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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Monday, September 8, 2008

Politics as Teaching: The Case of Palin, Obama, and Community Organizing

Both Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin had great fun – and made political hay – last week by ridiculing Barack Obama’s work as a community organizer. They did so by ridiculing community organizing itself. Campaigning in Pennsylvania, Obama noted that such work matters to the people whose lives are affected by it. Governor Palin continued the ridicule as she hit the campaign trail.

I want to use this example of political rhetoric to raise an issue that’s been much on my mind these days (and that comes up in my entry a few weeks back, “Work, Intelligence, and the Blue-Collar Vote”): The need to think about political speech as an occasion to educate. Bill Clinton is masterful at doing this, and it characterizes some of our country’s best political oratory.

It is common wisdom among political commentators that campaigns are run and won on emotion and symbolism much more so than on reason, logic, and policy analysis.

True enough. We see it big time in both parties.

But in accepting this unfortunate fact, we also sustain it. Our politicians miss untold opportunities to teach as well as to move and inspire – and as I write this I catch myself at an implied separation, for good instruction can also inspire. And facts can stir emotion, for example a statistic on the number of children in the United States who live in poverty.

So let’s return to that jab at community organizing. Giuliani and Palin gave rise to an opportunity for the Obama camp (although I don’t think they did this) to point out quickly, plainly that a number of rights and benefits that protect working people have come from organizing efforts; that Christians of many stripes have been integral to them; that organizing is as American as apple pie; that, as my friend Fred Erickson pointed out in a letter he wrote to Governor Palin, the Governor’s very civic life and political career would have been impossible without the organizing efforts of feminists three or four generations ago. A statement like this would counter as well as instruct, creating a public teachable moment.

So much of our political discourse is so awful that it’s hard to find room in it for civic pedagogy. But, and I know this smacks of innocence, I do believe in a variation of “if you build it, they will come.” Americans respond powerfully to red-meat politics, but it is also true that once the balloons drop and the pulse returns to normal, people want a few facts, want to be spoken to as though they have brains in their heads, want to cut the bullshit.

The writers of the federal No Child Left Behind Act decry what they call “the soft bigotry of low expectations” about the intellectual capacity of poor children. Wouldn’t it be something if our political speechmakers began raising their expectations for the rest of us?


  1. I kept nodding my head as I read this Mike...I'm glad and not surprised to know Fred wrote a letter in response!! :)
    Also, as I listen to the speeches...I often wonder what impressions of the American public do the speechwriters of the republican camp hold?

  2. Mike, this needs to go to the Obama campaign (I'm a choir that likes to be preached to, but they need to pick this up and do it!)

  3. Mike, once again, an insightful post. I agree with Kate, this should go to the Obama campaign. Obama's reaction seems to be restraint and I understand not wanting to dish it back in a dirty campaign, but we do need to hear the facts spoken succinctly. And the facts do speak oh so loudly.
    Check out this blog I found about just this topic:

  4. Today, listening to NPR, a focus group on voters in York, PA, someone said there was just something about Obama she didn't trust. another person said I've yet to hear what a community organizer actually does. Clearly, it is a ripe moment to teach. But the deep divisions of race, racism continue to play into this in ways that we probably do not understand and may defy any instruction Obama could provide. I think he should try. But when the same mistrusting voter says Obama has to be Muslim and goes on to say nonsensically that once a Muslim, he could not stop being one unless dead or killed, we see that there are some issues for which no amount of instruction will work in this moment in history. And to top it all of this continued prime time coverage on mainstream news.

  5. In March 2004 I had the honor of being one of the lesser organizers of a great event on our campus--a joint conference between law and education commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Our wonderful Chancellor at that time, Nancy Cantor (now President at Syracuse) bank-rolled a year of such events, leading, I think, to the most sweeping campus effort to commemorate Brown that year. Among the notable speakers--Charles Oglesbee, Hon. Judge Boyce Martin, John Hope Franklin, Geneva Smitherman, for starters--was a state senator running for the Illinois U.S. Senate seat whose name I was just starting to see on signs in my neighborhood: Barack Obama. I'd seen those signs just the week before and thought, wow, with a name like that, he'll never win. After I heard Obama's speech I ran home, a new spring in my step, and wrote the campaign that I'd be happy to do what I could to help. He needed little help winning that seat (against the imploding Jack Ryan and afterwards the already imploded Alan Keyes), and I forgot about his speech until he made his now famous DNC speech in 2004. Sometime after he declared his run for office I looked up my notes to the talk he gave about Brown to a room of at most 50 people, because I felt in all the "Yes we cans" (much as I love them), I'd lost what had first drawn me to the candidate. In the Brown speech, he laid out a plan for fulfilling the promise of Brown which involved a new jurisprudence, a political agenda, and, of course, the need for communities to do their part. No one prong of this three-pronged agenda could stand on its own. When asked by James Anderson what he would do about the appalling conditions of inner city Chicago schools, Obama showed his pragmatic side, offering that arguments for funding equalization hadn't worked; the best way to deliver funding to those schools was to argue for all schools to get more funding. I felt a lot smarter after that talk, even if I didn't agree with everything, and I also felt usefully that I had found a candidate much smarter than I was. I have certainly written the campaign with my two cents now and again when I've panicked--and the last two weeks have been full of panic. But I won't anymore. Somehow, I think this will all work out. And I still think he's smarter than I am.

  6. Read this after reading Seth Godin's blog for the day. In its entirety it reads:

    It's easy to be against something that you're afraid of. And it's easy to be afraid of something that you don't understand.

  7. This entry is quite inspiring as it addresses a concern for teaching moments that have the potential to occur in and throughout political campaigns (specifically Palin and Obama). I had never before considered political rhetoric to be a means of education, but Mike has open my eyes. I agree that politicians ought to speak to the public in a more meaningful and empowering way. As political speeches are campaigns meant to persuade emotion rather than intellect, it’s no wonder politicians aren’t providing the facts the public with important facts. For politicians who expect to cultivate a better, more educated America…who have lead us to believe that they have the peoples’ best interest in mind…why aren’t they talking to us in more evocative ways?