Saturday, November 19, 2011

Uncle Tom's Cabin and Motivation

It amuses me, in a tragic kind of way, when I hear about how much educational research has been done in the field of student motivation.

“What can teachers do to motivate their students to want to learn?” is the persistently evasive question they seek to answer.  And I don’t mean here to denigrate their efforts, per se.

But the longer I teach, the more I have become aware of an inherent absurdity in this question.  While it is admirable, desirable, and even professional to do all I can to infuse in my students an interest in the content and process of their own education, I now realize that this question will never find an adequate answer. The reason could be stated thus:

If we must convince our students they need to learn, we have already lost the battle.

The question, “Why do we need to learn this?”, while overplayed, also reveals a mind not yet aware of the value or purpose of education. 

The truth of this struck me recently as I finished reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s transcendent novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in my “professional development” this summer.  It was some of the best PD I’ve yet had, I must say, in between the Star Trek reruns and cookies.

Her book, which I had never read before, tells the story of a family of slaves that gets broken apart when their owner has to sell them to pay his debts.  Though he does not wish to sell them, he feels compelled to do so to save his farm.  It sets in motion a story that challenged me to re-examine my own life.  It humbled me.  If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.

There was one aspect of the book I did not expect to encounter, however, and that concerns the author’s thoughts on the role of education in the defeat of slavery.  Within the story and in her closing remarks at the end, Stowe presents a compelling argument that unless the people in the North alter their priorities and determine to provide the freed slaves a solid education, both moral and academic, then the whole business of freeing them will be in vain. 

If millions of slaves were suddenly set free, she says, where will they go?  How will they suddenly know how to conduct themselves in an established society?  Who will teach them?  If we free them, but do not teach them, she argues, then we have not truly freed them.  We could expound upon this for a long time, as I’m sure literary specialists more learned than I already have.  Her questions also demonstrate the true evil behind the segregation that followed for the next hundred years, designed specifically to deny freed slaves and their offspring one of the key requirements to a free and equal life–a solid education.

She elaborates on this in the following excerpt.  I’m quoting from page 456, and this is based on her well-qualified knowledge and experience in interacting with many freed and escaped slaves in the period leading up to the writing of her book (the italics are hers):
“The first desire of the emancipated slave, generally, is for education. There is nothing that they are not  willing to give or do to have their children instructed; and, so far as the writer has observed herself, or taken the testimony of teachers among them, they are remarkably intelligent and quick to learn.  The results of schools, founded for them by benevolent individuals in Cincinnati, fully establish this.”
There is nothing they are not willing to give.  Now, this is a writer living in 1852.  One thing that gripped me as I read this book is that it allows us, in our sterilized, pasteurized, overly-luxurious, instant-everything culture, to get a glimpse into how one white Northerner saw the world in 1852.  It is a window into her perspective, and that of others who shared her views. 

You can infer in this quote how her own prejudice may have broken down slowly over the years.  She “observed” that the black children were good students and quick to learn.  Reading between the lines, I believe she probably had a realization about this one day, much earlier than when she wrote this book.  Equally so, she also learned that those slaves who found freedom wanted more than anything to be educated, they and also their children. 

And here is my question for you:

Question of the Day:
What was the primary source of the intelligence and fast-learning capabilities that Stowe observed in these students?

Answer: They were motivated.

When you boil down any educational problem, it pretty much comes down to this: Do you want to learn, and how badly? 

Any student who wants to learn, will.  Yes, even with a sub-par teacher.  This is certainly not desirable, and I do not defend it, but the primary cause of a successful student is a hungry student.  You will get as much out of your education as you want to get.

In the book, the slaves who pursue freedom do so first to preserve their family unit, which was the first thing destroyed by the slave system.  This system oppressed first by tearing family members from each other.  It oppressed second by dehumanizing them.  And it oppressed third by refusing them any advancement in knowledge or education. 

In the story, you see how the slaves–such as Uncle Tom–who most dramatically affect the lives of the people around them, are also those who have learned to read, write, and make arguments.  Tom in particular espouses this as he uses his knowledge of Christianity, learned through careful, slow reading of his Bible, to help those around him, be they fellow slaves, children, or even horrific and brutal masters. 

But it’s his ability to read that initiates it, and his motivation to learn that prospers it.  He grows in knowledge, and so changes the lives of many around him. 

Application to Today
Today, I am often disgusted by how the Civil Rights movement’s best advances get reduced to sound bites.  How many of us really grasp the correlation between freedom, education, and moral conduct?  What good is a diploma for someone who thinks “snitching” is worse than killing someone? 

As James Madison said, our Constitution will fail–it is wholly inadequate–when in the hands of an immoral people. I see this in students who think freedom of speech means they can say whatever they want, no matter how vile, racist, sexist, repulsive, coarse, or offensive.  Freedom without moral restraint is chaos and anarchy.  True freedom cannot sustain itself without the responsibility to use it for good, and using it for good requires an education.

Stowe’s book makes it clear how inseparable all three of these are.  Therefore, the application to today really should be a wake-up call.  And this is not about race anymore, but about the state of our culture. 

Why are so few students motivated?  Why do they not perceive the value of education?  Why must we beg, plead, and cajole just to get some students to open a book, think an original thought, or be willing to struggle through a math problem?

It’s because we have taken the freedom fought for in previous generations, and turned it into a lazy life of lethargy and ease, where convenience, feelings, and self-interests are all we have to concern ourselves with.  Why should students care about education, when they are bombarded with the self-absorption promulgated by reality television that promises anyone can be a celebrity, as long as they are stupid enough? 

I read recently in the Hollywood Reporter a list of the Top Ten broadcast shows viewed by men in the 18-34 age demographic.  Three of them were singing competitions, and four were cartoons.  Of the Top Ten cable shows, only two were actual television shows with stories, characters, drama, and imagination.  You also have two more cartoons and two fake-fighting “productions” (if they deserve this label) of the WWE.  Among Hispanic males, there were five fighting shows and zero non-cartoon scripted programs.  Zero. 

That isn’t just tragic.  It’s catastrophic.  That means we have a generation of “adults” now living and (we hope) working among us, who are losing the capacity to enter into a story, relate to a realistic character, or empathize with someone else’s situation.  The ability to perceive meaning through characters and themes is slipping away in the face of childishness, manufactured violence, and the exaltation of stupidity and destructive lifestyles (Jersey Shore).

When we hear about how many Latino students continue to struggle in school, how can we delude ourselves any longer that the culture in which we are raising them is not the primary cause of their lack of interest in education?

You could ask the same question of anyone.

Compare the desperation for education among the slaves in Uncle Tom’s Cabin–the willingness to go broke if that would allow their children to be educated and free–to the careless, I’ll-do-it-if-I-feel-like-it mentality of many students today. 

And we think a better teacher can combat all this? 


This is why my proposal to dramatically alter our current public education system is what it is.  You can read My Proposal here.  We need to start charging a fee for every student.  Yes, even the poor ones.  Not too large a fee, of course.  This isn’t private school.  I’m talking about something like ten bucks a year.  That’s about four days of cable.

Why should we charge?  Because your education is worth something. 

And too many today think it, along with everything else they want, should be free.  We have removed the cost of things that have great value, and charge exorbitant sums for things with no value, like iPods. 

What if we only gave textbooks to kids who earned C’s or higher the year before?  What if other kids had to come after school for a month to demonstrate their renewed motivation before getting their own book?  Make school worth something!

And we need to let the kids who hate school, leave.  They’ll leave anyway, once they finally figure out you can’t graduate unless you pass your classes, behave with respect, and don’t miss three days a week.  That may sound harsh, but I’m talking about a small percentage of students.

So this is my current take on motivation.  I’m all for it.  I do many of the things they say teachers should do to motivate students.  But let’s get real.  Education is about desire.  If you don’t want it, you ain’t gonna get it. 

But we should be far more alarmed about why so many don’t want it. 

How interesting that in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the breakdown of the family unit is so clearly the first and greatest weapon of the slaveholders.  They keep the slaves down by keeping them alone, torn, and broken apart from anyone who loves them. 

And today, the family unit is more broken than ever.  It’s not just divorce anymore.  It’s the definition of family itself.  Just read the astonishing confusion in the Ask Amy advice column for a week or two and you see how clueless people are about how to make a family work:  The stepson of my ex-wife has impregnated his girlfriend and we want to know if we have to host a baby shower.  Huh?  All that brokenness, and this is your question?

Once you destroy the family, you enslave the people.  And enslavement doesn’t have to take the form of chains and shackles.  Today, all it takes is a remote and a mouse.

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