“Seeing like a state” is a phrase that Diane Ravitch refers to in her book, The Life and Death of the Great American School System. This phrase is used as a way of calling up the necessity of abstraction in making policy. Those who make policy have to see actual humans as data, and their goal is to create policy that can address as much data (as many humans) as possible. This is necessary in making policy. As Ravitch notes, we wouldn’t have highways, parks and schools without the ability to “see like a state”. At the same time, this practice has led to a coporate reform model that treats children as widgets. Ravitch says, “The new coporate reformers betray their weak comprehension of education by drawing false analogies between edcuation and business.” I could go deep into this (and I highly recommend Ravitch’s book), but I want to explore the tension between the policy, and trying to work with actual students. Between seeing data, and seeing children.
Consider for a minute, NCLB, AYP, RTT and the new hot term in education, “achievement”.” All of these terms stem from the practice of “seeing like a state”. Policymakers see numbers, data, partial information. Sometimes this is useful. Sometimes it is not. In his book, Shop Class As Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford describes the negative potential of “seeing like a state” in reference to the recent downfall of the banking industry. “…any job that can be scaled up, depersonalized, and made to answer to forces remote from the scene of work is vulnerable to degradation, even to the point of requiring that the person who does the job actively suppress his better judgement.” What a perfect description of what is happening in education today! Because what the policymakers do not see is that which is most important. Policymakers do not see actual, whole human beings living actual daily lives in schools. There is a huge gap between the direction and stipulations of policy, and the thousands of human decisions that occur on a given day in any classroom. The implied assumption of “seeing like a state” is that everyone is the same. To use the language of Martin Buber, “seeing like a state” necessarily locates the seeing in an “I/It” relationship. The lived reality of an educator who deals with real, live children, is that everyone is very, very different. The tension that this gap between policy and lived reality creates the likelihood of what Parker Palmer calls the “divided life” within educators. (See http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/healing-resistance/a-life-lived-whole )
The schools that I work in are under a state mandate that states all students must pass Algebra II in order to receive a high school diploma (with some hoop jumping exceptions). There are standards and benchmarks for this, and tests that must be taken. Again, the implied assumption of these is that all children are the same. Our math teacher knows that this implied assumption is false. He follows the practice of “seeing like a human.” He locates his relationships with students within Buber’s “I and Thou” perspective. From a policy perspective, he teaches Algebra II. But what he actually teaches is what we call “Cullen Math”. (Yes, his name is Cullen.)
Cullen Math starts with each student. (Which is the same place that all effective teaching starts. The difference is Cullen knows this and acts from this knowing.) Cullen gives the students some problems, asks the student how they solved them, listens to the language each student uses, the process each student goes through, and then repeats. This begins to give Cullen a sense of who this student is in relation to math. Cullen recognizes that these students have had a years long relationship with math, and this relationship might be positive, or negative. But, given the parameters of our state policy, divorce is not an option. So, more than just being a teacher, an instructor creating achievement, Cullen is counselor. In most cases (this is an alternative school for students who have not succeeded in a traditional setting) Cullen knows that his main task is to help a student heal his/her relationship with math. And because of this he needs to understand the current status of this relationship, and then work with the student using language and concepts that align with how the student understands (or fails to understand) math. This is, first and foremost a practice not of teaching in the traditional sense, but of listening. Of listening to the uniqueness of each student’s view of the subject and of themselves in relation to the subject. It is the exact opposite of “seeing like a state,” it is “seeing like a human.” It is labor intensive, sometimes emotional, always messy. It doesn’t have the advantage of the clarity that data offers. It requires the imagination of a skilled human (not a state) and is the most effective and efficient way of leading students to deep understanding.
All of this is incredibly and unduly complicated by the mandate that each student must pass Algebra II in order to graduate. Many of our students come in with very limited skills. I could go into reasons and the many difficulties and challenges these kids have courageously faced simply to still be in school, but that isn’t directly relevant to my point (although it is indirectly entirely relevant). Cullen has to face the tension of where these kids are currently with math versus where they need to be shortly in order to graduate. (A digression: For those who argue that these students shouldn’t graduate if they can’t complete Algebra II, I submit that these same students who struggle with math- for instance- have abilities in other areas that give them the potential to contribute significantly to society. However, the lack of a high school diploma both decreases that potential, and increases the potential that they will burden society.) How do you maintain this balance? I re-quote Crawford, “…any job…made to answer to forces remote from the scene of work is vulnerable to degradation…” How can Cullen answer the needs of the state and the needs of the student staring him in the face? How can Cullen retain his judgement, his humanity, his wholeness?
Suffice to say for now that we’re all trying to work through this.