School & District Management Opinion

This Absurd Takeover of Our Public Life

By Deborah Meier — March 01, 2012 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

I’ve spent the week fighting a cold of some sort, and it has worn me out. But not so badly that I didn’t read your Tuesday blast on “How to Demoralize Teachers.” I’ve a lot to add to it, but first I must return to something I touched on in a recent blog entry of my own.

Regarding Diego Rivera: In the late 1930s my father’s friend from college days (City College of New York after World War I), Jay Lovestone, had given up being a left-winger and a Communist-of-some-sort and had a dilemma. He had a set of murals that Diego Rivera had painted in 1933 for his Workers School in New York. It had closed and he had managed to give away all but one. The one he couldn’t get rid of was Rivera’s re-doing of the central mural intended for Rockefeller Center, which the Rockefellers had tried to get him to change! Rivera stuck to his guns, and you won’t therefore find it in Rockefeller Center. Would we like it, he asked? A bit naively, my family said yes, and so it came to live in our foyer/living room, facing the Hudson River.

It was huge and consisted of three layers of plaster on wire lathe. At the bottom it read: Workers of the World Unite. It had Lenin in the center, an evil-looking Stalin up in the left corner, and an imposing Trotsky in the right upper corner, plus Engels, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and many more European and American Communists. It sat there for the next 15 or so years, causing much comment (including by the FBI). When my parents moved into a smaller apartment they put the mural in storage. Even then, no one wanted it. Until many years later when the city of Nagoya, Japan—a sister city to Mexico City—offered to buy it for its city museum. And so it left us.

I was confronted by those men (and three women) in their fierce poses from the age of about 8 to long after I left home for college. Answering to them may have strengthened my character. Or not.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch we face this absurd takeover of our public life—almost overnight—by a bunch of smart folks who see education much as Willie Sutton did when asked why he robbed banks: “That’s where the money is.” It has other plusses (ideological biases, generosity, etc., which attract some), but if it were a fiscal loser (as Edison Schools thought when it pulled back 20 or so years ago) it would not have the political allies now driving it. I’ve been so used to trying to persuade powerful people that we can’t base good schooling on simple tools of “measurement” that I forgot that they truly don’t care.

I had counted on the real Right Wing to stop national curriculum, national testing, and other such nonsense, but even they seem to have come to terms with the power of the State when it comes to such minor details, which meanwhile help distract us from seeing the charter/voucher movement for what it is.

So when I read that Rick Santorum has come out against college-for-all I couldn’t resist writing a piece of half-satire/half-praise for him in The New York Times. Because the trouble is I also think that the college for all idea is absurd! (Thanks, Mike K. for a wise warning about when satire doesn’t work.) Santorum sees very different disadvantages in the myth than I do, e.g. post-secondary education as a for-profit industry and creating an even cheaper labor force as we decrease the population of college attendees may both be positives for him.

I doubt if he’s trying to close the elite Harvards, Yales, et al. He and his kind have made a serious discussion about the purpose of being “well-educated” and its value for democracy hard to carry on. We’re trapped into “responding.” Advocates of public schooling are desperately trying to simply prevent the spread of bad ideas, and are left with little time to think about what we can offer as alternatives to a bad status quo. There’s no space and place to carry on a healthy debate while our backs are to the wall staving off disaster for our children (or 99 percent of them).

The late Tony Judt, in the New York Review of Books, wrote of his fears that we have come to the end of a very “long cycle of improvement” and that “we are now in a time of growing insecurity ... where our chief task is not to imagine better worlds but rather to think how to prevent worse ones.” I hope we have room for more than that, but he had a point.

I just got two books in the mail that offer a bit of both—the possible and the necessary.

Drive by Daniel H. Pink is about our seriously mistaken notions on motivation. “We can cling,” says Pink, “to a view of human motivation that is grounded more in old habits than in modern science. Or we can listen to the research, and draw our business and personal practices into the 21st century.” He presents the evidence from science and touts seven business thinkers who “get it.” One was Douglas McGregor, an MIT professor of management (and one-time president of “my” Antioch College!) who “got it” in a book written in 1960. He includes W. Edwards Deming, who put Japan’s industry on the map with his conversion 20 years later. And more. Not a left-winger among the seven he cites.

The second, Classroom Discourse and Democracy, is a book I wish we had more of, and we might have, had not so many of us been distracted by fighting off reform from corporate leaders who don’t even read their own best thinkers. Susan Jean Mayer has put together an easy to read, but far from simplistic account of what learning looks like when it’s not based on carrots and sticks, when it lives up to Pink’s and Deming’s and McGregor’s research. She even uses that bad word—accountability—in a wonderful way.

She calls for “Accountable Talk,” which rests on classrooms holding themselves accountable in three areas: to community, to reason, and to knowledge. She spells it out in ways that helped me think about the role of authority, which is what’s at stake in today’s assault on teacher authority.

I’ll say more about these later because by then (naturally) you’ll all have gone out and read these books and you’ll be ready to agree/disagree with me.

Not even George Orwell could have made up a story as frightening and absurd as we are living through in terms of education. Double-speak was his field of expertise, but none of the animals in Animal Farm had the chutzpah to produce what we faced this week in the name of “accountability:" the publishing of teacher rankings on the basis of student test scores! And one can also better understand why it is that I fume over a math curriculum that ties kids up in knots trying to make sense of calculus, but doesn’t bother much with statistics. Statistics remain the best of all tools for liars.


P.S. Re., the Lab School. I’ll have to come back to that in a week or so.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.