Double Consciousness

This week, in an after school discussion, two students and I had the best chat about the divided or “double-consciousness” of the American people–especially, people of color.  I argued that society forces it upon us as a means of psychological survival.  They argued that it’s a natural part of the maturation process, that as we grow older, we shed the need for a divided-self.  It was amazing.

Like so many of our conversations, I can’t remember how it began or ended, but the middle is where the truth really was for me.  We were free of concern for all the other students who might be waiting for help from their teacher.  We could challenge each other’s thinking, and basically just vibe, without worrying that the bell was going to ring and cut the conversation short.  We asked open ended questions of each other, and laughed a lot.  It was the perfect storm of being with these two particular students–who humble me every day with their greatness–and it being that time in the world where quality extended conversation is a rarity, therefore rendering it even more precious.

In any case, the after school chat sesh turned to WEB DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, and the divided consciousness of the American people.  Somehow this traveled to a discussion of the “hidden curriculum” and the ways that students don’t really have to be learners, or true seekers of truth and expansion to “win” school.  They just need to know how to play the game.  Many students get belligerent when teachers mess with the rules of the game as they know it.  As I’ve said before, they just want to show up, fill out the worksheet, and get their “Easy A”.  We have programmed them to be this way.

If the goal was to create the perfect educational system that churns out the perfect worker to feed the perfect Capitalist economic need for ever more workers to produce ever more products for ever more consumers; we have succeeded.

This success may end up costing us everything.

There are a lot of experimental educational models being developed, invested in, and implemented every day.  The majority of these put a new spin on old ideas by filtering the learning through fun apps, iPads, or Chromebooks.  Though we are trying to reach 21st Century learners or the iGen “on their level”, more and more students are becoming disillusioned with school and do not feel it is a place for them.  This results in students, teachers, and entire organizations, developing a double consciousness–the “student” or “teacher” self they present to the world, and the learner or seeker they truly are.

WEB DuBois says that “double consciousness”, “is a peculiar sensation…this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

If this is so, I would argue that we in education are going through just such an identity crisis.  We do not yet have a clear vision of what we are, or what we want to be.

Ideally, students would show up, they would have learning goals that they set, I would facilitate the learning with tools and whatever knowledge/expertise I can provide, perhaps challenge them with some questions, and they would have at it.  I know there are some schools that work with models similar to this, but still, the majority of our schools don’t.  Even so, in most teacher evaluation tools, the mark of a “Distinguished” teacher is that they have made themselves obsolete.

Paulo Freire, in his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, discusses at length, the notion that education as the practice of liberation means that teachers no longer see themselves as the keepers of all knowledge.  The teacher becomes the student, and the student the teacher.  In the role reversal that takes place, both teacher and student, are liberated.

In order to free ourselves from the current identity crisis we are in, from the “double-consciousness” we currently inhabit, we are going to have to do some re-imagining.  We can’t continue to present a front to the world of educational reform without sustainability.  We can’t continue to lie to ourselves and say that training students to internalize dogma and regurgitate it in ways that we deem acceptable–is learning.

The world, right now, does not look favorably upon our American educational system. We know it is deeply racially segregated, inequitable, inconsistent, and largely failing to do what it should do–elevate the collective consciousness, inspire creativity, and increase economic productivity of our society.  If we want to reconcile the educational system we think we have with the one we want, we have to take an honest look at our educational “consciousness”: the way we are seen, and the way we see ourselves, the way we want to appear, and who we really are.

For Our Students

Seek support in thinking about the real ways you are encountering information, and what you are doing with it once you find it.  Look for ways you can apply information to solving real-world problems.  My experience tells me that young people growing up today have a sense of confidence that they can get answers to just about any question by, “searching it up”.  This confidence is a good thing.  We can leverage that.  However, many of you are also so used to getting AN answer quickly, that you no longer feel comfortable with a quest for deeper knowledge that doesn’t have an immediate answer.  In other words, you aren’t comfortable asking questions and leaving them open-ended for the sake of encouraging ongoing conversation and thought exploration.

What WAS the quest for knowledge may now be transforming into the quest for DEEPER knowledge, and developing the skills to evaluate/sort information which leads to the formulation of further questions.  Don’t be afraid of the open-ended question.

For Us

Let’s check the urge to think that we have to have all the answers, or even that we should.  It can be intoxicating to stand in front of a room full of admirers, filling them with your particular brand of wisdom.  And, it is difficult to let go of control in a classroom full of children with differing abilities and with different academic, and socio-emotional needs, when you have been taught that children like control and crave structure.  Lots of research has been done about the way we have done things, but who is imagining what has not been tried before?  Let it be you.  Let it be us.  My experience tells me that today’s students know how they like to learn, and they know what they are curious about.  Many of them also have a great sense for what will be applicable in their actual lives, so let’s seek their input in the process.

What WAS a prescribed course of study to ensure all learners received a basic set of knowledge and skills may now be transforming into students developing solutions for the real world in real time, with authentic learning experiences they co-create with teachers as mentors.

I struggle for the day when the after-school conversations can become THE conversations, the ones we make time for, and the ones that we allow to matter.  It is then, and only then, that the two sides of our divided “double consciousness” will be reconciled.  The future begins now.




Published by: Julia E. Torres

I am a mother, high school Language Arts teacher, activist, world traveler, and reader. Here you will find the story of a woman making her way in the world and making her mark, one word, and one classroom at a time.

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