Immigrant Students in Our Public Schools by Laurie Olsen

July 17, 2008

Laurie Olsen has lived her life breaking down the walls of ignorance and borders of fear, fighting for immigrant rights, tolerance, understanding, and unity. More than a portrait of a school, this is a portrait of America.

Taught by America by Sarah Sentilles

July 17, 2008

Taught by America is a book of ‘teachable moments’—those surprising, unanticipated spurts of learning every teacher recognizes as both most authentic and most enduring. Here the most sparkling teachable moments belong to the teacher herself. Powered by idealism, Sarah Sentilles discovers the limits and potential corruption of a savior complex. Struggling to meet the vast needs of her students and their families, she comes to see that an indifferent and hostile system is a form of violence that can undo both good intentions and hard work. Hoping to be of service to the downtrodden, she discovers a deeper and more effective position in solidarity with the oppressed. Sarah Sentilles’s journey contains an injunction: we must change our lives.

Youth Learning… by Leif Gustavson

July 3, 2008

Antonio Gramsci once said that everyone is a philosopher—Leif Gustavson shows us concretely what that might mean. In Youth Learning on Their Own Terms he offers both a compelling critique of the most familiar classroom practices as well as a nuanced and detailed portrait of young people dwelling in possibility, consciously constructing their lives as expressive and adventurous, reflective and meaningful.

Because, he is not an ideologue, Gustavson convincingly explores approaches and approximations rather than laws and causes. Motivation, engagement, sustained attention, standard-setting, self-discipline—Gustavson discovers sites of youth activity where these desirable qualities are assumed, not imposed, spots where young people invent themselves as authors, artists, and activists—as unruly sparks of meaning-making energy on voyages of discovery and surprise rather than either outlaws or raw materials moving along some alien and inhuman assembly line.

A basic and universal human impulse is the desire of leave a footprint in the sand, a cave-painting on the wall—Leif Gustavson helps us re-imagine education as a place where that impulse might become both organizing guide and controlling principle. This is a compelling, an essential book.

Education and the Cold War by Andrew Hartman

July 3, 2008

Anyone who wants to fully understand the failure of American schools to prepare free citizens capable of vigorous participation in a democratic society will find here a complex but accessible map. Andrew Hartman is a wise and sensible guide through the thickets of historical flow, economic structure, political condition and cultural context. An encounter with Education and the Cold War is fortification for the important struggles ahead.

Eugenics and Education by Ann Winfeild

July 3, 2008

As finite beings in an infinite and expanding universe, our understanding of the world is necessarily contingent, partial, and incomplete, and yet we live for the most part as if our everyday assumptions, biases, myths, and common sense are simply and entirelytrue. To say that we are—each and all of us—blind to our own blind-spots is a tautology. To take that tautology as a provocation, as a point of departure toward upending our own orthodoxy requires curiosity and courage. Ann Winfield has an abundance of both—a lively and exquisite mind combined with a willingness to relentlessly poke around in the dark. The result is a work of power and importance—breath-taking in its reach and surprising on almost every page. Here she interrogates—through the lens of a movement and an ideology that dominated our culture for much of the twentieth century—the story of democracy, freedom, and exalted forward progress that we Americans love to tell ourselves. Written out of the official story as quackery and the handiwork of a few nut-cases, Winfield demonstrates beyond doubt that eugenics was not only respectable, mainstream science but also that its major tenets were well-springs in the formation of American public schools with echoes in the every day practices of today. Formed in the crucible of white supremacy and rigid hierarchies of human value, American schools have never adequately faced that living heritage.

We no longer talk of “miscegenation” or “imbeciles,” of course, and we are likely to look upon forced sterilization and race-based marriage laws as archaic. But Winfield undermines any sense of smug superiority we might grant ourselves by drawing a direct line from those repulsive labels and practices to our own obsessions with “standards” and “accountability,” test scores and grades. White supremacy surely changes its spots but it remains durable and dominant.

Education, of course, is never entirely neutral—it always has a value, a position, a politics. Education—teaching and schooling—either reinforces or challenges the existing social order. For humanists and democratic educators, the largest, most generous purpose of education is always human enlightenment and human liberation, and the driving principle is the unity of all humanity. We embrace the conviction that every human being is of incalculable value, entitled to decent standards concerning freedom and justice and education, and that any violations, deliberate or inadvertent, must be fought against, testified to, and resisted.

The unity of human beings is based both upon a recognition of differences as well as a consciousness of our interdependence. People are different—distinct capacities, unique needs—and we are, at the same time, entirely connected. In today’s world, where we seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing, the knowledge we lack includes an acknowledgment of the reality of our wild diversity—something that just is—and at the same time an acceptance of our deep connectedness. The knowledge we desperately need now is a knowledge based upon recognition, upon unity and solidarity.

The relationship between education and freedom is deep, intrinsic, and profound—they are essentially the same thing. Both concern themselves with the fullest expression of human development. To the extent that people reflect upon their lives and become more conscious of themselves as actors in the world, they insert themselves as subjects in history, constructors of the human world, and they enact and express themselves, then, as free human beings.

The aim of humanistic educators is to organize schools in such a way that every member can develop and use all of his or her capacities and powers without infringing upon the basic conditions or rights of others. The classroom becomes an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

To be a good teacher in this context means above all to have an abiding faith in all students, to believe in the possibility that every person can create things and is capable of both individual and social transformation. Education becomes a form of reinventing, re-creating, and rewriting, and this is a task that can be accomplished only by free subjects, never by inert objects. Education, then, is a dialogical process in which everyone participates actively as equals—a turbulent, raucous, unpredictable and participatory affair. The goal of dialogue in this context is critical thinking and action—knowledge emerges from the continual interaction of reflection and action.

In democratic schools, an emphasis on the needs and interests of the student is co-primary with faith in a kind of robust public that can be created in classrooms, as well as in the larger society. To be exclusively child-centered, to the extent that the needs of the group are ignored or erased, is to develop a kind of fatalistic narcissism; to honor the group while ignoring the needs of the individual is to destroy any possibility of freedom. This is the meaning of community, the creation of places where people are held together because they are working along common lines in a common spirit with common aims. These are places of energy and excitement, unlike the sites of coercion and containment that are all-too-familiar in schools: the difference is motive, spirit, and atmosphere. These qualities are found when people move from being passive recipients to choosing themselves as authors, actors, builders, and makers within a social surround.

When the aim of education is the absorption of facts, learning becomes exclusively and exhaustively selfish, and there is no obvious social motive for learning. The measure of success is always a competitive one—it is about comparing results and sorting people into winners and losers. People are turned against one another, and every difference becomes a potential deficit. Getting ahead of others is the primary goal in such places, and mutual assistance, which can be so natural, is severely restricted or banned. On the other hand, where active work is the order of the day, helping others is not a form of charity, something that impoverishes both recipient and benefactor. Rather a spirit of open communication, interchange and analysis becomes a commonplace. Of course in these places there is a certain natural disorder, a certain amount of anarchy and chaos as there is in any busy workshop. But there is a deeper discipline, the discipline of getting things done and learning through life, and there is an appreciation of knowledge as an inherently public good—something that can be reproduced at little or no cost, and (unlike commodities), when it’s given away, no one has any less of it. In a rational society, knowledge would be shared without any reservation or restriction whatsoever.

Schools serve societies—in many ways all schools are microcosms of the societies in which they’re embedded—and they are both mirror and window onto the social reality. If one understands the schools, one can see the whole of society; if one fully grasps the intricacies of society, one will know something true about the schools. In a totalitarian society, for example, schools would be built for obedience and conformity; in a kingdom, the schools would teach fealty. But in an authentic democracy we would expect to find schools defined by a spirit of cooperation, inclusion, and full participation, places that honor diversity while building unity. Schools in a democracy would resist the over-specialization of human activity—the separation of the intellectual from the manual, the head from the hand, the heart and the head, the creative and the functional—as a distortion. The goal of democratic schools would be the fluidity of function, the variation of work and capacity, the mobilization of intelligence and creativity and initiative and work in all directions.

The education we are used to is only a caricature—it is not authentically or primarily about full human development. Why, for example, is education thought of as only kindergarten through 12th grade, or kindergarten through university? Why does education occur only early in life? Why is there a point in our lives when we feel we no longer need education? Why again, is there a hierarchy of teacher over student? Why are there grades and grade levels? Why is there attendance? Why is being on time so valuable? Why indeed do we think of a productive and a service sector in our society, with education designated a service activity? Why is education separate from production?

Eugenics and Education will change the way you think about curriculum and teaching, school reform, educational policy and practice, and even the current debates concerning immigration and marriage. This is essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand the sorry state of our schools today, and the deep changes we must undertake to improve them. After seeing the world through Ann Winfield’s eyes, when you hear the terms “gifted and talented” or “at risk” you’re likely to wince. Good.

Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms by Mara Sapon-Shevin

May 5, 2008

Widening the Circle is an ambitious, impassioned argument for inclusive schools powered by a vision that goes far beyond the mutilated version of ‘mainstreaming’ common in American schools today. To Sapon-Shevin the current state of affairs is a caricature of inclusive education, reductive and impoverished, a place where every student is defined by a putative deficit, imprisoned in a label. She shows us that huge questions of democracy and freedom can be discovered in a simple game of musical chairs, that our deepest values are enacted in our everyday classroom practice. Her goal–breathtaking in its sweep–is to break through the walls of the prison, and to set us all free. A dazzling manifesto and call to arms.


July 19, 2007

Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism (History of Schools and Schooling, V. 40)

reviewed by William Ayers & Richard Ayers — July 18, 2007

coverTitle: Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism (History of Schools and Schooling, V. 40)
Author(s): Daniel H. Perlstein
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820467871 , Pages: 218, Year: 2004
Search for book at


 Teaching For Change  


Justice, Justice, the title of Daniel Perlstein’s searing and illuminating history of a decisive moment in the modern history of American education, is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy:  “Justice, justice shall thou pursue.” It’s a fitting refrain here, and it’s a useful compass to traverse the tangled terrain through which Perlstein guides his readers. Justice, and again — when things get messy and muddy — justice.


In a style both spare and elegant, Perlstein exposes the contradictions that animated and found their full expression in the 1968 New York City teachers’ strike and, indeed, that echo with force and heat in every significant school struggle today. His great accomplishment here is pinpointing the pivotal event in which contradictory visions of social justice and change, democracy, progress, and the American dream — articulated by teacher unionists and Black community activists — met in dramatic and bitter confrontation. The site was the New York City public schools, the struggle was over who had the power to reorganize and lead, the outcome forever altered the terms of subsequent debate and struggle.


Perlstein’s capacity to evoke a scene with both depth and detail, to focus on the local, is matched by his ability to hold in view the larger concentric circles of context — economic condition, for example, historical flow, cultural surround — in which people necessarily make sense and take action. So we see in these pages Albert Shanker and Milton Galamison, Bayard Rustin and Annie Stein, Rhody McCoy and Liz Fusco and Herman Ferguson as three-dimensional characters in action; and we simultaneously feel the press of the Black Freedom Movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the rise of Black Power, the war in Vietnam, the drive to unionize teachers, de-industrialization and the explosive growth of poor communities of color in American cities matched by the easy availability of suburban housing for whites, the assertion of ethnic identity among Jewish teachers and the retreat from a civil rights ideal, Israel’s six-day war, and more. Perlstein notes that “the social conditions that restrict our actions do not dictate them” (p. 2), and that real choices were being made by real people acting within the conditions and the swirl of history as they found them. The result is an account that is fair and evenhanded, profoundly human and fully accessible.


It was a year of transformation, a watershed, and a flashpoint of revolutionary crisis. There were monumental, cataclysmic struggles exploding all over the globe, and the New York educational crisis ranks as one of the most important. It was here, in the Black community initiative for control of the schools, and in the teachers’ organized opposition to this development, that the fundamental templates for future action were forged.


The conflict broke out after the New York Board of Education authorized the election of experimental neighborhood school boards in Harlem and Ocean Hill-Brownsville (Brooklyn) in the spring of 1967 as a way to promote school equity. While the United Federation of Teachers at first supported community boards, they were doubtful after militant reformers won elections in August. When the local board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville sought to reassign some 13 teachers and six administrators who were deemed ineffective, the UFT, which had not opposed dozens of transfers in the past, called a strike that became one of the most divisive conflicts in labor and civil rights history, pitting traditional allies against each other.


The teachers’ union leadership evoked images of the “blackboard jungle” and the dangerous Black student, emphasizing that their safety depended on their ability to discipline students.  The community activists pointed out the dismal state of the schools and the high failure and dropout rate of African American students. Those who opposed community control had to maintain not only that things might get worse, but that the status quo was mostly acceptable. This was a stance the Black community could not abide — white teachers seemed to be defending business as usual when that business meant the failure and the crushing of Black youth. The strong response of the union against community control combined with assertions of the pathological nature of the Black community, solidified a belief among community activists that schools were institutions of domination and colonial control rather than hope and access.


Another dimension of the confrontation was charges of anti-Semitism on one side and white supremacist thinking on the other. Perlstein reports several instances of extreme rhetoric from each side – Albert Shanker saying that “If community control becomes a fact, they will paint swastikas on your schools”; Herman Ferguson reading a poem about a “Jew-boy” on the radio – noting that while these were not in any way representative, each was willing to seize on such comments to insist that the others were either anti-Semitic or virulent white racists.


Organized teachers, especially the UFT and its leader Albert Shanker, emerged as the clear winners, gaining a measure of political power and clout that had been unimaginable just a few years earlier. And yet, as Perlstein argues, their victory, “coming at the expense of the movement for racial justice, discouraged interracial coalitions for better education, subverted the notion that schools could help construct an equitable society, and exacerbated feelings of demoralization in teacher’s daily school work” ( p. 154). Liberal whites had concluded that Black advancement had gone far enough, that anything more would be at their expense. Teacher unionists won a battle then, and simultaneously lost another: they narrowed the sense of what teaching is and could be, and they impoverished the sense of what teachers might become.  More than settling for a blue-collar metaphor for what constitutes the work of teaching, they irrevocably stamped professionalism itself as standing against parents and opposed to the possibility of a shared commitment or mutual community of interest. Teachers as laborers or teachers as professionals — each now stood off by itself and carried the bitter stench of racism.


The losses suffered by the Black Freedom Movement were even more profound and lasting, for not only did it lose the immediate battle for meaningful community control, but, according to Perlstein, “the flowering of racial pride and consciousness never translated into an effective movement for racial justice” (p. 154).  All the roiling energy of the Black Freedom Movement for civil and human rights, for equality and membership, for unequivocal recognition of the full humanity of Black people, coalesced around the school struggle. Everything was in play from questions about what role school should play in society to what should be taught and how, and who should have the power to decide such things. Teacher unionists insisted on greater power to discipline students, while teachers aligned with the community argued that “schools were fundamentally oppressive to youth, organized not for learning but for social control” (p. 74). Writing in an underground newspaper at the time, a 14-year-old high school student compared schools to prisons: “we were required by state law to be there, but when we were there we had no rights” (p. 75).  And Herman Ferguson, an assistant principal and a major voice for community control argued for a “black survival curriculum” of “self-determination, self-control, and self-defense [against] the whole phenomenon of white supremacy spread and fostered and supported through the educational system” (p. 134).


Worse, white supremacy had not only endured but strengthened, for the concept of race blindness was transformed at this moment and in this struggle “from a means for opposing racial inequality into a means of justifying it” (p. 10).  New York’s white teacher unionists played a critical role in that transformation, which is at the heart of Albert Shanker’s legacy – a legacy that was recently acted upon by the Supreme Court invoking the new color-blind standard in their decision forbidding the racial balancing of schools.


The “self-described socialists of the UFT gradually slid from the notion that superficial racial divisions masked more fundamental ones of class to the notion that inequality would wither without any intervention from activists” (p. 25). The union opposed measures to integrate schools, and promoted instead programs to eliminate the “cultural deficits” of ghetto youngsters. The assumption was that the schools were fundamentally fine, and that the problems reside in the kids, an assumption community advocates rejected in toto.


Today when we talk about school reform, plan for change, strategize about closing the achievement gap, consider decentralization as a tactic, pursue alternative routes to teacher certification in order to attract smart and energetic young people, bring in staff development gurus to help us overcome the failings we take to reside inside students themselves, or face a teachers’ strike — when these and a hundred other possibilities confront us, we would do well to consult Justice, Justice.  This is a text for all times.





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 18, 2007 ID Number: 14557, Date Accessed: 7/18/2007 8:06:54 PM


A Review of Capitalists and Conquerors, and an exchange

April 25, 2007

Notes From A Self-Realizing, Sensuous, Species-Being ( I Think)

By now Peter McLaren must be taken as more than a mere run-of-the-academy professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He’s at the very least a phenomenon—a phenomenon whose meaning is wildly contested from every side. To some, he’s a singular intellectual, a quasi-heroic figure standing up for a radical vision of critical pedagogy against the forces of reaction (as well as the fakers on the Left), while to others he’s an over-wrought blow-hard spouting slogans without much substance. To the Mexican educators who created La Fundación Peter McLaren de Pedagogía Crítica he’s something of a divine inspiration, while to the right-wing UCLA alumni who organized a campaign to drive him from the campus he’s more than a communist threat—he’s Satan himself, and they are determined to eliminate his devilish presence and the sulfur that surrounds him. He’s the philosopher prince of a political movement to some—the McLarenites?—and to others, the CEO of “Peter McLaren, Inc.,” protecting his patents through a steady stream of books that seem to appear from the sky, as regular as rain. Even his book jacket photo polarizes: is that the Dark Prince leering mischievously into the camera, Andy Warhol on drugs, or a dashing rebel smiling beneficently as he prepares to smash the state? It depends, I suppose, on your angle of regard.
I’ve known Peter casually for years, and have always thought of him as working for the good of all—socialist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and all the rest. I remember his early book, Life in Schools, as a wonderfully engaging work connecting the everyday experiences of students and teachers with larger political and social contexts. But I began to consider the McLaren phenomenon only recently, when I was invited by the Centro Internacional Miranda, a Marxist-oriented think-tank in Venezuela, to give a series of talks in October 2006 on critical pedagogy for the 21st Century, where one of my stops was the Universidad Bolivariano de Venezuela (UBV) where I was to deliver a named lecture. To my surprise, my talk was the Peter McLaren Lecture. With my curiosity piqued, I picked up one of his 2005 books, Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy Against Empire, for the airplane ride home. It was quite a ride.
Peter McLaren is surely one of the good guys—he despises the Bush regime, for example, asserts his anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist sentiments repeatedly in his writings, and envisions a future society built on the principle of justice and the practice of human development. He’s right, of course, that capitalism is a vicious and destructive world system, and that a major obstacle to fundamental change is a wide-spread belief in the “inevitability of capital.” He counters that fatalism with a hopeful slogan borrowed from the activist World Social Forum: “Another World Is Possible.” Slogans are, of course, an anemic alternative to concrete analysis and action—more on this later—but the sentiment is certainly a right one. I still think McLaren is on the right side of both history and humanity.

But we owe it to ourselves—no less than to McLaren—to judge his work by the standards he himself sets and the aims he establishes. Even hedged, McLaren sets lofty and ambitious goals: “Given the urgent times we live in,” he writes, “we need to ratchet up the struggle ahead” (p. 10). This is the “singular challenge” of his book, he claims—to intensify and focus—and here are the questions he will take up:

How can we liberate the use value of human beings from their subordination to exchange value? How can we convert what is least functional about ourselves as far as the abstract utilitarian logic of capitalist society is concerned—our self-realizing, sensuous, species-being—into our major instrument of self-definition? How can we make what we represent to capital—replaceable commodities—subordinate to who we have also become as critical social agents of history? How can we make critical self-reflexivity a demarcating principle of who we are and critical global citizenship the substance of what we want to become? How can we make the cultivation of a politics of hope and possibility a radical end in itself? How can we de-commodify our subjectivities? How can we materialize our self-activity as a revolutionary force and struggle for the self-determination of free and equal citizens in a just system of appropriation and distribution of social wealth? How can we make and remake our own nature within historically specific conventions of capitalist society such that we can make this self-activity a revolutionary force to dismantle capitalism itself and create the conditions for the development of our full human potential? How can we confront our “producers” (i.e., social relations of production, the corporate media, cultural formations and institutional structures) as an independent power? Capitalists and Conquerors has been written both to provide at least partial answers to these questions and to formulate new ones. (p. 10)
And that’s not all:
Capitalists and Conquerors is one particular foray into the politics of critical pedagogy…I have tried to make a case for including Marxist analysis—namely historical materialism—in critical educational studies…(p.11)
OK, McLaren announces his intention to “ratchet up the struggle ahead,”—I’m all for that—“provide at least partial answers” to a daunting list of questions, and add “Marxist analysis—namely historical materialism” to the politics of critical pedagogy. Onward! Let’s do it!

But that’s pretty much as far as it goes, opening shot and endpoint rolled into one. The rhetoric is intermittently at a fever pitch or impenetrable, but the path to ratcheting things up turns out to be overgrown and still tangled; none of the questions raised is illuminated (I still want to know how to de-commodify my subjectivity, how to materialize my self-activity), and the rare attempts to actually undertake a Marxist analysis of U.S. or global society are disturbingly off.

This last failure seems particularly egregious, for McLaren announces from every angle that he is a revolutionary Marxist, and that he has, or that he will, or that we must develop a Marxist analysis in order to move forward:

My concern over the last decade has been to introduce Marxist scholarship into the field of critical pedagogy, since it (sic) has been taken over by postmodernists who have been attempting to suture together in recent decades the ontological tear in the universe of ideas that was first created when history was split in two by the dialectical wave of Marx’s pen in the Communist Manifesto and the subsequent development of the communist movement in the mid-1800s…(p. 35)

My work in critical pedagogy… constitutes in one sense the performative register for class struggle.  While it sets as its goal the decolonization of subjectivity, it also targets the material basis of capitalist social relations…(p. 57)
I’m persuaded that his intention is to persistently push a humanistic Marxism and the need for class analysis into the conversation, and I think that that could be a most welcome and beneficial thing. For all I know he’s made the effort elsewhere—I don’t claim familiarity with the entire oeuvre—and in any case, the task is daunting. I wouldn’t fault him for falling short, but here there is simply no development of strategies toward a socialist alternative to capitalism, and there’s no deeper contribution to understanding globalization; for example, a racialized “war on terror,” the rise of fundamentalism, and other conditions that cry out for serious study and analysis. Exhortation is not argument, performance is not enlightenment, and hectoring is a far cry from a concrete analysis of concrete conditions. If proclamation itself is action—Peter’s self-definition as a Marxist with every breath, his assertion that changes in the relations of production are central to a humane future, and the naming of socialism as a long-term goal—and if urging others to pledge their allegiance to the cause is all there is to organizing and mobilizing, well, this book does the job. But for political analysis and political theory—or for serious consideration of the demands of political work on the ground—the book falls short and the shortfall is fatal. There quite simply is no there there.

One of the few attempts in this book to contribute to a concrete analysis gets it terribly wrong:
In stating this we need to include an important caveat that differentiates revolutionary critical pedagogy from those who invoke the well-worn race/class/gender triplet which can sound, to the uninitiated, both radical and vaguely Marxian. It is not. Race, class, and gender, while they invariably intersect and interact, are not co-primary. This “triplet” approximates what the “philosophers might call a category mistake.” On the surface the triplet may be convincing—some people are oppressed because of their race, some as a result of their gender, others because of their class—but this “is grossly misleading” for it is not that “some individuals manifest certain characteristics known as ‘class’ which then results in their oppression; on the contrary, to be a member of a social class just is to be oppressed” and in this regard class is “a wholly social category”… Furthermore, even though “class” is usually invoked as part of the aforementioned and much vaunted triptych, it is usually gutted of its practical, social dimension or treated solely as a cultural phenomenon—as just another form of “difference.” In these instances, class is transformed from an economic and indeed, social category to an exclusively cultural or discursive one or one in which class merely signifies a “subject position.” (p. 100)

This is simply a knotty rehash of the discredited line of the old U.S. Communist Party—“Black and White Unite and Fight”—after it had abandoned revolution: class is all that counts, and everything else is just a distraction. Again, there’s nothing easy about contributing to a further understanding of the peculiar intersection of race and class, of hierarchies of color mapped onto relations to production—particularly the murderous role of white supremacy in blocking unity and revolutionary change—but there is an important and relevant conversation underway from W.E.B. DuBois to James and Grace Lee Boggs, from Audre Lorde to Robin D.G. Kelley, Angela Davis, and bell hooks that could be acknowledged and engaged. Race and gender, gender and class, class and race—a lot has been done and there’s a lot left to do, but smart white male lefties like Peter naming and then dismissing the “triplet” seems more than a little glib. It seems to point toward a limiting white blind-spot and a severely pinched vision of social justice.
In an aside, McLaren manages to both accept and deflect two weaknesses often associated with his work: “While some criticism is substantive—including a welcomed critique of the enciphered language of some academics and a challenge to radical educators to come up with concrete possibilities—much of it is small-minded and petty…” (p. 30). Note the “some academics”—Not me! Not me!—and the active “enciphering” to boot. There is, in fact, a self-conscious performativeness on almost every page:
Through policies of increasing its military-industrial-financial interest, it continues to purse its quivering bourgeois lips, bare its imperialist fangs, and suck the lifeblood from the open veins of South America and other regions of the globe. (p. 23)

Watered by the tears of the poor and cultivated by working-class labor, the dreams that sprout from the unmolested soil of capital are those engineered by the ruling class. (p. 20)

One thing seems certain: this is not language that invites dialogue. It lacks nuance, complexity, and what Toni Morrison calls the propulsive “midwifery properties” of language. It descends instead into the “looted language” of “the bottomed-out mind,” which Morrison nails as the “proud but calcified language of the academy.” It’s all a bit reminiscent of a piece of satire circulated years ago aimed at the pretentious writings of critical educationists—the satire provides a connect-the-dots formula for sounding like (insert your favorite theorist here) by simply combining three words in sequence: Column A plus Column B  plus Column C. Column A is a long list of favored qualifiers (critically, ethically, culturally, politically, historically and so on); Column B includes transformative, emancipatory, informed, grounded, empowering and more; Column C is the subject (discourse, pedagogy, language, ideology). Add A and B and C randomly and you’ll get the idea: critically grounded theory; culturally emancipatory pedagogy. It works!  But as others have noted, if this is liberatory education, why, after reading this, do I not feel free?

Because Peter McLaren fails here to claim authority on the page based on argument or example (and note that authority on the page must be earned in the writing, while authoritarianism on the page is always simply asserted) there’s way too much “I maintain,” “I contend,” and “I agree with,” followed by extensive quotes from favorite authors. One could argue that McLaren is a “popularizer” except that this goes in the opposite direction: accessible writers like Gore Vidal or Arundati Roy are rendered more obscure.
There’s too much repetition ( “The construction of a new vision of human sociality has never been more urgent”…again and again; and “but a new vision of human sociality is precisely what is not on offer by progressive educators…” followed by “What is not on offer is an alternative social vision…” seventy pages later); too much self referencing (“The recent advance of contemporary Marxist educational scholarship… critical theory…and a re-materialized critical pedagogy…”—each citing mostly himself); and metaphors that cry out to be blocked (“Skimming the surface of critical pedagogy like a hovercraft navigating a swamp”—Wait! That’s our pool you’re calling a swamp!). There’s no utterance here that requires a response—all we hear is the Thud! Thud! Thud! of domineering language.

The Schoolboys of Barbiana, a classic text from decades ago that is being re-released now along with a contemporary essay by Marvin Hoffman, was initially a writing project organized by an Italian priest who practiced an authentic critical pedagogy without the vaunted title. In the book, a group of poor youth provides a devastating critique of capitalist schooling in the form of letters to the teachers who’d failed them and pushed them out of school. One boy said: “Have something important to say, something useful…Know for whom you are writing…Eliminate every useless word.” Content; audience; style: that’s excellent advice for anyone aspiring to contribute in a genuine way to the struggle for a decent future for all.
And on to the “concrete possibilities” critical educators might offer:

Enter critical pedagogy.
Critical pedagogy is secured by the most fecund of revolutionary talismans: critique… Critical revolutionary pedagogy begins with the following questions: Do we know whose hands ground the capitalist lenses through which we comprehend the world and do we know from whence (sic) came the bloodstains on the lens grinder’s workbench? Whether we know the answers to such questions, they must be followed by a further question: How and why is this so? If we know the answers, what are they? If we don’t know, why is this so? If there are better questions to be asked, what are they? (p. 9)
Capitalist schools, authoritarian schools of every stripe, are, it’s true, in the business of obedience and conformity. They sort and judge, create hierarchies of winners and losers, train people for predetermined slots in a competitive society. They are not the least bit interested in human development, self-actualization, or self-realization, and they rely on that disturbing but common half-language of labels—behavior disordered, attention deficit disorder, learning disabled, problems with impulse control—to justify the cruelest treatment of the rebels and the delinquents, and ultimately of all the students. Capitalist schooling submerges human development in its single-minded drive for profit, while in democratic schools the ultimate aim of production is not the production of things but the production of free human beings associated in terms of equality, folks capable of changing their lives as well as changing the world. A contradiction at the heart of teaching here and now is that while the humanistic ideal and the democratic injunction tell us that every person can develop as a full and autonomous person engaged with others in a common polity and an equality of power—every human being is of infinite and incalculable value—the capitalist imperative insists that profit is at the center of economic, political, and social life and develops a culture of competition, elitism, and hierarchy. An education for democracy nourishes and challenges free people to act freely in a free society—in history—to right wrongs, repair damage, correct errors, and oppose all unnecessary suffering, and therefore fails as an adjunct to capitalism, just as an education for capitalism fails to build either a democratic ethos or a participatory practice—ultimately the schools or the system must die.

Classrooms and schools for democracy and freedom recognize each student as an entire universe, each capable of becoming an author, artist, and activist in his or her own life—teachers in these classrooms assume that every student is an unruly spark of meaning-making energy on a voyage of discovery and surprise. And the best teachers are themselves unruly sparks, also on a voyage, also awakening to the new and moving and in solidarity with, not in service to their students.

The most important lesson I learned in the earliest days of my teaching came from the Freedom Schools in Mississippi in the early 1960s. These schools were premised on the idea that while the black people of Mississippi had been denied many things—decent facilities, forward-looking curriculum, fully trained teachers—the fundamental injury was the denial of the right to think for themselves about the circumstances of their lives, how they got to where they were, and how things might be changed. The curriculum for these schools was a curriculum of questions, of inquiry and dialogue, a curriculum of posing problems: why are we, students and teachers, in the Freedom Movement? What do we want to change? This is an example of critical pedagogy at its best. It invites people to engage, to participate, to transform their lives, and to change their world.

At its core, an education for freedom demands something altogether different, something upending and revolutionary from students: repudiate your subordinate place in the pecking order, it urges; remove that distorted, congenial mask of compliance; refuse to be an acolyte to power or to anyone. You must change. All of this, then, demands a radical rethinking of the relationship of teacher and student, students and learning, school and society, education and justice.

Just as every practice embodies a theory, every lofty pronouncement or controlling principle must be able to be brought to life on the ground, but there’s no evidence of it at all in Capitalists and Conquerors. Theory is not grounded; the ground is not theorized.

An additional note: the failure to do the work—theoretical or practical—leads to a deeper pessimism embedded in a proclaimed optimism. There’s a long whine echoing throughout, and to claim, as Peter does, that his work is “silenced” in the U.S. stretches credulity:

These days it is far from fashionable to be a radical educator…To identify your politics as Marxist…is to invite derision and ridicule from many quarters, including many on the Left. It is to open one’s work to all species of dyspeptic criticism, from crude hectoring to sophisticated Philippics.  Charges range from being a naïve leftist to being stuck in a time warp, to being hooked on an antediluvian patriarch, to giving in to cheap sentimentality or romantic utopianism. Marxists are accused with (sic) assuming an untenable political position that enables them to wear the mantle of the revolutionary without having to get their hands dirty in the day-to-day struggles of rank-and-file teachers who occupy the front lines in the schools of our major urban centers… Critics often make assumptions that you are guilty of being terminally removed from the lives of teachers and students until proven otherwise…(p.30)

What else can I say?
I met Peter and one of his talented students and current co-authors, one of the “traveling critics,” on my most recent trip to Venezuela. We spent some time together, and he’s not the stereotype that either his friends or his enemies make him out to be; he’s a regular person, of course, after a couple of minutes. When I raised some of my criticisms of Capitalists and Conquerors, he directed me to a wide range of other writings, articles, polemics, and books. While I still think Peter McLaren wants to fight for the future of humanity, and I want him to keep at it, nothing in what I read persuaded me that Capitalists and Conquerors is any more than I’ve said here.

I return to Life in Schools, a participatory and communal exercise in critical pedagogy in which he listened attentively, inquired actively, engaged an audience in big ideas grounded in the mud and muck of the world as he’d found it. I wish he’d take a deep cleansing breath now, clear his head of all that clutter, consider an audience and a community to engage that’s both larger and more eager to participate than he’d ever imagined. Now, get in dialogue with that community, start to think and write more clearly and with much more urgency. You know: from the people, to the people.

A Response by Peter McLaren: Performing Bill Ayers: Criticism as a Disappearing Act or Hey, Brother, Can You Spare Me a Book Review?

Posted By: Peter McLaren on February 8, 2007

Bill Ayers begins his caustic defense of his critique of Capitalists and Conquerors with a compliment that my response was “clever and entertaining and erudite” in the vain hope that it will make his charge—that I fail “utterly to engage the substantive issues” he raised—stick. But all it does is make his rebuttal stick in one’s craw like a lump of stale lard that accidentally fell into the soup. Here I am tempted to ask: What substantive issues does Ayers think he raised?

Bill Ayers calls his response to my rebuttal of his non-critique, “Continuing the Conversation”, which really is just a disingenuous cover intended to give Ayers unbridled license to repeat his original accusations. If you hear them enough times, you might just believe them (isn’t this the same strategy employed by a certain government administration of which we’re all too familiar?). In reality, Bill Ayers does not seem interested in conversation at all, unless it’s a one-sided conversation with himself. Even though he cut his bloviations mercifully short this time around, he still managed to outdo himself. I guess he still is the baddest dude in the neighborhood. And since he’s only given me until sunset to get out of town, forgive me if my response is a bit hurried (Hey, Slim, where can I find a good blacksmith to get my horse shoed in a hurry?).

Ayers claims that he teaches “good theory” and proudly lists his sacred pantheon of good theorists—“Freire and DuBois and Marx and Lebowitz and Luxemberg [sic] and Dewey and Boggs”. For all I know Ayers has relief sculptures of their likenesses in alto-rilievo style over the portal of his seminar room, and I don’t doubt for a minute that he’s a terrific classroom teacher). Yet when I happen to recall a personal conversation with Paulo Freire (the most precious gem in Ayers’ theoretical diadem?) in relation to a topic absolutely relevant to Ayers’s critique of Capitalists and Conquerors as employing the barren language of the academy (how Ayers could miss this obvious connection does little to give me confidence in his ability to critique the not-so-obvious) I am chided for evoking Freire’s name as a litmus test for the legitimacy of my work. Following Ayer’s logic, I guess it’s okay to teach Freire as an example of a good theorist, but only on the condition that you haven’t had the opportunity to dialogue with him in person, or if you have, that you don’t dare employ any “remembered conversation” with him in your work, even if it is completely relevant to the issue at hand (again, in this case, the “thud” of what Ayers calls my “domineering language”). After all, nobody wants to be tempted to touch Freire’s “sacred garment” (unless, perhaps, it has the magical ability to teleport Bill Ayers to a distant planet where he’s forced to read at least one book each by Northrop Frye and Hugh Kenner).

In his non-review of my book, Ayers approvingly recalled a satire of the language of “critical educationalists” circulated decades ago, a satire in which he obviously still takes gleeful comfort. In my response to his review, I mentioned that I, too, had seen the same satire. Similar questions to those raised by that satire so dear to Ayers were also raised at a four day event held in 1991 at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts in which I had the opportunity to pose my questions about academic language directly to Freire. In fact, all participants at this conference had the opportunity to speak with Freire and to listen to each other. The outcome of this conference and several other related conferences led to the publication of the book, Mentoring the Mentor: A Critical Dialogue with Paulo Freire, edited by Paulo Freire, with the assistance of James W. Fraser, Donaldo Macedo, Tanya McKinnon and William T. Stokes. But then again, by following Ayers’ logic, I guess all those participants who attended this conference should do their best not to recall their conversations with Freire to help them clarify a point that might come up in discussions of their work. Because as helpful and relevant as these dialogues with Freire might be, you share them at the risk of being accused by Bill Ayers of inflating your academic credentials by associating yourself with the man whom Ayers regards as God’s chosen pedagogue. Note to Bill: Sorry, compañero, but if any of Freire’s conversations with me over the years continue to prove useful to expand upon a point, I’ll continue to share them. Let me put myself at risk of incurring your wrath again by reminding you of something Freire wrote that I think would be worth considering before embarking on your next “comradely” book review:
    Unfortunately, as a group, we academics and politicians alike expend much of our energy on unjustifiable “fights” among ourselves, provoked by adjectival or, even worse, by purely adverbial differences. While we wear ourselves thin in petty “harangues,” in which personal vanities are displayed and egos are scratched and bruised, we weaken ourselves for the real battle: the struggle against our antagonists. (1995, p. x)

In his original review, Ayers writes: “When I raised some of my criticisms of Capitalists and Conquerors he [McLaren] directed me to a wide range of other writings, articles, polemics and books…[but]…nothing in what I read persuaded me that Capitalists and Conquerors is any more than I have said here.” However, in his recent response to my rebuttal, he writes: “McLaren’s brief discussion of race and class in his response is much better than anything in Capitalists and Conquerors …” Note to Bill: While this acknowledgement might ruffle your feathers a bit, I have to confess that I didn’t summarize my theoretical position just to suit you. There is nothing in my rebuttal that wasn’t right there in Capitalists and Conquerors and in the additional material that I sent you.

Of course an author can always work harder at giving her arguments a crispness and clarity. But readers also have a responsibility. And while Ayers makes no sense at all in claiming that my discussion of race and class is “one of my few attempts…to contribute to a concrete analysis” in Capitalists and Conquerors, I would be remiss if I failed to thank him for appreciating the summary I provided of my position. Note to Bill: But Bill, if you want to know what led to the summary, then please take my advice and read the book.
This, of course, leads me to question the integrity of Ayers’ criticism of my theory. My sending through the mail more of my work to help him better contextualize and situate Capitalists and Conquerors within the tradition of Marxist educational theory is interpreted by Ayers as a concession I am making to his critique of my book. In point of fact, what I am conceding is my disappointment in discovering that Ayers does not appear to be familiar with even the most rudimentary theoretical perspectives found throughout Capitalists and Conquerors. Despite his claim to being the serious teacher of theory, Ayers offers no substantive critique of the theoretical arguments advanced in the book. Ayers criticizes the tone of my work and what he abhors as the rhetorical embellishments of my writing, and he criticizes my work for not delivering any solid application on the ground. Fair enough, as far as it goes. But how much can Ayers exploit his critique of my language as a basis for his critique of the theoretical arguments in the book? He offers no solid foundation from which to mount his critique. He thinks he can provide an abyss and somehow convince us that it’s a mountain.

According to Ayers, my work “does not advance good theory.” But Ayers does not reference any of the theoretical arguments or identify any of the problematics dealt with in the book. Note to Bill: Okay, Bill, let’s start with some basic questions. Share with me, if you will, the limitations of my theory of capitalist globalization? Where have Valerie Scatamburlo-D’Annibale and I gone wrong in our evaluation of Paul Willis’s work on class consciousness? What are the shortcomings of the theory that Glenn Rikowski, Paula Allman (arguably two of the most accomplished Marxist educational theorists writing today) and I have advanced on Marx’s labor-capital relation and its consequences for Marxist educational theory? Was there something wrong in our extended discussion of internal relations in Marxist dialectics? What are the problems with the theoretical advances Donna Houston and I put forward about ecosocialism and critical pedagogy? How can my essay with Gregory Martin on imperialism and war be improved? How effective were the arguments made in my essay with Nathalia Jaramillo on the topic of Christian fundamentalism, imperialism, fascism, and globalization? These are the topics of my book. Note to Bill: Read the titles. Better still, read the chapters. If you had answered these questions, even some of them, then your review would have repaid readers with some substantive contribution to the discussion of critical pedagogy.
I enjoy learning from my critics. That’s how we all grow, from a good, solid (and honest) critique of our work. But Ayers keeps his theoretical tools in his toolkit and pretends to be performing micro-surgery with them. While I am sure he does a good job of teaching his assortment of theorists to his students, he exhibits no theoretical grasp whatsoever of the debates taken up in Capitalists and Conquerors. If Ayers had provided any substantive theoretical discussion pertinent to the themes of my book or to the problematics that my co-authors and I were addressing I might take him seriously. His defense of his original critique does little more than hoist him by his own petard.

Ayers criticizes the performativity of my prose, and the rhetorical embellishments of my writing. And while I found nothing remotely illuminating in his critique of my language, at least it was a fair criticism. But if Ayers wants to criticize the arguments advanced in the book, then he needs to exhibit at least some familiarity with the theory that informs them. At the very least he needs to know what the arguments are about. For all I know, Ayers might have an impressive grasp of ecosocialism, neoliberal globalization, and Marx’s labor theory of value but his critique not only fails to engage these theories, it makes no mention of them. Note to Bill: I’ll defend my theory as soon as you are able to provide a credible critique of it. This is not to say you are not a consummate theorist. I have no idea. But how is anybody to judge what to make of your claims about my book when you don’t even address its basic theoretical/political premises and tensions? Or even the basic themes? That’s not to say watching you perform Bill Ayers isn’t entertaining. It certainly is. But it does get tiresome. Reading the same belabored points the second time around, no matter how self righteously you flog them, is a bit like getting whacked in the head with an iron frying pan. It wakes you up for a split second before your lights go out. And I prefer to stay alert. There’s too much work to be done (as I’m sure you know).
What was most pathetic about Ayers’ recent commentary was his gesture of admitting to a mistake about ignoring my co-authors then yanking his admission away in the same breath. Here Ayers admits he made a mistake, but no, not really. He suggests that if you want to fault somebody, fault the publishers who didn’t list the co-authors on the cover, and you can blame the library, too, who didn’t list the co-authors either. Note to Bill: I happen to have Capitalists and Conquerors right here beside me on my cluttered and coffee-stained desk. Get your copy (even if you have to hold your nose as you retrieve it from the trash can) and read the table of contents. All six of the co-authors are listed under their respective chapters. Now, Bill, turn to the first page of each chapter. The co-authors are all listed there. Not, mind you, by being identified by a tiny asterisk with names spelled in a tiny font and placed at the bottom of the title page or hidden away in the notes section. In the case of Capitalists and Conquerors, the co-authors’ names are right there at the beginning of each chapter, and in relatively large typeface. True, you quote my single-authored chapters, but the point is that you are reviewing an entire text. Bill, I would have had more respect for your gesture if you didn’t try to pass the blame along to the publisher and the library but swallowed your mistake whole, even if the effort temporarily affected your vocal chords. Speaking of vocal chords, here you sound more like the whiny, high-pitched Mr. Bill character of Saturday Night Live fame than Bill Ayers the famed radical educator.
Critics very often are able to make a stronger case for their assessment of a work on the second try (by qualifying their initial analysis and providing a more nuanced reading) but in this case Ayers’ attempt at defending his critique devolves from the ridiculous to the pitiful. The hole that Ayers initially dug for himself only gets deeper in his alleged attempt at “continuing the conversation”. And he wants me to revel with him in the muck. Note to Bill: Forgive me if I take a pass.

I am not interested in “continuing the conversation” with Bill Ayers if that means interviewing yourself, knee-deep in disingenuousness, with a coxcomb pulled down over your ears. I am much more interested in dialogue than conversation (and you’d think Ayers would know the difference). And for that, I’m afraid, I will have to go elsewhere. And yes, onwards.

I don’t know what plans Bill has made for the week, but I’m off to The Factory to crank out some prints of Campbell Soup cans. Just promise me, Bill, you won’t become an art critic.

Continuing the Conversation: Ayers Replies

Posted By: Bill Ayers on February 6, 2007

Peter McLaren’s response to my review of Capitalists and Conquerors—alternately clever and entertaining and erudite, always interesting—fails utterly to engage the substantive issues I raised. For example, he launches a spirited defense of theory and philosophy as “important tools to help us understand the world and sharpen our praxis,” because, he speculates, I’m “apparently disturbed” by a book of theory. But I’m not disturbed by a book of theory, I’m in favor of theoretical discussion and debate, and I never criticized theorizing or the importance of philosophy. I did criticize Capitalists and Conquerors for failing to deliver on its promise to develop concrete strategies toward a socialist alternative, or to go beyond exhortation and proclamation, or to engage any of the lengthy list of questions it posits at the start, and that criticism remains unanswered. Good theory is essential—every year I teach Freire and DuBois and Marx and Gramsci and Lebowitz and Luxemberg and Dewey and Boggs, as well as their critics—but Capitalists and Conquerors does not advance good theory.

Again, McLaren defends the language of dialectics, and a dialectical approach to writing and teaching. But I never attacked dialectical thinking or writing, nor did I say that Capitalists and Conquerors was “too academic” or “too theoretical.” I said Capitalists and Conquerors was infused with a showy language of posing and performance, that it was a lot of glitter without the gold. I offered a couple of examples—out of hundreds I might have chosen—of sentences and paragraphs that huffed and puffed and went exactly nowhere. And I concluded that it was not a language that invited dialogue or development.

McLaren defends his self-described “engaging, somewhat experimental style” by citing a conversation with Paulo Freire, whom he describes as “my mentor.” In a remembered conversation McLaren cites Freire’s defense, in general, of McLaren’s work. The relevance to my critique of Capitalists and Conquerors eludes me, except to say, in effect, “I touched the sacred garment, believe me.”

McLaren’s brief discussion of race and class in his response is much better than anything in Capitalists and Conquerors, where he brushes aside any serious engagement, referring to “the well-worn race/class/gender triplet,” and “the much vaunted triptych.” He notes that if I’d read more of his work I would “know better than to make such a glib and opportunistic claim.” Perhaps. But my criticism was not about McLaren’s work in general; it was, rather, about Capitalists and Conquerors specifically. Again, he appears to concede the point.

Finally, the pop-psychologizing and silly attribution of motives aside, I did indeed fail to mention the co-authors who worked on various chapters with McLaren. My mistake. On the other hand, the cover of the book, the title page, the listing in the library make the same omission, so perhaps that criticism should more productively be taken up with the publisher. The text that I quote is similarly first-person singular—”my concern”, “my work”, “I have tried”, and so on.

So, yes, onward.

The Knowledge Deficit

July 22, 2006

The Knowledge Deficit, the latest philippic from E.D. Hirsch, Jr., author of the best-selling Cultural Literacy as well as a dozen little baubles on the theme of “what every child needs to know,” ought to carry a warning label, or, better, a straight-forward subtitle: An Infomercial. It’s a tirade, of course, but here Hirsch, as manic and breathy as any television pitchman, is busy pushing product on every page. There’s scant substance, even as it announces itself a work of “Science,” and so we are left with a sparkly, self-promoting advertisement masquerading as deep thought.
His thesis is easy enough to summarize: there’s a powerful, monolithic ideology emanating from our colleges of education that has controlled American educational thought and practice for a century—he singles out as exemplars the Bank Street College of Education and Teachers College, Columbia University which he calls the “parent organism” spawning romantic principles and doctrinaire professors who scatter throughout the land stifling dissent and drilling prospective teachers in their mistaken “theology” (p. 20) (full disclosure: I attended both); the principles of this dominant dogma must be understood and defeated because they are the chief cause of America’s dismal record of reading achievement; Hirsch’s mission is to break the strangle-hold that generations of romantics and progressives have applied to our schools, and, thereby, to liberate the masses of students for a great leap forward in reading.
The enemy ideology consists of a “terrible trinity” (p. 112) plus one: naturalism, or “the notion that learning can and should be natural” (p. 134); formalism, or “the ideology that what counts in education is not the learning of things but rather learning how to learn” (p. 135); determinism, or “the blame-society theory” (p. 15) that posits inequities—racial and class hierarchies, for example—as significant variables in school success; and, as a bit of an after-thought, localism, the idea that “our states or our towns will decide what shall be taught in our schools” (p. 112). Taken together these pillars of romantic thought are the “deadly enemies” (p. 21) of reading achievement. They must be overturned.
Hirsch makes a case for the power of ideas to move and shape societies. He announces his intention here to analyze the common sense assumptions and relevant ideas driving educational policy, including their historical roots, and then to challenge them with “alternative ideas” (p. 17). His aim is “to help create a public demand for the kind of knowledge-oriented reading program that is needed” (p. 17), for he believes that once such a demand arises, “the rest can safely be left to the cunning of the market” (p. 17). In other words, the territory of ideology will be his battlefield of choice, and here on these pages he intends to mass his army.
At this point one expects the fun to begin, the fireworks to be ignited or the opening volley to be fired. We are, we hope, at least in for some spirited intellectual exchange. But here Hirsch disappoints. Again and again he huffs and he puffs; again and again he pulls back and fails to blow the house down. I found myself rooting for him to let loose just once to see where it might take him (and us), but he never does.
And so we are asked to take this jeremiad on faith. His attack on the “theory of demographic determinism” (p. 15), the idea that poverty plays a substantial role in school failure, is a case in point. He names Richard Rothstein, former education reporter for the New York Times, as the theory’s “most eloquent defender” (p. 15), and yet one can’t find in Rothstein any mention of this “theory,” nor adherence to what Hirsch claims as the theory’s pillars: poverty causes low reading scores, and the schools are powerless to have an impact on that failure. In fact, Rothstein’s view is much more nuanced than that, and in part much closer to Hirsch’s later assertion that schools “can do a far better job” (p. 15).
Hirsch never engages the scholarship, research, or even the polemics on poverty and schooling. There’s no mention, for example, of the work of Jonathon Kozol, Jeannie Oaks, Pedro Noguera, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Lisa Delpit, Deborah Meier, Michael Apple, Angela Valenzuela, Jean Anyon, Asa Hilliard, Michele Fine, or William Watkins, to name a few. His woofing against a straw-man is, for him, apparently enough.
When Hirsch needs a citation to back an assertion of fact he often leaves a blank: “research has shown a body of specific background knowledge to be necessary for reading proficiency…” (p. 41); “According to received views in the American educational community, no specific background knowledge is needed for reading” (p. 39); “It [the Core Knowledge Sequence] is now used in several hundred schools (with positive effects on reading scores), and it is distinguished among content standards not only for its interest and richness, but also because of the carefully-thought-out scientific foundations that underlie the selection of topics” (p. 77).
If a student had written either of the first two sentences, any teacher would respond, “Where’s the citation?” As for the third, Hirsch cites himself, which is a bit troubling. While self-referencing is always a sign of bad writing, it is particularly egregious in a book claiming the mantle of science. But citing himself or his Core Knowledge Foundation to back up his most basic arguments is a major strategy, and it begins on page 3: “Reading proficiency is at the very heart of the democratic educational enterprise, and is rightly called the ‘new civil rights frontier.’” Who could have made that insightful comment, I wonder? Look up footnote number 5… Why it’s E.D. Hirsch himself, from an earlier book.
Go further: On page 12 we learn that “The only thing that transforms reading skill and critical thinking skill into general all-purpose abilities is a person’s possession of general, all-purpose knowledge”; on page 84 that “The chief cause of our school’s inefficiency is precisely this curricular incoherence”; on page 111 that the “lack of commonality across classrooms in the same school and across schools in the same district means that no definable curriculum exists.” Each of these tautologies and assertions may be of interest, may have some merit, and may be worthy of thoughtful inquiry, debate, and analysis. None of that apparently matters much to Hirsch—he cites only himself and then moves on. This is fact-free, faith-based social science at its most fabulous.
Teachers in the thrall of “ed school professors” are a real problem for Hirsch, and absent any clearly defined curricular content that must be delivered no matter what, teachers are “the main sources of indoctrination.” (p. 114) Hirsch gets really worked up here:
Under the covering idea that what counts is how-to knowledge, and in the absence of specific content guidelines, the teacher is left free to teach critical thinking and deep understanding with whatever content seems appropriate. I well remember picking up a German grammar book in Communist East Berlin long before the Berlin wall was erected. Precisely because the book was oriented to the formal elements of German grammar, the content was left to the indoctrinators. If the grammar was to teach declarative sentences, examples were sentences like “The American capitalist imperialist is unfair to the worker.” The formal character of an imperative sentence was shown in “Yankee, go home!” A process orientation offers no inherent protection against indoctrination. Irresponsibility is much less likely to occur when the schools are clear about the basic specific academic content that children should be taught at a particular grade level. (p. 114)

It’s quite a jump for most of us from teachers “left free to teach critical thinking” to the sloganeering of the apparatchiks, but Hirsch makes the leap look easy. He portrays himself as under relentless siege from an insidious antagonist, and here he employs pure demagoguery. Demagogues need enemies, even invented ones: “the press”, “the Jews”, “the reds”—each played the part historically. But “ed school professors”? Teachers manipulated by a “covering idea” turning into propagandists of the authoritarian state? It seems utterly preposterous.
But wait, there’s more:
The public schools in a democracy should not take sides in still-disputed areas. Gay marriage comes to mind. Children are required to attend school. They must not be compelled to attend a school that inculcates ideas that their parents and caregivers find repugnant. The Untied States, because of its history of religious refuge, has a first-rate tradition of cultural sensitivity—for example, in the way it has treated Amish beliefs and sensibilities… Deeply inbred in our history and law is the principle that this tolerant civil polity will trump each intolerant sect that tries to control other sects or antisects. (pp. 113-114).

After all the bloviating, it’s unclear whether we should or we shouldn’t mention gay marriage—it came, after all, to his mind, why wouldn’t it come to the minds of others? What intolerant sect is he indicting? Don’t ask, don’t tell.
Hirsch is really a born polemicist (and not a very good one at that) but apparently feels it necessary to dress up in scientific drag and parade his polemics as scholarship—he wants these salvos taken seriously. He hopes, and based on past success has reason to believe, that as long as he labors in the credulous fields of school reform he can get by as a lab rat. But while a good polemicist often writes biting sentences, they must be minimally recognizable to the opposition. When Hirsch defends using good literature for children in classrooms, for example, and writes, “But stories are not necessarily the same thing as ephemeral fictions” (p. 78), the weaknesses in his thinking and his writing are on full display—there is, after all, no one who will stand and defend ephemeral fictions as the same thing as excellent stories. Similarly, when he sums up the writings of John Dewey, “the father of present-day American education” (p. 5) (Read: the bad stuff), as “the conviction that children would learn what they needed by engaging in practical activities such as cooking” (pp. 9-10), he is dissembling and throwing buckets of sand—or diced onions—in our eyes.
Further a good polemicist goes to the heart of the matter, relying on the power of characterization and critique to unmask the stupidity or hypocrisy of the opposition: Hirsch, on the other hand, dallies in the shallows, reminding us again and again that his arguments are solid and research-based, that “my aims… are entirely constructive” (p. 17), or that “this book makes strong arguments…” (p. 16). If a graduate student paper contained assertions like these, I’d write all over the margins in red: “Let us be the judge of that.”
And, no, in fact in this book he does not make strong arguments. It’s scholastic at best, not scholarly. Hirsch is for content-driven, knowledge-based curriculum—he repeats the phrase like a mantra until our eyes are feeling heavy—but even when he himself asks, so “what exactly does that enabling knowledge consist of?” (p. 74) he shrinks back and refuses to answer. Where’s the honesty of Charles Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind? He promotes an “adequate scientific theory of reading” (p. 127), but never produces one. Where’s the forcefulness of a Mr. McChokumchild?
What Hirsch is busy avoiding is the obvious—any sensible and serious effort at school improvement must address several challenges simultaneously: the scandal of unequal funding and the inequitable distribution of education resources, the inadequate system of support and reward for teachers, the over-reliance on bureaucratic control and simplistic scales of student success, the loss of focus on the large goal of supporting youngsters to develop into functioning citizens and producers of both wealth and culture. These are complex challenges, to be sure, and must be worked out on the ground. But addressing these challenges is essential if we are to build outstanding schools fit for a democratic society.
As one of the major intellectual defenders of the triumphant conservative agenda in education E.D. Hirsch is a terrible disappointment. He’s simply not up to the task. He’s selling his Core Knowledge Foundation products, true—you can practically see the 800 number subliminally embedded on every page—but that’s about it. So here’s a time-saving suggestion: skip the ad—this book—and go straight to the handsome website of the Core Knowledge Foundation. You’ll get the whole bit delivered in power point in about five minutes.

A Single Spark

July 22, 2006

Saturday, July 22, 2006

A Single Spark

A single spark can start a prairie fire—an ancient saying that appears in many forms and in different cultures, carrying a range of shifting implications and meanings. In the version I first heard—from China—it pointed to the power of one action to inspire other actions, which themselves catalyze a cascading chain of actions and reactions. One flint and a single stone struck together in the right direction under optimal conditions can begin a conflagration spreading throughout the countryside. Prairie fires, in this telling, are not always catastrophic; they can be, as well, naturally occurring events, necessary and renewing, removing the thick mat of thatch that suffocates life, releasing the seeds while encouraging the birds and the insects and the other animals, all the flora and fauna, opening and crawling, transforming and lurching to life.
This old saying fits so perfectly, maps so naturally onto teaching because teachers strike sparks within every student every day. There is simply no way to predict with any certainty which will come to nothing, and which spark might just start that prairie fire. We are striving into the unknown, a place where teachers might feel the awesome power they wield, might experience, as well, the unknowable potential of each student, each three-dimensional human creature before them. Teachers might pay closer attention to every aching detail and each overarching circumstance, to sense at every moment that what they do—or, just as important, what they fail to do—has a significance beyond itself, that some act or another may in fact make a mighty and magnificent difference, entirely unforeseen by them, in this life or in that one. Teachers might not change the world in dramatic fashion, but we certainly change the people who will change the world. This single spark could be that long-anticipated catalyst, that historic meeting of flint and stone that releases the flames of change.
All teaching is enacted in a specific here and now, all of it brought to life in the mud and muck of the world as we find it—this prairie or that field, this street or the other one. We don’t choose the world as such; rather we are thrust into a world already there, going, going, going, up and running. We need to take the world as it is to start, unvarnished, and plunge forward as participants if we are to live fully, deeply, purposefully—if we are to see both the beauty and the pain of it, if we are to add our little weight to the balance.
It is in this sense that teaching is both an intellectual and an ethical enterprise. It requires thoughtful and caring people to carry it forward—not a head without a heart, and not some vaguely smiling flame without a brain. Teachers need to both think and feel their way into what we’re doing. In fact, it’s at the crossroads of the intellectual and the ethical where teachers begin to find their bearings. It’s here that we crawl toward love—not love as a “throbbing heart or a soulful imploring” as Pat Carini has written, but love as a call to action, an impulse that insists that all human beings matter, even when law or custom or social practice or restriction says otherwise.
We teachers are increasingly deskilled and hammered into interchangeable cogs in a bureaucracy, pressured to reduce teaching to a set of manageable and easily superviseable tasks, and to sum it up on the basis of a single simple-minded metric, to strip it of any moral purpose or intellectual engagement or creative action whatsoever. In these circumstances, at this moment, it becomes even more important to find ways to resist, to fight back, to rescue teaching from the gathering forces of mindlessness and carelessness.
The prophetic poet Audre Lourde wrote: “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed. But when we are silent we are still afraid.” It might be best, then, to take a chance, to speak out and to act up. Since all life is a risk, stepping forward affords at least the possibility of a different perspective, the hope of something better. If what is before us is out of balance, if some part of what we see stands as an obstacle to our humanity or if it is in some sense unacceptable or offensive to the better angels of ourselves, we are called to say “no.” It is in this spirit of resistance and hope that we go in search of a humanistic pedagogy.
Educators face a contradiction at the heart of their efforts: the humanistic ideal and the democratic injunction tell us that every person is an entire universe, that each can develop as a full and autonomous person engaged with others in a common polity and an equality of power; the capitalist imperative insists that profit is at the center of economic, political, and social progress and develops a culture of competition, elitism, and hierarchy. An education for democracy fails as an adjunct to capitalism just as an education for capitalism fails to build either a democratic ethos or a participatory practice—either the schools or the system must die.
Two slim but important books offer thoughtful looks at this age-old conflict. Holding Values by Brenda Engel with Anne Martin is subtitled “What We Mean by Progressive Education,” and the “we” refers to several key, long-time members of the North Dakota Study Group, an irregular band of guerrilla educators Vito Perrone assembled for the first time in 1972. Its general focus has always been the state of education and the current challenges to humanistic and democratic practices, but over three and a half decades the range of specific issues addressed and engaged has been impressive—evaluation and assessment, standards and testing, racism and diversity, children and the curriculum, and always, at bottom, the promise and the demands of democracy. This small but hardy and determined group meets annually, and boasts among its members Rebecca and Hubert Dyasi, Lilian Weber, Jay and Helen Featherstone, Francisco Guajardo, Pat Carini, George Hein, Edward Chittenden, and Deborah Meier, as well as Joan Bradbury from the Frances Parker School.
Bob Davis’ Teaching Tough Kids explores the work of “five provocative educators” of the twentieth century, each an explorer and in their own contexts a revolutionary—the redoubtable Deborah Meier again, a living American, a MacArthur Fellow, a charter North Dakota member, and four Europeans whose experiences span the twentieth century: Russia’s Anton Makarenko, who came of age at the dawn of the Bolshevik Revolution; Poland’s Janusz Korczak, who was murdered with his charges at Treblinka in 1942; France’s Celestin Freinet, imprisoned by the Vichy government during World War II; and Great Britain’s Chris Searle who taught in working-class London and Sheffield as well as revolutionary Grenada and Mozambique. Davis describes each teacher in action, locates each in the unique concentric circles of context—historical flow, social condition, cultural surround—that make these lives sensible and important, and finds in each a person wrestling with the knot of this fundamental contradiction: reverence, awe, respect for the humanity of every student; energy, focus, effort to create a society in which that reverence can breathe and perhaps one day thrive. These are teachers offering students the opportunity to change their lives, all the while working to change the world.
Davis might have chosen a hundred others who taught toward transformation—one thinks of Paulo Freire, of course, and Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Carter G. Woodson, Herb Kohl and Septima Clark, Myles Horton, Bob Moses, Mike Rose, Bill Bigelow, Linda Christiansen, George Wood, Bob Peterson, Rita Tenorio, W.E.B. DuBois, or Bob Davis himself. He might have chosen any of the teachers represented in Holding Values. But these five are well-chosen—each taught for many years, each founded a school, each developed innovative curriculum and wrote thoughtfully about teaching, and each faced the challenge of authoring a unique teaching life against a backdrop of, and while participating in, the upheaval to create a new, more peaceful, more just social order.
Vito Perrone and the sixteen educators he convened in November, 1972 in Grand Forks, ND were all “energetic, experienced, and imaginative thinkers about schools and schooling” (p. 5). Some, like Lillian Weber and Deborah Meier, were life-long socialists and activists engaged in struggles for civil rights and peace, and determined to reorganize public schools as sites of democratic practice. Others, like Pat Carini, founded or worked in small, independent alternative schools, counter-institutions they hoped would be examples and catalysts for humanistic changes in education and society more widely. All were people alive to and aware of the contradiction at the heart of teaching: the humanist ideal struggling to breathe in a social and economic surround determined to choke it to death, a system that will not and cannot tolerate its existence. This intolerance, importantly, requires no extra effort or human will, no mobilization or evil intent whatsoever to do its murderous work—the normal functioning of the system crushes community and destroys democracy.
Brenda Engel does a good job of bringing the North Dakota characters to life, and of unearthing the visions and values, the moral principles that animated this far-flung and talented group. The Study Group itself is an example of another healthy contradiction that lives at the heart of excellent classrooms—strong-willed individuals, each with a mind of her or his own, engaged in intense, sometimes contentious dialogue, which moves the collective forward. It has been traditional for Vito Perrone, the group’s godfather, to open and close the meetings, and his presentations have always been “discursive, low-key, informed, often ironic, humorous, and inclusive” (p. 7). Engel quotes from one of Perrone’s opening talks to give us a feel for the tone, style, and content:
The standards-based reform direction is generally discussed as new to American education, getting us caught up with other major industrialized countries in the world. We should all exert caution every time we hear that something relating to schools is new. It usually means that those speaking of the new haven’t chosen to examine the historical record. Our need for historical perspective is always large. Otherwise, we lose sight of the larger context, the roots of our work. We also lose, I believe, the potential for genuine reform. In addition, we should worry when the motivation to do something educationally is to help us catch up with some other country—a stance that seems to look right past the students most of us see day in and day out, almost as if they aren’t there. I envision here a group of six- or seven-year-olds being told that they have to study hard to make sure we stay ahead of the Japanese. Why would any of these children care about competition with Japan? Why should their teachers even have that in mind?

Jay Featherstone writes of the large themes that constitute the transformational-humanist tradition. He sees these themes as sites for investigation rather than settled dogma, and so he invites us into a series of challenges to engage. The first is the challenge of democracy itself: What is democracy? What does schooling in a democracy look like? How might we build democratic communities in our classrooms? Featherstone points to the mismatch of increased standardization and the tightening of bureaucratic control over schools at a time of unprecedented immigration, movement, and dislocation, a time when the need to model living democratically is at its zenith. He cites the greatest poet of democracy, Walt Whitman, who wrote that democracy “is a great word whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten because that history has yet to be enacted” (p. 43).
Another challenge involves “the ecology of childhood—the task of making schools and other settings good environments and communities in which children develop as whole and healthy people—not test factories where kids get evaluated in one-sided ways” (p. 43). The school, then, should align to the child, and not the other way round. This means there must be a focus on the quality of children’s lives, and on opportunities for imagination, expression, and experimentation in a safe and buoyant space.
A further challenge is for inclusion, “the democratic goal of educating all students for participation in intellectual and academic complexity” (p. 44). This means both breaking down the barriers to full participation of historically oppressed or excluded groups, and offering everyone “an intellectually ambitious education” (p. 45).
And joined with these and at the center of things is the challenge to see the larger society as it really is—riddled with injustice, burdened by racism, disfigured by imperial ambitions, with the schools at least partially maimed as they are pressured to become sites that reinforce “inequalities of class and race and gender” (p. 45). Featherstone sums up the progressive teacher’s ambition as linking “democratic possibilities in education to fresh possibilities in politics and our national life” (p. 45).
If democracy is a special social arrangement, how would we describe its specific character? And if education in a democracy requires something different from the requirements of education, say, in a totalitarian or royal society, then what is that different something?
The short answer is obvious: totalitarianism demands obedience and conformity, hierarchy, command and control. Royalty requires allegiance. Democracy, by contrast, requires free people coming together voluntarily who are capable of both self-realization and, at the same time, full participation in a shared political and economic life. Democracy is a form of associative living in which people embrace a level of uncertainty, incompleteness, and the inevitability of change. There are no immutable, fixed standards, the same for all, that will ultimately serve democratic purposes.
Teachers in democratic schools cannot be mechanical cogs in a bureaucratically-driven machine or place-holders in an impersonal system, but rather must be highly-trained and well-rewarded professionals afforded a large degree of flexibility and autonomy in order to attend to and support the growth of children. In a democracy teachers must be models of thoughtfulness and care, exemplars of problem-solving and decision-making, people capable of asking deep questions, drawing necessary connections, incorporating the surprising and the unexpected and the new as it occurs into classroom life.
Assessment in democratic schools, then, must be transparent and public, collectively decided upon, and rooted in ongoing student work. It is not a separate and isolated event, above and beyond teachers and students; rather, assessment is a broad, relevant and connected part of classroom life, an exercise providing an ongoing look at progress and need.
But look for a moment at most schools as they actually are—all the commonsense assumptions, the broad commonplace features and activities, the reality beyond the rhetoric. What is expected of us—teachers and students, parents and administrators? What have we become accustomed to? The simplest, most eloquent answer comes from the mouths of James Herndon’s young students, locked in a segregated ghetto elementary school. Whenever they were asked why they were kowtowing to some arbitrary or particularly maddening and inane school custom—begging permission and then lining up to use the toilet, for example, or spending hours on mindless, repetitive tasks—their response was, always the same: because that’s “the way it spozed to be.”
The way it spozed to be is characterized by division and isolation—students against teacher, teachers against the administration, the union versus the board. Worse, school divides students against one another—each a little one-man skiff on his or her own bottom—through mechanisms of grades and tests and rankings. It divides and alienates students further within themselves—the arbitrary demarcation of experience and knowledge into disciplines and subjects, the disconnection of interest and relevance, initiative and courage from school-sanctioned success. And those tests and grades and scores: a reductive shorthand that turns kids into stick-figures, lifeless and brittle; they trumpet the triumph and unambiguous wonder of objectivity, when in fact objectification itself is the greatest problem and weakness of the standardizing tests. All this disunity and disengagement, all the segregation and isolation—where does it leave us?
The way it spozed to be bows before numbers, genuflects to the values of quantification. Schools then promote a flattened world where things get counted, or, as one of my education professors told us years ago, everything that exists exists in some amount, and so everything that exists must be measurable. We asked him about love, hope, beauty, joy, imagination, and possibility, and he said we were being foolish. Teach only what you can test, he said, and test only what you’ve taught. The “measure of man” is the impossible ideal of a scholar like that, and the mismeasure of humanity the inevitable outcome.
The way it spozed to be requires testing, sorting, labeling, ranking. I remember the eccentric and always amusing A.S. Neil, founder of Summerhill School in England, when pressed by twelve-year-olds to give them an examination because… well, you know. He sat his charges down and administered a real test. Here’s a sample question:
Where are they following: Madrid, Thursday Island, yesterday, love, democracy, hate, my pocket screwdriver?

I’m always a little skeptical when reformers come forward with schemes to “integrate the curriculum” or to “create real-world projects and internships.” Why was the curriculum segregated in the first place? I ask. When did the unreal world get such a mighty foothold in our classrooms? Why does the student feel walled off from society and the earth anyway?
If we peek for a moment beneath the official high-sounding justification for compulsory schooling—to create good and productive citizens, say, or to allow students to reach their full potential, or to unlock the talent and energy of each little darling—there’s a truth that dares not speak its name: the way it spozed to be is designed to mold and control the herd, to engineer and shape-up the unruly crowd, to grind potentially free people into obedient soldiers, servile and efficient laborers, mindless consumers. Our rulers were not always so wimpy, so reluctant to say it plainly and out loud. In 1909 Woodrow Wilson shouted out, to no one’s amazement, that “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”
The way it spozed to be is designed to sort youngsters into these classes, to find for each a proper role in the existing social order. Schools reward conformity and mindless habits of obedience with a vengeance, but not without reason; they punish deviance relentlessly and sometimes ruthlessly, but with a clear purpose. In this sense, and with this aim of education noted explicitly, schools are doing one heck of a job—they are terrifically successful sorting machines.
Brenda Engel notes that her group was originally called the North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation. Even though the last two words have been dropped, evaluation in the largest sense remains a central concern. Engel points out that “The issue of educational evaluation has to do basically with power relationships, which are at the heart of politics: Who has the right to evaluate what and whom? Who decides on criteria and instruments? What degree of consent needs to be sought from those having a stake in the consequences?” (p. 13) Questions, questions, questions; challenges to received wisdom; demands to be heard, to be seen, to be valued as an equal—the center of a democratic pedagogy and a democratic society.
Because teaching aims both to guide and to set free, to initiate into as well as to liberate from, teaching is one part prescription and another part permission. Great teachers walk this fault line consciously, with courage and confidence, working to move their students into thinking for themselves, awakening in them new awarenesses, igniting their imaginations and encouraging them to live awhile in possibility, spurring them to go further and further. And with all this teachers simultaneously provide students with access to the tools of the culture, the structures of the disciplines, the various languages and literacies that will allow them to participate fully and freely. This is possible when teachers present themselves as questioning, fallible, searching human beings themselves—identical in this regard to those they teach.
It is always a struggle for conscientious teachers to be true to students while keeping an eye on the world those students will inherit. There are some common themes, however, from the lives and work of the educators assembled by Engel and Davis that will be helpful for further thinking and rethinking, for action, and for rethinking once more:
* Teaching toward transformation involves seeing students as whole human beings with hearts and minds, bodies and spirits that must somehow be taken into account. We must find our way beyond the half-language of labels.
* We must be doubly serious in our efforts to teach our students the various literacies that will allow them to become competent and powerful in their worlds.
* We must provide opportunities for students to do and to make, to be authors and artists (not outlaws) and to become valuable and valued in their various communities.
* We must learn from rather than about the world—from work, not about work; from democracy, not about democracy; from nature, not about nature; from history, geography literature, maths, and so on.
* We must bring the community into the school and the school into the community. Classrooms are contested spaces, and the sooner we face that fact, the more effective we might become.
An education for democracy begins with the belief that each person has the right and responsibility to participate publicly, that each can and should make a difference. The principles of associative living—community, equality, liberty—must, then, be brought to the fore in both classroom and community.