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Colonizing the Student: “The Purpose of the Educator”

by Stephen Hebert on Thursday - 14 January 2010

in Education

The previous post ended with this question:

“What is my job as an educator in a pluralistic community? What is the teacher to do?”

What I should do is create opportunities for the student to learn.

The student’s brain is traveling down a dark road, and the teacher’s hope is to entice it to make a stop at some intersection and buy some goods, some snacks for the road. Occasionally, it will stop in for a full meal or maybe stay the night in one of the roadside motels. We put the student in front of our favorite authors, our favorite thinkers, our favorite teachers, the people and ideas that challenged and stretched us, and ask them to tell us what they think about it. This is the bait. If we get a nibble, we’re usually pleased. If we get a real bite and then we’re able to reel them in, then we’re really jazzed.

Mixed metaphors aside, education in my view is providing opportunities for students to gain enlightenment. My hope is always that students will find some different take on a piece that makes me re-examine it in a new light. This happened recently when my junior English class examined the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” as we studied McCarthyism and The Crucible. Here are the lyrics to the performance of the song that is found on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3:

Well, I was feelin’ sad and kind’a blue,
I didn’t know what I was a-gonna do,
Them Communists wus a-comin’ around,
They wus in the air,
They wus on the ground.
They wus all over.

So I run down most hurriedly
And joined the John Birch Society,
got me a secret membership card
And went back home to the yard,
Started lookin’ on the sidewalk,
under the hedges.

Well, I got up in the mornin’ ‘n’ looked under my bed,
I wus lookin’ every place for them gol-darned Reds.
Looked behind the sink, and under the floor,
Looked in the glove compartment of my car.
Couldn’t find any . . .

Looked behind the clothes, behind my chair
lookin’ for them reds everywhere
looked up my chimney hole,
even deep down inside my toilet bowl,
They got away . . .

I heard some foot-steps by the front porch door,
so I grabbed my shot-gun from the floor.
Snuck around the house with a huff and a hiss,
saying “Hands up, you communist!”
It was the mailman.
He punched me out.

Well, I wus sittin’ home alone an’ started to sweat,
Figured they wus in my T.V. set.
I peeked behind the picture frame,
Got a shock from my feet that hit my brain.
Them Reds did it!
Hootenanny Television . . .

Well, I quit my job so I could work alone,
got a magnifying glass like Sherlock Holmes.
Followed some clues from my detective bag
And discovered: red stripes on the American flag!
Betsy Ross . . .

Now Eisenhower, he’s a Russian spy,
Lincoln, Jefferson and that Roosevelt guy.
To my knowledge there’s just one man
That’s really and truly American:
That’s George Lincoln Rockwell.
I know for a fact he hates Commies cus he picketed the movieExodus.

Well, I fin’ly started thinkin’ straight
When I run outa things to investigate.
Couldn’t imagine nothing else,
So now I’m home investigatin’ myself!
Hope I don’t find out too much . . . Good God!

For many years I’d viewed these lyrics in a rather straightforward fashion. Here was Dylan lampooning the idiocy and paranoia created by the John Birch Society’s search for communists, especially among members of the Civil Rights movement.

One of my students, however, focused on the last verse, which I had never thought about that much. Specifically, the student focused in on these two lines:

“So now I’m home investigatin’ myself!
Hope I don’t find out too much . . . Good God!”

The student went on to explain how the John Birch member was truly opposed to a critical self-examination. He’s investigating himself, but his real hope is that he won’t find out too much. Aren’t we all like that? Don’t we all look into ourselves and think what the John Birch member thought: “Good God!”? The need for introspection and self-examination is sometimes outweighed by the fear that we have regarding what we might find.

I thought this was a really excellent point that augmented my appreciation and understanding of the piece.

That was a success story. Often, however, things are less successful, and that is where this series of thoughts is headed. My biggest fear is that the relationship between student and teacher will turn into the relationship between colonizer and colonized, that I will force my views upon them and not give them an opportunity to think things through for themselves and share their own views.

I really don’t want to impose my worldview upon a student and cause them to fear thinking differently.

In the next couple of posts, I’ll be exploring that idea a little more in-depth.

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