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?

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Conservative’s White Nationalism Dog Whistle: The Political Lie of School Choice

Image result for dog whistle

A dog whistle is designed so that to unintended audiences (humans), the whistle is silent, but to the intended audience (dogs), the whistle is a sharp alert.

Now here comes the metaphorical portion of this post.

Over only a couple years of the Donald Trump era of Republican politics, we have become gradually accustomed—like a live lobster dropped in a pot of water soon boiled—to the gross and bluntly self-unaware language of his leadership of the Republican party—he of “grab them by the pussy,” no less.

But Trump’s race-baiting and race-appeasing of white nationalism/racism is no less ham-fisted.

In the U.S., we are pretty solid examples of Meursault’s dictum that people can get used to anything, but we also represent how short human memory is. I fear we have forgotten something most of us never even recognized: The good ol’ traditional political lie, often wrapped conveniently in dog whistle language.

Do not fret, though, because here’s a little nudge from former South Carolina Representative and Senator Jim DeMint, who did what many good ol’ Republicans have done, parlay the “damned-government” mantra into, ironically, a political career that leads to a cushy position in the so-called private sector, in DeMint’s case that was becoming president of the [White] Heritage Foundation forming his own conservative think tank.

It’s good work—if you are a white man with the sort of wealth and clout that you can negotiate into being among the rich-boys’ club we call the U.S. Senate.

DeMint’s political lie du jour is, hold your breath, an endorsement of school choice, the perennial go-to of conservatives:

Former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint is urging state lawmakers to create education scholarship accounts to foster an expansion of school choice in South Carolina.

The proposal that DeMint outlined during a speech Monday night to the Greenville County Republican Party would allow parents of special needs and impoverished students to spend state-allocated education money to attend private schools. Foster children and military families also would be eligible to take part in the program.

“The only way we are going to save our culture and our society is if we can create an education system that the parents can customize,” DeMint said.

Wow, it really takes your breath away, doesn’t it, when someone of DeMint’s stature speaks for special needs children and children trapped in poverty?

And, he wants them to go to private school. Private. School.

As the dog whistle goes, however, if you aren’t a white nationalist/racist (and chances that you are and reading my blog are really pretty low), your eyes may have become all blurry with empathy tears by the time you got to “our culture and our society.”

If you did miss that, maybe track down a friend or family member who voted for Trump, or is a card-carrying Republican, and ask them who the “our” is all about, or maybe to define the whole “culture” thing.

I have a few ideas, as well, because I am really close to having lived 60 years in the very state DeMint represented—a state that clutches the Confederate flag and believes the Civil War wasn’t waged over slavery. You see, SC is a “Heritage Not Hate” state.

There’s some world-class Orwellian language for you, by the way, because, if you have the time and patience, I suspect it would be illustrative to ask anyone in SC who says “Heritage Not Hate” to explain what that heritage entails. Mind you, the explanation will defy reality, and history, but it will be an experience, and unlike a dog whistle, you will hear every word, but may doubt you are hearing the words you hear.

DeMint has provided for those who see and hear past the veneers the ugly relationship between school choice advocacy and the Republican party’s investment in white nationalism/racism.

First, the political lie of school choice:

In his speech Monday night, DeMint said education scholarship accounts can result in a “win-win” scenario for parents and public schools. He said parents can choose the best educational opportunities for their children while public schools can benefit from a reduction in class sizes.

“It creates a dynamic in every situation that we’ve studied where public schools get better,” DeMint said.

School choice, in fact, and including charter schools, has not improved anything, but has been strongly associated with re-segregating education and proving public funds for more affluent families to flee public schools.

Parents, you see, do not chose schools for academic reason mostly, but for ideological ones, such as making sure their children attend school with people who look like them and sit in classes that provide the sorts of indoctrination the parents desire.

School choice schemes never provide the sort of full support low-income parents need, such as transportation or time that is taken for granted by the affluent.

And what DeMint will not discuss is that the free market, the sacred Invisible Hand, has no incentive toward equity or quality. Market forces are guided by the lever of the customers and their capital.

Private schools are no better than public or charter schools—all of which are mostly reflections of the populations they serve.

And private schools represent a broad range of schooling, from narrow religious-based instruction to almost anything a group of parents may be willing to fund.

So we are left with a really jumbled message to the white nationalists/racists who are anti-government: School choice will provide you public funds to isolate your white children with other white children to receive the indoctrination you want to preserve the sacred white race.

That is the dog whistle that is “‘our culture and our society.'”

This sounds harsh, I know, but that is what a dog whistle is designed to do, mute the ugly for “the best” in order to rouse “the worst…full of passionate intensity.”

Post & Courier: Education reform is deja vu all over again

Education reform is deja vu all over again

[with hyperlinks below]

I have taught in South Carolina since 1983, 18 years as an English teacher and coach followed by 17 years as a teacher educator and first-year writing professor. Over that career, I have felt exasperated by education reform that has proven to be déjà vu all over again.

A few years ago, I advocated against the misguided Read to Succeed Act, policy as flawed as I predicted since it failed to identify the evidence-based problems with reading in SC and then promoted new policy that does not address those problems while creating new and even worse consequences.

Read to Succeed also foreshadowed this newest round of wholesale education reform facing the state.

Since the 1980s, politicians in SC have insisted that our public schools are failing. Their responses, however, have meant that the only consistency in our schools is we are in a constant state of education reform repackaged over and over again.

State standards, state high-stakes testing, school choice, charter schools—these policies have been reframed repeatedly, and all we have to show for that is the same complaints about failing schools and decades of research revealing it’s policies that have failed.

Instead of misguided education reform beneath misleading political rhetoric, SC should take a different path, one shifting not only policies but also ideologies.

First, SC must clearly identify what problems exist in our schools and then carefully distinguish between which of those problems are caused by out-of-school factors and which are the consequences of in-school practices and policies.

For example, SC’s struggles with literacy are driven by generational inequities such as poverty and racism magnified by decades of misguided commitments to ever-changing standards, tests, and reading programs. Literacy outcomes in our state reflect how children suffer when families have low-paying work, endure transient lives, and are denied affordable insurance and healthcare.

Literacy outcomes also represent that once children enter schools, they receive distinctly different educations: Poor students, black and brown children, English language learners, and special needs students experience tracks and conditions unlike those of white and affluent students who are far more likely to have access to low class sizes in advanced courses and experienced certified teachers.

Next, SC must recognize that policies and practices based on accountability and market forces have failed our students and our schools. Instead, we need educational policy grounded in equity. Policies and practices grounded in equity and not accountability would insure that all children have access to experienced and certified teachers, low class sizes, and challenging classes.

Further, SC must acknowledge that teaching conditions are learning conditions. Teacher pay, teacher professionalism, teacher autonomy, facilities and materials funding and quality, student/teacher ratios—all of these are conditions that indirectly and directly impact whether or not teaching and learning can thrive in our schools. Yet, SC politicians remain determined not to make these choices while remaining committed to expensive and ineffective approaches such as standards, testing, and choice options, notably charter schools.

As a broad guide, then, SC must set aside inspirational rhetoric and partisan commitments and seek instead a wealth of educational expertise on both the need for social policy addressing inequity and reforming schools in ways that serve both teachers’ ability to teach and students’ equitable access to learning.

The problem in SC schools has never been about the presence or quality of our standards, what tests students have to navigate in order to survive schooling, or parental choice.

The harsh reality of our state includes poverty, racism, and disadvantages such as the scarcity of high-quality and stable work as well as affordable healthcare and housing. The harsh reality of our schools is that teaching and learning conditions are hostile to some students having equitable access to learning.

SC political leaders refuse to address those realities because they are too enamored with partisan politics as usual in a state tragically embracing the worst aspects of conservative ideology; once again as those myopic political leaders claim bold education reform, it’s déjà vu all over again.

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.

Free Speech and Diversity of Thought?

Andy Smarick has joined a growing sub-genre of Trojan Horse commentary across mainstream media with his Why Schools Must Safeguard Free Speech at Education Week.

Certainly, a plea for free speech and diversity of thought in education is something everyone can stand behind regardless of ideologies or partisan politics?

And that’s the Trojan Horse here because the veneer of calling for diversity of thought as a free speech concern thinly masks that this sub-genre of commentary is primarily a blitzkrieg by conservative pundits to further erode the public’s trust in education, especially higher education, and to dismantle what is left of evidence-based discourse.

I entered the classroom as a teacher in the fall of 1984, standing in the same classroom where I had taken sophomore and junior English taught by the person who would become my professional mentor, Lynn Harrill.

Growing up in this rural South Carolina town in the 1960s and 1970s, I was duly indoctrinated into a conservative ideology that emphasized tradition and a strict compliance to authority. Looking back, I can recognize that “tradition” was also a veneer for the less delicate realities that my hometown was deeply racist and sexist, as was my home.

Entering college, I was a recent convert to the reverse racism mantra that was growing just as Ronald Reagan was elected president after the relentless shaming of Jimmy Carter that allowed a country to seemingly forget the deep pit that was the Richard Nixon lesson then ignored.

By my junior and senior years of college, majoring in secondary English education, I had shaken off the embarrassing ignorances of my adolescence, mostly saved, I think, by my English professors, notably Nancy Moore, who introduced me to the works of Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and a list far too long including voices unlike the conservative bigotry of my upbringing.

I returned to my hometown to teach as a changed young man, not fully formed yet, but deeply changed. Often I had to check myself against Alice Walker’s warning against missionary zeal in her powerful The Color Purple, but I did have a mission.

With freedom of speech and diversity of thought in mind, I invite you to consider two moments from my high school English teaching career, both involved white male students and their parents—young men who in many ways reflected the person I was not so many years before I stood there as their teacher.

Early in my career, during the mid-1980s, one student submitted his argumentative essay on interracial marriage. He launched into a vigorous rejecting of marriage between blacks and whites (a recurring problem in my hometown throughout my youth and while I was a teacher there).

In those early years, I was developing my use of minimum standards for student work—as an alternative to grading—and this assignment allowed students to write on any topic they chose, but they were required to support their arguments with credible evidence.

This student’s essay was very brief, and he included not one sliver of support for any claim in the essay. I refused to accept the essay, prompting the student to resubmit with the required evidence.

The next submission, the student had essentially copied the earlier essay and added a perfunctory “it’s in the Bible” as his evidence. I rejected the essay again while explaining to him that if in fact he had evidence in the Bible to support his argument, he was required to quote and cite that evidence.

One aspect of my minimum requirement approach included that all work had to be submitted to pass the grading quarter; thus, this student knew that if the essay was not accepted, he would fail.

This stalemate resulted in a parent-teacher conference that included me, the student, the student’s father, and my principal (who had been my principal when I was a student). The father was a measured but red-faced man barely able to withhold his anger at me.

The principal had me explain the situation, which I did, and then the man interrupted, his anger slipping out some; he explained that he and his son had met with their preacher, who assured them the Bible did in fact reject interracial marriage. Although the three of them scoured the Bible for hours, he explained, they were never able to find the proof.

My principal brought the meeting to an end with “Well, I believe your son needs to find another topic.”

Several years later, probably around 1990, my American literature classes were starting a unit I taught most if not all of my high school teaching career, anchored in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” As I was handing out the essay copies, one male student backhanded the photocopy I placed on his desk onto the floor with an abrupt, “I ain’t reading that [racial slur].”

I picked up the essay, placed it on his desk with my hand firmly on the papers, and calmly explained to him he would never utter a comment like that again in my class and he would in fact read MLK. The class included black and white students, but these students also, as some shared with me, had been handed KKK propaganda smearing MLK in their churches.

A few brought me the crude pamphlets that represented about three decades ago that fake news is not a recent invention.

By holding the student to the same standard I held all students concerning the use of evidence in argumentation, by silencing a student who believed he was justified to reduce MLK to a racial slur and to refuse the curriculum I had provided—were these classrooms hostile to free speech, classrooms shutting the door on diversity of thought?

So let me return to Smarick’s disingenuous and frankly lazy argument. So many of these think pieces have sprung up lately, they suffer from circular reasoning because they tend to cite each other—Smarick leaps onto the easily discredited long-read on this same topic, The Coddling of the American Mind.

This commentary is a bit more ambitious than my student’s baseless and racist screed against interracial marriage, but it fails the credibility test in its use of evidence. Even more damning, these calls for free speech and diversity of thought seem to entirely misunderstand the concepts they claim to support.

These commentaries expose that conservatives think “free speech” and “diversity of thought” guarantee that people who have no evidence for their “opinions” should be afforded equal space to those with grounded and evidence-based positions. Their cries for both are cover for racist/sexist language without consequences.

Certainly as an educator, I strongly support academic freedom, but the classroom and scholarship are specifically seeking ways to navigate “thought” with discernment. To teach means to guide students toward credible and ethical thought, not to a lazy marketplace of ideas in which all speech carries the same intellectual weight.

Some ideas are simply not in debate. Typically in formal education, for example, the Holocaust is not taught as a debate that has equal sides between Holocaust scholars and Holocaust deniers. Some students are never exposed to those denials.

Some ideas remain in debate, but for education, even ideas in debate require credibility among all the positions expressed.

Conservative hand wringing about a lack of diversity of thought in classrooms are simply partisan pandering to ideologies bereft of ethical or empirical evidence—sexism, racism, homophobia, nationalism, and more.

Finally, another way to understand these commentaries are insincere is to note conservative pundits will not, however, have an honest and open discussion about the reality that free speech and diversity of thought are not about license, not freedom from accountability. They rarely discuss that some ideas have no place in discourse, that “let’s agree to disagree” is simply a way to maintain a status quo of inequity.

Some thought need not be aired, but it does need to be confronted and eradicated. When have you read those pleas from the right?

Conservatives cannot afford to support classrooms and academic settings that are about evidence-based, grounded discourse, but are not spaces for people just to say whatever they think, believe, or want.

Like my hometown, conservative ideology in the U.S. remains inextricably tied to ideologies the pundits dare not utter, bigotry of many kinds usually masked as “tradition” or “nationalism.”

Vapid arguments that education is some sort of liberal indoctrination are, ironically, jumbled efforts to indoctrinate, desperate efforts to maintain power by erasing the power of careful and evidence-based thinking, the very thing teaching and education must remain grounded in if we genuinely believe in freedom of thought.

Equity and the Zero-Sum Game Mirage

A picture may be worth far more than a thousand words in today’s partisan political climate; consider this:

As Stephen Johnson reports about the 2018 mid-term elections:

  • Women and nonwhite candidates made record gains in the 2018 midterms.
  • In total, almost half of the newly elected Congressional representatives are not white men.
  • Those changes come almost entirely from Democrats; Republican members-elect are all white men except for one woman.

This image triggered for me an important realization about equity and the persistence of inequity. Consider next the inequitable representation, historical and current, in the U.S. Senate:

white men in senate

Stacey Jones also details about Fortune 500 CEOs that “[o]f those high ranking officials, 80% are men and 72% of those men are white”; for example:

gender fortune 500

These pie charts are important, I think, because they help us confront the zero-sum game thinking that impacts people with inequitable access to power: white men.

An equitable Senate would have 30-40 white men; an equitable distribution of CEOs would be about the same percentage, 30-40%.

So here is the trap—in order to reach equity, the current power structure must change and those with current inequitable power will perceive they have lost something substantial, something they believe they have earned. In fact, however, what they must lose is privilege, unfair advantages.

Is equity a zero-sun game? I think not, but it certainly must feel that way to those with the current status quo of power because, as the recent gains among Democrats shows, when we move toward equity of power, the demographics change, primarily with a reduction of white men.

The failure of zero-sum game thinking is deeply partisan, as Danielle Kurtzleben explains:

Exit polls also showed wide partisan gaps in views of gender. An overwhelming majority of Americans, nearly 8 in 10, said it’s important to elect more women to public office. Among those who consider that “important,” two-thirds voted for Democrats. Meanwhile, more than 8 in 10 of those who consider that “not important” voted for Republicans.

This gap suggests that Republicans attract those who perceive moving toward equity as a loss for the the inequitable status quo.

The tide that must turn is when we all can agree that equity expanding is a net gain for everyone, especially as we move toward our positions of power reflecting more closely those over whom they have that power.

Expanding Access to Voting Despite the Failures of Partisan Politics

It has been a strange journey for me as a leftwing intellectual having grown up and always living in the very narrowly conservative South.

Most of my voting life has been committed to voting against candidates, solidly rejecting Republicans who were uniformly elected in my home state of South Carolina.

I then about a decade ago adopted the pose of a non-voter, calling on George Carlin‘s and W.E.B. Du Bois‘s philosophies about partisan politics.

However, with the election of Trump, I have once again been tossed around in how I navigate a very political world that is mostly paralyzed by partisan nonsense.

Hillary Clinton was the best mainstream Republican in the 2016 election, and Barack Obama was a solid moderate—nothing akin to the socialist the Right tried to smear him as being. (Obama was no Eugene V. Debs, someone I could vote for.)

Even Bernie Sanders is no lefty if we frame U.S. politics against Europe or even Canada, and Sanders continues to prove himself tone-deaf on race.

However, Trump is a special kind of outlier, I fear, and as a result, I have returned to the voting booth where, again as I vote in SC, I had limited choices and a significant list of races where only Republicans were running.

I wasted my time, made something like a hollow symbolic gesture by voting:

2018 vote

I used a dramatic black-and-white filter on Instagram and thought about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as I took the selfie.

So I was sitting with cycling friends at a taphouse after the elections, listening to two internationals—one from Argentina and one from Germany—talk about how ridiculous U.S. politics is.

Argentinians are required to vote, even prisoners, under penalty of fines if they fail to do so.

Germans have automatic voter registration.

In very real ways, despite the historical chest-thumping about democracy in the U.S., much of the world is more free than we are in terms of access to participating in a democracy.

My good German friend offered off-hand that he suspects he pays a bit more taxes in Germany, but, as he noted, he doesn’t mind because he gets so much more for that extra cost.

And since election day in 2018, races have become in doubt because of voting irregularities and remaining ballots counted, exposing that a significant number of U.S. citizens are effectively disenfranchised from the process.

Here then is the new paradox for me as well as my new commitment.

We must expand voting access for every eligible voter, even as we acknowledge that our partisan political system is horribly broken.

We must acknowledge that the wealthy and the privileged are voting, rather easily, and that those with the least power are most likely to be barred from voting—from the poor to the imprisoned.

Expanding who votes and the ease of voting, then, is a goal we must all seek even as we are disappointed in our two-party system and the inept and corrupt leaders it has spawned.

Let’s commit to some or all of the following:

  • Automatic registration of eligible voters, while also expanding who is eligible across the U.S.
  • A 5-7 day window for voting followed by a 72-hour embargo on election results until all votes are counted and verified. This includes no reporting on polls, exit or otherwise, once the voting window starts until after that 72-hour window ends.
  • Electronic forms fo voting—computer and smart phone voting, for example.
  • Online verifications of voting that alerts (email, text, etc.) each voter their vote has been cast and allows each voter to report irregularities.
  • Consideration of lowering the voting age to 16, possibly for local elections only.
  • Reinstate the popular vote in presidential elections and curtail gerrymandering.
  • Address imbalances in candidates’ representation of populations (see the House and Senate majorities versus a minority of citizens represented).
  • Full public funding of all campaigns, ending political donations and standardizing political ads and debates.
  • Vetting all political ads and debates for accuracy.

The ugly truth in the U.S. is that those with power and privilege do not trust or want a full democracy where everyone has a voice.

We may not be able to create immediately a better ruling class, but we certainly can create a more vibrant democracy by expanding access to having a voice for everyone.

If that goal is approached we may find that the ruling class changes for the better.