Caveat Emptor, they say. Let the buyer beware.
I want to add a caveat: Caveat Magister. Let the teacher beware.
There are a lot of problems and difficulties, even hazards, in being a teacher; someday I’ll write about all of them, and why people should — or, more likely, why you should not — go into teaching. But right now, I want to focus on only one problem. It’s tempting to say it’s the worst or the most serious, but it may not be; what it is, though, is the source of a great number of difficulties that teachers face, on a great number of fronts.
It is this: very few people understand what we do.
Please don’t add a new misunderstanding: I am not complaining “Nobody unnerSTANDS me!”; I am not feeling a black, absinthe-scented drizzle of angst slipping icily down my spine; I am not currently pouting. (All right, I’m pouting a little. But it’s because I’m hungry and yet I have to wait for my lunch to cook. Where the hell is my Star Trek replicator? Or maybe those instant food-pills they had on the Jetsons? Hell, right now I’d take the fat-making shakes from Wall-E.) The issue is not that being misunderstood makes us sad. The issue is that being misunderstood, because of the way we are misunderstood, means that our job, the task of teaching, becomes impossible, if one means to do it in any meaningful way.
The issue is this: at some point in the past fifty years (I’m looking at you, 1980’s) this country decided that all that mattered in life was income. Now, we are a democracy and a capitalist society, which means that we have always focused on money as motive: because in a free society, anyone can improve their lot in life; and in a capitalist society, one rises through wealth. Put these together, and you have a country where cash is the key to the kingdom, and here we are: in a world where we teach our children that they can be anything they want to be — and what they want to be, we tell them, is rich. But looking at our social institutions, particularly education, one sees the pervasive and controlling belief that education was good for people: good for the mind, good for the soul; not just good for the wallet. People used to fight for education; now they just fight it. College cost less, and taught more; K-12 schooling was more difficult, more challenging, more effective, more reasonable. Teachers were more respected, seen as experts, because what they offered was valuable in a larger, holistic sense — the way that religious leaders are respected, the way that doctors and law enforcement and firefighters are respected, because they offer something more than a simple exchange of goods and services for money: they give something that means something. Teachers used to be seen that way, I would argue. It is possible I am wearing rose-colored glasses.
But we certainly don’t think that way now. The predominant (though not the only) view of school is as a means to one very specific end. The progression goes like this: elementary school gets you ready for high school; high school gets you ready for college; college gets you a job. The goal is the job. We have a somewhat broader view of that end, because we want our children to have a job that is satisfying, and valuable, in addition to financially rewarding; but the crux of the biscuit is the number of zeroes in front of the decimal point at the end of the year.
My students think this, universally and uncritically. Whenever I ask them, “Why are you here?”, which I do with some regularity (Because I am fascinated by this and terrified, too), they joke that they’re here because they are forced to be (They’re not joking.). But then the serious answer, the one they think I want to hear and the one they parrot with eerily similar language, year after year, is this one. High school gets you ready for college, college gets you a job. They even have a similar cutoff of the pragmatic value of education: they all tell me that you learn skills and knowledge that are directly applicable and necessary in life until around 8th grade; then, once you know all the math and literacy you will need to get through your day, it’s all about the college-job-paycheck.
They think this because their parents think this. Their parents want them to do well, but mainly, they want them to be made ready for college, and to get into a good college, because a good college means you get a good job — a mediocre college means you get a mediocre job. Or at least, a good college means a better job.
And because the parents think this — or perhaps this is the reason the parents think this — the administration and the political system behind schools all think this. Our success is determined by our graduation rate, and inasmuch as we can follow it, the rate at which our students go on to successful (meaning well-paid) careers.
These aren’t bad goals, of course. The job you do matters, both to you and to society; and in this society, money talks. I do this job because I get paid to do it, and though there are times when I wish I could leave it, I don’t because I don’t know what I would do that I would enjoy more and get paid as much. And college was a prerequisite for doing this job. I even agree that most people get by on what they learned before 9th grade. That’s why they have so many problems spelling text messages. (Please note the meme above.)
But there’s a problem when you focus on the financial side to the exclusion of all else. When money is the only thing that talks. We see that in our national politics these days, when the wealthy get elected to represent the interests of the wealthy, and the rest of us just shuffle along behind hoping we don’t get trampled on by the sudden changes in direction. The problem in the predominance of money in education is this: when we keep our eyes on that particular prize, we blind ourselves to all else.
When elementary school is only intended to prepare one for high school, then all that matters is promotion through the grades. Parents pressure administrators, administrators pressure teachers, and students who aren’t ready get promoted, when twenty years ago, they would have been held back until they learned what they needed to learn — back when the goal was education and improvement, a goal that takes some people longer than others. Parents don’t care now if their kid is learning everything; they care if their kid gets promoted. Because elementary school isn’t what matters: high school matters. Because high school gets you into college and college gets you a good job, and nowhere in that equation does a child need to master the multiplication table. If a kid has trouble with math, well, he’ll go into a career that doesn’t need math. He’ll be a lawyer. He likes to argue. Besides, his brother is good at math. Can’t read, but he’s good at math. That one’s going to be an engineer. Probably with computers. Computers magically make something a good job, did you know? Yes: that’s why we have to have computers in school, now. Because kids need to learn the skills that are necessary in today’s economy. That’s why they’re in school.
So the children are promoted to high school. Now it’s time to get serious. Serious about grades, that is. Because the purpose of high school is to get into a good college, and so all that matters is the GPA. Sure, sure, they need to learn how to do the things they’ll do in college — and that’s the magical argument, by the way, which we all use, including me: they need to read this book because it’s the sort of thing they will do in college — but really, the focus is the grades. We trust the grades to tell us that the child is progressing properly, learning what he needs to succeed: the grades are all we need to worry about. And the same thing for the administration and the politicians, except you can replace “grades” with “test scores.”
I’ve never taught at the college level, but I have no doubt it is the same thing there: the second a child is accepted to a school, he is expected to know what his career after graduation will be — preferably down to the exact position he wants and the exact company where he wants that position, but at the least, a field of endeavor and a job class. And I am sure that everyone grumbles about the classes they are forced to take but don’t need for their career, just like they did in high school, just like they do in elementary school about the stuff they won’t need in high school or college, like learning cursive. And I am sure this myopic view of college as nothing but a series of hoops to jump through until you make lots of money has all the same deleterious effects as it does in K-12.
And what are those, exactly? What are the problems with focusing on promotion — grades — career? Only this: you learn what you set out to learn, gain what you intend to gain, from everything in life. And if all you mean to gain from school is getting out of school — then that’s all you get. I know: that’s what I got from high school. All I wanted was to be left alone. So I was left alone. It was college where I found that learning could expand my mind and make me into a person I liked more with every new thing I learned. College made me who I am. High school didn’t even make me ready for college, because I didn’t try to make it do that for me. I had friends who went to the same high school I did, who went on to far more intellectually challenging college experiences than mine, and into more — well, maybe not “challenging,” but I think probably more cognitively difficult careers than mine, and I’m sure that our high school prepared them better than it did me. Because they went there trying to do that. They focused on learning, and they learned. Garbage in, garbage out: and so with nothing.
There are other problems. The focus on promotion — grades — career moves resources and support into those areas, and not into others. If we need our students to learn more math in order to increase promotion rates, then we will focus on math, and drop art and music. Because after all, they don’t need art and music to succeed in high school or in college or in their careers. If students are having trouble in high school English, then we don’t add classes or more teachers to reduce class size: we dumb down the curriculum, restrict it to basic skill drilling. It doesn’t matter if they learn less, because as long as the curriculum focuses on easily mastered skills, they will inevitably get good grades, and that means they will get into college and we win. And thus we have Common Core, where the focus is on easily mastered skills, and which has been and continues to be pushed onto teachers so that students can get good grades and good test scores, and our graduation rates go up and our college attendance rates go up. Sure, our college graduation rates suffer; but that doesn’t matter to us here at the high school level, just as high school failure based on students coming in with below-grade reading skills doesn’t matter to the elementary schools that focused on promoting students no matter what the cost, because that is the only thing that matters to the administrators, because it is the only thing that matters to the parents, because all that matters in life is a good job with a big paycheck.
It’s not true. Of course future failure bothers teachers, but we have little control over this. I am, for the first time in sixteen years, teaching Common Core this year. Because that is what my administration told me to do, and because I now work in a school that has no tenure — because teacher’s unions are essentially non-existent in this Republican-controlled Right-to-Work state (A state of affairs that exists largely because teachers are not respected like they used to be, because all we do is give kids good grades and get them ready for college so they can get a good job, and then, when the child does eventually fail, because the entire system is broken, teachers make a handy scapegoat. And if it doesn’t sit right with your conscience to talk about teachers like they are all incompetent pinko hellspawn, because you remember your own teachers being good to you, well, you can always blame the teachers’ unions.) — and therefore I have to do what I am told if I want to continue earning a living. And so because my school focuses on grades and test scores and graduation and college acceptance to the exclusion of all else, I am told to teach a canned curriculum that focuses on improving basic skills in order to improve grades and test scores and graduation rates and college acceptance. And I do it.
And here’s what gets lost: novels. There aren’t any in my Common Core curriculum. Because the focus is on easily mastered skills, and because the tests that create the test scores do not require the completion of any full-length texts, just comprehension of short passages. Unless I change the curriculum in some way, I will not teach any full-length novels to my classes this year. No Shakespeare plays, except in excerpts. These students will not have the patience or the perseverance to finish anything that can’t be finished in one setting. I hope that they will learn it somewhere else, because they won’t learn it from me. But I know they won’t. (One quick note: I am allowed to change the curriculum. They will by god read To Kill a Mockingbird. And all of one Shakespeare play. But if I wasn’t the age that I am, with the experience that I have, and the curmudgeonly attitude, I wouldn’t change that curriculum. So what happens when a kid who wasn’t raised reading novels takes my place?)
Here’s what gets lost: our culture. I know it seems like America doesn’t have any beyond Disney and organized sports and bacon, but we do: we have Mark Twain and John Steinbeck and Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou and Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. People in this country read To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye and The Call of the Wild. Our schools have always taught those works, and that gives us something important, along with all of the wonderful gifts that come from making literature like that a part of you: it gives us something in common. It’s books like these, learned in school, for no other reason than because they are worth learning, that make us who we are and that keep us as human as we are, because they are the ones that teach us it’s a sin to kill something that doesn’t do any harm to us, and that we should stand on the edge of the cliff and catch those kids running through the rye, and that every life counts, even a dog’s. And I’m only focusing on the literature because it’s what I know, but you could do the same thing with art, with Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock and Frederick Sackrider Remington (No — I’m not making up that middle name.); you could easily do the same thing with music, or with film.
None of these things are part of the promotion — grades — career path. All of them are our culture. And if we don’t teach any of these things in school — and we don’t, because they don’t relate to our one overriding purpose for education — then we’ll have no culture left except for organized sports and bacon. And perpetual war, of course.
Toni and I just watched The Wolf of Wall Street last night. It’s about a guy who cared about nothing but money, and did whatever it took to get as much of it as possible, and then went about living the most worthless, hollow excuse for a human life I can think of outside of serial killers and the Inquisition. And the movie focused on that, for three hours, in excruciating detail. I have never seen that many scenes with hookers in my life. It’s a true story, based on an autobiography of the same name; the reviews online of the book (which I will not be reading myself) make the guy sound just as he was portrayed in the movie: as a guy who would lie and cheat and steal as much as he had to just to get more money to put on the pile, so that he could spend it on drugs and prostitutes and midget-throwing parties at work. (Not making that up, by the way.) Who would not regret anything in his life, because, in my opinion, he lacked sufficient humanity to know regret. All he knew was money. All he cared about was money. Now, because the movie was made by Martin Scorsese, it was not actually a celebratory movie: it was an expose of the emptiness of this kind of existence. And I have never felt happier about my life and my choices than I felt while I was watching this epic debauch. I am so proud of myself and everyone who helped me to become what I am — my parents, my wife, my teachers, my culture — that I care about things other than money, that I see money only as a means of survival and not of any source of self-worth or identity definition. I am so happy to be me instead of that shit-heel who called himself “Wolf.” I hope that was Scorsese’s intent, because if so, it was a masterful piece of work that was completely successful.
But I couldn’t help but think: if my students watched this movie, they would want to be this guy. Because he made money. And if I asked them, the next day, why they were in school, they would tell me “Because I want to be like the Wolf of Wall Street.” (I’ve heard similar sentiments in the past, but using Hugh Hefner as an example, or Bill Gates.) And that scares the hell out of me.
Caveat Populus. Let all of us beware.