This winter I ventured over to a part of campus that I hadn’t explored in the ten years I’ve been hanging around Harvard. In January, I took a two-week boot-camp style overview course on the ‘Foundations of Urban Education’ at HGSE. As many of you may know, I’ve always had a sweet tooth for teaching and learning. As an undergraduate I helped teach in the Mathematics for Teaching graduate program at the Extension School. After graduation I ended up at a publishing company where I wrote the chapter exams for middle school math books. (If you’re a sixth grader in California, I’m sorry.) At the same time I started in a spunky, free-thinking masters program in education at UMass Boston before getting whisked away to teach introductory computer science elsewhere in the university. Along the way, I hung around an urban charter school in Dorchester as part of my coursework. To be sure, education is really important to me.
So at first I wasn’t sure what to make of my HGSE course. These days I spend most of my time in the lab with delicate scientific instruments, goofy and less delicate scientists, and large, slippery, and quick-moving frogs. The pressures of real-time classroom conservation in a field that I’d been away from for so long with people who live and breathe this stuff everyday was, to be perfectly frank, intimidating. We had received our course pack and reading list in early December. Because time was at a premium, all of the lectures were prerecorded and posted ahead of time. And the teaching staff encouraged us to hit the books nearly a month before the first day of class. Yowsers. I had a lot of catching up to do.
But then the course started. I assumed course discussion would reflect the same sort of openness and thoughtfulness I had enjoyed at UMass. But if I learned anything in those classes, it was that I need to dispense with assumptions, suspend judgment, and, as we say sometimes in biology, let the data speak for itself. And, oh, did my classmates speak.
Never before had I encountered such persistent intellectual bullying. Not just at Harvard, but anywhere. It was shocking to me that some ideas could be heretical; certain topics entirely taboo. The main theme of the course was exactly what I expected: there are large groups of people (mostly blacks and Hispanics) who have been systematically disadvantaged throughout their history in this country. On the other side, another group (of wealthy, white men specifically) has manipulated mainstream social and political structures so that their children are systematically advantaged. To level the playing field we need a swift injection of money and multiculturalism. All of this seems completely reasonable if done reasonably. I want to give a voice and power back to the dispossessed; don’t you?
The sermon was predictable. Course material provided us with sound bites that we could wield quickly in a pinch. But the way I was supposed to think was fundamentally unchanged. In fact, it felt like that was by design. Opinions that weren’t recognizably aligned with the gospel truth were denied flatly. Those ideas that actively disagreed with mantra of the noble but disadvantaged youth—savage is no longer politically correct, but the sentiment is—were silenced. My classmates rode around on the white horse of moral supremacy to quash discussion and avoid making concrete suggestions for fear of criticism. Whenever someone took a definite stance, someone else inevitably asserted their fears that the dominant power structure was secretly creeping in to rob the poor of their humanity. Now don’t get me wrong, many times that was exactly the case.
The extent to which people who extolled the enlightened practice of listening burrowed their heads in the sand to hide from new ideas would have been laughable were these people not actual educators who interact with actual children. In group break-outs, my classmates railed against me (and other heretics) with passion but without evidence. During an exercise on curricular planning, for example, I suggested that mathematics isn’t itself hierarchical and that our classes need not be. Algebra doesn’t need to precede geometry. We just insist it does because of an accident of history that has been frozen into the curriculum. I didn’t mention my experience in math education. I wanted my ideas to stand for themselves. A classmate of mine insisted that math follows a linear order. Basics first. Advanced topics later. And that’s that.
Another time, I pointed to models of inequality that abolished race but were unable to dismantle financial segregation. Consequently I suggested that we should investigate how people acquire and maintain wealth and incorporate what we learn into our classrooms. This time another student, at a loss for words, told me that segregation was about race. It just is. Full stop. My TF consistently commented that my response papers could be stronger if concluded something that I believed contradicted my main arguments. Naturally, her arguments recapitulated the party line: in this case, that honors tracks are categorically bad. Like Lisa Loeb, I was only hearing negative, “No, no, no. Bad.”
My meeting during office hours with the professor was the most surprising example of this multiple-ways-of-knowing, except-in-this-class philosophy. Initially I had scheduled time with her to talk about careers in education, but by the time our appointment rolled around it was clear that our conversation would focus on my final paper and its subsequent rewrite. I should admit two things about my final exam. First off, I was confused about what a semi-reflective, semi-analytical paper ought to look like and my first guess was bad. My paper was disjointed and poorly written. Second, I put a lot of original thought into it. The version I submitted contained what I believe to be a thoughtful proposal for urban educators that integrated, if indirectly, most things we had read, discussed, or otherwise touched on in class. In lecture, our professor asked, “how can we best respect the diversity in our classrooms?” To come up with an answer, I defined respect and diversity, drew meaningful connections between them and proposed a framework for thinking about diversity which differed usefully from those found in our readings. But my response wasn’t “recognizable” to my TF or professor. And more, importantly, it seems, my paper didn’t explicitly retell the history of inequality in American schools. They needed a book report narration to prove that I had done the assigned readings. These were important, after all. At one point during our meeting I asked directly if I should just parrot back the readings one at a time for my redraft. At this point the professor responded that she would not usually want to sound so “anti-intellectual”, but that yes, that would indeed suffice.
The point of my favorite reading, one by Hirsch, argued that in order for a marginalized voice to be heard, it needs to speak the same language that those in power speak. The class had universally dismissed Hirsch, because they claimed (incorrectly) that he privileges rich, white viewpoints. In doing so, they proved his point: if you don’t sound intelligible, no one will treat you intelligently. So figure out how intelligent people sound and talk like them, but say what you think. The conversation I had with my professor, who specializes in civic education, marginalized voices, and social justice, did just the same. My point wasn’t recognizable, so it didn’t exist. (Like my TF, she also decided that my paper was about the necessary evils of tracking.) I’ll tell you how I rewrote my final paper in case you ever take a class at HGSE. There’s a recipe you can follow. It doesn’t require much thinking but guarantees success.