Saturday, January 12, 2013


Re-framing the education of adolescents, who are ambiguously adults, is one of the toughest things to think through.  One faction insists (covertly) that the most important thing about high school is sports and another faction insists (overtly) that the most important thing is arts and humanities.  Let’s get serious:  the most important thing to most of them is sex, which would be fine except for disease, reproduction, and the inevitable power gradients among maturities and personalities.

When I was forced to write a curriculum for Blackfeet kids in classes 7-12, I went to skills-based content:  reading/writing, speaking/listening.  (Yes, there are definitely important listening skills that ought to be taught.)  The administrators could not understand it.  To them education was content-boxes labeled with the subject and specified content.  As the principal said to me,  “The class is called ’journalism,’ the textbook I bought for you is labeled ‘journalism,’ and you are certified to teach ‘journalism’  Now do it.”   He had no idea what journalism actually was. Not only was it a box with a label, it was a black box, unknown.  And totally inappropriate for my kids.

These days I would add to my curriculum digital assimilation and creating -- not keyboarding but how to see what you’re looking at: interpreting posts, “gaming,” and programming.  This would mean close cooperation with the math and science people -- NOT rejection of them -- and it would provide the skills necessary for access to the humanities, including arts of all kinds.  

Before that, and I am very serious, I would separate athletics from high schools.  Let them attach to the towns and neighborhoods that they actually personify and benefit.  Let the huge sums of money for the gyms and team buses come out of a separate tax base than the actual school.  I figure it would just about halve the total budget.  It would eliminate the bribery and blackmail between teams and classes and also the careers of coaches who earn high salaries as know-nothing superintendents so long as the school teams win.

In a spirit of equity I would also separate arts from formal high schools.  I question whether anyone can “teach” art anyway.  It’s something learned on the student’s initiative.  I would replace classes with “salons” and “studios” and as many resources as the community can afford: paint, clay, floors, mirrors, electronics, musical instruments, and so on.  I would never compel anyone to attend such a program, nor would I bar anyone from attending.  It should just exist the same way a public library does.  It should be staffed by practicing artists who are supportive to adolescents, tolerant of weirdness, resistant to drugs, and constantly productive.  By the time adolescents are in high school, they are able to teach themselves because it is no longer a matter of standardized curriculum or boxed subjects.  These folks have begun to individuate in many ways and only need to know what’s there and have permission to be hunter/gatherers.

When I first came back to Valier, an anxious mother waylaid me and asked whether I would tutor art for her daughter.  I was mystified, since there was a good regular art teacher in those days and I am myself a writer rather than an artist.  But the mother explained that because I had been married to Bob Scriver who was a major “success”, and because some people said his success was due to me, she wanted me to teach her daughter how to be successful via art.  She had no idea of the reality.  It was to her a black box worth money.  Likewise, today’s educators face only one overriding question from the parents:  will it make money?  Nothing about whether it will fit the kid or help him grow.

In fact, one of the reasons I would love to see sports dropped out of school is that it has become destructive, pushing kids in the name of some mythical success benefit to the point of destroying their joints and mushing their brains.  It’s become a risky path to money, sort of like joining the military, competing in rodeo, entering nefarious underculture schemes, winning the lottery or sex for pay.  It’s all whoring in the end: trying to force human gifts and goals into “success.”  Certification by society of worthiness via a money value.  

Even our arts are now dominated by commodification.  The newspaper lists how much money each movie makes -- that’s the measure. One of the things I love about the rez is that the unassimilated people escape commodification.  They make stuff to sell, sure, but on their own terms.  The assimilated ones, of course, need the cultural certification of authorities, but even then they can go along an alternate path.  It’s interesting that in spite of all the talk about athletic scholarships for college, very few Indian kids ever make it through the big-time colleges, much less into the big leagues.  I consider that a plus.  Too often it’s only a man-trap, making humans into contract obligations.  Most will blame failure on alcohol, but that’s a coverup.  A result -- not a cause.

But this post is about high school which used to be supposed to mean “job-ready.”  Now one must have a college degree for a run-of-the-mill job.  Add to this the phenomena of people moving from one skill-set to another, from one area to another, from one life-style to another, and the whole economic picture being confused, plus university-level information being taught online plus unlimited research capability.  This is not the time for big ships: this is the time for canoes, fishing boats and those clever little Zodiacs, inflatables with outboard motors.  

It looks to me as though a whole category of education is neglected.  It should be as big as both humanities and science/math, but hasn’t even been defined yet.  I’m suggesting a “third estate” that would manage governance and regulation.  Checks and balances, a huge piece of the economic pie so crucial to our lives that it deserves a near-priestly class of dedicated people with special education in ethics.  The moral guidance that the country used to get from priests, rabbis, imams, and ministers has been missing for decades.  Partly this is what has frozen so much of our government: no clear concept of what is right, true, fair, and ascertainable.  Lacking that, we are destroying whole categories of people while corruption and opportunism create undeserved wealth.  We need a class of people charged and empowered to restore justice to our FUBAR kudzu of so-called laws.  Adolescents with their sense of justice and indignation are the ideal age to learn this sort of thinking.  Scholarships and special recruitments should be used to pull in atypical students: homeless, immigrant, differently abled.  When this arm of government is fully functional, it should control shelter, commodities, medical care, and amnesty and protect individuals from inappropriate budget and criminal laws.

The major problem with education for adolescents is that their maturation levels and capacities begin to spread out into a wide range, some of them off the map.  The only real way to cope with that is to let education itself do the same thing.  We’ve been afraid of social classes -- dealing with them by denial -- because people can’t move among them conveniently.  Maybe they never really could anyway.  But surely there are ways to be worthy no matter what “class” one occupies, and certainly no class of adolescents deserves to starve or be shut out.  They need to be players and we need them to be that as well.

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