The Tragedy in South Carolina and a Misaligned America: Our Denial of a Violent History

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The New World, as the Western Hemisphere has been called, specially the Americas, including such nearby islands as those in the Caribbean and Bermuda, is a term that originated in the early 16th Century after Europeans made landfall. This “fourth part of the world,” as the Americas were also called, was “conquered,” in the modern sense of the word, and “colonized” by extremes of will and power.

It was a violent takeover, a crazy, fierce and brutal acquisition of exotic lands and a murderous subjugation of native people. This legacy – this warring DNA – runs rampant through the Americas, but most notably in the extreme nature of American ideology, which brought us the horrible and savage act of racial terrorism in South Carolina.

America is misaligned; in turn, this most powerful nation is causing a misalignment in the world. The cause of this improper alignment originates with a denial of history and, of course, the refusal to believe that any history leaves behind a stain that is carried forth by those re-writing and making a new history.

The violent legacy that founded the New World roams our unconscious; it has never left, not since 1492 when a New World Order was determined. We are still working it out; we’re still living it; and we’ve yet to acknowledge its violent, repressive aftermath, which reared its ugly head in South Carolina.

Here’s a brief outline of the extremely powerful history, psychology and ideology that came across the Atlantic – and made us who we are today:

  • January 2, 1492: the Fall of Granada: Muhammad XII, the last Moorish Emir of Granda, surrenders the city to the army of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand II of Arragon and Isabella I of Castile, ending the 10 year Granda War and the centuries-long Reconquista and bringing an end to 780 years of Muslim control of Al-Andalus.

Question #1: How well did this work out, the first modern misalignment?

  • January 15, 1492: Columbus meets Ferdinand and Isabella at the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristiano in Córdoba, Andalusia, and persuades them to support his Atlantic voyage intended to find a new route to the East Indies.

Question #2: How well did this work out, the first vital exportation of an ideology of misalignment ? How did Columbus treat the “docile” and “friendly” natives in this “New World”? What did he establish as the modus operandi for Europeans colonizing the “New World”, especially since his backing already comes fraught with violence and oppression – and expulsion – under the auspices of a Christian God?

  • October 28, 1492: Columbus lands in Cuba. (In 1762, the British army led by George Keppel, 3rd Earl of Albemarle captured Havana as part of the Seven Year War with France. During the year-long occupation of Cuba (Spain regained the island in 1793 by exchange of Florida with the British), the British colonists expanded the plantation system on the island and imported 4000 African slaves as laborers, nearly 10% of all the slaves imported to the island during the previous 250 years.)

Question #3: How did this work out? The Plantation System, an extreme organism comprised of a harsh hierarchy, becomes firmly ensconced as the economic engine for the New World. Slavery is an economic system under which people are treated as property. Slaves can be held from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work or to demand compensation. Slavery in the Americas has a contentious history, and plays a major role in the history and evolution of some countries.

An estimated 12 million Africans arrived in the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Of these, an estimated 645,000 were brought to what is now the United States. The usual estimate is that about 15% of slaves died during the voyage, with mortality rates considerably higher in Africa itself in the process of capturing and transporting indigenous peoples to the ships. Approximately 6 million black Africans were killed by others in tribal wars.

  • July 30, 1492: the entire Jewish community, some 200,000, were expelled from Spain.
  • December 31, 1492: 100,000 Jews are expelled from Sicily.

Question #4: Violent conquest, antisemitism, expulsions, beginning with the Spanish Inquisition, and the establishment of the plantation system, have brought us where?

One answer is a total denial of history and how the blood and violence that established an illusion of order still runs deep in American ideology.

Slavery was well established in the “New World” by the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, who all sent African slaves to work in both North and South America during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The English began aggressively trading in what was called “black ivory” during the middle of the seventeenth century, spurred on by the need for laborers in the hot, humid sugar fields on the West Indian islands of Barbados, St. Christopher, the Bermudas, and Jamaica.

For their cargoes of human flesh, the traders brought iron and copper bars, brass pans and kettles, cowrey shells, old guns, gun powder, cloth, and alcohol. In return, ships might load on anywhere from 200 to over 600 African slaves, stacking them like cord wood and allowing almost no breathing room. The crowding was so severe, the ventilation so bad, and the food so poor during the “Middle Passage” of between five weeks and three months that a loss of around 14 to 20% of their “cargo” was considered the normal price of doing business. This slave trade is thought to have transported at least 10 million, and perhaps as many as 20 million, Africans to the American shore.

Slaves from the region of Senegambia and present-day Ghana were preferred. At the other end of the scale were the “Calabar” or Ibo or “Bite” slaves from the Niger Delta, who Carolina planters would purchase only if no others were available. In the middle were those from the Windward Coast and Angola.

Carolina planters developed a vision of the “ideal” slave – tall, healthy, male, between the ages of 14 and 18, “free of blemishes,” and as dark as possible. For these ideal slaves Carolina planters in the eighteenth century paid, on average, between 100 and 200 sterling – in today’s money that is between $11,630 and $23,200!

Many of these slaves were almost immediately put to work in South Carolina’s rice fields.

Which brings us to the shooting in South Carolina and a deep seeded ideology that runs through American culture and is carefully massaged by conservative politicians and extremists, such as the Council of Conservative Citizens, whose leader, Earl Holt, III, has donated large sums of money to several politicians of note, and emblazoned in the display of the Confederate flag over South Carolina’s State Capital, an affront to decency and social justice.

Slavery became the American Economic System – a way of seeing the world, a way of experiencing an Other, a way to disregard human life. (In 2006, William C. Rhoden, sports columnist of the New York Times, publishes, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete, demonstrating how The Plantation System is alive and well in professional sports. See Rhoden’s interview, here, on Quite Frankly.)

Until we get back to this history and acknowledge that history does not end, rather it continues in strange and dark strains that haunt us because we are interconnected in complex ways, such that so much goes undetected – such as a baby-faced, unassuming young man who becomes, as Charles M. Blow says, “baptized in a theology of race hate,” we will be unable to move towards the idea of justice, as Amartya Sen writes about:

The need for an accomplishment-based understanding of justice is linked with argument that justice cannot be indifferent to the lives that people can actually live…The freedom to choose our lives can make a significant contribution to our well-being, but going beyond the perspective of well being, the freedom itself may be seen as important. Being able to reason and choose is a significant aspect of human life…The freedoms and capabilities we enjoy can be valuable to us, and it is ultimately for us to decide how to use the freedom we have … First, human lives are then seen inclusively, taking note of the substantial freedoms that people enjoy, rather than ignoring everything other than the pleasures or utilities they end up having. There is also a second significant aspect to freedom: it makes us accountable for what we do.

Dylan Storm Roof had access to a dangerous single story perpetuated by a white supremacist theology of race hate that victimizes whiteness. “You are raping our women and taking over the country,” said Roof right before his rampage, according to witnesses. Roof has no sense of justice, obviously; he’s been educated in a limited sense of freedom, too, one in which some have it and others do not – and that’s the way it is.

If we live in a country that privileges stories that are limiting in their very nature, we will experience many more people like Roof ; we will also find the racial illogic of Rachel Dolezal. Misalignment produces extremes. These are times that are defined by the inconsistencies brought about by a binary view of the world: black and white, right and wrong, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat. Rather, we fail to see what can bring us together: our connections to each other, to humanity – the notion that when you look into someone’s eyes you’re seeing yourself. Only when we begin to realize this will we able to move away from our misaligned belief that this is “the new normal.”

It’s the theology of race hate that is the prodigal child of the plantation system. And it’s the theology of race hate that is uniquely lodged in the American Ideology. The American Dream, our national ethos, the set of ideals in which freedom includes opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers, is completely hindered, even non-existent – for all of us – if the theology of race hate remains unabated. There’s no way around this. And it requires re-education for all on a massive scale, one in which social justice is at its core.

The connections between the ideology of race hate and how it affects opportunities for prosperity and success in a society that sees itself as having few barriers are the only things worth talking about, otherwise we’re not moving forward as a nation that is open and willing to embrace the idea of justice. We cannot embrace the idea of justice without first acknowledging that a violent history informs us and that we have to embrace the challenge of undoing this across the Americas, together.

The Heart of Students, and the Soul of Education

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I received a most gracious email from a colleague the other day: “Thanks, Hector, for all you do to shepherd students along through the systems. I trust they are eternally grateful for the kindness, energy and personal investments you make in their successes!”

Earlier, I received another: “Thanks, Hector, for once again being on the front lines with students and advocating for them.”

And yet another note said, “Your dedication to your students is admirable.” Someone else, in conversation, said, “You treat the 1% student as you do everyone else—that’s admirable.”

I of course immediately fell for the accolades—I’m human; they made me feel good. Any person would likely feel the same. I was beaming. My ego was stroked and I felt as if these comments separated me from my colleagues and I was somehow operating at some higher plane. You start thinking that perhaps you’re the only one making deep, meaningful connections with students. You start imagining that, at some level, you could be better than others.

But you know you’re not better than anybody else and put the brakes on and say, Wait a minute. What’s going on? Why are they saying these things? ….CONTINUE READING HERE

The Existential Crisis in Higher Learning: Reinventing Ourselves Around Students

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There’s been a spate of education articles concerning “troubling” or “triggering” comments and speakers and programs and the concomitant evolution of “safe spaces” on college campus that provide refuge, calming areas in which to reclaim the self that’s been disquietly pushed off balance.

Get it? Higher education, even in the most elite, safe spaces imaginable, may not be so welcoming, understanding, safe, secure. It may be anxiety-ridden, hostile, dangerous, off-putting, demanding, deprecating. Dangerous, yes, just ask around, definitely dangerous to many who have found themselves vulnerable and unsafe, violently abused. Dangerous, yes. Demeaning too. Make you feel wrong, like you don’t belong, have no place in the world. An outsider.

To say that academia is struggling to find itself, again, is an understatement. It’s struggling to define its relevance, now and in the future; it’s struggling to understand the needs of students and the public; it’s struggling to justify cost v outcomes; and, it’s struggling to understand its hand in creating the very world in which we find ourselves. No small task.

In College and Hiding From Scary IdeasJudith Shulevitz describes an academic world where students “are eager to self-infantalize,” parents go along, even help it along, and colleges and universities are caught between a rock and a hard place: make the academic world safe for all free speech – academic freedom; and make this setting behind the hallowed ivy safe for those that might be adversely affected by what we might say is politically incorrect speech: hate speech, language that may be defined as inflammatory and insensitive, callous, violent speech, writings, art and film that might depict the harrowing affects of violence, that might argue for the ease with which we commit acts of killing – and the personalities and faces and organizations and groups – artists, politicians, bankers and lawyers, celebrities, sports figures, etc., a long list – that we might associate with any of these incorrect forms of expression.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy quickly came along: “Don’t Blame Students for Being Hypersensitive. Blame the Colleges.” Bovy writes a superb article – but the title tells the story. Her use of history – how we evolved to this point (irony of course) – is spot on. Not that Shulevitz isn’t; she is too. Shulevitz and Bovy are speaking of something larger gone awry, which requires we move beyond blaming, though “blaming” of this sort – Shulevitz’s and Bovy’s – let’s us into the larger problem – or is it problems?

You decide. Here are 3 large challenges that incite the need for safe places in academia:

  • teaching hides behind the illusion of objectivity, as if saying that history is objective, and information is delivered coldly and sometimes de-contextualized, straight-on, students asked to respond accordingly, obediently, head down, busy working with the hope of being initiated and hoisted into a node on our vertical socio-economic system – a production model that relies on conformity, deference and reverence;
  • since “Americanization” took hold on a grand scale during the Reagan years and focused on the cash-nexus rather than national identity, colleges and universities lost their footing, became multinational corporations as a way to achieve relevance (brand power), and are increasingly sensitive to the rumblings of their shareholders – the board of trustees, paying families, government and the media – we all say, after all, that we have a stake in Education, do we not?;
  • the illusion of objectivity and “Americanization,” not globalization, have contributed to an academic environment focused less on an individual’s need to find something important within her – who am I – and more on achievement, excellence and efficiency – what am I – that require a student look towards a tomorrow that will give value to her material worth, and not herself, who she is, what she believes.

Bovy concludes her article, addressing Amanda Hess’ notion, in “Elite College Students Protest Their Elite Commencement Speakers,” that students are looking for a “uniquely tailored experience,” which “elite schools are promising their students in exchange for astronomical costs,” because these students believe they are “owed exactly the experience they want,” saying that:

This strikes me as almost right, but I’d switch the order. It’s not that students demand that colleges provide a gated-community experience tailored to their every preference. Instead, the elite schools are selling that experience—and given the competitiveness of that marketplace, it’s hardly surprising that campus life sometimes crosses over into the ridiculous. Shulevitz blames the students, and surely they deserve some of it. But they’re demanding exactly the college experience that the brochures have promised them.

Here is where the problem conflates, folds in. Stops. It’s the students, the parents and the institutions. But this is only the surface structure, the symptoms or some of the results of the 3 greater challenges: Why do students self-infantalize? Why do parents foster this? And why do colleges and universities, particularly the elite ones, promise infantalization at a high cost?

Answers:

Americanization changed more than just higher education. It brought with it a new ideology, corporatism: the needs and wants of the corporation trump nation-state identity and the will of the people. Unions are on the ropes; health care, too, even with Obamacare and with insurance companies reporting record earnings, is fighting for existence, for a better place – universal coverage(?). Funding for public education is being chipped away, while standardized testing and the assessment of teachers have taken center stage supported by a powerful theme: some can pay to be well educated, others will not afford it and be left out. We find ourselves in an education environment that mirrors the socio-economic stratification of society, the separation of classes and races, and fueled by an ongoing rhetoric, fear the Other, he’s here to take from you. (Pretty well argued by Jonathan Kozol in The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.)

Public education, K-12, has been gutted and those caught inside separated. This separation – and lack of diversity – exacerbates fear and anxiety among students, families and teachers. Coupled to this fear, for students and their families – I must not venture out of my group/tribe, a message that’s delivered very powerfully throughout systems – comes the high stakes world of getting into an elite school, a name, some guarantee of a (well paying) job in the future. The student, in this world, is already cowering, already obedient. When she arrives in college – Princeton, Yale, Harvard, the mini ivies, you name them, UC Berkeley, U of VA – that time to explore and blossom, to embrace the unknown, she’s instead wincing and looking for a hand to hold, safety, an established path, worn, well lit and marked, and not the road least traveled.

A conveyor belt to material success defined by excellence and efficiency, accounting terms, breeds obedience and fear. No one wants to experiment, take a chance, speak out, claim a space, wonder, get lost. Getting lost and being vulnerable are frowned upon. The student is thus always off balance, measuring possible falls. Hesitant.

Learning requires no hesitation. It requires leaps. Trust. This is the frightening part.

Colleges and universities provide the social structure to try and ensure safety – “a small army of service professionals,” as Shulevitz describes them, “mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like.”

But when you look at the immensity and complexity of academic work today; when you look at the material goals and aspirations and pressures faced by most students; when you then pit these against dwindling resources, environmental problems, justice issues and issues of identity and wellbeing – the student is rather lost and anxious. Fearing the onslaught of offensive and challenging speech is but a symptom of students wanting more, something richer, deeper; they want to find themselves. They’re asking for justice, for the anxiety over molded impositions to cease. They’re looking for creativity, aesthetics – beauty and a philosophy to go with it.

Creativity requires breathing space. This is the classroom’s purview, the teacher’s attention.

If we slow our teaching way down and extend it over longer periods of time, perhaps over more than a semester using online tools, community service and dialog, intentional living, and give rise to safe learning spaces where mentoring, in the very traditional, Socratic way, I dare say, can evolve, then text, student, faculty will commune in distinct ways, and solve problems. This, I venture, would begin to alleviate the tension, the blaming and the misconceptions we have of each other. This is an invitation to bring diversity into classrooms, schools, and, most importantly, to a staid pedagogy still stuck somewhere in a 19th Century aristocratic model. It’s an invitation to re-think what we do and how we do it, K-16. The current model got us to this point. Do we want to continue? If we look around and are honest, the model is broken. Is that good? It’s the only conclusion. So we have to change; it’s in our capacity to do so.

It’s less about power and authority over fields of knowledge and more about connecting fields of knowledge to an individual’s contextualized learning practices. This requires some understanding of human nature, the science of the stages of learning, the context in which education is delivered – the who, what, when, where. Understanding these three ideas will lead us all to see the child as a whole being, not merely a repository and parrot of knowledge we push in.

If we create a teaching and learning environment that is safe and free and that decompresses the massive compression that is the reality of our time, we can then address mutual respect, honor, conduct; we can address all sorts of language challenges because we have the time and the space to deal with it ourselves. This is not expensive. We have the means and the talent, right now, to tack this ship into healthier waters.

Students infantalize because they don’t want to grow up. Who can blame them? I wouldn’t want to grow up either – not today. Students infantalize because the world is frightening. To say that it isn’t is a wild conceit, the wildest. Isn’t it?

Parents infantalize because they fear for their children. Understandable. (I’ve been blamed for “babying” my children – yes; it is, I can say, fear.) A better use of a parent’s time, energy and emotions, however, is to press schools to do a better job teaching and creating safe spaces in classrooms – not rejecting speakers, not more counselors and certainly not more deans! – that do not shy from controversy, rather address it coherently and with a student-centered approach that honors a student’s place, her history, the context of her life; that enables her to direct herself. In other words, parents: press schools to see the whole student; to see your child as a person, first. We’re not doing that.

A child today entering college is many things: hope, aspiration, desire – a life; but she is also capital the institution needs increasingly so. There’s the human divided: a commodity and a being.

What are our priorities?

If we demand that colleges and universities – the entire K-16 system – focus on the Human Being, the corporate-academic model will react. Its primary concern, all rhetoric on brochures aside, is staying alive, being on top, maintaining brand value, increasing it. If staying on top means recreating itself to capitalize on (a) the very personal needs of students, (b) the promises – still – of technologies, particularly as these speak to how we may change our very important intimate relationships with students, and, (c), the increasing need to evolve professor-teacher-mentors, an instrumental third party, that can speak to small numbers of students about forging ahead professionally and personally, not one instead of the other, then the university – as would any corporation – will change. The corporate-academic institution will react to market pressures, primarily. That’s us.

Right now we’re mired in the blame game, arguably necessary at this stage, so I’m not using “blame” in a derogatory way; it is what it is. But we just need to look under the hood; there are solutions, and these require massive perspective changes and a restructuring of the educational model, using everything at our disposal. How might K-3 education, for instance, help mold higher education? There is an answer here (but for another essay though).

“The reliable, mechanistic old college system has allowed a large number of people born into middle-and upper-middle class circumstances to comfortably ride along established pathways to prosperity without having to work especially hard,” says Kevin Cary in The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. “As the higher-education system opens up to many more people, this will change.”

With software companies and technology pushing on one end, colleges and universities struggling to find their identity (read: niche) on another, we have a perfect storm: ambiguity reigns. It’s a time ripe for powerful forces to take hold. They have, they are: “Instead of waiting for 35,000 students to apply and picking among them by reading stacks of paper, elite schools like MIT, Princeton, and Stanford will electronically search among tens of millions of potential students worldwide.” Not surprising. Technology will sort, which plays right into one of its most powerful capacities – sorting.

In the future we’ll be more finely denominated. “A critical mass of high schools will allow students to make evidence of their learning machine-discoverable, and more people will build up portfolios of digital badges and other credentials online to attract the attention of universities around the world,” continues Cary. This is now; this will happen. The point is to start adjusting and re-creating ourselves now. If there is money to be made by a software company, a college and a university, it will be made.

Education’s existential crisis is caused by immobility – us. Way too many colleges and universities are not thinking about how the world Cary describes affects us now – never mind tomorrow. It’s already taking shape, this is why we’re off-balance, searching.

One clear way to re-create ourselves is to imagine more instances of intimate contact with our students. It’s not happening in the current design – there’s no time for it. Yes, some students do receive personal attention; yes, this does appear to happen, more often, in elite liberal arts colleges – a reason for their existence, I’d argue, and extraordinary cost; but even here, among the elite, the model needs reinventing, which can reduce costs, re-ignite the essence of the liberal arts and how it relates to citizenship, and demonstrate new, invigorating and imaginative safe spaces where learning can take place. And let’s not forget, technology will have a hand in this; it can and will assist us – a certainty. Unless, of course, we’re happy being sorted – a choice we have.

Education going through an existential crisis is not new; it’s not surprising, since everywhere we look – government, business and banking, social services and health care – the same questions and challenges exist. Education can’t be exempt. Whether educators on a grand scale have a say in the changes that are afoot, there’s no telling. But change is inevitable and in years to come these conversations, hopefully, will seem naive, things we had to say to align us. Then we’ll be addressing other challenges.

Degrees of Separation: Helping Our Students Find Safe Space for Thinking

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“Can you help me?” she asks. She looks doleful, head tilted to one side. She hints a smile.

It’s work for her, getting out a smile – I can tell.

“What do you need?” I respond and smile for her. “Tell me.”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure,” she says shrugging her shoulders and shaking her head no. “I wish I knew. I don’t know what I’m doing, I guess. What happens next? I mean: where am I going? Only the kids going to Wall Street seem to know what they’re doing. What about the rest of us? I have no idea.”

Living in extreme compression, as we do in academia—12 to 14 week semesters, which are more like 10 and 12; the ever increasing complexity of disciplines and their idiosyncratic literacies we’re asked to master; the weight of the ongoing mantra: succeed, excel, achieve, be noted, and all this in an affronting socio-economic-political climate where opportunity and resources are shrinking – we all know this, students especially; the added burden of the great cost of a college education, mounting debt—it’s not surprising that students, faculty too, are desperate for safe spaces to explore their place in what we experience as a progressively hostile, indifferent world.

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The Ecology of Teaching

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I did this interview, last summer (2014), for Joe Brooks and The Community Works Institute (CWI).  Great camera work and editing by Michael Hanish, Free Lunch Productions.

On Being: Something Grand and Strong

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I don’t know how I got here. But I do know that what I do has meaning because it’s real—life and death. I’ve put myself inside a dead animal and extracted life out of it. And when I enter a classroom at Middlebury College, my only instinct is to reach for the students’ hearts because, after all, this is where life begins and ends. The farm is hopeful. Students are hopeful. The farm and the college are the same; they are fields that can be joyful if we’re true, honest, nurturing. The work is in moving aside the manure, using it for something better. That’s what I know to be true. That and death. In between there are choices; these depend on listening and experience. It’s not an intellectual exercise; that comes after all else is exhausted. – Read  more of On Being: Something Grand and Strong @ Community Works Journal

The World Trade Centers – Before and Now

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Before and After the Tragedy

Before and After the Tragedy

What is a memory? What is a memorial?

A memorial is something to preserver a memory – but of what?

The image on the left is the prophetic shot of Don DeLillo’s great novel, UnderworldPublished in 1997, the Underworld was immediately recognized as one of the best American novels ever written – in fact, recently, viewed in the top 5.  Post 9/11 readers by the droves were drawn, first, to the ominous cover, second, to the narrative’s harrowing picture of American culture, the world, and where we might find some semblance of hope – or not.  Somewhere between our waste and commodification, we struggle for hope, for a better future.  Peace, as DeLillo ends his novel.

The image on the right was just captured by my son, Carlos, a professional photographer living in Brooklyn, NY.  In many ways, Carlos’ image is also a memorial – to the days of DeLillo picture, to the harrowing events of 9/11, and to our current malaise and sense of hope and vulnerability.

Carlos’ image is very much a vulnerable one: will we experience 9/11 again?  Given the conditions in our world, are we, like this image, in a fog we can’t get out of? Is this a memorial to a time we’ll never get back, yet we hope for something more?