February 2007

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In yesterday’s class in my course, “Teaching as Dialogue,” there was a clear shift in direction, conversation, and possibilities.

Thus began the 7th week of a 15 week semester course. Almost half way there. We have a good bit of experience in each other’s company.

Much of the discussion – more a “directed” dialogue, rather than a fully participant party with me kind of assisting – has been more about the idea of teaching. We’ve been concentrating especially on the “politics” of teaching so far – reading and reacting to Paulo Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Why we need to teach somehow as a dialogue, to overcome the tellings and lecturings which are stuffed into students’ heads.

Much about how to study, to know, to deal with, to survive in the various places and institutions where teaching reigns, and students show up to…to do what, we’ve wondered in this era of K-16, and the dominant sense that education is directed toward a credential. Less is education these days about life, about involvement, about the love of subject and of students.

And, in many senses, it’s been fairly abstract and remote from the sense of each student becoming teacher, each in her or his own terms.
Self-Portrait by Nathan Gibbs
So: Calculated Neutral, and why now. Students (and teacher) in class, mostly sitting around a fairly long table, mostly presenting themselves as their faces, expressing…whatever they “express.” And in this Twin Cities domain deriving much from Northern Europeans, especially Scandinavians, whose stoic appearances are legend: forms of not-showing much expression, variations on “neutral.”

Only after several weeks, can I call attention to the ways in which they are presenting themselves, everyone having gotten to “know” everyone else (about 20 students). But now I could claim with a kind of gained knowing, that these were not mere expressions – they are “active,” thoughtful, moving and redoing themselves as the situations and contexts change. Not mere neutral, but calculated neutral. Variations on “poker” faces, but with the game and stakes much less clear.

It was most fascinating to watch this all play out, moving across most of the class, with the realization these expressions were active, involved, changing somewhat in the muscles at work, but reading the setting, and settling anew into some version of neutral which was calculated not-to-reveal their “inner” thoughts and being.

“But I am teacher – your teacher – and you will become teachers, having to deal in your future roles with your own students.” For the first time in the course, the framing of the situation clearly involved its students, themselves as teachers; resituating myself-as-teacher as well. “I am you, you-all are me!”

A moment of “advantage” – a restating of the course, its present and futures – the literal recasting of the students as I move from their teacher, more to coach, from a somewhat removed authority to…themselves having to deal with their students in an extended course. Do I gain more authority? Or might I become some resonant character wandering in their active memories, being useful in thinking how and where they want their own courses to… go.

I promised them on the first day of the course that I, that the course could/would become “clear” only by the end of the course: 15 weeks. A “calculated” conversation, calling attention to everyone’s ways of expression, and opening (I do so hope!) the dimensions of the course in many ways and futures.

Calculated Neutral: a metaphor toward an understanding of oneself-as-teacher.

I ask my students (U. of Minnesota) in a course for junior and senior students, called “Issues in Culturalphoto by Graham I. Pluralism,” to write a brief “contract with your future.” It could be a page or a page and a half. “It won’t be graded. I think it’s a very good thought exercise. Write me in 20 years, and let me know!”

“The contract is with your idea of your longest life. Think about what’s really old for you, say 70, 80, 90…What will it take at that age for you to look back at your life, and tell yourself: I’ve lived a pretty good life?”

The idea of the “contract” is drawn from some Journal comments of Søren Kierkegaard, who contrasted character with virtuosity:

Why is it, I have wondered, that whereas authors, poets, et al in earlier eras produced their most important works in their later years, it is characteristic of our age to begin with the climax, also a distrust of life; thus almost everyone considers quitting early, a professor for a few years, a poet for a few years, an actor a few years, etc – in short, as if the tasks were not enough for a whole life.

I think it can be explained this way, that instead of being character tasks, all tasks have become virtuosity tasks. This is why they are not enough. The ability to express the highest, to understand the highest, to present it, etc., can be achieved before thirty. But to do it – that changes everything and gives one a task large enough for the longest life.

But this is not what they want. They want to scintillate with virtuosity – and sneak away from character. This is why they turn aside…

S. Kierkegaard

Journal #4475 (1851)

The idea of the contract, is that students thinking about their “longest life,” may feed-back to this day and each next day, in contemplating the nature of their own character. (A study in being and becoming.)

Sniff! Sniff? The odor and smells of racist thought – the modernist forms of Social Darwinism – are hangin’ round. And in some of the most interesting and influential places and forms.Recently, the illustrious Wall St. Journal (WSJ) ran three straight days of editorials about who should get to partake of our exalted Higher Education opportunities. Charles Murray – the sometimes extinguished purveyor of IQ (“The Bell Curve” – with R. Herrnstein, ’94) – seems to make the case that half of us are smarter than the other half. Smarter, that is, by our “nature,” born better, born worser; smart-stupid.

Too-tired mothers, not very involved or intellectual families, kids who don’t “appear” like your college stars, cultures of poverty, immigrants? Never mind!

Training for the menial, clean up the slop…not enough. Our schools have gone from not many, no child-labor laws, to universal schooling in less than a century. In that period, a few years of school transformed into high school for most, and college has become almost a necessity: K-16. Education, at least the credential, is now crucial for qualifying for decent paying jobs.

Who deserves…who deserves what? Murray simply assumes that the Bell Curve and IQ portray the human condition both correctly and adequately.

photo by Joe Mehling, Dartmouth CollegeWhen the more mature amongst us were young, IQ was the mantra of once a year. Mensa was the gathering group of those who had the highest IQ’s. But the “Rosenthal effect” showed in 1978 that teacher’s expectations were very powerful in predicting and shaping IQ. And we no longer got “tested” very often. (Who gets to make up IQ tests, anyway?)

The truth? Or are we talking mostly politics, culture, history, class…? Lurking is Social Darwinism, the idea from a century ago and more, that much of life is predetermined. Going back to thinker who is most revealed in Murray’s push to teach the “Great Books” is Aristotle. We find in his politics which preach the necessity of monarchy to maintain the world in peace and politeness that: “some men are destined by nature to be kings, and others to be slaves.”

Don’t the rich deserve to be rich: smarter (and they work “harder”)! The survival of the socially “fittest.” (I don’t think so).

Democracy…under attack? Murray showed up on Bookspan about a year ago when Harvard’s beleagured late president – Larry Summers – played a similar card in claiming that men are a bit “smarter” than women…a very old story as well. This time Summers got fired. But the ideas lurk in these times of political oddness and unrest.

Whose America? Whose world? Who deserves what? Are we born free and equal, or are we “prewired?” The tabula rasa or Blank Slate which began American democracy: or arranged about the depiction which the Bell Curve conveys?

I think Democracy, however complicated and changing, is more human, more “interesting,” more of what schools and teaching are toward. Read Aristotle! – surely, but critically, and with a sense of what his ideas have wrought, and continue to ring in the Wall Street Journal…of all places.

Begin with the idea that we’re all (ALL!) born geniuses, and we’ll be teaching toward a common-good future. Inspire the future: that’s what we teachers try to do, as we try to inspire our kids to grow, and grow beyond today.

With the idea of IQ already having determined the future, we teachers are prone to celebrate those who already appear talented, and to neglect or dismiss those who haven’t already blossomed. This is a bad idea for future Democracy, and a negation of the joys of life…to come.