As an educator, I have had a checkered past. Before my daughters were born, I spent almost ten years teaching in public schools in a variety of positions including remedial reading; elementary grades two, three, and four; and special education. Then I took a long break to raise and educate my girls at home, interspersing those years with periods of substitute teaching, a part-time reading position, and private tutoring. Now I am almost back where I started: teaching special education in a grade six-through-eight middle school.
I love my new job. In the few short months since I started, I have come to care deeply about my students while I struggle with the forces in our culture and government that dehumanize them. Federal and state-mandated testing requirements force schools – administrators especially – to look at a child’s test scores rather than his personhood. My principal and co-teachers also care deeply about each child but cannot avoid considering the negative consequences that will befall our school if certain levels of achievement are not reached by individual students and by the overall group.
Last week I read an article that encouraged me. The American Federation of Teachers – of which I am now a member – publishes a quarterly journal called The American Educator. In an article on the state of the humanities in modern America (pages 26-29 of the Winter 2008-2009 issue), Wilfred M. McClay has some interesting things to say.
First, he defines the humanities: “those branches of human knowledge that concern themselves with human beings and their culture, and that do so in ways that show conversancy with the language of human values and respect for the dignity and expressive capacity of the human spirit.”
McClay goes on to say that the “task of the humanities, unlike the natural sciences and social sciences, is to grasp human things in human terms, without converting or reducing them to something else: not to physical laws, mechanical systems, biological drives, psychological disorders, social structures, and so on. The humanities attempt to understand the human condition from the inside, . . .treating the human person as subject as well as object, agent as well as acted-upon.”
In other words, the humanities regard the child as a person.
Further on in the article, McClay echoes Francis Schaeffer (True Spirituality, 1971) when he states that “the very category of ‘the human’ itself is under attack, as philosophers decry the hierarchical distinction between humans and animals, or humans and nature.” Some of my students show by their words, their attitudes, and their actions toward themselves and others that they have not been regarded as persons with capabilities, imagination, personality, or a desire and curiosity for knowledge that is unique and God-given.
Slowly, I am discovering interesting things about each of my students. One loves to play cribbage; another builds and races his own go-carts; a third is intrigued by anything having to do with elephants. These points of interest, knowledge, and curiosity provide a human place to begin to connect the children with the requirements of the school’s academic content. The humanities, especially the best literature, provide a bridge that links each child to a great variety of knowledge. I am careful to limit my talk and let the books we read speak for themselves. The results so far have been encouraging.
Later this spring, we will find out if treating children as persons results in acceptable levels of achievement on the state assessments.
McClay’s article in The American Educator was adapted from its first publication in the summer 2008 issue of the Wilson Quarterly and is well worth a read in its entirety. The original article includes a joke about the importance of the story behind the thing, rather than the immediate use of the thing. Read the story and you will be able to make sense of the title of this piece. It can be accessed at: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=wq.essay&essay_id=452772
© 2009 by Dr. Donna Johnson