Teacher, author, Associate Director of the Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP) at University of Chicago
“Everything that I've done since 1964 is traceable to my experience in Mississippi.”
Marv has been an educator for forty-five years. He is the author of Chasing Hellhounds,You Won’t Remember Me: The Schoolboys of Barbiana Speak Today, A Vermont Diary, and Starting Up: Critical Lessons from Ten New Schools. He was also the founding director of the University of Chicago Charter School North Kenwood/Oakland campus.
He is married to the poet and novelist, Rosellen Brown, whom he refers to as Posey. They have been married since 1963. My interview with her is forthcoming,
We meet in a conference room adjacent to his office in the basement of Chapin Hall, at the University of Chicago. He talks here about the roots of his commitment to social justice and what keeps him engaged in the work.
When did your lifelong commitment to social justice first start to appear in your work and life?
The year I finished grad school was the year that sit-ins started. 1960. I was very aware of the disconnect between what I was doing in grad school and these incredibly brave kids who were getting their heads beaten in at the lunch counters, and later the Freedom Rides. That was playing in my mind all through grad school.
Later, Posey and I had the opportunity to go to Mississippi. She was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in grad school, which meant she got her tuition paid. The Wilson Foundation had a program for placing their fellows in developing colleges, which were all black, to develop honors programs on those campuses. That sounded like a good way for us to make our contribution. We saw ourselves as very unradical. We were not going to engage in demonstrations; we were going to teach.
They said, “We have this interesting place in Mississippi.” I said, “Well, I don’t know about that.” They sent us down to take a look a week after the three civil rights workers [James Chaney, Michael Schwermer, Andrew Goodman] disappeared, June 1964. We were scared as hell. Every time a car went by we were ready to jump in a ditch. But it was an exciting place, for a variety of reasons. That was the beginning of it all. Everything that I’ve done since 1964 is traceable to my experience in Mississippi — from my educational involvement to my longest standing and my most significant friendships and my whole interest in racial issues.
This may sound melodramatic, but it’s true: a lot has been written about the disproportionate number of Jews involved in Freedom Summer 1964, and I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me there was a clear drum beat in my head that connected this to the Holocaust and the people who stood by at that time.
When I taught the Holocaust in my classes, we always started with the Edmund Burke quote. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I wanted to be able to say to my children that I was not doing nothing when this was going on. That’s really the underpinning of the social justice work for me.
What about your interest in education?
My parents were Jewish immigrants — my father from Russian, mother from Poland. My mother went to night school to prepare for citizenship. My father spent his whole life as garment worker — a thread that runs through my life; the union was always an important part. A lot of my father’s life revolved around the union and around the synagogue.
I started out in engineering because it was considered, by most working class families, the most secure. But it didn’t take long for me to figure out this is not what I was cut out for. Wound up being a psychology major. First class I took, I had an amazing professor who didn’t use a textbook but used stories from the New Yorker. And we analyzed the characters in the stories. I was already reading a tremendous amount, though unguided. The public library was more important than school. I read Russian novels, [and I] Ulysses before I could understand it.
[Laughs.] I have this memory … My mother was one of those housewives who covered all the furniture with plastic. We didn’t have AC or a fan. It was a really hot day, sitting on the couch in shorts, legs sticking to the plastic, reading. And my mother was badgering me, “Why don’t you go out and play? You need to mingle with people,” — her favorite expression. “Mingle. Go mingle.” It was more interesting for me to be reading Crime and Punishment.
The great boon to my reading life is that all through college and high school I had a job working in a check room in a catering place where I witnessed three weddings and bar mitzvahs a week. People showed up, checked their coats and disappeared for five hours. It was a great chance to read. A great way to mask my social shyness. My reading was very self-directed and unguided. I don’t remember much of anything I read from high school English classes.
I’ve always appreciated how you and Rosellen are a part of each other’s work. She goes to education conferences, meetings and symposiums, and you’re a careful reader of her work. How is your work intertwined?
Her writing career had already begun when I met her. She had already published poetry. It was no small part of my attraction to her that she lived in this literary world which I valued more than anything. I remember our first phone conversations; they were long conversations about stories and essays that we had both read in the literary journals of the time — the Kenyon Review or the Hudson Review. It feels almost 19th century.
There’s a sociologist named Erving Goffman who wrote The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Unlike a lot of the sociology that I found oversimplifying, this was an interesting take on the ways in which people assumed roles, projected roles in various contexts that served a purpose. I laid it all out for Posey. She said, “Every novelist knows that.” That’s what I loved and appreciated.
This matter of complexity is really the one of the strongest bonds between us. We’re playing it out in such different arenas. That’s why she’s eager to hear my stories when I come home, even though they’re not as rich as when I was in a classroom. She’s keeping up with these complicated interactions.
You have always worked at ground level and you see the complexity of the issues in society. How do you keep engaged in your work given this awareness of the complexity?
Interesting question at this point. As a novelist, Posey’s job is to capture that complexity. Someone once asked her, “Will reading your book help me understand how to live my life?” And she said, “No! I write not to come up with answers but to come up with more questions.” I think that’s the reason I’ve stayed close to the ground and the reason I’ve been able to manage: I really enjoy approaching the world in that novelistic way.
I said something in Chasing Hellhounds about living a novel every day. It’s what I loved about classroom teaching. I have some of it with my students in the program here, and in the tales around the schools they’re working in. But I don’t feel like I’ve ever quite recaptured the complexity of the classroom.
Do you miss it?
Absolutely. I don’t know if I would have the stamina now to go back to it. But there’s a terrible sense of loss and a sense of envy of people who are still there. You also realize inevitably, no matter how hip a 70-year-old you are, there’s so much you’re not connected to and that would make it difficult for you to operate daily at that ground level.
Even though I spend much more time at my computer now than interacting with people in the way I would prefer– even in that computer world there’s a lot of that puzzle solving. There’s a lot of human interaction. That’s stuff I love, I relish it. The only way I can describe it is novelistic.
There’s an ease with complexity that I sense in you, a desire to be in the midst of things.
You can picture the converse, the avoidance of complexity. It’s the need to understand when your learning curve has leveled off and you need to do something else. Generally, when I look back on my life, I have operated on six or seven year cycles. I get uncomfortable and restless toward the end of those cycles because the work doesn’t offer the same kind of complexity.
What year in that cycle are you in now?
This is my seventh year in the program. I don’t know if I am at a point in my life where that rule breaks down. Not sure I have another seven-year cycle in me,. I don’t think I’ve lost much, yet. I’m also not sure when you stop being a good judge of that. I don’t have anything on the horizon and still enjoy what I’m doing. Although there is a lot of leveling off.
[The work] is growing and evolving in such interesting ways, so there is some newness built into it. I got an interesting journal from one of my students that hit on a fear that I always worried about. He called it complacency. He was anticipating what his teaching life would be like down the road and would he fall into a rut and do the same things over and over.
When I started, I had this nightmare image of standing at a lectern with the same yellowing set of notes. When I was teaching English I never taught the same books or the same way two years in a row. I had to be learning new things. I appreciated the fact that some people went deeper and deeper into the same books, but that wasn’t my style. I needed a different kind of stimulation. Sometimes the books I chose were books I hadn’t read, yet. Posey would say, “Are you crazy?” But that’s the way I kept myself engaged.
Do you feel the need to keep yourself engaged or it is the way you operate? I think those are two different things.
I think it’s the way I operate. I paused just now because I was asking myself if I am living up to that standard. There has been a certain degree of leveling off. I don’t get the time I need to read and be exposed to new ideas. It is definitely an adaptation.
You know this essay by Herb Kohl called Creative Maladjustment? It’s a must read. As you can surmise from the title, it’s about when and how you find ways not to follow instructions, to follow orders. Herb is more daring and bold than most people would be, but even he says you have make a decision at some point about whether you want to stay and work with the kids because, if you do, you may want to pull in your horns a bit in order to stay on the scene.
But where is the breaking point? Where are the so-called non-negotiables? Where it’s not just creative maladjustment, but you have to actively resist? I guess one of the discoveries that I’ve made along the way is that I’m not really a radical. Some of my students this year went to the social justice fair and we had a debrief in class. One of the students — and I have to say this resonated with me– said some of those people are too radical for me. Sometimes when I encounter those kinds of views, I ask myself, have I gone soft somewhere along the way?
I’m interested in this idea of distinguishing between resilience and giving in. And also the question –is this weariness or wisdom?
It isn’t so much weariness as impatience. I am less tolerant of the knee jerk responses to situations. I guess the thing that I’ve learned that runs through all my experiences is that the closer to the ground you are the more you realize how complex it all is. And how misguided are the generalizations people make about schools.
Going way back to my Vermont experience that I wrote about in Vermont Diary — I came there straight from New York and my Jewish, liberal background. A slight edge of cynicism about good old American values. But there I was in a community where there were many things to be cynical about, but there was also a representation of something, the vibrancy and the living examples of American democracy that existed in small town New England. I was stunned by that, by how easily dismissive I had been about all that from a distance.
So this issue of complexity is essential. I feel very strongly that the education that I value and that shaped who I am, only began when I finished school. [Laughs.] That’s a sad statement to make, isn’t it?
Marv officially retired from his work with the Urban Teacher Education Program in June 2014, but continues to work with students, teachers and schools in a variety of capacities, ever hopeful of creating schools that children deserve.
See Marv’s editorial, “How age ghettos cheat the old — and the young” which appeared in the Chicago Tribune October 19, 2014. He reflects on his desire to stay engaged in the work.