September 16, 2012 § 6 Comments
The Chicago Teachers’ Strike is a perfect storm without solutions: teachers are unhappy about stringent evaluation methods that rely solely on data, the Board of Education wants to determine the best qualified teachers by linking teacher performance to student (tested) performance, and politicians, realizing that American education is, at best, woeful, are feeling the pinch and want to increase standards, particularly given the rising cost of education. Not sure how to do this, politicians hammer at collective bargaining. And all this is agitated by a media hell bent on reporting on the process, unable to locate the right questions that will get us to the origins of the problem. Caught in the middle of this tempest, students and their families, many of whom are from the poorest communities, are left alone in a dinghy of despair and confusion, the sole concern being how are the kids going to spend their day. Thus, the perfect storm — but there is a solution, a simple one.
The strike is a sign of unprecedented frustration. There are no solutions, from any side, that make sense because everywhere we look, solutions look like methods of discipline and punish. We’re proceeding on shaky footing. There is one truth, though: there will be more suffering, more confusion and, most importantly, no learning. Unable to ask the right questions, we’re destined to repeat what we’ve done in the past, ensuring a continuing decline in education and a further separation of socioeconomic classes. We will then fall further behind in this transition period where we’re moving towards a more science oriented, technological society.
The frustration all sides feel is caused by perspectives that still follow an analog view of the world. We’re looking for solutions that look back to the old brick and mortar school house: kids in neat classrooms, a tired curriculum, standardized, high-stakes testing; and the teacher still standing in the front of the classroom talking at students, rather than working with students. It’s a static view of a dynamic, always changing world outside the school house, captured beautifully by the graphic novelist, Chris Ware, in the September 12 issue of The New Yorker: Students enter a dark, ominous school, the last young girl in the line looking sad eyed at the parents who have turned their backs on their kids and are enjoying their bikes and lattes while texting, chatting merrily away from their dejected children. Parents have not asked the right questions either.
We are in a digital world, yet we remain mired in the muck of analog solutions. Today, education approaches learning hierarchically,when we can only change — and better — the system by thinking horizontally, the promise of technology used creatively. The world is flat, as Thomas Friedman informs us constantly, but education doesn’t seem to see it that way.
Elite higher education institutions understand that the world has changed. Stanford University, Harvard, Columbia, Duke, MIT — have all launched online systems for free in the hopes of attracting people from all walks of life. This will allow these schools to corner a market while learning a lot about those who participate. It’s an effective way to keep their respective brands at the top of a vertical educational system, while also pushing education forward.
In this very interesting online experiment there is a solution that can literally alter education for some time to come — but it takes courage and some doing, with little money. All that’s needed is will and fortitude, imagination and a desire, a real desire to do what’s best for kids — the bottom line.
Here’s how it can be done:
- Lectures, interactions, critiques, assessments, student work, etc, is online, constantly being tweaked, re-assessed, revised and re-delivered. In the meantime, knowledge is being built in unprecedented ways. This is knowledge about how students learn, as well as content specific knowledge. It’s too vital to dismiss; it’s also a tragedy if we leave this learning only in the hands of elite institutions, though these schools are open to all comers.
- Elite universities and colleges have incredible programs for incredibly talented students. I know, I teach in one. I know what these students can do — and I’ve tested what I’m saying here. For 3 consecutive years I’ve been teaching a course, Scenarios for Teaching Writing. This is a course for kids in education or for kids interested in teaching at some point. And for 3 years we’ve been working with the Media & Communications High School in Washington Heights, NY. We do the work face-to-face (we visit the campus), and we then work online, using a simple tool — Google docs. Students submit work and Middlebury students guide, mentor and tutor the kids in Washington Heights. Middlebury students follow the theoretical frameworks of composition theory that they learn in class; they have to present, day in and day out, their work to the class, justifying their approaches. My role is to help them; it is also to work with the principal of the high school and the teachers involved. Everyone wins. The most important aspect of this is that the model is highly scalable and cheap. The technology — thanks to Google — is free. (Community Works Institute will publish an article about our work in an upcoming publication.)
- The what if: What if, as a way of proving what these students are learning, college students in, say, History 101, take their lessons — from online and in class — and tweak these lessons with a partner in a public school — a teacher and her staff — to fit the needs of her students?
- What if these lessons — the revised lessons meant for students in the public school setting — are piped through the same online tools used by elite institutions, delivered straight to their classrooms, their homes, their communities? Automatically, the school day — and year — is extended.
- And what if the students in our colleges and universities, as part of their curriculum, work together with their respective education studies programs, psychology and sociology departments that know about “how children learn and succeed,” and use this knowledge to tutor and mentor the younger kids in public education?
This is not rocket science and very easy to do. Within two to three years of launching this process, literally all public education would change in America. In fact, education K-16 would change as well.
What are the outcomes of this model?
- Students in public schools spend more time learning, though not necessarily in the school; the “longer school day” isn’t more busy time, more brick and mortar thinking, more traditional high-stakes testing, rather, education is fluid and dynamic, inspirational and meaningful, meeting the student where she lives and how she lives: knowledge applied to real world learning to solve real world challenges.
- Students in public education are then assessed dynamically because technology enables an easy flow for assessment; it is a natural piece of the learning — and immediate, which is vital to learning, the red line appearing the minute a word is misspelled in a document. That’s how easy assessment is done on the fly.
- Technology, as we now realize, requires face-to-face interactions that are intense and focused on what has evolved online. My Scenarios for Teaching Writing students learned this. For public school students, this means that demonstrating what they know, in face-to-face interactions moves away from the standardized test or rote learning, engaging them in more meaningful and realistic ways.
- Likewise, it means that all of us can more critically and creatively work on non-cognitive skills, in person, such as the building of character, as recently shown by Paul Tough in How Children Succeed. For the very first time, by partnering with technology, we can educate the whole person.
- The college/university student is engaged in community service, able to fully realize how and why theoretical frameworks actually work — or not. And the college student, along with her professor, are immediately assessing and adjusting, fine tuning lessons to suit individual students, another characteristic of technology.
- The college/university student serves as mentor and teacher, collaborating and cooperating with her university teacher and with the public school teacher, becoming the bridge for life-long learning.
- Public school teachers receive ongoing, dynamic development, guided by the university curriculum, enhancing content knowledge, pedagogy, and a new understanding of what it is to work side-by-side with machines — the future.
- And, perhaps the most impressive result, is learning how to build a community that is focused on (a) gaining new knowledge, in different ways, (b) realizing that this brave new world requires very different approaches to solving problems, and, (c), come to understand that engaging diverse minds will lead to better results.
This is not pie in the sky thinking, not romanticism; rather, this is how this new scientific-technological world works. At the end of my Scenarios for Teaching Writing, literally all students did presentations using Prezi, responding to a singular question: given your experience in this course, and your students in Washington Heights, what do you know and what do you see? The students in the Scenarios class have become even more committed to education writ large; many are education minors and see education as a future. Don’t we want more of this from our college students?
This work begins to solve problems: all teachers, whether in public schools or the university, working together, building models for life-long learning, a pre-requisite for the “good life” in the coming century; the assessment tension is removed since it’s ongoing, fluid and dynamic, always present and performed per task, per endeavor; these endeavors are rich in inquiry and what we’re looking at are the solutions, the varied applications to problems, be these social, economic, pedagogical and scientific – technological. Thus we are engaged in a process of building new systems to address yet unforeseen challenges in economics, society, the environment.
The mentoring public school children need, particularly if they’re from socio-economically challenged backgrounds, is always ongoing; the move from high school to college, would be fluid, seamless — and inspired early on. And if the child decides to work and go to college online, that’s also available. All options are on the table and students and their families are free to choose. The point is that education is, here, available at all times and able to fit different types of learning needs and goals — all assessable.
If we continue to search for solutions by simply saying that children aren’t learning and that unions are obstructionist and politicians are only focused on getting re-elected — the old way of thinking today — we won’t get anywhere. The tit-for-tat world we find ourselves in isn’t working. We need a fresh start — or, rather, we need a start using what we’re already doing in select circles, Stanford, et al. Political will, clean universal design where everyone benefits and a desire to also change how college students go to school, giving them more responsibility for the way we actually live, is a great leap forward to solving our problems. It’s not hard, but this approach, if we can all put our shoulders to the wheel, will change the face of education and begin to address the many problems we face.
Let’s get to work — but let’s do it creatively. Nothing else is working: we know that.
June 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
for Shipnia, Brittany, Dane, Becca, Christine, Chris and Amanda and Taylor and Annie — and the countless other young souls that will call themselves new teachers
There is a lot of talk, politically and otherwise, about education reform, but there is little conversation about what teaching actually is — and who the teacher is. What are the elements of teaching?
There is a singular demand on education today, namely that it develop producers — students that will mature to be workers and consumers. This single demand is blind to the sources of this production model, the teachers, and the nature of human culture. Of course, citizens have to be productive, engaging the world creatively, we hope, but this is not the first criteria. There are other requirements. In order for education to be productive — produce productive individuals — it must preserve the health and welfare of teachers and, in so doing, it must sustain students in the process. For this to happen, teachers must know themselves well, must have a full understanding of their students, and, just as significant, teachers must have a complete understanding of the context in which the teaching and learning happens. Teachers must be well motivated, active learners that engage the environment in which students reside; likewise, teachers must also know the relationships that exist between their subjects, pedagogy and the environment in which s/he is teaching. What is the place of my knowledge in the context of our culture? This question teachers must ask themselves over and over. Then teachers must know how to use this knowledge well. Teaching cannot take place except in culture. We seem to be unaware of this vital fact.
The appropriate measure of teaching is the culture’s health. We can look around and realize that our culture is not healthy, not by any stretch of the imagination.
Education, we hear in the talk, is in trouble; it has broken down. It’s limping along, even declining, we hear. A central reason for this breakdown has to do with our lack of understanding concerning the elements of teaching. We recognize the potential — and place — of the teacher, but we have strapped the teacher down in a system that privileges competition rather than cooperation, homogeneity rather than diversity. We falsely believe, now, that a single test can determine excellence — for teachers and students. This is far too simple a standard because it’s focused solely on production; it enslaves those in the system — administrators, teachers and students. This is an economic standard that parallels the current economic standard that has taken our welfare to the brink of disaster. We are beginning to see — only in some circles — that this standard is very expensive and, while it has solved some immediate problems, it has, overall, failed on a consistent basis to address the ills of our culture. Education has worked by confinement, concentration and separation; this design has lead to the industrialization of human experience. We, who work in schools, have been responsible for this move towards the factory model of education. It’s synonymous with the factory model of agriculture, which has lead to making our food vulnerable that, in turn, makes all vulnerable to all sorts of problems and diseases.
This is to say, then, that we have to re-describe the elements of teaching so that we can create better, more meaningful measures that comply with the art of teaching. Many like to say that teaching is an art and a science. It is not. It’s only an art. The science — the data, the verifiable knowledge, etc — only exists in the disciplines — Mathematics, English, Literature, Geography, History, Philosophy, Foreign Languages, and so on. The application of these knowledge fields to excite a student’s imagination is not a science; the synthesis of discipline knowledge and pedagogy is an art. This is why current, high stakes testing cannot measure, with any meaningful results, the teacher’s practice. We need another way of doing this; these measures must be layered and multifaceted — observations, journals, video, dialog, and so on, along with tests. I say along with tests because by integrating a variety of diverse measures we will be able to (a) experience the rich and layered practice of a teacher, and describe it, and (b) come to understand the limitations of the factory model, high stakes test.
So let’s just talk about three elements of teaching (in the weeks to come, I’ll describe others). I want to do this to show what I mean by the need for diverse measures that defy the factory model of education.
The first element of teaching is love. A teacher must love. She must love herself, but more importantly, she must love experiencing herself as a node that engages others in the healthy creation of culture. Love requires that the teacher be healthy, personally and in her practice. Love, therefore, leads the teacher to care about the well being of her students; this measure — the health of students — leads to atonement between the teacher, her students, and the world they are engaging. It proposes conscious, careful recognition of the ecology of learning. It also demonstrates knowledge of the interdepence between the teacher, students, the institution and the culture. These interdependencies always exist; however, in our current factory model of education focused solely on production, we categorically reject these connections, begin separating, confining and concentrating on diffused knowledge that is without context, without purpose. Teachers love, first and foremost, because it is the only way to get to a student’s heart; without the heart, there is no learning that’s possible. We can measure this quite easily by simply walking into any school and observing disinterested students. Disinterest comes about because love is not practiced in the classroom. Either a teacher doesn’t love her discipline or she doesn’t love the conditions for learning or she doesn’t love her students because, perhaps, they represent insurmountable challenges that she imagines cannot be addressed.
Teachers that begin with love are easy to find in schools. They are the most exhausted. This is the direct result of a dictatorial or totalitarian form. The teacher is always fighting an uphill battle against political demands on her identity, measures that don’t make sense, dictates that come from “on high,” usually boards of education — the Federal Government included — that have no idea who the students are. On the other hand, this teacher knows that the right approach to teaching and learning is more consistent with a conversational model; it proceeds directly to serious thought — inquiry — about our condition and our predicament. In conversations you always reply — and here is where we can measure. If a teacher honors the other party, namely students and their identities, she thus becomes reliant on a secondary element of teaching faith. The teacher has faith that the other will reply, though sometimes not in expected ways or in ways that the teacher may like — but this is, in fact, a healthy environment that begs for a third element, freedom. The teacher must always transgress constraints and boundaries to expose the work required, by a citizen, to be free. The teaching and learning act is to inspire the quest for freedom, creatively, personally, politically. Transgressing boundaries for freedom excites the imagination, which can be measured in actual work — writing, calculations and their applications, art and music, and so on, right to the effective uses of languages to communicate deeply felt emotions to an Other. Faith that the Other will reply fosters the quest for freedom, which is the sole purpose of education.
Love, faith and freedom, we can rightly see — and imagine — are easily measured, in teachers and students, by closely examining their practice, not by standardized tests, but, rather, by observation, close examination of texts and testing; the multi-layered approach, as I mentioned above, enables us to distinguish between individuals, rather then assuming that all individuals are the same, one. It allows us to apply what we learn — and what we have learned about the factory system that has gotten us nowhere — to our culture. We can then, slowly, begin to measure whether our culture is moving towards healthier ways of being since, right now, we’re not.
For a long time, we have dreamt that our systems have been taking us towards some Edenic future; we’ve convinced ourselves that our constructions, completely reliant on human ingenuity, are the key to our health and happiness. Now we realize otherwise. We have forgotten that everything we do resides in Nature; that everything we do affects Culture. Nature and Culture are hurting. We can turn to science, technology, medicine, history and philosophy, as well as the Arts, and see that this is absolutely true. All these disciplines are pointing to our troubled ways– to the troubles we’re facing. Might it not be time to take what we’ve learned and turn this ship around?
March 18, 2012 § 1 Comment
In order to reform education — code for altering and restructuring public education in socio-economically strapped urban settings without considering the will of the people affected, even if it means privatization and exclusion — we have to look at the entire picture, the continuum, K-16. The problem lies here.
In The Learning Connection: New Partnerships Between Schools and Colleges, Gene I. Maeroff, Patrick M. Callan and Michael D. Usdan, tell us, citing Roland Barth of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, that, “dual citizenship remains evanescent.” And that the “two sectors [K-12 and higher education] — at a time when both need reform, renewal, rethinking, and restructuring — have few connecting mechanisms to enable them to work cooperatively on issues of mutual concern.”
The challenges we face require that we re-think our complacency with current systems and arrangements. “With up to one-third of the children under age 6 growing up in poverty or economically marginal circumstances,” Maeroff, Callan and Usdan continue, “the K-12 system is confronting serious social as well as educational challenges.” The situation is grave and costly and if we don’t re-address these connections we will march into a bifurcated society — if we’re not there already.
But reform will not be enacted — and be done creatively — if we neglect the relationships between K-12 and colleges and universities. University culture hangs over K-12 education; it’s cloak of anxiety and fear overwhelms the young and their families, leading both to cower before the hallow ivy. Higher education, at its best, marginalizes and divides. It’s disconcerting because higher education is suppose to be about self-actualization.
Higher education is mired in a perspective that is inconsistent with self-actualization. Higher education is enthralled by data driven excellence and the pursuit of efficiency; it sacrifices individual talent, and effort, and privileges materialism. This is an antiquated — and destructive — way of being, commonly known as a “silo approach,” but perhaps Paulo Freire’s characterization, a “banking system,” fits best since all signs suggest that education is the new corporation, the new kid on the block comprised of powerful multinationals.
No one is happy. Everyone is confused. No one has any answers, it seems. “Without major changes in the reward system in higher education — affecting appointment, tenure, and promotion,” argue Maeroff, Callan and Usdan, “there is little chance for meaningful and sustained change and involvement in K-12 issues. We refer here to universitywide policies because collaboration efforts ought not to be limited to the faculties of schools of education.”
David Helfand, for instance, a Columbia University professor for 35 years, who chaired the astronomy department, is on leave to serve as President of tiny Quest University Canada, a liberal arts college. In the Tamar Lewin New York Times article, “David Helfand’s New Quest,” Helfand says, about Quest, that, “We have to make sure people’s inherent conservatism isn’t allowed to come through. We have to institutionalize revolution, or we’ll end up with departments and semester-long courses.” In other words, the silo or the banking system shuts down self-actualization, departmentalizes it and renders it helpless. The residue of institutionalized departmentalization, its power to place blinders on the scope of our vision, is overwhelming K-12 education; it comes in the form of high stakes testing and educational divisions separating children’s learning experiences along soci-economic and racial lines.
We thus have a society divided. Segregation is brought about by the discontinuity in K-16 education. The educational system, then, accepting inequalities, is willing to work towards small gains within “the limits inequality allows,” says Jonathan Kozol in The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.
Curriculum materials that are alleged to be aligned with governmentally established goals and standards and particularly suited to what are regarded as ‘the special needs and learning styles’ of low-income urban children have been introduced. Relentless emphasis on raising test scores, rigid policies of non-promotion and non-graduation, a new empiricism and the imposition of unusually detailed lists of named and numbered ‘outcomes’ for each isolated parcel of instruction, an oftentimes fanatical insistence upon uniformity of teachers in their management time, an openly conceded emulation of the rigorous approaches of the military, and a frequent use of terminology that comes out of the world of industry and commerce — these are just a few of the familiar aspects of these new adaptive strategies.
And these adaptive strategies so well described by Kozol have their origin in the new University that, according to the late Bill Readings in The University in Ruins, “no longer participates in the historical project for humanity that was the legacy of the Enlightenment: the historical project of culture. Such a claim also raises some significant questions of its own: Is this a new age dawning for the University project, or does it mark the twilight of the University’s critical and social function? And if it is the twilight, then what does that mean?”
The University is, in fact, in a new dawn, on the one side struggling with its antecedent — its role in humanity’s historical project; the other being the lure of materialism, “the reconception of the University as corporation,” says Readings, “one of whose functions (products?) is the granting of degrees with a cultural cache, but whose overall nature is corporate rather than cultural.”
Students in Professor Helfand’s Columbia class, he tell us, when he was asking them why they weren’t as inquisitive as 4th graders, inform him that, “Fourth graders are curious and university freshman by and large aren’t…There’s too much to learn, and it’s all on Google anyway.” And, says another, “This is a seminar. Asking questions could be a sign of weakness. You can only ask questions in big lectures where you’re anonymous.” So, says another student, “You have to understand, I’m paying for a degree, not an education.”
There you have it. Students — and their paying families — want a degree, not an education. Only education — and especially higher education — is responsible for this extraordinarily shortsighted view, which is costly in more way then one since it’s given us the society we now have.
We’re therefore left with the corporation. The corporation is the culture — and vice versa. The elite cannot sidestep this bind either. “The elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent, and often subversive,” says Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion. “They organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers, and rigid structures designed to produce such answers. The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service — economic, political, and social — come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market, and also with highly specialized vocabulary …a sign of the ‘specialist’ and, of course, the elitist, thwarts universal understanding.”
What emerges are managers of the dominant system, not change agents, not enlightened individuals that can question, imagine something different and transgress the means of blind production. Education K-12 is part of this system, weeding out those that can become the elite managers of the system, separating them from those that will service the system elsewhere — manual labor, the service industries and, more emphatically, in the prison industrial complex, as guards and inmates.
Education means to control and manage, not enlighten and enable actualization; it creates specialists, the elites, and a slave class through its apartheid system. The system is inverted — inverted totalitarianism.
In higher education, tenure is, of course, part of the problem. It’s a system of discipline and punishment that insists on embracing the larger framework as ideal. “It’s not exactly a system designed to attract the most entrepreneurial, risk-taking types,” Helfand tells Tamar Lewin . “Furthermore, tenure has little to do with teaching. Just look at the language: we talk about teaching ‘loads’ and research ‘opportunities,’ and you can be sure it is exploiting the latter that gets you tenure,” he says. Tenure is synonymous with advancing in a corporation; the language is interchangeable.
We can hear echoes of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish here: “The apparatus of punitive justice must now bite into their bodiless reality.” Indeed. Our education system, K-16, and our students, our teachers and professors, too, enter this “bodiless reality” where discipline and punishment are exercised. “Since its no longer the body,” says Foucault, “it must be the soul” that must be disciplined. Education serves this purpose in our society: it disciplines the soul into subservience and blind allegiance; it enables citizens to embrace the most dangerous thing of all, ideologies.
The result, says John Ralston Saul in The Unconscious Civilization, “will be the portrait of a society addicted to ideologies — a civilization tightly held at this moment in the embrace of a dominant ideology: corporatism. The acceptance of corporatism causes us to deny and undermine the legitimacy of the individual as citizen in a democracy. The result of such a denial is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of the public good.”
Self-interest trumps self-actualization in Education. This can be turned around if we, in higher education, examine our purpose. And if our purpose is even remotely about self-actualization — ours and our students’– then we’re called to re-evaluate the conditions in the University that have lead us to the dire circumstances we’re in today. On this road we’ll realize a few things: we’re not sure who are students are and what they need and want; we’re not sure about our world because we reject the notion that we, in academia, had something to do with its creation; we are fearful of releasing ourselves from the binds of departmentalization and devising new and fresh approaches to learning that take into consideration how much we’ve come to know about learning and the brain; and we are definitely frightened of releasing our sense of ownership and control over our disciplines to give way to different and fresh, interdisciplinary approaches, though our life at hand is telling us that we must since nothing, nothing at all really ever exists confined as we make it out to be in our silos, our disciplines. K-16 education needs to be re-invented as a long journey towards self-actualization that pushes aside departmentalization, corporatism and racism, our current conditions.
August 18, 2011 § 12 Comments
In this time of socio-economic turmoil and political malaise, might we take a moment, breath, step back and perhaps try to understand how we got here, to this confusing place we’re living through these days, so that we then might find ways through and, eventaully, out? Because we are going to get out of this; the question, however, is what will we look like when we come through to the other side.
We’re living through a transition of mammoth proporstions. The anger — and anguish — we witness daily is caused by enourmous change in societies. Some of this change is planned; some is historical; other change is uncontrolled, unforseen. This is literally happening everywhere. No one is untouched. We are anxious because experience — reality as we once knew it — is ending. We’re certain. We feel we’re at the end of boundaries. But boundaries are also beginnings of things. What will be, though, is unclear. And what is — the present — is defined by tremenodous anxiety that shallow political figures and the media that follows them along fuels. We’re frustrated because, as we are pushed up against boundaries, politicians and popular media merely exacerbate rather than engage in a reasoned examination of what is and, most importantly why.
In his seminal work, The Location of Culture (1994), Homi Bhabha says that, “Our existence is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the borderlines of the ‘present’, for which there seems to be no proper name other than the current and controversial shiftiness of the prefix ‘post’: postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism…”
The notion that existence is dark, even foreboding, and that reality is always on the borderlines, suggests a rather indefinite place; it’s home to the disorder of things, the result of an utterly fabricated world – an experiment that needs us to re-visit our purpose in creating it.
Bhabha also suggests that, “Social differences are not simply given to experience through an already authenticated cultural tradition; they are the signs of the emergence of community envisaged as a project – at once a vision and a construction – that takes you ‘beyond’ yourself in order to return, in a spirit of revision and reconstruction, to the political conditions of the present.”
Is this systemic? Have we been engineered to be dominated so violently? After all, society is manufactured so what we become is planned, organized, given schedules, laws, and moral codes. It is reasonable to wonder how we came to be so divided, so constricted in our social mobility.
Witness “the political conditions of the present,” as Bhabha urges “in a spirit of revision and reconstruction”: Our socio-economic downturn and the extreme separation between race(s) and class were seeded in the social upheaval of the 1960s. America was struggling to come of age racially and sexually; the country was torn apart by Vietnam, so much so that it still haunts the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For some, the chaos of the sixties was a sign of hope – society could change; for others this same period was a warning – powerful ideas were infiltrating our most heralded institutions, especially education – and challenging the free market. Capitalism was challenged on all fronts.
In 1971, Lewis F. Powell, then a corporate lawyer and member of the boards of 11 corporations, wrote a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memorandum – The Powel Memo, also known as the Powel Manifesto – was dated August 23, 1971, two months prior to Powell’s nomination by President Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Powell Memo did not become available to the public until long after his confirmation to the Court. It was leaked to Jack Anderson, a liberal syndicated columnist, who stirred interest in the document when he cited it as reason to doubt Powell’s legal objectivity. Anderson cautioned that Powell “might use his position on the Supreme Court to put his ideas into practice…in behalf of business interests.”
Though Powell’s memo was not the sole influence – another, from the Left, was The Crisis of Democracy, Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission – the Chamber of Commerce and corporate activists took his advice to heart and began building a powerful array of institutions designed to shift public attitudes and beliefs over the course of years and decades. The memo influenced or inspired the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other powerful organizations. Their long-term focus began paying off handsomely in the 1980s, in coordination with the Reagan Administration’s “hands-off business” philosophy.
Most notable about these institutions was their focus on education, shifting values, and movement-building. Powell, for his part, embraced the expansion of corporate privilege and wrote the majority opinion in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, a 1978 decision that effectively invented a First Amendment “right” for corporations to influence ballot questions. On social issues, he was a moderate, whose votes often surprised his backers.
“No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack,” writes Powell in his memo. “We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from the minority socialist cadre. Rather, the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts.”
The fear that forces had infiltrated institutions and were effectively changing the course of Capitalism was alarming to the centers of power – defense, banking, the oil industry.
“The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism,” Powell warned, “come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.”
No one was safe from Powell’s condemnation, particularly “minorities.” Circle the wagons – the creation of the present began with Powell and those that saw value and benefit in his message.
Adding to the problem, according to Powell, “The painfully sad truth is that business, including the boards of directors’ and the top executives of corporations great and small and business organizations at all levels, often have responded – if at all – by appeasement, ineptitude and ignoring the problem. There are, of course, many exceptions to this sweeping generalization. But the net effect of such response as has been made is scarcely visible.” Business, while doing their jobs well, were never prepared for the kind of “guerilla warfare,” Powell calls it, that was certainly needed. “[But] they have shown little stomach for hard-nose contest with their critics, and little skill in effective intellectual and philosophical debate.”
The remedy was to have the Chamber of Commerce be more instrumental because, “It enjoys a strategic position, with a fine reputation and a broad base of support.” The college campuses needed “balance” — and the Chamber could provide a means to an end, the reconstruction of a new order.
The social science faculties usually include members who are unsympathetic to the enterprise system. They may range from a Herbert Marcuse, Marxist faculty member at the University of California at San Diego, and convinced socialists, to the ambivalent liberal critic who finds more to condemn than to commend. Such faculty members need not be in a majority. They are often personally attractive and magnetic; they are stimulating teachers, and their controversy attracts student following; they are prolific writers and lecturers; they author many of the textbooks, and they exert enormous influence – far out of proportion to their numbers – on their colleagues and in the academic world.
Powell argued that organizing the Chamber to assist administrators and faculties in actively constructing change was feasible; the Chamber could also organize “a staff of highly qualified scholars in the social sciences who do believe in the system”; organize a “staff or speakers of the highest competency” that would include speakers for the Chamber that “would have to articulate the product of scholars.”
Reaching the campuses and secondary schools was vital.
But Powell recognized that reaching the public in the short term, as he says, “may be more important.” This would involve the monitoring of the national television networks. “This monitoring, to be effective,” notes Powell, “would require constant examination of the texts of adequate samples of programs. Complaints – to the media and to the Federal Communications Commission – should be made and strongly when programs are unfair or inaccurate.” A private police state. Radio, scholarly journals, books, paperback and pamphlets were all under attack and in need of a forceful revision. The courts, the political arena, paid advertisement – all of it had to be re-constructed accordingly.
The total commodification of the American Experience was underway, fully engaged and given free run by Reagan, resulting in the present: the privatization of schools, the segregation of communities, the ever widening gap between the rich and everyone else, but particularly between wealthy whites and people of color.
This is what Powell called the “Rehabilitation to Freedom.” Powell believed that the country had moved too far into “state socialism.” Says, Powell, “But most of the essential freedoms remain: private ownership, private profit, labor unions, collective bargaining, consumer choice, and a market economy in which competition largely determines price, quality and variety of the goods and services provided the consumer
In the present – in corporatized academia and the privatization of public education, in the political arena motivated more by ideology then negotiation, bargaining and compromise, the staples of democratic principles, and in a mostly conservative media that is keen on covering process instead of a “return to the political conditions of the present,” the actual moral place of media – we can literally see and hear Powell.
The political left does not fare any better in this story.
In The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, the authors – all three distinguished professors from prestigious universities, Michel J. Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington and Joji Watanuki, wondering whether there is a general crisis in this democracy, lament that there are “various communist observers, who speak with growing confidence of ‘the general crisis of capitalism’ and who see in it the confirmation of their own theories.” The remedy is to re-invigorate the public – and systems of government – around the central purposes of democratic systems: “the combination of personal liberty with the enhancement of social progress.”
But as the Trilateral Commission’s authors suggest, there are challenges to democracies, “tendencies,” as they say, “which impede that [the functioning of democracy itself] functioning”:
1. The pursuit of the democratic virtues of equality and individualism has led to the delegitimation of authority generally and the loss of trust in leadership.
2. The democratic expansion of political participation and involvement has created an ‘overload’ on government and the imbalanced expansion of governmental activities, exacerbating inflationary tendencies in the economy.
3. The political competition essential to democracy has intensified, leading to a disaggregation of interests and the decline and fragmentation of political parties.
4. The responsiveness of democratic government to the electorate and to societal pressures encourages nationalistic parochialism in the way in which democratic societies conduct their foreign relations.
Thus, “leadership is in disrepute in democratic societies.” A more stringent, subtle and powerful form of government, not seen but highly influential, had to take hold.
In the United States, at the time, “the government is constrained more by the shortage of authority than by the shortage of resources.” In essence, then, government had to regain its foothold in society. In order to keep democracy alive, at least in principal, democracy had to be essentially curtailed, shut down. Something else had to take it’s place, while creating the illusion that democracy still mattered. Enter the corporation.
Witness today: The Powell Memo and The Crisis of Democracy helped usher in the massive commodification of American life, the ongoing dismantling of public education, the corporatizing of the university, the aggressive and demoralizing taking apart of labor unions, the polarization of politics brought about by an insistence on stringent ideologies, and the homogenizing of popular media – all this taking hold while the country was grappling with civil rights, feminism, sexual politics and a devastating war no one wanted. These were difficult times. We witnessed the assassination of John F. Kennedy; then his brother, Robert, fell to the insanity. Malcolm X was taken in the confusion as well. Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream seemed to come to a bloody end on a balcony, in Memphis, Tennessee, on the 4th of April, 1968. And then there was Watergate, when we thought the chaos was winding down. These were the worst of times, though some, particularly today’s young, have a certain nostalgia for this frightening era.
And we came out of it – but when we re-emerged as a nation, all tattered and wounded, the Reagan years had effectively given us a different world: an American ideology – and politics – focused on corporate benefit.
The socio-economic divide has its road map, and segregation became entrenched; the gap between the haves and the have nots had been keenly engineered.
When capitalism was first presented as an intellectual framework, it operated unseen – Adam Smith’s “unseen hand.” But what we have now is an “unprecedented combination of powers distinguished by their totalizing tendencies,” says Sheldon S. Wolin, in Democracy Inc.,“powers that not only challenge established boundaries – political, moral, intellectual, and economic – but whose very nature it is to challenge boundaries continually, even to challenge the limits of the earth itself.”
Witness our present then, where the “totalizing tendencies” of this unbridled power have placed us all on the boundaries, at limits, where things end and where things also begin, looking once again at Homi Bhabha.
But what ends and what begins?
In a society where power’s totalizing tendencies are exercised fully and completely, marginalization, departmentalization and disenfranchisement are characteristics of this existence.
The challenge for America is the understanding that this methodology, which began with The Powell Memo and The Crisis of Democracy is focused on the short term. This common practice in American; it’s also a natural sympton of a constructed transition. Administered violence, rabid xenophobia and racism, sexism, consumerism and spectacle are but the results.
Now, knowing what we know, what are we going to do, what are we willing to do with what we know? This is at the crux of America’s perfect storm. If we don’t recognize how we got here, we won’t recognize where we might go, turning this ship around, pointing it toward the promises of opportunity and equality that, as we come to our 10th anniversary of 9/11, let’s not forget the representation of the Statue of Liberty a couple of miles from this tragic center.
July 29, 2011 § 4 Comments
Witness today: the pathetic — and uncanny — Washington circus concerning the debt and the debt ceiling crisis; the economy is still moving at a snail’s pace, now reacting even more negatively to Washington’s ideologically based idiocies; evidence of climate change is everywhere around us; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan baffle the mind, forever responding to terror and poor Western management; U.S. public education is in the toilet, put there by more controversial political brinkmanship, and continuing to ensure we live in a bifurcated society; unemployment is stagnant, as a result, and more and more people out of work or working in jobs well below their capacity; production is at a standstill, and in some places, such as Ohio, industry has left town — Main Street is emptying out; children and women, some of the most vulnerable in our society, are without health care; the gap between the richest of the privileged white and Hispanics and blacks is wider then it’s ever been in history; some of our cities — Newark for instance — are being left in the dust kicked up by the materialism of the few.
These tragic items are but the results of our manmade decline. Let me say this again: if you look around — health care, education, finance, industry, the environment, our deteriorating infrastructure, the decline of certain cities, particularly those inhabited by people of color and immigrants — every single problem we have today exists because we’ve made it so. Our educated elite have taken us down.
How can the most powerful nation in history come to this? The answer, I dare, is simple: we’ve educated the elite — politicians, lawyers, doctors, CEO’s, and so on — into beings that have long ago left their humanity at the curb, supplanted by delusions of grandeur, the avarice that so carefully destroys everything it touches. Education has become school for profit and self-gain.
As I’ve said in these pages before, what we have here is a crisis in — and about — EDUCATION, writ large (see here, too). Education has forgotten — or repressed — it’s allegiance to Humanity, its very real purpose of creating empathetic, creative citizens.
We can learn something from the models we say we follow, in this case, the Greek Stoics. The Stoics had a radical point, as Martha S. Nussbaum tells us in Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, “that we should give our first allegiance to no mere form of government, not temporal power, but to the moral community made up by the humanity of all human beings.” We’ve moved far from this goal, this reality; it’s no longer a compass point.
Of course, the failure of our EDUCATION — the educating for excellence, efficiency and production, education focused solely on the means of production and accounting, the creation of cogs on the wheel of mediocrity — is devoid of any moral posture. It is an immoral education.
When morality fails or is oppressed, ideologies spring to the rescue. In every tragic circumstance we face today, each can be said to be driven by ideologies — not rationality, not dialog, compromise and bargaining, the hallmarks of Democracy.
Ideologies give us a false sense of reality, an artificial view of the world — and ourselves. Ideologies, as we can see today in Washington, scorn knowledge; these are motivated or, better, are narrated by the corporation. Who will win, whether or not the debt ceiling is raised? Who will win if US ratings are reduced? That’s right: the banks, no matter what happens, win. They win the world. (This is, of course, the grand example, the ultimate example of inverted totalitarianism, where the corporations dictate and the witless masses, sleeping away in illusions of plentitude, are lead to slaughter.)
How did this world come about?
The rise of industrialism influenced not only the structure of mass education but also its organizational culture. Like factories, schools are special facilities with clear boundaries that separate them from the outside world. They have set hours of operation and prescribed rules of conduct. They are based on the principles of standardization and conformity.
Robinson could be describing the modern prison, instead — separate …from the outside world, prescribed rules of conduct, standardization and conformity.
What schools have done is effectively standardize and conform and therefore shut down the imagination, killed creativity, in the words of Ken Robinson. What then can grow from here? What we have, says John Ralston Saul, in The Unconscious Civilization, is a “human … reduced to a measurable value, like a machine or a piece of property. We can choose to achieve a high value and live comfortably or be dumped unceremoniously onto the heap of marginality.”
Can we change this? Can we combat this?
Yes, we can. There are examples. One primary example is Bard College. This institution is not held to a separation from the outside world; it is in the world, creatively addressing our culture’s greatest challenges.
Leo Botstein, Bard College President since 1975, is perhaps the best and, likely, the most enlightened of college presidents. He has lead this college from prescribed — and accepted — rules of conduct and carefully defined new rules of conduct that follow a moral understanding of our human responsibilities to each other. This is, indeed, for my money, the only real example, today, of a classical liberal arts education.
Bard has embarked on several endeavors: Bard High School Early College seeks to provide an alternative to the traditional high school, a “rigorous course of study that emphasizes thinking through writing, discussion, and inquiry.” Imagine if other elite liberal arts colleges learned from Bard and took up alternatives to high schools like this? What can we do? Bard has announced its collaboration with the Newark Public School System as well.
The small college is involved in the Bard Prison Initiative, creating opportunities for incarcerated men and women to earn Bard degrees. In From Ball and Chain to Cap and Gown: Getting a Degree B. A. Behind Bars, a PBS special story about the Bard Prison Initiative, we can see the essence of the liberal arts education at work.
But Bard has not stopped there.
It has a Masters of Arts in Teaching Program, too, allowing students to be certified in New York and California. It is a program focused on “both rural and urban-high needs school districts.” No one is doing this. Absolutely no one. Bard is in the vanguard.
And if this is not enough, Bard has established an Honors College in collaboration with Al-Quds — the Al-Quds – Bard Partnership, in Jerusalem. Along with St. Petersburg State University, Bard has developed “The Department of Liberal Arts and Sciences … the first Department in Russia to be founded upon the principles of liberal education. It emerged from Smolny College (officially the Program in «Arts and Humanities»), which was created in 1994 by St. Petersburg State University in close collaboration with Bard College (USA). Bard College’s interest in curricular innovation and the reform of international education coincided with the interests of a group of creatively-minded scholars from St. Petersburg State University.” In other words, in the international arena, Bard is not going to the usual places, as all other schools do; rather, Bard has opted to go where there are obvious challenges — and opportunities.
How is it possible that a small school in Upstate New York can do so much? Endowments of other liberal arts institutions tower over Bard’s, approximately a mere $270 million. How is it possible to do so much with what in higher education is so little these days? It has 1800 students. A faculty of about 224 professors. The cost of attending Bard is comparable to other elite liberal arts colleges, $55, 480 — so what’s the difference? It has a beautiful campus. It has all the accoutrements we expect from these schools — the arts, wonderful grounds, athletic facilities, new technologies abound. So what gives?
Answer: imagination and will, a conviction that what we must do in education, if we’re going to contribute to the reversing of the tide of malaise, complacency, avarice and the blind pursuit of materialism is not compete, but rather, join hands and cooperate, collaborate, listen and learn by thinking critically, dialog and bargain. Like no other institution for its size Bard is doing more for humanity than most larger — and more distinguished — universities.
Might we jump on this wagon and see where creativity can take us, rather then staying on the ideological tracks to despair?
July 3, 2011 § Leave a Comment
We’ll never know what happened in Sofitel Suite 2086. What we do know, however, is that there is more than one victim. The hotel maid is a victim. DSK’s wife, Anne Sinclair, is a victim, too.
The ironically named the “Audacity of Hope,” that sneaked out under the cover of night from a Greek port with aid to Gaza, was stopped by the Greek Coast Guard. Forty US passengers were on board, inspired, I’m sure, by rays of hope for the people of Gaza. There are a lot of victims here, too. Palestinians. Israelis, too. Of course, freedom, self-reliance, independence and hope are victims as well. In the Israeli – Palestinian conflict we’re all victims. There are no winners here. It’s a dark course we’ve embarked on here.
Not a single latino baseball player (40 percent of major league baseball players are latino) will boycott this year’s All-Star Game in Arizona, who passed an anti-immigration law.
We march on, celebrating the American 4th of July — yet thousands upon thousands cannot celebrate with the same audacity. Of course, the top executives of the most powerful companies that now rule — that is, that run our government for their benefit can, indeed, celebrate unprecedented freedoms. But for the countless poor, those that reside in the inner most regions of our large cities, their lives are walled up.
It’s to them, the people and their kids that I’ve come to know in such places as the South Ward of Newark, that I write. It’s to them I send my wishes. And I send these wishes using the words of sociologist William Julius Wilson, who I have used plenty of times before in these pages.
I think it’s best to simply allow Wilson to speak without commentary, so I’ll cite some definitive conclusions pertaining to The Economic Plight of Inner-City Black Males chapter in Wilson’s book, More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, again a text I’ve used numerous times and that must be read and acted upon.
Listen carefully. Read these out loud, several times, and see what happens:
Indeed, the employment woes of poor black men represent part of ‘the new urban poverty,’ which I define as poor, segregated neighborhoods in which substantial proportions of the adult population are either officially unemployed or have dropped out of, or never entered, the labor force.
…neighborhoods with larger fractions of nonwhites tend to be associated with higher rates of unemployment…[The data shows] that education plays a key role in enabling black men to secure employment.
By 2007, blacks were about 15 percent less likely than other workers to have a job in manufacturing. The dwindling proportion of African American workers in manufacturing is important because manufacturing jobs, especially those in the auto industry, have been a significant source of better-paid employment for black Americans since World War II.
Because they tend to be educated in poorly performing public schools, low-skilled black males often enter the job market lacking some of the basic tools that would help them confront changes in their employment prospects. Such schools have rigid district bureaucracies, poor morale among teachers and school principals, low expectations for students, and negative ideologies that justify poor student performance. Inner-city schools fall well below more advantaged suburban schools in science and and math resources, and they lack teachers with appropriate preparation in these subjects. As a result, students from these schools tend to have poor reading and math skills, important tools for competing in the globalized labor market. Few thoughtful observers of public education would disagree with the view that the poor employment prospects of low-skilled black males are in no small measure related to their public-education experience.
Their lack of education, which contributes to joblessness, is certainly related to their risk of incarceration.
…national cultural shifts in values and attitudes contributed to a political context associated with a resurgent Republican Party that focused on punitive ‘solutions’ and worsened the plight of low-skilled black men.
In short, cultural shifts in attitudes towards crime and punishment created structural circumstances — a more punitive justice system — that have had a powerful impact on low-skilled black males.
…research by Devah Pager revealed that a white applicant with a felony conviction was more likely to receive a callback or job offer than was a black applicant with a clean record.
Thus, whereas the subculture of defeatism is a result of having too little pride to succeed in the labor market, the subculture of resistance reflects too much pride to accept menial employment.
So much for the audacity of hope! Have a wonderful 4th of July!
June 25, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I. Newark and the New World Order
Newark is a microcosm of what’s happening across the United States. The city is being isolated, by privatization efforts, from the rest of America and people are struggling and suffering. Politicians — Governor Christie and Newark Mayor Corey Booker, his foil — are merely mouthpieces for this effort, though they speak the language of inclusion. But Newark is being disseminated, nevertheless. In this Orwellian nightmare, the children — as they are in war — are the most vulnerable and suffering the most.
The unraveling of civil liberties and social justice is evident in the latest confusion — and fight — about the Facebook donation to Newark’s schools. This is an example of a long history of dissemination in Newark. It’s the same old story, one that Newark — and other cities like Newark — have experienced before. On one side of the equation, we have Booker telling Oprah that he’ll include Newark’s parents in the decision making process; on the other we have parents feeling alienated and concerned with Booker’s appointment of Chris Cerf as the a new acting state commissioner of Education, the top post. Cerf heads a commission to double the Zuckerberg donation (they’ve already raised $43 million). Cerf is also a founding partner of a consulting firm for school districts. This is what we use to call carpetbagging, a derogatory term, suggesting opportunism and exploitation from outsiders. The feeling in Newark is that Cerf’s approach appears to be a for-profit enterprise, particularly if we take a look at Cerf’s peers that include a venture capitalist and hedge fund managers. This follows a general trend, incorporated by Governor Christie, to put private firms in charge of under-performing schools in Camden, NJ.
What is happening in Newark around education — again a powerful example of inverted totalitarianism — is the result of a history of neglect. This is a history replete with structural changes, some racist, some not, that have, nevertheless, resulted in the disenfranchisement and isolation of an entire city and its citizens. These structural forces run together with cultural forces that contribute to racial inequality. The latest confusion and battle about the Facebook donation to Newark’s schools is yet another example of how the structural and cultural forces that contribute to racial inequality are exploited for — and by — an elite few. Now, though, tragically so, this too involves black politicians that use race for personal gain. This is not new, but it has now taken on an extraordinarily powerful force — it is subtle and dastardly, it is, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva suggests in his book Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, a “strange enigma.”
II. From Newark’s Riots to the New World Order
People emigrated to Newark to find the Promised Land – Puerto Ricans, Italians, Albanians, Irish, Spaniards, Jamaicans, Haitians, Mexicans, West Africans, Brazilians, Ecuadorians, Trinidadians and Portuguese all came with hope looking for new horizons.
Newark is New Jersey’s largest and second-most diverse city, after neighboring Jersey City. Just eight miles west of Manhattan and two miles north of Staten Island, Newark was founded in 1666 by Connecticut Puritans; it was a model American city until the end of World War II.
In 1922, the “Four Corners” – meaning the intersection of Market and Broad – was the busiest intersection in the United States. It served as a regional center of retail commerce, anchored by four flourishing department stores: Hahne & Company, L. Bamberger and Company, L.S. Plaut and Company, and Kresge’s. New skyscrapers were built every year, the two tallest being the 40-story Art Deco National Newark Building and the Lefcourt-Newark Building. But then tax laws began rewarding the building of new factories in outlying areas rather than rehabilitating the city’s old factories – the allure of short term profit versus the benefits of long term thinking, a familiar American story. Newark lost its sources of revenue, and it has not been the same since.
Several forces in America began reshaping the concentration of populations, adversely affecting African Americans by denying the opportunity to move from segregated inner-city neighborhoods, William Julius Wilson, the Harvard sociologist, tells us in More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City:
As separate political jurisdiction, suburbs [also] exercised a great deal of autonomy through covenants and deed restrictions. In the face of mounting pressure for integration in the 1960′s, ‘suburbs chose to diversify by race rather than by class. They retained zoning and other restrictions that allowed only affluent blacks (and in some instances Jews) to enter, thereby intensifying the concentration of the urban poor.’
As the population of blacks grew in the North, as did housing demands, there was more of an emphasis on keeping blacks out of communities. These were structural conditions setting up urban poverty. Adding to the housing problem economic forces were also at work. “In other words,” says Wilson, “the relationship between technology and international competition [has] eroded the basic institutions of the mass production system…These global economic transformations have adversely affected the competitive position of many US Rust Belt cities. For example, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh perform poorly on employment growth, an important traditional measure of economic performance.”
Jobs left Newark for suburban tax breaks. Historically — structurally speaking — racist housing practices, globalization (science and technology and the gravitation towards cheap labor) and the move out of the inner city of qualified workers gutted the infrastructure of Newark. Newark lost its tax base; its revenue flew to the suburbs where blacks were not allowed. This reality is most evident in the abandoned buildings and empty lots of Newark; it’s evident in the lack of infrastructure support — hospitals, competitive schools, playgrounds, the lack of police protection and the dismantling of city (and state) workers and their unions. This is ongoing, case in point is the Facebook conflict. Wilson is also instructive here:
Two of the most visible indicators of neighborhood decline are abandoned buildings and vacant lots. According to one recent report, there are 60,000 abandoned and vacant properties in Philadelphia, 40,000 in Detroit, and 26,000 in Baltimore. These inner-city properties have lost residents in the wake of the out-migration of more economically mobile families, and the relocation of many manufacturing industries.
In the seminal study, The New Geography, by Joel Kotkin, we learn that, “The more technology frees us from the tyranny of place and past affiliation, the greater the need for individual places to make themselves more attractive.” But this is an impossibility when there is no revenue. There is no reason to believe that cities, as we know them, will survive these changes — they may not (see also here).
By 1966, then, Newark had a black majority and was experiencing the fastest turnover than most other northern cities.
Evaluating the riots of 1967, Newark educator Nathan Wright, Jr., Episcopalian minister, scholar and poet, the author of 18 books, and a leading advocate of the black power movement said, “No typical American city has as yet experienced such a precipitous change from a white to a black majority.”
At the height of the civil rights movement, Nathan Wright, Jr., was working in the Department of Urban Work of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. In his Introduction to Ready to Riot, a sociological analysis of the conditions in black ghettos that led to the 1967 rebellions, Wright described the fear of his wife Barbara, a daycare worker, and their 17-year-old daughter, as they drove into central Newark on the second night of what he called “civic rebellion.”
“There was an air of expectancy but not of anger,” Reverend Wright tells us. “Barbara and Bunky (his wife and daughter) locked themselves in the car and I stepped onto the sidewalk …Almost immediately there was chaos. The liquor store was ransacked. Men ran by with bottles of liquor in their hands and under their arms…With a sound of thunder the large plate-glass window of the bank, just a few feet from our car, was broken. Mrs. Wright and Bunky were in near terror.”
It was July of 1967 and the disturbances spread quickly to other black urban areas. The National Conference on Black Power was about to convene in Newark, with Dr. Wright as the organizer and chairperson. One of the first major undertakings of the black power movement, the conference brought 1,100 delegates to Newark from 42 cities and 197 black organizations. It called for blacks to build an economic power base with a “Buy Black” campaign, for the establishment of black national holidays and black universities, and broached the topic of black separatism. The conference marked a change in the civil rights movement from demanding individual rights to group solidarity. Dr. Wright was at the pinnacle of his political influence. (It’s also important to note that prior to 1967, Malcolm X, in the mid to late 50′s, as described in the new biography by Manning Marable, A Life of Reinvention, was already following a separatist agenda, advocating for black run businesses, schools, institutions).
The 1967 Newark riots – between July 12 and July 17, 1967 – were six days of rioting, looting and destruction. Many African-Americans, especially younger community leaders, felt they had remained largely disenfranchised in Newark despite the fact that Newark became one of the first majority black cities in America alongside Washington, D.C.. “Seen as a society boxed into frustration,” Reverend Wright says in Ready to Riot, “the city as a whole may be said to have an ill-tempered tendency toward repression on the one hand and aggression on the other.” Local African-American residents felt powerless and disenfranchised and felt they had been largely excluded from meaningful political representation and often suffered police brutality; unemployment, poverty, and concerns about low-quality housing contributed to the tinderbox.
“In the mind of the distraught black community there was a growing sense of frustration, brutality, and repression,” said Wright. Are we at this point, again?
The riots are often cited as a major factor in the decline of Newark and its neighboring communities; however, the actual factors include decades of racial, economic, and political forces that generated inner city poverty, which helped spark race riots across America in the 1960s. By the 1960s and ’70s, as industry fled Newark, so did the white middle class, leaving behind a poor population. During this same time, the population of many suburban communities in northern New Jersey expanded rapidly.
The remnants of legalized discrimination that brought about the riots have left their mark on Newark, the poor and the very poor, and the young people among them without a community to sustain them. For sustainability to be successful, nourishment and the necessities of life are the ground floor – the peace President Obama spoke about in Oslo. “It is undoubtedly true that development rarely takes root without security,” said President Obama. “It is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive,” he said in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, December 11, 2009. But in Newark the self-destruction that accompanies the psychologically oppressive weight of poverty and hopelessness – unemployment twice as high as in white communities, higher crimes, mortgage defaults that tract higher, and the malaise and pessimism that only benefits liquor stores and drug dealers – holds people from below and drags them down. This is not the path to freedom. It remains, as it did in 1967, a path to destruction.
“The dark ghettos are social, political, educational, and – above all – economic colonies,” wrote Kenneth Clark back in 1965 in his seminal work, Dark Ghetto. “Their inhabitants are subject peoples,” he wrote, “victims of greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt, and fear of their masters.” Has anything changed?
III. Newark and the New World Order — Tomorrow’s Promises
The confusing dilemma around the Zuckerberg Facebook 100 million dollars to improve Newark schools is the result of this structural-cultural history. One of the most dastardly cultural results is that Governor Christie and Mayor Booker believe that the citizens of Newark — and the citizens of poor communities in New Jersey — cannot be trusted to re-build their communities. They are completely left out of the equation. If there is going to be rebuilding, it’s going to be outsourced. We see the reality of this already. This perspective and attitude figures largely in a myth about poverty and the inner-city.We must again turn to Wilson for a cogent explanation:
…there is a widespread notion in America that the problems plaguing people in the inner city have little to do with racial discrimination or the effects of living in segregated poverty. For many Americans, the individual and the family bear the main responsibility for their low social and economic achievement in society. If unchallenged, this view may suggest that cultural traits are the root of problems experienced by the ghetto poor.
We have to challenge this perspective. It’s held quite obviously by Christie and Booker — this is why we see the problem with the Facebook money; this is also why we see the complete dismantling of all services in Newark and New Jersey proper, if we look at the poorer communities. Don’t let color fool you, Booker is first a politician — and politicians are always about changing color.
The recesses of the domestic space become sites for history’s most intricate invasions. In that displacement, the borders between home and world become confused; and, uncannily, the private and the public become part of each others, forcing upon us a vision that is as divided as it is disorienting.
That we are disoriented, is obvious. That we are also divided, this too is quite evident, particularly when black politicians further the alienation we sense. And the fact that the private and the public are one and the same, something that Cornel West has also argued long ago, further confuses our sense of place, our histories.
Who are we? Who and what do we want to be? Who decides?
We have us to blame in all this, the malaise we’re in, though we’re quick to blame political figures. We have us to blame because we don’t examine ourselves, locating ourselves in this history of oppression that is quite readily available to us for our critique. As I’ve said before, just the other day in a post, I’m merely one voice — among many, I believe — who see these things like, nevertheless, I relegated to the shadows, the boundaries of culture, to use Bhabha, again, marginalized and disenfranchised l, and thus speaking only into silences.
March 22, 2011 § 1 Comment
During one visit to the South Ward, Maria Ortiz found out that Newark’s Mayor, Cory Booker, would be attending a local school “holding meeting” that the mayor schedules monthly and consists of many 10-minute face-to-face conversations with individual members of his constituency. The purpose of these meetings is to show the community that the mayor is indeed one of them, that he cares and he’s listening, though he comes from the kind of privilege completely that is completely unimaginable to most of the city’s population.
Cory Booker is the son of African-American trailblazers Cary and Carolyn Booker who were among the first African-American executives at IBM. He was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in the predominantly white, affluent town of Harrington Park in Bergen County, New Jersey; he went to Stanford University, earning a B.A. in political science and a M.A. in sociology. He played varsity football — made the All–Pacific Ten Academic team — and was elected to the council of (four) presidents. After Stanford, Booker won a Rhodes Scholarship and studied at The Queen’s College, Oxford, where he was awarded an honors degree in modern history and became friends with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. At Boteach’s direction, Booker, a practicing Baptist, became president of Oxford’s L’Chaim Society, an Orthodox Jewish student group, to the chagrin of the Chabad-Lubavitch leaders. L’Chaim was controversial. Initially the society was part of the Chabad movement; then it evolved to become an inter-faith group. Rabbi Boteach, however, was not a member of the Oxford faculty; he was simply a person free to set up an inter-faith group outside Oxford’s domain. Rabbi Boteach and the Chabad-Lubavitch organization in England did not agree on all the issues regarding how to teach Jewish students at Oxford and the role of non-Jewish students. This tension grew when Booker was appointed president of L’Chaim, and Rabbi Boteach left the organization. Rabbi Boteach was further criticized by the British government after an investigation showed that he was funding a lavish lifestyle from charitable donations. Booker went on to graduate from Yale Law School where he operated free legal clinics for low-income residents. He lived in Newark during his final year at Yale, making his way into the political scene, and served as staff attorney for the Urban Justice Center in New York. He became program coordinator of the Newark Youth Project after graduation.
In 2006, Cory Booker was one of the last remaining tenants in Brick Towers (after living there for eight years), a troubled housing complex in Newark’s Central Ward, where he organized tenants to fight for improved conditions. He has since moved to the top unit in a three-story rental on Hawthorne Avenue in the South Ward. In late 2009, Booker was criticized for not owning property in Newark, choosing to rent. The Brick Towers were razed in July, 2008.
Barack Obama, Corey Booker, Michael Steele, Alan Keyes, Deval Patrick – none of these political figures of color emerged from any social movement; they joined their party of choice during college; but they moved quickly up the ranks, and are not race rebels. None of them represent a threat to the power structure of America. Is Corey Booker too good to be true? Is he an honest advocate for the poor and marginalized or just another politician?
Maria Ortiz and I drove to the Luiz Muñoz Marin Middle School in the North Ward, a facility distinctly better than the Miller Street School – grass and open fields, large auditorium and gym, trophy cases. We placed our names on the “meeting roster” to speak with Mayor Booker, then waited in a large auditorium facing a wide stage where cheerleaders practiced their routines. Eventually, we were called and walked down a wide corridor lined with student lockers and were ushered into a classroom with long tables stretched end to end. Mayor Booker was working the room, sitting next to one person, then another, patting people on the back, shaking hands while an aide wrote things down.
Cory Booker is a big, athletic man sporting a bald head, a signature look; he resembles a forward on a basketball team or a tight end in football. He’s charismatic, easy with people, soft spoken but direct and has a wonderful smile. He’s a media darling.
He recognized Maria immediately and asked how she was, and we shook hands. Between Mayor Booker and me sat Jennifer Stone, a stern looking black woman, who didn’t show a hint of a smile when we introduced ourselves. She is the South Ward liaison for the mayor’s office.
I leaned forward and asked the mayor, “What are your plans for the South Ward?”
He leaned forward, too, resting on his elbows on the table, and clasped his large hands. Looking puzzled, he said incredulously, “That’s what you want from me?”
I couldn’t tell whether his reaction was because of the question or whether he was expecting to hear about the usual things – corruption in Newark, the plan to combat homelessness, violent crime that his office says is down but still unacceptable. My question was oddly out of the context.
“Yes. What are your plans for the South Ward? That’s all I want to know.”
Mayor Booker didn’t respond. He looked over at Jennifer Stone as if signaling her to intervene, which she did.
“We have meetings. We put out flyers. We ask people to come. No one shows,” she said. “I’ve lived in the South Ward for 38 years—I just moved out—and I can tell you, it’s the people (her emphasis). They don’t come out. They don’t trust us. They don’t participate. We try everything, and they just don’t participate.”
Mayor Booker stepped in again. “Please schedule a longer interview with Mr. Vila. Have Desiree schedule it.” He then got up from the table, shook my hand, and Maria’s, and said, “Thank you for your interest.” And walked to the next table.
I called Desiree S. Peterkin-Bell, director of communications for the mayor’s office, three times. The first time she asked what publication I was writing for and the nature of my work and told me to call back. I did, thinking that I would receive an audience with the mayor. I was wrong. Ms. Peterkin-Bell wanted to see a rough draft – “an outline,” she said – for the mayor’s office to approve, something she said they had done with Gwen Ifill of the News Hour on PBS and several other writers she did not name. I declined, of course. When I called the third time, they said that if I couldn’t meet these conditions, I wouldn’t be able to speak to the mayor. I wondered whether Mayor Booker’s early move to show his credibility – living at the Brick Towers, establishing legal services for the poor – were meaningful acts or gestures to pad his resume?
What I wanted to say to him was simple. Many of the South Ward residents are Latino immigrants that come from Central and South America where government is seen as life threatening; people are jailed without reason, or worse, they disappear. I wanted to tell him that Miller Street School held a literacy night this past spring and over 200 parents showed up at the school to celebrate their children’s education. I wanted to know if there were plans to create a community to support these parents and sustain these children. Isn’t this where government and the community should come together in a spirit of collaboration? I also wanted to share with him the obstacles that Shakirah Miller confronts while trying to keep hope from becoming ether. And I wanted to tell him about Khalid Tellis, a Miller Street success story.
Khalid Tellis, now a freshman at Middlebury College, was the 2004 salutatorian of Miller Street School. After his graduation from eighth grade in 2004, the Wight Foundation gave him a scholarship, based on merit and need, to The Eaglebrook School, a private boarding school for boys in grades 6-9 in Deerfield, Massachusetts. His mother had her heart set on Science Park High, one of the better public schools in Newark’s troubled system, but Khalid wanted more, something better. He had to leave Newark to get it – he knew this. He also knew that he needed to repeat the 8th grade to be academically stronger, so he convinced his mother to let him go to Eaglebrook. Khalid continued on to the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut, thanks to a need-based scholarship; after that, another need-based scholarship allowed him to attend Middlebury. Khalid found a small keyhole in the chaos and pulled himself through it; he learned to find equal footing with strangers from the “other America”. This is the tragedy of the South Ward, and what the Miller Street School works to reverse – one or two students, with plenty of help and lots of luck, make it to a place like Middlebury, the rest remain on the dark side of the American paradox: life and liberty for some, the vicious cycle of inescapable economic degradation leading to environmental degradation that begets social degradation for others. Hope requires escape routes – there are none here, not even one leading through the dim beacon, the Miller Street School.
I wanted to find a way to tell this story and, just maybe, begin to make a difference – but I had no idea how to do it, where to begin. So I gave myself to the school, opening myself up to learn from their experience. I now ask myself how we might work together to ensure other students can attend our colleges and universities.
“Anything can happen in Newark,” Khalid said with a grin across his round face, cradling his books against his chest. In his final essay for our writing class at Middlebury, he wrote,
“As I prepared to write this paper, I thought of two things, freedom and responsibility. Freedom, as I see it, is the opportunity to think about your rights. That is Freedom. You have a voice. There are no repercussions for speaking out and intellectualism is encouraged. Then, I read Obama’s Nobel Prize speech and thought to myself, Obama is right, but his hope is impossible. According to President Obama, “true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.” There can never be freedom from want. If so, how could we as a society gauge what is “good enough”…I see peace as possible only after inequalities between those who want can be reversed by those individuals who have lived in both worlds. People like me. I now see where my life is leading me, back to Newark, to help save a new generation from hopelessness.”
I now see that Maria Ortiz was right all along. We can’t reform education from a distance, through contests and slogans delivered by politicians focused on the next election. It doesn’t take much to lend a hand, Maria said to me several times. Miller Street has taught me that I have to be more involved, more engaged outside the ivied halls of academe; it has taught me that Shakirah Miller and Maria Ortiz and Juan Ramos and little Ana have answers – and plenty of questions. No one in the South Ward is asking for a handout; they are asking for cooperation and collaboration. Residents of the South Ward are telling us that they’re relevant and have ways out of the chaos and the depravity. The American paradox is a manufactured reality – we can reverse it, though. But first we have to admit that we’re supporting a “separate but equal” society – and blame those who are deprived access to good schools, health care and work for not achieving what we want. In urban centers, particularly in places like the South Ward, the school of the future will be a community hub. College professors, public school teachers, students and their families have to engage in collective knowledge building to re-imagine themselves and construct this nucleus where hope can be nurtured and secured.