Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Is This Our House? Why I Engage.

Paul Thomas is one of my favorite bloggers. He's one of the most erudite, scholarly writers in the edubloggoverse (plus, I share his affection for classic comic books), and he has a perspective that I deeply appreciate and with which I usually agree, even if I have to do some thinking to get there.

But yesterday he put up a post that I think, ultimately, I have to disagree with.

In A Call for Social Media Solidarity: “This Is Our House”, Thomas argues for solidarity and a refusal to engage in the ed debates with people who do not belong in "our house."

Over about two years of blogging at my own site and engaging regularly on Twitter and other social media platforms, I have gradually adopted a stance that I do not truck with those who are disproportionately dominating the field of and public discourse about education.

His argument is simple:

Each time we invoke their names, their flawed ideas, or their policies, we are joining the tables they have set.


Therefore, I am now asking that educators, scholars, and public education advocates who are active on social media (blogging, Tweeting, etc.) to make an effort to dedicate a day, a week, a month, or as I have done, a policy to creating our own educators’ “white out” on social media—establishing our place for our voices as a model against the mainstream media dedicated to those with authority (elections, appointments, wealth) but without credibility.

Don’t spend blogs rejecting their public claims and education policy.

Don’t engage them on Twitter, or “@” them into a Twitter exchange.

Now, to a certain extent, I absolutely get this. If you think the Kardashians are taking up too much air in the culture, then stop paying attention to them, stop talking about them, stop clicking on stories about them. When you treat people as if they belong at the table, that reinforces their presence at the table. Thomas correctly that this sort of leverage has been used to bring us to a place where many folks treat evolution and creationism as if they represent a simple difference of opinion between two valid and equal points of view.

When the cries for renewed and improved "conversation" between differing sides of the ed debates went out last fall, I pointed out that a legitimate question to ask of some of these folks is, "Why are you even in this discussion?" It is as if a stranger wandered into my classroom and interrupted my class to start offering pedagogical tips like "Wear a brighter colored shirt and comb your hair differently," and instead of having him escorted out, I started talking to him like he had a legitimate cause to start the conversation.

So I've been increasingly mindful of the space that I give to some of the reformster crowd. I started calling the former DC chancellor She Who Will Not Be Named because to even put her name one more time on the internet increases her perceived heft and importance when she is simply a miracle of somehow gathering power and influence without a single, solitary success in her field of alleged expertise. And I never link to Peter Cunningham's reformster-shilling PR website because I'll be damned if I'm going to drive even one more click's worth of web traffic there.

But will I continue to engage certain reformsters directly? Will I continue to respond directly to pieces that appear by arguing, refuting, and wrestling with the points they make? Will I continue to engage? I think I have to. I think many of us have to. Here's why:

Not all reformsters are jerks

I accept as a truth that the world includes many people who disagree with me, but who hold onto their beliefs for reasons just as sincere and decent as my own. I need to talk to those people, and they need to talk to me. It is not always easy to sort those people out from the rest, but I do believe it's worth the effort. I've had some good conversations with reformsters that started with "Here's why I think you're wrong."

It's true that there are reformsters who are self-serving profiteering power-hungry hubris-swollen jerks. But for them it's sometimes useful to remember...

Mockery can be a useful means of deflation

An over-inflated giant balloon of foolishness can be impressive-- until someone gets out a pin. Letting something sit out there looking all impressive and awesome can be a mistake, because not everyone sees that it's all just air.

This is not just our house

This debate is happening in the public sphere. It's happening in front of everybody, and a large part of the audience is still not sure exactly what to believe. In the public sphere, silence is often equated with assent. For the first six months or so, the general public thought the whole Common Core thing must be going okay because they didn't hear anything about it except the press release material that was used to flood the media.

For instance, people heard and believed that the Common Core were written by teachers. Only because that claim was challenged and debunked again and again and again, directly and pointedly, reformsters simply retired it, and it is no longer part of what "everybody knows" about Common Core.

The fight is here

I share Thomas's frustration. We shouldn't have to waste our time arguing teaching methods with people who haven't got a clue what the hell they're talking about. They should be getting no more attention than a airline pilot who walks into the middle of court proceedings and starts telling the judge how to run the trial.

But they are rich and powerful and they have made it happen. We shouldn't be in this fight, but we are. Sometimes you don't choose the fight; the fight just chooses you and your only choice is to fight or get beat up (sometimes you do both). Thomas also says

Symbolic messages matter, and the strongest message we can send about those who shall not be named is exactly that: erase them from the spaces they have dominated without deserving that space.

I don't think that's a viable choice. I don't believe it is in our power to erase them from those spaces, in particular because so many of those spaces are spaces that they own and control. I am concerned that in attempting to erase them and refusing to engage them, what we would really do is surrender the field to them, to leave their voices ringing out without any sort of answer or debate.

I absolutely agree that we should not be having to fight these people, that while every American deserves a voice in the public sphere, it does not follow that really rich and powerful Americans should get to set the agenda for any sector of the country that they take an interest in. The whole business really is a Kafka-esque version of the Emperor's New Clothes. They do not deserve that space.

But they are here, they are fighting, they are powerful, and every small inch of the field that we have reclaimed has come through directly engaging, debating, dialoguing, and I don't see how we can stop.

All that said, I think there are parts of Thomas's point worth holding on to.

We need to be careful when engaging reformsters that we are not elevating people or points of view that don't deserve to be elevated. Watch what you link to. Be careful of whose voice you're amplifying, accidentally or otherwise.

Argue ideas more than people. It really doesn't advance any cause to "prove" that Arne Duncan is an evil doodyhead. This is not always easy-- much of the reformster agenda has been shaped by their personal character-- but to lapse into angry character assault is not useful.

It is not enough to stand against something. We have to stand for something as well. We must keep articulating what we want to see, not just what we don't want to see.

And-- he does give us the option of only following his request for a day or a week. It could serve as an occasional focus and cleansing activity.

Longtime readers of this blog will note that I apparently just hit the Do As I Say, Not As I Do button. It's true-- some of what i know i should do, I don't always do. So while I disagree with much of what Thomas has written here, I respect him for writing it, and will keep it in mind while trying to maintain my own bloggy balance.


  1. Peter, how we engage the other side must be done on a case by case basis. We must be aware of who each of them is speaking for, what are their funding sources, and is their goal a genuine reform of education or to increase the market share of their benefactors. This is particularly true of the charter school sector and those promoting standardized testing.

    In the case of our blogs, as you said, the important thing is the audience. We must refute the corporate ed reformers with clear and informed logic to show the fallacy of their position and the corporate interests of their program.

    In my opinion, anyone who engages in lies and deception to advance their corporate agenda should not be given the time of day!


  2. I'm with you, Peter.

    "It is not enough to stand against something. We have to stand for something as well. We must keep articulating what we want to see, not just what we don't want to see."

    And keep on poking those pins. You're good at it.