Thursday, December 29, 2011

TEXTBOOK CONTROVERSIES: intolerance speaks

The remarkably heterogeneous nature of American society makes it very difficult to establish consensus concerning anything of consequence. And nowhere is this lack of a agreement more obvious than when we select public school textbooks.  Consider the example of states like California or Texas which establish a list of approved textbooks.

When public hearings are conducted on this matter a farrago of fundamentalists, feminists, European origin ethnics, New Agers, native Americans, African-Americans, gays and lesbians, Latinos, Chicanos, pacifists, civil libertarians, tea party true believers, fundamentalists, pro-lifers, pro-choicers, Asian-Americans, environmentalists, animal rights activists, Muslims, even vegetarians (not to be confused with ovo-lacto vegetarian crowd) lament bias and register non-negotiable demands for the insertion of their values and a  favorable depiction of their cause and heroes.

This is how textbooks are neutered. There are so many competing demands that in attempting to meet them publishers end up with sterility. So be it. Textbooks debates, even textbook sterilization, are an unavoidable part of the rough and tumble of life in a heterogeneous democratic society. The alternative is domination by one group or another.

Verbally duking it out over textbooks, or the entire school curriculum for that matter, is a very American process. This is not my concern. My concern focuses on the elements who short-circuit this diaglogue by un-democratic tactics and by their absolute refusal to even consider that those who oppose them are operating in subjective good will. No, these true-believers will never concede that their opponents might be doing what they think to be right. Those who desagree with them are always immoral, perverted, licentious, atheistic, agents of Satan, pornographers, child molesters -- perhaps even traitors.

Because their cause is so urgent, so patriotically holy, true believers of every stripe commonly assume that their ends justifies any means. This is how anonymous hate mail, terroristic phone calls, unsigned and untruthful pamphlets, acts of vandalism, even death threats become standard features of true-believer textbook campaigns -- particularly at the local level. 

This is how textbook content campaigns, and curriculum content campaigns for that matter, come to feature character assassination, half truths, outright lies and non-negotiable demands. Tactics such as these destroy communication and make democracy impossible. Colloquy becomes confrontation when the compromises necessary in choosing a text are transformed into the politics of the end-time. In this realm everyone is required to reveal their "true allegiance" by choosing between God and Satan, America and treason.

The concern here is NOT with legitimate expressions of difference within the democratic dialogue. It is with those who enter this process with a very real intent to subvert it because they are in possession of THE TRUTH. To maintain an exchange -- whether it be about texts, curriculum or politics -- truth and values must be dealt with in a tentative and tolerant fashion. Reason and evidence must not be subordinated to any group's ideology. Opposing points of view must be accorded the same respect you expect for your own and not be ignored, surpressed or subverted.

Granting any religio-political view a special exemption from these obligations is not only ruinous to public schooling; it places the entire democratic process in danger. Our democracy has never required the celebration of common ends; but it does  require respect for common means such as compromise, tolerance and civility.

See for more on this topic.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

TOP-DOWN SCHOOL REFORM: trashing teacher morale

One of the most troubling aspects of the recent wave of school reform is that the would-be reformers never bother to ask teachers what they think. Instead, these would-be reformers imagine they can just ram change, however unrealistic, down gagging teacher's throats.

The chief problem with this approach is that it doesn't work. As far back as the 1970's a Rand Corporation study clearly demonstrated that successful introduction of innovations requires willing, highly motivated participants.  And this is particularly true of teachers because their work is done beyond immediate administrative control.

Why do those in charge ignore this reality? Maybe they are so remote from day to day realities that they no longer have the sense they were born with. In any case their insufferably arrogant style of management is time-honored. It dates back to the era when classroom teachers were long-suffering females and the power holders were smug, self-satisfied males.

Some say that teachers stand in the way of needed reforms, and that requires the imposition of non-consultative change. But resistance to change is hardly restricted to teachers. In fact, such resistance is an inevitable response to major change in any organization. And when those changes are being pushed by the same people who look down on you, ignore your hard-won knowledge and experience and can't tell their pedagogical behind from third base, resistance is sensible.

Regardless, teacher resistance to change so frustrates policy makers that if ever they thought about soliciting teacher consent and cooperation they think about it no longer. Instead they  become ever more controlling, autocratic and disrespectful while ratcheting up coercion via so-called "merit pay."

In all of this they show a complete disregard for the negative impact their actions have on teacher morale and the recruitment of anything but sheep into the profession. In short, these would-be reformers have lost all concern for the actual consequences of their "reforms" on those who must carry them out. And that may well guarantee the long-term failure of their reforms.

For more on this subject go to