I am writing from Chicago where I just attended Kevin Kumashiro's 6th International Conference on Teacher Education and Social Justice. At this event, Kevin introduced me to the TINA thesis--There is No Alternative--which has echoed through the halls of academe as a justification for budget cuts and furloughs. (Apparently Zygmunt Bauman helped to coin the term.) Now I don't know about you, but if I had a nickel for every time I heard, "There is no alternative," during the past couple of years, I could pack up my cinder-blocked office and retire. The resignation, hopelessness, and fear that result from the repeated utterance of this thesis is what I, with the help of my conference buds and therapist, want to take up here. During the first day of the conference, I was pleased when Bill Ayers proposed moving away from a politics of fear and defensiveness and toward a politics of hope and confidence. As he reminded us, the latter can help us to stop acting as if we are barricaded in a corner with no way out. Ayers's presentation brought to mind "the drama triangle" that I have used repeatedly in my personal relationships, teaching, and activism. More specifically, Ayers spoke of the trouble with viewing President Obama as our great savior. So long as we sit by and wait for him to transform U.S. society, we fail to get off our butts and do something. In the language of the triangle, we frame him as a rescuer and, in turn, ourselves as victims. Moreover, President Obama quickly becomes a perpetrator when he doesn't save the world all by himself and then howl at the moon. The triangle is a therapeutic device and a tool that I see as crucial to social activism and transformation: we must take responsibility for our own words and actions rather than blame some bogeyman or seek a savior.
This notion of responsibility-taking (I prefer response-ability-taking) does not mean that the struggle for a different reality is an individual one. In fact, I have been reading Charles Payne's So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools, and repeatedly find similarities between the failing urban schools that Payne describes and my own higher education institution. To cite two examples: Payne notes that the "denizens of demoralized social spaces do what they have to do but without much heart or hope." Check (particularly in faculty meetings). In a section entitled "Leading with the Negative," he adds, "The weak social webbing of bottom-tier schools [and my institution]...degrades the human resources already there." Check. As he explains (because his words are so right on), "the inability to learn from experience has to do with the lack of time for shared reflection and pooling of information, but even if there were more time, distrustful people have difficulty learning from one another."
With these illustrations, I mean to demonstrate that dysfunction and demoralization are neither figments of our imagination nor individual experiences. We are dealing with powerful, systemic forces that--due to their insidious pervasiveness--can easily appropriate us. However, if we wholeheartedly embrace the TINA thesis in response to these alienating conditions, we have leaped onto the drama triangle where chaos and divisiveness reign. In sum, I am leaving Chicago tomorrow excited about the groundswell of we-will-find-alternatives-to-this-madness energy that I experienced at this conference. We are moving. Let's hope we can continue to connect in ways that defy the "warped character of social relationships" that Payne found in many inner-city schools and, instead, contribute to the building of robust, democratic, equitable forms of public education.