From Getting Lost: Victory and Loss: Solnit’s Letter to My Dismal Allies on the US Left

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This piece was originally written for Getting Lost, the blog addressing the work of Rebecca Solnit.  I’m placing it here for the readers of the Uncanny.


Rebecca Solnit ends her letter, (though it was published, online, in The Guardian, on October 15, 2012, I’ve just run into it and find it – still – relevant for many reasons, which I’ll try to capture here), by saying the following :

There are really only two questions for activists: what do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style. That is the small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want victories, don’t you? Make sure you’re clear on the answer to that, and think about what they would look like.

Solnit also says:

There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t – and that it never will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through élan, esprit de corps, fierce hope and generous hearts.

Solnit is, for me anyway, trying to channel, (to some extent and falling dramatically short), Slavoj Žižek, the Slovanian Marxist philosopher, psychoanalist, and cultural critic. (To directly cite Žižek would be disastrous for her, I’m sure.)  Read more …

Ideology and the Confining Reality of Order vs. Disorder: The Missing Link in Thomas L. Friedman’s Ongoing Disbelief

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In his column, Order vs. Disorder, Part 2, Thomas L. Friedman, of The New York Times, says that, “The Israeli-Arab conflict has become a miniature of the most relevant divide in the world today: the divide between the ‘world of order’ and the ‘world of disorder.’

Friedman’s muse for his sense of order and disorder as defining our world, and reaching back into his Part 1, The World According to Maxwell Smart, which I wrote about here, is Wallace StevensConnoisseur of Chaos :

I.

A. A violent order is disorder; and

B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. (Pages of Illustrations)

Stevens sees this as “the pretty contrast of life and death” which “Proves that these opposite things partake of one,/At least that was the theory when bishops’ books/Resolved the world. We cannot go back to that.” Yet even Steven concedes – and this is what I think Friedman misses completely and thus stops short in his analysis – that, “The squirming facts exceed the squamous mind.”

We bump along with minds indeed covered by scales, squamae. Thus we protect our vistas from penetrating horrors; but we’re also prevented from reaching beyond the accepted notion that we live in a world defined by order vs. disorder. “The squirming facts” escape us; we view the world without concern for history or historical development. Our ahistorical reality is caused by the role ideology plays in our confusion.

Friedman acknowledges this confusion, a world, then, of contradictions – which we accept, that we see as normal and amidst cries of horror, we turn away:

Israel faces nonstate actors in civilian clothes, armed with homemade rockets and drones, nested among civilians on four of its five borders: Sinai, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. And what is most striking about this play is that the traditional means of bringing order seem ineffective. Israel, a mini-superpower, keeps pummeling the ragtag Islamist militias in Gaza with its modern air force, but the superempowered Palestinian militants, leveraging cheap high-tech tools, keep coming back with homemade rockets and even a homemade drone. You used to need a contract with Boeing to get a drone. Now you can make one in Gaza.

Nothing is, in Friedman’s mind, as it should be – “the traditional means of bringing order seem ineffective.”

We see this same confusion – or uncanny consternation – when looking in on the Russia vs. Ukraine, NATO, and Western ideology debacle. We also see this in the Ebola Crisis where now, 2 Americans infected with the virus are heading to Atlanta – the first Americans to be treated of this virus in the States.

What’s going on? What’s lead to a world, in Friedman’s critique, that’s arranged as a destructive binary, order vs. disorder?

“When all the old means of top-down control are decreasingly available or increasingly expensive (in a world of strong people and strong technologies, being a strongman isn’t what it used to be),” argues Friedman, “leaders and their people are going to eventually have to embrace a new, more sustainable source of order that emerges from the bottom up and is built on shared power, values and trust.”

He’s wrong, of course. He’s merely supplanting one ideology for another that, if we look a little deeper into language such as “new, more sustainable sources of order” and that romantically “emerges from the bottom up” and “built on shared power, values and trust,” we see the expected, the politically correct, neoliberal viewpoint that is meant to uphold the current balance – and imbalance – of power by gesturing almost comically to the way things are, which is the world we’ve had a hand in creating. Friedman’s rather comical, even cartoonish solution is also part of the problem because it fails to see the real.

“What to do?” as Friedman asks.

We need to go deeper; we need to dig further, inquiring into our current incapacity to use language to describe what we are and who we are, and why we fall, as Friedman does, into cliché – or bad poetry.

We can begin this inquiry by turning to Stevens, again, and jumping off from here:

A great disorder is an order. Now, A

And B are not like statuary, posed

For a vista in the Louvre. They are things chalked

On the sidewalk so that the pensive man may see.

V

The pensive man … He see that eagle float

For which the intricate Alps are a single nest.

Friedman feigns the “pensive man,” but he’s concerned only with the surface structure of things, an analysis solely of the spectacle. In fact, it is about the spectacle, only; it is the most important reality in our lives because it synthesizes our mysteries, our crises, and our solutions, too. The spectacle, in fact, is hope – the greatest and most profound fallacy. And Friedman is one of the analysts – and mouthpieces – for the ruling ideology of the day that is essential for buttressing the spectacle, arguing, first, that there is a problem – order vs. disorder – and then dissimulating a solution, a “more sustainable source of order that emerges from the bottom up and is built on shared power, values and trust,” which is delivered to us as if it’s viable, though confounding: “Leadership will be about how to cultivate that kind of order. Yes, yes. I know that sounds impossibly hard. But when isolated Gazans can make their own drones, order doesn’t come easy anymore.”

In the spectacle, we are always told – and must embrace – the notion that things are bad and that solutions, the viable ones, are difficult, and because of these difficulties nearly unreachable. The spectacle, then, is a dream – a dreamscape; a place where dreams and nightmares live together.

Infusing this ideology are several gestures that are systemically well organized, so much so that we accept these ideas – and methods – unconsciously; we are thus indoctrinated into a fallacy built on binaries, a vital component of the spectacle: 1. there are a multitude of critical, almost unsolvable problems warring with each other; 2. these crises are both unacceptable but normal; and what’s normal is suffering since not all crises can be addressed – it’s the way of the world, the acceptance of brutality; 3. there are reasonable ways through the crises; 4. these are dependent upon an order that comes through the hierarchical value systems delivered to us from our most powerful institutions – government, finance and its marriage with the military and education.

For Stevens, only the “pensive man” can see this; only we live in a time where compression of experience is essential for maintaining and ensuring our understanding of an order that requires our acceptance of the binary, order vs. disorder. The “pensive man” is obsolete – and if not, then he’s overly romanticized to the point that he’s rendered helpless. This is how ideologies function.

Ideologies are the destructive force of civilization; they blind and bind; they keep us from seeing “that single eagle float.” Ideologies give us an artificial view of the world; give us a prescribed language; and in this artificiality, the only real thing that can exist is materialism as hope and value. This is where the corporation comes in, the major engine behind the spectacle.

As John Ralston Saul says in The Unconscious Civilization, we are a society addicted to ideologies. The most dominant ideology is “corporatism.” “The result,” argues Saul, “is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of the public good.”

Now, look again at Friedman’s Israeli-Arab conflagration; look again at Russia vs. the Western world, Ukraine as the vessel; look again at the Ebola crisis, the result of this gross imbalance brought about by ideologies consistent with plunder. In short, we live in a symbolic ordering of our world – and our crises – that point in two directions simultaneously: a disordering, a dissolving of our conditions, and likewise a possible rebuilding that’s based on commodity culture, global capitalism, the edification of systems of power that marry finance, the military and education. In essence, and following Slavoj Žižek, “the main point is to see how the reality itself cannot reproduce itself without this so-called ideological mystification.”

That’s Friedman’s solution – and his take on the Israeli-Arab crisis – “ideological mystification”; that’s why, in his own words, his solution “sounds impossibly hard,” which then requires a mystifying, and accepted, cliché, a gesture towards the incapacity of escaping our ruling ideology-creating apparatus, “order doesn’t come easy anymore.”

The world we have today is not a binary, order vs. disorder, wrongly argued by Friedman. It’s a world of little knowledge and, not vs., a world of even less knowledge, all of it hanging by a thread – yet complacent – in the animated, antiseptic and artificial spectacle we call the real.

“The World According to Maxwell Smart” and the Boundary-less Universe

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In his opinion piece, “The World According to Maxwell Smart, Part 1,” Thomas L. Friedman, who is someone I enjoy reading, because I learn, though I don’t necessarily agree with him all the time, says the following:

You can’t understand the spread of ISIS or the Arab Spring without the relentless advance in computing and telecom — Moore’s Law — creating so many cheap command-and-control Internet tools that superempower small groups to recruit adherents, challenge existing states and erase borders. In a flat world, people can see faster than ever how far behind they are and organize faster than ever to protest. When technology penetrates more quickly than wealth and opportunity, watch out.

The combined pressures of the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law are creating the geopolitical equivalent of climate change, argues Michael Mandelbaum, author of “The Road to Global Prosperity,” and “some familiar species of government can’t survive the stress.”

In other words, as I, myself, argued recently in “How Fútbol (not soccer) Explains the World – If Not How it Explains Immigración En EEUU (USA),” we are losing borders – they’re murky at best – and money is not restricted by man-made demarcations, just the opposite is true:

Immigrants and multinational corporations follow the flow of money; it provides hope and potential – a future. The flow of capital knows no boundaries – everyone, especially people suffering in different parts of the world, know this. We, “the EEUU,” (after all North, South and Central Americans are ALL AMERICANS), have a hand in creating possibilities, as well as destruction…

 

The point is this: when it suits us, we’ll cross any border; we’ll invade; we’ll destroy. Immigrants, witnessing this way of being, follow suit – then we prosecute them.

Friedman is interested in showing how complex – and interconnected – our world order (and chaos) really are; that blaming Obama, though there’s plenty to criticize here, fails to see the challenges we face; and, that there are “huge forces acting in these countries, and it will take extraordinary collaboration by the whole world of order to contain them,” the promised subject of Friedman’s Wednesday’s column.

In order to emphasize this point – again and again and again – I’ll use two authors I frequently turn to on this subject (sorry, again and again for repeating the always already obvious – that which we turn away from):  Edward W. Said and Homi K. Bhabha, two professors experts on this subject.

Here’s Bhabha, from his now essential The Location of Culture, which I’ve used before in these pages, but needs repeating:

Our existence today 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

 

Beginnings and endings may be the sustaining myths of the middle years; but … we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of differences and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion. 

Friedman’s “figures of difference” are the likes of Boko Haram and ISIS, for instance.  Friedman adds:

NATO decapitates Libya’s regime and sets loose a tribal-militia war of all against all, which, when combined with the crackup of Chad, spills arms and refugees across African borders, threatening Tunisia and Morocco. Israel has been flooded with more than 50,000 Eritreans and Sudanese refugees, who crossed the Sinai Desert by foot, bus or car looking for work and security in Israel’s “island of order.”

And, just since October, the U.S. has been flooded with more than 50,000 unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.”

In other words, the compression and extensions of globalization are producing frightening figures, great violence and a dispersal of people.  The world is, indeed, borderless; these are simply man-made construction that are continuously being pushed aside.  This, in turn, is producing a world in which many have to live in dehumanizing exile.

Said is best here:

Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.

Said’s first line says it all, defining the world Bhabha so eloquently describes as “tenebrous” because, in fact, it is “on the borderlines.”  Exile, then, is a terrible experience that permanently houses an individual in the “unhealable” space of in-between, between “a human being and a native place, between self and its true home.”

The exiles we create – and we do have a hand in creating exiles, all of us do; responsibility for our world is all of ours – are forever lodged in a suffering place all because we cannot seem to understand that incredible false sense of borders and demarcations we’ve given the Other – those we don’t want to acknowledge, those that are different, and always will be, those that ask us to reconsider our privileged vistas, our biases and prejudices.

How Fútbol (not soccer) Explains the World – If not, How it Explains Inmigración En EEUU (USA)

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When John Oliver took on the broken immigration system on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, calling it the universal crazy maker and saying that it’s great here, so how can people be blamed for wanting to live in the USA, carefully explaining right-wing fallacies, he never touched on how fútbol and The World Cup of the beautiful game actually explain how totally ironic – and extremist – the immigration fiasco is in America.

Last Week Tonight, John Oliver

Last Week Tonight, John Oliver

Oliver says that many people who would like to see a change in our doctrinaire immigration policies are “drowned out by a lot of opinions unsupported by documentation.” These “undocumented opinions,” says Oliver, need a “fence of facts” around them to protect us. One such “undocumented opinion,” which is not true but “feels like it might be,” he says, is the notion that undocumented workers are here to take jobs from Americans. The American Enterprise Institute, for instance, a private, conservative, not-for-profit institute, says that there is no evidence that undocumented workers are taking jobs from Americans. Let me repeat: this is coming from a conservative institute about “Freedom. Opportunity. Enterprise” (the periods theirs). John R. Bolton is a resident scholar, as is Lynn V. Cheney. Get the drift? Okay, so let’s go a bit further and follow the American Enterprise Institute’s thinking in their own words:

Even among less-skilled workers, Americans and immigrants tend to work in different fields. Low-skilled Americans are twice as likely as low-skilled immigrants to work in offices or administrative support jobs. They’re also twice as likely as immigrants to work in sales. In contrast, low-skilled immigrants are three times more likely than low-skilled Americans to fill farming, fishing and forestry jobs.

And they’re more likely to be in those office buildings cleaning and removing garbage. It gets better yet:

Less-skilled Americans work in difficult conditions – outdoors, on their feet, in jobs that require repetitive motion and expose them to contaminants. But less-skilled immigrants work in jobs that are even dirtier, more dangerous and more difficult.

Immigrants are not smuggling drugs either, another undocumented opinion; they don’t add to crime. And Obama, by addressing the immigration issue, is not trying to make sure that the Republicans never win the White House, as Michele Bachmann contends.

John Oliver’s solution: What if you just tried treating them better... Maybe as if they’re human beings who might hypothetically contribute something.

US National Team 2014

US National Team 2014

Fútbol has embraced John Oliver’s idea – fully. Even the US National Team abides. You see, fútbol tells us another story – it has for years, only nobody calls attention to it. Fútbol is an example of where societies will go – or need to go.

The fútbol story is about how different people, from different nationalities, collaborate; it’s about how globalization works; how money floats to where there is least resistance; how multinational corporations look for smooth, quiet rides into areas of least resistance, cross borders and blur boundaries and speak a totally different language than that spoken in Washington D. C.’s inner sanctum of confusion.

In his book, How Soccer Explains the World, Franklin Foer, says that, “You could see globalization on the pitch: During the nineties, Basque teams, under the stewardship of Welsh coaches, stocked up on Dutch and Turkish players; Moldavian squads imported Nigerians. Everywhere you looked, it suddenly seemed, national borders and national identities had been swept into the dustbin of soccer history.” Foer cites Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, to show how the beautiful game follows the premise of globalization: “The inexorable integration of markets, nation-states and technologies to a degree never witnessed before – in a way that is enabling individuals, corporations and nation-states to reach around the world farther, faster, deeper and cheaper than ever before.” Fútbol, like global markets, is a world-flattening enterprise that confounds boundary-making. The only boundaries that matter are evident only on the pitch; creativity is what gets you through – in 90 minutes. To win, then, we do anything, even push through warring ideologies and national debates. That’s one of the beauties of the game today.

Evidence of this is overwhelming. We need to look no further than the great commercials airing during the 2014 World Cup ,Oliver Stone’s commercial, which teams him up with Rodrigo Prieto, the Mexican cinematographer and, of course, the US National Team to understand how truly bigoted, misinformed, costly and inhumane US immigration policy is.

The commercials are easy; these represent the most notable multinational corporations in the world: Samsung, CocaCola, Verizon, AT&T, Apple, Honda & Hyundai, Volkswagen & Mercedes, Yingli Green Energy Holding Co of China, and so on – the list is very, very long. Okay, more: Anheuser- Busch, Corona, Bacardi, McDonald’s. The point is that brands are seeking a global reach and they don’t care what language the message is in or where their customers are; companies expect their costumers to be everywhere. They’re not taking any chances and spending lots of money to ensure their reach. But the largest group of customers – and growing – is Spanish-speaking, many of who are in the USA.

(When Mexico beat Cameroon in a very dramatic game, at the end, cameras cut to Mexico City AND Los Angeles – the crowds nearly equal in size. This suggests that for stations covering the game – ABC, ESPN, Univision and Canadian TV and radio – it’s always already known that large numbers of Spanish speaking immigrants – legal and not so legal – reside in the USA; that these Spanish folks love the beautiful game, they’ll be caught up in it – and all the implications that come from mediated sports experiences – and find, hopefully, their products as alluring as the game, after all, spokespersons are Messi, Pepsi and creativity and community, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar , Rooney, Zlatan, Iniesta in the Nike Commercial 2014: The Last Game – risk everything – quite a message about living lives on the borders of existence, forgotten heroes returning as saviors.)

Immigrants and multinational corporations follow the flow of money; it provides hope and potential – a future. The flow of capital knows no boundaries – everyone, especially people suffering in different parts of the world, know this. We, “the EEUU,” (after all North, South and Central Americans are ALL AMERICANS), have a hand in creating possibilities, as well as destruction. Iraq comes quickly to mind where we’re now witnessing the devastation that evolved from the massive Bush-Cheney lie that is accepted as truth in neocon/neoliberal circles. We can go back to Iran – Contra, when senior administration officials in the Reagan Administration secretly facilitated the sale of arms to Iran, the subject of an arms embargo; and there are Gary Webb’s stories, in the San Jose Mercury News, which shaped his 1999 book Dark Alliance: The CIA, The Contras, and the Crack-Cocaine Explosion about the role of the CIA and the Department of Justice in cocaine trafficking in South Central Los Angeles. (On December 10, 2004, Gary Webb was found dead from two gunshot wounds to the head. Sacramento County coroner Robert Lyons ruled that it was suicide, noting that a suicide note was found at the scene. Two shots to the hit? How do you do that to yourself?)

“The major task,” says Edward Said in his essay Movement and Migrations (in Culture and Imperialism), “is to match the new economic and socio-political dislocations and configurations of our time with the startling realities of human interdependence on a world scale…But we need to go on and situate these in a geography of other identities, people, cultures, and then to study how, despite their differences, they have always overlapped one another, through unhierarchical influence, crossing, incorporation, and recollection, deliberate forgetfulness, and, of course, conflict…The fact is, we are mixed in with one another in ways that most national systems of education have not dreamed of. To match knowledge in the arts and sciences with these integrative realities is … the intellectual and cultural challenge of moment.”

The point is this: when it suits us, we’ll cross any border; we’ll invade; we’ll destroy. Immigrants, witnessing this way of being, follow suit – then we prosecute them. For instance, the children that are now crossing into the USA from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are doing so, less because of confusing rhetoric from the Obama Administration, and more because they are escaping horrific violence in their countries. We confuse everything. The rest of the story is that this fertile ground for killing, the drug cartels operating in these parts of the world, and the despair are remnants of our US involvement in Iran-Contra; these gangs, too, operate with impunity in the USA (see The Gangs of Garden City: How Immigration, Segregation and Youth Violence are Changing America’s Suburbs, please, a terrific study by Sarah Garland.).

What we perceive as the truth, isn’t. The world is upside down. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote, “Men, in order to do evil, must first believe that what they are doing is good.”

Truth, today, ironically, can be found in fútbol. Let’s take a look at the US National Team and let’s start with the manager, Jurgen Klinsmann, the great German striker who went on to coach the German National team 2004 -2006 (He faced his protégé on Thursday, June 26, 2014 – and lost 1-0). When games begin, we can see Klinsmann singing the US National Anthem as he presides over a team that’s half German. (Before the US vs Germany game, Klinsmann refused to answer questions in German.) One commentator called the game between Germany and the US the Germans vs the half Germans.

Jermaine Jones, for instance, who is still learning English, has lived for most of his life in Germany. The son of an American father and a German mother, born in Frankfurt, who lived in the US as a boy, moved to Germany when his parents separated. In 2008, he failed to make Germany’s squad for the European Championship. He surmised that his best chances to make it to the World Cup – and the grandest of all spectacles – was to use his dual citizenship and try out for the US National Team. His bet worked. He’s not the only one.

True, Jones and others on the team – Diskerud is from Norway; Chandler, also from Frankfurt, Germany; Johnson, Munich – are dual citizens; but the point is, just as we can’t stop cross-border, cross-cultural love, as in these cases, we can’t stop the flow of capital and the pursuit of happiness that today is synonymous with the pursuit of some sort of wealth.

French National Team 2014

French National Team 2014

Another poignant example is the French National Team. Here we see one of the best teams of this year’s World Cup – and the result of French Colonialism. This is what we learn from Europe, Sport, World: Shaping Global Societies, edited by J. A. Mangan:

 

 

 

The fact that France is currently the most

popular destination of African migrant footballers says much about the strength of the link between football migration from Africa to Europe and broader socio-economic processes associated with colonialism. The expropriation of African players to play their domestic and international football in France during the first half of the twentieth century can clearly be interpreted as an extension of France’s colonial policy of Gallicization or the assimilation of the local population into the citizenship of the motherland.

The result, in 2014, is an incredible French team. For the USA, it’s another version of Manifest Destiny, which justifies that we intervene in this or that aggression since World War Two; it also suggests, for us, that there is a “pure” American, which couldn’t be further from the truth since all Americans are Americans hyphen. Ironic, of course, since the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA title with two foreign players, Tony Parker, French, and Manu Ginóbili, Argentininian. But this is what we always do: look the other way when we need highly qualified foreign nationals, as we learn in The Real Odessa that tells the story of US involvement in smuggling German- Nazi scientists and engineers, through Argentina, Mercedes-Benz the proximity, with the help of Juan Perón, to come to the US to develop our military industrial complex. No one is clean; no one is innocent.

The real problem is how we’ve approached immigrants, accepting those we want, discarding those that will hold up, on bended backs, the world we want.

So where are we? What have we learned about this yet to be named nebulous period in our global history?

Let’s go back to John Oliver – What if you just tried treating them better... Maybe as if they’re human beings who might hypothetically contribute something.- we can see some solutions:

  1. Let’s follow the money and get rid of borders, as have multinational financial markets, reducing the stress of lives that live there and are defined by fences and walls. (Walls define those on the inside too; the warden and the prisoner, eventually, are interchangeable.)
  2. And let’s go ahead an issue legal working permits to everyone that wants to work in the USA, whether they’re citizens or not.
  3. Let’s demand this from the other Americas as well, so we, in the EEUU, can also work anywhere.  Let’s create an easier flow of workers and producers.
  4. In our case, if a permit-holding worker begins a job, s/he pays taxes – not social security; s/he would also have to have insurance (Obamacare and the insurance companies already happy with their profits will be more happy).
  5. Let’s likewise create a feasible path to citizenship.
  6. And, since this will come up, let’s also work on a living wage and adequate, safe working conditions for all Americans (North, South & Central), regardless of citizenship, and lets really focus on early education for all since we want an educated class of citizens; in turn, this will enhance everyone’s ability to contribute to society.

This is, in fact, the fútbol model. Let’s embrace what is already surely to happen and concentrate on what we know and not on “undocumented opinion” that does nothing but keep us apart.

What Matters in Education? Part 2: Considering Technology and the School Experience or an Unrealistic Proposal

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Part 2 of What Matters in Education? has been published by the Community Works Journal, which supports teaching practices that build community.  They’ve been around since 1995.  The original title for my piece was “An Unrealistic Proposal.”  Now it’s “Considering Technology and the School Experience” (I added the unrealistic bit for this blog).

Teaser:

I. An Unrealistic Proposal

Let’s think BIG: The moral imperative is to focus the K-12 curriculum of tomorrow on 2 large areas: Health and the Environment. End of story.

Health and the Environment is a rich, complex, overarching curriculum that covers history and philosophy, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and all forms of literature and the arts, as well as sociology, economics and political science; it covers the classics (is not Plato about health and the environment – literally and symbolically?). This curriculum connects “learning to social change and fosters modes of critical agency through which people assume responsibility for each other”; morality and ethics are the driving engines.

Our health and the health of the planet are our greatest challenges, but just as significantly surely to affect generations to come if we don’t act now, creatively and with force. A curriculum focused on Health and the Environment is about a long view, not tomorrow’s standardized test scores; it disrupts the move towards authoritarianism.

This curriculum can only be created by a meaningful K-16 collaboration that enables “education hubs” to emerge nation-wide: interdisciplinary centers of study focused on children, first and foremost, with appropriate teachers and mentors, counselors, and medical care up and down the system. Secondly, this new system privileges experiential learning: how to put into practice ideas and theories; how to test what we perceive; how to step away, reflect and describe what we’re doing and how what we’ve accomplished may affect the future.

Continue Reading … 

What Matters in Education? Part 1

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Necessity is an evil, but there is no necessity to live under the control of necessity.

Epicurus

A new Gallup-Purdue study that looks at links among college, work, and well-being has generated a lot of conversation – in and out of the academy. Much of the chatter is about some of the study’s top findings: 63% of the students said that they “had at least one professor at [College] who [excited them ] about learning”; 27% found that their professors cared about them as a person; 22% found a mentor that encouraged them about pursuing goals and dreams.

Most notably, “The study found that the type of schools these college graduates attended — public or private, small or large, very selective or less selective — hardly matters at all to their workplace engagement and current well-being. Just as many graduates of public colleges as graduates of not-for-profit private colleges are engaged at work — meaning they are deeply involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work. And just as many graduates of public as not-for-profit private institutions are thriving — which Gallup defines as strong, consistent, and progressing — in all areas of their well-being.”

“The report,” says Charles M. Blow of The New York Times, “has a strong message for students who are asking about which school to attend, for employers who are deciding which people to hire and for colleges that are negotiating their curriculums.”

Google agrees.  “Google’s head of people operations Laszlo Bock told the New York Times that top graduates can lack “intellectual humility,” and that schools frequently don’t deliver on what they promise”:

new Gallup survey finds that in hiring decisions, only 9% of business leaders say that the school on a candidate’s diploma is “very important,” compared to 84% assessing knowledge in the field and 79% looking at applied skills. 

+

The challenge, of course, is that higher education mirrors our socio-economic system. And we embrace that, instead, and shy away from whatever Google and Gallup are suggesting. This is because, as reported in Quartz, “School rankings have been found to matter when it comes to pay, an effect which rises over timeGraduates of elite private schools in particular get paid more according to a report from the Century Foundation (pdf)Elite industries like professional services and finance put more weight on top schools in hiring decisions.”

Rather than leading the culture, imagining new and different ways to enable reciprocity and renewal, education has chosen to follow; it has chosen to adhere to a false narrative and promote a stark hierarchy – pay is what matters in education. The problem with this model is that all of us become commodities; we are objects, like consumer products. It’s not a sustainable model. It’s broken – and we can see it by simply looking under the hood.

 

We need not go far to prove this. Let’s look at the distribution of faculty salaries. Reporting for the Huffington Post, Tyler Kingkade, writes that,

The average pay for all types of professors, instructors and lecturers is $84,303 for the academic year 2012-13, but the report noted a big difference between public and private colleges. At public institutions, the average is $80,578, while at private schools, it’s $99,771.For a full professor, the average salary at a private university this year is $139,620, a notable hike over the average $110,143 at public colleges, and that difference has been growing. This public-private gap has increased from 18 percent in 2004 to 24 percent in 2013, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

These disparities help create a provocative narrative: it does matter where you go to school – even though you may not get a single soul to pay attention to you at the most elite institutions.

The Gallup-Purdue study calls into question our ruling narrative about the value we place on an institution’s brand versus the care an institution may give individual students, their dreams and their needs.

It’s what goes on inside, behind the hallowed ivy, that counts and not how significant – and marketable – the brand is.

It’s not difficult to see how celebrity culture has a hand in this, too. The narrative concerning the significance of one school over another is manipulated by the tools of advertising and management rather than by what data – and reality – tend to show. We have celebrity schools to go along with our celebrity mindset. It’s not surprising, then, to see how much the University has been totally transformed into yet another corporation that comes with its own story – and is never to be questioned.

“The corporation has the power to determine identity,” writes Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion. “The corporations tell us who we are and what we can become. And the corporations offer the only route to personal fulfillment and salvation. If we are not happy there is something wrong with us [italics Hedges]. Debate and criticism, especially about the goals and the structure of the corporation, are condemned as negative and ‘counterproductive.'”

We see this model stretching from government to the private sector to education. Don’t be counterproductive. Go along.

In another view of academia, a survey done at U.C.L.A. that looks at shifts in our culture over time, according to David Brooks of The New York Times, says that values have changed. “In 1966, only 42 percent of freshmen said that being well-off financially was an essential or very important life goal. By 2005, 75 percent of students said being well-off financially was essential or very important. Affluence, once a middling value, is now tied as students’ top life goal.”

It’s not surprising that professional admissions coaches and special tutors have become critical for gaining entrance to top schools – and we know who can afford this luxury. We’ve created a race – an anxiety filled race, says Brooks:

As the drive to compete intensifies, other things get streamlined away. In 1966, 86 percent of college freshmen said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important. Today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important. University of Michigan studies suggest that today’s students score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students did 30 years ago.

Epicurus’s necessity is now synonymous with affluence - we can’t seem to break from it. If we are creating a world that is less empathetic – and doing so by introducing a mindless competitive model that makes commodities (read slaves) of us all – then we’re definitely creating a world where Evil has found its niche. I’m moved by Epicurus these days – and here’s something else that fits our age: No one when he sees evil deliberately chooses it, but is enticed by it as being good in comparison with a greater evil and so pursues it.

Isn’t this where where we find ourselves today?

As of 2012, the last year we have of available data pertaining to the College where I teach, Middlebury, the most popular major (10%) was Economics – it still remains so. Students I see in this major have one goal: Wall Street and gold. According to the Princeton Review, of the top 10 majors, the top three are Business Administration and Management/Commerce, Psychology and Nursing. Economics ranks a surprising 7, after English Language and Literature, Education and Biology/Biological Science.  Accordingly, English is one of the two top majors for gaining entrance into law school; the other is Political Science.  And Catherine Rampnell, of The New York Times, in “The College Majors That Do Best in the Job Market,” says that the major that “produced the most graduates in jobs that required degrees was education and teaching; 71.1 percent of this discipline’s alumni had jobs for which a bachelor’s was a prerequisite.:” Yes, many graduates go on to teach – but education is under attack and not hiring as it once did; however, many do not enter teaching, suggesting that education studies makes for great job training – students are organized, can work within tight time parameters, and communicate effectively.

Being an efficient undergraduate that develops a picture of “success” is therefore key; demonstrating that nothing has been “wasted” while in college is important. Not much else matters; the competition is fierce.

“I’m not sure if students really are less empathetic, or less interested in having meaning in their lives,” writes Brooks, “but it has become more socially acceptable to present yourself that way. In the shadow of this more Darwinian job market, it is more acceptable to present yourself as utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented.

I’m not so sure that Brooks’ use of Darwin is correct, particularly following Edward O. Wilson’s quite cogent argument, in The Social Conquest of the Earth, that societies evolve in direct relationship to their capacity to embrace altruism, the unselfish concern for or a devotion to the welfare of others:

…human groups are formed of highly flexible alliances, not just among family members but between families, genders, classes, and tribes.  The bonding is based on cooperation among individuals or groups who know one another and are capable of distributing ownership and status on a personal basis.  The necessity for fine-graded evaluation by alliance members meant that the prehuman ancestors had to achieve eusociality in a radically different way from the instinct-driven insects.  The pathway to eusociality was charted by a contest between selection based on the relative success of individuals within groups versus relative success among groups.  The strategies of this game were written as a complicated mix of closely calibrated altruism, cooperation, competition, domination, reciprocity, defection, and deceit.

Empathy is key.  But we’ve turned away from the characteristics of meaningful evolution and focused our attention solely on domination and competition – not altruism, cooperation and reciprocity.  Eusociality is a balance, a dance we don’t now enjoy.

Presenting yourself as “utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented” (here meaning: profitable), leads to the commodification of the self, but of experience too. Which is to say that we are headed totally in the opposite direction – a straight line to damnation.

What matters for me is that Education, which I’ve been a part of for nearly 30 years, has had a very strong hand in ensuring that this model goes unquestioned. The utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented model says that we have bought hook, line and sinker into the idea that education is about training and monetary success. Learning to think critically and to question – given plenty of lip service – are nowhere to be found in our actions.

What matters to us most?

In Part 2 of What Matters in Education? I will describe an education model for a renewed commonwealth.

Final: Lost in the Funhouse

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Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think. And some things cannot be moved or owned. Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, 2005

I have a simple job. I’m a teacher. Yes, believe it or not. It’s simple. Very. That’s right.

To Teach: to show or point out; to present or offer a view.

To show what? Point out what? Present and offer what?

The answer is the simple part: the heart. To show and to point out, to present and offer the heart of the matter; often this matter is in a text such as Solnit’s: “Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we think”; that “some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.”

We can lose something, even painfully so, and gain by it too – a terrible beauty is born, writes Yeats in Easter 1916. And when light scatters about – but particles – it’s very difficult to find the meaning in the loss that will release us from the guilt of gaining.

Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart./O When may it suffice? wonders Yeats. Indeed.

Most times the heart is the student’s a teacher aims for – compassion, empathy, understanding and, most of all, full spectrum realization. And yet other times it’s my own that I’m reaching for trying to connect my heart to the student’s.

But the simple act of teaching is challenged: In this world, one where light scatters, “The present state,” says Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle “in which social life is completely taken over by the accumulated products of the economy, entails a generalized shift from having to appearing: all the effective ‘having’ must now derive both its immediate prestige and its ultimate raison d’être from appearance.”

Appearance: the action of coming forward into view or becoming visible (c.1400-1869); the action of coming before the world or the public in any character (c 1671-1880); that which appears without material; a phantom or apparition (c. 1488-1834); money paid to a (leading) sportsman or sportswoman for participating in an event (1977-1981).

The privileged place of Appearance makes any straightforward attempt to reach for the heart a challenge because the mere materialization of social power, which has assumed a social character and makes individuals dependent on it, transforms, into real beings, images, figments and behavior. Illusion becomes the norm, how we experience the world – and each other. No truth evident here. Nothing is real.

Instantly, teaching becomes difficult; it becomes complex, challenging, strange given that material reality is wedged between the student’s heart and the teacher’s. Reciprocity, which is essential for happiness, is lost and hostility takes over since it is the prodigal child of aggressive self-interest. Self-interest is the sole arbiter of success and value in the academy that feeds the culture: the professor that thinks his is the only course students take, so students are overworked, mindlessly responding to carefully orchestrated questions meant to solicit a single answer or two – busy work; the student that believes she merely has to get through, not worried about learning, rather about finishing, while reaching for the next rung that will get her ever closer to the penthouse at the helm of the economic system. A conveyor belt that privileges a move away from the heart and towards material reality.

Materialism and self-interest go hand-in-hand; all else, including people, must be shunned – and there goes reciprocity. Thus we find ourselves lost, floating in an open sea of confusion, living lives on the boundaries of meaning, never quite getting there, never quite getting at truths, comfortable numbing our haze. Welcome to the Aderrall Generation.

“Whether Adderall is a life-changing medicine or an unfair performance enhancer depends on whom you talk to” writes Kyle Fink in the first of a two part series, “Living in the Adderall Generation: Part 1,” in the Middlebury College Campus. “What is clear is that we are now living in the Adderall Generation, a reality that is rarely talked about but apparent just below the surface. You may not have a prescription or snort the drugs on weekends, but psychostimulants are here to stay, and they have the potential to affect nearly every aspect of life at the College.”

In Living the Adderall Generation: Part 2, Fink tells us that, “While most students the Campus talked to began their psychostimulant usage at the College, [Dean of the College] Collado pointed to a new wave of applicants who are being stimulated and pushed to their maximum from young ages,” suggesting that this is a larger problem in the culture; however, since many – if not most – of the students attending elite, competitive schools such as Middlebury are from the upper socio-economic strata of society, this might suggest that the early pressure is manufactured by the need to locate the student in an appropriate – and socially mobile – rung in a vituperative economic system.

This also suggests that the focus of learning is not the student – and not learning at all – rather it’s where the student might end up, socio-economically, years down the road; part of this pressure comes from the realization that, as systems go, ours is fighting for a dwindling piece of the resource pie. Not healthy.

Where we now also see this unhealthy pursuit of unhappiness is in the current light being shed on sexual assault on college campuses. Naturally – and reasonably – these discussions are focused on the safety of victims while also urging others, who remain silent, to come forth; the purpose being to get accurate data about how pervasive this condition is. We want to help victims, educate, and change the climate of violence and fear. But it’s not surprising, given our aggressive self-interest, that these violent, tragic occurrences happen when drugs and alcohol are in the mix. It’s not surprising that this violence happens in a culture where violence is privileged at every step – in the media, in politics, in economics, you name it.

So, at a time in one’s life when self-discovery should be one’s focus, self-interest and the need to ride the conveyor belt towards increasingly better social mobility take precedence; psychostimulants and alcohol, sometimes taken together, become ways of getting through the system and coping mechanisms. Aristotle on happiness doesn’t seem to cut it; Shakespeare, for get about it. The text is gone; pharmaceuticals are in. It’s not about knowing and learning; it’s about doing and moving on, always transitioning upward to an elusive reward.

Amidst all this is a very large and critical dialog occurring on campuses across the US about, specifically, the cost of higher education and, in the case of many elite colleges and universities, the viability of a liberal arts education (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/19/arts/humanities-committee-sounds-an-alarm.html;https://chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-Declining-Not/140093/; http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/30/the-real-humanities-crisis/;http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/the-real-reason-the-humanities-are-in-crisis/282441/).

Everything from an over emphasis on science education to the humanities moving away from a search for the self and into race, class, gender and semiotics, cartoons and television, plastic surgery, to the humanities being just boring and with little relevance have been used to blame the apparent decline – and if not decline, then lack of interest.

How ironic, no? Do we really know what’s going on? If you read any of the above articles linked for you, there is a theme: we don’t know what’s going on; we have less of an idea about who our students are; and we may even know less, with our PhD’s, about the world we live in and that’s constructing our students, our lives. We educators have a hand in this.

Dante is not cutting it. Socrates is not cutting it. Academic language, with its uptight vernacular of disdain, is cutting it even less. Pharmaceuticals and violence, sports, the palatial grandeur of an institution’s geography, food, and who knows who is seemingly more important. Today, I’m less a professor and more a concierge helping students navigate the nebulous halls of an academy that, like the world we live in, appears lost in confusion.

Management is more important than learning about one’s self; systems of efficiency clearly dominate; technology, connectivity – always on – and surface communication and production de riguer. Humanity, talked about all the time, is less important. Matters of the heart? What’s that? I’m always asked.

“You know the usual story about the world,” writes Solnit, “the one about ongoing encroachment that continues to escalate and thereby continue to wipe out our species.”

Yes.

We humanists, in our zeal to make even the most obvious complex, may be a large reason why students, who already come from a system that overvalues performance and results over knowledge of the self and others, find themselves, at some point, wondering what has become of them. It may be why I continue to receive emails from alumni wondering about the critical questions in life: why, how, who, what for? These weren’t even mildly approached during their very expensive undergraduate lives.

I’ll leave you with this – sage words from E.O.Wilson, found in his The Social Conquest of the Earth:

Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.

Our students thrash about because we do; students are terribly confused because we are; we are all a danger to ourselves. And, as far as I am concerned – in one humble opinion – we dutifully adhere to the most medieval institution, the University, without realizing that, before our eyes, it has metamorphosed into an exotic multinational business like any other – and students are our last concern.

We are in a dreamlike state. These are the saddest times.

The Ecology of Teaching: Breaking Out of the Factory Model

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So grateful for Joe Brooks and the Community Works Journal for, once again, doing me a solid and reissuing my essay, “Breaking Out of the Factory Model.”  (Evidently they’ve gotten lots of ‘hits’ on this one.

Teaser:

There is a lot of talk  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 interactions that comprise our culture.

- See more at: http://www.communityworksinstitute.org/cwjonline/essays/a_essaystext/vila_ecology.html#sthash.dYBi2hW2.dpuf

Lost – or The “Voluptuous Surrender”

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I’ve not written on the blog in some time, waiting to see what would move me and I’ve been mulling over a few things – some may come later.

But for now, here it is … I’m currently reading, among other things, Rebecca Solnit’s  A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Penguin, 2005). How I came about to Solnit’s book is this: I was sitting in what’s left of what I can say was SoHo, once, Fanelli’s where, in my grad school days, you could be having a beer and a burger and chatting it up with, say, an unassuming Jim Jarmusch.

This world no longer exists in the mall-like SoHo – which is one of Solnit’s points: how can one get lost in the tightly constrained world we’ve manufactured?

Here I am trying to re-capture the lost, double Eagle Rare Single Barrel bourbon 10 YO Whiskey – and a Brooklyn Lager – and this large, well built young man  in a t-shirt (about 30), bald, is sitting next to my wife, Nina, and she and I are excitedly discussing the film La Grande Belleza (Italian; The Great Beauty: ), which we’d just seen at the Angelika down the block from Fanelli’s.  It must have been the during the second Eagle Rare and the guy – like in my old grad school days – jumps in. No. Let’s try this again: he smooths into the conversation, which quickly went from contemporary film (not movies) to art to design to technology to literature and so on.

The guy is J.P. Hollis  – a very cool, bright self-made designer, writer, literary person, etc.  Really a New Yorker, though not from New York, and a prototype of the hybrid individual of tomorrow, which got us talking about women – prompted by my wife, Nina (her favorite conversation) – and relationships.  He’d recently broken up with a young woman who then headed for LA – another mecca of sorts.  Which is how we got to “wandering” and “finding one’s way” and “careers” and “the future” and “what am I going to do with myself if I DON’T get the RIGHT INTERNSHIP – Holy shit!!”  Which is when we were all laughing away and we decided to connect and continue chatting and so on, primarily because his technical background – his history – is almost identical to mine and I thought, “Hey, here’s this 30 year old that 30 or so years after me, he’s done almost the same thing.   Why not chat and maybe we can do something cool?”

This is when he proposed I read Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.  So I’m reading and I’m only thru Chapter 1, the “Open Door,” and I can’t help but think of all might students, each and everyone that places such high significance, such importance on what’s really a manufactured reality and have bought lock, stock and barrel the notion that there are “correct” ways and “not so correct” ways of doing things (mostly about the attainment of material possessions and social capital) when, in reality, every step taken is (a) unknowable and fraught with error and (b) the goal is actually to reach towards those areas, those things that (a) scare a person and (b) the person feels scared about because s/he knows nothing, in the end (I know less now than when I was your age – which should scare all students that have sat in my classes).

To this end, Solnit quotes the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno, who says, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”  Solnit copied this down and carries it around. I’m doing the same thing and I’m going to start asking students this all the time.   I’d simply add that each person must pursue that which is totally unknown with great passion.

In the end, well, it’s the end, no? Whose life is it anyway?  Goldman Sachs?  Whose?

We fear getting lost because, in our view of things, we’re not suppose to, not if we’re following.  But the point, here, is not to follow, is it?

Later Solnit cites the great philosopher, Walter Benjamin, which really hit home when I think of my students – but primarily when I think of those students in New York City, Washington, D.C., Bombay, Hong Kong, and Afghanistan.  “Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more,” says Benjamin. “But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.”  Ah ha!  That’s it, really.  Solnit adds to this: “To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away.”

How true and how wonderful – and requiring much discipline.  A “voluptuous surrender.” Say it a few times. Let it slide off your tongue, slowly, effortlessly, seductively – and you’ll begin to ask the right questions. Focus on the surrender part first.  None of us feels comfortable “surrendering,” but it’s essential.  We never talk about surrendering. We talk about “warring”; we talk about “conquering”; we talk about “next steps,” as if somewhere – and somehow – they’re enumerated and all we have to do is “fit in.”  We we talk about “efficiency” and “accountability” and “excellence.” We talk so much, and so jingoistically, that the individual’s desire for a self is immediately fogged in, trapped into believing that the jingles are somehow true, a reality.

“The word ‘lost’ comes from the Old Norse los,” says Solnit, “meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world.”

Go home. Find a truce with yourselves and the world.

In the end, Solnit worries about my students’ generation, and says, “I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.”  Which is to say, what will come of a generation that has been “housed” in program after program, system after system, each of which are designed to create a moral consciousness – a spirit – from the outside, not from the inside, which is the only way to create a meaningful identity.

The unknown – not about futures, not about “what am I good at?” – scares us the most; it is an  unknown about who you are and the fear is in what you may find.  The French call this l’avenir - that which is to come, the real future, not the plans, the programs, the penciled in events.

You can run, yes; you can join up; you can be a part of “it”, what Chris Hedges calls the “spectacle,” which in his hands is the grand illusion parading as reality.  Or you can get lost, literally, metaphorically, and philosophically and spiritually.  Then you might find some answers.

EL TRABAJO DE HOY Y LA PÉRDIDA DE LO SUBLIME

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Podemos aprender bastante sobre nosotros mismos examinando una sola palabra: trabajo. Nuestro sentido de esta palabra simple ha experimentado un cambio sísmico —y nosotros hemos cambiado junto a ella—.

via Cronopio U.S.A..