"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Bill Ayers on Arne Duncan: "the smart choice, the unity choice"

When a former student sent me a link to Ayers's commentary, Obama and education reform, at HuffPo, I was eager to click over to see what my distinguished colleague had to say. It started off predictably enough:
Of course I would have loved to have seen Linda Darling-Hammond become Secretary of Education in an Obama administration. She's smart, honest, compassionate and courageous, and perhaps most striking, she actually knows schools and classrooms, curriculum and teaching, kids and child development. These have never counted for much as qualifications for the post, of course, and yet they offer a neat contrast with the four failed urban school superintendents--Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Paul Vallas, and Arne Duncan -- who were for weeks rumored to be her chief competition.

These four, like George W. Bush's Secretary of Education, Rod Paige of the fraudulent Texas-miracle, have little to show in terms of school improvement beyond a deeply dishonest public relations narrative. Teacher accountability, relentless standardized testing, school closings, and privatization -- this is what the dogmatists and true-believers of the right call "reform."
Well said, my good man. But a graph down came this:
So I would have picked Darling-Hammond, but then again I would have picked Noam Chomsky for state, Naomi Klein for defense, Bernardine Dohrn for Attorney General, Bill Fletcher for commerce, James Thindwa for labor, Barbara Ransby for human services, Paul Krugman for treasury, and Amy Goodman for press secretary. So what do I know?

Darling-Hammond would not have been a smart pick for Obama. She was steadily demonized in a concerted campaign to undermine her effectiveness, and she would surely have had great difficulty getting any traction whatsoever for progressive policy change in this environment. Arne Duncan was the smart choice, the unity choice--the least driven by ideology, the most open to working with teachers and unions, the smartest by a mile-- and let's wish him well.
Here we see a sad, though precise, example of the mirror image of the Far Right: you are still limited to being "with us or against us," but now the good and the evil have simply changed hands. So if, according to Ayers, public circumstance does not allow our modern Presidential rail splitter from Illinois, or is that rail sitter, to choose from the good, then let him, with our blessings, choose the smartest of the evil. After all, we are smart, too, and if we are going to make a deal with devil, at least we want to deal with someone smart enough to respect our intelligence. Someone who drives a stylish juggernaut is much preferred, don't you think, to one of those noisy, clunky locomotive types.

The truth, of course, is that outside the the faith-based worldviews of the official Far Right and the official Far Left, there are many choices along the ideological and operational continuum. Darling-Hammond, in fact, represented part of the great unexplored middle ground, just as did the ignored Doug Christensen, Peter McWalters, and dozens of others whose potential choice would have represented something other than a rubber stamp for the Business Roundtable corporate welfare agenda of the Far Right. And why should we expect that Darling-Hammond be painted as anything other than a radical by those on the Right who view her as "against us." Sadly, Ayers's own either-or digital thinking allows him to fall prey to the same game, same trap.

There is, too, a peculiar kind of fatalism emanating from the Ayers piece, even for a good Marxist. Sort of oh well, so what's new, stop your whining and get to back to work. Welcome the new boss, same as the old boss, blah, blah.
But there's a deeper point: since the Obama victory, many people seem to be suffering a kind of post-partum depression: unable to find any polls to obsess over, we read the tea-leaves and try to penetrate the president-elect's mind. What do his moves portend? What magic or disaster awaits us? With due respect, this is a matter of looking entirely in the wrong direction.

Obama is not a monarch -- Arne Duncan is not education czar -- and we are not his subjects. If we want a foreign policy based on justice, for example, we ought to get busy organizing a robust anti-imperialist peace movement; if we want to end the death penalty we better get smart about changing the dominant narrative concerning crime and punishment. We are not allowed to sit quietly in a democracy awaiting salvation from above. We are all equal, and we all need to speak up and speak out right now.

During Arne Duncan's tenure in Chicago, a group of hunger-striking mothers organized city-wide support and won the construction of a new high school in a community that had been underserved and denied for years. Another group of parents, teachers, and students mobilized to push military recruiters out of their high school; Duncan didn't support them and he certainly didn't lead the charge, but they won anyway. If they'd waited for Duncan to act they'd likely be waiting still. Teachers at another school refused to give one of the endless standardized tests, arguing that this was one test too many, and they organized deep support for their protest; Duncan didn't support them either, but they won anyway. If they'd waited for Duncan, they'd be waiting still. Why would anyone sit around waiting for Arne now? Stop whining; get busy.
So now do we have our own left-wing version of Mr. Tough Nut, Phil Gramm? Could this really be a psychologized privatization-corporate welfare scheme that we have dreamed up, rather than a real one? Except that Bill Ayers conveys nothing of the ramrod toughness of the fascist right that Gramm conveyed, but, rather, a milquetoasty soft-focus optimism based on an illusion of our government operating as a perfect democracy that gets its direction from the street, rather than from those we elect to make good appointments and to represent us for us in this highly imperfect union, sort of.

Now if Bill Ayers actually believes, for instance, that "if we want a foreign policy based on justice, for example, we ought to get busy organizing a robust anti-imperialist peace movement," then so be it. There are all sorts of pies in the sky to choose from, if that is where you like to forage for sustenance. But if he believes that the current testing hysteria and canned learning epidemic, our current schooling phenomenon that threatens to undermine the capacity of young people to discern the truth and to think, is going to be overturned by a few testing refusniks who are willing to give up their teaching jobs, then get the hell out of my face, mister.

Public education cannot survive eight years of the male version of Margaret Spellings, and there is no reason to pretend that it can. We could have a Secretary of Education that, yes, might not be fully with us, but one, too, that is not fully against us. To pretend and to advise that we should roll over for a choice whose primary postive attribute is that he is the smartest of the enemies of public education represents an invitation to the continued and extended domination of education by corporate interests--and those interests are not public, or even national, ones.

On the other hand, if you have built your own small empire as one of the most marginalized academic silverbacks among the perpetually disenfranchised intellectuals, then it could be that Duncan is not, indeed, such a bad choice, but one who represents the kind of reasonable repression that actually embraces the discourse of dissent as long as nothing changes outside the covers of the academic journals where such dissent safely rages. It could be that Duncan is just the right choice, in fact, to inspire a new redolent rhetoric of protest by those Marquard skewered on the academic Left as the "elites of non-elitism," those, in fact, "who live for the revolution and by its non-arrival." Don't worry, Arne and Bill, nothing has changed.

Last updated: 12:25 PM


  1. Anonymous7:57 PM

    Public Educational National Teacher's Rally in DC ! One firetruck and a marching band ! Currently working in event strategic planning ! To bad we can't afford a Sting concert ! We'll have fun with a local band and a roll out stage for speakers. In touch with Dr.Marzano & Associates as well as the AFT. Hotdogs and Hamburgers ! Hope for the DC baseball stadium or football stadium. Public Education # 1 ! Yes we will !Hope you're connected to change.gov ! Public Education made the line up for support and that's so exciting. We get a bailout package and CNN announced it ! "Public School Crumbling School Buildings" ! We're on go !Have hope and keep the faith ! We have a D under PL 107-110, NCLB's mandates. End the mandates on NCLB,it's not working ! It's sinking and grab what you want and jump for the rescue boats. Hand the life jackets out and grab the Paul Coverdale.Motivate to engage ! Let's have some fun in Public Education and catch a train in ! ALL ABOARD !We gotta find the dunking booths and get the teacher's on some fun educational skits. Who's got the number for Saturday Night Live ? Grab your strategic event planning agenda !Teaching and learning is fun !

  2. Anonymous7:59 PM

    Yes, what a grand choice - Arne Duncan, a man who has never spent a day in his life as a teacher in a classroom - although I guess his fancy Harvard BA makes up for it. I wish they would put someone like me in the position as Secretary of Education - a real teacher and parent with kids in the public schools. Is it too much to ask for someone with REAL experience instead of someone who thinks he knows what he's doing when he really doesn't have a clue?