Wednesday, January 26, 2011

100,00 STEM teachers. What am I, chopped liver?

As I read the transcripts of President Obama's Second State of the Union, I found myself--and not for the first time--suppressing the feeling that my chosen profession has a limited future. However, this will not be another wailing lament from those who placed their chips on an academic career in the Humanities. There are enough of those robotic dialogues on to satisfy anyone who wishes to familiarize herself with the unappealing side of academic life, laugh uncontrollably at the first few scenarios, and then be over the whole thing. (1) Instead, I want to talk about  the way the President praised education but then created a very narrow sense of it, one that would not, in fact, recognize or value his own educational path or current public role.

(1) Believe me, I was sad that the recent one about ethnic studies, starring computer-generated person of color, was the first one I saw that I found too derivative and predictable to chuckle at. Getting there first means everything! The standards, alas, go up for latecomers who have the benefit and the weight of their predecessors' example.

Any educator still dedicated to the vocation would have been moved by this moment, a portrait of teachers as everyday heroes: "If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child -- become a teacher. Your country needs you." However, in calling for a new level of "respect" for teachers, the President then proposed to allocate of resources (and the respect that accompanies them) to "100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math"  (STEM, for short).

I found this emphasis especially strange when placed alongside the jingoistic claim near the beginning of his speech that American students are set apart from those elsewhere (implicitly China and India) by our educational system's attempts to elicit their creativity: "It's why our students don't just memorize equations, but answer questions like 'What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?'" 

Let us put aside for the moment the Amy Chua phenomenon and the mistaken paranoia that every Asian parent is engaged in tyrannical parenting (and every Asian child is successfully ruled by its rod) to focus on another question: where else, but in areas such as history, philosophy, literature, political science, anthropology, and sociology does one best engage and evaluate ideas and the state of the world? I dare say that without these areas of inquiry, those questions are impossible to ask, let alone begin to answer. In fact, the very man uttering these words was not shaped by a curriculum restricted to math and science, but, memorably and ultimately, by a law school. Certainly, we are not to dismiss our own President because the study of law is about precedent (history) and interpretation (hermeneutics, narrative, and argumentation).

Even if these activities were considered mere leisure pursuits, idle philosophizing distinct from the urgent priorities of the work-day, it is also true that they complement and sharpen the very enterprises the President wishes to support. Though it is now viewed by most as needless tedium, grammar is nothing but the study of logic. If one understands the logic of a sentence or a longer paragraph, one is learning the same kinds of mechanisms that can be used to describe forces in physics or reactions in chemistry. (It is no coincidence that I excelled in describing the behaviors of catalysts, vectors, friction, and sound waves, as there were corresponding notions in my favorite areas of fiction and music). 

I also recall being told (forgive the anecdote) that a large number of those who go on to medical school did not just study anatomy and physiology but also practiced a musical instrument. So, beyond the normal argument that the fields beyond the hard sciences make us better citizens or bring us wisdom, one should add, loudly, that the key questions that our President says make American students unique, and the crucial professions that he says will make the nation prosper, cannot be pursued without the social sciences, arts, and humanities.

Now, I realize that my friend and mentor Robyn would hasten to add here that the Office of the President is speaking through President Obama. That is to say, he is not speaking his own independent thoughts, but rather trying to inflect and hopefully direct a public discourse that he did not create. A President has to occupy its clichés and assumptions and try to marshal them to his ends (I use the pronoun only because we have not yet had a female president). So, the contradictions that I am speaking of do not fall at the President's feet. Rather, they indicate something about the prevailing common sense in the US, a set of assumptions that attempts to force certain decisions by rendering preposterous other options. The common sense of neoliberalism (trickle-down Reaganomics, for the uninitiated) has a grip over the mainstream conversation and, unfortunately, its assumptions are actually blocking new answers to questions about the validity of ideas and the direction of our world far more than any deficiency in math or science.

I would like to transition here to another idea that struck me while listening to the President. He repeated, in truncated form, one of his favorite lines: "Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done." You might recall that in the speech that catapulted Obama to national fame, it appeared in a longer format and achieved resounding applause. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when he was merely a candidate for US Senator from Illinois, he said: "Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn; they know that parents have to teach, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white."

The earlier reference to the specifics of inner-city life played a muted role in this State of the Union. However, they are crucial to it, as the crisis in education has long been characterized as a crisis in urban education. Certainly, we know that dropout rates are significantly higher for black, Latino, and Native American students (though, the latter, of course tend not to be an urban population).

It is appropriate, then, that (in addition to his famous refusal of the red-state/blue-state dichotomy) the line that made Obama's name was the one about the slander of "acting white." As painful as such accusations can be to their targets, I don't think they are indicative of a special pathology among African-Americans. Nerdy kids are ridiculed in every hamlet, slum, and exurb in the nation. Bookworms and brainiacs are not universally praised in the suburbs, nor universally derided in the inner cities. At no time has stupidity and inarticulateness been prized among African-Americans. Book smarts without street smarts would get you some lumps, no doubt. But from hip-hop to the pulpit, from self-educated people to public intellectuals -- not to mention some of the premier stand-up comedians -- African-Americans have always prized verbal dexterity, wit, and insight. 

Therefore, beyond its being a local inflection of a widespread American disdain for the the bookish, the accusation regarding "acting white" may be more. After all, it is rather far-fetched assumption that black children would knowingly run around repeating something that demeaned themselves. We certainly do not assume that when (usually white) conservatives rail against university professors that these white people hate themselves. Has it ever been said that Sarah Palin, or any other fierce critic of the supposed radicals in the professoriate, hates herself? To assume that black children are, en masse, engaged in self-hating behavior is to confuse their sense of self-worth with the value the rest of the nation ascribes to them. And it is not a logical assumption that the "talking/acting white" criticism stems from a sense of self-loathing. What if it were an insight, inelegantly formed, waiting to be fully expounded?

While children can be cruel, they're also remarkably perceptive about what they are being taught. It did not take me long to notice that my acceptance among my white peers at the prestigious Seven Hills School in Cincinnati was contingent on how well I suppressed obviously "black" characteristics. This was true even in the 1980s -- yes, that long after all Americans heard and supposedly agreed with Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. 

After I had been the only black boy from pre-kindergarten (2) through first grade, a new black boy joined us. He was lighter than I; and his father was a very successful OB/GYN. However, this young man had a bit of a stutter. He used the word ain't, and his subjects and verbs did not agree. He was wont to say things like he don't instead of he doesn't. Even though this young man came from a family with much more money than mine, he was immediately interpreted as stupid. I know, because I was one of the people who interpreted him that way,

(2) we were too mature for "nursery school"

Even in the first grade, it had already been instilled in us that these speech patterns were the signs of a substandard intellect, something connected to those who were poor, or black, or both -- certainly not something fit for an institution with such a reputation for intellectual pre-eminence. The very standardized tests we took relied on our capacity to recognize and then find ridiculous anything other than standardized English. Of course, I knew and could understand other ways of speaking. Every day I left Doherty and went home with my grandparents who would talk about going over yonder, or coming back directly, or mashing your fingers. I can understand that this was not the language of middle-class education, but the unsubtle message I received was that it was not language at all -- a patent falsehood, because it communicated quite well and one can ask no more of a language.

When I burst out laughing uncontrollably during one of those tests (the question involved someone with fingers too fat to dial the old rotary phones), I hadn't yet been exposed to one of Dr. King's most brilliant lines, when he talks of the "ungrammatical profundity" of a southern woman. She said to him after demonstrating alongside him: "My feets is tired, but my soul is rested." What is important about this phrase is not merely some down-home folksiness, but the intellect that it reveals behind it: a woman who recognizes that, when we use our bodies to try to bring about a new world, we transcend their limitations. Expending this energy does not drain but replenishes us. She wasn't stupid, and I'd rather study her than the grammatically perfect disinformation I sometimes read in, say, David Brooks.

"Talking white," then, has been one of the subsets of "acting white" that has been valorized. But has this talk earned its pride of place by saying more things, better than any other mode of speech?

Every child -- indeed, every panhandler -- knows that to signal to middle-class people that they are normal, hard-working, intelligent, and moral, one simply needs to shift toward that tone and pronunciation called standard. I have seen teachers overlook the misbehavior of students who can summon this (for lack of a better term) white voice and punish those who do not have it, or do not wish to use it. I have seen people respond charitably to beggars who, either by appearance or speech, approximate some phantasm of safe, normal, anonymous American whiteness with which we all have been taught to identify.

So, the question is this: what do we wish to develop in students? A functioning moral compass or the capacity to manipulate social codes to create a veneer of neighborliness? When we look at the warping of common sense and the withering of common decency in the past forty-odd years, exemplified in suggestions that trickle-down economics and defunding the arts and the humanities will benefit everyday people, we see a key exhibit of the preposterous nonsense that "talking white" lends credibility. If we thought of the language of the Brookings and Cato institutes, the language of upward wealth redistribution, as the language of pimps and hustlers, rather than of disinterested experts, entrepreneurs, and self-sacrificing patriots, we might have a better fix on what really happens at the upper levels of policy-making and finance. 

If competency in feigned altruism is the product of the education the conventional wisdom tells us to push, I must respond to its proponents as my grandmother would have: I ain't studying you.


  1. I had many of the same thoughts during the State of the Union address and have had many thoughts for the past two years or so about the value of my humanities education. Thank you for this; I feel validated again. The US Congress and Senate should consider this post as they vote to cut arts funding.

  2. Thank you, again, for your comment, Mariam. You know I am echoing some of your own work on the topic. It's nice to have a conversation partner.