Almost everyone I know hated 2016. It was the year that equally ticked off the populace. When the New Year’s Ball dropped, America collectively sighed with relief; we were ready for a new beginning. Resolutions in hand, January 1st arrived… and not a damn thing is changing. Sure, the New Year’s placebo effect hasn’t completely worn off, but that’ll be gone when the resolutions fail, this inauguration week passes, and each day of 2017 looks more and more like 2016.
Yes, Here I am sounding like a Debby Downer, a party pooper, a Negative Nancy, a spoilsport, a wet blanket, a sad trombone, but you know what? I’ve got hope.
In fact I would consider myself a hopeful idealistic realist. Yes we are in a hole, yes we dug that hole, but there is no lid on it and I can see the sky. That sky is a new generation of critical thinking citizens that feel a responsibility toward others and the environment on a local and global scale and will work together harnessing new technologies for the health, justice, and equality of all people. Furthermore, I believe teachers are the instrument that can teach children and students to become an integral part of the solution, a new generation that wants to change the world in a changing world.
And I say that knowing teachers and American education didn’t have a bad 2016. American education has had a bad half century. The American public daily provides evidence of our educational deficit. Which is ironic considering America is one of the most educated countries on the planet. Yet our students and children are turning into adults that as social critic, author, and Professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, Henry Giroux writes, “exhibit a growing inability to think critically, question authority, be reflective, weigh evidence, discriminate between reasoned arguments and opinions, listen across differences, and engage the mutually informing relationship between private problems and public issues.” (1) If Giroux is correct then 2016 being a horrible year was at least in part due to a continuing collective and social problem that public institutions haven’t addressed. A large reason for this in education is the attack from both the neoconservative and neoliberal sphere that happened continually on education since the 1960s.
American education has had a bad half century Click To Tweet
If we are going to talk about the challenges facing education there will have to be some talk about the political sphere, and if 2016 and well 2008 and 2000 taught us anything about politics, it is that Americans 1.) Are always right on Facebook 2.) Ultimately feel a strong love/hate relationships in politics, but 3.) largely don’t participate in the voting process. Whether conservative, liberal, progressive, libertarian- every view needs to sit down at the table and listen to each other before reconciliation will ever occur.
So let’s look a little closer at the current social and educational situation and assess the role of teachers and how teachers can begin encouraging a new generation of student willing to change the world in a changing world. Socially Americans fear highly “educated” people. After all, look at the shift from the political landscape of the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration. The articulate identity of the Barack Obama White House has been traded for an inarticulate business mogul who appointed several pseudo professionals that made careers on yellow journalism and conspiracies theories. Strangely, it is understandable, because time and time again the politically “educated” elite have turned their back on the middle and lower classes and served their own interests and the interests of the rich. Both the fundamentalist conservative agenda and the neoliberal agenda have created the conditions that undercut a responsible and educated citizenry that shapes culture and helps public institutions such as education. Rather they both have inflated the defense budget, profitable prisons, oil pipelines, and the wallets of Wall Street.
It is hard to put a finger on a specific moment when American public education came under the scrutiny of these two political movements but the major effects have been noted since the Cold War. Isn’t it strange that the classroom (rows of desks, not unlike a factory) has undergone very few changes since the 1950s despite an absorbent amount of new scholarship and new developments in education? In fact, government instituted changes in education since the 1950s have made the classroom more formulaic with changes in curriculum, assessments, lesson planning, state and federal aligned goals and objectives, and gentrified textbooks. And of course these would be the changes made on federal and state levels because the politicians making them want the only type of results they know, commodity. Thus in education there is a growing individualism rather than a collective good and privatization over the public sphere (It should be noted I am not talking about student competitiveness alone, nor am I an advocate of the “every child gets a trophy” club. Teachers, Administrators, Schools, Districts, and States all have performance reviews that focus on competitive basis for funding). Most politicians that work in the education sector offer an economic free-market solution for societal problems which ultimately turn teachers and students into commodities.
When students become “products”, classrooms no longer become a place of liberation and freedom of expression, questions, thought, and innovation. Many classrooms no longer resemble the social experiment of democracy. Instead schools and classrooms become profit-making training facilities that resemble factories. At best teachers become babysitters and at worst we are jailers watching inmates for absent wardens. Democracy and thinking have been replaced by authoritarianism and mindless obedience.
When students become “products”, classrooms no longer become a place of liberation Click To Tweet
And this is the reflection seen in a hurting American society. As Henry Giroux writes, “The nation has entered a new more ruthless historical era, marked by a growing disinvestment in the social state, public institutions and civic morality.” (2) Giroux continues and suggests the social protections woven into the societal fabric are now the responsibility of individuals while investments for the public good, like education, are becoming more and more privatized. His conclusion is that this undermines the connections of community.
When I was in college I wrote a paper on the phenomenon of the urban underground dance culture. At the time I lived in Chicago and on the weekends was amazed when thousands of people would get together and throw underground raves. They would dance the entire night until the next morning. I researched the phenomenon an entire semester and a commonality in almost every interview was the importance of community the people felt. There was a collective connection at these events, a shared view and interest. Two books really struck me during my research, Urban Tribes, by Ethan Watters, and Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putnam. In Urban Tribes, Watters suggests that urbanization led to individuals forming their own types of social groups or urban tribes. Watters’ research focused on questions revolving around society’s focus of individual “freedom” vs. the collective good. In Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam provides an abundant amount of data to show how Americans are increasingly disconnected from each other and that social institutions such as churches, lodges, leagues, and the PTA have almost evaporated from our culture.
Many that read Putnam’s book suggested teenagers didn’t care about the responsibility of community building and would rather sit inside an simply play video games. Putnam supplied the data and research that did verifiably show America was not involved in the collective social programs of the 1940s and 1950s, but Watters research showed that people still wanted and needed community. Humans are after all communal animals. So where is the disconnect? What is causing people to be involved less in social programs for the collective good? Liberals would suggest it is the global marketplace while conservatives would suggest an absence of traditional morality. Both agree, however, it is the role of individual “freedom” coupled with isolating technologies. These two political spheres still consistently enable the focus on the individual by applying a free-market solution to every area of society and treats citizens only as stock-holders while they must also become stake-holders in their own communities.
So where does this leave teachers? Overwhelmed? Up the creek without a paddle? It leaves us with the grave responsibility of changing the very fabric of America’s future, which of course will impact the world. If you would like feel free to insert some long explanation of the butterfly effect here or perhaps put on the 1985 Grammy Record of the Year “We are the World” in the background. We must begin unschooling America’s children. (3) We have to begin teaching them in drastically different ways than the past 50 years of formulas that focused on individualism and production. We must once again turn the classroom into civic and democratic project. The obstacles may appear impassable, but as teachers we must work within the “one size fits all” educational system of formulas, objectives, federally mandated assessments and ensure a student centered education that promotes autonomy and community.
We must also begin to arm our students with the critical skills needed to combat what academic and critic, Raymond Williams, called “permanent education” or the constant teaching distributed through television, newspapers, the internet, and other media platforms. Williams writes, “Permanent education is the field in which our ideas of the world, of ourselves, and of our possibilities, are most widely and often most powerfully formed and disseminated. To work for the recovery of control in this field is then, a priority. For who can doubt, looking at television or newspapers, or reading the women’s magazines, the here, centrally, is teaching, and teaching financed and distributed in a much larger way than formal education.”(4) George Orwell’s Big Brother is alive and well. As in 1984, We have the freedom to consume; the collective good has been traded for the corporate good. Teachers must help students decipher media propaganda by teaching a new generation of student to think critically, stay engaged, listen to each other, and work collectively.
But how are teachers to do this within the system and without getting fired? After all it sounds good in theory but practically what can be done? Unschooling in public school? Is that even possible? Yes it is, and if you are a teacher you most likely want to help your students grow and become incredible citizens. If not, you are probably in the wrong career.
Over the next few months I will be writing a series of articles that deal with specific ways and areas we need to unschool our students. These articles will combine a historical, theoretical, and practical approach that will help motivate all of us to teach for a new generation of students.
Footnotes:(1)Giroux, Henry A. America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth. New York: Monthly Review, 2013. Print(2)Giroux, Henry A. America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth. New York: Monthly Review, 2013. Print(3)I am not explicitly linking unschooling to the growing popularity of Sudbury Schools across the country. Though I really enjoy the “unschooling” movement, I have my reservations since it is once again a privatized school system. For our purposes I will be working within public education.(4)Williams, Raymond, Communications. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967
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