October 4, 2012 § 2 Comments
The real winners of Wednesday night’s first Presidential Debate were President Obama and former Governor Romney. I have to say that. They win — a tie. And we lose. Last night’s debate is a perfect mirror of who we are, what we’ve become.
And in this America, defined for us last night, we, the people, were left wondering what’s going on? Where are we? Where exactly are we going? We’re still left wondering who these people are and, given our challenges, how are we going to approach an equitable future where everyone has their shoulders to this daunting wheel we need to push up this steep hill?
Obama and Romney, no matter who is president, will forever be absolutely fine, sailing a prosperous wind to posterity. The rest of us, as it’s been made clear by both Obama and Romney, will hold them up — as we’ll hold up others, too, that have their grip on the socioeconomic reins that pave our future and may deny our dreams.
In the middle of this circus, adding to the confusion, the media insisted on covering the debate as if we were watching the NFL or a boxing match, looking for zingers — body blows, as one commentator called them. Mark Shields, on PBS, actually went as far as using boxing terminology — who won what round — to bring the debate’s substance to light. Who’s ahead now? What will the polls say? The sports metaphors — all of which are place holders for a confused American masculinity — abound, but without substance; these metaphors are kept alive only to bolster a narrative that is not about us, the American people, but about them. The debate was a splendid picture of a divided America — one that’s confused, even desperate and longing, the other that demands, confines, privileges.
History could have a lot to say about this, but it’s being left out as a framing device that’s essential for us to to be able to contextualize what each man is — and is not — saying about the role of government. This, after all, is at the heart of the election, at the heart of ideologies that are always warring in America. How much government do we need? For those that need a hand, those that are struggling, how big should that hand be? And how should it be applied? Who will determine when enough is enough?
The debate about the government’s role began with the Federalist Papers, a document that is the foundation of this country but which no American has actually ever read — unless you’ve studied American Government in college or gone to law school or graduate school in political science. This magnificent document is left solely to those people that have to read it. Yet, America’s current ideological struggles begin and end with the Federalist Papers, a sweeping work that defines our character, our principles — and not our ideologies.
Ideologies have come about because of bipartisan rancor; they come about when politicians need to conceal the true engine of government — money and who controls the purse strings. In our case, the purse strings are not held by politicians we elect; rather, they’re held, in a broken system, by those that fund the careers of politicians and demand that they receive something in return. This is why, when we need to know what’s going on, we get two adults that don’t know how to speak the truth.
The end result is the debate we just witnessed — a listless encounter between two men that are nearly saying the same thing. The difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is but a sliver; the difference, defined by the extreme right, is being made more evident solely by misguided social concerns that, when you think about it, is the most egregious infiltration by government into our private lives. Nowhere in the Federalist Papers do we see such a desire — and need — to enter into the private lives of citizens, yet extremist fundamentalists want it this way. Go figure.
Both men will use government to cut taxes (Romney and Obama) and create some revenue (Obama); both men will use government to regulate, differing only by degrees; both men agree that health care is a problem, and in last night’s debate Obamacare became Romneycare; both men also agree that education has challenges, Romney opting for vouchers and charters, Obama for bolstering public education and charters — both plans disastrous and failing to see some real urgent problems, such as ridiculously bogus teachers, a lack of resources, standardization, and the effects (this data from science and medical research) of poverty on the minds of children; and, both men agree that a strong military is essential, particularly as demands in the world continue to challenge our readiness in cyberspace, clandestine operations and special forces. We’re nowhere new.
So where are we?
We’re in the same Bush-Cheney era, showing us how damaging it is to follow this uncreative path: drone strikes will continue, as will clandestine operations, as will the support of Israel, even when hawks rule this policy; poverty will increase as either man’s broad, even ambiguous statements pursue a line that’s been always ongoing, business first, the rest will just have to come along, picking ourselves up by our bootstraps — sink or swim; education’s achievement gap will widen, as some kids will have better access to better teachers and creative uses of technology, others will whither; health care costs will increase as America continues to increase its girth, beers in hand, pop corn on the lap, chips flying into our wide open mouths, watching the NFL, which is far more important to us (witness the outcry during the referee strike) then how we’re going to get along, move forward, and provide a future that is healthy, safe and creative.
Prevention, whether its preventive health practices, a preventive, inclusive educational system that conflates socioeconomic needs, the environment and health care with self-actualization, an energy policy that prevents further deterioration and that doesn’t sustain us, because that’s now impossible, but rather begins to learn how to live with the disasters we’ve created, offering up creative, technologically rich solutions, is out of the question. Not even on the radar for Obama and Romney. Frankly, it’s disgusting.
Both men failed at describing, concretely, how we’re going to pay for the mess we’re in — except to say that the middle class is going to be burdened, either way; we’re the ones who will lose footing, while some, granted, will gain something or other, though very little and will always be looking over their shoulders wondering when it’s all going to cave in. But it’s safe to say, in either man’s rather nebulous picture of the American Future, the ideological lines of demarcation will be greater, the fallout more dramatic, the result being two, maybe even three unrecognizable Americas. Nothing like this was foreshadowed in the Federalist Papers. Nothing. A selfish ambition, rather then ambition tempered by ambition, which is what Hamilton said, is killing us.
We don’t know where we are, in then end, nor where we’re going, except that it looks bleak.
June 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
for Shipnia, Brittany, Dane, Becca, Christine, Chris and Amanda and Taylor and Annie — and the countless other young souls that will call themselves new teachers
There is a lot of talk, politically and otherwise, about education reform, but there is little conversation about what teaching actually is — and who the teacher is. What are the elements of teaching?
There is a singular demand on education today, namely that it develop producers — students that will mature to be workers and consumers. This single demand is blind to the sources of this production model, the teachers, and the nature of human culture. Of course, citizens have to be productive, engaging the world creatively, we hope, but this is not the first criteria. There are other requirements. In order for education to be productive — produce productive individuals — it must preserve the health and welfare of teachers and, in so doing, it must sustain students in the process. For this to happen, teachers must know themselves well, must have a full understanding of their students, and, just as significant, teachers must have a complete understanding of the context in which the teaching and learning happens. Teachers must be well motivated, active learners that engage the environment in which students reside; likewise, teachers must also know the relationships that exist between their subjects, pedagogy and the environment in which s/he is teaching. What is the place of my knowledge in the context of our culture? This question teachers must ask themselves over and over. Then teachers must know how to use this knowledge well. Teaching cannot take place except in culture. We seem to be unaware of this vital fact.
The appropriate measure of teaching is the culture’s health. We can look around and realize that our culture is not healthy, not by any stretch of the imagination.
Education, we hear in the talk, is in trouble; it has broken down. It’s limping along, even declining, we hear. A central reason for this breakdown has to do with our lack of understanding concerning the elements of teaching. We recognize the potential — and place — of the teacher, but we have strapped the teacher down in a system that privileges competition rather than cooperation, homogeneity rather than diversity. We falsely believe, now, that a single test can determine excellence — for teachers and students. This is far too simple a standard because it’s focused solely on production; it enslaves those in the system — administrators, teachers and students. This is an economic standard that parallels the current economic standard that has taken our welfare to the brink of disaster. We are beginning to see — only in some circles — that this standard is very expensive and, while it has solved some immediate problems, it has, overall, failed on a consistent basis to address the ills of our culture. Education has worked by confinement, concentration and separation; this design has lead to the industrialization of human experience. We, who work in schools, have been responsible for this move towards the factory model of education. It’s synonymous with the factory model of agriculture, which has lead to making our food vulnerable that, in turn, makes all vulnerable to all sorts of problems and diseases.
This is to say, then, that we have to re-describe the elements of teaching so that we can create better, more meaningful measures that comply with the art of teaching. Many like to say that teaching is an art and a science. It is not. It’s only an art. The science — the data, the verifiable knowledge, etc — only exists in the disciplines — Mathematics, English, Literature, Geography, History, Philosophy, Foreign Languages, and so on. The application of these knowledge fields to excite a student’s imagination is not a science; the synthesis of discipline knowledge and pedagogy is an art. This is why current, high stakes testing cannot measure, with any meaningful results, the teacher’s practice. We need another way of doing this; these measures must be layered and multifaceted — observations, journals, video, dialog, and so on, along with tests. I say along with tests because by integrating a variety of diverse measures we will be able to (a) experience the rich and layered practice of a teacher, and describe it, and (b) come to understand the limitations of the factory model, high stakes test.
So let’s just talk about three elements of teaching (in the weeks to come, I’ll describe others). I want to do this to show what I mean by the need for diverse measures that defy the factory model of education.
The first element of teaching is love. A teacher must love. She must love herself, but more importantly, she must love experiencing herself as a node that engages others in the healthy creation of culture. Love requires that the teacher be healthy, personally and in her practice. Love, therefore, leads the teacher to care about the well being of her students; this measure — the health of students — leads to atonement between the teacher, her students, and the world they are engaging. It proposes conscious, careful recognition of the ecology of learning. It also demonstrates knowledge of the interdepence between the teacher, students, the institution and the culture. These interdependencies always exist; however, in our current factory model of education focused solely on production, we categorically reject these connections, begin separating, confining and concentrating on diffused knowledge that is without context, without purpose. Teachers love, first and foremost, because it is the only way to get to a student’s heart; without the heart, there is no learning that’s possible. We can measure this quite easily by simply walking into any school and observing disinterested students. Disinterest comes about because love is not practiced in the classroom. Either a teacher doesn’t love her discipline or she doesn’t love the conditions for learning or she doesn’t love her students because, perhaps, they represent insurmountable challenges that she imagines cannot be addressed.
Teachers that begin with love are easy to find in schools. They are the most exhausted. This is the direct result of a dictatorial or totalitarian form. The teacher is always fighting an uphill battle against political demands on her identity, measures that don’t make sense, dictates that come from “on high,” usually boards of education — the Federal Government included — that have no idea who the students are. On the other hand, this teacher knows that the right approach to teaching and learning is more consistent with a conversational model; it proceeds directly to serious thought — inquiry — about our condition and our predicament. In conversations you always reply — and here is where we can measure. If a teacher honors the other party, namely students and their identities, she thus becomes reliant on a secondary element of teaching faith. The teacher has faith that the other will reply, though sometimes not in expected ways or in ways that the teacher may like — but this is, in fact, a healthy environment that begs for a third element, freedom. The teacher must always transgress constraints and boundaries to expose the work required, by a citizen, to be free. The teaching and learning act is to inspire the quest for freedom, creatively, personally, politically. Transgressing boundaries for freedom excites the imagination, which can be measured in actual work — writing, calculations and their applications, art and music, and so on, right to the effective uses of languages to communicate deeply felt emotions to an Other. Faith that the Other will reply fosters the quest for freedom, which is the sole purpose of education.
Love, faith and freedom, we can rightly see — and imagine — are easily measured, in teachers and students, by closely examining their practice, not by standardized tests, but, rather, by observation, close examination of texts and testing; the multi-layered approach, as I mentioned above, enables us to distinguish between individuals, rather then assuming that all individuals are the same, one. It allows us to apply what we learn — and what we have learned about the factory system that has gotten us nowhere — to our culture. We can then, slowly, begin to measure whether our culture is moving towards healthier ways of being since, right now, we’re not.
For a long time, we have dreamt that our systems have been taking us towards some Edenic future; we’ve convinced ourselves that our constructions, completely reliant on human ingenuity, are the key to our health and happiness. Now we realize otherwise. We have forgotten that everything we do resides in Nature; that everything we do affects Culture. Nature and Culture are hurting. We can turn to science, technology, medicine, history and philosophy, as well as the Arts, and see that this is absolutely true. All these disciplines are pointing to our troubled ways– to the troubles we’re facing. Might it not be time to take what we’ve learned and turn this ship around?
May 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
In a recent article in the Middlebury Campus, Parton Sees Rise in Erectile Dysfunction, Saadiah Schmidt tells us that, “The last three years have witnessed an upsurge in the number of male students reporting erectile dysfunction and other sex-related problems at Parton Health Center…” The Director and College Physician, Dr. Mark Peluso, told Schmidt that, “in the majority of cases, the patients were habitual viewers of pornography, and had no difficulty with sexual performance when they were with themselves.” Peluso — and others who study the affects of pornography on habitual viewers — suggest that there is “an inverse relationship between porn and potency — as porn use increases, so do sexual insufficiencies,” Schmidt tells us. (There are plenty of studies looking at the effects of pornography, some debatable and challenging; linked in the previous sentence is only an overview for those unfamiliar. Another interesting article is Pornography’s Effects on Interpersonal Relationships.)
Schmidt’s article set off conversations — and consternation — around campus.
“I don’t believe it,” said some students.
“No way. Guys are confessing to having trouble performing? No way, man,” was another comment.
“I don’t think it’s just porn,” though, became the most common.
The sex and love lives of 18-21 year olds on a college campus are complex, to say the least. Trying to nurture intimate relationships during this transitional stage in life is very difficult, fraught with challenges that students, more often then not, are ill prepared to handle — but that we, faculty and staff may help confuse. Students are thinking about what their educations mean, where their educations will take them; they’re worried about a jobless future — perhaps no future at all; they’re struggling with tremendous amounts of work, stressful demands on their time and energy, and in-between all this they’re trying to carry on relationships.
For some, the minority that is mature enough to communicate meaningfully about vulnerabilities, it can work. For others, however, love is synonymous with “just sex,” which in college means “additives,” such as alcohol and (some) drugs. Love and sex are thus reduced to “grinding” in dark corners of clubs or “rooms” where faces are unseen, music pounds and in the end, there’s the “hook up.” (Film on hook up culture)
Most colleges and universities don’t recognize that life on campuses takes place in three educational-social spheres: the day-to-day going to classes across elysian quads, students smiling, nodding to each other — everything is cool; the other campus comes alive in the dark, and is totally different — usually between Thursday and Sunday, involving pre-gaming (drinking hard in someone’s room, though sometimes alone), before going to a party where the hope is to grind into the hook up among inebriated individuals too bleary eyed to see the other. The goal, apparently, is not even the raw sex, rather it’s the story to tell the next day. The last college sphere is the place of technology, which is 24-7 — cell phones, iPads, computers — where cyber-socializing, gaming, porn, course work that’s online, and the everyday construction of lives — ordering airline tickets, reading news and sports, facebook and twitter, and so on, takes place.
College life is confusing and pressure-filled, so how can meaningful, intimate relationships evolve when what a relationship needs most is time and consideration, understanding and humility, and patience? College life is an impatient one.
We have two competing narratives, at least, always ongoing on a college campus: there’s the life in the classroom — predictable, somewhat staid, the “work,” as students call it; then there’s the less predictable, anxious life in the dark or alone in cyber-connections with cyber-realities, images one projects into the ether, performances of a nebulous and insecure self, a kind of stepping out, slowly, of embodiments of something or other yet to be defined eased out carefully, timidly. And all of this anxiousness gets expressed in the after hours culture of the college night.
Life in college is thus always defined by disconnections, though everything is connected by the ubiquitous presence of manufactured time — usually not enough time. Not enough time to complete assignments. Not enough time to get to the gym. Not enough time to eat. Not enough time to sleep. Not enough. Not enough is the trademark of college life, though countering this — and confusing things and adding tension — is the ongoing narrative of higher education: the future will is full of hope, which translates into wealth and leisure for most students.
The college is therefore the microcosm of the world outside its pleasure dome, outside Xanadu, Coleridges image of Kubla Khan. It privileges a patriarchy that, if we look at our society, as Chris Hedges does in Empire of Illusion, particularly in his chapter, “The Illusion of Love,” we see a “society that has lost the capacity for empathy.” The “not enough time,” disconnected existence of rushing about pre-gaming, grinding, hooking up cyber – culture of college life lends towards a distancing from one’s sense of self, one’s intimacy with one’s sensuality and sensitivity. So we turn to the additives — the drugs and alcohol, and cyber porn where “the woman is stripped of her human attributes,” says Hedges, “and made to be for abuse. She has no identity distinct as a human being. Her only worth is as a toy, a pleasure doll … She becomes a slave.” The dominant heteronormative culture on college campuses across America privilege these vile descriptions Hedges gives us where the viewer of porn is “aroused by the illusion that they too can dominate and abuse women.” So it’s no wonder that erectile dysfunction, once the drinking accompanies the journey from grinding to the hook up, is increasing since the actual level of intimacy required in a sexual relationship is always being pushed aside by the pressure of college life that exist in its three dominant spheres — the academic, the night, and the cyberworld.
But here’s the tragic problem: students are reacting to what we, the adults, show them; we’re indoctrinating them into society like this. By not addressing that students’ behavior as somehow connected to our institutionalized rhetoric, we give it approbation.
“The most successful Internet porn sites and films are those that discover new ways to humiliate and inflict cruelty on women,” says Hedges. The idea, here, is to privilege domination, cruelty and exploitation, subjects that are kept at arms length in sociology courses and political science course, even in literature, but never are these subjects dealt with as sitting at the center of a confused maturation process that is made even more challenging by the false design of our educational environments that would rather build climbing walls and swimming pools and not confront the entire student. We like to only see the student from the head up, an empty vessel that needs to have our wisdom poured into them — climb a wall, exercise, and here’s what you need to know, only. The tragedy in all this is that, by not working with the entire student, we are slowly and carefully, systematically by design, moving our students away from any real understanding of themselves, the “stuff” of life needed for love and empathy. Anyone can have sex — but what is its meaning, its place in our lives?
Maybe we, the adults, have lost our connections to ourselves.
Hedges pessimistically ends his chapter on the illusion of love suggesting that “porn is the glittering facade, like the casinos and resorts in Las Vegas, like the rest of the fantasy that is America, of a culture seduced by death.” It makes sense to me. Are we, in removing students from close relationships with themselves, their internal selves, killing off their potential, their desire to be creative and to evolve? Is this, then, not a culture fixated on death? Is hook up culture — and erectile dysfunction, usually relegated, at the other end of the culture, to Viagra commercials during PGA tour TV coverage where old men golf, drink and can’t get it up — a sign of a culture moving towards death?
Are we witnessing the death rattle of dogmatic institutions unable to sustain themselves any longer and our students, in despair, sensing something is wrong, are merely acting out in a haze of confusion?
November 8, 2011 § Leave a Comment
July 1, 2011 § Leave a Comment
It’s truly uncanny how popular, mainstream media willingly refuses to investigate what is really behind the accepted story, usually promoted by the likes of The New York Times, chronicler of the official story.
Here I’m talking about the NBA Lockout, which began last night. A student of mine that took my Media, Sports and Identity class (students are now always on the lookout for what’s behind the accepted version of stories), sent me an exclusive from Deadspin: How (And Why) An NBA Team Makes $7 Million Profit Look Like a $28 Million Loss. Deadspin has obtained the financial records of the New Jersey Nets. These records show how major corporations work:
The hustle: The first thing to do is toss out that $25 million loss, says Rodney Fort, a sports economist at the University of Michigan. That’s not a real loss. That’s house money. The Nets didn’t have to write any checks for $25 million. What that $25 million represents is the amount by which Nets owners reduced their tax obligation under something called a roster depreciation allowance, or RDA.
As my students learn in our course, mediated sports nurture today’s culture of spectacle; it is a culture more comfortable with illusion then reality. In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry tells us that “People whose governing habit is the relinquishing of power, competence, and responsibility, and whose characteristic suffering is the anxiety of futility, make excellent spenders.” Thus, says Berry, “They are ideal consumers. By inducing in them little panics of boredom, powerlessness, sexual failure, mortality, paranoia, they can be made to buy (or vote for) virtually anything that is ‘attractively packaged.’”
Media is the tool that attractively packages the boredom, paranoia, powerlessness and sexual failure, as every commercial during any sporting event suggests, from Viagra to fast cars and blonds with beers tell us. It’s also, following Berry, how and why media — and mediated sports — engage in the attractive packaging that ensures we have blind faith in illusions.
The grand illusion is that NBA franchises are loosing money. This parallels the grand illusion orchestrated in Congress, namely that if tax breaks for “fat cats” are closed, this somehow won’t alleviate the debt and make us all, particularly those of us that are middle class and can read and write and fully understanding are dwindling presence in society feel a bit better.
Mitch McConnel (R-KY), for instance, who will not go along with the President and is opposed to any revamping of the health care system, has, of his 5 top contributors to his campaign, 2 health care companies, 2 energy companies (also opposed to alternative energy sources and ways to reduce dependencies on fossil fuels), a bank, of course, Citibank that cleaned money of Mexican drug cartels, and a marketing firm. The top 5 corporate supporters for McConnell are securities and investments, lawyers, health professionals, retirees and real estate. Who is he protecting?
These deceits are best mirrored in our professional sports where players are routinely viewed as chattel or cattle, machines that can be depreciated and are expendable, as we are. How many men do any of you know, between 50 and 60 that are today either unemployed or under employed? ”The culture of illusion, one of happy thoughts, manipulated emotions, and trust in the beneficence of power,” Chris Hedges tells us in Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (a text I will continue to cite over and over), “means we sing along with the chorus or are instantly disappeared from view like the losers on a reality show.”
Of course we fear being “instantly disappeared.” So it’s a lot better to go along with the coverage of the NBA lockout that suggests that somehow the poor owners are at a loss, the players greedy bastards making way too much money for shooting a ball. Some of this is true: there are far too many players making millions and warming the bench. There aren’t marque players on every team; every team is not in New York, L.A., or Miami and Houston. Fans understand that. But as we study the lockout and begin to see a long history where the player is merely a cog, a body, we begin to wonder, as David Shields does in his wonderful book, Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine, “Who owns this body, this body of work?”
We no longer own the United States; we no longer own or direct the narrative — it is a singular narrative — we see on TV and in the press, the pop media; we no longer own our schools, our government, businesses; we no longer own the direction of the country; we don’t even own the direction of our lives. What’s left but illusion?
It’s best to let Hedges end this post:
Blind faith in illusions is our culture’s secular version of being born again. These illusions assure us that happiness and success is our birthright. They tell us that our catastrophic collapse is not permanent. They promise that pain and suffering can always be overcome by tapping into our hidden, inner strengths. They encourage us to bow down before the cult of the self. To confront these illusions, to puncture their mendacity by exposing the callousness and cruelty of the corporate state, signals a loss of faith. It is to become an apostate.
We are indeed apostates; we have been well thought out; we are simply witnesses to our apathy, to our allegiance to deceit. But in doing so, we are also holding hands with the destructors and deceivers. We are accomplices. We may never recover.
June 24, 2011 § 10 Comments
It’s uncanny, but it’s very difficult to keep up with the numerous examples of inverted totalitarianism appearing daily in our popular media. That these events are routinely covered by the popular media without question and concern should give us pause.
Yesterday, in Nothing Will Change: the 2012 Presidential Election, I gave the following example:
The NRC (US Nuclear Regulatory Commission), that boasts it’s “protecting people and the environment,” in an unprecedented move, voted 3 – 2 to advise the Obama Justice Department to intervene on behalf of Entergy Nuclear in the company’s lawsuit against the state of Vermont. Vermont wants to shut down Vermont Yankee, the aged nuclear power plant. A government agency that is solely responsible for the nuclear safety is extending its sphere of influence and advising the Federal Government to intervene in a state’s negotiations with a private entity.
Today, we learn that the US Supreme Court has given pharmaceuticals twin wins:
In one case, a First Amendment decision, the court, by a 6-to-3 vote, struck down a Vermont law that barred the buying, selling and profiling of doctors’ prescription records — records that pharmaceutical companies use to target doctors for particular pitches. And in a second, the court ruled 5 to 4 that the makers of generic drugs are immune from state lawsuits for failure to warn consumers about possible side effects as long as they copy the warnings on brand-name drugs.
The US Supreme court ruled that the State of Vermont was infringing on the pharmaceutical’s first amendment rights. “The amendment prohibits the making of any law “respecting an establishment of religion“, impeding the free exercise of religion, infringing on the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.” This is untrue, the State of Vermont is not trying to restrict the first amendment, rather they are trying to restrict pharmaceuticals from getting private information concerning different drug protocols doctors use for specific patients.
“Basically, it’s going to allow the drug companies to have more influence on doctors’ prescribing practices, to manipulate their prescribing practices, and to promote the use of more expensive drugs. Almost certainly, health care costs are going to be driven up,” said Dr. Gregory D. Curfman, executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Information privacy experts also criticized Thursday’s ruling. “One of the practical consequences of the court’s decision will be to make it easier for pharmaceutical companies and data-mining firms and marketing firms to get access to this very sensitive information,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “The states are going to have to go back to the drawing board.
Ever since the Bush v Gore election, we’ve learned quite a a bit about where the US Supreme Court stands. The Court is aligned with right – wing conservative government and big business, this we know. The appointment of Justice Roberts, adding to the Court’s extreme conservatism, demonstrated a move to activist justices for the right. The Court thus becomes the legal thread essential for big business to control government. The Court is the “bag man,” if you will.
In Eduction a story from the mainstream, Republican Challenges Administration on Plans to Override Education Law. I’m no fan of Arne Duncan and Obama’s education policy, but what we find when we look under the hood of Representative John Kline’s, the Republican chairman of the House education committee, forceful attack on Duncan policies and maneuvers is an attempt to move closer to the privatization of education.
“He’s not the nation’s superintendent,” Mr. Kline said of Mr. Duncan, who assumed powers greater than any of his predecessors when, in 2009, Congress voted $100 billion in economic stimulus money for the nation’s school systems and allowed the secretary to decide how much of it should be spent.
Kline wants control of outcomes and we know that the outcome sought by the right is privatization. This move, by conservatives, is linked to a greater effort for student vouchers, creationism and an anti-gay agenda.
Imagine if all these efforts are also supported by the US Supreme Court.
And now we can look at the Obama withdrawal from Afghanistan proposal — 10,000 soldiers this year (roughly 7 percent of the occupation force) by the end of the year. No one in the main stream press is covering what’s likely to happen:
“There’s going to have to be an accompanying increase in private security for all the activities of the new soldiers going in,” says Jake Sherman, a former United Nations official in Afghanistan who is now the associate director for Peacekeeping and Security Sector Reform at New York University’s Center for International Cooperation. ”It’s ludicrous. It’s completely implausible.”
The mainstream media is stuck wondering why the usually war hungry Republicans — except for McCain — is going along with the withdrawal. The real story is that as we withdraw — and as the French and the British withdraw as well — there will be a void. Private sector security companies will fill this need — and they’re the darling of the right, a pay for service military force.
Up and down the economy and culture — pharmaceuticals, energy, education and defense — we see the big reach of business; more importantly, though, we can readily see how government is stepping in and doing the bidding for this new world order. That it’s happening right in front of our eyes and that the mainstream media is simply going along suggests that the media is yet another arm of this move. The media is not, as pundits would argue, a liberal enterprise; it’s just the opposite and simply looking at who owns the media should tell anyone that story.
May 15, 2011 § 3 Comments
Men over 55 are a strange lot. Now that 50 is said to be the new 40, and we’re all to believe that somehow the inevitable is magically being thwarted by exercise, diet and viagra, men are in a kind of limbo, looking back to what was and forward to what is fast approaching, only to realize what will never be. Men over 55 live in a kind of fog, fluctuating between wonderment and bleakness, surprised by how little we know and confused by the reversal of our dominant and submissive roles. Men over 55 men are confused about who to be. The world makes little sense to us.
I am a susceptible 57, which is closer to 60, and the difference between 55 and 57, psychologically and intellectually, is that you learn that any romantic notions you had when you were 50 or 55 are just that, convoluted ways of lying to yourself. I’ve learned that 57 is the male’s age of reality: the very real sense that you’ve lived and that there’s less time, not more, comes crashing in and you have to wonder, what have I done and what am I going to do with what’s left of me? Is there room for more fantasy? Because fantasy, after all, is essential; it’s how we experience the material world, our imagined selves waving at windmills. Without fantasy, there is no reality. Fantasy enables our sense of limitations. Only at 57, there’s less fantasy, more of a sense of how things are.
Over 55 means that a man is looking at his life through a prism that blurs certain things, but makes others — like the end of things — more acute. Carpe diem takes on new meaning.
Now I sit to pee — not stand. I did start this around the time I turned 50, though, because I figured that I should let gravity help all the way — a prostate is a prostate, something quite vulnerable in a man. Oh, did you hear? Stan has prostate cancer. Prostate and cancer are the most frightening of bedfellows, as breast cancer is for women. Only we men never talk about it and proceed silently into the abyss. Fantasies about manhood die slowly.
At 40, prostate exams began for me, but by the time I turned 50, unstressing the prostate became critical. Testosterone, the fuel of fantasies, becomes an agressor. Over 50, testosterone, once so dear to our souls, turns on us. I realized this when I had my first colonoscopy, that harrowing experience of probing the rectum and colon to detect inflammed tissue, ulcers, and abornormal growths. In other words, the procedure that determines how well you’ve handled processed foods and stress — children, marriage, work, the world coming apart, the ups and downs of the economy, McDonald’s food, one too many beers and too many cigars, and the realization that you have no control over anything. The prostate is not keen on uphevel.
The colonoscopy (women 50 and over also have these) is stressful. It begins with a taxing prep: a strong laxative that forces you on the toilet for most of the night before the procedure. I thought that the prostate exams I’ve had for ten years — basically the doctor asking me to assume the position so that he could do to me what everyone else had been doing to me for years — was it as far as humiliation. But when I saw the pinky size width of the three foot tube with a camera on its end — an eye to probe my inner most secrets? — that was to travel through my intestines, well, I knew I’d reached a new understanding of humility. I knew that I’d reached a new sense of what it means to be a man past a certain age. And I knew, from that day forward, that a man’s life is about everything below the waste — prostate, colon, penis; they all begin to falter and with them goes any exaggerated sense of manliness. Fantasies are effectively killed off at this point. Pragmatism reigns supreme. It’s about survival from here on out. I take a heaping tablespoon of Green Vibrance, organic and freeze dried grass juices, a superfood, in a tall glass of water — my natural answer to viagra dreams. With a healthy diet, it works wonders. And I take a teaspoon of Norwegian Cold Liver Oil to get my Omega 3 fatty acids.
The family medical practice I go to has no male doctors (the only male MD has moved on), so my new prostate examiner is a woman MD. My first ever physical performed by a female was when I entered the Navy. Twelve or so young men in white underwear stood in a line. As the female Naval officer walked by, she checked us out. “Turn your head and cough, please.” When she walked behind us, accompanied by 2 nurses, we assumed the position. I didn’t know it then, but this was a life-lesson, a scene to be repeated over and over throughout my life. I don’t mind that a woman examines me, after all, plenty of male MD’s examine women. My mother’s generation had only men doctors. The tides have turned, and this is fine by me. A prostate is a prostate — who cares? I like the more submissive role we men have to assume.
But I do care that I have to check the unexpected hair popping from the edges of my ear lobes — a challenge to shaving. I do care that I have to manicure my nose hair that apparently grows at alarming rates. And recently, weird eyebrow hairs twist and turn and curl into exaggerated lengths, which then I crop. I’m losing the hair on my head, but new hairs are popping up in the strangest of places. It must mean that with age there’s less strength to push the hair up through the head, so what’s left grows in weaker extremities. Submission means acquiescing to deterioration, I suppose. When I’m but a corps I’ll be nothing but hair, the final joke.
I have to spend longer hours in the bathroom before an uncompromising mirror. But when I glance at my wife next to me, she actually looks better, as most women over 50 do — healthy, energetic, sexy. College kids, young men and young women, take second looks. No such luck for us old men, los viejos in a new America where we find that we’re not as important as we used to be. We’re more vulnerable, more pragmatic, adjusting reluctantly to our new locations in the world that is slowly balancing our roles, slowly enabling us into more convincing understandings of our sensitivities. We’re less dominant and more confused.
March 14, 2011 § 5 Comments
The Miller Street School is a racially segregated school in a racially segregated community in a racially segregated city – post Brown v the Board of Education. All evidence – high stakes testing that can change the fiscal nature of a school, as well as its teaching methods, including the elimination of teachers and administrators, standardized testing, an increase in charter schools and home schooling, privileged students attending private schools (all this occurring while illiteracy rises) – suggests that, in practice, Plessy v Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling of “separate but equal” – meaning, the acceptance of a dual system of education – is more appealing to the dominant class.
A “separate but equal” education system restricts access to social mobility; it strengthens a hierarchical socio-economic system controlled by few. The gains of the Civil Rights Movement are long forgotten in education. Privileged African Americans along with white Americans have given up the struggle for integration, receiving undeniable benefits from private academies. “Separate but equal” has become a rationale for a dual system in American society – the privileged succeed and the underprivileged must find what works, though always one step behind. We then call attention to the infrequent victories coming out of challenged communities, but we never bring up the obvious: the lack of adherence to Brown v the Board of Education. The truth is that the Miller Street School is the result of “separate but equal.” I represented a potential voice that could speak of the despair caused by indifference. But I sensed the parents also wanted me to address its cause – and my role in it. This is beyond what I had planned – research was all I was after, as we in academia like to say. But I was being pulled into something larger, the dynamics of which I didn’t understand. I was being led into a reimagining of myself as an educator.
I was deep in thought, reflecting on my predicament, when I spotted Juan Ramos across the street. He nodded hello from a distance and gave me a smile of recognition. Juan and I immediately took a liking to each other. He was a lanky, long-limbed, fifty-seven-year-old Puerto Rican born in the United States, who walks with a cane because his knees are arthritic and weak. Yet he takes his grandchildren to school on foot every day because their mother Sara—his stepdaughter—works long hours. There isn’t a father around. Juan sees to the children’s homework, gives them dinner, puts them to bed. He is a diabetic on Medicare and looks much older than he is, beaten down. He can’t work, so he lives on social security. (Juan went through a period without insurance that landed him in the emergency room because he couldn’t afford the prescribed medicine, and his blood glucose level rose to 800.) He is nearly blind in one eye, having sustained an injury when he was hanging a billboard; the vinyl edge of it snapped his eye in a strong gust of wind. As vulnerable as he is, Juan is the backbone of this small American family.
“Anything happens, you know, I try to be involved. I give something to everyone,” said Juan in accented English. “Kids need watching. There is no village to raise a child here. I take my kids to school feeling desperate, you know. I don’t know what’s there for them tomorrow. Maybe nothing. Gotta keep’m safe. Is all I can do, you know man. All I can do.”
He lowered his head and shook it back and forth. Then he pulled out a letter from his jacket pocket and handed the tightly folded square to me while leaning hard on his cane. It was from the Newark Board of Education.
“Look,” he said. “What’s it mean, man? I don’t understand what they’re saying. Whata they saying about my kid?”
We went into the school nurse’s waiting room, a quiet, private place, and sat side-by-side in gray plastic chairs. I read the document, which said that one of his kids, the oldest, Julio, needed special education because of his problems with reading. The Board of Education was informing Juan that they were going to provide his son with a special class to work on reading skills. The Board was willing to test Julio for “learning disabilities”. I reached for Juan’s shoulder and leaned in and told him that this was a good thing because the Board was acting on teacher recommendations that his grandson needed extra help. I looked him straight in the eye, my forearms resting on my thighs as if I were an athlete sitting on the bench waiting to be called into the game. Julio had been identified and would likely receive a modified education plan that would include additional reading classes. But I realized, having deconstructed the letter for Juan, that I was cast unexpectedly in the role of ad-man and apologist for the education system, explaining the best-case scenario, the ideal, in an environment that couldn’t possibly meet all the special needs cases it has. Julio would be added to a list of names and may or may not receive any adequate help at all. Or he might end up in a dull classroom with an unqualified “specialist” and spin his wheels. He might even be worse off – but I insisted on a better picture, doing the system’s bidding, erring on the side of hope not logic. I couldn’t locate the truth. I felt inadequate, something we may all feel when confronted by such despair. I was an “institution man,” not a teacher.
“I can’t get the kids away from watching TV,” he said, as if somehow Julio’s learning challenges were his doing. “They like to stay up late. Man, I know it’s no good. I don’t know what to do.”
Many parents blame themselves for their children’s lot in life, a mystifying narrative that is leveled by those who seem to think that simply pulling hard on the bootstraps will do the trick. Work harder is the mantra of a new racism in America that is subtle and profound. We did it, says this narrative, why can’t you? It must be that you’re not working hard enough, that’s what it is. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a sociologist at Duke University, in his book Racism Without Racists, calls this “racism lite”: “Instead of relying on name-calling (niggers, spics, chinks), color-blind racism otherizes softly (‘these people are human, too’); instead of proclaiming that God placed minorities in the world in a servile position, it suggests that minorities are behind because they do not work hard enough; instead of viewing prejudice against interracial marriage as wrong on a racial basis, it regards interracial marriage as ‘problematic’ because of concerns over the children, location, or the extra burden it places on couples.” This is the latest reasoning for man-made poverty and segregation.
“Why don’t they teach us how to help our children?” pleaded Juan in frustration. “This stuff is hard, man, you know. I don’t get the math. If they helped us, we can help them. I can help him read. I can. I just need some help. What can I do, man? Tell me. Give me something.”
“Well, one thing you can do is turn off the TV,” I said, unsure of how to begin to answer him. “We did this a long time ago in my house, and you’d be surprised how things change.”
“Oh man, that’s hard, you know. They ain’t going to like it. I sit with them and try to help them with the homework, but some stuff I don’t get. That’s what I need, help with understanding what it is they’re doing.”
I didn’t know how to help Juan, except to translate Board of Education letters. Education has changed; it’s more complex, subjects more sophisticated. But Juan has remained the same. The Math his kids take in school, the books they read are beyond Juan. No one helped him when he was younger so he doesn’t have the ability to help his family. It’s an endless, destructive cycle. Public schools such as Miller Street are barely able to provide for students, what can they do for the families of the kids, for Juan? The challenge is that schools in neglected communities, by default, become community centers, a hub. Families come to the school for answers. They see education as a place with answers, a place where knowledge is center stage. Families come to Miller Street to demystify the challenges they face. In our current zeal for education reform, we fail to understand that, in some places, community reform is needed if education reform is the goal. One can’t happen without the other. The insurgency from the mean streets is too strong.
Juan Ramos is in Miller Street every day – as are other parents – lending a hand where they can. They go on field trips, ask questions, and want to know how best to help. A sense of powerlessness comes from having to deal with confusing bureaucracies – education, health care, welfare, human resources. It also comes from having to walk the hazardous streets of the South Ward. In this complex square plot of earth, parents have limitations, as we all do, but the greatest of all is lacking the language of social mobility – a missing professional class that communicates about opportunities and has the means to fund them. Education is not providing the means for social mobility to the people of the South Ward. The problem in school begins and ends with the teachers.
March 12, 2011 § 7 Comments
- Part 5: The Politics of Newark
In the early morning Newark’s South Ward streets are full of speeding cars with blaring drum machines walloping hip-hop on their radios as sanitation trucks pull out of the Frelinghuysen Avenue facility. Men in shabby blue uniforms hang out in groups and puff on cigarettes by the cavernous doors of the facility’s garage. The group gets larger as the weather warms. One of the trucks parks right in front of the Miller Street School – a gray-brown, government building — partially blocking its drop-off zone, and the workers empty hydraulic fluid into a gutter. The smell of diesel and transmission fluid overwhelms the atmosphere, even in the March chill. Shakirah Miller, the third year principal, has had to confront these men who rudely ogle the young mothers bringing their kids to school. A six-foot-one, extremely sharp, and witty thirty-five-year-old woman who owns a pit bull named Lady, Shakirah has two Masters degrees and is writing her dissertation for a doctorate in education at Teachers College. She was raised in Newark, and she’s remained in Newark.
“It’s what I must do,” she said.
On any given day, 497 students make their way to Miller Street, a K-8 school, from disparate points, such as Wright or Emmet Streets, near Broad Street and Route 21, across the Conrail from Newark Liberty International Airport, on the very busy Pennsylvania Avenue. Newark is divided into five wards – north, south, east, west and central. The South Ward is 5.2 square miles of abandoned buildings, empty lots enclosed by chain-linked fences, boarded up homes next to liquor stores and bodegas and strip joints, and on some street corners barely conscious prostitutes high on drugs leaning over and calling out a foggy sexuality to passersby. It’s not an easy walk to school.
I stood on the Vandeerpool and Frelinghuysen corner in the early morning next to L&C Tire Services, where the loud sounds of air guns removing lug nuts from truck tires punctured the air. Juan Ramos and his grandchildren, Julio and Elvir, waited for the traffic to pass. I’d met with Juan, along with other parents eager to tell me their stories, a few days earlier. Lowanda Pots, the head of the parents organization, said to me then, “You have to tell our story. No one cares about us.”
That my role in the school was to be that of storyteller became abundantly clear and repeated by other parents, teachers, and students.
“You gonna write about us?” a young, wide eyed little girl, Ana, with long black hair – tiny for a fifth grader – asked me one day after seeing me around, always catching my eye and smiling. I was taken by the question, unsure what to say to this knowing child. Hesitantly, I said, “I’m going to try.”
But then she raised another question, as if she knew something more. “You gonna be with us?” she asked. The word had gotten around that I was at Miller Street to study the school; that this would take some time and that I would therefore be a new member of this community. But be with us had another meaning, I thought. The way Ana looked at me, her big round eyes told me that she wanted me to be someone vital to her community.
The implication was, could I do something? It’s what my students at Middlebury College, hundreds of miles away, literally and figuratively, always ask: how can one person do anything about a dysfunctional society when it’s been going on for so long?
March 7, 2011 § 1 Comment
In February of 2010, Sir Ken Robinson, speaking at TED, said that, “Innovation is hard because it means doing something that people don’t find doing very easy… It means challenging what we take for granted, things that we think are obvious. The great problem for reform or transformation is the tyranny of common sense.” Sir Robinson then goes on to say that, “Human communities depend upon a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability. At the heart of our challenge is to reconstitute our sense of ability and of intelligence…Human flourishing,” he says, “is not a mechanical process, it’s an organic process and you cannot predict the outcome of human development…It’s not about scaling a new solution, it’s about creating a movement in education in which people develop their own solutions but with external support based on a personalized curriculum.” Sir Ken Robinson is not calling for change, rather he’s calling for revolution — an Education Revolution.
All evidence in the US suggests that, in practice, Plessy v Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling of “separate but equal” – meaning, the acceptance of a dual system of education – is more appealing to the dominant class.
A “separate but equal” education system restricts access to social mobility; it strengthens a hierarchical socioeconomic system controlled by few. The gains of the Civil Rights Movement are long forgotten in education. Privileged African Americans along with white Americans have given up the struggle for integration, receiving undeniable benefits from private academies. “Separate but equal” has become a rationale for a dual system in American society – the privileged succeed and the underprivileged must find what works, though always one step behind. We then call attention to the infrequent victories coming out of challenged communities, but we never bring up the obvious: the lack of adherence to Brown v the Board of Education.
Our schools mirror our communities. Without changes to our communities, without emphasis on the family, however we define family, there can be no change in Education. Thus, we need an Education Revolution that begins with a revolution in our communities, particularly in the most impoverished.
In our tendency to sacrifice a large swatch of our population primarily along racial lines — and class lines, too, especially when we speak of environmental racism — recent scientific research in genetics point to factors contributing to disease and behavioral disorders among minorities, especially African Americans.
Christopher W. Kuzawa and Elizabeth Sweet, from the Department of Anthropology, Northwester Univeristy, Evanston, Illinois, in their article “Epigenetics and the Embodiment of Race: Developmental Origins of US Racial Disparities in Cardiovascular Health,” suggest that, “There is extensive evidence for a social origin to prematurity and low birth weight in African Americans, reflecting pathways such as the effects of discrimination on maternal stress physiology … [T] here is now a strong rationale to consider developmental and epigenetic mechanisms as links between early life environmental factors like maternal stress during pregnancy and adult race-based health disparities in diseases like hypertension, diabetes, stroke, and coronary heart disease.”
Knowing what we now know, are we slowly killing certain populations in the US, namely African Americans and poor communities because we fail to see the benefits of integration? And when we realize that close to 1 in 3 Black men are in US prisons, does this not beg us to conclude that this approach to community destruction is systematic? How do we narrow the achievement gap?
Randy L. Jirtle, Department of Radiology Oncology, Duke University Medical Center, Durnham, North Carolina, and Michael K. Skinner, Center for Reproductive Biology, School of Molecular Biosciences, Washington State University, Pullman, in “Environmental Epigenomics and Disease Susceptibility” say that, “Epidemiological evidence increasingly suggests that environmental exposures early in development have a role in susceptibility to disease in later life. In addition, some of these environmental effects seem to be passed on through subsequent generations.”
We exist in two Americas divided by access to opportunity. These harsh divisions eliminate the benefits of diversity. Scott E. Page, in The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, says that, “Diversity and ability complement one another: the better the individual fruits, the better the fruit basket, and the better the other fruit, the better the apple … We should encourage people to think differently … These differences can provide the seeds of innovation, progress, and understanding.” ( see Scott E. Page’s lecture)
If the answer is diversity, why are our communities segregated, our schools separate and unequal? The answer is simple: education focused on enlightenment is dangerous. An enlightened citizen questions, challenges the status quo, and seeks alternatives. Education, today, is not about change, rather it’s about ensuring that we maintain the systems of production — supply and demand; power is thus balanced, meaning that a vertical society is maintained — some succeed and live well, others sustain those lives, and hopelessly aspire to something better through state lotteries and get rich quick schemes, such as those that lead to the mortgage crisis that affected mostly people of color and helped bring our economy to its knees. But we’ve not learned and the distance between the haves and the have nots is increasing.
As bell hooks says, in Teaching to Transgress, “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.” To educate — and to be educated — is the “practice of freedom.” Since this is so, then closing down some classrooms, eliminating teachers , and destroying unions that support and protect them, ensure that we live in a divided country. And if we look at who benefits from this division, we see that only those on the top of the socioeconomic ladder benefit. In poor communities, families are destroyed, first and foremost, because this keeps the prison industrial complex healthy and an informed citizenry poor. We’ve not moved far from the psychology of racism that comes from slavery.