Category Archives: politics

De-centering “whiteness”: Why Critical Theory matters, and where it falls short.


I’ve been pondering this idea for some time. I have come to a few conclusions. I’m not sure how they’ll be received, but as a thinker, amateur philosopher, and educator, I find I am compelled to at least put my observations out to anyone who may read this post.

Introduction for 2020

2020 was marked by the unanticipated, the unexpected, and the unprecedented. The words have been so overused that they have lost much of their meaning and all of their power. Still, no one could have predicted back in January just how the next months would unfold. First a pandemic, followed by controversial responses to mitigating the illness, and then a series of abuses of power by individual law enforcement officers that led to months of civil disturbances ranging from protests to riots, ironically none of which seemed to be concerned about controlling the still raging pandemic. Natural disasters from an early hurricane season in the Southeast and early wildfire season in the West led to mass evacuations an devastating loss. The economy, which had been the best in years, tanked; between government quarantines to control the viral spread, businesses damaged and destroyed by riot-induced looting, and nature’s wrath, there wasn’t really any way to maintain a robust economy. Workers were first furloughed before being let go, the result of not enough work to do. White collar jobs moved out of offices into homes, and schools went remote, requiring quick thinking by creative teachers and a paradigm shift about the role of technology in the classroom.

People around the world felt the uncertainty of a pandemic in the Internet Age. Opinions of fault for the spread of the virus began with its source in Wuhan, China, but quickly spread to national and world leaders, criticized for their responses, no matter how they responded. Some were quick to shut down their countries, mandate mask wearing, and force people into isolation. Other countries chose a measured approach, choosing to leave things open and let a herd immunity help slow the disease. Neither extreme approach made a major difference: COVID19 affected the weak and elderly first and hardest, but no particular group was unaffected, and the long term effects are still unknown.

In the middle of the chaos, a social movement gained traction and Critical Theory entered the general lexicon. It is not a new philosophy, but it has become central to a number of groups in the US, particularly in academia, in some protests movements, and even in some churches.

Critical theory is generally known as a Western European tradition that strives to merge philosophy and activism to provide liberation from slavery leading to a world where everyone is satisfied (Horkheimer, 1972). Critical theory (CT) is distinguished by its emphasis on a practical and moral response to inquiry that transforms culture by “decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Early Critical theorists focused on humans as agents of societal change with a capitalism in a “real democracy” as an entrance to a system where life operates by consensus (SEP). Social inquiry led to rational and practical knowledge that people could use to create the cultures in which they wanted to live. Human reason was a path to liberation.

Problems with this view began to emerge almost immediately. Horkheimer argued against the Marxian concept that solidarity of impoverished workers would overcome capitalism because most of the time capitalism helped people build better lives. He added that freedom and justice were dialectical in nature: “The more freedom, the less justice and the more justice, the less freedom” ( He said that we who live in a society cannot determine what a good society looks like, but that people can bring up the negative things that need to be changed. The problem with this view is simple: every individual can find negative things that need to be changed, but criticism alone does little but create misdirected dissatisfaction, which increases human misery rather than relieves it.

2020 was a year of many things, and the re-emergence of CT, particularly of Critical Race Theory (CRT) is among them. In the midst of a pandemic and natural disasters, CRT has migrated from academia to the vernacular, and the result has been less of liberation and more of strident division, even among friends. But CRT cannot define racists or racism. What it can do is make people aware of the lenses through which they view the world and give them an opportunity to learn through a different lens.

Continuing in 2021– coming soon

The dangers of either/or


This year’s conference theme—Widening the Angles of Literacy Research: Honoring Untold Stories Using
Contrapuntal Approaches— LRA 2021


adjective MUSIC

  1. of or in counterpoint.
    • (of a piece of music) with two or more independent melodic lines.

When I read the theme for the 2021 Literacy Research Association conference, I was a bit confused. Contrapuntal? My limited understanding of Latin roots gave me a clue: contra: against, punctum: point in time or space. I turned to my friend, Google, for clarification and found that contrapuntal is a musical term related to counterpoint. Being both a musician and a word nerd, I dug a little deeper and learned that contrapuntal is an adjective that denotes the existence of a counterpoint, while counterpoint is the investigation of how two independent melodic lines may work in harmony. Counterpoint itself dates back to the Middle Ages (Jackson, 2020), where two or more sung/chanted groupings created a unique sound.

Without going too deep down the musical rabbit hole, counterpoint evolved and changed through the centuries, becoming mostly associated with two independent melodies that, when sung or played together, made a pleasing sound. If you listen to the Bach Brandenburg Concerto Number Three, you can clearly hear distinct musical lines in an interplay of stringed instruments. Each instrument is distinct and each melody identifiable, but the magic of the piece is in the putting it all together in a joyful blend that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Voices of Music

I read an interesting piece in Medium recently that gave me a V8 moment (for those readers who missed the joys of ads in the 70s, click here for some pop culture history.) It was a story of a family who stymied a customs official by claiming to be full Asian, full Hispanic, and full Caucasian. The father in the story explained, saying, “As a family, we believe that ethnicity is much more than some digit that can be chiseled away into percentages. We cherish all the distinct bloodlines we descend from and see ourselves as fully included in all of them. You see, we are multiracial and not mixed-raced”(Agarwal, 2020, December 10.)

Multiracial, not mixed.

So what does musical counterpoint have to do with a story of a multiethnic family and the danger of either/or?

One of the lessons of the Great Pandemic of 2020 included increased attention to the issues of race, injustice, and “othering.” The issues weren’t new, but maybe because we had time to pay attention to the world around us, we had to face, head-on, the ramifications of some people more equal than others. Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breanna Taylor became familiar names across the US because of the ways each died–at the hands of white official and unofficial law enforcers. There were dozens of other names to be remembered, but these three stood out as representative of three distinct problems within law enforcement: police brutality, police ineptitude, and non-police vigilantes. There are plenty of essays and articles about the specific cases, so my focus is not necessarily on these three, but rather what they illustrate: humans who focus on skin color, culture, and/or ethnicity can be dangerous. A philosophy that puts appearance above character stands in opposition to what most Americans believe. Most Americans (Black, Hispanic, Asian, and white) cling to Dr. King’s dream for a time when people would be judged, not for the color of their skin, but by the content of their character (King, 1963, August 28.) When the riots of June 2020 began, white Americans were largely horrified and surprised, but Americans of other ethnicities often echoed the sentiments of those participating: You who are in authority cannot continue to violate the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness guaranteed to ALL Americans without consequence. And because it was impossible to turn a blind eye to the protests and the riots because we were all in pandemic lockdown, people of all ethnic backgrounds had to listen for a change.

The problem of racism begins with the dehumanizing effect of the other. It is not limited to people of European descent, although that is how it is most often discussed in the political and social US. The idea of the other goes back to Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) when Cain, in a fit of anger, murdered his brother, Abel. When confronted, Cain said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” By that, Cain meant that Abel was not his responsibility; they were different and their relationship was a matter of “him” and “me.” Othering began at that moment and has been a global phenomenon ever since.

Othering is at the heart of the either/or movement. Either Black or white. Either digital or analog. Either science or art or religion. When people fall victim to a false binary (either this or that), they typically seek to protect “their” culture, “their” belief systems, and “their” ways of knowing. By turning inward toward those who look and think as they do, people begin to view the other as an enemy.

Either/or is not limited to melanin sufficiency or deficiency. Either/or can be any aspect of humanity that seeks to keep itself apart from other human groups: the spread of the Persian/Greek/Roman Empires, the Viking conquests of northern Europe, the battles between Israelis and Palestinians, African tribalism, and the European colonization of most of the world are all examples of how othering destroys both cultures and individuals.

There is a solution to the notion (and the nonsense) of either/or: both/and.

There is power in both/and. Both/and is truly inclusive. It means that every voice is permitted, heard, and respected. In a both/and world communication includes listening carefully to information AND experiences. It considers situations and issues from multiple sides, like turning over the facets of a diamond to see the beauty from all angles AND to remove the inclusions of misinformation so that everyone has a clear view. Both/and looks for truth, truth that conforms to fact and actuality, not subject to whims of opinion.

Both/and is what allows the contrapuntal lines of music to create harmony. When a musician makes a mistake, the harmony is disrupted. It is in the both/and working according to the music in accuracy to the design of the piece that brings joy to both the musician and the audience. Every genre of music has its own rules and forms, even the most improvisational form of jazz. The sounds of different genres may not make sense to every hearer, but once the rules and reasons are understood, everyone can appreciate the contribution of each to the music of the world. Individuals are richer for learning the differences in scales and tonalities in global music.

In the same way, individuals are richer for exploring and examining all sides of any given idea or thought or experience. Including multiple points of view, without exclusion, is the best way to find harmony and truth. No one group or person has all the information about anything in this world. Perspectives inform interpretations of facts and events, but perspectives are not necessarily accurate to reality across the board. It is in multiple perspectives that people can gain understanding that leads to harmony.

Embracing both/and is exactly what the family in the opening story meant when they claimed to be multi-ethnic and not mixed-race. The limits of either/or are destroyed when we all embrace both/and.

Agarwal, S. (2020, December 10). There are no ‘mixed race’ people: Why it’s troublesome to believe otherwise. An Injustice Magazine.

Jackson, R. John (2020, January 5). Counterpoint. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Sharing a great column


This is a great column by Stephanie Jones in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Professor: Doubling down on ‘diagnostics’ and  ‘aggressive remediation’ just benefits testing industry

Having more robust, creative, and rich in-school educational experiences should have been a priority before the widespread shut-down of schools, but it will be even more important to prioritize when schooling resumes some semblance of normalcy.  To do so will mean that focusing on tools that attempt to quantify student learning – such as high-stakes tests – will have to be put on the backburner, or eliminated entirely (which would, in the process, help with budgeting issues too since tests are expensive).

Jones, S (May 1, 2020)

Teacher have argued against high stakes testing for years. Research is clear that these test accurately measure only how well a student takes a test, not whether they are learning content. The tests absolutely can’t determine imagination, creativity, or problem solving. Decades of high stakes standardized tests have led to narrowing the curriculum, decreased student motivation, and no evidence of improved student learning. Adding in the implications of implicit bias makes the tests even more meaningless. The anxiety and stress for both students and teachers caused by heavy reliance on test scores for determining “success” is also well documented.

If the USA is committed to superior education, then the powers that be must give teachers the power and the tools to do the work. Money spent on empty promise by publishers would do FAR more good for students if it were to be devoted to smaller class sizes, teacher support, and basic student needs (e.g. breakfast and lunch, school supplies). Post-pandemic reconstruction of education could potentially include a paradigm shift from publisher-driven curriculum to student-driven learning.

Politics and Education in Cobb County


Today was the Taste of East Cobb, a foodies paradise organized by the Walton High School Band. Usually, it features food from dozens of restaurants, a few crafters, direct sales, and local companies. And chiropractors. I’m not sure why, but there are always at least a half dozen chiropractors there.


This year is the mid-year elections along with the election of a new governor. At least seven candidates for various state offices bought booth space. Both the Republican and Democrat parties also bought places, with various candidates rotating through. It was a good opportunity to listen to people and their platforms face to face rather than through slick mailers, yard signs, and commercials. I talked to people in every booth, trying to learn which candidates were actually interested in a conversation about education and giving teachers a voice in their classrooms.

Full disclosure. I am a Libertarian with a pretty consistently conservative voting record. I believe the Constitution grants States an amount of sovereignty that allows the local population to choose how it is governed. I do not believe it wise to water down the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. I think business owners should be granted the freedom to run their businesses according to their personal convictions, especially if their services are not unique or do not affect life or health. This means if a baker turns away business for religious reasons, that’s fine; there are plenty of other bakers who will provide that service and pocket the profit. Police officers, on the other hand, are required by law and ethics to provide the exact same protection to every citizen, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or social status. No exceptions, no excuses.

Having said that, I want to share my experience with the politicians who attended Taste of East Cobb. I assume they were there to share their platforms, engage their potential constituents, and put faces to the mailers, yard signs, and commercials. To be honest, I was mostly disappointed in the responses when I asked where they stood on education. For the most part, Democrats said “no guns in schools” and Republicans said, “Common Core needs to be replaced.”  Ugh.

To be completely honest, the guns in schools rhetoric is ridiculous. First of all, the number of instances of gun crime in schools during school days is minuscule. Yes, any crime that takes the life of school children and staff is unacceptable. No question. But arming teachers is a silly idea. Most people recognize that the problems that lead to violence of any kind cannot be addressed by arming teachers or by infringing on the Second Amendment. It’s a talking point. It’s emotional. It’s hot air, and nothing more. Tell me something else. Talk to me about teacher voice, assessment, preparing students for life beyond school. Crickets.

Common Core? First of all, I’ve actually read the standards, whereas most politicians have not. The standards are not the problem. They are broad and reasonably generic. Additionally, CCSS (Common Core State Standards) are being replaced. So there’s that. Talk to me about empowering teachers to be creative in their pedagogy or about upholding the value of public schools. Again, mostly crickets. Chirp. Chirp.

I had one nominally encouraging conversation with a volunteer in the Republican booth who was horrified when I told her I have written to the gubernatorial candidates about education and have received nothing in return–from any of them in any party. She took my name and email and said she would talk to the candidate she supports personally. They also invited me to a luncheon next month where I might be able to address candidates myself.

The highlight, however, was a delightful dialogue with Karín Sandiford, a moderate Democrat running fKarin-Sandiford20180505.jpgor House District 46. I’m not even in her district, but she was genuinely interested in what I had to say as an expert in teaching. She asked questions, followed up with enthusiasm, and asked for more information. She has four children in public schools and has seen first hand how testing affected her children. Her background is in computers, so when I talked about the quantification of education she knew exactly what I meant. When I shared with her the frustrations of teachers, professionals who are often not permitted to teach according to their strengths or their students’ needs, she was taken aback. In her own family, she has a child who overthinks the multiple choice tests (like I do) and she recognizes there is a need for multiple avenues of assessment, both qualitative and quantitative.

Karín is open to dialogue and compromise because she understands that is it through relationship building and collaboration that solutions to problems are built.  She is the kind of candidate for whom I could vote and with whom I could work. Would we agree on everything? Absolutely not. As I said before, I am more conservative than not. I prefer a small, local government, low taxes, and individual freedom to practice business according to one’s convictions. However, from what I could see today, of all the candidates and their representatives I saw today, Karín is someone I could support as a representative who understands the importance of listening,  the value of genuine concern, and the need for people to work together.

We need more like her on both sides of the aisle.