Smile Politely

Obama’s Smoke and Mirrors Closet

In the weeks leading up to Obama’s inauguration, it has been easy to get sucked into the hype and hero worship, considering the historical significance of the event, Obama’s promises of change and our deep emotional need for someone and something to believe in. Because of this, it is increasingly difficult to separate our cherished image of Obama as liberator-in-chief from his actual politics. 

Yet there are those who have been able to look beyond the media images and rhetorical smoke screens and point out how Obama sometimes demonstrates a less-than-idealistic approach to politics, in spite of his proclamations of progressive reform. Certainly several years back, before perhaps Obama even envisioned his historical run for president, Ken Silverstein, in his Harper’s article entitiled “Barack Obama, Inc., the birth of a Washington machine,” suggested that the president-elect’s career of horse-trading and compromises may ultimately render him nothing more than an iconic poster-boy for watered-down reform.

Even for me, this Obama-bashing is difficult to swallow. In November, tears welled up in my eyes as I, along with my bi-racial son, watched Obama and his family walk onto the Grant Park stage on TV. And I watch as my friends and family, young and old, are inspired by Obama’s promises and have become, sometimes for the first time in their lives, emotionally engaged in the political process and democracy itself.

I say to myself, “It’s all good,” and yet, when I heard that Obama appointed one of his basketball buddies, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arnie Duncan, a person who has never taught school in his life or even taken a single education course, as his new education secretary, a warning sound went off somewhere in the depths of my consciousness. Perhaps this is because I know that sometimes in the desire to please everyone, we please nobody at all, and all that change we are supposed to believe in may, in the end, simply dissipate into thin air.

And there is no area that needs change more than education these days. Well-intentioned but misguided social reformers have spent the last ten years under the No Child Left Behind Act, systematically dismantling student-centered learning. It has been replaced with clunky, corporate data-driven models that promote the narrowing of curriculum (less history, science, art, PE and more math and reading), test-prep teaching strategies, top-down decision-making (that at times renders school boards, teachers, parents and students mere pawns in numbers games), and business take-over of “failing” schools, among other tactics. And although these tactics are rationalized by the desire to level the playing field for minorities and the under-served, some studies seem to suggest that often they do just the opposite. And yes, along with NYC public school overlord Joel Klein, Arnie Duncan ranks a top-dog in perpetrating this agenda, in spite of his reputation as a thoughtful reformer and compromiser.

Just the fact that both NYC and Chicago schools are run by mayor-appointed CEOs, and not democratically-elected superintendants or school boards, should give folks reason to pause. And that the data these CEO’s are so smitten with under the banner of accountability actually doesn’t show much, or any, significant progress as a result of their “reforms.” But add to this the fact that there is no family that says “Chicago machine politics” more than the Daley family, and yet Mr. Duncan, and Mr. Obama for that matter, have directly benefited from their associations, however benign they might be, with the Daley empire. With all the surreal and disturbing political events coming out of Chicago these days, it is even more important that, in our profound relief and joy at the new turn of events in Washington D.C, we also remain vigilant.

Certainly, if you go beyond the superficial media coverage of Mr. Duncan’s Chicago career, problems begin to arise. Ask University of Illinois’ own Pauline Lipman, whose book High Stakes Education lays out the way Daley and Duncan have created one of the most inequitable school systems in the country, limiting many low-income African-Americans to substandard schools while creating magnet and charter schools that the more affluent or well-connected attend. And the teacher’s unions, who seem to be inconsistent in their support of Duncan and his definition of schools within a market-based pedagogy, are playing the same political machine games, making a true picture of his legacy even more difficult to obtain.

What is now more and more acknowledged, however, is that the problems of education are deeply embedded in the problems of our society as a whole, and there is no easy corporate “fix,” and that the “fixes” themselves may actually do more harm than good. It is worth asking ourselves if we have perhaps experienced similar problems created by such heavy-handed educational “fixes” right here in our own back-yardshere in Champaign and Urbana (although certainly the perpetrators will claim otherwise). Then we begin to get an idea of how difficult the task of improving education will be for Obama under Duncan’s tenure.

In the end, I understand how deep our need is for something, anything, to believe in, and why we aren’t questioning Obama more. He has so many acute and complex challenges ahead of him. We forgive him for not sending his children to public schools. We embrace his non-partisanship, his desire to seek out reconciliators and compromisers for his administration. We are even tempted to overlook his desire not to alienate Republicans by allowing corporate interests to drive education policy.

But perhaps it is because we have invested so much in Obama that we need more than just compromiserswe need profound thinkers, people who have been there and understand the complications and issues. These are the people who should make decisions critical to the future of our country. Without this kind of insight, our country’s new policies may end up nothing more than TV commercials, messages without substance, the status quo posing as “change.”




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