Tag Archives: Howard Zinn

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.

Meditating on Teacher Unions and Tenure Post-Vergara

[Reposting from Truthout as a response to the Vergara ruling in California to dismantle tenure. See also Adam Bessie’s A Tale of Two Vergaras: Of Stardom and the End of Teacher Tenure.]

Howard Zinn would have turned 90 a couple of days ago [24 August 2012]. I have to imagine after reading and re-reading most of Zinn’s works that if Zinn were alive today, he would remain baffled at how America is a country antagonistic to unions and tenure, especially teachers unions and tenure.

Zinn was a radical historian, activist, and in my opinion, most of all a teacher. And it is at the overlap of Zinn as historian/activist/teacher I find his People’s History of the United States an invaluable place to ask, Why tenure and unions?

On Democracy and Equity in the U.S.

The unique and powerful quality Zinn brought to history is that his volume is a people’s history. Zinn confronts directly that the truth embedded in any history is shaped by perspective.

Traditionally, the so-called objective history students have been and are fed in formal schooling is from the point of view of the winners, but Zinn chose to examine the rise and growth of the U.S. from the point of view of the common person—what I will characterize as primarily the viewpoint of the worker. I am most concerned about the contrast between the political and public message that the U.S. has somehow left behind the oppressive corporate world of the robber barons (see Zinn’s Chapter 11) and have left behind the horrors fictionalized in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. These idealistic beliefs are similar to Americans claiming we have achieved a meritocracy instead of the fact that Americans should still be working toward a meritocracy.

Still in 2014, Americans appear to be anti-union and anti-tenure, again notably in terms of how that impacts teachers. This sentiment is disturbing to me as it signals an anti-worker sentiment in the U.S.—a country that claims to embrace ideals such as equity, democracy, and hard work.

This contradiction is connected, I believe, to the exact problem confronted by Zinn as a historian: Americans’ anti-worker sentiments (expressed in anti-union and anti-tenure discourse and policy) can be traced to who controls the public narrative—the CEO elite.

If the American public considers for a moment why unions and tenure exist (as well as what tenure means), most Americans would reject the CEO-skewed messages about both.

The American worker (unlike many workers in other comparable countries throughout the world) remains shackled to working in ways that dictate any worker’s essential humanity; work in the U.S. is not a matter of just pay, but of health insurance and retirement—essential for basic human dignity. The dramatic abuses of the meat packing industry in The Jungle may appear more extreme than working conditions in 2014, but bosses and management hold a powerful upper-hand over the American worker still.

Unionization as a concept, then, came out of and remains an act against the inherent inequity and tyranny in the workplace when the powerful few control the working many. Unionization is an act of democracy, an act of equity.

To reject unions is to reject democracy and equity.

These foundational facts of why unions do not reject that specific union policies have failed. It is certainly legitimate to confront individual union policies and outcomes (I have and continue to do that myself), but this discussion is about the broad anti-union sentiment in the U.S. that reveals anti-worker sentiments.

Tenure is more complicated, but certainly grows out of the same commitment to democracy and equity—especially for teachers.

The tenure argument is often distorted because the term itself, “tenure,” is misrepresented as “a job for life” and rarely distinguished between tenure at the K-12 level and the college/university level.

Tenure is an act of democracy and equity, as well, because it creates power for workers as a guarantee of due process and, for teachers, it secures a promise of academic freedom.

Are there failures in how unions and tenure have been and are implemented in America today? Yes.

Should those failures be addressed? Yes.

But the broad anti-union and anti-tenure agenda being promoted by the CEO elite and embraced by the American public is a corrosive rejection of equity and democracy.

When unions and tenure are not fulfilling their obligations to equity and democracy, they both must be confronted.

But unions and tenure remain needed and even necessary mechanisms in America’s search for equity and democracy—both of which are being eroded by the American elite indebted to and dependent on the inequity that drives American capitalism.

Although speaking directly about Americans’ embracing war, Zinn makes an important point for this discussion:

We are penned in by the arrogant idea that this country is the center of the universe, exceptionally virtuous, admirable, superior.

If we don’t know history, then we are ready meat for carnivorous politicians and the intellectuals and journalists who supply the carving knives. I am not speaking of the history we learned in school, a history subservient to our political leaders, from the much-admired Founding Fathers to the Presidents of recent years. I mean a history which is honest about the past. If we don’t know that history, then any President can stand up to the battery of microphones, declare that we must go to war, and we will have no basis for challenging him. He will say that the nation is in danger, that democracy and liberty are at stake, and that we must therefore send ships and planes to destroy our new enemy, and we will have no reason to disbelieve him.

Without, then, the democratic and equity-based purposes of unions and tenure, the American public remains “ready meat for carnivorous politicians and the intellectuals and journalists who supply the carving knives.”

Zinn also personified a message of rejecting neutral poses, of democracy as activism. Writing about Sacco and Vanzetti, Zinn shares questions raised by Vanzetti, questions still relevant today against the knee-jerk and self-defeating anti-union and anti-tenure sentiments persistent in the U.S.:

Yes, it was their anarchism, their love for humanity, which doomed them. When Vanzetti was arrested, he had a leaflet in his pocket advertising a meeting to take place in five days. It is a leaflet that could be distributed today, all over the world, as appropriate now as it was the day of their arrest. It read:

“You have fought all the wars. You have worked for all the capitalists. You have wandered over all the countries. Have you harvested the fruits of your labors, the price of your victories? Does the past comfort you? Does the present smile on you? Does the future promise you anything? Have you found a piece of land where you can live like a human being and die like a human being? On these questions, on this argument, and on this theme, the struggle for existence, Bartolomeo Vanzetti will speak.” (A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, Howard Zinn)


[1] As a life-long resident and worker in South Carolina, a right-to-work state, I want to clarify here that I am not now and have never been a member of a union, I never had my pay or any sort of public school tenure negotiated for me by a union, but I have been awarded tenure by my private university during my most recent decade-plus as a professor.

Snow Blind: “Trapped in the Amber of This Moment”

What is wrong with the following claims?

  • The rich and successful are rich and successful because of their work ethic.
  • The poor are poor because they fail to take advantage of the American Dream.
  • Women are paid less than men because they choose fields/careers that pay less and choose family over career.
  • Prisons are overwhelmingly populated by African Americans because they are trapped in the cycle of poverty.
  • Work hard and be nice.
  • Education, especially college, is the main path for rising above the conditions of any person’s home or community.

Before I examine the answer, consider this enduring claim:

  • In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and thus, Columbus discovered America. [The original poem ends “The first American?  No, not quite./ But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.”]

And how about this blast from the past:

Dewey Defeats Truman

As Lienhard explains:

Gallup brought science to that process. Richard Smith tells how, by the time Landon challenged Roosevelt, the prestigious Literary Digestmagazine was America’s leading pollster. The Digest featured a regular poll called “America Speaks.” It drew samples from phone books and auto registrations. Gallup knew that such samples were biased toward people with means….

Then, in 1948, Gallup blew the Truman-Dewey prediction. How? His mistake was to quit polling two weeks before the election with fourteen percent of the electorate still undecided. After that humiliation, Gallup went back to analyze his error. He emerged with the maxim, “Undecided voters side with the incumbent.”

By 2012, then, you’d think polling would have reached some higher and clearer process for predicting presidential outcomes, but instead, we had the Nate Silver element, yet another case about how the science of polling has flaws, human flaws.

Even, it seems, as science inspects itself—acknowledging and addressing confirmation bias, for example—we are always “trapped in the amber of this moment,” since the human condition is itself necessarily a subjective experience.

And now, in order to answer my initial question, I want to turn to history; while history as a discipline is distinct from the hard sciences, both are dependent on evidence and then the conclusions drawn from that evidence—conclusions I call narratives (more on that below). Consider Howard Zinn on Christopher Columbus:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been, The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see” history from the standpoint of others.

In other words, shaping narratives bound by evidence does not insure that those narratives are pure and certainly does not insure that those narratives are above bias or absent the urge to mold them in order to secure someone’s agenda (likely someone in power). [1]

Snow Blind

Misleading narratives around Columbus or “I cannot tell a lie” George Washington—and the whitewashing of Steve Jobs to promote the “grit” narrative (compare the Jobs lesson to the original 1492 poem about Columbus)—are not problematic because of the evidence, but because of the lens through which the narratives are shaped and by whom those narratives are created and in whose interest.

Consider Billy Pilgrim in a telepathic conversation with a Tralfamadorian in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five:

“Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim,” said the loudspeaker. “Any questions?”

Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: “Why me?”

“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”

“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.

“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

And that brings me to the “grit” debate, one in which advocates point to scientific research and prestigious grants. From that evidence, we have three contexts of narratives: disciplinary narratives (Angela Duckworth, Carolyn Dweck), popular narratives (Paul Tough, Jay Mathews), political narratives (Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee)—all of which are trapped like bugs in amber, or as I prefer to suggest, that “grit” narrative advocacy is snow blind.

If evidence and the narratives surrounding the evidence appear to support a privileged agenda, and since the privileged have a larger megaphone in a culture, then that evidence and narrative are disproportionately likely to gain momentum—regardless of how accurate they are in the context of the oppressed or marginalized (consider again history and the Zinn points above).

And that inability by the privileged to see beyond their privilege is, I think, a state of being snow blind.

Thus, my answer to the initial question at the beginning is that those claims as narratives built on evidence are ideological distortions of the evidence. The “grit” narrative is similar to the education = income argument that falls apart when analyzed: Education is a marker for privilege (since privilege leads to advanced education) just as “grit” qualities are markers for privilege.

Systemic Inequity v. Rugged Individualism

In Slaughterhouse Five, the work of Howard W. Campbell (previously the main character in Vonnegut’s Mother Night) is quoted:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves….

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue….The most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame an blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times. (pp. 164, 165)

Snow blind and bugs trapped in amber, the privileged by their privilege and the impoverished by the blinding but misleading promise of the American Dream—the narratives become the product of those who shape them and for whose benefit, regardless of the evidence, the artifacts, the data.

Let me end, then, with a couple of points to consider, one from the 1973 satire Sleeper  [2] and the other from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

First, a scene from the film:

And then, John and Mona in Cat’s Cradle discuss Boko-maru (a sacred foot ceremony) and their culturally-bound and conflicting perceptions of love:

“Mona?”

“Yes?”

“Is—is there anyone else in your life?”

She was puzzled. “Many,” she said at last.

“That you love?”

“I love everyone.”

“As—as much as me?”

“Yes.” She seemed to have no idea that this might bother me….

“I suppose you—you perform—you do what we just did—with other people?’

Boko-maru?”

Boko-maru.

“Of course.”

“I don’t want you to do it with anybody but me from now on,” I declared.

Tears filled her eyes. She adored her promiscuity; was angered that I should try to make her feel shame. “I make people happy. Love is good, not bad.”

“As your husband, I’ll want all your love for myself.”

She stared at me with widening eyes. “A sin-wat!”

“What was that?

“A sin-wat!” she cried. “A man who wants all of somebody’s love. That’s very bad.” (pp. 207-208)

John is trapped in the amber of the moment, his patriarchal and possessive love leaves him snow blind to Mona’s perspective. He either cannot see, or refuses to see.

So I have made a decision—one shared by Zinn, expressed by Eugene V. Debbs, and reflected in the research of Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir—that the perspectives of the marginalized must be honored in the context of systemic inequities.

This is a position of humility and a recognition that any human arrogance—whether it be scientific or not—is likely to lead to the sort of pettiness captured in the Sleeper clip: both the satire aimed at the foolish dietary beliefs of the past and the incredulity of the scientists in the film’s present (“You mean there was no deep fat…?” exposes that despite the scientists recognizing the misguided stances of the past, they remain trapped in their own certainty).

Both the “grit” narrative and the “grit” research fail that litmus test. They both speak from and to a cultural norm that privileges individual characteristics (rugged individualism) as if they are indistinguishable from the systemic context of privilege (again, a claim refuted by Mullainathan and Shafir, but that narrative doesn’t serve the privileged, and thus, isn’t embraced as the “grit” narrative is).

Many novelties have come from America,” the cited monograph from Campbell notes, adding:

The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves. (p. 165)

The human intellect is a wonderful thing, and thus, we must pursue our efforts to understand the world and the human condition—a thing we call science. But as humans, it is not ours to somehow remove our basic humanity from that process (the folly of objectivity), but to choose carefully just how we shape the narratives from the evidence we gather.

I am then compelled to manipulate Einstein once again. His “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” I think, is a call for the necessity of human kindness, decency, and compassion in the shaping of our narratives. The “grit” narrative does no such thing. It is a snow blind story that is also deaf to the basic human dignity shared among all people.

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.

Eugene V. Debs: Statement September 18, 1918

[1] See Robert Pondiscio’s citing of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” a misleading use of Vonnegut in the name of choice that is well outside Vonnegut’s ideological leanings; see my posted comment.

[2] While citing a Woody Allen work is problematic, I am in no way endorsing Allen or any efforts to absolve him of guilt or responsibility in the ongoing controversy surrounding him.

Howard Zinn and the Failure of Standards Movements in Education

The Zinn Education Project notes, “Howard Zinn passed away three years ago, on January 27, 2010. At the time, writer and activist Naomi Klein spoke for many of us: ‘We just lost our favorite teacher.'”*

The life and work of Zinn represents the personification of confronting the world from roles of authority that have historically been positioned as neutral—historian, teacher. But as Zinn came to understand and then to confront and embody, neutral is not an option:

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. . . .From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian. (You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn, 1994, pp. 7, 173)

As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) movement, as well as the concurrent new and expanded battery of high-stakes tests, seem inevitable (as some continue to debate), Zinn’s radical stance as a historian and teacher offers a powerful window into why any standards movement is a failed process in education, particularly in universal public education designed to serve democracy and individual freedom.

Standards as Acquiring Some Authority’s Mandates

Zinn as historian and teacher personified the act of challenging content. For Zinn, our obligation as teachers and students is to ask questions—notably questions about the sources of power—about not only the world around us but also the narratives of the world around, narratives cast about the past, narratives being cast about the present, and narratives envisioning the future.

Who was Christopher Columbus—in his own words, in the narratives built around him by centuries of historians, in the narratives of textbooks, and in narratives of state-mandated curriculum? Why are there so many versions of Columbus, which ones are true (if any), and who benefits from these narratives?

Who was Martin Luther King Jr.—in his own words, in the narratives built around him by decades of historians, in the narratives of textbooks, and in narratives of state-mandated curriculum? Why are there so many versions of King, which ones are true (if any), and who benefits from these narratives?

Narratives, whether they be history or mandated curriculum in the form of CCSS, are manufactured myths, and ultimately, manufactured myths are created by some authority to suit some goal, some goal that benefits the designer of the myth.

And therein lies the ultimately failure of all standards movements.

A standards paradigm masks the locus of power (some authority some where decides what knowledge matters and then creates the accountability structure that makes that knowledge the goal of passive implementation [teachers] and compliant acquisition [students]) and creates a teaching and learning environment that can assume a neutral pose while in fact replacing education with indoctrination.

Authentic education for democracy and individual freedom is a continual asking: What knowledge matters and why? It is a journey, an adventure, a perpetual gathering to confront, to challenge, to debate, and to serve the teacher and learner in their joint re-reading and re-writing of the world.

CCSS, just as the dozens of standards movements before them, discount the need to confront, to ask, to re-imagine because standards are an act of authoritarian mandates. “Who decides” is rendered unnecessary, and the curriculum becomes a faux-neutral set of content that teachers must implement and students must acquire so that the ultimate faux-neutral device can be implemented—high-stakes testing.

Like the “‘remarkable apparatus'” in Franza Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” high-stakes testing ultimately becomes all that matters, “a mechanism of objectification” (Foucault, 1984), the inevitable abdication of authority and autonomy to a mechanism—”what is tested is what is taught” superseding any possibility of asking “why?” or examining who decides and by what authority they made the decisions.

Kafka’s nightmare allegory has been and will be replayed time and again as adopting and implementing CCSS along with the high-stakes tests uncritically, passively, and with a pose of neutrality (“I am simply doing as I have been mandated as well as I can”) feed the machine that consumes all who come near it, just as the Officer who implements the apparatus of punishment eventually acquiesces to it himself:

The Traveller, by contrast, was very upset. Obviously the machine was breaking up. Its quiet operation had been an illusion. He felt as if he had to look after the Officer, now that the latter could no longer look after himself. But while the falling gear wheels were claiming all his attention, he had neglected to look at the rest of the machine. However, when he now bent over the Harrow, once the last gear wheel had left the Inscriber, he had a new, even more unpleasant surprise. The Harrow was not writing but only stabbing, and the Bed was not rolling the body, but lifting it, quivering, up into the needles. The Traveller wanted to reach in to stop the whole thing, if possible. This was not the torture the Officer wished to attain; it was murder, pure and simple.

The American Character, Inscribed: “A Monopoly on the Truth”

While the education establishment, both progressives and conservatives, race to see who can implement CCSS the fastest, concurrent education reform initiatives such as charter schools and Teach for America help reinforce the worst elements of the standards and accountability movement.

Embedded in the charter school commitment is a parallel pursuit of standards: Character education.

In the “no excuses” model (made popular in the Knowledge Is Power Program [KIPP] charter chain), the standard for character and “good behavior,” again, is not something teachers and students explore, discover, and debate, but rules that must be implemented and followed.

For example, consider the “National Heritage Academies (NHA) and its approach to character and citizenship education,” highlighted by Rick Hess at Education Week; Hess, by the way, notes, “I think I’m wholly behind what NHA is doing.” What does a standardized approach to character and civic education look like?:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,” chant the students of Ridge Park Elementary School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “And to the Republic for which it stands . . .”

In the back of the room, a dozen parents stand with their hands over their hearts. Some are US citizens by birth, others by naturalization, and some by aspiration. Their children recite: “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

A National Heritage Academies (NHA) charter school, Ridge Park starts every day with the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the school creed: “I am a Ridge Park scholar. I strive to achieve academic excellence. I exemplify high moral character. I work diligently to prepare for the future . . .”

Character education is ubiquitous and relentless at NHA schools. Each month is assigned a “moral focus” or virtue, which teachers are supposed to weave into their lessons and students write about from kindergarten through eighth grade. Signs in classrooms and hallways honor examples of virtue….

Students troop out of the gym to start their day. (“Counting on Character: National Heritage Academies and Civic Education,” Joanne Jacobs)

“Chant,” “recite,” “ubiquitous,” “relentless,” “troop”—these are the bedrocks of a standards-driven school environment, but this is indoctrination, not education—whether the standard is character or curriculum.

And what sort of history curriculum does a character-driven model embrace? The work of E. D. Hirsch:

The patriotic spirit of Hirsch’s US history and civics curriculum fit NHA’s philosophy. ‘The ideals that created the United States were glorious,’ writes Hirsch in The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools. ‘Patriotic glorifications are very much to be encouraged in the early grades, so long as they retain a firm connection with truth.’ While US history and civics are not wrapped in the flag, says Nick Paradiso, vice president of government relations and partner services for the charter management company, “the basic idea is that America is a great country that learns from its mistakes. We need to embrace our country’s history.”

No, let’s not confront the histories of the U.S., not here at NHA, because that may lead to the sorts of questions Zinn would ask: Who decides and why, and then who benefits from these narratives of character and history? [Hint: “National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter management company, runs 74 schools in Michigan and eight other states, making it the second largest charter network in the country.”]

Further into Jacobs’ description of NHA “America-centric” core curriculum, Martin Luther King Jr. is highlighted as an example for students of character. King as martyr for Hirsch’s glorious U.S.A.? Consider “Martin Luther King Was a Radical, Not a Saint” by Peter Dreier:

In fact, King was a radical. He believed that America needed a ‘radical redistribution of economic and political power.’ He challenged America’s class system and its racial caste system.  He was a strong ally of the nation’s labor union movement.  He was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers’ strike.  He opposed U.S. militarism and imperialism, especially the country’s misadventure in Vietnam.

Do you suppose this is the King NHA students study and are encouraged to emulate?

And it is here I will end with the ultimate caution about being neutral in regards to CCSS, charter schools, character education, and a whole host of education reform mandates and commitments that seem inevitable: The powerful control the narratives and those narratives control the rest of us—all for the profit of the powerful.

“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.” Howard Zinn, 1922-2010, R.(adical) I.(n) P.(eace)

*Updated in honor of the 50th Anniversary March on Washington and Howard Zinn’s birth date, August 24. Please visit and read:

howardzinn.org

Zinn Education Project

Remembering Howard Zinn by Meditating on Teacher Unions and Tenure?