Our education culture suffers from a desire to standardize and censor.
This week, a high school student named Paris Gray of Jonesboro, Georgia was disciplined and made headlines after her school’s ruling administrators deciphered her yearbook quote:
When the going gets tough, just remember to Barium, Carbon, Potassium, Thorium, Astatine, Arsenic, Sulfur, Uranium, Phosphorus.
This translates to When the going gets tough, just remember to [Ba] [C] [K] [Th] [At] [As] [S] [U] [P] . (Back that ass up.) It’s a reference to a 1999 song by Juvenile.
Of course, her high school administrators weren’t pleased to learn juxtapositions of Arsenic and Sulfur yield ass. They still should have rolled their eyes and said, “Nice shot, kid. That’s actually kinda cool.” Perhaps they might have sat her down and asked, “What is it about this song that attracts you?” Instead, their authoritarian response has attracted international attention. I first learned of the story when a British friend posted it on Facebook.
The story soured me, even as I laughed at the image of suited assistant principals sitting around with a periodic table, spectacles on the ends of their noses, and spelling out the code. It took me right back to my high school days: I was, similar to Gray, a member of “important” and “respectable” student societies, all of them drummed up to represent something they simply didn’t. And I wished to beat the censors.
People might find fault with me for writing about a young woman in a column set aside for men’s issues in education. In my view, the response to her prank is a symptom of an education culture that’s hypocritically prudish, seriously misguided and affects boys and girls in measure. Gray’s is just the most recent example or our trouble with creativity.
As a community college English instructor, I deal with students whose minds are spun sideways by our authoritarian high schools, institutions often far more interested in discipline and control than education. In some cases, the system conflates education with control.
I have a simple pedagogical question: What is the educational value of disciplining this student in any way? What will she learn? Don’t trick the administrators, or else. (If she ends up employed in higher education, she’ll learn the correct lesson: Trick the administrators, or else.)
Here are other potential lessons:
Compartmentalize. Don’t combine your nerdy wit with hip-hop.
Don’t express your individual intelligence.
Don’t subvert the revered yearbook.
How dare you involve sexuality?
Conform. Maintain the façade.
Variations of these lessons are banged into our young people’s heads with such force and frequency that kids come out of high school believing all kinds of “or else” bullshit. I have a feeling Gray’s maturity and social capital will see her do well despite this fallout (the prank shows a savvy that’s exciting). But the majority of students I teach come out of high school harboring ideas that need to be overcome.
At our community college, the rarest student attends out of ambition or desire. Most are driven by anxiety and fear.
They perceive two horrible fates looming in the future: poverty and punishment. College counters poverty, the lesson goes, by providing access to higher salaries. Students must listen to the instructor, the idea continues, not by choice but because s/he might punish them if they don’t.
Many of my students believe, at least implicitly, that poverty is already a punishment. They think college can punish them by denying them a credential and therefore keeping them poor (wherever did they get that idea?).
Of course, colleges don’t really punish anyone, not the way cops or judges do. There are consequences, including academic failure or expulsion, to actions and behaviors. But consequences like bad grades are not categorically punishments. And not every consequence is the result of human action.
Personally, I don’t want students to “follow commands”. Sure, I expect work to come in on time. But I actively encourage students to find fault with my lectures and ideas, to demand reason from all authorities, including the college. Also, if you want to stand up in the middle of my lecture and leave for any reason, feel free. I don’t want to know that you’re going to the toilet. Who taught you that someone should be policing your time or approving your destinations? Go for a walk if you want. Go smoke.
In my class, students can write about whatever they want, no matter how sexy or perverted, keep it private from classmates or share. I later ask them to investigate what attracted them to the topics. As far as I know, none of my colleagues would ever expect a student to suppress an interest. Paris Gray obviously likes Juvenile enough to include him in her yearbook quote. Authoritarians say, “There’s a time and a place, and Juvenile’s vulgar song, no matter how cleverly ciphered, does not belong in a yearbook.”
But if his song has found its way into our youth’s consciousness, then where does it belong? Did not our larger society of adults provide Paris with this song in the first place? If we’re worried about Juvenile’s vulgarity, why is our solution to suppress instead of wondering why he expresses himself this way? We see nothing to learn and only ideas to control?
Mundy’s Mill High School in Jonesboro, Georgia had something to learn from Paris Gray. Instead, they chose to learn nothing (that they wished to make public) while they created exactly the sort of clichéd drama we’d expect, punishing a young person essentially for showing up their censors. Between this brand of authoritarianism and our standardized testing mania lie the problems in our education culture.
Photo by TAMUC
True Community runs each Wednesday. Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college that serves a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland.
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