The City of New York has learned a great deal about Dennis Walcott over the past few weeks. We learned that Walcott wants to ban teachers from friending students on Facebook, and probably wants to ban teachers from using Facebook altogether. Now, we learn that Walcott’s Department of Education wants test makers to avoid 50 topics that might cause students mental duress.
Dinosaurs made the list, since they imply evolution and cause an existential crisis with creationists. Halloween might cause students to worship statues. Junk food might make students think they are unhealthy. Homelessness and poverty might remind students that they might be homeless and poor, especially if they are homeless and poor.
To say most of the topics on this list are absurd would be an understatement. It reminds me of Diane Ravitch’s book The Language Police, where she describes how textbook and testing companies bend over backwards to mollify every special interest group that might have the clout to sue them.
Banning these topics from standardized exams has far-reaching implications.
Teachers in New York know that a good part of their evaluations will rely upon standardized exam scores. This means that a great deal of class time will be spent on test prep. That means that a great deal of class time will not be spent covering any of these topics. While banning these words do not directly impact the curriculum, it is obvious that they will impact it nonetheless.
The most unfortunate, yet not surprising, proscription is the one against poverty. So many NYC public school students are poor that banning any mention of poverty is tantamount to educational malpractice. If education does not help a student take stock of the world in which they live, as well as their place in that world, then it is worse than useless. There can be no better way to discount a child’s feelings than to make completely invisible the conditions that shape their life.
As I have said before, if students are not encouraged to think and take stock of their conditions, then they surely will not have the ability to overturn them.
Although this list of banned topics was probably not the sole product of Dennis Walcott, he has defended them nonetheless. Coming on the heels of his stance on teachers on Facebook, it paints a picture of Walcott’s character.
Dennis Walcott has the values of a Puritanical schoolmarm straight out of the Victorian Era. He has constantly exhorted teachers to hold themselves to an impossible moral standard. His words are spoken with tightened lips and his proscriptions are as severe as Oliver Cromwell himself. The Panel of Educational Policy meetings over which he regularly presides considers no dissenting viewpoints. If teachers, parents and students conduct a people’s mic check, he merely stands there stone-faced with folded arms. If the people are too loud, he merely moves the meeting to a private room or adjourns until a time when most people are asleep.
Walcott is a man thoroughly convinced of his own righteousness. He is the worst type of human being: the type that has ascended the ranks of power with a clear conscience. He takes his position as proof of the righteousness of his cause.
Someone with this type of rigid, crusading mentality is not the type of person you want running an education system, let alone the largest education system in the country. While he is not as slimy as Joel Klein or as embarrassing as Cathie Black, he is every bit as repressive as either of them. While true learning is a vast messy field of contradiction, Walcott’s world is one of small, neat dogmas. He suffers no debate, entertains no doubts and presses forward as inexorable and unreflective as Torquemada during the Inquisition.
This is exactly the type of person the corporate reformers want running school systems. He has thoroughly tyrannized himself into following a neat authoritarian mindset. He sets the example, as well as the policies, that promise to tyrannize the generations of tomorrow.
The cold wind that blows through the soul of Dennis Walcott is the cold wind of a bleak future for all of us.