Semester At Sea With Dennis Brutus by Kiley J. Bryant

[The end of the year, the death of every year, is of course connected with its opposite, the rebirth of the year.  The holiday season we celebrate in the northern hemisphere is of course of pagan origin, an origin that depended on recognizing seasonal change.  It’s usually associated with taking stock of accomplishments, gains . . . and losses of the past year.  We all have our individual and personal losses we’ve experienced, and we share them with others to establish a community in order to bear them better.  Some of these losses transcend the personal, the individual.  Maria Dimitriadi, the Greek singer about whom I knew nothing until February last year when she died, called the Red Heart of Greece;  Mercedes Sosa, the Argentine musical voice of Latin America; in the last few days, Dennis Brutus, poet of South Africa.  All these were artists of the world as much as of the particular nation from which they arose and whose spirit they evoked.  And just as the year dies away, but the cycle does not stop; so the season of these artists continues.  Kiley Bryant writes the following remembrance of Dennis Brutus, a wonderful evocation of why even in his passing we can celebrate him and the generation of the spring to follow.  The photo of Dennis Brutus was taken by Kiley on that semester at sea — editor]

Four years ago, I set out on one of my life’s most precious journeys to date,  Semester At Sea. I was amongst 700 college students from across the country, mixed in with a few students from abroad, to take part in a 100 day study abroad program that would take us around the world via the MV Explorer, the world’s largest traveling classroom aka a cruise ship!  The trip started in the Bahamas January 19, 2006 and ended in San Diego, California April 28, 2006, in between there were 10 ports of call on our agenda. Aside from the travel opportunity the program offered, the educational experience at large is what the opportunity presented most. After boarding the ship in Brazil, we were headed to South Africa, which took fourteen long, no land in sight days. Our first day back in class, which we had every day between ports, we were introduced by the Global Studies professor to Dennis Brutus, who was serving as the inter-port lecturer, who would historically be presenting to us an overview of South Africa. I don’t really know where to start, but once he opened his mouth and began speaking, he had captivated my attention. His history, his stories, his passion for life, learning, love, forgiveness and most of all his determination to educate; it was mind blowing, yet he did it all naturally, seeming as if it required no effort.  Dennis Brutus is and will be probably one of the most influential men I have and will ever meet in my life. Once we reached South Africa I was fortunate enough to travel with Dennis to Robben Island, an Island off of Cape Town where he was imprisoned alongside Nelson Mandela which now serves as a Heritage Site and Museum. Although the trip assigned us a tour guide, Modise Phekonyane, who as well was a prisoner on the Island, Dennis managed to take over the role of a tour guide. In doing so, he exposed us to his experience on the island through story-telling and even through pictures that were on display in which he was able to point himself out in. He took us into a bathroom where he was beaten by prison guards, showed us the barracks where they slept, and even took us to the Limestone Quarry where the prisoners worked hours on end. I quickly learned that his wit, his personality, his sense of humor, was all a part of the real ‘Dennis Brutus Experience.’ In telling us about the brutal experience he endured, he managed to squeeze in that while working in the Quarry while guards weren’t looking he’d sneak into holes and take cat naps. The experience overall I believe had so much more of a strong impact having Dennis there with us step by step as we learned the history of the island as well as his and Modise’s experiences.  After having a few one on one conversations with Dennis he asked where I was from, in telling him Evanston, Illinois, it opened up the door for many more conversations to come; I wasn’t aware that he was even familiar with Evanston, or even that he once lived there, I soon learned he was a professor at Northwestern University for nearly a decade and a half. Looking back at my overall study abroad experience, meeting, listening and talking with Dennis served as one of the most impactful learning experiences of my life. The man was filled with knowledge, his heart was filled with love, his ears were open for whatever, and his story was meant to be told. I was so saddened by his loss, his impact on my educational experience is one I will forever be grateful for.

Mayor Daley: We Want To Use YOUR Internet!

No Community Library, No Community School:


Lew Rosenbaum

As Substance News has reported, (see Jim Vail’s article in the education category here or follow the Substance News link on the right) the Chicago School Board met last week and was confronted by hundreds of people protesting Board policies.  Parents and students from Altgeld Gardens on Chicago’s far south side were joined by members of GEM (Grassroots Education Movement), Teachers for Social Justice, CORE (Caucus Of Rank-and-file Educators), Kenwood-Oakwood Community Organization and others to demand that CPS place a quality neighborhood public school in the building that houses Carver Military Academy.  The Academy, a selective enrollment school, replaced a community school that at one time served the Gardens and surrounding area;  but the Academy only uses 1/4 of the space in the school. What especially took the Board by surprise, was that the protesters presented the Board with a 38 page proposal for the new school.  Leadership of this protest belongs to the parents and students from the Gardens;  parents have been involved for 30 years in the battle against toxic waste dumping in the area, and the higher disease rates that are consequences.  The new school proposed by the protesters would be called the Hazel Johnson Environmental Justice School, and would exist side-by-side with the current military academy. Many speakers in the public participation part of the program repeated their support of the proposal.

Since then, parents and their supporters have met twice with David Pickens, a leading officer from the Board of Education.  The protesters had demanded a meeting with the Board in the Gardens. The Board officials typically refuse to meet away from their offices.  In this case, they did meet in the Gardens, and agreed to let Cheryl Johnson chair the meeting. She is executive director of the community organization that has spearheaded the fight against the toxics (People for Community Recovery) and one of the founders of the Committee for Safe Passage (safety for the students in the schools).

Wednesday, December 30 the parents and students from Altgeld came to city hall to confront Mayor Daley with their concerns.  The talks, Cheryl Johnson said, are now just talks.  Parents haven’t seen action yet.  Parents are not willing to accept transfers to other schools where the distance may be greater, educational services no better and the safety issue not resolved.  The parents have placed an interim proposal in front of the Board until a fully functioning school can be established in the fall of 2010.  They are asking for 4 or 5 classrooms to be staffed by certified, union teachers (the Board wants these to be associated with another CPS school, acting as a “satellite.”).  But, as Ms. Johnson reiterated, so far this is just words without action.

Last week, after the protests opposed a charter school in the community, the School Board showed their responsiveness . . . by approving the charter school.  On December 30 parents and students again emphasized their desire for a public high school in their community.  They were at Mayor Daley’s office perhaps because the Mayor’s office took control of the schools over 10 years ago and now is ultimately responsible.  But the occasion for coming to Mayor Richard Daley was to show him directly that students do not have a school and do not even have a public library in their community that is accessible, and consequently cannot even use public access internet to keep up on their classes during the holiday break, to do research. A number of students spoke to the issue:  they are behind in their classes and afraid of flunking.  And so in a spirited display, the community residents and their supporters chanted demands to use Daley’s internet access.

It is not surprising that Mayor Daley did not come out to meet the protesters Wednesday.  Nor is it surprising that he didn’t let them in to use his computer.  It is also not surprising the the Board is delaying action as long as it can.

This will be a difficult fight to win, but the people in the community have expressed their willingness to fight this battle.  It is literally a matter of life or death.  But it also raises questions about how much the School Board is willing to concede, and how will they guarantee a quality education when they have proven how adept they are at dismantling public education in the guise of “No Child Left Behind.”  The significance of winning this battle, even this limited one, is that the parents are taking the leadership in taking back from private hands a space that once was public — a school which was a public school, is now a military academy and is slated for charterization next year.

Note that GEM and CORE are planning a big event January 9, an educational summit at Malcolm X College, where the focus will be on school closings and charterization.  The event will take place from 10 AM to 1PM.  Child care will be available, and refreshments will be on hand.

Murals & Poetry in Los Angeles by Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

published on the KCET  public television web site


By Adolfo Guzman-Lopez
February 12, 2009 8:00 AM

A parking lot a block from MacArthur Park used to be the Vagabond Theater. As a teenager in the late 1960s painter John Valadez spent a lot of time there watching art house films.

The owner had painted scenes from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin on large canvases and draped them on the side walls. John says right on, when I tell him one his newest pastel works, Muertedores Baile would be a great scene in an early Luis Buñuel film. In the pastel three bullfighters in blue, pink and white carry out a cape move in a circle at a dusty cemetery. The capes and bull are absent. A green-suited bullfighter lies on a cloud above, limp like El Greco’s Count Orgaz.

In the 1990s John shifted from Chicano realism to more allegorical, somewhat surreal work. His Broadway Mural, done in the early 1980s stands as a master work in Chicano art. John was one of the first to use superb draftsmanship to depict Chicano urban life in a hyperrealistic style. John’s friend Ruben Guevara – an L.A. poet, musician and concert promoter – said Muertedores Baile took his breath away when he saw John working on it. There’s a lot going on and the dusty cemetery reminded him of one he’s seen in Mexicali. When Kathy Gallegos of Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park asked Ruben to take part in a February 14th reading that pairs up writers with works of art, Ruben said he’d like nothing better than to write a poem based on John Valadez’s painting. For Ruben, the bullfighters in the work of art pay tribute to the hundreds of working-class women killed in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez. The killings remain largely unsolved. Here’s what Ruben will read on Saturday.

Traje de Luces / Suit of Lights
(Por Las Mujeres de Juárez / For the Women of Juárez)
A Xikano Haiku for John Valadez’s Muertedores Baile
By Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara
The warm night calls you
“Tonight, a Dance for Lovers!”
Corrida de luz

Strokes of life and death
Dance in the darkness of light
Dance with destiny

Aztec virgins scream
Hearts explode into fire storms
Souls cut, scarred, bleeding

¡Matador! Say it!
“¡Las mujeres de Juárez!”
“¡Descansen en paz!”

Fury transcended
Ignites the light in terror
Dries God’s bleeding tears

Life, love, ecstasy
A dance for lovers only
Xikan@ heaven

On Seeing “Invictus” the Weekend Dennis Brutus Died — by Matthew Rothschild

On Seeing “Invictus” the Weekend Dennis Brutus Died

By Matthew Rothschild, December 28, 2009 published on the web site of the Progressive Magazine

I saw the Nelson Mandela movie “Invictus” this weekend, the same weekend that the great South African poet Dennis Brutus died.

After being shot in the back in 1963, Brutus was imprisoned on Robben Island in a cell right next to Mandela’s, then exiled to the United States.

He was a leading anti-apartheid activist here, and continued to champion the cause of social justice globally after the fall of the apartheid regime.

I met him a couple times. He was an imposing figure, with a rich and distinctive voice, who bore the scars of apartheid nobly.

Just like Nelson Mandela.

But watching the film, you get the sense that the anti-apartheid struggle was almost all Nelson Mandela.

You don’t get to see the mass movement that led to its overthrow, the movement that Mandela and Brutus were a part of.

You don’t have any hint that Mandela himself and the African National Congress advocated armed struggle, or that a black consciousness movement, led by Stephen Biko, galvanized another generation, or that massive strikes by labor unions threatened to cripple the South African economy.

And, for that matter, you don’t get to see the hideousness of apartheid—the shooting at protesters, the torture of prisoners (like Biko) to death, the daily humiliations of the pass system, and the total economic, social, and political subjugation of blacks.

All you see is Morgan Freeman as Mandela, and every move he makes is glorified. Freeman and the scriptwriter depict him as preternaturally wise in everything he does. At one point, his aide asks him about where South Africa should turn for foreign investment. And he responds, instantly, to the United States.

Yet Mandela’s decision to adopt a free market orientation has had disastrous consequences for South Africa, and Dennis Brutus rightly criticized him and the African National Congress for it.

Speaking on Democracy Now! in September 2008, Brutus characterized the ANC’s economic policy this way. “First we keep the corporations happy. We don’t want them leaving the country. And if the people have to wait—questions of housing, jobs, education—all of that will have to wait.” As a result, he said, people are “living in the shacks and in the shanties, as they were under apartheid, still living under the same conditions.”

Brutus wasn’t the only one to fault Mandela and the ANC for kowtowing to neoliberalism. Naomi Klein in “The Shock Doctrine” writes that South Africa “stands as a living testament to what happens when economic reform is severed from political transformation. Politically, its people have the right to vote, civil liberties and majority rule. Yet economically, South Africa has surpassed Brazil as the most unequal society in the world.”

Yes, Mandela is a hero. I have a poster of him up on my office wall. But beware hero worship.

As for Dennis Brutus, a fond farewell, and condolences to his family. At college, I knew his son Tony, a wonderful person in his own right. Tony, I hug you from afar.

Dennis Brutus, in a poem from “Sirens, Knuckles, Boots,” wrote:

“Most cruel, all our land is scarred with terror, / rendered unlovely and unlovable; / sundered are we and all our passionate surrender / but somehow tenderness survives.”

Thank you, Dennis Brutus, for fighting the good fight, and for underscoring the triumph of tenderness.

[Matthew Rothschild is editor of The Progressive Magazine]

Dennis Brutus 1924 – 2009 — by Patrick Bond

[We have a special memory of Dennis Brutus, here in Chicago, from which our own federal government sought to deport him back to certain imprisonment and death in apartheid South Africa.  The battle to keep Dennis from extradition was long, ultimately successful, and brought together a remarkable group of active people who respected his poetry, his politics, his sports.  And Dennis was unstinting in repaying that support with his unique, enthusiastic and intelligent responses to the numerous causes that arose — Lew Rosenbaum]

Dennis Vincent Brutus, 1924-2009

December 27, 2009 By Patrick Bond

Patrick Bond’s ZSpace Page

World-renowned political organizer and one of Africa’s most celebrated poets, Dennis Brutus, died early on December 26 in Cape Town, in his sleep, aged 85.

Even in his last days, Brutus was fully engaged, advocating social protest against those responsible for climate change, and promoting reparations to black South Africans from corporations that benefited from apartheid. He was a leading plaintiff in the Alien Tort Claims Act case against major firms that is now making progress in the US court system.

Brutus was born in Harare in 1924, but his South African parents soon moved to Port Elizabeth where he attended Paterson and Schauderville High Schools. He entered Fort Hare University on a full scholarship in 1940, graduating with a distinction in English and a second major in Psychology. Further studies in law at the University of the Witwatersrand were cut short by imprisonment for anti-apartheid activism.

Brutus’ political activity initially included extensive journalistic reporting, organizing with the Teachers’ League and Congress movement, and leading the new South African Sports Association as an alternative to white sports bodies. After his banning in 1961 under the Suppression of Communism Act, he fled to Mozambique but was captured and deported to Johannesburg. There, in 1963, Brutus was shot in the back while attempting to escape police custody. Memorably, it was in front of Anglo American Corporation headquarters that he nearly died while awaiting an ambulance reserved for blacks.

While recovering, he was held in the Johannesburg Fort Prison cell which more than a half-century earlier housed Mahatma Gandhi. Brutus was transferred to Robben Island where he was jailed in the cell next to Nelson Mandela, and in 1964-65 wrote the collections Sirens Knuckles Boots and Letters to Martha, two of the richest poetic expressions of political incarceration.

Subsequently forced into exile, Brutus resumed simultaneous careers as a poet and anti-apartheid campaigner in London, and while working for the International Defense and Aid Fund, was instrumental in achieving the apartheid regime’s expulsion from the 1968 Mexican Olympics and then in 1970 from the Olympic movement.

Upon moving to the US in 1971, Brutus served as a professor of literature and African studies at Northwestern (Chicago) and Pittsburgh, and defeated high-profile efforts by the Reagan Administration to deport him during the early 1980s. He wrote numerous poems, ninety of which will be published posthumously next year by Worcester State University, and he helped organize major African writers organizations with his colleagues Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe.

Following the political transition in South Africa, Brutus resumed activities with grassroots social movements in his home country. In the late 1990s he also became a pivotal figure in the global justice movement and a featured speaker each year at the World Social Forum, as well as at protests against the World Trade Organization, G8, Bretton Woods Institutions and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

Brutus continued to serve in the anti-racism, reparations and economic justice movements as a leading strategist until his death, calling in August for the ‘Seattling’ of the recent Copenhagen summit because sufficient greenhouse gas emissions cuts and North-South ‘climate debt’ payments were not on the agenda.

His final academic appointment was as Honorary Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society, and for that university’s press and Haymarket Press, he published the autobiographical Poetry and Protest in 2006.

Amongst numerous recent accolades were the US War Resisters League peace award in September, two Doctor of Literature degrees conferred at Rhodes and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in April – following six other honorary doctorates – and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the South African government Department of Arts and Culture in 2008.

Brutus was also awarded membership in the South African Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, but rejected it on grounds that the institution had not confronted the country’s racist history. He also won the Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes awards.

The memory of Dennis Brutus will remain everywhere there is struggle against injustice. Uniquely courageous, consistent and principled, Brutus bridged the global and local, politics and culture, class and race, the old and the young, the red and green. He was an emblem of solidarity with all those peoples oppressed and environments wrecked by the power of capital and state elites – hence some in the African National Congress government labeled him ‘ultraleft’. But given his role as a world-class poet, Brutus showed that social justice advocates can have both bread and roses.

Brutus’s poetry collections are:

* Sirens Knuckles and Boots (Mbari Productions, Ibaden, Nigeria and
Northwestern University Press, Evanston Illinois, 1963).

* Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison
(Heinemann, Oxford, 1968).

* Poems from Algiers (African and Afro-American Studies and Research
Institute, Austin, Texas, 1970).

* A Simple Lust (Heinemann, Oxford, 1973).

* China Poems (African and Afro-American Studies and Research Centre,
Austin, Texas, 1975).

* Strains (Troubador Press, Del Valle, Texas).

* Stubborn Hope (Three Continents Press, Washington, DC and Heinemann,
Oxford, 1978).

* Salutes and Censures (Fourth Dimension, Enugu, Nigeria, 1982).

* Airs and Tributes (Whirlwind Press, Camden, New Jersey, 1989).

* Still the Sirens (Pennywhistle Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1993).

* Remembering Soweto, ed. Lamont B. Steptoe (Whirlwind Press, Camden,
New Jersey, 2004).

* Leafdrift, ed. Lamont B. Steptoe (Whirlwind Press, Camden, New Jersey,

* Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader, ed. Aisha Kareem and Lee
Sustar (Haymarket Books, Chicago and University of KwaZulu-Natal Press,
Pietermaritzburg, 2006).

He is survived by his wife May, his sisters Helen and Dolly, eight children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren in Hong Kong, England, the US and Cape Town.

Person of the Year — op ed in NYT by Frank Rich

[Frank Rich has a point.  The real movers and shakers of the year and the decade are in the class whose responsibility is making the rest of us believe they have our best interests at heart.  I just got a letter inviting me to be part of the “Consumer Advisory Council” of Blue Cross, and telling me they have been doing surveys to find out their approval rating.  Not surprisingly, their surveys showed how much people like me love them.  Except it is not true.
True or not, their script defines our era and writes the 2,000 page script that masquerades as a health care bill just passed by the Senate.  Their script defines that fantasy called Renaissance 2010 in Chicago education, No Child Left Behind nationally.  Renaissance and NCLB are marketing phrases.  The substance behind the flim-flam is as real as the substance Frank Rich describes behind Enron.
Rich does point out how cynical people are about the political leadership they have.  And that is a step toward the resolution of the problem.  From Wall Street to Tiger Woods, the con artists require a certain complicity, a suspension of disbelief, from many of us.  They require a belief that we have a common bond with the hucksters who bamboozle us.  But we don’t.  Solomon Burke, in a 2008 album entitled Don’t Count Me Out sings the old refrain, “None of us are free — if one of us is in chains.”  The more we recognize how many of us are in chains, the closer we can be to acting in our common interest.  The sooner we will be asking questions about public ownership of the corporations which continue to play the shell game with us and our lives.
As we approach the New Year, Chicago Labor & Arts Festival wishes all our readers a prosperous new year, when prosperity is measured in how richly we are able to expand our vision of a cooperative future and to expand the recognition that private corporations can no longer be trusted to guide us out of the sand trap into which they have driven us. — Lew Rosenbaum]
Op-Ed Columnist

Tiger Woods, Person of the Year

Published: December 19, 2009   New York Times

AS we say farewell to a dreadful year and decade, this much we can agree upon: The person of the year is not Ben Bernanke, no matter how insistently Time magazine tries to hype him into its pantheon. The Fed chairman was just as big a schnook as every other magical thinker in Washington and on Wall Street who believed that housing prices would go up in perpetuity to support an economy leveraged past the hilt. Unlike most of the others, it was Bernanke’s job to be ahead of the curve. Yet as recently as June of last year he could be found minimizing the possibility of a substantial economic downturn. And now we’re supposed to applaud him for putting his finger in the dike after disaster struck? This is defining American leadership down.

Barry Blitt

If there’s been a consistent narrative to this year and every other in this decade, it’s that most of us, Bernanke included, have been so easily bamboozled. The men who played us for suckers, whether at Citigroup or Fannie Mae, at the White House or Ted Haggard’s megachurch, are the real movers and shakers of this century’s history so far. That’s why the obvious person of the year is Tiger Woods. His sham beatific image, questioned by almost no one until it collapsed, is nothing if not the farcical reductio ad absurdum of the decade’s flimflams, from the cancerous (the subprime mortgage) to the inane (balloon boy).

As of Friday, the Tiger saga had appeared on 20 consecutive New York Post covers. For The Post, his calamity has become as big a story as 9/11. And the paper may well have it right. We’ve rarely questioned our assumption that 9/11, “the day that changed everything,” was the decade’s defining event. But in retrospect it may not have been. A con like Tiger’s may be more typical of our time than a one-off domestic terrorist attack, however devastating.

Indeed, if we go back to late 2001, the most revealing news story may have been unfolding not in New York but Houston — the site of the Enron scandal. That energy company convinced financial titans, the press and countless investors that it was a business deity. It did so even though very few of its worshipers knew what its business was. Enron is the template for the decade of successful ruses that followed, Tiger’s included.

What makes the golfing superstar’s tale compelling, after all, is not that he’s another celebrity in trouble or another fallen athletic “role model” in a decade lousy with them. His scandal has nothing to tell us about race, and nothing new to say about hypocrisy. The conflict between Tiger’s picture-perfect family life and his marathon womanizing is the oldest of morality tales.

What’s striking instead is the exceptional, Enron-sized gap between this golfer’s public image as a paragon of businesslike discipline and focus and the maniacally reckless life we now know he led. What’s equally striking, if not shocking, is that the American establishment and news media — all of it, not just golf writers or celebrity tabloids — fell for the Woods myth as hard as any fan and actively helped sustain and enhance it.

People wanted to believe what they wanted to believe. Tiger’s off-the-links elusiveness was no more questioned than Enron’s impenetrable balance sheets, with their “special-purpose entities” named after “Star Wars” characters. Fortune magazine named Enron as America’s “most innovative company” six years in a row. In the January issue of Golf Digest, still on the stands, some of the best and most hardheaded writers in America offer “tips Obama can take from Tiger,” who is typically characterized as so without human frailties that he “never does anything that would make him look ridiculous.”

Perhaps the most conspicuous player in the Tiger hagiography business has been a company called Accenture, one of his lustrous stable of corporate sponsors. In a hilarious Times article, Brian Stelter described the extreme efforts this outfit is now making to erase its six-year association with its prized spokesman. Alas, the many billboards with slogans like “Go On. Be a Tiger” are not so easily dismantled, and collectors’ items like “Accenture Match Play Tiger Woods Caddy Bib” are a growth commodity on eBay.

From what I can tell, Accenture is a solid company. But the Daily News columnist Mike Lupica raised a good point when I spoke with him last week: “If Tiger Woods was so important to Accenture, how come I didn’t know what Accenture did when they fired him?” According to its Web site, Accenture is “a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company,” but who cared about any fine print? It was Tiger, and Tiger was it, and no one was to worry about the details behind the mutually advantageous image-mongering. One would like to assume that Accenture’s failure to see or heed any warning signs about a man appearing in 83 percent of its advertising is an anomalous lapse. One would like to believe that business and government clients didn’t hire Accenture just because it had Tiger’s imprimatur. But in a culture where so many smart people have been taken so often, we can’t assume anything.

As cons go, Woods’s fraudulent image as an immaculate exemplar of superhuman steeliness is benign. His fall will damage his family, closest friends, Accenture and the golf industry much more than the rest of us. But the syndrome it epitomizes is not harmless. We keep being fooled by leaders in all sectors of American life, over and over. A decade that began with the “reality” television craze exemplified by “American Idol” and “Survivor” — both blissfully devoid of any reality whatsoever — spiraled into a wholesale flight from truth.

The most lethal example, of course, were the two illusions marketed to us on the way to Iraq — that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and some link to Al Qaeda. That history has since been rewritten by Bush alumni, Democratic politicians who supported the Iraq invasion and some of the news media that purveyed the White House fictions (especially the television press, which rarely owned up to its failure as print journalists have). It was exclusively “bad intelligence,” we’re now told, that pushed us into the fiasco. But contradictions to that “bad intelligence” were in plain sight during the run-up to the war — even sometimes in the press. Yet we wanted to suspend disbelief. Much of the country, regardless of party, didn’t want to question its leaders, no matter how obviously they were hyping any misleading shred of intelligence that could fit their predetermined march to war. It’s the same impulse that kept many from questioning how Mark McGwire’s and Barry Bonds’s outlandishly cartoonish physiques could possibly be steroid-free.

In the political realm, our bipartisan credulousness has also been on steroids in this decade, even by our national standards. Many Democrats didn’t want to see the snake-oil salesman in John Edwards, blatant as his “Two America” self-contradictions were if you cared merely to look at him on YouTube. Republicans incessantly fell for family values preacher politicians like David Vitter, John Ensign and Larry Craig. Fred Thompson was seen by many, in the press as well as his party, as the second coming of Ronald Reagan. Karl Rove was widely hailed as a mastermind who would assemble a permanent Republican majority. Bernie Kerik was considered a plausible secretary of homeland security. Eliot Spitzer was viewed as a crusader of uncompromising principle.

But these scam artists are pikers next to the financial hucksters. I’m not just talking about Bernie Madoff and Enron’s Ken Lay, but about those titans who legally created and sold the securities that gamed and then wrecked the system. You’d think after Enron’s collapse that financial leaders and government overseers would question the contents of “exotic” investments that could not be explained in plain English. But only a few years after Enron’s very public and extensively dissected crimes, the same bankers, federal regulatory agencies and securities-rating companies were giving toxic “assets” a pass. We were only too eager to go along for the lucrative ride until it crashed like Tiger’s Escalade.

After his “indefinite break” from golf, Woods will surely be back on the links once the next celebrity scandal drowns his out. But after a decade in which two true national catastrophes, a wasteful war and a near-ruinous financial collapse, were both in part byproducts of the ease with which our leaders bamboozled us, we can’t so easily move on.

This can be seen in the increasingly urgent political plight of Barack Obama. Though the American left and right don’t agree on much, they are both now coalescing around the suspicion that Obama’s brilliant presidential campaign was as hollow as Tiger’s public image — a marketing scam designed to camouflage either his covert anti-American radicalism (as the right sees it) or spineless timidity (as the left sees it). The truth may well be neither, but after a decade of being spun silly, Americans can’t be blamed for being cynical about any leader trying to sell anything. As we say goodbye to the year of Tiger Woods, it is the country, sad to say, that is left mired in a sand trap with no obvious way out.

Moratorium on Standardized Tests in Schools — by George Schmidt

[The following report, in Substance News (on line — see link to the right) confirms Substance as one of the most important sources of information and ideas in education today.  The unionized teachers in British Columbia are showing how workers can break out of the limitations that trade unions have often found themselves in. Testing clearly affects not only the working conditions of the teachers but also the expectations we as a society have for learning.

British Columbia teachers call for two-year moratorium on standardized tests… Help organize student boycott of tests in Vancouver

George N. Schmidt – December 26, 2009

Above, former British Columbia Federation of Teachers president Jinny Sims speaks to a group organized by CORE and Teachers for Social Justice at Casa Aztlan in Chicago on June 7, 2008. The Jinny Sims visit helped catalyze CORE, which was organizing itself at the time. Sims led the October 2005 strike that closed the schools of the entire Canadian province of British Columbia for nearly a month. The event was ignored in the media in the USA. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.According to a recent (December 22, 2009) report in the Vancouver Sun, teachers in British Columbia are calling for a two-year moratorium on standardized testing in the entire province and recently won the right to send home with students three union-produced pamphlets making the case against the use of standardized tests.

Unionized teachers in British Columbia, Canada, recently won a victory against school officials when they got an agreement to allow teachers to distribute union pamphlets opposing standardized tests to their students. The teachers are also calling for a two-year moratorium on standardized tests in the entire province.

The British Columbia teachers have led Canada in opposing the abuses of standardized testing and have also been among the most militant in North America since the beginning of the century. In October 2005, they led a lengthy strike against neo-liberal attacks on public education in the province. The strike was reported exclusively in Chicago in Substance. [See More recently, former B.C. teachers union president Jinny Sims spoke in Chicago during a series of meetings that helped launch CORE (Chicago’s Caucus Of Rank and file Educators). [see ].

In June 2009, the BC Federation of Teachers presented the provincial government with their proposal for a two-year moratorium on standardized testing. Available in PDF format at the BC teachers federation website (address in the following paragraph), the lengthy proposal is also reproduced here:

Standardized Testing Moratorium and Task Force Brief 2009 (BC Teachers’ Federation http:// www. AndPositionPapers.aspx)

The BC Teachers’ Federation seeks to foster a constructive discussion on the issue of

standardized testing. To that end, the Federation urges the BC Ministry of Education to adopt a

two-year moratorium on all standardized tests, including the Foundation Skills Assessment

(FSA) and the Grade 10, 11, and 12 provincial examinations.

The BCTF further calls for government to establish a Testing and Assessment Task Force to explore the issues and information about assessment and to make recommendations to government before the conclusion of the moratorium. This task force should have on it a majority of teachers selected by the BCTF on a representative basis.

This is not a call for an end to all testing. Classroom teachers will continue to use tests for diagnostic or instructional purposes, for formative as well as summative evaluation.

Why a moratorium?

The use of standardized tests has been a subject of professional, parental, and public discussion and debate. This has particularly been true of the Foundation Skills Assessment, but teachers in secondary schools are also concerned about negative impacts of Grade 10, 11, and 12 exams. A

moratorium would clear the air for the kind of professional and public debate that should go on

about important educational issues. A moratorium would signal a willingness to have these

policies debated, in place of the imposition in the past that helped to create an environment that

is not healthy for children or for the adults involved in the education of our children and youth. A

moratorium would allow all parties the opportunity to identify policies and practices that would

both address stakeholder objectives and reconcile our differences; it would also signal a desire

for collaboration and engagement over the disrespectful climate of control and confrontation.

Why a Testing and Assessment Task Force?

The creation of a task force would create a venue for the education debate over testing and

assessment that should be focused on developing understanding and consensus. The BCTF believes that the many groups with an interest in public education should be included in the discussions facilitated by the task force. Voices from the classroom—a majority being representative teachers—should play a central role in formulating the questions and the recommendations. However, the task force should be open in its processes to hear the other

voices on these issues, as well.

What are the issues that should be examined by the task force?

1. The drive to standardization that is a direct result of the census application of provincial tests

The census application of the tests and the promotion of high test scores as the objective of

schooling leads to a competition for marks, and the identification of standard practice and

standard curriculum. This competition then sacrifices curriculum breadth and depth, academic rigour, and the ability of the teacher to design instruction to meet individual students’ needs.

Large scale testing compromises sound pedagogy….Although EQAO tests only contain a small subset of [curriculum] expectations, teachers do not know which ones will be assessed in any one year. Accordingly, they are forced to cover all expectations in breadth but do not have time to teach them in depth. (Hilda Watkins, Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario)

2. The misuse of test results to create school rankings by the Fraser Institute

All the partners in education in BC — teachers, administrators, parents, and ministers of education — have condemned the way in which these results are used. The current structure of the Foundations Skills Assessment ensures that the Fraser Institute will be able to continue to use these results inappropriately. That can be stopped by moving to another structure for assessment — a random sample.

A random-sample application can be designed to ensure that the objectives of the ministry are met. Such a sample would have to be able to assess the effectiveness of the curriculum and to identify subgroups, such as students with special needs or Aboriginal students, and determine whether or not the system is serving these students appropriately.

3. The need for assessment and evaluation processes that are appropriate for a particular


An assessment that provides information to a teacher about what an individual student needs in order to develop understanding of a subject or topic is different from an assessment of how well an education system is performing according to general goals for education. The researchers who make up the American Education Research Association point out that “in using the same test for multiple high-stakes purposes, policymakers are at odds with the professional standards of the testing and measurement community” (McDonnell, 2005, 45).

A moratorium and task force would provide the opportunity to clarify and support assessments for teaching and learning purposes while also identifying assessments for system evaluation that are appropriate for that purpose. An examination of the value of a randomized assessment for system evaluation purposes should be examined by the task force, with recommendations on appropriateness

4. An analysis of the educational value of existing provincial and local assessments

The existing provincial programs need to be analyzed in relationship to their educational value. Is the FSA being used in conflicting and competing ways that undermine any value it might have? Are the Grade 10, 11, and 12 exams having an impact on curricular flexibility and deep learning?

However, looking at provincial tests is only a part of the task. Local standardized exams are being used, often without a substantial assessment of their value and appropriateness. The task force should assess these assessments and develop recommendations on quality and appropriateness.

5. A look at other models of assessment and the success of Finland which operates without

a standardized testing program

The success of Finland on international, randomized assessments rests in a system that depends not on standardized testing, but on a highly educated and supported community of teachers. In contrast, a number of education systems that have been test-driven are much less successful. Protests against the heavy testing regimes are arising in many countries, including in Britain and the United States.

In Canada, the Alberta legislature passed a motion calling on government to stop the census testing of Grade 3 students on an equivalent to the BC FSA. The Ontario Teachers’ Federation has also called for random assessments and using more than a single test result to evaluate schools.

6. Impact on the joy of learning

Ultimately, the main gift a teacher and a school can give to students is the joy of learning that will carry them throughout their life. Standardized testing produces a negative influence on this.

Standardized tests narrow the curriculum as teachers teach to the test, with implicit and explicit demands that students be prepared for the test rather than supported in exploring the world, whether a topic will be on a test or not.

The greatest educational motivator is intense interest in a topic that leads to exploration and depth of learning. In the test-driven classroom, intense exploration of interest is often lost by

a demand to keep going through the curriculum and covering the topics the testmakers will

likely have included on the standardized exam.

For the marginal student, the focus on preparing for the test becomes another blow to their attempts to get an education. Rather than building on their strengths and interests, the testdriven classroom focuses on someone else’s choices.

These are some of the reasons education researcher Andy Hargreaves says that we are

moving into a “post-standardization” world.

The BCTF believes that a broad and open discussion of testing and assessment during a

moratorium could lead to better public policy, engage teachers in important discussions of

educational practice, produce deeper understanding by parents of the learning process, and,

most importantly, create more opportunities to motivate students toward deep learning.

McDonnell, L. (2005). “Assessment and Accountability from the Policymaker’s Perspective.” In

Herman, J. and Haertel, E. Uses and Misuses of Data for Educational Accountability and

Improvement. Chicago: National Society for the Study of Education.

News reports out of British Columbia show how the B.C. teachers are organizing with a strategic perspective. According to the Vancouver Sun (see below), B.C. teachers’ agitation to encourage students and their families to opt out of the tests has resulted in one-third of the students in Vancouver no longer participating in the testing program. The same thing would happen in Chicago were the Chicago Teachers Union to follow the Canadian example. Parents in Chicago are waiting to have their children freed from the tyranny of the tests.

The following article was distributed by Canwest News Service based on reports in the Vancouver Sun.

Deal lets teachers send anti-test pamphlets home with students; Compromise over controversial FSA exams avoids arbitration (Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009 | 9:21 am Canwest News Service)

The agreement marks a surprising compromise between two parties that have been feuding for years over what union materials teachers are allowed to distribute. That battle heats up around this time of the year in the lead-up to the annual Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA), which tests Grade 4 and 7 students in reading, writing and math.

Those tests are scheduled for Jan. 18 to Feb. 26.

“Common sense prevailed,” BCTF vice-president Susan Lambert said of the deal with the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association. The deal lasts for one year and effectively ends eight union grievances against districts that had tried recently to stop teachers from disseminating BCTF materials because of alleged inaccuracies.

“I think the process of going to fruitless arbitration and losing . . . over and over again was too costly for them,” she added.

The employers’ association, which represents boards of education in labour matters, described the agreement as a practical solution to eliminate conflict in districts and end the grievances. “It’s an attempt to formalize what the rules are,” said chief executive officer Hugh Finlayson, noting there have been many years of litigation over the issue.

Approved for distribution are pamphlets titled What Parents Need to Know, What Parents Need to Know: Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) and Testing? You Bet. Teachers will now decide if they want to distribute them or send them home with students in the required sealed envelopes.

The pamphlets argue that standardized tests force teachers to narrow instruction and “teach to the test,” cause anxiety for students and do little to improve achievement. But the main reason the union objects to the FSA is because the results are used by the Fraser Institute every year to rank elementary schools.

The Education Ministry insists the tests are not optional. But the BCTF campaign has drawn down participation rates in recent years–especially in Vancouver, where one in three students did not write the FSA last year.

The BCTF plans to extend its anti-FSA message in early 2010 with newspaper and radio advertisements in Punjabi, Cantonese and Mandarin for the first time in order to reach ethnic groups that are believed to be more supportive of standardized tests.

Arbitrators have ruled that teachers have a right to engage in political discussions with parents on educational issues. Lambert said they also have a responsibility to inform parents of their professional concerns about testing.

The BCTF is calling for a two-year moratorium on the FSA and provincial exams to allow stakeholders to discuss better ways of assessment and accountability. 

While Al Ramirez videotaped Jiinny Sims, the audience in June 2008 listened intently as she described the organizing it took for the BC Teachers Federation to successfully do a province-wide strike in October 2005 and continue organizing against attacks on public education in Canada since. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.A campaign against standardized tests in B.C. public schools is expected to intensify in January as a result of a deal between the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and school employers that allows teachers to send three union pamphlets home with students and hand them to parents on school grounds.