Sunday, July 6, 2014

There Really Is No Superman

Though personally I always wanted to be part of the Doom Patrol (original flavor, not modern artsy version). But there's no Doom Patrol, either.

There is something very seductive about the superhero ideal, the notion that as soon as X gets on the job, things will finally be okay. Here he (yes, almost always he) comes to save the day.

There are subtler versions of the superhero ideal as well. Maybe we don't expect Our Hero to Save The Day, but we expect to be able to follow him. There's this powerful yearning to be able to sort people into two groups-- People I Can Always Trust and Believe on the one hand and People Who Are Always Wrong on the other. It makes life simple; if Wally McHeroface says "Go left," I can just go ahead an turn left.

I don't believe in the hero, for the same reason I don't believe in the efficacy of centralized national education standards. Because nobody can be right all the time.

First of all, we're human.

I don't mean "Well, we're all human so we all make the occasional mistake." No, I mean "We're all human, so at one time or another we are each going to behave like selfish asshats, like scared monkeys on an fear-fueled adrenaline overdrive that fills our head with so much blind energy that it pushes our brains straight down into our butts."

For as cranky as I am, I'm actually pretty rosey-viewed about humans. I've met just a miniscule number of people that I would call flat out evil or bad. I think lots of people do bad things without actually being terrible human beings.

It's comforting to think that there are lots of terrible evil human beings who are responsible for all the bad things that happen. It's comforting because A) I can take comfort in believing that I'm not one of Those People and B) people can be easily permanently sorted into two groups and then we never have to think about it ever again. Neither A nor B are true, is what I think.

So neither is the corollary true-- that there are people who are just pure good 24/7 and you can always trust them to steer you right without you having to think about it. Also not true, I think.

Collectivism Doesn't Necessarily Help

Believing that you've found a group that you can trust blindly is likewise a fool's errand. Because groups are composed of people, and see above.

The hard part of running a group is figuring out how to manage the outliers. Sometimes the one lone voice in the crowd is the person who has a conscience today. Sometimes he's a raging asshat. One should be listened to; the other should be silenced.

I have some trust for the wisdom of groups because I believe that on any given day, most people know right from wrong, good from bad, dumb from smart. It won't be the exact same people every day, but a firm majority should be on track. But you can mess with the wisdom of groups by trying to control the crowd and shut people up. "We won't talk about that" or "Nobody question Fearless Leader" or "We already know how this vote is supposed to turn out" are all signs that a group is fundamentally flawed.

Which doesn't mean the group is evil and easily dismissed. But you can't safely follow blindly.

Never Stop Thinking and Paying Attention

History is full of these humans. John Wesley founded Methodism, and I have no reason to doubt that he was a man of God with a great understanding of the divine. But if he had married your sister, you probably would have ended up punching him in the nose. But that doesn't mean we shut down the Methodist Church.

We've seen binary thinking before, because all of our heroes did some crappy things. JFK, MLK, Ronald Reagan, Donnie and Marie-- all had their less-than-admirable moments/days/years. It's pointless and impossible to try to categorize them as 100% heroes or unadulterated villains.

Oh, But Then--

Yeah, if you can't just blindly follow your heroes, then you're stuck thinking for yourself. And that's going to be long and hard.

The fundamental approach of the reformsters has been to say, "Look! There's a terrible crisis in education! Follow us, and we will carry you out of this dreadful valley of destruction."

We cannot counter that with, "No, you'll lead us to more destruction. We will follow Our Hero over here and He will quickly lead us out of the valley on the correct path." Because it's the exact same fallacy-- the notion that one heroic person can take the correct bold steps and end all this struggle right now.

Bad News

Let me tell you something neither of us wants to hear. The struggle for US public education, the fight to help children, the push to create more social justice-- it's going to continue for the rest of your life. There are going to be victories and defeats. There are going to be great moments and terrible moments. And then it's going to continue. This is not a sprint. It's a very long marathon. And a crazy marathon at that, one where every runner runs her own path, and nobody else can set the path for you.

Oh, Wait-- That's The Good News!

So, do I have heroes? Sure-- they are people who are pretty serious and wise about most things. But I don't imagine they're perfect. I know other people who are sort of serious and occasionally wise, and some who are hard to take serious and rarely (but not never) wise, and all the other possible permutations. All that means to me is that I have to listen and I have to pay attention. (That includes keeping an eye on myself and seeing if I'm a jerk today or not.)

Which is cool, because life then turns out to be fascinating and varied and way more interesting than a puppet show based on monocolored cut-outs. It's also cool because it allows us to stop focusing on the surprise of discovering that a hero did something stupid or the exertion of defending something Dead Wrong that came from someone On Our Side or the tortured denial of trying to prove that a villain didn't just get something right. It keeps us from organizing our whole lives around simply sorting people out into two groups, and let's us focus on what really matters, whatever that might be.

In the battle for education, we need our sense of outrage, our moral sense, our professional sense. Let's not wait for some sort of hero to emerge, and let's not imagine we can win this by beating a single Evil Mastermind. See, I called this a marathon, but really it's more like trying to move a great, giant sled. We are all stationed at different corners of this massive machine and its harness, and consequently we have lot so different ideas of what the challenge looks like. But if we gather our strength, throw it against the load, and keep pushing, we can move it a little bit every day, and it's in the struggle and the movement and the series of small, important victories that we move forward and that we find our best truest selves. It's in that long hard haul that we win victories for our students and get them one step closer to the lives they deserve.


  1. I love this. I needed this today. But I have to admit that I feel so defeated. I recently learned that I am a level one teacher according to my test scores. I feel like I have nowhere to turn and any credibility I may have had is gone. Now I am one of those bad teachers. Maybe they are right.

  2. Jacquez Barzun expessed a similar notion in a previous period of increased refrmster activity. To wit, "In the name of progress and method, innovation and statistical research, educationists have persuaded the world that teaching is a set of complex problems to be solved. It is no such thing. It is a series of difficulties. They recur endlessly and have to be met; there is no solution -- which means also that there is no mystery. Teaching is an art, and an art, though it has a variety of practical devices to choose from, cannot be reduced to a science."
    --Jacques Barzun, reprinted in Begin Here:
    The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, pg 5