Market Ethics No Ethics at All

In the wake of this country’s premier professional sports league fumbling several cases of domestic violence by its players, one high-profile player has become the focus of equally disturbing cases of child abuse.

While the league and teams struggled with concerns about due process—deactivating, reactivating, and then deactivating again the player in the child abuse scandal—women and children bruised, battered, and knocked unconscious have more or less faded from the country’s conscience, despite gruesome video and photographs as artifacts of violence spreading from the playing field into the lives of professional athletes and the people they claim to love.

At the core of when and why this league and the teams take actions against a wide range of violent behavior—bullying, domestic violence, child abuse—not confined to real and artificial grass neatly divided into carefully measured gradients of 5 yards by 53 yards appears to be one single rule of thumb: Market ethics.

Owners and leaders in this league seem driven by the dynamic between public opinion (primarily the customers) and damage done to the brand.

While one team stood before cameras juggling their ineptitude in the face of graphic photographs and repeated player confessions of his actions taken as so-called discipline of a four-year-old child, that team’s sponsors watched their logos prominent in the background, and then a major hotel chain, a major fast-food restaurant, and a major beer producer (known itself for blanketing that major sport’s telecasts with sanctimonious advertisements begging viewers to drink their beer but no-no-no on drinking and driving) began to offer the team’s owners the moral clarity they had been missing all along.

The hotel chain dropped their sponsorship and the other sponsors have made public statements denouncing child abuse as not consistent with their corporate philosophy (at least that is comforting, right?).

And there the people of this country stand, facing the power of market ethics in a society bound to the dollar above all else.

Battered women, knocked unconscious, and children scarred at the hands of grown professional athletes—please wait while we check with our sponsors.

If your personal terror somehow tarnishes our shield, tarnishes our brand, then just you see our moral outrage.

We’ll start a campaign, we’ll release statements sternly worded (but tempered by our lawyers), and we’ll donate money to the right causes because the market has spoken and we now know where the lines are.

Yes, we can hire gigantic and athletic men to batter the hell out of each other for everyone else to watch—some permanently disabled, their brains rattled to the point of no return.

But we get it now: When the same men hit women or children (and video or pictures come to light), we must take a stand because we want everyone to know that the customer is our main concern (or at least those customers’ disposable income, disposable as the athletes themselves and their families left in the carnage of their unbridled violence).

Because in the end, market ethics are no ethics at all.

Spare the Rod, Respect the Child: Abuse Is Not Discipline

As a teenager and then a young adult, I witnessed in two different contexts a powerful and publicly praised adult who was not what he appeared. Particularly when I was a young adult, early in my career, I was able to fully recognize that this person was the embodiment of hypocrisy and was certainly not suited for his role dealing with teens in multiple roles of authority.

While I raised my concerns often, being essentially powerless, I had little impact on this situation.

During the seemingly endless controversies surrounding the NFL in the past year—bullying, domestic abuse, child abuse—I am reminded of those experiences and a central lesson I learned: Those in power on the inside know the truth, but will never admit the truth, and will only confront what they are forced to confront when small moments of truth are revealed.

The domestic abuse video and the child abuse photographs (and admissions) are merely the tip of the iceberg of the essential violence fostered and tolerated by the NFL, a culture of violence that spills over into the lives and families of NFL players beyond the playing field.

And to act as if those on the inside of the NFL are not aware of that iceberg below the surface, below the tip the public sees occasionally is more willful ignorance by the public.

NFL owners know. Coaches knows. NFL bureaucrats know. Teammates know.

But to all involved, the NFL matters more, and collateral damage remains something tolerated, something ignored, something hidden.

This, however, is not an indictment of the NFL only, but that this NFL is a reflection of the U.S. widely, an essentially violent nation that has little regard for the dignity and safety of our children.

And thus we have NFL leaders speaking on Adrian Peterson’s behalf, calling for his right to due process—despite photographs capturing abuse and despite Peterson’s own admissions about his actions, admissions that include:

I have to live with the fact that when I disciplined my son the way I was disciplined as a child, I caused an injury that I never intended or thought would happen. I know that many people disagree with the way I disciplined my child.

I know Peterson has been handled, that these public statements have been vetted and manipulated, but I also know that no amount of framing his actions as “discipline” can mask that his actions are abuse.

Just as there is no justification for a powerful and athletic man to hit his spouse or partner, knocking her unconscious, there is no justification for an adult hitting a child. None.

I must stress here that I am also not only condemning Peterson and his actions (although I strongly condemn those specific action) because Peterson’s attitude and behavior are being replicated across the U.S. daily, justified as the rights of parents, justified by Biblical scripture.

Corporal punishment remains allowed in schools in almost half of the U.S., in fact.

Hitting children remains a cultural norm of not only the home but the state.

Hitting children (distinct from domestic violence) is framed as a debate [1]—while we seem not to concede credibility to those endorsing husbands hitting their wives, we do allow those advocating spanking children credibility.

And that calls into question not just the NFL, but our entire nation, our cultural norms that appear mostly negligent about the safety and health of our children—the least powerful beings in our democracy.

Just as we continue to embrace grade retention despite decades of research showing it is harmful to children—again allowing the topic to be framed as a debate—we are no better than the powers that be in the NFL who certainly know about the iceberg below the surface that we also willfully ignore because we not only turn a blind eye to child abuse in the form of corporal punishment, we pretend that the research doesn’t exit—research from the APA that concludes:

“Until researchers, clinicians, and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of corporal punishment, including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior, not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists can not responsibly recommend its use,” Gershoff writes.

The U.S. is a violent nation and our national sport is the extension of our violent selves, a people not overly concerned about the weak, the powerless, the frail.

In Raising Arizona, H.I. laments, “Sometimes it’s a hard world for small things.” While this is true, it appears it remains upon us, the adults, to make sure in every way we can control that the world doesn’t have to be so.

Our response to Adrian Peterson must be that we are not simply disagreeing with him about his choices involving his children; we see abuse where he is unable to recognize it, unable to admit it.

It simply isn’t any parent’s right to decide about abuse. To call it “discipline” and to claim no intent do not matter.

But it would be adding insult to injury even if we take a stand against Peterson (although it appears we won’t) without taking a much wider stance against any form of physical abuse of children.

Ultimately, the only clear line we must take is zero tolerance for corporal punishment.

[1] Consider how we seem to ignore the significant danger tobacco smoke poses to children, highlighted by how rare bans on smoking with children in the care remain in the U.S. Laws prohibit children buying cigarettes, but because of parental rights, children must suffer second-hand smoke in cars and homes.

Stephen King: On Teaching

My life as a reader and film goer overlapped significantly with Stephen King’s rise to fame as a horror writer, and then while I was teaching in the summer institute for a regional National Writing Project (Spartanburg Writing Project), we assigned King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

I have recently reconnected with King through his Doctor Sleep (see my review) and Mr. Mercedes. But thanks to Jessica Lahey’s How Stephen King Teaches Writing, I have been drawn back into King as not just a writer’s writer, but also a teacher.

As an article at The Guardian suggests, please read the whole interview, but I want here to highlight a few points.

On teaching grammar:

Jessica Lahey: You write that you taught grammar “successfully.” How did you define “success” when you were teaching?

Stephen King: Success is keeping the students’ attention to start with, and then getting them to see that most of the rules are fairly simple. I always started by telling them not to be too concerned with stuff like weird verbs (swim, swum, swam) and just remember to make subject and verb agree. It’s like we say in AA—KISS. Keep it simple, stupid….

Lahey: You write, “One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.” If this is true, why teach grammar in school at all? Why bother to name the parts?

King: When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learn doesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.

The discussion of teaching writing has never and can never stray too far from the G word so I am always compelled by the urge to dive right into grammar when anyone discusses teaching writing (see Why Are We (Still) Failing Writing Instruction? and More on Failing Writing, and Students; see also the work of Lou LaBrant). King’s comments here and his role as a teacher of writing, I think, help highlight the power of teaching writing by those who have authoritative stances as writers themselves.

On favorite works to teach:

Lahey: When people ask me to name my favorite books, I have to ask them to narrow their request: to read or to teach? You provide a fantastic list of books to read at the end of On Writing, but what were your favorite books to teach, and why?

King: When it comes to literature, the best luck I ever had with high school students was teaching James Dickey’s long poem “Falling.” It’s about a stewardess who’s sucked out of a plane. They see at once that it’s an extended metaphor for life itself, from the cradle to the grave, and they like the rich language. I had good success with The Lord of the Flies and short stories like “Big Blonde” and “The Lottery.” (They argued the shit out of that one—I’m smiling just thinking about it.) No one puts a grammar book on their list of riveting reads, but The Elements of Style is still a good handbook. The kids accept it.

For nearly two decades, I anchored my poetry unit for high students with the songs of R.E.M. and the poetry of James Dickey; I was thrilled to see King mention Dickey’s “Failling.” See R.E.M./Dickey poems lessons here, and I recommend highly Dickey’s “A Dog Sleeping on My Feet,” “Cherrylog Road,” “For the Last Wolverine,” “The Heaven of Animals,” “The Hospital Window,” “The Lifeguard,” and “The Performance.”

On diagramming sentences:

Lahey: While I love teaching grammar, I am conflicted on the utility of sentence diagramming. Did you teach diagramming, and if so, why?

King: I did teach it, always beginning by saying, “This is for fun, like solving a crossword puzzle or a Rubik’s Cube.” I told them to approach it as a game. I gave them sentences to diagram as homework but promised I would not test on it, and I never did. Do you really teach diagramming? Good for you! I didn’t think anyone did anymore.

As I have addressed recently, like discussions of teaching grammar, debates about diagramming sentences seem to recur—notably in a recent NPR piece. I think King here finds a way to make diagramming less controversial, posing it as one avenue to playing with language. In my work on writers—Barbara Kingsolver, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin—I have noticed a consistent pattern of word play among those who are drawn to reading and writing.

On conferencing with students as writers:

Lahey: By extension, how can writing teachers help students recognize which words are required in their own writing?

King: Always ask the student writer, “What do you want to say?” Every sentence that answers that question is part of the essay or story. Every sentence that does not needs to go. I don’t think it’s the words per se, it’s the sentences. I used to give them a choice, sometimes: either write 400 words on “My Mother is Horrible” or “My Mother is Wonderful.” Make every sentence about your choice. That means leaving your dad and your snotty little brother out of it.

Over my thirty-plus years teaching writing primarily to high school students and undergraduates, I have come to mark far less of student essays (about the first third with track-changes and comments focusing on prompting revision) and depending much more on conferences. In my conferences, I always start with “What were you trying to accomplish or say in this?” And then we can begin to discuss how they have or have not met those goals (ones they can often say aloud but cannot bring to fruition as well in their writing).

On writing without fear:

Lahey: You extol the benefits of writing first drafts with the door closed, but students are often so focused on giving teachers what they want and afraid of making mistakes that they become paralyzed. How can teachers encourage kids to close the door and write without fear?

King: In a class situation, this is very, very hard. That fearlessness always comes when a kid is writing for himself, and almost never when doing directed writing for the grade (unless you get one of those rare fearless kids who’s totally confident). The best thing—maybe the only thing—is to tell the student that telling the truth is the most important thing, much more important than the grammar. I would say, “The truth is always eloquent.” To which they would respond, “Mr. King, what does eloquent mean?”

This is extremely important and speaks against the inordinate amount of writing students do to someone else’s prompts (and even someone else’s nearly entirely prescribed content and scripted form). King also challenges the use of grades, and recognizes how harmful grads are to coming to be a writer. If students are to become writers, they must be allowed to make the sorts of decisions writers make and then produce the sorts of authentic forms writers produce.

On what students should read:

Lahey: English teachers tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to literacy: Those who believe we should let students read anything they want so they will be more likely to engage with books, and those who believe teachers should push kids to read more challenging texts in order to expose them to new vocabulary, genres, and ideas. Where would you pitch your tent?

King: You don’t want to leave them in despair, which is why it’s such a horrible idea to try teaching Moby-Dick or Dubliners to high school juniors. Even the bright ones lose heart. But it’s good to make them reach a little. They’ve got to see there are brighter literary worlds than Twilight. Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.

Choice is not only important for learning to write, but also for reading, and here King examines perfectly the delicate balance of in-school reading—fostering a love of reading that includes choice and attaining a sophistication about text that comes from reading more complex and challenging works—especially as that is guided by an expert reader (the teacher).

On teaching as craft or art:

Lahey: You refer to writing as a craft rather than an art. What about teaching? Craft, or art?

King: It’s both. The best teachers are artists.

The interview ends perfectly, I think, with these words from King.

Buying the Academy, Good-Bye Scholarship

Higher education is facing difficult economic circumstances. While many are confronting how universities can remain both relevant and financially stable, few are admitting that a huge problem is not a lack of money, but the lure of money—billionaires buying university departments with powerful strings attached.

In my books on school choice and poverty, I have addressed the powerful and misguided roles that the media and think tanks have played in public educational discourse and policy. One example highlights the warning offered by Gerald Bracey:

That is where we currently stand in the school choice advocacy discourse that drives a substantial part of the new reformers’ plans. The newest talking points are “do no harm” and that people opposing vouchers want to deny choice to people living in poverty. And throughout the school choice debate, ironically, the choice advocates shift back and forth about the validity of the research—think tank reports that are pro-choice and the leading school choice researchers tend to avoid peer-review and rail against peer-reviews (usually charging that the reviews are ideological and driven by their funding) while simultaneously using terms such as “objective,” “empirical,” and “econometrics” to give their reports and arguments the appearance of scholarship.

But, if anyone makes any effort to scratch beneath the surface of school choice advocacy reports, she/he will find some telling details:

“In education, readers should beware of research emanating from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Mackinac Center, the Center for Education Reform, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Paul Peterson group at Harvard, and, soon, the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Arkansas is home to the Walton family, and much Wal-Mart money has already made its way to the University of Arkansas, $300 million in 2002 alone. The new department, to be headed by Jay P. Greene, currently at the Manhattan Institute, will no doubt benefit from the Walton presence. The family’s largesse was estimated to approach $1 billion per year (Hopkins 2004), and before his death in an airplane crash, John Walton was perhaps the nation’s most energetic advocate of school vouchers.” (Bracey, 2006, p. xvi)

I have detailed the problems with the Department of Education Reform (University of Arkansas)—misleading charter advocacy as well as my own experience with being misrepresented in the name of their advocacy.

Now, Valerie Strauss has shared similar concerns about the Charles Koch Foundation’s influence at Florida State University’s economics department; as Dave Levinthal explains:

In 2007, when the Charles Koch Foundation considered giving millions of dollars to Florida State University’s economics department, the offer came with strings attached.

First, the curriculum it funded must align with the libertarian, deregulatory economic philosophy of Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialist and Republican political bankroller.

Second, the Charles Koch Foundation would at least partially control which faculty members Florida State University hired.

And third, Bruce Benson, a prominent libertarian economic theorist and Florida State University economics department chairman, must stay on another three years as department chairman — even though he told his wife he’d step down in 2009 after one three-year term.

Education advocacy is now a very thinly veiled cover for much larger political and economic advocacy: Billionaires are buying the academy to create and maintain their powerful advantages.

One of the few walls protecting us against the tyranny of money has been academic freedom, securely (we thought) behind the wall of tenure.

And thus, while billionaires buy K-12 education and dismantle K-12 tenure and unions (Bill Gates, for example), billionaires are buying the academy and dismantling university tenure.

As we stand by and watch, we should be prepared to wave good-bye to scholarship, good-bye to equity, good-bye to democracy.

Reference

Bracey, G. W. (2006). Reading educational research: How to avoid getting statistically snookered . Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Setting Aside “My Knife Is Bigger than Your Knife”

When I waded into what I knew would be a controversial response to September 11, standing on the shoulders of an equally controversial piece by Michael Stipe, I received some expected responses that ranged from knee-jerk misreadings to very depressing fatalism about human nature and just what the most powerful nation in human history could accomplish.

One question deserves at least a brief response: How would the U.S. respond with humility instead of bravado?

First, let me start with a negative: Let’s stop responding to violence with what appears to be no more imagination than the cartoonish Crocodile Dundee:

Regardless of political party in power in the U.S., we cannot help responding to misguided violence with more and greater violence: “My knife is bigger than your knife.”

As innocent lives were erased callously in the horror of U.S. history now immortalized as 9/11, the U.S. could have—although belatedly—recognized the fundamental right that all humans should share, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness garnered on innocent lives at birth regardless of what soil is under their feet or what organized political system claims to govern their lives.

The innocent man, woman, and child in the carnage of 9/11 on U.S. soil are not more sacred than the innocent man, woman, and child anywhere on this mortal coil we call earth.

A response grounded in humility, then, is not beyond the scope of humans, and it isn’t as if we don’t have something to guide us—considering the lineage at least of Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr..

So briefly, some words from King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail (16 April 1963):

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states….Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly….

I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes….

I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes….

Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals….

An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal….

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?…Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists….

Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends….

It certainly isn’t easy to bring into reality, but the answer is easily stated: “the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”

Responding to violence with humility instead of bravado, then, avoids a powerful warning attributed Gandhi’s call for nonviolent noncooperation: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Responding to violence with greater violence reduces the U.S. to the most powerful blind person among all the blind. We need to choose to lead by sight instead.

High Noon: “Why Everyone (Almost) Is Wrong about Common Core”

High Noon at the Upcountry History Museum

2014 Fall Schedule

All lectures begin at noon on Wednesdays and last one hour. The Upcountry History Museum/Furman University is located at 540 Buncombe Street in downtown Greenville’s Heritage Green area (near the Greenville County Main Library and Greenville Little Theatre). For more information, contact Furman’s Marketing and Public Relations office at 864-294-2185 or e-mail Marie Newman-Rogers at marie.newman-rogers@furman.edu.

September 24

“Why Everyone (Almost) Is Wrong about Common Core”

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, Furman University

Common Core is a national standards initiative in the U.S. that details what K-12 students should know, especially in the areas of math and English, in each grade in preparation for college and the workforce. While Common Core has created a great deal of debate between advocates and detractors across South Carolina, most of that debate has failed to address the key questions we should be asking about reforming education in our state. Professor Thomas will examine what (almost) everyone is getting wrong about Common Core—and what we should be doing instead.

You know, you’d think someone with Lauren’s experience would understand you never tell the truth when you’re introducing someone. It’s kind of like a eulogy in reverse. I think the clear lesson from tonight is don’t ask Lauren to speak at your funeral. [Laughter] She clearly doesn’t understand what eulogy stands for….

One of them is the kind of humility she talked about, about qualifications. I actually think it’s really  important to try to base what I’m about to say to you on evidence I share with you rather than on the sands of my qualifications. So if I ask you or talk to you about doing something it should be evident that it makes sense to you to do, ’cause I have no other authority….

One of them is that these standards are worthy of nothing if the assessments built on them are not worthy of teaching to, period. This is quite a demanding charge, I might add to you, because it has within it the kind of statement – you know, “Oh, the standards were just fine, but the real work begins now in defining the assessment,” which if you were involved in the standards is a slightly exhausting statement to make.

But let’s be rather clear: we’re at the start of something here, and its promise – our top priorities in our organization, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about our organization, is to do our darnedest to ensure that the assessment is worthy of your time, is worthy of imitation. It was Lauren who propounded the great rule that I think is a statement of reality, though not a pretty one, which is teachers will teach towards the test. There is no force strong enough on this earth to prevent that. There is no amount of hand-waving, there’s no amount of saying, “They teach to the standards, not the test; we don’t do that here.” Whatever. The truth is – and if I misrepresent you, you are welcome to take the mic back. But the truth is teachers do. Tests exert an enormous effect on instructional practice, direct and indirect, and it‟s hence our obligation to make tests that are worthy of that kind of attention. It is in my judgment the single most important work we have to do over the next two years to ensure that that is so, period. So when you ask me, “What do we have to do over the next years?” we gotta do that. If we do anything else over the next two years and don’t do that, we are stupid and shall be betrayed again by shallow tests that demean the quality of classroom practice, period….

Student Achievement Partners, all you need to know about us are a couple things. One is we’re composed of that collection of unqualified people who were involved in developing the common standards…. (Remarks made by David Coleman)