graphite and glitter

Yesterday, as I stood in line at J.C.Penney’s to return a disappointing coffee maker, I heard a cover of Donald Fagen’s “I.G.Y.” come over the sound system. I smiled.

Haters will now commence hating; hipsters will arch an eyebrow hiply before returning to their Bon Iver. “Muzak.” That’s O.K. We devotees of the varied outputs of Fagen and Becker and their rotating gang of pale, squinting, studio-rat misfits are used to your scorn.

We even know all your moves: how the sheen of its production is just the grown-up version of disco, inauthentic and manufactured; how 2000’s Two Against Nature robbed Radiohead of their Grammy because of the accumulated guilt in the Academy for denying them previously; how generic and ersatz their funk is, how tiresome their growling, bitter schtick becomes as they drag out the band for yet another summer tour for the picnicking old white people at Wolf Trap.

Whatever. I know what I like, as surely as Peter Gabriel’s lawnmower, and I will love the world their music creates always and forever. The record that “I.G.Y.” opens was actually my introduction to that world. An older girl I was accompanying to her high school beauty pageant dropped it on me (truth being stranger than any fiction I could create). She picked me up for rehearsal – I didn’t have my permit yet – and eased the cassette into her 280-Z’s deck as we pulled away, saying “so, here’s the most sophisticated music I’ve ever heard.” That was that.

And every time I pull out The Nightfly, it’s the same experience. That terrifically thrilling mix of oblique substance and kitchen-clean, highly-polished surface that puts over Achtung Baby is working here. Not a hair out of place in the mix, and not an unambiguous declarative sentence to be found in the lyrics. Well, we mostly know what this record is about – more than any Steely Dan record, for sure, as Fagen gives it to us right there on the back of the record jacket:

Note: The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build. – D.F.

OK – so it’s a memoir. (By a boomer. How refreshing.) But like any memoir, what really makes it to the page or the wax is only a refraction of what actually lived. I cannot tell your story completely any more than you can mine, and I probably am even less able to give a full account of my own experience. I find an analog to the narrative shiftiness of this “autobiographical” record in the music itself, Clive Bell-style. I wonder at how the bass of the songs so seldom “roots” the listener in the key, instead anticipating the next set of changes as it slides around. I hear this most clearly on “New Frontier,” which has a confident melody buried in the chords of its vamp, but whose bass is always running ahead or hitching up behind, trying to tie its shoes. It’s so sly, and so endlessly engaging. (I wish I had more music theory to bring to this effort to explain Fagen’s “well-tempered Rhodes piano,” but we do what we can.)

I also confess to a crush on the high-modern dreams and schemes of the early 1960s – or at least the version that has trickled down to us in obsessively-maintained catalogs of the 1964 World’s Fair (and the more-loved-than-actually-watched series Mad Men, which we’ll welcome back tonight). That’s the reason why my own rhapsody in Fagen is here on my professional blog: it’s got me thinking about the way we’re doing educational policy right now, and how very “modern” it is.

I taught a chapter from Tyack and Cuban’s timeless Tinkering Toward Utopia last week. It’s a century-long look at education reform that tries to understand why some aspects of vigorously-implemented, top-down change efforts have actually impacted “the grammar of schooling” – its deep, unnoticed structure – but most have not. Their conclusion:

Should one conclude that it is impossible to improve schooling in basic ways? We think not, though the task is much harder than many people suspect. We suggest that actual changes in schools will be more gradual and piecemeal than the usual either-or rhetoric of innovation might indicate. Almost any blueprint for basic reform will be altered during implementation, so powerful is the hold of the public’s cultural construction of what constitutes a “real school” and so common is the teachers’ habit of hybridizing reforms to fit local circumstances and public expectations (p. 109).

I think that’s the core frustration that beats within the slick heart of “I.G.Y.” It’s a recollection of the clear-visioned, cool-headed aspirations of scientists who envisioned a world made infinitely, effortlessly better by the wholescale implementation of their technologies. I can’t begin to excerpt from the song, so here’s the whole thing:

Standing tough under stars and stripes
We can tell
This dream’s in sight
You’ve got to admit it
At this point in time that it’s clear
The future looks bright
On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from new york to paris
Well by seventy-six we’ll be a.o.k.

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free
Get your ticket to that wheel in space
While there’s time
The fix is in
You’ll be a witness to that game of chance in the sky
You know we’ve got to win
Here at home we’ll play in the city
Powered by the sun
Perfect weather for a streamlined world
There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from new york to paris
(more leisure for artists everywhere)
A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
We’ll be clean when their work is done
We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

There’s the glorious, high-modern vision, laid out foursquare around the Unisphere for you to take in at your (increased) leisure. All we have to do is step up and take a bite.

And of course, it’s exactly that breed of sweeping hubris that Tyack and Cuban say leads to so few elements of such broad schemes ever really taking root. They pretend that they’re implemented in a vacuum, sweeping away all that goes before; they ignore the craft knowledge (metis) that already thrives in the hands and brains of the populace they seek to enlighten; they pretend local context and concern is a Lorax-like distraction  to be cleared away. So their innovations are, historically, “hybridized:” a teacher takes these three worksheets, and that lovely Call of the Wild poster, before returning to her classroom and closing the classroom door. After all, she knows what works and what doesn’t for her kids better than any egghead at the central office, thanks very much. Time for class to start.

It’s great to talk about this vibrant, insightful book. But then we note the publication date: 1995. That’s six years before the sweeping federal accountability legislation of “No Child Left Behind,” and thirteen before the “Race to the Top” program incentivized states to align their curriculum, accountability, and policy practices to national expectations in exchange for time-limited federal money that’s a pittance of my state’s education budget (we’ve received $470M over the next four years, against an annual budget of $7.5 B, if my math is right).

What’s past is prologue – but to what? The last decade and a half marks unprecedented federal involvement in the hand-to-hand, locally-managed work of educating children. Teacher autonomy to act in their students’ best interests behind the closed “classroom door” is mitigated or eliminated by regulated curriculum and assessment expectations. Their practice and results are increasingly measured and compared by top-down certainty that their successes can be adequately reckoned from far, far away.

The irony and scorn in Fagen’s lyric is revealed slowly. It starts as simple tribute to the “better, vanished time” of youth (who of us can’t sing that song), but is starkly clear by the time he describes the “just machines which will make big decisions,” at least to this listener. There’s no freedom in giving your decisions to machines; there’s only what has been lost as their algorithms erase what they – however compassionately programmed – can never see.

None of which is to say that accountability, rigor, improvement are anathema to school. It’s our trust to do the best we can by our kids, and to devote our lives to doing our work better and better. Articulating the “soft bigotry of low expectations” was a huge win of NCLB, and we’re better for having it out in the light to address.

But I think we are silly if we think this wave of top-down reform efforts is fully capable of making the change we seek. Change is a hearts-and-minds thing, and hearts and minds are changed when their strengths and differences and idiosyncrasies – their metis – are acknowledged and valued and celebrated and incorporated into the next step forward. So far I do not see state or federal will to proceed with those priorities in mind. That kind of reform is very expensive and messy, and outlasts accountability (and election) timetables.

Let’s enjoy the surface of well-wrought plans, but not be seduced by the gorgeous graphite and glitter of their all-consuming master narratives. I suggest that history (and some very well-executed sneaky pop music) teaches us we’re better off minding what we already know, even if it’s not “clean.”

Thanks to Wikipedia for this evocative picture of the Taiwan High Speed Rail, which I do not think can go under water but, from the looks of it, might.

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