November 18, 2013

KUHN: Teach for America and the Difference Between Advocacy and Activism

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BY SAM KUHN

If you happened to have read any of my columns or have known me for 20 minutes, you’re aware that I’m an unrepentant moralizing windbag of a do-gooder. I have strong opinions about so-called “big issues” (opinions don’t have to be right to be loud) and I try to make sure people know them. I tell myself that I consider apathy an evil almost as great as overt evil. I decided in large part to write for this paper because of the soapbox it allows me. Vague institutional self-consciousness regarding the apolitical or unserious character of the Sun’s editorial page made me want to contribute what I could. But that motive was far overshadowed by the self-important conviction that by writing something about current events that makes people angry or sad, I might redirect some of the ample talent flowing through this campus toward social injustice issues. Such are the foibles of a precious undergrad whose civic worldview was forged by agitators baffled at the political complacency of the millennials and professionally and personally convinced of the transformative power of the pen.

My pretentious expectations of my impact on the social consciousness of the student body notwithstanding, I still believe most of the above on some level. Journalists and issue advocates play a vital role in creating a buzz around contentious issues, supplying the general public with facts and arguments they need to be informed and active citizens. But what the good information-disseminators can do is necessarily limited. Though related, advocating for some cause is fundamentally different from actually working to create the change you’d like to see. The distinction may be obvious to most, but, somewhat alarmingly for someone so guilty of the confusion. It wasn’t clear to me until recently.

The post-graduation search has been illuminating in this direction. Regardless of how much I tell myself that one’s first job is only one’s first job and not a referendum on one’s essential moral and intellectual quality, assessing every CCNet posting is fraught with undue tension as I grapple with larger questions about worthiness. When a close friend was deliberating over his offer from Teach for America, I cautioned him vehemently with my own reservations about the program. It’s absurd and disrespectful to teachers everywhere to act as though students are qualified to teach, I said, let alone turn failing school districts around.  And, I preached, to act as though the biggest problem in these struggling school districts is merely ineffective teachers is to ignore the deep structural issues which plague the American education system. It’s patchwork, it’s entitled and it doesn’t work. “Freedom Writers” is a tearjerker because the transformation the imported white lady brings is so improbable, I concluded.

My friend, prepared for this overwrought rant because he knows me, responded calmly and arrestingly. All that stuff is true to one degree or another, he said. But if you’re primarily preoccupied with the large structural problems which have stumped policymakers, educators and communities for decades then there’s no way to make the progress we’re all interested in. There’s no consensus regarding how the government should craft its educational policy, or how schools should allocate their resources in order to save all of the nation’s failing schools. Even building what can plausibly be called an informed handle on this obviously complex issue, a necessary precursor to being considered a serious voice in favor of one specific strategy of reform or another, is prohibitive for nearly all interested individuals. But Teach for America is taking a plausible, if contested, issue within the broader education reform debate and addressing it directly by infusing schools with bright young teachers. And as talented undergraduates are attracted to the TFA brand, they begin to think seriously about education in America rather than any number of other compelling pursuits which could attract their time and effort. It’s one thing to be generally aware that education in America is not what it could or should be. It’s another altogether to actively confront an issue by working directly and tangibly to change it, and to leverage that experience as a practitioner into further theorizing about how the future can be different.

This TFA exchange can be applied to a general concept of activism. TFA has, to a certain extent, made teaching in underprivileged schools sexy to graduating seniors in a way that it was hardly expected to be. Of course, I’m not suggesting that people should rush headlong into unexamined “action” — due diligence matters, and expertise is, obviously, valuable. But efficacy comes  from not biting off more than you can chew, and experience in the trenches lends legitimacy and otherwise inaccessible insights. Advocacy is important, but finding a way to be active is even more impressive.

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