Humility: A Lesson Most Needed and Least Often Acknowledged

I have been a cyclist for almost 30 years now—longer than many of my cycling friends have been alive.

That hobby grew from a life-long quest to be the sort of athlete (and man) my father would respect. My father was a four-sport letterman in high school, captain of the first state championship football team in my home town. He was a small young man, but fierce and the sort of hard worker that made him a coach’s dream. By the time my father graduated high school in the 1950s, he had lost so many of his teeth that his dentist pulled the rest, and my father has had a full set of false teeth since his late teens.

I was never able to be more than a bench warmer on my school basketball teams, a marginally fair golfer, and briefly a triple jumper my senior year of high school. Mostly, though, I joke that I am a “try” athlete—and it is something I cannot let go, despite knowing without qualification that my father loves and respects me in the exact ways I have always wanted. Any perceptions of failure that exist between the two of us are entirely my insecurities.

My cycling life has had three stages—a beginning decade of learning to ride and race at a high level, a middle decade that was interrupted by my doctoral program and included years of mountain biking and a brief venture into running (a couple marathons and a half marathon), and then the most recent decade of yearly high mileage (7,000-10,000 miles per year) and my best performances as a cyclist despite my advancing age (for an athlete).

For more than half of the years of cycling, I have participated in the Assault on Mt. Mitchell, a 102-mile ride from Spartanburg, SC, to the top of Mt. Mitchell, the highest mountain peak east of the Mississippi. I had my best time, 5:57, at 46 and completed the event in the spring of 2013 as 86th out of 1100 starters.

Typically, in large amateur cycling events I place in the top 15% of entrants—and feel pretty good about these accomplishments.

As I sit writing this, I am on a cycling trip in Colorado, about to leave after a few days in Boulder for Frisco to ride the Copper Triangle ride this coming Saturday. The first half of this trip for me has been a brutal lesson in humility.

Although I have visited Colorado Springs several times in the past, this trip resulted in immediate altitude symptoms—a headache, lethargy, and the classic feeling of having the flu. The day after we arrived, we began riding around Boulder, and the symptoms have been pronounced on each ride.

The first ride was in chilly rain, and when the route turned up hill, I watched my two cycling friends ride away into the mist. The second ride headed to Flagstaff Mountain, resulting in yet another ride in rain and cold; but this time as my friends pedaled away from me I simply couldn’t continue up the climb. At the point when the Flagstaff climb turns to what locals call Super Flagstaff, with grades 15-20%, I shouted to one friend I wasn’t going farther up. I coasted back down to an overlook entrance and waited for them to finish the climb and roll my way.

I was angry, disappointed, exhausted, and most of all, embarrassed.

Yesterday, we headed to Estes Park for a 20-mile mountain climb to the highest point (over 12,000 feet) for a through road in the US. I wasn’t looking forward to yet another day of struggling, and possibly bailing out again.

As we neared the 12,000-feet mark, I was still lagging behind the other three riders, and my head ache returned along with dizziness. None of this boded well for over 2.5 hours of climbing at an altitude I had never experienced before.

It took a great deal of arguing with myself, but I finished the ride yesterday, although still slower than my friends. So far, then, this cycling trip to Colorado has been a series of lessons in humility.

And that has led me to think about the lack of humility found among public and political leadership focusing on schools in the US.

Those self-appointed leaders tend to embody a couple of characteristics: little or no experience or expertise in education and unwavering arrogance, an arrogance that they and the media flaunt.

Ben Folds has captured well the failure of such arrogance in his “Bastard”:

The old bastard left his ties and his suit
A brown box, mothballs and bowling shoes
And his opinion so you’d never have to choose
Pretty soon, you’ll be an old bastard too
You get smaller as the world gets big
The more you know you know you don’t know shit
“The Whiz Man” will never fit you like “The Whiz Kid” did

The refrain to this song speaks potentially to those edu-leaders and their arrogance, and thus failure to exhibit humility:

So why you gotta act like you know when you don’t know?
It’s OK if you don’t know everything

I am well past the 10,000-hour mark needed for expertise as a cyclist (popularized by Malcolm Gladwell). I have a great deal of skill and knowledge as a cyclist, although I also have a pretty low genetic ceiling in terms of how I can perform as a cyclist (a ceiling dropping in on me as I grow older each day).

The Cycling Gods and Altitude Gods have spoken loud and clear to me in the last few days. It is my duty to listen.

The list of what public schools need in the US is long and complex, but a great starting point would be lessons in humility for those who have decided they know best when all the evidence suggests otherwise.

“The Deliberately Silenced, or the Preferably Unheard”

No rhetorical sleight of words should mask that Trayvon Martin was a son. He had parents.

No rhetorical sleight of words should allow us to ignore that any child is everyone’s child.

Trayvon Martin was killed in part because he was reduced to a stereotype, and after his death, Trayvon was again reduced—often by well-meaning people—to an icon, the hoodie.

In his death, as well, Trayvon has been spoken about, spoken for—and I am compelled to argue that he has also been rendered voiceless.

But, as Arundhati Roy has explained, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

I am also compelled to speak beyond Trayvon, about “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard” Others, African American males.

At mid-twentieth century, as the US was fighting against its racist heritage, African American males demanded to be heard—Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and many others took the stage as artists, public intellectuals, and civic leaders.

Wright’s Black Boy and Ellison’s Invisible Man represent in fictional narrative a powerful and disturbing image of the African American male; for Ellison, the guiding metaphor of that narrative is invisibility. The killing of Trayvon and the subsequent trial may suggest that African American males no longer suffer from invisibility but from how they are seen, how they are silenced, and how they are unheard: Trayvon seen (and reduced) as black male, thus necessarily a thug, a threat, and then Trayvon, the hoodie, the icon of the disposable African American male.

The fact of being seen and reduced as African American males are too often results in violent deaths and prison. And the intersection of race, class, and gender with education has paralleled the rise of mass incarceration over the past thirty-plus years.

Just as Wright’s and Ellison’s fiction captures the African American male experience at mid-twentieth century, continuing to speak to the complex and entrenched conditions that contributed to Trayvon’s killing, Ellison’s and Baldwin’s concerns about the failure of education to see clearly and holistically—and humanely—African American males remain ominous and powerful messages in 2013.

In 1963, Ellison spoke to teachers:

At this point it might be useful for us to ask ourselves a few questions: what is this act, what is this scene in which the action is taking place, what is this agency and what is its purpose? The act is to discuss “these children,” the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again. But the matter of scene seems to get us into trouble.

Ellison recognized the stigma placed on African American students, a deficit view of both an entire race and their potential intelligence (marginalized as insufficient language skills):

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church.

But Ellison rejected this deficit perspective: “Thus we must recognize that the children in question are not so much “culturally deprived” as products of a different cultural complex”:

As we approach the dropouts, let us identify who we are and where we are. Let us also have a little bit of respect for what we were and from whence we came. There is a bit of the phony built into every American. This is inevitable in a conscious society that has developed as swiftly as ours has. We are faced with endless possibilities for change, for metamorphosis. We change our environment, our speech, our styles of living, our dress, and often our values. So, in effect, we become somebody else–or so we are tempted to believe–and often we act as though we have no connection with our past. We are all tempted to become actors, and when we forget who we are and where we are from, our phony selves take command.

Finally, Ellison demanded that the human dignity of all children be honored:

I don’t know what intelligence is. But this I do know, both from life and from literature: whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, “I don’t give a damn.” You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot. If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.

Baldwin addressed teachers in that same year, 1963: “Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.  Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that.  We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country.  The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within.”

Then, Baldwin unmasked the cruel tension between the promise of universal public education and the inequity found in the lives of African American children:

Now, if what I have tried to sketch has any validity, it becomes thoroughly clear, at least to me, that any Negro who is born in this country and undergoes the American educational system runs the risk of becoming schizophrenic.  On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the stars and stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war.  He pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees “liberty and justice for all.”  He is part of a country in which anyone can become president, and so forth.  But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization – that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.  He is assumed by the republic that he, his father, his mother, and his ancestors were happy, shiftless, watermelon-eating darkies who loved Mr. Charlie and Miss Ann, that the value he has as a black man is proven by one thing only – his devotion to white people.  If you think I am exaggerating, examine the myths which proliferate in this country about Negroes….

The point of all this is that black men were brought here as a source of cheap labor.  They were indispensable to the economy.  In order to justify the fact that men were treated as though they were animals, the white republic had to brainwash itself into believing that they were, indeed, animals and deserved  to be treated like animals.  Therefor it is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history.  The reason is that this “animal,” once he suspects his own worth, once he starts believing that he is a man, has begun to attack the entire power structure.  This is why America has spent such a long time keeping the Negro in his place.  What I am trying to suggest to you is that it was not an accident, it was not an act of God, it was not done by well-meaning people muddling into something which they didn’t understand.  It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh.  And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.

Ultimately, education, for Baldwin, is revolutionary, an act of social justice:

I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.  It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.  And on the basis of the evidence – the moral and political evidence – one is compelled to say that this is a backward society.  Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them –  I would try to make them know – that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.  I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him.  I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that his is stronger than this conspiracy and they he must never make his peace with it.  And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth.  I would teach him that there are currently very few standards in this country which are worth a man’s respect.

No rhetorical sleight of words should mask that Trayvon Martin was a son. He had parents.

No rhetorical sleight of words should allow us to ignore that any child is everyone’s child.

However if the killing of Trayvon does not haunt us, if the killing of Trayvon slips beneath the next tragedy-of-the-moment—as the Sandy Hook shooting has beneath the Zimmerman trial—then society and schools will continue to be mechanisms that shackle “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

And I suppose that is ultimately the cruel paradox, rendering Trayvon a ghost in this American house he was never allowed to enter, invisible again as Ellison’s unnamed narrator.

NYT’s Foul Tip on Paul Vallas

In the NYT, Javier C. Hernandez examines embattled Paul Vallas in Connecticut, opening with:

Paul G. Vallas, a leader in the effort to shake up American education, has wrestled with unions in Chicago, taken on hurricane-ravaged schools in New Orleans and confronted a crumbling educational system in Haiti.

Now he faces what may be his most vexing challenge yet: Fending off a small but spirited crowd of advocates working to unseat him as superintendent of one of Connecticut’s lowest-performing and highest-poverty school districts.

“Leader,” “vexing,” “fending,” “spirited”? Not to worry, folks, the NYT doesn’t exactly strike out, but, at best, this column is a foul tip—nowhere near a solid single, or even a bunt.

The media, once again, falls into the trap of buying hook, line, and sinker the “savior reformer” bait cast by Vallas, Michelle Rhee, and Bill Gates.

You see, only a few brave souls dare to stand up against that pesky public education status quo, kept alive by those evil unions and greedy teachers.

And now poor Vallas is next in line to suffer the wrath of that status quo:

Mr. Vallas, who has moved to impose a standardized curriculum and to reorganize central offices in Bridgeport, said he was dismayed by the vitriol. On blogs, which he calls “electronic graffiti,” his critics have called him a racist and compared him to the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The school district’s student population is 49 percent Hispanic and 39 percent black.

“There are some gigantic egos in this town,” Mr. Vallas said in an interview. “No good deed goes unpunished.”

“Gigantic egos”? [One must wonder is Vallas owns a mirror.] “Electronic graffitti”?

Not to worry, however, appointee Arne Duncan to the rescue!:

Arne Duncan, the federal education secretary, said the opposition to Mr. Vallas was “beyond ludicrous.” He said too many school districts were afraid of innovation, clinging to “archaic ideas.”

“This, to me, is just another painfully obvious, crystal-clear example of people caught in an old paradigm,” Mr. Duncan said in an interview. “This is the tip of the iceberg.”

The Duncan/Vallas allegiance is interesting because the two men have something in common—what they lack:

Mr. Vallas had a vulnerability: despite his decades of experience in schools and a master’s degree in political science, he lacked a degree in education, as required by Connecticut law. The state allowed for an exemption, but Mr. Vallas was required to complete a condensed version of the traditional 13-month certification program over the course of several months. “I didn’t view it cynically and I didn’t complain,” Mr. Vallas said.

Never-been-a-teacher appointee rushes to the aid of never-been-a-teacher appointee. Sounds like a great plot for a Lifetime Movie.

And that movie would have a heart-wrenching message about perseverance in the face of failure:

Mr. Vallas, 60, is a onetime politician who came within two percentage points of defeating Rod R. Blagojevich in a primary for the Illinois governor’s office in 2002. He said he did not know what he would do after Bridgeport, though he ruled out a return to politics. He runs an educational consulting business on the side. His clients have included schools in Illinois and Indiana.

That’s right. If you can’t be a politician, be a political appointee—and be sure to seek out education where the public funds are ripe for the picking (Vallas makes $234,000 a year, but that is small potatoes to the span of his “career” in education).