Category Archives: Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn: August 24, 1922 – January 27, 2010

Howard Zinn was born 100 years ago today, and I cite, quote, and draw inspiration from his work often. My public work and scholarship are grounded in one of Zinn’s central concepts:

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

In 2022, Zinn’s radical confrontation of the past and present as well as his steadfast commitment to activism is urgently needed.

See the Zinn Education Project and a couple posts of mine below:

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

Meditating on Teacher Unions and Tenure Post-Vergara

Recommended: Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction (Zinn Education Project)

Currently nearly 4 out of 10 students in the U.S. are being impacted by CRT/1619 Project bans and a rising tide of book censorship. Many educators are being silenced, often fearing (rightfully) for their careers.

I strongly recommend this resource from the Zinn Education Project: Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction.

The report addresses the following questions:

  • Do state social studies educational standards for K–12 schools recommend or require students to learn about Reconstruction? 
  • Is the content that state standards recommend or require on Reconstruction historically accurate and reflective of modern scholarship?
  • What would an ideal set of historically accurate state standards on Reconstruction look like?
  • What are some efforts underway to give the Reconstruction era the time and perspective it deserves?

Educators and the public must confront and reject efforts to erase and silence history, and this report is a powerful and evidence-based step in that direction.

O NCTE, NCTE, Wherefore Art Thou NCTE? [Update]

[UPDATE: Please see and support this open letter to NCTE Executive Committee.]

[UPDATE 2: NCTE Statement on the Doublespeak Award and Anti-Censorship Efforts.]

[UPDATE 3: Public statement from NCSS 8 February 2021: “Saving” American History? Start by Teaching American History]

I have been a literacy educator for 38 years and counting; throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught high school English in rural South Carolina, and then I moved to higher education in 2002, where I am in teacher education and teach first-year and upper-level writing.

Along with being a career educator, I am a writer. I can identify the beginning of my real life as a writer and scholar with three publications: first, Oregon English (published by a state affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English [NCTE]) in 1989, and then English Journal (a flagship journal of NCTE) in 1991 and 1998.

When I made my move to higher education, I also began a twenty-year and counting relationship with NCTE that has been among the most rewarding elements of my career as teacher and writer/scholar.

While my colleagues and friends discovered through NCTE are too many to list here, at NCTE San Francisco (2003), I attended a presentation and met Ken Lindblom; we began talking, and eventually our connection led to my editing/co-editing a column in English Journal for 10 years under several editors (also counted among my friends and colleagues), including Ken.

In 2013, NCTE named me recipient of their George Orwell Award—one of the proudest moments of my career—acknowledging not only my work that spoke truth to power but highlighting the significance of my public work (blogging, which is often marginalized in academia). Then, after my work on the committee preparing for NCTE’s Centennial at the Chicago annual convention (2011), I served as the Council Historian from 2013-2015.

Until the interruptions of Covid, one of the highlights of each year included attending and presenting at NCTE’s annual conventions.

I share all this not to aggrandize myself, but to establish a fact of my life and career: I love NCTE and the people who have enriched my life because NCTE brought us together.

And thus, I write here in the spirit of James Baldwin: “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).

Since I do love NCTE, and since I am troubled at this moment of literary and educational crisis, I feel obligated to criticize NCTE, asking, Wherefore art thou, NCTE?

Novices to Shakespeare often misread “wherefore” as simply “where,” but, of course, Juliet is asking “why” Romeo exists, specifically why is she being confronted with the challenge of Romeo’s family name.

Why, I am asking, does NCTE exist? And more pointedly, why is NCTE choosing silence, why is NCTE choosing to take a false apolitical pose—at this moment of literary and educational crisis?

First, let me stress the context of my question.

Across the U.S., Pollock and Rogers, et al., have authored a report from UCLA that analyses the wildfire spreading across the U.S.—curriculum, instruction, and book/text bans:

We found that at least 894 school districts, enrolling 17,743,850 students, or 35% of all K–12 students in the United States, have been impacted by local anti “CRT” efforts. Our survey and interviews demonstrate how such restriction efforts have been experienced inside schools as well as districts. We found that both state action and local activity have left many educators afraid to do their work.

(Pollock, & Rogers, et al., 2022, p. vi)

As I have been cataloging, censorship and even calls for book burnings are nearly a daily event into 2022.

Notable, these attacks on what and how teachers teach, on what and how students learn, are grounded in dishonest claims and misrepresentations, as the UCLA report notes:

We put “CRT” in quotation marks throughout this report because so often the conflict campaign’s definition of “CRT” (like its description of actual K–12 practice) is a caricatured distortion by loud opponents as self-appointed “experts.” The conflict campaign thrives on caricature — on often distorting altogether both scholarship and K–12 educators’ efforts at accurate and inclusive education, deeming it (and particularly K–12 efforts to discuss the full scope of racism in our nation) wholly inappropriate for school.

(Pollock, & Rogers, et al., 2022, p. vi)

The news reports are chilling: A teacher fired in Tennessee for teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates (a featured speaker at an annual NCTE convention); a superintendent of education in North Carolina banning a book from one parent complaint, and without reading the book; and high-profile coverage by NBC and The Atlantic detailing the magnitude of the censorship movement, which has included bans of one of the most celebrated graphic novels ever, Maus.

With that context in mind, I want to add I am guided by two more commitments.

Martin Luther King Jr., in Strength to Love (1963), warned: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.”

And Howard Zinn [1], whose work has been prominent at NCTE’s annual convention, who titled his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, argued:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train

As of today, I am deeply concerned that NCTE, as the premiere national professional organization for literacy and literature in the U.S., has chosen the path of neutrality, of silence, to strike an apolitical pose in order to avoid risk.

In November before the 2021 annual convention, I reached out to some leaders of NCTE and implored that NCTE take a leadership role in speaking out against the creeping threat of state legislation banning curriculum and the rising number of books being banned across the country.

Although I was assured this would happen, there has only been silence.

And then, this: Members of NCTE’s Public Language Awards Committee posted on social media that NCTE has put the Doublespeak Award on hiatus indefinitely in order to avoid looking “political.”

Some members have resigned in protest.

The disappointment and irony of this move is that the Doublespeak Award, a companion of the Orwell Award, is designed to offer an “ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.”

If you return to the report from UCLA, it is obvious we are in the midst of an educational and literary/literature crisis that screams for the Doublespeak Award (“[t]he conflict campaign thrives on caricature”), that demands public-facing, risk-embracing leadership from NCTE.

Why does NCTE exist, if not for this moment?

The current anti-CRT/book banning movement is politically partisan only because Republicans have chosen to make it so. And as King and Zinn noted throughout their careers, taking a neutral pose, pretending to be apolitical, is a political concession to support the status quo.

Since curriculum bans, book censorship, and parental oversight legislation are occurring exclusively among Republican-controlled states, the teachers and students impacted are mostly in right-to-work (non-union) situations; therefore, they are the most vulnerable, and most in need of advocacy from organizations and people with power.

NCTE is the collective voice of literacy educators, scholars, and creators.

I want to remain hopeful, but I am deeply disappointed and increasingly skeptical of that hope.

NCTE’s leaders must look in the mirror, ask “why,” and then act.

Returning to Baldwin, I end with this: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now” (Nobody Knows My Name).


[1] Trying to confirm if/when Zinn spoke at an annual NCTE convention [edit].

Freedom and the Politics of Canceling Teachers and Curriculum

By mid-December of 2021, Matthew Hawn, a former teacher in Tennessee, will once again have his appeal heard after being fired for violating the state’s restrictions on curriculum:

The Tennessee General Assembly has banned the teaching of critical race theory, passing a law at the very end of the legislative session to withhold funding from public schools that teach about white privilege.

Republicans in the House made the legislation a last-minute priority, introducing provisions that ban schools from instructing students that one race bears responsibility for the past actions against another, that the United States is fundamentally racist or that a person is inherently privileged or oppressive due to their race.

Tennessee bans public schools from teaching critical race theory amid national debate, Natalie Allison

As Allison reported in May, several states across the U.S. have filed or passed copy-cat legislation aimed at banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

By October and November, the consequences of Tennessee’s law have moved from silencing and canceling teachers to attempts to cancel curriculum [1]:

The Tennessee Department of Education recently declined to investigate a complaint filed under a new state law prohibiting the teaching of certain topics regarding race and bias.

The complaint, the first directed to the state under the new law passed this spring, was filed by Robin Steenman, chair of the Moms for Liberty Williamson County chapter, a conservative parent group sweeping the nation. 

The 11-page complaint alleged that the literacy curriculum, Wit and Wisdom, used by Williamson County Schools and at least 30 other districts, has a “heavily biased agenda” that makes children “hate their country, each other and/or themselves.”

Tennessee Department of Education rejects complaint filed under anti-critical race theory law, Meghan Mangrum

Although the complaint was rejected, Mangrum noted, “The group detailed concerns with four specific books on subjects like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, the integration of California schools by advocate Sylvia Mendez and her family, and the autobiography of Ruby Bridges, adapted for younger learners.”

A teacher fired for teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates, parents calling for bans on MLK and teaching about Ruby Bridges—these events are not unique to Tennessee, but they reflect a pattern of efforts to control not only teachers, but what students are allowed to learn and read.

Notable in these examples is that many of the consequences of legislation are canceling Black writers and key aspects of Black history; additionally, legislation and calls for book banning are targeting LGBTQ+ writers and topics.

Teaching and curriculum in the U.S. are being systematically and politically whitewashed.

One aspect not being addressed often is that political dynamic. Parents, political activists, and politicians are impacting who teaches and what is being taught in the context of a historical and current demand that teachers themselves remain apolitical, both in their classrooms and their lives beyond school.

As I have discussed often, teaching is necessarily political, and teaching as well as writing are necessarily types of activism.

For teachers, then, we must recognize that calls for teachers to be objective, neutral, and apolitical are themselves political acts. Currently, laws being passed and parents/activists confronting school boards are exercising their political power at the expense of teachers and schools—both of which are required to remain somehow politically neutral.

From historian/activist Howard Zinn to critical scholars such as Joe Kincheloe and to poet Adrienne Rich, we have ample evidence that taking a neutral stance is a political act that passively endorses the status quo and that silencing words is an act of canceling thought, eradicating ideas.

Zinn’s commitment to transparency as a teacher and activist is hauntingly relevant to the current political attack on teachers and curriculum:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order [emphasis added]….

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Howard Zinn

And Kincheloe confronted not only who is actually indoctrinating students but the imperative that teachers recognize teaching as inherently political:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive [emphasis added].

Critical Pedagogy Primer, Joe L. Kincheloe

The great irony is that critical educators (often smeared as “Marxists”) are committed, as Kincheloe asserts, to a foundational concern: “Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom.”

The Orwellian named “Moms for LIberty,” then, by calling for canceling curriculum are in fact being “totalitarian and oppressive,” calling for not education, but indoctrination. To ban words and ideas is to ban the possibility of thinking, of learning:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there [emphasis in original] to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido [emphasis in original], rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Arts of the Possible, Adrienne Rich

A final powerful point is that many of these political acts to silence teachers and cancel curriculum are occurring in right-to-work states controlled by Republicans. Teachers not only are expected to be neutral, objective, and apolitical, but also work with a distinct awareness they have almost no job security.

Hawn fired in Tennessee simply taught a text and now is fighting for his career; the text in most ways just a year ago was considered non-controversial and even celebrated as Coates had attained recognition as one of the country’s leading Black voices.

During this holiday season at the end of 2021, teachers honestly have no decision about whether or not to be political. We are faced with only two political choices: conform to the demand that we take a neutral pose, resulting in endorsing whatever status quo legislators and parents/activist impose on schools; or recognize and embrace the essential political nature of being a teacher by actively opposing efforts to cancel teachers and curriculum.


[1] Twitter thread:

All White People Must Confront How the System Only Works in Total Whiteness

I was born in 1961, after Brown v. Board but before the Civil Rights Act.

My childhood in the upstate of South Carolina included the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy as well as vivid memories of my mother’s family living through the racial unrest in nearby Asheville, North Carolina and my uncle being shipped off to the Vietnam War.

My parents had been raised in the 1940s and 1950s throughout North and South Carolina; they were among the white Americans who disapproved of King, and I recall vividly my parents’ animosity for Muhammad Ali that sat next to their anger at the mainstream media for bringing down Richard Nixon.

I was born in 1961, but I was baptized and washed daily in whiteness.

I believed in whiteness even as I was conditioned never to see it because my accusatory gaze was trained on blackness, and any racial identity not white.

These were the lessons of my home, my community, my school, and nearly every moment of the media I was consuming through news or entertainment.

My history books, TV shows, movies, novels, and comic books were filled with white saviors—and all that was wrong with the world shaded in darkness, blackness.

By the time I entered college during the fall of Jimmy Carter and the rise of Ronald Reagan, I believed entirely in the reverse racism narrative that buoyed Reagan’s ascent.

Despite the challenges of growing up in a working class family in the South at mid-twentieth century, I had been afforded tremendous privileges of race, gender, and more that, once again, were rendered invisible to me, and in that un-self-aware blindness, I was allowed to pity myself at every perceived disadvantage.

College, however, was a paradox; it was my ticket out of white denial even as it helped intensify my white privilege.

In 2020, I am the small percentage of people with a doctorate, and my salary as a tenured professor places me in a life of comfort and leisure that is well beyond what I have earned, what I deserve by the mere content of my character.

My working-class roots certainly contributed to my work ethic, but they also allowed me to believe the rewards I garnered were mostly about effort, even as white privilege supported me at every turn.

For about 40 years, then, I have been on a journey to confront not only my whiteness but also all whiteness.

Here is what I can confess at this moment on that journey.

Even as I did not create racism and white privilege, even as I have come to denounce the forces at the root of both (the enslavement of Black people, capitalism, etc.), I have daily benefitted from racism and white privilege.

Daily.

Moment by moment.

To be white in the U.S. is never to be neutral about race. Whiteness has a lift and momentum that carry me and all white people unless we actively resist it—and even then, at best, we are applying meager brakes, merely slowing that incessant force.

A person of the rural South, I know in my bones what Southern white poverty and ignorance look and sound like. I know they are real, and I have heard and still hear the voices of that angry whiteness who feel cheated by life, who can only exist in white denial because of the inability to confront their whiteness.

Systemic racism and white privilege can work invisibly to those who benefit from it. The mythologies of America have come out of racism and white privilege, working to maintain them and keep them invisible.

Rugged individualism and individual freedom implore us all to think about the individual person, and maintain a lie about individuality that keeps in place blinders hiding how the system only works in total whiteness.

Whiteness is the most powerful vaccination in the U.S., but like even the best vaccination, it isn’t universally effective.

White people fail, and white people struggle—while some Black people succeed, and some Black people seem to rise effortlessly above the barriers of racism and white privilege.

Confronting racism and white privilege, however, means coming to recognize that when white people fail and struggle, it isn’t because of their whiteness, but in spite of their whiteness.

Black people are daily, moment by moment, living under the weight their blackness because of racism and white privilege.

Despite the ever-trivialized manipulation of King’s “content of their character” message, in the U.S. whiteness trumps character and blackness renders character irrelevant.

In my journey confronting whiteness, then, I cannot be complacent simply in that confronting. White people created racism and white privilege; white people maintain racism and white privilege, both actively and in naive neutrality.

Only white people can dismantle racism and white privilege.

The very things that have allowed my success must be eradicated, and I must lend my hand to the dismantling.

Two acknowledgements sustain me in that quest.

Howard Zinn explored his life through a metaphor for understanding whiteness, warning that you cannot be neutral on a moving train.

And James Baldwin offered possibly the best discrediting of white denial in 1979:

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,” but they know they would not like to be black here [emphasis in original]. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

The system only works in total whiteness.

The system must change.


Comments Shared with my Colleagues on the Responsibility of the Intellectual

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Adrienne Rich, Arts of the Possible

Since this is a voluntary gathering of concerned faculty, I am going to risk assuming we are here mostly in solidarity.

None the less, I recognize I am offering at least two controversial points and asking that you afford them your immense breadth and depth of knowledge as well as your patience.

First, while it is now popular in this time of Trump for pundits and the media to wring their collective hands about post-truth and fake news, my opening controversial claim is that despite that attention, neither of these is something manufactured by Trump, and fake news is not the primary problem.

Please consider this Twitter exchange between me and Juana Summers, a well-respected journalist at NPR in 2014, the time of the exchange., and now with CNN:

Summers represents here a tradition that journalists and educators, including professors, assume a neutral pose, honoring a call that they remain apolitical.

In that context, let me ask you next to consider an article published in the New York Times  just a week before Trump’s inauguration: In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda.

The headline and the article itself are mainstream media, not fake news; yet, what that distinction reveals is that our day-to-day public discourse is often indistinguishable from the click bait and false content we are lamenting in fake news.

O’Connors article cites a study from the USDA, which along with this being in the NYT, appears to be credible and compelling.

However, Joe Soss, writing in Jacobin and professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, has exposed that O’Connor’s article badly misrepresents the USDA study and expresses instead ugly stereotypes about people in poverty, what many in the public believe about people depending on food stamps.

So my first controversial claim, which leads into the second, is that public discourse has crossed the Bigfoot line. While there is a spectrum from fake news (entirely false and created to generate clicks online and thus revenue) to mainstream journalism, virtually all of that fails policy and the public because of traditional and misguided commitments to neutrality, objectivity.

There was a time when the National Enquirer depended on a facile commitment to report without unpacking the credibility of the person making a claim; thus, “Hiker has close encounter with Bigfoot!”

Might we imagine that journalist deflecting: “I’m not sure it’s my place to say whether the hiker is credible”?

In that era, mainstream media mostly refused to cross that Bigfoot line. But today, major media outlets are debating if journalists should report “Trump makes claim X” or “Trump makes false claim X”—or even more astounding “Trump lies.”

So I want to end with my second controversial claim.

If you google “fake news,” you are likely to read about a Davidson College graduate, and for us, this may trigger our own Yik-Yak founders.

I think this is not a trivial connection as we gather in our concern as university faculty, intellectuals, serving the liberal arts and our disciplines.

Across our campus, across our disciplines, the liberal arts is an argument that each of our fields is one way of coming to know the human condition. From biology to religion, from economics to philosophy, from psychology to education, and everything in between, we are carefully considering not only what knowledge exists, but what knowledge matters.

Our collective knowledge, or collective pursuit of knowledge, is more likely to serve us well than any one alone.

And then, there is the whole world beyond our beautiful fountains.

Therefore, when Donald Trump says torture works, or when his final TV ad in SC blatantly falsified data on the employment and crime rates, I think about fake news, hot new smartphone Apps, and the failures of mainstream media—each of which fails us if we resist looking at this world informed, if we pretend we can be apolitical, if we close our eyes to larger questions of ethics and morality.

The responsibility of the intellectual—and that includes us—is not about taking a neutral pose, but about speaking beyond those fountains, about modeling what it means to be well informed, to honor the truth, as difficult as at that is to attain, and to model for everyone what it looks like to work in the service of humanity, and not simply to say what you are paid to say, not simply to advocate for your own self-interest.

The responsibility of the intellectual is inescapably political, even as we pledge rightfully to be non-partisan.

Now, I end by appealing as an old English teacher, a writer, must—through metaphor.

Activist historian Howard Zinn’s memoir argues that the human condition is a moving train, and any of us who choose to sit quietly are in effect endorsing where that train is heading.

And thus, as Zinn believed and practiced, ours is always a political act—whether in our passivity or our action.

The responsibility of the intellectual?

For me, it is acknowledging that you cannot be neutral on a moving train, and I must add, you must not be neutral on a disaster-bound train—so I urge that we express our concern as action, informed and ethical.

Fair and Balanced Education and Journalism: On the Death of Democracy

Once I posted a reader for Trumplandia, based on the increased sales of George Orwell’s 1984 as well as the related thought pieces on important texts from Orwell and other writers, I was not surprised by the expected response calling for teachers and classrooms to be somehow politically neutral.

I have rejected this idea often, focusing on Howard Zinn’s brilliant metaphor of being unable to remain neutral on a moving train. Both calling for no politics in any context and taking a neutral stance are, in fact, political themselves—the former is a political strategy to deny some Others their politics while imposing your own and the latter is the politics of passively endorsing the status quo (in a society where racism and sexism, for example, continue to thrive, being neutral is an indirect endorsement of both).

Education and journalism—universal free public education and the free press—share many important and disturbing qualities: they are essential to the creation and preservation of a free and equitable people, they remain mostly unachieved in the U.S. in practice because they are often the tools of powerful people and forces who distort their ideal contributions to democracy and equity, and at the heart of that failure (we have failed them; they have not failed us) is the shared traditional code of education/teachers and journalism/journalists assuming neutral poses, being forced into a state of objectively presenting both sides in a fair and balanced way.

Particularly in the post-truth times we now find ourselves—and I argue we are here because of our failures in education and journalism—demanding that educators and journalists remain neutral is not the right goal and not actually how either functions.

In fact, education and journalism are always political, and in most contexts, educators and journalists routinely break the rule of neutrality—and thus, when anyone wags a finger and exclaims “We must be fair and balanced! Show both sides!” the truth is not that educators or journalists are being ideological or biased, but that someone in power feels that his/her politics is being challenged.

Let me illustrate in both education and journalism, starting with the media.

As I have noted before, when we compare the Ray Rice inspired public debate about domestic abuse to the Adrian Peterson motivated public debate about corporal punishment, the unbiased press myth is completely unmasked because domestic abuse (men hitting and psychologically abusing women) was entirely examined throughout the media as wrong (no pro-abuse side aired) while that same media almost exclusively presented corporal punishment as a debate with a fair and balanced presentation of both sides to adults hitting children.

What is clear here is incredibly disturbing: The media, in fact, make decisions about when to honor credible positions, when to reject or even not cover invalidated and unethical positions, and when to shrink back into the “both sides” cover.

While decades of research and the same ethical concerns about power and abuse related to rejecting domestic abuse entirely refute corporal punishment, the media have chosen to remain neutral on a moving train aimed at the health and well being of powerless children.

In other words, when media shirks its role in creating and maintaining a free and equitable people behind its tin shield of objectivity—think about always framing evolution or climate change as debates, as if “both sides” are equally credible when they are not—this is a dishonest pose because the media routinely take sides.

Finally, I want to highlight that education represents this same dishonest dynamic—claiming to be apolitical, or aspiring to be apolitical, while often taking sides.

Unless I am misreading the current mood of the country, the rise of interest in 1984 and other works of literature similar to Orwell’s is along a spectrum of concern about to fear of the rise of fascism and totalitarianism. Concurrently, with the public discussions about fake news and post-truth, we are experiencing a renaissance in examining how power and language are inseparable.

So what does it mean when teachers call for presenting both side of this debate when we bring politically charged novels by Orwell or Margaret Atwood into high school and college classes?

Before answering, let me offer a few examples from typical lessons found in high schools for virtually every student.

Both the Holocaust and slavery in the U.S. are taught as foundational content in anyone’s education; these are disturbing topics, and hard issues.

When we teach the Holocaust, notably through Night by Elie Wiesel in an English course, do we rush to have students read Hitler’s Mein Kamft to fairly represent both sides, treating each position as morally equivalent, allowing our students to choose whichever position she/he wishes?

When we teach U.S. slavery, possibly having students read Frederick Douglass, do we also find eugenicists’ and racists’ declarations demonizing blacks to fairly represent both sides, treating each position as morally equivalent, allowing our students to choose whichever position she/he wishes?

As in the media, educators at all levels routinely take sides—the answer to the two questions above reveal.

And thus, returning to the push back to my Trumplandia reader, I am lost on how or why educators would find ways to present pro-fascist ideas to balance literature study about the threats of fascism and totalitarianism.

Using Orwell and all sorts of powerful literature to help students on the cusp of or early in their roles as active participants in a democracy to better read the world and better act on that world in informed and ethical ways is the very essence of politics, one not corrupted by simplistic partisan politics of endorsing Democrats [1] or Republicans (which is worth resisting in education and journalism).

In 2017, the U.S. and even the entire world are faced with whether or not we truly believe in freedom and equity, whether or not we are willing to invest in the institutions that can leverage both that freedom and equity—institutions such as formal education and the media. And we have been here before, in the same words and the same actions. [2]

If the answer is yes, then our resolve must be linked to demanding that our teachers and journalists are grounded in taking informed and ethical stands, not the dishonest and uncritical pose of objectivity.

As I have shown above, neither is really being neutral now, but instead, pulling out the objective card only when it serves the interest of the status quo.

Critical educators and critical journalists must not serve the whims of power and money, and must be transparent in their pursuit of credible evidence and ethical behavior.

To frame everything as a debate with equally credible antithetical sides is dishonest and insufficient for the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Teachers and journalists are always political agents; both professions must choose in whose interest they are willing to work.

The neutral pose by either is to take a seat on the train, to keep eyes down, and to allow the train to rumble along as if the tracks are not leading to a cliff.

Pretending that cliff isn’t now on our horizon will not stop the train from crashing on the rocks of the coming abyss.


[1] My political work is not partisan, for example, as I have been warning about the Orwellian failures of political parties for many years; see Orwellian Educational Change under Obama: Crisis Discourse, Utopian Expectations, and Accountability Failures by Paul Thomas.

[2]

seuss-america-first

“How can anybody know/How they got to be this way?”

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?

“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

It’s 7 January 2017, Zore Neale Hurston‘s birth day; Hurston passed away 28 January 1960, a couple days short of one year before my birth 26 January 1961.

So my 56th birth day looms fewer than 3 weeks away.

Today, the world looks unusual for us in South Carolina:

snow-2
Skylar contemplates the necessity of pants for her snow adventure at the new home.

snow-1
The view from my back door for Flurrypocalypse 2017. Throughout the area, grocery stores have no bread or milk.

New years are arbitrary measures of time, and we humans seek any ways possible to understand and control the human condition. The calendar and holidays are some ways we have manufactured to name, organize, and maintain our grip.

As I have detailed lately, today also marks two weeks since I and several other cyclists were struck by a motorist. Writing this now, I notice in just a few minutes, the time will be about exactly when that happened on the morning of Christmas Eve 2016.

I have also confessed that my life has changed. Over the past week, I must admit that it has changed even more than I thought.

Without cycling, I have way too much time, but I also have found it difficult to commit to things the same way I have before. Pain is a problem—distracting and the most potent fertilizer possible for my chronic anxiety and occasional depression.

Yesterday, I finally had a visit with the orthopedist who viewed my x-rays at the emergency room, and almost immediately, I felt better just knowing more from someone with the sort of expertise I do not have.

My medication ran out a few days before this appointment, and along with the increased pain, my fretting was nearly debilitating.

It is embarrassing, but when the anxiety increases, my life is significantly reduced. I worry, and worrying is a very deep well I have trouble climbing out, a very deep well from which I fear I can never climb out.

I have confronted that my life as a road cyclist is likely over; a decision made for me, and a consequence of the accident about which I may be the most viscerally angry.

Anxiety for me is also fed by not knowing—the lowest pit of hell. And I am now swamped by not knowing how the insurance will work out (except to know this is going to be problematic), and not really knowing how soon I will be physically 100% again (I mean as 100% as a 56-year-old man can be).

Just normal aging has always terrified me in terms of the specter of knowing that human behaviors of many kinds will end, and likely without warning. Many things I love to do will no longer be possible just because that is one fact of the human condition.

I have a plan—a way to be hopeful: climbing on the dreaded cycling trainer by week 3 or 4 of the recovery, and as my orthopedist offered without me having to ask, being back on the MTB in 6 weeks or less.

Being mostly immobile and mostly inside has not helped any of this. A huge part of my cycling addiction is connected to constant and extended movement while being outside in the sunshine.

Most bicycle rides are 1.5 hours to 3-4 hours—even once a year, 11-12 hours of riding over 220 miles.

In 2016, I did 246 rides in 365 days, basically riding 2 of every 3 days. There simply is no physical activity possible to replace that.

For two weeks now, I have ridden only the couch.

radical eyes for equity: “Reality bites”

This has been a long build up to explaining why I renamed and chose a different template for this blog.

Blogging, I have discovered, is a powerful way for a writer to gain some of that understanding and control at the center of the human urge.

I started blogging at established but open sites many years ago, and then committed to this WordPress blog four years ago—completely unsure if or why anyone would read my work.

At the beginning, I already had come to terms with rejecting the liberal (versus conservative) tag too strongly anchored in partisan politics, and fully embraced Howard Zinn’s reclaiming the term “radical.” [1]

Naming my blog “the becoming radical” sought to acknowledge being a writer and being a critical educator were always a journey, not a destination, not static—again speaking to Zinn’s “moving train” metaphor.

Especially after working on a volume about James Baldwin in 2014, my focus, my refrain has shifted strongly toward Baldwin:

rigid refusal

As I noted in the prolonged opening, naming and organizing are efforts to understand and control; therefore, as I have changed—and as some of that has been against my will, not of my design—this new year and the horror of Trump before us (just when you think things cannot be worse) have converged with my personal development and my evolution as a writer/thinker/educator.

First, the new template.

I have always wanted a blog that doesn’t look like the stereotype of a blog as something not serious or possibly scholarly (since many people, especially in the academy, don’t value blogging), and I have distinct color and font proclivities.

Immobile and in pain (a dear friend quipped, “You have too much time on your hands”), I searched the free WordPress templates and found what you see now. The green, lower-case lettering of the header, font choices, and ability to control a sidebar all clicked with me. This seems relatively clean and accessible.

I hope my blog readers agree.

But all of that is cosmetic. The main shift has been the new title—radical eyes for equity—which incorporates word play (“radical eyes” = “radicalize”), an allusion to Baldwin’s “rigid refusal to look at ourselves,” and a more clear statement about my grounding in the pursuit of equity—race, class, gender, and sexuality equity.

I cannot explain how I got here, or even fully who I am or what “here” is, but I am here, and this is now, and this is all I can do.

I sit here ending this blog and the sun is shining while it continues to snow in South Carolina, where the temperature is still below freezing.

“What the hell” seems to have become my standard response to this world, but there is work to be done, living to be lived.

I hope you reading and even more will be willing, even eager, to join me here as I try my best to understand and control this thing called the human condition with radical eyes for equity.

And if you join this adventure, I think this from Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart deserves our attention, and it weighs particularly heavy on me now:

hm-ss-reality


[1] From You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn (1994):

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. . . .From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian. (pp. 7, 173)

 

The Inevitable Rise of Trumplandia: Market Ideology Ate Our Democracy

Writing in 2000 specifically about education reform, Michael Engel [1] acknowledges: “Market ideology has triumphed over democratic values not because of its superiority as a theory of society but in part because in a capitalist system it has an inherent advantage” (p. 9).

Nearly four decades before Engel’s claim, Raymond E. Callahan [2] confronted what he labeled the cult of efficiency in education:

The tragedy itself was fourfold: that educational questions were subordinated to business considerations; that administrators were produced who were not, in any true sense, educators; that a scientific label was put on some very unscientific and dubious methods and practices; and that an anti-intellectual climate, already prevalent, was strengthened. (p. 246)

What is disturbingly clear here is that despite the enduring claims that universal public education—often attributed to the idealistic foresight of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson—serves our democracy, public schooling has in fact worked almost entirely in the service of market ideology: sorting children for the workforce and instilling compliance in those young people become good and compliant workers [3].

And here we have a subset of the entire country.

While many are wringing their hands about the post-truth U.S., our newly minted Trumplandia is not anything new, but the logical outcome of who we have always been—a belief culture skirting by on mythologies and false narratives to mask the ugly facts of our essential commitments to competition, consumerism, and capitalism.

Donald Trump is the best and most accurate personification of who the U.S. currently is, but also the embodiment of who we have always been.

Founded as a revolt against monarchy, the Founding Fathers used the rhetoric of freedom as a veneer for a few privileged men truly wanting the doors to exploitation, not closed, but opened just a tad wider so they could cozy in.

The newly founded free country allowed by law the enslavement of humans and the relegation of women to second-class citizenship.

“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was post-truth.

Or at least only the sliver of truth for a select few white men already clutching power.

All you have to do is to listen now or to the record of black voices, women’s voices, the voices of the imprisoned and impoverished: “(America never was America to me.)” [4]

Just as the robber baron era of U.S. history was no blip on the country’s radar, but who we really are, the current ascension of Trumplandia is simply a more full unmasking of our complete failure at democracy and human liberation.

Trump’s apparent cabinet appointments, his claims he doesn’t need daily briefings, and the brash blurring of celebrity and huckster business acumen—these are the U.S. laid bare.

We have always been mostly branding—meritocracy, boot straps, upward mobility as marketing lingo with little basis in fact.

Political leaders have always sold the U.S. public a bill of goods wrapped in the American flag; George W. Bush sold a war on repackaged lies, and there were essentially only consequences for the soldiers, the U.S. public, and the victims of that war.

But the warmongers remain essentially unscathed.

And thus, Trump as Teflon blow hard reality TV star/business huckster is just a few notches past Ronald Reagan as Teflon actor.

The ugliest paradox of all is that in our lust for consumerism we have allowed market ideology to eat our democracy, and as the metaphor requires, the excrement has really hit the fan this time.


[1] Engel, M. (2000). The struggle for control of public education: Market ideology vs. democratic values. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

[2] Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[3] See Education Technology and the ‘New Economy,’ Audrey Watters:

Although there is some lip service paid to learning computer programming in order to deepen students’ thinking and expand their creativity, much of the conversation about computer science is framed in terms of developing students who are “job ready” – the rationale for teaching computer science President Obama gave in his final State of the Union address in January.

[4] “Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes

Now What?

Additionally many educators no longer feel a sense of responsibility for engaging difficult questions because educational institutions reward them for avoiding controversy and confirming the status quo.

The Answer is Not at the Back of the Book, Seneca Vaught

19 January 2016. It is the day after the official holiday commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. and MLK’s actual birthday—a span of days blanketed with tributes as well as every conceivable way one man’s words and legacy can be twisted to suit a need.

MLK Day 2016 passed in the wake of #ReclaimMLK, #BlackLivesMatter, and #OscarsSoWhite (just to note a few), and now we walk and talk through the days before Black History Month.

Now what?

MLK Day and Black History Month are mostly so much tokenism and appropriation—or better phrased misappropriation.

As the #ReclaimMLK movement has emphasized, MLK has become a whitewashed martyr, a passive radical serving the purposes of the privileged.

I began teaching the radical MLK over thirty years ago, along side Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Malcolm X as well as Gandhi. Eventually I added Howard Zinn’s People’s History.

This was in rural upstate South Carolina in the 1980s and 1990s. This was not a popular or easy thing to do. But it taught me some valuable lessons as a privileged white male.

Race, class, and gender are irrefutable markers for privilege and oppression, but those markers are not the roots of that privilege and oppression.

Privilege is about ideas, privileged ideas.

MLK the passive radical is allowed because sanitized ideas are safe for those in power. The real MLK, radical anti-war, radical anti-capitalism—these ideas are not allowed, remain purposefully muted.

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.”

Now what? is informed by the Bill Cosby problems—and yes, I mean plural.

The Cosby sexual predator problem has taken years to rise through the Cosby problem deliberately silenced, and preferably unheard: Cosby’s sit-com fame and popularity as a public black-shamer.

Cosby thrived and survived his own demons in part because despite his surface markers of disadvantage, he was embraced for his ideas, ones that conformed to the messages of the privileged class—boot straps and all that.

And it is no stretch to note that the silenced and unheard Cosby problem has been replayed when Hillary Clinton (against her burden of gender) received applauds for her “what if white people suffered as black people do” stump speech.

Yes, there is privilege in all its blindingly white light like the myopic #AllLivesMatter.

What if a free people refused to tolerate anyone’s indignity remains silenced, unheard.

Privilege is an idea, a series of ideas—ones that can be and are voiced by a wide variety of people who look like privilege and look like oppression.

If we want to embrace MLK as a martyr for a color-blind society, we must admit that privilege feeds on seeing, but wilts under the scrutiny of listening. It is not that we should not see race, class, and gender, but that we must listen to the messages behind what we see.

Privilege twists MLK into a cartoon and builds walls around anyone willing to tell the story.

Privilege does not want to hear that equal rights do not mean equal opportunity.

Privilege is threatened by critical education, critical media, critical citizens.

“The purpose of history is not to confirm the answers,” Seneca Vaught explains, “but to challenge the assumptions and raise new questions about the past that relate to the present.”

19 January 2016. A week and a half before Black History Month 2016.

Now what?