Violence and Progressive Education

A few months ago, a friend asked me how my writing would further the cause of social justice.  I didn’t have a good answer for him. But in the course of the past few months, I’ve also designed a college-level course focused on apocalyptic literature and a different college course which focuses on the rhetoric of disaster/ruin/destruction/oppression and also the language of empowerment. My goal with the latter course is not to simply cause my students to feel discouraged or depressed–it is a depressing topic–but also to encourage them to move toward awareness and action.

During December, I had the chance to visit Port Aransas, off the Texas coast, when a large batch of dead sargasso

Sea pens washed ashore in seaweed

 seaweed drifted ashore, bringing with it, death: sea pens, rays, fish — probably a lot of other things as well. And I photographed it. Evidence of ruin. Evidence of destruction and decay. Evidence also, of renewal. The seaweed washed

Which is, in part, why I feel compelled to share the experience here.

But in both courses I designed around apocalypse (hope, or post apocalyptic – beyond hope), we focus on writing by others. But working through these courses causes me to think about my own writing and writing agenda and what type of stories I want to tell. I haven’t reached conclusions yet about the type of writing I want to do, or what my “secret agenda” will be, if I’ll have one at all. I think about my earlier writings though, the ones that are already done and especially the ones that are already out there in the world. I’m not sure what type of judgment will befall these writings eventually, if any. In my mind, I tell stories that need to be told, that ask to be told. Those are the ones that flow out naturally. The other ones, the painful births, those are often the stories I think need to be told, the ones that come across as didactic or poor writing or simply uninteresting.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to decide that my writing is intended to push a certain progressive ideal.

Progressive education, according to the book Learning from the Left, should encourage egalitarianism — or at the very least a greater awareness of the struggles of oneself and of others. The course I’ll teach in the spring dealing with the rhetoric of disaster and of empowerment will hopefully encourage my students to see the world through other people’s eyes and through other scenarios. We’ll discuss violence against others, the environment, ourselves and how we learn to accept it or fight against it. We’ll talk about biases and propaganda. My students will analyze poetry, short stories, nonfictions, and play NationStates.

My supervisor believes that my students might not be ready for this type of course work. She’s right in that I’ll need to lead them to the idea of rhetoric and how we use language to influence the ideas and emotions (and even actions) of others. But it bothers me that she underestimates them to such a degree. Each semester, I challenge my students–mostly college freshman, sophomores, and juniors, and each semester they surprise me with their critical thinking abilities, with their discussions, with their ideas. They’re perfectly capable of complex thought by this point in their lives and unlike some of my colleagues who dread teaching, I love it because my students rise to the challenges I present them (or choose to collectively dislike both me and the class — but this happens infrequently).

What progressive education is supposed to work against, according to Learning from the Left is the “indoctrination” of students into the ideals of capitalism, and/or classism, and/or racism, and or other -isms. A progressive education should encourage students to question norms and authority, should help them learn self-expression and critical thought, should leave students feeling empowered and like they know how to learn. In my experience, our national education system falls short in all these qualities. I’d love your feedback on this though. Did you learn how to learn in school? Should students learn how to learn or does this encourage too much dissent, instability, etc.? Is school the place for this type of learning, or should students (of all ages) learn this elsewhere?

In short: what’s the purpose of school? Of a national education system?


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