Carlos’ Comments on THE COURAGE TO TEACH
“Twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift” Bob Dylan
Many are the students and teachers who are discouraged and disillusioned by the current state of education in this country. The joy of discovery and the spark of enlightenment have immeasurable value, yet it is often difficult to justify the intense pressures placed on both teachers and pupils all in the name of learning. It is not unreasonable to question the ways we choose to transmit information and to examine the goals of pedagogy. Parker Palmer offers an open and honest assessment of the condition of formal education in his inspiring book: The Courage to Teach. He suggests creating a model of learning which is conversational and not hierarchical – one that celebrates the connection between teachers and students. At the same time, he believes that the subject matter should always remain at the center of the discourse. He sharply criticizes the inclination to “teach to the test” by challenging the notion that in order to know something we must be obsessed with standards which value a grading system over the creative exploration of a field of study. Palmer recommends a symbiotic approach to learning, one in which the teacher and student are free to nourish and fortify each other. His work reminded me of many positive and negative experiences I have had in the classroom. And even more, what education, both inside and outside of the school walls, really means to me.
Finding the motivation to learn was the greatest challenge for me in school. As a result, I had a very poor attitude towards my teachers and their methods. I knew that I was being programmed, but I did not know why I had to conform to and comply with so many frequently ridiculous demands. I was also very shy, and I resisted being nudged into participation and engagement because it felt contrived. And it was. A student who craves the approval or fears the disapproval of authority figures is likely to thrive in this type of scholastic environment. And students, like me, who resist being conditioned will struggle. The person who feels an educational institution is like a prison cell built out of chalkboards is apt to revolt or wear a countenance of apathy. I still feel that school is like one part circus and one part quiz game show. Like a performance in the arena, the animal (student) must jump through hoops for the whip-cracking trainer (teacher) in order to receive a reward (grade/diploma/job). And education also has a competitive aspect not unlike a game show. The quickest answer wins a point, and we spend an inordinate amount of time comparing ourselves with others. Our teachers seem to create adults who are competent workers and contributing members of society, yet many people grapple with anxiety and depression which may originate in the many hyper-competitive habits they learn in school.
A contentious classroom leads to a contentious community. Parker Palmer’s emphasis on sharing the study of a subject in a collaborative environment can not only revolutionize education but the rest of society as well. We can find interest and meaning in our activities if we are unafraid to trust and to help each other. If instead we see education as a struggle from the preschool cubby-hole to the corporate cubicle, we extinguish the creativity of many people who simply cannot be confined in a classroom box, with its stiff chairs and stale air. Our challenge, when teachers and students seek knowledge together, is to enjoy the mystery of what Alan Watts refers to as the “wiggly world.” This is an expression of imagination and freedom in sharp contrast to the dry and ostentatious display of learning only in order to achieve: a credential, a job, possessions, prestige. Certainly, being trained to “perform” specific tasks is necessary if we are to have a functioning society. Yet, the process of contending in the classroom can bring about battles that continue amongst ourselves as we navigate through our relationships outside of school. How many arguments, how much conflict and strife with family, friends and coworkers have their roots in an educational system that has us fear authority and pits people against each other?
Our drive and motivation to cooperate are aspects of the bravery that Parker Palmer claims we need if we are to teach effectively and learn conscientiously. And despite the weary cynicism that many people have for the machine that is a formal education, I do believe most educators have noble, albeit often misguided, aims. If, for some, school is simply a series of stepping stones designed to get to a job – OK. But so much valuable learning is found in the conversations and connections we make when we feel inspired and motivated to truly collaborate. If we, as both students and teachers, really place our subject at the center of the learning experience and not our egoistic desires, we can transform ourselves from individuals who are only narrowly concerned with our own fortunes, to those who find a far more rewarding peace. The emotional tension which is a chronic part of modern life is foisted upon us by authorities that we need not honor. We can always choose to flee the circus and leave behind the big top. We do not have to abuse the animals with fear, threats and coercion. Because the animals, like us, would rather roam the world, exploring all that is wonderful and wild outside the confines of any cage, perfectly natural and perfectly free.