Arrogance: Service, Not Saviors

Beyond the obvious — that they are all joined by the field of education — what links the National Reading Panel (NRP) and No Child Left Behind, the edureform documentary propagandaWaiting for “Superman,” Teach For America, and edusavior Steve Perry?

Arrogance.

While I count myself among English language arts (ELA) teachers who are skeptical of the Great Books mindset — that we have essential books all children must read — I am moved today to endorse how many of those works remind we puny humans about the folly of pride. Not the “I am proud of you daughter/son” pride, but the arrogance pride.

The “‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;/ Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’”kind of pride.

What on earth possessed politicians to form the NRP to find out what we know about teaching children to read? Did anyone point out that we have had a vibrant field of literacy in the U.S. for a good century? Isn’t it sort of obvious that we have dozens upon dozens of people across the U.S. who know exactly how to teach children to read (and have known for decades)?

But it isn’t just the teaching of reading.

Naive experts, often journalists, every week roll out yet another book in which she or he researches a field in which real experts in that field have been doing authentic work for decades — the history of teaching!, how to teach poor children!, the glory of 10,000 hours of practice!

Paternalistic, self-important, blowhard politicians daily puff up in front of the public to be that “Superman” at the center of the great lie documentary noted above that ironically serves as a perfect representation of everything that is wrong with education reform.

But one need not go back to that complete failure of film making. Try within the last week.

Educators and activists Andre Perry and Jose Vilson (see also) have assumed the mantle of speaking truth to the cult of personality that is Steve Perry.

I consider myself a student of Andre Perry and Vilson, as I work to navigate my own white male privilege in a way that serves others — specifically those marginalized by race and class.

I am a product of white privilege and colonialism, and therefore, must not serve those corrosive forces.

Here, I urge you to read Andre Perry and Vilson, but also to act upon their messages.

And I want to offer a tentative framing informed by their charges.

First, I am compelled by the new 30 for 30 series on O.J. Simpson to suggest that Simpson himself is a cautionary tale about the dangers of white privilege and the costs of whitewashing blacks in order for them to be allowed into mainstream society.

Next, I find troubling parallels in the work of Steve Perry with powerful blacks (Bill Cosby, Clarence Thomas, and Simpson) who negotiate the whitewashing in their favor at the expense of all other people of color.

The demonizing of dreadlocks, the finger-pointing at sagging pants, the judgmental finger-wagging at black English — yes, these are the tools of white privilege, but they also serve the cult of personality unmasked in Steve Perry, for example, by Andre Perry and Vilson.

Finally, although specific people have to be addressed when confronting the cult of personality, the problem is that those people are serving larger forces that are driving education reform, a movement that uses “civil rights” as a mask to implement policies that are perpetuating colonialism and whitewashing.

“No excuses” charter schools committed to “grit” are about “fixing” black, brown, and poor children.

Zero tolerance policies and grade retention policies disproportionately turn black, brown, and poor children into criminals and drop-outs.

High-stakes testing and accountability produce and perpetuate so-called achievement gaps among race and social class — as well as gate-keep in order to keep “other people’s children” in their place.

Teach For America fuels the historical inequity of access to experienced and certified teachers: White Students Get Experienced Teachers, While Black Students Get Police In School.

Whether the face of education reform is Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Geoffrey Canada, or Steve Perry (or the long list of celebrities who decide education is their hobby), and while we must necessarily confront each person as we confront what they represent, the ultimate challenge in rejecting edureform while also calling for building public education as a vehicle for equity and liberation is to call colonialism “colonialism,” to just say no to policies and practices designed to erase who children are so that they can be assimilated into society.

There are profound and significant differences in Andre Perry’s work, Vilson’s daily classroom teaching, and Steve Perry’s bloviating (think Donald Trump).

Andre Perry, Vilson, and Chris Emdin, for example, celebrate black students, their humanity asinseparable from their blackness — while Steve Perry celebrates Steve Perry as one who erases the black from children in the service of white privilege.

We are way past time to stop believing in and listening to these false idols, self-proclaimed “Super(wo)men.”

Ozymandias, please recall, was a fool in king’s clothing whose words mocked him:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Let’s not form any more panels, let’s not crown any more edusaviors, let’s not print and/or buy any more bestselling books by educelebrities (who have never been teachers), let’s not worship at the altar of hollow Ted Talks.

Just as we didn’t need the NRP to “know how to teach children to read,” we have ample knowledge right now how to eradicate racism and classism in our society and our schools.

Edureformers, edusaviors, and educelebrities are in the service of keeping us from that vital work.

As Andre Perry asserts:

Let’s be clear: Belt wearing isn’t the reason white children are educated in wealthier schools. Haircuts and etiquette classes don’t lead to the technological innovations of Silicon Valley. Lower incarceration rates aren’t because whites use drugs less often. The wage gap isn’t caused by white men’s hard work ethic.

But social and educational inequity is the consequence of white privilege.

So I ask now that you listen to carefully and then act upon Chris Emdin‘s confrontation of edureform as colonialism and what choices lie before teachers:

What I am suggesting is that it is possible for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take on approaches to teaching that hurt youth of color….

I argue that there must be a concerted effort…to challenge the “white folks’ pedagogy” that is being practiced by teachers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds….

The time will always come when teachers must ask themselves if they will follow the mold or blaze a new trail. There are serious risks that come with this decision. It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student [bold emphasis added]. (pp. viii-ix, 206)

Especially in our schools, and especially among our most vulnerable students, we need service, not saviors.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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