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The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 10-JAN 11

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DEC 10-JAN 11 Issue

A Note from Dore Ashton

I still teach.
When students tell me about their speedy research methods, and the Internet miracles they can perform, and why they don’t read books, I ask: Do you have a houseplant? Yes, most of them do. Can you, I ask, make it grow faster?

I read Brian Edgar’s splendid article on charter schools with a sinking heart. For years we have watched the diminished programs for the arts and humanities in the public schools wither away. Hundreds of people have tried to compensate for this public failure with minimal success. Edgar’s editorial tells us all too plainly why.

To which I would add yet another factor: All of this charter talk is rooted in an old American problem: union busting. The secret enemy of all “charter” reformers is the Teacher’s Union, which they have vilified unceasingly with the aid of the unlimited resources of Mayor Bloomberg. On November 10, 2010, the lead article in the New York Times announced the resignation of Joel Klein, Bloomberg’s chancellor of a school system with a million students and 135,000 employees. He is to be replaced by Cathleen P. Black who, according to the Times, “has no background in education, in keeping with Mr. Bloomberg’s preference for executives from the business world.”

Naturally, any executive from the business world likes the word “privatize,” although they know better than to say it aloud. Klein’s attitude toward the Teacher’s Unions is paraphrased in the Times article: “From nearly the day he started, Mr. Klein attacked the union’s core principles.” His way of “reform” was to emphasize test scores and advocate “cash rewards for students who did well on exams.” (Yes, money talks.) The “charter” schools were nourished by private donors, and the rest of the schools, as one critic cited in the Times article notes, are “starved of art, music, and science—all replaced with test prep.”

As thoughtful critics have long reported, there is no way to “reform” education without radical change in the social and economic situation of the million obliged to attend public schools. One of the great reformers, John Dewey, who wrote a book with the great title Art as Experience, was well aware of the socio-political underpinnings of all educational theory, and inspired his students to address the shortcomings in America’s educational systems from the broadest possible grounds. (Dewey’s insights were remarked on by artists in Europe, including Henri Matisse and Asger Jorn.)

The Times’s long articles about our new C.E.O. of the school system points out that she wrote a book about “strategies for success in the corporate world,” and will now turn her attention, presumably, to corporatizing our schools. Mr. Edgar: Please follow up on your critique!

In admiration,

Dore Ashton


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 10-JAN 11

All Issues