Living in Dickens country


“’NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’”  [Opening paragraph to Hard Times by Charles Dickens.]

If Charles Dickens could see the travesty in limiting the imagination and could depict it with such humor and scathing commentary, we must be able to see it now, here, in this time.  This paragraph describes the school run by Mr. Gradgrind, a firm believer in training young minds by depriving them of play, of invention or of artistic impulses. He is the trainer of good workers, of good followers, of humorless, sincere children who will not question the way the world runs, the instruction is given, or the necessity for rigidity in the classroom.


I am reading this book for a class I am taking at the University. When I began reading it on an airplane, I burst out laughing. I could not get out of my mind the latest “no excuses” schools, the many factory model classrooms that insist on obedience, insist on silence in the lunchroom, on walking down hallways without a sound. It is a perfect depiction of places that aim to produce a compliant workforce for the corporations that fund them. And so-called liberals are in the forefront of the push for this kind of education.


What came to me, however, after finishing the book, arriving home and experiencing the shutdown of our government, is how this educational movement is  a part of the current insanity of our times. As we watch our system break down, as we see those living in the states that have refused to expand Medicaid, become desperate for medical help, and ultimately lose their lives, we stand, open mouthed in grief and horror and anger at what has become of our democracy. I am convinced that the move toward uniformity and conformity in education is feeding the same corporate mentality that is discarding anyone who is poor, is black, has been in prison, or who has had the bad luck to lose a job. If we can convince educators and parents to train up young people to follow orders, to focus on mindless and mind numbing tests that measure nothing that hints at creativity or even healthy rebellion, it is a step toward uniformity of response, toward obeisance, toward unquestioning, meek, and spineless reactions to authority.


Many who read this will say that I am exaggerating or that I am linking well- meaning people unfairly with horrible results. Others will say there is some crazy paranoia here, that I am seeing the testing mania, the uniform curriculum, the conformity to the powers that urge us to respond to “what business wants”, as unfairly pared with those who shut down government, or insist on refusing help for those who need it. Perhaps I am being unfair, but I truly wonder at those in education, especially those who call themselves liberals, who do not see that they are participating in a giant takeover of our public institutions by greedy and conservative corporate forces.  Many are terribly frightened by those who grade the tests, who threaten to pull their money from our charter schools, who demand more and more surveillance of teachers and their students. We are cowed by those who hold the purse. We unwittingly aid them in building a compliant work force, a voting block that will continually give in and give up their compassionate concern for the very lives of our citizens. We are not training good citizens for our democracy when we go against our own knowledge of what is best for students and insist on boring, abstract knowledge, unconnected to the lives in our communities.


There are the courageous among us. There are those who band together and refuse to give the next standardized test in their school. There are those who teach in ways that draw in students, excite them, connect to them and challenge their thinking despite what the district curriculum dictates, and some lose their jobs for it.  There are those who continue to question from outside the institutions, who insist that the best way to create a productive country where all are heard is to create a place where childrens’ and parents’ voices are the center of our schools. There are those who refuse to go along with the latest craze and instead invigorate children with what they know will work: connections to their neighborhoods, to music, to issues of concern in order to bring rigorous knowledge and the process of discovery home to them. There have always been those who defy the textbook publishers and create their own curriculum and content. There have always been those who scrounge for books that connect to their students’ lives and are not in the mandated district curriculum, and who often pay for these with their own money.


Some have given up and gotten out of teaching: fine men and women who refuse to be part of stultifying classrooms and canned lesson plans. One of the most frightening things I have witnessed has been the insistence in the new Common Core standards that informational reading and writing is to be paramount in English Curriculums, that literature is to be de emphasized and that poetry—well who knows where that fits in! All the time, we are reading about studies of the brain that indicate that novels, good, tough to read, challenging novels, encourage empathy in individuals. If I were an English teacher now, in this climate, I might become one of those who leave, who try to find a way to fight from the outside, for creative writing, story telling, spoken word, music and language combined, visual art and memoir mixture in my classroom. I hope I would stay and fight it out, but I am not sure.


We need a crucial halt to the oncoming train of rigor and conformity. The present requires time for everyone to stand back and examine how current education “reform” fits into an insidious movement to bring children and their parents into line, where the poorest among us will not have the rich world of the arts or even vivid experiences of history, or the fascinating explorations of science, as those in wealthy schools have in abundance. I am not opposed to discipline and a demanding curriculum but it must be discipline in the name of deep and passionate learning. I am not opposed to structure, but it must be structure in the name of the joyful experience of creating a work, be it a novel, a geodesic dome, a sculpture for the courtyard. What frightens me is the way some of the most liberal thinking people in this country are following along with some of the most duplicitous in their take-over of public education. We don’t need to do this. We don’t need to fund Pearson, now the world’s largest education company and book publisher, with billions of taxpayer money to provide tests that will keep our sons and daughters in line or will drive them out of school. We don’t need to be a part of any of it, but rather, can support the courageous ones who, in the quiet of an early morning, close their classroom doors and teach from their heart.