30 July 2011

SOS March: Why Barack Obama could not find One Hour for America's teachers

On July 18, 2011 US President Barack Obama found a few hours in his busy schedule to host an "education summit" to which no educators and no students were invited. Twelve days later, with the professor who led his administration's education transition team joining a huge throng of teachers, parents, students, and educational researchers in Lafayette Park across the street from where he lives and works, Barack Obama could not find an hour to sit down with those who live and work in America's schools. He could not find ten minutes to walk outside.

Why does the American President think it is more important to talk to the CEO of America OnLine about schools than America's teachers?
I do not think Barack Obama is an evil guy. Oh sure, we all pretended he was a lot more than the Chicago Machine Democrat he is, because we really wanted to believe. But no one is really surprised that he has not closed Guantanamo Bay or gotten the US out of Afghanistan - at best the US Democratic Party is somewhere to the right of David Cameron and far to the right of Angela Merkle, and the last time it was not, we thought Bobby Kennedy was going to be the next President.

Education though, education is a surprise. No one who watched the 2008 campaign could have really imagined that Obama was interested in education, or in reducing the impact of poverty of America's kids, but no one really thought he would be worse on these issues than George W. Bush either. And yet...

Obama began his administration by appointing his basketball playing buddy, Arne Duncan, to the position of Secretary of Education. Duncan, who has never worked in a school, but only been paid private industry-type salaries to tell public schools what to do, had accomplished essentially nothing as "CEO" of the Chicago Public Schools. In fact, the only student statistic to rise during his tenure was violent student deaths. This rise was a direct result of Duncan's "reform" policies. To "raise scores" Duncan would kick poor kids out of their neighborhood schools and replace those students with "whiter" kids. This forced tens of thousands of Chicago's poorest children to cross dangerous gangland boundaries every morning and afternoon. Too many didn't make it.

Now, Duncan's press secretary, Justin Hamilton, gets very upset if I bring the above up, which is odd, because Justin and Arne love statistics. But, well... I suppose I understand.

What I don't understand is Obama handing education in America over to this guy, no matter how good his jump shot is. Cronyism is all well and good, but it might have been nice if Obama had worried about our kids education as much as he worried about the education of his own. And if he hadn't bothered with that in December 2008, perhaps he might have looked out his window and had a moment of rethink in the three years hence.

As Valerie Strauss wrote in The Washington Post:
"Anybody who does read the Darling-Hammond book--and Diane Ravitch's new book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”--will get a full picture of how Obama and Duncan are off track with education reform and in danger of wasting billions of dollars on schemes that had already wasted billions in the George Bush era of No Child Left Behind.

"Darling-Hammond’s research, teaching, and policy work focus on issues of school restructuring, teacher quality and educational equity--and she knows as much about them as anyone in the country. These issues are central to any effort to create schools that really work.

"Still, when it came time to pick an education secretary, there appeared to be a campaign against her. She was falsely accused of supporting the status quo and blindly aligning with teachers unions.

"Whatever his reasons, Obama tapped Duncan, the superintendent of Chicago schools, who supported key elements of No Child Left Behind during his tenure there. As education secretary, he has disappointed many people who had hoped Obama would end the era of high-stakes standardized testing and punitive measures for schools that don’t meet artificial goals.

"Darling-Hammond’s book gives us an idea of where we could have been headed if she were in charge of the country's education policy."
Yet therein lies the problem. Barack Obama is not an evil guy, but he is not a guy who really cares either. Watching Obama on poverty, yes, but especially on education, one is forced to realize that all his community organizing, all his time in rough neighborhoods in New York and Chicago, were the kind of resume preparation all too common in the Teach for America cohort, rather than a genuine, Bobby Kennedy style, interest in discovering the "other America."

So, if giving education over to Wall Street turns on the spigots of campaign contributions, that is more important to him than the students who fill our classrooms. He doesn't actually wish these kids harm, not at all, he just doesn't perceive the lives of our children as a very important thing in his life.

Which is why he sat in the White House today, hoping John Boehner would call, rather than picking up his Blackberry, and walking outside.

- Ira Socol

26 July 2011

Dark in the Summertime

I get the news I need on the weather report
Oh, I can gather all the news I need on the weather report

- Paul Simon, The Only Living Boy in New York

Sometimes a deep dark descends, even in the middle of Northern Hemisphere summer. I find myself reeling from the events in Norway, especially from the idea that an ideology could exist in anyone's mind which would desire the slaughter of children.

But then, I could listen to the debates in Washington, DC and see that an awful lot of Americans voted in 2010 for an ideology which abandons children and their parents for the sake of an extra buck in their pockets each week, so, I just don't know.

"If we had a system that really
recognised value added, it would be different.
But we have a system that increasingly
focuses on results. If you have a really
hard-nosed view and want your school
to succeed, this is what you have to do"
- Michael Murphy
Or I could find a secondary school head in Greenwich, England who thinks that separating children with fences and labelling them with colours based on his evaluation of their potential at age 11, is the best way he can "market" his school to the rich in his community.

And then there's Glenn Beck, currently heard on an awful lot of US radio stations (which ought to have all their advertisers boycotted).  Beck, too crazy for even Rupert Murdoch, compared the dead Norwegian kids to "Hitler Youth."

When I was a kid, and dark descended, I'd pull myself away from people and run. I'd run to the rocks and wetlands of the shore, or I'd run deep into the water. I'd escape into a natural world, where the only clocks were tidal and the only news was the temperature and the offshore winds. But I cannot do that in this season. I am haunted by this dark.

Why do we do these things to our children? Who in God's name are we?

Children are murdered, they are abused, they are segregated because their intelligence doesn't match up to what's expected by people like David Cameron and Bill Gates and Arne Duncan, they are left without proper health care, they are left in poverty because we can't tolerate helping out their "lazy" parents...

Just listen to the voices of kids in that school in England...
"If you were friends with someone in [the "smart kids' division], you are kind of enemies now, because you don't want to talk to them. If you talk to them you kind of feel like you're betraying [your division]...There was an argument in the school the other day and the girls were arguing between the fences ... it just feels like we've been cut off from them." But what does headmaster Michael Murphy care, he's got his rich kids into the building, he's collecting his salary, "We wouldn't have attracted the students otherwise."

What does the Norwegian murderer care? he made his political point. What does Glenn Beck care? Your local stores that advertise on stations which carry his show pay him lots of money. What does Eric Cantor care? He's living damn well.

But, but, we care. A lot of us care...

When I was back there in seminary school
There was a person there
Who put forth the proposition
That you can petition the Lord with prayer
Petition the lord with prayer
Petition the lord with prayer
You cannot petition the lord with prayer!

Perhaps we can only petition the Lord through our good works, through the prayers which are our most sincere efforts.


The only way to combat evil... the super-evil of child slaughter or just the run-of-the-mill evil of not caring for kids as a society is, in the words of the Catholic Catechism, "good works."

And so maybe all we can do is to fight this cloud by doing what we all do every day. Going out and working as we can to make the lives of children better, safer, and, yes, even more magical.

As Taoiseach Enda Kenny said last week, "to give our children maximum protection and security without intruding on the hectic, magical business of being a child."

That is what we will do. That is how we will dispel the dark.

Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

- Bob Dylan, Shelter from the Storm

- Ira Socol

25 July 2011

Fictional Interlude: Who sat next to me in eighth grade

Stevie Sodoni in homeroom, adjoining names, assigned seats. Fell asleep within two minutes every morning and drooled on the desk. I'd say "here" for me and him and then try to get thrown out before the class could go any further. 

Robert diNodo probably went through the whole year with a black and blue right arm. We shared this black-topped lab table in Science and Robert was an A student and all the tests were multiple choice which meant all I had to do was copy his answers but he was one of those kids who hunched over the page and wrapped his arms around it so you couldn't see so I would just punch him in the shoulder until he'd give up and move his arm and by that time I'd only have time to copy about half but still, it was one of my best classes. 

In dumb English usually Danny Nally who laughed at everything, all the time, and who was always throwing things at me, especially books and I'd take it for awhile then, inevitably, retaliate, then I'd get in trouble but trouble was just getting sent to the Resource Room most of the time which was better than sitting in English. 

Nobody in the Resource Room. There was this wide windowsill and I'd sit at the far end and just stare out the window and everybody would leave me alone because I had a reputation for hitting, and I really liked it there if it was raining. 

Nobody in Gym or shop either. In shop they let me weld but they wouldn't let me have a torch I could walk around with: that would have been crazy. So they let me arc weld instead which made me feel like the god of hell fire and let them be sure I was tethered to the electrical apparatus. 

At lunch me and Bill and Anthony and Jason were the first guys to cross from the boys side of the cafeteria to the girls side. The boys had benches at long tables and the girls had round tables and chairs and we started going over and sitting with Kelly and Jane and Mary Margaret and Wendy and they tried to stop us for a few weeks and other guys made fun of us but then they gave up and the other guys were just jealous. 

Bobby Castore and I sat in the back of Mr. Hudson's Social Studies class by the window. Me, right by the window which was an issue but I held the seat the whole year. I skated by listening for almost five minutes every day, giving one answer, and seeming like I was trying. Bobby got by cause he somehow passed the quizzes. If it got boring we'd get thrown out together, skip out of the building if the weather was ok, and go drink beers we had stashed in the morning up on the hill behind the tennis courts. From the right spot we could see the water. 

I only went to math once a week or so. If I was drunk from the last period I'd stay outside. If I wasn't I usually just went to the Resource Room, which was expected. If I went to class there was a desk way in the back corner where I sat by myself and drew pictures of stories I didn't know how to write down. 

Eventually the bell would ring and I'd go to a team practice, or just down to where the tidal pools let me watch life on earth be renewed. That was better.

© Ira David Socol 2006-2011

23 July 2011

It doesn't have to be expensive...

Changing your classroom's environment, including its contemporary technology environment, need not be a huge, expensive, proposition.

Lots of solutions range from free to inexpensive, and can make a huge difference.

Perhaps you could create a picnic area in your classroom. Yes, let kids get comfortable with a simple picnic table (scaled to the size of your kids) and an umbrella that provides respite from the uniform fluorescent lights and too high ceilings. Throw a cheap green rug down underneath it, for the full "park" experience. A little creative use of CraigsList and you'll have this spot in place for $50 or less.

Or you might offer seating choices. Those seating balls are nice but can be pricey ... unless, of course, you find some neighbors dumping unused exercise balls. But options can be found easily at Ikea... stools, and stools, and stools, and stools, or a rocking chair, or $6-$50. Or look for cheap rugs and lapdesks.

You might test out your flooring and tabletops for use as "whiteboards" - not the Marzano kind, the "kids create" kind. If not, the cheapest "showerboard" at your local Home Improvement/DIY center will give you all the whiteboard space you need, assuming your windows have filled up.

Don't forget lighting. Lighting matters. No classroom should have uniform lighting, it is bad for the eyes, bad for the brain, bad for attention. Lamps are cheap. Get some. Use some.

But, you ask, what about technology... well, all the above is technology... but here we go:

The Ipevo $69 document camera might be one of the best tools you can bring into your classroom, and being 90% less than the Elmo, maybe your kids can have two.  For display, Epson has LCD projectorsfor under $500. A long way from the thousands schools routinely spend. Hell, at NewEgg.com you can get solid brand new HP Laptops for under $400, or get the Asus Eee PC for $250. Both come with Windows 7 which means Speech Recognition is built in.

You can equip your computers with Open Office for free, with Firefox for free, and you can make your Windows computer a universally designed - accessible tool for free.

You can also plug the MITS Freedom Stick (free on your 4gb flashdrive) in for a full range of accessibility solutions. And you'll (again) want all of these tools.

Then, download these bookmarks for dozens of free resources on line.

How about really inexpensive headsets for all of the Text-To-Speech reading you can now be doing with Balabolka or WordTalk? You can getheadsets with microphones for very, very littleand not just one kind.You can buy no-mic headphones really cheaply.

With older kids, think of all you can do with their phones. With phones you have cameras and video recorders, audio recorders, note taking devices, internet tools. Plus they can work as book readers, notebooks, and can run Speech Recogntion themselves... VLingo or Dragon.

You don't need one-to-one. You don't need the same stuff for every kid. Your students will learn more from collaborating, and figuring out how to do things in different ways.

- Ira Socol

15 July 2011

A physical place for virtual education

The coffee shop at Holland (MI) Christian High School
I am not one of those who wish to see the physical school disappear.

I am also a deep believer in the concept that contemporary (and future) technologies allow all the walls of the school to "fall," and that that is a good thing.

Where education really happens at Michigan State's College of Education
I was on Twitter with Eric Sheninger @nmhs_principal the other morning, and we were discussing this, because, as I think I said, as much as I like virtual learning, there is something essential about looking into the eyes of learners, of watching their body language, of touching them when they need that bit of humanity.

A long time ago I went to a "school without walls" - a free, open, project and passion-based high school. There was no required attendance. Most students took no classes in any given semester. I got English credit for working with the late night news guy on WVOX radio. Social Studies credit for watching and interviewing the homeless in Grand Central overnight. Others worked at the local hospital, or the city's parks department greenhouse, or, wherever.

But we had a school. We had a place to go. And almost all of us came there pretty consistently. We came there to hang out. We came there to talk. We came there to use the school's sports facilities. We came there because our girlfriends or boyfriends might be there...

But while we were there our teachers saw us, and talked to us, and sensed how we were doing. They pulled us into conversations. They might even make a suggestion or two. And while we were there we talked, and overheard. We were all doing different things and we talked about those things. I never read a book in high school, but I heard all about Beowulfand Steppenwolf, The Teachings of Don Juanand The French student revolt, American Notes for General Circulationand Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, and many more. My math was mostly related to betting on football games (not kidding) but I would listen to debates about math theories from friends, and for the first time in my life, began to be interested.

The couch in The White Room, late 1970s
Now, our space was truly awful. It was supposed to be the "regular" school's third cafeteria, but not many kids stuck around for lunch, so it wasn't needed, and they gave us this huge white space - we called it "The White Room" - with the window area blocked off by a series of "classrooms" with walls that stopped a meter short of the ceiling. So we dragged a couch in, and a few chairs. Marked off a hopscotch game on the floor. Put up a 7-up clock. It stayed incredibly ugly, but... we still came.

Because that physical commons was important, and it still is.

Commons Area at New Tech Academy, Kent County, Michigan
So, I still want schools. That physical place is important. But I don't want ugly. I want beautiful and flexible and interactive. Kids should be free to come and go, but I'd like them to want to stay. Kids should have the tools they need there, and access to food and drink and other "comforts." And the faculty needs to be there too - not for supervision - but for interaction as students need and want.

So, start with effective wireless capabilities in your "Physical Space for Virtual Learning," and make sure 4G comes in well. Then build a Tool Crib of devices, ready to grab. Windows and Mac laptops, fully equipped and fully accessible. iOS and Android and WebOS Tablets. TabletPCs. Have lots of ways to hook those and student-owned devices up to big screens or projectors. Then make sure you have powerful desktops with great scanners and printers, production centers for student creativity.

Schiphol Airport Park, Amsterdam, Nederlands
Have lots of different kinds of seating. Tables and floor space for collaboration, and spaces - like music practice rooms - for solitude or quiet. The furniture should all be movable, and probably whimsical in some ways... no need for this to be a cold space.

"10 Forward" at Mozilla
And there needs to be place for play. Put an Xbox 360 in there (with Kinect), have real television availability, don't want to miss big football/soccer matches or great movies.

All the best companies know that a "work environment" works best when there is variety to the space, variety to the time, and variety in staff interaction. The same will be true at school. Staring doesn't usually help us, widening our vision does.

There are some other important ideas: Design so that lighting varies, bright, dim, warm, cool. The idea of uniform room lighting, pulled from turn-of-the-20th-century German factory design, has never been appropriate for human use. Our eyes get to relax and refocus when we move from bright to dim and vise-versa. Design so that noise levels can vary as well. Not everyone needs auditory chaos, but many do. serve everyone. Don't pick "50 year" furniture. Schools are always buying "stuff that lasts," and paying a fortune for it. And in many places we're stuck with these great deals from 1962. But human societies change, and our knowledge changes, and so we want our spaces to change. You'll probably do better going to Ikea and re-furnishing every other year.

And if you can't eat around it, or drink around it, just don't buy it. Education is messy - if your carpet or upholstery can't be easily cleaned, you've bought the wrong stuff.

Finally, think what you can bring to the space. Think of MeetUps linked to any possible subject of mutual interests. Hold Hack Days geared to music or games or teaching or anything. And invite the community in - local developers, local talents, local artists, writers, baristas, chefs, all while bringing yourselves to the community - never be afraid to UStream exciting stuff that is happening.

A tech meet up in a pub, how learning happens in this century
Virtual education should not be "the end of school." Rather, it is one great opportunity to re-imagine school. Please, don't make your alternative to the boring classroom a bunch of kids sitting home alone.

- Ira Socol

08 July 2011

Why would any child listen to us?

This was a long, long time ago...

What happened in October 1929? Why were income taxes
very high in 1919? Your Republican member of Congress
does not know, but perhaps you should.
And this... "House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's bold entitlement reform plan goes beyond taming spending. It recognizes that the history of cutting taxes vindicates Calvin Coolidge, not Paul Krugman," is from "today," from an editorial in Investors' Business Daily, which illustrated their desire to roll back the clock over 80 years - complete with an entertaining graph which "conveniently" leaves off what happened seven months after President Calvin Coolidge left office.

But it is not this intellectual dishonesty behind the actions of America's Republicans that disturbs me. It is not just that they will not explain why the US top marginal income tax rate was so high in 1919, or that their preferred "strategy" produced a worldwide economic collapse that took a decade to begin to dig out of. Lying is one thing...

...being defeated is another.

If you watch the whole Kennedy speech from that day in Houston, you will hear honesty you have not heard from a leader in a very long time. "All this will cost us a great deal of money," he says, "a staggering sum." He details that, saying the cost of the space program will rise to be "more than 50 cents per person per week for every man, woman, and child in America." Yes, things that matter - even something which mattered spiritually more than perhaps anything else - cost money then. And will cost money now. But societies which care about the future do what matters.

Societies which don't, don't. And, in Washington DC, in Westminster in London, in Ottawa, Canada, in Canberra, Australia, we are usually listing what we cannot do. We plan our defeats before we even let ourselves discuss our possibilities.

In the United States we cannot provide everyone with decent health care, we cannot properly fund public education or the preparation of teachers. We cannot rebuild New Orleans, we cannot create national rail travel options. We cannot even make our bridges safe, or, according to Michigan's governor, make cars which get good gas mileage. Now, 49 years after Kennedy's speech, we cannot even get a human into space.

It's not so different in the United Kingdom. David Cameron's government can't feed or house its own people - something even World War II Britain managed to do. They can't pay for decent schools either, and after doing it for 66 years, they're not sure they can provide universal health care anymore.

In Canada the Prime Minister couldn't even figure out how to stay in office without shutting down Parliament like a third rate military dictator, then gets re-elected by claiming that Canada really can't do anything anymore.

Heroism is a real thing, and we need heroes today
(The PT 109 Story from Navy Log, a 1950s TV show)

Heroism is a real thing. John Kennedy had many leadership skills, including, obviously, the gift of human communication, but he - and much of his generation - also had an understanding that the future needed to be a better place, and that creating that better place would take hard work and sacrifice.

The leaders who built the "postwar" world were risk-takers because they understood the risk of not moving forward. Whether Kennedy in the United States, or Willy Brandt in Germany, or Robert Schuman of France, they were heroes before they ran for political office, they understood real risk and reward, and they all understood the value of society and community.

Before The Great Society, Robert Kennedy sees
"Poverty in the United States
And so John Fitzgerald Kennedy not only pushed America to the moon, he began an 8-year administration which attempted to create a nation with civil rights for all, a nation which would "wipe out" poverty (and despite what you've heard, that worked so well that ever since Republicans have been claiming that America's poor aren't really poor), which would eliminate the disaster that was then senior health care, and which helped create the real "jet age" through support for huge planes which made flight affordable.

In Berlin Willy Brandt took a destroyed, divided city and rebuilt it into one of world's great symbols of democracy, and then took huge risks to breach the Iron Curtain with friendship.

And in France, Robert Schuman, escaped prisoner of the Gestapo, began the most audacious experiment in Europe since the dawn of Rome, when he set in motion the effort to build a peaceful, democratic, united continent which welcomed the just defeated Germany as an equal partner.

See, those are actual risk-taking activities. Those attempts are not the same as finding "grand bargains" or yelling at a crumbling wall, or babbling about "big societies." They were real.

And obviously those were real attempts to create an improved future - not the hysterical whining of those who think a time of incredible oppression of minorities and women, combined with high infant mortality and starving farmers, represents "the good old days."

It is hard to even imagine JFK's "Moon Speech" in today's America. In a nation where clowns claim to be in a "Tea Party" recovering some supposed "anti-tax" past (quick question, were the original "Tea Party" rioters opposed to paying taxes, or, did they want representation in the British Parliament?), in a country where the Secretary of Education, the man charged with safeguarding the future, is constantly telling us what we cannot do, in a nation where people vote like they fully believe their greatness is in the past. It is hard to imagine what our students might say if they watched the whole speech. Or if British students actually listened to Churchill, or if Canadian students thought about John Macdonald trying to pull a bizarre collection of British colonies together with an impossible railroad...

What would they say?

And what would they say about us, the collective "we" who have lost our imagination and our ambition. "We" who ask about everything, "what will it cost me?" "We" who choose to not even invest in our own children?

Will they expect us to be - just a little - heroic? To take real risks? To try big things? To make sacrifices for something we may not live to see?

I hope so.

- Ira Socol

03 July 2011


George Bernard Shaw knew both Ireland and England, and knew colonialism when he saw it. He also understood the concept of the "West Brit."

Pygmalion, 1938 film, Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller

Wendy Hiller is brilliant in the 1938 film of Shaw's Pygmalion when she realizes exactly how she has been played by Higgins and the British establishment.

"Am I free?" she asks.

When you have traded who you are for entrée into another culture, are you ever able to be free again?

So what is a "West Brit" and what's the connection? A "West Brit" - especially, say, 1880-1930 or so - was an Irish Catholic who worked really hard to sound, act, and appear "English," as a way of climbing the ladder of Dublin society or careers in Dublin tightly tied to the British Empire. It was (is) a derogatory term, essentially the same as when one African-American might accuse another of "acting white."

Shaw's Pygmalion is a close look at this phenomena. Is the culture of Henry Higgins really so superior to that in which Eliza Doolittle has been raised? Is it about the language, or, as Eliza points out, is it about dignity - that Colonel Pickering treats her as a human from start to finish, while Higgins only sees her as worthy when "his creation" - the Greek Myth underlying the story - has been fully formed?

Is it "OK" to speak and act, to think and be, Irish? Or, in order to succeed in the rough world of 19th and 20th Century capitalism, must we all learn to mimic those in London's "City."

Who's culture is OK?

When I was a kid, a pro basketball star named Rick Barry, who played for the San Francisco Warriors and shots fouls "like a girl" but with incredible accuracy, had signed a contract to 'jump' to the Oakland Oaks of the American Basketball Association. But before he could legally do so, the Oaks had moved to Washington DC, and then, were on their way to Virginia. Barry, who liked San Francisco Bay, and was willing to go the nation's capital, was however, drawing his line in the sand along the north bank of the Potomac. "My son Scooter is supposed to go to nursery school this year. I hate to think of the complications that'll cause in Virginia," Barry told Sports Illustrated. "I don't want him to go down there to school and learn to speak with a Southern accent. He'll come home from school saying, 'Hi yall, Daad.' I sure don't want that."

The end result of that statement was Barry being traded to "my team," beginning the short but wonderful history of the New York Nets,1 which is why I remember this so clearly. But the key question here is, "was Rick Barry right?"

See, I can use the United States Department of Education's NAEP results to "prove" that if a student has a southern accent, they are both more likely to be "below basic" on school skills, especially reading, and less likely to be "advanced." In fact, I can "prove" that the heavier the southern accent, the poorer the performance on standardized tests in general. These are "statistical facts."

So let us look at the Common Core argument, or that advanced by the "Acting White" theorists like Stuart Buck. According to them, the solution to this disparity - why would Alabama kids perform below Ohio kids? - can't be because of school spending or teacher unionization or economic success over the past decade, right? - would be to wipe out the Southern Accent in schools and to make sure that no one in the South criticized kids for "Acting Northern."

And if we could go one better, get those Alabama kids talking like Massachusetts kids, along with swapping grits for Maine oysters, we'd really leave no child behind. So our "Common Core" might be best be described as "Talk like a Kennedy."

See, "Black English" and "Spanglish" are really no further - linguistically - from "The Queen's English" than the American Southern Accent is, or the thick New England Accent is, our culture has simply decided that certain variations are OK because they embrace the power structure, and certain are not because they represent threats to the power structure. Just as, in the United Kingdom, it is fine if you have an Edinburgh Accent, not fine if you sound like you are from Liverpool. Fine if you are clearly from Devonshire, not fine if you are clearly from Glasgow. None of this is about competency or fluency or understandability, rather, it is completely, and only, about power.2

Ethnics emerge dressed as Americans after being "dunked" in The Melting Pot
at a graduation from The Ford Motor Company's "English School."

None of this is new. "Established in 1914, the Ford English School taught the company’s immigrant workers more than just how to speak English. It taught them about American culture and history and instilled the importance of such virtues as thriftiness, cleanliness, good manners, and timeliness." There has always been a tension in the United States between the expressed ideal of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society - you know, that brilliant combination of ethnicities in any World War II film - and the reality on the political ground, which is that "our leadership" would find things "much easier" if we were all "white, protestant, straight, northern Europeans."

Actually not.

They don't want that. If everyone were "the same" the "leadership class" would not know at-a-glance who belonged and who did not. So, what they want is for everyone "else" to waste enormous effort trying to be like them, while they race comfortably ahead. Remember, if we run back through the past 400 years, the number of national leaders of the United States and United Kingdom (combined) who have been - simply - Catholic - totals one. One. And, to put it in history book terms, "He served as President of the United States for a thousand days before he was shot and replaced by a Protestant." The US Republican Party has never even nominated a Catholic (or an African-American, or any other non-white Protestant) for President. These things, just aren't done. Tony Blair could only convert to Catholicism after he stepped down as Prime Minister of the UK. And what, a quarter of Americans are so distraught by having an African-American as their leader that they spin fairy tales about his birth.

This is not about language, or behavior, or communication, or shared culture, it is about power and the preservation of power.

How to speak and how to drink tea

There are many odd parts to the "Common Core" idea, it isn't just content that is being standardized, but delivery. The Onion, as expected, has it right, '“Before these standards, there was too much pressure in doing my job. Having to figure out what I needed to teach and how to teach it all by myself; it’s way too much to expect. I’m much more relaxed now by just sticking to the standards.'

'“I just turned to the section on ‘Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas’ to see if there was something I hadn’t considered and there it was! Item #5 said to ‘Add audio recordings and visual displays to presentations when appropriate to enhance the development of main ideas or themes.’ Eureka! I hadn’t thought of that one before, so I checked out a record player and film strip projector from our building audio-visual room and presented a film strip on Hairless Mammals of North America that very day!"'

Gentleman's Agreement, 1947, do we really have to let Jews into our country clubs?

Those advocating the "Common Core" are fascinated with standardizing large parts of instruction - the "Core Knowledge" folks carry this to extremes, listing acceptable poets and when they can be read. But this comes out of world view crafted in post-World War II America, with only white people on the television (saying stuff like "soda pop"), only white people in the schools attended by people like E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and the biggest social issue on the agenda being, in the wake of the Nazi slaughter, would we really have to let Jewish people into our country clubs?

But the basic idea is that we must teach all of our children to be exactly like "us." This would (a) make people like E.D. Hirsch, Jr. more comfortable - he would not be faced with having to learn other cultures or behaviors, and (b) as a bonus, the children of the rich and powerful can trod softly ahead of the pack while poor kids sit in KIPP Academies and Common Core schools spending years learning how to behave, speak, and learn, correctly. A win-win, as they might say.

Odd cultures

We all need to learn to look the same and drink tea correctly.
Years ago, I attended a wedding in Yarmouthport, Massachusetts. It was a very old friend of mine - an Irish-Quebecois Catholic - marrying a man of New England nobility. His entire family came dressed essentially identically. It was summer, and every male had a blue blazer and white pants, most with - I'm not making this up - straw boaters for hats. The women all looked like Daisy from The Great Gatsby - clothes-wise at least. They drank tea from cups with their pinkies extended, they held their wine glasses "just so," they used words we did not understand and gave us funny looks when we didn't understand...

Honestly, they looked ridiculous. It couldn't have been more bizarre to us New Yorkers (who I'm sure looked like the barbarian hordes to the hosts) if we had stumbled into a full hip-hop wedding with everybody sagging. I mean, is there a difference? Or is it simply that one group owns 50% of the money in the US and the other doesn't?

You know, there's a reason great universities crave diversity in their student bodies (and I will exclude Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania from that group because those three Ivy League schools are homogeneous social class finishing schools3): It is because, education, like societies, work best - makes the greatest strides - when there is neither "Common Core Knowledge" nor "Common Culture."

It is exactly the clash of cultures, of language, of knowledge - the synthesis of thesis and antithesis - which produces breakthroughs in learning, invention, culture, and understanding. Michigan State University - as an example - seeks out students from just about every nation on earth.4 Not because they are the same - because they have the same Core Knowledge and the same understanding of the classroom culture - but specifically because they do not. As at every great university it is that "coming together" which builds an atmosphere of creation.

That is what makes London and New York, Paris and Berlin, Chicago and Los Angeles great cities - not homogeneity, not any "Core Knowledge," not any standard behavior - but the richness of the often uncomfortable clash of cultures.

We don't need E.D. Hirsch, Jr, Bill Gates, and Arne Duncan making Eliza Doolittle's out of us. We don't need to be sculpted by Pygmalions from any era. We need to be who we are and we need the equal opportunity to turn ourselves into the best that we can be.

And there's my rant for the Fourth of July... the freedom to be who we are.

- Ira Socol

1 - My junior high era basketball buddies did want me to grow much taller and get a hook shot so I could be more like "my namesake," the Virginia Squires Ira Harge, though I'm not sure now why we we liked the guy.
2 - Fabulous archive of accents http://web.ku.edu/~idea/dialectmap.htm  
3 - If you need to go an Ivy League school, do yourself a favor and stick with those in New York and Rhode Island. 
4 - "While 89% of students come from all 83 counties in the State of Michigan, also represented are all 50 states in the U.S. and about 130 other countries"