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Like many American educators, I said goodbye to my students and left my classroom in March unaware that I would not see the Class of 2020 again.
In the days that followed, my district joined a nationwide wave of school closures over COVID-19 concerns; and as colleges and universities emptied their dormitories, community school districts went door to door handing out internet hotspots and organizing food services for families in need. College students returned home and high school students dropped off the grid. Educators and students alike were expected to adapt to new identities isolated from public spaces by “social distancing” and from public schools by “distance learning”, while simultaneously grappling with the new emotional and cognitive dissonance of their disrupted futures.
But as George Packer recently wrote for The Atlantic, “The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken.” By the end of May, the stock market had largely recovered from its record losses. American elected officials had already moved on from their failure to flatten the curve to argue that “Our human capital stock is ready to go back to work”, and the culminating response from the administration was to pull the United States out of the World Health Organization.
Meanwhile, Americans account for over 28% of global coronavirus deaths to-date, and 1 in 5 have been left unemployed by the crisis. Of course, the pandemic and its response hit Americans at the margins the hardest. According to APM Research Lab, Black Americans make up 13% of the population but 25% of COVID-19 deaths, and in New Mexico, for example, the COVID-19 mortality rate for Indigenous people is eight times higher than the mortality rate for Whites. When the first round of stimulus payments hit bank accounts, college students claimed as dependents by their parents received nothing, despite facing the loss of internships and campus jobs, moving expenses, and debt for an unrealized higher education. State budgets, already weakened by decades of ideological tax cuts and hit by the effects of COVID, are on the verge of collapse as many states report revenue declines of 20% or more, which will diminish the ability of states to respond to any additional outbreaks. It may take years to return public services to their pre-pandemic levels.
Now, as I write this on June 1, 2020, America is processing the first week of summer protests in response to the police murder of George Floyd, a black 46-year old Minneapolis man whose name enters our national memory alongside Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Botham Jean, and countless other victims of police violence. “Law enforcement officers escalated the national unrest” with more violence against largely peaceful protesters and members of the press, and the administration responded by declaring “ANTIFA” a terrorist organization. Short for “anti-fascist” and originating in the ideological streetfighting of Weimar Germany, the organizing principle of “ANTIFA” (if it exists today as an organization at all) is to “reject turning to the police or the state to halt the advance of white supremacy. Instead they advocate popular opposition to fascism as we witnessed in Charlottesville.”
(Note: Before the end of the day on June 1, the President would address the nation from the Rose Garden, to the sound of flashbang grenades from military police antagonism against protesters to clear Lafayette Park, as he announced his willingness to ‘dominate the streets” by deploying the National Guard and the military to end the demonstrations by force.)
It is in this harrowing context that I found refuge in Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto.
“It has never been more difficult to teach in higher education” nor has it ever “been more difficult to learn in higher education than in our current moment.”
Early in the book, Gannon discusses his own impetus for writing as a response to the summer of 2017, with the deadly descent upon Charlottesville, Virginia by a coalition of far-right and white supremacist groups.
Infamously, one of the white supremacists identified in the march turned out to be a student from a Nevada university. Upon his return, the student, who traveled from Reno to Charlottesville, defended his actions to the local media: “As a white nationalist, I care for all people. We all deserve a future for our children and for our culture. White nationalists aren’t all hateful; we just want to preserve what we have.”
And in the days and weeks following the Unite the Right rally, other college students and leaders of university student groups were identified among those in the alt-right crowd, prompting Gannon to wonder: “Are these the ends we seek in higher education? To put it bluntly, is it possible for a learner to both successfully move though the academic and intellectual spaces of a college or university and march in support of violent white nationalism?”
He also quotes Henry Giroux on the events in Charlottesville raising “serious questions about the role of higher education in a democracy. What role if not responsibility do universities have in the face of widespread legitimized violence?”
Education systems at every level must necessarily struggle with their dual roles inextricably influenced by and as influencer of our current political and cultural climate. As the epitaph of English polymath Sir Christopher Wren reads: “si monumentum requiris, circumspice” — If you seek his monument, look around you. How do the crises of this moment reflect the crises of higher ed., or of education generally, and what are the tools we can use to build a radically humane and vital society?
“To teach, and to care about doing it well enough and in a way that’s just, equitable, and humane for our students and our communities, is a radical stance.”
For Gannon, a pedagogy of radical hope is life-affirming, it centers student agency, it is inclusive, and it is praxis:
“Teaching is a radical act of hope. It is an assertion of faith in a better future in an increasingly uncertain and fraught present. It is a commitment to that future even if we can’t clearly discern its shape. It is a continuing pedagogical practice rather than a set of static characteristics. Simply put, we teach because we believe it matters.”
Gannon frames the transactional, market-oriented, outcomes-focus of modern higher ed. institutions as befitting “classrooms of death”, borrowing symbolism from 19th century Danish folk school leader Nikolai Grundtvig. Grundtvig resisted the “stultifying tradition” of Prussian schooling as a disciplinary model primarily concerned with transmitting and reinforcing dominant narratives, which carried over into 20th century American schooling.
As a work of critical theory, Gannon adds his life-affirming classroom to the ongoing conversation among bell hooks, Henry Giroux, and particularly Paulo Freire, whom he quotes at length from Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
“It follows logically from the banking notion of consciousness that the educator’s role is to regulate the way the world ‘enters into’ the students. The teacher’s task is to organize a process which already occurs spontaneously, to ‘fill’ the students by making deposits of information which he or she considers to constitute true knowledge. And since people ‘receive’ the world as passive entities, education should make them more passive still, and adapt them to the world. The educated individual is the adapted person, because she or he is better ‘fit’ for the world. Translated into practice, this concept is well suited for the purposes of the oppressors, whose tranquility rests on how well people fit the world the oppressors have created and how little they question it.”
While institutions have had 50 years to soften what Freire critically labeled the “banking model” in the 1960s, this new language — stultifying in its own right — has deadened 21st century learning. In the spirit of Goodheart’s Law, “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”, one cause of systemic morbidity are the metrics themselves used to define educational success. As we’ve seen recently with huge institutional shifts in college admissions in California and elsewhere, the student characteristics and abilities that traditional measurements, like the SAT, select for are largely counterproductive and inequitable. Whether in the context of aptitude, preparedness, or achievement, the desire to reduce education to a few quantitative measures has broad appeal. Resisting technocracy — that is, defining the purpose of and maintaining fidelity to the complicated process-oriented value system at the heart of education — is Sisyphean.
Further, short-term value-added measures used for evaluating teaching and learning are largely unhelpful in developing the capability of our students to grapple with amorphous and dynamic concepts over time — or to reflect on their own moral and intellectual growth — that can’t be as easily objectified nor easily quantitatively assessed and compared.
The banking model has not just failed to increase the quantity of student knowledge in the 21st century — as in, we haven’t even seen improvements in traditional measures of educational outcomes that suppose to weigh these knowledge deposits — its transactional nature, a scope of thinking limited solely to those items that have certified value, has actively inhibited their moral and intellectual growth. Like a vector in physics is force applied in a specific direction, life-affirming education is rooted in praxis: the union of theory and practice leveraged onto a particular systemic problem. Surely it’s the case, for example, that if among a student cohort we had students who were idle in their civic participation, another group who took up tiki-torches alongside white supremacists in Charlottesville, and a third still who stood with #BLM protesters in Minneapolis, we would acknowledge that at least some of those outcomes are less desirable than others?
As bell hooks writes of praxis in “Theory as Liberatory Practice” from Teaching to Transgress, “When our lived experience of theorizing is fundamentally linked to processes of self-recovery, of collective liberation, no gap exists between theory and practice. Indeed, what such experience makes more evidence is the bond between the two — that ultimately reciprocal process wherein one enables the other.”
“That’s the danger,” writes Gannon, “of framing our work and our students’ journeys in higher education as discrete processes that have summative, measurable outcomes that are achieved when the student ‘completes their education.’ Because what we’re really saying is that students have either acquired the necessary knowledge and skills or they haven’t, that they have either succeeded or failed, either gotten ‘what they needed’ or failed to do so. Those binaries, in their dismissal of habits like self-examination, critical thinking, and questioning, mistake training for education.”
“The results of such framing are what we see in these fraught times: bigotry and hate wrapped in righteous certitude, the theft of the public sphere, the commodification and marginalization — and thus dehumanization — of ever more people. Classrooms of death (as opposed to learning for life) have helped create a society that’s necrotizing before our very eyes.” (emphasis mine)
The particular nature of a community-based response to this moment will necessarily look and sound different, after all, the circumstances in which we teach are constantly changing and our students come to us from a range of backgrounds and experiences. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.
What we absolutely can and should do, however, is define our work as educators biased toward life-affirming, student-centered, inclusive praxis and create a space where we can do the work of reversing the decomposition; replacing the gangrene of those classrooms of death with a hope in the future that is not hollow but is founded in critical awareness and action: a Radical Hope.