Snow Blind: “Trapped in the Amber of This Moment”

What is wrong with the following claims?

  • The rich and successful are rich and successful because of their work ethic.
  • The poor are poor because they fail to take advantage of the American Dream.
  • Women are paid less than men because they choose fields/careers that pay less and choose family over career.
  • Prisons are overwhelmingly populated by African Americans because they are trapped in the cycle of poverty.
  • Work hard and be nice.
  • Education, especially college, is the main path for rising above the conditions of any person’s home or community.

Before I examine the answer, consider this enduring claim:

  • In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and thus, Columbus discovered America. [The original poem ends "The first American?  No, not quite./ But Columbus was brave, and he was bright."]

And how about this blast from the past:

Dewey Defeats Truman

As Lienhard explains:

Gallup brought science to that process. Richard Smith tells how, by the time Landon challenged Roosevelt, the prestigious Literary Digestmagazine was America’s leading pollster. The Digest featured a regular poll called “America Speaks.” It drew samples from phone books and auto registrations. Gallup knew that such samples were biased toward people with means….

Then, in 1948, Gallup blew the Truman-Dewey prediction. How? His mistake was to quit polling two weeks before the election with fourteen percent of the electorate still undecided. After that humiliation, Gallup went back to analyze his error. He emerged with the maxim, “Undecided voters side with the incumbent.”

By 2012, then, you’d think polling would have reached some higher and clearer process for predicting presidential outcomes, but instead, we had the Nate Silver element, yet another case about how the science of polling has flaws, human flaws.

Even, it seems, as science inspects itself—acknowledging and addressing confirmation bias, for example—we are always “trapped in the amber of this moment,” since the human condition is itself necessarily a subjective experience.

And now, in order to answer my initial question, I want to turn to history; while history as a discipline is distinct from the hard sciences, both are dependent on evidence and then the conclusions drawn from that evidence—conclusions I call narratives (more on that below). Consider Howard Zinn on Christopher Columbus:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been, The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see” history from the standpoint of others.

In other words, shaping narratives bound by evidence does not insure that those narratives are pure and certainly does not insure that those narratives are above bias or absent the urge to mold them in order to secure someone’s agenda (likely someone in power). [1]

Snow Blind

Misleading narratives around Columbus or “I cannot tell a lie” George Washington—and the whitewashing of Steve Jobs to promote the “grit” narrative (compare the Jobs lesson to the original 1492 poem about Columbus)—are not problematic because of the evidence, but because of the lens through which the narratives are shaped and by whom those narratives are created and in whose interest.

Consider Billy Pilgrim in a telepathic conversation with a Tralfamadorian in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five:

“Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim,” said the loudspeaker. “Any questions?”

Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: “Why me?”

“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”

“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.

“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

And that brings me to the “grit” debate, one in which advocates point to scientific research and prestigious grants. From that evidence, we have three contexts of narratives: disciplinary narratives (Angela Duckworth, Carolyn Dweck), popular narratives (Paul Tough, Jay Mathews), political narratives (Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee)—all of which are trapped like bugs in amber, or as I prefer to suggest, that “grit” narrative advocacy is snow blind.

If evidence and the narratives surrounding the evidence appear to support a privileged agenda, and since the privileged have a larger megaphone in a culture, then that evidence and narrative are disproportionately likely to gain momentum—regardless of how accurate they are in the context of the oppressed or marginalized (consider again history and the Zinn points above).

And that inability by the privileged to see beyond their privilege is, I think, a state of being snow blind.

Thus, my answer to the initial question at the beginning is that those claims as narratives built on evidence are ideological distortions of the evidence. The “grit” narrative is similar to the education = income argument that falls apart when analyzed: Education is a marker for privilege (since privilege leads to advanced education) just as “grit” qualities are markers for privilege.

Systemic Inequity v. Rugged Individualism

In Slaughterhouse Five, the work of Howard W. Campbell (previously the main character in Vonnegut’s Mother Night) is quoted:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves….

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue….The most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame an blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times. (pp. 164, 165)

Snow blind and bugs trapped in amber, the privileged by their privilege and the impoverished by the blinding but misleading promise of the American Dream—the narratives become the product of those who shape them and for whose benefit, regardless of the evidence, the artifacts, the data.

Let me end, then, with a couple of points to consider, one from the 1973 satire Sleeper  [2] and the other from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

First, a scene from the film:

And then, John and Mona in Cat’s Cradle discuss Boko-maru (a sacred foot ceremony) and their culturally-bound and conflicting perceptions of love:

“Mona?”

“Yes?”

“Is—is there anyone else in your life?”

She was puzzled. “Many,” she said at last.

“That you love?”

“I love everyone.”

“As—as much as me?”

“Yes.” She seemed to have no idea that this might bother me….

“I suppose you—you perform—you do what we just did—with other people?’

Boko-maru?”

Boko-maru.

“Of course.”

“I don’t want you to do it with anybody but me from now on,” I declared.

Tears filled her eyes. She adored her promiscuity; was angered that I should try to make her feel shame. “I make people happy. Love is good, not bad.”

“As your husband, I’ll want all your love for myself.”

She stared at me with widening eyes. “A sin-wat!”

“What was that?

“A sin-wat!” she cried. “A man who wants all of somebody’s love. That’s very bad.” (pp. 207-208)

John is trapped in the amber of the moment, his patriarchal and possessive love leaves him snow blind to Mona’s perspective. He either cannot see, or refuses to see.

So I have made a decision—one shared by Zinn, expressed by Eugene V. Debbs, and reflected in the research of Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir—that the perspectives of the marginalized must be honored in the context of systemic inequities.

This is a position of humility and a recognition that any human arrogance—whether it be scientific or not—is likely to lead to the sort of pettiness captured in the Sleeper clip: both the satire aimed at the foolish dietary beliefs of the past and the incredulity of the scientists in the film’s present (“You mean there was no deep fat…?” exposes that despite the scientists recognizing the misguided stances of the past, they remain trapped in their own certainty).

Both the “grit” narrative and the “grit” research fail that litmus test. They both speak from and to a cultural norm that privileges individual characteristics (rugged individualism) as if they are indistinguishable from the systemic context of privilege (again, a claim refuted by Mullainathan and Shafir, but that narrative doesn’t serve the privileged, and thus, isn’t embraced as the “grit” narrative is).

Many novelties have come from America,” the cited monograph from Campbell notes, adding:

The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves. (p. 165)

The human intellect is a wonderful thing, and thus, we must pursue our efforts to understand the world and the human condition—a thing we call science. But as humans, it is not ours to somehow remove our basic humanity from that process (the folly of objectivity), but to choose carefully just how we shape the narratives from the evidence we gather.

I am then compelled to manipulate Einstein once again. His “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” I think, is a call for the necessity of human kindness, decency, and compassion in the shaping of our narratives. The “grit” narrative does no such thing. It is a snow blind story that is also deaf to the basic human dignity shared among all people.

Your Honor, years ago 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: Statement September 18, 1918

[1] See Robert Pondiscio’s citing of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” a misleading use of Vonnegut in the name of choice that is well outside Vonnegut’s ideological leanings; see my posted comment.

[2] While citing a Woody Allen work is problematic, I am in no way endorsing Allen or any efforts to absolve him of guilt or responsibility in the ongoing controversy surrounding him.

King’s Next Shining Novel: More “True History of the Torrance Family”

Stephen King’s career reminds me of the career of Kurt Vonnegut in three ways: (1) they suffered the negative consequences of being associated with writing genre fiction, (2) they are often devalued as being too popular to be credible “literary” authors, and (3) as many popular writers are, they are often associated with one work—King with The Shining and Vonnegut with Slaughterhouse-Five. King, as well, has been further marginalized by the stigma that being prolific means a writer can’t possibly be high quality.

Doctor Sleep, Stephen King

With Doctor Sleep, then, King takes on some monumental challenges since this 2013 novel is a sequel of possibly his most treasured work, The Shining, from 1977. King confronts the task of writing a sequel, as well as the weight of the popular film adaptation, in a concluding Author’s Note:

Did I approach the book with trepidation? You better believe it. The Shining is one of those novels people always mention…when they talk about which of my books really scared the bejeezus out of them….

I like to think I’m still pretty good at what I do, but nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare, and I mean nothing, especially if administered to one who is young and impressionable….

And people change. The man who wrote Doctor Sleep is very different from the well meaning alcoholic who wrote The Shining, but both remain interested in the same thing: telling a kick-ass story. (pp. 529-530)

Like many people, I was first drawn to King’s The Shining after seeing the 1980 film adaptation made popular by Jack Nicholson’s role. While I am certain I read the novel, I also realize I tend to recall more vividly the film version (the culturally iconic “Here’s Johnny!” and “Redrum”), which King warns about in a parenthetical comment in his Author’s Note: “If you have seen the movie but not read the novel, you should note that Doctor Sleep follows the latter, which is, in my opinion, the True History of the Torrance Family.”

I should also add that I am no fan of King’s primary genres, such as horror, and have not been an avid reader of King over the years. During a couple summers in the early 2000s when I was an instructor in a regional National Writing Project institute, we assigned King’s On Writing, solidifying my argument that King remains a writing treasure as well as a writer’s writer, one who informs what we know and understand about the craft of narrative.

In 2013, I had bought several King novels, deciding once and for all to spend more time with his work because an avid reader I trust deeply is a devoted King fan, but had yet to find one that grabbed me. Then I came across Adam Roberts’s Best science fiction books of 2013, in which he praised Doctor Sleep along with Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam.

Although not intended as a book review, I want to offer first that Doctor Sleep delivers on King’s stated goal, “telling a kick-ass story.”

Dan Torrance is a fully developed and compelling character as a haunted adult, and his new shining companion, Abra Stone, is equally engaging as a child character replicating but also expanding some of the power found in Danny as a child in The Shining. If you are looking for a novel worthy of your commitment as a “ling-distance reader,” this is more than worthy of your time and investment.

But there are two aspects of the work I want to highlight beyond a recommendation.

First, as a regular and enthusiastic beer drinker who knows the horrors of alcoholism among men on my mother’s side of the family, the most haunting aspect of the novel is the examination of alcoholism and the personal yet not idealistic dramatization of Alcoholics Anonymous. At over 500 pages in hardback, the book took several days to read and it bore into my thoughts deeply and pervasively, making me contemplative about even raising a pint of beer with a meal.

The weight and terror associated with the life of alcoholism are rendered far more frightening in this work than the vampire-like threat of the True Knot. For readers, the damage done by alcoholism is real, and the damage done to humans in its wake, including children, haunts Dan and the reader as powerfully as the apparitions expected in a King work of horror.

Many so-called types of genre fiction—such as science fiction, fantasy, and horror—incorporate social commentary through allegory. In Doctor Sleep, King does not hide his examination of alcoholism, however, beneath a metaphorical veneer; instead he pairs the twin demons of alcoholism and the supernatural—resulting in a work that may be more disturbing in the real rather than the imagined.

The second powerful aspect of the work involves the relationship between being a child and also being vulnerable because of that mere status as well as because of nearly debilitating fears that you are alone because you are different.

Much of Doctor Sleep for me is about childhood, itself a scary thing. When Dan as a struggling adult crosses paths with Abra, their shared shining creates a compelling look at how any child and all humans must come to terms with the Self, even or especially when that Self feels or is dramatically unlike social norms or what appears to be normal: “’I’m okay,’ [Abra] said. ‘Really. I’m just glad not to be alone with this inside my head’” (p. 236). You don’t have to have the shining to understand Abra’s relief.

Even as Abra finds solace in her connection with Dan—and their shared shining—she remains a victim of her own anxieties, especially as she feels compelled to hide her differences from her parents in order to protect them.

Abra also has a terrifying connection with a murdered boy—again speaking to both the fragility of being a child in a harsh adult world and the weight of isolation and bonds that are beyond any person’s control. This connection is stunning and, like the focus on alcoholism, haunts the reader:

They cut him up and licked his blood and then they did something even worse to him [emphasis in original]. In a world where something like that could happen, mooning over a boy band seemed worse than wrong. (p. 209)

Abra’s story is more than the narrative of a paranormal girl; it is the story of the collision between childhood and adulthood, and the potential of that childhood and even children being left in the wake. Again, this very real element is somehow much more terrifying than the supernatural.

King’s noting he is a different man than the one who wrote The Shining informs the big picture about Doctor Sleep since this novel of horror has a compassionate and soothing narration to it—the gift of a master storyteller—that keeps the reader somewhere between Abra’s anxiety and the eternal drift into slumber—both the daily ritual of sleep and the inevitable exit from this mortal coil.

Yes, Doctor Sleep is “a kick-ass story,” but it also much more; it will not soon leave you once you’ve returned to, or entered for the first time, the Torrance Family Album.

The Socialist Objective: “I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity”

Under a pen-name for a newspaper in 1943, George Orwell wrote about Christmas, veering into a declaration of the Socialist objective, predating by many decades Kurt Vonnegut’s career of making similar and powerful claims about the need for human kindness:

The Socialist objective is not a society where everything comes right in the end, because kind old gentlemen give away turkeys. What are we aiming at, if not a society in which ‘charity’ would be unnecessary? We want a world where Scrooge, with his dividends, and Tiny Tim, with his tuberculous leg, would both be unthinkable. But does that mean we are aiming at some painless, effortless Utopia? At the risk of saying something which the editors of Tribune may not endorse, I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness. Happiness hitherto has been a by-product, and for all we know it may always remain so. The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain, and the attempt to foresee it in detail merely confuses the issue.

Eliot Rosewater in Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater implores:

Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” (p. 129)

With both Orwell and Vonnegut, we should hear echoing behind their words, Eugene V. Debs, from his Statement to the Court (September 18, 1918):

Your Honor, years ago 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….

I believe, Your Honor, in common with all Socialists, that this nation ought to own and control its own industries. I believe, as all Socialists do, that all things that are jointly needed and used ought to be jointly owned—that industry, the basis of our social life, instead of being the private property of a few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all…

I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence….

I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own.

When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the southern cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches, the southern cross begins to bend, the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of time upon the dial of the universe, and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the lookout knows that the midnight is passing and that relief and rest are close at hand. Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Children’s Crusade: Kindness

In a 2004 Paris Review interview, Haruki Murakami explained:

I liked to read Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan while I was a college student. They had a sense of humor, and at the same time what they were writing about was serious. I like those kind of books. The first time I read Vonnegut and Brautigan I was shocked to find that there were such books! It was like discovering the New World.

Murakami identified something essential in Vonnegut, a tension created by blending humor with serious themes and topics as well as Vonnegut’s ability to shuffle non-fiction and fiction in his novels like a seasoned magician.

In fact, Gregory D. Sumner catalogues the gradual emergence of Vonnegut as a thinly fictionalized character in his own novels, notably by his most celebrated work, Slaughterhouse-Five: “The opening chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five annihilates the boundary between fiction and autobiography, inviting us into Vonnegut’s uncertainty about just what he has written. It is a dance, rather than an exercise in cold objectivity” (p. 126).

From this narrative ambiguity of genre, Vonnegut is often characterized as post-modern. And while there may be some waffling about details or accuracy, Vonnegut is quite certain—uncharacteristic for actual post-modern writers—about some foundational ideals, although even then he makes his most sacred pronouncements in the most challenging ways.

Vonnegut reveled in playing the free thinker and atheist as he also referenced Jesus—a common routine in his speeches—and his persona in his speeches and non-fiction was certainly as much fabrication as Vonnegut. But the novels and their blend of memoir and fiction create and sustain the most tension.

bookshelf KV

Slaughterhouse-Five presented Vonnegut a nearly insurmountable task of maintaining his joke-based writing pattern against the great human tragedy of World War II. This attempt to write a novel about being a POW during the fire bombing of Dresden, in fact, becomes the opening chapter of the novel that doesn’t genuinely start until Chapter 2. And in this first chapter while visiting a fellow veteran of WWII and his friend Bernard V. O’Hare, Vonnegut is confronted by O’Hare’s wife Mary, who is angry about Vonnegut’s considering writing a novel about his war experience:

“You were just babies then!” [Mary] said.

“What?” I said.

“You were just babies in the war—like the ones upstairs!”

I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood….

So I held up my right hand and I made her a promise:…

“I tell you what,” I said, “I’ll call it ‘The Children’s Crusade.’”

She was my friend after that. (pp. 18-19)

Several years before his Dresden novel garnered him fame, Vonnegut had offered what I think is his central children’s crusade: a paean to kindness, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

The titular character of the novel, Eliot Rosewater, implores:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” (p. 129)

On November 11, 2013, the day of Vonnegut’s birth, while we who love his work raise our eyes to the heavens and hope he is in fact Resting In Peace, we might honor him by heeding those words, crafted in the glorious blasphemy that makes Vonnegut Vonnegut.

For Further Reading

My scholarship on Vonnegut

21st Century “Children’s Crusade”: A Curriculum of Peace Driven by Critical Literacy [Peace Studies Journal, 6(1), January 2103]

Charter Schools, the Invisible Hand, and Gutless Political Leadership

Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time in Kurt Vonnegut‘s Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy’s experience introduces readers to Tralfamadorians:

The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three. They had many wonderful things to teach Earthlings, especially about time….

The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the we way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another, like beads on a strong, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever. (pp. 33, 34)

One of the most memorable moments of Billy becoming unstuck in time is his watching a war movie backward. Viewed in reverse, the film becomes a narrative of renewal, of peace, as fighter planes “sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen,” and “[t]he bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes” (pp. 93, 94).

In the spirit of folding time back onto itself to give us clarity of sight, let’s become unstuck in time while viewing American Indian Charter Schools.

Spitting in the Eye of Mainstream Education?

Like Billy watching a war film, we start now and move backward.

Jill Tucker reports (June 26, 2013) that American Indian Charter Schools have had their charter revoked by Oakland Unified school district:

The American Indian charter schools, which enroll 1,200 students in grades K-12, are among the highest-scoring in the state on standardized tests.

Yet Oakland district officials said they had a duty to the public to close the schools given the inability of the schools’ management to rein in the misuse of taxpayer money.

A 2012 state audit of the charter organization found several instances of financial impropriety, including $3.8 million in payments to the school’s former director, Ben Chavis, and his wife through real estate deals, consulting agreements and other services, raising ethical questions and conflict-of-interest concerns.

The decision was supported by the state’s leading charter school advocates.

“In this situation, it is clear that academic performance is not enough to either overlook or excuse the mismanagement of public funds and the unwillingness from the board of directors to respond in ways that would satisfactorily address the legitimate concerns raised by OUSD,” said Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, in a letter to the board in support of the revocation.

Mitchell Landsberg explains—in a provocatively titled “Spitting in the Eye of Mainstream Education” (May 31, 2009)—about American Indian Charter Schools:

Conservatives, including columnist George Will, adore the American Indian schools, which they see as models of a “new paternalism” that could close the gap between the haves and have-nots in American education. Not surprisingly, many Bay Area liberals have a hard time embracing an educational philosophy that proudly proclaims that it “does not preach or subscribe to the demagoguery of tolerance.”

It would be easy to dismiss American Indian as one of the nuttier offshoots of the fast-growing charter school movement, which allows schools to receive public funding but operate outside of day-to-day district oversight. But the schools command attention for one very simple reason: By standard measures, they are among the very best in California….

“What we’re doing is so easy,” said Ben Chavis, the man who created the school’s success and personifies its ethos, especially in its more outrageous manifestations. (One example: He tends to call all nonwhite students, including African Americans, “darkies.”) Although he retired in 2007, Chavis remains a presence at the school.

Focusing on American Indian Charter Schools among five other “no excuses” schools adopting a new paternalism,  David Whitman (2008, Fall) praises the accomplishments and possibilities of these schools:

Yet above all, these schools share a trait that has been largely ignored by education researchers: They arepaternalistic institutions. By paternalistic I mean that each of the six schools is a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. These paternalistic schools go beyond just teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance. Unlike the often-forbidding paternalistic institutions of the past, these schools are prescriptive yet warm; teachers and principals, who sometimes serve in loco parentis, are both authoritative and caring figures. Teachers laugh with and cajole students, in addition to frequently directing them to stay on task.

The new breed of paternalistic schools appears to be the single most effective way of closing the achievement gap. No other school model or policy reform in urban secondary schools seems to come close to having such a dramatic impact on the performance of inner-city students. Done right, paternalistic schooling provides a novel way to remake inner-city education in the years ahead….

Still, these entrepreneurial school founders battle on, slowly replicating their institutions across the country. It is too soon to say that all of the copycat schools will succeed. But the early results are extremely encouraging. It is possible that these schools, so radically different from traditional public schools, could one day educate not just several thousand inner-city youngsters but tens or even hundreds of thousands of students in cities across the nation. Done well, paternalistic schooling would constitute a major stride toward reducing the achievement gap and the lingering disgrace of racial inequality in urban America.

The Invisible Hand and Gutless Political Leadership

Backward or forward, this story is ugly. “No excuses” and the new paternalism themselves are classist and racist—ways in which the middle class and affluent allow “other people’s children” to be treated, but not their own—yet the larger faith in the Invisible Hand is the ugliest part of the narrative.

Idealizing parental choice narrowly and choice broadly is the foundation upon which both political parties stand. Why is the Invisible Hand of the Free Market so appealing to political leaders?

The answer is simple: Abdicating political leadership to the market absolves our leaders from making any real (or ethical) decisions, absolves them from doing anything except sitting back and watching the cards fall where they may.

And thus the charter school movement, with its school-choice light that allows progressives to tap into their closeted libertarian. Experimenting with impoverished children, African American children, Latino/a children, English Language Learners, and special needs children—this is the acceptable playground for the Invisible Hand.

Political leaders bask in the glory of Capitalism because the free market requires no moral conviction, no ethical stands, no genuine decision making based on careful consideration of foundational commitments to democracy and human dignity and agency. Capitalism allows Nero to sit and fiddle while Rome burns. If the fire needs putting out, and someone can monetize that, the market will take care of it, right?

Political leadership has ignored and marginalized children in poverty for decades, notably in the schools we provide high-poverty, majority-minority communities. The school-choice light commitment to charter schools is a coward’s way out of facing that reality and doing anything about it.

So it goes.

“Eager to Recreate the Same Old Nightmare”: Revisiting Vonnegut’s Player Piano

Few people could have imagined the acceleration of corporate influence that has occurred in the last two years despite the economic downturn associated with those corporations and the election of Barak Obama, who was repeatedly demonized as a socialist. *

More shocking, possibly, has been the corporate influence on the public discourse about universal public education, driven by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and promoted through celebrity tours by billionaire Bill Gates, ex-chancellor Michelle Rhee, and “Superman” Geoffrey Canada.

Adam Bessie has speculated about the logical progression of the current accountability era built on tests and destined to hold teachers accountable for their students’ test scores (despite the evidence that teachers account for only about 10-20% of achievement)—hologram teachers. And Krashen believes that the corporate takeover of schools is at the center of the new reformers’ misinformation tour. For Anthony Cody, the future is a disturbing dystopia.

While Bessie’s, Krashen’s, and Cody’s commentaries may sound like alarmist stances–possibly even the stuff of fiction—I believe we all should have been seeing this coming for decades.

The science fiction (SF) genre has always been one of my favorites, and within that genre, I am particularly found of dystopian fiction, such as Margaret Atwood’s brilliant The Handmaid’s TaleOryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Like Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut spoke and wrote often about rejecting the SF label for his work (See Chapter 1 of Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons), but Vonnegut’s genius includes his gift for delivering social commentary and satire wrapped in narratives that seemed to be set in the future, seemed to be a distorted world that we could never possibly experience.

In 1952, Kurt Vonnegut published Player Piano, offering what most believed was a biting satire of corporate American from his own experience working at GE. A review of the novel describes Vonnegut’s vision of our brave new world:

The important difference lies in the fact that Mr. Vonnegut’s oligarchs are not capitalists but engineers. In the future as he envisages it, the machines have completed their triumph, dispossessing not only the manual laborers but the white collar workers as well. Consequently the carefully selected, highly trained individuals who design and control the machines are the only people who have anything to do. Other people, the great majority, can either go into the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, which is devoted to boondoggling, or join the army, which has no real function in a machine-dominated world-society.

Yes, in Vonnegut’s dystopia, computers are at the center of a society run itself like a machine, with everyone labeled with his or her IQ and designated for what career he or she can pursue (although we should note that women’s roles were even more constrained than men’s, reflecting the mid-twentieth century sexism in the U.S.). Where corporations end and the government begins is difficult in this society that is simply a slightly exaggerated of the life Vonnegut had witnessed while working at GE before abandoning corporate America to be a full-time writer.

For me, however, Vonnegut’s Player Piano is as much a warning about the role of testing and labeling people in our education system as it is a red flag about the dangers of the oligarchy that we have become.

Today, with billionaire Bill Gates speaking for not only corporate America but also for reforming public education, how far off was Vonnegut’s vision?

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, how different is Vonnegut’s world to what we have today, as income inequity and the pooling of wealth accelerates?

We have witnessed where political loyalty lies during the bailouts as corporate America collapsed at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. With corporate America saved, and most Americans ignored, the next logical step is to transform public education by increasing the corporate model that has been crippling the system since the misinformation out of Ronald Reagan’s presidency grabbed headlines with the release of A Nation at Risk.

If Vonnegut had written this storyline, at least we could have been guaranteed some laughter. But this brave new world of public education is more grim—like George Orwell’s 1984.

Our artists can see and understand when many of the rest of us are simply overwhelmed by our lives. In Player Piano, we see how successfully corporate life disorients and overwhelms workers in order to keep those workers under control. And in the relationship between the main character Paul and his wife Anita, we watch the power of corporate life—and the weight of testing and reducing humans to numbers—being magnified by the rise of computers when Paul makes a plea to his wife:

“No, no. You’ve got something the tests and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.” (p. 178)

In the novel, Paul’s quest and the momentary rise of a few rebels appear to be no match for corporate control. Today, I have to say I am no more optimistic than Vonnegut.

When Secretary Duncan offers misleading claims about international test scores and bemoans the state of public schools for failing to provide us with a world-class workforce, and almost no one raises a voice in protest (except those of us within the field of education, only to be demonized for protesting), I am tempted to think that we are simply getting what we deserve—like Paul at the end of Player Piano: “And that left Paul. ‘To a better world,’ he started to say, but he cut the toast short, thinking of the people of Ilium, already eager to recreate the same old nightmare” (p. 340).

* Slightly revised reposting from OpEdNews (1/3/2011)