The Big Lie about the Left in the U.S.

The Big Lie about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left exists in some substantial and influential way in the country.

The Truth about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left does not exist in some substantial and influential way in the country. Period.

The little lies that feed into the Big Lie include that universities and professors, K-12 public schools, the mainstream media, and Hollywood are all powerful instruments of liberal propaganda.

These little lies have cousins in the annual shouting about the “war on Christmas” and hand wringing by Christians that they are somehow the oppressed peoples of the U.S.

These lies little and Big are a scale problem in that the U.S. is now and has always been a country whose center is well to the right, grounded as we are in capitalism more so than democracy.

The U.S. is a rightwing country that pays lip service to progressivism and democracy; we have a vibrant and powerful Right and an anemic, fawning Middle.

Wealth, corporatism, consumerism, and power are inseparable in the U.S.—pervading the entire culture including every aspect of government and popular culture.

The Left in the U.S. is a fabricated boogeyman, designed and perpetuated by the Right to keep the general public distracted. Written as dark satire, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle now serves as a manual for understanding how power uses false enemies to maintain power and control.

Notably during the past 30-plus decades, conservative politics have dominated the country, creating for Republicans a huge problem in terms of bashing “big government.”

But dog-whistle politics grounded in race and racism benefitting the Right and Republicans have a long history.

In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. confronted Barry Goldwater’s tactics foreshadowing Trump’s strategies and rise:

The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism…On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represents a philosophy that is morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I have no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that does not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.

Malcolm X held forth in more pointed fashion, but with the same focus:

Well if Goldwater ever becomes president one thing his presence in the White House will do, it will make black people in America have to face up the facts probably for the first time in many many years,” Malcolm X said. 

“This in itself is good in that Goldwater is a man who’s not capable of hiding his racist tendencies,” he added. “And at the same time he’s not even capable of pretending to Negroes that he’s their friend.” 

The Civil Rights icon concluded that should Goldwater be elected, he would inspire black people to fully reckon with “whites who pose as liberals only for the purpose of getting the support of the Negro.”

“So in one sense Goldwater’s coming in will awaken the Negro and will probably awaken the entire world more so than the world has been awakened since Hitler,” he said.

Mentioned above, the annual panic over the “war on Christmas” is a distraction from the fact that Christmas serves consumerism, the Right, and not religion—keeping in mind that Jesus and his ideology rejected materialism and espoused moral and ethical codes in line with socialism and communism/Marxism.

What remains mostly unexamined is that all structures are essentially conservative—seeking to continue to exist. Power, then, is always resistant to change, what should be at the core of progressivism and leftwing ideology.

Marxism is about power and revolution (drastic change, and thus a grand threat to power), but suffers in the U.S. from the cartoonish mischaracterization from the Right that it is totalitarianism.

So as we drift toward the crowning of the greatest buffoon ever to sit at the throne of the U.S. as a consumerocracy posing as a democracy, Education Week has decided to launch into the hackneyed “academics are too liberal and higher education is unfair to conservatives” ploy.

At the center of this much-ado-about-nothing is Rick Hess playing his Bokonon and McCabe role:

I know, I know. To university-based education researchers, all this can seem innocuous, unobjectionable, and even inevitable. But this manner of thinking and talking reflects one shared worldview, to the exclusion of others. While education school scholars may almost uniformly regard a race-conscious focus on practice and policy as essential for addressing structural racism, a huge swath of the country sees instead a recipe for fostering grievance, animus, and division. What those in ed. schools see as laudable efforts to promote “equitable” school discipline or locker-room access strike millions of others as an ideological crusade to remake communities, excuse irresponsible behavior, and subject children to goofy social engineering. Many on the right experience university initiatives intended to promote “tolerance” and “diversity” as attempts to silence or delegitimize their views on immigration, criminal justice, morality, and social policy. For readers who find it hard to believe that a substantial chunk of the country sees things thusly, well, that’s kind of the issue.

Conversational and posing as a compassionate conservative, Hess sprinkles in scare quotes while completely misrepresenting everything about which he knows nothing.

This is all cartoon and theater.

The grand failure of claiming that the academy is all leftwing loonies is that is based almost entirely—see the EdWeek analysis—on noting that academics overwhelmingly identify as Democrats.

However, the Democratic Party is not in any way a substantial reflection of leftist ideology. At most, we can admit that Democrats tend to use progressive rhetoric (and this is a real characteristics of professors, scholars, and academics), but that Democratic policy remains centrist and right of center.

A powerful example of this fact is the Department of Education (DOE) and Secretary of Education (SOE) throughout George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations.

For the past 16 years, education policy has been highly bureaucratic and grounded almost entirely in rightwing ideology—choice, competition, accountability, and high-stakes testing.

The only real difference between Bush’s SOE and Obama’s SOE has been rhetoric; yes, Duncan, for example, loved to chime in with civil rights lingo, but policy under Obama moved farther right than under Bush.

Now, let me end here by addressing the charge that college professors are a bunch of leftwing loonies.

I can do so because I am the sort of dangerous professor Hess wants everyone to believe runs our colleges and universities—poisoning the minds of young people across the U.S.

I can also add that I spent 18 years as a public school teacher before the past 15 years in higher education.

In both so-called liberal institutions—public education and higher education—as a real card-carrying Lefty, I have been in the minority, at best tolerated, but mostly ignored and even marginalized.

Public schools are extremely conservative, reflecting and perpetuating the communities they serve. In the South, my colleagues were almost all conservative in their world-views and religious practices.

My higher education experience has been somewhat different because the atmosphere has the veneer of progressivism (everyone know how to talk, what to say), but ultimately, we on the Left are powerless, unheard and often seen as a nuisance.

Colleges and universities are institutions built on and dependent on privilege and elitism. As I noted above, colleges and universities are not immune to the conservative nature of institutions; they seek ways to maintain, to conserve, to survive.

Colleges and universities are also not immune to business pressures, seeing students and their families as consumers.

Do professors push back on these tendencies and pressures? Sure.

But that dynamic remains mostly rhetorical.

The Truth is that colleges and universities are centrist organizations—not unlike the Democratic Party and their candidates, such as Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Some progressives in the U.S. play both sides to sniff at the power on the Right, and then the Right uses that rhetoric and those veneers to prove how the Left has taken over our colleges/universities, public schools, media, and Hollywood.

But that is a Big Lie about the Left in the U.S.

The Left does not exist in any substantial way, except as a boogeyman controlled by the Right in order to serve the interests of those in power.

“To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true,” Bayard Rustin warned.

Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle dramatizes this warning, and 50 years ago King and Malcolm X challenged us to see beyond the corrosive power of dog-whistle politics.

When the Right paints educational research as the product of corrupted leftwing scholars, you must look past the harmful foma and examine in whose interest it is that market-based education reform survives despite the evidence against it.

To paraphrase Gertrude from Hamlet, “The Right protests too much, methinks,” and we have much to fear from all these histrionics.

A Critical Truce in the War between Traditionalists and Progressives

Harry Webb has launched A War of Words: “The war is between traditionalists and progressives and it is an old war.”

Yes, this is an old war, and what is most frustrating about this battle for me is that, once again, critical perspectives are left out entirely. So let me offer here a brief critical truce to this war between traditionalists and progressives.

First, Webb’s post highlights some of the essential problems with the war itself.

Since the mid-1900s, progressive educators and progressive pedagogy have been demonized (and usually misrepresented) as key sources of educational failures, but traditional practices have historically dominated and currently dominate what happens in real classrooms daily.

We have ample anecdotal (I have been in education for 31 years) and research-based evidence that even though, as Webb notes, colleges of education and education professors disproportionately claim to be progressive, that once teachers enter the classroom, they tend to shut the door and practice relatively traditional pedagogy—often teaching as they have been taught or defaulting to traditional practices since they are more efficient and more easily managed in the challenging environments of mixed-ability and overcrowded classrooms.

I invite everyone to read Alfie Kohn’s examination of this in Progressive Education: Why It’s Hard to Beat, But Also Hard to Find. Kohn offers not only a solid discussion of how rare progressive practices are, but also details how progressive practices are misrepresented along with what he considers to be genuine progressive pedagogy.

Another problem I have with this war, however, is that I am not a progressive and am not offering here an apology for progressivism.

I am noting that when I wear my history of education hat (I am the Council Historian for NCTE and wrote a biography for my doctoral work), I recognize a demonizing and marginalizing of progressives that is misleading. As a critical educator, I must add, I believe that progressives have failed and do fail in many ways similar to the failures I associate with traditional practices.

I will confess that it is likely we have failed progressivism, but that point is pretty academic.

Along with Kohn’s discussion of progressivism, I also invite you to examine what I believe is an accurate model of what progressivism is by exploring the work of Lou LaBrant, the focus of my educational biography. Her work disproves the stereotypes of progressives as “touchy-feely” educators who have no grounding in empirical evidence. LaBrant practiced classroom-based research and considered herself a scientific teacher throughout her career from 1906 to 1971. She also fiercely defended the progressivism of John Dewey (something, again, that almost no one represents accurately and then almost no one practices—even those education professors who claim to be progressives).

Another problem with the war is that once traditionalists have mischaracterized progressives in order to attack those mischaracterizations and progressives have mischaracterized the traditionalists in order to attack those mischaracterizations, little value comes from the war, and as is typical of wars, we have only collateral damage.

So let me pause on one comment from Webb: “Yet, their argument is weak and not supported by evidence,” he claims about progressives.

I must call a foul here. Education has a century of research, a research base that has been ignored by policymakers and often discredited by those with narrow definitions of what counts a research (action research by teachers doesn’t count, they say, effectively silencing teachers and indirectly the voices of women in their own profession). Thus when Webb proclaims, “There is an imbalance of power here,” there is an unintended irony since that imbalance is exactly what I am highlighting.

Just as one example, Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde have offered for many years an examination of just what the body of evidence shows regarding effective pedagogy. This work calls into question two claims by Webb: first, it shows there is a robust research base, and second, the practices that are likely most effective are fairly characterized as progressive (the sorts of practices that reflect an accurate use of the term).

However, what is most important to note about Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde’s work is that what we know about best practice includes that no pedagogy is rejected and no pedagogy is demanded; in other words, best practice is implementing the instructional practices that best meet the needs of the students and match the learning goals.

For example, the evidence on teaching writing since at least the 1930s and 1940s has shown that isolated grammar instruction does not transfer to original student compositions; in the mid-1990s, George Hillocks showed that isolated grammar instruction actually inhibits writing quality. So the most effective way to teach students to write, including the most effective way for students to learn standard grammar, is through actual writing—something most people would call a progressive perspective.

However, that same research base shows that evidence-based (the evidence being found in actual writing samples from students) direct instruction (what many would call a traditional practice) is vital, and that some students (although a minority) can benefit from targeted isolated grammar instruction.

In other words, the research base emphasizes both the effectiveness of pedagogy most would call progressive, but it certainly doesn’t discount that ultimately what works best is what each student needs. As Webb noted, lecturing can be highly effective, and it can be abysmal—but that has more to do with its delivery and appropriateness than to some default judgment on the practice itself.

When traditionalists say that all students must learn standard English, they likely have a point, but their goal often falls apart when they insist on instructional practices that the evidence has shown are ineffective. “I shall prove my pedagogy is king!” is a shallow thing against seeking ways to teach each student effectively and with  compassion and patience.

When progressives say that student must be engaged in authentic activities, they also have a point (although as Webb notes, and I agree, the jargon of education offers no proof that what is claimed is what is taking place), but that goal often falls apart when they fail to recognize that having students participating in a workshop demands a teacher who also provides a great deal of structure and manages purposeful direct instruction as student work reveals the need.

In my experience, traditionalists and progressives tend to become trapped in their pedagogy and fail to see their students or the evidence of their own ineffectiveness.

If you demand all children read The Scarlet Letter, lecture on it brilliantly for two weeks, prepare a detailed study guide, and then have a class score wonderfully on the test at the end of the unit, what have you gained if most of those students never actually read the book and the entire experience taught them to hate reading?

If you invite your students to participate in writing workshop, offer no structure, fail to provide expert feedback, have no process for students to revise and improve their essays, and then bundle a portfolio of all that work with a nice decorated folder cover, what have you gained if that workshop involved more time meandering and decorating, resulting in students writing no better at the end than the beginning? (See LaBrant’s brilliant critique of failed efforts at the project method in ELA classes, a sharp unmasking of failed progressive claims.)

So, where’s the truce? Because a reasonable person could read this so far and say that I have embedded in the discussion a sneaky endorsement of progressivism (do I associate more with progressives than traditionalists? Sure. But I find they fail just as often as traditionalists, and thus, my disappointment with progressives is much more intense).

Here’s my truce.

I bet that someone as thoughtful and purposeful as Harry Webb appears in his blogs is a stellar and effective teacher, despite our differences about pedagogy.

I have seen brilliant traditionalists teachers and lousy self-proclaimed progressives. More than anything, I have seen too many teachers bound to their practices, ignoring their students and the evidence of their ineffectiveness.

Thus, my truce is that the key (the olive branch?) to this war is whether or not a teacher has a critical lens.

Let me end with a couple invitations:

I have posted before a chart that I use to introduce students to the traditionalist v. progressive divide juxtaposed with the often ignored critical alternative; please see it here.

Also consider a longer post in which I explore this dynamic in detail, Education Done To, For, or With Students?

Maybe, as Webb suggests, there is no hope for ending this war, but I would prefer a different approach, one that requires that we all step away from our commitments (as Webb critiques well, our words, labels, and jargon), take an honest assessment of the impact our commitments have on students (because the only real things that matters are if students learn and that we never sacrifice their dignity and humanity in the process), and then begin again, determined to do better the next time.