Sunday, May 12, 2013

Issue #114 May 12th, 2013- Mythology in the Modern World

Mythology 101…
One of my students' favorite units every year, is our study of Greek Mythology.  The students love the stories and enjoy the constant turmoil that the Greek gods, goddesses and heroes lived in.  The stories are filled with intrigue, treachery and drama.  They also provide many teaching opportunities as we read and analyze the myths.  Along the way we also talk about different aspects of human nature and think about what the myths tell us about their culture and the times they lived in.

All of that got me thinking about what our modern "mythology" is and what this says about modern Wisconsin's political, social and economic culture.  Carrying this analogy a little further makes me wonder what people in the future will think about us when they look at what was passed off as truth by those "ancient Wisconsinites".  Maybe our "myths" don't have the same storytelling aspects, but we sure can tell some "whoppers" can't we?  In fact it may be debatable as to whether our society is producing mythology, or just extremely tall tales.       

Educational Mythology…
Almost every component of our society has its own set of "myths".  They have their own pantheon of characters as well as recurring themes that appear frequently as the tales unfold.  Education is one area that is a fertile ground for our modern mythology.  

One aspect of our modern Mythology is a tried and true storyteller's strategy, repeat a key catch phrase or idea enough so that it becomes part of the listener's reality.  Education reformers have done this and created the "reality" that our schools are not up to international standards.    

Myths rely on common themes to support their "validity".  For modern "mythologists" the themes of "freedom" and "choice" are used frequently.  For school "reformers" this means that the traditional public schools in their neighborhoods have become the enemy of the values that make our nation special.  Unfortunately, this message of "freedom" and "choice" is one that is very marketable, and even our highest ranking officials (who many supporters of public education voted for has fallen for the mythology of charters and choice). 


With mythology, there is often enough potential truth that the stories can be accepted by the casual, less informed consumer of any given myth.  For example, it is feasible that the gods do cause natural disasters because of their ongoing conflicts with other gods.  In the same way it is possible that vouchers would provide better educational opportunities and more equitable schooling for some students.  Yet, more careful analysis and knowledge of our existing laws show a different story to be more truthful.     

Myths, legends and fables become important ways for a society to promote values, highlight things that are important to a culture, and to create a common sense of purpose (or to identify a common foe).  For these reasons the modern mythology isn't a collection of harmless stories that make for interesting conversation.  They are used as weapons to promote an agenda, divide the population and demonize specific groups of people.

In the case of education they promote privatization, standardized testing and the "de-professionalization" of the jobs educators do in our society.      

Modern myths use data to drive their message, but often the sources of data are often questionable.  It is also true that data can be manipulated to support a specific viewpoint.  We can't forget that the people who are polled are frequently basing their opinions on the existing mythology they have been told is accurate.  Articles like the following one are a big reason why the public perceives our schools as problems in society, not solutions.    

The language used by the mythmakers resonates with what the public views as "common sense".  Take the idea of merit pay for educators as an example.  To those outside of education, the idea of paying for performance sounds reasonable.  After all, if I'm the best at my profession, I should get the best results, right?  Yet, the world of education doesn't operate in the same way that a business or industry does.  The variables that are involved in the education of students in public schools are nearly infinite and impossible to control for.  Thus it becomes virtually impossible to identify those most deserving of the highest pay. 

Educational success is the result of collaborative efforts between professional educators, families and of course the students.  We rely on each other in order to support, encourage and educate our students and no single individual is solely responsible for the end "product".   Basing individual educator pay on the results of these efforts is unfair and unreasonable.       

This is especially true when standardized test results are used.  While watching my students take a recent computerized standardized test, I turned to another educator in the room and simply said, "Merit pay based on this?" and we both smiled.  At the time one student had discovered how to select an answer using the keyboard and was rapidly tapping out answers, several had their heads down, a few more were watching a squirrel outside the window and another student kept asking me how they figured out the scores and what scale was used.  Then I looked over a students shoulder and realized that they were trying to answer a question about "gerunds".  How many of you knew what a gerund was when you were 10?   

After all of the myths are generated, they are used to influence voters and the actions of our politicians.  Unfortunately, by the time we realize we have been sold a myth disguised as truth, it may be too late.  We find ourselves fighting an uphill battle against foes with entrenched positions.  

Labor Mythology…
Of course, education isn't the only place that myths are used for political purposes.  We are seeing a concerted effort to create a version of reality that is anti-labor in our state and nation.  This mythology seeks to portray management as the driving force in economic growth.  It portrays workers as villains who are parasites living off the efforts of the "job creators".   

There are countless examples of how this mythology is used here in Wisconsin to promote economic policies that benefit a minority of citizens at the expense of the majority.  

An important part of the mythology of conservative economics is making sure that only one message is heard by employees and the general public. 

The result of the mythology is that the public believe that unions are anti-American, anti-business and are anti-worker.  None of which are true, but a message that has been effectively delivered over time.  The anti-union rhetoric has been used to support legislation and policies that have tilted the playing field in favor of the employer.  These policies have also created more uncertainty in the labor market and have hurt the economic recovery here in Wisconsin significantly.  

 Political Mythology…
The mythology of labor is mirrored in our more general political, economic and societal dialog.  The use of language that appears to be "common sense" and the use of misleading data forms the basis of the recent rhetoric coming from the most conservative leaders.  Yet, when looked at carefully we see that the results of this agenda lead in directions far removed from what many of its supporters seem to value.  Economic independence, honest, freedom and equality are cornerstones of the message, but are eroded by the actual policies when implemented by conservatives.    

Flawed Logic and Doing the "Expected"…
We live in turbulent times when it seems like most political interactions are confrontational and antagonism is rampant in discussions around important issues.  Too many are spending too much time trying to defeat an opponent, and too few are spending time trying to promote positive solutions to the problems we face.  We can try to blame Bush, or we can blame Obama, yet in the end the problems still exist. 

By putting so much emphasis on blaming or winning we miss the point of why we debate issues.  This isn't a forensics class, it is real life and the conflicts that are occurring are having a detrimental effect on real people.  The constant conflict has eroded public trust in the ability of our leaders to resolve problems in ways that benefit the common person.  Instead we find ourselves divided into subgroups and special interests, fighting for resources and power. 

We see ourselves promoting policies that may be inconsistent.  This allows for our opponents to point out the hypocrisy of our arguments, yet most people fail to see their own contradictory positions.  Thus we have people on both sides of the political spectrum calling for use of identification and background checks, while at the same time arguing against these same methods of controlling who votes, who is a citizen or who owns a gun.  Whether the arguments are logical or consistent isn't as important as the fact that they can point to their oppositions double-standards.  The constant, circular arguing leads us in a perpetual, downward spiral that ends in a total breakdown of our society's ability to resolve problems. 
We find our leaders painted into corners where they have to do what's expected of them, not because it is the correct thing to do, but rather because it is required for them to continue in their positions of power.  Compromise is seen as weakness, and communication is done in short sound-bites that convey a simple message.  A message that doesn't help find solutions, but that instead often further alienates opponents.  In fact, in the current situation we find ourselves in, there is a need to alienate others and to create villains in order to solidify a power base.           

In the end this lack of substantive discussion and limited statesmanship puts us in danger of undermining the very ideals that we claim to value so highly.  The simple reality is that most people in our society simply want to be able to live peacefully and enjoy the opportunities that a successful republic can provide.  In order to do that, we must regain control of the direction that our nation is headed and to hold our leaders accountable for the policies that are enacted.  The ancient Greeks saw themselves as relatively powerless in the face of the actions of their mythological pantheon.  We can't allow ourselves to believe the same thing!

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