The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Education Part Eight: Middle Class Elitism and the Myth of the Super Teacher

Sorry guys, I know it has been awhile. Life, school, work, and a small flare up of my old obsession with Diablo II has kept me from updating as frequently as I had hoped. However, on a side note, I've been reading Luk√°cs and aside from the tremendously important contribution he has given us to understanding class consciousness, I think he has also, rather strangely, explained to me my fascination with games like Diablo II and why people are so deeply interested in "rationalized" games such as MafiaWars on Facebook. Maybe I'm pulling at something that isn't there, but all the talk of being "trapped in bourgeois consciousness" and a super-rational mode of thought has convinced me that there may be a correlation between that and games based almost purely on the most rational choice to augment your strength/power/wealth, etc... Not a very important revelation, no doubt, but interesting; to me, at least. Anyways, on to today's post!

This mini-series "On Education" is a compiled list of short essays concerning theoretical approaches to classroom pedagogy and their broader implications upon us as educators and our students.


In Malcolm X’s autobiography the fifteenth chapter, entitled Icarus, begins with a scathing critique of “educated Negroes” who, in his words, “never had understood the true intent, or purpose, or application of education” (Haley, p. 307). Malcolm’s indictment of the “brainwashed, integration-mad black puppets” (Haley, p. 284) comes from his experience of personal, organizational, and ideological confrontations with many of the professional and intellectual Blacks who had entered into America’s middle class. His postulation regarding this group, however, is extremely relevant to the contemporary educational sphere. For instance, Malcolm outlines a specific example where a Black social worker had wrote a report detailing the burgeoning Black Muslim movement and stumbled upon a conclusion proclaiming that “The dynamic interstices of the Harlem sub-culture have been oversimplified and distorted by Malcolm X to meet his own needs.” (Haley, p. 307). Malcolm sardonically responds:
Every paragraph [of the social worker’s report] sent me back to the dictionary…Which of us, I wonder, knew more about that Harlem ghetto “sub-culture”? I, who had hustled for years in those streets, or that black snob status-symbol-educated social worker (Haley, p. 307)?
His refutation, at a glance, may appear as nothing more than a clever remark. Analyzed a bit rigorously, however, and the response to the social worker’s slanderous comment can be interpreted as an articulate postulation laced with social commentary and theoretical implications for educational pedagogy.

First, Malcolm’s comment should be understood not as an insult to intellectual development or the pursuit of knowledge, which Malcolm wholeheartedly supported. Throughout his career his constantly reaffirmed his view that education was a vital element to the development of all people, Blacks especially. It should be seen, rather, as an indictment of those who would use the educational skills they garnered to promote and perpetuate the existing structures of society and their narrow self-interests. Secondly, it provides an illuminating look into the intricacies of the mental framework in which educators, organizers, and activists (not mutually exclusive terms by any means!) should operate. Real education, in which students are able to fulfill their own personal and intellectual development and simultaneously achieve a mentality where emancipation from oppression, for themselves and for their larger group, is viewed not only as a pleasant ideal but a feasible goal, requires that students are engaged and actively participate in that education. In the same way that the educated, Middle-class, Black professional cannot come down from the heavens and lead Blacks from the pits of poverty with fancy verbiage and Harvard talk, neither can middle-class educators simply waltz into a struggling, urban high school and save the children which societal institutions have so direly oppressed.

In fact, this sort of “super teacher” myth is promoted vigorously in the media and, an even more pressing issue, in the development of recent educational approaches such as merit pay, which shift the focus from how schools are organized, funded, and resourced, as well as the material conditions children experience in their day to day life, to the performance of teachers, usually measured in terms of standardized test scores. In many cases, the media reports on schools where students succeed because of extra resources and teachers who put in extra hours (sometimes 14 hour days or 60 hours in a week, as in the case of the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in Brooklyn, where the graduation rate was 93% in comparison with the rest of New York which averaged somewhere around 50%) (Jones). A plethora of movies have hit the theatres with similar themes; teachers (generally white, Middle-class ones at that) who commit themselves, working day in and day out, to help struggling children in the heart of America’s slums eventually overcome the prodigious obstacles and, against-all-odds, get the students to pass their next state-mandated test or graduate from high-school. Often, these are emotionally-appealing, heart-wrenching tales with very human aspirations and desires. Unfortunately, they are all too unrealistic.

Handling the problems schools currently face by simply hoping a good teacher comes along and fixes things presumes that an individualized, rather random reaction to a major problem will provide a sufficient solution. Instead of a collective change in the structure and functions of schools, where all teachers could provide individualized attention to students, all schools were equally well-resources, and standardized tests were not the primary measure of success, myths of individual responsibility and teacher performance are the crux on which the current reform movement plans to base their educational approach. As Brian Jones points out, this “fable of the super-teacher” is not sustainable. Teachers easily become burnt out and seek different positions or regress from the extra pressure of such strenuous, grueling days. Usually, they have to raise their own resources as well.

Jones explains that at UASLJ teachers “still had to work hundreds of hours for free and raise millions of extra dollars.” If schools were not set up to fail while billions were pumped into banking institutions, military contractors, and the Pentagon’s budget, maybe it would be possible  for “Real-life teachers (not the silver screen variety)…to be able to get the job done in working conditions suited to mere mortals” (Jones). Just as some intellectual “parading a lot of big words” (Haley, p. 307) about Harlem’s sub-culture cannot pull Blacks up from the depths of the ghetto, having a few teachers work ridiculously long hours with too large class sizes, too little resources, and a political economy which perpetuates poverty, racism, and inequitable conditions, cannot fix the collective problem of a failing educational establishment. Fighting for the conditions in which all educators can achieve success with students will involve an immense struggle against a ruling class, with the backing of corporate and political institutions, that holds no interest in all students receiving a decent education. The struggle for resources, smaller classes, intellectual autonomy, student participation, democratic engagement, and better working conditions is one that extends far beyond the classroom walls. For every student that a decent teacher may save, how many more will be left behind? Until teachers, students, and parents force the kind of collective change needed to the educational system, students will continue to fall through the cracks. The profession of teaching is political, and educators cannot avoid that.

Works Cited
Haley, A. (1964) The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group.
Jones, B. (2008) The Fable of the Super-Teacher. Socialist Worker, July. Accessed March 28, 2009. Available:

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