I’ve been asked often enough what teaching philosophy I hold, what literary criticism, pedagogy, or politics I subscribe to. Recently I’ve been compelled to articulate this philosophy in a short essay for an audience outside of the school. Here is a draft excerpt on “Why I teach.”
As a teacher, I’m not interested in just reproducing class after class of graduates who will get out, become successful, and take their obedient places in the slots that society has prepared for them. What we must do–whether we teach or write or make films–is educate a new generation to do this very modest thing: change the world.
I came to a realization many years ago, in my first years of teaching at the urbanized Oak Park High School. As the young idealist with Madeleine Hunter and ITIP in hand, I simply knew that my techniques would inspire. While I don’t equate idealism with naïveté, these two were definitely paired in those early years. I spoke of the American Dream (for that was the curriculum of my American Thought humanities course) to these students who steadfastly and dutifully (but never intrinsically) absorbed art, history, literature, and philosophy as if from a foreign land. They were angry, and while I grew to recognize that anger, neither they nor I could find the language to articulate it, to work with it. The wake up call for me was a Sociology student of mine from The University of Michigan whom I tutored: “Have you ever grown up in the ‘hood?” he yelled that afternoon as he threw a chair across the table. I needed to offer my students a language to understand their consternation; I had to learn that language.
My graduate level studies were my effort to articulate that need. And I realized that my English and Government certifications were not adequate to the task. Media Analysis, Anthropology, Written Communication & Rhetoric, and Comparative Politics became instruments for change. I teach now what is sometimes termed a social-epistemic rhetoric. That is, I teach students in every class—history, politics, literature, writing, and speech—that knowledge is socially-constructed and that we are strongest as citizens when we understand how that knowledge is built, when we learn to speak a language which reflects it, and when necessary for civil discourse, deconstruct it.
I needed to offer my students a language to understand their consternation;
Anyone who says that our youth today have no interest in politics, in society, in what America is or should be, has not truly engaged them in discourse. The disenchantments we see, the apparent apathy, the anger, comes, I believe, from a lack of civic literacy, from an absence of tools they may use to take the world apart and understand its absurdities, from a sense of powerlessness to change them.
So my idealism is not dead, but it no longer comes from Hunter or the latest acronym-laden methods book, and I hope with some humility that it is not quite so naïve. It is, however, colored by a demand that my students and I engage fully what we encounter. It happens when my students discuss Heller’s Yossarian, recognizing that man without spirit “is garbage,” when they make speeches about the moral and pragmatic grounds for adopting a child from Ethiopia, when they write about how technology’s accelerating pace carries the consequence of robbing us of the time for reflection, of how and why India’s unlikely democracy has more good faith support than Florida’s, of whether Nigeria’s “chop-chop” politics is more or less corrupt than our Enron directors. It happens when my students meet directly with the Sudanese ambassadors to the United Nations, debate the US State Department’s Iraqi desk in their offices on US policy, sit amongst farmers from a dozen developing nations in Costa Rica to discuss GMO subsidies and labor rights, travel to New Orleans to help find homes for those forgotten or eat alongside our Detroit homeless and discuss the future of the city; it happens when they meet in Helsinki with the new EU president to discuss the virtues of democracy and Turkish membership, it happens when they consult with the Nicaraguan consulate on issues of nuclear policy and are invited to submit their reports to its government. It happens when, in 1999, they debate with 200 like-minded students on saving Kosovo without the use of force, forge a solution, cheer jubilantly, and then turn on the news that evening to find that NATO has begun to bomb the region. It happens when they stage a school walk-out to protest a principal’s ban on trench coats following Columbine. It happens when they sob over a loss in a local political campaign where they volunteered countless hours. And it happens when they speculate on the impact of a seemingly innocent fairy tale on children or wrestle in on-line discussion over the motives behind a 17th century poem.
Yesterday, one of my students offered me a now more common lament: that, having rejected CNN as a source for news and finding it difficult to discover credible sources for the slow-growing democracy movement in Iran, she could find no one to talk to anymore. Her eyes wider, she began to look with disdain upon the mass of Americans who could only follow the latest jean styles and Brad Pitt gossip. And so we talked of Hamilton, and whether or not the American Dream could be found through intellectual elitism.
At some point, and here are those moments of teaching miracle which I still stumble into more often than craft, the final shift for them is to see that their awakening to our culture’s work upon us is a responsibility as well: it calls upon them to provoke that understanding in others. It asks them to “talk back.”
And so we talk of literacies. What language allows us to speak back to a society which insinuates itself into the consumer mind? I’ve often felt that control of language is control of perception. The richer our writing, the more powerful our thinking. The broader our vocabulary, the more we know. How can we utter an idea for which we have no word? How can we speak back to a culture if we are made mute? Mikhail Bakhtin suggested that knowledge itself resides within discourse. A single voice knows only its limited self; multiple voices reveal the complexities of the world.
I’ve often felt that control of language is control of perception. How can we utter an idea for which we have no word? How can we speak back to a culture if we are made mute?
What is my vision for the high school? Merely that it be the center of a positive, critical, and democratic activism to better the local and global community through genuine success in arts, academics, and athletics.
Predictably, some of my greatest challenges are in combating the social forces which seek to derail student thinking. Substance abuse, in particular, damages or destroys student focus on their own educational success; it short-circuits their critical thinking skills, even while deceiving them into believing the opposite. I have taught students who have raped and been raped, had abortions and miscarriages, burned out their brains and nervous systems on hard drugs, killed themselves and been killed by others. The causes of these abuses to young people inevitably are drugs and the influence of a media-culture which perpetuates sexism and violence as normal. It asks students to believe that selfish and even self-destructive behavior is acceptable and even preferred. Untrained minds unwittingly accept the messages. Too often, all I can do for students who start to lose control is keep my door open to them when they need it.