Collaboration & Resistance

        September 2006

From the London Review of Books, some advice for the classroom teacher.

“One finds here reasons for not repeating the past century’s mistakes, for not falling back on false certainties,” concludes Jacques Attali in a book in French about Karl Marx. One finds school-relevant wisdom in the oddest places! (LRB, Jan 26, ’06)

Attali, the reviewer tells us, is a man who was never particularly attracted to Marxism, He writes about the Marx that wasn’t celebrated—the man, as the reviewer notes, whose life was lived out in “resolute and unbreakable dissent, [in] a recognition that absolute good is the source of absolute evil, and that theories are made to be contradicted by each successive turning of the human river, because responsibilities are never causes, and people are not classes, ” and that certainty is something to be wary about.

So too with kids, schools and all the “classes,” the categories, we try to place individual children, their families, teachers and schools in.

We are living in an age of new certainties even when it comes to how to organize our children’s daily lives, scripts for teaching that promise success for all (or your money back?) What’s needed is a new resolution to honor the importance of dissent, of theories that are continuously open to be questioned, and that look upon the past not for recipes (“evidence-based” or otherwise) but for insight, often insight into our mistakes.

One advantage of being old is that one can remember how words and phrases have changed meaning. When I grew up “collaboration” was a word reserved for traitors (to their class or nation), and “resistance” was the word for the anti-fascist underground. For the past few decades, in contrast, we have spoken of collaboration with glowing hopes and seen resistance as the negativity of laggard teachers, educationists and bureaucrats who refuse to embrace the future. I wonder.

We are enamored of “scientific truth” (except when it comes to global warming and evolution) when it comes to how to teach reading or math, and we rely on shoddy tools like standardized tests to determine scientific truth. We dismiss the fallible judgment of those who know each child best for the certainties of self-proclaimed Prestigious task-forces. We dismiss the objections of parents and teachers as “self-interested,” and ignore the “self-interest” of the certainty-pushers. Even as we laugh at the promises made by each food and diet fad based on apparently “hard evidence” we nervously ignore our inner voices when it comes to the “evidence” offered us about our children.

It’s time to restore the honor of “resistance.” Even if our resistance sometimes may be futile, and even wrong-headed. It may slow the steam-roller down. We need time, to take a deep breath and look closely at where and how we best understand the world about us—including those youngsters sitting in our classrooms (or in our families).

This is not a call for gloating (or despairing) over the present, or being patient about the sad state of so very many of our schools, but it is a call to not allow our justifiable impatience undermine our good sense and our ability to “just say ‘no’” to nonsense.

© 2006 Deborah Meier

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