Arguing Identity: Session Three

David Steiner: The question of my own identity was never in much doubt. I was a young man when I came home from school in England and said to my father, I’m studying English, French, German, Latin, Greek, it’s obviously too much, I’m going to give up Greek. He kicked me across the floor, the only time in his life he’s ever used physical violence against me, and as I was quivering in the corner, he simply said to me, “Steiners don’t give up Greek.” And that was the end of that. For the first time I knew who I was.

I relate that story because it has some tenuous relevance to our theme. For the Greeks, of course, the idea that education would be about character and ethics and identity would have been commonplace. By now we’ve lost the very concept of paideia, though in the past the city, the law courts, the theater, the public forums and academies were educative spaces within which character became formed and thus were part of the very lifeblood of the community. The anguishing war between Athens and Sparta was in many ways to be thought of as having much to do with competing conceptions of identity. But whatever we now intend when we speak of identity is so far removed from what the Greeks understood as to suggest that we need to find new ways to get at what has been lost. The question at the heart of identity and education ought presumably to be something like, “What is an educated person?” The Greeks, for better or worse, had voluminous answers to that question. And yet when I’ve asked the question, as I have done to many hundreds of students who are learning to be teachers, when I taught them at Boston University and later at the City University of New York, even as I would sometimes pose that question to principals and teachers and superintendents when I was the Commissioner of Education for the state of New York, there was a kind of deeply embarrassed silence, as if I’d sort of walked into the wrong room. It wasn’t a question one asked. And this suggests to me a kind of deep aporia at the very heart of the enterprise of education that links it to current confusions about identity and the role of education in the formation of identity. When you think of the beginning of book three of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, you recall that Lucretius celebrated the scientific insights of Epicurus as a cure for the mythology of theistic belief and for the fear of death. By contrast, the contemporary force in American education has to do with a kind of scientific pragmatism, an almost exclusive focus on techne, on skills rather than anything else. If you look at our tests, our standards, our visions of education, they are increasingly narrow and increasingly technical. I had never seen a multiple-choice question until I came to this country as a twenty-one-year-old. The idea that you could assess learning by asking someone to fill out a bubble where one of the answers had already been predetermined to be correct has always seemed to me a fundamental category mistake. A way to betray education, though it has the inestimable advantage that it can be scored by a computer and avoid any exercise of human judgment. There is more than a little talk of identity in education circles, and yet the retreat from identity formation as a core mission of education is nearly complete. This retreat , I would argue, is linked to the fear of judgment, the fear of making claims about quality or about what is important. My father –George, as many of you know him—once said that to be a teacher is to be a courier of the essential. That’s even more obnoxious, I suppose, than my own obsession with the educated human being. It reeks of every sin that the academy can’t forgive. I mean, you can’t think that anything is essential if you’re afraid to encourage students to learn to exercise judgment. The fundamental fear of judgment has spawned a multibillion dollar industry; it is the industry of extreme testing, predicated on a narrow idea of what can actually be tested. You know, unlike in almost every other advanced industrialized economy, in most American high schools you can’t really study a whole range of subjects in the arts, economics or philosophy; instead we focus almost exclusively on mathematics and so-called English language arts, so that the humanities are closed down and are no longer valorized topics. The focus, as we all know, is on decoding. Decoding as a techne.

Very recently, 46 states adopted common core standards. This is an astonishing achievement; 54 million school children will for the first time in American history, be studying similar things, or so one might think. The so-called standards, for the first time, are supposedly to provide an answer to the question of the identity of an educated person. An educated person is someone who reaches those standards. But if you actually uncover what is involved in this you will feel some misgiving. The English language standards, which encompass also social studies, are the creation of a gentleman by the name of David Coleman, educated at Yale, Oxford and Cambridge, who actually created companies that focused on data and assessment before he became the architect of the common core standards. Now David himself has argued that the great character quality that is to emerge — call it, if you like, the identity that is to emerge from successfully educated students — will be encompassed in the twin skills of the journalist and the detective. Those are the valorized identities of the successful students in K-12 schools. Now what strikes me about the detective and the journalist is that they represent an extraordinarily forensic conception of identity, one in which a hermeneutics becomes a techne, as in the work of a detective where a particular empirical truth is to be found, stripped, presumably, of ambiguity, uncertainty, fluidity, dynamism. Or, to take his second metaphor, the journalist is one who can tell a story that is as coherent as possible. All of our children now face a set of standards designed, at substantial taxpayer expense, to issue in the forensic skills that will become the identity of your students. That this is not what the Greeks had in mind when they thought of character building is obvious. But what to do with that acknowledgment? Of course nostalgia is possible, or mourning.

Orlando Patterson: Or possibly the thought that it’s not quite as bad as all that.

David Steiner: Well yes, and there are those who tell us that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge. We’re told, for example, by Dave Levin, the head of KIPP, one of the nation’s most successful charter schools, that they do teach character because they teach something called grit. I’m not making this up. The authority for this idea of grit is named Angela Duckworth, and she’s now quite famous for teaching about grit. The slogan of KIPP is “work hard, be nice,” to which we will now add, “be grit-full.” The idea here is of course that in the absence of education in virtue or phronesis, what we need is a kind of inner discipline so we can be ready for anything. The grit is supposed to produce the skills required to succeed on multiple-choice tests.

But really the ambition is more interesting than that. Whenever you get into a discussion with teachers today and ask them what they want in the character and thinking of their students it is almost impossible to escape without hearing that it is about something called critical thinking. One of my less-successful moments as commissioner of education, and there were plenty, was when I addressed a few-thousand teachers in New York and asked them to try to think about nothing in particular. Because the stunning fact about our tests, about our critical thinking, about our new common core standards, is that they have us circle around, as would a bunch of vultures, without a corpse. The corpse, properly understood, would be content, rooted in the strange, old fashioned idea that there’s something worth reading, something in particular worth studying. The common core standards are very adroit about this. Students are to read a set of founding documents of the United States, and that is content. They are to be exposed to Shakespeare, particular works unspecified, and to ancient mythology. That is the content of your children’s education under the United States standards. Not very much content. Not enough to alter my assertion that at the center of all the exams, and standards, and real-world concerns, there is nothing in particular. Think here of Hannah Arendt, whom we’ve had reason to` invoke at many Salmagundi conferences over the decades. When we become educators, Hannah argued, we have no choice but to take some responsibility for a narrative or a set of narratives about our inheritance, about contents that we think worth passing on to our students. My thesis is that we have turned away from this obligation, the obligation to put a particular set of texts in front of students and say I stand behind this as something extraordinarily important for you to read. We have feared to stand behind a judgment as to what matters most and we have turned our back on Arendt’s conception of what it means to be an educator.

Is it a far cry from identity to the kinds of education-related issues I’ve tried to raise? I don’t think so. The educated human being is, after all, a kind of identity, and so too is the teacher, or the student. I’ve spent a lot of time in school settings, and I’ve spoken at great length with teachers and with people who are training to become teachers. But the truth is, I’m no longer sure what it means to be a teacher in our country’s schools. When I travelled in Europe and the Middle East and would ask Middle School and High School teachers why they taught, they would say “because I fell in love with literature,” or “I love math,” or “I adore science and I really want to take it to my students and discover it together.” But when I was commissioner and asked teachers across New York State the same question, they would answer, “because we love children.” To love children but not love the content that one is going to teach them: it leaves me with questions I don’t know how to answer.

Ruth Franklin: One of my multiple identities is mother of two children in the New York City public school system, and I have experienced the transition to the common core at first hand. Before now I’ve never had the opportunity to have explained to me in a very clear and precise way what you’ve just laid out, so thank you, not only for explaining it to us but obviously for the work you’ve done on behalf of the system that so many children are in. Of course I speak from the perspective of a privileged parent whose children are lucky to attend one of the best elementary schools in New York City, and from that perspective, I recognize that the fundamental narrative you’ve presented is especially troubling for the many people who are not privileged and fortunate. The reality, here and in so many other areas, has a lot to do with inequality and the deficits faced by children when they are not in excellent schools and taught by teachers who are at least partly equipped to do what you describe. Even in the better schools there are many holes in the curriculum, and the question I would ask is whose responsibility is it to plug the holes. I’ve met many teachers who are enthusiastic and energetic and know how to play the system, because that’s how you get at least some of the holes plugged, by generating money for the programs that these teachers feel passionately enough about to want to go out and fundraise for and then bring to the classroom. So of course it’s not true, I think, that there’s no content anywhere, but that the content is more or less entirely up to the teacher, as is the character education that’s provided.

David Steiner: Of course, I agree entirely that the situation I described is somewhat different in the privileged schools. Though I do think that even there the emphasis on critical thinking is not so very different.

Ruth Franklin: Exactly. Of course, that emphasis on critical thinking does, as you say, stimulate thinking about nothing in particular. I remember in fact what recently brought this situation to the attention of so many people about a year ago when the New York Times published a test question involving a talking pineapple, something like that. And what was reported was that mysteriously the students weren’t able to come up with an answer to the question, and neither could most of the parents. There was just no content to draw upon for the critical thinking to apply itself to. I remember reading about this and wondering whether any of it had to do with what it means to be an American. Are we in some way okay with saying we’ll provide the bare essentials and the rest will be up to you? And is this a reflection of our conception of the American identity, that it’s the identity of people who should know what to do with the basics? Will everything else, then, what might be called the extras—the arts, dance, literature—be only for those who care to bother to go after that on their own? Maybe you see this in the emphasis of the common core on non-fiction, almost to the exclusion of fiction, which I guess belongs under the heading of “the extras.”

David Steiner: Absolutely. In the High School curriculum now, it’s supposed to be 75% non-fiction, so that — how to put it — imaginative writing is somehow no longer central even to a literary curriculum.

Ruth Franklin: Which sends shudders through the hearts of those of us who were brought up reading 19th century novels. Though again, the matter of inequality is another kind of issue. On the one hand, at the wonderful school in Brooklyn that my children go to, the teachers fundraise to do things like raise trout in the classroom. On the other hand, any of us can browse on this website called “Donors Choose” and see the heartbreaking list of teachers and their projects, where they are asking for money to buy “notebooks for the children to write in” or “a new rug for my students to sit on because the rug is not hygienic enough,” or “shelves to put the books on.” We talk, rightly, about emptiness in our system, but here we have a system that isn’t even providing the basics for what these teachers and their students need.

Carolyn Forché: That was so helpful, really, but I want to ask whether there are ideological underpinnings that may help us to connect all of this to identity.

David Steiner: It’s complicated. A book that Diane Ravitch wrote some time ago actually remains very important. It’s called The Thought Police, and it argues that both the right and the left managed to intervene in education in a way that complemented the other. This is something very few people outside the small circle of people who study this sort of thing realize. I think about that pineapple question on the test Ruth mentioned, and I remember that the test your child takes made it through at least half a dozen levels of sensitivity committees selected to make sure that there’s nothing in any test about anything that could seem at all disturbing to a child or conceivably thwart or deny advantage to anyone because of geography or the familial or economic situation they’ve lived in. This well-meaning arrangement is especially insidious in that the people this damages most are the least well off, because the school now loses any incentive to take those students to unfamiliar or even unsettling places in their imagination. They are learning and being exposed to only what those sensitivity committees think they should be able to take.

Robert Boyers: And this situation is exacerbated by another kind of sensitivity about what children are apt to find too intellectually taxing or boring.

David Steiner: It’s true, even with respect to first year college general courses, where, you know, it’s Monday it must be Gandhi, it’s Tuesday it must be St. Augustine. That somewhat shallow and yet often demanding curriculum is very much reflected in the old vision of education which has been under attack for a very long time. Now what David Coleman wanted to do was to move away from the old idea of content, whatever its limitation, and to emphasize instead the sort of careful, slow reading associated with the New Criticism. The problem is, New Criticism was a theory created by university professors to help students read complex, demanding poetry in a content-rich curriculum. It wasn’t a theory created for nine-year-olds to read text. The result is that while we may celebrate the slowing down and the close reading, it’s actually part of this same neutering approach to a content that has been sanitized by right and left and now has us, again, committed to nothing in particular.

Carolyn Forché: And the test administered will be…?

David Steiner: Will be a test geared to a particular text selected, as I say, for its inoffensiveness and lack of difficulty.

You can invoke comparisons if you like, to make this vivid. A couple of years ago, every French school child who wanted to go to university, no matter what subject they wanted to study, would take what’s called a general paper in the baccalaureate. It’s a four-hour essay written with no notes. Now, I’m imagining American seventeen-year-olds writing for four hours with no notes, which is never the easiest thing to do. And the French question three or four years ago was “Can knowledge of the self be sincere?” To do this you had to bring together your literature background, your philosophy background, your training in science. I don’t think there’s one school in ten thousand in the United States that thinks their graduates could possibly engage with a question like that, and if you asked them why, they’d say, “Well, that’s so French.” So French. I mean, what we see here is that the American idea of an educated human being has become detached from the kind of contemplation many of us value, an ability quite different from the kind of cleverness and forensic skill at the heart of the common core.

James Miller: Let me try to link this more explicitly to identity. You know, many years ago, I was editing Daedalus and so encouraged Diane Ravitch to write the first version of the piece that became The Thought Police. She was then moving against the standards she had originally championed. She could see suddenly what the problem was. And with that in mind, I offer a hypothesis: What we have here is a full flight from any ascriptive identity whatsoever, in terms of which paidea and the education of character in the Greek sense would be seen as an incredible imposition and a form of cultural imperialism, an attempt to colonize the souls of young Americans. This suggests that if you go too far down the road of multiplying choices and not exercising judgment about what matters most you end up with a void, a condition where none of the alternatives seem terribly consequential. Certainly that’s not what John Dewey intended when he thought about education. When I did the issue of Daedalus that included Diane’s piece I got a chuckle by putting right next to her an excerpt by Antonio Gramsci, from “The Prison Notebooks,” advocating a classical education for the working class. Gramsci advocated such an education because he thought that it was wrong to lower standards; he wanted to raise standards for all, and knew that you don’t just simply ask students to look at alternatives and see what might happen to please them. In a way, this recent iteration is just the latest chapter in a very sad history of American education responding, badly, to the challenges of heterogeneous religious groups and immigrant populations coming in and finding our teachers and officials wishing not to impose anything on anybody that could be the least offensive. Your reading of this, David, says a lot about where we find ourselves.

David Steiner: One quick point. You remember the culture war debates inspired in part by E.D. Hirsch and his “Cultural Literacy.” Well, Hirsch is even now associated with so-called CORE knowledge and a content-rich curriculum that’s been adopted by New York state with my encouragement. The only difficulty is that the program stops at second grade. I couldn’t actually get the state to adopt any content curriculum beyond that because then it would require real choices. In the way it exists now, people can be protected from anything remotely troubling and still be reassured that their five-year-olds are still actually studying content.

Orlando Patterson: Of course this is a fascinating discussion, but I do keep hearing Rogers Brubaker hitting me on the head and saying, “What does identity have to do with this?” The question has been raised, but we’ve made the conversation so broad that identity seems to be everything. When you were speaking, I thought that all this really is related to identity, that your remarks, David, and Ruth’s, and Jim’s really do amount to a sustained critique of the problems that identity poses. And yet I can’t help feeling it is more than a little bit problematic.

You know, for me, the elephant, or better, the dynamo in the room, because I’m quite a big fan of it, is the American mainstream. And we all know, I think, that it’s not a static thing but a very dynamic process that incorporates and transforms all sorts of things into something we would agree to call American. Now how to represent this in our schools and to make it something all of us can get behind is a big problem. I spent the last few years studying what I call the cultural problem of black youth. I know that some people don’t like talking about that, but any discussion of identity in the American context has to face up to it, if only because in recent years the problems have been getting worse. One in three black youth doesn’t graduate from high school and ends up in prison. The statistics are pretty dismal. At the same time, many young black people have been and are extraordinary creators and contributors to the dominant mainstream, and this is a paradox which some of us have struggled with for a long time. Some of the problems are very basic. I mean, you have kids graduating from high school who can barely read, and this feeling of incompetence, or hopelessness, as far as any prospect of success in a broader society, is obviously terrible. How, we wonder, are these kids going to acquire both the skills and the knowledge they will need? No doubt there is the problem of what Hirsch called cultural literacy. In fact the Hirsch book carries a blurb of mine on the cover, a blurb that raised a lot of eyebrows, because I totally agree that what the social psychologists call “the clarity of knowledge” is essential for people. Schools primarily are supposed to provide that, and if they are not doing it you have a tragedy. Now I support the Common Core idea very much. I come from a system, the British system, which is so centralized that when I did my high school exam as a kid, several hundred thousand kids all over the world, in India and Australia and Britain, were doing it at the same time. That’s the common core with a vengeance. I don’t know if I want to go there, but I certainly think that the need for a sort of common knowledge and common literacy is real and vital and can be met. And Hirsch, for all the criticism he’s received, has started a process that has much to be said for it.

But you know, in addition to the kinds of knowledge we’ve mentioned, there’s also the procedural knowledge that people need. Techne gets you one set of skills which are not the most important. The most important kind of procedural knowledge has to do with how you acquire the skills for social interaction, skills which are generally learned only at home and in one’s neighborhood and among one’s friends. I don’t know that the schools can ever provide that, and I puzzle over this, because if it is true that the primary source of one’s educational success are the procedural skills you acquire from friends, from networks, from peer groups and from family, then the greatest failure of American education is not rooted in the inadequacy of the schools, but in the persistence of segregation. American schools are as segregated now as they were in 1970. The civil rights movement has hardly made a difference.

Now how does identity relate to this? In some ways the persistence of segregation is one of the biggest puzzles in America right now. Some speak of white flight, but all the evidence indicates that this is a small and declining explanation. I ask again: Why is the black middle class, including the black upper middle class, still so very segregated? Almost as segregated now as they were before Jim Crow. Is there an element of identity preference involved? Now, admittedly, if I say this sort of thing in a group of sociologists I’m likely to have beer bottles, or whatever it is they drink, thrown in my direction, because this line of enquiry is one of the “no-no’s.” But there it is, and I insist that the single greatest damage done to blacks is located here in the effects of segregation and in the design, promoted by all sorts of people in the era of Jim Crow and afterwards, to exclude blacks from the procedural knowledge that is critical for competence in our society and for success. So, to the degree that this persists but is not recognized as an issue, we have an enormous problem. In his book American Apartheid Douglas Masse rails at his fellow sociologists by asking why they have neglected the elephant in the room. Why are sociologists, in the most liberal of professions, not paying attention to the facts? The reason why they persist in holding segregation at arm’s length, at the very least, is because they are not sure that black Americans like this kind of talk and what it implies. Though integration was a central part of Martin Luther King’s agenda, it has been largely set aside. As more than one black thinker has said, “We don’t need to sit next to whites to learn.”

And so you can’t talk seriously about identity, and specifically about problems associated with black people and their education in this society, without citing at least these two factors, namely, the way that identity politics makes it some of the time impossible even to raise important issues, and also the way that identity preferences can worsen a situation when the persons involved deny what’s actually at stake.

Robert Boyers: I’m persuaded by what you say, Orlando, but would hope that David would tell us whether the educational system itself might still be capable of revising the situation Orlando has just anatomized.

David Steiner: I’ll be very quick. Two responses. One: If Jeffery Canada, the architect of Children’s Zone in Harlem, were with us here, he’d tell us that he’s trying to create the social and cultural capital Orlando wants by developing a sort of Greek teaching space where the social agencies, the cultural agencies, the museums, the churches, the families together attempt to make of the entire neighborhood a source of cultural capital. Knowing that the neighborhood is segregated, because it is, he knows that in effect the effort can’t be confined within school walls.

The second effort is really the charter school movement. The top performing charter schools are in Harlem. They are Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies, and there she has adopted a rigorous core knowledge-style, content-rich curriculum from the beginning of the child’s school career. Those schools tell us that a radical transformation of our thinking about schools and schooling is required if we are to address the problems Orlando cites, problems largely created by the investment of well-meaning people in identity politics.