Charles Blow has offered a recent video of a disturbing account of bullying on a bus captured on video and posted to YouTube: "The video shows Karen Klein, a 68-year-old grandmother and bus monitor in upstate New York, being relentlessly tormented by a group of young boys."
"But what, if anything, does this say about society at large?" asks Blow, adding:
"Many things one could argue, but, for me, it is a remarkably apt metaphor for this moment in the American discourse in which hostility has been drawn out into the sunlight.
"Those boys are us, or at least too many of us: America at its ugliest. It is that part of society that sees the weak and vulnerable as worthy of derision and animus.
"This kind of behavior is not isolated to children and school buses and suburban communities. It stretches to the upper reaches of society — our politics and our pulpits and our public squares....
"This has led to some increasingly unseemly attacks at traditionally marginalized groups, even as — and possibly particularly because — they grow more powerful.
"Women are under attack. Hispanics are under attack. Minority voting rights are under attack. The poor are under attack. Unsurprisingly, those doing the attacking in every case are from the right.
"Seldom is power freely passed and painlessly surrendered, particularly when the traditionally powerful see the realignment as an existential threat.
"The bullying on that bus was awful, but so is the bullying in our politics."
Like Blow, I find this incident, particularly since it involves venomous behavior by young people, illustrative of the profound flaw in America: Our commitment to and celebration of foundational myths that are corrosive and not worthy of our commitments or our celebrations.
Privilege and Poverty: Misunderstanding "Merit"
Enduring myths pervade what it means to be "American": meritocracy, rugged individualism, and the Puritan work ethic. Since we commit to and celebrate these ideals uncritically, we often fail to examine how all of these foundational principles are at the root of the bullying examined by Blow.
From pop culture—consider Red Forman as the hard-assed father on That 70s Show—to current "no excuses" ideologies driving education reform, there is an American character that is unyielding, harsh, and prone to, as Alfie Kohn explains, confuse harder with better:
"Underlying the kind of pedagogy and assessment associated with the tougher-standards movement is an assumption that has rarely been identified and analyzed–namely, that the main thing wrong with the schools today is that kids get off too easy. Texts and tests and teaching have been 'dumbed down,' it is alleged. At the heart of metaphors like raising standards (or the bar) is the premise that harder is better."
Despite the discourse coming from "no excuses" reformers such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, public schools historically and currently work to perpetuate social norms, not confront or change them.
Thus, education serves to normalize enduring social myths such as meritocracy, rugged individualism, and the Puritan work ethic—without ever challenging or examining these ideals. Ironically, the ways in which school perpetuates and rewards these corrosive ideals contribute to the rising antagonism expressed for teachers—an antagonism that in many ways is not unlike the bus incident, with teachers receiving the brunt of the bullying.
First, we must confront the reality that seeking a meritocracy is a different goal than claiming we currently have a meritocracy. As Blow's commentary exposes, Americans demonize people living in poverty, not poverty. And in part that dynamic arises from the often unspoken faith Americans have that people in privilege deserve that privilege (rugged individualism and/or the Puritan work ethic) and the other more ugly belief that people living in poverty deserve their poverty (and even somehow create that poverty for their benefit).
Belief that America is a meritocracy that rewards fairly effort regardless of any person's status benefits those in privilege and masks that most privilege is at the expense of others through no merit of the privileged or fault of those who are disadvantaged.
George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy, just as two well-known examples, lived lives that allowed them to overcome tremendous errors—life decisions and actions that would have derailed the lives of people not in their circumstances of privilege. Celebrities live the same sort of charmed lives, and because of their status, the consequences of their behavior are much reduced compared to people living in modest or impoverished circumstances.
Perpetuating the myth of meritocracy and confusing harder with better are dynamics that benefit the privileged, and thus, are principles embedded in society and education by the privileged in order to maintain their status.
At the intuitive level, at least, most people sense the inequity in both society and education, but the social norms threaten to marginalize any who would speak against these cultural myths. Again, ironically, many people in society embody the bullying nature out of frustration over the exact dynamics that create the bully.
Education is a disturbing window into that self-defeating cycle. In other words, part of the bullying nature in the American character grows from bullying practices embraced in our schools that help perpetuate marginalizing attitudes toward people in poverty and unfair perceptions of merit and effort. Those patterns include the following:
• Measuring, labeling, and ranking. School reinforces immediately that humans can be and should be labeled and ranked, specifically based on the data drawn from testing.
• The error hunt. School is a place where adults tell children they are wrong. (See Weaver, 1996)
• The deficit perspective. School is a place obsessed with deficits and correcting those who exhibit those deficits. (See Dudley-Marling, 2007)
This bullying in society and in schools maintains the inequity in both society and our schools, it maintains privilege and poverty.
Instead, the American character should reject the arrogance of privilege that says "I deserve this and you don't." Instead, privilege must be tempered with humility, an awareness that anyone's privilege may have come at someone else's expense, through no merit on the part of the privileged and no fault of the other who remains unseen beneath the myth of meritocracy.
Blow ends his commentary by identifying the real motivation for such bullying:
"Those boys were trying to exert power over a person placed there to rein them in. But bullying is always about power — projecting more than you have in order to accrue more than your share.
"Sounds like the frightened, insecure part of American society."
And while he frames this conclusion in the politics of 2012, it also informs the education reform movement built also on bullying, the "no excuses" mantra that badgers children trapped in poverty while ignoring the dynamic between privilege and inequity that creates poverty.
Blow's discussion also informs the perverse and antagonistic attitude now being leveled at teachers, themselves powerless in many ways and both agents of and victims of bullying practices in schools that feed that antagonism.
This unforgivable incident on the bus is not some aberration, I regret, but a harsh reality that America is committed to, that America celebrates every time we chant "no excuses" and every time we confuse harder with better—especially when we are dealing with our children.