Realism and Social Change

In corresponding with Cassiodorus about my book, the question of social change took center stage.

When you argue for social change you inevitably come up against the claims of “realism” — we can’t change this or that because to do so would be “unrealistic.” This is the argument typically favored by the incrementalists: “since we can’t change society as a whole,” they say, “let’s change little things, like the means we use to assess the quality of our public schools or the students entering college.”

My first response is this: the society is changing, and to deny that it is changing, and always changes, is unrealistic! Standardized tests are one tool being used to institutionalize and justify various changes — to curriculum, governance, and to the working conditions of teachers. The political and economic arrangements that were the conditions for the emergence of public education in the United States have been dramatically altered, and so, there is pressure on these institutions to “change” — this pressure is not simply coming from the Manhattan Institute and the Fordham Foundation … it is coming from history itself. Public schools have not been able to “equalize the conditions of man.” But to continue to apply standards of that past era, conditions that gave rise to standardized tests and their flawed assumptions, is unrealistic, and requires everyone to think creatively about alternatives. Incremental change can lead to qualitative change if the incremental change hits at what is key. So, the realism argument misses all this.

More generally, I think the realism argument needs to be to interrogated. What is established as possible (“realistic”) is itself a power play; the statement has multiple meanings. Asking for permission — “is it possible to take the day off”– is different from making an analysis of what the conditions as they exist right now make possible. For example, it is possible to eliminate hunger, in that enough food for all humans can be produced right now. Why this does not occur is mainly a political question. I say: Why limit discussion of alternatives with such talk of “realism”? Why be forced to choose between incremental and fundamental change? Why assume they are necessarily in contradiction with one another? It is only the incremental in place of or against the fundamental that I object to. So, again, I would not advocate right this minute eliminating standardized tests altogether, but I would advocate, as an incremental step, eliminating the use of tests for high stakes purposes. I oppose current merit pay schemes; I don’t oppose discussions about accountability; I do oppose discussions about accountability absent discussions about rights, for responsibilities and rights go hand in hand. I would also advocate that educators think broadly and openly debate standards for education — what kind of society do we want and what kind of education will support that aim? Without that orientation, discussions of the “incremental” will become stale, facile and uninspired. So, the big picture discussion is key to identifying what steps should be taken right now.

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