Archive for the ‘Deconstruction’ Category

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For the purposes of this post, I define ethics as representing that branch of rigorous thinking that asks questions about human practice and behavior as that practice relates to the good. On this definition, two positions stand out as being at opposite ends of the same continuum. Bakhtin thinks of ethical interactions as being the state in which one is responsible to the Other. Levinas, on the other hand, thinks of ethical in terms of the face-to-face encounter in which one accepts responsibility for the other. The to/for distinction is found in the children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web. Three characters help me to think in terms of this distinction. Charlotte, Templeton and Wilbur, each for different reasons, are characters with whom one can draw on the to/for distinction.

Templeton, the rat, represents the to of Bakhtin. In Bakhtin’s sense, one is responsible to the Other, however, as one accepts this responsibility one is acting in one’s own self-interest. For Bakhtin, a personal reward, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, is always attached to the act of being responsible to the Other. In the case of Templeton, usually at Charlotte’s urging, he accepts responsibility to Wilbur only when he is convinced that there is something in it for him. Charlotte, on the other hand, is purely Levinasian. She is responsible (better written as Response-Able) for Wilbur. On this stance, Charlotte accepts the idea that she is response-able even before the existence of the Other is known. Response-ability is a selfless act, pointing to the absolute imperative of action for the Other–even at the risk of one’s own existence.Ethical Space

Then there is Wilbur himself. In the story Wilbur is the one who waits. Wilbur is the recipient of Charlotte’s for and Templeton’s to. In a sense, Wilbur’s character provides the mediating tool allowing both Charlotte and Templeton to act to his benefit but Wilbur is not the agent of the to/for. He merely waits, anticipates what is to come. He prays without prayer while he lives his life within the boundary of (not)knowing. In a very real sense, Wilbur is us!

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Žižek (2001) makes the claim that in order to break the liberal-democratic hegemony in order to reclaim an authentic radical posture, one must endorse a position that refuses to compromise (in the pragmatic political sense) and be willing to accept both the positive and negative effects of one’s position. To do otherwise is to fall embarrassingly short of the “unconditional ethical demand.” In order to accomplish this goal Žižek suggests that one cannot turn to foundational theorists. He argues that Christ does not become Christian until he encounters St. Paul and later Augustine, bishop of Hippo; that Marx does not become a Marxist until he is interpreted by Lenin; that Freud does not make sense until he is seen first through the eyes of Jung and, finally, through a Lacanian lens. The point made by Žižek is simply this: the revisionists, those that first put into practice that which the foundationalists offer reject the “irresponsibility” of the foundational thinkers. Žižek argues that the foundationalists advocate grand projects, but, when the chips are down, they are unwilling to pay the price for implementing their positions with concrete and often cruel political acts. “Like an authentic conservative,” Žižek writes, “a true Leninist is not afraid to pass to the act, to assume all the consequences, unpleasant as they may be, or realizing his political project.” Žižek goes on to write, “[A] Leninist, like a Conservative, is authentic in the sense of fully assuming the consequences of his choice, i.e. of being fully aware of what it actually means to take power and to exert it.” (emphasis in original)

In brief, what Žižek suggests is that in order to break the strangle-hold of any established institution, in this case perhaps global-liberal-capitalism it is not enough to simply fixate on adjusting the old program to new conditions. To do so is something like moving the deck chairs on the Titanic. Change, in Žižek’s terms, is not nostalgia, not more of the same, not a return to the good old days. Change, rather, is brought about by radical acts that are bound up by in but are significantly different than their theoretical origins. Žižek sums up this way: “What Christianity did with regard to the Roman Empire, this global “multiculturalist” polity, we should do with regard to today’s Empire.” This clear reference to Gibbon’s argument that the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of Rome was the root cause of the decline and fall of the once great Empire is arresting. What does Žižek see as the uncompromising force of the 21st Century that will prove to be the underlying action that will bring about the decline and fall of the West?


Žižek, S. (2001). On belief. London, UK: Routledge

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The paradox of sovereignty consists in the fact that the sovereign is, at the same time, outside and inside the juridical order.
Giorgio Agamben (1998)

In Agamben’s view, the sovereign has the implicit power to declare himself outside the law, to create an exception which cannot be subsumed by any other. In the United States, this creation of the exception is often couched in the language of “executive privilege” upon which Richard M. Nixon so heavily relied. The President of the United States, in whomever that office resides, has made a living drawing upon executive privilege. From Ford, to Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush, the claims of executive privilege distance the office of the president from the people the president is elected (or in the case of George W. Bush–SELECTED) to serve. Democrat, Republican who cares. The office itself carries with it an overwhelming need or desire to create a state of exception; of being at once outside and inside the law.

In the case of the present Bush White House, domestically that exceptionality has reached a boiling point surrounding the actions of Attorney General Gonzalez as he acted on behalf of the President. The White House demanded that in the Patriot Act, the President, through his AG, shall have the right to hire and fire and or replace federal prosecutors without the advice and consent of the Senate. In a Republican dominated Congress, one that did little, if any, oversight as was their duty as a fully authorized and equal constitutional branch of government along side the executive, the Patriot Act passed and was signed into law. The Patriot Act, by the way, creates many new areas of exceptionality but I’ll save those for later posts. The specific flap that concerns me here is that the AG chose to exercise the exceptional authority granted him as an agent of the President and allegedly fired a number of prosecutors for purely political reasons.

The White House had, but has since lost, the opportunity to step away from the problem by simply admitting to the problem and moving to rectify the situation. Bush, in this sense, is not unlike any of his predecessors. He chose to hunker down, to create a state of exception that places him simultaneously outside and inside the law. In the case of this sovereign, and much like Nixon, the state of exception is designed to protect his friends, foremost among them being AG Gonzalez. So Bush, taking his lead from Nixon (who, in the end, was not so successful in his defense of his friends), is declaring that he and his administration is both outside the law and is standing firmly within that law–after all, the AG acted in compliance with the Patriot Act, didn’t he?

The good news is there are less than two-years to go. Of course the bad news is that Bush’s replacement, whether Democrat or Republican, will necessarily fall into the same trap. It seems to be part of the territory of office.


Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign power and bare life (D. Heller-Roazen, Trans.). Sanford, CA: Sanford University Press.

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Is there a significant difference in making an ontological statement and an epistemological statement. Susan Buck-Morss (2003) presents the following examples of the problem raised. Consider the following statements:

  1. Because the United States does not violate human rights, it is a civilized nation.
  2. Because the United States is a civilized nation, it does not violate human rights.

Statement 1. is an epistemological description allowing for critical judgments about relative truth or falsity. Statement 2. on the other hand, is an ontological description establishing by definition the fact that the United States is civilized. This is not a judgment but, rather, a statement of truth. There is no room for judgment in the predicate because civilized nations do not violate human rights. Since, as a matter of fact, the US is defined as civilized, anything it does is, therefore, the act of a civilized nation.

The epistemological opens the door to critical debate. Stated in another way, Because the US does (or does not) violate human rights, it is not (or is) a civilized nation. Here the relative truth values can be weighed, discussed, debated, or otherwise set to a test to determine the truth or falsity of the statement or its converse or any shaded, nuanced levels in between. Not so with the ontological. The ontological statement is one meant to justify a position, to close, even usurp, debate. By defining the conditions of being as a fact, there is no possibility of refutation. To do so is to be unpatriotic.

The US is not the only nation or group to engage in ontological justification. Here are a few other examples of ontological statements that are meant at their core to justify behavior without substantive debate or discussion :

  1. As a Muslim my struggle is Jihad, a holy struggle; therefore whatever violence I employ must also be holy.
  2. Imperialism is undemocratic however, Israel is a democracy; therefore Israeli occupation of Palestine is not imperialistic but a defense of democracy.
  3. Because I am an American (Iraqi, Israeli, Egyptian, _____________) I am prepared to die for my country (religion, ethnicity, gender, _____________). You can fill in the blanks for whatever requires an ontological justification.

While the change from epistemological to ontological appears to be small—a mere shifting of the subject and predicate of a statement—the result is one that is open to or closed to critical thinking and debate.

My point here is really quite simple. Reasoned discussion always stems from knowing and not from being. Ontological statements define being in terms of a truth statement that is not subject to debate while epistemological statements embrace notions of debate, the weight of evidence, and otherwise thinking about interests being served. Ontological debate is, and can only be, a shouting match. Perhaps it is time to stop shouting.


Buck-Morss, S. (2003). Thinking past terror: Islamism and critical theory on the left. London, UK: Verso.

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In a stunning article in Educational Theory, Tyson E. Lewis (2006) argues that contemporary schooling in the United States, through policies of zero-tolerance, lockdown, and No Child Left Behind policies, separates and isolates students from the body politic by creating ambiguities that emerge from the complexities of disciplinary procedures and high-stakes assessment policies prevalent in inner-city schools that serve low-income, minority students. Lewis relies on arguments made by Italian political philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, and Critical Theorist, Theodor Adorno to make his case.

According to Lewis, Adorno makes the case that schooling creates the precondition for fascism to take hold due primarily to the undemocratic nature of the classroom. In Western education the classroom is often understood as a place of discipline and punishment, of separation and separating, of execution and executioner that is implicit in the student-teacher dialectic of power and passivity. School is not understood, in the main, as a place for developing autonomy, critical decision making, or self- and communal-response-ability; this in spite of rhetoric to the contrary. Lewis seems to understand the difference between language and the Real (Žižek, 2002).

Agamben, according to Lewis, presents a case for the Nazi death camp as the paradigmatic case of the creation of exceptional space, space removed from the principal political space of the community yet existing within that space without visibility or recognition. This form of exceptional space extends to many institutions found in the Western idea of Global Capitalism such as airports, hospitals, and credit bureaus. Lewis argues convincingly that schools must be included in this exceptionality as well. When such exceptional space is created “life is held in suspension, neither inside nor outside the polis, neither fully alive or dead. Stated differently, life is made to survive in legal limbo” (Lewis, 2006, p 161). Schools, create space that is inherently undemocratic. Student’s lives are suspended while dependent upon the whims and fancies of outsiders, political and administrative demands, that place their lives in suspension where survival in legal limbo is, perhaps, all that can be expected.

What is destroyed in the process is not dignity, rather it is control or the illusion of control. When placed in survival mode, life is reduced to the bare necessities, to what Agamben (1998) has labeled homo sacer, literally, sacred life, but in Agamben’s terms is defined more metaphorically as bare life. In the paradigmatic exceptional space, the Nazi Death Camps, homo sacer collides with the ordinary citizen, one surviving in limbo, outside of the borders of the political system and one entrenched within the borders of that system; one powerless, the other holding the key to ultimate power—life and death.

The United States is not exempt from creating borderless states of isolation. Native American people have lived in isolation on reservations for a hundred years or so, isolated as sovereign nations within a sovereign nation, a euphemism that is intended to hide the source of Real power. During World War II, Japanese Americans were herded into internment camps, isolated in the California desert and the Great Basin where they could be separated from Real Americans. More recently, the detention camp at Guantanamo place the lives of enemy combatants in limbo under the watchful eye of the military. Each of these instances, including the paradigmatic case, fall into what Agamben (1998) calls biopolitics.

Lewis extends this argument to schools, labeling the activity of schools and schooling as biopedagogy. Students are placed in a position of being homo sacer in the sense that because they are subject to nothing but external rules, to not being able participants in the decisions that directly and indirectly impact their lives, schools are places where students necessarily collide with those that choose to control them. Schools isolate, separate, and punish sometimes just because they can. The real tragedy is that this all appears to be normal to the rest of us.


Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign power and bare life (D. Heller-Roazen, Trans.). Sanford, CA: Sanford University Press.

Lewis, T. E. (2006). The school as an exceptional space: Rethinking education from the perspective of the biopedagogical. Educational Theory, 56(2), 159-176.

Žižek, S. (2002). Welcome to the desert of the real: Five essays on September 11 and related dates. London: Verso.

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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.

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I want to focus on the regulation or regulatory function of the American academic standards movement. It is precisely the regulatory function of that movement that requires closure, the encapsulation of the model itself. In this short piece, I want to examine the connected concepts of standards-driven instruction and data-driven instruction in American public schools. In a nutshell, data-driven instruction derives its power from the larger concept of standards-driven instruction. Both, however, miss the essential point that instruction must be less about technical complicity and more about knowing and knowledge.

A current sub-discourse of the American standards movement calls for the implementation of standards-driven or standards-based instruction. What is really meant by this language? What standards is one speaking of? How shall one implement those standards in the classroom? What standards are really important and why? Marzano & Kendall (1998) asked the question, what if all national standards that have currently been adopted by discipline specific professional organizations such as the National Council for the Social Studies or the National Science Teachers Association or the National Council of Teachers of English, were taught in public schools beginning in kindergarten and continued to be taught until a student graduated from high school—how much time would it take to complete one’s pre-college education? Using a quite liberal formula for teaching and reteaching every standard and assuring a reasonable degree of mastery of each standard, and using the typical formula of a 180 day school year and a 6.5 hour school day they found that a student entering kindergarten at age 5 would finally be ready to graduate high school at the end of grade 22—ten full years after the normal grade 12. Given this analysis, students would not be ready for college until they were 28 years old. Marzano and Kendall did not even consider state standards or locally adopted standards as a part of their analysis. What is clear to me is that the obsession with standards has led to an insistence on quantity rather than on quality in education. One must consider that there are many ways to address quality education, only one of which is to obsess over the quantity of what one learns.

When quantity is the issue one finds multiple stories of abuse of the system. Emphasis on quantity leads to erratic implementation of and/or assessment of educational progress. An example seems to be in order here. In around 2002 in Illinois, where I live and work, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) decided that they would no longer test writing in the state assessment, the ISAT. The resulting message schools received was to effectively eliminate writing from the curriculum in grades k-12. This action came because No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements focused on the technocracy of reading and math. Writing was, therefore, legislated out of the literacy mix. In 2005 the ISBE announced that writing would return to the ISAT in 2006 and 2007 being phased back in over the two year period. The problem, however, became one of what would be tested rather than how to teach good writing. Teachers began asking, “What did they want on the test?” The clear implication was if what they (whoever ‘they’ might be) wanted was known then students could be drilled into compliance with the assessment and scores might actually rise.

My concern here is that when technocracy is substituted for learning the result is not education, rather the simulacrum of education. When it is more important to know what they want then writing does not re-present thinking, quite the contrary, in merely repeats a mindless formulaic approach to putting pencil to paper conforming to whatever is currently in vogue, whatever those in power determine, in this case, corresponds to appropriate writing. Instruction under these circumstances might be better classified as training, something we do to dogs, seals and dancing bears for purposes of human entertainment. Such instruction is not open to surprise, mystery, or wonder. It is not open to anticipation of something to come, of the absolute other. It is not open to ideas, thoughts, or innovation. It is efficient, predictable, and produces expected results. The technocrats behind the standards movement rely on regulation to insure the possible, to conserve what never was and to block everything that could be anticipated.


Marzano, R. J., & Kendall, J. S. (1998). Awash in a sea of standards. Aurora, CO: Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory.

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In a recent article in the Harvard Educational Review, Cochran-Smith & Lytle (2006) offer a well reasoned critique of NCLB. They analyze both the language of the act itself as well as the language of the tools used to implement the act published by the U.S. Department of Education. Cochran-Smith & Lytle explore in depth what they refer to as three images of teaching or, even more specifically, the “central common conceptions symbolic of basic attitudes and orientations about teachers and teaching that are explicit or implicit in NCLB (p. 668).” This article argues that NCLB is disingenuous toward teachers leaving them void of active agency as contributors to their own professional practice. The argument is further supported as they point to multiple instances where NCLB oversimplifies the processes of teacher learning and teacher practice because the act relies on a reductionist view of teaching and learning. NCLB focuses on a transmission model of teaching and learning at the expense of all other methods and models, this in spite of the fact that the past 30 years have pointed us in more constructivist approaches to classroom practice.

Cochran-Smith & Lytle also argue that NCLB has multiple detrimental effects on schools, students, teachers, administrators, the communities served by schools, and the nation as a whole. They argue that NCLB undermines the broad democratic purpose of education in our nation. Public schooling, since the late 19th century, has been, at least in part, dedicated to the development of a productive, contributing citizen; active members of the body politic. They argue that NCLB, by removing democratic initiative and decision making from local and state authorities, effectively removes decision making from the classroom. The imposition of a top-down system of regulations for public schooling flies in the face of democratic principles, hence NCLB undermines democratic principles by teaching teachers and their students that following orders is more important than thinking about the source or legitimacy of those orders.

Cochran-Smith & Lytle also remark on the effect NCLB has had on narrowing the curriculum by privileging reading and math at the expense of social studies, science and the arts. What is more disturbing is that when considering reading NCLB only considers the technical aspects of the reading process and then only follows a single model for the transmission of reading skills to students. There is no effort to address competing models, for reading for aesthetic pleasure, or for reading for content and information. Some studies have found that better than 71% of American schools have dropped social studies, science, and the arts from their curriculum and that the majority of these schools are those that are historically under-served in terms of both money and staff.

I am appalled by the problems that NCLB has created. I suspect that they are far more serious in both the short and long term than the problems the act purports to correct. I will be spending some time over the next few weeks thinking deeply about the issues presented by NCLB. I will address questions such as whose interests are really being served by NCLB. I will deconstruct the language of the act and the supporting documents that are designed to support the implementation of the act. As I do this I will be looking seriously at work by David Berliner (1985, 2002) and his colleagues and Walt Haney (2000) as well as a number of other researchers. I believe this is an important debate and invite broad discussion.


Amrein, A. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2002, March 28). High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning. Retrieved July 19, 2002, from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n18/

Berliner, D. C., & Biddle, B. J. (1995). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s public schools. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2006). Troubling images of teaching in No Child Left Behind. Harvard Educational Review, 76(4), 668-697.

Haney, W. (2000, Aug 19). The myth of the Texas miracle in Education. Retrieved July 22, 2002, from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n41/

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Stanley Fish (1994) wrote, “Liberalism is tolerant only within the space demarcated by the operations of reason; any one who steps outside that space will not be tolerated…In this liberalism does not differ from fundamentalism or from any other system of thought.” (Emphasis in original; p. 137)

The question then arises as to whether or not toleration is possible at any level? If, as Fish suggests, any system of thought is tolerant only within the limits of its own boundaries, then are we not doomed to living within the limits of our own set of taken-for-granteds, our own imagination, our own cultural, religious, ethnic, gender, sexual orientational traps? And, if this is the case, then how can one claim tolerance?

Here Fish takes a stab at the modern project, pointing to the limits of reason (or of faith) as self-contained systemic approaches to problem solving. It occurs to me that the problem is not one of embracing a single point of departure for thinking but, as Derrida (e.g., 1983; 1994) suggests, exploring the double-bind that purports to re-present both reason and intention. Focusing on the moment of existence as it renders a trace of Différance so that truth is known in multiple ways renders the notion of a singular mode of thought obsolete. Situations, ideas, thoughts are all subject to rigorous analysis from multiple perspectives in order to approach a tentative understanding which, in turn, is always subject to further analysis and, therefore, is constantly in flux.

Levinas’ (1969; 1987; 1997) approach to the ethical may provide some wiggle room here. There is an absolute ethical imperative for Levinas which is to be responsible for the other even before the other exists. For Levinas this is the ethical absolute that exists in what he terms the face-to-face of the ethical imperative. It is only through this exercise of response-ability that one is fully human. There is no reliance on reason or intentionality here. Rather, there is a reliance on action, acceptance of the imperative beyond which there is nothing.

Both Derrida and Levinas practice a religion without religion. Both require an anticipation of that which is to come but which remains just out of reach. There is an anticipation of the infinite, beyond which there is nothing—at least nothing that can be determined or desired. So here is anticipation without desire, waiting without knowledge.

So, what does any of this have to do with teaching and learning? After all, that is what this space is all about! The response-able relationship between teachers and students, the reciprocal requirement of the face-to-face, is the goal of any classroom. As a teacher, I must accept the ethical imperative so that reciprocation begins and ends with me. I have the duty to my students to consider, analyze, plan, and execute and, finally, to reconsider everything I know or do in my classroom. If I do this, I will set the stage for a real partnership with my students so that they, too, will be prepared to reciprocate.


Derrida, J. (1983). Dissemination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1994). Aporias (T. Dutoit, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Fish, S. (1994). There’s no such thing as free speech…and it’s a good thing too. New York: Oxford University Press.

Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and Infinity: An essay on exteriority (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. (1987). Time & the Other (R. A. Cohen, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: DuQuesne University Press.

Levinas, E. (1997). Otherwise than being or beyond essence (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.


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Terrie Epstein (1998) points to multiple levels of disconnects between stakeholders in understanding the underlying curricular issues involved in teaching United States history in American schools. At one level, adult curriculum writers/policy makers offer three distinct modalities for studying United States history vis-à-vis dominant and race-based issues. Two other levels become apparent when a group of 11th grade students were asked to categorize how they constructed the patterns of United States history. Divided nearly equally between African-American and European-American students, this group was clearly divided along racial lines as to how they constructed meaning from events in American history, about the sources they relied upon for construction of meaning from historical events, and upon the importance of events themselves. Epstein “point[s] out the limitations of current public school history curricular frameworks” as she compares existing curriculum to student perceptions of that curriculum. She causes the reader to think about issues of race and perception and the failure of curriculum to meet the challenges of the diversity of experience that contributes to the construction of historical meaning in schools today.

Epstein’s work points to the tyranny of the public education system as it imposes itself upon the recipients of its largess. While hardly anyone suggests that students ought to or are fully capable of articulating curriculum in history (or any other subject for that matter) the fact that curriculum writers/policy makers fail to consider either the experience, cultural or otherwise, or attitudes brought to the classroom as a part of the development of curriculum is, it seems to me, a gross error in judgment leading to what Stanley Fish (1999) has referred to as boutique multiculturalism, an approach to diversity that merely scratches the surface and has no substance. Boutique multiculturalism is quickly recognized by those on the margins who understand that eating tacos on Cinco de Mayo merely pays lip-service to the contributions of Mexican-Americans in the story of the United States. Members of the dominant culture have significant difficulty in recognizing the differences that exist underneath the dominant story.

The issue here is really two-fold. First, there is the issue of understanding multiple story lines as they both coincide and diverge from the main story of the United States. In itself, this is a difficult undertaking as it seeks to deconstruct the hegemonic weight of the dominant story. The second issue is one of consent. If the learner fails to connect to the mainstream, hegemonic story, that learner withholds his or her consent leaving the curriculum being taught merely an imposition on the already vibrant construction of historical events and the meaning of those events to the learner.

Following Epstein, I want to suggest that curriculum writers/policy makers pay close attention to the diversity of experience of the learners they are dedicated to serve. By doing so, they will help foster a mutuality of purpose that must lead to the incorporation of the confluences of multiple historical narratives.


Epstein, T. (1998). Deconstructing differences in African-American and European-American adolescents’ perspectives on U. S. history. Curriculum Inquiry, 28(4), 397-423.

Fish, S. (1999). The trouble with principle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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This morning on an ABC news program, George Will, commenting on the latest Bush administration scandal (the one at Walter Reed Army Hospital), argued that there can be no democracy, no freedom, without consequent responsibility for one’s actions. In short, Will argued that one must be held accountable for acquitting one’s performance in a post for which one has accepted responsibility. When one fails to perform to expectations, one should rightly expect heads to roll.

I do not often find myself in agreement with George Will, but here is a case in which I believe Will is absolutely correct. One must be held to account for that which one has accepted a position of responsibility. When one accepts such a post there is a presumption upon which the rest of us can rely; that upon accepting responsibility for such a post one has agreed to and is fully aware of the requirements of the post itself. Since one is aware of the requirements of the post it seems appropriate to hold one accountable to those thing to which s/he has agreed. It must also be presumed that by accepting a post one is aware of the consequences for failure to perform appropriately and has accepted those consequences even before accepting the posting in the first instance.

The key to Will’s position, it seems to me, turns on the notion that there is an offer and an acceptance of such an offer which creates a contractual relationship in which both parties have always already defined a set of mutual expectations and obligations. There is a mutuality of both expectation and obligation that exists between compliant and agreeable parties to an agreement.

So this set me to thinking about the problem in American education today. Students are being held accountable for expectations that, at in the very best case, are imposed upon them from some external body. Because the expectations placed on students are compulsory, forced on them from the outside, there can be no acceptance, in a contractual sense, construed by the promulgation of standards. Quite the contrary, since acceptance cannot be implied nor explicitly established, what the standards movement represents is a totalitarian problem demanding accountability from those from whom there has been no acceptance of responsibility; there is no contract between students being held accountable and the public holding them accountable. The problem is that students exercise no voice in creating mutually acceptable obligations and responsibilities for the exercise of accountability.

Žižek (2003) pointing to the paradox that develops from the principle of conditional joy, that which places the academic radical in the hypocritical position of demanding social justice while hoping that the demands being made are not met, is instructive here. What Žižek argues is that while making demands that cannot be met (or must not be met because if they are then severe social unrest would occur) the radical academic is able to maintain his or her position of privilege at the academy. Žižek points out that the fulfillment of the rhetorical demand would ruin everything, much like Derrida’s (1993) warning that if the messiah were to actually arrive it would ruin everything for there would no longer be anything to anticipate. In the case of the standards movement, the ultimate fulfillment of the rhetorical claims would ruin everything for many.

The rhetoric of the standards movement, in fact, supports many vested interests, each of which is far removed from the students the rhetoric is supposed to serve. The argument, for fear of oversimplifying, goes something like this. If students know what they are supposed to learn they will be motivated to learn those things. Furthermore, in order to assure that learning is taking place, we must hold students accountable for that learning. Freire (1970) asks us to ask, “Whose interests are being served?” In the case of the standards movement the list is short, but involves billions of dollars. Textbook publishing houses and testing and measurement publishers are the largest beneficiaries of the public policy demanding standards compliance by the unrepresented majority—the students who are, in fact, the victims of this extraordinarily undemocratic movement.

It is time to rethink the standards movement in America. It is time to rethink No Child Left Behind. It is time to practice democracy before we claim to spread democracy around the world.



Derrida, J. (1993). Aporias (T. Dutoit, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (Revised ed.). New York: Continuum.

Žižek, S. (2003). The puppet and the dwarf: The perverse core of Christianity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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Writing is a unique way of thinking.
Janet Emig (1977)

This (therefore) will not have been a book.
Jacques Derrida (1983)



Writing is often described as communication; the text represents a tool of description, persuasion, argumentation, and or narration, among other things. To this end, writing is often taught as a rhetorical exercise, pitting the writer’s skills against the diaphanous vagaries often associated with the notion of writing. Writing classes are often disarming places for both students and teachers alike. When audience is privileged over self-awareness, and the construction of knowledge through the act of writing and rhetorical skills are emphasize to expend expensive content a disconnect between form and function created. This leads to disengaged failures on the part of learners. I have no intention of arguing and rhetorical form is not important. That will not be my point. In fact, strongly supported ground inappropriate use of discourse models. Rather, much in the language of Bauhaus architecture, I will argue that form follows from function, not the other way around.

My argument rests, in part, on the two quotes at the beginning of this entry. Emig (1977) and Derrida (1983), it seems to me, share an important characteristic when it comes to and understanding of how the act of writing functions for the writer him or herself. The creation text is not focused on transaction with an audience, rather, the act of creation is an effort at the construction of knowledge — of making meaning on the part of the author.

As an autonomous transaction, writing may be considered through the lens of the reader or that writer. When considered through the reader’s lens construction of meaning is derived through transactions with text (Rosenblatt, 1978, 1994). When the creation text is understood through the author’s lens quite a different picture emerges. The author to it has transactions with text in which meaning is constructed. However, the meaning constructed by the author is centered on the process of creation rather than on the transactions with creative thinking or creation.

Both Emig (1977) and Derrida (1983) help us to understand ways of looking at the author’s purpose in writing text. Derrida’s contribution is to privilege formation of text as an internal process of constructing meaning; of lending permanence, however fleeting, to the construction of textual ideas resulting in publication (at any potential level) of the text prior to authorial abandonment. In short, from the author’s point of view writing functions as a means of coming to know; it is an internally motivated project, allowing authors to construct personal meaning from otherwise disconnected tidbits of thought, nothing more. In this sense, writing is a transaction between the author and the author’s experience.

Emig (1977) suggests the interiority of the writing process itself. When she writes, “Writing is a unique way of thinking,” two words focus on her main point: unique and thinking. I want to explore these two terms, and how they contribute to an understanding of how writing informs the writer without regard to the reader or audience. On this view, audience is turned inward, rather than functioning as an external ideal — something to be satisfied through the absorption of text.



Derrida, J. (1983). Dissemination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Emig, J. (1977). Writing as a mode of learning. College Composition and Communication, May.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1978). The reader, the text, and the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1994). The transactional theory of reading and writing. In R. B. Ruddell, M. R. Ruddell & H. Singer (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (4th ed.). Newark, DE: International reading Association.

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Let’s see if I can make the idea of historical time clearer. As an example, I want to compare the relationship of a parent to a child while the parent is alive and the relationship between them after the parent dies. While alive the parent and the child are both in a position of being response-able in that they are able to respond each to the other in real time. Further, both members of the relationship between parent and child are ethically obligated to think of the other even before one thinks of one’s self. This is especially true when either party is unable to care for one’s self. For the child, the parent is fully and completely response-able for the child from birth, through infancy, and in slowly diminishing functions of response as the child develops from childhood to adulthood. Even though the functions diminish, the ability, even the obligation of the parents response-ability does not. During the period of development, of growth from child to adult, the child is response-able to the parent in many ways. Because s/he is dependent on the parent for life and sustenance, the child’s role is to respond to the parent in ways that please, albeit constantly testing the limits of response-ability. At some point, however, he child, often in his or her own adulthood finds that s/he has to reverse roles with the parent. The child becomes the care giver, offering sustenance to the parent, often in the last stages of the parent’s life. All of this happens in real time, in existential time. In short, existential time is interactive, reciprocal, and synergistic or cooperative. There is discourse between the participants in existential time, a relationship that is fluid and dependent upon direct interaction one with the other.

Historical time begins at the moment of the death or upon the entry to a vegetative state prior to death of one of the parties, generally though not always, the parent. At death existential time ceases to be for the one that has passed on. The dead member of the relationship is no longer able to respond, is no longer response-able. This does not mean, however, that the dead have no influence on existential time, quite the contrary. Paul Simon once wrote:

Time it was, and what a time it was

I have a photograph

Preserve your memories

It’s all that’s left you.

Simon’s words mirror the idea of historical time quite well. The death of a person removes that person from existence, from participation in existential time, from being able to respond. There is no possibility of interaction between the living and the dead in the sense that stands up to notions of interactive, reciprocal, and synergistic. The dead, however, exert a strong influence on the living so long as they are remembered, so long as they live in memory. This influence is much like the influence an author has on a reader when all the reader has is the printed page. The transaction the reader has with the words on the page are interactive, reciprocal, and synergistic with regard to the text and not with the author. Jacques Derrida argued that even if the author were able to directly respond to a reader, the author would be creating a new text rather than commenting on the old.

Existential time is fluid, lives in the moment of what Derrida called the trace, is temporal and perhaps temporary. Historical time is fixed, living in the photograph, text, headstone, or artifact that has been left behind. Historical time has a permanence to it that is unchanging, is dependent on the artifacts and not on response-ability. Interpretations may change with regard to historical time, but this change does not occur in historical time, rather it only occurs in existential time.

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Žižek (2003) drawing on the work of G. K. Chesterton (1995) remarks on The Doctrine of Conditional Joy (DCJ). With regard to the Other, the DCJ goes something like this: You will gain a great fortune and live in a palace if you never utter the word ‘fire.’ The idea of the DCJ then is simply this, if you follow a set of arbitrary rules the self will be afforded a promised reward by the Other. One’s compliance with the rules provides the condition from which the Other is expected to act. Interestingly enough, the DCJ is not stable, rather it may be reversed. Žižek sites the example of Cinderella complaining to her godmother saying, “Why is it that I must leave the ball at midnight?” Her godmother replies, “How is it that you get to stay at the ball until midnight?” Things can always be otherwise. Žižek is, in part, interested in explaining, if things can become otherwise and if social conditions are anything but stable, how societies remain stable or adapt to change so as to remain institutionally stable in changing times. An interesting question but not one in which I am interested.

My interest lies more to trying to understand why the promise is believed in the first place. In the case, for example, of Orthodox Jews, the promise that the Messiah will arrive all the more quickly if every Jew attends to keeping the 613 mitzvot (commandments), nearly half of which are rendered obsolete because they pertain to Temple practice for Priests and for sacrifice. Two questions arise from this promise. First, how does the Other, presumably in this instance God, make this promise? What actually happens if the Other fulfills its end of the condition and causes the Messiah to arrive? Even the Orthodox admit to the possibility that many of the 613 mitzvot are arbitrary, rules of kosher foods or for saying morning prayer while wearing teffilin for example. If these rules are arbitrary then how does one know the condition is not arbitrary as well?

For the condition to be met an Hegelian synthesis must occur. What I see, however, is a dialectic without the possibility of synthesis. The dialectic exists as a fundamental tension between doing and anticipating. The synthesis, arrival of the conditional promise, never comes and if it did, would ruin everything. The arrival of Joy promised by the DCJ could never meet the expectation of the sacrifice of performance. Additionally, the tension of why not this and not that and why not that and not this is also present.


Chesterton, G. K. (1995). Orthodoxy. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Žižek, S. (2003). The puppet and the dwarf: The perverse core of Christianity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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In a Midrash the Jewish sages said that prayer is like talking to a wall. The act of prayer, in this sense, is an anticipation, an act of anticipating that which has made itself absent. Prayer addressed to the absolute Other, the godhead, who is not present anticipates the presence of the godhead which is always already absent by choice. Deeply embedded within anticipation is the absence of the other. At the same time, absence is embedded deeply within the anticipation of the self.

In this sense, prayer is messianic at its core. Waiting for the messiah is the point upon which prayer turns. This waiting assumes the absence of the messiah, an absence that holds within it the promise of arrival–someday but not now! Hence, the need for prayerful anticipation in order to move the self closer to the other.

This dialectic plays itself out in terms of unfulfillable tensions that are always already present within themselves. From a theological perspective faith or belief provides a kind of synthesis, not one that resolves the issue but one that purports to provide meaning for the existence of the tensions that are always already present. Faith or belief resolves the underlying pressure that develops from unfulfilled anticipation by providing assurance, however unfounded that assurance might be, that there is an end, that the messiah will arrive, will come.

But, what if there is no synthesis, no resolution to the tension; that the tension is one that itself anticipates the tension of the dialectic. If there is no synthesis then there is no real purpose in the act of anticipation, of waiting for the arrival. Yet, this waiting is all there is. It is embedded within the text of language, within the text of human understanding. We are the waiting animal, the anticipating animal. We live in time, bound to the temporal bookended between two absented Others, two eternities. So no synthesis is not necessarily the case, rather, death allows us to approach the wholly Other, the eternal, by becoming eternal thereby ruining the tension of waiting.

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Fern functions as a transitional character.  Her intital act of saving Wilbur is selfless but she is unable to maintain her selflessness.  As she grows up her human interests overtake her childhood interests and she is forced to make a choice.  So far as the novel is concerned, Fern foreshadows Charlotte but she is not Charlotte.  Her willingness to be selfless for Wilber has its limits, its far to human limits to be sure.

Templeton also undergoes a transition as he saves Charlotte’s egg sac; although not entirely selfless,  Templeton acts as selflessly as he possibly can act in this case.  Engineering the transfer of Charlotte’s egg sac back to the barn is, for Templeton, an act of complete selfless behavior.  There is nothing in it for him.

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As Charlotte and Templeton, for different reasons to be sure, work together to save Wilbur from the slaughterhouse, what is Wilbur’s role? Is he just the cute pig upon whom Charlotte can focus her selflessness or to whom Templeton can be responsible? I think not. Wilbur floats through the story as the object of response-ability on Charlotte’s part and the reason for responsibility on Templeton’s part, but he does not reciprocate, at least not directly or overtly. Wilbur is the beneficiary of Charlotte’s and Templeton’s goodwill but he does not give directly back. He never acts with either responsibility or as a response-able character. Oh sure, you say, but he was Charlotte’s friend. True enough, but being a friend is hardly enough. One can be a friend without ever being response-able for the friend. What did Wilbur do for Charlotte? One can also be a friend without acting responsibly to one’s friend. Did Wilbur ever do any self-conscious act to Templeton as a friend?

So what exactly is Wilbur’s role? On the one hand, he serves as the focus of the ethical imperative for Charlotte and he stands at the center of Templeton’s self-conscious efforts of responsibility to Wilbur. After all, without such a focal point neither of the two characters would have any reason to exercise their ethical choices. On the other hand, Wilbur must play a role beyond merely being a foil for Charlotte and Templeton. Here we must turn to Derrida. Wilbur is the other to Charlotte and Templeton but he is in the process of becoming, of growing into something new, of discovery through experience. Wilbur is never finished, he never becomes. He is always anticipating, waiting, wondering, seeking. He represents the doubt of Derrida’s aporia as he anticipates what is to come. Wilbur represents the alterity of the other in its fullest otherness–an alterity without bounds yet one that is bounded by the barnyard; an alterity that is only recognized by the likes of Charlotte and Templeton but not Uncle Homer and Lurvy, the true humans of the story. To the humans, Wilbur is just a pig but to Charlotte he is everything that is becoming and to Templeton he represents a reciprocity over which neither Wilbur nor Templeton has any control; it is, however, that reciprocity that drives Templeton’s self-conscious behavior toward Wilbur at Charlotte’s request. As the embodiment of the other, Wilbur need not do more. His anticipation is enough.

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Bakhtin argues that the self is responsible to the other while Levinas argues that the self is responsible for the other. It is the distinction of the to and for that E. B. White presents through two characters in his iconic children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web, the story of how a spider contributes to saving the life of Wilbur the pig as she becomes responsible for Wilbur as the other. At the same time, Templeton, the rat, in a self-seeking role, also becomes responsible, not for, but to both Wilbur and Charlotte as Charlotte works to save Wilbur’s life.

From the Bakhtinian perspective responsibility to the other is anchored in the notion that my actions are what the other calls to task; what the other requires of me. My choice to act responsibly is one in which the self is satisfied without regard to the outcome for the other to whom the self acts responsibly. For Bakhtin, responsibility is not a selfless act but, quite the contrary, a self-conscious act. Levinas, on the other hand, argues that there is an ethical imperative that originates even before there is a self; this imperative is one in which the self has the absolute responsibility to act for the other; to selflessly care for the other even at the peril of one’s own existence. Understood from this perspective, Bakhtin and Levinas occupy two sides of the same coin. Both require the self to act in a responsible manner toward the other. The fundamental distinction is one between a self-conscious act and a selfless act.

In Charlotte’s Web, Templeton chooses to assist Wilbur at the urging of Charlotte but only when he sees value in the act of assistance for himself. In a self-conscious manner, Templeton comes to the aid of Wilbur if and only if he receives what he understands to be a benefit of equal value for himself, for example when Charlotte convinces him to search for words because if Wilbur is sent to the slaughterhouse Lurvy will no longer bring the slop to the barn, a delicacy Templeton desires. Templeton is acting in a Bakhtinian manner, responsible to both Charlotte and Wilbur. Charlotte, on the other hand, acts in a selfless way toward Wilbur. She is interested in being responsible (response-able may be a better way to re-present the notion of responsibility here) for Wilbur by selflessly spinning webs that urge the humans, especially Uncle Homer, to save Wilbur’s life. In the end, even as she is dying and needs to save her energy, Charlotte spins one final web for Wilbur; Charlotte is a true friend in a Levinasian sense.

As children read Charlotte’s Web it is important that they understand the distinction of being responsible to someone else and being response-able for another person. The ethical imperative of the for is, however, not necessarily easy for 3rd through 5th graders to understand. One suggestion is to create a dialectic in which Templeton’s and Charlotte’s acts with regard to Wilbur are compared and contrasted. Children can then see for themselves the benefits of being response-able, of being selfless regarding the other suggested by Charlotte’s actions as opposed to the self-conscious responsibility to the other suggested by Templeton’s behavior.

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