Neil Gaiman Should Be U.S. Secretary of Education: “Things can be different”

Some people view the world differently than others.

Some people view education and schools differently than others.

Some people view children, books, and libraries differently than others.

And then there is Neil Gaiman.

I have been a staunch defender of public education, writing often against the negative consequences of Common Core (especially as related to literacy instruction) and doggedly resisting non-educators as leaders of the education reform movement.

Despite my resistance to what I consider misguided reform as well as my skepticism about innovation and market forces, I have conceded a compromise on Common Core, along with a clarification about that compromise. The response to that compromise has been underwhelming.

However, I am now willing to offer another compromise; this time about the qualifications for who should be our leaders in education reform. While I still call for the removal of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, I am offering Neil Gaiman as the next Secretary of Education in the U.S.—and suggesting that this office be his for life.

I am basing this new compromise on a speech presented by Gaiman for the Reading Agency in London.

First, I must admit that it isn’t entirely fair to judge Gaiman on a speech he wrote himself as that compares to the speeches written for him Duncan delivers. It also isn’t quite fair to judge the positions of a beloved author against the panderings of a life-long political appointee. Certainly, Duncan is beholden to different constituencies than Gaiman.

But judge I have, and here are my conclusions.

Gaiman’s qualifications for Secretary of Education must begin with what his speech does not include: no discussion of “grit,” no chants of “no excuses,” no praising of innovation or bowing to the brave new world of technology, no calls for new standards, no urgency about new high-stakes tests.

Instead, Gaiman offers a genuine and compelling argument for the essential value in books, the power of fiction, and the sacred nature of libraries.

Unlike typical political discourse, Gaiman confesses upfront his prejudices:

And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I’m an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living though my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

So I’m biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen*.

Immediately, Gaiman shows his political acuity by noting the importance of investing in literacy as one strategy for decreasing the rise in prisons in the U.S.:

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. [1] And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

Gaiman even understands the difference between causation and correlation—a dramatic advantage over Secretaries of Education in the past two administrations.

But Gaiman shines best when he speaks about and to the essential value in reading, recognizing what the field of literacy has know for a century, at least—children are drawn to reading by being offered an abundance of books and allowed to read by choice:

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

It’s tosh**. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different.

We may be able to imagine, also, how Gaiman would react to Common Core and their “architect,” David Coleman:

And not everyone has the same taste as you.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

After an impassioned and thoughtful argument about science fiction (SF)—even China is on board with SF!—Gaiman turns to the power of libraries:

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky….

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

No, it seems, education reform should not be about new standards or new high-stakes tests—but about preserving and expanding children’s access to books. Education reform, it seems, isn’t buried inside the promise of new technology either:

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

Gaiman, we must note, is not being merely fanciful; he acknowledges the role of literacy in the world economy and the value in preparing younger generations for that world economy. But his commitments are distinct from the current calls for market forces and innovation.

In fact, Gaiman celebrates a different “I” word:

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

Along with “imagination,” Gaiman also speaks about our commitment to beauty and our shared democratic responsibilities. Fostering literacy in our children, he argues, is an obligation: “This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.”

Ultimately, Gaiman’s speech has inspired me to move outside my previous commitments to demanding that education reform be led by educators only. He has inspired me to imagine, and now I can join him in this belief:

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

* Keep in mind, Gaiman lives in Minnesota and one of his best novels is American Gods. I think we could expect Gaiman to be as passionate about the good ol’ U.S. of A. if given the opportunity.

** As a side note, the U.S. would benefit greatly from having an appointed official who would occasionally say “tosh.”

[1] Please see this clarification of Gaiman’s claim and the point of this blog.

14 thoughts on “Neil Gaiman Should Be U.S. Secretary of Education: “Things can be different””

  1. I’m going to require all of my preservice teachers to read his speech – I’ve been sharing it far and wide since it was published. But Secretary of Education… that would be phenomenal (although it would probably cut into his writing time).

  2. Some good thoughts to which I might add:
    1. Schools should facilitate not frustrate the propensity of human beings to continually learn and improve abilities.
    2. Hire the right teachers and principals the first time — those who can persist and succeed with at-risk students, work effectively with others and never quit until their students learn enough to become fully functioning citizens. There are proven instruments to help identify such candidates, but schools continue to hire rule-following, clock watching functionaries — people just like them.
    3. Give them a curriculum worth teaching and a school design that fosters real-time communication and teamwork among those pursuing educational excellence. The current factory-model high school where students change subjects, work groups and teachers every 45-90 minutes in response to a bell is an example of what will NOT engage most students. Another failed school design is the elementary and middle school that sells out recess, art, music and physical education in order to provide more time for reading and math instruction. Student scores and discipline rarely get better. But students in these miserable places do get bored, fat and disinterested in their future.

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