Friday, June 5, 2009

Education By Humiliation

In these dark days of American education, when school days and weeks are being cut, programs are jettisoned, and teachers face layoffs and work furloughs, we need leadership, and we need answers. In the absence of either, it appears the American public will embrace anything. They will allow their sons and daughters to be humiliated, undergo instruction that focuses on a test rather than enlightenment, and to ultimately graduate in a kind of assembly line uniformity that leads to robotic slavery and not knowledge and wisdom.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times last week, writer Mitchell Landsberg profiled American Indian Public Charter School of Oakland, California, an institution that mocks “liberal orthodoxy with such zeal that it can seem like a parody.”

Ben Chavis created the school and serves as its spokesperson. Even though the school name reflects a Native American focus, Chavis’ first step upon taking charge was to fire most of the staff and dump the “Native American culture content.” He calls such curriculum “basket weaving.”

“You think the Jews and the Chinese are dumb enough to ask the public school to teach them their culture?” he asks.

He replaced the cultural studies with a curriculum focused on what students need to know to score well on standardized tests. It is teaching to the test so that the scores go up and he has instant measurable stats to impress parents and the public. It is an old and common deception by administrators looking for a pat on the back. But a standardized test is not the only measure of intelligence, and educators and organizations like William Fitzsimmons, Harvard University’s dean of undergraduate admissions, and the College Board, owner and facilitator of the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, have all decried this kind of educating only for the test. Students need far more knowledge, experience and skills training than could ever be measured on such a test.

Chavis is ignorant of this. He refers to all nonwhite students, even African-Americans, as “darkies.” At his school, it is acceptable to punish a misbehaving student—a girl—by forcing her to clean the boys’ restroom. Landsberg writes that “under Chavis, the school…relied on humiliation to keep students in line, ridiculing miscreants and sometimes forcing them to wear embarrassing signs. When one boy was caught stealing, Chavis shaved his head in front of the entire school.”

When recruiting faculty, Chavis also goes to the extreme. His ad reads: “We are looking for hardworking people who believe in free market capitalism…Multicultural specialists, ultra liberal zealots and college-tainted oppression liberators need not apply.”

How do you become a teacher without being “college-tainted?”

Of course, conservatives find this to be a good thing. Landsberg cites columnist George Will as an enthusiastic fan of the school. The school philosophy, as quoted in the piece, “does not preach or subscribe to the demagoguery of tolerance.”

In some ways, American Indian Public Charter School borrows much from Catholic schools of the mid-to-late twentieth century. They use every minute of the school day in the classroom, perfect attendance is required, students face daunting amounts of homework each night, and the school “refuses to promote struggling students to the next grade,” keeping a tight hold on discipline and forcing every student to attend a summer session. All good things, but what needs to be added to this is the development of thinking, reasoning, and analyzing skill sets. Where is the teaching of values, ethics, the rights and responsibilities of the individual? Rote memorization, testing practice, and drilling testing skills are not enough.

Landsberg also makes a point of mentioning that faculty turnover is high. Teachers are supposed to have the same class for three years, but that is “more theory than reality.”

The lessons that Landsberg observes also leave much to be desired. In a grammar lesson, a student writes on the board that “The extreme abolitionist John Smith was hung after a brutal revolt.”

The teacher counters with the statement that “Historically, there’s a problem. Grammatically, it’s correct.”

Wrong. John Brown was hanged—English teachers should know that when the situation involves a rope around the neck, the correct form is “hanged.”

The final insult comes at the end of the piece. One young student who stayed home to watch Barack Obama sworn in as president of the United States faced a severe punishment upon his return because Principal Janet Roberts “believes that nothing—absolutely nothing—should get in the way of class.” I am reminded of Mark Twain’s comment that school should not interfere with a child’s education.

“There are no televisions at American Indian,” Landsberg writes, “no computers in the classrooms, either—so there was no way for students to watch the inauguration.”

“It’s not part of our curriculum,” Roberts says to the reporter.

Since the presidency of Barack Obama is now a matter of history, I cannot help but think that it might someday appear on a standardized test. I guess then it will be part of American Indian Charter Public School’s curriculum. Hopefully, the school, its shortsighted philosophies and crackpot theories of education will be long gone by then.


  1. "We are looking for hardworking people who believe in free market capitalism…Multicultural specialists, ultra liberal zealots and college-tainted oppression liberators need not apply."

    In other words, they want teachers who can inculcate the right kind of values for students merely to be productive, not values that would instill in them a desire for inquiry, social change, or a fulfilling life.

    Somewhere, Paulo Freire is spinning in his grave.

  2. Yes, it's more of the assembly line, factory mentality of education. What do we want our product to look like? This is what a principal said to us at a faculty meeting almost 20 years ago. The situation has only gotten worse.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Paul L. Martin


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