the circular runner

Leonard Nimoy, Death, and Education–There is a Connection

In observations, teaching & education, Uncategorized on June 22, 2010 at 8:05 pm

I should start by saying that this post was influenced by Mark over at the blog, Leaving Trails There was something heartening about reading about education in such a thoughtful way. I guess I thought I’d give it a go.

That said, we’re into the last week week of classes, and I decided to end my class on identity with readings about death–specifically, the funeral industry. I have a lot of reasons for doing this, but the most important, aside from the fact that I think how we choose to be celebrated in death says a lot about us in life, is that I also am wondering what it means that funerals have become a globalized industry–at least it is according to our readings. And guess what? It’s our fault. No longer are we content with the old-fashioned mom and pop funeral director. We want choices. We want our remains to be put in coffins that look like Formula-One race cars and we want urns that have the Star Trek insignia on it.

I will stop myself from saying, “beam me up, cruel world. My people have gone nuts.” However, I think we may need a little Vulcan reasoning here. Leonard Nimoy, where are you?

I will also fight the liberal (perhaps idealistically liberal) urge to decry globalization, standardization, and other -ations of all stripes that we see in every facet of our society. At the same time, I can’t help but see some parallels between the funeral business and the increasingly large education industry. In one of the readings for this week, Thomas Lynch, a poet and a funeral director, writes that the funeral business “relies more on trust, personal attention, and accountability.” I would say the same should be true of education. (I think I should mention that Lynch wrote this in Bodies in Motion and at Rest which was published in 2000. Ten years ago, he could still hope that the funeral business would remain as he describes it. It hasn’t. And, if I can make the parallel, neither has the education business (which shuldn’t be a business, if you ask me.)

Education, like dealing with death, is not and cannot be known for efficiency, at least not in the way that corporations require. I’m not saying that funeral directors and teachers should not be held to high standards. I AM saying that those standards have to serve people not profit.

Take, for example, the school I work for. Teachers here are required to call students who miss more than two days in a row, and then, we are to log those calls into a system that the school provides. This is ok. It’s not easy, but I understand the need to get involved with the students we serve who are easlily discouraged. The problem is that we are really judged more for whether or not we call than we are for the teaching we do for the students who actually show. Is a class run well by a teacher who tries different approaches to help her students? If so, great. If not, well, at least she makes the calls. The thinking here is that students who come are happy (or happy enough) so they won’t bolt and take their money with them. It’s those others–the students who we can’t get to come to class that we have to go after. We need them–we need their money.

It’s true that no one says any of this. But the fact that so much support is given to the teacher who keeps students happy and not to the teacher who keeps them thinking is a sign that what I’m saying here is not completely off. This is the corporate way. Calls to the student can be counted. Students kept happy by not being babied and not challenged, check. (Yes, as in a bank check.) The harder thing to quantify is the teacher trying to get a student to improve. Education is not easy. Students may quit if they are pushed too hard, and if they are allowed to show or not show as other students are in most colleges. That’s what the corporation tells us without telling us, so we teachers either buck the system and hope our students will understand that challenge is good, or we hide behind mediocrity and make our calls and keep our students happy in a facile way.

Reading this over, I fear that I may have committed a rhetorical faux pas that I wouldn’t excuse from my students. I started off this post with one intention and then went away and I’m not sure there’s a connection. Initially, I was doing my usual weekly update on my advanced class, and then I swerved away, possibly driving off a cliff with sense at my side. The only connection I can offer (besides the corporate need for efficient profit) is that this quarter may mark the death of me as a teacher–at least in this incarnation. I love to teach. I do. But do I want to keep doing it in this environment? The brave side of me tells the other part of me that the thing to do is to persevere. They (my bosses) can take me out if they want to, but they (like a funeral director) are going to have to carry me out first. The other side of me says I should move on–do the easy thing (not that going to an office job is easy, which is what I might have to do since California schools are not hiring).

Let’s see what happens. At least I’m not dead.

  1. Thanks for the mention of my blog post. It was so random that WordPress promoted me to the homepage for a day, but inspiring, nevertheless.

    According to Wendell Berry, the ideal we should strive to is the Confucian formula, “that the producers be many and that the mere consumers be few; that the artisan mass be energetic and the consumers temperate…” This was the model our the American Colonies was originally built upon–thousands of farmers out in the countryside making for themselves a new way of life. There are many ugly chapters following, (destruction of Native America being one of the worst), but the idea itself I think was pure; history could’ve been different had the pure motive prevailed.

    Reading of your post, we seem to be in agreement. Education is essential to our future. While Corporate America and Big Government is infringing on the last and most essential portions of our society: our land, our food, and our minds, I feel it is necessary, now more than ever, to press on.

    From Berry again: “For most of the history of this country our motto implied or spoken has been Think Big. A better motto and an essential one now is Think Little… the discipline of thought is not generalization, it is detail, and it is personal behavior… the citizen who is willing to Think Little and accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem.”

    The only way we can solve this problem is one person at a time. Keep the faith!

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