My very first job after getting out of grad school program #1 was at a language immersion school in Charlotte, NC. My very first clear memory of being at that school is watching a bunch of kindergartners figure out how to cup their little hands together and put them behind their backs. The teacher was calling it “duck tails”. Once the kids had all achieved duck tail status, the teacher then sternly told them that they MUST stay on the blue tiles bordering the hallway. I think they were headed either to lunch or the bathroom. I do know that I was utterly horrified and it gave me pause to reflect. Just how much of my sense of right and wrong is/was a product of someone else’s idea of right and wrong? How much of my time had I/do I spend behaving in a manner consistent with what other people consider “right”, “appropriate”, “professional”, “ethical”, etc. without ever really determining the validity and veracity (truth) of these descriptors? At the time, my answers were a) a lot, and b) too much.
As I watched those little kids do the duck tail thing, I remember thinking that I was witnessing something really fucked up given the long term consequences of that kind of behavior. Was there a reason to walk around with their hands behind their backs? Yes, it minimized the likelihood that one kid would touch another kid. Was this a problem? Yes, because it assumed that contact of any form between or among these kids would be inappropriate. Assuming this wasn’t a toxic thing, who was it really benefiting? The teacher, because it meant having to spend little or no time dealing with kids who might interfere with her objective, whatever it may have been. In the end, what was so wrong with what was happening? Given the concrete thinking of a typical kindergarten kid, things are best learned “in vivo”, or in real life as that thing is occurring. In other words, this process denied these kids the chance to learn about how other people think, what they like, what they don’t like, and how best to figure that shit out.
Mastering basic academic skills is a requirement for being able to do more than just survive the world in which we currently live. Mastering social skills is a requirement for being able to thrive in any kind of world that has other people in/on it. Teaching the former is a lot easier than teaching the latter.
Fast forward 17 years. What I see every semester are adolescents and young adults who are waiting to be told what to do and how to think. My first “lesson” tends to be one of asking a question that has no definitive or unassailable answer. I might show them a car or pharmaceutical commercial and ask them to identify all of the fuckedupedness (yes, that’s qualifies as a word) in the commercial. It’s unusual to find a younger student who can point out the unproven claims and the social pressure tactics used in order to get viewers to buy the product. I’ll ask when it might be appropriate or acceptable for me to use words such as “fag”, “dyke”, “nigger”, “retard”, “kike”, etc. The response tends to be silence coupled with shocked faces. I will ask how people with a devout faith can reasonably “coexist” with people who have an equally devout and different faith. The response is usually blank stares. Sometimes, a student will nut up and respond with a statement such as, “Just because we worship differently doesn’t mean that we can’t get along with each other”. Ah, yes, that’s true. So, I’ll ask how much they know about that person’s faith. Have they ever been to their church/synagogue/temple/mosque, etc. How much time have they spent reading the other person’s Holy Book? Answer: Not much to any of these. Meaning: The less we know about people, the more likely we are to be cool with them, or the more likely we are to say/do something that they find offensive.
It’s not their fault. No one ever taught them that they have a personal and moral imperative to ask questions, look for defensible answers, understand who they are separate from the rest of the world, make inferences and decisions based on reliable information, give themselves permission to dislike other people who are different from who they are (the caveat being that the dislike is about the other person being an all around asshole, not a dislike based on the differences between them–although there is often some overlap). Instead, these students have been provided a 13 year session in propaganda, where there is only one right answer to a question, and the only moral imperative is to do and believe whatever is being said by the person in charge (teacher).
Orwell along with the authors of our own Declaration of Independence would be frothing at the mouth with anger (and I’ve noticed that students are not being required to read much Orwell anymore, nor are they conversant in our rights as citizens), while Hitler, Stalin, Milosevic, Mussolini, bin Laden, and that weird dude who runs North Korea would be standing and clapping. A major requirement in any oppressive political or social system is the control of language and thought. I would appear that we have made great strides in this since my first brush with it way back in August of 1999.
If being able to think, speak and act as an individual, particularly when it goes against the social grain, is an act of subversion then count me in as an active seditionary within the world of academia. I want students to step off of the blue tiles, to lose the duck tail, and to fearlessly engage with themselves, the world, and the other people in it (this means asking questions and becoming comfortable with the reality that some of those question may not have answers). I want them to lose the hobnail boots and replace the goosestepping with wandering around. I want them to be leaders of the most distilled kind for the first time in their lives, even if they are limited to leading themselves.
Hitler wanted to rid the world of everyone who wasn’t of the master race. Stalin wanted to rid his country of everyone who might interfere with rigid social order, and the same goes for Mussolini and the weird dude from North Korea. Osama and his cronies want to rid the world of everyone who isn’t an orthodox Muslim, something that is conveniently defined by them. The American education system seems intent on ridding the world (or our part of it) of autonomy and self-direction, which is tantamount to intellectual genocide. I hope that some student, somewhere in this country of ours, and sooner rather than later, stands up in class and asks the teacher, “How are you any different from Hitler?”. Then I hope his or her parents have the courage to support them and demand an answer.
There are over 3 million teachers in the United States. There are roughly 200,000 administrators, with principals and superintendents accounting for about 100,000. That means roughly 30 teachers for every principal/superintendent. I have yet to meet a teacher who likes being forced to adopt someone else’s curriculum and instructional style, nor have I met a teacher who really digs the regularly inflicted “high stakes” testing regimen (the tests were designed to inform a school of areas that might need some additional attention; they have always been used as a measure of success–success of the student, not the school). We now see that roughly 13% of public school students are getting services for a disability, while 2% are getting services for being “gifted/talented”. This helps a school (a large group of students) look better on paper than it does in reality. A distribution such as this is so statistically improbable that it comes pretty close to falling into the impossible bucket. At a ratio of 30 to 1, teachers could change this, and they don’t. They tell me they are just doing their job/what they’re told to do. I ask them if they remember a place called Nuremberg. If there’s 30 of me and 1 of you then I/we probably aren’t too concerned about your title or power. I/we can crush you whenever prescience dictates that crushing you is about the only option I/we have left. If I/we fail to do this, our actions state that we support intellectual genocide.
You wanna be a teacher because you love kids and want to help them? Fuck you. You hate kids, and you can’t wait to get out of school and get your dictatorial ass into a classroom, so you can make a career out of trying to fuck up even the most well adjusted children and ensure lifelong failure for the rest of the kids.