Monday, March 18, 2013

The Prisoner -- What Classic Cult TV Can Teach Us (Part One)

Part One? Yes, I'm planning at least a Part Two.  Possibly a Part Three.

Language teaching – well, all teaching, really – has become political territory. There is a de facto assumption that if you are trying to teach language, in particular, you have a political agenda. If you teach structure and correctness, or teach to any kind of “standard,” you practice hegemony, and are an imperialist swine who is so swollen with privilege that you obviously have no moral center. If you practice a holistic, communicative method, then you are averse to objective standards and are a politically correct commie-lib anti-American historical apologist. 
Extremists love the either-or fallacy!

The irony is this: It is true that our educators are, and have been, among the greatest purveyors of mass propaganda.  Just look at a few select bullet points:  
  • The State of Texas's (successful) attempt to re-define U.S. history and change what is taught and what events in history are even called (read here and here), though to be fair, the Conservatives’ contention that “history curriculum has been unfairly skewed to the left,” is not entirely untrue, and I challenge anyone to read this NPR piece and claim that they do not detect any left-leaning biases or assumptions-as-fact;
  • This delicious tidbit, the Texas G.O.P.’sofficial platform with regard to education; read it and tell me that there aren’t those in the government trying to “program” minds:
Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
  • The prescriptivism-descriptivism swings in English Language Arts education priorities over the last century, global sea-changes in the way language teachers are trained to look at language when imparting curriculum to students, but which are really tied to social policy and political ideology;
  • The decline in standards, concomitant (and co-morbid) with a rise in the prioritization of political correctness over academic rigor and integrity. Sandra Stotsky’s Losing Our Language is, for my money, not a very well written book, and a bit viscous to slog through, but contains enough content and principle to be informative, illustrative and useful; 
  • The fact that working teachers have to sign an oath to disavow communism before being allowed to teach in public schools (though much of the left-leaning progressivism that has infused classrooms through Teacher Education programs is, paradoxically and disturbingly, achingly sympathetic to the communist cause. And of course, if you are teaching to objective standards, then some students may fail, and that creates an inequality that is just too damaging to students' egos to be allowed to stand, so objective standards get abolished in a kind of pseudosocialist frenzy);
  • New York State's decision to remove "offensive" words from their standardized tests, such terrifying and corrupting words as "birthday."  Test makers are not allowed to even reference anything that might make a student feel bad, such as mention of private ownership of personal computers (because not all students have them so it's unfair to mention it, as it might upset the students in the class who don't?)  So instead of celebrating diversity, the State is propagandizing a fake homogeneity?  Unreal!
 And worst of all, perhaps...
  • The modern design of teacher evaluation programs, not to reward teachers for powerful teaching (whatever the heck that means) but to reward teachers for cleaving to the prescribed ideological dicta of a particular district or state; naysayers and activists, free-thinkers and rabble-rousers, are expurgated summarily, denied tenure, etc... under the guise of their being anti-social or disharmonious.
With regard to the last bullet point comment about the hive mind of educational administration and its desire to root out any behavior that is "anti-social," "unmutual," or "disharmonious," that is, not lock-step (goose step?) with their guiding principles (even when their guiding principles are destructive to educational and pedagogical integrity), take 48 minutes of your time for this excellent allegory from 60s classic British cult TV show The Prisoner.  Watch the whole episode here.

It's okay if you're not familiar with the overall premise of the show, here’s a primer with all you need to know: It centers on the rights of the individual vs. the demands of the collective, using as its lens a secret agent who has resigned unexpectedly due to matters of conscience, and the "powers that be" trying to break him down to get him to spill his secrets and cooperate with them, and either fall (back) in line, or be destroyed. Very surreal, Kafkaesque, classic 60s British camp TV, but with a searing counter-cultural (some would say, and have said, subversive) message.

This episode link is to youtube; the person who posted the video mis-titled it in his post. It is not "Do Not Forsake Me..." The actual title of the episode is "A Change of Mind." EVERY teacher should watch this episode, and tell me if they don't feel the same more often than not...




“Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself.”

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