Teaching marginalized kids taught me orderly classrooms, Western canon keys to liberation

The worst campus ideas are sweeping America

In 2005, I graduated college with a degree in philosophy and a head brimming with “critical theory,” the strange brew of American and Continental-European ideas that has intoxicated campus humanities departments since at least the 1980s — and is now bathing the whole country.

Funny enough, it was teaching kids in a poor, majority-minority school district on the US-Mexico border that disabused me of my theory-imbued views.

At the time, I was 20 years old, self-righteous and half-erudite (which is worse than being illiterate). Having read my Michel Foucault and my Judith Butler, I regarded moral order, beauty, human nature, even truth itself as the impositions of power — specifically white, male, “heteronormative,” colonialist power.

Certain books had been deemed classics and placed on a pedestal called the Western canon — a pedestal that rested on the backs of the marginalized. Even correct grammar and spelling were “discursive practices” used to discipline and control the powerless of the earth.

The right thing to do, then, was to question or “subvert” the Western canon and to disrupt the oppressive structures baked into language itself. (I held all this to be true, even though, as an immigrant from Iran, I had worked hard to master English.)

If these notions sound familiar, it’s because they’ve lately made it into the mainstream of American life. But at the time, they were still largely confined to the English faculty lounge, as well as various grievance-studies disciplines (gender studies, queer studies, fat studies, etc.).

But how ­exactly was I supposed to apply them in real life?

Well, as Bill Murray’s character in “Lost in Translation” says, “Philosophy? There’s a buck in that racket.” Not quite prepared to pursue a PhD in critical theory, I decided to join Teach for America, the corps of recent college grads who are dispatched as educators to some of the most underserved K-12 classrooms across the country.

My TFA assignment took me to Brownsville, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley region.

The student body at the school that hired me was almost entirely Hispanic. The vast majority received free or reduced-price lunches. Many came from migrant families that only spent part of the year in Texas. For some, potable water was a distant luxury.

And guess what? Their families emphatically wanted them to learn English.

Like any rookie, lefty-minded teacher, I festooned my classroom with posters of Muhammad Ali and resistance-y slogans. But that wasn’t enough. For these kids to have any chance to succeed, much less liberate themselves, they had to learn. It wouldn’t have made sense to deny them the knowledge I’d picked up further north in the name of a perverse theory of justice cooked up by some Berkeley theorist.

Do you know what would have happened if I’d told my Mexican-American students’ moms, “You know, ladies, I’m not teaching your children grammar, because grammar is an integral part of the white, phallocentric structures of ­oppression that keep you and your community down”?

They would’ve slapped me with their purses and called me a pendejo — and rightly so.

The same would have gone for the notion, bizarrely gaining currency these days, that the yearning for order and even abstract reasoning as such are white, ­colonial constructs.

I watched the best of my fellow teachers run tight ships, with clear expectations for behavior, systems of reward and punishment and a general ethic of uprightness pervading their classrooms. And, again, guess what? The kids, and their parents, appreciated such efforts enormously.

(By the way, imagine a white activist in the 1960s telling Dr. Martin Luther King — who delivered some of the most stirring and finely crafted oratory in US history — that correct grammar really isn’t meant for members of his race.)

The position that minority children deserve to wallow in classroom disorder or incorrect English is itself downright racist. “The truth shall set you free,” the Good Book says, but for children to know the truth, they must first have the benefit of orderly environments. That’s true for kids of any race.

Thanks to those kids and their parents, I matured intellectually. Little did I know that a decade and a half later, the ideas I happily discarded would be widely celebrated as a force for liberating the marginalized.

Sohrab Ahmari is The Post’s op-ed editor. His next book, “The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos,” is due out in Spring 2023. Twitter: @SohrabAhmari

Source: Newzandar News

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