I recently finished grading and submitting records for another semester. My role is small. I only teach a couple of sections of Introduction to Anthropology for a local university. And yet, I see what I do as important–not just for my students, but for me as well. Learning is not a finite process, restricted to a specific location or a particular building. It goes on as long as we do, and when it stops, we may as well throw in the towel, because what follows is a long, dim corridor of heartbeat and breath and boredom.
How “Education” is Killing Us
That may seem like a dramatic statement, and in the short term, it is. In the long view, however, you might come to see things from my perspective. Much of my year is given over wholly to crafting lessons and lectures, interfacing with students, and reading their attempts at writing. After two years, I’m gaining a little data, but much of what follows is based on my daily experience.
I teach zombies for the most part, with a few who stir to life to answer questions or laugh at my terrible jokes. But the vast majority of my class time is spent trying to provoke some sign of intelligent life in a room populated with glassy-eyed, unresponsive young humans. Even the simplest inquiry usually turns into an unpleasant and frustrating process of trying to gain some answer besides a shrug or a blank stare.
It’s possible that most students sign up for my course because they think it will be an easy A, because anthropology has a reputation for being flimsy or whimsical or whathaveyou. You try cramming all of human activity and behavior and belief over our 3 million year (yes, 3 million, because Homo sapient aren’t the only member of the genus) history, and introducing the five distinct disciplines within the field into 15 weeks, and let me know how whimsical you feel. That notwithstanding, I try to make it fun and interactive. But when I’m the only one interacting, it becomes difficult.
I think a larger problem is that most of my young students are either fresh out of high school or have had no other college experience that they can use for context. What I’m learning is that learning is not the goal in the public education sphere, and hasn’t been for some time. These kids are trained not to respond, not to question, and certainly never to have anything resembling an original thought. In my class, and I suspect in most other classes, this is a huge problem. How are you supposed to be an adult if you don’t know how to think or interact?
Teaching to the Test Isn’t Teaching
Imagination is something all humans possess, although it takes different forms and is dependent upon the individual for a means of expression. It’s also the fundamental underpinning of natural human intelligence–this ability to abstract, to envision, to play. And it’s something that’s being kicked out of us during our years of formal education–not because the teachers want to do it, not because they want to build automatons for the State Machine.
I’ve known primary and secondary teachers who weep blood crafting interactive activities and shell out considerable amounts of their meager personal income in order to keep the spark of human curiosity alive in their classrooms. It’s a losing battle, that, when you consider that the State Machine mandates that the only thing that matters is performance upon standardized testing. This encourages rote memorization and pushing through material with little time for questions or exploration. It’s a feature of our industrialized educational sphere, and was when I went to school, too.
It’s this pressure on educators that causes them to inadvertently squelch natural intelligence. We “measure” intelligence in this culture based on a monolithic standard that doesn’t give credit for different types of intellectual strength. This root is problematic when you consider that I’m on the other end teaching people who don’t appear to have the sense of a box of rocks. Because what they seem to have internalized are not the facts or concepts they bubbled so many bubbles about on scantron sheets, but a broader concept that their job as students is not to think but to memorize. They’ve also been taught that being “wrong” is worse than being silent.
How did we get here? I think this question and realize that I already know, but the answer is long, convoluted, and digs up unpleasant realizations about this culture that no one really wants to hear.
Burning or Banning?
Books that teach are unpopular. I’m not talking about your Algebra book, but those that shove our noses into the muck of our social context. When we prohibit access to these unpleasantly honest works–many of them labelled “fiction” as if that were somehow of lesser value than hard and factual, dry and unpalatable assessments–we are agents of a sort of decentralized tyranny. So, schools that ban books are doing the job of fascists everywhere, even if they would squirm away from that rather bald comparison.
You see, I was a horrible student, given to causing trouble by asking too many questions and later to simply absenting myself entirely from the microcosm of high school. What I wasn’t doing was “hanging out with an undesirable element” or stealing or drag racing or defacing public property. Those activities were not to my taste. I was smoking, and drinking terrible coffee at a Waffle House, with my journal and a stack of books two feet tall.
I was reading Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, Wollstonecraft and Rousseau, le Guin and Buaudrillard and a host of other writers both frivolous and deeply academic all mixed up together. Many of these books have spent time on a banned books list in one or more school districts. Some, like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 have earned spots on those lists–and why? Because the core message of the book is dangerous to communities that want everything to be nice, organized, peopled by a citizenry that asks no uncomfortable questions.
I was imagining. I was looking for answers and truth, which are not always the same thing, about both Life and my life. Sometimes, I felt I’d nearly touched those truths or answers. Sometimes, I feel like I will chase them like a horizon line until I die. But, in all the time since my stint as a teen aged truant, I have valued hard truths and troublemakers. Those questions that some feel can be avoided by removing literature that encourages the young to ask them are essential to a healthy culture. They push us to embrace and explore change in healthy, relatively safe realms of the imagination.
But they are not comfortable. And those who dare to inhabit this discomfort inevitably invite their friends in, too. Questions, and literature that leads us to ask them, are treated as a sort of gateway drug in many parts of our social landscape. And those who deal in banned books, disturbing inquiries, revisionist history that flouts our carefully constructed social-historical mythologies–these are Troublemakers. The status quo reviles them as the peddlers of anti-social rhetoric. I have always prized them, having been one, myself.
I value them still, even when said troublemakers make my job difficult. Because I see, after only a few semesters, that my class may be the first, terrifying taste many students have of intellectual freedom. After a staid and cultivated landscape of subject matter–which they memorize, regurgitate, and promptly forget–here comes this crazy person dragging them into a hinterland full of dangerous concepts, wild and unruly thoughts. I tell them that everything that came before was part of a cultural narrative and its truth may not be quite as they believed.
Those with imaginations tend to get more out of the class than those who simply scribble every fantastical and barely believed word that comes out of my mouth.
“There are millions of people in the world who believe very different things than you do.” “Religion is a social system, designed by humans to encourage community cohesion and social harmony. And there are many deities, even some religions with no deity at all.” “Our species is one among many in the Homo genus, and we once share the landscape with at least one other type of human.” “Colonialism shaped both Western science and the way we perceive world cultures, and is alive and well in a new form, today.” (Cue expressions that look like physical pain or shock, whether the student is an agitator or compliant.)
I see the former, who may sometimes ask questions or engage in dialogue. The latter wrap themselves in the comfort of learned scholastic behaviors and obedient silence, as if offering no resistance to this terrifying new place will somehow preserve them. But it won’t, anymore than it will do them favors in their adult life.