Friday, September 01, 2006


To the Discourse Staff

1. Teachers have to begin by reclaiming the intellectual and ethical
dimensions of their work, resisting all the attempts to deskill and
hammer them into interchangeable cogs in a bureaucracy, all the
pressure to reduce teaching to a simple set of manageable skills.
Teachers have to decide who they intend to be in the classroom—whether
to stand at attention as dutiful clerks, inculcating students into the
status quo, the social order as it is, obediently passing along the
received curriculum that's handed them, or whether to move beyond
sorting and shaping, striking out in pursuit of the new, questioning
and challenging all that is before them, anything that wounds their
souls. Teachers have to ask themselves whether they're up for being
bold and taking risks. If they're not, perhaps they should withdraw
now, for they've cut themselves off from teaching's intellectual and
ethical well-springs, the real adventure of it all before it's even
As a teacher considers who to be and where to stand in regard to
children, to community, to parents, to school change, it's worth
considering motivation. Is her choice based on some deep desire to be
on the winning or the popular side, some cunning calculus of power?
Or can she think, finally, of no way she'd rather live than in
opposition to what she considers inhumane, whether it brings
recognition and reward or not? Accommodation is, of course, always
the easier path, but as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "it won't lead
to the promised land."
If teachers choose a life of risk-taking—and some always will—new
troubles begin, and a host of other questions arises: How do you
introduce important issues without being just another authoritarian
presence in your students' lives? How do you avoid trampling on their
insights, points-of-view, and experiences? How do you survive in your
native land?
Education at its best is eye-popping and mind-blowing—it's about
opening doors, opening minds, inviting students to become more capable
and powerful actors and choice-makers as they forge their own pathways
into a wider world. Education at its best is the practice of freedom.
But much of what we call schooling forecloses or shuts down or walls
off meaningful choice-making. While many of us long for teaching as
something transcendent and powerful, we find ourselves too-often
locked in situations that reduce teaching to a kind of glorified
clerking, passing along a curriculum of received wisdom and
predigested bits of information. A fundamental choice and challenge
for teachers, then, as I noted, is this: to acquiesce to the machinery
of control, or to take a stand with our students in a search for
meaning and a journey of transformation. To be a prison guard or an
educator. To teach obedience and conformity, or to teach its polar
opposite: initiative and imagination, the capacity to name the world,
to identify the obstacles, and the courage to act upon whatever the
known demands.
Lots of schools built for the industrial age look like little
factories, and the metaphor of production dominates the
discourse—assembly lines, management and supervision, quality control,
productivity, and outputs. Students are intermittently the raw
materials moving dumbly down the assembly line while value is added by
the workers/teachers, or, if the metaphor shifts its angle slightly,
students are the workers themselves, workers-in-training, of course.
When a school functions as a prison, and an increasing number of
schools do, students become its little political prisoners—the most
wide-awake of them know it. Compelled by the state to attend, handed
a schedule, a uniform, and a rule-book, sent to a specific designated
space of cell blocks, monitored constantly and controlled
relentlessly—Pledge of Allegiance: 9:00; No talking; Bathroom break:
10:15-10:20; No eating in the classroom; Lunch: 11:45-12:05; Boys and
girls form separate lines; Dismissal bell: 3:10; No running in the
hallways. On and on and on, the whole catalogue of coercion under
forced confinement—every young body the object of domination and
The little prison administrators expect neither uniform compliance nor
automatic submission from every inmate, hence the elaborate mechanisms
for uprooting deviance, for hammering each one into a model
prisoner—obedient, compliant, conforming. It begins with the
near-universal assumption that schools are in the business of sorting
and labeling—winners and losers, smart and stupid, good and bad. Of
course school people are careful not to be so crude—the kinder and
gentler employ euphemisms with a medical ring (ADD; BD; TAG) or the
sounds of science ("problem with impulse control"). The fog machine
is operating at full force, but let just a little air into the room
and it comes to this: the good and the smart will walk the runway to
the winner's circle, the bad and the stupid will be cast down and
out—losers forever. This is a foundational lesson that practically
every school teaches to every/body every day: there is simply no room
to recognize the unique qualities of each child nor to support the
growth, development, and progress of each.
Another basic lesson is this: school learning is a commodity, traded
at the market like boots and hammers. Unlike boots and hammers, whose
value is inherently satisfying and grasped directly and intuitively,
the value and use of school learning is elusive and indirect—hence,
students are asked to accept its unspecified value on faith and to be
motivated and rewarded externally. The value of school learning,
we're assured, has been calculated precisely by wise and accomplished
people, and the masters know better than anyone what's best. The
pay-off is way down the line, but it's surely there, somewhere, over
the rainbow. "Take this medicine," students are told over and over
again, day after tedious day, "it's good for you." Refuse the bitter
pill, and go stand in the corner—where all the other losers are
assembled. Of course, if you were to point out that lots of drop-outs
did OK for themselves—Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson and Ben
Franklin for starters, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, and
Margaret Mead as well, and John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie for
good measure—you'd be called an impudent trouble-maker, and put in the
corner for sure.
Of course, if people are consistently objectified and victimized, if
they are beaten into submission, trained to suppress their own needs
and desires, rewarded for toadyism, and if they come to feel
themselves to be entirely powerless, then there's little hope for a
life lived freely and fully. If people experience their lives as
wholly determined by powerful outside forces and they develop a sense,
then, that they have no agency or possibility whatsoever, if they are
stuck in passivity, sunk in despair and cynicism—Whatcha gonna do? Do
I make the rules? What can I do about any of it?—if all of this
accumulates and settles, then what could it possibly mean to be "born
free" or "living in a democracy, the best country in the world" or
"getting an education to better myself" or "endowed with certain
inalienable rights"? The meanings are anemic at best—hollow, debased,
spectral. If people are unable to act upon or within their presumed
freedom, then actual freedom is reduced to a shabby and shadowy thing,
and the word itself promotes nothing more than an illusion.
Vulnerability is lousy preparation for citizenship.
We are relentlessly reminded that we are free to choose among
products and brands—even as authentic, consequential choices are
withheld—that consuming is a higher form of citizenship than actual
participation in civic life, and that what's good for Microsoft or the
Pentagon is somehow the common good, a benefit for all. Celebrity
overshadows accomplishment, consuming trumps contributing,
accumulation conflates to happiness. This all develops into a
flattening out of any urgent sense of democracy, of any vital vision
of freedom.
Schools for obedience and conformity are characterized by
authoritarianism and irrelevance, passivity and fatalism. They turn
on what Foucault called the little technologies for control and
normalization in classrooms—the elaborate schemes for managing the
crowd, the knotted system of rules and discipline, the exhaustive
machinery of schedules and clocks, the laborious programs of testing
and grading, assessment, judgment, and evaluation, all of it adding up
to a familiar cave, an intricately constructed hierarchy—everyone in a
designated place and a place for every one. Knowing and accepting
one's pigeonhole on the vast and barren mountainside becomes all the
lesson one needs.
Central to an education for citizenship, participation, engagement,
and democracy—an education toward freedom—is developing in students
and teachers alike the ability to think for themselves—to decide that
this is black and that this is white, that this is false and the other
true. The core lessons of a liberating education are these: we each
have a mind of our own; we are all works-in-progress swimming toward
an uncertain and indeterminate shore; we can each join with others in
order to act on our own judgments and in our own freedom; human
progress and freedom is always the result of thoughtful dissent and
School has always been and will always be contested space—What should
be taught? In what way? Toward what end? By and for whom?—and at
bottom the struggle is over the essential questions: What does it
meant to be human? What does it mean to construct a meaningful,
purposeful, and valuable life in this world, here and now? What
demands does freedom make?
On the side of a liberating and humanizing education is a pedagogy
that has as its beginning and end identical points on a circle: the
act of questioning. This pedagogy of questioning opens rather than
closes spaces of curiosity, perspective, dialogue, and imagination.
It's modus operandi is generous not stingy, revealing not concealing,
unmasking, exposing, embracing. It's a tool that promotes
intellectual growth, awakens curiosity, encourages skill development,
and a lot else. And at its core this pedagogy of questioning 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. You
must change. All of this requires a radical rethinking of the
relationship of teacher and student, students and learning, schools
and society, education and justice.
And it implies a common faith: every human being is of infinite and
incalculable value—each an intellectual, emotional, physical, social,
spiritual, and creative life-force. We take as standard and guide, as
mission, nourishing and challenging free people to act freely in a
free society—in history—to right wrongs, to repair damage, to correct
errors, to oppose all unnecessary suffering.
One last note: Don't get discouraged by thinking that the so-called
Sixties was a time of easy activism in comparison to today. Those
years have been mythologized beyond recognition, and one negative
aspect of that myth-making is the received wisdom that today's
activists are somehow inadequate, today's students uniquely stupefied,
today's aspirations hopelessly constrained. I disagree. The
responsibility of people who hope to make humane and progressive
social change are the same: analyze the situation before you, learn
all you can, reach out and speak up, organize and take action. And
approach the whole thing with some humility—you don't know all there
is to know—and a lot of hope—if I can understand this or that, then
others can too.
2. NCLB is simply the latest fraud—more comprehensive, perhaps, more
dressed up in the cloak of science, more sophisticated in its putative
concern for the poor—pushed onto the public schools, onto students and
teachers and parents, onto society by the powerful. It relies on
stupid and narrowing notions of human intelligence and accomplishment,
standardization and simple-minded metrics that sort youngsters into
hierarchies of winners and losers.
There are several ways to imagine alternatives. One is to look at
what the wealthy and the privileged provide for their children—small
classes staffed by well-educated and committed teachers, campuses that
are safe and functional and aesthetically inviting, abundant
materials, all manner of clubs and teams and activities—and demand
that for all children and youth. The fact is we know how to create
wonderful schools for kids in every imaginable circumstance. What we
lack is neither knowledge nor resources; what we lack is political
3. The Weather Underground was called a terrorist organization by
the government and the prostate, bought media at the time, and it's
still referred to that way. Of course, it was no such thing.
We should demand a definition each time the word "terrorist" is used,
and we should insist on stable, universal usage applicable to crazed
groups of religious fanatics, cults, political formations, but also to
governments. If "terrorist" means attacks on innocents or
non-combatants, for example, if it means random killing or injury, if
it means coercion and intentional collective punishment… then, no, the
Weather Underground was not terrorist. But the US government was
terrorist in Viet Nam, and is terrorist in Iraq, and Israel offered a
textbook case of terrorism unleashed last month in Lebanon.
4. The point of progressive political action is always to educate,
organize, and mobilize masses of people. You can judge your own
effectiveness by a simple standard: did our activity teach us as well
as others, did it strengthen the movement for change, did it engage
and involve more people who are collectively working toward
I don't advocate "violent protest." We do, however, live in a sewer
of violence in this country, the greatest purveyor of violence in
history. The fact that the violence is largely exported or hidden or
kept from your consciousness through a mighty range of mystifications
and manipulations doesn't make it less true. Part of our job is
taking the pretty mask off the beast, showing what's really there.
And we need to remember that power concedes nothing without a demand,
and that violent thugs rarely give up power willingly.
But back to the point of protest—we need to build a movement for
change, a mighty radical mass movement. We don't need to try to
calculate whether this or that act will get this or that opportunist
to vote our way in Congress. Remember, FDR was not a labor leader,
nor was LBJ a Civil Rights leader—each was a brilliant politician
responding to facts on the ground. Create a different reality—alter
the facts on the ground—and watch what happens.
5. You have to live as if the world could be otherwise: you have to
become the change you hope to see in the world.
For every human being life is, in part, an experience of suffering and
loss and pain. But our living experience also embraces other
inescapable facts: that we are all in this together, and that much
(but not all) of what we suffer in life is the evil we visit upon one
another, that is, unjustified suffering, unnatural loss, unnecessary
pain—the kinds of things that ought to be avoidable, that we might
even imagine eliminating altogether.
In the realm of human agency and choice, we come face to face with
some stubborn questions: Can we stop the suffering? Can we alleviate
at least some pain? Can we repair any of the loss? We lurch, then,
toward deeper considerations: Can society be changed at all? Is it
remotely possible—not inevitable, certainly, perhaps not even very
likely—for people to come together freely, to imagine a more just and
peaceful social order, to join hands and organize, to struggle for
something better, and to prevail?
If society cannot be changed under any circumstances, if there is
nothing to be done, not even small and humble gestures toward
something better, well, that about ends all conversation. Our sense
of agency shrinks, our choices diminish. What more is there to say?
But if a fairer, more sane, and just social order is both desirable
and possible, that is, if some of us can join one another to imagine
and build a participatory movement for justice, a public space for the
enactment of democratic dreams, our fields open slightly. There would
still be much to be done, for nothing would be entirely settled. We
would still need, for example, to find ways to stir ourselves and our
neighbors from passivity, cynicism, and despair; to reach beyond the
superficial barriers that wall us off from one another; to resist the
flattening effects of consumerism and the blinding, mystifying power
of the familiar social evils—racism, sexism, and homophobia, for
example; to shake off the anesthetizing impact of the authoritative,
official voices that dominate the airwaves, the media, and so much of
what we think of as common sense; to "release our imaginations" and
act on behalf of what the known demands, linking our conduct firmly to
our consciousness. We would be moving, then, without guarantees, but
with purpose and with hope.
Education is, of course, one arena of struggle as well as
hope—struggle because it stirs in us the need to reconsider everything
we have wrought, to look at the world anew, to question what we have
created, to wonder what is worthwhile for human beings to know and
experience, to justify or criticize or bombard or maintain or build up
or overthrow everything before us—and hope because we gesture toward
the future, toward the impending, toward the coming of the new.
Education is where we gather to question whether and how we might
engage and enlarge and change our lives, and it is, then, where we
confront our dreams and fight out notions of the good life, where we
try to comprehend, apprehend, or possibly even change the world.