Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jo Ann Boyston: In Memoriam

We received word today that Jo Ann Boydston, a person whose contribution to the thinking captured here cannot be overstated, died this week. You can read her obituary at

Jo Ann Boydston edited The Collected Works of John Dewey, making it infinitely easier to document not only what John Dewey thought but also who John Dewey was. And it is who John Dewey was -- an American thinker in the tradition of Emerson for whom acting and thinking cannot be divorced -- that motivates the work of those who contribute to Social Issues.

So today I acknowledge Jo Ann's life and the work that lives on and continues to enrich us.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Grassroots "Save Our Schools" March on Washington and Call to Action on July 28-31

I recently learned about a grassroots march that is going to take place in Washington DC on July 30th. It is a movement of parents, teachers, students, community activists, and “everyday working people” that has been endorsed by educational voices like Diane Ravitch, Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn, Joel Spring, Rethinking Schools' editors, David Berliner, among many others. Diane Ravitch will be one of the speakers at the DC rally. Prior to the march and rally in the park, participants will be able to participate in a number of seminars, workshops and advocacy meetings hosted by American University.

Here is their call to action:

Friday, January 21, 2011

Tiger Mother Meets Oprah?

I’m guessing Tiger Mother Amy Chua isn’t gonna show up on the Oprah Winfrey Network?? Or is she?

Is anybody watching OWN? I’m not because I don’t have cable or satellite dish (I moved to a new state several months ago and decided to live without it for a while). I’m not a huge TV watcher so I can’t say that I really miss anything, but I’ve been curious about this new network that sprang into life with the new year. Is it possible to create and inhabit what a New York Times media critic called a “no cynicism zone”?

I’ve been trying to think about Amy Chua in an Oprah-like way, sans “mean-spiritedness” (the same mean-spiritedness that Oprah has banned from the new network and from her programming in general). But it isn’t Oprah that’s really helped me. It’s a mental habit borrowed from rhetorician Peter Elbow described (and prescribed) in a book called Embracing Contraries. Elbow considers the wisdom of practicing “methodological belief” (interpretation through the assumption that the person speaking has good reasons, good motivations and good intentions for what s/he is saying) before employing “methodological doubt” (the Descartes-inspired critical stance that the contents of consciousness -– my own and any other’s intuition and claims -- must be subject to scrutiny). These two habits of mind, practiced together and in the recommended sequence, yield a richness of understanding that just isn’t available with either belief or doubt.

But my fellow blogger Amy Shuffleton, talking about Amy Chua in an earlier post, reminded me that in practice it’s not belief before doubt; it’s belief and doubt and belief and doubt and belief and doubt … practiced in a complementary rhythm. The trick is not to get stuck in belief or doubt.

It seems to me that the Oprah Network could get caught in a broken record of belief, the mirror image of the MSNBC/Fox differently-directed revolving doors of doubt. If Amy Chua’s makes it to OWN, it will be a signal that Oprah and her network team realize that mean-spiritedness and cynicism are not the same thing as doubt. And that doubt and belief can walk hand in hand. Richness of understanding is the result.

I’ll have to get my satellite dish hooked up to watch it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Orchestra is What's Hard, Tiger Mother

Intrigued by the responses to “Battle Cry of the Tiger Mother”, I finally tracked down the Wall Street Journal article by Amy Chua, drawn from her recently published memoir of motherhood, that sparked the discussion. When I read Chua’s writing, I was at first, predictably, appalled. Then I got to her comment that a Chinese child getting a B “would never happen” and realized that I’d encountered the icy humor that other commentators advised readers to watch for carefully. Aha, I thought, she’s trying to be funny. Then I read on and was appalled all over again.

Not by her draconian measures. After all, she was kidding about some of that, right? And even if she wasn’t, one should pause and think carefully before scorning other people’s child-raising, right?

I was appalled, rather, by the two, highly problematic axioms that Chua’s logic implies: 1. What every parent truly hopes for is a mathematical or musical prodigy, who gets all As (except in drama and gym), and 2. Tiger Motherhood is what it takes to raise such a child.

The problem with the first is that it straitjackets not only individual children but all of human culture. Violin and piano music is lovely, but how dull the world would be if all our children played nothing else! Not to mention that with no orchestra, all those violin virtuosos would have a limited repertoire.

As for the second, ironically, Amy Chua falls headlong into the great conceit of contemporary American parenting: that by looking inwards, and focusing all our efforts on our own children, we can thwart the socio-economic forces that threaten them. Judith Warner’s commentary hits the nail on the head:

The terror of losing ground is the ultimate driving force in the middle- and upper-middle-class American family today, and however unique Chua’s elaboration of it (simply by marrying a Jew, and not a Chinese man, she worries that she is “letting down 4,000 years of civilization”), however obnoxious and over the top her attempts to cope, she is hardly alone in believing that, in her carefully considered ministrations, she will find the perfect alchemy that will allow her to inoculate her kids against personal and professional misfortune.

Just think what mothers like Amy Chua could accomplish if they turned outwards, towards all our children -- a task more demanding yet more effective than Tiger motherhood -- instead of back to the piano bench over and over again.

My favorite comment, though, comes from David Brooks, who calls Amy Chua a “wimp”. “Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention,” Brooks points out, “but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls.”

The orchestra is what’s hard, not the violin.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Teachers, grief and growth

When Jared Loughner killed Christina Green in Arizona last Saturday, he disturbed the lives of other children across the country as well, raising questions about the world “out there.” But the children at Mesa Verde Elementary School, the ones who will not see Christina again, are more than disturbed ( Their parents and their teachers face the nearly insurmountable challenge of helping them to make sense out of this event, and to reconstruct their world as safe enough to move about, sleep at night, trust the other, and think about something other than the possibility that someone might shoot them.

A new rhetorical battle royale has broken out between the adults who think that nasty political rhetoric framed this attack and those who think that Jared was mentally deranged and unaffected by that rhetoric. They are both right and both wrong – as is so often the case in life’s interesting moments. Jared Loughner is mentally ill; his asocial and antisocial behavior is definitive of mental illness. And the use of targets and gun metaphors by political and media figures makes certain things imaginable, especially to the mentally ill.

But the teachers at Mesa Verde and elsewhere are dealing with a different issue. What is the right emotional tone in the classroom now? What does one say – and not say? How can I comfort this child without alarming that one? Where do we draw the line on self-absorption, encouraging students to live through their pain and their questions?

As a mother of now grown children, I appreciated both facets of President Obama’s address at the memorial service at the University of Arizona: healing eloquence and choking silence. He framed a vision for bringing us together with his words and made us feel the unspeakability of it all with one long telling minute near the end of the speech when he simply could not continue.

As a teacher educator, I’m left wondering how we ready our aspirants for moments like this. How do we teach future teachers to value both words and silence? How do we enable and encourage them to be present to tragedy in the lives of their students without being felled by it? How do future teachers learn to respond – always as educators – so that their students grow in mind and heart and action?

Today I have ideas but no concrete answers to these questions -- except to say this: teacher education must always remain education. Technical training and a professional knowledge base, though necessary, are not a sufficient basis for becoming an educator. The Mesa Verde teachers responding to Christina Green’s friends and schoolmates this week will draw on more than “professional development.” They will do with their students just what President Obama called on all Americans to do: “to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” This is growth; this is education.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Shock of the century: deceptive stats in University of Phoenix's "Academic Annual Report"

In previous posts, I've blogged about University of Phoenix's miserable graduation rates. Upon visiting the UofP website recently, I noticed that they were touting an "Academic Annual Report", and I was curious to see how they reported their own completion rates.

Not surprisingly, the completion rates section of the document is especially bullshit-rich.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Huck Finn without the N-word?

Over the last few days I have been following the announcement of the NewSouth Books release of Alan Gribben’s revised version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This revised version has replaced the contentious word ‘nigger’ with ‘slave’ and other “more suitable” alternatives throughout the story. Many online announcements regarding this release have been followed by a barrage of angry comments from readers (for one example see ). Many are upset that Mark Twain’s original intentions have been ignored, others feel that Gribben has overlooked the significance of Twain’s intentioned use of the term, while still others question the move as a form of paternalistic censorship. While NewSouth Books has been quite open, indeed celebratory, about their new version of the Twain classic (with 7500 copies ready for teachers to purchase!), Diane Ravitch documented much more widespread, though closeted, efforts by school book and test publishers to censor hurtful or biased words from educational materials via “bias panels” in her 2003 book, The Language Police. There, Ravitch sought to reveal such censorship and call for its end. Many of the points she raised are echoed in the outraged commentaries following the press release this week. These have reminded me of my response to Ravitch’s work and to the larger issue of school material censorship in my 2007 Teachers College Record article, “Offensive Speech in Educational Materials: Changing Words Without Censorship.” Below I have excerpted some parts of that article which I believe remain particularly relevant to new n-wordless Huck Finn and which I hope others will find helpful as we engage in public response to this revised classic.

This first excerpt picks up on undertheorized aspects of Ravtich’s work which are also missing from most conversations of Gribben’s new book that I have read so far: a sophisticated understanding of speech acts, the power of language to injure, and important avenues for reworking language. I garner these ideas mostly from the work of J.L. Austin’s work in the 1960s and Judith Butler’s more recent writings.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

What does the internet know about you?

One of the more unnerving technologies I've seen in a while can be found at Just try typing in your name. It works especially well, by the way, if you own property.

Dewey thought that knowledge was becoming liquid in 1900. Look where we are now...