Several high school seniors from first generation-college, low income families were sitting together with The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, one of my favorite novels and one I’ve taught several times. Caught in a loveless marriage in New Orleans in the mid-19th century, Edna Pontellier escapes her gilded cage through art and a passionate affair. Atmospheric, innovative, and ahead of its time, the book catches the imagination, transporting the reader back to a New Orleans steeped in class, social hierarchy, and the rigid roles set for men and women. Even my classes of boys at an all-boys boarding school enjoyed it, despite (or maybe because of) its having a female central character.
When I sat down with the seniors, I excitedly asked them how they liked the book. “We haven’t really read it,” they told me. “We just have to fill out these sheets and answer all these questions by Friday.” One girl showed me the eight-page sheet of nearly 100 questions they had to answer about the book for their AP English class. The questions were about the book but they concerned issues like, “Describe the change in narrative viewpoint from the beginning of chapter three to the end” and “How does Chopin use imagery on page 47?”
Deflated, I tried to find a way to be encouraging, but I couldn’t. Nevertheless, I asked, “But what do you think of Edna?” Suddenly, one of the boys spat out, “She’s a WHORE!” To which one of the girls replied, “No! She was trapped and needed to get out. She couldn’t stand it any more.” For the next 20 minutes, the AP sheets were forgotten and I listened to a lively discussion about the limitations imposed on women (then and now), the virtues (or lack thereof) of Edna Pontellier, and other themes, any of which would have made most classroom teachers proud.
I remembered this incident because the other day I visited a small Catholic girls’ school and spent a wonderful morning with its president, whose enthusiasm for the schools’ students and for education made me think how wonderful learning can be if it speaks to us as fully human beings instead of as receptacles for “data.” As we talked that morning, he used words like “soul,” and “faith,” and “heart,” as part of the school’s philosophy. It felt like water falling on arid ground.
Much of so-called education reform today has mistakenly and harmfully used the metaphors provided by the world of computers to develop curricula for children, seeing them as data processors or as empty hard drives and teachers as “content providers.” (I still remember how I quailed when I was introduced as that to a class of counselors…) Everything is broken down into parts that can be weighed and measured, tracked, and “seen” as a product. And the instruction manuals run to hundreds of pages. Anything that can’t fit into that construct can’t be valid.
But guess what? The meat of teaching and learning, for students and teachers, is much more often what is unseen. The excitement of that Edna Pontellier moment (to which one of the students referred nearly a year later) can’t be reduced to a formula, can’t be created by 100 questions; someone with heart and soul and passion has to be there to truly educate, and students have to be thought of as living, passionate individuals to have it make a difference. Putting students through the ringer of “rigorous” analysis means nothing if it’s seen as just a chore to be performed. And if that’s what teaching has become, it’s no wonder so many students are so glad to be finished with school.
But it concerns me even more when those students are from limited means, without the resources that might help them delve deeper into a book or idea or scientific theory on their own or who haven’t had the opportunity to learn that education can actually be intensely pleasurable, a brain buzz that can set your heart pounding and your emotions zooming. Many schools (charter schools in particular, at least here in Chicago) seem to prize order, obedience, and discipline in and out of class to the extent that they regulate almost to the moment what happens in a classroom, leaving little time for the “aha!” moment or the passionate discussion. Students are “data points” to be studied. I’ve seen pre-printed lesson plans for teachers agonizing in their attention to minute detail, without any intellectual wiggle room.
What’s worse, those same schools take up class time for ACT prep and “college readiness” or “college access” classes, under the assumption that first-generation college and low-income students just need these classes to help them get into and succeed in college. We all know that high schools everywhere are under the gun regarding test scores, but no one seems aware that by highly regulating every interaction with academic life and teachers, and then by jettisoning real education for fake education, schools are creating a hollow simulacrum of what we all hope for our students of whatever background: A genuine interaction with the world and an ongoing participation in its marvelous diversity. Underserved students need MORE involvement with real education, not less, and too often they get a “less” that looks like “more.”
This misguidedness occurs in many “college access and success” programs as well, whether in school or after school based. Focusing almost exclusively on the college admission process, they attend to the surface needs (how to research colleges, fill out applications, etc.) but neglect the substantial and more critical gaps created by schools that prize rote learning and regurgitation over the often messier results that arise from challenging ideas, discussing tough topics, or performing difficult experiments. Students can fill out a form but not understand its meaning.
For under-represented students attempting to enter the college world, these are not idle issues. Too often, college access and success programs characterize their missions as helping to create educated “workers” who will become a “workforce” in the “pipeline” to America’s future. The assumption is that America needs workers, not thinkers, people who will follow orders in a well-regulated workspace, not adults who might break the mold and resist corporate America or the consumer mentality. Whether consciously or not, these seem to promote not true learning and education, which might find some people challenging the status quo, but instead training and “content acquisition,” which depend on obedience and acquiescence.
Even within the constricted thinking of “workforce” education, the idea of college-as-training is faulty. The post-college world will be different in five years, more different in ten, and virtually unrecognizable in 15. Advancements in every field will continue, and nimble minds will be needed to conceive of and adapt to them. But just as important are the changes that are being wrought in our political and social systems, in our communities, and in all the other areas to which we all need to devote our time, thought, and effort. Education is not just preparation for work, it is preparation for life, according to John Dewey. If today’s students don’t know how to engage imaginatively with the world at every level, they will merely be 21st century versions of 19th century factory workers.
There is nothing more dispiriting than meeting a student who is clearly bright, curious, and eager to learn only to find out he has been miseducated. I’ve met many of them. When they tell me what their high school classes are like, it feels like falling into some Dickensian poorhouse where children have to subsist on whatever they can just to make it through a day. When I meet a school leader with the passion and intensity to talk about helping students find their “souls” through education, I have some hope that there may be some educators left who can resist the idea that students are gadgets or widgets to be manufactured and programmed.
While helping students navigate the jungle of college admission is helpful, ignoring the hollowness of their educations may undermine these programs’ best efforts. Programs can’t make up for a lifetime of miseducation, but they can reinvigorate students’ desire to learn, grow, and be the captains of their own ships. They can think about the transition to college not only in terms of how to adapt to a roommate or how to get to class, but also how exposure to ideas and debate can open vast new worlds of possibility. No one expects students to know everything when they get to college; otherwise, you wouldn’t need to go at all. Instead, we should work to connect their minds and hearts to the endeavor. To make life’s journey at all meaningful, an education must address them both.