Troublemaking Bookmark: Why Read?

On Thursday I happened to see a bookmark that my 4th grade daughter was using:

My future is bright—I read every day, and I know reading is cool! Being a good reader will help me succeed and do my best in school.

Yes, reading is cool and it can help you succeed. But, reading is more then cool and the success it allows for is not just about doing your best in school (which is currently too closely tied to the Test and to getting a job that makes lots of money). What would/could a bookmark that went beyond “reading is cool” look like? I want to create one for Rosie that reflects some other, equally (or more) important, descriptions of the awesomeness of reading.

As I think about what that bookmark might look like, I’ll start with a list (that might make into my Lists! for my latest book project):

Why Read?*
  • To Enter New Worlds
  • To Dream
  • To Recognize that Other Ways of Being are Possible (and already exist)
  • To Exercise Curiosity
  • To be Recognized
  • To Resist
  • To Escape
  • To Increase Understanding
  • Adventure!
  • To Retreat and Be Restored
  • To Witness Humanity
  • To Listen and Learn
  • To Be Challenged
  • To Light a Fire
  • To Encounter Mystery
  • To Solve a Mystery
  • To Relax
  • To Join in Ongoing Conversations
  • To Feel, To Laugh, To Cry

*Some reasons, other than being cool, being a Success!, or acing the Test.

What Students Are Not: A List

What are students? Admittedly, I haven’t been in the classroom, meeting with students, for several years now. But I’m inspired to think about them as I work on my troubling teaching portfolio and as I encounter articles, blog posts, Facebook status updates, and tweets about students-as-problems.  Here are a few of the articles that I’ve encountered about students in my current format-of-choice, the list:

Students Are Not…

Troubling Discussions about Education

This morning, while scrolling through my twitter feed, I came across several articles lamenting the current state of education, including:

In my latest writing project, I want to include some context for my troubling (and troubled) feelings about education. These articles provide some useful information and ideas:

What is the value of a public university?:

The assumption now current, that the test of a university is its success in vaulting graduates into the upper tiers of wealth and status, obscures the fact that the United States is an enormous country, and that many of its best and brightest may prefer a modest life in Maine or South Dakota. Or in Iowa, as I find myself obliged to say from time to time. It obscures the fact that there is a vast educational culture in this country, unlike anything else in the world. It emerged from a glorious sense of the possible and explored and enhanced the possible through the spread of learning. If it seems to be failing now, that may be because we have forgotten what the university is for, why the libraries are built like cathedrals and surrounded by meadows and flowers. They are a tribute and an invitation to the young, who can and should make the world new, out of the unmapped and unbounded resource of their minds (Robinson, “Save our Public Universities).

What is a university for? A tribute to “a glorious sense of the possible” and an invitation to those “who can and should make the world new….”

How do we assess that value?
  • How many graduates have jobs?

“I’m looking at legislation right now – in fact, I just instructed my staff yesterday to go ahead and develop legislation – which would change the basic formula in how education money is given out to our universities and our community colleges,” McCrory told radio host Bill Bennett, who was education secretary under President Reagan. “It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs” (Kiley, citing North Carolina Governor, Patrick McCrory

  • How much money do they earn?

The Obama administration, for example, proposed, much to the horror of many in academia, rating the country’s 7,000 colleges and universities not only on measures like completion rates and student loan debt, but also on earnings after graduation (Cohen).

  • How competitive are they in global marketplace?

The argument against our way of educating is that it does not produce workers who are equipped to compete in the globalized economy of the future. This has to be as blunt a statement as could be made about the urgency, currently felt in some quarters and credulously received and echoed everywhere, that we should put our young to use to promote competitive adequacy at a national level, to whose profit or benefit we are never told. There is no suggestion that the gifts young Americans might bring to the world as individuals stimulated by broad access to knowledge might have a place or value in this future, only that we should provide in place of education what would better be called training (Robinson).

  • How well do they do on tests?

No Child Left Behind went into effect for the 2002–03 academic year, which means that America’s public schools have been operating under the pressures and constrictions imposed by that law for a decade. Since the testing requirements were imposed beginning in third grade, the students arriving in your institution have been subject to the full extent of the law’s requirements. While it is true that the U.S. Department of Education is now issuing waivers on some of the provisions of the law to certain states, those states must agree to other provisions that will have as deleterious an effect on real student learning as did No Child Left Behind—we have already seen that in public schools, most notably in high schools (Strauss).

The “Uselessness” of the Humanities

What has incensed many educators is not so much the emphasis on work force development but the disdain for the humanities, particularly among Republicans. Several Republicans have portrayed a liberal arts education as an expendable, sometimes frivolous luxury that taxpayers should not be expected to pay for. The Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio, for example, has called for more welders and fewer philosophers. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida criticized anthropologists, and Mr. McCrory belittled gender studies (Cohen).

Since Plato at least, the arts have been under attack on the grounds that they have no useful role in society. They are under attack at present. We have convinced ourselves that the role of the middle ranks of our population is to be useful to the economy — more precisely, to the future economy, of which we know nothing for certain but can imagine to be as unlike the present situation as the present is unlike the order that prevailed a few decades ago (Robinson).

Writing into trouble

Jess Row’s latest book, Your Face in Mine, is about a white man who travels to China to undergo racial reassignment. He comes back to Baltimore as a black man. In an interview, after recounting how his former editor told him not to write this novel because he wouldn’t “want the kind of trouble that book is going to cause [him],” he said the following about writing into trouble:

I wanted to write into trouble as much as I could. There’s a really important difference between writing into trouble and writing to be provocative. I think that’s a crucial distinction for anyone that’s writing about race. It’s a distinction that’s lost on a lot of white writers. When you write yourself into trouble, you’re writing about your own vulnerabilities. You’re willing to risk a kind of raw emotional honesty, being reflective and honest and opening up.

Writing to be provocative is writing from a defensive position. You’re basically saying, “I’m going to say something hurtful or offensive, because that’s the only kind of honesty I can have.” You know what I mean? To be provocative is to create a scenario where your own body is not in question. That was the opposite of what I was trying to do. That’s why I wanted to put the white body first in the novel. Instead of just focusing on the black body, I wanted to make Martin’s white body vulnerable.

I really appreciate the distinction between writing into trouble as becoming/being vulnerable and writing to make trouble as being defensive/evasive/provocative.

Beside/s: Big Questions

Some questions make us curious and invite us to engage or compel us to act while others assume answers, shut down discussion and evade responsibility. How can we develop and pose questions that do the former instead of the latter? As one answer to that question, I want to put an example of the latter (a question that assumes, accuses, evades) beside an example of the former (a set of questions that inspires, invites, compels).

Is There a Right Way to Protest?

During my daily scroll through Facebook this morning I encountered an open letter from DO! (Differences Organized!) about the University of Minnesota’s first event for their new “Big Questions” series: Is There a Right Way to Protest? The open letter, which is addressed to the “complicit, complacent, and the comfortable,” argues that such a question is “fundamentally flawed” because it places “the responsibility of effecting positive social justice squarely on the backs of organizers, while ignoring the role of systems of power and domination that create socially unjust conditions making protest imperative.” It “makes a value judgment,” functions as an “excuse to neglect student protestors demands,” substitutes conversation for actual change, absolves responsibility for creating conditions that necessitate protest, and creates divisions between protestors with different approaches and tactics.

In place of this question, DO! offers some questions of their own:

  • Why is dissent criminalized?
  • Why do we only ask whether the actions of victims and survivors of oppression are “right” when the causes of such protests are so blatantly wrong?
  • Why are the Ethnic Studies departments perpetually underfunded and understaffed?
  • Why do Black and Brown students rarely feel comfortable, safe, and supported on this campus?
  • What message is the University trying to convey to its student body and surrounding community [by the posing of their question]?

As a strong proponent of asking and “feeling the force” of questions that make us curious, unsettle us, and provoke/inspire us to act, I find the questions posed by DO! to be far more compelling and helpful than the U of M’s singular (and designed-to-be-divisive) question.

As a final note, I love DO!’s last line:

we will remain #UMNDrivenToUncover the racist, sexist, classist, heteronormative practices of the University and disrupt said practices until they cease to exist.

#UMNDrivenToUncover Yes!

Follow-up: Here’s an article about the event and DO!’s protest. The article also has a link to a recording of the event.

And here’s an article that discusses the DO! protest and larger concerns about “commodifying diversity” at the U of Minnesota.