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Sometimes the Merry-Go-Round Isn’t So Merry

December 6, 2009

It’s finals week and the quarter will soon be over. There’ll be time to catch up with family and friends and—I hope—with yourself. I hope you’ll also take some time to think about how you can make your education more meaningful for you, as well as to think about the things that influence and inspire you as you pursue a path that matters to you. It’s important to find these influences and inspiration, even if they are only available in books.

I have many favorite books, but Robert Henri’s book, The Art Spirit, written in 1923, remains one that I return to again and again. I have many favorite quotations too, but I continue to use Henri‘s words about school to inspire me and my students as we deal with what I call life’s existential realities:

There is no school that will exactly fit you. There is no advice made just for your case. The air is full of advice. Every school is waiting, whether it is willing or not, for you to make it your school. Do not let the fact that things are not made for you, that conditions are not as they should be, stop you. Go on anyway. Everything depends on those who go on anyway. (p. 24)

Neil Postman is another of my favorite authors and has written a number of education-related books I revisit for inspiration. I particularly like his 1995 book, The End of Education, and use this quotation frequently with my students:

. . .at its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living. Such an enterprise is not easy to pursue, since our politicians rarely speak of it, our technology is indifferent to it, and our commerce despises it. Nonetheless, it is the weightiest and most important thing to write about. Not everyone agrees, of course. In tracking what people have to say about schooling, I notice that most of the conversation is about means, rarely about ends. Should we privatize our schools? Should we have national standards of assessment? How should we use computers? What use can we make of television? How shall we teach reading? And so on. Some of these questions are interesting and some are not. But what they have in common is that they evade the issue of what schools are for. It is as if we are a nation of technicians, consumed by our expertise in how something should be done, afraid or incapable of thinking about why. (p. x)

In a June 8, 2005, faculty meeting I wrote the following words in the margins of my notes, the writing meandering in and out of information about important things that had to be done before the end of one quarter and the start of another. As I word processed them, I realized that someday they will be a poem that reflects my belief that unless individuals advocate for and—even more importantly—work for change, it is unlikely to happen.

Because dissent is silenced
by the processes of wait and see
give it time be patient
things will change have changed are changing,
it is easy to stay silent.

Trust the process
trust the system
the bigger than I am.
Keep my head down
my mouth shut
my eyes on the path I believe in,
doing my good work
and realizing
that things do not change
or change so slowly
or move backwards once again.

Change devolves
as well as evolves
and sometimes simply revolves,
going round and round
revisiting the same old issues
until I am tired of the view.

There is no pendulum of issues,
no back and forth.
This is a carousel
moving so slowly
that I forget that I have
seen this view before and
so I hope for change that will not come
unless I stop the ride.

General Electric once hosted the Carousel of Progress at Disneyland. It opened in the late 1960s and closed in 1973. If you stayed on the ride, which we used to do with my grandma who was always looking for somewhere comfortable and cool to sit with whatever baby needed caretaking and we cousins took turns staying with her, you could see progress over and over again, hearing the father and host say time and again, “Welcome to the General Electric Carousel of Progress. Now most carousels just go ’round and ’round, without getting anywhere. But on this one, at every turn, we’ll be making progress.” But it was a lie. We were always returning to the beginning before progress had been made. And that’s what my poem-in-progress is telling me. I need to find ways to address the issues I seem to keep revisiting without progress. Sometimes the merry-go-round isn’t so merry.

What are your goals for making progress and getting off the round and round in your life? Who and/or what influences and inspires you? What can you do to make school your school?

If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another one.
• Dolly Parton

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