Wednesday, June 30, 2021

One More Lens

I often talk about education as the work of acquiring more tools, but there's value (particularly right now) in framing education as a collection of lenses.

There's a scene in the counter-reality romp National Treasure in which our heroes have to use some fancy glasses to see secret messages on important documents. And that's a good simplified model--looking through different lenses allows you to see different things.

Studying literature is about finding different lenses through which to see a work.

Sometimes it's a chore--if you use the right set of lenses and squint, then you can convince yourself that the ending of Huckleberry Finn fits with the rest of the novel. Is it ironic? Is it a final twist on a search for identity? Is it a discouraging take on American oppression? Or is it just an author getting stuck and finally just writing his way out any way he could think of?

Sometimes it's exciting. One of my college professors would always talk about the ambiguity than enriches, and I think of works like Hamlet--every time you look with different lens, you see a different work, but each work is awesome. Is the play about death? Is it about depression? Is it about power? Is it about generational conflict? 

As society grows and changes and scholars push boundaries, new lenses are developed. 100 years reading through a lens of critiquing patriarchal power structures or theories about racist systems was not a thing. The rise and fall of certain authors in the canon often runs parallel to the rise and fall of certain lenses; the rosy glow of a Romantic lens is out of favor, and so some Romantic authors are no longer in favor.

The use of lenses is, of course, not just a literary thing. We bring our lenses to reading history, consuming pop culture, even reading the actions and character of the humans around us. 

But the important part--and I cannot say this hard enough--is to use more than one lens.

Literature, history, media, humans--all very complex, and the more lenses we use to filter our perception, the more details we can tease out and understand. The more lenses we use, the better we understand how our old views were incomplete, sometimes dramatically and dangerously so. A single lens always has blind spots.

Many of our issues are problems with one-lens people.

It's a reliable "there are two kinds of people" dichotomy. In any English department in any school, there are two types of teachers--those who believe there's just one way to read Literary Work X, and those that believe there are multiple ways to read. Right now you are probably remembering one of each. David Coleman and his Common Core reading ideas touched a nerve with so many of us because he is clearly a one-lens guy. His direction to read only within the four corners of the text is a call to throw out every other lens you use to view readings. Autocrats like Donald Trump sell the idea that their followers don't need other lenses (maybe even no lenses at all) except the lens of "Dear Leader always tells the truth." 

Where do one-lens people come from? 

Some folks just go through a stage. Like new converts to any previously unknown viewpoint, some folks just get excited. I am ashamed to admit there was a nine month period during which I Bechdel tested the hell out of everything in sight as if it was the only way to watch anything. You get excited about your new lens, and you kind of forget to consider anything else. 

But I think the big source on one-lenser is people who want the world to be clear and simple. The idea that you can use multiple lenses, the multiple things can be true at the same time. If there are conflicting of a person or an event, then either the problematic view must cancel out the good, or the good view must cancel out any negatives. 

And because these folks have just one lens, they must view attempts to promote any other lenses as an attempt not to supplement, but to supplant. Pushing a new lens troubles them, alarms them, and they can't give an inch. An attempt to examine ways in which racism has affected US history and institutions will, for some folks, mean that we're going to throw out anything good the country has ever done. They get stuck in endless loops of this conversation:

Pat: I'm just saying there's another way to look at this.

Sam: So you're saying I'm wrong. But you're wrong.

And when one-lensers clash, when someone really is trying to completely replace one lens with another, then we have a conflict that cannot be resolved by anything other than a patch of scorched earth. 

If you have just one lens with which to view the world, that's part of who you are, and anything that challenges that lens challenges your identity. And there is almost nothing that people will fight harder to defend.

The tension between single and multiple lenses has always been part of our country, and it has certainly always been part of how we talk about and do education. For some folks, education is about giving students experience using that One True Lens and keeping it polished. You can see it in the people who have been complaining for the past several years that they don't students taught all that bias and stuff--just the facts. As if there's a set of objectively true historical facts that look exactly the same no matter what, because the only lens is the "facts" lens. Having just one lens means never having to say you're biased.

The other education approach is to, in effect, try to give students fluidity with the greatest possible number of lenses, as well as some skill in figuring out which ones work best when. This, for one lensers, is what indoctrination is all about--teaching students that there's more than one way to read the world. 

Multi-lens teaching isn't hard. I did it for most of my career without really thinking of it in those terms. I taught American literature, which meant that religion, race, gender, politics, wildly different views of the world were all on the table. My approach, whether it was Puritanism or 19th century critical realism, was to say, "I'm going to try to show you how these people viewed the world. I'm not here to say that they're right or wrong, and what you decide to think about them is up to you, but I want you to understand what they believed about how to be in the world." I never wanted them to answer the question "Who's right," but just "What would this group think about X?" If I could  teach just one thing in a year, I was hoping for, "People can see things differently for reasons other than stupidity or evil." 

I can't claim I always kept my own viewpoint out of my classroom, but I always labeled it as such, and I hope I ran a classroom where it was safe to disagree with me. 

The multilens view is, of course, its own kind of lens. But I've been using it to help unravel the current scramble over "divisive issues" in the classroom, and to think about what teaching really is, or should be. Some folks have been arguing that this massive argument is a sign that we need school choice, that public schools suck at uniting. I'm not sure that the ideas themselves are the real root of divisiveness as much as the single lens approach. Yes, it's a problem if some folks are racist, but it's an insoluble problem if they are incapable of imagining that real people could be any other way.

I hope that my children and grandchildren move through the world with as many lenses as they can carry. I hope our schools bring together people who use many different lenses and teach them about many more. I wear bifocals and have a pair of reading glasses for playing music. With two different eyes, that's a total of six different lenses; to really see the world I have to use some different combination of them all at various times. If I ever need more, that'll be fine, too.

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