Comments Shared with my Colleagues on the Responsibility of the Intellectual

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.

Adrienne Rich, Arts of the Possible

Since this is a voluntary gathering of concerned faculty, I am going to risk assuming we are here mostly in solidarity.

None the less, I recognize I am offering at least two controversial points and asking that you afford them your immense breadth and depth of knowledge as well as your patience.

First, while it is now popular in this time of Trump for pundits and the media to wring their collective hands about post-truth and fake news, my opening controversial claim is that despite that attention, neither of these is something manufactured by Trump, and fake news is not the primary problem.

Please consider this Twitter exchange between me and Juana Summers, a well-respected journalist at NPR in 2014, the time of the exchange., and now with CNN:

Summers represents here a tradition that journalists and educators, including professors, assume a neutral pose, honoring a call that they remain apolitical.

In that context, let me ask you next to consider an article published in the New York Times  just a week before Trump’s inauguration: In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda.

The headline and the article itself are mainstream media, not fake news; yet, what that distinction reveals is that our day-to-day public discourse is often indistinguishable from the click bait and false content we are lamenting in fake news.

O’Connors article cites a study from the USDA, which along with this being in the NYT, appears to be credible and compelling.

However, Joe Soss, writing in Jacobin and professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, has exposed that O’Connor’s article badly misrepresents the USDA study and expresses instead ugly stereotypes about people in poverty, what many in the public believe about people depending on food stamps.

So my first controversial claim, which leads into the second, is that public discourse has crossed the Bigfoot line. While there is a spectrum from fake news (entirely false and created to generate clicks online and thus revenue) to mainstream journalism, virtually all of that fails policy and the public because of traditional and misguided commitments to neutrality, objectivity.

There was a time when the National Enquirer depended on a facile commitment to report without unpacking the credibility of the person making a claim; thus, “Hiker has close encounter with Bigfoot!”

Might we imagine that journalist deflecting: “I’m not sure it’s my place to say whether the hiker is credible”?

In that era, mainstream media mostly refused to cross that Bigfoot line. But today, major media outlets are debating if journalists should report “Trump makes claim X” or “Trump makes false claim X”—or even more astounding “Trump lies.”

So I want to end with my second controversial claim.

If you google “fake news,” you are likely to read about a Davidson College graduate, and for us, this may trigger our own Yik-Yak founders.

I think this is not a trivial connection as we gather in our concern as university faculty, intellectuals, serving the liberal arts and our disciplines.

Across our campus, across our disciplines, the liberal arts is an argument that each of our fields is one way of coming to know the human condition. From biology to religion, from economics to philosophy, from psychology to education, and everything in between, we are carefully considering not only what knowledge exists, but what knowledge matters.

Our collective knowledge, or collective pursuit of knowledge, is more likely to serve us well than any one alone.

And then, there is the whole world beyond our beautiful fountains.

Therefore, when Donald Trump says torture works, or when his final TV ad in SC blatantly falsified data on the employment and crime rates, I think about fake news, hot new smartphone Apps, and the failures of mainstream media—each of which fails us if we resist looking at this world informed, if we pretend we can be apolitical, if we close our eyes to larger questions of ethics and morality.

The responsibility of the intellectual—and that includes us—is not about taking a neutral pose, but about speaking beyond those fountains, about modeling what it means to be well informed, to honor the truth, as difficult as at that is to attain, and to model for everyone what it looks like to work in the service of humanity, and not simply to say what you are paid to say, not simply to advocate for your own self-interest.

The responsibility of the intellectual is inescapably political, even as we pledge rightfully to be non-partisan.

Now, I end by appealing as an old English teacher, a writer, must—through metaphor.

Activist historian Howard Zinn’s memoir argues that the human condition is a moving train, and any of us who choose to sit quietly are in effect endorsing where that train is heading.

And thus, as Zinn believed and practiced, ours is always a political act—whether in our passivity or our action.

The responsibility of the intellectual?

For me, it is acknowledging that you cannot be neutral on a moving train, and I must add, you must not be neutral on a disaster-bound train—so I urge that we express our concern as action, informed and ethical.

Fair and Balanced Education and Journalism: On the Death of Democracy

Once I posted a reader for Trumplandia, based on the increased sales of George Orwell’s 1984 as well as the related thought pieces on important texts from Orwell and other writers, I was not surprised by the expected response calling for teachers and classrooms to be somehow politically neutral.

I have rejected this idea often, focusing on Howard Zinn’s brilliant metaphor of being unable to remain neutral on a moving train. Both calling for no politics in any context and taking a neutral stance are, in fact, political themselves—the former is a political strategy to deny some Others their politics while imposing your own and the latter is the politics of passively endorsing the status quo (in a society where racism and sexism, for example, continue to thrive, being neutral is an indirect endorsement of both).

Education and journalism—universal free public education and the free press—share many important and disturbing qualities: they are essential to the creation and preservation of a free and equitable people, they remain mostly unachieved in the U.S. in practice because they are often the tools of powerful people and forces who distort their ideal contributions to democracy and equity, and at the heart of that failure (we have failed them; they have not failed us) is the shared traditional code of education/teachers and journalism/journalists assuming neutral poses, being forced into a state of objectively presenting both sides in a fair and balanced way.

Particularly in the post-truth times we now find ourselves—and I argue we are here because of our failures in education and journalism—demanding that educators and journalists remain neutral is not the right goal and not actually how either functions.

In fact, education and journalism are always political, and in most contexts, educators and journalists routinely break the rule of neutrality—and thus, when anyone wags a finger and exclaims “We must be fair and balanced! Show both sides!” the truth is not that educators or journalists are being ideological or biased, but that someone in power feels that his/her politics is being challenged.

Let me illustrate in both education and journalism, starting with the media.

As I have noted before, when we compare the Ray Rice inspired public debate about domestic abuse to the Adrian Peterson motivated public debate about corporal punishment, the unbiased press myth is completely unmasked because domestic abuse (men hitting and psychologically abusing women) was entirely examined throughout the media as wrong (no pro-abuse side aired) while that same media almost exclusively presented corporal punishment as a debate with a fair and balanced presentation of both sides to adults hitting children.

What is clear here is incredibly disturbing: The media, in fact, make decisions about when to honor credible positions, when to reject or even not cover invalidated and unethical positions, and when to shrink back into the “both sides” cover.

While decades of research and the same ethical concerns about power and abuse related to rejecting domestic abuse entirely refute corporal punishment, the media have chosen to remain neutral on a moving train aimed at the health and well being of powerless children.

In other words, when media shirks its role in creating and maintaining a free and equitable people behind its tin shield of objectivity—think about always framing evolution or climate change as debates, as if “both sides” are equally credible when they are not—this is a dishonest pose because the media routinely take sides.

Finally, I want to highlight that education represents this same dishonest dynamic—claiming to be apolitical, or aspiring to be apolitical, while often taking sides.

Unless I am misreading the current mood of the country, the rise of interest in 1984 and other works of literature similar to Orwell’s is along a spectrum of concern about to fear of the rise of fascism and totalitarianism. Concurrently, with the public discussions about fake news and post-truth, we are experiencing a renaissance in examining how power and language are inseparable.

So what does it mean when teachers call for presenting both side of this debate when we bring politically charged novels by Orwell or Margaret Atwood into high school and college classes?

Before answering, let me offer a few examples from typical lessons found in high schools for virtually every student.

Both the Holocaust and slavery in the U.S. are taught as foundational content in anyone’s education; these are disturbing topics, and hard issues.

When we teach the Holocaust, notably through Night by Elie Wiesel in an English course, do we rush to have students read Hitler’s Mein Kamft to fairly represent both sides, treating each position as morally equivalent, allowing our students to choose whichever position she/he wishes?

When we teach U.S. slavery, possibly having students read Frederick Douglass, do we also find eugenicists’ and racists’ declarations demonizing blacks to fairly represent both sides, treating each position as morally equivalent, allowing our students to choose whichever position she/he wishes?

As in the media, educators at all levels routinely take sides—the answer to the two questions above reveal.

And thus, returning to the push back to my Trumplandia reader, I am lost on how or why educators would find ways to present pro-fascist ideas to balance literature study about the threats of fascism and totalitarianism.

Using Orwell and all sorts of powerful literature to help students on the cusp of or early in their roles as active participants in a democracy to better read the world and better act on that world in informed and ethical ways is the very essence of politics, one not corrupted by simplistic partisan politics of endorsing Democrats [1] or Republicans (which is worth resisting in education and journalism).

In 2017, the U.S. and even the entire world are faced with whether or not we truly believe in freedom and equity, whether or not we are willing to invest in the institutions that can leverage both that freedom and equity—institutions such as formal education and the media. And we have been here before, in the same words and the same actions. [2]

If the answer is yes, then our resolve must be linked to demanding that our teachers and journalists are grounded in taking informed and ethical stands, not the dishonest and uncritical pose of objectivity.

As I have shown above, neither is really being neutral now, but instead, pulling out the objective card only when it serves the interest of the status quo.

Critical educators and critical journalists must not serve the whims of power and money, and must be transparent in their pursuit of credible evidence and ethical behavior.

To frame everything as a debate with equally credible antithetical sides is dishonest and insufficient for the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Teachers and journalists are always political agents; both professions must choose in whose interest they are willing to work.

The neutral pose by either is to take a seat on the train, to keep eyes down, and to allow the train to rumble along as if the tracks are not leading to a cliff.

Pretending that cliff isn’t now on our horizon will not stop the train from crashing on the rocks of the coming abyss.


[1] My political work is not partisan, for example, as I have been warning about the Orwellian failures of political parties for many years; see Orwellian Educational Change under Obama: Crisis Discourse, Utopian Expectations, and Accountability Failures by Paul Thomas.

[2]

seuss-america-first

“How can anybody know/How they got to be this way?”

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?

“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

It’s 7 January 2017, Zore Neale Hurston‘s birth day; Hurston passed away 28 January 1960, a couple days short of one year before my birth 26 January 1961.

So my 56th birth day looms fewer than 3 weeks away.

Today, the world looks unusual for us in South Carolina:

snow-2

Skylar contemplates the necessity of pants for her snow adventure at the new home.

snow-1

The view from my back door for Flurrypocalypse 2017. Throughout the area, grocery stores have no bread or milk.

New years are arbitrary measures of time, and we humans seek any ways possible to understand and control the human condition. The calendar and holidays are some ways we have manufactured to name, organize, and maintain our grip.

As I have detailed lately, today also marks two weeks since I and several other cyclists were struck by a motorist. Writing this now, I notice in just a few minutes, the time will be about exactly when that happened on the morning of Christmas Eve 2016.

I have also confessed that my life has changed. Over the past week, I must admit that it has changed even more than I thought.

Without cycling, I have way too much time, but I also have found it difficult to commit to things the same way I have before. Pain is a problem—distracting and the most potent fertilizer possible for my chronic anxiety and occasional depression.

Yesterday, I finally had a visit with the orthopedist who viewed my x-rays at the emergency room, and almost immediately, I felt better just knowing more from someone with the sort of expertise I do not have.

My medication ran out a few days before this appointment, and along with the increased pain, my fretting was nearly debilitating.

It is embarrassing, but when the anxiety increases, my life is significantly reduced. I worry, and worrying is a very deep well I have trouble climbing out, a very deep well from which I fear I can never climb out.

I have confronted that my life as a road cyclist is likely over; a decision made for me, and a consequence of the accident about which I may be the most viscerally angry.

Anxiety for me is also fed by not knowing—the lowest pit of hell. And I am now swamped by not knowing how the insurance will work out (except to know this is going to be problematic), and not really knowing how soon I will be physically 100% again (I mean as 100% as a 56-year-old man can be).

Just normal aging has always terrified me in terms of the specter of knowing that human behaviors of many kinds will end, and likely without warning. Many things I love to do will no longer be possible just because that is one fact of the human condition.

I have a plan—a way to be hopeful: climbing on the dreaded cycling trainer by week 3 or 4 of the recovery, and as my orthopedist offered without me having to ask, being back on the MTB in 6 weeks or less.

Being mostly immobile and mostly inside has not helped any of this. A huge part of my cycling addiction is connected to constant and extended movement while being outside in the sunshine.

Most bicycle rides are 1.5 hours to 3-4 hours—even once a year, 11-12 hours of riding over 220 miles.

In 2016, I did 246 rides in 365 days, basically riding 2 of every 3 days. There simply is no physical activity possible to replace that.

For two weeks now, I have ridden only the couch.

radical eyes for equity: “Reality bites”

This has been a long build up to explaining why I renamed and chose a different template for this blog.

Blogging, I have discovered, is a powerful way for a writer to gain some of that understanding and control at the center of the human urge.

I started blogging at established but open sites many years ago, and then committed to this WordPress blog four years ago—completely unsure if or why anyone would read my work.

At the beginning, I already had come to terms with rejecting the liberal (versus conservative) tag too strongly anchored in partisan politics, and fully embraced Howard Zinn’s reclaiming the term “radical.” [1]

Naming my blog “the becoming radical” sought to acknowledge being a writer and being a critical educator were always a journey, not a destination, not static—again speaking to Zinn’s “moving train” metaphor.

Especially after working on a volume about James Baldwin in 2014, my focus, my refrain has shifted strongly toward Baldwin:

rigid refusal

As I noted in the prolonged opening, naming and organizing are efforts to understand and control; therefore, as I have changed—and as some of that has been against my will, not of my design—this new year and the horror of Trump before us (just when you think things cannot be worse) have converged with my personal development and my evolution as a writer/thinker/educator.

First, the new template.

I have always wanted a blog that doesn’t look like the stereotype of a blog as something not serious or possibly scholarly (since many people, especially in the academy, don’t value blogging), and I have distinct color and font proclivities.

Immobile and in pain (a dear friend quipped, “You have too much time on your hands”), I searched the free WordPress templates and found what you see now. The green, lower-case lettering of the header, font choices, and ability to control a sidebar all clicked with me. This seems relatively clean and accessible.

I hope my blog readers agree.

But all of that is cosmetic. The main shift has been the new title—radical eyes for equity—which incorporates word play (“radical eyes” = “radicalize”), an allusion to Baldwin’s “rigid refusal to look at ourselves,” and a more clear statement about my grounding in the pursuit of equity—race, class, gender, and sexuality equity.

I cannot explain how I got here, or even fully who I am or what “here” is, but I am here, and this is now, and this is all I can do.

I sit here ending this blog and the sun is shining while it continues to snow in South Carolina, where the temperature is still below freezing.

“What the hell” seems to have become my standard response to this world, but there is work to be done, living to be lived.

I hope you reading and even more will be willing, even eager, to join me here as I try my best to understand and control this thing called the human condition with radical eyes for equity.

And if you join this adventure, I think this from Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart deserves our attention, and it weighs particularly heavy on me now:

hm-ss-reality


[1] From You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn (1994):

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .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?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .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. . . .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. (pp. 7, 173)

 

The Inevitable Rise of Trumplandia: Market Ideology Ate Our Democracy

Writing in 2000 specifically about education reform, Michael Engel [1] acknowledges: “Market ideology has triumphed over democratic values not because of its superiority as a theory of society but in part because in a capitalist system it has an inherent advantage” (p. 9).

Nearly four decades before Engel’s claim, Raymond E. Callahan [2] confronted what he labeled the cult of efficiency in education:

The tragedy itself was fourfold: that educational questions were subordinated to business considerations; that administrators were produced who were not, in any true sense, educators; that a scientific label was put on some very unscientific and dubious methods and practices; and that an anti-intellectual climate, already prevalent, was strengthened. (p. 246)

What is disturbingly clear here is that despite the enduring claims that universal public education—often attributed to the idealistic foresight of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson—serves our democracy, public schooling has in fact worked almost entirely in the service of market ideology: sorting children for the workforce and instilling compliance in those young people become good and compliant workers [3].

And here we have a subset of the entire country.

While many are wringing their hands about the post-truth U.S., our newly minted Trumplandia is not anything new, but the logical outcome of who we have always been—a belief culture skirting by on mythologies and false narratives to mask the ugly facts of our essential commitments to competition, consumerism, and capitalism.

Donald Trump is the best and most accurate personification of who the U.S. currently is, but also the embodiment of who we have always been.

Founded as a revolt against monarchy, the Founding Fathers used the rhetoric of freedom as a veneer for a few privileged men truly wanting the doors to exploitation, not closed, but opened just a tad wider so they could cozy in.

The newly founded free country allowed by law the enslavement of humans and the relegation of women to second-class citizenship.

“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was post-truth.

Or at least only the sliver of truth for a select few white men already clutching power.

All you have to do is to listen now or to the record of black voices, women’s voices, the voices of the imprisoned and impoverished: “(America never was America to me.)” [4]

Just as the robber baron era of U.S. history was no blip on the country’s radar, but who we really are, the current ascension of Trumplandia is simply a more full unmasking of our complete failure at democracy and human liberation.

Trump’s apparent cabinet appointments, his claims he doesn’t need daily briefings, and the brash blurring of celebrity and huckster business acumen—these are the U.S. laid bare.

We have always been mostly branding—meritocracy, boot straps, upward mobility as marketing lingo with little basis in fact.

Political leaders have always sold the U.S. public a bill of goods wrapped in the American flag; George W. Bush sold a war on repackaged lies, and there were essentially only consequences for the soldiers, the U.S. public, and the victims of that war.

But the warmongers remain essentially unscathed.

And thus, Trump as Teflon blow hard reality TV star/business huckster is just a few notches past Ronald Reagan as Teflon actor.

The ugliest paradox of all is that in our lust for consumerism we have allowed market ideology to eat our democracy, and as the metaphor requires, the excrement has really hit the fan this time.


[1] Engel, M. (2000). The struggle for control of public education: Market ideology vs. democratic values. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

[2] Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[3] See Education Technology and the ‘New Economy,’ Audrey Watters:

Although there is some lip service paid to learning computer programming in order to deepen students’ thinking and expand their creativity, much of the conversation about computer science is framed in terms of developing students who are “job ready” – the rationale for teaching computer science President Obama gave in his final State of the Union address in January.

[4] “Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes

Now What?

Additionally many educators no longer feel a sense of responsibility for engaging difficult questions because educational institutions reward them for avoiding controversy and confirming the status quo.

The Answer is Not at the Back of the Book, Seneca Vaught

19 January 2016. It is the day after the official holiday commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. and MLK’s actual birthday—a span of days blanketed with tributes as well as every conceivable way one man’s words and legacy can be twisted to suit a need.

MLK Day 2016 passed in the wake of #ReclaimMLK, #BlackLivesMatter, and #OscarsSoWhite (just to note a few), and now we walk and talk through the days before Black History Month.

Now what?

MLK Day and Black History Month are mostly so much tokenism and appropriation—or better phrased misappropriation.

As the #ReclaimMLK movement has emphasized, MLK has become a whitewashed martyr, a passive radical serving the purposes of the privileged.

I began teaching the radical MLK over thirty years ago, along side Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Malcolm X as well as Gandhi. Eventually I added Howard Zinn’s People’s History.

This was in rural upstate South Carolina in the 1980s and 1990s. This was not a popular or easy thing to do. But it taught me some valuable lessons as a privileged white male.

Race, class, and gender are irrefutable markers for privilege and oppression, but those markers are not the roots of that privilege and oppression.

Privilege is about ideas, privileged ideas.

MLK the passive radical is allowed because sanitized ideas are safe for those in power. The real MLK, radical anti-war, radical anti-capitalism—these ideas are not allowed, remain purposefully muted.

As Arundhati Roy has explained, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Now what? is informed by the Bill Cosby problems—and yes, I mean plural.

The Cosby sexual predator problem has taken years to rise through the Cosby problem deliberately silenced, and preferably unheard: Cosby’s sit-com fame and popularity as a public black-shamer.

Cosby thrived and survived his own demons in part because despite his surface markers of disadvantage, he was embraced for his ideas, ones that conformed to the messages of the privileged class—boot straps and all that.

And it is no stretch to note that the silenced and unheard Cosby problem has been replayed when Hillary Clinton (against her burden of gender) received applauds for her “what if white people suffered as black people do” stump speech.

Yes, there is privilege in all its blindingly white light like the myopic #AllLivesMatter.

What if a free people refused to tolerate anyone’s indignity remains silenced, unheard.

Privilege is an idea, a series of ideas—ones that can be and are voiced by a wide variety of people who look like privilege and look like oppression.

If we want to embrace MLK as a martyr for a color-blind society, we must admit that privilege feeds on seeing, but wilts under the scrutiny of listening. It is not that we should not see race, class, and gender, but that we must listen to the messages behind what we see.

Privilege twists MLK into a cartoon and builds walls around anyone willing to tell the story.

Privilege does not want to hear that equal rights do not mean equal opportunity.

Privilege is threatened by critical education, critical media, critical citizens.

“The purpose of history is not to confirm the answers,” Seneca Vaught explains, “but to challenge the assumptions and raise new questions about the past that relate to the present.”

19 January 2016. A week and a half before Black History Month 2016.

Now what?

Who I Am, Who I Am Not

I am not Howard Zinn.

That likely is unnecessary to state, and may seem a passive-aggressive statement of arrogance, but recently several people have challenged black men’s work and perspectives (notably Ta-Nehisi Coates) by noting “he is not James Baldwin.”

My relatively recent personal/professional blog presence is named the becoming radical based on Zinn’s central claim about his role as teacher/activist:

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .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?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .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. . . .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. (You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn, 1994, pp. 7, 173)

Along with Zinn, my work as teacher/writer and activist is guided by James Baldwin’s concept of bearing witness:

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.

But my voice and footprint in this world—even my direct spheres as a classroom teacher—are incredibly tiny compared to Zinn and Baldwin. They represent who and what I aspire to, but in no way am I deluded into thinking I matter in any way compared to them—or many others.

Part of the reason they and others guide me is that I increasingly am aware of and consciously addressing how flawed I am, how far I have yet to go. If there is arrogance here, it is the arrogance of being a writer; we are compelled to write, which includes the arrogance that there will be readers who think we should be read.

I have been a practicing teacher and writer for over thirty years—and I want to stress that I came to recognize that I am both a teacher and writer, but that I never chose to be either.

An external reality I must admit is that despite my working-class background, my redneck past, I have been afforded a tremendous amount of unearned privilege because I am a white male.

Those powerful buffers of race/gender privilege have been not just a foundation for my personal and professional success but also a trampoline for those achievements.

Nonetheless, my first 18 years of teaching from 1984-2002 were spent as a high school English teacher in the rural Upstate South Carolina high school in my hometown.

There and then, I built who I am today—a teacher who, like Zinn, embraces teaching as activism.

I spent nearly two decades as an unapologetic student-centered teacher who fought daily to expand the reading options for students—adding women and writers of color to the stale white/male canon—and to de-track our English courses by eliminating a mind-numbing array of leveled textbooks.

While teaching high school English, I was mentored by the only black teacher in our department, Ethel Chamblee, who added the much needed veteran voice to our goals of race and class equity in a very conservative and repressive school.

But I also learned another very harsh lesson while teaching high school: I was always “just a school teacher”—professionally and publicly.

If you glance at my publishing history, there are a few scatterings of professional work, poetry, and some fiction throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, but my publishing career exploded in 2002, when I moved to higher education.

In fact, in the final months before I left teaching high school and into my first months as an assistant professor at a selective liberal arts university I was told in both subtle and direct terms that one career didn’t count (teaching public high school) and simply being associated with a university did count (the university association, though, mattered, not me).

First, even though I was hired in the education department of my university, I was told those 18 years teaching didn’t count toward my university experience (administration would have, by the way). So in my early 40s, I had to start in higher education at the bottom.

Next, though, once I had my university beside my name (I had had an EdD for four years before then), local, state, and national publications suddenly considered and published my commentaries. I had been submitting for years while teaching high school, but mostly received no response, and when I did have rare acknowledgements, they were “reject.”

Even today after 13 years and moving through every rank to full professor in higher education, many people within the academy shift their tone and tilt their heads when I explain I taught high school for 18 years before coming to higher education—implying in no uncertain terms, “O, I am so sorry.”

While my university position has afforded me incredible access to doing scholarly and public work, I am daily reminded that teaching is a nearly powerless and dehumanizing profession.

So let me return to my blog title—the becoming radical—and Zinn.

Who I am is teacher/writer as activist, but who I am is also a life-long student, thus my always becoming.

I was raised in the fundamentalist and racist South of the 1960s and 1970s. Despite being academically “smart,” I entered college a deeply ignorant and wrong-minded young man who was daily patted on the head for being smart, even though I had yet to recognize the “smart” was an ugly mask for privilege.

In those college years, I discovered literature, and Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes became my unofficial teachers, my saviors—starting for me a journey now 36 years and counting.

I have been at this teaching thing a long time, and I am still becoming.

I have been at this writing thing a long time, and I am still becoming.

I have been at both as an activist along side those marginalized by race, class, and gender for a long time, and I am still becoming.

If I have to be Howard Zinn to matter to you, then I am certainly going to disappoint you.

If you think you know me because of Twitter or this blog, it seems likely you don’t because the closest thing to the real me is in the classroom year-round (I have always taught optional summer and May sessions for my entire career); the real me is writing nearly every morning, alone; the real me is reading, reading, reading—certain I have so much more to learn.

Who I am will always be the deeply self-conscious redneck young adult who one day confronted his demons and has worked every day since to make amends.

If you think me arrogant (many do since my passion often reads as such), insincere, or self-serving, I must caution you to reconsider. At a few years past 50, my life tells a different story if you are willing to look at it.

But I am certain you do see flaws I haven’t seen yet as well as ones I am now addressing, and rest assured, I am looking because who I am includes as part of the becoming someone who is always listening.

Listening because while all I have is me, who I am is he who knows this is not about me.

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.