Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Fri, 16 Aug 1996 07:42:56 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Greatest Danger to my teaching--my long reply

A lot of people have been writing me, mostly off-list, saying something like, "Wow, that's a lot of 'whethers'." And I've been answering each person, until my newly manicured nails (I'm still clean from my nail-biting habit--a week over seven months since my fingers have approached my mouth) threaten to crack. So, as I've done before--and I hope you don't think it presumptuous--I'd like to issue an on-list response that parallels the ones I've already sent out.

Now, I admit that are a lot of "whethers", but hoping I don't appear defensive about the number I think I they flowed out because at that moment I was thinking about a lot of criticisms of, questions about, and pressures on us as educators coming from all directions and sectors about a whole spectrum of matters.

As I re-read this last Random Thought, which I rarely do, to respond to the comments, I started thinking of conversations, both current and past, on the internet, at conferences, and on my particular campus--and now Bob Dole's acceptance speech. These discussions reveal how so many of us in education frequently feel we should be left alone--trusted unequivocally--as the professional and expert educators we are, to go about our business with little, if any, answerability or accountability--"assessment" and "interference" is the most commonly used euphemisms. So many of us dismiss critics or even questioners out of hand as amateurs or interlopers or with a somewhat arrogant or self-righteous--and defensively protective--"what do they know or understand." So many of us yearn for the time the classroom door was closed tighter than the bedroom door--and only we had a key--when we were revered as possessors of wisdom and truth, when we were placed on pedestals and adored as betters by the lesser commoners, when were lionized as an elite of the pure by the unclean, when we were cannonized as some higher order of human specie. These people--far too many--moan and groan that today's ivory tower has fallen before the assault of those lesser beings, that they in the sordid "outside", "material", "real" world have opened the door for anyone who may wish to enter. Some of us--too many--are nervous to discover that our annointment with degree and/or hood does not mean we're better than anyone else, perhaps not even wiser. At the same time, some of us wish to proclaim on one hand that what we do in academia has not only of social relevancy, but of social significance, maybe even urgent. And yet, on the other hand, we do not want to recognize the existence of a consequent inseparable organic unity between "us" and "them" that creates a mutually dependent "we"; we beg--maybe demand--for all kinds of unquestioned moral and financial support and resist the fact that such endowments gives the "outside world" a vested interest in an accounting of the goings-on in the schools.

But, the invasive "outside world" won't go away. And so, during the past 30 years, we educators have felt more and more that whatever we do is public property and will be scrutinized by the public. We feel that a horde of people are looking over my shoulder. We feel everything we do will be reviewed by both the responsible and irresponsible, by both the knowledgeable and uninformed, by the reflective and the superficial, by the understanding and insensitive. Like being scanned by a massive MRI machine, there are times we feel we have no place to hide, nothing that can be hidden, no privacy, no secret places, nowhere to go that is not open to view and subject to evaluation.

Everyone is ever conscious of the educator; they make the educator self-conscious of being under the proverbial microscope or on the equally proverbial stage or on the altar as a sacrificial scapegoat. Because of the democratization of education beginning shortly after WW II, the Cold War catalyized by sputnik, the Civil Rights and Feminist movements, the information revolution, the transformation created by the computer, and a host of other reasons the idea has appeared that access to an education is an American birthright. Consequently, the educator has become is part of a way of American life; the educator has become more than ever before a public resource in the service of the national economic interest and the defense of "truth, justice, and the American way"; the educator is now a part of the public economic, social, cultural--and political--conversation, discussion, and argument.

From these exchanged emerge the pressures, demands, and expectations from professional critics, education experts--all kinds of experts--Boards of Education, Regents, parents, students, state legislators and bureaucrats, federal business people, legislators and bureaucrats, each other. People in society know they need education, but they can't agree what it is they need, why they need it, and how to best fulfill those needs. People are screaming at educators, "You're not doing your job." But, no one can agree just what that job is. (Heck, even we in academia can't agree and offer the people a single set of responses). They search into, under, around, over, on top of; they interpret, diagnose, evaluate, test, experiment, examine, compare, contrast, relate, probe, flatten, pound, roll, fold, introduce, demand, request, license, specify; they incite, infect, inflame, inflict, infringe, inform, inhibit, instruct, invade, invoke, influence, ingratiate, interrogate, indict. There are the tidal flows of people, agendas, philosophies, ideologies, principles, technologies, orientations, biases, prejudices, pedagogies, gimmicks, fads. There are the pushes and pulls of social, economic, technological, cultural transformations. There are the pushes and pulls of global transformation.

They all form a giant ear and hear all that the educators says; they are a single cyclops eye and see all the educators do; but they are many mouths and speak in different, confusing and often conflicting tongues. Yet, they speak at the same time. Their voices mingle, merge, cling, overwhelm, surround, challenge, joust, assault, overtake, hover, prescribe, determine, decide, propose, ambush, embrace, support, encourage. Sometimes I think the educator is walking down a carnival midway, assaulted by a cacaphony of hawkers: "Stop wasting time and funds with the arts?" "Just teach them the 3Rs." "Don't forget the sports program." "Internationalize the curriculum! "We want them to get a better job." "Produce professionals." "Produce a labor force." "Follow this policy." "Produce patriots." "Track them." "Mainstream." "Turnout socially conscious citizens." "Launch self-learning individuals." "Fill out these forms." "Let us homeschool" "Give us vouchers." "We want educational competition" "Tell them all about sex and make them understand that unprotected sex is dangerous." "You're not their parents." "Don't dare touch....." "Use the paddle." "Teach them this" "Don't teach them that." "Have a vocational prep curriculum." "Teach them the value of gender and cultural diversity." "Serve my handicapped child." "Don't you dare use the paddle." "Have them ask questions, but only give them the right answers." "Don't say....." "Teach them the value of family." "Make sure they achieve the scores." "Grade." "Test." "Assess." "Do you encourage....?" "Make sure you preserve the traditions we've built." "Take care of the stuff we don't have time or inclination to do at home." "Teach them the virtues capitalism" "Teach them that capitalism evil." "Teach them the value of work." "They've got to be disciplined." "Make them communally responsible." "Make sure they still believe in God." "Do you believe in....?" "Teach them to think for themselves." "Say 'No' to drugs." "Do you support....?" "Teach them to respect alternative ways of living." "Teach them to be moral" "We want them to physically in shape." And goodness know what else "they" are asking and demanding and shouting about. It's enough to cross Solomon's eyes and give anyone an Excedrin headache No. 33.

But, how do we respond to all these different criticisms? How do we deal with these diverse pressures. How do we answer the horde of questions? How do we respond to the host of demands? Do we click our ruby shoes together or wish upon star? Do we bury our heads in the sand and make believe these forces will go away? Do we cover our eyes and hold up a cross before us hoping to ward off the devil? Do we unsheath our sword and stand fast ready to do battle to the death? Do we surrender, grovel, and submit in resignation? Do we cordially, collegially, respectfully engage in conversation and use the power of persuastion?

I think the answer lays entirely in our attitude--or, at least, it begins with ourselves--a way of thinking and feeling about ourselves as people, a way of thinking about education, a way of thinking about ourselves as educators, a way of thinking about others, a way of dealing with criticism and inquiry, and a way of accepting growth and change. It's an attitude of seeing that there is no end, no place; the search and task of education is never completely done; everything and every day is a new beginning; every day is a new adventure, a new challenge, a new discovery. It's all just journey, just process, just becoming. At the moment we stop probing, questioning, answering, reflecting, articulating, learning, changing, growing, developing, we each become a closed down, fossilized, arrogant, blinded, and deafened system. Maybe many of us are so defensive of these interrogations is that they are forcing us--or at least demanding--out of the dolrums of our familiar habits, comforting routine, arrogance and complacency.

We have to face our critics and engage them constructively; we have to remain quiet, ward off the emotional knee-jerks reactions and quickened impetus to talk, and sincerely listen. We have to sincerely reflect on the value of their words--which often means with a great deal of lip-biting, teeth-gnarling, anxiety, discomfort, and maybe pain. And, we have to articulate a reasoned and rational response. We have to see the value in the question more and see questioning as an attack less; we have to see the strength in articulation and accountability more and see weakness in the need to formulate an answer less. We have to use these people as a positive force, not as an enemy to be shunted aside merely because we are afraid of or have a disdain to be examined.

Maybe we can use criticism and questioning to become more aware of others and ourselves, to gain greater understanding of others and ourselves, to be better informed of others and ourselves. Maybe we can use the criticisms to become more competent and more proficient, to acquire a more reflective and argued base--the "whys"--for what we believe and do, to formulate an more articulated vision. Maybe, if we are becoming more aware, if we are experimenting with learning new ways and new ways of learning, if we are learning how to use the new technology, if we are stretching our minds, if we are examining our beliefs, if we are evaluating our methods, if we are challenging our values, and if we can answer the questions and deal with the criticism and meet the challenge, we can enlist them to help us--and they can enlist us to assist them--to understand what are the multiple purposes and goals of education and how can they possibly be achieved.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
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