But I Wanted an ‘A’ or, How to Avoid being a Tool

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It’s three days before Christmas. I have survived my first semester as an adjunct English professor. Today, despite every hunch telling me not to, I logged into my email account at one of the schools where I work. That was two hours ago. I am still reeling from the various emails I had received since I posted final grades.

There was one message from Student A that stood out from the rest. We will call her Tsunami. Over the semester, Tsunami showed promise; but, somewhere in week ten, she shut down. Being the kindhearted, likeable fellow I am, equal parts fuzzy warm thoughts and fairness, I spoke to Tsunami about her lack of enthusiasm for two essay assignments; neither of which she turned in by the cutoff date (a rather liberal one that I would have never been afforded in my days as an undergraduate student).

“I just don’t get it,” came her reply.

So we talked some more. Our class was met twice a week. One of those days were devoted entirely to writing in a computer lab. Thinking this may be of benefit, since I am there with my students, I discussed this with Tsunami.

“I can’t write with other people around me,” she told me.

After that, Tsunami missed class quite a few times between that day and the semester’s end. Admittedly, I am not a believer in taking attendance. Nothing says ‘you’re not really adults, even though college is supposed to mean you are’ like taking attendance.

On the day the final essay was due, Tsunami came to class. She shuffled through some papers in a binder. When I asked her if she had her paper ready to turn in she looked at me with big doe eyes and replied, “No.”

Today, Tsunami’s email read as follows: ‘I am very upset about my final grade. I thought I was doing well in your class. I thought I would at least get a B. I need to keep my GPA closer to the A range.’

Well, I would like to have a winged horse like Pegasus to fly to and from work so I can avoid brain-dead drivers on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I would also like to, in no particular order, do the following:

A) Publish my novel with a big-house publisher and make oodles of money, maybe even get a movie deal, and, if not, at least a television mini-series deal.

B) Eradicate cancer (even though I know next to nothing about the science behind disease eradication).

C) Own the aforementioned winged horse that would live in a posh stable located on the first floor of my magic castle (see D).

D) Live in a magic castle where it’s never too cold or never too hot, where the libraries (that’s right, plural) are made soundproof, and there are plenty of rooms with in-wall, state of the art gigantic flat screen televisions, where no one has to climb stairs; instead, the rooms shift like blocks in a Rubik’s Cube (it is, after all, a magic castle), and where many other fine accoutrements satisfy my every whim.

The list goes on, but for our purposes here these four items should suffice.

I am not sure where the disconnect occurred in recent history; the one in which college students have become obsessed with all things grade-point-average-related. Maybe they are victims of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ legislature. Maybe this culture of instant satisfaction we live in fostered these ideals. Or maybe they equate a high GPA and a degree with some magic elixir that will allow others to see them as ‘smart,’ land the job they dream about, and make a decent living.

The purpose of college, at its most basic level, is to promote a level of literacy that students need not only to function in society but to aid in developing changes. This comes not only from English composition classes like mine, but other disciplines such as mathematics, psychology, the sciences, and a host of others, both required and elective, that aid in shaping a still developing mind.

In helping to shape a mind, the job of the educator, as it was explained by someone dear to me and far more intelligent than I ever hope to be, is to take students out of their comfort zone and explore ideas that they would be unwilling to on their own. If an educator is successful, students will bounce back toward the comfort zone, but never occupy the same space again.

What will happen to students like Tsunami? They will be hard-pressed to become culturally literate, and while they may think they are free, they will remain unable to to contribute to society in the way people who live in a democratic society should.

Of course if there is a silver lining, it this: Tsunami, like so many others who desire fantastic grades and perfect GPAs without doing any of the work, will remain ignorant of the injustices being carried out within the society which she lives. She will remain a tool: an instrument used by others.

Learning, Freedom, Thinking, and Rebellion

It’s like Obrienwriter suddenly channeled Camus, Sartre, or some other equally dreadful French Existentialist. Admit it. That’s what you’re thinking when you read the title. Fear not. This isn’t a discourse that will put you to sleep. This is a discourse about a young guy named Jeff Bliss and our current education system.

A friend of mine posted this video on Facebook first. Sure it’s not your run of the mill “isn’t my kid swell” video or another “Annoyed Picard” meme, but it is something that more young people should be doing: demanding a decent education.

While trolling the internet tonight after watching this video I found some others about Jeff Bliss. You can find them too. I also read some news articles like one out of Dallas in which a reporter was calling for Bliss to apologize. The reporter also maintains that the teacher did nothing wrong. I wasn’t in the classroom. Neither was the rest of America. When we see videos on the internet or on television we are seeing only a tiny fraction of the truth.

But enough about media manipulation. This is about education!

After not much research at all I learned two things. One, Jeff Bliss dropped out of school and returned recently. Two, his mother is a school teacher. I won’t try to reconcile why the son of teacher gets to drop out of school in Texas. What I will say is that young Mr. Bliss evidently wasn’t learning much when he was there in the first place.

After much soul-searching, I recently returned to graduate school. This time to pursue a degree in secondary education. So it goes without saying (even though I’m going to write it here anyway) that the case of Mr. Jeff Bliss intrigued me.

I’ve been reading lately about pedagogy, cultural hegemony, and the ever-present struggle school districts face with standardized testing and curricula that “teach to the test.” Someone, perhaps a whole bunch of people, decided not long ago that in order to catch up to the rest of the world in academic standards our education system needed to push memorization over all else as means for learning. They were wrong. Our schools haven’t gotten any better. In fact, don’t take my word for it. Go find that charming little read by Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol or any other doom-and-gloom narratives about the state of our current education system. Many education specialists have their own theories about what needs to be done. Many of them have good ideas. And almost all of them are in agreement that yes it is naive to think of public schools operating separately from government involvement and that a curriculum is needed in schools. So, what’s all this have to do with the powers that be who mandate policy?

A young man like Mr. Bliss speaks out in class (and out of turn, too) and attempts to school his teacher on what needs to be done. Was it the best platform to get his message across? Probably not. Did Mr. Bliss exercise more intestinal fortitude, as my father used to say, than most of us at his age regarding his education? You bet.

What bothers me most about the case of Jeff Bliss is this: here’s a kid who clearly understands that something is amiss in the system by which he’s to be educated; here’s someone honestly voicing what he thinks education should be about (reaching hearts, if memory serves me) and what it is not (passing out flyers). And what happens now? He’s branded as a troublemaker. He’s painted as a rebellious sod who should prostrate himself before his teacher and beg for forgiveness. It’s ludicrous.

At one point in the video Jeff Bliss points to his classmates and talks about his peers being the future of America. There are many questions that this story calls into light. Do we want to admonish young people for taking a stand? Or do we want our youth to fall into step with whatever the powers that be deem appropriate? Are we to assume that Jess Bliss is an anomaly? The sole student in all of America who cares about his education? Or are there others out there who just needed to hear someone else say it first? Others who will step forward and let their voice be heard too?

Each year it seems fewer students are being taught to think for themselves. If one is not able to think critically about an issue or subject, he is not capable of challenging the status quo. Yes, our nation continues to lag behind in education. But this dilemma is not just between young people like Jeff Bliss, teachers, school boards, and education policy makers. We can’t point to one particular group to blame. This is about all of us.

We allow our children to stay up too late, we upset the order of their lives with divorce and other drama, we feed them shit food when we feed them at all, we don’t take the time we should to read with them, we allow Xbox and other video game consoles to rule their lives; some may even count on these machines to babysit their kids. In doing so, we allow these distractions to rob them of their imaginations. When I tell my son how I used to play outside everyday he looked at me and asked: what for? We as a people think that this way of life is somehow okay as we cart them to after-school activity to after-school activity and weekend activities too; all the while thinking that this will somehow make them better human beings.

The danger in all this is that, as parents, family, and community members, we continue to allow our school systems to churn out teens who are incapable of reading between the lines, who are ill-suited to take a stand against any wrongdoing. And this is not anything new. If we stay the current course, freedom in society will become a non-issue because no one will recognize it or, worse, have any need for it.

Jeff Bliss will be painted as an outsider, a hell raiser, a loose cannon who doesn’t have all his facts straight; be that as it may he got one thing right. Learning and education are about the students; not teachers and salaries, not school boards, not standardized testing, and certainly not the endless shuffling of funds between districts based in part on how well a group of students can remember something long enough to pencil in answers on a sheet that will be graded by a computer. More students should take up the cause and fight for what is right where their education is concerned. All of us need to listen.

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