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This of course is anecdotal, but perhaps an concerning insight into the culture that exists for school children for my neighbours to the South. As a school teacher one of touchstones I strive to establish is the idea that the classroom that we are in is a place of safety and comfort. Good things and the good feelings that go along with them happen in class along with, hopefully, some learning.

I find it difficult to relate to the experience described below, as Canada does not have a gun culture like the US, and if this is typical, I hope we never will.

How do you solve a problem?  Look at the root causes and address them.  Laurie Halse Anderson writes in Time:

 

“How do we reduce the horrifying amount of sexual violence in this country?

We talk to our boys. Parents, family members, educators, clergy and other leaders have the opportunity and responsibility to model and teach consent from the time kids are old enough to walk: “You don’t touch anyone without their permission.” Families and schools should regularly share facts about bodies and sex appropriate to the developmental age of the child. Cultural leaders — writers, musicians, film producers, artists, advertisers, professional athletes, actors and social media influencers — have the power to accurately portray how sexual assault happens, providing information that will save lives.

I know it’s hard, but if we don’t figure out how to have tough conversations, we will sacrifice another generation of victims. It is time to not just inspire those who have been hurt to tell their stories — but to find our own courage to have open conversations about these complex subjects.

We need to teach our boys about healthy sexuality. We need to be crystal-clear about the laws and moral code surrounding consent. Our children must be aware that not only is there a federal definition of consent, but that states have their own, additional definitions. This is particularly significant for people younger than 18. “Close-in-age exemptions,” which permit some types of sexual contact between consenting minors, vary widely. RAINN has a State Law Database, to help you sort out the details.

We need to ask our boys questions so that we understand what they think they know about sex and intimacy. Sharing books, movies and TV shows are a great way to open these conversations. Discussing the choices made by fictional characters paves the way for more personal conversations.

We need to tell our own stories to make sure our boys understand that these things happen to people they know and love. We need to give them the tools required to navigate relationships in a positive way.

Our boys deserve information and guidance. The only way they’ll get it is if we speak up.”

My undergraduate University days were nothing like what is routinely described as the ‘University Experience’.  It was a much more utilitarian experience – go to class, take notes, and then rinse and repeat the next day.  Add review said notes and study as test time rolled around.  The social aspect of University was pretty much all but lost on me at the time as the group of friends I had at the time did not attend.  In hindsight, not having friends doing the same thing made focusing on my studies much more difficult and it extended my stay at the lovely U by a few years.   Lessons learned and what not.

So, my Uni days were, to oversimplify, just highschool but harder.  My real learning started or at least the path to intellectual maturity started after I earned my degree.  It also helped that my partner was smart af and pushed me to become more rigorous in developing and defending my thoughts and arguments.  So when I read this essay I could understand what they where saying, but couldn’t really relate to what was being said of the state of university/college campuses regarding the moral/social development of their students.

For me, finding my moral and ethical centre was quite independent of the educational process, such as it was, during my tenure at the U.  Granted, of course, I was being exposed to and learning about topics that would, in the future, inform my ethical-self and boundaries, but nothing on the level which seems to happen in the US college scene.  So then while reading this quote intrigued me:

   “It is entirely reasonable, then, for students to conclude that questions of right and wrong, of ought and obligation, are not, in the first instance at least, matters to be debated, deliberated, researched or discussed as part of their intellectual lives in classrooms and as essential elements of their studies. “

What?  Isn’t inside the classroom where the great arguments and debates should happen?  I mean, it is in the university that you can hash out and grapple with the big problems with the help of professors and the knowledge that they bring and provide of the big thinkers that have grappled with these questions in the past.  The university is where you can make mistakes and get nuanced feedback that will sharpen your intellectual faculties and better equip you to lead the examine life, right?

(It’s funny – none of this really happened for me – sit in class, get taught stuff, regurgitate stuff – was the order of the day).  But yeah, in the formal sense, if you’re not going to university to grapple with the right and wrong questions, then why go?  Getting a degree for job is nice and stuff, but attending higher education is supposed to be more than that.

Here is an excerpt from Wellmen’s take on the the state of the university experience in the US:

 

“The transformation of American colleges and universities into corporate concerns is particularly evident in the maze of offices, departments and agencies that manage the moral lives of students. When they appeal to administrators with demands that speakers not be invited, that particular policies be implemented, or that certain individuals be institutionally sanctioned, students are doing what our institutions have formed them to do. They are following procedure, appealing to the institution to manage moral problems, and relying on the administrators who oversee the system. A student who experiences discrimination or harassment is taught to file complaints by submitting a written statement; the office then determines if the complaint potentially has merit; the office conducts an investigation and produces a report; an executive accepts or rejects the report; and then the office ‘notifies’ the parties of the ‘outcome’. 

These bureaucratic processes transmute moral injury, desire and imagination into an object that flows through depersonalised, opaque procedures that produce an ‘outcome’. Questions of character, duty, moral insight, reconciliation, community, ethos or justice have at most a limited role. US colleges and universities speak to the national argot of individual rights, institutional affiliation and complaint that dominate American capitalism. They have few moral resources from which to draw any alternative moral language and imagination. 

The extracurricular system of moral management requires an ever-expanding array of ‘resources’ – counselling centres, legal services, deans of student life. Teams of devoted professionals work to help students hold their lives together. The people who support and oversee these extracurricular systems of moral management do so almost entirely apart from any coherent curricular project. 

It is entirely reasonable, then, for students to conclude that questions of right and wrong, of ought and obligation, are not, in the first instance at least, matters to be debated, deliberated, researched or discussed as part of their intellectual lives in classrooms and as essential elements of their studies. They are, instead, matters for their extracurricular lives in dorms, fraternities or sororities and student activity groups, most of which are managed by professional staff. “

It seems less of an organic process, and more of a ritualized ‘thing ya do’ to start making the bucks in society.  It seems like such a waste that we have strict qualifications to get and to graduate, but at the same time that we’re not challenging people, making them stretch and reform their assumptions about the world.  Where else can we have the space to do such important life work?

   I’ve written more than my fair share of five paragraph essays.  Graded a few in my time as well.  It would be nice if we could spend the time and teach people different ways of grappling with thoughts and ideas in their writing.  The online Aeon Magazine has some surprisingly good and thoughtful articles, this one by Sam Dresser is a fine example:

 

“Carrying out this kind of teaching calls for concentrating effort at two levels. One is teaching students how to make meaning at the sentence level, using syntax to organise words to say what you want them to say. Books on writing at the sentence level – my favourites are Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (1981) by Joseph Bizup and Joseph M Williams, now in its 11th edition; and Fish’s How to Write a Sentence – lay out a series of useful rules of thumb: be clear, be concise, be direct, focus on actors and actions, play with language, listen for the music. The other is teaching students how to make meaning across an entire text, using rhetorical moves that help them structure a compelling argument from beginning to end. My favourite book in this genre is Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say, I Say. I use all three in a graduate class I teach on academic writing.

I’ve also developed my own set of questions that writers need to answer when constructing an analytical text:

1. What’s the point? This is the analysis issue: what is your angle?
2. Who says? This is the validity issue: on what (data, literature) are you basing your claims?
3. What’s new? This is the value-added issue: what do you contribute that we don’t already know?
4. Who cares? This is the significance issue, the most important issue of all, the one that subsumes all the others. Is this work worth doing? Is the text worth reading?But, you ask, aren’t these just alternative sets of rules, much like the Rule of Five? I say no. One difference is that these are clearly labelled not as rules but rules of thumb. They are things to keep in mind as you write (and especially as you edit your writing), many of which might be in tension with each other, and which you must draw upon or ignore as needed. Another difference is that they resist the temptation to provide a rigid structure for a text of the kind that I have been discussing here. Deal with issues in the literature where it helps to frame and support your argument rather than confining it to the lit-review ghetto. And don’t make the reader wait until the conclusion to find out what gives the text significance; most people would stop long before this point.

Rules of thumb call for the writer to exercise judgment rather than follow the format. Of course, it takes more time and effort to develop writerly judgment than it does to follow the shortcut of the five-paragraph essay. Form is harder than formalism. But the result is a text that does more than just look like a piece of writing; it makes meaning.”

I like his guidelines and suggestions for writing, although I’m not sure I’m quite ready to give up my 5 paragraphs quite yet.

pomoHow We Reached the Point Where We Can’t Hear Each Other” is a article on Counterpunch by Joseph Natoli.  I’ve excerpted some of the beginning bits for context, but the best is when he focuses on what is happening in Education and how people are taught to think these days.  I’m also a fan of his borrowing of radical feminist methodology that focuses on the the material reality of the situation and the naming of the problem.  I heartily recommend you read the full article, as it suggests reasons why we are becoming less social despite ‘social’ media and the corrosive effect that identity politics, one of the crown jewels of post-modern theory, is having on our society.

[…]

“The intent of a past analog world to put us all on the same page so we could all direct ourselves in common to our common, societal problems is something now disseminated into an infinitude of self-designed enclaves. We have connectivity between the like-minded, or opinionated, but not conjunction which Bifo Berardi defines “as a way of becoming other.” (And: Phenomenology of the End, 2015)

If you want to reflect beyond the entrapment of your own personal experiences and the personal opinions derived from such, you are desiring something that has been superseded.

If you want not to be the blind man who feels the tail of an elephant and pronounces the elephant to be shaped like a snake, you are hoping for a door that leads out of the room of your own limited experience.

Unfortunately, there is no longer any need to leave that room because cyberspace has designed the whole world to be your room. You can blog, tweet, text. Video, emoji your reflections online without any intent to augment social knowledge or understanding or to encounter a counter-punch that will cause you to adjust your views.”

[…]

“We exist now within narratives, not impeccable logics and sound proofs, air-tight arguments or binding adjudications. For reasons too elaborate to condense, we have accepted Nietzsche’s view of reason as a pawn of power and have retreated to our own personal reasoning.

This retreat to personal arbitration of all matters is expressed in the politics of identity, a politics concerned with the full emancipation of the individual not as defined within any cultural, religious, historical, or anthropological notion of the individual, but defined by each and every variety of individual. It is as if the individual is a knowledge within itself.”

[…]

Education is also in a special dilemma considering the mission here is get a student to put his or her personal opinions and preferences and different experiences out of sight and attend to a rationally validated collective representation of a subject.

Nathan Heller points out that elite colleges find that the cultivation of the individual is not an easy matter when students will not leave their personal “experiential authority” at the door. (“The Big Easy,” The New Yorker May 30, 2016) One is not reading to extract eternal verities, the Enlightenment dream, or to deconstruct the pretenses of those same verities. In the climate that Heller describes, no content can be permitted to transgress the personally defined identity of the reader or listener.

An Oberlin student who Heller describes as “a trans man …educated in Mexico, walks with crutches, and suffers from A.D.H.D. and bipolar disorder …lately on suicide watch” objected to a discussion of Antigone without a trigger warning, i.e., characters in the play committed suicide. Identity-based oppression is responded to with a theory of intersectionality, which contends, “who knows what it means to live at an intersection better than the person there?” Thus, personal experiential authority now contends with a pedagogic tradition of minimizing the effects of personal experiential authority on objective, rational reflection.

Education attempts to respect individual arrangements of the results of critical thinking but not allow those arrangements to taint the process of critical thinking. This long standing agreement is no longer in effect. We have reached the point where we cannot engage in any way what may “trigger” our personal dislike or what may upset a private space we have self-designed.  Long standing notions of both education and society are dissolving.

We now listen to our own voices and our clones in “social” media, a pathological condition that undermines much needed social and political communication and interrelationships. The way out, as with all pathologies, is to first recognize the condition, observe the point we have reached and reorient our compass.”

Teaching critical thinking in public education has always been a revolutionary activity, as this article confirms, it looks like it shall continue to be in the revolutionary category for quite some time.

 

David Cromwell excels at identifying key points of friction between public and private interests.  In this excerpt he examines how higher learning is being bent to fulfil its corporately mandated responsibilities to society.

“This [Academia] is a privileged sector where critical thought and enquiry into human society, the natural world and the cosmos ought to be the norm; not where overwhelming pressure to conform to state-corporate interests should be exerted on teaching and research agendas. 

    why_are_we_the_good_guys How can academic ‘collaboration’ with large corporations which are, after all, centralised systems of illegitimate power, not lead to compromise, distortion or worse?  It is clearly not in the interests of such institutions to promote rational and honest study into the problems of a corporate-shaped society.  It is in their interests to commandeer the publicly-funded research while co-opting supposedly neutral and objective academia as ‘partners’.  And all the better if highly trained university researchers working in narrow, focused disciplines remain disconnected from the interests in other disciplines, or more importantly, from the concerns of the general populace.

     ‘To work on a real problem (like how to eliminate poverty in a nation producing eight hundred billion dollars’ worth of wealth each year) one would have to follow that problem across many disciplinary lines without qualm, dealing with historical materials, economic theories, political obstacles’, observed historian Howard Zinn, author of The People’s History of the United States, who died in 2010.  ‘Specialisation ensures that one cannot follow a problem through from start to finish.  It ensures the functioning in the academy of the system’s dictum: divide and rule.’  Zinn provided a potent example: ‘Note how little work is done in political science on the tactics of social change.  Both students and teacher deal with theory and reality in separate courses; the compartmentalisation safely neutralises them.’

    Any management vision of how the university sector, or any place of higher education, ought to develop that does not recognize the nature of the iniquitous capitalist society in which the university finds itself embedded, is short-sighted.  And, moreover, any such ‘vision’ that is not committed to making radical changes in the way society is structured is tacitly, if not actively, supporting the status quo.  The same argument applies to any major institution in society.”

-David Cromwell.  Why Are We The Good Guys? pp. 216 – 217

   So, great you have a degree, well done sport!  Did they teach you to comply or to question the society that you inhabit?

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