segunda-feira, 30 de março de 2009

Essay about Gerald Graff’s[1] text: Our undemocratic curriculum

Despite innumerous laws created in the US to guarantee the liberty of expression, we still fight against a lot of distorted ideas that blur the edges between liberty and repression.
Graff criticizes the American educational system analyzing some obstacles that undertake students’ development of critical thinking and argumentation. He points out the situation as a matter of neglecting information or academic preparation, perpetuated by a kind of paternalistic system, built on some “non-spoken taboos.” He emphasizes his opinion stating the existence of an obscure non verbal message implicit in the academic intellectual world.
According to the author, this “symptom” has its origins in the earlier years of elementary education, when the school curricula and teachers neglected the children’s capacity of argumentation as a natural need of expression.
Although, he considers the necessity to level differences between poor and rich students on educational system he recognizes that it can’t be narrowed by educational institutions alone, because these differences are consequences of a broader socio-economic problem.
Despite innumerous stimuly such as texts, subjects, intellectual perspectives and ideas, the educational system still fails in helping many students to assimilate this information, as it fails to teach the meaning and importance of learning.
These gaps drain the chances of academic success and imply that the student doesn’t correspond to the university expectations, redirecting the guilt to the student or to a previous education. As a consequence, students tend to be less critical and independent, seeing complaining or arguing as undesirable responses.
This lack of preparation is due to the lack of a standardized curriculum and connectivity between university studies and high school preparation. A curriculum formulated to teach argumentation and critical thinking to the students, to facilitate academic comprehension about academy itself, to represent the students’ skills, and to minimize students’ anxiety when they get into college.
However, Graff doesn’t blame only high schools for this problem, but also universities, which only recently, have been adding some preparation courses to the curriculum, in order to prepare students and to anticipate what is expected from them as scholars. He also points out that these institutions still offer privileges to the top students in prejudice of standard ones.
The author defends that to privilege ones and not others is an error of segregation, and clarifies that even the more complex ideas need, sometimes, to be put in simpler ways in order to be achieved and understood.
Another important point has to do with the excess of cognitive learning in the curriculum, what, in his opinion, overwhelms students who don’t get to the practical stage of understanding, changing, and applying ideas.
It’s urgent for students to understand the importance of argumentation connecting different subjects and also to argue within their professional careers. Educators need to cultivate argumentation by connecting each situation with students’ previous experiences in everyday life.
To conclude, Graff defends the necessity of curriculum standardization, what, in my opinion, is something very delicate: although I agree with him in many topics, standardized exams or curricula don’t guarantee students’ competency in using critical thinking and creative skills.
Regarding to national educational policies standard, schools’ list of prohibited subjects constitutes a barrier for students and teachers to develop argumentation, and this recipe seems to be extended until the university environment despite the particularities of each. Then, the first idea of democracy looses its strength and undemocratic circumstances take place.
To illustrate the author’s experience I would like to add some examples. This occurrence has to do with cultural elements of my country related with cultural differences that I am dealing with here.
I am teaching art classes at an elementary school for k-2 children, in Oregon state. In order to know a little more about the students’ comprehension of art and to prepare a pre test based on this content, I prepared an exercise using some of my pictures. My photographs have a lot to do with art concepts and its cultural elements. One of them is an artistic photograph[2], taken in Paris and it shows a street scene with a glass of beer and people passing by the streets, but the most interesting thing of this shot is not focused on the liquid itself but at the external scene reflected on it, what gives an aesthetical result to this photograph.
Two of these photographs show folkloric manifestations of music and celebration to illustrate the art languages of music, chant and dance, and another photograph of the “Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral”, in Florence, Italy.
Due to the federal laws that reserve some parents the right to prohibit their children to have exposure of images related to religion, alcohol, nudity, how can art teachers teach about folklore, architecture, Renaissance and about whatever image that expose a nude body in a photograph, sculpture, or painting, if these themes are surrounded by taboos and restrictions?
Where is the teacher freedom of expression to tell children that churches, popular religious celebrations, and many other manifestations are cultural elements as well and that these same elements are important to understand some art works?
In my case, the “beer” photograph was contested by the teacher and I was requested to change it. The folklore photographs were contested, too. But why wasn’t the cathedral photograph wasn’t contested the same way? Because it is an European monument of Renaissance? But it’s equally a religious art full of symbolism. How could I make the teacher understand what I wanted to mean through my photographs, if she told me that I am allowed to teach culture, but not religion? She emphasized the fact because she had two students whose parents’ religion prohibited them to discuss the theme.
But art has not to do with religious pre concepts, then, I answered her: “Thanks for your advice. I changed the beer picture. I am not religious, and I don’t agree with religious education at school as well.” I kept the folklore and the cathedral pictures, though.
Now I ask myself, what should I do? Disconnect the facts in order to attend to distorted ideas of law? Of “creed liberty?” Cultivate the fear of speech and sacrifice my liberty of expression? “Mask” discussions or don’t mean them? What is the right of these two parents to deprive the other children of this classroom the right to understand what does religion mean as a cultural element? Isn’t it worth discussing the importance to choose whatever religion or not to choose any, or even to understand the importance to know and respect other religions, without taking sides?
When I studied or photographed religious manifestations, celebrations, naked bodies or glasses of beer my mind concentrated into the aesthetics elements of each of these experiences. My art expression shows the infinity of possibilities and points of view, with respect and comprehension to the diversity of each of these manifestations. I consider the power of images and icons, within sociologic, historical and artistic perspective. These same photographs were done with integrity and they are supposed to be seen and discussed for everyone, at any age, and in any situation of a democratic culture.
Another example happened at a different group where I work with Hispanic children, once a week, on a two-month project. I observed the occurrence of drawings with violent themes and inquired myself and the children about the reasons that are driving them to give such emphasis to violence. I also inquired if their teachers allow them to make such drawings in their class hours. The answer was no. Now, I am developing a project with this group to work with this repressed theme and to take advantages of their expressions to expose my own opinion about violence. I am developing different techniques to confront their idea of violence with the consequences of violence in real life. I observed through their narratives that, their idea of violence is generated from other virtual forms of representation such as video games and movies of their preference. Now, I am analyzing their immediate inquiries and occurrences and creating responses as soon as they occur, or lately on subsequent classes.
For example, M. a 6 year old student made a very violent and expressive drawing, then, I asked him to lend me his drawing because I would like to study it and understand the reasons that make some children do these kind of works. He suspected of my strange answer and agreed to borrow it. In my way home, I started a trajectory of inquiries which are driving me to a more complex process far from having a simple complete answer. However, I assumed the position to defend a project based on inquiry and argumentation, having each start based on our weekly class productions. Then, on the next class I brought two different images, to discuss the occurrence of violent themes on art representations. The first was M.’ s drawing and the second the “May 3”, a painting of Francisco Goya from the nineteenth century. I showed these images and we confronted both M.’s drawing and Goya’s painting. We briefly talked about the different reasons that have drawn M. and Goya to produce such representations and we also talked about some painful consequences of violence and war.
To conclude that moment I brought an image of Seurat’s painting (Sunday in Gran Jatte Island, from 1884) and asked them: “If you have the chance to choose one of these places to live, which of them would you choose?” Promptly, they chose the peaceful landscape of Seurat.
I realized that we started a reflecting process that is still been developed on the classes. On subsequent meetings, while M. was drawing other violent scenery, he asked me: “Why don’t you prohibit us to draw violent themes?” and I had the opportunity to explain: “Doing so I have the opportunity to discuss with you about the difference of drawing and committing violence in real life. I can teach you why violence is bad and that we are happier when we live on peace”.
When I said that, I. a 8 year-old boy who enjoys to draw violent scenes, said: “I don’t like violence, this is just a drawing. I would not make violence.”
M. decided to make and confront his violent drawing with another one he did representing a peaceful site. With these inquiries I don’t have the pretension to change their mind completely, but at least teach them that is possible to exercise their freedom of expression, their capacity of argumentation to think about delicate topics and to reconstruct ideas through debating. The appeal for violence is advertised everyday on different media, and these children are exposed to these powerful marketing products, without protection as if it were, and in fact is, part of their lives, even if, it is just the virtual part of it.
After this class, I exposed the occurrence to the program’s supervisor, in order to call her attention for this occurrence and propose a discussion about the violence theme with parents in a special meeting.

[1] Graff, Gerald. Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. New
Haven: Yale UP, 2003.

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