Sunday, February 20, 2011

Enough Already

The great philosopher/education advocate Neil Postman is fond of quoting Marshall McLuhan's famous phrase "the message is the medium." The case of Natalie Munroe ties directly to this concept. Ms. Munroe is the teacher who has lately been under attack for a blog that had some *ahem* controversial statements on it. Some people love her; they taut her as the newest voice in educational truth. Others hate her; they believe she represents all that is wrong with the modern educational system: the teachers. With any luck, these polarized and myopic views will fall aside and Ms. Munroe will become a representative of what freedom truly means.

In Experience and Education, John Dewey had the following to say about the nature of freedom:

"The only freedom that is of any importance is freedom of intelligence, that is to say, freedom of observation and of judgment exercised in behalf of purposes that are intrinsically worthwhile."

This is particularly apt in the case of Ms. Munroe. If you click the title of this post, you will be taken to a website that had coverage of the story last week. Notice the clever removal from context of the phrases in the second paragraph. If these phrases were located near names or even highly intricate descriptions of students, I might understand. As it is, they were written in a way that preserved student anonymity; thus, no one's rights were violated. What really rankles people, especially those who left the inane comments below the story, is that this teacher would have the temerity to speak about the frustrations of her classroom in a public forum (yes, the internet is a public space; however, that is an issue for a whole different post).

At the climax of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Howard Roark dynamites the Cortlandt Housing Project because other men warped his design. In his speech before the jury at his trial, he gives voice to Rand's philosophy saying that the creator's vision is his representation of truth. Essentially, the manipulation of Roark's original plan is tantamount to the construction of a physical lie, something that is an affront to all free, truth-loving people everywhere. Many high-level academics and most of the "mob" that is the general public want justice. In the end, they see the validity of Roark's position and acquit him. Then, as now, the general public does not wish to allow the truth to exist, but it continues to try and work its way to the surface.

Were Ms. Munroe's statements bitter? Yes. Were Ms. Munroe's statements true? If experience holds true, then yes. Should she have published them in the public eye? Yes.

Reformers from Michelle Rhee to that one lady at every school board meeting have ideas about how to fix public education. They have magic bullets galore, giant magazines of silver panaceas that rip through the windows and walls of our classrooms, destroying more than they create. The children get hurt, proper teaching gets sidelined, and generations are lost in the cross-fire. Then, these reformers turn to teachers with a pointed finger, wagging it in their faces until it accidentally fires which usually happens when one of them opens his or her mouth.

The awful truth is that people do not want to be confronted with the nasty human complexity of public schooling. The dialectic of freedom becomes a monologue of oppression, both of mind and spirit. Are there problem students? Yes. Do they affect classrooms and good teaching? Everyday. What Ms. Munroe is guilty of, if anything, is having the guts to exercise her rights as a person to pursue liberty on the behalf of others. She opened up a channel of communication between her classroom (a traditionally cloistered place) and the community.

So, let them charge after her. Let them wag their loaded fingers in her face. Let them do what they will. Ms. Munroe should stand tall, proud of the dialectic she has begun. As a citizen of these United States, regardless of the digital nature of the discourse, she has a right to free speech. She has that freedom and she has shown that she will utilize it. The message is in the medium: freedom comes from the writing, from the ubiquity and accessibility of the blog. Let us not forget, as teachers, that we have a voice just like Ms. Munroe. The best support we can offer her is the use of them.


Tom said...

You should read this particular post, which really hits the nail on the head:

I've said it before, but it baffles me that we're supposed to act as if we teach in a vacuum and that we're supposed to just ignore all of the b.s. that students do ... accept them as "kids being kids."

Kay Parks Haas said...

Great message, Dan! You're so right! Although the daily demands on teachers are so overwhelming, we need to take time to make our voices heard, especially in these times of tremendous criticism by so many people who don't have a clue what effective teaching entails. I may piggy back on your message when I write my blog in March. Thanks for the inspiration! Kay

KAM said...

I agree wholeheartedly! That's all I can say.