horrible things in an effort to “kill the Indian and save the child”. Obviously, there’s a long and terrible history permeating every letter of that statement. But I want to extrapolate an analogy here—through listening and empathy I’m killing fewer students, perhaps by refusing to assimilate them and by valuing them. What is the equivalent of that for law enforcement and our national dialogue? How do we listen and be present in a way that fosters the valuing of black students and people—black fathers who are overweight and have asthma and children just like this white father? It’s so radical a notion to think that listening and presence are an answer to this madness that makes my heart so heavy. Perhaps it’s madness, but it’s what I have today.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Reading Class, Connecting with Students, Teaching Linda Christensen

In Teaching for Joy and Justice, Linda Christensen tells the reader that “equating success with wealth starts early—think of Cinderella’s magical transformations. Through clothes we can move from scullery maid to princess.” (71).  Of course, this made me think back to the original non-Disney version, where the ugly stepsisters chop off their own toes to make them fit into the glass slipper. Being very visual, I can see the blood smearing on the glass and have images of the slipper filling up.  And I think this is about right in some regards; many in our culture would wound themselves, mar themselves to fit into the idea of beauty, especially beauty expressed through the material and the body.  Christensen goes on to write “students play out this story on a daily basis. Children begin ranking and sorting each other based on those material possessions: clothes, toys, electronic gear, cars” (71).  My students’ experience proves this to be true over and over again.  And, when I examine my own story—growing up working class in an increasingly middle-class suburb, I know that what I thought was my own unique anxiety over clothing and status wasn’t unique at all, just painful in the way that I hacked at my own toes to fit in.

We write about class every quarter in my Fundamentals of Writing Class at Metro.  It’s a terrific course and I have a textbook called Seeing and Writing that allows the students and I to look at things through both text and images.  It’s a smart book.  Interestingly, the chapter called “Confronting Class” is one of my students’ favorites.  I actually begin with a piece of a documentary called “People Like Us” which always engages my students by pissing them off.  One of my students, we’ll call him Hank, was watching the documentary in this disengaged way.  He’s already resisted our conversations on race and gender, struggling to see how these related to him.  But when a woman in the documentary made a snarky comment about driving a Ford in a true blue blood old money voice, he erupted. “Fucking bitch, what does she know!”  Now I know I’m probably supposed to admonish Hank in this moment, but I didn’t.  Instead I saw it as a way into him, into our conversation.

Hank dressed like a middle class guy and wrote his first essay on snowboarding, which has some decidedly middle-class markers.  I think it’s safe to say that none of my poor students from North and South Omaha have ever been snow boarding, or skiing or water skiing.  Heck, neither have I.  But Hank suddenly revealed that his father was a mechanic.  He wanted to stand up for that Ford and for the people who drove Fords.  The documentary had punctured something for him.  I seized upon it and we began writing about class.  Hank gave me an essay about when his parents sent him to a parochial school in Omaha during his elementary school days.  Hank went the first day wearing his shoes that lit up.  They were worn shoes, but they were cool to him and they were what he had.  None of the other students had light up shoes, they were considered infantile.  And all of the students had new shoes, something that was expected for the first day of school.  This painful memory served as the motivating force for Hank to go on to become a drug dealer. And that choice led to him watching his friend die in front of him.  He had to have his own money to have clothes to fit in with everyone.  He had to pass as middle class or as cool.  I saw Hank with new eyes then.  He had been performing his identity. His middle class clothes and the stories of middle class exploits, including vacations and cars weren’t exactly true or untrue—they were what he wanted others to see because he was carrying the legacy of being laughed at for light up shoes and his father being a grease monkey.  His anger about class was bright and hard and gave us a place to build on his writing and thinking.

Hank’s story and the narratives in Christensen’s chapter “Can’t Buy Me Love: Teaching About Clothes, Class and Consumption” brought me back to several memories from my own childhood growing up a working class kid.  I don’t think that I ever thought about clothing until I got to Harry Anderson Middle School in the sixth grade.  Suddenly clothes were a competition just as Christensen describes in her chapter.  I didn’t know what was cool.  Didn’t own what was cool, and suddenly I had been marked.  I had found that “clothes [were] class. And coming from my class background, I wanted desperately to fit into [my classmates’] world” (71).  I began begging my parents to take me shopping at Richman-Gordman’s rather than at K-mart.  I quickly learned that the blue light special was a special mark of shame.  In the sixth grade, I can remember sitting on a gazebo bench with my friend who had migrated from the same elementary school to this enormous, terrifying middle school, and grabbing the back of his shirt and twisting it so that I could look at the label.  I was desperate to compare, to consume, to fit in.  I wanted my foot to fit into the glass slipper.  I remember the fads, coca-cola branded clothes, Guess, t-shirts with ivy league college logos on them (I believe I convinced my mother to get me a Princeton shirt, which I feel laughably embarrassed even writing now), and Ocean Pacific.  Dear God, I needed OP clothes to be cool.

It didn’t end there. In the seventh grade, my friend Brian and I had finally been invited to a party and we dressed ourselves up in new shirts and jeans and liberally, much too liberally, splashed Brut cologne on ourselves.  We were anxious to have it right—to perform the right codes so that everyone at Emily ‘s house would accept us somehow.  I can remember my cousins laughing at us in the driveway.  They knew we’d overdone it.  And Brian’s shirt’s color was coming off and was turning his skin and unhealthy corpse colored green.  Of course, we’d totally misread everything.  When we got there everyone was in t-shirts and we still didn’t fit in there.  I can remember nothing about that night’s party except for an ugly sixth grader making out with the seventh grade girl I had a crush on.  Clothes hadn’t allowed me to fit in; there were still many more things that seemed to leave me out in the cold.

Christensen tells her readers that writing about these things is “part of [her] yearlong campaign to get students to examine what is taken for granted and normalized” (75).  She sees it as part of a literacy that is vital for students to become aware of because “too often, school allows students to stay isolated in their private feelings and observations” noting that “their emotions and interpretations are at the mercy of advertisers and a culture industry that rarely have young people’s best interests at heart” (75).  Hank and I were just like that.  Our private observations about class and clothing had led us to conclude that we weren’t worthy and that we had to fit in at any cost.  I see this with more and more with my students as I learn to read this phenomenon more adroitly.  The awareness that Christensen raises here is the awareness that Freire calls for us to have as he urges us to read the word and world.  As I’ve taught in a community college over the last six years, I’ve learned to read class and to look back and see how much better I might have managed the world I was slogging through if I had been taught the kinds of literacies that would have allowed me to raise my consciousness along these lines.  Teaching that now is an opportunity that I’m terrifically grateful for and one that my students respond to in a ferociously positive manner.

Tagged , , , , ,

Some Thoughts on the Rhetoric of Education and the Preparation of Community College Teachers

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?

Tagged , , , ,

Kids these days!

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?

Tagged , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: