S struggle for Public Education

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Creative Maladjustment and the Struggle for Public Education by Herbert Kohl,

from his 1994 “I Won’t Learn from You” and other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment,

published by The New Press, NY, NY.


Struggle for Public Education

IT IS VERY difficult for me to throw out things that evoke mem­ories or stories and so, over the last thirty years, I have amassed a collection of my students' writing and art. Recently I came upon a portfolio of pastels clone by children in my first public school. class in 1962. There was Sara's delicate copy of a Modigliani por­trait, done in browns and oranges; a blue and white drawing of Moby Dick jumping out of the sea, done by Hugh Lee on black construction paper; a hand with an evil eye, drawn by Carlos M.; and Gloria's frightening lion's face with knife slashes all over it, whose title, "All cut up," is written in red crayon over the pastel.

I remember buying the pastels for my class and letting the students draw, paint, or sketch all afternoon. They could also play chess, dominoes, and checkers, read with me, write poems and books, or listen to music and build clay models if they cared to. Those afternoon activities were my way of warding off chaos and, at the same time, getting to know and occasionally help my stu­dents personally. It took me a while to realize that these activities were not diversions but at the center of decent education. No one in the school seemed to mind, since my students stayed in the room and we left everything clean and neat at the end of the day.



However, the pastels got me into trouble. About two months into the semester I got a visit from the district art coordinator, to whom I proudly showed off my students' work. Instead of being encouraged, I was given a copy of the district manual, which described the art curriculum and showed that pastels were a sixth grade medium. Since my students were in the fifth grade, I was instructed to get rid of both the pastels and the students' work in that medium. I objected and pointed out that the top class in the fifth grade had pastels and used them all the time. The response was that "those" students read above grade level and therefore deserved an advanced art medium, whereas my stu­dents read below grade level and therefore weren't qualified for pastels.

I didn't know whether to laugh or argue—it was too absurd. Fortunately the assistant principal, who was more accustomed to the bizarre ways of the school hierarchy, joined us before I could respond. She told the art coordinator that I was a young teacher and that she would take care of everything. Before I left school that day, she called me into her office and gave me advice for sur­viving within an irrational system. She knew I would not get rid of the pastels, so she suggested I read the curriculum manuals in order to know when I was violating them, and thus to know how to make everything look kosher before a supervisor's visit. She also promised to give me adequate warning so I could continue to do what I felt was best for the children and still look good to the district supervisors. That way, she wouldn't get in trouble. In effect she gave me a way to resist adjusting to unreasonable demands and initiated me into the subversion of the system that most good teachers practice all the time.

That was my first encounter with the choice between con­forming to the demands of the system or meeting the needs of my students. It was a lesson in what I have come to call "maladjust­ment." Sometime in the mid 1960s I encountered the concept of


maladjustment in a speech that Martin Luther King, Jr., had given at the University of California, Berkeley, in May 1958. In it he said:

Modem psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word. It is the word "maladjusted." Now we all should seek to live a well adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and dis­crimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things.*
In retrospect my experience with pastels, in a small way, rep­resented the same major struggles that Dr. King referred to­—issues of privilege and racism. The "good" students at the school were white and upper middle class, and identified as "gifted." They were given privileges and resources that my students, who were mostly poor and predominantly Puerto Rican, were denied resources such as pastels and reading books that could be used equally well by both groups. I refused to adjust myself to that inequity.

Adjustment is not to be abandoned lightly. It is wonderful to be able to fit comfortably within a family, at work, in culture, or society. Here is the clearest definition of "adjustment" I have been able to find:

As a beginning definition, we can say that "adjustment" means "the ability of an individual to live harmoniously with his environment--

* Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream: Writing and Speeches that Changed the World, ed. James M. Washington (New York and San Francisco: Harper San Francisco / HarperCollins, 1992), p. 33.

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physical, social, intellectual, and moral—and with himself, keeping intact his personal integrity." . . . Adjustment is not an end in itself; rather, it is a description of the relation between an individual and (his or her) ... environment.*
When it is impossible to remain in harmony with one's envi­ronment without giving up deeply held moral values, creative maladjustment becomes a sane alternative to giving up altogether. Creative maladjustment consists of breaking social patterns that are morally reprehensible, taking conscious control of one's place in the environment, and readjusting the world one lives in based on personal integrity and honesty—that is, it consists of learning to survive with minimal moral and personal compromise in a thoroughly compromised world and of not being afraid of planned and willed conflict, if necessary. It also means searching for ways of not being alone in a society where the mythology of individualism negates integrity and leads to isolation and self­-mutilation. It means small everyday acts of maladjustment as well as occasional major reconstruction, and it requires will, determi­nation, faith that people can be wonderful, conscious planning, and an unshakable sense of humor.

Creative maladjustment is reflective. It implies adapting your own particular maladjustment to the nature of the social systems that you find repressive. It also implies learning how other people are affected by those systems, how personal discontent can be appropriately turned into moral and political action, and how to speak out about the violence that thoughtless adjustment can cause or perpetuate.

Sometimes decisions to maladjust are made without thought and can lead to trouble. Such trouble befell me twice at the beginning of my teaching career. During my six weeks of student teaching I got into trouble for trying things that clashed with the

* Fritz Redl arid William Wattenherg, Menial Hygiene in Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1951; 2nd ed 1959), p. 185.


style and practice of my supervising teacher. I was accused of get­ting too close to the students, of being too informal, and of replacing structured learning activities with open ended, cross­-disciplinary projects. When I was asked to do things that in my judgment were detrimental to student learning and self respect, I changed them without asking permission. This maladjustment made sense in terms of maintaining my integrity and helping stu­dents, but it was suicide for a student teacher who didn't have his or her own classroom and who had no status within the school. Two weeks before the end of my student teaching assignment, I was unceremoniously terminated by the supervising teacher and ordered out of the school by the principal.

It was my luck to have a wonderful, progressive educator as my supervisor at Columbia's Teachers College. She made it clear that I had acted foolishly and reminded me that if I wanted to teach and change the schools I had to get a credential first. Then she placed me in another school for two weeks, enabling me to fulfill my student teaching requirement. This was not formally legal, but she knew how to creatively maladjust within the frame­work of Teachers College; moreover, she had the power and expe­rience to act within the institution counter to its own rules. Her planned creative maladjustment worked. My unthinking malad­justment failed.

The same thing happened during my first teaching assign­ment. Pastels were just a part of the problem. I also spoke out about other inequities at the school during faculty and union meetings and was involuntarily transferred to another school at the end of my first semester. At that time my maladjustment was neither creative nor effective, and I continue to wonder how much more useful I might have been to the school and the community had my responses been more tempered and my maladjustment better thought out.

However, as a beginning teacher I found myself with too much to learn, too little support, and an inflated sense of how

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much reform I could accomplish by myself without having expe­rience or friends and allies within the community or the school district. I did learn one lesson that semester, though, and it has been at the center of my educational thinking and practice for the last thirty years. As I mentioned, most of my students were Puerto Rican, and almost all of them spoke Spanish as a first language. Back then the official policy of the New York City Board of Edu­cation forbade Spanish to be spoken in the classroom. I didn't speak Spanish, though I knew enough French and Italian to make occasional good guesses at what my students were saying. I also didn't have enough confidence or experience to know how to question that policy intelligently.

At that time teachers were obliged to evaluate the linguistic and intellectual skills of all children in English and to determine their ability to read and do arithmetic. It should hardly have been a surprise that the test results indicated that the children's math skills were better than their reading skills. Based on this informa­tion a number of researchers drew various conclusions, such as that Spanish speaking children have better abstract abilities than linguistic ones, that children learn arithmetic independently of their language skills, and so on. However, the researchers neglected (or were ignorant of) one key point in their analysis of the situation: almost all of the children who did well in arithmetic performed equally well at reading Spanish. I discovered this by accident. One day I happened to bring to school a book that had a quotation from Garcia Lorca's Poeta en Nueva York, in Spanish, and one of the boys who was unable to read English read the Spanish selection with ease and translated it for me. It was obvi­ous that the attempt to measure his linguistic skills solely through the evaluation of his ability to read and write in English was irra­tional and cruel.

The same student, Vincente, was a problem in class and a delight before and after school. In class he would fidget and bother other kids. He looked like a tightly wound spring, ready to


release and jump through a door, window, or wall. However, when I ran into Vincente on the street or at the small restaurant his par­ents ran he was charming and showed an incredible awareness of current political and social events. His parents were troubled by his school history. They told me that he had been on the main­land for three years and had done very poorly in school, though he had been a top student in Puerto Rico. They thought maybe it was a matter of language, but they said that the teachers in Puerto Rico cared much more and gave the students much more respect.

I liked Vincente and came to appreciate his intelligence and sensitivity, but he acted nuts in class, performed for the other stu­dents, and caused me as much grief as he could. His was the low­ermost class in the grade, and all of the students had experienced the humiliation of failure. Their integrity was violated by the insti­tution. Some, like Vincente, decided to get even with the system even though they hurt themselves more than they hurt their teach­ers or the system.

I was in my early twenties at the time and very inexperienced. I never figured out how to help Vincente, but, through knowing him and several other youngsters in the class outside of school and becoming friends with their parents, I came to understand that children in school act in ways that are shaped by the institu­tion; therefore it is essential never to judge a child by her or his school behavior.

I had to maladjust myself to the notion that the demands and structure of schooling were normal and the students were prob­lems if they did not adjust. This meant examining the nature of the life I was expected to lead as a teacher and sorting out what was sensible and beneficial to my students from procedures meant simply to keep things under control. It meant learning to recognize practices and texts that were racist or sexist, as well as coming to understand the mechanisms for tolerating professional incompetence and for marginalizing children who are outspoken or different. This had to be done while I was figuring out how to

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teach well, and I had to be creative about it if I wanted to keep my job. I had to develop the skills of creative maladjustment and integrate into every aspect of my teaching the idea that school was not always worth adjusting to and that my students were often right to resist the education being forced upon them.

For me an understanding of the need for creative maladjust­ment is not a rejection of public education, but an affirmation of its possibilities. It is part of what I subsequently learned has been a long struggle to make public education work for all children. The biggest problems are not with public education itself, but with the attitude that, inasmuch as many public schools don't work, public education should be abandoned, and that because many students are not currently learning, they can't learn. It is our job as educators to make schools work, and that requires tak­ing up the struggle, within the system, to transform them. Dr. King, throughout his life, strived to make democracy work, not to abandon democracy altogether because it wasn't yet working.

Over the years, I have learned how to analyze schools and have tried to figure out their effects on children's behavior rather than judge children by that behavior. This maladjustment has allowed me to reach many children who otherwise would have been remote and hostile. It has also allowed me to shape my teaching by attending to the interaction between the culture of the schools and the larger social, cultural, and economic lives of the children, rather than responding to students' present or past school performance and behavior.

The word "performance" is used in educational circles to indicate test scores and behavior, but for me it is part of an apt and useful theater metaphor. Children are on stage at school, and the teacher is only one of several audiences. Other students, par­ents, and people in the community are also audiences. Each stu­dent faces the simultaneous task of winning the acceptance of each of these audiences while maintaining personal and moral integrity. The construction of a school character is a complex


matter with a great deal at stake. Unfortunately schools often sim­plify the script and divide youngsters into good/bad, normal/ abnormal, intelligent/dumb, and high/low potential. This divi­sion forces roles on students, ones they only partially play. As a teacher I found it essential to maladjust to dichotomies like these and refuse to allow them to enter into my thoughts or vocabulary. This maladjustment, combined with a crise de coeur, inadvertently led me to become involved in the deaf power movement in 1966, four years after I had begun teaching.

I was in graduate school at the time, and it was possible for me to take courses while continuing my work with youngsters in the community where I had previously taught. One of the classes I took, called "Natural Language for the Deaf," advocated a holis­tic though oralist approach to the education of deaf children. The class was taught by a wonderful woman, whose life was dedicated to the enrichment of learning among deaf youngsters and whose educational philosophy centered around the idea that deaf chil­dren will learn to speak best if they are in an informal, conversa­tional situation in which reading, writing, and speaking are integrated.

One day toward the middle of the semester an eight  or nine-year old girl came to class to demonstrate the effectiveness of this method. Something in my heart responded to her dignity and intensity. When she began to speak to the class about her school, I couldn't understand anything she said. She strained arid strug­gled, but what came out was something resembling, but not quite English. Her face was wracked with tension, and I assumed she was closely listening to her own voice to be sure what she was say­ing was correct. Suddenly, I realized she couldn't hear herself couldn't make corrections, and couldn't hear our responses either. Until that moment I had never imagined myself in a world with­out sound.

Something was wrong here. This girl was obviously intelligent and sensitive—her eyes and gestures made that clear. She was in

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pain. And she was the best example the school had to show for its attempts at getting deaf youngsters to speak. Something was wrong, not with her but with the educational regime she was liv­ing under. It was a situation that begged for maladjustment, that reminded me of frustration I felt at being told not to speak Span­ish in my classroom.

I decided to visit the school the young girl attended. Even before entering the school it was impossible not to notice that one was in a sign language environment. Students getting off the buses or coming out of the subway station were all signing. Young children on the playground were signing. Older ones taking a last puff on their cigarettes or just standing around flirting and gossip­ing were using sign language. The prohibition on signs began once youngsters were inside; it obviously did not extend into their lives outside of school. Before visiting even one class it was clear that the prohibition of signs in deaf education indicated deep institutional and sociological problems.

This impression was confirmed when I learned that the teachers were all hearing individuals who did not know sign lan­guage; that students in this very caring and progressive environ­ment still had to sit on their hands if they inadvertently signed in class; and that the achievement scores of the students at the school were lower than those at schools with a comparable nondeaf middle  and upper class student body, indicating that some academic connections were not being made. Nevertheless, the staff was very enthusiastic about its work and proud of its success in enabling its students to master spoken English and achieve academically. To me this meant that they had low expectations for their students, accepting barely comprehensible spoken English and below grade level scores as excellent work. They had adjusted the school according to coordinates of educational research and philosophy and imposed their grid on the children.

My reading in the literature on the cognitive development of the deaf confirmed my suspicions. Throughout the United States,


deaf children were evaluated by researchers who did not sign, were given test instructions in spoken English, and were required to read selections drawn entirely from the nondeaf world. The children were set up for failure and then labeled cognitively deficient. The system stayed in adjustment and the children became ab normalized.

Fortunately, at that time I stumbled upon a reference to William Stokoe's work on a sign language dictionary in Louie Fant, Jr.'s book on the National Theater of the Deaf. Not one of the "experts" I consulted was familiar with any serious study of the language of signs other than one written about a hundred years before. Stokoe's early works, which he kindly sent me, were done in the fields of anthropology and sociology and not read by educators. They confirmed my suspicions that the language of signs was indeed a language with a syntax and grammar, and that the entire research apparatus dealing with the education of the deaf was culturally biased and intellectually irresponsible.

I believe there were two underlying reasons for this: first, hearing people controlled the education of the deaf and did not bother to learn sign language; and second, this neglect of sign language was reinforced by the predominantly nondeaf parents of deaf children (there had been a rubella epidemic in the late fifties and early sixties that increased the population of school age deaf children at the time I was writing the paper). The parents did not want their children to sign and become socially identified as deaf. They wanted their children to adjust to the hearing world. They wanted their children to talk, to be "normal," and educators tried to give them what they wanted even though it was impossible. The consequence was lack of communication and often bitter alienation between nondeaf adults and their deaf children.

The most painful thing I discovered during these explo­rations was that many parents, by neglecting to learn sign lan­guage themselves, gave up the possibility of communicating with their children. Instead, often out of anxiety over their children's'

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futures, they chose to turn their children over to educators who promised to get their children to speak. Social norming and lin­guistic adjustment became a barrier between parents and chil­dren, something that often happens to immigrant children today.

I wrote a graduate school paper on the language and educa­tion of the deaf, concluding that deaf children should be taught in sign language or bilingually, and that the parents of deaf infants would be best served by learning to sign. A year later the paper was published as the booklet Language and Education of the Deaf. The response was explosive. The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf, one of the most powerful forces in the area of deaf education, attacked me as an irresponsible outsider who had no right to intrude into the field of deaf education. At the same time, I was invited to Washington, D.C., to speak about the subject at Gallaudet College, the nation's major institution of higher education for deaf people, and to do a summer program at Kendall Green, the elementary school on the Gallaudet campus.

At dinner before the speech, my wife Judy and I had time to communicate with faculty members from Galluadet. Powrie Doc­tor, one of the most respected voices in the deaf community and a professor at Gallaudet, spoke to us, a rare event. He was pro­foundly deaf and had been forced to learn oral language at school. The humiliation of that experience was such that he refused to use it except in special circumstances such as commu­nicating with Judy, myself and other nondeaf friends of the deaf community. He told us at dinner that he could lip read and speak well enough to join the hearing world but that he had made the conscious decision, as a deaf adult, to maladjust to the hearing world. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil right activists were heroes of his, and he had visions of a deaf power movement. What he wanted to do was organize from within the deaf commu­nity and build a movement to agitate for a society in which the deaf had control over their own education and made their own decisions about how they would relate to the hearing world. The


reason the Bell Association was so outraged about my pamphlet, he informed me, was that once deaf adults understood themselves as victims of a dysfunctional system and became convinced of the intelligence they obviously had, the hearing would no longer be able to control their education and their lives.

Dr. Doctor (that was the way people signed his name) told me that he went through a painful period of personal and social struggle during his withdrawal from the world of the hearing. He had to discover ways of uncovering his strengths while undoing his internalization of the stigma of being "deaf and dumb," and healing the injuries caused by being stared at when he was signing and misunderstood when he spoke. He said he decided not to adjust to being deaf.

Adjusting would have meant fitting into a world managed and controlled by hearing people—a world where he was considered damaged goods. Instead he became part of the adult deaf world where he could live a fuller life while knowing how and choosing when to navigate in the hearing world. He also decided to teach and organize among deaf people and help them learn how to manage the hearing world without being controlled by it.

One of his strategies was to show students how to turn stereo­types of deaf people on their heads—a form of what I've called creative maladjustment. For example, he encouraged his students to take trips on public transportation and observe the gestures and facial expressions of the hearing people around them. Many of these expressions and gestures have meaning in sign language, and Dr. Doctor demonstrated some of the silly, sometimes sexu­ally suggestive or personally embarrassing things hearing people inadvertently sign just by moving their hands or letting an expres­sion pass over their face.

Everyone else at the table cracked up at Dr. Doctor's imita­tions of hearing people inadvertently signing something silly or embarrassing. I felt excluded from a complex linguistic game. Dr. Doctor, after explaining the jokes, went on to describe the power

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of such role switching for some of his students. It taught them that they could observe as well as be observed, that stigma was socially constructed, and that they could take a stance toward the hearing world that would not make them feel inferior. Creative maladjustment was one of the tools he used to help his students learn to free themselves from the rage of being under the gaze and control of the hearing world. His goal was to build a community of the deaf that affirmed sign language and was not burdened by the linguistic ignorance and prejudices of the hearing world.

Dr. Doctor was a major inspiration for the deaf power move­ment, and I'm sure that, over ten years later, when students at Gallaudet walked out of classes, demanded, and won the battle for a deaf president of the college, he must have been laughing in whatever heaven there is for the creatively maladjusted.

The publisher of Language and Education of the Deaf received dozens of letters responding in particular to my advocacy of sign language in schools. Some questioned my credentials to write about deaf education. Others called for a deaf power movement. A few were from hearing parents who thanked me for giving them the courage to learn sign language. It opened up a world of com­munication with their deaf children, they wrote, whereas before there had been only silence and grief.

I like to think I had some small part in the deaf power move­ment, which has succeeded in changing many of the stereotypes about the intellectual and linguistic capacities of deaf people, and has permanently rid the "dumb" from "deaf and dumb." I have not had much to do with the education of the deaf since 1968, but the idea has stayed with me that the way students behave is as much a consequence of the system in which they are required to learn as anything within themselves, their families, communities, and cultures. The task of helping my students to figure out how to creatively maladjust to dysfunctional systems of living and learn­ing has become a significant part of my work as an educator.


In fact, I can imagine classes in creative maladjustment at teacher education institutions, for without teachers who are will­ing to take the risks on creative maladjustment, public education will continue to fail or be dismantled and privatized.

Recently I found myself trying to provoke my students into adopting precisely that stance toward their future work. I was teaching an undergraduate class, entitled "Introduction to Education," at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. This was the first class in the sequence for prospective teachers, and my students were prospective elementary or secondary school teach­ers. The first writing assignment I gave the class was to describe a very good or very bad learning experience they had had. Half of the papers described good experiences, the others horrible ones.

The "good" learning experiences involved some teacher who had gone out of her or his way to support, challenge, befriend, or encourage the student as an individual. These teachers broke through the impersonality that was the daily round of my stu­dents' lives in school and paid attention to their inner needs, aspirations, and problems. The "bad" experiences all dealt with humiliation, with teachers picking out and putting down students for getting things wrong or not understanding what was being taught.

In class discussion it came out that almost all of the students in my class were thinking about becoming public school teachers either to give their students the gifts they had received from a kind teacher who had inspired them, or to protect them from what the sociologist Edgar Freidenberg calls the "ritual humiliations of schooling" and the consequent feelings of stupidity and shame.

As a result of my students' responses I decided to spend the first two weeks of class speculating about personalized education and strategies for the elimination of humiliation in the classroom. I wanted to help the students articulate their own philosophies of education before introducing them to other ideas that might

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broaden their concept of what education might be. However, most of the students found these discussions boring and wanted me to tell them what textbook to read, what the schedule of assignments was, and how my grading system compared with that of the professor who usually taught the class. Above all, they wanted predictability, regularity, and class rankings. They had been well schooled though not necessarily well educated.

Almost all of the members of the class resisted my attempts to set an analytic and personalized context for their future teaching. A number of them had already obtained last year's texts, tests, and answers from friends. They had "scoped" out the course beforehand and found that, with a little work, they could score an A. This was a relief in their busy academic schedules. However, they didn't know that they would have a professor with different goals and outcomes in mind, and they resented it.

The students wanted to know what the right answers were, and I wanted to talk about the questions. There was a period of two weeks where the class was a dismal place. The resistance to what I was doing was palpable, and I spent hours worrying about how to reach the students without giving in to their desire for sta­tus quo education. Despite the stories they told in their papers, they had not thought much about the web that ties humiliation, grading, and closed questioning into a system of depersonalized education. I was convinced that giving in to their desires for text­books, tests, and lectures would not help them become the teach­ers they dreamed of being.

It was time to introduce creative maladjustment into the class­room, and I found a way to do it at the checkout stand of Rain­bow Supermarket in St. Paul. I have always been intrigued by gossip and scandal newspapers, especially those that trade in absurd claims. There is a perverse intelligence at work in the cre­ation of headlines such as "Survivors of Titanic Found Picnicking on Iceberg," "Hitler Runs Delicatessen in Buenos Aires," and



"Mink Coat Eats Owner." One night, while I was worrying about the lack of progress in my class, I saw the following headline: "Baby Boy Born With a Wooden Leg." I read the accompanying article and decided to integrate it into my curriculum. I bought the paper and shared the article with my class. Their assignment for the week was to get a copy of the paper, read the article, and write a three-page paper that would substantiate or deny its claims.

The students, to my thorough astonishment, took me per­fectly seriously and behaved as if I had given them another essay by Piaget to analyze. It was a tribute to the effectiveness of the cur­rent educational system that any nonsense handed out by an authority figure would be taken seriously. The students' responses were equally surprising. Some contained serious arguments about whether a baby could actually be born with a peg leg. Others were discussions of reincarnation. A few tried to make logical argu­ments about why the article couldn't possibly be true, while two claimed that it had to be true because scientists and a doctor were cited.

No one came right out and said that they thought I was putting them on with the assignment. The class discussion was quite different than usual. I noticed puzzlement and the kind of emotional stress that often leads to productive thinking. What is this crazy man asking us to do?

I was breaking the pattern, provoking questions, having them read an article from a paper they at first claimed they had never read but later on admitted they looked at in the supermarket. They were scared by the point I was making about authority and intelligence, and by the mode of question-posing and creative maladjustment that I was introducing as an alternative to right answers.

I realized that in this context it would be very easy to humili­ate the class, to show them up as being silly, which was the oppo­site




of my intent. Instead of dealing directly with their responses I decided to raise the issue of the doctor and the scientists referred to in the article. Who were they? How did one judge their author­ity or know if they even existed? Can print lie? When and why?

Over the next few days we had discussions about how to eval­uate the claims made by experts, books, journals, and the media. The theme evolved into a consideration of how to develop trust in one's own mind, judgment, and experience. And then I turned to the tension between unquestioned acceptance of authority and creative maladjustment, and to its educational implications.

The ability to break patterns and pose new questions is as important as the ability to answer questions other people set for you. This is as true for teachers who care about their students as it is for the students themselves. It requires the courage to create a bold disruption of routines of thought and practice and implies a healthy love of turning the world upside down-which is very dif­ficult in an academic situation driven by grades.

A central teaching skill consists of detecting and analyzing dysfunctional patterns of obedience and learning, and developing strategies to negate them. It means that teachers have to become sophisticated pattern detectives and sleuth out ways in which the practices they have been taught-or have inherited-inhibit learning.

Unfortunately, the momentum of educational research and the attempt to turn education into a single, predictable, and con­trollable system with national standards and national tests pulls in the opposite direction. Teaching well is a militant activity that requires a belief in children's strengths and intelligence no matter how poorly they may function under the regimens imposed upon them. It requires understanding student failure as system failure, especially when it encompasses the majority of students in a class, school, or school system. It also means stepping back and seeing oneself as a part of a dysfunctional system and developing the

courage to maladjust rather than adjust oneself to much of cur­rent educational practice. This means seeing oneself as a worker in a large system run amok and giving up the need to defend the system to yourself or in public. And, in the service of one's stu­dents, it might even involve risking one's job and career. There are limits to creative maladjustment within the system, and they sometimes drive one to act, in the service of public education, from outside the system. But it is possible to defend public edu­cation without having to defend the public schools as they cur­rently exist.

Recently I taught a graduate school teacher education class called "Using Words Well." The class, for practicing teachers, was predicated on the idea that young people need the opportu­nity to speak about ideas and experience with each other rather than constantly be asked to respond to set questions. Toward the end of the class we had an intense discussion about ways in which time can be found in the classroom for students to learn how to speak well and intelligently. Most of the teachers said there was no way they could fit in open-ended conversation because they were being held to student time on task and learning outcomes—that is, to working at measurable tasks using controlled materials with­out a moment for thought, reflection, or discussion. The net in which teachers and students had been caught was of a very fine mesh. There were no spaces available for the free flow of ideas and stories. The pattern of life in their classrooms inhibited the development of their students and quieted their own enthusiasm for teaching. The last part of the class was devoted to ways of breaking out of the net, ways of sneaking in love of language and the joy of communication.

"Baby Boy Born With a Wooden Leg"—the use of absurdity with a straight face—was foreign to these teachers' styles and classroom personalities. We had to figure out other ways to help them break the patterns. Teachers are rarely encouraged in an





educational setting to speculate on what is absurd in their own work. That would be unprofessional. But we were unprofessional with joy.

The teachers in the class came up with their own strategies for pattern-breaking in the classroom. One teacher said that she would not grade the most important paper of the year but ask for revisions instead. Another decided that the reward for finishing assignments would not be time off but time on—that is, she would allow students to get into issue discussion groups and mural projects. A third decided that half of all formal class assign­ments could be fulfilled by writing ungraded novels and poetry instead. And all came up with a commitment to talk for at least fifteen minutes a day about something happening in the world or something of a sensitive nature that was on the students' minds.

One member of the class said that all of these proposals were steps into sanity. His district had been bombarded with outcome-­based learning, alternative and standard assessments, national standards in all subjects, and other such nonsense. He was ready to fight back but needed a first step into maladjustment-that is, working specifically and consciously on breaking sanctioned though dysfunctional patterns of learning. He said he was going to come to school early one day, pile up all of the chairs and desks and push them in the corner. Then, when the students came, he would begin class as if nothing unusual had happened and leave it to the students to respond. He did it a few weeks later and told me that he was probably the most nervous person in the room but that once one of the students asked what was going on, there was an animated discussion of his actions and a permanent reorgani­zation of the room.

This is not a small thing. It is a powerful first lesson in break­ing the pattern for both students and teacher. It provides a sense that it is possible to go beyond what authorities tell you to do and that you can cross boundaries and create new forms of associa­tion.

However, it is a private act performed behind closed class­room doors. The next steps in creative maladjustment are more difficult. They involve reaching out to other teachers and to the community the school serves, engaging others in the struggle to create decent and effective schools, becoming a leader in your own school and community, and taking responsibility for that role.

There are a number of specific things people within and out­side of public education can do in defense of public education. One essential step is to seek out and find good-practice schools or classrooms that work within the public schools. As educators we must articulate and defend what we consider to be good practice. This is difficult when you are part of a system that has produced so much failure. Nevertheless there are good examples of public education that works and books that document them, such as Embracing Diversity, edited by Laurie Olsen (San Francisco: California Tomorrow, 1991); The Good Common School: Making the Vision Work for All Children (Boston, MA: National Coalition of Advocates for Students, 1992); and George Wood, Schools that Work: America's Most Innovative Public Education Programs (New York: Dutton, 1992). The journal Rethinking Schools (IOOI E. Keefe Ave., Milwaukee, WI, 53212) is also a marvelous source of information about current school struggles and the excellent work one can find within public education.

Create a library of good practice for yourself and your school. One form of creative maladjustment is to be literate and knowl­edgeable about what is going on in public education throughout the country and to share that knowledge with teachers' organiza­tions and the community. ­

In addition, it is our responsibility as educators to examine all of the categories of educational stigma and to stand against any­thing that damages our students or limits their life possibilities—­for example, programs whose funding depends on a perpetual





supply of failing students. In the early I970s I was asked to help a group of Chicano college students in southern California set up a reading and writing program in a local public school. The school district had agreed to enter into a partnership with the college, and several third- and fourth-grade classes were chosen for the experiment. Almost all of the children in the classes were "Title IV" children—that is, they were poor, predominantly minority students who were functioning below grade level and therefore qualified for extra federal funding under Title IV of the Elemen­tary and Secondary Education Act of 1964. The federal money was to be used to support the program.

After a year of hard work the program began to bear fruit. One by one, and then in small groups, the students began to per­form on grade level until a critical mass of about two-thirds of the students involved were on or above grade level. At that point some of the college students called and asked me to return to southern California to help plan the next step, which was to expand their program up to the fifth and sixth, and down to the first and sec­ond grades.

A few days before my visit, I received another call telling me that the program had been cancelled. I asked what had happened and was told that since the program succeeded in getting a num­ber of third and fourth graders up to grade level, those students no longer qualified for Title IV money. The district's Title IV budget was cut, and there was no more financial support for the program. It had to close down. The school-district administration was angry at the students and the college for messing up its sup­plemental funding. One of the district administrators even remarked at a public meeting that the district had to get the num­ber of its Title IV-qualified students back up in order to maintain its programs. In less than one full academic year the school had reconstituted enough failure to get its full Title IV funding again.

Title IV programs, and other programs that tie money to student­

failure, do not have a mechanism to deal with success. Programs such as this should be tied to equity issues and centered around the maintenance of quality education rather than the tem­porary remediation of deficiencies. A creative, though malad­justed, response to such programs should be the writing of enabling legislation and the political mobilization of teachers and communities in support of continued good education rather than remedial programs.

The strategy of stigmatizing children as a cover for educa­tional incompetency is not, however, limited to children of the poor. The primary victims of this syndrome are middle-class chil­dren who can perform academically but refuse to do so when they are not challenged. The category was invented as an extension of the idea that as educators we do not need to examine our practice and change it when it fails. Recently a new category of stigma has been constructed: Attention Deficit Disorder. Students desig­nated as ADD often refuse to sit still and listen silently when a teacher or another person in authority is talking; they resist fol­lowing instructions blindly; they refuse to do boring worksheets and other assignments if they feel they already know the material. Interestingly enough, these conditions are positive qualifications for future participatory citizenship, and an argument can be made that ADD is one way that public school authorities are suppress­ing the spirit of democracy.

In his well-documented book on the educationally handi­capped (EH), The Learning Mystique, the neurologist Gerald Coles establishes that there is no physiological or medical condi­tion common to all EH children. His remarks hold true for ADD as well. According to Coles, EH is not a condition of brain pathology.

Once designated EH, children are removed from their usual classrooms for the whole or part of the day; some of them are drugged with ritalin; most of them are subjected to simplified ver­sions





of the learning material that they had already failed to mas­ter in their original classrooms. The special classes they are some­times sent to are smaller than regular classes, and funded through special laws and regulations providing for special education: The teachers are EH specialists, which means that they took special classes in college on the education of "the EH child" and have certificates, or even master's degrees, in the field-and those col­lege classes are usually taught by professors who have themselves specialized in EH education. However, the substance of what is taught in classes on the education of the EH child is not much different than what is taught in ordinary teacher-education classes.

Thus the EH child is surrounded by an entire social system entailing laws, regulations, funding, college classes, degrees, and certification. The inability of regular classrooms to educate all children (and in particular minority and working-class and poor children) has led to the creation of a profession that depends on children being pushed out of "normal" classrooms and made pathological. Programs that depend on the stigmatization of chil­dren (including those at universities that certify teachers to certify children as deficient) must be opposed by creatively maladjusted educators. Teacher education institutions are very sensitive to what they refer to as "pressure from the profession," and speaking out at professional meetings and writings letters of complaint to schools of education about the institutionalization of stigmatiza­tion can be very effective. So can the refusal of a classroom teacher to refer any student to special education.

The existence of the EH social subsystem in the schools has not led to a wide-scale increase in the levels of performance of children designated EH. In fact, once the idea is established that school failure is always the fault of the child and that one can get away with blaming the victims of failed practice, the way is open for the constant creation of new categories of pathological behav­ior

as well as for a proliferation of new professions. When school failure reaches massive proportions, the climate is created for going beyond the creation of individual systems of pathology. Categories of social stigmatization are then developed, which turns societal prejudices into pseudoscientific systems of behavior control. We are now at that point. The category of "at risk," though applied to individual children, is a form of social stigmati­zation that is often difficult to distinguish from racism and class bias.

It is hard to find a clear definition of "at risk" or of "at risk behavior." The clearest definition I've seen appears in the book At-Risk, Low-Achieving Students in the Classroom, by Judy Brown Lehr and Hazel Wiggins Harris. The authors admit at the very beginning of Chapter One that "a review of the literature does not indicate a published definition of the at-risk, low-achieving stu­dent." Then they go on to give a list of possible labels for the "at­-risk, low-achieving student." Here are some of the labels they come up with:

disadvantaged, culturally deprived, underachiever, non achiever, low ability, slow learner, less able, low socioeconomic status, language-­impaired, dropout-prone, alienated, marginal, disenfranchised, impoverished, underprivileged, low-performing and remedial. *

The authors then go on to list characteristics that can be used to identify students at risk (all of which need not be present, they tell us, in order to identify an at-risk student):

. . . academic difficulties, lack of structure (disorganized), inattentive­ness, distractibility, short attention span, low self-esteem, health prob­lems, excessive absenteeism, dependence, discipline problem, narrow

* Judy Brown Lehr and Hazel Wiggins Harris, At-Risk, Low-Achieving Students in the Classroom (Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, 1990), p. 9.




range of interest, lack of social skills, inability to face pressure, fear of failure (feels threatened by learning), and lack of motivation.*
The whole question of identifying at-risk students is itself risky business. To identify children as "at risk" is to pick them out for special treatment not for what they have done but for what they might do. A child who is merely doing poorly in school is not nec­essarily at risk. Nor is a child who has a strong will and a sense of cultural pride and self-respect that she or he feels is violated by the circumstances of schooling.

What makes a child at risk? What is the hidden agenda of the people who have manufactured the "at-risk" category? What are at-risk children at risk of doing? In plain language, at-risk chil­dren are at risk of turning the poverty and prejudice they experi­ence against society rather than learning how to conform and take their "proper" place. The children are maladjusting, and it is their teachers' role to make that maladjustment functional and creative rather than to suppress it.

One powerful way for educators to creatively maladjust is to repudiate all categories and assume responsibility for changing their practice until it works for the children they have previously been unable to serve. Another is to advocate genuine educational choice within the public schools and to demand that teachers, parents, and other groups of educators should have the right to create small schools within the context of large public school sys­tems, with the freedom and resources to operate effectively.

There are risks in becoming creatively maladjusted. You might get fired or find projects you have nurtured into existence destroyed by a threatened bureaucracy or conservative school board. You might find yourself under pressure at school and at home to stop making trouble and feel like giving in to the tempta­tion to re-adjust and become silent. The choice of when, where,

*Ibid., p. 11



how, and whether to maladjust is both moral and strategic, and though it has social and educational consequences, it is funda­mentally personal and private.

For those of us who choose to remake the schools and reaffirm the need for equity, decency, creativity, and openness within public education, walking the line between survival and moral action is a constant and often unnerving challenge. We have to think about being part of an opposition within the system and be articulate and explicit in that role. We have to reach out and develop allies and not be afraid to encounter and confront school boards, administrators, and our own unions with clear positions on educational issues backed by first-rate practice. And we must remember and affirm what we often tell our students: that we can become the people we would like to be, that it is nec­essary to live with hope, and that it is possible to create a decent life and a decent world.


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