A Nation of Prevarication


Gaslighting Americans about public schools: The truth about ‘A Nation at Risk’ (Washington Post)

If it wasn’t the most important book I read over my summer, Maia Szalavitz’s Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids was unquestionably the most emotionally difficult to get through. Not only is the book full of the horror stories of the “tough love” sadism of the eighties and nineties, including innocent children being swept up by them and some easily-preventable deaths, but it reminded me of how my father wanted, on several occasions, to turn me over to those programmes. (If he had, not only would I not be here to write this blog right now, but that abusive bastard would’ve been worm food a lot sooner than he wound up being.) Between that and the other cultural calamities of the eighties — I also read Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, about the “satanic panic” pablum that started around the same time, this summer — it can sometimes feel like a miracle that I didn’t end up “dead or in prison” before my eighteenth birthday, especially when so many people were trying to make that happen for me.

I was reading these books while researching my next book, on how politics has influenced American education over the past fifty years or so (and given the rate at which my TBR piles have been expanding lately, I’m honestly wondering if I’ll ever feel well-read enough to start drafting that sucker), and I was reminded of them as I listened to one of President Reagan’s radio addresses from 1983, following the release of A Nation at Risk, the “report” that marked a watershed moment in the willful degradation of America’s public schools. That report turned forty years old back in April, and as many pieces as were written about its prevarications and piss-poor pontificating this past spring, its fundamental assumptions and challenges about educating America’s children have never really been challenged. Even when Democrats held both the presidency and both houses of Congress, the policy waves that rippled out from A Nation at Risk have never been stymied in any appreciable way.

What bothered me the most about Reagan’s radio address wasn’t his constant lying — I lived through those years (somehow) — but his “message” to American children at the end. After repeating the recommendation from A Nation at Risk for loading children up with more homework than they were already getting (total nonsense, by the way, as detailed in Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth, not to mention several other books and reports), Reagan condescendingly told American kids that they needed to, in so many words, “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” to get ready for the jobs of the future, and that meant sitting down and shutting up and doing more homework. If right-wing messaging had been as polished then as it is now, Reagan would have mentioned video games and MTV about a dozen times each in this seven-minute address, but neither gets mentioned here.

As with the lies and cruelty that formed the foundation of the “tough love” and satanic panic movements, Reagan transparently plays on stereotypes of youth for the gratification of his addled audience. Whatever problems existed in American schools at the time were largely artifacts of the “back to basics” movements that erupted in the wake of post-Sputnik paranoia, as well as progressive educators’ mistakes in not selling their proposed reforms to the public at large. (Read Tyack and Cuban’s Tinkering Towards Utopia for more information on that.) I was seven years old at the time of Reagan’s radio address, and while I was woefully uninformed about way too much about politics at the time, I knew, from my own experience, the importance of motivation in education. A Nation at Risk proposed pretty much everything that was the polar opposite of what helped me develop my booksmarts when I was younger because, as with nearly everything else it advocated for, the Reagan Administration, it wanted to impose unadulterated authoritarianism on everything, and this country’s children were one of the easiest targets for them to go after, especially after “tough love” and satanic panic set the table for this assault on American’s youth.

I just entered the final quarter of my forties, and I don’t know what’s worse: Being unable to shake the feeling that I was never meant to live this long, or dealing with the long-term traumas caused by my father and my schooling, and having to deal with the reality that this was the “good” outcome to me. I rarely go more than three days without recalling past abuses from my childhood in vivid detail, and while I can deal with those issues well enough to teach my classes and keep my nose out of trouble, I live in a constant state of fear that my head or my heart will explode at any moment. Things have only gotten worse for too many of the successive generations of children in this country, and while I’m trying my best to do my part to make things better for them, I honestly don’t know if I’m going to live long enough to do anything more of note than throw these blogs into the ether.

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