There are a lot of ways to look at education.
You can see education as a means for students to practice and perfect skills: writing skills, reading skills, math skills, science skills. Incremental improvement in ability over time, largely through careful, guided practice. The steady honing of a functional tool, which will then be slotted into its proper space in the Machine.
You can see education as a place for children to explore: to learn what is out there in the world, and what connections they can make to it, and to each other, and to themselves. School is a big pot of fun ‘n’ friends; the Best Time Of Their Lives.
You can see education as the passing on of a torch, the filling of a vessel with the golden ambrosia of knowledge — or maybe the cooking of a roast. New people come to the school, and they are unburnt, or empty, or raw; and we light them, fill them, roast them, and then they are — like us. Members of a culture and an intellectual tradition, with an awareness of what that means and how they can pass the fire/water/ uh . . . heat? What does cooked meat pass? Calories? A delicious aroma? Whatever, they can pass it on to the next generation.
Or you can see education the way my students do: as the longest, most agonizing obstacle course they have ever faced, filled with everything bad — pain, fear, sorrow, impotent anger, self-loathing, failure, futility, and wedgies — going on for years and years and years, draining every drop of life from them, only to spit them out the end: where they become, most likely, new obstacles on the course for the next batch of runners.
Or you can see education the way I do, the way most teachers do: it’s a job. Better than some, worse than others. Probably not worth what we put into it.
That’s not all it is, though. And I don’t doubt that most people see education as a combination of those things, and maybe a few others — I know there are certainly those who see it as indoctrination; at my last school, in a small rural town in Oregon, I know school was seen by many as the best source for husbands and wives, for fathers and mothers of the next generation, which they saw no reason to wait to produce. There was a daycare in the school building for the children of students. Also the children of teachers and a few children from the general populace, but still: that daycare housed a whole lot of, let’s call them extracurriculars.
However we see education, though — and I don’t think we all need to agree about what it is and what it should be; I think an ongoing debate about education is probably a healthy tension — the one thing we should all agree on is this: it is important. Maybe not school, maybe not for everyone or in every way; but education is a part of how our race survives: because humans are born useless and pathetic. Giraffes and horses and moosen can stand mere minutes after being born, and run not long after that; we can’t even put on our own pants for years. Humans without education are dead. Period. So if we matter, then education matters.
And it takes the same thing to make us matter that it takes to make education matter. That thing is substance. There has to be something inside us, something behind the mask, something that makes us move, that makes us act. Something that tells me the words to say next. Some people are driven by their emotions and passions; some people are driven by their reason; and some people are driven by the desires of something larger than themselves, even if it is larger only in their own minds. That thing could be a religion, or a nation, or a father, or just society’s approval in general; whatever it is, those people take their cue from someone outside themselves, and that is what drives them: they live to please and honor that larger thing. And I don’t mean to denigrate that type of substance, especially not when it is so clearly part of my own motivation. I want to live up to the example of those who came before. I want to please my readers. I want to win awards. And I want to experience and honor my passions, and I want to follow the course set down by my reason. All at once. All mixed up.
Nothing’s ever simple, is it?
(That’s why we need education.)
My strongest motivation is this: I want to make my wife proud. I want to make her happy. I want to take away all of her regrets, and all of her fears, and all of her frustrations; I want to give her a perfect launching pad for her own life, for her own dreams, her own motivations; I want to be the support for her substance. I mean, I want my own substance, too; but I want her to have hers, first. Because she’s better than me. And I am not at all ashamed to say that: I am proud that I am the one she chose, and I am proud that I can work to give her her chance.
And I am furious that she has to deal with bullshit instead of flying free and doing what she wants, what she is capable of. It drives me crazy that she has to claw her way out of the muck of this cesspool of a world before she can become herself. It’s like a giant, sticky, neverending cocoon made of petrified bullshit: and people like my wife, people who are and always have been butterflies, have to kill themselves getting out of it. Goddamn it.
But what this all comes down is substance. I know, I know, I haven’t defined it well. I got onto a rant-tangent — a rangent, if you will (Or tangerant?) — because I am angry about my wife’s fight against bullshit. But let me try to get back to my point. I started with education because that’s what I know best, but it could as easily be politics, or commerce, or family, and the issue would be the same: to be worthwhile, to be something that actually does for humanity what it is supposed to do, the thing must have substance.
For a family to have substance, the family members have to actually do and feel and think the way a family is supposed to, fulfilling the role that family is to fill: they have to love and support one another. There has to be genuine connections between the family members, and all involved have to honor and maintain those connections. When a family has that real bond, then it improves the lives of the members of the family; it gives them shelter in the shit-storm (A veritable shit-climate, in fact), and a way to climb up out of the muck, to break free of their cocoons. (Can I call them poop-cocoons without losing the thread here? It’s just — it’s calling to me. Poop-cocoons. I can’t help it. Sorry.) Because there is something real there, it lends real mass, real energy, real velocity, to the constituent parts; their substance has something to back it up, to drive it, and so they can have real substance.
Am I making sense here? I feel like there’s a genuinely important thing underlying this, and I fear that I’m losing it. Let me keep trying.
When politics works well, then it creates an opportunity for the citizens of the political entity — call it a country for simplicity’s sake — to be something they could not be if they lived in a place where their politics did not work well. Because this country has, through much of its history, had politics that worked well, we have been able to do extraordinary things, to be extraordinary things. Not all of us, for a lot of reasons; but we have been extraordinary. We were the first to fly, and the first to touch the moon; we cured polio; we split the atom; we created the blues, and jazz, and rock and roll, and hip-hop. George Carlin was an American. Those things came out of this nation because the nation’s political structure had substance. It was driven by serious people working for serious reasons (whether those reasons for a particular person were emotional, logical, or ethical), and taking their jobs seriously. They didn’t just live up to the appearance of their role, the mere surface; they went deep inside. And I know that because look at what happened: it worked. We created substance, which only comes from substance. Something doesn’t come from nothing.
Nothing can come from something, though. Sadly. We can come from substance, from something real, and we can turn it into a joke. And there are as many reasons for that as there are for people to live with substance, but they all have one trait in common: they are shallow. Greed, for instance, if we can turn to commerce. When someone runs a business with substance, when they recognize their role in providing goods or services to customers, and earning a fair profit in return, then great things happen: Hollywood movies and Apple computers and Ford motors. But when people seek only profit, and they recognize that creating the appearance of substance is cheaper than actually creating substance — but if the facade is good enough to fool the customers, then they can charge the same as companies that have substance — then you get reality TV, and Goldman-Sachs, and Wal-Mart. Driven only by greed, they create only hollow hills, which collapse under their own weight when we try to climb them. They don’t get us out of the shit: they bury us in more of it. A neverending shit-storm.
When education has substance, no matter what is taught, no matter how fast students learn it or how many students learn it or how much exactly they learn — they learn. When education has substance, students come out of it changed, and improved, even if indirectly. Education with substance comes, only and always, from educators with substance. They don’t have to be teachers, of course, and most of the time, probably, they are not; I’d say the most common educators with substance are parents, followed by best friends. They teach us and they make us better. They use their substance to give us substance.
I do think the majority of teachers bring substance to their work. It’s hard not to, because it’s hard to miss the importance of the job — as I said, without education, there are no people; that’s a heavy weight, which I’m glad we don’t bear alone: but we hold some of it. When we have substance, we teachers, we can hold up a fair amount of that weight. Raise it up out of the shit.
And the worst thing in the goddamn world for teachers is when we are trying to maintain our substance — using up our own personal substance to do it — and we are forced to spend our time and energy instead on surface bullshit. On forms and paperwork that cover the asses of administrators, that stroke the egos of spoiled parents, that allow shallow, empty politicians to get elected one more time by people who don’t really know what the fuck they’re doing in the voting booth.
What precipitated this rant? A lot, actually; a lot of shit. But the clearest trigger was this last weekend, this three-day weekend, a holiday in honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday (A man of substance, to be sure), which my wife and I spent a large portion of shoveling shit. Not building a structure of substance for our students, or even better, ourselves, to stand on and reach out of the shit; no no no — we were throwing shit. We were working on a syllabus for an Advanced Placement class, because we both teach AP courses at the high school where we work, me AP Literature and AP Language, she AP Art. When you teach an AP class, to be allowed to use the official AP designation, you have to turn a syllabus into the College Board, which runs the AP program (Also the SAT.).
Those syllabuses are bullshit.
The requirements for what has to be included on the syllabus are so entirely unrealistic that I doubt that a single one — not one of the thousands upon thousands of AP courses out there who have gone through this — really represents what happens in the actual class. I know mine certainly don’t reflect reality, not for either of my classes. If I taught to an empty room, I couldn’t cover all of that material, not in the kind of depth that is needed. See, the purpose of an AP class is to earn college credit while still in high school; that’s why my students take it, at least. Well, that’s the surface reason. The real reason is because these classes are challenging, and they give students a better understanding of and ability in the subject. They are classes with substance. I know both of mine are. I go into those classes with everything I have: with my experience, and my expertise, and more preparation and organization than I have ever brought to my regular classes — and I’m a good teacher in a regular class. For the AP classes, I’m better. And my students respond: I watch them grow and improve, and for the most part, I see them succeed. Some of them don’t, but that’s because they don’t bring their substance to the class; they take the class because their friends are in it, or they think I am cool (I am — but only on the surface) and they wanted to take a class, any class, with me; or they didn’t really think about how hard it would be. Or they were put in the class without any input of their own. You know: surface reasons. Bullshit reasons. Those students don’t succeed, necessarily. But the ones who come with real motivation, who do real work for real reasons? They get better. They grow. They become educated. I give them a platform to stand on — which I bust my ass building and maintaining — and they climb up out of the shit. Sometimes they even fly away.
None of that is on my syllabus. Largely because substance takes time and focus, and so you can’t cover a whole lot of ground — it’s dense. Concentrated. Has to be. But the AP syllabus has to cover, for literature, all of Western literature from 1500 to the present day: poetry and drama and prose, both short form and novels. All of it. They have to know what a sonnet is, and how William Shakespeare’s differ from ee cummings’s. They have to know both the traditional canon of dead white men, and they have to be familiar with the contributions to Western literature that have come from non-whites, and from the non-dead, and from non-men (Also called women.). They have to be able to read deeply, and analyze correctly, and write eloquently, and do all of it in 40 minutes.
And I have to spend my weekend correcting a syllabus. To make sure that it covers every one of the required learning components, that it has sufficient evidence to show that it covers every learning component, and that the evidence is in the form the AP auditors prefer. And their feedback looks like this:
Component (Which I’m making up, but isn’t far from the truth) #28: The course shows students the wide range of literary techniques from Guadalajara, Mexico, as represented by the many poets and playwrights who have hailed from that locale over the last four centuries.
Evaluation guideline: The syllabus must include the wide range of literary techniques from Guadalajara, Mexico, as represented by the many poets and playwrights who have hailed from that locale over the last four centuries.
Rating: Insufficient evidence
Rationale: The syllabus must list specific literary techniques used in specific titles of specific types (prose, poetry, and drama) by specific authors. The literary techniques, titles, and authors must be specifically connected to specific activities that show specific criteria for student mastery of the wide range of Guadalajaran literature.
Please examine our sample syllabi, or contact a Curriculum Specialist for personalized feedback, though be aware that this latter course will take weeks and weeks and run you right past the deadline for when this syllabus has to be approved for this school year.
So we got this for the syllabus we were working on, right? And we added in “The course shows students the wide range of literary techniques from Guadalajara, Mexico, as represented by the many poets and playwrights who have hailed from that locale over the last four centuries.”
It’s a lie, because I don’t consider Guadalajaran literature important enough to cover to the depth demanded by the component; instead, I teach the same wide range of literary techniques with, say, Oaxacan literature, which I spend two months on in my class. We add this lie to the syllabus — no substance there, just a surface checkmark to please someone looking only at the surface — and send it in. And get it back. Rejected again. With the exact same feedback.
So we add more evidence. We list out those literary techniques, and we list those Guadalajaran authors, and the Oaxacan ones just for good measure, and then we throw in three or four haiku-writers from Tenochtitlan, just in case. We describe the multiple essays, treatises, and book-length theses the students are going to have to write on each and every one of these elements. And then we send that pile of sloppy, gooey bullshit in.
And that’s the end of it. The College Board doesn’t follow up on this. They don’t come and watch the class. They don’t come and ask the students what they have learned — don’t even correlate test results with specific syllabi, and ask teachers to look for areas for improvement; none of that. They don’t survey students or parents or teachers. They don’t ask us to send in work samples, or example lesson plans. All they want is the syllabus. Which they want to say very, very specific things, but which they don’t write for us; they just keep telling us we’re writing it wrong until we get it right. Which is when it’s all bullshit. Which fact they have to know: there’s no way they couldn’t. Not when every one of those thousands and thousands of syllabi are nothing but bullshit.
Here’s the kicker: once the syllabus is approved, it never has to be resubmitted. It just gets re-approved, every year, automatically. Even though my class, like pretty much every class of substance, changes substantially from year to year. Doesn’t matter. In fact, if the course had a syllabus at the same school with a previous teacher, the College Board encourages the teacher to simply copy and “update” the old syllabus.
It’s all bullshit. I have no doubt that the intent is twofold: to prevent lawsuits from students who fail the AP exam — “I’m sorry your daughter got a -6 on the test, Mr. Svenswinderssonsen, but the syllabus on file from her school clearly states that she was taught all of the Guadalajaran literary techniques.” — and to present the AP program as being extremely rigorous. Is it actually rigorous? Not through any fault of the College Board. And not as it is purported to be on those syllabi. Which took hours and headaches to get right. So that everybody can now ignore them until the end of time.
This turned into a much larger piece than I intended it to be. But I’m feeling pretty deep in the bullshit right now, and it takes a lot of shoveling to get out. Because this isn’t just an AP issue: this is all of school. Everything I do that isn’t actually teaching is related to the same sort of thing: I give bullshit tests to show bullshit data about bullshit growth so the administrators can tell the school board and the politicians that the school has the surface appearance of actual substance. I fill out forms for students who get IEPs for exactly one reason: to avoid lawsuits. To maintain a reputation. To create an appearance of rigor and value and substance. And every hour I spend on that bullshit is one less hour I have to provide actual substance to my actual students.
We’re burying ourselves in bullshit, and ruining the one thing that we actually need, just because — we’re looking at the surface, only at the surface. Not at the substance — or lack thereof — underneath it.
Maybe in this mixed-metaphor ramble, I have uncovered something of substance for you to stand on. Maybe you can make a little more progress on getting out of your poop-cocoon. I hope so, I really do. Some of us have to become butterflies. Some of us have to take to our wings and fly. All of this shit-shoveling has to lead to something good. Something extraordinary.
I’m just afraid that the most extraordinary people are exactly the ones neck-deep and shoveling, and the ones climbing out aren’t butterflies in poop-cocoons: they’re just giant bags of shit. Standing above us, and looking down.
Happy Inauguration Day.