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Ideology and dogmatism in the school reform movement

"We have in our time a very peculiar generation of scholars who all are clear about it:  ideologies are finished.  Each one in his way has taken this or that ideology and criticized it so that nothing is left of it.  Nevertheless, he does not quite see what to do afterwards, so we have a peculiar fence-straddling generation.  These people are very serious;  but their having seen that all is wrong still doesn't mean they know what is right. . . ." —Eric Voegelin

“We have in our time a very peculiar generation of scholars who all are clear about it: ideologies are finished. Each one in his way has taken this or that ideology and criticized it so that nothing is left of it. Nevertheless, he does not quite see what to do afterwards, so we have a peculiar fence-straddling generation. These people are very serious; but their having seen that all is wrong still doesn’t mean they know what is right. . . .” —Eric Voegelin

Much of teaching can be quite routine because both the material and the sorts of difficulties commonly encountered by people new to the material are familiar. But if the classroom is not to become merely another spiritual desert in the institutionalized existence of children born to late modernity, the teacher needs to maintain an openness both to the material and to the students. In the classroom, the language through which curricular knowledge lives combines with the minds of students to constitute a field of experience in which the teacher must act as a participant if he is not to rigidify and die, hardening into a mere enforcer of a system.

Symptoms of such a death include the repetition of linguistic formulas in response to questions, the assertion of bland moralisms by way of escaping uncomfortable facts, and the inability to provide concrete illustrations of whatever he is talking about and talking about and talking about. Dogmatism and refusals of the Question are the hallmarks of ideological systems, which are never true but always opposed to truth.

All our systems are wrong, to the extent that they obscure reality by erecting between us and the real world a second reality of language, routinely protected by interdictions on the asking of questions. Nearly all school reform programs are, of course, such systems.  Schooling in the age of reform has made both the life of the mind and the life of the spirit increasingly difficult, and we have few public forums where people can discuss education at the level of reality.  A staff that has been sufficiently cowed into unreality will, at the end of enervating hour or two of what is called professional development, have no questions. Institutions governed by ideology do not entertain questions aimed at the premises or the telos. Experienced practitioners recognize this and suffer the scotosis in silence.

The school change industry recruits participants who yearn to be a stars in the professional society which their studies or their position have opened for them. The usual panoply of goods is available to those who are willing to play: travel for conferences and site visits, release from mundane chores to sit at the big table, public praise, professional opportunities. Successful school reform leaders and consultants often have a fascination with conceptual schemes, and they mistake their ability to become fluent in such schemes for a grasp on reality.

As they master a second reality—the linguistic machine that underlies the reform plan—their sense of truth begins to shift and deform. Instead of accurate representations of the situations that practitioners actually face, they begin to judge as true those statements that are coherent with the conceptual scheme they have adopted. It can take considerable cognitive power to master complex conceptual schemes, such as Marxism or positivism, and some consultants find real intellectual pleasure in knowing their complicated things and in putting their knowledge on display.

Still, dogmatism is a formidable obstacle to anyone looking for truth and it is also the eternal enemy of teaching and learning.

Badlands: life sans religion, sans philosophy

Dakota Badlands

Kit and Holly enact a fairy tale made entirely of cliches and self-approval. They are anti-heroes of the American type.

Terrence Malick’s Badlands works as a period piece for that post-Vietnam time of self-absorption and loss of moral clarity that also gave us Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Bonnie and Clyde. But it’s not just a period piece—Kit Carruthers and Holly Sargis are somewhat timeless in their possession by unfocused, impulsive desires that attach to people and events in the kaleidoscope moments of a journey from unclear beginning to unknown terminus, and they “think” about what is happening and what they are doing entirely by repeating slogans and catch phrases they’ve picked up from the cultural milieu around them. In other words, they are quite like many people you know.

Most of what they say has a self-forgiving quality; their parallel monologues form a series of incoherent verbal gestures that help them feel good about themselves. As they bounce from murder to murder, they continue believing they are “good” people, though they are not. They are very bad people. They are bundles of appetites, no better (or much different) than snakes swallowing live mice. People are endowed with a moral sense. They should develop it.

Simple people may be saved by a good heart, as with Forrest Gump. But desire is not wise or good, for most of us, without some education and discipline. More and more of us get our moral education from our folkways, and our folkways are becoming increasingly toxic for inarticulate people with inarticulate desires. Holly and Kit never have thoughts, properly speaking.

“It sent a chill down my spine,” said Holly. “Where would I be this very moment if Kit had never met me? Or killed anybody? This very moment?” Her thinking never becomes more precise or more clear. “Kit never let on why he’d shot Cato. He said that just talking about it could bring us bad luck and that right now, we needed all the luck we could get.” That’s her “reflection” after one murder. About the next one, she observes: “He claimed that as long as you’re playing for keeps and the law is coming at ya, it’s considered OK to shoot all witnesses. You had to take the consequences, though, and not whine about it later. He never seemed like a violent person before, except for once, when he said he’d like to rub out a couple of guys whose names he didn’t care to mention. It all goes to show how you can know a person and not really know him at the same time.”

As for Kit, he segues from event to event, narrating his own story entirely in cliches and banalities. “Of course, uh, too bad about your dad. . .I can’t deny we’ve had fun though. . .it takes all kinds.” Nothing important can ever happen to him. He’s incapable of it.

Their moral sense has shrunk to effortless recitals of rationalizations—instead, they view life in aesthetic terms. Holly rejects the outlaw life because the wilderness is void of bright lights and pleasant food. Kit beams with a self-satisfied feeling of success when the officers escorting him to prison observe that he looks like James Dean.

The film endures because Malick is right about important things. He’s right about the woeful state of people whose minds are not enlivened by religion or enlightened by philosophy–in his stories, stupidity and evil are often kindred conditions. Malick’s films are frequently hideous, in precisely the way life among the folk is sometimes hideous.

Noah: a tawdry bit of pretention

Russell Crowe as Noah

The film is an unimportant and uninteresting little story–a sort of anti-Jehovah propaganda piece blown up to pretentious scale by its grandiose budget.

One needn’t be particularly sensitive to notice that Aronofsky’s Noah is a dark story involving unlovely people in a desolate world. Russell Crowe plays Noah as a somewhat dull action hero, ready to brawl and knock heads–and for quite a while intent on murdering his own grandchildren. It’s not much of a story–neither interesting or ennobling.

No benevolent deity intent on bringing to pass an orderly world founded on love presides over this mess. Instead, the only deity in the story is a vengeful and sulking “Creator”–somewhat in the image of the hateful and lusty humans–who performs no miracles but offers instead magic tricks–such as encasing fallen angels in grotesque bodies of misshapen volcanic stone.

It’s a tawdry tale made of money and angst, but lacking in spiritual insight–or even much in the way of worldly wisdom. Brian Mattson gives a likely explanation for this unlikely disaster.

This is an age drawn toward apocalyptic stories, but for my money Walking Dead has a more interesting plot, deeper exploration of the human condition, more spiritual longing, and nicer people.

The journey to here

Calliope Mikulecky uses spring break to dig razor clams on Puget Sound–far from the fluorescent hallways and endless tasks of school. Photo by Shannon McGinnis.

A week in spring free from the job means, for me, catching up with garden tasks before the explosive growth of May and June overwhelms me. I work among prosperous people, some of them, so I hear of their travel plans. I admit that time on a tropical beach sounds alluring. But I also know that what we yearn to encounter by traveling everywhere, by indulging in restless thousand-mile weekends, may be more elusive than a plane ticket to Maui–and more accessible than a million distractions streaming to a million devices.

One of the more liberating things I’ve learned from travel came clear to me one morning at the twin lakes atop Mollman Pass in the Mission Mountains. It was only a few miles from home, and we’d hiked up to the pass in the Mission Range the day before–the ridge from which we could see the Swan Range to the east, and pitched our tents. When dawn arrived I got up, somewhat ecstatic with the sense of ease and freedom one easily finds in the back country. It’s a form of being rich–having time to lavish on life’s gorgeous details.

Here were no tasks or unfinished projects–no repairs to be made or messes to organize or messages to answer. A red-tailed hawk circled the sky between peaks and feeding trout dimpled the lake. The fast-changing light cascaded over glaciers and canyons . Fresh tracks of goats, rabbits, and a grizzly in the mud around a small spring hinted at how little I could see of where I was and what was happening. I spent an hour before breakfast standing on a cliff, climbing to little perches for a better view, sitting beside the rippling water, watching, savoring the breezes on my skin amid the soft rustle of Creation.

It occurred to me that most of what I was observing could be experienced in my own yard along Mission Creek down in the valley. What I was enjoying most about my little excursion was not the earth and sky, which were never far away, but my attention, which is to say my consciousness, devoted to sensing the moment.

I know by long experience now that what I’m seeking has more to do with waking up a little more than with any exotic quality of the location where I find myself. Yesterday morning I spent removing  peony cages from crinkly brown remnants of last summer’s peonies, removing starts of quack grass and bindweed with a single-tined finger hoe, then replacing the cages. As I worked, I paused to watch juncos, house finches, goldfinches, robins and chickadees, drawn by the millet I’d spread on the ground.

Gardening when one isn’t anxious about hunger can be mainly a contemplative act, involving, as Virgil knew, keen attention to heaven’s indulgence:

Nor would the stress
Of life be bearable for tender things
Did not so long a respite come between
The cold and heat, and heaven’s indulgence grant
This comfort to the world.

Giving all one’s attention to a place on earth one knows well–paying attention with ears, nose, skin, and soul–is a fine way to spend an April morning. Life courses in fresh torrents around and through us, and inexhaustible energy flows in our veins as we turn to all the rows of our lives, at home.

Is justice present, or forever becoming?

scales of justice

Justice is not something that is simply present. It is not calculable as being here, now, to precisely this degree. If we think of something that exists as something that is present, and present to a calculable degree, then I’m afraid the bad news, at least from Derrida, is that justice does not exist. -Peter Blum

Peter Blum’s view of deconstruction makes of it something like the move I make with my “anti-ideological” arguments: reality is more complex than any of our theories of it, and people who cannot escape their own theories when faced with actual events make mistakes. Sometimes horrendous mistakes. He quotes Terry Eagleton, discussing the way reality always partially escapes our renditions of it:

Deconstruction holds that nothing is ever entirely itself. There is a certain otherness lurking within every assured identity. It seizes on the out-of-place element in a system, and uses it to show how the system is never quite as stable as it imagines. There is something within any structure that is part of it but also escapes its logic.

Judging, of the sort Christ chastised the authorities for neglecting, is not simply applying a universal law. Our universals oversimplify. Loving attention to the particulars is part of finding the right way.

By the dim and flaring lamps

The fiercely free individual is nothing against the vast forces of modernity. Nostalgia is weak against what is here and what is coming.

The fiercely free individual is nothing against the vast forces of modernity. Nostalgia is weak against what is here and what is coming.

Savannah depicts a nostalgic and weak reaction against the principalities and powers that mostly rule the world. Ward Allen leaves the position and status he inherited to make a free life as a market hunter, but he doesn’t succeed. He achieves a sort of eccentricity and notoriety, but freedom eludes him.

The film has a beauty. I agree with Stephen Klugewicz that we “rightly revel in its broad and beautiful cinematic brushstrokes: its scene painting of the joys of the bucolic way of life, its depiction of the formative power of the past, its idealization of the thoroughly non-modern man. ‘Maybe we are here to remake everything, reshape everything, create our own new idea of perfection and leave God’s idea to the dim shades of history,’ Allen declares during one courtroom appearance. ‘And maybe I, having fought against that new idea, rejected that idea, found that idea abhorrent, maybe I was wrong. But I do not think so.’” It does, as Klugewicz suggests, warm the heart.

The film brought to my mind the Southern Agrarians and their reactionary manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand. It was a book brought to my attention by John Baden when I met him in his home near Gallatin Gateway, on one of my forays through Montana in search of a better conversation. The book is a collection of essays by something of a literary tribe, who understood their plight in terms of the loss of their Southern identity amid the displacements of “northern industrialism.” The Lost Cause was a conversation about being somebody in some place. Dixie was a place, unlike the trampling out the vintage, which was an abstraction. They sided with Thetis and against her son Achilles, that his shield should have borne the images of “White flower-garlanded heifers” and “athletes at their games” rather than nameless, faceless players acting their assigned roles. We should be thoughtful about what we fight for. Theirs was an ambiguous movement jousting ineffectually at the thousand tentacles of modernity. That book, too, has an air of nostalgia about it.

In Savannah, Ward Allen resists game laws and developments that drain the wild out of his river, leaving individuals amid places dying into nameless processes. “This is real,” he says to his wife, when he finally takes her to one of his sacred places, though by then it is too late. Many will sympathize with him. We see the soulless machinery of international financial conspiracy subject us all to corrupt law, we know something of the flattening education the Capitol favors, where young people “engage” in literacy tasks organized around reading passages nearly void of meaning, practicing the bland skills that might provide a paycheck in the institutional hallways and cubicles that await them out there. We sense that in the world they are making, there really is no place for us, and if we are not young, we know that the simulacrum offers no satisfying alternative.

Ward Allen does not know what to do, and his action at the end of the story has more to do with giving up than with finding a way. It is a film filled with beauty, evoking what is being lost. I would have liked him to say more about what he understood about God’s idea. Lesser topics may serve no good.

The local always includes the global (in ways ideologues may not grasp)

Experts who discuss education fluently at the level of abstractions but cannot or do not regularly think through how their designs "work" (or don't work) in the minds of particular students may not know, actually, what they are talking about--and may not know that they do not know.

Experts who discuss education fluently at the level of abstractions but cannot or do not regularly think through how their designs “work” (or don’t work) in the minds of particular students may not know, actually, what they are talking about–and may not know that they do not know.

I’ve worked on encouraging local studies at the secondary level for years. In thinking about a label for our work, I finally decided on “community-centered” since the real work has to do with slipping out of ideological abstractions to include the actual as we can only experience it locally–using community in a broad sense to include plants and animals as well as persons and families–in whatever universal and global phenomena we examine.

Over on Front Porch, Charles Carman contemplates the difficulty of separating local concerns from global concerns:

The problem with emphasizing localism over globalism is that this emphasis is harder to prescribe than it is to identify in our own experience. Understanding localism primarily as against globalism does not define localism (or globalism). Living locally cannot not mean joining a tribe, completely isolated from the outside world. Local and global are permeated by each other. Every town is local and global. Coffee is not local to anywhere in the lower forty-eight, even if the coffee shop is. Consider a trader on the New York Stock Exchange. His job is the global markets and yet he knows when to tip his favorite bartender generously. He spends much on the local economy. He has small talk at his favorite halal cart, knows his tailor by name. He changes the price of aluminum in Europe in the morning and asks for the usual in the evening. Granted, a city in Idaho does not have a community of stock brokers, but more likely a community of farmers. Nonetheless, whether a place is a port city or Midwest town, it participates in varying degrees of global and local integration. And however localism is understood, surely it is must be hospitable to the stranger.

The local always includes the national and global, but those who think about the national or global do not always manage to consider the local. Their thought and their ideas are dangerously incomplete. A simple test for experts: ask them to translate their thoughts into particular, concrete illustrations. Someone who understands something deeply and thoroughly knows how it appears at a conceptual level, but also what it looks at the local level–which is to say, in the actual world inhabited by practitioners.

Philodendron Rules (teaching the vision of goodness)

Revised (original post)

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. Proverbs 29:18 (Duchess of Edenburgh clematis)

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. Proverbs 29:18 (Duchess of Edenburgh clematis)

Years ago I spent time trying to understand what “goodness” meant. I knew Aristotle’s notion that “goods” where what people pursued–peace, wealth, more comfortable sandals–but I wanted something more vital and clear than that. What I eventually came to, after dozens of detours and cul-de-sacs, was that goodness was essentially a vision of life as we want it. Most importantly, it was the vision of life one can glimpse as through a glass darkly in sacred literature–the vision that deity has revealed and is revealing. We gather the light here a little and there a little, if we seek it with honest hearts and real intent.

When God finished creating the earth, he said that it was good. What did he mean by that? Teachers may confront that question, along with the question of how to talk intelligibly about it, because we sometimes meet young people who do not have any very useful understanding of what it means, who are not even sure it is something they should want.

They often confuse “goodness” with obeying a list of rules. This is understandable, since teaching an understanding of goodness often includes teaching rules.

But goodness is something larger and more important than a list of rules. Mainly, it is a vision of people living in all the little and big ways that support happiness. Fully realized, the vision is a vast and complex ecological order, quite beyond the comprehension of children. (Evil, of course, also has an ecology–it is a complex web of oppositions to the vision of goodness.)

I suppose the purpose of our life is to find our way back to a garden, where we are told we began. In the beginning, we did not need to care for the garden–it was gift. That meant that it wasn’t really ours, in a fundamental way. We were completely dependent on much that we could not see and did not understand. We couldn’t stay there, except at the cost of remaining forever children.

The way back to the garden, we have learned, is to re-create it around us. Then it will be ours, and we will be able to keep it because we understand it. We grow from creature to creator.

And so with children we teach little rules that both preserve the order and make visible its principles. Our rules are not meant to deprive our children of freedom. Quite the opposite–they are meant to be the stepping stones that keep us out of the cold, swirling forces we traverse moment by moment and that lead us to freedom.

When our children were small, exploring the world with hands and mouth, my wife and I kept a philodendron on the coffee table. For a time the poor plant got dumped on the floor or had its leaves torn off before we could intervene. Over and over we gently stopped little hands and said “No!” It would have been easier, no doubt, to simply to move the plant out of reach until the children were older, but that would be a controller’s strategy–to turn our home into a huge cocoon in which everything was either child-proof or out of.

Sure, we put cleaning solvents, prescription medicines, and other items that could cause genuine danger out of reach, but the philodendron was sacrificed to an ideal: it is better to awaken children than to pad the rooms where they are sleepwalking. And what we awaken them to is the order that surrounds them, which is the order of our lives, which is our best approximation so far of our vision of goodness.

So it was that we would sometimes encounter a gleeful daughter wildly shredding the leaves of our forlorn-looking philodendron. Such actions are teaching opportunities. So when a lightly slapped my daughter’s hand and said “No!” what did I want her to learn?

Obviously, I would have been disappointed if she had learned that plants are never to be touched, though from her child’s perspective that must at first have seemed to be my intent. In fact, I wanted her to learn things she could not then understand. “Thou shalt not touch the philodendron” was a little rule that didn’t express our final will. Rather, it was a means to a deeper law that might be expressed “Thou shalt respect living things,” or “Thou shalt live in a house of order.” And beyond these laws was a higher reality: “Thou shalt love plants.”

What we really wanted was for our children to learn to live in a garden, which is to say we wanted them to understand the earth and the processes of life, and we wanted them to care for the world in wise ways. We wanted them to recognize and desire goodness.

That’s quite a bit to learn. So let’s start with simple things: don’t touch the philodendron. We knew our daughter would question the rule, and we knew that as her questioning spirit became more mature, our answers, both implicit and explicit, would lead her toward understanding what we really wanted. Soon, we allowed her to help with such tasks as watering the plant. As she grew, we negotiated with her, gradually increasing her responsibilities and freedom to keep pace with her understanding.

In time the philodendron rule became irrelevant as she learned that plants not only could be touched, but they could be pruned, re-potted, fertilized and enjoyed. Beyond the philodendron rule lay profound principles, more difficult to understand but more liberating to live. Beyond the philodendron rule lay all the principles of wisdom, which are identical with the principles of goodness.

Wise traditions teach goodness by giving rules, because life is complicated in much the way ecosystems are complicated, and inexperienced people are likely to make decisions that damage or destroy their chances at happiness without understanding the long-term consequences of what they do. Good rules help keep people safe while they are still learning how life works.

As Wendell Berry has noted, the rules of morality are guidelines to long-term practicality. In many cases, they are summaries of centuries of experience about what sorts of actions tend toward misery, and of what sorts of actions contribute to happiness.

Goodness is closely related to wisdom, since happiness in this world will be fleeting unless our thoughts and actions are in harmony with the way things really are.

“Truth” is our name for such harmony.

A happy life is similar to a garden–it is a thing of beauty made out of the materials of this life, arranged in harmony with both the laws of science and the principles of beauty. It is an emblem of care, and an embodiment of joy. It includes a long history of things learned and remembered, and a long future of things desired and hoped.

It is here. It is now.

Saving a remnant: most children left behind?

If the larger system will not make something similar to the classic trivium its priority--grammar, logic and rhetoric as exemplified in great texts--should parents and students seek other paths of learning? Courtesy Grace College

If the larger system will not make something similar to the classic trivium its priority–the grammar, logic and rhetoric as exemplified in great texts–should parents and students seek other paths of learning? Courtesy Grace College

The idea of a “saving remnant” recurs throughout the Hebrew and Christian Bible. Such remnants are presented as small groups that understand, apply and carry forward the truths and practices of a higher order of community. John in the New Testament quotes Isaiah in the Old Testament: “Though the people of Israel are as numerous as the sand of the seashore, only a remnant will be saved.” The idea suggests that, at times, the most important knowledge will be lost to the world, and most children will be left behind….In our pop culture, the current “big” story that might treat this theme is the Hollywood retelling of the Noah story. It will be interesting to see what they make of it.

The Athens that Socrates and Plato knew was similar to the society Noah left behind. Athens in their lifetimes was on the brink of a destruction that did in fact occur. It was a time and place of political turmoil, corrupt politicians, and a virulent desire for individual gain, an unbridled lust for wealth and power. In that dark time, Plato also turned to the idea of a saving remnant, trying to imagine how correct principles might survive in such an ignorant and nihilistic society:

[Socrates:] . . . the worthy disciples of philosophy will be but a small remnant: perchance some noble and well-educated person, detained by exile in her service, who in the absence of corrupting influences remains devoted to her; or some lofty soul born in a mean city, the politics of which he contemns and neglects; and there may be a gifted few who leave the arts, which they justly despise, and come to her. . . .Those who belong to this small class have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and have also seen enough of the madness of the multitude; and they know that no politician is honest, nor is there any champion of justice at whose side they may fight and be saved. Such an one may be compared to a man who has fallen among wild beasts –he will not join in the wickedness of his fellows, but neither is he able singly to resist all their fierce natures, and therefore seeing that he would be of no use to the State or to his friends, and reflecting that he would have to throw away his life without doing any good either to himself or others, he holds his peace, and goes his own way. He is like one who, in the storm of dust and sleet which the driving wind hurries along, retires under the shelter of a wall; and seeing the rest of mankind full of wickedness, he is content, if only he can live his own life and be pure from evil or unrighteousness, and depart in peace and good-will, with bright hopes. --The Republic

In our own time, Alasdair MacIntyre concluded After Virtue, one of the most influential works of moral philosophy in recent decades, with a suggestion that, at this point, the good life might be preserved by small communities that withdraw from the larger society in order to keep alive among themselves the ideals of civility and morality:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead–often not recognizing fully what they were doing–was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another–doubtless very different–St. Benedict.

Needless to say, such visions are anathema to today’s heirs of the revolutionary ideologies of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who envision an egalitarian society formed by subjecting everyone to universal principles, as discerned and articulated by a governing elite. One hallmark of their thinking is the idea that everyone needs to ordered into one large and centrally-administered system. Their recurrent attempts to ban and suppress dissent grows out of their sense that their plans won’t work if those outside the inner party are allowed to leave the plantation.

The obvious products of this vision include such laws as “No Child Left Behind,” which moves toward a nationalized and centralized education system and leads to the Common Core State Standards, which begin to put teeth in the vision by instituting a national testing regime, and by “The Affordable Health Care” law which in a similar way brings much of the health care industry under the control of a governing elite. The original founding vision of America, which George Washington and others communicated by citing Micah, is quite distant: “. . .they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.”

The standards movement as it has played out in the state where I work, Montana, has communicated a fundamental incoherence: while the law has promoted the belief that literacy and numeracy come first–since they are the subjects that are actually tested and reported–this has been unaccompanied by any clarity about how schools might accomplish significant improvements in these subjects.

In the case of English, this has remained one class among six or seven in each student’s schedule–which amounts to less than an hour a day for most students. Within that hour, teachers are expected to teach the full range of writing, from basic conventions such as pronoun antecedent errors and parallel structure, to proficient writing in several modes–persuasive, narrative, and expository–demonstrating their ability to write essays comparing various works, exhibiting insight into how point of view affect structure and meaning, and so on. That would be quite a lot, but the standards don’t stop there. Students are also expected to gain considerable background in English and American literature from the seventeenth through the twenty-first centuries in all the major genres, including poetry, fiction, and the varieties of nonfiction.

Where are the serious conversations about how such ideals might be realized? They do not seem to be occurring within the one, big system.

Teaching in the post-literate age

Poetry is revolution

Revolutionary ideology created its own literature, and this literature for the most part became the official literature of state schools.

Thomas F. Bertonneau continues his analysis of the phenomenon he has labeled “post-literacy.” It may be worth noting that though the students in his sample all praise diversity, they do as they fall into line, all slouching in step toward the same god. It’s become a cliche to describe adherents of modern ideology as forming a mob or a herd, but one may still pause when confronted by a herd of nonconformists.

Early in my teaching career, when I was beginning my study of the meanings of literature and the intersections between language and culture, I came across many statements–ranging from Confucius to Orwell–about the connections between maintaining civilization and preserving the language from corruption. It seemed obvious that to teach English was to be on the frontlines of the contest between civilizational order and decadence–I fancied myself as joining a vanguard.

Alas, there was no army. What seems obvious to me now is that any regime intelligent enough to dissolve an Ancien Regime would be clever enough indoctrinate its teachers. That was easy enough. They are, after all, mostly low-level civil servants licensed by the state. Education courses based on such as Benjamin Bloom and Abraham Maslow, with no mention of the world’s great thinkers, helped keep cognitive horizons near and vague for teachers in general. The powerful formative texts of Western Civilization were displaced by trendy social science tracts, excerpted into polemical textbooks drafted for the market.

For English teachers in particular, literary culture itself was dominated by intellectuals drunk on nihilism. Consider such as Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg, of whom M.D. Aeschliman observed:

Their aesthetic/ethical style of “upward psychopathic mobility” was a demotic, demonic mix of the nativist narcissism of Walt Whitman (the “barbaric yawp” of “Song of Myself”) and the exotic literary/behavioral immoralism of the French “flowers of evil” — the criminal-as-hero, atheistic/existentialist lineage from Sade through Stendhal and Flaubert to the “accursed ones” (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine), to the rich rentier-pervert André Gide, to the Dadaists and Surrealists, to Sartre and the criminal-pimp-homosexual “Saint,” Jean Genet.

There were others, of course, but in general, “raw, spontaneous, willfully anarchic and pornographic” self-expression spread like a new religion through university literary culture during and after the sixties, extending and celebrating the sensual narcissism of Whitman, completing the cultural turn of Emerson and Thoreau away from the authority of the past, the canonized traditions of such civilizational ideals as self-restraint, discipline, hard work, decency, and personal fidelity, and forward! into the sexual-social liberation of the authentic self with all the primitivism and anti-cultural rage that took form in the intertwined mass movements of the sixties.

At this point, the ideological capture of the teaching profession has been nearly total. English teachers–who are agents of the state–love to scream “censorship!” when some ordinary citizen musters a weak kickback against the low standards of some required book. Ironic. An addiction to striking revolutionary poses can be hard to break–even for officials. The habit of feeling engaged in heroic opposition to thought control makes for a comfortable alternative to the rigors of thought. What Bertonneau says of students is generally true of their teachers: “post-literacy collaborates with ideology in motivating students to invoke topoi such as ‘uniqueness’ and ‘diversity’ to defend themselves against the internalization of a genuinely literate, a non-personal and non-emotional, point of view.” Critical thinking, as it is practiced among teachers, usually means slamming the door on thoughts that challenge received ideology.

For some time I’ve been trying to understand the precise structures of consciousness that serve to inoculate young minds today from meanings and understandings that classic texts once communicated to new generations. It’s not just that students have not been taught the civilizational ideals that once formed the basis of public education, it’s also true that their consciousness has been formed in ways that tend to recoil at contact with many of those ideals. To speak plainly, the authority of the past that revolutionary ideology targets for debunking is morality–the common decency of ordinary people. The monotonous standardization of thought that these students display is triggered by the threat of some standard of goodness, which, if they understood it, might compel obedience. They have been trained through monotonous, repetitious, and explicit teaching that morality is bunk. Only authenticity matters.

I’m still at a loss as to what could be done, given the constraints of a public school classroom, where the gods of political correctness preside–mostly in the background but never far away–, or should be done, given the beliefs now held by many parents.