I’m the Boss (and So Is Bernie)

I want to start by saying something that should be obvious to everyone:  I’m the boss of this blog.

Oddly enough, even though I’m the owner and CEO of Thinker Boy, Inc., it wasn’t entirely obvious to me, though.  My most recent posts, all of them personal reflections on my profession—I’m a teacher—had started to feel stale and I was growing bored while writing them.  Still, I hadn’t turned away from the topic because I had promised to complete the project.  Guess what?  I’m going back on my word.  I’m discontinuing the series of blogs I’d been calling “The Accidental Teacher.”

I blog a lot like I travel.  When I go somewhere as a tourist, I never make a plan before arriving at my destination, nor do I carry a guidebook.  I like to arrive in a state of naiveté, which assures that I’m going to be surprised as I roam around.  When traveling like this, I wander upon an interesting spot, one I’d never expected to find in the first place, and stop to look for a while.  When the time feels right, I turn my back and walk away.

I’m using this analogy to tell you that I’ve been looking at the topics of “education” and “my life as an educator” long enough.  I’m now ready to stroll away from them and make new discoveries.  I guess I could be a more focused writer if I were a more focused person.  Part of the reason I’m unfocused is that I have so many interests.  I’m all over the place and so is my blog.

One of my interests is American politics.  Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.  (FYI:  The Republicans only interest me to the extent that their current crop of candidates are capable of disturbing my sleep by giving me nightmares.  One of them in particular—I think you know which one I’m talking about—seems hellbent on causing the whole sane world to have really bad dreams.)

I’m a Sanders guy and I FEEL THE BERN every day of my life.  If you want to follow my thoughts on the contest, go to my Twitter page and have a look.

My Egyptian wife and I live in San Antonio, Texas, and we are very active people.  While moving around and through Texas’ second largest city, we see many streets with houses that have Bernie Sanders signs in their front yards.  To date, I have not seen a single Hillary Clinton sign even though she won the Texas primary a while back.  Who are these Clinton supporters and where are they?  They sure seem like a shy bunch, at least in these parts.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of what motivates HRC supporters, Camille Paglia has written an interesting piece with a very provocative title—“Enough with the Hillary Cult:  Her admirers Ignore Reality, Dream of Worshiping a Queen.”  I wholeheartedly recommend that you read it.

Sanders is constantly calling for a revolution in America.  By this, he means we need to revolutionize our thinking.  Sanders, of course, would never ask others to do something that he hasn’t already done himself.  If you want to see what he means by this sort of thinking, watch the video below—it’s the speech he gave at the Vatican—and you will certainly see a politician who has embraced the sort of progressive ideas that many would find revolutionary.

When was the last time you heard a candidate for president talk about the weak and downtrodden and argue that America’s profits-before-people economic system is “immoral” and even “unsustainable?”  If you can’t hear the voice of saint—or a jewel of a politician—when Sanders speaks, you need to get your ears checked.  You might want to check your ticker too—to make sure you haven’t become heartless.

We in the 99% are those who Sanders is looking out for and talked about in Rome.  By running for president, he’s throwing us a lifeline and we need to be smart enough to grab it.  If we don’t, we may find ourselves sinking to the bottom of the deep, blue sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 9)

I have had a pretty unique job during most of my adult life.  I have been a teacher—for what seems like forever now—but I’ve never really been the sort who wanted my students to become more knowledgeable, which I associate with acquiring information.  Instead, I have tried to help them hone skills that promote wisdom or shrewdness.  In other words, I haven’t focused on what they should know but on how they should know.  “How” one knows is often referred to as thinking.

Most people believe that thinking comes naturally to everyone because we’re all born with brains.  It’s true we’re born with this organ, but there is a world of difference between run-of-the-mill thinking and critical thinking (or good thinking), just as there is a world of difference between the sounds made when my untrained fingers hit the keys of a piano and the music produced by a world-class concert pianist when his or her fingers touch the ivory.

There are a million things which interfere with good thinking.  At the moment, I don’t have time to get into all these factors.  The old saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” explains one of the most important influences on our intellectual development.  Most grow up thinking in the same way their parents did and thus believing in the same things too.  Our parents are our first models and their influence leaves a deep imprint.  To be able to “fall far from the tree” requires that we have to, at some point, question our parents’ way of seeing the world and this takes great courage.  In fact, there is no activity in life that requires more bravery than to think critically because to do so one must sometimes say “no” when important others (or maybe even the whole community or world) is saying “yes.”  Saying no when others are saying yes can be costly or even dangerous.  It’s certainly easier (and more comfortable) to just go with the flow.

I’m thinking a lot about thinking these days because that’s what I do.  Plus, it is campaign season in America and that means the news is full of stories about powerful and ambitious people putting their thinking on display in an attempt to get others to vote for them.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll just go ahead and tell you that politicians with the most progressive points of view generally tend to think a lot better—I’m not talking about their ideas, which I also find attractive, but about the methods they use to formulate their ideas and then state them to the public—than do conservatives.  Political conservatives—I actually like to call them “regressives”—make a lot of very classical thinking mistakes that many others might not catch because they aren’t trained to look for them the way I am.  In fact, regressive politicians often make arguments that simply leave me shaking my head.  The fact that so many Americans find such unskilled thinking attractive often makes me despair about the future of the country.

At this point I should probably tell you that I made myself a promise several years ago.  I promised to do whatever was necessary to become the best thinker I could possibly become even if this meant that I would ultimately have to embrace very unpopular ideas.  In my attempt to constantly improve myself intellectually, I often find myself butting heads with what is called “conventional wisdom,” which is mostly a first-rate oxymoron.

I want to conclude by reiterating something I said in a previous blog.  Critical thinking is a way of being.  It is a method of living life with great integrity.  It is not something I turn on and off at will.  It has become the way I conduct myself in this world.

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 8)

I may have become a teacher by sheer accident, but that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to vigorously stand up for my profession or for my colleagues in the trenches.  By the way, many of these colleagues do incredibly important work under tremendous duress.

In “Teacher Autonomy Declined over Past Decline, New Data Shows,” Tim Walker writes that “classroom autonomy is a major factor in determining level of job satisfaction [among teachers]” because “it speaks to whether educators are treated as professionals.”  In other words, taking away teachers’ freedom of self-determination sends a very powerful message to those who are on the losing end of the stick.  It says we no longer trust you to make important decisions about how you do your work.  We think you are incapable of acting responsibly on your own or thinking for yourself.  We are worried that you’re going to do and say the wrong things.  So, to keep this from happening, we will provide you with a script and ask you to do nothing more than read from it.  Memorize your lines, and for heaven’s sake, don’t improvise.

Is it any wonder that so many teachers are feeling so demoralized?

Listen.  Teachers are not stupid people.  They have been educated in fine universities and deserve the sort of respect given to those with similar credentials who work in other fields.  This whole push to turn educators into functionaries (or automatons or script readers or whatever term you want to use) tells them everything they need to know about how their bosses view them.  If their “superiors” really thought they were entirely capable, then scripts and such wouldn’t be needed.  After all, a script is a kind of crutch that is given only to those who are deemed incapable of walking on their own.  Am I right?

This loss of autonomy isn’t just happening at public schools.  In fact, it happened at my last two university gigs—at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, and at The American University in Cairo, in Cairo, Egypt—places where I was hired to teach credit-bearing writing, research, critical reading and thinking courses to first and second-year students.  Though both cases were bad, the most grievous took place in Egypt.

When I was first hired by the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at AUC, instructors were allowed to design they own courses as long as they helped students meet a broad set of learning objectives.  These educational goals included helping pupils become better thinkers as a result of developing their critical reading, writing, and research skills.  Everything was fine during my first two or three years in the department.  About the fourth year I was there, though, something began to change.  Someone (or some group)—decision-making was kept pretty opaque so none of us had any real idea who was pulling the strings—decided there was too much variety in the kinds of classes being offered.  (No evidence was provided to demonstrate that this variety was having any sort of detrimental effect on students or their abilities to function within the university.)  Anyway, eventually this decision led the department to create a very prescriptive course template that was handed out to all.  Teachers could still apply to design classes provided that their proposals met a very set narrow set of parameters, many of which made no sense to most of the faculty, especially to those with many years of teaching and course development experience.

I decided to play along and turned in a proposal only to have it rejected.  This came as a shock to me since I had been a successful course designer for more than twenty-five years.  Over these decades my creations had been looked at my many dozens of sets of eyes and had passed all sorts of scrutiny.  Additionally, many of my classes had been deemed so well put together and successful that they had been offered as models to other instructors, even to those in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at AUC, the very place that was now telling me my newest proposal was a failure.

So, for the first time in my professional life I was not allowed to create a course and ended up teaching from a syllabus that was simply handed to me.  Needless to say, I never really believed in the class—I’m a veteran who has trouble teaching unless I feel that I have “ownership” of the thing being taught.  I’m sure this lack of passion manifested itself in many visible ways, which meant students could feel, from day one, that my heart wasn’t fully involved in the project.

Two semesters later, I handed in a letter of resignation and shortly thereafter said goodbye to the school after seven years.  I was certainly not alone in my decision to leave.  As a matter of fact, the department lost twenty-five percent of its instructors the term I departed.  This, by the way, was an unprecedented loss and should have sent a strong message to those in charge.

 

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 6)

There were ten of us in Professor Randall’s philosophy class. The room could easily have seated fifty, so we were pretty spread out. It’s likely most of us were trying very hard to remain aloof (and perhaps even invisible) by putting as many desks as possible between ourselves and our nearest neighbors.

I, on the other hand, chose a seat right next to a buxom coed named Linda Louise Gartman, a nineteen-year-old from Iraan, Texas (spelled just like the Ayatollahs’ place but with an additional “a”). Her daddy owned a hardware store there—or maybe it was a Dairy Queen?—and she was studying business to prepare herself to partner up with him someday. Most of the other students were male—snuff-dipping types who likely drove pickups that sported Confederate flag decals—and were majoring in agriculture or some such. As for me, I was “undeclared” which is a collegiate way of saying “confused.” I had no idea what sort of work I’d be doing in the future and would have been shocked silly had anyone suggested that I’d end up being a teacher a few years into the future.

I chose my place in class because I liked Linda’s dirty-blond hair and the way her shirts fit. On about the second or third class meeting I put together a masterplan which involved me telling her my name and then saying a few perfectly chosen words that would cause her to fall in love with me. On the day I was to put my scheme into motion, I arrived early to class, slid into the desk next to her, and then froze up. No utterance would leave my mouth no matter how much I tried to push it out. Still, the sheer possibility that I might speak to her made me so hot and bothered that I had heart palpitations throughout the remainder of the class period.

The book the professor had us buy was full of excerpts from the great philosophy texts of yore. Not long into the semester, she assigned a piece that contained the “Allegory of the Cave,” from Plato’s Republic, a text I highly recommend—I count it as one of the hundred most important books ever written. After reading and then discussing it, I could see that the ancient Greek philosopher had had people like me in mind when he wrote it. I was certainly one of those who’d been exposed, up until that point in time, to mere “shadows” flickering dimly upon a wall. In his allegory, Plato was arguing that philosophy can free our minds and lead us out of darkness and into the “sunshine” of greater enlightenment. The idea that I had spent my entire life living in a cave of ignorance caused my head to explode.

I’ve spent so much time on Dr. Randall’s course because it was pivotal. It was the beginning of the beginning for me. It was the class that inspired me to start thinking about what it might be like to live the life of a thinker. To do so, though, I’d have to continue to read texts that would challenge my existing worldview and so I’d have to register for other courses of a similar type. The class was also the end of the beginning. After my introduction to philosophy, there was no way I could remain an intellectual child. I was no longer willing to accept the conventional wisdom—passed off as genuine wisdom—that authority figures had been feeding me all my life.

The course was also memorable for two weird occurrences. The first happened when Dr. Randall asked me to read aloud in class on day. I started off fine, but once I began to take notice of my voice being projected out into quiet space of our classroom, I became queerly self-conscious and terrified in a way I cannot fully put into words. I began to choke up and could barely complete the reading. Luckily, Linda was absent that day. The second weird experience had to do with the young woman I’d been so attracted to from day one. Right at the end of the term, after nearly four months had passed without me saying much at all to the object of my desire, I made Linda an offer—I sort of blurted it out, really. I told her I’d be happy to drive her back to her dorm room if she was headed that way. She then smiled and said, “Would you really do that? That’s so sweet! Yes, I’ll take you up on the offer.” We then loaded up into whatever jalopy I happened to be driving at the time and took off.

After a short trip, I pulled up into a parking spot right behind what was called “The Women’s High Rise.” Linda gave me this telling look and said, “Thank you, Troy. You’re so sweet! I’m sorry I didn’t say this to you earlier,” shortly before leaning over and giving me a kiss on the cheek. Needless to say, I felt completely flabbergasted. After gathering my wits, I drove absentmindedly away. Because the term was almost over, I saw her once or twice more, but then, after the final exam, never again.

 

 

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 5)

I graduated from little Forsan High, in Forsan, Texas, way back when. To say the school was small is like saying that the Sahara Desert is a large area of land covered by sand.

There were twenty-one of us who received diplomas during commencement. It took the superintendent of schools—my mother had married the man not long after our arrival in West Texas so he was actually my step-father at the time—less than five minutes to call all our names and to distribute the fancily printed certificates of accomplishment. We then congregated in the vestibule of the auditorium, with our parents and the other guests still seated inside, and screamed our class chant, a thing we had artfully composed all by ourselves. It was basically an expletive-laced manifesto of how we’d just freed ourselves from tyranny and were about to conquer the world with our brains and good looks.

Of course, it took the world about five minutes to distribute all sorts of humbling experiences, which let us know, in no uncertain terms, that our existences actually meant nothing in the larger scheme of things no matter how clever or pretty we considered ourselves to be.

I left home and enrolled in a little university called Angelo State, located in San Angelo, Texas, which was just down Highway 87 from Forsan. I mostly went there because Dwayne Norton, my best friend in high school, had graduated two years earlier and was beckoning me to join him. That plus the town was loaded with bars and discos I really dug with an added bonus being that many of them featured twenty-five-cent-tequila-shot nights on a regular basis.

Up until that point in my life, I had been a good student, but not the sort who consulted with guidance counselors and such. In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up—I still haven’t come up with any definitive conclusions yet—so I wasn’t one of these kids who goes to college with a plan and then follows it religiously. It was more important that I be near Dwayne and in a location where I could party like it was 1999.

I started off at ASU by taking a weird collection of courses that were all over the map. Then, just before the start of my second term, I needed to register for an elective, so I looked at the choices I was offered and picked a class called “Introduction to Philosophy.”

Our professor—I can’t precisely remember her name—but I can perfectly recall how she looked and spoke, was a woman from Belgium, which likely made her the first European I ever had contact with. Her last name might have been Randall—that doesn’t sound terribly Belgian though—and her first one could have been Janine or Jeanne. Anyway, she also taught French in the Department of Foreign Languages.

OK, so I’ll call her Professor Randall. She was probably about in her mid-40s at that time and had greying, curly hair. She wore plastic framed glasses, with thick lenses that magnified her eyes, which was very appropriate because she was able to see so much in the texts we read for class. She spoke with a slightly pinched and nasally voice and a strong French accent. But the thing about her I found most intriguing was her absolute courage. She said things in class that were brave and intended to shake our tiny bodies and minds to their cores—we were, after all, mostly kids from little towns who had never been exposed to any sort of real thinking or ideas in our entire lives.

I suppose it was her job to sort of pull the rug out from under us and she succeeded in that mission. I guess I’m being presumptuous speaking for my classmates—perhaps they all just sat there like giant, single-celled organisms and closed their minds to her talk and the texts—but I soaked it all up like a sponge that had never sipped a drop of water but had been waiting and waiting for the opportunity to do so.

Professor Randall kept pouring out those liquid ideas and I kept absorbing them so fast that I could feel that my mind was bloating. But it never did reach the point of supersaturation. There was always room to take in more and more.

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 4)

Before I tell you the full story of how I had my mind blown at college, I want to let you know that I’ll be voting for Bernie Sanders for president this year. Yes, I am truly and wonderfully feeling the Bern—as are tens of millions of other citizens!

What does this political confession have to do with this essay and memoir? Aren’t I in danger of losing my focus by veering off like this?

Not in the least! I’m at least partly a Sanders supporter because he seems to understand what many other candidates do not—that the President of the United States has to be the nation’s educator-in-chief.

We take for granted that all American presidents have an important military job to play when we refer to them as the commander-in-chief. We also understand that they have a vital role in keeping America’s economy humming along. It certainly goes without saying that the head of the executive branch of government has a myriad of other duties to play.

What we often don’t realize is that perhaps his most important job of all is to help the populace better understand the world in which they live. This makes him or her—I hope we have a woman president very soon, but just not during this election cycle—the teacher of greatest importance and outreach in this large and complex nation-state.

It is perfectly clear that Sanders understands all this. That’s why he expends so much energy telling the electorate things that make so many so uncomfortable. That’s why he speaks about how out of balance America has become and about how the super-rich have rigged the political and economic game so that the remaining 99 percent of us have found ourselves incredibly marginalized.

In a sense, Sanders is not saying anything that many of us don’t already viscerally understand to be true. But to watch someone running for president break such a taboo—to suggest that America has a variety of fundamental shortcomings—is downright cathartic. Most politicians talk about the country in syrupy, self-congratulatory ways that some interpret as “patriotism,” but Sanders shows us that all is not well in paradise. In fact, his critique raises questions about the very notion that America is an “exceptional” country.

To see so many responding to Sanders so positively suggests that the nation is ready for such an explainer-in-chief. Sanders happened along at a moment in American history when a large segment of the population was feeling self-reflective and ready to accept uncomfortable truths. Learning is often a painful process whereby the learner has to give up old habits and beliefs in exchange for growth. The nation appears ready to make this tradeoff, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 3)

I grew up just north of a tiny community called Georgetown, Texas, a sleepy place of approximately five thousand inhabitants. The nature of the village was such that it was easy for its citizens to live dreamy lives.

I have vivid recollections of the town, as it used to be before it became fast-paced and congested, before it became Austin’s premier bedroom community. Today, the town—it’s more of a city really—is on fire with development. The few old-timers who still live there speak wistfully of a slower and simpler past.

But, back in the day, it was a quiet village, filled with grand Victorian houses that were shaded by tall pecan trees. There was a stop sign or two and maybe a traffic light. People got their groceries at the little Piggly Wiggly and their clothes at Gold’s Department Store on the square. There were a handful of churches and every family attended one. The schools weren’t crowded, nor did they resemble the fortresses of security that we so frequently see today when we drive past one. I guess it was pretty much Central Texas’ version of Mayberry R.F.D. I realize I’ve dated myself some with that reference to The Andy Griffith Show spin-off. I remember a slew of other programs that are part of the lore of 1970s television. Such is the memory of a man my age.

When my parents broke up, I moved, with my mom and brother, to Forsan, Texas, with the result being that I left my life in a small town to start anew in an even tinier one.

The point of all this is that I came of age in conventional places where people never dreamed of entertaining thoughts that were the least bit radical. Most citizens of Georgetown or Forsan didn’t even know what they didn’t know. The vast majority of children grow up similarly, I suppose, in places like I’ve described. It is universally true that the family and the local community give us our shape. By “shape,” I also mean our “limits.”

When I went off to university, I was a small-town boy who was intellectually stunted due to no fault of my own. But because of the influence of those individuals I mentioned in my previous blog, I was also the fertile ground into which the seeds of all sorts of new ideas could be planted. So, when I registered for classes like philosophy, political science, sociology, psychology, and literature, strange flora began to sprout and the terrain of my mind was changed forever.