NCTE 2014: “Why do we need the things in books?”: The Enduring Power of Libraries and Literature

[At the 2014 National Council of Teachers of English Annual convention—themed Story As the Landscape of Knowing and held November 20-23, 2014, in Washington DC—Renita Schmidt (University of Iowa), Sean Connors (University of Arkansas), and I will be presenting as detailed below; I offer our proposal as a preview and hope you can join us as we need to raise our voices for both libraries and literature.]

“Why do we need the things in books?”: The Enduring Power of Libraries and Literature

Panel presentation, 75 mins

2014 NCTE Annual Convention - Participant Announcement copy

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”*

P. L. Thomas, Furman University

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” Lou LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy). Also, LaBrant (1949) identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16). This opening talk of the panel will focus on the importance of access to books and libraries as an antidote to “costume parties”—highlighting the work of LaBrant and Stephen Krashen as well as the speeches and writings of Neil Gaiman and Ray Bradbury as life-long proponents of libraries.

The More Books the Better!: Library Books as Boundary Objects To Build Strong Girls

Nita Schmidt, University of Iowa

Libraries provide stories for helping us understand who we are and who we might become. Sometimes, those stories take us to places we cannot imagine and we need more stories to resolve the tension. Libraries provide the books that become boundary objects or, as Akkerman and Baker (2011) describe, artifacts that work as mediators during times of discontinuity. Drawing on sociocultural theories of learning (Gee, 1996; Wenger, 1998; Vygotsky, 1978), this paper will discuss the ways an after school book club works with 4th – 6th grade girls to consider new perspectives. Book club members visit the library every month, read books with strong female protagonists, discuss topics in the books that relate to the real lives of the girls, and help the girls start their own personal libraries to encourage girls to begin to see themselves as successful young women in a complex global world. A bibliography will be provided.

Speaking Back to Power: Teaching YA Literature in an Age of CCSS

Sean Connors, University of Arkansas

If, as the narrator of John Green’s (2009) Paper Towns suggests, imagination is the machine that kills fascists, then literature, as English teachers and librarians know, is the engine that drives it. Despite the current education reform movement’s insistence on reducing the study of literature to a set of narrowly defined, measurable skills, and arguments which associate “close reading” and “textual complexity” with canonical literature, educators who value Young Adult fiction know that, like literature for adults, it is capable of creating a space for readers to examine complex issues related to race, class, gender, etc. This presentation calls on educators to recast arguments for teaching YA fiction in an age of CCSS by foregrounding its ability to encourage critical thinking. The presenter will share examples of (and guidelines for producing) student created digital book trailers that, rather than promoting books, instead “speak back” to oppressive ideologies featured in them.

*Portions adapted from the following blog posts:

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Common Core in the Real World: Destroying Literacy through Standardization (Again)

“Fahrenheit 451″ 60 Years Later: “Why do we need the things in books?”

Neil Gaiman Should Be U.S. Secretary of Education: “Things can be different”

References

Akkerman, S.F. & Baker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 132-169.

Bradbury, R.  Fahrenheit 451, 60th anniversary edition.

Fahrenheit 451: 60th Anniversary Edition

Neil Gaiman lecture in full: Reading and obligation — http://readingagency.org.uk/news/blog/neil-gaiman-lecture-in-full.html

Gee, J.P. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourse. New York: Routledge.

Green, J. (2009). Paper towns. New York: Speak.

Krashen, S. (2014, January 4). The Spectacular Role of Libraries in Protecting Students from the Effects of Poverty. http://skrashen.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-spectacular-role-of-libraries-in.html?m=1

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1940, February). Library teacher or classroom teacher? The Phi Delta Kappan, 22(6), pp. 289-291.

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice, learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind and Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Made in America: Segregation by Design

“The woman in the gold bracelets tells her friend:,” begins a poem by Barbara Kingsolver from her collection Another America/Otra America. A careful reading notices “gold bracelets,” suggesting more than affluence, opulence. The poem continues:

I had to fire another one.
Can you believe it?
She broke the vase
Jack gave me for Christmas.
It was one of those,
you know? That worked
with everything. All my colors.
I asked him if he’d mind
if I bought one again just like it.
It was the only one that just always worked.

Her friend says:
Find another one that speaks English.
That’s a plus.

The woman in the gold agrees
that is a plus.

The two women speak interchangeably about the fired domestic worker and the vase, both reduced to “one,” and “worked” is repeated about only the broken vase, an object for decoration and a Christmas gift. “It” and “colors” also haunt the conversation. In this brief poetic scene, the callousness of two affluent women about the value of an ornament over a worker (one who apparently is not a native speaker of English, and as suggested by the Spanish/English versions of all the poems and title of the collection, likely Latino/a) is couched in a larger context found in the poem’s title, “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator.”

This flippant conversation is overheard by another worker, a janitor (who do you see as the “janitor”?), standing essentially unseen, unacknowledged beside these women (who do you see as these women?), trapped momentarily in an elevator.

Kingsolver’s stark and vivid poem captures, as does Kingsolver’s entire collection, the existence of two Americas, a slogan trivialized by politicians and ignored like the janitor by much of the public in the U.S.

The two Americas include the few and affluent, mostly white, who have virtually all the power and, as the poem shows, a voice in the nation and the remaining many, disproportionately middle-class, working-class, working poor, and poor as well as African American and, increasingly, Latino/a.

Let’s consider for a moment what students may be asked to do if presented with this poem in a public high school in the U.S., specifically in this expanding era of accountability and the encroaching specter of Common Core and the concurrent new high-stakes tests.

Based on my having been an educator during the entire past thirty years of the accountability era, I would suggest that this poem would be reduced to mechanistic analysis, in much the same way we have treated F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for decades.

While many are rightfully concerned that the Common Core will significantly decrease the focus on fiction and poetry in schools, we have yet to address that even if we maintain great poetry and fiction in the education of our children, we do them or that literature little service to allow those works to be reduced only to their literary parts, mere interchangeable fodder for identifying lination, stanzas, diction, symbolism, narration, characterization, setting, and the endless nuts and bolts deemed worthy of dispassionate analysis in school.

How many generations of students, for example, have examined at length the symbolism of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and Gatsby’ yellow car? How many students have been guided through the technical precision of Fitzgerald’s novel while never confronting his vivid challenge to the American Dream?

Have students been asked to look carefully at the corpses of Myrtle and George (the wrong kind of people, George a mere worker and Myrtle left like roadkill in the middle of the road) as well as Gatsby (the wrong kind of rich) floating dead in his pool? Have students been asked why Tom and Daisy (the right kind of rich) go on vacation in the wake of these deaths, seemingly untarnished because of the Teflon coating of their affluence?

Have students been asked to consider carefully why Tom hits Myrtle but bends to Daisy’s taunts?

These are distinctions of analysis—suggesting that Common Core and curriculum are trivial debates if we do not address what happens in the classroom and for whom.

Made in America: Segregation by Design

The technical approach to literature that ignores critical literacy is a subset of the larger technical debate about education and education reform that focuses policy and public attention on the details of schooling (public versus charter and private, Common Core, high-stakes testing, value added methods of evaluating teachers) and ignores the substance of schooling like a janitor trapped in an elevator with two wealthy women.

The substance of schooling today is a stark contrast to the moment of cultural consciousness stretching from the early 1950s into the 1970s when separate but equal was confronted and rejected. As society in the U.S. wrestled with integration of institutions, the cancer of segregation was merely shifted from separate schools to schools-within-schools: White and affluent students tend to sit in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and honors classes with experienced and qualified teachers and low student-teacher ratios while AA/ Latino/a and impoverished students tend to sit in remedial, test-prep, and tech-prep classes with new and unqualified teachers (in the twenty-first century that means often Teach for America recruits as temporary workers) and high student-teacher ratios.

In-school segregation has been driven by affluent parents, who use their privilege to insure that their children get theirs, and damn the rest. But segregation by design has now been joined by two powerful and corrosive mechanisms—charter schools and segregated higher education access.

Charter schools (see Charter Schools: A Primer and Current Education Reform Perpetuating, Not Curbing, Inequity) have failed to achieve the academic miracles proponents have promised, but charter schools have exposed the most predictable outcome of choice, segregation. As Sarah Carr has shown, New Orleans is a disturbing record of the charter schools flood, the role disaster capitalism plays in destroying equity and opportunity for “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard,” African Americans and people trapped in poverty.

While schools-within-schools and charter schools highlight K-12 segregation by design in the U.S., as troubling is the entrenched privilege of affluence found in higher education, augmenting Matt Bruenig’s conclusion: “you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.”

Carnevale and Strohl have identified the separate and unequal access to higher education that constitutes the full picture of segregation by design in the U.S.:

The postsecondary system mimics the racial inequality it inherits from the K-12 education system, then magnifies and projects that inequality into the labor market and society at large….

Whites have captured most of the enrollment growth at the 468 most selective and well-funded four-year colleges, while African Americans and Hispanics have captured most of the enrollment growth at the increasingly overcrowded and under-resourced open-access two- and four-year colleges….

These racially polarized enrollment flows have led to an increasing overrepresentation of whites at the 468 most selective four-year colleges….

At the same time, African Americans and Hispanics are increasingly underrepresented at the most selective 468 four-year colleges….

At the same time, African Americans and Hispanics are increasingly underrepresented at the most selective 468 four-year colleges…. (Executive Summary, pp. 3, 6, 10, 12)

The inequitable access to elite higher education mirrors the inequitable access to quality K-12 education and to experienced and qualified teachers. Inequitable access, then, creates inequitable outcomes:

[H]igh-scoring African Americans and Hispanics are far more likely to drop out of college before completing a credential….

Among high-scoring students who attend college, whites are far more likely to complete a BA or higher compared to African Americans or Hispanics….

Each year, there are 111,000 high-scoring African-American and Hispanic students who either do not attend college or don’t graduate.

About 62,000 of these students come from the bottom half of the family income distribution….

Racial inequality in the educational system, paired with low social and economic mobility in the United States, produces enormous differences in educational outcomes: Whites are twice as likely as African Americans and three times as likely as Hispanics to complete a BA or higher…. (Carnevale and Strohl, 2013, Executive Summary, pp. 24, 26, 28, 37)

Despite the meritocracy myth at the heart of the American Dream, then, Carnevale and Strohl conclude: “In the United States, parents’ education determines the educational attainment of their children” (Executive Summary, p. 38).

The cruel irony of education in the U.S. includes that most privileged children will find themselves in classrooms where color imagery (the gold bracelet in Kingsolver’s poem, the green dock light and yellow car in The Great Gatsby) will be the key to the already unlocked door leading to college and secure, high-paying jobs while AA and Latino/a as well as impoverished students are shown quite a different door.

All the while, the colors that matter—black, brown, white, and green—remain invisible and unspoken under the veneer of the American Dream of meritocracy that is less credible than any work of fiction soon to be dropped from the school day.

Adrienne Rich: Artist of the Possible and Life among the Ruins

I. Adrienne Rich: Artist of the Possible*

In late November of 2003, I sat on the floor in a crowded luncheon just a few feet and slightly behind Adrienne Rich, speaking and reading her poetry at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, held that year in San Francisco.

Appropriately, Rich was reading from her upcoming collection, The School among the Ruins, and talking about teaching, teachers, and education. I was struck by many things that day, and eventually I wrote a poem to capture the moment (see below).

As a poet, teacher, reader, and human, I have been deeply and permanently moved and changed by the poetry and essays of Rich, from the genius of “Diving into the Wreck” and “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” to the reconsideration of Emily Dickinson in “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson” (see On Lies, Secrets, and Silence) to her remarkable and soaring Arts of the Possible, that includes one of the most cited passages in my scholarly works:

Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is 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. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally “gifted” few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable. (p. 162)

For Rich, the human condition is a fact of what is spoken and unspoken:

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. (p. 150)

When I discovered that Rich had passed, I recognized that while she would no longer speak again to us, she would never be unspoken. With her work, Rich remains the artist of the possible.

Woman as Poet: Possibilities

The life and writing of Rich are testaments to and challenges against the hegemonies of gender, marriage, sexuality, and human agency. She lived many lives in her one life, a fact common for women trapped in the expectations of gender that often create burdens that are nearly impossible to carry.

Her early life included marriage and three sons, and then she lived a much different life after separating from her husband, a life often characterized by a sort of radical feminism that celebrated her lesbianism. Her life as a poet/writer paralleled this personal transformation, with Rich acknowledging that her early success as a poet was built on her embracing modernist traditions, leading to her “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” being both, according to her, a rejection (somewhat unconsciously) and model of those traditions. The poet Rich, however, became a radical as well, resulting in canon czars such as Harold Bloom marginalizing Rich as merely political—missing entirely Rich’s powerful argument that political is all that poetry and a poet can be: “I take it that poetry—if it is poetry—is liberatory at its core” (Arts of the Possible, p. 116).

Rich’s poetry and her critical work on Dickinson were central parts of my teaching during my nearly two decades as an ELA high school teacher. In fact, one of the most important and influential units I eventually included in the quarter we explored poetry included Rich’s work paired with the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Along with these poets, we viewed the film Pleasantville, framing the lives and poetry of Rich (1929-2012), Plath (1932-1963), and Sexton (1928-1974) against the Betty Parker (Joan Allen) character in the film, the TV mother trapped in the norms of 1950s American.

This unit asked students to consider the suicides of Plath and Sexton against the life and poetic transformations of Rich; we also discussed how the film portrayed Betty Parker, both as a model of the norms of 1950s America and the real person trapped under her make up and the oppressive roles of wife and mother (dramatizing the poetry of Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”: “The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band/ Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand”).

And for the words Rich brought to my classroom and my life, I am forever in her debt. She validated things I had dared to think but feared to speak. She reminds me daily of the humility that should be at my core, a paradoxical radical humility, a commitment to human dignity and agency that are both threatened by the mere fact of my being a man in a world and society that allows the norm of manhood to oppress and silence.

It is deeply sad to lose Adrienne Rich, and profoundly uplifting to know all that remains forever from her words and her life:

The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities….

It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you. It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.

The possibility of life between us. (Arts of the Possible, pp. 39-40)

It cannot be coincidence that just a few days before Rich’s death I sat in my office talking with one of my students; I pulled four books of Rich’s from the shelf and recommended her to the student.

The morning after Rich’s passing that student walked into my office with a New York Times article on Rich.

No, this could not be a coincidence, and yes, it must be the bittersweet symmetry of the universe that reminded me during my moments of sadness of the possibilities.

II. Life among the Ruins

Adrienne Rich’s The School Among the Ruins ** confronts the intersection of school and violence, poems written in the time designated as the turn of a century:

Rich cited another catalyst for ‘The School Among the Ruins’ in an e-mail interview from her Santa Cruz home — the school, in Brooklyn, where her son teaches.

“I knew his love for the school, for those children,” she said.

[The volume is s]et during a nonspecific wartime in which children and their teachers are hostages to horror.

We are now faced again with the incomprehensible intersection of children, teachers, schools, and unspeakable violence. It is ours to honor those taken from us by seeking the rational among the irrational.

Seeking the Rational among the Irrational

Let us commit ourselves to a vigilance, to protecting this moment against the petty, against the call to heap irrational upon irrational, against allowing the needed confrontations and discussions to become too narrow.

We must confront our culture of violence and the fetish with guns within that culture of violence, and not just gun control.

We must confront health care access and mental health care access, and not just mental illness.

We must confront our negative national discourse about teachers and schools—that misrepresents the sacred duties of those teachers and schools that are now memorialized in the names of innocent lives lost in an elementary school.

We must admit that we have been too quick to police children, and too slow to protect, cherish, and serve those children—particularly some children, too often “other people’s children.”

To allow the gaze of blame to be focused too narrowly absolves the larger root causes to remain, to thrive, to perpetuate further the ruins.

Words matter, yes, but actions speak louder than words.

How children matter, whose children matter—our commitments daily send messages.

The world we have created is the world we want, or at least the world we allow; as Kingsolver notes:

In the United States, where people like to think that anyone can grow up to be President, we parents are left very much on our own when it comes to the little Presidents-in-training. Our social programs for children are the hands-down worst in the industrialized world, but apparently that is just what we want.

In a poem of mine, I end with the following: “the world was exactly as they expected/ exactly as they knew it to be/ and mostly not as it could have been/ or should have been.”

To build that world out of the ruins requires action, action built on principles, to build monuments of peace and love against violence and destruction.

“What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye

“…Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me
So you can see
What’s going on…”

Recommended

Adrienne Rich @ Poets.org

Adrienne Rich @ Poetry Foundation

Anne Sexton: A Biography, Diane Wood Middlebrook

Anne Sexton @ Poetry Foundation

Sylvia Plath: A Biography, Linda Wagner-Martin

Sylvia Plath @ Poetry Foundation

—-

“upon hearing adrienne rich speak and read her poetry”

P. L. Thomas, 2003

i cannot shake the rush
of my own grandmother—
hair cropped short—
rush over me whenever
i see adrienne rich—

this time—in person—
i felt the hunger to cry
as i watched her—
cane in hand—shuffle on stage
like but not my grandmother—

my chest and eyes welled
again and again from her words—
speaking about teaching
the frailty of teaching
in America—America—

because she knows—
if “knows” means “tastes in the air”
if “knows” means “feels with her blood”—
because she knows
what no one can teach

this mother of us teachers
who lives that which cannot be taught—
the doubling over in pain
from other people’s suffering
that is surely not of this America—

and if i told her
“adrienne, my lives have split
me into pieces, pieces”
she might cry right there
her eyes welled as mine

because it is that knowing
that makes us cry
at the slightest suffering
of any anyone who hurts
and struggles against this whip

called “living”

* Reposted pieces from 2012—Adrienne Rich: Artist of the Possible (March 29, 2012) and Life among the Ruins (December 16, 2012)

** The title of this blog is intended as an allusion to Rich’s work.

IN-PRESS: James Baldwin: Challenging Authors (Sense Publishers)

In-press with Sense.

Series: Critical Literacy Teaching Series: Challenging Authors and Genres

Volume: James Baldwin: Challenging Authors

LITE-Henderson-HB_Proof copy

Editors, A. Scott Henderson and P. L. Thomas, Furman University

The recognition and study of African American (AA) artists and public intellectuals often include Martin Luther King, Jr., and occasionally Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Malcolm X. The literary canon also adds Ralph Ellison, Richard White, Langston Hughes, and others such as female writers Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker.

Yet, the acknowledgement of AA artists and public intellectuals tends to skew the voices and works of those included toward normalized portrayals that fit well within foundational aspects of the American myths reflected in and perpetuated by traditional schooling. Further, while many AA artists and public intellectuals are distorted by mainstream media, public and political characterizations, and the curriculum, several powerful AA voices are simply omitted, ignored, including James Baldwin.

This edited volume will invite and gather a collection of essays that confront Baldwin’s impressive canon or writing and his role as a public intellectual while also exploring Baldwin as a confrontational writer, expatriate, civil rights agitator, and openly gay individual during a highly repressive era.

Cover portrait of James Baldwin by Roy Thinnes

%22JAMES BALDWIN%22 - Acrylic, c Roy Thinnes

%22JAMES BLUE SUIT%22 - at MLK funeral - Acrylic, c Roy Thinnes

Table of Contents [working]

Introduction, P. L. Thomas

  1. Conversion Calls for Confrontation: Facing the Old to Become New in the Work of James Baldwin, McKinley E. Melton
  2. Baldwin and the Black Theater, Susan Watson Turner
  3. Baldwin in South Africa, Hugo Canham
  4. From James’ Portrait to Baldwin’s Room: Dismantling the Frames of American Masculinity, Dwan H. Simmons
  5. Another Country: James Baldwin at “Home” (and) Abroad, Sion Dayson
  6. Feeling in Critical Consciousness: James Baldwin’s Emotions as Radical Critique of Capitalism, Jeffrey Santa Ana
  7. James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and the Jeremiad Tradition, James Tackach
  8. James Baldwin: Artist as Activist and the Baldwin/Kennedy Secret Summit Circa 1963, Charles Reese
  9. Uplift Versus Upheaval: The Pedagogical Visions of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, A. Scott Henderson
  10. The Agitating Power of Civil Rights Cool in “Going to Meet the Man,” Beazley Kanost
  11. James Baldwin vs. William Buckley and the Soul of America, Seneca Vaught
  12. James Baldwin’s Gospel of Postcategorical Love, Pekka Kilpeläinen
  13. “Fame Is the Spur”: James Baldwin’s Portrait of the Artist in His Later Novels and His Personal Struggle with Fame, Jacqueline Jones Compore
  14. “Digging through the Ruins”: Just Above My Head and the Memory of James A. Baldwin, Ernest L. Gibson, III

Author Biographies

Timeline

Call for essay proposals DUE: May 15, 2013

Essays accepted, author confirmations due: May 31, 2013

Initial essay drafts DUE: September 20, 2013

Editor feedback, drafts returned: October 1, 2013

Final/ revised essays DUE: November 15, 2013

Proofs due December 8, 2013

Final draft submission to Sense: December 15, 2013

“Expect Nothing, Get Nothing”: Common v. Standard

In Chapter 7 (a “hard-boiled wonderland” section) of Haruki Murakami‘s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, the narrator details:

I wound up my purchases and pulled into my convenient neighborhood fast-food restaurant. I ordered shrimp salad, onion rings, and a beer. The shrimp was straight out of the freezer, the onion rings soggy. Looking around the place, though, I failed to spot a single customer banging on a tray or complaining to a waitress. So I shut up and finished my food. Expect nothing, get nothing. (p. 72)

As an English teacher, my mind immediately thought of Meursault in Albert Camus’s existential classic The Stranger:

Soon after this I had a letter from [Marie]. And it was then that the things I’ve never liked to talk about began. Not that they were particularly terrible; I’ve no wish to exaggerate and I suffered less than others. Still, there was one thing in those early days that was really irksome: my habit of thinking like a free man. For instance, I would suddenly be seized with a desire to go down to the beach for a swim. And merely to have imagined the sound of ripples at my feet, the smooth feel of the water on my body as I struck out, and the wonderful sensation of relief it gave brought home still more cruelly the narrowness of my cell.

Still, that phase lasted a few months only. Afterward, I had prisoner’s thoughts. I waited for the daily walk in the courtyard or a visit from my lawyer. As for the rest of the time, I managed quite well, really. I’ve often thought that had I been compelled to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but gaze up at the patch of sky just overhead, I’d have got used to it by degrees. I’d have learned to watch for the passing of birds or drifting clouds, as I had come to watch for my lawyer’s odd neckties, or, in another world, to wait patiently till Sunday for a spell of love-making with Marie. Well, here, anyhow, I wasn’t penned in a hollow tree trunk. There were others in the world worse off than I. I remembered it had been one of Mother’s pet ideas—she was always voicing it—that in the long run one gets used to anything.

The corporate education reform machine (think the machine of justice within which Meursault finds himself and comes to get used to, just as he would living in the trunk of a dead tree) demands a standard curriculum and then a series of standardized tests to hold students, teachers, and schools accountable for the passive transmission and acquisition of state (and corporate) endorsed content.

CCSS and the tests to follow, then, are simply the dead tree we are being told to live in, and like the narrator in the Murakami novel, to shut up and do as we are told:

Expect nothing, get nothing.

Content in this corporate ideology is a fixed (dead) set of knowledge to be ingested, uncritically, passively, compliantly.

In a free society, one dedicated to democracy and individual freedom, such a process serves the needs of the corporate world, seeking as it does the compliant worker.

Education as a central aspect of the Commons and a mechanism for democracy must offer content as something to be confronted and challenged, not something to acquire.

A class may have a text in common, but the reading, studying, and discussions must be about wrestling with the text and the wide array of interpretations of that text.

Trying to raise the test scores of students in order to evaluate teachers (all driven by the new CCSS) is an act of living in a dead tree, asking for nothing, and getting nothing.

And this may be why the CCSS advocates (Coleman, et al.) are so eager to shift the classroom texts to non-fiction instead of fiction.

Imagine their horror, among the ruling elite, at the thought of teachers making decisions and students confronting Murakami or Camus to realize that the shrimp is straight out of the freezer, the onion rings are soggy, and it is past time to bang their trays on the table and complain to the waitress.