Profoundly tone deaf and wrong

December 21, 2009

By this stage, many people around town – and not a few across the country – have heard of the controversy surrounding a task force report on “Race, Culture, Class, and Gender” coming out of the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) at the University of Minnesota.  My friend and former American Experiment colleague Kathy Kersten has written about the document twice in the Star Tribune, national organizations such as the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) have blasted it, FOX News has jumped in, and who knows how many bloggers have had a fine old time blistering such inviting fodder – as well as they should.  In a moment, we’ll start getting to the precise reasons why the report – part of a broader effort called the “Teacher Education Redesign Initiative” – warrants such strictures, but permit me a personal note first.

While the report has been making news for about a month now, this is the first time I’ve written publicly about it. The main reason for the delay is that I’m an alumnus of the College of Education, having received my doctorate there nearly 30 years ago in what is now known as educational policy and administration. As for the University of Minnesota proper, I came to this state to work there 35 years ago, which is to say, my roots and loyalties when it comes to the entire institution are potent and deep. For proof, ask my wife how I wanted the “Rouser” played as the recessional at our wedding. (The fact that it wasn’t is irrelevant.)  In other words, for reasons stretching a third of a century, I’m not keen on publicly railing on what they do at the university, as I owe the place much.  But at some point remaining quiet is a dereliction.  Hence, let me raise the following points and arguments, starting with an important caveat in fairness to CEHD.

Dean Jean Quam and others emphasize that nothing I’ll be criticizing in the report is actual CEHD policy, but, rather, only a “set of working ideas brought forward for discussion.” The report itself says it’s “a work in progress open to feedback, redirection, and revision.” The dean and others also assert that no eventual “college policy or curriculum development plan will include language that requires students to subscribe to a particular ideology.”  Likewise, neither will a “prospective student’s expression of ideology” be used as a “factor in the admissions decisions.”

Fine, I’m more than happy to accept these assurances. The dean, by the way, has been gracious in all our e-mail and other exchanges. Nevertheless, the core reason why the dispute has come to be a coast-to-coast affair is that the report, first “submitted” in July 2009, doesn’t even begin to read so evenhandedly – be it pedagogically, philosophically, politically, rhetorically, or in any other way.  Quite the opposite is the case, as witness excerpts like these:

•     “Our future teachers will be able to discuss their own histories and current thinking drawing on notions of white privilege, hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, and internalized oppression.”

·     “Future teachers will understand that they are privileged and marginalized depending on context.”

•     “Every faculty member at our university that trains our teachers must comprehend and commit to the centrality of race, class, culture, and gender issues in teaching and learning, and consequently frame their teaching and course foci accordingly.”  [Emphases supplied, not that they're really necessary.]

There was one other remarkable portion, in some ways my perverse favorite, which was edited out sometime between the report’s first iteration in July and a second one this fall.  It’s part of a matrix under the heading of “Questions, Barriers & Possible Ways to Overcome.”

•     Question:  “How can we be sure that teaching supervisors are themselves developed and equipped in cultural competence outcomes in order to supervise beginning teachers around issues of race, class, culture, and gender?”

Answer:  “Required training/workshop for all supervisors. Perhaps a training session disguised as a thank you/recognition ceremony/reception at the beginning of the year.”

An academic stinging operation: What a wonderful way to keep friends and influence colleagues.

For reasons discussed below, I’m confident the most egregious assertions and mandates in the 14-page report will never be officially blessed, though I’m much less confident that the spirit animating them won’t survive and keep cropping up, just about annually. I’m also not confident that university officials would be saying the qualifying and softening things they’re saying now, if people and organizations like Kathy Kersten and FIRE hadn’t made the proposed requirements (the dean has called them only “notes”) public. But let’s put that possibility aside and ask: How in the world could five smart people write what they did?

*          *          *

I’m all for faculty looking and thinking about the universe in ways that most non-academics have neither the disposition nor time to do.  It’s generally a good thing, for instance, that scholars examine life and their respective areas of expertise in terms that are more conceptual or theoretical than most people on the outside generally do. It’s essential that teachers grapple with hard questions in new and brave ways. Or, if you will, any college or university which doesn’t go about its work in responsibly contrarian ways, at least some of the time, can be charged with irresponsibly falling down on the job. But there is an enormous difference between that kind of rigorously creative endeavor and the self-parodic language and approach of the task force report.

Before going on, given that a U of M committee on academic freedom has broached the matter in discussing the controversy, let me be clear on a vital question. Do I believe faculty members have the right to write and say these kinds of things in the report/slash/notes?  Of course. But do people both inside and outside the university also have the right to describe what some faculty occasionally write and say as poorly reasoned to the point of world-class bad? U-betcha.

I’m not the first person to cite this, but it’s really quite amazing that no one on the panel or working nearby evidently ever felt compelled to say: “Hey pals, this is reading kind of ripe, chocked as it is with far more politically correct jargon and left-wing assumptions than most average folks could ever take seriously or bear with a straight face.”

It’s hard not to think that drafters not only truly believed what they wrote but that they went about the exercise with far too little intellectual empathy about how most readers would respond, thus provoking unavoidable questions about just how insular the college is. The tone deafness is profound. Some detachment and remove from everyday events and sensibilities – some headroom apart from the world’s bustle and routine – can be helpful, but not nearly this much.

In one of my recent e-mail exchanges with Dean Quam she passed along a couple of pages written by the chairman of the task force, Prof. Michael Goh, about the approach he takes in his own work with CEHD students on issues of multiculturalism, “culturally responsive” teaching and the like. Frankly, while we’re not exactly on same pages regarding best ways of conceiving and teaching about such matters, what he wrote was open and hospitable, certainly not doctrinaire in the same way the report is. In fact, I told Dr. Quam that if the spirit of what Dr. Goh wrote in those two pages had been replicated in the task force report there might never have been a big-time controversy to begin with

But, of course and unfortunately, the report is of a far different order, as its spirit (and not just that) is one of forcing a very unattractive, unhelpful, and skewed perspective onto large swaths of everyone and everything in CEHD. The report is clear: All courses and all professors involved in teacher education must cram themselves through a narrow prism constructed by task force members who seem to have quite clear and not terribly benign views about how this country works. Regardless of where in the United States teachers currently teach and students currently learn, the report leaves the impression they’re all laboring in Selma, circa 1963.

Professor Goh and the dean and their colleagues might well respond, as they do, they’re only interested in getting faculty and students to think hard about the kinds of racial, class and other issues raised, and how they’re definitely not seeking to have everyone embrace any particular starting point or instructional method. Yet, even if everyone who supports the report were granted a hundred benefits of the doubt, that’s just not the way the document reads. Rather, it’s jammed with a lot of silly stuff and worse, and that’s exactly how it comes across to most fair and sensible people.

I suspect I shouldn’t go much further without declaring that I’m unalterably opposed to multi-culturally illiterate and unfeeling teachers, never mind stupidly bigoted ones, favoring as I do decent men and women who are alert and sensitive to the distinctive lives and needs of all students. The task force report opens with an excerpt from a good book about things multicultural, specifically regarding how “Koreans, especially those who are Buddhists, only write a person’s name in red at the time of death or the anniversary of a death.” Meaning, teachers might want to avoid using red pens or pencils when correcting compositions written by Korean students so as to avoid possibly terrifying them and their families. I mention this because I used the same exact excerpt in a column about a dozen years ago in reinforcing a point I was making about the importance of common sense and kindness in this broad and contentious area. Actually, I don’t know anyone who’s partial to instructional klutzes in classrooms.

Similarly, I have no truck with teachers and curricula that are blind to our nation’s failures and shortcomings, and, once again, I know no one who does.  On more than a few occasions in my career I’ve used words like “sin” when writing and talking about our racial history.  But there is a huge difference between realistically and responsibly facing up to how the United States has often gone wrong and remains far from perfect still, as opposed to suggesting, as the report does, that the dominant American narrative remains one of fundamental narrowness, unfairness, and serial oppressions. Nowhere in the report is there any notion that this country has been a beacon for anyone other than straight white Christian guys. Nowhere is there even an echo of something one might have heard on the steps of the U.S. Capitol last January on Inauguration Day. Rather, there are proposed “outcomes” like this one:

“Our future teachers will be able to construct and articulate a sophisticated and nuanced critical analysis of this story of America, for what it illuminates and what it hides or distorts. In pursuing this analysis, students will make use of, among other concepts and theories, the following . . . alternative explanations for mobility (and lack of it); history of demands for assimilation to white, middle-class Christian meanings and values; and history of white racism, with special focus on current colorblind ideology.”

Suffice it to say, it’s perfectly legitimate and intellectually honest to address issues of race, culture, class, and gender without the kind of undergirding and super-structural cant that suffuses the report.

*          *          *

But having argued all this, a key question remains begged:  Despite what I see as its ugliness, what if an approach to teaching akin to what the task force has in mind is actually effective in helping low-income and minority students learn? What if it’s even more effective than any instructional philosophy or method I have in mind? As interesting or provocative as the question may be, the answer is a straightforward “no way,” at least by my understanding of current research and practice.

Coincidentally, I was asked a bit more than a year ago by another program at the university – the Children, Youth & Family Consortium – to participate in a published symposium on whether “institutional racism is at the bedrock of [educational] disparities.”  In response, I asked questions like these:  How might educators translate belief in the supposedly crippling power of current-day racism into actual and everyday educational improvements? Short of fundamentally remaking American society in their preferred shape, and doing so pronto, how do men and women who embrace this view propose to reduce achievement gaps significantly?

Bluntly put, making educational progress contingent on revamping society is futile. Or, if you will, assuming that millions of children are unlikely to do well academically unless and until the United States gets its house in supposed order is equally defeatist.

What is infinitely more likely to work is captured in the title of what was then a new book by journalist David Whitman:  Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism. The book focuses on how a half-dozen unusually successful inner-city high schools across the country build and reinforce “character and middle-class values that inner-city adolescents can use to rise out of poverty.” The schools have rigorous academic standards as well as long school days and years, but pivotal to their success is that “they tell students exactly how they are expected to behave – and then supervise student behavior, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance.”  For exquisite examples, think of KIPP schools.

The intense, universalistic ethos of such schools is incongruent, profitably so, with contrary notions of instruction in which institutional racism and the like are thought to be controlling. Or, from another angle, while “No Excuses,” the rallying cry of schools like the celebrated six, is not always realistic, it’s an infinitely better fight song and spur than suggesting to enormous numbers of young people that they’re inescapably and unfairly stunted from the start.

What’s a main lesson of all this?  Not only is the report’s victimological grist (to coin a word and phrase) offensive, it’s more likely to damage and subtract from often vulnerable kids instead of enriching them scholastically and in other ways.

*          *          *

Let me begin to wrap up with several assorted points.

If a prime aim of the report has been to generate open and freewheeling discussion in CEHD, my sense is that this has not happened. I’m not on campus all that frequently, and if truth be told, I’ve had too little contact with the college (as opposed to the university, as a whole) in recent years.  So maybe debate there really has been robust. But on the chance it hasn’t, I would speculate that several dynamics have been the cause.

To the extent that junior faculty think the report warrants a D-minus or F, most have opted to keep their non-tenured heads down and mouths shut, fearful of retribution.

To the extent senior faculty think the report is “appalling” (that’s how one of them described it to me), most also have opted to keep quiet and not waste precious time and energy, hoping that this silliness, too, shall pass.

Related to this last point is the fact that the report pertains only to professors who prepare future elementary and secondary school teachers, which not all of them do.

Then, I trust, there are a fair number of scholars – how many, I can only guess among a faculty of 200 or more – who disagree profoundly with me and other critics and who, in fact, think the report is just fine, dandy and brave, and hence, haven’t challenged it, nor will they.  Of the three groups, this is the one giving greatest pause.

Depending on its size and determination, it’s also the group that young men and women who aspire to teaching should ponder about when figuring out where they want to get their training. Simply put, why would anyone who thinks the task force report is contemptuous of their beliefs, both as prospective educators and American citizens, want to spend years butting heads with dogmatically inclined superiors of radically opposing views?  Being challenged on the way to an undergraduate or graduate degree is one thing and beneficial; waking up every morning rehearsing skirmishes you may have later in the day with professors and others is another. Who needs that kind of draining exertion? Better to seek a better fitting program.

I’ve also been thinking of the untenable position President Bob Bruininks is in. The fact that he’s a former dean of the College of Education (before it was reorganized into the larger CEHD) only adds to the mix and fix.

Whatever he may think deep down about the report and regardless of how he maneuvers, he can’t win.  If he seems to agree too readily with people like me, he risks angering a contingent of faculty that doubtless would see such concurrence as caving to right-wing hordes. If, on the other hand, he seems to acquiesce to the report’s innards, he risks angering even more people, mostly in places on the outside (like the legislature), who doubtless would view him as softheaded at best. Bob is a good friend whom I respect a great deal. It’s too bad that too few, if any, people involved with the report didn’t grasp how they would be making his life, and the university’s, needlessly difficult.

With all that said, it’s the holidays after all, so let’s conclude with good news.

For a host of real world reasons, I just don’t see the heart of the task force report on race, culture, class, and gender ever becoming established policy. But if by some bad miracle it did, rest assured that it would be effectively neutered by the passive as well as aggressive resistance of a critical mass of faculty.  Professors, as a firm rule, don’t take kindly to being told what to teach or how to do it. That’s one of the reasons they decided to become professors in the first place, as they can be ornery in didactic ways. Even elementary, junior high, and high school teachers have much more latitude than regularly assumed about choosing their own ways, once classroom doors close.

Add it all up, and I predict that actual education in the College of Education and Human Development will not be damaged in serious ways in coming years. The same, however, can’t be said about its reputation and that of the University of Minnesota overall, as the two already have taken consequential hits in both local and national arenas.

Schools: University of Minnesota – Twin Cities Cases: University of Minnesota – Twin Cities: Political Litmus Test for Future Teachers