If the name Pearson is familiar to you, it’s likely to be through the corporation’s stranglehold on the college textbook business with its notoriously inflated prices. Or it might be because of its inside track on the academic testing market. Almost every state has contracted with Pearson to create, publish and score the reading and math tests mandated by Federal and State agencies. In addition, Pearson provides tests for almost any purpose – personality, development, career choice, intelligence. You can find its staggering list of available options online to measure everything from autism to bullying, including the tools that were my mainstay in my days as a clinical psychologist – the Rorschach, the TAT (Thematic Apperception Test) and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale. There is no aspect of your being, perhaps with the exception of your soul, that is not a target of the Pearson arsenal.
But today I want to focus on their book business because I recently came into possession of a list Pearson distributes to its textbook authors that would be a source of amusement if it wasn’t so frightening. It is a list of 30+ words or phrases which authors are instructed to avoid in what they produce for the company. If some of the items mystify you, rest assured that you have not lost your mind, although the compiler of the list may have. Here they are: mother, their mother, Mom, naïve girl, dark lady, witch’s tit, heroine, groupie, slut, shame, slave, pregnant woman, he/she, her/him, female actor, male actor, nerd, skinheads, freshman, parent/parents, house, ‘hood, race, foreign, foreigners, taken from the Japanese, Indians (cowboys and), God (God’s plan), suicide/suicidal, crazy, insane, straitjacket, ugliness, Trump, Kevin Spacey.
My wife proposed a game to her writers’ group, challenging them to come up with the best story about why a particular word was awarded a spot on this distinguished list. Typing these words enveloped me in dark thoughts about how far we have descended into a culture of fear and erasure. There may be a few words on the list that I could make a plausible case for – witch’s tit, Indian, maybe slut – but mother? heroine? Is there a sick mind at work fearing associations with motherfucker or heroin? But what could be the justification for erasing “Mom” or turning our heads away from the beauty and hopefulness of a pregnant woman? I love the flourish of closing out the list with Trump and Kevin Spacey. So, Steve Bannon and Harvey Weinstein are okay! My creative juices are flowing, thanks to those freedoms.
Now pity the poor author who has to abide by these strictures. Do you pack your bags, say fuck you to Pearson and go in search of another publisher or do you bend the knee a bit and replace insane with, perhaps, unhappy, if that will keep the royalty checks flowing? No self-respecting author should be forced to make such a Faustian bargain but the increasing monopolization of all aspects of the book industry leaves authors with few, if any, alternatives. I’ll dare to invoke one of the forbidden words by declaring that this is all insane.
On a completely different note, you’re going to need to accustom yourselves to hearing me repeat the following any chance I have: One of the most critical problems in education today is the erosion of the public education system. In the last 25 years, charter schools and vouchers have eaten gigantic moth holes in that system to the point where cities like Washington, DC, Detroit and, of course New Orleans educate more than fifty percent of their children in charter schools. For a long time, voucher initiatives were regularly defeated by legislatures and in public referendums, but Betsy DeVos brought new energy to that movement, partly by backing creative workarounds to dodge church/state barriers which have always been their major stumbling blocks to passage. This revitalized campaign has enabled states to direct money to private religious schools which evade all the accountability measures that public schools are expected to abide by.
These initiatives to reduce the role of the existing public school system appear especially attractive when they are packaged under the heading of choice. Being against choice is like being against motherhood (would Pearson allow that word?) but consider the sordid origins of the school choice movement. It provided cover for the segregation academies – Southern white parents CHOOSING not to have their children sit beside Black children. These academies gutted the public schools in their areas, leaving them to enroll only Black students without the resources to serve them adequately.
All this is addressed in a new book which I’ve been working through this week called Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, edited by David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, and published by Teachers College Press of Columbia University. The 29 essays in the book are united by their recognition of the contribution of Horace Mann, a central figure in American education and a familiar name to anyone who has ever taken a course in the history of our education system. As the superintendent of Massachusetts schools in the 1840s, Mann was instrumental in building a network of what he called “common schools,” publicly funded schools open to all which would serve as the “great equalizer” in a society that even in Mann’s 19th century America was beginning to be diverse enough to need some glue to make the parts adhere.
As a number of the authors in the volume acknowledge, the heirs to Mann’s common schools have fallen far short of his vision of equalization as the gaps between the races and the classes have stubbornly persisted. But the deconstruction of our public schools through various forms of privatization are an even greater threat, not just to eliminating differences in academic achievement which, in turn, produce what we’ve come to call “opportunity gaps” but to the very foundations of a democratic society. In his contribution to this volume, David Labaree says,
“Mann understood how the nation was still in the process of creating strong democratic institutions and agreed with Jefferson that a literate and educated citizenry was essential to the functioning of such institutions. Thus, a major objective for common schools was to foster what he called ‘democratic competence.’ Common schools would equip citizens with the tools to function as knowledgeable voters, motivate them for civic engagement, and give them a stake in promoting political stability and social harmony. By ignoring divisions among different groups of people and providing a common educational experience, the common school itself served as a model of democratic institutions.”
By cordoning off different segments of the population and educating them in separate silos rather than in a single unified public school system is a fundamental threat to our democracy. The threat posed by privatization is now joined by another force that, on the surface, appears as unobjectionable as school choice. The efforts to shield students from subjects that “cause discomfort” – race, class, gender, sexuality – run counter to the need to prepare students to question, to think critically about the information they are provided, the right to challenge unjust authority. These are the cornerstones of a democratic society. The voices in this book, among them the most ardent defenders of democratic schooling – the late Mike Rose, Ken Zeichner, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Bill Ayers, Deborah Meier, Sonia Nieto – are each linked directly to Horace Mann and his vision of the Common School as the engine that must drive a democratic society. We are at risk of witnessing the breakdown of that engine, with dire consequences for us all.