“But I have said enough. I hope you will treasure up the instructions which I have given you, and make them a guide to your feet and a light to your understanding. Build your character thoughtfully and painstakingly upon these precepts, and by and by, when you have got it built, you will be surprised and gratified to see how nicely and sharply it resembles everybody else’s.”

Mark Twain from Advice to Youth


I got an e-mail yesterday from the Advanced Placement people giving me a heads up that I have “about 10 African American, Latino, or Native American students” who are AP material (based on SAT & PSAT scores), and reminding me that this is a traditionally underrepresented group. The term “diversity” (and the importance of it!) has become one of those words that we all agree is really important. If we thought about it, and threw all of our weight behind the “diversity is so much better than homogeny” tenet, then we’d have to admit that any Historically Black College would be better off with more white people, any school in Beijing would be better off with more Hispanics, and any all-girl school would be a much better place to be if only they had a couple dudes.

What do you think of when someone tells you, “It’s a very diverse community” or “There’s a lot of diversity at our school”? What about diversity do we find appealing? Having one of every shade and gender is great for the yearbook cover, but how does that otherwise benefit us?

When we say “diversity”, we are usually implying racial or ethnic diversity, but we should be focused on (and celebrating) diversity of quality thoughts, feelings, and experiences. From this perspective we are all diverse in some way. Racial or ethnic diversity is certainly one way to get to diversity of quality thought, but it isn’t the only way.

In education, there is not much diversity of thought, instead an inclination, an intuition, a purpose to standardize. We are an insulated bunch. Teachers go to grad school where they are trained by former teachers…administrators are former teachers who go to grad school to be trained by former administrators who were former teachers…all with their own ideas of how to be successful in the outside world. That particular plant is watered by the state, and so there’s a clue as to where the singular ideas originate from.

Here are my least favorite titles for the job I do:







Of the four words, I might be most OK with “teacher”, because there is nothing wrong with teaching people, except that it implies those people are “learning”. It implies the recipient is a willing participant in my impartation of knowing. It implies that what I have to teach fits in with their “individual” goals and aspirations. It calls forth John Holt’s metaphor of the student as an empty glass and the teacher as the pitcher of water (or worse yet, the student as a sick patient and the teacher as the doctor). As Holt said, learning doesn’t happen that way…farmers don’t go outside and build a garden with leaves, stalks, flowers and masking tape. They tend the soil and watch as the plants do what they were born to do.

“Professor” sounds like “profession”, in the sense that you “profess” something. You declare this thing to be true, you announce or proclaim or assert it. You are the authority on the matter and your word is law. This can be true for facts, but that is only a part of learning and knowledge, and besides, the “professor” gets to choose which facts are most right and most relevant for all his 100 to 160 students. It doesn’t matter if out of 160 students there are 160 skin tones from 160 countries, “professing” some kind of singular truth is not diversity.

When I was in the Army we had Drill Sergeants, but in the Marine Corps they call them Drill Instructors. We had weapons instructors and “instructors” of other kinds. Their job is to instruct – direct statements that demand exact results. This is more than appropriate on the machine gun range, but I have no desire to instruct for any more than a fraction of my day. Me telling you what to do is not diversity of thought.

“Educator” is my least favorite. At least you can make a good argument that there is an appropriate time and place for a teacher, professor, or an instructor, and that any older person working with teenagers ought to be those things, at least from time to time. But “educator”…to educate someone…makes about as much sense as calling a professional chef a “feeder”. Imagine walking into your favorite restaurant, ordering your favorite vegetarian dish, and having a man in a white apron come out of the back, turkey leg in hand, and, while his biggest sous chefs hold you down, he proceeds to “feed” you turkey. You can’t feed someone who doesn’t want to eat without violating them; you can’t educate someone unless they are open to the education, and even then you are not so much “educating” as you are “providing opportunities” or “being a resource” that the recipient is open to. You may think I’m splitting hairs, but this is a very crucial point. Only you can educate you. An educator can motivate and inspire, but if the student is not moved then they will not learn. Even if they are moved by a particularly well-spoken teacher, that’s an external motivation, and the moment the bell rings or the school year ends or the kid graduates then that motivation and inspiration is gone, unless the student chooses to take it with them. Not to say that a well-spoken educator is necessarily a good thing – it’s almost as if we’re training them for exactly what Thomas Paine warned us against in Common Sense (“some, Massanello may hereafter arise, who laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, may sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge”). Don’t train them to find inspiration in things they don’t care about from people they will only briefly and somewhat distantly know. Show them how to find it within themselves.

There are some words that I do like, though:






I like to see myself as a “mentor”. It is important for young people who are, at times, months away from being thrust into the real world, to have adults who ask the right questions and give the right suggestions; who guide and encourage; who have the student’s and their family’s wishes and aspirations at heart; someone who has wisdom and patience. That is much more important than making certain the kid remembers (at least until summer) what the Magna Carta or “synecdoche” is. As Sir Ken Robinson said, teach students not subjects.

I like the word “facilitator”, albeit a clumsy alternative for “teacher”. It’s more accurate to what I actually do in my class. I conference with my students to establish goals and criteria for grades, we write it out in a contract, and then I do my best to provide the appropriate materials (although my rule is that every student must do more work than I do). I’m creating opportunities for students to realize their own potential; I’m not “educating”, I’m facilitating learning.

I’m sometimes a resource. I’ve had experiences that the students typically haven’t had, like being a veteran, going to college, getting married, having kids, buying homes, etc. I’ve read more than they have. I know more about the state tests. There are a lot of things I could help them with, and so I allow myself to be used as a resource when it is appropriate.

Can you see how this process would better support the individual, and better promote, encourage, and strengthen diversity of thought? Earlier this year I had a girl sigh loudly in my class, “Can’t you just tell me what to do so I can do it?” It broke my heart. That’s not learning. That’s not knowledge or even curiosity. That sure as hell isn’t exciting, and it has no element of risk. There’s no initiative. I mean, I could hit all the state standards, but she has been trained to wait for someone to tell her what to think and feel. That’s not diversity.

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