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“Today’s Educator, Not a Brain in a Jar”_Saving the World_Safaarah Williamson

As the darkness of night begins to fade and the illuminating rays of sunshine embrace the earth, I awake to the task that is set before me. My mission has commenced once again and I have committed to using the classroom to fight against academic inequities and enlighten my young students to the power that lies within them. It is the power to wield one of the most influential weapons that the world has yet to bestow upon humankind: WORDS. I am a high school educator and unfortunately many of the students that I address on a daily basis, have no control over the English language. These students are unable to think critically and express their thoughts and ideologies in an effective way. If I am unsuccessful in my attempt to foster improvement and lessen the writing deficiency levels, these same students will struggle academically when they enter a higher institution of education. These are the same students that will cause the alarm that Stanley Fish speaks of in his New York Times article “What Should Colleges Teach?” There is great controversy concerning teaching effective writing strategies to the students. However, the societal forces that surround the student must always be taken into consideration during the educational process.

Within the New York Times article “What Should Colleges Teach?,” Stanley Fish expresses bewilderment at his students’ inability “to write a clean English sentence. They could manage for about six words, and then, almost invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart.” According to Stanley Fish, the cause of this reality can be found in the classrooms of misdirected college professors. Rather than teaching form, courses focus too much on the content, including social justice issues, multiculturalism, etc. Educators are too entranced in the errors of bringing political and character development principles into the teaching of writing. They are “warriors in the culture wars,” generally tying issues of morals and social consciousness into educational objectives. Fish sees the inclusion of these varying responsibilities as a disservice to the students’ writing skill development.

However, Stanley Fish fails to recognize that content selection is crucial to teaching students who lack the ability to write coherently. He may want to ignore “content,” however, he does not address the specific characteristics of the groups that often battle with writing deficiencies. In the article “Composition Saves the World,” Patricia Bizzell notes that it “was no accident, given the deep strains of American racism, that students of color were disproportionately represented among basic writers; or given pervasive American sexism and homophobia, that many straight women and gay people of all races experienced more discomfort than straight men in adapting to academic agonism” (177).

As Patricia Bizzell analyzes Fish’s arguments in his book “Save the World on Your Own Time,” she also dismisses Fish’s idea of isolating the subject matter within writing courses to pure form. She believes that the interchange of ideas between educator and pupil is vital to their development. When the educational process is “multi-directional,” educators and students receive opportunities to create new forms of academic discourse that include the once marginalized and condemned forms of language, i.e. Black English (177). As the confines of the academic world begin to expand, it includes students that represent all realms of the world’s diversity: racially, culturally, and sexually. It is no longer enough to compartmentalize writing into mere form. Many students do not do well in writing because of the effects of disenfranchisement and exclusion (177).  The ills of society cannot be ignored during the educational process.

Bizzell also disagrees with Fish’s argument that “you are not to make your students better people or better citizens, or help them with profound life choices” (180).  The role of the educator cannot be as one-dimensional as Fish claims.  Yes, the educator must first help students develop their abilities as writers through form.  However, this cannot be done in a vacuum. The educator must present materials that allow students to think critically about issues of social justice and provide the rhetorical tools that are needed to reflect on them (182).

Can educators save the world though composition studies? This may be an impossible feat. However, Bizzell accounts for the educator’s social and intellectual responsibility to improve the world by recognizing that one must focus on the social conditions that may cause certain students to struggle and other pertinent societal issues. In “What Should Colleges Teach- Part 3?,” Fish states, “It may be true that the standard language is an instrument of power and a device for protecting the status quo, but the very truth is a reason for teaching it to students who are being prepared for entry into the world as it now is, rather than a world as it might be…You’re not going to change the world if you are not equipped with the tools that speak to its present condition.” However, it is senseless for the students to obtain the tools, if they are oblivious to the importance of having them. Educators must teach the correct forms of the language of power with the purpose of uplifting and creating positive change, both on an individual and a societal level. As Bizzell suggests, educators are not “a brain in a jar” (183) and we are obligated to produce students who can go beyond the confines of  “the jar” as well.

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6 Responses

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  1. Victoria Fontana says

    Educators should be able to share with their students differences that color their perspective on life. If educators are forced to hide certain truths about themselves, as Bizzell and Lazere both point out, there’s the disadvantage and danger of becoming a “brain in a jar.” This is too restricting. However, it should not be to proselytize or manipulate student ideology. Students can benefit from being exposed to different perspectives other than what they’re used to hearing. Not only would students in urban and multicultural settings benefit, those from homogenous, working class neighborhoods would too. As Lazere points out, these students have a tendency to justify education too narrowly, are interested in a “job-oriented education,” and are ignorant about important world facts (Lazere 530-531). Broadening the scope of in-class learning seems too beneficial to forgo.

  2. Dana Choit says

    As Bizzell quotes Fish from “Save the World on Your Own Time”, one of the most troubling statements he makes is that “you are not to make your students better people or better citizens, or help them with profound life choices”. While I agree that an educator’s personal opinion on hot-button issues can possibly get in the way of the learning process and that both sides of an issue should be explored equally, I do not think that one’s political, or personal opinions should necessarily dictate helping a student better themselves in any way. While I am not a history teacher, isn’t it a goal of some curriculum to help students become “better citizens” through learning history? Regardless, it could be crossing an important invisible line to help with “profound life choices” in certain cases, yet what about becoming “better people”? This seems vague to me. You may not want to, or should not become involved in certain political or moral issues of a student’s life, but as an educator, at the very least you should want to better your students through knowledge and the learning process in general. It seems that the majority of educators out there hope that through the lessons taught in the classroom students can gain more than just facts or information.

  3. Guadalupe Bueno says

    I agree with the assertion that it is difficult for composition studies to save the world. Such is the argument that Bizzell highlights. However, my personal teaching philosophy is geared towards social justice, the democratization of knowledge; I do think composition can save the world. In Composition Saves the World,” Bizzell mentions Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, and briefly mentions how she came to compare the oppressed South American Illiterate peasants- Freire aimed to alphabetize so that they could experience “conscientization” critical consciousness of their oppression-to fully literate American college students to explain the apparent basic writers’ initial unfamiliarity with academic writing. Through writing students express themselves, and by creating opportunities where they can write about their neighborhood, and families and try different voices enables them to forge their own identities. In this sense, besides aiding their identity construction, they learn to mold their misconceptions of other’s based on race, class, gender, etc. The multiethnic classrooms across the United States are a call for change, a call to challenge. By avoiding issues of race, class, and gender an English Language Arts teacher spares him or herself of confrontations that revolve around school politics, family values, etc. However, if we do not face those issues are we sparing our students from altercations later in life? Hence, academic writing is critical in leveling all students, the “form” Fish emphasizes is important, but in the process, educators cannot teach a student without considering the societal forces that have shaped their identities, thus I disagree with Fish in that the “content” Fish says is everywhere, and disposable. It is time that educators present materials, the “content”, that allows students to think critically about issues of social justice.

  4. Travis Lamprecht says

    I understand that English classes should be about open debates and critique but I agree with Stanley Fish in that grammar is the backbone of writing and should be the foundation for English courses. Fish uses the example of “The Karate Kid” to demonstrate the need to learn everything that encapsulates a skill. Grammar is the bricks that lay the foundation for the essay, paper or research project. Without it you have nothing but writing chaos. I believe the perfect balance for an English class is to have the students focused on the course objective while sprinkling grammar lessons in the syllabus every week. It should be taught in moderate doses so that students don’t become suffocated by it but rather eager to learn it.

  5. Christopher Grimm says

    What an engaging first assignment for our class! These three essays pose a substantial and relevant starting point for our composition and theory class. I’m in awe of the level of brilliant thinking you, my peers, possess! Perhaps if I, myself, had not encountered such lackluster writing teachers, I might find myself a more competent writer. Then again, like many of our students, I am ultimately responsible for my own choices, strengths and failures. Hmm. End of introductory digression.

    Upon reading these essays by Professors Fish, Bizzell and Lazere, I am reminded of the rhetorical fable of two teachers. Two teachers encounter a non-teacher in a public setting: a restaurant or a pub. Upon finding out the occupation of the two individuals, the stranger asks the two educators what they teach. One teacher responds, “mathematics;” the second teacher responds, “I teach students.”

    Professor Fish writes that he agrees with an argument: “teach the subject matter and don’t adulterate it with substitutes” (What Should Colleges Teach, 4). Later on, in the third part of his essay, Fish specifies some examples of fine grammatical and rhetorical texts. Professor Fish wants us to leave the political out of the classroom.

    Professors Bizzell and Lazere’s essays are direct responses to Fish(they are responding to Fish’s book, Save the World on Your Own Time, but Lazere points out Fish’s role as a New York Times opinion writer). Bizzell criticizes Fish’s rhetoric, specifically his use of “the logical fallacy of the straw man”(174). She also proudly identifies herself as someone who does not divorce herself from utilizing her personal philosophies and politics in her teaching(“I choose texts and topics that reflect my commitments”[183]). Lazere brilliantly defends political rhetoric and cites Emerson and Chomsky as educational influences. Lazere claims that his aim is not to “play ‘gotcha!’ with Fish,” but in fact he is doing just that in criticizing Fish’s word choice, the “holes” in his reasoning and his personal philosophical beliefs.

    In truth, I think all three writers have their merits. Fish is clearly a well-published expert on writing; his unique classroom methods, his reading list (Eats, Shoots & Leaves and How to Do Things With Words, to name two), and his extensive criticism of literature are all useful tools. Lazere has a good understanding of practical applications of rhetoric. Bizzell understands both the personal vocational “calling” of a teacher and the challenges/rewards of today’s increasingly multicultural student body.

    It is Bizzell who brings me back to the parable of the two hypothetical teachers. Should a teacher be the type who teaches “subject?” Or, should one teach “students” first and let his/her knowledge of the subject (and the world and experiences in said world) filter through the individual? I believe my personal philosophy of teaching is closer to the latter.

    (I hope this reads cogently; I am writing this post-Super Bowl, after all! 😉 )

  6. johnjparente says

    One way the Lazere article ties up our class discussion:
    As Lazere talked about his “ill-informed belligerent students” ruining open forum discussions, their “meandering bull-sessions,” and most of all their “hoping for easy As through rote learning” (531). I could not help but relate (in many ways). It was a really funny moment.
    On the next page however, Lazere punches us in the gut with the example of how a simple rhetorical move could undermine Fish’s entire “anti-foundationalism” defense. The professor could simply teach the arguments (as Fish says all professors should rather than having students take positions) in a way that clearly shows a leftist/conservative argument’s superiority (532) over aweaker one from the other side. The teacher/speaker would not opinionate, Lazere states, but simply prove and disprove by strength of argument the political views he/she wanted to push. This is how Lazere explains that Stanley Fish is walking a tightrope.
    All the extra-educational goals that Fish kills off by saying, save the world on your own time, are resurrected every day by skilled teachers/professors/orators. Our class discussion proved this. We teachers want to equip students with grammar, syntax, composition skills, rhetoric, context, and above all critical thinking skills. However, we deeply desire to enrich their lives and teach social and cultural awareness while we have them in our reach.