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Posts Tagged ‘education’

This Upworthy post & video entitled I Never Thought I’d Want To High-Five A Teacher For Yelling At A Student, But I Was Wrong has been going around on Facebook (and presumably elsewhere) in the last few weeks… I’ve seen a number of people express great support for it, as we all quite often, and quite rightfully, do when we find a video that calls out societal wrongs and aims to make a difference. I felt quite differently.

I cannot express how angry and upset this video made me. It took more than half an hour for a friend to talk me down. I put off writing this post for a long time, and considered not posting it at all, for fear of the feedback. But, I am still terribly offended, appalled, disgusted, with this teacher for treating her students this way, for thinking it okay to do so, and for thinking this an appropriate way to teach about racism, and I continue to see people posting positively about this video, so I feel I need to say my piece. If we disagree, I hope we can discuss it civilly and calmly, focusing on issues of pedagogy and discourse, without saying anything that should make anyone feel personally attacked.

The video opens with the teacher talking to students about listening skills, and body language, in a very severe, harsh, authoritarian sort of manner. She clearly expects the students to behave as she dictates, and to reiterate things as they’ve been taught, without question. One student, a young lady in a bandana, attempts to say something about how strict adherence to a set rule doesn’t actually work in all aspects, or doesn’t apply in all situations, and the teacher not only shuts her down, but does so in a manner that sets up the rest of the class against her. The teacher says “bring it on, bring it on,” as other students laugh, and then as the student attempts to make her voice heard over the commotion, the teacher says “now, does that make sense, what you just said?” The student continues, setting up a “yes, in general it’s like this, but..” sort of argumentative structure, but is rudely interrupted by the teacher who tells her STOP, you’re getting too wordy.

I apologize for this pop media reference, when it should have been a picture from a famous civil rights protest or the like. I was surprised at how difficult it was to find a good picture of a single person standing up amongst a crowd, to speak out against injustice. And this one served the purpose…

She raises her hand. She attempts to play within the rules of a normal classroom, signalling that she has something to say, but is politely waiting to speak rather than shouting out. She is denied again, and harshly, being told that if she is raising her hand, it means she’s thinking about what she wants to say, rather than truly listening to what others are saying. A fair point. But, even so, this strikes me as terribly controlling, overbearing. Clearly, this is no normal American classroom. As the teacher continues to attempt to shut her down, the student continues to speak up. Finally, she says “I don’t care, because it’s wrong, and you persecuted her for standing out, and you persecuted him for standing out, and the only change that ever happens is when people stand out.” The teacher then says, “Martin Luther King…”

I was ready to applaud. I thought the girl’s reaction was precisely what the teacher was looking for – that people should not take things sitting down, that when someone demands you have to think like them, have to think their way, without questioning, that people should instead speak out. I thought the teacher was going to say “Martin Luther King spoke out against injustice. He stood up, and spoke out, when few others would, and when the status quo and the powers that be were very much in opposition to him.”

Imagine my surprise when she instead completely discredits this student’s courage, her outrage, her willingness to stand up against injustice, by saying “Martin Luther King was shot and killed. Are you in any physical danger here?” Seems to me somebody is missing the point. Martin Luther King spoke up, spoke out for what he believed in, despite the physical danger. This girl, too, stood up and spoke out, despite the dangers of a verbal chastising, detention, suspension, a failing grade, or whatever other consequences a teacher might be able to dole out.

And yet, as the video continues, we are led to believe that this student, the one student who was willing to stand up to an authoritarian presence, the one student who felt the injustice of the situation so strongly that she became quite genuinely upset, was in the wrong. That she’s the one who didn’t get it. And that all the students who simply sat there silently, accepting what the teacher told them without question, were the ones who “got” the lesson.

I don’t disagree with this teacher’s message whatsoever, of course, but I very much take issue with her methods. There is a very important lesson to be learned here about racism, to be sure, and it is a lesson that I think everyone should learn. But I do not think that being domineering and controlling is the way to do it. For such a complex, touchy, and deeply personal, topic as racism, I believe the best way to do it is to have open discussion perhaps based around readings, a film, a lecture, or the like. Allow people to ask questions. Allow people to ask why. Allow people to share what they have experienced, or what they have been taught, and help them work towards a more progressive or enlightened understanding. This is how I learned about indigenous issues in Hawaii and the Pacific (and by extension, indigenous, post-colonial and ethnic/race issues around the world), and I am extremely grateful to my professor for teaching in this manner. For understanding that if I came into the class believing certain things about the United States, about imperialism, about native peoples, it was only because that’s what we are taught in public school, and by popular media, that I am not an inherently “racist” or bad person, and that with exposure to new narratives, evidence, discussion, and debate, I can come to a new and more progressive understanding.

When you force a paradigm, a discourse, down someone’s throat, telling them you have to see it my way, you have to think how I think, without allowing for raised hands, without allowing for questions, that is how attitudes are enforced in fascist and totalitarian regimes, not here in the United States. If this were a lesson on civil disobedience, if this were a lesson on how Nazi Germany and Maoist China and totalitarian Japan ran their education system, and on why we in the free and democratic United States oppose their methods, then having the student defy the teacher, to speak out against having an ideology shoved down her throat, would be the right answer, the correct ideal outcome.

Just because your lesson, your message, is a morally superior one, an anti-racist one, does that entitle you to use such methods? How is your forcing me to unquestioningly believe one thing about race that much different from forcing me to believe a different thing about race? What sets you apart from so many others, in Germany and China and Japan, who have in such a domineering controlling way forced students to adhere to a given ideology?

I’ve heard of this “experiment” before, and indeed remember being taught about it from a very young age, albeit in a slightly different context. The metaphor was not whites and blacks, but rather Jews and Gentiles. We were taught that this was similar to how the Nazis ran their classrooms, and their society. The Jews and the Gentiles were separated, the Jews forced to wear a yellow star on their shirts identifying them as different. And so they were treated differently. And if anyone spoke out, they were not only harshly punished, but they were made an example of, so that the other students would remain in line. Adherence was reinforced not only through fear, but through ideology, making the students believe that aligning with the teacher, adhering to what teacher taught, was the right, good, proper, way to be. And in talking about this experiment, the entire point of the discussion, the entire point of the experiment, was for the students to realize that the set-up itself, the division and different treatment of people by whatever features, is unjust, is inappropriate, and is something to be opposed. In other words, within the metaphorical context of this experiment, Mrs. Elliot represents the authority figure enforcing the institution’s racism, by herself dividing people up in her classroom, and treating them differently, and as such, she should not be obeyed, but should be resisted and opposed.

Now, I don’t know what this student would have said were she allowed an opportunity to speak; many who have shared this video on Facebook have suggested that what she had to say was racist, in opposition to or resistance against the underlying lesson being taught. I’m not sure where they’re getting that from, but, have not we all struggled with our own prejudices? Have we not all struggled with the belief systems, the myths and discourses about our identities that we were raised with? Were not a great many of us raised, for example, to believe in Columbus as a great noble explorer, in Manifest Destiny and western expansion as great, noble things that allow us to have the great God-given country that we have today? Were we not taught that the United States has never been an imperialist/colonialist power, and that in fact, the US is from its origins, ultimately anti-imperialist & anti-colonialist? As someone who has myself struggled very much with unlearning these lessons we’ve all been taught in the past, and as someone who has often felt personally under attack simply for being who I am – accused of being racist, misogynist, imperialist, oppressor, purely because I am a white male from a well-off suburban New York family, regardless of my actual beliefs, attitudes, experiences, actions – and most importantly, as someone raised from a very young age with stories of how the Nazis spread and reinforced their ideology, I sympathize very much with wanting to stand up, to speak out, against the forceful blanket imposition of an ideology, whether that ideology is good or bad.

What lesson have these students learned? That Ms. Elliot is a harsh bitch? That one should not ask questions, should not question or challenge, or even consider or think about what a teacher tells you, but should just accept it at face value because she’s the teacher, and she’s right? Is that the lesson we want our students to learn? Is that what it means to be an American?

The list of things that disgust and appall me about this video could fill numerous pages. But I think this post is long enough as is, and so I shall leave it here.

Laura Willard, who created the post on Upworthy, writes “Many years ago, I could have been the girl who walked out, not understanding how this feels to the people it affects. I’m glad that’s no longer the case.” As for myself, not that long ago, I too could have been the girl who walked out. I’m glad that my teachers welcomed me back into the room more warmly, less harshly, using discussion to help me come around, rather than excluding me as harshly as this teacher, Jane Elliot, does here. I am glad that my teachers allowed me to ask questions, so that I could work through the answers myself, to come to decide for myself what I believe, and why I believe it, for such is a much stronger, more genuinely belief than something you are forced to agree to, simply because your teacher said so.

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Sometimes you write a post thinking you’re really sort of contributing something to a conversation… and then afterwards, you read it over and the whole thing seems so atari-mae, so obvious, like it really goes without saying. Hm… But, given how many articles I see every week emphasizing career prospects and monetary earning, maybe there is some value in stating what I think should be a rather common sense idea.

An article in TIME magazine from this week asks “What Colleges Will Teach in 2025.”

This is just the latest in a slew of articles on the subject of what colleges should be teaching, what the purpose of college is, what the end goal of attending college is, and how we should be evaluating academic quality or success.

In addressing these questions, countless commentators focus on professional training, and monetary success following graduation. Another major thread focuses on creative thinking skills. I cannot fault either of these, and of course agree that both of these are of great importance. However, recently, increasingly, I have come to believe that college needs to pick up the slack and take up the role once associated chiefly with high school – namely, turning out informed citizens.

I don’t know how much high school curricula have changed in the last (nearly) 15 years since I completed high school, but in my personal experience, there is so much I have learned in college and in graduate school about identity politics, race, (post)colonialism, and feminism and gender relations, and indeed about law, politics, and economics (in short, “civics”) that I never learned in high school.

There is a logic, an underlying reasoning, behind public education in general, and behind the teaching of civics, of US history, world religions, etc. at the high school level in particular, that speaks to the great importance of having our neighbors, our countrymen, ourselves, be informed members of society. Critical thinking skills are a big part of this, but so too are historical/cultural knowledge, among other subjects. I can certainly appreciate why World Religions, for example, might be seen by students, and by many commentators, as somewhat frivolous, as somewhat extra, as not essential for someone’s professional training into being a scientist, lawyer, doctor, or whathaveyou. The classic argument of “when am I going to use this?” The answer: every day.

I could write an entire post on just the value of being able to question your own religious beliefs in order to have a more meaningful relationship with your own upbringing, identity, tradition, and values. But, even putting that aside, if the type of education students receive in a World Religions class were more privileged, more emphasized – that is, if more college graduates, more members of our society, knew more about Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism, than fewer people on our streets would get attacked for some perceived association with “terrorism.” Imagine where race relations could be today if more people in our society had taken more classes in Black Studies, Chicano Studies, Asian-American Studies, Indigenous Studies. And if students took more courses in History (or certain other fields, certain other departments), especially non-Western history, then, in their everyday lives, in speaking with one another, in writing opinion pieces, in voting for politicians or voting for policies, they could speak and act in a more informed, less misguided, manner, on a myriad of topics, from the war in Syria to atrocities in Africa to the perceived economic threat of China.

The potential topics are nearly endless. Stereotypes and misbeliefs abound in our society, as they do in all societies. Mistaken beliefs about what the Constitution says and what it means. Mistaken beliefs about the history and impact today of colonialism/imperialism. Mistaken beliefs about whites, blacks, Asians, Indians, Arabs, and Hispanics. Mistaken beliefs about Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. Mistaken beliefs about gender and sex. Mistaken beliefs about the place of America in the world. The list goes on and on.

Of course, I want students to be financially successful, and to be successful in pursuing their career ambitions. And, of course, I want students to be able to think for themselves. And, I suppose that the idea of doing research, taking the initiative to learn about something, to analyze it critically, to choose to want to become informed, and then to do so, could all be included under the rubric of a curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking. But, that research, and the informed opinions that result, are essential; they are absolutely crucial, I believe, beyond the mere condition of being open-minded, and asking questions.

There are a multitude of things I do not understand, the fine intricacies of contemporary American politics, economics, law, health insurance policies, etc. certainly being among them. But, learning what I have in the last ten or so years about East Asian history, about Asian-American history, about Hawaiian/Pacific history, about colonialism/imperialism, about race/ethnicity/identity discourses, about media discourse, and about gender performance, has absolutely opened my eyes to all kinds of things in the world that are profoundly important to my being a more informed member of society – in how I see myself, and how I interact with other people, as well as in how I view political issues and how I act upon those views – and I have come to believe, more and more, that these kinds of things are truly crucial, essential, in the education of our next generation.

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There are a plethora of articles out there on different ideas about what’s wrong with higher education, and how to fix it, and if I read even a decent percentage of them, I’d be here all day, every day, reading them and responding to them. Which is part of why I don’t generally go out of my way to read such things, or to respond to them. But, then, sometimes, something comes to your plate, e.g. when it is shared by a friend directly on her blog, and so you end up reading it, and then having thoughts that you feel you need to get out.

I don’t in any way presume to have all the answers; these are very complicated matters, and I have not yet worked out my views or positions entirely. But, here are my thoughts at the moment, in response to a blogpost entitled “The Inability of Poor Students to Navigate College is Not the Problem, College is the Problem,” posted on the blog Peer-Reviewed by my Neurons.

In his blog post, Mike Horowitz presents the problem in a wonderfully cogent manner:

Nobody questions a system that’s supposed to be the key American vehicle for social mobility, but which often has a sticker price of $150,000. If I told you a poor African country had a system that allowed impoverished villagers to have a middle class life in the city, but that it cost $20,000 to take part in it, you would immediately say it’s perverse. Yet that’s essentially what we have in America.

Yes, well, when you put it that way. The cost of education in this country is ridiculous. I was fortunate to be born into a relatively well-to-do family, in the top bracket of the family income question on every application. But that doesn’t mean that my family, on an income of over $100,000/year, would have been able to pay upwards of $30-40,000 on my tuition and fees every year, out-of-pocket. The idea that $100,000/year places you in the top bracket, and thus rather ineligible for need-based financial aid, when your family still absolutely can’t afford it out-of-pocket, and when there are plenty of other families out there with much, much higher incomes, still seems an absurdity to me, but that’s a subject for another time. Returning to the point, yes, in a society where we expect, or should I say demand, that everyone go through college (at least) if they want a solid, middle-class life, we are charging way too much for school, and putting far too much financial pressure on families, and on students, to pay for it.

Horowitz offers four points towards a solution. Frankly, (spoilers), I find these quite problematic. But, let’s go through them.

1. Unbundle the bachelor’s degree. Horowitz argues, as many others have, that we should allow career-minded folks, especially those in the STEM fields, to be able to focus on just those fields, just those requirements, and that general ed / distribution requirements are an unnecessary burden, making it much more difficult, and more expensive, for students to get through school. He writes that “knowing a foreign language appeals to our elitist notion of a liberal arts education,” but while I have no problem admitting to being an elitist, I think there’s a lot more to it than simply appealing to some elitist ideal.

What is the purpose of college? Is the purpose of college job-training and professional qualifications? A lot of people, a lot of departments/universities, seem to be going that way. But I stand by the idea that education is not purely for the purposes of providing qualifications for a career – it’s about producing a more educated and capable citizenry. It’s about teaching critical thinking skills, the ability to form an argument, and an expanded understanding of civics, economics, history, politics, and social issues beyond the minimum they teach in high school, thus allowing you to go out there and be an informed voter, a racially/culturally/gender-sensitive member of society, who is capable of managing their own finances, of understanding political issues, of drafting reports, etc. etc. This isn’t about some elitist ideal that everyone should be well-versed in the elite cultural classics simply for the sake of cultural elitism. It’s about very practical concerns towards producing a better citizenry, a better society, in which every member is less racist, less sexist, less imperialist/ultra-nationalistic, and more capable of making informed, intelligent decisions in everything they do, from the political positions they support and the way they vote, to the products they buy. When I look at my STEM-major students who, in their fourth year of college, have never analyzed a document, have never written a college paper, I seriously wonder how these people are going to interpret the news with a critical eye and make informed political decisions, and how they are going to draft reports, in quality English, in whatever science/tech/engineering career they end up pursuing.

2. End College Admissions & 3. Make Classes Free.

End college admissions? I’m not so sure what I think about this one. It’s all in all far too complex an issue, and I just don’t know what to say, or where I stand. It involves far too many questions and far too drastic/dramatic a logistical change for me to even begin to think about how it would shake out.

As for free classes, yes. Absolutely. Public universities should be free, as they once were. Or, at the very least, there should be some free option. Charge for Columbia and NYU, but not for CUNY, as was the case not so long ago. My grandparents, Holocaust survivors who came to this country with basically nothing after X years in a series of concentration camps, followed by X years in refugee camps, struggled the entire rest of their lives just to put food on the table. And yet, they were able to put their sons through college because Brooklyn College (part of the public City University of New York / CUNY system, and a pretty decent school) was free at that time, as public school should be. As an article on democratic socialism I quite like explains (emphasis added),

Unfortunately, in America, the public education system ends with high school. Most of Europe now provides low cost or free college education for their citizens. This is because their citizens understand that an educated society is a safer, more productive and more prosperous society. Living in such a society, everyone benefits from public education.

EXAMPLE European style social program for college: Your college classes are paid for through government taxes. When you graduate from that college and begin your career, you also start paying an extra tax for fellow citizens to attend college.

Question – You might be thinking how is that fair? If you’re no longer attending college, why would you want to help everyone else pay for their college degree?

Answer – Every working citizen pays a tax that is equivalent to say, $20 monthly. If you work for 40 years and then retire, you will have paid $9,600 into the Social college program. So you could say that your degree ends up costing only $9,600. When everyone pools their money together and the program is non-profit, the price goes down tremendously. This allows you to keep more of your hard earned cash!

4. Charge Money For Acquiring the Credential, Not For the Learning.

In his last point, Horowitz suggests that education itself should be free, and the monetary charge should come into play only when seeking to acquire the official credentials that prove that you’ve earned those qualifications.

I can appreciate the sentiment – people are paying enough, in terms of time, effort, opportunity cost, to take these classes, and shouldn’t information/education be free, anyway? On some level, I sympathize. I really do.

But, isn’t it true that every time you’ve had to pay some exorbitant amount for just a piece of paper, you’ve felt nickeled-and-dimed? Two hundred dollars for the SATs, $40 for the college application fee, $100 for the diploma, $15 for each copy of the transcript you want to request to have sent to your grad school… Never mind “nickel-and-dime,” this is costing me Benjamins!

And then you get into a situation where people know they have the knowledge, the skills, and that all that’s standing in their way is some bureaucratic technicality of the piece of paper, the official credential, that they either can’t afford, or don’t wish to pay for on principle (who likes paying tens or hundreds of dollars for some office worker to just hit “Print” on their computer?. This leads to either frustration when employers insist on the piece of paper – a piece of paper which, ultimately, represents nothing at all but that you have paid your forty bucks or whatever it may be – or, it leads to a total circumvention of the system, when employers take you based on your skills and knowledge, acquired through free classes, even without the formal credential.

If it were possible to have everyone’s college degrees paid for by government funding, and/or by grants and awards, such that no one had to take out loans or pay out of pocket for college, I think that would be a wonderful thing. Just like many of us enjoy for at least some portion of our graduate school careers. But I don’t think that charging money for pieces of paper is the answer.

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