29 November 2010

Faux Nostalgia and the Damage it does to Education

The "Holiday Season" is here, and so is our annual high-point of faux historical belief, when nostalgia is mistaken for history. We imagine old "Colonial New England" Christmases with everyone gathered around the tree, forgetting that most of New England outlawed Christmas throughout the 18th Century as a "pagan holiday." We see Christmas Trees many places Christmas Trees would not have been before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made them "Anglo-fashionable" in 1848. And we think of gift giving, a tradition brought to North America for the sixth of December (St. Nicholas Day) - more or less, as something which has always been part of the holiday. The American right-wing, forgetting that they usually belong to Christian denominations which once rioted to stop Christmas celebrations, treat all that we do now in December as if it was an essential part of 2,000 years of Western Tradition.
"On Christmas Eve 1806, two decades after [St. Peter's Church near what is now "Ground Zero" in Manhattan] was built, the building was surrounded by Protestants incensed at a celebration going on inside — a religious observance then viewed by some in the United States as an exercise in “popish superstition,” more commonly referred to as Christmas. Protesters tried to disrupt the service. In the melee that ensued, dozens were injured, and a policeman was killed."
But at this high point in nostalgia for the never-was, we cannot forget the place where false memory might be most damaging, education. A while ago Tomaz Lasic, Dr. Greg Thompson, and I wrote a never-quite-finished series which began with the question: "Why is everyone an expert on education?"

It is a serious question, especially at a moment when New York State's chief education officer has once more caved to pressure from Billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg and allowed a "completely unqualified" person to take the job running New York City's public schools. What makes Cathie Black an expert on education? Or Joel Klein? Or Paul Vallas? Or Arne Duncan? Or Michelle Rhee? Or, for that matter, any of the thousands of recruits who will go into classrooms this year via Teach for America? Or, to move further down the road, the hundreds of thousands of parents who want schools to remain the same or return to some mythical "golden age"? (you know, homework and basics, desks in rows, "classroom discipline," et al)

Well, yes, what makes them experts - in their own eyes - is that they remember going to school.

But what, exactly, do they remember? And is any of their memory related to any understandable "truth"?

There seem to be two kinds of memory out there, both fundamentally flawed. Type one is dominant among the names I listed above. They went to "good schools," where they "did well," and hung out with other kids who, "did well," and they came home from school to some Leave it to Beaver-esque home with supportive parents. Actually, this is also the memory - however more recent - which Teach for America kids hold. School was good, and it was easy, we just have to be nice, smart people in front of the kids and everyone will get As on their tests.

Type two is more common among the type of low-income parent who signs their kid up for a KIPP Boot Camp. Here, school was terrible, but the terrible is - it has been taught by the media - the fault of the students themselves. They didn't have enough rules at home or in the classroom. They didn't work hard enough. They dressed badly and blew off their homework. If only they had done all these things right - think of that Horatio Alger image of Barack Obama and his mom in the wee hours of the morning doing tough schoolwork at the kitchen table - then they'd be successes today.
"I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.  

"Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, "This is no picnic for me either, buster."'
That is America's Horatio Alger myth in full flower. Failure is not a system issue. It is not because schools typically work in absolute opposition to the way kids learn. It is not because school is designed for compliant white Protestant middle class typically-abled children and the way they've been raised. Failure happens because you are a moral failure - because you didn't suffer enough. It is Calvinism gone wild. We ignore that Barack Obama was the child of not one, not two, but three super-intelligent, super-educated graduate students, in a family of college graduates, who attended elite private schools, and we stare instead at his miserable 4:30 a.m. suffering.

The myths are different, but both equally reinforce the current failed way of doing things. Both blame the children (and parents) for the problems and defend the essential structure. Both lead away from radical - effective - changes and back to conservative tinkering which imagines that schools as-we-know-them are some sort of natural creation of God's. And the combination - from the winners above and the losers at the "street" level - of these mythic faux memories block real change both legally (see The U.S. Department of Education), societally (see The New York Times), and even when principals and teachers try to truly improve things despite all that.

My father, who had a clearer memory than most, used to say, "Of course high school was 'better' back then [1930s], only the top third of kids ever made it past eighth grade." Then he'd say, "Those kids still do fine, in fact, they'd do fine if there wasn't school." And he'd point to my sister, the one who was the perfect student, who, if there was no school, would have sat in the library all day anyway. I suspect he said that mostly for my benefit. He knew I wasn't stupid. He knew I could work intensely hard. And he knew school was all wrong for me. Every day.

That's the reality. That was the reality. But just like Colonial Christmas in Boston was a full work day with slaves sweating and workmen shredding cold skin at hard labor, we recall it all differently. Unfortunately, misremembering history will never get us where we need to be.

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had forgotten about the New England riots against Christmas. Thanks, I think I'll use that in my next American History unit, after the Christmas break...

Before that, we're also reading a selection from the diary of a Virginia gentleman, a friend of certain well-known founding fathers, who whips his slaves and forces his wife's submission and then makes it up to her by firing the nurse she hates and sexing her up in the morning.

The problems of historical memory and mythologizing is rife through American history. We forget in the literature that John Hancock was heavily involved in the real triangle trade — the untaxed and uncontrolled smuggling between New England, Africa, and the West Indies — and that the Continental Congress was in some ways the equivalent of a modern-day 'outsider political convention" where the wealthiest men in the colonies dithered for months between paying taxes and submitting to the crown, or declaring for the rebellion that had already started.

Likewise the current debate over education reform is really about the big money names trying to get out in front of the crowd that's already demanding change, and trying to steer it back into some semblance of the status quo.