In my third year of teaching Education and Culture I have been asked to reflect on the aspects of this course that have been most meaningful—to me. You will have to ask the students for their perspective. Formally, SS325: Education and Culture is a three-credit course and, at one time, was a senior capstone course for Outdoor Education majors. With time and change, Education and Culture remains a requirement for Outdoor Education majors as a junior level course, but it is also selected as an elective by students pursuing one of Sterling’s three other majors, and is incorporated into study plans for self-designed majors. I believe this variety of perspectives helps to strengthen the process of dialogue and intellectual exchange.
Teaching Education and Culture is always a pleasant challenge. Thinking of myself as a heterosexual, white, middle aged male with limited travel experience really caused me to ponder if I was the best instructor for this course. I have not really arrived at a conclusion for my query, but I do find the challenge of teaching this course to present many rewards and opportunities. Drawing on the success of predecessors who previously taught Education and Culture (Jill Fineis, Tomas Kalmar, Erik Hansen) I thought deeply about how to bring a rich and thoughtful experience into the exploration of issues that influence American education (primarily public education). In response I drew on the knowledge of colleagues, friends, and professional connections.
Early in the course students write and present their life histories. Examining one’s life helps to bring to life Socrates’ statement that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” Through personal examination students become aware of their biases as well as influences that have helped to shape their life perspectives. Further along in the course we read and dissect Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Plato’s Allegory provides a stepping point as we proceed to explore the interplay between education and culture—primarily through the lens of western thinking.
Following this period of self-reflection, we dive into the concepts of white privilege, cultures of oppression, and the illusion of race. In each of these realms we not only explore cultural perception (and mis-perceptions) but our personal relationships as well. To help us with the stretching of our cultural lenses, the class visited two local dairy farms and spent time getting to know Mexican and Guatemalan citizens working on local farms. The farmworkers (approximately 1,200 to 1,500 in Vermont) are driven to leave family, friends, and culture by abject poverty and the drive to improve the economic conditions of their family. Known for a strong work ethic, but largely hidden, the farmworkers bring a deep respect for their traditional culture and a willingness to share their stories.
During our visit we learned about what drives someone to leave family and friends to help improve economic conditions and how dreams can become a reality through hard work and sacrifice. We learn that education is not free in all cultures and the pursuit of a high school education in the rural areas of Latin America is achieved by those who have the means to pay. We learn that harsh economic conditions do not inhibit pride in oneself or family and hard work can be an honorable experience.
Another event worthy of mentioning was our annual visit to the Northern State Correctional Facility—a medium level security facility located in Newport, Vermont. The Vermont Department of Corrections operates the largest (population wise) public high school in the state. Each correctional facility and parole office conducts public high school courses enabling inmates and those under the supervision of probation to earn a high school diploma. With the cooperation of the Northern State Correctional Facility administrators and high school teachers, my Education and Culture class met jointly with inmates enrolled in a high school humanities course. Both groups of students read a Sherman Alexie novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and engaged in thoughtful dialogue. Naturally we gained some insight into the complexity of our criminal justice system and engaged with a population that is quite literally locked away from American culture, yet has a large influence on our daily lives that most citizens are not aware of or think about on a daily basis.
Furthering our concept of American culture and influences on education we watched a documentary, A Race To Nowhere, exploring the impacts of high stakes testing and excessive scheduling on the lives of elementary and high school students. Joining us this year were three educators—Karl Stein, Special Educator, David Adler, Curriculum Coordinator, and Maria Young, Northwoods Stewardship Center. In a dialogue session following the documentary, we explored the value of education, what constitutes success in American culture, and what determines meaningful education. While we did not solve all of the challenges associated with American education, we did engage in valuable dialogue that caused us all to ponder our current and future roles as educators.
As we progress towards the conclusion of the semester the assigned texts and readings are causing us to consider our role as educators with a multi-cultural lens. Students are developing an awareness of their personal biases and are thinking about best practices that can best serve the variety of cultures existent within American education. Students are also beginning to shape their thinking in terms of where they will best serve youth—for some, it may be in the heart of public education, for others their professional life may take them to the fringe of education through work with adjudicated youth or underserved populations, and for others education will take place in the actual wilderness.
Sterling’s motto is “Working Hands, Working Minds.” While we may not have actually engaged our hands through Education and Culture, we have been actively working our minds. But, I am proud to say, we did not limit our learning process to our minds alone; we learned to engage our hearts as well as wrestling through a variety of concepts and meanings connecting education to culture.
It is my hope that Sterling graduates working in the realm of education will utilize their hearts, hands, and minds as they explore and develop best practices that will most effectively reach the populations they are serving. •
John Zaber ’85 is Faculty in Outdoor Education.