My and Diane Ravitch’s Path to Reign of Error

March 11, 2014

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (http://bn.com).

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (http://bn.com).

I first began reading Diane Ravitch in July 1990, the summer before my senior year at the University of Pittsburgh. It was the summer in which I became interested in understanding magnet programs and their relationship with desegregation and diversity efforts, courtesy of my own experience with Mount Vernon, New York public schools and its now defunct Humanities Program. I read both The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973 (1974) and The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980 (1985) that summer, with education scholar and Ford Foundation director Jeanne Oakes’ Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (1985) sandwiched in between.

It was the beginning of a twenty-year period of constantly intellectual disagreement between me and Ravitch. Oakes’ work captured inequality in terms of race and socioeconomics so much better than Ravitch, whose writings back then often treated these inequalities and distinctions as afterthoughts. When I shifted my research area to multicultural education and multiculturalism, though, that was when I found Ravitch’s absolutist defense of so-called traditional American democratic education and all things e pluribus unum unbelievably stifling. With all Ravitch knew about the politics of education, in New York and with the US Department of Education, how could she possibly defend a system that did as much to control and exclude students as it did to provide something akin to an equal opportunity?

I chalked Ravitch up to being another out-of-touch neoconservative, scared to death of race and diversity and multiculturalism. I said as much at conferences like the American Educational Research Association meeting and other conferences. I wrote as much in my dissertation and in my first book, Fear of a “Black” America: Multiculturalism and the African American Experience (2004). Through it all, I always found Ravitch’s writing compelling, but her conclusions wanting, because they lacked perspective and empathy in the context of public schools and diversity.

Then, Ravitch wrote Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform in 2000. Though it contained some of her common themes — overemphasis on the mantra of reform, the need for more testing, support for school choice, denigration of a multicultural curriculum — Ravitch showed growth in this book. She was less hostile to a more progressive curriculum and seemed, for the first time, really, to understand how much race and poverty had shaped the direction and the harshness of school reform going back to 1900. I happily used Ravitch’s Left Back in my History of American Education Reform course at George Washington in 2002. For her book provided a comprehensive and even-handed overview of the politics of K-12 education in a way that any educator of any American ideological perspective could understand.

I’ve finally read Ravitch’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (2013). Reign of Error is Ravitch at her most passionate and energized. If I hadn’t read a couple dozen of Ravitch’s articles from the 1980s and 1990s and four of her previous books, I would think that this was her first book, as there is sense of urgency in Reign of Error that can seldom be found outside of epic memoirs and epic fiction novels.

Ravitch’s argument in Reign of Error is a simple one. Corporate education reform, if allowed to continue unfettered, will destroy public education in the US, and in the process, American democracy. Privatizing public schools (i.e., turning them into “public” charter schools), destroying teacher’s unions, constant high-stakes testing, bypassing school boards and forgetting about racial segregation and poverty — that’s corporate education reform’s agenda. As Ravitch said in Chapter 12 on the fallacies of merit pay for teachers, “Merit pay is the idea that never works and never dies (p. 119).” She could have also substituted the words “school choice,” “creationism,” “standardized testing,” “closing schools,” and “privatization” for “merit pay.”

But Ravitch goes further in her 400-page treatise. That though public education in the US has had its share of problems — the need for more teacher training and time for professional development, racial segregation and high levels of poverty while underfunded — that corporate education reform has compounded these problems several times over. That with corporate education reform, teachers, parents and students will have no say in public education, at least the ones without their own personal foundation with which to endow their own public charter school.

From a writer’s standpoint, this wasn’t Ravitch’s best effort. Her argument is repetitive, one where she likely could’ve cut the main chapters by a quarter (about 100 pages) and made the same points. I likely could’ve become inebriated if I had a shot of vodka every time the words “poverty,” “Gates,” “Walton,” “Broad,” “high-stakes testing,” and “corporate education reform” come up. But given my history with reading Ravitch and with this topic, of course Reign of Error was repetitive — it was like reading my own words on this same topic.

Ultimately, Ravitch’s Reign of Error is a primer for anyone interested in averting the social injustice that is the corporate education reform tyranny of wealthy philanthropists, money-grubbing entrepreneurs and politicians across America’s limited ideological spectrum. For those whom up to now this issue has been of limited interest, or for those who’ve felt the change in public education but haven’t quite been able to articulate those feelings, Reign of Error is for you.

For educators, parents and even students already involved in writing about or protesting against corporate education reform, this book is still for you. Ravitch provides so much ammunition that Reign of Error can be applied in numerous ways to numerous situations. At school board meetings. With #AskMichelleRhee hash tags on Twitter. In job interviews with Teach for America and with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In letters to the editor of the mainstream newspapers and in comments to mainstream TV and radio newscasters. In arguments with neoconservative parents who send their kids to private schools.

“Protecting our public schools against privatization and saving them for generations of American children is the civil rights issue of our time (p. 325).” is how Ravitch ended her Reign of Error. It’s not an exaggeration. But it does beg a question. If we can successfully fend off corporate education reform — and assume that the country will continue to ignore the poverty and racial segregation that Ravitch desperately wants addressed — can she and I then spend five minutes discussing multiculturalism?


Black History = American History, But For American Stupidity

February 4, 2014

Pythagorean Theorem (except when it comes to Black history and race), February 4, 2014. (http://ncalculators.com/)

Pythagorean Theorem (except when it comes to Black history and race), February 4, 2014. (http://ncalculators.com/)

It’s Black History Month. It’s a month that often feels more like an obligation to honor the Civil Rights Movement than it does a full month to celebrate and appreciate all African American contributions to the development and success of the United States over the previous four centuries. Yet there are many Whites, Blacks and other people of color who refuse to see this at all. Some argue for a White History Month, some argue that Blacks don’t have a culture or history at all — or at least, one worth celebrating. And some argue that the time and need for a Black History Month has passed.

Some of this ridiculousness I parody here:

No argument is more central to the reason why Black History Month needs to continue than the one I’ve heard from conservatives and former students over the years. That because Black history shines a light on America’s racist, economic loading of the dice in favor of White elites and business interests, I’m being “anti-patriotic” when I talk about or teach on this. Then, of course, I get the “love-America-or-leave-it” response.

People who respond this way are such assholes. Some of your ancestors brought my ancestors here in chains, well before most of these alleged patriots’ ancestors even thought about coming here. My ancestors built plantations, chopped down forests, grew the cash crops that made White men rich and provided the money necessary to make America an industrial capitalistic powerhouse, built the White House and the Capitol, and have fought in every war this country’s been a part of. But I’m unpatriotic when through Black history I can point out America’s flaws and great failings?

The less evolved part of me would say, at least in a street argument, “Kiss my Black ass!” But to be honest, I don’t want these folks to touch me, much less kiss my butt. What I want them to do is read, listen, watch and learn, and not just assume everything they’ve heard from FOX News, their parents and in elementary school social studies is the gospel truth. That way, they would then have the choice between understanding that US history and Black history are one and the same and wallowing in their willful stupidity.


The Fall of the House of D’Souza

January 25, 2014

It’s been a sad last 20 months for Dinesh D’Souza. Once one of the princes of the intellectual conservatism set, he’s shown himself to be a fascist hypocrite and fool. Between his 2016: Obama’s America — a half-baked documentary only the late Jerry Falwell would’ve been proud of — his extramarital issues, his forced resignation from King’s College, and now, campaign fraud in the Citizens United age? It’s all proof-positive that there really aren’t any intellectual conservatives in the US, at least by global standards of what it means to be a real intellectual.

If anything, what we have are a bunch of pretenders to the throne. Folks who are radical right-wingers and don’t understand anything outside of the affluent, heterosexual and semi-religious (if not spiritual) White male world. So-called scholars who are about as open to new ideas and diverse people as Archie Bunker in season one of All In The Family. Hypocrites who deny for others what they demand for themselves (thanks, U2, for that one).

Since Illiberal Education (1991) and The End of Racism (1995), D’Souza’s been trying to outdo himself. Except that takes more intellectual depth and stamina than he had even when putting together his two most celebrated books (at least, celebrated in his circles). Between his books on Reagan and Obama, it’s like reading the ramblings of, well, a fraudulent author teetering on insanity. I don’t feel sorry at all for D’Souza, who lost his youthful intellectual edge faster than the end of the ticking of an egg-timer. (from HuffPost)


JFK & Innocence Never Lost, RFK & Real History

November 21, 2013

President John F. Kennedy, presidential portrait (1961-63). (Wikipedia via John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston)

President John F. Kennedy, presidential portrait (February 20, 1961). (Wikipedia via John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston). In public domain.

I’ve heard about the JFK assassination in Dallas my whole life. Only the Civil Rights Movement, World War II and the Holocaust outrank JFK’s murder at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald (or numerous other candidates) as subjects more often discussed in pop history circles of which I’ve been a part. But with the fiftieth anniversary of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s upon us tomorrow (fifty years to both the day and date), the mythology of his presidency and the state of the nation’s soul since November 22, 1963 is well into high gear.

But of all the myths and legends — including this ridiculousness about Camelot and the Kennedys in the White House — there’s one that bothers me more than any other. The common refrain that “America lost its innocence” the day President Kennedy took three bullets to his back and head in Daley Plaza in Dallas. Really? What about Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley? What about slavery, the Civil War, the eradication and forced relocation of American Indians, nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Heck, what about the Cuban Missile Crisis, where JFK came within hours of jeopardizing the lives of eighty million Americans thirteen months before his murder?

Bloom off the rose, November 21, 2013. ( ).

Bloom is off the rose, November 21, 2013. (http://www.marctomarket.com).

The fact is, America has always been a violent nation, especially for those not in charge of running things here. But this bald-faced lie of a myth has been one built by those who were young when Oswald took out JFK. Teenager Baby Boomers and those only a few years older, big fans of President Kennedy, and those who loved him and lamented what could’ve been. Those are the folks that claim that the nation was young and innocent, but somehow deflowered on that dark, dark day. 

I call poppycock and balderdash on this one. Like Malcolm X in the days after the JFK assassination, I say that this was an example of America’s violent chickens coming home to kill. Luckily it’s forty-nine years and 364 days later, so I won’t be setting up my own assassination at the hands of former friends and real foes. Yet there’s some truth to Malcolm X’s statement. In a country as violent as ours, where Presidents like Kennedy endure death threats day after day, where arguments and oppression lead to mass shootings, should we ever be surprised? Ever? I say that there was no innocence lost here.

No, what we should really be discussing this week in terms of what could’ve been is RFK’s assassination in June ’68 in California. For all the sorrow over JFK’s murder, one good thing came out of it. President Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ took the best parts of JFK’s potential legacy — civil rights, the spreading of prosperity and Vietnam — and doubled down on it. Given LBJ’s scope of influence when compared with JFK’s, it was doubtful if the slain president could’ve pushed through half of what LBJ did get done. LBJ revealed himself to be to the left of JFK, a real Cold War liberal (for better and for worse), and not a borderline centrist.

Robert Francis Kennedy, Life Magazine Cover, November 1966. ( )

Robert Francis Kennedy, Life Magazine Cover, November 1966. (http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/)

Of course, RFK likely wouldn’t have had the chance to run in ’68 but for his brother’s assassination. Keep in mind, too, that LBJ’s successes, failures and decision to not run for re-election also made Robert F. Kennedy’s run possible. But bottom line: RFK’s assassination affected America political and culturally in ways that have been deeper and longer lasting than even JFK’s. For starters, Americans likely do not elect Richard Nixon president in ’68 if RFK’s steadying influence is present at the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago. That would’ve set up some real opposition to the neo-conservative movement and the ’70s and ’80s backlash against Blacks, women, gays and labor that had been brewing since JFK’s assassination in ’63.

I know that many of you will vehemently disagree, shake your heads, or deliberately ignore the ideas of this post. What else is new in the land of the Baby Boomers, where a few so-called activists get to tell the rest of us how to see the 77 million of them and their growing up years? I say that this narrative is worn out, and neglects the reality that neither JFK nor America were innocent, but RFK’s evolving left-of-center integrity was a much bigger loss.


“I Am Become Columbus, Destroyer of Worlds”

October 14, 2013

Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín, First landing of Columbus on the shores of the New World, at San Salvador, West Indies, 1862 (published 1892, Currier& Ives). (Dantadd via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín, First landing of Columbus on the shores of the New World, at San Salvador, West Indies, 1862 (published 1892, Currier& Ives). (Dantadd via Wikipedia). In public domain.

The title kind of says it all, no? On this Columbus Day, 2013, we should all acknowledge this as the beginning of the inadvertent (and frequently deliberate) genocide conducted against the indigenous groups that made up the Western Hemisphere as of October 12, 1492. The day that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America — as if First Nation tribes or Native Americans or American Indians were looking to be discovered — was the first day of more than half a millennium’s worth of physical and psychological assault on the peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

I talk about this in all of my courses — US History, World History (when I get to 1500 CE), and African American History. I describe how this notion of discovery was pretty much invented in the nineteenth century, to create a mythology about the greatness of God-fearing Europeans (and, in the US context, Americans) and their pre-ordained but altruistic triumph over the heathen Indians, those “noble savages.” I go over the fact that the Eurasian diseases that the Spaniards and other Europeans brought with them to the Western Hemisphere wiped out tens of millions of the indigenous between 1492 and 1700. Smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, bubonic plague, chicken pox all helped reduce a population that experts have estimated to have been between 70 and 100 million at the time of first contact to between seven and 10 million by the end of the seventeenth century.

Drawing accompanying text in Book XII of the 16th-century Florentine Codex (compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, 1540–1585), showing Nahuas of conquest-era Central Mexico suffering from smallpox, September 11, 2009. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

Drawing in Book XII of Florentine Codex (compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, 1540–1585), showing Nahuas of Central Mexico suffering from smallpox, September 11, 2009. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

I talk about Columbus’ second voyage, where he helped establish the first European settlement in what is now Haiti and then in the Dominican Republic, all while searching for gold, enslaving Arawak Indians and engaging in full-fledged battles. Just a year and a half after the first, glorious “discovery!”

The justification, of course, was and often remains that Europeans were civilized Catholic Christians, whereas these half-dressed natives were hedonistic polytheists. Even now, we often get caught up in the human sacrifice rituals of the Maya and Aztecs and somehow use that as justification for exploitation, slavery, and the inadvertent wiping out of whole cultures — worlds, if you will. It’s a justification that should make any believer in a higher power queasy, and any non-believer extremely angry.

I’m disappointed. We still sugarcoat the real meaning of Columbus Day for people of all ages. I began to learn about all of this in fifth grade (thank you, Mrs. O’Daniel), in October ’79. But I didn’t come to know most of the full story until high school. Even then, no one — not Flanagan, Zini or Meltzer — mentioned disease, exploitation, slavery and warfare as the genocidal combination that essentially handed Western Europeans the Western Hemisphere. I guess they either didn’t know or thought that it would be too painful a lesson to teach fourteen-to-eighteen year-olds.

As J. Robert Oppenheimer said in ’65, twenty years after the Manhattan Project’s success in creating the world’s first nuclear bomb, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Well, one doesn’t have to have God-like powers or be a Hindu deity to create large-scale human suffering, as was the case with Columbus. All one really needs is the conviction necessary to treat other humans as if they are only meat with brains and eyes.


The Road to Boy @ The Window, Part 4: Fear of a “Black” America

September 26, 2013

FearBookCover3copy

Given that Fear of a “Black” America was my first book, but one based on my doctoral dissertation, and that Boy @ The Window is a memoir, the road from one to the other may not be that obvious with an initial glance. But despite the intellectual, semi-scholarly nature of my book on Blacks and multiculturalism, there are parallel themes that run between Fear of a “Black” America and Boy @ The Window. Perhaps none are more important, though, than the challenge of authenticity, of fitting in, of being able to mesh the complicated onion that I’ve found myself to be over the years.

I think that was why I decided in November ’98 to turn my dissertation “A Substance of Things Hoped For” into a more readable book. Yes, after all that work to write a 505-page thesis, it would’ve been a shame to just let it sit on my then girlfriend’s coffee table, to be used either as a door stop or a base for her doing her nails. Yes, I still had something to prove to academia. That my scholarship as a historian and educator on the issue of multiculturalism was sound. That the conventional academic wisdom around Blacks, people of color and multiculturalism was paternalistic fear-mongering.

Public Enemy, Fear Of A Black Planet (1990) Album Cover

Public Enemy, Fear Of A Black Planet (1990) Album Cover

And in thinking that last part through, I came up with my Public Enemy-inspired title and thread for the first book. It was about fear in many forms. Elite White fears of a majority-people-of-color US within their own lifetimes. Conservative fears of a K-16 education system that included the cultural and historical perspectives of peoples of color, of the poor, of women, of the LGBT, of so many others they’d rather discard. General American skepticism that any Blacks had ever given any thought at all to cultural pluralism, intercultural education, or multiculturalism/multicultural education, at least before White theorists had thought through these ideas first.

Afrocentrists and nationalists who thought of multiculturalism as soft and utterly unrepresentative of the Black experience — or, at least, what they considered an authentic version thereof? That was as difficult a challenge as any I faced in writing both my dissertation and Fear of a “Black” America. So much so that I made a few interesting decisions along the way. I sought out an agent — yes, a literary agent — for the first book, and found one, too (things were so much easier in ’99). I wanted the book to have an impact beyond academia.

In the writing process, I decided to weave the theme of fear, skepticism, willful and inadvertent misunderstandings throughout the 200-page book. All while covering Black intellectual thought about what we now call Afrocentricity and multiculturalism, Black activism and activities around education and Negro History Week, and the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s. All to show that multiculturalism was/is a part of America’s evolution, even if some folks are gnashing their teeth and wearing sackcloth and ashes along the way.

One thing was missing, though, from my six chapters. Me, in a word. Yes, my argument was crystal clear, my evidence was sound, my notes and analysis lined up well enough by the summer of ’00. Yet, as my one-time agent noted, “there’s not enough of you in this manuscript.”  Bottom line: folks weren’t going to buy the book unless I made it more compelling, which meant putting something of me or about me in it.

So I did. I wrote mostly about my experiences in academia and how they paralleled with some of the critical issues in Fear of a “Black” America. I talked about my Duquesne University students in the College of Education in ’98 and ’99, most of whom were cultural conservatives. I brought up conversations I had with professors skeptical about my scholarship, like Richard Altenbaugh in March ’98 or my former dissertation advisor Joe Trotter in April ’96. I also wrote about my conversation with Estelle Abel over my lack of authenticity as a young Black man in June ’87, having thought about it for the first time in thirteen years. I wasn’t sure if that made Fear of a “Black” America any better, but it made me feel better about my first book.

By the time I’d given my agent the final draft of Fear of a “Black” America in October ’00, I was ready — maybe for the first time in years — to take a look at my life before Pitt, grad school, Spencer Fellowship and becoming Dr. Collins. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to open up the emotional side of that Pandora’s box just yet. But in some ways, I really needed to, precisely because of my experiences with people in grad school at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon. And precisely because of my occasional moments of rage and overreaction, if only because Fear of a Black “America” helped me tap into emotions I didn’t know I had.


The Things Dumb Racists Say

July 27, 2013

John Bauer's illustration from Walter Stenström's The boy and the trolls or The Adventure in childrens' anthology Among pixies and trolls (1915), November 1, 2005. (Thuresson via Wikipedia). In public domain.

John Bauer’s illustration from Walter Stenström’s The boy and the trolls or The Adventure, in childrens’ anthology Among Pixies and Trolls (1915), November 1, 2005. (Thuresson via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I loved, I loved, I loved reading and hearing what Anthea Butler had to say in the wake of the Zimmerman not-guilty verdict from two weeks ago (via her piece “The Zimmerman Verdict: America’s Racist God” and MSNBC). I love the courage and strength she’s shown over the past two weeks in standing up to the trolls in social media who’ve literally called her everything except a child of God in expressing the very racism they’ve attempted to deny.

If I’ve been reminded of nothing else in the past fortnight, it’s the fact that the US has a significant reading and writing crisis. In looking at Butler’s The Things People Say Tumblr page, it’s never been clearer to me that the average American can’t write a single sentence without a significant misspelling or grammatical error, and that angry people expressing their bigotry are even more prone to screw up the English language in any form.

UPenn Professor Anthea Butler, circa 2011. (http://www.sas.upenn.edu/religious_studies/faculty/butler).

UPenn Professor Anthea Butler, circa 2011. (http://www.sas.upenn.edu/religious_studies/faculty/butler).

Yet the most ignorant thing I’ve seen beyond the indirect threats, the nasty racist name-calling and the demeaning of academia for making Butler one of their “affirmative action” hires is the sheer ignorance about religion, Christianity and the ways in which this group of (mostly) White trolls has use both to justify their vitriol and racism. On one level, it’s pretty simple. How dare this [pick any expletive and add either the N-word or the C-word] say anything to point out how some Whites use Christianity and God to support their racist world views, right?

But this simplicity belies a greater truth. That not one of Butler’s post-Zimmerman trolls understood their own religion and the walk of Christianity. They haven’t a clue as to the sheer work it would take to earn any doctorate, much less one in religious studies. These folks have no idea that a PhD in religious studies doesn’t require becoming a priest or a pastor, or sounding all high-brow and polite in the face of injustice. (Heck, I’ve met religious studies professors who are agnostic or atheists!).

They are ignorant, and willfully so. My guess is, they are a small sample size of maybe 100 million Americans — mostly, but hardly exclusively White — who wallow in ignorance thinking that this will shield them from the inexorable march toward a majority of color country that the US will be well before mid-twenty-first century. The fact is, Butler’s trolls are so scared of change that they are threatened by a seventeen-year-old wearing a hoodie with cellphone, Skittles and iced tea in hand. As well as by a University of Pennsylvania professor who they see as unqualified (a bit of a contradiction to be threatened by someone they see as insignificant, but that’s racism for ya!).

I might have worded it a bit differently, though (but then again, I’m a different writer, no?). As a Christian for more than twenty-nine years, I don’t see my God as one who represents racist Whites. After all, we are commanded to “treat our neighbors as we would treat ourselves.”

Evelyn de Morgan's The Worship of Mammon (1909), September 7, 2006. (Shell Kinney via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Evelyn de Morgan’s The Worship of Mammon (1909), September 7, 2006. (Shell Kinney via Wikipedia). In public domain.

But since Butler’s trolls obviously do think that they worship God, let me at least say this. If you believe in corporate capitalism and the corrections of the market, then your god is money, and the love of/lust for it. If you believe in the criminality of Blacks and Black male bodies, then your god is White. If you believe it’s okay to voice your displeasure by calling Butler a “n—-r c–t,” then your god is one that subjugates women, especially Black women. These beliefs do not and cannot represent my beliefs in God, in the life of Jesus, heck, in life of anyone who has ever spoken on behalf of social justice and human rights in history.

To misquote The American President (1995):

“Professor Anthea Butler has done nothing to you, trolls….You want a character debate? You better stick with me, ‘cuz Professor Anthea Butler is way out of your league.”


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