The Dumbing Down of American Education Continues…
I usually don’t write about political things on this blog. I save that for my facebook page. I’ve decided to make an exception in this particular case however, because as an educator I am so incredibly concerned about the trend I see in education in the States.
Yesterday, I read a news story (you can read it here and here) about a high school teacher in CT. This teacher, Mr. David Olio has long received accolades for being an amazing English teacher, capable of inspiring his students to a noteworthy degree. His trouble began during an AP Poetry class. For those outside the US, an AP course means ‘advanced placement’ and it is typically taught to 17 and 18 year olds as a college prep course. High School students here typically graduate at 18. Sometimes one can even gain college credit through taking these courses. I’d also like to point out that I teach college freshmen and sophomores and that’s the precise age that I’m dealing with in many of my own freshmen college classes.
During the course of the class, one of the students brought in a poem he’d read by Allen Ginsburg. The poem was “Please, Master”, a very graphic poem about a BDSM charged interaction between two men. The student asked if it could be discussed in class and the teacher agreed. The result of that discussion, within days, is that this teacher was suspended, parents were up in arms, and despite both student and community support, this award-winning teacher was forced to resign.
Articles covering this are saying things like “one mistake shouldn’t ruin a good teacher’s career.” I agree that his career shouldn’t be ruined, but I don’t think he made a mistake. A student brought a piece of poetry to an advanced, college prep poetry course and asked to discuss it. As a teacher, I would have made the same decision Mr. Olio did. I might have talked to the students about the origins of Beat Poetry, and the social milieu that birthed it, a world filled with growing racial and class tensions not unlike our own. I might have discussed why Ginsburg chose to craft powerful poems around subjects that were generally considered taboo for poetry. I might have told them that he had been brought up on obscenity charges and taken to court for his brilliant, fucking brilliant poem “Howl,” and that the judge ruled it had ‘redeeming social value’ and Ginsburg won the case. I might have pointed out that before writing “Please, Master,” Ginsburg had been locked up in a psych ward for being gay and had been subjected, against his will, to electroshock therapy and that perhaps a poem like this was his fucking declaration of independence. I might have asked them how LGBTQI people are treated socially today, and Gods know there are enough news articles about discrimination and death that I could have brought to the table with just a cursory internet search to bolster the discussion. Hell, a comparison of contemporary Russia and the US would have filled a class. I might have asked if the poem would be considered quite as problematic or objectionable were it depicting a heterosexual couple (and it might be…despite the popularity of such badly written crap as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Americans still tend to go crazy at any hint of kink or even sex in media. Puritanism dies hard, folks). For all we know, Mr. Olio discussed all those things and more.
Ginsburg, as a friend of mine pointed out recently, can be a difficult poet to read. His work is graphic, raw, and disturbing and I think it’s meant to be. I also think that’s precisely why we should read him. Higher education isn’t about having your own possibly provincial worldview reinforced. It’s about learning. Part of that is learning how to engage with ideas and concepts that one might find different, disturbing, and highly charged. If education doesn’t challenge and make one uncomfortable than it isn’t education. Part of becoming a thinking adult capable of dealing respectfully with divergent worldviews is also being exposed to a diversity of perspectives early on. Part of becoming an adult is also learning how to cope with ideas that offend and upset. Every day of my life, as a woman, a polytheist, as someone with an invisible disability (chronic pain), I face things in our popular culture, our over-culture that offend me terribly and that dehumanize me as a person. And every day I’m faced with examples of humanity with whom I really don’t want to share a planet (Daesh, the Duggars, etc. etc). Part of being an adult is facing that and how we choose to deal with situations that offend us to our core, or that make us uncomfortable, that hurt us is what determines our character as human beings.
Just last week I read several articles about students at an Ivy League school complaining in their literature classes because material was ‘triggering.’ It evoked an emotional response. It made them uncomfortable. It demonstrated values at odds with their own contemporary world. The case involved a college professor teaching a class on Ovid. One of the students didn’t “feel safe” in the class because many of the stories Ovid describes involve rape (Hades abducting Persephone for instance). I’ve read other articles in which students expect a pass while skipping “triggering” material. Leaving aside the question of how this bullshit waters down and misuses the psychological term “trigger”, let’s consider at the potential effect on education of bowing to such overactive sensitivities. How much of classic world lit is going to be discarded if we remove everything that is possibly disturbing? What is going to happen to a generation of students who have insulated themselves from anything remotely challenging or disturbing when they encounter life? If someone is legitimately disturbed to the point of feeling unsafe by reading “Ovid” in an environment filled with critical analysis and discussion then perhaps that person ought to engage in a bit of personal responsibility and seek out therapy and perhaps he or she is not ready for college. The last thing professors and institutions should do is bow to emotional manipulation, blackmail, and censorship. Better they close their doors first.
I was discussing all of this over breakfast today with my partner and he pointed out something else that I knew, but had not taken into consideration here. Christian fundamentalists (notably utter nutcases like Dominionists and Quiverfull families) have, since the rise of the New Conservatism, made it a point to get themselves on schoolboards. It’s part of their policy of attacking society at a local level. There are various areas on which they particularly focus (and I don’t’ have the stomach this morning to pollute my mind by hunting down requisite articles. I just can’t reread that garbage right now), areas including education, military, finance, entertainment industry, and politics. Many Americans don’t come out in droves to vote in local elections and don’t’ follow that quite as assiduously as the election of our president. We should. The real power is at the local level. The President may be the leader of our nation but powerful political currents start on the local level: school boards, city councils, and the like and what’s happening there is, as one of the articles on Mr. Olio called it, “a creeping social conservatism.”
I very much believe that we need to break the stranglehold and crush the back of the Christian right. Utterly and without mercy. These people believe they are warriors for their God and will stop at nothing to suck the life and freedom out of our nation, our educational system, our society, and our children. They are very bit as dangerous as Daesh, more so in many ways since they are here, among us, acting slowly and insidiously to gain control of the next generation, acting on a local level. There’s already enough in our society alone working against our students. For this and oh so many more reasons, we should be keeping a keen and eagle eye on trends just like what we’re seeing here with the dumbing down of education and the attack of good teachers. We need to be getting involved in our communities at a grassroots level. We need to be paying attention to what is happening in our schools, our school boards even if we don’t have children. We need to awake and aware and maybe, just maybe, fiercely involved.
I hope sincerely that Mr. Olio is able to move on from this debacle with his reputation intact. I hope he is able to find another good teaching position. I hope that his school and community realize what a valuable asset they have lost in allowing his resignation to go through. I fear for the pressures being put on our teachers not to teach. I fear for a generation of students being raised with no emotional resiliency, and no ability to engage insightfully with opinions different from their own. Most of all I fear for those of us who will have to live in the society this will create.