Journal of Educational Controversy


Friday, March 27, 2009

Author Bill Lyne Responds To Teachers on "Beautiful Losers"

Bill Lyne, author of the controversial (naturally) article "Beautiful Losers" in our 2008 issue on "Schooling as if Democracy Matters," met with teachers, both university and secondary, and students at Bellingham High School on February 17th, 2009, to talk about the article.

The article is one of the most thought-and-argument-provoking, that we've ever published. I disagree with some of it, and I help to edit the journal. Yet I can't help but see the wisdom of his argument. Lyne's urge to "give up hope to give up despair" created quite a stir with this group of teachers and potential teachers here at BHS. Read on to see what they said.

Bill Lyne, Bellingham High School, 2/17/09

BL: I’d like to start by saying, with some sense of humility, that I hope to learn as much from you all as you might learn from me or more. I don’t know much about teaching high school. I did it for a year and I was fired. (laughter)

This article was written in response to an article by a man named Henry Giroux, in the same issue of the JEC, and it also was in response to the topic “Schooling as if Democracy Matters.” Part of my article began with this question: is there is actually democracy to be had? The other part of the article was in response to Giroux’s notion that now is the time for us to take back our schools from what he saw as mind-numbing corporate influences. I tried to pose this question: we understand that we want to take this back to something democratic, but what are we taking it from? From Dick Cheney? What is it that he imagines us taking it to?

He poses some sort of utopian path where democratic schools are the place where liberation takes place. It seems to me that American history calls that into question. I wanted to at least complicate the idea that schools have ever been that kind of place.

In the line of work that I’m in a lot of people peg me as a professional pessimist. I go around saying “everything is bad bad bad and if you think it’s good this is really bad." So often I get this question: “What do we do?”

It seems to me there are two ways to answer that. One verges toward this kind of romantic utopian thing, you know: “we must feed the children, we must live our lives honorably.” The other answer is “really, I don’t know.” And that is the more honest answer. If you look at the history of the United States, especially under a capitalist arrangement, and if you choose to work in a place like this, or the place where I work, or any public school in this country, you must recognize that these are institutions of the state. Especially in the earlier grades, the job of institutions of the state is more about indoctrination than opening minds. It’s about teaching kids the Pledge of Alliance, Columbus discovered America, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, and we used to have a race problem but we don’t anymore.

You deliver some sort of usable and marketable skills, reading and writing and arithmetic, but generally speaking, what institutions of the state, a state that is designed to create a class society, are going to do is continue to reinforce the inequalities of a class society.

Working at any public school, we have to recognize that the possibilities of genuinely or fundamentally changing the society through teaching are really pretty low.

What we’re doing is bound by those restrictions and we probably get into more trouble when we deny that than admit it. Paraphrasing James Baldwin, “We can’t possibly solve all the problems that we face, but we aren’t going to solve any of them if we don’t face them.

Now, the frustration that comes with being unable to have those answers shouldn’t be turned into, “well, those answers aren’t really there.” The first shot is to articulate. That was the problem with Henry Giroux’s article: he was imagining a history of past schools that just didn’t exist.

He gave a lot of exhortation to take back our schools, but had very little practical advice about how to do that, and very little recognition of the kinds of punishments and restrictions that would actually greet anyone who might try that.

Q: There’s a lot of research hush-hush that says that the NCLB and Title 1 and basically what we’re doing isn’t really changing the gap, but is more like obscuring the world and keeping people in misery. I’d like to think that what I do here is good for the world. And now, with this article, I’m feeling rather dejected, and that’s what’s bothering me the most.

BL: Yeah, I get that a lot.

Q: Because I do believe I’m doing good. I do believe I’m making a difference.

BL: And certainly I think that’s probably true. I think that by and large, most people who choose to take jobs where you don’t get paid very much and teach people in public schools are doing really good.

I think that absolutely everybody here in any kind of school is doing good work. The point is to recognize where that work is. We might inspire individual students. We might create opportunities for individual students. But the work that we do is not going to fundamentally rearrange the gap that you’re talking about, not in terms of the gap in access to rewards in society that are created along race lines and class lines.

Which is not to put down the goodness of the work we all do, but also not to over-imagine or over-dramatize about it.

Q: That’s discouraging, but I don’t disagree with the truth of it.

BL: You know, I like to think of myself as an upbeat and cheery guy, yet everywhere I go, people say, “wow, you’re a drag.” (laughter) I think that part of what’s been beat into us is that if we can’t, as teachers, imagine that we’re changing the world, we should feel like failures. Admitting to ourselves that “look, this is a job, it’s got certain rewards and does things for me personally and I feel like I’m helping some people,” but in terms of revolutionizing the world no, I’m not doing that,” well, that can be a liberating realization. We don’t need to feel guilty about telling that truth.

If a truly revolutionary method of teaching becomes too successful it often gets crushed. When the Black Panthers were slaughtered by the state in the 1960s, it was in response not to their guns but their schools. They were incredibly successful with a lot of their programs, many of which were later adopted by the state of California, but in terms of educating the children of black inner-city America, and educating them outside of the curriculum sanctioned by the state—well that became incredibly threatening to the state, and they had a storm of fire raining down on them.

Historically, we see the problem in changing education as an “inside-outside” thing. The metaphor for that is the voting for Ralph Nader. “I’m going to vote for Ralph Nader.” You know, it just made me the nut that my friends suspected I was.

And yet, if you can’t break the status quo and put someone like Nader in office, you must start asking what the point is of voting at all.

Well, the big difference there was that we got George Bush.

This dynamic of inside and outside is one that people in our position struggle with all the time. When I taught high school—for a year in South Central LA, the students 98% black and 2 % Hispanic, with exactly one white kid—I showed up there a freshly scrubbed white boy from the suburbs there to tell them about the history of oppression.

Well, my students knew more about that stuff from the time they were four years old than I ever could. They were actually very patient with me, you know, they said: “That’s very interesting, but right now we have to get paid. You need to teach us how to read or how to do this other job skill. It’s a white man’s world, and you have to show us how to behave in a white world so that we can survive.”

That seems to be a genuine demand to be making. “I need you to deliver to me the kind of skills that were delivered to you as a matter of your birthright that will allow me to make progress within society as it’s arranged. I do not need you to be here talking to me all day about how badly society is arranged. I’ve lived that.”

Speaking again on that whole inside-outside thing, there was one brief exciting moment where I was chair of my department at my university. For years I walked around my department saying, “When I’m chair, I’m going to do this or do that,” and within days I found myself being compromised.

That’s the world of being chair. There was a very carefully circumscribed area. And if you stepped outside of that, your ability to be effective for your department became diminished. If I started screaming about what was wrong, that just made the dean and the the other chairs stop paying attention to me and my department suffered. So I had to be there making deals within the rules.

More to come from Bill's presentation.

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