Educational Accountability and the Science of Scapegoating the Powerless

Several years ago when I submitted an Op-Ed to the largest newspaper in my home state of South Carolina, the editor rejected the historical timeline I was using for state standards and testing, specifically arguing that accountability had begun in the late 1990s and not in the early 1980s as I noted.

Here’s the interesting part.

I began teaching in South Carolina in the fall of 1984, the first year of major education reform under then-governor Richard Riley. That reform included a significant teacher pay raise, extended days of working for teachers, and the standards-testing regime that would become normal for all public education across the U.S.

In fact, SC’s accountability legislation dates back to the late 1970s (I sent her links to all this).

As a beginning teacher, the only public schooling I ever knew was teaching to standards and high-stakes tests by identifying standards on my lesson plans and implementing benchmark assessments throughout the academic year to document I was teaching what was mandated as a bulwark against low student tests scores. State testing, including punitive exit exams, pervaded everything about being an English teacher.

Yet, an editor, herself a career journalist, was quick to assume my expertise as a classroom practitioner and then college professor of education was mistaken.

This is a snapshot of how mainstream media interact with education as a topic and educators as professionals.

I am reminded of that experience over and over in fact as I read media coverage of education. Take for example this from Education Week, Want Teachers to Motivate Their Students? Teach Them How, which has the thesis:

Most teachers intrinsically understand the need to motivate their students, experts say, but teaching on intuition alone can lead to missteps in student engagement.

A study released in May by the Mindset Scholars Network, a collaborative of researchers who study student motivation, found most teacher education programs nationwide do not include explicit training for teachers on the science of how to motivate students.

Two key elements of this article stand out: The new scapegoat in proclaiming education a failure is teacher education and the go-to failure is always about a lack of “science” in teacher education.

This article on motivation is following a media template well worn recently about students in the U.S. can’t read because teachers are not taught the “science of reading,” you guessed it, in their teacher education programs.

As I detailed in a Twitter thread, scapegoating teacher education has many flaws, and my experience and expertise as a teacher educator for almost two decades, following almost two decades as a classroom teacher, inform my understanding of how finding scapegoats for educational failure during the accountability era is fool’s gold.

How has the accountability era gone in terms of where the accountability and locus of power lie, then?

In the 1980s and 1990s, the accountability mechanisms focused on holding students accountable (think exit exams) and schools accountable (student test scores often translated into school rankings or grades, designating schools as “failing,” for example).

Keep in mind that students had no power in that process, and that schools were merely agents of the standards being implemented, again outside the power dynamics of those mandates being determined.

With No Child Left Behind spawned by the false claims of the Texas Miracle, the accountability era was greatly accelerated, including a creeping sense that the process wasn’t improving education but it was punishing students (lower graduation rates due to exit exams) and demonizing schools (most high-poverty and high-racial minority schools were labeled as “failing”).

By the administration of Barak Obama, with education policy under another false narrative (the Chicago Miracle) and false ambassador with no background in education other than appointments (Arne Duncan), the scapegoating took a turn—the problem, went the new message, was “bad” teachers and the solution was not holding students or schools accountable for test scores but those teachers (the era of value-added methods [VAM]).

As some have noted and documented, teacher bashing increased and then prompted a backlash (see magazine covers from Time for a great series of artifacts on this); it seems that VAM proved to be a false metric for accountability and that maybe teachers were not the problem after all.

With the scapegoat role now vacant, the media have discovered a new candidate, teacher education.

Let’s here recognize that once again the power context is way off in who is determining the accountability and who is being held accountable. For the most part, teachers and teacher educators are relatively powerless agents who are mandated to implement standards and assessments that they do not create and often do not endorse as valid.

Now consider another really important reason accountability in education is deeply flawed: The constant misguided scapegoating of powerless agents in formal teaching and learning is a distraction from the actual causal sources for educational challenges.

Fun fact: Decades of research from educators and education scholars have detailed that out-of-school factors overwhelmingly determine measurable student outcomes, some estimates as high as 80+% and most scholars agreeing on 60%. Teacher quality’s impact on measurable student achievement has been identified repeatedly as only about 10-15%.

Yet, the entire accountability era since the early 1980s has focused on in-school reforms only (scapegoating along the way), while tossing up hands and embracing harsh ideologies such as “no excuses” practices that argue teachers fail students with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and students fail because they lack “grit” or a growth mindset.

Many of us have doggedly argued for social context reform, addressing socio-economic reform first and then reforming education along equity (not accountability) lines next, or concurrently. Many of us have also demonstrated that “grit” and growth mindset have racist and classist groundings that are harmful.

For those positions, we have been demonized and marginalized for decades.

So imagine my surprise when, first, the tide shifted on teacher bashing (I have 34 posts on my blog discrediting VAM and dozens on misunderstanding teacher quality) and then these articles: Better Schools Won’t Fix America (The Atlantic), The Harsh Discipline of No-Excuses Charter Schools: Is It Worth the Promise? (Education Week), and Unchartered territory: 2020 Democrats back away from charter schools (MSN).

My blog posts, however, on social context reform and poverty (157), “no excuses” reform (70), and the mirage of charter schools (80) have either mostly been ignored or are harshly (even angrily) rejected. Like my interaction with the editor discussed in the opening, my experience and expertise as an educator and education scholar have held almost no weight with those in power pr the media.

The media and journalists as generalists seem deeply resistant to learning a lesson they create over and over.

Take for a current example Karin Wulf’s examination of Naomi Wolff and Cokie Roberts; Wulf herself is a historian:

It’s been a tough few weeks for amateur history. First, journalist Naomi Wolf discovered on live radio that she had misinterpreted key historical terms in her new book, “Outrage,” leading her to draw the wrong conclusions. A week later, journalist Cokie Roberts, too, got a quick smackdown when she claimed on NPR that she couldn’t find any incidence of abortion advertised in 19th century newspapers, a claim quickly disproved by historians.

Wolf and Roberts fell victim to a myth widely shared with the American public: that anyone can do history. Whether it’s diving into genealogy or digging thorough the vast troves of digital archives now online, the public has an easy way into the world of the past. And why would they imagine it takes any special training? After all, the best-selling history books are almost always written by non-historians, from conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly to journalists like Wolf and Roberts.

Wulf’s confronting “that anyone can do history” immediately prompted in me my experience when I first moved from teaching high school English (and adjuncting at several colleges, including being a lead instructor in a university-based summer institute of the National Writing Project) to higher education. My university was debating a curriculum change that included dropping traditional composition courses (popularly known as English 101 and English 102) for first-year seminars.

One of those first-year seminars was to be writing-intensive, and the argument being posed was that any professor could teach writing.

This change passed, and the English department and professors were relieved of sole responsibility for teaching writing.

Over the next eight years or so, the university learned a really disturbing lesson (one I could have shared in the beginning): “Any professor can teach writing” is false.

As Wulf argues about history, with writing and education, experience and expertise matter.

So here I sit again, writing over and over that the media are getting reading wrong, that scapegoating teacher education is missing the real problem.

How many years will it take until I see articles “discovering” these facts as if no one with experience and expertise ever raised the issue?

Checklist: Media Coverage of the “Science of Reading”

Several years ago while preparing the first edition (2013) of De-testing and De-grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization, I came to know Peter DeWitt as a highly praised principal who wrote in that volume about no testing week at his school.

His work and career have shifted since then, but I have remained in contact through his public writing. Coinciding with a mostly fruitless Twitter debate about how the media continues to misrepresent the challenges and realities of teaching reading, then, I was strongly drawn to DeWitt’s 3 Reasons I Do Not Engage In Twitter Debates.

Much of his examination of the paradox that is social media is extremely compelling to me; his three reasons, in fact, resonate powerfully: They’re rarely about common understanding, they make you look really crazy to onlookers, and he’s not good at them.

When I find myself crossing (foolishly) DeWitt’s pointed line, I try to justify the effort by this (mostly idealistic and probably misguided) justification: Making a nuanced and detailed case, even through the limitations of Twitter, will likely not persuade the Twitter thread members, but can provide a platform for learning to those observing the discussion.

However, I find DeWitt’s conclusions hold fast, and thus, offering here the details and the nuance has a better, although also limited, potential for changing the dialogue and reaching more understanding.

Instead of providing yet another discrediting of yet another media misrepresentation of the “science of reading” (see some of that work listed below), I want to offer here a checklist for those who want to navigate the media coverage in an informed and critical way.

Mainstream media education journalism is routinely bad because of some broad problems inherent in journalism: journalists tend to be generalists and media assume a journalist can and should cover specialized fields, journalism remains bound to a “both sides” coverage of topics that misrepresents the actual balance of evidence in those specialized fields, and as I outline below, mainstream media tend to be trapped in a sort of presentism that lacks historical context.

Below with additional sources to support and illuminate the problems is a checklist for navigating mainstream media’s coverage of the “science of reading”:

Mainstream media’s errors in science of reading include the following:

[ ] Misrepresenting balanced literacy (BL), whole language (WL) to discredit them. To evaluate media coverage of reading instruction, know that reading ideologies such as balanced literacy and whole language suffer very complex realities. First, as links below detail, even when teachers or schools claim to be implementing BL or WL, there is ample evidence that traditional and more isolated practices are actually in place. Second, and extremely important to the current and historical versions of the reading wars, both BL and WL recognize and endorse a significant place for phonics instruction in early literacy; as Stephen Krashen explains pointedly: “Zero Phonics. This view claims that direct teaching is not necessary or even helpful. I am unaware of any professional who holds this position.”

Resources:

Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction, Stephen Krashen

Whole Language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92, Stephen Krashen

Literacy at the Crossroads: Crucial Talk About Reading, Writing, and Other Teaching Dilemmas, Regie Routman

Facts: On the nature of whole language education

Attack on “Balanced Literacy” Is Attack on Professional Teachers, Research

Silver Bullets, Babies, and Bath Water: Literature Response Groups in a Balanced Literacy Program, Dixie Lee Spiegel

[ ] Misrepresenting the complex role of phonics in reading in order to advocate for phonics programs. Related to the first point above, phonics advocacy tends to suggest falsely that some literacy experts support no phonics instruction and that all children must receive systematic intensive phonics instruction; these extreme polarities distort, ironically, what the broad and complex research base does show about how children learn to read as well as the role of phonics in that process.

Resources:

To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics, Andrew Davis

Stephen Krashen: Literacy: Phonemic Awareness and Phonics

The Literacy Crisis False Claims Real Solutions, Jeff McQuillan

[ ] Lacking historical context about the recurring “reading wars” and the false narratives of failing to teach children to read. The media, the public, and political leaders have chosen a crisis narrative for teaching reading throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. That framing as crisis has mostly obscured both the problems that do stunt effective reading instruction and the complex nature of teaching reading as well as the current research base on teaching and literacy development.

Resources:

What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: Looking Back to See Now More Clearly

What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: A Symposium

Research in Language (1947), Lou LaBrant

Hooked on Phonics Redux

[ ] Overemphasizing/ misrepresenting National Reading Panel (NRP) value, ignoring it as a narrow and politically skewed report. A central component of No Child Behind was the NRP; however, as a key member of the panel has detailed, that report was neither a comprehensive and valid overview of the then-current state of research on teaching reading nor a foundational tool for guiding reading practices or policy. Yet, media coverage routinely references the NRP as gold-standard research and laments its lack of impact (although the NRP report did spawn a disturbing scandal concerning federal funding and textbook adoptions).

Resources:

Babes in the Woods: The Wanderings of the National Reading Panel, Joanne Yatvin

Did Reading First Work?, Stephen Krashen

My Experiences in Teaching Reading and Being a Member of the National Reading Panel, Joanne Yatvin

I Told You So! The Misinterpretation and Misuse of The National Reading Panel Report, Joanne Yatvin

The Enduring Influence of the National Reading Panel (and the “D” Word)

[ ] Citing bogus reports from discredited think tanks such as NCTQ. Well over a decade ago, Gerald Bracey warned about the growing influence of agenda-driven think tanks aggressively promoting reports before they are peer reviewed; since the mainstream media and most journalists are under-funded and overworked, press-release journalism has become more and more common, especially regarding education and often in terms of how so-called research is framed for the public. With the recent focus on the “science of reading,” the scapegoat of the day is teacher education; the narrative goes that teachers today do not know the science of reading because teacher education programs do not teach the science of reading. Often as proof, the mainstream media resorts to anecdote (they talk to a teacher or two who claims not to have been taught the science of reading) and citing bogus reports masquerading as research—notably the work of NCTQ, a think-tank that has aggressively and falsely attacked teacher education in report after report using slip-shod methods and devious processes to gather the data claim to analyze.

Resources:

NEPC Review: 2018 Teacher Prep Review (National Council on Teacher Quality, April 2018)

Review of Learning about Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know

GUEST POST by Peter Smagorinsky: Response to the new NCTQ Teacher Prep Review

[ ] Scapegoating teacher education while ignoring two greatest influences on reading: poverty and reading programs adopted to comply with standards and high-stakes testing. There is ample room to criticize teacher education, particularly focusing on the problems with credentialing and the flaws inherent in the accreditation process, but the current media urge to blame teacher education for either how reading is taught or the errors in how reading is taught distracts from some hard facts about measurable reading achievement: first, standardized testing of all kinds are more strongly correlated with socio-economic and out-of-school factors than either teacher, teaching, or school quality; and this blame-teacher-education narrative glosses over that almost all reading instruction in U.S. public schools is mandated by standards, high-stakes testing, and adopted reading programs regardless of what teachers learned in their certification program.

Resources:

In Schools, Teacher Quality Matters Most

Teachers Matter, But So Do Words | Shanker Institute

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Masquerading (1931), Lou LaBrant

[ ] Conflating needs of students with special needs and needs of general population of students. The genesis of the most recent version of the reading wars that focuses on the “science of reading” appears to be grounded in a growing advocacy for children either not diagnosed or misdiagnosed for issues related to dyslexia. Parents of those children have been very politically active, and while their concerns for children with special needs are valid, the media and politicians have overreacted to that narrow issue and over-generalized the needs of those students to all students. This advocacy has also run roughshod over the actual and more nuanced research base on dyslexia itself. In short, parents advocating for their children should be honored and heard, but parents should not be driving reading instruction or reading policy.

Resource:

Parent Advocacy and the New (But Still Misguided) Phonics Assault on Reading

[ ] Emphasizing voices of cognitive scientists over literacy professionals. Two common patterns in media coverage of education and specifically reading are that journalists perpetuate both a gender and a discipline bias in whose voices are highlighted; notably, mostly men who are cognitive scientists are used to drive the agenda while women who are literacy practitioners and scholars are either ignored, marginalized as “critics,” or scapegoated as misguided advocates of BL or WL.

Resources:

NPR Fails Journalism and Education (Again)

What’s Wrong with Education as a Discipline?: Unpacking the Reading Wars (Again)

[ ] Trusting silver-bullet, one-size-fits-all claims about teaching and learning. Fundamentally, the historical and current flaw in the reading wars, even one framed as the “science of reading,” is that phonics advocacy reaches for “all students must have systematic intensive phonics programs,” buoyed recently by “but intensive phonics programs won’t hurt any students.” However, all teaching and learning proves to be far more complex that these claims. If we return to BL as a reading philosophy, we can emphasize that each child (not all children) should receive the type and amount of direct phonics instruction they need to begin and then grow as readers; that type and amount is difficult to prescribe, and often children are mis-served when systematic phonics programs are adopted because fidelity to the program typically trumps the actual goal of reading instruction, eager and autonomous readers. When a child is mandated to complete a phonics program, regardless of that child’s needs, that time would have been much better spent with the child reading by choice; therefore, systematic phonics do in fact harm students when they are implemented as “all students must.”

Resources:

Navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of Research in Education

Teaching Students, Not Standards or Programs

[ ] Feeding a false narrative blaming teachers and teacher educators both of whom are deprofessionalized /powerless in accountability structures. There are some dirty little secrets about education that discredit much of how media cover teaching and learning: as noted above, measurable teacher impact on student learning is quite small; teachers are mostly complying with mandates, and not making instructional or assessment decisions; and teacher educators have very little impact on how teachers implement teaching once they are in the classroom and required to conform to the mandates linked to standards and high-stakes testing.

Resources:

Pre-Service Teacher Education vs. the World

Verboden!: Autonomy and Critical Thinking in Education

Autonomy Must Precede Accountability

See Also

 

Hooked on Phonics Redux

The commercial reading program Hooked on Phonics, with iconic over-the-top commercials for those of us of a certain generation, had to abandon those ads in 1994:

Under an agreement disclosed this week between the makers of the reading program Hooked on Phonics and the Federal Trade Commission, the manufacturer must abandon its advertising campaign or conduct far more research into the program’s effectiveness–and disclose any evidence of failure.

Anyone paying even slight attention to current media fascination with the “science of reading” and dyslexia may benefit from revisiting the problem with Hooked on Phonics and their outlandish claims:

Orange County-based Gateway Educational Products, maker of Hooked on Phonics, agreed to a settlement that bars the parent company from making unsubstantiated claims about the program’s ability to teach people to read. The settlement, which was signed Aug. 29, was made public Wednesday by the commission.

The FTC had charged that Gateway was making sweeping, unproven promises that the program could teach anyone to read, regardless of their limitations. Gateway admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, and will pay no penalty, said Christian S. White, acting director of the commission’s bureau of consumer protection.

“They offered a one-size-fits-all solution–you have reading problems, this is the product,” White said. “Gateway’s evidence just doesn’t back up these broad, sweeping claims.”

The claims, according to the commission, included statements that Hooked on Phonics can teach even those with reading problems, such as dyslexia; that the product improves users’ reading levels and classroom grades significantly; that it can teach reading at home, without a tutor; that it teaches comprehension of the meaning of words, and that it has helped almost 1 million people learn to read at home.

The commission also said that testimonials by people who have taken the program are used misleadingly in commercials and do not prove that their experiences were typical of the average user, which is a violation of federal law.

Although this happened 25 years ago, currently driven by overzealous dyslexia advocacy, the mainstream media is promoting essentially the same misguided and overstated arguments about teaching reading.

For the full and complicated story about teaching reading that the mainstream media refuses to acknowledge, see this reader below:

URGENT: Media Misreading the Reading Crisis Yet Again

Media Misreading the Reading Crisis Yet Again

By Katie Kelly and P.L. Thomas

Photo by Nathaniel Shuman on Unsplash

Several news articlesvideosreports on new state legislation, and commentaries across mainstream media have built a false narrative about a Reading Crisis. That story includes several key elements: Teachers do not know, and thus do not practice, the science of reading because teacher education has failed them.

Not only have the mainstream media offered only one narrative, but also, for example, the Education Writers Association chose one of the most prominent misleading articles for a Public Service, small staff award: Emily Hanford’s “Hard Words.”

In 2019, the Reading Wars have begun anew but with different language: Phonics advocates have simplified “the science of reading” to “all students need systematic phonics,” for example. And this round has resulted in dramatic changes in state reading policies.

As literacy educators and scholars, however, we contend that these messages are misrepresenting the Reading Crisis and the science of reading — both of which are far more complicated than being presented by much of the media, dyslexia advocates, and political leaders.

Those Who Ignore History: A Look Back at Reading Crises

The newest misdiagnosed Reading Crisis begs for a truism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana).

For example, the November 1942 issue of The Elementary English Review(National Council of Teachers of English) included a provocative piece, What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: A Symposium, prompted by the high rate of illiteracy among men drafted into WWII.

This symposium offers answers to the titular question from leading literacy experts of the time, including Lou LaBrant (former president of NCTE). Represented by assembled experts on literacy, this Reading Crisis foreshadows these debates are misguided and driven by ideology instead of evidence.

While we recommend reading the symposium responses in full, let’s focus on LaBrant: “Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of ‘new methods,’ ‘progressive schools,’ or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book” (p. 240).

However, LaBrant discredits that blame because the recruits identified as illiterate or semi-literate “…are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States [emphasis in original]” (pp. 240–241).

Next, in the 1980s/1990s, the media announced a Reading Crisis in California blamed on whole language. Literacy scholar Stephen Krashen, and others, debunked that claim, noting although whole language was the official reading approach of the state, teachers almost never implemented whole language. Further, the reading score plummet correlated with whole language being the official policy, but the causes of those lower scores were a large influx of non-native speakers of English and reduced educational funding.

Throughout much of the 20th century, reading instruction in practice remained skills-based, perpetuating a simple view of reading. That criticism of whole language, however, prompted a call for more scientific approaches to teaching reading, which meant mandated scripted instruction with an emphasis on phonics instruction. This was also driven by the high stakes accountability era of No Child Left Behind.

Contrasting thoughtful literacy, scripted reading programs narrow curriculum focusing on skills instruction and test preparation through teacher-directed learning (Kozol, 2005; Lipman, 2004). In this context, students serve as vessels with teachers depositing knowledge. This back-to-basics model of instruction encourages replication and regurgitation of information with little emphasis on comprehension instruction, critical thinking, and rich discussion of text (Comber & Nichols, 2004Durkin, 1981Leland, Harste, & Huber, 2005Shannon, 2007Taberski, 2011).

Being a good word caller does not equate to being a good reader, but can produce a false-positive on narrow types of reading tests. This unbalanced approach to teaching literacy is not only problematic, but also dangerous.

Misreading the Reading Crisis Yet Again

Despite the value of a more student-centered curriculum that fosters critical thinking, some advocate for a return to skills-based systematic phonics instruction, framed as the “science of reading,” and claim another Reading Crisis. With a new push for phonics as a single pathway to literacy, the role of the meaning making process in reading will again be neglected.

In her seminal study, Delores Durkin found an overemphasis on testing comprehension rather than teaching comprehension. Reading is a complex cognitive process mediated by social and cultural practices requiring instruction and interaction with text and others to construct meaning. Therefore, we must shift our view of literacy beyond decoding to include constructing meaning and reading texts critically by expanding instructional practices and the ways we assess reading.

The so-called science of reading is, in fact, balanced literacy, which includes a focus on multiple components of literacy including phonics, comprehension, and writing: “A balanced approach will privilege authentic texts and tasks, a heavy emphasis on writing, literature, response, and comprehension, but it will also call for an ambitious program of explicit instruction for phonics, word identification, comprehension, spelling, and writing” (Pearson, 2004, p. 243).

While phonics is an essential component of reading instruction in the primary grades, “it should be noted that phonics is one element of a comprehensive literacy program that must also include practice in comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, writing, and thinking” (ILA, 2018).

No Crisis, But We Are Failing Our Students

Crisis rhetoric misreads not only how we currently teach and historically have taught reading, but also misrepresents the causes of low student achievement in reading while perpetuating some of the worst possible policies and legislation such as grade retention based on high-stakes testing.

This Reading Crisis ignores that focusing on narrow standards and high-stakes testing combined with the de-professionalization of teaching and under-funding education has resulted in overcrowded classrooms where teachers and students conform to mechanical reading programs privileging the wealthy and overemphasize test scores.

As teacher educators, we can attest that regardless of what we teach about reading and literacy, most teachers feel pressured to implement programs and raise test scores.

Rather than blaming students and teachers for the opportunity gap entrenched in formal schooling, consider the achievement debt due to inequitable funding, poor healthcare, and a lack of political courage. With increasingly diverse student populations, we have a responsibility to address this debt by serving all students through culturally relevant teaching practices.

We must, then, disrupt the misguided narrative of crisis that disguises the sociocultural historical and political factors that influence reading instruction as a disease that simply needs a vaccination in the form of systematic phonics.

Katie Kelly is an Associate Professor of Education at Furman University. A former elementary teacher and literacy coach, Katie teaches courses in literacy methods and assessment at the undergraduate and graduate levels. She is the coauthor of Reading to Make a Difference: Using Literature to Help Students Speak Freely, Think Deeply, and Take Action (Heinemann). Follow her work at bookbuzz.blog and @ktkelly14.

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University), taught high school English for 18 years in South Carolina before moving to teacher education and teaching first-year writing. He is author of Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What “Teaching Writing” Means (IAP). Follow his work at https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/ and @plthomasEdD.

Can Scholars Be Too Literal in Post-Truth Trumplandia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can scholars be too literal in post-truth Trumplandia?

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

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Centering Whiteness and “Green Book”: A Reader (Updated)

The Oscars as an event represents the failed obsession in the U.S. with celebrities, but it also has become a powerful and disturbing window into how too often those with the most power are unable to address race except in terms of centering whiteness.

Once I challenged Green Book on social media, several white people rushed to support the film, often, they argued, because it includes excellent acting.

My essential claim, however, was expressed as the following:

Green Book centers whiteness to appear to care about blackness, as a condition of caring about blackness.

Black Panther centers blackness.

This isn’t about being perfect on race but about a fundamental difference.

I also must note that the same white people who rush to support Green Book also embraced equally racially flawed films such as The Help and The Blind Side (see also Radio and Driving Miss Daisy).

Embracing uncritically Green Book and rejecting criticism of the film are the result of “white fragility,” as Robin DiAngelo explains:

White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar. These interruptions can take a variety of forms and come from a range of sources, including:…

  • Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality).

White savior narratives and framing the value in blackness only in relationship to whiteness are, disturbingly, the essence of Hollywood “diversity and inclusion.” [1]

How many white people claiming quality acting in Green Book also rushed to support the Netflix series Luke Cage, also well-acted, notably by Mahershala Ali?

Or Black Panther?

Luke Cage and Black Panther center blackness, mostly resisting to suggest these narratives mattered only in relationship to whiteness.

Blackness must not be rendered invisible or unspeakable, but allowing blackness to be seen and spoken only if and when whiteness acknowledges it is not the providence of celebration, not any real sort of advancement.

Green Book is essentially a film version of Columbus claiming he discovered a land already inhabited by native peoples, erasing them and their narratives, their history and destiny.

I offer here a reader, primarily for white readers of this blog, and ask that those of us who are white learn to listen and see (actually re-see) the world without centering our whiteness.


[1] Or as well the garbled cultural appropriation fetish, such as Whiplash.

Downloadable file

See Also

To Kill a Mockingbird, White Saviors, and the Paradox of Obama and Race

What’s Wrong with Journalism?: Fake News and Much More

“The German journalism world is grappling with the implications of a shocking scandal at Der Spiegel,” explains Jeff Jarvis, adding:

But the Germans are digging deeper into the essence of journalism, questioning the perils of the seduction of the narrative form; the misplaced rewards inherent in professional awards; the risk to credibility for the institution in the time of “f*ke news;” the need for investigative self-examination in media; and more.

Amy Orben offers an excellent argument that this recent crisis of journalism has much to reveal about similar problems in academia:

And then Nikole Hannah-Jones unmasks a central problem with the analysis posed by Jarvis:

This recent scandal in Germany, Jarvis notes, has already played out in high-profile cases in the U.S. well before the hand wringing began about fake news in the wake of post-truth Trump.

While recognizing and confronting post-truth politics and media as well as fake news are urgent needs, especially for educators, neither the failures at Der Spiegel nor the pervasive elements of fake news and post-truth politics are really anything new.

What’s wrong with journalism?

The norms and traditions of journalism are at the core of that answer—both-sides journalism as that flawed pursuit of objectivity has intersected with press-release journalism that has evolved due to the corrosive elements of the market.

Not to oversimplify, but due to those market forces, mainstream journalism has moved from one norm of lazy journalism (both-sides faux objectivity) to a new norm of lazy journalism, crossing the Big-Foot line.

As media has contracted, fewer outlets staffed by fewer and fewer journalists, the essential flaws of journalism have been magnified. One of those flaws exposed has been journalists as generalists, not expert in the fields they cover.

Media outlets desperate for traffic push journalists to seek out topics that are compelling, and then those journalists approach topics as they have been trained to do—seeing everything as having both sides that are equally credible (or at least those journalists believe they have no role in determining credibility).

So on balance, Jarvis, as Hannah-Jones confronts, misreads the problem with journalism and wallows in the tired call for traditional norms.

But as Orben notes, the complex picture of what is wrong with journalism can also be placed at the feet of academia where traditional and current norms are essentially as problematic.

Both the flawed norms of objectivity and the corrosive impact of market forces are what’s wrong with journalism. And thus, the solutions are quite complex and include the following:

  • Solutions must resist both the veneer of objectivity as the path to Truth while rejecting the post-truth claim that there is no truth or that truth is driven by a cult of personality (the enormity of who makes the claim driving what is “true”). Humans are incapable of being objective and claims of Universal Truth are mostly lazy depictions of normalization (power portrayed as “normal” or “right” instead of acknowledging that “might makes right”). However, to reject objectivity and to become skeptical of Universal Truth is not abdicating that humans are capable of warranted assertions (a concept found, at least, in William James and John Dewey).
  • Warranted assertions of what is true at any moment in the accumulation of evidence must allow a wide range of different ways of knowing. In other words, privileging only the classic scientific method (in which, for example, controlling variables in order to make causal claims renders the evidence so unlike reality the conclusions are both scientifically true and real-world irrelevant) is no more valuable than lazy and careless uses of narrative. That humans have developed many different disciplines is testament to how complex knowing the world is. This so-called crisis in journalism, then, cannot be resolved by narrowing how we know; but must be a call to expanding how we know the world.
  • Something not examined as fully, I think, as necessary is the role of expertise and then who communicates that expertise to the non-expert and how that expertise is communicated. The who is difficult to resolve, but journalism needs an influx of disciplinary experts also trained in journalism. The generalist approach is defunct. The how is far less complex—although it requires a shift in norms. Neither scientific objectivity nor narrative, for example, are essentially “good” or “bad.” Both can be applied well or flawed. The pursuit of knowledge and truth must have a fidelity sought by the scientific method, but communicating knowledge and truth from expert to non-expert must be compelling and rich in a way that narrative fulfills.

There is a big picture issue here, ultimately.

What’s wrong with journalism is actually a subset of what’s wrong with human understanding.

This may be a chicken-and-egg dilemma in that revolutionizing journalism could change human understanding, but changing journalism may not come until human understanding shifts.

I am not sure how to resolve that but I am certain we cannot see the crisis in journalism as an excuse for nostalgia for a good old days of journalism that never existed or the fatalism of post-truth politics.

Truth is attainable, but to reach it is a complicated journey we have mostly not acknowledged yet.