I Love Learning. I Hate Schooliness.
–this is my motto. It’s one of the reasons I wrote (in a post, “On Leaving Teaching to Become a Teacher,” with about 70 comments now),
I’m not sure how much longer I want to work for schools. I’d so much rather teach.
So what is “schooliness”?
I have no idea. But that’s not a problem: I’m a teacher. I’m quite comfortable speaking with confidence on subjects I know next to nothing about.
Fans of Stephen Colbert will note that “schooliness” riffs on Colbert’s “truthiness,” which won the Word of the Year awards from the American Dialect Society in 2005, and from Merriam-Webster in 2006.
Colbert, in a serious interview as himself, instead of as his Bill O’Reilly satire persona, had this to say about “truthiness”:
Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don’t mean the argument over who came up with the word…
It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty. People love the President because he’s certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don’t seem to exist. It’s the fact that he’s certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?…
Truthiness is ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.
I’ve never tried to define “schooliness,” but so many people are quoting it as “Clay’s idea,” I feel it’s time to try – and to ask for your help in the Open Thread invitation at the end of this post.
The Birth of Schooliness
I first used the word “schooliness” in March 2007 – my third month of blogging – in one of a series of posts on “how to save blogging from teachers.” (I still worry about that danger, and still think-aloud about that challenge a year later.) I was envisioning a future in which all the edtech evangelists got what they wanted: schools full of teachers in every classroom using blogging with their students. But rather than seeing a utopia to celebrate, I saw a bleak dystopia: Blogging as “just another way to turn in homework.” Blogging, like thinking, creativity, and other joys, turned into an aversive horror by the forces of schooliness:
. . . . what reader will ever return to a blog that’s full of homework posts? If Stephen Colbert were here, he’d say such a blog smelled of this: “Schooliness.”
Like Colbert’s “truthiness,” “schooliness” stuck with me. It was a word without a dictionary definition that still seemed to identify something we all know, all too well.
Schooly Student Leadership
The next time I used the term was this past September. With a few other teachers around the world, I’ve started a Green Schools movement called Project Global Cooling. The project’s purpose is for student members to research waste-reduction measures, and their cost benefits for the school, and then present them for adoption in a formal proposal to the school administration – and to have, ideally, an Earth Day concert in cities around the world, student-promoted, on the same day, which will be filmed and uploaded to the Project Global Cooling website (it’s ugly right now, but it’s starting, finally, to grow legs – see my blog for future focus on this as it nears its April 19 climax).
One of the PGC students, a student council member, was ordered by the student council teacher-leaders to drop our club. It conflicted with the student council meeting times. That sent me into my second rage against the schooly in my post, “Student Council: Creating Tomorrow’s Followers (or, “Smells Like School Spirit”)“:
Me: “So what are you guys going to be planning in the Student Council that’s so important she’s forcing you to drop all other activities?”
Student: “The Haunted House for Halloween. And the next Student Assembly.”
Me: “The Haunted House….so, like, getting the pumpkins and doing some Halloween thing in the gym?”
Me: “And the Student Assembly: what are you planning for that?”
Student: “Introducing the Sports teams. And raising school spirit.”
Me: “And how many people do you have meeting twice a week to plan a Haunted House and a 40-minute assembly to introduce the basketball players and give a few speeches and such?”
Me: “Seventeen people meeting twice a week for the next 20 weeks to plan a haunted house in the gym, and an assembly to introduce sports teams? How long can it take to come up with a plan to introduce sports teams?”
Student: “I know.”
Me: “I hate school. Look at how trivial it makes you, even when you want to make a difference in the real world.”
Student: “I don’t have any choice. The Student Council teachers won’t let me out.”
Me: “And look how powerless you suddenly are. You’re 17. You’re a young adult. You know physics, calculus, and history far more than most of your teachers, but have zero power in school despite that. ‘They won’t let me.’ I hate school.”
* * *
So, your advice: I want to suggest he quit Student Council, since it’s clearly one very school-blindered, trivial waste of time for all these poor students seeking election in order to show they can handle power effectively – like adults do.
Another idea is to instead advise him to wage a bit of a rebellion inside the Student Council, by asking the very sensible question – “Is this the best we can do? Jack-o-lanterns and basketballs? Can we give the StuCo some teeth? Extend it into the real world? Isn’t it pathetically fay right now? Trivial? Irrelevant? Infantile?”
The sad thing is, it’s institutionalized. The Rat-Race for college admissions puts a high premium on silly bullets like holding a class office. College counselors, administrators, parents, students, teachers – the whole school culture – treat the Student Council like it’s an honorable thing. In reality, it limits the horizons of the 17 most motivated leaders from each grade level to the paltry world of the schoolhouse. It’s outrageously trivial and infantile.
I don’t know if it’s “consensus trance,” blind traditionalism, or winking condescension (”Let the kids play like they have power”), but it smells really bad to me.
Schooliness raised its ugly head again when I considered the moral “offenses” schools choose to punish at school. Drive a gas-guzzler? Promote the bloody diamond trade with your flashy jewelry? Enjoy murder in video games or on your favorite movies? No worries. No punishment.
But use certain taboo vowel-consonant combinations, or look at the human form with certain taboo portions visible? We’ll throw the book at you, in our duty to teach you the difference between right and wrong. Schooly morality seems to have been held back since the mid-Victorian era. That was a fun post: “To Curse or Not to Curse: On Teaching the F-Bomb and Other Colorful Words.” Read it before you judge it. It’s about Shakespeare’s mastery of cursing, as an art form. Here’s a snippet:
Lear curses with style and grace, as befits a king. But Kent, his chief knight – Lear’s “Army Chief of Staff,” as it were – curses, as befits a career soldier, with much more salt and directness. Check out his classic “cussing out” of the slimy Oswald, servant of Goneril –
What dost thou know me for?
A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a
base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a
lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson,
glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;
one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a
bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but
the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander,
and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I
will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest
the least syllable of they addition. (Act II, Sc. 2, ll. 14-24)
If your Elizabethan English is rusty, and you don’t hear the vulgarity and sexual insult sloshing in practically every line, download the free “Answers” Firefox addon, and click the unknown words while holding down “alt” on your Mac for an instant popup definition and more (PC users, you’re on your own – maybe “ctrl”?). Kent calls Oswald a pimp, son of a bitch, bastard, son of a whore, “wussy,” a suck-up, and more, and then says, in today’s language, “Deny one word, and I’ll kick your disgusting little donkey” (substitute the King James Bible word for donkey here).
It’s depressing, isn’t it, how the art of cursing has degenerated in our own modern age? Our four-letter words are so unimaginative and artless by comparison.
So if you were me, how would you guide students to translate these curses? Having Kent abuse Oswald by hissing,
You bad person, I’m going to kick your bottom.
You son of a bad woman, you sissy, you person born out of wedlock,
You big meanie, etc
just doesn’t strike me as a faithful literary adaptation. (It does strike me as schooliness, though. Some teachers, like Wilde’s classic Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest, would give such a bowdlerizing an “A,” I’ve no doubt.)
Schooly Imagination and Curiosity
I’m battling with schooliness now, most distressingly, in the very people I thought would battle it with me: my high school seniors. It seems they are so unfamiliar with having their own ideas, and writing about them, that they simply cannot do it with any engagement. Their free-choice blogs are, overall, schooly imitations of authenticity. Pretending to have ideas they pretend to care about. Thank Goodness, there are exceptions. But the rule is so distressing, it’s led me to believe that, by high school, it’s too late to unlock the creativity and engagement Wes so often champions. Twelve years of schooliness seems to have beaten the desire to learn – the pleasure of learning – completely out of most seniors. It seems to me now that, if we’re going to feed fires for learning, we have to do it before they’re snuffed out. And that means, to be clear, focus on school reform in primary and middle years. (How to reform secondary school, so in the grips of the SAT and AP and College Admissions – not to mention high school teachers living out college professor fantasies – is beyond me.)
Here’s a snippet from, “From the Classroom Blogging Doldrums: What Would Teacher 2.0 Do?“:
The problem? Little vision, little connective writing.
It’s partly senioritis, I think. College applications, SAT’s, too many commitments to too many extra-curricular activities (got to have those bullets for the college application, even if they come at the cost of destroying both my learning and my GPA), too many week-long sports trips, too many AP classes that were chosen not for interest but again for careerist reasons.
It’s partly Korean culture: parents sending students to night and weekend schools for SAT prep, AP prep, tutors. Students confusing memorization skills with academic excellence, trained to “be instructed” rather than to “construct” meaning themselves. Having no time to be, reflect, explore, wonder (or having no energy, rather).
And it’s partly my own fault: all the macho posturing of Advanced Placement courses as “college-level, rigorous,” etc – and Wes Fryer’s etymolological connection, in Shanghai back in September, of “rigor” with “rigid” and “rigor mortis” echoes here – led me to buy in to what now seems a sadistic and pedagogically pathetic imperative to overload AP students with A Mountain Of Homework.
Schooly Critical Thinking: An Oxymoron
So: the problem with me, as a teacher, is that I design units that don’t address anything important. I’ve been trained to think that my job is to stuff the headpieces of the next generation with such irrelevant things as the definition of litotes and onomatopoeia, to write cute little stories about nothing, to know Stratford-upon-Avon. To be able, paradoxically, to think critically about safe subjects. And above all, not to think about anything that might, god forbid, rankle the status quo. And let’s not even start to think about taking any sort of action.
Again, so: As soon as I stop thinking like a teacher, designing units derived from an institutional culture that defines me as a teacher, and subconsciously makes me far more traditional in my teaching than my progressively-posing ego likes to acknowledge….as soon as I re-define myself as a community leader – as that once-upon-a-time American thing called a citizen – instead, maybe the young adults of my community might have an opportunity to learn how to function in the world they’ll inherit from and manage for us all-too-soon.
When Bulgaria is, per capita, more scientifically literate than America about biology, geology, and genetics – and when even science teachers are afraid of the “e-word” – little more needs to be said. I say it anyway, in this post that got 1,000 hits in 8 hours (a record for me): Truly Critical: On Science, Religion, and Goodness.
Under the influence of Oscar Wilde’s aphorisms and Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, and in order to battle evil with wit and thus smile a bit more in hell, I’ve decided to slowly compile twitter-like definitions of all things schooly. Here’s my first effort, from a post last week:
Schooly writing (noun): Assignments by teachers who don’t want to read them, to students who don’t want to write them; a perpetual and unnecessary misery upon which hinges the student’s future, and the teacher’s present, livelihood; an oxymoron.
Open Thread Invitation to Play: Your Definitions of Schooliness?
Readers of my blog will know about the Open Thread idea. It’s simple: A topic or question is proposed in an Open Thread post, and all readers are encouraged to write comments as long as they would like, to copy them to their own blogs if desired, and to converse with each other in the thread. It’s fun.
I’d like to do an Open Thread here: Questions:
1. List the topics that come to your mind when you think of “Schooliness.”
2. Write your own “Devil’s Definition” and give us all a wicked laugh. I’ll carry them over to Beyond School and add them to a page there.
We know what schooliness is. We teachers live it daily. Let’s have some fun with it.
(Other comments are fine too, of course.)
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