I love the Oliver Stone movie JFK. I first saw it when I was in my twenties, and it gave me the exquisite sensation of “knowing too much” that only a well-made film or an A&E mafia documentary can achieve. The film operates on one of many conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and its conclusions make sense in the context of the film. In reality, of course, its conclusions do not all hold up, but for the 2.5-hour ride in the theater (surrounded by the smell of stale popcorn, the friend or date who brought you, and the mysteries of the dark), you believe. You absolutely believe.
Conspiracy theories are sexy. They are mysterious, complex, and brooding. They make film (and books and television and family reunions) fun. As with JFK, however, they rarely hold up in the light of day. In schools (surrounded by the smell of overcooked leafy greens, the faces of America’s youth, and the mysteries of large-scale HVAC), we are quick to believe conspiracy theories, too, and it is time we knock it off.
One aspect of education culture (maybe not solely education culture) that is increasingly on my mind is the tendency to create conspiracy theories. This tendency is, I believe, one of the most damaging parts of our education culture’s approach to problems and is a direct result of the enormity, complexity, and frustrating nature of the important job we do.
I am an English teacher, which means that I am all about symbolism, but when one sees symbolism in everything, one becomes paranoid. In education, I see a tendency to view everything as symbolic of something else and to try to connect all of one’s workplace frustrations to each other in a way that fosters negativity, a destructive sense of martyrdom, and a whole slew of (for lack of a better word) douchebaggery.
Exhibit A: A student in class demonstrates undesirable behavioral characteristics: he is slow to engage in classroom activities, he is slow to turn in work, and he does not vocalize much interest in academics. His parents are concerned and frustrated by his grades and attitude and contact his teachers to express such and to see what help we can provide. There is a tendency, when we are discussing this student with colleagues, to stray from the behavior at hand and start making connections that may or may not exist:
· “Kids these days just don’t care! “ (note: the student now represents all kids),
· “Parents just look for someone else to blame!” (note: his parents now represent all parents), and
· “Well, these policies from the school board like [insert loathed policy-of-the-day here] make the kids feel like they don’t even have to try!” (note: he now not only represents all kids, but also he represents every perceived failing of all school policy).
That student’s individual problems are lost in this discussion, a discussion that increasingly becomes less about the student and more about the stresses that the teacher feels.
Exhibit B: The school system has implemented a new online grading system. As with all technology adoptions, this one involves changes, updates, slowdowns, and occasional last-minute fiascos. There is a tendency, when discussing these issues with colleagues, to stray from the technology issues at hand and start making connections that do not exist:
· “The system just wants us to have more stress—because we don’t already have ENOUGH!” (note: the system is always characterized as the villain, even when the villain is clearly the online grading program or our limited experience in troubleshooting its issues),
· “Why don’t they figure out all of these problems before they have us start using it?! Why do we always do things without ever investigating them first?!” (note: the grading system tech support and the school system are supposed to be able to predict every issue that crops up with new technology and prevent them from happening before users ever use it, and normal tech issues are representative of every new initiative that the complainer has not supported), and
· “Well, with [insert loathed grading policy-of-the-day], why do we even bother to put in grades? What does it even matter? We’re sending the kids on a road to nowhere anyway!” (note: the grading system is no longer simply a grading system—it now represents all that is wrong with education).
Developing proficiency with technology is lost in this discussion, a discussion that increasingly becomes less about the technology and—again—more about the stresses that the teacher feels.
This tendency bothers me more the older I grow. We are in a complicated profession with game-changing nuances surrounding every issue. Trying to connect all of life’s difficulties into one big “They’re out to get us” is not only pointless and false, but also (and much more importantly) it undermines ever getting to the root of our problems, such as those with that disengaged student. It undermines ever learning how to make the online grading system work best for us. It thwarts growing as educators, and it thwarts fostering a positive professional culture.
It is easy, when difficult situations mount (and when dealing with America’s children and families, they mount quickly), to see all of those issues as meshing into a global conspiracy, but they do not. They do not mesh. The world is tricky and messy and complex and nuanced. A conspiracy theory makes the problem simple. A conspiracy theory gives us good guys and bad guys. (We teachers are always the good guys in these discussions, and somehow—even when the problem is clearly coming from the state or the feds or even the planet Mars—the local school system is always the bad guy.) A conspiracy theory makes one feel like a martyr to some unnamed noble cause.
Well, we are not martyrs, distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys takes more than a broken copy machine, and nothing about this job is simple. To engage in that reductive thinking is not only destructive; it is childish. The really bad news? Even if those conspiracy theories were to turn out to be true, they are completely beside the point. We still must help that disengaged student. We still must enter grades. Our ethical and professional challenges remain. Heaping on the conspiracy theories is one way that we make it all worse.
To do right by kids and to keep our collective sanity, we must address issues as they appear on their own merits. We must address people as individuals. We must not look for every issue to be representative of every other issue. I care not how handsome Kevin Costner looks in those 1960s eyeglasses or how many tears I shed when he makes the "dying king" speech. That film is a narrative that was written to connect the dots in a way that is not wholly supported by facts, and I will not apply that same mentality to my profession. We are not Oliver Stone, and school is not JFK.