Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Edu-Porn

A smart blogger at Toxic Culture correctly identified as "edu-porn" those feel-good articles and films that show a well-meaning rebel thinking outside the box and transforming schools and classrooms, one caring little environment at a time. Ever since Mr. Daddy-O decided to come back for another round of teaching would-be juvenile delinquents in the 1956 film Blackboard Jungle, audiences and voters have been comforted to know that one person can make a difference in schools, at least until they leave (as Evan Hunter, author of The Blackboard Jungle, the novel on which the film was based, did after 17 days as a teacher).

But there is another kind of edu-porn, the sadomasochist side of the genre, that gets an awful lot of airplay these days and that must offer the same frisson of pleasure to its purveyors that those teacher-savior stories provide. I am talking about the mountains of statistics--seldom represented by the same numbers twice, so it seems--that "prove" that American children are falling ever farther behind their peers in other nations, particularly those with growing economies in Asia. These numbers are regularly hauled out by commentators on the right and increasingly the left as evidence that our schools are failing, our children are doomed, and our society and nation are plummeting into irrelevancy.

I don't even care whether these numbers, based on all kinds of comparative test data, are right or wrong; in the aggregate I know that they are real and alarming. What concerns me is that I have long sensed a kind of weird, cruel "I-told-you-so" pleasure among some of those who are most eager to tell us that the children of China, India, Singapore, Japan, and even Finland (Finland!) are soon going to be our superiors in the global economic and political order; better start learning Mandarin so that we'll have a few interlocutors who will be able to speak with our new masters!

Often enough the blame for this trend, which goes back to the post-Sputnik era in its most statistical and malevolent form, seems directed at whatever version of "progressive education" the blamer has created in his or her own mind and doesn't like.

Mathematics instruction--which is clearly in need of improvement in the U.S., with Singapore and Japanese models offering tremendous promise--usually tops the list of curricular and pedagogical culprits, but "multiculturalism," project-based instruction, school schedules and calendars, and of course anything associated with the word "self-esteem" are among the usual suspects. I think that I occasionally catch a whiff of regret among the most vitriolic of education critics that the American education system has invited girls, and then students of color, into the classrooms where white boys once reigned, and of course there is the strange and apparently countervailing abhorrence of "elites" and elitism that lets the harshest critics have it both ways--hating both the education system and those who have succeeded at a high level within it.

Clearly those who have expressed hope that the Obama presidency will fail--regardless of all the human suffering that would accompany the kind of failure for which they most hope--are a model for a kind of political schadenfreude that is equally turned on by the idea that American schools are failing and that American children are victims of this failure. This stance lets those who are just plain cynical claim at least equal air time with those who propose legitimate or at least well-meaning solutions, from charter schools to vouchers to serious reform. In the avalanche of dreadful numbers, it's hard to see who is offering real hope and who are just gratified by watching educators and the initiatives of the past three or five or twenty decades twist in the wind.

Of late I have noted from the more progressive side of the field some of the same. In particular, some of the strongest (and in some cases most accurate) advocates around technology in education and "21st-century skills" can sometimes be heard pronouncing the same kind of doom on education and educators, suggesting that the "failure" to move forward quickly enough toward a more tech-informed, more New Progressive approach to teaching and learning is a kind of crime being practiced on children. Like angry educational conservatives who believe they know it all and take pleasure in pointing out the failings of education as it is currently practiced, the more shrill voices on the other end of the spectrum risk turning their critiques into the kind of splenetic, empty rhetoric that makes them feel good and impedes real progress.

Sadomasochistic edu-porn is not, apparently, the province of the right only, but I hope that those who are most sincere and thoughtful in their efforts to reform the system can restrain their delight in pointing out what's wrong and focus rather on moving the American educational system toward what is effective and what best meets the real needs of children.

1 comment:

Shawnee said...

Great read! In an era when so many countries are attempting to replicate our collective zeal for creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, the rehashing of our system's shortcomings is unnerving.

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