Monday, June 1, 2015

The Ignorance Academy

Allen Ginsberg at the height of his fame and influence
Friends have asked my opinion on a story published late last week, about Connecticut English teacher David Olio. According to The Daily Beast (via Alternet), Olio resigned from the South Windsor School District, after a nineteen-year career, to avoid termination. His offense: he read aloud to his class, at a student’s request, Allen Ginsberg’s frankly inflammatory poem “Please Master” (q.v.), then attempted to engage students in discussion of Ginsberg’s use of imagery, theme, and language.

Existing reports probe Olio’s firing from multiple perspectives. Read them yourself. I’m more interested in what this says about the purposes we invest in education. The texts we read in English classes are never about themselves—just as the formulae we study in math classes aren’t about performing math, experiments we replicate in science class are never about doing science, and plays, madrigals, and paintings we create in fine arts class aren’t about doing art.

The images in “Please Master” are, probably, no more extreme than those Ginsberg used in better-known poems like “Howl” and “A Supermarket in California” though his language is more graphic. Americans, however, have long been squeamish about sexual frankness regarding minors. We often believe, by refusing to discuss sex with youth, they’ll somehow remain spiritually pure and unsullied. I've mentioned this before. Somehow we think they’ll magically avoid cable TV, mall advertising, and locker-room gossip.

We charge schoolteachers with maintaining childhood innocence. Not just regarding sex; social studies teachers get reprimanded for discussing racism. Or we feed students abject intellectual bullhockey, like declaring that a 3000-year-old desert prophet is an American Founding Father. This saying nothing about the incremental disappearance of philosophy, music, and physical education from public school curricula. One starts to suspect that this complex of actions supports some ideological agenda, one which disregards students as developing minds.

It’s easy to ascribe political motivations when we forbid teachers to discuss the harmful effects of racism, or make America’s Enlightenment-era founders, mostly Deists, into Protestant Christians. But I consider these smaller parts of a larger problem. Because it isn’t only history and PoliSci our school boards have muted. The reduction of mathematics and science to rote memorization and “skillz drillz,” or English to merely identifying plot points, misses the reason we study these subjects.

Recent cries have demanded we teach math and science to slot students into engineering careers. Going back at least to my school days, if not sooner, we’ve claimed we teach history to make people informed voters. Not so. We teach subjects, not so students can know those subjects, but because the influences radiate outward. Mathematically literate persons can encounter new problems, break them into steps, and solve them systematically. Science vaccinates minds against magical thinking.

Young Allen Ginsberg, around the time he
wrote his best-known poem, "Howl"
And reading literature analytically teaches us to understand other humans empathetically. Literature professor Lisa Zunshine asserts that immersive reading permits us to adjust our neural rhythms to another person’s timing. Disappearing into a good book, a sophisticated poem, or a nuanced play, lets us step into another human being’s soul. That’s why works about cultural collision, from Huckleberry Finn to Native Son, have become recognized classics: because they permit us to understand other human beings.

Mr. Olio’s discussion of Ginsberg may have, according to news reports, focused on language. But by guiding students into understanding students into considering an expression of love different from their experience, he required them to step outside themselves. What does it mean, the lesson implicitly asked, to love someone so much, you’ll abjectify yourself before your beloved? Can you love someone by tearing yourself down? Ginsberg thrusts these questions at us without providing facile answers.

But established power structures don’t want students empathizing with others. When they realize that society’s disfranchised members—minorities, homosexuals, immigrants, women—aren’t that different from themselves, young people become rebellious, agitating against the status quo. One needn’t even deliberately teach to transgress, as bell hooks puts it; one simply must demonstrate, through art, history, literature, and science, that other people exist. The current pedagogical system resists this knowledge. But it tends to come out anyway.

Many teachers I’ve known take pleasure in “teaching against the text.” Unlike school boards, whose members generally lack teaching experience, teachers are generally dedicated to their students’ growth. They resist instrumentalizing students into economy-serving robots. They strive to cultivate empathy, complexity, and system in students’ thinking. But ultimately, schools don’t serve students. They serve the state, which serves whoever pays its bills. Therefore true mature teaching remains a subversive act—and, tragically, a fireable offense.

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