Monday, January 3, 2011

Sisyphus in the New Year

When I was contemplating writing a blog, I found myself split between wanting to compose entries about art and wanting to post entries about teaching and learning. In striking a balance between, I have come to see that each (art and education) requires a mindfulness that (in)forms the work I do, fail to do, refuse to do, and desire to do. Mindfulness occasions deep living and profound pain. Consider Camus.

Towards the end of Albert Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus," he notes:

"The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious."  


My work as an artist and a teacher requires a mindfulness of what cannot be named earlier than the present moment will allow and at the same time often requires a rehearsal of possibilities, as well as deep reflection.  As an artist-educator, even when I work deliberately, I know that the present when traded for a prescribed truth, often yields something cliched. It takes me time to understand what I have created and to assign it value--value that sometimes changes alongside reflection and a passage of time. All things reveal themselves in time and being mindful allows me (sometimes) the opportunity to come to know and understand an insight and to (re)present that insight in the work I create. Insight, as Camus suggests, is accompanied by pain that redresses absurdity as tragedy. The dilemma associated with consciousness is old. It is the dialogue that Socrates and Malcolm X might have had: Socrates says that the unexamined life is not worth living and Malcolm X  writes that the examined life is painful. Living deliberately as artist and teacher requires both. Avoid such dilemma and little of value is left.

When I reread Camus's essay, I thought about how tragic US education feels. 30 years into a career as a teacher, learner, and leader and I see that so much of the rhetoric reported in popular press and touted by those with significant power is blatantly foolish, situates learners (teachers, administrators and students) as widgets, and is based on a belief of certainty. In these days, certainty trumps thoughtfulness. Consider how certainty is privileged in the recent post by The Christian Science Monitor, Education Reform: Eight Chiefs to Watch. With the exception of the first educator, Jason Glass, the remaining school chiefs' agendas, as represented in the article, suggest certainty as the logic that informs their positions and ideas. These leaders' views are posited as representing the singular and truthful perspective, as if meaning could be determined before the utterance. In the article, it states that these leaders want to:

1. Reward effective teachers (What does "being" effective mean? Is being a singular state?  What is effective? Effective for whom? By what measures? In what context? Across what time period? In what subject areas? At what grade levels? By whose standards? Is it possible to be effective in one context and not another?)

2. Give greater school choice to parents (The word choice means a variety of things from choice within a public system to choice beyond the public system. What choice do these chiefs want? Who gets privileged to make a choice? Who does not?  What happens to our democracy if choice weakens public education? Is separate by equal okay now? Does a democracy require public education? Is there any correlate that suggests "choice" of schools yields higher student scores on state mandated test?  What do higher scores on state mandated test mean to a learner, parent-guardian, teacher, employer...?)

3. Get "tough" with teacher unions (Are the ills of public education [whatever those "ills" actually are] directly related to teacher unions? Are all unions the same? What is tenure?  How is tenure represented in states? What happens in the absence of tenure? In the presence of tenure? Can tenure be singled out as a factor of anything? Is the presence or the removal of tenure related to a student's achievement and if so, achievement at what?)

Mikhail Bakhtin writes that the word is overpopulated with the intention of others.  We seem to have failed to understand this and instead act as if a word had a singular and agreed upon meaning. This seems to be the case today as the understanding of "education terms" such as achievement, excellence, effective teacher, school choice, funding, toughness, unions and so on are offered with little substance and less context.  Yet, meaning is always tied to the utterance.  Separate it from the context and we have little to offer and less to know.

The "discussion" about public education in the United States is a lesson in hegemony. Select people with power tell the rest of us what is truth. Their truth is uttered often enough and it is repeated by other people of means, politicians, TV and print commentators, business leaders, writers, speakers, educators, parents, bloggers, tweeters, until the words are meaningless and a position becomes a given truth. No need to understand what we mean by a given word, the task is to just continue to babble the rhetoric, like some long forgotten Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill. No wonder we feel so tired and oddly stuck. This is the tragedy about which Camus writes;  the naked awareness that allows us to see ourselves and our situation at this moment in time.  Our situation is not only absurd, it is tragic as it is impossible to discuss anything without offering alongside some definition of term and intention. Discourse is dead.

What then is needed to challenge the one view truth being passed along as reality? Oddly, on the US Department of State's web page an interesting definition of democracy is offered.

Democracies make several assumptions about human nature. One . . . is that any society comprises a great diversity of interests and individuals who deserve to have their voices heard and their views respected. As a result, one thing is true of all healthy democracies: They are noisy. (US Department of State, International Information Programs, online)
As an artist and a teacher, representation and voice are critical. Agency is critical and requires local discourse.  Noisy would be so much better than the singular drone of "those we should be following." Let's stop following "those in the know"and instead engender local conversations.

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