Imagine: On Bravado and Humility, 11 September 2014

On the eve of 9/11 2014, President Obama admitted, “Still, we continue to face a terrorist threat,” adding:

We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today. That’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge….

Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

In these words echo the same bravado expressed dozens of times by President George W. Bush in the days and years following the U.S. horror now known simply as 9/11.

Today, 11 September 2014, imagine a world we could have before us if we had then responded with humility instead of bravado.

Imagine a world in which the most powerful country in the world recognized the shared humanity that was rained upon us in the form of commandeered airplanes flown with the express purpose of taking our innocence in the form of casualties targeted merely for being the U.S.

Imagine a world in which the political and military leadership driven by the U.S. public embraced compassion and empathy, swearing never again to be on the wrong side of taking innocent lives in other countries simply because the act isn’t on our soil, isn’t aimed at our people.

Imagine a world in which the U.S. led not by military might but by honoring the basic humanity and dignity of all people in our actions and rejecting the politics-as-usual of wrapping warmongering in patriotic rhetoric.

Former lead singer of R.E.M., Michael Stipe was in New York city during 9/11. Writing about Douglas Coupland’s 9/11 artwork, Stipe confronts the bravado in the face of terrorism:

The Freedom Tower was meant to inspire patriotism and instead embodies the darker sides of nationalism. The 9/11 attacks and the Bush administration’s response, buoyed by the media, and our shock at having finally been direct victims of terrorism, paved the way for a whole new take on “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” There was no longer any need to explain or publicly debate militaristic power, or the police state mindset. To do so was to be the opposite of a patriot.

And then Stipe asks:

Is that who we are now? Blind, unquestioning, warlike? Are we that violent, that childish, that silly, that shallow? Are we that afraid of others? Of ourselves? Of the possibility of genuine change? Are we that easily swayed, that capable of defending “American interests”, whatever “American interests” means? Are we that racist, that terrified, that protective of an idea that we don’t even question what the idea has come to represent?

As we collectively remain committed to our bravado, as the opportunity to embrace humility and compassion fades before us, our only answer to these questions is “Yes.”

Because as President Obama emphasized in the end of his speech:

That is the difference we make in the world. And our own safety — our own security — depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation, and uphold the values that we stand for — timeless ideals that will endure long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.

“Our,” “our,” “our,” “we,” “we”—the Obama frame is essentially the us v. them narrative offered by Bush, used once again to justify military action as long as it is ours against them.

“Never forget!” Stipe prods, recognizing that a nation and a people can’t recall something they never acknowledged in the first place—humility, compassion, human dignity that knows no national, racial, or religious boundaries.

Today, 11 September 2014, imagine a world we could have before us if we had then responded with humility instead of bravado.

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“No new federal spending” Equals “This really doesn’t matter”

New York Times columnist Mykoto Rich‘s lede sounds promising in her Obama to Report Widening of Initiative for Black and Latino Boys:

President Obama will announce on Monday that 60 of the nation’s largest school districts are joining his initiative to improve the educational futures of young African-American and Hispanic boys, beginning in preschool and extending through high school graduation.

But the most important point comes in the fourth paragraph:

No new federal spending is attached to the initiative. The new efforts, which will also seek support from the nonprofit and private sectors, are being coordinated by the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban school districts.

In the U.S., “No new federal spending” equals “This really doesn’t matter.”

Can you imagine no new federal spending being attached to any military initiative?

What about no new federal spending to bail out the banks?

Of course not. But the U.S. has made a clear choice: Fund the interests of the rich and powerful (for them, the dirty money of government isn’t so dirty) and leave the fortunes of the impoverished and victims of inequity to the Invisible Hand of the free market.

We may want to note that at least the Obama administration has made a somewhat bold move to acknowledge the crippling disadvantages faced by African American and Latino boys in the U.S.—and here we should pause and make sure we acknowledge that as the civil rights issue of our time. And because of that acknowledgement, the NYT makes a rare concession to these facts, as Rich explains late in her piece:

Black and Latino students have long experienced a pattern of inequality along racial lines in American schools. According to data from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, black and Latino students are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students and attend schools with less-experienced teachers. Many also attend schools that do not offer advanced math and science courses.

Boys in particular are at a disadvantage. Black and Latino boys are less likely to graduate from high school than white boys, but also less likely than African-American or Latino girls. And in elementary school, they already fall far behind their white counterparts in reading skills: According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a series of standardized tests administered to a random sampling of American children, only 14 percent of black boys and 18 percent of Hispanic boys scored proficient or above on the fourth-grade reading tests in 2013, compared with 42 percent of white boys and 21 percent of both black and Hispanic girls.

But without government spending, initiatives are nothing more than rhetoric and distraction—further evidence of our commitment to capitalism first and possibly to the exclusion of democracy and equity, as I have examined before:

More difficult to confront than either mendacity or foma, it appears, is the hard truth that the human pursuit of equity must come before merit can matter and that in order to achieve that possibility, the human condition must commit to a spirit of community and collaboration, not competition.

Regretfully, most in power are apt to continue to not let that cat out of the bag.

Capitalism and the free market, however, are not the domains of ethical and moral social action. The human experience in the U.S. has shown us time and again that left unfettered, that market feeds itself on the workers in order to fatten the owners.

The lives and faces of African American and Latino boys in the U.S. are the regrettable portraits of our failures as a people. We are now confronted with an option to embrace our collective power and shared humanity—that which is government, the public sphere, the Commons.

There is often a reason a cliche becomes a cliche—the wisdom of all that is True becomes repeated until we have cliche. In the U.S., our new motto should be: Put your money where your mouth is.

Until then, we remain malnourished by the empty calories of rhetoric.

NOTE: For an alternative view, please read Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism.

Misreading the Never-Ending Drop-Out “Crisis”

Prompted by Peter Greene’s Why Students Drop Out, further evidence that evidence doesn’t matter for the Obama administration of Secretary Duncan, I post below an entry for the Daily Kos from 4 February 2012.

The political and public concern about high school graduation rates must be placed in two contexts: the historical reality of drop-out rates in the U.S. and the misleading use of “crisis” discourse surrounding drop-out rates.

I also strongly recommend Ralph Ellison’s speech from 1963, What These Children Are Like, which confronts the high drop-out rate among African American students:

I assume you all know that I really have no business attending this sort of conference. I have no technical terminology and no knowledge of an academic discipline. This isn’t boasting, nor is it an apology; it is just a means of reminding myself of what my reality has been and of what I am. At this point it might be useful for us to ask ourselves a few questions: what is this act, what is this scene in which the action is taking place, what is this agency and what is its purpose? The act is to discuss “these children,” the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again. But the matter of scene seems to get us into trouble.

Daring to Look Behind the Curtain: The Drop-Out Crisis Redux

“‘Only four out of ten U.S. children finish high school, only one out of five who finish high school goes to college’”—does this sound familiar? Possibly at least echoed in the 2012 State of the Union Address by President Obama, who made this charge regarding U.S. public education?:

We also know that when students don’t walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better. So tonight, I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.

The opening quote is from a 1947 Time magazine article focusing on John Ward Studebaker, a former school superintendent who served as U.S. Commissioner of Education in the mid-1940s. The drop-out crisis has been one of many refrains in U.S. politics and education for nearly a century.

Fifty years later, in 1997, The America’s Promise Alliance formed, chaired by General Colin Powell, with the express purpose of confronting the drop-out crisis.

Yet, despite decades of some essential facts—many students persisting in dropping out of school, drop-out rates disproportionately occurring in at-risk sub-groups (high poverty, racial minorities, English language learners), federal and state policies and codes mandating school attendance—we find ourselves in 2012 with President Obama declaring yet another mandate, which was met with applause.

Daring to Look Behind the Curtain

Power, authority, privilege, and winning are certain narcotics—numbing the mind and soul, limiting vision, and removing the possibility of pulling aside the curtain of assumptions to see the reality behind the pageantry.

I have always had an affinity for The Wizard of Oz, similar to my life-long affection for children’s books like Hop on Pop and Go, Dog, Go! of my childhood. The Wizard of Oz, now, offers an important reading about the nature of critical pedagogy as it confronts the enormity of authority.

A critical reading of the classic film of Dorothy and Toto focuses on the dangers of norms—that those caught up in the given are trapped like bugs in amber, never even considering there is a curtain, much less the possibility of looking behind it—and the need for the brave outsider, that person or those people who both consider the possibility of the curtain and act on pulling it aside.

Americans are tragically bound to our ideals—such as our faith in free markets, rugged individualism, and our contemporary tandem of royalty, wealth and fame—and we fear pulling aside those curtains because we don’t want to confront that those ideals may be wrong.

Thus, our leaders are allowed and even encouraged to do the same thing over and over, while lamenting that things never change (or worse, while never even acknowledging that our so-called “crises” are not unique to our time but persistent realities we in fact maintain by the very cures we prescribe). And such is the case with the drop-out crisis redux (Obama’s 2012 incarnation).

Mandating that students remain in school until 18 or upon graduating is maintaining the status quo while decrying the status quo. Like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the endless accountability spawns of that legislation, creating a national mandate for attending school fails for the same reasons a national curriculum and national testing will fail, for the same reasons that student accountability morphing into school and teacher accountability have and will fail: These are all acts of those who cannot imagine the curtain, and are, in effect, desperately keeping anyone from looking behind the curtain.

So here are just some of the things we should pull aside the curtain to consider:

The prekindergarten expulsion rate was 6.7 per 1,000 prekindergarteners enrolled. Based on current enrollment rates, an estimated 5,117 prekindergarten students across the nation are expelled each year. This rate is 3.2 times higher than the national rate of expulsion for K-12 students, which is 2.1 per 1,000 enrolled.

Four-year-olds were expelled at a rate about 50 percent greater than three-year-olds. Boys were expelled at a rate over 4.5 times that of girls. African-Americans attending state-funded prekindergarten were about twice as likely to be expelled as Latino and Caucasian children, and over five times as likely to be expelled as Asian-American children.

And Gilliam (2005) details further that gender and race are distinct elements in how pre-kindergarteners experience school:

African-American preschoolers were about twice as likely to be expelled as European-American (both Latino and non-Latino) preschoolers and over five times as likely as Asian-American preschoolers. Boys were expelled at a rate over 4½ times that of girls. The increased likelihood of boys to be expelled over girls was similar across all ethnicities, except for African-Americans (?2 = 25.93, p < .01), where boys accounted for 91.4% of the expulsions.

Students from some racial- and ethnic-minority groups, and those from disadvantaged families, continued to turn in lower SAT scores on average than those of their white, Asian, and more-affluent peers, patterns that have held their shape for the past decade.

In reading, for instance, white students’ average score was 528, and Asian students’ was 519, compared with 454 for Latino students and 429 for African-Americans. In math, white students outscored blacks by 108 points and Latinos by 69 or more points. Asians’ average math score was 55 points higher than that of white students….

Students’ scores continued to reflect their family income and parents’ education. Those in the lowest-income brackets, and whose parents had the least education, scored 125 points or more below their peers at the top of the family-income or parental education grid.”

South Africa under Apartheid was internationally condemned as a racist society. What does it mean that the leader of the “free world” locks up its Black men at a rate 5.8 times higher than the most openly racist country in the world?

While white males outnumber African American males 5 to 1 in the U.S., the prison population (which exceeds a ratio of 10 to 1 of men to women) is 6 to 1 African American males to white males.

“You Matter. Your Culture Matters. You Belong Here.”

When Diane Ravitch pulled back the curtain and asked “Does President Obama Know What Race to the Top Is?” some responses to her blog clamored to support the ideals we allow to thrive behind “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”—looking always at the student or the teacher and abdicating supreme authority to tests.

But if we dare to pull aside the curtain we must ask: Why is prekindergarten so much like prison? How do males and specifically African American males find their lives so often trapped in exclusion and punishment?

Yes, if we pull back the curtain of the drop-out crisis, and set aside the notion that compulsion is the answer, we can stop to ask: Why are so many students dropping out?

This question is vital since there is no compelling evidence that dropping out of school has ever been a fruitful path for most people to take.

Linda Christensen offers a rare look behind the curtain, an alternative to Obama’s myopic policy:

The school-to-prison pipeline doesn’t just begin with cops in the hallways and zero tolerance discipline policies. It begins when we fail to create a curriculum and a pedagogy that connects with students, that takes them seriously as intellectuals, that lets students know we care about them, that gives them the chance to channel their pain and defiance in productive ways. Making sure that we opt out of the classroom-to-prison pipeline will look and feel different in every subject and with every group of students[emphasis added]. But the classroom will share certain features: It will take the time to build relationships, and it will say, “You matter. Your culture matters. You belong here.”

Standardizing students is dehumanizing, and likely driving children into our streets. Compulsion doesn’t address that fatal flaw.

Compelling children and young adults to remain in our scripted, test-based classrooms where we can predict how children will be labeled and ranked simply by the accident of their zip codes, the color of their skin, and the language of their homes is inexcusable; it is the act of those who are deaf and blind and numb to the humanity of us all.

Testing, labeling, sorting, and ranking are both the creation and tool of the historical realities of the U.S., a culture committed to the ideals of equity but mired in the realities of racism, classism, and sexism. Testing perpetuates these plagues on our possibilities; testing will never address them.

In hundreds of ways, the Obama administration’s education policies are being orchestrated from behind a curtain where no questions can be asked, not even the wrong ones.

Those with power, authority, and privilege (often built on the pillars of the circumstances of their birth and the fortunes afforded them by test scores) must face the mirror now and ask, “Why are children dropping out?” while making sure they keep their gaze steady into their own eyes where the answers lie.

References

Get adjusted. (1947, December 15). Time.

Gilliam, W. S. (2005, May 4). Prekindergarteners left behind: Expulsion rates in state prekindergarten systems. Yale University Child Study Center.