The Search for Illumination: Education In the Penal Colony

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By HECTOR VILA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading…

2016 — What Barry Blitt’s New Yorker Covers Tell Us About the Year

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Barry Blitt-The New Yorker

Barry Blitt-The New Yorker

 

Let’s try something different. Let’s look at the year through the critical lens of one of the most profoundly effective and influential political cartoonists, Barry Blitt, whose dark humor is engaging, prophetic, and resolute. Blitt’s power is in his capacity to capture the essence of a person or a situation, while likewise describing the mood of the culture at-large.

Yes, I know, I’m talking about the elite New Yorker… but so, there’s something here.

At year’s end, we can conclude that 2016 has been harrowing, here in the USA and abroad — Iraq, Syria, Iran, still Afghanistan, Isis, nationalism on the rise, Brexit, the refugee crisis everywhere we look, walls on our southern border, rampant racism, violence, and the always ongoing disastrous confusion about guns, questions about cops, education in a crisis, the militarization and corporatizing of everything, a circus-like election, and, of course, president-elect Donald Trump pushing us kicking and screaming through the looking glass and into a potentially dark, parallel universe.

How did Blitt see the year? Let’s take a look, beginning with February….

continue reading here…

One Nation, Divided by Education & the 2016 Presidential Quagmire

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Apartheid Education

Apartheid Education

Education — with a capital E — has effectively divided the nation. Education has been eating away at the fiber of this country for quite some time. This is quite obvious when examining the 2016 Presidential Election. Yet, Education is not being held accountable for the mess we’re in; it’s getting a pass.

We can get a sense of this by looking, first, at popular media. Second, we can see how obstructionist our Education system really is, and the consequences.

Bill Maher calls Trump supporters idiots. “What we learned,” Maher tells CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “is that there’s a lot of vulgar, tacky, racist people in this country, more than I thought…A basket of deplorables.”

Read on …

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

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

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

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Welcome to the Age of Knowledge: How Propaganda Has Moved Us From the Information Age, Into New Challenges & (Potentially?) a Renaissance

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The Big Short

The Big Short

It’s instructive to begin with Barry Blitt’s March 28, 2016, New Yorker cover, “The Big Short,” because it conflates three central ideas critical to our discussion: Donald Trump’s deep anxiety about the size of his fingers — and something else, our age’s latest, desperate attempt to try and determine our future by hyperbolic palm reading — disconcerted flailing as we transition into the challengingAge of Knowledge — and the latest, eye-opening film directed by Adam McKay, The Big Short, based on the book by the same name written by Michael Lewisabout the financial crisis of 2007–2008, which was triggered by the build-up of the housing market and the economic bubble.

No one has said this, so let me be the first: Donald Trump is a manifestation of an age that has run its course. There you have it.

Continue Reading …

5 Writers Imagine America: Reflecting Forward, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

The New York Times Whitewashing of the NBA’s Stephen Curry: The Audacity of White Privilege Amidst America’s Racial Anxiety

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White privilege is so powerful and pernicious that it literally blinds us to history; it is a willful repression of facts that are pushed aside for a false narrative, which, in turn, becomes the truth. A whitewash, literally.

This is what I came away with after reading Scott Cacciola’s New York Times piece, “Even Ballet Dancers Are in Awe of Stephen Curry’s Moves” (Nov 24, 2015).

Can we turn Stephen Curry into something white?

Want more? Read on, here …

American Violence and Education

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I’ve been asked by Joe Brooks, my editor at Community Works Journal, to write something about the school shootings and education.  It was extremely hard for many reasons, but I’ve tried.  As I sometimes do, I’ll “test” the piece in Medium, first, and see how it runs; I’ll test it here, too.

So here it is: American Violence and Education

It begins thus:

I can’t make things out anymore. I don’t know what we’re doing. American culture is upside down and, as an educator, I have no idea what to do, what to say, how to find “the teachable moment.” I’m lost. I suspect we may all be feeling lost. The world outside the classroom is way too big, too harrowing, too confusing. Death and suffering have become all too common. It seems as if we’re operating in two distinctly different worlds, one is inside the classroom where we theorize, study, calculate, ponder, the other, outside the classroom, that world we dare only glance at from time-to-time, is brutal, relentless in its inhumane insistence that life is cheap.

In a course I’m working through Brent Easton Ellis’ disturbing, post-modern 1991 Gothic novel, American Psycho, giving the requisite warnings about the extremely graphic violence, because students wanted me to do so, differentiating between escapist literature (Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Gray, and so on), and Literature that means to have the reader turn inward, difficult as that is, and examine her life, the lives around her. American Psycho is the latter. Kids, our students, want to feel safe, be safe; they want to avoid “the horror” of it all; they don’t want to reside in the inhumanity outside our neat little classrooms.

But these worlds are clashing.

Continue reading…

The Tragedy in South Carolina and a Misaligned America: Our Denial of a Violent History

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The New World, as the Western Hemisphere has been called, specially the Americas, including such nearby islands as those in the Caribbean and Bermuda, is a term that originated in the early 16th Century after Europeans made landfall. This “fourth part of the world,” as the Americas were also called, was “conquered,” in the modern sense of the word, and “colonized” by extremes of will and power.

It was a violent takeover, a crazy, fierce and brutal acquisition of exotic lands and a murderous subjugation of native people. This legacy – this warring DNA – runs rampant through the Americas, but most notably in the extreme nature of American ideology, which brought us the horrible and savage act of racial terrorism in South Carolina.

America is misaligned; in turn, this most powerful nation is causing a misalignment in the world. The cause of this improper alignment originates with a denial of history and, of course, the refusal to believe that any history leaves behind a stain that is carried forth by those re-writing and making a new history.

The violent legacy that founded the New World roams our unconscious; it has never left, not since 1492 when a New World Order was determined. We are still working it out; we’re still living it; and we’ve yet to acknowledge its violent, repressive aftermath, which reared its ugly head in South Carolina.

Here’s a brief outline of the extremely powerful history, psychology and ideology that came across the Atlantic – and made us who we are today:

  • January 2, 1492: the Fall of Granada: Muhammad XII, the last Moorish Emir of Granda, surrenders the city to the army of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand II of Arragon and Isabella I of Castile, ending the 10 year Granda War and the centuries-long Reconquista and bringing an end to 780 years of Muslim control of Al-Andalus.

Question #1: How well did this work out, the first modern misalignment?

  • January 15, 1492: Columbus meets Ferdinand and Isabella at the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristiano in Córdoba, Andalusia, and persuades them to support his Atlantic voyage intended to find a new route to the East Indies.

Question #2: How well did this work out, the first vital exportation of an ideology of misalignment ? How did Columbus treat the “docile” and “friendly” natives in this “New World”? What did he establish as the modus operandi for Europeans colonizing the “New World”, especially since his backing already comes fraught with violence and oppression – and expulsion – under the auspices of a Christian God?

  • October 28, 1492: Columbus lands in Cuba. (In 1762, the British army led by George Keppel, 3rd Earl of Albemarle captured Havana as part of the Seven Year War with France. During the year-long occupation of Cuba (Spain regained the island in 1793 by exchange of Florida with the British), the British colonists expanded the plantation system on the island and imported 4000 African slaves as laborers, nearly 10% of all the slaves imported to the island during the previous 250 years.)

Question #3: How did this work out? The Plantation System, an extreme organism comprised of a harsh hierarchy, becomes firmly ensconced as the economic engine for the New World. Slavery is an economic system under which people are treated as property. Slaves can be held from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work or to demand compensation. Slavery in the Americas has a contentious history, and plays a major role in the history and evolution of some countries.

An estimated 12 million Africans arrived in the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Of these, an estimated 645,000 were brought to what is now the United States. The usual estimate is that about 15% of slaves died during the voyage, with mortality rates considerably higher in Africa itself in the process of capturing and transporting indigenous peoples to the ships. Approximately 6 million black Africans were killed by others in tribal wars.

  • July 30, 1492: the entire Jewish community, some 200,000, were expelled from Spain.
  • December 31, 1492: 100,000 Jews are expelled from Sicily.

Question #4: Violent conquest, antisemitism, expulsions, beginning with the Spanish Inquisition, and the establishment of the plantation system, have brought us where?

One answer is a total denial of history and how the blood and violence that established an illusion of order still runs deep in American ideology.

Slavery was well established in the “New World” by the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, who all sent African slaves to work in both North and South America during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The English began aggressively trading in what was called “black ivory” during the middle of the seventeenth century, spurred on by the need for laborers in the hot, humid sugar fields on the West Indian islands of Barbados, St. Christopher, the Bermudas, and Jamaica.

For their cargoes of human flesh, the traders brought iron and copper bars, brass pans and kettles, cowrey shells, old guns, gun powder, cloth, and alcohol. In return, ships might load on anywhere from 200 to over 600 African slaves, stacking them like cord wood and allowing almost no breathing room. The crowding was so severe, the ventilation so bad, and the food so poor during the “Middle Passage” of between five weeks and three months that a loss of around 14 to 20% of their “cargo” was considered the normal price of doing business. This slave trade is thought to have transported at least 10 million, and perhaps as many as 20 million, Africans to the American shore.

Slaves from the region of Senegambia and present-day Ghana were preferred. At the other end of the scale were the “Calabar” or Ibo or “Bite” slaves from the Niger Delta, who Carolina planters would purchase only if no others were available. In the middle were those from the Windward Coast and Angola.

Carolina planters developed a vision of the “ideal” slave – tall, healthy, male, between the ages of 14 and 18, “free of blemishes,” and as dark as possible. For these ideal slaves Carolina planters in the eighteenth century paid, on average, between 100 and 200 sterling – in today’s money that is between $11,630 and $23,200!

Many of these slaves were almost immediately put to work in South Carolina’s rice fields.

Which brings us to the shooting in South Carolina and a deep seeded ideology that runs through American culture and is carefully massaged by conservative politicians and extremists, such as the Council of Conservative Citizens, whose leader, Earl Holt, III, has donated large sums of money to several politicians of note, and emblazoned in the display of the Confederate flag over South Carolina’s State Capital, an affront to decency and social justice.

Slavery became the American Economic System – a way of seeing the world, a way of experiencing an Other, a way to disregard human life. (In 2006, William C. Rhoden, sports columnist of the New York Times, publishes, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete, demonstrating how The Plantation System is alive and well in professional sports. See Rhoden’s interview, here, on Quite Frankly.)

Until we get back to this history and acknowledge that history does not end, rather it continues in strange and dark strains that haunt us because we are interconnected in complex ways, such that so much goes undetected – such as a baby-faced, unassuming young man who becomes, as Charles M. Blow says, “baptized in a theology of race hate,” we will be unable to move towards the idea of justice, as Amartya Sen writes about:

The need for an accomplishment-based understanding of justice is linked with argument that justice cannot be indifferent to the lives that people can actually live…The freedom to choose our lives can make a significant contribution to our well-being, but going beyond the perspective of well being, the freedom itself may be seen as important. Being able to reason and choose is a significant aspect of human life…The freedoms and capabilities we enjoy can be valuable to us, and it is ultimately for us to decide how to use the freedom we have … First, human lives are then seen inclusively, taking note of the substantial freedoms that people enjoy, rather than ignoring everything other than the pleasures or utilities they end up having. There is also a second significant aspect to freedom: it makes us accountable for what we do.

Dylan Storm Roof had access to a dangerous single story perpetuated by a white supremacist theology of race hate that victimizes whiteness. “You are raping our women and taking over the country,” said Roof right before his rampage, according to witnesses. Roof has no sense of justice, obviously; he’s been educated in a limited sense of freedom, too, one in which some have it and others do not – and that’s the way it is.

If we live in a country that privileges stories that are limiting in their very nature, we will experience many more people like Roof ; we will also find the racial illogic of Rachel Dolezal. Misalignment produces extremes. These are times that are defined by the inconsistencies brought about by a binary view of the world: black and white, right and wrong, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat. Rather, we fail to see what can bring us together: our connections to each other, to humanity – the notion that when you look into someone’s eyes you’re seeing yourself. Only when we begin to realize this will we able to move away from our misaligned belief that this is “the new normal.”

It’s the theology of race hate that is the prodigal child of the plantation system. And it’s the theology of race hate that is uniquely lodged in the American Ideology. The American Dream, our national ethos, the set of ideals in which freedom includes opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers, is completely hindered, even non-existent – for all of us – if the theology of race hate remains unabated. There’s no way around this. And it requires re-education for all on a massive scale, one in which social justice is at its core.

The connections between the ideology of race hate and how it affects opportunities for prosperity and success in a society that sees itself as having few barriers are the only things worth talking about, otherwise we’re not moving forward as a nation that is open and willing to embrace the idea of justice. We cannot embrace the idea of justice without first acknowledging that a violent history informs us and that we have to embrace the challenge of undoing this across the Americas, together.

The Heart of Students, and the Soul of Education

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I received a most gracious email from a colleague the other day: “Thanks, Hector, for all you do to shepherd students along through the systems. I trust they are eternally grateful for the kindness, energy and personal investments you make in their successes!”

Earlier, I received another: “Thanks, Hector, for once again being on the front lines with students and advocating for them.”

And yet another note said, “Your dedication to your students is admirable.” Someone else, in conversation, said, “You treat the 1% student as you do everyone else—that’s admirable.”

I of course immediately fell for the accolades—I’m human; they made me feel good. Any person would likely feel the same. I was beaming. My ego was stroked and I felt as if these comments separated me from my colleagues and I was somehow operating at some higher plane. You start thinking that perhaps you’re the only one making deep, meaningful connections with students. You start imagining that, at some level, you could be better than others.

But you know you’re not better than anybody else and put the brakes on and say, Wait a minute. What’s going on? Why are they saying these things? ….CONTINUE READING HERE