Wednesday, May 04, 2005

To Get to the Other Side

I learned long ago that there are three answers to every question that begins with "why?" Those three answers are "to see if time flies," "to keep your/his/her pants up," and "to get to the other side." I've used these relatively flippantly and interchangably in everyday conversation for a long time, but recently I realized that the masterminds of the No Child Left Behind genre of education reform use the last answer with the same flippancy that I do. Sadly, when they say it, something actually happens as a result.

The truth is that the culture of educational testing is entirely based on getting to the other side. To teach towards one exam that is intended to be all-defining means, as many have pointed out, that very little else gets taught along the way. I did practice Iowa tests (the Illinois version of the ERBs, for the East Coasters who read this animal) with my second-graders last year, and some of the questions were just embarrassingly vague or even inaccurate. And yet it's supposed to be all-seeing, all-knowing, or if not those things then certainly all-determining. How can people being taught to the test be taught to question?

The underlying question, always, is whether the powers that be *want* people to be taught to question. I mean, the American dream would say so, that we're a democracy and part of what we are to teach towards is towards the ability to follow the mandate set in the Declaration of Independence (fuck off, I like clauses), but the fact is that we as capitalists *do* require a subservient class; capitalism needs laborers, needs cogs. To not allow the people who become cogs to go as far as they could go would contradict the American dream; therefore, it makes perfect sense in the logic of capitalism to poorly educate groups of people to begin with and then claim that those groups' capacities were limited in the first place, and therefore in becoming cogs they *have* gone as far as they could go.

So I argued in a response to Jonathan Kozol's SAVAGE INEQUALITIES in my Arts in Education class last year. A year and a half later, having done much more work in the Chicago Public Schools (it needs to be added here, in the interests of making my unconscious biases clear, that I did not attend public school), that argument still holds water for me and really disturbs me. I *always* favor question people over answer people, and therefore favor question teaching over answer teaching. However, it isn't just oppressed minorities who are being taught to the test; it's everybody. However again, public schools in areas with higher property taxes and therefore more resources (can we *please*, for a second, pause to consider how many issues in public education might be resolved if funding for public schools was based upon, say, state income tax rather than community property taxes?) have a lot more "extras," things that don't pertain directly to the test, which is one of the several factors that could lead those kids to do better on the tests. If you can *think*, you can figure shit out for yourself. If you're taught always to look for one answer, you can't figure shit out for yourself unless you know in advance exactly what the question is.

American society--I guess Western society in general--is really bad at seeing things at ends unto themselves. I can never really get my mind around whether that's simply capitalism or not, but I think it is. We simply are unable to process things, as a society, unless we see them as part of the path to monetary gain. I teach in a program that youth receive a stipend for participating in, in which they are intended to learn "job skills" in the arts, communications or technology. Now, teaching job skills as in professionalism or courtesy to high school students doesn't really happen, at least not directly, at least not in that form. However, I feel confident my students had a really positive experience, and being able to add that experience to who they are and what they feel will benefit them tremendously, as humans in general and probably as capitalist humans too. I (mostly) like the concept of paying the kids for what they do (mostly because it makes it a lot harder on me as an instructor), but why does everything have to be "job skills," to benefit what you might do later? Why do I always have to argue that theater can contribute to everything you do in the future--I mean, it *can*, I'm not exactly bullshitting, but what's wrong with enjoying something? (I was going to add " . . . and becoming a better person as a result," but I realized that has the exact same problem.)

Since all of my students and most of the students who benefit from the After School Matters program generally are members of underpriveleged minorities (racially and financially), that specific portion goes back to Lisa Delpit's (fuckin' fascinating) book, OTHER PEOPLE'S CHILDREN, which I also read in Arts in Education. Among about a million other things, Delpit would argue that couching these things as "job skills" and making them in many cases actually be so is to allow my students access to the language and mental framework of the culture of power. You have to know these things before you can change them from the inside; that's fair. But there's something about it all . . . at the elementary school where I taught last year, there was a "market day" where the kids had to learn about capitalism, supply and demand, from the inside. You put down enough money to buy things to sell at the market day, you charged a higher price for it, you saw what you earned. This is how to be a venture capitalist, this is how it works. And what's wrong with that, either? I mean, we *do* live in a capitalist world. But somehow this whole pattern of doing things to get to the other side, and the more roads you cross in your lifetime the better off you are, is deeply disturbing to me. Why shouldn't kids have days that teach them about other economic systems, as well, structured within the school system? (Yes, I know the answer's obvious. The question is at least partially rhetorical.)

I think this has to be a series, because I have a cold and am overwhelmed by these questions. But if you have contributions or thoughts, I want 'em.


At 2:45 AM, Blogger Lawrence said...

there really needs to be a t-shirt slogan, colored bracelet, or suitable ear-piercing placement representing the statement "i always prefer question people to answer people". i have to say it's quite comforting to know in life, no matter how far away you get from someone, eventually the two of you are going to come around to the same realizations. heh i suppose it's been too long since we've actually talked in real time....


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