Category Archives: Progressivism

The Politics of Art and Artist: Tom King’s Rorschach

Politicians and political pundits in the U.S. routinely debate whether or not the American public is center-right or center-left in their political and ideological grounding. However, a more important and ultimately consequential reality is that the American public is incredibly politically naive.

At the core of that lack of sophistication is the failure to distinguish between “political” and “partisan”—the former being an unavoidable reality of human interaction and the latter being the mechanical workings of the political system that is essentially the Republican/Democratic binary.

While not a new phenomenon, the Trump era has highlighted the jumbled ideological and political sensibilities of the American public, well portrayed in the fading debate around former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem.

The media became enamored with the vocal segment of the public that demanded professional athletes “shut up and just play ball.” Of course, the outcry for no politics in sports came from the same people demanding that athletes conform to so-called proper behavior during the National Anthem, the playing of which at a sport event is a form of political speech and a political decision by the NFL.

In the U.S., the call for “no politics” actually means a demand for “my politics only” so “other people’s politics” is the only “politics” being condemned.

Trumpublicans of 2021, in fact, simultaneously criticize (and mischaracterize) “cancel culture” and demand that certain elements of thought be, well, canceled—such as Critical Race Theory and the right’s (again, mischaracterized) demonizing of “woke” culture.

In the fall of 2021, NFL fans are once again confronted with politics, this time in the person of Aaron Rodgers, quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. Rodgers sits in debates about the best quarterback ever, but he also has enjoyed a life of celebrity, dating famous actresses and briefly being touted as the next host of Jeopardy (based in part on his cultivating an image as “smart”).

A positive Covid test, however, has now tarnished Rodgers’s Golden-Boy whiteness, exposing him to be a Joe Rogan conspiracy theorist and all-around, self-absorbed know-nothing.

What is important here is that while Rodgers is the exact same person he was a year ago, many fans are now rejecting being a fan of his because his ideology, his politics, has been unmasked (literally and figuratively).

The literary world had a similar conflict about the same time with Margaret Atwood, who appears to have slipped over to the J.K. Rowling world of transphobia (or at least inexcusable ignorance about and insensitivity toward trans people).

At its core, these situations are an enduring problem: What do we do when as consumers of entertainment, the ideology and politics of the entertainer and/or the entertainment (sports, film, novels, etc.) conflict with our own?

From Watchmen to Rorschach: “No, Not Once. There Was No Politics”

As a comic book reader and collector from the 1970s, I returned to collecting just before the series WandaVision stormed pop culture. I had been a fan of Vision in my teen years, and the series, I thought, was brilliant.

But it also led me to finding, late to the party, some of the wonderful work with the character Vision since I was away from comic books—notably Tom King’s Vision (2016, vol. 2). With King’s work, I now have a habit of missing the boat since, as a Marvel collector, I just bought and read King’s Rorschach (2020-2021), a continuation of the Watchmen universe created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and then reignited by the Watchmen series (HBO).

In a preview of the series, Matthew Jackson shares King’s recognition of the essence of the sequel to Moore’s Watchmen:

“[Moore] gave us the notes to talk about our current moment, and so I wanted to play in that sandbox to talk about this,” King said. “It’s a very political work. It tries to be revolutionary the way Watchmen tried to be revolutionary.”

TOM KING BREAKS DOWN HIS ‘VERY POLITICAL’ RORSCHACH BOOK’S PHILOSOPHICAL INFLUENCES

King also explains that he and artist Jorge Fornes maintain canon of Watchmen but frame this meta-narrative (like Watchmen, a super hero narrative about super hero narratives and the recurring question of vigilantism) as “film noir — to create a kind of hardboiled mystery story in the middle of the Watchmen universe.”

King’s re-envisioning of Rorschach, however, includes, like in Moore’s work, Steve Ditko (co-creator of Spider-Man), but shifts the ideological grounding from Ayn Rand (Ditko’s inspiration) to “‘Hannah Arendt, who is a different philosopher, Ayn Rand’s contemporary, another Jewish immigrant from Germany, but on the left, not on the right, who was obsessed with the concept of citizenship.'”

Both Moore and King offer “very political work,” work that is well crafted with other creators (artists, colorists, letterers), but it is a mistake to discount or reduce that work for attempting to promote a specific partisan politics; instead, I think King is asking readers to consider just what is political—or to understand that everything is political while also swimming in a partisan political reality that can be corrupt on both the left and the right:

The central detective, above on the left, is faced with a planned but foiled assassination during the presidential election between the liberal 4-time incumbent Redford and the conservative challenger Turley, calling for a conservative revolution and target of the assassination.

But as the first panel above shows, even those inside the workings of the plot seem to be unable to see politics at work: “No, not once. There was no politics.”

The Reader, the Writer, and the Text

The assassination plot belongs to “Wil Myerson, a stand-in for Steve Ditko that creates the Question-esque character, the Citizen, who expresses Arendt’s views rather than Rand’s,” explains Steve Baxi, and a young woman sharp-shooter called The Kid.

Despite the admitted political nature of this series, I agree with Baxi’s defense of the series:

[S]ome critics reject the series as a dangerous both-side-ism that creates a problem out of fake left-wing extremism in the context of a real life right wing insurgency.

This reaction, I think, has made it difficult to see the rich work being done by King, Fornés, Stewart and Cowles on this series which examines not only the origins of fascist thought, but the ups and downs of Arendt’s own work. This is not a series that feels like a sequel to Watchmen outside the setting, and instead tells a story that is influenced deeply by the current political climate, taking in the past in a manner akin to what Arendt called Pearl Diving

Watchmen Two-in-One: Hannah Arendt and Rorschach (2020) – Part One

Briefly, I want to conclude here by arguing that the problem is not whether or not a work or an artist is political, or even if that work or artist has a blunt political agenda, but the consequences of how readers respond—and why the politics of the reader is where the real problem lies.

Drawing on Baxi’s explication of the use of Arendt in Rorschach and Lousie Rosenblatt‘s view of how meaning is created from text (the interaction of the reader, the writer, and the text), I think we can confront how literalist conservatives and critical progressives respond differently (and predictably) to any text.

Baxi notes that Arendt’s work fits well into the Trump era, overlapping with Rorschach:

For Arendt, the foundational question of philosophy was “Is there a way of thinking that is not tyrannical?” Indeed everything from training with Heidegger and Jaspers, up to her rejection of Adorno and Critical Theory comes back to a philosophical thinking that richly interrogates our ability to understand and to imagine the world from the perspective of another.

…the problem with Eichmann, and fascists in general, is a failure to think….This capacity for thought is what Arendt’s work focused on, using concepts like storytelling to explain how our ability to think ties into our ability to have empathy, freedom, and sound political judgment.

Watchmen Two-in-One: Hannah Arendt and Rorschach (2020) – Part One

Like Moore, King likely has a political leaning that can be viewed on the left/right spectrum, but ultimately, King is making a narrative case for “[t]his capacity for thought” and “our ability to have empathy, freedom, and sound political judgment.”

In Moore’s original Watchmen, Baxi adds:

…Rorschach was a riff on the Question, and largely a joke Alan Moore was making about Steve Ditko qua Ayn Rand’s objectivism taken to its furthest possible extreme….Regardless of the reasons why, Moore’s presentation of the objectivist, moral absolutist became less a joke and more a serious position of its readers….

The critique of course is that such extreme devotion to an abstract good is ultimately self-contradictory and absurd, as Rorschach’s methods do not play by the same rules as his self-righteousness. While this nuance is clear in the text of the series, it’s also perfectly understandable that some might read Rorschach and find him aspirational. Correct or not, there is an ideology of Rorschach that does see him as good, as right, as the hero we might need.

Watchmen Two-in-One: Hannah Arendt and Rorschach (2020) – Part One

Ayn Rand fits into this perfectly since as a philosopher and a novelist, Rand is nearly universally rejected in the fields of philosophy and literature, but a favorite of naive readers, often adolescents and literalist conservatives/libertarians. In short, many fans of Rand’s novels read them as if they are “how to” manuals, and not texts to be interrogated.

Critical readers handed any text tend toward challenging the text and messages, and often fall closer to Arendt’s ideal (similar to Myerson’s The Citizen).

The legacy of Trump includes organized attacks on K-12 and higher education, focusing on controlling what students are exposed to. Those attacks represent the conservative misunderstanding about the political power of texts and knowledge.

In short, there is politics in any artist, in every text, and in every reader; that political dynamic is unavoidable.

King’s version of Rorschach clearly argues that partisan/ideological fanaticism, regardless of being from the left or right, is corrupt and dangerous; there are many bodies left on the ground in the series.

Neither Moore nor King offers a neat political or partisan solution as they remain in an enduring question at the heart of super hero narratives, as King explains:

“Instead of constructing Rorschach from a Randian point of view, if we construct him from an Arendt point of view, how does that change our conception of superheroes, and our conception of vigilantism? If we go from the idea of ‘it’s obviously bad to kill people without trials’ to ‘Is it bad to kill Nazis without trials?’ it makes a different moral universe and [asks] different moral questions, or at least the same questions but, you know, turning the ball on its side so you can see it from a different angle.”

TOM KING BREAKS DOWN HIS ‘VERY POLITICAL’ RORSCHACH BOOK’S PHILOSOPHICAL INFLUENCES

The politics of the audience confronts us, and the larger question, maybe the largest, is about the potential in that audience to be the sort of human Arendt (and likely Moore and King) envisioned.


See Also

Watchmen Two-In-One: Hannah Arendt and Rorschach (2020) – Part Two, Steve Baxi

Imposter: Whitewashing “By Any Means Necessary”

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. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

James Baldwin, On Language, Race and the Black Writer (Los Angeles Times, 1979)

I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences. By visibly hovering near us, they are “proving” they are “with us.”

Malcolm X, “What Can a Sincere White Person Do?”

I grew up among oafish racists in my white family and community. This was upstate South Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s.

As a teenager, I stood in the pro shop of the golf course where I worked while one of the grounds crew carefully explained to me that once Cain was banished from the Garden of Eden, he mated with apes and that’s how we have Black people.

This horrific moment aside, one of the most stark lessons I learned living among people with grossly simplistic views of race was that any person’s relationship with race is incredibly complicated.

Each summer as a teenager, I moved from working in the pro shop to working as an attendant and then a lifeguard at the country club’s pool. There, white Southern women arrived daily, many with unnaturally bleached-blond hair piled high, and rubbed themselves down with baby oil to sun bath from midmorning until mid-afternoon.

These women were as blatantly racist as their husbands routinely were on the golf course—a white person’s sanctuary that explicitly banned Black people from joining.

I have a very vivid memory of one woman, a wife of a long-time employee of the golf course. She had the most cartoonish bleached hair, maybe the tallest, but she also was tanned to beyond brown; with the lathering of baby oil, her stomach glistened black.

And my mother often joined these women. She also sunbathed in our yard when not at the pool. Like her father who sat outside barefoot in only cut-off blue jean shorts any sunny day, she was olive complexioned and tanned deeply.

Harold Sowers, my maternal grandfather, was my Tu-Daddy; here, in his later years, he sat outside fully clothed and in the shade.

What compelled these white women who so openly loathed Black and brown people to render themselves dark every summer?

This, I think, is the complexity of anyone’s relationship with race—especially when white and especially when trapped in baseless, simplistic views of race that serve the interests of white people.

In the first six years of my life, before we moved to the golf course, I remember vividly that my mother often suggested she had some Indian heritage; with hindsight, I suspect she spoke with something like a garbled romantic longing because she had exoticized the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina from briefly living in Lumberton, North Carolina growing up.

My mother also adored Cher, whose own jumbled heritage and flourishes of cultural appropriation helped fuel the very worst aspects of my mother’s racism.

Wikipedia offers how complex race and celebrity are (not the used of “claimed”): “Cher was born Cherilyn Sarkisian in El Centro, California, on May 20, 1946.[3] Her father, John Sarkisian, was an Armenian-American truck driver with drug and gambling problems; her mother, Georgia Holt (born Jackie Jean Crouch), was an occasional model and bit-part actress who claimed Irish, English, German, and Cherokee ancestry.”

These white women tanning and my mother’s fantasy of having Lumbee blood somewhere in her veins are my first experiences with white women imposters, who are increasingly being exposed in higher education:

This year alone has seen the unmasking of a handful of white academics who have posed as nonwhite: BethAnn McLaughlinJessica Krug, C. V. Vitolo-Haddad and Craig Chapman.

Whereas Chapman and McLaughlin impersonated women of color online only, Krug and Vitolo-Haddad wove their false ethnicities into their personal and professional identities day in and day out. This kind of living a lie is perhaps most infamously exemplified by Rachel Dolezal, former head of the NAACP in Tacoma, Wash., and part-time professor of African American studies at Eastern Washington University. Dolezal identified herself as Black but was revealed to be white in 2015.

White women passing as not white has become a multi-layered offensive whitewashing of “by any means necessary,” since this act of being an imposter seems designed to manipulate a genuine problem in academia, the lack of diversity.

The paradoxical aspect of these layers includes that women are one of the areas of need in many universities dedicated to increasing diversity and inclusion and that white women suffer the negative consequences of being women even as that is tempered by their proximity to white men’s privilege (something that we have abundant evidence a majority of white women will cultivate, notably that more white women voted for Trump in 2016 than for a white woman, Hillary Clinton).

White imposters of race who are women are not only doing harm by taking away the very small spaces afforded Black and brown faculty candidates, but by spitting in the face of the very real and very harmful effects of imposter syndrome often experienced by minoritized people.

As a faculty member on our presidential committee for diversity and inclusion, I have spent many years specifically serving on and chairing a committee that participates in the hiring process so that the university implements best practice to increase diversity among our faculty (which is deeply underrepresented by race as well as gender).

Since my university has now faced a recently hired faculty member accused of being a race imposter, I am witnessing in proximity (as I did with my mother) that this deception has many negative consequences, mostly suffered by the people this event has impacted directly (the department, students, etc.) and indirectly (candidates not hired), but also impacting the process of recruiting and hiring diverse faculty.

Academia is a complicated environment, even culture, in which many things must not be spoken while other things are discussed to the point of no return (with no action).

Legal restrictions and tradition have created circumstances whereby universities seeking diverse faculty can discuss diversity needs and set up policies and practices aimed at increasing diversity, but not explicitly address any candidate’s race, culture, gender, etc.

There are also spaces in academia (not all of them) where everything works under a veil of good faith, but the sort of good faith that has existed forever among the privileged, the sort of wink-wink-nod-nod that existed among the all-white members of the golf course of my youth.

Higher education is not the world of Leftist indoctrination imagined by conservatives, but it is populated by progressives with good intentions who are more than counter-balanced by a willful naivete that comes with being the white progressives Martin Luther King Jr. warned about.

As I mentioned above, academia can often be more words than action. I do not doubt that many who speak often and eloquently about the need for diversity and inclusion are genuine in their rhetoric and their intellectual commitment; but I also know for a fact that most who offer the rhetoric balk at taking any actual steps on the road to equity.

Don’t want to step on any of the wrong toes.

There are few places where “talk is cheap” (and safe) is more telling and complicated than higher ed.

Academia, then, is ripe for deception by those who are willing to whitewash “by any means necessary” even at the expense of people who have no choice but to live lives tinted every moment with racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.

My life has transitioned from the oafish racism of my childhood—good country people—to the elegant racism of higher education—well-educated people with good intentions.

Each faculty member unmasked for being a race imposter sends me back in time to my mother playing Cher records or sun bathing with the regulars at the golf course pool.

I have been reminded in recent days that people with grossly simplistic views of race reveal that any person’s relationship with race is incredibly complicated—and ultimately dangerous.

The Wrong “Scientific” for Education

The release of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2019 scores in math and reading, announced as an “emergency” and “devastating,” has thrown gasoline on the rhetorical fire that has already been sweeping across media—a call for “scientific” research to save public education in the U.S.:

While the media and the public seem historically and currently convinced by the rhetoric of “scientific,” there is a significant irony to the lack of scientific evidence backing claims about the causes of NAEP scores; for example, some have rushed to argue that intensive phonics instruction and grade retention legislation have caused Mississippi’s NAEP reading gains while many have used 2019 NAEP scores to declare the entire accountability era a failure.

Yet, none of these claims have the necessary scientific evidence to make any of these arguments. There simply has not been the time or the efforts to construct scientific studies (experimental or quasi-experimental) to identify causal factors in NAEP score changes.

Another problem with the rhetoric of “scientific” is that coinciding with that advocacy is some very disturbing contradictory realities:

And let’s not forget that for at least two decades, “scientific” has been central to No Child Left Behind and the Common Core—both of which were championed as mechanisms for finally bringing education into a new era of evidence-based practices.

We must wonder: If “scientific” is the answer to our educational failures, what has happened over the past twenty years of “scientific” being legislated into education, resulting in everyone shouting that the sky is falling because 2019 NAEP scores are down from 2017 as well as relatively flat since the early 1990s (30 of the 40 years spanning accountability)?

First, there is the problem of definition. “Scientific” is short-hand for a very narrow type of quantitative research, experimental and quasi-experimental research that is the gold standard of pharmaceutical and medical research.

To meet the standard of “scientific,” then, research in education would have to include random-sample populations of students and a control group in order to draw causal relationships and make generalizations. This process is incredibly expensive in terms of funding and time.

As I noted above, no one has had the time to conduct “scientific” research on 2019 NAEP data so making causal claims of any kind for why NAEP scores dropped is necessarily not “scientific.”

But there is a second, and larger, problem with calling for “scientific” research in education. This narrow form of “scientific” is simply wrong for education.

Experimental and quasi-experimental research seeks to identify causal generalizations. In other words, if we divide all students into a bell-shaped curve with five segments, the meaty center segment would be where the generalization from a study has the greatest effectiveness. The adjacent two outer segments would show some decreasing degrees of effectiveness, leaving the two extreme segments at the far ends of the curve likely showing little or no effectiveness (these students, however, could have learned under instruction not shown as generally effective).

Yet, in a real classroom, teachers are not serving a random sampling of students, and there are no controls to assure that some factors are not causing different outcomes for students even when the instructional practice has been shown by scientific research to be effective.

No matter the science behind instruction, sick, hungry, or bullied students will not be able to learn.

The truth is, in education, scientific studies are nearly impossible to conduct, are often overly burdensome in terms of expense and time, and are ultimately not adequate for the needs of real teachers and students in real classrooms—where teaching and learning are messy, idiosyncratic, and impacted by dozens of factors beyond the control of teachers or students.

Frankly, nothing works for all students, and a generalization can be of no use to a particular student with an outlier need.

While we are over-reacting to 2019 NAEP reading scores, we have failed to recognize that there has never been a period in the U.S. when reading achievement was adequate; over that history teachers have implemented hundreds of different instructional strategies, reading programs, standards, and high-stakes tests—and we always find the outcomes unsatisfying.

If there is any causal relationship between how we teach and how students learn, it is a cumbersome matrix of factors that has been mostly unexamined, especially by “scientific” methods.

And often, history is a better avenue than science.

The twenty-first century has not been the only era calling for “scientific” in educational practice.

The John Dewey progressivism of the early twentieth century was also characterized by a call for scientific practice. Lou LaBrant, who taught from 1906 until 1971 and rose to president of the National Council of Teachers of English in the 1950s, was a lifelong practitioner of Deweyan progressivism.

LaBrant called repeated for closing the “gap” between research and practice, but she also balked at reading and writing programs—singular approaches to teaching all students literacy.

While progressive education and Dewey are often demonized and blamed for educational failure by mid-twentieth century, the truth is that progressivism has never been widely embraced in the U.S.

Today, however, we should be skeptical of the narrow and flawed call for “scientific” and embrace instead the progressive view of “scientific.”

For Dewey, the teacher must simultaneously teach and conduct research—what eventually would be called action research.

To teach, for progressives, is to constantly gather evidence of learning from students in order to drive instruction; in this context, science means that each student receives the instruction they demonstrate a need for and that produces some outcomes of effectiveness.

In an elementary reading class, some students may be working in read aloud groups while others are receiving direct phonics instruction, and even others are sitting in book clubs reading picture books by choice. None of them, however, would be doing test-prep worksheets or computer-based programs.

The current urge toward “scientific” seems to embrace the false assumption that with the right body of research we can identify the single approach for all students to succeed.

Human learning, however, is as varied as there are humans.

This brings us to the current “science of reading” narrative that calls for all students to receive intensive systematic phonics, purportedly because scientific research calls for such. The “science of reading” narrative also rejects and demonizes “balanced literacy” as not “scientific.”

We arrive then back at the problem of definition.

The “science of reading” advocacy is trapped in too narrow a definition of “scientific” that is fundamentally wrong for educating every student. Ironically, again, balanced literacy is a philosophy of literacy (not a program) that implements Deweyan progressive “scientific”; each student receives the reading instruction they need based on the evidence of learning the teacher gathers from previous instruction, evidence used to guide future instruction.

Intensive phonics for all begins with a fixed mandate regardless of student ability or need; balanced literacy starts with the evidence of the student.

If we are going to argue for “scientific” education in the U.S., we would be wise to change the definition, expand the evidence, and tailor our instruction to the needs of our students and not the propagandizing of a few zealots.

For two decades at least, the U.S. has been chasing the wrong “scientific” as a distraction from the real guiding principle, efficiency. Reducing math and reading to discrete skills and testing those skills as evidence for complex human behaviors are as misleading as arguing that “scientific” research will save education.

Teachers as daily, patient researchers charged with teaching each student as that student needs—that is the better “scientific” even as it is much messier and less predictable.

Dare the School Build a New Social Order?: A Reckoning 86 Years Later

The candidacy seemed at the time nothing more than sideshow, perverse reality TV, and then Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination for president, prompting many pundits to note that as a death knoll for the Republican Party.

Yet, Trump was elected president.

During the primaries and throughout his run against Hillary Clinton, Trump proved to be relentlessly dishonest, a liar. However, mainstream media avoided calling a lie “a lie,” including major media outlets directly arguing against such language. President Trump hasn’t budged from overstatement, misleading statements, and outright lies.

Notably, major media publish Trump’s lies as if they are credible, despite fact-checking exposing lie upon lie upon lie.

Early on, many opposing Trump called for media simply to call out the lies. Here is the truly bad news, however.

During my Tuesday role as caregiver for my 2-year-old grandson, I flipped through my cable channels during his nap for a brief reprieve from NickJr. I paused on CNN, even though I loath all of the 24-hour news shows.

What caught my ear was that the newscaster was repeatedly calling Trump our for lies, using the word “lie”—over and over. This, I felt, was a real new normal I had called for, but never expected.

Next, the newscaster replayed a segment from the day before focusing on a fact checker of Trump’s many, many lies. The fact checker noted a truly disturbing fact: Trump’s supporters, he explained, recognize that Trump lies, but doesn’t mind the lies; in fact, Trump’s supporters revel in those lies because, as the fact checker emphasized, this drives liberals crazy.

It is here that I must stress two points: (1) It appears those of us believing that exposing Trump as a liar would somehow derail his presidency were sorely mistaken, and (2) we are now entering a phase of U.S. history in which the long-standing slur of “liberal” is code for taking evidence-based stances, especially if those evidence-based stances swim against the current of American ideology and mythology.

Let me offer a couple example.

In my own public and scholarly work, contexts that prompt responses that discount me as a “liberal” (with false implications that I am a partisan Democrat), I have made repeated and compelling cases against corporal punishment and school-only safety measures.

Neither of these issues is both-sides debates since the research base is overwhelmingly one-sided.

Corporal punishment is not an effective discipline technique, and it creates violent youth and adults. A powerful body research prompted by the school shooting at Columbine and including studies by the Secret Service reject school-only safety measure such as security guards, surveillance cameras, active-shooter drills, and metal detectors, all of which are not deterrents and may even create violence.

Therefore, to embrace evidence-based positions on corporal punishment and school safety is the liberal or progressive (seeking change) stance, while the traditional or conservative (maintaining established practices) positions (ignoring the evidence) cling to corporal punishment and fortifying schools while refusing to address the wider influences of communities and our national mania for guns.

Let’s consider that last point more fully next.

There is an unpopular and upsetting fact driving why school-only safety measures are futile: K-12 and higher education are essentially conservative.

Despite political and popular scapegoating of all formal education as liberal, the evidence of nearly a century reveals that all forms of school more often than not reflect the communities and society they serve. In no real ways, then, do schools meet the former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s hollow mantra that education is the great equalizer, some sort of silver bullet for change.

Evidence shows that at different levels of educational attainment, significant gaps persist among racial categories and those gaps are even more pronounced once race and gender are included (see p. 34).

In the 1930s, a golden era for idealism about communism and socialism in the U.S. after the stock market crash, major educational thinkers such as John Dewey (a socialist) and George Counts championed the potential for progressive education (Dewey) to shape U.S. democracy, and then for social reconstruction (Counts) to reshape the nation, as Counts detailed in his Dare the School Build a New Social Order? (1932).

As an early critical voice, Counts spoke to the educational goals that appealed to me as I eventually found critical pedagogy in my doctoral program and doubled down on my early commitment to be the sort of educator who fostered change with and through my students.

Yet, here I sit in 2018, 86 years after Counts’s manifesto. And the U.S. is being led by a pathological liar supported by more and more people who directly say they don’t care about lies or evidence because it makes liberal mad.

This is the pettiness our country has wrought, despite more people today being formally educated than at any time in U.S. history.

My 35 years and counting as an educator, part as a high school teacher and now in higher education, have been a disappointing lesson that answers Counts’s titular question with a resounding “no.”

I shared with my foundations education class the proofs of a chapter I have prepared for a volume now in-press, Contending with Gun Violence in the English Language Classroom. I then briefly reviewed the evidence against in-school safety measures, prompting a student to ask what, then, should we do in schools.

Address our larger gun culture and violent communities, I explained, reminding the class that I have stressed again and again that they need to understand at least one essential lesson from our course: Schools mostly reflect communities and society, but they simply do very little to change anything.

I don’t like this message, but it is evidence-based, and I suppose, a liberal claim.

For many years, I have quickly refuted those who assume I am a partisan Democrat (I am not, never have been). I also have rejected labels of “liberal” and “progressive” for “critical” and “radical.”

But I feel the time is ripe for re-appropriating “liberal” when it is hurled as a slur.

In Trumplandia, to be fact-free is to be conservative, traditional, and to acknowledge evidence is to be liberal, progressive.

This is what the evidence reveals to those of us willing to see. Everything else is a lie.

There’s both sides for those who want it.


Recommended

College campuses are far from radical

The Lazy Libertarian Lie: Paul Ryan Edition

Before the expected Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs” “Let me tell y’all what it’s like/Being male, middle-class, and white/It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe” response can envelope this post, I want to offer a few caveats.

I have strong libertarian tendencies, ones that have drawn me to a Henry David Thoreau sort of thinking grounded in rejecting authority and appreciating that adults should be allowed to live as they please within the constraints (see below) that acknowledge a simple but inescapable truth: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” (John Donne, Meditation XVII).

And I know some self-declared Libertarians who are somewhat evangelical about their ideologies but, none the less, routinely demonstrate that they have souls—even as they haven’t rectified the disconnect between being a soulless Libertarian (a redundancy) and living life in any sort of humane way. And thus, I am not really holding forth below about those Libertarians who ultimately do not live by what they profess.

The lazy Libertarian lie depends on several failures of logic.

One is the “damned government” argument such as those who refuse to wear helmets while driving a motorcycle or rail against the shrinking areas allowing people to smoke (although laws still permit adults to smoke in their homes and cars while under-age and non-consenting children are present, and are thus inhaling the toxic smoke that the law prevents them to inhale by purchasing cigarettes).

This argument is, at its core, a fundamental cluelessness about individualism—in short, the lack of awareness, see Donne above, that individualism simply does not exist.

Taking risks—no helmet, smoking—never has consequences only for the risk taker. Trauma and illness resulting from this risk taking stress unnecessarily a health care system that impacts everyone else.

Despite these “I did it my way” risk takers’ choices, EMS and medical staff are ethically obligated to keep them alive, often a tremendous drain on their time and at great costs (trauma care in the ER and after, cancer treatment, etc.).

Another of the great logic fails is the “I built this” crowd, the ugly but enduring lie of the self-made billionaire.

All individual wealth in the U.S. is built on other people’s labor and facilitated by (brace yourself) the “damned government”; for example, there are no business ventures possible at the degree experienced in 2018 without the road and highway system in the U.S. (brace yourself: publicly funded).

And the entire free market fetish for property and personal property is possible only because of the legal and justice system that monitors a relatively high level of property safety.

And this brings us to poster boy Paul Ryan, an incredibly dishonest Libertarian (when it suits him) who cherry-picks his Ayn Rand adolescent rants.

Like the political Rands, and the cartoon Randites like Rush Limbaugh (who pronounces her first name as “Ann”), Ryan has profited handsomely from his white man Teflon and his American mythology sound bites grounded in lazy Libertarian lies.

Ryan lies about his athleticism.

And as James Fallows has documented, Ryan lies “in ways large and small.”

Behind the hairdo and the suits, Ryan has been trafficking in the racism and poverty-hating that some think was created by Trump.

Like Ayn Rand herself, Ryan has announced the end to his career in politics (brace yourself: Ryan is the “damned government”) and is poised to received $79,000 annually for life (brace yourself: tax dollars just handed to him for doing nothing).

Ultimately, Ryan embodies the great big pile of excrement that is the lazy Libertarian lie: My ideology is mostly about what I want for you, but not at all what I want for me.

You see, there simply are no rugged individuals. Not a damned single person who has pulled themselves up by the bootstraps.

Like the horrible literature and vapid philosophy of Ayn Rand, these are not enduring American myths, but calloused lies in no way grounded in reality.

They are designed to aggrandize the wealthy and demonize the poor; yet they are lies about both.

The sinister irony of these lazy Libertarian lies is that the wealthy and privileged are more likely to be the immoral and unethical class in the U.S. than the working class and poor.

My libertarian urges of boyhood, grounded in Thoreau and Emerson (not Rand), ended with my boyhood.

I grew up, physically, intellectually, and morally.

I recognize and appreciate collectivism, community, and collaboration.

A turning point for me was John Dewey’s pragmatism, an argument that either/or thinking fails humans. In short, Dewey argued that it is a false choice between individualism and collectivism—that they are symbiotic, not antithetical.

Any libertarian urges that remain—and they do because I certainly fear totalitarianism and regret that so little of life in the so-called “free” U.S. is actually free—are always tempered by what has come to be for me the greatest acknowledgement of the moral imperative of collectivism that grounds me, by Eugene V. Debs:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

My freedom is inevitably bound to everyone else’s freedom—and this is the great moral truth denied by the lazy Libertarian lie.

Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive” schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.


[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.

The Big Lie about the Left in the U.S.

The Big Lie about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left exists in some substantial and influential way in the country.

The Truth about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left does not exist in some substantial and influential way in the country. Period.

The little lies that feed into the Big Lie include that universities and professors, K-12 public schools, the mainstream media, and Hollywood are all powerful instruments of liberal propaganda.

These little lies have cousins in the annual shouting about the “war on Christmas” and hand wringing by Christians that they are somehow the oppressed peoples of the U.S.

These lies little and Big are a scale problem in that the U.S. is now and has always been a country whose center is well to the right, grounded as we are in capitalism more so than democracy.

The U.S. is a rightwing country that pays lip service to progressivism and democracy; we have a vibrant and powerful Right and an anemic, fawning Middle.

Wealth, corporatism, consumerism, and power are inseparable in the U.S.—pervading the entire culture including every aspect of government and popular culture.

The Left in the U.S. is a fabricated boogeyman, designed and perpetuated by the Right to keep the general public distracted. Written as dark satire, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle now serves as a manual for understanding how power uses false enemies to maintain power and control.

Notably during the past 30-plus decades, conservative politics have dominated the country, creating for Republicans a huge problem in terms of bashing “big government.”

But dog-whistle politics grounded in race and racism benefitting the Right and Republicans have a long history.

In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. confronted Barry Goldwater’s tactics foreshadowing Trump’s strategies and rise:

The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism…On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represents a philosophy that is morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I have no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that does not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.

Malcolm X held forth in more pointed fashion, but with the same focus:

Well if Goldwater ever becomes president one thing his presence in the White House will do, it will make black people in America have to face up the facts probably for the first time in many many years,” Malcolm X said. 

“This in itself is good in that Goldwater is a man who’s not capable of hiding his racist tendencies,” he added. “And at the same time he’s not even capable of pretending to Negroes that he’s their friend.” 

The Civil Rights icon concluded that should Goldwater be elected, he would inspire black people to fully reckon with “whites who pose as liberals only for the purpose of getting the support of the Negro.”

“So in one sense Goldwater’s coming in will awaken the Negro and will probably awaken the entire world more so than the world has been awakened since Hitler,” he said.

Mentioned above, the annual panic over the “war on Christmas” is a distraction from the fact that Christmas serves consumerism, the Right, and not religion—keeping in mind that Jesus and his ideology rejected materialism and espoused moral and ethical codes in line with socialism and communism/Marxism.

What remains mostly unexamined is that all structures are essentially conservative—seeking to continue to exist. Power, then, is always resistant to change, what should be at the core of progressivism and leftwing ideology.

Marxism is about power and revolution (drastic change, and thus a grand threat to power), but suffers in the U.S. from the cartoonish mischaracterization from the Right that it is totalitarianism.

So as we drift toward the crowning of the greatest buffoon ever to sit at the throne of the U.S. as a consumerocracy posing as a democracy, Education Week has decided to launch into the hackneyed “academics are too liberal and higher education is unfair to conservatives” ploy.

At the center of this much-ado-about-nothing is Rick Hess playing his Bokonon and McCabe role:

I know, I know. To university-based education researchers, all this can seem innocuous, unobjectionable, and even inevitable. But this manner of thinking and talking reflects one shared worldview, to the exclusion of others. While education school scholars may almost uniformly regard a race-conscious focus on practice and policy as essential for addressing structural racism, a huge swath of the country sees instead a recipe for fostering grievance, animus, and division. What those in ed. schools see as laudable efforts to promote “equitable” school discipline or locker-room access strike millions of others as an ideological crusade to remake communities, excuse irresponsible behavior, and subject children to goofy social engineering. Many on the right experience university initiatives intended to promote “tolerance” and “diversity” as attempts to silence or delegitimize their views on immigration, criminal justice, morality, and social policy. For readers who find it hard to believe that a substantial chunk of the country sees things thusly, well, that’s kind of the issue.

Conversational and posing as a compassionate conservative, Hess sprinkles in scare quotes while completely misrepresenting everything about which he knows nothing.

This is all cartoon and theater.

The grand failure of claiming that the academy is all leftwing loonies is that is based almost entirely—see the EdWeek analysis—on noting that academics overwhelmingly identify as Democrats.

However, the Democratic Party is not in any way a substantial reflection of leftist ideology. At most, we can admit that Democrats tend to use progressive rhetoric (and this is a real characteristics of professors, scholars, and academics), but that Democratic policy remains centrist and right of center.

A powerful example of this fact is the Department of Education (DOE) and Secretary of Education (SOE) throughout George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations.

For the past 16 years, education policy has been highly bureaucratic and grounded almost entirely in rightwing ideology—choice, competition, accountability, and high-stakes testing.

The only real difference between Bush’s SOE and Obama’s SOE has been rhetoric; yes, Duncan, for example, loved to chime in with civil rights lingo, but policy under Obama moved farther right than under Bush.

Now, let me end here by addressing the charge that college professors are a bunch of leftwing loonies.

I can do so because I am the sort of dangerous professor Hess wants everyone to believe runs our colleges and universities—poisoning the minds of young people across the U.S.

I can also add that I spent 18 years as a public school teacher before the past 15 years in higher education.

In both so-called liberal institutions—public education and higher education—as a real card-carrying Lefty, I have been in the minority, at best tolerated, but mostly ignored and even marginalized.

Public schools are extremely conservative, reflecting and perpetuating the communities they serve. In the South, my colleagues were almost all conservative in their world-views and religious practices.

My higher education experience has been somewhat different because the atmosphere has the veneer of progressivism (everyone know how to talk, what to say), but ultimately, we on the Left are powerless, unheard and often seen as a nuisance.

Colleges and universities are institutions built on and dependent on privilege and elitism. As I noted above, colleges and universities are not immune to the conservative nature of institutions; they seek ways to maintain, to conserve, to survive.

Colleges and universities are also not immune to business pressures, seeing students and their families as consumers.

Do professors push back on these tendencies and pressures? Sure.

But that dynamic remains mostly rhetorical.

The Truth is that colleges and universities are centrist organizations—not unlike the Democratic Party and their candidates, such as Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Some progressives in the U.S. play both sides to sniff at the power on the Right, and then the Right uses that rhetoric and those veneers to prove how the Left has taken over our colleges/universities, public schools, media, and Hollywood.

But that is a Big Lie about the Left in the U.S.

The Left does not exist in any substantial way, except as a boogeyman controlled by the Right in order to serve the interests of those in power.

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

Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle dramatizes this warning, and 50 years ago King and Malcolm X challenged us to see beyond the corrosive power of dog-whistle politics.

When the Right paints educational research as the product of corrupted leftwing scholars, you must look past the harmful foma and examine in whose interest it is that market-based education reform survives despite the evidence against it.

To paraphrase Gertrude from Hamlet, “The Right protests too much, methinks,” and we have much to fear from all these histrionics.

Reclaiming “Direct Instruction”

After I posted two blogs on authentic literacy instruction (see here and here), several readers tripped over my use of the term “direct instruction.”

Before examining the value in that term (and what it means), let me offer a couple of anecdotes.

While I was teaching high school English, a colleague teaching math had a classroom directly across from my room, separated by a court yard. With, I think, equal parts joking and judgment, that teacher used to say often, “I wish I could teach while sitting at my desk.”

Not unimportant here is the distinct pedagogical differences among math and English teachers—one that I believe we can fairly say is a tension between math teachers being teacher-centered and sequential while English teachers can lean more often toward student-centered and workshop approaches (although my caveat here is that English teachers can be some of the most traditional teachers I have ever met).

In my story above, the math teacher’s comment is an excellent example of the confusion over “direct instruction.” Yes, many people see direct instruction as lecture—thus, mostly if not exclusively teacher-centered with students relatively passive.

For this colleague, my students working in a writing workshop with me responding to drafts, conferencing, and the other purposeful elements of workshopping did not meet her definition of “teaching.”

Another illustrative story involves my daughter.

Her second grade teacher was a colleague of my wife, who teaches PE at the primary school. One day in passing my daughter’s second grade teacher told my wife that my daughter had been doing extremely well on her spelling tests until she began intensive and direct phonics instruction. Since then, she noted, my daughter’s spelling grades had suffered significantly.

This second example represents the ultimate failure of a narrow view of teaching having to be a certain limited type of direct instruction.

Now, when I use the term “direct instruction,” as one person perfectly commented about my blog post, I am addressing purposeful and structured or organized instruction, but I am not using the term as only teacher-centered practices.

To be direct, or purposeful, then, I see teaching as an act with several goals: curricular (including standards and high-stakes tests addressing those standards), disciplinary, and student-centered.

In any given class, teachers must address all three, but pedagogically, teachers often have some degree of autonomy over how to address these goals.

As I champion “direct instruction,” I am cautioning against placing curriculum and discipline above student, but I am also calling for building all instruction on some evidence of need.

Curriculum guides and standards justify a need; the discipline (ELA as literacy, literature, and composition) justifies a need; and students come to all courses with needs.

“Direct instruction,” then, is purposeful and organized teaching targeting one or all of these needs.

As a critical constructivist, I maintain that we must start with allowing students to produce artifacts demonstrating what they know, what they don’t know, and what they are confused about in the context of our curricular and disciplinary obligations.

Direct instruction is simply teaching with purpose to address those needs.

A failed view of direct instruction is grounded in covering the curriculum or the obligations of the discipline regardless of the students in the course.

Teaching algebra sequentially, likely with the textbook determining the structure, in order to document that you taught algebra; teaching a phonics program, again, in order to document that you taught reading—this is the failure of a narrow view of “direct instruction” that supplants the needs of the students with the needs of curriculum and the discipline.

If and when a child is spelling and decoding well, to go over phonics is a waste of time, but also very likely harmful—just as many studies of isolated grammar instruction show students becoming more apt to make “errors” after the instruction.

So here we can begin to unpack that the problem is not with “direct,” but with “isolated.”

The problem is with teaching the discipline, teaching a program, teaching to the standards and/or high-stakes tests instead of teaching students.

I am advocating for direct instruction built primarily on student needs—purposeful and structured lessons designed after gathering evidence of student strengths, weaknesses, and confusions.

And I must stress that my argument here is wonderfully confronted and unpacked by Lisa Delpit, who came to this debate because she recognized the other side of the coin I haven’t addressed yet: so-called student-centered practices that cheat students (mostly our vulnerable populations of students) by misunderstanding the role of direct instruction, by misreading progressive and critical practices as “naturalistic” or unstructured.

Writing and reading workshop are not about giving students free time to read and write; workshops are about time, ownership, and response that is purposeful and structured.

Student-centered practices are not about letting children do whatever the hell they want.

As Delpit has addressed, that isn’t teaching, and it certainly cheats students in similar ways that bullheaded and narrow uses of teacher-centered practices harm students.

If a teacher isn’t guided by needs and grounding class time in purpose, that teacher isn’t teaching.

But until you have a real breathing student in front of you, you cannot predict what that direct (purposeful) instruction will (should) look like.

Ultimately, I believe narrow uses of the term “direct instruction” are designed to shame student-centered and critical educators.

I refuse to play that game because I am directly (purposefully) teaching when I place the needs of my students before but not exclusive of the needs of the curriculum and the discipline.

And, yes, while I also hope someday more teachers can teach while sitting at their desks, I am more concerned about how we can come to embrace teaching as purposeful and structured without reducing it to a technocratic nightmare for both teachers and students.

Middle-Class Assumptions Fail Literacy Instruction

My doctoral work was anchored significantly in John Dewey—highlighted, I recall, by discovering that Dewey had claimed we need not teach children to read because reading was something that naturally developed in children (and since he could not recall being taught explicitly to read).

I was struck by such a tremendous failure in a great thinker, one that exposes the dangers of assuming “my” experiences prove a generalization, especially when “my” experiences are ones of privilege.

When I posted Encouraging Students to Read: A Reader, this odd fact about Dewey came back to me when Peter Smagorinsky called me out, appropriately, for failing to acknowledge the middle-class assumptions beneath endorsing holistic approaches to teaching reading, ones that far too often have failed students who struggle to develop literacy due to class, race, gender, and other challenges.

I have noted before that progressivism, whole language, and balanced literacy have been misunderstood by politicians, the media, and the public, but we must also confront that practitioners have misunderstood and then implemented progressive and holistic approaches to literacy instruction in ways that have been extremely harmful to the exact students most in need of formal schooling.

The Dewey Paradox

Two aspects of Dewey’s progressive education philosophy are key in that context: (i) Dewey’s progressivism is steeped in idealism, leaning precariously on the edge of naturalistic views of children and learning (one that may be true if a child lives in privilege), and thus (ii) Dewey’s progressivism has mostly been misinterpreted and implemented in ways that do not reflect Dewey’s foundational commitments or serve many students well.

Not to be an apologist for Dewey, but to help clarify what many of us who stand on Dewey’s shoulders embrace (noting that I am a critical educator, and not a progressive), I recommend Dewey’s Experience and Education as well as Alan Ryan’s biography of Dewey (specifically his Chapter Four: The Pedagogue as Prophet).

For me, Dewey provided the seed for critical pedagogy to grow out of the soil of progressivism:

It is not too much to say that an educational philosophy which professes to be based on the idea of freedom may become as dogmatic as ever was the traditional education which is reacted against. For any theory and set of practices is dogmatic which is not based upon critical examination of its own underlying principles. (Experience and Education, p. 22)

In the reading wars, then, dogmatic commitments to either whole language or isolated phonics instruction instead of addressing the needs of each individual student to become a reader is the great failure Dewey himself would have acknowledged.

Misreading Dewey, however, has a long tradition itself. Lou LaBrant, a fervent Dewey progressive, wrote in 1931 a scathing attack on the project method, which claimed to be in the Dewey tradition:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

Ryan’s biography achieves a manageable and complex picture of Dewey—one that Dewey failed to express clearly. But in that picture, we see the idealism noted above as well as a level of sophistication (for example, seeking to honor both the individual and community, instead of bowing to either/or thinking) that made Dewey hard for a general public and often inaccessible for practitioners who want the practical and not his pragmatic [1].

However, “Dewey himself argued that it was not enough to repudiate traditional education,” Ryan explains, adding:

It was not enough for progressive teachers to throw out everything the old schools had done, to replace discipline by chaos, a rigid syllabus with no syllabus. And Dewey was inclined to think that many schools had done exactly that and had used his name to justify it. The difficulty was to give an account of the educational experience that would elicit a kind of discipline, an approach to the syllabus and to the authority of the teacher in the classroom that would grow out of experience itself. (p. 282)

And it is here that I can speak directly to the great paradox of progressive and critical commitments in education, especially in terms of teaching literacy, as expressed by Dewey himself:

What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur? (Experience and Education, p. 49)

Teaching for over thirty years while attempting to avoid prescription and indoctrination, to foster joy and pleasure in learning, and to provide all students with the content they deserve and need has often lead to paralysis since those commitments are overwhelming in their contradictions. I have never settled for decoding or even comprehension in any student—always demanding we rise to include critical literacy that requires that students have the decoding and comprehension as well.

Despite Dewey’s warning, dogmatism is easier, and as Ryan warned, Dewey’s progressivism demands more of teachers than traditional approaches. And thus, when faced with the most challenging populations of students, we too often take the path of least resistance, mis-serving those students along the way.

Enter Delpit: Middle-Class Assumptions Fail Literacy Instruction

What appears to have happened in formal education throughout the U.S. is that literacy education has increased the gaps among social classes and racial subgroups because too often than not we have failed to honor the balance between fostering a love and joy for language with the necessary skills to read and write—and the students who suffer the most in that failure have been racial minorities and impoverished children.

Affluent students are allowed to relish in the joy of language (reaping the advantages of their privilege, which includes a literacy growth that seems transparent to them, as it did to Dewey) in formal schooling, while struggling students (disproportionately children of color and impoverished) are sentenced to drudgery masquerading as literacy instruction, further disadvantaging them.

Middle-class norms drive a great deal of practice in formal schooling since the wider U.S. society is trapped in those middle-class norms (ones that include not only socioeconomic but also racial [read “white”] expectations) and since the teacher workforce in the U.S. is itself a middle-class profession dominated by white females.

These middle-class blinders can be observed in the misguided embracing of Ruby Payne’s stereotypes about poverty, the nearly universal acceptance of the “word gap,” and the “grit” narrative as a veneer for white privilege.

Just as Dewey’s progressivism needed a critical re-imagining from Paulo Freire and others, Freire’s critical pedagogy needed bell hooks and others to confront Freire’s paternalism.

Then, enter Lisa Delpit, who provides the confrontation of the failures of misunderstood progressivism and holistic approaches to literacy instruction—the failures that often misrepresent whole language but exist under that terminology (see Ryan’s point about Dewey’s complaints above).

Writing in 1996 about Delpit, Debora Viadero explains:

But Delpit is best-known for the bombs she has lobbed at some of contemporary education’s most sacred cows.

A decade ago, Delpit started penning a series of eloquent, plain-spoken essays in the Harvard Educational Review that questioned the validity of some popular teaching strategies for African-American students. The essays were spun off into a book, Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, that was published last year by The New Press.

The problem, Delpit says in those writings, is not that whole-language reading instruction techniques or the process-writing approach to teaching writing are inherently bad. They work for some students–possibly most. They just do not work for everybody. And often the people they do not work for are children who, like Delpit herself, were born black and disenfranchised. What is more, these strategies might not work for children of any group that has strong, distinctive cultural roots and that stands on society’s perimeter peering in.

And while some continue to misrepresent Delpit in similar ways to how Dewey was/is misrepresented, Delpit offers to me the best understanding of achieving the balance Dewey sought.

The powerful phrase “other people’s children” comes from the work of Delpit, who confronts the inequity of educational opportunities for minority and impoverished children. Delpit highlights that marginalized students receive disproportionately test-prep and worksheet-driven instruction, unlike their white and affluent peers. While some have claimed her as a champion of traditional practice because her criticisms have included failures by progressives, Delpit counters:

I do not advocate a simplistic “basic skills” approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background [emphasis added], but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power [emphasis added]. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents “uncaring” when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, “But that’s the school’s job.” What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities.

And Monique Redeaux clarifies:

When Delpit began her work on “other people’s children” she predicted that her purpose would be misunderstood. People criticized her for “vindicating” teachers who subjected students of color to isolated, meaningless, sub-skills day after day. However, what she was actually advocating when she referred to “skills-based instruction” was the “useful and usable knowledge that contributes to a student’s ability to communicate effectively in standard, generally acceptable literary forms” and she proposed that this was best learned in meaningful contexts. In other words, Delpit argued that both technical skills and critical thinking are essential: a person of color who has no critical thinking skills becomes the “trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.” At the same time, those who lack the technical skills demanded by colleges, universities, and employers will be denied entry into these institutions. Consequently, they will attain financial and social success only within the “disenfranchised underworld.”

Like my progressive muse LaBrant, I remain convinced that reading programs—including prescriptive, systematic phonics programs—are “costume parties” that fail our students—and waste a tremendous amount of funding and instructional time, money and time better spent with authentic texts.

But when I endorse choice, independent reading, and access to books, like Delpit, I am not excusing those who idealize those commitments (through middle-class lenses) and then fail to teach reading (or writing) based on the needs of each student, some of whom will flourish with little guidance and some of whom need intensive and direct instruction.

It is no petty thing to acknowledge that a hungry or abused or frightened child will not find joy in reading when allowed choice, independent reading, and access to books because those do not address the burdens denying them that joy and learning opportunity. It is no petty thing either to note that taking struggling students and simply demanding they ignore their life’s inequities and complete phonics worksheets will not work as well.

As Dewey would stress, either/or thinking and dogmatism serve no one well when we are teaching children to read and write. Too often, that dogmatism has its roots in our middle-class privilege that, as with Dewey, blinds us to what our students need most from our teaching.

[1] As Ryan explains: “Dewey spent a great deal of his adult life explaining that ‘pragmatic’ did not mean ‘practical’ in a merely utilitarian and down-to-earth sense” (p. 225).

Progressivism and Whole Language: A Reader

If you read a criticism of progressivism or whole language, I suspect you are reading one of two things:

  1. A misrepresentation of either so that the writer can attack the misrepresentation. Sometimes this is purposeful misrepresentation, but often the misrepresentation comes from carelessness or a lack of expertise.
  2. A confusion between the genuine principles of progressivism or whole language and how either has been misapplied in the real world. Both progressivism and whole language are terms claimed by those who also misunderstand the terms and concepts behind them. [1]

Since a number of blog and Twitter discussions have addressed both progressivism and then briefly whole language, I offer a reader on both below. [2] And my goal is not necessarily to endorse either progressivism or whole language (although I embrace many aspects of both), but to establish what each represents as a context for supporting or challenging either as being effective or misguided.

Progressivism

Progressivism is rightly associated with John Dewey, but Deweyan progressivism never found its way into mainstream public schools in any significant way. However, distortions of Dewey’s focus on project-based learning (see William Heard Kilpatrick’s The Project Method) have a long and illuminating history.

Thus, a great start to understanding progressivism is to read Lou LaBrant’s 1931 challenge to misguided use of projects. LaBrant is also a solid example of a genuine Deweyan progressive:

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246.

Another important aspect of progressivism is examining how the term and practices are often misrepresented as well as how rare authentic progressivism is in real-world classrooms; thus, see Alfie Kohn:

Progressive Education: Why It’s Hard to Beat, But Also Hard to Find

I have also placed progressivism in the context of traditional and critical ideologies:

Two-Headed Dragon of Education Policy

Whole Language

Like progressivism, whole language has suffered a long history of being blamed for failure even though it has almost never been implemented in any widespread or accurate way.

Did whole language destroy literacy in California? Nope. Read Stephen Krashen:

Whole Language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92: An Urban Legend from California

Does whole language call for no teaching of phonics? Nope. See more by Krashen:

The Phonics Debate: 2004

Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction

See Alfie Kohn:

On Teaching Reading, Spelling, and Related Subjects

See also:

The Reading Wars: Phonics versus Whole Language 

Facts: On the nature of whole language education

Progressivism and whole language, then, share some important characteristics. Both are credible perspectives built on scholarship and research, but neither has found widespread or authentic places in traditional public school practices (both likely have had much more influence and success in private settings). However, both have been repeatedly blamed for so-called failures in the exact public school systems where neither is practiced.

Nonetheless, making a case for or against either progressivism or whole language would be better served if both are accurately identified.

[1] In a recent blog, I carelessly made mistake #2 by taking aim at behaviorism without clarifying I was focusing on how behaviorism often is misused in education; as a result of being called on this, I did apologize and reframe that blog.

[2] And since this is a general blog post related to a number of other blogs and Tweets, I want to be sure this doesn’t come off as sub blogging. Directly I have interacted with Annie Murphy PaulRobert Pondiscio, and Harry Webb in one way or the other about these topics.