Public schools have declared war on uncertainty

Not long ago, as my students were discussing Robert Browning’s “Caliban upon Setebos,” an assistant principal at my school came to observe the class. Such observations have at times have landed me in a fair amount of trouble.

That risk certainly existed for the Browning poem: My students had already read Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Caliban is drawn from the earlier work). We had also engaged in a frank discussion of evolution and what these days would be called intelligent design (Caliban makes inferences about nature based on unequal power relationships he observes all around him — Browning was clearly influenced by the recently published Origin of Species). We were also building on prior conversations about what it means to be “innocent.”

My classroom is designed to be a safe space for wrestling with ideas that do not always pass culture war tests or lend themselves to any sort of standardization. Still, I do not court controversy. Teachers who do that do not survive long in public schools. At best, my role is merely that of a maître de, arranging tables at which people can have important conversations.

On the day of the (unannounced) observation, one of my students had a brainstorm about the poem. She said the most striking thing about Caliban was his absolute lack of peers. He was, she suggested, uniquely drawn to inequalities in nature because he had no friends, no family, with whom he could open his heart, with whom he could share his most dangerous questions.

In a way, the student asked, could Caliban represent all of us, alone in the dark, surrounded by the terrifying blankness of a world in which our desire for certainty about our purpose remains unrequited?

See also  Holland Public Schools, Hope College partnering for teacher prep program

This is a dangerous question. And it was an elegant critique of the circumstances that conspire, far too often, to prevent any flirtation with uncertainty in classrooms.

My students then tore into the poem with zeal, inspired by the ways in which, as one had said, we are so very much like Caliban. The only precondition for maintaining the zeal was that I shut up and get out of the way: This conversation needed to be self-managing — and so dangerous.

In far too many media representations of public school issues, educators are pitted as adversaries of parents. As each group fights to control what is taught, caricatures emerge of troglodyte book-banners and doctrinaire Marxist educator-agitators.

The truth is more dangerous — as dangerous as the questioning that animates the best days in my room. The truth is that too many parents and leaders in education (and politics) are in absolute agreement about one core principle: Uncertainty is anathema, and the most dangerous kinds of questions are those that cannot be easily (or ever) answered.

Uncertainty (endemic to the human experience) is, I believe, what public schools have declared war on. After all, there is enormous political pressure to produce tangible evidence of educational achievement. There is, in other words, a compelling social need to beat back the unknown with rock-solid data that can be harvested like grain in a field, refined and turned into something easily digested.

But such data are necessarily a reduction and compartmentalization of what can happen in human minds. The best of what can happen was on display in my class’s discussion that day.

See also  Stewartville Public Schools plans to cut class calendar a few days short to get head start on summer projects – Post Bulletin

We did not conquer doubt: We learned instead to speak of it as part of a conversation that is as old as humankind. We did not harvest manageable data; we did not achieve something for which there can be discrete answers on an exam.

We failed by most modern measures to achieve what matters in public school classrooms. We failed precisely at the moment we spoke and listened with humility — a basis for wisdom our schools spurn.

Too many adults who say they know what is best to teach have lost all humility in the face of the unknown; it is this lack of respect precisely that prevents them from speaking civilly to each other, that panics them into pulling their kids back from the precipice of epiphany.

David Newman is a high school teacher in Odessa. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

Find the full opinion section here. Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor and you just might get published.