Saturday, August 1, 2015

Making People: K-3 and Beyond

Full disclosure: Although I taught in diverse learning environments over my career (9th grade through graduate school in the US as well as in Europe), I have never taught in an elementary school, much less grades K-3.  Even the thought is daunting.

So why am I writing this?  The small people who emerge from the cocoon of toddler-hood and enter the shaping and modeling process we call “education” (I prefer “learning”) face enormously challenging situations, greater probably than any they have experienced since their journey through birthing.  Think about that for a minute.  They enter the situations as growing and uniquely complex human beings from a variety of micro-universes we call communities and families, each of which has its special codes of behavior and knowing, history, sociology and psychology.  

And what characteristics do they face in this new universe?  Should they have fears?  Should they have expectations as a result of what their parents, family members and community members have told them?  These are just a few normal issues we might or ought to consider when we consider how and what kind of shaping and modeling we decide they must go through.  Because we have theories about these things, we think we know what is best…for them and for the society they will be members of.  Think about that for a minute…no, think about it a little more.  From the perspective of making people, it is presumptuous, to put it mildly.  And yet we press on in this fashion., hoping we’ll get it right this time.

My regular visitors know how I feel about standardized curriculum systems.  I generally think they restrict learning potential and thus create negative attitudes about learning in the people they are meant to enable.  This is at least a paradox and probably delusional.  It serves only the theorists, the Big Idea people, most of whom have never had the temerity to assume the responsibility for the learning that’s supposed to occur in a learning environment, or fairly quickly left the learning environment and its onerous  responsibilities, because of its extraordinary challenges. Common Core in its various permutations, charter schools or “academies,” No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and all the other machinations that have been constructed “to do something about our failed education system” align with this paradoxical delusion.  Incidentally, that we still use the word “system” in association with learning is perhaps the root of the problem.  And focus on that word common in The Common Core (all caps of course): Is that meant to suggest that we strive for commonality in our children?  Run-of-the-mill?

Please pause here and think about the title of this post:  Making People.  Learning in the elementary grades, especially the initial two or three years, is not about making career opportunities or prepping for post-K-12 learning.  It is about the onerous responsibility of turning young minds and bodies into thoughtful and contributing members of their micro and macro communities.  Learning is about making people, making fragile and frangible nervous systems and minds better and more wholesome.  Objectivity and measurable outcomes are far less important than the understanding on the part of everyone involved in the learning process.  If we don’t comprehend that, we don’t deserve to have a voice in that process.

What is the role of the teacher/instructor in this process?  I’ve written about this previously on this blog, but I’m certain it bears repeating.  The person responsible for the quality of the learning in the environment is a performer.  I realize that sounds simplistic, not to say melodramatic.  But it’s true.  Please understand:  I realize that not all, perhaps not many teachers/instructors appreciate this.  I’m talking about a collaboration among the people in the room.  The teacher/instructor must try to bring the audience, the students, to him or her, to engage them in what is going on, provide them with the faith that what’s happening is essential to their development as people.  This is not easy, and, for sure, it is not quantifiable.

But remember, we are trying to make people.  I thought about this idea during last week, while I was visiting two of my grandchildren, the most recent one just 5 weeks old.  I took advantage of the opportunity to get close to this littlest one (so far, number 9 of the grands) and see the wonder in his eyes and the responses in his face and limbs, the little things we developed people too frequently overlook  He is proceeding with his becoming, with his making, acquiring all the incredible and wonderful information, the warm feel of his father’s huge hand on his back, his grandmother’s cool cheek on his brow, the light-show outside of the dancing tree leaves being pushed by a summer breeze…everything goes in and becomes part of his making.  

The experience made me think of Antonio Damasio’s book, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, a vital understanding of how we humans develop from consciousness, to mind and, finally, to self.  Damasio treats this process as an amazingly intricate and inevitable progression that gets us to our “I”.  And right now I’m wondering how and why those of us responsible for continuing this process, the more complicated learning through numbers and words, have forgotten that we need to sustain that amazement, reignite the bulging eyes of that 5 week old as his external comos triggers the development of his brain and his mind.  That’s what making people is really about.  At least it ought to be.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Op. Re-posts: "Robot Warriors"

Robot Warriors (FFT, 2004)

American military deaths in Iraq: 1,469
American military wounded in Iraq: 10,770 (official) - 15,000-20,000 (est.)
Iraq body count: 16,036 (min.) - 18,305 (max.)

Two years ago I heard about the NIST (National Institute of Science and Technology) work on robot warriors, and how the Department of Defense had engaged a hurry up program toward realizing automated warfare. In addition, of course, MIT will be on board.  The new “warriors” are already in the pipeline for their spring training in Iraq.  This ominously indicates readiness standards for…take your pick: Syria, Iran, and/or North Korea.  Now that we’ll be using these robot warriors and UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), only the flesh and blood in those countries will feel the pain.

These little miracles seem to be arriving on the scene just in time.  Even those living on the margins of our “revitalized” soon-to-be “ownership society” are showing their reluctance to sign up for wars of empire.  To be certain to keep the employment of US citizens down, our “ownership society” has even outsourced the manufacturing of our robot warriors.

This all speaks volumes about our culture.  Consistent with our tendency toward generational categorizing (there’s the Silent Generation [believe it or not, that’s mine], the X generation, etc.) the current generation might well become known as the Surrogating Generation: Dehumanizing ourselves through outsourcing.  As one writer has suggested, “If there's no potential for human cost, how do we calculate our humanity?”  This recalls something Norman Mailer wrote long ago about capital punishment.  He said he was generally against the current forms of execution, the sterility of the State’s anonymity behind the pulling of a switch or as is the case today an impersonal injection.  Mailer preferred that the executioner be unmasked facing the condemned in an arena with equal hand-to-hand weaponry, evenly matched, so to speak (the reason I assume he chose to focus on Gary Gilmore’s request to face a firing squad in The Executioner’s Song).  Whatever you think of that, he also wrote, “what haunts the middle of the twentieth century is that faith in man has been lost, and the appeal of authority has been that it would restrain us from ourselves” (“The White Negro” in Advertisements for Myself).  What Mailer could not have envisioned in the early 50s was our 21st century technology that provides a post-modern world in which an utterly detached humanity governed by a shallow morality becomes the audience of its own dementia.

If you think “Natural Born Killers” and “Pulp Fiction” were over-drawn experiments in creativity, have another look around at US.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Op. Re-posts: "Three Cheers For Gay Marriage"

Three Cheers For Gay Marriage  (FFT, 2005)

American military deaths in Iraq: 1,745
American military wounded in Iraq: 13,190 (official) – 38,000 (est.)
Iraq body count: 22,787 (min.) – over 100,000 (probable - the Lancet report)

The Three cheers for gay marriage come from significantly unrelated corners of the universe.  But I suppose that is how it should be.  Incidentally, today’s NY Times Op-Ed page has a very instructive piece regarding how these current alterations in the legal marriage contract follow as a perfectly logical outcome of a revolution in heterosexual marriages that began 200 years ago.

And now to the three cheers in chronological order: 

First, there was Canada.  Most of US consider our northern neighbor as a quaint confusion of people, who have made a lifestyle out of being incredibly cold over long periods of time, tolerating life in a dual language culture and having lots of guns but comparatively few deaths by guns.  So, I suppose those of US, who fear that gay marriage will destroy the very fabric of what we are, have shrugged off their legalization of gay marriage as just another oddity from an odd culture.

But then, second, Spain entered the gay marriage column.  Most of US consider Spain to be a predominantly Roman Catholic culture (they account for 94% of the population), and hasn’t the Vatican come out strongly opposed to gay marriage (as though they know anything about it other than what’s in the gospels)?  But let’s think differently about Spain.  Here’s a country that embraces The Alhambra (which Washington Irving made famous for US), a singularly Islamic entity securely preserved in Granada, marking what was essentially a foreign occupation (perhaps when we leave Iraq in the dim future we’ll leave behind a theme park…perhaps it will be called “American Idol”).  And they also have the Basques, who for generations have been screaming (in a separate language) for independence.  And the Spaniards share the Iberian Peninsula with a slice of land and culture, which speaks a completely different language.  So now they embrace gay marriage and continue their tradition of living with diversity.

And third is The United Church of Christ (UCC), seeming from its title as though it would be first in line to denounce gay marriage.  But wait a minute.  Let’s have a closer look.  Under the tab for “Justice” on their web site, they clearly state how they differ significantly from other protestant denominations regarding diversity and inclusiveness: “Throughout its history—from early engagement in the movement to abolish slavery to modern campaigns for civil rights and social justice—the UCC in every setting of the church has been engaged in ministries of compassion, advocacy and reconciliation”.  At a membership of 1,359,000 (2003 fact sheet), it has modest size in US, but can be proud of its international ecumenicalism, the cornerstone of its theology.  Unlike many of the denominations who see imminent evil in the embrace of challenges to tradition, the UCC see it as the ultimate expression of Christ’s message: "That They May All Be One." (John 17:21), that is, “to heal the broken body of Christ”.  (Time to take your doctrine seriously, folks.)

So, hip, hip, hooray, hip, hip, hooray and hip, hip hooray for these revolutionaries helping us to break through the barriers to peace, justice and love.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Op. Re-posts: "Up Close And Personal"

Up Close And Personal               (FFT, 2005)

American military deaths in Iraq: 1,827
American military wounded in Iraq: 13,559 (official), 15000-42500 (est.)
Iraq body count: 2331 [for a specific accounting, see “Common Dreams”]

I have hoped that citing the dead and wounded at the top of each entry could make a difference.  I know it is a vain hope.  All hopes are.  So today I’m citing two articles from “Electronic Iraq”, a page I’ve cited in the past.  Please link to the articles and read them.  The world has reached the point where sympathy alone is insufficient.  

Iraq Veterans Against the War met recently with their brothers in arms at the Veterans for Peace National Convention in Dallas, a 2-hour drive from Crawford, TX. Electronic Iraq spent some time speaking with them.

• “When asked what he would say to Mr. Bush if he had the chance to speak to him, Abdul Henderson, a corporal in the Marines who served in Iraq from March until May, 2003, took a deep breath and said, ‘It would be two hits—me hitting him and him hitting the floor. I see this guy in the most prestigious office in the world, and this guy says 'bring it on.' A guy who ain't never been shot at, never seen anyone suffering, saying 'bring it on?' He gets to act like a cowboy in a western's sickening to me.’”

• Harvey Tharp, having served in Kirkuk in reconstruction projects, on why many vets say the war is worth it: "I think it's because that keeps the demons at bay for them to believe it is justified...this is their coping mechanism. We, as Americans, have to face the total obvious truth that this was all because of a lie. We are speaking out because we have to speak out. We want to help other vets tell other vets their keep people from drinking themselves to death."

• Michael Hoffman served as a Marine Corps corporal who fought in Tikrit and Baghdad: "What about the 3 year old Iraqi girl who is now an orphan with diseases and nightmares for the rest of her life for what we did? And the people who orchestrated this don't have to pay anything. How many times are my children going to have to go through this? Our only choice is to fight this to try to stop it from happening again."

The other article, written from the perspective of post-bombing London, asks “Is their bombing worse than ours?”  “I am angered and sickened by the bombings here in London on July 7, but I am equally angered by the unthinking reactions in the United States and Britain to those disgusting attacks… 'Collateral damage' is the inevitable result of choosing to go to war. By choosing war in Iraq, we chose to kill tens of thousands of civilians. It does not matter to bereaved parents whether their child was killed deliberately, as the result of a utilitarian calculation of ’the greater good,’ or of the callous indifference of officials from a distant power.”  

This author concludes with a sentiment that resonates with the issue I’ve been trying to make about this war: “Peaceful protest, persuasion, demonstration, negotiation or remonstration haven't made a dent in the single-minded U.S. and British policy… This is a war between one form of zealotry and another, one form of ignorance and another, one form of barbarism and another. More of the same will not yield solutions. The time has come to be human.”

Sunday, July 26, 2015

“Something happened”…Pursuing Happiness In Our Discontents

“Something happened”  was his friend’s explanation of Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez’s demeanor after his return from his 7 month trip to Jordan (and probably elsewhere) in 2014. 

Something.  Ambiguous.  Uncertain.  A mystery.  Really?

We’ve heard this narrative too many times in our recent lives in the United States.  Whether in a recruiting center, an elementary school, a college, a cinema complex, a strip mall…anywhere USA.  “Something happened.”  That’s what we’re told.

Some pundits are beginning to throw the word “inured” into their prescribed review and attempts at giving some articulable statement about these things.  To discuss our maniacal retention of proliferating guns among our population has begun to seem to these pundits an absurdly redundant exercise—we can’t keep reporting that there is nothing to report about the lack of courage among DC representatives.  As always, in our culture, money always wins.  But pundits are not paid by their masters to discuss that truism.  And discussions about gun regulations, therefore, are exercises in futility.  So our pundits have been reduced to a herd of deer caught looking into the headlights of our current bout of painful discontents.

Just like discussions of doing something about mental illness are futile.  They go nowhere, drifting into the ether.  Really doing something about mental illness would be far too costly.  On the grand scale of cost/benefits, we, apparently, can abide one mentally ill person slaughtering people once a month, compared to the huge costs in assessing and rehabilitating mentally ill people.  And, of course, it would take lots of time and effort in addition to the money.  You know, like repairing our infrastructure.  Think of it like that, not like you’re dealing with flesh and blood human beings.  It’s easier.

But I would like to suggest that something else is going on, a current that runs deep throughout the subconscious of what living in the United States is actually all about.  We have wandered into John Barth’s funhouse, and we have begun to realize that, in fact, we are lost and have lost.

Let’s pause and look at how we react with willing disbelief that any of this has to do with who we are in our culture.  We are in a funhouse, and just now have begun to realize that the hair-raising fun is actually a fearsome horror.  Consider this element in our funhouse: Who we are has to do with what is perhaps our most cherished cultural tenet: Our happiness is our right, and that is who we are, who we ought to be, and what we strive for.  It is our illusional normality.

In the Sunday, July 19, 2015 New York Times, Carl Cederstrom wrote a very cautionary opinion piece concerning our worship of and strict adherence to the principles of a life dedicated to happiness.  In “The Dangers of Happiness” Mr. Cederstrom indicates that such secularized devotion and faith can be personally disillusioning, socially myopic and dangerous.

Cederstrom points out our truism: “It was not until the Enlightenment that it became a right — something that each and every person was able to pursue and attain…the pursuit of happiness was an unalienable right…not just…that man should pursue pleasure, but that he should also have the right to acquire and possess property.”  As students of the Declaration of Independence know, the phrase “pursuit of happiness” was originally “pursuit of property.”  And that has made all the difference.  By using the elusive reference “happiness” rather than the concrete “property,” Jefferson for better and worse created the ironic dilemma.  If an individual American is not on the way to happiness (whatever that means), the individual is facing a life of the Outlier, as an American, somehow an oddity, not assimilated into the culture.

That would all be tolerable, more or less like water off a duck’s back, unless…unless that individual has irresolvable personal issues having to do with intangibles that make the pursuit of happiness insurmountable, indeed insurmountably personal.  The deep and abiding problem is that the individual becomes convinced that something is seriously deficient in his or her being.

Cederstrom articulates this clearly for our era: “We are required to curate our market value, manage ourselves as corporations and live according to an entrepreneurial ethos. When no sin is greater than being unemployed and no vice more despised than laziness, happiness comes only to those who work hard, have the right attitude and struggle for self-improvement…Be real, be strong, be productive — and most important, don’t rely on other people to achieve these goals, because your fate is, of course, in your own hands.”  Pharrell Williams has even provided us with an anthem:

Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I'm happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I'm happy
Clap along if you feel like that's what you wanna do
                can’t nothing bring me down,

And we embrace this as the singular article of our secular faith, a faith much stronger than any of the religious faiths that we might otherwise adhere to.  “It is drummed into the unemployed and poor who are led to believe that their misfortunes are symptoms of their inferior attitudes and inability to take ownership over their lives.”  It engenders a guilt much deeper than any violations of transcendent codes, because whatever our lapses might be they are poignantly and easily observable on a daily basis.

What then becomes of the guilt-ridden individuals, obviously lapsed in their pursuit of happiness?  They feel isolated, apart from the community, estranged and fundamentally deficient.  This is not especially unique in any society.  The difference in our society is that the community, the circle of friends, family and colleagues does not rush to reassure the individual that happiness is ephemeral, occasional and not a signifier of the individual’s worth.  That is not the case in our society, because we are a macro-community of true believers in this article of faith.  And we all “hope” that this individual will “bounce back.”

But when that does not occur, and when we begin to wonder why the individual seems to be different…then something happens, something quick, sudden and inexplicable happens, and a trigger is pulled and catastrophe happens and people nobody otherwise ever heard of are killed and maimed for “no reason.”  These are the phrases repeated in the aftermath…”a senseless thing,” “unmotivated,” “out of nowhere,” “horrific,” “shocking.”

And that is the irony of our culture: Just as the seekers come to our culture to grasp the promised opportunity for success and thereby happiness, when they fall short of their vision, the consequences, abetted by our cherished ownership of weaponry, scatter and shatter among all of us.  That article of faith, which we hold dearest, turns out to be as elusive, painful and absolute.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Op. Re-posts: "Unfiltered"

Unfiltered? (July 3, 2004)

So I’m desperate for some easy viewing and decide to stop in at PBS.  I miss the tail end of something I would have enjoyed, and I’m just in time for a promotion for Tucker Carlson’s new show, “Tucker Carlson Unfiltered”.  From Fox’s unfiltered Shill O’Reilly to Air America Radio’s unfiltered everything (Can that group get anymore adolescent?), when did someone figure that unfiltered is better?  For that matter, why is unfiltered supposed to attract us?

I know.  The assumption is that all prime time TV talkies and news are filtered by the vast ‘liberal’ conspiracy.  (Can we just shred this word ‘liberal’?  It’s such a political puff word.  American English is full of irrelevant meanings:  “I’ll have a liberal helpin’ of them thar taters.”  Let’s just use left and right wing.  We ought to be comfortable with that.  Let’s grow up.)  So that means we ought to get unfiltered.  And, no, they won’t give up their filtered pretense.   Too much money to be made there.  Do you think Tucker (Do you remember the kid, Tucker, in your elementary school?  He’s the one who would wet his carefully creased pants each time the teacher yelled at some other kid!) would give up the easy $$$$$$$ he gets for cavorting with Begalla and Carville?

The theory is that we, the great unwashed, are supposed to think something good is happening here.  We can get the buttoned up and unbuttoned personas and versions of the ‘truth’.  (A dictionary will tell you unbuttoned means “free and unrestrained expression”.  And I’ll bet it comes from when men had buttons instead of zippers for their flies.)  But that’s just silly.  If you believe that, you’ll believe that Santa Claus is Jesus Christ as an older man.  No, it’s just another way for people to market themselves and their ideas to people who are gullible enough to swallow the snake oil.

Why should anyone think that unfiltered is better, or, for that matter, even possible?  Everything we utter or write is filtered…at least it ought to be if we want people to pay attention and accept what’s on our minds.  I’m a good example.  I definitely strive for filtering, because I’ve been known to blurt some dangerously incriminating and otherwise anti-social screeds.  In fact, if I didn’t filter, much of what I utter would sound like a Tower of Tourettes.  

This all reminds me of a story by Hortense Calisher in which the young woman has this terrible problem with the ‘newts’ that idle somewhere in her body.  These newts invariably surface and pour from her mouth each time she’s in an awkward or sensitive situation and wants to say something relevant.  But she’s doomed to utter an unfiltered, newted statement.  Calisher plays with the idea that the newts somehow are associated with Satan, rising from primordial slime, frustrating our desires to be acceptable.

So filtering is practical and common sense.  Unfiltering, though not necessarily bad, is dissembling, phony righteousness and money grubbing.  

Friday, July 24, 2015

Op. Re-posts: "My 'Hair' Problem"


American military deaths in Iraq: 1,353
American military wounded in Iraq: 10,2521

A few years ago some friends and I re-experienced the tribal rock musical "Hair."  The Bridgeport Downtown Cabaret's production precisely and enthusiastically re-created the version I gawked at in 1968.  I again held the same vision of life and wasted death I marveled at from the orchestra of some Broadway theatre a whole lifetime ago.

And that has become my problem.  That sense of life and travail is now more than I wanted to remember, and my eyes see with those other eyes every day now, and I know that the prophecy has come real. All that poetry and laughter has soured in our passionless lives and in the closeted cynicism of Washington.

I had just turned thirty that year, had just fathered my third child into a marriage that was on the wane, was new to Connecticut and in a new job, and was going to graduate school in lower Manhattan, bearing witness to the tempting lust and rage of Washington Square.  And I didn't know why I was doing or being any of it.

My Silent Generation did what we were told, listened and watched.   That socially acceptable voyeurism allowed me to be in the Sixties on the Square, on the train and on the job, but kept me from its harm as well.  I lived an invisibility provided by my thirty year old mask and costume, short-haired, drifting in and out of demonstrations and parlors, urging it on willfully but blending with the rest of the tourists my age.  And what a party it was.

The conventional wisdom claims we were a nation torn by the times, especially by the Vietnam War issue.  But what I recall is a brawling, sprawling national family that cared enough about all its members to hate them and call them pigs and commies and hippies.  Everyone was desperately proclaiming superior morality and acting on that claim.  As I see again the rushing crowds pushing into the streets and buildings now, I see a nation that cared deeply about all of it and argued endlessly over the differences.  I'm looking into the face of a Parkway toll taker as he's declaiming against my McCarthy bumper sticker.  And we're heading for a demonstration somewhere, anywhere.

But today as I look around with the eyes that "Hair" gave me, I see blank faces on kids and anger in the eyes of two separate parents, scrambling at their separate jobs and fretting over day care, a nation of cellular phone drivers sealing their deals from the steering wheels of their imported four-wheeled cubicles.  If it's all for fun, then nothing is funny enough.  At least, the fun of the Love Children had an edge of desire to it.  The fun of our Yuppies and their acquiring children mews empty phrases in pursuit of soft memories.  They have hard bodies and healthy lungs, and they have vapid minds speaking smarmy jargon to justify their latest crystallized morality that avoids the snarling looks of honest people.

"How can people be so heartless?" runs the lament of Sheila in "Hair" as she confronts her lover's choice to leave.  And that earnestness and desire make me cringe in the face of the mean-spirited avarice we wallow in.  Her lover leaves for an ideal he's not sure of except that it promises more than the overload of ritualized drugs and nameless sex partners in the tribe.  As it turns out, he dies like some 50,000 others, wondering what it all was for, what the ideal meant to all the people at home and in Saigon who didn't want to fight.

Even so, he held a belief.  His short life meant more than a Volvo or a Hummer and the latest wonder toys from Silicon Valley and Japan.  As I look at the faces of my students and my forty-something neighbors, I see the look of a beater, flicking fierce eyes around to see the opening, the squeeze to get over on the system or the sucker.

We don't live in an age of greater morality or new morality.  We live in an age of amorality.  The only values are the codes of easiness and success.  For all the health crazies around, my Hair-ed eyes see precious few people who are willing to exert a pinch of real effort to work on large problems that don't directly benefit them individually.

And so I have this "Hair" problem.  Actually, it's an eye problem.  With these eyes, I can't overlook things anymore.  Like a few of my contemporaries, I had compromised with the spiritlessness of our age.  I had blinded myself to the rudeness and crudeness that is commonplace.  I had learned carefully to avoid the spin and curl of the slick-lipped hustlers.  But then along came last year's emptiness, and I couldn't turn the other way.

I saw the bathos in local politics and could see how its canker festered exponentially in national politics.  The Kerry/Bush Follies was hyped as a nasty campaign. But my eyes saw a soapbox derby with mediocrity's lowest common denominator the face at the finish line.  The country didn't win or lose.  The country sent a clear message.  It doesn't care, because nothing about those guys matters.  The most justified addition to Mount Rushmore for the 21st century would be the Happy Face.

So the Age of Aquarius has shmoozed into the Age of Putty.  The starshine of the Sixties is the American Idol of the 21st century.  Perhaps, despite all our fun, the sound behind our laughter is the whimpering that closed T.S. Eliot's vision of the modern era. Perhaps, in this new century it's the nasal sneer of the cashiers when they say to me, "Have a nice day."