Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Growing Up in Westeros: Breaking the Wheel of Fantasy Expectations


BY MARIA SACHIKO CECIRE

The tendency to set up—and then dash—the expectations of fantasy has always been crucial to HBO’s Game of Thrones and its source novels by George R. R. Martin. (I refer to them collectively below as GoT.) From the beheading of Ned Stark to the slaughter at the Red Wedding, much of the story’s claim to fame comes from the way that it “realistically” kills off high-minded main characters. The shock and emotional anguish that fans express at these moments reveals just how widely held and deeply cherished the norms of medievalist fantasy are; in particular, the expectation that the “good guys” will win, or at least survive. But Martin has always been unapologetic about his mission to explode people’s expectations of fantasy, and has referred derisively to the pseudo-medieval worlds in works by “Tolkien imitators and other fantasists” as “a sort of Disneyland middle ages”: childish, inauthentic, idealized, sanitized.

This statement reminds us of something that viewers may have forgotten: GoT has always been about the gap between childhood expectations and adult experience—seen especially clearly in the concluding montage of the show, which focuses on the destinies of the surviving Winterfell kids. The stories of Stark children Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, Rickon, and the fostered boys Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy overturn an array of popular children’s fantasy plotlines from the twentieth century, with GoT offering its own brutal alternatives as part of a “grown-up” retelling for adult audiences today. This is not to say that there are no moments of triumph, heroism, and luck in the series; instead, it maintains a constant pleasurable (or anxious, depending on your view) uncertainty about whether its plots will tip towards catastrophe or towards what J. R. R. Tolkien called “eucatastrophe”: the “sudden joyous ‘turn,’” the characteristic happy endings of fairy tales.

But how did we come to expect safety and triumph for our favorite characters in the first place, when they exist in worlds defined by violence and supernatural dangers? Why are we rooting for feudal lords, monarchs, and colonizers anyway? The answer lies tied up in the history of the fantasy genre, which emerged as the form we now know during a period when English literature and culture was being transformed by modernism, cosmopolitanism, the decline of Empire, and a pervasive belief that science and rationalism had disenchanted the world. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Tolkien and his Oxford colleague C. S. Lewis launched a counterattack against these cultural directions, using a surprising, and wildly effective, weapon: children’s literature. Their fantasies The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia drew on the heroic traditions of medieval literature and recast such tales in line with more recent ideas about children as inherently magical, innocent, and inclined towards goodness. Ignored by the academy and literary establishment, their writing sparked a wildfire of new medievalist fantasy in the second half of the twentieth century, the “imitators” that Martin mentions above. And these stories, which so many people encounter in childhood, set the norms that GoT repeatedly upends with its darker twists and turns.

Of the Stark children, Robb, the oldest son, suffers the sharpest and most complete lesson in the unreliability of fantasy conventions. Robb takes on the role of the chosen boy hero, right-born and well-meaning like Peter Pevensie in the Narnian tradition, Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, or Will Stanton in Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising sequence. Too trusting, he dies in a trap alongside his followers. Sansa is the fair damsel, a princess figure who dreams of courtly love and advantageous marriage. She becomes a victim of sexual and other forms of violence, a political pawn repeatedly married off for others’ gain. Only after Sansa experiences what Shiloh Carroll calls “violent reeducation” does she end GoT as queen of her own people, a position achieved through her own shrewd and powerful actions. Arya takes up the tradition of female knights like Tamora Pierce’s Alanna, Tolkien’s Éowyn, and women warriors of medieval literature who hide their gender for the chance to fight. But in GoT, Arya’s survival through disguise comes dangerously close to turning her into a cold, unmoored assassin (“a girl is no one,” she learns to say of herself) before she returns to her family, destroys an undead king, and turns to other quests. Her younger brother Bran, body broken but endowed with supernatural abilities, journeys into the wilderness seeking wisdom like Lewis’s spiritual searchers in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Bran gains greensight as the Three-Eyed Raven and returns to his family as an eerie and emotionally distant presence. His crowning as king of Westeros at the end of the series is hardly joyful; barely human, Bran finds little pleasure or triumph in the role. The Stark family’s youngest, Rickon, is hidden from his family’s enemies early in the series much like the young Arthur of medieval legend. While his fate in the books remain unknown, in the TV show he is betrayed and executed by his father’s former bannermen for their political gain.

The trajectories of the Starks’ two foster-children also allow GoT to explore the common theme of outsiders in children’s fantasy. Jon Snow is the unlikely hero, a Frodo-figure dedicated to the higher good and—like the young Arthur of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone and, later, Harry Potter—an orphan who longs for acceptance and roots while secrets swirl around his identity. In spite of Jon's successes and (in the TV show, if not the books) the revelation of his noble birth, he ends GoT where he started, a literal outsider banished to the far northern reaches of Westeros after murdering his own lover and queen. Meanwhile Theon, Ned Stark’s ward, plays the part of the arrogant incompetent who needs to be reformed, a descendent of Lewis’s Edmund Pevensie and Eustace Scrubb in the Narnia books and Ursula Le Guin’s Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea. Theon tries to play the role of usurper in Winterfell, but is captured by a sadist whose torture reduces Theon to a trembling servant. His happy ending is the chance to die with honor, defending the family he betrayed and demonstrating the capacity for redemption.

These characters’ suffering in GoT raises questions about how well “Disneyland” upbringings in safe, morally “stark” spaces of childhood--such as the plots of most medievalist fantasy--serve young people as they enter into adult life. Moral clarity; the certainty of right overcoming wrong; eucatastrophe and the promise of happy endings; heartwarming family reunions and the finding of true love: these are not only the norms of children’s fantasy since Tolkien and Lewis but also the dominant myths of modern Anglo-American childhood, cycled and recycled through children’s media from picture books to video games to holiday specials. At the same time, the fates of the Winterfell kids don’t suggest a simple rejection of fantasy norms so much as a shift towards what Lee Konstantinou calls “postirony”: a twenty-first-century mode that acknowledges the miseries of life but which “moves past irony” to find meaning and, I suggest, alternate forms of enchantment.

The dragon queen Daenarys Targaryen repeatedly claims that her goal in seeking the Iron Throne of Westeros is to “break the wheel” of power that crushes so many people in the GoT’s world. Jon kills her as she reiterates this dream in sight of the throne, in spite of his love for her, because he has come to recognize that self-righteous idealism can lead to despotism just as well as greed and malice can. The series ending suggests that audiences, too, have to “grow up.” We must kill our dreams of fantasy conventions and follow the postironic paths of Jon and the other remaining Winterfell children by first recognizing the hidden tyrannies of simplistic hierarchies and inflexible moral ideals, and then finding re-enchantment in more complex, unexpected arrangements of people and power.

But even as it aims to overcome tired fantasy tropes, GoT remains caught in and reaffirms one of the genre’s most exhausted norms of all. From the Winterfell brood to the dragon-strafed youth of King’s Landing, the young people we are asked to identify with in this narrative all look suspiciously similar; only white children’s stories seem to really count. As Ebony Elizabeth Thomas argues, the one black girl in Martin’s books, Missandei of Naath, appears in the TV show as a sexualized adult; and her story is cut short to further the stories of white characters in the most brutal and degrading of ways. Even the series’ more hopeful conclusions betray its Orientalist mindset: as one Atlantic historian friend pointed out, Arya’s sailing west under the Stark crest at the show’s end unproblematically celebrates her turning into a settler colonist. Martin’s dated understanding of history shows, as Kavita Mudan Finn has suggested, and the misogynist and colonialist biases of his sources carry into the series’ ambitious attempt to rethink the underlying premises of the genre. When will medievalist fantasy break that wheel?

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Maria Sachiko Cecire is assistant professor of literature and founding director of the Center for Experimental Humanities at Bard College, and the author of the forthcoming book Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children's Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Poetry and Extinction in the Anthropocene


BY DAVID FARRIER

Life itself is a form of poiesis, a perpetual world-making. But if eco-criticism also sees the poem as an exercise in world-making, how are we to read it in an age of extinction?

Perhaps more than any other environmental crisis, extinction pitches us into deep time: into awareness of the richness of our inheritance from the deep past, and the depleted legacy we will leave to the deep future. But in the midst of death, the pull of connection persists. To make kin is to incline towards another, relinquishing the illusion of the separate, bounded self for the startling reality of the self in community; that is, to perform a clinamen, a swerve between contexts. As I argue in Anthropocene Poetics, clinamen can help define a poetics of kin-making in an age of extinction.

In Vahni Capildeo’s ‘Latona and Her Children,’ we find an example of kin-making organised around the swerve of clinamen. The poem is an ekphrasis, responding to a seventeenth-century Dutch tapestry depicting a scene from the myth of Latona, or Leto as she appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Ovid’s telling, she is seduced by Jupiter and conceives twins (Artemis and Apollo), and as punishment is made by Juno to wander the earth without refuge, “debarred from settling anywhere in the world.” Her exile continues after she gives birth, and one day, under a blazing sun, she arrives with her children by a lake in the land of the Lycians. She seeks permission from the Lycian men working the shoreline to drink from the lake, and to give water to her children, but they refuse to take pity on her, and even maliciously stir up the muddy bottom with their feet. Outraged, Latona pronounces a curse on their inhospitality—“live forever in that lake of yours, then!”—and turns the men into frogs.

As a form of clinamen, ekphrasis encloses a number of swerves: like apostrophe, it performs a turn towards an object; as in citation, it draws another artwork into itself; comparable to metaphor, it is an account of one form in the manner of another. It also poses a particular temporal relation: that of the stilled scene. The archetypal Romantic ekphrasis is, of course, Keat’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ which rhapsodises “silence and slow time.” Capildeo, however, shows how ekphrasis may allow us to think “fast and slow time together”, as the artist Ilana Halperin suggests we must do in order to grasp our own “geologic intimacy.” The first stanza reads:

This tapestry’s in sympathy

with wives who have been wronged

in gorgeous-feeling houses

where rage bindweeds into rugs.

You could lay your cheek against this

woolly silky rosy thread,

smug in a censored village

where the frogs have been erased.

The opening lines positions this as a poem in search of affinity: art is a form of kin-making, Capildeo affirms, a means of inclining beyond singular experience. The maltreated Latona is, of course, the primary focus of sympathy, but Capildeo’s prefatory note, that in making the tapestry, “the heads of men were woven as frogs and then altered to human,” also introduces a rather ambivalent sense of multispecies relations. For one, it inverts the metamorphosis, changing frogs to men rather than men to frogs, introducing a ghostly sense of kinship. The human genome shares around 1,700 genes with the genome of the African clawed frog, and many common elements of structure—structures that were present 360 million years ago, in the last common ancestor of all mammals, amphibians, and birds alive today. Prefaced by this creaturely haunting, we enter the poem aware that we, like all species, are what Deborah Bird Rose calls densely woven knots of embodied time.

The inversion (frogs to men rather than men to frogs) initiates a series of clinamen or swerves that undo the neat justice of the Ovidian myth. The erased frogs in the first stanza turn towards the ‘erased’ Latona, wandering in exile in the second; the “bastard fruit” she carries in her womb turns towards the final stanza, which is preoccupied by the Dutch weavers’ decision to enclose the scene of abuse in a vision of bucolic calm, surrounded by “green, without drama.” The frame transmutes the violence of the myth into the violence of enclosure, and the forcible exclusion, like that of Latona, of nature as the outside of human experience.

Capildeo’s swerves show us that the malice of the Lycians begins in their destructive attitudes towards their environment, as no more than a resource to be exploited or withheld. In turning attention to the frame, however, Capildeo also looks beyond it, laying the poem open to other times and places that torque the myth into an Anthropocenic context. The “reassuring woodland décor” also hints at “signs of Artemis to come,” and this intimation that another kind of relation with the natural world is possible prompts a final turn: one that looks back to the animal of its opening stanza, and to the fast-and-slow-time-together of extinction—back, that is, to the “censored village / where the frogs have been erased.”

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Sixth Extinction opens with a visit to El Valle de Antón, a town in Panama that, in 2006, lost virtually its entire population of golden tree frogs in an outbreak of a deadly chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). Bd is responsible for the extinction of around ninety frog species since the 1970s, along with serious decline in around another five hundred amphibian species; a quarter have lost more than 90% of their population. It emerged in the Korean peninsula sometime in the 1950s and, coeval other symptoms of the Anthropocene, spread rapidly worldwide. International shipping, the mass transit of soldiers during the Korean War, and the global trade in amphibians as pets have introduced Bd to Australia, North, South, and Central America, the Caribbean, and the Iberian Peninsula in a matter of decades. Kolbert notes that frogs evolved “at a time when all the land on earth was part of one large mass”—the Pangaea supercontinent—a geologic reality of the deep past effectively reconstituted by global trade: biologists refer to contemporary trade networks as “a functional Pangaea for infectious diseases in wildlife.”

Like Leto searching for a place to rest, Bd has found a home on six continents in a matter of decades. There are other peculiar parallels, other swerves between myth and reality. One key early driver in the spread of Bd was the use of African clawed frogs in mid-twentieth century pregnancy tests; the disease itself causes the animals’ skin to harden and slough off, preventing them from taking in fluids. There is currently no viable cure for Bd in wild frog populations, which continue to decline alarmingly, embedding a deep irony in Latona’s curse on the Lycians: “live forever in that lake of yours.”

Although erased, the frogs populate the poem’s soundscape, in the many ‘g’ sounds—wronged; gorgeous; rugs; smug; glanced at too in rage and village—that cluster in the first stanza. Rage is bound into this tapestry, not just the wrath of maltreated Latona but the scandal of extinction as well. As Capildeo’s ekphrastic poem swerves away from the tapestry’s frame and inclines towards the animal hidden in the weave, the immense slow time of evolution and the devastatingly fast time of species loss flow through it. Through the figure of the clinamen, Capildeo’s poem urges us to swerve back towards life, and to see that our responsibility in the Anthropoecene is to cultivate collaborative rather than exploitative relations with other species. It reminds us that life, woven in deep time, is itself a form of poiesis, an ongoing exercise in world-making.
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David Farrier is senior lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at the University of Edinburgh. He is author of Unsettled Narratives: The Pacific Writings of Stevenson, Ellis, Melville, and London and Postcolonial Asylum: Seeking Sanctuary before the Law.

"The Anthropocene spells trouble: not only with respect to the global environmental changes, largely for the worse, to which it refers; but also in terms of the troublesome nature of the word itself. David Farrier’s brilliant elucidation of a multi-faceted ‘Anthropocene poetics’ delves into these troubles with great philosophical, scientific, social-ecological and aesthetic discernment. Whilst acknowledging the limited efficacy of poetry in response to the immense challenges of our perilous times, his carefully contextualized close readings of exemplary texts do indeed demonstrate how literature, and other art forms, can ‘help to frame the ground on which we stand as we consider which way to turn.’ This is, moreover, not only a work about poetry: it is also an exquisitely poetic work of scholarship." —Catherine Rigby, Bath Spa University, author of Dancing with Disaster

"In Anthropocene Poetics, David Farrier ventures into a poetics of the Anthropocene and calls for the need to create ‘an Anthropocenic literary imagination.’ Exploring the Anthropocene conundrums and dysphorias with avant-garde and lyric poetry, Anthropocene Poetics will certainly change the way we perceive deep time as well as our understanding of the poem. Imagine a creative becoming enfolded by the new poetics of deep and thick time!"—Serpil Oppermann, Cappadocia University

"The Anthropocene needs poetry. With its vorticular temporalities, swift shifts in scale, enmeshment of the human and the nonhuman, and constant challenges to the adequacy of language, this age of ecological crisis may never be better understood by any other technology—even as the Anthropocene changes what we understand a poem to do. David Farrier’s brilliant new book is a rapturous meditation on ecocriticism, time, the limits of human comprehension, and the power of the humanities in a turbulent era." —Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, author of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The legacy and nostalgia of the Star Wars franchise


BY DAN GOLDING

“Every generation has a legend.”

I have seen these words twice in my lifetime. The first time, I was twelve years old and downloading the first teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace on a 56k dial-up modem in rural Australia. These were the early days of the internet. The idea of a trailer as an event, and the practice of streaming video were both just beginning to take hold. I watched with awe at literally every frame for this new film: every ten minutes or so I would have a new five-second section to contemplate. I scrubbed through them with the arrow keys of my prehistoric desktop computer, my eyes only inches from the screen. Darth Maul drawing his lightsaber. Gungans in the mist. A new Jedi order.

The second time I saw these words was on April 12, 2019. I was thirty-two and live-streaming a panel from the other side of the world as the first purrs of a weapons-grade marketing campaign for Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker came sputtering to life. In a year of enormous, culture-defining blockbusters, this would surely be one of the biggest. The ‘saga’ was coming to an end; a new caretaker in the forms of Disney and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy would shepherd the Skywalkers towards a final full-stop.

The story of the twenty years between The Phantom Menace and The Rise of Skywalker—filled with six ‘saga’ films, two anthology films, three animated television series, two in-production live-action series, uncountable characters and actors, and the biggest transition in the franchise’s history from the outsider millionaire George Lucas to the insider corporation of Disney—is too big to be told. How do you encapsulate the white-hot rage that George Lucas and his prequels faced for Jar Jar Binks, midichlorians, and the adolescent pouting of the man who was supposed to become Darth Vader? How do you explain away the Mickey Mouse jokes that greeted the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, or the fears that Star Wars would become an all-singing, bland sell-out? How can we begin to understand the apocalyptic hatred that actors Kelly Marie Tran (Rose from The Last Jedi) and Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks from the prequels) were on the receiving end of, and then, unbelievably, the rapturous standing ovations and sports-like chants of support they both received that same weekend in April, 2019, as Star Wars fans welcomed them like long-lost relatives?

“Every generation has a legend.” This is a marketing line with bite, and if anything can tell us about this almost unfathomable moment in pop culture, it’s this. The generations of Star Wars illuminate our current cinema, franchise-making, and the self-made myth of nostalgia.

Nostalgia’s pull has multiplied in our times because media augments memory. When we watch an old film, in some part we grasp at who we were when we saw it for the first time. This is of course an impossibility: we cannot time travel or grow younger, and so nostalgia provides us with a kind of impossible homecoming, a return to a place that we can never really go to. When Rogue One’s costumers went to remake the 1977-era Stormtrooper for 2016, they found that the grills on the side of their helmets had to be built in—the cheap stickers that looked fine on ‘70s Panavision filmstock would today not live up to memory’s rosy recollection. Fans can never return to the moment they fell in love with Star Wars for the first time, but Han Solo can return to the Millennium Falcon: Chewie, we’re home.

Indeed, the greatest trick of the sequel trilogy—this new Disney era—has been to displace fans’ own awe and thirst for a nostalgic return into the mythology of the films themselves. By the time of The Force Awakens, Luke Skywalker has become myth. The Jedi, the Force, the Empire, these are all distant memories spoken of in disbelieving tones: our new heroes mirror our own watery-eyed shock at reencountering them again, as if our memories have taken on corporeal form. It’s true, we’re told. All of it.

Star Wars generations are identified, created, mythologized. Göran Bolin argues that nostalgia is at the root of generational gaps, often appearing between parents and children through insurmountable differences in their respective media landscapes. Adults hated the prequels in 1999, but those who grew up with them now use them to signal their own yearning for youth. The secret, for Disney, has been in simultaneously addressing three generations: first, in authorizing a return to the ‘home’ of the original trilogy for older fans; second, in not alienating the prequel kids; and finally, in opening up enough points of entry to galvanize a generation of newcomers, for whom the stories of Star Wars were for other people.

With nostalgia, with ageing generations, also comes legacy. The next best thing to an actual return to youth is the passing on of experience, and knowledge, and passion. Parents pass Star Wars on to their children, and now, the films do it too. Carrie Fisher, in her memoirs, The Princess Diarist, keenly observes this point through her years of interacting with Star Wars fans. She notes how Star Wars fans have a “common language that runs from five to eighty-five,” that is deliberately and almost ritualistically cultivated by parents in their children. Do you show your kids A New Hope or The Phantom Menace first, you ask?

Every generation, we’re told, has a legend. And now, with the sequel era of Star Wars, with The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker, another generation, another legend, is not so much born as it is actively cultivated by a megacorporation that will be here long after all of us. Like all other generations, it too will inevitably be remembered, mythologised, and ultimately, passed on.

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Dan Golding, author of Star Wars after Lucas: A Critical Guide to the Future of the Galaxy, is lecturer in media and communications at the Swinburne University of Technology and an award-winning writer with more than two hundred international publications. He is cohost of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV show What Is Music and the producer of the soundtrack to Push Me Pull You. He is coauthor of Game Changers: From Minecraft to Misogyny, the Fight for the Future of Videogames and has written for popular and web-based publications such as Kotaku, Buzzfeed, The Guardian, IGN, and The Conversation.

"Star Wars is almost too big a subject for any one mind to grasp, but Dan Golding’s look at how the franchise maintains its nostalgic glow in the Disney era stays on target, excavating the unique combination of art and commerce that holds Star Wars together." —Adam Rogers, deputy editor of Wired and author of Proof: The Science of Booze

"Star Wars after Lucas is a useful and welcome review of the past four decades of Star Wars, as well as the strategies that corporations are increasingly adopting in order to perpetuate franchises. In particular, Dan Golding aptly describes Lucasfilm's struggles to balance nostalgic appeals with a growing commitment to diversity and inclusivity." —A. D. Jameson, author of I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture

"Dan Golding’s wonderful book strikes a perfect balance between criticism and knowledgeable fandom. Approaching Disney-era Star Wars, his writing provides important insights into the workings of nostalgia culture, transmedia storytelling, and the power of transnational media industries in the age of global capitalism. His readings of individual Star Wars texts are thoughtful, nuanced, and theoretically informed, while at the same time relating them back to the complexities of branding, cross-platform marketing, and global entertainment franchising. Star Wars after Lucas is essential reading for anyone with an interest in media franchising, globalization, media industries, and entertainment in the Disney era." —Dan Hassler-Forest, coeditor of Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Parents versus Planners

BY NICHOLAS TAMPIO

Parents have dreams for their children. Sometimes, the dreams are specific; we want our children to play an instrument, enroll at our alma mater, or become engineers. Mostly, however, we want our children to do what will make them happy. If they want to try out for the school play, enroll in an out-of-state college, go to veterinary school, or enter the corporate world, great. If they want to drop out of college and teach ski lessons, well, maybe that wouldn’t be our first choice, but we will support them. Parents want the future to be wide open for their children.

Is that a realistic option in the modern world? Certain education reformers—let’s call them planners—think that our country can no longer afford to let children find their own way. According to planners, children need to be placed on certain college and career pathways. The name for this is a P20 system, and the way that it runs is through data collection.

The basic idea of a P20 system is to collect data on children from preschool (or prenatal) until the early years of their careers. If children satisfy conditions such as high test scores, then doors such as admission to state institutions of higher education open for them. If children do not test well, then they may be slotted for career and technical education. A P20 system, in theory, is a seamless pipeline from cradle to career. For advocates, this system helps policymakers identify what works in education and prepare young people for long-term success.

Schools have collected data on children for a long time, but things have been changing rapidly in the past two decades. The federal government greatly expanded its role in data collection with the passage of the Education Sciences Reform Act and the Educational Technical Assistance Act in 2002. Now, the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education administers a program for states to build state longitudinal data systems. In 2009, New York won a $19,670,975 ARRA grant to create the “building blocks” of a P20 system that is transforming every corner of the public education system.

Here is a sketch of how the New York state longitudinal data system works. Initially, local education agencies collect data about students’ demographics, coursework, test scores, and teachers. This data is collected, formatted, and standardized before it is delivered to a state data repository. Then, this data is sent to the American Institute of Research to produce growth reports. With these reports, the state can identify a data linkage between teachers and students. In other words, the growth reports enable the state to identify which teachers help their students’ test scores grow more or less than predicted.

Though there has recently been a wrinkle in the state’s plans to use the end-of-year state tests for this purpose, New York continues to have a high-stakes testing regime that evaluates educators on how students perform on standardized tests. In my book, Learning versus the Common Core, I argue that this system pressures schools to narrow the curriculum to testable skills. Gone are the days when teachers could help children develop their unique gifts. This is enough reason for parents to protest the new educational paradigm.

But it gets worse. New York’s state data repository creates transcripts for students. This transcript determines if children may enter the state’s public universities (CUNY, SUNY) or other colleges in New York and out of state. The education department shares the transcript with the state agencies responsible for housing, workforce development, health and social services. The education department also gives this information to the armed forces and the department of correction services.

In short, the state is creating a permanent record for each student that follows them from age five (or before) until they get started with their adult lives.

Will this system benefit young people? Advocates of P20 say yes. But it also creates a condition ripe for abuse—at least if you believe that young people deserve second chances or that there are many ways to show your talents. For example, the state universities may determine that students need a certain score on a single standardized test to earn admission. But what if students shine in other ways?

There is a scene in the movie Interstellar (2014) where Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, expresses a sentiment that many parents experience when they discover the details of a P-20 system.

Cooper: You're ruling my son out for college now? The kid's fifteen.

Principal: Tom's score simply isn't high enough.

Cooper: What's your waistline? 32? With, what, a 33 inseam?

Principal: I'm not sure I see what you're getting at.

Cooper: You're telling me it takes two numbers to measure your own ass but only one to measure my son's future?

Central planners are making themselves, in effect, gods who can determine children’s fates. But there is no reason that parents should accept this new arrangement. Young people deserve to have a wide range of options available to them.

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Nicholas Tampio is professor of political science at Fordham University. He is the author of Learning versus the Common Core (Minnesota, 2019).