I was driving home today, and I thought,
That person is the worst driver.
And then I thought–Sooooo many people are bad drivers.
And then I thought, People think I am a bad driver.
(I actually am a bad driver; in my life, I have totalled an absurd amount of cars, though I seem to have aged into accidentally (or possibly circumstantially) being a “good” driver… At least, according to my insurance discount…. As opposed to being according to the smunched (that’s smooshed and crunched) front end of my car.)
Parentheticals aside, I started thinking about my experiences of bad driving as a concept. I drove in London recently, and it was terrifying. I am rather excessively United Statesian, so to my thinking, the streets were insanely narrow, and of course I was also on the “wrong” side of the car, and the car itself was on the “wrong” side of the road. And, yes, I was TERRIBLE at driving. I even sideswiped a parked car, smashing the side view mirror of my rental, and I was so confused by everything that was happening so fast that I couldn’t even find my way back to where I had been to find the car I had hit to leave a note. I never even saw it–I just heard it.
Okay, truthfully, I probably wouldn’t have left the note, anyhow.
One cannot always be a good person.
Anyhow, driving in London was terrifying, but I did notice one thing. The other people–the London people–were really good at it. They drove super fast, with incredible accuracy. They were extremely polite as far as letting other drivers into their lanes, taking turns, etc. Their speed and precision was dizzying to me, but I grew in the few days I was visiting to love the way they drove. When one has utter certainty about other drivers not breaking rules, it becomes extremely safe. Driving in London was great once I got used to used it because I understood how it was done.
The next thing I thought about was how, a year or two earlier, I had started driving in the corner of the South/East Bronx where I work. Similarly to London, the speed can be terrifying, but most similarities to London end there. Cars are large, there seems to be an anarchistic sense of law, and I realized right away that I could not expect people to drive in the previously identified parameters of politeness. It is every driver for themselves. But after some terrifying mornings, driving in the Bronx, once I really started paying attention, felt very safe to me, largely in the way that driving in London would start to feel safe. Bronx drivers aren’t assholes (necessarily); they follow an unspoken social code. And while the social driving code in London feels extremely… regulated… and the social driving code of the Bronx feels extremely… autonomous… in truth, both places, in dissimilar ways, feel very safe to drive in because I feel like I understand the rules. When I commited to those social conventions instead of attempting to work against them, a sort of freedom developed. The every-driver-for-themselves rules of Bronx driving culture actually created safety for me once I stopped thinking people needed to be more polite. And the more days I drove on my morning route, the more I realized that there ARE distinct rules that are always followed; they just are not necessarily reflective of the laws I learned while growing up in the driving mecca of Los Angeles. Driving here exists for me in the same mental framework as the basis for theories of mutual aid-focused anarchism–in part, that people naturally create for themselves and their communities things that work without being forced to do so, and that this lack of force by a larger governance actually creates authentic safety. Now the Bronx is actually my favorite place to drive because I understand how it is done. And how it is done existed culturally long before I got there. When I got to London, I was a Bronx driver. I was terrified.
I want to be really clear about something here–in either case, whether London or the Bronx, the most dangerous person on the road was me. And the reason I was dangerous was because I was a cultural outsider. Or rather, not because I was a cultural outside, but rather because I did nto believe my own cultural leanings were an issue. We think of driving (indeed, of most things) as weighted. We think of “good” driving as a term of factual, not cultural, significance. Even if I am someone who works hard at divorcing myself from cultural arrogance, the truth is it takes practice to adopt a style of doing something… and that’s only if you decide to adopt said style. That’s only if you notice that interpretation is different from observation, and that even observation carries cultural bias. My morning drive is the shared activity of a cultural group of thousands of people who NEVER TALK TO ONE ANOTHER. So it seems sensible that most of the people–people with whom I may not otherwise share a driving culture–are going to be shitty drivers.
So my thinking arrived then at a big Aha! moment. The United States is a multicultural environment. Even though neighborhoods or even some small cities might exhibit a distinct lack of ethnic or cultural diversity, people who drive cars, pretty much without exception, do leave their neighborhoods and/or cities. At that point, their relationship to their own cultural understanding then determines who the good drivers are. It is also true that even within a ethnic or otherwise cultural context that seems consistent, if a person is blind to the shared practiced that have developed, they will be extremely frustrated. And in the case of driving–of moving a giant machine around at high speeds–this is mortally dangerous.
Cultural diversity = you are a bad driver.
Now I feel like I understand why everyone thinks everyone else is a shitty driver–it’s because, well, they are. Everything is about context.
So again, as with all things, I arrive back at education. You knew it was coming.
We wonder often how it is that a superpower such as the US could be embroiled in such a heady and heart-heavy crisis of education, and in particular, we attempt to address the impact of poverty and its seemingly cyclical relationship to lack of academic achievement. This is a very real issue, and one to which I am passionately devoted. But if education is traffic, then educators and students are the drivers. We can blame the systems–and I would honestly say, in most cases, rightfully so: The Department of Education by which I am employed, for example, is a bureaucratic mess, often nonsensical, and full of indecent decision-making–but it’s not the laws or even violation of the laws that make people shitty drivers. It’s the idea that we don’t need to make decisions because there are laws in place.
Truthfully, laws do not contain people–socially agreed-upon conventions contain people. And the conventions of education are created and reinforced every day by its drivers. The problem is, we most often don’t create this context consciously, and THAT is an extreme issue. Because if educators are not conscious about what they are creating with their habits, then students cannot learn to be conscious about theirs. And since all of education seems to be in agreement that metacognition is a critical aspect of learning, it follows that if students cannot learn to be conscious about their educational context, they cannot learn.
Multiculturalism is a tricky thing. I deeply value the aspect of living in the US that means I interact with different cultures every day. And when I say cultures, I hope it is clear that I don’t just mean ethnicity–although I do, in part, mean ethnicity–I mean diversity of family structures, of economic stati, of gender identifications, of neighborhood affiliations. I mean the way ordering a cup of coffee in one establishment means employing a different vocabulary than in another establishment. I mean the cultures of shared personal moralities, of political ideals, of what constitutes a delicious dinner…. or a good drivers.
My experience is this: Drop a California driver in the Bronx, and they will be terrified. Drop a Bronx driver in London, and they will be terrified.
But drop someone who focuses on their own driving and how it works best with what’s around them, and well… they can go anywhere. When life is less terrifying, it is much easier to learn. It is much easier to drive. When we learn more, life is less terrifying.
It may actually be true that the real way to create substantial change in education is for government to quit creating mandates in education, and let the communities of caring, vibrant, community-invested educators drive… because education, much like my beloved smunched-fronted Buttercup, is certainly a heavy machine that can be mortally dangerous.