Cultivating work of “a tough mind and a tender heart”

In a sermon reprinted in 1963’s Strength to Love, Martin Luther King calls for a dialectic of tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness, which he encapsulates in nonviolent resistance, which “combines toughmindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the soft minded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted.”  It’s a simplistic schematic, but it contains the best of what I appreciate about Dr. King, particularly as a thinker.  Resistance cannot be complacent, must not only be in a state of unrest, but must stir up unrest.  Academia’s complicity in reifying the domination and stratification of the ruling classes extends from its dependence on the means of corporate interests and warmongers, to its shirking of intellectual responsibility to be truth-tellers, as gadflies from Chomsky to Cornel West, from Gramsci to Bourdieu, have reminded us.  But nonviolence is a concerted effort of compassion and love, a hard-nosed and sustained, painful and dedicated commitment to humanizing oppressed and oppressors, of calling out the evil in others and recognizing it in ourselves, of strength enough to fight and sympathy enough to free.  I think my own tendency is to attempt to be a scholar of reconciliations, a tender-hearted embrace of as many perspectives as wish to sing kumbaya around the table.  But the organic intellectual must also speak forth what’s misguided, what’s hegemonic, what’s imperial, often in the very language and forms of communication which are designed to mark out, distinguish, separate, and exclude.  She must do so while suffering the schizophrenia of tough-mindedness and tenderheartedness.

We must be in grateful and continued dialogue with those we resonate with, but also with those we disagree with.  We must engage them with clarity and force, but also in a spirit of understanding.  For instance, I think often of how I should write about our schools as a scholar.  Will my critique antagonize school leaders?  Get me pinned as a “critical” (read: irrelevant) voice, offering nothing substantive to the conversation?  Or do I compose myself with the same norms of research, the packaging of quantifiable, value-added economic efficiency-trained best practices, that I feel drain the work of its humane, particular, contextualized, and potentially revolutionary bent?  The answer is to do neither.  The answer is to step into the morass, to march up where other voices are uninvited, to speak with common moral language of authority, and if necessary to stand there with the courage to be flogged and hosed.  But to do so with the recognition that your opponent needs to hear something, needs to be reminded, needs to be called back to something which first put him in front of kids in a classroom, first compelled her to invest in children…

Education scholars must be endlessly critical, as a matter of critical hope, which is material hope, substantial hope.  But we must also be willing to be refined in good-faith dialogue.  We must continually find the veins of shared blood even among those with incommensurable perspectives and contrary positions.  For me, that means despite my significant concerns and critique of Common Core, David Coleman, and the Gates Foundation and so on, which I will have to write about one day, I can’t help but bristle at Susan Ohanian’s sometimes eloquent but often bitter screed against the “heart’s death” we are supposed to resist with Common Core’s onset.  In broad sweeps, I largely agree, and would like also for my daughter to have crayons and finger paints, but I wish our disagreement did not have to be such a whole-cloth dismissal.  In reality, earnest teachers are rolling with this momentary swinging pendulum, still instilling the distinctive and personalized passion for language and literature with or without CCSS, NCTE, or whatever body’s say-so.  Only those who believed in salvation by standards will perish in its flames, and would have anyway.  Instead of a “resisting the system,” we might, by our teaching, call the system to the carpet for its failures of vision and purpose, and struggle for children to be “college and career-ready” as incidental to the bigger project of human flourishing, civic empowerment, and cultural development that we are engaged in.  I’m not saying we should sell out, but can I hope we can retort transcendently.


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