Splashing in the Rubicon

As I write this, the majority of school districts in my state- which coronavirus hit early and hard, and has since mostly been spared, are electing to begin the school year with all-online, all remote instruction. There is a kind of Rubicon that has now been crossed. We have decided that in-person schooling is something that can be done without, even in the areas where the virus doesn’t present an immediate danger. That this decision has in large part been engineered by teachers’ unions is at one level not surprising- teachers are often the first to catch any circulating bug  (I spent my first Christmas vacation as a teacher wheezing from some bacterial bronchitis), and in any case the unions are often dominated by the interests of the oldest and most senior members, who probably have the most to fear from the virus. Also, of course, keeping the school closed when Trump called for them to open and has invested his political stakes in a return to normalcy for parents as well as children makes sense for groups that are among the Democratic party’s most important existing subsidiaries and allies. And yet in the case of this particular respiratory bug, which generally spares children far more than any recent flu and appears to pass from children to adults very rarely, the decision not just to close schools last year but to keep them closed, six months later, even in states without significant current outbreaks, raises some questions about the long term strategic sense of the people running school systems. It is the necessity of in-person schooling- accepted by the public at large, that assures the existence of teaching as a profession and school districts as we know them in the first place, over even a modest time horizon. Several politicians began salivating immediately with the prospect that remote schooling would signal the new era in which all those expensive buildings and people could be dispensed with for our new online edutopia- not just during the pandemic but perhaps indefinitely. At the same time, many more districts are placing ever more fantastical obligations on teachers to combat prejudice and racism, with racism defined as any divergence in student outcomes and teachers identified as “mandatory  reporters” of any action or inactions that might contribute to these inequalities. This mutually reinforcing juxtaposition- of an unwillingness to deal with children in reality, as physical beings unmediated by a screen, and of ever more fantastical visions of what schools can achieve in children’s lives- is of course magnified by our current situation but builds upon a number of intellectual trends of recent years. I realized I’d said most of what I had to say about this tendency in a conversation with Titus Techera [TT, below] on his podcast last year, which was ostensibly about my book but went in some different directions, and online transcription is now easy enough I’m putting an edited transcript below.

 

TT:

We should have this discussion on education, on public education, that is, and what it is that you’ve learned from your experience and how come you decided to write a book about it in the first place.

 

ST: I was a teacher from 2000 to 2010. I taught at three different schools. The first was a large public middle school in the Southwest Bronx, where I was a Teach For America corps member. And after that, I taught for six years in a very small, new public middle school, also in New York in the lower East side. And then I taught for two years out in the suburbs in a large public high school. I talk about all three experiences in the book, but I focus on the first one mainly because I think I have the most distance from it, and also because I think the reason to write was just these experiences that, you might say, picked at me even after I stopped teaching. A reason I kept teaching as long as I did was that I wasn’t good at first: I was bad and it was important to me to get good and to be somewhere where I could get good and learn from what I was doing. And that place was really the second school I taught at, the smaller school. But still these experiences at my first school kind of weighed on me in a certain way. Trying to come to some kind of understanding of what I was doing as a teacher, what the students were in that school were trying to face, and what we were doing in school together was really important to me.

In early 2016, I started this blog, and I sort of had the idea of the book already when I started the blog, and the blog got some amount of attention for more quantitative posts and a few political essays I wrote at the same time. Whereas most of the components of the book, which are more personal, more philosophical, weren’t what people were interested in. They were interesting to me, though and I wanted to put them together in some kind of order. A reasonable criticism of the book is that it’s not linearly ordered. When I had thought about writing something like this for a long time, I tried to think about how to arrange this experience, linearly, how to compress it into a single year.  And I didn’t do that. But I think that, generously, there is some sort of internal logic to how I go from part to part, and within the individual pieces, I hope there’s some coherence, but you kind of have to go along for the ride. My hope is that some of the themes come together at the end and you walk away feeling like what I was learning from my students is something that’s more broadly applicable, even though it’s admittedly a lot of disparate strands.

 

TT:  In certain ways it seems more like an essay and with a bit of a novel thrown in the thing you reminded me of was Bret Ellis’s book , White, not because you through the same things, but because it’s a very similar genre, a combination of autobiography and cultural observations, which struck me when I read that book as an attempt to replace the novel, to do the same thing, but replacing fiction with experience and expertise when available. So I had no trouble following the plot, so to speak, or rather as you put it going along for the ride, I read the book in one afternoon, I loved it. I’m glad to have been able to get you on the podcast and tell people, just go look for it. It’s called 13 ways of going on a field trip after the Wallace Stevens title, it does not disappoint.

 

 I thought that it was a very well chosen title, strangely. It is because that is a poem about how to make sense of human experience and the traps that the intellect sets for itself. So to speak the fact that the intellect is forever making metaphors out of things rather than see what is there, but also that there’s no other way to get to things, but through metaphors. I  thought here’s a guy who goes through his experience and make sense of it in a very poetic way. That’s very rare, especially in public policy debates, but since I am an avid reader of and writer on poetry, I thought, finally, my guy.  I have got to get out and interview him. People should read it.

 

ST: That’s extremely kind. There’s a very American genre that this book is taken from, that was big in the 60s. The premise of the genre was “white teacher goes to a ghetto school, and what does he learn from it?” This genre includes Jonathan Kozol and John Holt and James Herndon and “Up the Down Staircase” and all the rest. There are a lot of movies in the 80s, too, which took this genre in a direction of even more idealism and fantasy, where, you know, Michelle Pfeiffer, or James Olmos get in front of these kids and they changed their lives. The irony is that I was arguably there as a teacher in that room in the Bronx because of this genre, and especially because of those movies, because Wendy Kopp goes to all these rich people when she’s a senior at Princeton and says, I want to take the kids graduating from elite colleges and send them into poor schools, and they- having watched all these movies about the transformative teacher, said, “sure.”

Teach for America made $500 million in endowment by the middle of the 2000s. It was successful as a nonprofit on an unprecedented scale. And why was that? There are obviously a lot of social forces behind that. Americans relate to equality and the ideals of equality in a very particular way, and the inequality in schools is arguably  a fatal blow to that notion of equality. But another way of saying it is that by the 90s, when Wendy Kopp started TFA, we as Americans didn’t have anything but schools that could be a comparable locus of aspiration. There isn’t some other dream that we have as an alternative to somehow fixing education. All of these forces came together. And while Teach For America is representative of it, there was more broadly an enormous revolution in public education from roughly the 90s through the beginning of Obama’s second term. You had the adoption of national standards , you had No Child Left Behind: which literally said in the legislation that all children are going to pass state standardized tests by 2014, the Lake Woebegone theory of the world, that everyone’s going to be above average. There was a revolution in teacher evaluation, in which they were going to use tests and test scores to evaluate teachers much more strictly. There was an increase in the amount of observation of teachers received from principals. And there was adoption of very intensive testing methods. In the early 2010s, there was a group of Common Core tests that were adopted across the large majority of States to match these new standards. And amazingly, all of these changes in education policy occurred seemingly overnight, to a very large degree through bipartisan compromise. It was as one blogger I talk to a lot, Education Realist, said, the merger of progressive aspiration and dreams with Republican desire to cut down the teachers unions.

All these things came together in this moment of great aspiration, or at least energetic policymaking. And in a way the country has been walking back from that moment over the last few years. There’s a definite turn away from the sort of valorization of the super teacher, and from the ideal of educational reform as a silver bullet just in the last few years. And in some ways this is bringing on some new problems, but the book is about my experience and a few kids I knew and what I was trying to get from that.

 

TT:
I also thought about these movies and books. The oldest education movie of this kind I know is this old Spencer Tracy thing that won him an Oscar, “Boys’ Town” I think something like that, from the late thirties when Mickey Rooney was a thing, but of course, there’s Glenn Ford in Chalkboard jungle thing from the mid fifties, which was about stamping down youthful rebellion and being a tough guy and administering tough love, but then things gradually become more and more sentimental in Hollywood, of course. And I think so far as I’ve seen young teachers, indeed, there’s a lot of idealists. There’s a lot of high hopes, absolutely no experience, but essentially good intentions. And there’s a certain shame before class issues. It’s very often people going into lower classes to educate there, with the half unconfessed desire as it were of making up for the difference somehow.


And they think that as you put it, the fact that from the nineties onward, there was this massive push for rescuing public education shows that aside from the high hopes, there was quite a lot of desperation or giving up as it were. The magic bullet teacher is the really last resort. It comes after institutional failure, including a first institutional failure, so far as education is concerned, of the teachers’ unions. I’m not sure what their political influence is these days. It seems considerable, but their successes in achieving new landmarks of progress in education are nil. And that does seem to be a big dent in progressive America, you know, in on any number of other things people could love or hate what Progressives want, but when it comes to education, everybody would sort of want better things for kids. Nobody seems to have an idea how to do it.

And so this other sort of book like yours, where you get to see some of the experience of a teacher and try to figure out why that is the way it is, seems to me much more interesting, both in the idealism and the obsession with quant. I think I liked the book so much just because I could see the scenes properly. Why are people acting this way? Why are such kids saying such things straight to understand them? First of all, I of course have a special pleasure in books that avoid jargon and ideological slogans. So again, I thought here, here is my champion, the man who was telling me how it is. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I’m I’m honest about that because I too have gone into schools to lecture, but it’s more often been the rich kids than poor kids.

And I have been able to detect the difference, but never done it for long enough to understand that difference. So if you feel like talking more about your experience in class and what sorts of things you felt you had to learn those sorts of things, you felt you were getting wrong when trying to getting anything across and becoming a real teacher. One part of your book is your insistence on what it means to be a human being in a body among other people who have their own bodies there, how restless kids get, and what the effect of one restless kid is on others. What the effect of a teacher is, if he knows how to comport himself, if you are steady in a simple, emotional sense. Is he the adult in the room or not? All of these things, what effects they have in the moment, but also what effects they have over time. I thought this was insightful stuff. I’m not saying you’re some kind of original, but they were all seem to me to be genuine insights. So if you feel like talking about your classroom experience, I would be grateful.

 

ST: That’s very kind. I said I was a bad teacher, and I was. A lot of this was qualities which bookish young men are inclined to: disorganization and prioritizing a new and fresh idea over doing something that’s regular and provide structure to the people coming in and out of that room. The experience of being in a room with 35, 36, 37 young people is pretty different from most of our lives. A lot of what makes school important is that it is this rare moment and rare institution that still involves us all being together in the same place and talking to each other. And so on an average day, my own young children now spend much more time talking to other human beings than I do, certainly in terms of physical space.

And that experience of being all together in the room, it’s both promise and problem. When something happens for good or ill in a classroom with all these young people, for whom this school is their world and the most important part of their world, it has a social meaning, a shared meaning. Because especially before high school, and especially for poor kids, this is a lot of what’s going on for their lives, in some ways more than for a richer group of kids, because their parents may not be able to offer as many alternatives outside of school. So if you go to some suburban middle school, the kids have a million activities after school, by which they’re expected to define themselves and expected to contrast their own identity to the one that they’re presented with at school and made to maintain. And for myself as a kid, even though I grew up in a time where there wasn’t this same level of sort of hyper expectation that children would be producing and improving themselves outside of school, my life from three in the afternoon to seven at night was a million times more interesting to me than my life during school. I don’t want to generalize for all of my students in the Bronx or elsewhere, but I do think that simply by virtue of the fact that their parents expected them to be home as soon as they left the school, or as soon as they left the afterschool program, the social experience of school was extremely important to them.

One of the effects of school being such an important part of life for middle school kids and of spending this time together is that you have good events and bad, which have a sort of social resonance beyond an individual person. A fight between two kids has meaning: There was a fight in somebody’s class. And so you have to go tell everybody about it. In the book, I tell stories about losing my temper and saying some things I still regret. And that loss of control by a teacher, too, had social meaning. Similarly, when good things happen, or at least from my perspective as a teacher, when good things happen. So one boy decided he was going to make a bottle rocket. And so we carved out these fins out of wood and we brought it down to the school yard with a bicycle pump in a cork in the bottle and we shoot it off and it goes up a total of three feet with all this water coming out of it. And everyone in the school thought this was the most hilarious thing ever. I think [MY LAST NAME’s] folly was the name of this rocket. And other events, I tell this story about visiting kids’ houses, you know, mostly because of behavioral problems and been talking to their parents there, but you know, that had meaning in the school. So I came back and, “HE MAKES HOME VISITS” was written big on my chalkboard.

And so your role as a teacher has this sort of dual quality. You are at once making strategic decisions a lot about what you’re doing, what you think is a meaningful way to spend this time together. And these decisions are framed by kids’ own expectations of what school is and what they need to get out of it. They come to school expecting they’re going to put in work and they’re going to learn something. For the vast majority of kids, school is not an extension of another set of intellectual preoccupations. It’s a set of relationships and habits and obligations. And inevitably as a teacher you are stepping into those expectations, that kids are going to show up in the room and are going to write something down. Writing something down is the price kids pay for not getting into trouble, for not having their parents mad at them.

Somewhere along the line, you hope there’s learning attached to that, but it’s inevitably going to be an imperfect match. The reason we learn things as human beings to a very large degree is because it’s common knowledge among the people we care about and listened to. And this knowledge exists in our shared social world. Activity and doing, and writing things down, contribute to that shared knowledge. But it’s not really the same thing.

The longer I taught, the more you kind of see this balance between your own aspirations as a teacher and the maintenance of order as itself a meaningful goal. Because who wants to be in a place where everyone’s miserable and yelling at each other, and it’s chaos and people are throwing paper balls, and nobody knows when the last time a test you were supposed to have taken, ever came back. And why should I as a student be doing this anyway? And so there’s a collapse of political authority that happens in classrooms, when the teacher doesn’t establish his role in the way that students can agree to.

At the same time, you hope that given we’re all here together in this room, we can see something new. One possible point of that Wallace Steven’s poem the title of the book is taken from, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is that you as reader-and Stevens as poet- are looking at the Blackbird, together. You’re seeing some piece of the world. And ideally in school, you’re seeing some of that together with other people, and you can understand it as a thing in the world together. I talk in the book about all these bugs that I had in my classroom- the baby Malagasy giant hissing cockroaches escaping from their pen and vanishing out into the hallway. And giant millipedes crawling all over the place. There was, ideally, some intellectual content to what we doing with these bugs, to try to understand the scientific process of how these living organisms would respond to particular environmental cues or how we could measure and observe their behavior. But also you have this hope that somewhere in there, you just realize that you just don’t know. You, as a teacher, and you, as a student, and you collectively don’t know what is out there in the world. And I think the blessing of being a science teacher is that at least in a small way, there is that piece of the world in the classroom, that is something beyond what is written down and ordered from the curricular czars or the Gates Foundation, trying to twist state departments of education into adopting one set of rules or another. There’s something there that you can experience as a group and see as a window into another part of the world and that you don’t have control over, you are trying to understand.

There’s the joke about on Twitter, there’s the I “f***ing love science” thing, and it’s just a bunch of pictures of, for example, galaxies, with the caption “I f***ing love science.” That’s the opposite, right? Of what science offers us, which is that the rules governing our world, while available to our shared perception and gradual understanding and inch by inch acquisition, ultimately are beyond us. And we have to work to go find it, to see what’s really there. We’re going to fail. Most experiments are not going to work. And all of that is tied to this experience of being together in a group with other people, which is really important because we don’t spend that time together as people.

One friend said, why do people like to shoot up schools? Well, it’s because they were miserable there. Because it’s the place where their misery with other people, their misery at the injury of our social lives together, is most apparent. I think for some people the conclusion is, thus let’s get rid of that. Let kids go online and learn from the screen, and let it all be more depersonalized. I mean, obviously there’s some validity somewhere in there. There’s some portion of the school experience, which really is hurtful and harmful, but at the same time, you know, it’s like the rain is coming into us and we want to knock out our little remaining shelter, our little remaining tarp over our heads. We’ve knocked out so many other aspects of our shared social life. And this is the one we’re sort of all huddled in under. And so we identify our experience of it as this incredibly competitive unequal experience, because we’re all so focused on this one experience.

How many online, public conversations that capture everybody’s attention are about that one fact of who gets into elite colleges, which, at one level is this incredibly unimportant aspect of our society, because it’s not clear that it makes that big a difference to economic outcomes. I mean, I had one very excellent student whose parents decided not to pay for college. And she went to community college and transferred into the state university and was making more money than me four years after high school. And, so, there is something to be said that this obsession is all a charade, all the aspects of the education system, that focus on a purely as an allocation of status. You know, it’s our belief in it that is sustaining it, as this sort of collective obsession.

TT:

Education is far more conventional than we there to admit. And my guess about the obsession with the status of higher education is twofold: on the one hand, since at least the sixties, but in certain ways, since world war II, we have believed that this is the path to the future, at least the best future. And on the other hand, we have learned in recent decades that there may be no future, or if there is any future, there’s only enough for some, and this becomes not just the portal leaping into the future, higher education, especially prestigious higher education, but what’s worse. It becomes the way to separate classes, the deserving from the undeserving, if it’s meritocratic. If it’s bureaucratic, if it’s regulated, if it’s public, everybody’s competing, then if it should happen, that may be even a majority of Americans end up pretty miserable.

But [under meritocracy], that’s on them. And the people who made to the top don’t necessarily owe the people who don’t make it anything. There are deep unpleasant things baked into whenever a society obsesses over a convention, and doesn’t worry so much about what that convention is supposed to achieve. It is supposed to keep being a debate. And I think you can also look at the importance of school in the way you pointed out for poor people. School actually matters a great deal as a social experience, even if it’s a bad one. Often, for people who are doing well, not necessarily rich but just people who live in fairly stable social life with fairly confident adults around them: those kids don’t need schools that much, not least because they have so many other options in their lives. But of course, for the people who depend on school for their only real social activity, and one of the few activities where lots of kids see some number of adults who are supposedly responsible, supposedly successful, supposedly to be imitated, if not admired, that matters much more.

And indeed in a way, it’s the last thing that’s left. Whereas to very large extent, the transformation of education into a science or a measurement would seem to suggest that maybe we just need to abandon this last social problem that we just have to admit that we failed at dealing with the fact that human beings have bodies and the is getting the way of education and that they find quite worrisome. And that’s okay. Why I was so grateful reading through your book, just thinking about what does it mean that all these kids need to learn to behave as pupils, as students, not just as kids that they have to learn to behave to each other and also to the teacher. And the teacher has to somehow manage to get this across in a situation where there’s not a lot, you can do, where any teacher’s going to be caught between an educational system and the kids and the parents.

And there’s no way to make these things fit again, especially for poor kids. Education has become a combination of your food, your shelter for a part of the day. So it’s essentially daycare. And also your moral education. It’s not like if parents want their kids to have a moral education they just hold them off to church every Sunday or Sunday school, it’s not the case anymore. And so all of burdens are put on a public system that’s less and less able to deal even with the burdens that it was supposed to deal with before all these other things were added. Society forces a school to be so much more than it can be at exactly the time when it no longer believes that schooling achieves more.

ST:

Right. So that’s a great point. It’s like the Henry the Fifth speech about how everyone “puts it all on the King,” right? School is our King to some degree. We want to put it all on there. And that notion of crisis is animating in a way. It’s a mixed blessing because there’s a lot of hope in believing that schooling can be saved and can be transformed. When I look at the educational reform movement, I admire a lot of people I got to know through that. They’re working hard and some of them have some success. But because we put so many different demands on school, we sacrifice the little bit they can achieve.

I told the little story at the beginning of the book about how my school was going to try these small learning communities, that you were going to have theme-based schools within a school. And at the same time, they had decided that the beginning of the morning was for silent reading. So they would simultaneously have one of the schools within a school, be the “media “themed school. And they would go down to the PA system and make media- read the weather report and say whose birthday it was and tell what was being served in the cafeteria and all this stuff over the PA….at the same time, as teachers were yelling at the kids to be quiet and read. And so every agenda has an equal and opposite agenda. Every policy is interfering with some other policy.

Putting all that aside, people have lives and interests and thoughts on their own and childhood exists as a time that can to a large degree take care of itself. If you don’t go around knocking kids over the head with two by fours and they get a decent amount of to eat and a decent amount of space to run around in.. a lot of times, they’ll turn out fine. The ability of the school to shape a person is compromised by the fact that people are living things. They’re growing up, and there’s a plan within us for how we’re going to grow up to a large degree. Right now, there’s a lot of panic about genetics and what genetics will say about human differences and what kinds of limits these discoveries about genetics are going to place on our aspirations for other people. And in some ways, this is all understandable. But at the same time, stepping back from all that, our own human development and not just our differences from one another is moderated by processes we don’t have control over and nobody has control over. It is within us, and childhood is this process of growing up as a living thing. We moderate that by our cultural experiences and by who we are with one another, but the living plant or the living tree that we’re growing to become is of itself. It’s not just created by our social situations.

And so school plays this role of acting out our aspirations and as a vehicle for aspirations. To a large degree, sharing those aspirations with each other, believing in something together, believing that as a school, we can achieve something together,that what we’re doing is worthy , is critically important. And so the schools that are nice places are very purposeful communities where people, even if they don’t agree all the time and they argue with each other, they believe in what they’re doing as a group. And at the same time, there’s an enormous limitation to what that can achieve simply by virtue of us being people.

TT:

Yeah, there’s always going to be a tension between our aspirations and what we’re actually doing and what that leads to and school should be a place for dealing with that problem. Presumably because adults should be somewhat less enthusiastic and histrionic than kids.

It’s more, this unfortunately is not the case. And another thing that I’ve been thinking through scratching my head after reading your book is you describe a situation where we have achieved the fullness of enlightenment hopes, fully identifying virtue with knowledge, you have to get kids to learn, and the learning will make them good kids without learning. They wouldn’t be good kids. And they wonder, well, you know how much they actually have to teach kids. There were societies 50 years ago in America that are pretty decent people. They got us to where we are here and we seem to be pretty pleased with that. And they weren’t as obsessed with learning stuff. And that sometimes just gets in the way of the true moral education of a school, which is less moralizing and more kids learning to deal with each other. And with adults learning how to deal with not being violent or not being too crazy and learning that sometimes if they are crazy or violent, you can live with it.

They can overcome the momentary problem.

All of these are kinds of examples that simply accumulate over time, build students’ habits, give them things to imitate and an experience to see-  “How will or can I imitate this? Could they do better at it? Or am I doing well enough? Or maybe I should be imitating something else.” All of these things that should be happening are sometimes frustrated by the obsession with teaching. When in fact we don’t really know much about how is it best to get kids to being rational, which is what we hope by our enlightenment system. We think that if we bureaucratize the process more, that’s going to be more success or failing that. At least it’s not going to be anybody’s personal responsibility system. It’s not my fault. And everybody can blame that system and endlessly fight over it. The parents don’t need to feel guilty anymore. The kids don’t need necessarily to feel guilty and certainly not the educational system or the political advice and influence in the hopes invested in it. So there’s a big problem with enlightenment.

And another thing I thought about, especially because of this example you gave: every day in every way, some kind of new fantasy theory of education has to be imposed. I think it’s partly just because teachers get bored or maybe they will have some progressive idealistic illusions that they don’t want to shatter. But I fear that in a way it’s worse because it comes from elites who are just trying in their desperate way to deal with the fact that they know now, or they believe they know that most people are never going to be enlightened. What you need is to fill their heads with fantasies that are helpful, fantasies that are salutary socially, and that above all that justify the leaders we already have.

And that’s just crazy. I mean, if there’s one thing worse than insisting on knowledge for kids who haven’t gotten there yet is insisting on fantasies, which they’re fully capable of doing by themselves already. You know, how is any theory of education going to compete with the actual fantasies available to kids in pop music or on their screens: that is never going to work, right? It is even worse than the bureaucratic rationality, it’s limiting their awareness of their own nature. And maybe everybody’s awareness of the fact that human beings have a nature of their own, and you have to look for its individuation. To what extent this kid is like the other end, to what extent they’re not, and how are we going to deal with that.

You have a lot of examples in your book of the crazy mix of nature and convention in schools, teaching 17 year olds and 13 year olds together, which under the pretense of the bureaucratic system of knowledge should not make the 17 year old feel humiliated and bored, but in reality it does, and of course it shouldn’t make the 13 year old impressed, odd, scared, maybe, but in reality…and any number of other crazy things like that, where people simply cannot take into account the natures of the people actually involved in the process so that they be dealt with as human beings. It might not be terribly successful, but it would certainly be far more dignified to admit that they are actual human beings. The notion that they either comply with the fantasy or otherwise they’re not worthy. I don’t know. It’s mind boggling.

ST:

It’s something I think about a lot. My wife was an English teacher and there was a movement in the schools while she was teaching to move to this so-called “workshop model” of education, where instead of reading a book as a group, you’re going to all read your own book. And the teacher is going to circulate and is going to help the individual kid with reading his or her individual book. What, what does it mean to read this book? What does it mean to ask a question of what the author is trying to get at? What does it mean to interrogate the text? But the teacher does this individually with each kid, cause they’re all reading their own book. Or maybe we’re all writing a historical narrative, but everyone’s going to do their own piece, unrelated to everybody else’s.

There’s something to be said for this model. It’s not totally crazy because people are on such different reading levels, but at the same time, it is crazy because you’re not by yourself, you’re all in the room together. And my wife got into trouble because she was teaching these kids Romeo and Juliet in the eighth grade and they were acting out the balcony scene, and you’d hear kids on the playground saying, you know, “all y’all a bunch of Montagues!” and that was a shared experience. You could come to understand the text because it was shared, because it was real with you or the other people in that room. But she got in trouble because it wasn’t this workshop model, because the text was too hard for most of the kids to read on their own- which it was. But it was still a real experience, a shared experience.

TT:

Just the insanity of the idea that if you face kids with something they’ve never done before to read fairly sophisticated, fairly abstract things that they have to keep in their heads and try to think through, they should also do it alone naturally.

How people don’t think about these things because it can get in the way, I mean, there’s not a lot that you can really invent so long as you have these kinds of old fashioned ideas. Like having people read Romeo and Juliet. There’s nothing modern about that. It’s been around for hundreds of years, if we’re short, that it’s a pretty good idea. We would probably do best to stick with it, but, you know, stick to it. Evenings is just not one of the virtues of the system. And everybody involved in it is trapped in a kind of irrational change, both unpredictable and ineffective. And yeah, it’s a big problem. It will take some kind of change to get people, to stop doing things all the time. Another one of the great points you make in the book is that people obsess over achieving and doing to prove themselves as employees to prove that they exist.

And they exist in a very worthy way. Whereas in fact, somewhat less doing would be very helpful for people to figure out what’s actually going on what they’re achieving and live with it. The achievements are pretty good, but you don’t have to be obsessive about achieving enough to prove yourself because otherwise you’re not a real human being. And so there’s a deep, massive insecurity built into the expectations and on the level of signs that we have to learn, like you taught science. But you know, even beyond that on the level of teaching in a scientific way, that is politically accountable, legally established all that stuff. It’s supposed to make us all the same since we learned the same things that are tested in the same way, but then we’re going to make up by being individuals in our fantasies. And this of course gets a reality exactly backwards in our fantasy.

We tend to be the same or else we wouldn’t have popularity, nothing would be popular if you didn’t all look at the same thing by the same thing. If we didn’t now minify in the same way. It is. In fact, in our learning where we can be different since not all people have the same attitudes and not all people have the same attitudes to the same degree. And this is just a massive mistake built into the system, hoping that people will take what’s inside of their heads, their fantasies. And that was satisfied them for the fact that they’re not getting the things they should be getting, but not

ST:

There is a fear you mentioned that especially grips the elites that there isn’t enough future to go around. And that puts the stakes on everything so much higher because the question of who is represented in that narrow circle of elites becomes so privileged. And each of those people is expected to stand for multitudes and who they stand for is ideally bureaucratically, legible, an easy and convenient label for them to then stand for those people.

It’s hard because we reasonably enough want schools to be livable and humane places for people. And they do fail sometimes. But the failures are not usually resources. There are large urban districts that spend $25,000 per kid per year. And those schools nonetheless are a mess, and even ugly, chaotic, objectively unpleasant in a way few people would dispute, not just that they’re failing to live up to some bureaucratic ideal. And so there’s reasonable anxiety about that basic civic right, that the US has mostly tried to stand by for however long and was, in its own way, hugely world-historically important- that public education will continue to exist. I mean, I know some people will say I’m wrong for this, but I don’t believe it. I mean, Bryan Caplan will say that this is all just a rat race, there was nothing to schooling except separating sheep from goats and deciding who gets allotted the privileges of the society and proving and signaling your innate value to this industrializing economy. Is that a big piece of what’s going on in public education? Of course. But is it everything, is that why this system spread so rapidly and so effectively where it did? I don’t think so.

But you brought it to fantasy. And I do think that that’s the nexus for the next few years, as we were talking about before the podcast, the experience of educated American elites is an experience of increasing immersion in fantasy of various kinds. And I participate in it too, as someone who’s extremely online, I experience this submersion in this world of media, but it’s having drastic effects on our educated populations’ ability to manage with the basic reality of a lot of life. And because as you put it so well, schools are places where we have to deal with ourselves as bodies, and as physical organisms, the school shows up that disjuncture.

So there was a big move, not quite mandated, but strongly encouraged by the Obama administration to end removal from the classroom, not just removal from the school from misbehavior, but even kicking kids out to the Dean’s office or whatever. And this new policy of not allowing misbehaving children to be kicked out has been pretty persuasively shown by multiple credible studies to have had negative impacts, especially on African-American and poor students’ achievement. This is not some mystery. It’s been very convincing and there are individual stories of schools adopting policies in a heavy-handed way that are absolutely savage. A school not far from the one I taught it in the Bronx- a boy was killed and his best friend was his lung was punctured after a gradual loss of authority within the school.

The aspirations of the people running the country and running these school systems are just totally out of line with how things are actually going to work. And teachers inevitably, they’re the representatives, not just of authority, but of bureaucratic authority beyond that. But they’re put in the position where, because elites or because the broader society cannot accept differentiated outcomes or any degree of failure, they become the natural scapegoat to a large degree. So we moved from this ideal that if only you could be a super teacher, you would fix it all, to the reason why the disparity exists is because you’re not just mediocre or incompetent, but you are an active participant and abettor of the inequality of our society. You are the source of racism, you as teacher, or you as parent. So Richard Carranza, the new chancellor in New York City tweets out, you know, “these racist white parents are arriving at board meetings to complain about our new integration plans.” These “racist white parents” already send their kids to minority white schools. These are schools which are 30, 40% white, and which the board of ed wants to merge with another school, that’s 0% white. And the parents complained because this other school draws mostly from, you know, the housing projects next to it. And I know a lot of people say, “Oh, these hypocritical, New York liberals,” and maybe that’s true. Of course everyone’s a hypocrite when it comes to their own kids, everybody. But the basic attitude that you have as the manufacturer or designer of the system are looking for people to take as scapegoats is totally trouble. And it’s going to result in exit from the system. The New York Times published this ridiculous long article a couple of years ago, which won the author a MacArthur prize, which was about if the 15% of students in New York city public schools who are white were better spread, this would solve the problems of the New York city public schools, despite the fact that most of those students are in Staten Island and couldn’t get to the rest of the city anyway.

And so it’s this process of looking for a scapegoat for a system rather than looking for a way to make it generative and make it open and make it hopeful.

TT:

Yeah. It’s an incredibly dangerous situation now because part of this was super obvious a long time ago, and it’s always obvious. And of course, people never see it, which is that exalted hopes necessarily lead to disappointment, which returns them again as hatred. But whenever we love something very much and it doesn’t happen, especially if it’s something we love that just doesn’t exist or is beyond nature as possibility to offer it was then a lot of hatred returns and the desire to blame and we’re of course going through that. But in certain ways we are in a worse situation than simply disappointed hopes. What’s returning is hatred. It’s the fact that a large part of a social model part of which was public schools, and it was part of the nobility of progress, public schools, meritocracy and education. These are all noble attempts to make democracy the best it could be, but their failure comes at exactly the point where liberalism is becoming more and more vindictive.

And while it can’t run the system anymore, it certainly runs what’s left of the media. That’s not helpful. That’s only making people hate each other more than they would otherwise because it turns out in disappointing times. And there have been a lot of varied crisis in society, economics, politics, foreign policy culture, over the last 20 years. There’s a lot of people looking to blame somebody. And one thing crazier still than that is that if you get into the habit of blaming people, you very quickly move from thinking that you’ve been hurt. And therefore you need to revenge because it stood for that the basis of all justice. But this basis of justice is also a form of prophecy. That if you just punish your enemies, then things will be perfect again, but they won’t be who you’ve just managed to get everybody a bit angrier than they were before.

So this is a very unpleasant situation and education is stuck because there was so much hope invested in it. And other parts of society that sustained people have collapsed more pressure on his education. And nevertheless has failed to deliver partly, maybe largely because it was so overburdened. There’s the bottom pressure of doing more and more for communities that are really suffering, but there’s also the top pressure of fulfilling the fantasies of elites that are more and more desperate that they’re either losing power or they’re losing control of the people. This was never going to end well. But for that reason, it can’t stop. I should say that this is a lot of depressive stuff we’re into. And another one of the surprises about your book was that there is a certain kind of stoic resignation and a certain sense of the beauty of being human that comes out of awareness of our nature and possibilities. If we can get it some things, right. Actually we can live with a lot that’s not working.

You just need to know in a practical way, that’s proved with some regularity that it’s a good thing to be human. And there’s some hope for the future. It doesn’t have to be a fantasy of perfection. And so I don’t assume there’s going to be some general catastrophe. I’m quite hopeful about the American situation, but I do think that a lot of craziness is developing now and it won’t stop anytime soon.

ST:
The students I talked about in the book were students, which mostly I struggled with and to some degree failed in some of their cases- in some of their cases, more clearly than others, but you know, their memory is a blessing for me and maybe that’s a selfish way to look at it. But my experience as a teacher was a blessing for me, it was a great experience. It gave me my life at so many different levels. I left it because at some point it seemed like this was the only thing I’d done and it was time to do something else. But I should say that I find myself enormously privileged to have done it, and that I lived in a place that gave me that opportunity. And the hope is that this is mutual, right? That it’s not just teachers getting to experience their dreams of what they’re trying to do, but the students can live like reasonable and civilized people for a few hours a day and see something valid.

I realized at some point I was sort of focusing on a few people who had died in the book. I guess that comes back to this idea about learning and how we privilege learning over other kinds of experiences, especially when it comes to school, obviously, but just in general. We’re all gonna go. We’re all gone eventually. So there’s memory left and validity, we hope, to what we experienced together, but we’re not going to be taking tests when we’re gone. Presumably if the test exists, they will be of a different kind.

TT:
Yeah. I think that’s a very good point that like it or not, we learn from school how to be human. It starts when we were young, it takes a lot of time. And even for teachers, it teaches them how to be adults. These things do stick for life in a way that many other things won’t, every organization has to have its ceremonies. If we have any capacity for reflection, with notice, how much of our newly bureaucratized regulated lives are just endless ceremonies for things that we could do otherwise. I mean, these things come up when we suddenly want to return to nature, or we suddenly want to disrupt an industry or something like, but otherwise we don’t quite realize just how much of the stuff we do is for the sake of community. And that’s not a bad thing in as much as our ceremonies tie us up to community, it’s the first way we figure out how to deal with things.

Whether we could replace that is really doubtful. If we could lower our expectations, to some extent, if we had a bit of political health, a lot of our problems would maybe not go away, but it stopped being so exacerbated. Then everything would start being a crisis. People who look around and say, we’re not actually flying off the edge. We’re not actually collapsing fully are perfectly right. But the people who think that everything feels like a crisis are also right. And that’s because of this terrifyingly high expectations.In a way, maybe it is just that people are nowadays super terrified of death. And they’re super obsessed with making the most out of life. And as much of it, as soon as possible, proving that somehow we’re still here, but really we could calm down some realizing that this is only this way for now. And we don’t quite know what is going to happen. Some significant number of years down the road. We’re not that good at making predictions. And we don’t predict we’d end up in this situation in the first place. The best we can really do is brave it. If we managed to do it together, that should be a major reassurance. And hopefully we can get better elites in the process.

ST:
You can direct their hopes, perhaps, closer to home to the people we know to whom we have obligations in our private and personal lives that hopefully we can aspire to help.

Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it so much. And thank you for reading the book.

TT
It was lovely talking to you. And meanwhile, people just go on Amazon. It’s called 13 ways of going on a field trip by Spotted Toad. It’s a lovely book. It’s all American, it’s Emersonian a reflection on experience. And it’s real. It’s not a fantasy for once.

2 thoughts on “Splashing in the Rubicon

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