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Brianna Williams Western Washington University Woodring College of Education Secondary 691 Spring 2008
Abstract. Sisyphus is a figure in Greek mythology who is condemned to an eternity of meaningless labor. In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus contends that the fate of Sisyphus illuminates the plight of all humanity. This relationship forms the basis for his philosophy of the absurd. He maintains that Sisyphus is happy, and that his happiness is the product of three responses to the absurdity of his situation: revolt, freedom, and passion. In my paper I will examine how his thesis relates to education, and use it as a lens to examine the absurdities present within. I will then present ways in which teachers can confront these absurdities and encourage revolt, freedom, and the pursuit of passion in the lives of their students. Furthermore, I will argue that these actions are necessary for students to develop praxis and find meaning in the solidarity of the struggle against the absurd.
Confronting the Absurd Introduction
Sisyphus is a king in Greek mythology who angers Zeus by revealing his secrets to other gods. As a punishment for his trickery, Sisyphus was compelled to roll a huge rock up a steep hill. Before he could reach the top of the hill, the rock would always roll back down, forcing him to begin again. Sisyphus overstepped his bounds by considering himself a peer of the gods, someone who could rightfully report their indiscretions. As a result, Zeus tried to reassert his power by binding Sisyphus to an eternity of frustration. In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus contends that the fate of Sisyphus illuminates the plight of all humanity. This relationship forms the basis of his philosophy of the absurd: man's futile search for meaning, unity and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world. Camus reads Sisyphus as a figure who follows the path necessary to confront the absurd. Sisyphus refuses a life of subjugation and oppression at the hands of dominant powers, and instead chooses to revolt. He refuses to accept the absurdity of his situation. Then Sisyphus embraces the freedoms his life contains, the freedom of thought and the freedom to act. No longer damned to push the rock, he chooses to throw himself into his task; he makes it his (Soloman, 2004). Finally, Sisyphus makes the task his passion. He learns to admire the various crevices on the rocks surface, the way it moves across the surface of the hill, the sound of the scraping, and the sights of the sky and summit above. In the moment of stillness at the crest of the hill, Sisyphus contemplates his life, and, according to Camus, he is happy. Students, like Sisyphus, are confronted with the absurd. They are dehumanized by confinement and surveillance. They are subjected to the greed of corporations and are disciplined to the needs of the state. They are stripped of their identity and silenced. They are compelled to
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forever suffer meaningless tasks in schools. They are made anonymous through regimented alienation from their peers. How can students learn to persist in the face of absurdity? How can they subvert their situation to reclaim agency? How can the struggle itself become a source of joy? Camus maintains that no one is alone in their struggle against the absurd. It is through solidarity in revolt and solidarity in actions against common oppressors that people can achieve transformations of the world. In my paper I will use Camus’ philosophy of the absurd as a lens for examining the educational system. I will ague that we, as educators, must align ourselves with students to confront the absurd. Yet we must also recognize that we are part of the absurd. Our position as educators grants us power over our students. And in order to provide students with the opportunity to confront the absurd, we must seek to actively dismantle our power and the educational apparatus. These actions our necessary so that students may develop praxis and take control of their lives. By working together to confront the absurd, both students and teachers can find meaning in life. The Panopticon The physical layout of schools contributes to the absurd. Visit any school in the nation, and one is likely to see similar arrangements. Walk through the front doors, which are locked before and after school, and one enters a foyer filled with identical cafeteria table benches. This is where the students are corralled for meals. Each year, more and more are crammed into the same size space (Harber, 2002). The tables are locked in place as are the chairs, and they are arranged in straight lines across the space, confining the walking space to a single file line. To the left of the cafeteria are offices where administrators sit in plush offices and secretaries take
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note of the student body count and location. To the right of the cafeteria is the gym where student bodies are made to run through drills, conditioned into desired forms, and organized to move in the desired manner. Up the stairs from the cafeteria are the classrooms. Each classroom door is locked until the teacher arrives, and they sit behind a desk in a plush chair. The walls of the classroom are also an extension of the teacher’s space, and are dominated with pictures and artifacts in accordance with h/er tastes. A placard states the rules to be followed. The student desks, with attached immobile seats, are arranged in rows, facing the front of the classroom. The students desk is not their own, but one they are allowed to inhabit for an allotted amount of time each day. Each student faces the board, imprinted with the schedule of their daily actions, as dictated by the teacher. When a bell sounds, all students are to be seated and their body is counted as present. The teacher dictates the lesson to be learned. During the lesson silence and stillness are required of the students, unless the teacher demands a particular response or action. A second bell rings and students have a few minutes to move to the next location of detainment. It should be no surprise to the observer that schools resemble prisons. According to Foucault, as institutions they are one and the same. Both are manifestations of the same need for control and surveillance, in an effort to maintain the control of a majority population by an elite minority. He referred to these oppressive structures as panopticons (1984), named after the architectural design by Jeremy Bentham. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched. This design creates a sense of anxiety and paranoia which helps to further alienate prisoners (students) from one another, as each may see the other as a potential informant, and to increase compliance with the demands of those in power.
Confronting the Absurd
Students have devised methods to revolt against the daily jailing in school prisons by skipping classes and staging disruptions to pierce the quiet order. It is in these ways that they break free from confinement. They scratch their names onto desks and walls within the school, spray paint the exterior of the building, and litter the halls and walkways. It is in these ways that they reclaim the space as their own. In what ways can educators help student to revolt against the panopticon? How can the revolt be channeled to actions which result in positive transformations of the educational setting? One possible answer is presented in the case study conducted by Comber, Nixon, Ashmore, Loo, & Cook (2006). Teachers at an elementary school serving an Aboriginal housing project recruited architects and architecture students from a nearby university to pair up with elementary school children, to work together to design an outdoor space. The architects taught the school children the technical vocabulary needed to articulate space and design features through a series of lectures and activities. For instance in one activity, the children identified the spaces they move through daily, and drew up plans in which they re-designed them to be more conducive to their needs. This challenged the students to examine the many layers of public and personal spaces, and helped them to recognize the different effects design can have on the function and usefulness of a space. The lessons and activities culminate with the children drawing up designs for a school garden, a “belonging space,” which the architects used to plan and execute construction of the space. When the researchers interviewed the children the following year, the majority inquired as to when the garden would be completed and expressed an interest in continuing involvement in the project. Many reported a desire in the future to go to “where the architecture students were (university),” and some even said they were thinking of becoming architects.
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This study contains many implications for educators as they help students to revolt against the panopticon. First, teachers could teach the vocabulary necessary to articulate space, as this grants students with a common language to communicate their desired surroundings. Teachers could also share the various rationales for classroom arrangements, to make the process of design transparent. This disclosure would help to change student perceptions of the classroom as an imposed arrangement to one of a reality to be created. Then the teacher must provide the students with an opportunity to dismantle the panopticon. At the start of a school year, teachers could invite students to design arrangements for the desks. Each student, or group of students, could present h/er design to their peers and articulate a rationale for the set-up. The class could vote for the design that best meets the needs of the students, and help to transform the classroom into that design. Students could also etch their persons onto the space by bringing an item to decorate the classroom walls with. The resulting informed actions, what Freire calls praxis (1993), of the students would result in a positive arrangement and an increased perception of efficacy within the space. Many students already are passionate about their personal spaces, as evidenced by their highly individualized and marked bedrooms. Thus the extension of this passion into the classroom will not be a difficult transition. Also, students who have a passion for natural spaces can participate in dismantling the panopticon through campus beautification. They can be encouraged to form groups to plant flowers and trees, build benches, and construct pathways. Artistic students can be given resources and space to paint outside murals and adorn hallways and lockers.
Confronting the Absurd Pawns
In a society where corporate interests dictate public concern, even students become pawns, moved around to benefit corporate greed. As China and India grew into increasingly developed countries, the news media chose to highlight these standard of living improvements as an economic threat to Americans. Books predicting an economic doomsday, such as The World is Flat, topped staff development reading lists. Pearson Education, Inc., looking for a new market for its products, saw profit glittering within the media fear mongering campaign. They capitalized on the narrative by constructing an assortment of tests, marketed as a measurement for student achievement (http://www.pearsonschool.com). Then the government, ever a friend to big business, made the adoption of these tests mandatory through the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act (http://www.ed.gov/nclb/landing.jhtml). This corporate welfare act was rationalized by the need to manufacture students who were more competitive in the global free markets. Suddenly schools were held accountable for student performance on Pearson standardized tests, including the Developmental Reading Assessment administered in elementary schools, and the Washington Assessment of Student Learning administered in high school. Each school was to make adequate year progress in test performance, or they would lose federal funding. These tests measured the ability of students to interpret reading passages completely decontextualized, navigate answers with apparent cultural bias, and write according to an unnatural formula. The tests were scored using scantrons, developed and owned by Pearson Education, Inc. It is no surprise that the first batch of students to submit to these tests did not perform well; the tests were designed for students to fail, because fail meant profit (Mahiri, 2008). School
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administrators fearing budget cuts, often concentrated in schools already populated by students with low socioeconomic status, scrambled for solutions to the problem of “underachievement.” Once again, Pearson Education, Inc. came to the rescue. They marketed an assortment of textbooks, guaranteed to improve student test scores, under the brand name Prentice Hall. School boards across the nation reviewed these textbooks and found low level vocabulary, scripted curriculum, and no room for student creativity in assignments. Yet buckling to pressure, school districts adopted the curriculum, and the state departments of education each footed the several million dollar bill (http://www.tdn.com/articles/2008/03/04/editorial/10139229.txt). As states reach the end of five year contracts with Pearson Education, Inc., they are evaluating the success rate this cost intensive testing bonanza. Even with schools everywhere teaching to the test, students still are not performing at the test dictated grade level standards. Schools are now beginning to question the wisdom of No Child Left Behind and the assessment and textbooks that accompanied its implementation. In what ways can educators help student to revolt against corporate control? How can the revolt be channeled to actions which result in positive transformations of the educational setting? One response to this absurdity is presented in a case study by Jabari Mahiri (2005). This article focuses on the actions of one community in Portland, OR against standardized testing and canned curriculums. Threatened with budget cuts due to low test scores, the school board in this community proposed to spend thousands of dollars to purchase Prentice Hall textbooks. Teachers reacted to this proposal with a mixture of anger and sadness, as they were already witnessing the negative effects of standardized testing on the students. They didn’t choose to passively await the school boards decision, but instead chose to stand up for what they believed in. The teachers contacted parents and organized a grass roots activist campaign, intent on informing the public
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about the reality of canned curriculums. These activists groups wrote letters to the school board insisting that the school budget should be spent on student after school programs and additional teachers, to reduce class sizes, instead of on new textbooks. Students also got involved in the cause. They were given Prentice Hall textbooks and curriculum to analyze and critique. Students found that the excerpts in the textbooks were no different than ones contained in anthologies already owned by the school, and that the authors of these excerpts were almost always white and predominately male. Upon examining the accompanying curriculum, they found that the questions asked in “practice tests” were culturally biased and often ambiguous. The students created a report with their findings and presented it to the school board. The students also started a campaign for the reading of whole novels. They met before and after school to stage read-in demonstrations to prove to administrators that they preferred reading a novel over an excerpt, and they invited the local news-media to cover these events. The educators in this case study revolted against the absurdity of their situation. They present a model for right action against an unjust force. If teachers everywhere refused to submit to the edicts of the school board for standardized testing and canned curriculum, there may be a possibility for change. Teachers should be aware that such action does pose risks, as one of the teachers mentioned in the Portland, OR case was not offered a contract in the district for the year following her activism. Yet as educators we are civil servants, and our main concern should be the welfare of students. Students in this case study volunteered to take action because the cause was real and relevant to their lives. This illustrates that for students to develop praxis, educators must support them to find issues they are passionate about and facilitate avenues for their action. Teachers can
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do this by presenting an opportunity for students to critically read the world around them (Freire, 1993). They can do what the educators in the case study did and lead students through an examination of the texts available in the school, challenging them to determine their value. Alternatively, teachers can present issues of local interest in the form of current events study, and encourage students to get involved with issues they connect to. Revolt against the economic system of capitalism is another way to reduce school adoption of standardized tests and materials. Since the primary reason for this violation of students is the accumulation of profit, teachers must work to abolish the for profit system. To work towards these ends, teachers can organize and participate in “mass strikes [and] workers’ councils,” and, if they are truly radical, act to form a “revolutionary party for the overthrow of the state” (Mclaren and Rikowski, 2001, pg. 29). It is in this way that educators can attempt to paint a new landscape for education, one in which the individual is not valued solely for the wealth they produce for an elite minority. Recruits Hand in hand with federal-corporate sweetheart deals, is the neo-liberal experiment of school privatization. In response to the “failure” of traditional public schools, with failure defined as low standardized test scores, companies formed to analyze the school system. A report of one such company, The Commercial Club of Chicago, found that the failure of schools was not due to the CEOs or district superintendents. Instead, the report argues, the problem is that public education is a “monopoly.” It goes on to argue for a market-driven system: “Competition —which is the engine of American productivity generally—is the key to improved performance of our public schools” (Commercial Club, 2003). This agenda was supported by claims like J.F.K.’s, “a rising tide floats all boats,” the capitalist ideal of the free markets leading to
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improved living conditions for all parties involved. Essentially, economists were seeking to justify a failing free market system with a replication of the system within the educational sector. Schools jumped on the school choice bandwagon across the country, with programs concentrated in areas with a mixture of high poverty and affluence. Program implementation resulted in a revolving door of school policies, staff, and administers. Teachers were compelled to instruct with curriculum they had little or no training in. This resulted in mismanaged funds, mass exodus of quality educators, and parent dissatisfaction. Social justice, ironically, was often the rationale for the implementation of the programs, as they were purported to increase academic rigor and possibility for scholastic achievement in minority populations. Yet the actual consequence of the programs was city gentrification and the dispersal of racial minority students from school campuses (Lipman and Haines, 2007). The school choice initiative, like the assessment initiatives it accompanied, resulted in failure. Many of the choice schools around today specialize in math, science, engineering, and computer programming. According to global testing, American students lagged behind in those subjects, and experts projected that this would lead to the toppling of the United States as a global power. By sorting students into educational tracts, economists believed schools could produce a more competitive work force. For another possible reading of school specialization one can look to Samir Amin’s theory of monopolies (1999). He argues that ascent and decline is determined by the monopoly of technology, supported by military expenditures of the dominant nations, the monopoly of control over global finances and a strong position in the hierarchy of current account balances, and the monopoly of the military means of mass destruction. Thus, the specialization of schools can be attributed to the need to maintain an American monopoly in those categories.
Confronting the Absurd
This second reading is highlighted by the physical presence of the military on high school campuses. Students as young as fourteen are able to sign up for training with the Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corp (JROTC) and receive credit towards graduation. The courses they attend are taught by military officers who are not required to be certified like other school teachers, and who sometimes have no more than a high school degree (American Friends Service Committee). These instructors are selected for their past success in youth recruitment, as well as a desire to “develop respect for and an understanding of the need for the constituted authority…promote habits of orderliness and precision…[and]…promote patriotism” in students (Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps). Students are able to choose from a list of classes such as “History of the Military,” “Your American Citizenship,” and “Career Opportunities.” Curriculum taught in these classes does not have to undergo approval from the local school board, but is instead dictated by the Federal Government. The biases inherent in the content of these classes cannot be more obvious (Lutz & Barlett, 1995). From a student perspective, learning American history from the military would be akin to learning environmental science from Green Peace. Some students sign up for JROTC, but some are forced into it. In districts where budget cuts result in reduced spots available for physical education classes, some students are pushed in JROTC to meet state mandated P.E. requirements. Upon entering JROTC, students swear a loyalty oath, which includes a morality clause. From then on, they are subjected to weekly uniform inspection, daily conditioning drills, and pressure to enlist following high school completion. While the government insists that JROTC is not a recruitment program, 45% of all cadets who successfully complete JROTC enlist in a branch of the US armed forces (Stodgill, 2002). Most of the students enlist as privates, the lowest rank in the military. It is often difficult for new
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recruits to access the benefits promised to them, such as educational scholarships, and they are faced with low pay and report frequent harassment (Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, 2006). Women and people of racial, religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities suffer the most in their career in the military as they are more likely the victims of violent assault and rape. In what ways can educators help student to revolt against militarism in schools? How can the revolt be channeled to actions which result in positive transformations of the educational setting? Shawn Ginwright and Julio Cammarota present a model for youth development that serves as an alternative to the military agenda (2002). They propose youth have the potential to be radical agents of social change. In their research they found that while “young people are influenced by oppressive social forces, they still have the capacity to respond to forms of social control” (Ginwright and Cammarota, 2002, pg. 86). The researchers found that urban youth and those in poverty have to navigate even more societal constraints than their peers. To support youth, educators must make into account the structural constraints placed on youth, without discounting the creative and resourceful ways they respond to them. Critical consciousness, or the awareness of “how institutional, historical, and systemic forces limit and promote the life opportunities for particular groups,” is central to youth action (Ginwright and Cammarota, 2002, pg. 87). It is this critical consciousness that helps people to see that the realities of their day-to-day lives are fixed (Freire, 1993). At the same time, people are only truly convinced of the malleability of their world when they engage in effecting the conditions that shape their lives. Freire calls this interdependence between critical consciousness and social action praxis (1993).
Confronting the Absurd
To promote youth action for social justice, educators must help youth progress through three levels of awareness. First, youth must become self-aware, through reflection on self identity and the ways in which identity is tied to “privilege or oppression through the use and/or misuse of power” (Ginwright and Cammarota, 2002, pg. 89). Teachers can support students to become self-aware by providing them opportunity to engage in identity, such as writing personal histories and reflection journals, as well as creating a space for youth to participate in discussion about the ways in which their identity has influenced the way they are treated in society and by other people. Once students develop a complete picture of their identity, they will be more likely to see how their own struggles and those of others are marked by imbalances in power. The second type of awareness is social awareness, where youth develop an understanding and viewpoint on how their immediate social world functions (Ginwright and Cammarota, 2002). Educators can support student to achieve this level of awareness by teaching students to reframe personal problems they experience, such as the difficulty of finding a way to school, as systemic problems within the society, such as the lack of reliable public transportation (Kirshner). A possible way to facilitate this shift is to encourage students to share their struggles in the classroom. Then, the teacher can pose questions to the other students asking if they experience similar problems. As youth see they are not alone in their struggles, they are more likely to see the problem as created by outside forces instead of personal shortcoming. This shift outward from the self can help ignite the spark of hope in youth as it presents challenges as opportunities for action. Social awareness also helps youth to become perceptive of the different ways societal conditions can effect others. The final type of awareness is global awareness, where students begin to empathize with the struggles of others in the world (Ginwright and Cammarota, 2002). This step is critical for
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students to recognize that their actions have an impact greater than that which is perceived in their local communities. Teachers can encourage global awareness by connecting the local action projects of the students to similar projects around the globe. For instance, a group that forms to clean up pollution in a local stream can be given information about problems with pollution elsewhere in the world and ways that people in those nations have worked together to address those problems. Then students can begin to see their place alongside the many in the struggle to make the world a better place. By progressing through the three levels of awareness, students can revolt against the militarization of schools. First they will become aware of their identity as a youth with little political power, who may be constrained by conditions of poverty and prejudice. They will grow to understand how the JROTC manipulates these aspects of their identity to assert its power. This will help students to resist the military propaganda that promises power and prestige to youth who join the program. Then students will learn to recognize the forces that drive military presence in the schools and see it for its economic incentives. Finally, students who achieve global awareness may become critical of the JROTC and the role it plays in the global political environment. Student passion can increase engagement in action against militarization as there are many issues contained within the JROTC that student groups can form around. The gay-straight alliance in high schools, for instance, can easily align with the cause to oust the JROTC, as the military is an institution that enforces prejudicial practices towards GLBTQ individuals and turns a blind eye towards acts of violence perpetuated against these individuals. This stance is obviously contrary to the goals of schools to provide a safe space for all students. Student peace
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groups can also campaign against the JROTC’s glorification of violence and weaponry usage, as well as inform the public about the real atrocities of warfare. The Spectacle Stay around after the last bell rings at any high school and you will witness influence of what Guy Debord calls the “spectacle” (1994) in students all around you. He defines the spectacle as the joining of all falsely created ideals, everything that life lacks, into images. Students are dressed head to toe in the latest fashions. They are listening to i-pods and talking on cell phones. They congregate around cars tricked out in chrome and racing accessories. They are breathing manifestations of the images they receive. They sit in computer labs watching YouTube, movies, and television clips. They are discussing celebrity gossip. “By providing representations of identity an preferable normative behavior, [the media] increasingly defines not only the bounds of the discussion, but its content as well” (Van Heertum & Share, 2006). Upon closer observation, you will notice that the students have grouped themselves based upon consumption patterns. All of the people who shop at Hot Topic are a group of friends separate from those that shop at Abercrombie and Finch. Those that watch American Idol are not friends with those that watch anime. People who have i-pods and all of the accessories shun those that do posses such things. Debord insists that, “separation is the alpha and the omega of the spectacle,” and individuals, separated from one another, can rediscover unity only within the spectacle, where “images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream.” And since only an individual “isolated” amidst the atomized” masses could feel any need for the spectacle, the spectacle must bend every effort to reinforce the individual’s isolation (Trier, 2007, p. 69).
Confronting the Absurd
It is no wonder that students place such a high emphasis on consumer goods. Everyday students are confronted with hundreds of advertisements on television, the internet, and the radio. These are all forms of the spectacle. The only purpose of the spectacle is to justify the conditions of the current society, or the mode of production which has given rise to it. Capitalism and the need for consumption are perpetuated by an idealization of consumption. The image of consumption is presented as the answer for the problems consumption creates. Thus the spectacle continually rationalizes itself. One way to encourage revolt against the spectacle, and the alienation and social fragmentation that it creates, is to teach students to be critical consumers. This can be done through media literacy. Most media literacy programs allow students to access media, and instruct them to analyze and evaluate it. Students are then asked to communicate what they learned through and about the media. This is a good foundation for media literacy, but Van Heertum & Share argue that a more critical approach must be taken if students are to learn to use media for modes of expression and social activism (2006). Teaching students feminist standpoint theory (FST) is one method of achieving critical media literacy. This theory rests on the ideas that all texts are socially situated, “that knowledge and power are inextricably linked, that knowledge is never neutral, that subordinate groups often have access to perspectives that can unearth truths more difficult for the dominant groups to see; and that science should be prescriptive as well as descriptive, and that science and research can offer tools to empower oppressed groups if combined with collective action” (Van Heertum & Share, 2006, pg. 257). Proponents of this theory argue that by looking at texts through this lens, students are able to perceive gaps in the spectacle narrative, and seek alternative viewpoints to
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fill in those gaps. This process can also lead to a surfacing of critical questions about the disparity between the presented reality and a more complete reality. Guy Debord’s theory of detournment also speaks to the need to contextualize the spectacle. The “aim of detournment is to subvert the spectacular (commodified) representations and practices” (Trier, 2007, pg. 274). What this means is that by uniting the spectacle, which has become alien to life, with the context it arose from, the power of the spectacle is lost. While this theory seems abstract, its execution is actually quite simple. For instance, Trier talks of using detournment with his students to reveal the irony of a Wrangler jeans advertisement (2007). The ad featured wholesome imagery of white people wearing Wrangler jeans playing football and laughing. Playing in the background is the opening two lines to the song, “Fortunate Son.” They are “Some folks are born made to wave the flag / ooh, they’re red white and blue,” and when these lines appear a U.S. flag is waved in the sky above the happy people. After researching the song, “Fortunate Son,” students discovered its original history as an anti-war protest song. They recognized the ways Wrangler inverted the message of the song by stripping it of its historical significance. To engage in detournment, the students embedded the Wrangler ad into a stream of horrific images from the Vietnam War. By doing this, students removed the spectacle from the Wrangler jean ad, which left the commodity to appear as violent as its background music’s message. Teachers can engage students in similar process of contextualizing and detournment in the classroom by allowing students to seek out examples of the spectacle in the media around them. This could be easily done in a day in the computer lab, searching You-Tube and online advertisements. Then teachers could challenge students to resituate the images in reality by pairing the spectacle with its original history. Students could create short i-movies displaying the
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results of their investigation and endeavor, and share their movie with their classmates. These tasks will help students to be more resilient to the spectacle as well as show them ways they can twist the media to inform the public and effect social change. The Meaningless Task Everyday students enter the school workforce. During their work day they fill out worksheets, listen to endless lectures, take notes, and try to guess answers to closed ended questions. The majority of tasks are driven by the assumption that there is a body of knowledge that must be memorized for the success of our society, that there is a chain of events, and a correct way to color their happenings, that determined the current state of our great nation. Students of color, those of religious and ethnic minorities, and women don’t see themselves in the account presented, yet are forced to accept this history as their own. The real lives of students, their experiences, do not sway the instructor into changing the narrative. In fact, individuals in their entirety do not really matter; they are told to remain silent as they work. It is the job of the students to assimilate the cultural cannon. All in all, they submit to a total six hours of unpaid labor. What does all of this labor amount to? As far as the students are concerned, nothing. Students perceive the information they receive in school as useless because it is completely disconnected from the lives that they lead. Figures are presented in isolation from the history they arise from, and events are related only on a timeline. The instructor hurdles students across time and space towards an unknown future, on a train of information, without ever stopping to allow reflection on the details or reason behind the train or the movement itself. No student is allowed to question the validity of the information presented. Foucault argues that
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knowledge is disseminated in this teleological manner as an exercise of domination and control (1984). In addition to the barrage of facts students are trained to memorize, they are also forced to write in response to inauthentic assignments. The instructor removes the interaction between reader and writer, by requiring the writer to comment only on the words contained within the text, ignoring the various meanings the words convey, both socially and politically. Readers are also taught to respond to texts dispassionately, and to divorce their analyses from personal response. While students are taught to write for multiple audiences, the only real audience is the instructor, who is both the creator and arbitrator of knowledge. Student responses are graded according to inflexible rubrics emphasizing execution and diction over substance. Also absent from curriculum are emotional, cognitive, and social goals. No where in the standards does it say that students should be taught compassion. In fact, students are encouraged to be competitive and cruel in an effort to set the curve or gain the teacher’s attention. Nor do the standards say that students should be taught to question authority. Actually, students are taught daily that it is not acceptable to question as they are dulled by endless repetition and routine. There is also no standard which states that students should learn to look out for one another, as the reality is that teachers reward students who snitch. Why is school curriculum full of such absurdities? Foucault would argue that school teachers are the enforcers of passivity in lower and middle class populations (1984). By reminding students that they haven’t yet grasped all of the facts necessary for success and true adulthood, teachers render students perpetually unprepared for action. This inferiority complex also leads them to the unproductive pursuit of university degrees and professional development,
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all in the search of the tools and knowledge required to be like the great heroes spoken of in history class. What students aren’t being told, and what teachers should be telling them, is that they are always ready for action, as they are in fact perpetually acting. They are acting by choosing to roll out of bed, walk to school, and sit in a classroom. Teachers should remind students that they could have chosen to do several other activities instead of coming to school, that it is indeed rather remarkable that so many students are sitting in a classroom at any given time. Encourage students to make their choice count by making education work for them. Support students as they seek to question the workings of the school and stand up for changes that they view as necessary to the usefulness of the school. Distribute resources for students to create underground newspapers to propagate the student agenda and to distort the institution. Instead of telling students that school is preparing them for the future, teachers should tell students that they are preparing students for the present moment. Provide them with opportunities to act with established activist groups in their communities, and teach them how to organize activist groups of their own. Help students partner with other students to accomplish projects so that they may come to realize the unique skills and talents they possess. Since the school work day is so time consuming, it is the teacher’s duty to make sure student labor is rewarded. Students should not work for free. Schools should work for students. These goals can be accomplished through a shift in the educational paradigm informed by the writings of Giles Delueze. Delueze’s essay, “The rhizome” presents an alternative to the teleological presentation of information in school curriculums. The main idea expressed in “The rhizome” is the assertion that knowledge is rhizomatic in nature, or that it is similar to the root of a plant, with various
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growths shooting out from the main body. This is to say that it is unnatural for events to be shown in causal relation, as many events may result from a similar origin. Also, the theory of the rhizome illustrates the interconnectedness of ideas and presents the dynamic character of thought and inquiry. Embracing the rhizome as an education paradigm would cause educators to focus on authentic questions, as they search to find roots leading to outgrowths and discovery. Since in life students are led to act by curiosity, so should students be led to knowledge. The rhizome also presents an argument for integrated studies, as it demonstrates how a single question can lead to many avenues of study, and to limit the study to one discipline would stunt the development of the answer. Since student experiences are not compartmentalized, it makes sense that their acquisition of knowledge should be continuous as well. In “The Body Without Organs,” Deluze explains his philosophy of creative assemblages. He purposes that in order for human beings to have transformative experiences, in order for them to grow as individuals, they must make new alliances with others and with information, to form structures without organization. One such example of a body without organs is a discussion where several student voices merge to create the landscape of a possible reality. The body without organs is powerful because is not constrained by past or future limitations; it creates is own ever changing boundaries. To create a body without organs in the classroom would be to allow students to assemble and share information in innovative fashions, enabling them to try on many ideas, concepts, and identities. This would be best accomplished by allowing students to direct curriculum, to tailor curriculum, and to alter the path of assignments as they moved towards their completion. A classroom body without organs would have no “assignments” as each new task would lead to
Confronting the Absurd
infinite others, each new piece of information leading to a new path. Such a classroom nonmanagement might be difficult to initiate at first, but as students created questions to investigate, formed bodies of knowledge and experienced answers, it would be just as difficult to stop. To encourage the body without organs is to encourage students to be lifelong learners who learn passionately. Power Since school is a venue for socialization, political and personal, which aims to equip individuals with the skills needed to survive the larger world, it is not surprising that elaborate hierarchies of power are established to maintain submission and control. The chain of command in a school ends with violence inflicted upon students through the form of district, school, and classroom rules, and detention, suspension, and expulsion for behaviors which fail to conform to the rules. Students are forced to ask permission to move from place to place, to drink and eat, to use the bathroom. They are even required to ask permission to speak. If one of the goals of the educational institution is the production of citizens who can participate in a democratic society, why are schools so oppressive and undemocratic? Why are students denied the rights of free speech and organization? Why don’t they have a say in the rules which govern their every action? Students revolt to these absurdities everyday by acting out in classrooms, fighting at school, creating exclusive cliques, and bullying other students. They also opt out of classroom participation, and sometimes opt out of school all together. It is in this way that students attempt to reassert their power, even if it is only the power to self destruct.
Confronting the Absurd
What can educators do to support students as they revolt against the power imbalance in schools? How can teachers provide students with authentic participation in democratic processes? One way to tilt the scales of the power structure in the classroom is to allow students to participate in the creation of classroom norms. While this is common practice, most educators only let students determine norms which they have already predefined. In this situation, the educator asks students loaded questions and presents them with scenarios tailored to garner particular responses, directing them toward a desired outcome. Instead of this model, teachers should ask students where their interests in education lie (Hemmings, 2000). Once students have articulated their agenda, then they can come to create the norms necessary to facilitate this agenda. This allows students to have control in the direction and execution of their own education, while freeing them from rules which are inapplicable to the needs of the agreed upon learning community. Also, it is necessary for teachers to allow students to make bad decisions, because it is through the consequences of these decisions that they will learn to reevaluate old models and develop new ones. This process would more closely represent the intended function of a democracy. The Bakhtinian concept of Carnival is presented by Bob Fecho and Stergios Botzakis as another way to flatten hierarchies. Through the wearing of masks and the donning of costumes, the wise could become fools and the poor could assume the guise of the wealthy. Protected somewhat by a kind of anonymity, the outrageous and the sublime could be uttered, addressed by anyone toward anybody. Although sanctioned by the state, Carnival was a force emanating from the needs of the people rather than the dictates of a king. (pp. 553-554)
Confronting the Absurd
To create Carnival in the classroom means to create situations when the power imbalance is disrupted, norms are discarded, and the roles of students and teacher are reversed. This could manifest in students moving from the desks to the front of the room to lead others in discussion and activities. Or a Carnival might lead to an opportunity for new ideas and perspectives to be explored, to be acted out in the classroom. Drama, student performances, and simulations all invoke Carnival. And while after Carnival norms return, things are never exactly the same. Once a different reality is experienced, the normative experience is viewed as a transparency superimposed across many other possibilities. Perhaps the most important prerogative of teachers as they aid students in the revolt against non-representation in schools is to teach students to engage in dialogue. Fecho and Botzakis stated that their reading of Bakhtin implies that the world must be answered— authorship is not a choice, and that Bakhtin himself posited that for the word there is nothing more terrible than a lack of response (2007). Bakhtin argued that each new perspective begs the need for other perspectives, and that each utterance is accompanied in a stream of other utterances. Thus the very act of living requires an individual to speak, to respond to that which surrounds them, to those they interact with. Freire argues that the goal of dialogue should be more than a chorus of utterances, but that dialogue should culminate in action (1993). One method for initiating dialogue is presenting students with what Freire calls limit-experiences (1993). A limit experience is represented by a combination of two images, one image depicting the life experience of the person viewing the images, and another image depicting the life experience of a person with power over the viewer. For instance, when working for the liberation of the peasant class, Freire showed the peasants he was teaching a picture of a peasant stooped over in front of a dirty hut, paired with an image of a
Confronting the Absurd
wealthy aristocrat lounging in a luxurious villa (1993). Freire then asked the people viewing the images questions related to the differences in the experiences of the subjects depicted. The goal of these questions was to lead people to a critical consciousness of their immediate situation in society. Teachers can create limit experiences in the classroom by inviting students to bring in pictures of the houses and neighborhoods they live in. They can instruct students to examine their personal images alongside images of the mansions and neighborhoods of the wealthy elite. Then teachers can ask students a variety of questions, challenging them to determine the societal conditions that produce such disparities in quality of life. Students are sure to engage in this discussion, as it allows them to articulate their frustrations as well as their silenced dreams. This limit-experience could also lead to a discussion of unequal participation in a society where access to power and avenues for expression is so disparate between upper and majority class citizens. Hopefully such discussions will spur students to action against the institutions that create inequities in America. To be productive, Freire also argued that dialogue must occur in ideal speech situations, where dialogue is horizontal and power hierarchies are flattened. While some scholars interpret this to mean that teachers must become passive facilitators of discussion, others argue that to let discussion stray to unrevolutionary conclusions would be negligent (Freedman, 2007). “To ask students to ‘read the world’ critically in order to transform it in a way that will foster humanization is, after all, prescriptive (McLaren & Rikowski, 2001, pg. 28). So while students should be encouraged to take hold of dialogue and make it their own, teachers should contribute to discussion in a way that leads students to deconstruct hegemony.
Confronting the Absurd
It is also important for educators to challenge students to seek evidence to support or refute their beliefs. That way, students can participate in democratic exchanges in the fashion of political debate where positions are supported by warrants (Freedman, 2007). This leads students to a more complete understanding of the issue in discussion, and also arms them against indoctrination. In addition to seeking out evidence, students should be taught multiple ways to analyze the information they find. For instance, teachers could present a text and lead the class through a Derridian, feminist, new critical, historical, or Marxist reading of the text. When students combine evidence with the ability to view it through several lenses, they are more likely to reach truths in classroom discussions. Conclusion If the school represents a microcosm of the larger society, than the absurd is omnipresent. It permeates every aspect of the human condition. It is the human condition. Currently, schools train students to be complacent in their own oppression, and to conform to the desires of those in power. If this indoctrination takes, students grow up to lead unquestioning lives of suffering. They will suffer, but never come to know the cause of their suffering as they have forgotten how to be reflective. They will wander from job to job, place to place, person to person, feeling unsatisfied yet unable to determine their wants and desires. This is no life for a human being. It is the life of a slave. That is why teachers must teach students to recognize the absurd, to revolt against absurdity, and to act with passion and conviction. If they do not learn how to speak, how to organize, and how to push back in schools, where else will they learn? If students are not given the space to practice dialogue and the resources to act for social justice in schools, will they ever have the chance to do either?
Confronting the Absurd
Teachers must encourage revolt, but they must revolt as well. Schools are a place of replication, a place of justification, and a place for control. But this does not have to be the case. It is up to teachers to be the change that they want to see in the world. It is up to them to revolt against the absurd and create educational experiences that are diverse and meaningful. This task is made easier if educators align themselves with students, and go to them for new solutions. In solidarity, the revolt of students and teachers has the potential to amount to transformation, in the individuals involved, and perhaps in the larger context of the absurd.