Isn’t This What School Should Be About?

My chest swelled and I cried when I opened the text: “Her artwork is displayed in the hallway.”

Skylar 5K artwork

“Her” is my granddaughter, Skylar, in her first few weeks of 5K in the rural primary school serving my hometown. Skylar is biracial and her parents are divorced; her school sits in a relatively high-poverty area of Upstate South Carolina, about the 11th most impoverished state in the U.S. and a deeply inequitable state by economics, race, and gender.

Usually, still, Skylar climbs onto my lap or beside me on the couch, just to be physically against me; I often hold tightly one of her small feet or she hooks an arm through mine as if we are tumbling through space and she needs to make sure we are tethered together forever.

This past weekend I watched her play at a bounce house and party facility, there for my grandson’s (Brees) third birthday party. Skylar ran with earnestness to maintain pace with a some of the children, her friends, but balked at a few of the bounce houses.

She stood nervously at one before turning to me and asking, “Is it dangerous in there?”

At another bounce house earlier, she initially refused to go in, shuffling up against my legs and softly telling me she didn’t like it. Later, she scrambled in, and as she had on another trip there, became trapped so an older boy went in to help her.

She crawled out crying.

As I looked at this artwork of hers, I was reminded of the weekend party, the bounce houses and peer pressure that proved to be nearly unbearable delight and fright for my dearest granddaughter who I love far too much.

When my daughter began to light my grandson’s birthday cake, Skyler warned her to move the cake back with “Remember. Safety first.”

Skylar, you see, already exhibits some of the anxiety and hyper-awareness I know all too well. She is a deeply sensitive child who is powerfully drawn to and deeply wary of the world she inhabits.

She inspires in me as my daughter did the urge to lift her into my arms and hold her close to me. Forever.

Of course, that is not love and that is not even remotely desirable since it would be an act (literally or metaphorically) of denying this beautiful girl her full and complicated life.

As my existential self-education taught me, our passions are our sufferings; if we seek ways not to suffer, we then must abandon our passions.

My precious Skyler will hurt in her life, be disappointed in very real ways. That’s being fully human.

I am disappointed and even angry, however, that she like all children in the U.S. is being handed a country that remains far too calloused about children, girls and women, and the many inequities that much of the country simply pretends do not exist.

I am disappointed and even angry, however, that the schooling she can expect is almost never like her artwork being displayed in the hallways but more like a prison, or a hospital.

As I told a class last night, her 3K, 4K, and 5K experiences already contain assessments of her “readiness” and how well she meets standards—and ultimately, she must meet the demands of being on grade level for that most important grade of all, third.

Many loving, kind, and gifted teachers will work uncritically as agents of this terribly flawed educational system even as they show her their love and kindness. School, then, will be one of the things I cannot protect her from, one of the things that will hurt her.

Despite Skyler’s disadvantages of race, gender, and a fractured family, she has what Barbara Kingsolver calls a “family fortune” in the love and care offered by both sets of grandparents and access to race and economic privileges in that extended family.

I often look at Skylar and Brees, recognizing that Skyler will mostly be viewed as white (although people routinely mention her tan, even in the dead of winter) and Brees will mostly be viewed as black.

Sky and Brees

Their lives will remained colored by the centering of whiteness in the U.S., again something I cannot protect either of these children from.

Skylar will be pushed a little, or even a lot, behind boys just because she is a girl, and will likely grow up to earn a fraction of those some young men who more often than not are just a fraction of her.

So my heart ached at the bounce houses as I walked around just to keep an eye on her, just to be there when she wanted to say she was feeling shy or afraid.

And I cried when I saw the artwork now hanging in her school.

I am trying very hard with my grandchildren and reminded of the speaker in Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones”:

…Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world.

And then the end of Smith’s poem, mixed as it is with tortured optimism:

This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

As I look at the artwork of a 5-year-old child, I am left with a question as well: Isn’t this what school should be about?

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Rednecks, Hillbillies, and Crackers

Before my father graduated high school, he had a full set of false teeth. Finding—and later being able to afford—dentures that fit well were an important part of his life for sixty years.

Once his health began to deteriorate nearly as precipitously as his bank account in the last several years, that final set of dentures, lower quality and cost, made him look even less like himself than the disorienting transformation from aging and ill health—both making him enlarge, barrel-chested and swollen, as he simultaneously shrank in stature.

My father was a rough and rambunctious 1950s redneck growing up, losing teeth a few at a time from playing sports and the occasional fight. His dentist eventually decided to pull the last few and fit him with false teeth.

My mother, my sister, and I, then, never knew my father when he had teeth.

This was part of my 1960s childhood, a redneck life in Upstate South Carolina, my father’s home town. It seems fair to say that my mother was, as a North Carolinian raised mostly in Lexington and Lumberton, a hillbilly of sorts.

But theirs was no mixed marriage.

In fact, it took me many years, and well after I had moved out, to recognize the nuances of my parent’s slightly different Southern drawls and vocabulary. Both of my grandfathers had been painfully quiet men, although my maternal grandfather was equally painful in the slowness of his speech when he did (rarely) speak.

So I needed some distance to begin to acknowledge that this SC/NC couple had families who were often as unlike as like each other.

When my parents died a couple years ago, with those deaths shrouded in the ugliest possible consequences of an inadequate and inhumane healthcare system, I was pushed further into more fully and openly interrogating my redneck past.

Recently, I have been confronted, first, with Season 2 of Mindhunter focusing on the Atlanta child murders and the series’s characterization of KKK members, Georgia crackers, and next, with Ozark‘s fascination with distinguishing between rednecks and hillbillies.

 

Over the years, I have been exasperated often with the portrayal of white Southerners in the media, entertainment, and even popular memoirs (such as Hillbilly Elegy and Blood Done Signed My Name).

Those representations range along a spectrum of cartoonish to romanticized that deeply distorts both the humanity of those of us from the South as well as the many serious flaws that do persist among poor and working-class white Southerners.

As a lifelong Southern redneck who grew into social awareness and continues to wrestle with that redneck past against a deeply held moral imperative toward social justice, I am constantly faced with a paradox—seeking ways to defend the accurate, complex, and often deeply flawed white Southern characterization while in no way defending its historical and current racism, sexism, and homophobia.

I cannot express often enough the tragedy that is the self-defeating South.

With this newest focus by the two series above on redneck, hillbilly, and cracker, I have been thinking about my toothless father and the ugly stereotype of the toothless redneck/hillbilly/cracker.

The broader stereotype of white southerners is that we talk grammatically incorrect (therefore, we are stupid) and we are often poor.

These stereotypes expose deficit and misguided perceptions of both language and poverty, but it is the “toothless” slur that draws my attention now.

I hear fairly often about poor Southern whites that they have less sense than teeth, or something like that. And while watching Ozark fumble through their interest in distinguishing between rednecks and hillbillies, I have for the first time more clearly considered how damning the “toothless” slur is.

Being toothless among the poor has its roots in all sorts of inequity, mostly that poor and working-class Americans too often do not have access to affordable healthcare (including dental) or healthy food.

The “toothless” slur ignores that inequity but certainly reinforces the rugged individual myth: If only poor white trash would take care of their teeth!

Toothlessness is their shame, both cosmetic and as a sign of carelessness (if not the real ugly floor of all poverty shaming, laziness).

More recently than this Southern stereotype, this shaming of rednecks regardless of region, is the toothless meth addict, a characterization again grounded in shaming and perpetuating that the addict is solely to blame for the consequences of the addiction.

Watching both Mindhunter and Ozark, I think of my immediate family as well as the many, many rednecks of my life lived in SC. But I also have come to think very often of my toothless father.

With his better quality dentures and his crewcut, my father struck the pose of the handsome, hardworking white man of the mid-twentieth century South. He also believed in all of the great American myths about rugged individualism and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps as well as the ugliest racist and classist narratives that were ever-present in his community.

My father and mother did everything they could to maintain the veneer that they had no past in being poor and they were not working-class, but middle-class.

IMG_0716

Keith, Rose, Paul, and Eydie Thomas— the family.

Their paradox was that they did in fact have a hand in their own disturbing dying days that were greatly accelerated and worsened by a harsh society and inhumane government that they endorsed until their last breaths.

It feels too much like a Poe short story, my being sometimes haunted by my father’s last pair of dentures that made him look cartoonish and pitiful, only a faint glimmer of the man I knew as a child. A powerful and all-too-happy young man who grew into massive forearms and a constant refrain of “If I was any better, I couldn’t stand it” to anyone who asked how he was doing.

Until that last pair of dentures, I had lived with a different image, one recreated by the telling of stories by my father.

When I was very young, my father was play-wrestling with my mom (they were very playful young adults, together and with my sister and me). My mom feigned that she was in distress and called for me to help her.

Just a child, I ran over and kicked hard at my father’s head. He turned away untouched, covertly removed his false teeth, and then rolled back to confront me with a huge toothless grin.

I screamed and cried, as my father told the story, while my mom and dad laughed.

This was my childhood, but I cannot tolerate the romanticizing of white Southerners anymore than I can stomach the petty stereotypes driven by poverty shaming.

I have loved my parents and family very deeply while also being very angry at them and my hometown for all the hatred and the self-defeating politics.

Over the last few years, the media have become obsessed with struggling whites all across the U.S. Many are rednecks, hillbillies, and even crackers.

There is so much white fragility on display that I recognize now even more deeply how whites resist equity and hard truths in the U.S. while always hiding behind a very large and starkly white banner. Maybe “Christian nation” or simply “U.S.A.”

Or the most disturbing and red “Make America Great Again.”

Yes, there are distinctions among rednecks, hillbillies, and crackers—but those really do not matter as much as what they have in common, an inordinate power linked to their being white and an irrational anger toward a world finding ways to expose those privileges so that we can end them.

And walking through that world, I am the son of a toothless redneck.

From Thesis to Focus: In Pursuit of Coherence

Having spent nearly four decades teaching high school and college students to write, I have also during that time talked with and listened to many colleagues also either teaching writing or assigning writing in their courses.

As teachers are prone to do, these teachers often complain about their students; I am apt to argue that teachers of writing are even more prone to complaining because teaching writing is labor-intensive work that often fails to produce short-term evidence that the teaching has been effective.

If we don’t complain, well, there simply may not be enough wine to buoy us through the weekends and stacks upon stacks of essays.

While I have a great deal of compassion and empathy for all teachers, and especially teachers of writing, I often shudder at the usual complaints about “students today”—complaints that often are grounded in deficit views of students and misguided perceptions of what teaching writing means, much less what sorts of writing outcomes we should be expecting of teens and young adults.

Howe Professor and Director of Roger and Joyce Howe Center for Writing Excellence, Elizabeth Wardle offers four important challenges to the most common complaints about students as writers:

First, students are what they have always been: learners. There is no evidence that student writing over all is any better or worse than it has ever been. What is true is that faculty members have been complaining about student writing for as long as students have been writing….

Second, to improve as writers, students need to write frequently, for meaningful reasons, to readers who respond as actual readers do — with interest in ideas, puzzlement over lack of clarity or logic, and feedback about how to think more deeply and write more clearly to accomplish the writer’s purposes. There is no shortcut….

The third point: All writers struggle with new genres and conventions; learning to write in new situations always requires instruction and practice because there is no singular “writing in general” and certainly no singular “good” writing in general….

Which brings me to a final point: Teaching writing is everyone’s responsibility, but it’s not any one person’s responsibility to teach all kinds of writing. We are each responsible for helping students understand the written practices that we use in our fields and professions.

These are powerful broad challenges to some of the most common complaints I hear. Therefore, I want to focus here on her third point by addressing a persistent refrain from teachers of writing—students can’t (or don’t) write effective thesis statements.

While many K-12 and higher education teacher and professors uncritically view the thesis statement as an essential aspect of what Wardle refutes (“singular ‘good’ writing in general”), I do not teach students to write thesis sentences (within a broader effort to have them move beyond the introduction/body/conclusion template of the essay), but instead, we seek writing that develops a focus over the opening paragraphs (usually about 2-5 paragraphs) and an essay that has coherence.

This approach is grounded in helping students develop essay awareness along with a broader awareness of the many conventions of essays across academic disciplines as well as writing beyond the academy.

What guides this practice is, first, my experiences as a writer, and then important challenges to the negative consequences of thesis-driven writing offered by Duxbury and Ballinger.

But I also have students move away from the thesis sentence and toward focus and coherence because I witness in every course that most students have been misguided by the tyranny of the thesis sentence. Students write badly trying to accomplish the very thing many teachers complain they cannot do.

Most students in K-12 writing experiences have been required to submit an introduction and thesis before they can draft an essay. This practice ignores the power of discovery drafting but it also suggests that very young writers must always write from the perspective of making direct and fixed claims, to assume a stance of authority they simply do not (and cannot) have.

Conversely, especially for young writers still developing their awareness of writing craft, their understanding of conventions, and their content knowledge, writing that raises questions or interrogates ideas is far more compelling and effective than students making grand pronouncements beyond the scope of their authority.

And nearly all writers come to understand their focus while drafting because the best drafting is a form of thinking.

As a teacher of writing, I more often than not while responding to early drafts point to a sentence or two late in the essay and respond, “This is your opening,” because the student has wandered into a strong essay focus.

Focus and coherence, while both are complex concepts, prove to be better guiding principles than thesis sentences as well as stilted introductions and conclusions (the template approach found in the five-paragraph essay and its cousins).

Warner and many others note, however, that template writing (the five-paragraph essay) is both very bad writing and really lazy thinking. Few topics worthy of discussion, especially in formal education, can be neatly reduced to three points.

In the 1990 edition of Style, Joseph Williams dedicates two chapters to coherence because, as he explains:

All of us have stopped in the middle of a memo, an article, or a book realizing that while we may have understood its words and sentences, we don’t quite know what they should all add up to. …[W]e will offer some principles that will help you diagnose that kind of writing and then revise it. …No one or two of [the principles] is sufficient to make a reader feel a passage is coherent. They are a set of principles that writers have to orchestrate toward that common end.

Williams speaks here to the third point Wardle is making—that writers achieve “good writing” in many different ways to fulfill many different purposes.

As teachers of writing, we are left with helping students “orchestrate” the many and varied conventions, forms, and purposes that they face. But templates cannot and do not serve those needs.

Like the five-paragraph template, the thesis statement is a pale and flawed way for writers of any age to create and achieve focus and coherence.

Moving away from thesis sentences and toward writing that establishes focus and coherence can best be achieved by inviting students to draft as an act of discovery and allowing students to interrogate ideas instead of seeking ways to make fixed claims that they then must support.

All of this must be supported by helping students understand achieving coherence conceptually (principles) and then connecting those principles to craft and strategies that students mine from mentor texts and then apply (through experimentation) in their own original writing expressing their own original (and evolving) thinking.

Time to End the Charter School Distraction

The 21st century charter school movement in the U.S. has been at least a deeply flawed solution for a misunderstood problem. But charter advocacy has also suffered from a serious contradictory pair of arguments aimed simultaneously at traditional public schools (TPS) and charter schools.

As stringent high-stakes accountability gradually ramped up for TPS from the early 1980s and through both the George W. Bush No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era and the even more intense (and volatile) Obama administration, charter school advocacy increased, and those schools expanded across the U.S. driven by the argument that charter schools flourish because of their independence from bureaucratic mandates.

TPS suffered a series of ever-new standards and high-stakes tests, persistent narratives that they were “failing,” and a recalcitrant public and political leadership that refused to acknowledge the nearly crippling impact of social inequity on any school’s ability to effectively teach children.

Yet, at the same time, charter schools were routinely hailed falsely as “miracles” and neither the public nor political leadership seemed to care that research repeatedly revealed that charter schools simply did not outperform TPS (just as private schools do not outperform TPS). In short, charter schools have continued to float on advocacy and magical thinking even when we can clearly show that school type has nearly no impact on student outcomes—since those outcomes are far more significantly driven by out-of-school factors (home and community economic status, parental education levels, home security, access to food, medical care access, etc.).

Just as the Bush/Paige Texas “miracle” that spurred NCLB was soundly debunked, the Harlem “miracle” often cited by Obama/Duncan proved directly and indirectly (the many copy-cat charter “miracles” across the U.S., such as KIPP charter schools) to be mirages.

Like KIPP advocacy, however, the all-charter-school reality that has occurred in New Orleans after Katrina has also flourished on political and media misrepresentations.

An editorial in the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) has now offered one step in the right direction on charter schools in SC—but it fails to offer the only logical end-game concerning charter funding in this high-poverty state.

Yes, as the editorial notes after citing a Tulane study on charters [1]:

Closing failing charter schools is important because they receive millions of dollars in taxpayer funding that could otherwise be used to improve regular public schools. It’s essential because parents are led to believe that charter schools are superior to public schools, when in some cases they’re taking their kids out of traditional public schools that are better than the charter schools.

As I have detailed dozens of times directly about comparing charter schools and TPS in SC, most charter schools are about the same or worse than TPS that are serving similar populations of students. When charter schools appear to be outperforming, typically those gains are mirages that distract us from the real causal differences—under-serving special needs students, under-serving English language learners, expanded school days and/or years that account for the “growth” being measured, private funding, relief from accountability that comparable TPS must follow.

A simple dictum here is that if we allowed TPS those same caveats, we would see absolutely no surface differences in test scores; a more complicated dictum is that if charter schools had to function under the nearly paralyzing spectrum of obligations that TPS have always addressed, those charter schools would be seen as failures also.

The harsh truth no one wants to confront is that formal schooling, regardless of the type, has a very small measurable impact on student achievement when compared to the relatively larger influence of out-of-school factors. Related to that harsh truth is that once vulnerable students enter formal schooling, they far too often experience even greater inequities because all school models (TPS, charter schools, private schools) both reflect and perpetuate inequities in their policies (teacher assignment, tracking, disciplinary policies, class size and course access inequity, etc.).

As some of us in education have been arguing for decades, education reform must be grounded in equity and in-school reform can succeed only as a companion to significant social and economic reform that addresses food insecurity, work stability, health care, and safety (what I have called social context reform).

Again, the P&C editorial has offered an important charge that “South Carolina was never great at enforcing the responsibility requirement” for charter schools. But simply closing failing charter schools is not enough since we should not be creating charter schools to begin with.

In fact, we should close all charter schools because the charter churn (and all school choice) is a wasteful and politically cowardly indirect approach to reform.

SC is a historically high-poverty state that simultaneously clings to self-defeating conservative politics. Neither social/economic nor education policy in the state serves well the very large vulnerable populations of the state, not the adults or the children.

The political rhetoric and the ideology it spreads are themselves mirages at best, and cruel lies at worst.

New Orleans since 2005 has erased and replaced a TPS system with a charter system, and still the narrative remains about the exact same—schools need reform.

Formal schools regardless of the type reflect the children and communities they serve. Formal schools are rarely change agents.

If SC or any state genuinely wants education reform that serves all students, we will first invest in our entire state in ways that meet the needs of the most vulnerable among us and then we will re-invest in a public school system that fulfills the promise that every child has the greatest opportunity to learn that we can imagine.

Leaving equity in our society and our schools to the Invisible Hand is nothing more than a slap to the faces of the people and children who need us the most.


[1] This Tulane study has been repeatedly misrepresented by charter advocates; please see the following for a fuller and more complex picture of what that study can suggest, and what it does not:

Re-reading Faulkner in Trumplandia: “[H]is ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions”

Season 2 of Mindhunter focuses on the Atlanta child murders; in one scene investigators interrogate a local KKK member.

As a lifelong white Southern male, I found the characterization of that man—what many would call a Georgia cracker—to be unsettling. He is arrogant, self-assured, and able, as he declares, to wrangle his way out of any trouble.

What is off, I think, is that in real life this type of poor Southern white man is an odd but distinct combination of embarrassed arrogance. They are stubbornly self-assured—and completely un-self-aware. But they are also painfully laconic, and if you look carefully, they often become flushed, the blood rising in their necks and faces as they swell with both anger and embarrassment.

In the audio of the wiretap that leads to this KKK member being interrogated, there are hints that Mindhunter is softening the characterizations (that dialogue, and the verb usage, is far too formal) so the scene that bothers me seems to be a reasonable cinematic decision—although it fits into a current narrative about white men now who seem to be afraid of losing status that they never deserved in the first place.

Within a couple days of watching that scene, I happened to finally view Burning, a celebrated Korean film based on Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” which is the Japanese author’s take on William Faulkner’s story of the same name.

After seeing the film, I decided to re-read both Faulkner’s and Murakami’s stories.

My experiences with Faulkner began flatly in high school, “The Bear,” and then more seriously in a Southern literature course where I found myself deeply embarrassed and suddenly aware of how much I did not know as a junior English education major. Immediately after I graduated college at the end of the first semester of my fifth year, I set out to read everything by Faulkner as I spent several month substitute teaching and doing a long-term sub—all while applying for what I hoped would be my first teaching job that coming fall.

Faulkner then provided for me, still deeply uncritical, an influential combination of modernism filtered through a deeply familiar Southern voice; there was much there that was technically and verbally dazzling (or so it seemed to me as a twenty-something want-to-be writer and teacher).

In 2019 Trumplandia, however, as I rapidly approach 60, I found a much different Faulkner in my re-reading of “Barn Burning”—one now informed by, for example, James Baldwin’s confrontation of Faulkner and the uncomfortable reality that even my well-educated friends now lament that times are really hard for white men in this #MeToo era.

If you are not from the South and you want to understand my opening concerns about the absence of the embarrassed arrogance in the KKK member being interrogated, or if you can’t quite grasp yet who Trump voters are, I suggest you wade into Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” to witness Abner Snopes. A few pages in, readers have the central character of Snopes detailed:

There was something about his wolf-like independence and even courage when the advantage was at least neutral which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his.

And later in the story, once the family has been once again relocated because of the father’s serial criminality, Abner Snopes chastises is young son Sarty (the eyes of the story) for nearly betraying his father in court:

“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat?”

You will witness Snopes go before the Justice of the Peace twice, quite guilty both time and quite determined that he should not be punished because his actions, to him, are entirely justified—both the burning of a barn and tracking horse manure across the rug when he arrives at Major de Spain’s farm. Snopes is all rugged individual (“wolf-like independence”) and white nationalism/tribalism (“‘your own blood'”) bundled into Southern embarrassed arrogance.

Few things anger many poor white males in the South more than questioning or challenging their honor code, a code wrapped in white nationalism; Snopes rations out his justice and expects everyone else to step aside, recognize its authority.

Re-reading the story also revealed to me how Faulkner incorporates a distinct element of materialism to the theme of individual versus communal justice. Snopes destroys the property of those wealthier than him to assert his dominance in the same way Snopes uses racial slurs about and at black characters in the story.

Snopes is just as domineering with his family, the women and children subject to his verbal and physical wrath, his expected but unpredictable lashing out. Snopes desperately clings to the mythical fiefdom he has manufactured thoughtlessly in his mind.

Faulkner’s story ends with the boy’s sense of “‘truth, justice'” finally coming to a deadly climax with his father’s barn burning, but even as the boy feels compelled to betray his father, his blood, Sarty cannot rise above the engrained but distorted myth of his father:

Father. My father, he thought. “He was brave!” he cried suddenly, aloud but not loud, no more than a whisper: “He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty—it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.

As Faulkner is apt to do often, the story reveals itself as one of the self-defeating South, where pride in tradition fails any reasonable effort to ground that pride in an ethical unpacking of the past.

Today the laconic embarrassed arrogance has shifted to rants on social media defending the Confederate Flag and arguing that the South fought the Civil War for state’s rights or wildly claiming many blacks fought in Confederate uniforms in that sacred war.

Especially in 2019, both Murakami’s story and the film adaptation help put Faulkner’s story and today’s angry white men in a sharp relief.

Murakami tends to traffic in disassociated men, what can be misinterpreted as sympathetic narratives about the male condition. His “Barn Burning” is steeped in the naive narrator (the film directly mentions The Great Gatsby, but those familiar with Murakami’s work can feel a sort of Nick narrator in this story, fascinated with the mysterious and wealthy boyfriend who appears with the younger woman at the center of the story).

Barn burning is the surprising confession by that mysterious new boyfriend, who decides to confide in the narrator and give the story both an air of mystery and a much more ambiguous (although still detached) moral center than Faulkner’s stark display of Southern honor:

“I’m not judging anything. They’re waiting to be burned. I’m simply obliging. You get it? I’m just taking on what’s there. Just like the rain….Well, all right, does this make me immoral? In my own way, I’d like to believe I’ve got my own morals. And that’s an extremely important force in human existence. A person can’t exist without morals.”

This self-identified barn burner, then, is a more expressive Abner Snopes, and Murakami’s version is far more ambiguous about the barn burnings and how the reader is supposed to judge, or not, the three main characters—the married narrator, the twenty-year-old woman involved with both men (and who falls asleep easily), and the new boyfriend who flatly states he burns barns.

Another twist added by Murakami is when the narrator confronts the barn burner about not being able to find the most recently burned barn: “‘All I can say is, you must have missed it. Does happen you know. Things so close up, they don’t even register.'”

A brief exchange but, I think, a valuable commentary on anyone’s lack of self-awareness—the inability see the things so close up but that still drive who we are, what we do, and how we navigate the world as if our morals are the right ones.

Murakami leaves the reader with more unanswered, however, capturing some of the indirect and ambiguous also lingering at the end of Faulkner’s story.

[Spoiler alert for the film Burning.]

And this brings me to the film adaptation that moves beyond Faulkner’s modernist and Murakami’s post-modernist tendencies.

In the film, the barn burning mystery (transposed to burning greenhouses) becomes a frame for the new boyfriend being a serial murderer and the central character being pushed himself into asserting violently his own moral code.

The movie adaptation steers the viewer into a psychological mystery. As we watch along with the central character, Lee Jong-su, a disturbing picture develop. Ben declares to his new girlfriend, after Shin Hae-mi has disappeared, that burning greenhouses is merely a metaphor (that the viewers and Jong-su recognize as a metaphor for his being a serial murderer of young women).

To work through Faulkner to Murakami to Burning is more than a journey through literary/film theory and genre/medium. This an exercise is coming to recognize the very real and violent consequences of the anger that rises in men of a certain type (maybe, as the film suggests, all men) who cling to their individualistic moral codes to the exclusion of everyone else.

These are not just the men of a short story or movie; these are the agents of mass shootings and the daily terrors of domestic violence and sexual aggression and assault.

As a white man from the South, I struggle with the sharp awareness that the tension in Sarty between some larger communal ethics and the myth of this father remains a reality for young men in 2019. I also fear that the new narrative that the world is becoming too hard for men is very fertile ground for the sort of unbridled arrogance and violence that pervades the U.S.

Faulkner’s story ends in allusion. The barn burning blazes behind Sarty, who understands what the gun fire he hears confirms. Yet, he walks away, and “[h]e did not look back.”

If Faulkner is being hopeful here, I cannot muster that same optimism today.

See Also

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

A Reckoning for the Inexcusable?: “No Excuses” and the Collapse of Misguided Educational Reform

Valerie Strauss has offered questions at The Answer Sheet: Some ‘no-excuses’ charter schools say they are changing. Are they? Can they?—including an answer by Mira Debs, Joanne Golann, and Chris Torres.

As a long-time critic of “no excuses” (and the target of harsh backlash for that criticism), I want here to note briefly that this apparent reckoning for “no excuses” practices in the education of mostly black, brown, and poor students is yet another piece of the developing puzzle that will create a clear picture of the predicted failures of educational reform begun under Ronald Reagan and then expanded under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Pet elements of that educational reform movement have come and gone (value-added methods for evaluating teachers [VAM], Common Core), but the foundational approaches (accountability grounded in standards and high-stakes testing) seem deeply entrenched and confirmation of the cliche about insanity (doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results).

Just glancing at my public work, I have over 70 posts criticizing “no excuses” as a deficit perspective, as racist and classist, and as a distraction from addressing the larger causes for low achievement by vulnerable populations of students.

A good portion of that scholarship and advocacy led to an edited volume that both critiques “no excuses” and offers an alternative (that was often ignored or rejected with false claims about the ideology behind social context reform): Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity, edited by Paul Thomas, Brad J. Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, and Paul R. Carr.

The distinction between the flawed “no excuses” approaches and our alternative focusing on equity and opportunity both outside and inside schools is identified in the Introduction (see also my Chapter 8):

“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of [their] making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which . . . effort will result in success.

Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security. (Thomas, 2011b, emphasis in the original)

While I am once again frustrated with this current concession to the many credible concerns my colleagues and I raised several years ago, I am also skeptical about reforming “no excuses.” The questions raised on The Answer Sheet failed to include “Should they?”

And to that, I would answer, “No.”

The charter movement broadly is flawed, and the “no excuses” subset of that movement is irreparable because it is driven by a corrosive ideology based in a deficit perspective of children, poverty, and teaching and learning.

Just as the accountability movement, VAM, and charter schools have never achieved the promises advocates have made, they have consumed a tremendous amount of resources (funding and time) that would have been better used in the service of equity and opportunity.

Reforming the reform is more distraction, and wasted time and funding.

As I have detailed time and again, if we genuinely want high-quality and effective formal education for all students, and if we genuinely believe universal education is a powerful lever in promoting and maintaining a democracy and a free people, we must set aside the indirect approaches (the totality of the education reform movement) and begin to address directly [1] both out-of-school factors and in-school factors that perpetuate and maintain inequity.

I am also skeptical because I have witnessed in just the last few days on social media that advocates for in-school only and “no excuses” reform continue to double-down on their false claims of “miracle” schools and lash out (still) at critics of “no excuses” with ugly and false characterizations of our beliefs and our goals.

So as I concluded in my debunking of “miracle” schools, I remain committed to this:

[D]ishonest claims of “miracles” have continued to reap tremendous political, person, and financial gains for some. The accountability era has failed. The focus on “miracle” schools has been a distraction from the rising inequity in the lives and education of children in the U.S. This is a distraction we measure in the loss of children’s lives, the opportunities and contributions denied to our society, and a great loss to democracy. These are losses we can no longer afford to tolerate.

The ultimate reckoning for the inexcusable, then, must include setting aside the distractions and facing so that we can address directly the inequities that plague our students and their families both in their communities and the schools that serve them.


[1] The failure of indirect methods and the need for direct methods is drawn from an often ignored argument from Martin Luther King Jr. concerning eradicating poverty in the U.S.:

At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect [emphasis added]. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly [emphasis added] by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Teaching First-Year Students Includes More than Disciplinary Content, Skills

I have two vivid memories of my father—one when I was an older child, the other when I was a teen.

Walking down Main Street of my hometown, my father and I stopped to talk to an adult, and when I didn’t respond with the obligatory “yes, sir,” my father slapped me hard across the face.

Years later, my father was playing in a pick-up basketball game on our home court with my teenaged friends and me. During the game, I crossed the respect line with him and he turned to once again hit me hard across the face—in front of all my friends.

I was raised that children were to be seen and not heard, and all child interaction with adults had to include “sir” and “ma’am.”

Eventually as I grew into roles of authority—teacher, coach, and parent—I took on a much different lesson than my father had intended; I am extremely informal in my clothing and speech, and I avoid formal situations like the plague (because they literally make me feel ill, triggering my anxiety).

Especially as a teacher and coach, I have always worked very hard to treat children and young people with full human dignity and respect; that is something I always wanted as a young person, and those adults who showed me that respect remain important in my life.

In short, while I think all people regardless of age should treat each other with something like respect (for our collective humanity, but not roles such as authority), I also believe that anyone in a position of authority should earn the sort of trust that comes with that authority.

I don’t want students to respect me as their teacher simply because of my status, but because I have the qualities that position represents, characteristics that they in fact respect.

As the academic year is beginning again for many of us in all levels of education, these thoughts were triggered by a Twitter thread and a powerful piece on inclusive teaching.

The thread began:

And some of the replies include:

And then I added:

This exchange, I think, fits well with Sathy and Hogan’s framing of inclusive teaching:

Besides teaching content and skills in your discipline, your role is to help students learn. And not just some students. The changing demographics of higher education mean that undergraduates come to you with a wide variety of experiences, cultures, abilities, skills, and personalities. You have an opportunity to take that mix and produce a diverse set of thinkers and problem-solvers.

Teaching inclusively means embracing student diversity in all forms — race, ethnicity, gender, disability, socioeconomic background, ideology, even personality traits like introversion — as an asset. It means designing and teaching courses in ways that foster talent in all students, but especially those who come from groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education.

Since I currently teach two first-year writing seminars and typically have several first-year students in my other courses—and I have been working directly in several committees on diversity and inclusion at my university—I see a strong connection between every professor’s role in teaching beyond what the academic obligations are in each course and the discussion of students emailing professors.

This is especially true for helping students transition from high school into higher education.

My university is a selective liberal arts college with a relatively homogenous student body, often white and relatively affluent.

Although I came from a working-class background, my students tend to function in ways that would make my father proud; they are quite deferent and formal with professors.

Unlike my own upbringing, their ways of navigating adults and people in authority have more to do with spoken and unspoken rules about social capital; none the less, they tend to do the face-to-face “sir” and “ma’am” routines flawlessly.

However, these students often have limited experiences interacting with teachers through email so the concerns raised in the Twitter thread are elements of my teaching I have had to develop once I moved from teaching high school English into higher education.

Here I want to emphasize that something seemingly as superficial as teaching students how to email professors can and should be a central lesson in fostering student awareness about diversity and inclusion.

As I noted in my Twitter response, I have been properly checked in the past about my own tendency to be informal. For women, people of color, and internationals, academia often remains a constant reminder that anyone not white and male exists in marginalized spaces.

Women faculty report often that students and others seeing them in their department spaces assume these women professors to be secretarial staff; people of color have reported equally erasing experiences with similar interactions.

The micro-aggressions of sexism and racism accumulate and overwhelm over time; these experiences do not envelope the profession and lives of white males, who receive immediate deference and assumptions of “Dr.” and “professor.”

The casual email to an early-career women professor sits in these moment-by-moment micro-aggressions while white men of academia can foster low-key and informal relationships both face-to-face and through email with their students; but the latter is one more example of the advantages of privilege.

Yes, I will talk to my first-year (and all) students about emailing their professors. I will couch that in discussing, for example, that student evaluations of teaching (a process first-year students also have little or no experience with) have been shown to perpetuate sexist and racist attitudes by students and then to further entrench sexism and racism (as well as xenophobia) in the academy through tenure and promotion processes.

We will address as well respectability politics and how to navigate that against the norms of student/professor interactions.

Class session will also include exploring “Ms.” versus “Miss/Mrs.” and the rise of gender neutral, singular uses of “they” and people’s pronoun preferences.

My broad goals as a professor in all of my courses attempt to meet Sathy and Hogan’s charge that our teaching is about more than disciplinary content and skills, and that our teaching must be for all students, not simply those who already match our biases and assumptions.

For me, then, I seek to raise my students’ awareness, as opposed to seeking ways for them to acquire a set of skills that I mandate for them.

I want my students to recognize that they are always political beings, interacting with and negotiating a world driven by power dynamics (many of which are historically and inherently inequitable).

Women, people of color, and internationals—whether students or faculty—cannot take vacations from who they are and how that status fits into a world normalized as white and male.

Those of us white and male, unless we make efforts to do otherwise, can function as if our privileges do not exist; they can be invisible to us.

I have deep and personal reasons for wanting my students to interact with me in informal ways that include all of us treating everyone with dignity and kindness. I still shudder a bit at “sir” and even “Dr. Thomas.”

Ultimately, I am not asking my students to adopt some mandate or even to take on a veneer with their professors. I am introducing my students to greater awareness about how all humans interact and how those interactions conform to (or resist) conventional assumptions—norms that are likely to be inequitable, likely to perpetuate sexism, racism, and xenophobia unless everyone becomes aware and actively resists those norms.

All of this, I think, speaks to the first “common question” about (resistance to) inclusive teaching answered by Sathy and Hogan:

I don’t teach about diversity. What does diversity have to do with my course, and why should I care? 

Some instructors make the mistake of equating inclusive teaching with introducing current events or “diversity issues” into, say, a math course. Of course you should offer diverse content, texts, guest speakers, and so on, where they’re relevant, and there’s been plenty of talk about that in academe. But when we talk about teaching inclusively, we choose to focus on the teaching methods that apply to all courses.

In short, all students and their teachers are always navigating political spaces in the formal classroom, and all teachers at every level are obligated to teach inclusively because of that reality.

The first-year student often walks, speaks, and writes through their lives thoughtlessly. My role as their professor is to give them the opportunity to pause, step back, and begin again with purpose and awareness—as a human who wants and deserves their humanity dignity and as a human seeking to live their lives in ways that honor that in everyone else.