Lessons from the Pandemic

I did not know that wild violets grow in Alabama fields. Turns out they do, right in my neighborhood. I did not know that in the back of my yard grows a dogwood tree with tender blossoms, flowers that serve as a symbol of rebirth and revival. Granted I have not been living in this house long, but the three years of never-ending busy-ness, endless to-do lists, deadlines always looming larger than life, worries about the future, parenting obligations, and health issues choked out my ability to see life around me. Now, I stop to pay attention even if for a brief moment to marvel at the beauty that has been so elusive before.

This pandemic taught me many lessons already. For one, it has cracked open the fragility of human life. In the West, but particularly in the U.S., there is an implicit assumption of invincibility. And it is contagious. “Best healthcare system in the world!” “We will win this war!” “We will not let this enemy prevail!” It is so easy to believe that tragedy and horror will pass by. But friends from New York write about the constant sound of howling ambulances; news stories describe the stench from unrefrigerated trucks full of decomposing bodies; nurses and doctors share stories of trauma and desperation from seeing dozens of patients die daily. Assumptions of invincibility are pretentious and dangerous. They take us down a much darker path.

That is the major lesson of the pandemic so far – “unforeseeable circumstances” and “unchartered waters” bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. Ultimately, these events become a true mirror of who we are as a society. Or rather, what we have become. Years of ragged individualism and aggressive propagation of libertarian ideas left us stranded on the island on which homo hominin lupus est – “a man is a wolf to another man.” The widespread disregard for the vulnerable, for the community, for the well-being of others is astonishing. Of all the tragic twists and turns that I could anticipate, the scale of the protests against shelter-in-place policies and the aggressiveness against basic means of protecting public health, such as masks, have been devastating to observe. I have been wrestling with the question of how a society gets to this place.

A part of the crisis is a broken economic system that puts profits over the well-being of people. The meritocratic narrative of rewards only for “hard work” supported the decimation of safety nets. With incomes lost, millions of Americans have nothing to fall back on in the time of crisis. When decisions were being made, they either actively supported or silently observed how social protections were eliminated believing that “those people” should work harder to earn their piece of the pie. Now, instead of realizing that they themselves were shortchanged by this ideology, they demand a return “to normal,” with a complete disregard for the loss of life this will incur. It does not help that in some states, there have been clear connections between groups that are organizing the protests and the billionaire class. A classic case from old philosophical texts – those with limited economic resources are working against their own interests as individuals or members of the working class to serve the needs and interests of their masters.

But there are also deeper issues at hand. Much of the American society has learned to live for pleasure – instant gratification to consumerist desires. Isolation cuts off opportunities to engage in rampant consumerism of goods, services, images, and pleasures. Being alone reveals the holes in one’s humanity created both by consumerism and fast-paced lives in pursuit of profit or sustenance. The space for leisure to cultivate hobbies that allow people to create, produce, observe, marvel, or contemplate has been erased by the rat race of non-stop running between work, meetings, activities, get-togethers, shopping, TV shows, and errands. As a cultural outsider, I am continually amazed at how consumerism is even taught to toddlers, both through garages full of trinkets and through busy schedules of soccer games, swimming lessons, and play-dates. When do they ever get to be children, I wonder. To just be.

In a recent interview, Chris Hedges – a Pulitzer-winning journalist and writer – described the current social crisis as a result of long-standing policies and practices, which in the long run have produced a society of spectators. He makes a point in his other works that 24-hour entertainment through every imaginable medium – streaming, TVs, ads, podcasts, phone apps, sporting events, and social media – cultivates a lack of critical thinking. On some level, this point resonated with me because I have spent a lot of my time thinking about schools and educational institutions producing spectators both in the U.S. and in other countries. I wrote extensively that certain educational goals run the danger of producing masses that do not question and do not engage in a social critique. Spectators.

Applied to the current crisis, however, this perspective helped it all make sense – spectators come together to derive pleasure from an act of entertainment. They are present to get their emotional high – not to be somebody, not to act decisively, not to make a difference, not to show care for the well-being of others, but to see and be seen. Their goal is to be satisfied by the show. A spectator has no moral or ethical obligation to a spectator right next to him or her. As Guy Debord – a late French philosopher  – explained it, all spectators are united  through a divided, fragmented, and disconnected act of being connected to a spectacle. We might all tune in to watch the spectacle of daily coronavirus briefings from the White House but that does not makes us connected or united to each other. We remain separated by our social classes, cultural groups, values, and beliefs. And after seeing the staggering numbers of infections and deaths, we remain on different social planes about our concerns for our neighbors and our community. Some will care, many others will not. And since the show is getting more and more dissatisfying, the edginess will grow and the acts of violence will increase. Homo hominem lupus est.

Spectators are also not expected to question the show. Theater goers repeat lines from the plays they enjoyed. They do not test them for truthfulness, internal logic, or factual support. Remember Hamilton – I am not throwing away my shot? What a catchy line to repeat and live by. In the same way, this pandemic has been a breeding ground for dangerous ideas that fly in the face of reason but spectators pick them up, write them on poster boards, and march into the streets to chant them back. In the era of widespread misinformation, catchy slogans become lethal weapons.

Some empires decline gradually, some fall apart abruptly. I was born in the Soviet Union – an empire that fell when no one expected it to fall. And I say to you, my friends, welcome to the end of the empire. We are about to witness something really spectacular, but not in an entertaining kind of way.

If practiced right, quarantine has given us the best gift we could ever ask for as a society – solitude (I know it might not feel that way when you are locked up with relatives and children, but still). Solitude is an amazing opportunity for introspection. For centuries, people across the world sought solitude to gain wisdom. Even though neither solitude, nor wisdom, is held up in much regard in this society, quarantine lessons suggest that we need to rethink our lives and our priorities. And perhaps that, which was not highly regarded before, could be considered as an opportunity to reimagine the world and build a better society. I don’t think the fall of the empire can be averted, but at least a better vision for us as a people and as a society can be created for those who will emerge from the rubble.

Dogwood flower

Masks and Guises

In my book Teacher education reform as political theater: Global policy dramas, I analyze how in 2014 a small group of Russian reformers enacted teacher education modernization reform despite great opposition from educators and the public. Using rich ethnographic material, the book captures how the official story of improving education obscures a radical change in purposes of schooling, in constructions of teachers’ work, and in teacher education designs. Ultimately, despite the official rhetoric, modernization reforms normalize social inequality, introduce a conservative social change, and position Russian education at the service of global corporations.

“Masks and Guises” is the second chapter from this book and uses the concept of masks to analyze the Concept of Support for the Development of Pedagogical Education. Even though most educators believed it was designed by the Russian Ministry of Education (MOE), it was written by a small group of reformers (Anton Mikhailovich [1], Joseph Abramovich, Maksim Davydovich, Vadim Alekseyevich, Oleg Victorovich, and their colleagues), most of whom were affiliated with Lyutvino Economics University (LEU). This group prepared the initial text of the policy (the LEU version); subsequently, the MOE distributed a slightly modified version for public discussion.

[1] All personal and geographic names are pseudonyms to protect participants’ anonymity and confidentiality.

Money Matters: Political Theater of Competitive Grant Funding

“Money matters: Political theater of competitive grant-funding and reform ideologies” was presented during Eurasia Special Interest Group Highlighted Session at the Comparative and International Education Society Annual Meeting in Mexico City on March 26, 2018.

What is Political Theater?

One way to view educational reform as political theater is from the perspective of theatrics of politics – or observing reformers’ proposals for educational change as a type of dramatic performances, in which reformers as actors (or even directors) attempt to create an illusionary world wrought with problems for which they allegedly identified solutions. Viewing educational reforms and policies from this perspective opens up opportunities for two ways of critically engaging with them. First, in theater, dramatic performances are based on the implicit assumption that they should communicate the truth, yet as theater-goers or spectators in general, we all know that this is not the case. In the theater of politics, however, this implicit assumption is often hard to navigate – we all suspect that politicians lie but are often uncertain about where to draw the line between truth and fiction. In proposing to view educational reform as political theater, I invite us all to start from the assumption that what is presented to us is fictions and then work our way through these fictions to separate that which can be plausible or worth more serious attention.

Second, it is worth remembering that in order to accomplish their intellectual and emotional purposes, dramatic performances utilize dramaturgical techniques that draw the audience in and allow them to experience events onstage in a particular way. Consider, for example, how light is used in theater. When an intense beam is focused on one character, that character is both seen and heard. Moreover, the character’s appearance is completely transformed to match director’s intentions for that character. Thus, what the audience sees is far from “the truth,” rather it is a construction that is intentionally set up to elicit a particular reaction from the audience. Apart from that, a focused beam of light also creates shadows – the areas of the stage that become invisible to the audience. The darkness that shrouds these areas conceals a lot of activity– stage crew might be changing sets or new characters step onstage but wait for their turn to step into the limelight. Yet again, this is all part of dramaturgical techniques deployed to elicit a particular response from the audience. This time it is the response of inattention: because those areas are covered by darkness, the audience most often ignores what is happening there. Consider how in policy debates some problems receive so much attention that it distorts our perception of the object that our attention is drawn to. The failure of public schools and university-based teacher education that politicians and reformers often bring up is a great example of such a distortion. Yet, the focused attention on these problems obscures how new actors enter policy conversations or grab a share of the teacher education market. In the field of teacher education policy, this becomes most clearly seen with the emergence of privately-run teacher academies or initial teacher preparation offered by corporate entities, such as Pearson. The growing role of non-profit and philanthropic organizations tied to the billionaire class in setting educational policy agendas in the US and internationally is similarly obscured by the intense focus on failing public institutions.

There are plenty of other examples of dramaturgical techniques that are applicable to educational policies and reforms. Some of those have already been explored in political science and in educational policy. A reasonable question to ask here is what we as educators, researchers, and citizens can do about this theatricality of politics.

Theater studies provide us with another way to approach political theater and suggest a possible answer to the question of what can be done about theatricality of politics. Throughout the twentieth century, there have been multiple efforts to reform theater and create a new form of aesthetics. Among many other innovators, Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal are most relevant for this conversation. Influenced by the Russian and European socialist movements of the 20th century, Brecht was invested in creating a new form of theater – a political theater that educates the public about the social problems around them. Brecht was concerned about the effects of traditional theater that creates the illusion of social well-being and lulls audience into the position of inaction. To address this concern, he was interested in creating the types of performances that would push the audience to think, to question, to reflect, and to consider what actions can be undertaken to address the injustices around them. To achieve this goal, Brecht worked on what he called the A-effect – or alienation effect. Traditional theater is based on the principle of empathy and proximity – the actors’ goal is to get the audience to feel close to the characters they are portraying and to emphasize with their emotions and experiences. Brecht denounced the principle of empathy and proximity. Instead, he urged the actors to create the type of performances that will preserve the distance between the audience and their characters, inviting the audience to remain critical of what is happening onstage. The ultimate goal of the alienation effect is to get the audience to see the familiar world as something strange. Only this experience of strangeness can help the audience to see how social problems can be addressed. Building on Brecht’s work, Boal proposed to completely reconceptualize the role of the audience. Instead of remaining passive observers of what is happening onstage, the audience members are now invited to enter the performance to re-think and re-imagine the struggle, the conflict, and the outcome of the play. This, in a nutshell, is what came to be known as political theater in the twentieth century – theater that exposes social problems and subjects them to critical analysis, so that the audience would actively engage in pursuing solutions to these social problems.

Brecht’s and Boal’s writing helps us engage with educational reform as political theater, so that we as educators, researchers, or citizens can re-think our own roles in the performances that we observe and re-imagine alternatives set before us. Instead of accepting illusions of well-being or crisis presented to us on stages of media outlets or political campaigns, we need to pursue opportunities to distance ourselves from seductive rhetoric set before us and actively engage in reshaping the narratives of reform.

lights on the stage
Image Source

Educational Reforms as Political Theater

In the last twenty years, we have witnessed an unprecedented amount of educational reforms around the world that more often than not bear heavy resemblances to each other. Pasi Sahlberg refers to these reforms as GERM – or Global Educational Reform Movement. Governments embark on transforming national education systems to allegedly improve quality and ultimately guarantee their country’s competitiveness in the knowledge economy. In my travels between China, the UAE, Russia, and the US, I have observed how governments were introducing various reforms to modernize educational systems, improve accountability, and prepare children for the 21st century. These reforms are getting increasingly more attention in educational research. Scholars, activists, and practitioners have begun to pay attention to the issues that these reforms created across a variety of international contexts – from privatization and marketization of public education to demonization and demoralization of the teaching force.

I want to push the conversation about these reforms further by exploring how various policy actors manufacture consensus or accomplish acceptance of the globally-circulated reforms that they propose, at least initially. My interest in these processes stems from a simple observation – if we as members of the public or members of professional communities possessed the tools for assessing, evaluating, and critically responding to policy proposals that come to define our experiences and shape our lives, we would be better equipped to contest them before they come to define our existence. I also wonder what it would take for us to consider ourselves members of a larger body – not disjointed individuals whose voices do not matter and whose choices do not affect others – but rather as a planetary community, members of which recognize that well-being of others has bearing on well-being of all. This recognition is particularly important given the fact that educational policies can target those members of the society who have school-aged children, or whose children don’t speak English as their first language, or whose children are learning to be productive members of society as they learn to operate within the confines and affordances of their disabilities. If we disassociate ourselves from the problems that plague members of particular communities to which we allegedly do not belong because those policies, measures, and reforms affect “those” people and children that are not our own, we will not be effective in mounting a creative and generative critique that can have the potential to improve all of our lives.

The questions that I am grappling with brought me into closer contact with the writings of Bertolt Brecht, Augusto Boal, and Jacques Ranciere that explore the interaction between politics and aesthetics. These thinkers attempt to disentangle the issues of politics, social change, and fragmentation of our experiences in the age of spectacle – where we live entertained and controlled by images, distracted from bigger issues that shape our lives. In subsequent posts, I will share what I am learning through the work of these thinkers. I will also describe how their theories can be helpful for exploring educational reforms as political theater – or a process in which policy-makers, educational reformers, or edupreneurs engage in performances meant to distract the audience from bigger issues, lull them into accepting their construction of the problem, and disguise other activities that accompany these reforms. The purpose of this writing is to explore ways in which the processes of educational policy-making can be demystified and the sense of shared responsibility for our collective future can be restored. More on that next time.