Tag Archives: History

Racism, Racism Everywhere

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This article ably explains why Ron Paul is a disgusting, and dangerous, public figure.

I have written about Ron Paul before (herehere, here, here and here) and received the predictable blowback from his internet minions. The cult of personality that has formed around this man is disturbing. Many young people attach themselves to his banner, despite the fact that he is essentially an evolution-denying, Christian fundamentalist from Texas.

Ron Paul, along with many prominent leaders of the Tea Party, have revived an idea that most people hoped was long dead: nullification. Nullification is the theory that states have the right to disregard federal laws they deem unconstitutional. Its earliest incarnation can perhaps be found in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison during the presidency of John Adams. Jefferson and Madison believed that the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional and the states had the duty to nullify such laws.

However, the intellectual father of nullification was a Congressman from South Carolina named John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was considered an expert on the Constitution in his day. He had the reputation as a theorist of sorts who justified the southern way of life. Andrew Jackson tapped him to be his Vice Presidential running mate in 1828. By the end of his first term, Jackson would come to regret this decision.

Besides slavery, another wedge issue between north and south at the time was the tariff. A tariff is a tax on imported goods. Northerners tended to support high tariffs since they protected American industry, which was the backbone of the northern economy. Southerners tended to oppose high tariffs since it raised prices of all goods, especially the low-quality clothing they bought from Britain in which southerners clad their enslaved human beings. Southerners were hopeful that President Jackson would do away with the hated “Tariff of Abominations” put in place by Jackson’s predecessor and American hero, John Quincy Adams. When Jackson did not move fast enough, Calhoun claimed that South Carolina had the right to nullify the tariff. If the federal government insisted that the tariff be paid anyway, then South Carolina had the right to secede, or leave, the union.

Jackson’s response to Calhoun’s challenge is the stuff of legend in American history. At a Washington dinner party, Jackson stood up, looked Calhoun in the eye and gave a toast saying “Our federal union. It must be preserved!” He later threatened to have Calhoun hanged from the highest tree. During this so-called “Nullification Crisis”, Jackson penned an eloquent defense of the American union as a combination of people and not of states. Jackson’s firm response, combined with a compromise that lowered the hated tariffs, served to end the Nullification Crisis. Needless to say, Jackson did not choose Calhoun as his running mate in 1832, opting instead for his closest advisor, and political opportunist, Martin Van Buren.

28 years later, it would be no surprise that the first state to “nullify” the election of Abraham Lincoln was South Carolina. They ended up seceding from the union and bringing many other slave states with them. This was the crisis that led to the firing on Fort Sumter which precipitated the greatest tragedy in American history: the Civil War. President Lincoln, from his first inaugural address all the way to the end of his life, picked up on the old Jacksonian idea that the union was one of people and not states. No state had the right to nullify or secede. The issue was settled in favor of Lincoln on the battlefield. It was at that point that the idea of nullification and secession should have died.

However, throughout the Reconstruction Era, southerners waxed poetic about their “Lost Cause”. Their genteel way of life where blacks lived under the lash of the slave master was gone forever. In its place was northern capitalism with its focus on pecuniary acquisition and industry. Many southerners held on to an idealized version of the Old South that would never totally be shaken. Towards the end of the 1800s, southerners would revive the old mantra of “states’ rights” to disenfranchise black people and reduce them to a status not much better than slavery itself. The Supreme Court supported this practice with Plessy v. Ferguson. It would not be until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s that this system of segregation and disenfranchisement was dealt its death blow, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This is the story that American history textbooks tell anyway. While it is tempting to believe this system was overturned in the mid-1960s, the truth is that it has been making a comeback. It has been making a comeback because it is, as usual, clothed in the idea of “states’ rights”. One of the biggest proponents of states’ rights in recent years has been Ron Paul. He has done a great job of masking his ideology as libertarianism. However, as the article cited above states:

“Paul’s agenda has included the rejuvenation of paleoconservatism through his youth outreach and a strong emphasis on his “libertarian” credentials, despite his record as the most conservative legislator in the modern history of the U.S. Congress.25 The libertarian elements of Paul’s political agenda derive primarily from his allegiance to states’ rights, which is often mistaken as support for civil liberties.

Paul is far more transparent about his paleoconservative—rather than libertarian—agenda when he speaks to audiences made up of social conservatives, as when he assured LifeSiteNews that he opposed federal regulatory power and supported state-level banning of abortion, and that he would veto a same-sex marriage bill if he were a governor.26

He also told an enthusiastic audience at the fundamentalist Bob Jones University in 2008 that “you don’t have to wait till the courts are changed” to outlaw abortion, pointing out that his plan for removing jurisdiction from the federal courts would allow South Carolina to enact laws against abortion. And he sponsored the “We the People Act,” which proposed stripping the federal courts of jurisdiction in cases related to religion and privacy, freeing state legislatures to regulate sexual acts, birth control, and religious matters.”

Pure libertarianism is the idea that the state should play as little a role as possible in our lives. However, Ron Paul has successfully confounded the idea of libertarianism with the idea of states’ rights. They are not the same thing. States’ rights holds that the states have the ability to wield all types of power over the lives of the people who live within their borders, which is why Paul can say with a straight face that states have the right to make policies regulating women’s wombs. This is not libertarianism of the anarchy stripe. This is downright autocratic rule.

Ron Paul’s son, Rand Paul, is another darling of the Tea Party. He made headlines not too long ago for saying he would essentially eviscerate the Civil Rights Act of 1965 on the grounds that government had no right to tell private business what it can and cannot do with its property. If the owner of a business wishes to discriminate against an entire race of people, that is perfectly fine by the likes of Rand Paul.

Even more scary perhaps is the recent Supreme Court ruling eviscerating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on the grounds that it violates the 10th Amendment, which is the amendment most cherished by advocates of states’ rights. Those of us who were taught in high school that the Civil Rights Movement achieved a huge goal with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts have been horrified by the attacks on these laws. We hear these cries for states’ rights when states refuse to participate in the Affordable Care Act on the grounds of the old Calhounian idea of nullification. The Tea Party right has gotten a hold of the Republican Party, making it more reactionary than it has ever been before.

What makes Ron Paul disgusting, and disturbing, is how he has tricked young people into believing his brand of Republicanism or Libertarianism is some sort of independent rogue ideology that cherishes freedom. His words, his deeds and his voting record should give the lie to this idea. His brand of Republicanism is essentially the idea of the Lost Cause of the South dressed up in 21st century garb. It is the South Carolina, Calhounist, slave owner mantra of states’ rights, nullification and secession. It is not just a conservative ideology, but what the article deems a paleoconservative ideology. It is a throwback to an oppressive, white supremacist past, one that is not as dead as some of us would like to think.

What it means for those of us in the education world who are fighting against this so-called wave of reform is that we must be careful about with whom we ally. We might be tempted to make common cause with the Ron and Rand Pauls of the world because it is politically expedient. This should be avoided at all costs. They partake in a brand of dog whistle racism that should be exposed and denounced at every turn.

Yet, at the same time, the rhetoric of the reform movement is also clothed in a type of dog whistle racism. Just recently, Newark schools chancellor and education reform darling, Cami Anderson, demonstrated this when she implied that students in Newark public schools (who are mostly minority) were criminals. She denounced Newark teachers who attended the state union’s conference in Atlantic City by saying that giving the students of the city a day off from school would lead to violence in the streets. This type of language exposes the type of racism implicit in the words, deeds and policies of practically every education reformer.

When reformers say that public schools are failing, they are really saying that “those” children are failing. When they say that public school students need Common Core Standards, they really mean that “those” kids need to finally be held up to standards. This is why Arne Duncan was so quick to call out “suburban white moms“. It gave him cover from the obvious racism implicit in the reforms that he supports. When we look at the most prolific charter schools, like the Success Academies here in New York City, they pride themselves on strict discipline and decor. They pride themselves on getting “those” kids to behave.

And this is also why the attack on “those” children’s schools have been accompanied by attacks on “those” children’s teachers. Many times, “those” children’s teachers come from the same “communities” as “those” children. Even when they do not, teachers of “those” children get an up-close look at the horrid conditions in which “those” children live. They might speak out against these injustices, inciting “class warfare” and “socialism” in the process. Only by silencing them do they keep the issues of poverty and racism out of the mainstream.

Those of us who oppose this “education reform” do so because we understand the paternalism and racism it implies. Unfortunately, we cannot fight against the Race to the Top or the Common Core on the grounds that it violates “states’ rights”, since that just replaces one dog whistle term for another. It also replaces the paternalism of the corporate reformers with the paternalism of state governments, who tend to be the most odious and retrograde entities in the country.

No, opponents of education reform must base their opposition on civil disobedience. This is what the idea of “opting out” is all about. Civil disobedience recognizes that Race to the Top, along with many other reforms, are the laws of the land. It recognizes the supremacy of the federal government over the states. It opposes these reform laws not because they are federal, but because they are unjust.

The idea of opting out, of true civil disobedience, would be tainted if associated with the idea of states’ rights. Opting out is the future. States’ rights is the past. Most importantly, states’ rights brought to its ultimate conclusion would bring us back to the Jim Crow era or worse. We would then have to fight a much more serious battle against a much more dangerous brand of “education reform”.

How the Common Core Closes Minds

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History does not repeat itself. Those who forget the mistakes of the past might not be doomed to repeat them.

Each historical era is its own world. It is fertile soil out of which the next historical era will grow. What one means by “era” wholly depends on what one is investigating. History is valuable not because it teaches sobering lessons, but because it explains the world in which we live today. In doing so, it might help point us to the future.

This means that every word that has ever been uttered, every action ever taken and every thought ever written cannot be properly understood without understanding the world out of which they grew. Some people might call this “context”. Certain philosophers might call this “structure”. Whatever one calls it, it is necessary to at least try to understand it in order to appreciate the events of the past.

That is why literalist interpretations of any historical text is the stuff of folly. Biblical literalists worship words written down during the 2nd century Roman Empire, and translated during Elizabethan England, without bothering to understand either of those worlds. Inevitably, they invest in these words meanings that only someone from 21st century America could comprehend. Another way of putting it is that Biblical literalists tend to plunder scripture in order to justify some previously arrived at bias.

It is probably even worse for people who fancy themselves Constitutional literalists. Typically, people who claim to only follow the letter of the Constitution keep some shadowy notion of 18th century America in the back of their minds. It is ironic that, whenever these literalists reveal their impressions of the Founding Fathers, the Fathers seem to hold the same exact biases as the literalists. Constitutional literalists plunder the Constitution and American history to justify positions conjured up in their 21st century American gut.

The historian Jack Rakove warned against literalist interpretations of the founding documents in his book Original Meanings. In his depiction of the Founding Fathers, he demonstrates that many of them said and meant different things at different times. Sometimes this was due to changes in their opinions. Most of the time, it was due to altering their message to gain approbation with whatever audience they were addressing at the moment. In terms of the Constitution, they realized they did not have everything figured out about how a republic such as the one they were making was supposed to work. For example, Article III, which deals with the federal court system, was vaguely short because they did not have a solid idea about how it would function or what its powers were. They left plenty of grey area in the Constitution in the faith that future generations would figure it out.

The Founding Fathers knew they did not have all of the answers. Unfortunately, many of us alive today are not smart enough to know that. They assume the Founders carefully placed in their words some definite and eternal meaning for ensuing generations to discover. The fact that the Founders wanted to leave enough room in the Constitution so their progeny could apply it to the unforeseen circumstances of the future is a sinful idea in literalist circles. To them, every word in the Constitution has a definite meaning by which those of us who live in the present must abide.

If the designers of the Common Core get their way, the next generation will be nothing but literalists. Take these standards from 11th and 12th grade social studies:

1) ” Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.”

2) ” Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.”

3) “Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.”

And it goes on like that. To the Common Core-istas, the text is everything. The audience for whom the text was written, the historical circumstances out of which the text arose, training the reader to recognize their own biases when reading the text, does not play a role whatsoever. As a teacher of history (not social studies), I know this is a myopic and plodding way to analyze any historical text. It is one of the most low-level exercises in which students can be engaged. Sure, we want students to be able to understand the meaning and structure of text. However, this understanding is just a preliminary point on the way to explaining why a particular text made sense within a particular historical moment. After this comes the questioning of the text. Not only do we wish to question the veracity of the text, we wish to question its place in history.

History teachers do these things with texts because we know it helps students recreate the past. We help students recreate the past because we want them to understand the present. We want them to understand the present because we want them to be engaged citizens. Revealingly, the word citizen does not appear once in the Common Core. There is much talk about primary and secondary sources and analyzing structure and providing evidence. There is nothing about civic values or engagement with the wider world. If we were to teach these things to students, they might start understanding their own places within our society. Heck, they might start writing texts of their own.

This seems to be the biggest fear of the Common Core crowd. This endless consumption of text is aimed at killing imagination. David Coleman, the man assumed to be the granddaddy of the CCSS, is notoriously repulsed by children using such squishy things as imagination and emotion. Apparently, there is no room for these things in the 21st century for which we are preparing our children. We want to train our children to be locked into the text. We want to train our children to be consumers of text.

But who will be writing the texts that our kids will read when they grow to be 21st century adults? What will be the veracity of these texts? Whose purposes do these texts serve? Why are these texts being produced at this particular historical moment?

The Common Core is silent on these questions. It is silent because they want our children to remain silent. The Common Core is designed to make silent consumers out of future generations. Only those who come from families with the wealth to avoid a Common Core education will be encouraged to innovate.

What Does Reign of Error Mean?

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Diane Ravitch has always been my go-to person for matters of American schooling.

Back in 2004, I was 25 years old and starting my fourth year as a history teacher. It was the year I decided to branch out and create a philosophy elective at my school. I wanted to enable my philosophy students to deconstruct the world around them. Since they had already spent a good portion of their lives sitting in American schools, I figured I would be derelict in my duties if I did not help them deconstruct the American school system.

Yet, I knew next to nothing about the history and structure of American schooling. It was an embarrassing knowledge deficit for a history teacher to have. Before I could break down the school system with my students, I would have to break it down for myself. This meant a spate of independent research for me. It was at this point when I first read Diane Ravitch’s work.

Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms was an honest, direct and well-researched survey of the American school system. Diane’s simple yet informative prose led me to read The Language Police and The Great School Wars as well in order to prepare for my unit on American schooling. Reading these books early on in my career, when I was thirsting for a deeper understanding of the institution in which I worked, meant that Diane Ravitch would have a major impact on my teaching style and educational outlook.

Yet, I was still largely unaware of this phenomenon known as “education reform” and Diane Ravitch’s role in it. I was also unaware of the fact that I was teaching in a system that was considered one of the hubs of this education reform:  Bloomberg’s Department of Education. What I did know was that Diane was appointed by two different presidents from two different parties to the Department of Education. In my mind, this not only made her even more of an authority on American education but also signaled to me that she must have a great deal of integrity. She did not carry water for any party’s agenda.

This was all back in 2004, before Diane had totally broken from this education reform movement. Even in her reformer days, Diane Ravitch was honest about her beliefs, persuasive in her arguments and informed about what goes in America’s schools. It was the education reformer Diane Ravitch who had such a deep impact on my career when I was a fourth-year teacher. She helped me construct the meaning and context of American schooling.

So one can imagine my excitement years later when I finally matured enough to understand the lay of the current educational landscape and Diane’s role within it. What disturbed me was not how she had changed her mind about education reform, but how so many people criticized her for it, as if it was a sign of opportunism or dishonesty. Being familiar with Diane’s work beforehand, I knew that neither of those accusations were true. It is the mark of intellectual integrity to change one’s mind about an issue after reviewing new evidence, especially if one does so publicly so millions of people know about it. I could not wrap my mind around those people who seemed to believe that “integrity” meant sticking to an idea no matter how wrong or destructive it is.

Now that I am in my 14th year of teaching and about to start my 35th year of life, I understand things a little bit more clearly now.

Reign of Error demonstrates, in typical Ravitchean fashion, how people are able to cling to ideas long after facts have passed them by. Many people much more able than myself have already written reviews of Diane’s latest book. What I hope to do instead is to locate this book in the context of the history of American schooling. What does Reign of Error mean as an historical event?

Critics of Reign of Error have already been trying to answer this question, even before they have bothered to read it. Most notably, Arne Duncan supporter Peter Cunningham wrote a hit piece this past summer in which he expressed sanctimonious outrage over a quote in the New York Times where Diane Ravitch questioned the Common Core’s focus on college readiness:

“We’re using a very inappropriate standard that’s way too high… I think there are a lot of kids who are being told that if they don’t go to college that it will ruin their life… But maybe they don’t need to go to college.”

The obsession in America’s schools with getting kids into college has always been questioned by Ravitch, even in her reformer days. Yet, it is only now that reformers like Cunningham see fit to try to twist her point into something that it is not:

“When Dr. Ravitch says, ‘But maybe they don’t need to go to college,’ who exactly is she referring to? It’s certainly not rich white kids. It’s definitely not the children of middle class parents, who view college for the kids as one of the core pillars of the American Dream. That leaves low-income and minority children. It includes the children of immigrants who come here with an 8th grade education and desperately want their kids to do better than them — the kind of parents you meet at a graduation who speak little English and can’t stop crying for joy.”

Notice how, in typical Waiting for Superman fashion, he invokes the imagery of teary-eyed minority families to push his own agenda. If Cunningham would have read Ravitch’s book, he would know that she calls for America to invest more heavily in the schools of those teary-eyed minorities. Not only does this mean smaller class sizes and more materials, it also means vocational training. These things are of course expensive but, as Diane points out in her book, we somehow have the political and financial will to pour money into testing companies and for-profit online schools thanks in large part to Cunningham’s hero, Arne Duncan.

Vocational training is good enough for countries with stronger education systems. It was good enough for Americans 60 years ago. Many of our grandparents, including the grandparents of reformers like Peter Cunningham, could go to high school to learn a trade, then go out into the world and support themselves and their families by plying that trade. This was because we invested not only in education but in our economy and our workers. We provided more options for our young people than just retail and fast-food work. We had strong unions to ensure a measure of job and salary security. These are all things for which Ravitch passionately calls in Reign of Error.

Cunningham’s faux outrage is the stock-in-trade of the reformer movement. As Ravitch discusses in Reign of Error, reformers set themselves up as new age civil rights heroes fighting for the dispossessed and disenfranchised. Yet, their solutions involve pouring billions of public dollars into private pockets and breaking unions. Our anemic economy and impotent political leadership has led to the greatest rates of childhood poverty and infant mortality in the western world. Reformers like Cunningham are completely silent on these matters. In fact, their enthusiasm for union busting only ensures more childhood poverty and infant mortality. They want to tinker around with schools, pretend as if they are the new millennium’s version of Martin Luther King and then do and say absolutely nothing to improve the material conditions of the teary-eyed minority children they are so fond of invoking.

Another reformer who has criticized Diane Ravitch is the financier and human spambot Whitney Tilson. Tilson starts by citing the hit piece written by Peter Cunningham. He goes on to cite a Teach for America alum by the name of Grant Newman, who expresses the same sanctimonious outrage as Cunningham regarding Diane’s comments about college :

“Her line of thinking perfectly demonstrates the out-of-touch mentality of anti-reformers, who because of privilege (race, class, educational opportunity, health, etc) can make statements that demean the capabilities of all students without any retribution or questioning. Dr. Ravitch’s notion that ‘they don’t need college’ speaks volumes about what she will never understand–teachers CAN and ARE capable of dramatically impacting the lives of their students.

The sad irony however is that the students Dr. Ravitch writes off as possibly not having the potential to reach college are exactly the students who need that opportunity for any chance at upward mobility. Rich kids from Scarsdale can do fine in life through connections and experiences that grant them solid jobs and clear options.

My students in Bushwick, Brooklyn have little chance of reaching the same success as that peer from Scarsdale unless they get the most extraordinary education to somehow level the playing field. While she consistently says she is a supporter of teachers and students, it is clear that she actually doesn’t think either group can do much and instead should settle for maintaining the current state of affairs.”

Notice, once again, how the reformers invoke the image of minority children, this time from Bushwick, Brooklyn. In Reign of Error, Diane explains how the students in Scarsdale have experienced teachers. Yet, here are these children in Bushwick, Brooklyn who have a teacher who was trained for 5 weeks over the summer. In fact, Whitney Tilson says that Newman “taught for 4 years at Achievement First in Brooklyn”, meaning that he probably no longer teaches there or anywhere else. This makes Newman’s final paragraph about “my students in Bushwick, Brooklyn” misleading to say the least. He should have said “my former students”. Accuracy like that would only confirm Ravitch’s observations about TFA that she makes in Reign of Error. Not only are TFA teachers poorly trained compared to their more experienced counterparts, not to mention fellow rookies who went through an accredited teacher’s college, there is no evidence they do any better than any other teacher, and some evidence to suggest they do worse. What TFAers like Newman excel at, on the other hand, is using the schools of these poor minority children in Bushwick as springboards to other, more remunerative, employment. Newman is now either selling bonds on Wall Street or running a school somewhere in which he continues to push inexperienced teachers on the children of poor people.

One thing Whitney Tilson and Grant Newman are not doing right now is helping to ameliorate the poverty and suffering of children in Bushwick or anywhere else in America. If teachers do have as much of an impact on the lives of students as Newman suggests, then TFA and the rest of the reformers would have ended poverty a long time ago. As Ravitch mentions, the reformers are the status quo. TFA has been around for 20 years and yet inequality has just gotten worse. Could it be that wunderkins like Grant Newman are not as great as they think? Or could it be that the Wendy Kopps of the world are merely selling snake oil?

Tilson ends his post against Diane Ravitch by citing this “balanced” review of Reign of Error in the Atlantic written by a charter school teacher. Some of the criticisms the author has with Reign of Error are in the following passage:

“Ravitch presents Reign of Error as an overture to dialogue with opponents, but her subtitle suggests otherwise: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Her tour of the research is littered with bumper-sticker slogans—she indicts, for example, the “Walmartization of American education”—likely to put off the unconverted. The book reads like a campaign manual against “corporate reformers.” The first half challenges the claims of their movement; the second offers Ravitch’s alternative agenda. Her prescriptions include universal pre-K, smaller class sizes, better teacher training, and more measures to reduce poverty and school segregation.

These are worthy goals—and not one of them is necessarily incompatible with many reformers’ own aims. Yet Ravitch doesn’t address competing priorities or painful trade-offs. Further reducing class size in better-off suburban districts, for example, may leave less money for more urgently needed early-childhood programs in poorer communities.”

While seemingly “balanced”, the author betrays his own biases with phrases like the book “is littered with bumper-sticker slogans… likely to put off the unconverted.” My reading of Reign of Error did not uncover any bumper-sticker slogans. The one example he gives of such a slogan, the “Walmartization of American Education”, is not a slogan at all and certainly does not make for a good bumper sticker. How such a phrase is likely to put off the unconverted the author never explains.

The trade-offs the author mentions in the last paragraph are not trade-offs at all. How might reducing class size in one district leave less money for another district? Again, the author never explains his thinking behind this. Reign of Error is more than just a call for greater investment in our public schools. It is a call for greater investment in our communities. Ravitch shows that poverty and scholastic achievement are heavily linked. It is a statistical fact that the reformers themselves have failed to disprove, either through alternative statistics or through examples of their reforms in action. As Ravitch points out many times, a charter company or private organization has yet to take over an entire impoverished school district and show the rest of us how their reforms can overcome poverty.

So, if poverty is the greatest predictor of achievement in school, does it not stand to reason that ameliorating poverty would help boost achievement? This is one of the central arguments of Reign of Error. While reducing poverty is not necessarily at odds with what the reformers want, it is something on which they have been silent. What is worse, their insistence that poverty is merely an “excuse” downplays the impact poverty has on learning. In short, the reformer agenda acts as a smokescreen for the very real and very structural problems that exist in our economy.

The author goes on to try to quote Ravitch’s earlier writings to shed light on Reign of Error and demonstrates he has misunderstood both:

“Ravitch the counterrevolutionary may be right that the reformers’ cause is primed for derailment. But Ravitch the historian once foretold what typically follows a contentious drive for school improvement: ‘It was usually replaced,’ she observed in 2003, ‘by a movement called back to basics, or ‘essentialism,’ which didn’t herald new progress but rather ‘a backlash against failed fads.’ Ravitch herself is the ‘essentialist’ now, urging that we go back not to basics but to a past when issues of equity and adequate funding dominated debates about education. At a time of growing income inequality, this correction is overdue.

But let’s not get too nostalgic about those old debates. There’s a reason the younger Ravitch was impatient decades ago to discover new choices for families in America’s worst-off districts. I hope I’m not alone in searching her new book for traces of the writer who, as recently as 2010, could still see beyond a politicized landscape to understand what draws many hard-pressed parents to charters. They’re not set on this curriculum or that pedagogy, as some reformers suggest. They’re looking, as Ravitch appreciated, for academic ‘havens’—which is what parents at the inner-city school where I teach, once nominally parochial and now a charter, often tell me. They want a place where their children can join peers already driven to achieve in school—a search with another bleak trade-off. The departure of these students leaves other peers, without parents resourceful enough to find better alternatives, stranded in schools that become all the harder to improve.”

Ravitch’s analysis that waves of school reforms are usually followed by waves of “back to basics” referred to pedagogical fads. It is one of the driving themes of Left Back. Throughout the book, she never explained whether she preferred one wave to another. To Ravitch, that was just the ebb and flow of American schooling.

Yet, Reign of Error does not discuss pedagogical fads. The reforms to which she refers in Reign of Error are fundamental disruptions to the way schools are governed and how they are funded. In Left Back, the reformers she mentions usually meant well but either misunderstood how children learned, how teachers would receive their recommendations, or both. In Reign of Error, some reformers mean well while others are out to ruthlessly push their agendas in order to benefit themselves. In Left Back, the worst the reformers ever did to public schooling was foist on it some fuzzy-headed curriculum. In Reign of Error, the reformers are destroying the public school as an institution.

Diane Ravitch is not a “counterrevolutionary”, as the author states. A counterrevolutionary implies that one is an old mossback bent on bringing back the status quo ante bellum. Diane Ravitch is nothing of the sort. Reign of Error is revolutionary. It is revolutionary in the sense that she calls for the amelioration of poverty and inequality. It is revolutionary in that she wants society to make a serious investment in the schools of the disadvantaged. It is revolutionary in the sense that she calls for the children and parents of the poor to get adequate medical and prenatal care. It is revolutionary in the sense she calls for the elevation of the teaching profession. To call Diane Ravitch a “back-to-basics” counterrevolutionary is to imply that America has already done these things at some previous point in our history.

The author says that Ravitch has “politicized” the education debate. This assumes that the debate was not already “politicized” by the reformers themselves. This assumes that a discussion about education policy or practice can at all be separated from politics. Education is political. The education system is a reflection of the political, social and economic priorities of the nation. This is a point Diane Ravitch argues with great eloquence in Reign of Error.

Ironically, the author of the review quoted above confirms Ravitch’s point about charter schools skimming the best public school students. He says parents send their children to charters because they want them to sit in classrooms with other motivated students.  This is because charters, by and large, do not want to teach students with special cognitive or emotional needs. They do not want to educate children who come from other countries and are still learning English. They find inventive ways to bar or expel these types of students, something public schools cannot do.

Public schools cannot do these things because public schools are public, in that they belong to all of the people. Charters take the students who are easiest to educate, siphon money away from public schools and then dump a whole bunch of private money in on top of it. Despite these advantages, there is no evidence that charter schools outperform public schools. Therefore, what kind of education are the children of these parents who are fleeing public schools actually getting? With inexperienced teachers, militaristic discipline codes and an obsession with test prep, charter school children on the whole are not getting educated much at all.

What Diane Ravitch has accomplished in Reign of Error is a distillation of everything that is wrong with what has been dubbed education reform. All of the facts and arguments are laid out in plain language backed up with compelling evidence, or “data”, as the reformers love to say. She has hoist the reformers with their own petard by measuring their failures with the same yardstick with which they have been measuring public schools: test scores. In 100 or 200 years, Reign of Error will be an invaluable primary source about this episode in America’s educational history. She has rolled up into one convenient book the spirit of our educational times. This is why the criticisms of Reign of Error that have been proffered impotently melt away when one starts analyzing them. Their view is to push a narrow agenda now. Ravitch obviously wrote this book with one eye on the long view of things, both the history of the past and the history of now that has yet to be written.

Just like Diane Ravitch helped me construct my view of American schooling almost 10 years ago, she has helped deconstruct what education reform is about. Moreover, she has pointed the way towards how to reconstruct our public schools.

Occupy’s Two-Year Anniversary: It’s All in the Data

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Occupy Wall Street was the first major event that I wrote about on this blog. Until this day I feel fortunate for working in such close proximity to Zuccotti Park. It afforded me an opportunity to be part of an event that I believe will eventually define the coming historical era. While the original occupations fizzled out due to general disorganization and authoritarian repression, that does not mean the movement itself will not resurface at some point in some form in the future, bigger than before. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to agree with this prediction if they were in downtown Manhattan a few days ago on the second anniversary of Occupy.

Walking past Zuccotti Park at seven-thirty in the AM on that day was a depressing sight. The entire perimeter was blocked off with metal police barricades, not to mention police. They were allowing the first trickle of protesters in as I was on my way to work. Seeing 5 or 6 young protesters in the middle of the square setting up shop while dozens of officers ringed the park was a far cry from what the place looked like two years ago. Back then a sea of humanity overflowed the benches, the floors and the sidewalks while the police tenuously occupied a sliver of the curb on Broadway, helplessly looking on as people exercised all types of freedoms right in front of them. Now it was the police who overflowed the park, firmly entrenched on all four sides while protesters sheepishly trickled in between the blue uniforms.

Later in the day, as I stepped out to grab lunch, I bore witness to a tame march of protesters circling the block of Zuccotti Park. They were relatively quiet, controlled in their movements and all held up signs with exactly the same size fonts and lettering. Each sign hearkened back to many of the messages of the original protest: “Stop Stop and Frisk”, “Get Money Out of Politics”, etc. But the spontaneity, the disorganization and the general exuberance were gone. The police looked on seemingly pleased at the good behavior of the young people who quietly passed through the narrow corridor of sidewalk they had left available. As the old police cliché goes, there was truly nothing to see here.

In fact, the real spectacle was on my side of Trinity Place across the street from the park. As I loitered by the phone booths smoking a post-lunch menthol, a different sea of humanity was passing by me as well. This humanity was much nosier and much less organized than the protesters across the street. Instead of holding signs with political messages, this sea of humanity was holding cameras and maps of Manhattan. That is right: it was a sea of tourists stopping to gawk at, and snap pictures of, the puny exercise in democracy taking place across the street. Ironically, this sea of unruly tourists did not have any NYPD officers circumscribing where they could walk.

It was at that point that I realized I was watching history unfold. On the Zuccotti side of the street, you had the protesters who stood against everything Pharaoh Bloomberg’s New York City had become. On my side of the street, you had the tourists who reveled in everything Pharaoh Bloomberg’s New York City had become. My side represented the era of repression and commercialism that is on its way out. The Zuccotti side represented the era of free association and community that is yet to be born.

To the tourists who pass through downtown Manhattan, everything is a spectacle. While Trinity Church, Federal Hall and even the giant-testicled bull at the foot of Broadway are nice photo opportunities, the tourists take things much further. Most of these out-of-towners are either coming from, or trying to get to, the 9/11 Memorial. They skip lightly with their children in tow, oftentimes herded down the street by tour guides with light blue 9/11 Memorial shirts on. “Let’s keep moving. We’re almost there” these tour guides can be heard saying to their pliant charges. They usually form a bottleneck along Cedar Street outside of the Ho Yip Chinese buffet as they shuffle along. Some of them even return the death glares that one lone history teacher throws them as they pass by, although they cannot return the menthol smoke he directs into their faces.

It is always a party atmosphere along Cedar Street. The only problem is that they are going to see two giant holes in the ground where nearly 3,000 people lost their lives 12 years ago. They will snap some pictures and then come back outside where they can stop at the 9/11 Memorial gift store to pick up World Trade Center memorabilia. The entire spectacle, from the obnoxious digital cameras to the pushy tour guides to the oblivious foreigners to the cackling children, is a giant Bloombergian farce.

One cannot totally blame the tourists for what downtown Manhattan has become. Thanks to Pharaoh Bloomberg, Larry Silverstein and the bloodsucking state politicians in Albany, what should be hallowed ground and a national reminder of our shared history is instead a hokey exercise in commercialism. Compare the 9/11 Memorial to the monuments in Washington, D.C. like the Lincoln or FDR or World War II memorials. Sure, those places can have floods of tourists too. However, at the end of the day, they are public spaces. They are shared spaces. They are civic spaces. There are no gift shops around them. There is not a constant parade of tour groups being led single-file by obnoxious guides who admonish them to keep up, monopolizing the small strips of public space that exist. Visitors to these places are not asked or guilted into making “donations” to the monument. One cannot buy a mug with an image of the D-Day invasion down the block from the World War II Memorial.

Even if there were all of those things around our national monuments in D.C., it would still be more tolerable than what has become of what used to be the World Trade Center area. Lincoln was killed 148 years ago. FDR died and World War II ended 68 years ago. There is a good chance that people involved in those events are not living and working in the D.C. area anymore. On the other hand, downtown Manhattan still has many residents and workers who were there in 2001. Some of them might have even narrowly escaped with their lives. Some of them might still suffer illnesses from breathing in the acrid smoke. Some of them, including police and firefighters, might have even saved people’s lives or lost friends that day. And yet, the survivors of this national tragedy have to look on each day as downtown Manhattan turns into a circus. While Bloomberg is not totally at fault for this, it is certainly in step with the Bloomberg plan for the city.

This is what I saw on the 2nd anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. To the tourists, the Occupy protesters were a curiosity and a spectacle much like the 9/11 Memorial. They did not expect to see democracy in action when they showed up that day with their maps and their cameras. Metaphorically speaking, the three-ring circus was featuring the dancing bear but the out-of-towners got the bearded lady as a bonus as well. They oohed and aahed throughout both acts, snapping pictures the entire time.

Bloomberg can say that downtown Manhattan has bounced back. The independent eateries and souvenir shops that were around before 9/11 are certainly crammed with tourists now, many of whom have American dollars burning holes in their pockets after converting from Euros. The Freedom Tower is more or less complete, all 1776 feet of it. Yet, just like Bloomberg’s “successes” with public schools and fighting crime, it is a success on the surface only. One only has to dig an inch deep to find the rot that Bloomberg’s gild conceals.

At the end of the day, whether it is tourist dollars, test scores or crime stats, the only thing that has been accomplished under the reign of Pharaoh Bloomberg in NYC is an artful manipulation of numbers. Those numbers bear very little resemblance to reality. Tourist bucks are flowing in, yet downtown Manhattan still bears a national scar that has not been properly treated. Test scores are up (or at least they used to be), yet our students still have trouble making their way in the world after they graduate. Crime is down (or at least it used to be), yet many average New Yorkers are being robbed by a ridiculous cost of living. For the poorest New Yorkers, the NYPD has terrorized them in their own communities thanks to stop-and-frisk.

That is why when I was standing there between the Occupy protesters and the tourists, I was able to feel the tide of history wash over me. One side represented the dying Bloomberg era of optimistic data that continues to fool so many people. The other side represented the coming era of a mass awakening of what that data was always concealing.

What Might This Mayoral Election Mean?

Is Bill de Blasio a symbol of an age of political transition?

Is Bill de Blasio a symbol of an age of political transition or is he something else?

The post-mortems on the New York City Democratic mayoral primary have been pouring in, despite the fact that the election is not over yet. Democratic voters had choices from Christine Quinn (Bloomberg’s 4th term), Bill de Blasio (a city liberal of the old mold), Bill Thompson (who staked out a third way between Quinn and de Blasio) and Anthony Weiner (who might have had a chance if not for his personal foibles, which are many). A de Blasio victory in these primaries might presage a new era in American politics.

In 1977, a Democrat named Ed Koch won his party’s nomination and then the general election running a campaign promising law and order and fiscal responsibility. Three years later, Ronald Reagan was elected president after running a campaign that touched upon similar themes. The late 1970s up until today has been an era defined by Reagan’s program, a program ratified by Clinton and the New Democrats of the 1990s and continued by Bush and Obama in the new millennium.  Both Koch and Reagan appealed to young voters. Teenagers and 20-somethings of that era had come of age at the moment when America’s great experiment in liberalism, the New Deal, was falling apart. The era of Vietnam, urban riots and dishonest government was ripe soil for a new generation of voters receptive to something different, something that repudiated the programs that gave birth to the rotting world in which they had been raised. In 1977, it was the voters of New York City who were the bellwethers of a changing national mood bent towards conservatism. In 2013, many on the left are hoping the same scenario is playing out conversely here in NYC. (This article is a compelling read of this prospect.)

The general election will, presumably, feature the Democrat Bill de Blasio against Republican Joe Lhota. Lhota will be a tough candidate, especially if Bill Thompson is able to secure a runoff election. A Democratic runoff is already conjuring up memories of 2001, when Bloomberg won his first term as Pharaoh partially due to the internal wars of city Democrats. But runoff or not, Lhota’s strategy against de Blasio will be predictable: paint him as an irresponsible liberal who will return the city to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s. The message will certainly resonate with older New Yorkers, not to mention the younger business-minded voters on Wall Street.

But political futures are not made on old voters, a lesson the Republican Party nationwide has been slow to learn. De Blasio has tapped into the same vein of young voters as Obama did in both of his elections. The late teen and early 20-something of today is more likely to be part of a minority group and tolerant on social issues like gay marriage and marijuana than the young voter of 35 years ago. They also have been coming of age in the world of the conservative revolution and that world is just as rotten as the liberal world of the Koch and Reagan ascendancies. Their overall liberal views on issues of class and culture make them less susceptible to the fear of class and culture warfare preyed upon by conservative candidates. In short, the past 10-15 years have been ripe soil for future voters who reject the Reagan Revolution.

Perhaps a Bill de Blasio mayoralty will be a laboratory for a new national political program, a role New York City has played many times in its history. A good way to discern how much of a laboratory the city might be with de Blasio is to look at what he does on education. Many educated people are hoping and predicting that the de Blasio victory means that Democrats at least reject Bloomberg’s corporatization of public schools that has erroneously been dubbed “education reform”. Their hopes have some foundation considering de Blasio’s generally friendly history towards labor in the city, not to mention his out-and-out rejection of most of Bloomberg’s legacy as the “education mayor”. He consistently took the most anti-Bloomberg stance whenever he was asked about education policy, famously saying that “there is no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent” when asked about charter school co-locations. Those types of quotes were probably good enough to pry many teachers away from Thompson and give heart to the defenders of public education, me included.

However, promises in the primaries and promises in the general election are two different things. And promises in general compared to action while in office is something else entirely. Education reform has been a sharpening stone on which politicians of both parties, but especially Democrats, have honed their credentials for national office. Cory Booker and Andrew Cuomo have become up-and-comers largely owing to their school reforms, which included taking on unions and injecting the private sector into education. In order for Bill de Blasio to truly set himself apart from the rising New Democrats (who are not so new anymore) in the Clinton/Obama mold, he must keep singing his current tune on education throughout the general elections and then in office. As mayor of New York, de Blasio would be in the national eye. Bold leadership on his part might point the way to a new path in American politics. Will he sacrifice a bold education policy that respects schools as public institutions to bold reforms in other areas on which he might make more headway? If he does this, the new road he paves will make corporate school reform a reality for at least another generation. This is why Democrats can be much more dangerous to the American left than Republicans.

Just as instructive as keeping an eye on de Blasio’s education policy in the coming weeks and months is keeping an eye on how the UFT reacts to him. The union endorsed Bill Thompson early in the campaign season, mostly because he seemed like the only potentially successful alternative to Christine Quinn. This was back when de Blasio was polling in the single digits and Quinn was presumed to be the nominee. As usual, the UFT backed the person who did not win, although all of the money and resources they poured into Thompson’s campaign surely helped in smacking Quinn down to the three spot, where a runoff is out of reach for her. However, they continue to back Thompson even when it is clear that he would not win in a runoff, a runoff that would do nothing but allow Joe Lhota to consolidate his resources for the general election. Perhaps Mulgrew is pressuring Thompson behind the scenes to concede. The sooner the Democrats get behind Bill de Blasio, the better it will be for them come the general election.

If de Blasio does become mayor, will he cap charter schools? There are billions of reformy dollars coursing through this city and they could launch a massive propaganda campaign against education policy that threatens their share of the increasing education “market”. If it really does come down to a case of the reformers vs. de Blasio, I am not at all sure where the UFT would stand on most issues. If the UFT feels that de Blasio might lose in a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of New Yorkers, they might cast their lot with the Rhee crowd just so they avoid the “obstructionist” label that unjustifiably dogs them. In short, the question might come down to: will the teachers’ unions be on the front lines of a new leftist direction in American politics or will they try to temper any such development? This will not be the first time this question is asked in NYC, the 1968 strike especially being a moment when the UFT actively stood against a leftward turn in education policy.

But the teachers I know and read on the internet are hopeful that a de Blasio mayoralty will mean a new contract and a renegotiation of the evaluation system. The real dreamers have hopes for retroactive pay and an opting out of New York City from the state’s inclusion in the Race to the Top program. These are the issues by which teachers will largely judge Bill de Blasio. We hope that he is able to recognize how deep the Bloomberg school reforms go. It is not just about charter schools. It is also about the deskilling of the profession and the autocratic line of command that runs through the system. A complete dismantling of the Bloomberg Way in public schooling in favor of a more democratic approach would certainly be a major blow to the nationwide school deform movement.

We cannot be sure if the left here and around the world is resurging or if this is just a tempest in a teapot. We can only be hopeful. In that hope, we have to be mindful that we are living in exciting times where things are shifting and do what we can in our own lives to help shift it in the right direction.

CAREER DAY 2013: WHY TEACH?

The next generation of teachers must be warrior who defend the pass at Thermopylae.

The next generation of teachers must be warriors who defend the pass at Thermopylae.

Today was career day at my school. There used to be a time when I delivered a spiel to my students about the teaching profession. This year, however, I thought it best to keep my mouth closed lest my foot find its way in. If I were to give a spiel, it would probably go something like this:

“Good morning. As many of you might know, I am a high school history teacher. How many of you have ever considered being a teacher? That is what I thought.

There was a time when becoming a history teacher seemed like a good idea. My mother raised me by herself. She was a firm believer in the notion of education as the great equalizer. Everything she did was for the sake of getting me an education. This was certainly the most fundamental factor steering me towards a career in teaching, although I did not know it at the time.

For someone from my background, teaching was a step up. It was a way to move from the poor class to the middle class. When I got my first teaching job, I felt I had achieved a dream. It is strange for me to see these kids from middle-class and privileged backgrounds today who treat teaching as some sort of temporary charity work. I had always seen it as a career, a vocation and something to be cherished.

But money was the furthest thing from my mind. I grew up with exclusively black and Hispanic friends. Like many urban children coming of age in the early 1990s, I embraced the hip-hop culture. Groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions were our heroes. We looked up to them not because they were “gangsta” but because they were conscious. They spoke about history and gave us a sense that knowing the past was important. I was always drawn to the respect that groups like them received for their intelligence.

As a junior in Brooklyn Technical High School, I learned about other forms of respect as well. One day, me and my three best friends went to a Wendy’s in downtown Brooklyn to take advantage of some bargain hamburgers. As we were feasting, a group of at least 10 street toughs surrounded us brandishing box cutters. For whatever reason, they took a bad shine to our crew and let it be known that we were toast as soon as we stood up to leave. Suddenly, one of them recognized one of my friends. They smiled and gave each other a pound (a dap or handshake, if you will), at which point the menacing crew exited the establishment. It turns out that my friend’s father was the kid’s math teacher, a man who was respected by some real tough hombres.

This type of respect impressed me. A man did not have to be violent or aggressive to be respected. Respect can be earned from being a part of the community.

Boys like myself who grew up without fathers usually have to scrape the meaning of manhood together from bits and pieces they pick up from the outside: the media, the streets and our friends. I suppose my image of manhood consisted of conscious rappers and upstanding members of the community. While I was fortunate enough to internalize the right lessons, I realized that youth like the ones who almost hurt us that day might be internalizing the wrong ones.

Being a history teacher, therefore, would be the culmination of everything I knew about manhood. If I could gain the respect of my students, perhaps I could use history as a way to help the next generation unlock the meaning of the world around them. Perhaps I could help set some wayward youth on the right path. Perhaps, above all, I could be a role model myself. I could be Chuck D, KRS-1 and my friend’s father all rolled up into one.

These were the things going through my mind when I decided to be a teacher.

As I started my career, I began to become obsessed with history. Not only did I appreciate it for its own sake, I appreciated it for how I could make it relevant to the lives of my students. Public Enemy was constrained by verses, beats and rhyme schemes. I, on other hand, could let the history fly freely through lesson planning. Not even the silly Regents Exam could hold me back from being the best history teacher in the city.

Teaching started out as a personal mission for me. Thirteen years later, I can safely say that it remains so. I still wake up in the morning excited to share the secrets of the past with my students. Every day is different. Every day has its own dynamic. Every day is another brushstroke helping paint a picture of the world for my students that they will never encounter anywhere else. You might understand why, at this point, I do not use the textbook.

Everything used in my class comes out of my own brain. All of the lessons, notes, handouts, questions, exams and projects are my creations. The job does not end when I leave the building. Once I go home, I might relax for a half hour before I start grading homework assignments. The weekend is nothing more than an opportunity for me to write the next unit, the next homework sheet and the next batch of lessons for one of my preps. If I am lucky I might have the time to read a book, always history or philosophy or a literary novel. All of the girlfriends I have had, the ones who were not teachers anyway, questioned why I was working so much when off the clock. I am 34 years old and have never been married. I am married to my work.

In those moments when I am not planning or grading or reading I am on the internet reading and writing. Part of being a teacher, the part of my career that developed too late, is keeping abreast of what is happening in the world of public schooling. If we do not like what is happening, and we never do, it is our duty to speak against it.

There is too much not to like. Teachers are under attack everywhere. There are people who believe we get paid too much, work too little and are not being held “accountable”. They say schools are “failing” and we are to blame for it. Can you imagine that? Their solutions to these so-called “problems” are the scary part: closing public schools, more testing and no job security.

None of this would be too bad if these people who wish to reform the school system actually believed the stuff they say. Unfortunately, their cures for what ails the system are merely fronts for another agenda. In the end, these people do not want you to get an education at all. They are corporate types that would much rather go back to the days when children worked.  Barring that, they want to turn education into a series of barks and bubbles. They want to train you, train all of us, to bark on command. They want you to spend every waking hour training to fill in bubbles, the “correct” bubbles as determined by them, your corporate masters.

Is it not obvious at this point? Good barkers and bubblers are good workers and consumers. If left up to them, none of us would have the capacity to think. They wish to disarm our intellect. A thoroughly vegetated population is a population easily controlled.

The stakes have certainly risen since the days when I thought that my only job was to be a role model. You want to teach? Be prepared to wake up early, sleep late, get paid less, do more, have control over nothing and be blamed for everything. Don’t get me wrong, we need teachers but we need teachers who are warriors. It is not enough any longer to love a subject or an age group, carve out a nice little career for yourself and then retire secure in the thought that you made a difference. There will be none of that any longer. Everything you do, whether you are at school, at home or in the grocery store, must revolve around the preservation of this institution we call “education”.

If, after hearing all of this, you still want to be a teacher, then you might be what we need. If not just remember that, one day, you will have children of your own who need a school in which to learn.

WHAT DO MOTHER THERESA AND MICHELLE RHEE HAVE IN COMMON?

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A recent study out of Canada casts doubt on the saintly reputation of Mother Theresa. Their essential thesis is that, despite the fact she took in millions of dollars in donations, the dying people for whom she cared in Calcutta were subjected to horrible conditions. Part of this, they contend, is because Mother Theresa saw beauty in suffering.

The study is really not saying anything Christopher Hitchens did not say many years ago in his documentary Hell’s Angel:

Out of the many convincing arguments Hitchens makes the one that sticks out is that, while primitive and unsanitary conditions were good enough for the people in Calcutta, Mother Theresa herself took advantage of the best medical care the western world had to offer when she got sick. That right there is enough for me to be skeptical of her motives.

To be clear, I do not mean this to be an attack on the Catholic Church. The media hyped her up way before the church did, even though the church did nothing to dispel the hype. If anything, the church saw Mother Theresa as a useful public relations tool to help prop up dreadful church attendance around the world. The blame for Mother Theresa’s undeserved reputation for purity and virtue rest with the media and the woman herself.

Mother Theresa was comfortable hobnobbing with the world’s political and financial elite. She sung Ronald Reagan’s praises, even as he was funding illegal wars in Central America that killed many members of the Catholic Church, including clergy. Her organization pulled in millions of dollars from banksters with questionable ethics, including those associated with the infamous Keating Five. All of her photo-ops provided moral cover to people who killed, swindled and oppressed millions.

What I say here is unpopular and will most likely offend many true believers. It really is no different from the way the education debate goes in this country. The media seizes upon people associated with the elite, like Michelle Rhee for example. They attribute to her selfless motives in trying to “help” some of the most downtrodden people in society. Meanwhile, what she provides to those downtrodden people is of questionable value. The question arises: what happened with all of those millions if it is obviously not going to help people?

Yet, even suggesting such a question will elicit a fair share of vitriol. How dare we question people who have made it their life’s mission to help people? We must have our own selfish motivations. Either we are anti-religious bigots of union hacks who fear accountability.

The fact that so many believe the hype about something is the biggest reason why we should be skeptical. Instead of falling into line because it is the popular thing to do, we need to be the voice in the wilderness that brings people back down to earth. Otherwise, we run the risk of group-think, tyranny of the majority and out-and-out mob rule.

Both Mother Theresa and the education reformers want for other, usually poor, people things of which they do not avail themselves. If that does not raise a red flag then nothing will.

THE LEGACY OF LYNDON JOHNSON

Lyndon Johnson, the last truly homespun president.

Lyndon Johnson, the last truly homespun president.

It was announced over the weekend that Robert Caro has won yet another literary award, this time for the fourth and latest volume in his majestic biography of Lyndon Johnson entitled The Passage of Power. It covers Johnson’s non-campaign in the 1960 Democratic primaries through those first heady months of his presidency. Even though I bought the book the day it came out, I did not start reading it until last week. I have had a fascination with Lyndon Johnson before I started devouring Caro’s volumes. Caro’s work has served to deepen my fascination and understanding of one of the nation’s most controversial presidents.

Being born in the post-Vietnam era, I never inherited the knee-jerk hatred that many Americans from the previous generation seem to have for him. It is a shame that the Vietnam War will follow Johnson’s legacy throughout history, even though it is a shame that Johnson brought upon himself. Scared to death of looking weak in the face of what he perceived as communist aggression, Johnson  was the president most responsible for leading the nation into the war for which the term “quagmire” seemed to be coined.

Looking at Johnson’s pre-presidential career, it seemed unlikely that a war for independence halfway around the globe would be the thing that ended up destroying him. Born in the Texas Hill Country in 1908, Lyndon’s focus had always been local. Whether local meant rural Texas, Capitol Hill or the United States of America, matters of foreign policy rarely ever drew his attention. Maybe this was the problem. He was so domestically focused that he was ill-prepared to deal with Cold War geopolitics when forced to do so as president.

His father was once an important man who had fallen from grace and died penniless. Word got around the Hill Country that Old Man Johnson was a failure.  Lyndon, by all accounts, very much resembled his father physically. For his entire life, he strove to ensure that he did not end up resembling his father in any other way. He was going to be somebody. He was going to be the President of the United States, not a failure. Ambition would be the driving force of his entire life, but it was by no means the only driving force.

The Hill Country was not only cruel to his father. It was a large pocket of rural poverty and backwardness where most people lived as they had since the 19th century. It was one of the last places in the United States to have electricity. Johnson had seen how poverty affected his neighbors. During his brief stint as a teacher of children of Mexican migrant workers, he had seen up close how poverty affected people of other races as well. He would take these experiences with him throughout the rest of his life. If he ever got the chance he was going to do something to help people in need, no matter their race.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he idolized Franklin Roosevelt. He came of age when FDR just started implementing his New Deal, the first real effort by the federal government to help people who had fallen on hard times. When the opportunity to be part of the New Deal presented itself, Johnson jumped at the chance. It was his involvement with the federal programs of the New Deal that helped him cut his political teeth. Few politicians in American History have cut their teeth so well and so successfully.

It was not only the New Deal that drew Johnson to FDR. Roosevelt was a consummate politician. More than any other president, he was able to be all things to all people. Running in his first presidential campaign in 1932, FDR promised a “New Deal for the American people”. History now shows that FDR did not really have much of an idea of what this would mean. However, to a country wracked by the worst economic crisis it had ever experienced, a “New Deal” sounded pretty good. Roosevelt was convincing because he knew what people wanted to hear. Johnson would take these lessons with him too, much like he took with him the lessons of the Texas Hill Country. It was Roosevelt after whom Johnson tried to pattern himself by using his initials LBJ. While tuning up for his abortive presidential campaign in 1960, he would tell his aides “it’s important the people start thinking of me in terms of initials: LBJ, FDR, LBJ, FDR, get it?”

It is little wonder then that FDR took a shine to LBJ. If they were peas in a pod it was because Johnson was making the effort to be so. His relationship with Franklin Roosevelt helped propel him into national elective office. He spent several years in the House of Representatives where he forged an alliance with Speaker Sam Rayburn. Rayburn would be one of the most powerful men in the United States, certainly the most powerful southern politician and the most important ally in Lyndon Johnson’s career.

LBJ spent 12 years in the House of Representatives but it was in the Senate where he forged his reputation as one of the shrewdest politicians in the United States. Shortly after he was elected, LBJ strolled into the Senate chamber after hours to look over his new work place. He muttered the words “it’s the perfect size”. As a Representative, Johnson was one of a crowd. As a Senator, he was part of an elite club. More importantly, the Senate was small enough for him to work his powers of persuasion. He could hit Senators one-on-one with the “Johnson Treatment” until he got the votes he needed.

Johnson was a tall, lanky fellow. He would always be impeccably dressed: tailored suits, hair slicked back, “LBJ” cuff links glistening in the light. That is why when he cornered a Senator, leaned his face into theirs and threatened, promised, flattered or cajoled, the Senator would usually give him what he wanted. This was the “Johnson Treatment”. Thanks in part to this tactic, Johnson would go on to be the most powerful Senator in the United States.

In a very short time he would be the Senate Majority Leader, gathering into that job powers that it had never seen before. LBJ would say “power is where power goes” and he certainly knew which people held the power. To the men of the Beltway who could do him harm (or favors), he was sickeningly obsequious.  To men and women who he did not need or who needed him, he was sickeningly rude. Stories of LBJ treating his staffers, and even his wife, with cruelty have become legendary.

Like when his wife, Lady Bird, would host parties for the Washington elite. Johnson would have no problem ordering his wife around like a maid, yelling out “Biiirrrrddd” in a high-pitched voice very much resembling a “Suey” call on a hog farm. It caused Bird a great deal of embarrassment and indignity to the point where many Washington wives pitied her.

Then there are the times when he would require staffers to take dictation while he was sitting on the toilet. He would open the door to the bathroom, lean his face out so a staffer could see him and then motion the staffer over with a “come here” motion of his index finger. All the while his face would be stone cold, letting the staffer know he was indeed serious. It was a way to test their loyalty, as well as test how far he could push his subordinates before they would push back.

Even around men of power he could be incredibly crude. At state dinners, where foreign dignitaries would dine, he would scarf down his food, let out a loud belch and leave the table all in the course of 10 minutes without saying a word. As majority leader, when his seat was in the front of the Senate chamber so that everyone could see him, he would turn to them and administer his eye drops in the most histrionic fashion possible. Or, with his back to them, he would dig out his wedgies and scratch his butt in the same dramatic way. When swapping tales of womanizing with his fellow Senators (LBJ had several extra-marital affairs), he would often brag about the size of his penis, saying things like “Old Jumbo sure got a workout last night.” He was caricature of himself on the Hill.

It is amazing that a man like this ever became president. Of course, it almost never happened thanks to his ill-conceived run at the Democratic nomination in 1960. He ended up accepting the Vice Presidential nomination when it was offered by John Kennedy, even though he disliked Jack and absolutely hated his brother Robert. However, in LBJ’s calculations, the Vice Presidency was the best road to the White House. Without it, he would have to wait another 8 years and probably run against men who had been in the national spotlight more than him. With it, he would be in the national spotlight himself and be a heartbeat away from the presidency, although nobody expected the young Jack Kennedy to die in office.

His 3 years as Vice President were probably the most miserable of his career. JFK surrounded himself with Harvard-educated men who had no use for the homespun LBJ. They gave him the unflattering nickname of “Rufus Cornpone”, made fun of him behind his back and isolated him from most of the important decisions. For his part, LBJ had no use for them. Before the election, he said that JFK was not a man’s man, which was one of the worst insults LBJ could throw at someone. He saw JFK’s inner circle in general as a bunch of spoiled brats who had everything in life handed to them.

And then the impossible happened. The young president was shot dead in Dallas. All of the sudden, Lyndon had the job he had always wanted, the job that meant he was a somebody. He had beaten the odds by becoming the first truly southern president since Zachary Taylor, and the first from the state of Texas.

The rest is history. He deftly attached himself to the dead president’s legacy by using his ample parliamentary skills to get JFK’s programs pushed through Congress. Part of this program was enacting the first substantial civil rights law in 100 years, a law that went on to become one of the crowning achievements of the entire Civil Rights movement. The biggest irony of all was that it was done by a southerner, one who never had a good reputation in liberal circles. His actions led to the biggest political realignment of the 20th century. Southerners bolted the Democratic Party for good. Minorities, liberals and other northeasterners would forever hitch their wagon to the star of the Democratic Party. Much of what we take for granted in the political world today is a direct legacy of President Lyndon Johnson.

Then, when running for election in his own right, he trounced Barry Goldwater. Sure, Goldwater was seen as a reactionary and ran one of the worst campaigns of any presidential candidate ever. But Johnson deserves credit for running a great campaign, one that included a television ad that set the standard for all future presidential campaigns:

Johnson went on to win in a landslide, the first elected president from Texas, the first elected president from the south since Zachary Taylor in 1848.

With Johnson reaching the height of his ambition, and with new elections another 4 years away, he was able to give reign to his sense of justice. He declared a War on Poverty and promised America that he would help lead them to a Great Society. Medicare and Medicaid are direct descendants of this promise. LBJ expanded the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (what would be known as “welfare”) through expanding the rights of poor people. He hired a Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, to head up a War on Poverty. Federal funds started flooding the poorest areas of the nation. The idea of community control allowed these areas to spend the money as they saw fit. Not since the New Deal had the federal government gone to such lengths to help the most downtrodden people in America.

If Johnson’s life taught him that the federal government had the ability and the duty to help the poor, it also taught him that he needed to keep the rich and powerful on his side. Johnson was a friend of big business  and big business had been lobbying the government for years to institute meaningful immigration reform. They wanted to rewrite many of the laws that had closed off the borders since the 1920s. Johnson gave them the Immigration Act of 1965, which opened America to an extent not seen since the late 1800s. Unions had been fighting this type of immigration policy for decades out of fear that it would lower wages. Business had been fighting for this policy for the same reason. The law would end up being the Rosetta Stone for the New Democratic Party, one less reliant on labor unions, more compliant with the whims of big business and anxious to brandish its liberal credits by fighting for “diversity”.

All of these things would be overshadowed by Vietnam. Johnson had lived through McCarthyism and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He had seen how being “weak” on communism both destroyed political careers and led to international embarrassment for the United States. When the forces of Ho Chi Minh seemed poised to take control of Vietnam, both north and south, LBJ was determined to prevent it from happening. Using his skill at getting Congress to bend to his whim, he got them to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964) which gave him full control over the U.S. response to the Vietnam conflict. When asked by his advisors if America was able to fight a war on poverty at home on top of a war against Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, LBJ responded “we’re America, we can do it all.”

This quote, more than anything else, represents the type of optimism permeating the United States since after World War II. LBJ was expressing the common assumption at the time, one that put stock in both the righteousness and omnipotence of America’s role in the world.

And it is a shame that this quote, more than anything, signaled America’s pride before the fall. Johnson started his presidency like a house of fire, making progress on civil rights, poverty and immigration. He would end his presidency in disgrace with the country mired in Vietnam, riots in every major city and a youth culture thoroughly alienated from authority. Johnson’s presidency is the hinge between America’s golden age and America’s downfall. The quote that “we’re America, we can do it all” would be unrealistic today. Our leaders would never say this now. We are living in an age of limits.

America had been able to interfere in Korea, Berlin, Cuba and a million other places without embarrassment or losing a tremendous amount of face. Vietnam put a black eye on all of this. It made the U.S. afraid of getting involved in any large-scale conflict in the future, lest the government lose credibility and another generation be bled white. Instead, the U.S. would relegate itself to small-scale conflicts with limited aims. Or, in the case of Iraq, the U.S. would expand its aims without giving away too much to the media lest they stir up opposition at home.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

Americans were still poor after the War on Poverty. Civil rights leaders were still dissatisfied after LBJ’s laws. Riots broke out in every major city during the 1960s. “Black Power” became the watchword of black leaders. Native Americans at Wounded Knee were gearing up to defend their way of life and battle centuries of mistreatment. The government was doing more than ever to help people and yet people were still unhappy. LBJ, watching the riots on TV in the Oval Office, mouthed the words “what more do these people want?” It was a question that many people would ask. A backlash started brewing which contended that poverty and racism could not be solved by the government. The next generation of leaders, represented by California Governor Ronald Reagan, gained popularity on the idea that people would have to solve their own problems through rugged individualism and the market. The nanny state that took care of its people would be dismantled after the supposed failure of the 1960s.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

Before becoming president, Johnson was always sure to keep his distance from the oilmen who ran Texas. He knew that he would never get elected to the White House if voters thought the oilmen had purchased him. Yet, Johnson was a fan and a friend of big business. Moreover, he never had a good relationship with labor. Labor leaders threatened to bolt the Democratic Party when JFK chose LBJ for his ticket. Johnson would slowly lead the party away from labor and towards big business. The Immigration Act was a taste of what the Democratic Party would become in the future, what the Democratic Party is today, which is a pro-business, luke-warm-to-hostile towards labor party.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

Finally, Johnson’s personal hatred for Bobby Kennedy would split the Democrats. The two men had hated each other since the day they met in the 1950s and that hatred had grown since that time. When Kennedy ran for the Democratic nomination in 1968, LBJ from behind the scenes was determined to prevent it from happening. He threw his full support behind his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, who would go on to be seen as the “establishment” candidate (even though he had a track record just as, if not more, liberal than RFK). Kennedy, through his compassion for the poor and opposition to Vietnam, was the choice of the younger generation. The Humphrey(LBJ)/RFK split would tear the Democrats apart in 1968. RFK was killed before he could officially get the party nomination. The candidate who claimed his mantle, Eugene McCarthy, was no RFK . When Humphrey was chosen at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, it led to a full-scale riot that became the symbol of the excesses of the youth movement and counterculture. Never again would young people be as involved in, or as successful at, shaping the political landscape.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

There is no telling what the world would have been like if Johnson had stayed out of Vietnam. Few presidents have possessed ambition, compassion and effectiveness as completely as LBJ. His ambition was his guide. It would be what led to his undoing, not to mention his party’s and the nation’s undoing. At the same time, if he did not have this ambition, it is doubtful he would have ever become president so he could be in a position to help right some of America’s wrongs. Maybe the U.S. would have still progressed without Johnson, although probably not as fast.

Too much, too fast, too soon, these could be the things that define Johnson’s legacy. For all of his faults, the United States has not seen a president as compassionate as him ever since. Nobody says anymore what America can do, what the government can do. Nobody says anymore “we’re America, we can do it all.” Instead, our leaders tell us what America cannot do, what the government cannot do. The Neoliberal Revolution that defined the post-LBJ era has been all about “can’t”, all about limits. Obama’s and Congress’ solution to our problems has been austerity, which is one large policy of “can’t”.

It is not at all clear that America has been better off by rejecting the policies for which LBJ stood. LBJ is a scary reminder of all that we have lost over the past 50 years.

CONFESSIONS OF A FUTURE HISTORY TEACHER

history-teacher

Please welcome guest blogger Ms. Ortiz. This is the first of what I hope to be many contributions from her.

Ten years ago, I would have never imagined that I would be in college studying the liberal arts, much less history. I was good at math and believed history was the most boring subject a kid could be forced to take. My years of learning history in middle school felt like review of what I had already learned in elementary school, which was American history and the structure of our government. The only difference was that, in middle school, I had to memorize dates that meant very little to me. It’s tough to get motivated to have dates, people and what seemed to be random events drilled into your brain.

When I started high school I expected my history class to be the same boring, rote rundown of disconnected events and dates. I didn’t anticipate putting more effort than necessary into the class, just enough for a decent grade. My first week in high school completely changed my attitude towards history. The class wasn’t the same drill I had gotten used to. Instead, history was presented in a story-like fashion where seemingly unimportant events had the ability to change the course of humanity. I wondered about what if something else had happened instead, which sparked my interest in the past. I’m sure that I annoyed my teachers with these questions. My interest in these what-if questions motivated me to learn as much as I could.

Apparently, history wasn’t the study of disjointed facts and dates like I learned in grammar through middle school. Instead, I began to see the interconnectedness of historical events. This new way of looking at history enabled me to actually remember the facts that had been previously drilled into me to no avail. Before I knew it, I actually even appreciated the subject. We are all a product of history. Without historical understanding, we would not able to make sense of the world today and how we got to where we are now

Because of this, I decided to major in history in college. As I take more history classes I have been able to make sense of how the past relates to the present and how it fits together like a giant puzzle. Take a look at the early years of Christianity. A seemingly obscure movement in the Middle East grew into a church that ended up dominating society socially, politically, and economically. If the church hadn’t risen to power the way it did, we would be living in a totally different world today.

So now here I am, just a few months away from having the opportunity to teach history myself as a student teacher. I will have the chance to teach children who are the same age I was when I first caught the history bug. It is exciting to think that a student could possibly leave my class loving history. Hopefully, as I grow into a career, I can help students learn to use the past as a way to unlock the rhythm of the present. Hopefully, I can help students see how the past has helped configure the world in which we live today. Hopefully, and most importantly, I can arm students with the tools they need to decode the past so they can imagine a better future.

The road ahead of me is long. There are many things I have yet to learn. But one thing I know is the value of bringing history alive for my future students. This is the possibility that excites me the most.

SALMAN KHAN TRIES HIS HAND AT AMERICAN HISTORY

That's right, another big thumbs down for the Khan Academy.

That’s right, another big thumbs down for the Khan Academy.

As a glutton for punishment, I sat down to watch a brief Khan Academy video about the end of the Civil War. It is six minutes long and entitled “Appomattox Court House and Lincoln’s Assassination.” The video exemplifies many of the major problems with Khan Academy videos that have been echoed by teachers in other fields.

To be fair, Khan and his team seem to be more knowledgeable of, and focused on, math and science. From what I understand, history is one of the more undeveloped parts of the Khan Academy repertoire. Therefore, I will be criticizing Khan in one of his most vulnerable areas.

As a history teacher, I would certainly not encourage my students to use this video as a primer or a refresher on the end of the Civil War. The one thing that jumped out at me about it was how it seemed like a spoken textbook. It is probably not a stretch to think that Khan, who narrates the video, read a few paragraphs from a textbook about the end of the Civil War and summarized it in spoken word. I threw out the textbook years ago for some of the very same deficiencies found in this video.

Appomattox Court House, as you may remember from high school, was the place where Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. This is mentioned in the video. The only problem is, Khan assumes that the watcher knows who these men are. He has pictures of them and writes their names next to each of the pictures. What side they represented or what their roles were he never says. Perhaps his previous videos on the war go into a little more depth about these men. It still doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have taken an extra 30 seconds to clarify who they were in this video, especially if he meant it to be something of a primer or review.

One of the major weaknesses of the piece is how he characterizes the events of April 9, 1865 at Appomattox. He says that even though Lee surrendered, it wasn’t the “official” end of the war. There were other Confederate armies in other parts of the country that fought on beyond this date. Khan correctly points out that this was due to the slow communication technology of the era. However, it was pretty clear to anyone alive back then that the surrender of Lee meant the surrender of the south. Lee led the main Confederate Army whose role it was to protect the Confederate capital of Richmond by that point in the war. His capitulation to Grant was rightly seen as the end, as “official” an end as anyone was going to get.

It is a shame how mechanical, how stale, how dry the whole surrender was presented. He basically says that Lee (whoever that guy was) surrendered to Grant (whoever that guy was) in the city of Appomattox Court House. To his credit, he explains that Appomattox Court House was an actual town and not a building. What he did not explain was that towns back then with “Court House” in their names usually signified that they were the seat of county government. A minor detail but one he could have taken 10 seconds to explain so things could make just a little more sense.

What’s missing from his Appomattox story? First, the fact that Lee’s men were starving and deserting by that point. Grant had been burning down large swaths of the Shenandoah Valley, a major food source for Lee’s army. Desertions in the Confederate Army were a relative rarity, since Johnny Reb tended to be a motivated soldier with a fervent belief in the cause. There is no explanation of why Lee felt the need to surrender. Second, he doesn’t describe the respect both men had for each other. This is more than just a minor detail. Grant had one eye on the future. He knew he needed to treat Lee with mercy since, once again, they would be countrymen. The last thing Grant wanted to do was treat Lee’s army like a conquered people and engender more animus between North and South that might sabotage any effort to Reconstruct the Union. Indeed, the term “Appomattox Peace” has come to characterize any charitable treatment of a defeated army. Khan mentions none of this. Less importantly, there were the stylistic differences between the two men. Lee, the southern gentlemen in his finely pressed and cleaned uniform, laying his sword at the feet of the dirty and disheveled Grant, the man who was once kicked out of the army for drunkenness. If one did not know any better, it would look like Lee was the victor. Also, in one of the most memorable scenes of the war, the victorious Union soldiers raised their guns in salute of the Confederate boys who were laying down their arms. It was a show of respect between newly reunited countrymen and proof that, contrary to what Khan states, this was in fact the end of the war. These details that Khan left out are the stuff of history. These are the things that make history come alive for students. The lack of these details turns the telling of history into a rote series of events with no wider significance. Khan’s video is just as bad as a textbook in this way.

Probably the biggest deficiency in the video is his retelling of the Lincoln assassination. He claims that the war was not over the day Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater, despite the fact that Lee had surrendered 5 days before. If Khan bothered to do serious research, he might have learned that the sheer fact that Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater was proof that the war was pretty much over in his mind. For the previous 4 years, Lincoln had spent all of his waking hours at the War Department or the Oval Office keeping meticulous track of the goings-on at the battlefield. He had neglected himself in the process and certainly had no time for frivolities like plays. Because of his dedication to saving the Union, he and Mary Todd had drifted apart. Going to Ford’s Theater shows that Lincoln believed he finally had some breathing room. It was also a way to spend an evening with the wife he had neglected for 4 years.

Khan then introduces John Wilkes Booth. He correctly points out that Booth was an actor sympathetic to the south who had conspired with some buddies to pretty much decapitate the federal government. On the evening Lincoln was killed, there were plans to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. What he did not mention, and what he probably does not even know, is that Booth had originally planned to kidnap Lincoln. The kidnapping plot was the result of one of the lesser-known stories of the Civil War.

Booth had a brother in the Confederate Army who was being held as a prisoner of war in Elmira prison in upstate New York. The reason why his brother and so many soldiers of both sides were languishing in POW camps had to do with Lincoln’s changing views on the status of black people. It was customary in warfare at the time to swap POWs. You release my men, I release yours. However, the south had refused to release black prisoners they had captured from the Union Army. The Confederates considered these men contraband, or captured property, and intended to use them as slaves. Lincoln refused to agree to any POW exchanges unless the south released blacks and whites equally. The south did not budge on this, neither did Lincoln, and POWs on both sides stacked up as the war went on. Lincoln took much heat for this decision from northerners who had relatives in the south’s POW camps. At the Georgia prison in Andersonville, northern POWs were suffering from malnutrition and neglect. Many people blamed Lincoln for consigning these men to horrible fates just so he could “coddle the black man”. It was one of Lincoln’s most controversial, if not courageous, decisions as president.

Therefore, Booth had planned to kidnap Lincoln so he could exchange him for Confederate POWs, including his brother. However, as the war got progressively hopeless for the south, Booth and his cabal went for a full-fledged assassination conspiracy to throw the north into disarray. Perhaps this was the thing that could turn the war around for the south. Khan doesn’t mention this. He turns one of the most fascinating stories in American history into a dry, semi-factual rundown.

Booth was one of the nation’s most famous actors who had played Ford Theater many times in his life. He had pretty much unlimited access to come and go as he pleased. After all, who would tell Tom Cruise today that he could not walk into a movie theater when he felt like it? The name of the play that Lincoln was scheduled to see was Our American Cousin, a comedy with which Booth was very familiar. His plan was to pull the trigger at a point in the play where the crowd would be laughing, a line where one of the characters calls another character a “sockdologizing old mantrap”. Khan correctly mentions that Lincoln’s security detail, stationed at the feet of the steps to his balcony, had disappeared. No president had ever been assassinated before, so the lax presidential security during the 1860s was understandable. Booth made his way up the stairs, waited for the line and pulled the trigger to his derringer. Mary Todd screamed. Lincoln’s guest, Major Henry Rathbone (Lincoln originally invited General Grant), wrestled with Booth, only to be stabbed in the arm. Booth jumped off the balcony onto the stage, breaking his ankle when his boot got caught on the American flag draped over the presidential balcony. He yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannus. The South is Avenged!” before hobbling off the stage and making his way outside to his horse, where he immediately pistol whipped the poor peanut vendor who was good enough to be holding it for him. Booth was on the run for two weeks before being shot up in a blaze of glory out in the Maryland woods. Khan doesn’t mention any of these details, details that bring life to the story. He does mention that people thought it might have been part of the play, which accounted for why nobody rushed to tackle Booth. Lincoln was brought to a house across the street where he died the next morning.

Khan sort of glosses over the rest of the story. He says the other conspirators were not as successful in killing their targets as was Booth. What he does not mention was that the guy slated to kill Johnson got drunk and chickened out instead. He does mention that Seward got stabbed in the face but never explains why. Seward had been in a carriage accident and was bedridden in a body cast. Lewis Powell, one of Booth’s co-conspirators, knocked on Seward’s door telling the butler the doctor sent him to drop off some medicine that he needed to show Seward how to administer. The butler let him. Powell then walked up the stairs where he encountered Seward’s son, who was suspicious of the stranger. He was going to tell Powell to take a hike when Seward’s daughter popped her head out of the bedroom saying “Papa will see you now.” This gave away the room in which Seward was staying. He struggled past Seward’s son, ran into the room, jumped on top of Seward in the bed and began stabbing at him. Seward’s cast deflected most of the blows. Powell could only stab Seward in the face, which was the only uncovered part of Seward’s body. Powell was then subdued.

The only real story Khan tells is the one of the man whose house was used as the spot for Lee’s surrender. This man had lived near Bull Run Creek and the first battle of the war was fought on his property. In order to avoid future battles, he moved further into Virginia to Appomattox, where the last battle would also be fought on his property. It is a nice story but it is found in every single history textbook as one of those cute little side columns they put in order to make an otherwise stale retelling of history somewhat interesting. Khan does the same exact thing in this video, which leads me to think he actually did just read out of a textbook.

These are the things that Khan left out. One can argue that mentioning these things would have made the video longer and less accessible. I argue the video is inaccessible as it is now. Not only is it a sterile retelling of incomplete facts that he fails to connect to each other, it is boring as all bloody hell. It is the type of “teaching” a novice does when they are one chapter ahead of the class in the textbook. It is the type of “teaching” to be expected from someone with no knowledge of the subject.

Why not get an historian to tell the story? Why not do more research to make the story alive? Barring these things, why do the video at all? It teaches very little and in the most boring imaginable way. If you wanted to turn someone off to history or have a student write off history as nothing more than disconnected and useless facts or dates, this is the video I would use.

I know Khan fans will chime in with their defenses. You can save your apologies. Neither me nor any other real history teacher needs any help from Khan and his band of non-educators. I never asked for his videos or tools and I see absolutely no value in them. On top of it, I see it as insulting that Khan believes it is sufficient to read a few paragraphs out of a textbook, gather some pictures and draw some dates and names on a screen and pass it off as a history lesson.

You want history? Read a book. You want to teach history? Know your subject. Anything else is merely shortchanging the people you claim to want to help.