In his 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B DuBois spent two chapters sketching the results of sociological work completed during a recent trip. He had at last come down from Atlanta to Albany-Dougherty County, which he termed the “Egypt of the South.” But unlike Moses, he boarded the train back north without a clear sense of how to go about the reform which he saw was so badly needed.
His greatest departing burden is still our greatest today: How do we attract young, bright minds to teach and redirect this county’s rising generation?
When starting out, I was told by a specialist that most beginners flag in the fourth or fifth year and start eyeing another career. I am sad to say that while speaking the other day with several teachers of whom I have the highest admiration (and have had the unfortunate honor of writing recommendations for), I found this was true. One is less surprised than distressed by their reasons.
An article appearing this past fall in the Graduate School Magazine of UGA gets to the heart of the matter. As the title states,” America’s creativity crisis looms large.” The writer goes on to explain a concern among many educators, which is that of my colleagues who have suffered a quashing of intellectual passion, as have their students. Indeed the homogenizing force at work in schools promises to do away with the dialogue in which a balance is struck between intellectual interests. Yet this is precisely the point at which emerge the higher levels of conscious life, of which DuBois spoke so plangently.
Diversity in all its modes is the categorical baseline of creativity and productivity, whether in the natural or cultural world. It must be preserved at every formal and substantial level in academics. Otherwise, we run the risk of flooding the market of the educational world with a standardized product. This is as much to say that we risk losing the rarity which underlies our spectrum of value. It is thoroughly ironic that in our age of increasingly liberal academics, primary and secondary systems have bought into structures of standardization which historically in America have been at odds with the rising classes.
I, for one, am sure that I have failed as a teacher when my students come out talking like a standardized test. Sensitivity to matters of poetics is incommensurable with the mental posture of test-taking. Similar arguments could be made in other disciplines, for example, the saturation of the senses in historical memory or the descriptive work that precedes mathematical intuition.
An undue privilege is being afforded reflective knowledge. It is almost like valuing the pianist less because he cannot explain how to build his instrument. Much of the richness of intellectual life is lived on an aesthetic and (dare one say it?) subconscious level.
If in our wont to place a value on everything, we must also tag the educational “experience” of each student, then let it be the immeasurable price of human freedom. Young minds are especially apt at withdrawing from the commercial and political forces that haunt their seniors. Apt, that is, in the presence of a truly gifted teacher who is trusted to do his or her work.
It is likely that talk about trust will come across as passé (or downright stupid, considering the recent record of DCSS) in our hyper-skeptical world. Today every responsibility stands or falls by the apologetics of data. Yet accepting this as due process runs a great risk.
Learning is among those precious few human experiences which, like death and love, cannot be gazed at too steadily. Like looking at the sun, as the old proverb says. At a certain point, reflection upon it becomes compatible only with blindness, or even death.
So we might explain the aggravated situation of many of our schools. Having it hard to begin with, the support has been quite crippling, and not a few of the finest teachers are ready to walk out and restore their vigor. We can only hope that the new board has something like the divining rod of Moses.
Whatever changes at the district office are effected and however important the question of a new superintendent is, I think a more worthy and lasting concern is what we can do to get 30-something applicants per teaching vacancy.
Justin Willson is an English teacher at Dougherty High School in Albany.