“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).