The Magazine

'Why Can't a Girl Have a Penis?'

and other major issues in educational research.

May 18, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 33 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Sandlin's interview questions, laminated in triple-clad academic jargon, had evidently flummoxed Reverend Billy. "Why don't you professors stop leaning further and further into your private world?" he had complained in an email to Sandlin. Her explication of the preacher's message, aided by her coresearcher, Jake Burdick, included the following words and phrases: "bounded space," "reinscribe," "alterity," "counter-hegemonic," "imperialistic legacy," "Euro-Western perspective," "polymodal discourse," "the politics of representation," "reflexivity of discomfort," "legitimization," "colonized," "transgressive," and "the dialogic process of being human." I knew how Reverend Billy felt.

More papers on the theme of public pedagogy and social action followed. In one, titled "Youth Talks Back," a rainbow wristband-wearing Sharon Chappell of Arizona State described a gay-teen theater project titled "Encounters in/through the Body" and a project titled "In My Hood," in which black teens in East Palo Alto, California, painted anti-gentrification murals on the walls of a community center. Brian Schultz of Northeastern Illinois University then denounced No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that limits federal funds to schools whose students don't achieve desired scores on standardized tests. "We don't allow a lot of creativity in classrooms," Schultz lamented, opining that in a truly creative setting, "the participants would decide what's appropriate for them to learn."

Finally Ayers rose to speak--delivering an impromptu-sounding ramble that had little to do with murals or creativity in classrooms. He named his two heroes: "Martin Luther King and Harvey Milk." He voiced dialectical doubts: "Multicultural education started in insurgency against pedagogical racism," he declared. "Then it became the new norm. We have to ask: What are the dogmas that we're creating now?"

On that last point I was in hearty agreement. I was starting to warm up to Ayers when he abruptly concluded, "Ken Klein and Rush Limbaugh are brilliant public pedagogues, except that they inspire fear and acquiescence." The reference to Limbaugh I got--but Ken Klein? Who he? I googled Klein's name a few days after the meeting and came across a onetime Houston Oilers defensive back who had converted from Judaism to Christianity in 1969 and now lives in Oregon, where he produces DVDs about biblical prophecies. Ayers did not reply to my email inquiring about the exact identity of his own Ken Klein, but it said something telling about Ayers's mind that he apparently conflated an obscure maker of Christian videos with the most popular radio talk-show host in America.

Okay, maybe "Public Pedagogy and Social Action" was a radical outlier among the hundreds of sessions offered at the AERA meeting. Surely the Ayers session's combination of impenetrable poststructuralist cultural critique, back-to-the-Sixties--or maybe the Thirties--social protest (murals, yet!), and radical theories of progressive education is not representative of how most ed schools teach teachers how to teach. Yet there was plenty of evidence that it was.

During my four days at the AERA meeting, I vainly searched for a single session whose panelists expressed some dissent from the baseline principle of progressive education: that teachers shouldn't directly impart information to their students but instead function as "guides," gently coaching them to "construct" their own knowledge about the subject at hand out of what they already know or don't know.