Tag Archives: Arundhati Roy

“The Deliberately Silenced, or the Preferably Unheard”

No rhetorical sleight of words should mask that Trayvon Martin was a son. He had parents.

No rhetorical sleight of words should allow us to ignore that any child is everyone’s child.

Trayvon Martin was killed in part because he was reduced to a stereotype, and after his death, Trayvon was again reduced—often by well-meaning people—to an icon, the hoodie.

In his death, as well, Trayvon has been spoken about, spoken for—and I am compelled to argue that he has also been rendered voiceless.

But, as Arundhati Roy has explained, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

I am also compelled to speak beyond Trayvon, about “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard” Others, African American males.

At mid-twentieth century, as the US was fighting against its racist heritage, African American males demanded to be heard—Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and many others took the stage as artists, public intellectuals, and civic leaders.

Wright’s Black Boy and Ellison’s Invisible Man represent in fictional narrative a powerful and disturbing image of the African American male; for Ellison, the guiding metaphor of that narrative is invisibility. The killing of Trayvon and the subsequent trial may suggest that African American males no longer suffer from invisibility but from how they are seen, how they are silenced, and how they are unheard: Trayvon seen (and reduced) as black male, thus necessarily a thug, a threat, and then Trayvon, the hoodie, the icon of the disposable African American male.

The fact of being seen and reduced as African American males are too often results in violent deaths and prison. And the intersection of race, class, and gender with education has paralleled the rise of mass incarceration over the past thirty-plus years.

Just as Wright’s and Ellison’s fiction captures the African American male experience at mid-twentieth century, continuing to speak to the complex and entrenched conditions that contributed to Trayvon’s killing, Ellison’s and Baldwin’s concerns about the failure of education to see clearly and holistically—and humanely—African American males remain ominous and powerful messages in 2013.

In 1963, Ellison spoke to teachers:

At this point it might be useful for us to ask ourselves a few questions: what is this act, what is this scene in which the action is taking place, what is this agency and what is its purpose? The act is to discuss “these children,” the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again. But the matter of scene seems to get us into trouble.

Ellison recognized the stigma placed on African American students, a deficit view of both an entire race and their potential intelligence (marginalized as insufficient language skills):

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church.

But Ellison rejected this deficit perspective: “Thus we must recognize that the children in question are not so much “culturally deprived” as products of a different cultural complex”:

As we approach the dropouts, let us identify who we are and where we are. Let us also have a little bit of respect for what we were and from whence we came. There is a bit of the phony built into every American. This is inevitable in a conscious society that has developed as swiftly as ours has. We are faced with endless possibilities for change, for metamorphosis. We change our environment, our speech, our styles of living, our dress, and often our values. So, in effect, we become somebody else–or so we are tempted to believe–and often we act as though we have no connection with our past. We are all tempted to become actors, and when we forget who we are and where we are from, our phony selves take command.

Finally, Ellison demanded that the human dignity of all children be honored:

I don’t know what intelligence is. But this I do know, both from life and from literature: whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, “I don’t give a damn.” You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot. If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.

Baldwin addressed teachers in that same year, 1963: “Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.  Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that.  We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country.  The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within.”

Then, Baldwin unmasked the cruel tension between the promise of universal public education and the inequity found in the lives of African American children:

Now, if what I have tried to sketch has any validity, it becomes thoroughly clear, at least to me, that any Negro who is born in this country and undergoes the American educational system runs the risk of becoming schizophrenic.  On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the stars and stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war.  He pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees “liberty and justice for all.”  He is part of a country in which anyone can become president, and so forth.  But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization – that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.  He is assumed by the republic that he, his father, his mother, and his ancestors were happy, shiftless, watermelon-eating darkies who loved Mr. Charlie and Miss Ann, that the value he has as a black man is proven by one thing only – his devotion to white people.  If you think I am exaggerating, examine the myths which proliferate in this country about Negroes….

The point of all this is that black men were brought here as a source of cheap labor.  They were indispensable to the economy.  In order to justify the fact that men were treated as though they were animals, the white republic had to brainwash itself into believing that they were, indeed, animals and deserved  to be treated like animals.  Therefor it is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history.  The reason is that this “animal,” once he suspects his own worth, once he starts believing that he is a man, has begun to attack the entire power structure.  This is why America has spent such a long time keeping the Negro in his place.  What I am trying to suggest to you is that it was not an accident, it was not an act of God, it was not done by well-meaning people muddling into something which they didn’t understand.  It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh.  And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.

Ultimately, education, for Baldwin, is revolutionary, an act of social justice:

I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.  It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.  And on the basis of the evidence – the moral and political evidence – one is compelled to say that this is a backward society.  Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them –  I would try to make them know – that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.  I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him.  I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that his is stronger than this conspiracy and they he must never make his peace with it.  And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth.  I would teach him that there are currently very few standards in this country which are worth a man’s respect.

No rhetorical sleight of words should mask that Trayvon Martin was a son. He had parents.

No rhetorical sleight of words should allow us to ignore that any child is everyone’s child.

However if the killing of Trayvon does not haunt us, if the killing of Trayvon slips beneath the next tragedy-of-the-moment—as the Sandy Hook shooting has beneath the Zimmerman trial—then society and schools will continue to be mechanisms that shackle “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

And I suppose that is ultimately the cruel paradox, rendering Trayvon a ghost in this American house he was never allowed to enter, invisible again as Ellison’s unnamed narrator.

A Call for Non-Cooperation: So that Teachers Are Not Foreigners in Their Own Profession

Gandhi’s views on enhancing the vernaculars…so that Indians are “not foreigners in their own land” are directly tied to his opinions on developing communities (for “the poorest of the poor” ) and making community service an integral part of any education. (Ramanathan, 2006, pp. 235-236)

Standing in the middle of the road offers some statistical advantage to avoiding being run over since you aren’t in the prescribed lanes of traffic, but standing in the middle of the road can never assure the safety that refusing to walk into the road to begin with does.

Writing about a call for a moratorium on implementing and testing Common Core State Standards (CCSS) from union leadership, Anthony Cody ends his blog post with three questions:

What do you think? Should we join Randi Weingarten in pushing for one year’s delay in the harsh consequences attached to Common Core assessments? Will this year put the project on sound footing?

These questions about CCSS have been joined by two other calls for compromise and civility—Matthew Di Carlo challenging charges that value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation are “junk science” and Jennifer Jennings penning an apology to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for protests at his 2013 talk at American Educational Research Association (AERA). [1]

Weingarten, Di Carlo [2], and Jennings share a call for standing in the middle of the road, a quest for ways to compromise, and these all appear reasonable positions. Ultimately, however, moratoriums, compromise, and civility are all concessions to the current education reform movement and the policies at the center of those reforms, specifically CCSS and VAM.

Teachers as Foreigners in Their Own Profession

Briefly, I want to identify how arguments about a CCSS moratorium, implementing VAM properly and cautiously, and the need for civility are concessions that render teachers foreigners in their own profession.

As long as the debate about CCSS and VAM remain how best to implement them, the essential questions remain unasked, and the agenda behind both are assured success. While I want to address the civility argument next, let me note here that calls for CCSS and VAM are inherently civil and derogatory, exposing the myopic concern for the civility of those rejecting Duncan’s discourse and policies.

The implied and stated messages of calls for CCSS and more high-stakes testing include the following: (1) Teachers do not know what to teach, or how, and (2) teachers are unlikely to perform at the needed levels of effort in their profession unless they are held accountable by external and bureaucratic means.

The implied and stated messages of calls for VAM and merit pay include the following: (1) The most urgent problem at the core of educational outcomes is teacher quality, and (2) teachers are unlikely to perform at the needed levels of effort in their profession unless they are held accountable by external and bureaucratic means.

Calls for CCSS and VAM also share another implied and stated message: Failed educational outcomes are the result of in-school deficiencies; in effect, out-of-school factors are irrelevant in the pursuit of education reform.

These messages are factually false and, despite the civility of the language, irrevocably offensive.

Standing in the middle of the road of bureaucratic, accountability-based school reform, then, may decrease the likelihood of being run over, but it concedes the road itself to those who have built it, to those who govern the laws of transportation.

To answer Cody’s second and third questions, then, No. And now to his first.

Civility: Standing in the Middle of the Road of Accountability

The call for civility exposes a foundational problem with the current education reform debate because, for all practical purposes, there is no debate.

Civility, CCSS, and VAM may all have some appeal in theory, but all of them fall apart in reality, in their implementation.

Civility is the last recourse of the powerful, those who can afford to appear civil because they hold all the power.

Through the lens of history, we must recognize that CCSS will become “what is testing is what is taught,” as all standards movements have shown.

VAM also sits in a long history of the corrosive consequences of stack ranking, merit pay, and competition.

And this brings us back to standing in the middle of someone else’s road.

Education reform and policy have been historically and are currently under the control of political and corporate leadership who are not educators—many of whom did not even attend public schools, many of whom send their own children to schools unlike the environments they promote and implement.

The locus of power in education is catastrophically inverted; thus, we do not need more or different mechanisms for accountability-based education reform, but we do need a new era of non-cooperation.

The goal of non-cooperation must include seeking ways in which to shift the priorities of the locus of power:

  • First, the central locus of power in education is the student, situated in her/his home and community.
  • Next in importance is the locus of power afforded the teacher in her/his unique classrooms.
  • These must then merge for a locus of power generated within the community of the school.
  • Finally, the locus of power in this school-based community must radiate outward.

A Call for Non-Cooperation

Non-cooperation, as found in the philosophy and actions of Gandhi, represents another inversion—away from in-school only education reform and toward, as Ramanathan explains, “communal and educational change”:

As is evident, the take on “education” presented here is not the usual one—of teaching and learning in formal contexts of classrooms and institutions—but one that is intended to move us toward becoming collectively open to realizing that very valuable “education” often goes on outside the constraints of classrooms: in ashrams, in madrassas, in extracurricular programs, by local, politically minded youth, all drawing on local vernacular ways of healing rifts. Indeed, “education” in both these institutions is civic and community education that seems to assume Gandhian ideals of “Non-Cooperation” (and nonformal education) and that is aimed at primarily effecting changes in the community, sometimes before addressing issues relevant to formal education. (p. 230)

Non-cooperation, then, moves beyond a call for teacher autonomy; instead, non-cooperation is the act of the autonomy by “people directly involved” (Ramanathan, p. 231):

Not only do they have Gandhi’s larger philosophy of Non-Cooperation against political hegemonies  [emphasis added] at their core…, but they also opened up for me a way of understanding both how Gandhianism is situated and how particular dimensions of the identities of participants (Kanno, 2003; Menard-Warwick, 2005; Norton, 2000; Pavlenko & Blackledge, 2004) get laminated. I was able to see how Gandhianism is first collaboratively interpreted in workshops, then applied and translated on the ground in most local of contexts, and then recast and reinterpreted by individuals and groups as they regroup. (Ramanathan, p. 232)

Non-cooperation is a new paradigm that begins with those most directly impacted by the institution (here, education)—parents, students, teachers. In other words, the people most directly impacted ask the foundational questions: Do we need formal education? And if so, what does that include and how should that be implemented?

This is not about seeking compromise at someone else’s table, not about standing still in the middle of someone else’s road.

The purposes of universal public education, then, is refocused in the ways that address the needs of the least among us, as Gandhi envisioned:

[Nonformal education] … will check the progressive decay of our villages and lay the foundation for a juster social order in which there is no unnatural division between the “haves” and the “have nots” and everybody is assured a living wage and the rights to freedom.…It will provide a healthy and a moral basis of relationship between the city and village and will go a long way towards eradicating some of the worst evils of the present social insecurity and poisoned relationship between the classes. (Harijan, 9-10-37, cited in Prasad, 1924…). (qtd. in Ramanathan, p. 236)

Bureaucratic accountability-based reform is ill equipped to address inequity, mismatched with goals of social justice since the paradigm is authoritarian, the locus of power exclusively with the “haves.”

Non-cooperation seeks instead, as Ramanathan explains:

[an orientation] toward viewing education in broader, community-oriented terms to draw out “the best in children,” to build a “healthy and moral” base for both “the city and the village,” to be entirely secular in its orientation (with “no room … for sectional religious training,” and to eventually transform the “homes of the pupils”[)]. (p. 237)

As well, this call for non-cooperation reframes the civility debate, as Gandhi recognized: “We must welcome them to our political platforms [emphasis added] as honoured guests. We must meet them on neutral platforms as comrades” (qtd. in Ramanathan, p. 237). Civility then follows the re-imagining of the locus of power: “Non-Cooperation…emerges as a deeply historicized awareness committed to doing the opposite of repressive, silencing ills. The quiet way in which both projects bridge perceived gulfs are reminiscent of Gandhi’s insistence on responding to tyranny by searching for nonviolent, quiet alternatives that tap the moral instincts of humans” (Ramanathan, p. 238).

Currently, since calls for CCSS, VAM, and civility all work as “repressive,” “silencing,” and “tyranny,” non-cooperation is the only alternative remaining.

The results must be “interpreting all education as ‘civic education’ and on attending to the most basic of human needs—food, clothing, shelter—before addressing any issues related to formal learning”  (Ramanathan, pp. 241-242) as direct action refusing to compromise on in-school only education reform that drives arguments for how best to implement CCSS and VAM:

This close attention to “educating oneself,” of figuring out and questioning one’s own default assumptions, has echoes of Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation, and finds interesting articulation in the idea that we each need to “not cooperate” with our default views but attempt to step outside them by “educating ourselves” by learning from others. (Ramanathan, pp. 244)

In the West, specifically in the United States, we are deeply entrenched in our “default views,” most of which are tinted by commitments to competition, authoritarian structures, and the sanctity of the individual. This call, however, is a call to recognize the importance of community and social justice in our national pursuit of democracy.

Arundhati Roy confronts the tensions at the core of why compromise, moratoriums, and civility fail the narrow education debate as well as the broader democracy:

Fascism is about the slow, steady infiltration of all the instruments of state power. It’s about the slow erosion of civil liberties, about unspectacular, day-to-day injustices.…It means keeping an eagle eye on public institutions and demanding accountability. It means putting your ear to the ground and listening to the whispering of the truly powerless. It means giving a forum to the myriad voices from the hundreds of resistance movements across the country that are speaking about real issues….It means fighting displacement and dispossession and the relentless, every violence of abject poverty. (Roy, 2002; qtd. Ramanathan, pp. 246)

Now is the time for non-cooperation, not moratoriums, not compromise, and not civility on other people’s terms.

Now is the time for non-cooperation so that teachers are not foreigners in their own profession and students are not foreigners in their own classrooms.

[1] See also Jeff Bryant.

[2] Of the three calls for moderation, I do not place Di Carlo’s position as essentially equal to those by Weingarten and Jennings. Di Carlo’s nuanced and detailed discussion of VAM contributes a credible position that I find compelling to a point (such as Di Carlo conceding: “Now, I personally am not opposed to using these estimates in evaluations and other personnel policies”); however, Weingarten and Jennings present far more problems and suffer from a much greater degree of lacking credibility.