Thursday, September 26, 2013

Monkey in the Classroom

Last week I promised to explain the monkey atop this page and why he graces the frontispiece of this very serious and academic blog.  Well, besides the rather obvious curb appeal, and the fact that monkeys like to climb, he is a symbol for an endangered species in the classroom.  His name is Stone Monkey and he represents the enthusiastic community college student (note that I did not say stoned monkey –we have too many of those as is).  To understand the reference we must look to sixteenth century China and the folk tale Journey to the West.  Although perhaps the most widely read story in the Far East (and subsequently the world), the epic remains a novelty in the US, relegated to world literature courses, such as my own (a pity, but that’s another post).  The story centers around four traveling companions and their journey to India to retrieve sacred Buddhist scripture.  Although, the priest Tripitika is our nominal hero, it is really the eponymous Monkey that steals the show.  Fathered by sunlight, fructified by the wind, and birthed by a stone egg, Monkey is enthusiasm incarnate.  Active and eager, he plunges forward again and again seeking adventure and wisdom.  This is readily apparent in the scene I am most concerned with here, monkey in the classroom:

“One day the Patriarch, seated in state, summoned all his pupils and began a lecture on the Great Way.  Monkey was so delighted by what he heard that he tweaked his ears and rubbed his cheeks; his brow flowered and his eyes laughed.  He could not stop his hands from dancing, his feet from stamping.  Suddenly, the Patriarch caught sight of him and shouted, ‘What is the use of your being here if, instead of listening to my lecture, you jump and dance like a maniac?’ ‘I am listening with all my might,’ said Monkey.  ‘But you were saying such wonderful things that I could not contain myself for joy.  That is why I may, for all I know, have been hopping and jumping.  Don’t be angry with me.’  ‘So you recognize the profundity of what I am saying?’ said the Patriarch . . .  “What sort of wisdom are you now hoping to learn from me?’  ‘I leave that to you,’ said Monkey.  ‘Any sort of wisdom –it’s all one to me.’"

When reading this passage for the first time, my response was “We should all be so lucky!”  Imagine a classroom full of joyful learners eager to consume that day’s offering, interested in learning for learning’s sake.  I mean, that’s the City of Gold that keeps teachers hacking through the wilderness,  the reason many of us signed up for this gig, and the eternal hope that allows us to overlook that short line of digits on our paycheck.  Yet, we seem to be retreating from the Monkey ideal rather than approaching it.

Why is this?

For our part, teachers seem to moving in the right direction.  We’ve exiled the “all-knowing” Patriarch along with his narrow and pedantic closed-mindedness.  In his place are experts of all stripes and backgrounds, a multitude of voices (none of them shouting at students).  Moreover, as nice as rich attire and a fancy chair sound, we are no longer “seated in state.” Our teachers now roam and ambulate.  And more than just profess like some sacred oracle at the front of the room, we practice varied approaches to teaching and learning that seek out and reward participation and active engagement.

Yet, where are our monkeys?  I see them in kindergarten exhibiting all the symptoms described above (flowering faces, laughing eyes, stamping of feet), but something happens to them on the way to the community college classroom.  John Taylor Gatto explains much of what occurs in his brilliant article “The Seven Lesson School Teacher,” but there’s yet more to it  –something specific about our classrooms– and as is so often the case, it comes down to money.

Since the economic downturn I have seen an alarming rise in reluctant faces, crossed arms, and grudging voices.  They all say the same thing: “I lost my last job and now I’m stuck here until I can get another one.”  “I’m tired of making peanuts and so I have to get through this to something better.”  “Mom said I have to go to college if I want a good job.”  “I’ll get this out of the way and then go to university.”  These voices concern me, for they all share the common theme of transience.  At best we’re an obstacle course; at worst we’re a roadblock.  Too many students attend community college as a type of purgatory, something to be endured until they can move on to that which is bigger and better.  Current political trends exacerbate this scenario by denigrating the teaching profession on one end and enacting increasingly restrictive and invasive educational policies on the other.  Even well-intentioned officials seek to defend  the place of the community college by tying it directly to job placement, job creation, and the economy.  The result is not pretty.  Too many students arrive with the perception that this whole education thing is an economic exchange.  As in, “I pay you tuition and you give me my passing grade.  I collect enough of these passing grades and you give me a piece of paper.”  Expressed as an equation it looks like this:

money+time=diploma=good job

Because of the many variables and potential cross-purposes involved, this may or may not be true.  However, what is true, is that it generates a damaging sense of entitlement, and in the process belittles what actually takes place in the classroom.

I do believe that education makes better employees and studies readily show the dollar value of a degree, and yet the classroom is not job training, and it shouldn’t be looked upon as a speed bump or weigh station on the way to a career.  The classroom is and should be a destination in and of itself, a locus of knowledge, learning, community, sharing, exploration, self-discovery, and change.  These outcomes are not all measurable (much to the chagrin of the pencil pushers), and they cannot all be relied upon regularly, but even in a diminished or altered state, they are worthy pursuits.  Yet, if students arrive with the perception that the classroom is just one more hoop to jump through, they risk missing out on the greater fruits of an education.
So what’s the point of all this?  Should we just cry and eat more ice cream?  Should we curse myopic politicians and administrators to the heavens?  These are attractive options, but, as always, we should focus on what's under our control.  Every pair of crossed arms and disinterested eyes is a challenge, and though many students do not realize it, indeed, they have been conditioned to deny it, their hearts and minds are really piles of dry tinder just begging to be set alight.  Rather than wait for lightning to strike, we need to bring that fire with us into the classroom.  Be enthusiastic, be loud, stamp your feet, jump around.  Be a Steve Irwin and get excited about your subject.  If you want active, engaged and joyful learners you have to model that behavior.  You won’t change all of them, but you’ll get quite a few.  After all, monkey see, monkey do.


  1. Jason - I see the same attitude in a lot of my students as well - I need a 'job'; not, "I'm here to learn something new and expand my knowledge" - but, I do have some that are really glad to be here. One in particular, a young veteran, expressed that he felt like he was three years-old again. His brain had blocked out so much knowledge just getting the day’s agenda and trying survive (he’s done 3 tours), and he is excited to have it “absorb stuff” again.
    I really liked your statement that the “classroom is and should be a destination in and of itself, a locus of knowledge, learning, community, sharing, exploration, self-discovery, and change.” Liberal education seems to really get a bad rap these days, and yet, it’s the foundation of progressing forward in learning, work and life.
    So, how do I make learning not “just one more hoop to jump through?” Well, I’ll keep relating to students why I’m happy they are there; why it’s relevant to moving on; and that knowledge can never be taken away from you.

  2. Oh, and I'll keep telling them about your Monkey!

  3. Great points, Chris. It only takes one engaged and enthusiastic student to open his/her mind, and it is all worth it!