The Borg – a collective of conformist cyborgs – is the scourge of the Enterprise, on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it may have just landed in Oakland, CA, at the nationally acclaimed – and highly controversial – American Indian Public Charter School.
While this sounds like a silly way to begin a serious discussion, the conflict between the Enterprise and the Borg captured the raging “culture wars” of the 1980s quite accurately, illustrating through a war of the worlds the dramatic war of the words between “progressive” and “traditional” values which continues to rage today over AIPCS’ “back to basics” approach.
While the Enterprise represents a progressive utopia, in which racial equality, curiosity, creativity and rationality are the highest values, the Borg vividly illustrate the forces of fascist conformity. The crew of the Enterprise consist of white, black, blind, human and non-human, all working together, yet all retaining their unique personalities and culture; the Borg is a hive mind which speaks in a single, robotic voice, with no individuality, only total subordination to the directives of the collective. While the Enterprise seeks knowledge of the universe, and always follows the “Prime Directive” of respecting all cultures, the Borg has but a single goal: total mechanized conformity which it imposes on the universe, stripping creatures of their individuality and culture and transforming them into remote-controlled drones – more Borg for the collective.
Whoa. Bummer, man.
And on the surface, progressives will be tempted to see AIPCS, a school which serves primarily low-income minority children, and which has been applauded by conservative heavy hitters like George Will and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, as Borg-like. Dr. Ben Chavis, the controversial and unabashedly anti-liberal former administrator, an American Indian himself, told Will in a recent column that "Everyone says we should 'preserve our culture.' There is a lot of our culture we should wipe out." Chavis elaborates on this philosophy in a COMMON SENSE & USEFUL LEARNING AT AIPCS, posted on the school website: “The staff of AIPCS does not preach or subscribe to the demagoguery of tolerance,” a counterculture sentiment in the birthplace of PC-liberalism. And in an interview with the East Bay Express, he claims “Liberals are worse than the Klan…they hide behind their multiculturalism and bilingualism.”
In a recent OP-ED “Where Paternalism Makes the Grade”, Will compliments Chavis as a “benevolent dictator,” who “looks somewhat like Lenin but is less democratic” – and certainly, reports on AIPCS reflect his dictatorial ethos. Will applauds the school which “stresses obligation, not self-expression,” as is evidenced by the strict dress, behavior and academic codes. AIPCS requires students all wear identical uniforms, and every morning, they chant the schools’ motto and mission statement “in a slightly robotic tone”, which “includes the promise that American Indian will develop students to be ‘productive members in a free market capitalist society,’ reports the LA Times in a recent article “Spitting in the Eye of Mainstream Education”. And in class, Will reports, “students are taught to sit properly -- no slumping -- and keep their eyes on the teacher.”
Any student who does not act properly might be subject to strict disciplinary measures, including not only detention but public embarrassment, according to reports by the LA Times, the SF Chronicle, and the East Bay Express: one girl student was forced to clean the boys’ bathroom, another had his head shaved (though these were “extreme” incidents). Further, Chavis openly admits to insulting “lazy and ignorant students,” telling some students they are an “embarrassment” to their race (insert “black,” “Mexican,” or “Chinese.”)
The Means are the Ends?
Yes, progressives will be tempted to see Dr. Chavis, and AIPCS as one-dimensional villains, much like the Borg – enemies of racial harmony, of individuality – fascists, which is just how Chavis characterizes his liberal critics.
But AIPCS’ totalitarian methods should not be confused with its progressive goal: to combat the alarming “achievement gap” between the performance of white (and Asian-American students) and minority students (African-American and Hispanic), to give typically disenfranchised students in Oakland the opportunity to go to college and be successful. AIPCS wants to give hard-working, impoverished “ghetto” students the opportunity to escape the ghetto, to become “productive members in a free market capitalist society,” to have good, fulfilling jobs and live in safe neighborhoods. And while Chavis’ tone is caustic, his message is fundamentally progressive: “We don’t need more race relations. We need blacks with math degrees; we need Mexicans with math degrees,” he told the East Bay Express, a fact most readers would agree with.
And further, most educators – including myself, as a community college English teacher – would agree with AIPCS that discipline, hard work, and excellent attendance, as the school demands, are vital ingredients to a successful academic career. The unwavering focus on academics is admirable. And, as the LA Times reports, AIPCS is based in part on methods that worked for the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), as described by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: students spend more time in school than your average public school student, which provides them the opportunity, Gladwell says, “to let…students see the clear relationship between effort and reward.” Students have more time to focus on school at AIPCS, and that focus appears richer.
And this focus is primarily on standardized tests, which the LA times reports AIPCS “relentlessly (and unapologetically) teaches to,” with arts programs consigned to after school (SF Chronicle).
And like KIPP, AIPCS is getting results…on standardized tests. “By standard measures, they are among the very best in California.” (LA Times). Only 3 public middle schools scored better, and “none of them serves mostly underprivileged children.” As a result, the “Bush administration named American Indian a ’Blue Ribbon School,’ as one of the top 250 private or public schools in the nation.” (East Bay Express).
Back to the Future
The implication is that this “back to basics” approach, which Will describes as “new paternalism,” or “the restriction of freedom for the good of the person restricted” makes for better education, and is the solution to the “achievement gap” and other problems in the educational system. In short, “new paternalism” could succeed where “progressive” educational philosophies have failed in “closing the gap between the haves and have-nots in American education” (LA Times).
And essentially, “new paternalism” is the conservative worldview, at least as progressive cognitive linguist George Lakoff describes it in Don’t Think of an Elephant! (This link takes you to his discussion of the theory I paraphrase below). Through this research, Lakoff claims that conservatives tend to view the world through a “strict father model,” in which discipline and obedience are primary values. In this worldview, “a good person – a moral person – is someone who is disciplined enough to be obedient, to learn what is right, do what is right and not do what is wrong, and to pursue her self interest to prosper and become self-reliant,” a statement which seems to capture the educational philosophy espoused by AIPCS students in the morning chant.