Saturday, March 30, 2013

Orwell, Revisited again

George Orwell wrote 1984 in response to the emergence of totalitarian regimes, whose work he had observed first hand in Spain, where Soviet agents had wiped out competing leftist parties on false grounds. He set the drama of the book inside the mind of his hero, Winston Smith--a name which, his publisher once assured me, was not chosen by accident. "Freedom," Smith wrote in his diary, "is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four." All else would follow from that. In an age in which totalitarian governments constantly redefined reality, that was a brilliant insight, and it was no accident, once again, that the climax of the book occurred when O'Brien, his interrogator, tortures Winston into accepting the idea that two plus two can equal five. 1984 will live forever, but as I realized while reading this morning's paper, the problem of our time is essentially the opposite.

The New York Times leads this morning with the arrest of 35 teachers and administrators from the Atlanta Public Schools for cheating on their students' standardized tests. The scandal has been suspected for years, but it took former Governor Sonny Perdue, born in 1946, to take it seriously enough to appoint two special prosecutors with a large investigative staff that eventually persuaded a few guilt-ridden teachers to tell the truth about what they had done. Among those indicted are the former superintendent of the schools, Beverly Hall, who had become one of the poster children of the educational reform movement thanks to the dramatic improvement in her students' scores. There was nothing subtle about the cheating. Teachers sat down with their students answer sheets after the tests were completed and changed wrong answers to right ones.

The stakes for the school district went well beyond its leaders prestige. Many millions of dollars depended on the test results. So did the careers of the teachers who administered the tests. Much of this goes back to George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind act, which made standardized tests the measure of educational performance and the key to the funding, and even the survival, of individual public schools. I know some people believe that law was designed to discredit public education in America. Certainly that is going to be one result of the Atlanta scandal.

And how does this relate to Orwell? Just as freedom depends on the ability to say that two plus two equals four, effective authority depends on the ability to insist that two plus two equals four and to penalize people who refuse to recognize it. And I am convinced that only people raised to respect objective truth by either their families, the educational system, or both, an lead in this way. I have been a teacher all my life and I have been acutely conscious that I am there to let my students find out how good they can be. But I can only do that if I evaluate them honestly. That is probably the greatest crime perpetrated on the schoolchildren of Atlanta: many of them have no idea how smart they actually are. Their schools taught them that they were participating in a scam, and there's no way that lesson did not thoroughly percolate down to them. It is interesting that the enemy of truth, in this case, was money. The lies the teachers and administrators told were worth millions. That is the same phenomenon that destroyed the financial system, where there no longer seems to be much respect for truth.

The Times story reveals this in other ways. Atlanta for over a century has had by far the best race relations and the strongest black community of any southern city. The performance of the city's schools, whose students are mostly black, was a source of pride to the whole community in general and the business community in particular. Governor Perdue was amazed when most of the business community protested his attempts to find out what was really going on. He thought they would want to know that their new generation of workers was truly well educated, but they cared only about the damage a scandal might do to the city's reputation.

Knowledge and respect for truth are, of course, above all the responsibility of our higher educational system--but it has given that responsibility up as well--also, largely, for money. When researchers depend on government grants, as so many do, they design projects that can continue indefinitely without coming up with an answer. Meanwhile, the humanities have abandoned even a theoretical commitment to truth, arguing again that knowledge is about power. Of course knowledge and power are intertwined, but knowledge can prevail if it has an independent and determined constituency. The decision of universities to forsake that role has been catastrophic. So has the decision of the mainstream press that its own opinions don't matter, and that its job is to report the things politicians say. So has the utter subservience of our political class to moneyed interests.

Society and the institutions within it can only survive on the basis that two plus two equal four. We shall learn that lesson, too, the hard way.


Bozon said...


Thanks for this rant. Touches on problems, as you suggest, far wider, and more complex, than mere educational bureaucracies.

all the best,

Rupert Chapman said...

Reality bites, sooner or later.

galacticsurfer said...

I thought this week of the quote

"The sleep of reason breeds monsters" and thought it was shakespeare but googling it I became more knowledgeable. Goya's Caprichos from 1799 depicting spanish society's ills. It looks like Dickens type of ideas but more fantastic in picture form.

"Los Caprichos are a set of 80 aquatint prints created by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya in 1797 and 1798, and published as an album in 1799. The prints were an artistic experiment: a medium for Goya's condemnation of the universal follies and foolishness in the Spanish society in which he lived. The criticisms are far-ranging and acidic; he speaks against the predominance of superstition, the ignorance and inabilities of the various members of the ruling class, pedagogical short-comings, marital mistakes and the decline of rationality. Some of the prints have anticlerical themes. Goya described the series as depicting "the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance or self-interest have made usual".[1]"

all pictures with commentaries as in El Prado museum.

kingpinbravo said...

Dear Professor Kaiser, I am so pleased that you picked up on this story from Atlanta and put the headline in its proper context. I wish all historians and for that matter intelligence analysts would heed what Cicero said in De Oratore" The first law for the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall supress nothing that is true. Moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing or of malice." Alohamac

Larry said...

Excellent post on this critical issue David. The Atlanta scandal only scratches the surface of the problem I fear.

wmmbb said...

Is there not a underlying problem with the use of financial incentives for education, as you may imply, and in other areas, including health care?

Actually, I always thought that 2+2= 5-1. So maybe I will have to reprogram.

Anyway, Professor Kaiser, you sound like a hard task master.

Zosima said...

Thanks Dr K. for another great essay. I think our problem is that we both grew up deluded by the 1933-1973 period that now looks like an incredibly anomalous time. That period was the legacy of populist movements that gave the middle and working classes a brief period of countervailing power against what has now become a nearly totally dominant corporate capitalism. Atlanta is an apt setting to watch this prevailing zeitgeist of unimpeded worship of corporate capitalist values play out. I lived there 1986-1997, and can tell you that no other values existed there except blind obedience to greed, which is only a baby step away from blind obedience to lies. But it really is just the American way reasserting itself, after a brief minor interruption. We kid ourselves if we believe that education, or any other institution will be able to remain aloof from what so completely dominates the rest of society. We are all Atlanta now.

PS-Galactic, thanks for the Goya stuff-it's a great comparison with our situation.