The Moment: More Anxiety Chronicles

The worst thing about anxiety is that everything about being anxious is the worst thing.

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At the first faculty meeting preceding the new academic year this fall, our university president, Elizabeth Davis, about to start her second year, spoke in part about focusing on the Furman experience instead of always reducing one year of college or college entirely to what comes next. As I listened I thought about talking with my students about the Furman Moment.

This call for appreciating the moment resonates with me because I have no capacity for it. As someone who has always struggled under the weight of intense anxiety, I am forever plagued by what comes next, and I am captive to an overactive brain that not only perpetually cycles through what comes next, but also manufactures always the worst case scenarios for what comes next.

For those of us who wrestle with this irrational anxiety, worrying, and senseless anticipation of doom, we develop outward appearances of stoicism to mask our frantic brains and simultaneously tightening and exploding chests (one of several bodily torture spots where anxiety nests—including shoulders, necks, hips, and hands).

We also are prone to self-medicate, seeking ways to dial us back toward normal. For the anxious, relaxation, even briefly, even if a delusion, is a cherished holiday, a relief. Let us step just for a moment off the merry-go-round, feet firmly on the ground, and we are forever grateful.

And for me, along with the rare oasis of pausing the relentlessness of anxiety and the incessant internal monologue of my Self talking to my Self, the Holy Grail is to be with another person (usually only one for those of us who are also introverts) who has some either shared understanding or graceful empathy for this anxiousness that is irrational and ultimately embarrassing.

Yes, the worst thing about anxiety is that everything about being anxious is the worst thing, but the very worst thing about anxiety is explaining it every time you have to confess to it because you cannot view the world as most others do, because what is pleasure for many people is torture for you.

We learn to confess because naming a demon helps slay a demon, or at least hold that demon at bay.

But we anxious have a language that others do not understand, cannot understand.

And so we are often drawn to the wordless (a tragic paradox for the anxious who are writers)—a hand taken without comment, a hug or cuddling just to, these simple intimacies between two people who know each other, who know that sometimes everything is just beyond words. No expectations, no caveats, but the moment.

The great irony here, of course, is we anxious may dread physical contact or even being close to people virtually 99% of the time—the stress of casual proximity; the torture of ritualistic touching—handshakes, hugs—close talking, and crowds at social events. Let’s not even trudge into formal gatherings.

Anxiety, you see, is being overfull as a human too aware of everything. I mean Every Thing.

So full of recognition and sensation that we are spontaneous criers—more embarrassment—so we clench our entire bodies to try to hold everything in that is near to bursting through our eyes.

It is exhausting.

So as a late teen and young adult, I was immediately drawn to existentialism’s claim that our passions are our suffering, to the yin-yang concept of the impossibility of separating the light from the dark.

This was well before I recognized the anxiety, but I was quite aware that caring deeply was inseparable from feeling deeply anxious.

Relationships—marriage, a child—intensified these responses to the world exponentially, and then as I was more and more unable to manage all that overload of feeling this world, another response was to detach.

The hardest was my daughter’s teen and then young adult years when I had to set aside the urge to carry her around in my arms 24 hours a day. This is a universal issue for parenting, but for the anxious, it is the iceberg that sank the Titanic—others witness only the tip.

So now I am just a little over a year into being reminded of those wonderful and teeth-clenching years of parenting my daughter because she has gifted me a granddaughter.

A granddaughter just beginning her second year is a mostly wordless wonderment who when I am holding her in my arms while she naps is the most precious gift of relaxation an anxious human can enjoy.

A toddler, you see, often shuffles up next to you, a glorious proximity of closeness, raising her arms, longing to be picked up and held. These wonderful and precious years before she will quite literally beg to be left alone.

In the moment, she is wordless and affectionate with all the possibilities a child embodies.

There is more than a little guilt because of my need from this tiny child, to sit there and not worry in the moment because it is easy to believe everything is all right when a child is sleeping on your chest—a chest that is most of the day an artificial shield between the world and all the anxieties expanding there below the breastbone.

For me, my granddaughter sleeping on my chest is the moment I can live in, the evidence that for my students I must make the plea that they work on the very human skill of enjoying the moment instead of being always captive to the past or the unknowable future.

What I owe this granddaughter, what I owe my students—these are the things that make me whole because holding her and that wonderful time teaching, each is the moment that gives me pause and rebalances all the world.

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The worst part of anxiety is believing that you are not good enough, believing that you are a fraud and that at any moment other people will discover your secret, at any moment you will be unmasked and all that you care about will be taken away—because that is the dirty little secret about anxiety that is the everything about anxiety that is the worst thing.

Ten Years After Katrina: Lessons from Charleston, SC

Mention a coastal city notable for both its diverse cultural history and the twin scars of natural disasters as well as the human-made cancers of racism and generational poverty, and most people across the U.S. will think New Orleans, especially now as we confront the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the decade of a city rebuilding itself.

However, South Carolina’s Charleston fits that same complicated and troubling profile.

Charleston also shares with New Orleans the historical failure of public schools to serve poor and black children and families, which has resulted in both cities being the target of wide-scale and often reckless education reform driven mostly by political and ideological forces.

While I have regularly criticized mainstream media for covering education and education reform carelessly, I was genuinely impressed with The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) publishing an extensive and detailed examination of education reform in the large school district serving the city: Left Behind: The unintended consequences of school choice.

This news account and the related data are actually not new for those of us having taught in SC for decades. It takes very little effort to recognize that both traditional public schools (how they are funded, how teachers are assigned, how students are tracked, etc.) and education reform driven by accountability and market forces over the past three decades have not served well vulnerable populations of students, black and high-poverty children.

Charleston is just one example of the Corridor of Shame that has been highlighted in SC for decades, in fact, through the legal system and a widely heralded documentary.

It also isn’t news that the political leadership and even the public in SC have failed to acknowledge the problems of racial and socioeconomic inequity in any real ways that address public policy.

Nonetheless, the P&C‘s Left Behind series is a rare and fertile opportunity to change all that because the coverage does, despite some flaws, present the complicated challenges that face both public education and society, challenges that are inextricable from confronting racism and poverty.

Regretfully, one of the responses to this series is also nothing new—and entirely predictable: a South Carolina Policy Council (SCPC) Op-Ed titled School choice is a solution, not a problem.

First, I must emphasize that reducing the lessons of Charleston public schools to a narrow debate about school choice is a fatal distraction that will never serve students, families, and the community well.

Next, as I have examined on far too many occasions, free market think tanks (and think tanks masquerading as university departments) will never represent accurately school choice because they have committed entirely to one ideological focus that trumps any different or larger goals—such as educational equity for black and poor children.

On the SCPC’s web site, they clearly express their one and only position:

The South Carolina Policy Council was founded in 1986 as an independent, private, non-partisan research organization to promote the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty and responsibility in the state of South Carolina.

The Op-Ed response to Left Behind, then, is peppered with cherry-picking, overstatements, and loaded nods to “gold-standard research,” but the claims are advocacy, and not credible conclusions about either the results or promise of school choice in its many and shifting forms (vouchers, tuition tax credits, public school choice, charter schools).

Having spent more than a year doing a book-length examination of school choice, I regret that the debate remains trapped in ideological and political squabbles while children are in fact left behind.

So what do we know about school choice? (See Bruce Baker, The Shanker Blog, and the National Education Policy Center for extensive reviews of the research on choice and charter schools.)

  • Private, public, and charter schools have about the same range of measurable student outcomes, regardless of the school type and strongly correlated with the socioeconomic status of the child’s home. (See this discussion of “charterness.”)
  • Research on school choice has shown mixed results at best, but even when some choice has shown promise of, for example, raising test scores for black, brown, and poor students, those increased scores are linked to selectivity, attrition, greater funding, and extended school days/years—none of which have anything to do with the consequences of choice and all of which expose those “gains” as false success.
  • School choice, notably charter schools, has been strongly linked with increasing racial and socioeconomic inequity: increased segregation, inequitable disciplinary policies and outcomes.
  • SC advocacy for charter schools as the newest school choice commitment fails to acknowledge that charter schools in the state are overwhelmingly about the same and often worse than comparable public schools (see analysis of 2011 and 2013 data here), and the South Carolina Public Charter School District is among the top four worst districts in the state for racially inequitable discipline with blacks constituting about 19% of the enrollment but over 50% of suspensions/expulsions.

The research on school choice does not support the claims made by SCPC, and the rhetoric is also deeply flawed.

School choice advocates often fall back on “poor children deserve the same choices that rich children enjoy.”

However, several problems exist within this seemingly logical assertion.

The greatest flaw is suggesting that affluent and mostly white affluent children are thriving because of choice is itself a lie, a mask for the reality that the key to their success is their wealth and privilege. Being born into a wealthy family trumps educational attainment, and white privilege trumps educational attainment by blacks (see here and here).

In its most disturbing form, then, school choice advocacy is a distraction from the consequences of racism and poverty, both of which are reflected in and perpetuated by the education system.

Further, arguing that we must see school choice as a solution fails for essential conditions in a democracy.

For example, no one should have to wait for the Invisible Hand of the market so they have access to health care, justice, safety, or education. The great irony is that for the free market to work, a people must first secure the foundations of public institutions.

As Martin Luther King Jr. stressed in 1967: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

A full and robust commitment to public institutions, specifically universal public education, is essential to the concurrent commitment to the free market.The paradox is thus: In order for choice of most kinds to work in a free society, some essential institutions must render choice unnecessary in terms of health care, justice, safety, or education.

As we can witness in New Orleans, the lessons of education and education reform in Charleston are two-fold: (1) historically and currently, traditional public schools have failed/do fail vulnerable populations, specifically black and poor children, and (2) accountability-based and free-market education reform has also not alleviated the burdens of racism and poverty, but has too often exacerbated the devastating consequences of both.

Criminalizing Black Children and #BlackLivesMatter: A Reader

The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children

The social category “children” defines a group of individuals who are perceived to be distinct, with essential characteristics including innocence and the need for protection (Haslam, Rothschild, & Ernst, 2000). The present research examined whether Black boys are given the protections of childhood equally to their peers. We tested 3 hypotheses: (a) that Black boys are seen as less “childlike” than their White peers, (b) that the characteristics associated with childhood will be applied less when thinking specifically about Black boys relative to White boys, and (c) that these trends would be exacerbated in contexts where Black males are dehumanized by associating them (implicitly) with apes (Goff, Eberhardt, Williams, & Jackson, 2008). We expected, derivative of these 3 principal hypotheses, that individuals would perceive Black boys as being more responsible for their actions and as being more appropriate targets for police violence. We find support for these hypotheses across 4 studies using laboratory, field, and translational (mixed laboratory/field) methods. We find converging evidence that Black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their White same-age peers. Further, our findings demonstrate that the Black/ape association predicted actual racial disparities in police violence toward children. These data represent the first attitude/behavior matching of its kind in a policing context. Taken together, this research suggests that dehumanization is a uniquely dangerous intergroup attitude, that intergroup perception of children is underexplored, and that both topics should be research priorities.

In America, black children don’t get to be children, Stacey Patton

In 1955, after 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten and killed by a group of white men, one of his killers said Till “looked like a man.” I’ve found this pattern in news accounts of lynchings of black boys and girls from 1880 to the early 1950s, in which witnesses and journalists fixated on the size of victims who ranged from 8 to 19 years old. These victims were accused of sexually assaulting white girls and women, stealing, slapping white babies, poisoning their employers, fighting with their white playmates, or protecting black girls from sexual assault at the hands of white men. Or they were lynched for no reason at all.

Study: For Behavioral Problems, Black Students See Cops, Whites See Docs, Kenrya Rankin Naasel

A study in the latest issue of Sociology of Education found what many parents already know: When black students exhibit behavioral problems at school, administrators are more likely to call the police than to secure medical interventions. In fact, the study found that the more black students who attend a school, the more likely the people in charge are to call the police, rather than a doctor. It also revealed that schools with larger populations of black students have overall higher suspension rates, while their whiter counterparts had more kids enrolled in special needs programs. Schools with large Hispanic populations were less likely to call the either the police or a doctor.

The Social Structure of Criminalized and Medicalized School Discipline, David M. Ramey

In this article, the author examines how school- and district-level racial/ethnic and socioeconomic compositions influence schools’ use of different types of criminalized and medicalized school discipline. Using a large data set containing information on over 60,000 schools in over 6,000 districts, the authors uses multilevel modeling and a group-mean modeling strategy to answer several important questions about school discipline. First, how do school- and district-level racial and ethnic compositions influence criminalized school discipline and medicalization? Second, how do levels of school and district economic disadvantage influence criminalized school discipline and medicalization? Third, how does district-level economic disadvantage moderate the relationship between school racial/ethnic composition and criminalized school discipline and medicalization? The results generally support hypotheses that schools and districts with relatively larger minority and poor populations are more likely to implement criminalized disciplinary policies, including suspensions and expulsion or police referrals or arrests, and less likely to medicalize students through behavioral plans put in place through laws such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. However, results from cross-level interaction models suggest that district-level economic disadvantage moderates the influence of school racial composition on criminalized school discipline and medicalization.

Schools with higher black, minority populations call cops, not docs

The study builds on prior research that looked at how educators assessed the behavior of individual students based on race.

“The bulk of my earlier research looked at how, for the same minor levels of misbehaviors — for example, classroom disruptions, talking back — white kids tend to get viewed as having ADHD, or having some sort of behavioral problem, while black kids are viewed as being unruly and unwilling to learn,” said Ramey.

Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School, Kathleen Nolan

Review: Police in the Hallways: Confronting the “Culture of Control,” P. L. Thomas

On Public Debate, Naming the Enemy, and White Privilege: “a most disagreeable mirror”

Let’s start with one of the most heated public and political issues in the U.S. for at least four decades since Roe v. Wade: the abortion debate.

How does that debate resonate differently if framed as Pro-Life v. Pro-Abortion when compared to Anti-Abortion v. Pro-Choice? Or how does that debate resonate differently if framed as the rights of the unborn child versus women’s rights?

But the abortion debate reveals more than just the power of naming the enemy in that contest of ideologies because the abortion debate has often devolved into mostly a struggle for power, one that leaves in its wake both the claimed concern for the unborn child and women. In other words, too often the abortion debate is about scoring public points or making political hay—and not about the welfare of marginalized human beings, especially in the context of race and racism (without the intervention of the courts, affluent white women had access to reproductive rights that poor black women were denied).

And then if we dig deeper, the abortion debate in its most extreme and insensitive forms also becomes a battle between privileged agents, ones who ignore the race and class issues that significantly overlap the more narrow debate about access to abortion or reproductive rights.

For several years now, I have watched and participated in an increasingly hostile education reform debate that has many of the same characteristics I have identified above.

Early in my public (and evolving) role writing about that reform (in the more recent of thirty-plus years advocating for reform as part of my daily practice as a classroom teacher at both the high school and higher education levels), I found the need to define the debate as a struggle between No Excuses Reformers (NER)—who focus on in-school only reform as accountability—and Social Context Reformers (SCR)—who call for both social and educational reform as equity—aligning myself with the latter.

Also early in that public effort, I confronted directly and even interacted with some of the prominent agents of NER, something I gradually stopped doing. However, those contentious exchanges inevitably spurred my being framed as anti-reform.

Coming from advocates of NER, that label offended me greatly—again because I entered education and then committed my work as a teacher for decades to very unpopular reforms such as expanding the canon to include black and female writers, ending tracking, and erasing the masked racial bigotry of my small home town that was reflected in the high school’s disciplinary and curricular practices.

However, recently Andre Perry and Angela Dye have also used the label “anti-reform” and then I came across this Tweet:

Here I had to step back from my entrenched knee-jerk response to the “anti-reform” label because for Perry, Dye, and Thinnes, the use of “anti-reform” is in the context of many people I have framed as SCR advocates becoming so committed to fighting NER, Perry has noted “that overwhelmingly white movements pursuing change for black and brown communities are inherently paternalistic.” In other words, the two dominant voices debating education reform are often indistinguishable in their missionary zeal and their tendency to ignore the very communities, families, and children historically and currently mis-served by both reform agendas and traditional public schooling.

Thinnes has also commented further (here and here), reaching a powerful and important conclusion:

Exploring these [nuanced] questions [about TFA] this last year have helped start to move me from my own simplistic “us and them” camp mentality; to recognize the richness of the social justice commitments that many individuals are bringing to many sectors and orgs; to wonder what kind of systemic transformation ‘we’ actually envision; and to question who it is, exactly, that ‘we’ are really fighting for.

For me, then, I must stress that when NER advocates toss out the label “anti-reform,” I am skeptical, even cynical, about the intention, but “anti-reform” works for Perry, Dye, and Thinnes in a much different and significant way: This is a warning flag, a vital warning flag, that all along the so-called education reform spectrum, as Thinnes notes, the “us v. them” mentality allows “reform” to be yet another insensitive and blunt baseball bat swung in self-righteousness, battering indiscriminately.

Thirty-plus years into intensive state and federal education reform have not resulted in the sorts of educational or social outcomes politicians have promised and the public has expected. In fact, the reforms themselves have increasingly become secondary to the war and those poised to benefit from that reform debate.

Perry, Dye, and Thinnes—among others—require us to step back from that debate and recognize that white privilege/white denial remain the poisons infecting the so-called “both sides,” whether we label those sides NER v. SCR or reformers v. anti-reformers.

Social and educational justice advocacy that forefronts race and racism must unite everyone dedicated to education reform, and in doing so, this must stop being a war of privilege, one that is deaf and blind to the voices and interests of black, brown, and poor people.

In the August 1965 Ebony, James Baldwin began “The White Man’s Guilt”: “I have often wondered, and it is not a pleasant wonder, just what what white Americans talk about with one another,” adding:

I wonder this because they do not, after all, seem to find very much to say to me, and I concluded long ago that they found the color of my skin inhibitory. This color seems to operate as a most disagreeable mirror, and a great deal of one’s energy is expended in reassuring white Americans that they do not see what they see.

It is 50 years later, and Baldwin’s incisive confrontation of white-as-blind, white-as-deaf to the black condition, of the “most disagreeable mirror” is now being replicated in an education war too often being fought as if the greatest historical and current failure of education doesn’t involve black, brown, and poor people.

Baldwin’s refrain—”White man, hear me!”—in the context of the education reform movement being too white to matter, in the context of #BlackLivesMatter, demands an end to white privilege and white denial that maintain the burden of the accusatory gaze on black, brown, and poor communities, families, and students.

“[P]eople who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it),” Baldwin argued, “are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”

This is the education reform movement challenged by Perry, Dye, and Thinnes—a battle between mostly white advocates, impaled on their own missionary zeal and demanding that other people do what they themselves are incapable of doing.

Before us we have an enemy we seem to refuse to name, the white privilege at the root of the historical failure of universal public education and the remaining white privilege derailing both sides of the reform debate.

From New Orleans to #BlackLivesMatter, the echo of Baldwin’s “White man, hear me!” remains drowned out beneath the white noise of reform debate.

The responsibility lies with that privilege to see ourselves, to change ourselves, and thus to change the world we have created and maintained.

See Also

Why Liberals Separate Race from Class

On Misreading: The Critical Need to Step Back and See Again

The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory.

Thomas Jefferson to Charles Thompson, 1787

Teaching literature as a high school English teacher often requires covering the canon through survey courses. This means, of course, we teachers of English often assign and discuss writers and works we simply do not like.

One writer I don’t particularly care for is [gasp] Robert Frost—the poems aren’t my cup of tea and his attitude about free verse rubs me the wrong way.

But unlike my ambivalent thoughts about Frost’s poetry and snobbery, I simply detest misreading Frost and those incessant posters:

In fact, one of my favorite, ironically, poems to teach was “The Road Not Taken”—first, because it lends itself to stressing the importance of reading the text carefully to students, and second because many if not most of my students had seen the posters and had the poem mis-taught to them in previous grades.

Typically, the end of the poem is used to make vapid and inspirational claims about being different, taking the path others have failed to try.

However, even a slightly careful reading of the poem reveals that the text itself no fewer than three times states the two roads are essentially the same: “as just as fair,” “Had worn them really about the same,” and “And both that morning equally lay.”

So when I came across Stephen Lynch’s article on David Orr’s The Road Not Taken, I was nearly giddy:

The poem is praised as an ode of individuality, to not follow the pack even though the path may be more difficult.

Except Frost notes early in the poem that the two roads were “worn . . . really about the same.” There is no difference. It’s only later, when the narrator recounts this moment, that he says he took the road less traveled.

“This is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us, or allotted to us by chance),” Orr writes.

“The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism,” he continues. “It’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.”

And thus we are forced to confront the Jefferson quote above: many in the U.S. see a message of rugged individualism in everything they see regardless of that theme existing or evidence confirming that ideology.

If this were confined to poetry, we could simply let it lie, but consider two aspects of Ronald Reagan’s political career—long enough in the past to view somewhat dispassionately but recent enough to remain relevant during the 2015-2016 presidential campaign years.

Reagan gained a tremendous amount of political capital on his “welfare queen” refrain, and somehow maintained his Teflon image despite George H.W. Bush’s charge that Reaganomics was “voodoo economics.”

Both can be traced to the public’s tendency to see what they want to see despite evidence to the contrary. The U.S. public believes poverty is the result of laziness and continue to harbor racist associations with both poverty and that laziness. As I have shared, just recently I received a negative response to a piece I wrote on racism that blamed inequity on single black mothers, despite single white mothers far outnumbering and Hispanic/Latino single mothers surpassing single black mothers.

The Great American Myth includes that the wealthy have earned their wealthy, the poor (lazy) deserve their poverty, education is the great equalizer, and anybody can succeed if he/she would just work hard enough, and evidence (the abundance of evidence) to the contrary is nearly worthless against that mythology.

This is not simply about partisan politics—because the same proclivity to see what we believe and thus not recognize systemic forces corrupts mainstream efforts at both education reform and daily teaching.

Just as a few examples, policies and practices built on “grit” research and narratives as well as “growth mindset” are essentially flawed because they fall victim to gazing on the individual, diagnosing deficits, and then correcting those deficits—a misdiagnosis that misread the consequences of systemic inequity as individual culpability.

The harsh reality is that in the U.S. educational and social/economic success are the result not of effort or merit, but the coincidence of any person’s socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.

Claims that teaching poor and black/brown children “grit” and a “growth mindset” will reap great rewards for those students are trapped in the deficit gaze narrowly on individuals—not unlike those who misread Frost or continue to cling to Reagan’s nasty “welfare queen” scapegoat.

This is where the critical imperative requires that we always step back from our belief systems and force ourselves to consider the entire and complex reality driven by both systemic and individual dynamics.

So if we loop back to the actual woman Reagan used to create the “welfare queen” smear campaign on all single black mothers who are poor, we discover a very complicated reality about this individual woman, but we also must temper ourselves against drawing sweeping generalizations that are not supported by easily accessible evidence.

And we should also ask why many are apt to make such damning jumps from one black woman to all black women when those same people do not make such leaps about individual serial killers, often white males who are well educated.

It is a trivial nerd/teacher fantasy to hope that we stop the misreading of a rather boring Robert Frost poem, but it is no small thing to expect us to stop allowing claims that are at their core racist and classist (“grit,” “growth mindset,” the “word gap,” etc.) to hide behind the mask of science or the cult of celebrity driving them, it is no small thing to speak against presidential candidates who continue to race-bait (black-on-black crime) and poverty-bait (dead-beats on welfare) the public as Reagan did.

To do so, we must have the courage to choose a road “less traveled by,” a journey that begins with taking one step back.

Please View (and Listen)

James Baldwin and Black Lives, Eddie Glaude

The Legacy of James Baldwin

James Baldwin: Two Recent, Relevant Videos

James Baldwin and Black Lives (C-Span) 5/18/15

Professor Eddie Glaude talked about James Baldwin, the underlying meanings of race in America, and the emergence of the phrase “black lives matter” on social media. He discussed the tradition of Black Democratic Perfectionism, the idea of democratic individuality in the service of justice. He argued that the phrase “black lives matter,” which emerged on social media after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, is rooted in Black Democratic Perfectionism and is a tool that reflects African American social, economic, and political struggles, and rejects the idea of white supremacy.

The Legacy of James Baldwin (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum) 6/11/15

Following a screening of the newly restored documentary, James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, the filmmaker Karen Thorsen; Tufts professor Peniel Joseph; poets Nikky Finney and Rose Styron; and James Baldwin’s niece, Aisha Karefa-Smart discussed his call for equality and its relevance today. Kim McLarin, a frequent contributor to WGBH’s Emmy-award winning program, Basic Black, moderates. This forum was in partnership with PEN New England.

More on Critical Pedagogy, Critical Thinking, and the Other: “Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom”

Students at my university are required to attend Cultural Life Programs (CLPs) as part of their graduation requirements. Once several years ago, I was the featured speaker at a CLP on education reform, and during that talk I noted I was against accountability.

The Q and A prompted by the talk was vibrant, but after the talk, I was approached by a colleague who asked if I were being provocative—not serious, in other words—about being against accountability. I assured him I was in fact against accountability, which left him so frazzled the discussion ended there.

After posting a blog about critical pedagogy and the Other, I received similar and numerous comments about critical thinking—educators who likely believe that they and I are mostly in agreement on education but cannot fathom my rejecting how traditional schooling approaches so-called “critical thinking skills.”

As well, the Twitter conversation among Angela DyeSherri Spelic, and me exposed the need to examine more fully the concept of the Other.

First, there is no way to frame identifying and teaching (as well as lessons involving worksheets and testing) critical thinking skills and remain critical.

The essential flaw with critical thinking skills (see HERE and HERE) is, as I noted in the previous post, the reductive nature of a technocratic approach to knowledge, teaching, and learning. In other words, to isolate (and thus, approach analytically) a series of “critical” skills in order to deposit them in students in the hopes that those skills added up equal critical thinking is the problem.

And as I have noted about accountability, that skills approach is at least the dominant, if not the only way in which “critical thinking” is framed in traditional schooling.

Being critical is not a collection of isolated skills, but a way of being that can be fostered, not imposed (see Paulo Freire on the banking concept of education). Therefore, at best we can model being critical and provide for students examples of critical confrontations such as Ta-Nehisi Coates on the film Crash or Son of Baldwin on Straight Outta Compton.

Let me stress, then, that my rejecting the technocratic approach to “critical thinking” cannot be solved through technocratic means: defining, teaching skills, etc.

Next, and more complex, I think, is the concept of the Other in terms of how that relates to critical pedagogy.

My critical scholarship and my critical public work prompt oddly parallel responses, for example.

Traditional scholarship frames my critical work as the Other because critical perspectives reject the norms of the academy—quantitative data and objectivity most significantly. Instead, critical pedagogy starts here:

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

The claimed apolitical pose of traditional scholarship marginalizes as the Other critical perspectives. However, Kincheloe explains:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes.

But my public work is often challenged for being too academic, too scholarly since critical perspectives are prone to wax philosophic (using “the Other,” for example) or depend on terms such as “hegemony.”

Regardless of the context, then, critical perspectives are themselves likely to be marginalized (not rigorous or too esoteric), ignored, or silenced—especially as Dye and Spelic have stressed if you are a woman, or even more significantly, if you are a black woman.

And therein lies the next level of the Other I haven’t teased out well enough so far.

Yes, critical perspectives are brushed off as the Other, but more importantly, to be critical means to always listen [1] to, consider, and be empathetic to the perspective of the Other.

Being critical means that we take the pose of the Other in all the forms that exist. This requires the setting aside of ones privilege and even ones status as the Other.

It is in that context that Paulo Freire confronts how norms act against the Other:

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. (p. 41)

Being critical is about self-awareness, empathy, and the perpetual state of questioning the nature of assumptions in the context of how those assumptions work to perpetuate power as well as to deny power.

Being critical becomes in traditional contexts, both academic and public, simultaneously the state of being the Other as well as assuming the perspective(s) of the Other.

Posters, worksheets, skills lists, and tests—none of these address being critical because all of these are trapped inside the so-called objective and analytic assumptions about knowledge, teaching, and learning.

They are as lifeless as they are void of critical—and they do not serve students or anyone well.

Any questions?

See Also

“Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the 1% Always Wins

Revisiting “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes

[1] For example, in whose interest is it to shame a writer for splitting an infinitive? And what is the historical and linguistic context of that so-called rule? How does focusing on a linguistically questionable construction allow the masking of the substance of the claims?

Critical Pedagogy: Being the Other

Last week, I began my fall semester a few weeks before my university because we place our teacher certification candidates in year-long placements, including the first couple weeks of school, during their senior year. As a result I conducted four school visits to talk with our candidates and their cooperating teachers about the program and what to expect over this academic year that culminates in the spring with an extended practicum experience that looks a great deal like student teaching.

While walking out of one school, I noticed a series of posters hanging from the ceiling, and the final one facing me as I was heading out read “Find a way to think critically.”

I turned and noticed the back of the same slogan was “Find a way to be on time.”

Throughout my 18 years teaching public high school, I resisted the focus on school and classroom rules; we were supposed to post them in our room prominently, we had to lay them out for students on the first day, and our students had to pass a school handbook test before they could begin their classes each year (which meant we spent days reviewing the handbook with our advisees).

Part of my resistance included that instead of posting rules in my room, I made my own poster announcing:

Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.

Henry David Thoreau

The reality is that if we consider the front-and-back poster above, schools (and businesses) do not really want critical thinking from students (workers), but instead wants compliance.

After teaching and resisting for over a decades, I discovered in my doctoral program William Ayers’s To Teach, which was the first organized confrontation of education-as-compliance I had ever read and likely my first step into critical pedagogy.

As I have discussed before, the term “critical thinking” and its companion “higher order thinking skills (HOTS)” are in fact not about being critical, but are technocratic ways of defining and thus controlling what counts as appropriate thinking. “Critical thinking” as a learning objective in formal schooling is an ironic term, much like the two-sided poster stressing punctuality on the flip side of thinking critically.

Critical pedagogy is a wholesale rejection of those technocratic approaches to teaching (objectivity, behaviorism, high-stakes testing, prescriptive standards, rote lesson plans) that requires each of us to investigate, interrogate (see Ta-Nehisi Coates), witness (see James Baldwin), challenge, and confront knowledge, claims, texts, people, and even (or especially) ourselves about the nature of power being served.

Unlike the systematic “critical thinking,” a critical perspective asks, “Whose interests are being served by punctuality and what power dynamic does that punctuality preserve or create?”

In other words, a directive—”Find a way to think critically”—can never be critical since the essential critical pose is the question.

2015 is the twentieth year of my critical journey as an educator, student, and person—marked formally by beginning a doctoral program in 1995.

This year has been punctuated by an ongoing discussion with Angela Dye on Twitter about what it means to be a critical educator.

Dye and I have been joined lately by Sherri Spelic while we all wrestle with holding critical perspectives in the midst of education reform wars that demand somewhat extreme binaries [1], both of which struggle under the bright light of critical investigation

As we struggle through social media with critical pedagogy in practice, I have stated to Dye directly that being critical puts anyone always in the position of the Other, and that necessity is alienating, isolating—suggesting the possibility of futility since large-scale change in a democracy tends to require numbers, some sort of collaboration.

Being critical is essential for social and education justice and equity, but I can also attest that maintaining a critical grounding creates tension among those on the so-called “both sides” of traditional and progressive arguments—such as the current education reform war.

I’m afraid I do not yet have a solution to this problem, except among Dye, Spelic, and me, while we likely have substantive disagreements about this or that, we have found community in the struggle itself.

And that in fact may be the answer, but even so, we must continue to question even that.

See Also

remnant 17: “we came to the world in order to remake the world” Paulo Freire

[1] See Dye’s The Need for a Deeper Dive and Reformers and Anti-Reformers: An Underwater Perspective, Spelic’s Knee-Jerk vs. A Stone’s Throw, and my Beware the Roadbuilders Redux: Education Reform Wars Fail Race, Again, which is strongly influenced by Andre Perry’s Education reform is working in New Orleans – just like white privilege.

Beware the Roadbuilders Redux: Education Reform Wars Fail Race, Again

A classic analogy is Mothra vs. Godzilla, but a more contemporary comparison—and one to be highlighted in upcoming Marvel superhero films—is Marvel’s Civil Wars.

First, the larger situation involves two powerful forces, both of which are driven by the missionary zeal of being on the right side, that wage war against each other while those who both sides claim to serve is trampled beneath them as collateral, and mostly ignored, damage.

More specifically, Marvel’s Civil War involves two legions of superheroes (and villains) who side with either Iron Man or Captain America (the two powerful forces characterized by missionary zeal and reckless disregard for citizens), but notable in this war is that the X-Men are neutral, as is Black Panther—serving as embodiments in the comic book universe of the Other (identified groups marginalized by status: race, sexual/gender identities, poverty).

Finally, what does this template represent? I recommend reading carefully Andre Perry’s Education reform is working in New Orleans – just like white privilege—notably:

White critics of education reform should especially include themselves in the power structure. Yes, the neo-liberal, market-driven, corporate anti-reform critique isn’t the only frame that robs black people of their voice.

I wish white folk would hear me when I say the pro-/anti-reform frame doesn’t work for black folk. If anything, our position in the social world makes us reformers. Black folk never had the luxury of defending status quo. New Orleans needed to make radical changes in education as part of larger hurricane preparedness plan. Getting a college degree is the kind of protection black people need. Cynicism isn’t protection.

Perry confronts that the rise of education reformers dedicated to bureaucratic and technocratic reform as well as the concurrent reaction to that reform agenda among those championing an idealized faith in public education have in common their willingness to both trample and ignore the black and high-poverty communities, parents, and students both groups often claim to represent.

This education reform war, like Marvel’s Civil War, fails, as Perry has noted before, the problems of race and racism: “But let’s also stipulate that overwhelmingly white movements pursuing change for black and brown communities are inherently paternalistic.”

Perry concludes about the “overwhelmingly white” education reform wars: “We need less ‘reform’ and more social justice.”

Posting on Twitter in the wake of the anniversary of Ferguson, John Warner strikes a similar chord in terms of broader failures of social justice advocacy:

listening and empathy

While I entered public education dedicated to teaching as a form of activism for social justice, I can speak hear as someone who has certainly failed my own goals (confronting poverty and racism) by allowing much of my work both to feed and appear to feed the exact failure Perry and others have identified.

As I have been addressing for some time, the tensions of race and racism have been a central struggle of doing public work—although in my daily teaching, during my 18 years as a high school teacher and then more than a decade as a teacher educator, has remained more securely tethered to causes of social justice related to poverty and racism.

Lashing out against Teach For America and charter schools (among all school choice) by me and others has certainly served to ignore and even erase voices and issues connected to race.

But I also recognize the ineffectiveness of nuanced positions since my approach to Common Core has not fit within either the so-called reformer stance (pro Common Core) or the jumbled stance among idealistic public school advocates (some are for and some are against Common Core).

It is well past time, then, to emphasize that the recent thirty-years of education reform characterized by accountability built on standards and testing as well as the rise of TFA and charter schools would never have occurred if public education had been serving black and poor children as well as all formal schooling has served white and affluent children.

Education policy, then, is as complicated as social policy in the U.S.—where those in power and the public appear either reluctant or resistant to confronting the entrenched weight of race and class on social and educational equity.

And while political and public opinion are against us, those concerned with social justice linked to race and class equity must commit first to listening to and working with (not for) the communities, parents, and students who have been mis-served for decades by social and educational institutions and policies, specifically black and impoverished communities, parents, and students.

Missionary zeal and paternalism are burdens of both the education reformers and the public school advocates taking up arms against those reforms.

Broad stroke support for and rejections of any of these reforms are prone to be tone deaf and detrimental to claimed commitments for equity and social justice.

Evoking the very real and devastating realities mirrored in bad science fiction and Marvel’s Civil War, Perry argues: “New Orleanians don’t need an all-or-nothing, slash-and-burn system. We have inevitable hurricanes for that.”

And then:

Black folk are always the collateral damage of privileged people’s broad-stroke critiques. And the white criticisms of reform always negate black involvement and dare I say positive contribution toward change. We should validate the suffering, death and destruction that occurred during and in the aftermath of Katrina. But “awfulizing” isn’t the way to get there.

We don’t need the white, privileged, anti-reform framework developed by three or four white critics to deny the voices we need to uplift.

For me, the image I have evoked of political education reformers as the roadbuilders remains a valid metaphor, but it is incomplete and has too often served as just more noise drowning out those who must be heard.

So who is willing to stop the uproar against misguided and often tone-deaf education reform from the political elite long enough to listen to the black and poor communities who have witnessed decades of negligence by public institutions?

Reminder

Good intentions are not enough: a decolonizing intercultural education, Paul C. Gorski

High Cost of White Denial

My Op-Ed in The State (Columbia, SC) paper, Entrenched racism drives down SC child-well-being scores, prompted both email responses and a few posted comments online.

A recurring theme of the negative feedback reflects entrenched white denial, offering insight to why our political leadership tends to avoid addressing directly systemic racism and social class inequity and exposing why the Republican candidates thrive despite what should otherwise be viewed as a collection of buffoons at best and racists, sexists, and classists at worst.

Any time racism and class inequity are confronted, the “individual responsibility” response rings strong. As well, the “I was poor but succeeded” mantra is shuffled out.

What is always notable, however, is that the overwhelming evidence of racism and classism is never directly addressed. White denial always remains trapped in slogans and anecdote.

For example, one online comment addresses the evidence I provided with “if whites are getting paid more than blacks.” If?

The pattern of race-based inequity within the same educational level is not a question, but a fact:

Yet, white denial must hedge evidence in order to continue to cling to the delusion of racial fairness.

How does individual responsibility instead of systemic racism explain the race-based income inequity above? How does individual responsibility instead of systemic racism explain that white high school dropouts have the same probability of employment as blacks with some college?

probability employment

The social and policy implications of white denial are significant, but white denial also pervades our schools, notably in schools that serve black and brown children living in communities experiencing concentrated poverty such as New Orleans, Detroit, or the Corridor of Shame in my own South Carolina.

In that context, one comment online is particularly disturbing since it is from a white person who claims to have taught for decades in SC, including years in the Corridor of Shame. This educator blames the parents and students, concluding “I didn’t see any entrenched racism, there is no institutional racism.”

No child should be taught by teachers who blame them for their disadvantages. Of all institutions, schools cannot tolerate white denial.

Destroying the promises of democracy and universal public education, white denial is the warm blanket of delusion that comforts the privileged and keeps them slumbering at the expense of those adults and children suffering the weight of racism and classism.

We must not compound that further by denying that the current race for the presidency is a reflection of that white denial and its power to embrace slogans over reality.

Race and class nastiness resonates among those suffering from white denial, but facts fall on deaf ears.

White denial has real consequences; thus, we must keep in mind that clowns have nowhere to perform without someone building the circus.

Postscript

White denial sent by postal mail:

government

And for the record:

U.S. Children in Single-Mother Families

white single parent famsSingle Parents Aren’t the Problem, Ivory A. Toldson

Children In Single-Parent Families By Race

single parent by race