Education and Its Discontent

I have lived with 18 to 22 year olds for 27 years. I have listened to their dreams, their fears, their concerns and navigated, with them, their ambiguities and their confusion. I have watched them confront immense challenges — physical and emotional, spiritual and intellectual. And I have watched kids face the always changing, daunting world we live in, and always courageously, though sometimes the courage is reflexive, rising much later and after panic subsides. I have watched kids fall. I have watched them rise. I have watched them learn — more often then not, the hard way. I have watched them shut down, and I’ve seen them come alive, respond, move energetically towards a dream. And I have watched dreams dissolve, come crashing down.

I am a teacher. I’ve taught in nameless places, urban and suburban. I’ve taught in glamorous, distinguished places wrapped in hallowed ivy. I have taught students that humbled me with their brilliance. And I have taught students that have literally kept me up at night because they are so ill prepared to meet the challenges of an intense, fast-paced curriculum that has no mercy for those that arrive at its feet from socio-economically — and educationally — challenged environments.

I am a teacher and I’ve metamorphosed from someone who is suppose to open doors to knowledge, to someone whose last concern is knowledge and first concern is the emotional life of students. As bell hooks says in Teaching to Transgress, “There are times when I walk into a classroom overflowing with students who feel terribly wounded in their psyches (many of them see therapists), yet I do not think they want therapy from me.” What do they want? The change has been gradual but profound.

In 1985 when I first walked into a classroom, I did so without a blueprint. I had a roster in-hand, my graduate school professors as models and nothing more. Not the best way to enter. Nevertheless, in my ignorance I noticed that whether I taught the intricacies of a clear sentence or the complex subtleties of Henry James, kids sat up, went along, turned assignments in on time; in other words, they jumped as high as I wanted them to. Desire was already present in the classroom; it was the unnamed on the roster, in the room, in the transaction that went on between them and me. They wanted the knowledge I brought, thinking that it was perhaps relevant to their lives. They were seeking self-actualization, I imagined.

When I walk into a class in 2012, I have to inspire attention. I have to bring them to desire because it’s not there. I have to “shock and awe” because they’ve not brought desire along. Some have, of course, and I’m making a general statement, but suffice to say that, today, the student is placid, somewhat unmotivated to learn about herself and himself — self-actualization is not a priority — rather they are motivated by numbers and data: how much will I earn at the end of this? will I make a good living? what will be the outcome of this investment? how much energy should I invest in this effort, now, since it’s a matter of time and its relation to cost and then I have to jump through to the next hoop? what is each hoop worth? And, how will each hoop be interpreted by those that will eventually place a value on my effort and pay me?

This teaching and learning environment is thus fraught with resistance. The idea that learning can be exciting is very difficult to reach when students and teachers realize that the new, existing contract between us is to ensure that students get through it all so that the paper received at the end of four years has a certain value that can be exchanged in the marketplace.

Paulo Freire has called this “the banking system of education.” That’s much too kind. We might as well call this a “plantation model,” historically associated with slavery: raw materials are “grown” or “raised” on the plantation, made into goods, and then traded back to the plantation economy.

A degree is bought with lots of money; in turn, the value of the degree — which college or university one attends — is exchanged according to one’s wealth. The student works by adhering to the mandates of elegantly dressed individuals — known as intellectuals, paid according to where they reside, what school in the hierarchy of value — that oversee their production, grade it, and move students along. Students, in turn, jump high to reach the prescribed goals, step over archaic obstacles, only to do it again, year – after – year, until graduation, at which time they parade diplomas to the highest bidder. The value of one piece of paper is put against the value of another.

Students commence careers, heads down, much as they’ve done the previous four years, working 14 hour days, or more, cramped four and five abreast in apartments in our favorite cities, New York, of course, Chicago, Atlanta, LA, and so on, commiserating their lot at happy hour, which begins Friday and lasts until Sunday when they gather around a TV to watch sports. Life outside the safety of the academic bubble is pretty much the same as it was inside — one method of movement on the conveyor belt has been traded for another.  None of it has anything to do with what has been learned in school. I had a student that obtained a very high paying job on Wall Street, not because he knew anything about economics, mind you (he never took an econ class), but because he was a good team player, a good sport well suited for a company comprised of jocks, from every sport imaginable. What was it all for, then? The only solace seems to come during homecoming when everyone returns to their alma mater to make sure the illusion fits all.

The life of a teacher is exhausting. In 1985, when I began teaching, the professor was someone — s/he mattered. Now the prof — healer, social worker, best friend, mentor and advisor, coach and diet consultant, therapist — is a life-line, a life-preserver, another node that students negotiate on the way to that valuable document that can guarantee a means of exchange. The professor is now an automated teller.

Students know that they’re simply seen as dollar and cents; they know that they are walking up to the block to be gazed at by strangers and examined, questioned and tested, then presented with a value. This is frightening and exhausting, emotionally; it depletes the spirit. And guarantees that we are not nurturing individuals through a process of self-actualization. This is, of course, understandable.

Let’s listen to bell hooks, again:

Part of the luxury and privilege of the role of teacher / professor today is the absence of any requirement that we be self-actualized. Not surprisingly, professors who are not concerned with inner well-being are the most threatened by the demand on the part of students for liberatory education, for pedagogical processes that will aid them in their own struggle for self-actualization.

What we have, then, is a system of higher education where we don’t graduate, for the most part, change agents, creative thinkers that can assess a problem and ask questions that actually challenge the way we’ve done things, but rather, we graduate individuals that will enter into different positions — or nodes — on the production line and fix a lug nut, a spark plug here and there, a timing belt, never realizing that the entire engine is actually out of date.  The most obvious example is our political system where no one, not even the President of the United States is in office to change anything — rather everyone is in office to keep the system going, though it’s running out of steam. We know that — and are scared.

Teachers / professors have been made into obedient, automated overseers. We’ve helped usher in a culture that, as we look around and sense that something is wrong but can’t put a finger on it, instead of analyzing the problem and asking the critical questions and seek diverse, imaginative solutions, gravitates to exercises of power and authority, rather then deep inquiry.