Did Rutgers Just Fulfill the Dreams of White Supremacists?

He’s off the hook. Professor James Livingston has been cleared of charges of racism and harassment by Rutgers University. He might be relieved, but hidden in Rutgers’ decision is a kernel of racial thinking that might dismay Livingston and the rest of us.

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This isn’t what he wanted…

SAGLRROILYBYGTH may remember this oddball story. Last summer, historian James Livingston caught grief for his satirical (and IMHO hilarious) anti-white FB rants. As a resident of Harlem, the white professor expressed dismay at the gentrification and suburbanization of the neighborhood. As he put it,

OK, officially, I now hate white people. I am a white people, for God’s sake, but can we keep them — us — us out of my neighborhood? I just went to Harlem Shake on 124 and Lenox for a Classic burger to go, that would be my dinner, and the place is overrun by little Caucasian assholes who know their parents will approve of anything they do. Slide around the floor, you little shithead, sing loudly, you unlikely moron. Do what you want, nobody here is gonna restrict your right to be white. I hereby resign from my race. Fuck these people. Yeah, I know, it’s about my access to dinner. Fuck you, too.

And, in a later post,

I just don’t want little Caucasians overrunning my life, as they did last night. Please God, remand them to the suburbs, where they and their parents can colonize every restaurant, all the while pretending that the idiotic indulgence of their privilege signifies cosmopolitan–you know, as in sophisticated “European”–commitments.

Did these anti-white rants mean Livingston was racist? That he would not be fair to the white students in his classes? That he was guilty of discrimination and harassment? Recently, Rutgers said no. According to documents posted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Rutgers concluded that Livingston’s posts were beyond humor, but they were not “pervasive,” nor were they directed toward any of his own students. Most important, Rutgers noted that no students had ever complained about Livingston, even in the months following the scandal.

its okay to be white

…or this.

Buried in this apparent vindication of Professor Livingston’s rights to academic freedom, though, is a nugget that should cause great consternation to Livingston and his ilk. To wit: Prof. Livingston defended himself, in part, by saying that there can be no such thing as racism against white people. As the dominant class, Livingston contends, white people by definition can’t be the victims of racism. Portentiously, the university disagreed. As Rutgers put it,

The University makes no such distinction, but prohibits discrimination based on any race, in a blanket manner. As such, from a legal and Policy perspective, “reverse racism,” to the extent it is defined as offensive or intimidating conduct directed at another because he or she is white, is indeed possible and prohibited.

I think it’s a safe guess that Rutgers didn’t mean to do it, but this chunk of legalese seems to confirm the fondest dreams of alt-right pundits. For decades now, conservatives and right-wingers have argued that white people deserve to be treated as just another protected class.

Just recently, we’ve seen a spate of campus activism based on this notion that white students deserve protection, too. Would this Rutgers ruling set a precedent?

Professor Livingston may have won his battle, but did his victory lose a war?

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What Does Education Look Like from 1600 Penn. Ave?

It doesn’t mean much, but Trump’s official statement for “Education Week” tells us a little more about the hopes and dreams of America’s conservative education activists. It also includes one stumper.

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The roots of “Education Week,” c. 1941

First, a little background on “Education Week.” As I found out in the research for my book about educational conservatism, Education Week started roughly a century ago as an effort to bring conservatives and progressives together for a whole-community focus on public schools.

The leading players were the American Legion for the conservative side and the National Education Association for the progressives. The Legion hoped to use Education Week to fight socialist subversion in America’s public schools. They hoped the week would give a much-needed shot of patriotism and community oversight to possibly subversive teachers.

These days, Education Week mostly passes unnoticed by everyone. In line with tradition, however, President Trump issued a formal proclamation in support of it. Predictably, he hit a few notes calculated to warm the hearts of conservatives.

First, he included conservative educational dog-whistle #1:

Parents are a child’s first teacher.

At least since the 1920s, conservative activists have looked askance at the role of the teacher and school in forming children’s characters. Harping on the leading role of parents has long served as a promise to respect conservatives’ vision of proper education. As I argued in the pages of Newsweek, though, it’s not always as simple as people tend to think.

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The plan, c. 1934

Second, he used the c-word a lot. As Trump proclaimed,

We are also protecting and expanding parents’ access to a wide range of high-quality educational choices, including effective public, charter, magnet, private, parochial, online, and homeschool options.

Next, Trump’s proclamation noted that the primary goal of school should be to prepare students for employment. In the words of the proclamation,

My Administration is committed to ensuring that America’s students and workers have access to education and job training that will equip them to compete and win in the global economy.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH recall, Trump made headlines last summer with a proposal to roll together the Departments of Education and Labor into a giant “workforce” department. It hasn’t always been the dream of conservatives to abolish the federal role in public education (see this Time article for my longer explanation of the history) but since the 1940s it has been a reliable conservative vote-getter.

So far, so good. Trump’s proclamation hit the notes calculated to encourage conservative education activists. But what about his oddball third paragraph? Here it is in all its glory:

Each student is unique, with their own distinct experiences, needs, learning styles, and dreams.  Thus, education must be customized and individualized as there is no single approach to education that works for every student.  My Administration encourages parents, guardians, educators, and school leaders to rethink the way students learn in America to ensure that every American receives a high-quality education that meets their needs.  We empower teachers to create learning environments that are challenging, relevant, and engaging.  When families are free to choose where and how their children learn, and when teachers are free to do their best work, students are able to grow and explore their talents and passions.

On the face of it, this paragraph seems to be balancing the ideological teeter-totter a little bit. Trump seems to be speaking to the progressive crowd, calling for student individualization and teacher empowerment.

How are we supposed to take it?

When I channel my inner curmudgucrat, this paragraph sounds like just another use of phony “personalized” buzzwords to sneakily privatize public education. Or if I remember the lessons of Larry Cuban and David Tyack, it might sound like a bureaucratic recognition of the eternally conflicted goals of public education.

Or maybe, just maybe, the proclamation simply doesn’t deserve this much parsing. Maybe it is merely the product of a group of Trump-bots who wanted to say something without saying anything.

I would love it if someone could explain it to me.

If It’s Been Worse, Will It Get Better?

It’s not all that comforting, really. But as historians and old people with good memories know, today’s violent political climate is depressingly not new. With synagogue shootings and Trump-fueled mail bombings, it’s hard not to panic. Yet Andrew Bacevich thinks there is some grounds for wary optimism. Should we agree?

We don’t need to go all the way back to the earliest days of our nation when rebels took up arms against the fledgling federal government. We don’t even need to go back to the ugliest days of American political history, when a US Congressman beat a US Senator into a coma on the floor of the US Senate. No, we only need to remember events in our lifetimes (for those of us of a certain age). In the 1970s, political bombings were a regular feature of American life.

economis political violence

Comforting? …or terrifying?

Whatever your political beliefs, there’s no doubt that the left-wing violence of the groups such as the Weather Underground in the 1970s threatened the fabric of American civil life. As Bacevich points out, back then the left succumbed to a despairing, violent “nihilism.” The Weather Underground issued a call to

Amerika’s youth to use our strategic position behind enemy lines to join forces in the destruction of the empire.

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Public Enemy #1

They tried, but they failed. And Bacevich hopes today’s alt-right will sputter as well. As he puts it,

The ebb and flow of events in the 1960s should give us confidence that the center will ultimately hold. The market for ecstasy and violence will once more prove to be limited and transitory. Today’s alt-right is no more likely to win the support of ordinary Americans than did the Weather Underground during the infamous Days of Rage.

I’d like to agree, but I admit I’m skeptical. I get nervous when I see our President ejecting journalists from the White House on trumped-up accusations. I get nervous when elections return avowed neo-Confederates to office—in Iowa of all places.

What do you think? Do you share Bacevich’s cautious optimism? Or do you think that Norman Mailer’s ‘“subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires,” expressing the “concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation”’ will overwhelm its banks one time too many?

Heresy and the Death of the Sniff Test

It can’t be real. That was my first impression when I saw pix of the blasphemous billboard circulating around the interwebs. It just looked too hokey and too perfectly outrageous. But, as Sam Wineburg is telling us, we need to be asking different questions these days. Our old-fashioned sniff tests are way out of date. What’s worse, even Wineburg’s hopeful prescription can’t help us with some problems. Namely, as with this billboard, political realities have gotten so bizarre I’m losing hope that any of us will have much luck discerning the true from the troll.

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This can’t possibly be real…can it?

It looks so perfectly anti-Christian that I was sure it had to be a spoof. And spoof it may be, but at the very least it seems to be a real billboard. According to Snopes,

The billboard is undoubtedly real, though it is not yet clear who paid for it and when it was erected. A spokesperson for DDI Media, the St. Louis company which owns the billboard itself, told us they could not share such information.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I personally don’t care about heresy, but I am absolutely flummoxed that any self-identified Christian would equate the Donald with The Christ. The entire episode seems like more proof of Sam Wineburg’s new argument. We can no longer trust our sense of what “looks” and “feels” real and legitimate. It’s just too easy to fake it.

Among other things, Professor Wineburg describes his study of internet readers. He asked ten academic historians to decide which group was more trustworthy based on their websites, the American College of Pediatricians and the American Academy of Pediatrics. One (ACP) is a legitimate professional organization of doctors. The other (AAP) is an anti-gay splinter group.

Turns out, these historians—all of them hyper-trained to read and decode complicated texts—weren’t very good at figuring out how to evaluate on-line legitimacy. As Wineburg writes,

Typically, the historians would size up a site within seconds.  Snap judgments were often based on a site’s “look” or its official-sounding name. . . . [one] chose the established American Academy of Pediatrics, not because of differences in the organizations’ stature or pedigrees (he never ventured beyond the two sites to learn about these organizations respective backgrounds), but because of the fonts on their webpages.

As Wineburg points out, evaluating online information based on these sorts of impressions is woefully out of date. Back in the wild 1990s, we used to be able to evaluate information based on the look of the website. Shoddy graphics, sketchy organizational details, and over-long web addresses were all easy give-aways.

These days, those markers are simply too easy to fix. A fly-by-night extremist organization can have a website that looks and feels legit.wineburg why learn history

Wineburg has hope. Students and the rest of us can learn better tools to detect online fraud and fakery. We can learn to read the web laterally instead of trusting any one website.

As this billboard episode shows us, though, perhaps we need to be more concerned than that. For me, the billboard appeared fake not only because it looked poorly made, but because its message was so outrageous. So, yes, I thought it was fake because it looked kind of blurry and because it didn’t include any information about its source. But I also thought it was fake because no Christian could possibly have intended to advertise such a blatantly blasphemous message.

Yet someone did. Clearly, the old fashioned sniff tests can’t help us anymore. Fake information can look real. Even worse, though, ideas that would have been too hateful to see bruited about in public spaces now seem common.

I Am Out of Whack

I’m absolutely flummoxed. New poll numbers reported in The Economist make me wonder how I got so out of whack with what most people are thinking. Am I missing something?metoo backlash economist

Here’s what we know: According to The Economist,

this year-long storm of allegations, confessions and firings has actually made Americans more sceptical [sic–wacky Brits] about sexual harassment.

With only one categorical exception, it appears the respondents in the Economist poll tend to feel more suspicious today about women who complain about sexual harassment than they did last year. Only Clinton voters, that is, are more likely today to think that twenty-year-old harassment accusations are worth acting upon. And even those Clinton voters are more likely now to think that false accusations are a bigger problem than unreported assaults, and that women’s complaints cause more problems than they solve.

Can I really be this out of touch with majority opinion? In my imagination, at least, the last year has provided a public coming-to-terms with the dangers and demons of sexual harassment. It has forced all of us to reckon with old demons of frat-boy antics and glib sexual aggression.

But unless I’m reading this wrong, my sense of how my fellow Americans are feeling is not even close to reality. Can someone please explain this to me?

1.) How is it possible that more people are more suspicious of women’s accusations than of men’s aggressive actions? And

2.) What was it in the past year that made people feel this way?

More Proof: America Has No Public School System

We could be mad that it took them this long to notice. Or we could celebrate the fact that we’re finally getting some attention to the issue. In addition, though, we have to recognize another big implication of this story.

First, the bummer. How can it be “news” that American public school teachers are working too hard? A recent series in USA Today profiled fifteen teachers across the United States. As they reported,

We found that teachers are worried about more than money. They feel misunderstood, unheard and, above all, disrespected.

That disrespect comes from many sources: parents who are uninvolved or too involved; government mandates that dictate how, and to what measures, teachers must teach; state school budgets that have never recovered from Great Recession cuts, leading to inadequately prepared teachers and inadequately supplied classrooms.

We’re glad to get some front-page attention to the difficulties of teaching, of course, but it’s difficult not to say…well, duh. Of course teachers have a tough row to hoe. After we digest that non-bombshell, though, there’s more in this story that we should notice.

As historian Jack Schneider wrote recently for WaPo, Americans tend to have a unique love/hate relationship with public schooling. We hear over and over again that public schools are failing, yet most of us cherish our local public schools. And statistics tell us that—as a whole—America’s public schools are doing as well academically as they ever have.

Behind the fake-exposé headlines of the USA Today series, we can see a glimmer of truth that helps explain the weird relationship of Americans to their public schools. Reporters fanned out across the country to tag along with teachers.

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Oh give me a home…

In one case, that meant braving the wilds of Montana, where Traci Manseau teaches seventeen kids of all ages, all with the same last name, all in the same one-room schoolhouse. The students are all Hutterites, and they leave school at age sixteen to work on the communal farm.

At another school, 1,584 miles away (I looked it up) in Detroit, students wear a different sort of uniform. Instead of bonnets and cowboy shirts, the mostly African-American students wear uniform polo shirts and khakis. Their teacher, Felecia Branch, loves to hear them relate to fiction. And she hates it when they fight.

Down in Phoenix, meanwhile, teacher Rebecca Garelli welcomes 21 students in her English-Language-Learners class (ELL). Two of them come from Rwanda. Many of them speak only Spanish. Her job is to teach them—according to Arizona law—in English. And get them all to learn science.

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…where the Chevrolets roam…

Are there similarities? Sure. All teachers feel stressed. And all good teachers care a lot about all their students. Whatever their backgrounds and locations, teachers want the best for their students and they can get frustrated when bad rules or bad situations make that unlikely.

But the vast differences between just these three examples show how inappropriate it is to talk about an American public school “system.” What it means to go to school in the United States can mean vastly different things.

Of course, SAGLRROILYBYGTH did not need to open the pages of USA Today to find that out. All of us can see the huge disparities in public education if we just take a tour around our local area. Even in the same city, the populations and possibilities of public schools can be worlds apart.

As Professor Schneider concluded,

Our schools haven’t failed. Most are as good as the schools anyplace else in the world. And in schools where that isn’t the case, the problem isn’t unions or bureaucracies or an absence of choice. The problem is us. The problem is the limit of our embrace.

If we waste our time asking about the American public-school system, we’ll always end up at an impasse. America’s schools are so diverse that there’s really no system to it all. When it comes to our sad history of educational culture wars, pundits on all sides have been able to say whatever they wanted about America’s schools and find real evidence to back it up. They could always find proof of almost any trend they wanted to celebrate or despise.

Are America’s schools mere “sorting machines?” Yep. Do they harbor left-wing teachers who sneakily try to subvert patriotic traditions? Uh-huh. Do America’s schools remain trapped in ancient ruts? Of course. Do they engage in innovative, world-class education? That, too.

Like the blind scholars and the elephant, pundits and politicians will always be able to prove anything they want to about America’s schools, because they can all be right.

Higher Ed: The Conservative Crisis that Isn’t

Beware college! That’s the old cry today’s conservative intellectuals are pretending they invented. But they don’t mean it. The best evidence for conservatives’ real affection for American higher ed is the political campaign we haven’t seen recently.

Here’s what we know: Benedictophile Rod Dreher has grown fond of fanning the flames of crisis among his fellow conservative intellectuals. Recently for example, Dreher shared an exposé of the lamentable practices at one elite university. As Dreher’s correspondent concluded,

the balance has been tipped in higher education. It’s not just useless anymore, but it’s now actually doing harm. Not many normal people will be willing to accept that reality — i.e. that their children (and our culture) will be better served by their NOT going to (most) colleges and universities.

Tough talk! We might be tempted to conclude that conservative intellectuals are moving toward a new antipathy toward higher education, but we’d be wrong in two big ways. For one thing, there is absolutely nothing new about this conservative “crisis” in higher education. Furthermore, conservatives don’t really dislike college as a whole.

Let’s start with the history. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, conservatives have been noticing the “new” crisis in American higher education for well over a century. In a three-part expose in 1909, journalist Harold Bolce warned readers of the absolutely shocking decline in the state of America’s elite colleges.

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Beware! c. 1909

For example, Bolce quizzed Syracuse sociologist Edwin L. Earp and breathlessly reported Earp’s shocking refusal to honor traditional ideas:

“Do you not believe, Professor,” I asked, “that Moses got the ten commandments in the way the Scriptures tell?”

The professor smiled. “I do not,” said he. “It is unscientific and absurd to imagine that God ever turned stone-mason and chiseled commandments on a rock.”

By the 1920s, some conservatives liked to reprint a purported letter home from a pathetic college student. As the student supposedly fretted to his mother,

My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned and fickle as the wind, and my faith is as unstable as water . . . . I wish that I had never seen a college.

We might remind Dreher and his correspondents, then, that their sudden crisis has been percolating for a long time now.

But perhaps something has suddenly changed? After all, we have been told by journalists recently that conservatives have recently begun to distrust American higher education. Last summer, poll results seemed to suggest as much.

pew college gone to the dogsIn fact, though, as we’ve argued before in these pages, it is not college itself that conservatives have come to distrust. Dreher and his associates will surely lose their campaign to warn people away from college as a whole.

How do we know? In this case, we can borrow a page from Sherlock Holmes and listen to the dog that didn’t bark.

True, conservative intellectuals might feel chagrined at their loss of influence in elite universities. Also true, the American public is very willing to believe that silly, leftist things go on in elite colleges. But Americans still want to go. They want their kids to go. And they think people who do go are smart and competent.

Exhibit A: The 2016 presidential campaign of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. As journalists noted at the time, Walker was a college drop out. If there really were a widespread, popular disaffection with American higher education, we would have heard him brag about that.

We didn’t. A couple of conservative voices tried to defend Walker’s lack of a degree, but they didn’t say Walker hated college. Rather, they said he had learned from the school of hard knocks instead.

Walker himself bragged that he was a “fighter” who learned from experience instead of in a classroom, but he didn’t pooh-pooh the idea of college as a whole.

What does that tell us?

If nothing else, Governor Walker is a savvy and successful politician. If he thought he could derive political advantage from his drop-out status, he surely would. But Walker is too savvy for that. He knows—even if Rod Dreher doesn’t—that Americans still love higher education. Americans—even conservative Americans—haven’t turned their back on elite colleges. Americans still dream of sending their kids to Yale or Brown or Oberlin, even if they fret about the ideological goings-on.

The “crisis” hasn’t suddenly boiled over in the past year or so. Rather, it is a steady simmering state and has been for a long time now. Even conservatives love and cherish elite universities. If they didn’t, after all, they wouldn’t spend so much time anguishing over them.

Finally! The Right Strategy to End Creation/Evolution Wars

What can we do to promote better public policy about climate-change science and evolution? As one group has done, we can notice the blindingly obvious fact that religion supports good science.

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Hoosiers can love Jesus AND Bill Nye…

Here’s what we know: In Indiana, a group called Class Action has posted billboards in the run-up to the midterm elections. The billboards link religious faith with mainstream science.

By and large, the goal is to encourage religious voters to vote in favor of savvy climate-change science, to support politicians who want to take action to mitigate the negative effects of climate change.

Too often, radicals on both sides have harped on the old myth that religion and science are enemies. Radical young-earth creationists like Ken Ham have warned, for example, that real religion needs to be skeptical of the fake science being peddled by today’s mainstream experts.

To counter this sort of unnecessary antagonism, it just makes sense to remind voters that mainstream science is entirely compatible with even the most conservative strains of evangelical Protestantism.

As one supporter enthused,

A vote for science is a vote for creation, for the most vulnerable of the Earth and for future generations.

As another agreed,

It is smart political tactics to try to build coalitions between religious and environmental voters. . . . If we are to truly tackle the climate crisis, these efforts will be critical.

Hear, hear!

Want to end the utterly unnecessary century-long antagonism between mainstream science and conservative evangelical religion? Don’t tell religious people they are dumb. Don’t accuse them of “child abuse.” Instead, reach across the trench to notice that we all want the same things.

Admissions of Guilt

I don’t know anything about the Harvard lawsuit. But there is no doubt that America’s elite universities have a long tradition of elaborate systems of admissions meant to keep out certain categories of student. For a century now, schools like Harvard have scrambled to set up ways to eliminate academically talented students who didn’t fit the Ivy-League mold.

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Non-WASPs need not apply…

Here’s what we know: As Politico reports, the Harvard lawsuit has been dragging on. The school is accused of discriminating against Asian-American applicants. Based on test scores and other numerical data, it appears that Asian-Americans have a higher bar for admissions.

Harvard’s chief admissions officer has made some embarrassing admissions (pun intended. Sorry.) It’s no big surprise to anyone, but students from families of big donors tend to get a better chance. One applicant was added to a list mainly because of input from the fundraising department. As that department chair wrote to the admissions chief in an email, the donor

“has already committed to a building” and “committed major money for fellowships … before the decision from you!) and all are likely to be prominent in the future. Most importantly, I think all of these will be superb additions to the class.”

It’s not only big bucks that give some students preferential treatment. The litigants accuse Harvard of harboring social prejudice against Asian-Americans. Even with great test scores and stellar applications, some students were given poor scores after personal interviews, in which alumni rated the applicants as less likeable. Allegedly.

As historian Roger Geiger has shown, this sort of social scale has always weighed heavily in elite college admissions. Schools such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale did not start holding competitive admissions processes until the 1920s.

Back then, the schools struggled to find a way to admit desirable students and a fair-sounding way to exclude the undesirables. Back then, according to Prof. Geiger, most of the undesirables were brilliant, hard-working Jewish students. At the time, these Jewish students were derided as “grinds,” students who worked too hard and didn’t fit it with the genteel college culture of the day.

At Princeton, admissions officers in the 1920s had an official social scale. Any student—based purely on their family background and the accompanying personalities—was graded on a four-point scale. The “ones” were automatic admits. Even without looking at messy data such as high-school transcripts, those students from elite families were in. At the other end, students from working-class or non-WASP backgrounds were likely to be branded a “four.” They were automatically barred without any consideration of their academic merit.

Maybe the ugliest example of this genteel anti-Semitic tradition was at Yale. Yale worked closely with the Scholastic Aptitude Test to derive an evaluation that was tightly linked to the curriculum at a few elite prep schools. Students from those schools would do well and earn admission. Students from other schools wouldn’t, no matter how talented or hard-working.

This system allowed Yale to claim an objective, numeric measure for rejecting Jewish applicants, without making the Yalies seem prejudiced or biased.

Are things any different today? The Asian-American plaintiffs say no. They say Harvard is trying to limit the numbers of Asian-American students and using biased, prejudicial standards to do so. I have no idea if they’re right, but elite schools certainly have a long history of doing exactly that.

Why Can’t Facebook Fix Schools?

[Warning: Explicit goose-related content.]

It’s not news. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other tech-illionaires keep trying and failing to fix schools. The latest story from Connecticut gives us a few more clues about why these smartest-people-in-the-room can’t get it right. In the shocker of the year, it turns out parents don’t like having their kids read about people having sex with geese.

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Will this be on the test?

It’s not the first time Zuckerberg has goofed when it comes to school reform. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, he has dropped the ball in Newark and with SAT prep classes. He has mistaken the right way to think about schools, repeating centuries-old errors.

What’s the latest? Parents in an affluent section of Connecticut have rebelled against a facebook-sponsored introduction of Summit’s “personalized” learning system. These sorts of systems promise that students will be able to work productively instead of marching at lockstep with the rest of the class. They hope to use technology to allow students and teachers to learn, instead of just sitting idly in classrooms.

In towns like Cheshire, Connecticut, the Summit system was run on free student computers, sponsored by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, facebook’s philanthropic arm. Students in middle school and elementary school would be able to work at their own pace toward clearly delineated learning goals.

It was gonna be great.

As New York Magazine reported, it didn’t work out that way:

the implementation over the next few months collapsed into a suburban disaster, playing out in school-board meetings and, of course, on facebook. The kids who hated the new program hated it, to the point of having breakdowns, while their parents became convinced Silicon Valley was trying to take over their classrooms.

What went wrong? As anyone who knows schools could tell you, the Summit/facebook folks made a fundamental error about the nature of schools. They forgot or never knew a couple of basic, non-negotiable requirements of real schools.

First, they fell into the start-up trap. Priscilla Chan of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative described her awe when she first saw a Summit-style school. As she gushed,

I walked into the school and I didn’t recognize where I was. . . . My question was like, ‘What is this? Where am I? Because this is what I see folks actually doing in the workplace: problem-solving on their own, applying what they’re learning in a way that’s meaningful in the real world.’

Like other techies, the facebook folks thought that schools could should look like tech companies, with maximum productivity and maximum independence. What they don’t seem to notice is that schools are not only open to those few nerds who like to work that way.

In Cheshire, teachers found that about a third of the students flourished in their new classrooms. But that left a vast majority of students floundering. As teachers do, they filled in the gaps. As New York  Magazine describes,

The teachers started holding “Thursday Night Lights” sessions, where they’d stay until about 8 p.m., helping students rush through the playlists and take assessments while the information was fresh in their memories. To make up for the rest, he said, teachers found “workarounds,” like rounding up half-points in students’ grades, or coming up with reasons to excuse students from certain segments. (The other educators confirmed this.) “Looking back,” he said, “it was grade inflation, and it was cheating the system that we had spent the whole year trying to figure out and couldn’t make work.”

Maybe even more crucially, the facebook approached crashed in Cheshire because it failed to satisfy another absolute requirement of all schools. Viz., it failed to convince parents that it was keeping children safe.

First off, parents fretted about the ways facebook was selling data about their kids. Even if the company bent over backwards to be accommodating to parents’ concerns, no parents liked the idea of putting their children’s data on the market.

More dramatically in this case, the Summit approach doesn’t try to protect kids from the informational anarchy that the interwebs can provide. Instead of textbooks and other vetted classroom content, Summit mostly provides a set of links that students can follow to read content. In this case, that lead to some dramatic difficulties. In fact, the whole controversy in Connecticut might have blown over if one concerned parent hadn’t discovered what Summit students might be reading in class.

When the parent—Mike Ulicki—followed up on some social-studies links, he came across this page from factsanddetails.com. Yes, the page explained, ancient Romans had some pretty wild sexual habits, including sex with geese.

As anyone who knows anything about real schools could have told you, that was all it took.

As NYMag reported,

Ulicki posted the image on Facebook. As outraged comments multiplied on the thread, a school-board member announced he would call for a vote at the next meeting on whether to keep the program in place. But before the meeting could happen, they all received a letter from the superintendent’s office, announcing that Summit was being removed by executive order.

Now, honestly, any parent knows that their middle-schoolers could have found those kinds of images on their own. But for a school to be sending students to a picture of man-on-goose kink blew open one of the most foundational rules of schools. [There are other not-PG-13 images available at that site that I am too prudish to share. Interested readers can follow up here, though you might not want to do it at school.]

Schools are not only about giving students information. They are not only about preparing students to be life-long learners. They are not only about math, history, English, or science. Above all, schools must promise to keep students safe. Safe from physical threats, of course, but also safe from intellectual dangers such as the wild sexual practices of ancient Rome.

Until facebook’s founders and other would-be tech saviors recognize the way schools really work, they’ll never be able to deliver on their reform promises.