• December 9, 2019

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: The eternal return - Odessa American: Letters To Editor

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LETTER TO THE EDITOR: The eternal return

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Posted: Sunday, October 6, 2019 6:45 am

Six weeks ago, I made the hardest decision of my life: I left a college at which I had taught very successfully (student and supervisor evaluations are unequivocal on this point), in order to return to Odessa High School.

Sometimes I need to remind myself why I returned to a system of public education that I have criticized, very publicly. So why is public education in Odessa worth a second chance?

On Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019, the OA ran Ruth Campbell’s piece on the ECISD’s efforts to make AP (Advanced Placement), IB (International Baccalaureate), and Dual Credit programs as successful as possible this year. I will admit that the chance to work with students in these programs played a significant role in cementing my decision to return to Odessa. I will also admit – happily – that my students, and the astonishing potential they have to change the world they will inherit from us, remain a compelling, a convincing, argument that the job I am meant to do is here, at OHS.

Lisa Roth, Odessa High’s AP/IB coordinator explained the matter very well at the end of Ms. Campbell’s article: “It’s not just content, but critical thinking…What we’re really preparing for is how [to entrust kids with a] future in which we have many exciting things to develop and many problems to solve.”

When I have railed against public education, I have done so because I see components of the system that seem not to accept or act on this remarkably simple premise: if our students do not learn how to think critically, the cost to all of us will be incalculable.

I am not speaking of acquisition of skills; I am not describing focused career preparation. These are important goals, but they should be subordinate to the non-negotiable idea that a culture filled with people who cannot think for themselves, who cannot solve basic problems, is not in any way sustainable.

One of the foundational ideas in the history of education is the need for learning its own sake – not learning to get a job but learning why jobs matter; not learning history to pass a test but learning (as T.S. Eliot said) that [history] is what we are. Without history, we would live with a paralyzing amnesia about what our lives mean.

Without a similar intrinsic curiosity about language, we would quickly reach a point where  we would have no ability to share solutions to basic problems, to teach history, to encapsulate the most elegant, the most enduring, the most personally valuable ideas into words; what we love, what is sacred to us, what we must know to survive…all of this is made out of words, and without the ability to experience the complexity and beauty and necessity of language, we would be animals, bereft of past or future, passive creatures to whom things happen, and never beings with the unique, divine spark: it is because we have words that we have the dangerous freedom of moral choice.

We need math, history, English, science; each discipline provides essential, and essentially complementary elements in the mental, emotional, and spiritual constitution of beings who can control their own fate in an increasingly complex and compartmentalized world. We need thinkers who understand why, exactly why, a Holocaust might be enabled by the unthinking compartmentalization of our lives.

AP and IB classes have one role above all others: they ask kids to think quite literally outside the boxes our culture uses to pack up its daunting complications. In these classes, the most important words kids learn are WHY and HOW: Why do humans fight? Why do so many of us seek confirmation bias (fake news); why do so many of us remain passive or complacent in the face of small evils and giant evils? How is a 2300 year-old argument between Aristotle and Calicles exactly repeated in contemporary debates over the value of truth and the value of power?

There is no lesson plan, there are no TEKS, for the most terrible problems that will confront our brightest kids: such problems are by definition beyond our ability to know in advance. But there are lessons that can prepare kids to be autonomous moral and intellectual agents. These lessons are interdisciplinary; they are provocative; they demand connections that defy everything about us that is content with our Procrusteanism. Ironically, Word does not recognize the word I just used. (https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/procrusteanism )That fact expresses my message better than all the other words I have used. Complying without thought…or reaching for a phone…will not save any of us from the unknown.

AP and IB exist to teach one lesson: learning what to think means nothing if one does not know how to think.

Odessa, TX

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