11 November 2014

those who think less of Dyslexics while claiming to love them...

"Dutch designer Christian Boer created a dyslexic-friendly font to make reading easier for dyslexics like himself.

'“Traditional fonts are designed solely from an aesthetic point of view,” Boer writes on his website, “which means they often have characteristics that make characters difficult to recognize for people with dyslexia. Oftentimes, the letters of a word are confused, turned around or jumbled up because they look too similar.”

"Designed to make reading clearer and more enjoyable for dyslexics..."
     - Slate 10 November 2014
So says Slate. And here's DeZeen from 9 November 2014...
"Although it looks like a traditional typeface, Dyslexie by Christian Boer is designed specifically for people with dyslexia – a neurological disorder that causes a disconnect between language and visual processing making it difficult for the brain to process text. Dyslexia is estimated to affect 10 per cent of the world's population, according to UK charity Dyslexia Action."
...linking an unrelated authentic charity quote in a bid for validity.

Of course we can go back to TED, the late night infomercial of faux intellectualism. Here's Mr. Boer hustling his font... "now you can cook your fries with no oil, cure baldness, satisfy your wife, and, yes, cure dyslexia..." Yup, if you order now...

TEDxDubai2011

OK, if you've watched you will say that he is a Dyslexic, so how can he think less of Dyslexics? Well, its confusing. He's a Dyslexic but really he's a missionary. He is not doing research, he is taking a personal experience and selling it to all as a "personal (and universal) savior." It is not just that he gets the science wrong - though he is right about "thinking in pictures" for many, but he is far off at thinking its about a visual processing issue... but that's not the problem. For many dyslexics reversals and upside-down letters is no issue at all. In fact, no matter how you might describe the underlying issues of reading issues, you will find a scatter plot across any graph.

It is like the colonial subject in 1910 seeing his or her personal issues solved through an interaction with a priest or a minister and assuming that interaction is what the world needs. And at the heart of this is desired ignorance, it is ignorance built of desire not to understand people, to actually believe that people do not count if they are not just like you.

Honestly, at a younger age, I almost made similar mistakes. I found myself arguing for Times New Roman for text, and for WYNN as way of reading. But fortunately, I noticed this absurdity on third person I talked to. He liked Helvetica and Kurzweil 3000, and he wasn't wrong of course, he was different from me. The next person I spoke to found no font useful, no keyboard useful. The next wanted Garamond at a certain size in a certain color combination, though color - within boundaries - had little effect on me. She wasn't wrong, she was different.

So I didn't develop a system for dyslexics, I worked out a way of thinking about choice, because I did not want to rate people according to their distance in similarity from me. I called this idea Toolbelt Theory and I still like it, because I think it respects the people around me.

2009

So in a lifetime of being a Dyslexic, in 20 years of researching Dyslexia, I have learned that there is no best font for this, no best reading method, no best technology choice, no best color combination, no best anything... not even for me across a week or even some days, and I've heard that variability matters for others too. So we need to learn to choose from a menu of what works, to set defaults in browsers but to have other choices, to have a range of technologies.

I choose between 4 fonts, none are designed to look like bubbles being held to the ground because - well - that's not my issue. The computers the students have in our schools come with WordTalk and Balabolka and to in-browser Text-To-Speech system, and there are bookmark links to many others. My computers usually have at least five systems for TTS, my phone has three. But I never, ever, expect any other Dyslexic to choose the same combination.

I have learned that my experience is not "data" because I do not think those different to be outliers or "Children of a Lesser God." So please stop saying what Dyslexics need. And start talking about what choices humans need.

- Ira Socol

23 September 2014

Getting to Making, Getting to Education which actually Works

"He was a kid with a lot of issues," our teacher told a crowd at the World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) last weekend, " you know, getting into trouble all the time, real crazy stuff." We were discussing a summer school for Middle School - not often the happiest place on earth - but one of our summer schools converted into a Maker Camp, with all content taught through student generated projects.

"Now he couldn't pass math, he had never coded anything, he really didn't know how to use any tools, but he did love baseball. We told him, we told all the kids to just find a project and start it. This kid built a pitching machine which used an Arduino and lasers to determine pitch location. He did that in three and a half weeks."
Our teachers and a MakerEd leader
OK, what did this child learn? And how might that learning be compared with his learning in a traditional educational setting?

We are trying to go "all in" on Making because we believe it is the right way for kids to learn. "Learn to Make, and Make to Learn" is what we say. In doing so we are trying to undo a century and a half of education designed to filter kids out, to stratify, to limit, and to train compliance.

We think that our children all need to have the opportunity to succeed. We think that in these times our nation and our world need everyone contributing to our society to their highest capability. Our school board has declared that we have just one strategic goal, to "unleash potential" of our students through helping them achieve our "Life Long Learning Competencies." And we aim to unleash that potential by following our "Seven Pathways" to a new form of pedagogy.

Unleashing Potential
The day after the fair, as our teachers sat with the "informal educators" of NYSCI discussing Maker Education and debriefing the fair, a fourth grade teacher told of a building project designed to generate improved writing skills in a class of mostly rural kids who, "can tell you every kind of story, but froze when asked to write it down."

So with thick cardboard tubes and all kinds of junk and lots of hand tools, her kids built creations of their own imaginings. As they built they used Google Forms to answer simple questions, requiring one, two, or three word answers at first, then moving up. From "are you finished?" to "what do you want to do next?"

This "making" filled the reading/writing time in her class, and more, and might have seemed like a 'wasteful diversion' to some less observant observers, but after a couple of weeks, when the kids had created their creations, they began to write stories about what they had made. Now, to quote one of the NYSCI team, they already had "skin in the game." Unlike most school writing assignments - whether in fourth grade or twelfth grade - which are essentially meaningless exercises disconnected from any student's actual existence - kids who had spent a couple of weeks making something fully theirs had stories they were quite anxious to tell, and to tell to a wide audience, so they wanted to write.

So, she said, they wrote and wrote. In pairs or as individuals they grabbed laptops and wrote, and as they wrote and edited, they gained all kinds of skills - from what we refer to as "text entry" - not touch typing but feeling confident that you can get text on a page one way or another - to the basics of grammar - and they did that without anyone sitting at a desk staring at a teacher in front of a board. She ended by noting that one of her 'cognitively challenged' students wrote a full three-page story about her construction.

All of our student computers combine a full suite of accessibility tools
with multiple ways to do everything... creating student choice.
We came to the World Maker Faire because we believe that it is an extraordinary professional learning opportunity, not just for those who can make the trip, but for the teachers those teachers can influence. We see learning opportunities in this kind of event - or similar trips to places like the Chicago Children's Museum - that simply seem impossible at 'education conferences.' Here we see how informal educators educate - which is essential for us to learn. I know that I often ask: "Why would children come to your school if they didn't have to?" And informal educators work in a world where they must get children to voluntarily come to them and participate.

Why would kids come to your school if they didn't have to?
(World Maker Faire 2014)

So when we talk about engagement we probably won't find it in canned programs from educational consultants who offer us classroom plans. Instead we need to look at, and adapt, ideas from people who literally have just seconds to grab attention, and who must continuously hold engagement through individualizable experience. It's not that we can throw a massive party every day like Maker Faire, but we are learning that Making to Learn allows the children themselves to create their own engaging context.

One of our high school teachers told the story of our summer "Pop Up MakerSpace" in a borrowed doublewide in, umm, a "socioeconomically challenged mobile home community." Also a community where speaking English can be a rare thing. We honestly didn't do much planning, he told people, we borrowed the space from a church, we hired someone quickly to add electrical capacity for lighting and computers, we borrowed a variety of tables and seating from the closest high school - also a laptop cart. We brought in lots of cardboard, lots of tape, lots of scissors, some wires, some soldering guns, some hand tools, oh, and a MiFi. And we began. "C'mon in and make stuff," we told the community, and the kids came. Kids 4 through 19, including he remembered, two kids who came within 12 hours of their family arriving in the country. And as they "made" they learned vocabulary - "you're making a house? that part is the gable." "you're making a circuit, let's talk about the wiring..." They learned the mathematics of measurement, the science of geometry and the physics of electricity. "And the kids loved it so much, their parents started coming, and learned to use the sewing machines we had borrowed, and in the end they took over one room of the trailer and started their own cooperative business making things."

Later, with the NYSCI group, he described how his computer science class operates. They work on what they want, from video games to Android Apps, and essentially his curriculum is that students create their own internal Stack Overflow database, which grows each year, so each group of students builds on the knowledge base of those before. Making has a simple role in schools, my friend and colleague Chad Ratliff says, "it is putting content into student-created context."

NYSCI lobby during Maker Faire. What's in your school entry?
Whatever we do, from learning to edit those words that matter in a seventh grade middle school room...


...to developing language skills, engineering skills, and math concepts in a music studio...


...that's the high school principal on the far right...
the music studio cost us about $5,000 including construction - it filled an old computer lab

...to putting science and engineering and entrepreneurship together, or learning history through reverse engineering historic technologies and printing them on a Makerbot, we see Making as the path to engagement, and engagement as the only way to get kids on the path to learning.

One of our middle school teachers, whose engineering/shop students collaborate across the curriculum, and who have made everything from a reimagined 1837 electric motor to sound amplifying stands for their phones, told the story of a sixth grader coming in and saying, "I want to build a batmobile."

"Why would you want to build a batmobile?" the teacher recalled saying, "isn't Superman better? He flies, he doesn't need a car."

The child considered this for a few moments, then said, "Maybe I'll design and build my own kind of car." "Now we're going someplace," the teacher responded.

And if we can't teach every middle school subject through a student's desire to build his own car, what kind of educators are we anyway?

- Ira Socol

03 September 2014

Why Choice? Why Comfort? Why Student Control?

If you are in North America or Europe school has just begun, and in hundreds of thousands of classrooms things have gotten off on the wrong foot. Teachers and administrators and introduced themselves as "enemies" of students, and students responded in kind.

In those classrooms seating charts have been introduced. Students have been expected to sit for long periods in brutally uncomfortable furniture. Odd rules have been announced - limiting children's ability to use the toilet for example - or to get a drink - or required forms of "paying attention." Punishments have been announced before any rule has been broken. In schools where computers or has limited the functionality, and has screamed to the students, "We don't trust you!"
similar devices have been distributed the set up of those devices
Why?

OK, disclosure. I was one of those students who, faced with a classroom environment like those described above - right up through graduate school, would leave that class and never come back. Most students don't do that, they either shut down or revolt in ways big or small. They do this in third grade. They do this in middle school. They do this in high school. And teachers often sit there and wonder what went wrong, or they grade on a curve, admitting publicly that they cannot help more than a third of their students do well.
"I don't understand this boy," a math teacher said to a librarian at the first high school I worked at. "He'd rather get detention and go to Saturday School than come to my class." "Well," the librarian responded, "I guess you have to think about that."
Learning is all about trust. If a learner doesn't trust the source of information, very little good happens. That's one thing if the learner is at home or in a coffee shop online, and can choose another source. Its something else again if this is "school" and "we," the educators, are being paid to support this knowledge gain.

High School Library Music Studio
Student-created content and context
And trust is always a mutual concept. If Americans don't trust their government - their government doesn't trust them - and spies on everyone while complaining about a lack of trust. If the police in Ferguson, Missouri don't trust their community, and go out into as if dressed for a foray into the Afghani mountains, the people of Ferguson do not trust their police, and presume all of the worst. And if a school won't trust a 16-year-old to use the toilet when they need to, the 16-year-old will behave as if an aggrieved prisoner.

Aggrieved prisoners are learners, but they sure ain't learning what you want them to be learning. They learn how to distract themselves. How to ignore you. How to excape your class. How to annoy you. I'm always amazed be educators who begin a class by listing the things that upset them most... "coming in late, chewing gum, talking in class, leaning back in the chair" ... and are then shocked, shocked, that students do those very things.

'nuff said...

If only we began from the idea that students - that children - are humans. If only we realized that there is only one moral universe and one standard of behavior, not "us" and "them." If only we started with the thought that if something - say, a rule - is "school only" we need to wonder why school cannot operate like the rest of the world...

Imagine if, at your home, you had to ask to go use the toilet and had to first get a pass. Imagine if you were told that you were not allowed to add a program to your computer or an app to your phone, or that you couldn't change a setting. Imagine if someone filled your house with traditional classroom furniture. Imagine if - as a teacher - you were docked pay if every student didn't learn every lesson on time. Imagine if you - as a state legislator - had your pay held back if every third grader didn't read at grade level. Imagine if you, as a principal, were required to sit in your standard student chair all day long.

Becky Fisher - my colleague - challenged schools to loosen up on technology controls recently in a
Every day my email brings me ideas from
profiteers suggesting how I can limit
student opportunities.
brilliant blog post
. And her post has inspired me to ask you to treat your students as humans - as you would like to be treated - on everything.

It's not just about what also applies to you, its about - because education is about our future - how you would like to be treated. Because in a free society we must learn to be free, and learn what it means to be free.

Where I work we ask our teachers and administrators to ensure that students have choice, are comfortable, and have control of their environment, their technology, and their learning, every day. We do that because we believe that we are helping our children become happy, healthy, successful adults who can thrive in their future, not just comply in our past.

So today, take the shackles off. If you want students to trust you, to be willing to learn what you feel is important, you must trust them.

It is really that simple.

- Ira Socol

14 August 2014

Leadership in Education?

I've seen many kinds of leadership in education across my life. I've know many directly, I've observed far more. At the far point on the scale I've watched the Chicago Public Schools and their leaders create one of the worst places to attend a public school on the planet, and its hard to believe that there has been anyone in charge of that system over the past 40 years who didn't really really want poor children to suffer, and to begin life as far behind as possible. They (Paul Vallas or Arne Duncan or Rahm Emanuel) can certainly argue with me, but I'd love to see any of them produce any actual evidence to the contrary.

Dr. Jonathan White, a real mentor to me, on leadership

At the other end are school systems like the one I work in now where the entire leadership, from the school board on down, is willing to take informed chances to continually do what is right for children. (That system is not great because I am in it, I have chosen to be in it because it is great.)

In between there are places like Detroit - a weakly led system sabotaged by a vicious anti-school state political agenda (pdf). And New York - where political style points over a 20-year-period have taken precedent over what children need.
I listened one day as Dr. Jesse Turner, the principal of our Monticello High School, explained to visitors from Australia and Michigan why he always calls his students "children." "My children don't always have a chance to be children," he said. "They go home and they need to work at jobs, or as caretakers, or sometimes to really be parents. So when they are here I want them to get to be children. I want them to play and explore. That's why I call them children, and they understand that."
And there are places like New Rochelle, New York - where I grew up and a system I continue to observe - which always seems to find ways to keep most kids - and, in contrast to Chicago, the full socio-economic range of kids - coming to school for the right reasons. And the Godfrey-Lee Schools in Western Michigan where great leadership is hamstrung by the horrendous inequality of resources for childhood we casually accept in the United States.

So I've watched for leadership. I think my elementary school - no matter what I thought about it - had pretty damn good leadership when I was a student there. It was a place of teacher innovation. I know my "junior high school" had terrible, unresponsive leadership which left students to fight for themselves. My high school had great leadership despite a tough place at a tough time. It was risk-taking leadership which greatly expanded opportunity across the spectrum of students and which began a tradition of trust in students - the open campus among others - which continues to this day.
"Of course there are other reasons why the 3Is [My alternative high school] is falling apart: the Steering Committee doesn't work (does the U.S. Congress do any better?), tutorials don't work (do you want them to do anything? If not, get rid of them; if so, do it), some classes don't work (complain, complain loudly and insistently or make some constructive criticisms or stop going to those that don't work for you). [Alan Shapiro wrote to students in the mid-1970s. Alan founded this school-within-a-school with Neil Postman, Charlie Weingartner, and Don Baughman in 1970.]

That sage, Kurt Ochshorn (also a non-classtaker, by the way) once said ["See Ira Socol and Tom Murphy on the art of not taking classes; on the other hand, for the art of taking classes, see Kim Jones, who amassed something like 12 credits and graduated after her sophomore year"], "The 3Is isn't a program. The 3Is doesn't have a program. You can do whatever you want." Kurt did. And he discovered what anyone discovers when he/she can do what he/she wants. T. H. Huxley, a 19th century biologist and teacher, said it well: "A man's worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes."

Now you may not be able to do exactly as you like, but even if you could, you wouldn't be satisfied. The problem with doing whatever you like is that first you have to discover what that is. That's a real problem. And further, assuming you do discover what you want to do, how long will it be before you don't want to do it anymore and recommence the search? Partial definition of a human being: a creature who is chronically dissatisfied (see Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents).

Nevertheless, Kurt was at least partly right -- 3Is is less a program than an opportunity. Admittedly one that has its limitations. Probably because the restless fires of youth no longer flame in me (wow), I don't mind the limits much, but am thankful for the opportunity. What that opportunity has been for me I discussed as well as I could at last year's graduation. (Those who missed this remarkable address, gnash yer teeth.)

So when I return this fall I expect to be greeted with an inadequate orientation and cries that 3Is is falling apart. But in my 25 years of teaching, I haven't found any group I like to fall apart with as much as you."
I saw meaningless leadership as an undergrad at Michigan State University long ago - a leader who wanted a different kind of job. I saw stronger leadership at two other schools I attended, Pratt Institute's School of Architecture and the New York City Police Academy, where there were clear, defined missions and yet a general respect for diversity. At Grand Valley State University I saw great leadership both where I worked - in Academic Computing - and where I studied - in Social Sciences. In Academic Computing we were groundbreakers in serving students - especially vulnerable students. In Social Sciences I watched a Dean take care of student needs above all other concerns, and I watched him lead in new ideas, such as digital curriculum (in 1998).

Unfortunately at Michigan State University a second time, I found no leaders at all, save a retired professor named Cleo Cherryholmes (Rest in Peace), in the College of Education - just gatekeepers and status builders. That's a terrible thing to say, but I'll defend MSU by noting its pretty universally true among US schools of education.
This July we ran Professional Learning seminars for about 750 educators (this August we got the other half of our professional staff). I led sessions on our "Seven Pathways" (with Meg Franco) and on "Design for Learning."  In two of those sessions I had wonderful elementary school principals - Kendra King and Lisa Molinaro join us. They both led by example - joining their, and other teachers, in committing summer hours to this work, and they led by effective conversation. Lisa gave examples. Whenever a teacher doubted that he or she could "make this work," Lisa waited through the conversation and then gave an example of similar transformation in her school - crediting the teacher involved, not herself. Kendra was quieter, but she raised essential questions at key moments. When we were talking about classroom rules such as "make eye contact" or "sit still," she spoke up. "Whenever you make a rule," she asked in moment I won't forget soon, "ask yourself, who am I leaving out?'
What I've learned is that leaders protect those under them, but not at all costs. And that real leaders most protect those risk takers who try to make things better for those served. That was true when I was in the NYPD, it is true in any school. That leaders constantly challenge those they lead to do better, and expect them to do better.

I've learned that leaders never accept the status quo, one who does that may be a "boss" but is not a leader. And I've learned that leaders never have double standards or differing moral systems. In schools that means that adult behaviors need to match expected child behaviors. If they don't, well, kids know exactly what's going on.

Management by Walking Around
Mostly I've learned that leadership is about listening and watching. It's surely not about talking and sending out directives. When leaders listen they enable conversations which have impact. When they don't listen, neither does anyone else.
My boss at GVSU Academic Computing listened one day while I told him that an Ed Psych prof had recommended that I investigate Text-To-Speech computer systems - this was early 1998 - and he looked at me and said, "huh, if you need that I bet a bunch of other people here need that." Without my asking a thing he gave me a year to investigate what we'd need to make the university computer system universally accessible and a budget to "buy one of everything and see what works." I loved that year, but that was hardly all I did. I'd do anything the department needed. I was the most loyal, productive person there. I'd finally really been heard and understood.
- Ira Socol

24 May 2014

Trained Immaturity, or, the Problem with Reading

There are scenes in films, on television, on the internet, and in books, which can deeply disturb me. I have actually walked out of theaters, once less than ten minutes into a film, because the soundtrack accompanying killings made it impossible for me to stay. There are books I had to pause in the listening, often, before I could resume reading - one of those comes immediately to mind, Stephen King's novella Apt Pupil in his Different Seasons collection, another was Robert Daley's Prince of the City- because, yes, literature is a powerful thing.
Bailey Loverin, sophomore at the
University of California-Santa Barbara,
committed to "trained immaturity"
[Photo, The New York Times]

So I know, and you know that I know, what Oberlin College dean Meredith Raimondo is trying to say when she tells The New York Times, "I quite object to the argument of ‘Kids today need to toughen up. That absolutely misses the reality that we’re dealing with. We have students coming to us with serious issues, and we need to deal with that respectfully and seriously." But I know that dean Raimondo also completely misses the point when she suggests that - thus - all literature read on campus should come with "trigger warnings" about disturbing content.

Authors have a right to surprise and shock. We might even hope that they have a duty to surprise and shock. That's a duty which converts a simple "story" - the completely predictable world of, say, a Tom Clancy, into "literature," something which forces the reader to see the world anew.
"Should students about to read The Great Gatsby be forewarned about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism — like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Things Fall Apart — have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?

"Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.

"The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them. But there have been similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools." (The New York Times)
A variety of issues collide here. Feminist Theory collides (perhaps) with Queer Theory and Disability Studies. The norms of Social Media collide with the purpose of the university. Individualism (and maybe Reader Response Theory) collides with the purpose and intent of literature and its authors. Attempting to become an adult collides with the contemporary American middle class/upper class norm of the prolonged childhood. Community Rights collide with Individual Preference.
"Trigger warnings, which originally started in online feminist and activist spaces as a way to warn community members that the topic being discussed might “trigger” unpleasant memories of sexual assault, child abuse, domestic violence, etc.," says professor Jade E. Davis on her blog, "have done that culture-jumping thing where they are no longer used in only those spaces. They are now somewhat ingrained in Internet culture as sort of the anti-troll, and they have become a standard that is used at times when the actual thing being discussed is not traumatic, but rather simply an uncomfortable encounter.

"What I find fascinating, and a bit odd, is that rather than entering the realm of popular culture, a place where a trigger warning might make sense, they’ve entered the realm of the university, a space where people are supposed to be challenged, pushed, and learn to think and understand in new, different and more diverse ways."
One of the biggest concerns I see is that certain issues seem to be afforded "Trigger Warnings" while others do not - a politically determined list created by elites. So, sexual assault, yes, the use of the term "Nigger" in Huckleberry Finn, probably not. Certain forms of violence, "Ms. Loverin draws a distinction between alerting students to material that might truly tap into memories of trauma — such as war and torture, since many students at Santa Barbara are veterans," but probably not the kind of street violence not experienced by "many" on a University of California campus. What about a story of absent mothers? What about, I wonder, a book like mine? What might I need to label... since none of it deals with Ms. Loverin's "many"?

The next biggest concern is the academic/political. I did not work within Feminist Theory, but I did/do work within Queer Theory and Disability Studies, or even a far left version of Disability Studies I have called "Retard Theory." In those there is a commitment to the challenging and the shocking. Those "Trigger Warnings" would compromise 'our' ability to attack the comfort of the status quo.
Man in his underwear. What do we censor?
National Geographic

Then there is what I might call, the "Trained Immaturity," the expectation of the eternal protection of perpetual childhood. This has changed dramatically since I was young, as I realized recently when I saw a librarian censoring National Geographic magazines before offering them to students, something unthinkable in the 1960s or 1970s. This problem comes from many things: the corrosive effects of helicopter parenting, television and film age-warnings, limited open play opportunities, and, yes, of the limited canonical reading list of many American Advanced Placement English teachers on not just their own students but, via the 'prep for AP mindset' which exists in many US high schools, on all the middle class children in those schools.

We screen for the "acceptable," we screen to "not disturb," we screen, all too often, to make the adults comfortable, to let the adults not have to deal with complex conversations. Oh how easy to let the concerns of 18th and 19th century wealthy white male novelists dominate our classrooms than to struggle with issues which challenge today's children.

But we do not have to. I have closely watched a seventh grade language arts class this year as they have read about the Holocaust, about American racism, about cancer and amputation - surely deeply disturbing topics for 12-13-year-olds, but I have seen them all rise to the complexities of the occasion. And I do not think, no matter what their personal issues, that they will need "Trigger Warnings" in their futures. First, they understand literary complexity. Second, they have enough Google skills to enable them to check out a book before they begin reading - at least to understand general themes. Third, they know how to advocate for themselves. Fourth, the are learning how to control their own learning environments - and thus know how to 'step outside' if they need to. These are all skills I wish those students at Oberlin and UC-Santa Barbara and elsewhere had learned in their K-12 school experiences.

As Dr. Davis says, "I would never give my students a “Trigger Warning,” but I do tell them every semester that we will be going over things that they might find disturbing, uncomfortable, angering, or upsetting. If this is the case, they are free to leave the classroom. The rule is they have to engage respectfully and openly, but only in the classroom. They can think whatever they want outside of the space, but inside the space, they are vulnerable, and I work with that. If things are too much, they are free to step out of the classroom as well. I only require that they email me and let me know why so we can make sure that the course will be okay moving forward."

So I guess I don't believe in "Trigger Warnings." Instead, I believe in  students learning the skills of mature adults, and I believe in the process of literature.

- Ira Socol

10 April 2014

When "Education" is Used as a Weapon

I began watching the 1968 movie Charly last weekend. I thought, at first, that I wanted to see it again. But as it began to play I remembered the first time I'd seen it, in New Rochelle, New York's Town Theater, when I guess I was 13 and trying very hard to impress a young woman.

Charly 1968.(YouTube) It only took about two and a half minutes...
So I went to this film with this girl and a few of her friends, kids who were not in any of my circles. They were Honors Classes kids at Isaac E. Young Junior High School, and they had parents who were doctors and lawyers and stuff. They were also, being both African-American and professional-parent middle class, two unusual circumstances for kids in that school at that time, were keenly aware of their status. So, I was uncomfortable at the start, but then, the film began. And before three and a half minutes had gone by, I heard, "damn, look at his writing. He's already way smarter than Ira."

The Town, towards the end of its existence
Five years before that afternoon I might have cried. Three years before I probably would have hit someone. At that moment though I did neither. I guess I retreated into a silent stare and watched myself be compared to a white rat. The other kids knew the story, honors English kids read Flowers for Algernon, my classes didn't, so I didn't, but it hadn't taken me long to figure this out.

Dumb kids can get bullied and its all fun. Dumb kids don't get the girl. When you're "smart" life is good. Being dumb, becoming "dumb" again, is tragic. And how do we know Charly Gordon is dumb? He plays on a playground, and he writes like I write, or, as my "friends" pointed out, better.

There are many ways to feel superior to others, and to make that supposed superiority apparent. There are, I suppose, "natural" ways, you might throw or hit a ball further than most others can, or you might draw pictures others cannot, or play music in ways few others are able. And then there are invented ways. Games are one of those, constructing a specific, invented experience at which some can excel and others fail (I know about this too, in high school I was on a basketball team that lost 107-30, no sh**). And much of the academic experience is traditionally another of those specific, invented experiences. In school you get belittled for expressing yourself the wrong way, taking in information the wrong way, often sitting the wrong way. As I've often said, I began school with them telling me I was making my fives wrong - they could tell they were fives but I wasn't following the "correct" order...

You're making your fives wrong. I mean, really?

...and I ended school with people telling me that my citations were wrong. They understood the citations well enough but I wasn't following whatever nonsensical protocol was in fashion. (I believe that the only valid citation these days is a link to your source, otherwise, honestly, nobody will check up on your sources.)

Of course I didn't just make my fives wrong, I made all my letters wrong. And not just in the wrong order, I made them backwards and upside down and often fully incomprehensible. And I couldn't read either. And in the world of "school" that meant that it didn't matter that I could take in stories - fiction and non-fiction - or that I could tell stories - fiction and non-fiction - effectively. It didn't matter that I could work in math in real life. All that mattered was what I couldn't do.

No, that's not quite it. It wasn't just what I couldn't do... it was who I couldn't replicate. I couldn't do things the ways those "in power" wanted them done.

What made me "dumb" was not what my brain might be able to do, or what my abilities or capabilities were. What made me "dumb" was that I didn't write, read, sit, or even persevere like those in power wanted me to. I was "dumb" because I couldn't, and wouldn't, comply.

One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Non-compliance will cost you

With that in mind I found endless Tweets about a story about the decline of "serious reading" in the Washington Post. "Serious reading," if you can believe the pretense that this is somehow a technical term.

"I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing," said Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain," in this paean to the sad level that academic research has seemingly sunk to in America.

The best selling author of the 1920s?
Dr. Wolf imagines a world which never existed. A world where everybody read like she does. I've met many academics who think like this. These are people who actually believe that F. Scott Fitzgerald was the best selling author of the 1920s. In fact, I'm quite certain that it was Dr. Seuss's original work, "Quick Henry, the Flit!"

These are the same people who railed against the "Dime Novels" of the 1890s, against film, radio, comic books, television, computers, the early internet... whatever didn't look like the kinds of information and story intake these "leaders" had found comfort in.

"Wolf, one of the world’s foremost experts on the study of reading," says the Post in a completely unsubstantiated assertion, "was startled last year to discover her brain was apparently adapting, too. After a day of scrolling through the Web and hundreds of e-mails, she sat down one evening to read Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. ...“I’m not kidding: I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.” Ahh... I say, wanting to give both the professor and reporter failing grades in research methods. Dr. Wolf begins research not with quality observation, and not with a developed research question, but with a Seinfeldesque random anecdote. "I was riding the subway the other day and noticed someone reading a TV Guide with Al Roker on the cover, and from this I became determined to write a book about the decline of intellectualism in America."

So, my personal anecdote cancels out Dr. Wolf's personal anecdote,
Why doesn't the Washington Post report that?

Do people read with in-depth processing? Sure, sometimes. And they do that whether they are decoding ink on paper symbols or listening to the radio or watching a film or television or listening to a friend talk. And mostly they don't, whether reading - say, Tom Clancy - or watching a James Bond movie, or listening to simplistic music. Is CNN worth deep reading? Was that Washington Post article? No, of course not. Is listening to my friends tell stories? Then, probably. But its always been that way. I also watched The Americanization of Emily recently, an amazing 1964 film that's surely demanding of serious attention. On the other hand, the current Cosmos TV series had me wandering off within 20 minutes. What can I say? Is that a web problem? A text messaging problem? A mobile phone problem? No, if those things weren't here I'd still stop paying attention to stuff without sufficient interest.
"You American haters bore me to tears, Ms. Barham. I've dealt with Europeans all my life. I know all about us parvenus from the States who come over here and race around your old Cathedral towns with our cameras and Coca-Cola bottles... Brawl in your pubs, paw at your women, and act like we own the world. We over-tip, we talk too loud, we think we can buy anything with a Hershey bar. I've had Germans and Italians tell me how politically ingenuous we are, and perhaps so. But we haven't managed a Hitler or a Mussolini yet. I've had Frenchmen call me a savage because I only took half an hour for lunch. Hell, Ms. Barham, the only reason the French take two hours for lunch is because the service in their restaurants is lousy. The most tedious lot are you British. We crass Americans didn't introduce war into your little island. This war, Ms. Barham to which we Americans are so insensitive, is the result of 2,000 years of European greed, barbarism, superstition, and stupidity. Don't blame it on our Coca-cola bottles. Europe was a going brothel long before we came to town." - "Serious Reading" in The Americanization of Emily
The research Dr. Wolf and others quoted in the article is so bad, it is laughable. "Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways — one page led to the next page, and so on. Sure, there might be pictures mixed in with the text, but there didn’t tend to be many distractions. Reading in print even gave us a remarkable ability to remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout, researchers said. We’d know a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue.," Wolf says proving how little she has actually experienced of even literature - missing everything from poetry to DosPassos to the beats to all postcolonial literature, but, there you go... research and knowledge are not Dr.Wolf's, nor the Post's, purpose here.

The purpose in that article is the snarky over-educated equivalent of, "damn, look at his writing. He's already way smarter than Ira." The purpose of Dr. Wolf's book is to humiliate all who do not read like she does, so she can project her own superiority.

We'd simply laugh at her, and I guess eventually feel sorry for her incredibly limited life, if she was just making these assertions over cheap brandy in the faculty lounge ;-) - but what she and the Post are doing is incredibly dangerous - incredibly harmful - to a hundred million kids in America who may get branded as being "less intelligent" and "unserious readers" because they read more like, I don't know, Jack Kerouac or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, than Maryanne Wolf.

Maryanne Wolf is doing "research" into why more people aren't like Maryanne Wolf - which might be a legitimate question for her, but she has no right to demean others who might struggle with Hermann Hesse's writing, who might jump around when reading things of little interest.

"They're reading texts and watching TV and jumping around," people will say, while labeling them failures.

So here's my answer to those who want people to be like them, who think the way they do things is superior. It's the same answer I should have said way back when in the Town Theater, "Shut the F*** Up." That's a clear answer and anyone can read it really deeply, really seriously.

Because I am finished hearing about those "good ol' days," about how much better things were "back then." You know, "back then" our schools sucked for most kids. They were bored and frustrated. They read no better then than now. Many fewer graduated from high school, many, many fewer went to college. People chose bad movies and third rate books then, and now. Zane Grey for God's sake. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did very well in 1966, but if you add up Grand Prix, Lt. Robinson Crusoe, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, and The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming, you'll see an audience three or four times as big. The same would be true today.

Americans chose to fight a worthless war against Spain in 1898 and a very questionable war in Iraq more than a century later. Our media is still targeted at the 6th Grade reading level, now, as then, because that's where most people are. It was that way the first time we gave a standardized reading test in 1867 (pdf), it is that way on every NAEP result since.

So I'd rather find what works for people, in their worlds, instead of criticizing them or humiliating
When was the last time a five paragraph essay
was ever written outside of school?
them. I don't want to talk about "serious reading" or "slow reading" or "deep reading," I want to talk about effective reading which I define as getting information and stories into your head in ways which are useful to each individual.

I don't want to talk about inattention and divided attention and shallow attention. Nobody cares. We don't have the time. We need to help each other find ways to focus when we need to and how to be "ADHD" when we need that, and we need that a great deal. Because while you're doing your "serious reading" the world might be changing, and those changes might change how you understand what you just read.

And I don't want to talk about writing - of course - because your writing rules are tied to antique technologies. From your citation rules to your sentence structures - which, frankly, John DosPassos was tossing out over 80 years ago because they were already antiquated, from your use of pens and pencils to your grammatical limitations, from your belief in required lengths of certain works to your five paragraph essays... its all nonsense. What matters is communication, what matters is empowering voices.

Life is a real thing. People are real people. They all have different needs, differing abilities, capabilities, interests, and they change day-by-day, minute-by-minute. They want to play more than they want to work, but they want to do the things they want to do well. So let's stop telling them how they must do things and making them feel bad about what they do, and let's let them be human.

- Ira Socol

25 March 2014

Angela Duckworth's Eugenics - the University of Pennsylvania and the MacArthur Foundation

"The direct result of this inquiry is to make manifest the great and measurable differences between the mental and bodily faculties of individuals, and to prove that the laws of heredity are as applicable to the former as to the latter. Its indirect result is to show that a vast but unused power is vested in each generation over the very natures of their successors—that is, over their inborn faculties and dispositions. The brute power of doing this by means of appropriate marriages or abstention from marriage undoubted." (Francis Galton, 1869, page xix http://www.mugu.com/galton/books/hereditary-genius/text/pdf/galton-1869-genius-v3.pdf )
This is where the work of Grit Genius Angela Duckworth begins, with Francis Galton's 1869 book which pioneered the reprehensible science of eugenics. "Unlike many decisions (e.g., what to have for lunch), choosing to endure rather than desist is a choice that must be effortfully sustained over time. This is an important difference and means grit requires not just motivation but also volition--not just resolving to achieve something important but also protecting that resolution when tempted to reverse the decision; not just committing to our goals but, more difficult than that, translating intentions into actions; not just starting things but finishing what we begin; not just zeal, as Francis Galton concluded in his 1869 treatise on eminent achievement, but also the capacity for hard work; not just want but also will," Duckworth posted last August in one of her many fame chasing broadsides.


I have been struggling against the Grit Narrative for a few months, and I'm not at all alone. What has shocked me is the ease with which supposedly enlightened organizations - leading organizations within our society such as the Macarthur Foundation, the University of Pennsylvania, The New York Times, have unquestionably accepted the work of a professor who has based her research in the work of a writer whose work brutalized and killed millions during the 19th and 20th Centuries, including the Nazi Holocaust, the Japanese assault on China during World War II, and the ethnic cleansing in Europe's Balkans at the end of last century. There are also stories symbolized by the tale of Carrie Buck, where there's an unquestionable direct line from Angela Duckworth's favorite thinker to a deep well of human misery.

The brutality of Galton's work - celebrated continuously by Angela Duckworth

The deep problem I have with "the grit narrative" lies in its flawed assumptions that if poor kids just work harder, with more focus, everything will be fine. Now everyone who has ever worked with "at risk" kids, children in poverty, knows that isn't true. What did my friend Chad say when a high school wrestler he coached got shot walking out of his house? "He needed to work harder"? What could I say to homeless kids I worked with in Grand Rapids when they struggled to stay awake in school? "You just need to be more organized"? What might I have said to the kids I knew in The Bronx who lived in a nightmare of poverty and violence? "I wish you'd pay more attention to your teacher"? The "grit narrative" leaves out the entire socio-economic world which works against so many of our kids, and blames those kids for our failings. I'll also note that it's largely based in research with little basis in reality. Who succeeds in West Point's "Beast Barracks" is not a real question because it cannot be connected to success in anything other than West Point's "Beast Barracks." (The United States Military Academy has never attempted a "control group" class with no Beast Barracks, so we have no idea if success there has anything to do with success in the Army or even in the Academy). Likewise Duckworth's deep concern for Spelling Bee champions. Being able to spell unusual words really well is directly linked to, ummm, nothing except being able to spell unusual words very well. So we have untrue conclusions based in fairly nonsensical research.

The deep problem I have with Duckworth is not just the reliance on the despicable Galton, but the willingness to rehabilitate this man and his theories. "[T]he theory that grit actually overrides other seemingly essential attributes is not new," says a business online blog. "It goes back more than 120 years. In the 1890s, Sir Francis Galton studied success and concluded “ability alone did not bring about success in any field.” He found rather that success stemmed from “ability combined with zeal and with capacity for hard labour.” Today, University of Pennsylvania professor, Angela L. Duckworth is following up on Galton’s work. She made grit the centerpiece of her research into high achievement. “Our hypothesis that grit is essential to high achievement evolved during interviews with professionals in investment banking, painting, journalism, academia, medicine and law,” said Duckworth."And thus Duckworth has made Galton and Eugenics fully acceptable again.

Listen. We all quote the despicable on occasion. I've quoted Martin Heidegger often on technology, but my quotes look like this: '"Technology," to quote (nervously, because he was pretty much a Nazi) Heidegger, is the "art of manipulating the world."' or this, "Just as I may quote Heidegger, but only after very deep investigation, because I have to see, after a lot of reading, if I can separate truth from the other insanities of a pro-Nazi philosopher." I'm still troubled by using his ideas, but at least I express that. Something Duckworth never, ever, does." Here's her online research statement, "As Galton (1892) speculated in his pioneering treatise on the determinants of eminent achievement, the distinction has chiefly to do with timescale: Grit equips individuals to pursue especially challenging aims over years and even decades. Self-control, in contrast, operates at a more molecular timescale, in the battle against what Galton called the hourly temptations – among whose modern incarnations I would nominate Facebook, Angry Birds, Krispy Kreme donuts, and other pursuits which bring pleasure in the moment but are immediately regretted. Both self-control and grit are facets of Big Five conscientiousness, a taxonomy that organizes personality traits in both childhood and adulthood..." When she writes, "his pioneering treatise," she's hardly expressing doubts about Galton's work. And in her quoting of Galton through dozens of writings I have searched, she expresses doubts about his work not once.

This is no ordinary villain. This isn't President William McKinley or even former Alabama Governor George Wallace, this is the writer whose theories stoked the atrocities in Hitler's death camps. "Hitler did not justify his social policies on the basis of Darwinism or eugenics. No reference to such subjects can be found in his books, Mein Kampf' or his Table-Talk. His social ideas appeared to derive more from the 19th century German philosophers Schopenhauer, Hegel and particularly Nietzsche who is quoted several times in Hitler's Table-Talk. The case is different with regard to the German biologists, anthropologists and geneticists of the period between 1933 and 1945. They actively invoked eugenic principles to justify the social policies of the Nazis. The consequences of these policies have been extensively documented elsewhere; suffice it to record that approximately 200,000 women were compulsorily sterilized and more than six million people belonging to "inferior races" suffered mass extermination." (Francis Galton and eugenics today, Journal of Medical Ethics, 1999 -pdf)

This is a monster, who deserves no rehabilitation, especially at the hands of the University of Pennsylvania and the MacArthur Foundation.
"This is precisely the aim of Eugenics. Its first object is to check the birth-rate of the Unfit, instead of allowing them to come into being, though doomed in large numbers to perish prematurely. The second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the Fit by early marriages and healthful rearing of their children. Natural Selection rests upon excessive production and wholesale destruction; Eugenics on bringing no more individuals into the world than can be properly cared for, and those only of the best stock." - Galton, Memories of My Life (1908), Chapter XXI
Why is Duckworth's attitude any different from this?
"One in ten young Austrians think Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler did some 'good things', a shocking poll has found.
"The Youth Culture Research Institute poll found 11.2 percent of respondents said Hitler 'did many good things for the people', The Daily Mail reports.
"The finding was described as ‘frightening’ by the local newspaper as it is coupled with the general mistrust and dislike of non-Austrians."
Why are we offended by people stating the idea that Hitler did "good things" but not that Galton is worth basing research on?

The problem is two-fold. Not only does Duckworth celebrate Galton and his work - a dramatic challenge to contemporary ethics ("Following the events of the second world war, overt eugenic ideas became unacceptable") - but she uses Galton's theories virtually whole. As Lauren Anderson noted on the EdWeek site:
"Watching the video that accompanied [Duckworth's MacArthur Genius biographical sketch}, resignation turned to vexation. Here was another familiar-sounding narrative deployed to rationalize a turn toward individualistic, "objective measures." [2] In it, Duckworth recounts her own frustration, felt during her short stints as a teacher, about, "how little I was able to change the number of hours that they [italics added] were willing to put in for me, as students."[3] Presumably these encounters informed the "distinctly different view of school reform" that Duckworth would later write about in her application to doctoral study:

"The problem," Duckworth writes, "I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves..."[4] Of course, in other directions lie other possible interpretations and corollary questions--about the effectiveness of one's own teaching practice (especially as a new teacher),[5] the relational ties between teachers and students (which develop over time), the broader set of forces at work in young people's lives (including, for example, institutional racism, conditions of poverty, and inequitable access to resources that we know impact development), and so on. That Duckworth, like many, has chosen to seek cause and cure for achievement, or lack thereof, primarily in the individual is, again, not particularly surprising; nor is the fact that doing so has brought her acclaim."
Dickens 1843... "this boy is ignorance,
this girl is want."
the failure is society's
This is not an issue of people "in their times." You see - apologies to those around me in Charlottesville, Virginia, but - Thomas Jefferson and James Madison knew that slavery was wrong - even back "in their times." And Galton was writing 30 to 60 years after Charles Dickens, after Karl Marx, after many had made it clear that the Industrial Revolution and unchecked capitalism were the cause of the extremes of poverty. And Duckworth is writing in a time when people know the structures of our society are brutally unfair to many. The kid in inner Cleveland needs "grit," the kid in Shaker Heights really doesn't.


"Galton was a very insecure man who, in an effort to emulate his cousin's adventures, took an expedition to Africa, where he become convinced of the inherent inferiority of any races that were not of European descent. His insecurities led him to take a particular interest in those who were born into the "right families," or possessed certain forms of genius." And like Galton, Dr. Duckworth has a "particular interest in those who were born into the "right families."

"It reminds me of a study done of taxi drivers in 1997," Duckworth told ASCD in a very revealing interview. "When it's raining, everybody wants a taxi, and taxi drivers pick up a lot of fares. So if you're a taxi driver, the rational thing to do is to work more hours on a rainy day than on a sunny day because you're always busy so you're making more money per hour. But it turns out that on rainy days, taxi drivers work the fewest hours. They seem to have some figure in their head—"OK, every day I need to make $1,000"—and after they reach that goal, they go home. And on a rainy day, they get to that figure really quickly.

In other words, Duckworth is criticizing anyone born into, or raised in, a culture less financially aspirational then her own high-wealth background. Notice, the cab drivers she is criticizing are not failing to work, they are failing to accumulate excess wealth, and to Duckworth this decision to, say, return home to their families sooner, is a sign of unforgivable personal failure. Duckworth's "rational" is only "rational" to her and her kind. It isn't rational to me. It isn't - and this is a long time slander against everyone from the Irish to Africans - natural to many non-Protestants.

Whatever she claims, if you read her statement, you cannot conceivably believe she is doing anything but blaming the individuals. And, if you read her statement - this section ends with, "Your goal is, "How can I get the most out of my day?" Then you're like the taxi driver who drives all day whether it's rainy or not." - you cannot find a way to believe anything but that her work ranks cultures and is based in that classic of white protestant culture, "The Protestant Work Ethic."
"[O]ne’s duty in a calling, is what is most characteristic of the social ethic of capitalistic culture," Max Weber wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, "and is in a sense the fundamental basis of it. It is an obligation which the individual is supposed to feel and does feel towards the content of his professional activity, no matter in what it consists, in particular no matter whether it appears on the surface as a utilization of his personal powers. Or only of his material possessions (as capital)."
That work ethic and the "White" Supremacy it suggests - "white" in the 1900 sense of white excluding the Irish, Italians, and others - is not rational, not universal, and perhaps, not even healthy, as researchers have found a deep psychological hurt which it can engender.

Duckworth is hardly the only person in the business of blaming poor children, African-American children, and Latino children for their position in society, but she is the one making most clear the ugly foundation for this blame.

As we note that relatively few New York City taxi drivers were white, middle class, American-born in 1997 (or today) we see Duckworth's eugenics at work. OK, she wants us to "fix" the undesirables through "re-education," but that's just a small step away from Galton's ultimate solution if that "fix" doesn't take.

So as I read Duckworth's view of New York City's multi-ethnic cabbies, I thought back to a flight from Dublin to Chicago years ago. I was sitting next to a physician, born in Nigeria, educated in London, working in Dublin. He told me that he really hated American conferences, such as the one he was on his way to, "they always harass me because I make less than they do," he said. Then he told me that he worked 37 hours a week, never worried about billing, never asked a patient about insurance, and had days to play soccer with his kids. "I earn €90,000 a year," he added. "I live in a great house. We have two nice cars. Why would I need anything more?" Yes, this was a classic - an African-Irish from lazy, non-grit cultures. A failure by every Duckworth measure just as much as he would have been a 'drag on civilisation' to Galton.

To Duckworth, as to Galton, the problem with the poor is the poor. In a presentation typical of her pitch
Duckworth PowerPoint
no mention of how wealthy daddy is
or of race or economics
, she never once mentions society, or cultural issues, or economic issues. The problem, if kids fail, is that her "talent multiplied by effort" equation indicates that the child is either stupid or lazy or both. She doesn't use the words, but her "grit tests" make it clear that those failing to succeed in our schools and our society are "lazy and shiftless," and fail to meet the decorum standards of the Leave it to Beaver all white, all middle class, all compliant, fantasy school. "I
interrupted other students while they were talking," is one negative on Duckworth's "Grit Test" for students. "My mind wandered when I should have been listening," is another. "I talked back to my teacher or parent when I was upset," a third.

The 'blame the poor' narrative runs deep in America, in Protestant nations informed by the New England belief that wealth equaled moral right. Of course poverty can also be linked, very powerfully, to those groups Galton found unable to measure up to his expectations. It's the issue Ta-Nehisi Coates addressed in the March 21, 2014 Atlantic. Coates begins by quoting Jonathan Chait over the question of Coates conflating Paul Ryan's social policies towards African-Americans with Barack Obama's:
"The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success."
Coates then responds:
If only he had grit.
The Jim Crow Museum
at Ferris State University
"The "structural conditions" Chait outlines above can be summed up under the phrase "white supremacy." I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be "independent" of white supremacy. I have not found one. Certainly the antebellum period, when one third of all enslaved black people found themselves on the auction block, is not such an era. And surely we would not consider postbellum America, when freedpeople were regularly subjected to terrorism, to be such an era. 

"We certainly do not find such a period during the Roosevelt-Truman era, when this country erected a racist social safety, leaving the NAACP to quip that the New Deal was "like a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through." Nor do we find it during the 1940s, '50s and '60s, when African-Americans—as a matter of federal policy—were largely excluded from the legitimate housing market. Nor during the 1980s when we began the erection of a prison-industrial complex so vast that black males now comprise 8 percent of the world's entire incarcerated population.


"And we do not find an era free of white supremacy in our times either, when the rising number of arrests for marijuana are mostly borne by African-Americans; when segregation drives a foreclosure crisis that helped expand the wealth gap; when big banks busy themselves baiting black people with "wealth-building seminars" and instead offering "ghetto loans" for "mud people"; when studies find that black low-wage applicants with no criminal record "fared no better than a white applicant just released from prison"; when, even after controlling for neighborhoods and crime rates, my son finds himself more likely to be stopped and frisked. Chait's theory of independent black cultural pathologies sounds reasonable. But it can't actually be demonstrated in the American record, and thus has no applicability."
Coates describes the cultural structure that locks people into poverty, a trap set by those in power, people like Angela Duckworth. Duckworth has now provided a new round of racist ammunition, whether she is assaulting the heavily Caribbean and African taxi workforce in New York, or children of color. "They lack grit," people will now say, "they can't succeed because of their own weakness."

This is vicious. I repeat, vicious. Not just vicious, but quite clearly untrue. And the blame, the need for an explanation, lies with two key American institutions. The University of Pennsylvania which gave Duckworth her PhD., hired her as a professor, and promoted her, and The MacArthur Foundation, which called her a "genius."

Which brings me to the deep problem I have with the University of Pennsylvania, the MacArthur Foundation, the Gates Foundation-supported TED Talks, and all the other organizations from The New York Times to ASCD who have treated Dr. Duckworth like a superstar savior of children. 

There is a fundamental irresponsibility here. Either the university and the foundation never looked up Francis Galton - a massive failure of academic capability and competence - or they didn't mind his rehabilitation - a massive failure of ethics. Either the university and the foundation and others support this kind of use of eugenics research, or they haven't actually read any of Duckworth's work - and either would lead us to doubt any right they have to lead in our society. I have emailed Dr. Duckworth, her dean, and the University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutman, seeking any kind of justification or explanation, but all have been silent. I haven't emailed MacArthur. I'm pretty sure I've already blown any chance I'd ever get to be a "MacArthur Fellow," but I'm not sure I want to eliminate every possibility...

But the fundamental irresponsibility is to children. Children I deeply care about. I absolutely believe that "the grit narrative" damages our children because it lets society and the powerful off the hook. "Why change anything?" they'll ask, "the kids just need grit." "Grit" is one more excuse, its one more hammer to beat children with.

"I’d never give that little boy Duckworth’s survey. It would only reinforce all the negatives in his life." Pam Moran writes in a beautiful blog post about this subject, one I desperately want you to read, "And, I don’t think he lacked self-control at all. Every seemingly impulsive action he took -  from his anger to his distractedness -  was motivated to give him space to breathe and control over a world gone awry."

For our children who have nothing need "slack" from us. They need "abundance." They need the outstretched hand that raises them up and comforts them. The last thing they need is to be told to "get themselves up." They know all about that. They do it every day and the scarcity of support is what threatens to defeat them.

So please University of Pennsylvania, please MacArthur Foundation. please TED, The New York Times, NPR, et al... please stop. Duckworth's Grit is bad research based in horrific research. You cannot condone this return to eugenics. You just cannot.
"For hundreds of years our society allowed skin color and economic success to serve as facile proxies for the content of a person's character, and for a long time I was pleased to think that in my lifetime we might be getting beyond that," Peter Gow wrote in EdWeek earlier this month. He continued, "How wrong I seem to have been; the Grit Narrative, its shadow spreading back over the land under the guise of "research," threatens to take us straight back to an era where poverty is about laziness and where failure, unless it's the "failing up" of a revered entrepreneur, carries the stain of moral bankruptcy."
- Ira Socol