On Teaching and Education I: Learning and Coercion

I’ve been in the education industry now, off and on (but mostly on) since 2007, in a range of capacities: substitute teacher in public high schools, teacher’s assistant in a large public research university, an instructor in a tiny historically black private college, and, in a couple months, a grad student and TA at a wealthy private research university. Besides my work as a teacher I have experienced a wide range of educational settings as a student: a small private school (kindergarten, though because of my family moving, I never officially graduated), followed by a couple of years in public school. I disliked school and my parents, thanks be to God, didn’t compel me to continue a compulsory public education, and instead let me be homeschooled. Homeschooled is a bit of a misnomer, since my childhood and adolescent education took place in lots of different settings and with lots of different teachers, besides my day-to-day ‘formal’ curriculum. I learned painting and woodcarving under the relatively informal and very personal tutelage of wonderful, experienced teachers; I spent a great deal of time hiking and exploring and camping; I participated in a (rather disorganized and not very badge-driven) Boy Scout group and in 4H; I joined a railroad history group; sat in on graduate classes in history my father was taking (and used the university library); and so on. That I have turned out a market anarchist is not really a surprise when I reflect on it: had I been forced to spend most of my waking hours in a state institution of mass education, my political, economic, cultural, and religious views would probably be much more ‘mainstream’ and malleable to State and Capital. Which is, I suppose, the point, whether intentional or unintentional. But more on that question later.

Now that I’ve briefly set out the history of my own experience with teaching and education, I’d like to reflect a little on some of the lessons I’ve learned (pun intended) over the past several years, focusing primarily on my experiences as a teacher. First, my experience in public primary-school education, the most limited of my experiences, lasting for a semester plus a few extra weeks in the second semester. I had recently finished my bachelor’s degree and wanted to begin grad school, but knew that I needed to begin learning Arabic. I also wanted to do some more traveling, so I decided to go abroad to study Arabic. In order to pay for said expedition, I took up a couple of jobs and lived with my parents; in addition, my father was deployed to Iraq so I felt a certain imperative to stay at home with my mother and youngest brother. Anyway, I took a job working for a shoestring budget skating rink; once the school year rolled around I signed up for substitute teaching, which in Mississippi at least does not require any rigorous training. I ended up teaching at a couple of schools on a regular basis: a semi-rural, semi-urban high school, and the so-called alternative school, the holding cell for ‘troubled’ students, which as often as not meant the less nasty alternative to jail. I briefly subbed at another high school but lost out on that after pissing off a rabidly militaristic and neocon civics teacher, in my first taste of being blacklisted. But that’s another story.

What follows are some of my observations from this period; none are groundbreaking (as I would later discover, much of what I learned has already been uncovered and discussed by other radical thinkers, Ivan Illich chief among them), yet the entire structure is generally accepted as a given in industrialized Western society, despite the almost blindingly obvious harms inherent in it. I cannot of course hope to list more than fraction of these harms- there are plenty of others I could enumerate. Rather I will stick to those I saw up-close, and even was forced to participate in. Also, do realize that I do not aim to incriminate any one individual, even those who were, even by the standards of the system, particularly atrocious. Rather, it is the system as a whole that I have come to condemn, the structures and procedures whose operation is not dependent upon any one person’s will or intentions.

To preface the particulars: my overall conclusion was that compulsory education is an incredibly anti-social method. Students, far from being encouraged to interact in anything resembling a free environment, find themselves, day after day, in an environment that is at once highly structured and regimented, from arriving on the bus to processing into classrooms to the punctual division of the day into timed blocks, with brief interludes of liberty in between. Students are sorted into age groups, evaluated according to performance on (increasingly centrally directed and evaluated) tests, ranked further within their age groups. Disciplinary figures are everywhere, threatening some form of more direct coercion or another. This does not mean that the students respect these impositions of authority and regimentation: in fact, they tend to resent it, and try to find ways of evading it at all turns, all the while both fearing this authority and internalizing its inevitability (as they see it, as they are drilled to see it). Students organize themselves within the interstices of the regimented day, and they extend these organizations beyond the school day. Sometimes the pent-up aggression at continual coercion bursts into open acts of belligerence, even violence, usually against each other, sometimes directed at teachers. Far from creating order, the system tends towards barely contained disorder. Substitute teachers are soft targets for strategies of evasion, though I was able for the most part to at least keep my classrooms civil, if not exactly engaged in meaningful learning.

Which brings me to another consistent pattern: the amount of ‘busy work’ designed to keep students occupied, and the complete lack of instruction in some classes. The latter reflects what I imagine, though don’t know to be, a regional variation: football and to a lesser extent basketball coaches who also teach are notoriously exempt from any standards. But neither of these problems strikes at one of the central, maybe the central, evil of the entire system, an evil that I dealt with while subbing and one I continue to deal with in colleges and universities. Simply put, students are taught to associate learning with coercion. The things that we in the humanities hold dear- literature, history, philosophy, music- become, for the average student, weapons in the hands of a power structure that operates on them day after day, year after year. I know because I had to yield them as such for this job- certainly, I was able to engage the students voluntarily, more or less, on many occasions; I tried as often as I could to avoid the tactics I saw being employed by full-time faculty. Yet even I, in order to keep things moving through the day, to go from one period to the next, as often as not had to effectively compel students to read their Shakespeare (which most of them did not understand at all, but it was on the day’s schedule) or whatever it was at hand.

For the especially bright students, or the well-connected and favored ones, all of this may not be an especially terrible experience. For them- especially the brighter kids- it is the broader anti-social atmosphere of high school that chafes them: asinine teachers, bullies, the grind of busy work, of confinement to a standardized (industrialized!) curriculum, the creation and clashing of cliques. They manage to disassociate learning with the coercive structure, or discover ways of learning that lie outside of the school’s control. For the rest, learning is physically imprinted in them (through these bodily actions, day after day after day) as an activity imposed from the outside, a method of control, humiliation even. That they reject all semblance of ‘higher culture’ upon escaping from the educational structure is not surprising; even for those who do not reject all learning, their further experiences with educational structure are forever imprinted by their years of experience in school. It is not that they reject the necessity of school: they’ve had it drilled into them, year after year; nor do they reject the authority, which they have also had drilled into them year after year. Rather, they resent it, chafe under it, and, crucially, do not desire learning. The world of learning has little or no wonder available to it; the discipline and tests and ranking and regimentation have crushed it out of them.

It is this crushing of desire and wonder, this awful associate of learning with a system of continual coercion, that I find most destructive. Certainly, for those of us teaching in colleges and universities, we face student bodies that are often times close to functional illiteracy, or who are at the very least incapable of most of the skills necessary for basic humanities courses (I can say nothing of math and science, but I would not be surprised if a similar situation obtains there as well). Opening discussions in class (which is a primary task among teacher’ assistants) is doubly difficult: the students have rarely read the assigned material nor do they especially comprehend it. If one can get them to discuss, it is nearly impossible to engage them, since they will not- in class at least!- counter-say a teacher, not without lots of urging. They do not love the authorities over them, nor do they respect them, but they will not gainsay them. For a teacher’s assistant trying to stimulate a discussion about the Venerable Bede, it’s a depressing scenario, but one repeated over and over again. But for an operator of the authority of state or corporate capital, it’s the perfect scenario: unhappy subservience, but unquestioning subservience.

But before I spin off another tangent, let me return to, and end with, the most troubling environment in which I worked, the alternative school. These were students who had been caught in the teeth of the system, and were being slowly shredded to bits. The threat of actual prison- juvie, then adult- was always over their heads. Many of them- freshmen, sophomores, mind you- had lost count of the number of times that had been hauled in by the cops or disciplinary officers. The roots of their problems were various: most came from deeply troubled homes, nearly all had been caught in the crossfire of the drug war, all, so far as I could tell, were from chronically poor backgrounds. Their lives were chronicles of all the state institutions that wage war on the poor: prisons, judges, schools, welfare programs, the projects, cops, alongside the ugly constant of disordered families and utterly fragmented communities, wracked by drugs, poverty, and violence. None of these programs had ‘helped’ them, nor were they supposed to, of course. The alternative school, as I mentioned above, was for the most part a last stop, a last ditch effort. Certainly, in terms of school structure and daily procedure, it heightened the coercive nature of schooling: pat-downs, metal detectors, locks on everything, constant surveillance. Not that I entirely minded it, mind you- some of these kids had committed violence in the past, and for a skinny white twenty-something guy having backup nearby gave a measure of reassurance. That said, the environment in the actual classrooms was, in some ways, less coercive and oppressive than in ‘normal’ schools. Certainly, some of the teachers seem to have missed out on a career as prison-guards, but they were the exception- the teachers were, for the most part, genuinely kind and decent. Classes were relatively loosely organized, compared to ‘normal’ school, and since classes were (for reasons of security probably more than anything) small I got to know the students and other teachers pretty well. Some of my most enjoyable times of teaching took place there, in large part I think because my class periods gave the students a little glimpse outside of their otherwise deeply disordered lives shuttling between one coercive authority after another, with stops in utter disorder and violence in between. Teaching tended to be relatively informal; sometimes I would just read passages from books to my students, stopping to gloss difficult bits. It was also a heartbreaking experience: here were kids who had already been passed through the larger educational and judicial mills, and- I knew in the back of my head- were almost certainly going to end up behinds bars, or murdered, or dead from an overdose or cop’s bullet or alcohol, or living in cyclical poverty. I could offer my miniscule cup of compassion, but that was it.

To be sure, all is not terrible: I came across plenty of bright spots as well, smart and engaged students, students who refused to simply swallow everything fed them, teachers who genuinely loved to teach and even managed to impart some of their love of learning to their students. Certainly the anti-social and anti-learning tendency of compulsory, centralized education does not always destroy learning and creativity and so on- it’s not an utterly total system, nor an always consistent or homogenized one, thank God. Some components are far more negative than others, and individual teachers, students, and others can make a considerable difference. But for all of the particular and personal examples one can summon the overall system looms supreme and ultimately dominating, operating just as well- perhaps better- with these positive blimps in the radar existing. The system does not need mere reforms, as politicians of both statist parties will content: it needs to be demolished, and teaching and learning need to be re-imagined and re-built from the ground up.


Two fragments from the cover of a notebook of mine. First, a short verse on the scholarly life, lifted from the epigraph of Makdisi’s Rise of Colleges:

ذكا و حرص و افتقار و غربة
و تلقين استذ و طول زمان

Intelligence, longing; poverty and a foreign land
A teacher’s instruction; the long stretch of time

Jawaini of Nishapur

And one that is, I think, from the Moroccan Sufi Abu Madyan; it’s scrawled on the cover of one of my notebooks without an ascription:

النفس عزت و لكن فيك ابذلها
و القتل مر ولكن في رضاك حلا

The self* is dear, yet I slay it in You
And being killed is bitter; but in Your pleasure, sweet

*(An-nafs conveys both the sense of ‘soul’ and of ‘self,’ anima and ego; in Sufi thought and practice, overcoming the ‘lower soul’ or self in the apprehension of God is a primary goal. The dying of the self is obviously a term deeply resonant in Christian practice; likewise, the studied ambiguity about one’s relation to the self/soul exists in both traditions. St. Augustine is, I suppose, the most marked exponent of this tension, in which there is a proper ‘self-love’ and an improper one, so that loving one’s self is, for St. Augustine, a necessity, yet only in so far as it is properly directed. Paradoxically, the highest love of self would be the abnegation of the self in a Christ-like self-humbling and self-offering to God. In a similar manner, Sufism seeks a self-destroying abnegation in God, yet one in which the self is still there- even for someone like al-Hallaj, the nafs remains even in the closest union with God. Still, it is always an ambiguous thing in Sufi texts, as the soul/self is consumed utterly while the author still maintains a self-existence (if not self-awareness) and distinction between Creator/creation.)

On Student Expectations and Grades, And Other Things

A rather brief article in the New York Times today addresses something my fellow graduate assistants and I have been learning this year: our students genuinely expect to receive a good grade (by which they mean an A), and are sometimes simply shocked when you assign them anything less. One common refrain we hear is, “But I get As in all my other classes!” Or the if-I-don’t-do-well-I’ll-lose-my-scholarship (or law school/medical school/etc chances) refrain. Or, as I’ve run into already a few times this semester, the pity card- everything from random tough luck to dead cell phone battery to terrible home life. That, and the complaint that the work is too much and the grading scale is too difficult.

What do I do about it? I’m a first year graduate student; I did a stint last school year subbing in high schools, and had the prerequisite half-day seminar our department requires. That, plus the teaching and mentoring I received last semester, is the extent of my teaching experience and training, so I can’t offer myself as any sort of expert on pedagogical techniques.

Instead, here are some things that I try to keep in mind when dealing with students: first, I genuinely want them to learn and do well. I wish I could do more, I wish I had greater control over things, but I don’t- I’m a teaching assistant. My jurisdiction in many ways ends as soon as it begins. But I do largely control the one thing my students care most about: their grade. That a lowly first-year M. A. student with his own heavy load of work outside of teaching responsibilities is the one in charge of determining whether the nearly sixty students under his tutelage pass or fail is itself somewhat disconcerting, isn’t it? If you’re reading this and are considering attending a large research university/have children you want to send to a large research university, well, caveat lector. But anyway, the possibilities open to me for assigning material and teaching style are very limited. I must follow the guidelines laid down by the professor; I cannot go off and do my own thing. This means I must follow the guidelines- this semester, very strict guidelines- for grading. And therein lies the struggle.

When my students complain of the difficulty of the work or protest for a better grade, part of me thinks: I never did this when I was an undergraduate. Granted, I usually made good grades, but when I made a poor one, I didn’t whine to the professor and demand a better one. I am terribly sorry if you worked hard and still came up short. I really am. But I am not grading you on how hard you worked- I am grading you on performance, on whether you apprehended the material, not just whether you read it.Yeah, I know everyone’s been telling you how special you are and how you deserve the best etc etc- it’s not true, ok? Be glad I didn’t grade you on your real merits.

That’s the nastier, be-glad-you-don’t-have-to-read-850-page-economic-history-tomes side of my internal dialogue. It has its merits, I suppose- it’s true that we’re faced with a culture that teaches our students that they deserve a good grade, that they deserve a college education, and that they are exceptionally smart, and so on. But at the same time, I feel- maybe dirty is the best word?- when I assign a bad grade to a student I know has in fact worked fairly hard, yet is still lagging far behind. I don’t want to assign him a bad grade. I know that the reason this student is probably in college is not because he wants to learn all about the Byzantines and Clovis and the rise of modern capitalism, but because he knows that the minimum benchmark for a decent job is a college degree- that’s the minimum benchmark. He’s been fed the absolute necessity of going to college his entire life, and he really does need to go to college- not because anyone cares about the values of a liberal education (it’s hard to type that phrase without an ironic snicker), but because a degree has become the function equivalent of a high school diploma, it’s the least an employer looks for so as to eliminate other applicants. My hard-working student needs good grades and a diploma because it’s just one more necessary marker in the system. He’s probably taking out loans, because the bait-and-hook “scholarship” he was awarded his freshman year ran out when he couldn’t pull a 3.5. Chances are he’ll end up dropping out, still carrying those loans, but without the degree- just debt. Here I am, a nice quiet cog in the system, happy to have my little stipend and my library card, knowing that I have neither the authority or the time and ability to change anything. It’s one of the most insidious things about the academic system- you very quickly learn your place and the advantages of not rocking the boat.

And then I think about what my students’ educational background is- I’ve done a little time in public high schools, I’ve an idea of things. I was privileged- I was homeschooled, then went to a nice little liberal arts college where I knew my professors and hung out in their offices talking history and politics and life. My average student here probably went to a ho-hum high school, maybe was able to get a few minutes in with his adviser, possibly spoke to the instructor of the present course once because he had a technical problem- that’s it. He’s only other point of contact with the discipline of history is a graduate student with fifty-plus other students he only sees once a week. I will assume a fairly similar experience in other classes- maybe I’m wrong. Still, where in all of this is he supposed to receive hands-on, intensive instruction in the life of the mind, in the skills necessary for really learning in the humanities? I expect my students to be able to read well enough to grasp the material and think about it- how do I know they have ever acquired that skill? What am I to do if they haven’t? Sure, it’s partially their fault- no one held my hand and made me learn- but I wasn’t continually in an anonymous, ho-hum educational environment either.

So. I make no claims in the above thoughts to originallity or great subtletly- nor do I pretend to have any particular answers. I didn’t come into academia expecting roses and candy, to be sure, and I had struggled with the whole idea of getting into academia at all- for the reasons above, and others. I still do. I wonder- should I get out while I can? Is this whole thing right? Is it worth it? I don’t spend much time thinking about these things- Friday evenings are a decent time, I suppose, but one tends to stay occupied (I guess that’s part of the genuis of the system…) with other things filling one’s mind. But those questions shall wait- I’ve ranted long enough as is.

Eros and Ideas

If there’s one god our culture worships as piously as sex, it’s children. But sex and children, sexual intimacy and familial intimacy, have something in common — beyond the fact that one leads to the other: both belong to us as creatures of nature, not as creators in culture. After Rousseau and Darwin and Freud, and with evolutionary psychology preaching the new moral gospel, we’ve become convinced that our natural self is our truest one. To be natural, we believe, is to be healthy and free. Culture is confinement and deformation. But the Greeks thought otherwise. To them, our highest good is not what we share with the animals, but what we don’t share with them, not the nature we’re born with, but the culture we make from it — make, indeed, against it.

From Love On Campus, via Arts & Letters Daily.

Some Perspective

Via Antiwar.com: 

‘In terms of body count, those two mass slaughters added up to more than three Virginia Techs; and, on each of those days, countless other Iraqis died, including, on the January date, at least 13 in a blast involving a motorcycle-bomb and then a suicide car-bomber at a used motorcycle market in the Iraqi capital. Needless to say, these stories passed in a flash on our TV news and, in our newspapers, were generally simply incorporated into run-of-bad-news-and-destruction summary pieces from Iraq the following day. No rites, no ceremonies, no special presidential statements, no Mustansiriya T-shirts. No attempt to psychoanalyze the probably young Sunni jihadists who carried out these mad acts, mainly against young Shi’ite students. No healing ceremonies, no offers to fly in psychological counselors for the traumatized students of Mustansiriya University or the daily traumatized inhabitants of Baghdad – those who haven’t died or fled.’

The Blacksburg Massacre in Global Context

Monastery and City

My school operates on a trimester system, which is generally a nusiance, as it means an aceleration of classes so that the last few weeks are often ridiculously rushed. This can be a good thing for dreadful classes, but is otherwise a pain. It also means the division of our breaks into smaller units dispersed through the school year, including a ‘winter break,’ distinct from the more common Christmas and Spring breaks. This week has been our winter break; (new) classes resume Monday.

Taking advantage of our brief hiatus from university life, a friend of mine and I made the short journey to Convington, LA, to visit St. Joseph’s Abbey (Benedictine), located north of town in pine and live oak woods, which was quite peaceful except for the water-well driller at the abbey’s entrance. Water-well driller aside, we passed the time in much-needed prayer and contemplation; I’ve found that there are few places like a monastery for really focused prayer and general detoxification. Computers, radios, iPods, noise, etc etc, are ever-present hindrances to attempts at finding lack of distraction and peace; I find that when I set out to deliberately avoid such distractions, they find a way of intruding after a while. The monastery provides an atmosphere oriented around remembrance of God and a reduction of distractions and simplification.

St. Joseph’s had a further attraction for me, as it is the burial place of novelist Walker Percy, and was a favorite retreat of his (he spent much of his life and writing career in Covington). The brothers at St. Joseph’s were quite hospitable, and dinner was excellent. We were invited to join the evening services with the brothers in the choir stalls; after Compline we walked back to the abbey and passed one of the brothers walking by chanting one of the hymns to himself out under the crepe myrtles and the gathering clouds in the Louisiana sky. Sublime.

Tuesday morning we arose early- to rain, thunder, and lightning- to drive to New Orleans to work with Habitat for Humanity in one of the east side neighborhoods. Since we had to leave before breakfast, the Guestmaster told us to stop by the dining hall and help ourselves. We did so, as the rain poured down outside; we considered briefly remaining there as the weather was incliment in the extreme. However, after eating breakfast in the truly magnificent dining hall, which was painted by Dom Gregory de Witt; my favorite portion is the painting of St. Benedict presiding over the dining hall’s main doors.

We decided to make the journey across the Causeway to New Orleans, and fortunately the rain ceased. By the time we arrived at the job site the sky was blue- despite the fact the night before had seen a tornado in Chalmette, a few scant miles east of where we were working. Habitat for Humanity has at present some eighty houses under construction in New Orleans, mostly in the eastern part of town, where the flood waters hit hardest. I’ve been to New Orleans numerous times since the storm, but had not really driven through the ‘devastated’ parts of time, other than going to Jazz Fest, which involved navigating partially deserted neighborhoods looking for parking, which was quite an adventure in itself. However, the neighborhood we worked in was far worse; on a given block perhaps two or three houses had inhabitants; whole streets are collections of empty, gutted houses, churches, and schools. On many houses you can make out the water line, five, six feet up. All the houses are marked with spray-painted symbols indicating the day they were searched and what was or wasn’t found.

We ended up working on a partially completed house just east of Almonaster Boulevard. Neither of us are particularly proficient builders, but we can swing a hammer alright. Most of the people who had signed up to work Tuesday were discouraged by the weather and didn’t show up, so we actually had a decent amount of work to do. During lunch we braved the traffic on North Claiborne- including a major intersection with a still non-functioning stop light- and found a fairly new taco shop- all the taco combinations you could want. Discovered that the quesadilla option on the menu meant ‘taco with cheese.’ Place was hopping, with clients that pretty well reflected New Orleans’s new demographics: a larger Latino population, and a huge swell of demolition and construction workers. We returned and worked until about three or so; during our last hour at the job site we were joined by an improbably large contingent of Canadian college students on break who had journeyed down to volunteer. After finishing up work we drove over to downtown and wandered around the French Quarter, which was considerably crowded for a Tuesday afternoon- in anticipation of Mardis Gras next week, I suppose. Went by Faulkner House Books, an incredible little bookstore in the alley between St. Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo; I made mental notes of books I should like to add to my collection one of these days. Fortunately for my rather limited finances I had left my checkbook at home.  

On Reading

The role of literature is to mess with time, to establish its own time, its own rhythm. A new agenda for literary studies should open up the time of reading, just as it opens up how the writer establishes his or her rhythm. Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don’t even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words.

What I am asking myself to do is to step out of the grid of time, to experience works of literature anew. What I am asking you to do is to slow reading down, to preserve and expand the experience of reading — at any level, be it in elementary schools, high schools, colleges, or graduate seminars. What I am asking for is a revolution in reading.

Time for Reading


Less Haste, More Speed

In actuality, I’m not nearly as harried and compelled to make haste as I could be. But sometimes… I’ve taken to drinking a lot of tea and coffee; Scholastic philosophers and eighteenth century British Imperial economics seem to become clearer under the influence of caffeine.

Anyway, it’s the New Year, and I’m resolved to write and blog more, which will likely mean a lot of mostly useless ruminations on whatever I’m reading and writing about in ‘real life.’ Right now that means Roman religion from the time of the Republic, the history of the British Empire (and, on here anyway, what that history means for the American (in?)formal empire), and philosophical/theological musings from any number of corners and crannies. With that, here’s a relevant piece of wisdom from the French ‘Christian existentialist’ philosopher Gabriel Marcel:

‘There are many reasons for this regrettable state of affairs; one of them no doubt is the gasping, hurrying rhythm of our lives; I am not referring only to the relative absence of true leisure today, but also the increasing incapacity even of genuinely philosophic minds to follow out a long continuous task, the sort of task that requires perseverance and a good wind, in the long-distance runner’s sense. Every student today is forced to get his results as quickly as possible, no matter by how many improper short cuts, so that he can get his degree or his doctorate and land his job. The results of scholarship are measured by a temporal coefficient; the point is not merely to get one’s result, but to get it in as little time as possible. Otherwise the whole value of one’s researches may be called into question, even the possibility of earning a modest livelihood may be swept away. This is a very serious matter, for such conditions are at the opposite pole to those required for the real flowering of the intelligence, in the richest sense of that word.’

Gabriel Marcel, Mystery of Being, Vol. I