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The Egalitarian Mission Has Disappeared


Dear Diane,

I’m not sure that it’s Red vs. Blue. (It’s still hard for me to realize we are now in an age when red is the color of conservatism.) The choice of Arne Duncan leaves me sad, but maybe he’s “purple”? I hope so. I’ll wait to comment until all the education positions are filled.

There’s another axis of ideas that may cross lines on some of the issues that most concern us. We’re lined up, for example, on different issues in different places; for example, with regard to “who should decide what?”

There are complicated balances embedded in this question that are increasingly being decided centrally. I think you worry more about the lack of expertise of those making decisions, and I worry more about even the wisest of educational czars telling parents, teachers, and communities what and how to teach. On this one I’m often allied with traditional conservatives! You seem split depending on whether it’s “how” (pedagogy) or “what” (subject matter). We’ll get back to this in 2009.

The idea of equity has a more obvious Red/Blue axis. Except that some of the new defenders of equity seem only interested in equalizing test scores. I just finished reading an extraordinary piece by T. Elijah Hawkes (a NYC school principal) in Schools Studies in Education, published jointly by the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago and the University of Chicago Press. He says it better than I can. I urge everyone to read it.

The egalitarian mission that I grew up thinking was as American as apple pie has disappeared. Entirely gone for the Reds, but not so much brighter for many Blues. We are no longer the land where working men and women are middle class in anything but a rhetorical sense and where the urban poor have disappeared; we’re no longer the most socially mobile nation on Earth. Making AYP has replaced all our other lofty goals.

(Incidentally, my old Boston school—Mission Hill—missed making AYP again. Not because of test scores, but because less than 95 percent participated. We do allow parent opt-outs, and one family too many exercised that right.)

The disproportionate editorial writers' anger at high workers’ wages in the auto industry versus anger at the astronomical wages of the bankers and hedge funders is odd. You are right, Diane, it’s at least partially just old historic right-wing politics in its newest guise—fueling anti-unionism is all part of that. But it’s not Red alone.

We’re substantially gutting the basic idea of democracy—that those who make decisions be accountable to those they most deeply impact: “of, for and by,” especially the last of the trio. We all recognize that too many citizens think they have virtually no influence. This leaves many choosing to retreat from public life altogether. It lends credence to seeing wealth as the only form of power. It’s fed by an ideology that argues that the marketplace solves what imperfect political democracy can’t. (Virtually everything except modern war—and we’re increasingly privatizing that, too.) Distrust in each other grows apace as we see everyone as a competitor, not a fellow citizen. America vs. the World. My kids vs. everyone else’s. But yet—something holds us back. Something resists this trend toward privatization of everything. In that sense, the current crisis may have been a blessing, if we recover from it and learn from it.

There is a way to rebuild respect for democracy, and the proper balance of trust/distrust needed to make it work. Schools are one vehicle for rebalancing needed trust, potential building blocks for that task. Imagine if schools were community centers for intergenerational learning, focused around strong civic debate about means and ends. Imagine them as places where we’d be required to act “as if” we respected each other from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m..

Our accountability to each other must rest less on obscure, convoluted data understood only by a small elite, and more on that amazing human capacity for “judgment.” Ordinary citizens need to be in a position to make judgments about institutions they can see, feel, and “taste.” Even experts need something more than test scores. We need schools that embody the virtues of cross-generational egalitarian communities alongside of various forms of monitoring that help alert us to serious abuses of local power in a still unequal society and in-depth sampled data that can serve to provide context and insight.

Power corrupts; but so does the lack of it. We’ve not yet tackled the balance of power needed to make schools safe for democracy. They are certainly not safe now. I look at every piece of legislation through a very narrow lens—will it enable us to pursue the work we began 35 years ago in District 4 in East Harlem? (Work that was replicated throughout the nation in small but stirring ways.) While it was “rudely” interrupted 15 years ago by other agendas, it persists in oases everywhere in this land. It’s not just “small” that matters, but where decisions are made. The change we need (call it reform or not) lies in policies that fuel the enthusiasm of those at “the bottom”—where adults and children connect. Small is only a means to that end.

NCLB, built on distrust of those close to the action and vast trust in those furthest removed, can’t get us to that better balance. It can’t unleash that enthusiasm. We need to start again with our eye on that prize: schools whose curriculum—both the open and the hidden one—is all about democracy.


My kids are all coming up to Hillsdale soon—and grandkids—and that’s a great blessing. May you and our readers all have a wonderful few weeks until we resume our conversation. (Following a short break, Bridging Differences will return the week of Jan. 4, 2009.)




What you call for in your post is what we refer to as "citizenship" when I was a kid.

The term and concept seem out of vogue.


What a great sendoff into the holidays! Your column and Diane's leave me with a lot to think about. I am intrigued by what you call "an ideology that argues that the marketplace solves what imperfect political democracy can’t."

I read Hawkes' article, too quickly; I will have to go back and read it again. At the outset, I have praise and reservations. I agree wholeheartedly that we need to teach children about the past so that they will not be mired in the present; that we need to offer tradition, values, indeed something to resist, but also something to open their world. I admire his passionate and eloquent writing and find many subtleties in it.

Now for the reservations. First, he quotes Maxine Greene at the top of the article (and misspells her last name). Does he agree with what she has to say in "The Avant-Garde in the Classroom"? If so, that casts a different light on his ideas. She writes:

"Seeking an appropriate, authentic idiom, a mode of being in the world, [the student] can only begin with his own situation; and this is why we think that humanities study should begin with the avant-garde. Experiencing Plath, Burroughs, Pinter, Beckett, Genet, Butor, Grass, and others, the student may be enabled to confront the situation of being alive in a silent universe, confronting what is felt as 'meaninglessness,' moved to create his own forms. It is in response to such confrontation and to the exigencies of choice that one engages in sense-making and in the pursuit of form. Collaborating in that pursuit, the teacher can make possible a movement outward to the past--for the sake of the student's present, in the interest of his choosing himself."

In other words, "We should have students read avant-garde literature because it taps into their own sense of meaninglessness. From there we can move into literature of the past."

I couldn't disagree more. I have no problem teaching some of the authors she mentions (to high school or college students), but would oppose starting with them or teaching them for the purpose she describes. Where would Hawkes stand on this question? It seems he would agree with me, but I'm not sure. He and Greene seem to have a similar relation to silence.

Is ours really a "silent universe" or a noisy one? I would argue the latter. Or perhaps we have responded to a perceived silence in the cosmos by descending into utter noise. Hawkes doesn't seem to like silence. He writes:

"The educators know that much of their job is to evoke the idealism and idealistic extremes of youth, and they can’t do this—they won’t have the strength and endurance—if they don’t engage their own ideals as the point of departure. Everyone, young and old, is invested. It’s personal, and there is room, in the day, in the discourse, in the structures of the school, for the work of rebellion and questioning to take its course, in all its personal extremes. It’s not anarchy. These are structured conversations and spaces where ideals can collide and reconcile, where students talk to students, teachers talk to students, and each listens—really listens—to each. These educators build those spaces into their days and ways: times, forums, protocols for conversation, for the discussion of what’s wrong and what’s next. And these educators know that if they—if we—don’t do this, then instead of wrestling with right and wrong constructively, with us there in the room with them, our young people will take their rough energy elsewhere, and they’ll do misplaced violence against others and themselves. Or, worse: they’ll just go and be quiet and still."

Now, there is a place and time for the sort of conversation he describes. But when does it end? Hawkes seems to have a vision of unending conversation, as well as "protocols" suggestive of "Accountable Talk." Moreover, he seems to see stillness as the worst of possibilities.

If we fear silence and stillness, we exacerbate the problem of imprisonment in the present. How will students learn about the past if they cannot still themselves enough to take it in?

When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher wrote on my report card that I tended to stay quiet in class discussions but that I showed insight when I did choose to contribute. I was quiet at that time because I wanted to avoid talking too much. I went from one (perceived) extreme to another. It was a bit forced, but I enjoyed that self-imposed silence. I learned from it. I found out that I did not have to respond to everything immediately.

I am still learning when to be quiet and when to speak up. But I would never want to give up the quiet. Granted, Hawkes may not be condemning quiet, but he doesn't seem to recognize its place in our life and thought.

There are, of course, differences between silence, quiet, and stillness. There is much more to think about here.

Happy holidays! I will be waiting eagerly for the first Bridging Differences columns of 2009.

Diana Senechal

Deborah, and all, the best of the holiday spirit come to all.

Looking forward to the future of schools about democracy...

There is some hope. Newly empowered as they've been over the past decade, we are seeing some return of civility to the schools of our biggest cities. Still a long, long way to go. Yet there is a feeling that anarchy no longer reigns.
--Workers who are supposed to fix the plumbing, replace the toilet paper, and deliver the schoolbooks are doing so.
--Teachers charged with making sure each child learns to read are getting both the resources and the motivation to make sure it happens.
--Middle school students who can learn are being less burdened by older students who haven't.
--High schools are settling down. In part because the surrounding neighborhoods are less intense in their violence and crime. In part because upper levels of school authority recognize that not all schools can be run on the same discipline model.

With basic reading and other essentials better covered, schools can more turn to the work of a curriculum about democracy.

We think about how to best do that.

Debrorah, when the Declaration was written, bureaucracies simply didn't exist. Save on a ship of the fleet, or on a southern plantation, people did not work for other people in large numbers. A printer might have a couple of apprentices. A really wealthy family might have a decent house and grounds staff. That was about it. Even the military was not a creation of any central government, but rather militias finally cobbled together under Washington's operational command.

Today, however, the people charged with teaching our youth know of nothing but bureaucracy. They spent 13-14 years in a state run schoolhouse. Their own teachers were likely contracted via a bureacracy in the state capitol known as the xx_education association. They then schooled at a perhaps state run school of 1000-50000 students, with many levels of bureaucracy.

Armed with all this education, they then took it for granted that they would grovel at the bottom of a humiliating seniority ladder, their own talent and accomplishments be damned.

And what would they learn in the course of this education? Did they learn of Daniel Boone or Benjamin Banneker or Genghis Kahn ( a great unifier) or or al-Azhar university (1000 years old) or even a war to guess that Normandy might have been part of?

How many learn--really learn--even the basics of economics: the supply/demand curve? Or the basics of accrual accounting, the fundamental rules that keep everyone on the same page when we're talking money--and the very meaning of the word Profit? Or the basest basics of law?

Think of the creativity that might arise if more people moved in and out of the schools from the private sector. If those of us interested in education didn't feel completely excluded by the educracy. If HS substitute teachers and aides were paid something above minimum wage. If innovations in software and other things were given seed money. If we hadn't wasted 20 years of political energy fighting to let a few schools do things outside the normal educratic hierarchy?

We have a president and an ed secretary who seem to believe that parents should have some power around educrats. Since we won't be getting peace in 2009 (Waziristan et al are erupting), the blessing we may hope for is at least some establishment of bottom-up (parents that is) education.

"Anti-unionism" is not necessarily a "right wing" stance. Let's put aside, for a moment, the history of leftist infighting over whether unions are viable stepping stone towards full Socialism or the roles that unions have played in corporatism, syndicalism, fascism and destroying Detroit.

Anti-unionism can be seen as right wing when it serves statist or corporative purposes- like what Michelle Rhee seems to be up to.

But anti-unionism, when it is purely about abolishing the form of privilege that unions represent, dovetails nicely with classic Liberalism.

Who is really anti-union? Not me. Who is for teachers? Me.

I am all for unions having the power to confront egregious abuses of employees, and for making major adjustments to wages when warranted.

I'm also for breaking the logjams that hold both teachers and students back.

Teachers deserve better than what they are getting. What they get is the stagnation caused by having two competing sets of bureaucracies - the school administrations, and the staid old union structures.

Unions, when new, are great at bringing about radical change. Unions when older are good at preserving status quo--with small incremental change.

What most of us from the outside world know is that the incremental change would be larger without the perennial one-size-fits all collective bargaining. Those inside are terrified that the loss of collective bargaining will mean a loss of pay, protection, or other benefits. For some, it would. For others, however, it would mean great increases in these things. And on average all would be better off.

And of course, so would the students.

Unions are remnants of feudal privilege and should go the way of the Ancien Regime. Supporting unions is supporting medieval protectionism. There will be no accountability until unions are abolished and no one is insulated from society. The holier-than-thou pronouncements of kings, barons and bishops were once unquestioned. But no more. Let the revolution continue.

Of course, the competing administrative bureaucracy must be destroyed too. Sovietization, Prussianization or outright fascistization of schooling is the price for not acting (sadly, many socialists out there see this as a good thing!).

Public schools do have internal competition, as Ed Jones observed, but both operate at the expense of children and parents. Protection rackets always rationalize their criminal behavior by claiming it is for the benefit of the victim! Teacher union rhetoric fits the pathology.

This governmental parasitism, for all unions gain power via legislation, hampers teachers and school professionals, who are, essentially, engaging in well-meaning societal destruction. There is no compromise to be had in this regard. Equality demands it. Education requires it. Tweaking union and administrative structure only addresses symptoms. Ridding society of these scourges is a cure.

I'm not sure how the topic of this thread has turned to unions, but I have a few thoughts. I tend to share with "reason" a generally low opinion of unions. But after some reflection in recent years my thoughts have advanced a little. It is not the idea of unions that is much in need of criticism, it is the traditional form of unions. Indeed what we generally think of as unions, I think ought to be called "nineteenth century unions". Unfortunately, in my opinion, the model of nineteenth century unions has persisted unchallenged through the twentieth century. What we need is a new idea of unions, a twenty-first century model for unions.

Unions are the most special of special interests. They are interested only in promoting their own interests. They have proved this repeatedly in the past century. When they call a strike they are not concerned with public welfare. Indeed they hope it hurts the public, for that gives them leverage. They have some rhetoric of good intentions, of course, but their actions have always been entirely selfish. And they have a long history of using coercion and intimidation. Video of strikers throwing rocks at cars of workers attempting to cross picket lines have made the television news many times in my life time (though, to be fair, perhaps not in recent decades).

A twenty-first century union would start with the premise of no coercion. A twenty-first century union will never call a strike, or threaten a strike, or even mention a strike.

Union advocates wonder why Wal Mart workers are reluctant to unionize. The answer is very simple. A nineteenth century union will reserve the right to strike. A strike wreaks havoc with individual's lives. Why risk it?

Something I had not realized until a few years ago is this. Unions protect their center at the expense of the periphery. This insight comes directly from my own experience. For two years I taught college math in Minnesota. I did not have to join the union, and I didn't, on principle. But the union still got 90% of regular union dues straight out of my paycheck. They never asked me to join. And why should they? They claimed that I got a benefit from this involuntary taxation. They claimed they would come to my aid, if needed, just as quickly as they would come to the aid of a member. But at best this is a case of "involuntary contract". (This concept, involuntary contract, needs a lot more attention. My conclusion is that only government ought to have the power to impose an involuntary contract. In having the right to take my money without my consent, it seems to me, unions are given government powers. And the result, in my humble opinion, is a very bad thing.)

There is more to this story. The union also had a rule, for the benefit of its members of course, that "fixed term employees" could be hired for no more than four years total. I was a fixed term employee, hired one year at a time. That is often the nature of college teaching jobs for those on the lowest rung of the ladder. A person in this situation, but without the union rule, can hope that a few one year contracts will lead to a sort of de facto tenure. Indeed it often does. But in Minnesota that is prevented from happening. Why? The obvious explanation is that I was on the periphery of the union. The union was set up for professors, not for the likes of me. Those at the center benefit if the "hired hands" (me) move on.

At times in the past unions have been accused of racial discrimination. That seems to me a logical consequence of protecting the center at the expense of the periphery.

Most Wal Mart employees will not analyze things in my terms, but surely the perception that they would be on the periphery, totally at the mercy of the center, must be part of their thinking.

There was a time, I think, when unions were fighting for human dignity. But I think that time ended before I was born, and that was in 1943. All my lifetime unions have been fighting for power. All my lifetime unions have been the most special of special interests.

But I am not against the idea of unions. It is a part of my personal belief system and the teaching of my church that individuals may join with others to accomplish together what they cannot accomplish alone. We have a constitutional right, deeply embedded in our culture, to come together for our mutual benefit. About the only limitation is that we "peaceably assemble." So I do not want to abolish unions. I just want to drag them (kicking and screaming probably) into the twenty-first century.

Great post, Brian.

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