Friday, November 11, 2011

Occupy Nowhere

On the weekend before our high school's screening of "Race to Nowhere" I ask myself what inspired me to take part in the grassroots movement surrounding this film. For the past year, I have been dreaming of the potential that could be unleashed by a community dialogue sparked by the many issues it raises; it is the planned discussion to follow the film more than the passive viewing experience that I eagerly anticipate.

The film itself is vulnerable to dismissal as an incomplete and halting analysis of what ails education. People will complain that it is anecdotal and lacks statistical credibility. The dominant culture refuses to take anything seriously in education that does not present itself in "measurable" or easily digestible terms. The lived experience of teachers, students and parents in all its human complexity will have trouble fending off the reductionist juggernaut of measurable data. Although the personal stories animate sound research, the film does not focus on proof as much as stirring testimony. As a heartfelt attempt by one mother to form a coherent narrative about the policies that are endangering childhood and leading to an increasingly mechanistic society out of touch with humanity, I found it deeply affecting. Admittedly not the aesthetic achievement of "Waiting for Superman," its logic is more scrupulous but less unified than the other film's simplistic propaganda.

Upon viewing the film a second time in preparation for Wednesday night, I am struck by the cumulative impression of so many kids under the gun, scared for their futures, humiliated by their failures and in constant dread of plummeting from the artificial heights of their achievements. In my 10 years of teaching, I have come to believe that test scores and grades constitute the artificial heart of learning that threatens to replace permanently the natural rhythms of curiosity and creativity. If learning could look in the mirror, would it see a grade or number reflected back? Or would the portrait be something far more complex, fluid, dynamic and intangible? Again and again I witness my students obsess over a grade-check like addicts in need of a fix. When I was in high school we got our grades once a semester. Nowadays, in the age of computerized grade programs, students can check their grades once a day if they are so inclined, and inclined they are. With welcome exceptions, the most common question I get when students approach me is "how can I raise my grade?" "How can I find out more about what you were teaching us?" is rarely uttered.

We have created absurd conditions for student learning: rotting infrastructure, bloated class sizes, demoralized teachers, and a chronic sense of emergency permeating our schools and classrooms. Our academic culture is one of high stakes and high alert, survival of the fittest when the future itself seems poised to foreclose on our kids' survival, never mind their dreams. The high stakes tests have come to represent their ultimate value in a society of unforgiving bottom lines where poverty and futility is as likely to claim their efforts as is their college or career of choice. Who wouldn't be terrified under such circumstances? Who would have the time or ease to reflect on the big existential questions when one's very right to exist is being tested?

In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein writes about the triumph of the "free market" through the manipulation of people who are stunned by disaster. Education bears out this doctrine in direct ways as private interests swoop in to "save" us from the manufactured emergency of failing test scores while we are understandably disoriented from the shocks and blows of budget cuts. Ideologues push policy down the barrel of a union-busting demonization of teachers. Charter schools and the profitable industry of virtual learning are the private sector's panacea for education the same way the so-called free market is the panacea for economic crises. In a more metaphorical sense, I think we are seeing something in education akin to the "Test Doctrine" where students, teachers and parents have acquired a low-performing disaster mentality brought on by damning test scores, and the spaciousness of authentic learning has collapsed into the desperate drills of do or die. Knowledge has been conflated with one's self-worth to the degree that many young people feel their very humanity is on the line when they learn. Being objectified as a number in school takes a real human toll and discourages critical thinking. It's hard to think critically when you are wired to criticize yourself incessantly, when your attentions are less captivated by the wonders and puzzles of the world than by a crippling fixation on your own ego. This siege mentality makes our young people today ripe for authoritarian and economic exploitation. Fear and insecurity are the emotional building blocks of a politically subservient population that is easily dominated by unquestioned systems of power.

Ironically, while we foster an ever-present fear of individual failure in our students, we enshroud the true high stakes of learning in the jargon of test achievement and accountability. Students are adrenaline junkies riveted by the perceived horror show of their grades and test scores while the real existential threat of Climate Change and its Corporate agents demand their full engagement. After reading Naomi Klein's latest article, I am struck again by the urgent intervention between truth and power that public education can make in our society. As a teacher who wants to protect her students' common future, I know which side I am on. That is why at our union's last Rep Council Meeting, I moved for SRTA to support the growing Occupy Movement on behalf of the 99%. The vote passed 27 to 6.

There are people of all ages camped out in cities across the country and the world, but more and more I take note of the young revolutionaries of our times, the kids who are here to teach all of us what it means to be creative, critical and visionary, to stretch the shrinking parameters of a deadly status quo and to make the mind and the heart accountable to each other. I wish for all young people to awaken to their full potential to change the world. Nowhere leaves a lot of space for humanity to occupy. But first we have to leave the race.


  1. This says it all, get out of the race. Listening to tom brokaw and the cowherd saves the calf story
    this morning, to join together as community and save the community by saving each other.

  2. I remember seeing (or reading?) a documentary about the disenfranchised in countries south of our border when I was in college that had a title that perfectly fits what should be, I think, our rallying cry against the status quo of testing and corporatization: "Basta ya!" Enough already!