Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Alice's Adventures in Public Ed

I’ve taught Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland three different times. We focused on the topic of identity and Alice’s journey. I used surrealistic art with the book. I don’t know every nuance of the novel, but I do understand it rather well. However, it’s amazing how one can read a book over (even teach it) and yet discover something new or make a new connection.

Recently, a casual thought led me to re-read Alice and was floored by how much of Alice’s experience pertains to modern education: too many of our students experience much of what Alice does. Let’s pretend Alice represents our struggling students—students having problems with the current public educational system.

Now, are you ready to jump?

Imagine Alice falling down the rabbit hole and landing in Wonderland’s hall of doors. The only way out is through one of the doors, yet they are all locked. Suddenly, Alice spots a key, but either the locks are too large, or the key is too small.

How many students feel this way: they’ve been given the key of an education, but because of budget cuts or inherent racism/discrimination or too standardized a curriculum, they feel ill equipped to unlock any of the doors. Why hand them a key that doesn’t even work? We continually tell students we are preparing them for college and life, but how many educators are truly trying to do that? I guess if we want to prepare our students for the reality of systemic discrimination, then, yes, maybe school does prepare them.

But wait! What is behind that curtain? It’s the perfect door! Success! Somehow the key is a perfect fit. Despite the odds, Alice finds the door she wants to walk through. It opens and she beholds the loveliest garden and longs to escape the dark hall. “Dark hall.” What an apt description for too many of our public schools—institutional, prison-like buildings furnished with uncomfortable desks and fluorescent lights. And that’s the better schools. My mind keeps playing the recent pictures from Detroit schools: the mold, roaches, rats, and deplorable conditions. (In case you’re unfamiliar with the issue:

Alice wishes she could fold up like a telescope and be small enough to fit through the door. She wants to do whatever it takes to conform. She so strongly wishes to break out of that hall, she wishes for the impossible. 

Alice spends much time trying to get through the door. She drinks something and shrinks; she eats something and grows. Nothing works. But, Alice does react with anger to her situation. She even cries and rails and questions her own identity because she isn’t the perfect size. She compares herself to children she knows as she grapples with who she is and tries to force herself to fit through the tiny door. Alice even turns to a memorized piece of literature to find comfort and answers; however, not even what she learns in school helps because it isn’t an accurate reflection of her current situation. How does this math lesson apply to her life? Where are the literary characters like her? Will science or art or music standards help Alice? Maybe a multiple-choice test will equip her with the skills she needs to escape her dark prison.

Poor Alice doesn’t know to question the weird door or the small key or the odd cake and drink. She doesn’t ponder why these weird systems are in place or wonder if they are the problem—no, she sadly blames herself and her “disabilities.”

Alice does finally makes it through the door on an ocean of tears she cried, but she still doesn’t reach the garden. Instead, she encounters many bedraggled creatures that also swam through the “ocean.” The next scene eerily resembles a typical classroom: one person (the Mouse) takes charge and tells everyone, “Sit down, all of you, and listen to me!” They sit and listen to the Mouse’s solution to their problem: a boring history lecture. Of course, what the Mouse presents doesn’t help at all. The “students” remain in the same state as before the Mouse’s pontification. Maybe if the Mouse’s speech had come in the form of a Kahoot quiz or gamification…that would at least make it less boring and more applicable, right?

Alice continues her adventures, encountering many anthropomorphisms and general confusion and silliness. Eventually, she meets the Caterpillar, who asks, “Who are you?” Poor Alice doesn’t know because “…being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing” Any student would feel this way as s/he spends time shrinking and growing and twisting and contorting to try to please each teacher and meet expectations for each class. In this class, the student is expected to sit down and shut up. In that class, s/he is allowed to move and discuss. In this class, grades and tests matter more than learning. In that class, s/he hears discriminatory words or ideas from other students—or from the teacher. Anyone would question his/her identity after all the nonsense. “’How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another! …the next thing is, to get into that beautiful garden—how is that to be done, I wonder?’” Still Alice lacks the proper guidance and direction to find that garden. If school doesn’t do that, what is its purpose?

Poor Alice forges ahead on her confusing journey through the public school system. The Cheshire Cat tells her if she doesn’t care where she ends up then it doesn’t matter which way she goes (come on, we all know people/educators like this). Then Alice encounters some lovely elitism at the Mad Hatter’s. They emphatically tell her there’s no room at their table—even though there clearly is. I don’t interpret this literally (as in schools actually not having room—even though many don’t); rather, I see this symbolically. The privileged don’t have room for whom they don’t want at their table: generally white, wealthy, cisgender, binary, “Christian” students. There’s no room for Alice. She doesn’t fit in…even though there is plenty of room for everyone.

Alice forces her way to the table, where she is subjected to personal criticism and ludicrous riddles. They even call her stupid and tell her not to talk. She leaves in disgusted frustration and discovers another door. By now, Alice has learned a little how to manipulate the system and finally makes it to the garden.


As Alice finds out, the garden is not a paradise, but another place fraught with dangers, where she neither knows nor understands the quicksilver rules and people. The Duchess even tells Alice, “’The more there is of mine, the less there is of yours.’”

Our best summation of the unequal nature of public education comes in the Mock Turtle’s story. He and Alice argue about the importance of their courses. Mock Turtle remarks his school had “’French, music, and washing,’” but he couldn’t afford washing. I think of all our students who can’t afford the necessities, much less the “extras.” We expect them to aim for self-actualization when they simply worry about shelter, food, clean water, and safety. Thanks to Flint, Michigan, we even see how some students can’t afford washing—they can’t afford the monetary cost for clean, safe water, and they can’t afford the cost to their health.

I don’t have the energy to analyze the travesty of a trial in Wonderland, but I know you, dear reader, can easily draw parallels with too many current events. Instead, I shall wrap up my strange tale…

Sadly, Alice (and too many other students) will realize the world is not made for her; instead, the world will do whatever it can to keep Alice in the subjugated place carved out for her by the strange world. That world will even threaten Alice’s life (“Off with her head!” as the Queen of Hearts shrieks) to keep her in her place.

How can we, as educators, continue to support this kind of systemic inequity? When we will elect people who understand education is the basis of a strong society—and without all of our citizens educated, we will only weaken society. When will American citizens wake the f*ck up and stop growing stronger on the oppression and subjugation of a large part of its citizenry?

Will we bellow and threaten and distract ourselves with silly entertainments (like playing croquet with flamingos)? Will we continue painting over our mistakes and history to make it fit of vision of perfection (painting the roses red)? Will we all continue to wallow in our selfishness, greed, hypocrisy, pride, and ignorance? Will we continue to sacrifice some of our children so others can retain their power, wealth, privilege, and status?

Curiouser and curiouser, isn’t it? 


  1. I think I may have to re-read the book.

    1. I've taught it several times, but it's amazing what I noticed once I started down this particular rabbit hole. :-)