New from Sense: Fantasy Literature: Challenging Genres

New from Sense

Fantasy Literature: Challenging Genres

Free Preview Fantasy Literature Fantasy Literature

Fantasy literature, often derided as superficial and escapist, is one of the most popular and enduring genres of fiction worldwide. It is also—perhaps surprisingly—thought-provoking, structurally complex, and relevant to contemporary society, as the essays in this volume attest. The scholars, teachers, and authors represented here offer their perspectives on this engaging genre.

Listening to Langston Hughes about “Make America Great Again”

When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.

Bayard Rustin

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

George Carlin

When I met with my first-year writing seminar, Reconsidering James Baldwin in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter, this Monday, I noted that the weekend had provided for us local and national examples of why the course matters: locally, one high school restricted students from having U.S. flags at a football game because of patterns of using that flag to taunt and harass rival students who are Latinx/Hispanic, and nationally, Colin Kaepernick was questioned about his sitting during the National Anthem at the beginning of NFL preseason games.

As entry points into the work of Baldwin as well as the long history of racism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, I read aloud and we discussed Langston Hughes‘s “Theme for English B” [1] and “Let America Be America Again.”

71ydyr1uqol
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

I stressed to these first-year college students that Hughes lived and wrote in the early to mid-1900s—nearly a century ago in terms of the college student personae in “Theme for English B.”

As we examined the professor/student and race-based aspects of power in “Theme,” students were quick to address the relevance of Hughes today—emphasizing as well part of my instructional purpose to expose these students to the lingering and historical racism in the U.S.

But the real meat of this class session revealed itself as we explored “Let America Be America Again.”

Hughes: “(America never was America to me.)”

Written and published about 80 years ago, “Let America Be America Again” represents a racialized dismantling of the American Dream myth—a poetic companion to the skepticism and cynicism of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other writers/artists works throughout the early to mid-twentieth century.

Hughes begins with a celebratory stanza that easily lulls readers into an uncritical response to the American Dream, but then offers a brilliant device, the use of parentheses, to interject a minority voice (parenthetical, thus representing the muted voices of the marginalized in the U.S.) after several opening stanzas:

(America never was America to me.)…

(It never was America to me.)…

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

And then the poem turns on two italicized lines followed by:

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

My students soon recognized a disturbing paradox: Hughes and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan share a foundational claim but for starkly different reasons.

Trump has built political capital on anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim (both as “Others”) sentiment that the media and pundits often mask behind what is being called legitimate white working-class angst.

Parallel racist anger has been sparked when Michelle Obama, for example, confronted that the White House was built in part with slave labor—raising the issue of just who did build this country. Upon whose backs? we must ask.

Eight volatile decades ago, Hughes named “the poor white, fooled and pushed apart” now courted by Trump’s coded and blatant racism and xenophobia.

However, Hughes’s poem celebrates the diverse workers who created the U.S. while reaping very little if any of the benefits. Hughes offers a different coded assault, his on capitalism and the ruling elites, but not the rainbow of U.S. workers “fooled,” it seems, by the hollow promise of the American Dream.

In Whitmanesque style, Hughes raises throughout the poem a collective voice of immigrants and slaves as the foundation of the U.S.:

I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

But as he returns to the poem’s refrain, Hughes unmasks the promise and tempers the hope:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

In the final stanza, there is hope, built on “We, the people, must redeem.”

In a time of Trump’s cartoonish stereotype of the empty politician, his “Built a Wall” and “Make America Great Again” sloganism, we must reach back almost a century to Hughes’s often ignored voice that merges races through our shared workers’ remorse.

Hughes calls out the robber baron tradition of U.S. capitalism—”those who live like leeches on the people’s lives”—as the “fooled and pushed apart” line up to support those very leeches.

“Let America Be America Again” is a warning long ignored, but truths nonetheless facing us. Silence and inaction are endorsements of these truths.

“To be afraid,” Bayard Rustin acknowledged, “is to behave as if the truth were not true.”

It remains to be seen if we are brave enough as a people to “Let America Be America Again.”


[1] See also Revisiting “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes.

Allegory of the Life Jackets

In Randlandia—people of the Pearl Clan and the Onyx Clan—each morning all the children gathered at the Great Pool for Lessons.

Once, the Tribe of Rosewater—a nomadic people without clans—wandered into Randlandia, and since Lessons at the Great Pool were an honored Tradition of Randlandia, the Tribe of Rosewater was invited to gather and watch.

Children of the Pearl Clan arrived in bathing suits and Life Jackets, slipping into the water and swimming about gracefully and quickly as if this is what they were meant to do.

Children of the Onyx Clan came to the Great Pool with bathing suits only, no Life Jackets—and they gathered in a tight bobbing mass, treading water as the children of the Pearl Clan darted and glided here and there around the Great Pool.

A member of the Tribe of Rosewater asked a member of Randlandia, smiling with pride as they watched the Lessons, “What do you do for the children of the Onyx Clan?”

“What do you mean?” came the blank reply.

“That these children must tread water while the children of the Pearl Clan have Life Jackets,” explained the member of the Tribe of Rosewater in a voice filled with compassion.

“Let me show you,” followed with a finger upraised. “Children of the Onyx Clan, what have you learned?”

In unison and loudly while treading water dutifully, the children of the Onyx Clan chanted, “Treading water is not an excuse!”

The Randlandian beamed with pride and added: “We are instilling grit in the children of the Onyx Clan so that they too someday can glide through the water as effortlessly as these children of the Pearl Clan!”

“But—” stammered the member of the Tribe of Rosewater, “but that is cruel and unfair.”

And this was the day new words were brought to the people of Randlandia by the Tribe of Rosewater—”cruel” and “unfair.”

South Carolina Changes Scale, Shocked at Same Outcomes

Education reform in South Carolina—just like the rest of the U.S.—suffers from a tragic lack of imagination: SC has changed the standards and high-stakes tests during thirty years of accountability about seven times, but the outcomes continue to be disappointing.

This proves that even in the South we are immune to our own cleverness: You can weigh a pig, but it won’t make the pig fatter.

The education reform version of that is that you can keep changing the tests, but the scores are going to tell you the same thing.

Deanna Pan, as a consequence, offers this “sky is falling” of the moment about public schools in SC, Only 14 percent of S.C. graduates are ready for college, according to ACT [1]:

Results on the ACT college entrance exam show recent South Carolina high school graduates are woefully unprepared for college, despite their ambitions for postsecondary education.

Only 14 percent of 51,000 students tested statewide who graduated this year met the ACT’s “college readiness” benchmarks in all four of the exam’s subject areas — English, math, science and reading — yet 83 percent of test takers indicated they wanted to go on to college.

Even more staggering, just 2 percent of black students met the ACT’s benchmarks in all four sub-tests, compared with 9 percent of Latinos, 21 percent of whites and 33 percent of Asians.

After I talked with Pan by phone for 15-20 minutes, here is what made it to her article:

Paul Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University, said these results should be “taken with a grain of salt.” Without multiple years of testing data to compare with this year’s batch of scores, he said it’s difficult to draw any definitive conclusions, particularly about the performance of the state’s black students who disproportionately attend high-poverty schools with less access to advanced curriculum and veteran teachers.

“All standardized testing is still extremely biased by race, social class and gender,” Thomas said. “(These results) are more of a reflection of systemic problems, not with students.”

Just for clarities sake—since several charter school advocates took to Twitter to attack me by misrepresenting the above in order to promote charter schools, which annually prove to be no better than traditional public schools in SC—my caution focuses on interpreting ACT scores from one year of data after SC has over the past few years adopted Common Core and the related tests, dropped Common Core, renamed what are essentially Common Core standards to look as if we have our own state standards, and then adopted ACT as our annual testing.

In other words, my concern about shouting that the sky is falling based on the new ACT scores includes the following:

  • The data are certainly depressed due to the curricular/standards shuffling across the state over the past 3-4 years.
  • ACT tests, like all standardized tests, remain more strongly correlated with race, social class, and gender than the quality of the schools or teachers.
  • Virtually all shifts to new high-states standardized tests necessarily begin with a drop in scores; and thus, my point about the need to wait for several years of data.

However, my key point of emphasis, regretfully, during my interview with Pan was omitted: The ACT results are nothing new since SC has a long history of having low, if not the lowest, tests scores in the U.S. (notably our demoralizing residency in the basement of the discredited practice of journalists ranking states by SAT scores), but the single most important lesson from this data is that SC has yet to address the equity gap in the lives and education of vulnerable children.

To persist with misnomers such as the “achievement gap” is to keep our eyes on the outcomes while ignoring the root causes of those outcomes.

SC has spent three decades changing standards, tests, and accountability mandates, but refuses to address directly the race and class inequities facing our state and those same inequities reflected in our schools (both traditional and charter).

Ultimately, then, I am not trivializing that these current ACT scores paint a grim picture about SC education—especially as that relates to black, brown, and poor students—but I am emphasizing that we did not need yet more data from a different test to tell us what we have known and ignored for decades: social and educational inequity is cheating those black, brown, and poor students, and our obsession with changing standards and tests fails to address the root equity problems reflected in low test scores.

The real failure in education reform lies in the ideology of the education reformers, including those committed to accountability, school choice, and charter schools—none of which addresses the root causes directly and all of which increase the actual problems.

As Paul Gorski explains:

It also is why as a teacher educator I attend to ideology. No set of curricular or pedagogical strategies can turn a classroom led by a teacher with a deficit view of families experiencing poverty into an equitable learning space for those families (Gorski 2013; Robinson 2007)….

Just as importantly, what realities does deficit ideology obscure and to what are we not responding when we respond through deficit ideology? Can we expect to eradicate outcome disparities most closely related to the barriers and challenges experienced by people experiencing poverty by ignoring those barriers and challenges – the symptoms of economic injustice?

The lamented results of the recent ACT is not a new revelation, but the callous responses by some who say poverty is an excuse are predictable and remain inexcusable.

The implication of weighing a pig doesn’t make a pig fatter is crucial in our debates about low test scores. That implication is about the need to feed the pig, a metaphor for addressing root causes.

While problematic, recent research suggests that even when some schools can raise test scores, those higher scores do not translate into benefits once students enter the real world. In other words, if education is to have real life-long positive consequences, we must address a wide range of complex root causes and school practices in order to insure equity of opportunity—which unlike test scores is more likely to produce life-long benefits.

In short, instead of changing tests and increasing test-prep, which disproportionately impacts negatively our vulnerable student populations, we need social reform that erases food, health, and work insecurity, and we need education reform that addresses equity of opportunity (for vulnerable students that includes access to experienced and certified teachers as well as access to challenging courses and then affordable college)—and not more accountability driven by ever-new standards and ever-new tests.

If anyone needed the recent ACT scores to confront that our schools, like our society, is negligent with black, brown, and poor students, that is news and cringe worthy.

Now, the real question is, who is willing to do something different and directly about the inequity?


[1] Let’s take a glance at what may be meant by taking this data with a grain of salt.

First, while poverty correlates strongly with standardized test scores, no one claims it is a perfect correlation. If you want to suggest that Tennessee calls into question SC’s low scores, you have to acknowledge that Nevada makes SC scores look quite differently. So only highlighting the TN/SC comparison is the discredited practice of cherry-picking (don’t trust people who cherry pick).

Next, among these 20 states we have no clarification on (1) how many years has the state been using this ACT test (the more years, the higher the scores, typically [reliability]), and (2) how well does this test correlate with what teachers have taught the students over 10-11 years of schooling [validity] (most of which could not have been correlated with this test).

Therefore, ACT test scores tell us about socioeconomic status, race, gender, and test validity/reliability—all of which are not about student learning, teacher quality, or school quality.

Ultimately, however, low ACT scores in SC this year are well within the historical data from every single different standardized test we have ever implemented. That is the lesson—one that I detail above we have no urge to address.

Average composite scores by states requiring ACT (see page 14 here) || Poverty Rank/Percentage

Minnesota 21.1 || 7/ 11.4%

Illinois 20.8  || 24/14.3%

[National Composite Score 20.8]

Colorado 20.6  ||  13/12.1%

Wisconsin 20.5  ||  18/13.2%

Michigan 20.3  || 33/16.2%

Montana 20.3  ||  27/15.2%

North Dakota 20.3  || 5/11.1%

Missouri 20.2  || 30/15.5%

Utah 20.2  12/11.8%

Arkansas 20.2  || 46/18.7%

Kentucky 20.0  || 47/19%

Wyoming 20.0  || 3/10.6%

Tennessee 19.9 || 41/18.2%

Louisiana 19.5  || 49/19.9%

Alabama 19.1  || 48/19.2%

North Carolina 19.1  || 39/17.2%

Hawaii 18.7  ||  9/11.5%

South Carolina 18.5  || 40/17.9%

Mississippi 18.4  || 51/21.9%

Nevada 17.7  || 29/15.4%

Regret

To live is to fail and even to hurt other people—especially the ones you care about, love singularly.

If existential philosophy taught me anything—or to be more accurate, if I recognized in existential philosophy a Truth also in my bones—it has been that our passions are our sufferings; they are inseparable.

To care is to hurt—both as the agent of inflicting hurt and as the recipient of the feelings of being hurt.

But this exploration of regret is not about these tremendous failures, these regrets that are many for me that have been how I have hurt the ones I love.

This is about regret more mundane although no less significant.

My teenaged years of typical angst and self-consciousness were intensified by discovering over the summer between my 8th and 9th grade years that I had scoliosis, resulting in my being fitted for and then wearing throughout the next four years a very visible and restrictive body brace designed to allow my spine to heal itself so that I could avoid very invasive back surgery.

My parents almost immediately began to seek ways to help me navigate this traumatic experience during what were formative, and difficult years. One strategy included my becoming a collector of comic books.

Comic books became my escape, but in an unpredictable way, since I often stood at the end of our bar separating the kitchen and the living room in order to trace and then draw from the comics. Standing, because the brace encased my entire pelvis and anchored my head with three metal rods, was my new state of rest.

For years, I taught myself how to draw superhero comics. I even still have this work from the late 1970s, such as these:

_STH8389

_STH8390

_STH8392

By college, I had drifted to drawing mostly nudes, typically from magazines young men are apt to hide in their bedrooms. But throughout these years, I was teaching myself, and more or less, fumbling through without the sort of foundations in art that I really needed.

I think I had a proclivity, but one never nurtured.

When friends in college discovered I could draw, I was “commissioned” to draw nudes (often), and then after they saw the album covers I had painted on our dorm cinder-block walls, rooms throughout the dorm had similar purposeful graffiti.

It didn’t happen this way, but it feels as if it did. Life is always more gradual, but in our recreations we love the definitive.

At the end of my sophomore year of college, we discovered everyone with my album cover paintings on their walls were going to be fined by housing—so we spray painted over these frantically in the final days of the semester.

And this was the end of my life as a visual artist.

Becoming an adult, a responsible adult, took over. I had to have a career, and I had to get married, have a job, and do life as everyone expected.

Therein lies the regret—but not that I did any of that since setting out dutifully to be an adult has resulted in my daughter and granddaughter as well as a wonderful dual career as teacher/writer that I could have never predicted—and would never relinquish if I could start over.

The regret is becoming so entrapped in the practical—I dropped pursuing visual art because it wasn’t going to be my career—that I lost part of myself, parts of myself.

My visual artist life is now indirect; I follow artists on Instagram, and I covet their work and their lives.

I lust, I long, I pine.

So my regret of a mundane kind—paling still to the regrets of hurting others—is that I allowed the frantic Siren’s call to become the adult expected of me drown out my own voice, my own coming to recognize who I am, instead of who I should be.

Albert Camus reimagines “The Myth of Sisyphus,” explaining, “His rock is his thing.”

Camus guides his readers to Sisyphus pausing at his task, his seemingly futile hell of rolling the rock up the mountain only to have it roll back down for him to push up again, and again, and again.

Yet, as Camus concludes:

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Regret of the kind that is not from hurting another is our inability, our refusal to recognize our thing—and then to embrace it as our happiness.

Our thing includes “the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth,” suffering, but it is not ours to seek ways to avoid human suffering, but like Sisyphus, to commit to it with all our body and heart.

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Ryan Lochte

At our faculty retreat focusing on diversity, a few lessons grew spontaneously from the keynote and related break-out sessions.

One lesson at the individual level exposed blind spots among faculty related to how language offends, the relationship between intent and impact, and a not-so-veiled resistance to listening and then acting on expanding diversity through culturally responsive behavior among faculty with privilege.

Another lesson at the systemic level was a confrontation of the chasm between words and action: what we say matters, but what we fund and how we act ultimately determine if those words are veneer or genuine principles.

My university is a selective liberal arts college that is a microcosm of the larger tensions of culture and diversity facing the U.S.

White heterosexual male privilege dominates (and even fuels) both our wider society as well as any insular community or institution within our society. James Baldwin deconstructed throughout his career how whiteness and blackness inform each other while whiteness seeks always to keep itself central to the American Way.

As Baldwin argued about language:

Now, I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any black people in the United States, but they would not sound the way they sound….

The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

Today, for example, as #BlackLivesMatter rose out of tragedy after tragedy, the narcissism of whiteness has created a backlash that demands attention to how working-class whites have suffered.

And then, on a smaller scale, during the 2016 Rio Olympics—a time ripe with amazing accomplishments by black athletes from the U.S.—we have been handed Ryan Lochte, a case of arrested development as a consequence of privilege.

Somehow we will not address the white gaze, and we are also committed to keeping the gaze of concern on whiteness because, you know, frat-boy life is funny even when guys are biologically grown:

Cause 32-year-old kids just want to have fun.

But the lesson that perpetually faces us isn’t funny at all. There are dire consequences.

In the U.S., we persist in creating and protecting at all cost these lives:

57b8d8b21700001108c74736

920x920-1

57b8a0d01700002c00d2008c

And we declare in the most calloused ways possible that these lives do not matter:

jordan_davis

cleveland-web3-blog427

trayvonmartinhooded

Mustn’t there be a time of reckoning for a people who see 32-year-old Lochte as a kid just trying to have fun but turn a blind eye to the execution of Tamir Rice, an actual child?

As Baldwin understood all too well, however, lessons remain wasted on those unwilling to learn:

And, after all, finally, in a country with standards so untrustworthy [emphasis added], a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities [emphasis added], a country unable to face why so many of the nonwhite are in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets—it may very well be that both the child, and his elder, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little.

Teacher Education and A Call to Activism

If such a thing existed, education as a profession and discipline would easily take Gold, Silver, and Bronze in the Low Self-Esteem Olympics.

Historically viewed as a woman’s profession—and thus a “second” salary—and as merely a professional discipline, education has labored under a secondary status in both the professional and academic worlds.

As a result, education chose early to be a scientific profession and discipline to counter the perception of softness—and thus, as Kliebard details, the heart and soul of education (child-centered commitments and social activism) were marginalized for the more conservative and “hard” elements (efficiency and core curriculum).

In the early decades of the twentieth century, then, a paradox developed: while many who demonized and championed education associated U.S. public schools with John Dewey, the reality was that very little progressivism was practiced but that standardized testing was established as the engine driving the education machine.

Throughout the twentieth century, IQ testing and then the SAT and similar gate-keeping standardized tests (such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills) significantly influenced how students were labeled and then what courses students were assigned—and even if they had real access to higher education. By the early 1980s, a new era of hyper-accountability was established within which the locus of power shifted entirely to standards and high-stakes tests.

In short, teachers have been reduced to implementing the standards prescribed for them and to conducting test-prep—while the discipline of education has been almost entirely bureaucratized since education courses serve as vehicles for fulfilling certification and accreditation mandates.

In the Preface to Regenerating the Philosophy of Education (edited by Kincheloe and Hewitt, Peter Lang USA, 2011), Hewitt confesses:

Seriously. I never thought I would ever have to justify the moral importance of social foundations courses—particularly philosophy of education courses—in Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs to a committee of colleagues, all holding Ph.Ds. (p. ix)

What Hewitt and the volume are addressing, however, is the new reality about teacher education: education philosophy and foundations courses are disappearing (are gone) because more and more course work in education degrees has to fulfill demands of certification and accreditation.

No more Dewey, Greene, and Freire. But a relentless drumbeat of validity, reliability, teacher impact, and rubrics (my God, the rubrics).

Teacher educators, teacher candidates, and practitioners—all are now not in the business of investigating and building/re-building the profession and discipline of education, but are soldiers taking marching orders from bureaucrats and technocrats.

No more “What is the purpose of universal public education in a free society?” but instead “How do we raise test scores among poor and black/brown students?”

And as I have pointed out before, among those of us in teacher education—who work in higher education where many of us have tenure and are full professors“we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Teacher education has continued the most self-defeating aspects of being a low self-esteem profession and discipline by trying way too hard to prove we are like “hard” disciplines—scrambling to be like psychology while sacrificing our sociological roots, battering our majors and candidates with statistics and measurement while reducing educational philosophy to surveys at best and eliminating it entirely at worst.

And to drift a bit into irony, philosophy is extremely illustrative of the problem facing education. Gilles Deleuze explains:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family. The family is an “interior,” in crisis like all other interiors—scholarly, professional, etc. The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms [emphasis added]: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….

In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again [emphasis added] (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. (pp. 3-4, 5)

Education, then, as bureaucratic and technocratic has characteristics of both societies of control and disciplinary societies—”always starting again” and “never finished with anything” as characteristics of the accountability paradigm driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests.

But for all the bluster about being “scientific” and the relentless mantra of “crisis,” bureaucratic and technocratic education has failed to examine the data and re-evaluate the process: after nearly a century of standardized testing and over three decades of accountability, most “problems” all of that has been fashioned to address remain the same: poverty and inequity, racism, sexism, and homophobia still plague society and the schools designed to serve and even change that society.

The short version is that bureaucratic and technocratic education has not worked—except to destroy the heart and soul of education as a profession and discipline.

At both the K-12 and higher education levels, the school year is beginning all across the U.S. We in teacher education are spending much if not most of our time as soldiers in the certification and accreditation wars—recalibrating syllabi to standards and rewriting our rubrics to meet those new standards as well.

We in teacher education are so busy complying to bureaucratic and technocratic mandates, and so-long beaten down by the demand that we avoid being political (and thus remain compliant and silent), that we are embodying the very caricature of what educators and education professors are, paradoxically, as we rush to prove our profession and discipline are “hard,” scientific: rarely scholarly, superficial, and simplistic. 

K-12 teachers are increasingly even less powerful than the profession has been forever; therefore, teacher education—where we are tenured and full professors—is the last best hope for reclaiming the heart and soul of universal public education from the bureaucrats and technocrats.

We must reclaim the coursework and the discipline—ripping off our low self-esteem and standing proudly with our philosophy, theory, history, and methodology.

As a profession, education is a human endeavor, guided by our hearts and anchored by our souls. Teaching daily is messy, unpredictable, and chaotic.

None of that is “soft,” or hedging accountability.

As a discipline, education is rich and still in a constant state of becoming.

I cannot stress enough that over a thirty-plus-year career as first a public school English teacher and now a teacher educator, I don’t need standards, I don’t need tests, and I damn well don’t need rubrics to teach.

I do need students, and I do need courses to teach.

But these are trivial matters, irrelevant, as long as teacher educators remain dedicated soldiers in the bureaucratic and technocratic education war.

Now, we do need defectors, conscientious objectors—teacher educators willing to resist, to speak up, and act out.

Especially those of us with tenure and who are full professors, we need not be the enemy—we can and should do better.

 

Recommended: The Brave and The Beautiful of Hera Lindsay Bird and Mary Ruefle

…the dream of all poetry, to cut a hole in time.

“I Remember, I Remember,” Mary Ruefle

In many ways as a writer, I am a coward.

And in all ways, I worship and am deeply jealous of rock stars, actors, and professional writers—for the freedoms they live as a consequence of their gifts turned into professions.

I am idealizing, of course, but that is how we dream, right?

And then one day not too long ago, I came across ‘s poetry. My first experience was Keats is Dead so Fuck me From Behind. I was immediately enamored and could only think “brave.”

I read it over and over and then began my usual online stalking, finding other poems and realizing she is on Twitter.

And so when I read poetry that triggers in me my Kafka rule* for literature, I am also gifted in my own writing—so from Bird’s bravery, I wrote chrysalis (i hold my words in awe), tiptoeing myself into the shallow waters of bravery.

But Bird has proven today to be the gift that keeps on giving—Tweeting out a poem by Mary Ruefle, Snow, which added to “bravery” what I also see in Bird, “beautiful”:

…I would like to be in the classroom — for I am
a teacher — and closing my book stand up, saying
“It is snowing and I must go have sex, good-bye,”
and walk out of the room….

For the umpteenth time a few nights ago, I was watching Notting Hill and crying on the couch alone because there are moments of poetry in that, I think.

All sorts of art, when brave and beautiful, help us appreciate this delicate thing called living, nurtured as it is by this impossible thing called loving.

So this is my way of paying it forward—from Bird and Ruefle to you, dear readers.

Please explore Bird and Ruefle:

The fearless poetry of Hera Lindsay Bird, Felicity Monk

Interview: Hera Lindsay Bird

Hera Lindsay Bird (website)

Hera Lindsay Bird online poetry

Mary Ruefle (website)

Mary Ruefle (poets.org)

Mary Ruefle (Poetry Foundation)

Mary Ruefle (Wave Books)

I Remember, I Remember, Mary Ruefle


* See here:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

The Eternal Narcissism of White Privilege

The nomination of Donald Trump by the Republican Party has spawned a growing body of punditry seeking ways to explain Trump’s rise without directly addressing racism, bigotry, and xenophobia.

The explanation du jour cautions critics of Trump supporters, arguing that Trump is attractive to working-class whites who have legitimate fears.

Works such as Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance have become representative of the serious reconsideration of the angry white voter, as Vance proclaims:

The simple answer is that these people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time.  Donald Trump at least tries.

However, as a redneck son of the self-defeating South, I immediately had a different reaction to Vance and the scramble to attend to the eternal narcissism of white privilege:

The four-year-old Joel frets about his mother: “She’s not looking at me. No one ever looks at me.”

The histrionics of working class whites, to me, sound like arrested development, spurred by the long deferred political and social recognition about racism prompted by the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

The consequences of white privilege include that privilege is both ever-present and thus invisible—much as we says that fish don’t understand water.

And thus, while working-class whites have suffered because of disaster capitalism and the vast majority of the policies implemented by the Republican machine they support, the narcissism of privilege among working-class whites in the U.S. blinds them from two powerful and damning facts:

  1. White privilege buoys all whites in comparison to black and brown people in terms of socioeconomic opportunity and wealth as well as shielding whites from the negative consequences of the U.S. judicial system and policing. Just as two examples, whites who dropped out of high school have the same employment opportunities as blacks with some college, and blacks constitute only about 12% of the U.S. population, but mass incarceration impacts 2207/100,000 blacks compared to 380/100,000 whites.
  2. Working-class whites have supported Republicans for ideological reasons linked to religious and racial bigotry—while disregarding how that commitment has been self-defeating to their own interests. As Neil Gross explains: “Union decline [as a subset of many economic factors, I want to add] has left the [white] working class politically and economically vulnerable, and it’s this vulnerability Mr. Trump has been able to exploit.”

This “O, crap!” moment for working-class whites isn’t without merit, but it comes with the same sort of false logic found in the South where whites shout for blacks to “Get over slavery” while clutching and waving the Confederate battle flag and screaming “Tradition!”

Again, as a life-long Southerner, I am compelled despite my own skepticism about organized religion, especially the fundamentalist kind of my home region, to proclaim that working-class whites need to have a Come-to-Jesus moment.

First, while recognizing the power of white privilege regardless of socioeconomic status is essential, working-class whites must forefront the concerns of black and brown people who suffer disproportionately for the mere fact of their race in the U.S.

Next, working-class whites must form a solidarity with all people who share their social and economic needs: working-class status is more significant for equity in the U.S. than religious or racial differences.

And finally, working-class whites must reject the “Make American Great Again” mantra since there is no compelling evidence to support either that the U.S. was once great or that somehow the expansion of freedom and equity beyond whiteness is anti-American.

Again, in a blazing display of illogic, while working-class whites remain committed to mythologies such as “a rising tide lifts all boats,” they have politically resisted expanding* marriage rights to homosexuals, social and economic equity to black and brown Americans, equal pay for women, American citizenship for immigrants, the end to mass incarceration for recreational marijuana use—all of which raising the tide for everyone in the U.S. by growing freedom.

If we concede to the mainstream whitewashing of Trump and his supporters; if we continue not to name bigotry, racism, and xenophobia; if we only attend to anything once it becomes a white problem—we are failing the very thing the Right and conservatives are so quick to shout about: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The “yes, but” narcissism of white privilege once again is shouting over #BlackLivesMatter, and their ring-leader is the king of shouting over substance.

Working-class whites need to put on their grown-up pants, sit down, listen patiently, and wait their turn—finally.


* And ideologically refuse even to acknowledge these inequities exist or matter.

Note: Below are Tweets of mine prompting this blog post:

The Post and Courier: Get real for reform by ending ‘get tough’ school discipline

Get real for reform by ending ‘get tough’ school discipline

[See original submission with hyperlinks included below]

Reforming School Discipline Policies Must Recognize Racial Inequity

P.L. Thomas

A recent Post and Courier editorial argues: “[school] is…not a place where children should be labeled criminals on a regular basis. And that’s what seems to have been happening in Charleston County schools.”

Just as Richland 2 (Columbia) addressed in 2014, Charleston is now committed to reforming discipline policies in schools that have resulted in significant imbalances in how students are treated, worst of which is that often those practices criminalize students of color disproportionately.

Education reform has been prominent in South Carolina and across the U.S. since the late 1970s and early 1980s, notably with the accountability movement based on academic standards and high-stakes testing. Along with a “get-tough” attitude about academics—such as instituting exit exams—public schools have also increasingly embraced “get-tough” approaches to student behavior—“no excuses” philosophies and zero tolerance policies, for example.

Over the past thirty or so years, however, doubling down again and again on accountability as well as discipline has not created the outcomes promised, but has resulted in many unintended negative consequences.

Exit exams as gatekeepers in school and student accountability as well as popular policies such as grade retention based on test scores have proven to be extremely harmful, especially for vulnerable populations of students (poor, black/brown, and special needs students and English language learners).

While Charleston continues to struggle with education reform targeting academics, the city has also been the epicenter of the larger national challenge to recognize concerns about policing and racial tensions—with the shooting of Walter Scott and the heinous massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

To reform school discipline, we must admit, is to confront a subset of the wider race problem with mass incarceration and police shootings. If our public schools are to be change agents for our society, they must be unlike the culture and communities they serve.

Charleston, then, is making a wise and important decision to reform discipline policies in the district, but additionally, this move requires that political leaders and the public are well educated about the realities of racial inequities in school discipline.

Those lessons must include the following:

  • In 2012 the Office of Civil Rights released disturbing data about racial imbalances in school suspensions and expulsions: “African-American students represent 18% of students in the CRDC [Civil Rights Data Collection] sample, but 35% of students suspended once, 46% of those suspended more than once, and 39% of students expelled.”
  • Racial inequities in school discipline begin in prekindergarten, and have lingering negative consequences for students, including contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline and higher drop-out rates.
  • Research also shows that black children are targeted more often and treated differently than white children for the same behaviors. In fact, Kenrya Rankin Naasel reports: “When black students exhibit behavioral problems at school, administrators are more likely to call the police than to secure medical interventions. In fact, the study found that the more black students who attend a school, the more likely the people in charge are to call the police, rather than a doctor.”
  • Black children are viewed as being much older than their biological ages, and thus, Stacey Patton, a senior enterprise reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Educationargues, “Black America has again been reminded that its children are not seen as worthy of being alive—in part because they are not seen as children at all, but as menacing threats to white lives.”
  • Police in the hallways of schools has proven to be more likely to criminalize students than to create safer learning environments.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has forced the U.S. to confront some hard truths about lingering racial inequity, and addressing discipline policies in Charleston along with continuing to reform academic opportunities for students is yet another set of hard racial truths for us to examine and overcome.

Charleston educational leaders should be commended for this needed move, but the way forward has to be informed by the available research and then grounded in a firm commitment to create the sorts of equitable and rich school experiences that South Carolina has for too long neglected to provide for poor and black/brown students.

In his For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Christopher Emdin offers a powerful guiding principle for all education reform: “It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student.”

Our “get-tough” approaches to academics and discipline are damaging our students, and we must find better ways to serve all our students.


See Also

Greenville News: COMMENTARY: Are black children criminalized in schools?

Thomas: Race matters in school discipline and incarceration | Opinion Columns | The State


UPDATE: And then I receive a racist (incoherent) email as a response:

racist email