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Tragedy and Farce: Three Questions on Who Has the Right to Speak for Learning

Image via flickr from takomabibelot.  Creative Commons 2.0

I began reading Slavoj Zizek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce today.  The book centers around the left’s need to reinvent itself, or in his words “the time for liberal, moralistic blackmail is over”.

The first pages of the work provide some food for thought in our own search for transformation.

So today, I have 3 questions to ask.

The first is best backgrounded by a joke told by Zizek in the book.  Although the following joke appears a bit more vulgur in the text, I retell it here slightly modified to shed light on recent conversations about the documentary Waiting for Superman. Many of the debates surround this idea: who has the right to speak for the future of the education system, and on what grounds is this future being built?

Here’s the gist of the joke:

During the 15th century, Mongols occupied much of Russia.  One day, while a farmer and his wife were working outside their home, a well-dressed Mongol soldier rode up to their gate.  As he approached, he glibly told them he was going to steal all their possessions, and then set fire to their house.  He then added: “But since your home is fairly dirty, and I do not intend to have the tails of my coat soiled, you will hold my coat up from the ground while I do my business so it does not get dirty.”  Once the Mongol had done the deed and ridden away with all the pair’s possessions, the farmer started laughing with and jumping up and down with joy.  His surprised wife asked: “How can you be jumping with joy when that man stole everything we have in this world, then proceded to burn our house down?”  The farmer answered excitingly: “But I got him!  At some parts I let his coat drop to the ground.  His coat is filthy!”

This parable uncovers much of what “dissidents”, or else those on the fringe (and in light of most national educational momentum, we are mainly on the fringe aren’t we?), have been able to do.  In Zizek’s words:

“This sad joke reveals the predicament of the dissidents: they thought they were dealing serious blows to the [system], but all they were doing was slightly soiling the [system’s coat], while the ruling elite carried on [stealing from the people].”

So my first question is, are we doing anything more than just soiling the status quo?  How can we be sure that we are actually making a dent, when the “ruling class” (school districts, many–but not all of course @gcouros and others–administrators more fearful of change than fostering it, large companies, famous media folks, the wealthy, politicians, unequal funding, socio-political context of schooling, etc.) has most of the say in what structural issues affect the lives of our students and their families?

This brings me to another question, which I think is the one that better describes the feelings of teachers most put off by the recent blitz of interest in educational reform: why should some people have the right to take risks, when the people these risks affect the most have little recourse in the nature of those risks?

Zizek compares this idea, which I do think is  apropos, to the Enron debacle of 2002.  Here’s his story:

“Thousands of employees who lost their jobs and savings were certainly exposed to risk, but without having any real choice in the matter-the risk appeared to them as blind fate.  On the contrary, those who did have some insight into the risks involved, as well as the power to intervene in the situation (namely the top managers), minimized their risks by cashing in their stocks and options before the bankruptcy.  It is indeed true that we live in a society of risky choices, but it is one which only some do the choosing, while others do the risking.”

This I think summarizes the conflict many teachers, parents, and students have described over the course of the last few weeks.  It is not necessarily that we disagree with certain aspects of what many of the wealthy, powerful and famous (notice that I said not necessarily) are saying right now, but the fact that they are able to take risks without out really having to bear the brunt of those risks is unacceptable.

That brings me to my last question: Should we necessarily DO something RIGHT NOW just because things are tragic? What about the consequences of our actions, however well intentioned, will have on EVERYTHING that follows?

We as a group are fed up with talking too often, but sometimes discussion is important because it helps us make more informed decisions.  The major momentum right now it to “DO SOMETHING!”  “Can’t you see that this is a problem?  Can you possibly let this go on longer?”

Of course we don’t wish to perpetuate the tragic situation that exists in our schools.  I see it first hand everyday as a teacher of an inner-city school, and it is not something that anyone could call equitable, just, or reasonable.  However, I also see hope, intelligence and fire in the eyes of my students.  I see them making due with what they are dealt, and moving past what is expected of them.  And I am distrustful of people who say they have all the answers without working with the people (teachers, families, students, custodians, social workers, cafeteria workers, etc.) who currently live and seek to overcome the problems created by others they don’t know.

Talking is important because it helps us orient ourselves by more than what we know by experience; it helps us contextualize.

Zizek puts it this way:

Perhaps it is time to step back, think and SAY the right thing.  True, we often talk about something instead of doing it; but sometimes we also do things in order to avoid talking and thinking about them.  Such as throwing [money] at a problem instead of reflecting on how it arose in the first place.

We have a lot of work to do, but I urge my fellow concerned practitioners to heed the warning of Marx (please don’t get caught up in an invocation of a controversial figure) in one of his historical writings: “…all great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice…first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

My students and their families, their neighborhood and their school, are too important to me to let others who have never met them takes risks that affect their lives, without working on those risks with them directly, and without taking equal share of the risk themselves.  This is especially true when the people taking these risks often represent a power structure that has allowed these socio-political inequities to persist for some time.

Money and powerful supporters alone will not help us move in the best direction.  Reform efforts nor legislation will solve our problems.  I don’t know the right answers, but I want to ask the right questions.

About mrsenorhill

Director of Innovation, Special Projects @collegeboundstl, Co-Founder and CEO @thedisruptdept, hustling for creation literacy for all; want to cook better.


6 thoughts on “Tragedy and Farce: Three Questions on Who Has the Right to Speak for Learning

  1. This line grabbed me, Greg:

    “This is especially true when the people taking these risks often represent a power structure that has allowed these socio-political inequities to persist for some time.”

    I think this line also applies to teachers (myself included) who have made philosophical shifts during their careers. I am not sure we merely held the coat early in our careers and, moreover, I wonder if we’re not now holding the coat sometimes out of personal need. It is sometimes confusing to be taking risks averse to what I once believed and counter to how I once acted as a teacher. How do I trust the affirmation I get for acting against what once affirmed me?

    That’s a question thousands of teachers will face if they embrace the transformations we here endorse.

    What would you tell them?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 26, 2010, 8:08 pm
  2. Valid point.

    I don’t know what to tell them, but I do think that you’ve raised the million dollar question when it comes to grassroots change.

    However, I DO think it is of note that we concern ourselves with the nature of this transformation from the perspective of what is in our power to change. We take risks (hand in hand with our students), but the risks themselves are those in which WE choose based on the experience and dialogues we have with each other.

    If we base these risks on what makes what we do more affirming for the people we work with (students included and most importantly), then we will be a more empowered bunch. The more this empowerment spreads, the risks are shouldered by a larger segment of our population.

    More shoulders = less risk per individual.

    Of course it’s hard for us to embrace these transformations, but I think the transformations are too indispensable to not be embraced.

    Thanks for reading!

    Posted by mrsenorhill | September 26, 2010, 9:29 pm


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