Patriotic Education and the Politics of Lies

Not long after my daughter started losing baby teeth and going to bed excited about visits from the Tooth Fairy, she confronted me in our upstairs bonus room while I sat working at my computer.

“You and Mom are the Tooth Fairy,” she asserted, with no hint of asking.

When I admitted such, she replied, “Why did y’all lie to me?”

I can still recall that moment vividly—just as I can one of my moments of having to face the disconnect between mythology and reality concerning my father.

During my first year of marriage, we lived in the converted garage of my parents’ house, and one night we were awaked by my sister yelling and pulling the screen door off the hinges to our room. My mother had found my father collapsed and covered in blood in their bathroom.

I rushed to help him. In the next few hours, our roles shifted and would continue to transform until he died a couple years ago, very frail and worn down by both the myth and reality of his invincibility and job as provider.

As a parent and grandparent, coach, and career-long educator, I have had to wrestle with the role of myths in how adults interact with children and teenagers. Explaining to my daughter that stories such as the Tooth Fairy (like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny) aren’t lies, but metaphors fell on deaf ears, closed off by a loss of innocence, an awareness of a harsh world that was being hidden from her because she was a child.

My father, of course, was never superhuman, invincible, or even uniquely capable of being the ideal manufactured in a son’s mind.

That tension between harsh, uncomfortable reality and the intoxicating allure of myth and the Ideal has now confronted the U.S. in vivid and disturbing ways; the Trump administration has launched an assault on harsh, uncomfortable reality and called for a return to the soma of the Ideal concerning America.

Ironically, a call for patriotic education is embracing the very indoctrination that many conservatives claim to be refuting.

I was a high school English teacher throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s. The first quarter of my American literature course was devoted to nonfiction, and one of the first texts we examined was the Christopher Columbus chapter of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

For my very provincial students in rural upstate South Carolina, this was the beginning of a disorienting nine weeks that included works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.

Many of these students responded as my daughter did, feeling as if they had been lied to, deceived, disrespected for being young.

An interesting part of conservatives demonizing much of formal education as liberal propaganda is that they completely misread how young people respond to adults and ignore that institutionalized education has always been overwhelmingly conservative itself.

I watched as my daughter was fed a deeply distorted and incomplete version of Hellen Keller during her third grade; the Hellen Keller students meet is a myth of rugged individualism that erases Keller’s leftwing political activism.

For most K-12 students in the U.S., the education they receive in social studies and history is primarily idealized, incomplete, and patriotic education.

For fifty or sixty years, some have been chipping away at that distortion of history—the “I cannot tell a lie” George Washington of my education in the 1960s was mostly gone by my teaching career in the 1980s-1990s—and there has been a slow process of including the stories and voices traditionally omitted, women and Black Americans, for example.

The Trump administration first attacked critical race theory and then Zinn directly, so a few days ago, I asked my foundations in education students to consider why we in the U.S. have formal schooling. We had briefly examined Thomas Jefferson’s commitments and framing of why a free people and a democracy needed universal public schooling, but my students were keenly aware that K-16 schooling in practice is primarily focused on preparing young people to enter the workforce.

In another twist of irony, saying public schooling is for fostering citizens and to fertilize the soil of democracy is itself an idealized myth that is refuted by how the country actually works.

And here is an important point: I became and continue to be a teacher because I believe in the promise of equity, liberty, and democracy that the U.S. and public education aspire to; and therefore, as James Baldwin implored, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually” (Notes of a Native Son).

I am not sure I primarily aspire to patriotism or loving my country, however, since I think those are steps away from the ideals I do embrace. A country should not be loved until it deserves that love.

I am sure that the many young people I have taught did not immediately believe anything I taught them; I am certain that my students did not respect me or the implication of my authority simply because I had the title of “teacher” and stood before them with that power every day.

Respect, like love, and the gift of knowledge and facts cannot be demanded—must not be demanded—but certainly can be attained when humans are free to recognize and embrace them.

And now the final irony: Conservatives reinvigorated by Trump have long resented critical educators, who continue to be marginalized and discredited as the purveyors of indoctrination, yet critical educators, scholars, and activists (see those who practice critical race theory as well as Howard Zinn) “[want] to know who’s indoctrinating whom” (Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer).

I often see my daughter standing there beside me in a moment when I had to confront that what seemed like a harmless myth had denied her basic human dignity; she deserved reality, the truth, simply by being a human being trying to navigate a reality that often seems determined to erase us.

The daily tally of lies trafficked by Trump and his enablers has reached a logical conclusion, a demand that the entire country double-down on the delusions of myths, white-washed history, and plain and simple lies.

Conservatives have long buckled under the weight of genuinely not trusting children and young people, of believing so deeply in Original Sin and flawed humanity that they cannot see the paradox of yielding to authoritarianism that must eradicate their liberty, their humanity.

Calling for patriotic education is the next step in the politics of lies.

If we truly believe in individual freedom, we are now faced with the choice of who we will be as people, whether or not we deserve that freedom.

You don’t have to teach people to love their country if that country deserves to be loved.

The Ends Do Not Justify the Means in the Lives and Education of Children

17 September 2020 turned out to be a day of disinformation about education in the U.S. The White House launched another assault on education (not a surprise), and the International Literacy Association offered (for a fee) “Making Sense of the Science of Reading.”

The latter is disappointing from a powerful and influential professional organization because the “sense” made appears to be quite different than the intent.

Ultimately, as this event revealed, the “science of reading” (SoR) advocacy fails for several key reasons:

  1. The movement is driven by parent advocacy (specifically around dyslexia) and media advocacy. That grounding lacks historical context and expertise in reading, literacy, and special needs.
  2. SoR promotes a simple view of reading and seeks to mandate systematic intensive phonics for all students (regardless of student need).
  3. SoR embraces a simplistic and distorted view of “science” as “settled.”
  4. SoR links reading to policies and practices that lack scientific support and cross ethical lines of allowing the ends to justify the means (for example, nonsense literacy and grade retention linked to high-stakes testing).

Here, I want to focus on how SoR crosses ethical lines in order to justify and misrepresent the very “science” those advocates embrace.

Writing about corporal punishment, Rutherford quotes from Gertrude Williams: “[s]ince the dawn of humanity, children have been treated with incredible cruelty and have little recourse to the law which regarded them as things, not persons” (p. 356).

In my scholarship and public work, corporal punishment and grade retention share something, ironically, with SoR advocacy; I contend that the scientific research base (both decade’s long) on corporal punishment and grade retention , while not “settled,” is overwhelmingly compelling against the use of either with children and students.

And thus, I am deeply alarmed at ILA justifying the use of grade retention as a component of the SoR movement. A speaker at the ILA event and a follow-up email from ILA highlighted a disturbing report from the conservative Manhattan Institute: Do Retention Policies Affect Student Success?

In 1974, talking on education at UC Berkley, James Baldwin confronted the same sort of inequity toward children highlighted by Rutherford on corporal punishment: “And education is a billion-dollar industry and the least important part of that industry is the child.”

With that in mind, the report on grade retention from Perrault and Winters must be interrogated for its lack of peer review (How does one reach for the unscientific to support the scientific?) and its distorted view of teaching and learning along with its antagonism toward children (and teachers).

Perrault and Winters make several key mistakes in how they focus this report and what they fail to identify and consider important.

Decades of high-quality research on grade retention as well as more recent examinations of high-stakes retention similar to what Perrault and Winters address have found the following: grade retention’s impact on raising test scores is mixed, but even when test scores increase, those gains dissipate over time (those gains, then, are a mirage); grade retention is strongly correlated with negative consequences for students, including being separated from their peers and increasing the likelihood of dropping out of school; and grade retention tends to disproportionately impact students of color, high-poverty students, English language learners, and special needs students (contributing, then, to perpetuating inequity).

Perrault and Winters choose to ignore the overwhelming negative consequences, preferring to argue for the ends justifying the means, and instead focus again on a simplistic look at whether or not the “threat” of grade retention increases test scores for students not retained (a circular argument for decreasing grade retention).

Those choices lead to a very disturbing and flawed argument that grade retention, according to Perrault and Winters, improved student learning and teaching (a reductive claim based solely on test scores as an adequate proxy for learning and teaching); their concluding rhetoric is very telling:

Our results, however, suggest that earlier studies, which focus entirely on retained students, substantially understate the benefits of test-based promotion policies on student achievement. The test-score improvements that we find within the third grade for students in Arizona and Florida apply to a much larger group of students than those who were eventually retained by the policies. Indeed, our results show that the threat of retention [emphasis added] improves student academic achievement, thus reducing the need for retention.

SoR advocacy and ILA have made a fatal flaw in citing this report in order to argue that the ends justify the means.

Grade retention is overwhelmingly harmful to students, it does not improve learning and teaching, and it disproportionately harms the most vulnerable students in our schools.

Instead of the report from Perrault and Winters, we should paid heed to Huddleston’s Achievement at Whose Expense? A Literature Review of Test-Based Grade Retention Policies in U.S. Schools:

Short-term gains produced by test-based retention policies fade over time with students again falling behind but with a larger likelihood of dropping out of school. These unintended consequences are most prevalent among ethnic minority and impoverished students. The author concludes by providing alternatives for ending social promotion that do not include grade retention as well as suggestions for further researching the role such policies play in perpetuating class inequities. [from abstract]

The SoR movement has lost its way, depending on reports and anecdotes in order to promote a simplistic view of reading and teaching reading.

As Baldwin noted in the 1970s, education is an industry, and we must be suspicious why so many are compelled to make claims that seem more likely to serve the interests of those who produce and sell reading (phonics) programs and reading tests than the very children we claim to serve.

Uncritical Erase Theory Seminars: Presented by Trump University and Khan Academy [Satire]

It has come to the President’s attention that Executive Branch agencies have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to date “training” government workers to believe divisive, anti-American propaganda….

The President has a proven track record of standing for those whose voice has long been ignored and who have failed to benefit from all our country has to offer, and he intends to continue to support all Americans, regardless of race, religion, or creed. The divisive, false, and demeaning propaganda of the critical race theory movement is contrary to all we stand for as Americans and should have no place in the Federal government.

Memorandum, Russell Vought, Director

Col Jessup: You want answers?!

LTJG Kaffee: I want the truth!

Col Jessup: You can’t handle the truth!

“A Few Good Men” (1992)

Partially funded by a Freedom Grant, and in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Education, the following seminars are now available in an effort to correct years of damage done by diversity and anti-racism training that included Critical Race Theory.

The seminars are available live through Trump University via Zoom ( each Tuesday at 4 PM EST or available through recorded on-demand via the Khan Academy.

Register for individual seminars ($189 and include access to the recorded seminar for an additional $29) or for the entire series ($1799 and include access to recorded seminars for an additional $69).

Concurrently, book clubs are also available and will be conducted via Zoom throughout the month designated. Register for book clubs for $139 (participants must purchase their own book copies).


Slavery: A Necessary Evil

Presenter: Tom Cotton, Senator (Arkansas)

Canceling “Cancel Culture” and Reverse Racism

Presenter: Herman Cain (via Twitter)

It’s Just a Joke: Reclaiming Comedy in Trump’s America

Presenters: Louis CK and Bill Cosby

America: Land of Racial Harmony (Except for Our Stories of Overcoming)

Presenters: Nikki Haley and Tim Scott with a special recorded message from Ben Carson

The Law Is Colorblind: Beyond Affirmative Action

Presenter: Clarence Thomas

Policing: Overcoming the Dangers of Black Boys and Black Men’s Backs

Presenter: Roland Fryer

Put American Workers First

Presenter: Melania Trump and Ivanka Trump

Returning Women’s Reproductive Roles through Household Voting

Presenter: Abby Johnson

All Lives Matter: Standing Our Ground

Presenter: George Zimmerman

Why Can’t I Use the N-Word?: Language Fairness in Trump’s America

Presenter: Sgt. Chad Walker

Book Club

October 2020

John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me

Facilitators: Jessica A. Krug and Rachel Dolezal

BONUS: Movie Marathon (Free)

November 2, 2020 / 8 AM EST thru November 3, 2020 / 8 AM

The Help (2011)

Hosted by Netflix

Measuring the Unmeasurable: Racism by the Numbers

Several years ago, women faculty at my university raised concerns about gender inequity across hiring, retention, and pay. The data suggested those concerns were valid so the university brought in an outside team to examine if gender inequity, in fact, existed at the university.

The university faculty was composed of fewer than 40% women (well below the percentage of women in society) and women faculty had been leaving the university at a higher rate than men faculty for several years. Although the university culture discouraged the sharing of salaries, women faculty were able to establish that women did in fact make less than men—in part, because there was also inequity of rank by gender.

These gender imbalances are common across higher education in the U.S. as well.

The external review gathered more data, mostly interviewing across campus different stakeholders in the university. That report confirmed gender inequity and offered reform strategies to address the imbalances.

Almost immediately upon its release, white male faculty questioned the review on the grounds that it did not meet the high standards of scientific inquiry (quantitative experimental/quasi-experimental research).

This scenario is playing out nationally in a similar way, but focusing on racial inequity (racism) in policing, specifically in the use of deadly force by police officers.

First, it is important to start a consideration of statistic and quantitative data by clarifying language. At the crux of a statistical analysis of gender inequity or racism (incredibly complex phenomena), we must distinguish between equality and equity.

For example, equality as a goal would dictate that universities hire the exact same number of men and women, maintain the same number of men and women at each rank, and pay men and women the exact same at those steps. Equality (in a much darker view of the world) would mean that police officers shoot and kill the same number of white citizens as black citizens (note that such a quantitative approach fails the ethical issue of whether or not police offices should kill any citizens).

Equality, however, is the wrong standard since it fails to acknowledge proportionality; this is especially important when trying to measure racism in the U.S.

Race demographics in the U.S. are significantly imbalanced since there are about 5-6 times more white people than Black people. Here is the importance of starting an investigation of racism in policing with equity.

The data on policing and race, then, become extremely complicated since police do kill more white people than Black people, but that measurement is also inequitable since the imbalance falls well below the race imbalance in society; as Bronner explains: “That’s how you get studies that show 96 out of 100,000 Black men and boys will be killed by police over the course of their lifetimes, compared to 39 out of 100,000 white men and boys — a risk that is 2.5 times higher.”

Two statistical facts (police kill more white people than Black people and police killing are racially inequitable) are simultaneously true, seem to discredit racism in policing for some people, and prove racial inequity. This last point is incredibly important and at the root of the problem with measuring racism in policing.

Once there is credible evidence of inequity (data on gender inequity at my university or policing in the U.S.), the challenge of conducting research on that inequity is identifying why the inequity exists and then establishing if that inequity is justifiable or if that inequity can and should be eradicated.

Another paradox of conducting so-called high quality research on inequity is that experimental and quasi-experimental research (designed to isolate and capture causal relationships between factors) often finds no causal significance in the data, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the condition doesn’t exist.

This brings me to the work of Roland Fryer, who I first encountered through his research on education (charter schools and teacher quality). Measuring teaching and learning has similar problems to measuring inequity since teaching and learning are highly complex and pose real challenges for isolating relationships among factors.

Fryer’s research on education garnered a great deal of uncritical media and political attention since that research reinforced uninformed and overly simplistic views of teaching and learning among the media, the public, and political leaders.

Bruce Baker, for example, noted about Fryer’s work in education: “But, each of these studies suffers from poorly documented and often ill-conceived comparisons of costs and/or marginal expenditures.”

Here is a pattern that is essential to understand: Experimental/quasi-experimental research fails to show a causal relationship in an examination of inequity, the media rush to cover the research by misrepresenting the conclusion (“didn’t find” doesn’t mean that something doesn’t exist), and public/political biases are triggered and reinfocred.

Fryer, who seems to revel in having surprising outcomes to his research, has recently shifted to studying policing and racism, but the pattern has remained intact.

Recently, Fryer promoted a surprising study that seemed to fail to show racism in police killings of citizens, and the media jumped on board despite the research not yet being peer reviewed.

A paradox of research on inequity is that as long as a culture is inequitable all evidence that seems to disprove inequity benefits from that inequity and even the most intentionally “unbiased” research is likely tainted by that inequity.

Once other scholars, most of whom have more expertise in race and policing than Fryer, began to interrogate Fryer’s research, the “surprise” in his conclusion fell apart—in similar ways as his research on charter schools and teacher quality.

Two aspects of scholarly challenges to Fryer’s research on policing and racism are important to highlight.

First, once Fryer was challenged, he responded in a way that clearly discredits the media interpretation of his findings; Fryer wrote a rebuttal to his critics and concluded:

The time has come for a national reckoning on race and policing in America. But, the issues are thorny and the conclusions one can draw about racial bias are fraught with difficulty. The most granular data suggest that there is no bias in police shootings (Fryer (forthcoming)), but these data are far from a representative sample of police departments and do not contain any experimental variation [emphasis added]. We cannot rest. We need more and better data. With the advances in natural language processing and the increased willingness of police departments to share sensitive data, we can make progress.

Once again, probably due to the use of a non-representative sample, Fryer did not find causal proof of racism in fatal policing, but that is a statistical fact that cannot and should not be used to claim that racism does not exist in policing or in fatal police interactions with citizens.

In a response to Fryer’s response, in fact, Ross, Winterhalder, and McElreath conclude in a review of Fryer and other research that seem to fall outside the standard view that racism does impact policing:

We establish that: (1) the analyses of Ross (2015) and Fryer (2016) are in general agreement concerning the existence and magnitude of population-level anti-black, racial disparities in police shootings; (2) because of racial disparities in rates of encounters and non-lethal use-of-force, the encounter-conditional results of Fryer (2016) regarding the relative frequency of the use of lethal force by police are susceptible to Simpson’s paradox. They should probably not be interpreted as providing support for the idea that police show no anti-black bias or even an unexpected anti-white bias in the use of lethal force conditional on encounter [emphasis added]; and, (3) even if police do not show racial bias in the use of lethal force conditional on encounter, racial disparities in encounters themselves will still produce racial disparities in the population-level rates of the use of lethal force, a matter of deep concern to the communities affected.

A more fair response to Fryer (and others) is that his work—despite its weaknesses—raises challenges about the complexity of systemic racism when trying to determine how racism does or does not impact policing.

Systemic racism pervades virtually every aspect of U.S. society, therefore, teasing out and isolating racism may be nearly impossible to do (see Fryer’s emphasis on “granular data” which allows a scientist to focus on a grain of sand while ignoring the beach and the nearby ocean).

Ultimately, a more disturbing paradox may be that interrogating racism by the numbers will never allow us to consider the importance of human witnessing.

The lived experiences of women and of Black people can be silenced when numbers are allowed to trump the complexities of inequity.

“Granular data” and rigorous experimental research are neither fool-proof nor inconsequential. Scientific inquiry isn’t the problem.

The problem is there is inequity entrenched in the type of “science” that is allowed to count, and that is a cycle that itself maintains the inequity that is often nearly impossible to measure.

Fryer’s research along with the media, public, and political engagement with that research does prove one very troubling thing—a confirmation of Audre Lorde‘s warning: “[T]he master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

For Further Reading

Why Statistics Don’t Capture The Full Extent Of The Systemic Bias In Policing

What Should Students Do with Text?: From Interpretation to Interrogation

Over the first week or so of my first-year writing seminars, I carefully explain to students that the course is not an English class, but a composition class.

Most students have experienced writing assignments primarily in English classes and often anchored to literary analysis (interpreting fiction and poetry grounded in New Criticism or “close reading” assumptions about analysis).

In our composition class, we explore many texts, but are mostly examining non-fiction and the essay form. A guiding structure I used with high school students (including those preparing to take Advanced Placement exams in literature) and continue to use in first-year writing is to ask the following questions when engaging with text:

  • What is the author saying or arguing?
  • How is the author making that case?
  • Why does it matter to the reader?

The transition I am addressing for composition courses is away from literary analysis, interpreting text, and toward reading like a writer, interrogating text (something my students encounter in John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice).

However that same transition should also occur in literary analysis since traditional interpretation tends to focus on a static and misguided view of meaning—such as the “close reading” argument that meaning exists only in the four corners of that text.

Texts in a composition course that focuses on students as essay writers tend to serve as models for the writer’s craft as well as how to create and maintain the writer’s authority (specially in scholarly writing). I often tell students to mine those models of the essay for the “how” in the the three questions above—rhetorical strategies, literary techniques, organizational structure, etc.

Too often, I have noticed that traditional interpretation of fiction and poetry does not serve students well who are likely to navigate college in ways that never ask them to interpret fiction and poetry but that do require them to construct original essays that investigate and interrogate complex ideas, disciplinary knowledge across many disciplines, and non-fiction texts.

As just one example of the high school/college disconnect I have highlighted often, students tend to leave high school believing they should have MLA citation memorized only to discover a vast array of citation styles and the expectation that they know how to use the style guide assigned (and not memorize formatting).

One way to bridge the disconnect between high school English and first-year writing as well as writing expectations in college is implementing interrogation instead of interpretation at all level.

Reading like a writer in a composition course (see here and here) matches well experiences interrogating literature (fiction and poetry) since the larger concept is not identifying a fixed meaning, but considering and contesting many aspects of the text—such as writer intent, writer craft, and the role of the reader in creating meaning.

For example, consider Lavina Jadhwani’s approach to Shakespeare: Dismantling Anti-Black Linguistic Racism in Shakespeare.

In an interview, Jadhwani explains:

I spent a long time thinking Shakespeare’s plays were inaccessible to me: Either I didn’t have the “right” training or I wasn’t in the “right” circle. I wasn’t getting invited to direct them. I spent a long time feeling like I wasn’t worthy, and I think a lot of people feel that way.

This experience, I think, comes from how Shakespeare is taught, the focus on so-called objective interpretation of text that ignores the role of the reader as well as the many historical contexts of any text.

More specifically, Jadhwani explains how to approach Shakespeare through an anti-blackness lens (interrogating):

The document I created started with the word that starts with an “n” and means miserly. I don’t use that word, and I don’t see a reason for it. If you are a Black artist who has a different relationship to that word and feel like you want to reclaim it or use it in a certain way, I say, “Go for it.” As a non-Black artist, I only know the harm that word does, and “miserly” is just as good. It’s clearer. It scans. There’s no reason not to use it.

If there’s an instance where the word “slave” does harm and the word “knave” doesn’t, I think you can change it. I don’t know if that word did harm to Shakespeare’s audiences, but it can to ours. In an instance like that, I believe that making a substitution is actually closer to honoring Shakespeare’s original intention.

Further, this approach moves away from seeing any text as the ends, the goal, of instruction, and moves the text to a means to a much richer range of goals.

For example, Jadhwani’s anti-blackness guide invites students to consider and reconsider “cancel culture,” the historical context of Shakespeare’s language and Elizabethan culture, and their contemporary association with language, race, and racism.

To interrogate Shakespeare is to ask far more of teachers and students than the traditional interpretation process that restricts students to the text and evaluates the student against a singular and authoritarian meaning.

Even as high school English remains primarily courses in literature (with an emphasis on fiction and poetry), students need a much better foundation for writing in college or in the workplace. I am not rejecting the value of fiction and poetry or writing literacy analysis.

Literature and composition goals are different, and both valid. But we should find ways that those goals are symbiotic and not in conflict.

To achieve that, students should be invited to interrogate and not simply interpret text with their own reading and writing goals in mind.