Let's take it down a notch


Jeff Camp

I recently sent a brusque email reply to a colleague. Yes, of course that was a dumb thing to do. But then again, she had it coming, right? How dare she!

Indignation is a powerful emotion. It brings out our inner knuckle-dragging primate, primed for a fight.

At school we learn math, reading and all that “academic” stuff. But just as importantly, school is where we learn not to drag our knuckles in public. Through experience, we discover it is absurd to let fouls throw us off our game. We learn the merits of politeness. We conclude that when some moron cuts in line, it is usually best to grit our teeth, breathe, and let it go. Rudeness and rejection and criticism and morons are all part of this bittersweet life, right?

At its best, middle school is when we learn how to keep our cool because, well, the alternatives don’t tend to work out so well.

The rough laboratory of middle school also introduces some lessons of mixed value, however. When you go ape in defense of your own dignity, you risk looking thin-skinned. But indignation on someone else’s behalf? That can be a little different. One lesson you might take from middle school is the social value of sticking up for someone else. Hey, you might just be seen as the leader of the tribe. Or at least you might feel like it for a while.

Indignation can flourish like a bad case of acne when we allow it to attach to a matter of general principle or something that can be seen as sacred. Then it seems all grown up. If you gild your rage with principle, you can wear it proudly as “moral indignation.” It kind of makes you wonder about the effects of such principled anger and indignation in debates about the future of schools, doesn’t it?

Moral indignation is a deeply dangerous idea. At its worst, it provides cover for horrific impulses rooted in hatred, rage, and jealousy. Righteous rage provides the emotional power behind fatwas, lynch mobs, riots and genocides.

More mundanely, righteous indignation stokes the fires of partisan audiences. Tune in to Fox News or “The Daily Show” to see it at work. Politicians and pundits cultivate indignation because it is powerful and quick. It can motivate people to urgent action. It can also help define a group (“Who’s with me?”). As social animals, we feel drawn to defend our tribe, whatever that might mean.

Change is coming to education. Yesterday, the first smartphones and tablet computers made our collective jaws drop. This morning, we were unsure what to do when they showed up in schools. We have some ideas about what we might do with them tomorrow, but it is still unclear how they will change the way students and parents and teachers work with one another next week. If history is any guide, the changes will be big, and they will come upon us before we are ready.

Ten years ago, we could feel certain that the public was deeply and broadly committed to strong funding for public schools, and we all pretty much shared an idea of what that looked like: a school organized into grades, classrooms of a consistent size, teachers at the front of every room. Desks. Paper. Books. A bell schedule. A single salary schedule. A decade into the future, wouldn’t it be shocking if the public remained deeply and uniformly committed to schools like that?

A positive, shared vision for change could inspire renewed enthusiasm for investment in public schools. In this fast-changing context, however, there will be many points of view and many opportunities for indignant disagreement. Social media and talk radio have elevated the cheap shot to an art form, and education partisans are learning the art. On present course and speed, prolonged bickering that undermines public confidence seems more likely than a shared vision that inspires investment.

Our children deserve better. Education leaders should consider whether their opponents are really opponents, or whether they just tend to see the future from a different perspective.

A version of this commentary first appeared in Education Week.


Jeff Camp is the primary author of Ed100.org, a primer on education reform options in California. He co-chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund, an organization that coordinates small teams of volunteers working in support of great nonprofit organizations that need a little help to get to the next level, whatever that may be. A visual summary of Ed100 can be found at http://bit.ly/edprezi .

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10 Responses to “Let's take it down a notch”

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  1. CarolineSF on Sep 16, 2013 at 7:21 am09/16/2013 7:21 am

    • 000

    It’s interesting to watch the commentary flying before the book comes out. The normal response to a book is to read it and critique the actual content of the book. In this case, it appears that there’s an orchestrated effort to pre-emptively attack the author. I don’t recall ever seeing such a campaign before, on any subject.


    • Jeff Camp on Sep 16, 2013 at 8:17 am09/16/2013 8:17 am

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      Caroline: Just so you know, I’m not responding on anyone’s behalf. I haven’t been orchestrated.
      I’ll probably read the book when it comes out; Ms. Ravich has been deeply involved in education for a long time, and has passionately held several points of view during that time. I want to hear what she has to say. I just wish that she didn’t lace her messages – including her lengthy preview in Salon – with such hatred and suspicion. It sets a tone that seems to me unhelpful. Manuel: I’m responding to the broad sweep of Ms. Ravich’s accusation, not asserting that that bad stuff never happens. Does make sense to use a broad brush in ascribing evil intent? Bad outcomes don’t require it. Binary approaches — them versus us, good versus evil, kids vs. unions, teachers vs. reformers — seem unnecessarily cartoonish.

  2. Jeff Camp on Sep 15, 2013 at 2:38 pm09/15/2013 2:38 pm

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    Diane Ravitch recently released “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” Her summary in Salon.com makes a fine study in the destructive rhetorical use of indignation to whip up an audience. http://www.salon.com/2013/09/15/diane_ravitch_school_privatization_is_a_hoax_reformers_aim_to_destroy_public_schools/#comments
    Her screed saddens me. I agree with her that there has been too little acknowledgement of the steady, slow process of improvement in education. But the attitude of hatred behind her words is, at minimum, unhelpful. Her assertion that education reformers are part of a secretive “privatization” cabal seems particularly bizarre. Is it really necessary to invent nefarious profit-minded bogeymen to make an argument about the value of giving schools and teachers more latitude? If you think that a reform strategy is wrong, does it follow that the people arguing for the strategy are evil?


    • Manuel on Sep 15, 2013 at 10:49 pm09/15/2013 10:49 pm

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      Invent nefarious profit-minded bogeymen?

      I don’t believe that anybody has invented profit-minded bogeymen. They are as real as the guy who took over an LAUSD school, split it into 4 “small campuses,” claimed success for manipulating the schools’ scores, left under a cloud after getting paid $200,000/year for several years, and now the scores at this school are marginally better when LAUSD ran the school and, to top it off, an article appears in the local major newspaper that the model campus has toilets that would put a prison’s to shame. This is reform? The guy is still around and is now being lionized for his new educational enterprise. This guy is real and is worse than the bogeyman because he exists. And that’s just one of many in one city!

      The problem is that educational reform has been taken over by people who see it as their meal ticket and/or a way to become famous plus they are being funded by people with too much money and outsize egos. This did not happen before. Why is it happening now?

      “Mr. Dillinger, why do you rob banks? — Because that’s where the money is.”

      • Manuel on Sep 15, 2013 at 11:11 pm09/15/2013 11:11 pm

        • 000

        Forgot to add: all four “small schools” lost their WASC accreditation and had to be “folded” into another one. So much for great success.

        BTW, the Chief Executive Officer of the CMO was making more than $240k/year in 2011. Not bad for someone running a “system” with about 10,000 kids.

    • navigio on Sep 16, 2013 at 10:08 am09/16/2013 10:08 am

      • 000

      Ok, time for a fair, unbiased account… 😉

      Hi Jeff. I have to admit, over the past year or so, I have noticed a different slant to Diane’s writings. This could mostly be described as more politicized and anger-driven. Her recent statement about a special place in hell being reserved for one ‘reformer’ in particular, was a good example (however, it is worth mentioning that she later apologized for that and admitted it was wrong).

      That said…

      The article you linked to does not have this same level of invective, if any at all. There are a couple points where she resorts to overly broad statements that I would have worded differently, but I dont see too much destructive rhetorical, let alone much surface-level indignation (unlike many of her recent blog posts and articles), perhaps with the exception of the use of ‘corporate’ in ‘corporate refomer’. This made me recheck the byline and sure enough, this is an excerpt from her book. The excerpt sounds like an overview of the ‘history of reform’, so I expect the book contains much more context when these points are later addressed. It also makes sense that she would make an attempt to be less polarizing in a book as it is a more thoughtful process and one one can dedicate more time to.

      Regardless, many of the points she brings up are extremely relevant for our current education policy process, since in many places it is being driven directly by people she would classify as reformers. I especially appreciate her points about ‘personalized instruction’ and the societal impacts of ‘choice’ (as if parents would really ‘choose’ anything but quality neighborhood schools).

  3. Fred Jones on Feb 1, 2013 at 12:44 pm02/1/2013 12:44 pm

    • 000

    Perhaps another word for the author’s insights on moral indignation is simply BULLYING.

    When we vehemently disagree with another’s position — and believe we are protecting some helpless group or individual — we feel morally free to stamp-out that person’s perspective altogether. But what gives us the right? And by so doing, are we no better than the middle school bullies who are keen to elevate themselves by diminishing others?

    I say the more debate the better … it is in how we debate those who disagree with us that is the test of adulthood … and, frankly, civil society.

    Let’s drop the bullying tactics and engage differing opinions with civility, facts, reason and honesty.

  4. navigio on Feb 1, 2013 at 7:59 am02/1/2013 7:59 am

    • 000

    Apparently, everything has a purpose. I’ve been thinking a lot about indignation lately.

    Your last sentence is interesting, because it seems, ironically, the people least likely to be indignant are those politicians and their opponents (taking differing views of the future is part and parcel of that, imho). I think for a large part the indignation they show is manufactured for effect. I say ironically because this may actually be one of the problems with politics, imho.

    A politician understands that at some level, everything is a game. They try to create a perception (good about themselves, bad about others) that can, to a large extent, be independent of truth. We generally dont like this because it presents the impression that the political game takes precedent over the ‘real’ issue. We are still sensitive to this distinction because one of the best ways to counter a politician’s stance is still to highlight their concessions as an example of not taking the issue seriously (that requires people to pay attention though, so it does not always work). I will add as an aside that I think we tend to accept these concessions at the political decision making level, but not in others, such as the union concept. I think thats a bit inconsistent on our part, but I’ll leave it at that.

    Obviously this dynamic exists in all aspects of life, and public policy, but I think nowhere does it seem to be as sharp as in the educational realm. Though its probably obvious, I think there are clear reasons why that is. Primarily it is because we are dealing with children, and given that indignation arises out of a sense of unfairness, our nature to defend and protect the young comes into play here. One other reason is that the people who are involved in some way in public education (admins, teachers, politicians) probably see more varied examples of human beings that almost any other profession (to be sure, nearly every child, and nearly every parent who has had a child, and then some). Its a rough enviornment and this tends to turn off some of our safety valves, as well as generate extreme frustration in some people.

    I mentioned I have been thinking a lot about indignation lately. As I also mentioned, it is defined as something that is evoked by the perception of unfairness. So do we have the right to be indignant, or more apropos to the article, is indignation a productive reaction to the issues in public education. For me, there is nothing in the world which raises anger more than seeing a child disserved. I even think indignation is an accurate description of the feeling that arises. But is that useful? The truth is, we do not have infinite resources, and we dont have a perfect world. Should we focus on simply doing what we have the ability to do and realize that we will fail some children as a result of those realities?

    If we want to be analytical about the issue, I guess the answer would be whether indignation will bring us more success than ‘aquiescence’ or ‘concessions’ (not quite the right word, but you know what I mean), and this is where things get interesting. I do agree we could raise these issues from a position of politeness, but I also think this includes the danger that we or the issue are/is not taken seriously. I dont believe I am alone in feeling indignation about the disservice of kids and in fact, I have found it one of the few things to which otherwise ambivalent community members actually respond. In that sense, there is clearly a value to it, however, there is also clearly a point at which indignation can poison an environment, something which actually can work against kids.

    It almost feels like there is a cultural safety valve in managing these two sides of the equation, but I’m not sure we’ve done a good idea of defining it. I lived in Europe for a while and I have to say the differences in this regard are stark. Not only do their levels of indignation take on a different relationship to personal value, but they also have a much more, what I call fatalistic view of reality (tends to impact the concept of fairness). I think we were more likely to have this view a few generations ago, but it seems less so now. Perhaps we can even call this ‘the rise of indignation’. :-)

    Anyway, I do agree with the author that our goal should be to continually evaluate what is most effective, and act from that perspective more so than a reactionarily emotional one. But my inititial reaction is that indignation can be a useful thing when it comes to the defense of the otherwise undefended. That said, I will continually look to find new ways to achieve that because another thing I agree with is that anger does not feel good.

    Thanks for making me think about this. Do something positive for a kid today! :-)

  5. Paul Muench on Feb 1, 2013 at 5:44 am02/1/2013 5:44 am

    • 000

    Yeah, could be helpful to listen to and understand people that want something different than what we want.

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