The Wrong Way to Talk about Civics Education

We just can’t do it. As educators and Americans, that is, we can’t agree about what “civics education” is supposed to be doing. We do know one thing, though. The way to understand it is not by doing what one pundit recently attempted.civics textbooks

Why is it so hard to teach civics? As I’ve argued in these pages and in books such as The Other School Reformers, the problem isn’t that no one cares. It’s not that people think schools shouldn’t teach kids to be good citizens. Rather, the problem is that Americans can’t agree on what “being a good citizen” entails.

Think about it: How enthusiastic would you be if your tax dollars supported student activism in a cause with which you disagreed? Say, for example, that kids in a high-school civics class took their project to the streets, protesting against a local abortion clinic? Or, for the other side, what if students marched out their civic responsibilities in a gay pride parade? Either way, real-life student civic engagement is not usually something that controversy-averse public school administrators can support.

None of that is the point this morning, however. One civics-ed commentator recently demonstrated another related challenge when it comes to discussing civics education. Robert Pondiscio of the marketeering Fordham Institute recently unintentionally underlined why it is so difficult to know what students are really doing in schools, when it comes to civics education or anything else.

That wasn’t Pondiscio’s point, of course. Rather, he was trying to articulate a need for a more traditionalist vision of proper civics education. He was hoping to push teachers to teach

A lifelong love of liberty. Of freedom and the rule of law. A lifelong love of America.

Pondiscio thinks schools aren’t doing this. And he wants to prove it. That’s where he runs into trouble.

As school-watchers know, it is infamously difficult to know what goes on behind the classroom door. Creationists warn their followers that public schools are cramming gay-friendly atheism down children’s throats under the guise of science classes. Atheists fret about religious zealots using public schools to cram hate-filled fundamentalism down children’s throats.

So how did Mr. Pondiscio come to his conclusion that public schools are not teaching kids to love America? The wrong way. He looked at the mission statements of America’s 100 biggest public school districts. What did he find?

Well over half—fifty-nine of the one hundred largest U.S. school districts—make no mention of civics or citizenship whatsoever in their mission or vision statements. . . .  The words “patriotic” and “patriotism” do not appear at all. Neither does “America” or “American.” Not even once.

Proof that American teachers are not teaching students to love this great land? Of course not. If Mr. Pondiscio had instead asked 100 of America’s best teachers to paraphrase their districts’ mission statements, he would have found that zero of them could do so.

On the other hand, if he asked 100 social-studies teachers if they tried to help students understand what Pondiscio calls “a sense of gratitude, for the blessings of liberty, our Constitutional freedoms, what it’s taken to secure those things for us, and for thoughtful pride and patriotism”, he’d find much different results. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that most American social-studies teachers out there teach some version of those goals.

So why bother with school-district mission statements? Like so much other bad punditry about America’s public schools, writers can use mission statements if they want to make a point. In reality, though, district mission statements have only the tiniest effect on real teaching.

The real lesson here should be a sober warning about the difficulties of understanding what really goes on in America’s schools. If we want to do more than rile people up, we need to be humble about what we think we know about real teachers and real classrooms.

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Conservatives: Half Full? Half Empty?

Is the sky falling? Do conservatives think it is? I’ve been pondering these questions since Prof. Seth Cotlar asked about them recently in a tweet. When it comes to schools in twentieth-century America, if I had to pick one word (okay, two) to capture the heart and soul of conservatism, I’d pick “common sense” over “decline.”

cotlar tweet conservatismProf. Cotlar wondered,

According to every conservative since Burke, has ‘the west’ ever not been declining?

The question and several answers made me wonder about the specific tradition of educational conservatism. By and large, my research convinces me to side with Prof. Corey Robin, who pointed out that there has also been

An optimism, if you will, at the heart of the right.

When it comes to education and schools, certainly, the educational conservatives I studied were extremely optimistic or at least hopeful that they could reassert sensible control over their local public schools. Failing that, educational conservatives have generally been confident that they could open and operate their own schools, schools in which the terrible trends of progressive education and politics could be removed.cotlar tweet conservatism Corey Robin

Over and over, conservatives have built their campaigns on a deep and abiding optimism that their beliefs were merely common sense. Yes, conservative activists have often asserted, duped or devious progressives may have taken schools in terrible directions, but by and large conservatives insisted that their ideas were the true middle, the obvious common-sense educational program.

In the 1970s, for example, in the textbook controversy that engulfed Kanawha County, West Virginia, conservative pundit Elmer Fike didn’t quote Spengler or Burke or Burnham. Rather, he insisted that conservatism was the side of mainstream common sense. It was overreaching progressive bullies who had abandoned the center. For proof, Fike turned to the National Education Association’s 1918 Cardinal Principles report. In a full-page ad in a Charleston newspaper, Fike made the following claims:

We believe that the legitimate purpose of education is to promote the widely accepted Seven Cardinal Principles—command of fundamental processes (the three R’s), health, worthy home membership, vocational preparation, civic education, leisure time activities, and ethical character.  We believe that many of the controversial texts fail to promote these principles.  Rather, they tend to undermine the ethical character and social values of home and community accepted by a large majority of the people.

We believe that the continued use of these controversial books will result in antisocial behavior, further deterioration of social standards, increase in crime, and delinquency.

We believe that these books do not promote, in fact, are an attack on, the American system that has made this country the envy of the world.

While we abhor violence and shun demonstrations, we believe that the affect of these books is of sufficient consequence to warrant the use of any and all available legal means to have them removed.

Or consider the plans and prophecies of California’s Max Rafferty. Rafferty was a one-time State Superintendent of California’s public schools and a popular syndicated columnist.

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…he didn’t win.

He wrote in 1970 that his “California philosophy . . . has Deweyism in nationwide retreat.” It could be so successful, Rafferty insisted time and time again, because it was built on common sense about the true nature of education. Progressives simply misunderstood humans. It was conservatives who knew what to do. As Rafferty wrote in 1964,

Too many instructors, fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself when all he really needs is a session after school with the ruler.

In the 1980s, too, Reagan’s second ed secretary William Bennett pushed his reforms as mere common sense. Though voters may think that education is controversial, Bennett liked to say, there was in fact “an American consensus” about what school should look like. Bennett specifically rejected pessimistic thinking, or, at least, he tried to stick progressives with the Chicken-Little label. As Bennett wrote in 1988,

Apocalyptic analyses and Chicken Little stories about an onrushing wave of ‘unteachable’ students should be rejected. In fact, the analyses and stories themselves—and the attitudes they reveal—belong at the top of any short list of real problems now facing American education. [Emphasis in original.]

For Bennett, as for Fike, Rafferty, and a host of other conservative educational activists in the twentieth century, hope sprang eternal. Yes, schools may be in bad shape, ideologically.  But in every decade, conservative pundits and parents rallied around the notion that their ideas represented beleaguered common sense.

How bout it? If you had to pick one word (or phrase) to capture the essence of conservative thinking, what would you use?

The Real Promise of Teachers’ Unions

It’s not that they’ll get everyone to “eat the rich.” It’s not that they will manage to unite all teachers in a progressive political wave that will sweep through America’s 2020 elections. They won’t. Teachers are now and have always been a mixed bag, ideologically. But in today’s divided polis, a group like the unions still has enormous potential for good.

 

Pundits who dream that today’s wave of teacher strikes will bring a progressive millennium are fooling themselves. Anyone familiar with real teachers can tell you: We’re not easy to pin down. Sure, some teachers like me have a deep progressive political streak. But just go to any teachers’ lounge and you will hear a dizzying variety of political opinions.

As I argued in my book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, America’s teachers have ALWAYS been ideologically divided. The popular image of united left-wing teachers has never matched reality. Here are a few snapshots of conservative teachers throughout the years:

1939: One leader of a conservative campaign against left-leaning textbooks, Bertie Forbes, liked to tell a story: He was minding his business as a magazine editor when he was approached by teachers from his local New Jersey school district. These teachers, Forbes liked to recount, begged Forbes to get involved in educational politics. The teachers hated the lefty textbooks and wanted political support to teach old-fashioned patriotism in their local public schools.

1950: As Pasadena, California reeled over alleged progressivism in its classrooms, one teacher took to the editorial pages of the local paper. We teachers, she insisted, are not “in full accord with the tenets of progressive education.” She wanted old-fashioned tradition in the classroom, including corporal punishment. The progressive slop on offer, she wrote, led only to “arrogance, hostility, and defiance, even vandalism.” Teachers like her were on the front line against socialist “Pressure and propaganda” and they wanted the support of the conservative public.

1962: Who led the fight to battle communism? It wasn’t only the conservative American Legion. Throughout the cold war, including in this 1962 mash-up, National Education Association members teamed up with the Legion to purge left-wing propaganda from the nation’s public schools.

anti communist teachers

Find the left-wing teacher in THIS photo:

1974: In Kanawha County, West Virginia, a new set of textbooks sparked violent culture-war protests. One teacher took the opportunity to voice his ideas about proper public education. On December 12, 1974, public-school teacher Karl Priest reminded the National Education Association that its policy was always to combat discrimination. The new textbooks, Priest insisted, were “in fact, anti-Christian.” [Emphasis in original.] Teachers like him, Priest argued, were correct in their conservative fight against such discriminatory claptrap.

These days, too, teachers are hardly politically united. Even those who support today’s strikes cannot be assumed to be unified on any other political issue. Teachers, in other words, won’t become the left-wing vanguard that activists have dreamed of for decades.

But that doesn’t mean that today’s teachers’ unions won’t have a huge impact. As politicians are split more and more toward the far edges, any group that can unite disparate people toward specific goals can serve as a beacon of hope.

coming apart

What if politicians could act more like teachers’ unions?

The promise of the teachers’ unions doesn’t come from the fact that teachers are becoming more politically homogenous. The promise, rather, is that teachers’ unions are able to take action toward important goals in spite of the fact that their constituencies disagree on almost everything else.

Creationism and the Conservative Vision Board

It was the creationism part that first got my attention. Why would a smart, dynamic politician introduce such an old-fashioned creationism bill for public schools, a bill obviously doomed to failure? As I read the rest of the bill, the answer became obvious. And for anti-creationist campaigners, the lesson is clear.

 

 

Indiana State Senator Dennis Kruse has a long record of introducing anti-evolution legislation. Twenty years ago, he began pushing bills that would allow for the teaching of creation science in Indiana’s public schools. When those flopped, he began fighting instead for “academic freedom” for Indiana’s teachers, to allow them to teach a “diverse curriculum.”

This month, however, for some reason Senator Kruse went back to an old-school school bill. Kruse is once again campaigning for schools that include “the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science.”

What gives? Why would a creationist go back to a failed strategy? After all, the inclusion of “creation science” in public schools has been definitively rejected by the Supreme Court. Why would Kruse bother to ask for something (again) when he knows he won’t get it?

The rest of the bill makes the answer painfully obvious. Senator Kruse isn’t really crafting legislation here. He is creating a conservative vision board.

 

Kruse is asking for a range of educational policies that might or might not be possible. He wants all Indiana public and charters schools to post big “In God We Trust” signs, along with a US and Indiana flag. He wants religious electives, including Bible studies. He wants students to be able to earn public-school credit for religion classes. Creationism—even the outdated “creation science”—is only one of the public-school visions on this Indiana board.

Why does it matter? As I’m arguing in my new book about American creationism, we will never really understand creationism if we think of it only as a fight about science curriculum. In most cases, creationism is only one aspect of a wide-ranging conservative attitude about education.

Yet too often, science teachers and science advocacy groups are left all alone in their fight against creationism in public schools, when the fight is not really about science. It is a fight over the proper nature of public education. Should schools be aggressively pluralist, ditching their historical Protestant baggage? Or should they be staunchly traditionalist, teaching children to be patriotic and Christian?

Who’s Afraid of Teachers?

It’s not only in the pages of dusty history books nobody reads. As Curmudgucrat Peter Greene wrote recently, the effort to stifle teachers’ political opinions is alive and well. But here’s the question every real teacher keeps wondering: Why are people so worried about teachers?

Here’s what we know: Greene describes a recent bill in Arizona to limit teachers’ ability to talk politics in the classroom. The bill would combat teachers’ alleged aggressive political posturing. What would it do?

Teachers may not endorse, support or oppose any candidate or elected or appointed official. Teachers may not bring up any “controversial issues” not related to the course. . . . Teachers may not advocate for one side of a controversial issue; they must always present both sides.

Greene argues that this bill is not just an Arizona quirk but rather part of a vision to restrain teachers from voicing progressive opinions.

And it won’t come as any surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH that the fear of progressive teachers has a long history in the US of A.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, for example, Harold Rugg of Teachers College Columbia earned the ire of many conservative activists with his progressive textbooks. It wasn’t only Rugg that conservatives worried about. As I noted in my book about conservative educational activism, people like Alfred Falk of the Advertising Federation of America and Homer Chaillaux of the American Legion warned one another that the problem was bigger than any single teacher or textbook. Rather, as Falk told Chaillaux privately in 1939, it was all part of a vast left-wing teacher conspiracy,

a deliberate plan worked up by a well-defined group of left-wingers and educators, collaborating for a number of years on this huge project of reconstructing our society.

In the 1960s, too, conservative activists assumed that teachers were part of a progressive plan to use their classroom authority to push left-wing ideas on unsuspecting youth. The Gablers asked their fellow conservatives some pointed questions about the proper role of teachers. As they put it,

Do educators have the right to use our children as guinea pigs in behavior modification experiments?  Should our children be under the direction of ideologues hostile to Judeo-Christian values and American constitutional liberty?

SH Gablers

Look out kids, it’s a…teacher!

For many conservatives, the notion that teachers are “ideologues” cramming Leninist doctrine down the throats of America’s schoolchildren is a hallowed truth. But why? Why do so many conservatives worry so unnecessarily about teachers’ political activism?

After all, ask any teacher, and they’ll tell you: We worry about far more prosaic issues in our classrooms. We worry if students are learning the material, and if there’s a better way we could present it. We worry that students aren’t understanding things, and if there’s something we could be doing to help.

We worry mostly about our students as people, not as partisans.

Moreover, as every study has shown, teachers do not swoop in from outside to cram politics down students’ throats. For example, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, when it comes to teaching evolution and creationism, most teachers reflect the majority values of their communities, because most teachers are products of that same community.

So why the worry?

School Dictatorship by Facebook

What do conservatives want out of schools? In Brazil as in the USA, it’s a familiar checklist: communist subversion out, LGBTQ+ stuff out, union power out. In Brazil’s case, the new right-wing president has given conservatives new hope. But unlike in the past, Brazil’s conservatives have a new weapon at their disposal: Facebook.

bolsonaro

Hear no evil…

As reported in The Economist, President Jair Bolsonaro has energized right-wing school dreams in Brazil. We shouldn’t be surprised. Bolsonaro won the election in spite of—or because of—his inflammatory anti-gay statements and nostalgia for the old dictatorship.

When a presidential candidate promises to bring back torture, makes rape jokes, and brags that he would rather see his son dead than gay, it’s not a shocker that his policies move schools in right-wing directions.

In Brazil’s case, that means fighting the influence of Brazil’s most famous educational thinker, Paolo Freire. It also means an attempt to ban what Brazilian conservatives call “gender ideology.” Brazilian conservatives consider the left-wing ideas of Freire to be a blight on Brazil. As one right-wing group put it, Freire’s teachings turned

Innocent illiterate people into illiterate communists.

The plan? Bolsonaro has promised to

Take a flame-thrower to the ministry of education and get Paolo Freire out of there.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, those things are similar to what USA conservatives have wanted in schools for a long time. Conservatives here, too, have fretted about communist subversion, tried to get rid of the “homosexual agenda” in public schools, and threatened to eliminate the Department of Education.

What might be new, though, is the Brazilian strategy to enforce their right-wing changes. As The Economist reports, conservative activists have taken to Facebook to enforce their vision of proper public education. As one conservative teacher told students on Facebook,

“Attention students! . . . many doctrinaire teachers will be disconcerted or revolted” by Bolsonaro’s victory. “Film or record all partisan manifestations that . . . offend your freedom of thought or conscience.”

Bolsonaro’s Facebook page apparently includes video clips of left-wing teachers in action, including one in which a teacher shouts at a student,

I fought for democracy and you’re here talking about that piece of crap Bolsonaro.

Or another in which a teacher warned students not to listen to

idiotic police officers or your lowlife pastor.

The plan, clearly, is to shine a right-wing social-media spotlight on teachers. If they endorse rights for LGBTQ people, they can be “outed” for it. If they teach a sympathetic vision of socialism, everyone will know about it. If they teach anti-Bolsonaro ideas–the thinking goes–then right-wingers can target them. In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, at least, conservatives hope that Facebook can offer a new way to pressure teachers and schools to conform to their vision of proper public education.

Will it work? So far, some teachers have reported being threatened and disciplined for their anti-Bolsonaro or pro-LGBTQ classroom comments. Back in the twentieth century, USA conservatives tended to fight against textbooks instead of individual teachers, because they usually couldn’t find out much about what classroom teachers were actually doing on a day-to-day basis.

I wonder if Facebook will allow conservatives to take their fight right to the teachers themselves.

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.

americanism address

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.

Where Progressivism Dies

Country-club Democrats are willing to make a lot of sacrifices. As David Freedlander reminds us, rich progressives have long been eager to pay for benefits for other people, such as cheaper college or higher minimum wages. When it comes to school, however, affluent progressives have always had a much harder time denying their own kids the vast privileges that come with rich-kids’ educations.

goslin-2

Goslin at work.

Progressive coalitions have always been held together loosely, and today’s Democratic Party is no exception. As Freedlander points out, most of the energy of the “Democratic Socialist” wing comes from the more educated, more affluent, whiter wing of the party. As Freedlander puts it,

Energized liberals, largely college-educated or beyond, have been voting in a new breed of activist Democrat—and voting out more established candidates with strong support among the party’s largely minority, immigrant, Hispanic, African-American and non-college-educated base.

When it comes to educational privilege, however, we see the coalition breaking down. Freedlander mentions

Upscale parents in Democratic neighborhoods whose liberalism vanishes when it comes to bringing in students from poorer neighborhoods (as on Manhattan’s Upper West Side) or pooling PTA funds between richer and poorer schools (as in Santa Monica, California).

It was ever thus. As I argued in The Other School Reformers, for example, progressive reforms in places such as Pasadena, California lost steam when conservatives “proved” that progressive pedagogy meant worse schooling.

In the early 1950s, in Pasadena at least, progressive superintendent Willard Goslin enjoyed enormous popularity among the affluent residents. He maintained a lot of that support even when conservative activists began to accuse him of introducing progressive reforms, including racial desegregation. When conservative activists accused Goslin of sneaking socialism into the schools, progressive Pasadenans still supported Goslin.

His support collapsed, however—even among politically progressive affluent white Pasadenans—when those affluent supporters were told that Goslin’s school reforms threatened their children’s privileged educations. In Goslin’s case, it was the abolition of traditional report cards that sealed his professional fate. Progressive Pasadenans supported racial integration, in many cases. They even supported socialist ideas, to a limited extent. But they would never support schools that didn’t prove that kids were learning.

Zoll, Progressive Education Increases Delinquency

Progressives didn’t even mind a little delinquency, but they couldn’t stand lower test scores…

As David Freedlander writes, affluent progressives these days balk at any change that threatens their children’s educational privilege. We probably shouldn’t be surprised at the durability of this issue. When so many Americans view education as the key to achieving or maintaining economic status, it would be hard to imagine things any other way.

In other words, it’s easy to imagine a progressive parent happily paying a little more in taxes to support progressive causes, but it’s hard to imagine many people—progressive or otherwise—sacrificing the best interests of their children, no matter how good the cause.

Love Letters from Unexpected Quarters

There aren’t a lot of heroes in Julie Schumacher’s new novel. SAGLRROILYBYGTH will be able to imagine my surprise when I discovered Schumacher’s surprising exception. It wasn’t really the main character, a crusty and cynical novelist and chair of the English Department. It wasn’t even the out-of-touch Shakespeare scholar who insisted on keeping the liberal arts in a liberal arts college. No, the only character that came out as truly sympathetic didn’t come out of the world of elite higher ed but rather from the closed-off world of evangelical home schooling. And it leads us to a bigger question: Do the conservative skeptics have more allies in mainstream higher-ed than they realize?

shakespeare requirement

We’re (almost) all adrift…

I don’t want to give away too much of Schumacher’s plot, so I’ll tell my own story instead. When I first took my current job, a friend in the English Department of the high school at which I worked gave me a copy of Richard Russo’s Straight Man.

“Read it,” my friend said. “You’ll need it.”

Straight Man was my introduction to the field of higher-ed satire. In the novel, a bumbling hero fights to keep college less insane. As the imagined traditions of liberal-arts education crumple in the face of careerism, credentialism, and ruthless bottom lines, Russo’s straight man can only offer ridiculousness in protest.

More recently, one of my current colleagues recommended Schumacher’s fantastic higher-ed satire, Dear Committee Members. Schumacher offered a witheringly on-point send-up of today’s higher-ed scene, with embittered English professor Jay Fitger revealing through a series of recommendation letters his dwindling influence at Payne University. Hilarious and bitterly accurate.

So it was with a lot of eagerness that I finally got my hands on The Shakespeare Requirement. In this novel, Jay Fitger is back, and Payne University is still wallowing in the unenviable position of a small liberal-arts college. In a nutshell, the plot revolves around an attempt to bring the school—and its wacky English Department—into the contemporary world of mainstream higher education.

External funding rules the campus, and notions such as knowledge for knowledge’s sake are out the window. Under pressure, the English Department eliminates its requirement of a Shakespeare class for all English majors. Antics ensue.

All told, I’m pretty disappointed by the novel. It does not capture the wit and weariness that made Dear Committee Members so good. But it does include a curious celebration. Few of the characters or types come off well in the novel. Students are lazy and selfish. Professors are either grasping or clueless. The administration is, at best, pathetic.

Given the bleak landscape, I was surprised to find Schumacher’s ray of hope. One character shines. Angela Vackrey is a freshman, from a family that didn’t want her to come to Payne. She had been homeschooled in a rigorously conservative evangelical household. Angela wanted to find out more about the world than

The pile of paperbound workbooks (Broad Horizon: A Christian’s Historical Perspective) next to the chicken-and-egg-shaped salt and pepper shakers on the maple table where she had completed her schoolwork at home.

Angela is not at all typical of Payne students. For one thing, Schumacher tells us, she still dresses as if she were at church:

Unlike most of the young women in the room, who dressed as if stopping by class on their way to a nightclub, she wore a homely denim skirt and white buttoned blouse.

Also unlike most Payne students, Angela takes her school work seriously. As Professor Fitger discovered, Angela’s writing

Evinced a startling ability to think clearly, express original ideas, and write.

At Payne University, in any case, such abilities make Angela stand out. Her modesty, temperance, and hard work are a stark and startling contrast to the rest of the student body, and even to the debauched faculty.

Indeed, if this novel were to some from some of the usual conservative suspects—higher-ed critics such as Rod Dreher or Peter Wood—it wouldn’t be very interesting at all. But as far as I can tell, Professor Schumacher is no conservative. The yearnings of her characters are not for a purer, Christian society. Rather, Jay Fitger is utterly adrift, and at times, sympathetically so.

In the end, The Shakespeare Requirement is, like Professor Fitger, rudderless. Yet even from that position of cynical drift, Schumacher seems to yearn for a better world, one that can only be maintained by fundamentalist strictures that no one can abide.

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.

sex with a goose

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.