Book Review: Sartre and No Child Left Behind: An Existential Psychoanalytic Anthropology of Urban S
Hell is…Public Education
Harold and Maude. Kermit and Miss Piggy. Bacon and ice cream. Chicken and waffles. Odd couples really are not that odd anymore. While it seems relatively easy to accept that a frog could love a pig, when it comes to unorthodox pairings of a theoretical nature, our ability to easily understand the union can sometimes be put to the test. This is the case with Darian Parker’s Sartre and No Child Left Behind. Even scholars of philosophy or educational theory may ask, “What does a French philosopher have to do with modern-day education legislation in America?” The answer is everything. In his application of existentialist philosophy to inner-city classrooms, Parker departs from traditional educational existentialist thinking, and in doing so, highlights many of the things that are wrong with inner-city public schools today.
The book first delves into a discussion of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is frequently cited in the first section of the piece. Parker explicates one of the main pillars of existentialism, which is that people create and define their own lives. By living, human beings must make choices, and their futures are decided by those choices and subsequent actions. Essentially, people are what they do, and should not let others define who they are. These basic underpinnings are frequently referenced in more “classic” applications of existentialism to the classroom. But, it is clear from the first section of the book that Parker is not taking the classic approach, which basically boils down to students choosing how they act and taking responsibility for those choices. Instead, Parker highlights the dichotomy between classic existentialist educational theory and the realities of classrooms in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era.
In detailing his nine-month observation of a public school in New York, which he dubs “The Academy,” Parker outlines the premise of NCLB, which was passed in 2001. The book first explains that the United States’ educational system has historically been a local endeavor, but with NCLB, national factors are now at work. According to the text, NCLB deals with students reaching “proficiency,” which is measured through the use of standardized tests and then reported at the district, state, and federal level. The overall structure of the program revolves around setting higher standards for teachers in the hopes of providing better instruction for the students. Furthermore, while the teachers are held to stricter standards, they are also expected to develop teaching relationships with the students. Additionally, teachers are required to present the material to students in such a way that allows for a positive learning environment with constructive feedback.
After establishing a clear definition of the legislation that is in place, Parker uses the core of his text to make clear that although the NCLB seems like a good idea in theory, there are innumerable existentialist consequences as a result of the program. He brings up multiple questions that go to the heart of educational issues in America today. How do students define themselves when such a large part of their life experience is spent at schools that are impoverished and labeled as “underperforming”? Even if students do not let others define who they are, if they are labeled “below basic” or “far below basic” year after year, what are the psychological effects and how can they rise above that definition? Are students being subjected to these labels while simultaneously being denied the tools they need to make real improvement? Why do schools with low “school grades” have high numbers of ethnic minorities, and why is NCLB totally devoid of any mention of racial and socioeconomic factors? What is the system doing to help urban schools and improve the learning of the students within them?
Sartre and No Child Left Behind asserts that NCLB underlines the inadequacies of struggling schools and students while doing very little to help the situation. Parker notes that teachers at “The Academy” were in many cases trapped by the rigid system. District or state policies would mandate teachers cover material at the level students were expected to be by a certain grade. Students in the sixth grade were expected to read at a sixth grade level (or higher) on district and state tests, but an overwhelming majority of the students were somewhere between a first or second grade level. Teachers who tried to introduce texts at a lower, but attainable, reading level were told they weren’t being rigorous enough. This means both students and teachers were being labeled as deficient, and thereby the school grade was considered a D or F.
In his acute description and discourse on NCLB’s many shortcomings, Parker advocates for changes in educational legislation. Without modifications to the system that is in place, the “human consequences” become too great. The blanket misappropriation of existentialism in classic educational theory says students merely need to take responsibility for their actions – so if they are illiterate, ultimately it is their own fault. Sartre and No Child Left Behind is the antithesis of this doctrine. If students who are in the process of becoming repeatedly experience negative educational stimuli, then the way they define themselves and create their futures will be affected. As an educator, I can say with great confidence that Parker’s book is spot-on in terms of what is actually happening in the American educational system today. This is a book not only for teachers, but also for administrators and legislators, with the latter being the group that would benefit the most from reading it. Eye-opening and poignant, Sartre and No Child Left Behind stresses that many students, especially those who are low income or minorities, are being left behind.
Parker, Darian M. 2015. Sartre and No Child Left Behind: An Existential Psychoanalytic Anthropology of Urban Schooling. United States: Lexington Books. 143 pp. ISBN: 0739191594. $80.00.