“Technological Idiots”: The Deep, Blinding Effects of Our Dazzling Technology

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Evocation 1:

It’s night in a foreign land. It’s hot, humid. I kick open a door of a nondescript apartment, splintering it to pieces, and lunge at three men sitting at a rickety table in a dingy room, revolvers, grenades, and detonators are strewn on its surface.

I punch one burly man hard in the face as he stands, unsure of himself. I can sense that — the weakest link. He falls back. He’s to my right. To my left, a mountain of a man, knife in hand, comes at me. I step aside, lock his elbow against my ribs with my left arm; with my right I come over the top of his humerus and snap it. He falls to his knees, doubled over in pain.

The third man leaps to his feet, turning over the table, pushing it against me. I grab a revolver from the floor and quickly shoot him in the leg before he can leap out an open window.

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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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5 Writers Imagine America: Reflecting Forward, 2016

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bannerI’m casting an eye, first on who we were: 9 young women, 6 young men — 15 ambitious first years in all — and me, in a college seminar this past fall, 2015.

Ten beautiful, bright-eyed students, each, brought into my life their stories from Sudan, Canada, Korea, again Korea, China, Poland via Canada, dos Mejicanos, Palestine, and Serbia — that’s 10. NJ, GA, NYC (Manhattan), NYS (upstate), CA made up the rest of the dazzling class, 5 eager and industrious Americans with their own stories to tell.

I’m highly privileged, as you see. This is why I mention it: I’m looking at this too. With this kind of privilege, there’s much responsibility. To start, then, I’ll say that we’ll look at the 5 authors chronologically, following publication dates. At the very least, this places each author in an intellectual history. Contextualization like this will afford us the long view.

Long-range factors are already evident in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s America struggling for meaning in the face of brutal slavery — an initial extreme we can’t escape; the struggle continues today. As does our desire fortranscendence, to move beyond who we are and into dreams. I wonder what we hear now if we put Emerson’s American against the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, diverse, boisterous, cosmopolitan America of Adichie, the last of our authors in the seminar?

Want to read more (it takes 14 min)?  Go here…

The Cultivation of Hatred: A Brief History of Violence in America

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Following American Violence and Education I was asked to take “another ride” on this subject and, following a workshop I was in this summer where, allegedly (it’s on film so I can’t deny it), I said that “we are all educators,” meaning those in and out of education proper, and that this makes us all somehow “responsible,” so, along these lines, I am taking another turn with The Cultivation of Hatred: A Brief History of Violence in America.

I am testing on Medium first since this is a good, well, “medium” to see what kinds of legs this approach has.  For those of you that measure these things, a la Medium, the 2444 word piece will take you 11 minutes to read. There are pictures and links to videos.

It begins like this :

In “The Dawn of Man” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick introduces us to the usage of tools as “man” becomes an active element and gains the power of action over nature — tools make “man” an agent of change.

Paleolithic being discovers that the tool can protect and conquer; it can be used to advance one’s cause and eliminate all threat, kill it off — at least until an opponent engineers a more dastardly tool as we see in another Kubrick film, Dr. Strangelove, and the making of the Doomsday Machine, and in Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book — both narratives about mutually assured destruction.

So it begins, “man’s” intimate relationship with violence. It commences quite rationally: to protect and to serve one’s needs and the needs of one’s community. Can’t be more fundamental than that, more reasonable.

Read More …  and thank you!

The Existential Crisis in Higher Learning: Reinventing Ourselves Around Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are our priorities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Being: Something Grand and Strong

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

Gandolfini, Hoffman, Williams, James Foley, Ferguson, Iraq, Syria & ISIS: The World According to Kafka

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The most disconcerting lines in modern fiction, the opening of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, perfectly capture our condition, today; it’s what we’ve become: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”

It’s the tone of the lines that gets to us; its matter of fact, almost as if half-expecting this metamorphosis; it’s as if becoming a “monstrous vermin” is not shocking. It simply is. To simply be means that it has always been; it’s not sudden, new, shocking.

“What happened to me?” thinks Samsa. “It was no dream,” he realizes. Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, looks over to a table, on top of which he’s placed a picture of a young lady “done up in a fur hat and a fur boa” inside “a pretty gilt frame.” He has no one; he’s alone, fantasizing plastic dreams that will never come. Nothing is real; and the nothing that isn’t real is his life. The unreality is the reality. The illusion is what he’s living. Truth and illusion are interchangeable.

What’s real? asks Kafka.

Gregor Samsa tries – or rather, he thinks about going back to sleep, but can’t. In his present state he can’t sleep on his right side, which he prefers, because he “always rocked onto his back again” and could then still see his “squirming legs.”

If we turn away from something that is, does it cease existing? Is turning away possible, real, more real than the “squirming legs”?

Gregor Samsa can think of nothing else but the “grueling job” he has, “Day in, day out – on the road.” The reality that he’s a vermin is less important. Gregor Samsa, “a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone,” is more concerned with getting to work on time than he is about his new condition. Samsa is anxious about his responsibilities. Vermin or not, he’s not going to lose his job, his footing.

But is Samsa’s condition new? And is Samsa’s condition our very own? Kafka is telling us that Gregor Samsa’s acceptance of his “monstrous vermin” state is something long in the making. Acceptance of horror takes time to enter into a culture. It doesn’t happen over night.

In the opening scene of another Kafka piece, In the Penal Colony, examining a “remarkable piece of apparatus” to be used to kill a condemned man, we learn that the “condemned man looked like a submissive dog that one might have thought could be left to run free on the surrounding hills and would only need to be whistled for when the execution was due to begin.”

The dominion that builds gradually and unconsciously to the point that we don’t even notice our transformation into submissive subjects – vermin, the condemned- is key to understanding Kafka – and ourselves.

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a “hot” book everyone seems to be talking about, though quite clearly chewing at the edges – as Gregor Samsa does when he experiences his altered state – Thomas Piketty says, “…that the dynamics of wealth distribution reveal powerful mechanisms pushing alternately toward convergence and divergence. Furthermore, there is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently.”

Our systems push and pull; merge and deviate, detour; and there’s no “natural, spontaneous process” to prevent damaging and undermining, undemocratic forces from, eventually, reigning. In other words, we’ve awakened into a state – as in a dream – we have a hard time understanding, never mind getting at the root causes of why we’re here.

So what do we do?

We accept. We’ve authorized – a nice word for this – the move toward the ongoing merger of financial and military spheres that diminish our authority, for instance; we’ve approved the move away from a substantive global democracy; we’ve endorsed the humanization of the corporation. In all this, we’ve established our de-humanization. We prefer not noticing.

The deaths of Gandolfini, Hoffman and Williams, for starters, suggest that even at the highest socio-economic levels we don’t understand suffering; we don’t understand the conditions in our lives that may cause us stress and harm; we don’t understand how we might help one another, collaborating and cooperating, sometimes across differences, which is the only way to prevent becoming Gregor Samsa. We seem to be okay letting people go – or at least, okay that this is how things go.

Iraq, ISIS, Syria, and the horror that was the murder of journalist James Foley are characteristic of an age that has grown cold, unsensual, dismissive and callous. It’s hard to argue against this. It is a world that – it should be obvious by now – looks to the short term rather than the long view. And compressing all experience into tight, corporate mediated narratives that leave no room for questions and dialog. Iraq, ISIS, Syria and James Foley are horrible unintended consequences of a world – like Kafka’s – where the gruesome apparatus for death is a machine we just have to look at; “it works all by itself,” Kafka writes. We approve that the mechanisms of death work by themselves.

The rise of evil and violence is directly related to our incapacity to engage our world – and each person in it – in ways that address our interconnectedness – because, as Don DeLillo says in Underworld, everything is indeed connected. There’s no escaping this fact. The murderers that ended James Foley’s promising life know this; 9-11 was all about the relationship between blindness and interconnectedness, something we still yet deny. Disconnected people, cultures, societies react – they have to.

Ferguson, for instance, appears to us as a shocking reminder that we are not a post racial America; yet we can’t seem to find the language to try and understand the piercing reality that Ferguson has been festering for quite some time, and it’s been smoldering across our land. People in Ferguson – and many, many places in the US – are feeling very disconnected. Ferguson is a sign. We could move towards greater freedoms or we could move towards greater oppression.

Unobstructed mechanisms work to ensure that this is how we live: Propaganda and Ideology. They work in tandem. One needs the other.

Propaganda, says Jacques Ellul, “is scientific in that it tends to establish a set of rules, rigorous, precise, and tested, that are not merely recipes but impose themselves on every propagandist, who is less and less free to follow his own impulses. He must apply, increasingly and exactly, certain precise formulas that can be applied by anybody with the proper training – clearly a characteristic of a technique based on science” (Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes). This happens by analyzing environments and individuals; it’s thought through. And it works in business, as well as in government, affecting political speech, for instance. A key characteristic of propaganda is that “the individual,” says Ellul, “is never considered as an individual, but always in terms of what he has in common with others, such as his motivations, his feelings, or his myths.” A key characteristic of popular media – the assumption that we’re all one.

Enter Ideology. An ideological apparatus or mechanism in any given culture works by ensuring that each individual see himself as an other, as with others. In other words, one’s individualism, through a propaganda model set in an ideology, say grounded in capitalism, is used to actually justify what Slavoj Žižek calls a “vast anonymous power” that works unconstrained, “without any democratic control” and which regulates our lives (Demanding the Impossible).

What has happened?

How we measure balance, virtue, truth has changed; our very measures of what is extreme have changed. When we look around – Gandolfini, Hoffman, Williams, James Foley, Iraq, ISIS, Syria and Ferguson – we fully realize that these are extremes. But, like Gregor Samsa, these are metaphors, today, of the hard shell we wear and that keeps us from moving as we might like; and like Samsa, when we begin to feel “a slight, dull pain,” something we’ve never felt before, we think about our grueling jobs, the challenges of just getting to work on time, not losing time, not losing our step in the illusory game of our own private enterprise to succeed. And go to happy hour or rush to ESPN.

The long-run evolution of capital, I’d argue, has lead to our awakening in a vermin state, though like Gregor Samsa, we half expected it so we rush to social media, we rush to screens and rapid fire texting and calls to check on one another, not saying anything meaningful, mind you, just merely acknowledging that we’re alive amidst all this pain and suffering we’ve allowed to grow and flourish, and which, sadly, we accept as ongoing.

A great darkness hangs over us now.