The word invokes images of madmen chained to walls, ignored by society, abused by caretakers. We cringe at the idea that places like Bethlem Royal Hospital (nicknamed “Bedlam”) actually existed to isolate the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, under the oppressive watch of “keepers” like Helkiah Crooke and James Monro. You could end up in Bedlam if your behavior did not fit social norms, if you stuttered, if you suffered from strabismus or physical deformity…or just about anything else that might set you apart from society. A lifetime of imprisonment and abuse accompanied the label of insanity.
So, what determines that a person is “mad” today? The recent publication of DSM5, the new diagnostic manual for mental disorder, has touched off a firestorm of debate within the medical community. The National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) has declared that it “will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.” It’s fascinating that scientists are rejecting a cookie-cutter approach to defining mental disorders and advocating for the conscious application of subjective professional judgment when the educational community seems hell-bent on doing just the opposite.
Educators live in bedlam today, and Charlotte Danielson, Robert Marzano, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan and their ilk are our new Helkiah Crookes. The Gates Foundation funding of Common Core State Standards has given rise to a new House of Bedlam, created without any meaningful input from public school teachers. The U.S. Department of Education, eager to subvert the delegated state power over public school curricula, has leveraged Bedlam by requiring states to accept the CCSS or forgo federal funding for schools. The Danielson Group tools for teacher and principal evaluation places educators in Bedlam cells of specific, measurable, attainable, (un-)realistic, and time-bound goals. Bob Marzano’s Professional Learning Community (PLC) scheme promotes itself with quasi-evangelical workshops that demonize educators resistant to the dogmas of standards-based education.
Conservative political lust for objectifying learning outcomes has blinded us to the value that professional judgment offers. When we accept that “standards” should function as an adjunct to qualified discernment—and not as a replacement for it—we will emerge from bedlam.
We’re mad, you know.
© David Sudmeier, 2014