When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
By Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Salman Rushdie’s short but poignant speech at the Pen American Center’s Arthur Miller’s Freedom to Write Lecture reminds me of the intersection between art and education, or at least reminds me of the old education that I once loved. It was the education as a practice of liberation. Education as an act of reinvention. Education as enlightenment. Oh, how do I miss thee! But is this education still reserved for some?
Rushdie speaks about the power of censorship. He refers to the artist’s stubborn dismissal of such topics—because what artist wants to anchor themselves to a conversation about the antithesis to art? Yet, we must. We must have the conversation if we are to resist any and all efforts to limit our capacity as artist educators to transcend. Voila! I’ve just invented a new terminology: artist educator. Or has this always been in existence?
Here is a quote that reminds me of the significance of Salman Rushdie in my life, like when I read Midnights Children.
Originality is dangerous. If you want to increase the sum of what is possible for human beings; to say, to know, to understand and therefore, to be—you have to go to the edge and push outwards.
Censorship. I’ve been feeling the heavy weight of my writing for years. Yes, I’ve been told to quit blogging— it’s hurting your pocket, don’t you know? I’ve tried to stop and then I can’t. Why must I stop writing about my struggle to transcend this miserable time and place and the covert and not so covert hijacking of my beloved field of education? But, there is a real and tangible force that makes resistance in today’s climate difficult. Rushdie talks about freedom to write like free air. Then he adds, “free unless you’re an African American male wearing a hoodie.” Free, he says, unless you are… and then I blank out for a moment hearing nothing. I am thinking to myself—free unless you are me.
What is this illusion of freedom, the art of education for freedom, that is often espoused by “free” men and women and not dared to be truly uttered (and acted upon) by the most vulnerable members of our communities?
I remember the words of a former comrade, Joseph Skinner, teacher and former union rep, as he scoffed at the round table dialogue I held at The Gordon Center, Institute for Urban & Minority Education in 2009. We were talking about how we can bring together people of different races and classes for change in education policy and practice. He said— who can afford to be an activist these days? Who has the time to sit around and “contemplate” the green movement, for example?
There are so many ways we censor our freedom to write, to breathe, to educate.
Definitions of critical thinking vary, but it’s generally considered to entail a doubting attitude and an ability to scrutinize ideas and assumptions through reasoned argument. According to Lipman (1991), critical thinking is crucial to the survival of a rational, democratic society.
While critical thinking skills are listed in the Common Core Standards, I ask: Are teachers likely to encourage critical thinking and its counterpart, freedom of expression in the current climate of examination, standardization and value added teacher evaluation? Probably not. Testing companies are given a list of “controversial” words that should not be included, multicultural programs rooted in Freire’s theory of emancipation are being slaughtered, teachers and administrators are being recruited from the business sector, veteran schools are being pushed out by virgin charters, kindergarten students are asked to evaluate teachers, the list goes on.
And what about the resistance? Although resistance is a typical, even expected response to [this sort of] domination, it is also a privilege to have the economic and social capital needed, and the distance from suffering required, to be able to reflect in relative comfort on the world’s problems, to be an interpreter of major crisis instead of a victim.