About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.

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Monday, April 7, 2008

Why Go to School?

I want to continue and broaden the discussion of what school is for. We have been focusing on public education, but let’s open the lens and ask the basic question: Why do we educate – through public or private institutions? Why do we yearly go through the hugely expensive and culturally monumental ritual of sending young people to school?

This is the question we need to "address on a national scale because, as many of us have been saying, for close to thirty years our national discourse about schooling has been so narrow. Teachers and parents younger than thirty or thirty-five have heard little else, at least at the level of public policy.

This week I suggest we try to answer the question about why we educate by going to our own experience of schooling.

All of us certainly have bad memories from school. And those of us who educate can add to the list horror stories of bad teaching, bad curriculum, bad policy. From these negative examples, we can generate counter-examples of how schools can be and why we send children to them.

But let’s also consider the positive things we have received from our educations. And let’s use these examples as well to create a richer list of what schools are for. This tactic can provide us with another way – a concrete and personal way – to start a conversation from the ground up.

What follows is taken from an opinion piece I wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last fall. See if it sparks your own memories about your education and/or your beliefs about the purpose of schooling. Please feel free to post your thoughts.

During most of my time in school, my father was seriously ill and my mother worked two shifts to keep us afloat. I was a disconnected and dreamy child, vaguely fearful of our circumstances, full of longing but without much direction. There's a lot of kids out there like me. And they need all that school can provide.

We should talk more about school as a place where young people form connections beyond the family with adults who can guide and mentor them. This was hugely important for me. These relationships often develop around a shared interest, around biology or mechanics, basketball or theater, thus putting a human face on knowledge and discipline.

We need to talk about school not only as a place where young people acquire knowledge, but where they learn how to use it, how to make an argument employing historical events, how to think with numbers. We need to talk about self-reflection, becoming systematic and methodical, examining one's own work. And we need to talk about motives and the consequences of choosing one path over another -- whether in a science experiment or in the schoolyard.

School is a place where young people learn how to think with each other, how to jointly puzzle over a problem, how to make sense of discordant views, how to arrive at consensus. School is a place where the world can open up -- mine certainly did -- through learning history, geography, and literature, but also through the people you meet and a growing sense of where you fit in the scheme of things.

All of the above help young people develop a sense of themselves as knowledgeable and capable of acting in and on the world. This, finally, was what education gave me, a pathway from hazy disaffection to competence, to a dawning awareness that I could figure things out and do something with what I learned. This was the best training I could have gotten for a vocation and citizenship."

21 comments:

Rachel said...

There's a lot I could say about my own experience with schooling -- a lot that is positive.A strange thing I encounter these days is that I am almost ashamed to say how much I loved high school. I feel like everyone around me had some kind of horrible experience, mostly socially related, and I sound like a jerk saying I loved it.

But I did. Not all of it. But most of it -- especially once I figured out the social part, once I found my niche and that was no longer in the way of my actual learning.

The things that motivated me most in school --in terms of my pursuit of learning -- was connectedness and the respect of my teachers. By connectedness, I mean, for example, when I could connect my theater studies with things I was learning in history, when I started to actually see references from things in my English Lit class come up in popular media (e.g. "reaching for the brass ring;" or now I knew what that damned "ungraspable phantom" was) - all that got me really excited. And as for respect -- when teachers clearly have high expectations for you, you want to meet them.

i think now about my high school theater class and realize how special it was. Our teacher would choose a fall play and a spring musical. Before we ever cast the play, we would study it -- learn everything about the time period: the costumes, the language, the context, the geography. Then we'd get into it. It wasn't just about the acting. it was about creation. We designed and built the sets, designed and produced the costumes, studied the makeup of the time and ordered all the right goop. Our props person (student) always made sure everything on stage was in the right period. Our costumes/makeup person (student) also made sure we were accurate. I did all the financing and kept the books. And if we got stuck on certain historical period questions, we inquired with other teachers. Oh, and we were pretty damned good actors too. But that was just a small part of what we did.

My experiences were so rich and I feel so lucky. I went back to my alma mater recently and was saddened on multiple levels. I could talk about the white flight but that's another essay. I'll just focus on the theater. They have a great teacher. She's wonderful. But they rent their costumes, they rent their sets, everything is done for them. It's not the same. But in the current rigid curricular climate, I'm not sure it could be.

But here's the thing that keeps me from getting too depressed: I have a three year-old. He's in preschool and loves it. And he come home every day with a new thing to talk about: "Mama! You're a mammal! And guess what?! I'm a mammal too!" The latest thing he shares is his knowledge of the "condiments." By this, he means the continents--not the details of the chemical makeup of ketchup or mustard. He's kinda mixing up his notions of country and continent and I'm making it worse by trying to explain it so I let it be. But you know what it does? It gets him wanting to find a map. He has several now. One of them is a placemat with a map of the world on it. He pores over that thing, talking about all the condiments, like Japan and Brazil, mapping out the flight pattern of Amelia, the heroine of one of his favorite books" Amelia's Fantastic Flight."

And I look at him in wonder each night and think to myself "Please, let this last. Please help me figure out a way not to let the wonder get squashed."

So thanks for this post, Mike. I think it is really important for us, from time to time, to find the good and to focus on hope so we have somewhere to go and are not mired in darkness for so long.

cheers,

Rachel E. (no relation to Sheila. Oh wow, I really just dated myself there.)

Anonymous said...

It will probably come as no surprise that I loved school too. I am a prof of education now - in no time in my entire life have I been out of a school/academic environment. I went from being in school to teaching school to teaching at a university. Yes, I loved books and learning and figuring new things. But what really made education work was the quality of the relationships I had with teachers in those schools. I simply had some exceptional teachers, teachers who knew me, my family, my hang-ups. These relationships matter. As we continue to talk about rigor and standards and benchmarks, we often forget this human face of the educational experience. These connections - not the MCAS/frameworks - are what keep kids in school and last you a lifetime. My middle school Algebra teacher came to my wedding. I married 16 years after being in her class. These are the things that endure.

Kerri Ullucci

Anonymous said...

Why go to school? (Simple, elegant question.) A few posts ago I promised to come back and talk about humanist responses to oppressive school practices. I been meaning to, but it is more difficult to think about the humanist response—for me. The memory of the embarrassment and psychic violence of public schools is always close at hand. But Professor Rose asked me the following:

“In your own education – in or out of school – what or who mattered?”

Ahh, that was the bit I needed to open the gates.

As Mary J. Blige sings, I am a child of the 70’s, brought up in poverty and sin—and segregation. I grew up in a place called Five Points/Curtis Park in Denver. It was ‘bout half brown, half black, with a few poor white and Korean folks thrown in. Because of the Supreme Court ruling in Keyes v. School District No. 1, we went to sleep two blocks from our neighborhood elementary school and woke up on the wrong side of a very serious imaginary line. (Crazy Mexicans, huh? We always havin’ trouble with them real/fake lines.) At the time, we didn’t see no reason to leave our community school. We had good African-American and white teachers that, from my recollection, treated us like their own. I remember Ms. Grady—a graceful woman, neck like a black swan, who introduced us to Martin King and Emmitt Till—and Ms. Parker—sweet white lady who taught us how to write short stories. We didn’t want to wake up at 6am to get on a bus that would transport us to the other side of downtown buildings whose shadow we played in. Pero that was the law and we had to follow the law I guess.

My first day at our new white school was a trip. (For reals, this was one of the first times white folk and their peculiar ways started to trip me out in life.) My young black and brown colleagues and I pulled up in a long yellow bus. As we descended out of the mouth of the bus, we were met by a long line of white folks waiting for us with banners in their hands. I have long since forgotten what the banners proclaimed, what I hope to never forget is the applause of our new teachers. (Told you it was a trip. You was probably thinking it was gonna be something ill, something in the worst traditions of this country, but it wasn’t. I am compelled to give witness to that.) What or who mattered? That applause mattered, that love—at both elementary schools—mattered.

Why go to school?

Because it is compulsory. What is not compulsory, what is all too contingent, is the quality of educational experience within the buildings. So, after we have satisfied the legal requirement, after my body is on school grounds, the question returns:

Why go to school?

As a young person, I suppose you have to trust that the adults raising you and your homeboyz and homegirlz know what they’re doing. (That itself is a big “if,” que no?) Looking back on it, I’ll submit the following: We go to encounter and deal with things/people/ideas that we would not, in the course of our humdrum everyday lives, normally or naturally encounter. I went to school to meet Martin King and Emmitt Till. I went to interact with people who, had I not the opportunity to encounter them in a school-like setting, I might come to look upon with suspicion or even hatred.

Rato,

Meño (don’t forget the tilde—option+N on a Mac, still don’t know how to make PC’s talk Spanish though)

Anonymous said...

Now this idea of why go to school, I have to say this is a very interesting question. I could not have answered it until I was 20 years old. I had no idea why I was going to school until that point, although I didn't think I was missing anything by failing to think critically about my education. I had terrible attendance habits in high school. I did, however, make good use of the time (or some of it, anyways) when I was NOT in school, when I did a lot of reading and writing on my own, in places like the public park or the around-the-corner McDonald's, as I was busy cutting the classes where no one paid attention to whether you were there, and where there was unlikely to be a lesson plan anyway. I did more academic work (self-assigned) outside of school than I did in school, so it seemed fair to assume that school was a place where I had to go, and learning was something I did on the side. My folks didn't fight my tendency to do things on my own schedule. Kentucky public schools weren't considered to be setting the world on fire at this particular point and time, and my grades were surprisingly good. In my teenage mind, I used school as a prime opportunity to learn how to manipulate a system as effectively as possible. As a 16 or 17 year old who felt very little control over my life, this was no small accomplishment.

However, all of that changed when I experienced my first real class. I had the awesome sensation of sitting in a classroom with my pulse raging, feeling so closely connected to the literature we were reading because, for the first time, it offered real answers to painful questions in life that I couldn't cleanly figure out. And I learned that school had the potential to be something I had never considered - an invitation for me to try to see my life and its meaning, and the lives of others and their meanings, through a critical perspective that felt healing at times and abrasive at others. I discovered that academia could make me feel like I was growing in ways that felt attractive and personally satisfying. It filled holes that actually existed in my life. In fact, this transformational discovery was exactly what made me want to teach - I wanted somehow, through some way, to show young people what education could be, to give them an experience with it that could positively change their sense of purpose and their interpretation of their lives. In short, I wanted to send the message that they signify in the world. An abstract concept, I know, but young people need to be given this credit, or they may find a million ways of their own to show the world that they signify without realizing how much they are essentially trying to prove this to themselves.

Bronwyn

Anonymous said...

Dear Mike,

From a very young age, education meant everything to me. It was my hope of escaping the reality of my life. I was poor and slipped thru every crack and counselor in grade school on up. However, I still loved school and still do. Education changed everything especially how I perceived myself. I’ve always felt that school like the world is what we make of it. Some embrace it, some do not, it depends on our circumstances and how we integrate into the educational system. Some don’t fit in the box… However, there is good and bad in both school and the world. I looked for the good, the promises for a future, the hope and I found it.

There is one thing I’d like to point out that I found very distasteful about my experience in University and that was the politics. Please don’t misunderstand me, I have no problem with freedom of speech but I felt, I had to have certain political views in the University I attended. I hope educators find a way to keep their political views out of the classroom.

Patty said...

School was an extension of home life and religion. I grew up in a very small town, but we were religiously segregated. Our neighborhood clustered around the church and the school--St. Thomas Aquinas both. All the newer homes in my neighborhood were built on lots formerly owned by the church and the priest only sold those lots to Catholics. And you were somehow obligated to sell your house to a Catholic if you moved--but people rarely did.

So school was an extension of home, of neighborhood, of church. It was (as I think back now) really pretty organic and so tightly woven that it all seemed "natural." Of course you went to school. You just did. Just like you went to church every single day except Saturday, went to confession every Saturday night (guess that's why you didn't need to Sat. morning), just like you put JMJ (Jesus,Mary,Joseph) at the top of every paper, knew every official prayer, had a collection of holy cards, and (even if you were a girl and couldn't be an altar boy) knew the whole latin mass.

I never wondered why I went to school. I never wondered why I took piano lessons from Sister Urban. Questions about why we go to school never, ever occurred to me. And I am pretty sure that they never occurred to my parents either. Why send your kids to school? Duh?

School was so thoroughly a part of my whole existence that even to this day, questions about it are hard to fathom. But there were these two guys who didn't like school. Yea, I could write a lot about them. Stories, and stories and stories. But what would be the point. One is a city commissioner in that small town and one just died after a career in the Navy and a lifetime of alcoholism.

Most of the time I don't think I'm that old, but these stories make me feel ancient. And my ancient stories probably don't make a bit of difference now--except to me.

But here's what grade school was for me--it was about my whole life. It was integrally woven into the fabric of my life. It was about belonging and feeling like a part of something much bigger than myself (ah, back then we called it the "body of christ").

And then in ninth grade we joined up with the public school kids because there wasn't a catholic high school and I started dating a Methodist guy. I married him, had four kids, became a college teacher, got a phd and a divorce, and moved half way across the country to a place where I knew no one and had no community and belonged to nothing but an itinerant group of academic gypsys. Ok, so I just glossed over 57 years.

Anyway--School needs, somehow, to be about belonging to a group and making a place for yourself in that group. Even for a semester or for a year, you need to belong--somehow.

Christopher Dean said...

Interesting question: why go to school?

For me, the child of teachers, the answer was initially very simple: you go not to make Mom and Dad mad. I was a middle child, the sort of kid who wanted/needed to do the right thing, so I went to school.

From the very first I liked school. It had cool toys (I remember a red Tonka fire truck with great fondness to this day from Miss Coke’s Kindergarten classroom); my best friends (in 5th grade my best friend Blaine taught me how to play chess); and even some learning (in high school I read everything from the Ox Bow Incident to Shakespeare).

However, I still think I went to school because I wanted to please people. That probably doesn’t make me much different from a lot of kids. I know for a fact that it doesn’t make me much different from many of the first-year students I teach now. They tell me that they go to school to please family, the communities, and, sometimes, themselves.

As I got older, I started to go to school for other reasons. I went to school in high school because it was without question the best place to feign boredom and world-weariness with like-minded folk. (In the early 1980s this involved some horrible haircuts and even worse music . . . Jesus, I really thought that Flock of Seagulls was cool.) However, by the time I hit college something weird happened.

In college I started to attend class because I was interested in what was under discussion. I majored in history (because I was interested in it); minored in English (because I loved it—figure out that twisted logic); and got involved in music because I really loved it. The end result was an eclectic education short on focus and long on intellectual fun.

As I was doing all of this wandering something odd happened, I started to do well in school. I graduate high school with at 3.0 something—doing what was expected of me, but no more. In college I got better grades, over a 3.5—doing what interested me. And the bizarre thing is that I cared, on the whole, much more about my grades in high school than in college. Truth be told, I think that grades were, by the time I graduated in 1991, completely beside the point.

My path into further schooling followed the same pattern, lots of wonder at education, good grades, and an ever faltering concern that I got good grades. Ultimately, I stopped going to school because I had a terminal degree (nice language huh), and I also was then equally interested in teaching.

I have, in the fullness of time, come to this conclusion about my own education: I first went to school because I wanted to make people happy, and I kept going to school because I finally engaged with my learning to make myself happy.

I don’t tend to ascribe much import to my own experience, but maybe this time my experience means something. Teaching for the past 15 or so years (in everything from at-risk schools to my current position at a University) has taught me that kids come to school because they have to. In my first job after my student teaching in 1993, kids came to school because their parole officer and welfare workers insisted—at least they did initially. However, as they gained success and confidence (and all of my students that I taught in my at-risk program in 1993 were short on confidence of many kinds) they started to come for other reasons. They started to come because they wanted to—because they started to see something in school for them. They committed to schooling in a very real way.

I would love to think that I was the cause of that, but I’m dubious. I was, initially, at best a fair teacher. I was neurotic about authority, quicker to anger than I am now, and I did not know oodles of stuff (like how to keep 17 year-olds engaged while learning algebra for the GEDs). Still, my students learned something in that program in 1993, often-times despite my efforts.

As I aged, and grew as a teacher, I got better at helping students—particularly at helping provide moments for student to find ways to engage with their learning, to learn because they want and need to. I’m still figuring out how to do this, and I’m confident that I’ll keep doing this as long as keep teaching.

I guess my point is this: I believe that we go to school because we hope to get engaged in something. We may not come willingly, but we do come because we hope that somehow we will find a way in: a way into schooling, into learning.

Sorry for the rambling nature of this, but I felt compelled by the fine things that everyone wrote to say something—definitely something less graceful.

Karin Chenoweth said...

Trust you to ask the essential question--Why do we go to school? The next question to ask is--Why do we as grownups pay a significant amount of tax money for children to go to school?

We go to school because there is something compelling about going to school--either intrinsically or extrinsically. That is, either because we learn a lot in ways that make us want more; or because someone makes us. Humans are driven to learn, and if schools are able to engage that drive, then they need many fewer external compulsions to force kids into the classroom.

The drive to learn encompasses a lot of stuff--learning of essential knowledge and skills, certainly, but also how to develop relationships that connect us to others not simply as friends but as fellow citizens. It is possible to develop family and friend relationships without schools; I don't know where else but schools people can, in a regular and systematic way, develop the knowledge of how to connect as a citizen.

And that is why we have public schools--to develop an educated citizenry. At least, that's why we should have them.

artineh said...

There are many positive purposes of education, and I'm going to share a not-so-glamorous example: I always knew I would go to school, and college was not enough. My parents expected it and it started out as a way to please them, meet their expectations. But as I grew older, I realized that education, too, would afford economic stability and workplace marketablility. I wouldn't have to feel what my mom felt when her marriage fell apart in a foreign land and she was left with three young daughters and a high school diploma from Iran (though, it had been obvious to her high school teachers that she was more than capable to continue her education in the sciences). Although I now see that my years of K-12, college and graduate schooling made me love learning itself, helped me to be a critical thinker and enabled me to engage intellectually and emotionally with the world in which we live, the purpose of schooling was first and foremost to afford the possibility of being an independent woman who could take care of herself financially. I was in part lucky because circumstances were organized in such a way so as to enable completion of advanced degrees and I am finally at a place where I can breathe and reflect on all the wonderful experiences I had in school. But at the root of it all was a desire not to feel finanically strapped. I know, it's not as inspirational a reason as the wonderful relationships forged with adults or feeling the excitement of learning in my skin, in my pulse etc. -- though some of that was certainly a part of it. It was a pragmatic purpose, but one that got me through regardless.

Thank you, Mike, for this forum! You always seem to open up the spaces for others to share.

k8 said...

Tough question!

I didn't have a very good relationship with school until college and grad school. The public school system is a terrible place for students with undiagnosed ADD and other learning disabilities. The routines were oppressive and imagination was almost always absent. I was labeled called an underachiever, unmotivated, told I had a bad attitude, by those who didn't immediately assume I wasn't capable of being a good student.

I seriously considered not attending college. But, I wasn't sure what else to do so I ended up going. It was an amazing experience. I didn't have to sit at 7 separate desks for 7 separate 50 minute sessions in a row. I was encouraged to follow my diverse interests whereas before I had been limited to strictly enforced shallow notions of what it means to learn and what should be learned.

Why go to school? I'm feeling ambivalent. The systems we have do not support a whole lot of students and I'm not sure how or when this will change in the immediate future. My own reading habits contributed as much to my education than our local public school system. I still remember a moment during the Hirsch Cultural Literacy craze when a visitor to one of my classes decided to give all of us a quiz. Most of my "good student" classmates performed dismally. I was the only one to get every question correct. Needless to say, many people, including our instructor, were shocked. While I didn't think much of that test at the time (and think less of it now), I always remember it as an example of the low-expectations for me by teachers, my ability to learn outside of school, and the strange way I managed to teach myself this cultural knowledge valued by the elite despite School.

Mira said...

Mike and all, this is a personal response to a very big social question. I have responded as I often do – with an individual’s story, this time my own – that aims to question institutional norms and expectations. This was the story that came to mind and fingertips. Thanks for this opportunity to share thoughts.

“Why go to school?” In November of 1976, at the end of fall quarter of my senior year of high school, this was the question I asked my recently divorced parents.

Like many young people, I found high school to be an emotionally lifeless and alienating place, one where who I was, what I dreamed about, and what I felt, mattered little, except, perhaps, to a few close friends.

At the school I attended in Seattle, Washington, the focus was squarely on traditional academic achievement. As far as my teachers were concerned, my grades told them everything about me they needed to know. The link between me the person, and my grades, little squiggles on the page, left me wondering where the rest of me, the emotional and psychological person, fit in. At school I was a sheet of paper tucked into the pages of an old dusty encyclopedia. I was lost, hopelessly squeezed, and the weight of the other volumes stacked in a dusty pile, was suffocating.

When I tentatively suggested to my folks that perhaps I didn’t need to finish high school at an actual high school, they suggested (rather kindly in retrospect) that leaving school six months before graduation “would be ill-advised, a great loss, a closing off of my future, totally nuts.” My classmates generally agreed, “Six months left and you’ll be out of here! Don’t be stupid! You’ll regret this.” My teachers, by turns perplexed and censorious, remained silent on the matter. Despite the unanimously disapproving chorus (or perhaps because of it), in December of my senior year I dropped out. One day I was in high school writing final exams for history, and the next I was preparing food in a restaurant. I had no plans for the future except my work schedule the following week. Free of school at last. Or so I imagined.

The sense from that time which comes back to me most clearly now is that the decision to leave school felt like a matter of survival, as I think it does for many kids today. I can’t say that dropping out made me feel grown up, or satisfied with life, or like I had the sense of direction I’d been longing for, but it certainly opened up some space – a terrifying crevasse, in fact, since it seemed that no one approved of my decision but me. Was I crazy? Or was I acting from a place that many kids experience and that many adults in education don’t take seriously enough?

Until about two years ago when this story – a voyage into my murky past – came out spontaneously while I was teaching a class one evening, I’d never considered telling my students, pre-service English teachers, about this “wayward” period in my life. Yet based on the compassionate looks in their surprised eyes I could tell how much it meant to them that I had shared this story. It turned out to be a humanizing moment for all of us. And as the weeks of that semester elapsed and I had time to reflect on their surprise, and on my own astonishment at their shock, I realized that I had been withholding the very thing that would have made high school a place I might have loved when I was young.

What I think many students long for, and go to school hoping to find, is personal connection, access to other human beings' inner lives, the time to understand what matters to others, what motivates people’s inclinations and actions, what excites our curiosities.

What I’d longed for in high school was a mentor, someone who could help me imagine possible futures, possible selves, as you say, Mike, possible lives. While we know this is critical to learners of all ages, I believe for young people going to school is in large part about having opportunities to be with adults and peers who can see the best in them and mirror it back when they’re in doubt.

When I left high school I swore that I’d never set foot inside another academic institution as long as I lived. When I did gather the courage to begin college in 1984 as a single mom with a twenty-two month old son, I was finally going to school because I had a purpose for being there that was strong enough to pull me in (I wanted to major in dance of all things), and I’d found a school that was the kind of place I had needed many years before, one where my professors cared deeply about what I thought and who I was. They not only invited us into their vibrant worlds of ideas, but they also modeled how to connect those ideas to everyday life. They cinched academic and personal experience together in ways that made studying a collaborative joy rather than an agony of solitary confinement. And so after much deliberation, denial, and an enormous sense of terror – fear of the weighty responsibility that teaching entails – I finally took back my oath about schooling and began my education as an educator. (My parents were stunned, but happy.)

Why go to school now? As a teacher educator, I go to school each day not only to guide my students’ learning, but also to receive what they offer me intellectually, emotionally, and personally, and to offer them whatever I can in return. I go because I’ve come to believe deeply in education’s possibilities, its promise. I go in hopes of creating classroom and office climates that nurture students’ interests and concerns, both personal and academic. I go because I want to help sustain departmental, institutional and communal learning environments that acknowledge and foster my students’, colleagues’ and my own efforts to fully embrace the multidimensional selves that we all already embody. Call me a dropout, call me professor, call me starry-eyed. It's all true.

Mira

Josh said...

Mike,

I suppose I could try and echo your eloquence with in depth analysis and reflection. I however, find it better to simply say that I was provoked to thought by your piece. "Why do we go to school?" All to often I allow myself to get caught up in the current of societal norms and do not think to question things such as this. Thank you. School is the conduit to a better life, not just financially or within a social caste, but as a human, fully aware of self and fully capable to make informed descisions.

Denise said...

Why go to school?
Education is a basis of discovery of one’s own individuality through a collection of information, composed by historical figures and modern day movers and shakers; that through discovery, experience, artistic inspiration, political motivation and/or literary epiphanies, have gifted to students their knowledge in which learn from . Students learn through the experiences and knowledge of others, they learn not just what is written and/or taught, but also, what importance the learned information means to them as individuals. Education gives Students the opportunity to learn a vast array of material, from math and science, to poetry and art; Allowing students to personally analyze it[taught information], contemplate it, and make [based on their individuality] a decision as to what, where, when or how that information will fit into their lives. If you never have a cookie, you will never know how delicious it is; if by chance you don’t like the first cookie, try another! Encouraging education is different than fostering education.Denise

north carolina fan said...

"All of the above help young people develop a sense of themselves as knowledgeable and capable of acting in and on the world. This, finally, was what education gave me, a pathway from hazy disaffection to competence, to a dawning awareness that I could figure things out and do something with what I learned." This quote really sticks out for me as I ponder on my school experience this semester. To take information and reproduce it to one's own specifications is what I thought school was about, but I am finding that there are those out there who want students to sit in the "safe" box and not push the envelope too much. This saddens me and makes me re-question "why go to school?" I have read a lot of Rose's philosophy and found that those familial and educational beliefs that he holds dear from a long, wonderful history are not always held by those instructors who use his works in their courses. When I think of why I go to school, I know it is to practice, not merely preach, a philosophy that EVERYONE can learn, EVERYONE can contribute, and EVERYONE has a workable mind! I thank Mike Rose for the time he took with me to speak of writer's block, and I wonder if he truly knows how much it influenced me to continue my plight not only as a teacher but as a person on a mission to show others the power of writing and education.

Erika Szostak said...

I do hope you'll forgive me for being long-winded about this...

When I was a child, the bookshelves in my parents’ house were full of the English canon: Faulkner, Hemingway, Twain, Orwell, Steinbeck, Austen and the Brontes. On the top shelf, there was Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, War and Peace and Gone with the Wind, the Best American Short Plays. When friends came over to spend the night, we play-acted, reading Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie out loud to one another while sitting cross-legged on the burnt-orange carpet of the basement, my Holly Hobby sleeping bag spread draped around my shoulders, Disco Duck on the record player. In the fourth grade, I retrieved To Kill a Mockingbird from the shelf and became exposed, for the first time, to real human injustices, the ideas of slavery and institutionalized racism, the idea that, despite my Catholic education, the good are not always rewarded, the evil not always punished. This was a devastating experience.

Perspective can be a shocking thing. To look back upon the course of my journey through literacy and see the events throughout my education in critical terms, what seemed small and personal and social, I can now see as illustrations in action of the larger rules of linguistics, development, literary theory—this was, for me, a previously unconsidered means of thinking about the ways we are connected to systems much larger than ourselves; a way to think about the self in macro rather than micro terms. I’ve learned the way we can use story-telling to reclaim and rewrite our own histories. So my story is a story of words, written, spoken and unspoken: protecting me, scaring me, scarring me, hiding me, forming the world.

Reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was my first collision in what Mary Louise Pratt would call the contact zone, the first time I came to recognize myself as a member of 1.) a distinct culture, and 2.) an oppressive culture. One might ask, how could this be? What about, for example, the Native Americans, and the way I, white American of European descent, was surely a member of the oppressors in their case? But I was a primary school student then; in primary school, we are not taught about genocide, deliberate decimation of food sources, starvation, repression of language, human skin sliced to test the sharpness of knives. Instead, fourth grade education about the Native Americans means feathered headdresses, burial mounds, Thanksgiving, cornucopias, friendly sharing of food and land.

As I said, that first entry into the contact zone, a sudden identification of myself as a member of a slaveholding culture, was devastating. I was disturbed; I was enraged. My entire sense of the sure consequences of right and wrong was upset. Subsequently, I became obsessed with African-American literature, reading everything on which I could get my hands: the novels and stories of Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Jamaica Kincaid, Richard Wright; autobiographies of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson; slave narratives, socio-cultural studies like Race by Studs Terkel, and Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. Despite all of this self-imposed education, living as I did in an all-white community and attending an all-white parochial school, I did not actually have any meaningful contact with persons of color, not until well into my teenage years.

Essentially, this meant I was a curious mix of untested liberal values and utter naivete. There was my determination to educate myself about other cultures and to right social injustices, coupled with my absolute ignorance of, for example, the fact that most people haven’t, like me, attended parochial schools with compulsory religious education; that most people haven’t actually read the Bible; that most people do not necessarily understand literary Biblical allusions without explanation. This is a story of my egocentrism, a story of the distance I had to travel from my homogenous community to see the world for the wildly varied place that it is. At seventeen, I hadn’t realized it, but not only did I think, unconsciously, that everyone received a similar Catholic-based education, I was not aware then that I had ever met anyone of a different faith than mine, much less anyone who was faith-less, an agnostic or an atheist. So, imagine my bewilderment at the response when, in my first college literature class, we read a text which alluded to the parable of the mustard seed, and the professor asked the class if everyone knew what that meant. Blank stares. “Fine,” he said, “if you’re familiar with the parable of the mustard seed, raise your hands.” I raised my hand, thinking, of course, “How silly, how obvious; everyone knows that.” But they didn’t. Only two other students had raised their hands.

My interest in subordinated peoples was cemented by my own experience of being rejected by the dominant culture in my own small world, i.e. the socially adept, the pretty people or popular kids; what felt like, at the time, all the kids. I think, in my reading, I was looking for solidarity, seeking to know other people who had, in their own worlds, been rejected for superficial reasons too. The result of all my early, highly developed literacy skills was that my written voice matured at the expense of my spoken voice. Reading and writing are solitary hobbies. One hardly makes friends or improves interpersonal relationship skills while sitting alone in a basement room with a book. While literacy catapulted me forward in terms of my education, it made me a social disaster. In the first grade, I was reading at an eighth grade level, so far ahead of my class that I was placed in independent study. This resulted, of course, in yet more solitary time. In second grade, I began attending half of the day’s classes with the third graders; at the end of the year, it was decided that I would skip the third grade year of school altogether and graduate straight from second to fourth. Of course, my opinion was consulted in all of this, and I was a willing, excited participant. I felt special; I wanted the challenge.

I could not have known what an outcast that decision would make me, a social freak, a nerd, a weirdo to be regarded from a distance; or what a lesson in assimilation it would be, the way one must blend in if she hopes to be a member of the dominant culture. I did not blend in. I did not know how. I wasn’t funny, witty, or quick with spoken words. I was shy, quiet, unsure of my voice, unsure of my self. I wasn’t fashionable, didn’t have the newest shoes, trendy jewelry, or an expensive haircut; my parents picked me up from school in a yellow Datsun, spotted with grey, so patched with filler that one day its body simply fell apart in the street. All of this is not to say that I regret it now, or blame my teachers, parents or principal for making what became a painful decision on my behalf. They did what they thought was best for me, and intellectually, it was. The youngest in my class, I continued to excel in school, earning straight A’s, winning scholarships and awards and academic contests with ease, staying at the top of my class, scoring higher on standardized tests than anyone else. Moving forward may have been a social disaster, but staying behind would have been a scholastic one.

I read those books on my parents’ shelves, but that’s not to say that I understood them; that I could articulate, for example, that Animal Farm was a critique of communism, 1984 a warning against totalitarianism. Nor was I old enough to know of what Modernism meant, the significance of Faulkner’s subversion of linear narrative or privileged perspective, that Stein wrote nonsense because she was proving a point about the arbitrary nature of language and meaning, signifier and sign. In Bootstraps, Victor Villanueva tells us about Paulo Freire’s view of hegemony. Hegemony is rhetorical, he says. Changing the word equals changing the world (128). This works, of course, on a global and on a personal scope. I learned the way a word could change my world as a result of social mobility concerns in a fifth-grade cafeteria. I call this the Lunch Table Lesson.

This is the story of the Lunch Table Lesson. There are carefully prescribed rules regarding lunch table etiquette in the fifth-grader’s cafeteria. One does not sit outside of one’s social class. Lateral lunch table moves are allowed; moving up is dangerous, rare, exciting; moving down is social suicide. One day, during lunch, a girl named Cindy Walker announced that she was going to join the popular kids’ lunch table, and I, especially sensitive to what seemed the inflexible rules of social class, told her she was crazy. “No way,” I said, “they’ll never let you sit there.”

I was nine years old; my enunciation was mushy, the edges of my words not as clearly marked as slats in a fence. “Let you” came out sounding like “letchyou.” In Cindy’s re-telling, I had insulted the popular girls; “Let you sit there” became “leches sit there.” Word got around quickly. Everyone was furious. No one knew what “leches” meant, but they knew it must be bad. Lech was duly looked up in the extra-large dictionary. It turns out I had called the popular girls “men with strong sexual desires” and no one thought it was funny. The Lunch Table Lesson learned: enunciate, lest one misunderstood word change my world for the worse.

Two years later, I found the following written in the back of my math notebook:
Dear Erika,
No matter what the other kids say, I don’t think you have big legs. I think you’re beautiful. I think about you all the time. You’re the most beautiful girl in the whole class.
Love, xoxo,
%^&*))(*&^%$
Your Secret Admirer

The fake note: Of course I wanted to believe it. It was in the form of the written word. Written words were my friends, like the pages of books from which I read and on which I wrote, my confidantes, solace, reliable companions. Verbal words are easy enough not to trust, but the written ones, these have authority. They are permanent, tangible, can be held, looked at again and again, don’t change just because we turn our heads away from the page: test scores, detention slips, doctor’s notes, invitations and certificates of achievement, ribbons embossed with the words, “First Place.” I studied the scribbled-out signature of my secret admirer for days, reading endless names of classmates in its scrawl. Was he named Jeremy, Boomer, Billy, Shawn? A second note followed the first; it instructed me to meet him at the bathrooms at a certain time. I went, knowing I shouldn’t believe it, but hoping anyway, still believing in the reliability of written words. Of course, no one met me at the bathrooms that day. I walked away from the bathrooms without a boyfriend but with a new kind of knowledge. My secret admirer had taught me about the concept of an unreliable narrator.

In my second year of primary school I developed a friendship with a certain teacher, Mrs. Roush, and we wrote notes back and forth to each other in code. That had delighted me, the challenge of solving the linguistic codes, the privilege of having our own special language. Later, the verbal taunts from classmates had been easy enough to dismiss and disbelieve. Most of the kids never could keep the sarcasm out of their voices when they said something nice, if they said anything to me at all. But something written? Until I got the fake notes, written things had never been unreliable; they had been the medium of friendships and like minds, my ties to an identifiable community, my reassurance that there was so much more than Greenwood, Indiana, seventh grade.

When I skipped a grade, did I become somewhat like a minority or an immigrant, moving into a new land (educationally and socially), not entirely by my own choice, attempting to assimilate and failing? Victor Villanueva says, “The minority lives in a netherworld. Not quite American. No home to return to” (28). A second-grader living in third-grade but not fully a second-grader, not fully a third-grader, accepted by neither? I know it sounds silly in these terms. By no means do I say it to belittle Villanueva’s argument, but as I look at my own experience, I wonder if it is akin, on a micro scale, to the minority experience. As I write this, the self-censorship alarm bells are sounding off. Comparing my white self to a minority; that is surely a provocative and infuriating thing to do. I can imagine furious responses, bell hooks or Gloria Anzaldua taking me to task: “Who do you think you are, White girl? What do you think you know about being a minority? How dare you compare yourself and your petty elementary school nonsense to 400 years and slavery, suffering, torture and death?” And they would be right. How dare I? But I don’t dare, and I wouldn’t. Instead my concern is this: simply that what Villaueva defines as the minority experience is applicable in ways that go beyond race, that the limbo of not belonging is not reserved only for people of color in America. One can look like she belongs even though she does not. Robert E. Brooke says that
the way individuals react and relate to the different roles
offered them by schools… undoubtedly influences how
they come to understand themselves, their abilities and
their futures. Learning is influenced more by the roles
offered in school than by any particular content or
material being taught… (11).
My experience of trying to fit in, but not, this was identity negotiations theory in the flesh. I find that as I’ve grown older, these roles offered to me early on in school, ones I wanted or did not, are still with me today, were vital in shaping the things I do, the worldviews I hold. “An individual’s psychic life can thus be thought of as endlessly concerned with social place and the negotiation of group affiliation, for from these patterns of affiliation and rejection arise the individual’s sense of self” (Brooke 14). The roles of scholar, reader and writer are very much who I am, things I take pride in, enjoy and see as the course for my future professional life. These roles were offered, shaped and encouraged by good teachers at good schools.

By now, I’ve learned to make my voice heard, whether it’s my speaking voice or it’s my voice on the page. I am thankful for these things and see now that these elements that make up my literacy narrative are inextricable from my identity narrative. Today, as a writing instructor, literacy is my narrative, and as an academic, school is the seat of my professional identity. For some, school is the place to learn how to make sense of one’s identity narrative; for others, school becomes the identity narrative. I can not tell the story of myself without the story of how I came to know words, typed, written, spoken and unspoken words, friendly, incomprehensible, devastating, comforting, enriching words.

Joshua said...

Hello to all the Bloggers here. I must say I like all the Articles you wrote about your schooling experiences. I had the opportunity to read your blogs with smile on my face- But I was wondering if I will also be able to write anything and claim it is my school experience.

I am 19 years old male from Northern Ghana, West Africa. I complete my school last two years and hoping to enter into the Senior High School but with no avail- I am hoping someone will want to help me enter into the Tertiary institution.

My name is Joshua
Email: computerstudent024@gmail.com

Please- I cant reply soon if you write me- because I will do that if i get the opportunity to use the net.
Thank you

Jennifer G. said...

Why do we go to school?

Like others have mentioned, this is an interesting question and somewhat difficult for me to answer. Really, why do we go to school? I never saw school as an option when I was growing up. Both of my parents graduated from college, and my dad continued with graduate school for a while. It was always understood that I would go through school and then go to college just as my parents did.

During my elementary days, I went to school to play and have fun with my friends, but I did pay attention in class. Good grades were also an expectation; therefore, I had to pay attention. I always made good grades and schoolwork was not hard for me. Middle school is a little blurry…those years when I was awkward and different, trying to figure out who I was and where I fit in. High school became more of a social event. I considered myself a pretty social person in high school. I had found where I fit in. I liked going to school to socialize and be a part of something. I may need to add that I am an only child and was raised by a single mother (although my dad was very involved in my life).

I do not believe I ever disliked going to school other than in eighth grade when I had a horribly insensitive teacher. Going to school was just something I did every day, because it was expected of me. It was not until high school was ending did I really have a discussion about college with my parents. It sort of started with, “What college do you want to do to?” There was nothing along the lines of, “Do you want to go to college?” Therefore, I went. I was not sure why I was going or what I was going to do with my life with education I was getting.

Once I sort of decided what to do with my life, I thought of becoming a nurse. I have always loved children and wanted to work in a hospital with pre-mature babies (the pay is not bad either). After attending a blood drive, I quickly decided medicine was not for me. I had to think about other careers that involved children. Naturally, I decided on becoming a teacher. My dad had always said I was going to be a teacher, because I was so good with kids. I always said I would not be one. However, I did get a degree in early childhood education. This has allowed me to be with children as I had always hoped to do.

I am currently working on my master’s degree in reading education. I went back to school for several reasons. The first is that I wanted to make more money. That seems like a selfish reason, but if you are teacher you know there’s little money to be made when teaching in a public school. The most important reason is because I wanted to become a better reading teacher. I did not enjoy reading when I was going through school mainly because I did not want to sit still longer enough to read a book. (I have gotten much though!) I did not have reading difficulties or anything like that; I just did not like to read. I felt that because I had disliked reading that it would show when taught reading to my students.

Now that I have graduated college and am finishing up my master’s degree, I know why I went to school for all these years. I went to get an education in order to become a productive citizen. I went to school to learn things I would ordinarily learn by staying at home. I went to school for the social aspect of belonging to something. I went to college in order get a good job but mostly to be able to support myself independently if necessary.

Paul said...

This makes question makes me reflect back on my years of schooling and think about why I went and what I enjoyed. I have learned so much throughout my education, starting with preschool. I always enjoyed school because I love interacting with people. I played sports, did drama, and took AP classes during junior high and high school. I went to k-12 because I had to, and I made the best of it. I learned how to treat other people politely and interact with them; making lifelong friendships. I had a lot of great teachers that taught me a lot more then what was required of them.

I went to college because everyone I looked up to told me I would get a better job if I furthered my education. The society we live in made me feel pressured to go to college. College was not as enjoyable for me as high school because I took it more seriously. The one thing I never liked about school was homework. I never could get the point of going to school for eight hours and then going home to do 3-5 more hours of school work. But at the age of 22 I'm graduating from college and I'm glad of all I have learned along the way.

Max said...

1st....

awww... nvm

katelin said...

WHile I think that school had tasught you how to wright such a what is the word... Eligant blog. i some how must disagree with the thought that school teaches us to interact and think together. Being a student today and sitting in a class for 8 hours if I may say that this is not at all what we learn.
we are learing what the goverment teaches and when we try to go outsid eof the box we are then shut down. this in turn has caused great violence and disconfort. Thus seperating the students in the schools.

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