Saturday, September 17, 2011

Compare and Contrast

Compare and Contrast

One of the most common skills we teach kids in school is the old “compare and contrast.” Why do we teach it? The expression, “It’s apples and oranges”—meaning “it’s like comparing the delicious fruits, the apple and the orange, to say which is better” is one way of thinking about it: It can be a matter of preference (crisp and tart v. juicy, soft, and sweet, depending on the state of the apple or orange); or perhaps it is a matter of nutritional need (high fiber v. vitamin C). No matter. But when someone says, “It’s like apples and oranges,” he or she ought to mean, “To compare these [two more or less equal items, the leisure activities reading books vs. watching television, say] on supposed merit is not really helpful.”

The main reason we compare and contrast is to help us remember information. By comparing one thing to another, we look at the pros and cons, the positives and negatives, the tangy yin and the succulent yang. Sometimes it’s just fun to see how much things have in common (the rules in various sports; the themes in varieties of literature from a similar period; sizes of male genitalia on animals… er…), but mostly we know that by seeing things in opposition, our own understanding—and our own preferences—are made clearer.

Apples and Oranges

This blog post is about my ideal school. In order to talk about that, I will have to play a game of compare and contrast with American education as I experienced it (and as it, mostly, still exists). But let me start with politics. Years ago, one of Miss O’s former students said, “Miss O’, I can tell you are a liberal.”

“Are my ideals showing?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m a conservative, and yet I like you. Why are you a liberal?”

This is just what one dreams of a student becoming: a rational question-asker, a genuinely curious person. I had never been asked, nor had I answered, such a question before. I love a challenge. What I am about to write is almost exactly what I said, and in 20 years my answer would remain more or less the same. But in order to answer her, I had to compare liberalism with conservatism, as I understood it through the prism of politics since Reagan. I came up with three tenants that are at the heart of liberal and conservative discord, speaking obviously as Citizen O’ and not Miss O’.

“1) A liberal believes in government legislation, or public policy, for the things we all share— air, water, infrastructure, legal protections, and the like—and leaving private morality—sexual activity, reproduction, religion—up to individual choice. A conservative believes the opposite: legislate private morality, and leave public policy up to individuals and corporate entities. 2) A liberal, understanding that people are never born onto a level playing field, is willing to lower her standard of living a little bit, via taxes, if it will help bring up the standard of living of the poorest among us. A conservative, by contrast, knows that all people are born onto a level playing field, and believes that each person must ‘pull himself up by his own bootstraps,’ regardless of whether he has boots, straps, or feet, without aid beyond individual charity. 3) While a conservative places religion, or ‘belief,’ at the center of his life and choices, a liberal places worldly education, or ‘knowledge supported by verifiable facts,’ at the center of his life and choices. Neither religious belief nor worldly education is mutually exclusive; it’s a matter of positioning. These three differences alone make me a liberal.”

Political views are apples and oranges. The difficulty—and it is an intense one—is that both views are so antithetical to one another as to make us sweat and wretch. And yet without the whetstone that is the repellent viewpoint, our own views cannot sharpen and gain clarity.

I posted on my Facebook wall yesterday an op-ed by Paul Krugman of the New York Times. Astonishingly, I had written the above paragraphs two days before his op-ed came out, and I found his piece such a relief. I think his editorial gets at the heart of why liberals feel alone right now. My friend Scott is always there to help me sharpen my own belief system, so using his “worst case scenario” approach, I’ll try to outline again why teaching, and living as a liberal, is so hard.

Liberal View: Americans should have access to affordable insurance, and if they can’t afford it, the government should supplement, either in the form of Medicaid, or disaster relief.
Conservative View: No one should have insurance unless he pays in full, on his own, for coverage. If there is a catastrophe, health or otherwise, it’s God’s Will, and if you are deserving, someone kind might help you if they choose to.

Scott uses the example of someone who builds in a flood plain and is flooded year after year and wants insurance to rebuild.

Let me tell you a little story.

In 1990, Republican President George H.W. Bush made a speech, including the line, “Every mud puddle is not a wetland.”  He railed against environmental activists who were preventing property development along the Gulf Coast. The scientists who were experts on that ecosystem pointed out that wetlands were not only vital habitats for plants and animals, the wetlands also served as natural buffers in the event of hurricanes. President Bush pointed out that he had a lot of property development friends who wanted to make a lot of money. The protections for those areas were denied, laws changed, the wetlands filled in, the houses built, and levees constructed (half-heartedly and cheaply), and the developers took the money and ran. The people who bought the homes did not have access to the reports about the true nature of the land on which their houses sat, (this could be wetlands or a chemical dump, it makes no difference), and fifteen years later, Katrina paid a call.

The conservative response amounted to, “Well, you are stupid to live there.”

Miss O’ asks, “Really?” It is her (liberal) view that President G.H.W. Bush should be tried for crimes against humanity.

We all know how the reality played out.

Scenarios like these make it so easy for a liberal to quit: quit caring, quit the fight. “It was ever thus: Politicians are immoral and corrupt and make money and if you aren’t smart enough to get a piece of the pie, or if you are a ‘victim’ because you were stupid enough to trust that you were moving to a safe place, tough shit.” Or in the words of the Wicked Witch of the West, when the little girl who bounced into Oz and killed her sister and stole the magic shoes and caused her, too, to die, and is celebrated for it: “What a world, what a world.” We side with Dorothy, but if you take a minute, you can see why the witch was so pissed off. Dorothy merely blundered, while the Wicked Witch calculated. What makes us root for Dorothy? She acted out of love. The Witch acted out of hatred.

Liberal or Conservative, I ask you both: Do you come from a position of love or a position of hate? Do you come from a position of curiosity or a position of fear?

Apples and Oranges. Negative energy (hate) is far more powerful in the short term (“I got mine”) than Positive energy (love) over the long haul, and I’m in it for the LONG game (“How will my children’s children get theirs?”). It’s the position you come from that matters most to me, speaking as a human and an educator.

And so I come to education: Compare and Contrast Educational Systems.

Sir Ken Robinson: A Recent Revelation

In all my years of teaching and all my years of study, I had not heard of the educator Sir Ken Robinson until about two weeks ago, thank to my colleague Michele. I watched a video animation of a talk he gave (condensed into his main points), the link to which I posted in my previous blog entry.  His rhetoric made my blood rush and heart swoon with gratitude, not least because he places the ARTS at the center of learning. He’s a lot smarter than I am and uses words more beautifully, to say nothing of that cool knighthood (albeit tied to a "Ken"), and that makes me all the more grateful. I don’t feel so alone. He points out that the knowledge base and courses grew out of the 18th century Enlightenment, and the institutions were modeled on the factories born of the Industrial Revolution, and that if you hadn’t noticed it’s 2011 and maybe it’s time for a rethink.

I’ve been rethinking since I began teaching in 1987. When I left teaching for the first time, in 1990, I was burned out. (See previous posts.) Another colleague, J.C., also left that year, she from the science department. We had become great friends, and spent the next year (she on her farm with her family, I down the road in the 150-year-old former school house with the wood stove and no money or prospects) planning out our dream school. I wrote a bad poem about it once, and have, mercifully, lost it. The idea was that groups of all ages (like the old schoolhouses) would gather under a tree and we’d teach thematically. For example, we’d do a poem about a tree, an ecological lesson on the trees, measure the tree for math, that sort of thing. And then we’d give multiple-choice tests for the other four days.

Ha, ha.

What I mean is, we would put science and art at the center of everything we taught. To group kids by interests rather than by age, for example, is a far better way to reach them. I know this from teaching drama and Theater Production and Humanities. As always when I imagine school, I separate kids by elementary and secondary. What I know best is high school, and that by the time kids are 12 or 13, they know what they really want to learn about, or at least where they don’t want to be or what they don’t feel like doing. They know this when they are little, too, but are more like sponges then, and can absorb as long as they are carried by a dynamic adult’s enthusiasm. But after age 11, it’s not so simple. Sitting in rows, taking tests, blah, blah, blah: Some kids flourish (I did), and most do not (the rest of my five siblings). What made the difference for me was drama club. My brother Mike found Classical Languages, finally, in his junior year of high school. It made all the difference to our approach to all learning and life. We’re all doing okay, but I think Mike and I get a little something extra out of experience because of the arts (where I include languages). So I figure my family is probably the national average, the perfect Bell Curve.

Arts and Crafts

Behind all the arts, behind all the crafts (building trades, textiles, and the like), there is science. So no matter what your interest, there is some kind of art and science around which to build. Even if your passion is politics, you need the art of rhetoric to be effective, and the knowledge of science to be taken seriously by smart people.

I’d like to play a little game called What Would Happen If. To play the game, no one needs to die, life as we know it will not end, and yet life to come might really improve. My nemesis Scott was a bit put out with Sir Ken Robinson, because while his speech began a conversation, it did not lay out precisely how education as the system we have might become another system altogether. I thought I might have a crack at it. Here is what I would do.

How I Would Begin to Revolutionize American Education

1.     I would suspend all national and state standardized testing for five years.
a.     Pluses
                                               i.     All teachers would be unyoked for the first time since these things were implemented in the 1980s, thereby allowing them to think about 1) why do I teach? and 2) what would I like to teach if I could teach anything I wanted?
                                              ii.     School districts would save a shitload of money by not having to pay for the test booklets, pencils, shipping, or paying of evaluators. That money could be reinvested into the schools in other ways.
b.     Minuses
                                               i.     The companies that produce and sell testing materials would be out of work, out of business, or would have to restructure.
                                              ii.     The evaluators of tests would also be out of work.
                                            iii.     Nervous parents may freak out because their kids aren’t being evaluated in a standard way.
2.     I would suspend all classes in all the high schools (I’d start there) for a period of, say, two days (a Thursday and Friday), to engage in group conversations, all over the nation, about interests and inclinations and what they would all really like to teach and learn.
a.     Pluses
                                               i.     This would afford a real opportunity, provided it was organized and treated seriously (meaning it would require leadership, but really no prep, because there are no tests), to have students and teachers and guidance counselors write, research, and discuss what they would really like to learn and how that learning situation might be achieved.
                                              ii.     Kids and teachers both could feel engaged in the process of their own life and growth. Kids could still go class to class, and have a chance to talk with their teachers and each other about what really interests them. They would also have a chance to talk about how those interests might really be developed in the course of taking math, science, history, art, English, Latin, P.E., building trades, etc.
b.     Minuses
                                               i.     This kind of free discussion FREAKS OUT, like, 98% of the teachers I know. Okay, maybe 60%. But still.
                                              ii.     Principals will be panicked because some kind of “outcome” which is to say “substantive change” would have to come out of these discussions, and then what?
                                            iii.     School districts and boards care about budgets, and only budgets, and “God” and “others,” and numbers at the end of the year, so will not know how to cope with such radical notions.
3.     Some kind of real survey would have to be developed, to be given on the Monday morning after these days of talks, so everyone has a weekend to reflect and process the conversations. On the survey, both students and teachers would say (using their own names) what they would like to learn about and teach, given their druthers. Then, of course, people at the school would have to read the surveys, group the interests by art or science or sports, for example, and then say, “Now what?” Schools would then have to have staff meetings to talk about ways to restructure within the building and across departments to make changes possible. ALSO: Teachers would have to show how they would build, assess, and demonstrate real learning is going on in their classes. This way, we can still use the buildings and keep the “institutions,” at least for now.

What would happen IF:  ...we as a nation realized we don’t have to educate the way we have done it for the past 150 years? understood that there is no secret book that says this is natural law, this way of doing education?

Here is the real roadblock: What people in this country really care about, at least the conservatives, is TAXES. Because of this constant return to “How much does this cost? I won’t pay,” so many creative endeavors like a national education conversation don’t happen--things that OVER THE LONG HAUL could have really positive outcomes and even save money. A lot of conservatives I know do not believe in compulsory education for our citizens at all, and therefore would not want to entertain any talk of actual reform. They would like the elimination of schools nationally. They believe it's cheaper to lock people in prison ("stupid choices") than to educate them and show them opportunities, even though the numbers do not bear this out. This piece of me wants to say, “Then go.” Now what about their tax bill? Their tax money can go to fund infrastructure projects and roads. Do we return to them the portion of the tax money that would go to funding public schools? The conservatives I know say YES. Okay.

The OTHER roadblock is fear of factual knowledge: evolution, climate change, homosexuality--all those truths and scientific realities that many conservatives prefer to deny (conservatives prefer "personal belief" generally speaking). Fine. What if we did agree as a nation that not everyone must attend school? What if we liberals said, “To hell with you?” Curiously, from what I have read, not only would child labor probably return (this idea has been floated in the past year in conservative camps in Maine and Utah, for starters:, but the educated/uneducated divide would line up (mostly) across North and South, just as it did in the Civil War, which is why liberals push so hard for an education for everybody. It’s the only way, they feel, to keep the Union, and especially important to keep it because our economies are so tightly enmeshed. Same as 150 years ago. Ron Paul thinks states should be self-sufficient, as in 1900. He’s an idiot. It’s 2011. And even in 1900, as Teddy Roosevelt and other progressives recognized, that however isolated a region, state borders are and were utterly artificial. What is real? RIVERS and MOUNTAINS and natural resources and economic interdependency—those are real. And that all magazines come from Boone, Iowa.

We are all in this TOGETHER. Want to be alone? Move to Mars. Godspeed. To survive on Earth, Willful Ignorance is not an option. Ask any parent who truly loves his children. Do you let them do whatever the heck they want, or do you teach them stuff? Good parents encourage their children's interests, show them love, give them discipline, allow for independence and risk and failure, but do not leave their children to starve and die when they make poor choices or didn't know any better. Our social systems--government, educational, business--work best when they work the same way that good parenting does. And just as the needs of children change as they grow, so too do the needs of nations change. Compare and Contrast: Couldn't our schools reflect reality more profoundly in this 21st century of technological revolution, interconnectedness, and global interdependency, just at the 20th century met the challenges of a growing nation by creating a national educational system in the first place? We should be talking about what is best to teach now, and how best to do it, and not whether to do it at all.

That’s as far as I’m taking this blog post today. I would welcome your comments, and would be appreciative if you’d leave them on The Miss O’ Show Blogspot for future discussions. LOVE to all.

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