Thursday, February 10, 2011

A few words on education

Yesterday my friend Dan (who is a student at SVSU) posted a note on Facebook titled "The Cold War of Life." It's about what he's learning at school, and how that contributes to the greater picture (which is a topic I've wanted to write about). But until I read what Dan wrote, I wasn't sure how to frame what I wanted to say.

I'll start with an excerpt from his post. It's kind of long, but I wouldn't be sharing it if I didn't think it was worth your while to read it.

I have just come to the realization that my current semester is a bit of a downer. In one class, I am learning the historical beginnings of colonization and enslavement of native peoples by capitalists, leading to the current international economy and the division of labor that exploits the weak by multi-national corporations, who use economical power to control corrupt, undemocratic, resource-rich governments. In another class, I am learning about the Cold War. Additionally, during the day, I am being bombarded by negative information whenever I try to catch up on current events. But what I thought was another internal, moral crisis actually led me back to upholding my original principles and values.

Learning about the Cold War has taught me that it was just like life. George Kennan, writing from his insightful vantage point as a post-WWII diplomat, outlined what was to become the main American policy towards the Soviet Union for the next four decades, with an article (and a byline of “Mr. X”) called “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in the magazine Foreign Policy. In the article, he notes that the Russian Revolution demonstrated the youthful impatience of revolutionaries who tried to industrialize a mostly-agrarian society too quickly. This swift change of policy and ideology led to distrust from Lenin and Stalin, on down to the peasant, and created a culture of fear and totalitarianism. Additionally, Kennan notes that because one ideology (capitalism or communism) will eventually “win” due to the fatal flaws of the other. Although Stalin believed capitalism would implode under the weight of its own greed and imperialism, Kennan believed the opposite, that communism would fall due to the rigid top-down nature of the Communist Party system and the lack of easy governmental transition upon the death of the Chairman. Kennan turned out to be right, while Stalin is remembered as a paranoid genocidal maniac and Russia is a shadow of what he knew when he lived. To meet this end, Kennan focused on a policy of vigorous “containment” toward the Russians, that if communism can be prevented to spread, the system would eventually splinter and bring change to an oppressive government that had to keep its people in with barbed wire.

Which brings me to my main point: Patience will bring change. We can respect each others’ ideologies because when it comes down to it, the truth will always come out, even under the most authoritarian of regimes, both here and abroad. When Martin Luther wrote out his complaints regarding the selling of indulgences by corrupt Catholic Church officials (which was an offense punishable by death), he had no idea that his little screed would literally change the known world. One little action propelled peasants, nations, kings, and popes into the boxing ring of competing ideologies; one spark from a lowly Catholic monk set off a cultural bonfire that led to new ideas such as national sovereignty, liberalism, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, and the expansion of capitalism and democracy, just to name a handful. All the previous events listed brought us to a new era of humanity, forever separating us from the base animal with violent, wild instinct.

He goes on to give other examples of how seemingly small acts by patient individuals have ultimately changed the world for the better. After he posted the note, he updated his status with a quote from an individual whose identity is unknown: "Patience is waiting. Not passively waiting. That is laziness. But to keep going when the going is hard and slow--that is patience."

Reading that, I thought about how school has been making me feel lately. I love it, but feel that it needs to be a bigger part of my life, because I cannot possibly keep the experience contained to the classroom.

And yet, that's what I find myself doing. I'm a transfer student who lives with her parents twenty minutes from campus. So I often feel really lonely. The only people I spend a significant amount of time with are my parents (who didn't go to college) and the girls I babysit (they're four and seven--so it's not exactly possible to discuss my 5000-level English and women's studies classes with them).

Last night in class, my professor was talking about the importance of critical pedagogy. And my internal monologue was like, "Oh. This is why you feel so crazy and alone. Because you understand that this needs to be an ongoing discussion. And yet you feel as if the only person you have to talk to is yourself."

I got really mopey when I realized that everything I'm learning at school (and pretty much everything I believe in, for that matter) stands in direct opposition to the structure and belief system of the world in which I live. For example, we were talking in English class recently about how it's bullshit that college has basically been an unlearning of K-12's version of American history. What did we learn about Columbus? That he came over to what is now the United States and had a nice dinner with the people who lived there before he did. And what did we learn about slaves? That they were freed.

That in particular is really hard for me, because I babysit a first grader and see how that's exactly what she's being taught to accept as fact. And I feel helpless to stop it. What's the point of even teaching that? Her options are to either go to college and unlearn it all, or keep believing that forever. I have a hard time seeing how we've supposedly "come so far" as a nation when we're still teaching children this stuff, you know?

So I see a great danger in isolation: my keeping what I learn at school confined to a classroom at Wayne State; or telling first graders that what happened in the past will stay there, and has nothing to do with life as it is now.

Yesterday in class, we were talking about how Harriet Jacobs, who wrote _Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl_, tried to get white women in the north to understand her perspective. And to do that, she had to try to identify with them, even though she knew that her experience was vastly different from theirs. Her audience embraced the "cult of true womanhood," believing that women should be pious, religious, confined to the domestic sphere, and above all else, completely devoted to their children.

In order to get them to sympathize with her, Jacobs had to prove that she actually fit into that very mold. She justified the decisions she made by making her audience aware of the circumstances surrounding her situation as a slave. Even though she spent seven years hiding in an attic, she explained that she still loved her children; she made clothes for them. She used these examples to explain why she should not be held to the same standard as the white women to whom she told her story (thus dismantling the idea of the "cult of true womanhood," woo hoo)!

I got home last night and started thinking about how relevant that still is, almost two hundred years later. The next book I have to read for that class is _Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty_ by Dorothy Roberts. I haven't actually opened it yet, but I don't see how it's such a dramatic shift from our discussion of motherhood in the time of slavery in the U.S. There's a blurb from Ms. Magazine on the cover: "Compelling...Deftly shows how distorted and racist constructions of black motherhood have affected politics, law, and policy in the United States." Um, black welfare mother stereotype, anyone?

And so, the helplessness. I worry that nothing will ever change or get better. I want to quit real life and devote all my time to activism. But instead I gotta be a grown up and spend my time doing my part to support the very structure I oppose. And I do that by earning money babysitting.

But Dan's post showed me how I can, in my own little way, carry what I'm learning in school over to other aspects of my life. The other day I had a conversation with the four-year-old I babysit. She had just gotten home from ballet class and asked me why some of her classmates are boys. We had a little chat about how boys can take ballet, too. (And girls can do things that have been traditionally only associated with boys!)

That seems so insignificant, though. Maybe my talk with her won't change a damn thing. But maybe it will. And that hope is what tells me that I ought to continue to do things like that, however small and seemingly pointless. And I'll be patient. Not lazy, not passive. But patient.


  1. I know it can be isolating commuting to school (I'm doing it too this year to save money) and even moreso as a transfer (I'm at a state school for the year to save money as well). But we're in an age where we can create our communities, and we can connect to people that live thousands of miles away! From someone who is very definitely in your shoes right now, don't feel alone.

    I babysit a 5 year old named Aidan and I explained to him why Columbus Day is not that great. When his mom came home, she asked him what he'd learned and he said "Mommy, Columbus went to the Native Americans' house and told them 'It's my house now.' He's not supposed to do that!"

    Small wonders. Gotta look for those small wonders.

  2. @Amelia,

    Nice essay. It's important not to give up hope, and to keep working for change. You never know when your actions or words have an impact. Thank you.


    How did mommy react when she heard that?

  3. Hahaha. Mommy's a pretty socially aware individual. She looked at me and said "Well damn, that's a better way to explain it than I could think of."

  4. ...and just so you know, not all elementary schools teach the "facts" as facts. There are many movements currently going on in the world of K-12 that teach beyond this. As a teacher myself, I see, practice and assess such movements.

    In a system that requires 6 years of education for teachers, including a decent salary, many former BA undergrads become elementary school teachers and study the possibilities of responsible pedagogy. Which has to include pedagogy beyond just "telling".

  5. True; thanks for sharing that. Another student in my English class actually raised her hand during our discussion and said, "I'm sorry that all of you miissed out. I wasn't given the sugarcoated version of American history when I went through the K-12 system."

    I too was exposed to a more realistic version of American history, but not until my senior year of high school. And only in my AP classes.

  6. I'm not the anonymous above.

    I trust you've heard of the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen? It's probably horribly outdated by now (shows what a dinosaur I am), but when I was in high school waaaay back, it was kinda cool. It kinda opened my eyes to a lot of whitewash and why I found K-12 history/social studies so boring, actually. I even printed out a chapter and left it on my US history teacher's desk. He was probably like don't tell me how to teach, lol.

  7. This post really spoke to me. As a recent college grad, I find the continued pursuit of feminist knowledge and application of activist theories to my life to be a constant struggle against the sturdy structures of "normalcy" and male domination in the work place - both of which I encounter every day. I continue to read as many feminist texts as I can fit into my spare time, and my recent thoughts have centered on exactly what you state in this post. I have two year old twins, one girl one boy. IDK whether they have motivated me to think about our educational system more critically or if it's the resistance I encounter every day because of my lifestyle choices (mostly short hair, feminist parenting, bluntly speaking my mind and being agnostic).

    I think the enlightening experience of women's studies should be included in general education at a much earlier age, but it should not have to be called women's studies. Women's and minorities' histories must be told along side those of rich white males at all educational levels. A little radical pedagogy couldn't hurt either; there's nothing like education as the practice of liberation.

    So, thank you. Reading this gives me hope. I know there are others out there who, like me, found women's studies in college and are motivated to continue to work towards social change. There is a way to combine "real life" and activism. For me, they are entertwined because feminism truly is my passion.

    "I have a hard time seeing how we've supposedly "come so far" as a nation when we're still teaching children this stuff, you know?"


    "I gotta be a grown up and spend my time doing my part to support the very structure I oppose"

    This is true, yes. But there are always ways to subvert authority.

    Our children are our future. Can you imagine what it would have been like to have learned this perspective as children? If we didn't have to waste so much time before discovering feminism, women could be so much further in theoretical application by now.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this.