40 Credits & A Mule, Part VII - Sleeping Giants

French Revolution

I gotta say, this blogging stuff was so much easier when Dr. Barresi was saying crazy stuff to local news stations for me to excerpt and mock. Of course, the #WTF? stuff is always more fun than the #WhatNow? parts – just ask any Middle Eastern country on the long side of revolution in the past decade.

It’s taken me awhile to get to the dramatic conclusion of this epic, so let’s review – “Previously, on Blue Cereal Education Dot Com…”

Part I – I made the case that land ownership was central to citizenship, suffrage, and participation as a ‘full American’. This seemed reasonable, and by the standards of the day was a huge expansion of democracy and the ability of the ‘common man’ to claim a voice in his government. It did not, however, include everyone we would consider appropriate today – it was a white man’s game.

Part II – Land ownership carried mythical benefits alongside the practical. In addition to being a source of opportunity, income, and republican (small ‘r’) participation, it promoted an agricultural lifestyle – hard work, responsibility, patience, and fortitude. I’d include ‘grit’, but I’d need a ‘trigger warning’ – people are touchy about that one for some reason…

Part III – The combination of practical needs, terrestrial benefits, and supernatural calling led an expanding ‘Merica to treat the Native populations and Mexico as obstacles to overcome rather than peoples to be engaged. The grand ‘us’ and ‘them’ of human history continued.

Part IV – Land ownership becomes a condition as much as an accomplishment. Because not everyone can ‘have’, those who do come to see themselves not as the most fortunate but as the most deserving. Those unable to procure land due to race (or gender, or whatever) were already categorized as ‘less than’ (hence their ineligibility), and this lack of opportunity became circular. Chickens and eggs - which came first, the unworthiness to be a full American or the lack of opportunity to fully participate in the republic?

Part V – Education is the new land. We advocate universal access. We extol it as the key to all things – fiscal opportunity, social advancement, moral purity, personal fulfillment. As with land, lack of access becomes lack of worthiness. Inequity leads to inequality leads to rejection leads to judgment – ‘us vs. them’ with a side of ‘what the hell is wrong with you people?’

Part VI – I suggested we’re doing with students and education what we spent a century and a half doing with various demographics and land ownership and a voice in the republic. I argue that we’ve conflated ability, opportunity, and values with personal worth and potential – to the harm of a substantial percentage of our kids. 

I closed with a vague promise to resolve that in this final post.

But I can’t.

It’s just too big. Too many cultural, psychological, logistical, fiscal, emotional, and historical factors out of our control – some completely, others merely mostly.

I can shine some light on the nature of the problem. We may even find some consensus about what’s WRONG. The hard part is in the fixin’ – what we do INSTEAD. That’s the problem with revolutions - you may get enough people to agree about what to tear down, you just can’t get enough people to agree what to build in its place.

I have some more great analogies – one in which we demand coaches train their athletes in a wide variety of sporting events but we only measure races with hurdles, and we keep raising the hurdles for the kids who can’t jump them or who refuse to stay on our track. That’s a good one. There’s another in which some stuffy doctors present research showing the richest and healthiest people in the world eat mostly vegetables and pâté, so they push through legislation mandating a vegetable and pâté diet (without providing the funding to properly prepare either). That was fun, too – and it had the cutest clip-art.

The point of the first, of course, was that hurdles are an inadequate measure of all possible athletic ability, and that not everyone has the same athleticism or interest - for a wide variety of reasons. The second was about correlation and causation - the rich and healthy eat pâté; pâté doesn’t make you rich and healthy. Successful students pass stupid tests; stupid tests don’t create successful students. Like I said, I was pretty amused by them.

But I’ve already laid out six posts of historical analogies involving land and culture and race. These not only make it sound like I’m smarter than I actually am, but they correlate in a very real way with actual problems in education today.

It’s time to fix it.

Are the schools going to be a part of that? They’d have to, I’d think. But they’re not enough.

We need to change the way we think about race and poverty and culture and American values. I’m a big fan of our founding documents and ideals – heck, I even still like capitalism. But we’ve managed to maintain an ugly leavening of racism, elitism, and outright social Darwinism through too many eras to believe it’s not deeply entrenched in the problems we face today.

We need to ask ourselves why so many kids from so many backgrounds find so little of value in the curriculums we push, or the values we demand they share. At best, much of what we prioritize seems pointless to them; at worse, it contradicts who they believe they are and the things they value. Ask your best students their honest opinions about what they’re learning in school – some find parts they really like, but I’m horrified how many confess they’re just doing what they’ve been told to do. They endure, and they get the grades, but that’s all.

It’s like being at the dentist for 13 years straight.

If we can look in the mirror and tell ourselves with conviction they’ll thank us someday because we know what’s good for them and they don’t, OK. Maybe so. But what did YOU carry away from High School that changed your life? Improved your world? Gave meaning to some part of your existence? If you CAN think of something, was it in the curriculum, or did it come from somewhere else?

It seems like most of what we do in school serves only to prepare students to do more of it in more school. That’s not just pointless – it’s unethical and abusive.

And stupid.

The title “40 Credits & A Mule” was inspired by several blog posts by P.L. Thomas about our American myth that students from poor families – especially students of color – who do well in school can overcome their background to the extent they’ll end up economically and socially on par with white peers. They don’t. Their circumstances improve, but you’re better off being a white high school dropout than black with a few years of college in terms of lifetime earnings.

The promise is there, you see – but it’s not substantiated by reality.

I don’t know how we fix it, but I think it begins when we refuse to perpetuate the lie. We refuse to give the tests that rank our kids by ZIP Code while claiming to rank them by accomplishments.

We refuse to follow the outdated factory structure mandated by our states and our expectations.

We refuse to continue forcing so many kids into  a choice only between rejecting our system and everything it stands for OR accepting themselves as failures – unworthy players in the only game in town.

We refuse to turn our best and brightest into cynical rule-followers forced to seek ways to escape the reality of their daily grinds rather than embrace the many wonderful ways life can be lived productively and meaningfully.

We make them fire us and justify it. We make them cut our funding and explain it. We let them try to find someone to replace one of us, ten of us, a hundred of us, because we won’t do this to our kids anymore.

Let the State tell the papers why our entire graduating class doesn’t get diplomas. Let the universities explain why they won’t admit any of the thousands of young adults whose value we refuse to measure with a single number between 0 and 4 any longer.

I think I’m advocating revolution. Starting with you, and me, and like, one other guy who’s already pretty weird and we may not actually want on our team. If we were to win, I have no idea what we put up in place of what we’re doing now, but I know this has to stop.

That will probably be a non-issue for us, anyway. We’ll be early casualties, not heroes or leaders. And when we go down, I’m not sure anyone else is picking up this flag. Still… could be fun, don’t you think?

Wanna get in trouble with me?

Dark & Difficult Times

Three Amigos - Our Own Personal El Guapo


Blind Date With Destiny

Jim's Big Ego - International

Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part I - This Land

Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part II - Chosen People

Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part III - Manifest Destiny

Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part IV - The Measure of a Man

Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part V - Maybe Radio

Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part VI - Slytherin, Ravenclaw, or Gryffindor?

Related Post: I See The Difference In Educational Privilege Every Day... (From the Washington Post / Daily Kos)


One paragraph you wrote I've been following lately. So far, I've not been able to get an answer. Asking these questions only makes me a thorn in someone's side. (A bit off topic.)

"I don’t know how we fix it, but I think it begins when we refuse to perpetuate the lie. We refuse to give the tests that rank our kids by ZIP Code while claiming to rank them by accomplishments."
SO, you may have heard of a Tulsa kiddo who recently earned a perfect score on the ACT. His parents are friends of mine & I've known him all his life.
He bumped around from school to school; public, private, online, offline, homeschool. Finally settled on an online Stanford curriculum.
And now -- he's a Tulsa boy. Our state claims him. One zip code. 741-whatever.
Nobody talks about how no curriculum/school in Oklahoma ever fit him. They don't tell you how his parents toiled over the years trying to find a good educational fit around here. BUT, that zip code thing...
I have been annoying the ACT people about this and can't get an answer. And the SAT people. And, the kid's parents are on it too. They can't get an answer as to where his perfect score shows up -- California or Oklahoma. (And, as you probably know, this makes a BIG deal in PSAT scores. East and west coast scores require 125+ for national merit; Oklahoma 111).
Why should a zip code claim a kid when it did nothing except shut doors in his face? Shouldn't he be rolled in some California zip code?
Perhaps this will change as more and more folks dissatisfied with education turn to online courses. Perhaps? Maybe?


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