Thursday, May 8, 2014

"Right" answers are little more than a reductionism for political power and control

This morning began with this reflection: Ukraine reminds me of the oldest child in a family of several siblings after a divorce, with both parents clinging to her as if their identities and their survival depended on her 'living' with each simultaneously. Given that there is only one "Ukraine" with several different parts, each parent is clinging to the part that they consider most important. Putin and his Russian oligarchy are determined to tear Ukraine apart, on the pretext that the 'west' including the United States and NATO are encroaching on his "domain" and luring Ukraine into their 'orbit' while the people in the EU and their governments are interested in supporting that part of the Ukrainian hopes and aspirations for democracy, free markets, access to education and health care and a legal system that is open, transparent and accountable. A political system is competing with an ethnicity for control of Ukraine, in the broadest and most blunt terms.
Politics, the apparatus through which we generate laws and procedures that demonstrate our trending ideas, attitudes, and ideologies, seems inevitably to conflict with the pursuit of individual freedoms and individual development and what Maslow so famously called "self-actualizing," all the while purporting to claim as the reason for its very existence the extension of opportunity. In presenting a "position" the political class expresses its vision of what they see as an ideal outcome, whether or not that outcome dovetails with the lives of those who carry out what the political class has 'decreed'. The people of Ukraine, quite naturally and tragically, are watching another chapter in the eternal conflict between political power and influence and their lives as a 'family' in which individuals are free to seek their own unique and different and separate identity.
The notion of an ideology, a world view, conflicting with another world view, within a family, has been around for centuries. One parent values the acquisition of money more highly than the other. Or one parent values a social conscience more than the other. Or one parent values travel and reading and exposure to different ideas more than the other. Or one parent imposes a much more harsh and cold discipline than the other. Or one parent subscribes to the pursuit of a spiritual identity as a top priority while the other prefers to live in the 'here-and-now' and concentrates on the daily routines. One parent loses him or herself in the theatre, the arts and among the people in that community while the other is more engaged with the world of earning a living and sees the arts as more frivolous and less productive. And the children are watching these little dramas unfold on a daily basis, wondering how to find their own place along the various continua of pathways they did not even know existed, until they began watching more closely the nuances of their parent's lives.
And so, if this happens around the kitchen table, it inevitably occurs also in every classroom in every nation. And as the classrooms veer to the 'right,' to the reductionisms embedded in the political class's need for re-election and continuing power, the lives of individual students are bent in the direction demanded by that "principle"....the need for power achieved through some kind of observable accountability...usually in test scores that permit comparisons, and also suggest measures of success in how the public money is being spent, in achieving something to which the political class can and will point during election campaigns.
To a significant extent, our education system, our corporate structure, our ecclesial structure, indeed our political system, regardless of the ideology of its practitioners, have all bent in the direction of simplification, and the enhancement of the power of those "in charge" without much regard for the implications of that power grab. And the results of that shift, a shift that includes the denial and the rejection of the needs of individuals and groups "under" the influence of the power brokers, is generating more conflict, inevitably, and more irritability, naturally, and more apathy and despair, expectedly in all kinds of social circumstances.
Families see parents in conflict, and have to question the underlying reasons for their breaking up. Schools too see students differently, more as pawns to the political class, than as individuals needing to be supported in the enhancement of their skills of discernment and problem solving, and not in the ability to produce 'right' answers, so that the political class can sustain its power.
So too in Ukraine, where the different voices are clanging in dissonance, as they pursue their own perception of how Ukraine should be governed, and whether it should be divided, or even remain as a country.
As a teacher for two-plus decades, I have deeply embedded images of children and families in my past, and given the evidence of  brokenness in families, of hopelessness in the stature and demeanour of the youth I see walking the streets of the places where I live and visit, and the move of all institutions to absolutes, and various forms of domination that depend on singular "right" answers to all of life's complexities, I doubt I could or would ever go back to the classroom even if the 'system' wanted me, which it clearly does not.
On the education front, a resignation letter from an eleven-year English teacher, demonstrates the significance of the political imposition of power on the learning process, and indeed has generated another "activist" opposed to the current cultural norms of acquiescence to the political class and its pursuit of its own power.
Read an excerpt of this resignation letter and weep:
I have sweet, incredible, intelligent children sitting in my classroom who are giving up on their lives already. They feel that they only have failure in their futures because they've been told they aren't good enough by a standardized test; they've been told that they can't be successful because they aren't jumping through the right hoops on their educational paths. I have spent so much time trying to reverse those thoughts, trying to help them see that education is not punitive; education is the only way they can improve their lives. But the truth is, the current educational system is punishing them for their inadequacies, rather than helping them discover their unique talents; our educational system is failing our children because it is not meeting their needs.
I can no longer be a part of a system that continues to do the exact opposite of what I am supposed to do as a teacher-I am supposed to help them think for themselves, help them find solutions to problems, help them become productive members of society. Instead, the emphasis on Common Core Standards and high-stakes testing is creating a teach-to-the-test mentality for our teachers and stress and anxiety for our students. Students have increasingly become hesitant to think for themselves because they have been programmed to believe that there is one right answer that they may or may not have been given yet. That is what school has become: A place where teachers must give students "right" answers, so students can prove (on tests riddled with problems, by the way) that teachers have taught students what the standards have deemed to be a proper education. (By Pauline Hawkins, in Huffpost, Why I'm Resigning After 11 Years as a Teacher, April 16, 2014)
Pauline Hawkins is an English instructor at Liberty High School in Colorado Springs, CO, where she has been teaching for 11 years. She also initiated the student-run newspaper, The LHS Revolution, and is its adviser; the paper is in its tenth year of publication. Read more by Pauline at


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