Organizing life is almost more time-consuming than living it! I'm overwhelmed with pieces of paper that I can't bare to throw out, but can't bare to keep. So, I need to organize them! But as I do so, more and more appear.
My daughter-in-law, Tricia, discovered a huge file full of old letters to and from me going back to my teens. The Lily Archive at Indiana University wants them but first I have to see what makes sense for them to archive. I have spent hours at it and already discovered two letters that I immediately tore up, and a few I put aside in a "to be thrown out" pile. Then there are those that have sentimental value to me but do not belong in an archive dedicated to teaching. In those days before e-mail, and before telephoning seemed cheap enough to make long long-distance calls, many of the letters are long arguments for and against particular ideas.
I had forgotten about the Antioch co-op job in an Indianapolis Day Care Center. I did it because I wanted to visit with my Uncle Marty and my cousins Jeremy and Daniel who lived there. It was clear that I was not a very responsive assistant teacher and was impatient with restless children who refused to go to sleep at nap time (when I could then read), and whose parent's came late (so I couldn't leave early). It definitely inspired me not to take any education courses when I got to the U of Chicago which I was urged to do as a married woman who might need a fall-back job.
Yet in fact becoming an accidental teacher opened up the world to me in intriguing ways. It altered the way I saw and heard, and the way I understood politics, history and human behavior! There's no subject that seemed "boring". My democratic leanings from childhood were strengthened as it became more and more obvious that 12 plus years of schooling was such a poor preparation for democracy. The strong-willed, skepticism that is essential alongside of the habit of seeing and feeling the world from different perspectives (call it empathy?) is precisely what schooling dulls rather than nurtures, what is stronger at age 5 than 15.
I reread a short speech Susan Sontag gave to Vassar graduates in 2005 and realized how strongly I identified with her admonition: "Don't allow yourself to be patronized, condescended to" and "Don't be afraid."
When I visit many "acclaimed schools" for poor children I'm struck by how hard the adults work at putting kids "in their place", at public humiliation and condescension. The way the children's families are too often talked about by school adults is unnerving. Yet school adults are also the object of a similar condescension. But the connection between the two is somehow lost.
Too many of our schools are organized around fear and thus the "solutions"/reforms are too. The details are similar to those that drive prisons. The unspoken motto from school to classroom design revolves around issues of control: what will happen if we don't control them? In the same way I was struck by how easily teachers are intimidated by the authorities who rule their lives, how much principals fear "downtown", and parents fear the teachers--and the teachers fear the parents! It isn't universal, but it is widespread. The common answer: tough love and "no excuses".
The old-fashioned eccentric teacher who locked herself and her kids in her "castle" has all but disappeared: along with the strong-willed teacher who could create an alternate environment.
What we have forgotten is that part of being a good citizen is being skillful at resisting authority, organizing "our side" on behalf of common interests. It is our faith in our superior numbers that may be called upon to trump the power of guns and money. Democracy is always a fragile ideal, probably never fully realizable. It requires strong feisty citizens with a sense of their "entitlement" and an awareness that democracy is an exercise in balanced power. Learning to exercise power is as important as learning to be cooperative, who knows there is another story worth hearing (excuses?), is prepared to compromise, see the world from many perspectives, and have a good sense of humor. Adults teach these conflicting traits to kids in part by example ideally. What may seem like petty requests to us may, for kids, be matters of honor and integrity. But not if we adults have grown accustomed to swallowing our honor.
I heard a rightwing Republican congressman (Steve King from Iowa) speaking on TV about the Second amendment. It is not, he said, about hunting or protecting ourselves individually. We need guns, he continued, so we can confront a tyrannous government. He happened to think we were on the brink of an Obama-dictatorship. He was right: in 1776 the rebels saw liberty as closely allied to our ability to challenge a dictator with an armed citizenry. He is wrong about those guns, but he is right that democracy is always endangered and has a tendency toward centralization of power in few and fewer hands that must be resisted. If not by guns, what is the alternative?
Resisting the centralization of schooling of who decides what my children are taught and where the school's moral code is spelled out requires being "armed" by the powers that come with citizenship. We need new words that distinguish the kind of heated argument that democracy arouses if its decisions matter from winner/loser arguments that are only an exercise in exerting power over others. We depend upon such arguments, we depend such compromises, we depend upon resistance. Yet there is only one public institution where these habits of heart and mind might be developed: our schools. It is a shift in our picture of the tasks of schooling. To produce a community in which the young are learning from those older and wiser about democracy will take time to invent. Such schooling habits will not spring into being overnight. We will need to develop norms that make arguments, resistance, skepticism and solidarity and a good laugh at ourselves tolerable, even cherished. It does not happen just in a course of Civics, but in all the activities of the school staff meeting, parent meetings, math classes, phys ed classes, music, and even the playground.
After I finish sorting all those letters, maybe I will have time to figure this out. Maybe soon I will be ready to prescribe how democracy is best taught. But probably not.
More another time.