Take off the Ascot 

By Greg Queen


Karl Marx explains that the capitalist elite do not "make a profit" but rather take "surplus value" from the workers. In other words, workers are not being paid the full value of their labor. In part, the elite uses this surplus value to protect their privilege and oppress others. I have been struggling to find ways disrobe this emperor and have him stand naked for all to see. Patrick Shannon has helped. 

Patrick Shannon, a professor of education and Penn State University, writes in his book Text, Lies and Videotape, that to become "critically literate, we must explore … convictions [about stereotypical norms] to determine what they mean in our lives-what opportunities and constraints they place on us-and what their consequences are for us personally and socially (7)." 

Mr. Shannon describes in Text, Lies and Videotape had his students analyze the default values for what it means to be a normal American. The students came to the conclusion that the normal American was a "youthful (but not young) white male Protestant who is able bodied (thin and athletic) and able minded (a school graduate), heterosexual, and well off (but not rich). He comes from a two parent family….(8)" 

I found this lesson fascinating and wondered how my middle school students might respond. As my first lesson for this school year, I borrowed and modified upon this idea. 

I wrote the following list on the chalkboard. 

    1. Doctor 

    2. High school teacher 

    3. Nurse 

    4. Elementary school teacher 

    5. Wealthy person 

    6. Criminal 

    7. Powerful person 

    8. Food stamp collector 

    9. Poor person

I told students to not write their names on their paper and number it one to nine. I told them when I read the following things, they should write what pops into their head immediately. The first time through the list, they identified male or female. The second time through they identified a "race." 

I then read out loud the results. The kids were not surprised. 

    1. Doctor- Male, White 

    2. High school teacher- Male, White 

    3. Nurse-Female, White/African American 

    4. Elementary school teacher-Female, White 

    5. Wealthy person-Male White 

    6. Criminal-Male, African American 

    7. Powerful person-Male, White 

    8. Food stamp collector-Female, Predominantly African American and White 

    9. Poor person- Female, Predominantly African American and White

As a class, we discussed from where these ideas in their heads came. They said media, family and school were the major forces shaping these preconceived notions of normality. 

Throughout the school year, I have asked them to do similar things. For example, I ask them if they think Christopher Columbus is good or bad. Most kids say "good." I then read to them excerpts from his diary that reveal "the other side of the man." 

When students learn that the Puritans were not very tolerant of religious differences and treated the Native Americans as "savages," they ask "why do we learn that they were 'good' in elementary school?" I turn the question back at them. Why do you think that your elementary school teachers do not provide you with multiple interpretations of the Puritans? 

If you remember the beginning of this article, you may be wondering about why I mentioned Karl Marx and surplus value. Well, I have learned that if the norm for a wealthy person is a white male and the norm for a poor person is an African-American female, then the elite have done well in justifying their exploitation by shaping the view of my students to fit their ideas of normal. I am going to do all within my power to disrobe the emperors. 

Shannon, Patrick (1995). Text, Lies and Videotape: Stories About Life, Literacy and Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

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