Monday, November 26, 2012

To the Bone

Recently I heard about a fairly new book making some waves in intellectual circles these days. The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argues that greater equality in a society makes for more strength. This means that when a society, or country's culture, has less of an income gap, the existence of social, economic, political, and even psychological problems lessens. Seems reasonable, if not mildly controversial. It is. In any case, I learned of this work from some folks on an educational list serve that I occasionally read and monitor. It's always nice to get a non-American perspective on educational issues currently in the public eye and this email list certainly delivers.
One of the brief reviews quoted on the cover of the book states that its contents contains many findings that most of us know, "in our bones" to be the truth. To know in the bones is a fascinating expression. It's akin to intuitive learning. I've often held that a significant part of teaching remains intuitive. Call it common sense or intuitive or just having a Knack for something, it's difficult to explain but when we don't question ourselves, we sometimes find that our deep feelings are often the most accurate. In light of the recent attack of public school and public school teachers, it takes increased courage not to question yourself when many of those around you seem to be in a feeding frenzy. In a recent NY Times article, one observer noted that it was time to infuse the English curriculum with more non-fiction. Still others are questioning that and fear the loss of reading great fiction in favor of reading service manuals and other stimulating documents of a corporate culture. Both points are valid but I can't help but note how infusing a rich curriculum with both fiction and non-fiction seems like a no-brainer. In my old department, we did this for 30 years. Much non-fiction is written like fiction. Memoirs, interviews, deep inquiries into the lives and events of notable people all come under the banner of non-fiction. My students loved Into the Wild, the Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, and many of the interviews in the books of Studs Terkel. Oh yeah, and what about the almighty essay. For years, Newsweek's My Turn piece found its way into all my courses from Psychology to International Relations to English. We felt in our bones that all writing is creative writing. Just like Tom Wolfe and the New Journalists of the 1960s and 70s, we taught writing that was alive with electric language, vivid images, and that non-fiction and fiction both had something to say. Sometimes you just have to teach what you know to be true. Reality checks are fine from time to time, but I feel for all those young teachers who will be required to attend meetings designed to teach them what they already know...what, when they get a moment to exhale,they feel in their bones.

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