Friday, February 27, 2009

Education as a Trailing Frame

I was thinking earlier this week about how George Lakoff's model of framing explains why people prefer certain types of school reform.

To review (from the Wikipedia):

Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between liberals and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family. Conservatives would subscribe more strongly and more often to a model that he calls the "strict father model" and has a family structured around a strong, dominant "father" (government), and assumes that the "children" (citizens) need to be disciplined to be made into responsible "adults" (financially and morally responsible beings). Once the "children" are "adults", though, the "father" should not interfere with their lives: the government should stay out of the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility. In contrast, Lakoff argues that liberals place more support in a model of the family, which he calls the "nurturant parent model", based on "nurturant values", where both "mothers" and "fathers" work to keep the essentially good "children" away from "corrupting influences" (pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc.). Lakoff says that most people have a blend of both metaphors applied at different times, and that political speech works primarily by invoking these metaphors and urging the subscription of one over the other.

How this applies to school design and reform should be pretty obvious. In fact, when thinking about schools, it is less metaphorical than government in general, just moving from parenting to in loco parentis.

I would argue that the further a person is from hands-on implementation of school reform, the more "KIPP" or "The MET" or "Core Knowledge" or "Broader, Bolder" or "No Excuses" is really just a proxy for "strict father" or "nurturant parent." Of course, the signifier does not map perfectly to the signified, and one thing I've been trying to tease out lately is how much the reality of all these schools and programs diverges from their rhetorical use. What does it mean that music and field trips are important to KIPP? Is it only OK (to some) to have them at KIPP because there is a strict dad to use them as a reward or punishment?

On Tuesday, Lakoff came out with a new piece analyzing Obama's rhetoric and framing. Basically, he likes it:

President Obama’s second intellectual move concerns what the fundamental American values are. In Moral Politics, I described what I found to be the implicit, often unconscious, value systems behind progressive and conservative thought. Progressive thought rests, first, on the value of empathy —- putting oneself in other people’s shoes, seeing the world through their eyes, and therefore caring about them. The second principle is acting on that care, taking responsibility both for oneself and others, social as well as individual responsibility. The third is acting to make oneself, the country, and the world better—what Obama has called an “ethic of excellence” toward creating “a more perfect union” politically.

Historian Lynn Hunt, in Inventing Human Rights, has shown that those values, beginning with empathy, lie historically behind the human rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Obama, in various interviews and speeches, has provided the logical link. Empathy is not mere sympathy. Putting oneself in the shoes of others brings with it the responsibility to act on that empathy—to be “our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper”—and to act to improve ourselves, our country, and the world.

The logic is simple: Empathy is why we have the values of freedom, fairness, and equality — for everyone, not just for certain individuals. If we put ourselves in the shoes of others, we will want them to be free and treated fairly. Empathy with all leads to equality: no one should be treated worse than anyone else. Empathy leads us to democracy: to avoid being subject indefinitely to the whims of an oppressive and unfair ruler, we need to be able to choose who governs us and we need a government of laws.

Yet, progressive educators are not feeling the love, at least not as much as some of us hoped for. We're still getting the bullshit economic competitiveness arguements, emphasis on charter schools, etc.

But we did get this:

And I think about Ty’Sheoma Bethea, the young girl from that school I visited in Dillon, South Carolina – a place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom. She has been told that her school is hopeless, but the other day after class she went to the public library and typed up a letter to the people sitting in this room. She even asked her principal for the money to buy a stamp. The letter asks us for help, and says, "We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters.

And this:

Is this boilerplate or changing the frame? I think more of the latter than most people realize. It is an emotional appeal to our collective responsibility to shell out for our less fortunate neighbors. It is about spending tax money on public schools, and a reminder that kids in charter schools aren't the only ones who work hard.

Some of Obama's education policy talk is distressingly close to Bush's but the framing in Bush's first State of the Union was quite different:

With us tonight representing many American families are Steven and Josefina Ramos. They are from Pennsylvania. But they could be from any one of your districts. Steven is the network administrator for a school district. Josefina is a Spanish teacher at a charter school. And they have a two-year-old daughter.

Steven and Josefina tell me they pay almost $8,000 a year in federal income taxes. My plan will save them more than $2,000. Let me tell you what Steven says: "Two thousand dollars a year means a lot to my family. If we had this money, it would help us reach our goal of paying off our personal debt in two years' time." After that, Steven and Josefina want to start saving for Lianna's college education.

Republicans are getting ready to walk away from education, but it is the last gasp of the DLC. It is going to take a while to walk back from where the Bush and Clinton years have taken us, and while I'd love to see Obama leading by directly refuting their legacy in specific policy terms, we may have to be patient. We've got an empathy deficit to pay down, and that may have to happen first.

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