Sunday, May 25, 2008

Urban Assumptions

On the one hand, assumptions are crucial to our ability to get by in everyday life.  They are a facet of memory, designed to keep us sane.  In the Jorge-Louis Borges short story, "Funes, the Memorious," the title character suffers a fall whilst horseback riding and gains, as a result, a perfect memory.  But this is not the blessing it might appear to be:  a perfect memory, Borges contends, would ultimately drive a person insane.  Each object would appear to be an infinite amount of different objects.  A dog seen head on, for example, would look completely different than the same dog seen in profile, and, if one could remember each image perfectly, one would have a difficult time reconciling the two depictions to the same animal.  In this way, it is actually our weakened memories that cause us to assume; to assume, for instance, that a dog seen head on and a dog seen from the side are, in fact, the same dog.  This is not to say, however, that assumptions are not without their drawbacks.  Take a toddler who has lived his short life in the company of a benign dog:  one day, this toddler comes across a less-than-friendly cat.  But, the toddler has no way of knowing that this creature is a cat.  Instead, he assumes it to be another dog, for both walk on four legs, have a tail, and have similar facial structures.  The toddler accosts the cat, as he would the dog, seeking to wrestle with it, but, rather than being met with licks and acquiescence, the toddler is confronted with sharp claws, poised to break the skin.  In this case, the assumption has proved harmful, but in both examples, we might characterize assumptions as means of organization for knowledge.  Assumptions call upon what we know and allow us to project that information--sometimes helpfully, sometimes not--onto present situations.

As a wealth of literature suggests, one of the most assumed about present situations in education is the urban school.  What I seek to do in this essay is be clear about the assumptions that I hold about education in urban environments.  Furthermore, I want to interrogate those assumptions to uncover not only their origins, but also their implications on both my everyday practice as a teacher and the set of standards that I retain as my educational philosophy.

Before I discuss my assumptions about characteristics located inside of urban schools--their teachers and students--I want to first lay out what I assume to be true of urban centers in general, including the physical structure of urban schools.  As many of these assumptions can be captured in a single word or phrase, I feel a list format works best for this purpose:
--high(er) crime rates
--heterogeneous, but segregated
--cultural center
--rigid, discipline-oriented school architecture
--built vertically, not horizontally 
As you can see, the majority of these assumptions are negative, and even where the terms themselves are neutral ("vertical" and "horizontal"), the implication, "less open space, sense of constriction," is negative.  In fact, the only positive assumption that I appear to hold about urban environments is that they are meccas of culture.  Yet, even this term I offer with a less than wholly enthusiastic feeling, for culture can be broadly defined, and not all cultures are desirable (ie. drug culture, gang culture, culture of violence).  

Reading this list over, I find it both a little surprising and more than a little depressing that these are the assumptions I hold about urban environments.  I am surprised because, as someone who has studied his fair share of History, I know enough to know that urban centers have, throughout nearly all of civilization, been a hotbed for revolution and change, usually for the better.  But, if I can perform a meta-cognitive analysis, I suppose that I largely relegate those vast social changes to the urban centers of history and not to the realities of today.  This, naturally, begs the question:  From where have these current assumptions about urban centers come?

In part, at least, I believe they come from my own lived experience.  To be clear, I have never lived in an urban center.  I do, however, live about two miles outside of Paterson, NJ and about 20 minutes outside of New York City.  As such, I have many times driven or walked through urban areas, yet this is not the lived experience to which I refer.  Instead, I believe it is my lived experience as a suburban resident that has shaped my assumptions.  Embedded in the very idea of suburbia there is, I think, a certain xenophobia, a sense that the suburban community should exist as an impregnable fortress able to resist urban culture.  Implicit in this belief, therefore, is the idea that there is something dangerous about urban environments, or, to put it another way, there are all of the above assumptions in urban culture.  

But, as I said, lived experience is only part of the origin of my urban assumptions.  The other part is media.  Whether the medium is the news, film, television, or print, again and again I am exposed to depictions of urban areas as less-than appealing (or, sometimes, as "appealing-despite-the-unappealingness").  Here, some might contend that if the news is my source of information, then perhaps my assumptions are not assumptions at all because they pertain to facts.  To such a claim, however, I would respond by saying that there is no such thing as a fact, only ideological positions, for, if you believe the news media deals in facts, then you have to question how they cram in a day's worth of them into a 30-minute-1-hour program.  To keep from heading down a path laden with media criticisms, however, let's turn back to our talk on assumptions.

The list of assumptions above on urban environments is probably the most complete and interesting set of assumptions that I hold.  I say this because it reflects my own experiences with lived space as well as third-party (media, etc) conceptions of urban lived space.  I also believe this set of assumptions to be most interesting because I think further assumptions about urban education will stem from it.  In other words, I feel assumptions about space to be the most essential because they are universal.  Everyone has experiences with an environment and, as such, can relate those experiences into assumptions about other environments.  When we narrow the topic for our assumptions, say, from urban center to urban teacher, it is not likely that our assumptions will change in attitude.  Moreover, it is possible--but hopefully not the case--that our assumptions might lose some reflexivity as the specificity of our subject increases.  Nevertheless, it is important to articulate and interrogate these assumptions, and I will do so here on urban teachers:
--"skill and drill"
--mostly teach the basics
--restricted by environment/students
As with my assumptions on urban centers, these assumptions are also predominantly negative, and, as I said before, this is not surprising.  But unlike the environmental assumptions, which I believe are reflective largely of my lived experiences in suburbia, I do not believe that a similar, personal explanation exists for my assumptions about teachers.  Or, perhaps one does, but in a different way.  If my list of assumptions about urban neighborhoods stems largely from an "othering" of that environment--it illustrates the qualities I believe the ideal suburban environment is not--then my view of urban teachers works a converse manner:  my assumptions about urban teachers are based directly on--and not in contrast to--my experience with suburban teachers, for I think any of the above assumptions applies to teachers in either environment.  As we noted in class, the qualities Martin Haberman ascribes to urban teachers are not different than the qualities we would assign to suburban teachers (1).  The main difference, in my opinion, between urban and suburban teachers exists in their respective environments, especially in the comparative abundance or lack of resources and the absence or presence of safety.  This latter difference has been noted by Deborah Smith in "Perceptions of Violence:  The Views of Teachers Who Left Urban Schools." 

This, of course, is not to say that other mediums, such as film, have not tried to have a say in my perceptions and assumptions of urban teachers, but I believe that I can honestly assert that I have maintained the ability to consistently view film as a fictional and hyperbolic medium, as one from which assumptions should not stem, at least with regards to depictions of urban teachers.  I know enough about education, through my own experiences and others' shared anecdotes, to correctly perceive the ridiculousness of Robert Bulman's "teacher hero" (254).

But, although I know enough to distinguish real representations of teachers from ludicrous ones, I do not know enough to possess assumptions of urban students that differ from the ones often presented in Hollywood films.  Bulman notes, "These students [in urban high school films] are seen as working-class animals.  These are ‘beasts’ that even music won't soothe" (259).  Now, I don't possess the same harsh line of thought that sees urban students as animals or beasts, but certainly, I have been trained through fictional media (and some non-fictional media) to think of urban students as unwilling to learn, combative, and uninterested in their education.

When I coalesce these assumptions on various parts of urban life, I paint a dim picture of what my experiences as an urban educator might be like.  In my thus-far vaguely formed teaching philosophy, I envision an educational experience that is, perhaps above all else, collaborative on a variety of levels.  I see myself ideally engaging my students and encouraging them to work at developing their own curriculum.  I want to provide students with a structure, but not a rigid framework.  Ideally, my students and I would work together to develop topics of interest and methods with which those topics could be investigated.  But, if I were to enter an urban classroom tomorrow, taking with me the assumptions I currently hold about urban students, this ideal situation would be far from reality.  Instead, I would probably conform to the assumptions that I already hold about urban teachers; rather than engage students and encourage them to engage the material, I would seek to control students and make sure that the material met some district or state standard, without regard for student interest because, after all, my assumed students have no educational interests.

When dealing with my fellow teachers, I would ideally see them as colleagues in a community of inquiry, all sharing the same goal of furthering the students' education in meaningful and innovative ways.  But, if my assumptions hold up, then this relationship with my peers would be the exception and not the rule.  If my assumptions are correct, I would most likely end up segregating myself, as so many teachers do, and working without passion.  Similarly, if my assumptions about urban communities are correct, then I do not think I will be able to collaborate with the community, bringing it into the classroom and having my students go out into it primarily because to do so, would be to expose the students to danger.

What exists, then, between my assumptions and my ideals is a great disconnect.  My assumptions about urban education effectively stand as roadblocks to the education I would seek to implement as a teacher.  But, this does not mean that I am without hope and resigned to an ineffective, unsatisfying career.  On the contrary, I hold firmly the belief that assumptions, while necessary as the Funes story illustrates, are, like the second example earlier pointed out, more often than not harmful.  I do not see myself as the toddler in the second example, approaching urban schools only with assumptions.  This is why I am enrolled in the course for which I write this blog.  All of the assumptions listed in this essay beg questions, most obviously of which is "Are they true?"  This is what I need to find out.  I know enough about the sources of these assumptions to understand that some might be true and others certainly are not, but I do not know enough to know 1)which is which and 2)the implications of the assumptions that are, in fact, true.  If it turns out, for example, that my assumptions about urban students are true, then perhaps I could not be the teacher I want to be in an urban setting.  Or, maybe knowing what students in urban high schools are most often like will challenge me to rethink the ways that I can align my professional goals with educational realities.

Finally, I want to end this essay by posing one final question, one that I feel is at the heart of much of this discussion but one that possibly cannot be answered, at least by me at this time:  Why do I have the assumptions that I do?  Note, this is not the same as where do the assumptions come from, or how did I obtain them.  This question seeks to know why the information for my assumptions is available in the first place.  It might be that, at one time or another, all of my assumptions were facts in one place or another.  Or, it might be that all of my assumptions indicate a subtle (or not so subtle) racist/classist element.  It might be both of these; it might be neither.  But, I think regardless of what the answer might be, it is important that we attempt to articulate not just the assumptions and their impetuses but the larger discourse that allows such impetuses to exist.

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