The man who has no imagination has no wings.
– Muhammad Ali
The fact is, I was never too bright in school. I ain’t ashamed of it, though. I mean, how much do school principals make a month?
– Muhammad Ali
In June, it seems that gardening, graduation, marriage, and gay pride are what we are all about. Well, maybe. I have noticed that some of my gay friends are going to lots of weddings of heterosexual friends and family members. I noticed that lots of my straight friends are going to graduations of their children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and neighbors. It seems like everyone with a few yards of land is gardening. I cannot say that I am noticing a groundswell of enthusiasm for gay pride this year, beyond a few thousand people holding their corporate breaths for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on marriage equality as a civil right. (More on that next week.)
As graduation season is winding up for its inevitable orgy of valedictory speeches, I have been thinking about our expectations of secondary and post-secondary education. As I am sometimes drawn to do, I start the process of thinking about a topic like education, not by contemplating the end product, but by considering the raw materials – namely young people.
For some time, I have been asking undergraduates in a psychology course that I teach how they identify in their roles at the university. Do they tell others that they “are in school,” “go to the university,” or “study social sciences”? Alternately, do they identify themselves as students? Generally, I find students choose one of three alternatives. They describe themselves as in school, as a student, or both, depending on their audience.
I would argue that Muhammed Ali was in the latter camp, being a student when he was a man of imagination and in school when he was exercising his capitalist beliefs. Of course, he was not alone in this association of school with earnings. The too frequent underlying message in legislatures like Wisconsin’s is that schools are not doing enough to feed industry, that teachers and administrators of liberal arts are effete and their course content is useless, and that we would do better by privatizing the process. In short, we should support the acquisition of skills to support capitalism. In the 1960s Ali was reflecting that same perspective in a way. Educators are not worth much. Education cannot provide us with imagination.
When I started teaching in 1970, I was acutely aware of the expectation that I would be preparing students for work. My annual salary for teaching was under $8,000. My five classes each had 32 students. None was expected to go on to college, though several did. Those going on with their education were the children of pastors, politicians, and morticians. The school was 95+% African American. The remaining students were mainly Puerto Rican, many having very limited English proficiency. Though the school was clearly there to prepare students for work, the facilities and curriculum didn’t support that expectation. It seemed to me at the time that the school was better suited to train students for compliance than work.
When I continued my graduate education, I was exposed to a bigger picture of what was happening. There has been a long-standing conflict between industry and education, with the former supporting efforts to meet their workforce needs – including limiting aspirations of students when workers were not needed – and the latter doing its best to teach students to think. One by-product of this conflict has been the chaotic conditions in public education, failed efforts to support secondary and post-secondary education, and a wide-spread disdain for actual knowledge.
Out of all of this I came away from my 13 years of work at the secondary level with this perspective: the chief input in the educational system is citizenry (students, parents, teachers), and the chief output is the electorate (students, parents, teachers ready to vote intelligently) that maintains our democracy. From this view, work remains important, but it is not the point of education. The point is imagination, empathy, wonder, love for humans, and the intellectual tools to put these to the service of the common good.
Call me naïve.