In the latest installment of the Indiana Jones series, our unflappable archeologist tangles with a couple of South American grave guards, saving the life of his sidekick, Mutt Williams. Mutt, a rebellious youth, turns and looks at Jones in surprise as he surprises and kills one of the attackers. In his shock and awe, Mutt stammers, “You’re a teacher?!” “Part time,” Indy nonchalantly replies. We cannot all be globe-trotting archeologists who must constantly save the day, but we all must be just as tenacious in our pursuit of scholarly purpose as we are in the instruction of our students. After all, if I am simply a person who teaches the mechanics of writing, I am neither worthy of a pilgrimage nor ecstatic about my life. Our purpose may not be the stuff of cinematic epic, but that does not mean it isn’t important.
Too often, we are not active critics of ourselves as a community of scholars. This spring, I heard President of the University of Virginia John Casteen deliver the commencement address during the ceremony on the lawn at UVA. What President Casteen said was the lesson of two decades at the University of Virginia was that knowledge cannot exist without action. In the case of American education, our greatest action is the shaping of our democratic culture. When we are not careful, we destroy our democracy rather than improve access.
American education can be said to have the furthering of social justice and democratic equity at its core. In order to improve and defend democracy, we must understand what we mean when we refer to it. “Democracy,” as a term, is often the victim of warping and deliberate tampering. Democracy is about one undervalued thing: knowledge. Knowledge is power in the United States because our entire way of life is built upon the idea that power comes from language, specifically, the language of the American Constitution. Like a cruel joke, our founding fathers set us up with a system of government based on contention, competition, and constant adversarial conflict. Thomas Jefferson, one of the earliest proponents of public education said it best:
“The basis of our government being opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
This oft-quoted idea is the key to the convergence of the teacher as monk and minister. We must seek to reach our students from the perspective of the expert of knowledge; like a monk in medieval monastery, we must dedicate ourselves to constant scholarship. We must also interact with students, guiding them to an understanding of how this content can help them direct and shape their lives. The result of this approach to teaching is the capability that Jefferson refers to above. We teach students so that they can become models of democratic citizens, citizens whose need and love for equity encompasses not just who they know, but what they know. The strength in our way of life is the strength of our schools, a universal and well-rounded educational program that equally engages all the interests and needs of a person.
John Dewey said that “Education…is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” In a democratic society, that living is based on its deepest and most strongly held convictions. There can be no understanding of these values if the student lacks a wide base of cultural knowledge. Math, science, English, and Social Studies are all essential, but they are not enough. Small Engine Repair, Graphic Imaging, Choir, and Visual Art are also essential, and necessary to draw complete pictures of ourselves. John Dewey realized that “education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race”; thus, an education cannot take place where the individual has not been given the ability to access the social consciousness of the society at large. If the individual has no means by which to engage the corps of society, then that corps remains sacrosanct, untouchable, unimpeachable.
The single largest unifying element of American culture is our unique Constitution; however, as well-known author and scholar Neil Postman said, “the American Constitution is not a catechism, but a hypothesis.” Consider the recent economic collapse. Newspapers, magazines, and books have addressed the murky economic moves that led us to this mess because we, as a democratic society, have a social duty to understand the problem and repair the damage. I don’t know the differences between economics and accounting, but I do understand how to read. In reading about the economic collapse, I have learned what went wrong, where, when, why, who was involved, and how it grew from the first moment to the inevitable fall. Am I an expert? No, but I have let them inform me and I have made my own opinions. Most importantly, I can structure a persuasive argument to convince others of the correctness of my position.
Democratic society exists to pursue the common interests of those who live within it; that pursuit suggests argumentation because we must come to some consensus of what those common interests are. These societies only work when these ideals are considered more worthy than the people who argue about them. If Ad hominem is more enticing than the reduction of poverty in our cities, then we have lost sight of the spirit that makes US society so unique. If we spend time bickering about the virtues of this politician over that, as though we were preparing for a fantasy legislation league, then we have belittled the aspirations of those audacious statesmen who entrusted us with an experiment in cohabitation that has not yet been equaled in human history. If we allow our emotional response to cloud our rational humanism, then our society of law ceases to keep us safe and sets us up to become the victims of the shadows in our cognitive processes.
So, we must seek to teach the critical nature of every subject we teach. The history teacher must teach historical inquiry, not the recitation of facts. The math teacher must teach mathematical reasoning, not just how to get an answer. The science teacher must teach unrestrained curiosity, not just what is already known. The English teacher must teach the pursuit of knowledge, not just how to read a novel or write an essay, and the best ways to express that which we believe to be true. We must ask ourselves if the ways we teach serve the critical development of the student, and, if not, how we must change. Democracy is about placing the ideal above the individual while respecting as many individuals as we can; people cannot learn to respect something larger than themselves if no one ever teaches them that these things matter, or how to tell the difference. If we are to teach to serve our democratic society, we must teach as both monks and ministers, guiding our students on the path to being proficient learners and rhetors.