Three Books #3: Teaching & Education

Education is the foundation on which civilization is built. Using a broader definition of the term education than would simply regard teachers and students in classrooms: in every culture, the adults must educate oncoming generations of children and teenagers what they need to know to live well— and those younger generations must accept at least some of it. Just as we adults were educated as children, we then share our knowledge about widely varied aspects of human life with those who need it from us. And the education of young people must occur in many scenarios: at school, at home, in the homes of family and friends, in churches and temples, on playgrounds and in parks, at summer camp, at part-time jobs. The all-pervasive education of the malleable young occurs constantly, even (regrettably) in hidden spaces that are shaded from respectable view. Young people pick up knowledge and habits all over the place— which is why we adults have to do a good job of educating them the right way.

Today, in America, the plethora of educational quandaries, controversies, and proposed reforms lead to a variety of reactions. In the name of fiscal responsibility, some state and local governments advocate cutting funds from the arts & humanities, electives and extracurriculars in public schools, calling them “unnecessary.” Many parents take their children out of ill-equipped, understaffed public schools entirely to give the children a formal education in private schools. Many of these parents also want voucher programs to take their tax money with them. Others still go even further and home-school, fleeing from all unwanted influence, and attempting to have the home to serve many institutional functions at once.

Though the quotation is often connected now to Hillary Clinton, since her 1996 book used part of it as a title, but the maxim is true: It takes a village to a raise a child. No matter what kind of school a child attends, the socializing influence of a diverse school environment can give a child a broader worldview and provide controlled experiences with difference— all concepts that transcend any manufactured lesson plan. Granted, some diverse school environments can be alarming to parents when the knowledge or practices picked up by a child seem seedy or negative or disturbing— but that’s where it takes a village! Nothing can replace good ol’ parenting when faced with bad influences outside the home. Disturbing experiences are what parent-teacher conferences were designed for, so teachers can be aware of issues and take action on-campus while parents take action as home. That’s also where the positive influence of an active religious community will aid any child in making good decisions, even when he or she isn’t in church or at temple. Well-chosen friends will also counteract dangerous kinds of peer pressure. Raising a child does take a village, and if the supportive influences outnumber and out-work the bad influences, the child will come out stronger for having earned that real-world education. No matter the school setting, the “village” I’m talking about here means that parents should join the PTA, volunteer for schools activities and socials, chaperone field trips, get to know the other children in their children’s life  . . . Community is central to educating children.

If were going to recommend three books to read about education, all of them would invite readers to examine their own consciousness about how education is best when it comes from a variety of sources and includes a variety of people: Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, Class Politics by Stephen Park, and From the Ground Up by Jeanne Nolan.

teaching to transgressFirst and foremost, a book that transformed my consciousness about my role as a teacher, about education policy, and about social change: Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks. In this 1994 book, hooks makes an elaboration of her concept “education as a the practice of freedom.” She writes in her “Introduction” about being a student herself:

Attending school then was sheer joy. I loved being a student. I loved learning. School was the place of ecstasy— pleasure and danger. To be changed by ideas was pure pleasure. But to learn ideas that ran counter to values and beliefs learned at home was to place oneself at risk, to enter the danger zone. Home was the pace where I was forced to conform to someone else’s image of what I was and what I should be. School was the place  where I could forget that self and, through ideas, reinvent myself. (3)

Teaching to Transgress takes the reader, chapter by chapter, through the idea that education can transform a person – of any age – by having us face facts and ideas that run counter to our own ideals, and lifting us out of monolithic preconceived notions, thus diminishing our ignorance and prejudice. hooks takes on racism, sexism, classism inside and outside of academic institutions, as she insists that educated people become conscious of disparate modes-of-living all around them, thus understanding “the pain that all forms of domination (homophobia, class exploitation, racism, sexism, imperialism) engender” (74).

Proffering Teaching To Transgress as a suggested reading, I would simply tell a potential reader this: education is not only for the attainment of factual knowledge to be used in obtaining first a college degree then a job; education is not a mechanism to procure a safe, middle-class life protected from outside problems; education is about obtaining the knowledge that helps us to lead better lives, and this book’s message – although uncomfortable in places – is all about that.

class politics by stephen parkEven though it was published a few years earlier than hooks’ book, my second suggestion, Class Politics: The Movement for the Students’ Right to Their Own Language by Stephen Park, takes that idea of “education as the practice of freedom” a step further. Published in 2000 by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), this heavily academic work details the post-civil rights movement by progressive teachers and professors to move composition studies away from a philosophy based on pre-civil rights hegemony. This book is not for general readers; it’s dense with theory, uses a lot of jargon, and slogs through dense lots of quoted passages and citations.

The skinny on Class Politics, though, could come from this passage from Park’s “Introduction”:

. . . composition studies owes its current status to the counterhegemonic struggles waged around access to higher education. Without the efforts of the New Left, the Great Society, or Black Power, the reconceptualization of nontradtional students in the academy during the 1960s might not have occurred. (3)

Park writes about how a coalition of New Left groups, including the NCTE, CCCC, and NUC came together for the 1974 resolution, “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” which was “an argument about forming broad-based alliances against class and racial oppression” (5). Basically, these progressive writing teachers agreed that composition coursework based on a white-power socio-political system naturally pushed African American students to the fringes, giving them little or no chance of success— and they believed that should change.

Class Politics is really a historical work about radical changes in university-level composition that occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s. But its message is still relevant to “education as a the practice of freedom.” In the 1960s and 1970s, when almost all university students and professors were white and male, what chance did women and people of color have to succeed in that culture? For example, one question that SRTOL raises is: should a student’s nonstandard grammar/style be an impediment to success in the university if the content of the writing contains A-level work? We’re still trying to decide these cultural issues today: how do we make educational opportunities equitable for all students coming into the university from varying backgrounds?

From the Ground UpFinally, the far more readable From the Ground Up by Jeanne Nolan is the most recent of the three books, and its message is very much for general audiences: education takes place in a wide variety of settings and under a wide variety of circumstances. Nolan’s book tells the story, in a nonlinear narrative, of how she went from an upper middle-class dropout who joined an organic farm commune in the late 1980s to coming home in her mid-30s, a disillusioned single mother who used her organic gardening skills to help herself and others.

Published in 2013, From the Ground Up begins mid-story, with Nolan arriving home to Chicago with her three-year-old daughter, having been pushed out by the commune leaders from her home of nearly twenty years. Startled by her return to mainstream America after such a long time spent insulated from it, Nolan used what she had to get established: her farming and gardening skills. Lucky for her, she was coming back at a time when ideas like farm-to-table, urban farming and slow food were catching on.

Though a personal narrative of love and family underpins From the Ground Up, the book is really the story of an unlikely educator. This young woman dropped out of an affluent suburban culture, because she perceived an emptiness in it, but she returned to it as an adult to carry the lessons she’d learned – healthy eating, a sense of community, a connection to the earth – to new generations in her hometown by helping to create public and private gardens and urban farms. Though Jeanne Nolan had no background or education to be a “teacher,” she became a very good one; she writes:

The educational benefits of school gardens can be vast and varied. In a garden-based science class, for instance, students can learn about plant life cycles and the soil ecosystem, and test different conditions of moisture and sun to figure out why some kinds of plants thrive and others don’t. English teachers can bring students into the garden space to observe details and write descriptive passages and poems; art teachers can use the plants as subject matter for drawing and painting; math teachers can work with students in the garden to apply counting and measuring skills, to examine the geometric shapes hidden within flowers and fruits, and to chart plant growth and variability.

One recent study from the American Society for Horticultural Science found that students who participated in hands-on science lessons in a school garden scored higher on science tests than students who learned in a typical classroom. A garden can also provide an incentive for a school to insert new classes about nutrition and food preparation into its curriculum. The Journal of the American Dietetic Association published a study that found that students involved in a garden-based nutrition education program increased their fruit and vegetable consumption by 2.5 servings per day, more than doubling their overall consumption of fresh produce.

By bringing an outsider’s view of education into the traditional settings, Jeanne Nolan has allowed others to experience the goodness of organic farming and gardening without the extreme lifestyle change or the alienation from family that she went through.

All three of these books show very clearly that there are valuable lessons in working together, in leaving behind our comfortable preconceptions about society, and in seeing “education as the practice of freedom.” All three books also persuade to question our traditional definitions of how schools ought to operate. The lessons in these three books aren’t simple erudition—useless factoids that may appear on some standardized test. No, being exposed to ways of life beyond our own, recognizing when our own ways need re-examination and reform, and opening our minds to others’ ideas are all liberating . . . Education may not always be easy, but it is always worthwhile.

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