Over the course of my sabbatical, I’m hoping to write a range of personal reflections on teaching. It’s a hard topic to talk about. A lot of the formal scholarship is notoriously bad, which makes a lot of teachers hesitant to read about it, which is a shame. One aspect of teaching I think about a lot is how our own histories as students shape the way we teach and, especially, how we relate to our students. One of the reasons I think faculty diversity is important, despite being an inadequate method of addressing institutional racism and sexism, is that people tend to mentor students who remind them of themselves. And one thing most, though not all academics have in common is the experience of being told they were “smart,” of doing well on tests, and, crucially, getting the message that intelligence wasn’t just a tool, it was an identity. At its best, this identity can help people develop and take pride in their capacities and curiosities and resist our anti-intellectual culture; at its worst, it can foster smug superiority, the belief that if one is brilliant, everything one does must be brilliant too. When too many people who’ve been told this their whole lives are put in the same place, you get this.
If nothing else, any teacher worth her salt quickly learns that there’s no one such thing as “intelligence.” This isn’t some great sentimental statement about equality – in fact it’s about difference. There are such a range of qualities everyone has – abilities that are verbal, cognitive, physical, social that can reveal themselves in such a range of ways. There’s curiosity, there’s focus. There’s the ability to do what someone tells you no matter what, there’s the desire to say fuck it if it doesn’t seem to serve you. Any of these can be useful or harmful or be seen as intelligence or its opposite depending on the circumstances.
Last year, Michael Kinsley had a moving piece in The New Yorker about his experience living for twenty years with Parkinson’s disease and his fear of losing his mental capacities. This experience helped him understand what teaching has taught me. He notes that what he unfortunately calls the “P.C” view of intelligence is actually the one being supported by science. But just as cubically, he’s having the experience, for the first time, of being on the wrong side of the test taker who doesn’t make those distinctions:
As the word gets out that Parkinson’s disease is not just a movement disorder, there will be people whose careers will be destroyed because, on a particular day at a particular time, they can’t recite a seven-digit telephone number backward. Allowing someone’s fate to depend on whether he or she can do well on some stupid test is just the reductio ad absurdum of the meritocratic machinery that has been pretty good to me (and to you, I suspect) over most of a lifetime.
Notice the parenthetical. It’s most likely true that most people who read The New Yorker did well on stupid tests, just like most professors did. I don’t want to pick on Kinsley for only now realizing this – what he’s talking about is the kind of personal, felt knowledge it’s hard to reach without personal experience. We know so many of the stupid tests that are in the news these days are bullshit, but we don’t always have access to what it does to the psyches of those on the other side of the line.
When you work with students who didn’t have that experience, you realize just how insidious the process can be. In The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould’s classic look at the sorted history of IQ and related attempts to prove the superiority of the entitled class, he talks about how these classification systems set the conditions that give more and more resources of all kind: to each according to their abilities, when ability = some stupid test. I’ve been thinking about this passage from the book a lot recently:
We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.
What’s interesting to me about this is the extent to which its inverse has become a motivational cliche: your imagination is your only limitation, and all that. A lot of the time we lefties talk about why people buy into the myths of social mobility and all that as if it’s a lack of knowledge about social inequalities or the ideology of individualism. But I think a lot of the times people know the game is rigged against them. Putting the blame on oneself can be a way to have hope – if that fault is hard, we can change it, we can work harder next time.
What’s also interesting to me is how much, despite all their processed investment in the meritocracy, people who have been raised to be rewarded under the system are often happy, in private of course, to acknowledge that it’s all a game. Part of being socialized for success in the U.S. is about knowing which rules apply to you and how; it’s about knowing that not all of them do, because if you try to follow all of them you go crazy. Perversely, the much vaunted failure of students of working class backgrounds to take learning seriously is just the opposite: they take it so seriously it seems overwhelming. Trying to help them navigate the system while still maintaining the value of intellectual work that isn’t a game is hard work and I don’t know how good I am at it but I know it won’t get any easier the more of these stupid fucking tests there are.