BY AARON BARLOW
President of the National Council of Teachers of English Doug Hesse posted on Facebook today that he is scrapping his upcoming presidential address “hoping I can find something to say to about the prospects of teaching reading and writing in a country where so much hatred abounds, where facts do not matter, where ignorance is prized, where threatening to kill people is a joke.” I hope he succeeds. Though I won’t be at the Annual Convention this month, I do hope I will be able to read the speech soon after. It’s not just the teaching of reading and writing that’s affected by the new (and growing) attitudes; it’s education as a whole. And I want someone who knows what they are talking about to give me some answers.
His topic is something that all of us educators have been grappling with at least since the 1960s when we begrudgingly stepped down from our roles as sages and guides and started to become “facilitators.” No longer willing to tell our students that they often didn’t know what they were talking about, we found ourselves nodding and ‘gently’ trying to sway them toward examination of their claims. We took relativism to an extreme, giving the impression that all views are equal and all viewers equally able to understand.
Unconsciously, we devalued ourselves and the knowledge and skills we spend years obtaining and then honing. Not in our own minds (our egos are as vibrant as ever), but in the minds of almost everyone else. The public intellectual of a century ago was an esteemed figure. Today, we Americans mostly see the pose as pretentious, unless, of course, the sage is on TV or giving a TED talk (and even that is made fun of).
At the same time, we (particularly in the middle class and above) are raising our kids to believe that all of them are “leaders” and “winners,” that they have rights and privileges, that what they say needs to be taken as seriously as the words of anyone else, no matter the experiences behind the words. I knew one couple who even let their five-year-old decide whether they would live in the city or in the country. Many of us lead our children to believe that their teachers aren’t deserving of respect, that the knowledge from home is every bit as good as that from school—that belief trumps knowledge, anyway. We develop pride in our students instead of the thirst for learning that will serve them best. We forget what Alexander Pope warns us of in his “Essay on Criticism”:
Of all the Causes which conspire to blind
Man’s erring Judgment, and misguide the Mind,
What the weak Head with strongest Byass rules,
Is Pride, the never-failing Vice of Fools.
That comes just a few lines before his famous:
A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Pride and shallow draughts, unfortunately, are the toast of the day, real judgement and learning counting for little and celebrated not at all.
How do we change this? How to we return to a position where, first, we respect our own learning and experience and, second, we convey to others that our knowledge can be of value to them? And how do we do this without over-inflating our already puffed-up egos?
We teachers do have something to offer. We know it, but we’ve been beaten down so by a society that believes less and less in formal education as a path to knowledge that we don’t engage with the confidence that should become us. Instead, we walk bowed, caps in hand, accepting the taunts of people who haven’t spent a tenth of the time it takes to approach mastery of any body of knowledge.
Maybe we can do little to abate the hatreds surrounding at us (some of it directed at us and some of it, unfortunately, emanating from us), but we can do something about the facts of any matter, though it takes time and patience. We can steel ourselves and say, “No, and here’s why,” in low, nonthreatening voices. We can demonstrate by our own reactions that there is no virtue in ignorance even while we recognize the virtue of the ignorants. That’s hard, but we can do it; we are teachers, and that’s what teachers do.
Violence, however, is no joke. Neither are threats of it. Facing that is where we can all learn, looking to the great teachers Mandela, King, Gandhi and all the way back to Jesus and Socrates. Here is where we can best teach by example, improving ourselves at the same time.
I am very interested in reading what Hesse will have to say. My own little suggestions, of course, are nigh on impossible to fulfill. If we, together, can make this a profession-wide discussion, however, even the fact of the conversation may have an impact, starting to change things, starting to help us move back to a position of authority within society from the fringe where we’ve allowed ourselves to be pushed so unceremoniously.
But it’s a start.