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.
If we’ve ever needed clarity of
thought, and a respect for knowledge, and an ethical commitment to
understanding history and its consequences—if we’ve ever needed these virtues,
we need them now. Two historians of education whose work embodies intellectual
rigor and moral sensibility died before the 2016 presidential election, David
Tyack in October, 2016 and Michael Katz several years earlier in August, 2014.
David would be appalled at the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of
Education, and Michael, who wrote brilliantly on urban history and on poverty
as well as on education, would have observed with horror the prospect of
rolling back protections for the vulnerable to pre-FDR levels. And both would
have much to say about a looming Second Gilded Age. As we prepare for the next
few years, it could help us to keep these historians’ books close at hand.
The Undeserving Poor [I wrote] is not so much a history of poverty in the
United States as a history of ideas about poverty, and the ideas are complex
and, for the most part, troubling. I began to understand how it is that poor
people are so often categorized and characterized in such one-dimensional and
insidious ways: as shirkers, or passive, or morally defective, or stupid—as
people responsible for their poverty because of some damning personal or
cultural quality. I also began to understand the reasons behind various
interventions aimed at poverty—or refusals to intervene. I had never read a
book quite like this, one that demonstrated just how much the ideas and language
in the air matter in the construction of public policy.
I read the first edition of The
Undeserving Poor in the early 1990s and wrote Michael Katz a long fan
letter that sparked a lasting friendship. My introduction to David Tyack began
in an even more personal way.
Though my first year of college was
pretty bumpy, I eventually found my way with the help of some exceptional
teachers, and was fortunate to be in the running for a fellowship awarded by a
national foundation. The process involved an interview, which was scheduled in
a hotel in downtown Los Angeles, several bus transfers from my home. I was
green as chlorophyll, and this world of high-powered academics and high-stakes
interviews in hotels I had never seen from the inside was new territory for me.
To make matters worse, the buses were running late, so I showed up at my
interviewer’s door in a sweat and nervous. Thank God the interviewer was David
Tyack, then a young professor from Reed College. I didn’t know anything about
him, let alone about Reed College, but the guy couldn’t have been nicer. He put
me at ease immediately, and we talked for over an hour. (Anybody reading this
who knew David wouldn’t be at all surprised.) Years later when I was trying to
educate myself about the history of American education, I kept running across
this David Tyack fellow. The little educational history I had read up to that
point was mostly in textbooks, and, to be honest, was dry and antiseptic.
Tyack’s rendering was vivid, human, full of memorable characters and events,
richly interpreted. I wrote David Tyack
a letter reintroducing myself and the result was another long-lasting
David wrote or co-authored so many
fine articles and books, it’s hard to know where to begin. I’ll limit myself to
four: The One Best System: A History of Urban Education; Managers of
Virtue: Public School Leadership in America, 1820-1980 and Learning
Together: A History of Coeducation in American Public Schools (these last
two are co-authored with the political scientist Elisabeth Hansot, David’s wife);
and, with Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School
Reform. David took on big topics and always looked at the societal and
systems level of things in his analysis of schooling—though his analysis is
also laden with specific detail, with classroom scenes, with quotations from
administrators and teachers and parents, and with snapshots of communities. A
reader comes to understand both the particulars of time and place and the many
forces that influence those particulars. One of the many things I appreciate
about David’s work is his refusal to simplify. You come away from his books
with a rich and complex understanding of schooling. He avoids simplification in
the lessons we can take from history, though he very much wants us to benefit
from what history can teach us. “The way we understand [the] past,” he writes
in the Prologue to The One Best System, “profoundly shapes how we make
choices today.” He also deeply believed in the civic purpose of the public
school, its central place in a democracy. Yet, and here’s the nuance again, he
was clear-eyed as well about the ways our schools have historically contributed
Reading David Tyack and Michael Katz
provides models for interpreting complicated, even baffling, phenomena, models
as to how to systematically sort through a flurry of information, how to shape
a careful argument, how to weigh and honor evidence that contradicts that argument,
and, finally, how to do all this in the service of telling a story about the
world we live or have lived in, a story that is as intellectually and morally
legitimate as we can make it.
You can share this blog post on Facebook, Twitter, or Google Reader through the "share" function located at the top left-hand corner of the blog.
friends and readers have been wondering why I haven’t written anything about
the presidential election. The truth is I was numb with disbelief and anger and
felt as hopeless about politics as I can remember feeling. What else was there
to say other than the obvious: so much pain is going to be inflicted on so
many. I also couldn’t get out of my head the fact that if a relatively small
number of people in a handful of districts in a few states had voted or voted
differently, this catastrophe of suffering would have been averted.
of the things that has baffled me from the start of Donald Trump’s rise in the
GOP primary is how he could become the darling of so many White working class
voters. I know some segments of this population, particularly the people who
worked in heavy industry in the Northeast, many of them, like me, are the
children or the grandchildren of the Southern and Eastern European immigrants
who came to the United States in huge numbers between 1880 and 1920: Italian,
Polish, Slovakian. Many of my contemporaries’ children also worked in those
industries as they were in decline, or didn’t get to work in them at all, for
by the early 1980s (a decade before NAFTA), the processes of
deindustrialization had begun. If someone like Donald Trump, pampered and
entitled, a braggart, demanding and overbearing… if such a guy happened into
their midst—perhaps his limousine broke down en route from Northeast Ohio to
Western Pennsylvania—if such a thing happened, many of them would certainly not
embrace him, and could well dislike him, for he represents everything contrary
to the codes of behavior they grew up with, the kind of man they respect, the
way you talk about yourself in public.
know rural America much less well, though benefited tremendously when I stayed with
local teachers in small towns during my travels for Possible Lives. I
feel comfortable saying that the majority of the people I met in places like
Southwestern Montana or the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky would have the same
reaction to a Trump-like fellow descending into their midst. They would regard
him with suspicion.
what gives? Well, as numerous political commentators have noted, especially
after the election, Donald Trump was saying what a lot of people wanted to
hear. The messenger didn't matter.
said many things, most of them shockingly blatant—no subtle dog whistling,
except, perhaps, with anti-Semitism—assailing Mexicans, Muslims, undocumented
immigrants, women, you know the list. His pocketbook appeal to working-class
voters was his anti-trade message—which got intimately wrapped up in
anti-immigrant, nativist language—and his bold proclamations that he was going
to bring jobs back to economically devastated regions. And though it gets much
less mention than the White working class issue, we should not overlook the
fact that many in the traditional Republican base who are not blue-collar folk
at all—the banker next door to me, the flower shop owner in Omaha, the dentist
in Atlanta—voted in large numbers for Trump even though they might have done so
reluctantly. He would reverse the Obama policies they don’t like, cut taxes and
regulations, put conservatives on the Supreme Court. A lot of White Republican
women voted for Mr. Trump, defying predictions that his loutish behavior would
drive them into the Clinton camp, or at least lead them to not vote on the top
of the ticket. And, Good Lord, Evangelical Christians overwhelmingly supported
our Sinner-in-Chief, justifying their vote with talk of forgiveness and
redemption. Certainly on their minds were social issues and the Supreme Court.
While some high-profile Republicans—foreign policy experts or big players like
Meg Whitman—supported Clinton, most Republicans voted for Trump, with some
opting for third party candidates. What elites wanted in this election—elites
from the Never Trump GOP types to Katy Perry and LeBron James—was rejected in
an angry spasm by those who felt ignored one time too many. In the bitterest of
ironies, they voted for the most elite candidate of the lot, cocooned in a
world of chandeliers and self-absorption.
was the year of “change,” as we heard from pundits and from voters themselves.
Bernie Sanders’ remarkable campaign revealed the desire for change as did
Trump’s, though in quite different ways, their shared condemnation of trade
agreements not withstanding. For some in the Trump camp, change meant new
faces, not career politicians, and Trump’s gaffes and crude insults signaled
how different he was. What is important to note, though, is that the message of
change played side by side with Trump’s banner message to “Make America Great
Again,” a look backward. Change meant reversal. “Make America Great Again”
resonated deeply with many of Trump’s voters, and part of its effectiveness, I
think, was the fluidity of meanings it had. For the folks I know in the
Industrial Northeast, it meant a resurgence of some kind of manufacturing and a
better quality of life. For those threatened by the speed of change on social
issues, it meant a return to more traditional time—and for gun rights
advocates, a quieting of any talk of regulation. For those whose fears of the
foreign Other have been whipped up by
Right-wing media—even though, given where they live, many have never
encountered an African immigrant or Syrian refugee—for these folks Make America
Great Again meant a return to a time (that might be more imagined than real)
when everyone looked like them. And then there is the issue of race, which
blended, as it often does, with economic issues, with nativism, and with law
and order anxieties. Regardless of whatever progress we as a nation have made
on race relations and racial justice, race remains a massively cofounding issue
in our collective life. Trump’s campaign deserves national condemnation for the
many ways it manipulated race to its advantage, from Trump’s own birther ploy
to delegitimize our first Black president, to invitation of card-carrying White
supremacists into his campaign, to the many ways the campaign wove race
insidiously into other issues.
fact that during the campaign Mr. Trump and his circle were still accepted in
New York high society reveals the most craven hypocrisy among monied
elites—something that wouldn’t surprise my Rust Belt brethren. Charges of
racism were countered through a ritual of personal testimony: people came forth
to vouch that Mr. Trump or his advisors like Steve Bannon were not racist or Anti-Semitic
for they hire people of color and Jews. This testimony overrides the public use
of racist and Anti-Semitic language and symbolism for political gain. One of
Trump’s wealthy supporters excused all the racist pyrotechnics by saying it was
part of being a “disruptive” candidate! Disruption.
Silicon Valley business-speak as a synonym for bigotry.
true and terrible as all this is, however, I think we on the Left side of our
current nightmare need to be cautious about attributing any one motive to the
whole swath of Trump voters, for that broad brush stroke is not only inaccurate
but also will make it impossible to reach some segments of them in future
elections. All the motives I sketched above, and some I didn't have space for
(anti-government ideology, for example) came into play in this election. And I
haven’t mentioned candidate Clinton herself; the intensity of dislike for
her—cranked up by the Right’s Sleaze Machine—among some voters was motive
itself to vote third party or vote for Trump. Trump’s surprising victory was
the result of many forces in the United States coming together in the
proverbial perfect storm. But even though certain of these forces such as race
and nativism carried a lot of weight in this outcome, they do not explain every
vote for Donald Trump.
professional lifetime of talking to people and trying to understand how they
see the world cautions me to tease out the strands of motivation, to understand
how people think and what moves them to action. Let me give you one small
personal example, small, but one that reminded me of a powerful truth. During
George W. Bush’s first term as president, I was driving with several of my
relatives into Western Pennsylvania. My Uncle Joe was at the wheel. Joe
Meraglio quit school in the 9th grade but worked his way from the
assembly line at General Motors up to a supervisory position. He was a devout
Catholic and a very by-the-book kind of guy. Somehow we started talking about
immigration—Joe’s parents, my grandparents, both immigrated from Southern
Italy—and I said something to the effect that at least Bush was better on
immigration than some of his hardline Republican colleagues. Joe didn’t miss a
beat. He said he didn’t like George Bush because “he’s against a woman’s right
to choose.” What?! Joe Meraglio who never misses Sunday mass? Then, of course,
it hit me. Joe’s two daughters, both quick, strong women, probably influenced
him over the years. This was a reminder to me of a basic truth: People’s
political beliefs can be complex, ideologically blended, not fixed.
much talk now among Democratic leaders about the need to reach the White
working class, something Bernie Sanders’ candidacy made abundantly clear.
Democrats have been talking about this need for outreach since they began to
see their blue-collar base turn to Ronald Reagan. But they haven’t been very
successful—though, to be fair, President Obama proposed large infrastructure
projects but hit a stone wall in the Republican Congress. (With a GOP House and
Senate Trump will likely have an early success on this front.) Two quick
it will be difficult to reach some of these voters, for they are bitter and
distrustful and for decades have been dialed into Right-wing media and now the
Internet echo chamber, developing a coherent worldview that is hostile to many
Democratic causes. Also their economic interests, in some cases, have gotten
interwoven with other political and social issues: gun rights, immigration, abortion.
Winning them over will not be easy and might well involve more than a jobs
program. Still some of these folks did vote for Barack Obama, so the right kind
of economic and educational initiatives could gain traction.
Democrats need to find the right people to not only deliver the message but
also to learn the details of local conditions—and what is learned needs to have
a fast-track conduit to the top levels of the party. I remember the unease I
felt soon after the 2008 election when I saw either a photograph or video clip
of President Obama talking with what might have been his Council of Economic
Advisors, Austan Goolsbee and people like that. University of Chicago types.
Suits. Something visceral in me registered no.
These people are very smart but light years away from the guy on the forklift,
the woman in a cannery. Find at least a few advisors with that level of
economic expertise who also have an intellectual as well as emotional
connection to the warehouse and the factory floor. In a recent article in the New
Yorker the ever-astute George Packer interviews Larry Summers, Bill
Clinton’s final Secretary of the Treasury, who admits that in all his trips to
review antipoverty programs, he visited Latin America, Africa, and the poor
sections of large American cities but never “Akron, or Flint, or Toledo or
Youngstown.” An honest but stunning admission.
I’ve been arguing, people voted for Donald Trump for a wide range of reasons.
I’ve been interested in those voters who saw in him an understanding of their
hardship or at least an outsider who would shake things up in their favor: stop
jobs from disappearing, or help restore their blighted neighborhoods, or
control housing or food or health care costs. To comprehend this attachment to
Trump, I don’t think we can underestimate the power of celebrity—and even
though Donald Trump is unique in many ways, his rise to power should prompt a
deep reflection on something we are all susceptible to: the potent celebrity
culture of our time.
our time was primed for Trump. Politicians and politics have been degraded and
in the eyes of many hold no virtue. The press is in financial turmoil and has
been effectively maligned by the Right to such a degree that important
investigative stories on Trump’s business dealings, his foundation, and his
behavior were easily dismissed by Trump supporters and replaced with social
media postings, including, we are discovering, fake news. There are certainly
legitimate reasons to criticize our political class and the media—I have done
both—but when major institutions are undermined, the result is not necessarily
liberation, but chaos, generating the conditions for authoritarianism and demagoguery.
Enter Donald Trump, a fabrication of the media he now assaults.
is eerily instructive to watch the creation of the man. Take, for example, his
long involvement with WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment—he has been inducted
into the Celebrity Wing of the WWE Hall of Fame. Trump’s blustery rally persona
is not that far from trash-talking pro wrestlers hyping their next battle. Pro
wrestling is all theater, of course, and Trump spent years around it, playing
tough guy without having to take any of the actual life-shortening punishment
of WWE’s leaps, slams, and tumbles.
it was The Apprentice that catapulted Trump to big-time national
celebrity. There is much in the on-screen Trump that reflects the man
himself—the arrogance, the narcissism—but what overrides all else is assurance
and bone-crunching power. He can crush (“you’re fired”) and therefore he can
create. The Thor of business. What remains hidden behind the illusions of the
celebrity dream machine is Trump’s pathological dishonesty and long trail of
raw deals: The decades of bankruptcies, legal maneuvers, swindles, exploitation
of contractors and service providers, financial sleight of hand. When the
reality of all this was revealed through investigative journalism, it was
masterfully deflected by Trump and his campaign. The press was part of a
corrupt and rigged system. Facts don’t matter. Nor does history. You can
believe in this man. Welcome to electoral politics in the Age of the
You can share this blog post on Facebook, Twitter, or Google Reader through the "share" function located at the top left-hand corner of the blog.