I’m occasionally accused of suggesting that Seymour Papert is the answer to every educational question. That may because over more than 40 years, my friend and colleague, predicted the future of education with impeccable precision, warts and all.

Don’t believe me? Check out this recently found Papert quotation.

It is this freedom of the teacher to decide and, indeed, the freedom of the children to decide, that is most horrifying to the bureaucrats who stand at the head of current education systems. They are worried about how to verify that the teachers are really doing their job properly, how to enforce accountability and maintain quality control. They prefer the kind of curriculum that will lay down, from day to day, from hour to hour, what the teacher should be doing, so that they can keep tabs on it. Of course, every teacher knows this is an illusion. It’s not an effective method of insuring quality. It is only a way to cover ass. Everybody can say, “I did my bit, I did my lesson plan today, I wrote it down in the book.” Nobody can be accused of not doing the job. But this really doesn’t work. What the bureaucrat can verify and measure for quality has nothing to do with getting educational results–those teachers who do good work, who get good results, do it by exercising judgment and doing things in a personal way, often undercover, sometimes even without acknowledging to themselves that they are violating the rules of the system. Of course one must grant that some people employed as teachers do not do a good job. But forcing everyone to teach by the rules does not improve the “bad teachers”–it only hobbles the good ones.

Sound familiar? That passage is ripped from today’s headlines!

Twenty years ago, a lifelong dream of visiting Australia was achieved. That was followed by my work leading professional development at the world’s first “laptop schools” and more than forty subsequent  trips to my second home, “downunder.”* In addition to having a paper accepted by the July 1990 World Conference on Computers in Education, that first trip to Australia was the first time I really got to spend a lot of time socially with Dr. Papert.

It was at that 1990 World Conference that Papert gave the keynote address including the words above. That keynote address has been published as Perestroika and Epistemological Politics and it is worthy of your attention. Here is another passage from that important speech.

I would suggest that one reason education reform has not worked is that it almost always treats these dimensions as separate and tries to reform one or another–the choice depending on who is doing the reforming. Curriculum reformers try to put new curriculum in an otherwise unchanged system but ignore the fact that the old curriculum really suits the system and reverts to type as soon as the reformers turn their backs. Similarly, when reformers introduce new forms of management of the old approach to knowledge and learning, the system quickly snaps back to its state of equilibrium. And, perhaps most dramatically from the point of view of people in this room, the same kind of process undermines any attempt to change education by putting a lot of computers into otherwise unchanged schools.


*I’m currently in Australia keynoting a conference, working with the South Australia Department of Education and as a Visiting Scholar at Trinity College – University of Melbourne

peter-garrett1In the current world of education policy, nothing succeeds quite like failure.

Traditionally, Australia’s newly elected Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, “should” be pro-teacher and public education, but in a strange twist of politics much like the way Obama treats public education, she too will do irreparable harm in the name of meaner tougher “reform” and greater accountability.

Gillard LOVES all of the failed educational policy fantasies of her buddy and mentor Joel Klein, Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools – merit pay, Teach for Australia, standardized testing, public reporting of deeply flawed teacher accountability measures, insulting and shaming educators.

Now, just like President Obama, Prime Minister Gillard has now pointed someone with dubious credentials to lead the nation’s schools. Arne Duncan played basketball for the Launceston Ocelots and other defunct Australian basketball teams and Australia’s new education minister is wait for it – Peter Garrett.

If that name sounds familiar, you may recognize Education Minister Garrett in this video.

Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper, The Australian, reports the following about Garrett’s appointment and qualifications.

THE minister pilloried for mishandling the $2.45 billion home insulation scheme, Peter Garrett, has been rewarded.

Julia Gillard has handed him the prestigious education portfolio.

Despite expectations Mr Garrett would be dumped from cabinet, he received one of the biggest promotions in the ministry, progressing from being an environment minister with diminished responsibilities to become Minister for Schools, Early Childhood and Youth…

The school sector was cautious over the appointment, with some concerned Mr Garrett’s environmental stance would align him with the Greens, who oppose government subsidies for private schools; others questioned his ability to manage the schools portfolio, given his problems with the home insulation scheme.

Opposition frontbencher Peter Dutton said he was “absolutely amazed” Mr Garrett had been rewarded. “He’s presided over deaths and fires in a program that probably has been mishandled like no other since federation,” he told Sky News.

Doesn’t this sound eerily like Arne Duncan being promoted to Secretary of Education after the spectacular job he did of “turning around” the Chicago Public Schools?

Further reading:

For decades, Substance, has reported on public education in Chicago. They have made enemies in the teacher’s union, school board and central administration. It’s editor was terminated by the Chicago Public Schools during the Duncan/Vallas regime for whistle-blowing on standardized testing. The legal case waged in the courts for 6+ years until the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal.

The following is a portion of the editorial written by the Substance team about President-Elect Obama’s Secretary of Education nominee and basketball buddy, Arne Duncan:

For the past six years, we’ve watched while Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan lied repeatedly to the public about how and why he was closing dozens of public schools. Duncan was not trying to improve public schools in Chicago for all children, but was in command of a ruthless privatization plan that is designed to undermine traditional notions of public education for urban children and replace them with a crackpot version of “market choice” that exists only for the wealthy and the powerful.

The key to Duncan’s ability to get away with the Big Lie, however, is not Duncan’s own eloquence, but the face that he has the backing of Chicago’s ruling class. From the CEOs of the city’s largest corporations (organized into the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club) to the editorial boards of the two power daily newspapers, Duncan’s lies are amplified every day, and except for the pages of this newspaper and a few other places, unchallenged in the public arena where democratic debate is supposed to take place.

After we reviewed the school closings in Chicago since 2001, when Mayor Daley appointed Duncan the second “Chief Executive Officer” in CPS history, the shocking details began to become clear. Not only were poor black children being forced out of their homes (public housing reform, it was called), but they were also being deprived over and over of access to public schools.

Take some time to read Substance online and consider subscribing to the most independent journalism in public education.

National Public Radio’s terrific talk show, Talk of the Nation, interviewed US Education Secretary Arne Duncan this morning and sent out a tweet asking for questions worth posing to the Secretary. I immediately tweeted back a barrage of questions and the host asked a paraphrased version of one the most innocuous questions I submitted.

If goal is raising opportunities & achievement for all kids, isn’t RACE for the top an unfortunate metaphor? (1 winner, many losers)

Engaging in critical debates about Federal education policy in 140 characters is a challenge, but not impossible.

The following are the other questions I “tweeted” to Secretary Arne Duncan (in reverse chronological order) via NPR’s TOTN:

How would Sect. Duncan to respond to the report card given him – A for efficacy and D for policy?

Isn’t firing all of the teachers and charterizing public schools a right-wing utopian fantasy?

Where does Sect. Duncan think the magical teachers & perfect schools will come from after he fires teachers and closes pub schools?

Did you ask Duncan what he thinks of Diane Ravitch’s research disproving the basic assumptions of Obama education policies?

Given the Gates Foundation’s expensive school reform failures, why do they have so much influence within the Dept. of Education?

If you’re a parent in Harlem, should be concerned that nearly all of the local public schools have been turned into boutique charters?

Why should public school facilities be surrendered to private charter school operators?

Which is true: a) The Chicago Public Schools are a mess & failing children b) We should trust Sect. Duncan to do the same for America?

Should Americans be alarmed that most major city districts and the Dept. of Ed are now run by unqualified non-educators?

If goal is raising opportunities & achievement for all kids, isn’t RACE for the top an unfortunate metaphor? (1 winner, many losers)

Why has a “Labor” administration worked so hard to bust the teacher unions across the nation?

Originally appeared in The Huffington Post on 10/19/2010

Shouldn’t people bold enough to call themselves “school reformers” be familiar with some of the literature on the subject?

Most of the school leaders who signed last weekend’s completely discreditedmanifesto,” are unqualified to lead major urban school districts. Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein are not qualified to be a substitute teacher in their respective school districts. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could not coach basketball in the Chicago Public Schools with his lack of credentials. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that they advocate schemes like Teach for America sending unprepared teachers into the toughest classrooms armed with a missionary zeal and programmed to believe they are there to rescue children from the incompetent teachers with whom they need to work. In public education today, unqualified is the new qualified.

The celebration of inexperience and lack of preparation is particularly disconcerting when it comes to education policy. When you allow billionaires, ideologues, pop singers and movie viewers to define reform, you get Reform™.

Reform™ narrowly defines school improvement as children chanting, endless standardized testing preparation, teacher bashing and charter-based obedience schools who treat other people’s children in ways that the rich folks behind Reform™ would never tolerate for children they love.

If that were not bad enough, Reform™ advances a myth that there is only one way to create productive contexts for learning. It ignores the alternative models, expertise and school improvement literature all around us. Public education is too important to society to allow the ignorant to define the terms of debate. Great educators stand on the shoulders of giants and confront educational challenges with knowledge, passion and intensity when afforded the freedom to do so. There are a great many of us who know how to amplify the enormous potential for children, even if we are ignored by Oprah or NBC News.

Reading is important for children and adults alike. Therefore, I challenged myself to assemble an essential (admittedly subjective) reading list on school reform. The following books are appropriate for parents, teachers, administrators, politicians and plain old citizens committed to the ideal of sustaining a joyful, excellent and democratic public education for every child.

In A Schoolmaster of the Great City: A Progressive Education Pioneer’s Vision for Urban Schools, school teacher and principal Angelo Patri identifies and solves every problem confronting public education. This feat is all the more remarkable when you learn that the book was published in 1917!

Recently deceased Yale psychologist Dr. Seymour Sarason published forty books on a wide range of education issues well into his eighties. A good place to start is The Skeptical Visionary: A Seymour Sarason Reader. You have to admire a guy who published a book with the title, The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform: Can We Change Course Before It’s Too Late, twenty years ago! Books written in the 1990s, And What do YOU Mean by Learning, Political Leadership and Educational Failure and Charter Schools: Another Flawed Educational Reform? remain quite timely and instructive.

No serious citizen or educator concerned with the future of education can afford to ignore the role of technology in learning. Jean Piaet’s protegé, Seymour Papert, began writing about the potential of computers to amplify human potential in the mid-1960s. His view is a great deal more humane and productive than using computers to quiz students in preparation for standardized tests. All of Papert’s books and papers are worth reading, but I suggest you start with The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.

Want to see what sustainable scaleable school reform looks like where children are treated as competent? The Big Picture: Education Is Everyone’s Business by Dennis Littky with Samantha Grabelle describes urban high schools with small classes, consistent student teacher relationships and an educational program based on apprenticeship. Students don’t go to “school” on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They engage in internship experiences in the community in any field that interests them. The other days of the week, the curriculum is based on whatever the students need to learn to enhance their internships. This is not vocational. It prepares students for university or any other choice they make. The Big Picture model has spread across the United States with impressive results.

The biography of Big Picture Schools co-founder Dennis Littky, Doc: The Story Of Dennis Littky And His Fight For A Better School, by Susan Kammeraad-Campbell may be the first school reform thriller. The book chronicles how Littky transformed a failing school and was wrongfully fired the second political winds changed. Anyone interested in “reforming” public education would be well advised to read this exciting page-turner.

MacArthur Genius Deborah Meier has forgotten more about effective teaching and urban school reform than today’s entire generation of “reformers” ever knew. Meier is often considered the mother of the small school movement and her work as the founder of the Central Park East Schools and Mission Hill in Boston remain influential inspiration for parents and educators committed to the preparation of learners with the habits of mind required for a healthy democracy. Her book, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization, is a masterpiece sharing the wisdom developed over more than a half century of teaching and school leadership. You should also read Meier’s weekly online discussion with Diane Ravitch, the Bridging Differencesblog.

The Schools our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” is but one of the many terrific books by Alfie Kohn in which he challenges conventional wisdom on sacrosanct topics like homework, grades, standardized testing and rewards with clarity and evidence. His books are fearless and make you think. His articles are collected at Alfiekohn.com. Alfie’s small book, The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools should be on the kitchen table of every parent and teacher. If you’re tired of reading, you may watch two terrific Kohn lectures on the DVD, No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.

Dr. Theodore Sizer was a school principal, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and unofficial leader of the high school reform movement over the past twenty-five years. His intellect, calm demeanor and practicality led to the creation of the Coalition of Essential Schools and a template by which any secondary school could improve from within. The first book in his “Horace trilogy,” Horace’s Compromise, tells the story of American high schools, warts and all, through the eyes of a fictional English teacher, Horace Smith. This book and the two that follow share Horace’s epiphanies about the shortcoming of American high schools, their strengths and how he and his colleagues can make their school better. The organization Sizer founded, The Coalition of Essential Schools, continues to inspire such local reform efforts one school at a time.

National Book Award-winning author, educator and civil rights activist has been giving voice to the poorest children in our nation and the injustice they face since the 1960s. All of Kozol’s books are equal-parts profound, infuriating and inspirational, but the tender and beautifully written, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope, reminds us why we should care about public education.

Herbert Kohl has shared his insights as a teacher and teacher educator in dozens of brilliant books. His recent anthology, The Herb Kohl Reader: Awakening the Heart of Teaching, should whet your appetite for reading many more of his books.

There is no more fierce or tireless critic of the higher tougher meaner standards and accountability movement than Susan Ohanian. The book she co-authored with Kathy Emery, Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? engages in the old-fashioned “follow the money” journalism we keep waiting for from news organizations. This book will help you understand how we got to reform being defined and advanced by billionaire bullies.

Right before he died last year, respected scholar, Gerald Bracey published, Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality – Transforming the Fire Consuming America’s Schools. This book disembowels many of the premises and data used to justify the high-stakes accountability rhetoric and school reform strategies currently being advanced. It’s a must read!

Not With Our Kids You Don’t! Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools by Juanita Doyon is a short must-read book for parents tired of their schools being turned into little more than Dickensian test-prep sweatshops. The book was written by a fed-up mom, turned activist from Washington who has upended her state’s political establishment in defense of the sort of high quality education Americans came to expect before No Child Left Behind.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.

Q: How can liberals prevent Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos from destroying public education by being confirmed?

A: They can’t. Americans don’t give a rat’s ass about education policy as demonstrated by Ms. DeVos’ confirmation. Once elevated to Secretary of Education, DeVos can build upon the destruction wrought by Gates, Broad, and the Walton family and finish off public education once and for all.

So, what should be done? What can be done?

Liberals only have one choice. They need to join conservative Republicans and agree to scrap the federal Department of Education. That’s right exorcise the Department before it is inhabited by another demon.

The federal Department of Education is not an ancient governmental agency. It only dates back to 1980. Republicans beginning with Ronald Reagan have called for the end of the Department since less than a year after its inception. It is time for liberals to commit an act of political jujitsu and join the GOP in dismantling the Department of Education.

The liberal case for dismantling the Department of Education

Scholars like Linda Darling-Hammond document that the Black/White achievement gap narrowed to its smallest point around 1977, a few years before the creation of the US Department of Education. This success followed a decade or more of civil rights law and enforcement, desegregation efforts, bussing, and public sector jobs, including the CETA program. Kids were healthier, their parents had jobs, and government engaged in overt desegregation efforts.

Ever since the US Department of Education was created, public confidence in public education has eroded (and in the minds of some, schools have gotten worse). It is impossible to prove a correlation here, but the trouble began when Ronald Reagan said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem.”

Liberals and progressive educators have long argued that educational success is dependent on “wrap-around services” are required to adequately educate all children. Well, if we believe that poverty is a powerful determinate of educational success and are committed to providing nutrition, medical, dental, job, and housing services within the school system, perhaps it is time to return education to its predecessor agency, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Why not view childhood and education holistically?

I truly understand and appreciate that Title IX, Title I, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, IDEA, Title II of the ADA, and Federal financial aid are important. (thanks to Audrey Watters for the list). Most of these critical laws are established and now enforced by the Courts. Surely, these and other important civil rights could be maintained in another federal agency. The Justice Department under Jefferson Beauregard Sessions isn’t likely to enforce civil rights anyway. So, why not reach “bipartisan consensus” and exorcise the Department of Education?

Unqualified is not unprecedented

Betsy DeVos may be evil and will profit from education policies, but she is just as unqualified as most of her predecessors, a veritable Who’s Who of Who’s That?

Let’s review… (in reverse chronological order)

  • John King, Jr. – Mr. King was so unpopular and toxic that President Obama needed to install him via a recess appointment. In his previous job as New York State Education Commissioner, the state teachers union voted a historic, nearly unanimous, no-confidence vote against him. (more)
  • Arne Duncan – failed point guard for the Launceston Ocelots. Gave us Race to the Top and presided over era of rampant private higher education fraud.
  • Margaret Spellings – boring and unqualified. Now runs the University of North Carolina.
  • Coach Rod Paige – perpetrated the fraud of the “Houston Miracle” that was the model for No Child Left Behind. Champion of the obedience school chain, KIPP.
  • Richard Riley – (eight years, few accomplishments)
  • Lamar Alexander – presided over the Betsy DeVos confirmation.
  • Ted Sanders (acting) – four months in office
  • Lauro Cavazos – don’t remember him.
  • William Bennett – Third Education Secretary. First to call for the destruction of the Department. Right-wing talk radio demagogue. Founder of corrupt and mediocre “online charter school,” K12.com.
  • Terrell Bell – convicted Reagan to create A Nation at Risk. Believed that the problem with education is motivation.
  • Shirley Hufstedler – esteemed lawyer, judge, and public servant.

I often point out that in today’s anti-institution/public school bashing culture, unqualified is the new qualified.

Today’s Headlines

Sadly, Americans don’t give a damn about education policy. If we want to mitigate the potential damage done by DeVos and Trump, perhaps we should engage in some jui jitsu and agree with the Republicans about the Department of Education. It’s funding levels are approximately 7% and its negative impact is a whole lot greater.

Need convincing? Read today’s articles about Secretary DeVos.

Welcome To The Private Evangelical School Of Betsy DeVos’ Dreams – Teachers sign a statement of faith and kids learn about creationism and the Bible. It’s also the education secretary’s inspiration.

Newsflash! Betsy DeVos Opens Mouth. Nonsense Falls Out

I’ve been online since 1983 and my own web site dates back to the first term of the Clinton presidency. Along the way, I may have ruffled a few feathers.

Let me tell you about one of my all-time favorite social media brouhahas.

On December 17, 2008, The Huffington Post published an article I wrote entitled, “Obama Practices Social Promotion.

I began the article…

“A curious cartel of billionaire bullies, power hungry politicians and tough-talking school superintendents wage an eternal battle against social promotion — for the good of our children of course. Social promotion, a divisive political term with no basis in reality, like partial-birth abortion, is one of the most popular talking points among the the most vocal critics of public education. The “end of social promotion” has caused tens of thousands of kids as young as 3rd grade to be left-back, despite overwhelming evidence that this practice harms children and increases the drop-out rate.

However, social promotion is a godsend to urban school superintendents in this age of privatization. It is truly bizarre that the public education system, which at least in-part is dedicated to preparing people for careers and life, would devalue expertise.”

…and went on to say…

“Arne Duncan Fails Upward

Today’s nomination of Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan to be the Barack Obama’s Secretary Education is a spectacular example of social promotion. Duncan, who as been the CEO or Chief of Staff of the Chicago Public Schools for the past ten years has done such a swell job of “reform” that his best friend and basketball buddy, Barack Obama, would not send his own children to the public schools. President-elect Obama is like Eli Broad, Bill Gates and the members of the Business Roundtable who kill public schools with their kindness while turning them into the sort of joyless test-prep sweatshops unworthy of children they love.

Arne Duncan is a darling of the charter school movement, Eli Broad, the right-wing Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, anti-union “Democrats” and I kid you not — Hooked-on-Phonics. President-elect Obama eagerly awaits recommendations on nuclear proliferation from Billy Mays, Ron Popeil and the ShamWow guy.”

All of my assertions (especially the inflammatory ones), contained links to supporting evidence.

Then it happened

A few days later, right around Christmas, my Google Alert started sounding. Soon it was like a bell warning of  four-alarm fire and the alarm sounded for several straight days. What could possibly have caused such sudden popularity for Little ‘ol me?

It seems that the CEO of Hooked-on-Phonics® was so offended by my joke comparing their qualifications to endorse a federal Secreatary of Education to the ShamWow guy that the company paid a public relations firm to issue a global press release condemning me. “Hooked on Phonics(R) CEO Responds to Gary Stager’s Criticism of President-elect Obama’s Choice of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education,” was released in dozens of countries around the world. Every time one of those press releases went public, my Google alert rang again.

What is so golden about that misguided attempt to make me famous is the lengths to which the CEO of Hooked-on-Phonics® went to avoid offending the ShamWow guy (probably a wise idea since he apparently beat up a cannibal hooker).

“Gary Stager is entitled to his opinions regarding President-elect Obama’s selection of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education and education policy generally. However, it is unfortunate he has tried to trivialize my views by likening my company and its product — Hooked on Phonics, a product that has helped millions of children learn to read — to a sponge (with all due respect to the folks at ShamWow).”

Read the entire condemnation of me here. I could not be prouder!

My only regret is that the predictions I made about President-Elect Obama’s education policies and his nominee for Secretary of Education turned out to be even worse than I had feared. Read the five and a half year-old article for yourself here.

Rufus T. Firefly
President: Huxley College

I often explain to graduate students that I don’t play devil’s advocate or any other clever games. Just because I may say something unsaid by others, does not mean that I don’t come to that perspective after careful thought and introspection.

Being an educator is a sacred obligation. Those of us who know better, need to do better and stand between the defenseless children we serve and the madness around us. If a destructive idea needs to be challenged or a right defended, I’ll speak up.

My career allows me to spend time in lots of classrooms around the world and to work with thousands of educators each year. This gives me perspective. I am able to identify patterns, good and bad, often before colleagues become aware of the phenomena. I have been blessed with a some communication skills and avenues for expression. I’ve published hundreds of articles and spoken at even more conferences.

People seem interested in what I have to say and for that I am extremely grateful.

The problem is that I am increasingly called upon to argue against a popular trend. That tends to make me unpopular. In the field of education, where teachers are “nice,” criticism is barely tolerated. Dissent is seen as defect and despite all of my positive contributions to the field, I run the risk of being dismissed as “that negative guy.”

Recently, I have written or been quoted on the following topics:

I’ve also written against homework, NCLB, RTTT, Michelle Rhee, Eli Broad, Joel Klein, standardized testing, Education Nation, Common Core Curriculum Standards, Accelerated Reader, merit pay, Arne Duncan, union-busting, Cory Booker, Teach for America, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, mayoral control, the ISTE NETs, Hooked-on-Phonics, President Obama’s education policies, etc… You get the idea.

The “Jetbow” sandwich at NY’s Carnegie Deli

These are perilous times for educators. When once bad education policy was an amuse-bouche you could easily ignore, it has become a Carnegie Deli-sized shit sandwich. Educators are literally left to pick their own poison, when choice is permitted at all. If I take a stand against a fad or misguided education policy, my intent is to inform and inspire others to think differently or take action.

So why, pray tell am I boring my dear readers with my personal angst? An old friend and colleague just invited me to write a magazine article about the “Flipped Classroom.” Sure, I think the flipped classroom is a preposterous unsustainable trend, masquerading as education reform, in which kids are forced to work a second unpaid shift because adults refuse to edit a morbidly obese curriculum. But….

The question is, “Do I wish to gore yet another sacred cow?” Is speaking truth to power worth the collateral damage done to my career?

In the 1960s, the great Neil Postman urged educators to hone highly-tuned BS and crap detectors. Those detectors need to be set on overdrive today. I’m concerned that I’m the only one being burned.

What to do? What to do?

I don’t know what they have to say
It makes no difference anyway
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
No matter what it is
Or who commenced it
I’m against it!

Your proposition may be good
But let’s have one thing understood
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
And even when you’ve changed it
Or condensed it
I’m against it!

Whatever It Is, I'm Against It
by Harry Ruby & Bert Kalmar 
From the Marx Bros. film "Horse Feathers" (1932)

 

I originally wrote a version of this article in 2007, but the topic is even more timely during today’s period of introspection regarding violence, civility, gun control, widening wealth disparities and education reform. Our daily discourse is filled with reckless nostalgia for the good ol’ days of the White Citizens Councils and the preposterous claims that Dr. King would love charter schools, the destruction of unions, the demonization of public school teachers and having poor children do the work of school janitors.

It is unconscionable to reduce Dr. King’s life, work and sacrifice to the few paltry sentences fed to us by the textbook industry or Republican politicians cherry-picking happy talk rather than confront the societal demons King identified and that are still with us.

This epidemic of ignorance can only be cured by educators! (also read: The Help: A Teacher’s Guide for more resources)


This Monday is Dr. Martin Luther King’s Birthday and February is African American History Month. Both occasions were created as a way of honoring the sacrifice of Dr. King and the contributions of millions of African Americans before him. It is a somber occasion in which to confront the hideous crimes of institutionalized racism and to celebrate the achievements of people who overcame insurmountable odds to enjoy the unfulfilled promises of the United States Constitution.Schools are the natural setting to inform students of our history, warts and all. Yet we tell so few historical stories and most of those narratives are watered down until they become fairy tales and meaningless happy talk. Face it, ______ (Black, Women’s, Latino…) History Months are necessary because the information presented to students is so biased, simplistic, incomplete and often times just plain wrong.

Please take a moment to answer the following questions. Think of it as a quiz if you wish.

  1. What do you know about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr?
  2. What do your school social studies texts say about his life and work?
  3. How much class time is dedicated to the life and times of Dr. King?
  4. Have you done any independent reading or research into the life of Dr. King?
  5. Why did Dr. King speak in Washington that day in August 1963?
  6. What was the event called?*
  7. Was Dr. King the only speaker?
  8. Why wasn’t’ President Kennedy at the speech? Wasn’t he Dr. King’s friend?
  9. Who was A. Phillip Randolph?
  10. Who is John Lewis?
  11. Who was Bayard Rustin?
  12. Where was Malcolm X that day in 1963?
  13. Why was Dr. King in Memphis before he was assassinated?
  14. Bonus question: Are there serving members of Congress who voted against the federal law establishing the King holiday?

Many teachers use the King holiday as an opportunity to tell students “all about” Dr. King. “He had a dream…” They use resources like these fabulous materials recommended for teachers on the web.

  1. http://abcteach.com/peace/martin__king1.htm
  2. http://www.windmillworks.com/games/dream.htm

Note: I highly recommend you click the links to see the garbage used to honor one of the greatest men who ever lived.You can’t teach about Dr. King without the “I Have a Dream Speech,” right? Textbooks and various multimedia products have sliced, diced and filleted a 30-second perky excerpt from Dr. King’s speech.

Since students will be unlikely to be introduced to any of Dr. King’s other rhetorical output, might I suggest that you play the entire speech for your students. Of course you should listen to it yourself beforehand. The entire speech runs approximately 17 minutes. If the Internet has educational value, it begins with the access to primary sources.

You may find a COMPLETE video clip of the ENTIRE “Dream” speech, alongside the unabridged transcription of the speech at the following sites:

So, what do you think? Do the content, intent and emotion of the whole speech paint a different picture than the one portrayed by the one-paragraph textbook version recited by politicians?In an age when educators profess profound concern about information literacy why not discuss why the entire message of the speech has been hidden by curricular omission. That and the substance of Dr. King’s actual speech should generate a few year’s worth of curriculum alone.

Schools are the natural setting to inform students of our history, warts and all. Yet we tell so few historical stories and most of those narratives are watered down until they become fairy tales and meaningless happy talk.

Even Google got in the business of infantilizing the life of Dr. King with today’s logo.

On this Martin Luther King Birthday National Holiday, I give thanks to the World Wide Web and YouTube for ensuring that future generations of children will be free to learn history aside from the standardized content being currently delivered to them.


Supplemental Resources:Educators serious about sharing the heroic ongoing American struggle for civil rights should read Herbert Kohl’s brilliant book, “She Would Not Be Moved: How We Tell the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” The first half of the book demonstrates how the Rosa Parks story has been turned into a fantasy taught to children and offers the facts children are denied. The second half of the book discusses how teachers can fairly teach complex or controversial issues to children of all ages. I also recommend, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History by James Loewen.


*The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963.

Why do you suppose “jobs” gets left out of the classroom discussion?

Watch the following clip and see how Dr. King might have responded to the magical thinking on race being advanced by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan or Governor Walker or Governor Kasich or Governor Daniels or Governor Christie.


Follow Gary Stager on Twitter: www.twitter.com/garystager