Defining Individuality

As I planned to teach John Steinbeck’s novella, “Of Mice and Men”, this year, I struggled with how to approach the desperate, devastating and disgusting story therein. A story in which, to his credit, Steinbeck accurately depicts the struggle of human kindness and cruelty, and the thin, often broken, line that runs between the two. I am not a Steinbeck fan (I know. How can I even claim to be Californian?!), but I do recognize his genius ability to transport a reader directly into the real life of people living in the Great Depression. I do value this in his writing, because I think it absolutely necessary that people understand not only the world around them and the people with whom they will come into contact, but also have at least the ability to sympathetically and with real empathy connect with the stories of people throughout time. Even with this admission, I struggled to plan on teaching this novella to 14-year-old kids who, up to this point in their lives, might assume a happy ending to a novel and/or may have experienced loss or grief which the novel might stir up within them. Thank goodness for teachers who have come before me. I found on the New York Times Teaching Blog a Text to Text lesson focused on the friendship themes in “Of Mice and Men” and how a student might compare those themes to his/her own life.

Through this tool, I was able to teach “Of Mice and Men” with a focus on the theme of friendship and more specifically, as proposed in Todd May’s article “Friendship in a Time of Economics”, the economic value our current society places on friendship. As I annotated and read, however, the truth of May’s article was so convincing that I, after drawing circles around phrases, hearts and exclamation points in the margins, and attempting to write a little of my own thoughts on friendship. I placed all of my notes and pens on the empty passenger seat of my car. To reassure you, the car was’t moving, by the way -I was just taking advantage of the hour that my son spends at jazz band once a week and working in the cul-d-sac in my car) In any case, I put all of my lesson planning down and called my good friend.  A true friend, according to the article, with whom I hadn’t actually spoken since January.  It was such a restful and renewing conversation. We laughed and shared what is happening in our lives right now and made some near future plans.  Just a short phone call allowed some frenetic energy to just let go – made me pause and ask myself, why do we make ourselves – as a society/culture – too busy to enjoy each other’s company; to enjoy life as individuals in community.

Fast forward a month and I have read the Todd May article 6 more times (2 times in each English 9 class), and while the need to stop and recognize our true friendships is still clear, his identification of friendship in economic terms becomes what I can’t stop thinking about.  As I question not only our economy of friendship, I apply the same idea to the system of education in general…

…My entire mind seems wrapped lately in the question of education. Why we do education? Why it is done the way we do and is it achieving the end hoped for.  After my last two posts on this subject, I have been writing back and forth with a friend who has also questioned public education and after participating as an educator is now homeschooling her brood. She made a point about the goals of standardized education which communicated beautifully my up til then, only visceral reaction to the system as of late.  She claimed that while attempting to achieve an education that generates responsible and independent thinkers, the standardized system is completely undermining it’s own goals.  I wholeheartedly agree, individuality cannot be standardized – learning targets and goals and standards within a system define what a person “should” know or learn or be – and this is not individuality.

Our current education system has economized education, placing a high value on some students and a low value on others.  Not only students are assigned economic values, but the education they are receiving is economized.  Some subjects promise more success in college, some in career, the overall message that students and teachers receive is that while there are many pathways to achieving the standardized goals, the goals are the same for everyone, and if you are not attempting to reach those goals, you are considered “less than”.  This rhetoric of “not enough” exists in every aspect of our lives, and I propose that we change the rhetoric.  Let’s be the rebels we always relate to in the stories and movie – innovative in non-conformist ways. Self-reflective and analytical thinkers who are willing to engage in meaningful discussions about the future building of the culture we create and subsequently livein.

Centralized, standardized systems assume that people cannot actually take care of themselves.  These assume that there is one way to live a life, OR that if there are multiple ways, some ways/systems/people are better than others. This assumption automatically places an economic value on human existence; it creates an idea spread so adeptly that the people honestly believe that in order to be successful, a person must conform to the set-up systems – No rebellion, but more importantly, no creativity. This promotes the system and creates a false sense of communal conformity while smothering actual human creativity , growth, innovation, and the ability overall to transform a garden into a growing and changing city.

So, what are our goals as educators, as parents, as community members? Let’s work on some real goals; goals which allow real innovation and creativity rather than stifle them and conform them to an acceptable mold.

Steinbeck draws the broken line between kindness and human cruelty, and perhaps our current system attempts to draw a line between creativity for human flourishing and creativity which degrades humanity; but I propose that the line needs some erasing and restructuring and that rather than focusing on individualized success and responsibility, we begin to focus on an individuals ability to create and change a culture.