Posts Tagged ‘education’

Very gradually working through the backlog of blog posts I drafted months ago and never finished with. This one is from this past August, not that I think it makes a difference.

This NY Post article entitled “Gen Z is made of zombies — less educated, more depressed, without values” popped up the other day on my Google Android News Alerts or whatever it’s called – I don’t actively follow or read the NY Post – and I was just so struck by it. Not by any means the most egregious example of conservative ‘news’ or anything like that, but just, struck me as indicative. It’s so important, I think, to understand the narratives or worldviews that others live according to. To understand what traditional worldviews or narratives are, how they’re articulated, what precisely their reasoning and values are, so that we can understand the world we live in, how it was built, what it is exactly that people are still fighting for today, and why they believe what they believe.

Again, this is by no means the most egregious example of such things – goodness knows we have an endless supply of that sort of thing today. But even so, to look at something so seemingly mundane, and realize that for so many people, this is marketed as objective truth. This is the basic, white bread, reality in which they live, and depending on what they read or watch, they see no counter-narrative. The fear-mongering, and the sort of self-blindness, the narrow-minded refusal to even consider – to even allow yourself to be aware of – counter-arguments or other ways of thinking, is just… really something.

Now, I know that half of you reading this would be able to articulate things far better, would have a lot more to say, more critically, more insightfully, so I guess I’ll apologize ahead of time for my fumbly, imperfect attempt to recognize and address everything that’s going on here. But let’s get started.

First off, the headline: “Gen Z is made of zombies — less educated, more depressed, without values”

Immediately, I have to wonder what he’s talking about. Speaking of education, it’s been quite a while since I’ve been in the classroom, but I’ll certainly be the first to admit, there are vast bodies of knowledge that young people (I’m thinking of first-year starting college students) aren’t aware of. From popular culture that’s a just a bit too old for them to whichever canonical big-name literary authors they didn’t cover (or don’t remember) from high school, to aspects of basic geography, to the difference between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, to a whole array of skills having to do with reading and writing and research and basic grammar & spelling, there’s a lot they don’t know. So, I’ll certainly grant that. But “less educated” than older generations? I have a strong guess of what he means by that, but for the moment we’ll put a pin in it and just say I think it’s a fair bet that a great many NY Post readers – and I’m not picking on them specifically, but let’s just say a very significant portion of those older generations they’re talking about – also don’t know half these things. They’re not masters of geography, history, math, science, literary history, themselves.

More depressed? Well, there’s a lot to be depressed about. Stagnant wages and skyrocketing cost of living. Tuition and student loans. Endless GOP efforts to destroy reproductive freedoms and numerous other types of freedoms. Police brutality and institutionalized racism. The already dreadful impacts of climate change. Gun violence. There’s a lot to be depressed about.

But perhaps more to the point, more people are being recognized and treated. It’s doesn’t necessarily mean there’s more mental illness than there used to be – it means people who were previously forced to suck it up and deal, people who were forced to live with horrific mental and emotional difficulties, to struggle through life, are finally being given the recognition, sympathy, and treatment they deserve. The willful ignorance, the blindness, on this is just unbelievable to me. I don’t understand why stoicism, struggle, “suck it up,” and so forth is such a powerful value in our society. Why hold onto this? Why make it your hill to die on (your hill that you walked up uphill both ways, in the snow)? One could easily list countless examples of medical advances and other technologies that make life easier. If you don’t want people treated for depression do you also not want them treated for physical ailments and disabilities? If you want people to learn to be tough, and to tough it out, and that struggle makes people strong, then what are you yourself doing driving a car instead of walking, sitting around in your cushy house with central air and numerous other amenities instead of toughing it out like your parents and grandparents did, and working a nice white collar job in an air-conditioned office with an ergonomic chair instead of killing yourself in a coal mine? Medical and technological advances, and societal changes (incl. acceptance of difference, etc) make life easier for people. Make it better. Why don’t you want that?

And we come to “lacking values.” We can already guess what values he means, but to me it’s just such an astonishing statement. I know I’m speaking from a very biased sliver of Gen Z, of whose opinions and perspectives I am exposed to, primarily in my role as a classroom teacher and as someone who spends way too much time on TikTok and Reddit – I have no doubt that millions of Gen Zers think quite differently, and that my limited experience is not necessarily the most representative sample. But even so, from what I see online, the idea of these kids “lacking values” is just absurd to me. They care about climate change and the environment. They care about sexism and misogyny and gender inequalities. They care about racial and ethnic disparities and matters of intersectional privilege. They care about the impacts of neo-colonialist and neoliberal “values” or ideologies upon our world. They care about freedom of religion, and freedom from religion. They believe that all people are equally human, equally deserving of respect and rights and freedoms, regardless of their gender, sexuality, disability, or ethnicity. They believe that there is no one way to be a valid family. They believe that people have inherent worth beyond the economic value of their labor, and that access to a basic minimum of quality of life – access to water, food, clean air, shelter, health care – should not be dependent on whether you can work for it, whether you can afford it. They believe that no full-time job should pay so little that one cannot live off of it.

You may disagree with their political perspectives, but to say they don’t have values requires a very intentionally narrow definition of what does and doesn’t constitute “values.”


And we haven’t even gotten into the article yet. Well, here we go.

“When he shows pictures of celebrities like Kendall Jenner or Miley Cyrus to his students on a screen, they immediately recognize them. But faced with photos of policymakers like Mike Pence or Nancy Pelosi, the children stare blankly. “

Yeah? And? Classic example of conservative handwringing and fear-mongering. That’s just the reality of the society we live in. I’m a couple of decades older than these kids, and I think when I was their age I cared less, and knew less, understood less, about news or politics than they do. These days, I do read enough and watch enough to know Pelosi and Schumer from Greene and Gaetz. But, so what? That’s partially just from being kids, and it’s partially just a natural part of the world we live in. I promise, you could ask most adults, most Boomers, and they’ll also know plenty of celebrities better than they know politicians. And if they happen to be someone who does know these politicians, watch them squirm and be utterly clueless when it comes to foreign politicians. Or politicians from a different state than theirs. Or whatever. The expectation that people need to know politicians is such a narrow criterion… out of all the fields of knowledge in the world, this is the *one* you really want to focus in on, alone? I don’t deny it’s important, of course. But….

““We need to brace ourselves for what lies ahead. I write this book as an alarm bell . . . a project born out of worry, concern and frustration.” “

Frankly, I have nothing but hope. Not to say that all old people are conservative or that all young people are progressive, not by any means. But we are gradually – far too slowly, but even so – gradually moving towards a world where more people believe more strongly in the urgency of addressing climate change, where more people believe more strongly, on a fundamental level, in the importance of reproductive health; the validity of non-cis gender identities; the importance of easier, more affordable, access to quality health care. These shifts may be an alarm bell for old money, for corporate interests, for deep-seated pearl-clutching Christian fundamentalists and white supremacists, for certain particular institutions, but if you’re concerned about the collapse of society, I think you need to think about what exactly you mean by “society.” One very particular set of visions of what America is, or should be. And, yes, maybe those visions, those versions of America, are under threat. But is that really such a bad thing? I think people need to get over themselves, get over their panic attacks and realize that the United States isn’t going anywhere. American quality of life isn’t going anywhere – if anything, people are trying desperately to fight to be allowed to make it better. The only things being threatened and attacked are institutions and norms that are holding us back from a freer, better, more equitable, society, with better quality of life.

 “barren of the behavior, values and hopes from which human beings have traditionally found higher meaning . . . or even simple contentment.””

I can’t guarantee what he means by this, but it reminds me of the way that transphobes talk about “learning to be happy as the gender [sex] you were born as [assigned at birth].” Instead of thinking outside the box, thinking critically, being open to the idea that anyone should be free to live as they wish – instead of thinking about what we could do to open up that door, to stop restricting ourselves and others in such nonsensical arbitrary ways (what you can and can’t wear, or how you can or can’t be, because you’re a man or a woman) – instead, they say “you just can’t.” Suck it up and deal.

Why? For what purpose? To what end? Why is there such a valorization of suffering, of self-restriction? Why is there not just a willingness but an outright insistence on allowing the world to be such shit, refusing to believe that we can even try to want to make it better?

Rather than believing that we should engage in understanding the wider world and how to fix it, how to make it better, instead Farley wants us to focus on creating, inventing, contentment where it doesn’t exist. Finding a way to be okay even when things are not. Suppressing or denying mental health issues, non-cishet gender identity or sexuality, or whatever it may be that’s bringing you difficulty. Find reassurance in church, family, or community, and learn not to address it, not to fix it, not to make it better, but to deal with it.

I am not an out-and-out atheist, and I hesitate to get involved in a conversation about critiquing or criticizing religion. I myself still believe strongly in, and practice to a certain extent, Jewish practices – not just secular but also religious – as part of my culture, my heritage; as something that connects me to identity and tradition; something that gives live richness and texture, and that brings me comfort, community, spirituality, and a connection to my roots.

But, as much as I hesitate to get into deeper, more extensive conversations about religion, I cannot help but feel like to at least some extent, in the specific context of what Farley is talking about here, religion is a way of helping you to invent or to believe in meaning that’s, for lack of a better word, out of left-field. It’s bringing you contentment not by believing in actual hope in the world, but by shutting yourself off from seeing or engaging with the wrongs and problems and difficulties in the world.

“teachers once helped students become their “best selves” by putting the focus on curriculums, lesson plans and test scores”

Is that really your best self? Rote learning of a standard curriculum? Don’t get me wrong, by all means, a thorough working knowledge of math and science, history and civics, and so forth, are vital skills for any person to have to go out and be a successful and educated adult out in society. By all means, it would be ideal if the vast majority of members of society, regardless of their occupation, had enough math ability to handle the various things that come up in their everyday lives, enough understanding of science to believe and understand what they read in the papers and to be able to deal with basic domestic or otherwise in-person everyday tasks, to take care of yourself, children, and pets on some basic level, to envision what would or would not make sense to do in the kitchen or in the garage, all sorts of things like that. (Not to mention, having enough familiarity with the basics of science to make rational decisions about mask-wearing, vaccines, and so forth, and to understand why we should trust scientists. But that’s a whole other can of worms.)

Whether Farley himself is this blind, this ignorant, or whether he’s intentionally trying to mislead or something, I don’t know. But, the idea that such a standardized curriculum is truly helping students become their best selves is just unfathomable for me. What are we, children of the corn? Think about all the negative stereotypes Americans, especially conservative Americans, have about Chinese or Japanese children being raised as robots, rote memorization, and so forth. Are you so blind to the ways that American education is just the same, or would be just the same if that’s where you really want to place your emphasis?

“that’s given way to trying to “understand” young people through programs emphasizing suicide and depression awareness”

Yes, yes it is. God forbid we should try to actually understand people, engage with our children and our students as human beings who have thoughts and feelings, who have a diversity of perspectives and experiences. God forbid we should take mental health seriously, as actual illnesses that should be acknowledged and addressed. God forbid we should listen to people and allow them to voice their own creative insights and innovative ideas, to contribute their perspectives or ideas, rather than just ramming a standard curriculum down their throats.

God forbid we should allow students to believe that freedom of expression is allowed and celebrated in our country. That we should be free to explore and experiment and express ourselves as we wish. God forbid we should allow students to dress as they wish, to explore and forge their identities as they wish, rather than feeling like there’s something wrong with us for simply wanting to be kind instead of stoic, or tough instead of relenting, for simply wanting to be graceful instead of strong, or handsome instead of pretty, for wanting to wear makeup and dresses or for wanting to not be pressured or obliged to do so.

God forbid we should allow students to believe that the infinite differences between us – in how we feel emotions, how we have different pain tolerances or differing levels of bodily strength; different tolerances for cold or heat or illness, or whatever else it may be – are okay, are natural, are human. That we’re all equally human, all equally deserving of sympathy and support, and that there is no need to force ourselves to suffer and struggle just to live up to some false notion of “normal.” God forbid we should take people seriously when they say that traumatic experiences have had real mental and emotional impacts on them, that they deserve sympathy and understanding for the ways they’ve been hurt, and for the ways that certain experiences “trigger” hurtful, damaging, emotional or mental reactions for them.

The lack of sympathy for others, the bold, outright, refusal to even entertain the notion of sympathy, is just unbelievable to me. Suck it up and deal. Suppress it. Push it down. Deny it. Be strong.

There are those who are just clueless, and enforce this damaging bullshit on the rest of us. Whether we’re talking about mental health, or things like toxic masculinity. But then there are also those who are secretly suffering, who are so messed up inside themselves, so hurt, and who don’t believe that they’re allowed to deal with it in a healthy way – who they themselves have been taught they have to be strong, to deny it, to suppress it. It makes me so sad, and so angry, that this is the world we have to live in. So many men who are the worst offenders at imposing their toxicity on others, and if you could only get them to break down and be open, you’d find that so many of them hate themselves, or hate society, for not allowing them to show emotion, to show weakness, not allowing themselves to show vulnerability. Not allowing themselves to show kindness, softness, gracefulness; men would be embarrassed to say so but to go through your entire life always thinking you could never be pretty, never be cute. That there are so many simple, basic, stupid things that you can never be allowed to experience – from heels to skirts to makeup to ponytails – just because you were born a guy. Far from the most major serious issues in our society, I know, and far from how serious the problems are that women face everyday at the hands of men, I know. But real, nevertheless, and so emotionally destructive. It eats away at you.

“Religion has been replaced by “a mass culture of ‘banality, conformity, and self-indulgence,’ “

If religion isn’t conformity, I don’t know what is. And, quite frankly, I may be extrapolating here, but I’d wager the religious, family, community-centered life Farley is imagining, is pretty fucking banal and self-indulgent too. Frankly, it gives me anxiety just thinking about it. Pressuring people, forcing people, to have to live according to a particular vision of what family and community should look like. What ideal American married life should look like. Talk about banal. But also, everything we’ve been talking about up until now has been about conformity. About ignoring people’s individual identities, their individual mental or emotional individuality, to instead teach them a standard curriculum, raise them in a standard religion, fence them in to a standard set of family values and structures… if that’s not conformity, I don’t know what is.

I’ll admit, I don’t think he’s 100% wrong. I’m sure there are elements here of social interaction – interacting with other people and not just with devices; people feeling more distant and less well-socialized and more lonely and depressed because the patterns of our social interactions have changed – there are things here that are real problems. And by all means, I am sure that having a loving supportive family, good connection with community, etc., are valuable and positive. I was extremely lucky to grow up in what I feel was an excellent family environment; parents who really cared about how I was doing in school, who were always home in the evenings and provided dinner and who talked to me and my brother over dinner; a family that took us out into the city, or elsewhere, to go to the beach or the park, to museums, theatre, and concerts. Family that loved us and supported us in all sorts of ways. And having community through the synagogue that I’m sure provided really good things for me growing up that I can’t quite name or put my finger on. And I can easily envision that if we knew our neighbors better, if we had a stronger sense of community right there in the neighborhood, yeah, I can easily imagine the positive advantages of that. The incredible group dynamics, the incredible interconnection, that one experiences at summer camp, on-campus small liberal arts colleges undergrad experiences, 3-week summer intensive paleography workshops, these sorts of things, as compared to what I have now, living in a big city, by myself, surrounded by kind, well-meaning, strangers but strangers nevertheless, seeing friends maybe once every few weeks… yeah, I can easily imagine the advantages of a stronger community environment for children, for families, for adult life in general. So, Farley and his ilk aren’t 100% wrong there.

Farley ends, of course, with a needlessly patriotic call to blind nationalism.

“I never hear young people professing love for their country,” Adams writes. “I used to. But not lately. That is when I really think teachers have a front row seat for America’s decline.”

What is this love for country supposed to be based upon? I mean, my grandparents / great-grandparents on each respective side of the family came to the US escaping persecution, and they found in their new lives in the US greater freedoms, greater safety and security, greater opportunities, and in the end, greater well-being if not outright prosperity. I don’t know the details at all, but my great-grandparents on my mom’s side came from Russia. Whether they were fleeing outright antisemitic violence, or just simply poverty, lack of opportunity, something like that, I’m not sure, but they did quite well for themselves in the US. My grandparents on my father’s side – my father’s parents – survived one of the worst manmade horrors in recent memory, one of the worst crimes against humanity in all of modern history. And when asked where they would like to be settled after the refugee camps closed – I have the documents – they explicitly answered “there is nothing for me anymore in Poland.” There is nothing left. And so they came to the US, and while my grandfather and grandmother worked their hands to the bone, working 80-100 hours a week or who knows what it was, barely managing to put food on the table to raise five boys, just a generation later, several of those boys did quite well for themselves, truly comfortable lifestyle, and more than comfortable enough to support the remaining brothers. Working white collar jobs – not cushy, not easy, still grueling and exhausting and time-consuming in their own ways, but still – owning a home, owning a car or two, going on vacations, paying for their kids to go to college, not being utterly devastated by medical bills, retiring on a handsome pension. And one of their grandkids, me, well, I don’t own any homes or make anywhere near $100,000 a year, or have almost any money saved in the bank, but I’ve had the privilege of traveling the world and have earned a PhD and am living a comfortable enough life like my grandparents couldn’t have imagined. Free of the kind of poverty they experienced, free of the degree or type of antisemitic violence they experienced. When we look at life in Russia or Poland today, or in a great many other countries around the world, there is a lot to be happy about, about living in the US.

And I do worry sometimes that many of my fellow progressives don’t see that or don’t believe that. Is it just that they’re not voicing it? That they do believe in it but they’re just not saying so? Perhaps. I do think that critical views of American policy, domestic and foreign, can get taken too far. People act as though the US is the worst country in the world, the most violent, the most unequal, the most exploitative, the most racist, when it’s certainly not. There’s a lack of balance, a lack of proper perspective, there.

But even so, what is the obsession with love of country? Again, why? To what end? I’d much rather have children who are worldly and cosmopolitan, who are intelligent and knowledgeable, who are emotionally and mentally healthy, who are creative and innovative, who are physically healthy, monetarily comfortable, and free to live their lives as they choose, than I care about having children who revere the flag, or “love America,” whatever the hell that means, or who hold Jefferson, Washington, or whoever else up on some imaginary pedestal… for what?


I don’t know what to say by way of a conclusion to this, except to say that the divides in our country are perhaps greater than they’ve ever been – or, at least, those divides are on display in a way they’ve never been before, more widely shown and known. And articles like this show us clearly just what it is that a lot of people in the country are thinking; their perspectives, their concerns. It’s important to know what others think, to try to have some grasp of what it is they want to push, and what we need to be pushing back against. What the thinking is behind some of their positions, and what the emotion is. Where are there spaces for mutual understanding, for compromise, or even for agreement?

I think that people on both sides like to paint the other side as ingenuine, as just out for power, as using any tactic they can just to “win.” But people have real reasons for believing what they do, for supporting what they do, and for having the concerns and worries that they do. I may disagree with a lot of these people, often rather vehemently, and my stomach may turn and my head grow faint with anxiety about what happens if they manage to get their way – but understanding what’s out there, understanding just what it is they’re arguing for, and why, is crucial I think (rather than dismissing it out of hand as just power-hungry nonsense, or as just “evil”) for understanding where we are as a nation, as a society, and how to try to move forward.

As frightening and worrying as all of this is, however – as indication of what many millions of our fellow Americans do think and believe, and as an indication of the kinds of rhetoric they consume, e.g. through trusting the NY Post over other papers as their chief source for how think about things – at the same time, I am hopeful. Because, as I have said already, granted I don’t really know just what the breakdown is in what percentage of Gen Z is where on the left-right political spectrum, but fingers crossed, it feels like overall we’ll be moving in a good direction with them. It’s an uphill battle – they’ve got an even harder fight I think than my generation did (and still does; I’m not that old!); on numerous things, it really feels like we’ve fallen significantly backwards in recent years rather than make continued progress (however slowly). But then again, perhaps there is some truth to the saying that “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Eventually we have to reach a point where climate change denial, transphobia, certain other things reach their last gasp, however vocal that last gasp may be, and we really can move forward.

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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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