As Vox's Libby Nelson writes, the "undeniably upsetting" video of a Success Academy charter school teacher berating first graders is "the latest exhibit in a long-running debate about Success Academy and similar 'no excuses' charter schools." Nelson is correct in explaining that "it's part of a broader division within the Democratic Party on education."
The video, however, is about much, much more. It raises basic questions about the society we want to leave for the next generations. I hope every parent with children old enough to watch the video will use it as an opportunity to discuss some of the most fundamental issues that we human beings must tackle.
My father and I had such a conversation in the 1950s after the Boston Red Sox star, Jimmy Piersall, had a televised breakdown in Yankee Stadium in the wake of his father's death. As was explained in the book and the movie, Fear Strikes Out, Piersall was pushed over the edge by his father (played by Karl Malden in the film) who combined "the ignorant dominance of a bitter man with the occasional tenderness of a parent who genuinely loves his only son." The baseball star (played by Anthony Perkins) carried "the weight of the paternal ambition" that "is felt by the nerve-racked observer to the point where it is recognizable that the young man must go mad."
As my dad explained, many of my friends had parents who endured great suffering. Fathers who survived the Great Depression, and combat in World War II and Korea carried a heavy load, and sometimes dumped that stress on kids. Too often, they sought to "live through their children."
Sadly, parents may put too much pressure on their kids, forcing them to grow up too quickly. But, with the post-war economic boom, many adults shielded my generation from such worries until we were old enough to tackle adult challenges. The "Baby Boomers" were more likely to be granted the buffer zones that children deserve, as well as opportunities and freedom beyond that which was enjoyed by our predecessors. My generation, we were told, should not be limited by the past. The fears of our fathers should not define our lives. We should express ourselves, create, explore, and take full advantage of our unprecedented opportunities.
Like so many other members of our fortunate generation, when I got old enough to understand, I was encouraged to be "inner directed," to maintain an "internal locus of control," as opposed to an "outer directed" person who just followed orders. Our job was to "learn how to learn," and to practice "creative insubordination." My friends who were more competitive were free commit to meeting objective metrics (like higher batting averages or yardage gained on the football field), to push themselves to the limit and/or outperform others. We who preferred to "go with the flow" were empowered to do that also. Moreover, we almost always had multiple "second chances," so we could learn from our mistakes.
After Sputnik, some worried adults condemned Baby Boomers as soft, and sought to impose more discipline, even using standardized testing to raise the bar for elementary students. I distinctly remember my feelings of anxiety when bubble-in accountability was briefly imposed on us. On the whole, however, the rising economic tide raised all boats and my generation was amazingly fortunate.
As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the message is that we must start early and toughen ourselves up for the global economic battleground. Vox's Nelson notes that Success Academy teachers work in "a competitive environment with high expectations, and they work 10- to 12-hour days, which can contribute to burnout and frustration." I would add that non-unionized charter teachers aren't they only workers who are overburdened. As corporate power grows and unions decline, more of the 99% have to struggle harder to merely keep their heads above the water. More and more fear is striking out towards all employees.
I can understand the anxiety which has come from the shrinking middle class, the decline of wages, the increase in inequality and a world where a single youthful error can doom a teenager. But, it is wrong for Americans to succumb to our fears as is often done in the face of economic stagnation. And, this I can't comprehend: How could we see the existence of "No Excuses" schools in the 21st century as anything but a tragedy?
I have no doubt that some students, who have the personality for structured and/or competitive behavior, will become more productive due to such a pedagogy. Even a brutal "No Excuses" classroom can be better than the chaos and violence which often characterizes the highest-challenge schools. But, what parent would want their own children to attend such schools? Would any parent or student -- who had a real choice in terms of learning environments -- settle for a Success Academy school? Above all, why would any person even think about imposing that regimen on other peoples' children, as they do when they engage in the mass charterization of urban schools?
The first question raised by that disgusting video should be why in a democracy would the "No Excuses" ideology be imposed on children? Why commit so fully to grinding children into square and round pegs for square and round holes? Do we really have no alternative to a behaviorist system where students' eyes must always track the speaker, as kids sit with their hands folded and where deviation from the script results in zero-tolerance discipline?
Second, is it not shameful that corporate reformers believe that they can impose a training regime on poor children of color that they would never dump on their own children? Do they really believe that America is completely incapable of devising humane and respectful methods for educating poor children?
That raises the third and, perhaps, most important question. Have we lowered our horizons to the point where we replace engaging teaching and learning with indoctrination? If so, how can we hope to flourish in the 21st century?
And that brings me back to Libby Nelson's questions. As an Obama supporter, I'm terribly saddened that he and too many other Democrats have deferred to the elites who treat other peoples' children in such a way. It seems like we Democrats have been so afraid of our shadows that we haven't been embarrassed by our sacrificing of our principles. The biggest questions, however, transcend electoral politics, education policy, and even our willingness to accept "Neo-Plessyism" in order to increase education "outputs." The issue is what vision, what dream, or what lack of a dream do we want for our children and grandchildren?