In the opening pages of George Orwell’s 1984, readers are introduced to Oceania along with the work and world of Winston Smith:
Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer; though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing. A kilometer away the Ministry of Truth, his place of work, towered vast and white above the grimy landscape….
The Ministry of Truth—Minitrue, in Newspeak—was startlingly different from any other object in sight….From where Winston stood is was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. (p. 7)
Despite the common misconception that science fiction (SF) is aimed at predicting the future—Orwell writing in 1948 to predict the world of 1984—SF often seeks to criticize the contemporary conditions of the writer’s time as well as to capture the enduring truths confronting humanity. To that second end, Orwell in 1984 dramatizes the political use of language to mislead, not to inform.
And it is with Orwellian grace that we now have President Barack Obama calling for “political courage” related to funding education:
President Obama called Friday for “political courage in Washington” in a speech at an innovative public high school here, urging Congress to approve more money for education as a partisan debate over federal budget priorities is set to begin.
Sleeves rolled up and suit jacket off, Obama warned that the opportunities that were open to him as a young college student in New York are threatened by government spending cuts and a rapidly changing global economy.
Obama told students attending Pathways in Technology Early College High School, a government-industry collaboration, that they are receiving the kind of math-and-science-heavy education essential for the next generation of workers.
But he also suggested that, while new education methods are being adopted here and across the country, government dysfunction is too often blocking spending that he said could expand programs vital to economic development efforts.
“We’ve got to have the courage to do it,” Obama told an audience of ebullient students, teachers and officials. “We also need some political courage in Washington. We don’t always see that.”
Often in political speech that serves the interests of those in power, within the deception are kernels of truth.
Obama is right about the need for political courage, but Obama and his administration have represented political courage only in the ways that the Ministry of Truth in 1984 represents truth.
If we are looking for political courage, we should consider the opposite of everything Obama and his administration says and does related to education.
Let’s not forget the political structure of 1984:
[T]he ministry of Truth, which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts; the Ministry of Peace, which concerned itself with war; the Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order; the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for economic affairs. (p. 8)
Thus, in 2013, the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) is concerned with education in the same bizarre tradition rendered dark parody in 1984.
Our first hint may be the repeated purpose Obama connects to funding education: “rapidly changing global economy,” “the next generation of workers,” “economic development efforts.”
To be blunt, there isn’t a single courageous thing about the Obama education agenda and policies; in fact, the education policy of the Obama administration is built on and increases the exact commitments to standards, high-stakes testing, and punitive accountability measures begun in the early 1980s.
Regardless of the political affiliation of the administration, for thirty years, federal and state education policy has been misguided and distinctly cowardly.
The cowardice of the current education policies promoted by the Obama administration is grounded in a refusal to acknowledge or address the powerful influence of affluence and poverty on the lives and learning of children in the U.S.
Want political courage? Confront inequity in the lives and education of children in the U.S.
Instead, Obama and his administration are embracing a series of policies that are refuted by significant bodies of educational research.
Specifically, perpetual cries of educational crisis and calls for never-ending educational reform (always new standards, and always more new tests) are ironically themselves the only things contributing to economic growth: the economic growth of endless educational research, the economic growth of textbook publishers, the economic growth of the testing industry, the economic growth of educational consultants, the economic growth of education professional organizations invested in the education reform agenda, the economic growth of teachers unions invested in the education reform agenda.
It seems telling that the most vocal people fervently endorsing many elements of the reform agenda have either a political or economic stake in moving those policies forward.
I would argue that if we removed political or economic gain from any educational policy, the line forming to support them would dwindle to almost no one.
I believe it is time to confront a reality of the failure of political courage, and we must send this message:
If you make claims and generate data to argue that “X is an educational crisis” and then say “Pay or elect me and I’ll address educational crisis X,” you are immediately without credibility.
And none of these policies have even a shred of political courage: grade retention, charter schools, school choice (or any competition mechanisms), value-added methods of ranking teachers, merit pay, Teach for America, more high-stakes testing, Common Core, pointing to “miracle” schools, pronouncing education can change society or that education is the key to economic competitiveness.
All of these are cowardly, discourse advocating them designed to tell us all that WAR IS PEACE.
It is political cowardice to say there is nothing we can do about poverty so let’s treat teachers in the same reductive ways we have treated students for decades.
It is political cowardice to say let’s design schools that identify which children in poverty are more deserving by creating and implementing education policy as Social Darwinism.
It is political cowardice to send ones own children to one type of school while creating and endorsing entirely different types of schools for “other people’s children.”
For the record, political courage* would be acknowledging that the entire accountability era hasn’t worked, and that a new era of reform is needed—one in which social reform addresses inequity and poverty and education reform also confronts inequity of opportunity so that all children have the same learning experiences and opportunities.
Political courage rejects claims of “no excuses” and “grit” as distorted views of the pervasive influence of poverty on the lives and learning of children.
Political courage, ironically, is likely captured best in The Washington Post photograph accompanying the story on Obama’s “political courage speech”:
The focus should be on the children, not the political leader telling us POLITICAL COWARDICE IS POLITICAL COURAGE.
* See “A-F” School Ranking Systems—Exacerbating Racial Divisions and Inequality for a sample of political courage in Fort Wayne, Indiana.