Relative Freedom

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

I am an art teacher at Bowen High School, a neighborhood school on 89th Street in the South Chicago neighborhood. I have full-time employment, health benefits, and a reasonable amount of autonomy. What’s more, I respect and appreciate the people I work with—both adults and adolescents—and I have found and integrated artwork that reflects my students’ backgrounds and everyday lives, and I have increasingly brought my teaching practice into line with ideals of social justice teaching. The neighborhood is suffering more than its fair share of deaths from the gun violence sweeping Chicago, and two of our most recent projects, a poster project and a mosaic monument outside, are addressing issues around peace and culture. I have also created projects around fair housing, environmental racism, critical consumerism, and even the link between school and incarceration. This does not make me exceptional; I make a strong effort to do my job well, according to my values, just like most people who work in occupations that are less than completely degrading.

And yet, aspects of my job are problematic. My intention is not to condemn teachers, schooling, or progressive social engineering, but neither is it to exonerate them. The core of my unease is the cultural space of the art classroom. A place designated as a space of freedom and open expression is, if framed by compulsory attendance, likely to also be a place of arbitrary restrictions and hidden agendas of repression. If it’s dubious how trigonometry or sonnets or a bunch of lies about Reconstruction are going to help minority teenagers, it’s even more odd to them that time they could spend doing almost anything else is spent learning, say, watercolor painting (yes, I do teach watercolor painting). People do not agree about why adolescents should remain in school after the mastery of basic skills, or the best way to structure a learning situation. Also, people do not agree about the general purpose of visual art in our culture, or its most worthwhile or noteworthy uses, present or past. The absolute opacity of this ideological conundrum is an invisible roadblock to what I try to do every day at work.

Like most teachers, I create rubrics so that students have a clear association of grades and participatory benchmarks. There are reading elements in all my lessons, and I don’t dispute that literate students are better off after school than illiterate ones. Nonetheless, I find myself kicking students out of the room or writing them up for (sometimes fairly minor) disciplinary infractions, hounding and cajoling participation from apathetic young people, giving lots of failing grades, and in general perpetuating a haze of anxious hostility. If it shreds my nerves, I can’t imagine what it does to the students, who have so many more mental injuries and social obstacles in their lives.

I find the interaction between the arbitrariness of art and the arbitrariness of school an extremely fascinating artifact of the contemporary state-academic-commercial cultural apparatus sometimes dubbed the “non-profit industrial complex.” But I don’t expect that insight to provide exciting content for my students, any more than some kind of unbounded art-therapy free-for-all (which I allow myself in my own artmaking practice), or, frankly, another visit to the Harlem Renaissance (which I find a glorious and inspiring period to study).

I keep experimenting on the content front, but it tends to feel like rearranging deck chairs on the proverbial Titanic. We have created plaster casts of sneakers designed by students, and studied the conditions of people who make shoes for foreign contractors, but the casting process was too long and involved to make the results more rewarding than exhausting. We created giant inflatable representations of Illinois native plants, but we barely succeeded in getting them to stand up on the front lawn for a couple of hours, let alone memorizing their names. We created public-service animations in the computer lab, and posted them to Youtube, but the longest one was under ten seconds, and few of them could be described as intelligible. I taught numerous drawing classes before coming to Bowen, but I’ve never gotten results from a unit on comics, perspective, or figure drawing that I would want to show off. I have submitted student work to contests and exhibitions and organized outside exhibitions; I have initiated afterschool clubs to work on individual projects or group murals, and the moments of success and engagement have been pretty few and far between. I wouldn’t say that any of my projects are total failures; in fact, I convince myself that most of them are worth doing. But some skepticism remains.

Part of the problem is obviously me—some things I can’t fix, but plenty of things I can. One thing my classroom needs is a better leader/facilitator personality, meaning someone with better skills at creating interpersonal connections with students—which could definitely mean someone who isn’t white, like me. Of course, I could have more artistic skills (not that I don’t do okay for a drawing dilettante), or a car to carry supplies to school (not that I don’t do my best using my bike and the train), but personal presence would make a huge difference. Also, my classroom, although large and well-lit, could also use a serious funding hike, which would reinforce the validity of the projects a great deal. But, in a school like mine, not a whole lot of teachers can boast achievements too terribly far beyond my own. Something else is also the matter.

There’s no point in preparing students for industrial jobs that don’t exist. And all responsible Paolo Freire-reading progressive educators recognize the necessity of moving beyond failure-driven standardized curricula that pathologizes the children of the disenfranchised. People realize that (as Foucault argued) a more relaxed structure requires a more subtle, pervasive, and internalized form of oversight—”surveillance,” if you will—but most of them are not interested in dwelling on this fact. And even fewer are picking up the strange modern problem of what happens when the relaxed system breaks down in places most in need of community institutions, and the allegedly ameliatory prison begins to mirror the allegedly ameliatory school, and the entire educational system becomes a nightmarish, if titillating, funhouse of unfunded mandates, flouted expectations, and other endless games of monitoring and defiance. If there is going to be an improvement in the microcosmic scale of myself, it may come not from further skeptical detachment or the rhetoric of liberal pragmatism, but from holding on to a transcendent purpose in what I try to do and from being encouraged by unexpected results. ◊

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