I am a child of literature, more specifically of science fiction.

As a result, I am also a child of allegory, metaphor, and the richness of layered language.

Smitten as a reader, I eventually—and predictably—looked in the mirror and saw a writer. For almost four decades now, I have been chasing that image in the mirror, that writer I hope to be.

So when I write—mostly non-fiction, mostly essays addressing issues related to education, poverty, race, and class—I am channeling the science fiction novelist I long(ed) to be. Some Vonnegut, some Atwood, some Bradbury—laced with Ellison and cummings and Dickinson as well as Salinger and a relentless pursuit of Baldwin’s passion, bravery, and incisiveness.

So in my blogging and scholarship, I am apt to confront the conditions of teachers as worker in the context of Cloud Atlas‘s thematic exploration of slavery, calling the current state of workers in the U.S. “wage-slavery.”

I write as I live—with anger and passion.

But I also write as I live—in a constant state of critical reflection. My anxieties are many, but one constant is the anxiety that I have failed the ultimate goal in some small or even significant way.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. [1]

Nancy Flanagan has recently blogged about Monstrous Labels (see Part I and Part II), raising hard questions about the sorts of analogies and hyperbole that exist in the education reform debate. Flanagan is confronting another aspect of the tone debate I have been wrestling with for some time [2]:

Clearly, everyone who writes about the existence and meaning of cultural holocausts–including The Holocaust–must bow to the experience of the ones who lived it. Our only possible ethical response, however, is to try to take the sacrifices made in humanity’s historical tragedies and make them sacred, through remembrance and honor.

That’s an enormously difficult thing to do, fraught with false equivalencies and cultural misappropriation. But is it wrong? When you’re faced with what Jeff Bryant–correctly, in my opinion–labels an “existential threat” to an essential cornerstone of democratic equality, public education, is it immoral to call up the spirit of other existential threats to democracy, other weapons of human destruction?

On Twitter, Flanagan engaged Jose Vilson about the problems with misappropriations, further emphasizing how efforts to stress the importance of education reform issues to a lay public is fraught with substantive dangers and unintended consequences—ones that often serve to work against the good intentions of those making their cases.

If I have learned anything from committing to my own blog space and actively participating on Twitter and in the public sphere, my resistance to bowing to tone complaints and my effort to engage the public effectively are often now at odds because of the rising and stringent misinformed voices that too often are indistinguishable from informed voices (and I am pointing a finger here at me).

To put it briefly, if I can be mistaken by the public as little different in substance and tone for Glenn Beck or Michelle Malkin, I have failed miserably. That failure rests on my belief that expertise and experience are often lacking in deciding education policy, and therefore, I want to offer a voice of expertise and experience clearly distinguishable from the Beck/Malkin populism and libertarian fear-mongering.

So Flanagan’s question and Vilson’s warnings about misappropriations are important and powerful—and ultimately troubling.

All along the ideological spectrum, education reform commentary includes direct and indirect references to the Holocaust (and even Hitler), U.S. slavery, child abuse, and prisons—just to name a few analogies and uses of hyperbole.

In my 30+ years of teaching, I have heard numerous students call school prison; that may be one of the most common analogies uttered by students (even those not in schools with armed police and metal detectors).

In light of Flanagan’s question and Vilson’s warning, then, when I confront my own work—in blogs and scholarly publications—I must begin to examine more closely the very thin line between illuminating analogy and misappropriation. Here, then, are some guiding ideas and questions for keeping the discourse from failing our goals despite our good intentions:

  • Invoking or comparing a contemporary situation to a historical scar of the magnitude of the Holocaust or U.S. slavery (just to note two) likely fails both that magnitude and the importance of the contemporary situation.
  • When tone complaints come from people of privilege, I will not allow the conversation to start with tone. When tone and misappropriation concerns are raised by marginalized and oppressed groups, the concern must be addressed.
  • That said, it is not the responsibility of marginalized and oppressed groups to police inappropriate tone or misappropriations. That is the responsibility of everyone making public claims and commentary. For me, this is my responsibility—one I have stumbled over, I am sure, but one that I can make amends for from this moment forward.
  • Hindsight is 20/20 so the power of analogy and hyperbole is to force people to take off contemporary blinders in order to see (this is the power of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s 1984—and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible). But we must always ask: At what cost this analogy, this hyperbole? In short, if the contemporary situation is as dire as we recognize, we must seek ways in which to demand attention for that in its own right.
  • The road to hell is paved with good intentions.


Is the use of high-stakes testing in kindergarten child abuse?

Are zero tolerance policies, police in the hallways, and metal detectors creating schools as prisons?

Is mass incarceration the New Jim Crow?

Have U.S. workers been reduced to wage-slaves?

I think we must all ask ourselves at what cost are we making these claims, and we must be able to see and hear these claims through the eyes and ears of those who may not immediately see the difference between what we hope to accomplish and those who hold up posters of George W. Bush or Barack Obama as Hitler.

When people see no difference, we have lost something very important, and something precious.

When we offend the marginalized and oppressed as if they do not exist, we certainly have little room to criticize anyone about anything.

The privilege of having a voice must be tempered with humility, by honoring the dignity of everyone and by having the empathy to walk in someone else’s shoes, to live in someone else’s skin, to honor someone else’s past.

It may be best when we seek the truth that we also include “With explanation kind.”

Tell all the truth but tell it slant — (1263)

by Emily Dickinson

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

[1] Possibly one of the best passages from a novel is “‘Road to hell paved with unbought stuffed dogs'” from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

[2] See for example:

Tone, pt. 1: Does Tone Matter in the Education Reform Debate?

Tone, pt. 2: On “Hostile Rhetoric,” Laziness, and the Education Debate

Tone, pt. 3: Mirror, Mirror

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