In the past week, I've seen two blogs (here and here) comparing what's happening at this moment in the fight over public education to The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins' rip-snorting teen novel trilogy. The Hunger Games books are set in a gut-wrenching dystopia in which teen "tributes" from across what's left of the USA fight to the death for the amusement and pacification of the rich and very powerful--kind of the ultimate extension of reality TV and public acceptance of war and violence as "necessary" to defend our way of life.
I read all three books in one delicious gulp-- finally understanding what my English-teacher buddies were saying about the rich allusions and moral complexities their students found in the books. And I have to admit I found unsettling parallels to public education: the elevation of competition, the use of coded language, manipulation of truth by the powerful and privileged.
But. In the decade that I've been writing about teaching and Ed Policy World, I've tried (admittedly, not very successfully) to avoid jumping on single, us vs. them bandwagons. The dark side of dichotomizing is that you get swept up into competitive, oppositional thinking rather than workable solutions. You start seeing the federal Department of Education as Dark Lords--or comparing their policies to Jim Crow codes and the Japanese internment disgrace.
Is that paranoid crazy-think? Or is it merely connecting the dots?
After gorging on The Hunger Games, I read another much-recommended book: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin is Erik Larsen's detailed account of a novice ambassador's tenure as what was arguably the worst diplomatic position in the world, representing the United States in pre-war Germany. It's a fascinating read, the education of straight-arrow professor-turned-Ambassador William Dodd who wants to believe Germany is headed in a bright new direction, in spite of all the flicks to the consciousness triggered by his training as an historian. The Secretary of State cares more about whether Germany can repay its debt to America than the horrifying daily violence perpetrated by the SS, so Dodd sets forth to build a good diplomatic relations with the new Chancellor, Adolf Hitler.
The most astonishing and enlightening part of In the Garden of Beasts describes American sentiment and opinion in the 1930s toward isolationism and "the Jewish problem." There's a deliberately crafted see/hear/say-no-evil policy in American's dealing with the rise of the Nazi party. And also--there it is--the use of coded language, manipulation of the truth, and an obsession with winning.
The word "fanatical" became a desirable trait in pre-War Germany, for example, part of a "hysteria of language" used to set Nazi reformers apart and make their passions seem logical and desirable to the general public. Reminded me of the "relentless pursuit" meme. One of the words that came into regular use during 1930s Berlin: Ubermensch. Superman. And the corresponding idea that everyone could be proficient, through eugenics.
Back in the United States, however, it was business as usual.
Just as it's business as usual in 2012 for State Departments of Public Instruction, 24-hour news outlets and ALEC. They're just doing their jobs. It's business as usual when teachers sigh and re-do their meticulously handcrafted curriculum to comply with the Common Core Standards, or when parents are too busy or afraid to speak out as their kids' school turns into a test-prep factory.
Hindsight for America came only after 60 million lost their lives, worldwide, in a cataclysmic war. But there was a lot of see-no-evil whistling in the dark beforehand.
Is Mark Naison right? Are his words another flick upside the consciousness? Should we assume good intentions lie under bad policy and try to find middle ground? Or is it time to take sides?