No oppressive order could permit the oppressed to begin to question: Why?
I owe that gem of a quote to Paolo Freire, my pedagogical pole star. And with that spirit in mind, let’s begin.
It’s a common thing for a high school student, socialized as they are into insolence and indolence* (probably in service of shutting their creative humanity down), to ask, “When am I ever gonna have to know this?” It’s an equally common thing for teachers, socialized as they are into at least a subtle antagonism against adolescents, to say nothing meaningful in response.** But why are we so quick to dismiss the question? Usually, we experience it as standard “rebellious” behavior, as if wondering why you’re doing a thing is somehow transgressive. What if we instead viewed it as an invitation for everyone “to begin to question: Why?” In other words, what if we viewed it as an invitation into taking a step toward a shared liberation?
As an English teacher,*** I don’t typically field the question of “real world” relevance very often; probably because I insist on squeezing in “real world” things like Kanye West songs into my courses.**** Unfortunately, this means I don’t get the chance to exercise the archetypal cynical teacher’s “kids these days” head shake. It also means the students aren’t playing enough of a part in getting me to interrogate the place and purpose of the various readings and assignments I ask them to do.
As an oppressive order, school does a bang-up job of getting
them all of us to buy into its natural, normal, and necessary presence in our reality; the consequences are clear if we don’t. School is the golden ticket to participating in America’s Willy Wonka style consumer culture,***** and since our primary identity in the “real world” is as a consumer, we don’t have a choice but to play the game according to the rules that are already in place. For students, this means more or less doing what they’re told by their teachers. For teachers, this means more or less reminding students to do what they’re told.
So more or less, what exactly are we doing?
A school is, and this goes so without saying that, in fact, it needs to be said, a social institution. Institutions serve hegemony; that is to say, they operate within a system that, by its very nature (which, of course, we construct, so there’s nothing “natural” about it), serves and maintains a particular power structure. In America’s structure, and pretty much globally, education is represented as a universal interest; the imperative of hegemony is to represent the interest of the privileged groups as universal interests. So what do we make of education’s universality?
It would be one thing if, V for Vendetta style, there were a bunch of white guys meeting digitally in a cavernous, dark room to plan out directly their insidious maintenance of this reality. In (maybe) truth, once the reality is set, it lapses into Energizer Bunny status and just keeps going…and going…and going. If no one bothers to question reality as it is and then begins to wonder if it might be different, then it remains as it is for so long that it becomes fossilized, and we can come to accept it – very easily, even eagerly, given how our dumb brains are designed to keep us running at a low hum of energy – as the way things are supposed to be.******
Even though is most certainly does not equal ought, it’s so much easier, especially if you’re benefitting from the way things are, to pull a classic doublethink and use God-in-the-Garden logic to address anyone who dares to ask why things are as they are and tell them, with smug satisfaction: because. And if that’s not enough, you can add some post hoc rationalization about patriotism and flags and soldiers and completely miss the point, and so but then if you say it loudly enough and lace it with enough unquestioned conviction, you’ll win (nothing) and get back to drinking beer and watching football and doing the things that really matter like ignoring anyone who doesn’t think and speak and act exactly like you. Because what you really want is to live in a funhouse of mirrors, always reflecting your ugly self self back to you, except that you’ve bought so completely into the reality that you’d prefer to believe that you’ll never be able to see yourself as you actually are. And I mean me here, too. If you’re reading this as an accusation, that’s on you, dear reader. I write what I need to hear. If it resonates or stings or does anything at all, then maybe treat it as invitation to look around you for once. Pause. Listen. Let something new in. See if you can’t hear that whisper that’s been desperate for your attention. It won’t take long for you to get close to the most dangerous weapon we have in our language.
Of course, you’re never going to have to know any of this. Why?
*Which isn’t to say that high school students uniformly follow this socialization, but simply to point out that it’s present. School is positioned as a thing to hate or at least to not be too enthusiastic about. That an individual comes to love learning is an exceptional triumph; that schools can achieve it as a widespread norm is something they should be sharing way more openly and eagerly than they do. I’m talking here, of course, about independent schools, which are able to create a microculture in which learning for the sake of learning is the prevailing precept that all (well, most) learners in the community are re-socialized into privileging. Unfortunately (and, these schools would probably argue, unavoidably), such ersatz utopias invariably participate in the perpetuation of the status quo. A few are served at the expense of the many, since those schools aren’t in the business of diluting their product by reproducing it on a mass scale. They are who they are by virtue of being what every other school can’t be. Then again, market demand aside, were these schools to send out pedagogical missionaries, recreating other schools in their image, I doubt such beneficent colonization would make a positive difference.
**I started out in a public school environment where this subtle antagonism created toxic commiseration. The strange thing was that every teacher genuinely cared about their students as people, but they didn’t seem to have any faith in them as students/learners. I don’t know where those identities became mutually exclusive in their minds. Whatever the source, the result was cripplingly lowered expectations that kept those students “in their place.” I’ve been fortunate to be in environments since then where that hasn’t been the norm, but there have remained, at least implicitly, doubts about what adolescents are able to think and do. The fact that we almost salivate over the term “adolescents,” as if that gives us comprehensive insight into every person who falls into that arbitrarily constructed age range should make us pause. Instead, it gives us confidence that we know what we’re doing. In truth, we’re frequently teaching to and from a stereotype. We reduce students’ humanity to their age and then build “age-appropriate” boundaries around them. As if the number of years you’ve been alive has anything to do with the complexiy of your intellectual, emotional, and spiritual reality. I’ve met people at 16 who were basically gurus and people at 50 who were functional morons.
***Says the guy who’s currently teaching a Humanities course and previously taught a class that included the likes of climate science, genetics, and tree identification. English teacher? Insofar as I’m skilled with rupturing a word’s meaning into nothingness, then sure, I’m an English teacher.
****I attempted this sequence recently to magnify the colonial legacy: Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,” Sherman Alexie’s “What the Orphan Inherits,” and Kanye West’s “All Falls Down.” I’ll say this: it happened.
*****Willy Wonka, the withholding patriarch of White Supremacy (has there ever been a more beloved imperialist?), as Culture: We, children that we are, are willing to do anything to win a rigged game (and control the means of production?), even though that invariably means losing a rigged game because…it’s rigged, you idiot. Willy Wonka hates you and wants you to stuff yourself until you turn into the food he’s feeding you. Why are you still eating it?!?!
******I’ve written about this distinction so many times that I’m making myself tired of it, but it’s likely that you aren’t keeping a tally on anything I’ve said on this blog. Good looks.