Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Leif Erikson, Anti-Authoritarian

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Back in December when I was visiting back east, I prompted my dad to tell a favorite story. When he was in “grammar school," his class was given a test that asked who discovered America (this was back in the late forties or early fifties). My father had recently read a pamphlet about the Viking Leif Erikson, so he put him down for his answer. He was marked wrong, because the official answer was “Christopher Columbus.”

My father had also retold this incident to a friend who had recently started teaching, and she replied she’d have done the same thing. Her reason? “Christopher Columbus” was what the material taught.

As I told my father (yet again), I strongly disagreed. I had to shake my head at the first teacher, but was horrified by his friend’s answer. Now, I never met the woman, and perhaps she was a nice person otherwise, and a novice teacher (I would hope so!). My stance remains that, first of all, while elementary school teachers typically must be generalists, a teacher should know his or her subject area. The first teacher should have known that Christopher Columbus was not the right answer or the only answer. Much more importantly is that if anything, a student who answered “Leif Erikson” (or even penned a short answer about Native Americans and the funny notion of "discovering" America!) should have been rewarded, not punished. Rather than encouraging independent thought and research, these two teachers asserted that authority trumped empirical truth, and that obedience was more important than honesty and accuracy.

Elliot Eisner has captured this dynamic well in his writings about “the three curricula all schools teach,” namely the explicit, implicit, and null curricula. Basically, the explicit curriculum is the specific knowledge set of a given class, such as the mathematics covered in an Algebra I class. The implicit curriculum is everything the class or school teaches without necessarily stating it outright, such as: “Be quiet, sit in your seats, and do as you’re told.” The null curriculum is whatever the school deems not important by not covering it.

The clash between the explicit and null curricula can be seen in battles in English and History Departments about what belongs in the canon or what perspectives deserve the most weight. However, the implicit curriculum can be just as important, yet is not as often discussed. What sort of conduct is really desired, and what sort of students is the school trying to produce? For high school students and younger pupils, basic discipline is important, and sadly, in some schools, achieving the basic classroom discipline necessary to even broach the explicit curriculum is a major struggle. However, it’s also true that some teachers really want obedience over discipline, teach dogma over knowledge, and favor parroted answers over independent thought. In the aforementioned case of Columbus v. Leif Erikson, the implicit curriculum was that the teacher is always right, even when she's wrong, and do what you're told, kid. The best teachers, certainly at the higher levels, seek to make themselves somewhat redundant by aiding students in developing their critical thinking and other skills, all building towards a greater independence. Similarly, the best teachers of younger students encourage creativity, initiative, and curiosity. A wide gulf separates an indoctrination approach from a true education.

Children and young adults always remember important victories and injustices, and quickly and sometime painfully learn what various adults truly value. Over fifty years later, my father still remembered his Leif Erikson incident. Years ago, I read an article by a woman who “dumbed down her vocabulary” and hid her intelligence after a succession of teachers discouraged her (one told her that “abysmal” was not a real word). I have a friend who tells a story of being in junior high where all the kids involved in a certain incident who told the truth were suspended and all the kids who lied got off scot-free (I imagine the adults were more interested in meting out punishment and "setting an example" than the getting the whole picture). The lesson he learned? Don't tell authority figures the truth. The implicit lesson contradicted the explicit one. I know many people have similar stories. While some such incidents may ultimately prove minor irritants, they can be significant, formative experiences if the overall social system and implicit curriculum consistently punishes curiosity and honesty in favor of blind obedience to dumb and intolerant authority. At the very least, a teacher owes a discussion to any student who ventures outside the approved lines, rather than outright squelching creativity, initiative, and independent thought.

Some teachers can only deal with a certain type of student. Teachers exist who excel with traditionally "good" students but are lost when it comes to reaching those with skill deficiencies or attitude problems. I've also seen hard-nosed teachers who are quite good at developing discipline in “problem” students, but are sadly unable to deal with students who already possess self-discipline and motivation. Such teachers can enforce a “bottom line,” but they rarely inspire. Good students (and potentially good students) starve from too much bad teaching.

In a philosophy course I taught several years ago, our ethics section dealt in part with the Holocaust. One of the students had grandparents who were concentration camp survivors and had fought in the Dutch resistance. The grandfather had done an interview with his local TV station, and I had the student teach class one day. He showed a few clips from the interview, added some more details, and we discussed it as a class. His grandfather said one thing that was particularly striking. He said when he visited classrooms today, he saw students asking teachers all sorts of questions, and in some cases challenging their authority as well. The stereotype of an elderly person is that he or she will complain that 'the kids today have no respect' or some such thing. Instead, he was very excited and encouraged by this dynamic. He said that his generation and the one before him had been brought up to be very obedient to authority, any authority. Consequently, he said — and I still remember his exact words — "when they Nazis came, we were... ill-equipped to resist them."

I'm also reminded of seeing a van of nuns drive by with a bumper sticker that said “Question Authority,” which as a teenager I thought was pretty cool. I have an earlier essay, "Questioning Huck Finn" that touches on many of these themes. As with all things, there's balance, of course. Teachers do need to keep some basic level of order, but a teacher should consider what his or her implicit curriculum is and what it should be. An education that discourages curiosity and crushes spirit is a bad education. A true education is diametrically opposed to indoctrination.

The explicit, implicit and null curricula model has parallels in many other disciplines. In cinema, mise-en-scène literally refers to how a director places people and objects in a scene and how he or she shoots them, but it also refers more generally to what appears in the frame and what's left out, what appears in the story and what's left out, and the director's general approach, style and worldview. In journalism, editors make choices all the time about what to include and what to exclude, and how much focus to give an issue and with what perspectives (these choices obviously are a key focus of political bloggers, most of whom engage in media and news analysis). Meanwhile, these same dynamics can be seen in many a political struggle. Indoctrination is overwhelmingly the purview of authoritarians, every political group has its own assumptions or implicit guidelines, and subtext can be read in most every political speech or debate.

I would hope everyone has had at least one good teacher in his or her life, whether it be a classroom teacher, coach, parent, sibling, friend or mentor. As of 1964, October 9th was declared Leif Erikson Day in the United States (which is a much bigger deal in the Midwest). I think this year, in addition to raising a glass to Leif Erikson, I'll honor grammar school kids who dared to buck the system to tell the truth, and the good teachers out there who honor that spirit of bold exploration.

1 comment:

Aishah Bowron said...

I rather have Leif Eriksson as discoverer of America than this genocidal serial killer called Christopher Columbus. Leif Eriksson was a nice peaceful guy who never hurt the Indians. Christopher is a bad man who never gave the Indians an opportunity to live !. Christopher Columbus is the Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy of the 1400s who should have hanged for his crimes!.