Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Problem with Books that Matter

Wow! I haven't taken an exam for a grade in a science-oriented class for over 15 years.

I studied pretty hard for my Neurobiology exam, but I had a few problems. Seems my old brain just does not want to hang onto nouns like my younger brain did. There were several questions for which I found myself describing structures or processes, but I could not get my brain around the correct term!! At one point, my professor must have thought I was nuts, because I was putting my hands on my head at the appropriate places to name the 4 lobes of the cortex. They are named for the bones of the skull--and I was touching them on my head as I wrote them down. There was one question about a patch clamp experiment that I just did not get! That was the worst part. I just hate that. But one thing 15 years has done--I did not immediately think of dropping the class. What I thought was: "Damn! I really want to know how to answer that question I did not get!" I really want the information, not the grade.

I guess there is something new in my aging brain.
I have been reading John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. The truth is, I ordered the book a long time ago-- before Rosh HaShannah. Someone had said I would be interested in the power of Gatto's ideas about schooling. But I did not read it then--one review on Amazon made it sound like Gatto is a communist and that, although the book was valuable, the reader should know where he was coming from. So, I did not read the book right away. I thought maybe I'd wait because the last thing I wanted to read was a polemic driven by ideology--any ideology. I finally picked up the book last week. And I was completely blown away. Gatto does not appear to be a communist--if anything, I'd say he's a communitarian. But he is not an ideologue. He tells the truth about schools as I experienced them when I taught. And he had the guts to do so when accepting an award as the New York State Teacher of the Year 1990 and 1991.
I am currently reading the essay entitled "We Need Less School, Not More." In the first part of the essay, Gatto spends a number of pages differentiating between community and pseudo-communities he calls networks. He ennumerates a number of important differences between the two. He says at one point:
"Networks ...don't require the whole person, but only a narrow piece. function in a network, it asks you to supress all the parts of your-
self except the network interest part...In exchange, the network will
deliver efficiency in the pursuit of some limited aim. This is in fact a
devil's bargain, since on the promise of some future gain one must sur-
render the wholeness of one's present humanity." (p. 48)
He also writes:
"Networks do great harm by appearing enough like real communities to
create expectations that they can manage human social and psychological
needs. The reality is that they cannot...With a network, what you get at
the beginning is all you every get. Networks don't get better or worse; their
limited purposes keep them pretty much the same all of the time." (p. 53)
He has a different idea about true blue community, however:
" A community is a place in which people face each other over time in all
(emphasis in original) their human variety: good parts, bad parts and all
the rest. Such places promote the highest quality of life possible--lives of
engagement and participation. This happens in unexpected ways...An example
might clarify this. Networks of urban reformers will convene to consider
the problems of homeless vagrants, but a community will think of its vagrants
as real people, not abstractions. Ron, Dave or Marty, a community will call
its bums by their names. It makes a difference." (p. 51).
As I was reading this, I was thinking about the current wave of "political correctness" that has siezed many of our institutions, public and private. Namely, to call every association of people for any imaginable purpose a community. We talk about our "school communities," our "neighborhood communities" and our "religious communities." And yet, as Mark Twain so wryly put it: "Saying so don't make it so!" In our "school communities," teachers and principals are often so busy trying to protect a false image, that we dare not even tell ourselves the truth about what goes on there. Schools are places where people are made to compete for grades and are clearly defined as winners and losers based on the outcome of tests. In our "neighborhood communities," we often don't even know the names of our next door neighbors and bums are strictly not allowed by covenant.
I do not think for a minute that some ubiquitous "they" has done this for insidious purposes in order to fool us. No, I think we are so hungry for something real that we use the equivalent of "new speak" in order to convince ourselves that we have something we really do not have.
(Remember 1984? Hate is love? Slavery is freedom? etc.).
And I am wondering about this need to name a particular institution in my life a "community." This institution has very high ideals but seems unable to apply them when dealing with real people where the "rubber-meets-the-road." Many of us who are members have little say about decisions that appear senseless and even downright cruel. And, although we talk about this among ourselves, many of us feel powerless to express our concern. In the recent firing of a staff member who was brought across the country less than a year ago for the job, members were informed after the fact and the firing was abrupt. (The person was gone within hours of firing. I was a volunteer under this person and had no clue as what had happened until the following week when she was not there).
The culture of this organization seems to discourage self-examination in order to right wrongs and do better. In fact, this one little cruelty has happened several times before. We do not "face each other over time in all of our human variety..." And yet the membership is encouraged to think of this as "community."
What is interesting is that I have always had a gut reaction when the leadership of this instutution has insisted on calling it a "community." I really want to believe that this is what I am part of, and what I am giving heart and soul and volunteer hours to--as they say, "De Nile ain't just a river in Egypt". But my gut knows better. And I am really wrestling with whether our family should remain affiliated with this organization or not. There are many benefits to being a member and there are opportunities to form real friendships with people that we meet there.
But one thing I do know--it is time to acknowlege to myself at least, that this is not a community. It is a network. It is an affiliation of people based on a narrow slice of their full humanity. The person that was fired, for example, was seen as a job-title (an abstraction) and the human concerns that come with migrating across the country, leaving home and family, dealing with a new culture and even a new climate, were clearly not taken into consideration or she would have been given much more time to integrate and to demonstrate her ability to participate.
Gatto says:
[A network] "is a place where men, women and children are isolated
according to some limited aspect of their total humanity...if performance
within these narrow confines is conceived to be the supreme measure of
success, and if the worth of the individual is reckoned by victory or
defeat in this abstract pursuit, will certainly dehumanize [them]." (p. 56)
This person of whom I speak is a very human person. She was concerned with N.'s heart and his soul, and she did not see him as an abstraction. To her, he was clearly an individual and his needs mattered. And yet, as a member of this network, I find it difficult to speak up about that, because I know that my own role there is seen by the organization as a whole as narrowly as hers was. In short, I am sure that I will not be heard. And to not speak up is an abdication of my own humanity and a refusal to recognize the humanity of this woman and of the people who fired her. I guess this means I need to be thinking about how to speak up in order to maximize my chances of being heard.
This is the problem with books. If you take them seriously, you have to act.


Amie said...

I read that book, it's a great one. John Taylor Gatto also has a great website (The Odysseus Project) with a good discussion forum.

Megan Bayliss said...

How about you get on a plane and come and have coffee with me. I’ll meet you half way.

The essence of your post excited me. You raise questions that deserve considerable thought and action. Congratulations to you.

A community is not a passive entity. They are fluid, dynamic and interactive groups that recognise the whole of their members needs. Communities take work – to get to know our neighbours, we have to put the work in. We have to take action, not rely solely on a network to increase our participation and bring advantages to us.

There is some interesting research available on indicators of a healthy community. Sadly, very few communities make the grade and instead operate more as individual networks. Nowadays we have become so individual due to constraints of surviving that we often forget that there are alternatives. One of the definitional points of poverty is the inability to make choices. While people continue to follow the way they think it has to be, they remain impoverished.

We have made some home school choices about the value of community and the development of emotional intelligence. Whereas many people do not recognise the ultimate value in our kids thriving in a community, we marry traditional learning, psychology and healthy community tenets. It takes some doing but we are committed to it and want our son to be a valued member and to recognise and embrace the value of others – even the bums.

And on the point of the brain sluggishness to cough up nouns – I know exactly what you mean!!!!!!!

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Thanks, Amie--I have added Oddysseus to my favorites!

Megan--I really enjoy your insights. Are there some places on the web to look for the indicators of healthy communities?

As I think about what I wrote, I am also wondering if communities go through stages--sort of like people. I think I read a book (by Scott Peck?) years ago about communities. I can't locate it right now, though--most of my books are still packed in cardboard boxes in the garage. Behind the Sukkah posts. Rats!

We think alike when it comes our sons, you and your husband-to-be, and me and N.'s step-dad. That is why we are working so hard to find a way for him to do some kind of service to the community.

Looking forward to that coffee! Do you take cream and/sugar?