This article first appeared in the October 2012 issue of The Teaching Professor.
I recently viewed a professional development video on the STARLINK website (established by the State of Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which offers programming to participating colleges across the country) that begins with a poignant quote: “Teaching is the choicest of professions because everybody who is anybody was taught how to be somebody by a teacher.”
Teaching is devalued in a myriad of ways, including on the paycheck. There is an issue that suggests a reason for the lack of monetary recognition: a cultural attitude embedded in the ideological context of stark American individualism out of which grows an abhorrence of duty to the commons. But what is more important than supporting institutions that cultivate the possibility for social change and societal progress? Social change begins with awareness, and awareness begins with education.
Teaching is often dismissed as a career that people enter when they do not want to “do” work in their field or can’t. A famous quote summarizes this notion: “Those who can’t do, teach.” As exemplified in the personal accounts I saw on this short film and also evident to anyone who has been forever impacted by an important teacher, if you grant any merit to things such as motivation, encouragement, hope, knowledge, confidence, self-worth, community, humanitarianism, and social change, then this quote seriously debases a field that develops these very virtues.
I often tell my students, particularly when we spend time on the “social change” segment of our sociology classes, that they do have an impact on the world around them and that they do impact the people they interact with in their daily lives—and probably much more than they are even aware of (or would like to know). This was the case for “radical” leaders of the past who encountered great and expansive obstacles, perhaps never witnessing the social change they sought but tirelessly fighting for a cause they truly believed in. Susan B. Anthony did not live to see the vindication of the rights of women in regard to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920; she died in 1906. Yet the female students sitting in my classroom can vote because of Anthony’s persistence. I am sure that there were points in her efforts where she begrudgingly thought to herself, “I am only one person—what impact can I truly have?” Consciousness raising begins with “just one,” and the classroom can serve this function.
The first step toward any societal progress is raising knowledge and awareness. If people don’t know about something, they don’t do anything. There is no urgency surrounding an issue that people do not know even exists. Teachers bring information to life. Teachers make connections between facts and figures that individually may seem irrelevant as we habitually—and all too often unthinkingly—go about our day-to-day lives. If, for instance, more people knew that there are more people enslaved today (many in sexual slavery) in pure numbers than there were during the transatlantic slave trade, more people might get involved in stopping such a travesty. If people knew that by sending a little girl to school she is less likely to be sold into a life of prostitution, they would want to help. Educating people here could save a little girl across the globe, even if it is “just one.”
The notion of societal “perfection” is both illusory and self (culturally)-defeating. Quite often this belief is expressed in the phrase “It is what it is—racism/sexism/classism (fill in your term) has always been around,” as if to denunciate any propensity to even try for social change. However, the word “progress” leaves room for movement and growth. There is no “end,” per se, but rather a pathway filled with zigzags and perhaps some potholes along the way. It is not that we should strive for perfection but for better. That is attainable and begins with “just one.”
Those who reference that cliché quote “Those who can’t do, teach” might want to consider where they would be without the teachers in their lives. On a societal level and on a very personal level, progress and growth begin with knowledge. People would not be “doing” without first being taught. After all, “everybody who is anybody was taught how to be somebody by a teacher.” As a society, we should support institutions that help cultivate “somebodies.” This fosters the pathway toward social progress.
At the time of writing, Kimberly D. Brostrom taught at the College of Lake County and William Rainey Harper College in Illinois.