Monday, September 3, 2012

To quote my student Alex, "it's about being fucking human."

The first week of methods … done.  The highlights, from Thursday’s discussion of Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chapter Two) and the wonderful Elements of Teaching,  include a student realizing that, if his teachers had suggested to him that the classroom was a joint quest where the teacher and the student create knowledge together, he might have paid more attention.  Another found that Freire’s observations about power—the subject-object relationship between teachers and students—was eye-opening.  (And an opportunity to look at the metaphorical value of syntax: what happens when SVO becomes OVS?  We get the passive.  And we need to keep the students in the subject position.) We looked at all the ways students are made subject.  My flower-child student Alex (he will not mind my using his name), focused on the idea of humanity.  In the discussions of ethics and character in Elements of Teaching, he—and others—remarked on their emphasis that teaching is more than content and pedagogy, it is about relationships and how we balance those.  And, as Alex enthused, “it’s about being fucking human; you have to show students your humanity if you want them to respect you” (yes, I permit my students to be as expletive free or friendly as they desire). 

We are still reading around the idea of ethics, and what we do next week will, I hope, move us closer to identifying the “safe” subjects for the secondary classroom.  We are beginning to touch on the idea of transaction and Rosenblatt’s notions of aesthetic and efferent.  But, because I let the discussion flow today, we are already behind.  My decision only to provide the first three weeks of the syllabus is turning out to be prescient. 

There was a kind of low (less-high) light, one that reaffirms my decision to re- focus on values and virtues and social justice this semester.  This low-light made me think about the current political campaigns.  Oddly, it kind of put into perspective for me what I see as the right’s cynical view of human nature.  In their celebration of the individual and all of the Horatio Alger-esque narratives from Tampa there is this companion sense that those who have not achieved success simply don’t want to, that they are content to ”suck at the government teat.”  (Aside: This is a curious image to me given the recent spate of articles about mother’s nursing their children into what seems like adolescence.  We might want to rethink that metaphor.)  I didn’t much care for the polemical picture of my fellow citizens they were pedaling.  On the one hand, there are the puck and lucksters who achieve success by working hard and seizing opportunities  (although, they seem to gloss over the luck part).  And then there are the teat suckers, who prefer TANF to hard work.    

Now, at the same time I was watching the RNC and reviewing the results of the survey I mentioned in my last post, the one about social values, I  happened on the movie Dave.   I am a sucker for Dave (and Charles Grodin!) and it’s brother from another mother, The American President.  And, in the curious, serendipitous, coincidental (what Alannis would wrongly call ironic) way that things seem to work in a very deliberate way, as I was tallying the  survey  numbers, on came the speech in which Dave, the ersatz-president, announces his full employment bill.  Employment, he explains, is more than a way to put money in one’s pocket: “Because if you've ever seen the look on someone's face the day they get a job -- I've had some personal experience with this - - they look like they could fly. And unless we start tapping into that kind of spirit again, there's no way we're gonna fix anything in this country.” 

I am inclined to urge that work will set one free, but that phrase carries far too much baggage. But this speech from Dave resonates with me because I adore what I do.  Truly, I love every second and feel blessed beyond words.  But, I have had crappy jobs—or jobs seen as crappy by others.  I was a server for a dozen years.  My first waiting job was the graveyard shift at a HoJo’s.  But, I found, in that work, endless joy.  I served fried clams at 2AM to working stiffs who over-tipped me because I, like their own daughters, was getting ready to go to college far from home.  I learned to run a dishwasher and make eggs on the flat-top when the manager was resting his eyes in his office.  I smelled of fryer grease and was sticky with 27 flavors of ice cream when I got home and fell exhausted into bed.  But I kinda loved that old blue and white checked diner uniform.  I liked putting the tips in my apron.  It was my first job.  And, yes, I knew that something else was waiting for me, but who knew what.  I was studying Theology and not bound to the cloister.  Would I have felt the same way if HoJos was my destiny?  I like to think so. I also know I am a child of privilege and my experiences can’t be separated from that.  But I waited tables through college and then again through grad school.  And in Kentucky I worked with Gaye and Sarah.  Gaye was a professional server and Sarah’s career was as a bus-gal and hostess.  Gaye was in her 40s and Sarah her 60s.  They were two of the most professional women I ever knew. 

I have had jobs others envied, chosen for the most selective corporate training program in the 1970s, I was one of ten international trainees in the Merrill Lynch JET program (junior executive training).  It gave me opportunities to go places, see things, rub shoulders with “important” people from the world of high finance.  I made more my first year (1980) than I do now as a full professor with tenure.  Those who know me can only imagine how much I did not fit into that world.  I wrenched my round self into the square hole until, as my Mom once told me wistfully, “I barely recognized you.”  Unhappy as I might have been doing a job I didn’t much like for six years, I still found things about which to be joyful.  I did my job well, and was proud of what I submitted to my bosses, the analyses I provided commodities traders, the training I provided to branches here and abroad.  I had terrific colleagues, and we laughed all the time.  I had my first taste of teaching—albeit about commodities—and an inkling that the classroom might be a good fit for me.  I didn’t mind the Brooks Brothers suits.  I felt adult as I ran up Vanderbilt Avenue to catch the Lex uptown and meet the girls for a drink after work.  I was Mary Tyler Moore tossing my floppy silk tie in the air, making it after all.  It was a job as rewarding personally as was serving my midnight regulars at HoJos.

And, I don’t like to think I am the exception.  I want to think, like Dave, that all work, that any work, makes one feel good.  That everyone—okay, almost everyone--believes there is value in work for work’s sake, for a job well done, whether that job is a landing an airplane, removing a tumor,  snaking a drain, or building a road.  But I am terrified that I am wrong.  I fear that I am among a minority who see that the dignity of work is a price far above rubies.  You see, in the survey I gave my students, nearly half placed “the Dignity of Work” as the least important value.  Not one of the least.  The absolute least.  7 out of 7.  I guess they have not seen Dave.  And these are students who are about to enter the profession of teaching, where the only rewards are intrinsic.

So, it seems that, if we believe that work serves no higher purpose, that it has no intrinsic value, that it is just about a paycheck, then we might naturally think that those who can get assistance without working would, in fact, choose that option rather than pursue any employment that affords an opportunity for fulfillment beyond the salary.  I am sure there is some kind of syllogism for this, but they are like math with words and hurt my head.  Now, of course my small survey of students was non-scientific.  And, as usual,  I am being histrionic to make a point (not that I don’t incline to melodrama often).  Yes, my students rated the value of work last, but the seven values from which they had to choose were all significant.  What their choices revealed to me is how blithely we prioritize.  Of course,  we think that “dignity” is an important value (half listed that value as #1).  But what does that mean, exactly? What gives one dignity?  Are we just born dignified? Because our values are the lens through we analyze, judge, and act, if those values are only vaguely defined or unexamined, then our analysis, judgments, and actions are un-critical.  Therefore, part of me thinks that the results of my survey are more a reflection of my students’ lack or inability to reflect than of their short-sightedness.  And that hypothesis also confirms for me my choice of topic for this Fall.  I must teach my students (so that they can teach their students) to THINK about what they say they mean.  The dangers in failing to do so are profound.   Those results of that failure were on display for me at Tampa, for it seems to me that the only way the right can believe that the majority would CHOOSE TANF over employment—any employment—is to have fucked up values.  What this belief says about their view of human nature is disturbing.  But more disturbing is that I think they might be kind of right.  I have this horrible feeling that it is in danger of becoming true. 

Our culture privileges those with glamorous—that is, high paying--jobs.  How those individuals serve others or how they represent humanity is insignificant.  They have money and they have things and they are on the cover of magazines.   Our culture sees wealth as a measure of … well … everything: success, character, intelligence, worth to society.  Why else would anyone pay any attention to The Donald or those talentless teens from Twilight?   And the generation I see before me seems to feel entitled to the job they want at the salary they feel they deserve.  And if they don’t get that, then they will, as the latest Romney Ryan riff puts it, move into their childhood bedroom, lie on their beds, and stare at their fading Obama posters.  Why not, GET A FUCKING JOB.  Why not head down to the mall, to the fast food joints, to the lawn care and construction companies.  Deliver a pizza.  Steam some milk.  Stock some shelves.  Because those are not dignified?  Because we value some vague term called “human dignity” more than we do the “dignity of work”? 

When I work at the mission in FoCo, we have folks who have jobs.  They come in the uniform of a Burger King or the t-shirt of a maid service. They have grease under their nails.  They work.  They are proud.  But they need a meal for their family, and we provide it.  And they look us in the eye, and they say thank you, and their kids say thank you.  They choose work, they need help, and they have dignity.  It’s not the poor who don’t want to work; it’s the middle and upper class kids who think they deserve a particular job at a particular salary.  And this is the message those with money and power send through the people we celebrate and privilege—success is about wealth; happiness is money and doing cool shit.   And we cultivate that.  We enable that.  Every time we forget to honor work, to celebrate a job well done.  Every time we talk about dignity and fail to define what that means.  This is the message we need to get out there.  As I think about the values and the virtues I want my students to address with their students—not inculcate, not proselytize—but raise with them,  I realize that first I must teach them how to assess their own values and virtues.  And then I must teach them to teach their own students how to do so as well.  And it is, I am convinced, through literature that we can do this.  By choosing texts that challenge us to confront what we believe, to question our values, to turn those upside down and inside out.  This is the reason why I adore Huck Finn.  I embrace the over-simplified controversy about the word nigger.  I await the moment when students realize that the only character with dignity, the only hero in the novel is, in fact, “Nigger Jim.”  In the world of the novel, Huck has money and power and privilege.  He even has common sense.  But he lacks the most important quality—humanity.  He is, in the end, a coward.  And I see too many cowards at podiums these days.

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