I Told You So: Towards a Different Future Post the 2012 Election

I told you so.

It’s not a hospitable way to begin this piece and draw your attention, but I just had to say it . I told you so.

In “Nothing Will Change: the 2012 Presidential Election,” written June 23, 2011, I said that, “the state and the corporation are the main sponsors and coordinators of an ‘unprecedented combination of powers distinguished by their totalitarian tendencies, powers that not only challenge established boundaries — political, moral, intellectual, and economic — but whose nature it is to challenge those boundaries continually, even to challenge the limits of the earth itself,’ says Sheldon S. Wolin in Democracy Inc: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.”

Here we are again, debating tax reform, taxation of the rich and entitlements. Mitch McConnell is still obstructing by any means necessary. Paul Ryan is still showing his colors, suggesting that they lost the election because “too many Blacks voted.” Too many? And Mitt Romney, acutely blind to what happened, before, during and now after the election, insists, speaking to the LA Times, that Obama won the election because he gave Big Gifts to Latinos and Blacks.

The rest of us, meanwhile, exhausted, are looking optimistically for a compromise. Sound familiar? Have we been here before?

In Obama we’ve chosen a kind of struggle that will work only be degrees, slowly, gradually — yet not alter the state of affairs at all. Romney wanted to drastically change everything and place a perverse oligarchy at the helm. With Obama, we’ll fix a tire here, a spark plug there, a belt, a carburetor — but the fact that the system is fundamentally flawed is not going to be addressed. Remember: I told you so. And I’m telling you now.

On January 28, 2012, looking at this system keen on manufacturing illusion as its primary feature, I wrote “Vero Beach, Florida and the Manufacturing of Consciousness: How the GOP Will Give Obama a Victory in 2012“, and said :

Vero Beach is the American Paradox: the extraordinary cost of creating and maintaining such lavishness and the economic drain of a lifestyle that is characterized by total mechanization, as the pudgy elderly try to stave off the inevitable by walking and biking, their lives well kept by Latinos and some, very few, African Americans usually found behind counters at Publix markets, gas stations and sanitation trucks. The divide is the evolution of manifest destiny that has assumed a contemporary look and feel.

We can hear Karl Rove’s grandiosity; we can also see the denial of the changing face of the American electorate: younger, bolder, Latino, women, the LGBT community, and African Americans that are now looking for Obama, their president, to address their ills in more concrete ways then he did his first go ’round. Privilege is indeed blinding. The GOP never saw it coming.

But things have changed. And we have to help things change even further.

Robert Wolf, Obama’s top Wall Street ally, says that the rich can tolerate tax hikes. As reported by Andrew Rosenthal, in The New York Times, Bill Kristol, the stalwart conservative of the Weekly Standard, has endorsed raising taxes.

So immediately following the election — and the devastation from Sandy that brought so many together in a dramatic tableau of self-reliance — we have reason to, well, hope for change. But don’t get carried away. As Chris Hedges tells us in Empire of Illusion, our best and the brightest are educated, by our elite instutions, to be mechanics, not change agents — fix this or that, never changing the system; the status quo is accepted. It’s how we roll in America — and why we’re fat, too.

What do we have wrong? What do we have to change?

For me, this can only be done through education, a creative struggle with ideas, difficult ideas, challenging ideas that are, if they’re to be effective, questioning the status quo and offering alternatives. We need to work to transgress. We have to re-examine what we mean by “progress” and, likewise, we have to conflate our sense of it with what we “value”; in the journey, we have to look back and try to also define “virtue” and “virtuous action,” the keys to any foundation that is looking to move to new and better ways of living. These are the road to happiness.

Handmaking America

So let’s turn to our socioeconomic challenges, first, since these are on everyone’s mind. Please run to your local bookstore and, whether you’re on the right or the left or somewhere in-between, pick up a copy of Bill Ivey’s Handmaking America: A Back-to-Basics Pathway to a Revitalized American Democracy. Read it. Then let’s have an educated discussion about who we want to be.

But if we’re going to do this, as Ivey says, we have to first accept that our values have been corrupted by consumption; this is why the constant affirmation of growth has lead us to a precipice — the so called fiscal cliff. (I can already hear the claims of “socialist”! from folks I know.) Here, listen:

Americans have been converted; we’ve internalized market values. We experience consuming as a liberating activity, strong enough to at times present the illusion of social rebellion. ‘Freedom’ is no longer a condition defined by the absence of debt and envy. Instead, modern-day advertising has transformed freedom into a central tenet of consumerist ideology.

This is called “Freedomism,” says Ivey: “the sentiment that allows buyers to somehow believe that the purchase of a new SUV is a ticket to the great outdoors, when the real effect is a hefty installment loan and the inevitable truth that to service the debt, one must work more hours, inside, at a desk.” Thus, “the transformation of every facet of human activity into marketable product in the end conflates money and meaning.”

We got to this place because we’ve been blind to the idiocy of growth, the notion that if we just expand, buy more, create more stuff, we’ll somehow buy our way out of our socioeconomic woes. In this world the Corporation is viewed as a positive “fixture of America’s democracy,” says Ivey. It happened gradually, but we accept the Corporate Ideological Apparatus and its insistence on the illusion of growth.

Grow where, though? How?

Look around: the earth’s resources are dwindling; we are being lead to believe that because we’ll be drilling our own fossil fuels, becoming less reliant on the Middle East for production, we’ll be better off. But here’s another I told you so: if you think that somehow this is going to change anything — price at the pump, price of heating oil, nurse the environment — you’re dreaming because, in the end, whether we drill, baby, here or there, this fossil resource is dwindling, too. It’s scarce any way we cut it. The costs, I tell you, will be higher. Watch.

The way to turn this around is in yet another source: Bill McKibben, my colleague and

Deep Economy

friend, in his Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future argues that More does not necessarily mean better. There are three fundamental challenges to the notion of growth, says Bill (it’s worth citing all):

One is political: growth, at least as we now create it, is producing more inequality than prosperity, more insecurity than progress. This is both the most common and the least fundamental objection to our present economy … By contrast, the second argument draws on physics and chemistry as much as on economics; it is the basic projection that we do not have the energy needed to keep the magic going, and can we deal with the pollution it creates? The third argument is both less obvious and even more basic: growth is no longer making us happy. These three objections mesh with each other in important ways; taken together, they suggest that we’ll no longer be able to act wisely, either in our individual lives or in public life, simply by asking which choice will produce More.

I dare say that this is, in fact, true, particularly if we go back and look at what I said, above, and examine the relationships between “progress,””value,” and “virtuous action” and Happiness. In this exercise, it’s incumbent upon us, as civilized humans, to examine Happiness for all, not just for the few. How can we work to create environments of Happiness, which could, in turn, be very different for different people?

To answer this question, we have to turn to another source, Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. In Nixon’s words,

Slow Violence

…we can recognize that the structural violence embodied by a neoliberal order of austerity measures, structural adjustment, rampant deregulation, corporate megamergers, and a widening gulf between rich and poor is a form of covert violence in its own right that is often a catalyst for more recognizably overt violence…[an] insistence that the systematic burdens of national debt to the IMF and World Bank borne by many so-called developing nations constitute a major impediment to environmental sustainability…To talk about violence, then, is to engage directly with our contemporary politics of speed.

If we then conflate our “contemporary politics of speed” with the illusion of growth, we have our perfect storm, our current state of affairs that, following Ivey, McKibben, and now Nixon, create vast disparities between us, exciting an air of negative competition that seeks to outdo someone else — the Other — for my selfish benefit only.

But, finally, there is an answer — missed by the GOP during the election, noticed by the Obama campaign, but, yet, it’s still living in a kind of fog, just out there at our fingertips, waiting to be noticed and appreciated for its, yes, mathematical accuracy: DIVERSITY. Not growth, but diversity will give us the future.

We thus turn to Scott E. Page’s The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. (Here is Page speaking on leveraging diversity.) Page tells us that, “Progress depends as much on our collective differences as it does on our individual IQ scores.” This is a challenge for a society that “prizes individual talent and achievement”:

Diversity is a property of a collection of people — a basket with many kinds of fruit. Diversity and ability to complement one another: the better the individual fruits, the better the fruit basket, and the better the other fruit, the better the apple … We should encourage people to think differently. Markets create incentives to be different as well as to be able, but perhaps not to the appropriate level. We have to do more.

Page goes on to prove his thesis mathematically and logically; it’s undeniable — except to the GOP that lead Romney to defeat and continues to deny the very real diversity evident in our election results. Notice, too, that critical interdisciplinary work is an essential  component that will excite market-driven diversity, since we’ll need people who are not necessarily smarter then you and me, but rather, people who actually can address a problem by thinking differently. Mathematically, Page shows us that a group of diverse thinkers in a room can actually solve problems more efficiently, faster and more creatively.

What does this mean?

The challenge for politics, for instance, is that the same people are always in the room: corporate spokespersons parading as senators and congress people; we impose, on the poor, for instance, how they should live, rather then asking them, at the seminar table, what solutions they see; we impose on teachers standardization, across the board, without asking teachers to contribute to their profession; and, likewise, we impose, then, structural imperatives on students without asking students how they learn, how they go to school, what challenges they face in this community or that community.

In other words, the challenge today is far more complex — and subtle; it’s about understanding our diversity, acknowledging that what we may be doing in the name of growth isn’t better — and it hurts many, many people.

In this long piece (sorry), I am compelled to leave you with a shocking, 1991 confidential World Bank memo, written by the esteemed Lawrence Summers, and found in Nixon’s Slow Violence, that actually demonstrates all I’ve said; it’s the ultimate I told you so :

I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country impeccable and we should face up to that … I’ve always thought that countries in Africa are vastly under polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles … Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Least Developed Countries?

Don’t be shocked by this, not if you’ve read Empire of Illusion. Summers served as the 71st US Secretary of the Treasury, from 1999-2001, under Bill Clinton; he was Director of the White House US National Economic Council for President Barack Obama; he is the Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government; and, he’s the recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal for his work in several fields of economics. Summers also served as the 27th President of Harvard University from 2001 to 2006 (he resigned after a vote of “no-confidence.”) And he received his S.B. from MIT in 1975 and his PhD, from Harvard, in 1982.

I mention all this, even though I link to it, because, if you’re reading this and got this this point, you have to ask yourself: What are we breeding in our institutions? And, how is it that thinking like Summers’ lands a man a job at the right had of the President of the USA, in this case, two Democratic Presidents?

See, I told you so. How do you want to live? How well are we doing in our pursuit of Happiness?

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Pass or Get Out of the Way: Defining the Future for Our Students

As we awaken to a new dawn in the US, about half of all state schools in England and Wales are being affected by a strike by UK public sector workers.  The right to work will be the single most important issue affecting the public sector — all of us working today.  In the US, as in the UK, the assessment and control methods that are politically sanctioned to evaluate teachers are unprecedented.  And the most Draconian aspect of this almost universal (in the West) re-evaluation and castigation of teachers is that those who will suffer most are the children: their world, particularly if these kids live in socio-economically challenged areas, will fall further into the abyss of the cyclical nature of poverty.

An approach that’s being tactfully admired by the powerful in many US states is the “Impact,” in name and approach more reminiscent of a Terminator movie then a subtle teacher evaluation system.

Sam Dillon, writing for a New York Times that’s more comfortable covering the “accepted” mainstream methodologies of any system of power rather then investigating the reality of things, does a credible job of lining up, for the careful reader, what the challenges this method of evaluation pose for parents, students and teachers.

In his Teacher Grades: Pass or Be Fired Dillon tells us that, “Spurred by President Obama and his $5 billion Race to the Top grant competition, some 20 states, including New York, and thousands of school districts are overhauling the way they grade teachers, and many have sent people to study Impact.”

The Impact is “a centerpiece of the tempestuous three-year tenure of Washington’s former schools chancellor, Michele Rhee.”  This detail is enough to raise concern.  But it hasn’t.  Blindly we march on, seduced by Obama’s Race to the Top, rather then careful criticism of what will likely cause a lot of collateral damage.  I warned against this in Education Stimulus Package: In Duncan’s Hands, Hope is on a Tightrope.  But, just as the right to work will be the defining issue of our times, collateral damage will be the defining metaphor. Does anyone care?  Why are we so silent? At least in the UK, teachers are taking to the streets.

The Impact is best described as an efficient sorting system.  Some educators  describe Impact this way — efficient  and sorting.  These are accounting terms, not terms mindful of teaching and learning.  The terms follow a trend in education that moves away from a pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment and  towards a business model.  Impact is a business model, not an education model; it aligns with the current goals of many governors and mayors, particularly in New York and New Jersey, two hostile states to the right to work: privatize education.

What’s the problem?

Educators “note that the system does not consider socioeconomic factors in most cases and that last year 35 percent of the teachers in the city’s [Washington] wealthiest area, Ward 3, were rated highly effective, compared with 5 percent of Ward 8, the poorest,” says Dillon.

Impact relies heavily on classroom observation — a good thing.  It has 9 criteria: explain the content clearly, maximize instruction, check for student understanding are some examples used to rate a lesson.  These are good, solid criteria.

The problem with this methodology — and the problem with most if not all methods for evaluating teachers and, at the college and university level, for advising students and, likewise for evaluating professors — is that it measures the students’ capabilities simply from the shoulders up.  That is to say, the whole student is not being evaluated; only reasoning skills, computation and understanding according to a system that leans favorably to accepted classical methods of teaching and learning — delivery and acquiescence in silence — are privileged.   In essence, what is being evaluated is the teacher’s ability to transmit traditional pedagogical methodologies.  But these methods may be way too abstract for some students, particularly if these students come from poorer communities.

We are in fact assessing how well teachers transmit traditional forms of social mobility, negating the realities of certain students’ lives. Before we begin, then, in the assessment model — Impact — we are already rejecting the student.

The Harvard sociologist, William Julius Wilson, in More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, says,

It is important to remember that one of the effects of living in a racially segregated, poor neighborhood is the exposure to cultural framing habits, styles of behavior, and particular skills that emerged from patterns of social exclusion; these attributes and practices may not be conducive to facilitating social mobility … These patterns of behavior are seen as a hindrance to social mobility in the larger society.

A system such as Impact comes about, as Wilson tells us, this time using the work of Eliot R. Smith, because “most Americans believe that economic outcomes are determined by individuals’ efforts and talents (or their lack) and that in general economic inequality is fair.”    We could argue that Smith’s pronouncement is now the politics of the day — the attack on the right to work, the dismantling of unions, and the Draconian measures of teacher performance.

“Indeed, living in a ghetto neighborhood has both structural and cultural effects,” says Wilson, “that compromise life chances above and beyond personal attributes.”

Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers Union, speaking to Dillon for his NYT article, said, “Teacher have to be parents, priests, lawyers, clothes washers, babysitters and a bunch of other things” in schools in poor and challenged neighborhoods.  “Impact takes none of those roles into account, so it can penalize you just for teaching in a high-needs school.”  Saunders echoes Wilson.  And I’ve describe this phenomenon quite clearly in Newark’s  South Ward: The Miller Street School and the American Paradox.

The solution to our education problems, as I’ve described it, actually lies in Saunders’ description of what teachers are called to do when working in poorer neighborhoods.  In these communities, as I’ve said in Newark’s South Ward, the school, as is The Miller Street School, are an oasis pushing against the chaos found in the streets.  If teachers are parents, priests, lawyers, clothes washers, babysitters and a bunch of other things, as Saunders says, then we must create, in each school, a hub of support for all these things.

Right now, parents have to move to multiple locations and work through multiple human services departments, filling out form after form, seeing multiple people, more often then not being shoved to yet another office and more forms, more interviews and never really voicing their concerns and problems. This is costly — and it agitates the notion that it’s their fault, that if they worked harder people would be better off.

What if all social and professional services were under one roof?  What if all aspects needed to enable a more graceful, dignified and cogent approach to social mobility were in one place, a hub or mall for social mobility? Isn’t this efficiency? Wouldn’t this cut costs?

I’d argue that not only is this a cheaper approach, but then it would allow us to pool together resources, including the tracking of a student through this system so as to better get a sense of how the student learns — the obstacle and challenges, the conditions for study at home, and so on.

Of course, this would thwart the interest of many governors and mayors to privatize; it would run against the desire of many corporations to extract the poverty dollar from the most needy; it would, in fact, work against today’s trend towards the newest form of governance, inverted totalitarianism. (There are so many examples of inverted totalitarianism, today, that I’m thinking of changing my blog’s title! I’m getting exhausted constantly having to explain it!)

What we need is less Impact.  We need to realize — and accept — that schools in poor neighborhoods are an oasis of hope.  It is this realization that can lead to a conflation of resources — child care and health care, nutrition, family counseling, on the job training, study skills training, even community colleges — under one roof, held together by technology and carefully trained experts — nurses, social workers, first year general practitioners, counselors and teachers — working together.  From this vantage, we can create teacher assessment vehicles that will include master teachers, parents in the community, student evaluations and outcomes and all read against what today we call social mobility. Anything else is failure. Anything else is a genuflection towards the powerful elite that seek to define our lives for us.