The Zinn Education Project notes, “Howard Zinn passed away three years ago, on January 27, 2010. At the time, writer and activist Naomi Klein spoke for many of us: ‘We just lost our favorite teacher.’”*
The life and work of Zinn represents the personification of confronting the world from roles of authority that have historically been positioned as neutral—historian, teacher. But as Zinn came to understand and then to confront and embody, neutral is not an option:
When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. . . .From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian. (You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn, 1994, pp. 7, 173)
As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) movement, as well as the concurrent new and expanded battery of high-stakes tests, seem inevitable (as some continue to debate), Zinn’s radical stance as a historian and teacher offers a powerful window into why any standards movement is a failed process in education, particularly in universal public education designed to serve democracy and individual freedom.
Standards as Acquiring Some Authority’s Mandates
Zinn as historian and teacher personified the act of challenging content. For Zinn, our obligation as teachers and students is to ask questions—notably questions about the sources of power—about not only the world around us but also the narratives of the world around, narratives cast about the past, narratives being cast about the present, and narratives envisioning the future.
Who was Christopher Columbus—in his own words, in the narratives built around him by centuries of historians, in the narratives of textbooks, and in narratives of state-mandated curriculum? Why are there so many versions of Columbus, which ones are true (if any), and who benefits from these narratives?
Who was Martin Luther King Jr.—in his own words, in the narratives built around him by decades of historians, in the narratives of textbooks, and in narratives of state-mandated curriculum? Why are there so many versions of King, which ones are true (if any), and who benefits from these narratives?
Narratives, whether they be history or mandated curriculum in the form of CCSS, are manufactured myths, and ultimately, manufactured myths are created by some authority to suit some goal, some goal that benefits the designer of the myth.
And therein lies the ultimately failure of all standards movements.
A standards paradigm masks the locus of power (some authority some where decides what knowledge matters and then creates the accountability structure that makes that knowledge the goal of passive implementation [teachers] and compliant acquisition [students]) and creates a teaching and learning environment that can assume a neutral pose while in fact replacing education with indoctrination.
Authentic education for democracy and individual freedom is a continual asking: What knowledge matters and why? It is a journey, an adventure, a perpetual gathering to confront, to challenge, to debate, and to serve the teacher and learner in their joint re-reading and re-writing of the world.
CCSS, just as the dozens of standards movements before them, discount the need to confront, to ask, to re-imagine because standards are an act of authoritarian mandates. “Who decides” is rendered unnecessary, and the curriculum becomes a faux-neutral set of content that teachers must implement and students must acquire so that the ultimate faux-neutral device can be implemented—high-stakes testing.
Like the “‘remarkable apparatus’” in Franza Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” high-stakes testing ultimately becomes all that matters, “a mechanism of objectification” (Foucault, 1984), the inevitable abdication of authority and autonomy to a mechanism—”what is tested is what is taught” superseding any possibility of asking “why?” or examining who decides and by what authority they made the decisions.
Kafka’s nightmare allegory has been and will be replayed time and again as adopting and implementing CCSS along with the high-stakes tests uncritically, passively, and with a pose of neutrality (“I am simply doing as I have been mandated as well as I can”) feed the machine that consumes all who come near it, just as the Officer who implements the apparatus of punishment eventually acquiesces to it himself:
The Traveller, by contrast, was very upset. Obviously the machine was breaking up. Its quiet operation had been an illusion. He felt as if he had to look after the Officer, now that the latter could no longer look after himself. But while the falling gear wheels were claiming all his attention, he had neglected to look at the rest of the machine. However, when he now bent over the Harrow, once the last gear wheel had left the Inscriber, he had a new, even more unpleasant surprise. The Harrow was not writing but only stabbing, and the Bed was not rolling the body, but lifting it, quivering, up into the needles. The Traveller wanted to reach in to stop the whole thing, if possible. This was not the torture the Officer wished to attain; it was murder, pure and simple.
The American Character, Inscribed: “A Monopoly on the Truth”
While the education establishment, both progressives and conservatives, race to see who can implement CCSS the fastest, concurrent education reform initiatives such as charter schools and Teach for America help reinforce the worst elements of the standards and accountability movement.
Embedded in the charter school commitment is a parallel pursuit of standards: Character education.
In the “no excuses” model (made popular in the Knowledge Is Power Program [KIPP] charter chain), the standard for character and “good behavior,” again, is not something teachers and students explore, discover, and debate, but rules that must be implemented and followed.
For example, consider the “National Heritage Academies (NHA) and its approach to character and citizenship education,” highlighted by Rick Hess at Education Week; Hess, by the way, notes, “I think I’m wholly behind what NHA is doing.” What does a standardized approach to character and civic education look like?:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,” chant the students of Ridge Park Elementary School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “And to the Republic for which it stands . . .”
In the back of the room, a dozen parents stand with their hands over their hearts. Some are US citizens by birth, others by naturalization, and some by aspiration. Their children recite: “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
A National Heritage Academies (NHA) charter school, Ridge Park starts every day with the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the school creed: “I am a Ridge Park scholar. I strive to achieve academic excellence. I exemplify high moral character. I work diligently to prepare for the future . . .”
Character education is ubiquitous and relentless at NHA schools. Each month is assigned a “moral focus” or virtue, which teachers are supposed to weave into their lessons and students write about from kindergarten through eighth grade. Signs in classrooms and hallways honor examples of virtue….
Students troop out of the gym to start their day. (“Counting on Character: National Heritage Academies and Civic Education,” Joanne Jacobs)
“Chant,” “recite,” “ubiquitous,” “relentless,” “troop”—these are the bedrocks of a standards-driven school environment, but this is indoctrination, not education—whether the standard is character or curriculum.
And what sort of history curriculum does a character-driven model embrace? The work of E. D. Hirsch:
The patriotic spirit of Hirsch’s US history and civics curriculum fit NHA’s philosophy. ‘The ideals that created the United States were glorious,’ writes Hirsch in The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools. ‘Patriotic glorifications are very much to be encouraged in the early grades, so long as they retain a firm connection with truth.’ While US history and civics are not wrapped in the flag, says Nick Paradiso, vice president of government relations and partner services for the charter management company, “the basic idea is that America is a great country that learns from its mistakes. We need to embrace our country’s history.”
No, let’s not confront the histories of the U.S., not here at NHA, because that may lead to the sorts of questions Zinn would ask: Who decides and why, and then who benefits from these narratives of character and history? [Hint: "National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter management company, runs 74 schools in Michigan and eight other states, making it the second largest charter network in the country."]
Further into Jacobs’ description of NHA “America-centric” core curriculum, Martin Luther King Jr. is highlighted as an example for students of character. King as martyr for Hirsch’s glorious U.S.A.? Consider “Martin Luther King Was a Radical, Not a Saint” by Peter Dreier:
In fact, King was a radical. He believed that America needed a ‘radical redistribution of economic and political power.’ He challenged America’s class system and its racial caste system. He was a strong ally of the nation’s labor union movement. He was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers’ strike. He opposed U.S. militarism and imperialism, especially the country’s misadventure in Vietnam.
Do you suppose this is the King NHA students study and are encouraged to emulate?
And it is here I will end with the ultimate caution about being neutral in regards to CCSS, charter schools, character education, and a whole host of education reform mandates and commitments that seem inevitable: The powerful control the narratives and those narratives control the rest of us—all for the profit of the powerful.
“I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.” Howard Zinn, 1922-2010, R.(adical) I.(n) P.(eace)
*Updated in honor of the 50th Anniversary March on Washington and Howard Zinn’s birth date, August 24. Please visit and read:
Zinn Education Project
Remembering Howard Zinn by Meditating on Teacher Unions and Tenure?