Two years ago, I had the painful pleasure of coauthoring a textbook with three other colleagues. This textbook was written for first-year writing students, and I wrote the sections of the book that focused on research and information literacy.
As we wrote the book, my thoughts went back to one of my former high school teachers, Michael McAvoy. This morning I learned through Facebook that he lost his battle with cancer. I have many memories of high school (most of them good), but out of all of them, Mr. McAvoy is the one person who rises above most of the others. As someone who works in education, I hope that I can have the same type of impact in my students.
“Swanson, the machine I am getting to replace you is getting cheaper every day.” Mr. McAvoy would typically say this after I made some sort of smart-ass remark in class. He would smirk, fold his arms, and rock forward on the balls of his feet with an air of mild humor mixed with pretend contempt.
There was a time when I was out sick, and I missed a couple of his classes. When I returned, I saw him in the hallway, and I asked him whether he missed me. He responded, “Well, Swanson, I wasn’t shooting. But if I was, I wouldn’t miss.” Then he continued on his way down the hall. He said that at a time when this type of remark did not cause alarm. It was a different time and place.
I remember that he was a Packer fan and a Dodger fan, which were always points of debate since we were in Bears and Cubs country. He only had three toes on one foot due to an unfortunate incident with a lawnmower when he was a kid. One time he participated in a fantasy basketball league with his students. His team name was The Seven-Toed Chest Kickers.
When I think of Mr. McAvoy, I know he was one of my best teachers. He was the reason that when I entered college I was a better writer than most of my classmates. But, I liked him for more reasons than the simple transfer of writing skills. I remember him so fondly because of the way he engaged us as students. I can distinctly remember the class discussion we had about Julius Caesar getting stabbed to death in Shakespeare’s play, our discussion of the novel Lord of the Flies, and a paper I wrote about Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. I remember being so amazed that these great works of literature could be understood by someone like me, who was just a high school kid. The thing with Mr. McAvoy’s classes was that these were not honors or advanced placement classes. They were just regular English classes, and all of us were able to jump into this stuff.
In our public discourse online, on the media, and in debates at dinner parties, it is easy to cast our public schools as places that dampen creativity. Our education system is large and difficult to navigate, and I think that in some instances these systems get in the way of our larger goals. This is because we have an educational system. I would say that any time you have a group of people (so, more than one) who have to do something together you start to have a system. A system is a set of rules, processes, and procedures that explain how people interact with each other. For example, when you drive a car, you are participating in a system. Our society has put together a set of rules that help us work together so that we can efficiently drive at high speeds down our roads. If we had to make up our own rules or if we had to figure out the rules as we drove, then not only would driving be very inefficient, but it would also be very dangerous.
Systems do not really encourage us to be creative. Driving your car is not a time to decide to be creative. In fact, our rules of the road go out of the way to stamp out your creativity. Our police officers regularly give out tickets to “creative” drivers. For me, there are many times we criticize education when we are actually criticizing systems. Their purpose is to allow people to work together by creating solid rules where each person’s actions are predictable and standard. I think about all of the standardized tests I have ever taken. Not much room there for creativity, is there?
In the future, our students will spend a great deal of times within large systems. Our corporations, our governments, our charitable organizations, our religious organizations, and many other groups of people are essentially large systems. They all have rules so that people understand how to work together. But, these systems all suffer from the same problems. First, how do you develop a system where everyone knows the rules but is also able to creatively come up with solutions to problems? Second, systems automatically include values and priorities that tend to benefit some groups of people over others. How do we create systems that are equitable and fair to everyone? In high school, some of us found ways to be creative, and I would guess that many times it was our teachers were the ones who inspired us to be creative.
I think that there is a great deal of evidence to say that creativity can exist within systems, especially educational systems. It is my hope that college is a creative place. Yes, we are part of a very large system. Yes, at times, this system can hinder creativity. But, more importantly, for those of us who work in the system, creativity falls on our own shoulders.
I came from a small high school in rural Illinois. The college where I work is many times larger than my entire hometown. I know that many of us that came from there will remember our late teacher Mr. McAvoy. I have always made it my goal to follow his example and never forget that creativity does not come from our educational systems. It comes from educators.
Note: This essay is adapted from an essay in the book DeVillez, Eric, Tom Dow, Mike McGuire, and Troy Swanson (2010). Why White Rice?: Thinking Through Writing. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.
Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair & Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.