Education, Politics, and Cultural Identity

No links to start discussion today. No quotes with snarky replies. Just a few thoughts that I’ve been working on for a little over a year now. I thought that it’s about time to toss a preliminary version into the public space and see what happens.

First, a few assumptions (which could easily be wrong):

1. It’s not incoherent for a country to aspire to multicultural pluralism.
2. A multiculturally pluralist country nevertheless will have some sort of shared culture.
3. At the most fundamental level, the primary purpose of the education given to children in any society, at any time, is to reproduce a culture and to give children the ability to fit into that culture. (This is straight from Dewey.) The sorts of things that are often said to be purposes of education — economic success, survival, the growth of powers, etc. — are the purposes of the various aspects of the particular culture in question.

The tension is obvious: if education is about cultural reproduction, then which cultures in a multiculturally pluralist country get to reproduce?

On the one hand, the answer seems obvious. “They all do. They have a right to reproduce themselves, and to exist. That’s what multiculturalism is.”

But we also have to educate for the “shared” culture, the over-culture that makes our multicultural country a nation in the first place. And we need to do that without interfering with the reproduction of the various subcultures.

When we, as a country, find ourselves contemplating something like the Common Core — which proposes to establish a “national” curriculum (and that is exactly what it proposes, despite the protestations of some of its proponents) — we’re faced with the question of what, exactly, our shared culture is that needs to be reproduced. And not only are we then in the business of picking and choosing what parts of the culture get included and which do not, we’re also inevitably going to have to deal with the notion of cultural change and how we should alter our culture by altering the values and practices that are transmitted to the next generation.

This is, of course, one of the reasons (if not the reason) that education is so politicized in this country: education has been institutionalized to a tremendous degree in the United States, and that means it’s something of a “winner take all” in terms of cultural (re)production. All of the fighting that goes on — whether it’s about textbooks or Howard Zinn or Heather Has Two Mommies or prayer in schools or “Evolution is just a theory” — it’s all about the struggle to seize control of the mechanism of cultural reproduction and establish the culture that is desired.

One strategy to avoiding this sort of life-and-death struggle, of course, is to “thin” out the notion of our shared culture. (Note — I touched very briefly on this issue in the third chapter of my dissertation.) Instead of having our public schools serve as a center of substantive values creation and the inevitable culture wars that follow, we might think to “dial back” the public school’s curriculum to include only those things upon which universal (or near-universal) agreement can be established.

Nearly everyone — even the Amish, the Gangsta Rappers, and the Hippies — seems to think that learning to add and subtract and read is a good thing. But while that might fly with mathematics, with reading it’s almost impossible to teach the skill without having something to read. And that means exposing children to ideas, which necessarily means presenting them to kids as “endorsed” by society.

So it’s easier said than done.

I suspect that the great push to make schools into job-factories, that is, institutions whose sole purpose is to prepare students for some sort of “career”, is a reaction to the cultural battles that (I think) reached their apex in the late 80′s and early 90′s. If the schools just limit themselves to producing economic widgets, and leave the culture to the local institutions, then everyone’s happy, right? We all share the thin “culture” of economic efficiency, don’t we?

Well no. First off, it’s not clear that everyone got the message that there was supposed to be a truce in the culture wars. There are many political factions (primarily but not exclusively progressive) who desperately, desperately want to teach substantive values in schools, and who aren’t happy until they win. (And they never win, because no matter what sorts of institutional change they manage, it’s never enough.) That’s one problem.

A second problem is that this sort of thin-culture “education” (if we can call it that) really requires that there be some local, supplemental institution providing a substantive, value-laden culture. Otherwise it’s just a skills-training center, and not a proper education for children at all. If a student is not given a culture into which they can fit, not given a culture in which they can take up a meaningful role… well, we’re ignoring the fundamental purpose of education. (And this might help explain why so many students are shooting up their schools these days, but that’s probably a cheap rhetorical point unworthy of me.)

Additionally, for the greater part of the last century, schools have served as a (albeit contentious) source of cultural values. Our national culture has gotten quite used to the seeing schools as sources of civic value, and we’re ill-equipped, I think, to have the rug pulled out from under us with so little warning.

This post grows over-long, so to sum up: there is a fundamental tension between the fact that we want (to the extent “we” want) to live in a multicultural society on the one hand, and the notion that we can have some sort of centralized education curriculum on the other. There may be a way to deal with this tension, but I think it first requires that we acknowledge that it exists, and that we explicitly attempt to deal with it.

Opting out of testing

And I mean really opting out. Dean Donald Heller of Michigan State’s Education School explains why he let his younger daughter drop out of high school:

We knew she was not as engaged as well, and to understand why, we talked to her, spoke with her teachers and counselor, and examined the curriculum in her school. What we came to realize was that her high school did not meet her needs as a learner. While she was an interdisciplinary thinker and was intellectually curious about a number of different creative areas, her school was highly traditional in its structure and curriculum. We concluded it had largely a singular focus: to improve performance of students on the state tests rather than to encourage them to grow intellectually and to develop a breadth of learning. Our daughter was performing well on tests, but she understood that she was not reaching her full potential as a student.

Read the whole thing. The last paragraph, in particular, is rather touching.

Public schools are of remarkably uneven quality, and their goals are not always perfectly in sync with the goals of parents (or of students). The mania — and it’s a bona fide mania at this point, I think — for standardized testing as a way of determining school, class, teacher, and student quality is driving schools in particular directions that may or may not equate to “quality” in the eyes of all of the school’s potential clientele. It’s hard to please everyone.

One the one hand, your children are only young once, and they are largely your responsibility. If you can do better for your kids, you probably should. If your kids can do better for themselves, well, then they probably should, too.

But on the other, carrying that train of thought out to its logical conclusion suggests that the public school system is basically a remedial measure for parents without the desire and/or ability to do better for their kids, in terms of cognitive and social development. We might not be unjustified to start thinking of schools as a sort of “safety net” for parents and students.

But that’s a very different view of public education than is held by many — and probably most — people in this country. Public education is more often seen, I think, as a sort of public institution at large, and the primary way of producing an informed citizenry, with private schools and homeschooling and such serving as a sort of minor variation on the theme. Our public schools, we might think, are part of the fabric of our democracy.

Then the paradox: to serve the entire democracy, we must serve the disadvantaged. But serving the disadvantaged requires tremendous resources, and often involves the schools essentially replacing parents who are unable or unwilling to raise their students in a manner considered by the voting public to be “responsibly”. Yet more tightly schools focus their services on the most disadvantaged students, though, the more I think we can expect schools to bring upon themselves the mantle of being remedial institutions that “the right sort of people” want little or nothing to do with. And that will probably mean less public support for those schools as well.

It might be the case that public schools (and we, their supporters), to ensure their survival and their place in civic life, must accept that the best we can hope for is to marginally improve the lives of disadvantaged students, and that fixing them entirely is simply not a realistic undertaking.

Warning: Bears! Nuts! No recycling!


Sue Lyon and James Mason in Lolita

The National Association of Scholars has announced the winners of its Trigger Warning Contest:

Lolita: Disturbing novel.  Narrator DOES NOT RECYCLE. –Earl V. Bobb

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Warning: May Contain Nuts — Greg Britton

Green Eggs and Ham: Glorifies GMOs — Jim Eltringham

Among the honorable mentions, my favorites are:

Goldilocks: Warning: bears! — Adam Kissel

The Road by Cormac McCarthy: Warning, portrays a low carb, high protein diet of free range, non-factory farmed meat in a negative light — Aaron Sheer

The NAS staff came up with some of its own:

Don Quixote:  scenes of graphic violence against alternative energy sources.

Beowulf: depictions of violence against endangered species.

In a satiric memo, Rob Zaretsky, a French history professor at the University of Houston,  warns that the Book of Job can be a real downer.

“Are you sure this is part of the Bible?” asked many respondents, who also exhibited intense unease with God’s actions, as they did with Job’s questions.

. . . While the groups’ expectations were raised when a voice came from the whirlwind, they were deflated by the voice’s answers — which, according to one respondent, weren’t answers at all. (“Like my parents, only worse.”) At the end of the session, a palpable sense of dread, along with isolated cases of fear and trembling, were in evidence — all matters of concern for our office.

The Iliad not only has no empowered women, but the dog Argo is left to die on a dung heap!

The killer narcissist

Could Therapy Culture Help Explain Elliot Rodger’s Rampage? asks Brendan O’Neill on Reason. The 22-year-old started therapy at age 8 and reportedly was seeing multiple therapists while living in Santa Barbara and plotting “retribution.”

. . . he was full of self-regard, was incredibly self-obsessed, and was utterly outraged when people, especially women, didn’t treat him with the love and respect he felt he deserved.

Could Rodger’s fury at the world for failing to flatter his self-image as a good, civilized guy be a product of the therapy industry, of the therapy world’s cultivation of a new tyrannical form of narcissism where individuals demand constant genuflection at the altar of their self-esteem?

Therapy’s children are “invited to focus” on their inner selves rather than the world around them, writes O’Neill.

We see it in university students who want to ban everything that they think harms their self-esteem, because they’ve been educated to see any attack on what they think and how they feel as utterly unacceptable. We see it in the growing cult of self-revelation and the search for validation on social networks like Twitter, where individuals’ frenetic tweeting and their desperate desire for that all-important retweet speaks to the reorganization of society around the need for recognition, the need for an “admiring audience” to make the self feel puffed up. And we potentially see it, in its most extreme form, in Elliot Rodger, the son of therapy . . .

In his murder manifesto, Rodger complains that people’s attitudes towards him “really decreased my self-esteem. . . . if they won’t accept me… then they are my enemies.”

And then he makes the key cry of our therapeutic era: “It’s not fair. Life is not fair.”

Watch Rodger’s video. The most alarming thing is how cool and well-spoken he is. This is a man used to talking about himself, following years of practice in therapy sessions. Clearly having decided to have a love affair with himself, Rodger terrifyingly declares: “I am the closest thing there is to a living god… Magnificent, glorious, supreme, eminent, divine!”

He’s not a religious nut, writes O’Neill. “It’s a therapeutic thing.”

You might call Rodger a homicidal narcissist. His own life has supreme value. Nobody else matters.

Does “therapy culture” turn loners into enraged sociopaths?

Just like old times at Ridgemont High

RealClearEducation fondly recalls Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a “ridiculous and also a dead-on encapsulation of high school angst.”

High schools are “long overdue for more customization,” writes RCE. Technology can help via “badging and competency-based education” — if  policymakers and educators accept that “there is nothing sacred about the four-year traditional high school experience.”

We’re supposed to reinvent ourselves, as Jeff Spicoli said:

 What Jefferson was saying was, Hey! You know, we left this England place ’cause it was bogus; so if we don’t get some cool rules ourselves – pronto – we’ll just be bogus too! Get it?

What can Fast Times tell us about high school reform? asks Eduwonk.

‘Bad Teacher’ comes to TV

Bad Teacher TV Review on CBS

Bad Teacher – a softer version of the Cameron Diaz movie — premieres tonight on CBS. A divorced trophy wife uses a fake resume to get a teaching job so she can look for a wealthy divorced dad. (If she’s teaching at public school to find wealthy men, she really is a dumb blonde.) This “bad teacher” is a do-gooder at heart, according to a Variety review.

Why Asian (Jewish, Cuban, etc.) kids excel

A cultural superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control  help people from some cultures excel in school and business, write “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua and husband Jed Rubenfeld in The Triple Package. Their triple-threat cultures are: Cubans, East Asians, Indians, Jews, Lebanese, Mormons, Nigerians and Persians.

People in these groups believe their culture is exceptional, but as individuals they need to prove themselves, write Chua and Rubenfeld. These cultures cultivate self-discipline and impulse control.

The book has been criticized for ignoring the immigrant effect: Nigerians, Indians, Lebanese and Persians who make it to the U.S. tend to be educated, ambitious, relatively successful people. They’re so smart they figured out how to get here. Miami’s pre-Mariel Cubans also were more middle-class than average.

All this reminds me of Joel Kotkin’s 1994 book, Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy.

A new study looks at high-achieving children of low-income Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants who “lack middle-class cultural capital.” These families “use ethnicity as a resource to construct and support a strict ‘success frame’ that helps the poor and working class override their disadvantages.”

Chinese immigrant parents often are educated and speak English, said one of  the study’s authors, UC-Irvine sociologist Jennifer Lee. However, Vietnamese immigrants’ children do well in school and careers even when their parents have little education or money.

That’s where expectations comes in – or what the paper calls, quoting its interview subjects, the understanding that “A is average and B is an Asian fail.” 

Parents search for the best schools and lobby for their children to be placed in advanced classes. If they can’t afford tutoring, they turn to ethnic organizations and churches to provide a free or low-cost “shadow education.”

If success is measured by doing better than the previous generation, then Mexican-Americans are the most successful, Lee writes in Time.

Silent or spoiled for ‘Game of Thrones’

A French math teacher quiets classroom chatter by threatening to write Game of Thrones spoilers on the board. Most of his students are fans of the TV series. The teacher has read all the books.

When students defied him, he wrote the names of everyone killed through the end of the series’ third season on the board, reports Belgium’s Nieuwsblad, which picked up the story from a French site, DansTonChat. A “religious silence” was maintained for the rest of the lesson, a student said.

Another brick in the book


Life Is an Open Book is the title of this brick sculpture by Brad Spencer of Reidsville, North Carolina.

‘Your dreams are valid’

HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 02:  Actress Lupita Nyong'o accepts the Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role award for '12 Years a Slave' onstage during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on March 2, 2014 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Actress Lupita Nyong’o accepts the Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role award for 12 Years a Slave. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of a slave in 12 Years a Slave, gave a classy acceptance speech. “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” she said. Nyong’o concluded: “When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”

The actress was born in Mexico, raised in Kenya and educated in the U.S. at Yale’s drama school.

When Solomon Northrup was freed, 12 years after he was kidnapped and sold into slavery, the New York Times had the story. I wondered why the abolitionist who rescued Solomon Northrup had the same last name. Henry Northrup was a descendant of the family that originally owned Solomon Northrup’s ancestors.