In the fall of 2014, I began my teaching career in Detroit at the Academy for Medicine and Community Health at Cody High School. As the city staggered out of bankruptcy and the school district faced its own crippling debt, I struggled with describing the gainful employment awaiting high school seniors if they would just study for their Certified Nursing Assistant exams.
Each morning, 160 students passed through my room, and I worried about how to dignify their experiences of an unaccountable world. There was something hollow and even morbid about advertising their role in meeting baby boomers’ impending health care needs.
Latent to our efforts was the suggestion that delighting in learning or experiencing a moment of wonder in the classroom was a luxury reserved for a different kind of kid. My students had technical exams to study for, standards to comply with, and no time to waste.
School Districts Focus on Training for Industry
While I no longer teach in Detroit, the district has formally turned its focus to channeling students into one of seven “industry cluster areas” ranging from hospitality to public safety. Conversations about English credits and required physical education classes have been eclipsed by “real-world experiences” and “industry certification.” All students are now enrolled in a Career Pathways Education Plan — a project that aims to address the city’s educational woes by accelerating all students’ journeys to careers.
The calculation at the heart of the project is straightforward. Jobs exist in the city, and folks aren’t trained to do them — so train them. Isn’t this, after all, what schools do? Answering this question involves more than an argument about course selection. We’re asking if public school students from Detroit deserve an education that develops them as something more than employees.
Put another way, what ought the freshmen English teacher do with his time when he greets 160 students who read on a third-grade level, among whom is a homeless boy scrambling for shelter each night and a girl who will give birth the next semester? The right “industry certification” might change their life trajectory, but there is something frivolous about a school the highest aims of which could be summed up by Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
While Detroit is unique in funneling all students through this program, districts across the county have aimed to make education practical by developing curricula focused on irrefutably relevant projects and experiences — as though all students are hardened capitalists who must see the financial utility of their efforts before committing. This obsession with usefulness demeans students and badly parodies the sacred exchange that happens in a classroom where a person shares something he loves with someone else.
Teachers face pressure to offer students a daily token that will unlock the modern economy, and I spent the opening weeks of my teaching career crafting lesson plans that targeted specific skills I and the Common Core deemed essential for professional success. The students rioted. They were dismissive of my appeals to their long-term success and desperately bored.
One month into the school year, I did a novel thing and opened class by reading aloud from Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” My students were perfectly still until the moment I stopped, at which point they asked what possessed me to ruin the only good thing that had happened in the class. This practice became a staple of instruction. As stories replaced skills, I watched these students grow an average of six grade levels in reading comprehension over our two years together.
Students Need More Than Practical Information
A school’s first and greatest project is the human person, but this work resists quantification and would look poorly as the headline of a 30-point reform plan. If public schools exist simply to transmit practical information, and teachers are mere data-entry professionals, they are an obscene waste of human talent and taxpayer dollars. Smartphones can do this far more efficiently.
Instead, a school’s success rests in something more hopeful: the gathering of adults who have encountered the ecstatic joy of learning and the deep responsibility of self-knowledge and choose to give themselves over to students.
Aristotle once recast Plato’s thesis on education as learning “to enjoy as well as to be pained by what one ought.” It’s an ill-suited description if we imagine our students as day-laborers, but fitting if we’re discussing human beings learning to love justice as their education turns them toward truth.
When I recall my time at Cody, these dissonant aims were most apparent when parents gathered in my room for conferences each fall and spring. I have no memories of them asking about their child’s progress toward becoming an anesthesiologist. We talked, instead, about whether he was kind and good, or if she’d learned something about courage and perseverance.
While a system of standards and data points projected their child’s success based on achievement of core competencies, the parents saw a fragile human life and asked what was happening to it. Was the school instructing their child on becoming a human being that lives well in the world? W.E.B. Du Bois told us the tragedy of our age is not poverty, wickedness, or ignorance, “but that men know so little of men.”
The Student Who Came Awake
Now, on the opening day of each new school year, I tell my classes about a student I once taught. He spent the first semester of his freshmen year in a deep sleep in my English class, and I don’t mean this metaphorically. Of the 90 minutes we spent together, I had his attention only at the doorway before he wandered to the back row.
In January of that year, after months of invitations to join our discussions, he approached me at lunch to explain he was homeless, and my class was a respite from one of the coldest winters on record in Detroit. We developed an understanding, but he remained silent in my class until our final book that year, Homer’s “Odyssey.”
This student abruptly raised his hand during a conversation about Telemachus, the son of the story’s hero, who remains at home with his mother during his father’s 10-year journey. He stood at his desk and told his classmates he knew how it felt to miss his father and fear for his mother while struggling to know his place in a murky world. He said he was eager to see what Telemachus would do next — it might prove instructive.
Only a couple of my students ever took an interest in our school’s simulated hospital room, where broken manikins lay in beds and stethoscopes replaced textbooks, but all of them knew the marrow-deep pain and confusion of life on the west side of Detroit at 14 years old. They needed an education that gave them a way through it. For a student shouldering the burden of homelessness, the classics proved more relevant than any “real-world” courses could.