The Importance of Being Divisive in Education
Winston Churchill could have been called a divisive figure. During the 1930s, the aristocratic scion-turned-newspaper reporter and political leader stood alone, defying conventional wisdom, facing constant derision from rivals and media pundits at the time, for calling out governments throughout Europe and political leaders such as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain for vainly avoiding dealing seriously with the increasingly aggressive menace that was Nazi Germany. His ascent to the British premiership in 1940 only came after his rival, Lord Halifax, declined to take the job — and even then, others in the coalition government Churchill would lead didn’t want him in the job.
Thomas Paine was also what one would have called a divisive figure. In his lifetime, the polemicist behind Common Sense and The Rights of Man offended defenders of British monarchy such as British statesman Edmund Burke for defending liberty and freedom for the young American republic, was convicted in absentia for supposed sedition for defending French revolutionaries, and angered the religious for arguing about inconsistencies in the Bible. Even in death, critics declared that Paine only “did some good and much harm”. Same with William Lloyd Garrison, whose strident rhetoric and activism against American slavery — and declaration that enslaving African-Americans must come to an immediate end — subjected him to arrest attempts by Southern politicians and made him a target of more moderate players in political life.
Decades and even centuries later, Churchill, Paine, and Garrison are regarded as the great moral and political leaders of all time, highly regarded for their forthright articulation and activism of their views on the world. Same is true with others considered “divisive” by their foes and supposedly moderate folks in their lifetimes: American politicians such as Barry Goldwater — now celebrated for articulating conservative and libertarian views that made him a target of left-leaners and even fellow conservatives during his lifetime — and Abraham Lincoln (whose steerage of this nation during the Civil War is now celebrated). Civil rights activists such as Ida B. Wells (who was attacked in her lifetime — and heralded today — for daring to criticize Jim Crow segregation and lynching), and the Freedom Riders organized by the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1961. Global figures such as Mohandas Gandhi (who stared down British imperialism in India through non-violent protest), Margaret Thatcher (who along with others such as Pope John Paul II, put an end to Communism), and Simon Wiesenthal (whose celebrated efforts to bring to justice Nazis who perpetuated the Holocaust was not well-regarded by many in the 20th century). The divisive men and women of their lifetimes turn out to be the figures that fought rightfully and morally for the freedoms and liberties we cherish.
This reality should be a lesson for all school reformers as they battle with education traditionalists to overhaul American public education today. There is nothing wrong with being divisive. In fact, there is no way to battle against failed amoral ideas in any time — especially now –without taking stands that force men and women to make choices they would rather avoid.
One of the rhetorical tricks employed by education traditionalists and their fellow-travelers is to declare that a school reformer — especially one who actively advances their ideas in both word and deed — is “divisive” and thus incapable of being a player in education decision-making. Paul Vallas, for example, is considered divisive because his strident reform efforts in Chicago, New Orleans, and now, Bridgeport, Conn., have not been welcomed by American Federation of Teachers unionists, school district bureaucrats, and their fellow-travelers. Same is true for Joel Klein, who remains a lightning rod for the likes of AFT President Randi Weingarten and once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch even though he is considered far more likable. Klein’s role as co-chair of the Council on Foreign Relations panel that offered up a school reform agenda prominently supporting expansion of choice, in particular, has once again served as red meat for AFT and National Education Association bosses, who, like their fellow-travelers in university schools of education, are none too fond of outsiders finding their practices to be wanting.
Then there’s Michelle Rhee, who has riled up education traditionalists with every move she has made since her days founding teacher quality outfit TNTP. From her aggressive effort to overhaul Washington, D.C.’s collection of traditional failure mills, to her current role wooing Democrats and Republicans alike as founder of StudentsFirst, Rhee’s strident activism, sharp tongue, willingness to go bipartisan, and ominous poses on the covers of national magazines have made her no friends among those who would rather keep the status quo ante. This was especially clear last month when Rhee again became a lightning rod for NEA and AFT bosses (and their fellow-travelers among supposedly progressive Democrats) after her appearance alongside Connecticut Parents Union President Gwen Samuel and other school reformers supporting Gov. Dan Malloy’s teacher quality overhaul plan.
Vallas, Klein, and Rhee are certainly the most-prominent of the supposedly divisive reformers out there. But they aren’t the only ones. The reality is that it doesn’t take much for anyone to be considered divisive, either by education traditionalists or reporters who don’t exactly always think when they write. Harlem Children’s Zone boss Geoffrey Canada and Green Dot Public Schools founder Steve Barr, for example, have been labeled as divisive simply because they support expanding choice and argue that the view among traditionalists that poverty is essentially destiny is pure hogwash. Same is true for Parent Power activists such as Samuel, Black Alliance for Educational Options cofounder Howard Fuller, and local activists such as AJ Kern and her husband in Minnesota. Even someone writing about the problems in American public education in a way that doesn’t favor traditionalist views is considered divisive; Steve Brill can tell you plenty about that. In short, if you are a school reformer, you are in the view of your opponents a divider.
This shouldn’t be shocking. American public education has long embraced a culture in which anti-intellectual civility — in the form of false consensus, phony collaboration, and embrace of “best practices” — is far more important than honest conflict and strong, vigorous, intellectually- and morally-challenging debate over how to provide children with high-quality education. From where education traditionalists sit, anyone wading into education discussions should just simply stick to working them on what they consider to be ‘real’ strategies and ‘authentic’ solutions that will help kids succeed in school, support teachers in their work, and preserve their vision of what American public education should be. In short, conflict is to be avoided (except when savaging those whom they oppose). And those who stir up conflict through their contrary views are to be vilified.
But as with conflict, being divisive isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, being divisive can actually be a good thing.
For one thing, being divisive means standing by your principles. This is because divisiveness is at the heart of all morals, ideas, and policies, which visible representation of our ideals, ideologies and morality — and human beings, being sentient creatures, aren’t going to always agree. By being divisive, you are declaring the willingness to articulate your views forcefully and take action in equal measure — and you are accepting the reality that your principles will separate you from those who disagree.
Being divisive also means being willing to challenge policies and practices that are amoral, immoral, and untenable to continue bending the arc of American history toward progress. After all, policies and ideas are divisive because they can also serve as threats to — or in defense of — existing influence and power. Conflict with those who benefit politically, financially, or even psychically, from a system of things remaining in place is never a bad thing, especially if the existing order is unacceptable.
Being divisive involves forcing others to clarify their own ideas and beliefs. It also forces people to deal honestly with the implications of their thinking and the consequences of the practices and policies they defend. Being divisive means forcing revelations of which movements have the moral and intellectual high ground. And like conflict, being divisive also leads to the kind of problem-solving that benefits society as a whole.
And being divisive means to embracing the mantle of true leadership. Certainly leadership does involve occasional efforts to reach sensible organizational and movement-level consensus. But as shown by politicians such as Ronald Reagan and civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, true leadership generally means making decisions and taking positions that are going to afflict the financially, ideologically and politically comfortable — including your own friends and family.
It is the divisive who force the positive changes that have improved the world for all of us. It is because of the divisive Moses and Hammurabi that we have the soul-freeing concepts within Christianity, Judaism and the Golden Rule. Thanks to divisive Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin (along with the equally divisive William Wilberforce), slavery is no longer acceptable and women’s rights in most of the world is a given. It’s because of those divisive economists such as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill that we now have a global economy that has helped make prosperity a reality for many (if not all) people even in countries such as China. And because of such divisive civil rights activists such as Bayard Rustin and James Farmer, Jim Crow segregation is now a thing of the past.
Being divisive about challenging a failed, amoral system that condemns 1.2 million children a year to poverty and prison is at the heart of the school reform movement. And this is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with actively opposing a traditional system of compensation that has fostered teacher quality policies that subject our poorest children to the worst American public education offers. And, more importantly, there is nothing terrible about pushing to end policies that do little more than harm the futures of children who deserve better.
The reality is that we need more supposedly divisive figures such as Rhee, Jackson, Klein, and Vallas because it takes Churchills, Paines, and Garrisons to win ideological, political, and economic wars. And let’s be clear: The battle over the reform of American public education involves all three. This isn’t to say that there is no room for conciliatory figures. They are needed. The lack of such a figure is why Rhee’s reform efforts were short-circuited in D.C., while the presence of such a figure in New York City in the form of Mayor Michael Bloomberg (along with Klein’s own genial nature) is why the reform effort under Klein’s tenure has continued to succeed even after he left the job. But you cannot transform a sclerotic system that continues to benefit its incumbents (even if the kids they say they care about suffer from educational neglect) with a few kind words and gestures. You have to fight fire with fire.
In short, school reformers should accept — and fully embrace — being divisive. Because it is the only way we can transform American public education.