Teaching at the Edge of Hope

Chris McNutt
July 9, 2018
Oftentimes we feel discouraged or hopeless as educators — whether it be economically, socially, racially, an instance of intersectionality, or otherwise, many of our students (and teachers) are fighting an uphill battle.

Oftentimes we feel discouraged or hopeless as educators — whether it be economically, socially, racially, an instance of intersectionality, or otherwise, many of our students (and teachers) are fighting an uphill battle. It’s incredibly important that we recognize and expose these inequities as well as work up the courage to fight against them. Determining the best outlet to do so is daunting — and there’s many voices aiming at the solution. One distinction that’s paramount is recognizing the humanity inherent in education. It’s a simple creed: we should care about other people and our society must structurally reflect that. However, as anyone knows, the country is systematically oppressive. Therefore, a teacher’s job is more than establishing rapport, learning some facts, and getting a child into a postsecondary option — it’s about empowerment.

Empowerment is strong terminology. It has meaning beyond the typical political discourse that’s allowed upon in the system — schooling cannot be neutral, it must fight for those beholden to it. Students have very little voice, even the basic methods of warping traditional schooling to structure more decision making for children — students in meetings, students making the curriculum, students determining what they learn — are met with hesitation. Furthermore, once a deemed “radical approach” to schooling is initiated — teaching students to organize, fight for their rights, understand their implicit place in society — it is quickly shot down or seen as “volatile” through the firing of instructors, banning of books, or outright removal of the curriculum.

But to be human is to care about others — to take a stand for them. Empathy goes beyond a debate on whether or not, for example, migrants should be imprisoned at our nation’s border — it’s doing something positive about the lives affected. Sure, this takes a political stance, but our students must be encouraged to see themselves as a larger, connected community. The structure of “us vs. them”, which is largely ignored in public schooling, exacerbates the extreme, underlying issue. It should go without being stated that to teach students to care about one another, they must care about everyone. And to care about everyone means that the cultural discourse reflecting inequities in society must be brought to light.

Fearfully, modern education movements still struggle to grasp onto this point. It’s not that they’re (mostly) not well-intentioned, they just ignore the “messy” points of political and social rhetoric — remaining neutral to avoid conflict in pursuing one’s goals. Case in point is our fascination in preparation for college admissions, transforming the process to empower students to advance. It’s undeniable that this is an important step, but the transactional nature of this approach is concerning. Schooling isn’t about data or college or a job — it’s about the immeasurable pursuit of knowledge and traits one learns through authentic discourse. It’s about placing oneself in a community of learners to love and care about one another and oneself — as is the hopeful overall goal of humanity. As Howard Zinn warned, we’re losing this case:

“I’m worried that students will take their obedient place in society and look to become successful cogs in the wheel — let the wheel spin them around as it wants without taking a look at what they’re doing. I’m concerned that students not become passive acceptors of the official doctrine that’s handed down to them from the White House, the media, textbooks, teachers and preachers.”

Thankfully, there is some overlap in the “innovation craze” in modern education. To train one to tackle legitimate questions — to see themselves in the world and act on it — to care about others — is also applicable to the workforce. Ironically, the same institutions in place that repress authentic thought (e.g. summarizing histories, discouraging political action, ignoring hidden curriculum) can also take (some) steps to encourage them in spite of the system. As in, if one does learn critical thinking, leadership, and compassion throughout their schooling, they will be empowered to succeed in both dismantling the oppressive nature of our society, as well as be strong candidates for the workforce.

Be that as it may — it’s too little. A profound, risky shift must occur by educators to make a difference. It’s likely nothing will come from a national mandate. We must take a stand — a moral claim — that students need a radical education movement that truly grants them the tools to succeed. It’s disheartening that so many are profiting from a system that “does its best” in the current framework and most of us sit idly by, continuing to propagate a standardized, washed over curricula that treats students as customers rather than individuals. As Henry Giroux explained,

“[Neoliberalism]…treats knowledge as a product, promoting a neoliberal logic that views schools as malls, students as consumers, and faculty as entrepreneurs.”

We’re obsessed with the transactional nature of the system — students do well in obeying what they’re told, do what they’ve (almost) always done, and achieve monetary success. Left out of this equation are the brutal truths: many of our students are facing crises stemming from structural inequities, students are not empowered to make real change — as they were not trained, learning “just to learn” is deprogrammed by schools — not legitimized by it.

It’s up to teachers to not only inspire hope but make change. Not every side is correct, not all perspectives have equal play. If we live in an age of the terminal flux of “he said, she said”, as if educational dialogue is a CNN panel, no logical thought will occur. There is a place for sincere progress as a result of learning about the self and mobilizing for others. Not everyone will be happy— it admits one is wrong and one is right — but of course, it would be impossible to change the real world if everyone had a correct opinion. It’s not misleading or brainwashing our youth — it’s giving them a repertoire of knowledge they need to empower themselves. This vision must elucidate racism, sexism, classism, and all forms of discrimination and push to eliminate them, both through recognizing one’s/other’s identity as well as fighting for change.

What does this look like? It’s deconstructing the hidden curriculum, understanding that the competitive nature of classrooms demean and hurt everyone involved. It’s taking a stand for those less fortunate, and providing the wherewithal for those affected to change the status quo. It’s providing the opportunity for students to learn their passions and interests without a concern for tracking or measurement. Each of these is a massive undertaking, but it’s up to every educator to implement this into their practice. Imagining a truly rebellious, cognizant classroom is almost too perplexing of a task, but any foray into these elements is worth attempting.

Any endeavor aimed at giving students awareness about these structures that work against them is worthwhile. They must understand why labels exist, what works against them, and how to navigate and change inequity. We may talk about the Civil Rights Movement, but rarely about Black Lives Matter — let alone how to actively demonstrate and organize for rights. We may communicate gender discrimination that exists in society, but not detail the modern feminist movement and its multifaceted goals. As bell hooks answered assertedly,

“Many women do not join organized resis­tance against sexism precisely because sexism has not meant an absolute lack of choices. They may know they are discriminated against on the basis of sex, but they do not equate this with oppres­sion. “

Again, this all becomes political. One can’t talk about class inequalities in history without bringing to light the class inequity that exists in a classroom — let alone arming students with discourse to change their inequity. Imagine a classroom where students struggle with hunger — right now we attempt to remedy this problem through school lunches and activism groups. But where is the push to empower students to fight to change this? Why is it socially inappropriate to empower in a meaningful way?

And it goes beyond the pure message of positivity that blankets the educational sphere. While it’s important that we aren’t cynics, it’s just as valid to state that positivity can’t equate with complacency. Accepting that this abnormality of systemic malpractice in schools exists is to relay a critical message, one which isn’t warmly shared nor accepted. It doesn’t feel good to know the truth — especially if you’re one who’s benefiting, but that’s the purpose of transparency. However, pushing for this pedagogy cannot, in-turn, push aside well-meaning educators who don’t explicitly tackle these objectives. Informing is half the challenge — and I sincerely believe that most want to help. For those who don’t, that’s when truth to power must occur.

Without purposeful dialogue, we will continue to deluge into a world stricken by apathy, mass consumerism, and ignorant existences. Those who remain stagnant and understricken will continue to suffer, and those who profit will remain unaffected. Education is a tool to change the world — it’s greater than the sum of its parts. If we all understand this and take the next step, the world will be a far different place. It’s up to educators to take the lead.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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