|What can educators learn from comedians?|
BY ANGELINA E. CASTAGNO
Associate professor of educational leadership in the College of Education at Northern Arizona University
Comedian Louis C.K. has recently made critical comments of Common Core and standardized testing that have lit up the Internet. He did not parse words, nor did he attempt to avoid offending. Comedians are incredibly adept at saying things most of us wouldn’t dare say. Toward the end of the school year, he tweeted to his 3.3 million followers: “My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!” And later: “I trust a teacher over Pearson or bill hates [i.e. Bill Gates] any day of the week.” In an often-heard comment about C.K., an Internet responder notes that although his work can be considered sad or mean, it is refreshing. The debate around Common Core and standardized testing is the subject of many other blogs, articles, and books, and it is not one I wish to engage here. Instead, I want to suggest that educators take a cue from comedians regarding the value of throwing niceness out the window.
To be nice is to be pleasing and agreeable, pleasant and kind. A nice person is not someone who creates a lot of disturbance, conflict, controversy, or discomfort. Nice people avoid potentially uncomfortable or upsetting experiences, knowledge, and interactions. They do not point out failures or shortcomings in others but rather emphasize the good, the promise, and the improvement we see. Niceness compels us to reframe potentially disruptive or uncomfortable things in ways that are more soothing, pleasant, and comfortable. This avoidance and reframing are done with the best intentions, and having good intentions is a critical component of niceness.
Within schools, niceness often defines appropriate—and even good—behaviors, interactions, norms, and policies. Most educators are nice people with the best of intentions regarding the schooling they provide to students every day. Despite their good intentions, we continue to produce structures that harm children. Those being harmed most often and most significantly are children of color.
Not unlike many other places across the nation, in the “Zion School District” (an anonymous district in Utah), diversity-related policies and practices were always engaged in nice ways that would not upset the status quo. Powerblindness came to life in educators’ attempts to ignore, silence, or explain away any power-related hierarchies, inequities, or injustices. Specifically, educators operationalized powerblindness through appeals to learning styles and varied teaching techniques, human relations, and character education, and by politely erasing heterosexism and homophobia. They engaged colorblindness when they silenced race talk and racialized issues. When students tried talking about race, they were schooled in—and through—politeness. When confronted with racialized achievement gaps or race-based inequalities at school that could not be silenced, educators turned them into issues related to language, social class, or refugee status. Deficit ideologies were another mechanism at work when explanations for student failure were located in student and family characteristics. In each of these instances, patterned and pervasive racial inequity was left unnamed, unexamined, and unchallenged. At the same time, educators operationalized equality, meritocracy, and individualism in their efforts to build particular school cultures, create conditions for certain students to succeed, and compete in the current school-reform race. All these mechanisms work in service to whiteness. They are so common and prevalent that they allow whiteness to thrive without much effort.
Perhaps educators need to engage more of the rude, and yet refreshing, dialogue that comedians model.
—Thea Abu El-Haj, Rutgers University
Abu El-Haj, T. (2006). Elusive justice: Wrestling with different and educational equity in everyday practice. New York: Routledge.
Gillborn, D. (2008). Racism and education: Coincidence or conspiracy? New York: Routledge.
Ladson-Billings, G., & Tate, W. (1995). Toward a critical race theory of education. Teachers College Record, 97(1).
Vaught, S. (2011). Racism, public schooling, and the entrenchment of white supremacy: A critical race ethnography. Albany: SUNY Press.