Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Victims and Perpetrators

with 4 comments

One of the things I’m doing this term is teaching an adult speech class at night–it’s a requirement for graduation where I am, and there are a lot of people who have work and family obligations that make it hard for them to keep a full time schedule, and they end up suddenly with one course to go and no way to take it at the usual time. 

These are adults I’m dealing with here, and as a teaching experience it’s a lot better than my usual thing.

Of course, absolutely the best is teaching ctizenship classes.  But that’s a story for another time.

My topic today is–what the hell ARE they teaching in the elementary and high schools, anyway.

And I know I rattle on about that a lot, but this is a special case. 

Every once in a while when I do rattle on about the dismal standards in elementary and secondary education, someone will throw in a commnent saying that, well, what can you expect if all you teach them is about how victimized they are and why they should feel a sense of grievance.

I’ve said before that I think this is not what is happening–most of my students seem to be the products of places whose first priority is to make them believe, deep in their guts, that they’re completely and utterly worthless and stupid and have nobody but themselves to blame for the failures they’re about to become.

But yesterday, in my speech class, I ran into that wall of gratuitous ignorance I never can figure out, and this time it was among students who didn’t want to be ignorant and really cared about knowing what was important to know.

One of the students in my class gave as a graded speech one written by Maya Angelous who mentioned Fannie Lou Hamer, and when the speech was over, some of the people in the class wanted to know who this was.

My student–a black woman–didn’t know.  Neither did any of the three older black women in the class, at least two of whom are very gung-ho about knowing black American history.

So I explained–about Lyndon Johnson, and the Democratic National Convention in 1964, and the Mississippi Freedom Party.

Which went over big in a class that is close to half African-American, and really, I was happy to do it, but–what the hell goes on during Black History Month?  We make a fairly big deal about it in Connecticut.  Schools put up posters and decorate classrooms and do projects on whatever, and I’d like to know what the whatever consists of.

I know, I know, this is just a variation on a theme, and I sound that theme too often.

But these are adults I’m dealing with in this class.  They’re not eighteen year olds without a  clue what an education is for.  They want one and need one.

And most of them read, if not as often or as much as I do, still considerably, and many of them read specifically in the area of black American history.  It was night classes that made me realize that there was a population out there that was tring to self-educate as best it could in the areas it didn’t manage to pick up in school. 

Of course, my knowledge isn’t encyclopedic–am I the only person of the right age who spells “encyclopedia” by singing the Jiminy Cricket song in my head?–and I knew as much about this as I did because I read it in the Simon Schama book I was talking about the other day, which turns out to be a very nice piece of work.

Even so, I think I will go back to working on that How To Be An American website, and start putting something together that will outline American history, with links.

But then, if it were up to me, I’d make every conservative in America read A People’s History of the United States and every liberal read A Patriot’s History of the United States–just so that I could get them all past the either/or to an understand that, in this particular country, it’s always “and.”

Now I go to teach the eighteen year olds who don’t give a damn, and I’m depressed.

Written by janeh

September 24th, 2009 at 9:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Victims and Perpetrators'

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  1. As a longtime fan and former elementary educator turned home-educating mom to seven, I would be THRILLED to see you put together the How To Be An American website! My family would probably fall into the category of “American conservative” and yet I’ve read A People’s History…and never heard of A Patriot’s History…Looks like a trip to the library is in order.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing your thoughts here. It is my primary goal as an educator to teach my children to–beyond all else–to think, reason and develop a thirst for knowledge. Your writing (both here and in your novels) affords me the same.

    Now, if we could just get a copy of Living Witness in paperback at our library for my husband to cram in his carry-on…

    Keep up the good work!


    24 Sep 09 at 11:54 am

  2. When you are studying a subject on your own, without serious training in research (which you won’t get at most schools), unless you can find a decent overview, or outline, or guide, or something–unless you know to *look* for one–you’re almost bound to have gaps in your knowledge which you don’t even realize are there. You’ll pick up books in the general subject area, read them (probably out of chronological and geographical order), maybe find more names or places or incidents to look up, and keep going. I think of it as research by floundering around, and it’s easy to fall into, especially in a subject which you just developed an interest in, but which proves to be much more complex than you first realized. You end up with gaps in your knowledge, and without a clear mental picture of what happened when & where, and what led to what.

    This is why I asked for recommendations for guides a few months ago when we were discussing philosophy.

    Your “How to be an American” website sounds like a great starting point.

    Lee B

    24 Sep 09 at 12:25 pm

  3. Hmmm. For self-education, I’d echo Lee. There’s a bit at the end of Piper’s “Omnilingual” in which an old distinguished archeologist realizes he’s going to have to learn a new subject from scratch. He asks, as I recall for “books suitable for a bright child of 10 or 12.” He’s trying to get to a book which doesn’t assume ANY prior knowledge of the subject. Not as easily done as one might think. The “Dummies” books seem intended to fill this gap.

    But on the overall question of educational neglect, you could be entirely correct in this paragraph:

    “I’ve said before that I think this is not what is happening–most of my students seem to be the products of places whose first priority is to make them believe, deep in their guts, that they’re completely and utterly worthless and stupid and have nobody but themselves to blame for the failures they’re about to become.”

    The problem from my point of view is that unless I can understand a WHY the fact is a very hard sell. Students being propagandized rather than taught is certainly true in some instances: I’ve known some of them, and I’ve read some of my son’s textbooks. Students neglected because the school board stole all the money is inherently probable. Greed is a normal human emotion, elected officials and bureaucrats certainly steal from the public purse, and when I compare your descriptions of physical squalor with the amount of money spent per child in some of our sorst-performing school districts, I don’t see how it can happen without considerable theft. But to believe that they’ve set out to ruin the “self-esteem” in which they officially and universally seem to take so much interest, I’d have to see how someone was “safe, satisfied or solvent” as a result.


    24 Sep 09 at 6:47 pm

  4. Am I the only one who doesn’t know who Fannie Lou Hamer is – without googling? I never heard the name, and although I cut myself a little slack because I’m not American, I don’t cut myself too much because, quite apart from my family connections, foreign countries, especially the ones right next door, have powerful motivations to understand the superpower in their backyard.

    I would never have blamed teachers in general for the victim mentality. Some of them, no doubt, believe it and mention it to students, but I’ve always put it down to popular culture and pop psychology.


    26 Sep 09 at 6:09 pm

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