The Existential Crisis in Higher Learning: Reinventing Ourselves Around Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are our priorities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ecology of Teaching

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I did this interview, last summer (2014), for Joe Brooks and The Community Works Institute (CWI).  Great camera work and editing by Michael Hanish, Free Lunch Productions.

Higher Education and Education Reform: The Uncanny Stranglehold on Change

In order to reform education — code for altering and restructuring public education in socio-economically strapped urban settings without considering the will of the people affected, even if it means privatization and exclusion — we have to look at the entire picture, the continuum, K-16. The problem lies here.

In The Learning Connection: New Partnerships Between Schools and Colleges, Gene I. Maeroff, Patrick M. Callan and Michael D. Usdan, tell us, citing Roland Barth of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, that, “dual citizenship remains evanescent.” And that the “two sectors [K-12 and higher education] — at a time when both need reform, renewal, rethinking, and restructuring — have few connecting mechanisms to enable them to work cooperatively on issues of mutual concern.”

The challenges we face require that we re-think our complacency with current systems and arrangements. “With up to one-third of the children under age 6 growing up in poverty or economically marginal circumstances,” Maeroff, Callan and Usdan continue, “the K-12 system is confronting serious social as well as educational challenges.” The situation is grave and costly and if we don’t re-address these connections we will march into a bifurcated society — if we’re not there already.

But reform will not be enacted — and be done creatively — if we neglect the relationships between K-12 and colleges and universities. University culture hangs over K-12 education; it’s cloak of anxiety and fear overwhelms the young and their families, leading both to cower before the hallow ivy. Higher education, at its best, marginalizes and divides. It’s disconcerting because higher education is suppose to be about self-actualization.

Higher education is mired in a perspective that is inconsistent with self-actualization. Higher education is enthralled by data driven excellence and the pursuit of efficiency; it sacrifices individual talent, and effort, and privileges materialism. This is an antiquated — and destructive — way of being, commonly known as a “silo approach,” but perhaps Paulo Freire’s characterization, a “banking system,” fits best since all signs suggest that education is the new corporation, the new kid on the block comprised of powerful multinationals.

No one is happy. Everyone is confused. No one has any answers, it seems. “Without major changes in the reward system in higher education — affecting appointment, tenure, and promotion,” argue Maeroff, Callan and Usdan, “there is little chance for meaningful and sustained change and involvement in K-12 issues. We refer here to universitywide policies because collaboration efforts ought not to be limited to the faculties of schools of education.”

David Helfand, for instance, a Columbia University professor for 35 years, who chaired the astronomy department, is on leave to serve as President of tiny Quest University Canada, a liberal arts college. In the Tamar Lewin New York Times article, “David Helfand’s New Quest,” Helfand says, about Quest, that, “We have to make sure people’s inherent conservatism isn’t allowed to come through. We have to institutionalize revolution, or we’ll end up with departments and semester-long courses.” In other words, the silo or the banking system shuts down self-actualization, departmentalizes it and renders it helpless. The residue of institutionalized departmentalization, its power to place blinders on the scope of our vision, is overwhelming K-12 education; it comes in the form of high stakes testing and educational divisions separating children’s learning experiences along soci-economic and racial lines.

We thus have a society divided. Segregation is brought about by the discontinuity in K-16 education. The educational system, then, accepting inequalities, is willing to work towards small gains within “the limits inequality allows,” says Jonathan Kozol in The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.

Curriculum materials that are alleged to be aligned with governmentally established goals and standards and particularly suited to what are regarded as ‘the special needs and learning styles’ of low-income urban children have been introduced. Relentless emphasis on raising test scores, rigid policies of non-promotion and non-graduation, a new empiricism and the imposition of unusually detailed lists of named and numbered ‘outcomes’ for each isolated parcel of instruction, an oftentimes fanatical insistence upon uniformity of teachers in their management time, an openly conceded emulation of the rigorous approaches of the military, and a frequent use of terminology that comes out of the world of industry and commerce — these are just a few of the familiar aspects of these new adaptive strategies.

And these adaptive strategies so well described by Kozol have their origin in the new University that, according to the late Bill Readings in The University in Ruins, “no longer participates in the historical project for humanity that was the legacy of the Enlightenment: the historical project of culture. Such a claim also raises some significant questions of its own: Is this a new age dawning for the University project, or does it mark the twilight of the University’s critical and social function? And if it is the twilight, then what does that mean?”

The University is, in fact, in a new dawn, on the one side struggling with its antecedent — its role in humanity’s historical project; the other being the lure of materialism, “the reconception of the University as corporation,” says Readings, “one of whose functions (products?) is the granting of degrees with a cultural cache, but whose overall nature is corporate rather than cultural.”

Students in Professor Helfand’s Columbia class, he tell us, when he was asking them why they weren’t as inquisitive as 4th graders, inform him that, “Fourth graders are curious and university freshman by and large aren’t…There’s too much to learn, and it’s all on Google anyway.” And, says another, “This is a seminar. Asking questions could be a sign of weakness. You can only ask questions in big lectures where you’re anonymous.” So, says another student, “You have to understand, I’m paying for a degree, not an education.”

There you have it. Students — and their paying families — want a degree, not an education. Only education — and especially higher education — is responsible for this extraordinarily shortsighted view, which is costly in more way then one since it’s given us the society we now have.

We’re therefore left with the corporation. The corporation is the culture — and vice versa. The elite cannot sidestep this bind either. “The elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent, and often subversive,” says Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion. “They organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers, and rigid structures designed to produce such answers. The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service — economic, political, and social — come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market, and also with highly specialized vocabulary …a sign of the ‘specialist’ and, of course, the elitist, thwarts universal understanding.”

What emerges are managers of the dominant system, not change agents, not enlightened individuals that can question, imagine something different and transgress the means of blind production. Education K-12 is part of this system, weeding out those that can become the elite managers of the system, separating them from those that will service the system elsewhere — manual labor, the service industries and, more emphatically, in the prison industrial complex, as guards and inmates.

Education means to control and manage, not enlighten and enable actualization; it creates specialists, the elites, and a slave class through its apartheid system. The system is inverted — inverted totalitarianism.

In higher education, tenure is, of course, part of the problem. It’s a system of discipline and punishment that insists on embracing the larger framework as ideal. “It’s not exactly a system designed to attract the most entrepreneurial, risk-taking types,” Helfand tells Tamar Lewin . “Furthermore, tenure has little to do with teaching. Just look at the language: we talk about teaching ‘loads’ and research ‘opportunities,’ and you can be sure it is exploiting the latter that gets you tenure,” he says. Tenure is synonymous with advancing in a corporation; the language is interchangeable.

We can hear echoes of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish here: “The apparatus of punitive justice must now bite into their bodiless reality.” Indeed. Our education system, K-16, and our students, our teachers and professors, too, enter this “bodiless reality” where discipline and punishment are exercised. “Since its no longer the body,” says Foucault, “it must be the soul” that must be disciplined. Education serves this purpose in our society: it disciplines the soul into subservience and blind allegiance; it enables citizens to embrace the most dangerous thing of all, ideologies.

The result, says John Ralston Saul in The Unconscious Civilization, “will be the portrait of a society addicted to ideologies — a civilization tightly held at this moment in the embrace of a dominant ideology: corporatism. The acceptance of corporatism causes us to deny and undermine the legitimacy of the individual as citizen in a democracy. The result of such a denial is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of the public good.”

Self-interest trumps self-actualization in Education. This can be turned around if we, in higher education, examine our purpose. And if our purpose is even remotely about self-actualization — ours and our students’– then we’re called to re-evaluate the conditions in the University that have lead us to the dire circumstances we’re in today. On this road we’ll realize a few things: we’re not sure who are students are and what they need and want; we’re not sure about our world because we reject the notion that we, in academia, had something to do with its creation; we are fearful of releasing ourselves from the binds of departmentalization and devising new and fresh approaches to learning that take into consideration how much we’ve come to know about learning and the brain; and we are definitely frightened of releasing our sense of ownership and control over our disciplines to give way to different and fresh, interdisciplinary approaches, though our life at hand is telling us that we must since nothing, nothing at all really ever exists confined as we make it out to be in our silos, our disciplines. K-16 education needs to be re-invented as a long journey towards self-actualization that pushes aside departmentalization, corporatism and racism, our current conditions.

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: 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?

Charlie Sheen, Kim Kardashian and the Dismantling of American Schooling

Five Irvington New Jersey teens are charged with dragging an eighth grade math teacher, Muideen Oladoja, from his classroom and beating him. A month ago, the Crips gang marched on to the campus of the Rafael Hernandez Elementary School, in Newark, New Jersey, and beat up a student who had allegedly said some words to a child of the Crip leader.

In Providence, Rhode Island, 2000 teachers serving mostly African American and Hispanic students — approximately 90% — are about to lose their jobs. In Wisconsin, the same. In Indiana and Ohio and New Jersey, here too, the dismantling of education is taking shape. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg, taking control of the Department of Education, began the break up — and break down — of education some time ago, moving towards charters and privatization.

And yet, it’s uncanny that as violence in our schools is a daily occurrence — mostly unreported by mainstream media — and our infrastructure deteriorates and our schools are carefully and forcefully being dismantled, American eyes — one million last count — are on Charlie Sheen, and Kim Kardashian’s, arguably the most popular reality TV star, release of her debut single, Jam.

What’s wrong with this picture?

According to the Economic Policy Institute, one in five American children lives in poverty and nearly 35 percent of African-American children are living in poverty.   And the figures are getting worse: In 2008, 39.8 million people were in poverty, up from 37.3 million in 2007 — the second consecutive annual increase in the number of people in poverty.  In 2008, the poverty rate increased for non-Hispanic Whites (8.6 percent in 2008 — up from 8.2 percent in 2007), Asians (11.8 percent in 2008 — up from 10.2 percent in 2007) and Hispanics (23.2 percent in 2008 — up from 21.5 percent in 2007). Poverty rates in 2008 were statistically unchanged for Blacks (24.7 percent).   The poverty rate increased for children under 18 years old (19.0 percent in 2008 — up from 18.0 percent in 2007).

When we venture into politics, we find that no political figure of color comes from any social movement. These political figures have usually joined their party of choice during college; they have moved quickly up through the ranks, and they are not race rebels, as we witnessed about 40 years ago. This is Obama; it’s also Corey Booker of Newark, Michael Steele, Alan Keyes, Deval Patrick and others. None of these politicians represents a threat to the power structure of America. These politicians, as are all, black and white, male and female, are beholding to a new paradigm: a corporate – government alliance.

What am I suggesting?

I am following the notion of “racism lite,” found in Racism Without Racists, by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Instead of relying on name calling (niggers, Spicks, Chinks), and lynching and black/white bathrooms, color-blind racism “otherizes” softly (“these people are human, too”).  It suggests that blacks and minorities in general have fallen behind because they’ve not worked hard enough.   This form of racism, a new ideology, which is in compliance with inverted totalitarianism — the corporate – government alliance — aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those it subjects and those who it rewards.   In this world, whites can even claim, “reverse racism.”   The Tea Party Movement, small as it is, is replete with this kind of language.

Where are we?

Kenneth Clark, back in 1965 – that’s 45 years ago – in his seminal work, Dark Ghetto said the following:  “The dark ghettos are social, political, educational, and – above all – economic colonies.  Their inhabitants are subject peoples, victims of greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt, and fear of their masters.”

This is the world we’re still creating, not realizing that the resulting tragedy of this always-ongoing story is that fellow citizens – fellow Americans and in some cases immigrants, legal and not, lured by the promise of prosperity – are disenfranchised and relegated to a life where hope is indeed on a tightrope.  What’s more, children, by the thousands, have no cultural armor to protect them while navigating the terrors and traumas of daily life.

Even an extreme conservative doesn’t seem able to understand how fiscally costly this is, never mind the human cost. In fact, it’s cheaper to send a student to an elite liberal arts college, costing over 45K a year, then it is to send this same person, usually Black or Latino (but mostly Black), to prison.

President Obama in his Nobel Peace Prize speech in Oslo, December 11, 2009 said the following: “It is undoubtedly true that development rarely takes root without security; it is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive.  It does not exist where children cannot aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within.”   He was speaking to the world about the world outside the United States.  He was speaking as the Commander-in-Chief.

Yet closer to home, in the communities in which I work and learn – Newark’s South Ward and Washington Heights, Providence, R.I., Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, Compton – families and their kids live in “despair,” which is a word that parents and teachers share with me to describe their condition.   Young people need a community to sustain them, and these days, we’re in deep trouble because we’re dismantling education, ensuring deep divides in our society based on access to the language of social mobility — some can still find hope, while other are relegated to a bleak and dark future.

In the beginning of his powerful work on American Education, The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, Jonathan Kozol sits and talks to an elementary student, Pineapple. In this exchange, Kozol is drawn to Pineapple’s use of “over there” when she points to the Manhattan island:

“What’s it like,” she asked me, peering through the strands of her cornrows that cam down over her eyes, “over there where you live?

“Over where?” I asked.

“Over — you know …,” she said with another bit of awkwardness and hesitation in her eyes.

I asked her, “Do you mean Massachusetts?”

She looked at me with more determination and a bit impatiently, I thought, but maybe also recognized that I was feeling slightly awkward too.

“You know …,” she said.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“Over there — where other people are, ” she finally said.The moral of the story is that Pineapple has little contact with white people, Kozol explains, except for her principal and teachers. Racially, kids like Pineapple are totally cut off; they have “little knowledge of the ordinary reference points that are familiar to most children in the world Pineapple describes as ‘over there,'” says Kozol.

The violence in Irvington New Jersey and the Rafael Hernandez Elementary School is, in part, a consequence of this lacking in reference points — desperate acts always follow.

The dismantling of education by proxies of corporations, as are the governors of Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and New Jersey, is the dramatic sign that the way business has been done in the past is over and that a new world order, beginning here in the United States, is taking shape.  The dominant class — those closely aligned with the corporate state — marginalizes class and race , breaks up collective bargaining, and dismantles education because the last thing inverted totalitarianism needs is an educated class, so our focus is kept on Charlie Sheen and Kim Kardashian. What a world.

Preliminary Notes NCORE (Day1-PM 2)

NCORE

NCORE

5-5:45 (Potomac Ballroom A and B/Convention Center, Level 2)
Afternoon Conference Pleneray Session

Teach the Children, Free the Land: The Political Economy of Public Education

Mari J. Matsuda, J.D., Professor of Law, William S. Richardson School of Law, University of Hawi’i—Mãnoa, Hawai’i ( pioneer in critical race theory; top, most influential Asian Americans)

Intro

•    Loves coming to the conference – she can tell it’s NCORE.  It is a convention of people who are dedicated to the heart and spirit of the country, rich in its diversity. It’s not a convention in Arizona
•    Currently working on a book on the state of public education – history, economy, race and subordination and class
•    3 worlds: (1) greed is good: plow orchards and build macmansions to people that can’t afford them; bail out too big to fail ponzi schemes that are too large to fail, the $ coming from the workers; experts say that this is not suppose to happened; (2) greed is good lite: a modest national health care system, leaving all intact –pharmaceutical, hospitals, etc; business as usual; give cash for clunkers; what you can pull together for yourself will be yours – up and down and malaise: (3) just beyond our grasp: expected to work hard, but the market does not make rules, we do it under the Constitution and build a democracy – we choose how to regulate markets; we will impose reasonable regulations on the food industry; we will propose reasonable regulations on oil and coal so that they can’t kill our oceans and our land.
•    Topic: if we could take hold of our government, we can start investing in our needs – education, health care, homes, etc., everything that’s as important as militarism. This place is imperative, because our nation’s survival dependents on an educated citizen that can build our future.
•    We’re losing minority enrollment because of the economy.  As a critical race theorist, I ask what race has to do with it and I consider all forms of subordination intersecting in our schools.
•    No more orchestra, no glee club, no more play – it’s all gone from public schools.
•    What happened?

Talk

•    In DC, in public schools, mouse feces in closets, no heat, so students have to learn to write and ware mittens
•    To avoid social problems (critical race theory) is to place them on the shoulders of a disenfranchised group
•    Reagan cut social investments using images of poor, homeless people of color, although most recepients were white
•    What does it mean when we say, “They just can’t learn?”  We have to keep “our” students from “their” students
•    Most schools are “black”—black teachers, black students, etc. – all coding, encompassing all ethnic groups of color
•    Derek Bell – when people say urban, we mean “black”; it happens at the uncoscious levels: “We can’t just throw money at the problem because it will be waste.  The problem is waste and inefficiency.”
•    The presuption that they will fail is racist—they don’t have what it takes to succeed
•    No form of subordination is without cause: everyone can read, write and succed
•    Where is the interconnection of forms of subordination that cause this
•    Gender is less obvious: look for gender where it’s hard to see: we swim in the objectification of women. Where is gender of subordination in education?
•    Second wave feminists were involved in practice, though what they asked for became theory, one such area is public vs private, so women originally entered the public in private sphere jobs
•    Ideology of separate spheres carried over, after the second wave
•    Post New Deal Era marked a sharp decline in women wages – short paying women and unfunding schools; we have decreased the total amount of money put into the infrastructure
•    Broken systems generate costs, inefficiencies generate costs – it sends a message to students, which is education is not important.  Feminist take: education of children is woman’s work; in the middle class, women still pick up the work. Women are doing the job that the state is suppose to do.
•    Well endowed private schools do spend money on infrastructure, things are fixed
•    Poar New Deal generation have the same sense of entitlement, but now the parents have to pick up the slack: what will it take to stop accomadating and resisting all efforts to divest the public sector
•    In deep economic era, there is no public outcry at the abuse of the working class
•    Capital will make consessions to the worker if it has no choice; it responds with just enough to quiet it down
•    During the last depression, people did fight back – people marched, 20,000 strong, on to capital hill (unemployed veterans of WW1, run out by tanks and Army personal on horseback) – this image gave us the New Deal (note: we never hear this narrative)
•    Three decades later, poor women, stood up demanding demanding for their children
•    Power concedes to the demands of the poor; we have models of multiracial divesting and as educators we need to retrieve them
•    Now we see public education as expendable: the country belongs to us and we have the power to make the country strong
•    We need a new deal for education
•    DuBois: a deep hunger for learning among those we consider the outcasts
•    We have protoypes of multiracial, small schools that work
•    We know what works; it’s not a mystery, so it’s proof that we are making a deliberate choice to have urban schools fail. Charters, etc., words that supplant the kind of integration that’s needed
•    We have become unknowing survilists in terms of education; we’re taking on education as a personal problem.  But people must be called back to the table to re-do what we’ve left behind
•    Every child is our own – feed, teach, shelter, embrace every child with the love human beings are entitled. This is when we’ll see peace.  An investment has to be made – and it’s a big investment
(note: we do make this investment, but it separates those that can afford it from those that can’t; standardization is what we do when we’re aiming low)

Death in Chicago and the American Decline

I’m taking a slight break from revisiting my schooling past to address what just happened in Chicago: Chicago Targets Teen Violence After Teen Brawl (and death). Earlier, in Education Stimulus Package: In Duncan’s Hands, Hope is on a Tightrope, I wrote that,

If the rest of the stimulus package proposed by the President and approved by Congress (the Senate is debating the package) is handled the way Secretary Duncan discussed the $140 billion increase in federal money for education we are in for a difficult ride. Duncan (University of Chicago Laboratory Schools / Harvard) is long on hyperbole, short on any understanding of the challenges facing education.

The recent violence in Chicago demonstrates that at its core the way education has been managed (in Chicago) needs to be revisited since Duncan’s Renaissance 2010 project to improve public schools. Renaissance 2010 converted several failing high schools into smaller specialized schools. The goal was to improve learning and boost test scores. But it forced thousands of students to attend schools farther away from home and across dangerous gang and neighborhood turf boundaries.

Chicago education officials support Renaissance 2010, saying that “deeper” problems promulgated the violence in Chicago that ended the life of a young man. The tragedy in Chicago is a convergence of 2 American tragedies: (1) The Renaissance 2010 project is an ill conceived method of management based ONLY on what Freire has called the “banking system of education,” meaning that Duncan’s concern is solely management, the herding of students and teachers into a hierarchical — and quantifiable — system, rather than thinking about the creation of learning spaces that are both safe and invigorating; and, (2), the ongoing work by the US Government, since the stimulus package, to cut the education budget, which then converges with the decline of support in neighborhoods throughout the country–the South Bronx, Newark’s South Ward, Compton, in LA, and, yes, Chicago.

We cannot address problems in education unless we likewise address problems in our communities — unemployment, health care, and the malaise brought on by hopelessness.

In The Uneducated American, Paul Krugman, writing for The New York Times, says that, “Until now, the results of educational neglect have been gradual — a slow-motion erosion of America’s relative position. But things are about to get much worse, as the economic crisis — its effects exacerbated by the penny-wise, pound-foolish behavior that passes for ‘fiscal responsibility’ in Washington — deals a severe blow to education across the board.”

Duncan and Congress are entrenched in a mission to increase efficiency by “busing” students into massive schools focused intensely on standardization, while paying absolutely no attention to the decay that is so evident in some of our communities. Since the Reagan years, the gap between the haves and the have nots has increased. We are now seeing the results of the same old policies that have, through Bush II, ensured that the gap has remained, obvious in the way we’re handling education and health care.

The lack of creativity, the lack of a future looking agenda that taps some of the best thinkers in education, community development and health care means that we’ve not seen the end of this tragic approach. More students will die. Of course, many more students do, perhaps not as dramatically (meaning: getting media attention) as they have in Chicago (last spring, working in Newark’s South Ward, 2 children were shot in a playground — a drive by shooting and the children were collateral damage).

If we don’t take stock of our blindness, we will continue our downward spiral.

The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat ~ or What Alex Rodriguez, Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez, R. Allen Stanford and Bernie Madoff Have in Common

Illustrator Barry Blitt has done it again. He has created yet another great New Yorker cover that parallels the one he did of Obama back in July of 2008. Only now, in the February 23 issue, we find a muscular Alex Rodgriguez signing autographs for steroid pumped children.

Blitt New Yorker -- Rodriguez

Blitt New Yorker -- Rodriguez

The illustration captures the conflicting drama of sports in America today: while we’ve been taught that sports–and particularly baseball–are about community, fair play, honor and courage, the notion that a player works as hard as she and he can for the benefit of the team, we find instead another reality–selfishness and hubris, egotism, deceit, cheating and scandal. And all of it the design of a production system that suggests that winning at any cost is what matters most.

The fundamental American principles of self-reliance, experience and pragmatism are nowhere evident. It’s no wonder we’re all confused.

Baseball was about redemption. It is a forgiving sport for players and viewers; it is also a contemplative sport. The point of baseball is to “come home”–round the bases home. It’s a space game. There’s plenty of time in baseball. But none of this is true anymore. Baseball is as harsh a sport as any other. Home is where the gold is. Possibilities are gone, as is the imagination. Like football, our current national pastime, baseball is now a finite game, about end results. And the end result is not winning, but rather, profit and loss.

In 2008, the 33 year old Rodriguez had a .302 average (.306 lifetime) and earned $28 million dollars. Coming into the 2008 season, the Yankees were valued somewhere between $200 million, to $1.2 billion; their revenue was $302 million (with $28 million in losses); and player costs, the largest expense, was approximately $200 million a year.

“The Yankees—read Steinbrenner—also own more than a third of the YES network, which broadcasts Yankees games to 8.7 million subscribers. The network’s revenues top a quarter billion and its profit margin is 60 percent. Though a completely separate business from the Yankees, YES’s value is directly tied to how much interest people have in the team, making a $200 million payroll a very easy decision.”**

The system corrupts. The profits for many owners, staggering. And players like Rodriguez are used to ensure that a franchise’s tentacles are many and reaching far and wide. It’s not surprising, then, that “A top baseball prospect from the Dominican Republic who received a $1.4 million signing bonus from the Washington Nationals lied about his age and name in what team president Stan Kasten called ‘an elaborate scheme.'”*** The Nationals signed a 16-year-old shortstop named Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez. He was compared to U.S. Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith. “But while the Nationals have been listing his date of birth as Sept. 21, 1989 — which would make him 19 now — Kasten said on Wednesday that a Major League Baseball investigation determined Gonzalez was actually Carlos David Alvarez Lugo, born in November 1985 — meaning he was really 23.” ****

Money corrupts and the prospects of a lot of money earned early and fast corrupts even more. That’s the game now. That’s been American life for quite some time. This is why we can’t see ourselves coming out of this black hole for quite some time.

We learn from the historian Richard O. Davies, in Sports in American Life, A History, that “to be a sporting man in the mid-nineteenth century was to be someone who flouted rules of social acceptability by gravitating toward activities deemed inappropriate for a proper gentleman.” By mid-century this changed and sportsmen had good social standing and created outlets such as boating, swimming, horse racing, baseball, and so on. And by the end of the century, spontaneity is gone from sports and we find “formalized structures, written rules and bureaucratic organizations,” Davies tells us. Professionalism in sports is in–and it comes in with industrialization. Money–read profits–becomes central to the American experience.

Now in 2009, we have incredibly lavish sports venues, extraordinary media contracts and more highly paid stars than ever before. The stakes are high. So so much so that sports venues are sometimes created at the expense of communities nearby–the old Yankee Stadium and the South Bronx is a case in point.

The athlete as role model, in this system, is supplanted by the owner as king. The owner as plantation owner in a vituperative economic model dating back to slavery (see: William C. Rhodan, sports columnist for The New York Times, in Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete /a star like David Beckham, at the time of this writing, is about to be traded–not loaned–to AC Milan). Money is privileged above all else. The premium placed on performance is extensive because the faster, bigger, and more powerful athlete has to hold the viewer’s attention. Salaries and on and off the field mayhem (Phelps’s pot smoking theatrical) are all part of the mediated experience of sports in America. Without it we don’t know what to make of our sports. We need the disjointed narrative to make sense of our oppressive lives that, with every day, appear to hang by a thread.

Phelps + Bong

Phelps + Bong

Professional sports mirror American life and the reflection is bleak and dark. The American athlete is central to our collective experience. The professional athlete is a metaphor for our sense of self, our desires–but also our foibles, our darkest selves. It’s not surprising, then, that during these the darkest of times Mixed Marshall Arts, which used to be called caged fighting, extreme fighting, and no holds barred fighting, is one of the fastest growing spectator sports. Anything goes.

Bernie Madoff and R. Allen Stanford believed this–anything and everything was for their taking. Not unlike Rodriguez and “Smiley”-Lugo, Madoff and Stanford, who lived in an elite system, a bubble, sensed that they were somehow immune to the morals of our society and our socioeconomic systems. Rodriguez’s ready-made narrative is that he was young and naive, a stupid kid. Unknowingly he took steroids. In the case of “Smiley”-Lugo, MLB, agents and owners are all passing the buck, no one really taking responsibility, though there is a history of age irregularities in the league.

Why a 70 year old Madoff, so respected by Wall Street, would create a Ponzi Scheme, your guess is as good as mine. And why would Stanford involve himself in fraud is yet another mystery. But most distressing is the information we’re getting that some of the Madoff money comes from organized crime, while some of the money in the Stanford case comes from a Mexican drug cartel. Madoff and Stanford have allegedly been involved in money laundering. Anything goes, including the taking of people’s lives.

Madoff and Stanford, and Rodriguez and “Smiley”-Lugo are one and the same, born in a time where hubris reigns supreme; where what children see and experience is irrelevant–some will suffer, others will pull themselves up by their bootstraps and survive, and yet others, like those kids in the Blitt New Yorker cartoon will imitate Madoff and Stanford, Rodriguez and “Smiley”-Lugo. This is the most corrupting tragedy of all. Everyone is expendable. And when everyone is expendable, everyone is also a commodity.

Steroids, graft and corruption, these are the symptoms of a lost humanity.

In “Money for Idiots,” David Brooks tells us that, “Our moral and economic system is based on individual responsibility. It’s based on the idea that people have to live with the consequences of their decisions. This makes them more careful deciders. This means that society tends toward justice — people get what they deserve as much as possible.”

This is the ideal, not the reality. We find ourselves in a moment of real moral oscillation. We don’t know which end is up. We can only look at ourselves, though, and determine who and what we value,what’s closest to the human heart, what’s important. It may mean that in order to balance ourselves out, we have to also balance out idiots–but not criminals–as Brooks contends in his editorial piece.

In the meantime, in the South Bronx, within view of Yankee Stadium, a little girl, Pineapple is her name, Jonathan Kozol tells us in The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, looks out towards Manhattan and describes us as “other people.” She fully understands that we live differently than she does–and she’s only in elementary school. What she sees–the Rodriguez’s and the Madoff’s and the Stanford’s–are what she calls “other people,” and they live different lives, touted as successful, luxuriant, wonderful. Just to get to school, Pineapple and friends have to walk through all sorts of dangers. As she looks outward past Yankee Stadium, how will she learn how to choose? Who will she be given who we are?

Education Stimulus Package: In Duncan’s Hands, Hope is on a Tightrope

On January 30, 2009, CNN’s Campbell Brown interviewed Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the President’s $140 billion increase in federal money for education.

If the rest of the stimulus package proposed by the President and approved by Congress (the Senate is debating the package) is handled the way Secretary Duncan discussed the $140 billion increase in federal money for education we are in for a difficult ride. Duncan (University of Chicago Laboratory Schools / Harvard) is long on hyperbole, short on any understanding of the challenges facing education.

Duncan begins by trying to mirror Obama’s own rhetoric. “This is an extraordinary opportunity and if we want to become a strong economy again, the best thing we can do is have an educated work force.”

But how do we do this ? How are we going to meet the needs and challenges of our diverse society?

Says Duncan, “So the stimulus package is going to do a number of things. It’s going to help us [word missing in transcript here] a tremendous unmet capital needs and so it’s really going to be a huge opportunity to invest in infrastructure and several ready projects that we want to get to work on very early on, late spring and through the summer.

We want to save literally hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs. We’re very, very worried about tremendous cuts, devastating cuts in school districts and states around the country. We want to stay those off going into the fall. We want to continue to raise the bar academically, raise standards, raise expectations, and there’s opportunities in the stimulus package to do that.”

Wait. Capital needs, invest in infrastructure, ready projects, raise standards and expectations–what does all this mean?

It means that the Obama Administration is assuming that what we have to do is pour money into existing buildings, programs and the old ways of doing business in education without first spending some needed money to try and create an atmosphere of inquiry and critical assessment.  We have to save teachers’ jobs, even if some of these teachers, like bankers and Wall Street types, don’t merit the jobs they hold. That is, the early money for the education stimulus package is going to be spent on bolstering what we already have without first trying to understand–and realizing–that what we have has gotten us into the pickle we’re in now.

When a society is in crisis, as is ours, it means that education has been in crisis for far longer.

Let’s not forget that highly educated people created the mortgage crisis, the disintegration of our financial systems and two wars. The educated people in our society argued for Weapons of Mass Destruction that didn’t exist–and they new it. Never before have so many highly educated people in America been without work and there’s none to be had in the not so distant future.

On the other end of the scale, in New York City, for instance, less than half of its students graduate high school. I asked New York City teachers why and the most resounding answer is that for over 50% of the students, the curriculum is totally irrelevant. They can’t identify with it at all. Add to that segregation, rampant in urban schools, family problems, health care problems, unemployment and no investment in capital needs is going to alleviate the suffering and move these people from a cycle of self-doubt, depression and hopelessness.

When Ms. Brown asked Duncan about No Child Left Behind, something he says he knows quite a bit about, he was tongue tied, unable to respond in any meaningful way about either the pluses or the minuses of the law.

“Well obviously,” said Duncan, “I’ve lived on the other side of the law for the past seven-and-a-half years so I have lots of strong opinions about it. But what I want to do is really get out this and travel the country, and I’ve about frequently as has President Obama [word missing from trranscript] that the philosophy behind it makes a lot of sense. We need to raise the bar, I would argue, we need to raise the bar even more and have high expectations. We want to hold people accountable.”

Is Duncan kidding? This is Bush rhetoric disguised in the Obama aura. Ms. Brown pushed harder. She asked Duncan to be specific.

CB: But be specific. I mean you certainly know about it, about No Child Left Behind and what it entails to have formed an opinion on whether it’s the right way to go.

DUNCAN: Yeah well again, philosophically, directionally, it’s the right way, but there’s many things in the invitation that we think we can improve on moving forward.

CB: Like what?

DUNCAN: There’s a number of things. I’m very interested in graduation rates, and we want to make sure more of our students are graduating from high school and prepared with college-ready, career-ready skills. I’m interested in raising the bar and having high standards. I’m also interested in growth towards those standards, how much a student is gaining each year. But again, I really want to get out…

Duncan here shows incredible hubris, appearing on CNN totally unprepared, reliant solely on the notion that the Obama magic carpet would carry. This tack is right out of the Bush White House playbook.

Campbell Brown was clearly frustrated and insisted. “Let me stop you because there’s specific complaints here, and the President has talked about them. He certainly did on the campaign trail. We have teachers saying that the reality of No Child Left Behind, is that because it uses testing to grade a school’s performance that many teachers find themselves teaching for the test. And again, the President has talked about this. Now, I assume that’s not what we think is best for the kids so how do you fix that?”

This was a unique opportunity for Duncan to address at least one reality of No Child Left Behind: for children in schools in socioeconomically deprived areas, the conditions set forth by this law stack up against  success. For instance, in the past ten years we’ve moved aggressively against Brown v. the Board of Education. Schools today are more segregated than they were in 1954. Martin Luther King, Jr. High School, on Amsterdam Avenue in New York City, in the prestigious Lincoln Center neighborhood, has not attracted a single student from that community. They all go elsewhere so the high school is completely segregated, a hub of color among the affluent who walk around it and ignore it.

How do we raise standards and create an environment of accountability where the odds are always already against the most vulnerable?  Secretary Duncan doesn’t demonstrate any understanding of this very real problem.

What we are in fact doing continuing down this mindless path, as cogently and elegantly discussed by Jonathan Kozol in The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, is returning to 1896 and the “separate but equal’ rationale found in Plessy v. Ferguson. Blindly and without much imagination, Duncan is advocating a rationale “for the perpetuation of a dual system in American society”(Kozol 34). This goes all the way through to college and beyond, to how we live in our communities deeply divided by the haves and the have nots. A segregated education system creates a segregated society, regardless of the color of the President. We are far from a post-race America.

“Higher standards, higher expectations, are insistently demanded of these urban principles, and of their teachers and the students in their schools, but far lower standards certainly in ethical respects appear to be expected of the dominant society that isolates these children in unequal institutions,” Kozol reminds us (34).

This is the heart of the matter, the most profound challenge facing our culture today. Isolation causes a feeling of inferiority and disenfranchisement. Kids and their families learn that the world of the Other is not their own. Different standards are in place. Children in the South Bronx, Newark, Washington Heights, areas of Brooklyn, as well as the South side of Chicago or Boston or Compton and South Central feel that they are not a part of the world around them; that they are indeed different, less capable, expectant eyes on them. The tools for success, as we measure it today, are hidden from them.

But Duncan has a solution, at least partially, he says. In Chicago they used money to motivate students, a program that pays kids for good grades: $50 for an A – $20 for a C and a straight-A student could earn $4,000 a year. Imagine the audacity and the extraordinary blindness of such a program. Teaching kids–and enforcing quite powerfully–the notion that the end result to all things is money. Isn’t that why we’re in the mess we’re in now? And what’s $4,000 a year? To a doubting, unmotivated young boy, for instance, existing among other cynical young boys (and I’m using boys purposefully here), watching for cops on a street corner or going down the block to pick up a nickel or dime bag will earn him three  times that. So this kid finds himself in a bleak world where everyone is trying to buy him.  He’s simply a means of exchange, not a young person with dreams and aspiration.  He’ll never be able to find out what he’s good at; he’ll never be able to pursue a dream. (on teens and money attitudes )

On the other side of the socioeconomic scale, affluent parents will spend $4,000 dollars on character building summer camps for their sons already in good, solid schools; perhaps they’ll spend even more money and have their sons go abroad, study a foreign language, gaining an advantage in the global market place of ideas.

For the children from socioeconomically challenged communities, the solution is always the same: pull up your bootstraps, work harder.

Secretary Duncan is facing daunting problems and, so far, he is clueless as to how to proceed. He isn’t even showing that he understands what the problems are.

We have crossed a threshold into an age requiring new methods of collaboration–cooperation, collective action and complex interactions. This new emerging narrative is a transdisciplinary approach to getting things done, to learning, to knowledge production. But we are stuck in a 19th Century education model facing 21st Century problems and challenges.

Education is the key for a successful and fulfilling life. Education opens doors. But the world has changed and we have to determine whether education is ready to meet the needs of tomorrow. America is no longer dominant. New powers, Brazil, China and India, will continue to grow. Challenges are evident around every corner—global warming, terrorism, and limited resources. For the first time in human history, more people live in and around urban centers. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing exponentially. The key for negotiating all these challenges depends upon global cooperation focused on knowledge production, transaction, and exchange. Education, though, is still mired in an ancient silo approach—insular departments, idiosyncratic and narrow studies, the privileging of work done in isolation.  The school isolated from the life of the community.  We need new methods for training the next generation of leaders, our students.

If every institution is going to be scrutinized, education must be also. Here are the areas we must redefine (nothing Duncan is talking about):

  • segregated communities and schools that lead to self-doubt and isolation must be challenged; revitalization of Brown v. the Board of Education
  • teachers unions that in the past have provided great benefits to teachers now also provide protection for incompetence and tie the hands of those who would discipline and re-educate and dismiss; if in other sectors of our society we can get rid of the garbage, in education we have to do the same
  • technology, lacking in all schools but which should be ubiquitous, should not merely be for communication; technology must be used to create and develop new forms of knowledge construction; OpenSource and OpenCourseware must be utilized to their full capacity, developing new ways of collaborating across disciplines and across populations
  • the role of the teacher can no longer be defined by a 19th Century model; the teacher has to be versed in new technologies, psychologies of learning, sociology and economics and how these create social constructions that pre-define our communities and our students–and be able to speak to these and challenge these in collaboration with students, community leaders and families
  • community problems need not be left outside the school’s door, but rather, be at the heart of a curriculum that is inquiry based and whose outcomes are measured not by a standardized test, but by the community’s implementation of  solutions students and teachers provide
  • in many communities suffering because of disenfranchisement, the school has to be the community center; that is, it must be the community organizing hub, the health center (emergency services, routine physicals, administration of prescriptions), job center, the place for social networking and spiritual support, this way the entire community is involved in the production of knowledge
  • the production of knowledge cannot continue to be done in silos, divided into disciplines as if the problems of a community and the  identities of its citizens are somehow outside the domain of knowledge construction; teachers must collaborate with each other, team teaching in many cases, exploiting the benefits of a transdisciplinary approach that requires the uses of technology
  • the only true test of knowledge is application–tests, particularly high stakes standardized tests are absolutely opposed to this truth; in the 21st Century, the era of cooperation and collaboration, knowledge production that requires technologies, the standardized test is obsolete, like trying to cross an ocean in a canoe
  • colleges and universities have to adopt school districts and work jointly to address the needs of their respective communities; colleges and universities have to put down their ivied walls and embrace their communities
  • the disparity in salaries between those teachers working in socioeconomically challenged communities and those that do not has to be equalized because this is one of the most profound moral inequities in our culture today

These are only some of the challenges facing us today that, I would argue, require that we in education engage in a process of re-evaluation and re-definition because continuing with the same rhetoric we’ve heard for the past 10 years, and which now Duncan is continuing, will guarantee that we not move one step forward in meeting the complex demands of the 21st Century. And if we don’t like what the Education Department is doing, then our moral imperative, taking a page from bell hooks, must be to teach to transgress.

Education is the last vestige of hope we have for a healthy society. But hope is on a tightrope.