In this short Life that only lasts an hour
How much – how little – is within our power
Almost a year ago I asked Fran Vavrus if I could have a copy of her new book, Schooling as Uncertainty, and I would write a review in return. I finished reading it some time ago, but pulling my thoughts together to prepare a review for a scholarly journal – something I am usually able to do easily – has been challenging. As I texted Fran ( and have repeated to many other people), her work gob smacked me: I thought I had signed up for an exegesis of her ethnographic experience studying women’s education in Tanzania – a country about which I know so little that I was sure that it would be an intriguing read. Instead, what I encountered was a book that is equal parts scholarship, personal memoir, and a timeless story.
Fran’s big message is that the accepted mantra, “get more education to get ahead and have a good life,”, may be accurate for some populations, but it obscures the circumstances that disrupt the narrative’s accuracy for individuals. She recounts in loving and sometimes intimate details the histories of talented rural Tanzanian children, whose life paths she has followed for years. Their journeys through secondary or higher education – some successful, some not – often depended less on their own effort and more on the appearance (or disappearance) of family members or mentors who could afford school fees, or their family’s geographic location at a convenient distance from schools for which they were qualified. As she wrote searingly about those whose chances were permanently derailed by the AIDS crisis, which orphaned or impoverished many, I was struck less by the foreignness of their stories than by their congruence with my experience.
I read Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age, when I was in graduate school in New York City. It was the late 60s – a peak period of street crime and also the “great school wars”, where poor parents in Ocean Hill-Brownsville rallied for more say in their children’s schools and teachers called for more professional determination. The conflict was a true dilemma – both sides had a point. Those experiences led to my 40-year obsession with studying urban schools. But, in the end, it is still often the children who have lost. Big visions, like the Great Society or Eugene Lang’s I have a Dream, did not dent the immediate realities of family economics, under-resourced and segregated schools, and the distraction of immediate opportunities that promised survival.
Ok, so those are the facts, backed up by solid analysis. But what about all the other unseen stories of uncertainty that are deeply painful although not associated with dramatic, newsworthy failure? Even for my friends who are not impoverished, life has a way of interfering with the dream that education is easily available and can open all doors. Just as in Tanzania, early marriage or unplanned pregnancy, a parent’s death, or temporary homelessness throw careful plans into disarray: the hope for something big “out there” is abandoned (or delayed). For my mother, being orphaned in the Great Depression meant that the generous uncle who paid her tuition at the University of Minnesota thoughtfully added a requirement that she become a teacher (sure employment) rather than a biologist (risky, especially for a woman). Karen Martha waved her sister off to college, but had to confront her parents’ financial collapse when it was her turn.
Uncertainty is always close to the surface as Fran interweaves her own life experiences in the U.S. with those of friends and colleagues in Tanzania. Her personal stories make me cringe with recognition. Fran’s dissertation was viewed as “theoretically inadequate” by a single faculty member, which required her to spend vast amounts of energy and time in revisions and prevented her from graduating on time; my experience was similar, although my advisor bulldozed the less powerful member of my committee. Fran’s critical promotion to a tenured position was almost derailed, again by a single faculty member. In my friend Doug’s case, an erratic committee in one of the U.S.’s most prestigious institutions sent his five years of post-graduate work into a black hole, to be resuscitated much later at a different institution. I stepped off the tenure track for a decade to avoid the tenuous assistant professor role while I was a young mother (no, you can’t have it all….) and managed, largely through unanticipated opportunities, to get back on track. Those are happy accidents. But I have seen other colleagues sidelined because they didn’t follow all the unwritten rules on the way to tenure – or had a dean who disliked them. Conformity is required, but it does not eliminate uncertainty.
Speaking from my own vantage point, the timeless story in Fran’s book is more than a cautionary tale about the certainty of financial and personal payoff from education. Instead, her narrative leads me to consider each of the uncertainties I have encountered and how my struggle and occasional despair remains within me but disappears from the abbreviated public arc of a life that looks seamlessly successful (my close friends know better). As with Fran, thinking about my personal encounters with uncertainty at this juncture in my life has affected how I retell my story, not only to myself but to others. Perhaps that is why I do not run out of things to write about for Karens’ Descant….
A final reaction to Fran’s description of the effects of Tanzania’s post-colonial turmoil on educational careers requires me to consider how individual experiences are situated in their larger context. When and where we are born – in times of affluence, war, or environmental crisis – adds an existential uncertainty that we cannot escape. Like most people, I have intense reactions to social unrest as it happens but often become aware of its long-term impact only much later. I grew up aware of the magnetic evil of McCarthyism in the 1950s because academics were among those he targeted, and my father was at the beginning of his own career as a professor. A lasting consequence is that I do not trust the wisdom of crowds and popular opinion. I grew into early adulthood in the 60’s and early 70s, when it felt as if the foundations of the country were at risk, so aptly captured in the last few months by Ken Burns’ probing visual chronicle of Mohammed Ali, and the (for me) very personal movie about the Boys Who Said No! to the Vietnam War. Now, as the country feels, once again, as if it has lost its collective mind, I am pricked again by the menacing prescience of William Butler Yeats’ Second Coming, written in 1919, just after World War I:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
Fran’s depiction of the larger conditions over which we have no control echoes throughout her story, initially set in one of the poorest countries in Africa, but also situated in her own experiences. I am humbled by the resilience that accepting uncertainty brings to those who live with it as a fact of their own and other’s lives. The art of muddling through life’s inevitable ambiguities and failures is not a skill that we usually promote to our children (or grandchildren), but as I view events through the rear-view mirror, it feels like one of the most important lessons. Fran has reminded me that, when I cling too closely to something, the universe is laughing.