BOOK EXCERPT: From Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance – “On Kurt Vonnegut” – by Garn Press Author Paul Thomas

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Book Reviews

“The conscience of American education. He is our North Star.” – Diane Ravitch

“Thomas uses this wonderfully written book to engage readers with these ideas and to further the much-needed conversation concerning education policy.” – Kevin Welner

“The master of the pithy, pointed essay, and this collection should provoke readers to think hard about educational issues that matter.” – Peter Smagorinsky

“P.L. Thomas reveals the intersections among oppression, education, and literature.” – Julie Gorlewski

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“A powerful voice for change, but ultimately, his greatest influence is in the way he empowers others to speak” – Alison H. Williams


Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance

Chapter 19: “On Kurt Vonnegut”


Kurt Vonnegut made a few powerful routines the foundation of his fiction and nonfiction. Along with his dark humor, part of his allure included a playful twisting of genres. For example, Vonnegut pushed back against being labeled a science fiction (SF) writer while writing novel after novel about the end of the world—a standard of SF. Ultimately, also typical of the best SF writers, Vonnegut exposed the greatest weaknesses of the human condition, often failures repeatedly self-imposed.

“Eager to Recreate the Same Old Nightmare”: Revisiting Vonnegut’s Player Piano

Few people could have imagined the acceleration of corporate influence that occurred in the years following the 2008 economic downturn in the U.S. that was associated with the activities of major banks and corporations as well as the election of Barack Obama, who was repeatedly demonized as a socialist. More shocking, possibly, has been the corporate influence on the public discourse about universal public education, driven by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and promoted through celebrity tours by billionaire Bill Gates, ex-chancellor Michelle Rhee, and “Superman” Geoffrey Canada.

Adam Bessie (2010) has speculated about the logical progression of the current accountability era built on tests—which is destined to hold teachers accountable for their students’ test scores despite the evidence that teachers account for only about 10-20% of student achievement—to the elimination of teaching as a profession. And Stephen Krashen (2011) believes that the corporate takeover of schools is at the center of the new reformers’ misinformation tour. For Anthony Cody (2013), the future is a disturbing dystopia. While Bessie’s, Krashen’s, and Cody’s commentaries may sound like alarmist stances–possibly even the stuff of fiction—I believe we all should have seen this coming for decades.

The SF genre has always been one of my favorites, and within that genre, I am particularly fond of dystopian fiction, such as Margaret Atwood’s brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Like Atwood, Vonnegut spoke and often wrote about rejecting the SF label for his work (See Chapter 1 of Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons), but Vonnegut’s genius includes his gift for delivering social commentary and satire wrapped in narratives that seemed to be set in the future, seemed to be a distorted world that we could never possibly experience.

In 1952, Kurt Vonnegut published Player Piano, offering what most believed was a biting satire of corporate America from his own experience of working at GE. A review of the novel describes Vonnegut’s vision of our brave new world:

The important difference lies in the fact that Mr. Vonnegut’s oligarchs are not capitalists but engineers. In the future as he envisages it, the machines have completed their triumph, dispossessing not only the manual laborers but the white collar workers as well. Consequently the carefully selected, highly trained individuals who design and control the machines are the only people who have anything to do. Other people, the great majority, can either go into the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, which is devoted to boondoggling, or join the army, which has no real function in a machine-dominated world-society. (Hicks, 1952)

Yes, in Vonnegut’s dystopia, computers are at the center of a society itself run like a machine, with everyone labeled with his or her IQ and designated for the career he or she can pursue—although we should note that women’s roles were even more constrained than men’s, reflecting the mid-twentieth century sexism in the U.S. Where corporations end and the government begins is difficult to identify in this society that is simply a slightly exaggeration of the life Vonnegut had witnessed while working at GE before abandoning corporate America to be a full-time writer.

For me, however, Vonnegut’s Player Piano is as much a warning about the role of testing and labeling people in our education system as it is a red flag about the dangers of the oligarchy that we have become. Today, with billionaire Bill Gates speaking not only for corporate America but also for reforming public education, how far off was Vonnegut’s vision? In the first decade of the twenty-first century, how different is Vonnegut’s world to what we have today, as income inequity and the pooling of wealth accelerate (Noah, 2010)?

We have witnessed where political loyalty lies during the taxpayer funded bailouts as corporate America collapsed at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. With corporate America saved and most Americans ignored, the next logical step is to transform public education by increasingly imposing the corporate business model that has been crippling the education system since the misinformation out of Ronald Reagan’s presidency grabbed headlines with the release of A Nation at Risk. If Vonnegut had written this storyline, at least we could have been guaranteed some laughter. But this brave new world of public education is much grimmer—like George Orwell’s 1984.

Our artists can see and understand when many of the rest of us are simply overwhelmed by our lives. In Player Piano, we see how successfully corporate life disorients and overwhelms workers in order to keep those workers under control. And in the relationship between the main character Paul and his wife Anita, we watch the power of corporate life—and the weight of testing and reducing humans to numbers—being magnified by the rise of computers when Paul makes a plea to his wife:

“No, no. You’ve got something the tests and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.” (Vonnegut, 1952, p. 178)

In the novel, Paul’s quest and the momentary rise of a few rebels appear to be no match for corporate control. Today, I have to say I am no more optimistic than Vonnegut.

When Secretary Duncan (2010) offers misleading claims about international test scores and bemoans the state of public schools for failing to provide us with a world-class workforce, and almost no one raises a voice in protest (except those of us within the field of education, who are then demonized for protesting [Michie, 2011]), I am tempted to think that we are simply getting what we deserve—like Paul at the end of Player Piano: “And that left Paul. ‘To a better world,’ he started to say, but he cut the toast short, thinking of the people of Ilium, already eager to recreate the same old nightmare” (Vonnegut, 1952, p. 340).

On Foma and Mendacity: Letting the Cat Out of the Bag

Kurt Vonnegut’s (1963) Cat’s Cradle and Tennessee Williams’s (2004) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof may seem at first blush to share only the use of “cat” in their titles, but both works are masterful examinations of something central to the human condition: the lie. But Vonnegut’s foma at the heart of Bokononism and Big Daddy’s railing against mendacity present contrasting dramatizations of “lying and liars,” as Brick and Big Daddy wrestle with “one of them five dollar words” (Williams, 2004, p. 108). Mendacity is the darkest of lies because it corrupts and ultimately destroys relationships and even lives. For Big Daddy, mendacity is inevitable, central to the human condition: “I’ve lived with mendacity!—Why can’t you live with it? Hell, you got to live with it, there’s nothing else to live with except mendacity, is there?” (Williams, p. 111).

While Vonnegut’s (1963) novel is also dark—and typically satirical—foma is offered as “harmless lies,” as Julian Castle explains to the narrator:

“Well, when it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies.” (p. 172)

Although different consequences result from the mendacity of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the foma of Cat’s Cradle, all lies share one important characteristic: They are almost impossible to confront, and once confronted, they create a great deal of pain.

As a parent, I came face to face with letting the cat out of the bag when my daughter first unmasked the foma of the Tooth Fairy, and then connected that realization with Santa Claus. After I confessed to the truth—trying as I did to make a case about “harmless lies”—my daughter cut right to the heart of the matter, asking, “Why did y’all lie to me?”

The thinnest margins between mendacity and foma, I think, are found in our cultural myths—the fatal flaw of confusing the ideals we aspire to as a people with conditions already achieved. Many of those aspirations have tipped into mendacity, poisoning the possibility of those ideals—especially in the foundational promises of public institutions. Here, then, are those ideals that could have served us well as aspiration, but now work as mendacity and thus against our best intensions:

  • Capitalism and Choice. The realization is now becoming hard to ignore, that capitalism (the free market) is incompatible with equity (see, for example, Thomas Piketty [2014]). Also, choice as a concept central to freedom is far more complicated than expressed in our public discourse. Both capitalism and choice have worked against cultural aspirations for equity, but those failures may be better explained by the reason they have failed: idealizing capitalism and choice while failing to commit fully to the power of the Commons (publicly funded institutions) to establish the context within which capitalism and choice could serve equity well.
  • Meritocracy. In the U.S., possibly the greatest lie that results from confusing an aspiration with an achieved condition is the argument that we live in a meritocracy. The evidence suggests that we currently do not have a meritocracy—see how being born rich and not attending college trumps being born poor but completing college (Bruenig, 2013). Even more disturbing, we are unlikely to achieve a meritocracy; for example, see why “[e]qual opportunity cannot actually be achieved” (Fishkin, 2014).
  • Education as the Key to Equity. Equally misleading as claims about the U.S. being a meritocracy (or that we are a post-racial country) are the assertions that education is the one true way to overcome social ills and how any individual can lift her/himself out of poverty. However, education has not changed and does not, in fact, change society; rarely lifts people out of the circumstances of their births; and serves as a marker for privilege—thus creating the illusion that education is a force for change, as Reardon (2013) explains:

Here’s a fact that may not surprise you: the children of the rich perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class or poor families. Students growing up in richer families have better grades and higher standardized test scores, on average, than poorer students; they also have higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities and school leadership positions, higher graduation rates and higher rates of college enrollment and completion.

Whether you think it deeply unjust, lamentable but inevitable, or obvious and unproblematic, this is hardly news. It is true in most societies and has been true in the United States for at least as long as we have thought to ask the question and had sufficient data to verify the answer.

What is news is that in the United States over the last few decades these differences in educational success between high- and lower-income students have grown substantially…. (n.p.)

  • Education Must Be Reformed. One key to seeing the mendacity of cultural claims is recognizing how often those claims are contradictory. Many who champion the idealized and misleading belief that education is central to social and personal achievement also have historically and currently declared education a failure, concluding that education must be reformed. That reform is monolithic: Greater and greater accountability built on new standards and new testing. The concept of having high standards, however, proves to be as misleading as claims of the U.S. being a meritocracy because thirty years of standards-based education reform have revealed there is no correlation between the existence or quality of standards and student achievement (Mathis, 2012). Also, throughout more than 60 years of lamenting the international test score rankings of the U.S., we have no evidence of a correlation between those international rankings and any country’s economic robustness or competitiveness (Strauss, 2010).

When my daughter allowed the evidence about the Tooth Fairy to lead her to a conclusion that made her at least uncomfortable if not disillusioned, she had to begin re-evaluating her perception of the world, a perception that included the nature of truth and the role of her parents in her navigating that world. That may sound dramatic about a conversation including the Tooth Fairy, but for a child, the intentions of foma have the same stinging consequences as the cynicism of mendacity. For adults, it seems, burying ourselves in the opiate of foma (Aldous Huxley’s soma) allows us to ignore the bitter pill of mendacity. As aspirations, the bulleted concepts above remain important for a free people, but as mendacity, they have and will continue to ensure that inequity cannot be achieved.

Many readers miss the powerful theme of optimism that runs through Vonnegut’s works; he maintains a genuine and compelling hope among the ruins for the capacity of humans to be kind. The bitterness and fatalism of Williams’s Big Daddy, however, seem for now a more accurate assessment of the current human condition. More difficult to confront than either mendacity or foma, it appears, is the hard truth that the human pursuit of equity must come before merit can matter, and that in order to achieve that possibility, the human condition must commit to a spirit of community and collaboration, not competition.

Regretfully, most in power are apt to continue to not let that cat out of the bag.

Snow Blind: “Trapped in the Amber of This Moment”

  • What is wrong with the following claims?
  • The rich and successful are rich and successful because of their work ethic.
  • The poor are poor because they fail to take advantage of the American Dream.
  • Women are paid less than men because they choose fields/careers that pay less and choose family over career.
  • Prisons are overwhelmingly populated by African Americans because they are trapped in the cycle of poverty.
  • Work hard and be nice.
  • Education, especially college, is the main path for rising above the conditions of any person’s home or community.

Before I examine the answer, consider this enduring claim:

  • In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and thus, Columbus discovered America. [The original poem ends “The first American?  No, not quite./ But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.”]

And how about this blast from the past: “Dewey Defeats Truman.” As Lienhard (1997) explains:

Gallup brought science to that process. Richard Smith tells how, by the time Landon challenged Roosevelt, the prestigious Literary Digest magazine was America’s leading pollster. The Digest featured a regular poll called “America Speaks.” It drew samples from phone books and auto registrations. Gallup knew that such samples were biased toward people with means….

Then, in 1948, Gallup blew the Truman-Dewey prediction. How? His mistake was to quit polling two weeks before the election with fourteen percent of the electorate still undecided. After that humiliation, Gallup went back to analyze his error. He emerged with the maxim, “Undecided voters side with the incumbent.” (n.p.)

By now, then, you’d think polling would have reached some higher and clearer process for predicting presidential outcomes, but instead, we had the Nate Silver element (O’Hara, 2012), yet another case about how the science of polling has flaws, human flaws.

Even, it seems, as science inspects itself—acknowledging and addressing confirmation bias, for example—we are always “trapped in the amber of this moment” (Vonnegut, 1991, p. 77) since the human condition is itself necessarily a subjective experience. And now, in order to answer my initial question, I want to turn to history. While history as a discipline is distinct from the hard sciences, both are dependent on evidence and then the conclusions drawn from that evidence—conclusions I call narratives (more on that below). Consider Howard Zinn (1995) on Christopher Columbus:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see” history from the standpoint of others. (pp. 9-10)

In other words, shaping narratives bound by evidence does not insure that those narratives are pure and certainly does not insure that those narratives are above bias or absent the urge to mold them in order to secure someone’s agenda (likely someone in power).

Misleading narratives around Columbus or “I cannot tell a lie” George Washington—and the whitewashing of Steve Jobs to promote the “grit” narrative (compare the Jobs lesson [Smith, 2014] to the original 1492 poem about Columbus)—are not problematic because of the evidence, but because of the lens through which the narratives are shaped and by whom those narratives are created and in whose interest.

Consider Billy Pilgrim in a telepathic conversation with a Tralfamadorian in Vonnegut’s (1991) Slaughterhouse Five:

“Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim,” said the loudspeaker. “Any questions?”

Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: “Why me?”

“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”

“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.

“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.” (pp. 76-77)

And that brings me to the “grit” debate, one in which advocates point to scientific research and prestigious grants. From that evidence, we have three contexts of narratives: disciplinary narratives (Angela Duckworth, Carolyn Dweck), popular narratives (Paul Tough, Jay Mathews), and political narratives (Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee)—all of which are trapped like bugs in amber, or as I prefer to suggest, that “grit” narrative advocacy is snow blind.

If evidence and the narratives surrounding the evidence appear to support a privileged agenda, and since the privileged have a larger megaphone in a culture, then that evidence and narrative are disproportionately likely to gain momentum—regardless of how accurate they are in the context of the oppressed or marginalized—consider again history and the Zinn points above. And that inability by the privileged to see beyond their privilege is, I think, a state of being snow blind.

Thus, my answer to the initial question at the beginning is that those claims as narratives built on evidence are ideological distortions of the evidence. The “grit” narrative is similar to the education equals income argument that falls apart when analyzed: Education is a marker for privilege (since privilege leads to advanced education) just as “grit” qualities are markers for privilege.

Systemic Inequity v. Rugged Individualism

In Slaughterhouse Five, Howard W. Campbell (previously the main character in Vonnegut’s Mother Night) is quoted:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves….

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue….The most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame an blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times. (pp. 128, 129)

Snow blind and bugs trapped in amber, the privileged by their privilege and the impoverished by the blinding but misleading promise of the American Dream—the narratives become the product of those who shape them and for their benefit. The evidence, the artifacts, and the data all become irrelevant.

Let me end with Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. John and Mona in Cat’s Cradle discuss Boko-maru (a sacred foot ceremony) and their culturally-bound and conflicting perceptions of love:



“Is—is there anyone else in your life?”

She was puzzled. “Many,” she said at last.

“That you love?”

“I love everyone.”

“As—as much as me?”

“Yes.” She seemed to have no idea that this might bother me….

“I suppose you—you perform—you do what we just did—with other people?”



“Of course.”

“I don’t want you to do it with anybody but me from now on,” I declared.

Tears filled her eyes. She adored her promiscuity; was angered that I should try to make her feel shame. “I make people happy. Love is good, not bad.”

“As your husband, I’ll want all your love for myself.”

She stared at me with widening eyes. “A sin-wat!”

“What was that?”

“A sin-wat!” she cried. “A man who wants all of somebody’s love. That’s very bad.”

(Vonnegut, 1963, pp. 207-208)

John is trapped in the amber of the moment, and his patriarchal and possessive love leaves him snow blind to Mona’s perspective. He either cannot see, or refuses to see.

So I have made a decision—one shared by Zinn, expressed by Eugene V. Debbs, and reflected in the research on poverty (Mullainathan & Shafir, 2013)—that the perspectives of the marginalized must be honored in the context of systemic inequities. This is a position of humility and a recognition that any human arrogance—whether it be scientific or not—is likely to lead to the sort of pettiness captured in Woody Allen’s Sleeper. Both the satire aimed at the foolish dietary beliefs of the past and the incredulity of the scientists in the film’s present (“You mean there was no deep fat…?”) expose that, despite the scientists recognizing the misguided stances of the past, they remain trapped in their own certainty. Both the “grit” narrative and the “grit” research fail that litmus test. They both speak from and to a cultural norm that privileges individual characteristics (rugged individualism) as if they are indistinguishable from the systemic context of privilege—again, a claim refuted by Mullainathan and Shafir, but that narrative doesn’t serve the privileged, and thus, isn’t embraced as the “grit” narrative is.

Many novelties have come from America,” the cited monograph in Slaughterhouse-Five from Howard Campbell notes, adding: “The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves” (Vonnegut, 1991, p. 130). The human intellect is a wonderful thing, and thus we must pursue our efforts to understand the world and the human condition—a thing we call science. But as humans, it is not our right to somehow remove our basic humanity from that process (the folly of objectivity), but to choose carefully just how we shape the narratives from the evidence we gather.

I am then compelled to manipulate Einstein. His “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” I think, is a call for the necessity of human kindness, decency, and compassion in the shaping of our narratives (Randerson, 2008). The “grit” narrative does no such thing. It is a snow blind story that is also deaf to the basic human dignity shared among all people:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. (Debs, 1918)

Kurt Vonnegut’s Children’s Crusade: Kindness

In his Paris Review interview, Haruki Murakami explained:

I liked to read Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan while I was a college student. They had a sense of humor, and at the same time what they were writing about was serious. I like those kind of books. The first time I read Vonnegut and Brautigan I was shocked to find that there were such books! It was like discovering the New World. (Wray, 2004)

Murakami identified something essential in Vonnegut, a tension created by blending humor with serious themes and topics as well as Vonnegut’s ability to shuffle non-fiction and fiction in his novels like a seasoned magician.

In fact, Gregory D. Sumner (2011) catalogues the gradual emergence of Vonnegut as a thinly fictionalized character in his own novels, notably by his most celebrated work, Slaughterhouse-Five: “The opening chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five annihilates the boundary between fiction and autobiography, inviting us into Vonnegut’s uncertainty about just what he has written. It is a dance, rather than an exercise in cold objectivity” (p. 126). From this narrative ambiguity of genre, Vonnegut is often characterized as post-modern. And while there may be some waffling about details or accuracy, Vonnegut is quite certain—uncharacteristic for actual post-modern writers—about some foundational ethics, although even then he makes his most sacred pronouncements in the most challenging ways.

Vonnegut reveled in playing the free-thinker and atheist as he also referenced Jesus—a common routine in his speeches—and his persona in his speeches and non-fiction was certainly as much fabrication as Vonnegut. But the novels and their blend of memoir and fiction create and sustain the most tension. Slaughterhouse-Five presented Vonnegut a nearly insurmountable task of maintaining his joke-based writing pattern against the great human tragedy of World War II. This attempt to write a novel about being a POW during the fire-bombing of Dresden, in fact, becomes the opening chapter of the novel that doesn’t genuinely start until Chapter 2. And in this first chapter, while visiting a fellow veteran of WWII and his friend Bernard V. O’Hare, Vonnegut (1991) is confronted by O’Hare’s wife Mary, who is angry about Vonnegut’s considering writing a novel about his war experience:

“You were just babies then!” [Mary] said.

“What?” I said.

“You were just babies in the war—like the ones upstairs!”

I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood….

So I held up my right hand and I made her a promise:…

“I tell you what,” I said, “I’ll call it ‘The Children’s Crusade.’”

She was my friend after that. (pp. 14-15)

Several years before his Dresden novel garnered him fame, Vonnegut had offered what I think is his central children’s crusade: a paean to kindness, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. The titular character of the novel, Eliot Rosewater, implores:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkle some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” (Vonnegut, 1964, p. 129)

On November 11 of any year, the day of Vonnegut’s birth, while we who love his work raise our eyes to the heavens and hope he is in fact Resting In Peace, we might honor him by heeding those words, crafted in the glorious blasphemy that makes Vonnegut, Vonnegut.

Charter Schools, the Invisible Hand, and Gutless Political Leadership

Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy’s experience introduces readers to Tralfamadorians:

The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three. They had many wonderful things to teach Earthlings, especially about time….

The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever. (Vonnegut, 1991, pp. 26, 27)

One of the most memorable moments of Billy becoming unstuck in time is his watching a war movie backwards. Viewed in reverse, the film becomes a narrative of renewal, of peace, as fighter planes “sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen,” and “[t]he bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes” (Vonnegut, 1991, p. 74).

In the spirit of folding time back onto itself to give us clarity of sight, let’s become unstuck in time while viewing American Indian Charter Schools. Like Billy watching a war film, we start now and move backward.

Jill Tucker (2013) reports that American Indian Charter Schools have had their charter revoked by the Oakland Unified School District:

The American Indian charter schools, which enroll 1,200 students in grades K-12, are among the highest-scoring in the state on standardized tests.

Yet Oakland district officials said they had a duty to the public to close the schools given the inability of the schools’ management to rein in the misuse of taxpayer money….

“In this situation, it is clear that academic performance is not enough to either overlook or excuse the mismanagement of public funds and the unwillingness from the board of directors to respond in ways that would satisfactorily address the legitimate concerns raised by OUSD,” said Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, in a letter to the board in support of the revocation. (n.p.)

Mitchell Landsberg (2009) explains—in a provocatively titled “Spitting in the Eye of Mainstream Education”—about American Indian Charter Schools:

Conservatives, including columnist George Will, adore the American Indian schools, which they see as models of a “new paternalism” that could close the gap between the haves and have-nots in American education. Not surprisingly, many Bay Area liberals have a hard time embracing an educational philosophy that proudly proclaims that it “does not preach or subscribe to the demagoguery of tolerance.”

It would be easy to dismiss American Indian as one of the nuttier offshoots of the fast-growing charter school movement, which allows schools to receive public funding but operate outside of day-to-day district oversight. But the schools command attention for one very simple reason: By standard measures, they are among the very best in California….

“What we’re doing is so easy,” said Ben Chavis, the man who created the school’s success and personifies its ethos, especially in its more outrageous manifestations. (One example: He tends to call all nonwhite students, including African Americans, “darkies.”) Although he retired in 2007, Chavis remains a presence at the school. (n.p.)

Focusing on American Indian Charter Schools among five other “no excuses” schools adopting a new paternalism, David Whitman (2008a) praises the accomplishments and possibilities of these schools:

Yet above all, these schools share a trait that has been largely ignored by education researchers: They are paternalistic institutions. By paternalistic I mean that each of the six schools is a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. These paternalistic schools go beyond just teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance. Unlike the often-forbidding paternalistic institutions of the past, these schools are prescriptive yet warm; teachers and principals, who sometimes serve in loco parentis, are both authoritative and caring figures. Teachers laugh with and cajole students, in addition to frequently directing them to stay on task.

The new breed of paternalistic schools appears to be the single most effective way of closing the achievement gap. No other school model or policy reform in urban secondary schools seems to come close to having such a dramatic impact on the performance of inner-city students. Done right, paternalistic schooling provides a novel way to remake inner-city education in the years ahead….

Done well, paternalistic schooling would constitute a major stride toward reducing the achievement gap and the lingering disgrace of racial inequality in urban America. (n.p.)

Backward or forward, this story is ugly. “No excuses” and the new paternalism themselves are classist and racist—ways in which the middle class and affluent allow “other people’s children” (Delpit, 2006) to be treated, but not their own—yet the larger faith in the Invisible Hand is the ugliest part of the narrative. Idealizing parental choice (Thomas, 2012) narrowly and choice broadly is the foundation upon which both political parties stand. Why is the Invisible Hand of the Free Market so appealing to political leaders?

The answer is simple: Abdicating political leadership to the market absolves our leaders from making any real (or ethical) decisions, absolves them from doing anything except sitting back and watching the cards fall where they may. And thus the charter school movement, with its school-choice light, allows progressives to tap into their closeted libertarian (Thomas, 2013, March 6). Experimenting with impoverished children, African American children, Latino/a children, English Language Learners, and special needs children—this is the acceptable playground for the Invisible Hand.

Political leaders bask in the glory of capitalism because the free market requires no moral conviction, no ethical stands, no genuine decision making based on careful consideration of foundational commitments to democracy and human dignity and agency. Capitalism allows Nero to sit and fiddle while Rome burns. If the fire needs putting out, and someone can monetize that, the market will take care of it, right?

Political leadership has ignored and marginalized children in poverty for decades, notably in the schools we provide in high-poverty, majority-minority communities. The school-choice light commitment to charter schools is a coward’s way out of facing that reality and doing something about it.

So it goes.


About Paul Thomas

Paul Thomas is a recipient of NCTE’s George Orwell Award and author of Beware The Roadbuilders: Literature As Resistance. He engages the public in the most profound and controversial topics of our day, exposing the terrifying truths of the times in which we live. His work can be followed at The Becoming Radical (blog) and @plthomasEdD on twitter.

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