I’m Right, You’re Wrong

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I. Divisions

I used to help students prepare for written exams by unpacking the rubric. These were 6-point or 9-point scales with written criteria to describe each level. Understanding how the rubric was designed, I figured, would help them more ably respond to it, so I offered students three ways to consider how the rubric seemed to be designed:

  1. From the top down, where everyone is 100% perfect unless or until they make an error
  2. From the bottom up, where everyone is a zero unless or until they earn their way up
  3. From the middle out, where everyone is given some credit for capability to start with, i.e. no one is either perfect or a zero

Eventually, the students decided that the rubrics we used were designed middle-out, which as it happens was correct. As the top-down perspective is charitable and the bottom-up withholding, the middle-out can accommodate a little of both these attitudes. However, from the middle-out, you still need to decide from which way – up or down – your judgments will proceed.

That might seem an unnecessary nuance, but then, what is nuance if not seemingly unnecessary?

If you begin from the middle-out with a charitable attitude, yet you still reserve some scepticism, then we could argue that you’re more pessimistic – otherwise, why not simply trust people from the top-down? You’re no drill sergeant, not like the bottom-up who sees every initiate as unqualified. From that pessimistic middle-out, what your scepticism suggests is prudence, a “fool-me-twice” kind of insight that others might call cynicism. And fair enough if, while scoring an essay, it’s contrived, not really you – just remember, for the student receiving the grade, it’s plenty real when you hand back their papers. Conversely, if you begin from the middle-out with a hardened attitude yet you still grant some belief, then by the same token we could argue that you’re more optimistic. You’re no Pollyanna, yet what your belief seems to suggest is confidence, a “been-there, done-that” kind of faith that, yes, people can learn.

I bring all this up to make an analogy, which struck me while reading Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of Indignation. In Chapter 6, Freire writes:

“… education… is political in nature, though not necessarily partisan.… I could never think of the educational practice… as untouched by issues of values, and thus of ethics, of dreams and of utopia – in other words, untouched by the question of political options, of knowledge and of beautifulness, that is, of gnosis and of aesthetics. Education is always a certain theory of knowledge put into practice; it is naturally political…” (pp. 70–71)

For there even to be “politics” at all, I’m assuming there’s more than one party seeking power and, further, that these parties contest that power. And I acknowledge the teacher’s dilemma, as Freire poses it from the same discussion:

“If I must not, no matter what project I am working on, even suggest to my learners that my party possesses the saving truth, I must not, on the other hand, be silent before fatalist discourses according to which the pain and suffering of the poor are great, but nothing can be done because reality is what it is.” (pp. 70–71)

Freire alludes here to some very specific context, as does the rest of his book, as does his body of work, and his legacy.

Points for you…
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But, in general, if anything can divide us with passion, it is disagreement over the well-being of our children… to say nothing of the long-term consequences we desire for the society they will propagate… all of which is at stake in an education system. For all this, we might understand the ready acceptance of Freire’s wisdom more broadly across education, and I agree particularly that education is inescabably political. But I hesitate to accept that it is not necessarily partisan. As with so much else in education, I will say, “It depends” – in this case, it depends on how we define the parties comprising the partisanship.

II. Motives

Partisanship suggests one-sided passion, up to the exclusion of reasoning or even listening to alternatives. To borrow Freire’s phrasing… politics is partisan in nature, and partisanship impends, without necessarily guaranteeing, dogmatism. Politics of any kind is partisan if we understand the parties broadly as those with power to control the contested system and those without power to control it. Here then is the general essence of politics: on the one hand, those without control vie to control the contested system, thereby shaping potential consequences; on the other hand, those with control maintain control of the contested system while, as the need arises, fend off those without control. Indeed, those with the power to control seem to enjoy the privilege of saying, “I’m right, and you’re wrong” while those without control seem left to respond, “You’re wrong, and I’m right.” This reversal of claims is no arbitrary gainsaying or petty playfulness. Elsewhere, I’ve contemplated how we might warrant such judgments.

Those with the power to control enjoy the privilege of saying, “I’m right, and you’re wrong” while those without control are left to respond, “You’re wrong, and I’m right.” This reversal of claims is no arbitrary gainsaying or petty playfulness.

Politically, those without control can promote their own righteousness all they want, but by circumstance, they’re also compelled to point out the power broker’s control… probably as flawed, and thereby as justification for change. However, unlike the power broker, they’re unable to refer only to themselves. They refer to themselves always in terms relative to the opposition, even without direct reference since, well, everybody knows who’s in control. Arguably, compounding their repression, they occupy a weaker political position though this is also dependent upon (i) the audience’s own position as well as (ii) the audience’s potential to leverage their position. Meanwhile, having control, the power broker is politically wise to promote their own approach above all else. Indeed, they may feel no need to even acknowledge, much less reason, with anyone. That kind of arrogance is well-known, as is its maintenance.

Altogether, this struggle is what we call politics: by whatever means, between whichever parties, a fight for the power to control. Means and control… these are contextual, but presumably, something about having control is desirable, or else why bother? Quite apart from being necessary, partisanship in politics is inherent. That partisanship might be extreme is neither here nor there to its inherence but, rather, speaks to the character of the contestants. That partisanship might be polarised is down to two parties, or three, or a dozen – and I grant “polarised” is binary versus more diffused rhetorical battles between parties three or more – but it’s still not down to the nature of what it means to struggle. As I’ve said, all this is to describe politics broadly and generally.

Amoral or a moral struggle?
La morte di Cesare” (1793–1806) by Vincenzo Camuccini
Museo di Capodimonte, Napoli

III. Positions

To educational politics, then… an education system exists institutionally as part of a larger culture, and any specific control, e.g. financial, industrial, curricular, is more diffused than centralised, conceivably right down to the classroom, as Freire enjoins the teacher’s dilemma… perhaps this is a reason why Freire dissociates partisanship. In any case, for me, the power to control requires brokerage, somebody exercising some control, which by my reasoning above makes educational politics no less partisan than all the rest: those with control and those without control. Pedagogy, just to finish the point, I take to be an educational mode of politics – all the more reason to respect the teacher’s dilemma, i.e. respect the learner’s autonomy, which is how I take Freire’s point, in the end.

Yet if learners are but pawns to some more powerful broker, how is it justified to make them also pawns of a contesting party? Perhaps this is a reason why Freire dissociates partisanship. As for adult learners, where they might have at least some account for themselves, surely the teacher’s dilemma is little more than a token when the learners are children. What Freire seems to mean by politics in education is not a struggle for power between relative equals but a struggle for survival by the relatively powerless. So he justifies the motive for struggle morally. Indeed, I think this is a more compelling reason for dissociating partisanship.

In any case, as those will know who advocate for children… what passions are stirred by morality as compared to any lesser motive! It should be noted that when the powerful, like the powerless, have children of their own, they can wield passion and morality, too: there are times with no recourse but to fight it out.

On behalf of learners, Freire fights from a place of belief, a place we might consider the optimistic middle-out, hardened but hopeful. Even so, on behalf of the powerless, he fights from the moral top-down, not with scepticism for their future but with hope, and justification. It is from the bottom-up that we find his scepticism and his criticism of the powerful. And it is from all these multiple perspectives at once that Freire fights, altogether, because educational politics are inescapably partisan, by which I mean politics is the struggle for the power to control, as well as to shape potential consequences. In this respect, Freire says as much, himself…

“The necessary insistence with which I have been speaking about [my understanding of education having a political nature] has led certain critics from the right to say of me that I am not an educator or a thinker of education, but rather a political activist. It is important to state that those who deny me my pedagogicalness, drowned and nullified, according to them, in the political, are just as political as I am. Except that, obviously, they take a different position from mine.” (p. 71)

Partisanship described, if not defined. Talk of taking different positions, talk of activism and denial, most certainly talk of the political right, as elsewhere he mentions “the social classes, the right and the left, the dominant and the dominated” (p. 25)… all this talk absolutely stands for partisanship in the struggle for power. Beyond this, though, what else is all this talk, if not partisanship in a more colloquial sense, of simply taking sides?

I gather what Freire means by “politics” is a struggle to overcome the power brokers who (to use his most oft-quoted word) oppress those with little or no power. He positions himself. More than simply taking a side with children, with rural workers, with learners, with democracy, he takes a position against pragmatism, against “technical-scientific training” (p. 19), against “the control and the dictums of globalizing power” (p. 25). He takes a position that not only bares his motives but provokes defaming criticism, criticism that he acknowledges. For Freire, education is political by nature and morally necessary to help the powerless. As an educator, one takes sides as an advocate.

Education empowers the oppressed toward transforming themselves, such that they might next transform the systems and structures that dominate into systems and structures that accommodate. For all this, Freire clearly illustrates partisanship. So is “partisanship” pejorative? Is this why he deems it “not necessarily” part of politics? Defending Freire, one might label only his critics as partisan, yet still… there it is.

IV. Spaces

I was prompted to all this for having spotted in Freire’s discussion about educational politics a simple analogy to my lesson on rubrics. Analogies being instructive yet never perfect, I’ve since been provoked to further thoughts on power and control. For my students, the power to control was a clearer understanding of how to write an essay – theirs to control as far as it was a measure provided from beyond their control. In light of constructivism, today’s prevailing theory of learning, educators have been brought to reconsider education as something no longer provided to learners from beyond, like a rubric; I gather this will remain so as long as constructivism prevails.

The malpractice of education as revelation delivered by teachers we now more empathetically understand on the part of the learner as realisations composed. Even so, as no one lives in a vacuum, and everyone has arrived belatedly to a history, what do we learn that has not in some way already been provided? Will an education help us to think mere original thoughts, or unprecedented ones? Is an education some kind of addition or renovation, or some kind of transformation – each of these seeming more radical, as we go – or is an education even something else again? Whatever it is, who gets to say what education is, and what it is for, which really is to ask who it is for?

Are lessons designed for a teacher to teach, or for a learner to learn, or is it some mixture of both?

I claim a say by taking the initiative to write this blog post; will anyone reading it claim the initiative by responding with a comment – preferably something more substantive than a tweet? The ball in your court doesn’t just materialise; somebody else must serve it. By the same token, I never claimed to be some Federer or Sampras – you pose the risk that I take, and I pray you’re no McEnroe. Then again, I am apparently an educated, accountable adult now, not some powerless child too small to wield a racquet. To use the rubric analogy… is education for the learner-out, or for the teacher-in? Is it for the self, or from the other? I’m saying it’s dynamic, but is it one-way traffic? Are lessons designed for a teacher to teach, or for a learner to learn? Or maybe…

Maybe is it some mixture of both? Since numerous learners comprise an education system, at once and across time, can education even be singular, i.e. “personalised” to each learner, i.e. an education for you while another, separately, for me? Or is education something that occurs collectively, somewhere at once in between all the learners, and teachers, and whomever else we decide to include? One expresses, another perceives and, somehow, somewhere in between them occurs an understanding (even if it’s “I don’t understand you”), which connotes something further again. And on and on it rolls… except, if that’s where it ends, that’s a decision, too, to shut something down. We might be here and now, you and me, face to face; we might be across space, me way over here and you way over there; we might be across time, from either direction the one before and the other after. However we interact, though, we are indeed caught in Dr King’s “inescapable network of mutuality,” which transcends: we do all live together, but just not all at once.

For each of us at once, by both of us in turn, something comes simultaneously to light for one as well as for both. The pattern continues as we might describe the renovation of a building or the refitting of a ship: upon a pre-existing frame, something else, something newer. Engineers demolish, and shipwreckers scrap, but teachers and learners are neither of these. Yes, the more people involved, the more connotations, and the more potentially complex any understanding may be. And yes, there’s a certain finality to life, but can anyone accurately say, “I am educated,” when really we ought to say, “I’m clearing some space for you”? (… at least I’m merely asking.) The former is present, yet the latter progressive – grammatically progressive, and what’s more, politically imperfect.

Ain’t life grand!
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As context is everything, so politics the process is not a result until we decide it one. It’s all a process: for educators, a familiar refrain… Little wonder, then, if everything “depends?” If everything’s political? I rest assured of one thing: we are definitely educating each other, no matter whom we take to be right or wrong.

V. Decisions

I often wonder about one last thing… what might be the legacy of any educational transformation?

In some new system – let’s have it arise, say, as the transformation of the older one – what exactly becomes of those now who were formerly with power? Surely the new system will have its own politics, yet what will become of the partisanship so endemic to the previous politics of that system now faded away? Is it also transformed? Is it eradicated? Is it hard to say, without an example? Would roles simply reverse, i.e. those formerly oppressed now oppress their former oppressors? We’re all human, after all… are we so different, and some of us just better at leading, or teaching, or learning than some others of us? Is there some conceivable system “strong enough in its fusing power to touch those who think they lose, as well as those who think they gain”? … by which I mean a system without need of rhetorical promotion, as I gather Addams meant, too. Whose vision, so unifying? … or maybe just forget I mentioned.

Well anyway, may we reach some shared understanding… or else, in different spirit, shall all our misunderstandings come to bicker endlessly over fake news and alternative facts, and whatever lies beyond. Yet as our motive to take up learning at all might compete with our aversion to risk it all… could there be, for us, some spirit of conjectural adventure, some curiosity attributable to our existence? Or have we been destined from birth to live with a dialectical pairing of drive and brakes? As certainly as education can deliver us from division, its absence will spell our end. If there be in us some will to power or desire for control, might a spirit for mutual understanding imply something more on-goingly patient, some will to live and let live – I call it a “will” to suggest vitality… a will, a motive? a desire? some reason-for-being? … whatever.

And I don’t mean some platitude, “live and let live,” like a bumper sticker. I mean literally goodwill, a mutually respectful sharing of existence that’s humble in expression and appreciates community, including all whom we accept as well as tolerate, like as well as dislike, by which all our interaction and negotiating sets to thriving. As goodwill, its thriving welcomes more than any one’s selection of some but is inclusive of all – the preferred, the desirable, the undesirable, the unfamiliar, and all the rest as well. And no, not everybody’s so willing to be generous – therein to find at least one educational objective, if we’re humble enough.

It’s the fair mediator who’s able to broker that negotiation – “broker,” here, I use advisedly. Or does a rising tide speak for itself by floating all boats… and this is what I wonder: are we really so similar? Or must some boats be torpedoed and sunk, their crews maybe rescued or maybe just left to drown? If you are reading this, just now, and casting its partisan roles, how conceivably might the scene be played in political reverse? How humble are you, as compared to certain, about what you believe is right, and wrong? How anchored are you to the evidence you’ve chosen, by which to sink or swim?

Imagine former oppressors, swimfin now on the other foot, at last coming to see the error of their ways, now educated right from wrong, and joining the new system with gladder hearts… World Peace.

Now imagine education unequivocally, inescapably political.

Yeah, me too.

Life’s a beach
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Let’s Not Just Chase the Wind

Since May 2020, the Rhetorical WHY has been on hiatus.

The ‘latest’ Rhetorical WHY was back in February, amounting to just three so far this year – contemplative posts about me and you and the world we all share.

Then came March, and so much more that has happened since.

After May 2020, and since, writing posts didn’t feel important. It seemed better just to listen.

Eventually, we can listen and also do more. So much remains for us to say and to do: allies, adversaries, committed or indifferent, whatever we choose makes a contribution.

The most difficult things we say and do may be found alongside those whom we detest and disagree with most of all – not just for you, but also for them. Listen, but with patience. Act, but still reflecting on yourself. Finding ways to live with each other is important, yet finding ways to live for each other might even be more important.

The world that continues, of our making, has always been shared as our responsibility.

Life in the Classroom

People often say that school is a training ground, or a practice session, a rehearsal for life, which usually means career. This whole “real-life” authentic learning stuff basically privileges the work place over the school classroom.

If the flipside to words like “real” and “authentic” is words like “fake,” “false,” or “contrived,” then maybe we’re just being sloppy with our words. Unless that’s actually what we think of school. Well, I’m probably just being too fussy because none of this is what’s meant by real-life authentic learning, is it?

Or, if it is, wouldn’t it mean that no one’s keeping score until “real life” happens, and no one’s getting paid in school since results are pretend, and no one’s responsible because, hey, it’s all just theoretical? School the Great Training Ground implies that school is not really a place that matters because it only teaches about life or career, which comes later…

And hey, wait, that’s just fine, isn’t it? School does teach stuff for later, for when things matter, for when it really counts.

But hey, wait.

Doesn’t anybody think school actually is part of life? Part of kids’ lives, and teachers’ lives? Kids and teachers are alive. School is not some neverland of make-believe. School is real. It has real, live people in it. A classroom is an authentic place. It’s a – go ahead, say it with me, now – “c l a s s r o o m.” Right! What goes on in school is plenty real and means more than “Yeah, this doesn’t really count.” Laughter and friendship matter. Anxiety and stress matter. Living affects us. Learning is meaningful. Here you go, how about this: if classrooms were inauthentic, if learning were just practice for later, if school weren’t real, then why are we grading people? Shouldn’t we save that for the regular season, when it really matters?

Students are young people who live a huge chunk of their lives every day in a classroom. For them, school is every bit as real as any other place they go.

Gratisography Pexels red-school-blur-factory-451
Image by Gratisography from Pexels

It has ups and downs, friendship and rivalry, anxiety and stress and reward and good times. Calling school “sheltered” essentially discounts being there because a kid’s life, relative to themselves and their own experience, is all there is. Kind of like any other point in our lives. Our lives are real, and we don’t just switch on like a light bulb upon leaving some unreal, inauthentic place – there is no such place.

School being this pretend place is adult condescension – oh-so well-intentioned, of course, on that infamous and overcrowded road to hell. Sure, kids have limited experience. Sure, they might be sheltered according to someone else’s perspective – fine, then that’s how big a kid’s world is. So be it. It remains that kid’s perspective. It’s not pretend.

How big a life is becomes how much that person can cope. School life, family life, sports, hobbies, friends, on and on – all of these teach us something about living. Are none of these other parts of life somehow sheltered, too, like school? Who decided that school takes that prize? How about piano lessons? Those are something like school… teachers, practice, grades. Tests, recitals, performances. How about sports, with competitors, and winning and losing. With coaches and referees who hold us accountable. Are these somehow less unreal or inauthentic, or pretend, than a teacher? Are they some kind of real life learning that school is not? We often compare sport to life, and value the life lessons it teaches, but when do we short-change sport by saying it’s less real or some kind of shelter?

In fact, there’s a subtle difference to what we say about sport: “Such great preparation for life!” Affirming, valuable, such a boon. In my experience, the attitude bestowed by adults upon the value of youth sport is nothing but positive, as compared to school…

Which parts of life is nobody grading? If school is so sheltered, aren’t we actually handcuffing teachers who attempt to teach accountability? I suppose it’s not ironic that kids live in “the real world” every minute they’re not in school.

Take the kid who sees school as sheltered preparation for the real world. The day that kid argues with their friend on Saturday, what has school really prepared them for? How to argue with friends, or how to be sheltered?

Telling kids that school shelters them from the harsh world out there is misleading.

Teacher: “You need to do better on your homework. If this were a job and I were your boss, you’d never get away with this.”

Student: Right, and since it’s not a job…

What’s the chance this kid did a less-than-stellar job on homework because they’ve learned school is sheltered? Hey, if it’s all just rehearsal, why bother? If it’s only my teacher telling me off, and not a real boss, then who cares? Duly noted: someday it will matter. But not here in school, not today. If we constantly send the message that school doesn’t really matter because the real world is still out there, what will young people grow to understand from their time in school?

But if kids were told and shown that school matters, just like the rest of life, maybe they’d understand it more respectfully, value it more meaningfully. Adults like to say that life is about learning and that we should all be lifelong learners. Seems to me that would make school a place to practise learning. And if the focus in school were simply on learning, then focusing on doing your homework, on careers and jobs, on “If the teacher was your boss…,” on whichever-whatever details… then all the details would just be mere details, as in not really all that important.

If life is about learning – lifelong learning – then what possible sense does it make to shelter anybody from anything? Shouldn’t we just live, and learn all the way through? At school, learn at school. At work, learn at work. With family, learn with family, and so in every circumstance. When life happens, you learn about it, and now you know a little more than before. If learning is what matters, how about we learn how to learn? And then learn, in every possible situation. Life’s going to happen, anyway.

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