I probably loathe the American compulsory education system more than anyone I’ve ever met. I despise it on deeply personal level, on an ethical level, and from an efficacy standpoint. I despise the people involved; the administrators, the so-called teachers, the teeming hordes of kids who don’t want to and shouldn’t be there wasting everyone’s time and money.
But like everything else, every now and then there a silver lining or a bright star that breaks through the darkness and demands to be noticed. It might be a brave, risk-taking principal who institutes a new system of reprimanding justice. It might be the teacher who takes it upon his or herself, at their own personal cost, to start an after-school program that is actually geared towards teaching kids self-worth or some valuable skill. It might be the popular jock who looks out for the bullied or makes the nerds feel welcome.
For me, that bright star was my 4th and 5th grade teacher Marcus Allen. Mr. Allen was probably in his early 30’s back in the late 1990’s. I don’t remember where he was from, or where he went to school, or why he wanted to be a teacher. I don’t remember who was in my class, I couldn’t tell you any highlights about my life at that time (except for my all-time crush, and first “girlfriend,” Brianna Suttner.) But I remember Mr. Allen changed my life with one simple philosophy that boiled down to a simple word.
Now I won’t lie about my public education experience. I grew up in Allouez, one of the moneyed suburbs of Green Bay, Wisconsin. There wasn’t a gang problem, or crime, or a deteriorating city to contend with. There weren’t many “problem students” who put others in danger or anything of that sort. Our problem was more benign and more malignant than that. Our problem was the excruciating mediocrity that has come to define the American education system.
The teachers didn’t care enough to challenge the kids. In Wisconsin, the teacher’s union comes first – and that means politics comes before kids. I wouldn’t make this sort of connection until much later during my political socialization. Looking back, it was clear the signs were all there. But as a grown man I now realize just what it was that made me who I am today. I know what informs my philosophy and my role in the world. It was that one, single word; the word Mr. Allen always asked, and always demanded we ask about everything at all times.
Everything boiled down to this magical, powerful little word. You don’t like this reading selection. Why? You didn’t complete your assignment. Why? You don’t think this is the most effective way to teach. Why? You would rather read individually than as a group. Why?
Mr. Allen, always asking why. Always demanding not just that we answer his inquiries, but to always and everywhere form our own. This simple lword bred in me the sometimes tiresome, but always necessary methodology that informs my beliefs, my philosophy, and my raison detre.
Later on in high school, every day was little more than an indoctrination camp in the mold of John Dewey. The kids were to be molded into nice little nihilistic automatons for the State – coppertops who would never question authority and never reach for anything more than a dead-end job that provided the revenue needed for this, that, and the other. George Bush was the devil. (Here I will not argue, but only mention that rank partisanship is the last refuge of a cheap, petty, bankrupt mind.) “Why?” had suddenly become very out of fashion and frowned upon.
It’s not really much different elsewhere in life. At most of my previous jobs, the question itself drew contempt and singled me out as a troublemaker and a malcontent. But somewhere along the line, it started paying dividends. It got me where I am today.
Complete strangers who live 1,000 miles away from me believe they have a prior claim to my property. Why? A radically impoverished nation 7,000 miles away from my country was bombed by my government for several years. Why? Politics comes before the kids. Why? One group of citizens must be robbed for the benefit of another group. Why? Greed is bad, unless you demand the property of others at the end of a gun barrel. Why? Country X is populated by evil sub-humans who must be destroyed. Why? “That’s just the way it is.” WHY?
This demand for answers, which is utterly absent in the vast majority of the American population, was socialized into my very being by a young teacher who required a full-spectrum analysis of my life and the world I live in. Just ask my parents what effect Mr. Allen had on me!
I suppose my point here is two-fold. First, I want to contact Mr. Allen and thank him. I want to thank him for shaking me out of the one-size-fits-all stupor of the “education” system. I want to know if there are any others out there who were blessed enough to be truly taught by this unsung hero. And secondly, I want to ask why. I want to ask teachers, parents, students, and politicians why they are accepting such terrible failure on the part of the education system. I want to ask why money and power and politics comes before the kids. I want to ask why, after decades of incompetence and disastrous results, the American people do not ask why they still make brainless claims like “we must have a compulsory, universal public education system.” I want to ask why there are not more heroes like Mr. Allen.