Learning to be Brave: Back to School Edition

I did not become a college professor because I am particularly brave. I started a Masters’ program in American Studies at the University of Minnesota twenty-five years ago, thinking that it would enable me to teach community college, to piece together what the writer Jackie Regales calls “A Patchwork Life” of writing and teaching. I stayed on for my PhD because I fell in love with the work of university teaching.

You could describe me as opinionated. And I am quick on my feet, a quality that has proven quite useful in the classroom. But learning to be brave came later.

It is strange to have to point this out, but bookishness is the defining quality of most of the people who wind up working in classrooms and libraries. We like to read, which means we spend a lot of time doing that: quietly, by ourselves. We believe that books and ideas are important: so we spend our lives reading, writing and planning classes.

Truth to tell, important doesn’t begin to cover it for me. I stuck around for the PhD because I saw the ways that education opened the world for many of our students at Minnesota. In almost twenty-five years of university teaching, I have seen it repeatedly: reading and sharing ideas is transformative and empowering.

I think about the delight on the faces of three young women in my first U.S. history survey class when they figured out that people like them could be found in the pages of history books. “This is our history!” one of them exclaimed in surprise. I devoutly hope that the world was not quite the same for these students afterwards, that finding people they recognized in a history course changed what they thought was possible for themselves.

Maybe this transformative power explains the current war against bookishness. Maybe bookishness has always had the capacity to impart bravery. We learn from books to imagine the world otherwise than it is, to question things that are presented to us as facts. And perhaps this learning is dangerous.

My colleague Kelly Wilz of UW Marshfield/Wood County has written powerfully and bravely about this war, about the ways that our state lawmakers as well as ordinary citizens have come to see their problems embodied by education, teachers in particular. The war against bookishness is part of a broader assault on public education taking place around the United States and around the world.

In this war, students and teachers are held accountable for an economic emergency largely created by fiscal policies that devalue public institutions in favor of private profit. We are constantly told that we are irresponsible and wasteful. The very ideas that empower and transform our students are increasingly seen as extraneous to an education narrowly defined as vocational training.

The current demonization of education targets all educators as suspect, as lazy. Now, I teach American history, so I am familiar with the phenomenon of a particular population being demeaned in this way by mass media and public policy. This has happened to indigenous nations, to people of color, and to the foreign born since Europeans set foot in the New World. But as a white person, I am not accustomed to the feeling of being constantly suspect. The war on bookishness, like most such assaults, operates by making its targets feel alone and powerless.

It’s odd that bookish folks like us, often represented in children’s literature by mice, have come to seem so very dangerous. But given what is at stake in the current conflict over public education, I have decided to study bravery: a bookish approach, if ever there was one.

And here are my preliminary findings: being braver helps. When the state budget was announced last winter I was terrified. I have had tenure for over a decade, which makes me much more secure than a lot of other university employees. But still I felt the threat to my workplace, to my colleagues, to the universe in which I have invested my life’s work, such as it is.

My study is not yet conclusive, but the evidence is mounting: the courage it takes to continue speaking and writing and organizing to protect public education has the power to vanquish fear. The flowering of this kind of creative work in Wisconsin since 2011, with new blogs and organizations, protests and alliances and relationships, attests to this.

Being brave doesn’t mean we get to win. But it does mean continuing the process of creative transformation that the current powers that be oppose so virulently. The flowering of creative work in our current climate is itself a form of public education, keeping the faith in a time of war.

Rachel Ida Buff

President, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee AAUP



2 thoughts on “Learning to be Brave: Back to School Edition

  1. You have the right attitude, Rachel! Being brave, or courageous, does not mean winning, as you say. More often, really, it means losing. True bravery and courage, I believe, are defined when the chips are down, and losing is a foregone conclusion.

    These moments define our character. Display exceptional character in the face of losing, and eventually you will be admired. Go the other way, and history will paint another portrait.

    In this “war” involving Gov Walker & education, I think the public will declare the winner & loser, and that will largely be based on character. So losing the battle may provide education the opportunity to win over public sentiment.

  2. What a terrific post, Rachel! Thank you! I hadn’t heard it put that way, but your term — “war on bookishness” — is pricelessly germane. And as for those of us who are, indeed, bookish, it is not just children’s books that sometimes portray us as mice. As an historian of Russia and the Soviet Union I was reminded of Stalin’s famous reference to historians as “archival rats.”

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