The lure of popularity and knowledgeable inaction

Recently, I attended a talk at Harvard University by Diane Ravitch, a well-known voice in the field of education for over 30 years on tour promoting her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Ravitch’s name first became known to me during graduate school; her 1985 publication “Politicization and the Schools: The Case of Bilingual Education” averred that pro-bilingual education proponents ‘politicized’ public schools and sought to subvert the school system’s primary goals of educating American children with a myopic, “single-issue” mentality (p. 257). Ravitch indicted bilingual ed activists for their “ethnocentrism” (p. 258), a tack reminiscent of similar conservative responses to earlier movements to fight inequity in American public education; especially telling was Ravitch’s citation of the intervention by U.S. courts in the mid 1900s in the desegregation of public schools. I felt that these comments belied Ravitch’s latent beliefs that reflected a long-embraced cultural myth in American schooling: that schools and teachers are unbiased and apolitical.

Yet I had heard that with the years, Diane Ravitch had joined the more progressive perspective on bilingual education (one that I shared), i.e., that a learner’s native language and cultural understandings support an additive educational process, and that schools must address the achievement gap between low-status learners and their middle-class, white, Standard American English speaking counterparts. I decided to go with a friend from my graduate program and see what Ravitch had to say.

Sitting in Memorial Church on Harvard’s campus, we waited among several hundred other educators, parents, and other community members. My friend and I hoped that Ravitch would speak with fresh ideas about privatization in education, exemplified by the preeminence of standardized testing and the outsourcing of public schools’ performance to private companies as has occurred in Philadelphia and Chicago. We hoped to hear a strong, independent voice offering something far-seeing that moved beyond the comfort many in the educational field enjoy by adhering to status quo and embracing neoliberalism as the new religion that defines positivism, competition and the quest for profit as its foundational texts.

At 7:30, Ravitch came on stage to loud applause. She introduced her book and spoke about many of the “hoaxes” in the privatization movement in education today. These “hoaxes” included No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, federal programs that, she argued, have worked to destroy communities by penalizing low-performing students, teachers, and schools by withdrawing funding. These comments got cheers from the crowd, which I found surprising: most people in education (and many outside the field) have been aware for several years now that such programs tend to benefit wealthier communities known to have stronger school systems for various well-documented reasons. Why was she acting like this was a new revelation?

Ravitch described her book’s aim at “demolishing the narrative” around the many failures of the American educational system that justify privatization, a comment again met by vigorous clapping from the crowd of highly-educated residents of Boston. She reminded the audience that she was a historian, qualified to uncover the speciousness of this narrative, and stated that in fact American “test scores are the highest in 40 years,” that “graduation rates are the highest ever,” and that “dropout rates are the lowest ever.” That while the media puts the U.S. at the bottom of a list of developed countries with better reading and math scores than us, the truth is much brighter than that. And then the following line came:

“We’re America…we’ve succeeded because of nonconformity. We don’t want to be those countries…”

My reaction to this comment — surprise and disappointment that a reputable researcher in the field would stoop to populist commentary — was overcome by my second response: shock at hearing the audience break into loud cheers and sustained applause, some people even giving a standing ovation. Disappointed, I left the talk about five minutes after that, soon followed by my friend.

This event made me think a lot about movements for social change and those who claim to carry one of its many banners. While I didn’t stay for the whole talk, Ravitch’s comments disturbed me, and the reactions from her listeners saddened and scared me. I wondered: Why do we need to get together at pep rallies to cheer one of the “leaders” in the field for repeating the results of years of educational research, much of which we’ve read in our own graduate programs like I did? And why do we raise our fists and voices to support pro-American (read: nationalistic) comments offered, it seems, for emotional rather than rational reasons?

I believe there are two explanations.

First, in an era of great consumption of news media and entertainment, we prefer that celebrity define our role as admirers, rather than leaders of change in our own right. Which of the members of that audience — most of which was white, middle- or upper-class, highly educated, and a concentration of great social power and status — would be willing to make the personal sacrifices necessary to contribute to real, sustained social change? While we critique standardized testing companies and federal policies, our individual positions are not changed significantly by them, at least not in contrast to the students in low-income, urban areas whose prospects for academic achievement, let alone the development of the agency and cultural literacies needed to contribute to our country’s democratic evolutions and revolutions, suffer permanent damage as a result. Saying that the policy makers and corporatism are the problems in education exculpates us and gives us an amorphous scapegoat to identify, rally against, and write books about, clearing our consciousness in a public forum.

Second, and underlying the first, is an issue that plagues our modern consciousness and increasingly informs our intellectual, social, and political development: that we worship popularity and seek to be allied with those who who have such status, rather than risk being isolated as “wrong” or, worse, not seen at all. Any risk we actually do take is mitigated by the desire to be recognized and shared around on Facebook and other social media: that is, the desire to be made important in front of one another for confirming the group’s concerns, joys, or ideas not acted upon. This limits our ability to see beyond the fishbowl of a reflected consciousness that rewards those who temper their commentaries by making sure there are lots of people already on board.

Thus, rather than be suspicious of Ravitch’s assertion of neoliberally rooted problems in education as new information, rather than take a critically minded perspective on why we need to invoke patriotic themes in a talk on the subjugation of low-status learners in our country to the machinery of privatization, we champion her as a speaker of truth who tells us that the fear, anger, and pain our country suffers is temporary and that we can get back what we’ve lost. We Americans are nonconformists, we tell each other in evening meetings in churches, yet we forget that our country punishes everyone who seriously challenges a system that benefits the few people in power over all others. A desire for conformity is in fact what rewards academics like Ravitch with popularity and audience members like us with in-group membership in service to this popularity, as we turn to one another and give ourselves credit for reading her book from the comfort of our masters degrees and and our cozy talks at Harvard.

We need to recover a desire not to embrace easy rewards in the form of status or of popularity. We need to ask questions of our leaders, but even more so of those who try to lead us into applauding our own positions of knowledgeable inaction. Resisting such behavior may help us to face the real truth about the comforts we derive from inequality and the sacrifices we’re not yet ready to make.

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