The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Friday, July 02, 2004

Re-reading yesterday's post about fashions in student names, it strikes me how culturally specific our responses to them are. For instance, I knew that one of our South African set poets, Tatamkhulu Afrika, had changed his name in response to a government ban on his pro-ANC writing during apartheid, but it took a lesson with an African student who spoke Swahili for me to learn that Afrika's first name means 'Grandfather'.

Sometimes I wonder about the massive cultural specificity of what we teach students as a whole, particularly in my subject, Literature. Oh , I know of all the sociological theories, Popper et al's ideas of what social function education serves. And depending on how rebellious or hard-done by my morning has panned out to be, disagree accordingly.

But sometimes - no, often - I feel as though I'm teaching my students to be middle class, rather than to think. I teach them to speak Standard English, and mark them down for inappropriate use of dialect forms, yet never investigate with them the usage and rules of those forms. The examination syllabus compels me to spend two months teaching them 'A Taste of Honey' - a poorly written text, I believe - but any analysis of the descriptive skills of Stephen King must be an unrecorded one-off side project, and graphic novels aren't allowed at all.
I teach them to distrust political bias in a right wing media, but don't dissect the far more powerful popular culture which has spent years subtly disenfranchising them of their vote.

I take special pains to establish an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, equal rights atmosphere in my classroom, because that's the world I live in, that's the lip service paid by my peers, and disregard their background.
Why don't I show them how to actually deal with a racist attack? Why are all the single mothers represented in the literature I push at them either whores, disaffected or victims? Can I not actually work towards something more truthful - yes, motherhood is fulfilling, and these children have more experience of it than I. No, sometimes muttering dark and gloomy forebodings as to the consequences of unwanted pregnancy is not enough to help a child deal with the complex power negotiation of a sexual experience.
Why must I always advocate the inappropriateness of violence? There are times and occurrences when a child leaves me lost for words, as they almost convince me that there was no other response available to them. Faced with potential violence against my person, I would defend myself. Yet I continue to push upon them the middle class fabrication that I would have lost face, or be less of a person.

What's so 'wrong' with working class culture - is it so powerful we can't even acknowledge it in our schools, much less deal with it head on? Do we consider middle class culture as so frail and easily bruised that we cannot speak truthfully about it?

It's not so much the Canon of English Literature that I question, here. It's the Canon of Teacher's Words.