A Struggle With NCATE and AERA

April 19, 2007

AERA Open Business Meeting

American Educational Research Association

April 13, 2007

Chicago, Illinois
I approach this conversation with insane hope, and with a kind of battered but still abiding faith in King’s vision of a moral universe whose arc — — while long — — bends toward justice.

And I approach this moment — — in spite of the hour and the awkward venue and the natural and inevitable misunderstandings — — wanting to spark and participate in a dialogue.

So I remind myself, first, that we must speak forcefully with the possibility of being heard, and, that, simultaneously, we’re required to listen carefully with the possibility of being changed.  In authentic dialogue no one remains entirely the same, and that’s why it’s both the most democratic and the most dangerous of pedagogical approaches.  We might see this then as a profoundly pedagogical moment — let’s all risk learning something new.

I also want to describe the moment, to name something of the larger environment we’re living in, for I don’t think we can separate the events of our lives from the concentric circles of context that make them understandable and meaningful.  I’ve watched with horror and anger, as have many of you, as the country has marched step-by-step toward a certain and definitive authoritarianism:

  • Empire resurrected.
  • War without end.
  • Unprecedented and unapologetic military expansion.
  • Mass incarceration and disenfranchisement.
  • Growing disparities between the haves and have-nots on a national and a global scale.
  • The shredding of constitutional protections.
  • The creation of popular movements based on bigotry and intolerance and the threat of violence, and the scapegoating of certain targeted and vulnerable groups.
  • And on and on.

Everyone sees it.  Everyone feels it.  And, of course, it’s not the whole story– but it is without a doubt a bright thread that is both recognizable and knowable.

When a presidential candidate recently called Spanish a “ghetto language” and referred to English as the “language of prosperity” we were right to speak out against that arrogant bigotry.  And when NCATE removed social justice from its list of standards– and sexual orientation as a protected category– we were right to act up because it represents a concrete and palpable step backwards.

The American Bar Association and the American Medical Association instruct their members to refrain from any form of discrimination based on gender, race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, age, or disability.  Each of those categories developed in response to the historical and lived experience of unequal treatment, each is inscribed with unnecessary suffering and pain. Each is essential to name because unequal treatment lives on– because neglect and abuse and discrimination and violence and threats of violence abide.

Education at its best is an inclusive and deeply humanizing activity.  It invites all people to become more purposeful, more powerful, and more capable in their projects and their pursuits.  It invites all of us to become more fully human. But if humanization is our ideal and our aspiration, we must note that education as dehumanization is too often both policy and practice.  We enter, then, the contested space of education, schooling, and policy.

AERA was wrong when it failed to respond to NCATE’s action.  But we’re all wrong lots of the time — –so while it’s bad, it’s not irredeemably bad.  As the saying goes, mistakes were made, and who really knows the pressure that NCATE was under?

But as bad as the original injury was, what’s discouraging and disheartening is the denial that any harm was done, that any injury occurred at all, and then the insistent, sometimes shrill, claims of innocence.  As James Baldwin said in a different context, it’s the claims of innocence that allow the injury to continue unabated; it’s the claims of innocence that, over time, constitute the crime.

It’s an unhappy thing to watch the leadership fail to act, but it’s creepy to be told that the issue is being brought to the organization by outside agitators.

It’s an unhappy thing to watch the leadership fail to act, but it’s corrupt to claim that if we stand up for the humanity of some oppressed people we somehow diminish the claims of others.  Just moments ago two committee chairs spoke with enthusiasm about being educated by disabled members about the need to change the setup of our national meeting if we want to be authentically and fully inclusive — did anyone feel bitter or unhappy or think that taking steps to include the disabled would somehow hurt others?  I hope not.

It’s an unhappy thing to watch the leadership fail to act, but it’s absurd to dismiss a question of moral principle and politics by recasting it as bureaucratic and procedural primarily. Whatever procedures are in place, we except the leadership to lead.

I’m reminded that privilege is anesthetizing, and that the privileged are necessarily blind to their own blind spots.  But let’s make the effort; let’s learn something here: It’s of course an effort for white people to see the obstacles placed in the paths of people of color, for men to see the routine injuries visited upon women, for the able-bodied to feel the dislocation and banal discrimination experienced by so many.  And so it is for straight people: we have to stretch to see the pain of children routinely beaten and taunted and marginalized in our schools, of teachers asked to deny their identities, of parents pushed around in unfriendly settings. Let’s stand up against all of that. 

The idea of social justice includes full and mutual recognition. It includes seeing the human faces and hearing the human voices of outrage and injury, of aspiration and dignity.

AERA was wrong, but we can do the right thing now.  In the spirit of the great Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who wrote that we are each other’s business, we are each other’s harvest, we are each other’s magnitude and bond, we propose that AERA communicate to NCATE our displeasure with the removal of social justice and sexual orientation from its standards statement, and that we urge them to include social justice, sexual orientation, and gender identity. STAND UP NOW!!
Bill Ayers