Katie Goes on a Tear

liberal arts

Classical Liberal Arts

Recently a posting about the cost of education in America compared to countries that offer “free” education got me really going on a tear for some reason. Some of the comments by people I know, like and admire, made me realize how many misconceptions people have about a liberal arts education. First of all, I understand people’s frustration with the current state of higher education in America–it’s a case of paying too much for too little. However, it isn’t entirely the learning institutions’ fault, though they certainly share the blame.

No, the biggest reason behind the failure of our high schools, colleges and universities is that we, as a people, do not understand the true nature of a liberal arts education and therefore devalue it. Listening to some administrators, students, their parents and the general public, I conclude that most people view getting an education as a means to an end–getting a job. Many people seem to think that when they, or the government, pay tuition that they are basically purchasing a diploma, certificate or degree that they need in order to become employed, like purchasing transportation or clothing or anything else that makes work possible.

See, I’m still on the warpath, but I’ll get over it. I’ll have to in order to keep my sanity. It did help to vent on the hapless people who commented on my comments on Facebook, and I thought some of my points were pretty darn good, actually, so I’m going to re-print them here.

Point #1–There is something to be said for providing high performing high school students with at least the first two years of college, like in Georgia. It’s not free–students have to work very hard in high school to maintain a B average to get a Hope Scholarship. Getting an education is the goal–not getting a job. We need citizens who know how to read and write well and most importantly how to think critically. We need to give people an incentive to truly learn something in high school, and we need to give parents an incentive to push their kids to do well in school. We could do this if we adopted something like what Georgia has.

Point #2–Getting an education is about more than getting a job–it’s about learning how to think critically and problem solve and be autonomous, not under anyone’s control except God’s. It’s power to the powerless, it’s learning how to appreciate art and literature and music. It’s about making life better for yourself and the people you love. We have lost our way; we have forgotten what a real education is, and we have substituted it with this paltry idea of mere job training. Show me a person who is truly educated–and I don’t mean has a degree–I’m not talking about degrees, and I’ll show you someone who has a career that fulfills him or her. And if that thinking person doesn’t have a job, then he or she doesn’t want or need one. (A bit hyperbolic but I was fired up)

Point #3–We need to start realizing that education is for everyone and start making our middle and high schools places of real learning again. I don’t think everyone needs a four-year degree. I think we need to start coming up with alternative ways for people to get their education, but the biggest concern should be helping people see the value of an education–of learning how to read with real comprehension, to write clearly and effectively, to use modern technology to do meaningful, practical research. Diplomas, degrees and certificates are meaningless unless people are learning skills like problem-solving that will benefit them no matter what they do for a living because more than likely they will be changing careers and jobs more than once in their lifetime, so they need to learn skills that will help them adapt to new work situations quickly–they need to learn how to critically think–we still have that in this country but it’s quickly being lost to this idea of utilitarian education that has been proven (just look at the results of the Industrial Revolution)–it’s called a liberal arts education and it works but only if the public understands the value of it, and right now liberal arts education is under fire and too many people don’t see its value. That is a crying shame.

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The Quality of Mercy

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Maggie Smith, one of my favorite actors, as Portia 
in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice--
the BBC's 1972 version of the play

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, …

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much

To mitigate the justice of thy plea;

Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice

Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

I am so much like Shylock. I believe strongly in justice. Just like Shylock, I don’t just seek justice, I demand it. But unlike him, I hope, in dealings with my students anyway, I see the wisdom of Portia, one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s female characters, and I know that it would have served Shylock well to heed Portia’s words and render mercy. And indeed, many times when a student asks for mercy, and I choose to give it, we are indeed both blessed. The student gets a chance to rectify whatever problem there is–attendance, poor performance in class, misbehavior in class, whatever it may be, and I get the satisfaction of helping a student succeed and truly learn something valuable.

Sometimes, however, that mercy is given, the student takes it, and then uses my act of mercy against me. This just doesn’t happen to teachers, of course, but I find that the teaching profession seems particular vulnerable to the ungrateful. I get so disheartened when this happens that I want to make a list of strict rules and never show any mercy whatsoever. Sometimes I think my colleagues and supervisors would be happier if my mercy were a bit less freely given.  Now, I do have rules and high standards, but I temper them with mercy if I see that I can help the student. I just have to, you see, because of the mercy shown to me.

I remember when I was a senior in undergrad school. I was struggling, like a lot of my own students, with who I was and where I was going next. I was pretty smart and had a way with words, but I was so caught up in my life –meeting people and learning a new language and becoming a woman and discovering hidden talents, like acting and persuasive speaking, that I had, frankly, lost interest in my English studies.

I procrastinated with my paper and put it off and off that last semester of my first senior year that when I finally started working on it in earnest, I realized that it would be impossible for me to finish. I had to ask for an extension. I was truly scared when I walked into my professor’s office. He was intimidating because he was so brilliant as well as being the head of the English department. I didn’t think he even really knew my name. I was standing there and couldn’t speak. He finally looked up and said something, I can’t really remember, and I blurted it all out. Not all of “it” was absolutely true either, but he had mercy. He gave me the extension I requested without hesitation. Then he did something I never expected–He pointed to the chair and said, “Now sit down and tell me what’s really bothering you.”

I finished the paper that first semester of my 2nd senior year. I never had worked so hard on anything in my life. 35 pages comparing the works of Flannery O’Connor and Franz Kafka–two displaced people who didn’t fit in anywhere, so they became writers or maybe they were writers and that’s why they didn’t fit in. I still don’t know. Anyway, I could say I finally found my way while I was writing that paper, and it would be a lie. I could say I stopped procrastinating and learned my lesson; that too would be untrue. No, I worked that hard out of gratitude to the professor who showed me mercy. His mercy, freely given, was twice blessed.

So I lean towards mercy when I think that mercy is going to be best for the student, when the student has a chance of making real change in his or her life. However, the quality of mercy is not strained (or forced). If the mercy is to be at all, then it must come freely given from the person granting that gift. For example, Portia is a wise judge. She knows she cannot legally force Shylock to have mercy because then that mercy would simply be a violation of justice. True mercy requires true justice. So she appeals to Shylock’s sense of justice when she appeals to his mercy. But he doesn’t want justice. He wants revenge.

As we see later in the play, Shylock made a grave mistake not granting mercy–it led to his bankruptcy and loss of his only child–making the play a tragedy more than a comedy in my mind, so great is Shylock’s loss. But Shylock’s fall is inevitable because Shylock is so full of anger, justifiably so perhaps considering the anti-semitic society in which he lives, that he can not show mercy because mercy must be freely given.

Therefore, even if a student takes my merciful action and uses it against me, it is still a gift freely given in an attempt to help that student. If now that student is demanding mercy, I can not give it because it is not freely given and would corrupt justice.
However, if I truly believe that I am standing my ground for the sake of the student as well as the integrity of my profession, then I am blessed no matter how the student misuses my gift. If no one ever acknowledges that I did the right thing and some people rally against me because of my stand, I will still be blessed because I didn’t allow others to pervert my deep sense of justice. 
I will continue to seek justice by upholding established policies and procedures, to fight for what is right, and I will continue to show mercy. Not because it is in my nature–it is not; not because my faith demands it–it does not. I show mercy out of gratitude–gratitude to the one whose unmerited favor has given me such a wonderful, abundant life.

More from the CAMPUS

Another frustrating day, so another installment from my musical in progress CAMPUS–a Satire of Higher Education in Appalachia. This song is sung by the arch villain of the piece–Mr. Mediocrity. An actor friend  living in Raleigh who did a reading there for me suggested I rename him Governor Mediocrity. I might just do that. Anyway, here it is, folks, me venting my spleen, yet again.

Bread and Circuses

By Katie Winkler

(from the musical CAMPUS)

I consider myself

A student of history

The Romans had power

That’s no mystery

But how did the elite

Keep their society replete

With ignorant masses and slave labor

Don’t forget the gladiators?

How did they keep them from starving

Or stop them from harping

About their miserable condition?

Do you know what the secret is?

I’ll tell you

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses

They certainly do have their purposes

Everything will be just fine

If you keep them wined and dined

With a little food and relaxation

They’ll be ripe for some taxation

So give them

Bread and Circuses

Just not too much

I consider myself

A student of psychology

I sure know my way

Around society

Just a few things that they need

Enough to go out once a week

We keep open all McDonald’s

And Cracker Barrel too

These schmucks will pay good money

For that kind of food.

The finer restaurants need not fear

The rabble go to Red Lobster just once a year

Just give them

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses

I’m sure that’s what the answer is

As long as we don’t discriminate

Denying advancement to every race

Enough bad food and home entertainment

Will keep the proper containment

So give them

Bread and Circuses

Only just enough

The secret to giving them satisfaction

Is lowering their expectations

This is the secret to our democracy

Let the rabble live long, long lives of mediocrity

Living on

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses

If you want to know where the power is

Then open up your eyes

It’s the people who fill them with lies

That there’s no hope for anything more

When you’re born southern and poor

Just give them

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses

Then look away,

Look away

Look away

Dixieland.

It Matters

Yes, dear student, it matters that you capitalize the personal pronoun “I” and that you use salutations in your e-mails. It matters that you refrain from keeping your cell phone on your desk and looking at it every few seconds during the lecture. It matters that you do not use the time I give you on the computer to write personal e-mails and post on facebook.

Yes, dear support staff member, it is important that you knock and ask permission to enter the room when I am conducting class, that you do not speak to me disrespectfully in front of my students when I question the timing of repairs on the classroom printer. It matters that you recognize the most important thing our college does is hold classes and that all classes are important, even, perhaps especially, developmental classes.

Yes, dear administrator, it matters that you allow me to explain my position before you summarily dismiss my request, that you do not raise your voice and speak to me in a derisive tone, but speak to me as a fellow educator, someone who has the best interest of students at heart.

Yes, dear me, it matters what you do, even when it isn’t acknowledged, even when you are treated unfairly, even though you aren’t perfect and make mistakes. What you do matters and it matters that you care so deeply. It matters

So Frustrated I Can’t Write Much, So I’ll Let Tom Hanks Speak for Me

Today, I’m feeling once again minimized, like my efforts to educate people in my community, to try and instill in them not just skills but a love for learning and a desire to be a lifelong learner, to be a thinker, is seen by some people in power to be a waste of people’s time, that College Transfer Programs leading to four years degree are at best excessive and at worst wasteful.

So I come back to my office feeling a little depressed–go figure. Most people have gone home, but I have to type up a reading comprehension test for one of my classes tomorrow. I hate giving reading comprehension tests, but see, my students don’t read their assigned texts–as a whole they don’t do anything unless they get a grade for it. They don’t understand what it means to be educated and very few have any desire to be. I don’t blame them. They are products of a society that has people in power who seem to think that all education needs to be directly measurable, so they naturally do not understand what it means to read something because it will help them understand the material better, because it will help them write their papers better if they apply what they read. Oh no, if the reading does not have the price tag of a grade, then few students will do it. The idea of learning for learning’s sake is alien to them because it is alien to most of the people all around them, a product of the instant world to which they’ve become accustomed.

Anyway, so I haven’t started that quiz yet. Why? In my inbox was this wonderful article by Tom Hanks appearing in the New York Times that made me feel so much better. Did you know that Tom Hanks got a really good liberal arts education at a community college? Yep. So here it is: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/14/opinion/tom-hanks-on-his-two-years-at-chabot-college.html?emc=edit_ty_20150114&nl=opinion&nlid=69971608

Read it and then hear me saying, “What he said.” That’s my blog for today.

Good Beginnings–Mama K and Her Kin, Part I

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View of Mt. Cheaha near my grandmother’s birthplace in northeast Alabama

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, and one of my namesakes (I was named after my two grandmothers) was a teacher. We called her Mama K. She came from the mountains of Alabama, up near Chattanooga, that’s the tail end of the Appalachian range. It’s beautiful up there. If you ever visit, be sure you go to Mt. Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama.

My grandmother met my grandfather, also a teacher and a principal, at what was then called Jacksonville State Teachers College. Back then, the late 1920’s, a person could complete a teaching degree in just two years. They met in a music appreciation class. He was funny and boisterous, she was proper and reserved. He had grown up near Budston in Chambers County, Alabama, still one of the poorest counties in the nation, and she had grown up in the mountains, also surrounded by poverty, but their families, mostly farmers, managed to give their children good beginnings–childhoods filled with love, security and faith–teaching them self-sufficiency and discipline, but they wanted more for their kids than the hard scrabble life they had, so they managed to find a way to send them to the teachers college, where they could hopefully rise out of the poverty in which they were born.

All but one of my grandmother’s siblings became educators. Uncle John Taylor was principal of a school in Rome, Georgia for years. I didn’t know him well, but I went to his funeral with my mother, and I’ll never forget how packed that church was, how well-respected and loved Uncle John Taylor was.

My Aunt Jane, the baby of the family, completed all the course work for a doctorate in mathematics but didn’t see the need to write a dissertation as she was happy teaching algebra, calculus and trigonometry to high school students, mainly in Valley, Alabama, in the east central part of the state near the Alabama/Georgia line. My daughter’s middle name is Jane in honor of my great Aunt Jane, who never married and had no children of her own. Her niece, my mother, became a teacher and high school librarian, I, the grand niece, am a teacher too, having taught English composition and literature over 25 years in private at public schools, at the secondary and college level.

Aunt Dixie, the middle daughter,  also obtained a teaching certificate and maybe taught a year or two, but she went to revival services at the little County Line Baptist Church and fell in love with the handsome young preacher who was preaching that day, my Uncle Judson, and married him. His son, also Judson, became a teacher and principal in the Birmingham, Alabama area, now retired as Dr. Judson L. Jones. His daughter Lea is also a teacher and working on her doctorate in education.

Uncle Jim went into the navy and served his country honorably, becoming a farmer near Troy, Alabama, carrying on his parents’ profession, but it’s interesting to note that his daughter and granddaughter became educators, highly respected in their field.

When Mama K graduated from Jacksonville State Teachers College, her first teaching position was in North Alabama in a one-room schoolhouse. I remember going through some of Mama K’s old school books from those days when I was a child. It was one of my favorite past times. I loved old books and still love them to this day, the way they smell and feel and look. In between the pages of one of the old text books was a little pamphlet about Harry the Hookworm, illustrated with funny little cartoon pictures of a hookworm and explaining how to avoid getting the parasites by using a latrine. The latter part of the pamphlet actually had instructions on how to build an outhouse.

I asked Mama K about it, and she told me this story. Once when she was teaching in that little schoolhouse in North Alabama, there was one little boy who was very poor and usually came to school wearing the same clothes, but she didn’t think anything of it because his clothes, despite being worn, always looked clean, but one day every time he came close to her, she noticed a horrible smell, a body odor that got worse in the next few days, especially now that it was getting colder, and she was keeping the windows and doors of the little schoolhouse closed.

Finally the smell got so bad that she simply had to say something, so she kept him after school and asked as gently as she could, “Are you taking a bath from time to time?”

He said, “Yes’m”

“Are you taking off your shirt and your pants and getting into a tub?”

“Yes’m. My mama heats up the water on the stove and I get in.”

“Do you scrub all over?”

“Yes’m”

My grandmother didn’t want to embarrass the boy anymore than she already had, but she wanted to find out what was causing the smell and she had her suspicions, so she said, “Are you taking off all your clothes, including your underwear?”

He looked surprised at the question, and said, “Why, no ma’am. My mama done sewed me into my underwear!”

She chuckled and I laughed, after she explained it to me as I didn’t have much knowledge of long johns, and then she got serious, telling me that when she taught at the little one room schoolhouse, a large portion of her teaching was about how to live a healthy life day to day when you were poor and didn’t have much of anything. She talked about how poor her students were and that many of them didn’t have houses with running water or latrines. They didn’t know many of the basic things, so she taught those along with reading and writing and arithmetic. She felt good about the short time she taught those students because she believed she was helping them have better lives.

My grandmother wasn’t sure how the boy resolved his problem, but he never came to school again smelling bad and everyone, including his fellow students I’m sure, were happy about it.

I look back at that story today, as a teacher myself, and am heartened. Sometimes what I have to say is difficult to say and hard for some people to hear. It is embarrassing and uncomfortable. It sometimes leads to confrontations, but if something is wrong at my institution, if something smells bad, then it is my duty as a leader in my classroom and at the college to find the cause of that stink and start scrubbing.

I learned how to seek and scrub partly from my grandmother–Margaret Katherine Dabbs, a brave and honorable woman–and I am thankful for the good beginnings she brought to my life, especially my teaching life. I hope I can be her namesake in more ways than one.

Next up–A story about Mama K during the time of school desegregation in Alabama.

What the Powers That Be Seem to Care About

  • California_09 183

Sometimes I feel really small and not in a good way like Hannah must have felt in between these redwoods on our trip to California a few years ago. That’s what led to this rant–feeling small

What the Powers That Be Seem to Care About: :

  • Meetings.Not useful ones. Probably not ones “the powers” want to hold either, but must be checked off “the list”
  • Lists.Probably not ones that my powers created but some powers somewhere thought that having an entire campus come together every other month (I shouldn’t complain it used to be every month) was somehow a “sign” that good communication was going on between the administration and the faculty and staff when in fact no communication goes on; however, requiring everyone to come to that meeting means someone somewhere can check an item off a list and checking items off lists produces numbers.
  • Numbers. The powers love numbers. Numbers validate. Numbers justify. Numbers produce. Exactly what these numbers produce I’m not sure, but they are obviously very important to the powers. and are essential to the powers maintaining power.
  • Maintaining Power. When you get down to it, that’s what this is really all about. Power. If the powers have power to tell employees what to do and when to do it and require them to come to this meeting and that one, then they continue to have a sense of power. And when they begin to feel powerless, the powers seek power wherever they can find it because staying in power means they can keep the job that allows them to tell other people what to do and criticize them when they don’t do the job the way they were supposed to when the employees were never told how to do the job in the first place. Or when they don’t go to a meaningless meeting, of course. And the employees can’t complain or stop the powers because powers are rarely evaluated by anybody else except by a once a year employee satisfaction survey that no one will pay attention to because the survey is just a process that produces more numbers that lead to more lists that must be discussed at more meetings attended by the powers that be because other powers demand it. And at the meetings about the numbers and the lists and the other meetings, more lists will be created to solve the problem, and after much discussion, it will be decided that the problem lies with the people whom the powers have power over and other lists will be created without the knowledge or input of the people who will be required to follow said lists who will be criticized when they don’t follow the lists correctly..
  • It’s as simple as that.

Notice that nowhere in this post were the words “education” or “students” mentioned. Hello! Why would they be?