From Bad Pedagogy to a Buffalo Mass Shooting Part 2

What could possibly go violently wrong when we allow the denigration, diminishment, or destruction of PreK-12 instructional methodologies that focus on the core pedagogical values of Critical Inquiry Thinking and Analytical Skills? —Well, everything!

The problem for the ethically guided professional educator is that a necessary learning objective that essentially defines a PreK-12 quality learning experience is to teach students how to conceptualize and apply critical thinking skills in every subject-content area, including history. Historiography (the research-methodological-analytical approach to the study of history), in its most authentic form and application, is not structured to serve as a racial cheerleading exercise, nor is it designed to erase the anxiety of those citizens who (real or perceived) see their racial entitlement power slipping away.

The use of history as a tool of cultural aggression or as a way to negate the humanity of disenfranchised others is not ultimately beneficial for the “losing entitlement group,” as the overwhelming majority of them are, in actuality, experiencing the commercialized exploitation of their own humanity. The hurting-the-other ‘game-plan’ they are offered is a fake and fleeting hope that by focusing on race, reproduction rights, “critical race theory,” sexual orientation, ethnicity, or nationality dominance, they’ll find a path to authentic peace and personhood—they won’t.

The enraged citizens are not offered a pedagogy of positive possibility, a chance to see themselves growing their human capacity, not by being instinctively against others, but by humanely being with others who share their intrinsic suffering. It’s the act of educationally engaging in quality growth opportunities based on equality, fraternity, and the liberty of being separated from self-destructive, anti-diversity, and anti-inclusionary thinking. But instead, they are being taught that they are the ‘wounded-uncounted,’ their concerns unheard, and ultimately, they are in danger of being “replaced” by the ‘darker others’! They have been convinced that evolutional thinking-change-thinking, progress, modernity, and even the movement of time itself is their existential enemy. But demographic trends don’t lie; human progress and the passage of time can’t be stopped. And all of those desperate Brexit-like acts, no matter how good they make the ethnically bitter members of the British white working (middle or upper) class feel, they will never restore Great Britain to its previous highly-lucrative grand colonial master status; alas, “that colonial train,” as they say, “has left the station!”

The collective anxiety of losing unfairly acquired entitlements: “Why can’t things stay the same?”

Over time, that is generational, things like economic disparities, governmental and private sector discriminatory practices, the immoral use of national, state, and local power against the politically marginalized, having an unethically acquired advantage, violence (emotional and physical) as an appropriate terrorizing and subjugation tool to be applied to the disenfranchised members of the nation by official state agents and unofficial citizen ‘aggrievement-actors,’ the accepting (taking for granted), that public schools should (that is, must) work for some (entitled) children in the society and not work for other (disentitled) children, can come to feel, well, like the “normal” way things should be. And this deeply rooted collective conscious and unconscious belief system of evil inequality normality can, when it is threatened, feel like an attack on the “natural” (and even divine) order of the personal and larger universe.
Thus, desperate and highly damaging violent behaviors could be internally (psychologically) understood as a justifiable defensive and suitable pro-survival response posture. Unfortunately, violence driven by desperation is always dangerous and dangerously in play (“beware the last deadly kicks of a dying bull”) whenever empires or a special-privileges ‘pass’ approaches their expiration date.
The end-product of falsely created anger can easily be demagogically turned into ugly and painful violent actions. And (here’s the scary part) this loss of racial entitlement power and the fear of displacement anger can be transformed into actionable violence that will make ‘perfect sense’ to the perpetrators of that violence. It matters not if the “enemy” is praying in a South Carolina AME church or peacefully going about their lives in a Buffalo, NY, shopping mall; their murders are covered under a twisted (but fully believed) self-actualization writ of justification.

Michael A. Johnson is a native New Yorker and a proud product of NYC’s public school system. He served as a school: Teacher, Principal and District Superintendent. He led in the designing and building of two Science Technology, Engineering & Mathematics-Career Technical Education (STEM-CTE) high schools. Michael also served as an adjunct professor of Science Education, in the School of Education at St. John’s University.
His two books are:
Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership.

Report From The Principal’s Office: A 200-Day Inspirational and Aspirational School Leadership Journal.

You can find them at:
https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B07DBRHDK8?_encoding=UTF8&node=283155&offset=0&pageSize=12&searchAlias=stripbooks&sort=author-sidecar-rank&page=1&langFilter=default#formatSelectorHeader

Bad People are Afraid of the Study of History—And they should be!

In the midst of a horrible pandemic: A former US president, several national political congressional leaders, some US governors, and several state legislators seem to have a lot of time on their hands because they are expending tremendous amounts of obsessive time and energy frantically trying to restrict the teaching of a graduate/law school level “theoretical approach to teaching history” that does not exist in any state’s PreK-12 curriculum standards or requirements.

A partial simple answer in explaining their motivation is that they are cynically appealing to the limbic base of their voting base’s racial-tribal emotions. But an additional larger political objective is that they know “liberals/progressives” (as is their history) would not be able to resist snacking on a distracting bait hooked to a non-existent problem.
Alas, all good and true pedagogy, in all content areas, is questioning, probing, revealing, and yes, analytically critical “by nature.” This intellect-building way of teaching and learning is designed to act as an agent of knowledge progress and as an upsetting force against anti-progress ignorance.
However, pro-incognizance is a losing political strategy because, in our internet age, every historical fact is easily electronically searchable (e.g., Smithsonian’s Digital Archives, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, etc.); and for every book that is banned and burned, that same book is read and shared in exponential numbers by people who may have otherwise not picked that book up.

Human History (there it is) informs us that we are “organically wired” to explore every unknown internal and external space we encounter. When there is an informational “discovery,” we are inclined to explore further into other unknown but needing-to-learn spaces. History (there it is again) also teaches us that many have tried to legislate against human enlightenment and intellectual evolution in the past. Yet, they have all eventually failed.

Recently, for the first time since I retired as a school superintendent, I actually found myself (while watching a YouTube video) feeling sorry for a group of school board members who were pleadingly and desperately trying to explain to an angry crowd that was raining accusatory curses and denunciations down on their heads; that they could not vote against a “Critical Race Theory Curriculum” in the district, because such a curriculum does not exist in the district! The good news is that the unscholarly mob at that school board meeting and similar mobs nationally can’t stop (remember the “teaching evolution” wars; see “Scopes Trial”), those highly-effective teachers, specifically history, science, and english teachers, from teaching the truth about the world and the world of truthful human history.

This extra-energy of information suppression (interestingly paralleling voter suppression) efforts against a theoretical form of historiography raise an essential question about the motives of the history-deniers: “What are they hiding?” The answer to that question is perhaps summed up in two words the truth! The truth is the antagonist enemy of the lie, the anti-falsehood, the natural opponent of inaccurate and inauthentic past storylines. The truth points out past unfairness, bad behaviors, and moments of individual and national moral cowardice. There is a K-12 pedagogical authentic approach to the teaching of American history that bravely engages (with grade and age-appropriate methods) the complex and perhaps “uncomfortable” truths of US history. And then there is the cowardly low-expectations approach to misteaching history by using deceitful dodges and unpleasant (to some) omissions. The true and honest history approach holds a high level of academic expectations by assuming that if students are presented with historical facts that suggest that their country is not perfect, and like all nations, is a work in progress, they will not become unpatriotic citizens or “lose a respect perspective” for a historical figure who was revealed to be, well, like all of us—human.

A nation’s history is complex, and human beings are complex; therefore, any serious study of human beings and human history will often be complicatedly “messy” in an interesting and thought-provoking way; consequently, these studies require a systematically analytical approach.
Then there is the problem of young people at some point (and they surely will) uncovering the history-of-lies we’ve taught them, but then not having the “scaffolding” guidance of a classroom teacher, who can knowingly, sensitively, and professionally ease them into a more productive and nuanced understanding of historical events and people. Historical life was complicated, present life is complicated, the future life our young people will engage in will be complicated, so don’t we want them to be properly prepared for that future?
For example, presenting “historical figures” like: Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Sanger, Martin Luther King, etc., as uncomplicated, flawless models-of-perfection not only removes the humanity of these individuals, but it also removes the opportunity for students to gain access to a deep and rigorous understanding of the complexity of the human species; and thus a better understanding of their own complex humanity.

Legislating “backwardness” in the vast scope of human history is a doomed effort in the long term, even as it can inflict severe short-term intellectual damage on many children. But it is also a failed effort because it undermines the very reason and purpose of education, which is to draw the innate personal wisdom out of students, as we also draw them closer to the wisdom of the world.
Any legislation designed to ban, for example, the teaching of the “Scientific Method” (observation, inquiry, hypothesis, investigation, experimentation, etc.), would require a simultaneous banning of the teaching of all science itself; since the methodological behavioral approaches to practicing science can’t be separated from the operational activities of acquiring the conceptual knowledge of science. This is also true in historiography (the study of history); one can’t separate critical analytical research methods from the information and knowledge that these intellectually authentic inquisitorial approaches produce. All PreK-12 professional educators (should) know that poor or inaccurate teaching and learning methodologies used in the study of any academic subject area will produce poor and inaccurate learning outcomes.

What these history-deniers are doing is not just the act of producing an inauthentic and delegitimized view of the American history story, the white-washing, wishing-away and watering-down of the reality of the US and global human historical events; is, in essence, a “dumbing-down” of the critical, complex and conceptualization learning skills that all children need to become intellectually empowered adults.

But there is a second malevolent motive on the part of our history-deniers, which is the weaponization of history.
We saw this on frighteningly full display with a nuclear-armed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bizarre, twisted, and grossly inaccurate presentation of a pre-and post-World War II European history lesson.
Putin’s “fictional history project” was strategically designed to justify a barbaric act of aggression against a sovereign nation (and no threat to him), Ukraine.
The actual 1930s Nazis (not those Ukrainians Putin claims are Nazis) perfected this art of creative history telling to justify one of the most devastatingly horrific periods in human history. The modern German people (unlike our US “confederacy worshipers”) to their moral and sensible credit, have gone to great lengths to denounce and restrict any modern movements, expressions, or symbols promoting Nazism; after all, that critical historical analysis taught them that they don’t want to go down that terribly destructive road again.

Ironically, a non-Putinistic, theoretical comparing and contrasting critical analysis of Russian history might, in fact, suggest that Mr. Putin and his enablers have more in common with the WWII Nazi forces and the Ukrainians look a lot like those heroic Russian forces that defended Stalingrad!

But Putinism, Nazism, bad acting autocratic dictators, dictator worshipers, and the proto-fascist or reactionary leaders in “democratic nations” all have much to fear from the accurate and analytical truth teaching and learning of history, after all, so much of their ideological reasoning, their personal and political survival, depends on lies. And so, the question is, not only what are they hiding, but also, what are they hiding from?

Principals, (let’s start with this) if you really want to raise the self-esteem of Black students, then make them proficient academic performers!

“Change the joke and slip the yoke”—Ralph Ellison.

An often news media quoted “liberal education professor” once remarked “that what I was doing was not progressive education” in response to a very positive NY Times article on my (getting kids to successfully pass NYS Regents exams) work as a principal of Science Skills Center High School, Bklyn NY. Of course, many people took offense to his remarks, but my favorite “apologia” was offered by one of my esteemed mentors Dr. Asa Hilliard who said: “Michael’s students are always progressing academically, and so why is it not “progressive education!”

It’s very easy for school-based educators to get distracted and taken “off mission” by outside gibberish. Part of the problem is that everyone who had a K-12 experience is thoroughly convinced that they absolutely know how public schooling should be executed. For sure, we have opened this “everybody has the answer door” by refusing to adopt an ethical “prime directive” that places student needs over adult comfort and employment needs, a no excuses, no blaming parents, communities, or poverty for the reasons we fail to effectively educate so many children (and yet succeed at sending so many of them to prison).

We can also get distractedly caught up in the larger societal political debates (e.g., integration) that have nothing to do with what a school-based team of educators is facing and are required to do for those students arriving to their school building every day. We educators can’t bring societal racial integration into reality, solve the problems of a broken national immigration system, eliminate poverty, etc. All that we can do is educate the young people sitting in our schools to the best of our courage and abilities. But for too many “liberal” or “conservative” actors, public education is a platform for political war games; however, for the dedicated professional educators working in the trenches, it’s their life work and sacred called service. After all, real (not theoretical) children’s lives are at stake, and we must protect them from the collateral learning damage that various political warring factions would inflict on them.

This is why I say let the governors and state legislative opponents of human progress pass all of the anti (does not exist in any state curriculum) “Critical Race Theories” (CRT) laws they want. Let these same lovers of history ignorance seek to block the analytical teaching of our nation’s complex (sometimes joyful and sometimes painful) historical story. Teaching historical “lies” or omitting “unflattering” or uncomfortable for some citizens events; means removing the necessary scientific approach to the study of history; this action will ultimately educationally damage all students regardless of racial identity or ethnicity and destroys public education’s credibility. And just like we can’t help if some folks are unnerved because we can’t “low-ball” the age of our planet to fit their theology; we also can’t construct a historiography that avoids the “difficult” to acknowledge events of the past. Further, historical-truth-telling builds moral character; learning about those horrendous Japanese internment camps of the 1940s can lead students to not repeat such an act when they become policy-deciding adults. Educationally speaking (as is the case with mathematics education), any acquisition level of content knowledge can’t be built on a previous premise of untruths incorrect or false information.

If “professional commentators” want to duel-it-out on the editorial pages of major newspapers and on cable news programs about a topic (e.g., CRT) that again does not exist in any state’s curriculum, let them have at it! Professional educators need to stay focused on what we need to do with and for our in-the-present-moment students. We can start with staying out of the “mess” that other people create. As a principal, I shut out all of the “political posturing” outside noise that most often had nothing to do with why my Title 1 school students showed up (and their parents sent them) every day, which was to improve their life chances through the formal educational experience. Our first professional, ethical task then is to ensure that our students are academically “whole,” viable, and proficient by providing them with a (yes, standards based and beyond) rigorous learning foundation that we efficaciously make happen. This means that they are proficient and above in all academic content areas, from reading skills to research skills. And any school that fails at that primary objective is sadly engaged in some form of miseducational theater.
My position as a superintendent vis-à-vis my principals was this: “Yes, by all means, have nice Black History Month programs, but I also want your students to make their own “modern history” by becoming high academic achievers!”

Principals should listen to their own professional-pedagogical instincts, suggesting that: The quickest, surest, and most sustainable path to raising any student’s self-esteem is to help them become strong practicing proficiency participants in this experience we call schooling. You then double-down on their high academic capabilities by approaching all curriculum content areas by way of authenticity, diversity, honesty, and truth. The best principals know how to accomplish this feat without using “fancy” slogans or phraseologies that could become the political weapons of any outside-of-the-school-building battle groups, whose conflicts are often the enemy of real educational progress and success.

The fight over “Critical Race Theory” helps us to forget the race that really matters.

“The key at the art and heart of a magic trick is distraction,” so explained a former colleague of mine who had more sense than I (still focused on educational concerns) to take up a rewarding and fun retirement hobby of learning “magic.” He continued, “I just do this for my grandkids and the neighborhood children, and once I get them hooked into the act; I deliver a small educational lesson like the importance of studying hard at home and in school” He would not explain the precise “technical truths” of these magic tricks, only speaking generally of the importance of ‘distraction’ as a method of “fooling” the audience into believing their “eyes” and not their brains.

Whether you are sympathetic to the ideas of either Carl Jung or Karl Marx, you should agree that the weapons of mass-distraction (e.g., a stolen election lie) can effectively be used to get people either consciously or unconsciously to march in a direction that is detrimental to their well-being, and ultimately to a place that is not in their personal or the collectives best interest. I feel that way about these distracting Critical Race Theory arguments, that will probably end up being a very lucrative enterprise for a small set of Black wokeness acolytes; leading to a flood of talk show appearances, create a lot of journal and newspaper essays, and produce a New York Times bestseller list of books that will race-shame white folks into seeking solace and redemption from an Amazon book purchase. But forgive my lack of heavy wokeness, perhaps driven by my having spent eleven years as a public title-1 high school principal and observing year after year the number of US native-born Black and Latino children arriving in the ninth grade who can’t read, decipher, explain or express in writing, the meaning of the individual words Critical, Race or Theory. For many of these young people, a high school textbook is of no use to them; which means that we must then come up with creative ways to teach high school vocabulary level subject/courses matter through alternative methods, as we critically race to get their reading and writing skills up to 8th grade standards comprehension levels. The reading weakness problem is also not helpful in their unreadiness to take on other academic subjects like the heavy language-dependent algebra-1 course, which negatively combines with their K-8 algorithmic processes and conceptual knowledge pre-algebra skills deficiencies. The only thing that saved us was my excellent and efficacious mathematics and english department teachers, who performed their own form of pedagogical magic to push and pull these young people up to a functional high school student learning level.

We need a theory that would compel us (convince us?) to critically race to get our children up to academic and grade proficiency learning levels.

When (I’ve wondered for many years), do we begin to focus on the quality of our collective children’s learning and get those basic educational things right! Those non-sexy and social media non-trending actions to make sure that by the time a child gets to high school, they can read, write, do science and mathematics on a ready-to-do high school work level. Every day it’s one distracting issue or another that takes our attention away from a real primary mission of a community’s adults; and that is, the educational success of their children. Today it’s Critical Race Theory, and tomorrow it’s a professional track athlete who is correctly sanctioned for smoking weed. Anything that takes our eyes and hearts away from the real issues; perhaps because those real and meaningful struggles are too painfully hard to undertake; better to not focus on our inner-community educational needs, but instead, focus on making segments of the white community angry; as if our path to progress is dependent on white upsetness (or happiness), and not on our own independently focused and purposeful efforts.

As a supervisor of a history department for many years, a department who in parallel cooperation and support from the english department’s 9-12 fiction literature reading list, took its own unique path to apply a curriculum approach that balanced standardized test readiness (City, State or AP exams) with teaching the truth arrived at by scientifically applying critical historiographical analytical techniques as championed by people like Allan Wilson, Cheikh Anta Diop, and John Hope Franklin. We also utilize other curriculum areas, i.e., dance, art, music, foreign language, and technology, and (yes for a high school) went on a lot of cultural institutions trips and invited many visiting scholars to broaden students understanding of the many complicated and nuanced expressions of the worlds culturally diverse perspectives. We did not ask permission or agreement from outsiders when we decided to teach world and US history critically and honestly in its full complexity (achievements and disappointments). We did not define “exceptionalism” or “development” solely in the context of material wealth or military power; rather, how does a nation treat the emigrant seeking a safe asylum, the politically and economically disenfranchised, the children of the disinherited, its elders, etc.; in other words how exceptional is that society’s kindness, caring and compassion standards? And ultimately that every nation in the world is essentially a work in (more rapid or less rapid) progress.

We did not have a special “phrase” that would have caught the attention of outsiders for whom we did not want to waste time explaining to non-educators (who probably would not understand anyway) our philosophical approach to teaching historiography.
And principal, if you don’t know how to clandestinely “bend” the curriculum to help your students to be more ethically enlightened, morally sensitive, intellectually enriched, and emotionally empowered, then you need to ask somebody who does know or probably get another job title.

One of my former colleagues remarked once to my extreme pride and joy about Facebook postings: “I notice that your former students are very politically thoughtful, astute, sensitive and articulate when it comes to current and past political events” Yeah (I think he was also suggesting progressive), as I even smile today reflecting on his words, I realize that we got a few things right because they are basically decent human beings, great critical thinkers and skilled analytical readers!

Michael A. Johnson is a former teacher, principal, and school district superintendent. He led the design, development, and building of two Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—Career Technical Education (S.T.E.M.—C.T.E.) high schools: Science Skills Center High School, N.Y.C. and Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering High School, Washington DC. An author of a book on school leadership: Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership. And he is presently completing his second book on school administration and leadership: Report From The Principal’s Office (Fall/2021).