Tone, pt. 4: Dystopian Fiction, Passion, and the Education Reform Debate

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.


9 thoughts on “Tone, pt. 4: Dystopian Fiction, Passion, and the Education Reform Debate

  1. Pingback: Tone, pt. 4: Dystopian Fiction, Passion, and the Education Reform Debate – @ THE CHALK FACE

  2. As someone who is passionate and uses analogy, metaphor and sometimes hyperbole, I get what you are saying, and I have seen the results in my own case, that many people will not engage with me…

    However – there is another point to all of this… consider for a moment… what if people like you and I have a capacity to cut through the chatter/chaos and can see patterns and agendas and motives and history repeating itself – perhaps dressed up in different character names/costumes perhaps though the plot/issue is the same? What if we have that capacity and others do not? And what if we are using the language/tone we do to tell a truth that others just are not seeing – or are unwilling to see because of the consequences that would follow from seeing? Once one opens the door of new knowledge and steps over the threshold, one can’t go back and pretend one doesnt know… and one is forced to make a choice… to accept the truth and take an action, or to deny the truth and live a lie…

    It’s my contention that many people who object to the ‘tone’ I use (I operate on the KISS principle, calling a spade a spade) really are not objecting to the tone but rather to the truth of the ‘facts’ I’m pointing out… or object to having their attention called to the contradictions, illogicalities, conflicts of interest etc… Because accepting the content of my message means they have to make some choices, which can be very uncomfortable – Randi Weingarten, for example, might have to give up her chance to play nicely at the table with the rich and powerful, and she stands to lose a lot in that, personally, professionally, politically, socially and economically. I think she’s being used as a tool for the privatising agenda, though I am not sure whether she’s consciously and willingly playing on the privatisers’ team or is too naive to realise she’s being manipulated/used as a puppet… either way, she is showing signs of discomfort (in response to an ongoing, steady stream of ‘passionate’ messages) and currently is manoeuvring to be able to continue to play at the table – giving her teacher/union/parent critics a small concession on VAM, while not risking offending the ed reform funders by rebelling outright.

    Perhaps those of us who interact in this ‘passionate’ way perform a necessary aspect of the ‘work’. Perhaps we are the ‘shock troops’, the ‘disturbers of the peace’, the ‘rabble rousers’ who wake people up and call attention to what is really going on, who are then followed by the ‘rational’ ‘persuaders’ presenting some of the same information in a format people are willing to accept and internalise/process/integrate and act on. Would people hear the more ‘reasonable’ voices if they hadnt been exposed to the intensity of passion first? And would change happen more slowly, at all, if those passionate voices hadn’t turned up the heat initially?

    Anyway, it’s cold comfort and no satisfaction when later on, my analysis, my opinions and (passionate, ‘in your face’, KISS) expression of what I see happening with people, events, agendas, modus operandi etc are proved to be accurate…

    • I think the point the author makes here is not that you should cease to speak your truth, but that you reconsider how you go about doing so. I once adopted a similar approach to yours, but found that – as you yourself note – it led to people refusing to engage with me in discussion. That is not productive if I want to be a source of change in the world around me. The issue, as the author here notes, was my tone. I had to change it to begin to achieve the results I wanted. The easiest way to do that without giving up your positions or remaining silent (the alternatives you proposed) is to adopt the Socratic method. Now I ask questions. Lots of them. Sometimes they seem stupid at first, but their whole point is to lead whomever I’m speaking with to the logical conclusion based on the evidence – that this reform agenda is a corporate move to exploit our children as a source of economic gain and that doing so is absolutely morally reprehensible. Once I’ve got them to admit it in their own words, we can then being to have that KISS talk that you referenced…

      • I have tried that approach Bob, though I have felt I was being manipulative in that process, which didnt sit well with me… AND… with the people on whom I have tried that approach, they were also angry that I had manipulated them/backed them into a corner where they had to accept a truth they didnt want to hear; coming to it seemingly by their own process of thinking/clarifying didnt make it any easier for them to take on, own…. no one wants to be proved wrong, misguided, no matter how that conclusion is arrived at, it seems…

        I guess its different strokes for different folks/situations…. and I am impatient as I see time passing by and more and more vulnerable children being hurt by ed ‘reform’. I am frustrated by and tired of pandering to seemingly mature adults and their ‘feelings’, while children continue to be exploited.

    • “You earn your deviance credits by doing your job, and in return an organization is going to give you more leeway to dissent. Someone who is a constant dissenter within an organization, who skirts well-understood and defensible rules, and who does not contribute to the organizational whole in visible ways is going to be in trouble at work, no matter how often the person claims that any action taken by the employer is retaliation for dissent.”

      Constant noise becomes silence.

      Was told this was Boyd Bode, always dissented…and thus less impact than other, possibly lesser, thinkers…

  3. “Yes, my passion has often made me indistinguishable [to others] from the looneys.”

    So the Quixotic Quest to rid the world of educational standards, standardized testing and the sorting, separating and “grading” of students qualifies me as a looney??? (or is it the extra question marks???)

    Well think about what Wilson has to say about these educational malpractices:

    “It requires AN ENORMOUS SUSPENSION OF RATTONAL THINKING to believe that the best way to describe the complexity of any human achievement, any person’s skill in a complex field of human endeavour, is with a number that is determined by the number of test items they got correct. Yet so conditioned are we that IT TAKES A FEW MOMENTS OF STRICT LOGICAL REFLECTION TO APPRECIATE THE ABSURDITY OF THIS.”

    Is it my use of capitalization for effect or the continual citing of Wilson’s never rebutted nor refuted dissertation that make me a looney? or both or all three or four mentioned??? Are there more thing?

    I guess “That’s on me.”

    Excellent article, Paul! Thanks!


  4. Nicely done. The recognition element us useful to remember, particularly as an explanation for why there often seems to be no middle ground in these situations. If you see that you’re surrounded by zombies, panic and urgency seem appropriate. If you don’t see the zombies, there’s no urgency at all, and in fact it seems completely counterproductive.

    The tenor of the education argument has changed as more and more people see the zombies, but that doesn’t make them any less looney-seeming to those who don’t.

    It’s something I try to remember, and once tried to address in more pedestrian terms here:

    Thank you for this. It’s a nice, well laid out piece, and I will be referring back to it every time I feel a bit of froth about the lips.

  5. Pingback: The Analogy, Hyperbole Problem: “With explanation kind” (Tone, pt. 5) | the becoming radical

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s