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Does Tone Matter in the Education Reform Debate?

While shoddy arguments remain the target of freshman composition professors in colleges and universities across the U.S., ad hominem attacks, cherry-picking data, strawman arguments, either/or claims, and sweeping generalizations have become the norm in the education reform debate maintaining momentum in both the mainstream and new media.

Recently, Ken Libby prompted a Twitter debate concerning the tone of arguments coming from educators, scholars, and researchers, suggesting that the tone of their arguments were keeping them from being heard.

At the Shanker Blog, Matthew Di Carlo has also confronted this trend, calling for an end to "self-righteousness":

"That’s because this kind of rhetoric has to some degree become the rule, not the exception. For every allegation from 'defenders of the status quo' that philanthropists are really profiteers or that market-based reforms are a form of 'teacher-bashing,' there is an ad hominem accusation from the other 'side' – charging that support for traditionally union-advocated policies means you’re putting compensation and job security 'above the needs of children,' or that opposition to test-based accountability means you don’t care whether schools improve."

And although Diane Ravitch is increasingly the target of questionable attacks, Alexander Russo claims she is also wrong:

"Let's start with the mis-steps:  Ravitch leads off with the notion that teachers have been 'demonized' (ironic given her constant demonization of reformers), describes Gates et al as privatizers (a claim that's factually hard to support though it sounds good), and claims that the billionaires' influence is unprecedented (which Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Soros, and the Koch brothers might be surprised to hear)."

But the most puzzling calling out for mean-spiritedness comes from Rick Hess, in the oddly titled blog posting, "Self-Pitying Tantrums Are Poor Way for Educators to Win Friends, Influence People," in which he complains:

"Self-proclaimed advocates of educators and public education have become so vitriolic, mean-spirited, arrogant, and unreasoning that it's becoming inane to anyone who's not a fellow true believer. This means that they're poorly positioned to convince Americans, and painfully uninteresting to anyone who doesn't agree with them already."

If this were satire, Hess should be commended, but his name-calling and easily labeled mean-spirited argument against mean-spiritedness suggests, at least, that a caustic tone is in the eye of the beholder.

While I remain concerned that this recurring debate about the debate is a distraction, I do believe that addressing whether or not tone matters in the education reform debate can contribute positively to what has so far been a fruitless tug-of-war.


Of Tone, Argumentation, and "Knowing One's Place"

"Minority group identification carries with it certain behavioral patterns that often impede the process of integration in the total community," explains Jean D. Crambs, adding, "It is because minority status produces the kind of behavior that makes social adjustment so difficult that much effort in recent years has been directed toward reducing the crucial aspects of group differences."

Further, however, Crambs makes a provocative and relevant charge:

"In the same way, workers in the field of education have been seeking ways and means for making teachers more effective in the larger community, as well as assuring the teacher as an individual of a satisfying and mature personal development. Juxtaposition of the fact that teachers on the whole are not as effective persons as the profession needs, and the description given above of the effects of minority group status, produces an interesting relationship; the hypothesis may be advanced that one cause for the lack of professional achievement by teachers as a group may be due to the fact that teachers' behavior in some respects is restricted in the same way as is that of 'recognized' minority groups."

What makes this discussion of the harmful effects of teachers as a minority group even more compelling is that Crambs wrote this in 1949; yet, it speaks powerfully to the current education reform debate and the challenges about tone raised above.

The classification of teachers as a minority group is an acknowledgement about a disproportion of power. While racial minority groups satisfy both the status of being fewer in number and having less power, not all groups having minority status are the smaller group—for instance, women.

While women constitute a larger population than men, women remain a minority because minority status is primarily about the unfair imbalance of power.

And all this leads to what makes me uncomfortable about the tone arguments. They remind me of my father's dictum: "Children are to be seen not heard." They remind me of that same dictum being applied to women for much of U.S. history. They remind me of that same dictum being applied to African Americans for much of U.S. history.

At the risk of crossing lines established by Libby, Di Carlo, Russo, and Hess, I am deeply skeptical of the intentions of people who hold genuine power (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and billionaire Bill Gates, for example) against the intentions of people who hold either no or substantially less power (teachers, scholars, and researchers).

And as a result, I am deeply concerned about teachers, scholars, and researchers being told to watch their tone—not that I don't agree that tone matters, that basic logic in argumentation matters. I do believe ad hominem attacks, either/or claims, and strawman arguments are poisonous to the education reform debate.

But I also wonder how these charges have somehow become associated with the groups with the least power. I know that cautioning those with little or no power to watch their tone against those with power is disregarding the balance of power.

Tone doesn't really matter for those with power, and anyone arguing for the dominant ideology crying "mean-spirited" is unlikely to spur any compassion from me.

As a teacher, coach, and father, I learned that when young people lost their composure and leveled hateful and even profane language at me, that was primarily a representation of their frustration about being powerless, and it was often a rightful acknowledgement by them that the imbalance of power was not fair.

Now, U.S. public discourse is dominated by several well-known and influential names: Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, and Michelle Malkin, for example. What do these people have in common? They promote a nearly uniform right-wing narrative and primarily do so through the exact strategies being criticized as inappropriate for responses to the current reform agenda. [Note that the only comparable "mean-spirited" people endorsing a liberal agenda are all comedians: Bill Maher, most notably.]

If there is a mean-spirited nature to public discourse, the right must be acknowledged as at least a significant, if not foundational, source for that tone. The norm of American discourse is conservative, and all norms are markers of where the power lies.

Further, in the education reform debate, we must acknowledge when and why educators began to speak up. If the tone of responses from educators is mean-spirited, let's note that most teachers did not raise their voices until they were in fact unfairly attacked and demonized, first by Waiting for "Superman" and then repeatedly by Gates, Duncan, and Michelle Rhee.

I offer this discusion not as excuses and not to condone the tone on either side, but to note that teachers' have fought back in ways that should be expected from the powerless (minority status) backed into a corner.

Ultimately, the "watch your tone" argument leveled at teachers and advocates for public education and democracy remain too much like telling a profession overwhelmingly composed of women to know their place. And it reminds me that minorities, that the powerless have only one real weapon on their side—the moral high ground. And I mean the moral high ground of their claims.

So I ask everyone concerned about the tone coming from teachers, scholars, and researchers to listen to a couple examples of how the powerless speak moral authority to privilege.

Consider James Baldwin speaking from his minority status in an excerpt from Take this Hammer (1963), "Who is the Nigger?": "What you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you."

And consider Martin Luther King Jr. also speaking from a minority status:

"I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about 'Where do we go from here,' that we honestly face the fact that the Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, 'Why are there forty million poor people in America?' And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this,

"• You begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the oil?'

"• You begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the iron ore?'

"• You begin to ask the question, 'Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?'"

I am willing to consider and address the tone of arguments coming from educators who are experiencing the corrosive effects of minority status, powerlessness, but I am withholding that concern until we address first why the powerful are rarely held accountable for their lack of experience, their lack of expertise, and the enveloping social and educational inequity that is swallowing the children of the U.S. on their watch.

And, yes, I am also willing to risk self-righteousness in the process.


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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...