How to Survive in Your Native Land IIJune 29, 2010
The theme of the book, if we get down to it, is honesty in teaching. No question why it’s aggravating sometimes and inspiring others, why this guy Herndon grates on your nerves with his pompousness and his insistence that he’s got some way to do it, even when he’s more than forthcoming about his failures, failure after failure, and how he seems to cling to a vision that doesn’t work again and again, but then also sees, rightly, that the schools are doing the same, even worse, really, and when a colleague in the book says of the teachers, all teachers, “We’re the dumb class,” you really start to get what he means, because the teachers fail over and over in the same way, and never learn the thing they’re there to learn, which is how to teach, and Herndon is included here, so, ok, he’s honest, but still, Herndon, what do I do with this?
Here’s a quote, coming at the end of three pages on how now that he told the kids what they’re supposed to do, according to the school, but doesn’t actually force them to do it, he has time…
“Time to talk about all that, without worry, since the official part of the school work is going on, or not going on, without your total involvement in it. Time to read your book in there too, look at the want ads in the paper if you feel like it, telling everyone to leave you alone, time to cut out of the class and go visit the shop or the art room or some other class to see what’s going on, knowing everyone will get along while you’re gone…”
“Time to live there in your classroom like a human being instead of playing some idiot role which everyone knows is an idiot role, time to see that teaching (if that is your job in America) is connected with your life and with you as a human being, citizen, person, that you don’t have to become something different like a Martian or an idiot for eight hours a day.”
So what we’re talking about here is honesty, doing things because you want to do them and not because some bureaucracy (Noman, Herndon calls them) said that’s how it’s done.
And so Herndon bugs me sometimes, but still, I’m all for honesty in teaching, and in particular, I’m for honesty in mathematics, which we’re most dishonest about of all subjects (or else honest without knowing it, like the first grade teacher who tells a bunch of bright eyed first graders who love solving puzzles that it’s time for math even though none of them want to do it and it’s such an awful subject, and those kids learn her honest feelings and learn that they’re supposed to dislike the subject before they’ve even met it properly, so maybe this is a kind of accidental honesty, but really, why does the teacher do something she hates so much anyway, except she feels that she has to? And unfortunately, in the doing, she breaks the Hippocratic Oath teachers should take but don’t do first do no harm).
And when I think about working with kids, I get excited because we’ll be able to work together, and I want to be surprised by their ideas and hear questions I haven’t heard before, and I want to really do math with them, because I’m a mathematician and so are they if they have half a chance, and if you do work in schools, you’ve got to be honest, I agree with you there, Herndon, and there will be all sorts of pressures telling you not to be, and I hope that if you’ve gotten the taste of the real joy of honest teaching then you’ll be inoculated against the dangers, just like when I saw real math (not in school) I had something in me that abided and which I could never lose, no matter how much of the fake stuff they threw at me. Cuz beauty is truth and truth is beauty and math is one place where you get both all wrapped up together.