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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

 

Education Still the Issue

Full disclosure. Education ‘R’ Us. I teach American History at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Normally I’d withhold such information from this cyberspace, but what would be the point? You all could figure it out in about five minutes by clicking on the “Team Sites” our CO has assembled.

I begin in this confessional mode because I notice that all of us fall back on our personal experience in explicating the issue of education in our time—me included, mind you. Our CO and the Cunning Linguist try very hard to escape the gravitational pull of this huge planet, this personal experience, but in the end they, too, crash and burn.

Why? Why does the most serious empiricist among us, TCL, finally fall back on this kind of analysis, this form of first-person narrative? “Back in Illinois,” he says, in wrapping up, bearing witness, speaking the truth. Even the pleasingly paranoid Derek invokes the local school system, where his wife volunteers, as he intones about government control of young minds. J’myle as well: Ms. Sharp and her worms are convincing. Why? No offense, Sidial, you are a fast and ferocious fact hound, but you, too, begin and end with educational autobiography. Why?

We’re not writing fiction here. So why did we all choose the pretentious preterite of the short-story writer, saying, “Once upon a time, if you let me explain it right, my life made sense of yours”? Notice that none of us bothered to set up or sustain the story with the kind of detail and texture which we would expect from a nominally competent story-teller. We just plunged in, knowing that you knew what we’re talking about.

Again, why? Because we correctly assume that everyone will recognize themselves in the stories we tell about grade school and high school, that weird, prolonged, excruciating moment when we were all thrown together as if we had something in common.

That is the genius of public education in America. We did have something in common back then, and we still do, no matter what academic track we were on, no matter what occupational destination we shared. Not because we came from the same class or race or gender, but because we were taught—not necessarily by our teachers--to negotiate our differences by reference to the inheritances we call American history and literature. (For some of us, yes, by reference to Mathematics, as well, a universal language, to be sure, but the fissures and consequences were narrower in that domain.)

This is not some rant about what is missing from the curriculum. There has never been any lasting agreement about the content of American history and literature. In fact, it has always been the unending argument about what belongs in this sprawling table of contents that has provided the common ground Americans can take for granted, for now. Events from the past are significant for us Americans not because they happened in the past, but because we can, and do, and must, continue to argue about their significance in the present.

Public education has long been the key site of the argument. Learning the terms of debate, deciding how to join the argument—this is what education as such, private or public, is all about. Like it or not, we’re all involved, because there we are, all of us, arguing about what it is, what it means, and where our hopes for it might reside. The antecedent?

Don’t ask. Until tomorrow. When I get responsive to all by close reading of each.

But for tonight, here’s a little authenticating autobiography of an educator. I did fine in high school, being a semi-competent jock with secret dreams of becoming a writer, and then failed to figure out college—got expelled after three years, then worked construction (fell off a building, broke my elbow is all), at a gas station (reading Soul on Ice between customers), in a hospital as a janitor, landed at a place that was still being radicalized, found mentors, went to graduate school, finished those degrees. And so here I am, blogging between preparation of syllabi. What we call lesson plans in those other venues.

How did this happen to me? A persuasive answer is to be found in the democratization of higher education in the USA after 1945. But more anon, er, tomorrow.

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Woah. What did I miss in here??
 
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