Why do we teach? I thought about this question while reading a blog by a newer teacher describing the oppressive nature of some school systems and the teacher oversight ala Michell Rhee and other ‘rock star reformers’ . Teaching in some urban schools has become so prescriptive that the human side of teaching, the reason most of us went into the profession, has been eliminated.
While in Berlin, I asked my two fellow study tour participants, why and if it was important to teach about the Holocaust. More specifically, I asked if it was worthwhile to teach a detailed unit on the Holocaust to secondary school students. We didn’t immediately say yes. We grappled with this as we visited Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Wannsee (where Heydrich and other Nazis finalized the plans for the ‘final solution’), and Gestapo headquarters. When we visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe the question became philosophical. The memorial consists of 2711 concrete pillars or stelae of varying heights. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman the memorial is large and open to the Berlin streets; it beckons the visitor to walk through the stelae. “One of Germany’s preeminent architectural critics, Heinrich Wefing [describes the memorial as] …a beautiful abstraction that does not dictate what its observer should think or experience, but is nonetheless thoughtful and moving.” (pbs.org). When I entered the memorial, I felt off-balanced and calm, but soon I saw a child and a father chasing each other through the pillars, a couple of teenagers hanging out on top of a lower concrete slab, and a girl having some glamour shots taken against the pillar. My calm was gone and my discomfort began. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this much freedom. Peter Eisenman, when talking about the uses of the memorial says “that is something I have no control over. When you turn a project over to clients, they do with it what they want — it’s theirs and they occupy your work. You can’t tell them what to do with it.” The German government has not been as free as the architect. They have covered the stelae with an anti-graffiti coating and posted rules such as no running or yelling; enforcing the rules is a bit harder. Still, the memorial is open to individual interpretation and the visitor is largely responsible for his or her own behavior within the 2711 pillars. There is no script for how a visitor should feel about the memorial or about the Holocaust. The architect has created a place of memory, but the individual must decide ‘what to do with it’.
Schools and classrooms are also guided by a philosophy. There are schools such as Waldorf Schools which try to develop the whole child. Similar schools try to create an open learning environment where students can engage freely with classmates, develop skills at their own pace, and pursue their own interests. On the other hand, we have the prescriptive learning of programs such as Balanced Literacy or Success for All, with a script for teachers to follow. Perhaps the analogy between democracy and fascism is too obvious. I’m not sure if it is too strong. I do know that the children who attend Waldorf Schools and other open learning schools are from progressive, free thinking families, where the parents take an active role in their child’s education (think the Obama and Clinton family). I also know that the students in balanced literacy classes and other prescriptive programs are overwhelmingly poor and minority. Trust and respect are the key philosophical underpinnings of private schools and wealthier public schools. The school trusts that the student and his or her family will take an active role in the educational process. The school’s role is to foster an environment that encourages intellectual exploration, open discussion, and analysis of information. In many urban schools, the students, families, and teachers are not to be trusted. Instead an administrator or more and more often a politician decides what children will learn and how they will learn it.
This philosophy is antithetical to a course on the Holocaust or any course that explores human behavior. In these classrooms there can be no script. The topic is human behavior. The difficult issues and the uncomfortable ideas are grappled with and brought to the forefront. The education belongs to the students and they do with it what they want.