Writing, Unteachable or Mistaught?

Let’s not tell them what to write.
Lou LaBrant, The Psychological Basis for Creative Writing (1936)

Kurt Vonnegut was a genre-bending writer and a Freethinker, a lonely pond fed by the twin tributaries of atheism and agnosticism. So it is a many-layered and problematic claim by Vonnegut, also a writing teacher, that writing is “unteachable,” but “something God lets you do or declines to let you do.”

This nod to the authority of God, I think, is more than a typical Vonnegut joke (the agnostic/atheist writer citing God) as it speaks to a seemingly endless debate over the five-paragraph essay, which has resurfaced on the NCTE Connected Community.

To investigate the use of the five-paragraph template as well as prompted writing as dominant practices for teaching writing in formal schooling to all children, I want to begin by exploring my own recent experience co-writing a chapter with a colleague and also couch the entire discussion in a caution raised by Johnson, Smagorinsky, Thompson, and Fry: “Just as we hope that teachers do not oversimplify issues of form, we hope that critics do not oversimplify intentions of the legions of teachers who take this approach” (p. 171).

Writers and People Who Write

My colleague Mike Svec and I are working on a chapter in a volume, and we are examining our work as teacher educators who have working-class backgrounds.

Mike is an academic who occasionally writes. I am a writer who happens to be an academic.

And therein lies a problem for our work as co-writers. Mike spends a great deal of time mulling, reading, planning, and fretting (my word) before committing anything to the virtual page.

I write as part of my brainstorming, and fill up the virtual page so I will have something to wrestle with, revise, reshape and even abandon.

Filling up virtual paper is Mike’s late stage. Filling up virtual paper is my first stage.

This experience has highlighted for me two important points:

  1. Most people (students and academics/teachers included) are not writers, but people who occasionally write (and then, that occasion is often under some compelling requirement and not the “choice” of the person writing).
  2. Especially people who occasionally write, and then most often under that compelling reason or situation, suffer from an inordinate sense of paralysis (I am going to argue further below) because they have been mistaught how to write (predominantly by template and prompt).

Since most teachers of English/ELA and any discipline in which the teacher must teach writing are themselves not writers, the default approach to writing is at least informed by if not couched in Mike’s view of writing—one that has been fostered by template and prompted writing instruction (the authoritarian nod in Vonnegut invoking God above).

And this is my big picture philosophical and pedagogical problem with depending on the five-paragraph essay as the primary way in which we teach students to write: Visual art classes that aim to teach students to paint do not use paint-by-numbers to prepare novices to be artists, and I would argue, that is because those teachers are themselves artists (not teachers who occasionally paint).

However, most teachers of writing in all disciplines are themselves not writers, but teachers who occasionally (or in the past occasionally) write (wrote).

Why Scripts, Templates, and Prompts Fail Students and Writing

In a graduate summer course for English/ELA teachers, I had the students read a commentary by Mike Royko (syndicated columnist) on flag burning. I asked them to mark the parts of the essay and underline the thesis as they read.

And these students who were also teachers dutifully did so.

Royko’s piece in most ways does not conform to the five-paragraph essay, but the teachers marked and labeled an introduction, body, and conclusion—underlining a sentence as the thesis. They immediately imposed onto the essay the script they taught their students (the script they were taught).

When we shared, they noticed differences in their labeling and marking. Most notable was the thesis: Royko’s piece is a snarky, sarcastic commentary that directly states support for flag burning laws but in fact rejects flag burning laws by sarcastic implication.

As a consequence, no direct thesis exists—although we can fairly paraphrase one.

I continue to use examples such as this with first-year students to investigate and challenge templates for essays they have been taught (for example, essays by Barbara Kingsolver) in order to work toward what Johns calls “genre awareness” instead of “genre acquisition.”

Yes, essays have openings that tend to focus the reader, but most openings are primarily concerned with grabbing and maintaining the reader’s interest. And openings are typically far more than one paragraph (essays have paragraphs of many different lengths as well, some as brief as one word or sentence).

Essays then proceed in many different ways—although guided by concepts such as cohesion and purpose.

And then, essays end some way, a way I would argue that is not “restate your introduction in different words” (the Kingsolver essay linked above frames the essay on attitudes toward children with an opening and then closing personal narrative about Spain).

Ultimately, the five-paragraph essay allows both teachers and students to avoid the messy and complicated business that is writing—many dozens of choices with purpose and intent.

Scripts, templates, and prompts do most of the work for student—leaving them almost no opportunities to experiment with the writer’s craft, whether that be in the service of history, science, or any other discipline. Without purposeful practice in the business of writing (making purposeful decisions while implementing the writer’s genre awareness against the constraints of the writing expectations), students (and even academics) are often left in some degree of paralysis when asked to perform authentically as writers.

As Zach Weiner’s comic succinctly illustrates, the five-paragraph template/script and writing prompt serve greater ease in assigning and grading writing (absolving the writing teacher of having expertise and experience as a writer, in fact), but as the student in the comic declares: “Suddenly I hate writing.”

And as Jennifer Gray details:

[M]any of [the students] checked out of the writing process and merely performed for the teacher. Their descriptions about their writing lack enthusiasm and engagement; instead, they reflect obedience and resignation. That is not the kind of writer I want in my classes; I want to see students actively engaged with their work, finding value and importance in the work.

As much as I love Vonnegut, I disagree about writing being unteachable. And his own role as mainly a writer who occasionally taught writing presents another lesson:

Nothing is known about helping real writers to write better. I have discovered almost nothing about it during the past two years. I now make to my successor at Iowa a gift of the one rule that seemed to work for me: Leave real writers alone.

Well, yes, we do know quite a great deal about teaching writing—and we have for many decades. So if “leave them alone” means do not use artificial scripts, I am all in, but certainly developing writers of all ages can be fostered directly by the teacher.

I am left to worry, then, that the main problem we have with teaching writing is that for too long, we have mistaught it as people who occasionally write, and not as writers and as teachers.

This is a herculean ask, of course, that we be writers and teachers.

But for the many who do not now consider themselves writers but must teach writing, it is the opportunity to begin the journey to being a writer with students by committing to genre awareness instead of genre acquisition.

Awareness comes from investigating the form you wish to produce (not imposing a template onto a form or genre). Investigate poetry in order to write poetry; investigate essays in order to write essays.

But set artificial and simplistic templates and scripts aside so that you and your students can see the form you wish to write.

Kingsolver’s warning about child rearing also serves us well as teachers lured by the Siren’s song of the five-paragraph essay: “Be careful what you give children, or don’t, for sooner or later you will always get it back.”

Kurt Vonnegut: “What other advice can I give you?”

After surviving the firebombing of Dresden during World War II and then decades as a chain-smoker, U.S. author Kurt Vonnegut’s death in 2007 felt tragi-comic since it came from tripping while walking down stairs.

In the wake of his death, the world has been offered an expanding universe of Vonnegut including an authorized biography and greater attention paid to his visual artwork, first offered as comic doodles in his novels such as Breakfast of Champions.

Shields KV bioKV drawingsBreakfast of Champions KV

Vonnegut’s fame came relatively late in the 1960s and 1970s and was spurred in part because of his popularity with college students, who gravitated to his dark humor and counter-culture messages in Slaughterhouse-Five. But Vonnegut also built a career as a public speaker, notably at college graduations.

SlaughterhouseFive KV

As an avid reader and occasional Vonnegut scholar, I continue to understand better the complexities of Vonnegut the person and the persona, indistinguishable in his novels and his public talks, but remain drawn to his enduring messages of love, kindness, and hope.

“You will find no lies in Vonnegut’s words of advice,” explains Dan Wakefield, writer and lifelong friend of Vonnegut, adding in his introduction to a collection of Vonnegut’s graduation speeches: “He is one of the truth tellers of our time.”

Nice KV

Vonnegut excelled in bending and blending genres, and in his graduation speeches, he both paid tribute to the form, mocked it, and gave it a new life, one only possible from the creator of Kilgore Trout, himself the embodiment and personified satire of pulp science fiction writers.

Sumner KV

“If this isn’t nice, what is?”

As a writer, Vonnegut bristled at being labeled a science fiction writer, argued that no one could teach someone to write (while working at the famed University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop), and explained that he wrote by crafting a series of jokes, having developed as a child an enduring love for his sister and slapstick.

Slapstick KV

Vonnegut’s contradictions and mis-directions are on full display in his graduation speeches, where he often began by addressing directly both the purpose of commencement talks (giving advice) and the futility of such ceremonies.

“We love you, are proud of you, expect good things from you, and wish you well,” Vonnegut began at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia on May 15, 1999:

This is a long-delayed puberty ceremony. You are at last officially full-grown women—what you were biologically by the age of 15 or so. I am as sorry as I can be that it took so much time and money before you could at last be licensed as grown-ups.

If graduation speeches are meant to punctuate ceremony, then Vonnegut was going to throw cold water on ceremony.

If graduation speeches offer one last moment for sage advice from elders to the young, Vonnegut was going to say something to displease adults and disorient the young.

But always wrapped inside his curmudgeon paper was a recurring gift, one that tied all of his work together: Vonnegut was tragically optimistic and even gleeful about this world.

On cue, then, at Agnes Scott, Vonnegut rejected the Code of Hammurabi, revenge, and admitted he was a humanist, not a Christian, adding:

If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.

I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.

Finally, to those young women, Vonnegut concluded:

I’ll want a show of hands after I ask this question.

How many of you have had a teacher at any level of your education who made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously believed possible?

Hold up your hands, please.

Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone else and tell them what that teacher did for you.

All done?

If this isn’t nice, what is?

A Socialist Non-believer Preaching Love

If Vonnegut was anything, he was a proud Midwesterner, haling from Indiana, who reveled in invoking the name of Eugene V. Debs, a rarely acknowledged voice for workers throughout the late 1800s and into the early 20th century and central inspiration for Hocus Pocus.

Hocusa Pocus KV

Vonnegut as freethinker, then, always stood before graduation audiences, disheveled and wild-haired in the tradition of Mark Twain, the embodiment of the tensions created by college education—where young people often discovered everything their parents feared young people would discover.

The great irony of Vonnegut as graduation speaker was that his perch as counter-culture icon provided him the opportunity to express the central beliefs that, in fact, were what the adult world should want from the young.

Vonnegut thanked graduates for pursuing education, but then apologized for the mess adults had left them to face.

At Butler University in Indiana on May 11, 1996, Vonnegut celebrated his homeland, where he witnessed:

People so smart you can’t believe it, and people so dumb you can’t believe it.

People so nice you can’t believe it, and people so mean you can’t believe it.

And as was typical of his joke making, Vonnegut, acknowledged atheist, turned to the Bible at the end: “As I read the book of Genesis, God didn’t give Adam and Eve a whole planet.”

He lamented, then: “There’s a lot of cleaning up to do,” and “[t]here’s a lot of rebuilding to do, both spiritual and physical.” But out of this mess, Vonnegut reminded the graduates: “And, again, there’s going to be a lot of happiness. Don’t forget to notice!”

One cannot help hearing always in the background of Vonnegut as public speaker, Eliot Rosewater from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater imploring:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'”

God Bless You KV

Vonnegut as a graduation speaker implored us all to pay attention to the things that matter. These moments are ceremonies, yes, but important reminders in these times we agree to pause before moving on.

See Also

“reading a biography (in the absence of you)”

Thomas, P. L. (2013, April). Looking for Vonnegut: Confronting genre and the author/narrator divide. In R. T. Tally, ed., Critical insights: Kurt Vonnegut (pp. 118-140). Ipswich, MA: Salem Press.

—–. (2013, January). 21st century “Children’s Crusade”: A curriculum of peace driven by critical literacy. Peace Studies Journal, 6(1), 15-30.

—–. (2012, Fall). Lost in adaptation: Kurt Vonnegut’s radical humor in film and print. Studies in American Humor, 3(26), 85-101.

—–. (2009). “No damn cat, and no damn cradle”: The fundamental flaws in fundamentalism according to Vonnegut. In D. Simmons (Ed.), New critical essays on Kurt Vonnegut (pp. 27-45). New York: Palgrave.

—–. (2006). Reading, learning, teaching Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Peter Lang USA.

In God We Trust?

Writing about her The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood explains in “Writing Utopia”:

Dystopias are often more like dire warnings than satires, dark shadows cast by the present into the future. They are what will happen if we don’t pull up our socks.

Atwood’s now contemporary classic reads as a brilliant hybrid of George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—”dire warnings” about the allure and dangers of totalitarian theocracies.

Literature, in fact, comes back again and again to warnings about fanatical and fundamentalist religion, especially as that intersects government and politics.

Powerful in its concision and word play, e.e. cummings’ satire of pompous political patriotism begins, “‘next to of course god america i/ love you'”—weaving a stump speech both garbled with cliches and distinctly lucid in its pandering.

The last line (“He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water”), the only words not being spoken by the unnamed politician, comes after the dramatic rhetorical question: “‘then shall the voice of liberty be mute?'”

Like Atwood, Orwell, and Miller, cummings is offering his warning about draping ourselves in the flag while simultaneously thumping the Bible.

In God We Trust?

Having been born, raised, and then living and working my entire life in South Carolina, I have mostly existed in a default culture of Southern Baptist religiosity, a fundamentalist view of scripture.

I have witnessed and continue to witness religion used both as a rod and as a water torture: at once a blunt and instant tool of judgment and a relentless, although only a drop at a time, force for keeping everyone in line.

And that line is decreed by God, so they say.

However, this is not something exclusive to the South—although many continue to rely on scripture to justify corporal punishment and even misogyny in my homeland.

The history of the South, too, offers countless and disturbing “dire warnings”: justifying slavery with scripture and the historical roots of Southern Baptists as a result.

But fundamentalism in the South and the dramatic consequences may mask the thread of those same beliefs running throughout the nation. Consider “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the place of prayer in public schools.

The public is mostly misinformed about all of these, but easily swayed by the political implications of invoking “God.”

“God” on currency and in the Pledge (as a Cold War political ploy) represents a political manipulation of religion (using religion to score political points), as the history of how each occurred reveals. But prayer in public school may be the best example of the problem.

Formed under Ronald Reagan, the committee eventually drafting what is called A Nation at Risk included Gerald Holton, who has revealed Reagan’s “marching orders” for the report:

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom [emphasis added]. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education.

When the president of the U.S. misrepresents a fundamental issue, when virtually no one (media, etc.) holds the president accountable for the misrepresentation, and then when that inaccurate claim remains powerful for decades (until today), we would be careless to suggest that the danger of religion and politics is simply a vestige of the backward South.

Neither prayer nor God has ever been removed or banned from public schools. In 1962, forced prayer was ruled unconstitutional—which ironically seems to be the sort of law the Libertarian-leaning streak in the U.S. would embrace. Yet Reagan Democrats and Tea Partiers are the exact national demographics calling for “religious freedom” legislation, much like the redundant and unnecessary legislation guaranteeing students the right to pray in public schools.

“Freedom To and Freedom From”

“Religious freedom”?

“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia,” Atwood’s narrator, Offred/June, recounts. “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.”

Women training women, Atwood dramatizes, is about control—control of their bodies and control of their minds, which includes controlling language.

“We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice,” Offred/June adds.

Again, I live in SC, a “right to work” state, so I am attuned to the Orwellian language gymnastics so wonderfully emphasized in Atwood’s novel, echoing Orwell’s “dire warnings”:

Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer; though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing. A kilometer away the Ministry of Truth, his place of work, towered vast and white above the grimy landscape….

The Ministry of Truth—Minitrue, in Newspeak—was startlingly different from any other object in sight….From where Winston stood is was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:

WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. (p. 7)

Therefore, I am skeptical—if not cynical—about the proposed “religious freedom” law in Indiana. I am also disturbed that this is occurring in Kurt Vonnegut‘s Indiana, and as Garrett Epps discusses, there are important connections to Indiana’s law and SC:

Until the day he died, however, [Maurice] Bessinger insisted that he and God were right.  His last fight was to preserve the Confederate flag as a symbol of South Carolina. “I want to be known as a hard-working, Christian man that loves God and wants to further (God’s) work throughout the world as I have been doing throughout the last 25 years,” he told his hometown newspaper in 2000….

That’s a good background against which to measure the uproar about the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law by Governor Mike Pence last week. I don’t question the religious sincerity of anyone involved in drafting and passing this law. But sincere and faithful people, when they feel the imprimatur of both the law and the Lord, can do very ugly things.

Being reared in the fundamentalist South, I was given mostly a negative education in morality—all that I was determined not to do and be.

My moral compass has come from literature instead—Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, and Kurt Vonnegut.

These calls, then, for “religious freedom” ring Orwellian, not about “freedom” at all but about the sorts of cancerous marriages between religion and politics already played out time and again in the U.S. to deny marginalized groups what those in power enjoy as if such is ordained by God.

#

“Do you know what a humanist is?” writes Vonnegut in A Man Without a Country:

My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife.

I am compelled to suggest that the question is not, In God we trust?

We must be very cautious about anyone who speaks in God’s stead; we must adopt Vonnegut’s stance toward our fellow humans.

Indiana should feel the consequences of humans’ inhumanity toward humans—a great irony is that this wrath appears to be the Invisible Hand of Capitalism—and like great literature, Indiana’s political hubris and indecency must fulfill Atwood’s recognition of the power of “dire warnings.”

Indiana, pull up your socks.

Recommended

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby

The Delusion of Choice

“What you need is a gramme of soma.”

“All of the benefits of Christianity and alcohol without their defects.”

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul—

[This World is not Conclusion], Emily Dickinson

“‘When Bokonon and McCabe took over this miserable country years ago,’ said Julian Castle, ‘they threw out the priests. And then Bokonon, cynically and playfully, invented a new religion'” (p.172)—opens Chapter 78 of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

Readers soon learn that Bokonon creates a religion “‘to provide the people with better and better lies'” (p. 172), foma, and a central aspect of that strategy involves the fabricated war between the government of San Lorenzo and the religion, Bokononism. Readers discover that this plan fails:

“But people didn’t have to pay as much attention to the awful truth. As the living legend of the cruel tyrant in the city and the gentle holy man in the jungle grew, so, too, did the happiness of the people grow. They were all employed full time as actors in a play they understood, that any human being anywhere could understand and applaud.” (pp. 174-175)

The false choice between McCabe and Bokonon in the other world created by Vonnegut happens to represent well the delusion of choice that exists in the U.S. (not to be examined here, but McCabe/Bokonon reflect the false choice currently in the U.S. between Republican/Democrat; it’s a fake fight, and a false choice).

This delusion, in fact, doesn’t even require the existence of choice—the word itself is nearly magical. But the choice that is the soma of American Myth tends to be binary and constrained, actually no real choice at all.

Should I buy an Accord or a Camry (no real difference, by the way)? But never, Should I even own a car?

And that constraint tends to lie within making sure Americans have no choice other than to work, work, work and thus participate fully in the great Free Market. This choice isn’t really about choice, but about keeping everyone busy and focused on choosing so that no one will consider the alternatives.

This dynamic plays out in the education reform debate through the emphasis on parental choice: that parents must have choice and that parents must know how to choose what education is best for their child.

Just as choosing between car models fails the larger freedom to choose, the school choice truism fails to acknowledge the possibilities of creating conditions that are beyond choice—conditions that make parents choosing what school is best unnecessary.

Many people living in poverty in the U.S. must choose between eating low-quality but cheap food or spending limited funds on more expensive but healthy food (and thus sacrificing other expenses). When do we ever discuss creating a world in which that choice isn’t needed, a world in which only healthy food is available and all food is affordable regardless of social class?

Is that really beyond the scope of a free people and the richest country in the history of humanity?

Probably not.

A a simple example, the South (mostly) has chosen not to play the toll road game, one in which people must choose between spending more money or more time. Many areas of the South have a large number of publicly funded roads (as a cyclist I ride for miles and never see a car, never see a house, but there is a road, usually well maintained).

That attitude toward roads rises above choice; open and available roads render choices between spending time or money irrelevant. But also, that was a choice, a culturally and regionally bound choice.

Idealizing choice and failing to unmask false choice are, ironically, failures of choice, the myopia created by the belief that choice is sacred, that choice is the only key to human freedom.

Although focusing on the UK, a recent study reveals a disturbing conclusion:

But in our new research we found that three and a half years after finishing university, graduates who attended private schools earn an average of 7% more per year than graduates who went to state school.

This could easily be interpreted as the need for choice so the superior private option could motivate the inferior public model to do better—if the consumers choose and create such pressure.

But, as the researchers explain about the complexities of these findings, we often fail to acknowledge that education (including how much achieved and what type of school attended) is often a marker for privilege, and that privilege or race is a stronger predictor of success (such as income) than any equal achievement (such as graduating college); see for example (from HERE, Fig. 1, and HERE, Fig. 2), the influence of class and race against educational attainment:

Figure 1. “Even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong. Advantages and disadvantages, in other words, tend to perpetuate themselves. You can see that in the above chart, based on a new paper from Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill, presented at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s annual conference, which is underway.” Matt O’Brien

Figure 2. “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.” Matt Bruenig

Thus, if we remain committed to choice—that parents and students must have choice in order to spur higher quality education, that in turn will overcome social inequity (classism, racism)—we are not directly addressing class and race inequities, and thus allowing them to continue: Within class and race, education makes a difference, but education does not erase class and race inequities.

Again, we are committed to a false and misleading choice, and not creating a world where that choice isn’t needed once we have eradicated (mostly) classism and racism.

The soma of choice in the U.S. keeps us addicted to competing so that some may win—while excluding the possibility of collaborating so that all may thrive.

As we seek ways to create better education, we should stop demanding that parents and students have choice, and start demanding that no parents or children should have to choose. This is the sort of real choice a free people can and should make.

NOTE: See report by Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill identified in Figure 1.

See Also From Bruenig 2013:

educationandmobility

Fig. 18. Bruenig: “Look at the red bar furthest to the right. That is the bar describing where kids born into the richest fifth who do not get a college degree wind up. Notice that 25% of those kids still wind up in the richest fifth. Now look at the blue bar furthest to the left. That is the bar describing where kids born into the poorest fifth who do get a college degree wind up. Notice that only 10% of those kids wind up in the richest fifth.”

mobility

Fig 3. Matt Bruenig concludes, based on data from the Pew’s Economic Mobility Project: “So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated….Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.”

Jesusland?: Bible Belt Raises Welt of Corporal Punishment

“Jesusland” by Ben Folds includes a powerful verse against the energetic piano and soaring harmonies:

Town to town
broadcast to each house, they drop your name
but no one knows your face
Billboards quoting things you’d never say
you hang your head and pray

While the music and rhythm sound uplifting, the message of the lyrics is a sharp criticism of the Bible Belt, where I grew up, where I live. Folds confronting the disconnect between the ideology found in the words of Jesus in the Bible and then how Christians have manipulated those words and ideals for justifications significantly not Christ-like sits in a long tradition including Thomas Jefferson stating that he believed everything said by Jesus but little said about him (and revising his own version of the Bible to reflect that stance):

Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian. (To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse Monticello, June 26, 1822)

To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, May 21, 1803)

I was born and then have lived all of my 53 years in the South, the upstate of South Carolina, a stark example of a Bible Belt state where fundamentalist Christianity is blended seamlessly and unselfconsciously with rabid state’s-rights commitments and fervent patriotism as a veneer for a solid faith in the free market.

I have labeled my home region of the U.S. the self-defeating South because these often contradictory ideologies not only have created scars on our history but also continue to leave us in a constant state of being battered and bruised, especially children, women, and people of color.

My South has often used and still uses the Bible as a weapon.

My South raised the Bible in defense of slavery.

My South outlawed interracial marriage while waving the Bible.

My South fought the integration of schools, including whites shouting hate and scripture at children being escorting into Little Rock Central.

My South remains the primary region—the Bible Belt—where children are legally subject to corporal punishment not only in their homes but also in their public schools.

Like the angry white Christians shouting hate and their narrow faith at the Little Rock Nine, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” quickly follows the defenses of corporal punishment as the topics of domestic violence and child abuse have been spurred by controversies surrounding NFL players.

As Larry Morrison details about Biblical arguments for slavery—”The emphasis from proslavery defenders was always upon a literal reading of the Bible which represented the mind and will of God himself” (p. 16)—so too are Biblical arguments for spanking children.

Unlike me, Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in the Midwest. In his collection Palm Sunday, Vonnegut confessed, “Toward the end of our marriage, it was mainly religion in a broad sense that Jane and I fought about” (p. 175).

And then Vonnegut—as he often did—shared his upbringing as a Free Thinker, leading to his casual references to himself as an atheist or agnostic. In a speech delivered at Hobart and William Smith College (May 26, 1974), Vonnegut explained:

So a modern, secular education is often painful. By its very nature, it invites us to question the wisdom of the ones we love….

I have said that one guess is as good as another, but that is only roughly so. Some guesses are crueler than others—which is to say, harder on human beings, and on other animals as well….

But it is reasonable to suppose that other bad guesses are poisoning our lives today. A good education in skepticism can help us to discover those bad guesses, and to destroy them with mockery and contempt. (pp. 178-179)

Vonnegut as Free Thinker recognized that “bad guesses” were often most corrosive when linked to the Word of God; therefore, he called for “a new religion” (p. 181)—necessary to combat “hypocrisy”:

I am willing to drop the word religion, and substitute for it these three words: heartfelt moral code….The trouble with so many of the moral codes we have inherited is that they are subject to so many interpretations….This is good news for hypocrites, who enjoy feeling pious, no matter what they do. (p. 184)

Vonnegut in this speech focused on the tragedies of continuous war and rampant consumerism to the expense of the survival of humans—concluding as only Vonnegut could about the need “to do whatever we need to do in order to have life on the planet go on for a long, long time”:

This is bad news for business, as we know it now. It should be thrilling news for persons who love to teach and lead. And thank God we have solid information in the place of superstition! Thank God we are beginning to dream of human communities which are designed to harmonize with what human beings really need and are.

And now you have just heard and atheist thank God not once, but twice. And listen to this:

God bless the class of 1974. (p. 191)

In 1974, I didn’t know about Vonnegut, but I was on the cusp of two important realizations of my life: the need “to question the wisdom of the ones we love” (my parents and community) and my own aversion to the hypocrisy of the Bible Belt I called home.

A decade later, 1984, I was teaching English in the high school I had attended, in the classroom where my favorite teacher, Lynn Harrill, had taught before moving on to administration. And then, about another decade later, my students—most of whom attended the Southern Baptist church that sat literally in the middle of the district’s four public schools—joined the national fad of wearing What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) bracelets and T-shirts.

Teaching public school in the Bible Belt throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I can attest that religion was never absent from school, including prayers still be announced each morning over the intercom.

The WWJD movement highlighted for me, however, how in the South superficial religiosity trumps any genuine heartfelt moral code, as Vonnegut called it. Students leading lives that were in fact not Christ-like were the most fervent about the WWJD paraphernalia, creating a great deal of tension with students who were acting Christ-like (in many ways) but not calling attention to it.

Two things remain with me about those years teaching, watching young people too often slip comfortably into the hypocrisy of the Bible Belt (something about which I blame the adults, and not those students).

First, and ironically, the WWJD merchandising was an accurate portrayal of commitments in the U.S. to the market, to consumerism over all else (especially ethics).

And second, what a wasted moment.

Like Vonnegut and Jefferson, I too am comfortable with embracing a world in which humans behave in ways that are Christ-like:

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5: 38-39)

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:24)

I have a Who Would Jesus Bomb bumper sticker on a file cabinet in my office, and am certain that if this guided our policy in the U.S., we’d be a much better people.

It is 2014, 40 years since Vonnegut’s essentially optimistic speech.

I fear I cannot share his optimism, having slipped from the healthy skepticism Vonnegut endorsed into a solid cynicism.

As I have written about and raised in my classes my strong stance against all corporal punishment, based on decades of solid research, I have been bombarded with “My parents spanked me, and I turned out OK” as well as the expected refrain: “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

All while I lie down each night still living in Jesusland, the Bible Belt where we endorse teaching children lessons with fear and pain.

I am left to muse as Vonnegut did four decades ago, but I think about Who Would Jesus Spank and simply cannot find a credible answer other than not a single child.

“Human dignity,” Vonnegut offered in a 1980 speech at the First Parish Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “must be given by people to people”:

If you stand before me, and I do not credit you with dignity, then you have none. If I stand before you, and you do not credit me with dignity, then I have none….

What could be more essential in a pluralistic society like ours than that every citizen see dignity in every other human being everywhere? (p. 194)

I can’t imagine anything different uttered by Jesus, and I can only add, including children.

So it goes.

Debating the Gates Moratorium, Or Life among the Roadbuilders

As a lifelong fan of science fiction (SF), I want to start by invoking a SF convention that never gets old: time travel (but I’ll spare you the whirlwind prestidigitation mastered by Kurt Vonnegut, who married time travel and non-linear narrative in Slaughterhouse-Five).

Once upon a time (well, I must confess, I enjoy a bit of genre-splicing also), Bill Gates, billionaire and burgeoning education hobbyist, began tossing his considerable expertise (read: money) at small schools projects. Low and behold, Gates eventually looked at the research his own foundation gathered, declared the project a failure, and scuttled away—only to decide that the greatest scourge on the planet was the enormous number of “bad” teachers failing our children everyday!

Since we are now back in time (and you may notice a pattern here about history repeating itself, and such), let’s look at that Gates/small school dynamic as I blogged about this in April and May 2011:

And, Gates’s small schools experiment? While Gates himself declared the experiment a failure, Marshak explains that Gates’ small school experiment actually exposes Gates’ own inability to understand the education dynamics he claims to reform. But ample evidence reveals both that Gates is inexpert and remains unsuccessful as an education reformer. See here, here and here — including his failure to understand statistics and the charts he enjoys using to make his points here. (Accountability? Start at the Top, OpEdNews 11 April 2011)

Let’s do some truly basic math.

First, consider that Bill Gates, a billionaire whose wealth and success have been built on computer innovation and entrepreneurship, has been an education reformer for many years now–stretching back to a small schools focus:

“Bill Gates used to believe that one of the solutions to failing schools was to create smaller ones with 500 students or fewer. His foundation spent $1 billion toward this; seeing the opportunity to bring in private dollars, districts started shifting to smaller schools. Small schools became the big new trend. But then the foundation conducted a study that found that, by itself, school size had little if any effect on achievement. The foundation dropped the project and moved on to teacher reform, but by then some urban districts throughout the nation had changed to small–and more expensive to operate–schools.”

So the first formula is:

Gates initiative + Gates funding = abandoned schools in the wake of failure (with no consequences for Gates)

As the Los Angeles Times reports above, Gates is now focusing on teacher quality–including calls for teacher evaluations tied to test scores measuring student achievement against the common core standards.

This suggests a new formula:

Gates money + common core standards + testing industry = profit for Gates and testing industry at the expense of students, learning, and public education. (If There Remains Any Question, Daily Kos 1 May 2011)

Let’s return now to the present where the Gates machine has called for a moratorium on all that Common Core and VAM stuff because his own people’s research appears to refute what Gates has been pontificating about in the compliant media gaze that only Gates seems worthy of receiving (I hate to beat this to death, but do any of you see a pattern here?).

I want to offer now that this call for a moratorium is another teachable moment—those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and all that—and therein we have at least two important lessons:

First, Gates/small schools, Gates/VAM, and Gates/Common Core are all the same flawed dynamic in which political leaders, the media, and the public confuse wealth with expertise. Remove Gates’s billions and he would have zero credibility in any of these ventures—and I still maintain that the small school debacle is the most telling part of this story [1] because Gates misread his own research, declared erroneously the commitment a failure, and simply walked away leaving others to hold the bag (roadbuilder he has always been, roadbuilder he will always be).

And this leads to the debate and discussion that has blossomed from the Gates moratorium announcement.

So our second lesson is somewhat positive: If we could ever set aside confusing wealth with expertise, we may come to recognize that among educators, scholars, and researchers we already have a wealth of expertise that could better serve our goals of education reform.

And thus, I maintain my stance that the Gates moratorium is a sham, but I want to highlight here that within the credible responses to that moratorium call, we see how education reform should be debated by those who know the field:

And while I enjoy coming back to and finding new SF again and again, in education reform I am eager to step off the “Déjà vu all over again” merry-go-round.

Bill Gates, about that moratorium? No thanks. And while we are at it, no thanks to all the rest either.

If you’d stopped building your roads we never asked for right through the middle of our villages, we would have time to take care of business here, instead of constantly staying one step behind underneath the rubble of the disasters you create.

[1] Please read carefully Good Doubt and Bad Doubt from 2007 and Why Did the Gates Small-High-Schools Program Fail?: Well, Actually It Didn’t from 2010 for some really powerful time travel. And this is just must-read: Bill Gates should hire a statistical advisor.

UPDATED: Memorial Day 2015: A Reader

If we could find a space to honor peace, to honor peace by taking action so that peace was the norm of humanity…

Whom Will We Honor Memorial Day?, Howard Zinn

Memorial Day should be a day for putting flowers on graves and planting trees. Also, for destroying the weapons of death that endanger us more than they protect us, that waste our resources and threaten our children and grandchildren….

Meanwhile, there is such a shortage of housing that millions live in dilapidated sections of our cities and millions more are forced to pay high rents or high interest rates on their mortgages. There’s 90 billion for the B1 bomber, but people don’t have money to pay hospital bills.

We must be practical, say those whose practicality has consisted of a war every generation. We mustn’t deplete our defenses. Say those who have depleted our youth, stolen our resources. In the end, it is living people, not corpses, creative energy, not destructive rage, which are our only real defense, not just against other governments trying to kill us, but against our own, also trying to kill us.

Let us not set out, this Memorial Day, on the same old drunken ride to death.

The First Decoration Day, David W. Blight

Thousands of black Charlestonians, most former slaves, remained in the city and conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events, and unknown until some extraordinary luck in my recent research, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters’ horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

21st century “Children’s Crusade”: A curriculum of peace driven by critical literacy, P. L. Thomas

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

“All the King’s Horses,” Kurt Vonnegut

Whom Will We Honor Memorial Day?, Howard Zinn

At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border, William Stafford

“next to of course god america i, e. e. cummings