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According to the Children’s Defense Fund, in 1989 an average of 1,375 children dropped out of school every day. As a future educator, my reaction to this figure is one of horror and disbelief. Once I get past the shock of such a figure and the obligatory rhetorical questions: How could we let this happen?, I become an investigator. I begin to look for patterns in the profiles of students who have failed. I consider the curriculum these students ingest and how it is fed to them. I try to understand what circumstances result in the forsaking of 1,375 students per day.
As a nation, we have established institutions of learning that cater to the needs of some. Our schools allow a select handful of students to succeed. Certain segments of our population appear to be at greater risk than others. The future does not bode well for young black and Latino men and women who do not make it through high school. According to Duane Campbell, author of Choosing Democracy, the unemployment rate for Latino men and women is substantially higher than the national average and an African American child is as likely to go to prison as to college (15). According to the Economic Policy Institute, in 1991 43% of African American children and 35% of Latino children were living in poverty. It is not surprising that a vast number of the 501,875 annual school drop-outs come from impoverished black and Latino families.
Of course it is not only blacks and Latinos who are lost in the educational shuffle. There are hordes of students who simply do not fit into the traditional public school paradigm. Whether this poor fit is the result of an unorthodox learning style, an emotional disability or a need for a higher level of teacher involvement, these students are often failed. Such students may stay in school, but they receive a sub-standard education.
Virginia Woolf, in her essay "A Room of One’s Own" makes a strong case for schools which cater to the needs of students who are failed by our existing system. I did not see the connection between "A Room of One’s Own" and education upon my first reading of the essay, as a matter of fact the idea came to me as I read Woolf’s essay "The Common Reader.
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It was at this point that I revisited "A Room of One’s Own". I was desperately seeking some passage that would compliment the connection I had made between "The Common Reader" and alternative education. Passages came, quite literally, flooding out of my book. All that I read spoke to the plight of non-traditional learners in American public schools. As Virginia Woolf and other women writers needed rooms of their own, these are children in desperate need of schools of their own.
Woolf opens her essay strolling the grounds of Oxbridge. Everywhere she goes on her stroll, she is reminded that she will not fit in; she is barred. The world of Oxbridge is divided into halves along gender lines: "He was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was turf; there was a path. Only the fellows and the scholars are allowed here; the gravel is for me"(7). Virginia Woolf lived in a world of decisive division. The world that Woolf inhabited is not terribly different from the world we live in. Our existing system of education does not differ much from the original system founded 250 years ago. Although we now allow blacks and women to enter our schools, they consistently receive less attention than young white men. The fate of students with emotional disabilities or non-traditional learning styles is not much better. Teachers all too often ignore these students, not maliciously, but because they are anomalies. Teachers simply do not know what to do with them.
When Woolf is turned away from the library at Oxbridge she says "Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again, I vowed as I descended the steps in anger"(8). Woolf turns away from the institution in anger vowing to make her own way. When a student is rejected at school, whether implicitly or overtly, they likewise back away from the institution in anger.
On my first day observing at Centennial, I asked a young female student "What do you appreciate most in a teacher?" She told me that she just wants to be listened to and respected. She then said something that I will never forget: If you are disrespectful to me, it makes me so mad, I will not learn from you - I just won’t. Woolf, like this young woman, is enraged when she is disrespected. The young woman at Centennial was lucky. She found her way to a school at which she would be honored. All too often, adolescents who are dis-honored leave school, vowing to pave their own path. Anger is a powerful motivator. It compels us to act out against and this acting out can work to our benefit (as in Woolf’s case) and it can just as likely lead to failure (as in the case of the 1,375 students who dropped out of school each day in 1989).
If we know that such treatment sends students away from school, why do we continue to dishonor some? America’s public schools, in theory, exist to educate all. However, our schools do not honor all students and as a result they cannot educate all. Multiple truths (learning styles, intelligences, cultural traditions) is something that many Americans, including educators, have met with resistance. Our dualistic society refuses to see various gradations of value; human success cannot be sustained on many fronts. The very nature of winning, according to western tradition, demands that someone must also loose. Woolf discusses this as she peruses the British Museum. She sifts through various books that make claims regarding the inferiority of female morality and intelligence. In response to this Woolf says: "when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. . . it was a jewel to him of the rarest price"(34). Woolf then goes onto say that women function as mirrors that aggrandize men. In Woolf’s world, women had to be put down in order to elevate men.
This same attitude is prevalent in contemporary education. We pit student against student with the implementation of curve grading and class ranks. Students are rarely judged, nor can they self-assess, by their own merits. A student’s performance is weighed in relation to his or her peers. The idea that one must fail in order for another to win is illustrated in the controversial book The Bell Curve. The authors of The Bell Curve assert that nature demands winners and losers - the distribution of a bell curve will not tolerate winners and winners. This book asserts that success in life can be directly correlated to IQ. Herrnstein and Murray claim that poverty has less to do with familial and cultural patterns and more to do with intelligence: "low intelligence is a stronger precursor of poverty than low socioeconomic background"(127). Blacks, like the poor, are genetically predisposed to lower intelligence than whites: "the average white person tests higher than about 84% of the population of blacks and the average black person tests higher than about 16% of the population of white"(269). When I read these words, the figures I provided in the first two paragraphs of my paper come flooding back to me. I think of the poor or the minority student who drops out of school. I think of the student whose learning style is wasted on standardized IQ tests. I know, much like Virginia Woolf knew, that this kind of thinking is reductive and destructive. Research like this not only says somebody has to loose, it also says, don’t bother trying to make it to the right side of the bell curve because you cannot get there - you will loose.
Herrnstein and Murray’s position promotes the western patriarchal world-view that Virginia Woolf butted heads with. Their argument establishes boundaries; the kind that kept Virginia Woolf out of the library at Oxbridge and the kind that continues to keep so many children from achieving success in our schools.
The argument presented by The Bell Curve is tragically limiting in that it sees intelligence as something specific and fixed. The alternative school is a place which promotes the idea that there are multiple intelligences. The theory of multiple intelligences, developed by Howard Gardner, claims that we should break away from regarding human intelligence "in terms of a single dimension"(Howe 127). His theory asserts that many types of intelligences are not revealed in high standardized test scores (Howe 127). If institutions embrace the theory of multiple intellligences and adopt teaching methodologies that cater to various styles of learning, the bell curve becomes an impossibility. With the destruction of such derisive thought, barriers are torn down and students who wish to enter the hallowed halls of higher education may.
Education that does not pit student against student results in the liberation of the mind and the liberation of ideas. Woolf was liberated from the cycle of anger and concessions by money. Without money she would have to depend on a man for an income. If she were to rely on a man, she would be forced into the role of looking glass. As a result of her aunt’s gift Woolf is free to learn and to express in ways that suit her: "I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me. . . Indeed, my aunt’s legacy unveiled the sky to me, and substituted for the large and imposing figure of a gentleman, which Milton recommended for my perpetual adoration, a view of the open sky" (38-39). Students who find themselves in environments in which various backgrounds, learning styles and ways of knowing are accepted are similarly emancipated. Rather than focusing on making themselves pleasing to others, these students are able to concentrate on learning.
If an at-risk student makes it to an alternative school, their struggles are by no means over. Like I have repeatedly said, many of our at-risk students are minority students, women or come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. These three segments of society have little representation in modern school curriculums. Representation for women and blacks has been improving as a result of the active dialogue concerning gender and race equity in schools. Duane Campbell says that "when a people’s history is absent from coverage in the curriculum, this absence is usually a product of lack of power, a lack of political and educational capital. It is not the product of having contributed little to the development of our communities and nations"(286). This may be the case, but a fifteen year old student most likely will not draw this conclusion. A fifteen year old student will more than likely conclude that his or her history is not worth repeating. They may believe that success, according to the dominant cultural paradigm, is the only kind of success out there. Perhaps they will conclude that their lives are insignificant just as their predecessors lives were.
Virginia Woolf speaks about the importance of establishing a tradition. During her visit to the British Museum, Woolf uncovers a pattern: women are represented in fiction and absent in history. In fiction, women are mere examples. In history, where people are venerated, there is only the slightest hint that women exist. Women could easily assume, based on their absence from history texts, that, like minority and female students, they do not have a place in the revered annals of history: "By no possible means could middle-class women with nothing but brains and character at their command have taken part in any one of the great movements which, brought together, constitute the historians view of the past"(Woolf 44-45). Women writers, as well as minority or devalued students, are responsible for establishing a tradition where there is none.
Our society does not readily accept new traditions nor does it embrace new ways of seeing; we resist change. Those in power are constantly seeking new and better ways to maintain their power. Those who attempt to move from a position of subservience to a position of self-sustenance are met with hostility. According to Woolf, she was met with such hostility: "The world did not say to her as it said to them (Keats and Flaubert), write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?"(52).
Students who make it to alternative schools are not safe from prevailing attitudes regarding race, gender, intelligence and proper schooling. A young black man that attempts to better himself is all too often considered "an uppity nigger." The young woman who decides she wants to study computer science is met with remarks about her femininity. Such comments suggest to students that they are doing something wrong, something ill-suited to them. Our students hear guffaws, whether said or implied, loud and clear.
Many students in alternative schools had formerly been tracked into slow or remedial classes. If you track a young man into a remedial reading group for long enough, success in English will elude him. Once that student arrives at an alternative school, it takes a great deal of un-teaching and re-learning before they come to understand that they can succeed. Once their confidence is built, they are met with resistance from the dominant culture. Most people imagine alternative schools look like this: retired hippies teaching drugged out kids in rooms decorated with bean bag chairs. These people believe that students in these schools are not held to the same standards as students in traditional schools. Much of the public believes that kids at alternative schools are never tested and they don’t write papers. Ultimately, most people, if you asked them, would not want their kids to attend an alternative school. Students who attend alternative schools are met with a series of guffaws and they don’t stop when they choose to stay in school. Those who guffawed in Virginia Woolf’s direction certainly didn’t stop guffawing once she proved herself as a writer, critic and thinker.
The battles which the at-risk student faces exist in the home-front as well as in public. The women that served as groundbreakers in literature suffered as a result of their multiple domestic roles of mother and wife combined with the role of writer. They were plagued by constant interruptions and responsibilities that distracted them from writing. Woolf uses the example of Charlotte Bronte whose circumstance colored the quality of her work. She, as a result of her circumstance, was unable to achieve incandescence. Woolf says that "it is clear that anger was tampering with the integrity of Charlotte Bronte the novelist"(73).
Similarly, the at-risk student who dares to stay in school, who dares to defy expectations, often lives under conditions ill-suited to school. During my time at Centennial, I have met countless students whose lives are very different from my own adolescent life. I have met teenagers with kids and adolescents with full time jobs. One morning a student came into class early. She sat down at her desk and immediately dropped her head to the desk-top. I asked her if she was ok. She looked up with swollen, tired eyes and relayed her tale of the previous evening to me. She told me that her dad had been drinking, as he often does, and that he became very emotional. She said he started talking about Vietnam and would not stop. When this young woman tried to go to bed, her dad came into her room crying and begged her to get up and talk to him. She said that she got up and talked to her dad. She stayed up all night counseling her father and was exhausted. Clearly, this young woman’s home life is not ideally suited to academics. Her home life produces many distractions that keep her from a high level of performance and achievement in school. The challenges met by Woolf and her contemporaries are similar in several ways to the challenges that today’s at-risk and alternative high school students face. The failures, the burn-outs and the drop-outs have served as a looking glass for the honor students. This cycle wastes life and disregards human potential. Virginia Woolf held that history has wasted the gifts of countless female writers, writers who never were. It is impossible for us to imagine these writers, so she gives the reader a hypothetical disregard for men and their experiences: "Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays f Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer"(83). Similarly, American society suffers as a result of our dismissal of particular learners.
Virginia Woolf made a case for alternative education long before an academic educator wrote about it in a text book. She recognized that people are driven by different motivators and people have different ways of seeing. Virginia Woolf argued against The Bell Curve and argued in favor of multiple intelligences and multiple learning styles: "if you are going to make them work their best and hardest, you must find out what treatment suits them - whether these long hours of lectures, for instance, which the monks devised, presumably hundreds of years ago, suits them - what alternations of work and rest they need, interpreting rest not as doing nothing but as doing something but something that is different"(78).
Virginia Woolf recognized that power does not welcome change. Power is overtly hostile when people, who have traditionally served the power structure, decide to assert power. Woolf understood the need for institutions in which new boundaries were drawn, boundaries that were more well suited to those who fell outside the power structure. Alternative schools that ground students in a different and more empowering set of norms stand a greater chance at inspiring students. The new framework, or set of boundaries, that alternative schools employ " sustains students’ natural drive to make sense of the world and trusts in their capacity to have an impact upon it"(Meier 16).
According to Woolf, if women are to succeed in writing they must first have money (which will liberate them) and a room (in which they can work). The same holds true for America’s at-risk students. They need people who will work with their circumstances. These people will liberate at-risk students from an education that simply doesn’t fit. Lastly, these students need schools of their own, places in which they can produce and thrive.
Campbell, Duane. Choosing Democracy. London: Prentice Hall, 1996.
Herrnstein, Richard and Charles Murray. The Bell Curve. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994.
Howe, Michael. IQ In Question. London: Sage Publications, 1997.
Meier, Deborah. The Power of Their Ideas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1929.
Woolf, Virginia. "The Common Reader." The Common Reader. London: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1953.