What Does This Poem Mean?: On the Politics of Core Knowledge and Reading Instruction

While I am skeptical of nostalgia, the mostly vapid good-old-days approach to anything, I want to return to my high school teaching years, mostly pre-Internet and smart phone years throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

One of the best parts of teaching English was forming bonds with students over popular music. Gradually, in fact, my entire poetry unit was grounded in the music of R.E.M., the alternative group based in Athens, GA.

R.E.M. achieved immediate critical success with their first album, Murmur, and then were college rock stars throughout the 1980s, with popular stardom coming more than a decade after they formed.

What made R.E.M. particularly fascinating for my students and me was that they typically did not release the lyrics for their earliest albums, and thus, we would spend hours listening and trying to figure out just what Michael Stipe was saying. In fact, some early jabs at R.E.M. referred to Murmur as Mumbles since Stipe had a signature way of being terribly unclear.

I can still recall wrestling with “You Are the Everything”—students puzzled by “eviscerate” and all of us thrown by “With your teeth in your mouth.”

The beauty of all this for me as a teacher of poetry was that we had to work diligently first on the what, the literal, of the lyrics before we could begin trying to tackle meaning.

Too often, I found, students felt compelled (a really flawed lesson learning in school) to jump immediately to “this song/poem means” without taking any care to read the poem literally first.

Ultimately, investigating poetry was yet more efforts at learning to read, a behavior that is always in a state of emerging (despite the technocratic view that we can reach proficiency).

These memories came to me when I read Carol Black’s excellent Twitter thread:

Black carefully and powerfully unpacks and discredits the E.D. Hirsch Core Knowledge argument about reading that is compelling to those so-called experts outside of literacy and especially to the media, politicians, and textbook publishers.

As Black details, the argument that some core or essential knowledge exists in an objective apolitical way falls apart once you unpack how facts are presented and, more importantly, who determines what knowledge matters.

A disturbing example of Black’s critique immediately surfaced, also on Twitter:

This example of whitewashing slavery further exposes that no knowledge is value neutral and that the details of knowledge are far less important than confronting the authority behind what knowledge counts as fact or true.

So let me return to my students and me trying to decipher Stipe’s mumbling so that we could start to imagine what those wonderful songs meant.

The essential flaw of Core Knowledge arguments is that it promotes the passive acquisition of knowledge (what Paulo Freire criticized as the “banking concept” of teaching and learning) instead of the interrogation of knowledge, the domain of critical literacy.

Yes, we listened to the songs over and over so that we could as a community create the text, and we also scoured the music press for any and everything we could find from the band members about those lyrics, especially anything Stipe might reveal.

And we also built knowledge about the band and Stipe himself to provide context for those interpretations. Once Peter Buck said his favorite line from Monster was “Oh, my kiss breath turpentine,” explaining that it didn’t mean anything, but sounded great.

In other words, lyrics, as Stipe also explained at some point, were a way for Stipe’s voice to be another instrument in the song, not necessarily always about coherent meaning in the traditional use of text.

We were not acquiring knowledge, but interrogating an audio text in an effort to discover and uncover meaning, even as that meaning was tentative.

Recently, Bertis Downs, long-time lawyer for R.E.M., posted “Photograph” to social media, where I listened again and read along to the lyrics:

Always a favorite song of mine, including the beautiful accompaniment of Natalie Merchant, I was struck this time by the lines: “Was she willing when she sat/And posed a pretty photograph.” The “willing” speaks to the #MeToo era in a way I had not noticed many years ago.

As well, this song reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s “This Is a Photograph of Me,” which I taught for many years in A.P. Literature.

As an entry point to think deeply about consent, the song has new meaning, a meaning that works beyond the text and resonates because of a changing time and new social awareness.

All text meaning is political, communal, and tentative—not a fixed or objective truth.

And then, Atwood’s poem always posed tremendous challenges for students. In short, the ambiguity of the poem was an ideal way to help students learn to ask questions as a pursuit of meaning, instead of looking for the meaning.

Other than being in lines and stanzas, the poem achieves its poetic form without many of the traditional elements students expect (rhyme, for example). Further, the poem’s second section in parenthesis asks readers to consider the implications of punctuation as that contributes to meaning.

“(The photograph was taken/ the day after I drowned” opens that section and immediately challenges the reader with the literal problem since the photograph appears to be of the lake: “I am in the lake, in the center/ of the picture, just under the surface.”

Moving from R.E.M.’s song to Atwood’s poem and then, for example, adding Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” builds for students a body of problematic texts that warrants investigation, and not simple knowledge acquisition.

These three texts certainly are better read when the reader is more knowledgeable, but let’s not misread “knowledgeable.”

To be well read, in fact, is having had many experiences interrogating text and knowledge which is also the process of acquiring knowledge.

The more R.E.M. I listened to, the better I read those songs. The more Atwood I read, the more I understood Atwood (her word play, her misdirection).

What does this poem mean?—this becomes a journey and not a destination, an interrogation, not a proclamation.

Black’s dismantling the Core Knowledge propaganda about learning to read, then, pulls back the curtain on how Core Knowledge advocates are themselves serving an unspoken politics by taking on a faux veneer of apolitical essential knowledge.

Unintended I am sure, Atwood’s poem itself speaks to this as well:

the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
eventually
you will be able to see me.)

Let us invite our students to “look long enough,” beyond the “distortion,” so that they will “be able to see.”

Advertisements

The Lazy Libertarian Lie: Paul Ryan Edition

Before the expected Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs” “Let me tell y’all what it’s like/Being male, middle-class, and white/It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe” response can envelope this post, I want to offer a few caveats.

I have strong libertarian tendencies, ones that have drawn me to a Henry David Thoreau sort of thinking grounded in rejecting authority and appreciating that adults should be allowed to live as they please within the constraints (see below) that acknowledge a simple but inescapable truth: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” (John Donne, Meditation XVII).

And I know some self-declared Libertarians who are somewhat evangelical about their ideologies but, none the less, routinely demonstrate that they have souls—even as they haven’t rectified the disconnect between being a soulless Libertarian (a redundancy) and living life in any sort of humane way. And thus, I am not really holding forth below about those Libertarians who ultimately do not live by what they profess.

The lazy Libertarian lie depends on several failures of logic.

One is the “damned government” argument such as those who refuse to wear helmets while driving a motorcycle or rail against the shrinking areas allowing people to smoke (although laws still permit adults to smoke in their homes and cars while under-age and non-consenting children are present, and are thus inhaling the toxic smoke that the law prevents them to inhale by purchasing cigarettes).

This argument is, at its core, a fundamental cluelessness about individualism—in short, the lack of awareness, see Donne above, that individualism simply does not exist.

Taking risks—no helmet, smoking—never has consequences only for the risk taker. Trauma and illness resulting from this risk taking stress unnecessarily a health care system that impacts everyone else.

Despite these “I did it my way” risk takers’ choices, EMS and medical staff are ethically obligated to keep them alive, often a tremendous drain on their time and at great costs (trauma care in the ER and after, cancer treatment, etc.).

Another of the great logic fails is the “I built this” crowd, the ugly but enduring lie of the self-made billionaire.

All individual wealth in the U.S. is built on other people’s labor and facilitated by (brace yourself) the “damned government”; for example, there are no business ventures possible at the degree experienced in 2018 without the road and highway system in the U.S. (brace yourself: publicly funded).

And the entire free market fetish for property and personal property is possible only because of the legal and justice system that monitors a relatively high level of property safety.

And this brings us to poster boy Paul Ryan, an incredibly dishonest Libertarian (when it suits him) who cherry-picks his Ayn Rand adolescent rants.

Like the political Rands, and the cartoon Randites like Rush Limbaugh (who pronounces her first name as “Ann”), Ryan has profited handsomely from his white man Teflon and his American mythology sound bites grounded in lazy Libertarian lies.

Ryan lies about his athleticism.

And as James Fallows has documented, Ryan lies “in ways large and small.”

Behind the hairdo and the suits, Ryan has been trafficking in the racism and poverty-hating that some think was created by Trump.

Like Ayn Rand herself, Ryan has announced the end to his career in politics (brace yourself: Ryan is the “damned government”) and is poised to received $79,000 annually for life (brace yourself: tax dollars just handed to him for doing nothing).

Ultimately, Ryan embodies the great big pile of excrement that is the lazy Libertarian lie: My ideology is mostly about what I want for you, but not at all what I want for me.

You see, there simply are no rugged individuals. Not a damned single person who has pulled themselves up by the bootstraps.

Like the horrible literature and vapid philosophy of Ayn Rand, these are not enduring American myths, but calloused lies in no way grounded in reality.

They are designed to aggrandize the wealthy and demonize the poor; yet they are lies about both.

The sinister irony of these lazy Libertarian lies is that the wealthy and privileged are more likely to be the immoral and unethical class in the U.S. than the working class and poor.

My libertarian urges of boyhood, grounded in Thoreau and Emerson (not Rand), ended with my boyhood.

I grew up, physically, intellectually, and morally.

I recognize and appreciate collectivism, community, and collaboration.

A turning point for me was John Dewey’s pragmatism, an argument that either/or thinking fails humans. In short, Dewey argued that it is a false choice between individualism and collectivism—that they are symbiotic, not antithetical.

Any libertarian urges that remain—and they do because I certainly fear totalitarianism and regret that so little of life in the so-called “free” U.S. is actually free—are always tempered by what has come to be for me the greatest acknowledgement of the moral imperative of collectivism that grounds me, by Eugene V. Debs:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

My freedom is inevitably bound to everyone else’s freedom—and this is the great moral truth denied by the lazy Libertarian lie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“You’re Actually Rooting for the Clothes”

As I have aged, I have lost interest in both sports fandom and partisan politics at about the same time.

Those prone to name-calling cannot resist discounting me as a “Democrat” or the ever-popular “Liberal,” although I am neither.

New research suggests that I have good reason for my disdain for fandom and partisan politics:

Abstract

The distinction between a person’s ideological identity and their issue positions has come more clearly into focus in recent research. Scholars have pointed out a significant difference between identity-based and issue-based ideology in the American electorate. However, the affective and social effects of these separate elements of ideology have not been sufficiently explored. Drawing on a national sample collected by SSI and data from the 2016 ANES, this article finds that the identity-based elements of ideology are capable of driving heightened levels of affective polarization against outgroup ideologues, even at low levels of policy attitude extremity or constraint. These findings demonstrate how Americans can use ideological terms to disparage political opponents without necessarily holding constrained sets of policy attitudes.

And we need to look no further than a Seinfeld skit to understand this succinctly:

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

America has never been great. Including now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me pose two examples we may want to follow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your turn.

 

Changing the Odds So No Child Has to Overcome Them

There are several challenging, and therefore uncomfortable, scenes in Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later (2007); however, when I show this documentary in my courses, few students recognize those scenes as either challenging or uncomfortable.

At one point, several black men from the Little Rock, Arkansas community are gathered outside the school, and they speak directly about the need for blacks to take care of their own, clean up their own communities. These men directly mention the damage of black-on-black crime (which is about the same as white-on-white crime, although the latter is almost never mentioned).

Throughout the documentary, as well, a number of black students confront how hard they work and how some of their fellow black students simply do not try—echoing a rugged individualism and personal responsibility narrative that a white teacher/coach and her white golf team members express.

I use these scenes as teachable moments about the negative impact of respectability politics on marginalized groups:

What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elites to “uplift the race” by correcting the “bad” traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity. In an era marked by rising inequality and declining economic mobility for most Americans—but particularly for black Americans—the twenty-first-century version of the politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism. The virtues of self-care and self-correction are framed as strategies to lift the black poor out of their condition by preparing them for the market economy.

…Today’s politics of respectability, however, commands blacks left behind in post–civil rights America to “lift up thyself.” Moreover, the ideology of respectability, like most other strategies for black progress articulated within the spaces where blacks discussed the best courses of action for black freedom, once lurked for the most part beneath the gaze of white America. But now that black elites are part of the mainstream elite in media, entertainment, politics, and the academy, respectability talk operates within the official sphere, shaping the opinions, debates, and policy perspectives on what should—and should not—be done on the behalf of the black poor.

Respectability politics works in conjunction with seemingly innocuous narratives (rugged individualism, lifting yourself by your bootstraps, personal responsibility) to keep the accusatory gaze on individuals and away from systemic inequity. In other words, political and economic elites are more secure if the majority of people believe all success and failure are primarily determined by individual traits and not by privilege and disadvantage beyond most people’s control.

This semester that discussion has coincided with Laura Ingraham attempting to publicly shame LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” a not-so-clever self-promotion for one of Ingraham’s vapid books.

Along with Kevin Durant’s heated response, James (see video in the link above) stressed, “We will definitely not shut up and dribble.”

Watching James, however, and listening carefully present us with the dangers of his “defeating the odds” motivation (listen to about minutes 1:50-2:15), his own powerful and impressive rise to being King James.

I am not criticizing James, however, and fully support his response, refusing to shut up and dribble.

But a message that suggests anyone can or should be able to achieve what an outlier, James, has achieved is ultimately harmful, speaking through and to the most corrosive aspects of respectability politics.

This call to teach children to beat the odds, in fact, is shared all along the political spectrum from right to left.

The ultimate flaw in a beat-the-odds mentality is, again, that it suggests success and failure lie mostly or solely in the individual, a matter of choice and effort—like having “grit,” a growth mindset, or a positive attitude (all ways to fix inadequate children).

This is a terrible message for children especially since success and failure are mostly determined by systemic forces—except for rare outliers—and the message allows those with the power to change the odds to escape accountability.

LeBron James, I believe, is right about his importance as a role model, as a stellar example of what black success looks like despite the odds being unfairly against him in the form of racism and economic inequity.

And as long as we as a society choose to ignore the odds, choose to allow racism, sexism, and classism to exist, I suppose we should find humane and supportive ways to encourage children to work so that a few of them may hit the life lottery and beat the odds.

But to be blunt, that’s a pretty shitty cop-out for the adults who could, in fact, change the odds so that no child has to overcome them.

It is ultimately a heartless and ugly thing to see children as lacking the drive to beat odds that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

It is political cowardice and public negligence to remain fatalistic about the odds as we watch those odds destroy the hopes and dreams of our children.

If anyone should shut up, that would be Ingraham and her entire cadre of right-wing know-nothings who shovel the very worst narratives that help guarantee those odds will remain in their favor.

And as we listen to James instead, let’s resist demanding that he or any so-called racial minorities somehow erase racism and then begin to demand that those who benefit the most from the odds use those privileges to dismantle those odds.

That, I know, is a powerful ask, but it is one that certainly holds more credence than asking children to be superhuman because we have James dribbling across our flatscreen TVs.

The Politics of Education Policy: Even More Beware the Technocrats

Man Prefers Comic Books That Don’t Insert Politics Into Stories About Government-Engineered Agents Of War (The Onion) includes a simple picture of a 31-year-old white male with the hint of a soon-to-be Van Dyke:

The fictional “man,” Jeremy Land, explains:

“I’m tired of simply trying to enjoy escapist stories in which people are tortured and experimented upon at black sites run by authoritarian governments, only to have the creators cram political messages down my throat,” said Land, 31, who added that Marvel’s recent additions of female, LGBTQ, and racially diverse characters to long-running story arcs about tyrannical regimes turning social outsiders into powerful killing machines felt like PC propaganda run amok. “Look, I get that politics is some people’s thing, but I just want to read good stories about people whose position outside society makes them easy prey for tests run by amoral government scientists—without a heavy-handed allegory for the Tuskegee Study thrown in. Why can’t comics be like they used to and just present worlds where superheroes and villains, who were clearly avatars for the values of capitalism, communism, or fascism, battle each other in narratives that explicitly mirrored the complex geopolitical dynamics of the Cold War?”

The satire here is the whitesplaining/mansplaining inherent in the politics of calling for no politics.

It strains the imagination only slightly to understand how this commentary on comic book fanboys also parallels the persistent combination in education of calling for no politics while using policy and a narrow definition of data and evidence to mask the racial and gender politics of formal schooling.

Let’s imagine, then, instead of the fictional Land an image of David Coleman (who parlayed his Common Core boondoggle into a cushy tenure as the head of the College Board) or John Hattie (he of the “poverty and class size do not matter” cults that provide Hattie with a gravy train as guru-consultant).

A close reading of David Coleman’s mug shot reveals a whole lot of smug.

In his “visible learning” hustle, John Hattie likely prefers to keep his enormous profits invisible.

Coleman and Hattie as technocrats feed the systemic racism, classism, and sexism in formal education policy and practice by striking and perpetuating an objective pose that serves as a veneer for the normalized politics of political and economic elites in the U.S.

As Daniel E. Ferguson examines, Coleman’s Common Core propaganda, the rebranded traditional mis-use of New Criticism into “close reading,” argues:

Close reading, as it appears in the Common Core, requires readers to emphasize “what lies within the four corners of the text” and de-emphasize their own perspective, background, and biases in order to uncover the author’s meaning in the text.

However, Ferguson adds,

Critical reading, in contrast, concerns itself with those very differences between what does and does not appear in the text. Critical reading includes close reading; critical reading is close reading of both what lies within and outside of the text. For Paulo Freire, critical reading means that “reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”

And thus, close reading serves the cult of efficiency found in the high-stakes standardized testing industry that depends on the allure of believing all texts have singular meanings that can be assessed in multiple-choice formats—a dymanic Ferguson unmasks: “The story beyond the four corners of Coleman’s video is one of a man whose agenda is served by teachers following a curriculum that requires students to read in a way assessable through standardized tests he oversees and profits from.”

Simultaneously, of course, keeping students and teachers laser-focused on text only detracts them from the richer context of Martin Luther King Jr. and the broader implications of racism and classism informed by and informing King’s radical agenda.

Simply stated, close reading is a political agenda embedded in the discourse of objectivity that whitewashes King and denies voice and agency to King, teachers, and students.

Concurrently, Hattie’s catch phrase, “visible learning,” serves the same political agenda: Nothing matters unless we can observe and quantify it (of course, conveniently omitting that this act itself determines what is allowed to be seen—not the impact of poverty or the consequences of inequity, of course).

Hattie’s garbled research and data [1] match the recent efforts in education reform to isolate student learning as the value added (VAM) by individual teachers, yet another off-spring of the cult of efficiency manifested in high-stakes standardized testing.

Just as many have debunked the soundness of Hattie’s data and statistics, the VAM experiment has almost entirely failed to produce the outcomes it promised (see the school choice movement, the charter school movement, the standards movement, etc.).

Coleman and Hattie work to control what counts and what matters—the ultimate in politics—and thus are welcomed resources for those benefitting from inequity and wishing to keep everyone’s gaze on anything except that inequity.

The misogyny and racism among comic book fanboys allows the sort of political ignorance reflected in The Onion‘s satire.  If we remain “within the four corners of the text” of Marvel’s Captain America, for example, we are ignoring that, as I have examined, “Captain America has always been a fascist. … But … Captain America has always been our fascist, and that is all that matters.”

The politics of education policy seeks to point the accusatory finger at other people’s politics, and that politics of policy is served by the technocrats, such as Coleman and Hattie, who feed and are fed by the lie of objectivity, the lie of no politics.


[1] See the following reviews and critiques of Hattie’s work: