Re: (LONG) Re: grades & school reform (LONGER STILL)

Jeffrey R Galin (galin+@PITT.EDU)
Sun, 1 Sep 1996 14:09:33 -0400

On Sat, 31 Aug 1996, Marcy Bauman wrote:

> (I suspect that Jeff would agree with most of what I've said here.)

Yes, you are right.

But, I do differ as well.

You said:
> [1] the rhetoric of education and schools is a genre in and of itself,
> and stays fairly constant whether the conditions surrounding the
> institution change or not (I think you could say, as you have, that the
> language with which we talk about institutions determines to some degree
> the institutions we can create). But that rhetoric, seems to me, always
> occurs in dialogue with a specific set of cultural conditions, and
> attempts to speak to those conditions. As far as I can see, this
> position implies that the rhetoric of education serves
> some other function besides catalyzing or causing educational reform.
> You've suggested that the binaries in which we operate serve to stabilize
> the system, to actually prevent change from occurring.

Actually I don't think it is possible to posit a rhetoric
of education and schools. The work I have done suggests that there are a
wide range of discursive fields that converge within a given era from
different fields and with different aims within (as you suggest) their
unique cultural contexts to constitute an outbreak of educational reform.
My dissertation examines lines of arguments from psychology, anthropology,
sociology, history, linguistics, teacher education, law, economics,
cultural studies, the popular press, and a few other smaller trails. I'll
give a brief example of how the convergence of discourses can inform the
arguments of well intentioned reformers and trap them in unexpect ways.

I am currently finishing up a discussion on the term empowerment,
a term with a great deal of cultural currency (like literacy,
multicultural, and democracy), which gets used by everyone because it is a
feel-good term. In all actuallity, empowerment is tat best an idealistic
wish, at worst an empty slogan.

The term was first used as a way to literally vest authority to
others. A king might empower an agent in his kingdom to build a church or
a general to initiate a war. The term was also used in the 17th and 18th
centuries to discuss decisions of popes to have others do certain kind s
of work. Not until the late 1960s did the word assume the symbolic
connotations that it currently enjoys. It enjoyed its greatest cultural
currency in the community control movement of this era.

The shift from the literal usage to the symbolic one was
influenced by a wide range of disciplines and discourses. Self-concept
theory a la Maslow, Rogers, and Allport played an important role. The
Human Relations movement of the 1950s that witnessed the emergence of
sociology as a discipline played a fundamentally role. The decolonization
movements of the Carribean and Africa contributed to the rhetoric. The
emergence of cultural pluralism as a positive discourse (rather than an
undesirable one) after near 50 years of usage played a key role. And of
course a host of historical events from the launch of Sputnik, the
assassination of John F. Kennedy, and tensions in urban centers of African
Americans to legislation of President Johnson (civil rights act, voting
rights act, Economic Opportunity Act, etc.) all converged at a time of
social activism to vest political and cultural currency in the term
empowerment. On a side note, writers like Marx, Gramsci, and Paulo Freire
never used the term because it made no sense to do so. To empower meant
that someone with authority vested that authority to someone else to act
on his/her behalf. Revolution was not theorized on the maintenance of
hierarchal relations of power. Not until the term became popularized in
political rhetoric and the popular press did folks start emphasizing its
symbolic connotations. And as soon as the term became popular,
politicians began to use it as a placebo more than anything else.

I'm not going to go into a full critique of power and how it is
NOT a negotiable commodity that can be taken, bartered, or owned.
Suffice it to say here that power resides in the strategic relations of
hierarchal society. Teachers don't have power over students. Students
play as much a role in submitting to institutional relationships as the
teachers do in acting out their roles. This is how hegemony functions.

So, to say that we are somehow going to empower students--while
laudable, and exciting--is inaccurate. We don't have power to give the
students. Nor do students have access to positions of authority from
which to exercise power (a la Foucault). There are ways to temporarily
subvert the strategic relations o power within local contexts or isolated
environments, but ultimately, social forces regain the upper hand.

Now, change DOES enter this system in little accomplishments, in
physical forms of minority representation in school texts, on school
faculties, and in the popular press. Perceptions of change are more
highly rewarded than actual change because the first is identifiable and
not generally disruptive. The latter is usually highly disruptive or
difficult to identify. And the perception of change can have tangible
consequences. The reality is, however, that no matter how much
affirmative action (for example) has accomplished in these past 20 years
or so, the bottom line of budgets, hiring, firing, and what constitutes
truth within a given institution is seldom governed by minority status
individuals or groups.

There is a great example in the Woodlawn Organization of Chicago
in the early 1960s. It was one of the first community control
(empowerment) experiments. Politicians were willing to funnel government
monies into the Woodlawn neighborhood and support Saul Alinsky in
organizing the community so long as it did not post any political threat
to the city at large and did not siphon off resources from city chauffeurs.
Arthur Brazier summed up this sentiment tersely during a 1969 committee
meeting: "Help people only if you can control them. If you can't control
them, don't help them." This comment was explained by John Hall Fish,
author of _Black Power/White Control_, as the difference between "slack
power resources that can be mobilized" and the sovereignty of City Hall.
The skeptic in me belives that this is generally how reform functions.

Now, I'm not saying that all uses of the term empowerment fit
within this particular example (the political machine vs the struggling
community). But I am saying that the discourse of empowerment is highly
suspect, that power is not obtainable as such whether as
"self-empowerment" or as a form of generous mobilization of resources on
behalf of others. Put plainly, the current use of the term is symbolic;
if we use it as real, we are fooling ourselves. More importantly, if we
do not recognize the symbolic function of a term like empowerment, the
problems we pose and the resulting solutions cannot possibly meet our
intended aims because they ignore the ways in which the discourse
functions within our society at this current moment, and they ignore the
ways in which power is distributed through a social structure rather than
localized within any given figurehead, institution, or social group.

Thus, when the term empowerment is used in political (i.e. public)
educational discourse, it serves to 1) help those who use it feel good
about themselves, the work they are doing, and dreams they have; 2) to
give hope to others, insight into their own social situation, and
confidence to take responsibility for their actions; 3) mobilize slack
resources primarily within local contexts; and 4) maintain social order,
current ideological values, and appease the calls for educational and
social reform.

When one of us mobilizes empowerment in a discussion on this list,
s/he brings to bare the full weight of this ideological baggage of the
term to the discussion. Empowerment also brings with it a set of
political, economic, and cultural arguments that immediately elicit
alternative, or contrary patterns of debate. In this way, we trap
ourselves within the arguments we make. These are the arguments I
referred to earlier when I said that we find ourselves in binaries.

In the face of these forces, I would never say "it is all just too
big; let's not try." To be in our field right now is to be fighting on
many fronts at the same time. And, believe it or not, I agree with you
that the system ain't gonna change quickly or dramatically without doing
something like yanking grades. But, doing so would destablize so many
institutional groundings at once that it would be impossible to fathom
what would result. In all likelihood, people would reinvent the system
from the ground up because of the fear of lost structure and control.

If you have read this far, you have, at the very least, got a
sense of where I am coming from and why I say what I do. REvolution
almost never serves to "empower" the people in the streets or rice
patties. They will always be subject to the hegemony of local authorities
and other strategic relations of power.

Of course there are many more things to say, but I just can't take
the time.


\ Jeffrey R. Galin
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