The heroine of my novel, Blank Slate, is hunched in an air duct; her knotty muscles are taut. She’s a dark-eyed, intense—pretty-in-a-living-off-the-grid-way. (As evidenced by The Hunger Games, if your heroine is a survivalist, her hot bod is a given.) She looks down into a boardroom: burnished table, ergonomic chairs, muted wall-to-wall carpeting. The people arrayed around the table have hair coiffed into fancy, futuristic curlicues; they wear suits that were tailored by the pincers of tiny robots.
A man stands, right below her, at the head of the table. He’s got white hair and a grandfatherly mien; he’s half docile geek, half benevolent cosmopolite. You could imagine him graciously ushering a movie star through his art collection, or calculating stock options with the quick whir-tick of his brain. This man is a philanthropist, an altruist. He lavishes cash upon the most needy students in the country. No ghetto has gone un-capitalized by him. No photogenic low-income youngster has been missed by his infinite largesse. He’s the cerebral cortex of education think-tanks, the magnanimous patron of our inept, antiquated American education system.
If you’re thinking, “This guy couldn’t possibly be the villain of Blank Slate!” you clearly have never read a dystopian young adult novel—or any dystopian novel, for that matter. Despite my limited imagination, dreaming up a bad guy was the easiest part of the writing process for Blank Slate, since both the genre and the audience pretty much scripted that role for me.
Dystopian novels are inherently distrustful of authority and power. And young adults are naturally—often rightly—distrustful of authority and power; I know this because I’m a teacher, and hence, I occasionally am the authority and power that kids distrust. The Hunger Games sold a bazillion copies because of its (read with my intended tone of resentment and envy) fast-paced, breathless, energetic plot. But it also sold a bazillion copies because kids know instinctively that not everyone in the hegemony—no matter how benevolent they seem—is actually interested in equity. They know that not every grownup is looking out for their best interests, and yet they’re forced to rely upon grownups. And in this way, kids experience daily what most of us grownups—with our mortgages and our bank accounts—forget.
If only the citizenry of Philadelphia had the cynicism and suspicion of the 16-year-olds sitting in my classroom. Then maybe we wouldn’t have fallen for the same destructive agenda—not once, but four times over.
When I was working on Blank Slate, I actually didn’t model the antagonist on the millionaire Eli Broad, who runs an elite “academy” for superintendants—specifically superintendants of struggling urban districts—out of his California mansion. However, I should have, since the policies that he inculcates have directly—and catastrophically— impacted the School District of Philadelphia for the past ten years. From the controversial Vallas to the dictatorial Ackerman to our current leader, the bland and cipher-like Dr. Hite, our last four Superintendants have been “graduates” of Broad’s “program.” Every time Philadelphia gets a new Superintendant, it’s billed as an overhaul of the existing system. But in actuality, each of these “new visions” is merely a different face for the same ideological agenda: standardized testing, school closure, and privatization.
Let’s return, though, to the tension-filled scene, as our heroine is on the cusp of a disastrous sneeze. (Indulge me here, as this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to writing an “action” scene for the book…) The villain, who never had a name in the novel, but whom I will now subtly call Scheli Schbroad, slides a device that looks like an i-pad across the table.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he says. “The final phase is complete. I present to you: the perfected Slate!” Now, I had no idea what the “final phase” was, nor did I have a clear outline of what the previous “phases” could’ve possibly been. But I knew what the latent purpose of this “efficient, modern, self-directed” technology would be. Standing in the boardroom, Scheli Schbroad would deliver a not-so-latent Big Reveal. This would be the archetypal Big Reveal, typical of arch villains—from Bond bad guys to comic book nemeses—everywhere. Not only would it provide a (laughably spurious) way to move my (tenuous) plot forward, it would also give me a chance to insert some lecturing exhortations about my specific paranoias. Schbroad’s confession would be something like the following:
“This electronic delivery of educational materials seems visionary and cutting-edge. Everyone believes that it delivers equal educational opportunities and eliminates bullying. In fact, it will actually impede critical thinking skills, fragment communities, and—extra bonus!—create additional cash-flow to the private sector! MWHAHAHAHA!”
With snappy dialogue like that, it’s hard to imagine why the book was a failure. I know that my allegory is completely subtle, but the virtual, Slate-based education system is meant to represent the burgeoning business of cyber charter schools. How did this idea dawn on me? As I began writing Blank Slate, the banner at the top of Thesaurus.com was constantly generating ads that pictured grumpy-looking teens glowering from behind their rebellious haircuts, with slogans like “No More Bad Grades!”
Again, just as any teenager can tell from the get-go that President Snow is up to no good, it’s patently apparent that, behind their gargantuan advertising budgets, there’s something shady about cyber charter schools. It’s well-documented that cyber charters provide sub-par instruction, abuse their employees, and (ironically) lack the “accountability” that corporate reform types constantly tout. Additionally, they are rife with corruption, relentless in their lobbying efforts, and clearly beholden to special interests. Who are these special interests? Well, primary among them is the Walton family, otherwise known as the heirs to the Walmart fortune. The fact that the anti-union, poverty-creating, relentlessly opportunistic Walmart corporation is actively bankrolling these charter schools induces Phillip K. Dick levels of paranoia in me. However, as demonstrated by recent events, reality can often be stranger than—or at least a mirror of—paranoia.
There’s one question that Blank Slate couldn’t answer, that this series of posts can’t conclusively answer either: Why are capitalist moguls suddenly so interested in determining the future of the urban poor? In Blank Slate, our heroine (her eyes watering as she swallows that sneeze) might glimpse a convenient pie chart or PowerPoint that answers this question. But I’m not entirely sure what would be on that graphic display of Machiavellian intentions. I’ll end, though, with two possibilities.
1) The least diabolical explanation is that people like Broad and the Waltons simply adulate the private sector. They might just believe, in their hearts, that free-market competition is the solution to the country’s current “education crisis.” After all, the private sector worked for them. For these millionaires, the private sector has been a kind master, rewarding them for all of their hard work. Now, they feel an obligation to serve this master by feeding the children of America to it.
2) Alternately, when funding programs and individuals who make catastrophic decisions for children, these folks know exactly what they are doing. They know full well that their pet projects will erode critical thinking and stifle vibrant learning communities. How else will people be duped into buying the crappy tract housing and equally sub-par plastic shit that built their empires? How else will they create blind and easily-exploited workers, and the 99% that enables their 1% existence? If fewer people are educated for critical reading, critical writing, and critical thought, who will be left to criticize the monstrous behemoth of unchecked capitalism?
Who—like the unnamed heroine of Blank Slate—will be crouched in an air duct, ready to take these bastards down?