Category Archives: Paulo Freire

Lemmings

My nephew realized during our texting the other day that he had failed to tell me about a sudden memory.

While eating gummy bears, he wasn’t paying attention as he popped one after the other into his mouth until he really liked one. He stopped chewing and checked the half-eaten gummy, a clear one.

That triggered the memory of my mother (his grandmother who mostly raised him) telling him that those were my favorite gummies.

We then texted a while about how and why we have such vivid memories as humans as well as how we know things.

In short, our memories and bodies of knowledge are swirling with many elements of our experiences. I mentioned to my nephew that I usually ask classes of students if they recall the first time visiting a friend’s house and thinking it smelled weird (or even bad).

Virtually everyone immediately perks up because this experience is so vivid in our memories.

My goal in that brief exercise is to help students confront how we associate “different” with “bad,” and as critical educators, we must move past that judgmental state.

But this texting was also a trigger for me.

I am resistant to and very rarely fly—not because I am afraid of flying (yes, I am rational enough to know flying is far safer than driving), but because almost all of the experiences around flying trigger my anxiety.

Flying is a series of first experiences (a nightmare for me), racing to meet schedules beyond your control (including sudden gate changes and flight delays, etc.), and worst of all, a toxic soup of cramped spaces and loud noises.

Last week, I attended and presented at two conferences requiring me to fly from Upstate SC to Detroit (Troy, MI) and then to LA (Anaheim) before returning to the Greenville/Spartanburg SC area. That trip involved 6 plane flights and three hotels over just five days.

The very worst part of the trip was finally arriving at LAX from Detroit, a segment of the journey that began just after lunch EST and involved me walk-running through the Houston airport and having no food from noon EST until midnight PST.

As noted above, I struggle with my anxiety in any new situations and securing an Uber at LAX was my very first Uber experience—which nearly drained me as finding a way to secure a ride through the App wasn’t working in the airport and then took 1.5 hours to complete after reaching the pick up area outside the airport.

I found myself standing at my hotel around midnight being told that they were completely full, and despite my having a reservation, they were moving me to another hotel.

That other hotel was just on the opposite side of the convention center from the hotel where I stood, but the manager gave me the wrong directions leaving me wandering around Anaheim near Disney, again, after midnight.

Sweating, exhausted, and starving, I opened my Google App and discovered I should have turned left instead of the right I was told.

I dropped into bed, still no food, completely exhausted about 1 PM PST, where I stayed only about 4 hours before being up to (finally) eat some food, make my move to the original hotel, and make my major roundtable by 12:30.

Most of this trip felt like standing in line or being packed into seats far too small for humans and everything—every thing—costing far too much—with human choice cast to the ditch all along the way.

It’s a small world after all.

As we stood packed together for one of the flights home, I had a sudden memory like my nephew.

I thought “lemmings.”

My adolescence was spent in the 1970s. I recall vividly discovering the new music of The Police when waking up one morning in my childhood bedroom. The song was “Roxanne,” and The Police would become one of those foundational parts of my music-crush history.

In those formative years, a starting metamorphosis occurred.

Concurrent with my introduction to reading and collecting comic books along with being a closeted science fiction novel fan, I was increasingly drawn to popular music lyrics.

Pink Floyd, The Police, Eagles, Billy Joel, and others provided for me some of the first places that I recognized purposeful writing—of course this genesis of my own love for reading and writing poetry.

Standing in line, mindlessly herded, I thought “lemming,” and also that I learned the word from “Synchonicity II” on The Police’s Synchronicity. That album and song title also led me to explore the word “synchronicity.”

My earliest memory of learning words from popular music is “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, a song that drove me to both the dictionary and the Bible.

Toward the end of my year 61, I am also fascinated by my experience with the word “lemming” because like “coyote,” it provides a wonderful example of how idiosyncratic reading, learning to read, and knowledge are for us humans.

The Police were using “lemming” to evoke the song’s message about the dehumanizing aspects of modern life:

Another working day has ended
Only the rush hour hell to face
Packed like lemmings
Into shiny metal boxes
Contestants in a suicidal race.

“Synchonicity II,” The Police


When I heard this song 40 years ago, I had no real access or inclination to check the association being made with lemmings, what turns out to be a fabricated story of animals who are suicidal:

So why is the myth of mass lemming suicide so widely believed? For one, it provides an irresistible metaphor for human behavior. Someone who blindly follows a crowd—maybe even toward catastrophe—is called a lemming. Over the past century, the myth has been invoked to express modern anxieties about how individuality could be submerged and destroyed by mass phenomena, such as political movements or consumer culture.

But the biggest reason the myth endures? Deliberate fraud. For the 1958 Disney nature film White Wilderness, filmmakers eager for dramatic footage staged a lemming death plunge, pushing dozens of lemmings off a cliff while cameras were rolling. The images—shocking at the time for what they seemed to show about the cruelty of nature and shocking now for what they actually show about the cruelty of humans—convinced several generations of moviegoers that these little rodents do, in fact, possess a bizarre instinct to destroy themselves.

Do Lemmings Really Commit Mass Suicide?

So here is the complicated reality about “lemmings” and how I came to know the word.

First, I hear Sting’s British pronunciation any time I think of the word. My Southern version is quite different, but I know the word in a layer of subtle ways to say the word aloud.

Next, I now know not only the flawed but enduring meaning of “lemming” (the metaphor for mindless human obedience that is self-defeating), but also the fascinating and disturbing back story to how an Urban Legend and cultural myth come to be.

To read with comprehension, we humans certainly need a complex toolbox of decoding, word recognition, and knowledge; however, how that toolbox is formed remains mostly idiosyncratic and very difficult to prescribe.

I imagine many of my teachers were given credit by proximity for my developing (and often) advanced literacy throughout my junior high and high school years.

Yet, my word recognition and knowledge base were overwhelmingly fostered out of school—reading comics and science fiction, listening for hours while staring at liner notes in pop music.

Also in my seventh decade on this planet, I watch my grandchildren blossom with literacy that is grounded in video games, YouTube, and cartoons. Their knowledge base, like mine, comes disproportionately from their hobbies, the things they love.

Our literacy, if allowed, is inextricable from our passions.

This is Freire’s writing and reading the world, using our language to make sense of the world we are given and to create the world we want and need.

Here is the great and sad irony: Formal schooling and the teaching of reading are all too often the perfect context for evoking the enduring by inaccurate association we all have with lemmings.

We have a faction of people who persist in “all students must” approaches to very small children coming to know the world and the enchanting beauty of language.

Like the commuters packed like lemmings/sardines in their cars, like all the travelers with me marched through boarding and then packed into those planes, children pre-K through grade 12 are marched through schooling and taught that reading is not in fact beautiful but a way to create the sort of workers The Police recognized: “He doesn’t think to wonder why.”

We are marching together to the end of 2022, a year when literacy and literature are under assault, and thus, our children and our freedom are under assault.

We will goose step into 2023 with “lemmings” being the perfect mascot for who were are, thoughtlessly on a suicide march that was manufactured in a Disney studio.

The High Cost of Marketing Educational Crisis

My foundations of American education course serves as an introduction to public education and our education majors, but the course also fulfills a general education requirement.

The class comprises mostly first- and second-year students, and those considering education as a major or career can be most of the class or very few. None the less, virtually all of them are a bit disoriented when we begin the course reading philosophers—Foucault, Deleuze, and Freire specifically.

I invite them to read some relatively brief passages from all three, warn them that reading philosophy is challenging, and then reassure them that we are simply using these ideas to begin our semester-long interrogation of how we have public schools and why.

When 2022 NAEP data were released, I immediately thought about a few things.

First, with the dramatic coverage of math scores dropping (see HERE and HERE), I told a few friends to brace themselves for the inevitable next step. And it took only about one day for my prediction to happen with an ad popping up on Facebook:

In the U.S., notably since the release of A Nation at Risk (see HERE and HERE) in the early 1980s, the easiest thing to predict is that the education market place is going to profit from educational crisis.

This fits into my second thought, which is the current and ongoing “science of reading” crisis that was prompted in 2018 by Emily Hanford, but was significantly boosted by the cries of “reading crisis” after the release of the 2019 NAEP data (see HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE).

Now, I regret to note, math will be the next over-reaction, as the ad above shows now that edu-businesses scramble to add math to their offering for reading—solutions need a problem, and high-stakes testing is a problem machine.

And the big picture thing I thought about was Deleuze, from the reading I have students consider:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family….The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In disciplinary societies one was always starting again (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)

“Postscript on the Societies of Control,” Giles Deleuze

Deleuze builds to a powerful and prescient warning:

For the school system (emphasis in original): continuous forms of control, and the effect on the school of perpetual training, the corresponding abandonment of all university research, the introduction of the “corporation” at all levels of schooling. (p. 7)

“Postscript on the Societies of Control,” Giles Deleuze

As a key example, many (if not most) teachers of reading in the U.S. now are being told that their university training was useless, and that they need new training in the “science of reading.” And education corporations are lining up to sell schools that training, a story sold with the “science of reading” label (see about LETRS).

Just to be clear, this is not about the failure of teacher certification or about teaching teachers to teach or students to read; this is about profit through perpetual crisis and (re)training.

And here is the disconnect.

While I carefully help students over the course of a semester examine the claimed democratic foundations of public education (well documented in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and key figures in American education such as John Dewey), we quickly uncover that those democratic ideals are often secondary—or even erased—by market commitments.

So here we are in 2022 still riding the wave of accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing that began with A Nation at Risk and built to George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

As early as the 1990s, however, many education scholars warned that this education crisis was manufactured—essentially a political lie that was bolstered by a media frenzy and a market grab.

The education crisis/education market place dynamic has been in full swing for over forty years now, and the ugly truth is that all of the crisis rhetoric used to justify incessant accountability layered onto a constant process of new standards and new tests is, as Berliner and Biddle documented, manufactured, a lie.

As compelling as it is, we simply do not now have a reading crisis; we have never had a reading crisis.

And NAEP 2022 data do not expose a math crisis.

“Crisis” suggests something new, immediate, and pressing to address.

Student learning has been about the same for nearly a century. Some students thrive (mostly correlated with affluence and being white), many students learn in spite of the system, and too many students are neglected or mis-served (correlated strongly with poverty, minoritized race, multi-language learning, and special needs).

Just to swing back to reading, there is no decade (or even year) over the last 80 years that public, media, and political opinions expressed satisfaction in reading achievement; student reading proficiency has always been characterized as failing, and a crisis.

Always.

As we creep toward an election, we need to admit a few things.

First, the market and commercialism matter more in the U.S. than democracy or even freedom.

We not only want schools to produce (compliant) workers, but also have turned public education into a crisis-based education market place.

Take a little journey to Education Week‘s web site and note that flurry of ads for the “science of reading,” for example:

And monitor over the coming weeks; you’ll see more and more addressing math.

Since 2018, media has generated millions of clicks with coverage of the “science of reading,” journalists are winning cash awards and receiving huge speaking fees to discuss the “science of reading,” and education corporations are pulling in millions for software, programs, and training labeled the “science of reading.”

Please take just a brief historical overview since the 1980s. Not a single reform has worked, not a single crisis/reform cycle has been deemed a success.

As Deleuze explains, the point of crisis/reform is to remain always in crisis/reform because that cycle creates a market, and for some people, that market generates profit.

But that crisis/reform cycle has a high cost for students, teachers, and society.

The “science of reading” crisis ironically follows just about two decades after the reading crisis identified by the National Reading Panel and at the center of NCLB—which mandated that teachers had to implement only scientifically-based practices (notably in reading).

That failed (apparently) and the current response is to shout (once again) “crisis!” and demand that mandates restrict teaching to the “science of reading.”

Four decades-plus into a crisis/reform hole and we continue to dig.

Part of me feels sorry for what is about to happen to math, and part of me feels really bad that I hope the coming math nonsense will relieve a little pressure from reading.

But mostly, I hate the lies, political, media, and commercial interests that are eager to shout “crisis!” because in the spirit of the good ol’ U.S. of A., there is money to made in all that bullshit.


Recommended

Did we need NAEP to tell us students aren’t doing well? (The Answer Sheet)

“We Are Entering the Age of Infinite Examination”

Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading

Paulo Freire: “Reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”

While Paulo Freire is strongly associated with critical pedagogy, I often remind myself that Freire came to his philosophy of teaching and learning through his commitment to teaching adults to read and write.

The U.S, finds itself repeatedly in a state of crisis-paralysis because people periodically discover illiteracy and aliteracy among our students and even adults.

The irony of the nearly nonstop and melodramatic cries of “reading crisis” is that the need for literacy always remains vital for human autonomy, human dignity, and human freedom, but the crisis approach always fails that need.

The problem is that public fears around illiteracy and aliteracy are often overly simplistic, and then calls for solving the “reading crisis” are equally simplistic.

The current Reading War driven by the “science of reading” movement is once again repeating that failed dynamic, notably by claiming that the simple view of reading (SVR) is the current and settled reading science (it isn’t; see here).

And concurrent with this Reading War is a dramatic rise in censorship and book banning—yet another layer of misunderstanding reading and teaching/learning.

Since we seem destined to remain stuck in misreading reading, I want to share Freire’s The Importance of the Act of Reading as an ideal text to reconsider what reading is and why literacy is central to the human condition.

First and vital to understanding literacy, Freire begins by asserting “the practice of teaching—which is political practice as well.”

In other words, teaching reading and any reading done by students (or anyone) are inherently political acts—behaviors that necessarily place humans in situations of power imbalances.

Freire’s meditation on reading was originally presented as a talk in Brazil in 1981. Then, Freire challenged the mechanical and reductive view of reading:

Reading is not exhausted merely by decoding the written word or written language, but rather anticipated by and extending into knowledge of the world. Reading the world precedes reading the word, and the subsequent reading of the word cannot dispense with continually reading the world. Language and reality are dynamically intertwined. The understanding attained by critical reading of a text implies perceiving the relationship between text and context.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

One side of the reading debate often focuses on isolated text-only approaches that argue for phonics-first and/or systematic phonics instruction for all before addressing comprehension (or critical comprehension, which is often only approached for some students deemed “advanced”).

Freire, however, grounds reading in the context of reading the world before beginning to decode text for meaning.

In short, context matters, and lived experiences form the basis of anyone acquiring reading and writing. This is key to understanding the problem with focusing exclusively or primarily on in-school reading and writing instruction.

If we in the U.S. value reading for all students and adults, we must acknowledge that addressing the lived experiences of all people—eliminating poverty, food insecurity, job insecurity, etc.—is an essential aspect of needed reading policy.

Simply changing how we teach reading will never achieve the goals we claim to have.

And in this talk, Freire used his own experiences to think aloud and complexly about reading:

I put objective distance between myself and the different moments in which the act of reading occurred in my existential experience: first, reading the world, the tiny world in which I moved; afterwards, reading the word, not always the word-world in the course of my schooling.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

Yes, young students must make the transition from reading their world to reading the word, but those acts of reading cannot (and should not) be separated (think of the reductive practice of having students pronounce nonsense words).

Freire speaks not only to acquiring reading, but also to why we read—and this is a powerful refuting of the rise in censorship and book bans being imposed by some parents onto all parents and students:

As I became familiar with my world, however, as I perceived and understood it better by reading it, my terrors diminished.

It is important to add that reading my world, always basic to me, did not make me grow up prematurely, a rationalist in boy’s clothing. Exercising my boy’s curiosity did not distort it, nor did understanding my world cause me to scorn the enchanting mystery of that world. In this I was aided rather than discouraged by my parents.

It was precisely my parents who introduced me to reading the word at a certain moment in this rich experience of understanding my immediate world.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

Like Freire, my journey to literacy was enthusiastically driven by my parents and their commitment to me having free access to essentially anything I wanted to read. And like Freire, I had that freedom significantly reinforced by teachers when I was in high school:

I would like to go back to a time when I was a secondary-school student. There I gained experience in the critical interpretation of texts I read in class with the Portuguese teacher’s help, which I remember to this day. Those moments did not consist of mere exercises, aimed at our simply becoming aware of the existence of the page in front of us, to be scanned, mechanically and monotonously spelled out, instead of truly read. Those moments were not reading lessons in the traditional sense, but rather moments in which texts were offered to our restless searching, including that of the young teacher, Jose Pessoa.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

Reading and all literacy as well as formal and informal education are human ways of coming to understand the world—including the dark and light—so that we gain agency in our living, so that we are not paralyzed by fear and ignorance.

The why and how of reading, then, are not mere mechanics, but a complex process of critical comprehension:

Mechanically memorizing the description of an object does not constitute knowing the object. That is why reading a text taken as pure description of an object (like a syntactical rule), and undertaken to memorize the description, is neither real reading, nor does it result in knowledge of the object to which the text refers.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

And regardless of the simplistic calls by Republicans and conservatives to “just teach” and to not be political, we must recognize that all teaching, learning, and literacy are political acts. As he did throughout his career, Freire denounced the banking concept of teaching that erases human agency and views students as empty piggy banks into which teachers deposit value:

First, I would like to reaffirm that I always saw teaching adults to read and write as a political act, an act of knowledge, and therefore as a creative act. I would find it impossible to be engaged in a work of mechanically memorizing vowel sounds, like in the exercises ba-be-bi-bo-bu, la-le-li-lo-lu. Nor could I reduce learning to read and write merely to learning words, syllables, or letters, a process of teaching in which the teacher fills the supposedly empty heads of the learners with his or her words. On the contrary, the student is the subject of the process of learning to read and write as an act of knowing and a creative act. The fact that he or she needs the teacher’s help, as in the pedagogical situation, does not mean that the teacher’s help annuls the student’s creativity and responsibility for constructing his or her own written language and reading this language.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

Freire builds to this: “Reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”

Reading is not simply decoding text or recognizing whole words. Reading is context, and reading requires context—a context that is far more than letters, sounds, words, sentences, and paragraphs.

Reading is a very human and individual act because “reading always involves critical perception, interpretation, and re-wrìting what is read,” which is how Freire wrote his talk before sharing it aloud as yet another act of re-reading in order to re-write.


Freire’s essay anchors this award-winning volume: The SAGE handbook of critical pedagogies.

IndoctriNation: Can We Avoid Our Dystopian Republican Future?

“I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes,” Commander Buck Murdock (William Shatner) muses in Airplane 2: The Sequel.

I immediately thought of this iconic Shatner scene from the Jerry Zucker-Jim Abrahams-David Zucker film when I saw a brilliant and urgently serious post on Facebook from a former student of mine currently advocating for all that is Good and Right in her crumbling state of Virginia:

While Stephanie hits succinctly right at the heart of the irony surrounding the current push by Republicans to mandate educational gag orders, parental trigger bills, and a wide range of censorship for not only school and colleges but also throughout society, I want to highlight how the irony is a veneer for the Republican long game.

Many people have now exposed that the Republican use of “Critical Race Theory” is an orchestrated lie for larger political goals since their definitions of CRT are distortions and misinformation.

But what exactly is that end game?

First, let’s unpack the monumental irony in the “Education Not Indoctrination” claims of Republicans.

A related element of the anti-CRT movement is linking CRT to “Marxism” (itself a distortion bordering on a lie), but the more telling aspect of that connection is that Marxist and critical educators forefront a genuine and resolute rejection of indoctrination. As Joe Kincheloe details, seeking out and exposing those who indoctrinate is a “central tenet” of being critical:

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….

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students. This is a central tenet of critical pedagogy.

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner. Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom. (pp. 2, 11)

JOE KINCHELOE, CRITICAL PEDAGOGY PRIMER

Therefore, if an educator is leftist, Marxist, or critical, they are dedicated to not only seeking out and contesting anyone who indoctrinates, but also working continuously to avoid allowing their own teaching to devolve into indoctrination.

To indoctrinate is to be authoritarian (see Paulo Freire’s distinction between “authoritarian” and “authoritative” in the context of critical pedagogy).

Along with the foundational strategy of using lies and mischaracterized terms to advance a political agenda, Republicans also are guilty of projection: Almost everything Republicans attribute to the “Left” is what they actually do (Republicans decry a false specter of “cancel culture” while actually passing legislation that censors, cancels, and bans materials and ideas) or what they would do given the opportunity and the power.

And that leads to the end game.

To understand the Republican end game, you must address that “Education Not Indoctrination” is yet another Orwellian misdirection. Republicans are not anti-indoctrination; in fact, Republicans are actually seeking a world in which they completely control the indoctrinating.

In short, Kincheloe’s “who’s indoctrinating whom” can be addressed simply by acknowledging that given the opportunity and power (see legislation in Republican-led states) the “who” will always be Republicans and the “whom” will be the rest of us.

Republicans are organizing and enacting a broad campaign to create their dystopia, IndoctriNation.

They are counting on a common flaw in the U.S.: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats).

Privilege as a Barrier to Learning

I am deeply skeptical about two things—criticism of “young people today” as if this younger generation is somehow significantly less capable than older generations and student evaluations of teaching (SETs).

So nothing would be worse, in my opinion, than launching into a “young people today” screed based on SETs. Therefore, what follows is intended as an evidence-based observation toward understanding, not a criticism, grounded in both recent SETs and my 20 years teaching at a selective liberal arts university (after teaching 18 years at a rural high school).

My almost four decades of teaching have been in two contexts with significant social class differences. My high school students were mostly working class and poor; my university students are quite privileged in terms of social class but also in terms of the quality of education they received before entering high education (many are from private school backgrounds).

Across both populations, I often am perceived (at first) as extremely demanding, and even harsh (or “mean”).

My high school students, many working class as I was (and I also attended the school where I taught), within a few weeks tended to flip in their opinion of my courses and even me. Many years later, I have very warm relationships with many of those students; and even those who still openly express that they aren’t fans of me as a person confirm that they appreciate the work I did as a teacher.

Achieving that level of connection and warmth with my university students has been rare to mostly absent. My university students, overwhelmingly privileged in many ways, are quite unlike me, having grown up working class and receiving my BA, MEd, and EdD from state universities.

I just reviewed my fall 2021 SETs, and despite efforts to address the negativity (and even antagonism) in my spring 2021 SETs, I once again read a significant amount of negative, angry, and harsh responses to my courses.

A few things are going on, I think. First, I believe the Covid-era has in many ways inflated student stress, which is reflected in the increase of negative comments (a point I am making not to criticize students, but to acknowledge the larger forces at work and how SET data are rarely about teacher quality).

Second, while I reject the credibility and validity of SETs (as reflected in research on the practice), I do think the data say less about teacher quality and more about the students themselves.

Now, putting those two points together allows me to draw some important conclusions about privilege as a barrier to learning.

Before I explore that thought, let me offer a few caveats.

Socioeconomic status is the strongest correlation to measurable student achievement; therefore, wealthy and white students disproportionately are labeled as “good” or “excellent” students.

However, if you dig deeper in that data, you discover that eduction is not the “great equalizer” but a marker for privilege; privilege itself actually trumps having more and so-called better education (extensive research supports that claim); for one example, see the following data:

People born into socioeconomic and/or race privilege tend to navigate and achieve advanced education degrees, but the privilege itself is the primary driver of their “success” (attaining high-paying jobs), not the education.

My university students often have backgrounds in selective private schools, and almost all of them have completed high school as top students (many having made As throughout their schooling).

When I examine the types of things students are critical of and even angry about, I am increasingly concerned that privilege is a barrier to learning even as these students successfully navigate college and continue to earn high grades.

Here are the types of things privileged students are critical of in my courses recently (again, I am not criticizing these students but offering this as a way to describe and understand why they are struggling):

  • Privileged students are disproportionately offended by feedback and requirements for revision*. Living in privilege that contributes to years of praise and success have created students who are very thin-skinned and frail. As I have examined before, many students perceive all feedback as negative. Many of these students want to submit work once and have it immediately praised, and assigned an A. Being show ways to revise and improve, being asked to revise—these approaches trigger students of privilege.
  • Privileged students have a “banking” concept of teaching and learning (that Paulo Freire criticized). In other words, my privileged students view my job as dispensing for them knowledge as capital; I, however, reject the “banking” concept of teaching and see the role of teacher as facilitator. Privileged students tend to resist having their autonomy as learners increased, viewing a teacher-as-facilitator as negligent or even lazy (not doing their job).
  • Privileged students are very skeptical of and often paralyzed by de-grading practices. Grades for privileged students have been positive experiences that confirm their belief that they are “good” students who have earned those grades. People in privilege often interpret success as mostly a reflection of their effort—and not their privilege. Removing grades removes their safety blanket. (One student from last fall claimed they were reduced to crying often in my course due to my non-grading practices.)
  • Privileged students prefer knowledge-based courses to process-and-product-based courses. Although certainly not exclusively so, privileged students seem to view knowledge as “objective” and process/product as “subjective”; therefore, the latter creates anxiety in them that they will not be successful (not make an A).
  • Privileged students perceive “being smart” as something you achieve and not a journey. Since they have often been told they are smart, they can misinterpret “smart” as their being “finished”; being challenged to learn more or, especially, to re-think their learning is perceived as an attack on their Selves.
  • Privileged students are hyper-sensitive to decorum, formality, and tone. While I recognize some of this point is grounded in my personality, I am increasingly aware that some of the tone tension between my students and me is class-based. I despise formality and do my work at a very high level of efficiency; my emails and my written feedback are terse and direct. Privileged students tend to interpret that style as mean, harsh, and discouraging. This issue with tone overlaps, I think, with my efforts to shift responsibility away from me doing work for students and toward students taking agency over their own learning (many students dislike my use of highlighting when I return written work, for example). As one of the most unexpected examples from my fall SETs, a student recommended I start using “Hi” to start my emails.
  • Privileged students cling desperately to playing school and performing as students. Tests, grades, assignment rubrics and grade scales/weights, lectures, etc., are the environment where they have flourished; anything that deviates from these traditional practices creates anxiety—and skepticism about the teacher.
  • Privileged students (like their conservative parents) fear radical ideas and change. This is basic human nature; when the world works for you, you fear change to that system. I am a critical educator and scholar so my approach to ideas and the world are perceived as not just radical, but threatening to their way of life.

In the grand scheme of my career as a teacher, I realize the folly in SETs because, once again, my fall SETs included dramatically contradictory responses side-by-side—praise for my feedback and willingness to help students learn followed by claims that my feedback is “vague” and “mean,” ultimately discouraging the student to learn.

Again, the feedback says far more about the students than my work as a teacher.

None the less, I believe I have turned a corner in my understanding of the complex nature of privilege in the teaching/learning dynamic.

Yes, on balance, of course, privilege is an incredible advantage, but like being labeled gifted, privilege can also be a barrier to learning—and being happy.


*

Teaching and Learning as Collaboration, not Antagonism

James Baldwin wrote in 1966 about the antagonistic relationship between Black Americans and the police; his willingness to interrogate that dynamic provides a powerful framework for rethinking the antagonism between educators and students. (The Nation)

Teaching in my third academic year impacted by the Covid pandemic, I am feeling nostalgic for some (but not all) of the pre-pandemic dynamics in the classroom.

My university established and followed strict protocols throughout the 2020-2021 academic year that allowed many courses to be taught face-to-face (while professors were allowed to teach remotely and courses provided many hybrid opportunities to address student needs). But last year was a very stilted teaching and learning experience with faculty and students fully masked and social distancing (maintaining the six-feet requirement typical pre-vaccine).

This fall we are face-to-face, masked, but not social distancing; therefore, I am enjoying being able to do small group work in class again. A return to semi-normalcy in the classroom means that Monday, as my first-year writing seminar students formed groups to discuss their reading of Baldwin, I waited a few minutes before strolling around the room to listen to the discussions.

Anyone who teaches knows what happened; as I approached each group, students fell silent, and several looked up, concerned.

I always take these moments to begin a discussion about the antagonistic relationship that exists between teachers and their students. Students admit that a teacher approaching makes them afraid they are doing something wrong, even when they are fully engaged in the assignment.

Many of us who went through teacher training or conduct teacher training have discussed walking toward students as a classroom management technique.

It does work, but we rarely unpack why and almost never interrogate that the technique should not “work.”

My first-year students at a selective liberal arts college (having almost all been very successful in K-12, either straight-A students or close to that) are quick to acknowledge the many ways that they feel antagonism from and toward their teachers. From dress codes to bathroom restrictions to grading policies to late-to-class rules—students find the school days filled with landmines policed by their teachers.

Of note is how difficult it is for first-year college students to shift away from student behaviors (raising hands, asking to go to the bathroom) and toward autonomous adult behaviors (we explicitly focus on the difference between access to going to the bathroom in high school and college).

Part of this reductive and dehumanizing dynamic is the prevalence of uncritical embracing of simplistic behaviorism grounded most vividly in the punishment/reward elements of school rules and grading.

Despite my commitment to creating a classroom environment driven by collaboration and not antagonism, students still primarily experience antagonistic relationships with their teachers/professors when learning formally.

As a professor, I witness that reality because of one of the worst aspects of the teaching profession—educators publicly shaming student behaviors.

When I started teaching high school in 1984, I quickly learned to avoid the teachers’ lounge, where my colleagues tended to gather and endlessly rail against (by name) students that I taught (and loved). What I noticed was a proclivity for teachers to angrily berate teenagers for behaving like teenagers.

One of my fortunate gifts as a teacher is that I chose to teach high school and that I genuinely love teenagers because they have reached an early stage of adulthood but also maintain some of the most endearing qualities of childhood. I very much enjoyed discovering and unpacking the world with teenagers who found everything to be new (even as I realized that none of it was new).

Jump about four decades later, and I see that played out just a bit differently on social media, where teachers and professors routinely hold forth in anger about a student’s email asking if they missed anything when absent. This sort of public (although anonymous) student shaming seems to be common at the beginning and end of semesters so there has been a flurry of them over the past few weeks.

Tip toeing the line of subtweeting, I Tweeted this yesterday with those type of social media posts in mind:

Later, I added this:

Throughout my career as a high school teacher and now a college professor, I have worked diligently to be student-centered in the way that honors the autonomy and human dignity of my students; I have also embraced Paulo Freire’s concepts of choosing to be authoritative and not authoritarian as a teacher, parent, and coach.

This critical commitment has often been well embraced by my students (although not all of them) but rebuffed by many, if not most, of my colleagues. A typical criticism I hear (which I confront in the second Tweet above) is that if adult authority figures are not authoritarian, students will take advantage of them.

The nasty (and false, I think) Puritanical belief that humans (especially children and teenagers) left alone will behave in base and selfish ways seems to be how many teachers/professors view their students. This deficit perspective is pervasive in education, often manifested as racism, classism [1], sexism, and agism but masked as “necessary” lest we lose all control!

I firmly reject that my job as a teacher is to “fix” inherently flawed young humans and instead embrace that to teach is to provide the guidance necessary for young people to develop their autonomy and recognize their and other’s basic human dignity.

Over almost 40 years of teaching, I have had very few students attempt to take advantage of me, and most of them have suffered the consequences they deserved for that behavior while many of them have directly reached out to me over the years to apologize.

A low-stakes teaching and learning environment has allowed me to be very demanding, having extremely high standards for students, and I have found that students respond well to high expectations couched in clear expectations, detailed support and feedback, and patience paired with firm guidelines for student behavior and artifacts of their learning.

I have documented on social media several times that my students submit work on time at well over 90-95% rates although I do not grade assignments and do not record or deduct for late work. Almost all the work that is late can be traced tp legitimate reasons (the types of real-world justifications for late work that adults enjoy).

Students and educators deserve a teaching/learning environment grounded in collaboration and not antagonism—where everyone has their autonomy and human dignity honored, and even celebrated.

If K-12 and undergraduate students already knew and behaved in all the ways adults want, why would they need to be in our classes?

When Student Y sends a preposterous email, our job as educators is to teach the student why it is preposterous, and how to engage with another human in ways that show respect to both the student and the teacher.

And that teaching—even when our last nerve is tested—must be as patient as possible, although firm, and our students must trust that we are here to work with them for their success, not to police them for their flaws until they are properly “fixed.”

At its core, I think James Baldwin’s view of policing serves us well here: “The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.”

And so, many days while teaching, I explain to students that I work for them, and when all is going as it should, I actually am there to work with them.

None the less, every time I walk toward a small group of students, they fall silent and look up, faces expecting antagonism and not yet sure we are there for the same thing—whatever any student needs to live autonomous lives where their human dignity is seen and appreciated.


[1] See:

The return of the deficit signifies a depressing symmetry in demographic trends and public policy. Deborah Stone (1997), writing on the art of political decision­making, argues that “political reasoning is [about] metaphor­making and category­making . . . strategic portrayal for persuasion’s sake, and ultimately for policy’s sake” (p. 9). Portraying disproportionate school failure among Black and Hispanic youth in terms of “personal troubles” (Mills, 1959) or cultural deficiencies sustains public policies that emphasize individual self interest and personal responsibility (e.g., welfare reform, high stakes testing), leaving no reason to consider the effects of poverty and discrimination or underfunded schools and deteriorating facilities on children’s learning.

Dudley-Marling, Curt (2007) “Return of the Deficit,” Journal of Educational Controversy: Vol. 2 : No. 1 , Article 5.
Available at: https://cedar.wwu.edu/jec/vol2/iss1/5

The Politics of Childhood in an Era of Authoritarian Education

While on vacation, a friend and I were discussing the paradox of parenting.

A parent often feels a tension between fostering and supporting a child to be the person they want to be as that contrasts with dictating what is best for the child (knowing as adults do that children, teens, and young adults often make decisions necessarily without the context of experience that would certainly change many decisions).

That paradox, that tension has existed for me as a teacher/professor, parent, grandparent, and coach.

I am constantly checking myself in roles of authority to determine if I am imposing my authority onto children and young people (authoritarian) or if I am mentoring and fostering those humans in the cone of my authority in ways that support their own autonomy and development along lines they actively choose for themselves (authoritative).

This is a dichotomy examined by Paulo Freire, and a central concern for any critical educator.

The current misguided attacks on anything “critical” is particularly frustrating for critical educators since these attacks are designed to fulfill the demands of authoritarian systems, partisan politics and formal education.

It has occurred to me recently that I have been in roles of authority for a very long time, beginning with working as a lifeguard in my mid- to late teens. My role of authority literally began, then, with the expectations that I would guard human life—any human life that came into the sphere of the pool where I was charged with monitoring swimming and the safety of not only individual swimmers but all of the people in the pool.

I was a very good and capable swimmer, and for a teen, I was reasonably responsible (although I cringe thinking about being a head lifeguard when only 17 or so). But having the level of authority and responsibility that being a lifeguard entails was quite likely asking far more of me that I deserved.

Those days of lifeguarding set me on course for being the responsible person for the next 40-plus years, exacting a significant toll on me psychologically and emotionally.

Maintaining a critical authoritative pose when in positions of authority is extremely hard, much harder than being authoritarian.

Way back in the 1980s and 1990s, I was practicing in many ways the sort of critical teaching that is coming under attack in 2021, even resulting in a teacher in Tennessee being fired:

At issue was Hawn assigning the essay “The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates to students in his Contemporary Issues class in February, and later in March, playing a video of “White Privilege,” a spoken word poem by Kyla Jenée Lacey to the same students.

A Tennessee teacher taught a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay and a poem about white privilege. He was fired for it

Many conservatives see the work of Coates, for example, as radical, while those of us on the left would argue Coates’s work is quite mainstream and accessible—but far from radical. This is the same dynamic around Barack Obama, for example; Obama is a moderate and an incrementalist, but certainly not a radical leftist or Marxist (as conservatives like to suggest).

While I taught high school English in the very conservative rural South, I was mostly allowed to teach texts with only occasional complaints from parents. What looks quite odd now is that I included Howard Zinn in my classes for many years without a peep from anyone (Zinn is a key target of the ant-CRT movement now).

But I also included Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology in my classes in order to help students navigate metaphorical approaches to narratives (a key skill needed in the Advanced Placement course I taught and as preparation for college).

Including Campbell did cause problems since his work complicated the literalism many of students experienced in their religious lives. Fundamentalist Christianity was the background of nearly all my students, and Campbell’s casual claims that all religions and mythologies told similar archetypal stories stepped on the toes of arguments that accepting Jesus was the only way into heaven.

I aroused similar complaints by including Gandhi in my Emerson/Thoreau/MLK unit.

The parental challenges to Campbell and Gandhi were grounded in a type of insecurity that had never been examined critically by those parents, all of which was the result of having been raised in authoritarian environments.

I did have my students interrogate that Sunday school and preaching were not places where they were encouraged to ask questions or challenge any of the “lessons” they received.

So in 2021, I cannot stress too much that the Republican attack on critical race theory and how history is taught is simply a battle for the integrity of the mind of children, teens, and young adults.

Learning and knowledge—especially if we genuinely believe in human autonomy and democracy—are not simply about accumulating facts determined to be true or important by some authority, but are about learning how to know what we believe is true and why.

Human freedom is most threatened by unexamined beliefs, not by the act of questioning itself.

Authority doesn’t just resist questioning, but entirely rejects it as an act.

Republicans and the conservatives drawn to authoritarianism do not trust human agency, do not believe in the free exchange of ideas, and do not believe in the essential power of questioning, especially when the questions are aimed at their authority.

Nothing is as simple as “both sides,” and certainly we should never fall into traps of “only know this.”

There can never be free people, however, without free minds cultivated in the guarantee of academic freedom.

And the free exchange of ideas will never be spaces without discomfort, which now seems to be a smokescreen used by Republicans in their pursuit of securing authority.

Suddenly, Republicans are concerned about uncomfortable white students, but seem oblivious to the discomfort, for example, of thousands and thousands of Black students experience reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Teachers must now tip-toe around the uncomfortable texts and conversations about race and racism because of the possibility of white discomfort (note that Black discomfort about Huck Finn has been repeatedly swept aside under the guise of “classic literature”)—a stance once again disregarding the daily discomfort of Black children experiencing racism.

Intellectual discomfort (what texts and discussions prompt in formal schooling) is often necessary for learning, but existential discomfort (what targets of racism and sexism experience) are not necessary and are essentially harmful.

Authoritarian education is willing to sacrifice the existential comfort of marginalized children in order to shield some children from intellectual discomfort.

Even more disturbing, however, is that what is really being protected is the frailty of those students’ parents and those people in authority who are not willing to risk being challenged or questioned in any way.

Who’s Indoctrinating Whom?

The best way I can express it, I think, is that I have always wanted to be smart.

“Always” in the sense of whenever I first had something like independent awareness, which I assume occurred gradually as my autonomous self slowly and painfully separated myself from the powerful urge to remain at the center of my mother’s universe.

I idealized being “smart,” and thus “knowing stuff,” as essential for that autonomy.

I have never wanted to be smart to lord it over others (although I am still accused of being arrogant, a misreading of passion, I think), but I have always sought out and consumed knowledge as my lifelong quest to be my own person.

This urge has put me in a sort of Emerson/Thoreau camp that cherishes the individual mind and rejects organizations and group-think—a sort of libertarian intellectualism that now sits uncomfortably where that intellectual individuality has led me.

Over my first couple years of college—spent at a junior college where more of my energy was dedicated to playing pick-up basketball and drinking beer than my studies—I was eagerly reading and studying on my own existential philosophy and literature.

On the day Ronald Reagan was shot, I sat in the college library reading Sartre.

My mind and soul teetered on a dangerous edge during my teen years and into early adulthood; I was a perfect candidate for the sort of adolescent Ayn Rand know-it-all-ism many young white men fall into—and never escape.

Something, maybe just dumb luck, never allowed me to stop learning and thinking; something never allowed me to think I was “finished” learning or to assume that my current state of knowing was finished.

This is where my story includes Karl Marx. This is where the story of my mind looks absolutely nothing like what conservative Americans think Marxism and “critical” look like.

I found a copy of Marx’s non-economic writing that included a section on education. Having grown up in the rural South in the 1960s and 1970s, I picked up Marx with all the misconceptions you can imagine about communism, socialism, and such.

That paperback still sits on my shelf in my office and is heavily underlined with (mostly embarrassing) comments scribbled in the margins.

Just as I self-taught about existentialism, I was becoming a Marxist educator on my own time while I went through my final 2.5 years of college, majoring in secondary English education.

My certification program was extremely moderate even though my education professors were uniformly white progressives who tip-toed around being confrontational or in any way revolutionary.

These experiences were steeped in idealism and painful naivety.

I entered the K-12 classroom as a high school English teacher in 1984, none the less, with the belief that I could help change the lives of my students and even change the world. This ambition was based on my own experiences since my life was profoundly changed by formal education, teachers and professors, and my own relentless self-education.

That belief was grounded in wanting not to shape what my students thought but in helping them develop the tools needed for how to think independently, including how to step back from beliefs and assumptions about the world in order to make their knowledge their own.

As an English teacher, I knew those tools were mostly literacy—reading and writing as essential for human autonomy and dignity.

Over about a decade, I did this work often badly but with a great deal of earnestness. College had humbled me so I was determined to help my students avoid skipping off to college with the sort of redneck provincialism that had shot out of my mouth in several college classes.

Again, contrary to what conservatives often claim, the only places I was indoctrinated had been in my home, my community, and my church. The students in my hometown had also experienced mostly authoritarian homes, authoritarian schools and classes, and authoritarian churches.

They had lived unexamined lives because that had been demanded of them.

At times, then, I was a very unpopular redneck among rednecks.

Things changed dramatically for me as a person, an educator, and a scholar when I entered my doctoral program in 1995.

Dots were connected from those naive days reading the non-economic writings of Marx and discovering that a complex and vibrant world of Marxist education scholars existed.

Reading Paulo Freire was switching on a light in my brain and my soul. Freire had thought through all the lazy and careless ideas that had led me to the classroom. But Freire also confirmed that my intentions were valid even as they needed a great deal of development and rethinking.

Another decade passed before one of my scholarly mentors, Joe Kincheloe, wrote exactly what it means to be a critical educator, an explanation that expresses almost perfectly the critical educator I had become:

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.

Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer

Critical pedagogy was, then, a body of thought that aggressively rejected indoctrination and recognized that traditional approaches to education were in fact mostly indoctrination, as Kincheloe adds:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer

In the most succinct expression of what it means to be a critical educator, Kincheloe concludes, ““Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom.”

As a critical educator whose teaching and scholarship are informed by Marxist ideology (although not exclusively), I enter my 40th year watching conservatives and Republicans present a cartoon version of what I actually practice in order to institutionalize further the indoctrination they seek.

Who’s indoctrinating whom?

If Republicans and conservatives have it their way, it will be conservatives indoctrinating everyone.

So here are the commitments of my work as a critical educator and scholar, commitments that refute the many and ugly lies coming from Republicans and conservative talking heads:

  • The most sacred thing is the autonomy of the human mind and life, especially when a person with power has authority over children and young adults.
  • The work of being “critical” must interrogate the role of power in all human action—who has power over whom and why.
  • Any idea or system that has become “normal” or dominant must be challenged regularly in order to protect the sacred nature of human autonomy.
  • All human interaction is political and no human action is “objective.”
  • The needs and interests of all and the needs and interests of one are not mutually exclusive, but interrelated realities that must be openly and freely negotiated by humans with protected autonomy (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness).
  • Love and kindness are the very best qualities of humans.

And the ultimately irony, I think, is that we critical educators are the ones most dedicated to the pursuit of democracy, as Freire expains:

To the extent that I become clearer about my choices and my dreams, which are substantively political and attributively pedagogical, and to the extent that I recognize that though an educator I am also a political agent, I can better understand why I fear and realize how far we still have to go to improve our democracy. I also understand that as we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against the myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology. (p. 41)

Teachers As Cultural Workers, Paulo Freire

Today in the U.S. we have a choice to make between “the myths that deform us” and the possibility of a democracy yet realized.

But without critical education, there will only be those myths.

Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking in the Era of Trump and TikTok

While it now seems like generations ago, in the spring of 2008, I joined other faculty at Furman University in an organized protest labeled “We Object.” Through the university’s connections with FU graduate and former governor of South Carolina Mark Sanford, George W. Bush was invited to speak at commencement.

Recent university tradition was to have two students speak, but did not include outside speakers. None the less, students and the community (overwhelmingly conservative) seemed to welcome the opportunity to have a two-term Republican president speak to graduates.

The protest took many forms, including reaching out to the media, posting an official “We Object” statement, and wearing a “We Object” shirt, revealed from beneath professor’s gowns during the speech.

I did not yet have tenure as an assistant professor, but I was active in the organized resistance that included a wide range of reasons why professors were objecting. I attended meetings, helped with the statement, and provided interviews to the media (I did not stand and protest during graduation, however).

One aspect of that spring that now looks like a harbinger of the world in which we live today was an Op-Ed published by two conservative professors in political science. In that piece, they discounted the professors protesting as postmodernists.

Two problems stand out from that commentary. First, as is typical of conservative thinkers, they either did not understand postmodernism or willfully misrepresented postmodernism in order to have a strawman to attack. Second, when those of us protesting gathered after the piece was published, we uniformly confirmed that not a single one of us considered ourselves postmodernists (an intellectual movement now well in the past, supplanted by the ever-inane, in fact, post-postmodernism).

Conservatives have long posed postmodernism as a full rejection of truth/Truth (which it isn’t), but the great irony of being falsely slandered as postmodernists is that we objecting were all doing so on very clear ethical grounds.

A logical and dangerous extension of postmodernism’s challenge to the nature of truth/Truth is, of course, that there is no truth; many academics quickly rejected that path. In its purest form, however, postmodernism attempted to emphasize that truth/Truth is never objective but always a pawn of those in power.

In other words, postmodernism posed that truth/Truth is almost always what people in power say is truth regardless of empirical evidence (truth couched in power versus truth gleaned from evidence).

While scholars in philosophy, literature, and the arts had moved through and past postmodernism in many ways, this moment in 2008 certainly was a harbinger for the conservative and popular bastardization of postmodernism by Trump and the youngest generations in the U.S.—fake news and the power of social media to create (distort) truth/Truth.

The paradox of Trump is that he has become the embodiment of “there is no truth except what I declare is true” (even when those claims are baseless and repeatedly self-contradictory). Yes, Trump’s appropriating “fake news” to prop up his pathological lies and power-mania are exactly the worst of problems with truth/Truth that postmodernism was confronting.

Even Trump’s use of the term “fake news” is itself false (an ignorant or willfully planned use similar to the one used by the two conservative professors), but Trump’s mendacity and megalomania have both spoken to and emboldened a much wider and more insidious faction of the U.S. who function with the same sort of misguided approach to truth/Truth as Trump.

Not so long ago, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh seemed like mostly harmless sideshows, things of a very small minority of people in the U.S.

In 2021, Parler and Breitbart have far surpassed what was once rightwing media—and then there is QAnon.

Just as there was a logical and dangerous natural conclusion to postmodernism, there is now a very real and dangerous outcome of simplistic approaches to critical thinking as well as honoring the democracy of ideas.

The Right in the U.S. has leveraged challenging any and every idea, fact, and authority into a chaos that allows even a greater concentration of power among very few (mostly white and male) Americans.

Republicans have aligned themselves with both Evangelical Christian conservatism and authoritarianism; democrats have increasingly become the party of ethical challenges to the status quo (a party that at least pays lip service to gender, race, and sexuality equity).

Trump’s “fake news” ploy is a scorched-Earth policy for political and financial gain.

What has happened, however, in the wider society is much more disturbing in the sense that we can see some possible end to Trump as president.

Here is just one odd and troubling example: Young people (often expressed on TikTok) in the U.S. do not “believe” in Hellen Keller.

Writing on Medium, Isabella Lahoue concludes:

Maybe we [Gen Z] don’t believe in her [Hellen Keller] because we’re growing up in a world of fake news. We know the power of manipulation and lies in the media, and we’re losing faith in the sources everyone once trusted. There’s too much data and too many lies circulating for us to process and believe it all….

We don’t have to believe in Helen Keller, and it shouldn’t be surprising if we don’t. The world we were born into makes us profoundly different than other generations, and hopefully, it will also make us into change agents.

The Generation that Doesn’t Believe Helen Keller Existed by Isabella Lahoue

In 2021, then, there are now at least three Hellen Kellers: the historical Keller (the radical socialist and activist), the myth of Keller as rugged individual [1] (the distorted version often taught in school through The Miracle Worker), and the “fake news” Keller who did not (could not?) exist.

At the root of this is critical thinking, how formal education fails to teach it by mis-teaching it (see here and here).

Questioning authority and hearing all sides have long been a part of American culture.

Like postmodernism, “critical” is too often misunderstood and almost entirely absent from formal education.

Traditional schooling has reduced “critical thinking” to skills (such as HOTS, high-order thinking skills). This approach reduced being critical to a checklist of skills and a mechanical approach to interrogating texts and ideas.

But while education has been lazy and superficial in its approach to being critical, popular culture has gone off the rails, specifically because of the power of social media to allow and foster insular communities in which that community establishes truth/Truth and controls what counts as evidence (Facebook, Twitter, reddit, etc.).

To be blunt, the anti-vaccination movement has gone mainstream—and widespread [2].

Since the insurrection at the Capitol, I have circled back to 2008, when I was mis-labled a postmodernist.

Not a postmodernist, I am a critical educator, my work grounded in Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy.

Unlike those who suggest I believe there is no truth/Truth, my critical teaching and writing are a pursuit of both truth/Truth and that which is ethical and moral.

Critical thinking, then, is not about rejecting truth/Truth, but acknowledging that truth/Truth is always couched in power. Critical thinking, then, is not about hearing all sides, but recognizing that it is a complicated but necessary thing to recognize what is credible and what is not when interrogating a text or idea.

Critical think allows anyone to realize that Hellen Keller was a real person, a complicated human made exceptional due to challenges beyond her control. But critical thinking also allows anyone to know that rugged-individual Keller is in many ways a lie, part theater and part ideological myth-making—and that Keller denial is a dangerously frivolous thing (several magnitudes less so but overlapping with Holocaust denial).

Critical thinking allows anyone to realize there is a wide and complicated gray area between “Believe no one” and “Listen to everyone.”

Those two extremes, in fact, have joined hands and are poised to destroy democracy and the sort of slow and painful arc of history reaching for justice on a darkening horizon.

If and when Trump leaves office, and if and when he fades from public spaces, we will still have TikTok (or something like it) and Parler (or something like it) and tens of millions of people who don’t believe in Keller but do believe Trump (or someone like him).

It is again a critical time for truth/Truth.


[1] See also how Pat Tillman suffered a similar fate, being misrepresented for ideological/political purposes.

[2] I recommend A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon by Rabbit Rabbit as one interesting look at how this happen with QAnon.

Making the Transition from Writing in High School to Writing in College

Three behaviors have over the course of about 40 years come to constitute a significant percentage of who I am—writing, teaching, and cycling.

Of those three, I have received the most formal education in teaching, completing all three of my degrees (BA, MEd, EdD) in education; in many ways, I am self-taught as a writer and a cyclist even though I would argue that I have developed a level of expertise in all three that are comparable.

Recently, I bought my first gravel bicycle and have been making the small but noticeable transition to gravel riding that has forced me to experiment with decades of cycling knowledge built on road and mountain bicycling in order to ride gravel at a level comparable to road cycling (my first and deepest cycling love).

This, I think, is at the core of all of my personas as writer, teacher, and cycling—behaviors that are all journeys and not aspects of my life that I can (or should) finish.

Even though, as I noted above, teaching is my primary career and what I have the most education in, I am perpetually learning to teach; and I count on my students to guide me along that path.

My teacher Self is grounded and guided by critical pedagogy; Paulo Freire‘s concepts of the teacher/student and student/teacher have always resonated with me since I started as a tinkerer in my first days as a high school English teacher and continue to depend on my students by inquiring at regular intervals “Is this working?” and “What can I do better?”

While the primary focus of all my teaching is the student, of all the content I teach, I remain most enamored with and frustrated by teaching writing.

I have now spent about equal amounts of time teaching high school students and first-year college student to write.

During the pandemic, I have also shifted one of my assignments slightly (from their final portfolio to their final essay)—requiring first-year writing students to submit as their final essay a reflection on what they have learned as writers as well as what they think they need to continue to address moving forward in their college careers.

I have read the first submissions of those reflections (and will blog about those in a week or so), but I also use the last class session to brainstorm on what worked for students in the seminars and what I can do differently (in this case, for spring 2021).

Several students during the brainstorming session requested that I provide some of the key elements of the course—those addressing their transition from high school writing to college writing—earlier.

One of the foundational lessons I learned about teaching, during my years as a high school English teacher, was the need to reduce upfront teacher-led instruction and replace that with students producing authentic artifacts of learning (essays, for example) combined with direct instruction grounded in their writing after the first submission of their work.

The feedback I received this fall suggests I have moderated too far, and thus, I am including below the first draft of a checklist I will provide students on the first day of class this spring, encouraging them to keep this throughout the semester as a focal point as they revisit these lessons and come to understand them better.

Here, then, is my Checklist: Making the Transition from Writing in High School to Writing in College:

Writing Process and Drafting

  • Writing a couple quick drafts the night before an essay is due is not genuinely engaging in the drafting process, and likely will not be effective in college (even if you received high grades in high school for this practice). Last-minute essay writing is behaving as a student (dutifully preparing an assignment as the teacher as required), and not as a writer or scholar.
  • Drafting from an approved, direct thesis (common in high school) may be a less effective writing strategy than other drafting approaches, such as the following: (1) “vomit” drafting (free writing as much as you can to create text you can reorganize and revise) or (2) discovery drafting (writing with a general idea of your topic and focus, but allowing yourself to discover and evolve your topic and focus). One commitment to the drafting process that may be different than when in high school is making the decision to abandon large sections of drafting, or even entire essays. Starting over after a discovery draft is not wasting a draft, but coming to see that writing is a way to better understand even if the text you created is not directly included in the submitted draft.
  • Committing to several days for drafting is necessary, and establishing a routine for revising that focuses on one revision strategy at a time (diction and tone, paragraphing, etc.) is often effective.
  • Reading and using as models published academic and scholarly essays along with public and creative nonfiction essays increases your toolbox as a writer. The symbiotic relationship between reading and writing should become more purposeful during college—notably that the reading and writing are for you and your learning, and not simply to complete an assignment.

Essay Writing

  • A five-paragraph essay with a one-paragraph introduction (and direct thesis), three body paragraphs, and a one-paragraph conclusion that restates the introduction is inadequate in college; the form is simplistic thinking (most topics do not have only 3 points) and writing, and guarantees you will under-develop your discussion. The essay form is far more complex that a template, and your thinking as a college student needs also to rise above reducing all arguments and explanations to a direct statement (thesis) supported by three points.
  • Write to a clear audience (not your teacher or professor), recognizing that academic writing often has a well-informed (expert), specialized audience and that a public audience can range from being poorly informed or misinformed to being highly experienced and knowledgeable (public writing, then, may require you to navigate a much more complex audience than your academic writing).
  • Avoid overstatements, especially in the first sentences of the essay and in the last few sentences. Overstatements include “since the beginning of time” (or suggesting long periods of time such as “throughout history”), “many/most people argue/debate,” and “[topic x] is important [or unique or a hot topic].” See this brilliant parody from The OnionSince The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation.
  • Your word choice (diction) creates the tone of your essay; many scholarly/academic topics are serious so take great care that your diction/tone matches the seriousness of your topic. The relationship between your tone and your topic impacts your credibility as a writer. Focus on vivid, active, concrete verbs (instead of forms of “get” and “be”), and take care not to write as you talk, avoiding slang and flippant phrases when examining a serious topic.
  • Always prefer active, vivid, and specific/concrete over vague or general. “Anger” instead of “how he felt”; for example: “John was upset that he couldn’t control his anger” is more effective than “John was upset that he couldn’t control how he felt.”
  • Rethink the essay form and paragraphing not as a set number of sentences but as important and purposeful parts of engaging your reader/audience while establishing your credibility. Your essays should have a multiple-paragraph opening the engages and focuses your reader by being specific and vivid, several body paragraphs with purposeful paragraph lengths (sentence and paragraph length variety are effective), and a multiple-paragraph closing that leaves the reader with specific and vivid language that parallels the opening (framing) but doesn’t simply repeat your initial thoughts.
  • Learn to use the tools available in Word (or other word processors): formatting using menus (and not simply inserting spaces, returns, and tabs to manipulate text), running your essay through the grammar and spell check (be careful not to leave your essay with the colored underlinings when submitting an assignment), and saving your text files purposefully (include your last name and assignment type in the file name) and in an organized way on your computer system (making sure you have a back-up process for all files).
  • Most academic essay writing is built from claims, evidence, and elaboration; however, the types of evidence required varies a great deal in writing among the many disciplines of the academy (history, sociology, economics, physics, etc.). For example, direct quotes are often necessary as evidence when writing a text-based analysis (analyzing a poem or an essay in philosophy), but many disciplines (social sciences and hard sciences) expect evidence that is data or paraphrasing/synthesis of concepts and conclusions from multiple sources at a time (synthesis). When writing a text analysis, quotes are necessary, but your own claims and elaboration should be the majority of the essay, and take great care to integrate quotes with your own words (avoid stand-alone sentences that are quotes only and be careful to limit block quoting).; when writing about topics (not specific texts) or making arguments, you should limit quoting.
  • Academic citation (MLA, APA, etc.) is different among the disciplines (you may not use MLA again after entering college, for example), and expectations for high-quality sources also vary among disciplines. Some fields such as literature and history require older sources, yet social (sociology, psychology, education) and hard (physics, biology, chemistry) sciences tend to prefer only peer-reviewed journal articles from within 5-10 years. Across most of academia, however, journal articles and peer-reviewed publications are preferred to books and public writing.
  • Text formatting impacts your credibility as a writer; set your font preferences to one standard font and size (Times New Roman, 12 pt.) and maintain that formatting throughout a document (only using bold or italics as appropriate for subheads or emphasis), including headers/footers.
  • Always submit essays with vivid and specific titles and your name where required on the document itself.

Another aspect of my class that requires students to thing and behave differently is that I do not grade assignments even though I do assign grades for the course (per university requirements)—what I have characterized as de-grading and delaying grades.

On the last day of class, we discussed what would eventually shape their course grades, and below is something I share to help think about grades assigned in a class where assignments are not graded.

When I think about final grades in a writing-intensive course, here are some guiding principles:

  • A work: Participating by choice in multiple drafts and conferences beyond the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is nuanced, sophisticated, and well developed (typically more narrow than broad); a high level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting due dates (except for illness, etc.); attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of course texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.
  • B work: Submitting drafts and attending conferences as detailed by the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is solid and distinct from high school writing (typically more narrow than broad); a basic college level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting most due dates; attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.

This spring, with the guidance of my fall students, I am going to re-think and experiment with some of my core beliefs as a teacher—when to offer direct instruction and how to navigate the tension between my de-graded courses and the reality of grades in formal schooling.

Recommended

Advice on Writing, Trish Roberts-Miller