Thomas F. Bertonneau continues
Revolutionary ideology created its own literature, and this literature for the most part became the official literature of state schools.
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.
Many school administrators these days come to work quite indoctrinated in current ideology–which tends toward a levelling sort of egalitarianism. It is more important that everyone attain some vague success than it is that any actual learning occur. These administrators would not agree with such a description of what they do, but they probably wouldn’t make an argument. More likely, they would repeat a slogan. “We need to do what’s best for the child.”
One won’t get far in understanding the rather epic mess that is being made of American education by the school reform movement without understanding ideological thinking. Someone who has not been through a university education program or isn’t steeped in the literature of school change might be perplexed at the obvious failures of common sense that regularly come to light–such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s introduction last week of racial quotas for school discipline. Nobody’s in favor of punishing kids because they are this or that race, but no sensible person thinks a quota system will establish racial justice. A more likely outcome is that here and there some innocent Asian kid is going to get punished to make the numbers work. But when the program is implemented at your school, arguing about whether it makes sense or not will be completely beside the point. Who can question the motives of those who champion racial equality? Pat Sajak takes a poke at “the politics of good intentions”:
Socialism and Communism may have failed, but that doesn’t detract from the Utopian ideals that spawned them. The war on poverty may have created a more-or-less permanent underclass, but the idea of that war is a noble one. The polar ice packs may remain unmelted, but global warming is a selfless truism meant only to spare millions of the world’s poor from disaster. Therefore, even questioning those ideas demonstrates a callous disregard for others.
Good intentions are indeed the standard by which contemporary ideologues judge themselves. It’s one species of the genus “ideological thinking,” which consists of applying deductive logic to situations that are too complex and too various to be adequately encompassed by the theory that the ideologue serves. The essence of ideological thinking is to remain devoted to a theory, without regard to facts.
For example, it’s a fact that humans vary in their talent. This is true in every domain. It’s also true that variances can be measured and charted, and that given a large enough sample, the chart will take the form of a bell curve. Nonetheless, an assertion that’s currently in vogue among school reformers is that the bell curve has been debunked. The people who say this don’t say what they mean by “the bell curve,” and the ones who I’ve heard say it in person display no particular knowledge of what the term refers to in statistics or of what precise arguments flared up after Charles Murray’s 1994 book entitled The Bell Curve.
My most recent encounter with this assertion was at a mandatory professional development experience, where a consultant marketing the Marzano model stated, in the context of his theory that it was teachers rather than students who were failing when Fs were assigned, that “the bell curve has been debunked time and time again.” No citation was offered, even vaguely. He made the statement in the manner of those who are “in the know”–he simply knew. His clear implication was that schools should not be giving students so many “Fs”–or perhaps any Fs at all. The implied straw man argument was that teachers who give Fs are somehow asserting that a certain number of students should be failed, because such teachers are racists who think minority students tend to be stupid.
It’s an ideological view: teachers fail students because (a) teachers are racist or (b) they don’t know how to teach. Someone who was less ideological would try to understand why students fail by examining specific details–actual teachers in actual classes with actual students. In my experience, many students who fail English classes do so because they don’t do the reading and don’t make a serious attempt at the writing. This situation is widely acknowledged. If the situation we actually face is that many students make little effort to do school work and make only a minimal effort at studying, we have a lot to think about and a lot to talk about.
Such would be the conversations among practitioners that might lead to real world improvement. Practitioners are of a necessity somewhat pragmatic. We start with the details of actual experience, develop theories based on what we observe, and then test them through practice. It’s an inductive approach.
The mantra from those peddling the Marzano model, an explicitly collectivist approach, is deductive. They begin with the general theory that teachers should conduct better assessments so that they know precisely what students failed to learn, then they should be subjected to collectivist processes to determine how to reteach that material in a more effective way, monitoring their work by the collectivist’s assessments. It’s a simple model. It doesn’t entertain the possibility that it is not the failure to understand information, such as a sixth grade geography unit, but the failure to practice complex performances, such as reading Orwell or writing a persuasive argument, that is leading to failure. Since such facts are not countenanced by the theory, they are ignored.
Unfortunately, when we are governed by ideologues who begin with their theory that the problem is merely that our instruction is ineffective, and that this can be corrected by better and more frequent assessments, we are unlikely to have real conversations. Since the theory itself must be preserved in the face of opposition, those who balk at the theory are accused of being resistant to change and of not really caring. The point is not to converse, but to comply.
We can change what the word “marriage” means, but some men and women will still form lifelong partnerships with each other, with a central purpose of having and raising children. We will always have a name for those relationships.
The sexual revolution continues providing a large data base of social science research establishing the wrong-headedness of progressive simplicities regarding marriage and families. We now just how wrong the advocates for easy divorce thirty years ago really were. The consequences have not been at all what they predicted. Divorce is hard
on everyone involved, and it often has lasting effects on children. The path toward personal and societal improvement is difficult, depending as it does on changing our character.
There will always be conscience-easing arguments available on such venues as Huffington Post and Salon, and we will continue to find and hold rationalizations that soothe our failures. Arguments in favor of what is easy and simple abound. It’s been noted that modernity dissolves everything. That dissolution often begins with arguments that are relatively simple, relying on logic rather than history.
It’s a familiar pattern. I just finished Levin’s new book on the debate between Burke and Payne about the French Revolution. What struck me most vividly was the relative simplicity of Payne’s arguments–abstract reasoning from initial assumptions. By contrast, Burke was establishing complex balances, arguing for prudence and modesty, given the complexity of human societies. Payne was much easier to understand. He was popular with young people and people who were unhappy and wanted to blame society for their problems.
But it was Burke, of course, whose conclusions proved prophetic–while Payne’s proved to be dramatically wrong. What we got was not a liberal utopia, but a reign of terror. The trouble was that Payne’s simple assumptions about human nature were simply inadequate to the reality, so his logical conclusions drawn from those assumptions differed dramatically from what happened in actual history.
The revolution against traditional marriage will follow a similar course, I expect. The arguments for “marriage equality” are easy to peddle, especially when they are backed by a huge propaganda effort using popular media. The social science–particularly on the effects on children–is already failing to confirm the rosy predictions.
Modernity has dissolved a great many traditional orders, and because of that we are accumulating a vast scientific basis for seeing more clearly the wisdom of many of those orders. Eventually, we will get back on track, with a better understanding. Science and revelation do arrive at the same point, in time.
Unfortunately, the cost of learning by making mistakes is very high.
The lawyer explicitly identifies morality itself as the target of the lawsuit:
The exact legal arguments for same-sex marriage equally apply to multiple-person marriages. Turley acknowledges that marriage laws that do not include both are “a tool for the imposition of a uniform moral agenda or tenets on citizens.”
I don’t know whether he understands that the argument “we ought not to impose morality on others” is a contradiction, but he might. The ethic of the ubermensch is that those with sufficient power will impose their vision on others, and morality has nothing to say.
As we shall see.
No lasting cultural progress can be based on lies.
The extensive lying by Obama about ObamaCare is well-established. Those who follow such things know that the lying is not limited to this one program–it’s endemic to his governing approach.
The leaders of this government don’t envision a common world where they can discuss with their subjects shared objects and ends, in the manner of a self-governing republic. They hide their real plans and replace democratic discussion with propaganda.
The meme of the week among advocates of OCare is that morality requires us to care for the poor–to provide for those who need healthcare.
I think it’s true that to the extent that we can, we should assist those who have less than we do. I support organizations that are honestly making such attempts. But it’s folly to empower and enrich liars.
The Detroit Public Schools Book Depository has been abandoned since a fire struck the building. It’s a metaphor.
Mark Bauerlein, English prof at Emory University, makes precisely the point
that for me lies at the center of the big, slow-motion cultural conversation about the death of English as an academic discipline. Teachers who could have seen themselves as stewards of a great tradition, who could have served that tradition and young people by learning and passing on the best that has been said and done, instead began to fancy themselves as transformative intellectuals, possessors of precisely the verbal skills needed for success in a hyperpoliticized age. They talk about empowerment and skills and the future. They do not, often, talk in any intimate and profound way about particular works of literature, or what such works reveal about who and where we may be.
After summarizing a few of the many defenses made for the humanities of late, Bauerlein focuses on the important detail:
These statements and others on how the humanities foster critical thinking, cultivate Information Economy skills, help enact social change, resist utilitarianism in human affairs, etc., may be challenged in one aspect or another, but they are all reasonable and they pop up in education discussions all the time. Their commonplace status, however, shouldn’t obscure the fact that they share an extraordinary characteristic. It is a trait so simple and obvious, and so paradoxical, that one easily overlooks it, especially as these voices so earnestly endorse the humanities. The paradox is this: They affirm, extol, and sanctify the humanities, but they hardly ever mention any specific humanities content. The American Academy report terms the humanities “the keeper of the republic,” but the names Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Bernini, Leonardo, Gibbon, Austen, Beethoven, Monet, Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Martha Graham never surface. In the Boston Globe (“Humanities: The Practical Degree,” June 21), Carlo Rotella claims that the humanities instill a “suite of talents” that include “assimilating and organizing large, complex bodies of information,” but he doesn’t tie that installation to any particular works of art. These pro-humanities documents drop a “Proust” and “Dickens” here and there, but little more. The works of the ages that fill actual humanities syllabi barely exist in these heartfelt defenses. Instead of highlighting assigned authors, artists, writings, and artworks, they signal what happens after the class ends: the moral, civic, and workplace outcomes.
Literature has obviously been in decline in schools for years–but there are signs it’s thriving outside the academy through new media such as the large catalog of downloadable audio lectures available from The Great Courses. There is a large audience–though not a universal one–for intelligent discourse about significant literary works.
This is not just bad for literature–it’s been a disaster for the culture, which is now trying to “humanize” young people with dismal programs such as the Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports programs pushed by the USDE and adopted by many states, according to which the purpose of life is “success” understood mainly in materials terms and the method is compliance with authority. Low-level behavioral psychology (used to keep order in prisons and to train puppies) has become the official psychology, in many schools.
A lot has happened to American education in the past five or six decades, and there is no quick turnaround. What is not needed is a new national program, with workshop gurus and posters and buzzwords. The belief that widespread problems must lead to large-scale “solutions” is part of what ails us. What is needed are many individuals, spending time reading–thinking about current difficulties with the best authors of the past and present–and then discussing those particular works with others who are also responding to a troubled world by seeking deeper insight into history and human nature by regular engagement with the best books. It isn’t necessary that everyone do this, but it’s of vital importance that some do.
The way of the teacher
Peace is a complex order that can be experienced even in the midst of trouble.
No one can be forced to see higher realities. We all need to be taught to see them, and having been taught, we have to freely choose them.
The third reality is peace–not as a sort of slumber but as an all-consuming engagement possible only through love. The third reality is living in and through love. Though it is based on law, it cannot be established by law, which it both includes and transcends.
Societies of peace necessarily are created and sustained through the methods of teachers: persuasion, patience, and unfeigned care. The economy for those living in the third reality is an order in which gift plays a powerful part. Trade remains but theft does not. The future’s uncertainty is reduced through covenants–promises exchanged with concern about the well-being of the other in mind. What may be given is as important as what will be received as, for those in love, giving and receiving merge into being.
Societies of law struggle to see that justice is done but justice isn’t enough. We all have something to fear from justice. Who has not done that he ought not to have done? We by trespassing and being trespassed. We live here in history, where being wronged is the human condition.
Those who walk the road to peace find at fork after fork forgiveness is one of the choices. If they choose the other way, they find themselves getting more alone as they go. It’s an easy road and many have grown accustomed to it.
Returning becomes the daily work of those who would know peace. Again and again they find it is necessary to turn back and start over. They study mercy, wanting first to receive it as they learn to offer it.
A separate peace
Having recognized that they have made mistakes, they tend to be forgiving. A Separate Peace was popular in high school classrooms for many years, in a past that now seems almost a foreign country. Teenagers are in a stage of life where friendship is first being explored with near adult intelligence. The book clarifies the extent to which our friends–-other people in general–-exist in our consciousness partly as fictions that we’ve created ourselves. We read other people with the same cognitive tools we use to read fiction. We hear scraps of dialogue, note expressions and gestures, overhear gossip–and we make inferences and interpretations.
Sometimes our inferences are wrong. In the course of A Separate Peace, the protagonist, Gene, experiences several versions of his friend, Phineas.
The tragedy occurs when Gene “understands” that Phineas has not been inviting him on adventures out of pure friendship but as part of a strategy to wreck his studies. He isn’t a true friend at all. Gene suddenly sees a pattern in their relationship and makes a meaning of it: He sees all of his friend’s overtures as deceptions intended to cause him harm. “That explained blitzball, that explained the nightly meetings of the Super Suicide Society, that explained his insistence that I share all his diversions. The way I believed that you’re-my-best-friend blabber! The shadow falling across his face if I didn’t want to do something with him!”
Anyone who spends much time with adolescents–or other people–will recognize how close friendship and rivalry often are. The fictive Phineas that exists only in Gene’s mind isn’t his first version of Phineas, and it isn’t the last, but Gene acts upon it as though he knew the truth. When he learns that, however plausible his theory of Finny’s behavior, it was still only a theory, and it was wrong, it is too late. Gene told himself a lie about another person, then believed it, and then acted on it. His accepting a version of reality without sufficient evidence leads to the death of his friend.
In less dramatic ways, we daily harm each other when we accept interpretations about why others are doing what they are doing without good enough reason. Generally, we learn to recognize this common pattern most clearly when we ourselves become the victim of someone else’s false theory about us.
Peace in a world with enemies
Sometimes we lose awareness of the third reality because it’s so easy and somehow gratifying to reading conscious evil intent into the actions of others–especially rivals. When our marvelous intelligence, our power to find patterns and to make meaning of events, is turned toward those who oppose us, it is deliciously easy to discern motive, intent, and ill will. We can see what the rascals are up to.
Everyone speaks in favor of peace as regards how others treat us, but in the midst of conflicts we tend to want peace only if it’s accompanied by victory and triumph. If the cost of peace is failure and humiliation, and it often is, then we easily find ourselves imagining strategies for bringing down those who have wronged us.
Jesus was maybe our most eloquent spokesman for peace: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. . .For if you love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?”
This is counterintuitive and unnatural. It is not a sweet little tale for the faint of heart. It is hard counsel. And it is the most clear-eyed and realistic policy ever known. Those who say such an approach is unrealistic see only a thinner and paler reality–a stark place without enough air. The true realist, seeing a reality as deep as the night sky, knows that nothing else will work.
People who have really had enemies understand the difficulty and the seriousness of what is being proposed. Still, when we have had enough of destroying and being destroyed we may see that this is the only, the inescapable route. To act on it, one must have real commitment to something larger than the self, because the self may well find temporal suffering as he lives by such a policy.
All of us move through a world of reciprocal relations, taking our turns at being both a teacher and a learner. When people act badly, the teacher assumes the problem is not evil but ignorance. Since we cannot see into another’s heart, and since from the outside evil and ignorance are indistinguishable, we choose to think that a person acting badly doesn’t understand. A person caught in an evil pattern does not need to be destroyed so much he needs to be rescued. If only he could see, the teacher thinks. And so he teaches.
This isn’t, by the way, an argument against justice or punishment. Sometimes the only way we can teach people is to bring them to justice, to bend their fierce wills by righteous judgement and just punishment. But as every good parent understands, punishment can be delivered in a spirit of love.
Two ways, one road
The peacemaker learns that there really are only two ways: one leads toward greater life–which is greater connection and greater order–and the other leads toward greater disorder–which involves separation and death. What’s more, the two ways are simply different directions on the same road. At any moment, wherever we are, we can turn around.
Though a society ordered by fear can become one ordered by law, and one ordered by law can move toward being ordered by love, this development remains delicate and easily reversed. A nation, or a family, or a person not only can move down the continuum but will tend to do so without steady work to avoid it. This is the work of peace: willing and keeping complex human orders.
Virtually all societies contain some elements of all three realities, just as nearly all persons do. The more ethical person, like the more ethical society, is struggling with the higher concerns.
People who have chosen the way of the teacher understand that authority can have liberating power, and that this grows out of the world’s abundance rather than its scarcity. Descartes had described mankind as a people lost in the woods. Because there are many ways out of the woods, people cannot agree which to pursue. There may be many “correct” ways to play a symphony, but if the musicians each follow individual interpretations, they are deprived of a beautiful music that none can make alone. The authority of the conductor sets them free.
Leadership is necessary and difficult, and people who are not competing for glory tend to be thankful for people who are willing to carry its burdens. Peace is hard work, and a peaceful society is a busy society. We need to tend the garden, caring for all the systems that provide us with basic necessities; we need to bear each other’s burdens, looking around for any who are poorly clothed, poorly fed, or sick who need our help; and we need to work at liberating those who are captive to misfortune, bad habits, inadequate education, or political corruption. Peace slips away, sometimes, simply because it is so demanding, and people begin seeing other things to want that, at first, seem so much easier.
As we find the stories, both in books and in living, that we will pass on, we need to remember that stories that only evoke fear are not as good as those that also teach an understanding of principles, and those that only clarify principles are not as good as those that in addition encourage peace. More specifically, a story that leads me to take delight in caring for my family is better than one that encourages me to look out only for myself, and one that tempts me to care for the welfare of the whole tribe is better than one that suggests my obligations end with my family, and one that shows me how to feel compassion for all of humanity is better than one that leads me to think of outsiders as enemies. One that instills a reverence for all of creation is about as good as stories get.
The best stories allow us to glimpse the largest reality, and they give us courage to work at joining. The right stories help us understand ways of living that respect the meaning and integrity of each part.
We can teach children about peace even in troubled times, because peace is never an absence of trouble. It is, primarily, an order within, a harmony with an order that is always out there. When we understand it, we see that though the things we fear look ferocious, in another sense they are deceptions without ultimate power to harm us.
We teach children peace in the same ways we teach other forms of conversation. To teach children to converse, we have to surround them with conversation and with invitations to join, letting them slowly become part of the order that existed before them. To teach them about peace we surround them to the extent we can with a peace we’ve made, showing them how it works and what the rules are and why they should love it.
For me, the work of peace remains possible without slipping into despair at the magnitude of the work that remains because of a faith, expressed by Desmond Tutu, that “we live in a moral universe, and goodness will prevail.” Such hope that the largest reality is benign and that all of history is working toward a peaceful resolution is intertwined with education because the larger the reality that people can learn to see, the more likely they are to understand peace.
When we begin feeling that the fate of the world depends on us, it becomes difficult to avoid either becoming warlike or falling into despair. But no matter how urgent things appear around us, our first responsibility is to establish peace within ourselves. If we try to solve problems without an inner peace, our energies will most likely be organized into the contention and conflict we had hoped to resolve. We cannot shove others toward peace. We cannot send our youth to peace the way we might send them to the store for milk. Instead, we need to invite them into the peace we have made.
Breaking Bad portrays the First Reality–government by fear–with great vividness and accuracy. This is the primal world where the strong do as they will. The series does a fair job with the Second Reality–government by law–though at its best this level is much more profound than the series depicts. The story is largely a contest between the criminal world and the world of law and order, and the law and order people are mainly good people, who keep the world in order and avoid being bad.
The Third Reality is missing. None of the characters seems aware of it.
Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies reference the Third Reality, and depend on an awareness of it for the horror to have its full impact. I doubt that in Elizabethan England there was any real parallel with the Team Walter groupies. Team Macbeth?
This video is an MSNBC promo–anchor Melissa Harris-Perry takes the next logical step, arguing that parents need to give their children over to the collective.
The accountability movement has persuaded many people that teachers are mainly accountable to the federal government or its surrogates–and increasingly state governments have accepted their role in education as vassals of the fed. School reformers normally discuss accountability in terms of mechanisms that allow people at the center to dictate to people in the classroom.
Where do parents fit into this scheme? Increasingly, they are simply ignored. As a teacher I’ve recognized that I have various obligations–certainly to my employer, and to some degree to the various agencies that provide funds with strings attached to schools.
But I’ve always felt that the heart of my job is to be a partner with parents–that my primary accountability is to them. They bear the main responsibility for the education of their children, and my work is to assist them in their work. Such a partnership is easy and mostly delightful when teacher and parent are on the same page regarding what is good for young people. For the most part, I haven’t encountered serious conflicts with parents as to what is reasonable and desirable for their children in an English classroom.
Lately, I’m being told that I am accountable to the collective. I would feel better about that if I could detect the slightest trace of irony in those who say such things. But they seem serious. Zealous, even. My disquiet is fed by awareness that, historically, people who fantasize about collectives don’t rest until they include everyone. Collectives work by creating total worlds–or antiworlds, in James Kalb’s view. They aren’t self-correcting. They keep expanding until they collapse.
At bottom, collectives distrust all outsiders, because they are not based on truth and thus need to constantly repress all voices except the orthodox. The collective desires to replace all other agents as the focus of attention, and this is complicated by competing visions. For the school collectivists, a natural question is “Why should accountability to the collective stop at the school house doors?” If education is a socializing process orchestrated by experts to meet goals set by the Managers, how can parents be left out of the scheme? For those who accept utilitarian principles–which includes most collectivists–arguments about the rights of parents sound nonsensical, remnants of an old order that is rapidly fading into a new order.
It’s only a matter of time before the accountability movement expands to hold parents accountable. It’s the sort of reversal that lies at the heart of ideology. Old schoolers believe the government, including its schools, is accountable to citizens. Many parents still think there is more to education than a global competition to eat each other’s lunches. Such a view springs from a poorly imagined economy, based on a simplistic Darwinian psychology, that imagines the economy as a competition one either wins or loses.
Fortunately, there are other ways to live. I love my garden, but I assume others in other places can also create wonderful gardens, and I hope they do. It doesn’t detract from mine at all, and the reality that they share my love for many things makes me happy. There are no real limits to the number of jobs we can have, or the amount of wealth we can create. We do not need to eat at others’ expense, and the highest and best use of schooling is not to engage in dog eat dog competition with the rest of the world.
I want each of my students to learn as much as he or she is willing to learn, without trammeling the freedom of each person–a freedom that has deep roots in the soul. I can entice and persuade, but I cannot coerce.
I want my students to contemplate what we know of love and of justice and of fear by considering many stories, both in fiction and in history. I want to them to think of that simple progression and what it means in the many, many places we have seen it: from fear to justice and from justice to love. I want to help them deepen and broaden their understanding of human flourishing, quite beyond the skills they need for the workplace–although I also believe that work will always be foundational to the good life, and that some knowledge and skill that are useful is central to life.
I want my students to love the places they live and the people they live with, and to come to better and better understanding of how those places work and who those people are. I want their sense of community to keep expanding, to include not just those who are here now but those who were once here, and those who are yet to come. I want them to think about how to live in ways that do not depend on the destruction of other places or the impoverishment of other people.
I’m having trouble seeing how the collectivists are much help with any of this. I prefer a world in which collectivists and teachers are both accountable to parents.
In the collectives, there is no outside and nothing higher to appeal to. The goals of the groups are set by the authorities who oversee the process. Members engage in endless cycles of recursive dialectic about how to build the collective.
“A group experience takes place on a lower level of consciousness than the experience of an individual. This is due to the fact that, when many people gather together to share one common emotion, the total psyche emerging from the group is below the level of the individual psyche. If it is a very large group, the collective psyche will be more like the psyche of an animal, which is the reason why the ethical attitude of large organizations is always doubtful. The psychology of a large crowd inevitably sinks to the level of mob psychology. If, therefore, I have a so-called collective experience as a member of a group, it takes place on a lower level of consciousness than if I had the experience by myself alone
― C.G. Jung
I’ve been asked to read Leaders of Learning by Richard Dufour and Robert J. Marzano. As one might expect from the title, it’s one of those books aimed at school leaders and the consultants who target them. There’s little in it to interest a practitioner who is more concerned with what and how to teach than with the bureaucratic processes to control school systems. One will learn that it is important to remove building principals who dissent (which means they are “ineffective” in the language of this book), but one will hear nothing related to what knowledge young people coming into the world at this moment will find most useful. The book assumes that the economy will let us know what it needs, and that we will adjust ourselves as needed, and that the authorities will provide a curriculum, and we needn’t give thought to whether it is right or wrong, good or bad.
It’s one of those books that begins with four pages of blurbs–that is, it announces itself at the beginning as in the mode of sales hype rather than scholarship. It’s published by Solution Tree Press, which caters mainly to consultants with products to push.
I’ll offer my responses, in a chapter by chapter reading.
The Sky is Falling
Chapter One begins with sky-is-falling prognostication, focusing on the gaps in achievement between races and between classes, and yoking cites of such gaps to the assertion that “schools are to bring every child” to dramatically higher levels of achievement than any “educational system in the history of the world has ever accomplished.” The authors then simply label as “deniers” those who do not agree with their use of or interpretation of statistics. There are serious arguments by serious scholars who disagree fundamentally with the picture the authors paint (start with Hirsch), but they not are mentioned and no arguments are engaged. Instead, they are simply waved off: “Denying the existence of a problem does not serve either the national interest or the individual students schools are intended to serve.” Thus, they claim the moral high ground without the effort of making any argument.
Then they return to the sky-is-falling motif, citing stats about the the economy of the future. Citing “facts” about the future is a favorite move of those who hope to corral us into their vision of the future. We are presently facing very uncertain economic fortunes, with hundreds of knowledgeable voices arguing about where we are headed and what is likely to happen. Nonetheless, the authors are glibly certain that the economy of the future will be a simple extension of the present, with lots of jobs for those who have credentials and few for those who do not have credentials.
It’s true that recent decades have seen us destroy many manufacturing jobs, but this was not inevitable. It was a choice we made, driven by prophets such as Dufour and Marzano. We have been sold on the idea that the only work our economy needs to provide is knowledge work that requires quite high levels of school training. Whether or not that was wise, or whether we might reconsider the sort of world we are making, is of no concern to the authors. Neither do they entertain the many arguments now ongoing that we are in the midst of a fundamental economic shift as profound as the industrial revolution, and that the future of work may be quite unlike that of the recent past.
We know your future
Instead, they fully accept the economy as something of a god that dictates its terms to us rather than as something we create among ourselves to serve our own ends, and they never question the narrow and stultifying view of education as nothing more than an adjunct to a global economy. The vast global creatures formed by corporate and governmental collusion will decide what they want, and we will comply. The authors do not imagine free people creating a humane and civilized world; their vision is of anonymous little people fitting themselves into a machine designed for them by unnamed and unchallenged authorities. They offer a vision not of a republic but of a collective, with an education quite opposed to the old ideal of the liberal arts.
This book is unabashedly a handbook for turning schools into collectives.
They boost the sense of urgency by misusing statistics correlating dropping out of school with unemployability and criminal behavior, assuming a causal relationship–that it is dropping out of high school that causes poverty and crime. The evidence is much stronger that a third phenomena they ignore is the cause both of school failure and of unemployability and crime: growing up in single-parent households. Children raised without fathers are more at risk both of failure in school and failure in the legal marketplace. If educators took such data seriously, the conversations about how schools might improve the prospects for such young people–and reduce their numbers in the future–might come much closer to the real terrain of teaching and learning than do yet more goal-setting, consensus-driven workshop sessions on reducing the number of Fs or increasing the number of diplomas, both of which can be talked about ad infinitum without coming within shouting distance of discourse about what or how to teach.
If we believed that learning how to form and maintain enduring relationships and how to handle our sexuality in ways that increased our chances at happiness, we could teach such things. We teach them less than we used to, and more poorly, because current ideology is hostile to moral reasoning and moral discourse that does not depend on collectivist solutions.
As with the governing class generally, Dufour and Marzano are quite invested in keeping most options off the table. So they “debunk” the success of “decentralizing” as a school reform strategy, but they never consider the possibilities of truly free schools, led not by trained administrators but by liberally educated and successful teachers. There are no possibilities in this thoughtworld of any educational program outside a nationalized school system governed from the center by experts and authorities (with “authority” defined by that system’s credentials).
We have the magic bullet
Having painted a dark picture, the authors shift to the product they are selling: “professional learning communities.” They make no attempt to answer how in reality PLCs will make it possible to get every child to high levels of academic performance, in spite of the fact that no educational system in history has accomplished such a feat. Instead, they offer platitudes, citing the importance of teachers to the enterprise, and then quickly begin making assertions that their method, and only their method, is adequate to the challenge they say we face. They offer nothing in the way of evidence and little in the way of reason to support this claim. Here’s their key claim:
If substantive school improvement requires a coordinated, systematic, and collective effort rather than a series of isolated individual efforts, then schools and districts must use professional development strategies that are specifically designed to develop the collective capacity of educators to meet the needs of students. Strategies based on sanctions, punishments, attracting future generations of educators, or rewarding individual teachers will do little to build the collective capacity of current educators to meet the demands being placed upon them.
Instead of evidence at this point the authors direct readers to a website for a “list of citations” by experts. The experts they favor are school leaders and other consultants. Has there ever been an educational fad that did not arrive with trumpets and fanfare and endorsements from experts intent on making a name? Bandwagons are the only mode of travel for a good many careerists.
The authors call “upon all educators–every teacher, counselor, principal, central office staff member, and superintendent” to be engaged “collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry” to improve measurements on goals set by the leaders. The popular progressive remedies are assumed to be the correct answer, so the sort of questions educators are to continually discuss include “How can we provide students with multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning?” and “How can we differentiate instruction among us so that the needs of all students are being met without relying on rigid tracking?”
Teachers, not students, are the target
All the focus is on what teachers do. Nothing is said about student attendance, diligence, work habits, or willingness to learn. Further, dealing with individual differences is to be managed within classrooms by differentiated instruction and not by separating students based on aptitude or history. No mention is made of disruptive school practices, such as high levels of absenteeism or class disruption for nonacademic activities. It will all come down to what teachers do. By spending schools’ most precious and scarce resource–professional time–in hours of meetings restricted to recurring cycles of collective inquiry, they are, as a collective, supposed to ensure that every child meets academic standards at a level never before achieved in human history. Notably, the authors offer no actual examples of teaching methods. They offer only ideological abstractions based on faith in a process. They offer bondage to a process we are to accept on faith, and beyond that their bag of useful tricks seems quite empty.
What drives their process is data–measurements of student learning. What gets no attention is that higher learning always requires effort and diligence on the student’s part. In the end, thinking is the only effective learning strategy. Schools that have succeeded with the bottom third of students as measured by school assessments (the population that is the main concern of the authors) have tended to focus on the habits and dispositions of students. But nothing is said about students. Their interest is in dictating the life of teachers. It is teachers who are to be held accountable to the collective.
It’s quite reminiscent of the old soviets’ endless meetings to improve agricultural and manufacturing production by holding endless meetings in which members were supposed to speak publicly about their faith in the collective, and make clear the orthodoxy of their views. There was nowhere to hide, except the escape into completely private thoughts. It’s one of the recurring ironies of collectivism: it champions collaboration as it isolates and bends each individual to the official goals. There are those, of course, such as Parsons in 1984, who seem to truly believe the slogans.
Of course, those old collectives normally failed at their production quotas. It became a regime of lies, they pretended to manufacture shoes in factories they pretended into existence, at least on paper. But making shoes was never the point. The creation of a new human type, the reforming of human consciousness was the point. It’s easy to predict that this new approach will fail and we will remain with some people who have not mastered the subjects of schooling at high levels. Serious people make sensible goals. But student learning is not really the point. Teacher compliance is the point.
This is all you need to know
The chapter ends with the “three big ideas that drive the PLC process.” (1) The fundamental purpose of schools is that all students learn “at high levels,” (2) this requires us to work in a collective, and (3) the collectives need to be focused on data–”every policy, program, procedure, and practice needs to assessed” on the basis of such data.
What is most notable about these ideas is that they deal entirely with process, and that everything that matters is left undefined and undiscussed. Everything that matters is outside the scope of the collective. Teachers will be formed into teams that meet regularly, and these teams will be charged with ensuring that every student learns at high levels, and that the discussion will be limited mainly to a focus on data derived from measurable goals. Each individual is accountable to the collective–and not to individual conscience, not to higher philosophical or spiritual realities, not to their relationships outside the collective, even with particular students. What is offered here is a barren and nearly featureless ideology that excludes the richness and beauty of real human lives lived amid real human communities. It’s likely to appeal to a certain sort of intellectual, more at home amid ideas about students than actual students.
Also notable, all control accrues to whoever sets the goals and defines what “high levels” means in practice, and to those who decide what assessments will be credible. It’s much less a guide to fixing schools than it is a handbook for consolidating power.