How we reimagine assessment when sick and dying dogs, sleepless nights, and cleaning up dog fur are as much a factor as whether or not a student did the reading or writing may be the most pressing question we face as educators.
Once a fearsome murderer invaded a Zen master’s home.
“Give me everything you own, or I’ll kill you,” he said, brandishing his sword.
The Zen master said nothing.
“Don’t you know who I am?” the murderer roared. “I could put this sword through your heart and I wouldn’t blink an eye.”
“Don’t you know who I am?” the Zen master said. “You could put that sword through my heart and I wouldn’t blink an eye.”
For now, the American presidency has ended. Donald Trump will take an oath to protect this country, but his lie will make the oath useless. The American people voted to terminate the presidency, to hand over the nation to an imprudent, impudent son of a tenement landlord. He will bluster. He will storm. He will cause great harm. But he will not be president. The presidency has been, for better or worse, a seat of responsibility and accountability. Donald Trump is neither responsible nor accountable. The presidency was, for better or worse, a seat that demanded great respect. At times, that respect has been misused, at times it’s been earned. Donald Trump neither demands respect nor does he understand its use.
It is anyone’s guess why so puny a man wanted so dire a position. Probably power. Maybe fame. Probably to strengthen his brand, and to use the country’s resources and political alliances to build his business. He asked for, campaigned for, and accepted a position the way one takes a new job as CEO. He is mistaken if he thinks this is the same kind of executive office, though. He is not prepared, not qualified, and will not execute the office of president the way a president does. He will not be a president.
But he will be in charge. And every person who didn’t or did vote for him should be very worried. When you give someone who doesn’t understand power all of the power, you are setting a child loose in a candy store. But Donald Trump’s candy comes in the form of nuclear arms, housing for the poor and marginalized, education, care for the elderly, strong relationships with international allies, and stronger understandings with international enemies. He has the police to play with. He has all of the nation’s intelligence resources. He has your data, your personal information; and he can arrest you if he doesn’t like what he sees there.
These have long been the toys of the president. But Donald Trump will not be a president. He’ll just have the president’s toys. And there will be very few who will be able to anticipate his moods, very few who will be able to stay on his good side. He is Veruca Salt in a bloated white man’s meat suit.
Veruca thought she deserved everything. Her tantrums and demands were what people often mistake for agency. For the will of someone to act upon the world. Deep in this misunderstanding is how we allowed Donald Trump to put the American presidency to rest. We presumed he had the right to run. We might disagree with him. We might despise his politics, his irrepressible racism and misogyny, his open mockery of the disabled, his loathing for complete sentences and thoughts, his inability to formulate anything resembling a political policy. But whatever our feelings, we had to accept that he had the right to run the presidency into the ground. Because we could always vote. And when the nation spoke (a tiny portion of the nation, mind you), our tradition of honoring the triumph of one person’s agency over another’s left us essentially without recourse.
We can protest. We can throw rocks (in certain, hidden, secret ways). We can yell. We can write blog posts. But Donald Trump will ascend to the highest office of this country and leave it as vacant as he finds it.
It’s a funny thing about agency. People mistake it for power. Donald Trump didn’t run for office because he had agency. The Constitution attempts to secure that right for everyone, but of course it’s failed. The Constitution, in its bleak optimism, assumes that people will play fair. Agency plays fair. But power doesn’t.
In his last book, Pedagogy of Indignation, Paulo Freire offers:
I am convinced that no education intending to be at the service of the beauty of the human presence in the world, at the service of seriousness and ethical rigor, of justice, of firmness of character, of respect for differences...can fulfill itself in the absence of the dramatic relationship between authority and freedom. It is a tense and dramatic relationship in which both authority and freedom, while fully living out their limits and possibilities, learn, almost without respite, to take responsibility for themselves as authority and freedom...
The freedom that derives from learning, early on, how to build internal authority by introjecting the external one, is the freedom that lives out its possibility fully. Possibility derives from lucidly and ethically assuming limits, not from fearfully and blindly obeying them." (p.9-10) [emphases mine]
In other words, agency doesn’t so much exert itself upon others as it does float within the intersection of freedom and authority. Enacting one’s agency is always a balancing act between doing what is within your understanding of your own power and working with the boundaries of others’ understandings of theirs. It is a cooperative, chemical interaction. Freedom delimited by others’ freedoms delimited by yours.
In a classroom, this means that authority remains present. Sometimes, the authority of the teacher; but in the best situation, the shared authority of the group of learners (and the teacher). In the theatre of national politics, the agency of the president is limited by the needs of the people. This is not a system of checks and balances, though. A system of checks and balances assumes certain people have power over other certain people in specific circumstances. That’s a relationship of negotiation at best, manipulation at worst; and it’s a relationship of power.
Donald Trump doesn’t understand agency. He doesn’t understand that his will should be limited by the freedoms of others. He is not humane. He is not considerate. He is not wise. These are not the qualifications of every president, but they are the aspiration. No, they are the expectation. Yet no one expects consideration, humanity, or wisdom from Donald Trump. On both sides of the voting population, we expect rudeness, cruelty, and anti-intellectualism. This would mystify me if I didn’t recognize at least one source for this disappointing position.
For many reasons, I openly blame our current education system for the result of the election and the demise of the American president. To start, I am a critic of education, working within and outside the system to draw attention to its flaws; and therefore, the failings of the system are almost always foremost in my mind. Additionally, I have seen an alarming (deeply alarming, like finding out your child has run away from home alarming) reduction in the value of critical thinking in schools. This reduction runs parallel to an increasing emphasis on retention of information as a measure of “mastery.” I have met more than one college student and college graduate who love teachers who tell them what will be on the test, who ply rubrics to narrow the deviation from the norm, and who lecture, asking very little in the way of participation from students in the suscitation of their own education.
Education today assesses student knowledge based on their ability to repeat back. Questioning, criticizing, looking for wisdom past the usual authority—these are rare activities indeed. Even a class on creative writing—presumably a subject that grows from a student’s own subjectivity—can have rubrics, right and wrong answers, multiple choice tests.
We should want and demand more. This is not what education is meant to be. As John Holt reminds us:
Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control our own minds and thoughts. That means the right to decide for ourselves how we will explore the world around us, think about our own and other persons’ experiences, and find and make the meaning of our own lives. (4)
This is the right of agency. It does not give us power over another, but it gives us mastery over ourselves. And an education that does not encourage or facilitate this agency is not an education. An education that convinces us of what needs to be known, what is important versus what is frivolous, is not an education. It’s training at best, conscription at worst. And all it prepares us to do is to believe what we’re told.
American education has worked tirelessly since the time of Skinner to make the American mind into a cipher. And when the American mind became a cipher, the Kardashians became model citizens, and Donald Trump rising up to silence the American presidency became an inevitability.
Change the way you teach.