What Kind of Future Will Your Actions Create?

posted Feb 17, 2015, 10:24 AM by peter richmond   [ updated Feb 25, 2015, 1:21 AM by Margaret Riel ]

                   "Action": a word with many meanings. To the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, everything we did in life was the result of either "action" or "passion." For Spinoza, the results of all of our "actions" in life strengthened our quest for what he called "perseverance in being" -- striving for greater perfection. This was a given. "Passions," on the other hand, with their suggestion of outside forces dictating your state of mind, could impede our quest for bettering ourselves.

                  To Paolo Freire, the word "action" is inextricably linked to the notion of "intentionality." If you "intend" -- that is, you have planned a course of action -- you've rationally weighed the consequences of the action you plan to take, and the outcome will be a productive -- no, in Freire's worldview, necessary -- one.

                  To fans of American popular culture, "action" might evoke "Action Comics" -- title that, in 1938, introduced a character named Superman (whose actions have proved to have some staying power).

                  In modern society? To "take action" implies seizing the day. An "active" lifestyle is beneficial. "Actions" speak "louder than words."

                  Then why should it be any different in the classroom? Why should our culture promote "action" everywhere you look, but rely on a one-way method of instruction? When someone stands in the front of a room scrawling historical facts and dates on the board, is he taking action? When, to get a good grade, the students must take those factoids in, and parrot them back, is that action? Or passivity?

                  Riding in an elevator early one morning last month I overheard a conversation between two young women. "Did you study?" said one. "Three hours," said the other. "I don't remember any of it." In my own classroom more recently, one of my students was cramming dates into his head on file cards to get ready for a history quiz. A few days later he admitted he didn't remember any of it.

                  The definitive judgment came from George, an advisee, and a history major. Not long ago, I asked how his classes were going. "My history class? It's so bad I skipped it a few days ago -- and I'm a history major!" he confided. "He just lectures, and puts up notes to copy. I go to class and wing it, but it's not really history. What's important about history isn't in the notes."  

                  For George, history should be alive: part of Dewey's experiential continuum: Past, present and future, inextricably intertwined. And it was with the future of my students in mind that, after some reflection, I took a little action last week in my Young Adult literature class.

                  We'd just read two novels about dystopian futures: Lois Lowry's "The Giver" and Veronica Roth's "Divergent." Referring to last spring's syllabus, I saw that for the assessment for this mini-unit I'd asked them to write a traditional "compare and contrast" paper. And I remember distinctly how unambitious the papers had been

                  This year we'd had lively discussions about each book's strengths and weaknesses, its themes and subtexts. Why just repackage what we already knew? What assignment might engage them, with the books now behind them? Well, one of the most common themes in my individual interviews with students is their future: what shape they want it to take, hope it will take, expect it to take, expect that it won't.

                  And so this year, I asked them to write about a future. It could be theirs, it could be society's, it could be real, it could be fantasy. They turned in their stories today. They are not only thorough and extraordinarily lengthy; they're lively, personal, fun, insightful, relevant to their own lives. Some are dark and pessimistic, a reflection of the bad hand of cards we've dealt them. Many, though, are hopeful. "The media would no longer report on celebrities, but on random acts of kindness," wrote Sarah. "Everyone in my future gets to make their own decisions," wrote Carla. "In my future, everyone can be themselves."

                  Just the wild idealism of college students? Partly, yes. But is it "wild" to think that reflecting on our practice, then taking action to allow students to engage more fully in the learning process, is a way toward a stronger, livelier, "active" classroom? How might our actions help lead them toward the more optimistic future? How might our actions help to mitigate the likelihood of the darker and more pessimistic futures still envisioned by some?