On Teaching Wayward In the Age of Certainty
“A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
As a high school teacher, I spend many hours trying to unravel the myriad issues that plague public school systems. Based on my experience, our students arrive in classrooms replete with symptoms that range from apathy to anxiety, from lack of ethics to lack of self-awareness, and from entitlement to addiction, not to mention lack of anything that resembles critical thinking or curiosity. These characteristics transcend economics, race, gender, age, and any other categories of data, into which we tend to separate humans. The digitalia does not discriminate when it comes to seduction. It is my responsibility, as an educator, to figure out how to meet these students where they are and to try to guide them towards engagement first with me, then the curriculum, and hopefully, eventually towards becoming productive, self-aware, and informed citizens. One could argue that teenagers are teenagers and have always exhibited an array of frustrating traits to the adults charged with their care and education, and that angst and rebellion in whatever form are developmentally normal. Optimistically, these hobbled students also show up with a hunger to learn buried deep and without the tools to articulate what they sense they are missing, but as what amounts to an unregulated experiment, the merging of society with technology, evolves, it becomes impossible to ignore the elephant in the room. The enormity of our digital consumer system and its outsized influence on our communities, especially our youngest users have literally buried the mold.
Ironically, this thesis offers me a glimmer of hope. In order to address a problem and possibly find a solution, you first need to know what the problem is; otherwise, no amount of intervention, test preparation, discipline, encouragement, scolding, or begging is going to bring the change we want and desperately need to see in our communities and classrooms. In a recent article titled, “The Singularity is Here,” Ayad Akhar lays out our current situation in a profoundly clear and tangible way considering the crazy-making nature of the digital world we inhabit. He explains the profundity of how much we, and by we I mean WE capitol W capitol E (translated—all of us) are controlled by an economic system we can’t easily escape. As I unpacked his essay word by word, I couldn’t help but equate his text with the plight of public education. As an educator battling on the front lines, there is no question that sustained attention to technology has created a range of symptoms that are showing up in our society, especially in one of our most vulnerable populations: our children.
Among my peers, there is constant hand wringing and browbeating. Part of the job requires being concerned about equity and diversity and benchmarks and test scores and curriculum. Add to this, most of us struggle with personal stress and lack of respect and minimal pay and not enough time in a day. Add to this, Covid (enough said). Add to this, political and social unrest (enough said). But more and more, we also worry about students’ lack of care, precision, and interest. We worry about students’ hazy ethics and willingness to cheat. We worry about their heightened anxiety and inability to disconnect from their phones even when disconnection is required. We worry as we watch their worlds get smaller and smaller in direct proportion to their working vocabularies and general knowledge base, minimizing any potential futures they may have while they simultaneously try less and less expecting more and more. In the meantime, teachers are working harder and harder spinning their wheels in the sand. Ask any teacher. Tell me I’m wrong.
Akhar describes a world where the very nature of our being is being manipulated, where the constant affirmation of our biases is making us believe in our own morality and certainty. He quotes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who expresses concern rooted in her own observations. Adichie sees humanity being transformed by the internet into a baser version of people who are greedy, dishonest, entitled, self-righteous, and Narcissistic. Her words speak to every general issue I have with my students. There still are outliers, but they are more and more difficult to find, as students get more and more entrenched in the virtual world being created for them with each click and view. They are losing the ability to create their own stories. As one who believes in the power and necessity of the story to build worlds, this concerns me.
Beyond the virus of negative personality traits, I fear most the mutation of the roles of certainty and boredom in the erosion of students’ paths to wisdom. Akhar states: “But certainty is nothing like wisdom; it might in fact be something closer to wisdom’s opposite. Wisdom: a kind of knowing ever-riven with contradiction, a knowing intimate with the inevitability of uncertainty.” And “There is no path to wisdom from information.” Students are repeatedly flooded with information that supports their opinions and biases, which reinforces their sense that what they know, what they mistake as knowledge, is ultimately true and correct. This takes them further and further from not only being able to accept contradicting information but to even interrogate alternative narratives. At the end of the day, more data does not equate to wisdom, monetized information and groupthink will not lead to certainty, and Google is a poor excuse of an author for one’s life.
There is a section in Akhar’s essay that illustrates the anxiety people, especially students feel when separated from the constant stimulation of technology. He makes the connection between boredom and being uncomfortable. The faulty syllogism “Something is wrong if nothing is happening. Something is always happening on the screen, Nothing is wrong when I’m on the screen,” and its refusal to leave space for any interior discomfort is completely on target. This syllogism describes my students’ beliefs to a tee. Apparently, they have learned that they should never have to feel frustration or discomfort, and their teachers’ primary job, along with everyone else, is to continuously feed them pleasure and stimuli just like their phone does. Dear teacher lady, what can you do for me today? And for god’s sake, don’t bore me. Dear people of the world, what can you do for me? If boredom means having time and space to experience a quiet mind, then boredom is absolutely necessary to learn your natural affinities, whatever they may be. Put like this, being anxious when bored begins to look more and more like being anxious to know yourself. To be yourself. Being uncomfortable as yourself. And forget about creativity. Who has time for that? Check any student’s phone usage graphs and charts and suddenly the personification of time being a thief, slipping away, something to be lost or wasted or eaten makes perfect sense.
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s quote, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world” takes on radical, nuanced, and profoundly disturbing meaning when you step into a contemporary high school. In an ideal scenario, access to the richness of cultures from every corner of the world would create an explosion of intellect and creativity. Instead, we are witness to an economic system’s systematic modification of student behavior. Consider all the ways “language” can be diminished. Not reading literature is an obvious precedent, but today “language” is also limited by the aforementioned lack of curiosity, lack of engagement, lack of ethics, and lack of ambiguity, at the very least exacerbated and at its worst intentionally designed by technology. The opposite of certainty is life.
In a recent article, Rupert Read discusses the 1958 Wittgenstein project “Philosophical Investigations,” which prophetically explores the liberatory intent of philosophy meant to free a user from compulsive patterns of thought. He quotes Wittgenstein as writing, “our goal is to break the thrall in which certain forms of expression hold us” because this basically separates us from others. While this excerpt is clearly cherry-picked to support my empirical ideas, I find it prescient and completely relevant to the discussion about education at hand. In the famous words of the captain in Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
And yet, I have faith in our young people. As this semester came to an end I shared a poetic writing prompt with my students. It involves answering a series of questions on index cards and then rearranging them into some form of a poem. This project works especially well with those who have never written a poem and feel certain they are incapable. I share this anecdote because inevitably the poems that emerge are powerful and loaded with nuanced aspects of these children’s lives and internal selves that they never share. The beauty is in the wanting to share that occurs despite apprehension and fear of exposure. Sometimes there are tears, sometimes laughter, but always a connection is made. The hard kind. The real kind.
The irony does not escape me that I am on the cusp of professing that there needs to be a revolution in education, and this revolution, with its potential to rescue our children, various societies, and the planet is antithetical to what the economic-based system(s) in all its forms wants or allows. It is also ironic that I am suggesting our students become wayward and that the unusual, contrary, perverse behavior I am asking for is that they resist authority and control by disconnecting and relearning how to think, in short by becoming better students. Thinking is revolutionary. Teaching our students to think is revolutionary. And Gil Scott-Heron was right, this revolution will not be televised.
In summation, I believe first and foremost media literacy needs to be added to schools’ curriculum immediately. Students need to be taught how to evaluate and analyze the information they are exposed to daily, but they also need to understand the mechanisms and purposes behind the curtain of technology so they can be informed users, potentially less manipulated, and perhaps encouraged to self-limit time spent online: to be bored long enough to begin to explore. I also believe that students need consistent access to counselors and therapists to address the anxiety that is exponentially more prevalent due to technology. In addition, students should be instructed on mindfulness modalities that can help them quiet the nonstop chatter in their brains and facilitate a better relationship with their tender selves and natural affinities. Ethics, not only need to be taught but modeled. Community service should not be an extracurricular but part of the curriculum, as giving back and helping others helps develop self-efficacy and a sense of belonging and worth. Electives need to be expanded to include a range of humanities as well as skilled trades. And finally, students need to be shown how literature, mathematics, science, and history will make their lives bigger and brighter, regardless of what future paths they follow. If we as educators can convince them that even though there is no certainty (sometimes we fail), to strive for wisdom is to be a true revolutionary, maybe we will plant the seed for their no-longer fallow hearts, minds, and souls to grow.