An idea that’s so drenched in testosterone that it will likely never be untangled from the military or law enforcement is that you can somehow use disproportionate force to “send a message” to an opponent and thereby dissuade them from fighting you. It’s why a police Department in Florida released this terrifying video of masked policemen “sending a message” to drug dealers. It’s why Portland Police have a hard-on for showing up to peaceful protests boasting both superior numbers to the protesters and military-style riot gear. It’s why the “shock and awe” air campaign that targeted Iraq in 2003 gave every male cable news anchor covering it an immediate on-air erection.
It’s not as if this idea is absent on the left either – there are plenty of people who think that if Richard Spencer just gets punched a few more times, racists will be afraid to leave their homes. It’s why Antifa protesters are showing up at Pro-Trump rallies wearing masks and carrying baseball bats. Fortunately for these folks, the left doesn’t have the power of the state behind them.
Yesterday we were provided two examples of this mindset on the national level: The US Military detonating the largest ever conventional bomb on a supposed ISIS tunnel in Afghanistan, and the Trump Administration mulling a military strike on North Korea if they conduct another underground nuclear test.
What do they think is going to happen here? Are our enemies just going to retreat into a pool of their own tears? Will they put down their weapons and start singing America the Beautiful? Will they admit defeat and walk around with slumped shoulders and eyes facing the ground for the rest of their days?
I suppose I’m making a mistake in assuming that resolving conflict is the ultimate goal of these kinds of exercises. For law enforcement and police, that conflict is what defines them. They want war, and they’ll be happy when they get it. What comes after isn’t so much unanswered as it is unasked. What it means for the people in harm’s way remains to be seen.
I had a really interesting conversation today with a student who is autistic. It was the most that I’ve ever spoken with this particular student, as it’s literally taken the whole year for him to feel comfortable around me. I feel like I learned so much in this hour of conversation that I’m going to be processing it for a long time, but it was really powerful.
If you ever met this particular student, one of the first things you’d notice is that he doesn’t make eye contact, especially when you are talking to him. That’s not uncommon around here, but today we got into a conversation about all of the times that various adults have tried to train him to make eye contact, but he just can’t make it work. He said, “for me, staring into people’s faces is like staring into the surface of the sun.” The human face is so expressive, and there are so many things to read into every facial movement, that he experiences a sort of information overload if he has to look someone in the eye.
I have no grand observations here, but I feel like I learned a lot today.
My first post is going to be about something that’s been bouncing around in my head for a long time. Since I’ve entered into education, I have worked mostly with poor and marginalized students. And if you follow a similar path to me, you won’t get very far before you are asked to teach students something called “success skills.” In fact, there are entire classes dedicated to teaching these skills. They permeate alternative education, drug rehab, and juvenile correction facilities. These “skills” include – but are not limited to – note-taking, active listening, goal-setting, time management, emotional intelligence, financial management, stress reduction, self motivation, and (my favorite) personal responsibility. If a student is struggling in school, these remedial classes are supposed to give them the tools they need to succeed in the rest of their classes. Sounds good, right?
I’ve been deeply uncomfortable with this approach since my first days in education. It’s not just because the classes are universally despised by students – and trust me, they are – it’s that the course material reads like a totally different language, detached from the reality that our students face every day. I’ve tried to articulate why this is, and here’s what I’ve come up with:
- First off, success is not a “skill.” It’s a social construct. And no matter how many people tell you that you can define your own success, I think we know what it entails: Success means doing well at school. Success means Getting A Good-Paying Job ™. Success means owning a home. Success means retiring to a sleepy beach town someday. Success means getting a dog, having some kids. Success means becoming the people with perfect teeth that we see in stock photography for pharmaceutical ads.
- Unfortunately, the barriers students face in achieving this socially constructed idea of success have almost nothing to do with whether or not they possess the appropriate “skills.” And there’s mountains of research out there that show this! If you’re born to a high income household, you are more likely to succeed. If you are born white, you are more likely to succeed. If you inherit some level of wealth from your parents, you’re more likely to succeed. If you are born in a neighborhood that has an unemployment rate of more than 50%, you are less likely to succeed. If your father is in jail throughout your childhood, you are less likely to succeed.
- In other words, students are struggling in the educational system because the system has failed them in some way, or – if you’re being cynical – because it wasn’t designed to accommodate them in the first place. But it doesn’t make any sense to teach them that. That doesn’t give them a path forward. Your father got deported? Try some time management. Your every move is being monitored by police because you’re wearing an GPS ankle bracelet? Consider improving your emotional intelligence. Been homeless for the last six months? Try these financial management tools. Are you recovering from years of drug addiction? Here’s some tips on setting a SMART goal.
- There’s a sort of evangelism that permeates through these kinds of courses and is preached by professionals who push them. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence. These kids are poor, they’re lost, they’re struggling. There’s a strong desire to give them some hope, some light at the end of the tunnel. To give them something that they could just believe in order to not be lost any more. The underlying assumption of these classes is a fundamental trust in the goodness of the structures of our society. And since that goodness is so often visibly absent, this trust can only be compared to an article of religious faith. “Students! We have good news! America is actually good and you can do whatever you want if you just follow these simple steps! Just believe in the good news and it will set you free!”
- In addition to all of this, these classes alter the fundamental definition of what it means to be a teacher. Teachers are not Merchants. As soon as we start promising students “skills” and “tools” that they need to achieve success, we are doing something much different than encouraging learning. We are promising a product, an end result. It’s never long before teachers find themselves marketing these classes to students who are struggling or to other educators who are struggling to reach their students. That’s not what it means to be a teacher – not everything is a commodity.
- There is no data that backs up the efficacy of classes like this. There have been studies done at the college level that have shown that developing a sense of community and shared experience can be important for improving student outcomes, and these classes can certainly help with that. But at the K-12 level, I’ve come to a total dead-end in trying to find research that justifies these basic skills classes. But it is universally accepted that these classes are both necessary and useful. If you try and question it, you’ll be laughed out of the room.
- There’s a pretty clear reason for the lack of research on this topic: Nobody cares if these classes work. We are simply delivering the necessary tools to students. They can take it or leave it. If they don’t take it, if they don’t succeed? Well, there’s nothing more we can do. It’s on them.
- Finally, ask yourself one question: If you were operating from the assumption that the disparity in outcomes for students who are poor or non-white is a result of cultural differences, what would your plan to help them look like? If you had a fundamentally Conservative view of personal responsibility, how would you design a class? Would it involve sitting students down in a class together and telling them how fucked up their outlook is? Would it involve telling them that the problem is in their skillset? Would it involve lecturing them on the value of personal responsibility? Hey, I’d like to welcome you to your success skills course.
I understand why schools offer these kinds of courses, and it makes a level of intuitive sense that is almost impossible to argue with. But the implication is clear. If you’re struggling in school, if you are having trouble fitting the mold, if an educational environment gives you crushing anxiety, it’s your fault. There’s something you could have done differently to prevent yourself from getting here. The school system is great, our justice system makes sense, poverty is not endemic. It’s you. You need to develop a growth mindset. You need to be more cooperative. You need to trust us. The answers are right around the corner.
So, I’m starting this thing, and I’m not expecting to post here a lot. But I have been ranting a lot on Facebook lately, and I’d like to stop subjecting my friends to that. I also would like to put a little bit more thought into my writing. We’ll see how it goes.