Here’s a high-stakes reading comprehension test item for Thinking Parents and Citizens. Is this fictional or real-world, the witch Dolores Umbridge or the muggle lawyer Stanley Fish?
“That enterprise [School] is not named democracy, and what goes on within it – unless it is abuse or harassment or assault – should not rise to the level of constitutional notice or any other notice, except the notice of the professional authorities whose job it is to keep the educational machine running smoothly.”
Today we’re discussing Stanley Fish, blogging for the NYT about Clarence Thomas being constitutionally correct in the latest student expression SCOTUS ruling:
If I had a criticism of Thomas, it would be that he does not go far enough. Not only do students not have first amendment rights, they do not have any rights: they don’t have the right to express themselves, or have their opinions considered, or have a voice in the evaluation of their teachers, or have their views of what should happen in the classroom taken into account. (And I intend this as a statement about college students as well as high-school students.)
One reason that students (and many others) have come to believe that they have these rights is a confusion between education and democracy. It is in democratic contexts that people have claims to the rights enumerated in the constitution and other documents at the heart of our political system – the right to free speech, the right to free assembly, the right to determine, by vote, the shape of their futures.
Educational institutions, however, are not democratic contexts (even when the principles of democracy are being taught in them).
. . .What this means is that teachers don’t have First Amendment rights either, at least while they are performing as teachers. Away from school, they have the same rights as anyone else. In school, they are just like their students, bound to the protocols of the enterprise they have joined. That enterprise is not named democracy and what goes on within it – unless it is abuse or harassment or assault – should not rise to the level of constitutional notice or any other notice except the notice of the professional authorities whose job it is to keep the educational machine running smoothly.
So think about that without howling a minute. This is perfect timing, what with the new Harry Potter movie playing! The central character is a power-mad, government-approved school administrator named Dolores Umbridge, all the more insidious for being so prim and soft-spoken and sweater-wearing.
MisEducation presciently critiqued the wizarding world’s lessons about everything wrong with School in December 2002, a good six months before the book that’s now a movie first arrived in the real world, before Umbridge herself set fictional foot in Hogwarts and our collective consciousness.
So by the time this cautionary tale of School “spelled” it all out for us, there was nothing left to conjure thus not much left to say, harumphed MisEducation. JJ as muggle mom though, howled all the way through Order of the Phoenix, via email list magic in summer 2003:
Here is a passage that had me racing around the house looking for someone to share it with (unschooled children were all I had handy, and while they laughed, I think they were mercifully incapable of fully understanding why I as a former public school person found it so pithy.)
In chapter 12, “Professor Umbridge,” the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, tells the class they will be reading from the text only, not actually practicing defensive spells. The students rebel, whereupon they are told in a dangerous voice:
“I’m afraid you are not qualified to decide what the ‘whole point’ of any class is. Wizards much older and cleverer than you have devised our new program of study. You will be learning about defensive spells in a secure, risk-free way — it is the view of the Ministry of Magic that a theoretical knowledge will be more than sufficient to get you through the examination, which is, after all, what school is all about.”
(Furious since he has great need of practical knowledge to stay alive, Harry Potter asks what good theory’s going to be in the real world, and Professor Umbridge primly replies):
“This is school, Mr. Potter, not the real world.”
Later JJ blogged it as “Defense Against the Dark Arts” for Culture Kitchen:
There’s little left about the culture of school that fosters the scientific method of inquiry, so why would we fancy school a fit environment for real world-class science education –in fiction or fact? Are we too stupid to let go this fiction that Defense Against the Dark Arts, whatever that proves to be in our very real post-9-11 culture, is just textbook theory and not the real world?
and NH Union Leader columnist Fergus Cullen wrote about Harry Potter’s whole world as “the Realm of Big Government”:
. . .Every time another department within the
Ministry of Magic is mentioned, I wonder if the real threat to Harry’s
liberty is Voldemort or the Leviathan government, which has a branch
overseeing all aspects of wizard daily life. There’s the Improper Use of
Magic Office, the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes, even
the Department of Magical Games and Sports, which may be needed to
investigate steroid use among Quidditch players.
Most ministry departments are regulatory agencies, suggesting that
Ronald Reagan’s observation about how government operates (“If it moves, tax it; if it keeps moving, regulate it; and if it stops moving,
subsidize it”) applies to the wizard world as well as to Washington. . .
The police power of the state is also worrisome. The Department of
Magical Law Enforcement acts as a sort of KGB, rounding up citizens to
appear before the Wizengot, where the accused are tried in a dungeon
while bound to a chair. . . Government agents known as obliviators go
about brainwashing people by erasing their memories. The Floo NetworkAuthority gives the ministry the ability to monitor communications, sort of like your boss reading your e-mails at work.
I hate to say it, but the wizarding world could use the ACLU.
Everyone works for the government: Aside from George and Fred Weasley, the young entrepreneurs who dropped out of Hogwarts School to start a
joke shop, everyone else seems to work for the government. The private
sector is limited to a handful of merchants on Diagon Alley and in Hogsmeade Village, and most of them seem essentially to be government contractors who supply Hogwarts students. The one bank, Gringotts, has a state-protected monopoly. . .
Harry himself aspires to become an Auror, a government agent, when he
grows up. Do any witches and wizards earn their knuts, sickles and
galleons by providing goods or services that add value?
. . .Government run schools: Children are taken away from their natural
parents at age 11 and remanded to a government-run school, where they are required to wear uniforms and tuition is free. After five years of
indoctrination, they are given a mandatory test, the O.W.L., the results
of which define what vocation students can pursue. Unhappy with the
independent-minded leadership of Professor Dumbledore at Hogwarts, the ministry installed Professor Umbridge as High Inquisitor in his place.
And some think No Child Left Behind represents heavy-handed federal
intervention in public schools.
I suggest we try a little spell of our own and see where it takes us.
Suppose (before you reject them as villains out of hand) that the ideological rule of Professor Fish and the Ministry of Magic under Umbridge were to prevail in America today. Can we use our own individual powers to divine the resulting future, sense what this could mean and how things might change, maybe even progress as well as devolve?
Push in here and see the bulge over there — that’s not magic, that’s science! 🙂
Might it unexpectedly solve some problems, for society to spell out this clear and clearly harsh view of “schooling” as an authoritarian environment, exactly like the military and prison, and so unlike the good magic of natural learning and liberal education?
I wonder if by the time we get to the surprise ending, this plot might even serve “home-schooling” well, for all school to be equated with unilateral discipline and unchecked power:
“That enterprise is not named democracy and what goes on within it – unless it is abuse or harassment or assault – should not rise to the level of constitutional notice. . .”
Parents were literally ignorant of everything being done in “their” world, thus impotent despite all their supposed individual powers, far away from the too-real World of School and being lied to by the government-corrupted press, alternately stirred up and soothed by the sly and irresponsible Rita Skeeter.
So Hogwarts students and teachers were spellbound not by Black Magic but by perfectly ordinary, unmagical community rules and institutional school.
They could only save themselves, their educational enterprise and even their clueless families back home, when Dolores Umbridge was finally seen stripped of the polite fiction, standing in stark relief as the Corruption of Power she represented in the very real world, when they finally understood that people couldn’t just go along to get along anymore. When they were finally “forced to choose.”
What if that happened to this enterprise we muggles call School?
Update 1:40 pm – and none of this, not one speck, is ABOUT THE MONEY!! Geez, all you free market RR zombies and closet Young Earthers, give it a rest already. Ideology is the lesson and tyranny is the price, not taxes or vouchers. Go read this and if you don’t get that, you’re not ready to analyze school OR education. And you might want to rethink homeschooling, or at least get some help!