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
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.
2. High school teacher
4. Elementary school teacher
5. Wealthy person
7. Powerful person
8. Food stamp collector
9. Poor person
I then read out loud the results. The kids were not surprised.
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
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
Shannon, Patrick (1995). Text,
Lies and Videotape: Stories About Life, Literacy and Learning.
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.