The Debate in Whole Language: Whose Campaign is John Kerry's Campaign?
by Rich Gibson
As an aside, at the outset, if I was an organizer for President Bush, I would give people money to form a Whole Language Elites for Kerry Committee, and I would publicize their support for Kerry like crazy.
Or, another instance: say I sign this list for Kerry, and Bush smears you all--and thus Kerry--- for associating with communists (which in Bush's mind would be correct). Will you side with Bush and demand that I get off the list in order to support Kerry--a Skull and bones warrior-millionaire who will never be a good friend to anyone here?
Educators for Kerry? What gets learned from that? It seems to me that the Whole Language group needs to restore the Whole to its outlook. It is not enough to oppose high stakes tests and NCLB, take them apart from the other processes of capitalism that are at work now, and treat them in ways that suggest that the capitalists are going to adopt the ethics and desires of the workers, teachers and students. They never have, never will, and most certainly cannot now when they face the greatest crisis in the history of their empire, a crisis that objectively (if not subjectively yet) goes well beyond their dramatic losses in Vietnam.
Capitalism ( which Democrats and Republicans personify in only slightly different ways) is not going to be talked out of profiteering and war, and capitalist schools are not going to stop meeting, mainly, the desires of this government that now clearly serves as an executive committee for the rich. Not until masses of people take direct action to overcome that kind of schooling, inside the schools, outside the schools, in communities, on picket lines, on strikes, civil upheavals, etc---which will happen because people are going to have to fight back in order to survive--will the demands of capital on schools be mediated by direct resistance.
Will it be ok to go forward with the US imperial invasion of the world if Kerry modifies the NCLB and Big Tests and offers bi lingual education? (How will we get him to tinker with his teacher-pay-for-performance scheme if he dumps his support for high stakes tests? He would be lost with no measuring stick).
Sacrificing the needs of masses of people, the whole of the working classes and poor people around the world, in order to meet the immediate--partial--needs of a few, has a long history, none of it panning out well in the long run for anyone but the tiniest of real minorities---the rich.
The parallels of this to the history of the AFL are remarkable. The AFL traded alliances with workers in the rest of the world for support for the US ruling class here, and then they, logically, mobilized opposition to workers' movements abroad. In sum, the leadership of the AFL said, "US workers will do better, if other workers do worse." They applied that logic inside the US too, "White male workers will do better if other workers do worse."
Some white folks in the AFL did ok with that for awhile, owned snowmobiles, etc. They are dead in the water now, you know. Why? In part because the AFL bosses had no interest at all in creating an active, class conscious rank and file movement that could make its own decisions, act in its own interests, and exercise its remarkable potential power to control their work places and communities.
The immediate issues in schools (always connected to broader societal issues) relate more to who controls the work place, what value teachers and students create, who controls that value and how people can shut off the invasion of the military ghouls seeking the kids, how to halt the racist big tests----not how to spend this much time choosing who will oppress the people on the list less--and whether or not colleges of education will continue to exist.
One day we are discussing a million teacher march (which, if we can accept the fantasy-- would be a 950,000 white people march, with all the fearsome characteristics of that). Then we abandon the genuinely positive rank and file action underpinnings of that idea and vacillate the other way, organizing a trip to the voting booth which will do nothing, nothing, to create or preserve power for poor and working people, who are likely to be the best allies teachers ever had---allies surely superior to those that the criminal leadership of the teacher unions propose--with the cops-- to demand more pay from big city bosses (see the AFT full page ad in NY Times of June 8). And not John Kerry who is openly says he is going to continue the US ruling class' invasion of the world, in the name of democracy and freedom, but truly for oil, social control, and brutal exploitation.
That perpetual war is going to need bodies to fight it, and those bodies are sitting in schools right now. That war is going to need peculiar kinds of schooling. War and school will create and recreate each other, until a mass change of mind, and mass action, call both off. A Vote Kerry movement disconnects that reality, pretends it is not there---or believes that what Kerry says he will do is going to be worse than what he actually will do--a bizarre sense of hope through counting on lies. Of course, John Kerry is going to lie to you, me, and everyone else. That is his job, especially within a country dedicated to endless war---always rooted in deception. Shall we urge a vote for his lies? What are the ethics of that, not in a moralizing sense, but in the sense that when we get done with that activity, how shall we look back and judge it?
This is, then, a pedagogical problem, in part. What do people need to know about schools and society, and how do they need to come to know it? Pushing people into voting booths, as self-alienating as going to church to pay others to find and interpret god, and probably about as effective, teaches people little or nothing about how they can understand and act on the world in their own, collective class, interests. Indeed, it teaches people the opposite of what they need to know---Kerry, or someone else, will save your ass. He won't. Only you (and hence we) will.
Kerry, I note, put his campaign on hold and said nothing about the gutter racism of Ronald Reagan, while elites in the US held a mass pr campaign designed to enshrine, not dead Reagan, but the permanence of their rule--a pr campaign from the top down that nearly outstripped Goebbels. . Fighting racism will not get Kerry votes, but it is a vital aspect of real teacher-student-prof power.
Organizing around the lowest common denominator of opinion does not elevate that opinion, but retards it. Teachers should easily see a pedagogical parallel.
Soon shall we lesser evil ourselves right to John McCain?
Let us say Kerry wins and does everything that we seem to want him to do in regards to education. Then let us say (just for the purposes of exposition--but anyone would do) that he has chosen McCain as his VP, and Kerry drops dead, and McCain restores all the Bush NCLB stuff. What position will the people on this list, and the base of people created by urging a Vote Kerry movement, be in? How will this base be able to preserve their victory with Kerry? They won't, because they will have tossed away their vital time in a voting booth, when they could have done something lasting, like building a movement that connects people with power. They will have participated in a shell game, rather than doing something substantive----a base of people ready for direct action no matter which wolf in sheeps' clothing runs the show.
Whole Language, and all that implies, offers a direct connection to what people need to know and how they come to know it, in order to lead reasonably free, connected, creative lives. It is necessarily an oppositional movement, a rebel movement (as the recent high-point of direct whole language action at the reading conference shows) because it stands above the parts-to-whole vision of those who want to mask the totalizing nature of capital's society. Whole Language suggests that knowledge is constructed socially, is not private property (one of the key props of the tests). Whole language has all the potential to answer the crisis that really is in front of us, but not if it just takes up part of life and says, Go Vote Kerry.
Even if the Vote Kerry effort is taken in conjunction with other actions, the main thing that will be heard is Vote Kerry, submerging other actions in that process from now until November, this loss of five months' work in the midst of a burgeoning war, a looming financial crisis, deepening attacks on whatever civil liberties are left, ever more surveillance, more official deception (from both parties), etc. While any project for social, economic, educational change is a long term project, there is a certain urgency here.
Educators for Kerry? We would be at the bottom of a big pile of hacks who are already at the trough proclaiming their allegiance to Kerry, the bosses of the AFT and the NEA. Just how they would use the prestigious leadership of the Lit for All group is open to speculation. I doubt they would even want it, but if they did, they would only use it in the most cynical ways. Why align whatever base of support the Lit for All group might have with them?
Two apparently contradictory, but truly connected, slogans were proved out in the last presidential vote;
1. If voting mattered, they wouldn't let you do it (that from the director of political action of the NEA in Florida)
2. There is not much sense in voting when your enemies own the voting machines (that from the director of the Broward County, Fla, AFT--now in jail for pedophilia).
Their cynicism shines through. They knew then that they could not outbribe Enron, which is the crux of the electoral system, proof being that this election will cost well over one billion dollars.
The opposite of that is the pedagogical project of interacting with people to learn, and teach, how we can understand and change the world, and our immediate circumstances, in tandem---the whole and its parts--in order to fashion a powerful mass of conscious people who can overturn, not just the NCLB and the tests, but the system that requires them. To take one without the other, to hide one from the other, leaves teachers and students defenseless.
A conscious action oriented movement clearly, requires organization, where the pedagogical project can be deepened through planning, criticism, and self criticism, combatting the key trends in US education today (racism, cowardice, opportunism, ignorance) which is a topic for another day.