Part 2 – On Conflict, Wicked Problems: Okay, Two More Big Questions

Britain’s Broken Society – David Cameron
Broken Politics – Barack Obama
Broken Families – okay, who among us hasn’t thought this
at some point if not recently?

 “I cannot imagine that people are born bad.
Somehow, they are made bad.
They are taught to be bad.” Ira David Socol

 4. What to do about ‘these people’ (those families, lads, students)?
Okay, so early in Part 1, I invited readers to examine connotations, implicit to wicked in “wicked problem” (via #contextisqueen): is the problem wicked? are the people associated with the problem wicked, and then which people are targeted as wicked and by whom are they targeted?

Now I ask you to bear with me in thinking through the infinitive to break, not only as broken, but also breaking, and being or having been broken.  And this is personal because the core constituents of the family I was born into 1957 would become – in the policy semantics and sound bite perceptions fouling everyday practice – a broken family.  The little, telling piece of the story that had one impact then and would have another now is this (and my father knew his life shaped mine and I would one day tell these stories, so asked the telling be respectful and come after his death):

In the 1960s my 20-something father worked as a high school custodian with my mom working at an entry-level banking position and sharing the chores linked to renting the three upstairs rooms of our house to college students.  My father had an affair with a student – 18 and male; consensual and entirely inappropriate in timing and place; closeted and bisexual; testosterone driven and privileged; stupid and confused. With the school year about to close, he was transferred to another job within the school system by an agreement among all parties to see a psychiatrist so that he would work his way to being a proper husband and community member. The situation – and he and the technically “age of consent” student – would be contained and fixed. Maybe dozen people in the entire world knew about “the incident.”

From what I can only call grace, my parents did build a life – dad becoming lead worker at a factory; mom becoming a bank officer (first woman, only one without a college degree); each finding family members to be my teachers when I found school boring, insipid, demeaning; neither flinching from the other unpretty factors and actors of the Alexander branch of my family – each asking me to see the good alongside the horrible.  And, oh, how my father’s “brokenness” paled in comparison to the horrible.

As I see this in a 2011 context, how I could not be aware that I would become one of those people – broken and in need of fixing rather becoming this educator who works at breaking schooling in favor of learning – deconstructing to analyse while remaking for participative, teacher-learner & learner-learner & teacher-learner-community collaborations as knowers, known, knowledge makers.

In 2011, my father would have been minimally convicted of a sexual misdemeanor, fired from his job, profiled in news stories, soon enough single and denied custody/access to his daughter.  And me – sure, we can’t know that, but the family inclination is that in the three communities I called home, I’d be the pedaphile’s daughter – broken family, broken spirit, broken future, broken heart, broken future.  Placed.  Somewhere.  I would experience broken and having been broken rather than learned breaking as something filtering my childhood so that we could work to right ourselves, or learned in being broken that regular perspective shifting to understand what was going on was a daily requirement whatever the circumstances of your life. I could / would have been a pathology rather than a person; a symptom rather than a subject. I’d have gone missing from education rather than being – in the scenario that was my life as a learner – a resistant learner, a girl with high potential who didn’t apply herself, a student who was instructed by the 34 teachers with whom I didn’t connect, to concentrate on classroom subjects and tests rather than extracurricular endeavors, the certainly not a college bound girl given standardized test scores. Her.  The student I see in 80% of my young adult students who make it to college in spite of schooling.  The 100% of high school students in my Upward Bound classes, a successful first generation/widening participation program.

What I can know from this story is that people can and do unlearn bad whether bad is something they have been taught through commission or omission of actions (within various cultural contexts), is something the enwraps us out of coerced choices (the cultural corrosive of the closet), is something mindful or something sometimes sparked by a chemical mind fault.  I know from my dad’s being present – and being allowed to be present and human in / responsible for all his dimensions – that humans can own their bad and walk alongside others in gaining understandings from transgressions; therefore, in unlearning, people can resist being split off to the root from their multiple and sometimes conflicting, sometimes intersecting identities.  I know, from living with my dad, with my Alexanders, with all their potent truths and sometimes feral transgressions that this can be how people learn to be allies – to our conflicted families, to our many selves and to the many who are our students, our colleagues, our neighbors, whether we hold them dear or distant.

Along with broken and bad a far too frequent lament of late is that we have before us a lost generation with potential for more lost generations.  Again, I could name in every generation of Alexander-Stafford family someone who was called “lost” – truths uncovered, we begin to see that each person actually and actively “went missing.” Not lost but exiled by coercive choices excised by local communities and national mores/hysteria as Irish or vagabond or wanton or homosexual, these men went missing.  Removed themselves.  Willful.  Not learners.

Clearly, these men in my family example and in the media reports we take in are not the only ones who’ve gone missing.  The willful removal, going missing, active non-learning, and denial of wicked problems by the political, corporate, educational elite with policy and economic power remains one story line.  As Ira David Socol and Michael White note:
“[I]t is also a very true description of our American and British corporations, and those who run them, as well as the politicians who lead both nations. No member of the “Tea Party,” or even the Republican Party as a whole, worries about local support or local contributions or even local campaign workers. If they vote the right way their campaign coffers will be filled by the Koch Brothers and NewsCorp and other super-rich groups, which will also make their television ads for them, and pay for their vacations and homes in Washington, and will guarantee them jobs if they happen to find themselves unelected. They indeed have, ‘few ties to their local communities,’ and their only ‘stake in society’ is to profit from it.”

Yup – gone missing and willful not learning, but from a base of privilege that allows, again, the current winners to name the age, to tell history slant, to name much madness as divinest sense (thanks you, Lillian Smith and Emily Dickinson for these lines).

What do we do about it? Will ourselves out of the “broken families” trap that seems to capture even the majority of my radical, progressive, liberal, forward thinking education colleagues.  Will ourselves to imagine that the woman working beside you might just name herself – for any number of reasons – as one of those students.

And these three bits I’d add based on my teaching for five years with Upward Bound Program at Mankato State (which soon marks three decades, I’m recalling, of providing tutoring, classroom instruction and creative/cultural programming to teenagers) within now 30 years of teaching all sorts of courses across institutional types and places:

  • people do unlearn racism, ethnocentrism, and other isms carried as destructive hatreds when personal circumstances require perspective shifting and ally role modeling accelerates redefinition of earlier presumptions/unfounded generalizations;
  • students do unlearn passive-aggressive acceptance of societal and interpersonal conflicts when school curricula values educative engagement, fosters seeking out of divergent ideas/thought processes, and teachers model resilient and resistance aware thinking processes.
  • teachers do unlearn their fears of risk-taking (talking about this stuff is difficult, talking about this feels invasive or impertinent, talking about this means being ready to hear about this, talking about this might upset colleagues and line supervisors) by seeking new allies in forming multiple and innovative alliances.  Societal innovation comes from doing social action, comes from acting on our visions by becoming found rather than going missing.

5.  What can I do tomorrow? What will you do tomorrow?
Find out – and make possible the telling of – stories of your working class, first generation academic colleagues who may also own their multicultural identities and/or learning difficulties, and who may hold roles very different from your own, whatever sorts of institutions they work within or take on from outside academic walls.

In this, stop assuming that “we all got here because we all knew the rules and how to follow them” or that your one class can’t make a difference for a student’s learning and life; and if you ever say either of these things aloud, expect someone to talk back to you.  Welcome that talking back, overtly, honestly and humbly.

If someone does speak these ideas aloud, be an ally.  Don’t out your colleagues who are not (yet) speaking, but say out loud your own new understandings, observations, actions, plans for next steps you’ll take.  Innovate.  Out loud.

Read.  Three starting places I know have sparked thinking about education as societal, as participative, as collaboratively brokered, and envision sustainability:

Respond to what others write – use “yes, and” rather than “yes, but” analysis to start things out.

Remark on the events of the summer and invite ways for your students to remark.  Like 9/11 or 7/7 for us all, or the November 1991 University of Iowa mass shooting that needed talking about for all the same wicked problems reasons as these event of August 2011, there will be reason and opportunity and means for conversations. In a short span of time, I found three conversations on the web and two resources that will help me in talking with my future faculty about the events of the 9/11 day and the 8/11 month.

Return to Vision.  Respectfully ask questions and/or be a designated listener to find out what excites learners, and to learn more about what helps them follow their curiosities as a process of innovation with social, societal awareness.

Listen to your own voices on this journey, listen especially for where there is

a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

(Mary Oliver “The Journey”)

About IleneDawn

I write. I learn. I write and learn in order to communicate - in and across the multiculturally rich and complex communities in which I integrate life and work, play and passion. Within a uni, I teach about learning and communicating before teaching about pedagogies of all sorts because, otherwise, why bother. Teaching with understanding of learning and communicating is priceless.
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