Thinking about Teaching Thinking

While watching and discussing segments of the documentary Merchants of Cool (google it—you can watch it for free!) with sophomores, I found out that the media specialist behind the film, Douglas Rushkoff, has a new book out called Life, Inc. I’m also thinking about my own practices as a teacher and what teaching English means as a profession. A few thoughts:

  • I’m genuinely disturbed about the way the marketers talk about teenagers in Merchants of Cool. They are always a “them,” like another species. Robert McChesney states that teens are “like Africa” (during the age of imperialism) because they are seen as something to conquer. Rushkoff makes the point that when marketers get to know teens, they do “market” research, not “human” research.  Not that I want to make this a strict dichotomy, but maybe that’s the difference. I do what I do out of a regard for human beings, not a market. (And yes I realize I get paid to do this and I enjoy getting paid. I’m not living in an altruistic fantasy. I work too hard, for what I think of as the “right” reasons.)
  • I thought it was interesting that one of the jobs I applied for after college was in marketing. It’s one of the few job options that seemed available to an English/philosophy major. And now I’m a little sickened with marketing. My students think I’m crazy because I don’t have cable. “What do you do? Just stare at walls?” I want as little of that world as possible and yet I know more about reality shows and celebrities than I care to. You can’t escape, but you can limit.
  • I’m teaching this as part of a unit on propaganda that will include that English teacher favorite Animal Farm. I was taught this book. Classes and classes of students have read this book and discussed propaganda for years in schools. Why hasn’t this had an effect over time? Why does it seem like it’s worse rather than better? Am I too pessimistic?
  • Teaching propaganda ties into teaching critical thinking and viewing. We all want our students to be critical thinkers, yet we “have helped inculcate the discipline—punctuality, good verbal manners, submission to authority, attention to problem-solving assignments set by somebody else, long hours spent in one place—that is necessary to perform the alienated labor that will be the lot of most” (from Richard Ohmann’s essay “The Function of English at the Present Time”). Sometimes I wonder, am I really getting students to think or am I merely getting them to behave?

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