In or Out? (Long Philosophical Ramble #1)

I had a conversation with one of my English colleagues this past week. We both agreed that we would eventually wander the earth rejected by both neo-hippies and corporate executives alike, since we fundamentally disagreed with the content and the administration of the high-stakes establishment exam we were giving in two weeks, but were giving it anyway.

This blog post won’t be unique or brilliant, but I hope to use it in upcoming years to remind myself of why my friend and I don’t really belong in Purgatory.

First of all, I have to dismiss the idea that participating in an institution is de facto an unacceptable compromise of integrity. My fear is that because I have dearly held principles that are at odds with those of my workplace, and yet I continue to participate in that work, I have at best subsumed myself in passivity– or at worst, screwed up irredeemably. I have to move beyond this fear.

This is not easy. We are a nation born of plucky, underdog resistance to an unjust institution, and the glorification of individualized resistance is in our myths, our ads, our movies, the water—particularly for those Thoreau-worshippers (me) for whom resistance, in general, seems like a great idea. And for Thoreau-worshippers who are also teachers, there’s no arguing that our natural tendencies are given plenty of fuel in the current climate of one-size-fits-NCLB.

But unexamined radicalism is unexamined radicalism. In otherwords, entrenched institutionalists and Thoreau-worshippers can both spout junk. So I must examine my tendencies at their logical conclusion. Should we abandon our schools because we believe that moral compromise is indigenous to them as institutions? Should we teachers go it alone—say, as free market hedge fund managers? Certainly there are some former educators out there who have done so—I know a few. But I’ve yet to meet a thoughtful teacher, sticking it out, who is just a hedge fund manager in disguise.

These teachers know two things about the myth of The All-Mighty Individual, for starters.

First, they know that the concept of somehow achieving moral purity through individualism is false. The struggle to act rightly in schools is born of our humanness– and thus indelibly replicated in the microcosm of our selves. The 10X15 house beside Walden Pond won’t save you or me. (It sure didn’t save Ted Kaczynski.)

Secondly, teachers committed to schools know that the healthy individual is indivisible from community. (Thoreau knew this too, actually, and received friends and visitors nearly every day.) In addition, a mass of psychological research has demonstrated that individualism (the myth) and autonomy (the healthy reality where we are nurtured as individuals in balance with communities) are two entirely different things. I’ll be talking more about this soon when I (finally) get to Parts II and III on “Why We Do What We Do.”

And there’s one last theory I have as to why thoughtful teachers stick it out. I’ve started to think of it as “soft math.”

Soft math is the cost-benefit analysis of participating in institutions which we know are fundamentally flawed. It isn’t quantitative or qualitative, but a yeasty mix of both. Soft math asks the question: does the amount of good that I do—in my college, in my cubicle, my classroom—outweigh the amount of damage I do by enabling a broken system?

In my clear-eyed moments, I know that it is soft math that must be my guide. Soft math does not rule out either change or stability. It leaves room for multiple responsible reactions to one’s teaching circumstances. It requires vigilant observation and reflection in a way that ideological despotism does not.

And, perhaps most importantly, soft math rests on hope. It is accountable hope, to be sure: a hope that must borrow the hardness of diamonds from logic, from precision, from fact. But this hope is also feathered, and perches on the soul.

The poet Adrienne Rich has something to say here too.

Oh you,

who love clear edges

more than anything…

watch the edges that blur.

4 thoughts on “In or Out? (Long Philosophical Ramble #1)

  1. I think you’re forgetting the economic math of our profession, although you did mention the term “cost-benefit analysis”…not sure if you mean it literally. If you believe that humans make decisions based on economic motive, which I think is at least partially true, then that must be considered in the motivational mathematics. But anyway…

    This is something I struggle with deeply. I still think that I do mostly good, even in the face of massive piles of garbage. And then you work to get those piles smaller, at least that’s what I’m trying to do. I think you give up hope if you don’t, and that leads to numbness.

    I continue to worry about the people that don’t realize they are even in the pile in the first place. Perhaps it’s that that maintains the system. Look at politics right now. Massive change is happening as people are starting to wake up from the numb slumber.

    What the hell do I know though…

  2. I’ll repeat something you told me a few posts back. “At least you know what stake you’re tied to.”

    And you’re quite right about the math, although I was trying (unclearly) to be poetic-metaphorical-thing-type-symbolic-ish.

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