Sunday, August 23, 2009

Public Education: Failure or All-Too-Successful?

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This week in New World Notes, radio program #78, August 25:

Schoolchildren salute the flag: early 20th century. Be afraid.

One of my favorite mental images comes from Eric Klinenberg's talk on Media Oligopoly, from the 9th installment of New World Notes (April 2008). Klinenberg told how a Christian anti-smut organization and Move On (I think it was) and the National Rifle Association and Code Pink for Peace all joined together to fight some horrific rule-change or other that the Bush-era Federal Communications Commission was proposing.

Can’t you just picture the table? . . . with (the late) Charleton Heston, for the NRA, in leather boots, jeans, and cowboy-plaid shirt, sitting next to Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin, in a pink Tee and (just to unsettle her right-wing opponents) pearl necklace?

I can picture Medea and Charlton--between rounds of plotting tactics to stop the government from “privatizing” all the airwaves--chatting and discovering they’re both fans of, say, singer Iris Dement and the Green Bay Packers. And, more importantly, discovering that they share more political beliefs than they had imagined. And discovering that they and the organizations they represent can work together effectively on matters of common concern.

Medea Benjamin, being ejected from a joint session of Congress
after giving advice to Iraq PM Nouri al-Malaki, July 30, 2006.

Every bit as much as those we refer to as “right-wing crazies” do, we left-of-center types demonize those we see as our opponents and then turn them into cartoon stereotypes. Not even real demons but cartoon demons!

We disdain Limbaugh "dittoheads" who--cartoonishly--imagine Palestinians as only evil bomb-throwers, . . . who imagine homosexuals as warped pedophiles, . . . who imagine Obama and H. Clinton as “dangerous socialists.” (If only!)

Yet how about our own imaginations of people it’s PC for liberals to despise? What do we picture when we think of “hard-hat construction worker“? What do we picture when we think of “NRA member”?

So I like the image of Medea and Charlton getting to know and respect each other--and the grassroots organization that the other heads or headed. Some day I’m going to do a show on gun-control and the NRA that--in the unlikely event that all goes according to plan--will get listeners to question which side has the sane, sensible people and which has the wild-eyed crazies.

Jonathan Kozol in 2006

For now, though, let’s look at an even stranger set of bedfellows than Chuck and Medea. Teachers / scholars of education / educational theorists John Taylor Gatto and Jonathan Kozol are (apart from their life’s work!) two peas from very different pods.

Kozol is a child of privilege with a resume’ to prove it: prep school; Harvard BA summa cum laude (English major, let it be noted); Rhodes Scholarship to one of the most prestigious colleges at Oxford, Magdalen; quit to move to Paris and write a novel; numerous fellowships including two Guggenheims; and so on and so forth.

Gatto was brought up in a steel-and-mining town near Pittsburgh, educated (or “schooled,” as he would say) in small-town public schools in the region and one Catholic boarding school, served in the army, attended graduate schools, and eventually became a schoolteacher in New York City.

Class conflict, anyone?

Interboro High School Brain Trust, ca. 1968. Note handsome young
man in the polka-dot tie. "Scott's Hi-Q" was an interscholastic quiz-team
tournament similar to
GE College Bowl on national TV. ("Scott" was the
Scott Paper Company.) Standing: Bruce Shaw (team alternate), Kenneth
Mobley (faculty advisor). This photo surfaced just a few days ago on

That Gatto and Kozol disagree on several points is hardly surprising. More surprising is how much they agree on. Here’s a quick comparison-and-contrast:

Born in . . .
Gatto: 1935
Kozol: 1936

Grew up in . . .
Gatto: blue-collar small town near Pittsburgh (Monongahela, PA)
Kozol: "previleged" environment in affluent Boston suburb (Newton, MA)

Apparent political leanings:
Gatto: ("paleo-") conservative / Libertarian
Kozol: Left-Liberal

Most teaching experience:
Gatto: public secondary schools
Kozol: public elementary schools

Honors from educational Establishment?
Gatto: Yes
Kozol: Yes

Public persona (after Gatto):
Gatto: adult
Kozol: child-like (= praise, of a sort) but not child-ish

Purpose of standardized testing = ?
Gatto: to sort & destroy children
Kozol: to sort & destroy children

Overall nature of his critique (after Parenti):
Gatto: a "radical analysis"
Kozol: a "liberal complaint"

Summary judgment of public schooling:
Gatto: all-too-successful at doing the evil things it was designed to do
Kozol: a failure at educating children & empowering citizens

Proposed solution to the problems of public education =
Gatto: destroy the system
Kozol: radically reform the system

John Taylor Gatto (seated) in 2009

Fascinating stuff. This week we present Part 3 (the conclusion) of the long talk John Taylor Gatto gave in late 2003, and we present an introduction to Jonathan Kozol through excerpts from a talk that he gave in, I believe, 2006. I hope you’ll find the similarities between the two as interesting as I did.

It wouldn’t hurt if you had heard the previous installments of Gatto’s speech (NWN #72 & 74). If you want to, and have an hour to spare, by all means help yourself! Just scroll down to the blog entries for July 10 (#72) and July 26 (#74). Each entry has a link or 2 to the sound files. But I think you can also begin with this week’s episode, which starts with a review of Gatto’s main ideas.

We’ll hear more from Kozol at a later date.

In solidarity,

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