I think it would be helpful for me to outline precisely how cynical I am about education.
I am very cynical about the impact of wealth on education, and especially on what that means for social mobility. I don’t think education is the great equalizer in American society. I think maybe at one point it was, but now? No. There is competition for whatever is educationally valuable, and those with the resources gobble up those things fairly efficiently. Thanks to widening inequality the bottom 25% of Americans have fewer chances to rise above through schooling just as the costs of not rising are as high as they’ve ever been. It’s not good, very bad, and it impacts education at every level.
I am somewhat cynical about the school curriculum, in particular the school math curriculum. Math is big, and the school curriculum is narrow, and a dozen mathematicians would end up with a dozen different curricula. Sure, every kid should know something about numbers and algebra. But what exactly are we going for in high school? What’s with the onslaught of function types and finicky expressions? But it seems hard at this point to change things in a major way — the stakes are too high, see everything above about widening inequality, we are apparently stuck with the math that we have, more or less.
I am a bit cynical about the ability of math class to keep people from killing each other, as Deborah Ball put it. The gap between some of these social aspirations and the reality of the classroom is just vast. I don’t seriously hope that my teaching helps create informed citizens, or sparks social change, or inspires people to act more kindly with each other…
…but that last one actually gets pretty close to the limits of my cynicism.
Because I’m not at all cynical about schooling. I think that schooling is essential. I think that learning is valuable, really any learning, even if what we’re learning is somewhat arbitrarily chosen. I think it’s good to spend your childhood learning. I think it’s good to spend your adulthood learning. I just like learning. I think a large part of being a kind and good person is being able to continue learning about others and their needs. Learning is good, I am not cynical about it.
And school is a good place for most kids to learn. Highly imperfect, but despite the imperfections I’m not at all cynical about the big picture. Get a bunch of kids together, get adults whose job is to be kind and nurturing towards these kids? I’m not cynical at all about that, this is my job, this is what I love doing. And because I’m not cynical about any of this, I’m pretty intolerant of adults who aren’t kind to children.
And even if I am not very optimistic about “teaching so that people stop killing each other,” I’m pretty committed to being kind to people in the classroom. I think that’s valuable. I think kids just need to be around people who are kind to them. Maybe because it’ll impact them in some way, or maybe just because it’s nice? Not in the future, but right now.
In other words, the kids are here, in your classroom, and wouldn’t it be better if they had a good time instead of a bad one? That’s what my teaching is about.
So, tallying it all up, I’m pretty cynical about the curriculum, teaching for social impact, or social mobility. What that leaves is the classroom, in particular my classroom, where every day I get another chance to do it right or not.