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When Good Words Become the Enemy

Dear Diane,

I ran across this wonderful book title in The Nation's book review section: "What Technology Wants." It seems "wants" are becoming separated from human "want'ers." Like the "marketplace"—which has a strong mind of its own, too. Behind such "wants" are people who want something even more dangerous than riches. They want power.

No one can spend the kind of money these billionaires have. It's enough for most to take care of their own lifetimes at levels of luxury hard to imagine, as well as providing the same for two generations or more down the road. With a lot left over—even if they put it under a mattress.

But power is another thing—you can't spend too much if that's your goal. Every dollar counts for a wee bit more of it. It's not a coincidence that those silly arguments we used to have in my teens about whether we'd rather be rich or famous are irrelevant today when the one buys the other—and vice versa.

But not even the richest Roman nobleman and oligarch was safe from the fall of the Roman Empire, nor were the richest Russians—both before 1917 and after 1989—safe from a revolution. (No doubt money and connections cushioned their falls.)

So I remind myself: times change sometimes much faster than one imagines. As Nelson Mandela's interviewer Ariel Dorfman (also in the Jan. 10/17 issue of The Nation) notes: "One word keeps cropping up, over and over: integrity." More importantly perhaps, "his confidence that it exists in everyone on this planet no matter how harshly hidden in fear and intolerance."

Such beliefs are powerful, but hard to sustain, and easy to dismiss as na├»ve, or wishful thinking. But as we said in Playing for Keeps, it's precisely such "wishful thinking" that makes democracy possible and makes childhood play so vital. It's what makes me an unadulterated extremist when it comes to the imperative to keep play alive. When we (the three authors) go out to read from the book to varied audiences, I am struck by the power of the reactions we get. Both from parents who fear that their young are not "exposed" to play—as though it had to be encouraged from the outside, and from adults (especially older ones) who remember their play life. But how many of us keep that playful spirit alive into adulthood and old age?

I had such faith in the abstract when I began teaching. And to my delighted surprise, even the children I was told were too deprived to play, or had no language for play, etc., took to it without a single lesson. The room itself sucked them into a world full of possibilities, and the time and space to explore them without didactic interruptions. I was fortunate to have had the chance to see what could happen if we kept that spirit alive for 13 years, and even what could happen in just the last six years (7th to 12th grades) for kids coming from very different backgrounds—from prekindergarten until 12th grade. Combined with a powerful multi-generational community with considerable power to plan their own future—with their eyes always on what we needed (all of us) if we were going to nourish a fragile, maybe even dying, democracy. The young have decreasing opportunities to have any idea what democracy feels like, to have seen it "in practice," or to even imagine what necessarily must precede democracy—a community that accepts responsibility for all its members and can imagine changing places with one and all its members.

It alarms me that so many of those who even agree with me in opposing the Bush/Obama/Bloomberg/Rhee/Klein agenda are stuck with pretty timid messages for the alternative. Somehow everything that suggests the evil empire—like small schools and greater school autonomy, and more teacher, student, and family empowerment (including, if possible, choice)—arouses fear. Choice becomes equal to privatization, and small becomes elitist, and so on.

It was The Nation, years ago, which published a piece I wrote in 1991 entitled "Choice Can Save Public Education." Now "choice," a very nice word, which fit with our slogans about other social issues, has been turned into the enemy. Just as "small schools" became a synonym for destroying neighborhood schools and harming the least-advantaged children.

It needn't have happened, perhaps. But it did. Every one of the early innovative pioneers had largely subscribed to the above, and hundreds of such examples exist in the midst of ordinary public systems today. They are all endangered by many on the Right and many on the Left! I think the time is almost too late for joining together to celebrate the principles we began with and stated so powerfully by Ted Sizer in his three books about Horace the high school English teacher, and his 10 basic principles—principles that rest on the kind of faith, not data, that Mandela embraces. (More next week on those principles.)

A final thought, Diane. The slogan, "children first" is perhaps not a good one, appealing as it is. Nor is the constant reference to adult interests as dangerous to children. It reminds me of the worst of the "old," "new left." It reminds me of some of the slogans that arise out of fascism and communism, ready to bury adults with their old-fashioned values in the interest of raising a new kind of human to better fit the future. Adults, perhaps, who do not require much imagination to swallow the idea that "technology" is a living being with wants of its own. (Besides, what's the point of worrying about children if we don't care about their lives as adults?)

Best,
Deb

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