The Clare Spark Blog

July 14, 2015

“Depraved indifference” to Education Reform?

State Government Leadership Foundation come-on

State Government Leadership Foundation come-on

A dispute broke out last night on my Facebook wall regarding education reform, with some conservatives expressing abhorrence over any national control whatsoever. Instead, all deficiencies would be remedied with “local control,” as if our citizenry (so-called) really cares about schools in this “fallen world.”

I am no fan of Arne Duncan or the teachers unions. Duncan is Secretary of Education and I wrote how Harvard was honoring his appointment here (they presented him as a savior): https://clarespark.com/2010/09/22/links-to-arne-duncan-blogs/. As for teachers unions and their opposition to merit pay in tandem with their support for tenure, I got some, but insufficient, support given the gravity of the problem, for Campbell Brown’s ambitious reform program when I shared her announcement on Facebook.

Regarding Common Core, my initial fear that the humanities would disappear in favor of math and science proved groundless. I see nothing wrong with national standards and testing in math and science to map how various schools are keeping up with international competition. But teachers unions oppose close scrutiny as to teacher competence.

Social conservatives have several claims that will be criticized in this blog: 1. The problem of (progressive) education will be solved if Big Government is halted by abolishing The Department of Education; 2. Father-headed families will instill appropriate discipline (and jingoistic patriotism?) in American children.

Here are my objections, which are heated:

America is an unevenly developed country with respect to the value of education. It was only New England’s puritan tradition that fought for free public education (along with Protestant pluralism). The slave South was militantly opposed to anything that prepared their minions (including poor whites) to participate in a democracy. The New South made inroads in order to industrialize, but their bourgeois efforts toward equal opportunity were met with resistance from Bourbons and other regionalists (Agrarians).

Does local control mean that it is up to (backward states) to resist the demands of a competitive, globalized world? Are we, in any sense, a democratic republic, determined to lay the groundwork for an educated populace?

Given the uneven commitment to a “secular” education that could turn children away from their ancestors, it is understandable that “local control,” plus the stern father in the home, signifies for many the desire to keep their straying children in line, as if adolescent rebellion was some kind of new-fangled invention foisted upon them by “progressives.”

When I was an undergraduate and then a graduate student in the 1950s, the cry was for discipline and order in my required education classes. The exact content of student learning was irrelevant. It occurs to me now that there is massive confusion regarding the tasks assigned to families versus schools regarding student conduct. This was not something that was ever discussed. Rather we had nonsensical courses at Harvard (for instance) that stressed the poor and working class as a “sub-culture” that was focused on “trouble.” The less said about the unruly urban mobs and their living conditions, the better.

narc7

I find it hard to understand why persons my age or slightly younger (my Facebook friends), would be so distracted by aging and  health care that the future of their descendants takes little space in their imaginations. I wonder if they were ever attached to their offspring except as narcissistic extensions of themselves.

There may be more concern about dogs these days than kids.

Claude Joseph Bail (d.1921) painting

Claude Joseph Bail (d.1921) painting

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July 9, 2015

Harvard’s advocacy of “simplicity” as remedy for failing schools

Leadershipfreak come-on

Leadershipfreak come-on

Education reform hasn’t changed much on the “Left” despite a few conservatives railing against “Common Core.” But Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (which I attended 1958-59), isn’t worried about the lamentable and fragmented state of public education, but is suggesting “simplicity” as the winning answer. Even Diane Ravitch, an advocate for teachers unions lately, is too hard for them:

[Ed, summer issue 2015, author Lory Hough:] Education isn’t easy. In fact, in its formal state, it’s probably one of the most complex, challenging things we do in our society, especially now, given the growing diversity of our student body and greater amounts of information students are expected to know. As Diane Ravitch wrote a few years ago in the Los Angeles Times, “There are no simple solutions, no miracle cures to those problems. Education is a slow, arduous process that requires the work of willing students, dedicated teachers, and supportive families, as well as a coherent curriculum.” Yet, does it always need to be so complex? [My emph. The opening salvo goes on to hold up Steve Jobs as role model.]

Yes, this paean to progressive clarity was published by one of the two most prestigious schools of graduate education in the country (the other being Columbia U.).  Here is a complete list of the headlines that top 21 multi-colored boxes (blue, green, turquoise, grey) in the article that lauds simple solutions to admittedly complex problems; they are listed in order of appearance:

“Be Kind”; “Start The High School Day Later”; “Teach Students To Ask Their Own Questions”; “Simplify The Financial Aid Form”; “Slow Down”; “Make Meetings More Useful”; “Use Checklists”; “Greet People Warmly”; “Let Students Move”; “Revamp The Open House”; Replace Timeout  With A Safe Place”; “Find Similarities”; “Use Texting To Keep College-Bound Students On Track”; “Help With Transportation”; “Include Dads”; “Install A Buddy Bench”; “Create Student Crews”; “Ask Outside Groups For Help”; “Use Personal Stories To Motivate Students”; “Make Space Flexible”.

A large box illustrated with a light bulb invites interactivity: “What simple ideas have you found that work? Link to this article on Facebook or Twitter and post your thoughts!”

I wish I could say that I am making all this up. For my prior blogs on Diane Ravitch and other writers on reform, see https://clarespark.com/2012/05/03/index-to-blogs-on-education-reform/. They are assuredly too complicated for most readers.

9/12/2012 West Chicago teachers' strike

9/12/2012 West Chicago teachers’ strike

February 1, 2014

Harvard ed school leads in vaguely dumbing down

ED. cover Winter 2014

ED. cover Winter 2014

The Winter edition of Ed., the journal of the Harvard Graduate School of Education proudly announces in its featured article “All Along,” the existence of an innovation to the curriculum—one expected to remedy the discarded  one-size fits all curriculum and teaching methods that fail, they say, to make allowances for disabled students and those with English language deficiencies.

Using the new neurosciences, Universal Design Learning will supplement Common Core, and allow for true individuality and its associated benefit: “point of view.” (On the Common Core debate see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/05/american-fascism-and-the-future-of-english-and-american-literature/.)

The long article is remarkably vague, however, about whether there is any method to their innovation, which I view as leveling down, while pretending to be leveling up. Dropping the name of Howard Gardner, resident “genius” who, as I have described in another blog,  believes that girls are talented narcissists, while black boys are great at basketball (see  https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/arne-duncans-statism-part-two/), Harvard is remarkably vague about the actual content being dropped on the newly individualized schoolchildren.

“These days, [Jeff Mundorf, a teacher of fifth grade in Naples, Florida] presents information to students in a variety of ways and lets them present what they’ve learned in ways that fits their learning preferences. For example, during the unit he teaches on the US Constitution, he gives his students a choice of reading or listening to an audio recording from the textbook, watching an explanation that he has prerecorded, viewing a video on BrainPop.com, or listening to a musical explanation of the Constitution on Flocabulary.com. The difference in his classroom has been stark. Discipline problems are “almost nonexistent” because…each student is engaged with learning. “Once you think about it, a one-size-fits-all –approach to the curriculum becomes kind of silly…We need to help students understand their own learning and give kids their own path to explore. I have no control over the standardized curriculum, or who’s assigned to my classroom. What I can control is the flexibility of my goals, my methods, my materials, and my assessments.” (pp26-27)

recommended reading.jpg

Another authority ends the article with this hope: “We want to see this approach to be the norm, we want these tools to be available to everyone. We want to see UDL as a reform initiative, one that we hope will really take hold nationwide and worldwide.” (The author of this piece, one Katie Bacon, has written for such liberal outlets as The Atlantic, the NYT, and The Boston Globe.)

Dear reader, you can wave goodbye to debates over the content of the US Constitution, or whether or not fifth graders are even intellectually ready to grasp the fine points of our founding document.

UDL2.jpg

August 1, 2013

Power, relationships, identity

identityI wrote this blog because the notion of “power” as an end in itself is often mentioned by some friends on Facebook, or at times by politicians who accuse their opponents of not having real issues, but only unseemly “ambition” of the type that leads to world wars. To me, there is no such thing as a perverse and demonic will to power. “Power” to me is highly moral and involves self-control, concrete achievements, and the habits that foster humility and lifelong learning. I was raised to value individuality, but never at the expense of responsibility to a larger human community. In my youth, a healthy identity was contrasted to mental illness; the functioning self could distinguish between reality and fantasy, between Real and Fake. Little did I know that I was living in a dream world, for the very notion of the individual is passé, as is originality. Indeed, I should probably view my stubborn search for the truth, no matter how much mockery I engender, as “oppositional defiant disorder.”

If there is any one theme that characterizes this website it is in dating the turn away from the individual as the source of value and identity, to “the individual-in-society”. In other words, at some point in history, we would be defined by our relationships to groups, not by the accuracy of our perceptions. “Society” referred to a bunch of “sub-cultures” that have their own “focal concerns”, e.g. for the urban lower classes that focal concern is “trouble.” At least that is what I learned during my year in graduate school at Harvard in 1958-59. I also learned in the history of science course, taught by I. Bernard Cohen that science was a bit of a racket, and that the skeptic David Hume had proved it beyond cavil.

Fast forward to my stint as program director of radio station KPFK in Los Angeles, 2/1/81 through 7/31/1982. Unbeknownst to me, the concept of the relatively autonomous individual was long gone, and I was hired to implement a policy of “multiculturalism,” and my firing was coincidental with my plans for a Fall Fund Drive where we would challenge myth-making versus science and why such a conflict even existed. The pretext for my firing was that I was bad at smoothing over inter-station conflicts: I should have manufactured harmony where irreconcilable conflicts existed between Trotskyists, Stalinists, and the counter-culture.  (I have told much of this story here: https://clarespark.com/2010/10/21/links-to-pacifica-memoirs/.)  From what I was told, the local CP organized against me because I had allowed too many Trotskyists on the air, and they were speaking about the Spanish Civil War, breaking the Popular Front line that the way to view history during the interwar period was to postulate “the People” against “Fascism.” And only communists opposed fascism, in their view. I was denounced to local progressive organizations by Dorothy Healey, former secretary for the Southern California branch of the CPUSA, as an anti-feminist, an antisemite, and as personally destructive.

It was not until I returned to graduate school at UCLA and was fixated on witch hunts (!) that I figured out why I was purged from Pacifica Radio, which had become my home away from home, and the primary source of my identity as a plucky defender of artistic and intellectual freedom. As long as I was a mere programmer concentrating on free thought, I was safe, for I had listeners who ponied up during Fund Drives. It was my role as administrator that cooked my goose (despite our increasing subscriptions). Until then, I had no idea that individualism was “out” while “culturalism” was “in.”

I was fired for telling the truth (as I understood it), for protecting my hard-won identity as one who recognized conflicts inside myself and in the culture at large. You might say that I benefited from the ecological approach to institutions taught to me at Cornell, where I graduated from the science teaching program available free to all New York State residents in the School of Agriculture (assuming that you had good grades). So much of my programming on “The Sour Apple Tree” involved how institutional constraints limited artistic creativity.

A lot of good my adherence to footnotes and scientific method did me later on: at UCLA, I was labeled as that “hysterical feminist” or “the last positivist.”  I had yet to be called a troublemaking Jew to my face. So much for Cornell U. and its respect for empiricism. But despite the insults, I pressed on. How long had this “culturalism” thing been going on? Based on my research at UCLA, I could date the beginning of the turn toward “culturalism” in the mid-1930s, and have done so here: https://clarespark.com/2009/12/12/switching-the-enlightenment-corporatist-liberalism-and-the-revision-of-american-history/. (A version of this essay was published on History News Network.) But I would prefer to begin with the response to the Soviet Coup of October 1917, as the progressives at the Nation magazine advised conservative readers to move sharply to the left to outflank both the Socialist Party and the I.W.W. This dates the turn away from “materialism” toward “idealist” formulations of social conflict to 1919. See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/. Even that periodization has flaws. I researched the preferred style in teaching American literature from the Gilded Age to the present here: https://clarespark.com/2009/09/23/progressives-and-the-teaching-of-american-literature/.

(Much of this material was incorporated into my book on the Melville Revival, Hunting Captain Ahab.) In sum, all my studies strongly suggested that scientific method was questioned and usually discarded for the sake of “the moderate men,” social cohesion, and political stability. Some reviewers of my book ms. prior to publication accused me of liking my own readings too much: I was obviously another bossy Captain Ahab. Is it any wonder I emphasized his declaration of independence: “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”  (For related blogs see https://clarespark.com/2012/12/18/blogs-on-mental-health/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/04/22/links-to-blogs-on-military-psychiatry/.)

identity_trailer

January 12, 2013

Hate, “hard liberty,” quick fixes

mammon_11-0x550LOVE VERSUS HATE. First, take a look at this blog on Bullies: https://clarespark.com/2012/09/19/bullies/ . Although the Harvard education school was mostly fixated upon the controversial switching of gender identities and the promotion of Love as against Hate, Harvard hasn’t noticed that the “binary opposition” of love and hate is one of the staples of Western Civilization. One of the great fears of the “paleo-conservatives” is that the Religion of Love will lose its authority, hence unleashing sinister forces (the “neocon” haters) upon the land. Paleos dig Chuck Hagel.

Here is how “Ishmael” described the most striking feature of Ahab’s personality: “He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it” (p. 184)

That word “hate” is omnipresent in our political and social discourse: we condemn “hate speech” as if changing the language with which we describe the poor, minorities, women, and gays will remove “prejudice” against them and summon that lost “unity” we believe once characterized “the nation.”

And before Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick, the British essayist William Hazlitt declared his hatred of tyrants:

[William Hazlitt on love and hate, 1819:] “To be a true Jacobin, a man must be a good hater;…The love of liberty consists in the hatred of tyrants…I am no politician and still less can I be said to be a partyman: but I have a hatred of tyranny, and a contempt for its tools…I deny that liberty and slavery are convertible terms, that right and wrong, truth and falsehood, plenty and famine, the comforts or wretchedness of a people, are matters of perfect indifference. That is all I know of the matter; but on these points I am likely to remain incorrigible.”

Both authors, Hazlitt and Melville had read John Milton’s Paradise Lost, written under censorship. Surely each of these close readers noticed this speech from Book II, possibly Milton’s own (semi-silenced) voice speaking through “Mammon,” who counsels the other fallen angels to avoid war with the heavenly Deity:

…how wearisome

Eternity so spent in worship paid

To whom we hate. Let us not then pursue

By force impossible, by leave obtain’d

Unacceptable, though in Heav’n our state

Of splendid vassalage, but rather seek

Our own good from ourselves, and from our own

Live to our selves, though in this vast recess,

Free, and to none accountable, preferring

Hard liberty before the easy yoke

 Of servile pomp. Our greatness will appear

 Then most conspicuous, when great things of small,

 Useful of hurtful, prosperous of adverse

 We can create, and in what place so e’er

 Thrive under evil, and work ease out of pain

 Through labour and endurance. This deep world

Of darkness do we dread? How oft amidst

Thick clouds and dark doth heaven’s all-ruling sire

Choose to reside, His glory unobscured,

And with the majesty of darkness round

Covers his throne; from whence deep thunders roar

Mustering thir rage, and Heav’n resembles hell?

As he our darkness, cannot we his light

Imitate when we please? This desert soil

Wants not her hidden lustre, gems and gold;

Nor want we skill or art, from whence to raise

Magnificence; and what can heaven show more?

Our torments also may in length of time

Become our elements, these piercing fires

As soft as now severe, our temper changed

Into their temper; which must needs remove

The sensible of pain. All things invite

To peaceful counsels, and the settled state

Of order, how in safety best we may

Compose our present evils, with regard

Of what we are and were, dismissing quite

All thoughts of war: ye have what I advise. (II, 247-283)

HARD LIBERTY. (Milton’s seventeenth century puritan readers would have understood that mining was a symbol for discovery and the search for knowledge.)

As I write this, the media are obsessed with the gun control debate, as if further restricting access to certain weapons and ammunition, in tandem with greater attention to “mental health” and the “culture of violence” will prevent future massacres by deranged young men. These would be amusing quick fixes were not the cultural issues so deeply conflicted and elusive. Why are they so hard to explicate and pin down?

  1. There is no agreed upon definition of what constitutes mental health, nor has there ever been. Freud is still an offbeat interest and thought to be crazily sex-obsessed himself (thus fulfilling the image of the carnal, divisive, lucre-obsessed Jew).
  2. No one can measure the effects of “media violence” or pictorial violence; for centuries images of violence were thought to provide a salutary catharsis for the pent-up rage that all civilized societies inflict upon children. And since Freudian ideas are off the table, for instance that siblings consciously and unconsciously harbor murderous impulses toward each other and toward one or both parents, we have no critical tools to evaluate “violence” by psychopaths. True, the better “profiler” shows on television do point to parental abuse as the long term cause of serial killing. But they do not mount any substantial critique of masculinity, even when favorite sports figures sacrifice their lives, like gladiators of old, to entertain the masses.
  3. As for the femmes fatales (the woman with gun), the general subject of motherhood is evaded, even as film noir is celebrated by film critics. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/.)
  4. Who doesn’t hate anything smacking of “the Puritan” today? We throw around the words “freedom” and “liberty” as if these had the same meaning to everyone, or worse, we invert freedom and slavery, so that we do not see our lust for “servile pomp.” Nor would we imagine that such a dark passion only binds us closer to Leviathan.
Femme Fatale

Femme Fatale

September 19, 2012

Bullies

Harvard Gr.School of Ed. magazine

[A note to the reader: Bullying is indeed a social problem, but the most prestigious education school in the land has nothing to recommend but nostrums that have been in place since the 1960s, and that have never worked. Nowhere does this article stress the search for truth as the highest value. There are only “points of view.” I don’t remember such a line being taught when I attended this school, holding the only Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship for projected leadership in science teaching. They offered me another full fellowship in Guidance, but I got married instead. It took me many years to begin to vindicate my fellowship, even as it brings me into conflict with Harvard as it currently exists. OTOH, the school may always have been progressive, and I didn’t recognize the regnant ideology as a science major.]

The Harvard Graduate School of Education devotes six pages in its Fall 2012 issue of Ed to what it sees as the all-consuming problem of bullying in the schools. Their solutions exactly mirror the prescriptions of “socially responsible capitalists” and multiculturalists, all of whom have focused on the affective side of public education: We are too focused on intellectual achievement (measured in standardized tests) to the neglect of “empathy, perspective-taking, and mindfulness”.  They have nothing more to offer other than the names of Lady Gaga and her friend Oprah Winfrey, who agree with them that we are Born This Way.

And yet their first example of the bullied student was not Born This Way. I quote their opening paragraph: “High school student Zachary Kerr didn’t know what to do. As a sophomore transitioning from female to male, he was met with comments in the classroom from whom one might least expect it: a teacher who voiced his disapproval of Kerr’s gender change. ‘It was hard to figure out what to do because it was a teacher,’ Kerr, now 18, says about his experience. ‘Do I complain about it? This teacher was responsible for grading me, and [his] was one of my favorite classes. Do I let it go and be uncomfortable? My decision was to let it go.’ He spent the rest of the year not speaking in the class about his transition.” [No mention in the article of any rebuttal by the teacher. I am pro-gay rights, but wonder why this particular example of unconfirmed bullying was the LEAD item in a six-page article.]

Skip a few paragraphs (one mentions a suicide, with no explanation as to the cause) to the meat of the article: Lecturer Richard Weissbourd, Ed.D.’87 explains his remedy for this apparently intractable problem: “’It’s a window into our failure to develop empathy in kids, or caring and responsibility in kids,’ he says. ‘It’s an opportunity to talk about social-emotional learning, moral development, responsibility for others, standing up and having courage, and also an opportunity to talk about the ways schools function and what we are doing and not doing to prepare adults to connect to students and to be helpful to them around peer troubles. You can’t prevent bullying without doing most of these things.’”

Next, Harvard tries to find the right balance: Headline: SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE. “In the era of standardized testing, incorporating these aforementioned lessons in the classroom isn’t easy. Across the board, experts and educators agree that with an increased focus on academic achievement comes an inadvertent decreased focus on social-emotional learning—the process for recognizing and managing emotion and how to develop concern for others.”

The author gives an example: a five-year old grabs a toy from another child. The [badass] kid is asked, how would you feel if someone took your toy by force?  Dear reader, this article I am quoting from was not written by Republicans but by the Democratic Party education establishment, or as I like to call them, the moderate men.

Note that Harvard educators of educators are not worried that our young adults cannot read or comprehend Shakespeare or Milton (say Hamlet, King Lear, The Tempest, or Paradise Lost), let alone such American classics as Moby-Dick). It is not bullying to throw out the masterpieces of civilization as written by dead white males, but it is bullying for a teacher to express disapproval of a sex-change operation, assuming that the interaction even took place as reported by “Zachary Kerr.” (The teacher was not given a platform to respond.) Victims never lie or exaggerate. (For more on the smashup of the old literary canon see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/.)

When I was briefly a student at P.S. 13 in Elmhurst Queens, right after the war, a gang of boys and maybe girls chased me home, as they brandished a knife. (I was the only Jewish kid in the class, and was perhaps resented as a teacher’s pet.) My mother went to the school and complained, only to be told by the principal, one Lillian Eschenbecker (of German descent?), that “Clare is like an apple: beautiful on the outside, but rotten at the core.” She really said that, and my mother told me about it. Perhaps she even believed this authoritative principal. I don’t know. Maybe I was Born This Way.

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