Education – on the teacher’s end – can be bloodsucking. The entire institutional edifice of public education often acts as a vampire, draining our energy and our will to continue. Sometimes we recognize this, but sometimes we convince ourselves otherwise. I’ll argue here that there are certain philosophies that are diminishing educators’ livelihoods – and ultimately those being educated - while masquerading as useful pedagogical principles and techniques. I think we may be pulling the wool too tightly over our eyes in order to serve our capacious hearts.

What’s in a word, anyway? What does it mean to “educate” someone? This question need not pin us down with heavy philosophical underpinnings. Clearly there are many ways to educate. Clearly one can be educated in any number of ways and in varying degrees. As a wise person once said (I’m usually a sound recall for direct quotations, forgive me), “knowledge is deep.” Indeed. It is deeper than most of us can imagine, and certainly deeper than most of us will discover (or appreciate) in our lifetimes.

But are there not, then, appropriate stages of education and appropriate measures to be taken within each stage? Is there not some sort of standard hierarchy or set of divisions guiding this process? The answers to these questions are given to us by the state (or perhaps federal government), lest we fail to rise to the occasion and impose these divisions on our own accord. The answers are yes. It may be difficult to navigate the particulars, and state objectives duly apprise us of what is necessary information to pass to our students. But certainly there are academic standards and regulations in the educational process. I’d like to think that without the help we would be able to navigate this terrain ourselves. Unfortunately, I see this as implausible. This is not because I happen to agree with all of the slated material we educators have to teach. It is not because educators do not have the requisite academic knowledge (although I have seen more of a deficiency here in the last couple of years since focusing my attention). It is because we have convinced ourselves of other things we believe (or at least feel intuitively) to be more important than rigorous academic standards and divisions.

I believe that we educators get ourselves into trouble, and we often get it wrong in the process of struggling so genuinely to get it right.

The “Disappearing Bar” Trick

Watch as the academic bar disappears before your very eyes! And for our next trick, watch us convince you – and certainly the rest of society – that it was your doing. A good magician can confuse his audience, using sleight of hand to shift focus to a different object or target. This, in one sense, is what has happened to public education.

It is not any particular educator’s fault that the standards have been continuously lowered, dangerously verging on the point of extinction. The cultural legacy of “No Child Left Behind” is a rippling wave of laziness, entitlement, dishonesty, and an emotionally unhealthy self-flagellation. The wave has devastated shorelines the country over, and the process of rebuilding has not yet begun. It is not entirely the students’ fault, and it is not entirely our faults.

So then whose fault is it? The education department of the Bush administration? Perhaps. The continued federal and state complicity? Maybe. A youth culture that is ironically rich in both self-aggrandizement and self-defeat? Probably. But blaming the magician for his sleight of hand only elicits so much merit. Should we not know better? Should we not be wary of our own credulity and willingness to be part of the show? If we continuously pass the buck, are we not implicitly – if not explicitly – demonstrating to our students that they, too, can continue to abdicate responsibility for their own actions?

The desire to “get the kid through” school is a strong one. It is also, in many circumstances, an obligatory one. However, I do not see a strong enough rejection of this idea, in principle or practice. We have to accept responsibility at some juncture for patting the student on the back too much. Educators care about their students, and they want their students to pass high school and presumably go on to bigger and better things. (For some students, though, passing high school would be the only plausible hurdle to clear.) The problem, however, is that we have become complicit in lowering the bar each time to meet the student at his or her level – a level that, at times, has been low enough to warrant real concern.

I’ve found through experience (in many settings) that keeping a reasonably high bar stationary forces the students to rise to that bar. In most settings where one has one’s back against the proverbial wall, or where one must sink or swim, one tends to come out swinging or one tends to swim. In other words, the real option of failure is what provides the necessary motivation to succeed. Failure has to be an option. In an academic setting, failure has to be a clear and present danger: not just failing the test or the class, but failing the semester, the school year, and even graduation. In any other setting we would not expect a lack of accountability to lead miraculously to responsible behavior. And, to be fair, I know many educators do not expect it in an academic setting, either. I’ve heard many insist that their “hands are tied.” It is true to say that due to the obscene testing and statistical culture in today’s public education atmosphere that padding a student’s record – especially to meet graduation quotas – is sometimes required. After all, if the numbers are not there and the school is shuttered, then nobody gets an education and educators are suddenly polishing their resumes.

All this implies, however, that we are mere marionettes dancing to the arbitrary and self-serving symphony of federal and state regulations. Where is our agency? Where is our responsibility? There are many ways to raise the bar (and keep it there) that pilot the ship between academic responsibility and state requirements. It can be done, although it is undeniably difficult and undesired. We are the last true sentinels of an educated citizenry, and we are the barriers between those students and the rough and tumble world. The state is not.

Forcing the student to rise to the occasion often, though clearly not always, leads to the desire (and the necessity) to make himself proud. I know that I have little incentive to work when nothing is expected of me. And whatever unsolicited ambition emanates from me stems directly from the days I was held accountable to others and was made accountable to myself. It stems from the days where I was taught that the struggle produced the reward. Frankly, that is one of those “life lessons” I hear educators talk about so passionately.

If the magician wants to fool me again, he will have to come up with some new material. I’ve seen this act before, and I prefer to have a say in it. I say let us bring the bar firmly back into view. Let us also master our own tricks so that we control the bar to the maximum extent possible.  

The Savior Complex

On the other end of the spectrum is the savior complex. Educators in this context believe that it is the responsibility of the teacher to reach every student, and ultimately to save them. I always wondered if they got their wires crossed one day or misplaced the correct form or something, as it seems these educators are much more suited psychologically for social work. Granted there is undeniably some degree of crossover. Consider the information we do find out – voluntarily or not – about certain of our students. Jonathan lives with a foster family and has separation issues. Betsy does not get enough nutritional stability. And Jamal has an abusive parent. We have good imaginations, most of us, and we tend to extrapolate to the students about which we do not have direct information. This sets us up for falling into the savior trap.

Talk of “saving” kids pushes around our intuitions in important ways. Our first impulse is to latch on to this idea, or pay it lip service. And if we do not talk of it overtly, we sublimate the idea into our actions – we beat ourselves up if our methods to “save” fail. But what is this impulse, and why do we harbor it? Generally, I believe it is not controversial to point to our original attraction to making a difference for young learners. And when most of them respond positively, it bothers us when we cannot reach the few that are unresponsive. Here, we unwind into this sort of masochistic pool of obsession and self-doubt. This is understandable, but it is chronically unhealthy. The fact of the matter – and here is what we are dealing with, facts not fantasy – is that we simply will not reach all of them. And this is not our fault.

This statement of fact may be obvious enough for most, but I take this notion further. It is not simply that we cannot save everyone, but I argue that we should not want to do this. Pursuing this principle – the principle coupling our academic credibility (and livelihood) with “saved” kids – is a dead end road, both for the educators and for the students. What we think we gain in righteousness we lose in practical application. Let me offer a recent example.

I recently attended a professional development seminar on “hard to reach kids.” The presenters were perfectly lovely and charismatic, and the presentational details, for what they were, seemed to be pertinent and helpful. All this aside, I felt myself internally shaking my head in disapproval. I rejected out of hand their open philosophy that we educators are the saviors, and that “the last road” falls squarely onto our shoulders. We were told that we should do everything in our power to reach every last student and that failure was simply not an acceptable option. Surely they did not believe their own words. Is there a single educator above the middle school level who really believes such nonsense? It is not possible, plainly speaking. Moreover, why should we let the specter of such an impossibility cast a sullen net of self-doubt over us? What happens when a few students don’t make it? Are we to shudder with skepticism in our very bones about our ability to do our jobs efficiently? I submit that to do so is to let a boogeyman control your every vital move. These are the things failed dreams are made of.

Furthermore, what is gained from this principle? It is certainly true that there are specific methods that can and should be employed to motivate specific students. It is obviously also true that we must work harder in some respects to meet the needs of a student that is harder to reach. Again, though, failure has to be an option. If we do not let the weight eventually drop on its own, we do two irrevocable things: we break our own backs needlessly, and we let certain other students fall off the cliff in the process. It may appear cold, but there is a utilitarian argument here as well. Is it better to let the one student fail and save the rest who can make it, or are we so monomaniacal that we lose sight of the forest for the trees?

Lastly, it is my view that the occurrence, realization, and internalization of failure will bring the aforementioned “unreachables” back from the brink. Failing high school (or merely a class) does not signal the end of all hope. This, in many cases, is the real wake up call: that they had to take responsibility for their inaction, that they could not cast blame elsewhere, and that the educators helped the ones who helped themselves. Rationality is acting logically and reasonably with a clear picture in view. Clouding this view with unrealizable, utopian visions of superhuman educators and genuinely receptive students is a double loss.

Educators should pack away their dreams and their nightmares: they often reside in the same places anyway.

Where Art Thou, Academia?

The third and last point of contentious philosophy to address here is the “finishing school” philosophy (as I call it). This is tremendously popular, and I have heard this proposition offered by many people in many corners. It’s deceptively reasonable, so its popularity is understandable. But here again we are confusing principles that need to be crystal clear and constantly refreshed. The idea in this view is that public education should be geared toward some sort of “life prep” orientation, that learning how to write a check, tie your shoes, and brush your teeth should be paramount features of an educational institution. I thought this kind of talk was a joke when I first heard it. But, perversely, I have come to understand how many people, including educators, can hold these views.

They say things like, “Who needs calculus? They can barely add.” Or “They can barely utter a coherent sentence, why are we making them read long passages?” If we stop at the intuitive frankness of those notions, then we have violated the very principles that we have hoped to instill and protect. Paradoxically, an educator’s yearning for brute simplicity – in an attempt to help the poor student – is safeguarding that very simplicity. It is because we abstain from pushing intellectual boundaries that we see the resulting laziness and intellectual emptiness. Perhaps many students will not go on to use advanced calculus or geometry or physics. Perhaps it is true that most will not internalize heavier vocabulary and publish memoirs down the line. Maybe it is true that many will sink back into a comfortable intellectual cul-de-sac, preening in the innocent, blissful glow of ignorance. And you know what? They will survive. But why then do we feel the need to complain about this fact, and why is our solution to offer the very conditions that led to the problem in the first place? This is cyclical madness. Do we really think the sad conditions we see in poor southern towns are because there isn’t a high school course on “how to take a proper shower” or “how to hold down a job”? And that this is how tax dollars should be utilized? The reason we see the eye-gouging ignorance and privation and the combination of economic and psychological desolateness is because, in some measure, students never had to push themselves academically. (Of course, this is certainly not an exhaustive answer for these problems, but I’m only discussing one important aspect.) One can easily learn how to manage “life skills,” and “finishing school” pedagogy is not the answer.

What if students were imbued with a healthy skepticism, an understanding of how to think through a problem? What if higher principles of mathematics and history and literature were supported with principles of self-discovery and creativity? What if those students – who would become voting adults as members of a community – learned how to learn on their own through these very methods? What if they learned how to want to learn? What if their self-confidence rose tremendously because of their understanding of the world through academia, through their pushing past the failures? What if they stopped believing “college isn’t for me”? That is what helps prevent “life-rot,” as I sometimes call it. It is not because we were all missing life skills classes. Indeed, this sort of bigotry of low expectations is what creates the problem. Let us not make it worse by feeding the absence of confidence. It will be difficult – and not everyone will make it – but if we build it and shape it the right way, we will see better results.

As a coda to this section, I would add that this “begins at home,” as they say. We should focus on being academics, not social workers or saviors. Lets us dig into our areas of focus and become scholars in our own right. And then let us lead with the confidence of a strong example.

It seems the lifeblood of education is longevity, of continuously putting in the effort and tweaking variables. The confidence of success can be bred in numerous ways, and I only humbly offer my own observations and thoughts. The academic and intellectual bar cannot be eliminated, because if it is we will fall farther into the latter two traps: the savior complex and the “finishing school” mentality. These are decidedly relational problems. We should be focused on academics, with the full understanding that some will fail. We should understand that failure doesn’t mean the end of the road for a student’s future. We should impose on our students our true understanding of the importance of higher learning, and not be tempted by the false lure of “life skills” education.

These travails and pitfalls are only a few of the crevices in the long valleys and peaks of education. Like with our students, the option of failure has to be real. That is the only way to climb out of the valley and on to the mountaintop.