On Teaching: What’s the Point?

So I have not always been a teacher. I moved to New York City and attended NYU because I wanted to do something glamorous like study marketing, make commercials, and sell stuff. I had heard such a career made a lot of money. My major was Communication Studies, and the classes focused on media literacy and criticism. The head of our department was renowned culture critic Neil Postman. Ironically, Neil Postman was a teacher.

As freshmen, we had a seminar with him on the history of technology. I remember it because he convinced me that a pencil was a type of technology, and I had never thought about a pencil that way before. He had also recently published a provocative book called The End of Education. I was tickled by the wordplay. Again, at this point in my life I had NO INTENTION of becoming a teacher, but I loved this book. I still have the same copy, and I keep it close. It was the first time I had been asked to question the value of school. School was something compulsory and something at which I did pretty well. I didn’t know you could question school, but question it he did, and the questions he asked have had a lasting impression on me.

During these last two weeks of summer I have been obsessively watching corporate scandal exposés.  First, the Tale of Theranos. I highly recommend The Dropout, in which Amanda Seyfried brilliantly uses her eyes and pursed lips to communicate the interiority of a sociopath. For more context, listen to this excellent episode of Dr. Maya Shakar interviewing Cheung for the podcast A Slight Change of Plans.  But beware, this story is peak caucasity. I will never understand how people get away with such a high level of deception because I would never get away with such a high level of deception, even with two degrees.  Elizabeth Holmes used both the privilege of her whiteness and the oppression of her gender to play a really wild game, and she won for a while, until a woman of color, Erika Cheung, said not today and put everything on the line for the truth. Cheung saved lives, which was what Holmes said she wanted to do before her ego got in the way.  How sad.

I also recommend the HULU special The Housewife and the Hustlerwhich is about how Tom Girardi stole millions from accident victims and their families and then spent it on his wife’s entertainment career. Watching Erika Jayne become a pop star on Housewives of Beverly Hills has been highly entertaining, but not at the expense of people who have been injured, maimed, and killed. Yikes.

I am going to start Dopesick tonight. I worked at the Freer Sackler museum one summer. The Smithsonian has been changing the name to the National Museum of Asian Art, and for good reason.

All of these stories helped me remember some of the details surrounding my first job, which was at an advertising agency, and why I left that job to become an educator. I was initially hired to work on an account for Bextra, a new pain management drug from Pfizer. Ultimately, Bextra was taken off the market because it caused serious heart and skin issues.  Pfizer settled the cases for $894 million dollars.  When you work at an advertising agency, your team stays together only as long as the budget does. After Bextra disappeared, I worked on a campaign for MCI’s The Neighborhood, which offered unlimited local and national calling for one price (remember when we had landlines and it used to cost more to call further?).   I actually enjoyed working on this campaign quite a bit. The first project I managed independently was the production of a roll of stickers. They cost thousands of dollars, these stickers; the green and orange colors were proprietary. But then WorldCom went under in one of the biggest accounting scandals in U.S. history. Poof – there went The Neighborhood. I was moved to a team working on Zyrtec, but by then I was disillusioned with corporate life. It was super shady. I started looking for a way out and found an after school program in need of a coordinator. The rest is history. 

I did not possess the guts Cheung did as a young worker. I might not have stayed at an unethical company, but I certainly would not have written a letter to a regulatory agency. Nothing in my educational experience supported questioning the status quo at that level. But what if educational experiences could? I want to know how we create more Cheungs and less Holmeses in our schools.  How do we impart the importance of ethics as we deliver information about content and skills? How do we foster healthy skepticism, critical thinking, and a sense of integrity? How do we nurture courage? What we do matters and so does how we make our way in this world.  In the end, Cheung spoke up and experienced great personal and professional sacrifice because she wanted to be free of the burden that is wrongdoing. Yes, she wanted to get paid and be a scientist, but she wanted to be a good person more.

One of Postman’s ideas is that jobs, salaries, and the potential for increased consumerism, what he calls the god of Economic Utility, are not compelling enough reasons to teach or to learn, and I agree. But if you ask most people in the “what is the point of school?”, they mutter some version of “to get a good job.”  Stories like Theranos and Bextra and Worldcom are cautionary tales for us plebeians. Some good jobs ain’t. But what would it mean to teach that? And what would we teach instead? (Hint: We’d probably place more value on the arts).

Things have not changed in the nearly 30 years since Postman wrote his book. In this time of divisive debate over what we should teach, we continue to avoid a more important question: why? The pandemic proved that kids need to be in school for parents to go to work, but beyond that (if there is something beyond that), why are we all showing up every day? We continue to quibble about the means of schooling because we do not agree on the ends. In truth, the former is easier to argue about. 

Dr. Maya Angelou said that “making a living is not the same thing as making a life.”  I know which one my classes focus on. Maybe that makes it an unaffordable luxury for some, but at least we can be honest and not waste kids’ time. Maybe it leaves enough room in the curriculum for children to tell us what they want and need to make the life that, ultimately, they have to live. At the end of the day, I believe the value of an education should not be expressed in monetary terms. Some freedoms are priceless.