Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

Jesusland?: Bible Belt Raises Welt of Corporal Punishment

“Jesusland” by Ben Folds includes a powerful verse against the energetic piano and soaring harmonies:

Town to town
broadcast to each house, they drop your name
but no one knows your face
Billboards quoting things you’d never say
you hang your head and pray

While the music and rhythm sound uplifting, the message of the lyrics is a sharp criticism of the Bible Belt, where I grew up, where I live. Folds confronting the disconnect between the ideology found in the words of Jesus in the Bible and then how Christians have manipulated those words and ideals for justifications significantly not Christ-like sits in a long tradition including Thomas Jefferson stating that he believed everything said by Jesus but little said about him (and revising his own version of the Bible to reflect that stance):

Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian. (To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse Monticello, June 26, 1822)

To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, May 21, 1803)

I was born and then have lived all of my 53 years in the South, the upstate of South Carolina, a stark example of a Bible Belt state where fundamentalist Christianity is blended seamlessly and unselfconsciously with rabid state’s-rights commitments and fervent patriotism as a veneer for a solid faith in the free market.

I have labeled my home region of the U.S. the self-defeating South because these often contradictory ideologies not only have created scars on our history but also continue to leave us in a constant state of being battered and bruised, especially children, women, and people of color.

My South has often used and still uses the Bible as a weapon.

My South raised the Bible in defense of slavery.

My South outlawed interracial marriage while waving the Bible.

My South fought the integration of schools, including whites shouting hate and scripture at children being escorting into Little Rock Central.

My South remains the primary region—the Bible Belt—where children are legally subject to corporal punishment not only in their homes but also in their public schools.

Like the angry white Christians shouting hate and their narrow faith at the Little Rock Nine, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” quickly follows the defenses of corporal punishment as the topics of domestic violence and child abuse have been spurred by controversies surrounding NFL players.

As Larry Morrison details about Biblical arguments for slavery—”The emphasis from proslavery defenders was always upon a literal reading of the Bible which represented the mind and will of God himself” (p. 16)—so too are Biblical arguments for spanking children.

Unlike me, Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in the Midwest. In his collection Palm Sunday, Vonnegut confessed, “Toward the end of our marriage, it was mainly religion in a broad sense that Jane and I fought about” (p. 175).

And then Vonnegut—as he often did—shared his upbringing as a Free Thinker, leading to his casual references to himself as an atheist or agnostic. In a speech delivered at Hobart and William Smith College (May 26, 1974), Vonnegut explained:

So a modern, secular education is often painful. By its very nature, it invites us to question the wisdom of the ones we love….

I have said that one guess is as good as another, but that is only roughly so. Some guesses are crueler than others—which is to say, harder on human beings, and on other animals as well….

But it is reasonable to suppose that other bad guesses are poisoning our lives today. A good education in skepticism can help us to discover those bad guesses, and to destroy them with mockery and contempt. (pp. 178-179)

Vonnegut as Free Thinker recognized that “bad guesses” were often most corrosive when linked to the Word of God; therefore, he called for “a new religion” (p. 181)—necessary to combat “hypocrisy”:

I am willing to drop the word religion, and substitute for it these three words: heartfelt moral code….The trouble with so many of the moral codes we have inherited is that they are subject to so many interpretations….This is good news for hypocrites, who enjoy feeling pious, no matter what they do. (p. 184)

Vonnegut in this speech focused on the tragedies of continuous war and rampant consumerism to the expense of the survival of humans—concluding as only Vonnegut could about the need “to do whatever we need to do in order to have life on the planet go on for a long, long time”:

This is bad news for business, as we know it now. It should be thrilling news for persons who love to teach and lead. And thank God we have solid information in the place of superstition! Thank God we are beginning to dream of human communities which are designed to harmonize with what human beings really need and are.

And now you have just heard and atheist thank God not once, but twice. And listen to this:

God bless the class of 1974. (p. 191)

In 1974, I didn’t know about Vonnegut, but I was on the cusp of two important realizations of my life: the need “to question the wisdom of the ones we love” (my parents and community) and my own aversion to the hypocrisy of the Bible Belt I called home.

A decade later, 1984, I was teaching English in the high school I had attended, in the classroom where my favorite teacher, Lynn Harrill, had taught before moving on to administration. And then, about another decade later, my students—most of whom attended the Southern Baptist church that sat literally in the middle of the district’s four public schools—joined the national fad of wearing What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) bracelets and T-shirts.

Teaching public school in the Bible Belt throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I can attest that religion was never absent from school, including prayers still be announced each morning over the intercom.

The WWJD movement highlighted for me, however, how in the South superficial religiosity trumps any genuine heartfelt moral code, as Vonnegut called it. Students leading lives that were in fact not Christ-like were the most fervent about the WWJD paraphernalia, creating a great deal of tension with students who were acting Christ-like (in many ways) but not calling attention to it.

Two things remain with me about those years teaching, watching young people too often slip comfortably into the hypocrisy of the Bible Belt (something about which I blame the adults, and not those students).

First, and ironically, the WWJD merchandising was an accurate portrayal of commitments in the U.S. to the market, to consumerism over all else (especially ethics).

And second, what a wasted moment.

Like Vonnegut and Jefferson, I too am comfortable with embracing a world in which humans behave in ways that are Christ-like:

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5: 38-39)

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:24)

I have a Who Would Jesus Bomb bumper sticker on a file cabinet in my office, and am certain that if this guided our policy in the U.S., we’d be a much better people.

It is 2014, 40 years since Vonnegut’s essentially optimistic speech.

I fear I cannot share his optimism, having slipped from the healthy skepticism Vonnegut endorsed into a solid cynicism.

As I have written about and raised in my classes my strong stance against all corporal punishment, based on decades of solid research, I have been bombarded with “My parents spanked me, and I turned out OK” as well as the expected refrain: “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

All while I lie down each night still living in Jesusland, the Bible Belt where we endorse teaching children lessons with fear and pain.

I am left to muse as Vonnegut did four decades ago, but I think about Who Would Jesus Spank and simply cannot find a credible answer other than not a single child.

“Human dignity,” Vonnegut offered in a 1980 speech at the First Parish Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “must be given by people to people”:

If you stand before me, and I do not credit you with dignity, then you have none. If I stand before you, and you do not credit me with dignity, then I have none….

What could be more essential in a pluralistic society like ours than that every citizen see dignity in every other human being everywhere? (p. 194)

I can’t imagine anything different uttered by Jesus, and I can only add, including children.

So it goes.

Belief Culture: “We Don’t Need No Education”

“Four in 10 Americans, slightly fewer today than in years past, believe God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago.” This December 2010 poll also includes the finding that a scant 16 percent of the U.S. populace accepts evolution without any hand of God involved. [1]

The U.S. is unique compared to the rest of Western world, which tends to accept evolution, but the comparison is less significant than the inference we can draw about the U.S. and the associated impacts visible in our disdain for not only education, but also the well-educated, the informed: the predominant culture in the US is a belief culture.

By “belief,” I do not refer to religious faith per se. This discussion is about a belief culture that is secular, political and, ultimately, ideological, even when belief is connected to religious traditions and stances.

As Einstein offered, both belief and science have value, even as complements to each other: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” – especially as faith informs our ethics. But in the U.S., we are apt to misuse belief and ignore (or misunderstand) science when we need it most.

While it is unlike the rest of the Western world with regard to its take on evolution, the belief culture does reflect what new science is discovering about the power of belief over fact as a part of some humans’ nature:

Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

The U.S. appears, on the surface, to be a scientific society – we consume the newest and best technology dutifully and with voracity; however, US citizens are largely opposed to scientific ways of knowing and understanding the world, to drawing conclusions about the world based on the weight of evidence while reserving a fixed conclusion if contradictory evidence reveals itself in the future. Our split personality about science is, in fact, not contradictory; we love to consume ever-changing technology, but that insatiable appetite is about the consumption, not the science.

Pop Culture and Blind Tradition

Consider the pop culture we also consume endlessly. How have we portrayed intellectuals and who do we love in our entertainment?

From Marlon Brando and James Dean to the Fonz on “Happy Days,” we have adored the uneducated, who prove themselves to be better and even smarter than the educated. In fact, if you look carefully at “Friends,” you see an interesting evolution of that narrative.

Both Joey and Ross are often portrayed as clueless and bumbling, tapping into our love of those who are not smart. But look closer. The audience, as well as the other characters, laugh with Joey (who is apparently uneducated) and at Ross (who has a PhD and is a scientist – a paleontologist, in fact). Look carefully at the episode in which Ross and Phoebe argue about evolution; Ross is shown to be foolish by the cleverer Phoebe, who doesn’t embrace evolution or value evidence.

This is the America of belief. We cherish stubborn doctrine and clever rhetoric even at the expense of fact and we often speak about tradition.

Recently, in my home state of South Carolina – which sits solidly in the Deep South that William Faulkner captured precisely in the macabre “A Rose for Emily” (yes, in the South we cling to the corpse of tradition, and are proud of it) – yet another controversy has recently erupted around the celebration of secession. Just as South Carolina has clung to the Confederate flag, the state is proud of being first to secede and to honor state’s rights (usually omitting that those state’s rights included slavery). “This is not about slavery, but tradition!” is the refrain.

Try to make a reasoned (that is, evidence-based) argument about secession or the flag issue in the South and you are apt to play Ross to the multitudes of Phoebes.

South Carolina is not alone. Secession balls are planned throughout the South, where the calls for tradition and state’s rights drown out any concerns about slavery. Again, just like those who cling to creationism, many in the South are not swayed by evidence – unless it confirms what they already believe.

The truth is that many people in the US are committed to belief over evidence and are simultaneously devoted to consumerism – creating a perfect storm for the political and corporate elites, but also sounding a death knell for the promise of universal public education established by our founders, who happened to be men of reason (although the belief among many Americans is that they were Christian men all; again, don’t bother with the evidence).

As Joe Keohane writes in the Boston Globe about the findings regarding the power of belief over facts:

In an ideal world, citizens would be able to maintain constant vigilance, monitoring both the information they receive and the way their brains are processing it. But keeping atop the news takes time and effort. And relentless self-questioning, as centuries of philosophers have shown, can be exhausting. Our brains are designed to create cognitive shortcuts – inference, intuition, and so forth – to avoid precisely that sort of discomfort while coping with the rush of information we receive on a daily basis. Without those shortcuts, few things would ever get done. Unfortunately, with them, we’re easily suckered by political falsehoods.

Belief Equals Anti-Intellectualism

The line from the Pink Floyd song providing my subtitle, “We don’t need no education,” is followed by, “We don’t need no thought-control.” This equation of education and thought-control is at the heart of the anti-intellectualism supported by the belief culture of the US, which has failed the promise of universal public education for a thriving democracy.

Let’s compare Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

In a letter to John Tyler, Jefferson made this argument in 1810:

I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it.

Many decades before the rise of critical pedagogy, Jefferson recognized the important relationship between access to education for everyone and education’s role in individual empowerment. Writing to George Wythe in 1786, Jefferson addressed tax support for education:

I think by far the most important bill in our whole code, is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness…. The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.

Taxation to support universal education, then, was tied, for Jefferson, to freedom and happiness, but education was also a bulwark against the rise of an elite class – what today we witness as a corporate elite ruling both corporate and political America.

Now compare Jefferson’s comments to Secretary Duncan’s conclusions about Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores from 2009:

Here in the United States, we have looked forward eagerly to the 2009 PISA results. But the findings, I’m sorry to report, show that the United States needs to urgently accelerate student learning to remain competitive in the knowledge economy of the 21st century. The United States has a long way to go before it lives up to the American dream and the promise of education as the great equalizer. Every three years, PISA assesses the reading, mathematics, and scientific literacy of 15-year-old students. It provides crucial information about how well our students are prepared to do the sorts of reading, mathematics, and science that will be demanded of them in postsecondary education or the job market, and as young adults in modern society. Unfortunately, the 2009 PISA results show that American students are poorly prepared to compete in today’s knowledge economy.

Duncan gives a brief nod to education as an “equalizer,” but he repeatedly connects education to competitiveness, a strong workforce and as reinforcing our “knowledge economy.”

These differences are significant because they feed into our belief culture and its value of compliance and authority over evidence and skepticism. Jefferson’s hope that universal public education would empower the poor against the oppression of the wealthy has been lost in the tidal wave of education for competitiveness and a world-class workforce.

Instead of experts speaking to the public based on evidence, we have a belief culture guided by celebrity based on wealth (Bill Gates and Oprah) and self-promotion (Michelle Rhee) who speak to our cultural assumptions instead of to the evidence from our society and our schools.

Corporate States of America: The New Big Bang Theory

As we move into the second decade of the 21st century – an era that held great promise for technology so advanced that humanity couldn’t imagine its glories – we are faced with “The Big Bang Theory” on Thursday nights. More sitcom fun focused on an objectified young woman next door who is repeatedly exposed as not very bright – but we love her; we laugh with her because she is a certain kind of pretty (consider the lineage to Marilyn Monroe). She enjoys weekly high jinks with four scientists, all of whom we laugh at like Ross, especially the self-proclaimed brightest, Sheldon.

And don’t discount that this hilarity takes place within a show connected with the evolution controversy -the Big Bang – and four university scientists. (Scientific theory is just a theory, we are reminded by the masses.)

We are not the America Ralph Waldo Emerson evoked when he wrote “Self-Reliance”; we are not a nation that is scientific in the purest sense of the word: “Speak what you think today in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.”

We are a people clinging to belief, and it is a belief that is tied to a certain kind of authority, one that speaks to that belief but can never challenge it. We believe any authority that voices back to us what we already believe.

Duncan’s comments are messages designed to trigger what people already believe about our schools and about international competitiveness, but let’s also look at how the media plays a role parallel to the role of our entertainment industry. Consider a recent headline at The Huffington Post: “SHOCKING: Nearly 1 In 4 High School Graduates Can’t Pass Military Entrance Exam.”

Ironically, this claim isn’t shocking, since it states what the public already believes (because they have been told the story for decades): public schools are failing. But when you read the very first paragraph, you find something that should be shocking: “Nearly one-fourth of the students who try to join the US Army fail its entrance exam, painting a grim picture of an education system that produces graduates who can’t answer basic math, science and reading questions, according to a new study released Tuesday.”

The opening doesn’t confirm the sensational headline. One-in-four “students who try to join the US Army” is a much different population than all high school graduates (the population the headline seems to indicate). Few readers will notice, and few will challenge the headline, because the headline’s claim is something we already believe, just as equating education with readiness for the military appears, although quite different from Jefferson’s charge, perfectly appropriate for most Americans. At the core of the American belief culture is our acceptance of education as training, education as coercion, education as normalizing.

And what about those pesky PISA rankings for the US? Again, a simplistic reporting of the ranking fulfills what we believe about schools, so the media perpetuates the distortion despite evidence from China itself that those rankings don’t warrant the crisis reaction American media and political leaders have perpetuated. As academic and blogger Yong Zhao notes:

Interestingly, this has not become big news in China, a country that loves to celebrate its international achievement. I had thought for sure China’s major media outlets would be all over the story. But to my surprise, I have not found the story covered in big newspapers or other mainstream media outlets.

While the US uses the PISA rankings to bash schools and call for standardization in order to ensure our global competitiveness, many in China are lamenting the corrosive impact of test-driven education. But that message works against our beliefs, and we are unlikely to hear it. China seems poised to recognize the failure of standardization, while the US continues to call for more and more standardization. That should be shocking. (As well, when international comparisons of test scores include considerations of poverty, a different message is revealed about the US.

The belief dynamic has allowed the corporate and political elite in the US to use universal public education to solidify the status quo of their elite positions – reversing Jefferson’s ideal. As Alfie Kohn has argued (and as we have ignored), we use schools to prepare students for a standards- and test-driven system, to perpetuate discipline and self-discipline and to squelch human agency and skepticism.

In the second decade of the 21st century, we do not have liberals and conservatives vying for the votes and minds of America; we have corporate Democrats and corporate Republicans vying through a false dichotomy for the votes and minds of American consumers who are too often eager to hear what they already believe.

Keohane explains that the power of belief threatens the promise of democracy:

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters – the people making decisions about how the country runs – aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

And we have a belief culture mesmerized by celebrity authority that perpetuates the marginalization of education and of being educated and informed.

At the center of this false political dichotomy and celebrity leadership, we have universal public education reduced to serving as both scapegoat – “Schools are failing to maintain America’s place in the global economy!” – and the political/corporate tool of creating a compliant workforce and an electorate eager to score well on multiple-choice testing.

Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, the faith culture in the US fully relinquished expertise to celebrity. Al Gore and Rush Limbaugh have spoken for climate change (the little cousin to the evolution debate), spurred by Davis Guggenheim’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

And then Guggenheim’s “Waiting for ‘Superman'” built the platform upon which Duncan, Rhee and Gates could lead the charge for education reform supported by Oprah, MSNBC and even Real Time with Bill Maher and The Colbert Report.

Watching, listening and even commenting on the cultural debates over climate change, evolution and education, I come back to the evolution debate and the cavalier discounting of evolutionary theory by the vocal members of the belief culture: evolution is just a theory, they state emphatically. “Just a theory” reveals two very important aspects of the failure of the belief culture.

First, the statement reveals that most people misunderstand the term “theory.” “Theory” is a scientific term (and, thus, a nuanced term) that is analogous to what laypeople would call fact, since a theory is the conclusion drawn from applying the scientific process to credible and extensive evidence. And that leads to the second important aspect we can draw from the statement.

By conflating “theory” with “hypothesis,” the spokespeople for the belief culture are suggesting that “theory” is no better than “belief” – that we shouldn’t accept things without evidence.

And this is the central problem with a belief culture – espousing erroneous and contradictory ideas while discounting reasonable and evidence-based information simply because that knowledge contradicts tradition.

Leaving a society trapped in the most dangerous aspect of belief: entrenched ideology.

Leaving many of us who seek education for empowerment and human agency trapped in an old song: “We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought-control….”

[1] Posted at Truthout 26 January 2011

See Related Posts

Time as Capital: The Rise of the Frantic Class

Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”: Allegory of Privilege

Zombies, “Scarcity,” and Understanding Poverty

Lessons from the Zombie Apocalypse

On Children and Kindness: A Principled Rejection of “No Excuses”

In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.

—Thomas Jefferson

The Furman University spring commencement in 2008 was mostly overshadowed by two events—the speech presented by President George W. Bush and the protest and controversy surrounding that speech in the weeks leading up to and during the speech.

A concurrent controversy to Bush’s commencement address centered on the large number of faculty at the center of the protest, a protest named “We Object.” South Carolina is a traditional and deeply conservative state, and Furman tends to have a distinct contrast between the relatively conservative student body and the moderate/leaning left faculty. The Bush protest of 2008 exaggerated that divide—notably in the reaction of the Conservative Students for a Better Tomorrow (CSTB) organization and an Op-Ed in The Greenville News by two Furman professors opposing the protesting faculty.

The conservative faculty view expressed in the Op-Ed is important because it characterized the protesting faculty as post-modern, the implication being that protesting faculty held liberal/left views that were grounded in relativism (a common use of “post-modern” in public discourse). In other words, the implication was that protesting faculty were motivated by an absence of principle, or at least only relative principle.

The irony here is that the protesting faculty (among whom I was one, despite my having not yet achieved tenure) tended to reject both the post-modern label and post-modernism; in fact, our protests were deeply principled.

Having been born and raised in SC and having now lived my entire life and taught for over thirty years in my home state, I am an anomaly in both my broad ideology (I lean Marxist—although it is more complicated than that) and my principles (I am deeply principled in ways that contrast with the dogma and tradition of my treasured South).

My focal point during the Bush debate and protest (my name was frequently in news accounts and in rebuttals from CSTB) was an exaggerated but representative example of the tension that my ideology and principles create in my daily work at Furman, particularly in the classroom.

For example, I often teach an introductory education course, and one topic we address in that course very much parallels the more publicized conflicts surrounding Bush’s appearance at the 2008 graduation—corporal punishment.

When the topic comes up, students tend to support corporal punishment, reflecting the general embracing of the practice throughout the South. Many students are quick to qualify their support for corporal punishment with the “spare the rod, spoil the child” justification of their Christian faith.

I often explain to my students that I was spanked as a child in the 1960s, but that I had not spanked my daughter (who often announced to her friends that I didn’t spank, including a story of the one time I did when she ran away from us in the mall as a small child). I then add that a considerable body of research [1]  has shown that corporal punishment has overwhelming negative consequences and only one so-called positive outcome (immediate compliance).

My principled stance against corporal punishment creates noticeable tension with students’ dogmatic faith in corporal punishment. This same dynamic occurs when I confront the public and political support for grade retention, which I regularly refute—again based on a substantial body of evidence (which parallels in many ways the research on corporal punishment in that both practices have some quick and apparently positive outcomes but many long-term negative consequences).

As the Jefferson quote implores, in my positions on corporal punishment and grade retention, I stand like a rock.

And this helps explain my principled stance rejecting “no excuses” ideologies and practices as well as deficit views of children, race, and class.

Some Issues Beyond Debate

Three ideologies are powerful and foundational in both traditional educational practices and recent education reform agendas over the past thirty years—paternalism, “no excuses” ideology, and deficit perspectives (of children and impoverished people).

Traditional schooling is typified by behaviorism: in the grading, in the classroom management. Punishing and rewarding are types of paternalism and are justified by the belief that children are lacking something that some authority must provide.

Ironically, education reform committed to accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing is really no reform at all since many of the reform policies are simply exaggerated versions of traditional practices—both of which are grounded in paternalism, “no excuses” ideology, and deficit perspectives.

“No excuses” practices (represented by KIPP charter schools, but certainly not exclusive to that chain or charter schools since the ideology permeates almost all schooling to some degree) match social norms in the U.S., and in fact, aren’t very controversial. Yet, since “no excuses” policies are part of the dominant reform agenda, advocates feel compelled to justify those policies and practices.

To be honest, critics of “no excuses” ideology are in the minority and tend to be powerless. Nonetheless, Alexandra Boyd, Robert Maranto and Caleb Rose have published an article in Education Next designed to refute “no excuses” critics and to justify KIPP charters narrowly and “no excuses” ideology more broadly.

While I will not elaborate here on this, advocates of deficit-based strategies aimed at children in poverty and popularized by Ruby Payne tend to make parallel arguments as those endorsing “no excuses” schools and practices.

Corporal punishment, grade retention, paternalism, “no excuses” ideologies, and deficit perspectives of children, class, and race—all of these ideologies and concurrent practices conform to social norms of the U.S. (politicians and the public support them overwhelmingly) and tend to be discredited by large and robust research bases. All of these ideologies and practices also produce the appearance of effectiveness in the short term but create many long-term negative outcomes.

Paternalism, “no excuses” ideologies, and deficit perspectives reflect and perpetuate racism, classism, and sexism—even though many of the people who are and would be negatively impacted by these beliefs are often actively participating in and supporting institutions, policies, and practices driven by all three.

History has revealed numerous examples of people in reduced circumstances behaving in ways that were counter to their and other people’s freedom and equity. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale remains to me one of the best literary cautionary tales of that disturbing and complicated reality; Atwood dramatizes the historical reality of women contributing to the oppression of women. As a powerful work of scholarship, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow details well that a culture of mass incarceration (an era paralleling the accountability era in education) has reduced the lives of many minorities living in poverty to the point that they appear to support practices that, in fact, as Alexander describes, constitute the new Jim Crow—as I have explained while connecting mass incarceration with education reform:

This last point – that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools – presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow.

For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons’” (p. 210).

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters.

And all of this, I suppose, may have been more than many people wanted to read for me to reach my big point, which is this:

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against “no excuses” practices.

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against deficit perspectives.

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against paternalism.

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against corporal punishment.

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against grade retention.

Period.

Especially when it concerns children, the ends can never justify the means so I couldn’t care less about test scores at KIPP schools.

Can we debate these? Sure, but if you want to debate me in order to change my mind, you would be wasting your time.

I am approaching 53, and I remain a work in progress. There is much I do not know, and there remains much that I am deeply conflicted about. But there is one thing that I know deep into my bones—children are wonderful and precious.

Children are wonderful and precious and there isn’t a damned thing you can show me or argue that can justify anything that is unkind to a child.

Not one damn thing.

For the adults who disagree with me and believe I am wrong or fool-headed, I love you too. But if you force me to choose, you lose.

Few things fill me with confidence in my principles like the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut and I see the same world, have the same regrets about that would, but also share the same idealistic hope. In the beginning of his Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut blends confessional memoir with his fiction as he explains how the novel came to have the full title Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.

While visiting a fellow veteran of WWII and his friend Bernard V. O’Hare, Vonnegut is confronted by O’Hare’s wife Mary, who is angry about Vonnegut’s considering writing a novel about his experience at the firebombing of Dresden:

“You were just babies then!” [Mary] said.

“What?” I said.

“You were just babies in the war—like the ones upstairs!”

I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood. (p. 14)

And from this Vonnegut promised Mary not to glorify war and to add the extended title.

There is something sacred about childhood, about innocence. Something sacred that deserves and should inspire all humans toward kindness.

I see little evidence we are inspired, but I remain committed to the possibility of the kindness school—and even a kind society populated by kind people.

Nothing there to debate.

For Further Reading

anyone lived in a pretty how town, e. e. cummings

[1] See Is Corporal Punishment an Effective Means of Discipline? (APA); and Spanking and Child Development Across the First Decade of Life.