Echoes of Ourselves

Like Substack but with less stackin’.

Prince Sticks Up for Teachers at Age 11

In April 1970, Prince was eleven years old and Minneapolis teachers were on strike. In recently discovered footage shot by WCCO, the Twin Cities’ CBS affiliate, there is Prince, confident but with a familiar shyness, sticking up for the teachers. When the news of this footage broke, Prince-verse lit up like the purple crack in the sky in the recent Spider-Man film. As a fan it was compelling to see his mannerisms firmly in place at such a young age.

“Are most of the kids in favor of the picketing?” the reporter asks.

“Yup,” Prince replies.

People often don’t know that Prince’s mother, Mattie Della Shaw, became a social worker in the Minneapolis Public Schools with a Master’s degree from the University of Minnesota. (At this time she’d remarried, taking her new husband’s name, and thus appears in school yearbooks as Mattie Baker.) When Prince moved in to his friend Andre Anderson’s home in 1974, he was taken even further under the wing of Bernadette Anderson, Andre’s mother, who also pursued a degree at U of M. Anderson worked at a local YWCA and served on the boards of the Phyllis Wheatley and KMOJ. As Andrea Swensson recently pointed out, Prince recalled in 1981 that his mother emphasized his education over his music career:

Prince was the product of a family and community that respected teaching and the necessity of a good education. So while it’s reaffirming to see young Prince stick up for the teachers in this video, it’s not surprising that he valued his teachers and the underappreciated extra labor–the “extra hours” he mentions–that so, so many teachers perform. Throughout his life, Prince was a champion for economic justice and education, and said in at least one interview that if he hadn’t been a musician, he would have been an teacher.

Also, it’s amazing and touching to see a line from “The Sacrifice of Victor” being lived in this video of a young Prince testifying on the sidewalk: “Education got important, so important to Victor.” We are witnessing that happening in Prince’s young life, a little more than two decades before he put those words to wax:

Books Are Being Banned at a Terrifying Rate

And now, in 2022, educators are again under siege. Books are on the chopping block of the resurgent–always resurgent–conservative and authoritarian forces in the United States. From a April 7, 2022 article in the Washington Post:

“PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of expression, found there have been 1,586 book bans in schools over the past nine months. The bans targeted 1,145 unique books by more than 800 authors, and a plurality of the books — 41 percent — featured prominent characters who are people of color. Thirty-three percent of the banned books, meanwhile, included LGBTQ themes, protagonists or strong secondary characters, and 22 percent “directly address issues of race and racism.”

The same article notes that the American Library Association has documented “1,597 book challenges or removals…the highest number recorded since the association began tracking the phenomenon 20 years ago.” That includes college and university book bans, rarer though they may be. It’s not surprising that this white nationalist, or should we say White Christian nationalist, wave is targeting the LGBTQ+ community and people of color, and of course it’s tied into the campaigns by the likes of Jim Renacci here in Ohio to decry any critical discourse about race, gender, or sexuality in K-12 schools (google Ohio House Bill 616). I mean, you might even look at the CRT “debate” and the book bannings and wonder if it’s all a coordinated effort by well-funded activists on the Right and not a bunch of parents organically concerned about their rights.

Gubenatorial candidates like Renacci and Senate candidates like Mandel and Vance will scream about indoctrination in the schools, but it’s clear they don’t see indoctrination, as a method or goal, as the real problem. They just want to indoctrinate kids with their values and ideologies. Their fantasies about where this country came from, where it is, and where it should go ignore historical facts and obscure their intention to marginalize and erase minoritized populations. If these parents were only concerned about their own children, they would be arguing for alternative assignments, not book bans. To ban a text is to deny all students from accessing it. How is that anything less than pure indoctrination?

Recently I came across another unearthed interview, this one with Octavia E. Butler, the brilliant science-fiction writer, in 2005, a year before her death. In it, she reads a verse from her novel Parable of the Talents, the sequel to Parable of the Sower. Here’s the quote, with the video cued to her introducing the passage:

“Beware: all too often we say what we hear others say; we think what we are told that we think; we see what we are permitted to see; worse, we see what we are told that we see. Repetition and pride are the keys to this. To see and to hear even an obvious lie, again and again and again, may be to say it, almost by reflex; then to defend it, because we have said it; and at last to embrace it, because we’ve defended it, and because we cannot admit that we’ve embraced and defended an obvious lie. Thus, without thought, without intent, we make mere echoes of ourselves, and we say what we hear others say.”

Book banning and the campaign against Critical Race Theory in K-12 are not just about erasing certain subjects or topics that students may read or learn about. These efforts also intend to narrow the discourse, to funnel students toward a limited range of ideas, so that it’s easier to instill the unthinking Butler warns against. A wider discourse, more complex, filled with competing, even contradictory viewpoints, makes it harder to control what students think.

And what the incarcerated think. While preparing a lesson plan for my Literature of Comics class, which is reading the comics adaptation of Butler’s Kindred by John Jennings and Damian Duffy, I was surprised to learn the novel is among the many books banned in prisons across the United States. The article notes, too, that “[m]any films and television shows containing content used to justify book bans are available to incarcerated people, suggesting that prison officials regard reading as a unique threat.” The privacy of reading, its inability to be monitored in the way a television in a rec room–or a classroom–can be, is another reason why books and libraries are targeted.

The true role of the teacher is to encourage students on a path of individual discovery (a path clearly taken by Prince and Butler), but it’s also to bring the individual into the complex discourse, and to say, in a sense, “Beware!” Which is really to say, “Think critically.” To show students how one narrative, one source, one viewpoint, and one voice–a monoculture–lead to the manipulation and marginalization of facts, determine our perception, and teach us to repeat, and live by, lies. A good teacher challenges that monoculture by providing many narratives, sources, viewpoints, and voices–so long as they are based in facts and critical thinking themselves–and then talks about it with students, one to one, as a class, as a community.

But that’s not the teacher White Christian nationalists want. They want a bureaucrat who produces echoes.

What This Means for College Education

While, yes, the immediate crisis is located in K-12 schools, what I have noticed in my twenty years of teaching in higher education still holds true: students often arrive at college with massive gaps of cultural literacy that cannot be addressed in the limited time we have with them. This illiteracy is determined by the politics of their hometowns and state governments, the racial demographics of their school districts, the socioeconomic conditions, local views about gender identity, and related factors like geography and technology. So many intersectional factors. I’ve had students from well-off liberal, even self-annointed “progressive,” but mostly White schools that know nothing about the battle for Black civil rights post-Martin Luther King. Often, my students who identify as people of color or queer have had to educate themselves on topics like Black Lives Matter, nonbinary gender identities, trans rights, economic justice, etc., via the internet. The only drawback to this admirable initiative of self-learning is a lack of systemic, and especially historical, understanding. The internet is very much a presentist, fractured, yet immersive space. This makes it hard to see the big picture. (Even for some of us older, more educated folks, too, I should add.)

These challenges have made me wonder if a key component of any anti-oppression pedagogy simply has to be a broad mapping of the history and the subjects at hand with a focus on making connections, discovering pathways, with less emphasis on specialization. The generalism might be offset by hours and hours spent on critical reading, research techniques, discussion, and knowledge production. What I’m describing, I realize, sounds like the standard definition of a liberal arts education, but there would be a few important (if desperate) modifications of method, scope, depth, and curricular pathways: (1) the method would combine the unlearning of stultifying monoculturalism with more self-directed multicultural learning; (2) the scope would be wider, while (3) the depth of knowledge would admittedly be shallower–a word choice that sends a knife of panic into my teacherly heart–and (4) interdisciplinary pathways that make it easier for students to move from department to department, in a more horizontal than vertical fashion, would be necessary, and this would drastically change the concept of a “major” or what degrees students have on their diplomas.

On the one hand, all of that makes me nevous as hell. I’m not convinced it’s the way to go. The more traditional liberal arts education model served me well, and I’m always leery of any call for “innovation” in education. Some of this language is easily co-opted. For instance, the term “lifelong learner” is often written into the very same laws (like Ohio HB 322) that would forbid school districts from requiring teachers to “discuss current events or widely debated and currently controversial issues of public policy or social affairs.” Nothing says “become a lifelong learner” like “ignore what’s going on around you.”

More positively, what I’m talking about isn’t quite as radical, or innovative, as it sounds. The needed restructuring would be valuative and ecological: what is expected of students and faculty, and how each moves through curricula. It would require greater access and flexibility, not radically redesigned campuses (which would only line the pockets of contractors anyway) or turning over faculty. And what’s more, this is already happening in colleges across the nation, mostly in liberal arts colleges and schools of art and design.

It’s worth thinking about how Prince and Octavia E. Butler epitomized the idea of the lifelong learner in its real sense. You might argue that each was incredibly talented, even a genius. No argument there. But I don’t think one has to be a genius to possess the curiosity, dedication, and open-mindedness to new perspectives that define the lifelong learner. We might observe, instead, that both took educational paths outside of college. Prince graduated high school and never went to college; he recorded his debut album, For You, when he was nineteen. Butler earned an associate’s degree, took some classes through UCLA, and attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, a six-week program. Yet both revered learning, knowledge, critical thinking, and the legacy of those who came before them in a manner totally in line with the values instilled in me by a traditional four-year liberal arts education.

I’m not arguing, like Elon Musk stupidly has, that there’s no point in college. But is it possible that the educational paths taken by Prince and Butler can refresh our conception of what higher education should be? What new models of sustained inquiry, of possibility-seeking, of citizenship, can combat those forces which would have education be nothing more than the production of faint echoes of a White Christian monoculture?

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