Posts Tagged ‘George Orwell’

A Teacher’s Thoughts Inspired by the “Philosophers Camp on Education Reform”

May 4, 2014


As I write, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Joe Williams, executive director of Education Reform Now, Senator Mary Landrieu, film maker M. Night Shyamalan and other non-educators are ensconced in the bucolic bosom of Whiteface Lodge in Lake Placid, New York to “convene Camp Philos.” The non-educators, who compare their $1000 board meeting to an 1858 meeting of Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Russell Lowell, are engaged in what they have billed, straight faced, as a “Philosophers Camp on Education Reform, ” “ three Spring days of fun, fellowship, and strategy with the nation’s thought leaders on education reform.”

“Thought leaders.”

I swear I am not making this up.

Needless to say, anyone who can convince themselves that they could place the words “Philosopher’s Camp “ before the words, “education reform”, in the same breath as they are comparing themselves with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, is well nigh in need of a good teacher, a course in philosophy 101, or at the very least, a dictionary.

On the other hand the event – which achieves a kind of horrible sublimity in its sheer vulgarity — is perfectly consistent with the tactics of the long stealth campaign to privatize the school system that built America. Of the privatizers many repugnant tactics, none is more consistent, intrinsic or effective than the conscious manipulation of language and images. In this way does a half assed experiment, hatched up in secret by shills and testing companies and financed by a ruthless billionaire, come to be known as the miraculous Common Core State Standards, the answer to all that ails us, the solution to all problems, the alpha and the omega. In this way does the almost biblical struggle for civil rights come to be employed by the privatizers’ public relations department as a tool to strip teachers of the right to due process and undermine unions. In this way does the word “philosophy”, one of the most transcendent and spiritually charged words in any language, come to be used in Lake Placid, as a fig leaf for yet the latest episode in the most rapacious campaign against a vital public trust in American history.

The privatizers know little or nothing of education but they do know, as Orwell knew, that those who control the language control reality. See his “Politics and the English Language.”

Cuomo, coming off orchestrating what is surely the most egregiously unfair education law in the history of New York state, is the “honorary chairman” of the philosophical retreat. It troubles the philosophical Chairman Governor not at all that no educator was invited to Camp Philos, nor even that those who attempted to attend were summarily rejected, one and all.

Still, even as I find the privatizers among the most cynical, ignorant and narcissistic people on the face of the earth, I must admit there is one place in which I agree with them, even as I radically disagree with their methods and ends and even as they would disagree with me till the end of time.

Like the “reformers “, if for radically diffent reasons, I too agree that the public school system as it has been operating for decades has, in some essential ways, failed America.
Further, I would state unambiguously that this failure is generational and so long standing as to be invisible.

I would define the failure as philosophical in both nature and cause. Allow me to elaborate. Education is, in its essence, a philosophical endeaver. Yes, of course we need to insure that our citizens gain the practical skills that will enable them to navigate the always unknown road ahead. Yes, of course, it means that schools must do all they can to insure our students have the requisite skills to gain employment in an ever more frighteningly competitive world in which jobs are now routinely “out-sourced” or mechanized out of existance altogether. That said, education is not job training. Job training is a wonderful thing and a necessity but it is not education. Education serves a much larger, deeper, and more vital role, and that is where the philosophical element, directly or indirectly, enters into the picture. Accordingly, in the front and center of our education system should be some variations of the following questions:
What, as a society, do we value ?
What kind of a people are we ?
What do we really believe in ?
Do we live our beliefs ?
What kind of citizens do we wish to produce ?
What does it mean to be educated ?
What, if anything, are our responsibilities to each other ?
How are we to live together ?

Andrew Cuomo and his pals omitted  discussion of the Death of Socrates  at the Philosopher's Camp on Education Reform]

Andrew Cuomo and his pals omitted discussion of the Death of Socrates at the Philosopher’s Camp on Education Reform]

In America we have reduced education to job training.

Were it within my power to do so, I would immediately and unapologetically do all I could do to introduce the study of philosophy on some level beginning in the third grade, the age of my daughter as of this writing. And I would make it an essential part of the curriculum in every grade until high school graduation. Implicit with this undertaking would be the understanding that some may not grasp the meaning of the study for years if at all but all would benefit from the exposure as surely as they would exposure to the history of art and music and architecture.

If I have seen a little further,” wrote Issac Newton, “ it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Children would begin with a study of the word: “philo,” which means “love. “Sophia,” which means “wisdom.” Let them spend a week, a month, a year — whatever it takes – discussing and attempting to grasp those two words alone and the concept of those together, and you cannot help but have a child with an imagination larger because it is more unleashed than before. Help a child understand that this thing called “wisdom” exists and is real and has been honored and revered by the civilized since the beginning of civilization, that it has nothing to do with the accumulation of material wealth, nothing to do with gaining power over others, nothing to do with competition or control, and you have opened the portals of that child’s mind. And you have done something else: you have given a child a way of seeing that affords he or she some mode of mental protection against a corporate assault that, for many, begins at the moment of consciousness. Worse, the assault is designed to wed that struggling to be formed identity with a product, now and forevermore.

The study of philosphy would not merely help make our children “college and career ready”
( what ever those weasel words actually mean), it might help them to understand this mystery called Life in all of its paradoxical, tragic and wonderous nature. It is the epitome of critical thinking.

We now live in a nation where most citizens seem to believe that the word “philosophy” is synonymous with “opinion.” We have all heard vulgar examples in statements such as, “My philosophy is to hit guy before he hits you”, or some such foolishness. It is, I would argue, the absence of philosophical knowledge that has contributed to much of America’s horrible and dangerous confusion of technology with science, data with knowledge and knowledge with wisdom. Most of all it has led to the savage idea that knowedge is power rather than liberation from the need for power.
This is worse than sad. No decent society, never mind an alleged democracy, can exist in this kind of mass confusion.
And, yes, many of these same people are products of the public school system and yes, that school system failed them. And it continues to fail them. But rest assured: it will fail them that much further under a system dominated by the likes of the privatizers.

When I have asked my students why they go to school and why they study, overwhelmingly they reply with some variation of “ to do well on the test.” This is sick but it is hardly an accident. But why should they think differently? We are now in the process of incubating our children with this shrunken head madness.

It is, indeed, a kind of crime: the crime of starving the imaginations of millions of children by sheer neglect. And it is a crime that the miraculous Common Core will not only not correct but will, in fact, perpetuate.

I do not believe in magical thinking. (I leave that for the proponents of the Common Core.) I am well aware that the study of philosophy will not automatically and magically make thing better for all. Pre-Nazi Germany had the most rigorous school curriculum in the Western world but it did little to stop millions from embracing Hitler. Something more is needed. That said, I know this: the absence of something as immense as philosophy can only diminish this nation. As I see it, the problem is ecological. By this I mean if you deprive a child of philosophical awareness you do not get child minus philosophy. You get someone radically different and radically weaker. You get a person whose imagination, the key to all, has been severely diminished.

The purpose of education is not to be found in the vulgar slogan, “knowledge is power. ” Indeed, the absence of philosophy is one reason why that slogan is so readily swallowed in our increasingly competitive, miserable, punitive land and is in the very name of the KIPP charter empire. Philosophers and artists and spiritual geniuses have known for thousands of years that education is many things but above all, it is the emancipation of the human imagination: the purpose of education is freedom.

As I write, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Joe Williams, executive director of Education Reform Now, Senator Mary Landrieu, film maker M. Night Shyamalan and other non-educators are ensconced in the bucolic bosom of Whiteface Lodge in Lake Placid, New York, making a mock of the language that they use, discussing the creation of conditions that mock the very idea of freedom and positing efficacy, compliance, control and profit above all things. They are mocking, that is, the very essence of philosophy. This they do in the name of education. This they do in the name of children. This they do under the aegis of philosophy.

“All that is now proved was once only imagined”, wrote William Blake. I revere Blake as much as any soul who has ever walked this earth but, considering the combination of unimaginable fortunes wed to political power that is determined not only to privatize education but to use the educational system as THE vehicle to permanantly forge the character of America into a corporate fiefdom, it is at this moment very, very hard to imagine a happy ending to this horrific story. And yet, as souls like Blake and Kant and Hegel and Camus and Arendt knew, our imaginations are the only faculties that can possibly sustain us, as they are the only ones that ever have.

We must honor our lives and our language, and by doing so outlast the bastards and expose them for what they are.

Addendum: I’ve just found out that Andrew Cuomo, apparently at the last minute and doubtless to the great disappointment of his hosts, decided it was a better idea to philosophize with his fellow philosophers via video screen. Hmmmmmm. I’m guessing Cuomo got the willies from reports of hundreds of teachers and parents so filled with disgust with the man that they were willing to brave the rain to make sure he got their message, loud and clear. Cuomo may have been frightened of a repeat of what happened when he showed up recently on Long Island, as reported with relish on Perdido Street School. Good. It’s about time this treacherous invertebrate started to get his comeuppance.

Austerity and Accountability for Thee But Not for Me

October 15, 2012

One can hardly be within earshot of any babbling politician anywhere in the US these days without hearing about the need for accountability and austerity, austerity and accountability. This goes double  — at least ! — if said babbler is babbling about education  which is likely as the  weeping and gnashing of teeth over the sheer lousiness of public school teachers  has become a  national pastime greater than baseball and is infinitely easier to play.

Now there is nothing necessarily wrong with talking about austerity and accountability if it is implemented in a sane fashion and shared across the board.  But, when it comes to education, at any rate, how exactly is this accountability and austerity stuff played out? Well, for the austerity part you simply slash budgets left and right, regardless if said slashing results in elephantine class sizes, vanishing music, art, and gym   classes, and legions of teachers buying pencils, notebooks and what have you for their students.   Rather more furtively you undermine teacher’s pensions and health care, target   teachers with experience and hence higher salaries and systemically create conditions that are so demoralizing and degrading many people simply quit after a couple of years.   This kind of thing is absolutely guaranteed to keep the ship a bit more austere.

The accountability angle is even simpler.  In fact, one might say it is simple minded.      For about a decade now the idiotic idea of applying the principles of business to the art of teaching has been allowed to run roughshod over just about the entire United States. This has led to the absurd if revealing situation in which the language of education and the language of business are in many cases interchangeable, even if the change only went one way. That is to say while I have yet to hear of any businessman speaking of, say, “disjunctive conjunctions” or “pathos” I have been forced to listen to rivers of crazy and reckless blather (all somehow delivered with a straight face ) concerning a teacher’s  “value -added”  “metrics” and the like all built around the apotheosis of the standardized test. In fact, more standardized tests than have ever been seen before or even imagined on planet earth. And there is more to come.  More  and more and more.     It remains to be seen what, if any,  positive changes will come of the ceaseless testing of our children, at least as opposed to the certainty of the billions that will be made by test makers and text book publishers, all certain to be revised every year or so to insure even more billions and all courtesy of the public dime.

No austerity there, thank you very much.

I, for one, predict that the cultural illiteracy that allowed this testing mania to take hold will merely deepen.  How can it not?    I also believe it will be produce millions of test drunk graduates who will be shocked to discover that the vagaries of life bear zero relationship to a standardized test.  How could they be otherwise ?

For the time being, however, it’s the teacher’s turn to be shocked:  First by the viciousness and relentlessness of their billionaire backed attackers and then by the ease in which a handful of billionaires have pushed around our elected officials  — up to and including the president of the United States — like they were so many balloons, forcing their ignorant will upon an entire nation of children and their teachers, come what may. Let us put aside, for the moment, the outrageous truth about the tests that are increasingly used to evaluate public schools and public school teachers: put aside the fact that they have no scientific merit whatsoever. None. Zero. Zip.   Put aside the fact that the very people who created them have stated explicitly and repeatedly that they were not designed to evaluate teachers and should not be used to evaluate teachers.  Today, in more and more of the country the teachers are judged “effective “ or  “ ineffective”’ largely by the test scores of their students.

Let us consider the consequences of receiving such an  evaluation.

When a public school teacher is judged incompetent and fired, unlike say a bank employee or a Wall  Street  hustler, they cannot simply walk down the street and  apply to the school a few blocks down.    They are stripped of their licenses, and with their license, their livelihood.   This is bad.  Very, very bad. And if you are going to do it, if you are going to strip  a person of their ability to support themselves and their families,  you had better have some damned good reasons to do so and they’d better be more than hopelessly flawed tests scores.    I have seen this horrible and humiliating process play out with three fine teachers whom I had the privilege to work with.   Indeed, two years later it is still playing out as two of them are still searching for work and one recently had to leave the country to land a job.

And with them you have austerity and accountability in one big disgusting bang.


Which brings us to the curious case of peripatetic twice failed school chancellor Jean Claude Brizard, late of Rochester and more recently Chicago who seems, like so many people of power and authority, somehow immune to the pitiless eye of both  austerity and accountability that has caused so many so much pain and misery. In fact, Brizard’s situation seems to  mock it.

Consider the following from

Departing Brizard to get full year’s salary

By John Byrne

Clout Street

12:12 PM CDT, October 12, 2012

Departing Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard will get a full year’s salary as part of his severance package, district officials said today.

The school board gave Brizard a two-year contract at $250,000 a year when it hired him in April 2011. The contract was set to expire next May.

A severance package of a full year’s salary seems peculiar enough in the best of times but in an age of austerity?  And it is that much more peculiar when, as the  paragraph below seems to indicate, Brizard,  in fact, quit.

Brizard approached Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale about stepping down.”

Is it customary to receive severance package when you quit your job ?  Will I get one if I quit mine ?   A full year’s salary?   Or is this extraordinary arrangement reserved only for those who wander from city to city furthering the deliberate destruction of the public  school system, paying fealty to their corporate overlords  while preaching from  their perches of fleeting power the eternal gospel of accountability  and austerity for the little people ?