Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Thinking in the Trenches: Teacher as Soldier

    In their April op-ed in The New York Times, "The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries," Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari compare teachers to troops and ask why we blame educators for the failures of education policy, but not soldiers for the defeats or setbacks in war.  Assuming education comes down to a war on ignorance, they argue that we should support the teachers on the ground fighting on behalf of our nation’s kids, just as we support the noble efforts of our troops on behalf of our country.  When battles are lost, we may bolster our resources, adjust our strategies, or redefine our goals, but we don’t scapegoat the men and women in uniform.  The hypocrisy in our culture’s response to teachers and troops seems clear.  Where we grant that soldiers need more resources to confront tough conditions, we expect underpaid and overworked teachers to transcend all obstacles and limitations to student achievement.  We idealize the sacrifices of troops but demonize “ineffectual” teachers who fail to produce “results,” regardless of their immeasurable passion, dedication or devotion to students.  It’s an enlightening analogy, if not entirely for the reasons the authors make explicit.
     Our culture’s view of soldiers is complex and contradictory.  If the soldier as heroic symbol is almost universally revered in our national imagination, the flesh and blood humans who fight in wars are often treated as disposable once they return to civilian life as veterans.  To the degree that we admire the image of the brave warrior, an image that transcends the corporeal and moral limitations of mortal men and acquires mythological status, we can trace our admiration to a source.  We might be impressed by a soldier’s courage, his strength and perseverance, or her willingness to be martyred for a cause.  We might value the loyalty and camaraderie between soldiers fighting for a common goal.  Even the word “soldier” has enough positive connotations that it can be used to define devotion to purposes as divergent as war and peace.  However, there is one aspect of being a “good soldier” that our society has celebrated perhaps more than any other, and that is the unblinking acceptance of authority.  Although the Nuremberg Trials set a precedent for challenging "Superior Orders" as a defense for war crimes, soldiers are still largely expected to adhere to the hierarchical chain of command.  It is in this arena of absolute, unquestioning duty that the comparison of soldier and teacher breaks down.
     Imagine for a moment that teachers in America were given not only the same respect, but also the same symbolic treatment as soldiers.  With No Child Left Behind, President Bush launched what amounted to a war on low student achievement, or at least this was his official target.  Imagine this had been an actual war.  After initial campaign misgivings, President Obama enthusiastically continued this war, and when the public asked too many questions about charter schools and standardized testing, a ubiquitous bumper sticker won them over:  Support the Teachers.  We must support the reform agenda pushed by the Federal Government and its corporate backers in spite of all the research and statistical evidence that it is misguided.  Why?  The teachers need us to get behind them.  They’re out there teaching those test questions every day, plugging away at the standards like a shooting target, so the least we can do is valorize their hard work. 
     If this reasoning sounds familiar, then what is odd about the substitution of teacher for troop in the message?  Where troops are expected to follow orders without challenging the rationale of their leaders, teachers should ideally ask questions and engage in critical thinking and skeptical inquiry.  Teachers have an indispensable role as intellectuals in our democracy.  We can no more relinquish this role than we can abdicate the responsibility to nurture creativity and critical thinking in our students, but we will be punished for teaching students how to think; in a hierarchical, authoritarian society, intellectuals are reviled.  The attacks on teachers are a troubling sign that our democracy is slipping away.
     It is important to note that soldiers have not infrequently been intellectuals and artists.  According to Kenneth Slawenski’s new biography of J.D. Salinger, the antiauthoritarian Holden Caulfield took shape amid the trenches of World War II, literally, with bombshells exploding around Salinger’s typewriter.  Before that, World War I soldiers like Wilfred Owen wrote poems condemning the glorification of war. In spite of the cynical way that the government used “the troops” as a tool to garner support for an immoral war as recently as the invasion of Iraq, there are those soldiers who saw the forest for the trees and objected to their mission.  There will always be those soldiers, but too often they are dismissed as disloyal or insane.
     Meanwhile, the soldier, the steadfast, unselfish soldier whose ultimate sacrifice becomes the circular justification for war remains a potent symbol for patriotism.  In patriotism’s perverted logic, the war must be just because people are giving their lives in its name, and it is unjust for people to give their lives to an unworthy cause.  As to the clause after the comma: indeed. That is why we must defeat unworthy causes and end all unjust wars, on behalf of soldiers, civilians, and humanity.

     And how must we respond to the metaphorical war on authentic, democratic education?  If not teachers, then who are the troops in this war?  The answer, of course, is students, the young and innocent who follow orders that we teachers, in the chain of command, are meant to give them, the kids who do as they are told in the ever-dimming hope of attaining success and a decent quality of life.  It is in the name of students that the reformers attack teachers or anyone with intelligent criticisms of their policies.  The implication is that we must not care about our kids if we're not on board with their notion of reform.  "Support our kids" can easily degenerate into a mindless slogan to instill obedience in educators.  Moreover, the bloated rhetoric about student achievement disguises an indifference to the complexity and autonomy of real kids; they are not mere receptacles of our knowledge nor are they instruments of our best-laid plans.  They are free to make of their education what they will, and we must not deceive them on this journey.  To paraphrase Owen, “my friend, you [should] not tell with such high zest, to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie, dulce et decorum est,” to sacrifice one’s real education for a passing CAHSEE score and the promise of a low wage job or a violent death in a foreign country; in other words, “pro patria mori.”


Monday, May 2, 2011

Motives Matter

In English class we devote considerable attention to motives.  We ask about character motivation and we may also wonder how characterization reveals an author's design or purpose.  We may inquire into our own reasons for responding to the text as we do, exploring as we read our social conditioning or personal experience.  Motives can be confessed or concealed, implied or announced, clear or convoluted; perhaps they are not even conscious. 

In education we sometimes forget to question our motives, though at minimum we pay lip service to objectives and goals.  Our intention is to teach the standards within a certain timeframe, but why?  Are we merely following the rules of our profession, reflexively doing our job in the conventional language of duty? Or do we embrace the standards and the prescribed pace of our instruction on their own merits?  These questions awaken older ones:  Why did we become teachers in the first place?  Did we have a passion for a particular discipline, or an empathetic ease with a specific age group?  Did we consider our role as teachers in an institutional setting or the classroom in relation to the larger society?  

Let's agree that we want to prepare our students to function well in our society.  What does that even mean?  Does functioning well mean accepting the current status quo, being well paid or content, not asking questions with no satisfying answers?  On the contrary, perhaps high-functioning people ask many questions and assume the psychic burden of all their provisional answers.  If that is true, we don’t just need to reflect on our own motives as educators, but we need to encourage students to reflect on theirs. 

“Teachers hate this question, but why are we doing this?”  Many of us have heard this comment or one similar to it in relation to a lesson. Most of us will admit to feeling on occasion a spasm of annoyance when it is asked.  “Why are you being contrary, kid?  Why are you asking me to dredge up a reason tailor-made for your unique sensibility when I already know, or think I know, why you are doing this?”  We sigh at the energy it takes to explain our unexamined assumptions.  Can’t our students take it on faith that we know what we’re doing, that our authority deserves their respect and deference? 

These days, few are taking our authority and expertise on faith, and ironically this is one of the reasons we expect students to adhere blindly to our most prefabricated lesson plans, those we implement rather than create.  The more we surrender our agency as teachers to the czars of privatization, the more we expect our students to do the same.  As we carry out orders that belie our claim to autonomy, we settle for the simulacrum of authority in their enforcement.  We don't make the rules, but we do impose them on our students, and when they resist we perceive it as an affront to our dignity.  But what if my students, however confused and disorganized in their rebellion, are right to resist, and what if their resistance is less an insult and more a test of my conscience?

Beyond honest debates about practice, pedagogy and policy, we might think long and hard about the motives of some of the biggest backers of the education reform crusade. Intelligent and well-meaning people can of course disagree about the best way to assess learning, or the most effective way to provide equal access to a decent education.  One hotly debated topic in public educational circles these days is whether and to what extent to offer incentives for good performance on standardized tests.  Some teachers and schools have determined that grade enhancements are in order when struggling students improve on high stakes exams, or as I see this practice, intrinsic motivation twice removed. 

On the other end of the spectrum, from capable students we suspect are tanking their results, many do not hesitate to withhold college recommendations.  Their lack of effort is bringing down the whole ship, the reasoning goes, the school's reputation not to mention individual teacher reputations, so why reward their ingratitude?  Besides, shouldn't laziness or perverse obstructionism disqualify these students from getting an extra boost into a good college or job?  Why aid their unjustified aspirations and loose these students on an unsuspecting work world?

Anyway, they may not be the end all and be all, but some of these exams are useful measures of what our students are learning.  They may be mandated by federal or state policies, imposed on us from above, but what's so wrong with that in principle?  If students are sabotaging the results, aren't they in effect sabotaging their education? 

 Even some who are fiercely critical of standardized tests and their material consequences may believe that our best defense is simply to pass them with flying colors, using incentives or any legal means at our disposal.  If we have made this pragmatic calculation, perhaps we should invite students to define their own conscious motives instead of enticing them to "buy in" to the testing program. 

We can debate these important questions assuming the good intentions of all parties; perhaps this is a prerequisite to nonpartisanship and diplomacy.  Or we can acknowledge the ambiguity of motives.  While plotting Othello's downfall, Iago pretends to be his loyal friend.  He later notes that the "parallel course" of his advice to Cassio would indeed be good and helpful were it uttered in a completely different context.  "When devils will the blackest sins put on, 
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows."  

If the purpose of the standardized testing movement is to educate students better, then however much we may question the strategy or call for a more balanced approach to learning, we are more likely to respect it as the current law of the land.  By this logic, if students refuse to follow testing protocol, they are rejecting the best efforts of our national elite to give them a solid education.  In short, they are acting stupid, and if we need to offer incentives to make them act smarter, so be it.  

However, if by contrast these exams are tools of the Corporate Establishment to dismantle public education, then we have got to ask why in the world we are advancing our own destruction.  If this testing culture is by design a way to justify the takeover of public education by private interests, then as its enforcers we are blindly acting out a tragedy of epic proportions, and we are not merely doing violence to our own interests, but more poignantly to the interests of our students whom we have a sacred duty to protect.  As we learn from Othello, motives are more instructive than outward behavior and appearances.  Sadly, honest people are often the last to recognize the duplicity of others, a fact upon which Iago relies.  Othello's ignorance, however, does not absolve him of responsibility.