I'm not in classrooms every day, only dipping in occasionally when I'm on a campus to give talks. But I came up K through 12 in the California public education system, I vote here now, and I have more than a casual interest in the future of the human species, which gives me ample reason to contemplate this interesting week for education in California.
Today, I write first about the big questions of educational provision; and then about the spark that ignites the hunger to learn, without which no meaningful education is possible.
On Thursday, March 4th, actions and demonstrations are planned statewide to oppose layoffs, pay cuts, fee hikes and spending cuts in California's educational system. Will there be a massive showing? Something that brings business-as-usual to a halt like the immigration reform protests of 2006? And if students do turn out (along with faculty, parents and others who work in the schools) to proclaim their own shared interests in good and affordable public education, will the powers-that-be take heed?
The proximate cause of these protests was a tuition hike of nearly one-third imposed by the University of California Board of Regents last fall. It came in response to cuts to the state education budget (our stalwart legislators were evidently undeterred by the shame of prison spending outstripping higher education). The state's budget woes stem in part from corruption and mismanagement (such as the billion-dollar loss from Enron's manipulation of California's energy market early in this decade), in part from bad policies.
Consider Proposition 13, for instance, the 1978 initiative that limited property tax rates and required a two-thirds legislative majority to raise taxes. It has crippled public libraries, hampered fire departments' ability to deal with disaster, done tremendous damage to public services and infrastructure. Schools aren't funded primarily by property-tax revenue, so the fact that California's schools (once considered the nation's best) are at the bottom of the list according to student achievement tests isn't directly attributable to Prop 13. But those who remember how to add and subtract can tote up this zero-sum game to see that a simple-minded scheme to strangle government has triggered a crisis across the entire public sector, including a shameful neglect of education.
Life keeps drawing a line. Once again, we are faced with a question of vital import, one that goes to the heart of our collective identity: What do we stand for? Will the future know us as an historical aberration, the callous people who were willing to sacrifice the next generation to build prisons and uphold corporate profits? Or as people who eventually awakened from that nightmare and began to invest in a livable, sustainable future?
As a partial answer, in the next election, I'll be voting for a corrective initiative, The California Democracy Act, a constitutional amendment proposed by George Lakoff, consisting of a single sentence: "All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote."
From preschool on up, supporting able and ample faculty and staff, welcoming and well-equipped facilities, easy access to low-cost education—kind of a no-brainer, hm? If the question didn't come packaged by politicians as a Hobson's choice (i.e., cut the budget or bankrupt the state, because raising taxes isn't an option), I doubt many people would say, "No, I'd rather have bad schools."
So yes, we need to create optimal conditions for learning, by supporting those dedicated to its practice and equipping them with the necessary tools and environments, by creating systems in which every child does count. I hope that a surprisingly large number of students make themselves evident on Thursday (or any day) as advocates for their own education, bringing this point home.
But I'm not certain how many of them share the conviction that their own actions could help to turn the tide. I have a friend, by all accounts an able and dedicated educator, who teaches at a prestigious public university. He told me that only one student in a group of nearly one hundred responded to his offer of information about Thursday's events. He sees a pervasive passivity he finds disturbing, an inclination toward higher education as a chore to be completed with the least effort.
He described a remarkable moment in his own understanding: the day he had to spell out the rule that students could not satisfy his requirements for a classroom presentation by printing out the relevant Wikipedia entry and reading it aloud. "Go to an actual library," he told them. "Check out two actual books, write your own presentation, bring the books to class and point out—with reference to specific passages—how they influenced your presentation."
At least he knew they weren't texting or playing online games as he enumerated these guidelines, because he'd earlier had to forbid using computers or cellphones during class.
I recounted this story to another friend as we walked along the Bay on Sunday. It was a beautiful day, with thick, creamy clouds along the horizon; ground-hugging ice plant bursting out in yellow, magenta, ivory and pink; and a bevy of long-billed curlews rooting in the sand for delicacies. The two of us—who in our different ways had been imprinted by the Sixties the way baby ducks cry "Mother!" at the first thing their newly opened eyes regard—had heard a raft of stories like this. We were trying to understand them, to avoid easy conclusions. It would be silly to imagine that young people today are in any way less-equipped by nature to learn than were their forebears. But it seems that much of today's higher learning is understood by a large number of students as a passive experience, more a matter of what the great Paulo Freire dubbed "banking education" (where learning is deposited and the student is the receptacle), than of the excitement I associate with intellectual curiosity.
Strolling along, talking a mile a minute, we didn't want to be curmudgeons, enacting the tradition of condemning younger generations: What's the matter with kids today? That has been done for so many generations, I have little doubt that it's a reflex rather than the product of careful reflection. So my companion talked about the obstacles to good education: budget cuts, poor facilities, too-large classrooms, textbooks constrained by the desire to avoid offending conservatives. All true. (And also true that amidst the wreckage of American public education, there are wonderful teachers, administrators, teaching artists, supportive school communities, parents and students dedicated to deep learning.)
For my walking companion, the March 4th demonstrations would be key: if students were mobilized to action, that would be a meaningful antidote to passivity. But the thing I most wanted to know—most want to hear right now—is that students want to be awake in the classroom, that they are receiving encouragement and support in noticing and interrogating their own assumptions, that they are acquiring the underlying skills of critical thinking needed to understand California's economics or education policy, for instance, or the myriad other systems that weave our social fabric.
We weren't really tempted to nostalgia. California's schools may have been high-ranking when I attended in the 50s and 60s, but it isn't as if they were hotbeds of critical thinking. To the contrary, our textbooks and course work had been shaped by the extreme caution imposed by the McCarthy era. Obedience was a supreme value. By the time I graduated high school, I had been punished many times for asking too many questions, refusing to take part in bomb drills and flag salutes, even for wearing clothes that were deemed "too Beatnik."
I have an idea that my alienation—the remarkable degree to which my economically and socially marginal immigrant household diverged from the sunny California consensus of normalcy—was the key to my questioning nature, to the insatiable thirst for knowledge that persisted despite the character of much of my education. But I know you can't draw straight cause-and-effect lines when it comes to human nature. On any given day, there was another alienated foreign-seeming child in the same classroom who memorized her textbooks, aced all tests, and generally behaved like a model citizen; or another who learned to sleep with his eyes open.
Here's what I have observed from my time in classrooms: that the quality of attention varies in proportion to a student's desire to learn. When students volunteer to be there, the talk is always better and deeper. Listening to my friend the professor, I saw that a far too large portion of his classroom is filled with students in whom that spark—the one that ignites the hunger to learn—was long ago extinguished in favor of an instrumental idea of education as something they had to endure as the ante into social position, or for the sake of a salary somewhere down the line. When I listen to our top education policymakers today propose things like teacher compensation tied to student test scores and a raft of other initiatives that result in "teaching to the tests" rather than whatever may spark students' minds, I fear more of the same.
Like most autodidacts (and truth be told, many PhDs), my own education is uneven, only its spottiness is driven by curiosity and desire instead of the deficiencies of a preset curriculum. A few years ago, I decided to write a book on the subject of self-education. I was impressed by the long list of people who had excelled through the passionate pursuit of self-directed learning: Bill Gates and his partner Paul Allen, their rivals Larry Ellison of Oracle and the two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) of Apple; James Baldwin, Ray Bradbury, C.L.R. James, Doris Lessing, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Richard Wright, Claire Booth Luce, David Ben-Gurion, Richard Avedon, Frank Zappa, Agatha Christie, Gore Vidal, Walt Disney, William Faulkner, Emma Goldman, Hazel Henderson, Ansel Adams, J.D. Salinger, George Bernard Shaw, August Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, and many, many more. I thought they (we) might be onto something.
I wrote a long introductory essay and several chapters profiling accomplished autodidacts. Everyone who has read them has enjoyed them immensely. But I haven't been able to interest a publisher. Why? Turn on your irony detector for this one: I've been told I lacked the credentials, the platform, to pull it off. I'm thinking of publishing it online in installments. Let me know if you would be interested, and that will help me decide: firstname.lastname@example.org.
So I really want my fellow Californians to reassert the value of education (and for that matter, the value of a public sector and all it can accomplish if integrity and accountability are strong). And I also really want something that exists regardless of rates of pay, tuition and budget: praise, honor and encouragement for the thirst for knowledge, the deep questioning, that is the essential ingredient of true learning, and therefore, of a true, sustainable democracy. And they are not one and the same.
If the schools don't kindle the spark, young people may get it from the community artists and teaching artists who can still find ways to work in their communities, or thanks to the providential bounty of human resilience, through teaching themselves to make something out of their own alienation. Or they may not.
One way or the other, if we care about the future of democracy, we had better be thinking of ways to strike the match, igniting the spark of hunger for learning, welcoming and feeding the questioning flame. Like so many important social goods, leaving it to the experts won't get it done.