29 June 2012

Heroes of the Republic of Ireland

An Open Letter to Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D. Higgins:

President Higgins:

In May of this year I was privileged to be invited to Ireland to speak to, and work with, the fabulous educators of your nation. At the ICT in Education Conference|Comhdháil ICT san Oideachas
at the Limerick Institute of Technology campus in Thurles, County Tipperary, and in schools from the center of Dublin to the shore at St. Finan's Bay in
Baile an Sceilg, we met, conversed with, and worked with many transformational educators who are seeking to create a future full of possibility for their students, for their nation, for their Europe, and for their world.

But what we also saw was a national government, if not a society in general, forgetting that most basic axiom of Irish history... when times are tough we worry first about our children and our future.

And we saw these wondrous educators, among the finest on this planet, struggling to understand how that could axiom could be forgotten.

Children play outside at the An Scoil ag an Ghleanna|Glen National School at St. Finan's Bay
On the edge of the world in County Kerry we found one tiny Gaelscoil leading a small group of rural students both into the future and deep into the collective past. The words were in Irish, the storytelling as ancient as the rocks on which the Atlantic crashed outside the windows, but the children were connected to the world through both technology and their committed, devoted teachers.

At a Shehy Mountains pass in County Cork we found an even tinier school, Cuppabue National School, which has won, in the past year, national awards for everything from maths and sciences to film-making, but whose teachers, students, and parents fear Ruairi Quinn's policies ("Very few young children now would walk to school. Many of the schools in rural Ireland were located because of the fact that people walked to school. The arrival of traffic… makes it virtually impossible, certainly not safe, for people to walk to school. The face of Ireland has changed, not just urban or rural Ireland. We have to reflect that change.") will shutter a school which has educated students brilliantly since the Catholic Emancipation.

St. Mocholomog National School/Cuppabue National School has been a place of learning
for as far back as the stories recall. That students "could go elsewhere" according to the
Minister of Education and Skills should not shutter a fabulous school.

(below) the (pre-K-grade 6) students' award-winning film on the fiscal crisis
In Dublin we found Bridge 21 Learning offering secondary students with few traditional paths to opportunity coming to a "school" on their off-hours just to participate in collaborative community learning, yet euros are short, and the program can only reach a small percentage of the adolescents who desperately need this support.

In Thurles the Presentation Secondary School, a beautiful place filled with higher level thinking, arts, and music struggles with furnishings so old, and classroom spaces so tight, that students are wedged into desks with, yes, inkwells.

St. Martin de Porres N.S. multiage choir says it all.
(below) students at St. Martin de Porres know how to leverage technology to
overcome learning issues.
And in Tallaght we found the remarkably diverse and exciting St. Martin de Porres National School with an incredible technology program powering every learner which needs newer equipment and greater bandwidth if they are going to continue their children's growth.

Before I began the visit I wrote...
"Ireland is wasting time and energy worrying about “efficiency,” “saving money,” “teacher pay,” and battles over the Junior and Leaving Certs, instead of investing in imagining, and moving towards, a lifespan educational structure which will carry Ireland into the future. In this, this nation is hardly alone, but perhaps the stakes are much higher for a small island nation which knows the ability of education to transform a society, which saw the changes of the 1970s and 1980s, in all levels of schooling, lead a societal and socio-economic revolution... we will not focus on “rigour” – the making of things difficult for the sake of difficulty, nor on “efficiency,” an odd concept to embrace as we discuss the raising of our children, nor on “standards,” which involve statistical tests originally designed to ensure the consistency of barrels of Guinness. Instead we will begin with the idea of creating “learning space,” real, virtual, even imagined, where every student, at every age, has the opportunity to not just succeed, but to thrive."
And just last week, Ireland's Secondary Teacher of the Year answered in an impassioned address, which included this:
"Obviously I have a personal agenda here - I want to save my job. But I don't have a political agenda.

My grandfather was a proud Fine Gaeler and I have many friends in the Labour party. I want to believe that Fine Gael and Labour can find a way to be better than the idiots who got us into this mess in the first place.

Some positive things are happening in education: our minister Ruairi Quinn is determined to bring about changes in our in-many-ways antiquated educational system - and for this I admire him.

The proposals for the new Junior Cert have the potential to bring about real and meaningful change (but the department need to listen to the teachers) and this is a change I want to be a part of.

But we need to make sure we're making things better not worse. Destroying the morale of the teachers who will be implementing this change is not the way forward.

Minister Quinn will no doubt throw his hands in the air and say there is no money.

Well I say to Ruairi Quinn and the Department of Education, if this is the limit of your creativity, imagination and passion to protect our children's education - shame on you."

Secondary Teacher of the Year Evelyn O'Connor
President Higgins, much of what I, and Dr. Pamela Moran of Virginia, saw on our visit demonstrated that Irish education - especially Irish primary education - could be the envy of the world. We saw a wondrous commitment to natural child development unhindered by the panic over "grade-level standards" which have threatened to destroy education in the United States and United Kingdom.

We saw a level of humanity, a commitment to arts and the whole child, which should be "the standard" everywhere. We saw local control and local opportunity which allowed teachers to build classrooms around the needs and passions of their children. We saw teachers that anyone, in any nation, would want supporting our next generation of leaders.

We saw a commitment to the concept of "the public space" you so beautifully express in your book . Renewing the Republic. A belief in an unselfish dedication to a shared future that should be the pride of any nation.

Of course we saw problems. We saw secondary education far too bound by test preparation, and tests which, though in some ways excellent, are graded on the wrong parameters, are taken with the wrong (19th century) technologies, and which hold far too great a sway over both individual and national futures. We saw a lack of investment in learning spaces, a lack of investment in this century's communications technology, and a lack of support for a fabulous teaching community.

Grades 2 through 6 at Dualla National School
One afternoon in Dualla in County Tipperary we visited the Dualla National School. There we met brilliant educators working with another small cohort of children, and making the best of limited, old, technology. It was wondrous what Principal Teacher John Manley accomplished with a few old laptops and an old iPhone with a shattered screen, and how that combined with a fully inclusive multiage environment (and a heavy dose of hurling) to offer a broad path to success for every child. But their energy should be poured into their students, not concerns about how to update antiquated communications systems.

On another day we met Hellie Bullock of Limerick, a brilliant young educator who should be working every day with children - and being paid a respectable wage for that. On other days we met some of the world's leading university experts in the future of education, who should be going about their work without panicking about the ability to care for their families.

President Higgins, we must, as you know, measure nations and societies by their commitment to their children, and their commitment to a better future. Ireland, like many nations, has deep problems and little in the way of available funds. But Ireland also has a grand tradition of putting education and children first. From the ancient monasteries to the hedge schools of the worst occupation days, from the re-birth of the education system after entering the European Economic Community to, hopefully, today, Ireland has sought whatever creative solutions were necessary to protect its communal future.

Seeking creative solutions to ensure our future: CoderDojo Thurles
The educators we met, President Higgins, are the heroes of today's Republic of Ireland. They are fighting, working, and struggling every day to ensure the future of this nation, and to protect its children from the ravages caused by the greed of another generation, and they, whether Hellie, or Evelyn O'Connor, or Stephen Howell at the Institute of Technology Tallaght (who has given our children Scratch to Kinect) deserve the support of their nation, in their work and in the security of their positions and ability to live.

So I ask you to join us President Higgins in our conversations, to join us in our search for creative solutions, to join us in our drive for universally designed learning spaces which can carry all of our children into successful futures, in our attempts to bring the Labour and Fine Gael leaders into true conversation about what our children need.

I write this not as a meddlesome outsider, but because I have been welcomed into this conversation warmly by the education community of the Irish nation. I know this community views you as a hero, as a man who has stood for what is right for half a century, and so I ask you to, please, become a part of this essential discussion.

- Ira Socol

Please don't stop us now... the future can be wondrous

27 June 2012

The purpose of public education?

"At times of falling school budgets any surplus cash should be reinvested in schools rather than into people's bank accounts; this is irrefutable but it is not the core of the argument," Estelle Morris wrote in the Guardian recently about the need to resist any intrusion of "for profit" schools into the United Kingdom. "Profit can drive improvement. But the financial bottom line will never provide the motivation to deliver what we want and need from schools.

"There is a moral purpose that underpins education and, although by itself it is not enough, it must be the driving force. Without it, it's too easy to accept that it's not worth trying, yet again, to help a child to master a skill, or to rationalise that the social class divide is something we'll just have to live with. Understanding this moral purpose for education is not the preserve of those in the public sector; others bring the same passion and determination and share in the same joy success brings, but all this feels strikingly at odds with the drive for profit. Value for money, certainly; careful management of resources, essential; but there can only be one set of shareholders – and that is the children."
The recent drama at the University of Virginia - the "termination" and restoration of President Teresa Sullivan - should push us into a much deeper conversation about the purposes - moral, political, societal - of public education. And if it might do that, then Helen Dragas and her co-conspirators on the UVA Board of Visitors will have done us a great - if fully unintentioned - service.
US News and World Report ranks universities,
even high schools, like commodities,
feeding the worst kinds of pressures on
public education.
"It's tough to condone vandalism, but one can't help but feel a bit of satisfaction at the temporary defamation of the historic Rotunda at the University of Virginia," wrote Susan Milligan in US News and World Report, a publication whose own greed does a steady and continuous disservice to American education.

'"G-R-E-E-D," the vandal spray-painted in a message that was then speedily painted over. It's a message that the board of the university should hear, even if the mode of communication was inappropriate...
"No doubt," Milligan continues, getting to the heart of the matter, Dragas's collaboration with the mandarins of the university's Darden School of Business to force corporate profit-seeking concepts on the nation's oldest public university,  "Universities are a business, and must adhere to budget limitations. But the basic mission of a corporation is to make money for its shareholders. A university is meant to educate people—yes, even people who might run private corporations someday. If an institution of higher education were to conduct itself according to corporate principles, it would only accept students who can pay the entire cost of tuition with no help from the school or government aid. It would give "A"s to those who brought the most money into the school—perhaps by being a great athlete who attracted ticket-payers to the field—instead of to those who performed well academically. It would pay more to professors whose graduates went into higher-paying fields, instead of those who taught liberal arts or music.
Therein lies the heart of the matter best discussed by Irish President Michael D. Higgins in his book Renewing The Republic. As Higgins points out, there is a sphere of "public spaces" which must not be invaded by the greed of the private, the selfishness of the private, even the individual intention of the private. "Public Spaces" which must - if we are to be functioning societies, Irish, English, Scottish, American, whatever - remain as shared, community, unselfish spaces which put "us" ahead of "me."

Education, "Public Education," is one of the spaces, perhaps the most important of those spaces. And as such, it must never be tainted by either of the forms of selfishness prominently on display at the University of Virginia in the past two weeks. The first form was abundantly clear, the refusal of certain "capitalists" to understand the concept of "public space." The other, more obscured, the refusal of certain academics to understand that a "public space" must change with the public.
"President Teresa Sullivan has been reinstated as president of the University of Virginia. There have been a million theories about why she was asked to resign. Many think economic dynamics and political partisanship are primarily at fault. But based on my own research on trustee decision making, I see common human failings at the heart of this crisis. Understanding these failings is the key to drawing the right lessons from these events," writes , Associate Professor, Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, University of Michigan, at Huffington Post, in what I might consider to be a classic academic exercise in trying to make a major issue fit one's area of interest.

"I found many instances, both large and small, of moral and ethical transgressions by trustees. But I also found that trustees rarely intended to act unethically, instead justifying their choices as "win-win propositions" in the best interests of the university. Even the most egregious acts were often covered up by this kind of "justified reasoning." But Bastedo does then raise two key issues which relate to the universal assumption of self-possessed expertise about education: (see Lasic, Thompson, Socol: Why is everyone an expert on education?)

"This is a moral seduction - a gradual process by which people come to believe more in the fundamental rightness of their own judgements than in the organizational mission as constructed by others. It is a very human process, informed by recent developments in decision theory. As decision makers, we have a number of cognitive biases that cause us to prefer our own judgments over those made by others, and we create rationalizations to justify our desired conclusions.

"We also tend to overestimate the value of our own experiences, and to discount the value of the experiences of others, even when they have better information than we do. We tend to access information that is biased in our own favor, and to employ reasoning that suits our needs at the time. And as these decisions progress, we tend to escalate our commitment to existing actions rather than pay the price for a change in course."
Both sides in the UVA battle suffer dramatically from moral seduction. Both sides dramatically overestimate the value of their own experiences.

Student protest at the University of Virginia
We understand the absurdity of the stockbroker, hedge-fund manager, software executive, lawyer, or doctor assuming they know as much about education as "we" do - after all, they would not allow us to trade their stocks, market their software, try their cases, or do their surgeries just because we have the same experience with their field that they have with "ours." Some of us - maybe a limited number in the United States, understand what is fundamentally wrong with corporate strategies in the public sphere, especially in education, where we believe it is morally wrong to worry about profit and efficiencies when our mission is the future of all humans. But do we truly understand the limitations on our experiences which we accept? which we allow? which schools of education often actually encourage?

My experiences with "Jefferson's University" are limited, but I once spoke to a "Technology Tea" at the Curry School of Education there, a moment apparently (from what I've heard) best remembered for my use use of "the f- word" (I offer apologies, what can I say, I'm from a Land Grant University). But what I heard from the PhD students there was a steady stream of thinking based in the belief that American education consisted almost entirely of students exactly like those in the room, or those on the campus in Charlottesville. With that assumption came a belief that, if change was needed at all, the change should be slow and, to use President Sullivan's word, "incremental."

Now, both Teresa Sullivan's current institution, the University of Virginia (founded 1819 on plans by Thomas Jefferson), and her former institution, the University of Michigan (founded 1817, twenty years before Michigan achieved statehood), are "institutions" in every sense of the word. Tradition-bound "public ivies" where change comes slowly, if at all, and where education - at least this rarefied level of preparation for leadership - is primarily considered a privilege of the elite. But because both institutions see themselves as provinces of America's wealth leadership, they find that America's wealth leadership sees themselves as "stockholders" - by both contributory support and by privilege.

"There can only be one set of shareholders – and that is the children." Morris wrote, and she is right. The children, and our collective future. Every student abandoned because we seek efficiency, or seek to divert money to corporate profit, or divert money to testing which informs us not at all, has incalculable human and societal costs which all of our children will bear. And every student abandoned because schools will not change from what is comfortable and familiar to an older generation has incalculable human and societal costs which all of our children will bear.

And this is true whether the issue is how Education PhDs are given out or what a curriculum for eight-year-olds looks like. It is true whether the issue is money spent on elementary school technology or who gets admitted to the University of Virginia. It is true whether the issue in seventh grade seating or the power of the Graduate Record Exam.

Carl Anderson asked me
, at EdCamp-Minnesota, what the purpose of school was, and I answered, "The purpose of school should be that everybody has the most possible choices in everything they do." And morally, politically, societally, I'm going to stick with that.

Because I want our schools to help kids get ready for an unknown future, in a way which will not just make them "good, productive citizens" but happy humans as well. Happy humans capable of making all of our worlds better, whatever the next hundred years brings.

And I'm going to tell you that doing that will cost money, lots of it. It will use up much time - very inefficiently - because the raising of the next generation has never been, and will never be, efficient (no matter what Ellwood Cubberley, Woodrow Wilson, or Bill Gates has thought). And it will require a radical re-imagining of every school, from the local kindergarten to the University of Virginia because the 18th and 19th centuries which informed the structures of both are long, long gone.

If the University of Virginia wants to be something other than a province of a pre-ordained elite, than saying "no" to the corporate interests which wanted Sullivan ousted is just a tiny part of what must happen - neither incrementally nor by top down order - but organically and everywhere in the university.

If your school or school district or division seeks to be something other than an institution of social reproduction and wealth preservation, then it must not just say "no" to corporate intentions but also "no" to teachers or administrators saying "no" to change in order to preserve their own comfort.

What is the purpose of public education? Why should any student attend our school? What is the ethos which drives us? If we can not answer these questions coherently, if we can not act on our beliefs coherently, we must step aside, as perhaps everyone in the leadership of the University of Virginia ought to do.

- Ira Socol

15 June 2012

Why Bloomsday Matters

Unlike Harlem Village Academy's
counting, some books might take
a year to read and embrace.
There aren't many days devoted to celebrating a novel, but the 16th of June - Bloomsday - is one, and though it misses the school year for most of us Northern Hemisphere types, it remains worth celebrating, if for no other reason than it suggests that reading is not done "school credit" or Pizza Hut coupons or anything else except the desire to know, and that it suggests that writing can do so much, and among the things it can do, is to carry us across time.

The 16th of June 1904. Dublin. Ireland, still a part of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Edward VII reigning from Buckingham Palace. Charles Stewart Parnell, the great leader of the movement for Irish Self-Rule dead some 13 years before, but the Wright Brothers, across the Atlantic, had flown their first heavier-than-air craft six months before, marking the 20th as a unique Century.

And James Joyce went for a walk through the city of Dublin with Nora Barnacle, the woman who he would marry 27 years later.

James Joyce and Nora Barnacle in London on the day of their wedding in 1931.
Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images
"Nora worked in Finn's Hotel," Colm Tóibín writes (brilliantly) in today's Guardian, "and the walk between there and Merrion Square, where they originally arranged to meet, passed by 6 Clare Street, from where Samuel Beckett's father ran his business, and where Beckett would write some of his novel Murphy. Joyce, who would begin the stories in his book Dublinersin that year, 1904, and Nora planned to meet outside the house where Sir William Wilde had lived and where Oscar Wilde had been brought up, the site of many parties. Bram Stoker, who had known Wilde at Trinity College Dublin, had been a visitor to this house. His wife was a former girlfriend of Oscar Wilde. Thus the run-down city of Dublin could become sacred space if you cared and knew about those names. If you did not, or were in a hurry somewhere, as characters in Ulysses often are, as many people today still are, then it could be ordinary, like a street in any city. "
And thus James Joyce began, in 1904, about his city, and his people. "to write "a chapter of the moral history of his country" was grandiose; the stories themselves evaded such easy description. In them, Joyce's Dublin is a village filled with dreamers and chancers whom he placed in a kind of cage." (Tóibín). He wrote the stories of Dubliners, and then, a decade later, he began assembling Ulysses, his magnum opus, his remarkable tour of a day in Dublin with his "hero," Leopold Bloom. "Mr Bloom smiled joylessly on Ringsend road. Wallace Bros the bottleworks. Dodder bridge."

Ulysses can be read in many ways... this is from the amazing Ulysses Seen project
Ulysses is many things, including much easier to listen to than to read (but Joyce is an Irish writer, and Irish Literature is meant to be heard), among them a survey of the forms of literature, a paean to Homer, and a description of the city so clear that you can breathe it.

All around Dublin, the book's
events are commemorated.
It is rich, and complex, and difficult, and long, and it is the ultimate kind of triumph of human communication, a book which bonds its readers to its author, and its readers to its place.

"A black crack of noise in the street here, alack, bawled, back. Loud on left Thor thundered: in anger awful the hammerhurler. Came now the storm that hist his heart. And Master Lynch bade him have a care to flout and witwanton as the god self was angered for his hellprate and paganry. And he that had erst challenged to be so doughty waxed pale as they might all mark and shrank together and his pitch that was before so haught uplift was now of a sudden quite plucked down and his heart shook within the cage of his breast as he tasted the rumour of that storm. Then did some mock and some jeer and Punch Costello fell hard again to his yale which Master Lenehan vowed he would do after and he was indeed but a word and a blow on any the least colour. But the braggart boaster cried that an old Nobodaddy was in his cups it was muchwhat indifferent and he would not lag behind his lead. But this was only to dye his desperation as cowed he crouched in Horne's hall. He drank indeed at one draught to pluck up a heart of any grace for it thundered long rumblingly over all the heavens so that Master Madden, being godly certain whiles, knocked him on his ribs upon that crack of doom and Master Bloom, at the braggart's side spoke to him calming words to slumber his great fear, advertising how it was no other thing but a hubbub noise that he heard, the discharge of fluid from the thunderhead, look you, having taken place, and all of the order of a natural phenomenon."

The act of writing - not handwriting, not keyboarding, but communicating asynchronously with an audience - is a wondrous thing. Most authors struggle to tell their stories, struggle to find time and place to write, struggle to be heard. And for that courage, for the gift writers give us, we celebrate them only rarely. There are days for Presidents and days for Soldiers... but only this event to recall the wonder of those who enable us to know, to understand, to feel, to sense far beyond our personal experience.

So raise a pint (or four) to James Joyce this 16th of June, and to Leopold Bloom, a human created from the mind of another human. And add a whiskey too, for all the other authors, and all the characters they have created, and for all of us as well, the readers who keep the tales alive.

Happy Bloomsday to all...

"Penelope" the final chapter of Ulysses, contains the longest known sentence
in English-language literature
- Ira Socol

09 June 2012

The Racism of Brian Williams and NBC News

I understand that Americans - at least white Americans - have a very hard time with the concepts of "Colonialism," thinking, as they seem to inevitably do, of funny three-cornered hats and Williamsburg, Virginia and George Washington and stuff.

But Colonialism is not that.

Colonialism is what NBC Nightly News celebrated last week in their "Making a Difference" series. Colonialism is the racist assumptions which lie behind the piece of journalism described below, and it is the racism while lies behind the actions of NBC News, their anchor Brian Williams, their "Education Nation" series, as well as the efforts of US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (and British Minister for Education Michael Gove), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and just about everything which comes out of the mouths of Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, and their supporters.

British Empire, 1897 (above) American Empire, 1898 (below)
Colonialism, simply put, is the belief that a culture which has become dominant via military or economic force, has not just the right, but the duty, to convert all others into copies of themselves in order to make life for the dominant culture more pleasant and efficient. It works toward hegemony in ways both physically and economically forceful, as well as in complex forms of persuasion. Most effectively, it works via schools - by separating the young from their culture, their communities, their families, in order to make conversion easier.

Listen now, in the year of the Queen's Jubilee, as NBC Correspondent Shoshana Guy describes a 19th Century British widow deciding to devote her life to the poor and wretched children of British Colonial Africa...
"In the weeks after her husband died of leukemia, leaving her with three small children to raise, Deborah Kenny sought solace in books. 

“After he died I, like most people, couldn't sleep at night and so I started reading,” said Kenny.  
"Of all the books she read during those sleepless nights, it was the one written by a doctor who survived a concentration camp that changed the trajectory of her life.

“In ‘Man's Search for Meaning,’ [author] Viktor Frankl had this one line in the book where he said, ‘We had to teach the despairing men that it's not about what life has to offer you but what is life asking of you,’” said Kenny, 48. “That was the thing that uplifted me, because I thought, ‘Well, life is asking something of me.  I have to do something.’"
Oops, yes, wrong Queen on the throne at Buckingham Palace, wrong Diamond Jubilee, even, wrong Empire, and we're talking about 21st Century colonial Harlem in New York City, not Kenya, Tanganyika, Nigeria or Rhodesia in British Colonial Africa... but nothing else has changed one bit for NBC News and Nightly News Managing Editor Brian Williams. Nothing at all. Watch the story as it unfolded the evening of 6 June 2012... watch the visuals, watch the iconography, listen for the code words... There is nothing presented here which wouldn't gladden the heart of Cecil Rhodes. Not since Anna arrived to tutor the children of the King of Siam have we seen such selfless devotion to converting "the other" into someone "just like me."

"The process of colonization involves one nation or territory taking control of another nation or territory either through the use of force or by acquisition. As a by-product of colonization, the colonizing nation implements its own form of schooling within their colonies. Two scholars on colonial education, Gail P. Kelly and Philip G. Altbach, help define the process as an attempt "to assist in the consolidation of foreign rule" (Kelly and Altbach 1).

No longer a colony, but still learning to be white...
Saint George's Grammar School, Obinomba, Nigeria. Circa 1966
"In December 1965, We went to Agbor motor park and market to purchase school related items: uniforms, plates, spoon, fork, knife, Biro ball point pen, Bournvita (advertising slogan "Sleep sweeter, Bournvita"), Nescafe coffee, St. Louis sugar, Peak milk, Cabin biscuits, M & Ms Candy ("The milk chocolate melts in your mouth - not in your hand"), Horlicks ("Horlicks guards against night starvation"), towel, comb, Omo washing powder ("Omo adds brightness to whiteness"), a pair of sandals, tennis shoes, cutlasses. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven."
"The idea of assimilation is important when dealing with colonial education. Assimilation involves those who are colonized being forced to conform to the cultures and traditions of the colonizers. Gauri Viswanathan points out that "cultural assimilation (is)...the most effective form of political action" (Viswanthan 85). She continues with the argument that "cultural domination works by consent and often precedes conquest by force" (85). Colonizing governments realize that they gain strength not necessarily through physical control, but through mental control. This mental control is implemented through a central intellectual location, the school system. Kelly and Altbach state that "colonial schools,...sought to extend foreign domination and economic exploitation of the colony" (2). They find that "education in...colonies seems directed at absorption into the metropole and not separate and dependent development of the colonized in their own society and culture" (4). The process is an attempt to strip the colonized people away from their indigenous learning structures and draw them toward the structures of the colonizers.

"Much of the reasoning that favors such a learning system comes from supremacist ideas of leader colonizers. Thomas B. Macaulay asserts his viewpoints about a British colony, India, in an early nineteenth century speech. Macaulay insists that he has "never found one among them [Orientalists, an opposing political group] who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia". He continues stating, "It is, no exaggeration to say, that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England". The ultimate goal of colonial education might be deduced from the following statement by Macaulay: "We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect." While all colonizers may not have shared Macaulay's lack of respect for the existing systems of the colonized, they do share the idea that education is important in facilitating the assimilation process." -  John Southard, Fall 1997, Emory University

Dress white, speak white, sit white, act white...
Mission School, Ft. Totten Indian Agency, 1881 by F. Jay Haynes.

here we go: White woman teaches African-American children the "proper" ("white") way to chant, the "proper" way to sit, to dress, to be quiet, to fold their hands in obedience... (sorry about NBC's embedded adverts)

The conversion process, the "winning over" of a certain vulnerable group within the colonized happens many ways. It isn't just Deborah Kenny and her school and its celebration by Brian Williams. It's everywhere.

Here's a blogger discussing J. Crew advertising:
19th Century imagery
 "Whites saving Africans in danger. White school teacher saves the black kids from the ghetto, because you know black kids are always from the ghetto. White man steps onto an Indian Reservation and stumbles into a sweat lodge and discovers he’s a shaman and saves the tribe. White girl exposes the horrible work conditions of nannies in the mid-century South. The list goes on, and probably you’ve come to the conclusion that the image of the “White Savior” this is a personal pet peeve of mine. But the point of the story is there is a classic theme of Whites being the center of the story, in the J.Crew catalog you have White tourists being the center of what appears to be a celebration or a special occasion." Or, rushing back in time, "In South Africa in 1801 there was only one Hottentot who could read. Travellers thought that to civilise such savages was an impossible task. The missionary going forth to obey his Master's command " to preach the Gospel to every creature "has proved that the Word of God can reach and raise the lowest. It was not long, we are told, before " the Hottentot was seen poring over a tattered portion by the roadside, and the Kaffir shepherd on the veldt carried in his skin wallet a Testament, which he valued more than gold and silver."
21st Century imagery

Whether it is the Christian God, or the ability to read Roman alphabetical text (and thus be held more fully accountable for following the colonizers rules), or just buying the right clothes, "we" - the colonizers - make the wide world safe for trade and tourism and profit.

If Harlem is to truly be the fantasy land shown on Food Network Star - a Disney-like slightly ethnic space for the white and wealthy - Deborah Kenny's school is essential. "...education in ... colonies seems directed at absorption into the metropole and not separate and dependent development of the colonized in their own society and culture." The process is an attempt to strip the colonized people away from their indigenous learning structures and draw them toward the structures of the colonizers."

Colonies are, of course, not all external. The same intent which drove the English to outlaw the Welsh language in schools, the Irish language in schools, the Zulu or Swahili languages in schools, drove the Russians to try to wipe Ukrainian and many other internal languages during the Soviet era, drove Americans to attempt to drive out Native American languages in the "Indian Schools," drove Francisco Franco to attack Catalan and Basque during his Spanish dictatorship. And it is the same intent which drives the derision of indigenous speech patterns in contemporary America, from Spanglish to Black English.  That intent is to ensure that groups out of power begin school behind, and stay there. The cultural genocide is a by-product.

As Michelle Foster noted in 1992, the Kenny/KIPP/TFA model is designed to shatter the connection of African-American students to their community, while guaranteeing that these students remain behind the children of the dominant culture. "A failure to employ, "a culturally congruent approach to teaching" (King, J.E. 1991, King, S.H. 1993) that leads to what is then described as a "failure to learn" (King, 1991)."1

There are, despite what those in power suggest, other choices. There is what might be called "The Black Panther Model," but which, in a bid for less controversy, I call "The Bank of America Model." (a SpeEdChange Post) That is, the creation of parallel system for out-of-power groups so that wealth can be re-circulated and power developed. There is the George Bernard Shaw Pygmalion model (another SpeEdChange Post), the ability to see the attempted colonization and to break free from it. There is the forcible liberation through Romantic Nationalism - the opposite of the "Common Core" - as in Ireland's embrace of the ancient Irish language and Gaelic Games, or Israel's embrace of the even more (at the time) antiquated Hebrew.

But Deborah Kenny, Brian Williams, and Arne Duncan will deny all this, they will not even acknowledge it as possible, because it suggests the possibility of a much more complex world in which, perhaps, their skills and their genetics do not get a free ride.

I haven't expected any response to my complaints from Williams or NBC, or from Kenny. If any were to come it would be in the form of angry indignance anyway. How dare I challenge a saintly missionary... a widowed saintly missionary at that. She is, "making a difference," though they will have a tough time explaining what that difference is, beyond scoring well on tests designed by their friends.

In my Pygmalion post I began with this... "Wendy Hiller is brilliant in the 1938 film of [George Bernard] Shaw's play 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?"

I might ask Brian Williams to go back to Kenny's colonial outpost and ask the kids that question, or better yet, find them in 15 years and ask...

The Wind that Shakes the Barley, opening scenes

- Ira Socol

1. Foster, M. Sociolinguistics and the African-American Community: Implications for Literacy, 1992

06 June 2012


I came out of the pub, crossed the road which stretched in a pure straight line from horizon to horizon, and stood at the edge of a vast cold swale, the landscape feature which had once convinced earth-bound writers that this planet was crisscrossed by vast canals. Unlike the deep green of the terraformed environment at my back, what lay before me was unchanged from the days of the first NASA rovers, unchanged since further back than anyone could imagine.

Had I consumed less alcohol the wind might have stung, but it did not, and the grey sky swirled with the slight, threadlike clouds which always stretched above, and I stood there for a long time, the blown sands scouring my face...

Earth rises above the Martian landscape. NASA
I'm no Ray Bradbury, but I believe that I retain the "child-like" capacity to imagine. And to imagine in a way which is human-centered, not technology-centered.

"Mr. Bradbury referred to himself as an “idea writer,” by which he meant something quite different from erudite or scholarly. “I have fun with ideas; I play with them,” he said. “ I’m not a serious person, and I don’t like serious people. I don’t see myself as a philosopher. That’s awfully boring."' (The New York Times)

Unlike so much of science fiction, which endlessly halts the storyline to explain one technology or another, Bradbury was less interested in the rocket which got you to Mars than in how you'd behave when you got there. He was as interested in the wide range of human experience as he was in the morals of his stories. And he was as interested in how the structures of his writing and how it impacted understanding as he was in the storytelling itself: When you turn the page to Chapter 31 in Something Wicked This Way Comes(the first Bradbury book I remember listening to), you are faced with nothing but, "Nothing much else happened, all the rest of that night," and the tension of the preceding story arc pops like an overinflated balloon.

Bradbury understood technology as a tool, not an end, and he understood human environments in transcendent ways.

The Pedestrian: Illustration by Joseph Mugnaini
"To enter out into that silence that was the city at eight o'clock of a misty evening in November, to put your feet upon that buckling concrete walk, to step over grassy seams and make your way, hands in pockets, through the silences, that was what Mr. Leonard Mead most dearly loved to do. He would stand upon the corner of an intersection and peer down long moonlit avenues of sidewalk in four directions, deciding which way to go, but it really made no difference; he was alone in this world of A.D. 2053..." (The Pedestrian, 1951 pdf)

As I read of Bradbury's death on this 6th of June, I thought of how different his "imaginings" were than too many of ours. Though, "The 1953 release Fahrenheit 451- inspired by the Cold War, the rise of television and the author's passion for libraries - was an apocalyptic narrative of nuclear war abroad and empty pleasure at home, with firefighters assigned to burn books instead of putting blazes out. A futuristic classic often taught alongside George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Bradbury's novel anticipated iPods, interactive television, electronic surveillance and live, sensational media events" (Guardian/Press Association), Bradbury was not overly invested in describing what had replaced books, or even why. He did not worry about making books look like books on an iPad, he worried about the maintenance of human stories, and storytelling.

I say this here because I get very tired of people imagining our future schools and seeing specific products - products which sit on today's consumer shelves no less. I ask people to "dream," to "fantasize," and they all too often come back with iPads and laptops, with iBooks and YouTube. But we don't need an imagination - and we don't need schools - for those things. They're out there, and they are not even "new" anymore.

The point becomes obvious when you consider Bradbury's strongly held attitudes toward "schooling," "Mr. Bradbury himself disdained formal education. He went so far as to attribute his success as a writer to his never having gone to college. Instead, he read everything he could get his hands on, by authors including Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway. He paid homage to them in 1971 in the autobiographical essay “How Instead of Being Educated in College, I Was Graduated From Libraries.”' (The New York Times) He sought an education as widely ranging, as unfiltered, as possible. He did not want the imposed frames of textbooks and lectures, but instead sought to observe the world (see post below). He didn't want homework, and he wouldn't have wanted video homework either, he wanted what he found in the stacks of his beloved libraries - the chaotic way humans actually learn by leaping from topic to topic and interest to interest.

Mars is Heaven, Ray Bradbury Theater, see parts two and three
But that is not to suggest that Bradbury did not understand the power of any chosen medium. As with the "turn the page to Chapter 31," he could magnify the power of any method of storytelling. '"What I have always been is a hybrid author," Bradbury said in 2009. "I am completely in love with movies, and I am completely in love with theatre, and I am completely in love with libraries."' (Guardian/Press Association)

So, to celebrate the life of one of our greatest authors, begin to imagine. But do not assemble your fantasies from shelves stocked by Steve Jobs or Larry Page or Bill Gates or George Lucas, assemble them from dreams of education embedded deeply in humanity, in the people - the society - the culture - we want to be, and perhaps in the technologies we imagine our students inventing.

When you fantasize what school might be, don't begin with school
- Ira Socol

01 June 2012

Focused Chaos

When we created this video - Growing Iridescent Classrooms - we were really tapping into the basic learning idea of this century, an idea which has been growing and developing since the 1960s.

Growing Iridescent Classrooms
The ideas, in which 19th century factory production techniques are replaced by much free-er, much more human paradigms, might best be illustrated in the three videos below...

ABC's Nightline asks IDEO to recreate the shopping cart, 1999
There are a few phrases of vital importance in these videos. "Not organized chaos," IDEO's boss says, "focused chaos." For he finds too much organization self-defeating. You must "hire people who don't listen to you," he says, "but corporate America" - and I might add, most educational systems - "aren't ready for that." Ideas need "eclectic teams" - not all people with similar educational backgrounds, not all people with similar training. "In an innovative culture you can't have a hierarchy," he adds, noting that ideas flow from everybody.

We must get out into the world and observe, counting "seat time" is absurd. We must "have wild ideas. If everyone only came up with appropriate ideas, you wouldn't have any points to take from, to get to really innovative ideas." The team must do the evaluating. "Enlightened trial and error," "fail your way to success." Places of innovation are playful.

Now IDEO, and other groups, corporate and non-profit, from NASA to Data General, from Mozilla to Twitter, from Push Pin Studios to Xerox PARC, wherever true learning gets to run and move toward the future, we find the kind of chaos which allows new concepts to both emerge and be tested.

The era of the "open classroom" primary and "school-without-walls" secondary -
that much maligned time of "new math" and "whole language" - produced the thinkers
who revolutionized the world, creating Microsoft, Apple, Google, the supercomputer...
I was helping my sister's family move from California to Massachusetts when I entered my brother-in-law's new place of work. I entered a huge space filled with guys in shorts and T-shirts riding bikes and skateboards, laughing, yelling, throwing frisbees, footballs, baseballs... And I realized that this workplace, at that moment creating the world's most powerful computer, looked a whole lot more like my "free school" alternative high school than like any workplace for which the traditional classroom was prepping us.

I like this review of Tracy Kidder's capturingof the essence of that space...
"When you're young and you get interested in something, you get passionate about it. Maybe it's because you don't know the importance of money and responsibility yet, but you really get into a sport, or hobby, or any other interest, and you do that hobby or play that sport, you write stories or fix cars, making whatever sacrifices you need to just so you can do this thing you love, not because you want to make money at it, or gain respect or admiration, but because it gives you priceless rewards and satisfaction."

And that passion, that messy and barely controlled excitement, is what I see at places like Bridge21Learning, what I see at CoderDojos, what I see when I see kids at play, in fields, on streets, or online, what I see in good primary/elementary schools, but which I rarely see in secondary schools. - or in the often worthless virtual environments created by most educational software developers.

Play. Joy. Chaos. Argument. Movement. Absurdity. Laughter. Human Observation. These are all required parts of the kind of learning which leads to creation rather than replication.

Embracing the chaotic nature of learning... An Australian school at work
There's a point here. Schools must trust childhood and children. They must embrace the search-for-the-new of adolescence. They must stop trying to turn kids into compliant adults destined to build iPads for $8.00 a day. Instead they must help develop young adults who have kept their wonder and width of vision intact. Talking to Irish educators last month in Tipperary, I noted that their nation's exam driven secondary school system left Trinity College's Medical School with great test takers who were so clueless about the world that the first thing they need is art classes, so they can learn to see and describe. If Irish kids, or American kids, came out of secondary schools that looked a lot more like IDEO, that problem wouldn't exist. And, a whole lot more students would want to come to school, instead of trying to get out of it.

- Ira Socol