02 January 2013

Christmas, Zombies, the Common Core, Neoliberalism, and Democratic Voice

On the F train on Christmas Eve my spousal equivalent, born and bred in the Protestant American heartland, turned to me and said, "I'm the only blond in this car." "Probably on this train," I answered.

In New York City Subway art, tourists (and odd old women) are denoted by blond hair
And I recalled how, in the decade previous to this one (when the century was new) I asked - in front of a classroom full of young teachers to be - for all those students with blond hair and blue eyes to stand up.

"You know," I then told this Midwestern grouping, "it is more common today for a child to be born with AIDS than with blond hair and blue eyes." Then I paused, let them sit down, and we began to wonder about how we define "the other" and about how we define "normal."

I do not know if it is indeed, "more common today for a child to be born with AIDS than with blond hair and blue eyes," which I later indicated to the students and asked them if they might use their phones to find an answer, but, you probably get the point.

Which brings me to stories from my niece, a New York City schools teacher in an elementary school in the Borough of Queens. She told two theologic-confusion stories from her incredibly diverse student population:
At Christmas 2011 a boy from India asked why Christmas was such a big holiday. "You do all this because one god had one baby?" "Well, we only have one God," my niece replied, and there is only one child. This didn't really help solve the boy's confusion.

At Easter 2012 a boy from China tried to figure out that holiday. When my niece tried to explain the resurrection, the boy said, "So he was alive, then he was dead, then he was alive again?" "Yes," my niece replied. "Ohhh," the boy said, holding his arms out straight in front of him and waving them up and down, "Zombie Jesus."

"You can't do that anyplace else in the school," my niece told him when she stopped laughing, "people really believe this." "Grown ups too?" he asked. "Grown ups too," my niece said. "Which grown ups?" he asked, wondering, of course, who in this American school he might be able to trust.
"Our" Anglo-American-Christian "core beliefs" are, quite often, a baffling mythology for others. As are "our" (essentially) religious commitment to market capitalism, "our" belief in linear - point A to point B - storytelling, and "our" (American) ignorance of history or "our" (English) refusal to acknowledge history. These accepted "norms," these structures of thought, which lie at the heart of the American "common core" and the English "e-bacc" of Michael Gove, and the "educational reform" efforts in the US, Canada, England, and Australia, are the very things which put our "Nation[s] at Risk." They are not a solution, they are the problem, and always have been, going back to the era in which public (or, in England, "state") education was created.
"America has long been known–despite our problems–as the country of freedom, innovation, and wealth.  There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is our democratic and free public education system.  Prior to NCLB in 2002 and Race to the Top eight years later, standardization was limited to SAT and ACT tests, NAEP and PISA tests, and graduation exams for Advanced Placement courses.  We valued music, art, drama, languages and the humanities just as much as valued science, math, and English (for the most part).  We believed in the well-rounded education.

Now, the Common Core State Standards has one goal: to create common people.  The accompanying standardized tests have one purpose: to create standardized people.  Why?  Because the movers and the shakers have a vested interest in it.  It’s about money and it’s about making sure all that money stays in one place." - Kris A. Nielsen 2012
Do we want "common people"? or is this effort by those with money and power, from ALEC to Bill Gates to Eli Broad to Goldman-Sachs, "how democracy ends" as the teacher quoted just above says?

Venn Diagram by Kris A. Nielsen
Democracy, like invention, requires uncommonalities, requires difference. Invention comes from (a) discomfort, combined with (b) thesis (an idea of how to solve the discomfort) plus (c) antithesis (a challenge to the thesis based in differing views), which leads to (d) synthesis - that new idea. Democracy, of course, in order to be democracy, requires constant invention, based in constant discomfort with how things are, combined with radically differing competing world views. Democracy is essential for invention, because it allows challenge to ideas. Invention is essential to democracy, because it allows creation of new answers. And our educational reform concepts, our Common Cores and E-baccs, allow neither to exist. And those who embrace these "answers" without apology are opposing all that is good about our nations and our economies.

My Venn Diagram of forces shaping US public education in 1850, the "Prussian Model"
imported by Henry Barnard was originally developed to ensure consistent training in
obedience for future imperial troops, and to discover potential fully-compliant low level officers.
The British Empire version looks slightly different in 1860: "Democracy Doubters"
includes those preserving unequal voting and the House of Lords, and "wealth schools"
represents the English "public school" (private) system.
What these diagrams share is the commitment to compliance and a matched citizenry which is easy to sell to and easy to derive labor from. What the resulting schools share is a failure to allow human accomplishment. It is important to note that even the very "best" American institutions of education could not hold Sergei Brinn or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg - people of ambition with all the gifts of American wealth. Even the most "radical" of American colleges could not hold Steve Jobs. But this is not new, Alexander Hamilton could not gain admission to The College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and dropped out of Kings College (now Columbia University). Scott Fitzgerald could not handle more than half a day of primary school and dropped out of Princeton. Frank Lloyd Wright never graduated from either high school or university. The education systems we have inherited from that mid-19th Century have consistently, and intentionally, restricted who is allowed to succeed. We can easily build long lists of dropouts who have found great success - often because family wealth or connections allowed them alternative paths - but the biggest tragedy are the millions and millions dumped by these systems who found nothing but despair, mixed with the even greater number of millions who "succeeded" in these systems only to find the meaningless of mediocrity and powerlessness.

If American education has been successful at all, as Yong Zhaoargues, it is because teachers and building and local administrators have subverted the system, not because they have followed or embraced it.
"Dr. Zhao grew up in China and immigrated to the US in the 1990’s. From his perspective he sees that China seems to want an education that America seems eager to throw away. This is one that respects individual talents, supports divergent thinking, tolerates deviation, and encourages creativity. At the same time, the US government is pushing for the kind of education that China is moving away from. This is one that features standardization of curricula and an emphasis on preparing students for standardized tests. He wonders why Americans who hold individual rights in high regard would let the government dictate what children should learn, when they should learn it, and how they are evaluated."

Yong Zhao at ISTE 2012

It is the rule-shattering schools, from Summerhill in England to the 3Is and Parkway School of the 1970s, to low-compliance schools like SLA and Monticello High School today which have always produced the most interesting, most culturally competent, most innovative students. Those schools have/had a shared cultural commitment to freedom and democracy, to difference and synthesis. They are focused on educating all kinds of students with communal support, not focused on the neoliberal ideal of creating an all-the-same population based solely on individual resources.
"Neoliberalism is an ideology and set of policies that privilege market strategies over public institutions to redress social issues (Kumashiro, 2008). Such policies champion privatizing formerly public services, deregulating trade, and increasing efficiency while simultaneously reducing wages, deunionizing, and slashing public services (Martinez & Garcia, 2000; Tabb, 2001). Neoliberalism defends the rights of the individual and uses the ideology of individual choice to promote the idea of a meritocracy “that presumes an even playing field” (Kumashiro, p. 37). Unfortunately, within education, these policies work to challenge the legitimacy of public schooling by promoting vouchers, charters, and other quasi-private schools while privatizing services that were once the domain of public institutions, such as curriculum development and testing (Lipman, 2005). By focusing on the rights and responsibilities of individuals, neoliberal policies have resulted in increasing accountability systems that place blame and punishment on individual students and teachers rather than on the inequitable school systems that have inadequately served them. Rather than improving quality of education, this vicious circle creates school climates characterized by compliance, conformity, and fear." Bree Picower 2011
"Compliance, conformity, and fear," the toxic mix which is product of the "common core," of the directives of Michael Gove, of "educational reformers" from Wall Street to Sydney. This is "the place" where kids who sit still in chairs for three hour long exams are the norm. Where everyone finds the the same plot and the same theme in the same stories, even if the plot is irrelevant. Where every kid always raises their hand before speaking and happily stares straight at the eyes of every authority figure. Where every child dreams of growing up to be a blond, blue-eyed, straight, protestant, just like the dolls we sell them.

2006 film, "The Water is Wide" from Pat Conroy's first (originally self-published) book.

Somewhere out there we need more teachers, more administrators, more parents, and more citizens who, despite their own educations in compliance, will challenge this. Who will say that "we." like all successful human societies, need differences, need diversity of views, need creativity, need play, need imagination, need refusals to conform.

Somewhere out there we need more heroes. Educators, parents, citizens, humans, who will take the risks needed to create a better place for kids, rather than just 'going along' that path of least resistance.

Here, today, in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas, when we celebrate, yes, just one child of one god, is a good time to recall that building an earthly heaven requires risk and sacrifice, and not risk aversion and compliance.

- Ira Socol


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Anonymous said...

Great post and very interesting commentary. A bone to pick:

"Invention comes from (a) discomfort, combined with (b) thesis (an idea of how to solve the discomfort) plus (c) antithesis (a challenge to the thesis based in differing views), which leads to (d) synthesis - that new idea."

Shouldn't you reference Hegel/Engels/Marx if you're using this structure of the dialectic to make your point?

Otherwise, nicely done!

Good luck!