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Apr 26 2008

Educational Contraband

George at Decrepit Old Fool started my brain churning, right when I was ready to sleep:


It’s my contention that what’s missing from our politically-correct, NCLB-driven schools today is pretty much any possibility at all of ‘a little thrill in learning’. It happens, but good teachers have to wedge it into the cracks where they can.


Well, how can I go to bed after that? You throw that kind of fresh meat in front of me, I start to drool. It’s positively Pavlovian.

I remember being extremely annoyed at the sanitized pablum we got spoon-fed at school. Adults tend to plump for the sheltering of the kids. Kids tend to wonder just what the fuck adults are so afraid of, and whether they’re that bloody stupid. I think Kaden pointed up the fact quite nicely that teens will get their hands on contraband no matter how hard adults try to keep it out of their hands. They have their little methods. Even back in the day before the intertoobz, we had our ways and means of getting our hands on forbidden fruit. Newspapers, magazines, conversations, television, radio…. Let’s just say that no matter how sheltered your upbringing, by high school, you’d been exposed to at least a few ideas that were considered verboten for the under-18s, and being treated as if we hadn’t was irksome.

I blame the parents. And the do-gooders. And all of the other raging fuckwits who, with good intentions, try to ensure that kids basically learn nothing.

Our teachers had to be extremely careful with the contraband they brought in. Gods forbid they should show us anything outside of those stupid disinfected textbooks that so carefully excised anything remotely interesting. But contraband slipped in regardless.

My sixth grade teacher bucked the party line by telling us how incredible Germany was. I still remember him sitting on the corner of his desk, voice impassioned, as he shared a little bit of truth with us: it was incredible that a little country like Germany managed to almost conquer the world, not once, but twice. He waxed poetic in his admiration. On that day, we learned that turn-of-the-century Germany wasn’t a caricature, but a country full of brilliant people who, admittedly, had done some fucked-up things. He was the first person I’d ever heard who didn’t treat Germany as a pariah, but as an admirable foe. It made the whole thing much more exciting. Defeating a despicable enemy’s one thing, but defeating an enemy that’s a despicable genius, well, that’s awesome. That means you had to work for it, and I think all of us were a lot more proud of America.

And it made me think of the humanity of the enemy. They were people like us. They thought they were doing the right thing. They weren’t a bunch of cartoon bad guys. They were people. That was a critical message. When your enemy is considered nothing at all like you, when there’s nothing to respect, you don’t realize how fine the line is that divides you. You’re apt to blunder from hero to villain without ever realizing what you’ve done, because you’ve been led to believe it’s impossible for you to be the villain.

I think Bush & Co. could’ve used a Mr. Lynch in sixth grade. They’re so convinced of America’s innate rightness and the enemy’s wrongness that they believe anything we do is by default the right thing. Had Mr. Lynch gotten some of his contraband into their hands early on, they might be a little more prone to caution.

There wasn’t much contraband in grade school. There wasn’t much more in high school. I lived in an extremely conservative community that had more churches than people. We students had to stage a walk-out and a march for AIDS education. There was actually some magnificent doofus of a parent who got up in front of the school board and told him our kids didn’t need AIDS education because they weren’t having sex. All I can say is, if he was right, then my town had one hell of an immaculate conception problem.

But even in that atmosphere, there were some teachers who managed to sneak us some contraband.

My British and Western Literature teacher, Mr. Vail, told us openly as we moaned about Shakespeare that all we got to read was the boring bits. Of course we hated Shakespeare. He nudged us in the direction of the local bookstore, where the Complete Works were available, unabridged. And he used personal anecdotes to keep us interested. Nothing gets thirty high school students interested faster than their teacher standing at the front of the classroom and saying, “I must be a masochist.” We learned a new word and something about interpersonal relationships that day as we gave our studied advice on how he should deal with an emotional vampire of a girlfriend. No one pitched a politically-correct fit. We were having too much fun.

My favorite memory of him, though, is the day I dropped by his after-school study hall to discuss which Shakespeare play I should read for my extra credit paper. We got into a discussion about the censorship in our textbooks, and I’ll never forget him looking around for administrators as his hand crept to the bottom drawer of his desk. The expression on his face would have gotten him nailed. You know how people look when they’re about to break the rules and are relishing it? That look. He sneaked out a Complete Works of Shakespeare, flipped open to MacBeth, and said, “The stuff in that book is crap. They took out all of the good parts.” We then spent an instructive half-hour howling over the scene where MacDuff’s trying to gain entry to the castle, and the double entendre’s flying thick and fast:


MACDUFF Was it so late, friend, ere you went to bed,
That you do lie so late?

Porter ‘Faith sir, we were carousing till the
second cock: and drink, sir, is a great
provoker of three things.

MACDUFF What three things does drink especially provoke?

Porter Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and
urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes;
it provokes the desire, but it takes
away the performance: therefore, much drink
may be said to be an equivocator with lechery:
it makes him, and it mars him; it sets
him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him,
and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and
not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him
in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.

It was that day I realized Shakespeare wasn’t a boring old fuddy-duddy, but someone with a wicked sense of humor. And because of that, I adore Shakespeare to this day.

There must have been something subversive about our literature department, because my American Literature teacher that year sneaked a whole week of Les Miserables in. “I know he’s French, but this is one of the greatest books ever written, and we’re going to do it,”
Mrs. Putman said. We’d come in to a quotation on the board that hit us like a sledgehammer:


Must we continue to lift our eyes toward heaven? Does the luminous point we discern there come from those being quenched? The ideal is terrible to see, thus lost in the depths – minute, isolated, imperceptible, shining, but surrounded by all those great black menaces monstrously amassed around it, yet no more in danger than a star in the jaws of the clouds.


She had us hooked.

Imagine, if you will, a pole-axed American Lit class lined up around the classroom eagerly waiting for our copy of the original London cast recording of Les Miserables. We’re talking teenagers, obsessed by a French novel and a Broadway musical. The stores sold out of both the abridged and unabridged copies. A multitude of us went to see the musical. We were enthralled. We wept, we laughed, we lived it. And I think all of us took away some harsh lessons about society, about real desperation, good and evil, justice and injustice. 24601 was our favorite number.

The contraband worked. It didn’t work because it was subversive, necessarily, although the forbidden fruit aspect certainly made it more entertaining. No, contraband worked because we had teachers who trusted us to handle it. They expected us to be able to grasp tough concepts, appreciate things other adults thought we were too shallow to truly understand. They fed our minds some red meat. And we ate with gusto.

Talk about “a little thrill in learning.”

We don’t necessarily need better teachers, we need better smugglers. I’m not talking about smuggling religion in the guise of science, mind you. That doesn’t do anything except shut down minds. We need smugglers who can open them. We need Lynches and Vails and Putmans, teachers who aren’t afraid to present the world to their students, in all of its gore and glory.

Thought has very nearly been banished from the classroom. So has passion. Teachers need to be given a chance to sneak it back in.

But keep it as contraband. It wouldn’t be half as interesting otherwise.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Mary

    Thank you Diane for opening the eyes of a pablum fed senior. Over 55 years ago I completed my education and that is the problem. I never had the will power to follow up with more food for thought. You and George (DOF) have started a little itch in the corner of my mind. It is up to me now to scratch it and make it grow!

  2. 2
    Dana Hunter

    Welcomes! I’m glad we struck some sparks!Feed that itch! I went to college with a septagenarian who could run rings around us young ‘uns, and he hadn’t been in school for nearly five decades. He could out-think any dozen of us, and I came to believe that’s true for everyone who’s had a lot of life experience to go with their yearning to learn.Keep itching!

  3. 3
    Webs

    Loved your post. I really enjoyed your point about the Germany story. I think that makes a lot of sense and I too wish more of my teachers did things like that. The education system is pretty fucked and I hope we can look back at whats happened at some point in the future and say, “Wow we fucked up, lets fix it!”

  4. 4
    Overmind

    Excellent post(im new to your blog so im starting at the beginning:P)and i can relate to it seeing as my country started adopting this bottomless-pit-of-ignorance style of education, the PC one. Too many teens and young ones are driven away from the beauty of books and knowledge by this sordid agenda.Excellent

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