Sunday, November 28, 2010

Teachable Moments -- A new monthly series on this blog

How do we weigh teacher autonomy against the wishes of the community?  I raised this question last month at a meeting attended by parents, teachers, and students.  

The words were barely out of my mouth when a parent calmly said there was no possible tension because teachers are employed to carry out the wishes of the community.  Her certainty took all the air out of the topic, and a new topic took the group in a new direction.  Inwardly, though, I wondered if she’d ever heard of the Scopes Monkey Trial or the less sensational but widely hated initiatives such as No Child Left Behind?    
          I must confess that as a parent I’d find abhorrent a teacher who propagandized on behalf of a political candidate, say, or who espoused views that are way beyond community norms.  Think, for example, of a well known Holocaust denier who served as a tenured professor at Northwestern University.  Or a teacher who dismissed evolution as mere speculation.  But the issues are rarely so black and white.  (Another parent at the meeting wryly observed that her community’s only undisputed value was to get kids into college without raising property taxes!)  With many issues I’d be hard pressed to know exactly what the community norms were.  More complicating still are issues in which the community is divided.  Is the teacher to shy away from such issues altogether or adopt a neutral stance? 
         As a teacher I’d find it impossible to live within such guidelines.  Yes, I am employed by my local community and hired by my school in part to carry out their wishes.  But communities are making a big mistake if they wish to hire only automatons who parrot mindless scripts and who never think outside the ideological boundaries of their communities.  The issue, it seems to me, is akin to that of the elected official.  Is the public servant to poll his or her constituents and vote accordingly,  or to act in accord with his or her own set of morals and intelligence.
         This issue was tackled in 1774 by the eminent British statesman Edmund Burke, whose political writings greatly influenced our own founding fathers.  In considering the proper role of public servants, Burke distinguished between mere delegates “who are not supposed to hew against the grain of public opinion.”  Such delegates must always vote in line with will of the people he or she represents.  In contrast, Burke advocates for the establishment of “trustees” of the public interest.  A trustee owes his or her constituents “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience.” He continues, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
         As a parent and a teacher, this is my fondest wish:  that teachers are allowed to exercise their best judgment for their students bound of course by the laws of reason.  Surely this is one of the most appealing qualities of our profession in recruiting new talent into our ranks.   I am not arguing for teacher infallibility – only that by silencing the independent judgments and opinions of teachers we are likely also to jeopardize the life of the classroom.

Fall Reading

Just before the school year began, I re-read Don Delillo's White Noise.  It is one of the defining books of my lifetime and it's hard to beat for social satire.  Jack Gladney teaches Hitler studies at a small liberal arts college.  He spends most of the book trying to learn basic German while his friend, an Elvis scholar tries to school him on the ways of modern celebrity.  When a -- possibly -- toxic cloud (call it "an event") sweeps over the bucolic landscape, the future appears doomed  for all of us because no one understands  technology, or its specialized vocabulary and no one quite knows how deeply we have already been poisoned by artificial products, synthetic foods, and each other.

Terrence Hayes's Lightheaded is a wonderful book I am happy to say I picked up just before it won the National Book Award.  Hayes is a prodigious talent whose opening poem is a word-drunk meditation on love and loss that leaves the reader, well... lightheaded.  Another favorite is a poem called Carp Poem, in which Hayes makes a staggering imaginative leap from the orange DOC jumpsuits of prisoners in a program where he teaches to the orange of equally trapped and angry carp in a Japanese koi pond.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart is a hilarious social satire of a society where people no longer "verbal" each other.  Instead, they resort to computer devices and a savage hierarchical social ranking system where youth and vapidity are the only prizes to be sought.  Sound familiar?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is a great young adult novel. Partly autobiographical, and partly covering reservation scenes in a similarly brilliant way to his own previous work, Alexie offers a young protagonist who can only be saved through education and art -- much the same way the author has managed to transcend his own impoverished environment to become one of the most important writers in the U.S. today. 

V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River is a great novel about the Congo.   Caught between two revolutions, Salim, the narrator, tries to make a living while surviving swings in political fortune he cannot quite understand.  He's not alone.  No one seems to fully grasp the many Africas present in his tiny town or the mighty pulls of European and Arabian influence, to say nothing of the "old ways" and their inevitable clash with modernity.  Naipaul is a Nobel-prize winner and given the psychological astuteness and the historical sweep of this novel, it's easy to see why.