Two early scenes in Shaun of the Dead require viewers to understand zombie narrative tropes in order to achieve the film’s satirical intent—distinguishing Shaun of the Dead from the zombie horror films it skewers: Shaun makes nearly identical trips from his apartment to a local convenience store, the first involving a normal day and the second after the (unknown to him) zombie apocalypse.

Throughout the film, a running joke involves that humans are pretty much zombies as a modern condition; this is achieved through the zombie-like movements by the surrounding characters, even when characters are not zombies. But during the parallel scenes, Shaun does not immediately recognize the before and after (including bloody handprints and slipping on a bloody floor at the convenience store the second time) because he hasn’t yet had the possibility of zombies enter into his consciousness.

In The Walking Dead (AMC series), viewers are often manipulated by the characters’ ability (and inability) to recognize and distinguish both zombies from living humans and whether or not zombies are animated. This recognition plot element is played out in the film version of World War Z as well as Zombieland—the former, serious zombie horror and the latter, another satire in the tradition of Shaun of the Dead.

Other sub-genres, such as superhero comic book narratives, depend on the recognition plot element as well; Unbreakable examines in sort of a meta-analysis of who constitutes the hero and who constitutes the villain in superhero comic book narratives:

Elijah Price: Now that we know who you are, I know who I am. I’m not a mistake! It all makes sense! In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain’s going to be? He’s the exact opposite of the hero. And most times they’re friends, like you and me! I should’ve known way back when… You know why, David? Because of the kids. They called me Mr Glass.

Running through this recognition plot element is a message: To the uninformed, to the novice, to the unsuspecting, opposing forces (even though one may be “good” and the other, “bad”) may appear to be identical.

Dystopian Fiction, Passion, and the Education Reform Debate

Science fiction (SF), especially dystopian SF, and fantasy often work on two levels—the primary narrative serving as an imagined and metaphorical canvas allowing the author to analyze and critique the very real world. Zombie narratives are often commentaries on consumerism, for example.

Dystopian novels—such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tales—provide readers a psychic distance that contributes to their being able to re-see aspects of the normal real world that are often clouded by living in those moments. Atwood explains, in “Writing Utopia” included in Writing with Intent, that she did not manufacture the atrocities in The Handmaid’s Tale, but instead weaved real-world events into one imagined narrative. Orwell’s 1984 accomplishes much the same effect.

Writers of SF and dystopian fiction realize that there appears to be something anesthetic about the news and history; therefore, they reach for the readers’ heart, souls, and minds through hyperbole.

SF writers, in fact, are often deeply passionate people, almost single-mindedly driven to expose the wrongs they render metaphor in their writing. It seems likely, as well, that their novels and films come off far less looney than when they speak directly about the causes they champion in their fiction.

Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam trilogy, I believe, remains far more socially embraced and possibly considered than when Atwood the person holds forth in public about genetically manufactured foods, climate change, or other topics quickly dismissed by the general public as looney left-wing conspiracy theories. (Barbara Kingsolver exists both as a beloved novelists and as a looney left-wing ideologue, only distinguished by her novelist persona and her speaking or writing essays as a living, breathing real person.)

And that brings me back to the education reform debate, played out primarily on social media, and the problem of tone (see my previous three posts on tone: part 1, part 2, and part 3).

The Recognition Plot Element and the Education Reform Debate

Let me start with an example.

At his Living in Dialogue blog (Education Week), Anthony Cody posted Chicago School Rations Bathroom Visits to Help Prepare for Common Core Tests—in which Cody shared a memo from a school instituting new restroom policies and linking those policies to “maximiz[ing] student learning and reduc[ing] the loss of instructional time.” The memo also explains the new policy has additional benefits:

Have students fill in the “time out” and “time in” and then turn the pass in to the teacher when finished. This will help them practice the CCS of telling time with both digital and analog clocks.

I have written an extended blog about this memo, connecting it to David Kaib’s analysis of misguided outrage—Kaib’s about outrage targeting David Brooks, the columnist, and mine about knee-jerk outrage over the restroom policy as a single incident at the exclusion of confronting  systemic and historical hierarchical structures mis-serving students.

By the time I finished that blog, Ken Libby on Twitter and Sherman Dorn commenting at Cody’s blog had challenged that the headline and blog were misleading—Dorn stating directly:

This is petty bureaucracy (even if some students abuse hall passes). There is NOTHING in this that justifies the policy based on CCSS or testing — the mention of standards towards the end is silly, but not as silly as the headline here. [1]

Unless I am completely misreading people, by the way, this disagreement among Cody, Libby, and Dorn is not among people committed to dramatically different ideologies; I suspect that all three seek very similar conditions for students, teachers, and public schools.

This is a clash over tone, a real-world cautionary tale about recognition plot elements.

A few years ago, the Common Core debate was far less complicated in that the players in the debate were fewer, the power balance was terribly skewed (toward those designing CC, mostly because few people even knew about CC), and the debate was relatively insular.

As we slide into 2014, however, CC debates are much more public, and far more players are involved. Possibly the oddest and most complicated reality of the change is that two very different camps have gained fairly high profiles refuting CC—what I have labeled Libertarian Reformers and Critical Reformers.

A Tea Party-like, libertarian (popular, not pure) voice has begun to grow among parents, the public, and far right politicians, rejecting CC as (among other things) communist propaganda written by Bill Ayers (villain), brainwashing by the Obama (villain) administration, and Big Government (villain) corrupting children in the U.S.

Critical reformers are mostly educators and scholars who challenge CC as inseparable from high-stakes testing, driving huge costs (and corporate profit) associated with new standards and tests, and instrumental in corporate takeover and privatizing of public schools—with Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and Michelle Rhee as the “villains.”

If we pause, then, and consider the lessons of SF and dystopian fiction—to the uninformed, to the novice, to the unsuspecting, opposing forces (even though one may be “good” and the other, “bad”) may appear to be identical—the entire tone (and related “hyperbole” argument) debate now must be viewed in a new light. As Diane Ravitch has addressed, will CC challenges have unintended consequences?

To the uniformed public, foaming at the mouth about the socialist Obama is indistinguishable from foaming at the mouth about evil genius and billionaire Gates (the general public sees Mr. Burns from The Simpson, I suspect). As I have discussed time and time again, evidence is relatively inconsequential in the education reform debate—again because determining the credibility of evidence asks a great deal of an audience.

If we become perplexed about why demonstrably untrue narratives (Bill Ayers did not write the CC) exist nearly on equal footing with evidence-based challenges to CC (Gates and his funding have had a disproportionate impact on CC adoption, as well as influence over a number of education policies not supported by the research base, such as VAM and merit pay), we must confront the recognition plot element.

From a distance, or through uniformed eyes, the looney and the passionate look the same, and most people don’t have the time or inclination to get closer to make a distinction.

While I remain firm in my previous examinations of tone—raising the tone complaint tends to show that someone doesn’t wish to address the substance below the tone—and I do not discredit the possibility that hyperbole and metaphor can be accurate and effective, I now have to acknowledge that those positions mean little if my audience cannot distinguish me from Glenn Beck.

I want to end by returning to Cody’s blog post and the complaints from Libby and Dorn. In my opinion, all three are in part correct.

Many of us who embrace evidence-based challenges to CC have and do reach in our passion to make our (to us) credible case against CC; Cody’s headline may in fact do just that, reach—especially if his blog post suggests that CC is uniquely causing what Dorn accurately calls “petty bureaucracy.” As my blog post connected to Cody’s piece explains, “petty bureaucracy” reaches far back before CC—although my years teaching all fell under the current accountability era in education.

In their quest to hold CC critics accountably, Libby and Dorn, I think, also reach: “There is NOTHING in this that justifies the policy based on CCSS or testing,” complains Dorn. Nothing? Even though CC is directly mentioned in the memo?

CC is not an apocalyptic plot to devour our babies and children (although that may make a damn fine dystopian novel or film), but neither is CC some innocuous and inconsequential minor issue.

I agree with Libby and Dorn that CC did not cause that restroom policy, but I am convinced—based on about 2 decades of teaching in the first part of the accountability era—that standards and testing are routinely used to justify a whole host of detrimental policies and behaviors that constitute the status quo of much that is wrong with traditional public schooling—such as enforcing dehumanizing restroom policies for children and justifying that by claiming teaching, learning, and yes, even test scores, are sacred.

I do not pretend to speak for anyone else, nor do I hope to tell others how to conduct themselves, but I have been learning a valuable lesson over the past year, a lesson about the recognition plot element.

Yes, my passion has often made me indistinguishable from the looneys. That’s on me.

Passion, confrontation, and a style prone to metaphor, if not hyperbole (English major, of course), have clearly distinguished me from CC advocates. But at what cost, if I come off as half-cocked and rabid, no different than Beck asserting CC is a Marxist plot by Obama?

And thus, as a SF and dystopian fiction devotee, as a serious and dedicated public scholar, I have to consider the lesson before me: to the uninformed, to the novice, to the unsuspecting, opposing forces (even though one may be “good” and the other, “bad”) may appear to be identical.

[1] The exchange beneath Dorn’s initial comment is also illustrative of the recognition plot element:


1:28 PM on January 5, 2014

Sherman, I think what you are pointing to is that this communication memo is wrong on many levels. I have trouble with giving very young children (this is a Prek-8th grade building) incentive to NOT use the bathroom.

I believe using the principal’s CCSS justification in the headline was Mr. Cody’s way of pointing out the silliness. Are we on the same page, or have I misread your comment?

Sherman Dorn

1:55 PM on January 5, 2014


It’s clear from the headline and the bold-faced intro remarks that Anthony Cody really is trying to claim that CCSS is responsible for this memo. That claim holds no water, at least by this memo.


2:39 PM on January 5, 2014

Ah, I take it in reverse. The principal wants to mandate something ridiculous so uses CCSS as justification for his actions. Not the other way around.

Sherman Dorn

10:11 PM on January 6, 2014

Yep, that’s how I see it.