Public schools have declared war on uncertainty

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Not long ago, as my students were discussing Robert Browning’s “Caliban upon Setebos,” an assistant principal at my school came to observe the class. Such observations have at times have landed me in a fair amount of trouble.

That risk certainly existed for the Browning poem: My students had already read Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Caliban is drawn from the earlier work). We had also engaged in a frank discussion of evolution and what these days would be called intelligent design (Caliban makes inferences about nature based on unequal power relationships he observes all around him — Browning was clearly influenced by the recently published Origin of Species). We were also building on prior conversations about what it means to be “innocent.”

My classroom is designed to be a safe space for wrestling with ideas that do not always pass culture war tests or lend themselves to any sort of standardization. Still, I do not court controversy. Teachers who do that do not survive long in public schools. At best, my role is merely that of a maître de, arranging tables at which people can have important conversations.

On the day of the (unannounced) observation, one of my students had a brainstorm about the poem. She said the most striking thing about Caliban was his absolute lack of peers. He was, she suggested, uniquely drawn to inequalities in nature because he had no friends, no family, with whom he could open his heart, with whom he could share his most dangerous questions.

In a way, the student asked, could Caliban represent all of us, alone in the dark, surrounded by the terrifying blankness of a world in which our desire for certainty about our purpose remains unrequited?

This is a dangerous question. And it was an elegant critique of the circumstances that conspire, far too often, to prevent any flirtation with uncertainty in classrooms.

My students then tore into the poem with zeal, inspired by the ways in which, as one had said, we are so very much like…