I want to take a deeper look at a quick exchange that happened during Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing. I don’t want to debate all of Trump, or even all of DeVos’ confirmation hearing. Instead, I’ll focus on a brief interchange between her and Senator Franken, that lasted about ninety seconds.
Worth noting: my goal isn’t to induce guilt or shame, or to point fingers, but it is to encourage some honest reflection.
Part 1: Combatting Tribalism
This may be the most important thing I say, so I’m putting it first. I hope you’ll read it. The politics and policy starts at part 2, but this is more important.
There are likely a few people who are here to read about mansplaining, and another group who want to talk about the nitty gritty details of education policy. I’ll start with mansplaining, but I need to talk about tribalism first. We’ll start with a trip to the New Testament.
In the Book of Matthew, Jesus is giving the sermon on the mount; about 30 verses after he ends the beatitudes, he reminds his followers about the need to love everyone, even their enemies. Then He touches upon something that I’ve somehow managed to miss until now. Jesus says:
“if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same?
And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so?
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
I always thought this was about Jesus’ disgust toward hypocrisy; but it was only in this last reading that I finally saw what he was really decrying: tribalism. Perhaps no one has done more to popularize tribalism than Jonathan Haidt, who explains it with an old Bedouin proverb, ““Me against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers.” Haidt’s conclusion is simple: we are tribal beings. We auto-sort ourselves into in-groups and out-groups. We see others as either part of our tribe (the in-group) or not part of our tribe (the out-group). As Scott Alexander puts it, “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup.”
In other words, we don’t get points for only loving our “brethren.” We don’t get points for tolerating the people we love, and we don’t get points for defending our in-groups. We get points for loving those that hate us, and we get points for defending those that we might not otherwise defend.
Alexander offers this illustration:
“The Emperor summons before him Bodhidharma and asks: “Master, I have been tolerant of innumerable gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, transgender people, and Jews. How many Virtue Points have I earned for my meritorious deeds?”
Bodhidharma answers: “None at all”.
The Emperor, somewhat put out, demands to know why.
Bodhidharma asks: “Well, what do you think of gay people?”
The Emperor answers: “What do you think I am, some kind of homophobic bigot? Of course I have nothing against gay people!”
And Bodhidharma answers: “Thus do you gain no merit by tolerating them!”
The cure to tribalism is to view everyone as a brother or a sister–to forcibly rewire your brain such that any human being is considered part of the in-group. Everyone deserves human dignity, be they black, gay, trans, immigrant, refugee, or muslim.
Or even a Republican.
Which brings me to DeVos. I worry that Betsy DeVos was treated unfairly in her hearing, partially on the basis of her gender, but partially on the basis of her party–and that those injustices intensified on social media. Worse, the voices that normally would defend her–primarily those of feminists and social justice advocates–aren’t likely to consider her as in need of defending. To put it bluntly, I am concerned that a woman was talked down to on the basis of her gender, and we didn’t see it because she is a republican.
We miss something important when we only see racism if it fits the textbook example, or if we only see misogyny when it fits our pre-conceived story of “typical” misogyny. In particular, we have blind spots, and I’d submit that “wealthy republican women” are a blind spot for a lot of people, myself included.
Now, I want to clarify that I am not comparing what DeVos endured to discrimination of other groups. Rather, I’m trying to suggest that racism, sexism, and all the various forms of discrimination suffer from the same route causes of tribalism, and have the same cure. We should look to expose tribalism wherever we see it, but should pay special attention to our blind spots: those people who we do not consider part of our tribe. That DeVos’ being a republican makes it acceptable for her to be treated poorly is disconcerting, to say the least.
In other words:
“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
Part 2: Mansplaining
I hope I’m wrong about this.
I don’t claim to be an expert on social justice, and I don’t claim to be perfect either. I know enough, though, to know that women are sometimes treated poorly by men, in particular men who are in power. They are dismissed, and they are often assumed to know nothing of a topic, when in fact they know a great deal.
I awoke today to find that about a dozen friends of mine had posted a video clip, about 1:30 long, of DeVos struggling to answer a question put to her by Senator Al Franken. Here is the question:
“And I would like, your, your views, on uh, the relative advantage of profi–measuring uh, the assessments, and using them to measure proficiency or to measure growth.”
When I first heard this question, I was confused.
Quickly, a little about my background: I know a lot about education–I’m not an expert, but I’d say I’m pretty plugged in. I am an educator and administrator, and I keep a close pulse on the latest research of the day.
And when I heard Senator Franken’s question, I was confused.
I’m not blaming him–he likely had a list of questions, and was jumping between them quickly as he was under a tight time limit from a committee chair whom I disagree with. Senator Franken was probably trying to get through as much as he could as quickly as he could. He stumbled a bit on his question, and it made things unclear, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I reiterate that I disagree with the committee chairman who (from what little I know) opted for less debate rather than more.
In any case, DeVos responds with “Thank you Senator for that question. Um, I think, if I am understanding your question correctly, around proficiency, I would also, um, correlate that to competency and mastery…”
She is then interrupted and told “Well, that’s growth. That’s not proficiency.” He then follows up with (forgive some snark) the revelatory sentence “The growth they’re making is growth.”
We’ll take this in pieces.
First, about mansplaining.
An old white man just interrupted the nominee for secretary of education, a woman, who has done extensive work in education policy. Whether or not she is qualified and knowledgable is up for debate, and I don’t mind it being interrogated–I mind that he cut her off and tried to paint her as stupid. He told her that she didn’t know what she was talking about. After asking a particularly unclear question, she responds tentatively, and with some polite request for clarification. Instead she gets a lecture, a browbeating, some political grandstanding, and a lot of mansplaining. He starts telling everyone how little she knows, and how aggravating it is that she isn’t knowledgable in this particular area–all while she is trying to get a word in edgewise–and drones on and on about how “we are robbing our children of the education they deserve because DeVos… something something… Trump is a fascist.” (Not an actual quote.)
Watch the video. And watch how many times she tries to get further explanation, or even tries to jump in and respond.
Then watch the longer video, where you see the Senator, before giving her a chance to respond, redirect to the chairman of the committee, preventing her from getting an answer in. The chairman happily takes the fight, and we watch as two white men argue over politics, while a woman is assumed to know nothing.
He made her look bad, and then made sure she couldn’t answer. He wanted a clip to put out on the internet, and he got one.
This was a case study in mansplaining. It’s also a case study in the power dynamics of people who think a title, a mic, and a squishy chair make them superior to other people.
My guess is that there are women who have been treated this way, for whom this situation is frustrating. Again, I don’t pretend to be perfect. I’m not expecting perfection from Senator Franken. But I am expecting an apology if it is warranted. In this case, I think it is. I’m hopeful I’m wrong, and if I am misunderstanding, please tell me.
Two things I’d like to clarify:
- I am not suggesting that Republicans don’t do this. I don’t much care for them either, of course, but that’s not the important point: the important point is that nobility matters more than “they started it.”
- Politics is dirty. That doesn’t make it acceptable. Senator Franken should take a hit for this, or should apologize. We can’t be surprised that our politicians act this way when we vote for people who are nasty, but at least agree with us on *insert key political issue here.* I lost respect for Senator Franken as I watched this.
Part 3: Education Policy
Now to policy. Mrs. DeVos answered by talking about mastery-based education and competency-based education. She was hesitant, but she wasn’t floundering, despite what Vox may have said. She answered the question about growth vs. proficiency by correctly pointing out that the answer is mastery-based learning.
Senator Franken’s concern is a good one, and it was a good question: which is more important, growth or proficiency? And his take on that dichotomy is a good one too: that giving states flexibility is important, because growth matters.
I work at a school that is composed of immigrants. Nearly 90% of our students are from immigrant families. Few of them will achieve proficiency targets within a year of getting to this country, and yet we are proud to help them achieve high levels of growth while they are here. Our targets should be based around growth.
But Mrs. DeVos responded with a thoughtful answer: that mastery-based learning is the best of both worlds. She’s right, even if she was hesitant. Originally conceived of by Benjamin Bloom, mastery-learning is the idea that students should only move on when they have mastered a topic. Mastery-based learning, then, means that students aren’t just growing, they’re growing at their own pace. 30 students can be in one room, and they all have an education that is designed for them, individually. Student-centric, mastery-based learning is, at least in my opinion, the right direction for education to go.
And I won’t hold it against someone like Senator Franken if they haven’t heard of it. After all, maybe he isn’t a teacher. Maybe he doesn’t know about the latest in education research. Maybe he doesn’t read the journals, or hear from the experts and the entrepreneurs. So maybe I should cut him some slack. Not everyone knows Benjamin Bloom’s work as well as I do.
But I can’t cut him slack.
Because he, and I suspect it was deliberate, hid his ignorance by calling a woman ignorant, rather than hear her out. So I’m calling him on it. He’s happy to say that she has no education experience, despite his own total lack of experience. Worse yet, he’s allowing social media to go nuts with a clip that shows him doing nothing more than being unclear, and proclaiming victory when she is confused by his poor-quality question.
Part 4: About DeVos
Proposal: If a person (like one of my friends, or indeed, Senator Franken himself) would not support any Trump nominee, no matter what their qualifications, it is entirely within their rights to forego the questioning of that person. There are many ways to express that you will not support any nominee that Donald Trump puts forward as secretary of education, on principle. (My favorite way: say “I will not support any nominee that Donald Trump puts forward as secretary of education, on principle.”)
Consider a hearing in which Senator Franken says, “Mrs. DeVos, thank you for being here. Thank you for your work in education. I disagree with you fiercely on the issues, but I want to respect you during this hearing. There is simply no way that I can support your nomination, given that you will be working with a man that I disagree with so deeply. And I don’t want to make you the object of political football and grandstanding. While embarrassing you would further my political goals, it would be unkind, and unfair. As such, I thank you for being here, but I will not support your nomination.”
Similarly, I am not persuaded by the various news outlets that had likely already written their opposition memos well in advance of the hearing. Vox, MSNBC, and HuffPo all decried DeVos’ hearing, and would have no matter how spectacularly she had performed.
Fake news indeed.
Many of my friends (and indeed, Franken himself) never had any interest in supporting DeVos. Donald Trump could have nominated anyone, and the result would have been the same.
Here are some similar proposals:
- If we are holding republicans to account for mansplaining, it is fair to also hold democrats accountable.
- If civility matters, we should hold our politicians accountable for civility independent of the degree to which we agree with them politically.
- It’s fair to interrogate the political views of your political opponents, even having lost an election. It is not fair to feign surprise that they have opposing views, however. In particular, it’s disingenuous to feign outrage that there are people out there who support charter schools or voucher programs.
- If you would not be convinced by anything that DeVos has to say, it’s appropriate to say so. If you are watching DeVos, and have already made up your mind, it is better to admit this than search for videos that will lead you to evidence that confirms your pre-conceived biases. No painting bullseyes around your bullet holes.
- If you would not confirm any nominee that Trump puts forward, it’s appropriate to say so, rather than embarrass a person to achieve your political ends. That secretaries of federal agencies are political pawns goes without saying, but again, the status quo is no excuse.
DeVos may be a disaster. I have no great love of Trump–quite the opposite, in fact–I consider him the great malevolent cheeto, and bringer of the apocalypse. That said, the clip being shared shows a Senator being rude to a woman, and the woman not getting a chance to respond. I think the senator should get called on that.