When I was having difficulty remembering to pass around sign-in sheets for each of my classes in my early years of teaching, I created my own set of sign-in sheets with one of my favourite quotes on each of them. Even though I knew that the quotes would make my students realize that I’m even more of a dork than I appear at first blush, the ability to share those quotes with my students still did its trick in getting me to take attendance more often. Most of the quotes have something to do with education and/or personal growth, and not being able to use those sheets after we transitioned to online learning partway through last semester was a downer. At least now I’ve got time to prepare an alternate way of getting those quotes to my students in my online classes this coming semester.
The very first of those attendance sheets, the one I usually use on the first day of every new class, has one of my favourite Bruce Lee quotes printed at the top: “Do not pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” On top of being good life advice in general, this quote also reinforces a message I make clear to all my students from the start of class: Writing is difficult work. For all the books I’ve written, and for all the money and prizes I’ve earned from my writing work, writing is still very difficult for me, and I truly believe that nearly all of the most successful writers in the world would tell you the same thing. I make clear to my students that I can’t make writing easy for them, but I will do what I can to make it easier, and that caveat always helps me set the tone at the start of class, a tone of honesty and mutual respect that helps build the foundation of all the difficult work we, students and instructor alike, will be doing in that class for the remainder of the semester.
Attitudes towards what constitutes an “easy life” and a “difficult life” are one of those things that can tell a lot about a person’s political and cultural beliefs. A few weeks ago, I was reading Joel Klein’s memoir of his time running the school system of New York City during Michael Bloomberg’s mayorality (details of which can be found, along with my thoughts about other books I’m reading and the other work I’m engaged in right now, on my newly-relaunched Patreon), and of all the things that angered me while I read that book, Klein’s praise of a commencement speech given by the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, was the one that brought me closest to chucking my tablet across my bedroom.
A few years ago, at his son’s ninth grade graduation, Roberts actively wished, in his words, “bad luck” to all the students there, in hopes that the adversity would help them grow as people. On its surface, this sentiment may seem identical to that of the Bruce Lee quote, but there is a world of difference; although Lee professed a belief that a difficult life is preferable to an easy life, he didn’t wish difficulty on anyone. Roberts told a bunch of ninth graders that he hoped they were “treated unfairly,” and that they “suffered betrayal.” Lee did not express a desire to see bad times befall anyone. The Chief Justice of this country’s highest court told a bunch of barely post-pubescent children that he hoped life kicked them in the balls.
In my experience, and in talking with my friends and colleagues and students over the years, it’s pretty clear that life already does a more-than-adequate job of giving people more than enough ill treatment on its own. I don’t try to hide this from my students; I remind them several times throughout each class that much of the world they inhabit is cruel, and that they need to be prepared for all the forces out there that will try to bring them down as they work at bettering the world around them. Instead of crushing their souls with this fact, though, I use it as a launching-off point to encourage them to put in the hard work to improve their rhetorical and critical thinking skills, because those will help them develop the tools they’ll need to ameliorate the hardships that we all face in our lives. Faced with the responsibility of helping students adjust to a harsh and often-unforgiving world, my response, and the response of every respectable person I know, is to ask, “So how do we start trying to make things better?”
Responding to young people’s hardships with words to the effect of, “I hope your life starts sucking even more” defies not only compassion, but also the essential spirit of humanity. That kind of thinking is prevalent across this country, though, and it has a very clear political tilt to it. Just listen to all the fathers who talk about how it’s good for their sons to get concussions while playing youth football, or the plethora of online videos showing parents destroying their children’s most cherished possessions to “teach them a lesson” about some perceived slight (which is, by the way, one of the most reliable signs of abuse out there). When people talk about the prototypical “ugly American,” this is always one of the aspects of American culture that springs to my mind immediately.
Needless to say, I wasn’t all that surprised to hear of Chief Justice Roberts expressing sentiments like this in a public forum. That Joel Klein would laud Roberts’ speech would have been bad enough if Klein’s public career had come to an end in the Clinton Administration, since it was even more proof of just how right-wing the Democratic Party has become over the past thirty years. As someone with the responsibility of educating millions of children, though, Klein going out of this way to commend Roberts’ “bad luck” wishes is ghastly. If he had expressed these beliefs while he was running my (hypothetical) children’s schools, I would have pulled my children out on the spot, and spent every day after that screaming outside his office until he resigned. People who want bad things to happen to children have no business influencing the development of children, whether as school administrators, teachers, or parents.
The past quarter-century of corporate education “reform” in America has proven just how popular the ideology of “give kids unnecessary hardships just to make them suffer” has become among the people making the decisions about how our country’s children are educated. In a way, my visceral disgust at reading this particular passage of Klein’s memoir may have been somewhat self-directed, because I should have known that Klein would find something to applaud in Roberts’ speech. The only thing I had any right to be surprised about is how brazenly Klein writes about the whole thing. There was a time when Klein and his set would at least try to cloak their antipathies in a gossamer of respectability. If there is any kind of veil left over their true form, it’s barely visible now.
As this November’s election approaches us like a fire tornado, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that we can expect more of this kind of inhumane ideology dominating our schools, and subjugating our children to even more misery. The corporate education “reformer” whose national star Klein helped to launch, the one person on the planet who might be an even worse Secretary of Education than Betsy DeVos, looks likely to succeed DeVos in that post, regardless of who takes the presidential oath of office next January. Those of us who care about the children of not just this country but the whole world, those of us who see that those children are already suffering too much and need us to lessen those hardships for them, are about to be in the fight for those children’s lives. The odds against us are steep, and the opposition is the epitome of cruelty and barbarism, but that’s all the more reason for us to hone the skills we’ll need to win this fight. For the future of those children — and this planet — we can’t afford to lose.