Welcome to the Age of Knowledge: How Propaganda Has Moved Us From the Information Age, Into New Challenges & (Potentially?) a Renaissance

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The Big Short

The Big Short

It’s instructive to begin with Barry Blitt’s March 28, 2016, New Yorker cover, “The Big Short,” because it conflates three central ideas critical to our discussion: Donald Trump’s deep anxiety about the size of his fingers — and something else, our age’s latest, desperate attempt to try and determine our future by hyperbolic palm reading — disconcerted flailing as we transition into the challengingAge of Knowledge — and the latest, eye-opening film directed by Adam McKay, The Big Short, based on the book by the same name written by Michael Lewisabout the financial crisis of 2007–2008, which was triggered by the build-up of the housing market and the economic bubble.

No one has said this, so let me be the first: Donald Trump is a manifestation of an age that has run its course. There you have it.

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American Violence and Education

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I’ve been asked by Joe Brooks, my editor at Community Works Journal, to write something about the school shootings and education.  It was extremely hard for many reasons, but I’ve tried.  As I sometimes do, I’ll “test” the piece in Medium, first, and see how it runs; I’ll test it here, too.

So here it is: American Violence and Education

It begins thus:

I can’t make things out anymore. I don’t know what we’re doing. American culture is upside down and, as an educator, I have no idea what to do, what to say, how to find “the teachable moment.” I’m lost. I suspect we may all be feeling lost. The world outside the classroom is way too big, too harrowing, too confusing. Death and suffering have become all too common. It seems as if we’re operating in two distinctly different worlds, one is inside the classroom where we theorize, study, calculate, ponder, the other, outside the classroom, that world we dare only glance at from time-to-time, is brutal, relentless in its inhumane insistence that life is cheap.

In a course I’m working through Brent Easton Ellis’ disturbing, post-modern 1991 Gothic novel, American Psycho, giving the requisite warnings about the extremely graphic violence, because students wanted me to do so, differentiating between escapist literature (Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Gray, and so on), and Literature that means to have the reader turn inward, difficult as that is, and examine her life, the lives around her. American Psycho is the latter. Kids, our students, want to feel safe, be safe; they want to avoid “the horror” of it all; they don’t want to reside in the inhumanity outside our neat little classrooms.

But these worlds are clashing.

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Final: Lost in the Funhouse

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

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

The Sex and Love Lives of College Students: Erectile Dysfunction and Other Maladies

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.

When living a fishbowl-like college existence, is love possible for the post Sex in the City generation leaning towards Girls?

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?

The Politics of Newark: The Miller Street School and Hope — Part 5


During one visit to the South Ward, Maria Ortiz found out that Newark’s Mayor, Cory Booker, would be attending a local school “holding meeting” that the mayor schedules monthly and consists of many 10-minute face-to-face conversations with individual members of his constituency. The purpose of these meetings is to show the community that the mayor is indeed one of them, that he cares and he’s listening, though he comes from the kind of privilege completely that is completely unimaginable to most of the city’s population.

Cory Booker is the son of African-American trailblazers Cary and Carolyn Booker who were among the first African-American executives at IBM. He was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in the predominantly white, affluent town of Harrington Park in Bergen County, New Jersey; he went to Stanford University, earning a B.A. in political science and a M.A. in sociology. He played varsity football — made the All–Pacific Ten Academic team — and was elected to the council of (four) presidents. After Stanford, Booker won a Rhodes Scholarship and studied at The Queen’s College, Oxford, where he was awarded an honors degree in modern history and became friends with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. At Boteach’s direction, Booker, a practicing Baptist, became president of Oxford’s L’Chaim Society, an Orthodox Jewish student group, to the chagrin of the Chabad-Lubavitch leaders. L’Chaim was controversial. Initially the society was part of the Chabad movement; then it evolved to become an inter-faith group. Rabbi Boteach, however, was not a member of the Oxford faculty; he was simply a person free to set up an inter-faith group outside Oxford’s domain. Rabbi Boteach and the Chabad-Lubavitch organization in England did not agree on all the issues regarding how to teach Jewish students at Oxford and the role of non-Jewish students. This tension grew when Booker was appointed president of L’Chaim, and Rabbi Boteach left the organization. Rabbi Boteach was further criticized by the British government after an investigation showed that he was funding a lavish lifestyle from charitable donations. Booker went on to graduate from Yale Law School where he operated free legal clinics for low-income residents. He lived in Newark during his final year at Yale, making his way into the political scene, and served as staff attorney for the Urban Justice Center in New York. He became program coordinator of the Newark Youth Project after graduation.

In 2006, Cory Booker was one of the last remaining tenants in Brick Towers (after living there for eight years), a troubled housing complex in Newark’s Central Ward, where he organized tenants to fight for improved conditions. He has since moved to the top unit in a three-story rental on Hawthorne Avenue in the South Ward. In late 2009, Booker was criticized for not owning property in Newark, choosing to rent. The Brick Towers were razed in July, 2008.

Barack Obama, Corey Booker, Michael Steele, Alan Keyes, Deval Patrick – none of these political figures of color emerged from any social movement; they joined their party of choice during college; but they moved quickly up the ranks, and are not race rebels. None of them represent a threat to the power structure of America. Is Corey Booker too good to be true? Is he an honest advocate for the poor and marginalized or just another politician?

Maria Ortiz and I drove to the Luiz Muñoz Marin Middle School in the North Ward, a facility distinctly better than the Miller Street School – grass and open fields, large auditorium and gym, trophy cases. We placed our names on the “meeting roster” to speak with Mayor Booker, then waited in a large auditorium facing a wide stage where cheerleaders practiced their routines. Eventually, we were called and walked down a wide corridor lined with student lockers and were ushered into a classroom with long tables stretched end to end. Mayor Booker was working the room, sitting next to one person, then another, patting people on the back, shaking hands while an aide wrote things down.

Cory Booker is a big, athletic man sporting a bald head, a signature look; he resembles a forward on a basketball team or a tight end in football. He’s charismatic, easy with people, soft spoken but direct and has a wonderful smile. He’s a media darling.

He recognized Maria immediately and asked how she was, and we shook hands. Between Mayor Booker and me sat Jennifer Stone, a stern looking black woman, who didn’t show a hint of a smile when we introduced ourselves. She is the South Ward liaison for the mayor’s office.

I leaned forward and asked the mayor, “What are your plans for the South Ward?”

He leaned forward, too, resting on his elbows on the table, and clasped his large hands. Looking puzzled, he said incredulously, “That’s what you want from me?”

I couldn’t tell whether his reaction was because of the question or whether he was expecting to hear about the usual things – corruption in Newark, the plan to combat homelessness, violent crime that his office says is down but still unacceptable. My question was oddly out of the context.

“Yes. What are your plans for the South Ward? That’s all I want to know.”

Mayor Booker didn’t respond. He looked over at Jennifer Stone as if signaling her to intervene, which she did.
“We have meetings. We put out flyers. We ask people to come. No one shows,” she said. “I’ve lived in the South Ward for 38 years—I just moved out—and I can tell you, it’s the people (her emphasis). They don’t come out. They don’t trust us. They don’t participate. We try everything, and they just don’t participate.”

Mayor Booker stepped in again. “Please schedule a longer interview with Mr. Vila. Have Desiree schedule it.” He then got up from the table, shook my hand, and Maria’s, and said, “Thank you for your interest.” And walked to the next table.

I called Desiree S. Peterkin-Bell, director of communications for the mayor’s office, three times. The first time she asked what publication I was writing for and the nature of my work and told me to call back. I did, thinking that I would receive an audience with the mayor. I was wrong. Ms. Peterkin-Bell wanted to see a rough draft – “an outline,” she said – for the mayor’s office to approve, something she said they had done with Gwen Ifill of the News Hour on PBS and several other writers she did not name. I declined, of course. When I called the third time, they said that if I couldn’t meet these conditions, I wouldn’t be able to speak to the mayor. I wondered whether Mayor Booker’s early move to show his credibility – living at the Brick Towers, establishing legal services for the poor – were meaningful acts or gestures to pad his resume?

What I wanted to say to him was simple. Many of the South Ward residents are Latino immigrants that come from Central and South America where government is seen as life threatening; people are jailed without reason, or worse, they disappear. I wanted to tell him that Miller Street School held a literacy night this past spring and over 200 parents showed up at the school to celebrate their children’s education. I wanted to know if there were plans to create a community to support these parents and sustain these children. Isn’t this where government and the community should come together in a spirit of collaboration? I also wanted to share with him the obstacles that Shakirah Miller confronts while trying to keep hope from becoming ether. And I wanted to tell him about Khalid Tellis, a Miller Street success story.

Khalid Tellis, now a freshman at Middlebury College, was the 2004 salutatorian of Miller Street School. After his graduation from eighth grade in 2004, the Wight Foundation gave him a scholarship, based on merit and need, to The Eaglebrook School, a private boarding school for boys in grades 6-9 in Deerfield, Massachusetts. His mother had her heart set on Science Park High, one of the better public schools in Newark’s troubled system, but Khalid wanted more, something better. He had to leave Newark to get it – he knew this. He also knew that he needed to repeat the 8th grade to be academically stronger, so he convinced his mother to let him go to Eaglebrook. Khalid continued on to the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut, thanks to a need-based scholarship; after that, another need-based scholarship allowed him to attend Middlebury. Khalid found a small keyhole in the chaos and pulled himself through it; he learned to find equal footing with strangers from the “other America”. This is the tragedy of the South Ward, and what the Miller Street School works to reverse – one or two students, with plenty of help and lots of luck, make it to a place like Middlebury, the rest remain on the dark side of the American paradox: life and liberty for some, the vicious cycle of inescapable economic degradation leading to environmental degradation that begets social degradation for others. Hope requires escape routes – there are none here, not even one leading through the dim beacon, the Miller Street School.

I wanted to find a way to tell this story and, just maybe, begin to make a difference – but I had no idea how to do it, where to begin. So I gave myself to the school, opening myself up to learn from their experience. I now ask myself how we might work together to ensure other students can attend our colleges and universities.

“Anything can happen in Newark,” Khalid said with a grin across his round face, cradling his books against his chest. In his final essay for our writing class at Middlebury, he wrote,

“As I prepared to write this paper, I thought of two things, freedom and responsibility. Freedom, as I see it, is the opportunity to think about your rights. That is Freedom. You have a voice. There are no repercussions for speaking out and intellectualism is encouraged. Then, I read Obama’s Nobel Prize speech and thought to myself, Obama is right, but his hope is impossible. According to President Obama, “true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.” There can never be freedom from want. If so, how could we as a society gauge what is “good enough”…I see peace as possible only after inequalities between those who want can be reversed by those individuals who have lived in both worlds. People like me. I now see where my life is leading me, back to Newark, to help save a new generation from hopelessness.”

I now see that Maria Ortiz was right all along. We can’t reform education from a distance, through contests and slogans delivered by politicians focused on the next election. It doesn’t take much to lend a hand, Maria said to me several times. Miller Street has taught me that I have to be more involved, more engaged outside the ivied halls of academe; it has taught me that Shakirah Miller and Maria Ortiz and Juan Ramos and little Ana have answers – and plenty of questions. No one in the South Ward is asking for a handout; they are asking for cooperation and collaboration. Residents of the South Ward are telling us that they’re relevant and have ways out of the chaos and the depravity. The American paradox is a manufactured reality – we can reverse it, though. But first we have to admit that we’re supporting a “separate but equal” society – and blame those who are deprived access to good schools, health care and work for not achieving what we want. In urban centers, particularly in places like the South Ward, the school of the future will be a community hub. College professors, public school teachers, students and their families have to engage in collective knowledge building to re-imagine themselves and construct this nucleus where hope can be nurtured and secured.

Newark’s South Ward: ‘Racism Lite’ and the Milller Street School — Part 2

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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 isEduardo 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.

Newark’s South Ward: The Miller Street School and the American Paradox — Part 1

  • 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?