(Note: Let me just warn you that I go all out in this one. I'm inappropriate, I'm not a man of peace, I let my freak flag fly. And there's swearing, not from me, but in the videos, all of which are worth watching, especially the second one. Don't say you weren't warned.)
Actor Matt Damon has stepped forward as a powerful, articulate opponent of the Bill Gates-Arne Duncan drill-and-kill approach to education reform and a defender of public school teachers. Last Saturday he gave a nice, straight-forward, common sense speech at the Save Our Schools (SOS) rally in Washington, DC. This one you can watch with the kids in the room.
I'm grateful that he's stepped forward to lend his star-power to the cause of children and education. He's an actor, so you can imagine it's much better to watch it, but if you don't want to take the time, here is the transcript:
I flew overnight from Vancouver to be with you today. I landed in New York a few hours ago and caught a flight down here because I needed to tell you all in person that I think you’re awesome.
I was raised by a teacher. My mother is a professor of early childhood education. And from the time I went to kindergarten through my senior year in high school, I went to public schools. I wouldn’t trade that education and experience for anything.
I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself — my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity — all come from how I was parented and taught.
And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned — none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success — none of these qualities that make me who I am can be tested.
I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were empowered to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill-and-kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.
Now don’t get me wrong. I did have a brush with standardized tests at one point. I remember because my mom went to the principal’s office and said, ‘My kid ain’t taking that. It’s stupid, it won’t tell you anything and it’ll just make him nervous.’ That was in the ’70s when you could talk like that.
I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents.
I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that.
This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel. But I came here today to deliver an important message to you: As I get older, I appreciate more and more the teachers that I had growing up. And I’m not alone. There are millions of people just like me.
So the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called “overpaid;” the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything. ... Please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you, and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back.
Afterwards, he did some interviews, including with Reason TV. It's not the nice, tidy, well-considered speech he gave before the audience of thousands. It's salty and angry. He clearly does not suffer fools well, but in it's way it's every bit as articulate and powerful a defense of teachers.
If you're not familiar with Reason TV, you should know that they're a media outlet with a purist Libertarian point-of-view. (You should probably stop reading right now if you consider yourself a Libertarian.) These are folks who advocate for the kind of economic anarchy that appeals to intellectually precocious 12-year-old boys. This unregulated, free-market ideology, which has been adopted by too many in business and government, is underpinned by the simplistic and juvenile notion that we're all ultimately and equally motivated by greed. I remember how satisfying it felt back then to read the Libertarian bible Atlas Shrugged. It was as if I'd discovered the formula for how to clean up all those messy human relations: money as the unambiguous measuring stick, "the invisible hand" and all that.
As I grew up, however, I put away my childish playthings and began to understand that most people are not motivated primarily by greed, in fact few people are, including myself. Most business people are, certain kinds of criminals are, perhaps politicians are, but most people are not. Our motivations are far, far more complex than what can be understood by what Damon calls the "MBA-style mindset." If I were primarily motivated by money, I would have gone into business, or corporate law, or one of those other soulless professions like interviewing people for Reason TV. And although Damon puts this smug woman and her wise guy cameraman in their place (neither of whom probably know that the "fire the bottom 10 percent" concept comes from former GE CEO Jack Welch, who takes pride in being called "cruel and Darwinian") they are apparently, and sadly, incapable of understanding they are being schooled.
What I want to do after watching this is provide Damon with a kind of second-hand "genius in the stairwell" in which he would go on to say something like:
"In fact I think you are a s***ty cameraman. I don't know anything about being a cameraman, just like these businessmen and politicians don't know anything about being teachers, but I've made up a standardized test and it shows that you should be fired . . . No wait, I've actually just given her a standardized test and she failed it, so I'm going to fire you."
The Reason TV people demonstrate the mindset teachers are up against: business people like Bill Gates for whom "cruel" and "Darwinian" are virtues; people like Arne Duncan for whom "education" is demonstrated by filling in all the right black dots, building a nifty resume, and working those contacts, the special talents that come with an Ivy League education. (I'm not saying there aren't other good things about those schools, only that those are the characteristics that make degrees from those places so lucrative.). I'm starting to realize that these are people who simply cannot hear us when we try to explain our profession and our motivations. It's not possible for this particular kind of ideologue to understand that each child is an "individual puzzle" a teacher must solve, rather than a product that just needs to be moved to the next stage of the assembly line or plotted on a spreadsheet. It's not credible to them when we say the job itself is an incentive; that you can lure us with all the carrots and flog us with all the sticks you want, and the results will be exactly the same, because what we are here to do is educate, not churn out a generation of regurgitating test takers. All they can hear is "lazy" and "avoiding accountability."
But that's what they want, test-takers, because that's who they are. These are people who have adopted selfishness as a virtue, greed as good, and stockholder's value above all else. And if you can't test it, if you can't measure it, especially in terms of money, it has no value.
I'm reminded of this funny, but very disturbing "report" from The Daily Show, in which a group of Harvard and MIT MBA students are interviewed about why they refuse to sign a code of ethics.
When I saw this at the time, and when I watch it now, it shakes my soul. How can we allow these children to walk freely in the streets? I certainly wouldn't want them anywhere near my child, and thank God we don't pay teachers enough to lure people like this into education. Is this really what Harvard and MIT are doing? It sounds to me like they are brainwashing kids into a kind of institutionalized sociopathy. The children in this piece frighten me more than any street tough and they will certainly do more damage to society.
But these are the top business schools in the country, so this must be how Bill Gates wants them. This must be how he wants your kids: cruel, Darwinian, and easy to measure.
This is what we are up against.