3/28/10

Those Who Can, Teach

I'm auditing a class this semester called "Education in the USA" and, despite the fact that it's not one of my "real" classes, I probably spend more time thinking about it than even my thesis. It is a thought-provoking class in every way, but one of the best things it has done for me personally is alleviate the persistent guilt I have carried around for years about wanting to be a teacher. We've all heard the maxim "those who can't do, teach" (and those who can't teach, teach P.E.) -- laughingly, but with the understanding that yes, we actually believe it. It has been both implied and explicitly stated throughout my education that my turning around and becoming a teacher would simply be "a waste," and many of my high-achieving friends have received similar messages -- most often, ironically, from our teachers. A professor in France told me point-blank that I should be aspiring to much more. When I was in the process of applying to Teach for America (to which I was not accepted), I felt I had to defend it by driving home the point that it was only for two years, and that if I ever did make teaching a career, I would do something "real" first. While I still think there are advantages to teachers' gaining experiences other than teaching, I am now in a much better position to refute the assumption that teaching is somehow a substandard career choice.


The problem lies in how we construct the concept of education. I have always viewed it, as I think many people do, under what my class calls the classical model: students are the receptacles into which teachers deposit the collected wisdom of our cultural forbears; in other words, the three Rs, some history and perhaps a language or two. "Book learning," as it were: a mass of information that has accumulated over time and, in its basics, remains constant. In this worldview, it is easy to ponder the futility of the exercise -- what am I, as the teacher, really doing? My job is simply to dispense a static body of knowledge to an unending stream of students. This is, of course, simplistic, and most of us have had inspiring, even life-changing teachers, but the underlying idea is that I have gotten an education in order to turn around and regurgitate it to the next generation; a purely mechanical exercise, and surely not requiring much talent or aspiration.

What if, however, we view the goal of education as preparing citizens to become effective participants in a democracy? This requires many skills other than the aforementioned book learning to be acquired, such as respect for others, valuing diversity, critical thinking and moral reasoning. If the goal of education is to produce effective democratic citizens, then in many ways our current educational system is a spectacular failure. It produces many students who are functionally illiterate (however you choose to define functional literacy), much less capable of rational debate and the construction of democracy. There are systemic problems at work here, many of them beyond the strict scope of primary education, but education plays a strong role in the creation and replication of culture. If we manage to instill democratic values in schoolchildren, we could potentially short-circuit some of the factors that play into systemic inequalities in our society. Ideally, education should have less to do with the rote transmission of some predetermined curriculum and much more to do with shaping how students view the world, their place in it, and how they can change it for the better.

I think most people have had these thoughts before, but, in my opinion, we could all use some constant reminding that, if these are our ideals, we are far from achieving them. But I believe they absolutely should and, with effort, can be attained. And that is why I want to teach.