PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS Stephen Lafer wearing the shirt of the charter school he founded.

George Bernard Shaw/Maxims for Revolutionists/#124: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Some fall semester education majors at the University of Nevada, Reno will be in the classes of Stephen Lafer. That in itself is unexpected. The professor resigned in April. But it turns out that UNR is a little like the Mafia or the Communist Party—getting out is not as easy as getting in. Through some almost comic circumstances, he ended up staying.

Lafer’s wasn’t exactly a resignation in protest. It wasn’t not a resignation in protest, either. It was more a resignation in frustration. It read in part, “I have failed to make the conversation something ongoing. … We still have the same old College of Education as we did when I arrived, and we still have the same educational problems in the state, across the country, around the world that we had on my day one here.”

He was frustrated by somnolence in education, by students who memorize instead of think, by theory and methodology of education that does not consider the context in the real world in which methodology is actually employed.

“I took the job to become an educator who could educate,” he said last week. “And my sense of what it is to educate is that education makes people smarter.”

The College of Education, remember, trains future teachers, and that’s where Lafer instructs. Today’s students, he said, learn things not by reasoning toward knowledge but by accepting without scrutiny what they are told is so by instructors like himself.

“The way that we have gone about teaching the teachers that will teach the future citizens of America really doesn’t have much to do with getting smarter. It has to do with taking in and accepting what one is told. And to try to break that mold—it brings about an incredible amount of frustration and grief.”

His classes are usually taken toward the end of an education major’s program, and he finds that some students rebel against what he asks of them, not being accustomed to it under earlier instructors.

“I have to assume that because they’ve gone through a college program, they are indeed highly thoughtful people,” he said. “That’s not true, necessarily. They’re the product of a school system where thoughtfulness is not necessarily considered an important part of the curriculum. And again, you could look at the way students are tested. The test never asks students to explain what they think. You can’t bubble that in with a little dot. So my frustration—the reason why I quit is [that] the people who promote that idea that education is about taking things in rather than becoming an astute thinker … is dominant. And if you try to work against it, people don’t want to listen to you.”

When she learned of Lafer’s resignation, one of his friends wrote to him (with copies to his friends), “Your exodus is a huge loss, and I am publicly thanking you for all you taught us by actually honoring your students’ community organizing and spending all those sweaty days discussing, imagining and then more on the ground at the Boys & Girls Club and in Paradise Park at the community garden with R.E.A.L. students. Your founding of Rainshadow [Community Charter High School] is also a force of good for those who work there and find their education there. I taught there too, I saw for myself, so thank you.

“On the other hand, 27 years is a lot and think of it this way: you are now free.

“I’ve come to believe that there are as many people making money off of education as there are people doing the work of educating, but I know I’m making a difference in my student’s lives, and I am serious about their survival and success. Every good day is a Lafer-style seminar in my classroom, rich in history and practice and choices. Students lead finding their voices, making decisions, experimenting, evaluating, critiquing, and thinking—and making art.”

Lafer’s students and his friends had long been aware of his dissatisfaction. After the governor’s message to the Legislature in February, Lafer wrote on his blog with a warning against the Broad Academy, an organization that tries to apply business principles to education:

“I am hoping that the people addressed in this note are aware of the Sandoval/Martinez plan to reform failing schools in Nevada with a new state-run district that will eventually become a district of schools owned by private charter companies. The initial funding for the planning and implementation of the district will come from the Broad Foundation (all in education, especially those who know Pedro and knew Heath Morrison should know of Eli Broad’s endeavors in education) and the Wynn Foundation, built on gaming revenues, companies whose business model should be considered before allowing such enterprises a hand in determining educational policy. Rainshadow, the school I helped to found, will, if the plan goes through (and we now have a Republican governor and a Republican legislature—it will go through without some kind of intervention by sane people, particularly educators) will be placed in the hands of for-profit corporations, another part of the larger plan to corporatize everything from which a dollar can be squeezed.”

It’s not easy to get a handle on Lafer’s teaching style. Some of his students say he tends to rant endlessly, and others say he is one of the most interesting teachers they’ve had. Some say he is not helpful but others say he is flexible if the student is serious. And then there are those who say he does not brook those who challenge him—and those who say he encourages it.

Lafer, coauthor of The Interdisciplinary Teacher’s Handbook, may have become a victim of the period of his own college education.

“Original ideas were expected—not only appreciated, but expected. And the life of the student was constant engagement in debate about the life we were living. … We were protesting war. We were talking about racism. We were talking about environmentalism and sexism. … And I think it was more on the initiative of students. The courses were stimulating. You could not get by with simply memorizing something.”

Lafer is a fan of figures like Jon Stewart and John Oliver who can educate the public to hard and bitter truths through humor, so the way he ended up staying at UNR probably appealed to the side of him that appreciates the absurd.

Lafer said that he and UNR engaged in talks about terms for his departure and when it came time for the final signing of their agreement, the campus found one clause objectionable. That caused the whole agreement to fall apart and so, “I had to stay.”

He’s vague about what the sticking point was, saying “My college was told it couldn’t accept my resignation.”

When that happened, he thought to himself, “OK, well, they wouldn’t accept my resignation, so I have another level of freedom.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...