Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Race to the Top... of Barad-dûr (Sauron in the White House?)

One Ring to Rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.

A warning – if you’re not at least reasonably familiar with the Lord of the Rings stories, this post may completely fly over your head...

I’ll start with a question, or three.  Who is the Sauron of modern public education?  You know, the one whose lidless, ever-watching eye sits atop the Dark Tower of Barad-dûr, in the wretched land of Mordor –  slowly extending his cruel and oppressive dominion over the free peoples of Middle Earth?  Is it President Obama?  Is it Arne Duncan?  Is it Pearson, publisher of the much-maligned Common Core standards?

For that matter, what or where is our Mordor? Is it in Washington, D.C.?  Consider:
"One does not simply walk into Mordor. Its black gates are guarded by more than just Orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. The great Eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire, ash, and dust. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume." —Boromir at the Council of Elrond
And who, then, are the orcs, the Uruk-hai, a disgusting race of animalistic humanioids, bent on destruction, unquestioningly carrying out Sauron’s bidding at his whim and command?  The literature tells us that the Uruk-hai were specially bred for that purpose.  From what stock?  Are they the freshly minted teachers being shat out by modern, progressive teacher education programs, full of empty-headed idealism, and easily led by the charismatic and manipulative Sauron?  Or are they the teachers selected for promotion through the ranks to administrator – the ones most able to sacrifice principle for pragmatics, justice for advancement, and the ones who swallow the mantras “play the game,” “you have to be more political,” and “don’t make waves?”  After all, didn’t Saruman the White say to Gandalf the Grey (at least in the film version):
Saruman: Against the power of Mordor there can be no victory. We must join with Him, Gandalf. We must join with Sauron. It would be wise, my friend.
Well, my response is Galdalf’s response:
Gandalf: Tell me, "friend", when did Saruman the Wise abandon reason for madness?
Oh sure, the lure of the One Ring, the Ring of Power, the one Ring to Rule them all, is appealing.  Maybe, as Boromir thought, it is “a gift?”   (View the one-minute long snippet from this scene of the movie here.  No, really, you'll want to, so this next part makes sense.)

The speech you hear Gandalf reciting is the following:

It is the inscription on the inside surface of the One Ring, forged by Sauron to dominate all of the other Rings that were given out to the lords of the free peoples of Middle Earth: three to the Elves, seven to the Dwarves, and nine to Men. 

It is noteworthy, perhaps, that so easily dominated were the hearts and minds of Men by the evil magicks of the Ring, that the nine Kings of men who took the rings from Sauron were forever changed
“Once nine great Kings of Men, they were all given Rings of Power. The Nine took them without question and subsequently, after the forging of the One Ring, became slaves of Sauron and later his chief lieutenants”  (courtesy LOTR wiki). 
It is also noteworthy, perhaps, to observe that the inscription, on the inside of the evil Ruling Ring, hidden from view, and only visible by exposing the Ring for a period to time to direct flame (otherwise it looked like an ordinary plain gold band – the truth hidden by deception, ulterior motive) actually looked like this:

Beautiful, flowing, delicate script; how easy it is to be fooled by appearances.  Such evil hidden in such pretty-looking words for the fool who chooses to wear the Ring without bothering to give it a close inspection, a critical reading. 
One Ring to Rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.
And all this makes me think of the words of Gandalf, who warned Frodo Baggins of the danger in wantonly using the tools of so powerful an enemy:
"A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring …[he] walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later - later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last - sooner or later the dark power will devour him."
And then today, I read this article, about an 80-year old retired educator who proudly risked jail time to go and protest some of her state’s new educational mandates, redacted and paraphrased here:
  • A Senate Bill creating an independent board to manage all charter schools;
  • A House Bill linking teachers’ bonuses to students’ high scores;
  • A Senate Bill providing government officials to take over school construction.
And it all snapped into place:  Everything is connected! In the darkness, bound!

Everything is becoming Common Core, which is tied to Race to the Top, which is part of No Child Left Behind.  Teacher performance is measured by test scores which are fed into a government formula.  Curriculum is determined by a bullet-point list of Common Core standards, and all teachers must coordinate their lessons with the CC, and prove that they are doing so, or be disciplined.   If their students fail to achieve, teachers are financially penalized or removed from service altogether.  Success is incentivized by the government for schools and districts by dangling meager amounts of cash from the Race to the Top coffers (like the Nine Rings of Power given to Men), and like Saruman the White, the schools give up the fight and join their enemies to be on the side that is winning.  With even school facilities development oversight being taken over by government entities, all tendrils from the organism of public education reach upwards towards a single nexus or point of control, a single overarching authority, an ever watchful Presence, with one Ring to Rule us all, and in the darkness, bind us.


And how was Sauron ultimately defeated?  A long and dangerous quest – a classic Joseph Campbell-style Hero’s Journey – to destroy the One Ring, in the fires of the volcano in which it was forged by Sauron himself, aptly called “Mount Doom.”

So either way, we march towards Doom – shall we do it as a dominated profession of once free people, or shall we march there, defiantly and proudly, to the crest of the Volcano, and confront our nemesis in epic, glorious battle, for the sake of all teacherkind?

Who’s up for a fight?  I’m just A.S.K.ing…


  1. As a teacher and giant LOTR fan, I completely agree!

    1. @tattoo: Much obliged... I didn't really know what direction this post was going to go when I started writing it, just a vague idea that there was something very Dark-Lord-esque about the way all things K-12 were coalescing around (gravitating toward?) a single governmental mandate that made me think of Sauron and the One Ring. Glad you liked the post :-)