It's Not Shallow (Nothing Is Shallow Once You Dive In)

A gifted girl submits her topic for the Globalization Indie Project. I instantly try to convince her that "world fashion" is a shallow topic and that it confirms all of the negative stereotypes about women. I approach the conversation carefully, but inside, I am convinced I can get her to think deeper than simply clothing.

"Is that really a powerful force?" I ask.

She nods her head.

"It's basically what people wear," I tell her.

She shakes her head vehemently and then procedes to inform me on my misinformation. "It's not just what people wear. It's how they express themselves. It's their voice."

"I see your point, but have you considered other ways people express themselves?"

"What do archaeologists study? They look at the artifacts. These are cultural artifacts. What do anthropologists look at? They study the normal, cultural elements. Think about the tension regarding burqas and hijabs. Think about the way that clothing expresses culture and subculture. Think about social classes and the monolithic, globalized culture. Is it subjecting us into economic domination or is it an equalizing force? Are we becoming more free or losing our culture?"

"I . . . uh, wow. I'm sorry. I didn't see that at all."

"People tend to call things shallow only when they themselves have a shallow understanding of it," she says.

*     *     *

Recently, I've seen blog posts and tweets regarding what is and isn't shallow. Pop culture is shallow. Television is shallow. An ed tech guru says that teachers have gotten shallow and ISTE is shallow because we're not obsessed with computer code. I had a long conversation on Twitter last night regarding whether Americans are shallow and uninformed about the world.

And yet . . .

I recently read An Experiment in Criticism, by C.S. Lewis. One of the points he drove home was that it's not about the topic, but how well we think about the topic. Once we strip away pride and elitism and admit that we aren't the experts, we begin to see that systems are interconnected and the moment we think critically about those systems, the seemingly shallow becomes deep. The issue isn't content so much as how we think about content.

I could rip on sports for being shallow escapism. However, deep thought goes into sports. Spend a week listening to sports radio and you'll notice the study of narrative, the talk of relationships and on occasion the study of social and cultural trends. Before the Civil Rights movement hit the streets, black athletes were proving their merit on the ball field and white kids were idolizing black heroes.

The same goes for comic books, movies, fashion, food or pop culture. These are only shallow when we treat them as shallow; only escape when we want to escape. But think about the social, relational, cultural, and political implications and the shallow is suddenly deeper.

photo credit: maistora via photo pin cc

John Spencer

John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.

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  1. I think you and your student also hit on why fans of anything can be so critical, especially when what we love does not live up to our expectations. We feel that we have invested our time, money, and even part of ourselves in enjoying [insert whatever it is here] and when it lets us down, we can even feel betrayed.

    A thought-provoking post.

    Although Michael Bay movies are shallow.

  2. "it's not about the topic, but how well we think about the topic." I think I'm going to put this Lewis quote up on my classroom wall.

    1. My best thoughts are ones that are rehashed ideas from C.S. Lewis.

  3. Isn't it great to have students like this who make us think!

    1. Makes me wonder how often I'm missing it when a kid isn't bold enough to speak up.

  4. Terrific piece. Reminds me of a NatBd video I once saw. Middle School American History teacher is teaching a lesson on the civil war, with what looks like a football play on the whiteboard. The union horse cavalry is here (XX), the rebel foot soldiers here (OO), and have a creek to cross...etc etc. Camera pans to front row, where about three boys are riveted to this strategic discussion of 19th-century warfare. Remainder of the class is demonstrably "drifting."

    Girl raises her hand. "Did women wear hoop skirts during the civil war?" she asks. He barks at her--"Was I talking about that?"--and she is properly chastised. Teachers watching the video blanch at the sharpness of his disciplinary approach, and begin the discussion there, instead of the relative value of the historical content embedded in his lecture, her question.

    The good news: he later uses the video to reflect on the fact that his deep love of Civil War battle tactics (he's a re-enactor) is boring his class. Don't know whether he eventually gets around to cultural questions, about why women who worked in civil war hospitals were considered less than ladies (can't wear a hoop skirt when walking between fetid rows of men dying from gangrene or dysentery), but it was a start.

    Justin Bieber is shallow.

    1. If someone watched a video of my entire year, they would see as much or worse. In the moment, it feels okay. Later, though, I end up realizing just how careful I need to be with my words.

  5. Slight retractor:

    Some things are shallow. Some things are designed to be escapist. Some things are aimed at people who don't want to think. However, I think we should err on the side of caution when approaching the "this is shallow" argument. We shouldn't write off whole topics, interests or concepts. Skateboarding isn't shallow, but teachers might write that off as shallow. Comic books can have great depth (though a few are shallow).

  6. As I read through the post, comments, and slight retraction, it strikes me that it becomes too easy to connect the dots for students when they bring me the "shallow things I like" such as baseball, comics, detective novels, or The Food Network.

    I need to question these students as tenaciously as I question the ones who come to me with shoes, romance novels, or reality TV.

  7. Great post. I am sure many of us have had the same experience, but you capture it and expound on it well.
    I don't believe I have ever listened to Justin Bieber. My grandson's plastic pool here is shallow, add in his toys and plastic trucks and it has become "deep". :-)


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