Students, Not Standards: Calling for Solidarity in 2016

Many years ago, I was sitting in the last class session of the capstone secondary ELA methods course as part of my M.Ed. The guest speaker that day was my high school English teacher, the man responsible for my primary career path, Lynn Harrill.

Lynn was friends with the professor, who was then working at the state department of education, I believe.

Toward the end of the class, the professor asked what we wanted our students to know when they left our classes. That question was followed by lingering silence.

Ever the eager student, I said, “I want them to know themselves,” and I caught a glimpse of Lynn smiling widely.

Of course, that is what Lynn had taught me, although most people probably assumed it was reading and writing Lynn had so expertly given his students (which, by the way, was also true).

This moment—one of a very idealistic and naive young teacher, me—comes back to me often, and despite my many failures as a teacher, that grounding goal has always guided me. Not to be simplistic, but I teach students—that’s why I teach.

While reading Four Stories That Homework Tells Children About School, Learning, & Life, I was struck by “STORY #3: School Is More Important Than Other Pursuits/Interests/Activities.”

And now I have to investigate that memory again.

Yes, Lynn Harrill changed my life by being my sophomore and junior English teacher in high school. He was gracious, kind, and encouraging to a deeply insecure and anxious teen (me) who had decided he was a math and science person—because that is what school had told me.

Junior high English classes had been mostly draconian English teachers, grammar book exercises, and diagramming sentences. The “English” content of those classes was easy (I made As), but I loathed it all, even the texts we were assigned to read (much of which we did not read).

Now, before I launch into whining, let me be clear that my story is about how school failed me—but that because of my tremendous privilege (white, male and—according to traditional schooling and standardized tests—high verbal and mathematical intelligence), the consequences of those failures were miniscule. I attended college and continued to make As (easily), leading to an MEd and EdD.

I share this, then, not to bemoan poor pitiful me (or to brag), but to highlight that schools often fail students in ways we do not acknowledge and that the consequences for those students who need schooling most are monumental.

While I was begrudgingly playing school and succeeding, at home I was engaged in a rich array of hobbies and interests that school not only ignored, but also indirectly refuted (even Lynn told me as a 10th grader I needed to stop reading science fiction [SF] and start reading real literature such as Fitzgerald).

I was collecting, reading, and drawing from thousands of Marvel comic books. I was voraciously listening to popular music and studying the lyrics. And I was doing the same with comedy albums, mostly George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

My reading life, as I noted above, was Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Arthur C. Clarke, and whatever works were prompted by my mother’s SF film fascination. I fell in love with The Andromeda Strain because of the film, and much of my formative life was driven by the five Planet of the Apes films and TV’s Star Trek.

My response to the real literature endorsed by Lynn was tepid (but always the mama’s boy, I did as teachers told me to do), but my life was irrevocably changed when he also recommended writers I would never be assigned in the rural South of the 1970s—notably D.H. Lawrence.

Well, damn, I thought. This is literature?

My journey from student to teacher began in my sophomore year of high school as I began to untangle the false narratives school had taught me and came to embrace the authentic narratives of my real life, my real Self, outside of school.

More than a decade into my teaching career (in the position Lynn left at my high school) and in the same doctoral program Lynn had completed, I finally discovered critical pedagogy as the complete vision of student-centered teaching and learning I had been haphazardly practicing.

Regretfully, my entire career as an educator (18 years as a high school ELA teacher and then 14 more years, and counting, as an English educator and first-year writing professor) has occurred under the antithesis of student-centered critical education—the high-stakes accountability movement.

All of which, ironically, I have been prepared for by the very reading material school marginalized, science fiction and dystopian fiction.

Standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability fail students, fail teachers. They conspire to do exactly what homework accomplishes in story #3 above.

I cannot step away form this: I must teach those students placed in my care, and that duty requires me to find out who they are, what they know, and what they want so that we can work together so that they find who they are and who they want to be.

So, I wonder with the new year, and the allure of resolutions—who is with me in 2016? Can we make this about students and not standards, not tests?

See Also

Doubling Down (Again) by Reverting, Not Changing: The Exponential Failures of Education Legislation

Teacher Quality, Wiggins and Hattie: More Doing the Wrong Things the Right Ways

More on Evidence-Based Practice: The Tyranny of Technocrats

Beware the Technocrats: More on the Reading Wars

I Don’t Need Standards To Teach, I Need Students

Are Common Core and Testing Debates “Two Different Matters”?

Confronting Privilege in the New Year: “when you’ve been used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice”

A former student and current wonderful early-career teacher texted me yesterday because someone had shared with her the inane “I’m not going to apologize for my white privilege” article that is all the rage among white privilege deniers.

Nearly as disturbing as the pervasive and corrosive influence of racism is the reality that the more whites are confronted with evidence of white privilege and racism, the more likely whites are to cling to their denial. Research from 2015 confirms:

What happens when people are faced with evidence that their group benefits from privilege? We suggest such evidence will be threatening and that people will claim hardships to manage this threat. These claims of hardship allow individuals to deny that they personally benefit from privilege, while still accepting that group-level inequity exists. Experiments 1a and 1b show that Whites exposed to evidence of racial privilege claim to have suffered more personal life hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege.

Throughout 2015, I have been cataloguing the overwhelming evidence of white privilege and racism, but I am discouraged about both the abundance of that evidence and the ineffectiveness of presenting it to those clinging fervently to their white denial.

Humans are drawn to patterns, both the recognition of patterns and the creation of patterns. Maybe anthropologists and sociologists would argue that in part that attraction is about survival and comfort. I suspect this pattern fetish in humans is also at the root of seeking out others like us (see any school lunch room where students are allowed to sit where they please), and I fear it is also the foundation for the very worst of humans—our racism, sexism, classism, and seething anger at the Other.

This is not some historical low point of human history—U.S. slavery, the Holocaust, the Japanese internment—but a seemingly credible point of debate among presidential hopefuls and their supporters who are calling from banning Muslims from U.S. soil.

And as the hashtags have continued to increase (#BlackLivesMatter, #TamirRice, and then too, too many to list) so has the backlash, the denial—just as the research above confirms.

We stand at the cusp of one of our greatest pattern urges, the arbitrary designating of the passing of time. Soon a new year will be upon the West (yes, even the calendar is a force of privilege, a way to mask subjectivity as objective, universal), and at least one voice has suggested there is hope: “I believe – I hope – that a great rewriting is slowly, surely underway,” writes Laurie Penny.

Penny’s examination of the latest Star Wars film offers a much more detailed and powerful investigation than my own look at The Martian, but we do tread similar ground; notably Penny explains:

The people who are upset that the faces of fiction are changing are right to worry. It’s a fundamental challenge to a worldview that’s been too comfortable for too long. The part of our cultural imagination that places white Western men at the centre of every story is the same part that legitimises racism and sexism. The part of our collective mythos that encourages every girl and brown boy to identify and empathise with white male heroes is the same part that reacts with rage when white boys are asked to imagine themselves in anyone else’s shoes.

I struggle to share Penny’s optimism—because of the horrifying specter of the unfathomable nastiness in both our presidential politics and our pop culture, both of which expose the “white interpretive horizon.”

Yet, I think Penny makes a powerful observation that may be the key to believing change is upon us:

Let’s not get carried away here. These stories and retellings are still exceptions. Women are still paid less, respected less and promoted less at almost every level of every creative industry. For every Jessica Jones there’s a Daredevil, whose female characters exist solely to get rescued, provide the protagonists with some pneumatic exposition, or both. For every Orphan Black there’s Mr Robot and Narcos and you know, sometimes I wonder if perhaps I watch too much television. The point is that what we have right now isn’t equality yet. It’s nothing like equality. But it’s still enough to enrage the old guard because when you’ve been used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice. [emphasis added]

White privilege is an iceberg; very little is visible above the surface, and for those of us with that privilege, it is ours to interrogate what lies beneath in order to understand and dismantle it.

“I came to explore the wreck,” explains the speaker of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck”:

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth

As Penny explains when unpacking “[t]he rage that white men have been expressing, loudly, violently”:

Like a screaming toddler denied a sweet, it becomes more righteous the more it reminds itself that after all, it’s only a story.

Only a story. Only the things we tell to keep out the darkness. Only the myths and fables that save us from despair, to establish power and destroy it, to teach each other how to be good, to describe the limits of desire, to keep us breathing and fighting and yearning and striving when it’d be so much easier to give in. Only the constitutive ingredients of every human society since the Stone age.

Only a story. Only the most important thing in the whole world.

This is our wreck, a story of a people blinded by the myth of meritocracy while steering the ship headlong into the iceberg we pretend isn’t there.

We must write better stories, fictional and real. A new year is arbitrary, yes, but it serves us well to listen to the refrain “the time is always now.”

See Also

What to do when you’re not the hero any more, Laurie Penny

On Nerd Entitlement, Laurie Penny

Hello from the same side, Robin James

The horrifying lesson of Tamir Rice: White America will use “objectivity” to justify the murder of black children, Brittney Cooper

Confronting Privilege to Teach about Privilege

Bearing Witness: Hypocrisy, Not Ideology

Responsibilities of Privilege: Bearing Witness, pt. 2

White Denial

High Cost of White Denial (Updated)

 

Mainstream Media in (Perpetual) Crisis: More Education Meat Grinder

“‘Only four out of ten U.S. children finish high school, only one out of five who finish high school goes to college’”: This spells doom for the U.S. economy, or to be more accurate, this spelled doom for the U.S. economy.

Except it didn’t, of course, as it is a quote in a 1947 issue of Time from John Ward Studebaker, a former school superintendent who served as U.S. Commissioner of Education (analogous to today’s Secretary of Education) in the mid-1940s.

Jump forward to 26 December 2015 and The New York TimesAs Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short. Motoko Rich, as in the Time article, builds her case on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as Susan Ohanian confronts:

Here’s a front page. above-the-fold New York Times non-story that’s a perfect depiction of damning schools every-which-way. Schools with low graduation rates are depicted as failures; improve graduation rates, and then the diplomas they’re handing out are judged to have no meaning. And the Times gives the departing Secretary of Education star billing on this issue.

Quotation of the Day
The goal is not just high school graduation. The goal is being truly college and career ready.

–ARNE DUNCAN, the departing secretary of
education, on the United States 82 percent graduation rate in 2013-14, the highest on record.–New York Times, Dec. 27, 2015

Along with the meat grinder of incessantly new high-stakes accountability standards and testing over the past thirty-plus years, U.S. public education has been demonized since the mid-1900s and relentlessly framed within crisis discourse by the mainstream media for a century.

Rich’s cover piece spends an inordinate amount of energy to twist public schools into that crisis image while making no effort to investigate or challenge Duncan (a life-long appointee with no expertise in education and no credibility as a leader in education) or to unpack the stale platitudes and unsubstantiated claims about education reaching back at least to the Time article.

Duncan and Rich share, in fact, no experience or education in teaching as well as the disproportionate power of their voices in the field despite that lack of expertise.

On the other hand, I taught public high school English in rural South Carolina (not far from the school Rich highlights), have been an educator in SC over 30 years total, have a doctorate in education that emphasized the history of the field, and now am a teacher educator at a university just a couple miles from the school in Rich’s piece (I know teachers there, and have had several teacher candidates placed there for field work). As well, I taught journalism and was the faculty sponsor of the school newspaper, and have been a professional writer for about the same amount of time as I have been teaching, including writing and publishing a good deal of journalism (mostly about education).

This is not, however, an attack on Duncan or Rich—because they are not unique but typical of the mismatch of high-level voice with a lack of expertise.

Mainstream media appear fatally wed to only one version of the U.S. public education story: crisis.

And thus, journalists reach out to the same know-nothings (political leaders, political appointees, think-tank talking heads) and reproduce the same stories over and over and over [1].

Here, then, let me offer a few keys to moving beyond the reductive crisis-meme-as-education-journalism:

  • Public education has never been and is not now in crisis. “Crisis” is the wrong metaphor for entrenched patterns that have existed over a century. A jet plane crash landing into the Hudson River is a crisis; public education suffers under forces far more complicated than a crisis.
  • Metrics such as highs-takes test scores and graduation rates have always and currently tell us more about the conditions of children’s lives than to what degree public schools are effective.
  • Short-hand terms such as “college and career ready” and “grade-level reading” are little more than hokum; they are the inadequate verbal versions of the metrics noted above.
  • The nebulous relationship between the quality of education in the U.S. and the fragility of the U.S. economy simply has never existed. Throughout the past century, no one has ever found any direct or clear positive correlation between measures of educational quality in the U.S. and the strength of the U.S. economy.
  • Yes, racial and class segregation is on the rise in the U.S., and so-called majority-minority schools as well as high-poverty schools are quickly becoming the norm of public education. While demographics of race and class remain strongly correlated with the metrics we use to label schools as failing, the problem lies in the data (high-stakes tests remain race, class, and gender biased), not necessarily the students, teachers, or administrators.
  • However, historically and currently, public education’s great failures are two-fold: (1) public schools reflect the staggering social inequities of the U.S. culture, and (2) public schools too often perpetuate those same inequities (for example, tracking and disciplinary policies).

The mainstream media’s meat grinder of crisis-only reporting on public education achieves some extremely powerful and corrosive consequences.

First, the public remains grossly misinformed about public schools as a foundational institution in a democracy.

Next, that misleading and inaccurate crisis narrative fuels the political myopia behind remaining within the same education policy paradigm that has never addressed the real problems and never achieved the promises attached to each new policy (see from NCLB to ESSA).

And finally, this fact remains: Political and public will in the U.S. has failed public education; it has not failed us.

Mainstream media remain trapped in the education crisis narrative, I think, because neither the media nor the collective political/public consciousness is willing to confront some really ugly truths beneath the cultural commitment to the powerful and flawed rugged individual mythology in the U.S.: America is a classist, racist, and sexist society.

We are committed to allowing privilege beget privilege and to pretending that fruits of privilege are the result of effort and merit.

There is no crisis in education, but our democracy is being held hostage by incompetent politicians and a compliant mainstream media—all of which, ironically, would be served well by the sort of universal public education envisioned by the tarnished founding fathers’ idealistic (and hypocritical) rhetoric [2].

[1] See Educational Expertise, Advocacy, and Media Influence, Joel R. Malin and Christopher Lubienski; The Research that Reaches the Public: Who Produces the Educational Research Mentioned in the News Media?, Holly Yettick; The Media and Educational Research: What We Know vs. What the Public Hears, Alex Molnar

[2] See Thomas Jefferson’s argument for a democracy embracing education:

The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries. ([1817], pp. 275-276)

The less wealthy people, . .by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. (p. 50)

To all of which is added a selection from the elementary schools of subjects of the most promising genius, whose parents are too poor to give them further education, to be carried at the public expense through the colleges and university.  (p. 275)

By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the Poor, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated. But of all the views of this law none is more important none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. (p. 276)

The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. (p. 278)

Publicly Funded, Not Free

Between two versions of libertarian ideology, I think, many in the U.S. have committed to the wrong one: childish Ayn Rand libertarianism instead of the child-like (idealistic) Henry David Thoreau libertarianism found in the opening of his “Civil Disobedience”:

I heartily accept the motto, — “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient….

But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

While I find the rugged individualism and self-defeating as well as heartless selfishness of Rand libertarianism ethically repulsive, the tension offered in Thoreau’s quest for no government strikes me as a practical mechanism for maintaining democracy against the threat of totalitarianism.

And it is at his “better government” call that I think we can look to something such as the roads and highways in the U.S. for a template.

While we may quibble over road conditions near our homes or on our commute to work, I think we must all acknowledge in the U.S. that the publicly funded infrastructure is foundational for market success in the nation. As well, while we have depended on the political system to approve and fund those roads, highways, and bridges, we have not then turned over the design and construction of that system to politicians, but to engineers and construction experts.

That distinct line, however, has not been nearly as sacred in public education, where political leaders and appointees have far too much direct influence not only on the funding but also on the actually policy—the result being that we have far less to be proud of from our public schools than our public highway/road system—the former still much further from achieving the original intent than the latter.

I was reminded of all this once the social media frenzy began about President Barack Obama’s plan to “mak[e] two years of community college free for students,” as reported in Politico. That news prompted #FreeCommunityCollege on Twitter as well.

Against the Obama administration’s abysmal record on public education, this plan certainly sounds encouraging, but the media and public response highlights a serious problem beyond the usual concern about clamoring to score partisan political points: Obama’s plan if approved would create fully publicly funded and no-tuition community college, not free community college.

As well, this plan is a pale version of what Germany has recently re-embraced, as explained by Barbara Kehm:

From this semester, all higher education will be free for both Germans and international students at universities across the country, after Lower Saxony became the final state to abolish tuition fees….

It’s important to be aware of two things when it comes to understanding how German higher education is funded and how the country got to this point. First, Germany is a federal country with 16 autonomous states responsible for education, higher education and cultural affairs. Second, the German higher education system – consisting of 379 higher education institutions with about 2.4m students – is a public system which is publicly funded. There are a number of small private institutions but they enroll less than 5% of the total student body.

This is not a matter of mere semantics, but the German commitment and Obama’s community college proposal are about not charging students (a user fee similar to toll highways in the U.S.), but instead making a social commitment to fully publicly fund all or some of any person’s higher education (an education version of our public highway system).

“Free” is not only factually inaccurate, but the implication detracts from the exact concept that needs our support now more than ever: “publicly funded” is a necessary and rightful commitment by a people that builds the foundation upon which all else exists—life, liberty, and the pursuits of happiness as well as the glorified free market in the U.S.

To return to my example above, try building your company yourself without the publicly funded roads and highways, without the publicly funded judicial system, just to start. Yes, our publicly funded institutions in the U.S. have many problems and flaws, but the one aspect about them that isn’t flawed is that they are publicly funded.

While I am deeply skeptical of our partisan political system masquerading as democracy in the U.S., I certainly join those cheering Obama’s plan for no-tuition community college; however, my guarded optimism has strings attached, requiring that this proposal is the first step toward addressing several issues related to education:

  • Two years of no-tuition community college means little in the wake of dismantling K-12 public education, which is the ugly legacy of the Obama administration. The era of accountability-based education reform must end immediately, and then a new era of fully funding and supporting universal public education must begin—one that rejects market forces and political overstep.
  • Two years of no-tuition community college means little in the wake of the massive debt being incurred by college students in the U.S. The existing debt must be addressed (eradicated where possible), and then a system that greatly lessens college-related debt must be established while we work toward a model of universal no-tuition higher education.
  • Two years of no-tuition community college means little in the context of a depressed job market in which recent college graduates do not find full-time, stable work that matches their degrees. A college degree and enormous debt with no prospect of work is a nightmare, but a college degree without debt and no prospect of work isn’t much better. We must recognize that education policy cannot be separated from work policy.
  • Two years of no-tuition community college means little in the context of the harsh reality that educational attainment does not lessen the powerful and corrupting influence of racism and classism in the U.S. The cultural myth that education is the great equalizer is currently a false promiseBlacks with some college have about the same employment prospects as white high school drop-outs, and educational attainment is valuable within ones race, but doesn’t erase inequities among races.

Instead of rushing to promote misleading hastags or to prop up a political candidate along partisan lines, we should see Obama’s proposal for no-tuition community college as an opportunity to “make known what kind of government would command [our] respect,” to emphasize the essential nature of publicly funded institutions that constitute “better government.”

Authoritarian Schools, Authoritarian State in the Service of Privilege

The fruits of the Reagan Era are proving to be mostly poison apples.

Both begun under Reagan, mass incarceration and high-stakes education reform have escalated the rise of the authoritarian school and the authoritarian state in the service of privilege.

During the past few years, teachers and police are coming under increased scrutiny in the wake of disaster capitalism’s influence how we do school and how we enforce law—significantly at the expense of children living in poverty, black and brown children, and children speaking home languages other than English.

Jose Vilson has offered a bold and critical examination of how political and public calls for greater teacher and police quality and oversight intersect, revealing, I think, that these are not simple black and white issues. Bad teachers and bad police there certainly are, but to play the flawed individual game feeds into the central problem in the U.S.: We refuse to acknowledge systemic causes (racism, sexism, homophobia) for individual situations.

Vilson builds to what I think is the crux of the matter: “To protect and to serve, and that’s something we can never turn our backs to.” Teachers and police are public servants, embodying the will of the people. As public servants, teachers and police fail their charge when they twist their service into authority over the public, instead of from or in service of.

Authoritarian (and thus “bad”) teachers and authoritarian (and thus “bad”) police are consequences of a larger reality: The U.S. is a racist and sexist nation functioning as an authoritarian state, and most of our structures serve that status quo as well as the interests of the privileged.

Democracy and meritocracy along with the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for everyone remain worthy of a people, but those are not what our public institutions serve in the U.S. today.

Sacrificing Democracy and “Other People’s Children” at the Alter of Authority

Well before Bill Ayers was demonized during Barack Obama’s run for president or before Ayers’s radical past was more widely recognized after his memoir in 2001, I was introduced to his wonderful To Teach while in my doctoral program in the mid-1990s.

Ayers offers characterizations of traditional schooling that resonated with me then and do also now:

There are a lot of quiet, passive classrooms where not much learning is taking place, and others where children’s hearts, souls, and minds are being silently destroyed in the name of good management….

In school, a high value is placed on quiet: “Is everything quiet?” the superintendent asks the principal, and the principal asks the teacher, and the teacher asks the child. If everything is quiet, it is assumed all is well. This is why many normal children—considering what kind of intelligence is expected and what will be rewarded here—become passive, quiet, obedient, dull. The environment practically demands it. (pp. 23, 64)

At nearly every level of considering education, we always come back to classroom management and discipline. And it is here I want to ask two genuinely important questions:

  1. Why do we persist at accountability-based education reform driven by standards and high-stakes tests even though that approach has never worked over 100+ years?
  2. Why do we persist with harsh policies such as police in schools, zero-tolerance, “no excuses,” grade retention, and corporal punishment even though they are ineffective and even do more harm? [1]

Because all of these commitments do accomplish one thing that is actually the sacred element in formal schooling—authoritarian environments.

As long as we remain trapped in accountability reform and in-school authoritarian practices, we are admitting that we are not seeking universal public education in the service of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—individual freedom and democracy.

Authoritarian schools feed an authoritarian state (where, for example, police are feared and teachers are disrespected).

Democracy must be fertilized with schools that practice community and collaboration.

So in our necessary and important rush to honor good teachers and good police, let’s be careful about our accusatory gazes because when teachers and police are bad, it may well be that their behavior reflects a failed system, an authoritarian system that serves the status quo and the interests of the privileged.

We need to lift our eyes and look closely at who supports accountability-based education reform and harsh in-school policies—and why.

There is the place to start toward better teachers and police who honor, as Vilson noted, their need to serve and protect as agents of the public good.

[1] I think in the context of these two questions, we must ask, Why are reformers convinced class size doesn’t matter (despite many enrolling their children in private schools with very low class sizes)? The answer is likely that large class size forces teachers to focus primarily on classroom management/discipline and consequently accomplishes again the main objective: authoritarian classrooms.

NOTE: HT to David Kaib for a series of Tweets recently.

Bearing Witness: Hypocrisy, Not Ideology

Unless this is mangled memory (and in my advancing age, it may well be), when the sit-com Seinfeld interspersed Jerry Seinfeld doing stand-up with the main show, I was struck by one routine about sports fandom. Seinfeld noted that since the players on any team are constantly changing, fans are essentially pulling for the jerseys.

As observational humor goes, that joke is funny, but I also think it essentially nails what is wrong with partisan politics when anyone defends her/his party (team) regardless of behaviors while simultaneously illuminating every slip of the other party (team) as if the world is coming to an end.

For that reason mainly, I have removed myself entirely from partisan politics (inspired by the late and great George Carlin, who is the team to which I lend my loyalty).

Recently, I have noticed Democrats posting on social media a news story concerning Rudy Giuliani’s daughter being arrested for shoplifting. I ignored the posts at first, but since I certainly have found Giuliani in the past and recently to be beyond loathsome in his commentary (notably when paired with equally loathsome Bill O’Reilley), I happened to click the link once to discover the story is from 2010.

All of this puts me in an ethical/intellectual bind because in many respects the Giuliani-as-law-and-order-politician/daughter-as-criminal dynamic does highlight what I believe is how we must judge both leadership and privilege in the U.S. But the context in which I have found this story (and it being from 2010) still reeks of partisan sniping and pettiness (especially if we consider the recent ugliness surrounding comments about the Obama daughters).

In the U.S., political leadership, wealth and success, and privilege are nearly inseparable—despite the meritocracy myth perpetuated by the privileged to mask their greased paths to power and wealth.

And thus, the genuine differences between Democrats and Republicans remain mostly in word only—platforms, speeches, and published commentaries. War mongering, accountability-driven public education reform, economic policy, etc., remain significantly similar regardless of political party affiliation in the U.S., particularly is we assess the policy against the larger ideology justifying those policies (free market mechanisms, neoliberalism, etc.).

Participating in partisan politics, then, in the same ways we participate in team sport allows privileged leadership to continue serving the interests of the privileged at the expense of the great majority of people in the U.S.—notably the marginalized.

While I am not suggesting ideology doesn’t matter, I am calling for placing judgments of leaders and the privileged in the context of hypocrisy first. Let me offer some context.

Both Democrats and Republicans champion market forces for reforming public education, notably parental choice as a driving mechanism for reform.

However, when controlling for student demographics (and conditions such as selection exclusivity and attrition), among private, charter, and public schools, virtually no differences in major outcomes exist.

But let’s go further, many endorsing market forces (whether vouchers on the right or charter schools on the left) often claim issues such as class size do not matter—assertions that must be tested against not only those making the claims but also the evidence from the market itself.

Bill Gates, for example, has pushed for classes of 40 students with teachers paid bonuses for those large class sizes; however, Gates himself attended elite private schools with extremely low class sizes.

And therein lies the problem with hypocrisy.

While private schools do not in fact outperform public schools (both forms of schooling have a wide range of so-called quality), the market dynamics around private schools responding to parental choice clearly show that low class sizes are important—in fact, justifying larger financial investments by parents.

And I think now we can circle back to how Giuliani and his daughter can and should matter.

Privileged leadership in the U.S. represents word and deed designed for everyone else except the privileged class; in education, what privileged leaders are saying is that, for example, class size doesn’t matter for other people’s children (but it does for mine and my privileged friends).

Giuliani’s tone-deaf and offensive claims about law enforcement and black/brown people/families reveal the arrogance of leadership and privilege—and thus, he should be held accountable for his hypocrisy. But not as yet another partisan mask for letting those on the “other” political team slide (which is what I believe most of the posts I have seen are doing).

Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, among many things, is about the puppet show that is partisan politics as team sport. Vonnegut’s dystopia, however, is playing out before us now whenever we fail to see past the veneer of ideological claims, whenever we continue to pull for the jerseys.

To judge leadership/privilege against hypocrisy is a moral imperative that is lost in ideological team sport.

“But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting,” wrote Oscar Wilde. Why? Because the people demanding thrift among the poor are not themselves living under the same directive; if fact, the wealthy who demand thrift of the poor wallow in waste and excess.

Those demanding “no excuses,” as with those rejecting the importance of class size, for example, tend to live in abundance and slack—among the very riches of excuses.

And so I believe that a key part of our fight for public education and democracy is that we cannot have genuine ideological battles until we hold all ideologies responsible for the validity of their own investment in those ideologies.

Hypocrites have no moral authority. Without moral authority, a person deserves no political authority.

As long as we allow hypocrisy, however, in order to preserve our partisan politics as team sport, we are part of the problem.

In a 1961 interview by Studs Terkel, James Baldwin states: “People don’t live by the standards they say they live by, and the gap between their profession and the actuality is what creates this despair, and this uncertainty, which is very, very dangerous.”

Baldwin, then, as writer/artist describes himself—in a 1984 interview by Julius Lester—as a witness: “Witness to whence I came, where I am. Witness to see what I’ve seen and the possibilities that I think I see.”

Every people, every generation needs the artists-as-witnesses, but a democracy requires that each one of us serves as witness in the way Baldwin explains:

Lester: You have been politically engaged, but you have never succumbed to ideology, which has devoured some of the best black writers of my generation.

Baldwin: Perhaps I did not succumb to ideology, as you put it, because I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is….

A spokesman assumes that he is speaking for others. I never assumed that—I never assumed that I could….No society can smash the social contract and be exempt from the consequences, and the consequences are chaos for everybody in the society.

Hypocrisy is that obvious lie we must bear witness to by rising above mere ideology.

Government Fails When It Fails to Be Government

Let’s start with a little game.

Fill in the blanks:

Government interventions over the past four decades have yielded a cascade of perverse incentives, bureaucratic diktats, and economic pressures that together are forcing [_____] to sacrifice their independent professional [_____] judgment, and their integrity. The consequence is clear: Many [_____] from my generation are exiting the field. … Governments and [_____] administrators hold all the power, while [_____]—and worse still, [_____]—hold none.

Now take a look at the original:

Government interventions over the past four decades have yielded a cascade of perverse incentives, bureaucratic diktats, and economic pressures that together are forcing doctors to sacrifice their independent professional medical judgment, and their integrity. The consequence is clear: Many doctors from my generation are exiting the field. Others are seeing their private practices threatened with bankruptcy, or are giving up their autonomy for the life of a shift-working hospital employee. Governments and hospital administrators hold all the power, while doctors—and worse still, patients—hold none.

I am a 30-plus-year educator, therefore, this paragraph jumped out at me since many of my professional complaints match this almost perfectly, leading to my version:

Government interventions over the past four decades have yielded a cascade of perverse incentives, bureaucratic diktats, and economic pressures that together are forcing [teachers] to sacrifice their independent professional [education] judgment, and their integrity. The consequence is clear: Many [teachers] from my generation are exiting the field. … Governments and [school] administrators hold all the power, while [teachers]—and worse still, [students]—hold none.

But there is an irony to all this: The paragraph is in a piece at The Cato Institute and the doctor penning the complaint cites Ayn Rand toward the end; thus, it is intended to be a slam against Big Bad Guv’ment.

The flaw is that in the piece itself, the real problem is not government, but that government fails to be government—”perverse incentives, bureaucratic diktats, and economic pressures.”

In the U.S., we have a quasi-Libertarian but mostly flawed idealism toward wealth, capitalism, and the misleading free market that has twisted “government” to mean something akin to totalitarianism (in the 12-year-old sort of way Rand fumbles in her garbled attempt at fiction writing and populist philosophy).

As a stark comparison facing us now, police are meant to protect and serve, but when a policeman shoots and kills a 12-year-old or a policeman strangles to death an unarmed man selling cigarettes, we do not have evidence that justice is a flawed pursuit, but that the current system fails justice.

Government as a hand of the market and government as bureaucracy—that dynamic is crippling medicine and education in the U.S. However, the reality is that government in the U.S. is mostly a servant of the rich and powerful, and not a mechanism of the public good—the potential purpose of democratic government because we are the government, not some dictatorial tyrant.

Public funding should be a pooling of resources by a people in order to insure the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of each individual; it is not a competition between society and each individual (the Romanticism of Emerson and Thoreau) but a symbiotic relationship between the two (John Dewey): by contributing to the public good, I also contribute to my own individual liberty.

The free market (“perverse incentives,” “economic pressures”) and bureaucracy (“bureaucratic diktats”) have never and will never achieve equity. The market creates inequity, and bureaucracy paralyses most everything, notably the pursuit of equity.

Government rightly functioning would insure that experts (such as doctors and teachers) who serve the public good are free to practice that expertise—not bound to the whims of the market, not fettered by bureaucratic mandates.

Publicly funded must precede (not supplant) all other commitments of a free people—public education, universal health care, highway system, just legal system, etc. Demonizing government (we the people), idealizing the market—both are insuring that the U.S. will never achieve equity, never reach the promise of democracy and freedom.

Government fails when it fails to be government, and people governed fail that government when they fail to understand that government is their collective will.

Cashing in on Journalism’s Neutral Pose

As I have highlighted several times about how often education journalism fails the democratic goals of both the free press and universal public education, this Tweet from Juana Summers at NPR represents the power of the neutral pose among journalists:

Let me stress here, that this claim is not unique to Summers of NPR, but pervasive throughout media and journalism as the hallmark of “professionalism.” I have been mulling the breezy NPR approach to all topics for some time now, and thus was not surprised to find this piece from 1982, The Tedium Twins, which skewers the exact issue I have confronted over and over:

Trudging back through the “MacNeil/Lehrer” scripts, the hardy reader will soon observe how extraordinarily narrow is the range of opinion canvassed by a show dedicated to dispassionate examination of the issues of the day. The favored blend is usually a couple of congressmen or senators, barking at each other from either side of the fence, corporate chieftains, government executives, ranking lobbyists, and the odd foreign statesman. The mix is ludicrously respectable, almost always heavily establishment in tone. Official spokesmen of trade and interest groups are preferred over people who only have something interesting to say.

As we confront the inherent danger in honoring civility and balance over accuracy and taking evidence-based stances on credibility, we must also admit that the neutral pose is little more than a mask for something pretty insidious: the influence of the powerful and wealthy over what the media covers (and does not cover) and how those topics are framed. To that I invite you to read Mercedes Schneider’s Gates, Other “Philanthropy,” and the Purchase of a Success Narrative, including:

Billionaire Bill Gates funds the media.

This is no surprise to me.

What did surprise me is the discovery that he meets with the media he funds (and others) regularly behind closed doors.

[See also Adam Bessie and Dan Carino’s The Gates Foundation Education Reform Hype Machine and Bizarre Inequality Theory.]

So we are faced with our media and our educators trapped inside demands that they remain neutral, dispassionate, not political. And this is what that has gotten us (despite claims that our free press and public schools are essential to our democracy built on claims of equity and meritocracy), as detailed by Matt Bruenig:

The top 10% of families own 75.3% of the nation’s wealth. The bottom half of families own 1.1% of it. The families squished in between those two groups own 24.6% of the national wealth.

The present wealth distribution is more unequal than it was in 2010, the last year this survey was conducted. Specifically, the top 10% increased their share of the national wealth by 0.8 percentage points between 2010 and 2013. The bottom half and middle 40% saw their share of the national wealth fall by 0.1 and 0.7 percentage points respectively.

Bruenig also highlights that economic inequity in the U.S. is race-based (whites own the U.S.) and that within that white imbalance, there exists another layer of class imbalance:

This means that the top 10% of white families own 65.1% of all the wealth in the nation. The bottom half of white families own just 2% of the national wealth. And the white families in the 50th-90th percentile of white families own 22.9% of the national wealth.

Along the media spectrum from the breezy NPR dispassion (the so-called “Liberal Media”) and the faux “fair and balance” of Fox News (the so-called “Right-wing Media”), we must admit there is little difference in the consequences of any of our media since, as Paulo Freire has warned, all that neutrality is ironically not neutral at all:

Freire neutral

 

As poet Adrienne Rich [1] has confronted:

Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally “gifted” few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable. (p. 162)

That second and wrong direction is the result of the neutral pose.

For Further Reading

Universal Public Education—Our (Contradictory) Missions

[1] Rich, A. (2001). Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company.

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

24 August 1922—Howard Zinn was born. His life and career spanned the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first. It is his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, for me, that speaks to the enduring power of Zinn’s metaphor, particularly for teachers.

Historically and currently, teacher remain under the demand that their teaching—and even their lives—remain neutral, not political. University professors—such as Zinn—also face disciplinary and public expectations of objectivity, dispassion—their work as public intellectuals either shunned or unrecognized.

In that context, K-12 education and university education suffer the same ultimate failure found in journalism, a flawed pursuit of objectivity, the faux-neutral pose of representing both sides.

So on the day of Zinn’s birth, it continues to be important not only to read and listen to Zinn, but also to act on Zinn, for it is action, after all, that Zinn lived and called for.

“When I became a teacher,” Zinn explains in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences”:

I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of live they have led, where their ides come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?

Concealment is a political act, and in the face of the tragedy surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown, the educational response has been exactly that, concealment. But as poet Adrienne Rich has confronted:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Instead of striking the masked political poses of neutrality, objectivity, and dispassion, Zinn called for transparency:

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.

Having taught in rural Southern public schools for 18 years and then 13 more years in higher education, I can attest that Zinn’s argument is challenged only because of the positions he holds and not because he took positions. You see, in K-12 classrooms, especially in history classes, textbooks, curriculum, and teachers always represented positions by framing as neutral the mainstream perspectives found among them all: a blind allegiance to capitalism, representing the U.S. as a righteous military victor, whitewashing every struggle in the country’s history, celebrating the wealthy and powerful while turning a blind eye to their many sins.

It has never been that our classrooms are neutral, as Zinn confronts, but that our classrooms have been passive passengers on the moving train of social and cultural indoctrination, the sort of indoctrination that benefits the few who have wealth and power built on their privilege at the expense of the many—workers, racial minorities, women, children, and the impoverished.

As Zinn recognized:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

And although written well before the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Zinn’s memoir has identified the Orwellian reality of that movement: Those decrying the status quo are those in service of the status quo. Education reform is the pursuit of maintaining, not reforming.

This call for teaching as activism was join by Zinn’s disciplinary challenge as well:

History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.

Here, Zinn recognizes both the power of disciplinary knowledge and the concurrent danger of codified disciplinary knowledge (prescriptive standards, curriculum). Zinn’s confrontation, then, speaks to the foundational principles expressed by critical scholar Kincheloe:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

These critical principles replace the dissembling of neutrality in the classroom, as Kincheloe explains:

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

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

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes. Teaching and history as activism, for Zinn, were moral imperatives, and thus:

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.

Zinn, activist, radical, speaks to us now, the “us” of any classroom, the “us” charged with the learning and lives of any child:

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

Today on the date of Zinn’s birth, I argue, it is a recipe we must follow.