Sometimes they get away with it

Last entry I discussed the growing trend of young Canadians (and I think it’s safe to extrapolate this idea to encompass all industrialized countries) to increasingly view schooling merely as a means to a career end rather than as an opportunity to become a more thoughtful, educated person.  Today I want to try to outline what teachers can do about this (assuming, of course, that they don’t simply agree with students that the purpose of schools is merely career preparation).

Let me begin with a brief film clip of linguist, philosopher, and political theorist Noam Chomsky responding to a question from an audience about the education system.  He discusses the United States and Japan but virtually all of his observations are broadly applicable to education in the industrialized world, including, of course, Canada.  Listen especially to what he says about the role of stupidity in the education system.

I’m not certain of the exact date of this talk; I’m guessing the late 1980s from Chomsky’s physical appearance and his references to Japan as a perceived super-power.  Like all great thinkers, however, Chomsky’s ideas are more relevant with the passing of time, not less, so the exact date hardly matters much.

One line stands out for me “There are teachers who do stimulate thought, and sometimes they get away with it.” In the midst of all the built-in stupidity of the education system, and facing row upon row of students who view their schooling merely as a stepping stone in their career path, there are in fact teachers who not only stimulate thought, but get away with doing it.

Let’s agree that, as teachers, that is noble goal: to attempt to get away with stimulating thought in our students.  Not indoctination, not propaganda, not stupidity, but genuine thought.  How can we do this if we are working in a system where almost all students and their parents seem convinced that the reason for schooling is merely to lead to a better job?

Let me suggest that we should not assume a dichotomy between students desiring career advancement and desiring to become more enlightened, independent thinkers.  Although our school system (and our society as a whole) heavily emphasizes career advancement, and therefore students, understandably, bring this emphasis to their schooling, it does not follow that they therefore have no interest in becoming educated, thoughtful people.  For one thing, these two goals are not inherently in conflict.  As Chomsky notes above, careers in research science and engineering (to name but two examples one could suggest), demand innovation, creativity, and independent inquiry.  Even if a student only cares about career preparation, they will still find that the best career preparation possible is to become an intelligent, thoughtful, educated, creative, reflective person.

But it is more hopeful even than that.  When I teach grade 9 social studies I like to begin the course by asking the students to reflect on why they are in school.  And I put the question to them this way: if you suddenly inherited a billion dollars–a sum of money so vast that for the rest of your life you could easily live in luxury just on the interest alone–would you drop out of high school, or would you continue your schooling until graduation?

I’ve received a wide range of responses to this question over the years, but one in particular stands out for me and I will never forget it.  A few years ago a young woman, just 14 years old, wrote this response in the striking colloquial candor of teenagers: “Well, I think it would be tempting to drop out and just have fun and stuff, but I totally wouldn’t.  I would finish high school and I would also go to university, because I wouldn’t want to be like Paris Hilton, really rich and stupid. I wouldn’t want to just be rich, I’d also want to know things.”

With all due respect to Miss Hilton (and whether Paris Hilton actually is stupid or not few people are in a position to say, but we can probably all agree that her media success has come, in part, from deliberately projecting a calculated image of stupidity), you have here a truly inspiring manifesto in which this young woman is indicating a desire to become a certain type of person.  And I don’t believe that her desire is a rare one.  Think about it this way:

Most people would rather be educated than ignorant, intelligent than stupid, wise than foolish, informed than clueless.

I suppose it is impossible to prove this assertion one way or the other, but it is the very premise on which I base my teaching.  I approach my classes with the presupposition that students want to become educated people.  They may not want to do school work, and who can blame them? As Chomsky says, there is a great deal of stupidity built into the system.  But I simply assume that they want to be educated.  I try to explain to them what it means to be an educated person, what it means to develop one’s mind, to learn the art of asking intelligent questions, to accumulate a body of knowledge, to distinguish facts from opinions, knowledge from belief, truth from error.  I have been teaching for seventeen years and I have found that most students do indeed want to learn things, they do indeed want to be educated, they do indeed want to be more than just rich and stupid, so to speak.

Think about the incredible power that teachers have.  They have captive audiences of young people.  It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the very future of our society itself sits before us in our classrooms.  Teachers are in the persuasion business.  Even if our students come to our classes only caring about career advancement and the almighty dollar, it is our job to help them wake up; it is our job to help them open their eyes.

Sometimes we’ll even get away with it.

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