Category Archives: Workers

Capitalism Is Your Daddy: “what sort of person to die as”

From “you are what you eat” to “when you have sex with someone, you are having sex with all of their sexual partners,” we seem obsessed with fear-mongering in order to shape how people behave, and thus, who people become.

About fifty pages into Keiichiro Hirano’s A Man, the reader experiences the first hints of what becomes one motif of the novel:

In the end, although Kido would only drift to law school in the grips of the fuzzy thinking that plagues many students of the humanities, his father’s words would contribute to his firm decision, while enrolled there, to try to see things through and become a lawyer.

Keiichiro Hirano, A Man (p. 56)

A work written by a Japanese author about a Korean naturalized as Japanese (Akira Kido) resonates in several ways with growing up and making career choices in the U.S.

In less than fifty more pages, Kido is gripped in a panic attack identified as “existential anxiety”: “Kido’s fear of the same thing [death] happening to him made him painfully sensitive to the minutiae of life” (p. 99).

Kido recognizes as he approaches middle age that he is revisiting similar questions he faced as a teenager:

As was typical of someone that age, in the process of trying to decide what he wanted to be, he had thought long and hard about what kind of person he was. In the end he had drifted along and become a lawyer in accordance with his father’s advice. His doubts about whether this was truly the right path had never completely left him, but he went on looking to the future, telling himself that the person he was meant to be would be realized through the profession ha had chosen.

Keiichiro Hirano, A Man (p. 99-100)

Kido had lived “[f]or fifteen years now” complacent in those choices, who he had become—a lawyer with a wife and child. Yet in his new surge of existential anxiety, he recognized “steady work was no longer as common as it once had been, and many in his generation were denied the opportunity” he had received (p. 100):

He understood the struggles such people faced all too well because he dealt with many of them as clients. Forced to accept a life in which their social position and income were always unstable, they could never hope to self-actualize their profession as he had.

Keiichiro Hirano, A Man (p. 100)

Despite feeling fortunate, Kido must confront renewed angst prompting a new question: “Did I make the right choice?” (p. 100). And Kido becomes starkly aware “there might have been other paths he could have taken and therefore other people he might have been”:

The problem now was not who he was in the present but who he’d been in the past, and the solution he sought was no longer supposed to help him live but to help him figure out what sort of person to die as.

Keiichiro Hirano, A Man (p. 100)

For Kido, “the minutiae of life”—career as a lawyer, his family, and his Korean race beneath his naturalized Japanese citizenship—resulted in his “reignited existential anxiety:

The judicial order that Kido worked hard as a lawyer to preserve propped up his quotidian life. It protected his family’s human rights and maintained their status as sovereign citizens.

Keiichiro Hirano, A Man (p. 101)

I am now in the late fall/early winter of a life and my so-called career; I turn 60 in about three weeks.

Regrets linger around me, but they are not primary my existential anxiety (that has been my companion since birth); although I do recognize in Kido’s dilemmas my own mixed feelings about who I have become and what sort of person I will die as—since I can recognize on the horizon many endings such as my career and my ability to do some of the things associated with younger humans.

My body’s deteriorations seem exponential by not the year, but the month and even day.

What strikes me about this aspect of the novel is that we rarely utter what Kido is confronting: you are your job (especially for those of us living in capitalism). I suspect this is one fear-inspiring slogan we don’t launch at children because it is the most frightening of all.

In capitalism, we must work in order to be fully human, especially in the U.S. where working is the only access to even marginal health insurance and care as well as livable retirement savings.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. government has been the least responsive internationally in providing financial support, but one of the most aggressive about maintaining the economy (which, in fact, really means keeping workers on the job).

Millionaire U.S. senators held forth about the dangers of sending citizens money and expanding unemployment payments because of the cancerous dangers of “handouts.”

And there has been during the election cycle the ever-present mantra about “socialism” (a red herring, but common from the Right none the less).

I have been talking with a family member and close friend, one in their 30s and on in their 20s, and hearing a common theme; they are both not just disillusioned about their professions/jobs, but about working.

Why, they are asking, should someone work five days every week for the brief two days of the weekend? And why work forty or fifty years just so you can retire in your dotage?

And like Kido, I think of my father, a young man in the 1950s and young husband/parent in the 1960s who bought the work-yourself-into-the-grave mentality hook, line, and sinker.

Then, of course, he passed it onto me; he imprinted it in me.

To these questions by young people, I can honestly say that the answer is capitalism is your Daddy.

You are your job, and if you are not careful, if you fail to ask these questions and then act, that’s the person you will die as.

Worker’s Dilemma

A former first-year student of mine, about to graduate during the Covid-19 pandemic, emailed me recently since we will miss the chance to talk face-to-face before graduation. This student was incredibly kind about the role I played in their undergraduate journey, offering this as well: “I came to you with concerns over a major sophomore year, and instead of lecturing me you asked me what my dream job was.”

This student made some dramatic changes to their life and college career then, and now, I think is on a path that will be far more fulfilling. But this situation plays out over and over, and quite differently, at my selective, small liberal arts university.

The students at my university are often socially and economically conservative, or at least come from homes that are socially and economically conservative. These students are keenly aware of viewing a college education in terms of return on investment.

In other words, is there major going to lead to a career that justifies the price tag of those four years (and often the additional years of graduate school that follow)?

More often than not, I interact with students who want to follow their bliss, but their parents want them to respect their investment—by preparing for a high-paying career.

My journey to and through college was quite different in most ways than the students I teach. I grew up in a white Southern working-class home, where my parents’ generation was just beginning to tip-toe into college but had firmly accepted that college was an essential goal for their children.

My mother completed only one year of junior college, where my father finished both years. But four-year college was rare throughout both sides of their families, although college was part of the aspirational narrative that all of my family voiced and instilled in me.

I had no knowledge of concepts such as return on investment, but my academic journey was a given that included going to college and turning that degree into a stable career.

Although I fumbled with deciding on a major throughout my first two years (also attending the junior college my parents had)—from physics to pre-law to architecture—by the time I transferred to a satellite campus of the state university, I was staring at needing to commit fully to the sort of major and career that justified my parents paying for my college experience.

I am not entirely sure why, but I always felt deeply obligated to my parents and their funding my college (although I did earn several academic scholarships along the way and also tutored for additional income). I had grown up in a home where school was first, athletics second, and as long as I attended to these commitments, then I was not asked to work or “pay my way” in much of anything (although I did hold jobs throughout the summers and into college).

As I entered my junior year, although I wanted to major in English, I was acutely aware that this sort of major wasn’t practical (no one expressed that to me, not even my parents) so I chose to be a secondary (English) education major to become a high school teacher.

This meant that I sat in English courses (taking far more than was required to certify) where the professors routinely identified me as education, not a real English major. Because I graduated in December, I immediately entered an MEd program (more practicality since that insured a pay raise) that spring before becoming a full-time high school English teacher that coming fall.

A bit over a decade later, I continued that trend by entering an EdD program, earning my doctorate in 1998. That entire journey consisted of academic choices made at the margins of bliss, grounded always solidly in being practical.

You see, I had not lived the comment that I made years ago to my student.

I am very fortunate and happy to have had a career as a teacher; it has been a fulfilling dream career. But I consider myself a teacher and a writer, with the latter always lurking in shadows and being tended only secondarily and gradually as my life became more and more conducive to that dream deferred (moving to higher education was a huge boost to being a writer, but greater and greater financial stability has been significant as well).

My student I reference above has been on my mind as I have witnessed the disturbing reality of being a worker in the U.S.—emphasized by the pandemic that has stressed our medical system, exposed the failures of private work-based health insurance, and tossed people out of their jobs and careers.

In the U.S. (to the bafflement of much of the rest of the world), most people have their health insurance and retirement anchored to their jobs—being a worker is a necessity to have what many would consider essential elements of being fully human in 2020.

The pandemic has not only unmasked how inhumane these practices are, but even when stimulus legislation was passed, much of the money to help people remained grounded in the people who were (or had been) workers.

Even as the stimulus money is dripping out to individuals through the lump-sum check and funds added to unemployment, many conservatives on social media are lamenting that these “handouts” are proving that government money just makes people lazy. The mainstream media are playing right along by posting several stories in which small business owners are complaining that their workers are making more unemployed than when they were working.

Here is something I think many are missing about the $600 per week addition to unemployment: Political leaders of both parties were so eager not to send large lump payments to all citizens ($2400 stimulus checks not linked to unemployment, doubling the current stimulus amount) that they chose a process that has had unintended and negative consequences.

The bad policy and bad politics coming out of the Covid-19 crisis is not driven by good economic policy or even concern for the common good; the bad policy and bad politics are the consequence of a bad and paradoxical mythology.

The first part of that mythology is that to be fully human in the U.S., you must be a worker. The big lie in that myth being debunked during the pandemic is that we are witnessing that the lowest paid, hardest working, and most exposed working conditions—hourly workers and the service industry, for example—are genuinely essential and the workers who are building and maintaining the U.S.—not the CEOs, billionaires, or political leaders.

Along with service workers, health care providers and teachers now sit far more prominently in the minds of people about what sort of workers matter, what sort of workers have the kinds of work conditions and obligations that many people would prefer to avoid.

The second part of the mythology is a paradox, a cruel and ugly paradox: Workers’ lives don’t matter, actually, but being a worker is dangled before the public as a possible way to become what does really matter—being rich and powerful.

The cruel and ugly part is almost no one will ascend to rich and powerful because almost everyone who is rich and powerful had most of that gifted, not earned.

The rugged individual who built his empire completely on his own is a bald-faced lie, a saccharine libertarian fantasy.

We should not be rushing to get back to normal once we find some handle on the Covid-19 crisis because normal in the U.S. means that everyone must be a worker to even have a shot at being fully human.

Our normal democracy has been held hostage by a false truth we hold as self-evident. We deserve a new normal in which basic human dignity is the given and our lives as workers are a part of that but a part that is properly supported by our government and our economic system.

It should not be normal that wait staff must depend on tips.

It should not be normal that you have to work to have health care and retirement.

It should not be normal that minimum wage means that you cannot afford housing, food, and essentials.

It should not be normal that you have to choose between your health and keeping your job.

It should not be normal that a billionaire class continues to feed on the labor of the masses who are systematically being denied their humanity.

I am happy that my former student feels connected to a life and career in part because we talked and he thought differently about who he was and who he wants to be.

I am nervous about the possibility that after Covid-19 we will in fact return to normal where workers’ lives don’t matter.

Teacher Protests Are Student, Worker Advocacy

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I was a public school English teacher, and for part of that time, I was also a coach.

I taught more than 100 students each year, meaning I responded to about 4000 essays and 6000 journal entries every academic year along with thousands of other assignments and mountains of paperwork. I was responsible for preparing students for state testing, Advanced Placement testing, and the SAT.

While coaching, and during the soccer season, I would run to the gym between classes to wash and dry the soccer uniforms. Most days, I had to find time to go to the bathroom, and rarely had moments alone even during lunch.

I have never loved more deeply anything than teaching, and I so deeply loved all my students that is often overwhelming to think about no longer being a high school teacher. Facebook has provided me some connection with those students, but I miss intensely being that teacher and that coach.

When I left high school teaching for higher education, I was wearing a wrist brace because I could barely move my right hand from almost two decades of marking essays and trying my damnedest to teach young people to write well.

If you have never taught, you cannot appreciate the psychological and physical toll of being on throughout the day and in the service of dozens of young people, children and teens who depend on you. It isn’t the same as roofing or pouring concrete; it isn’t being an ER doctor or nurse. But teaching is tremendously stressful, exhausting, and often seemingly fruitless work.

And here are two facts I think you should read carefully and take seriously: Teachers are workers, and teaching conditions are learning conditions.

Following a pattern across the nation from West Virginia to Colorado and Los Angeles, including non-union states, South Carolina teachers are poised to march for their teaching conditions May 1, 2019, organized by SC for Ed.

South Carolina historically and currently represents some disturbing realities: SC is a politically and religiously conservative state (straight-block Democratic and then straight-block Republican when the parties shifted their conservative cores in the 1960s); SC is a high-poverty state with significant stratification and concentrations of poverty and affluence (resulting in the infamous Corridor of Shame identifying a stretch of high-poverty schools running diagonally along the coast); SC is a right-to-work state (the Orwellian misnomer for being non-union, thus anti-worker); SC is a high racial minority state when compared to the national percentages.

The state, in fact, is a poster child for the self-defeating South.

Once the teacher march gained momentum, with thousands of teachers poised to march and several districts closing, the governor and superintendent of education, both Republicans, have verbally slapped in the face the teaching profession and students once again, reinforcing the hard truth that Republicans in the state are anti-education, anti-teacher, anti-student, anti-worker, and anti-woman.

Nationally, teachers are significantly underpaid when compared to professions with comparable education. A recent analysis has found:

  • Average weekly wages of public school teachers (adjusted for inflation) decreased $21 from 1996 to 2018, from $1,216 to $1,195 (in 2018 dollars). In contrast, weekly wages of other college graduates rose by $323, from $1,454 to $1,777, over this period.
  • For all public-sector teachers, the relative wage penalty (controlling for education, experience, and other factors known to affect earnings) has grown substantially since the mid-1990s. The teacher weekly wage penalty was 5.3 percent in 1993, grew to 12.0 percent in 2004, and reached a record 21.4 percent in 2018.

The wage penalty for teachers in SC is -18%. And SC teacher pay is in the bottom 10 of the U.S.:

SC teacher salary rank.jpg

While salary and benefits are essential aspects of what makes any profession gain respect and thrive, teachers have called primarily for the type of teaching and learning conditions that allow them to be the best they can be for their students.

Teaching conditions include student/teacher ratios, the amount of bureaucratic obligations imposed on teachers, adequate time and space to plan and respond to student work, reasonable opportunities to eat and go to the restroom during the work day, administrative and parental support, and professional respect and autonomy.

We are approaching forty years of high-stakes accountability in education since SC committed to the accountability movement in the late 1970s and 1980s. And with No Child Left Behind in the early 2000s, the pressure and blame on teachers as failures has steadily increased, peaking under the Obama administration that doubled-down on teacher accountability and scapegoating teachers.

And, yes, the economic downturn during the bridge between George W. Bush and Obama profoundly impacted all public services and institutions. But as the report above explains, the decrease in funding, the lowering of respect for teachers, and the eroding of teaching conditions across the U.S. are not simply a reflection of a bad economy over a decade ago.

In SC and the U.S., we must finally admit that our schools are mostly reflections of our society and communities. Schools cannot alone change the gross inequities that impact our children and their families.

And we must also stop demanding that teachers be martyrs and missionaries. School teachers are mostly women, and these demands that teachers sacrifice themselves for their work while remaining passive and quiet are driven in significant part by sexism.

Teachers are great American workers. Most of us will spend our entire lives as workers.

Being a worker, especially in the service of others, is not only noble, but also worthy of the highest rewards and the greatest opportunities to excel.

Teachers are the only profession that serves all other professions.

That teachers in SC and all across the country have begun to stand up for their profession is a harbinger of our societal need to shift our allegiance away from the rich and the privileged and toward the working class, the working poor, and the poor.

If all the CEOs in the U.S. did not go to work tomorrow, how would that affect any of us?

If all the service workers in the U.S. did not go to work tomorrow, how would that affect the entire nation?

The latter would be devastating so service workers are trapped not only in hourly wages, but also slave wages linked to tips. Most workers in the U.S. cannot afford to advocate for themselves while the wealthy enjoy salaries and the freedom to work as they please and advocate for themselves when needed.

Teachers are increasingly in non-union states where they have the same sort of obligations to work regardless of conditions.

Hourly wages and non-union laws are designed to control workers and benefit the wealthy.

The U.S. has long ago abandoned the worker; the working class, middle class, and working poor have been reduced to fodder for the wealthy.

Our political leader class comes from and serves the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.

When political leadership fails us, we have a moral obligation to organize and to demand that we matter.

In SC, the governor and superintendent of education speak for the ruling class, the wealthy, and are effectively spitting in the faces of our teachers and our students. It is unconscionable and inexcusable.

Teachers marching in Columbia, SC are advocating for students and workers.

How are our students supposed to respect and learn from professionals who refuse to take a moral stand for those students?

How can we continue to pretend our public schools are in the service of our democracy if our political leaders deny teachers and students their rights and freedoms as citizens?

It is a cynical lie to accuse teachers of selfishness and “being political” when those making those claims are the ones being selfish and political.

To call for anyone else to not be political is an act of being political—the worst kind of political that silences democracy and freedom.

SC teachers by the thousands are joining a rich tradition of free people and reinvigorating a deteriorating foundational value in the U.S.—what many used to claim was part of American being great—honoring and valuing the American worker.

We cannot emphasize this enough, then: Teaching conditions are learning conditions, and the work of the teacher must be honored because that is also honoring the right of our children to learn.


See Also

In anti-union South Carolina, May 1 teacher protest could make history, Paul Bowers

“Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the 1% Always Wins

Make America Great, Finally?: The Archeology of White People (Redux)

America has never been great. Including now.

The problem with such a claim is that a blanket statement  leaves too much room to discredit the argument, and of course, we must all agree on the definition of “great.”

Large-scale evidence that America has never been great is obvious: slavery, lynching, the Japanese internment, the Trail of Tears, the Tulsa massacre, and the bloody litany of mass and school shootings that characterize America in a way distinct from all other democracies.

At any moment in the history of the US, what can be called “great” for any group of people, when unpacked, can be exposed as the consequence of some other people’s suffering. It has always benefitted the winners in the US to keep everyone’s eyes on the winning so that we can conveniently ignore the necessary losing.

That is part of the message in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

That is what I confronted in the last stanza of my poem “the archeology of white people“:

Ignore the body in the road
we whisper in their tiny innocent ears
Isn’t that golden car spectacular?

Myrtle_gets_hit_by_the_car
The Great Gatsby (2013)

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, America is great for Tom and Daisy, but if we refuse to look the other way, that comes at the expense of Myrtle, ripped apart and dead in the road; of George, dead at his own hand; and of Gatsby, perversely shot in his opulent pool.

This is America: “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” (“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich).

Or as Langston Hughes’s speaker challenges: “(America never was America to me.)”—the too often ignored voice of those who live the fact of America not being great.

To rally around “Make America Great Again” is a perversion of hope; it is delusion.

Delusion is not the result of a lack of knowledge, but a refusal to listen, to see because you are driven deaf and blind by a fear of acknowledging the truths that refute your beliefs.

The delusion of clinging to guns, instruments of death, as a symbol for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

On social media, I witness this daily—those for whom proof and evidence mean nothing, those who shout the loudest, know the least, and listen not at all.

While there is no credible greatness to recapture in America, I do not deny yet the possibility of greatness. In fact, I can rally myself around “Make America Great, Finally.”

Greatness is certainly a worthy aspiration, although that too requires that we agree on exactly what “great” is.

Let me pose two examples we may want to follow.

Teachers in West Virginia, a right-to-work (non-union) state, have demonstrated a quest for greatness by recognizing and then acting on the power of striking. If citizens would more commonly recognize and then act on the power of mobilized groups with common interests, unresponsive government and political leadership could be eradicated in the name of the greatness we claim to seek.

Students across the US, prompted by Parkland, Florida students, have also demonstrated the potential for the powerless to organize and assert power with the nation-wide walk outs demanding action on gun control. Even before the walk out, student activism had prompted large corporations to change gun sale policies without any policy changes from political leaders.

WV teachers without the legal right to strike along with children and teens with almost no direct political power have demonstrated that power exists where it appears absent and that greatness springs from community and not individual zeal, not necessarily reduced to a zero-sum gain.

The choice in the US does not have to be between Daisy and Myrtle, in fact.

That American dream is only a dream for some because it is a nightmare for many.

There is nothing great about wealth or the wealthy; there is nothing great about coaxing most Americans to develop the grit to overcome adversity.

Great is the absence of poverty, not the presence of wealth.

Great is the absence of adversity, not the presence of grit.

Teachers in WV and students all across the nation have played great first hands.

Your turn.

 

Listening to Langston Hughes about “Make America Great Again”

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

Bayard Rustin

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

George Carlin

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

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

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The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

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

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

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

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

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

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

(America never was America to me.)…

(It never was America to me.)…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

On Labor Day 2014

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

24 August 1922—Howard Zinn was born. His life and career spanned the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first. It is his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, for me, that speaks to the enduring power of Zinn’s metaphor, particularly for teachers.

Historically and currently, teacher remain under the demand that their teaching—and even their lives—remain neutral, not political. University professors—such as Zinn—also face disciplinary and public expectations of objectivity, dispassion—their work as public intellectuals either shunned or unrecognized.

In that context, K-12 education and university education suffer the same ultimate failure found in journalism, a flawed pursuit of objectivity, the faux-neutral pose of representing both sides.

So on the day of Zinn’s birth, it continues to be important not only to read and listen to Zinn, but also to act on Zinn, for it is action, after all, that Zinn lived and called for.

“When I became a teacher,” Zinn explains in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences”:

I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of lives they have led, where their ideas come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?

Concealment is a political act, and in the face of the tragedy surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown, the educational response has been exactly that, concealment. But as poet Adrienne Rich has confronted:

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

Instead of striking the masked political poses of neutrality, objectivity, and dispassion, Zinn called for transparency:

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.

Having taught in rural Southern public schools for 18 years and then 13 more years in higher education, I can attest that Zinn’s argument is challenged only because of the positions he holds and not because he took positions. You see, in K-12 classrooms, especially in history classes, textbooks, curriculum, and teachers always represented positions by framing as neutral the mainstream perspectives found among them all: a blind allegiance to capitalism, representing the U.S. as a righteous military victor, whitewashing every struggle in the country’s history, celebrating the wealthy and powerful while turning a blind eye to their many sins.

It has never been that our classrooms are neutral, as Zinn confronts, but that our classrooms have been passive passengers on the moving train of social and cultural indoctrination, the sort of indoctrination that benefits the few who have wealth and power built on their privilege at the expense of the many—workers, racial minorities, women, children, and the impoverished.

As Zinn recognized:

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

And although written well before the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Zinn’s memoir has identified the Orwellian reality of that movement: Those decrying the status quo are those in service of the status quo. Education reform is the pursuit of maintaining, not reforming.

This call for teaching as activism was join by Zinn’s disciplinary challenge as well:

History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.

Here, Zinn recognizes both the power of disciplinary knowledge and the concurrent danger of codified disciplinary knowledge (prescriptive standards, curriculum). Zinn’s confrontation, then, speaks to the foundational principles expressed by critical scholar Kincheloe:

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.

These critical principles replace the dissembling of neutrality in the classroom, as Kincheloe explains:

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.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes. Teaching and history as activism, for Zinn, were moral imperatives, and thus:

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

Zinn, activist, radical, speaks to us now, the “us” of any classroom, the “us” charged with the learning and lives of any child:

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

Today on the date of Zinn’s birth, I argue, it is a recipe we must follow.

“No new federal spending” Equals “This really doesn’t matter”

New York Times columnist Mykoto Rich‘s lede sounds promising in her Obama to Report Widening of Initiative for Black and Latino Boys:

President Obama will announce on Monday that 60 of the nation’s largest school districts are joining his initiative to improve the educational futures of young African-American and Hispanic boys, beginning in preschool and extending through high school graduation.

But the most important point comes in the fourth paragraph:

No new federal spending is attached to the initiative. The new efforts, which will also seek support from the nonprofit and private sectors, are being coordinated by the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban school districts.

In the U.S., “No new federal spending” equals “This really doesn’t matter.”

Can you imagine no new federal spending being attached to any military initiative?

What about no new federal spending to bail out the banks?

Of course not. But the U.S. has made a clear choice: Fund the interests of the rich and powerful (for them, the dirty money of government isn’t so dirty) and leave the fortunes of the impoverished and victims of inequity to the Invisible Hand of the free market.

We may want to note that at least the Obama administration has made a somewhat bold move to acknowledge the crippling disadvantages faced by African American and Latino boys in the U.S.—and here we should pause and make sure we acknowledge that as the civil rights issue of our time. And because of that acknowledgement, the NYT makes a rare concession to these facts, as Rich explains late in her piece:

Black and Latino students have long experienced a pattern of inequality along racial lines in American schools. According to data from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, black and Latino students are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students and attend schools with less-experienced teachers. Many also attend schools that do not offer advanced math and science courses.

Boys in particular are at a disadvantage. Black and Latino boys are less likely to graduate from high school than white boys, but also less likely than African-American or Latino girls. And in elementary school, they already fall far behind their white counterparts in reading skills: According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a series of standardized tests administered to a random sampling of American children, only 14 percent of black boys and 18 percent of Hispanic boys scored proficient or above on the fourth-grade reading tests in 2013, compared with 42 percent of white boys and 21 percent of both black and Hispanic girls.

But without government spending, initiatives are nothing more than rhetoric and distraction—further evidence of our commitment to capitalism first and possibly to the exclusion of democracy and equity, as I have examined before:

More difficult to confront than either mendacity or foma, it appears, is the hard truth that the human pursuit of equity must come before merit can matter and that in order to achieve that possibility, the human condition must commit to a spirit of community and collaboration, not competition.

Regretfully, most in power are apt to continue to not let that cat out of the bag.

Capitalism and the free market, however, are not the domains of ethical and moral social action. The human experience in the U.S. has shown us time and again that left unfettered, that market feeds itself on the workers in order to fatten the owners.

The lives and faces of African American and Latino boys in the U.S. are the regrettable portraits of our failures as a people. We are now confronted with an option to embrace our collective power and shared humanity—that which is government, the public sphere, the Commons.

There is often a reason a cliche becomes a cliche—the wisdom of all that is True becomes repeated until we have cliche. In the U.S., our new motto should be: Put your money where your mouth is.

Until then, we remain malnourished by the empty calories of rhetoric.

NOTE: For an alternative view, please read Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism.

Education Reform as the New Misogyny: A Reader

While watching The Wolverine (2013) starring Hugh Jackman, I noticed that along with Wolverine’s adamantium claws, Jackman’s nipples were featured prominently, leading me to search for the film’s promotional poster. And my suspicions were confirmed:

The Wolverine (2013)

Apparently Eva Green’s thinly-veiled nipples are not only more dangerous than the gun she is holding in the new Sin City sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, poster, but also more offensive than Jackman’s nipples (despite the violence and extended sequences of a topless Jackman, the film is rated PG-13 “for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language”).

This contradiction highlights Hollywood’s perverse double-standard that includes tabooing female nudity while also disproportionately objectifying women in gratuitous sex and nudity in films, and then speaks to the remaining systemic and institutional misogyny throughout the U.S.

Along with Hollywood and the complicit media, the central elements of education reform in the U.S. share one important thread among the repeated blaming of “bad” teachers, “bad” teachers unions, and the urgent need to fire those teachers by dismantling those unions.

That thread? Teaching remains a field dominated by women, and one we can assume the public identifies with women. As Nancy Flanagan explains:

But–as Solnit deftly points out–a great deal of bias goes unrecognized and unacknowledged in ordinary life in a male-dominated culture. Folks in education–male and female–just don’t see it, or feel it. Or the huge imbalance in power and influence is obscured by a handful of women who serve as highly visible role models.

Do the math, however–about 84% of K-12 teachers in the United States are female, a rapidly increasing disproportion.  Combined with the fact that the modal level of teacher experience is currently one year, it’s easy to see how major shifts in curriculum, instruction, assessment and hiring have been accomplished. Nobody’s pushing back.

I am struck that of all the professions in the U.S., why is there no urgent call for no “bad” doctors, no “bad” lawyers, no “bad” CEOs, or no “bad” politicians? And I must note that each of these remains male-dominated—both in numbers and in social perception.

As well, teaching as the work of women has been traditionally monitored by a demand that teachers remain politically quiet, passive, and now in 2014, education reform is the new misogyny.

The surface elements of education reform that currently target teacher quality and teachers unions are as thin veils as Green’s nightgown, but socially, the U.S. appears offended only by the exposed breast on a film poster.

But once we remove that veil, it seems irrefutable that education reform is driven by a 21st-century misogyny that must be confronted. I offer, then, this reader:

In Acts of Resistance, Pierre Bourdieu nearly 20 years ago recognized:

In the United States, the state is splitting into two, with on the one hand a state which provides social guarantees, but only for the privileged, who are sufficiently well-off to provide themselves with insurance, with guarantees, and a repressive, policing state, for the populace. (p. 32)

Only a decade later, New Orleans was ground-zero for disaster capitalism’s end game: The entire public school teacher workforce was fired, a workforce dominated by African Americans and women, a representation of the so-called middle class that U.S. political leaders claim to cherish.

Bourdieu adds:

In all countries, the proportion of workers with temporary status is growing relative to those with permanent jobs. Increased insecurity and “flexibility” lead to the loss of modest advantages…which might compensate for low wages, such as long-lasting employment, health insurance and pension right. (p. 37)

While teaching as a profession has remained relatively low-pay, teachers have often been pacified by the mirage of “fringe benefits,” but now it seems, that as the circumstances of all workers are reduced (the Walmartification of the U.S. workforce as part-time with no benefits), the next phase of that reduction is the lowest rungs of the professional ladder—those professions held mainly by women.

As Bourdieu explains by way of Max Weber, “dominant groups [read: white males in the U.S.] always need…a theoretical justification of the fact that they are privileged. Competence is nowadays at the heart of that” justification, which for teachers is the rise of proving teacher quality through measurement—something that those in power do not need to do since they maintain the public’s gaze on the demand for others to prove their worth (p. 43).

Systemic and institutional racism, classism, and misogyny are protected by repeating pacifying and distracting narratives, as confronted by Bourdieu:

I’m thinking of what has been called the “return of individualism,” a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which tends to destroy the philosophical foundations of the welfare state and in particular the notion of collective responsibility….The return to the individual is also what makes it possible to “blame the victim,” who is entirely responsible for his or her own misfortune, and to preach the gospel of self-help, all of this being justified by the endlessly repeated need to reduce costs for companies. (p. 7)

Racial minorities, women, and children remain disproportionately disadvantaged in the U.S., the wealthiest and most power nation in human history. But that wealth and advantage also remain disproportionately hoarded by a white and male leadership that demands everyone proves her/his worth.

Education reform is the new misogyny as well as the new racism and classism.

The commonality we are failing to recognize and mobilize is that most of us are and always will be workers. To protect and honor the field of teaching is to protect and honor all workers—just as to protect and honor the field of teaching is to call for an end to misogyny.

“Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the 1% Always Wins

[Originally posted at Daily Kos and Truthout, “Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the 1% Always Wins is a powerful companion to George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack.]

As a high school English teacher for nearly two decades, I came to embrace a need to offer students a wide range of lenses for interacting with and learning from many different texts, but I also learned that coming to read and re-read, to write and re-write the world is both a powerful and disorienting experience for young people. So a strategy I now use and encourage other teachers to implement is reading and discussing children’s literature, picture books, while expanding the critical lenses readers have in their toolbox.

My favorite book for this activity is Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type. This work by Doreen Cronin with art by Betsy Lewin (view a read-aloud here) presents a clever and humorous narrative about Farmer Brown and his suddenly recalcitrant cows who, having acquired a rickety typewriter, establish a strike that inspires the chickens to join and ends with the neutral ducks aiding the revolt.

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type

This story is ideal for asking teachers to consider the traditional approach to text in schools, New Criticism (a focus on text in isolation and on the craft in any story, such as characterization, plot, and theme), against Feminist and Marxist criticism, for example.

One fall, while doing the activity with a young adult literature class, I came against yet a new reading of Cronin and Lewin’s work: Why the 1% always wins.

The U.S. Public Likes Farmer Brown

As we explored Click, Clack, Moo recently, the adult members of the class told me they like Farmer Brown, with one student characterizing the striking farm animals as “mean.” And here is where I felt the need to consider how this children’s book helps us all confront the Occupy Wall Street movement or the rise in antagonism toward teachers, tenure, and unions as well as why the 1% continues to own the 99%.

One important element of the story is that the cows and chickens are female workers under the authority of the male Farmer Brown. These female workers produce for the farmer and remain compliant until the cows acquire the typewriter—both a powerful tool of literacy (the cows and chickens cannot effectively strike until they gain access to language) and a representation of access to technology (readers should note that the cows and chickens produce typewritten notes that show they find an old manual typewriter unlike the cleaner type produced by Farmer Brown on an electric typewriter, a representation of the inequity of access to technology among classes).

The cows and chickens, in effect, unionize and strike. Here, members of my classes often fail to notice the unionization, but tend to side with the farmer even when we acknowledge the protest as unionizing—particularly bristling at the duck, as a neutral party, using its access to the negotiation to acquire a diving board for the duck pond.

Like the 1%, Farmer Brown is incensed that the cows and chickens demand basic necessities for comfort, electric blankets, but he eventually secures a compromise, agreeing to give the barn animals the requested electric blankets for the return of the typewriter (the story ends with the obvious next step that the duck uses the typewriter to trade for the diving board).

What tends to be missed in this story is that Farmer Brown ultimately wins; in fact, the barn animals appear to be eager to abandon their one access to power, the typewriter, for mere material items—the electric blankets as comfort many would see as a basic right and the diving board as frivolous entertainment.

The 1% have the 99% right where Farmer Brown has the barn animals—mesmerized by the pursuit of materialism and entertainment. Consider the eager hordes of consumers lined up to buy the then-new iPhone 4S, released on the cusp of the passing of Steve Jobs, heralded as a genius for his contribution to our consumer culture.

Just give us our iPhones and we’ll be quiet, we’ll work longer and harder for the opportunity to buy what the 1% tells us we want.

And when the 1% and their compliant media inform us that the top 20% pays 64% of taxes, we slip back to our barns with our tails between our legs, shamed.

Instead, we should be noting that, yes, the top 20% income earners pay 64% of taxes because they make 59% of income.

We, the 99% who tend to remain silent and compliant, wait patiently for the next generation of technology to occupy our time, our lives reduced to work and amassing the ever-changing and out-dated things that become passe as the next-thing lures us further and further into our sheep lives.

Yes, if we remain eager to trade our voices for things, the 1% will always be the winners.

When we learn to treasure voice over things, however, the chickens may come home to roost.