Our Gladiator Culture: On “Grit,” Competition, and Saving Future Generations

my father moved through griefs of joy;…
his shoulders marched against the dark

“my father moved through dooms of love,” e.e. cummings

This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

“Good Bones,” Maggie Smith

While sitting in the ER with my father a few nights ago before he was admitted into the hospitals’ heart center—a few days after my mother’s stroke sending her to another, larger hospital 40-minutes away—I was reminded of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, a novel, among other things, about the abusive power imbalance between men and women.

Late in the novel, Celie explains to her sister Nettie: “Take off they pants, I say, and men look like frogs to me. No matter how you kiss ’em, as far as I’m concern, frogs is what they stay.”

The most powerful and imposing man in my life, my father, sat in the ER—stooped, shrunken, pot-bellied, tongue hanging out of his mouth and bowed head like an aged human-sized toad somehow in a wheelchair. My father has always been my physical and athletic superior, despite my being in my mid-50s and quite successful in my career and my athletic hobby; he has always cast a shadow, darkening my lingering insecurities and anxieties.

This morning, Father’s Day 2017, I visited my father still in the heart center after spending almost all my time at my mother’s side as the number of family members able to help has dwindled as the day-count grows. Although improved, frog-like and frail, my father declared to me: “Nothing is wrong with me. I need to go home.”

For some time now, his heart has been working at only about 33%, wearing him and his pacemaker out at an accelerated rate.

In times of great medical stress, when families are brought together, stories spring forth to stabilize the chaos and restore our delusion that we have some sort of control.

One of the many myths of my father: In high school, because of fights and sports (my father was a four-sport letterman and captain of his high school’s first state championship football team in the 1950s), by age 18, my father had a full set of false teeth. So many teeth had been knocked out, his dentist eventually pulled the remaining 10 or 12 one day.

After the procedure, my father played in a baseball game, prompting his father to track him down, trying to make him come home to rest.

Like him, my mother is a gendered twin of the fanatic 1950s template for self-sacrifice, rugged individualism, and blind faith in the whitewashed American Dream—the racialized lie about hard work paying off and good guys winning.

I believe I am not being hyperbolic to recognize that my parents lie now in hospitals, broken and frail, because they bought the hokum, the hard-work hokum that makes people define their dignity in how fervently they sacrifice themselves, in how they work moment by moment to prove they are not lazy, soft, or in any way dependent on others.

My parents passed onto me a neurotic work ethic; my father instilled in me an incredibly unhealthy obsession with being athletic as proof of my manhood.

Although I have been trying to ween myself off sports fandom, I remain often connected to the sports fanaticism of the U.S.—one most solidly grounded in college and pro football, the perfect metaphor for the gladiator culture that defines us.

Dragged kicking and screaming, college football and the NFL have begun paying lip-service to acknowledging that [gasp!] the sport is cruelly violent, that football players are turning their brains into mush because of the relentless concussions that are simply part of the game.

The stories linked to the concussion debate in football are powerful and disturbing because they reveal a subtext that also came to mind as I sat with each of my parents: pro football players, many retired, admit that they have and would continue to lie about concussion symptoms to remain on the field.

The gladiator culture of the U.S. is replicated exponentially in the NFL [1]—toxic and hyper-masculinity, anything necessary including sacrificing health and even life.

And while the NFL and football mania of the U.S. are disturbing, the most troubling reality is that our neo-work-ethic of the twenty-first century targets children, specifically black and brown children from impoverished backgrounds.

The “grit” and growth mindset movements have become (mainstream) socially acceptable ways to wink-wink-nod-nod that black, brown, and poor people are simply too lazy, unwilling to work themselves, like my dad and mom, into decrepitude for the 1%.

Frantic—we are a nation with a ruling class snowblinded by their own privilege and terrified they won’t have a servant class—the whitewashed American Dream for black, brown, and poor children.

The U.S. has devolved into a perverse and inverted gladiator culture with the 1% in the stands and the rest of us reduced to a dog-eat-dog existence, an artificial and unnecessary dog-eat-dog existence.

Visit the elderly of this country, worn down by the demands that they work hard and depend on no one.

Look into their faces and if you can their eyes.

This is the future we are demanding of “other people’s children.”

But it is also a future we can reject, choosing instead an ethic of community and compassion.

As I look at my parents—discardable white working class Americans—I think that they deserved better, despite their own culpability in our whitewashed American Dream.

On this awful Father’s Day 2017, I would prefer above all else to be on the couch with my granddaughter, who yesterday kept imploring me “Wake up, Papa!” as I tried to doze between sessions with my mother, as she snuggled against me, her futon.

I know she deserves better—as does every single child having come to this planet and country by no choice of their own.

“This place could be beautiful,/right? You could make this place beautiful”—a haunting image of everything that I wish for this world in a poem by Maggie Smith that confesses:

The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.

On this awful Father’s Day 2017, I have kept much from my father and my mother in ways substantial and indirect.

But there is no way to justify the lies we tell children—that they fail to work hard enough, that they are somehow not good enough unless they act as if they do not matter, that they should shut up and suck it up.

Few things are worth fighting for, but one is to keep every child from the gladiator’s ring, to promise every child if not a beautiful world, at least the possibility of one.


[1] In the same way the NFL promotes the great lie that the U.S. is a meritocracy:

Despite this, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell rejected on Friday the idea that any kind of blackballing was taking place. He called the NFL “a meritocracy,” saying, “If they see an opportunity to get better as a football team, they’re going to do it. They’re going to do whatever it takes to make their football team better. So, those are football decisions. They’re made all the time. I believe that if a football team feels that Colin Kaepernick, or any other player, is going to improve that team, they’re going to do it.”

The Hollow Nation

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion…

“The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot

My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for eleven years….Carers aren’t machines.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

We are the hollow nation. We are the stuffed nation, “Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw.”

It has been almost seven months since a motorist struck a pack of cyclists I was riding with on Christmas Eve 2016, injuring four of us—two seriously and permanently.

The motorist was deemed at fault on the scene, but received only a $76 ticket, less than the monthly payments I am making on my remaining medical bills since the insurance claim for the accident has yet to be settled.

My own insurance has paid much of the cost, but I am required to repay those payments once I have a settlement. The orthopedist, as well, overcharged me during my fracture treatment, refunding that amount more than six months later.

Nine or ten insurance companies and multiple lawyers have been wrestling with this accident, and the other injured cyclists and I have received a barrage of bills and notices from the ER, the hospital, the ambulance service, and numerous doctors. One cyclist was airlifted from the scene, and since the motorist had minimum coverage, his portion of that insurance likely was erased immediately in that urgent care.

This recent Monday morning, my mother was found unconscious by my youngest nephew, her grandson. She had a stroke, requiring an ambulance to transport her to our local hospital that then had her airlifted to a larger hospital nearby for emergency surgery on the clot discovered in her brain.

She has been in neurological ICU, and now a regular hospital room since Monday—but soon she will be transferred again to a rehabilitation facility for 2-3 weeks.

My father has been quite unwell recently; therefore, we are guiding him around in a wheelchair, circling our own wagons because my mother’s stroke creates a new and terrifying reality: she was his caretaker, and the family now must seek ways to provide both of my parents care.

Working-class children of the 1940s and 1950s, my parents have only Social Security and Medicare to sustain them.

Our next steps are swamped by if and how well their insurance and social services cover the medical care and rehabilitation my mother needs, if and how well my father can receive the daily care she has been providing.

My accident and my mother’s stroke are not nearly as extreme as the terrors of the healthcare system in the U.S. that countless people suffer daily. But these “terrors” are not really about the healthcare.

The treatment my mother has received, the seemingly miraculous surgery, has been the sort of kind and skilled medicine that leaves you mesmerized by the power of humans to make this world work in ways that are good and right and life-affirming.

But that care, I am afraid, is an isolated outlier in a calloused and awful system of administration, bureaucracy, and dehumanization caused by our lack of political courage as a people, as a country.

The power of universal healthcare and a single-payer system to provide humanity and dignity to the amazing medicine and brilliant healthcare providers already in the U.S. is left in the wake of our hollow nation.

A nation that is the wealthiest and most powerful in human history.

A nation that allows more than 1 in 5 children to live in poverty.

A nation of heartless and vicious partisan politics poised to dump an already inadequate system into the laps of caretakers, family members.

My accident exposes the hollowness of calls for individual responsibility; the system is designed to allow serial carelessness that leaves innocent victims responsible.

My mother’s stroke exposes that we as a nation genuinely do not care about a generation of people who may have bought the American Dream myth most sincerely—people such as my parents who were buoyed by white privilege they denied, who preached and practiced  the rigged rugged individualism scarred by racism with the faith it would pay off as they decline into their new reality of being dependent on the kindness of not only family, but the kindness of strangers.

Wealth and security are hoarded by a few, a vicious tribalism of a country that denies community, the power and dignity of everyone caring about everyone—not just the tunnel vision quest of “me getting mine,” the mean-spirited Social Darwinism that lurks beneath our national platitudes about working hard and fair play.

A hollow nation that denies the humanity of all sorts of “others” because of race and religion, but also culls away many at the edges of white privileged—white poor, white working-poor, white working class.

My parents represent that even the wink-wink-nod-nod promise of the American Dream (the white nationalism of “Make America Great Again”) is a lie, a calloused lie within the larger lie to the tired, the poor, the huddled massed—and especially a bald-faced lie about the so-called melting pot, a metaphor more accurate if named a witch’s cauldron.

With these realities before me, it is tempting to call for the removal of the Statue of Liberty, but at least, we must strip it of the poem inscribed at the base and post instead:

We are the hollow nation. We are the stuffed nation, “Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw.”

14 June 2017 Reader

How to Call B.S. on Big Data: A Practical Guide, Michelle Nijhuis

Mind the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle, articulated by the Italian software developer Alberto Brandolini in 2013: the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it. Or, as Jonathan Swift put it in 1710, “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.”Plus ça change.

Who Is Dangerous, and Who Dies?

ERROL MORRIS: I found an innocent man who came very close to being executed. [Adams’s execution was scheduled for May 8, 1979, but Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. ordered a stay only three days before he was to be strapped into the lethal-injection gurney. Ultimately, the court overturned his death sentence, but not his conviction.] I uncovered all of these appalling details 30 years ago and then opened up a newspaper recently and read about Buck. It’s as if nothing ever happened. That’s both depressing and infuriating. Mitt Romney, when he was governor of Massachusetts, was told that the death penalty is problematic because it’s fallible. You could execute an innocent person, and given our current state of knowledge, there is really no way to bring them back. Once executed, they stay executed.

CHRISTINA SWARNS: And so what was Romney’s reply?

ERROL MORRIS: He said: Oh, that’s simple. We’ll just make it infallible. We’ll make it foolproof. You said it’s fallible. We’ll just fix that.

Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich, Richard V. Reeves

So imagine my horror at discovering that the United States is more calcified by class than Britain, especially toward the top. The big difference is that most of the people on the highest rung in America are in denial about their privilege. The American myth of meritocracy allows them to attribute their position to their brilliance and diligence, rather than to luck or a rigged system. At least posh people in England have the decency to feel guilty.

In Britain, it is politically impossible to be prime minister and send your children to the equivalent of a private high school. Even Old Etonian David Cameron couldn’t do it. In the United States, the most liberal politician can pay for a lavish education in the private sector. Some of my most progressive friends send their children to $30,000-a-year high schools. The surprise is not that they do it. It is that they do it without so much as a murmur of moral disquiet.

Beneath a veneer of classlessness, the American class reproduction machine operates with ruthless efficiency. In particular, the upper middle class is solidifying. This favored fifth at the top of the income distribution, with an average annual household income of $200,000, has been separating from the 80 percent below. Collectively, this top fifth has seen a $4 trillion-plus increase in pretax income since 1979, compared to just over $3 trillion for everyone else. Some of those gains went to the top 1 percent. But most went to the 19 percent just beneath them.

50 years after the Loving verdict, a photo essay looks back on their love, Priscilla Frank

Monday, June 12, marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark United States Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which quashed anti-miscegenation laws in 16 states around the nation, ushering restrictions against interracial marriage to the wrong side of history.

The date is now remembered as Loving Day in honor of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple who defied the state’s ability to dictate the terms of their love based on their skin color. Mildred, who was of African American and Native American descent, and Richard, who was white, wed in 1958 in Washington D.C., because interracial marriage was illegal in their native rural Virginia, as well as 15 other Southern U.S. states.

When the Lovings returned to Virginia, however, local police raided their home one early morning after being tipped off by another resident. They declared the Lovings’ marriage license invalid within the scope of the state, placing the couple under arrest.

What counts as language education policy?: Developing a materialist Anti-racist approach to language activismNelson Flores and Sofia Chaparro

Abstract: Language activism has been at the core of language education policy since its emergence as a scholarly field in the 1960s under the leadership of Joshua Fishman. In this article, we seek to build on this tradition to envision a new approach to language activism for the twenty-first century. In particular, we advocate a materialist anti-racist approach to language activism that broadens what counts as language education policy to include a focus on the broader racial and economic policies that impact the lives of language-minoritized communities. In order to illustrate the need for a materialist anti-racist framing of language education policy we provide portraits of four schools in the School District of Philadelphia that offer dual language bilingual education programs. We demonstrate the ways that larger societal inequities hinder these programs from serving the socially transformative function that advocates for these programs aspire toward. We end by calling for a new paradigm of language education policy that connects language activism with other movements that seek to address societal inequities caused by a myriad of factors including poverty, racism, and xenophobia.

The difficulties scholars have writing for a broad audience, Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost

Scholars have insights, experience and research that can help the public navigate the contemporary world, but scholarly work all too often goes unseen. Sometimes it gets sequestered behind exorbitant paywalls or prohibitively steep book prices. Other times it gets lost in the pages of esoteric journals. Other times yet, it’s easy to access but hard to understand due to jargon and doublespeak. And often it doesn’t reach a substantial audience, dooming its aspirations to impact public life.

How can scholars write for wider audiences without compromising their lives as disciplinary researchers?

The Confederate flag largely disappeared after the Civil War. The fight against civil rights brought it back, Logan Strother, Thomas Ogorzalek, and Spencer Piston

But what is less well-known is the actual history of these symbols after the Civil War — and this history sheds important light on the debate. Confederate symbols have not always been a part of American or Southern life. They largely disappeared after the Civil War. And when they reappeared, it was not because of a newfound appreciation of Southern history.

Instead, as we argue in a newly published article, white Southerners reintroduced these symbols as a means of resisting the Civil Rights movement. The desire to maintain whites’ dominant position in the racial hierarchy of the United States was at the root of the rediscovery of Confederate symbols.

Pride or Prejudice: Racial Prejudice, Southern Heritage, and White Support for the Confederate Battle Flag, Logan Strother, Spencer Piston, and Thomas Ogorzalek

Abstract: Debates about the meaning of Southern symbols such as the Confederate battle emblem are sweeping the nation. These debates typically revolve around the question of whether such symbols represent “heritage or hatred:” racially innocuous Southern pride or White prejudice against B lacks. In order to assess these competing claims, we first examine the historical reintroduction of the Confederate flag in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s; next, we analyze three survey datasets, including one nationally representative dataset and two probability samples of White Georgians and White South Carolinians, in order to build and assess a stronger theoretical account of the racial motivations underlying such symbols than currently exists. While our findings yield strong support for the hypothesis that prejudice against Blacks bolsters White support for Southern symbols, support for the Southern heritage hypothesis is decidedly mixed. Despite widespread denials that Southern symbols reflect racism, racial prejudice is strongly associated with support for such symbols.

The Tribalism that Divides: “the victims of the Us v. Them years/Wrecking all things virtuous and true”

Jonna Ivin’s long-form effort to understand the rise of TrumplandiaI Know Why Poor Whites Chant Trump, Trump, Trump—investigates an important question about political allegiances in the U.S.:

There is an unavoidable question about places like Benton County, a question many liberals have tried to answer for years now: Why do poor whites vote along the same party lines as their wealthy neighbors across the road? Isn’t that against their best interests?

The election of Trump has spurred a seemingly endless debate about -isms: racism and nationalism prominent, but rarely evoked but enveloping of both, tribalism.

Of these three -isms, discussions of racism remain taboo, sparking often white denial; nationalism draws both support and criticism; yet, as I noted, tribalism tends to be unspoken in the context of the U.S.

As a life-long U.S. citizen old enough to have witnessed the irrational national hatred of the USSR and Russia morph into a right-wing embracing of Russia based significantly on race, I am struck now by the tribalism central to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, a fictional examination of the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70.

“In 1967, Colonel Ojukwu declared that Eastern Nigeria would be known as the Independent Republic of Biafra. The main intentions of Colonel Ojukwu were to break away from the dictatorship of the Northern Nigeria Military who were immensely discriminating the people of Southern and Eastern Nigeria.” Cole Kirkpatrick

Adichie dramatizes the power of language, education, and tribes to drive power distributions. However, the U.S. version of tribalism is segregation—both de jure and de facto—that tends to fall along racial and economic lines.

Trump and his administration has fueled a growing genre of which Ivin’s essay is among the more powerful, although ultimately inadequate—the best trying to deconstruct white voters (often narrowed to working class and/or poor white voters), but the worst masking apologist journalism uncritically blinded by its own whitewashing.

Like J.D. Vance’s deeply flawed Hillbilly Elegy, Ivin’s piece is a sympathetic read of whites in the U.S., although much more blunt than Vance about the fact of racism running through angry poor whites, captured in her refrain: “I’m just a poor white trash motherfucker. No one cares about me.

As someone with white working-class roots nurtured in racist soil who eventually focused a great deal of scholarship and professional work on the intersections of inequity (poverty and racism) and education, I recognize that while poverty can and should unite, individual and systemic racism trumps common economic interests among impoverished whites in the U.S.

Yes, Ivin asks the right question, noted above, but her piece ultimately fails because it balks at holding poor whites accountable for being coerced into racism by the power elites; Ivin seems to see only two options: sympathy for poor whites or demonizing poor whites.

And, Ivin’s essay devolves into a Bernie Sanders plea, Sanders and his campaign a model of the ultimate failures of whitewashed socialism.

Partisan politics, like religion, is trapped in tribalism, subsets of the larger urges toward creating us versus them* in everything humans touch. Ivin and others seeking to understand angry white voters simply fail to address that ultimately those committed to tribalism (as nationalism and racism) above all else must be confronted, and held accountable.

Yes, the power elites who speak to and prime tribalism are the core problem, one that must be dismantled. Yet, to continue to sympathize with angry poor whites as if they remain more important than racial minorities is to whitewash that poor whites benefit from white racism (in the judicial system, for example), and that even though poor whites are pawns of political elites, they have the potential to assert their autonomy in order to acknowledge systemic racism and then reject racism in order to form economic solidarity.

So allow me to end with the sort of distinctions we need instead of clamoring to understand the angry poor white character.

Recently, I was confronted by a fellow academic who argued that whites voting in majorities (both men and women) for Trump cannot be called racist unless we also label as racist overwhelming majorities of blacks voting for Barack Obama.

This proves to be a false analogy if we step back from simple race to inspect the intent behind the votes. One of the most powerful aspects of Ivin’s essay is that she unpacks the racial and then racist motivations historically of many whites, again even as they are being baited by people with power.

There is much to suggest that Trump support is grounded in white fear of losing the exact privilege they deny ( a fear masked as “traditional values” and other nationalistic/tribal language); conversely, black support of Obama or other so-called progressives is a quest for equity.

“Conservative” (a tribal urge) is to keep things as the are; “progressive” is to seek change, ideally change for the benefit of all.

While demographics of  partisan political support are racial, we must confront that racial can be racist (white support of Trump) or about equity (black support of Obama).

Trump support among whites is a contemporary example of the historical pattern Ivin exposes, notably instilling fear of black men in poor whites during reconstruction: “Religious and political leaders began using a combination of fear, sex, and God to paint a chilling picture of freed angry Black men ravaging the South.”

The Lost Cause Worse Than Slavery
Thomas Nast
October 24, 1874
Reproduced from Harper’s Weekly

Trump’s dog whistles about Mexicans and terrorists, and getting tough on crime (code for policing blacks) are warmed over racism from the late nineteenth century—tactics that have worked for more than a century for political and economic elites.

Trumplandia is nothing new, and white angst need not be examined in order for us to understand it. These are all old hat for the U.S.

What would be new is an honest confrontation of tribalism in the U.S. and an honest effort to dismantle systemic racism in the name of social and economic justice.


* “Ignoreland,” R.E.M.: “These bastards stole their power from the victims of the Us v. Them years/Wrecking all things virtuous and true.”

Reader 22 May 2017 [UPDATED]: Connecting Dots

Why people are rich and poor: Republicans and Democrats have very different views

See: UPDATE 21 (20 May 2017): Grit, Education Narratives Veneer for White, Wealth Privilege

Minorities Who ‘Whiten’ Résumés More Likely to Get Interview, Michael Harriot

“Whitening” is an all-encompassing term for when prospective employees scrub their résumés of anything that might indicate their race. Applicants with cultural names will sometimes use their initials. Community or professional work with African-American fraternities, sororities or other organizations are deleted. One student omitted a prestigious scholarship he was awarded because he feared it might reveal his race.

Although the practice sounds demeaning and reductive in the year 2017, apparently it works. In one study, researchers sent out whitened résumés and nonwhitened résumés to 1,600 employers. Twenty-five percent of black applicants received callbacks when their résumés were whitened, compared with 10 percent of the job seekers who left their ethnic details on the same résumés.

The results were the same for employers who advertised themselves as “equal opportunity employers” or said that “minorities are strongly encouraged to apply.”

Whitened Résumés: Race and Self-Presentation in the Labor Market, Sonia Kang, Katy DeCelles, András Tilcsik, and Sora Jun

Abstract

Racial discrimination in labor markets is a critical process through which organizations produce economic inequality in society. Though scholars have extensively examined the discriminatory decisions and practices of employers, the question of how job seekers try to adapt to anticipated discrimination is often overlooked. Using interviews, a laboratory experiment, and a résumé audit study, we examine racial minorities’ attempts to avoid discrimination by concealing or downplaying racial cues in job applications, a practice known as “résumé whitening.” While some minority job seekers reject this practice, others view it as essential and use a variety of whitening techniques. When targeting an employer that presents itself as valuing diversity, however, minority job applicants engage in relatively little résumé whitening and thus submit more racially transparent résumés. Yet, our audit study shows that organizational diversity statements are not actually associated with reduced discrimination against unwhitened résumés. Taken together, these findings suggest a paradox: Minorities may be particularly likely to experience disadvantage when they apply to ostensibly pro-diversity employers. These findings illuminate the role of racial concealment and transparency in modern labor markets and point to an important interplay between the self-presentation of employers and the self-presentation of job seekers in shaping economic inequality.


Experts: Conflicts over Confederate names and symbols likely to continue, Paul Hyde

But Thomas said school administrators should encourage student debate over historical figures such as Wade Hampton — as an important lesson in democracy.

“If we really think that public education is to prepare people to live in a democracy, children need to have experiences with democratic processes,” Thomas said. “I think this specific protest should be seen as an opportunity for students to see what the democratic process looks like, with everybody’s voice mattering. Principals and superintendents of public schools — they have incredibly hard jobs — but they are the people who have to show students what moral courage is. If administrators and teachers can’t show moral courage, how do we expect our children to?”

See: Dismantling Monuments: History as a Living Document


When Standardized Tests Don’t Count | Just Visiting, John  Warner

And yet, when it comes to marginalized and vulnerable populations within Charleston County Schools, these standardized assessments provide a rational for top-down oversight and control.

This is entirely common and predictable. “Accountability” is often weaponized against those without the means to defend themselves.

I have no wish to upend the academic culture of the Citadel over their terrible CLA scores, but maybe some of those who are willing to give our elite storied places a pass can extend the same spirit to those who have no such protections.

See Are America’s top schools ‘elite’ or merely ‘selective?’

Why The New Sat Is Not The Answer, Akil Bello and James Murphy

If anything, the discord between them is likely to grow as the College Board pursues an equitable society using a test that is designed to mark and promote distinctions.

For all the positive changes the College Board has made, the new SAT shouldn’t be counted among them. It is a test, not a solution.

Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse, Mike Taylor

The problem is a well-known one, and indeed one we have discussed here before: as soon as you try to measure how well people are doing, they will switch to optimising for whatever you’re measuring, rather than putting their best efforts into actually doing good work.

In fact, this phenomenon is so very well known and understood that it’s been given at least three different names by different people:

  • Goodhart’s Law is most succinct: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
  • Campbell’s Law is the most explicit: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
  • The Cobra Effect refers to the way that measures taken to improve a situation can directly make it worse.

America has locked up so many black people it has warped our sense of reality, Jeff Guo

According to a Wonkblog analysis of government statistics, about 1.6 percent of prime-age white men (25 to 54 years old) are institutionalized. If all those 590,000 people were recognized as unemployed, the unemployment rate for prime-age white men would increase from about 5 percent to 6.4 percent.

For prime-age black men, though, the unemployment rate would jump from 11 percent to 19 percent. That’s because a far higher fraction of black men — 7.7 percent, or 580,000 people — are institutionalized.

UNEQUAL ENFORCEMENT: How policing of drug possession differs by neighborhood in Baton Rouge

BR inequity

Reformed to Death: Discipline and Control Eclipse Education

An enduring gift of being a student and a teacher is that these experiences often create lifelong and powerful personal and professional relationships. Reminiscing about these experiences, however, is often bittersweet because we are simultaneously reminded of the great promise of education as well as how too often we are completely failing that promise.

After writing about my two years as as a co-lead instructor for a local Writing Project summer institute, the former student I discussed called me, and we found ourselves wading deeply into the bittersweet.

She has in the intervening years been a co-facilitator in the same workshop where I taught her now more than 15 years ago; she also has worked in many capacities providing teachers professional development and serving as a mentor to pre-service teachers completing education programs and certification requirements.

As we talked, the pattern that emerged is extremely disturbing: the most authentic and enriching opportunities for teachers are routinely crowded out by bureaucratic and administrative mandates, often those that are far less valid as instructional practice.

In my chapter on de-grading the writing classroom, I outlined how the imposition of accountability ran roughshod over the rise of the National Writing Project (NWP), which embodied both the best of how to teach writing and a gold standard approach to professional development.

What is best for teachers and what is best for students, however, are mostly irrelevant in the ongoing high-stakes accountability approach to education reform, a process in which discipline and control eclipse education.

Local sites of the NWP are crucibles of how the reform movement is a death spiral for authentic and high-quality teaching and learning as well as teacher professionalism.

At the core of the NWP model is a charge that teachers must experience and become expert in that which they teach; therefore, to guide students through a writing workshop experience, teachers participate in extended summer writing workshop institutes.

While NWP site-based institutes and other programs thrived against the weight of the accountability era, that appears to be waning under the weight of accountability-based mandates that are in a constant state of reform; teachers are routinely required to seek new certification while they and their students must adapt to a perpetually different set of standards and high-stakes tests.

That bureaucracy is often Orwellian since “best practice” and “evidence-based”—terminology birthed in authentic contexts such as the NWP—have become markers for programs and practices that are aligned with standards and testing, not with the research base of the field. The logic is cripplingly circular and disturbingly misleading.

This erosion and erasing of teaching writing well and effectively is paralleled all across the disciplines in K-12 education, in fact—although how writing is particularly ruined in standards- and testing-based programs and practices remains our best marker of accountability as discipline and control, not as education.

I want to end here by staying with writing, but shifting to the sacred cow of the reform movement: evidence.

High-stakes testing of writing has been a part of state accountability and national testing (NAEP and, briefly, the SAT) for more than 30 years since A Nation at Risk ushered in (deceptively) the accountability era of K-12 public education in the U.S.

What do we know about high-stakes testing as well as the accountability paradigm driven by standards and tests?

George Hillocks has documented [1] that high-stakes testing of writing reduces instruction to training students to conform to anchor papers, template writing, and prescriptive rubrics. In other words, as I noted above, “best practice” and “evidence-based” became whether or not teaching and learning about writing conformed to the way students were tested—not if students had become in any way authentic or autonomous writers, and thinkers.

My own analysis of NAEP tests of writing [2] details that standardized data touted as measuring writing proficiency are strongly skewed by student reading abilities and significant problems with the alignment of the assessment’s prompts and scoring guides.

And now, we have yet more proof that education reform is fundamentally flawed, as Jill Barshay reports:

“(T)he use of the computer may have widened the writing achievement gap,” concluded the working paper, “Performance of fourth-grade students in the 2012 NAEP computer-based writing pilot assessment.”  If so, that has big implications as test makers, with the support of the Department of Education, move forward with their goal of moving almost all students to computerized assessments, which are more efficient and cheaper to grade.

Not only does high-stakes testing of writing fail the research base on how best to teach composition [3], but also the pursuit of efficiency [4] continues to drive all aspects of teaching and learning, effectively contradicting the central claims of reformers to be pursuing seemingly lofty goals such as closing the achievement gap.

Writing instruction and assessment are prisoners of the cult of proficiency that is K-12 education reform, and are just one example of the larger accountability machine that has chosen discipline and control over education.

Reform has become both the means and the ends to keeping students and teachers always “starting again,” “never [to be] finished with anything,” as Gilles Deleuze observed [5].

Barshay ends her coverage of the IES study on computer-based writing assessment with a haunting fear about how evidence drives practice in a high-stakes accountability environment, a fear I guarantee will inevitably become reality:

My fear is that some educators will respond by drilling poor kids in the QWERTY keyboard, when the time would be better spent reading great works of literature and writing essays and creative stories.

As long as reforming and accountability are the masters, we will continue to make the wrong instructional decisions, we will continue to be compelled to make the wrong decisions.


[1] See Hillocks’s “FightingBack: Assessing theAssessments” and The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning.

[2] See 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate?, co-authored with Renita Schmidt.

[3] See The Impact of the SAT and ACT Timed Writing Tests – NCTE.

[4] See NCTE Position Statement on Machine Scoring.

[5] See Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control:

The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to barracks, from barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything.

Elite or Selective?: Reconsidering Who We Educate and How

Sharde Miller’s California teen describes his road from Compton to Harvard University offers a powerful subtext about the American Dream as well as the enduring belief in education as the “great equalizer,” embodied by Elijah Devaughn Jr.:

Devaughn grew up in a single-parent household in Compton, California, a city that has been plagued by gun violence and gang activity for decades….

“Getting accepted into a prestigious university like Harvard, I think it means the world,” Devaughn said. “It means God is able. It means that hard work pays off. It means that, you know, struggles end.”

What if we unpack the label of “prestigious” by making an important caveat: Is Harvard University elite or selective?

As a point of reference, over the past three decades of high-stakes accountability in public education, schools have been annually labeled as excelling and failing; however, once we look beneath the A-F rankings, a strong and consistent correlation persists between schools identified as excelling or failing and the socio-economic status of the students [1] (as well as the racial and language demographics).

Consider also that for every year of the SAT being administered, average scores have fallen perfectly in correlation with parental income and parental years of education [2].

My university has begun gathering data to analyze our impact on students. The university is selective, having high standards for the academic backgrounds and achievements of students.

Some initial data are telling. When students with high preparation are compared to students with low preparation, extrapolating over four years of college, high preparation students are more successful and the gap with low preparation students widens during years 2 and 3 and then never closes by year 4 (year 1 and year 4 gaps are about the same).

If we persist in suggesting that education is the great equalizer (despite ample evidence education does not, in fact, equalize) and a foundational mechanism of the American Dream, we must reconsider how and why we identify any schools as “prestigious.”

Alexander W. Astin’s Are You Smart Enough? seeks to examine if our prestigious and excelling schools are elite or merely selective. Astin exposes part of the problem with labeling colleges, for example, as “prestigious”:

The “quality” or “excellence” of a college or university is thus judged on the basis of the average test score of its entering students, rather than on how well it educates them once they enroll.

What is lost in the rush to ascribe success and failure to schools is, as Astin argues, the essential charge of any formal schooling:

On the contrary, the quality of our national talent pool depends heavily on how well colleges and university develops the students’ capacities during the college years. And this mean all students.

And thus, Astin asserts: “More parents need to be asking, ‘Why should an educational system invest the least in the students who may need the most in higher education?'”

Here, then, is the dirty little secret: “Prestigious school” (K-12 as well as colleges/universities) is a veneer for “selective,” not “elite” in terms of the educational impact but in terms of the conditions at those schools.

Public universities are less selective than private liberal arts colleges, and the former experience is distinct from the latter in, for example, faculty/student ratios, class size.

In other words, more academically successful students tend to be from more affluent and well educated parents, and then are afforded higher education experiences that are identifiably superior to relatively less successful students from lower levels of affluence and education.

Reconsidering how we label schools, the “selective” versus “elite” divide, is a first step in seeking ways to turn a tarnished myth (“education is the great equalizer”) into a reality.

Too often “prestigious” and “elite” are code for “selective,” praising a college/university for gatekeeping, and not educating; too often “excellent” and “failing” are code for student demographics, ranking K-12 schools for proximity, and not educating.

Testing, ranking, and accountability in the U.S. have entrenched social and educational inequity because, as Astin confronts, “there are two very different uses for educational assessment: (a) to rank, rate, compare, and judge the performance of different learners and (b) to enhance the learning process.”

We have chosen the former, pretending as well that those metrics reflect mostly merit although they are overwhelming markers of privilege.

Let’s return to Devaughn as a rags-to-riches story.

Late in the article we learn Devaughn attended private school before his acceptance to Harvard—again bringing us back to the issue of opportunity and what we are learning at my university about well prepared students versus less prepared students.

Devaughn’s story should not be trivialized, but carefully unpacked, it does not prove what I think it intended to show. The American Dream and claims education is the great equalizer are, in fact, deforming myths.

Race, gender, and the socioeconomic factors of homes and communities remain resilient causal factors in any person’s opportunities and success:

All schools at any level must re-evaluate who has access to the institution, and why, and then focus on what impact the educational experience has on those students. Therein must be the evidence for determining excellence and prestige.


[1] See here and here for examples in South Carolina.

[2] See The Conversation: Tests don’t improve learning. And PARCC will be no different.