Thursday, September 11, 2014

Forever Less Than, Frederick Douglass, and No Excuses

My esteemed colleague and exceptional citizen journalist over at Edushyster has an interview up that is well worth your time to read.

She talks to Joan Goodman, director of the TFA program at U Penn, about the no excuse charters of Philadelphia (among other things, the piece is a reminder that we can not knee-jerkingly sort good guys and bad guys based simply on their affiliations). The interview is depressing.

Goodman: To reach these objectives, these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told.

You should read this piece. Go ahead. I'll wait right here until you get back...

Much about the article jumps out at me, but nothing quite so much as this.

But if you get them early, you develop their sense of self that accords with those of the authority. The adults know everything, they know nothing. Here’s what’s good, here’s what’s right. You’ll be successful and happy if you take on these characteristics. Without these rules you’ll be bad or impulsive and you’ll destroy your future. You may not be having fun but you’re doing what’s important. We know best. And the kids come to believe that. As the social psychologists have shown, in totalizing environments, that’s often the result. They call it “identification with the oppressor.” Here oppressor should be changed to authority. There is very, very strong authority in these schools. The teachers are novice teachers, so they get molded too. I don’t think you could take highly experienced teachers—20 years of running a classroom—and put them into these schools and have the same kind of experience. It’s a really interesting study to see how both the teachers and the kids get acculturated.

This sent my mind leaping back to this excerpt from My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass. Douglass has spoken previously in the book about his mistress Mrs. Auld, a woman whose first impulse when he is a child is to treat him as a worthwhile, human person. He finds her at first to be a warm-hearted woman, who even begins to teach him to read. But that is quickly put to a stop as she is taught to be a proper slave owner. Later he reflects on their altered relationship and on the nature of slavery itself.

I had been cheated. I saw through the attempt to keep me in ignorance; I saw that slaveholders would have gladly made me believe that they were merely acting under the authority of God in making a slave of me and in making slaves of others.... The smiles of my mistress could not remove the deep sorrow that dwelt in my young bosom. Indeed these, in time, came only to deepen my sorrow. She had changed, and the reader will see that I had changed too. We were both victims to the same overshadowing evil-- she as mistress, I as slave.

This was one of Douglass's genius insights-- slavery and the treatment of people as being Less Than was not only bad for the people so treated, but also bad for those who deliver the treatment. Mrs. Auld had to become less human, less decent, less Christian, in order to treat her slaves as less worthy, just plain less than. 

So in reading the Edushyster interview, it's heartbreaking to see not just the students being treated as if they are Less Than, but the entire new generation of young teachers being taught to do it.

Dammit. Life is just too short, way too short, to make such a large, concerted effort to crush every bit of young independence under institutional heels. Yes, with Goodman I share a certain affection for order and stability, and I know how helpful and powerful that atmosphere or order and stability can be in a classroom. But this goes way beyond that.

This is demanding that the students give in, that they submit to those who are More Than they are-- more wise, more powerful, more important, more worthy of independence. This is not about learning self-control-- it's about learning to surrender all control of self to those who are More Than. And you cannot learn any of that without also absorbing the message that you are Less Than. 

What earthly good is that? What remotely justifiable goal is furthered by taking a bunch of children and beating them down, of forcing them to base every moment of their day around the understanding that they are Less Than, that their impulses, ideas, goals, desires are unworthy of being a basis on which they make decisions for themselves-- even decisions as small and simple as when to sharpen a pencil or where to put their hands?

This is not just bad education policy. This is morally indefensible. And I cannot even imagine how it must warp the professional and personal ethics of teachers in this building to justify their actions to themselves. Not even "we are just following orders" would be enough to keep this behavior from cramping and twisting a soul. 

There's only one possible way to self-justify the no-excuses approach, and that is to accept the Less Than narrative. These children aren't capable of more civilized behavior. We must keep them under our thumbs because otherwise they will just succumb to savage impulses. The only way they can achieve higher order thinking and development is if we guide and control them every step of the way. These are, of course, arguments that were used to justify slavery. Because when we institutionalize the idea that certain people are Less Than, there are very few limits to how low we will stoop.



  1. I read the Goodman article. It sounds like a cheater's way to avoid having to deal with classroom management. I can see not getting up without permission, depending on the class. But hands folded, look constantly at teacher, plant feet firmly in front, might be okay for a short period of time to attempt to teach ADHD kids techniques to learn to focus, but not for most kids. Most schools use sitting in isolation, writing 100 times, and detention for disruptive students, but it shouldn't be used for not doing homework or being late; that should be investigated to find out why. And actually, for a long term solution, so should the disruptive behavior. And shaming should never EVER be used for ANY reason. The oppressive atmosphere of totalitarianism is horrible, it's like our idea of Soviet uniformity and authoritarianism, very un-American and not likely to create innovators. The philosophy of submission and inferiority is the opposite of the Montessori philosophy of empowerment.

  2. The photo that accompanied the article reminded me of photos I've seen of prison management. These kids are being prepared for prison both inside and outside walls. It seems little has changed since the times of slavery in the fear of those who are being denied equal rights.

  3. The Douglass analysis did, in part, d ring true. I prefer to analyze this situation from a different perspective. What is being describe in cold-hearted detail is the process of submission and conversion of children under the guise of educational practice. This is a perverted Fascist experiment. I hold no regrets for the practitioners; they have freely made their choice; they have human agency; they could have walked away. I save my rage and sadness for the victims. I follow the iAlbert Camus' dictum. We have the obligation to side with the victims, not the executioners.

  4. Having visited a number of KIPP and Yes Prep schools, I couldn't disagree more with this analysis. Many of these schools have music and art programs. They encourage students to think for themselves. They have sports and other extra curricular programs.

    We have not seen all of the same programs - but I don't recognize any of the more than 20 KIPP schools I've seen in these descriptions.