Back in the Classroom

Education for Taking a Stand

originally published at Huffington Post, August 3, 2016,

What’s education for?  Big ideas?  Big bucks?

Whatever your goal, you’ve got to start by taking a stand….

There are practical and idealistic goals for education, ranging from improving employment opportunities to learning great cultural masterpieces for improving one’s life.  Whether the purposes of the classroom are learning to achieve higher social standing, learning for learning’s sake, or any perspective in between, there is a primal question that sets the stage for all the other goals: What do you believe in?

Discovering what you believe is a primal task, but it is easy to overlook in the face of daily homework, worry about grades and future jobs, and even attention to more idealistic goals.  Those are all important and immediate, while one’s own belief may take a while to sort out, so no wonder this question frequently gets overlooked.  But not tending to it does not reduce its importance—and in fact, ignoring it virtually guarantees that someone else will decide what you believe in for you.  Outsourcing of where they stand: that is the position of many who let various authorities, organizations, or just plain conformity choose their primal assumptions even as they remain busy with all those immediate and tangible concerns, with a busyness that is dutifully carrying out the orders of assumptions unthought and unquestioned.

But deciding what you believe in for yourself is a way to take control of your own education, your own work, and your own life.  It is a question about how to steer through those very real particulars about daily assignments, work tasks, career choices, and which parts of the vast menu of the human arts and sciences to focus on.  Your beliefs, your choices, your commitments are your compass.

These choices for direction sometimes take on the name “values education.”  For many of its supporters and critics, those words sound like conservative politics; and that has brought a backlash, for example, from Stanley Fish and John Mearsheimer, with their insistence that education should drop any points of moral guidance.  If higher education adopts that outlook, it will lose a lot: that values-neutral approach drops the power of helping students choose their own direction in throwing out the bathwater of preachy education.

Values are not just conservative; everyone has values.  Education can and should help students find direction, each student’s own direction, without advocating for particular values.  Tough job?  Yes, but for young people, especially young people these days facing so many choices, this may be the toughest job they’ll ever need for taking aim with their lives.

Values education has still more critics—from the very people who need it most.  Students often roll their eyes at the sound of “values education,” and their parents can be very skeptical.  For many students, and for citizens listening to these educational goals, pursuing values can seem very abstract, like vague advice to learn a lot and be nice to others.

Values education for choosing direction could use a shout out for its importance in education and in life.  Abstract?  Guilty as charged.  It is no more tangible than a business plan or a campaign strategy.  Those are abstractions that guide all the tangible particulars that follow in the wake of those, yes, abstract, direction-setting goals.  Finding what you believe in means the discovery of your own strategic plan.

Put more simply, the purpose of education, the guts of a values education, is about fostering your ability to take a stand.  The values part is about finding what you stand for; the education part is about making that stand robust, well informed, and powered by skills to make your stand effective.  Imagine the alternative, with education providing only one or the other.

Imagine an education with technical brilliance, but these well-informed young people without a sense of direction in their lives.  And there are plenty of ways to take a stand without backing it up with sound learning; asserting a belief without the support of education can indeed stand tall, but it is likely to be shrill and easily swayed by the next strong belief coming down the pike.  So both parts are important, the values stand and the education, the directional choices and the results, and they can reinforce each other.

The movie “Inherit the Wind” (1960, Stanley Kramer, director) includes a scene that captures the spirit of taking a stand,, about 40 seconds long, through 1:27:40 on the timer.  The scene is brief and powerful, even though it is less well known than the movie’s famous courtroom battles based on the Scopes Trial of 1925—the Tennessee Butler Act had made teaching that “man has descended from a lower order of animals” illegal in public schools; a science teacher broke the law; and two famous lawyers confronted each other over religion and the people’s will, versus science and the right of free inquiry.

In the movie, after a court session when the lawyer for banning evolution, Matthew Harrison Brady, has aggressively grilled the teacher’s girlfriend, Rachel Brown, on the witness stand, she goes to Brady’s room that evening in outrage at his unfair treatment of her.  His wife, Sarah Brady, answers the door, and Rachel says “He betrayed me!”  Sarah admits her husband’s mistake (the actors playing Sarah and Matthew Brady, Florence McKetchnie and Fredric March, were in fact married, which surely added to the character Sarah’s passionate delivery), but responds “If he’s been wrong, at least he stood for something!”  Then she asks the central question for everyone’s education: “What do you stand for?  Do you believe in Bertram Cates [the science teacher]?  I believe in my husband.  What do you believe in?”

There are other movies that convey the power of choosing direction without the early-twentieth-century “stand by your man” secondary status of Sarah Brady—or her tough-gal violent slap—to get that powerful message across.  But as with Joan Didion’s comment on cheap monster movies: those parts of the scene are not worth emulating, “but I just can’t get that monster out of my mind.”

You can step out of black-and-white old-school movies and get a similar message from “Stand and Deliver” (1988, Ramón Menéndez, director) about real-life Jaime Escalante who challenged his Hispanic working-class high school students to do great math work.  They had convinced themselves that they were academic failures until Escalante pushed them to take a stand; doing good work was already “in their blood,” and they just had to tap it.  Or consider “Freedom Writers” (2007, Richard LaGravenese, director) about another real-life teacher, Erin Gruwell, in a class of “at-risk” high school students.  Her path to inspiring them is with writing; without support from her school, Gruwell buys the students notebooks for them to write journal entries about who they are and what they want with their lives.  They find their stand when their writing becomes scripts for their lives.

Education can help students do good work, both for practicalities and for broad learning: Do good work—but first do good choosing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s