I am writing this post because I am furious. So furious my stomach hurts and I wish I had something to throw. But I am in my office so the most I can do is clench my jaw, complain to colleagues who are unfortunate enough to be in my path, and I can write.
My life at the moment is a constellation of activities related to teaching and learning. I am so lucky to work in an environment dedicated to teaching and learning, which are to me, deeply sacred acts. From observing my 5-year old son in kindergarten to helping new university faculty become skilled and reflective teaching practitioners, these sacred activities are my heart and soul. When teaching and learning go well, they are transcendent. When they go awry, they are tragic.
My first teaching job was as a TA in a remedial English writing program at a very non-elite institution; it was reflective of typical university thinking: put the least experienced teachers with the students who need the most help. But I loved it. I loved watching someone who could not write three sentences learn to write the proverbial five-paragraph essay. I loved conveying my heart-felt belief, certainly at that time with more enthusiasm than skill, that writing is power and discovery and connection. Learning to write makes you more you. I loved believing that anyone who was willing to make a good faith effort could succeed.
I still love that and still believe it, despite the myriad complexities it now entails, being at a very competitive and diverse state institution. Which is why, when the parent of a prospective student called to ask about admissions criteria, and then, based on my explanations about access, and how we calibrate our admissions data to give all applicants an equal chance at admission, launched into a rant so uninformed, so absurd in its scope, and so morally irresponsible, that I literally felt my chest constrict.
The issue was that this parent’s offspring was brilliant, talented, privileged and highly rated, and, after all of his hours of study, all the sacrifices of “fun” activities for “resume building” activities, and all of his innate moral goodness, DID NOT deserve to be compared with “some minority kid from the south side of Chicago,” or a rural student who had “studied something ridiculous like Plato’s ‘Republic.'” His kid earned his 4.9 GPA; he didn’t get it by being in a “special program” or taking “useless classes like English or philosophy.” This parent did not want one of those other inferior people graduating from college and going out to build a bridge, or, God forbid, to “operate on him or anyone in his family.”
Things would have been okay if he had stopped there. In my job, I’m very used to anxious, aggressive, scarcity-minded students and parents who believe that there is not enough prestige to go around. And this is not really their fault; that is the nature of prestige and status and any type of grading system: in these systems, there really is only so much success to go around, and if someone is at the top, there sure as hell will be someone at the bottom.
But he didn’t stop there. Oh no. No indeed. He went right on down the “institutions of higher learning are only for the best and brightest” road (everyone else can go to community college); then he barreled straight into the political arena and blamed Obama (the man who went to Harvard) for the country’s “movement towards mediocrity,” and for “progressive, socialist labor unions whose kids are getting accepted into schools where they don’t belong.” He made a short detour through social and cultural mores on creativity with the query: “Do you think Steve Jobs came out of a system like this?” (actually, Steve Jobs and his many co-creators came out of a system exactly like this). Until finally he landed in the middle of local politics with a few words about Illinois’ financial crisis and state leaders : “And now you have Ramin (sic) Emmanuel there, and that other one with the hair (Blagojevich, I assume). It’s a joke.”
There was so much I wanted to say. Two weeks ago I heard an amazing talk by Michael Crow, the visionary president of Arizona State University, in which he made an irrefutable argument for the need of state institutions to refuse to play the “access vs. elitism game.”
Academically, economically, politically, socially, and morally, institutions of higher learning must be accessible to everyone who meets their criteria, not just to the thin slice of elite students whose parents have taught them how to “play school.” Capacity to learn is not the same as high ACTs or a list of AP classes, or a 4.9 GPA. And being a decent citizen, university, state, country and human being means to stop pledging allegiance to a system in which only some special people get the chance to play. And your kid, sir, yes you, Mr. Obnoxious East Coast parent, is not worth more than any other human being who applies to this particular institution.
But none of that would have mattered. Because that parent wasn’t just angry, he was scared. Scared that he and his kid won’t get their stake in the game. Worse than that, actually–scared that some less-deserving person will get what was supposed to be theirs. Scarcity Mentality 101.
I am the advisor who refuses all requests to drop required courses (I don’t care why you failed your mid-term); if you come into my office saying you were sick and need to take a make-up exam, you can bring me your doctor’s note or leave; inferior efforts in my class are met with poor grades and sometimes, disdain. Stupid people really get on my nerves. But I’m also the advisor who will sit with you for as long as it takes to figure out how to get help if help is what you need; I’ll answer the same question five times if that’s what it takes for you to understand it, and I will explain anything that you need to have explained if you are making an earnest effort to do your best. When students in my class don’t learn, I worry about what I’m not teaching. The point is that I know it is indeed possible to strive for excellence but still accept confusion, failure, and inadequacy without believing them to be signs of poor moral character or human worth.
I’d be in big trouble if it were otherwise. I bet you would be too.
The irony of Mr. My Kid Is Better Than Yours’ rant (or, I should say, one of the ironies) was that he went on and on about all of the “community service” his kid has done. I just love it when people tell me that they do good things because it will make them look better than others.
I love to teach and I love to learn. Today I got to do both and it sucked, but I know for sure that I will be better for it. Just for you, my East Coast friend, a Plato’s cave inspired poem by American poet (and current Minnesota poet laureate Joyce Sutphen). I sure hope you like it.
“From Out of the Cave”
When you have been
at war with yourself
for so many years that
you have forgotten why,
when you have been driving
for hours and only
gradually begin to realize
that you have lost the way,
when you have cut
hastily into the fabric,
when you have signed
papers in distraction,
when it has been centuries
since you watched the sun set
or the rain fall, and the clouds,
drifting overhead, pass as flat
as anything on a postcard;
when, in the midst of these
everyday nightmares, you
understand that you could
you could turn
and go back
to the last thing you
with your whole heart:
that passionate kiss,
the brilliant drop of love
rolling along the tongue of a green leaf,
then you wake,
you stumble from your cave,
blinking in the sun,
naming every shadow
as it slips.