Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I'm not a great teacher. I do a serviceable enough job, when I have a subject I enjoy and students who are there to learn. I'm not one of these brilliant teachers who could make a yeshiva class excited about hog farming. I'm just there.

I'm not particularly patient, for one thing, and I have problems finding ways to explain subject matter to people who don't understand it. I hate discipline problems so teaching high school was fairly miserable for me and probably many of my students who (in the words of Charles Laughton surveying the mutinous crew of the Bounty) didn't know wood from canvas and didn't want to learn. Teaching at the local community college is better, since the students are paying their own way and paying for something, like being hanged, concentrates the mind wonderfully. But in the pedagogical horserace, I'm pulling the beer wagon. Trust me; nobody'd hit the trifecta on my teaching.

Every so often I make a genuine intellectual connection with a student and that is a very pleasurable and profitable thing. But those moments are quite unusual.

Much more typical is the young woman in the front row every Monday and Wednesday evening. Neatly dressed, quiet, with a faint, slightly puzzled expression that slips into vacancy from time to time as she loses the sense of the lecture.

She's probably twenty-four, was born abroad or here in southeast Portland of immigrant parents. She was probably a dutiful little student in primary school, a laughing outsider in the "Russian" or "Ukrainian" clique in high school. She probably managed a "C" in most of her high school subjects by dint of hard graft, lots of tutoring, and plenty of help from her teachers.

But she's lost in here, and I can see it in the increasing time her face wears that vacant look.

I've talked to her and she has very minimal English capabilities. Enough to hold a conversation, but she's in a science class and the technical and scientific terms are kicking her ass. She doesn't know a tsunami from mu shu pork, and with her poor English reading ability she's sunk trying to keep up.

This is the ragged edge of the "information society" that education and technology enthusiasts keep telling you about. This is the Debatable Land, the very distant fringes of the warm, sunlit uplands of education that you see in the television specials and that politicians and educators tell you is the hope of the future. This isn't Manifest Destiny, the broad horizon and limitless opportunity that the land speculators of pedagogy are selling you; this is the dark hinterlands of learning, the Mountain Meadows of education, where ignorant armies of harassed, poorly prepared, overcharged students scramble to learn by night from equally harassed, poorly paid instructors. This is the recruit depot for a beaten army, where with my jaded sergeant's eye I can pick out the walking dead from the likely survivors. This one, she wears her body bag around her head like a shawl, her puzzled eyes already glazed with the dim awareness of danger and failure around her.

She's not going to make it.

There are a lot like her.

We're Americans. We like to pretend that all of us can be winners, that we're all just a moment away from success, and that it's just a matter of finding the right magic; the right job, the right marriage, the right school, the right something...and we'll be happy and wealthy and secure.

We don't like to accept that not everyone can learn technical subjects. In fact, it's fairly critical that we don't know this, since as we've watched the old, simpler, hard-work jobs dwindle and those remaining provide less and less for the worker to live on we've steadfastly pretended that we would all just go to work for Intel and it'd be OK. It's important to us not to know that a man or a woman is hard-pressed to live comfortably doing manual labor work today even if such work can be found, lost as much of it is to automatons or outlanders who can be worked for wages you could not buy a pet with in our country. If we understood this we'd feel like we had to do something about it, and that would be difficult and unpleasant for everyone.

But the fact is that not everyone has the intellectual skills to do a technical job, or learn a difficult subject, especially math and science. Many people simply don't have the mental throw-weight; there's a reason that there are so many more fry-cooks than research chemists.

Even more people lack more the general skills needed for technical success; patience, organization, time management, perseverance. My experience is that literacy in general is not in a healthy state. Many people, perhaps more than you'd think, are almost incapable of extracting, analyzing and absorbing information from the printed page. By the time these people are in college, even the troglodyte college where I teach, this is a serious problem for them, and one that is difficult to remedy.

And, too, many of these people have been taught to fail in their early schooling. They have been taught to be afraid to expose their failings, to hide their inability to understand. Not to be "trouble", not to ask questions. They have been beaten with the stick of their own insignificance and ignorance and have lost much of the ability to learn for themselves. Their prior training, and much of their daily lives, makes it difficult for them to discipline and organize themselves enough to study their way out of their troubles, and they often lack even the ability to understand what it is they don't understand. And they're afraid to demand better instruction from people like me.

They are the casualties of our technical society, and after we kill them in the schools their bodies are tipped into the mass graves of the quickie-lube pits, the counters of the minimarts and the checkstands of the groceries, the posts of the night guards and the day laborers.

Or they sit, like my Russian girl, dumb and lost, in the hard plastic chair behind the table in the front row looking up at the whiteboard with the sad, empty eyes of the saints on the icon.

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