The Clare Spark Blog

October 5, 2009

Arne Duncan’s Statism, part two

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Don’t miss the Howard Gardner encounter described at the bottom of this blog. It is shocking and revealing about the practice of multiculturalism by a “genius” educator.

Here is what you will not find in this issue of Ed.: any mention of multiculturalism or identity politics. For the numerous photographs in this edition, introducing the new Secretary of Education to alumni of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, demonstrate beyond a doubt that the faculty is diverse with respect to ‘race’, gender, and sexual orientation. Indeed Harvard, like other elite universities, was a pioneer in the production of the group-think that favors bureaucratic collectivist thought.  As for science, that word is sprinkled through the issue, but only in the sense that managerial “progressives” use it, as the gathering of statistics that will guide the next step in “incremental” reform. Dean of the Ed school, Kathleen McCartney, tells us that “Duncan made difficult choices that were based on evidence and driven by data.” (p.3)

But you will find no exploration on how science education is faring in the republic. The closest we come to “science” is the essay on the use of a medical model: just as doctors and interns make rounds in the hospitals, “instructional rounds” will help managers to find “common ground” in evaluating teaching effectiveness. They give an example of a “diverse” network for evaluating the “good” classroom: Whereas in  Connecticut only superintendents make the rounds, ” some rounds are more diverse and also include principals, teachers, staff members, and local union leaders….Once the group forms, they identify a problem that the school or district is struggling with, observe classrooms, debrief, and then focus on what needs to be done next.” (p.24)

The assumption here is that the scientific knowledge, rigor, and relative certainty that comes with advanced medical training is automatically applied when persons who may or may not have had a training in science and its methods are making decisions that will affect the ability of students to learn the skills necessary to participate as citizens in a democratic republic. For we are faced with unprecedented challenges and polarizing controversies, such as the value of science itself (the Foucauldians say it is bourgeois conspiracy), or what to do about the related controversies that confront us, particularly the measures to be taken with respect to climate change, pollution, and public health. Without training in critical thought and the separation of fact from opinion, no sane consensus can emerge on the policies that will remedy our numerous emergencies. Am I too “secular” here? Nowhere in this issue of Ed. is the anti-intellectualism of numerous communities confronted as a gigantic obstacle to the reforms Duncan and Harvard wish to initiate. But then top-down thinkers do not consider the condition of communities where religiosity trumps creatively adapting to the modern world, and where all eggheads are suspect as totalitarian thinkers, stealing their children from them and insulting their ancestors.

Allow me to digress for a moment. I trained to be a science teacher in the mid-1950s in the Cornell State College of Agriculture, with my tuition state-supported. It was assumed that we future science teachers might be the only science teacher in a remote rural high school that had no study specimens, so not only did we study chemistry, physics, the biological sciences (including zoology, botany, human physiology, microbiology, etc.), and geology, we learned to make our own slides of cells (using rats), to trap and stuff small animals, and to pick up a fragment of a bat skull or a piece of fur from the woods and meadows and identify it by order, family, genus and species. I also took a course in nature literature that alerted me to “nature fakery” or the sentimentalization of Nature by numerous popular writers from the late nineteenth century on. The few required education courses alerted us to the problem of discipline (i.e., obedience)  in the classroom: I would say it was an obsessive concern that seemed an end in itself, perhaps outweighing mastery of one’s field. (I got to practice teach at Ithaca High School in a chemistry class; the male science faculty complained to my Cornell supervisor that I wanted to join them at their brown-bag lunches, thus hampering their alacrity in telling dirty jokes.)

    My own beliefs about classroom order were tested in my first teaching job at Jamaica High School in Queens, where I was given a class of young people who had already failed biology and were now forced to repeat the course. They were working-class kids, many were black, others were tough veterans of the streets with Polish and Italian names. I was twenty years old (having finished college in 3 1/2 years), and my first few classes were filled with conflict as these rough boys were testing my resolve. I looked at the biology curriculum that was given to me, and quietly tossed it away, instead concentrating my first efforts at finding out what these youngsters had experienced with drug peddlers, alcohol, and other matters related to their survival. [Today I would have added other health concerns and how to identify mental illness in their peers.] They responded well to an emphasis on real-life immediate concerns and at the end of the semester one of them came up to me as representative of the group and asked me to be their teacher the next semester. (That I remember this moving gesture so vividly speaks to its force in shaping my outlook as I grew older.)  And the principal, to reward me for my “baptism by fire” promised me the honors class in chemistry if I would return. Alas, it was not to be. I had a prestigious fellowship for the Masters of Arts in teaching science at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and went off to paradise for husband-shoppers.

    Because I had already had teaching experience, I was invited to audit the graduate class in methods for teaching science conducted by one Fletcher Watson. The very first session, I asked this leader in science education, “what would you recommend to a young woman teaching science in a rough inner city school?” The answer: “That could never happen.” That was the end of my love affair with Harvard, though they offered me another  fellowship if I would return to take a Master’s in “guidance.” (This on the basis of my final exam where I might have startled them with the assertion that teachers wishing for order in the classroom should meet the intrinsic and pressing needs of students, and “order” would follow.) So if this blog sounds a bit testy, you know where I am coming from. [Added 8-25-11: Harvard probably spotted a potential child-centered progressive.]

Back to Ed. There is a lovely photo of the Dalai Lama, seated in Harvard’s Memorial Church. His speech, “Educating the Heart,” was co-sponsored by the Education and Divinity schools. Here are the quotes they published, preceded by “In particular, he questioned whether education and intelligence alone bring inner peace. ‘Those people who are more compassionate, those people are religious man, community man, family man…Much peaceful, much happier.’  In contrast, ‘there are very smart scholars and professors who are full of competition, full of jealousy, and full of anger. Sometimes they even commit suicide,’ he said, pausing when he realized who was in the audience. ‘I don’t mean disrespect to the academic community.’ The Dalai Lama also stressed that compassion starts at home. ‘If you see people who are more calm and ready to show love and kindness toward others, those people probably had a mother who provided  more affection at a young age.’ ” The article closes with a mention of his watering the roots in a tree-planting ceremony attended by deans and Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, “in addition to blessing a pregnant woman’s belly….” (p.11) The link to Arne Duncan’s inspirational mother Sue is completed here.

I could stop, but in fairness to Arne Duncan, I should mention his objectives as described in the McQuaid article: “The Obama economic stimulus package contains a huge windfall for education, approximately $115 billion–more than double the department’s annual budget…Most of those funds are going to avert catastrophic school budget shortfalls caused by the recession. But the stimulus also includes an unprecedented $5 billion in discretionary funds. The largest share belongs to the Race to the Top program, in which states will compete for grants by showing they’re innovating. Duncan’s hope is to leverage that cash to create a brushfire of reform at the local level: funding and ultimately “scaling up” successful reforms and seeding them elsewhere. But his window of opportunity is quite narrow–the money will run out in two years.” (p.18) Elsewhere, “The agenda spans proposed changes in preK to college, pounding the bully pulpit to promote charter schools, merit pay, and national standards, and what’s likely to be a contentious fight over No Child Left Behind.” (p.20) [Added 9-6-09: AD appeared as guest on Stephen Colbert last night. He mentioned two other objectives, also described in Ed.:  lengthening the school year as the long summer break was suitable to an agrarian society, not an urban one, and creating the school site as a community center where adult learning could take place, as well as other student activities. Colbert did not ask him where the necessary funding would come from. The interview was preceded by a film showing the pair’s, but mostly Colbert’s, prowess in shooting hoops.]

Remember McQuaid’s characterization of Duncan as an “outsider” like his close basketball pal Obama in “Arne Duncan’s Statism, part one”? Here is how the article ends: Education may lose out if Obama is too distracted, but “Duncan’s membership in the close-knit group of Chicago transplants in the Obama administration–including top advisors David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, and social secretary Desiree Rogers (John W. Rogers’ ex-wife)–will help him keep his issues in the mix.” (p.21)

File this article and the entire Harvard Ed School apparatus/organism under the heading “the Machine that is not a Machine though it resembles one to the naked eye.”

A postscript on Howard Gardner. HG, a protege of Henry A. Murray(yes our Henry Murray, though you won’t find him on Gardner’s Wikipedia entry),  was a recipient of the MacArthur “genius” award, and in the late 1980s he came out to visit the HGSE alumni.  At UCLA he gave an illustrated lecture on his famous theory that there are “multiple intelligences.” The slides I remember in particular were one of a black youngster shooting hoops, and the one female represented staring at herself in the mirror. I confronted him for deploying these stereotypical images as if sports served as the route to learning for black kids, while girls kept journals, indulging their narcissism. The smiling mask suddenly disappeared and he snarled at me, whispering “Why did you come here?”  I have not emphasized enough in these blogs the emphasis on sports and “active learning” in the issue of Ed. that I have  presented here. I could have included the photo of Duncan and Obama playing basketball together, used in the McQuaid article.


  1. […] Today, there are token women in positions of power in government, business, and in our dominant cultural institutions. In academe, they have often settled for low-status Women’s Studies programs that are laughing stocks. And heavies in educational psychology like Howard Gardner may see females as inherently narcissistic and self-absorbed, keeping their journals [and their ageless skin?]. (See […]

    Pingback by Gendered wage inequality: an overview | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — April 10, 2014 @ 8:25 pm | Reply

  2. […]  believes that girls are talented narcissists, while black boys are great at basketball (see, Harvard is remarkably vague about the actual content being dropped on the newly individualized […]

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  3. […] the next installment, I will report on his policy innovations and more on the discourse of Ed.] Like this:LikeBe the […]

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