can turn into an unruly pack, and it becomes almost impossible
to regain their respect or decorum. Knowledge of and passion
for one’s subject represents the surest way for teachers to keep
students interested and engaged. Conversely, someone with no
passion for a subject should simply not be teaching it.
When I was a freshman in college, I took a foreign film class
that was way over my head. One day, after watching Fellini’s
like productive chaos, and afterward, the class did not emerge from
the debate divided, but rather heartened, it seemed, that everyone
had been given a chance to voice diverse opinions. Something
important happened that day: the students created a democratic
space in which to debate and consider ideas. It wasn’t because of
anything I did, but simply because I didn’t get in the way of the
students’ own grappling over questions of perspective, personal
women capable of furthering what’s best about us and forestalling what’s worst.”
The Clowns, the professor—a tall Cuban-American of some
bearing—fell back against the chalkboard and said, “If you
don’t cry at the end of The Clowns, you are not a human being!”
I hadn’t cried. In fact, I hadn’t really understood the film. But I
wanted to feel — about anything — what my professor felt about
The Clowns. It wasn’t Fellini, but the teacher’s passion for Fellini,
that moved and inspired me and that I recall to this day.
Now for the charge that teachers have low expectations and the
work is too easy. Anyone who has ever hosted a European exchange
student knows this to be true, relative to expectations placed on
students overseas. The logical solution is to assign work that is
more challenging and treat students more like adults who have to
navigate a world of ethical uncertainty and information overload.
If the popular culture is cajoling adolescents to be unthinking, passive consumers, teachers must meet that message with
an active, critical response. For instance, we might ask the girls
to bring to class a magazine they read and the boys to do likewise. We might ask: What are the messages in every ad in your
magazine? How are the messages to girls di=erent from the messages to boys? Can the products deliver on their promises? What
percentage of those promises seem true? Do those percentages
di=er according to gender? All are basic questions. But they will
yield crucial information about gender and identity in this country, and teenage students will gain that knowledge through the
use of analytical skills that can be applied in other fields.
I suspect the hesitancy by many high school teachers to hold
active class discussions about real moral and ethical dilemmas
may be a byproduct of how contested and politicized the word
values has become. No one wants to talk about them because
someone might become o=ended, or someone might say the
wrong thing, or the messiness of open debate might get exposed.
A few years ago, on the first day of my Freshman Comp class,
an argument broke out over whether or not “Redskins” was a rac-
ist name for a professional football team. I hadn’t expected or
planned this debate, but I let it rage for half the class, trying to
direct and redirect the lines of argument as best I could. It seemed
background, and the ability of words to both empower and harm.