The Demagogues of the Left

Last night I made the mistake of jumping into a comments thread about the Opt-Out Movement, the teacher-led campaign to persuade students and parents to refuse to take the annual assessments used to identify academic achievement gaps.

Written by Brooklyn civil rights attorney Charles F. Coleman, the piece laid out why black learners are the ones most hurt by the trend. And correctly pointed out that most of those who opted out last spring were from wealthy white communities.

“To put it plainly: white parents from well-funded and highly performing areas are participating in petulant, poorly conceived protests that are ultimately affecting inner-city blacks at schools that need the funding and measures of accountability to ensure any hope of progress in performance,” Coleman wrote.

“This is one of the more obvious examples of the sort of ‘double bonus’ that privilege can create. The ability to opt out of standardized testing without serious concern for the consequences on parents’ school districts is only buttressed by the notion of having greater availability of alternative options.”

It’s a solid article. Yet within minutes it acquired a comment thread rife with hyperbole and venom. Much of it, a little Facebook backtracking revealed, from white commenters who it’s hard not to imagine neatly illustrate Coleman’s point.

I jumped in because the thread was also packed with fallacies, factual inaccuracies and—my personal favorite—comments containing contradictory falsehoods that supposedly add up to a unified truth. It didn’t take long to re-realize what I knew before I signed on: The facts are wholly beside the point. The point is to assert, desperately and repeatedly until it becomes orthodoxy, a heated narrative wherein tests hurt children and must be done away with.

I am frightened what would happen if we dismantle the policies that keep a spotlight on inequities that rob millions of children of color, disabled students and children learning English of adequate educations.

But I’m frightened by something else, too. The level of venom and malice here is not unlike the unmoored and reckless narratives that are sweeping Donald Trump to the GOP endorsement.

It’s demagoguery—it’s just playing to the left instead of the right. It doesn’t matter if there are factual underpinnings, it only matters that it incites.

The narrative about the urgent need to “save public education” from “corporate reform” feeds the exact same hunger as Trump’s xenophobia and racism. It’s just as absolute in its angry rhetoric for the same reason: It’s not an attempt to start a conversation or find common ground. It’s an all-out effort to crush the other guy.

A few months ago I wrote an article attempting to debunk a conspiracy theory involving Minneapolis Public Schools’ special education programs. In the process, I disclosed—because, black letter ethics—that I had a son in the Citywide Autism Program.

It provoked an ad hominem screed by local blogger Sarah Lahm, who can pack more factual errors into a single rant than The Donald’s Twitter feed spits out in a month. She actually took a swipe at my disabled kid.

I wasn’t surprised. Error-riddled ad hominem is Lahm’s ouvre. What astonished me was that a friend posted it to Facebook, where it promptly tumbled into my feed. I sent her a message asking why, if we were friends, was she circulating this? If you want me to know your feelings, why not just ask if we can talk?

Her reply: “I’m just really angry with anyone who disagrees with me right now.”

This, I submit, is the Capital-T truth.

As well as the scariest proposition of them all. Education policy is blazing hot because the stakes are so high—and so personal. And yet learning to get along with people who are different from you or who may have a different perspective on things is one of the chief skills we hope our kids acquire at school.

Last night’s comments thread never yielded any data, any scholarly or authoritative research, or indeed even any replies indicating the commenters had actually read and contemplated the essay’s point.

I don’t know Coleman but I hope he understands that his good work is not what’s really under assault here. That he is the moment’s most convenient screen for strangers looking to project their anger onto.

I hope he keeps publishing, because we’re not going to create strong schools without talking to one another.


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