or “The Power of Backwards Design”


Chris Thinnes


And the point was to provoke thought and discussion…
- Grant Wiggins

The purpose of this post is to document an interruption. I say that as much to focus and to limit my own thoughts  –  in a haze of outrage occasioned by the betrayal of a seemingly feigned apology  —  as to ward off critical commentary from folks who may wish to take issue with other implications of my commentary. While you are welcome to disagree with my opinion, and while I will gladly approve and post your civil commentary, my purpose is not to draw attention from other, significantly more important spaces like Tressie McMillan Cottom’s analysis of “shoddy cheap race currency parading as principled intellectualism,” Jose Vilson’s response to “the co-opting of racial language by ‘well-meaning’ progressives,” or Bill Fitzgerald’s documentation of Grant Wiggins’ decision to “delete his way out of his mistake.”

On Sunday, Grant Wiggins — seminal educator and author, on the foundations of whose work many of us are otherwise deeply indebted — offered “a very brief post — a tiny provocation” which he chose to entitle “Apartheid.” In that post he cited a definition of “apartheid,” then imagined what his readers might be asking:

But, Grant! Why in the world are you talking about this??? Apartheid in the United States ended 50 years ago and 20 years ago in South Africa! Why are you bringing up this history now?

Oh, sorry. I should have clarified. I wasn’t talking about then; I am talking about now?

Huh! Where is there apartheid like this now?

In schools everywhere. Separate eating places and toilets for teachers and for students.

But that’s different!

Is it?

I offered the following comment in an effort to affirm my assumptions the intent of Grant’s commentary, but to raise serious concerns about its impact:

Yes, it *is* different.

Respectfully, Grant — you are one of the giants on whose many of our work rests, and without which it would be impossible — it is one thing to suggest that our design and designation of separate facilities for teachers and students should be questioned, in terms of the cultural norms they sanction in our schools, the hierarchies they enforce, the community engagement they obstruct, and more. That seems a fascinating question to beg, against the matrix of both mundane and unrelated rationales we might have to offer for why adults and children are provided separate spaces in a school. And a fascinating question to beg, if only intellectually, against the lens of practices we also might not question at first glance, like the gendered restroom facilities we tend to accept for ‘men and women’ and ‘boys and girls.’

However: It is another thing entirely to invoke the word ‘apartheid’ not just allusively, but by way of explicit comparison — and, thereby, to imply these particular school practices are comparable to the violent framework of state and corporate sanction, human rights abuse, economic marginalization, military tyranny, and manipulation of the social imaginary with which apartheid is enforced. In addition, it is an egregious though surely inadvertent insult, in my opinion, to reduce the generational, historical, or perpetual abuse of entire communities of people of color, whether in South Africa or in the United States, to a comparison with the disruption to school cultures we cause by asking children to tinkle in separate, smaller toilets — whether we should, or not.

Thus endeth the rant.

Chris Thinnes | @ChrisThinnes

Grant subsequently responded:

We disagree. I think students would be far more civilized and teachers more close to students by such sharing. I speak from a decade of personal experience in a school that did not practice such apartheid.

I tried to bridge the difference:

We don’t disagree that relationships might be enhanced. We disagree about the fitness and the impact of the comparison you invoke.

Subsequent to this exchange, Grant continued to defend his explicit comparison of apartheid to separate dining and restroom facilities in schools, in response to another commenter’s critical questions:

I do NOT think the term apartheid goes to far. Students are truly treated as second class in many schools, especially high schools… And the point was to provoke thought and discussion.

Having witnessed Grant’s defiance of any such resistance not only in his blog, but also in his Twitter stream, I responded to that comment with the following:

Still with respect and concern, despite the following:

It’s increasing disinteresting, Grant, whether *you* don’t “think the term apartheid goes too far.” That was already clear. Now it’s increasingly outrageous and offensive that you think it’s important to bandy around the term “segregation” as well, in order to dig in your heels, and surely with the explicit intent to abuse that comparison as well. Or to wave the “just provoking thought and discussion” flag in the air, in order to ward off that outrage.

If you choose to ask for them, here are alternative responses you might choose to try on to see how they look: “I’m sorry that my words had that impact, whether they were intended to cause that impact or not. And I appreciate folks’ efforts to share the insult and injury that were the impact of my language, as much as I appreciate their effort to respond to the question that was actually more important to *me*. I will do a better job of trying to understand right away, and of narrowing my parameters of ‘provocation’ the next time.”


Subsequent to my comments – which were quickly subsumed by a wave of fierce, wholly justified, and well-reasoned resistance from @losangelista, @mdawriter, @thejlv, @tressiemcphd, @carolynedgar, @funnymonkey, @bivey, and many more – Grant issued an ‘apology’ which appropriated the ‘right language’ of an apology before he began a phased erasure of the evidence of the original conversation, and explicitly denied its continued relevance.

I could go on – about what it means to feign an apology; about what it means to blame an offended party for your decision to erase the evidence of your trespass; about what it means to preserve the commentary that pleases you while deleting the voices that don’t. I could go on — about those commenters who suggest, with Grant, that this was a tempest in a teacup, and too much fury was devoted to scrutinizing vocabulary, that should be devoted to ‘fixing’ schools. I could go on – about those whom, like Grant Wiggins, continue to think that cultural competency is somehow less important a skillset to interrogate, to develop, to model, and to support than just about everything else. Surely not worth exploring or engaging in as solemn a forum as Grant Wiggins’ blog about the cafeteria and the potty.

I could go on, but I said I wouldn’t, and so I won’t.

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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

  • Donna S. Lindner

    You are awesome. I am proud to call you my ally. That is all.

  • ChrisThinnes

    The following postscript was added to Grant Wiggins’ “An Apology and an Explanation” on Monday, Jan 13 [http://ow.ly/szek7]

    PS: Some readers are not satisfied with the apology and my removal of the offending post and related comments (though removing the offending post was done in response to one of the critics; the deleted comments referred specifically to that post, so I deleted them. People were free to re-post but didn’t and have made all sorts of accusations of me as a result). And a fairly extensive harsh criticism of me made its way into Twitter, for those of you who wrote saying ‘most people were probably not offended.’

    At the request of one critic, I have re-posted the original article. [http://ow.ly/szeAQ]

    Readers: before we put this post and its history to bed, what are your thoughts? What lessons can we all learn here?

  • ChrisThinnes

    NB: I neglected to mention in this post, and should have, that I was deeply appreciative of Grant’s initial apology:

    Thank you, Grant, for “an apology and an explanation” … “for those who were properly angered.” For whatever it’s worth, I sincerely appreciate and respect your willingness to explore the difference between the intent of your original post, and its impact. CT

    Upon the subsequent revision of commentary, retrenchment of position, and continuing insinuations that critical commentary was insulting, uncivil, or unkind, I then requested that all of my commentary should be removed from the blog:

    Grant, if you’re now going to sanitize all critical responses to your original commentary, including those that made an effort to respond to *your* ‘point’ that you found distasteful, then please remove *all* of my comments and don’t just keep the ones that ostensibly affirm — especially now that you’ve reframed them in the comment stream — your point of view or your apology. Thanks.