Breaking the cycle of certainty


Recently I have been thinking about what it might be like if we all decided “not to know”; if we entered situations, discussions, negotiations, classrooms, not as experts but as investigators.  I say this because after years of work in middle and high school teaching, in training teachers and holding discussions about race and equity, I have observed that those who seem to get the most out of their interactions are those who listen carefully and then ask questions. They enter a room of students and work not to assume anything until they have interacted with the individuals in their classes. When something is said that troubles them, that challenges a long held belief, they absorb the statement first without becoming hard and defensive. I had to learn to do early in my teaching career.

One year, when I taught in a high school for Minneapolis students who were asked to leave their home schools and come to our alternative site, Sarah, a sixteen year old young woman with long blond hair, perfect make up and pressed and cleaned jeans and sweaters appeared in my class. I guessed that she was middle class, rebellious and had been skipping a lot of classes in her high school. She was an avid reader and wrote excellent essays. I also assumed the other students in our program would intimidate her and she would leave in a week or two to go back to her nicer neighborhood.

None of my assumptions about her were accurate. Sarah was homeless, and her first essay for me was about how to find the best bathrooms, at the earliest hours of the day, to wash and brush her teeth. Her father was in jail and her mother had long before deserted the family. She got her clothes from classmates at whatever school she attended or through social workers and dollar stores. She waited outside restaurants for workers to bring out the food that was left over. Because she got to know the workers, they saved some of the extra dinners for her.

To all appearances, and even based on my experience in education, she was brought up in a situation wholly unlike the one I pictured. It was Sarah who became one of my most responsive students, then disappeared suddenly, who convinced me to postpone certainty.  Other students had also convinced me that I had to wait and learn about them as well: the young woman with two children by the age of seventeen who had read classic literature on her own and who could write short stories with true giftedness; the young man in gangster colors who decided to read all the “back in the day” black male writers and completed Ellison, Baldwin and Dubois in two months time.  There were many many more.

In Tai Chi we talk about the pause that lets in knowledge, that allows us to breathe, that causes us to observe a situation. This concept resonates with me. I can be very sure of what is right or wrong and find it difficult to allow another point of view into my perception. Richard Kahneman, a Nobel laureate psychologist, has recently written about how we act and how we learn. One part of his is about how human beings cling to a belief or worldview, even if it is conclusively proven to be in error. This desire to believe something we have been conditioned to believe is more powerful than reason, more powerful than rational, data driven information. If we know this, can we change it in ourselves? If we pause in judgment, hold back on being sure, can we take in more of what we really need to know to do well at our work, our relationships, even our stewardship of the earth?

When I do training for teachers, professors or students about race and culture and how to apply this knowledge to education, I often talk about what it means to be white in this country; what advantages have accrued to us simply because of the color of our skin.  Those participants who may resist this at first, but do not shut down, do not fold their arms across their chest and refuse to listen, but rather read, and hear more and investigate are the ones who often become unusually effective in their classrooms. They are the ones who do not assume anything about their students until they meet them in all their complexity. These teachers approach those young people in their charge without feeling they know who their students are simply by looking at them. Such educators take in startling facts about race, history and privilege allowing them to do their work on a deeper level.

It is a kind of receptiveness to the world that I am after here. So many pundits and writers, bloggers and school experts seem so certain they know how to run things. Yet after thirty plus years of training and teaching, I am convinced that it is just such certainty that brings us rigidity, that deadens creativity, that perpetuates generalizations about race and poverty that have brought our schools, our country and even our planet to a dangerous place.

We can hold beliefs and have compassion. We can do right and do good. However, without an acceptance of our own foibles, without a recognition that we need to stand back and listen and observe and accept complexity in each and every young child and teenager who comes before us, our schools and our city will be trapped in a cycle of combative certainties.