What’s the Best Age for a Midlife Crisis

This is a great follow-up to my last post Coming to 60, from SLATE, It’s Always Time for a Midlife Crisis by Jessica Griggs.

JG: Do your findings kill off the character of the middle-aged man full of existential angst?
OR: Not quite. The research suggests there may be something to it. While men in their 40s are no more likely to have a crisis, those who do are more likely than other groups to see it as a negative without any subsequent benefits.

JG: What practical use do these results have?
OR: They help frame life difficulties in a way that shows they are part of normal life. Not having a crisis at any point in your life was extremely unusual—only 4 percent of respondents aged 50 and over said they had never had one. There is this subtle but fairly insidious tendency, especially among young adults, to think that adulthood will be a fairly easy ride, like living in a glossy magazine. So when the hard times hit they are not prepared for it. We hope this helps change that.

Overpopulation and the Anthropocene

Overpopulation is Not The Problem, by associate professor of geography and environmental systems, at the University of Maryland, Erle C. Ellis, is definitely an important piece to read – and not just because of the argument – “The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been. Since prehistoric, human populations have used technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain populations well beyond the capabilities of unaltered “natural” ecosystems.”

In the argument, we thus must also ask about how we’re educating ourselves – and those to come – so as to follow data, science, principles and ethics and humanisms wide reach, thus ensuring that we’re moving towards a more pronounced technological future with empathy and care.   The challenge, according to Ellis, is here:

The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet. This is the science of the Anthropocene. The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future. Humans are niche creators. We transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves. This is what we do and have always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.

Since we are “niche” creators, the danger, of course, is in creating a “niche of terror and devastation,” a niche, for instance, the excludes others, that, as Chris Hedges argues, creates “sacrifice zones.”

The Elements of Teaching

for Shipnia, Brittany, Dane, Becca, Christine, Chris and Amanda and Taylor and Annie — and the countless other young souls that will call themselves new teachers

There is a lot of talk, politically and otherwise, about education reform, but there is little conversation about what teaching actually is — and who the teacher is. What are the elements of teaching?

There is a singular demand on education today, namely that it develop producers — students that will mature to be workers and consumers. This single demand is blind to the sources of this production model, the teachers, and the nature of human culture. Of course, citizens have to be productive, engaging the world creatively, we hope, but this is not the first criteria. There are other requirements. In order for education to be productive — produce productive individuals — it must preserve the health and welfare of teachers and, in so doing, it must sustain students in the process. For this to happen, teachers must know themselves well, must have a full understanding of their students, and, just as significant, teachers must have a complete understanding of the context in which the teaching and learning happens. Teachers must be well motivated, active learners that engage the environment in which students reside; likewise, teachers must also know the relationships that exist between their subjects, pedagogy and the environment in which s/he is teaching. What is the place of my knowledge in the context of our culture? This question teachers must ask themselves over and over. Then teachers must know how to use this knowledge well. Teaching cannot take place except in culture. We seem to be unaware of this vital fact.

The appropriate measure of teaching is the culture’s health. We can look around and realize that our culture is not healthy, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Education, we hear in the talk, is in trouble; it has broken down. It’s limping along, even declining, we hear. A central reason for this breakdown has to do with our lack of understanding concerning the elements of teaching. We recognize the potential — and place — of the teacher, but we have strapped the teacher down in a system that privileges competition rather than cooperation, homogeneity rather than diversity. We falsely believe, now, that a single test can determine excellence — for teachers and students. This is far too simple a standard because it’s focused solely on production; it enslaves those in the system — administrators, teachers and students. This is an economic standard that parallels the current economic standard that has taken our welfare to the brink of disaster. We are beginning to see — only in some circles — that this standard is very expensive and, while it has solved some immediate problems, it has, overall, failed on a consistent basis to address the ills of our culture. Education has worked by confinement, concentration and separation; this design has lead to the industrialization of human experience. We, who work in schools, have been responsible for this move towards the factory model of education. It’s synonymous with the factory model of agriculture, which has lead to making our food vulnerable that, in turn, makes all vulnerable to all sorts of problems and diseases.

This is to say, then, that we have to re-describe the elements of teaching so that we can create better, more meaningful measures that comply with the art of teaching. Many like to say that teaching is an art and a science. It is not. It’s only an art. The science — the data, the verifiable knowledge, etc — only exists in the disciplines — Mathematics, English, Literature, Geography, History, Philosophy, Foreign Languages, and so on. The application of these knowledge fields to excite a student’s imagination is not a science; the synthesis of discipline knowledge and pedagogy is an art. This is why current, high stakes testing cannot measure, with any meaningful results, the teacher’s practice. We need another way of doing this; these measures must be layered and multifaceted — observations, journals, video, dialog, and so on, along with tests. I say along with tests because by integrating a variety of diverse measures we will be able to (a) experience the rich and layered practice of a teacher, and describe it, and (b) come to understand the limitations of the factory model, high stakes test.

So let’s just talk about three elements of teaching (in the weeks to come, I’ll describe others). I want to do this to show what I mean by the need for diverse measures that defy the factory model of education.

The first element of teaching is love. A teacher must love. She must love herself, but more importantly, she must love experiencing herself as a node that engages others in the healthy creation of culture. Love requires that the teacher be healthy, personally and in her practice. Love, therefore, leads the teacher to care about the well being of her students; this measure — the health of students — leads to atonement between the teacher, her students, and the world they are engaging. It proposes conscious, careful recognition of the ecology of learning. It also demonstrates knowledge of the interdepence between the teacher, students, the institution and the culture. These interdependencies always exist; however, in our current factory model of education focused solely on production, we categorically reject these connections, begin separating, confining and concentrating on diffused knowledge that is without context, without purpose. Teachers love, first and foremost, because it is the only way to get to a student’s heart; without the heart, there is no learning that’s possible. We can measure this quite easily by simply walking into any school and observing disinterested students. Disinterest comes about because love is not practiced in the classroom. Either a teacher doesn’t love her discipline or she doesn’t love the conditions for learning or she doesn’t love her students because, perhaps, they represent insurmountable challenges that she imagines cannot be addressed.

Teachers that begin with love are easy to find in schools. They are the most exhausted. This is the direct result of a dictatorial or totalitarian form. The teacher is always fighting an uphill battle against political demands on her identity, measures that don’t make sense, dictates that come from “on high,” usually boards of education — the Federal Government included — that have no idea who the students are. On the other hand, this teacher knows that the right approach to teaching and learning is more consistent with a conversational model; it proceeds directly to serious thought — inquiry — about our condition and our predicament. In conversations you always reply — and here is where we can measure. If a teacher honors the other party, namely students and their identities, she thus becomes reliant on a secondary element of teaching faith. The teacher has faith that the other will reply, though sometimes not in expected ways or in ways that the teacher may like — but this is, in fact, a healthy environment that begs for a third element, freedom. The teacher must always transgress constraints and boundaries to expose the work required, by a citizen, to be free. The teaching and learning act is to inspire the quest for freedom, creatively, personally, politically. Transgressing boundaries for freedom excites the imagination, which can be measured in actual work — writing, calculations and their applications, art and music, and so on, right to the effective uses of languages to communicate deeply felt emotions to an Other. Faith that the Other will reply fosters the quest for freedom, which is the sole purpose of education.

Love, faith and freedom, we can rightly see — and imagine — are easily measured, in teachers and students, by closely examining their practice, not by standardized tests, but, rather, by observation, close examination of texts and testing; the multi-layered approach, as I mentioned above, enables us to distinguish between individuals, rather then assuming that all individuals are the same, one. It allows us to apply what we learn — and what we have learned about the factory system that has gotten us nowhere — to our culture. We can then, slowly, begin to measure whether our culture is moving towards healthier ways of being since, right now, we’re not.

For a long time, we have dreamt that our systems have been taking us towards some Edenic future; we’ve convinced ourselves that our constructions, completely reliant on human ingenuity, are the key to our health and happiness. Now we realize otherwise. We have forgotten that everything we do resides in Nature; that everything we do affects Culture. Nature and Culture are hurting. We can turn to science, technology, medicine, history and philosophy, as well as the Arts, and see that this is absolutely true. All these disciplines are pointing to our troubled ways– to the troubles we’re facing. Might it not be time to take what we’ve learned and turn this ship around?

Chicken Parrilla / Parrilla de Pollo

I’ve always found that the most difficult meat to cook on the parrilla is chicken.  It requires a quick burn, followed by slow and easy heating so that the juices of the chicken perform their magic without oozing out.

I prefer a whole chicken that I buy locally.  I wash it thoroughly and cut myself. Here’s any easy “how to” from CHOW.

I next make a rub:  a whole lemon and  enough oil to cover all the chicken parts, herb de Provence, cayenne, salt and pepper.  I let the chicken sit in the refrigerator, covered, but when I go to light the parilla, I take the chicken out of the refrigerator, uncover it and let it come to room temperature.

I use extra wood for chicken to make sure I’m going have plenty of charcoal. Maintaining a level heat is critical.  I chose some birch, maple and cherry for this burn.

Lots of wood for this Parrilla

I place  the chicken right on the flame, burning hard and fast. I want to seal the juices. You have to stay on top this because you don’t want to over-burn.

Stay on it! Don't Let it BURN!

In this next stage, I place my second Parrilla shelf on the original grille or parrilla and  move the large breasts to the top.  This is when the wine come out and I sip — a Malbec of course.  I then place the smaller legs and wings — and a small piece I cut off for my Nina, who was starving — on the lower parrilla.

Slowing  and Adding

I add vegetables too.  These are simply onions and carrots, also local (we’re waiting for these to pop from our garden), touch them up a bit with olive oil and sprinkled some pepper and a dash of cayenne.  I have a grille rack, given to me by my daughter, Chelsey, that I use for vegetables and any small items that may fall through into the fire.

By this time, I’m already into the nectar of the gods, the Malbec.  Finally, we’re done — it took about an hour’s time, after the lighting of the fire. The lighting took about 30 to 40 minutes, giving us time to chat and dream.

Bon Apéttit

Fresh Examples of Inverted Totalitarianism

It’s uncanny, but it’s very difficult to keep up with the numerous examples of inverted totalitarianism appearing daily in our popular media. That these events are routinely covered by the popular media without question and concern should give us pause.

Yesterday, in Nothing Will Change: the 2012 Presidential Election,  I gave the following example:

The NRC (US Nuclear Regulatory Commission), that boasts it’s “protecting people and the environment,” in an unprecedented move, voted 3 – 2 to advise the Obama Justice Department to intervene on behalf of Entergy Nuclear in the company’s lawsuit against the state of Vermont. Vermont wants to shut down Vermont Yankee, the aged nuclear power plant.  A government agency that is solely responsible for the nuclear safety is extending its sphere of influence and advising the Federal Government to intervene in a state’s negotiations with a private entity.

Today, we learn that the US Supreme Court has given pharmaceuticals twin wins:

In one case, a First Amendment decision, the court, by a 6-to-3 vote, struck down a Vermont law that barred the buying, selling and profiling of doctors’ prescription records — records that pharmaceutical companies use to target doctors for particular pitches. And in a second, the court ruled 5 to 4 that the makers of generic drugs are immune from state lawsuits for failure to warn consumers about possible side effects as long as they copy the warnings on brand-name drugs.

The US Supreme court ruled that the State of Vermont was infringing on the pharmaceutical’s first amendment rights. “The amendment prohibits the making of any law “respecting an establishment of religion“, impeding the free exercise of religion, infringing on the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.”  This is untrue, the State of Vermont is not trying to restrict the first amendment, rather they are trying to restrict pharmaceuticals from getting private information concerning different drug protocols doctors use for specific patients.

“Basically, it’s going to allow the drug companies to have more influence on doctors’ prescribing practices, to manipulate their prescribing practices, and to promote the use of more expensive drugs. Almost certainly, health care costs are going to be driven up,” said Dr. Gregory D. Curfman, executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Information privacy experts also criticized Thursday’s ruling. “One of the practical consequences of the court’s decision will be to make it easier for pharmaceutical companies and data-mining firms and marketing firms to get access to this very sensitive information,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “The states are going to have to go back to the drawing board.

Ever since the Bush v Gore election, we’ve learned quite a a bit about where the US Supreme Court stands. The Court is aligned with right – wing conservative government and big business, this we know. The appointment of Justice Roberts, adding to the Court’s extreme conservatism, demonstrated a move to activist justices for the right.  The Court thus becomes the legal thread essential for big business to control government.  The  Court is the “bag man,” if you will.

In Eduction a story from the mainstream, Republican Challenges Administration on Plans to Override Education Law.  I’m no fan of Arne Duncan and Obama’s education policy, but what we find when we look under the hood of Representative John Kline’s, the Republican chairman of the House education committee, forceful attack on Duncan policies and maneuvers is an attempt to move closer to the privatization of education.

“He’s not the nation’s superintendent,” Mr. Kline said of Mr. Duncan, who assumed powers greater than any of his predecessors when, in 2009, Congress voted $100 billion in economic stimulus money for the nation’s school systems and allowed the secretary to decide how much of it should be spent.

Kline wants control of outcomes and we know that the outcome sought by the right is privatization. This move, by conservatives, is linked to a greater effort for student vouchers, creationism and an anti-gay agenda.

Imagine if all these efforts are also supported by the US Supreme Court.

And now we can look at the Obama withdrawal from Afghanistan proposal — 10,000 soldiers this year (roughly 7 percent of the occupation force) by the end of the year.  No one in the main stream press is covering what’s likely to happen:

“There’s going to have to be an accompanying increase in private security for all the activities of the new soldiers going in,” says Jake Sherman, a former United Nations official in Afghanistan who is now the associate director for Peacekeeping and Security Sector Reform at New York University’s Center for International Cooperation.  “It’s ludicrous. It’s completely implausible.”

The mainstream media is stuck wondering why the usually war hungry Republicans — except for McCain — is going along with the withdrawal. The real story is that as we withdraw — and as the French and the British withdraw as well — there will be a void.  Private sector security companies will fill this need — and they’re the darling of the right, a pay for service military force.

Up and down the economy and culture — pharmaceuticals, energy, education and defense — we see the big reach of business; more importantly, though, we can readily see how government is stepping in and doing the bidding for this new world order. That it’s happening right in front of our eyes and that the mainstream media is simply going along suggests that the media is yet another arm of this move.  The media is not, as pundits would argue, a liberal enterprise; it’s just the opposite and simply looking at who owns the media should tell anyone that story.

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?

An Education Revolution = A Revolution in Our Communities

In February of 2010, Sir Ken Robinson, speaking at TED, said that, “Innovation is hard because it means doing something that people don’t find doing very easy… It means challenging what we take for granted, things that we think are obvious. The great problem for reform or transformation is the tyranny of common sense.” Sir Robinson then goes on to say that, “Human communities depend upon a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability. At the heart of our challenge is to reconstitute our sense of ability and of intelligence…Human flourishing,” he says, “is not a mechanical process, it’s an organic process and you cannot predict the outcome of human development…It’s not about scaling a new solution, it’s about creating a movement in education in which people develop their own solutions but with external support based on a personalized curriculum.” Sir Ken Robinson is not calling for change, rather he’s calling for revolution — an Education Revolution.

All evidence in the US suggests that, in practice, Plessy v Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling of “separate but equal” – meaning, the acceptance of a dual system of education – is more appealing to the dominant class.

A “separate but equal” education system restricts access to social mobility; it strengthens a hierarchical socioeconomic system controlled by few. The gains of the Civil Rights Movement are long forgotten in education.  Privileged African Americans along with white Americans have given up the struggle for integration, receiving undeniable benefits from private academies.  “Separate but equal” has become a rationale for a dual system in American society – the privileged succeed and the underprivileged must find what works, though always one step behind.  We then call attention to the infrequent victories coming out of challenged communities, but we never  bring up the obvious: the lack of adherence to Brown v the Board of Education.

Our schools mirror our communities. Without changes to our communities, without emphasis on the family, however we define family, there can be no change in Education. Thus, we need an Education Revolution that begins with a revolution in our communities, particularly in the most impoverished.

In our tendency to sacrifice a large  swatch of our population primarily along racial lines — and class lines, too, especially when we speak of environmental racism — recent scientific research in genetics point to factors contributing to disease and behavioral disorders among minorities, especially African Americans.

Christopher W. Kuzawa and Elizabeth Sweet, from the Department of Anthropology, Northwester Univeristy, Evanston, Illinois, in their article “Epigenetics and the Embodiment of Race: Developmental Origins of US Racial Disparities in Cardiovascular Health,” suggest that, “There is extensive evidence for a social origin to prematurity and low birth weight in African Americans, reflecting pathways such as the effects of discrimination on maternal stress physiology … [T] here is now a strong rationale to consider developmental and epigenetic mechanisms as links between early life environmental factors like maternal stress during pregnancy and adult race-based health disparities in diseases like hypertension, diabetes, stroke, and coronary heart disease.”

Knowing what we now know, are we slowly killing certain populations in the US, namely African Americans and poor communities because we fail to see the benefits of integration? And when we realize that close to 1 in 3 Black men are in US prisons, does this not beg us to conclude that this approach to community destruction is systematic?  How do we narrow the achievement gap?

Randy L. Jirtle, Department of Radiology Oncology, Duke University Medical Center, Durnham, North Carolina, and Michael K. Skinner, Center for Reproductive Biology, School of Molecular Biosciences, Washington State University, Pullman, in “Environmental Epigenomics and Disease Susceptibility” say that, “Epidemiological evidence increasingly suggests that environmental exposures early in development have a role in susceptibility to disease in later life. In addition, some of these environmental effects seem to be passed on through subsequent generations.”

We exist in two Americas divided by access to opportunity. These harsh divisions eliminate the benefits of diversity. Scott E. Page, in The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, says that, “Diversity and ability complement one another: the better the individual fruits, the better the fruit basket, and the better the other fruit, the better the apple … We should encourage people to think differently … These differences can provide the seeds of innovation, progress, and understanding.” ( see Scott E. Page’s lecture)

If the answer is diversity, why are our communities segregated, our schools separate and unequal? The answer is simple: education focused on enlightenment is dangerous. An enlightened citizen questions, challenges the status quo, and seeks alternatives. Education, today, is not about change, rather it’s about ensuring that we maintain the systems of production — supply and demand; power is thus balanced, meaning that a vertical society is maintained — some succeed and live well, others sustain those lives, and hopelessly aspire to something better through state lotteries and get rich quick schemes, such as those that lead to the mortgage crisis that affected mostly people of color and helped bring our economy to its knees. But we’ve not learned and the distance between the haves and the have nots is increasing.

As bell hooks says, in Teaching to Transgress, “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.” To educate — and to be educated — is the “practice of freedom.” Since this is so, then closing down some classrooms, eliminating teachers , and destroying unions that support and protect them, ensure that we live in a divided country. And if we look at who benefits from this division, we see that only those on the top of the socioeconomic ladder benefit. In poor communities, families are destroyed, first and foremost, because this keeps the prison industrial complex healthy and an informed citizenry poor. We’ve not moved far from the psychology of racism that comes from slavery.

The End of Nature, FEMA Trailers and Bed Bugs

There’s an uncanny relationship between climate change and man’s infringement on nature, the  bed bug plague , and what is likely to be the metaphor of our times, FEMA trailers.

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).

The End of Nature by Bill McKibben

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.”

Eaarth by Bill McKibben

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.

Bed Bugs by Barry Blitt

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?