In the Vanguard: The Role of the Intellectual in Society
Fair warning: this is going to be a longer than usual musing, for me at least. And, I apologize ahead of time if it is a bit of a ramble.
A little bit of context: this week has been very trying emotionally and mentally, and much of it wasn’t even related directly to me.
On Monday, as I have already written here, I was visited by a freak hailstorm which threw the whole day off.
On Wednesday, one of my high school students (have I mentioned that I am a full-time high school English teacher?) confided some very personal things in me, things that required a referral to that student’s counselor and the school psychologist, who are both following up on what is going on in this student’s life. Trying to convince someone that nothing is hopeless can be exhausting in the best of circumstances and these were not them.
Not by a long shot. Yet, the student is looking for help and trying to make a change, which is a good sign. However, being strong for someone that has no strength left is exhausting, and this is not the first time that teaching required having strength for students who have none.
But, wait! The day isn’t over yet. During the last period of the day on Wednesday, there was a school-wide call for a lockdown. Something was happening in the neighborhood, and the police department wanted the campus secure. Yet, in light of recent high profile shootings that occurred on school campuses, there was an immediate and palpable wave of terror that coursed through my students. They all looked to me for guidance, to give them directions, to be an example. I have no problem admitting that I was scared; I certainly was. Yet, they looked to me to set the tone for the next 30-40 minutes. They looked to me for strength. I could not break down in front of these students (although I did collapse in my desk chair after they all left). This is not an indirect attempt to gain the praise of my peer for a job well done; I don’t want it, and don’t give it to me. I did what I had to, and I did what I could to help my students feel safe and that they were not alone in this terrible world.
Which bring me to my point: as I have matured as a teacher and as a scholar, my view of an educator’s role in society has changed. I used to think that the most important thing I could do for my students was to help them realize the importance of school and college, to coerce them into caring about their grades. I no longer care about that as I once had. I don’t particularly care whether or not they attend college (blasphemous, I know, for a teacher to say). Educators often try to convince students that college is the answer to everything, and unfortunately, sometimes we succeed. As if the formula “college degree = more pay and more material possessions” had anything to do with a meaningful life or a happy one. I say unfortunately because in doing so, educators take a mistakenly passive role in the lives of students. “Don’t worry, Sally, keep at it and it’ll get better eventually, after another 4-6 years of school.” In doing so, we inadvertently tell students that soon enough, they will become someone else’s problem. A college degree, and its attendant debt, is often a source of misery to recent graduates, not the happiness they were promised. So, while I want students to have as many options to them as possible, I don’t force them all into a college track, or even try.
Related to that, I do not think that the role of an educator is to fill a student’s head with facts. Associated with this are those, like Bloom, who feel that educators must “culture” our students by making them read texts of the so-called “Dead White Guy” canon of literature. Both are inherently wrong views. Students are not something for us to fix (what hubris for us to think so!) and to repair, as if they were somehow broken without reading William Shakespeare or Dante Alighieri, or without knowing when the Spanish-American War happened. What malarkey! Additionally, this view implicitly assumes that students have no knowledge worth having without the facts and “culture” that we throw at them; again, what arrogance! Yet again, this view refuses to engage with students, instead attempting to passively make each individual student a “real person” by educating them in the right tidbits of info and reading. As if you only became a real by after reading and answering questions on Shakespeare or Fitzgerald.
Similarly, there are the skill people, who believe that an educator’s job is to teach a set of meaningless skills, like the identification of a metaphor in a novel. Really? I understand that it is part of the state standards in many states and also that it is on many standardized tests, but to what end? Does being able to identify a metaphor help someone feed their family, be happy, experience the joys and sorrow of life? Not a chance. Instead of trying to fill a student’s head with information, these people try to fill it with a skill set. Yet, neither one, as an explicit aspect of teaching, decided to care care about what the students care about.
Which brings me to how I view educators. We must care about what our students care about. We must shoulder their burdens and have the strength to lead them and help them and care for them, when they stumble and fall, give up hope, and don’t care about themselves. We must engage with students, treat them like adults and like real people, as they are, instead of like empty shells to be filled. We cannot allow society to feed them this lie that they must accept massive debt and misery for the chance at a better future after college; we must lead in the vanguard, in the streets, fighting so that the hopeless and defenseless, the poor, the failing, the abused all have a chance at a happy life now, college or no college. Happiness and security cannot be the privilege of the college educated; it is a fundamental right for all people. We educators are all too willing sometimes to retreat into our ivory tower, and to bury our heads in the sands of research and education. We cannot allow this to happen; we must enter into the societal battle lines on the side of our students, to help them against the overwhelming odds presented by companies and authorities that want to treat them like an inhuman resource, a commodity to be expended and then discarded.
Of all the things I teach my students, or try to at least, the subject content of English literature is the least important. By far. Educators have known for a while now that the best learning happens when it is relevant to the lives of the students. It must be more than relevant; we must teach them to fight the powers that be. to know the power of their community and of their peers, especially in organized numbers; in essence, educators must stop being a tool to prepare students for the careless system that will exploit them and that cares nothing for their happiness. As cliched as it may sound, the role of an educator, by teaching and by example, is to show students the power of people and to teach them how to use it for the betterment of all mankind, not just those in authority.