Thursday, August 23, 2007

Self-Interview, Part I

Author's note: I was trying here to follow up on an idea that I sketched out in an earlier post. The result is still a little wet. I found myself heading in one direction and then winding up going in another. Think of it as an experiment. If any of you have followup questions or observations, let me know and I'll fold them into the next installment, coming eventually.

Q: So you’re beginning another school year.

A: That’s true.

Q: How long have you been at it?

A: I started teaching in 1969. This will be my 38th year in the classroom.

Q: Have you had any time off?

A: I’ve taught continuously. No sabbaticals, no special leaves. I’ve even taught during the summer, most years.

Q: How has that worked out for you?

A: It’s been fine. Over my lifetime I’ve learned that I am much more productive and much more settled in my mind when I’m working regularly. I always look forward to vacations, but when they arrive sooner or later I find myself at loose ends. I start the vacation with lots of plans and wind up not getting much done and then feeling guilty about it. I like the start of the school year. I’m grateful for the chance to be back in the classroom. I feel that I’m fortunate in that I can still wake up each morning and look forward to going to school.

Q: Is there anything different about this school year?

A: Yeah, I think so. There are some new initiatives at school that I think look promising. Our freshman class is arriving for the first time with laptops, and there is going to be a lot of interesting exploration taking place in all of our freshman classes about how to make use of the technology to enhance student learning. We also have, for the first time, a writer-in-residence at our school for the entire semester, and he’s going to working with students to help them think well about writing and with teachers to help them think well about how to teach it. So we're looking forward to that.

Q: Do you see any long-term trends in student capabilities that concern you?

A: Well, it’s hard to look at long-term trends in any area—educational, environmental, political, cultural, you name it—and not find yourself somewhere on the continuum running from concern, through apprehension and dread, to panic. I’m not by nature inclined toward the more extreme right end of that continuum. But there’s ample evidence that things are very bad and getting worse.

Q: Well, that doesn’t sound too cheery.

A: True enough.

Q: What concerns you with regard to your students?

A: Don’t get me wrong, I think my students are terrific. They’re cooperative and thoughtful and willing to work, and they haven’t given up on the idea of becoming thoughtful, moral adults. But I am concerned that so many of them, certainly a greater proportion that would have been the case, say, 20 years ago, do what reading they can bring themselves to do with some reluctance. I teach in a private school in which most of the students do in fact have some sort of personal and familial commitment to getting a good education, and yet by and large they do not seem to have the sense that reading broadly and deeply is an important part of becoming an educated person. Most of them will complete what reading assignments they are given, but it is a rare student who will go beyond and pursue related readings independently. I’m not saying that there aren’t any; I have a few every year. But they are they are the truly exceptional ones: they stand out.

Q: Hasn’t that always been the case?

A: To some degree, I suppose so. But at times I feel somewhat overwhelmed by how much the students have not read, and how narrow their frames of reference are.

Q: Why does it matter? There are a lot of people who are neither well-read nor broadly informed, but they get along okay. They go to college, get good jobs, make a good salary.

A: Well, yes. But there ought to be more to life than that, than getting by and taking care of yourself.

Q: Why?

A: Well, for one thing, because the structure of our society, the democratic experiment, depends to a certain degree on an informed electorate. And if we consider that electorate today, once again the news is not good. Here is Louis Menand, writing in the July 9 New Yorker magazine:

The political knowledge of the average voter has been tested repeatedly, and the scores are impressively low. In polls taken since 1945, a majority of Americans have been unable to name a single branch of government, define the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” and explain what the Bill of Rights is. More than two-thirds have reported that they do not know the substance of Roe v. Wade and what the Food and Drug Administration does. Nearly half do not know that states have two senators and three-quarters do not know the length of a Senate term. More than fifty per cent of Americans cannot name their congressman; forty per cent cannot name either of their senators. Voters’ notions of government spending are wildly distorted: the public believes that foreign aid consumes twenty-four per cent of the federal budget, for example, though it actually consumes about one per cent.

Even apart from ignorance of the basic facts, most people simply do not think politically. They cannot see, for example, that the opinion that taxes should be lower is incompatible with the opinion that there should be more government programs. Their grasp of terms such as “affirmative action” and “welfare” is perilously uncertain: if you ask people whether they favor spending more on welfare, most say no; if you ask whether they favor spending more on assistance to the poor, most say yes. And, over time, individuals give different answers to the same questions about their political opinions. People simply do not spend much time learning about political issues or thinking through their own positions. They may have opinions—if asked whether they are in favor of capital punishment or free-trade agreements, most people will give an answer—but the opinions are not based on information or derived from a coherent political philosophy. They are largely attitudinal and ad hoc.

Menand makes these observations as part of a review of a book in which the author, Bryan Caplan, makes a serious argument that political decisions are too important to be left in the hands of the voting population.

Q: So what’s the solution?

A: Well, Caplan’s solution seems to be to simply let the economists, who claim to know what they are doing, take over. I haven’t read his book, and I’m probably oversimplifying his case, but the key point is that either we as citizens have to be both informed and engaged in the decisionmaking that goes on around us, or someone else will make those decisions, whether it be the economists or the Neocons or the party hacks. And in all likelihood those people will have an agenda which is not oriented toward our own best interests. David Foster Wallace, in his essay “Up, Simba” from his recent book, Consider the Lobster, makes the point this way:

If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.

Q: So how does this relate to reading and teaching?

A: Well, I guess it has something to do with how I see my mission as a teacher, to do my little one-man stand against complacency. I tell my students, if your aspiration is to grow up to be a thoughtless, self-centered adult, there are a million ways to get there and a million models to be seen everywhere. If, on the other hand, you aspire to become a thoughtful, well-informed, effective citizen as an adult, the way is harder. And it starts by cultivating certain habits of mind, including the habits of reading and writing.

Q: Do the students buy it?

A: Not all of them, not all of the time. But I try to get the message out to as many of them as I can. It’s a job I enjoy, because I think it’s a job worth doing. It’s not easy, but it’s always interesting.

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