Toleration class ended last night. During the discussion, a student asked for my opinion on something. I try to be vanilla, but if directly asked I will share. He is a very good student, a bit older than traditional aged, works full-time and takes one or two classes per semester. He was in my foundations class last semester. He said he was discussing his courses with family, and some of his older male relatives (sounded like uncles) "went off" when they heard about toleration. He said he tried to explain and defend it (charmingly he said he was not as articulate as I am), but he wanted to know how I would respond.
So I said, "I'm assuming you mean that they thought it was ridiculous, a joke?" He said yes. I said I try to be thick skinned about criticism, but since people rarely say such things to my face, the only time I am confronted by that attitude is when I read blogs on the internet, where I quite commonly find people expressing all sorts of opinions about education programs at colleges, many of which are rather nasty and a good proportion are also uninformed. Things such as John Dewey being one of the most destructive influences in the 20th Century, that education courses are uniformly worthless, that education faculty should all be fired, that education students are morons, that schools of education should be burned down. I'm not exaggerating about that last one at all, I read that last week.
It seems people really have an axe to grind on this subject. I suppose because we all went through the system, and are familiar with it. Some, perhaps most, have had at least one negative experience. As a system it is compulsory, and it is expensive. There are frequently unflattering stories in the press, and there is no denying the mixed outcomes, whether you are a champion or a detractor.
I have to admit that when I read those things it does sort of upset me, but I do my best to ignore it, and I never, ever engage in the comments of blogs on that subject. There is no point. One time when I tried I was so viciously attacked that I gave up. I am not the type of person to get into a flame war.
I shared a personal anecdote, of one time when someone did say something along those lines to my face. I was at my local watering hole, and saw a woman whom I slightly knew, but had not seen in a while. She'd quit her job at a state agency, moved to California to find herself, then came back. People always want to ask me questions when they hear I teach college students. She asked me what I teach, so I told her, foundations and toleration. There was a pause, then she said "no offense" (ever notice when someone says that it is always followed by one of the most offensive things imaginable? And they seem to believe that prefacing their remarks in that way inoculates them from your being offended?) followed by "isn't that just bullshit?"
I laughed and wrote it off to her having one too many glasses of wine, and I asked about her background. She told me she had an undergraduate degree in English, and had taught high school for a few years in Pennsylvania before coming to Albany to work for the state. She hated teaching, and seemed bitter on the subject. I was itching to say "no offense, but you think I teach bullshit courses because you sucked as a teacher?" But of course I didn't.
I told him that I know my courses are not the most difficult in the university, but I also know that they aren't pieces of cake either, that portfolio assessment keeps students continuously working and gets the best results. It's structured so students can't procrastinate, and don't have to cram. I don't rely solely on theory, though there is a good dose of it in my classes, I also try to impart some skills, such as planning, making presentations, writing, research, assessment of yourself and others. I use a wide variety of measures to evaluate students, from multiple choice to essay to hands on projects. I know that many students look back on my classes and remember them, they really do learn. I lecture, I show video, students discuss material within small groups and with the entire class, blended between online and on campus. I get a lot of thank you notes after they graduate. I pour my heart and soul into my teaching, and I would hold up my credentials and achievements against anyone's.
I shared the reason the course was started, that what with ethical scandals such as Enron, Jayson Blair, etc., it seemed a good idea to expose freshman to the importance of academic honesty, and the perils of cheating and plagiarism. Yes, we cover moral education, and I discourage things like stereotyping. I don't hide my bias, that I am an objectivist on some issues, although I am more of a constructivist in my teaching style.
I said that I don't advocate for or against issues such as gay marriage, whatever my personal beliefs are on the subject, but in a world where a college freshman jumps off a bridge because his roommate has bullied him over his sexuality, I think there is a need for college students to understand toleration. It is just putting up with things that you don't like, in the social, political, or moral arena. I explained that many of them will someday be teachers, and have to deal with all sorts of situations in schools.
So I said that he should ask the critics "what is tolerance?" and "what do you think the course is about?" I told him that I doubted they would know the answer. They would say something about celebrating diversity, something drawn from a college's mission statement. They probably think I am pushing a political agenda, attempting to indoctorinate students, that I try to convince the women to burn their bras and that I want to castrate the men. I believe people of opposing views should have freedom...Democrats or Republicans or Libertarians or Greens should be able to debate and that makes me an extremist of some sort?
I asked if he thought they would say anything about political toleration? Would they know we cover free speech and freedom of assembly? That we read works by John Locke and Benjamin Franklin? Would they understand the history of toleration, and list religious toleration as a subject we study? That we learn about and discuss the Holocaust, character education, good samaritan laws, the Amish and compulsory education, Utah's outlawing Mormon polygamy to become a state, the legacy of Dutch toleration in New York, and the controversy over the Mohammed cartoons? Or do they suspect I have students hold hands and sing kumbaya?
I also told the students that it is funny to me that an outsider would have that perception of my classes, since my actual views are a mix of left and right. So much so that conservatives think I am liberal and liberals think I am conservative. Despite not favoring relativism, I am fond of Aristotle's idea of a golden mean, that virtue lies between the extremes. I clearly remember from my own school days, and observe right now many things about schools that are in need of reform, and I do not march lock step with any lobby group. I am really endeavoring to be one ingredient in a recipe that makes a great teacher, because that is more important than budgets, unions, class size, resources, privatization, etc. Yes, we read Dewey, Holt, Kohlberg, Piaget, Banks, Kohn, Macedo, etc. We also read Hutchins, Adler, Finn, Lickona, Famularo, Hess, Whittle and others. I don't stamp out dissent. One of my favorite messages is "ask questions."
Naturally this was resonating with students, and there was also a lot of laughter at some of my remarks. I am always pretty entertaining and funny in class. I closed by saying, "does that help? Did I answer your question?" He nodded affirmatively.