South Carolina Education Reform: Déjà vu all over again

Imagine for a moment that in the 1970s when Philip John Landrigan, an epidemiologist and pediatrician, conducted research on the negative consequences of lead in paint, political leaders chose to ignore the source of the problem, lead in paint, and had initiated policies aimed at children instead.

Now imagine that children continued to suffer from lead paint poisoning every decade since that decision, and every few years, political leaders offered passionate rhetoric confronting the tragedy of lead poisoning in children, followed by yet new policies once again aimed at children, while ignoring entirely the presence of lead in paint.

If this sounds ridiculous, please consider that beginning in the early 1980s, this exact scenario is how South Carolina political leaders have handled public education.

I have a unique perspective on SC education since I have taught here over four decades since 1983, 18 years as a public high school English teacher and coach followed by an on-going 17 years in higher education as a teacher educator and first-year writing professor. I also bring to this conversation a doctoral program grounded significantly in the history of public education in the U.S. as I wrote an educational biography of Lou LaBrant, who taught from 1906 until 1971.

Over my career in education, I have felt a great deal of compassion for LaBrant as she lamented in her memoir having lived and worked through three back-to-basics movements. As I have, she found herself exasperated by political education reform that proved to be déjà vu all over again.

A few years ago, I advocated strongly against yet more misguided education reform in SC—the Read to Succeed Act which has proven to be as flawed as I predicted since it, as my hypothetical scenario above highlights, failed to identify the evidence-based problems with literacy and reading in SC and then promoted new policy and solutions that not only do not address the problems, but create new and even worse problems.

Read to Succeed represents how SC education policy and reform is almost entirely partisan politics, but it also foreshadowed this newest round of wholesale education reform facing the state now.

Since the early 1980s, political leaders in SC have beaten a steady drum that our public schools are failing, resulting in that the only consistency in our schools has been the same solutions repackaged over and over again.

State standards, state high-stakes testing, school choice proposals, and charter schools—these templates for policies have been reframed over and over, and all we have to show for that today is the same political complaints—failing schools—and decades of research that all of these approaches have failed.

Instead of yet another misguided series of education reform policies beneath misleading political rhetoric, SC could take a different path, one that shifts not only policies and practices but ideologies.

First, again returning to the opening hypothetical response to lead paint, SC must start with clearly identifying what problems exist in our schools and then carefully distinguish between which of those problems are a reflection of social forces and which are the consequences of actual school and teaching practices.

For example, SC’s problems with literacy are a reflection of generational inequities such as poverty and racism magnified by decades of misguided commitments to ever-different standards, tests, and reading programs.

Literacy in our state is a harbinger of how children suffer when parents have low-paying work, face transient lives, and are shut out of robust healthcare and adequate insurance.

Literacy also reflects in our state that once all children enter schools, they receive distinctly different access to education—poor, black, and brown children along with English language learners and students with special needs are significantly cheated by schooling while white and affluent students have access to low class sizes, advanced courses, and the most experienced certified teachers.

Next, SC must recognize that policies and practices based on accountability and market forces have failed our students and our schools. Instead, we need educational policy grounded in equity.

For example, all children should have access to experienced and certified teachers, low class sizes, and challenging classes. Historically and currently, those assurances are for privileged children only.

Further, SC must acknowledge that teaching conditions are learning conditions. Teacher pay, teacher professionalism, teacher autonomy, facilities and materials funding and quality, student/teacher ratios—all of these are policies that indirectly and directly impact whether or not teaching and learning can thrive in our schools. Yet, SC politicians remain determined not to make these choices while remaining committed to expensive and ineffective policies such as standards, testing, and choice models such as charter schools.

As a broad guide, then, SC must set aside political rhetoric and partisan commitments in order to turn instead to a wealth of educational research on both the need for social policy addressing inequity and reforming schools in ways that serve both teachers’ ability to teach and students’ equitable access to learning.

The problem in SC schools has never been about the presence or quality of our standards or what tests students have to navigate in order to survive schooling.

The lead in the paint of our state includes poverty, racism, and a whole host of disadvantages such as the scarcity of high-quality and stable work, healthcare, and affordable housing.

The lead in the paint of our schools is that teaching and learning conditions are hostile to students having equitable access to learning.

SC political leaders refuse none the less to address those problems because they are too enamored with partisan politics as usual in a state tragically embracing the worst aspects of conservative ideology; once again as those myopic political leaders claim bold education reform, it’s déjà vu all over again.


See Also

UPDATED: Beware the “Miracle” School Claim: “Why not tell the whole story?”

Conservative Politics Fails Public Education Redux

Conservative Talking Points Wrong for SC Education

Much Ado about Politics (Not Reading)

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U.S. Education a Scam and a Rigged Game

iceberg on water

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

Many years ago while I was a high school English teacher, I began to advocate strongly against the influence of the SAT, and all standardized testing. One of the few sources for that criticism was work by Alfie Kohn, whose publications received pretty harsh resistance from the testing industry.

One of my best friends and colleagues while teaching high school left for higher education before I did, and as I would several years later, found himself teaching at a selective liberal arts college. He taught education foundations, where he included some of my work and Kohn’s confronting the failures of testing and the SAT specifically.

What my friend and former colleague discovered is that students at a selective liberal arts college did not receive well his message or the evidence about the inequity in high-stakes standardized testing and college admission exams.

As the recent college admissions scandal, Operation Varsity Blues, is gradually unmasking, people with privilege are powerfully invested in proving their merit—even if that veneer has to be manufactured at great expense.

I have been very successful at every level of formal education, attaining what is ominously called a “terminal degree.” Along that journey, I worked very hard, and simultaneously, the journey was nearly effortless because it required skills that I have mostly been quite adept at completing.

As well, I have been a professional educator for 35-plus years, at both the K-12 and higher education levels, including public and private schools.

In those experiences, I have been afforded incredible privilege because I am white and male. But I also have been often at arm’s length from that privilege in some ways because of my working-class background and my ideological alienation from my personal and professional communities.

Most difficult has been that despite my educational accomplishments and career as an educator, I have witnessed and then argued that while formal education is often framed as powerful in terms of how it shapes society and people (the “great equalizer” and “game changer” mantras), the reality of K-12 and higher education in the U.S. is that they mostly reflect and reinforce our inequities along racial, economic, and gender lines.

With the so-called college admissions scandal before us, I hope we can have larger discussions of what the purpose of education is and how access to education must be as sacred as what happens once students enter school.

The scandal exposes that education is not a game changer, but a marker for privilege. The wealthy are always branding, always seeking ways to be associated with the aura of quality.

Wealthy celebrities needed a daughter to attend USC for the prestige that attending Arizona State did not offer. This is no outlier, but an extreme example of how the wealthy perpetuate and are drawn to “elite” institutions, whether it be selective pre-schools, private K-12 academies, or the Ivey League.

Some experiences I have noticed throughout my teaching career include a misunderstanding of teaching and learning compounded at selective (mislabeled as “elite”) colleges by a wish among faculty to take credit for the existing so-called excellence in students admitted.

Let me explain with some historical context first.

The concept of universal public education in the U.S. is expressed very well as an ideal by the deeply flawed elitist Thomas Jefferson in the following passages:

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)

I… [proposed] three distinct grades of education, reaching all classes. 1. Elementary schools for all children generally, rich and poor. 2. Colleges for a middle degree of instruction, calculated for the common purposes of life and such as should be desirable for all who were in easy circumstances. And 3d. an ultimate grade for teaching the sciences generally and in their highest degree… The expenses of [the elementary] schools should be borne by the inhabitants of the county, every one in proportion to his general tax-rate. This would throw on wealth the education of the poor. (p. 791)

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 Door, 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)

The recent college admissions scandal is but the tip of the iceberg of privilege that has already sunk the Titanic plan detailed above by Jefferson, himself an original elitist unable to make his ideal real.

So, since these lofty claims established formal education in the U.S., we have instead embraced a deficit ideology—framing students needing to learn as a flaw of the student and a burden on the teacher (misunderstanding teaching and learning)—and creating formal education as a mechanism of enculturation (institutions that either label and shame those deemed deficient or label and praise those deemed elite).

If we pull back from the scandal and how this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the wealthy gaming everything along a spectrum from inequitable and unethical to outright criminal, we must also interrogate that we have failed the ideals of not only universal public education (K-16), but also the potential of education to revolutionize society and individuals.

Many students who need that ideal education the most are disenfranchised from or disillusioned by formal schooling while many privileged students are deeply invested in the game of formal schooling even as the education itself mostly washing over and by them.

In both cases, education is a scam and a rigged game.

While we are hand wringing over the college admissions scam, my home state of South Carolina has rejected provisions in a new education bill calling to lower some student/teacher ratios, claiming such mandates are too expensive.

However, in public schools across the state, mostly white and affluent students sit daily in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes with incredibly low student/teacher ratios, classes often next door to so-called regular classes at and above state maximums for student/teacher loads.

Inequity serving the wealthy and white and mis-serving everyone else—this is a feature of our systems and institutions, including schools, not a glitch—as some seem to suggest about the admissions scandal.

Today, in 2019, formal education in the U.S. is mostly a disturbing snapshot of how we are a people mostly using rhetoric to hide the power and momentum of privilege.

There is really nothing shocking about the admissions scandal, unless you want to pretend it is something other than the tip of a very old and very large iceberg of privilege that defines the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Operation Varsity Blues: One Corrupt Tree in the Forest of White Wealth Privilege

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

George Carlin

Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts, made a nearly laughable opening claim in his press conference about a college admissions scandal named “Operation Varsity Blues”:

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” Lelling said. “There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

He added, “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.”

Nearly laughable, in part, because this grandstanding of justice wants to proceed from the position that discovering the wealthy gaming a system they already control is somehow shocking (it isn’t), and nearly laughable as well because Lelling offered as context and with a straight face the following:

We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school’s more likely to take your son or daughter.

We’re talking about deception and fraud – fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials.

The layers of bullshit in what is being called a “massive admissions scandal” are nearly as complicated as the story itself, an intricate web of complicit parents, college and athletics officials, SAT/ACT shenanigans, and a charlatan mastermind at the controls—as reported by Kirk Carapezza:

Here’s how Lelling says it worked. Between 2011 and 2018, wealthy parents paid Rick Singer, the head of a foundation and a for-profit admissions consulting service, more than $25 million. Singer would then use that money to pay a ringer to take the SAT or ACT for children or correct their answers. He’d also bribe Division 1 coaches.

Here’s one layer: Despite the very serious tone and facial expressions at the Department of Justice’s press conference, Lelling’s rhetoric remains complete bullshit. In the U.S., these has always been and continues to be two distinct admissions processes for college and two distinct justice systems.

In fact, in every way possible there are two Americas [1], neatly divided by wealth and race. Being wealthy and being white provide significant privileges and then those who enjoy those privileges routinely and without consequence leverage that privilege for even more advantages at the expense of everyone else.

The great irony of the so-called college admission scandal is that the wealthy in the U.S. promote false narratives about merit and rugged individualism while actively perpetuating their own privilege, which buoys mediocrity, at best, and a complete absence of merit or effort at worst.

The wealthy are driven to maintain the veneer of “well-educated” because it provides cover for that mediocrity and privilege.

To be white and wealthy allows them to skip college and still thrive while people of color and the poor scramble to gain more and more eduction even as the rewards remain beneath the truly lazy and undeserving rich:

[F]amilies headed by white high school dropouts have higher net worths than families headed by black college graduates.

…First, understand that blacks and Hispanics have lower incomes than whites up and down the educational spectrum.

On average, black families at a given level of educational attainment receive incomes that are just 66% of what white families at the same level of educational attainment receive. For Hispanic families, that figure is 79%. Naturally, when education-controlled income disparities like this exist, education-controlled wealth disparities will exist.

Second, understand that even blacks, Hispanics, and whites with the same incomes have dramatically different net worths.

On average, black wealth is 26% of white wealth, even controlling for income. For Hispanics, the figure is 31%. Peruse the studies above to try to tease out why. Note here though that, according to Gittelman and Wolff, this is not because blacks have lower savings rates. Inheritance and in-life wealth transfers also appear, in all of the studies, to play a non-trivial role. (Bruenig, 2014)

Lori Loughlin and her social media star daughter are not some sort of outlier evil geniuses who found a loop-hole in the system; they are the faces of the system.

This is how America works.

Ivanka Trump, also, is no evil genius, no outlier, and also not a deeply delusional woman. She believes the narrative that she has been taught even as her life completely contradicts those myths of meritocracy and bootstrapping.

I imagine those parents implicated—and the many more who will skirt by this time as wealthy people most often do—have convinced themselves they used their means for the good of their own children, as anyone would do if having those same means.

And this is the myopia of white wealth privilege in the U.S., the blindness of rugged individualism that allows some to believe they are either above or somehow disconnected from everyone else.

As reported by Cydney Henderson, Loughlin’s daughter used her celebrity and a dorm room someone else more deserving did not have to promote her brand, and make money of course:

Olivia Jade moved into her college dorm in September 2018, documenting the milestone on Instagram through a paid partnership with Amazon’s Prime Student. It’s a standard practice for social media influencers to earn money from companies by advertising products to their followers.

“Officially a college student! It’s been a few weeks since I moved into my dorm and I absolutely love it,” she captioned the post. “I got everything I needed from Amazon with @primestudent and had it all shipped to me in just two-days.”

This is America, at least one of the Americas, the one we worship despite it being a gigantic lie, as Carlin says, the club we will not be allowed to join.

“Operation Varsity Blues” is not a surprise, then, but we must guard against it being yet another gear in the privilege machine, a distraction.

This so-called college admissions scandal is but one tree in the much larger and more powerful forest of white wealth privilege.

As we become fixated on Aunt Becky, we continue to ignore legacy admissions, a criminal justice system best understood as the New Jim Crow, the lingering racism and sexism in high-stakes standardized testing, the school-to-prison pipeline and schools as prisons, and a list far too long to include here.

Like whiteness itself, wealth must remain invisible in the ways it perpetuates privilege and inequity.

This college admissions scandal is an opportunity to pull back and take a long and critical look at the whole forest, a much uglier reality than we have been led to believe.


[1] See the following:

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: The Permanent Vacation from Race

landscape photo of white living room

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Over my spring break last week, I made a trip to IUPUI in Indianapolis to present as part of a series spanning their academic year, White Racial Literacy Project Speakers Series, addressing whiteness as part of their diversity and inclusion initiatives.

One controversial aspect of this approach has been providing separate spaces for white faculty, staff, and students as well as people of color to investigate whiteness. That sits inside a larger paradox of this series—an effort to center whiteness as a process for de-centering whiteness.

During the session for people of color, I addressed how I often navigate issues of race from the context of my own life, specifically framing my discussion of race by self-identifying as a redneck (see my PowerPoint here).

This racial identification, I note, is important because I have the privilege of stepping into a racial discussion of whiteness indirectly, using “redneck” and still not actually saying “white.”

A woman in that session responded by acknowledging my privilege in controlling the narrative of myself—I can ignore (or as I say, take a vacation from being white) my whiteness almost all the time, and even when I confront it, I can maintain some level of invisibility (normalcy). She added that both race and gender are imposed on her, leaving her no option for similar vacations from race or gender.

This woman’s response spoke directly to the video in my presentation of author Toni Morrison calmly checking Charlie Rose’s question about her writing about something other than race since her writing is designated as racial because she is a black author writing about black characters.

Morrison poses to Rose if anyone ever asks a similar question of Tolstoy, or any white authors who tend to write exclusively about white characters but are not framed as writing about race.

Here is the essential problem with centering whiteness, as being male or heterosexual is also centered.

Centering is the result of characteristics correlated with power, dominance, becoming both normal and invisible/unspoken.

In literature, as Morrison explains, white male authors are allowed to produce literature that avoids being racial or gendered through claims of being universal or allegorical (see Cormac McCarthy).

F. Scott Fitzgerald is no less writing about race (whiteness) than Morrison is about race (blackness), or Ernest Hemingway, no less about gender (being male) than Kate Chopin or Alice Walker about gender (being female).

Fitzgerald and Hemingway, however, are allowed permanent vacations from race and gender by virtue of their privileges while Morrison, Chopin, and Walker exist always under the burden of being writers of race and gender—unless they achieve the lofty status of being themselves writers of universality or allegory (in other words, writing like Fitzgerald and Hemingway).

As DiAngelo details (see below in resources):

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

Interrupting the centering (making invisible, unspoken) of whiteness is interrupting the vacation-as-normal for white people, and that disruption is often met with anger and resistance since whiteness means a permanent vacation, unlike the permanent burden of race (or gender, sexuality, etc.) for those rendered as “other” against the centered whiteness, often so-called people of color.

White fragility reveals itself in microagressions that seem reasonable, not offensive, and even rational (another veneer for privilege) to white people: “I don’t see race,” “All lives matter,” “There is only one race, the human race,” “How about black-on-black crime or the absent black father?,” “Why does it always have to be about race?” (see below in resources).

That final question is a powerful example because white people are always existing in unacknowledged/unexamined whiteness—their lives are always about race—but the centering of whiteness means whiteness (race) remains invisible and unspoken (how I can identify as a redneck as a code for “white”).

For example, historically, Miss America pageants produced only white winners, and as a consequence, Miss Black America was born in protest of the centering of whiteness, for example. Until the fact of whiteness was confronted by Miss Black America (or consider Black History Month as a recognition that U.S. History is mostly white history), white fragility was not triggered, hibernating; whiteness was allowed its permanent vacation.

James Baldwin faced a parallel experience with Morrison’s, being interviewed as a black writer. In that interview from 1984Julius Lester asked James Baldwin about “the task facing black writers,” and Baldwin replied:

This may sound strange, but I would say to make the question of color obsolete….

Well, you ask me a reckless question, I’ll give you a reckless answer—by realizing first of all that the world is not white. And by realizing that the real terror that engulfs the white world now is visceral terror. I can’t prove this, but I know it. It’s the terror of being described by those they’ve been describing for so long. And that will make the concept of color obsolete.

Whiteness in the U.S. created racism as much as it spring from racism, and then whiteness rendered itself invisible—the manufacturing of the permanent vacation from race.

And thus the paradox confronting initiatives such as the one at IUPUI: Centering whiteness by naming it in order to de-center whiteness.

As someone with tremendous privilege who has the luxury to worry about equity—often in abstract ways, too rarely in ways that change policy or structural dismantle privilege—I am left uncomfortable with the fact that white people must do the work of equity and de-centering whiteness and that this fact means a different sort of centering whiteness.

One of my luxuries is I can be a different kind of reckless than Baldwin voiced; one of my privileges is I can choose to work through awareness to allyship and then to abolitionist, the delicate recklessness of dismantling privilege—centering myself and my whiteness as levers for de-centering whiteness.


Recommended Resources

White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo (essay)

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo (book)

Examples of Racial Microaggressions

Good intentions are not enough: a decolonizing intercultural education, Paul C. Gorski

Racism Scale

Can Scholars Be Too Literal in Post-Truth Trumplandia?

Recently, I was invited to join a class discussion of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in a local International Baccalaureate (IB) high school class. For many years, I taught the novel in my Advanced Placement course, and in 2007, I published a volume on teaching Atwood’s writing.

During the discussion, one very bright and engaged student eagerly noted that Atwood evokes elements of communism in her novel. The use of the term “communism” prompted me to offer a gentle reframing—that the student probably was recognizing elements of totalitarianism, elements often blurred into the mainstream American pejorative use of the word “communism” (see also “socialism” and “Marxism”).

This is an important moment, I think, in understanding how academia works: Language and the teasing out of ideas are often laborious, if not tedious. While teaching first-year writing especially, but in most of my courses, I stress that college students need disciplinary awareness—how each discipline functions and why—and typically emphasize that academics are prone to carefully defining terms, and then holding everyone to those precise meanings.

Political, media, and public discourse, however, tend along a much different path. Language and terminology are treated with a cavalier disregard for meaning. Misusing a term or making a false claim is quickly glossed over before railing against the initial false claim.

Because of that gap between academia and the so-called real world, some educators and scholars call for the importance of public intellectuals grounded in academia. Public scholarship, however, remains controversial within the academia and tends to be received with disdain and condescension by politicians, the media, and the public.

It is at those last two points that I want to emphasize why Sam Fallon’s The Rise of the Pedantic Professor has been so eagerly embraced by some in the academy and many in the public sphere. At its core, Fallon’s argument poses this:

To read the work of humanities scholars writing for a general audience is to be confronted by dull litanies of fact: a list of the years in which Rome’s walls were breached by invaders (take that, Trump), an exhaustive inventory of historians who have dunked on Dinesh D’Souza, a bland recounting of witch-hunting in 17th-century New England.

These public humanities scholars, Fallon argues, “tend to collapse discursive arguments into data dumps,” and are failing their mission with “academic literalism.”

In the traditional norms of the academy, Fallon’s charges reinforce arguments that scholars should remain (somehow) above activism and public engagement, often expectations for being apolitical, objective, or neutral. Fallon also is providing ample fodder for politicians, the media, and the public who marginalize professors and scholars as merely academic, pointy-headed intellectuals making much ado about nothing.

As an educator, scholar, and writer, a career spanning four decades, I have strongly rejected both of these norms, and I have increasingly recognized that public work by scholars is far more important than our traditional scholarship, which is often behind paywalls and read by only inners, if at all.

I think that the gap between the academy and the public not only can be bridged in terms of how we navigate language and ideas, but it must be bridged—especially now that we have entered post-truth Trumplandia.

Consider the current uses and framing of the terms “socialism” and “infanticide.”

The bright IB student mentioned above is a typical example I confront in all of my students, and throughout public debates, especially social media.

While I absolutely recognize that academics can be pedantic, so precise that all meaning and discourse are rendered meaningless to day-to-day existence, I believe Fallon is making a serious mistake of extremes: Academics have obligations to their disciplines and the public, but their public discourse must always remain in any scholar’s lane while balancing the norms of disciplinary discourse with public accessibility.

Do some academics fail at this tightrope act? Of course.

But words matter, and starting with jumbled terms and meanings serves no one well. The public academic is poised to slow down debate while also clarifying what exactly we are saying in terms of cultural ideologies and public policy.

Doesn’t it seem important to confront that a significant numbers of voters in 2016 angrily voted against Obamacare while themselves benefitting from the Affordable Care Act—casting votes grounded in a garbled and self-defeating state of not knowing what terms mean?

Doesn’t it seem dangerous for one political party to drum up fear of infanticide, when infanticide isn’t occurring? Wouldn’t this country benefit from a fact-based (even literal) discussion of women’s health and reproductive rights, prenatal care, and abortion?

I find it troubling that all throughout formal education from K-12 through undergraduate and graduate education, we hold students to higher standards of discourse than we do politicians and the media.

I also have little patience for people who cannot accurately define “socialism,” “communism,” or “Marxism,” but feel compelled to reject these ideologies with unwavering certainty.

It seems, in fact, that no one can be too literal when most public discourse wallows in the mud of being both wrong in the use of language and dishonest in the ideologies and arguments being made for promoting public policy that directly impacts how any of us navigate our lives.

If we need more evidence, the rising public responses to the new tax codes pushed through by Republicans and Trump offer a jumbled and disturbing picture.

Many tax-paying U.S. citizens have a weak understanding of taxes, one oversimplified as the “refund” (let me nudge here: this isn’t any different than oversimplifying and misusing “socialism”).

Many in the U.S. should be angry about the new tax code, but most complaining about the consequences of those changes are doing so in ways that are lazy and simply flawed.

If we backed up this outrage over lower tax refunds, we could have a much more substantive and possibly effective discussion about payroll deductions (most were reduced under the tax changes, thus people received more money per check over the year, which itself would lead to lower refunds), tax burdens among different income brackets, and the needlessly complex industry of preparing and submitting our taxes.

Not unrelated, Republicans have misrepresented calls for 70% marginal tax rates for the very wealthy (about 16,000 Americans out of 127 million households)—again an effective strategy because most people do not understand the literal (and tedious) reality about how marginal tax rates work.

And this brings me back to Atwood’s novel and the class discussion.

Much of Atwood’s work as a writer is about language, the use of language to control and the possibility of language to unmask, to liberate not only ideas but people.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, a few select women control other women through language manipulation. The handmaid’s are trained by Aunts, who instill the propaganda:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. in the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. (pp. 24, 25)

But it may be more important here to emphasize Atwood’s examination of how Gilead came about. Offred explains about her life before Gilead:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it….The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of the print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories. (pp. 56-57)

This is a novel about people being cavalier about language and thus about the human condition. This novel is a call for the dangers of not being literal enough.

Humanities professors wading into the public debate and their “dull litanies of fact” are simply not the problem facing us today.

Can scholars be too literal in post-truth Trumplandia?

O, hell no, and beware anyone who would argue otherwise.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Politics of Compliance v. Politics of Resistance: “We don’t need no education”

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teacher leave the kids alone

“Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2,” Pink Floyd

The December 2018 incident involving high school wrestler Andrew Johnson being forced to cut his hair in order to compete continues to draw attention. Erik Ortiz reports:

But following outcry from the community and the opening of a state civil rights investigation, an attorney for wrestler Andrew Johnson claims officials and referees are still giving him grief over his hair and have an “unrelenting fixation” with him….

Then, on Monday, an official with the state association that regulates athletics and conducts tournaments sent an email to state wrestling officials detailing which hairstyles require the hair to be covered. One image, according to NJ Advance Media, which reviewed the email, was of an unidentified black person with short, braided or dreadlocked hair and closely shaved sides.

More recently, Josh Magness details:

Police say the 11-year-old student at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy in Lakeland said he wouldn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance because the flag is “racist,” according to WTSP.

Ana Alvarez, a substitute teacher in the classroom, said she was offended by this comment and asked the student, who is black, why he didn’t leave the country, as reported by The Washington Post.

A teacher from Los Angeles, Larry Strauss, has subsequently weighed in on how the 11-year-old was treated:

When children in a class — of any age — assert their political views, they are giving you an opportunity to teach. Not to teach them to shut up and obey you, but to teach them that they live in a free country where everyone has a say in how we govern and where criticism is welcome, or supposed to be.

Both of these instances represent a truism about formal schooling that works against our claimed beliefs about formal schooling: Although many argue education is a “game changer,” in fact, formal schooling mostly reflects and perpetuates social norms, including the inequities such as racism, classism, and sexism.

Tracking, gate-keeping in elite programs, teacher assignments, standardized testing, discipline, and school funding all reflect that public school policies are grounded in racism and classism.

School dress codes remain biased, as well, by gender and race, disproportionately impacting girls and young women, particularly those of color.

The drivers of these realities, and essentially what erases the ideal of education being revolutionary, are embedded in what appears to be a defense of the 11-year-old refusing to do the pledge of allegiance—Strauss’s framing of “[w]hen children in a class — of any age — assert their political views.”

Consider here that Strauss is positioning a child’s act of not complying with the pledge as political, and in effect, asserting that those administrators, teachers, and students participating in the pledge are somehow not being political.

Here, we have evidence that formal schooling reflects and perpetuates society since this pledge controversy is nearly identical to the National Anthem controversy in the NFL involving, notably, Colin Kaepernick.

We must not ignore that these events are deeply racial (and racist) and reflect that power and normalization treat compliance as invisible (not political) and resistance as not just hyper-visible, but offensive (political).

Here is another truism about formal schooling: Everything everyone does in any school is inherently political, some negotiation of power, some acknowledged or ignored act of compliance or resistance. Yet, in school, as in society, only acts of resistance are seen as “political,” and thus, triggers for punishment, even being ostracized (denied the right to compete, ushered from the school by law enforcement).

Poet Adrienne Rich (2001) fears that what is “rendered unspeakable, [is] thus unthinkable” (p. 150)—and let’s recognize how this is often reflected in formal schooling.

Educator and activist Bill Ayers (2001) confronts the silencing purposes of education:

In school, a high value is placed on quiet: “Is everything quiet?” the superintendent asks the principal, and the principal the teacher, and the teacher the child. If everything is quiet, it is assumed that 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. (p. 51)

Cutting the wrestler’s hair and arresting an 11-year-old seem extreme, but to understand these reactions as representative of how power (often white or in the service of whiteness) functions, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility explains:

In a white dominant environment, each of these challenges becomes exceptional. In turn, whites are often at a loss for how to respond in constructive ways….

Whites are taught to see their perspectives as objective and representative of reality (McIntosh, 1988). The belief in objectivity, coupled with positioning white people as outside of culture (and thus the norm for humanity), allows whites to view themselves as universal humans who can represent all of human experience. This is evidenced through an unracialized identity or location, which functions as a kind of blindness; an inability to think about Whiteness as an identity or as a “state” of being that would or could have an impact on one’s life.

Unspoken, invisible—and thus rendered not political against the spoken and visible as political. Not political as right, preferred against political as wrong, to be punished, banished.

The compliant students (and teachers, administrators) are being just as political as the ones who are resisting. Calls for anyone—student, teacher, or citizen (including NFL players)—to be not political is itself a political act and a failure to acknowledge that the offended are not against being political, but against someone else’s politics.

As a critical educator, then, I am grounded in another kind of idealism expressed by Ayers, the ideal that current formal education not only refuses to seek but tends to erase, silence, render invisible:

Education tears down walls; training is all barbed wire.

What we call education is usually no more than training. We are so busy operating schools we have lost sight of learning. We mostly participate in certification mills, institutions founded on notions of control and discipline, lifeless and joyless places where people serve time and master a few basic skills on their way to a plain piece of paper that justifies and sanctions the whole affair. Sometimes, these places are merely mindless, and sometimes they are expressly malevolent.

“Malevolent,” like the wrestler’s hair being sheered, like a child being arrested.

We are faced, then, with the politics of being another brick in the wall or joining in with the politics of resistance: “Tear down the wall!”


References

Ayers, W. (2001). To teach: The journey of a teacher. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

Rich, A. (2001). Arts of the possible: Essays and conversations. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.