“The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little.”
― Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
Earlier in the week, I wrote a piece that referenced a recent article by professional education writer Peter Greene – The Problem of Parent Centered Education. Per usual, Greene’s piece is a solid piece of writing and provides much fodder for thought. In it, he offers a warning about catering too much of what’s taught in schools towards parents desires, “But these groups, and the larger push for these restrictive teacher laws, actually feed one basic tenet of the privatizing push–the idea that education is a consumer good, and the real consumers are parents. Further, as the primary consumer, the argument goes, parents should get to decide how the school works, what the teachers teach, the whole operation.”
It’s a legitimate concern, and in the past, I’ve tended to agree with Greene about education being a public good vs a commodity, and I still live mainly in that neighborhood. That said, I think we need to think deeper about who exactly the public is in public education. But let me raise this question, if not parents, who does get to determine what gets taught in public schools? This question has occupied my mind for most of the week.
Arguably, it should be those officials elected to the governing bodies charged with overseeing schools. But that only works if you are in the majority, and they work in a manner that aligns with your beliefs. I suspect that those who are the minority tend to be dissatisfied with this model. That’s the problem with elections, they don’t always turn out the way we want.
Charging municipal leaders, along with state and national leaders, the role of dictating what’s taught has the same drawback. in addition, these leaders often are pulled a thousand different directions by other community interests, thus education issues seldom get the attention they deserve. Politicians are equally hesitant to educate the populace past their level as well, so in reality, they are not much different than parents when it comes to biases. After all, who wants to risk a cool gig by making the population to smart?
Many will put forth that it should be teachers and administrators who should be charged with curriculum decisions. The idea has merit, and back in the days of the one-room school building, such was often the case. But those days are long gone. Teachers are often painted, like many demographic groups, as being a monolith. It’s a picture that’s just not accurate.
Teachers are cut from a multitude of clothes. There are those with a liberal bias and some with the polar opposite. Some enter the profession out of a desire to serve, while some see time spent in the classroom as a stepping to a more lucrative executive position. Leave it solely to teachers, and you are liable to get a patchwork quilt of instruction. Let’s also not forget that many teachers are also parents…and…you don’t want to give parents too much input.
Don’t get me started on those who populate the non-profit sector and the high-level administrator ranks. Let’s just say, I don’t buy their purported altruistic bent, and more often than not they seem to be the ones benefiting the most from their advocacy.
This brings us to a dirty little secret. One that Paul L Thomas lays out best,
Whether we call what students learn in school “knowledge” or “content” or “curriculum,” we always must be aware that what students are taught is always chosen by someone for some reason; in other words, there is no politically, ethically, or intellectually neutral “knowledge.”
In fact, every classroom is by its nature of humans interacting with different levels of power a political space.
That is the truth. And in regard to the teaching of history, especially true. It is through this lens that I have been watching the debate over ‘Critical Race Theory” unfold,
Both sides paint themselves as bastions of the truth, just seeking to develop students into better “critical thinkers”. Bullshit. Critical thinkers are like independent spouses and children, they sound great until you realize that most of the time they don’t echo your thoughts. And since we all are searching for less conflict in our lives, they become a pain in the ass.
The part of the desire for deeper critical thinkers that mostly goes unsaid, is that we want critical thinkers that arrive at the same conclusions as ours. Trust me there are few people less valued than those critical thinkers whose conclusions don’t align with those of the masses. It’s the same with “following the science”, we are all for following the science as long as we are following that which supports what we wish to promote. The goal has never been any kind of deep philosophical debate around the “facts”.
This is nothing new. Back in my college days, I went to see Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedy’s on a spoken word tour. Biafra spent the first half of the talk extolling the virtues of having an open mind, followed by the conclusions that you would reach if you had an open mind. My open mind led me out the door.
Matt Taibbi, a former journalist for Rolling Stone, has recently created a substack dedicated to explaining things are seldom as simple as the media or politicians would like us to believe. In his latest he writes,
The press as a business depends on simple storylines, but they’re not always there. Not all antiwar activists are alike, not all militias are alike, and not everyone who claims to represent a larger movement really does (overseas reporters get this one wrong all the time, at times seemingly by design). Sometimes what looks like a confrontation between groups is actually a collaboration. Turnout can be made to look bigger or smaller than the reality, and 99% of an activist’s comments might be discarded in favor of the one or two lines that fit the easier narrative.
The same is often done in the world of education.
In order for a society to survive, a series of social contracts must be entered into. We must believe that our election system provides a means for fair representation. We have to believe that the Supreme Court will rule in the favor of the law as opposed to political alignment. We have to believe that the police are there to protect and serve. These contracts are fortified by what is taught in our schools. The history we teach is intended as a means to reinforce the public narrative.
We teach the grand decisions by the Supreme Court not just because of their legal and historical context, but also as a means of demonstrating the value of our democratic institutions. As with anything, there is a limited number of things that can be taught due to time constraints. As a result, some things are deemed essential, while others are left out. Often the decision on what to leave in, and what to leave out, comes down to their relationship to the desired public narrative.
Want to inspire pride and a sense of deep loyalty, focus on the positive. Want to make a change and create a need for an alternative social contract, focus on the shortcomings of the existing social contract.
Here’s another dirty little secret, since the birth of the nation there has been a hidden war going on for how the country operates. It’s one not unlike that depicted in the movie franchise Underworld between the Vampires and the Lupines. One that rages without most Americans even realizing the extent to which it is being fought, yet all of us are impacted by its battles.
Early education reformers understood the power of public schools in crafting social contracts. No less than Benjamin Franklin himself recognized the challenge of assimilating new arrivals, “They will soon outnumber us, that all the advantages we have will not, in my opinion, be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”
In 1835 the Ohio school reformer Calvin Stowe warned teachers that “it is altogether essential to our national strength and peace, if not even to our national existence, that the foreigners who settle on our soil, should cease to be Europeans and become Americans.” His goal was to create a national feeling and unity of thought and action, Stowe explained, for “nothing could be more fatal to our prospects… than to have our population become a congeries of clans, congregating without coalescing.” He and other early crafters of the public school system saw the need to avert the impending “disaster” of cultural pluralism.
I wonder how he would react to today’s America. I imagine he would recoil in horror. While others would declare that cultural pluralism is one of the country’s major strengths.
I remember taking a college course that focused on the splintering of American society. We used to all watch one of three news broadcasts. General knowledge magazines like Time, Newsweek, or Life, were read by all. There was a limited number of information outlets, and what was covered tended to be more general than specific. Those days are gone forever. Only public schools remain as a vehicle for the disbursement of common knowledge. Control schools, and their teachings, and you control society.
Nobody likes to say that out loud. But trust me the wealthy know it, and hence the open checkbooks dedicated to influencing public education.
It’s not by accident that the benefits of the US Constitution are far more covered than the shortcomings. After all who would pledge allegiance to a constitution that only serves special interests? If such a governing document were designed to only benefit certain demographics, we’d certainly have to discard it in favor of a new governing contract, right?
That might seem like a far-fetched proposition, but it is the conversation, acknowledged or unacknowledged, that is transpiring in America right now.
The creators of the 1619 Project, which has been turned into a curriculum for schools, argue that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery”. This is a tenet that is highly debatable, but if accepted as fact, would indicate that all the by-products of that revolution are tainted by racism. That would include the US Constitution. Subsequently, it could be argued that as previously mentioned, a new governing contract is required.
Of late there has been increased awareness around the Tulsa Massacre. It is unarguably a stain on our country’s history, and one too few are familiar with. Yet this re-examination of a dishonorable incident is not without precedent.
When I was coming of age it was Wounded Knee and the slaughter of nearly three hundred Lakota people by soldiers of the United States Army. The story was brought forth as evidence of neglecting history and the need to address Native American suffering. Unfortunately, it’s a tale that has receded from our collective memory and I wonder how many of today’s young people are familiar with the historic tragedy.
I pray history doesn’t repeat itself with the remembering of the incidents in Tulsa. To use these horrible atrocities solely as political fodder is an equal tragedy. Once we remember, we shouldn’t forget.
I suspect that the desire to control the public narrative is at the root of the ever-increasing battles over school choice. Increased educational opportunities provided a means in which to ensure that one narrative is incapable of establishing dominance over another. Your local school is a little too liberal, well come on over to a private or charter option. Hearing too much religion in the classroom? We’ve got charter schools and private to counter that as well.
That’s the danger in creating a curriculum that isn’t reflective of parent desire – they can choose to go elsewhere. That’s a decision that gets easier and easier, as more options emerge. It’s a prime reason why I argue that districts must be as flexible and varied in their approach as possible. If you fail to serve the student you also run the risk of failing society.
It’s a precarious position we find ourselves in, one that can easily lead to the unraveling of America. Yes, there are certainly elements of our government that need reforming, but reform is difficult when it doesn’t come from a shared base of experience and knowledge. It’s not inconceivable that the reformation turns out worse than the initial system.
I don’t really have any insight into how we as a country should proceed, but I would advise that we do so with caution.
On January 20, 1961, newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy gave the famous quote, “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” One has to wonder if those words would resound as much if spoken for the first time today, instead of 50 years ago. In many ways, those words feel like an outdated adage, instead of an important thread that holds our country together.
One of the most important things we can do for our country is to be willing to engage in honest discourse about its future. In order for that to happen, it’s essential that we have a robust public education system that serves all facets of our society with equity. equally important is a public press, but that’s another story for another day.
I’m going to exit like I entered, with words from Peter Greene,
The challenge of teaching history is to convey all that while, at the same time, not telling students how to feel about any of it. Part of my usual fall spiel: “We can’t talk about American literature and history without talking about issues of race and gender and class. It is not my job to tell you what to think, but it is my job to convey as clearly as I can what other people think and thought about the issues at hand.” And then we buckled up for a year of discussion, and I periodically bit my tongue off, because you cannot change hearts and minds by demanding that they do so or forcing them to declare ideas they neither grasp nor believe (even if you’re pretty sure those things are true).
Good advice for all of us.
Acting as if nothing happened over the last year, the TNDOE released its annual list of Tennessee State Teachers of the Year finalists. Under normal circumstances, I would just scoff, but after a year, where arguably no two teachers’ experience was the same, how do you even measure excellence. At a time when we don’t have a clear picture of the impact of COVID, the DOE pretends it can recognize success. I’m sure those recognized are all high-quality educators, but to elevate one over the other in a year with unprecedented change is like naming an interior decorator of the year in the midst of a conflagration. If the DOE actually cared about educators, it would stop this charade and name all of Tennessee’s teachers who made it to the finish line as recipients of the honor. But doing that wouldn’t serve to enhance future resumes, and secure future administrative positions. And that always comes first.
The Tennessee Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday over Governor Lee’s proposed voucher legislation. The court is expected to rule in the next few months. Chalkbeat has your coverage.
MNPS principals are going camping next week. The district will hold its annual principal meetings at Montgomery Bell State Park, providing overnight accommodations for those who wish to take advantage of the opportunity to bond with their peers. Hey, when you’ve $400 million in federal dollars available, all kinds of neat things can happen. Hope they don’t forget to pack the bug spray and fishing poles.
Last week’s ending of school marked the end of an era at MNPS. Long-time MNPS reading specialist Dr. Tammy Lipsey quietly retired. After 40 years, she is leaving the education profession behind. Over the course of her career, Lipsey was instrumental in shaping policy on the local, state, and national levels. The consummate professional, she was always willing to lend a hand in an effort to increase student outcomes. She will be missed.
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