The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Practitioner in Education

In the final days of my Summer I graduate course, my department chair asked me to switch from the Summer II graduate course I was assigned (a new preparation I had worked on diligently to teach for the first time) to a literacy course in which the instructor could no longer teach the class.

This course was one I have never taught, and thus, would have to prepare in just a few days to take on—scrambling as I did to understand the other instructor’s syllabus and schedule while also facing the herculean task of teaching from four assigned books that I have never read.

This afternoon, then, when I face these graduate students, I will confess that I have never taught elementary literacy (the course is a graduate literacy methods class)—having all my experience and expertise in teaching high school and college literacy, primarily writing—and thus, I will be relying on their practitioner expertise (the students are mostly practicing elementary teachers) while performing the role myself of facilitator.

In my Summer I class, as well, one assignment required students to read a professional book on literacy, and share with the class. Part of our discussion revolved around professional books in education emphasizing classroom practice (over theory and philosophy) while being written by education personalities.

The credibility of these books are often grounded in the assumption these personalities are credible; issues of validity and reliability—and even thorough citation—are ignored or de-emphasized. So I cautioned them that professional books (and education personalities) are not to be viewed as scripture, not as sacred directives, but as opportunities to think along with these education personalities in order to develop and sharpen their own practitioner expertise.

My journey as an educator has included 18 years as a classroom high school English teacher followed by 16 years as a teacher educator, and concurrently, an education scholar and public intellectual.

I lived, then, nearly two decades of sitting in mandated workshops and presentations where education consultants spoke down to us practitioners while earning in a few hours what no practicing teacher earned. These consultants and speakers may have had some classroom experience, but it was vividly clear to us they had all eagerly jumped ship to talk to lowly practitioners because the hours and the pay were much better.

K-12 teachers tend to loath this traditional aspect of being a teacher—the torture of being treated unprofessionally and the waste of our precious time that we could all better use to do the stuff of teaching, planning and responding to student work.

The edu-guru market is an ugly beast that perpetuates the notion that K-12 teachers are not professional or experts themselves, that practice is somehow just a mechanical thing that can be imposed onto a passive and compliant workforce (let us hasten to add, a passive and compliant workforce in which 3 of 4 teachers are women with undergraduate and graduate degrees and years of experience).

So when I teach or provide in-service for teachers, I emphasize my own classroom experience above all else, and couch my scholarly expertise in that practice now edging toward 40 years.

The accountability era has ratcheted up this divide, in part perpetuated by authoritarian structures (prescriptive legislation and top-down managerial styles of administrators) and in part by the market.

This latter influence must not be ignored. Publishers depend heavily on the cult of personality to drive textbook and professional book sales as well as the related consultant appearances.

Too often, however, what is being mandated and sold proves to be mostly hokum beneath the shimmer and shine of well-formatted books and over-confident edu-gurus.

Paul Murphy’s Teachers Are Tired of Robert Marzano highlights nearly everything that is wrong with this cult of personality that de-professionalizes teachers while also blaming them for the outcomes driven by the practices they are mandated and coerced to implement.

Murphy stresses: “For years, teachers were asked (or, more often, told) to swallow a lot of crap. More and more of us are done eating it” (emphasis in original).

In a powerful and thorough interrogation of this dynamic, Benjamin Doxtdator challenges Doug Lemov and Dave Burgess:

Both Lemov and Burgess construct masculine, individualistic heroes. Champion teachers, according to Lemov, “routinely do what a thousand hand-wringing social programs have found impossible: close the achievement gap between rich and poor, transform students at risk of failure into achievers and believers, and rewrite the equation of opportunity.” For Burgess, Pirates are “entrepreneurs”, “daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence.”

I have spent a great deal of my work as a scholar and public intellectual raising the same concerns about Angela Duckworth’s grit and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

Scholars of poverty and social class began lining up more than a decade ago to refute the popular but invalid training provided by Ruby Payne, who continues to profit greatly off the uncritical edu-guru poverty circuit funded mostly by tax dollars.

There are patterns to all this madness:

  • Practitioners are framed as or assumed to be unprofessional and inexpert.
  • Experts are, then, the consultants themselves, who are beyond reproach (criticize the work of Duckworth, or John Hattie, and expect to be accused of attacking the people themselves, to be shamed for the criticism).
  • Both educational research and teacher practices are trivialized as secondary to the gimmick (grit, teaching like a champion, visible learning, etc.) and the edu-guru who peddles the gimmick.
  • Teaching and learning are necessarily narrowed and over-simplified. Marzano and Hattie direct a laser focus on the impact of teachers; Duckworth and Dweck keep the accusatory eye on weaknesses and flaws in the children/students themselves.
  • Teacher and student voices are muted or entirely ignored.
  • Teachers are conditioned to behave in unprofessional ways that are used to justify treating them unprofessionally.
  • Divisions of labor and compensation for labor are disturbingly skewed so that practitioners are underpaid and under-appreciated while consultants and administrators (farthest from the day-to-day experiences of students) are overpaid and overvalued.

When I met with a colleague who designed the course I will be teaching for the first time this afternoon, she empathized with the abrupt change in course assignments and then helped me tremendously by noting that when she taught the course, she used elements of the National Writing Project (NWP) model for summer institutes.

I was co- and lead instructor of a writing project in South Carolina at the end of my high school teaching career just before entering higher education in 2002. Being a participant in and then facilitating for a NWP site were by far the greatest experiences for me as an educator and a professional.

Why? The sacred elements of these summer seminars were the professionalism of the teachers and the community of scholars that was fostered and developed.

One of the most important refrains of these communities was the call to check ourselves regularly against the allure of edu-gurus and gimmicks (we at first embraced the term “best practice” and then quickly felt it had become a mandate and not a healthy generalization for how any teacher works from a toolbox of practices with the needs of the learner guiding those fluid decisions).

K-12 practitioners remain trapped in a hellish contradiction created by the cult of personality driving edu-gurus and gimmicks: Teachers are simultaneously posed as the singular and most important factor in student learning (a verifiable lie) and then treated as incompetent technicians.

Teachers need to be relieved of edu-gurus and gimmicks; they deserve professional experiences that include the time, support, and conditions that are conducive to what is best for each student taking a seat in any of their classrooms.

Teachers must not be reduced to technocrats, must not be compelled to be martyrs and missionaries.

If we can resist the allure of celebrity and cashing in, we must ultimately acknowledge the humanity of teachers and their students, while admitting the ugly influences of sexism and consumerism that too often trump our stated goals of democracy and equity.

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Everything You Know Is Wrong

My adolescence was profoundly shaped by hours alone in my room listening to comedy albums, memorizing them—George Carlin and Richard Prior. My aunts and uncle also introduced me to the comedy group Firesign Theatre, whose Everything You Know Is Wrong may serve as the ideal message for educators.

Recently, Jessica McCrory Calarco reported in Why rich kids are so good at the marshmallow test:

The failed replication of the marshmallow test does more than just debunk the earlier notion; it suggests other possible explanations for why poorer kids would be less motivated to wait for that second marshmallow. For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.

And from Science DailyStudy finds popular ‘growth mindset’ educational interventions aren’t very effective:

A new study co-authored by researchers at Michigan State University and Case Western Reserve University found that “growth mindset interventions,” or programs that teach students they can improve their intelligence with effort — and therefore improve grades and test scores — don’t work for students in most circumstances.

Also consider Will Thalheimer’s People remember 10%, 20%…Oh Really?:

People do NOT remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they see, 30% of what they hear, etc. That information, and similar pronouncements are fraudulent. Moreover, general statements on the effectiveness of learning methods are not credible—learning results depend on too many variables to enable such precision. Unfortunately, this bogus information has been floating around our field for decades, crafted by many different authors and presented in many different configurations, including bastardizations of Dale’s Cone. The rest of this article offers more detail.

Yet another example is the zombie that will not die, the “word gap”—debunked again in Reexamining the Verbal Environments of Children From Different Socioeconomic Backgrounds, by Douglas E. Sperry, Linda L. Sperry, and Peggy J. Miller:

Abstract

Amid growing controversy about the oft‐cited “30‐million‐word gap,” this investigation uses language data from five American communities across the socioeconomic spectrum to test, for the first time, Hart and Risley’s (1995) claim that poor children hear 30 million fewer words than their middle‐class counterparts during the early years of life. The five studies combined ethnographic fieldwork with longitudinal home observations of 42 children (18–48 months) interacting with family members in everyday life contexts. Results do not support Hart and Risley’s claim, reveal substantial variation in vocabulary environments within each socioeconomic stratum, and suggest that definitions of verbal environments that exclude multiple caregivers and bystander talk disproportionately underestimate the number of words to which low‐income children are exposed.

But let’s not forget higher education: Arthur G. Jago asks Can It Really Be True That Half of Academic Papers Are Never Read?, discovering:

Frustrated, I ended my search for the bibliographic equivalent of “patient zero.” The original source of the fantastical claim that the average academic article has “about 10 readers” may never be known for sure.

So what’s going on as educators and scholars are confronting that everything you know is wrong? I think have some ideas, outlined below:

  • Teachers, notably K-12 educators, are practical to a fault. Teachers want what works in the day-to-day tasks of teaching students (a more than reasonable expectation) but often feel educational philosophy and theory are a waste of their very limited time (again, this time-crunch is a rational response to unreasonable working conditions for most K-12 teachers). The problem with a what works mentality absent a philosophical and theoretical lens is that the wrong basis for determining “works” often guides our practices. As a brief example, many classroom strategies can seem to “work” when students are quiet and complete the assignment, but those may be achieving compliance and not the larger (assumed) academic goal—actually working counter to those goals in fact.
  • Too often teaching can become almost entirely focused on implementing a program (think reading programs or International Baccalaureate) or fulfilling an ideology (think grit and growth mindset) at the exclusion of the instructional goals those programs or ideologies are supposed to achieve. This happens, I think, in part because of the concern for practicality noted above as that is impacted by the historical focus in education on efficiency—what is the easiest and most manageable ways to make this think called teaching and learning happen?
  • Programs and ideologies, however, are often flawed from the beginning because the research they are grounded in is distorted and oversimplified by publishers and advocates. Compounding these oversimplifications and distortions are the media, also complicit in framing complex research in ways that mislead the public and educators. Too often as well, the misconceptions are compelling and robust because they match social norms (stereotypes, biases, cultural myths) more so than reflecting the nuances and limitations of the research. As I have detailed, for example, academic and economic success and failure are far less about any person having or not grit or a growth mindset and more about systemic privilege and disadvantage.
  • Classrooms, teachers, and students are more likely to reflect all aspects of communities and society than to work as change agents for any person or community/society. Teaching and learning, then, become about normalizing, and thus, regardless of what research shows (especially when much of that research is counter to norms), it becomes a tool for the normalizing. One study on the “word gap” by Hart and Risley has become an unexamined fact, not because it is quality research (it isn’t) but because it reinforces cultural myths about social class, deficit ideologies that praise the wealthy and demonize the poor.
  • Teaching and learning are incredibly complex and the consequences of teaching—learning—are rarely easily linked to a single cause (a teacher, a class, a program or ideology) and may not manifest themselves until years later.
  • Too many researchers, consultants, administrators, and teachers become personally, professionally, and financially invested in programs and ideologies—at the expense of everything else, notably students.
  • From K-12 to higher education, teaching and learning are mostly corporatized; in that environment, research, nuance, and uncertainly have no real chance. K-12 schools and universities/colleges are incentivized for many outcomes other than teaching and learning.
  • Educators, the public, and the media embrace contradictory ideas about “scientific” and “research”—simultaneously idealizing and trivializing.

In the big picture, I think the problem of research and evidence as that becomes teaching practices can be better understood through the lens of what is wrong with Teach For America—an organization that very likely has good intentions and invites as well as promotes missionary zeal.

Good intentions are never enough, and missionary zeal is guaranteed to distort everything it touches.

It may well be true that everything you know is wrong, but that doesn’t mean it must stay that way. Good intentions and missionary zeal must be replaced by greater philosophical awareness and the sort of skepticism a critical lens provides.

This is not about fatalism—giving up on research—but about finding a better way forward, one that rejects programs and blanket ideologies and keeps our focus on students and learning along with the promises of formal schooling as a path to equity and justice, not test scores and compliant students.

More on Rejecting Growth Mindset, Grit

When I posted a recent study on growth mindset—Study finds popular ‘growth mindset’ educational interventions aren’t very effective—on my blog Debunked!, growth mindset advocates quickly bristled at the blog title, notably this Tweet:

Several patterns in the subsequent Twitter discussion are worth addressing in a format more detailed than Tweets.

First, I have been a consistent critic of both growth mindset and grit best captured in the following posts:

I immediately shared these posts as part of the discussion—often guided by Wormeli’s thoughtful and welcomed concerns about my stances.

Next, however, many advocates (mostly for growth mindset) offered typical rebuttals, including (1) arguments that both growth mindset and grit in practice are often counter to the intent of Carol Dweck  (growth mindset) and Angela Duckworth (grit), noting that both have raised concerns about those misuses and misconceptions, (2) chastising me for “conflating” growth mindset and grit, and (3) requesting practical alternatives to growth mindset and grit practices.

To the first point, I want to be clear that I am strongly aware of the gender problems inherent in me, a white male academic, challenging Dweck and Duckworth, including critiques that can be and have been viewed as attacking them personally.

I do think it is fair to address the character of those scholars advocating character education for children (see this on Duckworth, for example), but I also have taken care to monitor gender biases inherent in how we police women scholars versus men scholars.

But, while I am aware that both Dweck and Duckworth have raised concerns about the misuses of growth mindset and grit, I contend that both scholars have reaped a great deal of financial and professional capital from that misuse, primarily, and haven’t refused those profits. I find their cautions hollow, then.

I reject the second point—that I conflate growth mindset and grit—and recognize that growth mindset advocates often seek ways to distance themselves from the grit movement and that research has begun to challenge both growth mindset and grit research by Dweck and Duckworth, although far more challenging claims have been made against Duckworth’s research.

In short, I absolutely recognize that growth mindset and grit are not the same, and may not even be on the same level of validity and credibility as research.

However, while I do not conflate the two, I do highlight in my critiques that both are grounded in deficit ideologies: Both growth mindset and grit, I contend, mistake growth mindset/grit as the dominant or even exclusive quality causing success in student learning (ignoring the power of systemic influences) and then create an environment in which some students (too often black, brown, and poor) are defined in deficit terms—that they lack growth mindset/grit.

Yes, growth mindset and grit are unique approaches, but they share the failure of being complicit in deficit practices. And while the science of growth mindset may be more solid than the science of grit, both are prone to the problem of scientific racism—the failure to unpack “high-quality research” for biases.

Now, to the final point, I would recommend Paul Gorski’s work on equity practices, specifically this second edition which directly confronts both growth mindset and grit: Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap. Here, also, are some starting points with Gorski’s work:

Ultimately, then, I do reject growth mindset and grit, both as programs that are misused and thus harmful to the students who need formal education the most. I also see little room to justify the research behind either, or to excuse Dweck or Duckworth even when they raise cautions about the misuses.

My concerns are driven by an equity lens that recognizes and confronts the problems masked by narrow views of research and science as well as the myopia inherent in accountability that demands in-school-only approaches to teaching, testing, and reform that tend to be driven by bootstrap ideologies.

Teaching and learning as well as success and failure are incredibly complex. Often in education, our rush to find the key to success and failure in order to improve teaching and learning is ruined by a missionary zeal corrupted by biases—both of which must be confronted and resisted.

Growth mindset and grit fail as overzealous programs, and students are better served by equity practices couched in efforts to alleviate the systemic forces that shape how they live and learn regardless of their character.

Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.


[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.

Beware Adversity Porn

With the current high-profile coverage of Stormy Daniels in mainstream media, the public is bombarded with subtle (“adult-film star”) and not-so-subtle (“porn-star client”) attempts to slut-shame Daniels through her profession in the porn industry.

This obsession with Daniels, reducing her always to porn star in order to keep our eyes on here and not Trump, reveals much about the inherent sexism and Puritanical love-hate relationship with sex that characterize Americans.

While the evidence is not as clear as many think about the dangers of pornography, something else insidious confronts the U.S. in our media and pop culture—adversity porn.

ESPN’s E:60 episode, “Letterman,” offers but one example of what I mean by adversity porn:

As TJ Cotterill reported when the episode premiered in 2015:

The first-year Lincoln coach said the inner-city schools – one in Tacoma, the other Los Angeles – share similar issues with drug abuse, poor grades, low incomes and single-family homes. Only Lincoln has a support system that didn’t exit at Bernstein.

But his endeavor to change Bernstein’s culture – symbolized though emotional letters of love he asked parents to write to his team’s players that they were surprised with and read on their own before the team’s practice – will be featured at 5 p.m. PDT Wednesday on ESPN’s “E:60.”

Viewers meet and come to empathize with several boys and men of color who all share some highlighted characteristics—the absent father, socio-economic hardship, struggles to succeed in traditional settings such as school.

In one moment, a featured boy at half-time of a football game implores his teammates to play like inner-city players; he is shouting, much as the coach, who the episode stresses has a similar background to his players, does throughout footage of his coaching.

This is adversity porn, the romanticizing of people who find themselves in adversity and then demonstrate the nearly super-human will to scream at and fight their way above that adversity.

The Coach plays the role of “I have overcome” and proceeds to be the savior for the boys and their parents, who are framed as passively negligent or unaware until the coach asks them to write letters to their sons.

Designed to be inspiring, adversity porn such as this (and examples can be found almost daily across the U.S.) depends on and perpetuates some ugly messages about people of color and people trapped in poverty; they are flawed people who need to be changed, and that problem is cloaked in code (“culture”).

Adversity porn accomplishes what much of mainstream media and pop culture sell constantly by keeping the public gaze on individuals, those who bend to adversity and those who somehow rise above adversity.

But isn’t this just a feel-good story about these boys, their coach, and their families?

The “feel-good” part is the problem because it is the soma, the Novocaine that numbs us to the real problem that adversity porn helps avoid—the adversity itself.

Adversity porn is about flawed people, and it normalizes the outliers who seem to overcome adversity. Adversity porn matches well the urge to turn our schools into fortresses instead of addressing the larger gun culture that threatens our students’ safety.

This is our rugged individualism myth that is both a lie and a distraction.

Of course, heroic and exceptional people are compelling. We love the gods of our mythologies and the superheroes of our Marvel and DC universes.

But those expectations imposed onto all humans serves only to erase any recognition of our shared and individual humanity. To live in adversity is shamed, and then to fail at rising above that adversity is more shame.

Adversity porn’s focus on the individuals and not the adversity is its ultimate corrosive influence.

New stories that acknowledge and unmask the adversity and then create hero narratives about the people in privilege who use their privilege to end the adversity, not to shame and “fix” the people who are victims of adversity—this is what we need.

No white saviors or white-savior stand-ins, no finger wagging at parents who labor under the weight of poverty, no romanticizing abusive behavior (screaming, berating) and toxic masculinity masked as “tough love.”

“Porn,” broadly, represents that which we are in some compelling and possibly even obsessive way drawn to, attracted to. The porn content itself may not be the problem, but the obsession and the distorting impact that obsession produces are likely the real problems.

Adversity porn creates overly simplistic pictures of the people trapped in adversity; then it callously ignores the adversity itself, sending a deformed message about the fatalism of adversity and the lottery that is surviving or thriving.

Ultimately, adversity porn argues that we need to instill in people trapped in adversity the grit and tenacity to overcome, but a more humane goal would be to seek ways to end the adversity itself, a goal that may be less sexy because it would require the sort of grit we demand of the poor and oppressed in those with privilege who rest on the fact of adversity themselves.

Make America Great, Finally?: The Archeology of White People (Redux)

America has never been great. Including now.

The problem with such a claim is that a blanket statement  leaves too much room to discredit the argument, and of course, we must all agree on the definition of “great.”

Large-scale evidence that America has never been great is obvious: slavery, lynching, the Japanese internment, the Trail of Tears, the Tulsa massacre, and the bloody litany of mass and school shootings that characterize America in a way distinct from all other democracies.

At any moment in the history of the US, what can be called “great” for any group of people, when unpacked, can be exposed as the consequence of some other people’s suffering. It has always benefitted the winners in the US to keep everyone’s eyes on the winning so that we can conveniently ignore the necessary losing.

That is part of the message in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

That is what I confronted in the last stanza of my poem “the archeology of white people“:

Ignore the body in the road
we whisper in their tiny innocent ears
Isn’t that golden car spectacular?

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, America is great for Tom and Daisy, but if we refuse to look the other way, that comes at the expense of Myrtle, ripped apart and dead in the road; of George, dead at his own hand; and of Gatsby, perversely shot in his opulent pool.

This is America: “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” (“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich).

Or as Langston Hughes’s speaker challenges: “(America never was America to me.)”—the too often ignored voice of those who live the fact of America not being great.

To rally around “Make America Great Again” is a perversion of hope; it is delusion.

Delusion is not the result of a lack of knowledge, but a refusal to listen, to see because you are driven deaf and blind by a fear of acknowledging the truths that refute your beliefs.

The delusion of clinging to guns, instruments of death, as a symbol for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

On social media, I witness this daily—those for whom proof and evidence mean nothing, those who shout the loudest, know the least, and listen not at all.

While there is no credible greatness to recapture in America, I do not deny yet the possibility of greatness. In fact, I can rally myself around “Make America Great, Finally.”

Greatness is certainly a worthy aspiration, although that too requires that we agree on exactly what “great” is.

Let me pose two examples we may want to follow.

Teachers in West Virginia, a right-to-work (non-union) state, have demonstrated a quest for greatness by recognizing and then acting on the power of striking. If citizens would more commonly recognize and then act on the power of mobilized groups with common interests, unresponsive government and political leadership could be eradicated in the name of the greatness we claim to seek.

Students across the US, prompted by Parkland, Florida students, have also demonstrated the potential for the powerless to organize and assert power with the nation-wide walk outs demanding action on gun control. Even before the walk out, student activism had prompted large corporations to change gun sale policies without any policy changes from political leaders.

WV teachers without the legal right to strike along with children and teens with almost no direct political power have demonstrated that power exists where it appears absent and that greatness springs from community and not individual zeal, not necessarily reduced to a zero-sum gain.

The choice in the US does not have to be between Daisy and Myrtle, in fact.

That American dream is only a dream for some because it is a nightmare for many.

There is nothing great about wealth or the wealthy; there is nothing great about coaxing most Americans to develop the grit to overcome adversity.

Great is the absence of poverty, not the presence of wealth.

Great is the absence of adversity, not the presence of grit.

Teachers in WV and students all across the nation have played great first hands.

Your turn.

 

The Lingering, and Powerful, Legacy of “Scientific Racism” in America

Writing about the class of 2017’s performance on the newly redesigned SAT, Catherine Gewertz notes, “The number of students taking the SAT has hit an all-time high,” and adds cautiously:

What appear to be big scoring increases should be understood not as sudden jumps in achievement, but as reflections of the differences in the test and the score scale, psychometricians said.

More test takers and higher scores, albeit misleading ones, are the opening discussion about one of the most enduring fixtures of U.S. education—standardized testing as gatekeeping for college entrance, scholarships, and scholastic eligibility.

However, buried about in the middle of Gewertz’s article, we discover another enduring reality:

The 2017 SAT scores show inequities similar to those of earlier years. Asian (1181), white (1118), and multiracial (1103) students score far above the average composite score of 1060, while Hispanic (990) and African-American (941) students score significantly below it.

Throughout its long history, the SAT, like all standardized testing, has reflected tremendous gaps along race, social class, and gender lines; notable, for example, is the powerful correlation between SAT scores and takers’ parental income and level of education as well as the fact that males have had higher average scores than females for the math and verbal sections every year of SAT testing (the only glitch in that being the years the SAT included a writing section).

The SAT is but one example of the lingering and powerful legacy of “scientific racism” in the U.S. Tom Buchanan, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, punctuates his racist outbursts with “‘It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.'”

Buchanan represents the ugly and rarely confronted relationship between “scientific” and “objective” with race, social class, and gender bigotry. In short, science has often been and continues to be tainted by bias that serves the dominant white and wealthy patriarchy.

Experimental and quasi-experimental research along with so-called standardized testing tends to avoid being implicated in not only identifying racism, classism, and sexism, but also perpetuating social inequity.

As I noted recently, since Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth have produced mainstream scientific studies and published in reputable peer-reviewed journals, their inherently biased work has been nearly universally embraced—among the exact elites who tend to ignore or outright reject the realities of inequity and injustice.

As just one example, Duckworth grounded her work in and continues to cite a Eugenicist, Francis Galton, with little or no consequences.

Racism, classism, and sexism are themselves built on identifying deficits within identifiable populations. Science allows these corrupt ideologies to appear factual, instead of simple bigotry.

“Scientific” and “objective” are convenient Teflon for bias and bigotry; they provide cover for elites who want evidence they have earned their success, despite incredible evidence that success and failure are more strongly correlated with the coincidences of birth—race, social class, gender.

It takes little effort to imagine a contemporary Tom pointing to the 2017 SAT data and arguing, “‘It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.'”

Such ham-fisted scientism, however, mutes the deeper message that SAT data is a marker for all sorts of inequity in the U.S. And then when that data have the power to determine college entrance and scholarships, the SAT also perpetuates the exact inequities it measures.

The SAT sits in a long tradition including IQ testing that speaks to a jumbled faith in the U.S. for certain kinds of numbers and so-called science; when the data and the science reinforce our basest beliefs, we embrace, but when data and science go against out sacred gods, we refute (think climate change and evolution).

Science that is skeptical and critical, questioning and interrogating, has much to offer humanity. But science continues to be plagued by human frailties such as bias.

Science, like history, is too often written by the winners, the oppressors. As a result, Foucault details, “[I]t is the individual as he[/she] may be described, judged, measured, compared with others, in his[/her] very individuality; and it is also the individual who has to be trained or corrected, classified, normalized, excluded, etc.” [1]

“Scientific racism,” as a subset of science that normalizes bigotry, allows the accusatory white gaze to remain on groups that are proclaimed inherently flawed, deficient, in need of correction. “Scientific racism” distracts us from realizing that the tests and science themselves are the problem.

And thus, we must abandon seeking ever-new tests, such as revising the SAT, and begin the hard work of addressing why the gaps reflected in the tests exist—a “why” that is not nested in any group but our society and its powerful elite.


[1] Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, p. 203.

See this thread: