Editor’s note: Peter Huidekoper, Jr., is a veteran educator and creator of the “Another View” newsletter.
Have you heard or taken part in a conversation which challenged your optimism, your hope about improving public education?
I bet you have. Aren’t these questions familiar?
“Don’t you feel you’re banging your head against a brick wall, trying to change the public school system in our country?”
“Can you honestly tell me reform has accomplished anything truly significant in the past twenty-five years in K-12 education?”
“Policy churn–choice, standards, accountability, teacher evaluation, and the next silver bullet— please! Get real! In the end, isn’t it all just moving the chairs around the deck of the Titanic?”
If, as I suspect, you recognize those questions (perhaps you asked one just like it this morning), and now that big budget cuts invite the inevitable: and please tell me how you expect to do more with less—let’s try a different tack. I am not sure hope matters. Not as much as determination.
Change in Egypt: We’re not moving, no matter how long it takes
Well of course hope matters. We saw hope recently in the folks in the center of Cairo, throughout Egypt. But above all we saw determination. “We are not going anywhere until Mubarak goes.” They had every reason, after a 30-year dictatorship, not to hope, to fear that speaking up could cost them life or limb. In spite of this, they were committed to see it through. It was this determination—as well as their courage—we found so inspiring, and that now inspires many others in that region to protest and rebel, even, tragically, at the cost of their lives.
Determination strikes me as a different quality, less flighty, less subject to moods, than hope. It is closer to what made the words of Winston Churchill or Dr. King persuasive, rather than the we-can-win-the-future pep talk that today’s leaders want to sell us. In Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich critiqued this trend, “the American tendency toward mindless optimism.”
At the turn of the twenty-first century, American optimism seemed to reach a manic crescendo. In his final State of Union address in 2000, Bill Clinton struck a triumphal note, proclaiming that “never before has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis and so few external threats.” But compared with his successor, Clinton seemed almost morose. George W. Bush had been a cheerleader in prep school, and cheerleading— a distinctly American innovation— could be considered the athletically inclined ancestor of so much of the coaching and “motivating” that has gone into the propagation of positive thinking. He took the presidency as an opportunity to continue in that line of work, defining his job as that of inspiring confidence, dispelling doubts, and pumping up the national spirit of self-congratulation. If he repeatedly laid claim to a single adjective, it was “optimistic.”
Then things began to go wrong, which is not in itself unusual but was a possibility excluded by America’s official belief that things are good and getting better. There was the dot-com bust that began a few months after Clinton’s declaration of unprecedented prosperity in his final State of the Union address, then the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001….
Ehrenreich supports her charge that we overlooked “ample warnings about a possible attack by airplane” prior to 9/11 with evidence. She then finds a similar pattern in our “reflexive capacity for dismissing disturbing news” regarding the invasion of Iraq, how “vulnerable’’ New Orleans would be to a strong hurricane, and the financial crash of 2008.
Obama, 2012, and Bertolt Brecht
We feel grateful to leaders who raise our spirits and offer the dream of “a shining city on a hill.” It’s easy to see why. We honor Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday. Barack Obama now tries to embody that same yes we can spirit—no Jimmy Carter “malaise” speech for this president. We are told this is how politicians succeed. Be positive. Whoever wins in 2012, pundits cynically assure us, will not do it by speaking the truth about our fiscal crisis and entitlements. Sell hope. And smile.
It’s true, Dr. King offered his dream. But hear again a few words from that great speech: “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro…. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.” (No quick fix. In that very same year, after all, Alabama Governor George Wallace promised “segregation forever.”)
And recall King’s timeline, those prophetic words in his last speech: “I may not get there with you.”
Consider our frequent reference to education reform as “the civil rights issue” of our time. But that struggle took centuries: “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights,” King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” while in solitary confinement. When do we say the civil rights movement began? 1964? 1863? 1776? 1619? Perhaps a cautionary note for our fictional forecasts in education reform: “by 2014 all students will be proficient,” if we just pass this next bill, within a decade we can__________ (fill in the blank with the promise of higher test scores or graduation rates your governor made five or ten years ago, a goal your state hasn’t come anywhere close to achieving).
We must accept that we cannot raise our expectations, or the results, of our schools overnight. The resistance is deep-seated. In that “Letter” King responded to clergymen who called his actions “unwise and untimely”; he defended nonviolent protest and criticized “the appalling silence of the good people” and of “white churches (that) stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”
Sound familiar? In 1984 we were A Nation at Risk. It troubled us a bit, but look, we’re still here, surely that was hyperbole. So a quarter century later we still tolerate politicians offering trite promises of “excellent schools for all,” even as we shrug at figures telling us that in urban districts close to 40 percent of our students drop out. Even more troubling, our leaders insist school failure is “a problem” they will “fix” (during their four years in office!), a verb that that so vastly understates the scope of the crisis.
This is one reason I have criticized too much “happy talk,” the Denver Public Schools’ fantasy of achieving an 82 percent graduation rate by 2014, and wishful thinking in Colorado’s Race to the Top proposal: a goal of 85 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014.
What we need, if we want to rally people around a cause with the moral weight of civil rights, is a grittier truth. Churchill spoke of the cost, the blood sweat and tears, for little England to stand up to a dictator who had conquered most of Europe. King spoke not just of changes in the laws, but also in the heart—a more wrenching and profound transformation—where “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
Geoffrey Canada and Wendy Kopp– a “grittier truth”
This is the tougher truth I hear from Geoffrey Canada and Wendy Kopp, who exemplify the determination and long-term commitment to reform we desperately need. Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, told Brian Williams on NBC on March 9: “This country needs to recognize this is a crisis and we need to take immediate and urgent action or we’re going to lose a whole generation of Americans.”
Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America, spoke at Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store on March 1 to a standing-room only crowd—many of them TFA folks who see in their classrooms every day why she presses now for “transformational change.” As Kopp puts it, “in the face of a problem of the magnitude and consequences of the one we’re addressing—one where whole communities put more children into prison than into college—there is only one morally acceptable option. Incremental change is not enough” (“Our ‘Chance to Make History,’” Commentary, Education Week, March 16, 2011).
We have to blame ourselves, if as voters—as some tell us—we won’t accept truth-tellers. If we will not allow harsh facts to shake up our complacency. Bertolt Brecht wrote: “Pity the country that needs heroes.” In the same way, pity the country that needs leaders to give us hope. That we must discover for ourselves. I appreciate why it is rare to hear leadership that paints a clear picture for the country, however worrisome, so we stop whiffing on the tough issues. But it looks like a pattern, an irrational compulsion To Pretend, To Be Hopeful—without speaking the truth.
“We need to brace ourselves for a struggle …”
Two of the 20th century’s greatest figures found their own resources to maintain hope, but their message was never cheery. The facts were obvious: King had seen lawmen unleash dogs and set fire hoses on kids, and crack the heads of those marching across Selma’s Edmund Pettis Bridge. For years Churchill sounded the alarm (see While England Slept). Now the Nazi army gathered on the shores of the British channel. The Luftwaffe was overhead. An invasion seemed imminent.
O.K. you’re right, in comparison, this crisis isn’t as earth-shaking. But if the nation is not at risk, can’t we agree that millions of young lives are at risk? Boys and girls who are not getting a sound education. Which has immense consequences, for them, and us. No mere “problem” to be “fixed.”
And here the Cairo example—if we think “No matter how long it takes” actually means 17 days to bring about a revolution, perfect for our short-attention span—is misleading. The timeline may, sadly, stretch well into the future. Many of us who have turned gray in school reform efforts might need to say, with King, “even if I do not get there with you.” In our case, though, hardly martyrs. Just folks trying, as he implored us, “to continue to work.…” To stay determined.
To effect dramatic improvement in public education, Ehrenreich’s advice might well apply:
I do not write this in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment of any kind, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue. On the contrary, I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and, better yet, joy. In my own vision of utopia, there is not only more comfort, and security for everyone— better jobs, health care, and so forth—there are also more parties, festivities, and opportunities for dancing in the streets….But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.
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