The Search for Illumination: Education In the Penal Colony

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By HECTOR VILA

for my mother, on her 91st birthday, 12/19, who tells me she wishes she were 30 so that she could once again teach kids about this world today and take to the streets

“I don’t know. I don’t think I can go to study abroad in Paris,” she says and hesitates and grins.

When she sits across from me, her shoulders are barely higher than my desktop. Her hijab frames her face perfectly: wide, inquisitive, dark eyes that are alive, dancing, penetrating; high cheekbones; her lips are full and when she smiles she gets small creases at the sides of her mouth that resemble ripples edging from the shore of a serene lake.

I ask why not?, though I know the answer: She’s from Sierra Leone and a Muslim.

“Even when I flew to Kenya,” she continues, still smiling, “the police at the airport stopped me — it was very scary — because they thought I was Somali. No one is safe — no one that looks like me. An African Muslim.”

She giggles a bit, this time as if to call attention to the tragic irony of it all.

This young woman, but nineteen, left her family and traveled from Sierra Leone to Hong Kong to the United States to the state of Vermont andMiddlebury College for an education. She’s earned scholarships all the way. She’s brilliant and will undoubtedly do great things in the future.

But reality is harsh; the world she — and all of us, really — navigate is dark, foreboding, threatening, many parts forbidden.

How then do we justify this world to our students? What do we tell her? Where’s opportunity now?

What is the educator’s role in addressing the harsh reality that not everyone has the right and capacity to move about freely in what we still falsely call the free world?

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Militarism , The Modern State & The Shape of Violence: The Palacio de Los Olvidados & Sefardi History of Granada

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Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 6.39.28 PMGranada, Spain — The modern state comes into being during the Middle Ages in Europe. It establishes what many economists call a social good, a strong military that (a) provides security for citizens, (b) gives room for nationalism, and (c) implements accountability. We have the right to live securely and without fear, the right to define a national identity, and to create the means by which to expand fortunes, guided by laws. The Modernaccountable State, there it is. And it’s all held together by taxation — people pay for protection, pay for nationalism, and pay for laws.

In the United States, the Pentagon budget, as reported by The Washington Post, consumes 80% of individual income tax revenue. The Pentagon spends more on war than all 50 states combined spend on health, education, welfare, and safety. According to the Lexington Institute, the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population — but almost 50% of the world’s military expenditure. The military receives 54% of discretionary spending. To get all this done,Americans spend $27.7 billion a year preparing taxes. In 2008, GE made $10.3 billion in pre-tax income, but didn’t have to pay a single cent in taxes;Bank of America paid no taxes in 2009, even though it made $4.4 billion in income; and, Molson Coors paid no taxes in 2009, and was actually paid $14.7 million by the government.

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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…

On Being: Something Grand and Strong

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

“The World According to Maxwell Smart” and the Boundary-less Universe

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In his opinion piece, “The World According to Maxwell Smart, Part 1,” Thomas L. Friedman, who is someone I enjoy reading, because I learn, though I don’t necessarily agree with him all the time, says the following:

You can’t understand the spread of ISIS or the Arab Spring without the relentless advance in computing and telecom — Moore’s Law — creating so many cheap command-and-control Internet tools that superempower small groups to recruit adherents, challenge existing states and erase borders. In a flat world, people can see faster than ever how far behind they are and organize faster than ever to protest. When technology penetrates more quickly than wealth and opportunity, watch out.

The combined pressures of the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law are creating the geopolitical equivalent of climate change, argues Michael Mandelbaum, author of “The Road to Global Prosperity,” and “some familiar species of government can’t survive the stress.”

In other words, as I, myself, argued recently in “How Fútbol (not soccer) Explains the World – If Not How it Explains Immigración En EEUU (USA),” we are losing borders – they’re murky at best – and money is not restricted by man-made demarcations, just the opposite is true:

Immigrants and multinational corporations follow the flow of money; it provides hope and potential – a future. The flow of capital knows no boundaries – everyone, especially people suffering in different parts of the world, know this. We, “the EEUU,” (after all North, South and Central Americans are ALL AMERICANS), have a hand in creating possibilities, as well as destruction…

 

The point is this: when it suits us, we’ll cross any border; we’ll invade; we’ll destroy. Immigrants, witnessing this way of being, follow suit – then we prosecute them.

Friedman is interested in showing how complex – and interconnected – our world order (and chaos) really are; that blaming Obama, though there’s plenty to criticize here, fails to see the challenges we face; and, that there are “huge forces acting in these countries, and it will take extraordinary collaboration by the whole world of order to contain them,” the promised subject of Friedman’s Wednesday’s column.

In order to emphasize this point – again and again and again – I’ll use two authors I frequently turn to on this subject (sorry, again and again for repeating the always already obvious – that which we turn away from):  Edward W. Said and Homi K. Bhabha, two professors experts on this subject.

Here’s Bhabha, from his now essential The Location of Culture, which I’ve used before in these pages, but needs repeating:

Our existence today is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the borderlines of the ‘present’, for which there seems to be no proper name other than the current and controversial shiftiness of the prefix ‘post’: postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism

 

Beginnings and endings may be the sustaining myths of the middle years; but … we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of differences and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion. 

Friedman’s “figures of difference” are the likes of Boko Haram and ISIS, for instance.  Friedman adds:

NATO decapitates Libya’s regime and sets loose a tribal-militia war of all against all, which, when combined with the crackup of Chad, spills arms and refugees across African borders, threatening Tunisia and Morocco. Israel has been flooded with more than 50,000 Eritreans and Sudanese refugees, who crossed the Sinai Desert by foot, bus or car looking for work and security in Israel’s “island of order.”

And, just since October, the U.S. has been flooded with more than 50,000 unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.”

In other words, the compression and extensions of globalization are producing frightening figures, great violence and a dispersal of people.  The world is, indeed, borderless; these are simply man-made construction that are continuously being pushed aside.  This, in turn, is producing a world in which many have to live in dehumanizing exile.

Said is best here:

Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.

Said’s first line says it all, defining the world Bhabha so eloquently describes as “tenebrous” because, in fact, it is “on the borderlines.”  Exile, then, is a terrible experience that permanently houses an individual in the “unhealable” space of in-between, between “a human being and a native place, between self and its true home.”

The exiles we create – and we do have a hand in creating exiles, all of us do; responsibility for our world is all of ours – are forever lodged in a suffering place all because we cannot seem to understand that incredible false sense of borders and demarcations we’ve given the Other – those we don’t want to acknowledge, those that are different, and always will be, those that ask us to reconsider our privileged vistas, our biases and prejudices.