About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Politics and Knowledge '08

First, some catching up.

There have been a number of posts in response to the last four entries (Work, Intelligence, and the Blue-Collar Vote; The Intelligence of the Waitress in Motion; Politics as Teaching: The Case of Palin, Obama, and Community Organizing; Work, Intelligence, and the Blue-Collar Vote, Part Two). A number of them offered stories about parents or relatives who also worked blue-collar jobs and paid tribute to the smarts it took to do that work well. Thank you for them.

I also want to call attention to a new post on an old entry, “Why Go to School.” The writer, Erika, has a fine blog herself, adfeminem @ www.adfeminem.org.

A new blog that the readers of this one will like is by Deborah Appleman who is writing about the teaching she’s doing in the Minnesota Correctional Facility, see http://blogs.carleton.edu/Stillwater/.

What follows is the world’s most expansive blog entry, but bear with me, please. I’m trying to work out some ideas that have long been on my mind.


Cultural Tensions

I have been thinking a lot these days about politics and knowledge, the way knowledge or being knowledgeable gets defined in the political moment – in the moment, but affected by a thick web of longstanding American cultural conflicts.

One small example that rivets me, that I keep turning over and over in my mind, is the way the McCain campaign has attempted to diminish Barack Obama’s education at Harvard Law School. (Their mockery of his work as a community organizer – and the experiential knowledge gained there – is another story, one I touched on last month, and one I want to cover again.)

The McCain approach, as others have pointed out, is a kind of low intensity Swift-Boating. Unlike the situation with John Kerry’s war record, there is no way to spark ambiguity about the facts of Obama’s time in Cambridge, no multiple stories to create. Barack Obama studied law at Harvard from 1988 to 1991, made law review, graduated with honors in 1991. No disputing that.

But what one can do is to diminish the achievement. And that’s what I want to focus on in this entry. The particularly American way this diminishment, even ridicule, is executed and what it reveals about our country and its culturally complicated relationship with knowledge gained through formal education.

I don’t want to claim that it’s illegitimate to raise questions – as was done throughout the primary – about Obama’s legislative record and experience. Rather, I want to consider this issue of knowledge and use Obama’s education as an illustration through which to explore some tensions in American culture–tensions that the Republican electoral machine have tapped powerfully over the last eight years. And tensions that we, as educators, need to ponder.

One obvious cultural tension in play around Obama’s Harvard degree is that of rural America versus the city, or the heartland (or, a variation, the frontier) versus the east coast. This is one of Sarah Palin’s trump cards, and, though his star is dim now, it was George Bush’s as well. No one’s blood is bluer, but Bush masterfully reinvented himself in Texas, altered his speech, bought a ranch, adopted country music and Nascar.

This rural versus urban conflict has a long history in the United States; it vibrates throughout 19th and 20th century American fiction and popular culture. Consider the standard story lines. Country boy or girl escapes the close-mindedness and constraints of the small town to find cosmopolitan liberation in the city – or finds in the city amorality, alienation, and sometimes death. (Think Dreiser’s Sister Carrie.) Flowing through these story lines is a good deal of condescension and ridicule toward country life or, conversely, moralizing and harsh judgment toward the city and its institutions…like Ivy League universities.

Related to this cultural conflict – though it can emerge solely within rural or within urban settings – is the longstanding tension between practical life, experience, and common sense versus schooling, book learning, and intellectual pursuits. Richard Hofstadter’s classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is a chronicle of this antagonism, and of the gradual ascendance of school-based expertise in the nation’s culture. But the contrary position still holds strong. My cousin is fond of repeating a well-worn saying, “It took a guy with a college degree to screw this up and a guy with a high school degree to fix it.”

Resonant with both of these conflicts are, of course, the conflicts of social class; for level and kind of education (and the kind of work that education makes possible) is a significant class marker. My cousin’s comment cuts to the core here: A valuing of hands-on versus schoolhouse knowledge. And the counterforce is familiar to all of us, the bias against those who work with their hands as ignorant and illiterate – a bias that goes back to the early days of the Republic.

The kinds of entertainment one chooses; one’s tastes, from liquor to wall hangings; one’s speech patterns and conversational style all filter in and out of these conflicts – and for all involved are a rich source of lampoon and criticism. It’s pretty deadly when Barack Obama’s answers to questions are labeled “professorial.” The implication is that he’s aloof, an elitist, out of touch with the common Joe.

It is this whole long multi-layered cultural history that is invoked when, in St. Paul or on the campaign trail, members of the McCain entourage say “Harvard” or “east coast” or in some way refer to being in school rather than out in the real world.

John Kerry got a dose of this treatment, but where Obama is concerned, there is one other factor, of course, and that is race. Conservatives get furious when race is brought up in the absence of explicit racist references. But let’s consider the situation for a moment. By labeling Obama an elitist or haughty and out of touch (the “professor” reference), you don’t have to say a thing that’s racist to spark in some people the sense that the young Obama rose above his station, or was/is too big for his britches (I actually heard a reporter on my local NPR station say this).

Another variation here is that, yes, it is quite an achievement, but you got there because of the color of your skin – or, conversely, if you got there, it must not be that big of an achievement after all. (As an e-mail rushing around the Internet suggests, if a poor white boy had a similar educational trajectory, he’d be hailed as a huge American success story by the Right.)



But, of course, these conflicts, though effectively invoked in certain political contexts, are not at all as neat and dichotomous as I’ve sketched them. And here the case of Obama and Harvard takes another turn in my mind.

There has always been interplay between rural and urban, east-coast and heartland. East-coasters have traveled west and settled, and sons and daughters of the heartland have traveled east to study, yet returned home to teach, or practice law or medicine, or set up shop. As Land-Grant Colleges emerged, they brought both faculty and eastern (not to mention European) traditions westward. Shakespeare was as popular on the frontier as in the city. Progressive political and labor movements emerged in both urban and rural landscapes and in some cases influenced each other.

As for the working class, it’s hard to define in the United States, and there is a good deal of confusion about who is working class. Working-class folk do not at all have a monolithic culture, and, for that fact, there are all sorts of working classes, variable by region, race and ethnicity, recency of immigration, and so on. Beliefs, values, tastes vary widely. My Uncle Frank, a railroad machinist, would quote Longfellow in his letters.

Though there is variation to be sure in the embrace of education – and gender and generation play in here – many working-class families would consider it a dream come true to see their children take the path that took Barack Obama to Harvard. I think about my Uncle Joe, a guy with a 9th grade education who was proud that his work at General Motors enabled him to send all three of his kids to college.

Among many of the working class people I grew up with and have gotten to know as an adult, there is a deep respect for knowledge, know-how, for expertise. There’s no faking it with machinery, or building a cabinet, or handling a rush in a restaurant. And when professional help is needed, it’s resources not inclination that keep the people I know from the Cleveland Clinic or the Ivy League lawyer.

I don’t want to deny the tensions around hands-on vs. school knowledge, but in my experience, school knowledge, especially as we move evermore toward complex technologies, is respected and desired. The problem is more in the bearing of the person who embodies that knowledge. Did that formal education bring with it condescension, arrogance, aloofness?


A Way Out

But these more blurred and hybrid realities don’t have the emotional tug of the simpler characterizations. In the heat of the political moment, the old-fashioned tensions can have rhetorical power.
And part of me understands it.

There are a number of legitimate criticisms of knowledge gained through formal education and the resulting professional standing and expertise it confers. Such knowledge can be abstract, removed from on-the-ground empirical reality. It can be exclusionary. It can be used to great harm – significantly one of the documentaries on Enron is called “The Smartest Guys in the Room.”

These are some of the reasons that there is resentment and suspicion toward such knowledge. But the conservative attack on knowledge over the last eight years does not emerge from such concerns, and conservatives have not advocated for, say, deep experiential knowledge as a hedge against bookishness.

Rather, as has been documented repeatedly, we’ve had the substitution of loyalty for expertise (from FEMA to the Department of Justice), feeling for rationality (our president could get the measure of Vladimir Putin’s soul by looking into his eyes), and the cherry-picking rather than analysis of evidence. I realize that all this was done to maintain power and bestow privilege, but it ironically runs contrary to fundamental conservative principles that elevate traditional education, scientific inquiry, rationality over feeling. There are people within the conservative fold who are deeply worried about all of this, but their voices don’t often make it onto the six o’clock news.
On a personal level, the current shredding of knowledge bothers me greatly, and I feel despair over the complex cultural history that is so easily evoked to such troubling political ends.

I certainly understand the suspicions about advanced formal education. To this day, I feel uncomfortable in some academic settings, the modes of interaction, the posturing, the retreat into pedantry. And growing up I’ve certainly experienced and looked on as others suffered indignities from professional people.

But knowledge gained in school eventually became a source of pleasure and competence for me, enabled me to craft and identity and career, and gave me a set of tools to help my parents and others navigate the professional sphere.


Cultural Strategies

So I feel compelled to separate out, to understand the cultural chords that get played when formal knowledge – like the study of constitutional law – gets trivialized in the political moment.

As I see it, there are at least three ways to respond in the moment. And though I frame these strategies in the political context of this essay, they might also have educational and, more broadly, civic uses as I/we try to make our way into and through this cultural mess that we’re in.

Obama, at various points, has used each of these strategies…though not as much as he could.

1) Confront the appeal to cultural rifts head-on for the cynical move that it is. In a nutshell: “You’re trying to get rural America at the throat of urban America, and people who went to school in Nebraska fighting with those who went to school on the east coast, and folks who listen to country music bickering with fans of hip-hop – but it won’t work. Don’t insult us. People have much, much bigger things to worry about. And those are…”

2) Offer a different story, a counter-narrative. Recast the place of learning and education in people’s lives, flipping the script from elitism to access. Obama does this richly in a speech attached to his website on education. The speech is entitled “Reclaiming the American Dream”, and it’s labeled as a speech on college affordability. Before we get to his proposals to make college more available, though, he takes us through the lives of people as the local plant is closing, as they try to figure out how to make ends meet, as they worry about their kids’ future. This is the context in which he discusses college. He doesn’t have to say a word about the cultural tensions surrounding higher education; he offers instead a story of access and opportunity.

3) A third way is to wade into the cultural tensions and – as I briefly do in the second section of this entry – try to complicate them, find the places of intersection or common ground. The places where city meets country or class interests intersect. Let’s even consider for a moment the deadly label “professorial.” When it’s used in the negative (as it always is with Obama), it implies aloofness, too much attention to detail, and the like. But it can also suggest that you’ve studied something, know a hell of a lot about it, and want to think carefully before rushing to action. In a lot of contexts, these are admirable qualities – and most people would respond to them. You’d want such a person treating your child if she had a chronic illness or if you were seeking advice on expanding your business. And people who are considered good at their work, regardless of the kind of work, share these qualities as well: from the master cabinetmaker to the seasoned mediator.

It is this last strategy that leads me to a provisional conclusion for this long entry...a conclusion and an opening up.

I have been concerned for a long time – and it intensified while writing The Mind at Work–with the narrow way we define intelligence and then judge each other by those definitions. And about the ways we use knowledge as a cultural weapon, as a way to shut down rather than open up another person’s intellectual development.

Think of what it could mean for our civic life if we held a broader–and more accurate–understanding of intelligence, of the wide range of ways people gain and apply knowledge, solve problems, think their way through their daily lives.

Education begins with finding common cognitive ground. Could some dimension of politics do the same?


  1. Questioning the political discourse and the emotional appeal of how people like Palin represent the every day people and women is so necessary right now. I appreciate your analysis of how embodied knowledge is knowledge and working people are intelligent AND skilled. As someone from working class roots, I now often feel deeply ambivalent in academic settings that I enter. I know my family may not get why I have been in school so long and their discomfort with what I study is shown in how they never ask about it. Thanks for all your wonderful writing. We need more of it.

  2. I wonder how the McCain camp can call Barack an elitist. McCain got into the Naval Academy because of his father's name. He made low-average grades, but was allowed to be a fighter pilot only because of his father's name. Do you know how many houses you own. I do. McCain doesn't. Barack graduted from Harvard, and instead of taking big money working for a huge law firm after he graduated, he decided to be a community organizer in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago. Who is the real elitist in this race?

  3. Politicians try to urge us to think as they do. People like Marc Morano, writing for Inhoffe, attempt to shape discourse in their own favor. That particular effort is in part an homage to big tobacco's doubt campaign. It underscores a desperate need for critical thinking. An education doesn't inoculate one against making stupid choices.

    One of the funny things about intelligence is that it is so easily impaired by emotional attachment. Perhaps this is why it is so important for science to preserve the cultural habit of intellectual challenge.

    Today we have "think tanks" masquerading as academic institutions by deliberately adorning themselves with cultural trappings such as language and degree-holding personnel. Unfortunately what they don't have is the supporting culture that maintains honesty.

    I suppose we could take heart in the fact that it isn't an American problem. Just look at the educational achievements of the 9-11 terrorists.

  4. Don't yo think that educated adults could do better than call each other names and attempt to degrade one another? Our children are learning this is approved behavior since the media consistently makes comments. Our children are ripe for knowledge and will get it however is possible. When are the politicians and leaders of our country going to learn that their negative comments are infiltrating our childrens minds? We all have many things in common that we can focus all this negative energy on and make United States a great country. Most adults understand this, why can't our presidential candidates understand?

  5. Education is necessary to make a democratic social order a fact.

    “We are free not because of what we statically are, but inasfar
    as we are becoming different from what we gave been”
    -Dewey 1928

    “America I have never been more hopeful,” President Elect Obama said during his acceptance speech. “This makes our family possible,” I said to my partner. While no laws changed, it was a symbolic blow to white supremacy. “My parents still tell me it’s not possible, a Black man to be elected president,” he responded. The election of the first African American president is an emotional salve soothing so many disappointments. My partner spent the day canvassing against California Proposition 8 that bans same-sex marriage, discussing with moralizing pro-eight people, “My girlfriend is white, I’m Black, people today would not want me to marry my girlfriend, but why can’t another person marry the love of their life too?” Proposition 8 passed, banning same-sex marriage and I am reminded that we have a long road ahead and a long history of division with which to reconcile. But finally there seems to be a connection with that history. The old hymn, Let the Circle be Unbroken, rings true today. As I was walking a precinct in East Los Angeles with a parent, teacher, and student advocacy organization I met an elderly Latino man who was 21 years old during the election of Fanklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. He was walking to the polling place; his back was straight and his cane in hand. He stopped to tell me that he would be voting for Obama because he reminded him so much of FDR and the economic crisis reminds him so much of the great depression. Is this a completed circle? The public pedagogy of the future administration, schools, and the grassroots organizations—like the ones that supported my precinct walking and my partner’s no on eight campaigning—must rise to the occasion. We are in a historic moment, much like when we as teachers get a challenging class excited about figurative language, or any seemingly distant subject from the hearts and minds of our students, we have an opening and we must act. We must prepare the meaningful lessons and engage in the difficult discussions about discrimination and democracy, about hatred and hope. This must remain an historical moment; with a full acknowledgment of the challenges and opportunities we encountered and embrace the constraints and possibilities that we now face together as a nation. As teachers we must embrace our roles as public intellectuals. The point of education according to John Dewey is a “continuous reconstruction of experience” and we find ourselves questioning the truths of our experience today on the wake of the election (1916). As Americans we are a “a collection of interacting parts” where my fate is connected to yours through, “a union of it’s distributive constituents”(Dewey 1927). Dewey says schools are not the builders of a new social order, but “schools should consciously be partners in the construction of a changed society” (1934). Teachers in alliance with the community must seize this moment to “develop the character, skill and intelligence that are necessary to make a democratic social order a fact” (Dewey 1935).