Degrees of Separation: Helping Our Students Find Safe Space for Thinking

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“Can you help me?” she asks. She looks doleful, head tilted to one side. She hints a smile.

It’s work for her, getting out a smile – I can tell.

“What do you need?” I respond and smile for her. “Tell me.”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure,” she says shrugging her shoulders and shaking her head no. “I wish I knew. I don’t know what I’m doing, I guess. What happens next? I mean: where am I going? Only the kids going to Wall Street seem to know what they’re doing. What about the rest of us? I have no idea.”

Living in extreme compression, as we do in academia—12 to 14 week semesters, which are more like 10 and 12; the ever increasing complexity of disciplines and their idiosyncratic literacies we’re asked to master; the weight of the ongoing mantra: succeed, excel, achieve, be noted, and all this in an affronting socio-economic-political climate where opportunity and resources are shrinking – we all know this, students especially; the added burden of the great cost of a college education, mounting debt—it’s not surprising that students, faculty too, are desperate for safe spaces to explore their place in what we experience as a progressively hostile, indifferent world.

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The World Trade Centers – Before and Now

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Before and After the Tragedy

Before and After the Tragedy

What is a memory? What is a memorial?

A memorial is something to preserver a memory – but of what?

The image on the left is the prophetic shot of Don DeLillo’s great novel, UnderworldPublished in 1997, the Underworld was immediately recognized as one of the best American novels ever written – in fact, recently, viewed in the top 5.  Post 9/11 readers by the droves were drawn, first, to the ominous cover, second, to the narrative’s harrowing picture of American culture, the world, and where we might find some semblance of hope – or not.  Somewhere between our waste and commodification, we struggle for hope, for a better future.  Peace, as DeLillo ends his novel.

The image on the right was just captured by my son, Carlos, a professional photographer living in Brooklyn, NY.  In many ways, Carlos’ image is also a memorial – to the days of DeLillo picture, to the harrowing events of 9/11, and to our current malaise and sense of hope and vulnerability.

Carlos’ image is very much a vulnerable one: will we experience 9/11 again?  Given the conditions in our world, are we, like this image, in a fog we can’t get out of? Is this a memorial to a time we’ll never get back, yet we hope for something more?

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.

From Getting Lost: Victory and Loss: Solnit’s Letter to My Dismal Allies on the US Left

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This piece was originally written for Getting Lost, the blog addressing the work of Rebecca Solnit.  I’m placing it here for the readers of the Uncanny.


Rebecca Solnit ends her letter, (though it was published, online, in The Guardian, on October 15, 2012, I’ve just run into it and find it – still – relevant for many reasons, which I’ll try to capture here), by saying the following :

There are really only two questions for activists: what do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style. That is the small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want victories, don’t you? Make sure you’re clear on the answer to that, and think about what they would look like.

Solnit also says:

There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t – and that it never will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through élan, esprit de corps, fierce hope and generous hearts.

Solnit is, for me anyway, trying to channel, (to some extent and falling dramatically short), Slavoj Žižek, the Slovanian Marxist philosopher, psychoanalist, and cultural critic. (To directly cite Žižek would be disastrous for her, I’m sure.)  Read more …

“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.

What Matters in Education? Part 1

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Necessity is an evil, but there is no necessity to live under the control of necessity.

Epicurus

A new Gallup-Purdue study that looks at links among college, work, and well-being has generated a lot of conversation – in and out of the academy. Much of the chatter is about some of the study’s top findings: 63% of the students said that they “had at least one professor at [College] who [excited them ] about learning”; 27% found that their professors cared about them as a person; 22% found a mentor that encouraged them about pursuing goals and dreams.

Most notably, “The study found that the type of schools these college graduates attended — public or private, small or large, very selective or less selective — hardly matters at all to their workplace engagement and current well-being. Just as many graduates of public colleges as graduates of not-for-profit private colleges are engaged at work — meaning they are deeply involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work. And just as many graduates of public as not-for-profit private institutions are thriving — which Gallup defines as strong, consistent, and progressing — in all areas of their well-being.”

“The report,” says Charles M. Blow of The New York Times, “has a strong message for students who are asking about which school to attend, for employers who are deciding which people to hire and for colleges that are negotiating their curriculums.”

Google agrees.  “Google’s head of people operations Laszlo Bock told the New York Times that top graduates can lack “intellectual humility,” and that schools frequently don’t deliver on what they promise”:

new Gallup survey finds that in hiring decisions, only 9% of business leaders say that the school on a candidate’s diploma is “very important,” compared to 84% assessing knowledge in the field and 79% looking at applied skills. 

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The challenge, of course, is that higher education mirrors our socio-economic system. And we embrace that, instead, and shy away from whatever Google and Gallup are suggesting. This is because, as reported in Quartz, “School rankings have been found to matter when it comes to pay, an effect which rises over timeGraduates of elite private schools in particular get paid more according to a report from the Century Foundation (pdf)Elite industries like professional services and finance put more weight on top schools in hiring decisions.”

Rather than leading the culture, imagining new and different ways to enable reciprocity and renewal, education has chosen to follow; it has chosen to adhere to a false narrative and promote a stark hierarchy – pay is what matters in education. The problem with this model is that all of us become commodities; we are objects, like consumer products. It’s not a sustainable model. It’s broken – and we can see it by simply looking under the hood.

 

We need not go far to prove this. Let’s look at the distribution of faculty salaries. Reporting for the Huffington Post, Tyler Kingkade, writes that,

The average pay for all types of professors, instructors and lecturers is $84,303 for the academic year 2012-13, but the report noted a big difference between public and private colleges. At public institutions, the average is $80,578, while at private schools, it’s $99,771.For a full professor, the average salary at a private university this year is $139,620, a notable hike over the average $110,143 at public colleges, and that difference has been growing. This public-private gap has increased from 18 percent in 2004 to 24 percent in 2013, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

These disparities help create a provocative narrative: it does matter where you go to school – even though you may not get a single soul to pay attention to you at the most elite institutions.

The Gallup-Purdue study calls into question our ruling narrative about the value we place on an institution’s brand versus the care an institution may give individual students, their dreams and their needs.

It’s what goes on inside, behind the hallowed ivy, that counts and not how significant – and marketable – the brand is.

It’s not difficult to see how celebrity culture has a hand in this, too. The narrative concerning the significance of one school over another is manipulated by the tools of advertising and management rather than by what data – and reality – tend to show. We have celebrity schools to go along with our celebrity mindset. It’s not surprising, then, to see how much the University has been totally transformed into yet another corporation that comes with its own story – and is never to be questioned.

“The corporation has the power to determine identity,” writes Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion. “The corporations tell us who we are and what we can become. And the corporations offer the only route to personal fulfillment and salvation. If we are not happy there is something wrong with us [italics Hedges]. Debate and criticism, especially about the goals and the structure of the corporation, are condemned as negative and ‘counterproductive.'”

We see this model stretching from government to the private sector to education. Don’t be counterproductive. Go along.

In another view of academia, a survey done at U.C.L.A. that looks at shifts in our culture over time, according to David Brooks of The New York Times, says that values have changed. “In 1966, only 42 percent of freshmen said that being well-off financially was an essential or very important life goal. By 2005, 75 percent of students said being well-off financially was essential or very important. Affluence, once a middling value, is now tied as students’ top life goal.”

It’s not surprising that professional admissions coaches and special tutors have become critical for gaining entrance to top schools – and we know who can afford this luxury. We’ve created a race – an anxiety filled race, says Brooks:

As the drive to compete intensifies, other things get streamlined away. In 1966, 86 percent of college freshmen said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important. Today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important. University of Michigan studies suggest that today’s students score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students did 30 years ago.

Epicurus’s necessity is now synonymous with affluence – we can’t seem to break from it. If we are creating a world that is less empathetic – and doing so by introducing a mindless competitive model that makes commodities (read slaves) of us all – then we’re definitely creating a world where Evil has found its niche. I’m moved by Epicurus these days – and here’s something else that fits our age: No one when he sees evil deliberately chooses it, but is enticed by it as being good in comparison with a greater evil and so pursues it.

Isn’t this where where we find ourselves today?

As of 2012, the last year we have of available data pertaining to the College where I teach, Middlebury, the most popular major (10%) was Economics – it still remains so. Students I see in this major have one goal: Wall Street and gold. According to the Princeton Review, of the top 10 majors, the top three are Business Administration and Management/Commerce, Psychology and Nursing. Economics ranks a surprising 7, after English Language and Literature, Education and Biology/Biological Science.  Accordingly, English is one of the two top majors for gaining entrance into law school; the other is Political Science.  And Catherine Rampnell, of The New York Times, in “The College Majors That Do Best in the Job Market,” says that the major that “produced the most graduates in jobs that required degrees was education and teaching; 71.1 percent of this discipline’s alumni had jobs for which a bachelor’s was a prerequisite.:” Yes, many graduates go on to teach – but education is under attack and not hiring as it once did; however, many do not enter teaching, suggesting that education studies makes for great job training – students are organized, can work within tight time parameters, and communicate effectively.

Being an efficient undergraduate that develops a picture of “success” is therefore key; demonstrating that nothing has been “wasted” while in college is important. Not much else matters; the competition is fierce.

“I’m not sure if students really are less empathetic, or less interested in having meaning in their lives,” writes Brooks, “but it has become more socially acceptable to present yourself that way. In the shadow of this more Darwinian job market, it is more acceptable to present yourself as utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented.

I’m not so sure that Brooks’ use of Darwin is correct, particularly following Edward O. Wilson’s quite cogent argument, in The Social Conquest of the Earth, that societies evolve in direct relationship to their capacity to embrace altruism, the unselfish concern for or a devotion to the welfare of others:

…human groups are formed of highly flexible alliances, not just among family members but between families, genders, classes, and tribes.  The bonding is based on cooperation among individuals or groups who know one another and are capable of distributing ownership and status on a personal basis.  The necessity for fine-graded evaluation by alliance members meant that the prehuman ancestors had to achieve eusociality in a radically different way from the instinct-driven insects.  The pathway to eusociality was charted by a contest between selection based on the relative success of individuals within groups versus relative success among groups.  The strategies of this game were written as a complicated mix of closely calibrated altruism, cooperation, competition, domination, reciprocity, defection, and deceit.

Empathy is key.  But we’ve turned away from the characteristics of meaningful evolution and focused our attention solely on domination and competition – not altruism, cooperation and reciprocity.  Eusociality is a balance, a dance we don’t now enjoy.

Presenting yourself as “utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented” (here meaning: profitable), leads to the commodification of the self, but of experience too. Which is to say that we are headed totally in the opposite direction – a straight line to damnation.

What matters for me is that Education, which I’ve been a part of for nearly 30 years, has had a very strong hand in ensuring that this model goes unquestioned. The utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented model says that we have bought hook, line and sinker into the idea that education is about training and monetary success. Learning to think critically and to question – given plenty of lip service – are nowhere to be found in our actions.

What matters to us most?

In Part 2 of What Matters in Education? I will describe an education model for a renewed commonwealth.

Lost – or The “Voluptuous Surrender”

I’ve not written on the blog in some time, waiting to see what would move me and I’ve been mulling over a few things – some may come later.

But for now, here it is … I’m currently reading, among other things, Rebecca Solnit’s  A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Penguin, 2005). How I came about to Solnit’s book is this: I was sitting in what’s left of what I can say was SoHo, once, Fanelli’s where, in my grad school days, you could be having a beer and a burger and chatting it up with, say, an unassuming Jim Jarmusch.

This world no longer exists in the mall-like SoHo – which is one of Solnit’s points: how can one get lost in the tightly constrained world we’ve manufactured?

Here I am trying to re-capture the lost, double Eagle Rare Single Barrel bourbon 10 YO Whiskey – and a Brooklyn Lager – and this large, well built young man  in a t-shirt (about 30), bald, is sitting next to my wife, Nina, and she and I are excitedly discussing the film La Grande Belleza (Italian; The Great Beauty: ), which we’d just seen at the Angelika down the block from Fanelli’s.  It must have been the during the second Eagle Rare and the guy – like in my old grad school days – jumps in. No. Let’s try this again: he smooths into the conversation, which quickly went from contemporary film (not movies) to art to design to technology to literature and so on.

The guy is J.P. Hollis  – a very cool, bright self-made designer, writer, literary person, etc.  Really a New Yorker, though not from New York, and a prototype of the hybrid individual of tomorrow, which got us talking about women – prompted by my wife, Nina (her favorite conversation) – and relationships.  He’d recently broken up with a young woman who then headed for LA – another mecca of sorts.  Which is how we got to “wandering” and “finding one’s way” and “careers” and “the future” and “what am I going to do with myself if I DON’T get the RIGHT INTERNSHIP – Holy shit!!”  Which is when we were all laughing away and we decided to connect and continue chatting and so on, primarily because his technical background – his history – is almost identical to mine and I thought, “Hey, here’s this 30 year old that 30 or so years after me, he’s done almost the same thing.   Why not chat and maybe we can do something cool?”

This is when he proposed I read Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.  So I’m reading and I’m only thru Chapter 1, the “Open Door,” and I can’t help but think of all might students, each and everyone that places such high significance, such importance on what’s really a manufactured reality and have bought lock, stock and barrel the notion that there are “correct” ways and “not so correct” ways of doing things (mostly about the attainment of material possessions and social capital) when, in reality, every step taken is (a) unknowable and fraught with error and (b) the goal is actually to reach towards those areas, those things that (a) scare a person and (b) the person feels scared about because s/he knows nothing, in the end (I know less now than when I was your age – which should scare all students that have sat in my classes).

To this end, Solnit quotes the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno, who says, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”  Solnit copied this down and carries it around. I’m doing the same thing and I’m going to start asking students this all the time.   I’d simply add that each person must pursue that which is totally unknown with great passion.

In the end, well, it’s the end, no? Whose life is it anyway?  Goldman Sachs?  Whose?

We fear getting lost because, in our view of things, we’re not suppose to, not if we’re following.  But the point, here, is not to follow, is it?

Later Solnit cites the great philosopher, Walter Benjamin, which really hit home when I think of my students – but primarily when I think of those students in New York City, Washington, D.C., Bombay, Hong Kong, and Afghanistan.  “Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more,” says Benjamin. “But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.”  Ah ha!  That’s it, really.  Solnit adds to this: “To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away.”

How true and how wonderful – and requiring much discipline.  A “voluptuous surrender.” Say it a few times. Let it slide off your tongue, slowly, effortlessly, seductively – and you’ll begin to ask the right questions. Focus on the surrender part first.  None of us feels comfortable “surrendering,” but it’s essential.  We never talk about surrendering. We talk about “warring”; we talk about “conquering”; we talk about “next steps,” as if somewhere – and somehow – they’re enumerated and all we have to do is “fit in.”  We we talk about “efficiency” and “accountability” and “excellence.” We talk so much, and so jingoistically, that the individual’s desire for a self is immediately fogged in, trapped into believing that the jingles are somehow true, a reality.

“The word ‘lost’ comes from the Old Norse los,” says Solnit, “meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world.”

Go home. Find a truce with yourselves and the world.

In the end, Solnit worries about my students’ generation, and says, “I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.”  Which is to say, what will come of a generation that has been “housed” in program after program, system after system, each of which are designed to create a moral consciousness – a spirit – from the outside, not from the inside, which is the only way to create a meaningful identity.

The unknown – not about futures, not about “what am I good at?” – scares us the most; it is an  unknown about who you are and the fear is in what you may find.  The French call this l’avenir – that which is to come, the real future, not the plans, the programs, the penciled in events.

You can run, yes; you can join up; you can be a part of “it”, what Chris Hedges calls the “spectacle,” which in his hands is the grand illusion parading as reality.  Or you can get lost, literally, metaphorically, and philosophically and spiritually.  Then you might find some answers.

Assimilating into American Culture 1.0

Part of what informs my life is my ongoing assimilation into American culture. The journey began in 1961.

It was cold and snow was piled high on the tarmac of Idlewild Airport (now JFK International) and on New York City street corners. For a wide-eyed, frightened, young boy, but 7, and who didn’t speak a word of English, the City was something out of an epic, something only imagination can conjure in big terms, colossal, I don’t know, something seemingly impossible though there he found himself in Herald Square, W34th Street, in 1961.

Carlos Vila Photography/Cityscapes

Carlos Vila Photography/Cityscapes

What I didn’t know is that to take in a powerful culture like this, I had to give something up – and if not give it up entirely, tuck it away somewhere.

The first change, the one aspect of my life I had to immediately push away was fútbol. Not the game, rather the word. In it is a world. Only this world is not the U. S.’s. No longer would it be fútbol or even futbol, the name given by Spanish speaking countries to the universal game.

Football originated in England. FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) lists 43 affiliated nations that use fútbol and futbol. The United States and Canada are the only two members, of a total of 45, that call the game soccer. Soccer has been the prevailing term for association football in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, where other codes of football are dominant.

An initial code of football involves the helmet. When this kind of protection becomes central, the culture, unknowingly, adjusts its gaze on that one vital component. This change, this new point of view, is fraught with implication; it changes the values of a culture, an important factor in determining the meaning of football.

Ray Lewis

Ray Lewis

The head in fútbol is used for thinking, planning – and heading. The head is a weapon in football. The critical thinking happens on the sidelines and in booths, thinkers assisted by technology – computers, cameras, software, communications technology – that reflect our very own condition, the fan looking in, the fan trying to read the very confusing kernels of information streaming from various points of origin, most of which are unknown. This is not to suggest that there’s no thinking on the Gridiron. There is – but it’s short lived, reactionary,  compressed, almost ephemeral, fleeting – gone once territory is captured. Followed by chatter. Followed by next. In-between a beer maybe.

Violence, the taking of territory, anxiety over time – the defining characteristics of football that pushed aside the grace of the world’s game, fútbol. Instantly I learned that force is privileged in this foreign place. Force and violence, that is. The taking of territory by guile and violence, all neatly wrapped in a spectacle that generates huge amounts of money in a merciless, vertical economic reality. You’re in or your out. That’s it. Play or go home. The message, as a young boy trying to take it all in, was clear. Totally. Riches reside at the top, the penthouse – or in the case of football, the luxurious owner’s box. On the field the bodies lay wounded, forever changed in a quid pro quo: money for your body. A football contract is about the value of a player’s body – that’s it.

Heavy snow fell the night before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, January 20th, 1961. We flew into New York a few days before. The election of 1960 had been close, and the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts was eager to gather support for his agenda. Kennedy attended Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown that morning before joining President Eisenhower to travel to the Capitol . The Congress had extended the East Front, and the inaugural platform spanned the new addition. The oath of office was administered by Chief Justice Earl Warren. Robert Frost read one of his poems at the ceremony.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Kennedy’s image was grainy on the Martinique Hotel’s TV. But I listened and my father translated.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

In 1961, the AFL and NFL agreed to merge together to create one “Super League” called the NFL. In this agreement between the AFL and the NFL they arranged to begin playing a championship game between two conferences the AFC and NFC after the 1966 season. Originally the Championship game was named the AFL – NFL Championship, but it was soon nicknamed the Super Bowl.

The first Super Bowl, though, between the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, wasn’t so eagerly anticipated. With Green Bay’s perennial dominance the only question seemed to be was how large would Green Bay’s margin of victory be. Even though the tickets cost only $12, the game still wasn’t a sellout.

The NFL machinery was in motion. The spectacle was born. I was terribly excited – all 7 year old boys, mostly Irish and Italian at St. Gabriel’s School in Riverdale, Bronx, New York, played out their athletic fantasies in the schoolyard. I was looking to find ways in, trying to understand and learn English – until I heard someone call out, Spick. Spick. I didn’t have to look long. My way in was fighting, just being tougher then someone else, not backing down. Respect.

Unconsciously, I was taking in a world awash with violence, anger and confusion. It came from all sides. The body of Christ, I heard the priest say in front of a crucifix held high for all to see the suffering. A political movement for equality played on TV, harsh images of German Shepherds attacking Black people.

The Cuban Missile Crisis paralyzed the world for 13 days, a confrontation between the Soviet Union and Cuba on one side, the United States on the other. From October 14 to the 28th, 1962, the world stood at the brink of nuclear war; it was the very real moment when we first understood mutual assured destruction.

How long do I have? I began thinking then. How am I going to live with this? Certainly not abide. If I’m going to go, I’m going to go my way. Everything around me told me as much.

On November 20th, 1963, at 12:20PM, in Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, Texas, the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. On February 21, 1965, one week after his home was firebombed, Malcolm X was shot to death by Nation of Islam members while speaking at a rally of his organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom in New York City. On April 4, 1968, at the age of 39, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. And on June 6, 1968, while campaigning for the presidency, Robert F. Kennedy, “Bobby,” was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, California.

All of this was regular television.

We were in the thick of things in Vietnam, which lasted until the fall of Saigon, April 30, 1975 – three years after I first registered for the draft and missed being sent when I was 15 numbers off in the lottery. Richard Nixon was inaugurated as president on January 20, 1969, sworn in by his onetime political rival, Chief Justice Earl Warren. On January 5, 1972, Nixon entered his name on the New Hampshire primary ballot, effectively announcing his candidacy for reelection. At some point in the spring, I think it was, Nixon came through Garden City, Long Island, a Republican enclave in Nassau County, and I managed to shake his hand. He didn’t get my vote – no one did that year. I didn’t vote. By June 17, 1972, The Washington Post was breaking the Watergate Story.

The murders of the Kennedy’s, King and Malcolm X, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights – and Nixon – were a perfect storm that changed the semblance of America until our very day. We haven’t recovered. We haven’t fully realized what materialized since.

But the spectacle of violence was in place – and getting stronger, growing exponentially with broadcast technologies. Football was fast becoming America’s game because America was fast becoming a media-centric society. And our attention was narrowing.

The Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 was passed in response to a court decision which ruled that the NFL‘s method of negotiating television broadcasting rights violated antitrust laws. The court ruled that the “pooling” of rights by all the teams to conclude an exclusive contract between the league and CBS was illegal. The Act overruled that decision, permitting certain joint broadcasting agreements among the major professional sports.

Football’s potential was in its infancy. The road ahead was clear. It’s been television that’s brought the NFL to prominence, along with a spectacular way of passively transmitting the dominant culture’s ruling ideologies. Since then, NFL broadcasts have become among the most-watched programs on American television, and the financial fortunes of entire networks have rested on owning NFL broadcasting rights. This has raised questions about the impartiality of the networks’ coverage of games and whether they can criticize the NFL without fear of losing the rights and their income.

Monday Night Football first aired on September 21, 1970, with a game between the New York Jets and the Browns in Cleveland. This brought ABC Sports producer Roone Arledge’s dream of creating an entertainment “spectacle” as much as a simple sports broadcast to fruition. Advertisers were charged $65, 000 per minute by ABC, a cost that proved to be a bargain when the contest collected 33 percent of the viewing audience.

Before we knew it, the spectacle became how we experienced life in the U.S.. Programs such as the Kardashians and the Real Housewives of (fill in your city) were born then. They all work on the same soap opera narrative model, something NFL coverage excels in.

Monday Night Football

Monday Night Football

Monday Night Football ushered in a new era of television and I was further away from fútbol than ever before, though I was playing in a small community league, coached by a Scotsman. It was soccer all the way. The Scotsman tried playing an orderly game, a military-like, precision game of mid-range passes, very little flair and solid fundamentals. It didn’t sit well with me. Remember: I was going to go at this life my way. Soccer in a football culture.

I was a foreigner, undocumented, except for a passport, until 1972 when I followed my father into Naturalization. See, because before I wasn’t Naturalized. I felt the Other – foreign – on and off the field.

By now, 2013, amidst scandal pertaining to concussions, exposed in the Frontline documentary, League of Denial, where the NFL is compared to the tobacco companies, the National Football League will have revenues “somewhere just north of $9 billion, which means the league remains the most lucrative in th world.” That is up 5.6% – or $500 million – from the previous year, and $1.8 billion (23.4%) more than Major League Baseball ($7.7).

This is the America in which I find myself and I’m not sure what I think. If NFL player contracts are about the player’s body – how long will it last? – then how much is a body worth?

An NFL game is about crisis and the drama that can be built around this with careful narrative strategies – as in politics. Television and now the Internet have forced new narrative lines to appear, across all professional sports, in order to capture the fan’s gaze. By now I’m wondering what’s left of that wide-eyed 7 year old boy? The violence and brute force that initially overwhelmed my conscience have metamorphosed into an experience that is highly compressed. Reacting to violence, which seems to be so prevalent – and promoted – is, as I write here, now, a major obstacle in every aspect of my life, and I suspect other’s as well.

The grace of fútbol is gone from my life – except when I catch a game (hopefully it’s Messi and Barcelona) on TV. Not enough time, a tighter field in which to do open field running, abundant crisis – these mark our lives today. Which is a road to what? Where are we going?

I haven’t watched any football this year, except to watch Middlebury College defeat Williams College, 21-14, on October 12, 2013. Perhaps a final act of assimilation into humanity.

College Affordability and the Order of the Day

The other day, speaking at Binghampton University, in New York, President Obama said the following:

“But…let’s assume that we eliminated all discrimination magically with a wand, and everybody had goodness in their heart, you’d still have a situation in which there are a lot of folks who are poor, and whose families have become dysfunctional, because of a long legacy of poverty, and live in neighborhoods that are run-down and schools that are underfunded and don’t have a strong property tax base.”

Concomitantly, as it so happens, Noam Chomsky, speaking in Bonn, Germany, at the DW Global Media Forum about how the United States is not behaving anything like a democracy, said the following:

“Well, another important feature of RECD [really existing capitalist democracy; it has several daunting characteristics described in Chomsky’s talk] is that the public must be kept in the dark about what is happening to them. The “herd” must remain “bewildered”. The reasons were explained lucidly by the professor of the science of government at Harvard – that’s the official name – another respected liberal figure, Samuel Huntington. As he pointed out, “power remains strong when it remains in the dark. Exposed to sunlight, it begins to evaporate”.” [inclusion of brackets mine]

We can’t have it both ways. Which is it? Are we indeed moving towards a classless society where social justice, compassion and empathy – and opportunity for all – are at the heart or are we moving towards a society where more and more, each day, we are “herded” further into “bewilderment” and unknowing, which is very quickly followed by apathy, the sense of giving up, because nothing will change so we have to go along with the plan that we don’t see?

We can find an answer to these questions in President Obama’s most recent bus tour to promote his education policies – college affordability – meant to extend the opportunities for those that graduate from college. These policies, interestingly, run parallel to the Administration’s Race to the Top, the K-12 program (more on this below).

A way to end poverty, says President Obama, is to ensure that all citizens that want access to affordable higher education should have it.  Makes sense. Good idea. Obama’s plan is to grade institutions of higher education by matching outcomes to costs. Presumably, then, somehow the cost of higher education will be measured by where graduates land jobs, what they achieve and how these achievements can then point to a profitable, worthwhile future for students and the country. Okay, very dreamy.

But what this proposed plan will undoubtedly create is the following:

  • A stronger demarcation between the haves and the have nots, a more stringent hierarchy.
  • A greater concentration of power among the few, but particularly among those that will follow the path of banking (see Chomsky, above), which is where wealth is being made today.
  • A greater concentration of power is always followed by tighter surveillance, tighter policing and a further reduction in civil liberties; it’s also followed by a more nationalistic approach to foreign policy (isn’t it ironic – even uncanny – that a rise in racial profiling, an increase in drone terrorism and greater power given to Wall Street all happened while the first African American president presides over the nation? never mind the diminution in civil liberties …)

Why do I say these things? Because while the Obama Administration is looking to use outcomes as a means to curtail education costs, a reason for the high cost of higher education is not outcomes, but rather, inputs.

Here’s what I mean: the best colleges and universities – Harvard, Princeton, Yale, so on – make sure to attract the best – and best known (read: best published) – professors; this entails paying well and having personalized budgets for the professors’ respective research projects. In turn, these luminaries attract money from all sectors of our society – military, technology, science and medicine, and business. Money begets money.

Students in the best colleges and universities work closely with some of the best minds in the country; students are connected to future work through research, internships, and simple face-to-face meetings at conferences, and so on. In other words, the best students are carefully groomed to be on the cutting edge stage.  Also, these great schools have tremendously powerful and well connected alumni groups that take on as their responsibility the promotion of young, up and coming undergraduates and graduate students. It’s a conveyor belt to wealth and power. The reward is of course a wonderful life, material security, and great fun without needing to worry about the rest, those left behind.  This is not going away; it’s only going to get stronger.  And no one in this world is going to give this up – that’s for certain.

This conveyor belt wants participants to enter into different nodes in the current production system. This system does not want game changers, people that will come up with changes to level the playing field – President Obama is a prime example. In fact, this system works because it relies on the very notion that education is hierarchical and the different nodes in the system are synonymous with the inputs elite colleges and universities have put into place with donor funding.

The outcomes Obama wants to measure are easily done by these elite schools – in fact, they’re already doing it: go to the leading industries in this country – the military, government and Wall Street, technology – and you can see who is sitting where, wielding power and making policy: they all come from top schools – say the top 20 -50 schools. Take a quick look when college seniors look for work in powerful enterprises and you’ll find that the most profitable industries already have in place a method for hiring – and it starts with the Ivies. The back rooms on Wall Street are filled with students that have attended second and third tier schools (Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking, this is par for the course.)

If we then add Obama’s K-12 plan, Race to the Top, we can note some parallels. Take New York City, for instance. Those students and families that have enough understanding of the system, are moving to charter schools and elite public schools such as Bronx Science and Stuyvesant. What’s happening in NYC is that those kids that don’t have family support, that don’t have the proper preparation to take entrance tests, and so on, are left behind in some of the more challenged, large, urban public schools. It’s difficult to get ahead. In turn, the best colleges and universities, whether working through special programs in the inner city or looking at individual students, first go to the best schools because, naturally, they want students to succeed; their success turns up on the bottom line.

So where are we?

We are where Chomsky says we are: a nation where power is easily kept hidden from the majority; where the majority are too easily sold programs and ideas by people that have other notions in mind – namely to maintain the status quo. Power, kept this way, is deeply rooted; it’s ancient and therefore hard to move – if at all. This is not pessimism, rather the way things are. We live in a spectacle society because it’s essential; it is a means by which powerful entities claim to have answers, color these answers – college affordability – in dreamy language, when in fact what’s happening is a deeper, more powerful entrenchment of the (historical) ways power is kept. Education is – and will be – a very powerful way to ensure our means of existence stay just as they’ve always been. Education is another arm of power.

Chomsky: The U.S. behaves nothing like a democracy

I need only provide this poignant paragraph from Chomsky’s speech on the

Chomsky: The U.S. behaves nothing like a democracy

It says it all.  The 2016 Election will be a perfect storm in the U.S., probably might next post.

“In short, Really Existing Capitalist Democracy is very remote from the soaring rhetoric about democracy. But there is another version of democracy. Actually it’s the standard doctrine of progressive, contemporary democratic theory. So I’ll give some illustrative quotes from leading figures – incidentally not figures on the right. These are all good Woodrow Wilson-FDR-Kennedy liberals, mainstream ones in fact. So according to this version of democracy, “the public are ignorant and meddlesome outsiders. They have to be put in their place. Decisions must be in the hands of an intelligent minority of responsible men, who have to be protected from the trampling and roar of the bewildered herd”. The herd has a function, as it’s called. They’re supposed to lend their weight every few years, to a choice among the responsible men. But apart from that, their function is to be “spectators, not participants in action” – and it’s for their own good. Because as the founder of liberal political science pointed out, we should not succumb to “democratic dogmatisms about people being the best judges of their own interest”. They’re not. We’re the best judges, so it would be irresponsible to let them make choices just as it would be irresponsible to let a three-year-old run into the street. Attitudes and opinions therefore have to be controlled for the benefit of those you are controlling. It’s necessary to “regiment their minds”. It’s necessary also to discipline the institutions responsible for the “indoctrination of the young.” All quotes, incidentally. And if we can do this, we might be able to get back to the good old days when “Truman had been able to govern the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers.” This is all from icons of the liberal establishment, the leading progressive democratic theorists. Some of you may recognize some of the quotes.”