Education in Humanities

Protest CrayonsWhen are we educators whining and rabble-rousing rather than getting on with the business of life? When should we simply be getting our jobs done?  And is there a time when we should be speaking up and protesting?

What is all this education for, if not to think on the human condition and speak up?

My job as a teacher, it seemed to me long ago when I began teaching was to impart skills and knowledge and a certain enthusiasm for my subject.  Certainly the creative task of seeking to learn how to teach writing and reading in an effective and meaningful way was a worthy goal.

After three decades of teaching, I am realizing what may have been an obvious, foregone conclusion to others, but to me an enduring understanding that has been wrought in me by experience.  I think that the goal of education, of teaching, is to become the kind of person you want to serve as a model to young people.  That will mean to become strong and unafraid, not unlike the warrior tests in tribes or the quests in literature.  The inner character and the outward performance of what is best about being human, to live the humanities is the goal of education.

What is most important in my teaching now is being with my students, attending closely and personally to them, their personhood in addition to their reading and writing. To read and write about the human condition and the choices we are making.   I am daily conscious of what kind of people are we producing in this thing called American public school.

That question of humanities raises the antithesis.  It seems more polarized than ever…the humanities, or liberal arts, versus the concrete subjects; the business and the social engineering of those with economic and philosophic agendas who regard the humanities as a frivolity, or a distraction from the more urgent business at hand.  Education as survival.  Education as the edge over world competition.  These ideas are really closer to what I thought teaching was when I stepped into the work.

Teaching is being re-defined, not refined, by the current emphasis on data and testing called accountability.  Teachers are harried, pressured, and criticized as they work in over-crowded classrooms of students — many of whom are jaded by the consumer culture and completely pessimistic about the game of getting grades leading to getting a good job.  Rightly so.

Being literate really means being fully human.  Humanity that can think and speak up against inhumanity.   Literacy and artistic expression in American education come along as nursemaids now to the so-called critical thinking and science and math that will supposedly drive our global success.

So many things are being done top down at great cost and so little is being done from the bottom up for children to learn and love learning.  Teachers who speak up are not whiners.  Teachers who protest the over-testing and the ridiculous waste of programs that are driven by contractors outside their class are being human and yes, “professional.”

Only some educators will be able to address important, big audiences, like Senator Elizabeth Warren does boldly.  Like Diane Ravitch does in her blog, books and speaking tours. The best essays on the history and current state of publication are in her recent book, Reign of Error.  However, big stage or not, everyday, I can stand against the tide of making schooling a business, a procedure of skills to test and data to justify it.

I am looking for the life, the joy and the fullness of being human, not a teaching machine.  I am being a better person.  That is my teaching.  And I want my voice to count in the job of keeping education real, and I say here that the testing movement with Smarter Balance is all a big money grab of a hoax.  It will not positively impace anyone except those whose pockets will be lined.

I think there are some great wrongs going on in public education.  In the midst of that, are teachers, my colleagues, my creative friends who continue to labor and bring their humanity and skill into the classroom.  Our jobs are difficult, challenging — and have been made more difficult by the so-called stake holders, the privatization and so-called Common Core.

The real issue is the ever widening gulf between the rich and the poor — the growing poverty of the children we teach.  There’s no plan from Arne Duncan, Inc. to address it because the US Dept. of Education is just one little cog in the corrupt machine in Washington, D.C.

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