Bartleby is a gray-eyed law clerk who shows up in Herman Melville’s short fiction in the 1850s. When he’s first hired, Bartleby does his copying work with great efficiency. But then one day, on being asked to review a document, he refuses.
“I would prefer not to,” he says.
His boss is dumbstruck, but lets the incident pass until it happens again a few days later, and then becomes a habit. Bartleby “prefers not to” do more and more tasks, until he stops working altogether, and spends his days sitting motionless by the dim light of his window, even “preferring not to” leave the office when he is fired.
I read Bartleby in college, and it came back to me my first year teaching, when I was asked to administer my first standardized test. Then, as now, I believed that teaching and learning are a highly personal affair, a give-and-take between teacher and student. Subjecting all my students to the same test, developed by someone who did not know them or me, made little sense. I explained this to my principal, and politely told him I “preferred not to” give the test.
Fortunately, my principal was a patient man who shared some of my views about pedagogy. We had a good conversation about the realities of public schooling, and reached an uneasy compromise: I took a “sick day,” and while a sub handed out No. 2 pencils, I sat at my desk writing them long letters in their journals.
I wish I could say I felt like modern day Thoreau, a Santa Fe Gandhi, standing up for my beliefs. But I didn’t. I felt uneasy. There were some fantastic teachers at that school—why hadn’t any of them refused to give the test? Was I doing my students a disservice? Didn’t they need to know how to do well on tests—especially the poorer students, who would need scholarships for college?
There it is: the teacher’s dilemma, the moment when we are asked to do something that comes into direct conflict with what we know about children and learning, and even what we know about ourselves. I confronted this dilemma often during my 10 years in schools. Sometimes, I “preferred” my way out—most recently at a private school abroad, where I quietly neglected to give merit awards to my students. More often, I pushed aside my integrity, and did what I was told. Either course of action was unsettling, and when I dared to think it over, I wondered if I’d chosen the right profession.
I wasn’t alone. The National Education Association reports that 16 percent of teachers leave the profession every year—a rate significantly higher than in non-teaching occupations—and I believe this dilemma is one of the primary causes. Last year, one of my former students dropped out of Teach for America because she did not believe in the narrow curriculum she was directed to impose upon her students. And just last week, a terrific elementary school teacher described to me how she sits in her car in the parking lot every morning, questioning whether she should go in.
“I got into teaching because I love creating magical spaces with children,” she told me. “It’s harder and harder to do that, the way education is going.”
In Bartleby’s world, things don’t end well. He gets hauled off to prison, where he lies down in the prison yard and dies. His attempts to opt out of the meaningless bureacracy, to follow his own impulses, are misunderstood, and ultimately fatal.
The story of public education in our country need not come to such a tragic conclusion. Unlike Bartleby, teachers are anything but passive, and behind every “I would prefer not to” is an “I would prefer to”—an alternative idea, a different and often dynamic way to educate and inspire children. In the end, the larger dilemma may not fall on the teachers but on us, as a community and nation: Do we continue disenfranchising teachers, overriding their experience, passion and wisdom with mandates, forms and tests?
Or do we prefer not to?
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