Archive for the ‘Postmodernism’ Category

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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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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