Archive for February 18, 2013

American Exceptionalism

February 18, 2013 2 comments


[NYT graphic, February 17, 2013. Source: Children’s Chances: How Countries Can Move From Surviving to Thriving by Jody Heymann With Kristen McNeill.]

It’s been a while since I wrote about American exceptionalism, which has evolved in Republican discourse from the belief that the US is special in a way related to its values, its law, its history, its example to the more simplistic belief—or axiom— that the US is just simply the best. Ever. And if you don’t agree, then you’re un-American. Like, you know, that Kenyan socialist Obama.

Which I find hard to reconcile with the enormous map that greeted me yesterday in the centerfold of the NYT Sunday Review section, accompanying a piece by Stephanie Coontz titled Why Gender Equality Stalled. You can see a reduced version above. The eight countries in red—the US, Suriname, Liberia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Western Samoa, and Tonga— are the only countries in the world without paid maternity leave. Exceptional for sure. But the exceptionalism of greatness? Or is it just possible that we’ve got something wrong here?

By chance, Glenn Greenwald used his column today in The Guardian to ponder Charles C.W. Cooke’s tweeted assertion that the US “is the greatest country in world history.”

At the very least, the tendency of the human brain to view the world from a self-centered perspective should render suspect any beliefs that affirm the objective superiority of oneself and one’s own group, tribe, nation, etc. The “truths” we’re taught to believe from birth – whether nationalistic, religious, or cultural – should be the ones treated with the greatest skepticism if we continue to embrace them in adulthood, precisely because the probability is so great that we’ve embraced them because we were trained to, or because our subjective influences led us to them, and not because we’ve rationally assessed them to be true (or, as in the case of the British Cooke, what we were taught to believe about western nations closely aligned to our own).

That doesn’t mean that what we’re taught to believe from childhood is wrong or should be presumed erroneous. We may get lucky and be trained from the start to believe what is actually true. That’s possible. But we should at least regard those precepts with great suspicion, to subject them to particularly rigorous scrutiny, especially when it comes to those that teach us to believe in our own objective superiority or that of the group to which we belong. So potent is the subjective prism, especially when it’s implanted in childhood, that I’m always astounded at some people’s certainty of their own objective superiority (“the greatest country in world history”).

In a similar vein, but with less at stake, I was surprised to discover when I moved to Seattle a few decades ago that some people in these parts thought Seattle was the greatest city, Washington the greatest state. I mean, really! Didn’t they know New York is?

Categories: Politics, Society

The Problem with Teachers

February 18, 2013 Leave a comment


The current issue of Academe, the bi-monthly publication of the American Association of University Professors, has an article by recently retired high school teacher Kenneth Bernstein with the title Warnings from the Trenches: A high school teacher tells college educators what they can expect in the wake of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. I don’t ordinarily read Academe. However, I saw a reference last week to a post the week before at Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post education blog The Answer Sheet in which she reprinted Bernstein’s article. It’s worth reading.

Here’s a sample:

Let me use as an example my own AP course, US Government and Politics. I served several times as a reader for the examination that follows the course. In that capacity, I read the constructed responses that make up half of the score of a student’s examination. I saw several problems.

First (and I acknowledge that I bear some culpability here), in the AP US Government exam the constructed responses are called “free response questions” and are graded by a rubric that is concerned primarily with content and, to a lesser degree, argument. If a student hits the points on the rubric, he or she gets the points for that rubric. There is no consideration of grammar or rhetoric, nor is credit given or a score reduced based on the format of the answer. A student who takes time to construct a clear topic sentence and a proper conclusion gets no credit for those words. Thus, a teacher might prepare the student to answer those questions in a format that is not good writing by any standard. If, as a teacher, you want your students to do their best, you have to have them practice what is effectively bad writing— no introduction, no conclusion, just hit the points of the rubric and provide the necessary factual support. Some critical thinking may be involved, at least, but the approach works against development of the kinds of writing that would be expected in a true college-level course in government and politics.

My students did well on those questions because we practiced bad writing. My teaching was not evaluated on the basis of how well my students did, but I felt I had a responsibility to prepare them for the examination in a way that could result in their obtaining college credit.

Bernstein in turn links to and quotes from a 2010 blog post in Education Week by 2009 national teacher of the year Anthony Mullen. Old news, but worth reading three years later.

Mullen describes a roundtable discussion at an education conference in which he participates along with “three state governors, one state senator, a Harvard professor and author, and a strange little man who assumes the role of group moderator.” The others discuss and agree on the failings of contemporary teachers, who one governor explains “are not prepared to teach in 21st century classrooms because they possess, in his words, ‘only 20th century skills.’ He does not provide specific examples or elaborate upon his theory but the other guests at the table nod their heads in agreement.”

Mullen stays silent, until finally the senator asks his thoughts.

Where do I begin? I spent the last thirty minutes listening to a group of arrogant and condescending non educators disrespect my colleagues and profession. I listened to a group of disingenuous people whose own self-interests guide their policies rather than the interests of children. I listened to a cabal of people who sit on national education committees that will have a profound impact on classroom teaching practices. And I heard nothing of value.

“I’m thinking about the current health care debate,” I said. “And I am wondering if I will be asked to sit on a national committee charged with the task of creating a core curriculum of medical procedures to be used in hospital emergency rooms.”

“I realize that most people would think I am unqualified to sit on such a committee because I am not a doctor, I have never worked in an emergency room, and I have never treated a single patient. So what? Today I have listened to people who are not teachers, have never worked in a classroom, and have never taught a single student tell me how to teach.”

Categories: Education