Today I experienced what might be defined as the highlight of my twenty year professional education career. I met Maxine Greene; writer, philosopher and education activist extraordinaire. She is as brilliant, warm, and engaging as anyone might imagine. I was ushered into this personal introduction by Nick Sousanis; artist and scholar-an equally brilliant, warm and engaging individual. By the end of a day of sharing our individual and collective visions for the future of education, I arrived at my inspiration for this week’s blog. My title, Escape from Flatness, emerged from looking at some of Nick’s artistic work; using comic book art to create an alternative form of discourse around education issues (among other things). Principally, Nick recognizes that art, as a form of visual communication, can articulate theories, ideas, and concepts via synchronous forms of narrative engagement. Some of his illustrations deal with the theme of “flatness.”
After exploring some of his work I knew immediately that in my mind educational reformers represent “flat-ners.” They flatten children, teachers, and parents. Really, they flatten everyone who is not a member of the 1%. His images reveal so much that sometimes words cannot convey, and yet we “feel” it, we “know” it; we identify with these images- our gut sickened by their truth.
Reformers, as flat-ners, reduce us all to one dimensional pre-constructed objects to be observed, measured, used, and consumed by others. To Eli Broad, Bill Gates, Walton, ALEC, and billionaire politicians and hedge fund managers, we are merely stock cut out figures, to be manipulated at their will, and for their purpose.
Today, while we were talking, Maxine Greene posed the question whether or not there exist any spaces where teachers can have a public discussion around the public narrative on education. Ironically, teachers are immersed in public discourse as the subject of discussion. At the same time, they are silenced from speaking publicly themselves. It occurred to me that teachers are squarely in the center of public space, as a public narrative constructed by OTHERS. As such, the public narrative, owned by corporate powers, treats educators as the subject or worse object of public discourse.
In other words, drawing on Nick’s work, teachers have in essence been “flattened.” High stakes testing, among other facets of education (de) reform, treat humans as units of measurement-cogs in the wheel of social engineering. As Nick illustrates (literally), in a land of flatness, human beings:
“… pass through an elaborate sequence of discrete steps … A recipe of add this: mold that …. Every procedure done to them to ensure the proper results are received.”
Greene echoes this concern, stating that, “academic rigor, high standards, common learning, technical proficiency …” are things being promoted by what I call, “the gods of reform.” She adds that “they want things to be stable and predictable; they want the schools to repair cultural deficiencies; they want their own interests secured” (p. 169). Furthermore, “given such preoccupations (with technological and military primacy), it follows that certain children are conceived of as human resources rather than persons” (p. 32).
Educators and children have become two dimensional figures subject to constant scrutiny and judgment-cut out paper dolls-an object belonging to others-neither the conversation about education, not decisions making about education itself belong to educators. There are few public spaces where educators act as the creators of that public narrative. What we need, are new, different, or alternative public spaces created BY teachers– spaces where teachers themselves can subvert the dominant narrative owned by OTHERS–and replace this oppressive two dimensional discourse with one that speaks the truth. How do we do this? We must pull from our host of individual and collective creative resources.
Why CREATIVE resources? Because we might imagine our way out of this nightmare, to “imagine things as if they might be otherwise” (Greene, 1995, p. 22).
Any dream therapist can tell you that if you are experiencing a nightmare there are few ways to wake yourself up.
First, you know that horrible moment when you’re dreaming and you open your mouth to scream and nothing comes out? You tell yourself that you can scream. You make a conscious effort to make noise. It’s a focused and deliberate decision. And then it happens—you CAN scream. Second, you can enter a state of “lucid” dreaming where you realize that you are in fact in a dreaming state and do something to wake yourself up. So when you are trapped in a night mare, you tell your unconscious brain to pinch yourself. And you do. And you can end the night mare.
We are living an educational night mare. And we cannot rely on anyone else to wake us up. Either they don’t know the night mare’s happening or they don’t care. We have to scream. We have to believe that if we open our mouths, sound will come out. Make noise!
And we have to pinch ourselves , because we have to remember how to FEEL, how to fight the urge to succumb to numbness. Resistance must come through our active embodied participation. It must engage our senses. We must fight attempts by others to “flat-land” us. We must retain our three- dimensionality, using our senses, to exist in a state of what Maxine Greene calls “wide-awakeness.” Creative action brings our senses alive. It demands our embodied participation.
So we must sing, dance, draw, paint, bang pots, write poetry, make posters, paint graffiti, tell stories, plank, flash-mob, perform…anything.
Anything to GET….THEIR….ATTENTION.
Who is the “they” whose attention do I actually mean by “theirs?” Arne Duncan? Nope. I am so over him. Nothing new going happen there.
Bill Gates? Sure with his billions of dollars he can make the proverbial earth spin on its axis. But I don’t believe for a moment that anything I have to say matters a lick to him. He’s on his own trajectory and I doubt that what children really need and what teachers really think are, or will ever, alter the course he has planned.
The “they” I am talking about is “us”– our friends: fellow parents, fellow teachers, community members. The dominant corporate narrative has spread like a plague taking over all discussion around education, social justice and our democratic experiment, replacing truth with a false flat land. We need to wake each other up. In the nightmare in which we are constructed as flat land figures, we remain trapped on the conveyer belt, in which our collective reality is drawn by others.
Nick’s notion of “flatness” of the human experience, and rendered artistically through his work is reminiscent of Edward Abbott’s Flatland (1884), a novel about shapes, dimensionality, and social hierarchy. “Flatland is a society rigidly divided into classes. Social ascent is the main aspiration of its inhabitants, apparently granted to everyone but in reality strictly controlled by the few that are already positioned at the top of the hierarchy. Freedom is despised and the laws are cruel. Members of lower classes who are intellectually valuable, and potential leaders of riots, are either killed or corrupted by being promoted to the upper classes. The organization and government of Flatland is so self-satisfied and perfect that every attempt or change is considered dangerous and harmful. This world, as ours, is not prepared to receive revelations from another world.”
We must take the narrative about ourselves back on our streets, in our schools, on playgrounds …everywhere. What “they” (meaning each other) thinks matters more because they are trapped in this night mare too. Working in solidarity together with the people we surround ourselves with every day, working together en mass, in various modes and means, we can break free of flat land. But the imagination is the way out. And we must use our imagination, our creative efforts, to draw real attention to issues of education policy.
Maxine Greene (1995) writes:
“The role of the imagination is not to resolve, not to point the way, not to improve. It is to awaken, to disclose the ordinarily unseen, unheard, and unexpected” (p. 28)
In this age of constant information and busy lives, it’s difficult to get teachers and parents to read large amounts of research, or to understand the importance of boycotts, resolutions or petitions. The information we wish to share regarding the ill purpose and effects of corporate ownership of education must be expressed using all of the senses, in our bodied actions—instantaneously and with the emotion it warrants. As Nick Sousanis considers, we have to remember that conception (i.e as what we believe, what we think of as “real”) largely comes through our perception (i.e what we see with our eyes and how we construct meaning).
Greene writes that through the “art of knowing”–“The experience and knowledge gained by this way of knowing opens new modalities for us in the lived world; it brings us in touch with our primordial landscapes, our original acts of perceiving” (p. 149).
We need to redesign the social landscape with new images, new stories, new ways of understanding what corporate reform “is” and how it works. What we need is action—creative action collectively inspired in local communities and through national organizing-to UNFLATTEN our worlds.
Maxine Greene writes:
“As we ponder educational purposes, we might take into account the possibility that the main point of education … is to enable a human being to become increasingly mindful with regard to his or her lived situation-and its untapped possibilities. The languages and symbol systems we make available ought to provide possibilities for thematizing very diverse human experiences and, not incidentally, for diverse introductions to the conversations among people that carries the culture on in time” (p. 182).