Literacy vs. Tyranny: A Conversation with Matt Bardin

Pink and Matt

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with my friend Matt Bardin, a veteran educator and the founder and CEO of Zinc Learning Labs. Matt had a number of very thought-provoking things to say about the role of education—specifically, reading—in our current political climate, and on the state of political discourse in America in general, some of which challenged my own preconceived notions. He graciously agreed to talk at more length for this blog.

Before founding Zinc, Matt taught high school and middle school in the New York City public school system, was a founding director of Teach For America, co-founder of the technology company High Five Labs, and founder of Veritas Tutors (now Zinc Educational Services). He is also the author of Zen and the Art of the SAT.

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THE KING’S NECKTIE: Matt, when we saw each other in August, you told me how tired you were of a certain kind of journalism that has become very commonplace since the election. As I thought about it afterward, I began to feel like this blog might fall into exactly that category. So can we start by talking about this concept of yours, “DTBM”?

MATT BARDIN: (laughs) Yeah, “Donald Trump Bad Man.” After the election, like everyone else I know, I was very upset, and reading lots of news and opinion in all the usual venues—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, the Atlantic, you name it—and after a while I just got so sick of being herded like cattle towards all this clickbait. It’s very sophisticated clickbait, but most of it boils down to nothing more than just “DTBM”: Donald Trump Bad Man. Donald Trump is not who I want representing my ideal of America, but the reality is, we elected him, even though there’s a lot of argument and debate about why. And most of those essays and opinion pieces don’t add anything. They’re not informing me, they’re not teaching me anything.

But I still read a lot of these pieces. I think the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece last week in The Atlantic (The First White President) was really impressive.

TKN: Right. I read it.

MB: I don’t agree with everything he said. I think there’s more to it than just plain racism, but that was a very powerful piece, and he’s a spectacular writer, and I think that’s actually resonating and making people come out and talk about racism more. I don’t know if it’ll help….I don’t know if it will make us less racist, but maybe, you know? Because it was really powerful.

TKN: It’s interesting you bring up that Coates piece because I think a lot of people had the same reaction that you and I had. It stood out in a sea of venting about Donald Trump…. 

MB: DTBM! 

TKN: Yeah. It stood out because it was saying something eloquent, but also different and powerful and not just the usual, “Ah God, this is horrible.” So I think maybe that’s the reason that it jumped out. It’s an issue of—if I’m hearing you correctly—of quality. After a while, the sheer quantity makes you numb until you see something really insightful.

MB: Right. It added to my understanding of our society and culture, and also he’s a beautiful writer, so all of that made it well worth reading. My “DTBM radar” is pretty good. Usually I can read the first paragraph and I can tell, “Oh, you got nothing. Just DTBM.” (laughs) Which wore out on me at least eight months ago. I mean, why should we be surprised about Donald Trump? “People are racist? Really? That’s amazing! Wow.” We had slavery in this country for 300 years. That happened just a few generations back. We’ve done horrible things to each other. Just a few generations ago my ancestors were starving in Eastern Europe, just barely surviving.

The thing that struck me in the Coates piece was the statistic that every white demographic voted for Trump, but the slimmest margin was among white college graduates. White college graduates voted for Trump by a margin of 3%—this is according to the Coates article, which presumably someone verified—but white non-college graduates voted for Trump by 37%. That was the widest margin of any group. So I thought that was pretty telling. I would argue that even being a college graduate doesn’t mean a person is particularly well-informed or well-educated, but that was what struck me. 

TKN: That’s exactly what I want to get into: your theory about the value of education or the role of education in all these issues.

MB: I’m on a mission, Bob. The sum total of my adult life in the world of education—from starting out as a public school teacher in New York City, and then being a tutor for many years—has taught me one basic truth. Most people can’t read. Now, when I say they can’t read, I don’t mean they can’t read a tweet or they can’t read the signs on a highway. I mean they can’t read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article, and all these other articles too. They can’t read them.

The reality is that most people in this country can read on about a 4th grade level. There’s a very small minority reading on an adult level. The math numbers are even worse. But the reading numbers are like 37% at or above proficiency, which means roughly maybe an 8th grade level. So people reading on a college level are a tiny minority, and we’re the echo chamber that’s bouncing all the DTBM articles back and forth on Facebook and all.

Now why does this matter? It matters for many, many, many reasons. As a tutor, I’ve had to make people into readers because my value in the marketplace depends on making a big impact on somebody’s learning. The reason I’m convinced of the importance of reading—other than the obvious thing, that it makes people better informed, in theory—is that it affects how our brains develop.

There are a lot of mysteries around this stuff. Like, how can we even have written language? Language only evolved in the last 30,000 years. Writing is only about 5000 years old. So it doesn’t make sense that we can even do this, because evolutionarily, for our brains to develop the ability to turn these little symbols and marks on paper into sounds and meanings is very mysterious. It’s bizarre how we’ve done that. But what is so amazing about us as a species is brain plasticity and the fact that our brains are growing in our skulls until we’re 25 years old. Advanced literacy really matters because for people like you and me and everybody else who’s reading the Coates article, being able to read has rewired our brains at some point.

Think about it. An antelope is born on the savanna and two hours later it’s zig-zagging and outrunning a cheetah, right? For humans it’s an enormously long gestation period where our brains are growing, growing, growing. Every other species is born ready to do what that species does.

Now, at this point we’ve sort of maxed out our ability to function with the standard set, and the kind of advanced reading that I’m talking about not only makes you more informed but it affects your thinking power. There are very few things that can really have this kind of transformative impact on your functioning ability. There may be some others, like coding for instance, where it’s pretty wide open, where there are so many variables to contend with. But reading is the biggest one.

If you think about it, the whole cultural heritage of our species is written, but also, language is the operating system of the brain. What people can do in the written language is much more sophisticated than what we can do speaking. Speaking can get pretty elaborate, but the written language can go much deeper. So even language on that level is rewiring the brain.

TKN: So in light of that, can you talk a little bit about the role of education, or the failure of education, in allowing the rise of someone like Trump?

MB: That’s another side for a lot of people. I suspect a lot of people mistrusted Hillary because she is highly educated and they find that unappealing.

I think what happens in practical terms in school is, you have the kids who are the readers, which is about 10% of the population in every strata. I was a decent student, I did my work, but I was always amazed at kids who seemed to work much harder than I did and didn’t do that well. And you know what? They just weren’t taking the words off the page and processing them and getting it. And they were good kids. But what happens is, for many people, they just give up. It happens around middle school. And with that there’s a resentment that builds up: this kind of academic “meritocracy” that feels extremely unfair to someone who’s not succeeding at it. It feels extremely wrong, and so there is a distrust of “book learning,” and a real dislike for people who do well in the academic arena.

TKN: This issue of resentment of the educated seems to me undeniable. There’s no doubt that a lot of the resentment around Hillary—apart from sexism and misogyny and other things—was simply that she was smart. She was smart and well-read and some people don’t like that.

MB: It’s not just that. If you look at video of Hillary from the ‘90s, she was the kind of smart, Ivy League type that people really hate. Look, she was extremely popular as Secretary of State so I don’t know how that all gets translated, and I suspect a lot of it was just pure sexism—people not feeling comfortable with a woman—and racism, people feeling like she was representing Obama, and they didn’t like him. But they didn’t have the same problems with him.

TKN: To me, the connection with Obama is undeniable too. When Hillary was Secretary of State, as you were saying, she was very popular among conservatives and foreign policy hawks. Not just because she’s hawkish herself but because all their fury was focused on hating Obama. And I had this debate many many times with my conservative friends. They would praise her by way of attacking Obama, and I used to say to them, “I know that in eight years you guys are gonna turn on Hillary like she’s the Antichrist.” But at the time, they didn’t have any bandwidth for hating her because they were too busy hating him.

MB: Right. I think one of the real conundrums of our time is how do white people—especially straight white men like you and me, who come from this privileged class—how do we check our privilege? How do we become aware of what it actually means, and how do we understand the perspective of someone who doesn’t have that and respect it? And it’s very hard to do, and I don’t think that it’s going very well in the country.

TKN: (laughs) Clearly it’s not. But at the risk of giving Trump any credit at all, even inadvertently, I will say that one silver lining in this may be a rise in the awareness of that. Just speaking for myself, it has made me more aware of white privilege—which I should have been a lot more aware over 50 years. But when you see it so nakedly, it does make you—or should make you—sit up and take notice.

MB: I guess. I don’t know why you should have been aware. That’s one of the problems we’re discussing. The immediate reaction when you’re accused of all this stuff obviously is to be defensive….to be like, “Are you kidding me? You don’t have any clue, man. That’s not right, I’m not a racist. You’re a racist!” You know? And that’s kind of how the country has reacted to a lot of this stuff. If you talk to Trump supporters, they say things like, “Black lives matter? Oh, please. You live in America. People would kill to live in this country! You should put your hand on your heart and sing along to the National Anthem.” To them that makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

TKN: In a reactionary way, yes. I think if you isolate it and say, “Should you be happy that you’re living in America?” Yeah, hell yes, of course. But that doesn’t mean that you can ignore all those other things. But in terms of defensiveness there is no worse insult in America today than to call somebody a racist. Even racists don’t like to be called racists. Very few do anyway, very few embrace that label. So it’s a super loaded term and we see the result of it.

MB: Right. But I think that was one of Coates’s strongest points. Even if Trump voters themselves were not racists, they were comfortable voting for a racist.

TKN: That’s been my point from the beginning. Conservatives that I talk to about this—back when we were still talking—would be so offended if I ever suggested that there was a racial component to any of this. This goes back to when Obama was President, and they would complain about everything, I would say, “Do you object to the policies or to the man?” And they would say, “Oh, the policies.” Except that the policies they were objecting to were Republican policies! Obamacare was a Republican-designed plan. But it was so offensive to them to be accused of being bigoted that they had to insist that their argument was policy-based and not personal, let alone racial. And it’s the same with Trump. You don’t have to be in a white hood to be a Trump supporter, but if you’re cool with everything he does, then by definition that means you’re cool with a certain amount of racism. Period dot.

MB: I think that’s what is very hard to understand and process. When I talk to people who are anti-Hillary or pro-Trump, or at least agnostic, it’s very striking to me to consider Coates’s argument. How threatened is this person by the idea of not having some kind of privilege? Just raw competition for everything in life. The idea that it’s truly a meritocracy, that I’m not gonna have some advantage over you because I have this and you don’t have it. It’s a kind of armor that I think subconsciously we all have, because we all feel scared. There’s a feeling of, “Oh my God, what if I have nothing to contribute and I’m gonna be on the street?” Hopefully at our age we understand that our intrinsic worth isn’t about all that. But if you’re a young person or in a very insecure position, I think it’s pretty hard not to feel a sense of, “This is unfair.“

TKN: Even members of the most privileged caste in America nonetheless see themselves as victims. That badge of victimization is a very powerful thing. Everybody’s a victim. It gives a certain amount of power.

MB: I think it’s a lot easier for you and me to be at least somewhat open-minded about this because we live in New York City, we’re interacting all the time with people who are not white, people from all kinds of backgrounds, and just our normal ability to function is predicated on curiosity—or not necessarily curiosity, but at least respect for difference. If you’re gonna walk down the street and be outraged by someone in a hijab, or if that makes you uncomfortable, you can’t live in this town. Any racism you might have has to be really in check because you’re constantly interacting with people who look different from you.

TKN: That’s an argument just for exposing yourself to other viewpoints and other ways of life, as you’re forced to do in the five boroughs. If you live in the middle of Nebraska, maybe you’ll never see anybody in a hijab, and so of course you’re gonna be much more skeptical or resistant or it’s easier to be that way. But if you have a family member who’s gay, suddenly your mind is opened up to that world. You could have been a homophobe before. Even Dick Cheney changed, because he has a gay daughter.

MB: It’s fascinating how quickly gay rights have moved forward. Not that there isn’t still a ton of homophobia, because there is, but the reason that it’s moved forward is that every family has someone who’s gay, even if they’re not out, and it forces you to deal with that fact. “Oh my God, Bob—you’re gay? Oh, OK, I don’t judge you. Hey, we’re cool, you’re my cousin, you’re my son, you’re my brother. That’s fine. I’m gonna be open-minded,” quote unquote. I’m not gonna see you at Thanksgiving and say, “Oh yeah, I’m against your rights.” Whereas for racism or sexism, that doesn’t seem to go away. Would all these so-called racists have voted for Trump if Obama were running against him? That cool guy you want to go have a beer with, who’s actually charming and funny?

TKN: Because there is that small slice of the Venn diagram that were Obama voters and became Trump voters, right? I’m not saying that there were Klansmen who did that, but there was some weird crossover of people who just wanted something different and weren’t too picky about how different it was. 

MB: We think of ourselves as being rational. That is wrong! It’s scientifically proven to be wrong. Every impulse you have to do anything originates in your brain 300 milliseconds before you’re aware of it. 

TKN: The Libet test, right? The Libet effect.

MB: That’s it. Right. And that’s why if we want to function as a species, we’ve got to fix this reading thing. Because people can learn to do it. And there’s this institution called “school” where that’s meant to happen, and I think it’s very, very hard for teachers to succeed the way the whole thing is set up, but technology provides the opportunity. And so that gives me enormous hope because there is so much more that can happen. And it’s not to say that if I succeed and everybody becomes a strong reader, that means nobody will vote for Donald Trump. But I gotta believe that if we have ten million more readers in this country, then a guy like Donald Trump doesn’t get elected.

TKN: Well, I would like to believe that too. But let me be the devil’s advocate for a minute.

MB: Please.

TKN: Isn’t what you’re saying just another form of an educated person’s condescension toward the uneducated? Because in a way you’re saying, if people were better readers and more educated, they wouldn’t support a demagogue like Trump. Is that fair to say? 

MB: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. There was a famous 20th Century leader who said that if you want to reach the masses the message has to be as crude and simple and as strongly appealing to emotion as possible. Any kind of complexity at all destroys your message. That was Adolf Hitler, and he was a lot more popular than Donald Trump. And he was right. That kind of demagoguery worked for Hitler because people were starving, and he also ran a successful campaign of terror, just having his minions out in the field rounding people up and killing them. And I don’t mean to say that that couldn’t happen again.

Again I have to emphasize, I don’t mean to say that if everybody becomes a reader there won’t be arguments about things that you and I find distasteful, and I’m not saying that those arguments won’t be much more sophisticated and possibly persuasive. If you really listen to Fox News and to the National Review and Commentary, those people aren’t stupid. They’re not uneducated, they read, and they have an articulate point of view. 

TKN: It does sound like you’re saying that if there were more readers and better readers that our level of critical thinking as a society would be better.

MB: Exactly. That’s exactly what reading is. Advanced reading is critical thinking. It’s the same thing! You cannot read a text like the Coates essay without doing a lot of processing and a lot of critical thinking. You can’t read that and not be A) surprised by some of the information, but B) also critical of some of it.

TKN: Any final words you want to say? 

MB: Yeah. Information inequality. We are living in possibly the first moment in history when new technology has simultaneously made information widely more available and people less likely to access it. Digital technology gives anyone with a device access to pretty much everything, but at the same time diminishes our abilities by systematically finding and exploiting immediate gratification. Images make fewer cognitive demands than text, so we get sucked down the Instagram rabbit hole. But the game’s not over. Technology can also teach. It can create the conditions for many, many more people to develop the reading and thinking skills to take advantage of all that’s out there. Zinc is building the tools to support people—mostly teachers—who will lead the reading revolution and end information and education inequality .

TKN: Thank you, Matt.

MB: Thank you.

Transcription: Sherry Alwell / type916@gmail.com

Photo from “Pink Floyd: The Wall”

 Knowledge is good.

—Emil Faber

 

5 thoughts on “Literacy vs. Tyranny: A Conversation with Matt Bardin

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