"Trying to revitalize my idealism and passion for the arts while segueing into a field that was allegedly recession-proof, I branched out into teaching art. Even as early as 2003, it was clear to me what was in store for the American economy. All the signs were there: America had just emerged from a minor recession - a life boat drill for the catastrophe to come. The tech industry had recently capsized and I knew the housing market would take on water next. The course we had charted had been made and now it was only a matter of time. It was no longer a question of "if", but rather "when" the disaster would occur. Even the “where” became pretty obvious after the Enron and WorldCom scandals: Wall Street. When the American economy did sink, I knew the suction would pull the rest of the world down with it into the murky depths. Every day I watched the cost of living climb and a chilling proliferation in the ranks of the homeless on our streets. A black storm was gathering on the American horizon, but everyone was acting like the picnic would last forever.
It was all too eerily reminiscent of the pattern of events that led up to the Great Depression. Another lesson unlearned, America has always been the obnoxious, spoiled brat in the classroom who laughed about his failing grades in History. As events would unfold, the laughter would end in bitter tears soon enough.
By the turn of the new century, electronic media had flatlined our critical thinking skills and hammered another nail into the coffin lid of literacy in this country. I had no patience with our culture of over-stimulated under-achievement. The only effective way to influence the future is through the education of the young. So, what started out as a way to supplement my income became a mission that carried a great deal of personal meaning for me. I wanted to make a difference. Once again I stuck my neck out on the block for my convictions. I wasn’t naïve about the potential difficulties, but sitting around and bitching about the problem wasn’t my style.
The prize seemed worth the risk. I always thought teaching was one of the noblest (if most under-appreciated) of professions, one that should go well beyond the mere imparting of information and technical skills. You must also tickle the talent to draw out any hidden potential submerged under years of low self-esteem and a lack of opportunity. The biggest rewards came from the moment of ignition. You could see it in the student’s eyes when it did happen: the beautiful way an idea or an understanding would make contact with their minds and set it afire with its unfolding constellation of possibilities. When it happened, it was quite a high for both parties. And sometimes those fires spread throughout a whole class, enveloping it in a swift brushfire of humming activity.
At the beginning of every semester I told the students that my classroom was a safety zone where they were free to explore, be themselves and make mistakes (the most valuable teacher of all) just so long as they met the course objectives, didn’t violate ethics or burn down the school. I also told them that for the next semester the entirety of my experience and knowledge was at their disposal: they had questions and I had the answers to them. No games. No withholding. My policy was clear, concise and based upon total honesty, mutual respect and the free exchange of information. You could hear the collective tension in the room drop and shatter into a delighted sigh of relief. Apparently, what I was doing was a rare occurrence in the classroom.
This is the way it’s supposed to be. And, sometimes, that’s the way it did happen, but the frequent reality was often quite different. Human nature made it so. As I was to find out the hard way, in the wrong hands - on both sides of the lectern - education can easily become a swindle, a sleazy dodge for the lazy, untalented and unscrupulous . . . . just as it is in the world of art.
Some narcissistic instructors turn a classroom into a hall of mirrors and their students into groupies. The only lesson they could ever impart was in the maintenance and upkeep of an egotist. Takers, rather than givers, they were vampires who spent valuable class time draining the kid’s spirits rather than filling their heads. Not surprisingly, many students became hardened by these experiences. I wanted to mentor these kids and influence them away from this kind of cynicism. By replacing vicious competition with productive cooperation – a strategy that would pay dividends in the long-term, rather than the short – they could achieve their goals in a way consistent with their “principles”. To further this agenda, I quietly rewarded some of my top students with their very first paying industry gigs. I attempted to graduate them from being novices in a sheltered academic environment to being protégés functioning in an adult work-a-day world.
I often wonder if my efforts weren’t squandered. I know in many cases they were stonewalled.
Our nation’s current race to the bottom is sped along by its fierce anti-intellectualism, political apathy and the consequent trend towards the privatization/corporatization of our public education system. Following the trail of evidence back to the source of the crime, we find that all standards and values have been undermined by unrestrained free market ideology penetrating into every aspect of American life. The New Pedagogy consisted of kissing the children’s asses while picking their parent’s pockets and then leading them down the garden path to slaughter in a labor market where the unemployment rate ran into the double digits. In the last half century, Americans have held up education as an important means of achieving a better quality of life. That Corporate America would subvert, pervert and exploit this most fundamental of American aspirations is beyond sinister. An enemy of humanistic values, profit over people remains the only prevailing motive for many corporations. The tradition of Western education is nothing if not people-centered and its recent move away from humanism and towards becoming profit-driven is misguided and a total distortion of its purpose.
In the United States, morality has been replaced by market forces and humanism by hubris and this is why its future has become forfeit. We are now a nation in thrall to a brutal species of predatory capitalism that erodes our connection with and responsibility towards each other. A society that operates under such a corrosive guiding principle cannot possibly hold together and when its reach extends to the education of our children, the future falls under a pall of doubt.
Kids aren’t stupid, they’re merely inexperienced. And when inexperience announces its presence, that vulnerability attracts predators. Fraudsters emerge from the shadows to sniff it out and feed upon it like pigs in a truffle hunt. All that’s left when these con-men are finished running their sting is unemployment, bitterness and wasted human potential.
This dynamic only worsens when the growing sense of entitlement of Americans becomes inversely disproportionate to their sense of duty and responsibility. This is not an accident. It's a colossal bait-and-switch on the part of Corporate America to swap out our drive for meaningful lives with passive consumption of their products and services. And it has worked brilliantly. The message they spew out over the popular media informs our young people that achievement shouldn't be any more difficult than a mouse click and a drag away. They are told that anything more demanding should be met with dismissive yawns and huffy paroxysms of impatience. They dumb them down as they play up to their vanity so that they can enslave them in debt. As a result, no society has ever seen a wider chasm separating the fantasy of delusional narcissism and the grim reality of no future prospects in its younger generations. Corporate America is the primary mover in making this schizophrenic, divide-and-conquer split happen. Using an onslaught of advertising media, it has barraged our society into submission and colonized our minds to gain access to our credit cards. Its re-engineering of our society has been largely responsible for the latest crop of jaded, twenty-somethings: low on empathy and high on immediate gratification; disconnected from meaningful interactions, but hardwired into the latest networking technology; superficially sociable, but, in reality, poorly socialized and seething with deep anti-social rage. Burned out and saturated by an overload of high-fructose mind candy, "Meh. Fuck it, dude. Whatever," appears to be their nihilistic response to anything more demanding of their attention spans than a Captain Crunch commercial. And Corporate America has been greatly enriched by it - economically as well as politically.
I was instructed by my department supervisors at a couple colleges where I worked to implement a milk-and-bilk strategy on the students and their parents. I was told under no uncertain terms that a large part of my job would consist of shilling classes, not instructing them. “Always withhold information, Curt, always. Keep them insecure and hungry for information and they'll spend more money at the college. Brainwash them into thinking that they can't be successful without taking more of our classes.” At a high school I was advised by the principal that “many of these kids are headed for unemployment, jail and homelessness so don't bother knocking yourself out. Their parents don't care, so why should you? They're just not worth it.” In all of these cases I defied and subverted their directives and paid the price gladly. Over the years, my pride has been dealt many blows, but the one I could never tolerate was the self-inflicted one where I had taken pay for a job and not delivered results that were commensurate with my abilities.
“Those Who Cannot Do, Teach” (and Those Who Can Do Neither Become Critics) was another windmill that begged to be tilted. The act of dispelling this myth was deeply offensive to some members of the administration and faculty, most of whom had never left the protective bubble of academia, let alone met a tough deadline or billed a client. My résumé clearly ratcheted up their insecurities and a few indulged in a form of hazing, dismissing my achievements as a fraud. They leaned on the self-serving rationalization that I wasn't a "real artist" because I made a living income from projects that were “too accessible to the wider public”. Uh huh. Try laying that snobbish trip on the Egyptian sculptors who carved the temple complex at Thebes for the royal dynasties or Leonardo Da Vinci who accepted painting commissions from the Catholic Church (Some of Da Vinci's original contracts still exist. They outlined payment schedules, materials used, dimensions of the artwork, progress reviews and deadlines. It all sounded suspiciously like lowly commercial "hack work" to me, but, then again, what did I know? I was merely "a hack" who didn't have an alphabet soup of acronyms trailing after my surname). Some of the academic charlatans I had run-ins with ran the gamut:
· The adjunct art history professor who whined about a student who knew more about ancient Egyptian culture than he did and retaliated by giving her a lower grade (his perversity and incompetence was later rewarded with tenure at the college);
· An English teacher who graded on a very easy curve - especially for those students who sold him pot at a steep discount;
· The administrator who drilled into her students the ungrammatical and wholly moronic axiom, "History is Numbers. Numbers is History". Teaching to the test and indulging her laziness was the point of the exercise, not getting the kids engaged in how the past informs the present and molds their futures. Amongst this vast boneyard of dates and rote battle statistics, the only real casualty of her class was student learning;
· A panicked college drawing instructor who begged me to teach her two and three point perspective . . . . fifteen minutes before she was scheduled to teach it to her class.
· The art school that handed out honorary doctorates so that the school’s owner/CEO could schmooze with high-profile arts/entertainment industry celebrities (even though they only awarded diplomas as high as a master’s degree to the students). This advancement of her personal ambitions was paid for with the hard-earned tuition money of the parents and students, and;
· A department chair from the same college (an unemployed cel washer whose only qualification for the job was her connection with an executive vice president at the school) who attempted to teach a whole class on the subject of design maquettes . . . . after cribbing some notes at a brief lecture I gave on the subject. When her class inevitably failed, she called me in to teach it the next semester. When my maquette sculpting class was a success, producing outstanding work and garnering high ratings from the students, ( davinci41.deviantart.com/journ… ) the chair rewarded me with an abrupt lay-off. She then spread the slander that I was “fired for gross incompetence”. According to many students at the school, this treatment was a common operating procedure for any instructor who made the mistake of doing distinguished work. With so many vindictive mediocrities and failed, embittered artists filling the ranks of the administration, it wasn’t wise to tweak anyone’s vanity by doing your job too well. Apparently, “excellence” was only an empty word meant to figure prominently in their sales brochures, not their classrooms.
These were the “professionals” who gave education a bad reputation with the tacit blessing of their employers and a passive student body. The message they broadcasted to the students was loud and clear: a paucity of character and ability, when combined with an abundance of cynicism, was a surefire formula to advance your career. And unlike so many other lessons lost on unreceptive minds, this one was embraced with gusto by many of the kids.
The school administrators I worked for always remained unsupportive and coolly noncommittal if there was a performance or discipline problem with a student. Often, the only rigor they demonstrated was in buck-passing, finger-pointing and pitting the different parties against each other. Under the pretense of protecting the student's interests, the administrators scapegoated good teachers who challenged the kids with high standards of accomplishment, built up the expectation that education is a catering service and then subverted that expectation into financial gain for the school. Many of the kids knew it too and went along with this agenda out of apathy, laziness and opportunism. Eloi-like, they played right into the agendas of the Morlocks who ran these schools. The isolated few who had the insight to see this and the outrage to speak out about it were often overwhelmed by the scope of the problem. It made stonewalling their protests relatively easy for the administrators. Most, however, had no loyalty to anyone or anything except their own impulse gratification. It was a good match between the quality of the schools and the quality of the students they matriculated. The one richly deserved the other in this closed-circuit food chain of fraud and failure.
This wasn't the only voice in a chorus of competing influences that undermined my efforts in the classroom. The teacher as the sole repository of all blame had by now become a convenient stereotype in the American mindset - especially for parents who expected us to do the dirty work of raising their children for them . . . . but without giving us the authority to establish values, set boundaries and maintain discipline. Without fail, every semester I would receive at least one haughty demand from one of these parents insisting that I pay obeisance to the whims of their little darling. It usually concluded with a threat to end my teaching career if I didn't comply immediately. I ignored these deluded bullies, but some went further still and crossed moral boundaries that should not have been crossed . . . .
I was paid to teach, not to pander. Although some of the parents could appreciate this because they were schooled in an older tradition, their kids were an altogether different story. One tantrum I would hear in several different variations over the years was: "Dude, why don't you try talking down at our fucking level, huh?" So nice to have terms dictated to me by someone who was still having their mommy wipe their ass when I was making my bones in the industry. I countered with a challenge: "I've got a better idea, why don't you step up to mine." This, of course, would trigger reprisals and complaints. In spite of their bravado and sense of entitlement, people like this are highly self-destructive and always short-circuit their own futures. They secretly despise themselves for screwing over those who have given them a good turn and the more they try to suppress this truth, the more it bubbles to the surface like a noxious swamp gas. The neurotic stench of guilt and violated trust that they carry about them thwarts their progress in both life and career. (So, no worries on my behalf. Besides, the best revenge is always accomplished with clean hands and quiet composure. Sit back and enjoy the show: allow the guilty to wear themselves out doing your dirty work for you because they will always fuck themselves over harder than their victims ever could. When you betray others you only betray yourself.)Based upon what I witnessed as a teacher, I was filled with dread and anxiety for the future of our country. At the teaching level, I was witnessing the slow-motion suicide of America unfold before my eyes . . . ."
Copyright © Curt C. Chiarelli