Saturday, August 30, 2014

Is Our Culture Really So Sick?

I was reading an article on Yahoo news the other day--yes, I do that, and fairly often, for some reason--and it asked the question, "What if we paid our teachers like professional athletes?" See it for yourself HERE. Yeah, what if?, indeed. And weirdly, some folks I actually respect offered their thoughts on the subject, like Dana Goldstein, whose book The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession is high on my list of reading related to education and reform for the coming fall.

In the article Goldstein is quoted saying, "Kids will want to grow up wanting to be teachers just like kids grow up wanting to be pro athletes and that would be a really positive thing." While I feel like there's some serious context missing, taking it at face value, I dislike and disagree with Goldstein's comment because it feeds into our greater cultural narrative that the only people who truly experience success in this country are those who have a lot of money -- and therefore are the only ones anyone could ever aspire to be like. It feeds into the reformers' narrative that the only reason we have students attending school in the first place is so that we might prepare them for their future careers.

One of the things you'll hear me talking about a lot on this blog with respect to my own personal pedagogical approach to the classroom is, what can we do to showcase to our students ways they might be better adjusted, healthy adults from an emotional standpoint? I know so many people who are so completely dysfunctional in their every relational endeavor, be it familial, romantic or any of the myriad other forms. It's hard enough out in the world thinking you're perhaps all alone, misunderstood, not cared for, that we'd then say school is merely prep for your life as a cog in the machine is so profoundly callous and opposed to the ideals I think any functional society should aspire to, so instead I say: let's care about the whole student. Let's be there to listen to their problems if they're having them. Let's not look at our kids as purely numbers and data and plan accordingly to "fix" their problems with learning while ignoring their problems as people (oftentimes the two are inextricably related).

In my classroom I'm there to listen to my students, show them that I'm a human being and help them to see there's nothing about being human they ought to be ashamed of. We all makes mistakes. We all hope to learn from them. Sometimes we don't for a while. Sometimes we never do. But maybe we find ways to be more conscious and considerate of those around us than we were before. I've never had a situation in which I had to teach a student (or any other person for that matter) how to be less selfless, that they were too giving, that it was becoming a detriment to them, despite how well meaning said hypothetical student intended to be. Such selflessness is extremely rare. And moreover, what I'm saying is, just become someone isn't the world's most selfless person doesn't mean there's anything wrong with that person.

You try to be a better person, maybe you misstep or fall back into old habits, and then you realize it, and you keep trying. Repeat. Be human.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

James Tadd Adcox DOES NOT LOVE (Or Does He?)

I'm going to take full credit for the title of James Tadd Adcox's debut novel, Does Not Love. That's unreasonable, but here I am, doing it. I say that because--interesting story to me, the narcissist--I remember years ago meeting up with Adcox for beers and he told me about the manuscript he was working on, which was the aforementioned debut novel.

He had been thinking of calling it Does Not Love but the feedback he'd been given about this title to that point was not especially enthusiastic. And I, bravely perhaps, confirmed that he was the one who was right and all others were wrong. Does Not Love was the only choice for a title. And so it was and so shall it be.

Ah, but I'm no hero. Just a guy who likes reading books, in particular good ones (whether I know the book's author or not). And in fact, Does Not Love has lived up to its wonderful title in arguably every single way one might hope for, in the world. It is a story that has the characteristic Adcox charm. He also uses a very spare prose style that I find extremely pleasing. I'd put him, as an ideas writer, somewhere in the range of Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, with a little of something fabulistic, as well, to round things out. In fact, more like Wallace (and Barthelme and Saunders) and less like DeLillo, this is a novel that really relishes its more humorous moments.

But--gah--to refer again to DeLillo (and sort of contradict what I wrote in the previous paragraph), the novel with which I think Does Not Love shares its greatest affinity is White Noise (arguably DeLillo's funniest novel). There is that undertone of a controlled society, a normalized society, a society of intellectual people proving their frailty and always failing. These are your doctors, your lawyers, your pharmaceutical executives. It is a society of decline, and obviously in decline. It takes place in a fictional Indianapolis, one built around an imagined but no less powerful pharmaceutical industry.

Consider yourself forewarned that much of what follows will be heavy with spoilers.

And for all of its hypothetical, alternate universe narrative backdrop, there's something too familiar about this place. Maybe it's familiar because the things that happen in Adcox's fictionalized Indianapolis have an eerie tangibility, like we haven't gotten there yet but we will (this idea comes through in some of the darker aspects of works by forward-thinking writers like Wallace or Saunders). Or maybe we have already gotten there, as James Tadd Adcox recently offered evidence of on his social media accounts, the preceding link's article related to a plot development of his novel that seemed to me while reading it wildly satirical but only because it also seemed so likely a future for the corporate-oligarchy America more or less under construction at present.

Turns out construction is much further along than I had realized, as people in the small town of Kannapolis (I see the parallel there to Adcox's choice of setting), North Carolina have become voluntary subjects of experimentation by the new and growing medical industry there. People aren't purely motivated by money in Kannapolis, though. In quite a few cases, they're interested in learning something about their familial history through biomapping, and perhaps unlocking the secret to cures for congenital diseases, at least for future generations. In Does Not Love characters are simply human test subjects desiring some means of securing an income -- and so exists an exploitative industry to trump all others. The gap between peoples' hope that they are contributing to something very important and the callous avarice that could result from their contributions makes Adcox's prognostication all the more grim, and, alas, all the more likely.

Big-pharma--its representative corporation being Obadiah Birch Adcox's novel--(and the bigger notion of the future of American industry, how it will be perpetuated, who it will benefit, and who it will toss out)-- arguably, plays the greatest role in Does Not Love, touches everything, reminiscent of ubiquitous forces like White Noise's "Airborne Toxic Event" and Infinite Jest's "the Entertainment." It is pernicious without itself having an identifiable target, a purpose, other than to exist ad infinitum. Unlike the other two forces named, which we know exist by human contrivance of some kind and whose effects are beyond anyone's ultimate control, a company like Obadiah Birch has an important role in society, it tells you. And though there is something false and flimsy feeling about this proposition, this corporate entitlement: its necessity, it is the lie spoken enough times that it becomes the truth.

If you ask me, dystopias, fictional or otherwise, will have nothing to do with traditional forms of government run amok (other than maybe to the extent that they can be useful to willful factions and / or individuals). It won't logically reflect where we're currently headed as a society. If a dystopia ever comes to pass, it will almost certainly be defined as rule by powerful monied interests. The dystopia (or something not too far removed from a dystopia) Adcox appears to envisage in Does Not Love is exactly that sort of world. The situation for the average people, proletarian and lower-party members alike (though each in their own way), who inhabit the novel might best be described with the following quote from this Jacobin article: "Neoliberalism ... sees people as little more than variable bundles of human capital, with no permanent interests or even attributes that cannot be remade through the market."

And so I'd like to take a look at the two main characters of the story, Robert and Viola, a couple who live and breathe this essence of failure and their subservience to the powers that be. Deterministic failures, as well as things intrinsic to their relationship and themselves, punish the couple fairly regularly--with particular respect to the inability they share--which "failure" nonetheless falls primarily on Viola through society's subtle and not-so-subtle cues--to bear a child. The couple suffers through many miscarriages and a kind of enervation, a mode of dysfunction, takes the place of whatever good feeling they once felt for one another (love seems always to have been in short supply between the two, just one of many ways the novel hearkens back to its title).

Robert falls into the murky gray category of generally meaning well but also wanting things to go his way, a category in which most of us reside. He's moved by passion as much as he is logic, and it's by the former more than the latter that he attempts to repair his relationship with his wife, and subsequently, repeatedly, succeeds at doing more harm than good. Viola, for her part, is looking for something that Robert can't offer her, something like a sadomasochistic sex life, and perhaps that sort of relationship in total. And because Robert can't offer this to her--and her feelings for him seem to be waning for a great many other reasons, both articulable and not--she seeks other partners who can and will. There's an elderly judge who is familiar with the inner workings of The Secret Law (who functions more as someone with whom Viola has an emotional affair than anything sexual) and an FBI Agent brought to Indianapolis to help solve the mysterious string of murders of people affiliated with Obadiah Birch, who subsequently meets Viola and learns everything he can about her innermost desires, probing and prodding her along -- think Fifty Shades of Grey meets John Grisham meets all those good writers I've already mentioned.

The couple's relationship decays and the city decays but the decay is leading somewhere, to something, to a powerful and destructive climax that yields surprising insights regarding how anyone might love or might not.

What I'm saying is you should read this novel.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Happy Birthday To Me! Earlier This Week!

I received a very unexpected birthday greeting in the mail last Monday. It was from my favorite author, George Saunders! I had no idea he even knew it was my birthday. I mean, yes, important date in the annals of history or something like that but still!

And that's when it was revealed that my beautiful, wonderful and just all-around great fiancee, Ashley, put him up to it. Of course she only asked that he send me a birthday greeting through email, but he was insistent that he just send a card through the mail.

Thank you, Mr. Saunders! I have nothing but praising things to say about you and your work, and I'm glad to add this little bit to the long list of those things:


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Jane Bowles and "Two Serious Ladies" and Men and Women in Our Messed Up World

Jane Bowles' work epitomizes great humorous writing by American women in the earlier part of the 20th century. She and others, like Dorothy Parker, absolutely skewered convention with their portrayals of things like societal decorum and its especially forceful effect on women. I hate to think about the considerable voices that didn't have the opportunity to reach a much deserved audience of readers, especially when I think about how many great female writers are out there doing inspired work in the contemporary literary landscape. I'm glad, at least, we have Jane Bowles. You should be, too.

Quick digression that relates to Jane Bowles: I tend not to be fan of contemporary realism. There are probably plenty of good reasons for this (and maybe my feeling this way doesn't require any explanation; indeed, maybe it has no true explanation) but let me offer one of my own theories here, regardless. I find that realism, the idea of depicting in fiction whatever is closest to the way the world "actually is," works best in times of considerable stability. Then the question can be reasonably asked, "If all my needs are met, in terms of say 'Maslow's Hierarchy' (and even more so those situations in which they're met with abundance), then why am I still so profoundly unhappy?" As you might imagine, especially in the last one hundred years--and particularly in the time of America's mid-20th century economic boom--the portrayal of women's struggle to find meaning in the tedium of everyday life (see Revolutionary Road) has demonstrated this idea pretty wonderfully. Bowles' work in particular does well in capturing the struggle, portraying it in all its amusing horror. 

For instance, Bowles demonstrates in Two Serious Ladies (a great novel first published in 1943, which if you haven't read it, do so! Now!) how everyone in society helps to reinforce societal decorum. Those forceful conventions that tell us how we ought to be. We're all a bunch of happy cogs in the reinforcement machine. It doesn't matter if you're a "good guy" or a "bad guy" or those middling little places between. Men assume their hegemony over women and accordingly women must be compliant, even while recognizing the ludicrous nature of this relationship, and then women often in their own ways reinforce one another's compliance. 

But there is good news for us! And here it is: these societal tendencies are ripe for tearing apart. Skewering them is good, because it draws attention to their absurdity. I love Two Serious Ladies for the same reason I've loved so many other female authors of the last hundred years' work: it's another story that shrewdly sees past the bullshit. Even better, writers like Bowles are willing to get their hands dirty and present everything in all its ugly -- its too true humor. And it is ugly. It is too true. It's the things we hate to talk about, the things that can't be unseen.

All you have to do is open your eyes, though, be less of a narcissist. I'll admit, as one guilty narcissist myself, it's difficult to do. And like a lot of things, you aren't always able to, but even on your own narcissistic terms, you want to see past the bullshit, because it's a better world for you, narcissist, if it's a better world for everyone. It's true! And that's not just some singing/dancing-around-the-maypole hokum. When everyone's needs are met, everyone wins. If even just one person's needs aren't met, well, that's the starving alligator in the aquarium. If its stomach isn't filled with something then it will be, whether that's you, the fish who occupies the aquarium with it, or the ample portion of red meat it feasted upon an hour ago. Take your pick. My point is, as succinctly as I can say it, injustice doesn't exist in a vacuum, and everyone is obviously affected by it, even, say, those men (or minority of women) in power.

And while Two Serious Ladies is undoubtedly concerned with power relations, especially those between men and women and women and other women, I can't deny it's a little reductive to think of the novel purely in those terms. This is a sweeping work, a work that encompasses so many aspects of human nature, whether we believe them to be constructed or built upon thousands of years of evolutionary hierarchy. Rather than rehash plot, I'm going to go over--in more or less chronological order, to be sure--moments of the novel that especially captured my attention and got me to thinking. It is a novel of relationships, of how women and men relate, and in particular the kinds of relationships two specific women seek.

The two main characters are Mrs. Frieda Copperfield and Miss Christina Goering. They are both at various times the narrative's primary subjects. These two women seem to gravitate toward relationships with either men or women. Copperfield seems interested in forging more and more female friendships, while being largely uninterested in whatever her husband is up to at any given moment, happy to leave him to his own devices for long spans of time. (He, for his part, never seems too put out by this.) Goering, arguably the central protagonist, is constantly moving, purposefully or otherwise, in the company of men, often very unappealing men. In fact, she has her pick of men of every different variety of horrible throughout the story.

The complex idea that appears to be at play here is that women shouldn't be searching for fulfillment through vicarious relationships with others, men or women. It's in themselves that women can only reasonably look, despite what society and their own compulsions might suggest as viable or preferable alternatives. These people they're finding to help enrich their own lives, they'll only disappoint, in the end. It's the story of women not being allowed to live for themselves, completely autonomously -- at times, creating their own shackles, and more often having the shackles put upon them by outside forces. The point is, it's all messed up. We see moreover the uneven footing women and men were on in terms of relationships, which I like to believe has changed for the better, nowadays. What I can say with certainty is, at least in modern times we openly acknowledge there are issues of violence, both sexual and non, being perpetrated against women -- despite the obstinacy of certain contemporary factions, whose members most often are predominantly men. At least violence of all kinds against women is part of the cultural conversation. In one particularly telling scene, the culture of rape is forcefully--and against all odds, humorously--brought to light. It made an impression on me, one of the deepest of the entire novel. I'll get to that scene in greater detail in a moment.    

To begin, we as readers are greeted with a prepubescent Christina Goering and her devotion to the dogma of something like Christian religion, though I believe the narrative avoids getting terribly specific about that. In fact, the component of religion feels entirely ancillary. Miss Goering, as an adult, shows no real predilection for proselytizing. No, it's her devotion, the adherence to dogma, that is most significant about this introduction to her character. It's this early characteristic that will follow her into adult life, allow her to take on faith things about other people that her rational self opposes entirely and rightly so. There's a lot of hilarious stuff that happens here in the beginning, too. We're witness to a hapless playmate named Mary being constantly used in Christina's dogmatic games of worship. One particular moment of hilarity is when, after Mary innocently asks "Is it fun?"--referring to the "game" they're about to play, "I forgive you for all your sins"--Christina matter-of-factly replies, "It's not for fun that we play it, but because it's necessary to play it."

As the story turns to Christina's adulthood we soon learn that she's got a lot of money and not a whole lot to do. Early in this chapter, Miss Goering arrives at a party where she makes the acquaintance of a man named Arnold, the first of many male disappointments. Arnold does grow on her, after a time, in a decidedly unromantic way. She also comes into the first of two narrative meetings with Mrs. Copperfield, with whom we're made aware she's already acquainted. Mrs. Copperfield immediately resents Arnold and his presence, failing to acknowledge him over and over again, though he knows her and wishes to be introduced to Miss Goering.

Miss Goering, meanwhile, proceeds to regale both Mrs. Copperfield and Arnold with a story from earlier in the day, about a building across the street from her sister's home. The building was in the process of being torn down, so that most of the front of it had been removed. All of its rooms were therefore exposed, rooms that still had furnishings (which brought to my mind images of the bombed European apartments of World War II). It began to rain on all the exposed furnishings. Then a man entered. He grabbed a coverlet, and Christina said, "I could see him more clearly now, and I could easily tell that he was an artist. As he stood there, I was increasingly filled with horror, very much as though I were watching a scene in a nightmare." Mrs. Copperfield asked if the man jumped to his demise (or at least to a great deal of pain). He did not, Goering informed her, to which Mrs. Copperfield remarked, "Amazing ... I do think it's such an interesting story, really, but it has quite scared me out of my wits." On the one hand, you could take Mrs. Copperfield's hyperbolic comments as the cloying attempt of someone who desperately wants people, and in particular here, Christina, to like her. And while I do believe that's the case, there is a kind of horror to Christina's story. I can't avoid the fact that Arnold is introduced just moments prior to Christina telling it. It doesn't appear to be a coincidence. I refer to the everyday horror inflicted by this scene. An incongruous and malformed world in which everything that should be stable and fixed, is in reality falling apart or in the process of being destroyed. Arnold, at the vanguard of the many men we see Christina meet, seems to reveal this everyday horror in its much more subtle iteration: as a man who brings very little to the table, has little to offer, is content to eat and nap and in general mooch off the kindness of others, whether they be his parents or Christina or someone else. All that everyday horror, listlessness and boredom. All embodied in one banal man.

Then we meet Arnold's parents, whose father proves especially notable. Christina agrees to accompany Arnold home, always under a non-sexual pretext (this happens several more times over the course of the story, with several other men). And indeed, nothing sexual occurs. How could it? Beside the fact that Christina seems wholly uninterested--as does, for that matter, Arnold--Arnold's parents are right in the middle of everything almost from the very outset of their arrival. His father arrives and laments his son's life choices and obvious deficiencies, Arnold's wishing to be an artist (though Arnold vaguely claims to be in real-estate by profession). His mother is doting on Arnold and immediately views Christina in a threatening light. She arrives in the room with a plate of cakes that she selfishly keeps from Christina. We soon learn that Arnold's father is some kind of capitalist, one who doesn't much value the ideas of artists. He castigates them all by saying they only wish to have enough to eat, which attitude his son appears to hold as well. He explains this makes them, "Like wild animals ... Like wolves! What separates a man from a wolf if it is not that a man wants to make a profit." Christina is immediately smitten with him and his passionate qualities. This descends into several awkward scenes where she finds herself alone in the guest room with the father--again in a strangely non-sexual way--which goes over very poorly with Arnold's mother, regardless. She calls Christina a harlot and, in keeping with the archetype or maybe classic human behavior, she puts perhaps all of the blame for this situation on Miss Goering, and very little on her own husband.

I would say more of Christina's character and her exploits but, as always, I'd prefer you to read the novel without any more say so from me (and my giving away more key points of the story line). Therefore, let's get to a little bit with Mrs. Copperfield and call it a review, fair enough?

Well, that's what's happening.

In the next part of the novel we see Mr. and Mrs. Copperfield arriving in Panama. Earlier in the story--at that party--Frieda had revealed to Christina she was traveling there on holiday, and that she was a bit scared to do so, though that seems a fairly considerable aspect of her character in general. In Panama she meets a whole host of fascinating characters, eschewing the advice of a fellow female American (who is notable at least in part for her immense xenophobia) who tells her not to stay anywhere but the American quarter of Colon, "Cristobal." Instead, Mrs. Copperfield convinces her husband to stay in a rather shoddy and rundown hotel in a disreputable part of town.

Chief among the people she meets and befriends is Pacifica, a young Panamanian woman. She becomes the catalyst for much of Mrs. Copperfield's adventuring from that point forward, literally taking Mrs. Copperfield by the hand and leading her to a bar. Mr. Copperfield's presence always manages to feel superfluous, as though it's only a matter of time before the Copperfields are to become bored with one another and find any of myriad reasons to part company. Thus, Pacifica is a welcome distraction and naturally, in a very short time, Mrs. Copperfield becomes very fond of her. Pacifica introduces Mrs. Copperfield to Mrs. Quill, the woman who operates the hotel, Hotel de las Palmas, in which she lives. Mrs. Copperfield in turn begins staying there. But before anything else occurs, Pacifica gets a visit from a rather vile sailor named Meyer. And so we return to one particularly despicable event of the novel that gets glossed over by a story aware of society's indifference to assault against women (or so is my inference). Make of it what you will. In any event, awoken from sleep by a loud knock at the door, Pacifica and Mrs. Copperfield are terrified by this sudden intrusion. It's a man who will not be turned away, as though he's owed something. Eventually he gets inside, and despite Pacifica rebuffing his advances without any possibility of misunderstanding, he will not be denied. He sets to work physically assaulting her, to which violence she is no match. Mrs. Copperfield likewise realizes there's little she can do to help her friend, though she does make an attempt before fleeing for help. It's then that she runs to Mrs. Quill's room and tells her Pacifica is more than likely being murdered. The following exchange occurs on page 54 of my version of the book:

"Well, you see, Mrs. Copperfield, Pacifica can take care of herself better than we can take care of her. The fewer people that get involved in a thing, the better off everybody is. That's one law I have here in the hotel."  
"All right," said Mrs. Copperfield, "but meanwhile she might be murdered."  
"People don't murder as easy as that. They do a lot of hitting around but not so much murdering. I've had some murders here, but not many. I've discovered that most things turn out all right. Of course some of them turn out bad." 

It is a very insightful passage, this exhibition in human indifference. Better to not get in the way, even when it's possible the outcome could be a fatal one, even when it's a person you regard as a friend being battered. We can speculate about Quill's motives all we like. I can imagine her being jaded, for example. Perhaps she was, at one time, idealistic enough to believe that finding help would do real good. It is possible. But the truth is it doesn't really matter where her indifference sprang from, all that matters is that no one is doing anything and soon it's all forgotten.

Sexuality once again seems to bubble beneath the surface, though there is no denying the possibility that Mrs. Copperfield is a lesbian. She mentions at one point that she "once was in love with an older woman." She seems forced into her marriage. And she is absolutely enamored of Pacifica, who herself said things like "I like women very much. I like women sometimes better than men." Still I think reducing it to their sexuality is a little beside the point, and perhaps part of why--notwithstanding the time period in which the novel was published--Bowles doesn't make it a bigger point of emphasis. It's scandalous enough to suggest a woman might be able to make decisions for herself, and hey, one of those decisions might be preferring the company of women and that that doesn't necessarily say anything about her sexuality. She doesn't have to be gay, in other words. She might just think men are horrible (Meyer, for example, or much later Christina's experience with a man named Ben, who immediately takes her for a prostitute -- and that DOESN'T discourage her as much as you'd think), and to be fair, there would be plenty of reasons a character in Two Serious Ladies could feel that way about the less fair sex.

Oh, how I could go on and on. I might mention the last meeting between Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Goering. I could, but I won't! Give Two Serious Ladies a read for yourself, then come back and tell me how wrong I was, here. And all will be very well.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"A Failure of Imagination" -- My Education Manifesto

Call this my opening salvo in the discussion regarding education and education reform.

If you're familiar at all with the ongoing debate over education in the United States then you've probably heard the word "standards" at least once or twice. By itself, it's not a harmful word. Heck, we should have standards. Our collective standards should be very high, especially when we're considering something like education, which is so vital to our nation's stability. My problem is not with the idea of standards, nor is that the case with many of my colleagues (much as their being the du jour boogeymen in the media might have you believing otherwise); it is instead with how we are defining the term.

Briefly described for the uninitiated, "standards" as I refer to them above generally reflect the notion of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or more specifically, at least in my case as an Illinois educator, Illinois Learning Standards (ILS). And for example, in the state of Illinois, an English Language Arts standard for an "early high school" student reads like this, verbatim: "1.A.4b Compare the meaning of words and phrases and use analogies to explain the relationships among them." There are many more, for all grade levels. Take a look at them here, if you're interested. As a teacher my responsibility might be, then, at the beginning of a given class, to transparently elucidate (ideally by writing it down on and then reading it aloud from the whiteboard) that "all students will know how to compare the meaning of words and phrases using analogies by the end of class." I might write those exact words for them to see and hear. The reason for my doing so being, according to various studies that have informed ILS standard setting, "students learn best when they are clear about what they are expected to know and do." An idea that at face value is reasonable. And yet I reject the notion that students invariably learn best when they are clear about what they are expected to know and do. It helps, certainly, and of course as an educator my goal is to be as forthcoming as possible, to assist my students in understanding subject matter to the fullest extent of my abilities.

But what I've also found is--and perhaps these two things aren't mutually exclusive and maybe I'm being nitpicky about one line from what is, in effect, a sprawling educational framework but bear with me--students learn best when there is anything about subject matter that engages them even remotely. An air of mystery about expectations of knowledge and implementation might lead to actual curiosity. But hey, don't take my word of it, here's some cognitive science from Daniel Willingham, Ph.D, from his fascinating book Why Don't Students Like School? -- "Solving problems brings pleasure," which I think we all understand and agree with the truth of this statement on some level. On the following page Willingham further explains,"Even if someone doesn't tell you the answer to a problem, once you've had too many hints you lose the sense that you've [emphasis his] solved the problem, and getting the answer doesn't bring the same mental snap of satisfaction." So then I might argue it's better for the teacher to know the goal of the day's lesson (and I kid, it's not better but absolutely essential). Students' being clear about what they are expected to "know" and "do" is something that could reasonably be assessed by the educator, without need of a spoiler telling them what happens before the task is already begun. They'll know what the expectations were by the end of a lesson because they'll have learned them for themselves, rather than been spoon fed information.

There are a lot of assumptions that come with the murky world of mandated standards, organizing classroom materials to provide a model that all teachers need to follow (and I don't just mean that from the standpoint of teachers' and their teaching methods being as variegated as their students' learning habits and tendencies). I think the cookie cutter approach to education is well-meaning at best and a concerted effort by cynical politicians to say they're "doing" something about education to their constituents at worst. As far as improving education in America, the implementation by my own school district of such standards leaves me hard-pressed to determine any such value.  

Indeed, what I've observed over the last five plus years I've been working in the realm of public education (roughly coinciding with the year Illinois adopted its version of the CCSS (2010)) is that so much of what people are doing to improve learning standards is entirely empty and rote and, most importantly, devoid of any sense of the art inherent to teaching. This isn't sentiment; it's rational. It's acknowledging what should be obvious to anyone who truly desires the success of his or her students and isn't motivated by some, sorry, self-serving desire to advance their own position, be it on up to an administrative role or building an impressive resume as a classroom teacher (in my experience it's usually the former and not so much the latter; people who truly want to teach, teach).

But fine, let's look at the argument on its own terms. I hear things like the following by Fredrick M. Hess, a so-called education scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, "...[I]n schools, unlike in financial markets, there is a lot of sentiment." In schools, unlike financial markets, there's simply no room for failure. You're allowed to lose a hundred thousand dollars here and there in the financial market provided your overall return is greater, spending money to make money. With something as amorphous as the academic success of a generation of people, you're not likely to have as much wiggle room. Which is to say you can't discard anybody if the system is working properly. And so also unlike money (or more specifically product), you have to work with whatever you've got available, even if that's students from difficult circumstances who are unlikely to be the "ideal" student with that zest for learning that certainly makes an educator's job easier. If I were in the education business, I'd simply get rid of these students and find new ones who are "willing" to learn. And some, usually callous, folks with nary a shred of empathy for anyone and conversely a huge narcissistic bent, might say that's just their loss and so be it, can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs or some other empty, trite phrase. And as we already know, at many non-public and charter schools around the country, the "bad eggs" are discarded, are dumped, expelled, left to find some other situation. I can't imagine that's good for anybody, and if you're like me and you believe there's more good in people than bad, it's also insane. It kills a sustainable society and further aggregates power in the hands of a very select minority, because what is education if not, in our late capitalist society, cultural currency, a means by which an individual's value can be quickly determined.

And so leads me to my philosophy educationally speaking -- imagination = needed. Good teachers have it in spades. They've got imagination coming out of the wazoo. They'll say things like you've never heard before in ways that will surprise and almost always challenge a young mind. But for those of you misguided folks who consider it necessary to clog said young mind of a student with whatever "standard" you consider necessary in a long and pedantic and often rote manner of learning, just remember: like all bad medicine it will not go down. Students will want to die, and who could blame them? Learning doesn't have to be boring. We choose to make it that way with our failure of imagination or various failures of various imaginations.

And I get it. You want to be organized and teach kids skills they'll be able to use for a lifetime, both professionally and maybe beyond (because people are more than their jobs, maybe?). That's great but students are also humans, and like all humans, they feel it in their marrow when someone has sucked the life out of a given piece of subject matter, for the sake of simply meeting a "standard," instilling a skill, booking some learning.

Or maybe I don't get it. Maybe you're someone who has one singular interest: how might I profit off of the potentially lucrative and certainly untapped realm of American education, while also maybe teaching some kids some things because that's the kind of lip service you have to pay to people you're trying to sell your education reform to, whose kids will actually have to be educated by it? Where caring is just window dressing, lies in advertisement, marketing? To you I'll be more unequivocal: you're horrible human beings.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ok, gotta just get something down on the internet

I hate being away from you, Literary Equations! Moreover, I hate not writing anything in review of books and other awesome stuff that is interesting to me. I got caught up in the black hole that is Blackhawks playoff hockey and then other personal things happened and, well, this blog wasn't a priority. But I really want to get back to writing meaningful reactions to books I've enjoyed (and only books I've enjoyed; if you're interested in reading me skewer a book, you aren't likely to find that here, not nowadays).

In news, I was at Printer's Row Lit Fest on behalf of Another Chicago Magazine this weekend. It was great getting to talk to people, many of whom weren't familiar with the publication, and just generally be out and conversing about all sorts of things with interested, engaged reader and/or writer types. Next up is Printer's Ball, which I also hope to be at and serving in a similar capacity for ACM.

HAVE YOU EVER READ ANYTHING BY JANE BOWLES? You should do so if you haven't. She's among the 20th Century's most underrated writers. FACT.

Now I'll go back to watching Orange is the New Black and so forth.