Author Archive | Charles Erikson

In Praise of Biased Educators

When discussing education today, everyone seems to agree that it needs to be reformed, although there is often a disagreement on how that should be accomplished. No matter what a person’s opinion may be, one thing is in common: everyone uses standardized testing data as the jumping off point for these discussions. Pundits worry about America’s international standing, districts worry about scores that may or may not signal a government intervention, and administrators worry about whether or not they will be called on the carpet by the district office for test scores.

Although teachers and districts have begun refusing to give these tests (here and here), those efforts, in the context of the hundreds of thousands of standardized tests that are administered every year, are relatively few and far between. Those teachers, and many more of them, should continue to resist standardized testing as a waste of instructional time when teachers should be teaching. Yet, that begs the question: instead of using time for testing, what should we be teaching?

The new catchphrase on everyone’s lips is “college and career ready,” a popularity that is in large part due to the new Common Core standards. The idea is that whether a student is destined for college or a career, that student will be ready for the intellectual and academic demands (i.e., problem-solving and critical thinking, analytical reading, and articulate writing) of his or her chosen path. However, in reality, many high schools focus only on the college part, to the detriment of everything else. Electives, the category that includes shop and technical classes, fall by the wayside during budget cuts and are rarely replaced in times of plenty. As shown here, state and local districts are so focused on college preparedness that career education is becoming extinct. So, schools really, for the most part, focus on preparing kids for college.

But, let’s assume that schools really are preparing our students for college classes and for careers. We condemn students to sixteen years of school (K-12 and 4 yr. BA/BS), constantly telling them that it is in their best interest. Educators rarely listen to students who say that college isn’t for them, telling them that they need to be prepared and go anyways. Why is that? Because we, as educators, know the statistics that students do not know or care enough to consider: that people with more education generally make more money than those with less. So we try to convince them that the monotonous and often irrelevant almost two decades of schooling is for their own good. Often, the AP and Honors students buy into this idea hook-line-and-sinker. A few years ago, I had a conversation with a student in an English III Honors class that went something like this:

Student: Sir, I need an A.
Me: You already have a B+. That’s a really good grade, too. Why do you need an A?
Student: So I can have a good GPA (grade point average).
Me: Why?
Student: So I can go to a good college.
Me: Why?
Student: So I can get a good paying job.
Me: Why?
Student: So I can support my family, and have a comfortable place to live.
Me: But, will any of that make you happy?

(student pauses for thirty seconds to a minute, clearly perplexed)

Student: I don’t know. No one has asked me that before.

The typical student in his or her junior year in America is sixteen or seventeen years old, and about a year from graduating into the adult world of college and/or careers. In all those years and all those teachers, no one asked this student about what the student wanted. Instead, the educational system kept telling that student, along with the hundreds of thousands of others in the nation, that money should be the primary goal. Get money; then, and only then, think about your happiness.

Giving educators the benefit of the doubt, they are trying to do what they think is best for their students. It is becoming increasingly clear that America is being governed by two separate set of laws: one set for the rich and another for the poor (see Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap). Additionally, the “rags to riches” ethos has been part of American culture for a long time, as we see by Horatio Alger stories and the success stories of people like Bill Gates. So, education has been reduced to telling students, “Set your dreams aside. Get good grades. Go to college. Make money.” Many of the educational reforms of the past decades deal with giving students the skills needed in a college or career, to aid in the effort of making money; they deal with the what of teaching, not the why. Yet, is that enough?

Resoundingly, I say no.

In the essay, “Objections to Objectivity,” historian and social activist, Howard Zinn, discusses a similar concern with education. Educators are expected to be objective disseminators of received facts and information, uncolored by personal belief or bias, so that students will be “educated” and “smart.” However, Zinn argues that being objective is a disservice to students. He writes:

Surely, how “smart” a person is on history tests like the one devised by the Times, how “educated” someone is, tells you nothing about whether that person is decent or indecent, violent or peaceful, whether that person will resist evil or become a consultant to warmakers, will become a Pastor Niemoller (a German who resisted the Nazis) or an Albert Speer (who worked for them), a Lieutenant Calley (who killed children at My Lai) or a Flight Officer Thompson (who tried to save them). (41)

Whether or not a student gets good grades or gets a well paying job says nothing about the kind of person that he or she is or will be in the future. It was those with the highest paying jobs at the biggest of national and international banks that created the subprime mortgage crisis that adversely affected the lives of millions and the economies of dozens of countries. The pursuit of money and grades is no indicator of whether or not these students will be a boon or a burden to their neighbors, families, communities, and nations-even the world. Telling students to make money and a job their goal is to encourage them to get onto the “winning” side of our society, instead of doing something about the injustices that pervade it.

Instead, writes Zinn, “Everyone needs to learn history, the kind that does not put its main emphasis on knowing presidents and statutes and Supreme Court decisions, but inspires a new generation to resist the madness of governments trying to carve the world and our minds into their spheres of influence” (41-42). To his statement, I would add corporations right next to governments as entities that must be resisted. Zinn was a historian, so naturally his remarks pertain to the teaching of history, especially at the college level since he was a professor. In high school AP History classes, rote memorization of facts is often emphasized. But, in my own field, English Literature, I couldn’t care less if students remember what a synecdoche or chiasmus or a metaphor or a plot mountain is in ten years’ time. Any novel I teach, I choose with this idea in mind: “How can it help these students question accepted values and ideas? How can it help teach students compassion for others? How can I open them up to the problems and suffering of the downtrodden that they would rather ignore?” I will not tell them what to think or how to solve a problem, but I refuse to accept the status quo in the name of objectivity. It isn’t good enough.

Do I want them to read and write well? Of course I do. But I want them to be able to read and write well so that they can make sense of their surroundings and not be manipulated by governments and corporations that would gladly grind them into dust in order to make a quick buck and maintain power. I want them to read and write well so that they can each fight the injustices of our society. The teaching of literature, of anything, should be to open them up to the problems of the world and encourage them to solve them-to fight them-to resist; education cannot be about money. Insofar as education is about money, it becomes a tool in a system that regularly kills creativity and oppresses the poor.

To be objective is to accept the political and societal goals of a curriculum that is part of the system. That is why I am, and always will be, a biased educator.

– Zinn, Howard. “Objections to Objectivity.” Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013. 29-42. Print.

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Divorce: The Injustices Add Insult to Injury

In 2010, I got divorced.

Unfortunately, in modern society this happens all too often, and, while it is a tragedy, it is not an issue of justice. However, there is more to this story. There are two ways, in my experience, that injustice has become a part of many divorces.

The first kind of injustice deals with the nature of love and commitment in society. In modern marriages, either party can file for divorce at any time, with or without warning. He or she can decide suddenly, without explanation or reason, to leave the marriage. Aside from personal choice, there is nothing binding about the commitment of marriage. It can be entered on a whim, and it can be left on one as well.

In a letter addressed to his son Michael, author J. R. R. Tolkien describes the modern idea of love. He describes how, realistically, marriage takes a lot of work and hardship, and he characterizes life as living in a cold world. However, he contrasts this perspective with the Romantic idea of love that he believes most people hold, in which love is something easy and where, if it takes work, it must not be “true love.” This Romantic idea is where people “fall in love” and can just as easily fall out of it. He writes, “One result of that is to make young folk look for a ‘love’ that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts.” As Tolkien explains, people think of love as warm feelings and as something “natural,” not as something that requires hard work. So, while both members of a marriage make a commitment in the beginning, either party can decide to leave if things no longer are going the way he or she expects. This is a problem that, in a lot of ways, our culture has perpetuated.

In my own experience, my ex-wife decided, for reasons unknown, that she was done with the marriage. In the time it took to tell me (one and a half years), she thought she had found something missing in our marriage, each time with someone else. None of those relationships lasted and were finished before our divorce had been finalized. I know that I am an imperfect person, with many faults and mistakes, many of which may have affected my ex-wife’s views on our marriage. While I have made peace with the fact of my divorce, I will always be left with a feeling of injustice. She never told me her reasons, never wanted to discuss the whys of the divorce. I have no idea why we got divorced. What I do know is that, for reasons unknown, my life crumbled and fell apart.

The other type of injustice that our modern day version of divorce allows is financial. While the first has more to do with the emotional or with a partner’s expectations, this one has to do with money. Yet, the two are intertwined.

With only one income in a two person family, money for my ex-wife and I was extremely tight. We often lived paycheck to paycheck, leaving credit cards or students loans unpaid for a couple months at a time, and we relied on our tax returns every April to catch up, only to start the vicious cycle again over the even leaner summer months when I wasn’t teaching. To be able to get through some of those summers, I had to take out personal loans from my credit union and payday loans, sometimes three at a time.

In an effort to make more money, in the long term at least, I went back to school and started a MA degree in English Literature in 2009. Like the tax returns, I took on extra loans as a means of helping us stay afloat, especially with the added costs of school. So, five semesters later when my wife finally told me that she wanted a divorce, we had to go through the arduous process of dividing up everything we had.

How hard could it have been to split up our belongings after only three years of marriage? Well, harder than imagined. In part, that was because I was an emotional wreck while, I suspect, she knew what she wanted and was after. The issue is that during a divorce, two people aren’t only splitting up their physical belongings, like cars, books, and clothing. There are also the assets and debts that have to be split up as well and in as fair and equitable a manner as possible.

According to this article in The Telegraph, it is this period of division which is exactly when divorce proceedings can become unjust. “The poorer party may let contentious matters go and accept compromises simply to keep costs down.” In hindsight, this is exactly what happened in my story.

At the time, it made sense for each of us to leave the marriage with what we entered, as it would be the easiest way to split up our belongings. However, in reality, that meant that she left with all of the assets and property, and I left with a job and all of the debt. Every time that I was unhappy with some aspect of the settlement, her response was something along the lines of, “Fine. I’ll call my parents and get the name of their lawyer, and you’ll need to get one, too. This could take years, if that’s what you want.” As I said, I was barely keeping up with the debt that I had, and I could afford neither the emotional cost of a protracted divorce nor the financial cost of hiring a lawyer over the course of several months. So, I will admit, I would let the matter drop, as I was too exhausted to resist the emotional manipulation. From conversations with friends and family members that have also been divorced, I know that I am not the only one who has been subjected to emotional manipulation. If I know that many people personally, I can only imagine how many people, on a state or national perspective, have to deal with the same problem.

It was only recently, as I was doing research for this post, that I found that this kind of manipulation, and other kinds of divorce-related injustice, is common in the legal proceedings. I found out that it is common for debt and assets to be balanced, so that someone who takes on more of the debt-and I had a lot of it-may also receive more of the assets to balance it out. If I had only known then what I know now, my divorce may have turned out very differently. The poor and women are more likely to give in to manipulation or accept unfair settlements to avoid the potential costs of divorce. Those costs, in America, average between $15,000 and $20,000, which is equal to the price of a year’s tuition at a state school in California, like Cal State Fullerton. Additionally, men tend to become richer after a divorce, while women tend to suffer financially after divorce.

My wife divorced me, and when the dust settled she had a new chance at a new life in a new state, debt free. What did I have? Over $75,000 dollars in debt. For a grand total of 3 years of a marriage, I am saddled with loans that will last a decade or two, if not longer. What happened to me, I must live with; but, there must be someway to to prevent this from happening to others.

There must be some way to make sure that more people know of their rights and duties during divorce. Part of the problem is the lack of easily accessible information about the divorce process. Each state in America has its own divorce laws and regulations. Additionally, it is difficult to make sense of all of the information without a law degree. There are many different options (annulment, separation, and divorce), a lot of confusing forms, and very little free help to make sense of it all. The help that we could find was a “seminar” at the city courthouse, which was essentially a clerk or lawyer with a PowerPoint presentation, who walked through the needed forms and tried to explain what each one required. However, there was no opportunity to have someone check our forms to see if we filled them in correctly, or to have individual help with our specific situation. Essentially, without a lawyer, the divorcing couple has to fill out the forms on their own, make sense of the information as best as they can, and this process can take months, as the court sends the forms back to the people to make corrections or clarifications or sign forms that were missed. I do my own taxes every year, and IRS forms and guides are a walk in the park compared to making sense of divorce legalities.

This brings us back to the high costs of divorce. To get the help to make sense of this process, divorcees need to shell out some serious money. Not everyone has those kinds of resources, and even when they do, the process of divorce is notorious for taking months, if not years. For example, in California, the process takes a minimum of 6 months before the couple is legally divorced, and that is only if the court has accepted the paperwork. The only consistent source of information is only available to those that can afford it. Sometimes, that is neither person in the divorce, or only one of them.

Even when it goes as smoothly as possible, divorce is an ugly process that destroys families and individuals. Americans, and Californians (as much of this is a state issue) must find a way to make sure that emotional and spiritual devastation does not translate into the kind of financial devastation that can last years and decades after the marriage itself has ended. Healing a heart takes long enough as is; mending a broken wallet does not need to be an additional injustice.

– Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. “43 From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941.” The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981. 48-54. Print.

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