September 16, 2012 § 6 Comments
The Chicago Teachers’ Strike is a perfect storm without solutions: teachers are unhappy about stringent evaluation methods that rely solely on data, the Board of Education wants to determine the best qualified teachers by linking teacher performance to student (tested) performance, and politicians, realizing that American education is, at best, woeful, are feeling the pinch and want to increase standards, particularly given the rising cost of education. Not sure how to do this, politicians hammer at collective bargaining. And all this is agitated by a media hell bent on reporting on the process, unable to locate the right questions that will get us to the origins of the problem. Caught in the middle of this tempest, students and their families, many of whom are from the poorest communities, are left alone in a dinghy of despair and confusion, the sole concern being how are the kids going to spend their day. Thus, the perfect storm — but there is a solution, a simple one.
The strike is a sign of unprecedented frustration. There are no solutions, from any side, that make sense because everywhere we look, solutions look like methods of discipline and punish. We’re proceeding on shaky footing. There is one truth, though: there will be more suffering, more confusion and, most importantly, no learning. Unable to ask the right questions, we’re destined to repeat what we’ve done in the past, ensuring a continuing decline in education and a further separation of socioeconomic classes. We will then fall further behind in this transition period where we’re moving towards a more science oriented, technological society.
The frustration all sides feel is caused by perspectives that still follow an analog view of the world. We’re looking for solutions that look back to the old brick and mortar school house: kids in neat classrooms, a tired curriculum, standardized, high-stakes testing; and the teacher still standing in the front of the classroom talking at students, rather than working with students. It’s a static view of a dynamic, always changing world outside the school house, captured beautifully by the graphic novelist, Chris Ware, in the September 12 issue of The New Yorker: Students enter a dark, ominous school, the last young girl in the line looking sad eyed at the parents who have turned their backs on their kids and are enjoying their bikes and lattes while texting, chatting merrily away from their dejected children. Parents have not asked the right questions either.
We are in a digital world, yet we remain mired in the muck of analog solutions. Today, education approaches learning hierarchically,when we can only change — and better — the system by thinking horizontally, the promise of technology used creatively. The world is flat, as Thomas Friedman informs us constantly, but education doesn’t seem to see it that way.
Elite higher education institutions understand that the world has changed. Stanford University, Harvard, Columbia, Duke, MIT — have all launched online systems for free in the hopes of attracting people from all walks of life. This will allow these schools to corner a market while learning a lot about those who participate. It’s an effective way to keep their respective brands at the top of a vertical educational system, while also pushing education forward.
In this very interesting online experiment there is a solution that can literally alter education for some time to come — but it takes courage and some doing, with little money. All that’s needed is will and fortitude, imagination and a desire, a real desire to do what’s best for kids — the bottom line.
Here’s how it can be done:
- Lectures, interactions, critiques, assessments, student work, etc, is online, constantly being tweaked, re-assessed, revised and re-delivered. In the meantime, knowledge is being built in unprecedented ways. This is knowledge about how students learn, as well as content specific knowledge. It’s too vital to dismiss; it’s also a tragedy if we leave this learning only in the hands of elite institutions, though these schools are open to all comers.
- Elite universities and colleges have incredible programs for incredibly talented students. I know, I teach in one. I know what these students can do — and I’ve tested what I’m saying here. For 3 consecutive years I’ve been teaching a course, Scenarios for Teaching Writing. This is a course for kids in education or for kids interested in teaching at some point. And for 3 years we’ve been working with the Media & Communications High School in Washington Heights, NY. We do the work face-to-face (we visit the campus), and we then work online, using a simple tool — Google docs. Students submit work and Middlebury students guide, mentor and tutor the kids in Washington Heights. Middlebury students follow the theoretical frameworks of composition theory that they learn in class; they have to present, day in and day out, their work to the class, justifying their approaches. My role is to help them; it is also to work with the principal of the high school and the teachers involved. Everyone wins. The most important aspect of this is that the model is highly scalable and cheap. The technology — thanks to Google — is free. (Community Works Institute will publish an article about our work in an upcoming publication.)
- The what if: What if, as a way of proving what these students are learning, college students in, say, History 101, take their lessons — from online and in class — and tweak these lessons with a partner in a public school — a teacher and her staff — to fit the needs of her students?
- What if these lessons — the revised lessons meant for students in the public school setting — are piped through the same online tools used by elite institutions, delivered straight to their classrooms, their homes, their communities? Automatically, the school day — and year — is extended.
- And what if the students in our colleges and universities, as part of their curriculum, work together with their respective education studies programs, psychology and sociology departments that know about “how children learn and succeed,” and use this knowledge to tutor and mentor the younger kids in public education?
This is not rocket science and very easy to do. Within two to three years of launching this process, literally all public education would change in America. In fact, education K-16 would change as well.
What are the outcomes of this model?
- Students in public schools spend more time learning, though not necessarily in the school; the “longer school day” isn’t more busy time, more brick and mortar thinking, more traditional high-stakes testing, rather, education is fluid and dynamic, inspirational and meaningful, meeting the student where she lives and how she lives: knowledge applied to real world learning to solve real world challenges.
- Students in public education are then assessed dynamically because technology enables an easy flow for assessment; it is a natural piece of the learning — and immediate, which is vital to learning, the red line appearing the minute a word is misspelled in a document. That’s how easy assessment is done on the fly.
- Technology, as we now realize, requires face-to-face interactions that are intense and focused on what has evolved online. My Scenarios for Teaching Writing students learned this. For public school students, this means that demonstrating what they know, in face-to-face interactions moves away from the standardized test or rote learning, engaging them in more meaningful and realistic ways.
- Likewise, it means that all of us can more critically and creatively work on non-cognitive skills, in person, such as the building of character, as recently shown by Paul Tough in How Children Succeed. For the very first time, by partnering with technology, we can educate the whole person.
- The college/university student is engaged in community service, able to fully realize how and why theoretical frameworks actually work — or not. And the college student, along with her professor, are immediately assessing and adjusting, fine tuning lessons to suit individual students, another characteristic of technology.
- The college/university student serves as mentor and teacher, collaborating and cooperating with her university teacher and with the public school teacher, becoming the bridge for life-long learning.
- Public school teachers receive ongoing, dynamic development, guided by the university curriculum, enhancing content knowledge, pedagogy, and a new understanding of what it is to work side-by-side with machines — the future.
- And, perhaps the most impressive result, is learning how to build a community that is focused on (a) gaining new knowledge, in different ways, (b) realizing that this brave new world requires very different approaches to solving problems, and, (c), come to understand that engaging diverse minds will lead to better results.
This is not pie in the sky thinking, not romanticism; rather, this is how this new scientific-technological world works. At the end of my Scenarios for Teaching Writing, literally all students did presentations using Prezi, responding to a singular question: given your experience in this course, and your students in Washington Heights, what do you know and what do you see? The students in the Scenarios class have become even more committed to education writ large; many are education minors and see education as a future. Don’t we want more of this from our college students?
This work begins to solve problems: all teachers, whether in public schools or the university, working together, building models for life-long learning, a pre-requisite for the “good life” in the coming century; the assessment tension is removed since it’s ongoing, fluid and dynamic, always present and performed per task, per endeavor; these endeavors are rich in inquiry and what we’re looking at are the solutions, the varied applications to problems, be these social, economic, pedagogical and scientific – technological. Thus we are engaged in a process of building new systems to address yet unforeseen challenges in economics, society, the environment.
The mentoring public school children need, particularly if they’re from socio-economically challenged backgrounds, is always ongoing; the move from high school to college, would be fluid, seamless — and inspired early on. And if the child decides to work and go to college online, that’s also available. All options are on the table and students and their families are free to choose. The point is that education is, here, available at all times and able to fit different types of learning needs and goals — all assessable.
If we continue to search for solutions by simply saying that children aren’t learning and that unions are obstructionist and politicians are only focused on getting re-elected — the old way of thinking today — we won’t get anywhere. The tit-for-tat world we find ourselves in isn’t working. We need a fresh start — or, rather, we need a start using what we’re already doing in select circles, Stanford, et al. Political will, clean universal design where everyone benefits and a desire to also change how college students go to school, giving them more responsibility for the way we actually live, is a great leap forward to solving our problems. It’s not hard, but this approach, if we can all put our shoulders to the wheel, will change the face of education and begin to address the many problems we face.
Let’s get to work — but let’s do it creatively. Nothing else is working: we know that.
May 25, 2012 § 5 Comments
Often, when I’m out socially (this is rare), I am asked about “education.” The questions go like this: “How’s school?” “Are you done yet?” “What do you think (about this or that on the news or concerning an opinion someone has heard)?”
I’ve found that the best way to respond is by telling a story that lifts the hood and exposes the education engine — or at at least a part of the engine. So here’s a story …
I teach a course that’s a typical (perhaps not ?) composition course for students who may lack some confidence writing — yes, even at Middlebury. It’s called Writing Workshop 0101A (I didn’t come up with the title; you can’t access the course without a password). Students read challenging literature, gain confidence interpreting what they read and learn how to move these interpretations into subjects for their writing. Easier said then done.
I’ve designed the course so that we read only one novel the entire 12 week semester, Don DeLillo’s 827 page Underworld (1997). Students always complain that they are given too much work; that they don’t have time to effectively ingest all the material that they’re given; that they learn for the test, then forget the material. I therefore pace this course as a response to these critical points, giving students the necessary time — and space — to think and reflect, dialog and write.
Students read approximately 160 pages every other week. The in-between weeks are for writing: students come into class with rough drafts and we peer-review; they also receive comments from me, one-on-one, and come to my office, too, to discuss their work as it’s being written. Lots of scaffolding. The course is labor intensive. Leading up to these writing workshop weeks, students are given in-class prompts relevant to what we’re reading in Underwrold – a passage, perhaps, or an entire section. Online, prior to coming to the class discussion on a particular sequence, students have been capturing major ideas and themes and posting them on a forum; they respond to each other, establishing a mellower, online version of our discussions. (I use these to touch on major points students make, and lecture in the gray areas.) Writing, then, happens all the time; it’s a model I want students to have: writing is not just for a grade, rather it’s a practice that should genuinely be done all the time; it’s a way to learn, to see yourself thinking; it’s a way to make sure we don’t lose what we’re thinking; and writing engenders life-long learning, which is what everyone in education says is desired.
For example (I’m trying to be quick about this explanation), Underworld begins with the famous prologue, “The Triumph of Death.” “He speaks in your voice, American,” says DeLillo, “and there’s a shine in his eyes that’s halfway hopeful.” The implications of this line for the rest of the narrative are significant — and daunting. We spend about 25 or so minutes discussing this line and the different paths it gives us into the narrative. Then I give the students a writing prompt (and 10 or so minutes to write in class, afterwards they share their insights): think back to a significant moment in your life that changed your life; this event was perhaps unexpected — or perhaps it was planned — either way, before the event you had one perspective, after you had another: what was going on in your life, the conditions of your life, including your community, family, and so on? what lead you to this event? what happened? Take us through it. And on the other end, the moral of the story is …?
I keep repeating these prompts, in different ways, circling the class, until all heads are down and the students are writing. I don’t care if students write on paper or on a computer (I have no rules against computers in the class, finding these, well, for lack of a better word, stupid: if you’re going to teach this generation, you better get used to — and learn how to — work with computers, cells phones, tablets, etc., in your class, otherwise you have no business being in the classroom).
In all, students will write 5 official essays in the course ( 5 – 7 pages each). What’s significant is that each student essay grows from this intial writing exersice, giving (a) students an entry into Underdworld (b), evolving a theme of the course: a piece of writing, a note, scribbling, a response to a prompt, done at any time, is relevant and can — and must — be used to evolve the more formal writing, and, finally, (c) students learn that they’re going to see, in Underworld, the narrative proper, only what they bring (experience) to the reading and writing act.
The role of the teacher in a writing course is to tap into these student experiences — the knowledge students already bring to the table. In a safe, creative space, students will expand creatively, moving from the deeply personal to the more subtle and complex world(s) of Underworld — but always able to see their signature, which began in their first paper. This is how writers work. I’ve chosen never to cloud this up with ridiculous rhetoric.
Sorry it took this long to get to this last point — what exactly is the knowledge students bring to the table? — but it’s critical to the rest of the story.
It’s important to note, at this time, that this exercise, these lessons, Underworld, is all happening inside an elite liberal arts college in New England. That is to say, we need to understand that the work I’m describing — and doing here — happens behind the hallowed ivy walls of a tradition that suggests that students are learning to think critically on their way to becoming strong, mindful and empathetic, self-reliant democractic citizens; that this tradition is “influenced by the Stoic goals of self-command, or taking charge of one’s own life through reasoning,” says Martha Nussbaum in Cultivating Humanity. And that what I’m trying to do, again quoting Nussbaum, is to arouse the mind, which is essential “for citizenship and for life, of producing students who can think clearly and justify their views.” In education, any other mission is a waste of time.
So now you have a context. And now you can begin to understand what may be going on in education when you see the rest of the story. Here we go: One day, I come to class — this is 3/4′s of the way through the semester, between weeks 8 – 9, and students are pretty accustomed to how we’re working — having in mind to go over a challenging passage in Underworld.
In typical DeLillo fashion, we have beautiful writing, a conflation of the historical with the personal, the psychological and the emotional, and the culture. “On a large console the screen was split four ways and the headshot ran in every sector and, ‘It’s outside language,’ Miles said, which is his way of saying far-out, or too much, or the other things they used to say …”
The key, here, is “headshot.” It’s JFK’s murder in Dallas on that fateful day that seemed to change the country — or, perhaps, the country had already changed and the murder was simply its symptom, a final event lifting the curtain so that Vietnam and Nixon, Watergate and the culture of cynicism we’re in now could emerge.
DeLillo continues: ” … and here was an event that took place at the beginning of the sixties, seen belatedly, that now marked the conceptual end, carrying all the delirium that floated through the age, and people stood around and talked, a man and woman made out in a closet with the door open, remotely, and the pot fumes grew stronger, and people said, ‘Let’s go eat,’ or whatever people say when a thing begins to be over” (496).
In a liberal arts environment full of inquirying minds, one would want students to pick up on “the beginning of the sixities,” “the delirium that floated through the age, “the pot fumes” (the very least), and wonder about that “headshot” that’s “outside language,” exciting a need to know; this creative disruption should, then, launch students into a Google search to come to understand how and why “the screen split four ways” and “the headshot” actually mark “the conceptual end” of an age. Reading is a contact sport and this is the work of reading critically.
DeLillo adds yet two more hints for an easy Google search: Elm Street and Zapruder. Here’s how it reads, finally, bringing the entire passage to a close:
It ran continuously, a man in his forties in a suit and tie, and all the sets were showing slow motion now, riding in a car with his confident wife, and the footage took on a sense of elegy, running even slower, running down, a sense of greatness really, the car’s regal gleam and the muder of some figure out of the dimmest lore — a greatness, a kingliness, the terrible mist of tissue and skull, so massively slow, on Elm Street, and they got something to eat and went to the loft, where they played cards for a couple of hours and did not talk about Zapruder. (496)
There it is — the images are running “continuously” on TV, hence suggesting the importance of “the murder of some figure out of the dimmest lore”; these give off a “sense of greatness”, and there’s a car that has a “regal gleam,” a la Camelot, and the horrid — and beautifully described, capturing the culture to be, the one needing reality TV — “terrible mist of tissue and skull,” moving slowly on “Elm Street” (the motorcade had to proceed to Dealey Plaza, before exiting onto the Stemmons Freeway, again turning onto Elm, from a segment of Main Street, the often disputed and critical change of plans).
DeLillo ends the entire passage with, of course, the most critical of signs, Zapruder, which should, if nothing else, send readers off into a quick but meaningful search to learn it’s function. In other words, if all other rather emphatic signs are missed or dispensed with, finding the significance of Zapruder would create a domino affect and everything would cascade into a single understanding. This is how great writing works. There is a key, a sign-function that opens doors (though these lead to other doors).
When I Googled Zapruder, before class, it took less then 3 seconds to see the first, full suggestion, “Zapruder film,” followed by the second, “Zapruder.” I chose “Zapruder,” not film, thinking that a student may push aside “film” since it’s not in the passage (even though there are images running “continously” on TV). The entire reference is here. This Google exercise, including reading the entry, took no more then 5 minutes to complete.
Back in class, I looked around and asked, after opening up to the passage and re-reading it to the class (students read it for homework a week earlier!), “What is Zapruder? Who or what is Zapruder?”
No answer. Thick silence. (There is creative, necessary silence a teacher works for in a class, and there is non-creative silence, the kind only someone dumbfounded relies on. This was the latter.) By now in the semester, students are not intimidated; we’ve joked around enough and they’ve learned that I’m not someone that creates an inhospitable environment — just the opposite. The learning space I create is open, welcoming, suggesting to students that they can take chances because they’re supported. In fact — not to boast but to give you a full picture — this is indeed my reputation judging from 27 years worth of students’ evaluations performed every single semester I’ve taught.
So then I say, “Someone Google it, please. Google Zapruder.”
In seconds, a few students find Zapruder and one kid reads: “The Zapruder film is a silent, color motion picture sequence shot by private citizen Abraham Zapruder with a home-movie camera, as U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, thereby unexpectedly capturing the President’s assassination.”
The students leaned back, “Oh…,” some say. And if the students would have kept reading the entry, they would have learned about Elm Street.
I leaned forward, and asked, “When you guys read, how many of you have computers open?”
Just about every single student raised her/his hand.
“And are these computers open to Google, Facebook, Twitter? What?”
Students said that their computers are open to just about all of these — multiple windows — including (ironically) Wikipedia for some. (Is the notion of “Windows” also ironic, the deepest and darkest irony, I wonder? Windows to what?)
“And so, in the course of the semester, when we read, how often do you think I ask you guys, in class, to turn to Google and look something up?”
“You always do that,” they answered in unison. Some nodded, “Yeah. Always. We always do it. “
“So could this be a hint? A suggestion? Something at all that may, at some point, suggest to you that what I’m asking you to do is to look things up, quite easily, using the technology at our fingertips?”
Silence, again. Students look away, down at their iPads and MacBook Pros.
There are three distinct challenges higher education is facing: For American students, the challenge is obvious: international students are gobbling up resources and advancing efficiently, particularly in science and economics and technology, creating spaces for themselves, in the U.S. and abroad, and American students have yet to wake up to the fact that, as Thomas Friedman said years ago, the world is indeed flat ; that this race to have the most luxurious “stately pleasure – dome…Enfolding sunny spots of greenery,” as Coleridge says, particularly when we add labor costs — faculty with PhDs and the large staff needed to maintain this “miracle of rare device” — is not sustainable. (Elite institutions, recognizing that change is inevitable, have begun to address this problem.) And the last, the third challenge, perhaps the most critical of all, is that we’re not sure what our students bring to our classrooms — emotionally, psychologically and knowledge: the culture has had an effect on our students and we don’t yet know what this is, though we’re experiencing what we call something, an unknowable, perhaps, something strange and different, unfamiliar.
We’re not talking about who our students are and how they may perceive the world we’re trying to squeeze them into.
I’ve been in higher education for 27 years. I have seen a lot of changes and I’ve seen a lot that looks like change but is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. But perhaps the biggest change has been the student. We need to engage our students differently so as to better learn who they are and what they want; we need to also better engage the world outside the ivy because it, too, has changed and it’s not at all what we perceive it to be.
A huge change in the American student — leaving aside the other two distinct challenges facing American higher education — is found in the story I tell.
In a recent News Hour interview, Andrew Delbanco, Columbia University professor, speaking about his book, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be,” tries to defend the traditional four-year college experience with a liberal arts education, joining a long list of scholars addressing the issue, and finds that the liberal arts, four-year experience is “not lost, but I think it’s under threat from many directions. And much of that is understandable. The anxiety that parents feel about the cost of colleges … It’s well – place anxiety.”
But when we look at the cost of a four-year liberal arts education, we’re failing to place this in a greater context that is more threatening to a democracy, which is our allegiance to mindless corporatism that has a primary function of scorning knowledge itself. This is why students, sitting with computers open to Google, cannot make the connection and search for Zapruder even though the behavior has been modeled in class time and time again. Thus, as John Ralston Saul says in The Unconscious Civilization, probably the best thinking on this subject, we have been given permission to “interiorize an artificial vision of civilization as a whole.” Students may see Google as part of their world, not ours, in academia, with our demands and constraints. Google, and other systems, are their liberating tools; when brought into the confines of a traditional classroom and used as a tool rather then a liberating break from confusion, a student’s identity is challenged — his or her sense of self is upside down. They’ve been taught, always, to have neat lines of demarcation that define pleasure and work — and school is work since it’s valued as a system for socio-economic success. Zapruder is therefore irrelevant to a student’s vision of reality. Students actually said this. Students embrace ideologies that insist on the “oppressive air of conformity” that “force public figures to conform or be ruined on the scaffold of ridicule.” Doubting and questioning are gone, then. “The citizen is reduced to the state of the subject or even of the serf.” Our students come into our classrooms already reluctant to challenge their position — subjects; they’ve been lead to this because they’ve never been taught to think for themselves and learn through experience. For many students, their lives have been managed.
Our communication technologies, our culture that holds fashion to the highest levels, though it’s the lowest form of ideology, is what paralyzes students that have been spoon fed a culture that insists they be driven to play dates, organized games, the proper college prep courses, the right channels to elite instituions. What is behind this narrative, though, is crude “individualism and false modernism,” leading to a life in a void. Instinct and common sense are lost. They’ve been taught that the world is hostile and that life is a competition. The horror. They can’t connect to Google in an academic setting, even if it’s to their benefit. The student sees absolutely nothing important, nothing relevant in the action of Googling Zapruder so the meaning of the DeLillo passage has been completely lost. But that’s okay, for students. The meaning of the passage, its significance in the narrative is not relevant; it’s an exercise we’ll go over in class. What is relevant is simply getting through the course, nothing more, since this is what’s being promoted culturally: get a degree in something meaningful and this will give you a good life. Students are taught to follow, not to pursue creative disruptions of the status quo.
I feel for my students. I care for them. I have kids their age as well. I feel for all these kids in school today, graduating tomorrow, because I wonder whether they can think critically, critique, fear not standing out because they question.
I leaned forward, again, and said to the class, “Remember this day when you’re handed your diplomas. I want you to go to your parents and thank them. Say, Thank you for spending over a quarter of a million dollars to make sure I’m one more sheep that will follow on command.”
I wasn’t expecting the students’ reaction. They laughed. “Professor Vila, you’re so funny,” they said. “So funny.”
I leaned back in my chair, briefly thinking that I wanted to jump out a window — and I’ve not stopped thinking about this day since.
We can now add to the list such simple battles as that for consciousness versus the comfort of remaining in the unconscious; responsibility versus passivity; doubt versus certainty; delight in the human condition or sympathy for the condition of others versus self-loathing and cynism regarding the qualities of others.
So, “how’s school?” “What do you think?”
February 5, 2012 § 3 Comments
In this complex image, we find a very relaxed, smiling, from ear-to-ear, President Obama, beer in one hand (could it be a foreign beer, a Heineken?), a football in the other. He’s in a white Oxford shirt, sleeves rolled up to his forearms ( he’s yet to have to pull them all the way up and go to the hard work, perhaps — or maybe he just makes the hard work look easy?), sitting in a comfortable chair — a moment for the president to chill out and watch a GOP football game on a wide screen tv.
The players, in a full stadium (presumably the public watching; mediated sports, here, functioning as “a continuing tension — relationship, influence and antagonism — to the dominant culture,” as Aaron Baker tells us in “Sports and the Popular,” in Sports, Media, and the Politics of Identity), are Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
A bulldog-faced and bruised Newt is being tackled by a flying Mitt, his face serious and determined. Helmets have flown off, noting the violence of the game — football and politics as high-stakes contact sports; both players are marked up, bruised, as is the GOP. And the football is out of their hands — a fumble, or the ongoing fumbling so much the definition of the GOP during this vicious political cycle pre-November.
Blitt is asserting an essential characteristic of Obama’s popularity that we’ve failed to see or if we’ve seen it, we’ve failed to acknowledge: Style. I’m suggesting that it is this Style that repels many white citizens — and politicians — but which will undoubtedly be an asset in his re-election.
Blitt deconstructs our “shortsightedness,” as I’ve said before, by conflating African-American style, coming into prominence through music, and mediated sports, especially America’s favorite contemporary passion, football, a game consistent with crisis management (we’re always in a crisis, in war with this or that — the Taliban, drugs, poverty), the taking of territory with power and wit, much like armies do, and restricted by time and space, the perfect metaphor for a world that has to deal with limited resources.
Everywhere we turn in football — and politics — there are constraints, limitations and crisis. And we’re always running out of time; there’s never enough. It’s now or never; there’s no long term plan. Attack, attack, attack. Leave no one standing. It’s not surprising that topping the sports news these days are concussions, the short athletic lives of football players and the compromises in later life. This is the American way of life. We can see that now. Fight, fall, endure — not much of a future in this.
But Obama offers us style as an antidote — and those that see their former lives metamorphosing into some unknown are fighting back like mad, rather then seeing the errors in the ways that have gotten us to this point. Republicans never talk about one reality, for instance (and the popular media never pursues this line): we’re living through the wonderful world left us by Bush-Cheney. The GOP has amnesia.
But where does style and the animosity towards it come from?
In the now classic Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, William C. Rhoden, of the New York Times, in “Style: The Dilemma of Appropriation,” tells us that in the summer of 1963, he remembers watching Ron Santo, the Chicago Cubs‘ third basement, hit a deep fly ball in the gap between right and center.
Willie Mays drifted across the outfield like Charles Coles, the great tapdancer whose footwork was so sweet and smooth that they called him “Honi.” He arrived at his spot under the baseball with no apparent sweat, even though he’d had to run for what seemed like miles to get there (147).
Following the catch, “Santo kicked the ground in disgust.” But, Rhoden says, the “most memorable part of the play took place after Mays made the catch”(147). Mays “nonchalantly picked up the ball out of his glove, tossed it back to the infield, coolly walked back to center field, flicked his sunglasses back up, and waited for the next play. His body language suggested annoyance that the batter hadn’t presented a greater challenge”(147-48).
Our Mays is Obama sitting back with shirt sleeves rolled to his forearms, beer in one hand, a football on the other — nonchalance, de rigueur for Obama. It’s how he strolls to the podium; how he must play basketball. It’s how he sings Al Green. And the plastic, always scripted Mitt Romney has no style at all. And Newt is a playground bully, unlikable, menacing.
Mays came along after Jackie Robinson, who had to watch every aspect of his life; he made room for Mays. After Mays we have Muhammad Ali, Charlie Parker earlier. Miles Davis introduced Americans to “cool” and “hipster” in the late 1950′s (Rhoden, 152).
“In virtually every decade since the 1950s, black athletes have been at the core of some stylistic or structural innovation in sports”(152).
These changes, as television — and the image — begin to dominate, run parallel to political figures — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson, Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm, and Carol Mosely Braun.
Barack Obama is now the most famous African-American; in him we see the political rise of the African-American. But we also see the manifestation of style, its rise out of R&B and Rap, out of the style so endemic of the NBA — tats and all. The power of style is that “in some ways [it] underlines the [Black athlete's] inability to define themselves in more substantive ways and find acceptance” (156).
Obama still can’t “define” himself in “substantive ways and find acceptance,” in general. With Obama’s current approval rating, the up-tick in employment figures and the ever present , though slow, upswing of the economy, the Republicans have little to address. Even Romney was bold enough to say that the current unemployment figures had nothing to do with Obama; however, Gingrich did say that, in the end, some credit would have to be given Obama. Which is which?
The GOP can’t coalesce around a singular message. This means that it’s going to get nastier; this means that direct attacks on Obama’s personality — his style, which for the African -American is synonymous with “soul” — will increase. The most violent and angry segments of the GOP are overtly racist, though their kids listen to Rap, wear caps with brims sideways and their boys sport baggy jeans half way down their buttocks (without knowing what this means).
The problem — and challenge — that the GOP image makers face is the “fact that black style was quickly commodified by white power, which became addicted to this other new form of black gold”(168). Style is something we require of our leaders because it shows how a candidate connects with the general public; it is powerful because it’s visceral, sensual and sexy. None of the GOP candidates are sexy. Women, minorities, the young all gravitate to “cool,” witness the rise of Apple, the wooden descriptions given Microsoft, lackluster and stiff, like its creator, Bill Gates.
America is a house divided by style. This is to argue that America is self-divided by a confusion concerning a change in the balance of power perpetuated by the rise of the black politician that, for the most part, comes with a history that’s quite different from the history experienced by the dominant (white) class of privilege. And one definitive — and powerful — characteristic of this style, as Rhoden argues, is that it’s a consequence of great suffering.
In an America that is suffering profoundly, only a leader that has suffered, personally and with his people, can lead. It’s a matter of grace, something Hemingway would argue, but which the GOP fails to see.
The GOP nominee will be Mitt Romney, but he’ll fail because he lacks the grace — and dignity — to address deeply felt suffering with style that says, I understand. We can overcome by making it look easy.
Vero Beach, Florida and the Manufacturing of Consciousness: How the GOP Will Give Obama a Victory in 2012
January 28, 2012 § Leave a Comment
At the height of the GOP primary race in South Carolina, I was in Vero Beach, Florida, and suddnely what came over me was the uncanny feeling that I was in-between worlds, a kind of vertigo, a foreboding I was not expecting since I was happily running up A1A.
In South Carolina, the reformed Catholic, Newt Gingrich, surged ahead by deploying a recognizable racist attack — Obama, the European socilaist, as food stamp president — rejecting his lobbyist self — though we know Newt was (Congress wrote the rules to ensure this kind slippage for themselves, post-Tom Delay, increasing their wealth on our backs) — and admonishing the poor for being lazy, resolving that it’s best to give poor children brooms and mops to clean schools.
In Vero Beach, as I went for runs, I was ovewhelmed by the illusion of reality — MacMansions by the sea (guilty: I was in one!), gated communities, vegetation that is not indigenous (all of it has been imported, except for sea graves and the St. Augustine grass,) and a constant burning of fossil fuels to maintain lavish lawns — mowers, blowers, chain saws, large trucks, off-road vehicles and yachts; the late-model luxury automobiles that are required in a place where pedestrain traffic is, as in L.A., non-existent and strip malls and golf courses that have become the new valhala.
And not a single person of color within sight — unless cleaning houses, mowing lawns and on garbage runs standing behind large trucks.
It’s not surprising that Vero has it’s own Disney Resort. The master of illusion has made Florida its own. Does this illusion follow the America psyche or does it help construct it, as do our politics, I wonder?
I was shaken by the very plastic nature of this living — and perhaps the very plastic, constructed lives we lead that scream unsustainability.
Vero Beach is the American Paradox: the extraordinary cost of creating and maintain such lavishness and the economic drain of a lifestyle that is characterized by total mechanization, as the pudgy elderly try to stave off the inevitable by walking and biking, their lives well kept by Latinos and some, very few, African Americans usually found at Publix markets, gas stations and sanitation trucks. The divide is the evolution of manifest destiny that has assumed a contemporary look and feel.
The BMW’s and Cadillacs and late model SUV’s abound. It is prosperity writ large; it is also a final sign, at the last third of someone’s life, that I’ve arrived, I’ve achieved. It’s what Mitt Romney argued in the GOP debate in Florida: this wasn’t handed to me, it was earned. This is the American way now.
But our American way has become divisive, we know that now — we can feel it. The left and the right are so distant from what we the people perceive our American mission to be, that we’ve lost any real understanding of Representative Democracy. Who is representing what and whom?
If it was only that we’re in an economic quagmire, the way out would be simple; we would collaborate and cooperate, plan and execute. But our condition is beyond being simply a bind — it’s a new construction that sprinkles old, recognizable American rhetoric over a new order that is redefining Representative Democracy: we no longer vote for people who represent us, the people; rather, we vote for representatives of multinationals and narrow special interests; we vote for extreme special interests that only comply with a very fine line defined by those holding the purse strings — or worse, with interests that comply with ultrathin social ideology, such as the complexities of marriage, civil unions and a woman’s right choose.
In an enlightening interview on the PBS News Hour, Thomas Edsall, a longtime Washington Post reporter, now a New York Times columnist and professor of journalism at Columbia University, who has written a new book, The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics, said, “Well, what’s happened, I think, in the past — really since the collapse, economic collapse, is that the country now is — has become dominated by the issue of debt and deficits.” Edsall goes on to say that, “Somebody’s going to take a hit. It’s no longer a nice and friendly game. It’s who’s going to get hurt. That makes for — we already had a polarized politics. When you add this notion that politics now is one not just of what can I get out of it, but what do I do to the people to get what I want, that makes it a much nastier and much more hostile circumstance.”
Thus our confusion. We don’t understand this bifurcation characterized by a nastiness and indifference to the well being of most Americans.
At the heart of this problem are the psychologies of liberals and conservatives, respectively, says Edsdall:
Liberals are very concerned with compassion and fairness. Conservatives have what one person describes as a broader spectrum, but not as much focus on compassion and fairness, but also on issues of sanctity, of a different kind of fairness. Their opposition to affirmative action, for example, is a different kind of fairness.
Edsall clarifies, saying, that
…the idea that conservatives are willing to inflict harm is not necessarily a criticism. If you are in a fight, and you’re fighting to protect what you have, being loyal to your own people is not necessarily a bad thing. If you and your family had to protect what your child is getting what your husband and so forth — if they face serious threats of lost goods, in effect, you’re fighting for them, and, in fact, if that meant someone else had to get hurt, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
This is the crux of the matter because, as Edsall says, “There is a stronger natural instinct among conservatives to see contests in zero sum terms, (witness: GOP debates AND NEWT — which is why I’m reminded of Mussolini and Perón), that there are going to be losers and winners. Therefore, I want to get into this and be sure that I am the winner and that people that are around me are winners” (parenthetical inclusion mine).
This is short term thinking, not long term planning that is creative; it takes away and does not build. It is destructive in nature since it means, by design, to push certain people away.
In “The Obama Memos: How Washington Changed the President,” by Ryan Lizza (The New Yorker, January 30, 2012), we learn from Thomas Mann, “of the bipartisan Brookings Institute,” and Norman Ornstein, “of the conservative American Enterprise Institute,” in a “forthcoming book about Washington Dysfunction, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, that,
One of our two major parties, the Republicans, has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, and scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
Ultimately, this kind of hostility ensures that none of us sees clearly, least of all politicians. It’s by design. While Obama came into office with a spirit of change, trying to direct the country in new, fertile directions, Lizza tells us that the President, “was the most polarizing first-year President in history — that is, the difference between Democratic approval of him and Republican disapproval was the highest ever recorded.” Obama, we learn from Lizza, had to change in order to survive. And we also learn that, “Obama didn’t remake Washington. But his first two years stand as one of the most successful legislative periods in modern history. Among other achievements, he has saved the economy from depression, passed universal health care, and reformed Wall Street.”
It’s because of Obama’s accomplishments, I would argue, that, alongside dwindling resources, the Republican willingness to inflict harm, divide and (try) to conquer, even by waging war on voting, has become the strategy that is overwhelming this run to the 2012 elections.
What’s left, then, is a populace running towards Vero Beach, running to escape this violation of our rights, close our eyes, and enjoy what small, square plot of earth we can call our own, even though much of the American people will be left out.
Welcome to the new, uncanny presidential election cycle where we might see how inflicting pain may become the winning solution for the GOP — or it may undo them to such an extent that, perhaps, Obama’s willingness to work for change, his 2008 promise, can become something closer to the truth during a second term.
What we do know, is that the system is broken and it’s unsustainable. This is certain.
September 25, 2010 § 1 Comment
In The End of Nature, written 21 years ago, the recently married Bill McKibben, a half hour’s hike from his home, at the “top of the hill behind his house,” stops and looks at his “house down below … I can see my whole material life,” he says, “the car, the bedroom, the chimney above the stove. I like that life,” he tells us, “I like it enormously. But a choice seems unavoidable. Either that life down there changes, perhaps dramatically, or this life all around me up here changes — passes away” (159).
McKibben clearly articulates the challenge we face today: either we change our habits — and perspective — or nature will forever exist with our fingerprints all over it. McKibben asks, in 1989, some vital questions: “Would I love the woods enough to leave them behind? I stand up there and look out over the mountain to the east and the lake to the south and the rippling wilderness knolls stretching off to the west — and to the house below with the line of blue smoke trailing out of the chimney. One world or the other will have to change … And if it is the human world that changes — if this humbler idea begins to win out — what will the planet look like? Will it appeal only to screwballs, people who thrive on a monthly shower and no steady income?” (160).
Of course, the world has changed. The “humbler idea” did not win out and McKibben’s predictions in The End of Nature are upon us. We, instead, went ahead with the more is better, bigger is wiser approach and landed on The New Normal, where inequality has helped drag the middle class into a great recession: “More and more of the income that was generated by the economy went to the people at the top,” says Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, in a new book, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, pointing out another ominous parallel between the Great Depression and the Great Recession: its cause. ”More and more of the income that was generated by the economy went to the people at the top,” Reich said. In the last century, as reported on CBS Sunday Morning, there were only two years – in 1928, just before the great crash, and then again in 2007 – during which the richest 1% were taking home nearly a quarter of the entire income of the nation. Today, says Reich, “The typical CEO is up to 350 times the salary and benefits of the typical worker. Last year, when most Americans were suffering, the top 25 hedge fund managers each earned one billion dollars. A billion dollars would pay the salaries of something like 20,000 teachers.”
This reality affects our way of living in every way. ”The world hasn’t ended,” writes McKibben in his latest book, Eaarth, Making a Life in a Tough New Planet, “but the world as we know it has — even if we don’t quite know it yet. We imagine we still live back on the old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not. It’s a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth. Or Monde, or T ierre, Errde … It still looks familiar enough — we’re still the third rock out from the sun, still three-quarters water. Gravity still pertains; we’re still earthlike. But it’s odd enough to constantly remind us how profoundly we’ve altered the only place we’ve ever known” (2-3). Every rainstorm, snowstorm, sunny day, dry day, flooding, drought, hunger, poverty, great wealth, health care problems, infrastructure problems, hope and despair are made by humans, civilization, what we’ve called progress. We now live in a world, says McKibben, where every environmental occurrence is Nature + Humanity.
Nature is looking much like our material world — and it’s behaving in the same way. How we’ve treated each other — war, a vertical economy, depravation and disenfranchisement, marginalization — is now visible in Nature. Nature is homeless, a refugee condemned by our hubris. In his classic essay, “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that, “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit. To a man laboring under calamity, the heat of his own fire had sadness in it.” We labor “under calamity” and, though we’re passing through anger right now, we are heading to great sadness because, philosophically speaking, as Emerson also tells us, “the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul.” And our souls are lost; we’ve become wanderers looking for life preservers, answers to our inhospitable world — and our inhospitable human nature. ”The planet we inhabit,” says McKibben, reminding us of a fundamental truth, “has a finite number of huge physical features. Virtually all of them seem to be changing rapidly”(45).
What’s rapidly changing is most evident in Global Health. In The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, Laurie Garrett, writing in 1994, tells us that our species has never been so vulnerable to disease. In the preface to the book, Jonathan M. Mann, M.D., M.P.H., the François-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of Health and Human Rights, and Professor of Epidemiology and International Health at Harvard’s School of Public Health, tells us that, “The history of our time will be marked by recurrent eruptions of newly discovered diseases (most recently, hantavirus in the American West); epidemics of diseases migrating to new areas (for example, cholera in Latin America); diseases which become important through human technologies (as certain menstrual tampons favored toxic shock syndrome and water cooling towers provided opportunity for Legionnaires’s Disease); and diseases which spring from insects and animals to humans, through man-made disruptions in local habitats”(xv). In Garrett’s introduction to The Coming Plague, she tells us that, “Humanity’s ancient enemies are, after all, microbes. They didn’t go away just because science invented drugs, antibiotics, and vaccines (with the notable exception of smallpox). They didn’t disappear from the planet when Americans and Europeans cleaned up their towns and cities in the post-industrial era. And they certainly won’t become extinct simply because human beings choose to ignore their existence” (10). We’ve never been so vulnerable. Case in point are the bed bugs.
In his most recent New Yorker cartoon, Barry Blitt shows a pair of bed bugs, in an urban apartment or hotel room, enjoying the life of humans. They’ve assumed our lives. They’re even replicating our vices, smoking in bed — presumably after sex, the cliché our imaginations go to. The female is asleep, satisfied, exhausted; the male is proud, full of himself, and his exploits. We live in this traditional society — literally. It captures how in the most intimate of places, the bedroom, our culturally constructed roles are worked out; however, from the bedroom we go to the material world and impose this fictitious construction. On the one hand we see that Dr. Mann and Laurie Garrett are right in their concern over our vulnerability — microbes don’t know national boundaries — and on the other, they are somehow inhabiting our worst behavior, smoking. These bugs are us — and they’re not; they are a product of how we live — our interconnectedness — and they’re also superseding us, living beyond us, though awkwardly, perhaps. In the end, these Blitt bed bugs carry the DNA of our human interactions with our natural world; they’re looking for places to reproduce — suit cases on airplanes that are then opened in hotel rooms, producing a new strain of bugs that average repellants can’t destroy. Drones over Pakistan, repellants in hotels, stimulus package — nothing is working. In The Coming Plague, this is the problem with disease — the synthesis of modern life with nature; the human hand manipulating nature, only at the microbe level, these little devils adjust, reshape themselves, and come at us with a vengeance. Once, in the early 1950′s, every health problem seemed conquerable; however, nothing is now further from the truth. ”By the time the smallpox campaign was approaching victory in 1975, parasite resistance to choloroquine and mosquito resistance to DDT and other pesticides were both so widespread that nobody spoke of eliminating malaria,” Garrett tells us. ”Increasingly, experts saw the grand smallpox success as an aberration, rather than a goal that could easily be replicated with other diseases”(52). What will these bed bugs bring? What can they transmit? Right now, we don’t know. What we do know is some people are adversely affected. We have no solutions. This is how the world has changed, how far we’ve gone from Emerson’s sense of Nature.
We would think, then, that a collective, creative approach to the challenges we face in global health would in fact begin to simultaneously address our encroachment on nature and the reality that those least affecting climate change (and global diseases) are the most affected — that is, the problems of the poor, the affliction modern socioeconomic policy places on the most vulnerable. This is the work of public health, a field of expertise that is complex and multifaceted, requiring economists, sociologists, medical practitioners, educators and politicians.
In her latest book, Betrayal of Trust, The Collapse of Global Public Health, Laurie Garrett says that, “For most of the world’s population in 2000, the public health essentials mapped out in New York before World War I have never existed: progress, in the form of safe water, food, housing, sewage, and hospitals, has never come. An essential trust, between government and its people, in pursuit of health for all has never been established. In other parts of the world — notably the former Soviet Union — the trust was long ago betrayed”(13). In other words, the institutional arm that’s suppose to be working to understand our vulnerability to microbes and develop working solutions has fallen apart. ”Public health needs to be — must be — global prevention,” says Garrett. This requires collaboration, cooperation and collective intelligence — none of which are present today.
“Now the community is the entire world,” says Garrett. ”It watches, and squirms, as plague strikes Surat, Ebola hits Kitwit, tuberculosis overwhelms Siberian prisons, and HIV vanquishes a generation in Africa. The community grows anxious. Though it emphasizes, it fears that what is over ‘there’ could come ‘here.’ Worse, as it bites into bananas grown ‘over there,’ the community collectively worries: what microbes or pesticides am I consuming?”(13).
Solutions to environmental challenges have been along the lines of the FEMA trailer — temporary, though quasi-permanent, government’s half-hearted help, filled with toxics, that exacerbates our mistrust, and our dissolution; and these come along after the disaster strikes people that are not prepared to handle the natural disaster. Only now, none of us are prepared to handle the unknowns we’re facing. Each of us, in our respective communities, has been handed a questionable FEMA trailer — and no one is in agreement on what to do. But the natural world keeps moving, evolving, looking to survive.
It’s not just the poor in New Orleans that still remain in FEMA trailers; metaphorically speaking, the FEMA trailer extends to the upper echelons of our society. These folks also feel trapped. They see themselves strapped inside the FEMA trailer of discontent. Their lives are about to change, as once did the lives of the poorest of the poor in New Orleans. What people feel on the bottom rung of our socioeconomic system, others feel at the top, too, and everywhere in-between. The age of the FEMA trailer is upon us. In “The Angry Rich,” Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize laureate, economist and editorial writer for The New York Times, tells us that, “Anger is sweeping America.” We’re all feeling trapped inside the FEMA trailer — and there’s no exit in site.
Poverty, especially acute poverty, has soared in the economic slump; millions of people have lost their homes. Young people can’t find jobs; laid-off 50-somethings fear that they’ll never work again.
Yet if you want to find real political rage — the kind of rage that makes people compare President Obama to Hitler, or accuse him of treason — you won’t find it among these suffering Americans. You’ll find it instead among the very privileged, people who don’t have to worry about losing their jobs, their homes, or their health insurance, but who are outraged, outraged, at the thought of paying modestly higher taxes.
Everyone, regardless of where in the socioeconomic ladder we exist, is anxious and angry. But, “The spectacle of high-income Americans, the world’s luckiest people, wallowing in self-pity and self-righteousness would be funny, except for one thing: they may well get their way. Never mind the $700 billion price tag for extending the high-end tax breaks: virtually all Republicans and some Democrats are rushing to the aid of the oppressed affluent.You see, the rich are different from you and me: they have more influence.”
McKibben’s “humbler solution” — that the human world changes — has not one out. This notion is at the forefront of our debate about climate change, global poverty and global health, and education. We exist in a selfish, egotistical world. We have grown, in our manufactured reality, into beings that don’t want to give anything up. But there is still a part of nature that exists outside our hubris. It is this part, the microbial world, the world of viruses and diseases that are first found in the most challenged places in the world, socioeconomically, and that then find their way to our penthouse suites, that will destroy us. If we examine our vulnerabilities, we’ll see that these come from our neglect of others — those in need because we place them there. In return, what they suffer is now what we will suffer. In some parts of the world, interconnected as we are, this is called Karma, the moral law of causation.
Ignorance (avijja), or not knowing things as they truly are, is the chief cause of Karma. Dependent on ignorance arise activities (avijja paccaya samkhara) states the Buddha in the Paticca Samuppada (Dependent Origination). Associated with ignorance is the ally craving (tanha), the other root of Karma. Evil actions are conditioned by these two causes.
We have conditioned ourselves into Evil actions — and the Eaarth and its inhabitants now suffer, while the powerful scream that it’s unfair. Where are we?