Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Educational Shenanigans: The Onion, Altruism, and “Making a Difference”

Because obviously there are only two options: learn, or go to jail.

Earlier last year, the Onion published an article titled “Point/Counterpoint: My Year Volunteering As A Teacher Helped Educate A New Generation Of Underprivileged Kids/Can We Please, Just Once, Have A Real Teacher?”
Despite the rapid transfer of information over the internet, I only encountered this article recently; needless to say, I was immediately intrigued. While I do not serve as a teacher, the work I have been discussing in my latest blog series on Jumpstart fits into many of the features pegged by the article: fresh graduate works in underprivileged school to “make a difference.” Whatever that means. [...]

As I struggled to pinpoint my unease with the article, I realized that it was this unsettling vagueness—“make a difference”—that got under my skin. Because really, what does that mean? What kind of impact can a fresh, young graduate from a point of high privilege have on students whose classroom is short on supplies, whose life experiences are much less likely to fit the societally endorsed American dream of a nuclear family and perpetual opportunities for betterment (if only you try hard enough), and whose knowledge and language skills are largely different than my own?

In other words, what kind of impact can I possibly have?

Apologies: this post is going to be nowhere near as pithy or amusing as a post by the Onion.

It will instead: focus briefly on the underlying assumptions of the article and the ways they map onto my own experiences.

Of course, there is something to be said for the Onion’s tactics—what better way to critique the underlying assumptions of our consumer-driven capitalist society than by poking fun, digging so far into the morass of a given perspective that it becomes absurd rather than status quo?
But where does that get us? Is society changed in any way through this critique? Or is this simply another way to inhabit life, thinking ourselves somehow better for having thought about the ridiculous ways we view the world, without ever having to actually change our behaviors?

This is exactly the issue the Onion parodies in this article: the over-optimistic, packaged-for-consumption construct of bettering society by “reach[ing] out to a new generation of underprivileged children in dire need of real guidance and care” offers an image of domesticated colonialism perfected as altruistic societal improvement. Teaching underprivileged students in this model has little to do with real ideas of how to promote their success, and everything to do with feeling that one has stepped outside of one’s position of privilege without having to give that privilege up.

It’s action for the sake of marketing, rather than action for real amelioration. Like stereotypical church ladies handing out Bibles to the homeless or hosting Bible studies as “community outreach,” the kind of service the Onion is poking fun at is one which is meant to make the person in privilege feel better about being in that position of privilege.
It’s action which isn’t informed by critical engagement with the real issues behind social problems.

And thus the conclusion for the imagined teacher: “it changed all of our lives…Ultimately, I suppose I can never know exactly how much of an impact I had on my students, but I do know that for me it was a fundamentally eye-opening experience and one I will never forget.” The lack of specificity—what exactly changed in the teacher’s life or the children’s?—is something I struggle with in my own work: what difference am I really making?

All well and good to say that I gave children individual attention, and tried to teach them how to build linguistic bridges between their own language and society’s “standardized” English, but I have a perpetual sense that what I do works merely to alleviate a symptom, rather than the larger ideological constructs behind it.

Although the preschoolers I work with have not “been abandoned by the system,” they do face immense challenges—educational disparities, political, social, and economic barriers, and biases for example—challenges which cannot be resolved by the correct teaching of math, as the counterpoint by an imagined underprivileged elementary school student seems to suggest.

Is it really the case that “Graduating high school is the only way for me to get out of the malignant cycle of poverty endemic to my neighborhood and to many other impoverished neighborhoods throughout the United States”? While graduating high school is a vital step as more and more education is required to get even a decent-paying job, simply graduating will not remove social biases, nor will it resolve the larger systemic issues that enable widespread poverty.

“I can't afford to spend these vital few years of my cognitive development becoming a small thread in someone's inspirational narrative,” says the imagined student; yet at the same time, the power of inspirational narrative is that it inspires its audience, breathing into it a passion or at the very least a knowledge of social issues. 

Perhaps there is a way for such a narrative to actually make a difference. While I share the skepticism of the Onion in regards to the lack of critical reflection and engagement that generally accompanies these educational endeavors, which position themselves as privileged-savior-helping-nonagential-underprivileged-children, I am also skeptical of a position that sees no merit in putting enthusiastic, engaged, and energetic educators into classrooms to acknowledge and help children’s actual (and not just perceived) needs.

1 comment:

  1. Special thank you to another Jumpstarter, Bart, who showed me the article and instigated a thoughtful, engaged discussion about the work we do!