Thinking about the dark

For my first Program Leadership class at Columbia on Monday, I was assigned to read two articles.  The first was “Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times” by Maxine Greene, which appeared in The Jossey-Bass Reader on Teaching edited by A. Lieberman and published in 2003.  The second was “Dwelling in Possibilities: Our students’ spectacular hunger for life makes them radically vulnerable” by  Mark Edmundson which was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on March 14, 2008. First, I must confess that I’ve been back in school for just under a week after a twelve-year absence.  That said, I learned every day of those years, but very much on my own terms and sometimes quite shallowly.   I’ve mostly read email and skimmed for key ideas and bold words.  How quickly can I find a solution to this printer problem?   I need to read this book because everyone else on Twitter already has so I’ll skim it.    So, when I first read the Greene’s article, it went completely over my head, so I decided to come back to it and moved on to Edmundson.

Edmundson’s article was one I had seen before.   It’s the kind of thing that people send you when you’re the director of technology at an independent school that has a one-to-one tablet PC program.   I read it again.  Slowly.   Edmundson is a professor at UVA and describes his current students as turbocharged; moving constantly and never limiting their possibilities until the last possible moment.   On my first reading years ago, I tossed the article to the side and kept up my own constant movement.  In my head, I heard Edmundson’s voice as one that didn’t see any merit in technology and that seemed to judge his students harshly.  Now, I hear it as a mix of pity, concern, and maybe just a little bit of that judgement that seemed overwhelming in my first reading.  He sees his studies striving to reach goals that were set for them, perhaps without their own consideration.  He sees them over-achieve to their own detriment.  He sees them skimming the surface of many experiences and believes that these are thus inferior experiences.   Edmundson believes that his field, and moreover, the college experience itself, requires that students slow down.  That they learn to value the Socratic education and focus on self-knowledge.   Edmundson writes, “To live well, we must sometimes stop and think, and then try to remake the  work in progress that we currently are. There’s no better place for that than a college classroom  where, together, we can slow it down and live deliberately, if only for a while.”   While I can wholeheartedly agreed with this statement, it’s the final statement that always provokes me.  “…starting this year, no more laptops in my classroom.”

Rant Warning:  I, as a teacher, will be the first to admit that many people cannot pay attention easily.  If they have a laptop, they will do other things that listen, take notes, and think.  Just like I used to read my English homework in math class, they will read CNN or any other number of sites that are not related to the subject at hand.  Just like I used to write notes to my friends during English, they will IM and email.  Just like I used to periodically drift off and daydream, they will play some solitaire.  There’s not much difference in the behavior – just the mode.   That said, I disagree that laptops should be banned.  I also feel that somehow Edmundson is lumping me in with party-hopping, IMing, disrepectful students who don’t know themselves and make poor choices.  I’m not.  I’m a highly-organized introvert who just likes to organize using OneNote.

Later, I returned to Greene’s article and seemed to have had a breakthrough in basic reading comprehension.    Perhaps my brain hasn’t turned to mush after all.

Greene’s article articulates, with considerably more poetry than Edmundson’s, many of the same ideas.   Both stress the need for learners to slow down, to think, to see possibility, and to look into themselves to find meaning.   They both indicate that this individual reflection must be balanced with community, that is, the ideas and experiences of others.   Both warn against complacency and trivial acceptance of “what is.”  In Edmundson’s world, this complacency comes from moving too quickly, from accepting the goals set forth by others, and from avoiding choices that remove possibility.  In Greene’s world this complacency may come from social and economic injustice and from an inability to see beyond current circumstances.  Edmundson’s students need only turn off their iPods to broaden their worlds, but Greene’s must be shown possibility as they may not have been exposed to it yet.

Aside: Perhaps what resonated most with me in Greene’s article was the statement, “There is too much of a temptation otherwise to concentrate on training rather than teaching, to focus on skills for the  work place rather than any “possible happiness” or any real consciousness of self.”  This is always what has scared me about No Child Left Behind.  Might we find that a generation of children are only able to demonstrate rote skills rather than truly think, imagine, and make change.  As one who taught computer programming, it was always important to me that my students learn the problem solving and creativity needed for code than that they learned to write predictable programs  and get high AP scores.

Both authors look to the classroom experience to allow their students to envision, and then pursue, a better life and a better world.  Both see that happening in a “democratic” setting that requires them to work in community to share ideas and experience, but also in individual thinking and reflection.  Both present the teacher as a force of change and as an counter-cultural force, working to fight complacently.   That’s something that Edmundson, Greene, and I can agree on.

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