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Posted at 11:27 AM ET, 07/ 6/2010

What Gandhi would think about “The Lottery”

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is educator and author Sam Chaltain. An organizational change consultant, he works with schools, school districts, and public and private sector companies to help them create healthy, high-functioning learning environments. Chaltain is the former director of the Forum for Education & Democracy, an education advocacy organization, and the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, a national program that helps K-12 educators create more democratic learning communities.

By Sam Chaltain
I just saw "The Lottery" – a documentary film about public education in general, and the charter school movement in particular – and I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut.

The film is beautiful, and deeply moving, It is impossible not to fall in love with the four children (and their families) whose bittersweet paths we follow in the lead-up to the lottery that decides who is admitted to Harlem Success Academy, a successful new charter school, and whose dream is (randomly) denied.

I’m equally struck by the way the film further entrenches the “us v. them” mentality that is, I believe, one of the greatest challenges to our establishing a new system of public education that can truly serve the interests of the families in the film.

It is, in short, a film about heroes (the families and pro-charter school advocates) and villains (teachers’ unions and anti-charter advocates). And it’s asking you to pick sides.

Watching it, I found myself thinking of two great philosophers – Martin Buber and Mohandas K. Gandhi – and wondering what they would say about the tenor of our national movement, and what that tenor augurs for our children over the long-term.

It was Buber, for example, whose 1923 book "I and Thou" first suggested that all human beings interact with the world – and each other – in one of two ways:

*By seeing others in two-dimensional terms – as "I/It" – and by moving into a limited subject/object relationship; or

*By seeing others in three-dimensional terms – as ’I/Thou” – and by moving into existence in a relationship without bounds.

Buber’s central message was that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships. And it is only when we paint each other in human terms (“I/Thou”) that we create the conditions to support both personal and group transformation.

Similarly – and much more familiarly – Gandhi’s success as a leader stemmed from his faith in the principle of Satyagraha, a synthesis of the Sanskrit words Satya, or "truth," and Agraha, or "holding firmly to."

As Gandhi explained it:

“Satya implies love, and Agraha engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha . . . . I have also called it love-force or soul-force. In the application of Satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion.”

Both Buber and Gandhi clearly understood what the producers of "The Lottery" do not – that to bring about a true revolution (as Gandhi did), we must lead with a fundamental respect for our opponents. We must, as Lincoln said, appeal to the “better angels of our natures.” And we must resist the ideological short cut of painting each other in two-dimensional terms. It’s not that simple, and neither is the work we have before us.

Unfortunately, what I see taking shape nationally is a more traditional conflict, in which both sides (e.g., pro- or anti-union, pro- or anti-charter, etc.) seek to defeat the opponent or frustrate the opponent’s objectives. By contrast, Gandhi’s goal was “to convert, not to coerce, the wrong-doer.”

What if we heeded Gandhi’s advice and flipped the script? What if both sides started defining success as cooperating with our opponent to meet a just end – best personified by the families in "The Lottery" and their hopes for their children? And what if we did so by proactively interacting with each other through an “I/Thou” frame?

I’m not suggesting that by doing so, all of our problems would magically go away. To be sure, there are some real differences, and real obstacles, to reform.

I am suggesting, however, that it may serve us all better if we start fighting fire with water by refusing to engage in the most off-base accusations that suck up the oxygen in our public discussions (from Arne Duncan conspiracy theories to the notion that any union supporter unions can’t really want what’s good for kids).

We’re all educators, after all, committed to careers in the service of children. So let’s all start acting like it.

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By Valerie Strauss  | July 6, 2010; 11:27 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Guest Bloggers, Sam Chaltain  | Tags:  charter schools, gandhi and buber, harlem success academy, harlem success academy and film, martin buber, sam chaltain, the lottery, the lottery and film  
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Beautiful thoughts Sam. The only thing I would add is this advice to the lamb. Before you lie down with the lion make sure lamb stew isn't on his menu.

Posted by: MickeyK | July 6, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Nice thoughts. Maybe you can get "them" to stop making these obnoxious films. (Just kidding, a little)

Posted by: celestun100 | July 6, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

To build on your metaphors, The Lottery is an example of "cheap grace." We all should own up to the horrors that created generational poverty, oppression, and the Achievement Gap. It would be nice if all the damage could be solved by today's educational versions of the Power of Positive Thinking, Expectations, No Excuses, and Whatever It Takes. And that would take us all off the hook for the damaged family, our consumer culture, and the other toxicities we dump on kids if just getting an effective teacher would undo the harm.

Adlai Stevenson addressed cheap grace with the quip "I find St. Paul appealing, and St. Peale appalling.

Posted by: johnt4853 | July 6, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

I completely agree with your integrative slant on the ridiculously polarized ed debate in the US. More from me on topic at (

Posted by: graingered | July 6, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse


It's much easier to pretend that the real problem in schools is low test scores rather than own up to the truth of poverty. It's much easier to pretend charter schools are the answer than to own up to the fact that education in the inner city is difficult.

Posted by: jlp19 | July 6, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

At what point if ever do the proponents of charter schools accept that there is a fundamental problem when whether a child receives or does not receive a chance at an education is based upon a lottery.

Should children in the future look at others and say "There for the luck of the lottery go I."

Proponents of charter schools and lotteries always ignore the fact of the many children who are denied a chance at an decent education ignored if a parent does not participate in a lottery. Imagine how many health problems would be in school if school officials did not have mandatory inoculations and simply depended upon parents.

The idea of charter schools is totally unacceptable when a large majority is simply ignored and excluded.

The idea of charter schools is used for the poor and would never be accepted by Americans if the children of affluent and middle class parents had to depend upon their child's chance of an education based upon a lottery.

If charter schools were the answer every Title 1 public school could be turned into a charter school. But this will never be done since everyone recognizes that if this was done the charter schools would simply be plagued with the same problems of the Title 1 public schools.

Solutions have to be found to deal with the problem and charter schools have simply diverted attention and money from finding solutions.

Here is a possible solution.
Test every child when they enter the public school system and place them in classes based upon their current abilities and skills so teachers can teach to the level of the class. There are tests already for testing children prior to kindergarten.

Divide primary education in half with schools of K to 2nd grade and schools of 3rd to 5th grade. This allows you to use existing schools and staff to have 4 different level for each grade.

Now you are maximizing education for children in each class room. This method also allows you to spend more money for children that need more help since you know which classes should get the extra money.

Use yearly tests to indicate the level the child should go for the next year.

Do this for three years and you will dramatically increase the achievement in primary Title 1 public schools.

As Americans we do not need Gandhi or other philosophers in regard to an idea that is fundamentally flawed.

This is not a question of proponents of charter schools and public school teachers.

Would Americans accept the use of a lottery to determine who should be free or who should have an chance at being successful in life.

Even the children of the poor in this country deserve a chance at an education and that chance should not be simply based upon the luck of a lottery.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 6, 2010 9:52 PM | Report abuse

jlp19-- Yes, education in the inner city is difficult. I teach in NYC and know from experience.

BUT, we need to stop attacking charter schools that are demonstrating a willingness and determination to solve the problem.

We have a choice. We can pull out all the stops and try to give kids the best education we can.....OR we can throw up our hands and say "there are too many outside forces at work" and just settle for the status quo.

Charters are a solution for many kids....while they may not be a silver bullet, we need to stop trying to interfere when schools are succeeding.

Even if charters only make a difference for a few hundred kids at a time.....that's still 200 kids whose lives could be put on the right track.

We can't sit around and let generations of students pass through our doors while we hope for a magic one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes major change has to start one neighborhood, one school at a time.

Posted by: holzhaacker | July 7, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

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