Over the weekend I witnessed several seemingly unrelated conversations that held a common thread. On the surface, these might seem to be shallow conversations about logos, style of language, or word usage. However for many having strong feelings about these apparently shallow issues, investigating these issues are not scratching the surface, but rather using them as windows, or lenses into the real issues underlying them.
The first was a discussion about the new logo for the University of California system.
Also, check out the video announcing it. 1:16-1:18 is awesome (Go Marian Diamond and neuroplasticity!). The rest, well, I’m with Aaron Bady on this one. Yes. It looks like a toilet. Or a little icon that says “Loading, loading….”
What’s the big deal? It’s just a logo, right?
The second is a kerfuffle over Rachel’s post (picked up by Diane Ravitch) about why she doesn’t like it when education leaders like David Coleman and Gerard Robinson use profane language and metaphors when describing different educational policy decisions.
The third is the latest installment in Ta-Nehisi Coates ongoing discussions about why he doesn’t see the Civil War as tragic. His series is collected here. Coates acknowledges that he is talking symbolically, obviously not about the obvious fact that many many people died, and that there is sadness in any death. But as he reads deeper and deeper into Civil War history, Coates sees real triumph in the Civil War, and he sees problems with the view that because many died, it was therefore a national tragedy.
In each of these examples, some commentators respond with shrugs and “What’s the big deal?” Some of these people might think “let’s skip over these shallow and tangential discussions and get to the real meat of the discussion.” Criticisms of the language style are derided as political correctness, criticisms of the re-branding are seen as academic revulsion at advertising and marketing in a digital age, and Coates is often labeled as belaboring an argument based on semantic vagueness.
But for those who bring up these “surface” examples, they reveal a window into deeper, more fundamental differences. These people writing these critiques see them not as merely sitting on the surface of the deeper structural and logical disagreements, but reflecting the form of what’s beneath.
From Bady’s post on the logo:
That thing is ugly. But it’s not only ugly because it looks like a Swedish flag being flushed down the toilet; it’s ugly because it so perfectly crystallizes everything that’s been going wrong with the University of California for years, the same mindset that’s been dragging the UC down in its nose-dive with destiny.
From Rachel’s post on Sex, Shit N’ Standardized Testing,
How are we take one of the lead advocates of the more “rigorous” and intellectual ELA Common Core Standards seriously when he doesn’t see fit to use appropriate, professional, and specific language when advocating for the standards and for their accompanying tests. Coleman may be thinking I’m brash, but all I can think is, No, you’re full of disdain. Disdain for teachers, disdain for students, and disdain for engaging in any process of education reform.
And from the moment the first shots were fired, the black imagination conceived of the Civil War differently than the rest of the country. That difference continues up to the present day. Were I not the descendant of slaves, if I did not owe the invention of my modern self to a bloody war, perhaps I’d write differently.
Why does it matter what the UC logo looks like? Because it is just another place to realize how fully the language, attitudes, values and goals of the corporate world have co-opted our public universities. When people talk about how higher education should be run more like a successful business, they should acknowledge that many “successful” modern businesses put more effort and resources into marketing and advertising than they do research and development. Now ask yourself what a university with that ethos would look like. The University of Phoenix spends $170,000 a day on Google advertisements, making it the biggest advertiser on Google.
Why does it matter if David Coleman says that “People don’t give a shit about your feelings” and “tests are shittier?” Because it indicates a disdain for engaging with your opponents and their evidence and perspectives. When Gerard Robinson shrugs and compares the anxiety over (what he thinks is indispensable) standardized testing to the inevitable anxiety over (equally indispensable?) sex, he is refusing to grapple with the reasons for the opposition to his policies.
Why does it matter whether we call the Civil War tragic or just merely full of sad death? Because it was a war fought over black humanity, and its memory should acknowledge black agency as a core element of how we tell its history. From what I see, Coates, as a mainstream journalist and writer plumbing the depths of Civil War history, wants us to acknowledge that to the modern African American, the Civil War was a War of Independence, and as much a cause for celebration as any war can be. The “rending brother from brother” stuff was happening to some people for a hundred years before the Civil War.
None of these points are tangential, they get to the core of the philosophical disputes in these cases. The reason Michelle Rhee was so despised in DC was that she openly and bluntly dismissed the value of dialogue, diplomacy and consensus. (“I think if there is one thing I have learned over the last 15 months, it’s that cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are way overrated.”) Part and parcel of this attitude is maintaining tha tyou have nothing ot learn from understanding The reason David Coleman is so despised is that his language indicates a disgust with his opponents. To me, this represents not just a disconnect between sides of an emotional issue, but a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of your own job. David Coleman, if you treat teachers who use Huck Finn as an entrance to modern racial identity as if they are training shallow navel-gazers, they will stop listening to you. I am not anti-David Coleman, and neither is Rachel, we are probably natural allies if you look at our support of Core Knowledge and the role of background factual knowledge in critical thinking. but the cursing in this case says “I am not taking people who disagree with me seriously.”
The UC leadership should realize that they are not a Bay Area tech startup in 2003. The people who comprise their institution, who make it work, have a different value system than a tech startup. Of course this is sometimes a problem. But it is a reality, and should be acknowledged, rather than ignored.
And Coates’ argument about Civil War history and memory should be taken to heart. A casual sigh about the tragedy of the Civil War comes with a casual diminishing of the triumph of that war for millions of Americans then and since.