27 September 2010

Designed to Fail - Education in America: Part Three

part one   part two  part four    part five

With the exception of John Taylor Gatto and a few others, "contemporary" (since 1980) historians of American education ignore Ellwood Cubberley [1]. They also significantly limit their interest in Henry Barnard. Instead, future teachers hear a great deal about Horace Mann and John Dewey, who, I may argue, are among the "losers" in the educational wars of the United States.

Yet, to understand the debate in America today you need to think of two names: Ellwood Cubberley and Rudyard Kipling. Mann is sweet, Dewey brilliant, Barnard essential to the process, but it is Cubberley who made the U.S. educational system virtually unchangeable and it is Kipling who may offer the explanation re: why?

Let's take a look - just to turn them into examples - at Camilo Acosta [2] ("TheRebull" on Twitter) and Mark Zuckerberg [3]. These two might be seen as "typical" America's young generation seeking to lead on minority education. Acosta through prodigious fundraising for Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. (though why a highly paid, and wealthy-by-inheritance schools superintendent needs fundraising has never been obvious to me), Facebook CEO Zuckerberg through his recently concocted ties to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Oprah Winfrey.

I do not pick these men because they are intellectual or policy leaders, but specifically because they are not. The question of why they feel compelled to join this crusade, without knowledge or study, is what is illuminating.

Both of these young men grew up with the resources of exceptional wealth, and attended exceptional schools - schools completely unlike those they advocate for the poor of color in America. Both are the products of America's "Ivy League" universities. Both are fully willing to embrace Kipling's White Man's Burden [4] or, that is only partially true, neither will actually risk anything themselves to shoulder that burden, not even in political/career terms as Benjamin Disraeli or William McKinley might have. But they are fully willing to "Take up the White Man's burden--, Ye dare not stoop to less--, Nor call too loud on Freedom."

And they are fully happy to do this, because Cubberley made the American education system not just something for missionaries (Mann), and not something just for economic policy (Barnard) but literally "pleasurable" for those born to power, just as - in Edward Said's grand explanation, Rudyard Kipling made British colonialism pleasurable for Britain's upper class young men.

[Edward Said (1935-2003) is an important author in understanding this construction. Said was the leading intellectual bringing postcolonial literary theory together with politics and human actions "on the ground." In part, this series, and this blog as a whole, is inspired by something he said in a 2001 interview: "But I don't write about just anything - I don't think I'm capable of doing that. I write about things that matter to me, and obviously one of those things is the idea of tribalism - one's origin, and the place that I was born in. But never without clarifying it in as dispassionate a way as possible, and always with some commitment to greater values - more universal values than just the ones of nation, tribe and family. Those issues would be issues of justice, oppression, giving a historical context when it's lost." For a wonderful appreciation, and place to begin, I recommend Terry Eagleton's review of Said's last book.]

Cubberley does not sound joyful. He has none of the soaring oratory of Mann, nor even the ability of Barnard to conjure the future, but he is clear and absolute:
"It is the attempt to remould the school and to make of it a more potent instrument of the State for promoting national consciousness and political, social, and industrial welfare that has been behind the many changes and expansions and extensions of education which have marked the past half-century in all the leading world nations, and which underlie the most pressing problems in educational readjustment to-day. These changes and expansions and problems we shall consider more in detail in the chapters which follow. Suffice it here to say that from mere teaching institutions, engaged in imparting a little religious instruction and some knowledge of the tools of learning, the school, in all the leading nations, has to-day been transformed into an institution for advancing national welfare. The leading purpose now is to train for political and social efficiency in the more democratic types of governments being instituted among peoples, and to impart to the young those industrial and social experiences once taught in the home, the trades, and on the farm, but which the coming of the factory system and city life have deprived them otherwise of knowing." - The History of Education (1919) pp. 737-738
In Cubberley's world the education system has not been either a political or an economic decision, but has naturally "transformed" into "an institution for advancing national welfare." It is also, again as Said says regarding Kipling, an instrument of benign imperialism. "When the United States freed Cuba, Porto Rico, and the Philippines from Spanish rule, a general system of public education, modeled after the American educational ladder, was created as a safeguard to the liberty just brought to these islands, and to education the United States added courts of justice and bureaus of sanitation as important auxiliary agencies. As a result the peoples of these islands have made a degree of progress in self-government and industry in three decades not made in three centuries under Spanish rule" (p. 740). We "comfortably" skip over the brutal Philippine War, and the destruction of representative government in Puerto Rico, and the occupation of Cuba, in order to "prove" the perfect progressivism of the system.

To young people of privilege, this is a grand game they want to be in on. To miss it is to miss the flow of history. So whether Acosta - who seeks to be a colonial apparatchik, or Zuckerberg - who will use his great wealth to endow a school in a colonial backwater, or all those who seek the resume line "Teach for America" (the contemporary equivalent of that old post in the Foreign Service), these silver spoon children seek out the joys of what Said calls "orientalism" and "adventure" while getting the powerful feel that they are riding the wave of history - which is more appealing to self-identity than seeing yourself as a passive inheritor of wealth.

It is a grand game, but it is not played on a level field. And like those who joined that old British Foreign Service (you may want to watch Lawrence of Arabiafor some clues), today's education colonials see themselves as always superior, and always knowing what is best for those beneath them. The result is the fawning response to power and the brutal dismissal of the powerless one sees most clearly now in D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee:
'"I think part of the problem in public education to date has been that we all have to feel good; let's not ruffle too many feathers," Rhee told a group of bigwigs gathered at the Newseum recently for the premiere of the documentary "Waiting for 'Superman,' " which features her as a hero.

"What Rhee didn't say is that she has gone all out to make residents who live in the wealthier, predominantly white parts of the city feel good. And if their feathers got ruffled and needed smoothing, she went so far as to visit their homes for coffee klatches and pep talks.

"So what happens when black residents on the other side of town start waving their hands - don't forget about us; we'd like to feel good, too? Rhee holds them up for ridicule. School reform is not "warm and fuzzy," she says." - Courtland Milloy, Washington Post
Cubberley, like his university-level and political parallel Woodrow Wilson, was remaking the world as safe for the white elite. Creating a rational, stable planet for both the business of America and its middle class joys. What was being done for "the other," whether that was working class children or Czech independence proponents, was being done for a potent combination of the economic self-interest of the powerful (nations economically and militarily dependent on France, a stable and low-wage workforce) and the "feel good" warmth of liberal accomplishment. Thus Cubberley, and Wilson embarked on a systemic re-design of the world - Cubberley through schools, Wilson through borders and government structures - which would be permanent because they were inevitable. It does not matter whether one is discussing "technique of instruction" (p. 749) and "the scientific organization of education" (p. 824) or "defensible borders" and "national self-determination" - both are the products of logical evolution in a "just" universe.

Just how enduring this inevitability is can easily be seen in both education and political spheres. In education "we" continue to pursue the scientific and the "proper technique" (though we now say "evidence-based practice") despite never finding an actual way to measure human learning. In the global political realm we continue to pursue "self-determination" unless - of course - we don't for reasons of "defensible borders" and the status of allies (Kosovo good, Catalonia bad. Georgia good, South Ossetia bad).

And our young continue to be called into service for both missions - educational and global military - and are both demonized if they fail to achieve results which remain as impossible now as they were in 1899 or 1917.

Still not "English"
The issue which joins these failings of the "American Century" together, lies in the very concept underlying both. Whether nations are to become "American" in form and substance, or differing American students are to become "White" in form and substance, neither group can ever catch up. Just as, no matter what the Irish, the Indians, the Nigerians, the Kenyans did, they could never truly become "English." And this impossibility, crafted by forcing "the other" to continually chase a moving objective, manufactures a permanent inequality.

"Through analyses of colonial schooling, anthropology, and the formation of academic subjects instrumental in the expansion of empire (history, geography, science, language and literature), Willinsky argues that education was and is the research and development arm of imperialism. Drawing on contemporary classrooms and materials, he considers how schools continue to educate the young within the "colonial imaginary." Through primary texts, cutting-edge scholarship and students' voices, Willinsky examines schooling itself, arguing for the incorporation of the imperial legacy into a multicultural education that does not dismiss the achievement of the West but gives an account of the divided world that achievement has created."

The "colonial imaginary" is what Cubberley brought into full-flower in American schooling, taking disparate intentions - moral and commercial, religious and imperial - and merging them into a coherent whole which the American intellectual elite could fully enjoy and feel good about. As Wilson sent Americans off to fight to "make the world safe for democracy," Cubberley sent them to build the American ideal: "The problem of the twentieth century, then, and probably of other centuries to come, is how the constructive forces in modern society, of which the schools of nations should stand first, can best direct their efforts to influence and direct the deeper sources of the life of a people, so that the national characteristics it is desired to display to the world will be developed because the schools have instilled into every child these national ideals" (p. 837).

The world, and all within America, would be reconstructed on the American ideal. And the young vanguard of American society would, then as now, set out to accomplish this.

The problem, then as now, is unequal beginnings on that path to either Americanness or Whiteness. Not only is a single conception of life, of government, of learning, of behavior, declared "correct" and thus all others declared "incorrect" ("It’s worth thinking about not matching the child’s supposed learning style to how they are supposed to learn, but rather think about the content and what is it about this content that I really want students to understand and what’s the best way to convey that.” – Daniel Willingham). Not only does it encourage racially-based labelling of behavior ("When white burnouts give wedgies to white A students, the authors argue, it is seen as inevitable, but when the same dynamic is observed among black students, it is pathologized as a racial neurosis." - Paul Tough in The New York Times Magazine). Unless Americans and Whites choose to stagnate, stand still, or regress, it is simply not possible for others to ever actually catch up. The further you start from the expressed ideal the further "behind" you are, and the further behind you will remain.

Next: What those in power get from the failure of education...

- Ira Socol

[1] As noted in Part Two of this series, Cubberley, who dominates the "post war" histories of American education by Cremin and others, is barely mentioned in Tyack's work or that of other contemporary authors.

[2] Acosta in his own words: "Before starting Root Orange, Camilo worked for his mom’s government communications company,The Media Network, where he introduced newfangled tools young people use like Facebook and Twitter to the company’s communications offerings. Years later, the federal government is still figuring out how to use social media. He also oversaw the company’s website re-design, which introduced him to the headache of website re-design. Camilo’s previous gigs include stints at the Corporate Executive Board and New Vantage Group, a venture capital firm in Northern Virginia.

"During the rare times he is not working on Root Orange, Camilo does fundraising and advocacy work for education reform efforts, a cause both he and Frank fervently support. He was almost assaulted once by an angry mob of former public school teachers while testifying at a D.C. City Council hearing. Camilo enjoyed the experience and The Washington Post found it newsworthy.
"Camilo received his B.A. in Politics from Princeton University, where his thesis on micro-finance in South Africa inexplicably managed to receive the Picard Prize. He is a graduate of the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C, where he enjoyed pasta dinners with Al Gore at the Vice President’s residence and seeing Hillary Clinton in frumpy mom clothes."

[3] Mark Zuckerberg in his own words: "Mark Zuckerberg is the founder and CEO of Facebook, which he started in his college dorm room in 2004 with roomates Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes.

"Zuckerberg is responsible for setting the overall direction and product strategy for Facebook. He leads the design of Facebook’s service and development of its core technology and infrastructure.
"Earlier in life, Zuckerberg developed a music recommendation system called Synapse and a peer-to-peer client called Wirehog. However, he abandoned both to pursue new projects.
"Zuckerberg attended Harvard University and studied computer science before founding Facebook.
'While at Harvard, Zuckerberg created Facemash, a website that compared students’ dorm photos side-by-side in a fashion similar to HOT or NOT. Harvard administration was not amused, and Zuckerberg faced subsequent disciplinary action. Less than three months later, he launched Facebook.
"Zuckerberg won the 2007 Crunchie Award for ‘Best Startup CEO.’"

[4] The White Man's Burden (1899) - the poem was written as a critique of the U.S. colonial conquest of the Philippines.

"Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man's burden--

In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another's profit,
And work another's gain.

Take up the White Man's burden--

The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Take up the White Man's burden--

No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper--
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go mark them with your living,
And mark them with your dead.

Take up the White Man's burden--

And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard--
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:--
"Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?"

Take up the White Man's burden--

Ye dare not stoop to less--
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.

Take up the White Man's burden--

Have done with childish days--
The lightly proferred laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!"


irasocol said...

There could not be any better evidence of what I'm suggesting above than this Tweet: "@GovChristie: TR @davidgregory: Education reform is a new form of patriotism; it's not just about our kids but our country" http://twitter.com/GovChristie/status/25683727692

Cubberley is alive and well. And if you don't agree, you are anti-American.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

For an extreme example, see 'Jesus Camp'...

For the past few weeks, I've been thinking about some of this stuff. Not nearly as well-researched as your offerings here, but I've been trying to develop a General Theory Of Sanctimony.

I came up with the idea that sanctimony is a power play, with nice soft edges that allows the sanctimonious to believe they are doing the right thing. They'd never call it a power play, but it is. My examples come from disability activism, but it's the same essential argument.

Looking forward to chapter 4. :-)