Hamlet: “Seems,” madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems.” (1.2.76)
How completely high was I?
I was off by a thousand miles
“Heavenfaced,” The National
“Write a nonfiction book, and be prepared for the legion of readers who are going to doubt your facts,” explains Barbara Kingsolver in her High Tide in Tucson. “But write a novel, and get ready for the world to assume every word is true.”
As I flipped through my cable movie options last night, knowing that the beginning of each month brings new films to watch, after watching Birdman, I noticed Lucy airing. I recalled that the film had mixed reviews at best, but I am a science fiction fan so I decided to give it a try.
Lucy relies heavily on the claim that humans use only 10% of their brains, and the film weaves together the main character Lucy with a neuroscientist who studies and speculates on humans using more of their brains—a good bit of “hypothesis” and “theory” language tossed around there—as well as what many may view as a documentary approach that includes cuts to not just realistic but real-world scenes.
For good measure, the film also plays with evolution—Lucy as the first human.
Viewers, then, are faced with a few challenges. First, is Lucy a good film? And related, is Lucy good science fiction?
But if we pull back from simply examining medium and genre (which I find to be very compelling discussions, by the way), we must consider Kingsolver’s dilemma as a writer.
Before scientists had even viewed Lucy, the drumbeat began pretty heavily:
- Humans Already Use Way, Way More Than 10% of Their Brains, The Atlantic
- How to Use More Than 10 Percent of Your Brain, Slate
- All You Need to Know about the 10 Percent Brain Myth, in 60 Seconds, WIRED
- It’s a myth that we only use 10% of our brains – here’s why, The Conversation US
Now I suppose a perfectly good response to this is, “Come on! It’s only a movie.” And I think that is what Kingsolver was pushing against: when is fact, fact, and when is fiction merely fiction.
Yet, as Christian Jarrett explains, the film speaks to a powerful misunderstanding widely embraced by people today:
Does anyone really believe this myth anymore?
Apparently so. For example, in 2012, a survey of school teachers in Britain and The Netherlands found that 48 per cent and 46 per cent, respectively, endorsed the myth. Last year, a US survey by the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research found that 65 percent of people believed in the myth.
The larger problem beyond Lucy as good or bad film/science fiction is that, ironically, despite the 10% myth being completely refuted by scientists, humans have a powerful capacity for choosing what we believe to be true while almost entirely ignoring evidence to the contrary—and often in ways that are detrimental to us all.
Lucy‘s nod to evolution is no small matter here as the U.S. is unlike most of the so-called advanced world in rejecting and misunderstanding evolution. This is a subset of the fact that the public in the U.S. resists a tremendous amount of science and knowledge while clinging to ideology and mythology.
The consequences of the belief culture have been waved before us and the world recently as the Charleston shooting has resurrected “Heritage, Not Hate” among those unable to see the facts of history behind hollow sloganism.
While believing a false statistic such as humans use only 10% of their brains or perpetuating discredited legends such as The Beatles wrote “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” as a paean to LSD may seem trivial (please, just let us enjoy our films and music), as the cultural clash over the Confederate battle flag reveals, clinging to the corpse of unwarranted belief ultimately erodes the very promise of the human brain, our capacity to think and then to act—although Kurt Vonnegut has mused that the too-big human brain may, in fact, be our problem, not our solution.
Journalism and education policy remain crippled by flawed approaches to science: the 10,000 hour rule, “grit” narratives and research, and the “word gap”—all of which are uncritically embraced and as misguided as thinking humans use only 10% of their brains.
Once again, for example, only a week ago, Education Week published a piece beginning:
In 1995, the researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published the results of their groundbreaking study that found 4-year-olds from working-class families and families on welfare had considerably smaller vocabularies than their age-mates from professional families. This difference has been called “the 30-million-word gap.”
Not true, however, this study that will not die because it claims something people want to believe, something that seems true.
There is a democracy to belief that builds a wall against our idealized trust that human knowledge is progress, that to commit to universal education, for example, can lift us all above human misery.
Lucy as a film sputters, but when Lucy explains her expanding mind to Professor Norman, this moment about the essential nature of being human, fully human, confronts the tension between knowledge and knowing the self and others. I think the film has some small nods to empathy and compassion beyond the reductive view of science as quantifying, science as certainty.
How much of our brains we use seems pointless if we remain a species characterized by closed minds, unable or unwilling to build on evidence to form new ideas, unable or unwilling to check our existing ideas against evidence.
As Lucy’s mind expands, she recognizes and demonstrates for the viewer a cold, robotic thing, drained of desire and passion.
I am left, then, leaning toward Vonnegut’s view that the human brain is our problem, not our solution.
For Further Reading
Cycling to Extremes, Chris Case
Don’t Stop Running Yet!, Larry Creswell
HuffPost Education: Think Honestly and Critically About Reading and the Written Word
Ryan Boyd focuses his response to the new book by Ta-Nehisi’s Coates on “the bookworm’s Between the World and Me” in order to “speculate briefly on what that says about Coates’s writing mind.”
Boyd agrees with John Warner that Coates is more student than James Baldwin’s preacher. And in his roles as student, writer, public intellectual, Coates presents as well a nuanced (and I think, important) perspective on what literature matters:
Coates is a canonist. Not in the normative way that, say, Harold Bloom or Matthew Arnold are, because they see canon-formation and maintenance as primarily an Anglo project; but rather in terms of a basic belief that some texts really are better than almost all others and thus worth passing along to younger generations first. To be sure, he envisions a democratic canon which is constantly interrogated and supplemented, but he’s still a Great Books man. Canonicity is a principle, not a specific roster of content.
Many teachers, writers, and readers have fought a long and seemingly endless battle against the normative canon, which has existed as a prescriptive list of dead white men’s books—myself among that cause.
Yet, I have always struggled with loving many of the works that fall into that traditional canon, like Coates, and also felt self-conscious about having standards myself for “good” versus “bad” literature.
This schizophrenia manifests itself for me in my response to young adult (YA) literature: I strongly advocate for YA literature because it encourages children to read, often a great deal, but I often add that for me most YA literature falls short of what I expect from literature (and I think too many YA works ask too little of teens who are more capable than writers and publishers seem to believe).
I have made that same case about comic books and graphic novels.
McCarthy as a white male writer and then his mostly white, male mythology represent the essential tension faced by those of us calling for the expanded canon, including the voices of women and black/brown authors.
The Racist Imperative: White as Mythological and Universal
Scott Esposito acknowledges in McCarthy “the allegorical nature of The Border Trilogy“:
McCarthy seems to be at pains to paint these books in black and white because he knows he is writing allegories, and thus they require broad strokes in order to function properly.
The Border Trilogy is certainly not nearly as realist as McCarthy’s first four novels, or even as realist as Blood Meridian. It has been previously commented that John Grady and Billy are far too able as cowboys to be believable. Whether breaking a horse, muzzling a wolf, or shooting game, they never struggle to do anything; they just do it, much like an epic hero might.
I find the trilogy compelling because of McCarthy’s Faulknerian tendency to drop into poetry (frequently, the prose is beautiful above and beyond the obligation a writer has to move along a story) and because the works are mythology charged with confronting readers with universal questions about justice and coming to grips with the human condition.
And therein lies the problem, but not one we must lay at McCarthy’s feet alone since the white and misogynistic template for mythology is literally Greek and Roman mythology.
The white male hero was not created by McCarthy (see Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces), but John Grady Cole and Billy Parham maintain a tradition among the normative canon of casting whiteness and maleness as the universal Truth, one that has moved away from description and toward prescription.
As well, McCarthy slips uncritically into the template of the female-as-prize for the male-as-savior—notably Magdalena (Cities of the Plain), a mere child cast as epileptic prostitute and, as always, beautiful. (See the same strengths and weaknesses in True Detective, season 1.)
However, if McCarthy’s works are simply endorsed by the normative cannon edict or dismissed by a similar by inverse multi-cultural mandate, I believe that we fail Coates’s canon-as-principle, as Boyd suggests.
The Border Trilogy is allegory, mythology rich in considerations of the nature of justice as well as the elusive nature of any human seeking to bring about justice.
Nested within the larger themes of justice, Mexico becomes an allegory of the communal while the U.S. represents a people trapped in the market. Billy Parham’s sense of justice is enhanced by the kindness he experiences while criss-crossing into Mexico. The border crossing is itself a mythological passage in which coins signal the transition from Mexico—where my house/food is your house/food—to the U.S.—where everything is a matter of money.
This Mexico/U.S. contrast does raise themes about race and culture, to McCarthy’s credit, but that remains within the white gaze of the author and the dominant white male central characters.
Yes, there is a veiled racial/racist tradition in McCarthy’s allegory/mythology that frames white and male as universal, but those qualities are part of a larger fabric offered in the work—a fabric that may and should be judged in the complex canon-as-principle that seeks to discover “some texts really are better than almost all others and thus worth passing along to younger generations first,” per Boyd from Coates.
In my early and rare scholarly publications while I was teaching high school English (see below), I wrote several times about how to merge the traditional canon with multicultural works. Then, I was struggling against the normative canon, but I had no lens for addressing the either/or trap of calling for multicultural literature at the expense of so-called classic works.
Today, as I sit with McCarthy’s Border Trilogy before me—and I think about Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy as both fundamentally like McCarthy’s and in very significant ways unlike McCarthy’s (for example, Lisbeth Salander)—I have begun to reconsider the notion of the canon personified by Coates as not a compromise but a richer mechanism for confronting all texts in order to reimagine what works to celebrate, to teach, and to embrace in our never ending journey as students.
In his Between the World and Me, Coates champions the power of literature and confirms Walter Dean Myers’s recognition about the normative canon: “there was something missing.”
Coates (Malcolm X and Baldwin) and Myers (Baldwin) share the importance of seeing yourself in the fictions that make you who you are; in short, the universal—particularly the universal as a thin veil for white/male privilege—is not enough, even when the universal is compelling, as Myers reveals:
I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.
Thomas, P.L. (1996). When Wordsworth is too tame: Merging minority literature with the classics in the secondary language arts curriculum. In L. Cooke & H. C. Lodge (Eds.), Voices in English Classrooms: Honoring Diversity and Change, 28 (pp. 177-185). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Thomas, P.L. (1991, Spring). Exposing the universal through the diverse: The role of minority literature in the language arts curriculum. Western Ohio Journal, 12 (1), 58-61.
To the extent that I become clearer about my choices and my dreams, which are substantively political and attributively pedagogical, and to the extent that I recognize that though an educator I am also a political agent, I can better understand why I fear and realize how far we still have to go to improve our democracy. I also understand that as we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against the myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology.
Paulo Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers
Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.
Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer
Low self-esteem and doubt are evil, tiny demons, and both have plagued me lately with a question: Are teaching and writing activism?
In the past several months, from Ferguson to Bree Newsome’s removing the Confederate battle flag from statehouse grounds in South Carolina, the public in the U.S. has had to confront the power and tensions with activism.
The activism connected with race and racism across the nation also prompted for me a question about what exactly counts as activism as well as what are our moral obligations when faced with bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, and all forms of oppression.
To do nothing, to strike the “I’m not political” pose, we must admit, is itself a political act, one that tacitly reinforces the status quo of oppression and inequity.
To proclaim “I don’t see race” is to be complicit in the very racism those who claim not to see race pretend to be above.
Activism broadly is taking action for change, and despite the cultural pressure that teachers somehow stand above activism and politics, despite the perception that writing is not action, both teaching and writing are types of activism—although each of us who are teachers and writers has decisions about how that looks in our own careers and lives.
For me, the urge to teach and write is grounded in confronting a world that is incomplete, inadequate, and then calling for a world that could be.
More than a decade after I began teaching high school English, I discovered critical pedagogy and social reconstructionism during my doctoral program—and was able to place my muddled and naive efforts at teaching-as-activism into a purposeful context.
As a K-12 teacher, I always held tight to the autonomy of my classroom to do what was right by my students—usually against the grain of the school and the community, and often in ways that were threatening to my career.
The curriculum we offer our students and the pedagogy we practice are activism if we embrace that call.
Instead of the prescribed textbook and reading list, I augmented what my students read and pushed each year to change, to expand the required reading lists to include women and writers of color.
My first quarter of American literature began with Howard Zinn’s reconsideration of the Columbus discovering America myth and then built on adding Margaret Fuller to the traditional examination of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
The second half of that first quarter focused on Gandhi’s non-violent non-cooperation as well as an expanded sub-unit of black thought—including Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. We considered whose voice matters, and why, along with complicating the often oversimplified presentation of MLK as the only black voice in U.S. history.
In the 1980s and 1990s of rural upstate SC, these texts and conversations were rare and hard for my students, resisted and rejected by the community (my birth town), and challenging for me as a becoming-teacher. And much of this I did badly despite my best intentions.
Beyond my classroom, as department chair, I worked to de-track our English classes as much as possible (reducing the levels from 4 to 3), but also ended the practice of multiple texts per grade level that in effect labeled our students walking down the hallways. I also had the department stop issuing grammar and vocabulary texts to all students, moving those texts to resources for teachers who wished to use them.
Then, I did not think of that teaching as activism, however.
So I share all this not to pat myself on the back, but to acknowledge now how our teaching can—and I would argue must—be activism. To detail what teaching-as-activism looks like in the day to day.
I share also to note that when working within the system as it is handed to us, we are being political in that we are complicit when we passively work as agents of practices that are a disservice to our students, and ourselves.
Activism is teaching for that which we want to be and thus against that which we witness as wrong.
None of this is easy or comfortable, and I recognize in hindsight, to work against the system has real costs, even if we do not lose our jobs, which of course serves no one well.
My journey to embrace writing as activism was much slower developing, but along the way I have shifted much of my energy toward public work because I believe that also to be activism—raising a voice in the pursuit of change, putting ones name behind words that challenge.
But it is the writing as activism that gives me greater pause because writing is a solitary and often isolated thing (although teaching is often a profession in which we are isolated from each other, and fail in teaching in solidarity because of that dynamic).
My dual vocations as teacher/writer are significantly impacted by my privilege as well as the perceptions that teaching is not/should not be political and that writing is not really putting one bodily into the fray.
Thus, my vigilance lies in setting aside paternalistic urges, working beside and not for, and seeking ways in which my unearned privilege can be used in the service of others who are burdened by inequity.
As teachers and writers, are we activists, then?
I say that we can be, that we must be.
But how that looks is ours to decide; grand and small, our impact on the world is in our daily actions, our daily words.
And I am always, always anchored in my high school classroom, where my efforts to open the world to my students, to foster in them a belief that the world can be different, the world can be better were often subtly taped to my wall—the words of Henry David Thoreau:
Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.
A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong.
I think to be a teacher is to confront our doubts, to break through the stigma we may feel about our desire to make a difference, to change the world, to be activists.
These doubts and these callings are shared by writers as well, I believe.
Yes, teaching and writing are activism, activism we should be proud to own.
My transition from public high school English teacher to university assistant professor overlapped with my university debating and then voting to change its core curriculum and academic calendar.
I sat in many contentious faculty meetings mostly listening as faculty held forth about the pros and cons of both the established core/calendar and the proposed core/calendar. One thing that I witnessed was that faculty are quite protective of their own disciplines—but are apt to step carelessly on disciplines outside their area of expertise.
For example, the faculty were considering dropping the traditional first-year composition approach that is taught exclusively by English faculty for a first-year seminar approach that allowed and required faculty across all disciplines to teach the writing-intensive seminars for first year students.
As someone who taught high school English for almost twenty years—most of that time spent learning the complex craft of teaching writing through trial-and-error and dedicating much of my own energy to learning how to teach writing by studying the research against my own practices—I heard faculty repeated trample the field of composition, in terms of speaking as if the field doesn’t exist as well as stating directly and indirectly that “anyone can teach writing because we all are scholars.”
Let’s jump ahead about ten years. The faculty did adopt a new core and calendar, including the first year seminar structure.
Currently, we are reconsidering the first year seminar model, and much of the motivation for that reflection is that who can and who should teach writing have become a significant problems—ones not anticipated well or addressed adequately.
A few academic years ago, due to my interest in the first year seminars and teaching writing, I was named Faculty Director, First Year Seminars in order to help provide the sort of faculty support that had been lacking.
We have a First Year Oversight Committee, but that oversight has focused primarily on approving new courses and monitoring funding for seminars—although the committee has managed faculty workshops over the summer to address course development and teaching writing.
This summer we have implemented the initial year-long Faculty Writing Fellows seminar, including 12 faculty and three seminar facilitators to begin building a purposeful approach to supporting faculty who teach writing across the curriculum.
Just as I remain in search of how to teach writing well to students of all ages (there is no finish line), I also can attest that teaching faculty at any level how to teach writing is a perpetual and nearly overwhelming struggle.
First, then, I want to highlight a couple foundational issues and questions that must be addressed when any school is considering who can and who should teach writing:
- Initially, acknowledge that composition is a disciplinary field that is not the same as English as a discipline. In fact, many K-12 teachers and college professors with credentials/degrees in English are skilled in literary analysis, not teaching writing. As well, even when we acknowledge composition as a field, we should also recognize that it is typically a marginalized field. That marginalization includes assigning new/beginning teachers to teach composition and so-called “remedial”writing as a sort of gauntlet they must endure to earn better course assignments. In higher education, adjuncts and teaching assistants are disproportionately staffing the teaching of writing also.
- The larger questions of who can and who should teach writing are much more complex than many schools admit. All educators at every educational level have attained a degree of literacy that equips them for the ability (can) to teach writing, but flipping that can to should is where schools often make a fundamental mistake. Faculty charged with teaching writing purposefully but without a formal background in composition must want to teach writing and then must receive sustained and organized instruction and support in how to teach writing.
If schools committed to writing across the curriculum, expanding writing-intensive courses, or embracing “anyone can teach writing” manage the two hurdles above, however, several new problems are sure to exist:
- Faculty without composition backgrounds tend to view “teaching writing” as correcting grammar, mechanics, and usage “errors.” This dynamic requires establishing common language among faulty teaching writing (for example, do not say “writing” to mean “grammar”) and then couching that common terminology in a robust examination of linguistics that confronts the tension between prescriptive grammarians and descriptive grammarians. That tension typically can be predicted in that the general public and educators without composition backgrounds skew toward prescriptive grammar (rules-based) while composition best practices tend to be driven by a descriptive grounding in linguistics (conventions-based).
- Without addressing that tension above, then, I am convinced the process to expand who can and should teach writing is doomed to failure. How to accomplish that, however, is another matter entirely. That tension is likely to manifest itself in a trap: Faculty without composition backgrounds will often note that they feel unprepared to teach “writing” (which is code for correcting grammar, mechanics, and usage), but when they are introduced to best practice in teaching writing and descriptive linguistics, they balk. The result is: “Teach me how to teach writing, but I don’t want to hear about how to teach writing, I want to correct my students’ horrible grammar.”
- That trap means the first step to learning how to teach writing is giving faculty the opportunity to investigate their own attitudes toward language, and then to invite them to set aside, as Connie Weaver calls it, the “error hunt.” Teaching writing begins with having a rich and healthy attitude about language, and then coming to understand that teaching writing is not simply teaching grammar and that the question is not if we address grammar, mechanics, and usage, but how, when, and why (and that the why is to foster students as writers, not grammarians).
- Even those of us with formal backgrounds in teaching writing face a significant hurdle shared with many educators without that formal background: It is very difficult to teach writing in the context of best practices (for example, writing workshop) if the teacher her/himself has not been a participant in best practices such as a writing workshop. One of the most powerful elements of the National Writing Project’s professional development model has been summer workshops that provide just that experience. Faculty designated for teaching writing must be provided some extended opportunities to examine themselves as writers, participating in writing workshop and the practices they will bring to their own students.
- All of the problems above should also be within a formal mission and concurrent goals for writing shared within the school/college and among faculty. Both faculty and students are likely to be more successful if everyone has core goals to maintain a manageable focus for teaching writing. However, that mission and those goals must acknowledge that teaching writing is never a fixed outcome. In other words, no single course or teacher/professor can or should be expected to produce a “finished” writer. Even so-called “basic” skills of writing are nearly impossible to identify and master at predictable points along formal education.
Who can teach writing? Nearly any educator motivated to teach students as writers and then provided the necessary support to become a writing teacher.
Who should teach writing? See above.
As a writer and teacher primarily focused on teaching writing, I am in the process of both and daily aware that writing and teaching writing are always a process of becoming.
Few human endeavors are as complex and important as being a writer or being a teacher of writing, and thus, asking who can and who should teach writing remains just as complex.
To Grammar or Not to Grammar: That Is Not the Question!, Connie Weaver, Carol McNally, and Sharon Moerman
I am not Howard Zinn.
That likely is unnecessary to state, and may seem a passive-aggressive statement of arrogance, but recently several people have challenged black men’s work and perspectives (notably Ta-Nehisi Coates) by noting “he is not James Baldwin.”
My relatively recent personal/professional blog presence is named the becoming radical based on Zinn’s central claim about his role as teacher/activist:
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)
Along with Zinn, my work as teacher/writer and activist is guided by James Baldwin’s concept of bearing witness:
Lester: You have been politically engaged, but you have never succumbed to ideology, which has devoured some of the best black writers of my generation.
Baldwin: Perhaps I did not succumb to ideology, as you put it, because I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is….
A spokesman assumes that he is speaking for others. I never assumed that—I never assumed that I could….No society can smash the social contract and be exempt from the consequences, and the consequences are chaos for everybody in the society.
But my voice and footprint in this world—even my direct spheres as a classroom teacher—are incredibly tiny compared to Zinn and Baldwin. They represent who and what I aspire to, but in no way am I deluded into thinking I matter in any way compared to them—or many others.
Part of the reason they and others guide me is that I increasingly am aware of and consciously addressing how flawed I am, how far I have yet to go. If there is arrogance here, it is the arrogance of being a writer; we are compelled to write, which includes the arrogance that there will be readers who think we should be read.
I have been a practicing teacher and writer for over thirty years—and I want to stress that I came to recognize that I am both a teacher and writer, but that I never chose to be either.
An external reality I must admit is that despite my working-class background, my redneck past, I have been afforded a tremendous amount of unearned privilege because I am a white male.
Those powerful buffers of race/gender privilege have been not just a foundation for my personal and professional success but also a trampoline for those achievements.
Nonetheless, my first 18 years of teaching from 1984-2002 were spent as a high school English teacher in the rural Upstate South Carolina high school in my hometown.
There and then, I built who I am today—a teacher who, like Zinn, embraces teaching as activism.
I spent nearly two decades as an unapologetic student-centered teacher who fought daily to expand the reading options for students—adding women and writers of color to the stale white/male canon—and to de-track our English courses by eliminating a mind-numbing array of leveled textbooks.
While teaching high school English, I was mentored by the only black teacher in our department, Ethel Chamblee, who added the much needed veteran voice to our goals of race and class equity in a very conservative and repressive school.
But I also learned another very harsh lesson while teaching high school: I was always “just a school teacher”—professionally and publicly.
If you glance at my publishing history, there are a few scatterings of professional work, poetry, and some fiction throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, but my publishing career exploded in 2002, when I moved to higher education.
In fact, in the final months before I left teaching high school and into my first months as an assistant professor at a selective liberal arts university I was told in both subtle and direct terms that one career didn’t count (teaching public high school) and simply being associated with a university did count (the university association, though, mattered, not me).
First, even though I was hired in the education department of my university, I was told those 18 years teaching didn’t count toward my university experience (administration would have, by the way). So in my early 40s, I had to start in higher education at the bottom.
Next, though, once I had my university beside my name (I had had an EdD for four years before then), local, state, and national publications suddenly considered and published my commentaries. I had been submitting for years while teaching high school, but mostly received no response, and when I did have rare acknowledgements, they were “reject.”
Even today after 13 years and moving through every rank to full professor in higher education, many people within the academy shift their tone and tilt their heads when I explain I taught high school for 18 years before coming to higher education—implying in no uncertain terms, “O, I am so sorry.”
While my university position has afforded me incredible access to doing scholarly and public work, I am daily reminded that teaching is a nearly powerless and dehumanizing profession.
So let me return to my blog title—the becoming radical—and Zinn.
Who I am is teacher/writer as activist, but who I am is also a life-long student, thus my always becoming.
I was raised in the fundamentalist and racist South of the 1960s and 1970s. Despite being academically “smart,” I entered college a deeply ignorant and wrong-minded young man who was daily patted on the head for being smart, even though I had yet to recognize the “smart” was an ugly mask for privilege.
In those college years, I discovered literature, and Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes became my unofficial teachers, my saviors—starting for me a journey now 36 years and counting.
I have been at this teaching thing a long time, and I am still becoming.
I have been at this writing thing a long time, and I am still becoming.
I have been at both as an activist along side those marginalized by race, class, and gender for a long time, and I am still becoming.
If I have to be Howard Zinn to matter to you, then I am certainly going to disappoint you.
If you think you know me because of Twitter or this blog, it seems likely you don’t because the closest thing to the real me is in the classroom year-round (I have always taught optional summer and May sessions for my entire career); the real me is writing nearly every morning, alone; the real me is reading, reading, reading—certain I have so much more to learn.
Who I am will always be the deeply self-conscious redneck young adult who one day confronted his demons and has worked every day since to make amends.
If you think me arrogant (many do since my passion often reads as such), insincere, or self-serving, I must caution you to reconsider. At a few years past 50, my life tells a different story if you are willing to look at it.
But I am certain you do see flaws I haven’t seen yet as well as ones I am now addressing, and rest assured, I am looking because who I am includes as part of the becoming someone who is always listening.
Listening because while all I have is me, who I am is he who knows this is not about me.
Under President Barack Obama, instead of hope and change, the U.S. has been offered ample and disturbing evidence that we are not a post-racial country.
As the 2016 presidential race heats up, the U.S. is now forced to confront an inevitable reality: a post-Obama U.S.
From the Sandy Hook school shooting to the racist massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, President Obama stood before the country and the world in a way that those holding the office before him and those now seeking the office after him surely could not have matched, will not be able to match.
Obama under the weight of Nobel Peace Prize winner and “first black president” was destined to fall short—personifying the racial dilemma exposed by Ta-Nehisi Coates in March 2014:
There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.
In 2015, while popular and critical opinions of Obama have risen in many ways, it is now fashionable to praise Coates, who has released a book-length letter to his his son, Between the World and Me.
Like Obama, Coates has been tossed immediately into rarified air, comparisons that virtually no one could survive. Herself a Nobel Prize winner, Toni Morrison, in fact, has joined the chorus anointing Coates the next James Baldwin.
Between has also proven to be an irresistible land mine for black male public intellectuals as well as pontificating and tragically un-self-aware white-mansplainers.
Conversely, several black women scholars and journalists have found Between a powerful entry point for encouraging a much needed conversation about race, class, and gender.
The array of responses presents lessons in grace and the absence of grace that Obama spoke to while eulogizing South Carolina state Senator Clementa Pinckney.
My status as privileged (white, male) former redneck and current academic is not intended here to justify, explain, qualify, or endorse Coates or his book. In fact, if you haven’t been reading Coates, if you haven’t read his book, you should be doing those and not reading yet another post about Coates and his book.
If nothing else, this is about that paradox grounded in the racism of the U.S. that produced Coates as well as the book he has written; the racism of the U.S. that is producing the son to whom Coates writes for everyone else to witness.
“Of course we chose nothing,” Coates writes:
We did not design the streets. We do not fund them. We do not preserve them. But I was there, nevertheless, charged like all the others with the protection of my body….
The black world was expanding before me, and I could see now that that world was more than a photonegative of that of the people who believe they are white. “White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons. (pp. 22, 42)
From his candidacy and through Obama’s tenure as president, I have drifted from skepticism to cynicism about the promise of a black president to change policy or the hearts and minds of privileged Americans.
I harbor no delusion that the people who should read Coates slowly and carefully, with hearts and minds open to hard truths, will do so.
Despite overwhelming evidence of systemic racism, whites in the U.S. remain resistant, if not incapable of admitting their own culpability in racism. In fact, research shows “Whites exposed to evidence of racial privilege claim to have suffered more personal life hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege.”
Coates lived what research details:
But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic—an orc, troll, or gorgon….There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally. (p. 97)
For those who believe themselves white, everything is about “me”—except for racism, of course.
And since the connection has been made, let’s admit that James Baldwin was too often ignored while he lived and has nearly disappeared since his death. If Baldwin was one of the, if not the, greatest witnesses among writers and public intellectuals—and I believe that to be the case—how can we expect Coates to achieve what Baldwin could not?
Ours, then, among the privileged is to resist raising a bar so high that Coates is doomed to fail.
Ours, then, among the privileged is to refuse the “yes, but” trivialization of a black man’s interrogation of this racist world.
Ours, then, among the privileged is to listen, to stand with in order to build a more perfect union that, ironically, will never again create a Baldwin or a Coates-as-Baldwin in the way those men have been formed.
Coates creates a powerful refrain throughout his book, the Dream.
That refrain is an unmasking of people who think they are white, a denunciation of a world that forces black males to define themselves against that whiteness.
As an educator, I am compelled to highlight a central message from Coates about formal schooling: “I had been reading and writing beyond the purview of the schools all my life” (p. 37).
Ultimately, Coates left college—and we must hear Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B” in the background:
I wanted to pursue things, but I could not match the means of knowing that came naturally to me with the expectations of professors. The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. (p. 48)
Formal schooling is a mechanism of the Dream, Coates discovered:
The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing. And it became clear that this was not just for the dreams concocted by Americans to justify themselves but also for the dreams that I had conjured to replace them. I had thought that I must mirror the outside world, create a carbon copy of white claims to civilization. (p. 50)
The world Coates interrogates failed him and fails his son in the streets and the classroom; this we must admit is an inexcusable consequence of both enduring racism and the recalcitrance of the privileged to acknowledge systemic racism.
“And still you are called to struggle,” Coates tells his son and his readers, “not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life” (p. 97).
“As I learn from you,” concludes the speaker of “Theme for English B”:
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
Hughes was Hughes, Baldwin was Baldwin, and Coates is Coates.
The themes are too often the same, however, and it is well past time that the somewhat more free who believe themselves white set themselves aside and learn without qualification from those who have been declared black.
“I look at the world,” Langston Hughes
remnant 57: “forced on me from above” [Haruki Murakami on school]
Ask several self-proclaimed education advocates their opinions about charter schools, Common Core, and Teach For America, and the responses, to the general public who do not think daily about education reform, are likely baffling since some claim all three of those are necessary commitments for better schools and others claim all three are misguided commitments that are harming not only education and democracy but also our students and teachers.
For several months now, I have been in contact with Sarah Matsui during the publication process of her in-press book on Teach For America, focusing on how TFA impacts corp candidates. As the publication date of Matsui’s book approaches, our conversation has turned to the education reform debate—notably how divisive and thus distracting that debate tends to be in terms of the larger goals of universal public education, social justice, and race, class, and gender equity.
Throughout my career as an educator—over thirty years—and then the more recent decade-plus seeking a public voice for education and equity advocacy, I have struggled with being an outsider in the “both sides” nature of policy debates concerning education.
As one example, I took an immediate stance against Common Core that, obviously, situates me in opposition to Common Core advocates—but my reasons for rejecting Common Core as just another failed commitment to accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing also alienate me from those determined to reject Common Core as uniquely flawed standards (and thus some good standards exist) or as over-reach by the federal government (specifically President Obama).
In other words, I have—with little success—tried to move the critical gaze away from Common Core specifically and toward the larger problem with accountability policy.
Yes, having states back out of Common Core and the connected high-stakes testing contracts is a credible goal, but if those acts simply mean states then embrace yet a different set of standards and high-stakes test, that is not victory at all; in fact, it is proof that we are missing the larger picture showing us the root causes of inequity in both our society and our schools.
Matsui is anticipating the same dilemma for her since her TFA work—nuanced and detailed—will come in the wake of rising criticism of TFA as well as the appearance that political, public, and individual support for the program is waning.
What Matsui and I have been discussing has helped me once again reconsider my own work, my own advocacy in much the same way Andre Perry’s recent commentary has tempered my discourse and goals related to charter schools.
I think advocates for public education as a foundational institution for seeking and insuring our democracy and building equity for all people have an obligation to criticize charter schools, Common Core, and Teach For America, for example, as misguided and often harmful education policy—despite claims that these are all designed to address the same goals of equity.
I think we also have the right to unmask the missionary zeal behind what has come to be called corporate education reform.
However, we cannot remain fixated there, and we must check our own missionary zeal.
Here is where I think reconsidering TFA can be a significant turning point in how we begin to build a movement toward something positive—equitable society, equitable schools—instead of simply calling for this or that reform to be dismantled.
As I noted above about Common Core: Yes, I believe, defunding TFA and eliminating TFA in its original form are important and credible goals, but even if those happen, we cannot be fooled into thinking we have addressed a root cause of the larger problems that face us in society and formal education: race-, class-, and gender-based inequity of opportunity.
Here is the key. How often have we asked: What are the conditions that created the possibility for TFA (or charter schools, or Common Core) to exist in the first place?
If black, brown, and poor children were being served by well-funded schools and taught by experienced and qualified teachers, would TFA have had a problem for which they could offer a solution (regardless of how flawed we believe that solution to be)?
As I worked through the school choice debate, I found myself asking people trapped in the “both sides” frenzy to consider an education system in which choice wasn’t necessary—a school system that genuinely offered all children the sort of education that the affluent already insure for their children.
I concede that it may require a certain amount of missionary zeal to attract the attention of the wider public not often concerned with education and education reform. But as those of us advocating for equity and social justice may now be witnessing a turning point—greater skepticism about accountability, charter schools, and TFA—we must check that missionary zeal so that we do not misrepresent our ultimate goals.
Those goals must be framed in the positives—the lives and schools we are seeking for all children and people—and not mired in the negatives—defeat Common Core, close charter schools, defund TFA—that will likely, if achieved, not produce the outcomes we claim to seek.
Currently, it is a lonely place to say that I have real problems with charter schools, Common Core, and TFA, but that I really think they are not the problem; they are examples of how too many in power have misread the problem, or even ignored the problem.
Can we set aside the “both sides” debate and begin to build a conversation, a conversation open to all voices and to listening so that we can work together toward the difficult and complex goals of equity?
I sit in my home state of South Carolina the day after yet more protests were held in the state capitol of Columbia by the KKK and the New Black Panther Party.
When my daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law left my house yesterday, my daughter texted that they passed several cars on the highway with Confederate battle flags waving.
“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “but it bends towards justice”—his nod toward faith.
Life is short, I fear, and that arc is incredibly slow when you are among the living, the very real faces and eyes of the ones you love.
I sit in my home state of South Carolina, and I worry about allowing the removal of a flag from state grounds to become the victory instead of simply a moment on the journey to the victory we all deserve.
And that has forever shaded my eyes as I witness this march toward social justice and educational equity.
“Remember,” cautions Langston Hughes:
The days of bondage—
Do not stand still.
Let us be guided not by the blindness of missionary zeal, but grounded by the long-range focus that leads to action.