Tuesday, July 03, 2018


Sometime along in high school young people meet the Big Three sources of institutional power and knowledge that built this country.  They are "professions", defined by what they profess and often employed as professors.  They are theology (the source of the Christian dogma), law (the source of the Rule of Law), and medicine (source of private and public health).  These are the dwellers of the main academic institutions: Harvard, Yale, and the other Ivy Leaguers.  Because they are the oldest, they claim to be the most important.  Then along come empowered ethnic women and throw the presidents out.  Next will be revising the country.

The fresh new "game plan" immigrating English white men struggled with in 1776 is now ragged from a steady fate of being nibbled by ducking lawyers, rotten from making deals with corporations, and exhausted from pedalling idly in the air.  Science (or rather the knowledge of reality that is based on the reasoning Enlightenment that was the best we had then) is totally wildly weirdly expanded.  The template no longer fits the territory.  Knowledge, for alert people, far exceeds the world.

The three huge Gray Eminences of education as understood by clergy, doctors, and lawyers never expected that public social media would become our main source of education and that it would be so vivid.  Clueless immigrants soon learn to fix their houses, prepare our foods, and even grasp fine theories of behavior and science, simply by watching YouTube, maybe on a Tablet while sitting on the front porch.  Clued in, they watch their ancient homelands shredded, Biblical villages reduced to rubble.  But we Americans swipe left and change channels to shooting, never connecting.

The great universities of the world formed in part because of population density where scholars could find affinities of subject and fine libraries.  No need for that now.  Too many students are marking time by getting drunk and getting laid -- because they can.  Practical morality is considered beneath the dignity of people born in the Thirties when a loaf of bread could save your life.  We forget how rich we are.  The privilege that created the university is now undermining it, because the wealth of education is everywhere without being recognized.  

You could also "hole up" everywhere.  You won't get a diploma.  You'll just know the stuff and if you can demonstrate that, you can make a living.  The pretence is that only people who have a specific piece of paper "know" what institutions outline and enforce, but that's not true.  You can learn without touching paper, not even books.  But it's easier to learn in the context of wise people and a listening cohort.  Socrates didn't need a fine Gothic quadrangle.  Today's universities do.  It's the base of their advertising.  Not their learning.

Lately there is a push for national as well as statewide control of "grammar schools."  (Misnamed -- they don't teach grammar anymore.)  Local schools were like local fire departments: the kids were there, the need was clear, and only by working together did things get done.  Now it's all theoretical and political.  Under cover of protecting people in poor communities, the government continues with its goal of preparing workers (as it did for the industrial revolution) and preparing military (who will not enjoy combat like they used to).  We have the idea that one cannot engage in commerce without a college degree.

Kids are already learning computer code alongside language code -- it's just as easy.  But they are not learning social behavior code, not manners, not strategy, not how to value other people, not how to learn from them.

There are two experiences while teaching that have been food for thought ever since.  The first was in Heart Butte, a remote East Slope Blackfeet school.  The dozen seventh graders in 1991 were gifted and bonded with each other.  They told me about how they had grown up walking across the prairie together like a mini-tribe, though they came home a little after dark.  

I decided to try them with a gimmick from social teaching: a ball of yarn, the kids in a circle, each one identifies someone and tells a little memory about them, then tosses that person the yarn, paying it out to leave a trail -- a physical connection.  Do it again and let the yarn become a weaving of lines back and forth across the group.  Then take out the biggest scissors you can find and cut through the web.

Shock and dismay is the usual response, but this class rose as one and kept the web taut as they carried it out and down the hall to save it.  I sat with the scissors, grinning.  They remember.  Sometimes they fight each other but they stick together.

In 2003 or so I was asked on an emergency basis to babysit a class of slightly younger kids.  They were from idealized small town families who thought their kids were punctual, neat, clean, and obedient.  Maybe they were, but not for a substitute.  In this small town no one outside the small circle of friends and families was deserving of anything.  They were the best, the center, completely exempt from any punishment because they knew their parents would come to defend them.  Incoming teachers didn't stay long.  In fact, the regular teacher of this class was "sick" every Friday.  These kids didn't bother with "bonding" because they were held together by circumstances, the bus route, birth.

Supposed to color maps, they saw the maps didn't outline anyplace they could conceptualize so they used the crayons to bombard each other.  All my strategies failed.  The one about "you're better than this" was met with laughter.  Sitting down in silence to watch the flying missiles and ignore the rude cries didn't work.  They just ignored ME.  At the end I found myself shrieking "Shut UP!" just as one of the older and more genteel teachers paused at the open door.  Her face was critical and satisfied that I was undeserving.  I never signed up to substitute again.  The officials were satisfied.  After all, I was just a former rez teacher, white.

So each classroom was creating a different kind of person, "educating" them.  One group was learning to act to preserve pattern.  The other was learning that chaos is an effective strategy, esp. if protective people covertly enjoy disruptive treatment of outsiders.  Each individual, according to the other influences on him or her, is old enough by now to raise little replicas.  One teacher this year is the granddaughter of a former teacher and proud of it because they see the world the same way.  

The trouble is that they are seeing a world that is gone.  This has major political consequences.  Also, literary.

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