It was bad enough when NPR whitewashed the “grit” narrative, but now NPR is whitewashing charter schools and disaster capitalism in New Orleans.
For context please see:
More to come …
It was bad enough when NPR whitewashed the “grit” narrative, but now NPR is whitewashing charter schools and disaster capitalism in New Orleans.
For context please see:
More to come …
Like sports, nearly everyone has an opinion on race, but unlike sports, the training of race scholars is often meaningless in the public’s eye. Our knowledge is often attributed to mere opinion rather than theories and facts drawn from years of our own research and untold amounts of meticulous consumption of the work of our predecessors and contemporaries. We’re taught to take a look at information from all sides and trained to critique data and arguments. But when it’s time to talk about race, our phones simply don’t ring enough and our voices don’t mean enough.
Recently, I have posted about my own experience with sharing my expertise and the research base on sentence diagramming, prompting one comment on Facebook characterizing my input as a “viewpoint.”
In 1947, English teacher and scholar Lou LaBrant acknowledged “the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”
Taken together, then, we have a powerful historical and current problem that can be traced to the great media-discipline divide—a “gap,” as LaBrant called it, between the knowledge base of the disciplines and the so-called real worlds of popular media, public opinion, and day-to-day practice in fields such as education.
As I have examined in my call for a critical free press and my open letter to journalists, my primary field of education is trapped in that divide, essentially crippled because of that divide. Thus, Reese’s apt point about race scholars being “meaningless in the public’s eye” captures the parallel pattern found in education—a pattern in which media scrutiny, public opinion, and political leadership are all driven by an adolescent perspective that essentially acts as if the field of education does not exist and then as a result creates conditions (social realities and education policy) within which universal public education cannot be successful.
What do I mean by “adolescent perspective”?
Let me start with my primary and longest (so far) career—teaching high school English for almost two decades in rural South Carolina.
I must confess that i genuinely and deeply adore young people: babies, children, teenagers, and young adults. I have a very special place in my heart as a teacher for high school sophomores, in fact.
But it is the exact same quality found in teens that makes them wonderful and then nearly insufferable. Teens respond to the world with their hearts and souls first, responses completely disconnected from their still-developing brains and their nearly absent ability to be rational.
From second to second, teens appear to be trapped in a sort of bi-polar hell: magically happy to the point of levitation or mortally wounded by something otherwise innocuous.
That bi-polar hell is often reinforced by a belief that she/he has discovered something, thought of something, or is witnessing something that has never yet existed in the universe (there was “O, my, god Prince!” as if Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard had never walked the planet) as well as a nearly paralyzing obsession with fairness.
While teaching adolescents (or children, or young adults) can be incredibly satisfying and invigorating because of their passion, because so much of the world is new to them, Howard Gardner, for example, has detailed well, I think, the foundational divide that occurs between young students and their understanding the disciplines—and how that continues into adulthood:
An expert is a person who comes to understand the world differently. But that is very, very difficult to do and I’m going to argue today that it’s not done very often. …
Later on, I am going to give you evidence that no matter where you look in the curriculum, you will find students who do not understand: physics, mathematics, biology, literature, art. It is ubiquitous.
I witness daily that “ubiquitous”: The powerful and crippling divide between the media, the public, politicians, and students, and the disciplines, or as Gardner states, “experts.”
That divide I have here identified as an adolescent perspective—not to be condescending or harsh (because again I love adolescents), but to highlight the moves that journalists fall prey to in their honorable quest to mediate knowledge for the public, their practice constrained by the journalistic norm of “presenting both sides” and remaining “neutral.”
So I want to end with some friendly tips for the media, especially for education journalists:
Here, I think, are three simple guidelines for helping close the divide between the media and the disciplines, and thus, between the public and the disciplines—an essential step to implementing policy driven by knowledge bases and not the irrational adolescent perspective that govern our popular and political worlds today.
If I had to guess, I suspect Bill O’Reilly fancies himself more akin to George Will, Newt Gingrich, or Cal Thomas than Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. But speculating on that self-delusion isn’t really necessary because the reality is that all of these white, male pundits share a single quality: privilege.
And thus, it is all the more baffling when O’Reilly holds forth on denying privilege, prompting Charles Blow to conclude perfectly: “Only a man bathing in privilege would be blind to that.”
The “that” to which O’Reilly is blind, of course, is his own privilege built on his being white and male.
It is there that self-delusion is powerful, rendering O’Reilly and his fellow white-male punditry incapable of seeing their self-delusion; thus we have some perverse inversion of Ralph Ellison’s narrator confronting his own invisibility because he is black.
To deny privilege garnered from being a white male reminds me of the same sort of delusion found among Libertarians who champion their rugged individualism—”I did it on my own!”—while remaining incapable of seeing that no one does anything on “her/his own.”
There is likely a tremendous amount of low self-esteem lurking beneath these white, male pundits who hold forth on anything with a gusto found mostly among 15-year-old boys. In fact, these white, male pundits are essentially suffering arrested development.
And the really ugly truth is that as long as white males dominate U.S. culture in terms of power and wealth, that dynamic creates an echo chamber in which blind-but-loud pundits like O’Reilly speak to the actual and the normalized white male essence of the country.
It is nearly as tiring and cannot be unrelated: We must become so weary of young black males being slaughtered in our country that we do something about it—for and with them, and not to them—and we must also become weary of a ruling elite born on third base (white, male) and confusing that with hitting a triple.
I am sick to my bones with a country that demonizes the powerless while worshipping the privileged.
I am sick to my bones with a country that will not see the human value of its children.
I am sick to my bones with a country that allows the list of names simply to grow: Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown …
And I am sick to my bones with a country that creates wealth and celebrity for toxic white males.
It’s inexcusable, it’s embarrassing.
It’s exhausting to repeat, but necessary: we need a moratorium on white men pontification on race, class, and gender.
Optimism, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel—these are not my proclivities.
And while I wallow in the self-delusion that I am a Skeptic, the truth is that I have long ago slipped over into the abyss of cynicism.
There are moments, however, when I hope.
One such moment was during the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy—when I wanted desperately to believe that President Obama’s call for seeing every child as “all our children” would resonate against the recurring din of gunfire killing children—but not only the uniquely American slaying of school children but the daily loss of mostly black and brown children and young adults to gunfire in the homes and streets of U.S. inner cities.
But that has not happened. Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, Brown’s body left callously in the street—adding to the seemingly endless cataloguing of similar tragedies. And those tragedies are daily magnified by our collective refusal to see each death in the same way we would see the death of our own children, our collective refusal to see how “other people’s children” live, learn, and die is just as precious as if they were “all our children.”
So my cynicism is driven by the stark realization that if we cannot come together as a community over the shooting of “other people’s children,” how will we ever come together about the less dramatic but just as tragic conditions such as what we allow for the education of “other people’s children”?
The powerful phrase “other people’s children” comes from the work of Lisa Delpit, who argues:
I do not advocate a simplistic “basic skills” approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background [emphasis added], but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.
And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power [emphasis added]. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents “uncaring” when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, “But that’s the school’s job.” What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities.
And as Monique Redeaux clarifies:
At first glance, this seems to be the message conveyed by Payne: poor students of color need to be explicitly taught the hidden rules or codes of the middle/upper class in order to be successful in school, work, etc. When examined more closely, this could not be further from the truth. Both terms, the “culture of poverty” (Payne) and the “culture of power” (Delpit) locate the problem in culture—but in different ways/places [emphasis added]. Although Payne and other “culture of poverty” advocates see the problem as residing with the cultural attributes of those living in poverty, the “culture of power” perspective suggests that the middle/upper class hold the power and key to institutional success, partly through their monopolization of educational skills, and that they do all they can to make sure that they and their offspring maintain that power.
When Delpit began her work on “other people’s children” she predicted that her purpose would be misunderstood. People criticized her for “vindicating” teachers who subjected students of color to isolated, meaningless, sub-skills day after day. However, what she was actually advocating when she referred to “skills-based instruction” was the “useful and usable knowledge that contributes to a student’s ability to communicate effectively in standard, generally acceptable literary forms” and she proposed that this was best learned in meaningful contexts. In other words, Delpit argued that both technical skills and critical thinking are essential: a person of color who has no critical thinking skills becomes the “trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.” At the same time, those who lack the technical skills demanded by colleges, universities, and employers will be denied entry into these institutions. Consequently, they will attain financial and social success only within the “disenfranchised underworld.”
The key distinction between Delpit and Payne is the reason why [emphasis added] they believe students should be taught the “hidden rules.” Payne argues that their educational and economic success depend on their being able to conform to the rules of the middle/upper class. While Delpit, too, makes this argument, she does not believe that students should passively adopt an alternate code simply because it is the “way things are,” especially if they want to achieve a particular economic status. Instead, Delpit asserts that students need to know and understand the power realities of this country with the purpose of changing these realities.
We are confronted, then, with the continuing rise in programs funded by the government and supported by a wide range of political, public, and media ideologies and interests that submit only “other people’s children” to teachers produced by alternative pathways (such as Teach For America, but also copycats) and to school structures (usually charter schools, labeled “public” but functioning within a market dynamic) and policies driven by “no excuses” ideologies (such as KIPP, but also numerous copycats) demanding “grit.”
Yet, affluent children, mostly white, find themselves in classrooms with low class size, experienced and qualified/certified teachers, and rich curricula often not linked to the standards-of-the-moment or high-stakes testing—and do not find themselves disproportionately retained, suspended, expelled, or shot while unarmed walking down the street.
Our education dilemma is a subset of our greater cultural dilemma—one that pits our traditional commitments to the rugged individual, Social Darwinism, and consumerism against our potential moral grounding in community and cooperation.
No child should need to depend on the choices her/his parents make, and no parents should be faced with making choices about those foundational things that all humans deserve—one of which is access to the exact same conditions for learning and living that the privileged among us have before them.
Today, the U.S. remains a dog-eat-dog culture that perpetuates and allows one world for “other people’s children” that would never be tolerated for “my child.” A great moral lapse of our time is that we refuse to act in ways that prove “they’re all our children.”
Leonard Pitts Jr.: What’s next in Ferguson? Let’s try a little education
Like Dewey, poet Adrienne Rich honored the mission of universal public education as “the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization,” but she also warned:
The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.
This is a reposting (slightly revised) from Daily Kos (16 December 2011), and offered in the context of the media and political demonizing of Michael Brown after he was shot, although unarmed, by a police officer. Political, public, and media framings seek ways in which to highlight individual effort (“girt”) as the key component of success, and thus keeping the gaze on individuals. These framings, of course, keep our attention away from large social forces and imply race, class, and gender superiority and inferiority that perpetuate white/male privilege. The whitewashing of Steve Jobs is one the most powerful and disturbing examples.
Confessions of an Outlier in the Aftershock of Ferguson
Sum it all up and the answer is: if you grew up as a poor black kid, you’d be making decisions under the same constraints, which probably means you’d make the same decisions. The fact that different decisions could produce different outcomes is important–but to state this is not to state an obvious solution.
The online discussion and debate spurred by Marks and bloggers such as Amanda Ripley (both of whom I have addressed here) have some important patterns that occur in many education and education reform commentaries presented by Diane Ravitch, Nancy Flanagan, and Deborah Meier—as well as a much longer list of teachers and scholars who make the case for addressing poverty and social inequity as a central element in education reform.
Like Marks and Ripley, many who comment at these online commentaries rally to support “top students,” choice, “no excuses” ideology, competition, and the call for all children simply to try harder. As Marks implores, “If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible.”
It seems that the root of success of any kind, but specifically educational success, lies in individual effort—both by students (regardless of the lives they have been dealt) and teachers (regardless of the conditions in which they teach).
These patterns have caused me to wonder about these robust and powerful refrains about effort. So let me offer first a confession.
Confessions of an Outlier (Sometimes)
I graduated high school eighth in my class, and then proceeded through undergraduate and graduate school to achieve a doctorate, almost exclusively making As along the way and being regularly praised for my academic ability. But let me pause for a moment about those K-12 years.
To this day, I cannot recall really trying in school—not time spent studying or finding anything asked of me being that difficult. In fact, especially when I took standardized tests, I always felt I was doing something wrong; it felt like cheating to zip through tests and score in that rarefied air of the 99th% percentile.
But during those same years, I worked diligently and incessantly—I tried very hard—at basketball and golf. I wanted to be an exceptional athlete. I had a large poster board on my bedroom wall throughout high school with every day of the year outlined, detailing my daily workout regiment that always included jumping rope several hundred times each night with ankle weights on (ankle weights I wore throughout every day most of junior high into high school).
The result of this tireless effort (paralleled with my minimal-to-absent academic effort)? I sat on the bench nearly my entire junior high and high school basketball career.
To this day, many of the things I excel in take little effort; they challenge me almost none at all. And to this day, I participate by conscious decision in athletics because cycling does force me to work very hard just to be not quite as good as the other more talented cyclists with whom I enjoy riding.
Despite what the rugged individual myth claims in our culture, despite what the winners repeatedly claim about that narrative, I have come to recognize what Malcolm Gladwell explains well in Outliers: The identified winners in our culture have achieved that status primarily due to fortune in that their innate proclivities match the expectations of success in our culture; once these winners see that possibility, then their effort appears to further the sorting begun by their fortune.
Culturally, however, the winners are perpetuating a grand arrogance and lie about effort that both reinforces the belief that the winners deserve their status (they are better than you and me because they made that decision to try) and that any one of us could reach the same heights if only we’d get off our lazy asses and try.
Social Darwinism, Capitalism, and the Winner’s Creed
I recommend that everyone take the time to read the opening links I mention above and focus on the comments posted by readers. Social Darwinism, an idealized conception of competition, and a manic faith in rugged individual have all blinded many Americans to the nature of cooperation, democracy, and equity (especially as equity contrasts with equality).
Capitalism requires humans to think and live as consumers, to compete and artificially sort the winners from the loser so that we all remain like rodents on a running wheel—too busy to pause and confront the inherent flaws of competition or the manufactured lies of the ruling elite.
Measuring, labeling, and sorting are the mechanisms of oppression, tools for creating and maintaining hierarchy and centralized power. Competition pits human against human to the detriment of humanity.
The U.S. sits in 2014 a country that rejects Darwinian evolution but lives, breaths, and worships Social Darwinism—which contrasts many people’s claim of Christian and democratic ideals.
Promoting and requiring rugged individualism is not cherishing individual autonomy; rugged individualism is the antithesis of individual autonomy.
The great irony of the education reform debate that simmers inside the larger social debate in the U.S. is that we have idealized choice to the point of rendering the word meaningless. We have allowed the 1% to narrow our eyes on each person to the extent that we no longer recognize each human is, as the words reveal, not fully human unless a part of humanity.
Choice is not a province of each individual, but a dynamic of individuals within the mechanisms of society. To decontextualize choice or any human endeavor is to distort what it means to choose or be human.
So I’ll end and clarify my self-proclamation that I am an outlier.
Yes, much of my life has resulted in my being identified as an outlier, a success, a winner. I know that most of that has come from the accident of my birth—my wonderful home life as a child and my proclivities as a human that come from somewhere deep in my mind, soul, and bones that I had no part in creating. I know that when my proclivities match the social norms, I succeed (often regardless of my effort), but I also know that when social norms expect behaviors I do not find easy, no amount of effort will change that (I’ll never—and never could have—competed in the Tour de France).
As the late and complicated Kurt Vonnegut would explain, we as Americans could do with a huge dose of humility (especially from the outliers), a renewed commitment to kindness (especially to children and those who are not finding life equitable or easy), and a serious reconsideration of whether or not we wish to be a democracy (a people who embrace the ethics of community) or a consumer-based oligarchy.
Ironically, the choice is ours:
…I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. Eugene V. Debs