What Do You Think?

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Nothing engenders
more fear in students than this question: "What do you think?"

Whether the
setting is a public university (like the one in which I now teach)
or community or private college (in which I've also taught), the
reaction is nearly always the same: widened eyes and slackened jaws.

The level of
the students' skills or talents does not seem to vary their reaction.
In fact, during the time I did creative writing workshops with elementary-
and high-school kids – as part of the Teachers and Writers program
in New York – I noticed, if anything, more apprehension among the
so-called "gifted and talented" kids to whom I posed the
question.

I do not mean,
in any way, to denigrate my students or anyone else's. Rather, I
am describing my experiences of more than a decade of teaching to
discuss what I see as one of the underlying problems of education
today.

In short, I
think that education at all levels does nothing to help people become
competent, confident individuals and members of communities, whatever
those communities may be. Instead, it seems to further infantilize
students as they undergo more schooling.

Of course,
if those of us who teach are doing our jobs well, students look
up to us and may want to seek us out for advice long after they
have taken our classes. I enjoy such encounters with my former charges
very much, if for no other reason that I like to feel I had a good
influence on someone's life.

However, nearly
every one of us encounters a situationu2014whether in our careers or
personal livesu2014that calls for an answer or solution we've never
before seen or heard. Or there may not be anyone who can guide us
through those crises and conundrums. This is what happens, for example,
to the teenager who realizes he's gay, the young woman who wants
to be a neurosurgeon when her family wants her to be a nurse or
to the engineer who encounters a problem that isn't described in
one of the reference guides.

A person's
ability to navigate such treacherous currents is entirely dependent
on his or her ability to think independently and to trust what he
or she thinks. Disturbingly, this is exactly what most schooling
discourages.

I see the result
of such an implicit pedagogical policy very clearly whenever I hear
or read one of those so-called intellectuals who seemingly can do
little more than quote whatever he or she has read. I also notice
it whenever a public official obstinately continues with a course
of action (or inaction) that has obviously failed.

In both examples,
the same insidious force is operating: a person's distrust of his
or her ability to think independently. Paradoxically, it's the common
denominator of the bullheaded and the indecisive. An unwillingness
to concede that one may be wrong isn't really so different, in origins
and outcomes, from the inability to trust one's own facilities for
discerning the truth.

Now, lest you
think that I am one of those proponents of the so-called progressive
pedagogies, I will dispel that notion. Most often, the bullheaded
and the timid lack some sort of fundamental understanding some basic
skill or body of knowledge. We see this, of course, when heads of
state repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. But it also underlies
the reflex to quote or refer to something when new words and conceptsu2014however
unrefinedu2014are needed. This, I think, is usually what's going on
when students feel their teacher is "talking at" them.

Those of us
who teach at the university level hear our colleagues bemoaning
students who seem to know nothing of what happened before 1995 or
outside their neighborhoods. Those same students look at you askanceu2014just
like their supposedly better-versed peersu2014when you ask them for
their "take" on something. Well, no wonder they're afraid
to venture an opinion: They know that they don't know. And they
are constantly reminded of it. How can we expect anyone to develop
confidenceu2014that is to say, to feel competentu2014in such circumstances?

Thus students
need to gain a better grasp of the conventions of the language they
speak and write, as well as the basic principles of other subjects.
Having lived in a culture where my first language was not spoken,
I know that you feel more confident about your ability to survive
as you better understand the language. By "language,"
I'm not only referring to idioms such as English, French or Mandarin,
but to the knowledge and ways of thought that are the common currencies
of any culture.

Of course,
one of the legacies of the 1960's and 1970's is the idea that emphasizing
what we used to think of as "fundamentals" stifles creativity.
Nothing, I believe, is further from the truth. I know this from
my own life: Because someone taught me the conventions of the language
I use (when I wasn't learning them myself), I have a means for using
my creativity. And I was able to navigate life in another country
because I learned the most basic things about that country's language.

Understanding
the conventions of your language also teaches you how to break them,
when necessary and appropriate. After all, how can anyone find the
language for the drummer only he hears when he can't even describe
the drummer everyone else hears?

On the other
hand, I don't think that people become competent by mindless memorization
and repetition of factoids, which is the way many people from so-called
"traditional" backgrounds were instructed. Most of my
students from Southern and Eastern Asia were schooled in such a
way. They work very hard, but they stumble just as badly as their
American born peers when asked what they think.

It seems to
me that the best way to motivate students to learn the basics of
any body of knowledge, or to master any fundamental skill, is through
whatever motivates students. They may not want to learn how to construct
better sentences and paragraphs because their teachers tell them
they should. But they might when they want to ask the mayor of their
city why the playground doesn't get fixed or to apply for a job.
Or simply to express however they feel: After all, how can anyone
understand what's on your mind if he or she doesn't understand what
you're saying?

What
I've described is how master teachers like John Taylor Gatto have
taught for decades. They learn about what students want to do and
allow them to learn that they can do it. Then they learn the skills
they need in order to fulfill their goals and dreams.

And they're
not afraid to tell you what they think.

December
20, 2005

Justine
Nicholas [send her mail]
teaches English at the City University of New York.

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