Slavoj Žižek (2002) writes, “The problem with the twentieth-century ‘passion for the Real’ was not that was a passion for the Real, but that it was a fake passion whose ruthless pursuit of the Real behind appearances was the ultimate stratagem to avoid confronting the Real.” Žižek is, in part, referring to notions of tensions between universals and particulars that often are distinguished through the use of coded language.
This is especially true as the debate surrounding No Child Left Behind begins to take on steam. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings (2007), writes, “The No Child Left Behind Act has evolved from idea to law to a way of life. It’s the foundation upon which we must build, and the time to act is now.” Spellings, by her argument that NCLB has evolved into a “way of life” codes NCLB as the Real yet she ultimately fails to confront the Real in the sense that she fails to respond to the critics of NCLB.
In the same document Spellings goes on to point out how to build on the stunning accomplishments already achieved under NCLB. She writes that we must now:
- Strengthen efforts to close the achievement gap through high standards, accountability, and more options for parents.
- Give states flexibility to better measure individual student progress, target resources to students most in need, and improve assessments for students with disabilities and limited English proficiency.
- Prepare high school students for success by promoting rigorous and advanced coursework and providing new resources for schools serving low-income students.
- Provide greater resources for teachers to further close the achievement gap through improved math and science instruction, intensive aid for struggling students, continuation of Reading First, and rewards for great progress in challenging environments.
- Offer additional tools to help local educators turn around chronically underperforming schools and empower parents with information and options.
But wait, I am confused. Each of the points Spellings makes is formulated in the negative and often oppositionally. She speaks of “achievement gaps” and “high standards” in the same breath. She wants to target individual students in order to develop universal achievement among the disabled and limited English speaking students. She wants more rigorous and advanced high school coursework seemingly by providing new resources for low-income schools (where the “achievement gap” is the greatest). She wants to provide more resources for teachers to close (oh my, here it is again) the “achievement gap” along side intensive aid for struggling students. And finally, not to be outdone, she wants to help local educators turn around local “chronically underperforming schools” presumably by informing parents and giving parents greater options for their children. So how is any of this different from the Real of the current iteration of NCLB?
Spellings vigorously, but not rigorously, condemns schools, schooling, teaching and learning using language that alludes to underperforming schools, achievement gaps, and creating challenging contexts for learning. Her claim is designed to spark disgust in the minds of those whose children “perform” at appropriate levels. The problem here is that what is appropriate is and remains unclear. The language used by Spellings is a language of blame, of pointing fingers at the victim which has a two-fold effect. It removes blame from the dominant majority. It is not their fault that some students underachieve. Perhaps it is their low-income status, their disabilities, or their failure to master the English language. Secondly, it fails to address the underlying social problems that lead to poverty, to alienation, and to resistance in school of working class and welfare class students. But, gosh, most of us are off the hook. Rhetoric alone will never fix the problem.
NCLB is something like coffee without caffeine, a simulacrum of the Real without the malignancy (Žižek, 2002, 2003). NCLB is the perfect stratagem for the avoidance of confronting the Real.
Spellings, M. (2007). Building On Results: A Blueprint for Strengthening the No Child Left Behind Act. Retrieved March 27, 2007, from http://www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/nclb/factsheets/blueprint.html
Žižek, S. (2002). Welcome to the desert of the real. London, UK: Verso.
Žižek, S. (2003). The puppet and the dwarf: The perverse core of Christianity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.