Friday, April 3, 2015

Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance, by P. L Thomas: A Review

"Fiction offers avenues to Truths, often hard Truths, that otherwise 
remain closed or less often traveled." P. L. Thomas

I have often told my students that informational literature attempts to present what is factually true, but fiction attempts to shine a light on universal truth. In Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance, P. L. Thomas invites us to look over his shoulder as he reads personally, feelingly and critically into literature, both canonical and contemporary, in an effort to illuminate the truth beneath issues of equity, social justice and public education. Thomas, a former high school English teacher and current associate professor of education at Furman University in South Carolina, also blogs at the becoming radical. If you are not familiar with his work on the blog I recommend you join me as a regular reader.

The "roadbuilders" of Thomas' title are the education reformers, those plutocrats, pundits and politicians who have seized on urban education as the "civil rights issue of our time" and who, like the colonizing Europeans in Africa a century ago, seek to impose their own definitions of success and progress on the people and institutions they seek to reform. Thomas points to the current rage for "no excuses" charter schools as a prime example of the "roadbuilder" model. In "no excuses" schools students are subjected to a military like structure, rigid classroom rules and demeaning discipline practices in the name of getting "college and career ready." For these reformers, Thomas says,"education is a tool of the elite to train the masses to conform to a world that maintains the current status quo."

But I don't want to give the impression that Beware the Roadbuilders is just another anti-education reform polemic, because it is much richer and much more interesting than that. This is a book for people who love books, who love reading and who love finding connections in literature that help us better understand our world. The book took me back to a reconsideration of some of my favorite authors from the past like James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Barbara Kingsolver, Isaac Asimov and Adrienne Rich, but also exposed me to authors I had not previously read like Geoffrey Eugenides and George Saunders.

Thomas also includes examples of literature that I have studiously avoided.  It is a credit to Thomas' skills as a writer and an enthusiastic reader that he has piqued my interest in previously shunned (by me) works like zombie literature and super-hero fiction. Reading this book is like sitting in on a conversation with your very well read good friend. That is, if your friend were also totally committed to social justice.

The chapter "On Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex", is illustrative of Thomas' method. While the novel is best known for the indeterminate gender of the central character, Thomas sees a lesson to be taken from Eugenides' description of Detroit:

Historical fact : people stopped being human in 1913. That was the year Henry Ford put his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line. . . . Part of the new production method’s genius was its division of labor into unskilled tasks. That way you could hire anyone. And fire anyone. (Eugenides, 2003, p. 95)

From Eugenides' discussion of the dehumanizing aspects of the assembly line, the educational assembly line that Thomas sees is one driven by a narrow focus on standardized test scores and calls for teacher accountability driven by those test scores. By destroying teacher autonomy and denigrating professional judgment, teachers become like auto workers on the assembly line: easy to hire and easy to fire. As Thomas puts it, "accountability must be preceded by autonomy; otherwise, accountability is tyranny."

I found a chapter on the work of Maxine Greene to be particularly resonant with the teacher in me. Greene, the great education philosopher and advocate for the centrality of the arts in education, died last year. Thomas' chapter is a moving tribute to her vision of what education really is all about and how an obsession with the seemingly certain (as represented by tests and data) is the enemy of learning, which tends to be ambiguous, unexpected and messy.

Speaking of the ambiguous, unexpected and messy, Thomas introduced me to the work of George Saunders, particularly the delightfully amusing and delightfully insightful, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. Here Thomas offers us a virtuoso critical reading of a deceptively simple story. The story turns out to be central to a concept that Thomas develops throughout the book, that of "scarcity and slack." In Thomas' reading the book becomes a witty illustration of what really underlies educational achievement gaps and what reformers call "failing schools." The poor live in a constant state of scarcity of resources (time, money, food, ease) while the wealthy live with an enormous amount of slack, a slack that they have not so much earned as they have inherited because so many live without it. Saunders story shows how much both good and bad fortune are often matters of luck and how the haves can find all kinds of ways to justify not sharing with the have-nots.

Near the end of the book, Thomas comes to a concern that I know is close to his heart because I am a regular reader of his blog. Quoting liberally from Ralph Ellison, author of The Invisible Man, Thomas addresses one of the most important insights regarding poor and minority children and learning. Here is what Ellison had to say about African American students and language at a teacher conference in 1963:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words.

Thomas argues that we are stuck with a deficit view of  language and a deficit view of children growing up in poverty. This deficit view causes teachers, administrators and policy makers to ignore the strengths that students bring to school in the forms of the very poetic wordplay that Ellison describes above. Thomas frames this all as a part of his argument that reformers will fail if the focus of their pursuit is to make children of poverty more like us. What we must do is embrace the difference, recognize it is not a deficit, and build on students' very real strengths. This approach has the potential to move us forward. Anything less is paternalism at best, racism at worst, and doomed to fail in any case.

In Beware the Roadbuilders, P. L. Thomas leads us on one reader's journey toward critical understanding. It is a journey informed by personal experience and shaped through the reading of great literature. I think of Louise Rosenblatt's phrase, "the lived through experience of the text." Thomas offers us his lived through experience to help open our eyes to the quest for equity that must be at the center of our teaching lives.

If you are a teacher, if you love books, if you care about children and public education and if you want to continue to learn and grow personally and professionally, read this book.

Thomas, P. L. (2015) Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance. NY: Garn Press.

A final note: Garn Press, the publisher of this book, is the new imprint from Denny Taylor, professor of literacy studies at Hofstra University and author of  hugely influential books and articles on family literacy. Garn Press has published several books related to the education reform movement including Taylor’s own Nineteen Clues: Great Transformations Can Be Achieved through Collective Action and Anthony Cody’s The Educator and the Oligarch. You can check out their other publications here.