"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Little Too Ironic

Maybe you're not 44 and so are not conversant with the movie Reality Bites (its genesis and presentation 20 years past), but I am.

The down-and-out 20-something "losers" (heed my punctuation, please) in that film did not exemplify me.  I had a job as an English teacher in a parochial high school in St. Louis, MO and was raking in a massive 18k.  The mise-en-scene of this movie with which I did not identify was the marketing juggernaut called "Seattle Grunge."  In any event the protagonists have relationship issues, job issues, artistic issues, Pearl Jam shows up, maybe Alice in Chains, maybe Soundgarden, I don't really remember.  But I do have, apparently, permanently etched in my memory, a scene, an offhand, tossed-off scene, in which Winona Ryder's character and Ethan Hawke's (Oh Captain, my Captain!, sorry, different movie) discuss the fact that she cannot properly define irony and suggests it's indefinable.  The Hawke character, perhaps the genesis of all Hawke characters thereafter, is a jerk, and without missing a beat, defines it.  As with all definitions, it is partial.

Now, irony, life, reality (perhaps simply synonyms) have been visited upon me on many occasions.  But I think we can only see life as ironic if you take a "meta" position to your life.  Oedipus marrying Jocasta and murdering Laius performs (or is visited by) an irony but feels it as a deserved judgement and so he must not see it as irony but rather as a fate.  If he'd have gone about his business, moved on and tried to be the tyrant of another city-state, or gone off to be a hermit offering wisdom to Monty Python characters, and reflected upon the narrative events of his performed life he might have thought those events ironic.  In short (was that short?), irony springs out of studying performance, reflecting upon the events and happenings in life AS IF they were something akin to a play--a fiction, an act.

However, we likely feel that irony is our tragedy and that is not an act, but our lived, flesh-and-blood, painful, life.

I recently wrote and posted a kind of "study" that attempted to call into question certain behavioral performances in schools ("Instructed to Ignorance").  These performances are, I would propose, near-universal in schools all across the this empurpled majestic land.  I described the content of a classroom situation that to me yielded, from one perspective, this conclusion: "curriculum materials" are only education product and so only a commercial venture and so only an economic widget serving to turn a profit for corporations like Pearson.  It seems to me that teachers know this.  It seems to me that administrators know this.  The parents I talk to know this.  Why is there persistence in this?

Further I wrote that a principal, when attempting to discipline elementary-age children, is disciplining by his/her own behavior and that it is likely that "he" is, in himself (a whole and a part!), a giant "non-verbal" sign to children who are being "institutionalized" in school.  Again, this seems to me a commonplace.  We try to train children to walk in a line on one side of the hall (like roadways), we try to train them in respectful silence, we try to train them in respect for authority.  In short, this is obedience training.  I pointed out that this is done in animal training too and that we have positive and negative reinforcements open to us.  Further I noted that correction requires consistent repetition.  I did not say this was a "wrong" thing, or that it was an abhorrent act, or some kind of injustice.  I did not call the principal a bad man or an unprincipled one.  I described an act that I believe so common as to not even need description.  I described a display of hierarchical authority.

Yesterday, irony bit me for this transgression.  It was conveyed to me that this was an act of ridicule.  I was, to use Peckham's phrase, introduced to a "policing" event.

I was released from the position that was valued the same as a locker room attendant in this particular school corporation; from the position for which I would be paid, if annualized, about 4k less than I made 20 years ago in my first teaching job.  In this I do self-pityingly feel an urge to blind myself in penance to the fates...

And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all [men], apt to teach, patient, 
To win them through our patient bearing with them, but not to please them or excuse them in their wickedness. 
In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; 
He means those who do not yet see the truth.  (2 Timothy 2:24-5, Geneva Bible)
It is instructive that I was treated as if I were those same kindergartners and perhaps this action was a proof of the perceived exposure to ridicule.

An important difference to note is that I was not instructed (with rolled-up newspaper, as it were) so as to correct an error and hopefully show the results of that education by "learned" response.  Instead I was sent to the pound for disposal, perhaps like Veruca Salt, unregenerate, a clear instance of the "bad egg."  You'd think the weeks in 5th grade "IDR" would have learned me better.

Or at least my reading of Moby Dick...

   But the third emir, now seeing himself all alone on the quarter-deck, seems to feel relieved from some curious restraint; for, tipping all sorts of knowing winks in all sorts of directions, and kicking off his shoes, he strikes into a sharp but noiseless squall of a hornpipe right over the Grand Turk's head; and then, by a dexterous sleight, pitching his cap up into the mizentop for a shelf, he goes down rollicking, so far at least as he remains visible from the deck, reversing all other processions, by bringing up the rear with music. But ere stepping into the cabin doorway below, he pauses, ships a new face altogether, and, then, independent, hilarious little Flask enters King Ahab's presence, in the character of Abjectus, or the Slave. 
   It is not the least among the strange things bred by the intense artificialness of sea-usages, that while in the open air of the deck some officers will, upon provocation, bear themselves boldly and defyingly enough towards their commander; yet, ten to one, let those very officers the next moment go down to their customary dinner in that same commander's cabin, and straightway their inoffensive, not to say deprecatory and humble air towards him, as he sits at the head of the table; this is marvellous, sometimes most comical. Wherefore this difference? A problem? Perhaps not. To have been Belshazzar, King of Babylon; and to have been Belshazzar, not haughtily but courteously, therein certainly must have been some touch of mundane grandeur. But he who in the rightly regal and intelligent spirit presides over his own private dinner-table of invited guests, that man's unchallenged power and dominion of individual influence for the time; that man's royalty of state transcends Belshazzar's, for Belshazzar was not the greatest. Who has but once dined his friends, has tasted what it is to be Caesar. It is a witchery of social czarship which there is no withstanding. Now, if to this consideration you superadd the official supremacy of a ship-master, then, by inference, you will derive the cause of that peculiarity of sea-life just mentioned. 
From "The Cabin-Table" (ch. 34) in Moby Dick.

But what of recourse?  None, really.  There is an appeal process that consists of the HR Director appointing an "impartial hearing examiner" (defined as a party who is unaware of the situation) to meet with me and investigate the circumstances regarding the recommendation to terminate my employment. This examiner is an employee of the school corporation.

Thoreau offers us advice in his "Resistance to Civil Government."

One would think, that a deliberate and practical denial of its authority was the only offense never contemplated by its government; else, why has it not assigned its definite, its suitable and proportionate, penalty? If a man who has no property refuses but once to earn nine shillings for the State, he is put in prison for a period unlimited by any law that I know, and determined only by the discretion of those who put him there; but if he should steal ninety times nine shillings from the State, he is soon permitted to go at large again. 
If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.  
As for adopting the ways of the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man's life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should be doing something wrong. It is not my business to be petitioning the Governor or the Legislature any more than it is theirs to petition me; and if they should not hear my petition, what should I do then? But in this case the State has provided no way: its very Constitution is the evil. This may seem to be harsh and stubborn and unconcilliatory; but it is to treat with the utmost kindness and consideration the only spirit that can appreciate or deserves it. So is all change for the better, like birth and death, which convulse the body. 
I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves Abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.
The corporation hires hourly wage employees because they are hiring fewer teachers, buying more technology, and need, simply, bodies ("embodied air").  These are bodies that cannot offer an opposing view, or, I should say, they can offer this one time.  We noted the ramifications of this in Jim's post on the 60-student cubicle classroom and I offered a kind of expansion in "Technagogically Yours."  Not only does this cut labor costs; it cuts out that "dangerously" random relationship that consists of one human conversing with another human.  It cuts out a potentially disobedient or inappropriate response (thought-crime!) and attempts with greater intensity and aggression than ever before to create an wholly predictable respondent, i.e., student, citizen, human.  In other words, a slave.

No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal mast-head. True, they rather order me about some, and make me jump from spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadow. And at first, this sort of thing is unpleasant enough. It touches one's sense of honor, particularly if you come of an old established family in the land, the van Rensselaers, or Randolphs, or Hardicanutes. And more than all, if just previous to putting your hand into the tar-pot, you have been lording it as a country schoolmaster, making the tallest boys stand in awe of you. The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from the schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it. But even this wears off in time. 
   What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance? Who aint a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about -- however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way -- either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other's shoulder-blades, and be content.
From "Loomings," (ch. 1), Moby Dick


  1. I'm sorry to hear you lost your job. Best wishes, and thanks for the Melville and Thoreau.

    1. Thank you very much, and you're welcome!

  2. Anonymous3:18 PM

    You may write too well for a blogger; I had to read this twice. If I'm following you correctly, though, John Taylor Gatto comes to mind.

    As an aside, I think you're blending "Reality Bites" with "Singles," no?

    As a principal, I appreciated your principal description. I'm continually and rudely awakened to the fact that I no longer belong to myself, making my job rather surreal, which can be fun, except when I realize I am an extension of a questionable agenda.

    Take care.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Ahhh, I think you're right...my noggin's a bit squitchy with cultural detritus I guess! Thanks for pointing it out. Which film did you prefer? As a fan of Campbell Scott I think I'd go with "Singles." And thanks for the comment about my writing. Perhaps, because I am unemployed and have been for too long, I spend quite a bit of time on the posts...it's my real job, just one that is unpaid! (Except in the kind of payment you have given me today!)

      Thank you, too, for sharing your personal experience here. I think for me the discovery that the principals in the system I'm conversant with are little more than "operations managers" for the "higher admins" who are entowered in their own building has been disconcerting; that they are often given instructions by very young, very ideological, technocrats in both curricular content and technology use (ie, what content fits the technology). And in this regard principals are as much "irrelevant" to the "agenda" as teachers and students. Which may be a "good" thing to one's conscience--you are not the "will" if still an agent--but may make you think a little more about your position which seems akin to the tax-man that Thoreau "confronts" in "Resistance..."

      Really quite denigrating to all involved, and ultimately, should you want to keep working, silencing.