“1 + 1”: More than an Equation

by Amina Tawasil

Schooling is supposed to either spark or augment IQ/cognitive ability which is then exhibited as ‘skills’. Thus, it only follows that schooling increases the chances of upward mobility for girls, women and people of color. And, for men and women in ‘small villages of ailing countries’, schooling is considered a pillar to a successful rural to urban labor migration. In short, schooling is supposed to guarantee financial security. If governments hold up the security and economic-progress end of the bargain, then its people are supposed to reap the benefits of having been schooled. It is as easy as 1+1 = 2.

These promises have the potential, though temporary, to deliver the rapture of the impossible made possible. The reality, of course, is much too complex. For instance in the United States, mainstream schooling is not only a space where a child is told that “1+1=2”, but also where a child puts into practice the idea that whoever gets to the correct answer “2” first is the winner (Pope 2003). Most importantly, it is a space where a child comes to find out that whoever certifies “2” as the correct answer matters.

Clearly, not everyone in school who wishes to can become a six year-old playwright. Not everyone can be on the robotics team. And much to one’s dismay, the smell of the strawberry-scented sticker teachers often give out eventually wear off. But, more importantly, not everyone buys into this set-up their entire lives, a point I will get back to later.

Let us first problematize the extraction of “1 + 1 = 2” from the world in which it is, to be or come about. What happens when how the worth of this equation is developed through social relations is ignored? When the race for first place becomes the focus of any sort of analysis, most of what takes place in life outside of that race is bound to be dismissed. Here is small scenario to draw out what I mean by that. A girl, at age six, decides to be a playwright for the moment by writing about how her neighborhood friends actually built a robot in their backyard out of paper clips and strawberry scented stickers. In the face of accomplishments by those who have been schooled according to standardized assessments of validating institutions, this playwright and her friends will go unnoticed or discounted as, “it is what children do” rather than what winners of math and science olympiads or the mini-Blackburn prize do.

Simply put, the worth of “1+1 is 2” (in this case, writing a play) is more than about solving the equation. It is also about who solved it first, about who said it was solved, and where it was solved. In this paradigm, it becomes clear that this race to first place via 1+1 is where ‘life’ takes place, and they must first accept this race as a fact in order to begin the work of winners. It follows though that the scale is always tilted, certainly not in favor of the silent majority of broken hearts whose names are never called to come up on stage to receive a prize.

If the scale is always tilted to favor the winning-few, how is it possible that 1) we can make positive assumptions about schooling as stated in the beginning of this post and 2) schooling is the only way to spark ‘intelligence’, to gain mobility, or to level the playing field?

This unequal distribution of prizes has, now more than ever, emerged as the crisis of higher education; student debt is crushing the American Dream, the pay off to an investment in schooling is now less available, and people with doctoral degrees are on food stamps. The race for first place in academia, case in point, is not all that it is cracked up to be with only 25% of faculty across the United States on tenure. The very system of socioeconomic relations in which schooling is situated has and continues to privilege a specific kind of finish-first-place education that guarantees losing for most of its participants. Thus, it almost seems absurd not to have expected this crisis knowing that the system was rigged from the very start- to have a few winners, it must spawn losers.

One of the consequences of privileging the rubric of the 1+1 race (a guaranteed way to throw segments of the population into snake-pits via student loans) as a way to measure success is the tendency to overlook the enabling parts of life. By praising ‘who is first’ and then focusing on ‘what went wrong with those who did not make it’, a great deal more about life (theirs, ours), which may provide clues on how to help them better change their conditions, is taken for granted.

So, I ask, how are grown men and women generally mending their broken hearts after what feels like an empty return on investment on their higher education? Not surprisingly, pretty much the same way a self-made six year-old playwright does- though a formidable task, by self-making with the help of friends who are also self-making.

An ethnography of these specifics which essentially informs the universals makes for an excellent field of research since a movement away from investing in the empty promises of vying for first place is well on its way. From creating handbooks for contingent faculty, to unionizing like CalFac and ChicagoCoCal, to informing of rights from the Adjunct Faculty Caucus of New Jersey City University (AFC-NJCU), to creating on-line Cognitariat, to providing databases of opportunities- Versatile PhD, to pooling in skills and talents to contribute and benefit from the needs of the local community SkillShare, the Brooklyn Institute of Social Research, The Public School, and so on, men and women are working together to create and foster cooperative action.

A wave of organized defiance is emerging against the very ideology of survival of the fittest as the only practice of guaranteed survival. Human beings do not have to be perpetual competitors in the struggle for existence. Like the six year-old neighborhood playwright, men and women intent on mutual aid are coming up with viable ways to both contribute to and benefit from ways of ‘knowing and learning’ of communities in order to provide safety nets for each other.

There is yet, and finally, a problem- the tendency to relegate these said initiatives as ‘substandard’ alternatives to solutions produced out of the actual race, simply because these alternatives are produced out of the inherent dysfunction of its losing participants. Why is this substandard-izing a problem? It closes all doors to appreciating the human genius, except for one- the narrow doggie door of the who, what, when of 1+1, which millions of people are expected to move through. Impossible and unacceptable.

Fortunately, this misplaced attitude, too, is changing. By coming up with sustainable alternatives, the assumption about education as only and about schooling is constantly re-examined. Is it not that most of what we actually come to find out takes place off stage, without winners or losers? By watching and becoming aware of the efforts men and women are making together, instead of blindly following the process of elimination, one may well begin to embrace the better approach- ‘making it’ involves the cultivation of social networks. To end;

  • The natural and social calamities pass away. Whole populations are periodically reduced to misery or starvation; the very springs of life are crushed out of millions of men, reduced to city pauperism; the understanding and the feelings of the millions are vitiated by teachings worked out in the interest of the few. All this is certainly a part of our existence. But the nucleus of mutual-support institutions, habits, and customs remains alive with the millions; it keeps them together; and they prefer to cling to their customs, beliefs, and traditions rather than to accept the teachings of a war of each against all, which are offered to them under the title of science, but are no science at all” (Kropotkin 1902).

Kropotkin, Petr

1902 Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution

Pope, Denise

2003 Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. New Haven: Yale University Press.