07 October 2012

The System Effect

The interesting thing to me about Ayn Rand - well, it's not her writing, her books are as fourth rate literarily as they are philosophically - is that she is perhaps the last Leninist quoted by any "mainstream" American political figure.

portrait of a young Leninist:
a 1925 Ayn Rand bookcover
Now Ayn Rand is, of course, no Marxist. Marxism being a rather "Catholic" utopian vision of the perfectability of all humanity (my translation). But Ayn Rand is a pure Leninist - "The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the Party." (Lenin, V.I. (1905) Freedom to Criticise and Unity of Action, from Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1965, Moscow, Volume 10, pages 442-443. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1906/may/20c.htm  ). Leninism includes ideals of global revolution - which Ayn Rand also insists on - as well as a belief that one is not permitted to disrupt the "inevitable march of history" - and that basic framing, "the ends justify the means," which is the point of Ayn Rand's novels.

Just as, no matter how he might object to the label, Nathan Harden, author of that new right-wing porn best seller Sex and God at Yale (which I suspect all male Romney campaign staffers are reading on their private jets at night while their wives are at home banging the pool boys), is a "classic Yalie," as smug and superior and intolerant of the world as any sexually-active Ivy Leaguer in New Haven, Connecticut has ever been. In this - and not at all intellectually - does Harden reflect one of his claimed heroes, William F. Buckley, Jr.

"The hidden curriculum is the curriculum," my friend and mentor Lynn Fendler is fond of saying, and Rand, Harden, Buckley are all deep proof of this concept. Ayn Rand is a proud product of Petrograd State University in the early 1920s, one of the students there who most purely absorbed the Leninist theories flowing around here, no matter her reaction to whatever academic content was in play. She writes like those other boring Soviet polemicists of her time, she argues as they do, she is as one-sided as they are. 

She cannot really help it. The affect of the educational system which "created" her has had its expected effect. Compare Rand, for a moment, to John Reed, the oft-forgotten early developer of "New Journalism." Reed was the child of wealth, but in the America of his time, a kind of "wild west wealth." He was a "poor student" who, upon admission to Harvard in 1906, failed to become part of the club and football culture, and instead ran with a kind of "Cambridge underground" of swimmers, Lampoon writers, theatre majors, and socialists. "All this made no ostensible difference in the look of Harvard society, and probably the club-men and the athletes, who represented us to the world, never even heard of it. But it made me, and many others, realize that there was something going on in the dull outside world more thrilling than college activities, and turned our attention to the writings of men like H.G. Wells and Graham Wallas, wrenching us away from the Oscar Wildian dilettantism which had possessed undergraduate litterateurs for generations," he later wrote. (Hicks with Stuart, John Reed, pg. 33.)

Sergei Eisenstein (and Company), Oktyabr. - or - Ten Days that Shook the World, film 1927
Reed was a Marxist. A dedicated Marxist.  But Reed could never quite get to Leninism, no matter how hard he tried, and he tries very hard to convince both the reader and himself in his masterwork, Ten Days that Shook the World.

Reed tried very hard to be a Leninist, but remained more poet than committed revolutionary (Beatty, Warren. Reds, 1981)
John Reed remained the system outsider he was from the moment he entered school. The weird kid. The poet, the comedian, the one who never saw his name on an honor roll, and with the comply or defy choice schools offer their students, he defied, every bit as much as Rand, Buckley, and Harden complied. All, however, might be considered victims of their educations.

Rand and Buckley, Mitt Romney, and even - to an extent - Barack Obama, never acquired the empathy needed by real leaders who could understand and work for others. Reed, like Scott Fitzgerald who followed him from west of the Appalachians into struggles with the Ivy League, could never turn his skill as one of the greatest writers of his generation into a way to communicate successfully with, or negotiate successfully with, "power" - and so suffered all of his life.

"[My brother is] a really, really smart guy, and where I was always great at memorizing facts and applying rules, he was always able to look more deeply into subject matter and understand it in a different way.  But schools wanted people like me and not people like my brother, who has dyslexia, ADHD and other learning difficulties, and who was called by one horrible teacher "stupid" in front of an entire class filled with his peers.  And who still believes that teacher." - Rachel Ash on Google+

The System Effect

Teachers need to be better, sometimes much better, at what they do. I understand this, I have said this. But when the Carnegie Corporation of New York says, "that quality teachers have a greater influence on pupil achievement than any other school-based factor," they are so completely wrong it is embarrassing to hear them say it. Because the Carnegie Corporation - largely responsible for at least the secondary education system we struggle with today - never bothered to include as a variable the system of school itself.

The Carnegie Corporation - education research which hurts American children for more than 100 years (?)
School is an environment - a built environment, a social environment, an authoritarian environment, a temporal environment - and like all living things, humans respond to all the clues and components in their environment.

I might focus on teacher education (for example), because it does not matter how 'progressively' we speak at the Michigan State University College of Education, as long as our undergraduate teachers-to-be go through prescribed class hours in a prescribed and divided curriculum while sitting in chairs in classrooms and getting graded - traditionally - on both their work and their attendance, we are reinforcing the system we claim to be overturning. "Let's all sit down for the lecture on differentiation," as we say.

Nor, no matter how brilliant our conversations in PhD seminars, will we not create change-agent leaders unless we stop making the doctorate a program of prescribed hoop jumpings. Successful hoop jumpers are far too likely to become hoop setting leaders. Students taught "the old way" tend to reproduce that - or to flee the profession. Comply or Defy. (Pink, Daniel)

None of this is said to let individual educators off-the-hook - I believe in the moral responsibility of all of us to subvert the system in any way that we can - but I also know that real change requires system change. The "Prussian Model" plus the factory system of treating human children as industrial parts - championed by the Carnegie Foundation at the turn of the last century - are the dominant influences on every child entering an institution of American education today. The biggest influence? Of course it is home socio-economics. But the reason that remains the biggest influence is that every systemic part of our education system was designed from the start, and remains designed to, exacerbate those home differences and reward wealthy parents, instead of creating equitable opportunity.

Yes, everything. Age-based grades. Grade-level content. Grade-level "standards." "Common Core" curricula. Classroom shape. The early focus on symbolic languages. Classroom chairs. Standardized testing. The school clock and calendar. Homework. Many "behavior standards." The division of secondary content. The way we pay, or don't pay, attention to students. Our view of attention... All of it is designed to control who wins and who loses in a way which will protect, not reduce, the class divide in the United States (and in England, and elsewhere).

And if we want to change that, it is a political question. And if, as I believe, education is the most important thing a society does, then this is the political question.

So we need to ask the questions, every day, and of every leader. Really? as Yong Zhao recently asked, will the Common Core increase equity? What, exactly, is the point of "value added" assessment - other than to emphasize the "defective" nature of many incoming students? When we say "high standards," whose "standards" are these? When we insist on grade-level curriculum, or grade level content, who are we rewarding, and who are we hurting? When we insist on multiple years of algebra - or anything in particular - for secondary graduation, who are we turning into losers? When we create arbitrary behavioral standards - from insisting that children sit in horrible chairs to banning mobile phones - who gets the win?

The system affect is very difficult to escape from, as Ayn Rand and John Reed indicate. And the the system effect will stay with our children for their lifetimes. Change seems almost impossible.. but if we are responsible adults, change must occur as rapidly as possible.

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Yes, everything."

Thumbs way up.

I'm constantly amazed at the extent you can repeat this in different contexts with a new approach.

I'm sick to death of the Ayn Rand-ian view that a laissez-faire policy is not a policy, but somehow some kind of metaphysical natural law. And of course this is the way it is with education: There will always be teachers and desks in rows and blackboards because that's what school *is.*