Mr. Orwell's Academy

Thanks to Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, and the entire school reform industry for helping this academic return to a novel he never fully appreciated. But, most importantly, thanks to Mr. Orwell.

I graduated high school in 1983.

As a result, I was assigned George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian satire – Nineteen Eighty Four – at least twice, perhaps three times, before I graduated. I believe it was assigned, too, in one of my freshman university English courses. The copy I have is from that year, as indicated by the yellow tape “used” label affixed to the side.

Belated but sincere thanks to my teachers and professors who tried to be, well, so timely.

That is, even though I have been a Professor of English Literature for almost 15 years now, I can’t say have I ever fully appreciated the novel until recently. For that new appreciation I am grateful, too, to President Obama, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee and the entire current American school reform movement – a truly bi-partisan effort -- including its state and local adherents.

Thank you. As part of my job involves making incredibly important literature understandable and relevant to the people of the state of Michigan I know in full the degree of difficulty here. You have just made me appreciate and understand an important book I hadn’t appreciated or understood before. Well done.

But back to 1983 first: I was entirely too cocky (read: stupid) to think Orwell’s tale relevant. After all, I was in America already enjoying all sorts of freedoms and a forward looking sense of growth. Rocky III had just come out and Stallone looked sharp, rather than sloppy, more like Apollo Creed than Pauly. Should an Orwellian government come to place that would try to get away with calling its War Department the “Ministry of Peace” or its welfare system dealing with catastrophic famine and poverty the “Ministry of Plenty” it would be laughed out of existence. Many of us already had honed our David Lettermanesque sense of irony to perfection – or so we thought. And the sex scenes in the book were just depressing in that English sort of way (although I didn't know how weird postwar England literature was about such stuff yet).

Frankly, the only thing that piqued my interest was the link between the “year” as title and Prince’s hit song 1999. “Won’t that be a great New Year’s Eve party song when we are middle aged,” I squealed to my friends busy crushing cans of Old Milwaukee beer. For the record, the artist formerly known as Prince was still “Prince.”

At any rate, I thought briefly of Orwell when a Bloomfield Hills School Board candidate suggested we model our new high school on the EAA run school formerly known as “Finney.” Why, I thought, should top rated BHSD look there for a model? This was a building paid for by a gigantic 1999 (unrelated to Prince) bond millage. Weren't people going crazy about bond millages? Remember the real 1999? Before the housing bubble burst and the Hummer roll out?

Orwell loomed larger in my imagination when all sorts of reform advocates started telling me that my kids were “held hostage” in BHSD – of all places – and that I needed a “choice” and that the choice I had made in moving to BHSD for its schools was not a real choice, pace Governor Snyder. Most importantly, as a parent, I needed to put my kids first. Uh, ok.

Others told me I didn’t understand the nature of 21st century global academic competition. As someone who has been competing regularly for a long time now in a rather tough and established global academic market and spends considerable time trying to recruit research faculty from around the globe to southeast Michigan I was a bit confused.

May be I did need a visit to the Ministry of Truth for some enlightenment.

But an email exchange with my then local representative Chuck Moss brought me in full back to Orwell. My concerns about school reform rushed through a lame duck session, he said, were unfounded and just plain selfish. As representative of Birmingham, Bloomfield, and Troy Mr. Moss had to help “Hyland Park” immediately as there was a crisis – a veritable emergency, an emergency that needed an emergency manager because people had just turned down an emergency manager proposal by the Governor. Emergency.

1984 indeed.

The Michigan Attorney General William Schuette is currently taking the Detroit Public School Board of Education to court because, well, this “emergency” thing is rather longstanding and folks in Detroit still have their own ideas. Think the AG might not come after Birmingham and BHSD schoolboards if he decides he doesn't like things...

At the national level, Michelle Rhee and StudentFirsters (even Orwell couldn’t have dreamed that one up – students first but parents and teachers be damned?) has just released her report card on American schools. Louisiana, she says is first, and Florida second. Michigan? 6th.

Now if these aren’t the states you normally associate with top rated schools (Massachusetts, for example, where most of the faculty I try to recruit dream of going with their kids, is getting a D-) there is an explanation. Rhee and StudentFirsters are handing out grades based on the states that best adhere to their understanding of school reform.

These “grades,” in other words, are not an academic measure. And Rhee and her supporters could care less. Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan (Oh those halcyon days at the U. of Chicago Lab School with Vivian Paley, et. al.! The for profit schools will be just like because the presence of the U. of Chicago had nothing to do with education...the Lab School was just like a charter) are silent about this national nonsense.

Mr. Orwell, my deepest apologies. I was young and dumb but fortunate enough to have public school teachers who did indeed put me first, ahead of the political moment at hand.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Mike Reno January 13, 2013 at 02:34 AM
If this is college-level work… and a college-level analysis of 1984… then we are all in trouble.


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