In his essay “I Just Wanna Be Average,” Mike Rose details his school life in South L. A. Now a professor of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, Rose moves through secondary school at Our Lady of Mercy on the Voc. Ed. Track, revealing why the standardized versions of this “educational system” betray the core values behind liberal, humanistic education as we understand it. As Rose wants to stress the value of all individuals, the discrepancies between their actual intellectual capacities and how the system classified and treated them, he paints his fellow students in Vocational Education in great detail.
His title comes from Ken Harvey, who, among the many colorful characters and lively Americans Rose met, dropped the defining one-liner of his entire Voc. Ed. Experience: We were talking about the parable of the talents, about achievement, working hard, doing the best you can do, blah-blah-blah, when the teacher called on the restive Ken Harvey for an opinion. Ken thought about it, but just for a second, and said (with studied, minimal affect), “I just wanna be average.
” That woke me up.
Average? Who wants to be average? At the time, I thought Ken’s assertion was stupid, and I wrote him off. But his sentence has stayed with me all these years, and I think I am finally coming to understand it (Rereading America, 186). Rose goes on to attempt to clarify his understanding of this one-liner and how it fits in America’s education system. He reveals how Ken Harvey was trying to protect himself, “by taking on with a vengeance the identity implied in the vocational track” (187).
Rose himself was lucky, switching to College Prep and meeting a belated beatnik intellectual-turned-educator named Jack MacFarland, and a hard-nosed science teacher named Brother Clint. These characters brought a college preparatory curriculum to a place and students who had never seen it before. And Rose reveals how classism and racism most often prevent that from happening, wasting entire American populations in entire communities deliberately, all while demanding higher “standards” and “accountability,” when the real efforts are never made, save in name and sprinkled across the land as media headlines.
Rose’s essay reveals the multitude of challenges that students face, from struggles with family at ages that leave them ill-prepared to handle the emotional fall-out, to struggles with the emergence into a broader American world, to engaging in their own developing sexuality and its uncertain role in the context of their lives: work, and dreams, and the sense of possibilities of what life can or cannot be. I think Rose does a great job bringing this school in South Los Angeles to life. I can hear Ken Harvey, and see Jack MacFarland.
When we hear him diagnose Ken’s problem, and his response to it, he’s very believable. He describes how kids get assigned to Voc. Ed. , being defined as “slow. ” And he reveals the results: “You’ll have to shut down, have to reject intellectual stimuli or diffuse them with sarcasm, have to cultivate stupidity. ” I wonder though, what he thinks the answers are. Is it smaller classes, or teachers that care? Obviously, Brother Clint and Jack MacFarland are teachers that care, and work hard to connect with every student. But not all teachers are like that, right?
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