Wednesday, July 28, 2021


In the Soviet Union, Stalin showed his people the 1940 movie The Grapes of Wrath, because it powerfully illustrated Americans’ poverty during the Depression. He stopped showing it when the audiences noticed that even the impoverished Joad family had a truck. A truck! No one in the glorious Soviet Union could afford a truck. Many collective farms couldn’t afford one. Yet a poor family in America could. Bad message for the New Soviet Man.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021


Historically, China had been able to accomplish massive projects because of its greatest advantage: a colossal labor force. By mobilizing the efforts of hundreds of millions of people together, mostly anything set out by the leader to be done, could be done. As a result, Mao sought to mobilize the peasant masses to concentrate on agriculture and industry using a tool that he often turned to his advantage: propaganda. For example, one of the propaganda posters used for the extermination of sparrows (The Great Sparrow Campaign) in the Four Pests Campaign had the caption, written in, “Everybody comes to beat the sparrows.” In this poster, two children are depicted; a young boy is holding a slingshot, presumably aimed at a sparrow not shown in the image, while a younger girl is holding several dead sparrows. The overall message is that the sparrow is the enemy, and suggests there is a war between man and nature. The rural village in the background emphasizes the effort put into this campaign by the people who live in the countryside. It also reveals that Mao saw the farmers as the key to his program; they are the brawn behind everything. Furthermore, the use of children in the poster draws in a community effort, as it presents a fact that even the youth are helping this effort. Having a mass work-force of hundreds of millions of people not only accelerated the country as a whole, but also accelerated Mao Zedong’s visions of improving both the industrial and agricultural sectors of China….

One of the main ways to achieve his objectives was the Great Sparrow Campaign, which drew on the peasants’ emotions and sense of a community to persuade them to join the campaign. Meant for use in school, one poster titled “Eliminating the last sparrow,” developed in 1959, exemplifies the heedless nature of the campaign. This poster features a sequence of two images, the first of which has a group of nine males, almost all holding shotguns, surrounding a barren tree with a lone sparrow resting on a branch. The next photo on the poster is the same group of males (adults and adolescents), but this time, they are surrounding the “last sparrow” that they just killed. All smile broadly, doubtless because they recognize their actions as beneficial and praiseworthy. This poster, by combining various age groups, demonstrates that eliminating sparrows and the other four pests requires everyone. Successfully recruiting a broad community effort is one of the main things that catapulted the Great Sparrow Campaign into such astonishing results in such a short time.

The equation for improving agricultural production was unbalanced and unworkable without commitment from the people. The numbers of people involved in these campaigns were not limited to those living in the countryside; all citizens were in a war with the pests, notably the sparrows. Their personal accounts express what would happen daily, ranging from building scarecrows to continually banging kitchenware all for the sole purpose of exterminating sparrows and protecting their grain. People played their roles successfully—almost too successfully. Despite the impressive data, their personal stories and experiences reveal a darker side to the numbers. By November of 1958, less than a year into the campaign, 1.98 billion sparrows were killed. The primary technique used to eliminate the birds was to keep them flying until they died of exhaustion, which normally took four hours. To achieve this, citizens fired guns, drummed, and did anything that they could do in order to keep the birds in the air:

I saw that a young woman was running to and fro...waving a bamboo pole with a large sheet attached to it...I realized that in all the upper stories of the hotel, white clad females were waving sheets and towels that were supposed to keep the sparrows from alighting on the building...During the whole day, it was drums, gunshots, screams, and waving bedclothes...The strategy behind this war on the sparrows boiled down to keeping the poor creature from coming to rest on a branch of tree…[I]t was claimed that a sparrow kept in the air for more than four hours was bound to drop from exhaustion.

The above account discloses the efforts used in the Four Pests Campaign. And almost every citizen was involved, as Mao put the Campaign as one of the highest priorities, emphasized by the description of the Campaign as a war. The resulting noise—screams and gunshots—left no room for negligence, or thinking that the war against the sparrows was insignificant.

Mao exploited many other avenues in this campaign. In addition to mobilizing the peasants in the countryside, he targeted citizens in the cities. In Peking, every morning at 5 A.M., the radio would broadcast the song, “Arise, arise, O millions with one heart; braving the enemy’s fire, march on.” This revolutionary anthem was sung for the students going out to battle the sparrow population. They would bang cymbals, blow whistles, and beat kitchenware, using the same technique of making the sparrows die of fatigue. Education and regular activities were replaced with the duties of a soldier at war with the sparrows.

The Results
The Great Leap Forward and the Four Pests Campaign did not produce the desired or even the anticipated results. He thought that his unprecedented actions would create a strong image for China as a world leader. It did not. The Four Pests Campaign, which Chairman Mao intended to make a positive impact on the grain quantity, resulted in the opposite. Sparrows play many roles, and not all of them are harmful to agriculture. They are the main predator for locusts, an insect which has a diet that primarily consists of grass and grain. The Desert Locust, specifically, targets the last moist part of the plant beneath the ear, causing complete loss of the grain. With the elimination of the sparrows, locust populations boomed and locust swarms would feast on the grain across the country. Locust outbreaks were common starting in the 1940s in China, as outbreaks occurred 1-2 years after El Niños and droughts. Floods and droughts created environments ideal for locusts to lay their eggs, as the survival rate increased with lack of rainfall. The largest damage often occurred just before the harvest was taken, “as swarms of locusts would obscure the sky and cover the countryside under a bristling blanket, devouring the crop...In the Jingzhou region more than 50,000 hectares were devastated.” The amount of grain that the growing population of locusts ate was far greater than what the sparrows would have eaten. Chairman Mao either did not know how to, or did not care to, make the calculations.

If Mao had heeded the experts or even listened to his fellow members of the CCP, the Great Famine would probably have not occurred. He knew little about the environment or animals, and this deficit, combined with his refusal to consult, led to the death of 45 million people. Mao knew one thing only about the plans he was executing; sparrows eat grain. He ignored the issues of biodiversity, and refused to contemplate how removing sparrows might affect the ecology in China. Chinese experts had expressed opposition to this idea, but Mao distrusted intellectuals; in fact, he had millions of academics denounced and killed, so that no one would be able to criticize him. Mao raised ignorance to a higher level by disregarding and disposing of opposing opinions, with disastrous results. The pattern of eliminating anyone who criticized his actions carried on to the Lushan Conference, as we will see. Mao’s pride made him and his country vulnerable to disasters.

The extermination of sparrows was also accompanied, ironically, by China’s ceaseless exports of grain, despite its starving citizens. In early 1959, in a secret meeting, Mao ordered the seizure of more than 30% of the available grain, an unprecedented rise in demand. Regarding the issue of exporting grain while people were dying of starvation, Mao observed, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” The Chairman evidently was not concerned about his rapidly declining population, and as suggested by his words, encouraged the deaths of some so that others might be content. Mao placed China’s economic success above his people’s lives—illustrating where his true loyalty lay.

As conditions worsened, the government was forced deeper into denial. Mass starvation across China resulted in numerous acts of cannibalism. A police report about an incident reveals the severe and challenging times that the Great Leap Forward ignited: “Relationship with culprit: younger brother. Manner of crime: killed and eaten. Reason: livelihood issues.” The act of killing and eating one’s own brother illustrates the conditions people were forced into. Reports were sent to Mao concerning the deaths and violence that ensued, but the Chairman did not allow these tragedies to stop him; instead, he pushed for greater extractions and demands. Production quotas for the communes were raised regardless of poor weather and without any reference to feasibility. To cope, officials faked and exaggerated reports to please the Chairman, masking the large shortcomings in production, and staged crop displays at the communes that Mao visited. However, any who questioned or doubted these reports or stages were labeled Rightists. But because the fabricated reports fed into a feedback loop which showed progress, the state continued to set unrealistic procurement quotas, increasing pressure on food sources and deepening the famine…

The Endgame
In the winter of 1960-1961, the government discovered how bad the situation had become and began to import grain and food from the West in efforts to rebuild the population. In January of 1962, Liu Shaoqi noted that the famine was caused by man, eroding support for the Chairman. Once Mao recognized that the Great Leap Forward and the killing of sparrows needed to stop and that he made “severe mistakes,” He was forced to import more than 200,000 sparrows from the Soviet Union to replace China’s wild population. During this transaction, even the Soviet Union’s scientists recognized the obvious fact that experts were not consulted, and that Mao acted solely on his own. Mao Zedong only acknowledged the reality that he had squandered the lives of his people when investigations revealed what his decisions had created. 


Copyright 2018, The Concord Review

Wednesday, July 14, 2021


Neil Postman
Amusing Ourselves to Death
New York: Penguin, 1985, 136-138

        It follows from this that history can play no significant role in image politics. For history is of value only to someone who takes seriously the notion that there are patterns in the past which may provide the present with nourishing traditions. “The past is a world,” Thomas Carlyle said, “and not a void of grey haze.” But he wrote this at a time when the book was the principle medium of serious public discourse. A book is all history. Everything about it takes one back in time—from the way it is produced to its linear mode of exposition to the fact that the past tense is its most comfortable form of address. As no either medium before or since, the book promotes a sense of a coherent and usable past. In a conversation of books, history, as Carlyle understood it, is not only a world but a living world. It is the present that is shadowy.

        But television is a light-speed medium, a present-centered medium. Its grammar, so to say, permits no access to the past. Everything presented in moving pictures is experienced as happening “now,” which is why we must be told in language that a videotape we are seeing was made months before. Moreover, like its forefather, the telegraph, television needs to move fragments of information, not to collect and organize them. Carlyle was more prophetic than he could imagine: The literal gray haze that is the background void on all television screens is an apt metaphor of the notion of history that the medium puts forward. In the Age of Show Business and image politics, political discourse is emptied not only of ideological content but of historical content, as well.

        Czelaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature, remarked in his acceptance speech in Stockholm that our age is characterized by a “refusal to remember”; he cited, among other things, the shattering fact that there are now more than one hundred books in print that deny that the Holocaust ever took place. The historian Carl Schorske has, in my opinion, circled closer to the truth by noting that the modern mind has grown indifferent to history because history has become useless to it; in other words, it is not obstinacy or ignorance but a sense of irrelevance that leads to the diminution of history. Television’s Bill Moyers inches still closer when he says, “I worry that my own business...helps to make this an anxious age of agitated amnesiacs...We Americans seem to know everything about the last twenty-four hours but every little of the last sixty centuries or the last sixty years..” Terence Moran, I believe, lands on the target in saying that with media whose structure is biased toward furnishing images and fragments, we are deprived of access to an historical perspective. In the absence of continuity and context, he says, “bits of information cannot be integrated into an intelligent and consistent whole.” We do not refuse to remember; neither do we find it exactly useless to remember. Rather, we are being rendered unfit to remember. For if remembering is to be something more than nostalgia, it requires a contextual basis—a theory, a vision, a metaphor—something within which facts can be organized and patterns discerned. The politics of image and instantaneous news provides no such context, is, in fact, hampered by attempts to provide any. A mirror only records what you are wearing today. It is silent about yesterday. With television, we vault ourselves into a continuous, incoherent present. “History,” Henry Ford said, “is bunk.” Henry Ford was a typographic optimist. “History,” the Electric Plug replies, “doesn’t exist.”

        If these conjectures make sense, then in this Orwell was wrong once again, at least for the Western democracies. He envisioned the demolition of history, but believed it would be accomplished by the state; that some equivalent of the Ministry of Truth would systematically banish inconvenient facts and destroy the records of the past. Certainly this is the way of the Soviet Union [1985], our modern-day Oceania. But as Huxley more accurately foretold, nothing so crude as all that is required. Seemingly benign technologies devoted to providing the population with a politics of image, instancy and therapy may disappear history just as effectively, perhaps more permanently, and without objection...

Tuesday, July 13, 2021


 The early decades of this century forged the central educational fallacy of our time: that one can think without having anything to think about.

“Anything But Knowledge”

“Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Teach” (1998)
from The Burden of  Bad Ideas
Heather Mac Donald
Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000, pp. 82ff.

    America’s nearly last-place finish in the Third International Mathematics and Sciences Study of student achievement caused widespread consternation this February, except in the one place it should have mattered most: the nation’s teacher education schools. Those schools have far more important things to do than worrying about test scores—things like stamping out racism in aspiring teachers. “Let’s be honest,” darkly commanded Professor Valerie Henning-Piedmont to a lecture hall of education students at Columbia University’s Teachers College last February. “What labels do you place on young people based on your biases?” It would be difficult to imagine a less likely group of bigots than these idealistic young people, happily toting around their handbooks of multicultural education and their exposés of sexism in the classroom. But Teachers College knows better. It knows that most of its students, by virtue of being white, are complicitous in an unjust power structure.

    The crusade against racism is just the latest irrelevancy to seize the nation’s teacher education schools. For over eighty years, teacher education in America has been in the grip of an immutable dogma, responsible for endless educational nonsense. That dogma may be summed up in the phrase: Anything But Knowledge. Schools are about many things, teacher educators say (depending on the decade)—self-actualization, following one’s joy, social adjustment, or multicultural sensitivity—but the one thing they are not about is knowledge. Oh, sure, educators will occasionally allow the word to pass their lips, but it is always in a compromised position, as in “constructing one’s own knowledge,” or “contextualized knowledge.” Plain old knowledge, the kind passed down in books, the kind for which Faust sold his soul, that is out.

    The education profession currently stands ready to tighten its already viselike grip on teacher credentialing, persuading both the federal government and the states to “professionalize” teaching further. In New York, as elsewhere, that means closing off routes to the classroom that do not pass through an education school. But before caving in to the educrats’ pressure, we had better take a hard look at what education schools teach.

    The course in “Curriculum and Teaching in Elementary Education” that Professor Anne Nelson (a pseudonym) teaches at the City College of New York is a good place to start. Dressed in a tailored brown suit, and with close-cropped hair, Nelson is a charismatic teacher, with a commanding repertoire of voices and personae. And yet, for all her obvious experience and common sense, her course is a remarkable exercise in vacuousness.

    As with most education classes, the title of Professor Nelson’s course doesn’t give a clear sense of what it is about. Unfortunately, Professor Nelson doesn’t either. The semester began, she said in a pre-class interview, by “building a community, rich of talk, in which students look at what they themselves are doing by in-class writing.” On this, the third meeting of the semester, Professor Nelson said that she would be “getting the students to develop the subtext of what they’re doing.” I would soon discover why Professor Nelson was so vague.

    “Developing the subtext” turns out to involve a chain reaction of solipsistic moments. After taking attendance and—most admirably—quickly checking the students’ weekly handwriting practice, Professor Nelson begins the main work of the day: generating feather-light “texts,” both written and oral, for immediate group analysis. She asks the students to write for seven minutes on each of three questions; “What excites me about teaching?” “What concerns me about teaching?” and then, the moment that brands this class as hopelessly steeped in the Anything But Knowledge credo: “What was it like to do this writing?”

    This last question triggers a quickening volley of self-reflexive turns. After the students read aloud their predictable reflections on teaching, Professor Nelson asks: “What are you hearing?” A young man states the obvious: “Everyone seems to be reflecting on what their anxieties are.” This is too straightforward an answer. Professor Nelson translates into ed-speak: “So writing gave you permission to think on paper about what’s there.” Ed-speak dresses up the most mundane processes in dramatic terminology—one doesn’t just write, one is “given permission to think on paper”; one doesn’t converse, one “negotiates meaning.” Then, like a champion tennis player finishing off a set, Nelson reaches for the ultimate level of self-reflexivity and drives it home: “What was it like to listen to each other’s responses?”

    The self-reflection isn’t over yet, however. The class next moves into small groups—along with in-class writing, the most pervasive gimmick in progressive classrooms today—to discuss a set of student-teaching guidelines. After ten minutes, Nelson interrupts the by-now lively and largely off-topic conversations, and asks: “Let’s talk about how you felt in these small groups.” The students are picking up ed-speak. “It shifted the comfort zone,” reveals one. “It was just acceptance; I felt the vibe going through the group.” Another adds: “I felt really comfortable; I had trust there.” Nelson senses a “teachable moment.” “Let’s talk about that,” she interjects. “We are building trust in this class; we are learning how to work with each other.”

    Now, let us note what this class was not: it was not about how to keep the attention of eight-year-olds or plan a lesson or make the Pilgrims real to first-graders. It did not, in other words, contain any material (with the exception of the student-teacher guidelines) from the outside world. Instead, it continuously spun its own subject matter out of itself. Like a relationship that consists of obsessively analyzing the relationship, the only content of the course was the course itself.

    How did such navel-gazing come to be central to teacher education? It is the almost inevitable consequence of the Anything But Knowledge doctrine, born in a burst of quintessentially American anti-intellectual fervor in the wake of World War I. Educators within the federal government and at Columbia’s Teachers College issued a clarion call to schools: cast off the traditional academic curriculum and start preparing young people for the demands of modern life. America is a forward-looking country, they boasted; what need have we for such impractical disciplines as Greek, Latin, and higher math? Instead, let the students then flooding the schools take such useful courses as family membership, hygiene, and the worthy use of leisure time. “Life adjustment,” not wisdom or learning, was to be the goal of education.

    The early decades of this century forged the central educational fallacy of our time: that one can think without having anything to think about. Knowledge is changing too fast to be transmitted usefully to students, argued William Heard Kilpatrick of Teachers College, the most influential American educator of the century; instead of teaching children dead facts and figures, schools should teach them “critical thinking,” he wrote in 1925. What matters is not what you know, but whether you know how to look it up, so that you can be a “lifelong learner.”

    Two final doctrines rounded out the indelible legacy of progressivism. First, Harold Rugg’s The Child-Centered School (1928) shifted the locus of power in the classroom from the teacher to the student. In a child-centered class, the child determines what he wants to learn. Forcing children into an existing curriculum inhibits their self-actualization, Rugg argued, just as forcing them into neat rows of chairs and desks inhibits their creativity. The teacher becomes an enabler, an advisor; not, heaven forbid, the transmitter of a pre-existing body of ideas, texts, or worst of all, facts. In today’s jargon, the child should “construct” his own knowledge rather than passively receive it. Bu the late 1920s, students were moving their chairs around to form groups of “active learners” pursuing their own individual interests, and, instead of a curriculum, the student-centered classroom followed just one principle: “activity leading to further activity without badness,” in Kilpatrick’s words. Today’s educators still present these seven-decades-old practices as cutting-edge.

    As E.D. Hirsch observes, the child-centered doctrines grew out of the romantic idealization of children. If the child was, in Wordsworth’s words, a “Mighty Prophet! Seer Blest!” then who needs teachers? But the Mighty Prophet emerged from student-centered schools ever more ignorant and incurious as the schools became more vacuous. By the 1940s and 1950s, schools were offering classes in how to put on nail polish and how to act on a date. The notion that learning should push students out of their narrow world had been lost.

    The final cornerstone of progressive theory was the disdain for report cards and objective tests of knowledge. These inhibit authentic learning, Kilpatrick argued; and he carried the day, to the eternal joy of students everywhere.

    The foregoing doctrines are complete bunk, but bunk that has survived virtually unchanged to the present. The notion that one can teach “metacognitive” thinking in the abstract is senseless. Students need to learn something to learn how to learn at all. The claim that prior knowledge is superfluous because one can always look it up, preferably on the Internet, is equally senseless. Effective research depends on preexisting knowledge. Moreover, if you don’t know in what century the atomic bomb was dropped without rushing to an encyclopedia, you cannot fully participate in society. Lastly, Kilpatrick’s influential assertion that knowledge was changing too fast to be taught presupposes a blinkered definition of knowledge that excludes the great works and enterprises of the past.

    The rejection of testing rests on premises as flawed as the push for “critical thinking skills.” Progressives argue that if tests exist, then teachers will “teach to the test”—a bad thing, in their view. But why would “teaching to a test” that asked for, say, the causes of the [U.S.] Civil War be bad for students? Additionally, progressives complain that testing provokes rote memorization—again, a bad thing. One of the most tragically influential education professors today, Columbia’s Linda Darling-Hammond, director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, an advocacy group for increased teacher “professionalization,” gives a telling example of what she considers a criminally bad test in her hackneyed 1997 brief for progressive education, The Right to Learn. She points disdainfully to the following question from the 1995 New York State Regents Exam in biology (required for high school graduation) as “a rote recall of isolated facts and vocabulary terms”: “The tissue which conducts organic food through a vascular plant is composed of: (1) Cambium cells; (2) Xylem cells; (3) Phloem cells; (4) Epidermal cells.”

    Only a know-nothing could be offended by so innocent a question. It never occurs to Darling-Hammond that there may be a joy in mastering the parts of a plant or the organelles of a cell, and that such memorization constitutes learning. Moreover, when, in the progressives’ view, will a student ever be held accountable for such knowledge? Does Darling-Hammond believe that a student can pursue a career in, say, molecular biology or in medicine without it? And how else will that learning be demonstrated, if not in a test? But of course such testing will produce unequal results, and that is the real target of Darling-Hammond’s animus.

    Once you dismiss real knowledge as the goal of education, you have to find something else to do. That’s why the Anything But Knowledge doctrine leads directly to Professor Nelson’s odd course. In thousands of education schools across the country, teachers are generating little moments of meaning, which they then subject to instant replay. Educators call this “constructing knowledge,” a fatuous label for something that is neither construction nor knowledge but mere game-playing. Teacher educators, though, posses a primitive relationship to words. They believe that if they just label something “critical thinking” or “community-building,” these activities will magically occur...

    The Anything But Knowledge credo leaves education professors and their acolytes free to concentrate on more pressing matters than how to teach the facts of history or the rules of sentence construction. “Community-building” is one of their most urgent concerns. Teacher educators conceive of their classes as sites of profound political engagement, out of which the new egalitarian order will emerge. A case in point is Columbia’s required class, “Teaching English in Diverse Social and Cultural Contexts,” taught by Professor Barbara Tenney (a pseudonym). “I want to work at a very conscious level with you to build community in this class,” Tenney tells her attentive students on the first day of the semester this spring. “You can do it consciously, and you ought to do it in your own classes.” Community-building starts by making nameplates for our desks. Then we all find a partner to interview about each other’s “identity.” Over the course of the semester, each student will conduct two more “identity” interviews with different partners. After the interview, the inevitable self-reflexive moment arrives, when Tenney asks: “How did it work?” This is a sign that we are on our way to “constructing knowledge.”...

    All this artificial “community-building,” however gratifying to the professors, has nothing to do with learning. Learning is ultimately a solitary activity: we have only one brain, and at some point we must exercise it in private. One could learn an immense amount about Schubert’s lieder or calculus without ever knowing the name of one’s seatmate. Such a view is heresy to the education establishment, determined, as Rita Kramer has noted, to eradicate any opportunity for individual accomplishment, with its sinister risk of superior achievement. For the educrats, the group is the irreducible unit of learning. Fueling this principle is the gap in achievement between whites and Asians, on the one hand, and other minorities on the other. Unwilling to adopt the discipline and teaching practices that would help reduce the gap, the education establishment tries to conceal it under group projects....

    The consequences of the Anything But Knowledge credo for intellectual standards have been dire. Education professors are remarkably casual when it comes to determining whether their students actually know anything, rarely asking them, for example, what can you tell us about the American Revolution? The ed schools incorrectly presume that students have learned everything they need to know in their other or previous college courses, and that the teacher certification exam will screen out people who didn’t.

    Even if college education were reliably rigorous and comprehensive, education majors aren’t the students most likely to profit from it. Nationally, undergraduate education majors have lower SAT and ACT scores than students in any other program of study. Only 16 percent of education majors scored in the top quartile of 1992-1993 graduates, compared with 33 percent of humanities majors. Education majors were overrepresented in the bottom quartile, at 30 percent. In New York City, many education majors have an uncertain command of English—I saw one education student at City College repeatedly write “choce” for “choice”— and appear altogether ill at ease in a classroom. To presume anything about this population without a rigorous content exit exam is unwarranted.

    The laissez-faire attitude toward student knowledge rests on “principled” grounds, as well as on see-no-evil inertia. Many education professors embrace the facile post-structuralist view that knowledge is always political. “An education program can’t have content [knowledge] specifics,” explains Migdalia Romero, chair of Hunter College’s Department of Curriculum and Teaching, “because then you have a point of view. Once you define exactly what finite knowledge is, it becomes a perspective.” The notion that culture could possess a pre-political common store of texts and idea is anathema to the modern academic.

    The most powerful dodge regurgitates William Heard Kilpatrick’s classic “critical thinking” scam. Asked whether a future teacher should know the date of the 1812 war, Professor Romero replied: “Teaching and learning is not about dates, facts, and figures, but about developing critical thinking.” When pressed if there were not some core facts that a teacher or student should know, she valiantly held her ground. “There are two ways of looking at teaching and learning,” she replied. “Either you are imparting knowledge, giving an absolute knowledge base, or teaching and learning is about dialogue, a dialogue that helps to internalize and to raise questions.” Though she offered the disclaimer “of course you need both,” Romero added that teachers don’t have to know everything, because they can always look things up....

    Disregard for language runs deep in the teacher education profession, so much so that ed school professors tolerate glaring language deficiencies in schoolchildren. Last January, Manhattan’s Park West High School shut down for a day, so that its faculty could bone up on progressive pedagogy. One of the more popular staff development seminars ws “Using Journals and Learning Logs.” The presenters—two Park West teachers and a representative from the New York City Writing Project, an anti-grammar initiative run by the Lehman College’s Education School—proudly passed around their students’ journal writing, including the following representative entry on “Matriarchys v. pratiarchys [sic]”: “The different between Matriarchys and patriarchys is that when the mother is in charge of the house. sometime the children do whatever they want. But sometimes the mother can do both roll as mother and as a father too and they can do it very good.” A more personal entry described how the author met her boyfriend: “He said you are so kind I said you noticed and then he hit me on my head. I made-believe I was crying and when he came naire me I slaped him right in his head and than I my grandparients home and he was right behind me. Thats when he asked did I have a boyfriend.”

    The ubiquitous journal-writing cult holds that such writing should go uncorrected. Fortunately, some Park West teachers bridled at the notion. “At some point, the students go into the job market, and they’re not being judged ‘holistically,’” protested a black teacher, responding to the invocation of the state’s “holistic” model for grading writing. Another teacher bemoaned the Board of Ed’s failure to provide guidance on teaching grammar. “My kids are graduating without skills,” he lamented.

    Such views, however, were decidedly in the minority. “Grammar is related to purpose,” soothed the Lehman College representative, educrat code for the proposition that asking students to write grammatically on topics they are not personally “invested in” is unrealistic. A Park West presenter burst out with a more direct explanation for his chilling indifference to student incompetence. “I’m not going to spend my life doing error diagnosis! I’m not going to spend my weekend on that!” Correcting papers used to be part of the necessary drudgery of a teacher’s job. No more, with the advent of enlightened views about “self-expression” and “writing with intentionality.”

    However easygoing the educational establishment is regarding future teachers’ knowledge of history, literature, and science, there is one topic that it assiduously monitors: their awareness of racism. To many teacher educators, such an awareness is the most important tool a young teacher can bring to the classroom. It cannot be developed too early. Rosa, a bouncy and enthusiastic junior at Hunter College, has completed only her first semester of education courses, but already she has mastered the most important lesson: American is a racist, imperialist country, most like, say, Nazi Germany. “We are lied to by the very institutions we have come to trust,” she recalls from her first-semester reading. “It’s all government that’s inventing these lies, such as Western heritage.”
    The source of Rosa’s newfound wisdom, Donald Macedo’s Literacies of Power: What Americans Are Not Allowed to Know, is an execrable book by any measure. But given its target audience—impressionable education students—it comes close to being a crime. Widely assigned at Hunter, and in use in approximately 150 education schools nationally, it is an illiterate, barbarically ignorant Marxist-inspired screed against America. Macedo opens his first chapter, “Literacy for Stupidification: The Pedagogy of Big Lies,” with a quote from Hitler and quickly segues to Ronald Reagan: “While busily calling out slogans from their patriotic vocabulary memory warehouse, these same Americans dutifully vote…for Ronald Reagan…giving him a landslide victory…These same voters ascended [sic] to Bush’s morally high-minded call to apply international laws against Saddam Hussein’s tyranny and his invasion of Kuwait.” Standing against this wave of ignorance and imperialism is a lone 12-year-old from Boston, whom Macedo celebrates for his courageous refusal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

    What does any of this have to do with teaching? Everything, it turns out. In the 1960s, educational progressivism took on an explicitly political cast: schools were to fight institutional racism and redistribute power. Today, Columbia’s Teachers College holds workshops on cultural and political “oppression,” in which students role-play ways to “usurp the existing power structure,” and the New York State Regents happily call teachers “the ultimate change agents.” To be a change agent, one must first learn to “critique” the existing social structure. Hence, the assignment of such propaganda as Macedo’s book.

    But Macedo is just one of the political tracts that Hunter force-fed the innocent Rosa in her first semester. She also learned about the evils of traditional children’s stories from the education radical Herbert Kohl. In Should We Burn Babar? Kohl weighs the case for and against the dearly beloved children’s classic, Babar the Elephant, noting in passing that it prevented him from “questioning the patriarchy earlier.” He decides—but let Rosa expound the meaning of Kohl’s book: “[Babar]’s like a children’s book, right? [But] there’s an underlying meaning about colonialism, about like colonialism, and is it OK, it’s really like it’s OK, but it’s like really offensive to the people.” Better burn Babar now!…

    Though the current diversity battle cry is “All students can learn,” the educationists continually lower expectations of what they should learn. No longer are students expected to learn all their multiplication tables in the third grade, as has been traditional. But while American educators come up with various theories about fixed cognitive phases to explain why our children should go slow, other nationalities trounce us. Sometimes, we’re trounced in our own backyards, causing cognitive dissonance in local teachers.     

    A young student at Teachers College named Susan describes incredulously a Korean-run preschool in Queens. To her horror, the school, the Holy Mountain School, violates every progressive tenet: rather than being “student-centered” and allowing each child to do whatever he chooses, the school imposes a curriculum on the children, based on the alphabet. “Each week, the children get a different letter,” Susan recalls grimly. Such an approach violates “whole language” doctrine, which holds that students can’t “grasp the [alphabetic] symbols without the whole word or the meaning or any context in their lives.” In Susan’s words, Holy Mountain’s further infractions include teaching its wildly international students only in English and failing to provide an “anti-bias multicultural curriculum.” The result? By the end of preschool the children learn English and are writing words. Here is the true belief in the ability of all children to learn, for it is backed up by action.…

    Given progressive education’s dismal record, all New Yorkers should tremble at what the Regents have in store for the state. The state’s teacher education establishment, led by Columbia’s Linda Darling-Hammond, has persuaded the Regents to make its monopoly on teacher credentialing total. Starting in 2003, according to the Regents plan steaming inexorably toward adoption, all teacher candidates must pass through an education school to be admitted to a classroom. We know, alas, what will happen to them there.

    This power grab will be a disaster for children. By making ed school inescapable, the Regents will drive away every last educated adult who may not be willing to sit still for its foolishness but who could bring to the classroom unusual knowledge or experience. The nation’s elite private schools are full of such people, and parents eagerly proffer tens of thousands of dollars to give their children the benefit of such skill and wisdom.

    Amazingly, even the Regents, among the nation’s most addled education bodies, sporadically acknowledge what works in the classroom. A Task Force on Teaching paper cites some of the factors that allow other countries to wallop us routinely in international tests: a high amount of lesson content (in other words, teacher-centered, not student-centered, learning), individual tracking of students, and a coherent curriculum. The state should cling steadfastly to its momentary insight, at odds with its usual policies, and discard its foolish plan to enshrine Anything But Knowledge as its sole education dogma. Instead of permanently establishing the teacher education status quo, it should search tirelessly for alternatives and for potential teachers with a firm grasp of subject matter and basic skills. Otherwise ed school claptrap will continue to stunt the intellectual growth of the Empire State’s children.

[Heather Mac Donald graduated summa cum laude from Yale, and earned an M.A. at Cambridge University. She holds the J.D. degree from Stanford Law School, and is a John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal]

Thursday, July 8, 2021


 In the 1930s, Nadezhda Mandelstam tells us, the verb to write assumed a new meaning.

When you said he writes or does she write? or (referring to a whole classroom of students) they write, you meant that he or she or they wrote reports to the organs. (Similarly, the Cheka’s rigged cases were called “novels.”) To “write” meant to inform, to denounce. Solzhenitsyn calls it “murder by slander.”

Denunciation in Russia has a long history, going back at least as far as the sixteenth century and the testingly protracted reign of Ivan the Terrible (1533–1584). “Spy or die” was, more or less, the oath you swore. This practice, increasingly institutionalized under the old regime, was a tsarist barbarity that Lenin might have been expected to question. And he did waver, to the extent that he unsuccessfully proposed (in December 1918) that false denouncers should be shot. More moderate voices prevailed, and the punishment arrived at was one or two years depending on the gravity of the case. Solzhenitsyn is scandalized by this laxity. In the gulag a five-year term, compared to the far more usual tenner or quarter (twenty-five years), was colloquially known as “nothing.”

It was during the Collectivization period that denunciation made its great leap forward. In the villages, as we have seen, the poorer peasants were incited to denounce the richer. “It was so easy to do a man in,” explains Grossman: “you wrote a denunciation; you did not even have to sign it.” By the mid-1930s, when terror turned toward the towns and cities, denunciation was being praised in the press as “the sacred duty of every Bolshevik, party and nonparty.” Quickly and predictably, denunciation now went through the roof. The process was quintessentially Stalinist in that a) it cultivated all that is most reptilian in human nature, and b) it selected downward (those that were last would now be first).

And it was also, again, surreal. You might denounce someone for fear of their denouncing you; you could be denounced for not doing enough denouncing; the only disincentive to denunciation was the possibility of being denounced for not denouncing sooner; and so on. There were cases of denunciation for state bounty.
From The Great Terror:

“In one Byelorussian village depicted in a recent Soviet article, fifteen rubles a head was paid, and a group of regular denouncers used to carouse on the proceeds, even singing a song they had composed to celebrate their deeds.”

A single Communist denounced 230 people; another denounced over a hundred in four months. “Stalin required,” as Conquest says, “not only submission, but also complicity.” After his release from the gulag, just as he was finding himself as a writer, Solzhenitsyn came under extremely menacing pressure to become a writer in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s sense. It has been estimated that in an average office every fifth employee reported to the Cheka. As Dmitri Volkogonov writes: “Who could have imagined how many ‘spies and wreckers and terrorists’ would be discovered. It was almost as if they were not living among us, but we among them!”

Tribute must now be paid to the most prodigious denouncer of all, the great Nikolaenko, scourge of Kiev. This unbelievable termagant was singled out for special praise by Stalin himself: “a simple person from down below,” she was nonetheless a “heroine.” In Kiev, pavements emptied when Nikolaenko stepped out; her presence in a room spread mortal fear. Eventually Pavel Postyshev (First Secretary in the Ukraine, candidate member of the Politburo) expelled Nikolaenko from the Party. Stalin reinstated her “with honor.” In a speech of 1937 he said, marvelously (for this episode is another example of the epiphanic, multifaceted negative perfection of Stalinism):

“[In Kiev, Nikolaenko] was shunned like a bothersome fly. At last, in order to get rid of her, they expelled her from the Party. Neither the Kiev organization nor the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Ukraine helped her to obtain justice. It was only the intervention of the Central Committee of the Party which helped to disentangle that twisted knot. And what was revealed by an examination of the case? It was revealed that Nikolaenko was right, while the Kiev organization was wrong.”

Assuming that this translation is a sensitive one (and I think it is): “justice” is rich, and so is “obtain” justice; “bothersome fly” and “that twisted knot” are rich; the rhetorical question near the end is rich; that closing “while” is rich.

A vindicated Nikolaenko went back to her denunciations
, and Kiev was in any case most viciously purged. Postyshev, chastened, demoted, transferred, now developed a reputation for exceptional ferocity in his function of purging his new fief, Kuibyshev. Later, as the Terror turned, he was attacked by Moscow for (of all things) exceptional ferocity: “by cries of ‘vigilance’ hiding his brutality in connection with the Party.” He was arrested in February 1938, and later shot.

Meanwhile, a twice-vindicated Nikolaenko was still hard at work— on her denunciations. There is much talk of the “little Stalins” all over the USSR, but Nikolaenko was a true Stalinette: accession to power dismantled her sense of reality. When the new, post-purge bosses, headed by Khrushchev, had established themselves in Kiev, Nikolaenko denounced Khrushchev’s deputy, Korotchenko. Khrushchev defended his man, a posture Stalin adjudged to be “incorrect”: “Ten percent truth—that’s already truth, and requires decisive measures on our part, and we will pay for it if we don’t so act.” But then Nikolaenko denounced Khrushchev, a first-echelon toady and placeman, for “bourgeois nationalism,” and Stalin finally conceded that she was nuts. She helped destroy about 8,000 people.

Anyone who has ever received a poison-pen letter will have been struck by a sense of the author’s desperate impotence. In the USSR, under Stalin, the poison worked: it had power. That was how it was: the writer and the poison pen.

I have not read any account of the fate of Nikolaenko. Either she was reexpelled, or her subsequent denunciations were for the most part tactfully ignored. She might of course have been shot—though Stalin showed a slight but detectable squeamishness about killing Old Bolshevik women.

As for the impressionable Postyshev, condemned by Moscow for his lack of moderation and restraint.…This is The Great Terror:

“Postyshev’s oldest son, Valentin, was shot, and his other children were sent to labour camps. His wife, Tamara, was viciously tortured night after night in the Lefortovo, often being returned to her cell bleeding all over her back and unable to walk. She is reported shot.”

[Martin Amis (2014-09-17). Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million
(Vintage International) (Kindle Locations 2032-2086). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

Monday, July 5, 2021


 The Washington Post   

Education   Perspective

Let’s celebrate Florida’s critical race theory student survey

By Jay Mathews, Columnist 
July 4, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. EDT

I rejoiced at Florida’s decision to survey college students to see if they have been corrupted by critical race theory being taught on their campuses. Some people criticized the initiative, but I think it can only enrich the debate. I hope it spreads to other states.

The Florida law that took effect July 1 says universities must assess “viewpoint diversity” on campus each year through a survey developed by the state board of education. The law’s signers fear critical race theory, which examines systemic racism, gives an inaccurate view of the race issue in America.

Do Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and state legislators know what they’re in for with this innovation? I love hearing students that age discuss their studies, but it can be exhausting for the listener. DeSantis’s children are very young, so he may not have gotten a dose of this yet.

The governor said after he signed the bill: “We want our universities to be focused on critical thinking and academic rigor. We do not want them as basically hotbeds of stale ideology.”

I sought samples of what viewpoint diversity surveyors might find in Florida and other states by sending questions to academically talented high school and college students. They are all authors of papers in The Concord Review, whose publisher, Will Fitzhugh, seeks scholarly writing by high school students. Their views seemed to me typical of undergraduates interested in such issues.

The students reminded me that college professors and college reading list authors — the likely culprits in any effort to inject critical race theory into young minds — are often not regarded by this age group as purveyors of revealed truth. They indicated if their college had such a survey they would try to give the surveyors their honest view, no matter how complicated.

This is from Isabella Rosario-Blake, about to start her freshman year at the University of Chicago: “Critical theory originates from the Frankfurt School’s philosophical approach, which was led by notable philosophers and sociologists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Critical race theory specifically began in legal studies (e.g. Derrick A. Bell Jr., Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Richard Delgado), but the terminology has trickled into other analysis. The new political definition of CRT is alienated from its original context and has become a catch all for various teaching reforms that attempt to include more discussions of race.”

Viewpoint diversity questionnaires will likely ask students if they are being taught that White people are responsible for institutional racism. Rosario-Blake rejected that suggestion.

“So-called anti-racist education is not the sort of traumatic experience that parents, politicians, and journalists seem to think,” she told me. “First of all, most of the teachers at my school are White, so they are not going to teach us to hate other White people.”

Such surveys may need a way to measure this generation’s distrust of the people carrying on the debate. Caleb Lee, entering his freshman year at Yale University, said that “the way Critical Race Theory is discussed in the media is often not very academic and is typically used alongside buzzer words such as ‘reverse-racism’ to evoke a visceral response from its audience. It is seldom ever defined in many shows and articles.”

The students I contacted made points I don’t hear discussed much on cable news. Walter Liu, a sophomore at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., connected the debate to the harm done to his grandfather during the 1960s Cultural Revolution in China. Because Liu’s great-grandfather was an official in the Manchukuo Japanese puppet state before and during World War II, Liu’s grandfather was labeled a “posterity of class enemy” even though he was, Liu said, “a diligent mine engineer.”

“He missed out on many promotions in his career and was abused a few times by people,” Liu said. “It is unfair for people to be responsible for the actions of their previous generations. It is also wrong to assume that all individuals of the same race will have the same mind-set.”

I acknowledge many college students won’t be interested in this issue and won’t encounter critical race theory in their classes. The most popular major at the University of Florida is business and management. But the university does require three credits in “diversity” classes, which might mention the theory. And just being surveyed could spark an interest.

The students I contacted said they heard little or no talk of critical race theory in high school. They said they don’t fear brainwashing in college. But they also don’t like some of what they’re hearing about the theory’s alleged academic effect. Austin Sarker-Young, a senior at the Wilmington Friends School in Wilmington, Del., said he opposes Princeton removing the Greek and Latin language requirement from its classics department. If that was to attract more Black students, it should be mentioned that “W.E.B. Dubois, one of the principal founders of the NAACP, taught Greek and Latin,” he said.

When Florida completes its survey, I hope it releases the results, with quotes from those surveyed. That may be a thick volume, but we all could use a better sense of what our young people are thinking.