The Magazine

Close Encounters with the Blob

The educrats are still going strong.

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By DAVID SKINNER
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Chicago

The American Educational Research Association's annual conference saw more than 15,700 attendees two weeks ago in Chicago. These are the people whom Bill Bennett, as secretary of education, affectionately labeled The Blob--ed school professors, district officials, principals, teachers, teachers-in-training, graduate students, and education researchers.

Granted, sitting in a hotel basement and telling a dozen tired-looking people what you learned by interviewing a handful of third graders about their self-esteem hardly seems like a solid foundation for a career in research. But here at AERA, data has been defined down. Quaint little personal stories are offered in the same spirit as laboratory findings.

Consider the sixth presentation of the "Social Identity and Race as Context and Complexity for Teacher Education" session. Researcher Terri L. Rodriguez of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, quoted a young Latina woman named Patricia as saying, "I always feel everybody else is blue-colored pencils," while she, Patricia, is "a red-colored pencil." The red-colored heart of Patricia's story was an incident involving her blouse, a "peasant top" that she sometimes wore while teaching. The principal thought the blouse inappropriate and told her so, repeatedly, since Patricia continued to wear it to work. This led to negative feelings on Patricia's part. Farnsworth said it was not her intention to assess blame, but she called the incident "tragic" and said the principal's reaction was certainly "grounded in racialized stereotypes" that unfortunately exercise "powerful domination and control" over the ethnic-gender discourse in teacher education.

In the after-discussion, an instructor of teachers-in-training said that he agreed that one's authentic identity should not be snuffed out for the sake of appeasing an administrator. But, he wondered, wasn't it sometimes the case that what a young teacher considered essential to his or her identity was not, well, appropriate for the classroom? He quoted one of his soon-to-be-teachers saying, "I'm ghetto, so I have to be ghetto" in the classroom. Furrowed brows all around. Then a woman identifying herself as a principal spoke up and said that, sometimes, you just "have to colonize yourself."

This jargon of postmodernism and international relations was widely deployed to describe the ABCs of American education. Todd Dixon, a seventh-grade teacher presenting "a sociocultural perspective on why boys quit reading" found that little boys "receive hegemonic messages." He then showed graphs correlating the levels of frustration expressed by lower-grade children with how they rank their own reading skills. Among the six kids he'd interviewed--that's right, six--those who found reading frustrating were likely to think poorly of their own reading skills.

Dixon was the student of session chair Mark B. Tappan of Colby College. And once Prof. Tappan presented, it became clear where the young scholar had picked up his research know-how. Tappan, to discuss "Media, Masculinity, and the 'Boy Crisis,'" showed a series of movie clips for the audience to see what terrible messages are out there about being young and male. One was from the 1999 movie Varsity Blues, in which a coldhearted coach, played by Jon Voight, tells one of his players to stop complaining about an injury. In another, from the 1986 movie Stand by Me, a macho teenager played by Kiefer Sutherland picks on poor little River Phoenix. Somehow Tappan seemed to have missed the import of both scenes: The audience's sympathies are intended to be with the victims.

Tappan closed by saying, "We have to have an honest conversation about male privilege." To which I thought: Fair enough, but first can we have an honest conversation about movies?

Inspired by the experts around me, I conducted my own research project. The findings: Being a presenter at AERA correlated highly with negative feelings about President Bush and the American political system. The data: This is what I perceived, felt even.

There was the principal, Rita Tenorio of La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee, who talked about "resisting" the federal No Child Left Behind Act--this at a panel on "the Tyranny of Standardization," where another presenter talked of the warm feelings he got that morning driving into Chicago as he passed a billboard asking President Bush how many Americans he had killed today. There was the researcher on a panel about homework, who said "our schools seem better suited to a totalitarian regime." And then there was Session 31.078, for me personally (though this time I won't call it data), the highlight of two and a half days at the conference: "Tyranny of Neoliberalism on Education." For this I skipped Session 31.056: "'Critical' Teacher Education With an Attitude," and boy was it worth it.

The first paper was called, enticingly, "Subtle Tortures of the Neoliberal Age." It was about public schooling in Chile. The author, Jill Andrea Pinkney Pastrana of the University of Wisconsin, said that after General Pinochet came to power through a military coup, he jailed dissidents and replaced university heads with army buddies. Then he decentralized the public schools and refocused curricula on measurable results. Milton Friedman visited Chile, freedom steadily disappeared, but the free market thrived, and so on. "Today in the United States," she said, "we're putting the exact same reforms in place." Okay, maybe "subtlety" wasn't her strong suit.

"I've got 14 minutes to change the world," said the second speaker, Dave Hill, who seemed not much interested in education, and who presented not one iota of research, not even a movie clip. Fourteen minutes was not enough, so please "Google me," he said, under "Dave Hill, Marxist." Hill's basic point: Class oppression is the granddaddy of all the other forms of oppression.

But this wasn't the best part: That came when discussant Kenneth J. Saltman of DePaul University played the postmodernist to Hill's Marxist. Saltman asked each presenter a single question, but then held forth at length on what a crazy thing it was to be a Marxist in this day and age, given Marxism's failure to take culture seriously, its self-conscious vanguardism, its history of misogyny, and a dozen other things (but not Marxism's culpability in the 20th-century's staggering ideological death toll). Hill tried to make nice in his response, while Saltman stood behind him shaking his head No, no, no, like a petulant schoolchild, at everything the Marxist said.

Of course, some sessions at AERA were quite serious. Which means I've committed significant selection bias in my own research. I am also guilty of undercounting, as I was not able to attend all the sessions that, from their descriptions in the program, begged for public ridicule. I wasn't even able to drop by the presentation entitled "'Bitch Barbies Love Bully Boys': Transgressive Femininities and Gender Hierarchies in Schools" or the one devoted to "Masculine Generic Animals in a First-Grade Science Classroom." After a couple of days, this masculine animal had already endured all the "science" he could stand.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.