A Ring of Sunshine Around the Moon
by the Students of the Academic Leadership Community
Foreword by Paul Feig
826LA, June 2012
175 pages / $15 Buy from 826LA
One of the most comic aspects of today’s debate surrounding education and its so-called “reform” is the minimal to nonexistent degree to which the research literature plays in shaping public policy. We have a particularly weird situation in the United States where it was not that long ago when Republican presidential candidates promised, if elected, to obliterate the Department of Education and abolish bilingual support for English Language Learners (ELLs). Is the Tea Party aware of the up to 150 empirical studies during the past 30 years that have detailed a positive link between bilingualism and students’ academic growth? And on the opposite side of the aisle, we have no less weirdly President Obama increasingly citing Race to the Top and South Korea, a nation of test prep factories, as the exemplar model for the United States. How many of our current political leaders are aware of the fact that there simply are no strong indicators for standardized testings’ efficacy? If anything, recent research shows that high-stakes testing actually hinders student growth.
It is precisely against this educational deadlock that I’ve been inspired to use Stewart Home’s many texts and pamphlets to promote students’ language acquisition. Though certain of my colleagues have perceived Home’s work as too obscure and difficult for “at risk” ESL students and English learners of low socioeconomic status, I have found that books like 69 Things to Do With a Dead Princess and Tainted Love are the ideal means of heightening student motivation and introducing academic language into a stale curriculum. After all, what teenager, “at risk” or otherwise, isn’t interested in sex and music? I’ve recently learned, to my surprise, that I am not the first to use the South London born enfant terrible for second language purposes; Tosh Berman’s Japan-born wife used Home’s The Assault On Culture to learn English. As a fond student of USC’s language acquisition expert Stephen Krashen, this comes as no surprise. According to Krashen the one and only task for the language instructor, other than making the lessons comprehensible, is to make the language content interesting. Recently he has even gone as far as to assert that it is not enough to simply make the lessons interesting, the language content must be startlingly compelling, in a word – profound.
Enter Mandy, Charlie, and Mary-Jane. Not unlike Mark Norris’ novel Art School, Home’s newest anti-novel captures the giddy wanderlust of campus life and the heady brew of incompatible concepts and referential chains in those schools where theory has some kind of impact. Though critics and fans alike have been drawn to the nihilistic and morally depraved acts of the main character Charlie, a psychotic cultural studies lecturer who frames a student for arson and detonates a bomb in the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 terrorist attack in London, Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane serves a critical function for my college-bound “ESL/English learner” students who are rebuked daily by educational stakeholders on the importance of college as a panacea for all of their economic ills and social difficulties. As Home himself acknowledged in a recent interview with Michael Roth, “[O]bviously universities are basically there to turn people into zombies – so that they can become trusted functionaries of the capitalist system. That said, we all reproduce our own alienation under capitalism, so I’m not saying that people shouldn’t attend or work in universities, just that we should be aware that they are about conformism and anyone who claims that higher education has very much to do with intellectual growth and development is either an idiot or an apologist for capitalism.”
It is upon assessing this sharp critique, made abundantly risible by Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane, that I’ve felt obliged to tell my students that if they’re indeed going into a Cal State or a UC in Southern California – earnestly believing that they’re finally going to escape the intellectual zombies of their East LA neighborhood – think harder. To my alienated teenage ESL students, reading Sartre and spouting Nietzsche, I’ve introduced Mandy, Charlie, and Mary Jane as an academic reality check of a sort: an “uneducated” guy like Stewart Home, who never got his degree, can produce more cultural studies provocations, more Deleuzian Bodies without Organs, more Hegelian paradoxes per page, in short – more cultural impact than any credentialed, tenured cultural studies lecturer I’ve had the misfortune of having to sit through. And of course, Home is not alone. The list of people who have thrived in their fields without any formal education is both long and encouraging, simply check out Kio Stark’s handbook Don’t Go Back to School. Never mind that you can learn about the Chicano art movement, like ASCO, by simply visiting artists like Gronk and Mario Ybarra Jr in and around LA county; if you plan on going to art school, and taking on the tens of thousands of student loan debt, here is but a sample of the kind of kids from wealthier backgrounds you’re bound to meet and the absurdly self-indulgent Mandy-Charlie exchanges you’re in for:
‘They speak for themselves.’
‘I’d like you to speak for them.’
‘I think of them as my babies, and I feel they need nurturing rather than criticism.’
‘That’s all well and good, but your essay on the films of John Waters consists of nothing but a two thousand word extract from a novel entitled Rage To Love by Stephanie Llewellyn.’
‘It was set as a two thousand word essay.’
‘Yes, but it’s supposed to be an original composition.’
‘We live in a world of citations, of fragments.’
‘Fine, but give me a fragment that has something to do with John Waters.’
‘The relationship between my appropriated text and John Waters is elliptical, just like the love affair described in the book.’
‘Does it take you as long to type out someone else’s work as it would to write something of your own?’
‘No, I download everything from the internet.’
‘So how long did you spend on this essay?’
‘About five minutes.’
‘And you think that is long enough?’
‘I have trouble concentrating. I’m worried about my weight, so I have to spend a lot of time exercising. I can’t sit still for more than five minutes at a time, so that’s the length of time I have to put into each of my essays.’
This solipsistic displacement of academic expectations clearly demonstrates that we are not dealing with real shared teacher-student revelations but with imaginary “codes of reappropriation” which projects on to real school sites its own shadowy, often disavowed, class antagonisms. Paraphrased and further expanded, here is what I sense Stewart Home, in the overall text, is driving at: What this means is that in order effectively to emancipate undergraduates from the technocratic, functionalist mandates of the European post-Bologna educational process and America’s post-No Child Left Behind era, one should first renounce the ideological fantasmatic supplement that attaches us to it.
In what does this renunciation consist? In A Ring of Sunshine Around the Moon, 826LA’s most recent collection of writings from Southern California’s youths, readers will find a series of narratives that reveals the antagonism between how educational stakeholders all too often instrumentalize the lives of so-called “at-risk” students and how individual students navigate their particular circumstances and personal yearnings. In his essay Outside Vs. Inside, high school student Jonathan J. Orozco articulates his dissatisfaction with the popular and familial discourse surrounding immigration. Lack of belongingness and a shortage of intellectual support in the community are two astonishingly persistent themes amongst Jonathan’s peers. For so many working-class undergraduates the situation seems to get worse even in college. There is a particularly memorable exchange in Chapter 12 of Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane that deftly captures administrator-student relations, albeit in its most hyperbolic form. In the chapter entitled The Professor & The Dean a student named Kevin Ramsay is unfairly sent down by the conspiring administrators simply because he has humiliated one of the university’s coked up professors:
‘What have I done?’
‘You haven’t completed your course work.’
‘What do you mean I haven’t completed my course work, I’m the only person in my year to have handed every essay in on time.’
‘We have standards you know, standards.’
‘No, I don’t know.’
‘Well unless your essays are completed to an acceptable standard then they count as non-submissions, and that means you haven’t done your course work.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with my essays.’
‘If there’s nothing wrong with your essays, why are you failing?’
‘Because they aren’t marked objectively.’
‘Kevin, I’ve been shown one of your essays and it’s full of incomprehensible nonsense about dialectics, it’s utterly meaningless.’
‘The dialectical method is used in hundreds of universities throughout the world and in employing it I cite theoretical sources ranging from Hegel down to Adorno.’
‘I’ve never heard of dialectics or Hegel or Adorno.’
‘You’ve got the problems, not me.’
As a teacher I couldn’t be more amused. Policymakers, parents, and teachers who read A Ring of Sunshine will also undoubtedly be amused, when they ought to be shocked, by how pervasive the overwhelming sense of intellectual powerlessness is on local high school campuses. In his 826LA essay Breathing, Eating, and Judging, high school junior Carlos Erazo describes the daily tacit approval of cruelty and anti-intellectualism in his school site. Recently I attended a district teachers conference with a copy of Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane and a sample of Carlos Erazo’s scathing rebuke. And upon sharing 826LA’s student writing with my colleagues, what struck me was the degree to which credentialed teachers felt that the above sentiments were derisively “cute” or suspiciously sagacious. Backers of NCLB tell us that institutional critiques and student “thoughts and feelings” are not assessment tools; rather, IQ-equivalent test scores, SAT/ACT scores, CAHSEE results, and benchmark numbers are the real tools for assessing student learning. Forget dialectics and creative writing – it’s too subjective and time-consuming to grade, it’s not a functional, practical assessment tool. However, recent pedagogical shifts in second language research demonstrate the inherent value of process writing, an approach to teaching writing where students experience five interrelated phases: prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing.
Though NCLB compliant teachers ought to be praised for implementing the first four phases of process writing in their classrooms, the vast majority of ESL/English teachers neglect perhaps the most important phase – publishing. Even the sadistic Charlie in Stewart Home’s City University understands the degree to which publishing is the motivating factor in producing “serious” academic papers; Charlie is crestfallen and further alienated when a successful colleague tells him that his work is “shit [that] can’t be published!” Rather than take the time and energy to publish student work, too often the bulk of surplus time in the new common core-oriented classroom is spent on monotonous test prep drills and reductionist vocab/grammar exercises. Seemingly, this is all in the name of publicizing a school site’s high-800/900 API score. In the words of one 826LA volunteer, “There is a void here, a cultural void.”
Bravely venturing into the chasm is 826LA. Unlike other Southern California after school programs like Sylvan, JEI and Kumon, Dave Egger’s 826LA understands the intrinsic value of non-graded, non-accountable pleasure reading, or what is otherwise known in the research literature as free voluntary reading. The efficacy of in-school recreational reading, where students choose their own books and read daily for a set time, has been established as the primary source of children’s reading competence, vocabulary, and ability to utilize complex grammar. However many teachers, both at home and internationally, frown on free voluntary reading in school believing that it wastes valuable class time that can be taken with skill-building exercises. Here is USC’s leading language acquisition researcher Stephen Krashen, in a recent education conference in South Korea, on the very topic of free voluntary reading:
Why indeed? It is almost as if there is a conspiracy on the nation’s youth today. What else can we call a system that seemingly goes out of its way to disempower and disengage the impressionable minds of young people? Perhaps if it were only the politicians who suffered from this inability to absorb the finer points of the research literature, we might call it an allergy to academia – but the very fact that this self-censorship or mental blind spot infects individual educators, like the recent Duncanville teacher who was called out in class, who have actually reviewed the relevant research findings tells us that there is something profoundly structural and feudalistic in nature that is preventing us from investing in the kinds of high quality educational experiences that aligns with the deepest insights of the theoretical and research findings. “Education reform” in this context is simply another euphemism for doing more of the same. Perhaps our system, as it is, is too far gone to be reformed; in which case, we might as well consider starting from scratch. And begin anew, out of the ruins. Stewart Home hints at such a transformational reawakening towards the end of Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane:
It is then not surprising that Home compares campus life to the bureaucratic nightmare of Hell itself; after blowing himself up, the main character Charlie finds himself in a train to South Hades to reach the Gates of Hell to make an appointment with the superintendent of all superintendents, Satan. If you think the analogy to Hell is a bit much, 826LA’s middle school student Eli Lawrence, in his article entitled Why School Is the Worst Place On Earth, makes the comparison between schools and prisons by citing the obvious similarities:
According to 826LA student Eli Laurence, to the degree that cultural workers have a primary educational responsibility it is to discover the passions and interests of both ‘good kids’ and ‘bad kids’ and surround them with the relevant books and resources: “Down with four hours of homework, down with waking up at seven in the morning, and down with tedious lessons no one wants to learn that you get tested on, because learning about something you really enjoy, for one, is a lot more fun . . . if you’re a boy and love playing video games, figure out how you can design or make your own!” And if a student is, by overwhelming probability interested in the arts and culture, and frustrated by traditional institutional constraints, we as teachers ought to be courageous enough to introduce to the budding Stewart Homes in our classrooms, how one can go about flourishing as an independent learner. For myself, this is the starting point of a new kind of education, led by anti-testing/anti-tracking countries like Finland, modeled by institutions like 826LA & CSSSA, and outlined by emerging educational handbooks like Kio Stark’s Don’t Go Back to School. The message here is clear and straightforward: Set aside the achievement gap. Set aside the gap between our scores and the international test scores. How exactly do we fill in this gap between how we as teachers teach and how we as learners ought to learn?
Maxi Kim is the author of One Break, A Thousand Blows.