Showing posts with label education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label education. Show all posts

Thursday 27 June 2019

Is Education the Answer to Economic Inequality? Not in the USA.

Education can't solve economic inequality

When my guru forwarded Nick Hanauer's article in The Atlantic, "Better Schools Won't Fix America," I devoured it enthusiastically.  Hanauer, a wealthy American philanthropist, with considerable credentials as a patron of education in the USA, was disavowing the dogma that education can erase the income gap--a dogma he calls "educationalism."  Hanauer's criticism of his  cohorts in the 1% is scalding.  "Educationalism," Hanauer writes, "appeals to the wealthy and powerful because it tells us what we want to hear: that we can help restore shared prosperity without sharing our wealth or power."

Global education versus American education

The article does not devalue education, but debunks a generalized notion that education alone can solve economic inequality.  His argument, in a nutshell, is that "great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around."  However, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which is arguably the Bible for crusaders against income inequality,  Thomas Piketty, argues that "the poor catch up with the rich to the extent that they achieve the same level of technological know-how, skill and education, [ . . .]."

The world's poor and the American lower middle class

How can we rectify this shared preoccupation with wealth inequality leading to such different conclusions?  The simple answer is that Hanauer is talking about the USA  (once known as the land of opportunity) and Piketty's perspective is global.  As Steve Pinker observes, in Enlightenment Now, "the world's poor have gotten richer in part at the expense of the American lower middle class."

"The American lower middle class" (whom Pinker identifies as the Trump constituency) were exactly the people who were ill prepared to take advantage of globalization.  In contrast, highly educated individuals from emerging economies, whose expertise, skills and products easily crossed national boundaries or flourished in cyberspace, enriched not only themselves but their home countries as well.

Education and the classroom

The American vision of education (which tends to be shared by most Canadians) is that it begins and ends in the classroom.  The classroom, if you stop and think about it, is a very poor learning environment.  A lot has to happen outside the classroom if the education which is initiated there is going take hold and have any effect.

Money isn't usually the purpose of an education

Economic advantage is rarely the unique objective of education, but most people, quite rightly, expect  economic stability, if not affluence, to be a beneficial side effect of an education.  That expectation is frequently disappointed.  The problem is that cost effectiveness and capital gains (in every sense of these terms) have come to dominate the thinking of both educational institutions and some individual educators.  When everyone is asking "What's in it for me?" the average student is left out in the cold.

The simple solution

Hanuaer's got it right that putting more wealth into the hands of Americans in the bottom half of the socio-economic ladder is the obvious, Occam's-razor solution to wealth inequality.  He's also right that education in the USA would improve if more American families were empowered with the affluence, influence and the confidence to make themselves part of the educational process, rather than turning over the young of America to schools and universities in the vain hope that education will just happen, and the future will, magically, be richer and brighter than the past.

Tuesday 19 December 2017

How Is Money Created?

Money isn't just pixel dust! 

In an earlier post I described money as “pixel dust.” I was being cute—way too cute! Sometimes an analogy can hide much more than it reveals. Money is not created by Tinker Bell, though I did feel a bit smug upon realizing that the writers of the Zeitgeist film series repeated my observation that when you take out a bank loan you create that debt out of nothing.

Banks have the right to create money, but they need your help

The bank does not have the money it is lending you. Stop and think about that for a moment, because it is the answer to the question “how is money created?” As more and more people struggle to understand bitcoin, the fact that money is just a way of recording debt is starting to sink in. When I googled the question “how is money created?” I was surprised by the number of sites covering the question—the number of people who knew the answer. I found myself asking, as I often do, how could I not know this? Shouldn’t every ten-year-old know the answer to this question?  Every time you take out a loan for a house or a car or an education, or buy a cheeseburger with a credit card, you create money--those pixels on a computer screen somewhere that are the reason you work and save and struggle.

The Federal Reserve gives banks the right to create money

In the USA the Treasury prints the money, but the amount of printed money is less than three percent of the total money supply in the system. Actually no-one really knows how much digital debt (i.e. money) there is floating around on the internet and in the intranet systems of all the banks and financial institutions in the world. We know, as I pointed out in my earlier post, there are 1.35 trillion US dollars in circulation (i.e., paper money), but the US debt is 18 trillion dollars. The unregulated derivatives market (the one that caused the crash of 2008) is believed to be worth between 710 trillion and 1.2 quadrillion dollars. To answer the question how much US money exists in the world today (remember money is just a measurement of debt), you need to add up all these numbers: 1.35 trillion plus 18 trillion plus (to be conservative) 710 trillion.  In total, a conservative estimate is that there are  729.35 trillion US dollars in circulation right now. How was all this money created?

The rules for creating money

There is an exchange of paper but, basically, the US Treasury gives it to the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve then distributes the money to 12 Reserve Banks across the country which in turn pass the money onto private banks. So how does so much money get produced?  We've been here before: leverage.  It's all about the leverage ratio.  

This graphic (above), which I found online, does a nice job of showing how the money flows in what is known as the "fractal reserve banking" system.  "Fractal" (aka "fractional") means that the banks get a fraction of the amount that they are allowed to lend out, so it really boils down to leverage. Descriptions of the "fractal system" make it sound as if the amount of leverage in the system is quite modest, but as Blinder (who you might remember was a VP in the Federal Reserve) points out, in After the Music Stopped, financial institutions figured out ways to create synthetic leverage ratios of up to 40%.  Let me remind you of what a 40% leverage ratio means.  A 4% leverage ratio means a bank with $1 can lend out $25,  a 40% leverage ratio means that a bank with $1 can lend out $250--250 times more than it actually has.

What is the US Federal Reserve? 

The Federal Reserve is the moolah machine, the institution that creates money and runs the monetary system.  It is the model for and has tentacles into just about every central bank in every country in the world.  The cynical, conspiratorial answer to the question is that the Fed is a bunch of bankers, a cabal of the CEOs from the biggest banks and financial institutions in the world. According to the Zeitgeist movement, all the ways that we might imagine the world is being run--politics, religion, economics--are distractions, cover-ups, window dressing.  The only real power is the monetary system which remains hidden behind the activities of governments, religions, and all movement of goods and services.  If you ask why the USA is constantly at war with someone or something, the Zeitgeist answer is that nothing feeds the monetary system better, profiting and empowering those closest to the system, than warfare. Even conservatives acknowledge that money is the life-blood of the economic system, and nothing pumps more spending, borrowing and debt (i.e., money) into the system than a war.

graphic of Federal Reserve System

Who owns the Federal Reserve?

This may seem like a strange, dumb, childlike question, but as I have attempted to get a handle on how the system works, I understand perfectly how we end up at this question.  The pervasive suspicion that the Fed is owned and run by self-serving financial titans is hard to dismiss.  In her book Plutocrats, Chrystia Freeland notes a study on the incomes of Harvard University graduates showing a "split between bankers and everyone else, with financiers earning 195 percent more than their classmates." Harvard grads aspiring to become part of the 1% of the 1% have figured out that being connected to the monetary system is the way to do it. Certainly Jamie Dimon, a card-carrying member of the .1%, CEO of Morgan Chase, the largest bank in the USA, being a member of the board of the New York Federal Reserve has got to have the average wage-earner wondering "what the fuck! how is that possible?"

The official answer is that the Federal Reserve is “a blend of public and private characteristics.” Historically the network of "reserve banks" was created in 1910 at a meeting of private bankers on Jekyll Island (yes, it's a real place; I played golf there once in the 60s).  The idea that the entire monetary system would be run by unsupervised private bankers was unacceptable to Democrats; consequently, it was eventually agreed that the Chair of the Federal Reserve and the seven members of the Board would be chosen by the President of the USA and ratified by Congress. They all inevitably have strong connections to the world of banking and finance. As you work your way through the layers of administration, through the lip service and platitudes, the Federal Reserve does seem to be more and more a system run by banks for banks—despite repeated claims that the objective of the system is “to promote the effective operation of the U.S. economy and, more generally, the public interest.”

There are three kinds of answer to the question "Who owns the Federal Reserve?"

  1. The historical, conspiracy-inclined answer is that the Federal Reserve is owned by eight families:

  1. The official answer is “The Federal Reserve System is not 'owned' by anyone. Although parts of the Federal Reserve System share some characteristics with private-sector entities, the Federal Reserve was established to serve the public interest.”

  1. The third answer, on the other hand, is “The Fed is privately owned. Its shareholders are private banks.”

Whatever answer you accept, it seems clear that the much mocked concept of "trickle-down economics" is beside the point. We live, without much question, in a trickle-down monetary system.

Thursday 10 November 2016

The Trump Vision for Education in America

Education is one of the Trump campaign's important positions

Until November 9, 2016, I never imagined there would be any reason to consider what Donald Trump had in mind for education in the USA. I was surprised to see that “Education” was one of sixteen important “positions” on the Trump campaign website which has now been dismantled in favour of (This post is updated from my original comments on November 10, 2016.)

The Trump plan has only one theme:  choice

The Trump vision for education has one theme:  “choice.”  I have to admit I find “choice” to be a very appealing notion in education, in particular because it necessarily implies variety. (Singular, silver-bullet solutions in education seem to inevitably produce more problems than solutions. See "Everything Works!") In the Trump plan, “choice” means “public or private schools,” “magnet schools and charter schools.”

What does "choice" mean in practice?

Each of these varieties of education carries its own particular baggage and connotation.  After he had spent three torturous and tedious years at a public high school which enjoyed an ambience somewhere between a gulag and maximum-security prison, my son finally agreed to transfer to a private school.  Private schools are incredibly expensive, but the best money I’ve ever spent on anything.  Short version, private schools = big money. “Magnet schools” ( are associated with the early days of desegregation and “busing”; meaning inner-city Afro-American kids being bused long distances out to the suburbs—a situation no-body liked apparently. Anyone with any inking about “charter schools” can predict exactly where the Trump plan is heading—the defunding and dismantling of public education.  When I googled “charter schools,” three of the first four hits to come up were ads for the CSUSA Corporation:

K-12 education modeled on Trump University

The Trump vision is to turn K-12 education over to the for-profit business sector.  In other words, kindergartens, grade schools and high schools in the USA will become versions of the now-defunct Trump University which, post-election,was still on trial for defrauding students. The campaign web site provides a talking-points road map for how to get to for-profit education.

Are CEOs of charter school corporations about to get $20 billion richer?

Step one, sentence one, of the “Trump Vision”:  “Immediately add an additional federal investment of $20 billion towards school choice.” Kinda sounds good, if you don’t actually read the words.  The promise is not to add “$20 billion” to education, the money is going to “school choice” which sort of sounds like the money is going to end up in the pockets of the CEOs of the aforementioned corporations.

Is the plan to add $20 billion or cut $20 billion from education?

Where is the money coming from you might ask? Sentence two:  “This will be done by reprioritizing existing federal dollars.”  If you are familiar with how to read political bureaucratize, you will know to translate this sentence as “No-one knows”  or, more to the point, "We're not saying." Unfortunately, the most logical possibility is that the money will come out of existing education budgets.  Just in case you thought, as I did on first reading, that Trump would add $20 billion to the education budget, he is most likely (though no one knows for sure) promising to cut $20 billion from public education.

$24 billion cut from education for the poor and disabled?

On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to argue with Trump’s vision and his plan to “Establish the national goal of providing school choice to every one of the 11 million school aged [sic: school-aged] children living in poverty.”  Before we get too excited about Trump’s “vision” we should note that this is a rehash of a Republican plan presented in January, 2014.
Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), a former education secretary, and Tim Scott (S.C.), one of only two African Americans in the Senate, will propose far-reaching “choice” legislation on Tuesday that would take the $24 billion in federal money spent annually to help educate 11 million students in poverty or with disabilities and convert it into block grants to the states, among other changes. (
Oh, oh!  Could Trump’s reprioritized, “additional $20 billion,” actually be the money now being spent on the poor and the disabled?

Defunding and dismantling of public education--by the numbers

In case my description of the Trump plan as “defunding and dismantling of public education” sounds hyperbolic, consider the numbers.  The Trump plan calls upon the states to surrender “$110 billion of their own education budgets toward school choice.”  The total budget for K-12 education in the USA now is $620 billion.  Trump is proposing that roughly 18% of the public schools’ budgets be cut.  If you think public schools in the USA are struggling now, imagine what they will look like after losing close to one dollar in every five of their funding. At the same time, we will see the proliferation of  American kindergartens, grade schools and high schools modelled on Trump University. 

Should Canadians care about the decline of education in the USA?

Should we in Canada care?  I’m not sure.  Unless of course, somewhere down the line, we are told, in the process of renegotiating NAFTA, that funding a public education system gives us an unfair trade advantage, and we will have to stop it if we want to do business with our American neighbours.

Saturday 1 March 2014

Testing, Teaching and "Negative Capability"

Teaching for the test

I believe in testing.  Some years back, I was even certified as a Government of Canada Language Tester.  On the other hand, my experience as both teacher and tester confirmed my (and everyone else’s) misgivings about standardized testing.  The problems emerge when “the test” becomes the objective rather than one of the means at an educator’s disposal.  Nothing undermines the educational process more thoroughly and renders what is being taught more meaningless than when teachers are forced to teach for “the test.”

To Teach is to connect the unknown to the known

“To teach,” “to educate,” means to connect something new and meaningful to what students already know.  Meaning is context.  To learn something means that you are able to understand what it means or at least give that thing a meaning, which in turn means that you are able to place that thing in a context, to connect it to something that you already know.  That’s what good teachers do. They help students connect something new with what the students already know.  

The Opposite of teaching/learning

If you don’t believe me, consider the opposite of what I am describing.  You are sitting in a classroom, a “teacher” enters and begins talking in a language you don’t know and can’t identify.  The “teacher” continues for an hour and then leaves.  What have you learned?

"Negative capability"

The connection of new and old knowledge which defines teaching and learning rarely happens immediately and doesn’t come easily, which is why in the first class of my first-year undergraduate course I always introduced my students to the concept that the poet John Keats called “negative capability.”  “Negative capability,” which Keats described as the ability that all great poets have and I describe as what students need to have, is the capacity and willingness to hold onto information even when those facts and data may not immediately or completely make sense.  Students need to have confidence in the knowledge and ability of their teachers.  Students need to know and feel that their teachers will eventually help them make sense of what they have learned, help them connect the dots, but also connect all those dots to something that the student already knows about, giving them a fuller context and a meaning.  Teaching for the test means that what is being taught is likely to remain meaningless, to be un-connected from any meaningful context.  

But it gets worse.  

The Wire

If you haven’t had the experience (as I have), consider season four of my favourite television series, The Wire.  Yes, it’s fiction, but it does a good job of demonstrating what can and does happen when funding and teachers’ jobs are tied to students’ performance on a standardized test.  Schools (in this case a school in an underprivileged neighbourhood of Baltimore) will abandon their students’ interests and, by my definition, their education to a total focus on preparing for the test.


The Polarization of testing

Testing has become a polarized issue.  Macro-educators (specialists, administrators, institutions, ministries and governments) give too much importance to standardized testing, and micro-educators ( teachers, especially university teachers) abjure anything that comes close to a sit-down exam.

Traditionally a "discipline" means "an examination is possible"

I was involved in a protracted debate at my university about PhD Comprehensive Exams.  I was in favour of a traditional, three-or-four-hour sit-down exam.  The majority of my colleagues and the students preferred a take-home style of exam.  The single most compelling argument I could offer in favour of the traditional style of exam was that it would require that students study.  In the course of the debate, it came to me that the concept of “studying” had all but disappeared from the field in which I taught.

The Definition of "a test"

My definition of “a test” is that it is something that students have to study for.  A test should be based on what is taught, not the other way around, and not on something else--you’d be surprised how many teachers test something they haven’t really taught (or maybe you wouldn’t).  In addition to causing a student to study (by which I mean to review and reflected upon the course material), the test gives feedback to both the teacher and the student about what has been learned and what hasn’t.  

A Test requires attendance

That’s what I believe, but the truth is the original reason I adopted the habit of testing my undergraduates on a regular basis was to be sure they showed up.  I’ve seen other professors’ syllabi in which they specify that a student who misses two classes would have to drop the course.  This always sounded like a bluff to me, and if it wasn’t it would require taking attendance in every single class.  Not only does that seem un-university-like to me, but do you know how much time you would waste every single class taking the attendance of 60 students?  I wanted my students to show up because my lectures were so brilliant and stimulating that they wouldn’t want to miss one.  On the other hand, I remembered all the really good reasons I came up with for missing classes when I was an undergrad. So I started giving my classes little quizzes every two or three weeks or so.  Students who missed the class would, of course, miss the quiz, and if they missed the class after the quiz they wouldn’t be there to pick up the corrected copy.  This was my original intention, but something strange happened and I never did use the quizzes to check attendance.

Students want to be tested

As it turned out, attendance never proved to be a big enough issue to disturb me.  Students who didn’t show up usually failed or did poorly, and if a student was brilliant enough to do well without attending regularly, more power to her.  Even in a class of 60, I gave 5% of the mark for participation which, of course, required that I be able to identify every student in the room by the end of the semester--not as hard as it sounds.  The strange thing about the quizzes is, as I came to discover, that students really liked them.  

Students like being tested

I remember turning up at the classroom one day around 20 minutes before class (which was my habit) and being surprised to discover that most of the students were already there.  One of the students came up to me to announce that they were studying, had even formed study groups and mine was “the only course that people had to study for.”  At first I thought she was complaining, but she seemed so cheerful about it that I took her announcement as a compliment.  As I got to know the students better, especially those that had more than one class with me, I suggested that we could drop the quizzes, but the students wanted to keep them.  I started analyzing my evaluation process and informed students that overall their marks were lower on the quizzes than on the other forms of evaluation--the essay outline, the essay and exams.  Still students asked to maintain the quizzes.  

Testing is teaching

The quizzes were painless little things, multiple choice, circle the correct answer which could be done in less than ten minutes at the beginning of the class.  (There is a sample at the end of this post.) They were closely tied to the lectures and to notes that I put up on the course web site.  I understood that students appreciated and even enjoyed being tested, and the tests gave me the chance to go over the material a second time (or more) that a number of students hadn’t gotten the first time.  It was also a source of endless curiosity for me why students found some questions easy and others hard.  In fact, the quizzes confirmed the theories of teaching and learning that I’ve been talking about in this post.  

Students learn what connects to what they already know and think about

Let me explain.  When I taught American Literature, I always had a few quiz questions on Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  It didn’t surprise me that students always got the answer right to the question:  “Why was Blanche Dubois fired from her job as a high-school teacher?”  The answer “that she had had an affair with one of her students” was bound to have caught the attention of students not that far out of high school themselves--not to mention that anything sexual or scandalous is libel to stick in the mind.  Still it surprised me that students always seemed to know that the hotel where Blanche went with various men was called “the Flamingo,”  until one day I was driving down Main Street passed the pub which I knew to be the favourite hang out of students from the university and I noticed for the first time that the run-down hotel next door was called “the Flamingo.”  It is so obvious.  Students hold onto information that they can connect to, that has meaning/context for them, that’s what learning is.

The Evils of standardized testing

I believe that testing can facilitate the learning process, but it can also have the opposite effect.  The motivation/inspiration for this posting was the photograph (below) that one of my former students who now has school-age children shared on Facebook.  

The woman who took this photograph of her daughter in tears as she tried to correct her homework wrote a short piece explaining the image and telling the horror story of her daughter’s struggle to complete a standardized test that American schools are now imposing.  I have never read so many heartfelt responses to a single posting.  Even for someone like me, a career educator with a super bright child, I can remember how turning my kid over to the educational system felt like surrendering him to kidnappers.  If I made one false move the system could punish my child in retaliation.

This photograph of a little girl in tears is a perfect icon of an educational system gone terribly wrong.  One not governed by teachers and parents but by a Wall-Street mentality that sees pain and suffering as evidence of austerity, productivity and good business.  This image made me think about how that terrible, moving photograph of a Vietnamese girl running down the road naked and burned after a napalm attack helped to turn the hearts and minds of Americans against the Vietnam War.  It also made me think about another famous photograph of a young Black man being attacked by a German Shepard, which Malcolm Gladwell (in David and Goliath) describes as provoking a turning point in the civil rights movement in the States.  I’d like to think that this image of a little girl’s sadness could provoke some positive change.

In Quebec we talk a lot about “values” these days.  Any society which would wittingly put pressure on and cause stress for five-year-olds for motives as feeble as standardized testing and statistics gathering has a serious problem with its values.

PS:  Here’s an example of a literature quiz for first-year students:

First Quiz   
Instructions:  Circle the letter of the
best answer or completion to each of the following questions or statements.
1.  The word “quaint” in the phrase “your quaint honour” in the poem “To His Coy Mistress” is  . .
a.  a synonym for “great.”
b.  a metaphor for “cute” or “old fashioned.”
c.  a metonym for virginity.
d.  a pun on the word “queynte.”
e.  a hyperbole.
2.  The Latin expression “carpe diem” means . . .
a.  “god is dead.”
b.  “broken by the gods.”
c.  “I think therefore I am.”
d.  “buyer beware.”
e.  “seize the day.”
3.  The relationship between a sign and its referent can be . . . 
a.  discursive, non-discursive or logical.
b.  iconic, motivated or arbitrary.
c.  cultural, natural or ecological.
d.  physical, biological or neurological.
e.  phonetic, syntactic or grammatical.
4. The idea that words get their meanings from referents; that is, from things in the world is called . .
a.  constructionism.
b.  anthropologism.
c.  semiotics.
d.  linguistics.
e.  essentialism.
5.  How did the people of the Country of the Blind explain Nunez?
a.  He came from a strange and mystical place called Bogota.
b.  He came from rocks and was still unformed.
c.  He was a messenger from God.
d.  He was an alien from another world.
e.  He was a mountain climber who had fallen in an avalanche.
6.  Three traditional forms of irony are . . . 
a.  non-discursive, non-referential and aesthetic.
b.  poetry, prose and drama.
c.  verbal, situational and dramatic.
d.  Greek, Latin and Christian.
e.  textual, sociological and psychological.              
7.  Jacques Derrida defined “deconstruction” as . . .
a.  recognizing literature as the best writing that a society has produced.
b.  being true to one’s principles, beliefs and convictions.
c.  being conscious of the historical sedimentation of language.
d.  acknowledging that truth is beauty and beauty truth.
e.  the analysis of tropes and figures of speech in a literary text.
8.  “Vegetable love” is an example of . . .
a.  an oxymoron
b.  personification.
c.  a simile.
d.  an allusion.
e.  hyperbole.
9.  A “feminist” reading of “To His Coy Mistress” would be  . . .
a.  a sociological and resistant reading.
b.  a psychological and psychoanalytic reading.
c.  a formal and textual reading.
d.  a literal and historical reading.
e.  a reading of the poem as being ironic.
10.  How did the short story “The Country of the Blind” end? 
a.  Nunez returned to Bogota.
b.  Nunez and Medina-Saroté were married
c.  Nunez was accepted as the one-eyed King 
d.  Nunez lay down in the mountains, staring at the stars.
e.  Nunez was locked up because he was insane.

Monday 27 May 2013

Do No Harm Part II: Avoid Irony

In Education, sometimes less is more

I used to teach a course on Public Speaking.  It took me three years to figure out how to properly organize and deliver the course.  I think I finally did it right in the third year.  The trick was to abandon my teacher ego (a subject for a future post), get out of the way, take care of administrative and secretarial necessities of the course, and allow the students to perform and to educate each other—as much as I could (which was never easy for me).  A majority of the students who took this course were from the Faculty of Education and consequently destined for careers as educators.  One message I passed on to all the students, especially those planning to become teachers:  avoid irony. 

Every Joke has a victim

This is very complicated advice because if you ask students to list the five features they appreciate in teachers, a “sense of humour” is bound to appear consistently in the list.  (Here is another issue that I suspect teacher training programs never deal with.  Are there any education courses out there on “how to be funny”?)  At the core of any “joke” there is bound to be some form of irony and a victim.  I will try to avoid giving one of my three-hour lectures on the subject of irony, but if you are curious you might look at Linda Hutcheon’s book, Irony’s Edge and/or Paul de Man’s “The Concept of Irony” in Aesthetic Ideology.

Verbal Irony means saying what you don't mean

Verbal irony is saying one thing, but you really mean something else quite different.  The lowest form of verbal irony is the most familiar:  sarcasm.  A teacher being sarcastic with students is trying to be hurtful.  Unacceptable, but that is only part of the problem.  Irony by its very nature is always ambiguous.  No matter how clear or obvious a teacher might think s/he is being when being ironic, the fact is a number of different messages are being transmitted to students at the same time, and individual students are going to have to figure out which message is the right one.  Whatever message they choose, they are going to be wrong because the “real” meaning of an ironic statement doesn’t exist.  Irony is deliberately confusing; it does not transmit clear, singular meanings. If you ask someone what an ironic statement “really” means they are bound to be wrong.  According to Linda Hutcheon, the question would be the same as me asking you what this picture “really” represents.

If irony has to cross languages or cultures there is an exponential increase in the possibility of its being grossly misinterpreted.

Faced with verbal irony, you are never supposed to ask "what do you mean?"

Verbal irony can be quite innocent and lighthearted or unintended or very aggressive.  The problem is we can never know, with certainty, which.  Let’s try a case.  You arrive at work one morning and your colleague says:  “you’re looking sexy today.”  If your colleague is old and creepy, you begin to contemplate your sexual harassment suit; if young and attractive, you flash your brightest smile and strike a pose.  However, there is something in your colleague’s tone that puts a question mark in your mind.  (With irony, tone is everything.)  Does your colleague really mean that “you are looking sexy” or is the colleague being ironic and therefore intending another meaning? So, of course, you ask with an earnest glare: “What do you mean?”

The Multiple Meanings of an ironic utterance

We’ve all been there, so we know the answer will be something like:  “oh nothing,”  “just kidding around,” “don’t be so serious,” etc, etc, dodge, evade and duck (or is it a rabbit?).  Now you are left to try and figure out what your colleague really meant and, of course, the more you think about it, the more the number of possibilities expands.  The least likely possibility now seems to be that you are looking sexy this morning; your colleague earnestly thinks so and said so.  You enumerate the possibilities.  You had to get dressed in a rush this morning, missed the bus, etc.  Your colleague is telling you that you look a mess, or at least below your usual standards.  Option two, worse still, you are the least sexy person in the office and everyone knows it.  It is a big joke to describe you as “looking sexy.”  Or maybe the message is quite the opposite; it’s that you are trying too hard or you have overdone it and gone too far.  Your apparel is, in fact, too sexy.  You’ve gone passed sexy to slut/pimp. You are inappropriately dressed for the office.  At the same time, you infer that your colleague wants to initiate a “sexy” conversation with you.  What’s that about? 

Hopefully you are beginning to appreciate the problem.

What teachers say matters

Contrary to popular stereotypes, students are affected by what teachers tell them.  Moreover, there is a pretty good chance that the most passive-aggressive student in the room is also the most thin-skinned and insecure.  Imagine you are a student and your teacher is in the habit of being ironic.  Not only has your teacher confused you with multiple messages that you are unable to decode, but some of those messages, as far as you have been able to figure them out, are personally insulting and hurtful.  Your teacher on the other hand is thinking that s/he has such a great rapport with students that they have a fine time joking with each other.

Humour is a double-edged sword

It may not sound like it from this blog, but humour is an important part of my lecture style, my teaching in general and my personality.  I absolutely believe that teaching by example is the most important kind of teaching, and where teachers most often fail.  (I am convinced that if they were giving a lecture on “The Importance of Punctuality,” a number of my colleagues would show up late—and would have trouble understanding why that was a problem!)  Nonetheless, I have certainly been guilty of irony in my classes.  I have tried to mitigate the potential damage by warning students that I tell jokes (or at least relate anecdotes and recount comic examples) for two perfectly justifiable pedagogical motives:  The first is that I am illustrating a point in a fashion that I hope will make the point memorable (and I beg the students to remember the point I was making and not just the joke).  The second motive is that looking out across the room I can see that everyone is on the verge of falling asleep.  Whatever significant knowledge I was hoping to get across at that moment was DOA, so I might as well stir the room with something random with the hope of rekindling curiosity and concentration a few moments hence.

Comedy and ironic distance

However, tell yourself any two jokes that you know well, and chances are they both involve a victim.  Stories are funny because someone is or does something foolish or something unfortunate happens to them that makes us laugh.  We need a certain distance from these characters in order for us to laugh at what befalls them. Northrop Frye calls this distance “ironic” in his categorization of the modes of literature.  We cannot be too close to the characters, too sympathetic or concerned, or the joke won’t seem funny.   Generally, we feel superior to the characters in a joke or funny story.  

Cuckoos and cuckoldry

In late medieval humour the most common theme was cuckoldry.  A cuckold (just to remind you, because it is not a word often used these days) is a husband whose wife has sex with another man.  (There is no equivalent term for a betrayed wife, but the etymology isn’t quite as sexist as it sounds.  The origin is the cuckoo bird which was known for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests.  The implication is that a cuckold suffers not because his wife has sex with someone else but because he might unknowingly end up raising someone else’s offspring. People who have seen the movie but not read the novel will likely not recognize the intimations of betrayed masculinity—as well as insanity—in the title One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest).  In more contemporary times, until the recent ascendency of political correctness, the “victim” was usual a gendered or ethnic or regional or class stereotype. 

Teachers:  are you ready to be the butt of your own jokes?

If you are going to “be funny” with students, you have to ask yourself:  what is the relationship between the victim of your humour and your audience?  One way you as a teacher can be sure you are not going to victimize someone with your humour is to make yourself the victim.  I do on occasion make myself the butt of my own jokes, but this is not a gambit I recommend for any teacher who may be having concerns about maintaining status, respect and proper decorum with students.  If you observe stand-up comedians these days, self-mockery or at least putting themselves in the role of the “dumb” character is a common strategy.  It is also worth noting that the word “irony” derives from the dissembling character in ancient Greek comedy called the eirôn who appeared to be inferior and unintelligent but would triumph over the braggart in the end.

"No dark sarcasm in the classroom / Teachers leave them kids alone"

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Do No Harm

"Do no harm"

It was always my intention and ambition as a teacher to honour the basic tenant of the Hippocratic Oath:  “Do no harm.”  It sounds simple enough, and I assume most teachers feel as I do, but for people with sadistic impulses the classroom must seem like a tempting playground.  Since the oath was intended for doctors, much of what it proposes would not apply to teachers, but even some of its tenants like honouring gods and mentors, not using a knife on patients, and not providing abortions seem odd promises even for ancient Greek doctors.  On the other hand, the proscription of having sex with patients or revealing their confidences could and should also be applied to teachers with their students.  (These proscriptions, in my mind, go hand and in hand, and will be discussed in a future post.)

"Spare the rod and spoil the child"

But I’ve never been able to get passed the basic “Do no harm.”  It is a burden and a challenge for any teacher once you start thinking about it.  Are all your students better off because of the experience of having been taught by you?  Have you ever hurt a student?  As a student in the 50s and 60s, I certainly witnessed a great deal of corporal punishment, but those were the days when a sadistic streak was considered a necessary requirement for high-school (and even elementary) teachers.  Even the enlightened educator of today is likely to have done some harm or injury to a student without ever being aware.

"You've just been wasting my precious time"

Under the rubric “do no harm,” I also find myself asking if I have ever wasted my students’ “precious time.”  (Hope you get the Dylan allusion . . . Zimmerman not Thomas.)  If your answer to this question is that if students weren’t in your class, they probably wouldn’t be doing anything worthwhile anyway, then you shouldn’t be teaching.  The human instinct is to learn.  No matter what environment you put a human being into, the human reaction is to satisfy curiosity, to try and learn something.  (Have you noticed that when people talk about “drug education” or “sex education,” what they mean is teaching young people not to take drugs and not to have sex, even if this "education" means spreading misinformation?) My biggest preoccupation with educational systems is that so often they seem designed to ensure that students learn less rather than more. The frequency with which I encounter educators who have tacitly surrendered to this conclusion shocks me.  The school is a prison, outside the school is a jungle; the only debate seems to be about which one is worse.

The Best way to spend three hours and learn something

The most typical scenario within which I taught was the three-hour lecture.  It’s a tough question to ask but I did ask myself:  Is my three-hour lecture the best possible way these students could be spending their time?  They could be at home in bed catching up on three hours of much needed sleep.  Making love.  Reading a book.  Browsing the internet.  Making progress on a challenging video game.  Day dreaming about the future.  Taking care of loved ones.  Having a conversation.  Exercising.  Taking a walk.  Watching a blockbuster movie that cost 40 million dollars to produce.  Inevitably they would be learning something, even if it were only about each others’ navels, or how easy it is to waste 40 million dollars.  The 40-million-dollar blockbuster movie-- that was my competition and I always thought I had the advantage because I could use a film in my class, but no Hollywood producer had requested my skills as a lecturer.   Actually, that’s not quite true.  When I requested a 16-dollar budget so that I could show six minutes of Romeo and Juliet in a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre from the DVD version of Shakespeare in Love, my request sent shock waves through the department, the faculty, the library and upper echelons of the financial administration.  The department did not have a “pedagogical budget,” but a section of the library agreed to purchase the DVD if I promised not to show it to students (no, I’m not kidding), because group showings would, according to the library, contravene copyright law.  The moral of the story is that if you want to “do no harm” to students, if you want to teach well and insure that they learn something that sticks with them in every class, there is a pretty good chance that you are going to have to break somebody’s rules to do it (the subject of another future post), not to mention forking out the cash to buy your own DVDs.

Triggering past traumas or helping the healing?

I remember once having the privilege of teaching a class that was small enough that I could invite students to introduce themselves in the first class.  One of the students explained that he had only recently discovered that he had been an orphan, had been adopted, and that he had met his biological family for the first time over the summer.  It was a striking revelation; one that stuck with me throughout the course.  The student was very upbeat, but it seemed obvious to me that he was still processing his recent discoveries.  The problem for me was to suddenly realize that every second text on the course I was giving seemed to involve an orphan.  The infant Oedipus is left on a mountain top to die, but survives, is adopted, and returns to Thebes unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother in the process.  Earnest Worthing is left in a hand bag at a train station and grows up not knowing his own identity.  And, in the short story, “Who am I this time?” by Kurt Vonnegut, Harry, the central character, is a brilliant actor but is incapable of developing a “real” personality or social life because he was a foundling.  I remember hoping that the texts would prove beneficial to him, that they would give him the opportunity to consider the significance of being an orphan from a distance and from varying perspectives, maybe allow him to laugh about his orphan-hood, or consider himself lucky that he was no Oedipus.  In fact this idea, the possibility of a distanced and even disinterested or ironic perspective and the opportunity for calm reflection on the world’s and one’s own personal problems became for me, however unfashionable, a justification for the study of literature.

Romanticizing suicide

I live in an area where the second most frequent cause of death for young people is suicide. This fact certainly got me thinking about the number of literary works I have taught which romanticize suicide. Romeo and Juliet is the most obvious and influential example. Actually, our unwitting romanticization of suicide was brought home to me when I was teaching Margaret Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood's novel tells of a near-future dystopia in which young women were required to become birth mothers for powerfull, infertile couples. In the middle of a classroom discussion of the novel, one student, a bright and always charming young woman, announced very earnestly to the room that she would never accept to live in the circumstances which the Handmaid was enduring. No doubt, in her mind, the student was simply sharing her feelings, but at the same time she was implying that suicide was the right thing to do and criticizing the central character, the Handmaid, for her decision to survive--a decision which Atwood makes explicit in the novel. Since that day, I have found myself repeatedly arguing against the grain of certain literary works, or at least popular interpretations of those works, which present suicide as the logical and even heroic consequence of dramatic events. While I think I have demonstrated sound pedagogy and sound interpretations of the literary works by demonstrating how fictional suicides are to be interpreted as misguided, short sighted and cowardly, I can't help but think of all the years I taught these literary works without stopping to say the obvious.

The Tipping Point

Yes, I know perfectly well, as do you, that no-one is going to go and commit suicide because they read Romeo and Juliet, but I wouldn’t want anything I taught or said to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.  I didn’t want to be the butterfly that caused a hurricane (yes, there is a future post coming on pedagogy and chaos theory).  I also believe, as Malcom Gladwell underlines in The Tipping Point, that “the people who die in highly publicized suicides—whose deaths give others ‘permission’ to die–serve as the Tipping Point in suicide epidemics” (224).  By the way, if you see a sign that someone is contemplating suicide, call 911.  It sounds obvious, but people don’t do the obvious.  I understand why . . . perfectly.  The first reaction is that if it were true, someone else would call.  Then you call, and you feel foolish, because of course you really don’t know, in fact, the more you think about it you become convinced that the person really isn’t seriously contemplating suicide.  You will tell yourself that you sound foolish, hysterical.  911 will ask you questions that you can’t answer.  But 911 will take your call seriously.  The police will respond.  When it’s all over, the student will tell you that it was all a big mistake.  You will never be able to say you prevented a suicide, but your student will thank you anyway, and praise you because you were the only person to react.  So call 911.

Honouring confidences

While I calculated and hoped that the study of literature would have a salutary effect on individual students, I repeatedly found myself stymied and second guessing myself as I tried to anticipate how a particular student might be affected by what I was teaching.  As I write these words, I find myself on the verge of breaking the oath which this post is intended to promote.  I don’t want to tell tales about my students.  But in order for what I write to be useful, meaningful and credible, it must be grounded in lived experience.  I intend to be discreet, and consequently somewhat vague, even though I know perfectly well that the salacious details might make for more interesting and credible reading.  I certainly would not want this blog to “out” any of my former students or reveal personal information that could be traced back to a particular individual.

Talking about rape and guilt and trauma

The instances I am thinking about, for example, would include the student who met me in the corridor outside the classroom to apologize for missing the previous class because she was testifying in a rape case in which she was the victim.  My lecture that day was centered on the rape scene in Streetcar Named Desire.   Over the years students have told me about their breakups, their unwanted pregnancies and abortions, of being battered by spouses, the suicides of friends, their struggles with depression and schizophrenia.  I am still haunted by a young mother’s story of how she was responsible for the death of her child.  A Rwandan student’s accounts of her father and sisters being murdered, her mother hospitalized and her brother in a refugee camp simply left me numb.  Knowing that these students are in my classes didn’t change what I taught, but it made me careful, reflective, and aware of what I was saying and how it might affect or be hurtful to a particular listener—and still I can remember the times when students told me I had not been careful enough.

Sometimes "caring" is all we can offer

Of course, there is no solution to the problem I am pointing out (unless you have an answer), except that it prompts the general counsel to be careful.    I have been told that I bring the problem on myself, because students recognize that I am sympathetic and willing to listen.  It has also been suggested that I allow myself to be conned.  I always assumed that students were telling me the truth unless I had proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” to the contrary.  That presumption of innocence, that trust, always served me well in my relationships with students.  It's effect was, in my experience, almost invariably, mutual respect.  The idea that a student might be conning me to gain my sympathy never disturbed me because it was always my intention to be as understanding and generous with students as possible—no special pleas were necessary.   On the other hand, my conscious generosity was only possible because in every course I taught I would set up a substantial variety of methods of evaluation.  In my experience, if you give students ample opportunity to gain or lose marks, they will over the course of time determine their own grades.  I consistently attempted to set up my evaluation structure so that my sympathy could not overwhelm the outcome. 

Objectivity matters

Am I saying that I was consistently objective and egalitarian in my treatment and assessment of students?  No.  In fact, I would say that teachers who are convinced of their own objectivity are very likely to be the opposite.  Perfect justice and objectivity are the sorts of things we must constantly strive for, all the while recognizing that they cannot be achieved.  I know it is impossible that I was absolutely fair in equal measure with each of the students I came into contact with but I also know that I always tried to be.   If we want to “do no harm” then teachers have to be diligent and confident enough to rigorously evaluate their students but, at the same time, self-doubting enough to question themselves and their tools each time that they do.   The student who has been given an inflated impression of his or her achievements and abilities may, in the long run, be as harmed as the student made cynical because the work is too easy or too hard, or the student whose self-esteem suffers because of a low mark or a failure.  There are no magical, “silver bullet” solutions to these kinds of challenges, except to recognize that they exist and to strive against the complacency, cynicism and fatigue that facing these challenges are bound to engender.

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