Friday, March 20, 2015

Charter Schools: The Actuality

Like all reform movements, the education reform movement has a downside.  Actually, it has a profound downside; its viability depends entirely on its stealth funding sources' ability to abrogate the democratic process.

As my regular readers know, I have had some experience opposing these forces of reform for a few years.  I oppose them mainly because they exploit public education by (illegally, in most cases) skimming vitally needed funds from the operating state education budgets and by undermining what I know from experience is the actual learning process.  Beyond that, it regiments elementary education to a quasi-military environment and removes any students who do not conform (rather than accommodating their learning difficulties).  But you don't need to rely on my testimony.  Go to the link below and judge for yourself.

Nowhere is this faux reform clearer than in New York's corrupted political process delivered by 9 hedge fund operators and their consigliere, those pasty faced lieutenants eager to remain in the good graces of their monied masters.  This is oligarchic privatization on steroids.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Does Economic Inequality Become Social and Political Instability?

The idea that economic inequality is a growing actuality in the life of United States citizens is not news.  But what some people have begun noising about (albeit quietly) is that this inequality and its metastasis threaten our ability to cohere socially and to self-govern. 

[Heartfelt disclaimer:  I am not an economist.  The closest I came was a basic undergraduate course, which I nearly flunked.  On the other hand, I spent all my years in graduate school studying what was quaintly labeled “American Civilization,” and, yes, the experience was as amorphous as it sounds…and is.]

The issue about economic inequality is not just that it is unethical or immoral; the issue is that if it continues unabated and continues to allow for and propel the dissolution of our social institutions, what we assume is our system of governance will become something quite different from a democracy and our social constructs will be closer to chaotic fiefdoms.  In this regard, economic inequality is a little like climate change; whether you believe it is occurring or not does not matter.  What matters is that significant life choices need to be made now in order simply to continue living with or without the kind of life choices we prefer.  The water will continue to rise and the droughts and storms will get worse, both actually and metaphorically.  We simply must change our ways of thinking and doing or we will cease as a democratic society.

Of course, most people will tell you they care about poverty, about poor people.  But they actually don’t.  Most of us are too busy consuming.  But it’s not nice not to care about poverty, and most people want at least to be nice.  Besides, poverty allows them to be charitable; that is, to give money and stuff to charities that, in turn, give to poor people.  Charity does nothing to relieve poverty in this country, but it allows us to feel that we are nice people (and allows for a pittance of a tax deduction).  So poverty is one of those things we assume has always been with us and will continue to be.  It’s part of the American way.

But now, along come people like Robert Putnam and Thomas Picketty, who are telling us that economic inequality is not just about poverty, but is rather about an impending sea change in everything in our social institutions and most cherished assumptions about our culture that will require major shifts in who we think we are and where we think we are going.  This phenomenon will make the actualities of climate change look like a mild tweaking of our lifestyles.

Robert Putnam in Our Kids (from the review in Huffington Post) makes several observations about how economic inequality is alienating and isolating Americans, similarly to what he wrote about in Bowling Alone, only this time it derives from necessity more than choice.  He includes such things as the curtailment of economic opportunity poisoning the integrity of democracy, alienation of learning through privatization of education thus increasing social divisiveness,  those in and on the margins of poverty becoming increasingly isolated, distrustful and disengaged. They feel isolated, disconnected, distrustful, separated from social institutions (education, religion, politics/governance, civics).  All results in the accumulating disintegration of the American community, which is exponentially re-enforced by all media, especially social media and in data reliance.

In his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Picketty writes, “economic inequality is the inevitable collateral effect of capitalism—and that if governments don’t act decisively to contain it (mostly through higher taxes on wealth and incomes), it will steadily grow until it seriously threatens democracy and economic stability.” (quoted in Moise Naim's "Thomas Piketty and the End of Our Peaceful Coexistence With Inequality”).  "This superpower has an unrivaled ability to export and globalize its anxieties. In this case, it’s good news that the problem afflicting Americans is also important for people elsewhere who have passively tolerated inequality for too long.”

Christine LeGarde, head of IMF, is quoted in Mother Jones, "History…teaches us that democracy begins to fray at the edges once political battles separate the haves against the have-nots.” (emph added).  Her observation is uderscored by Frederick Stolt in his “Economic Inequality and Democratic Political Engagement”.  He states, “economic inequality powerfully depresses political interest, discussion of politics, and participation in elections among all but the most affluent." And it follows that interest in and engagement with all social institutions declines concomitantly.

I had been stewing over this problem for some time, and then I read an article in a recent New Yorker, Jill Lepore's, “Richer and Poorer”, at which time I decided to try to cobble together some sense by relating it to some things I have been observing.  And so you have this post.  Lepore takes both Putnam and Picketty to task, basically for over-generalizing the issue.  And that's fair enough, especially on Putnam's part (though my heart is with his longings for the 50s, which, however, were not that altogether communitarian as he wishes).  And Picketty seems to be far too global for Lepore.  Nevertheless, by citing Anthony Atkinson's Inequality: What Can Be Done?, as her middle ground, she seems to be overly willing to suspend disbelief in our current specious governance.  Even though Atkinson contends, “The American political imagination has become as narrow as the gap between rich and poor is wide,” he nevertheless castigates Putnam's "nostalgia" position and seems to place all his trust in a functioning government to create and fund all his 15 proposed solutions, such as a government role in the direction of technological development, a capital endowment of “minimum inheritance” paid to everyone on reaching adulthood, a global tax on wealth, a minimum tax on corporations…[and] he is interested in “responsible parties and in demanding government action."

But what if government can't or (more likely) won't?  And that is the situation we currently find ourselves in with no change in the visible future.

I am not so much concerned with economic inequality.  That has been part of America since the colonies, and, as I suggested, Americans accept that.  Inequality is what we perversely accept as a part of the opportunity equation.  And that is inexplicable (I've tried with various peoples).  What I am concerned about is the fraying and/or (worse) dissolution of our social institutions and governance.  I am concerned because I see it emerging at various levels.  What has traditionally been accepted as public is now assumed to be private, what has traditionally assumed to have been constitutionally viable in any time is now considered viable only in terms of originalist ideology—a concept on its face totally absurd.

I don't want to die uncertain that what I have thought Americans could always rely on is no longer reliable.  I don't want more.  I want what has been at least reasonably reliable. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

With Liberty And Disruption For All?

I've been wrestling with this clever contemporary theory of disruption ever since I read a front page article in the Times Book Review section in January of last year, Among the Disrupted.  The article explores the issues involved in the question about disruptive innovation posed by the author: "But are we becoming posthumanist?"  The question derives from what the author sees in the process of disruption; i.e., that it assumes the primacy of a market driven value system based in data quantification, rather than in a culture driven value system based in sustaining and modifying traditional cultural values.

Much of the author's concern is with the overriding value placed on technology vis-a-vis its relationship to societal institutions.  He presents an overview of what has happened to things like journalism ("Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts...and patience is a professional liability.") and culture in general ("...the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business.  There are 'metrics' for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured [e.g. education]...Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be.  Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary understanding of, well, everything.  It is enabled by the idolatry of data."

His issue is that we have elevated what is basically merely a tool of humanity to being in its essence human society's secular god, omniscient beyond reproach, omnipotent beyond recall.  He offers the following:  "Here's a proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy.  The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers."  And he concludes disconsolately, "In a society rife with theories and practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject, the humanist is the dissenter."

So we dissenters, or monastic individuals, become increasingly isolated and ignored, and to that extent, blessed.  We are the disrupted, those who strive in futility to keep the qualities of humanism viable, the thinkers, writers, artists, and dramatists, struggling amid the forces of disruption, the doers and makers of quantification.  The dissenters, the humanists see and feel beyond quantity and standardization, the “practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject.”   These few are also disrupters, but their purpose is to grab us by the shoulders, to disrupt our sleepwalking and make us see what is happening; they seek to elevate the human experience beyond the mundane and prosaic of quantity.  The humanities pursue the feeling of being human, the essence, which transcends existence.  And data driven market values denigrate that transcendence.

A perfect example of such denigration is what is being hailed as the provision of the comfort and security of living in smart cities.  These intra-cities, smaller parcels within mega-urban entities (e.g., Williamsburg, Brooklyn/NYC), will be philosophically modeled under the aegis of neoliberalism and physically designed and operated under the uber control of data driven market values.  The small city "innovation" is a perfect example of the disruptive machinations.  Behind the blind of making life run more smoothly and more securely, these masterly innovations will be clustering humanity in dependent living styles, engorging primarily the corporatocracy that benefits from the process.  That is, people will have the feeling or sense that they are enjoying freer lives and choices,  but everything about their lives and choices will be determined by the data that drives the innovations.  Note:  Everything we "enjoy" in our digital lives is prescribed by what the digital technology wants to provide to us (not necessarily for us).  Everything we take advantage of that is provided by the world of digital technology — yes, including this blogging opportunity — is provided because we depend on it and because it increasingly controls us through that dependency.

The same is true especially with Facebook and Twitter.  I read a plaintive letter in today's newspaper, explaining how the writer is now in the bind of not knowing how to quit Facebook without severing herself from all her "friends," because she realizes how compulsively she is tied to the site, and does not want to be any longer.  Simply quitting would be the equivalent of "unfriending" all those people...and then where would she be?!  The use of social media content during a controversy in society (e.g. deflategate, American Sniper, domestic violence among NFL players, racism as the triggering element among police officers) atrophies into babble or noise in a brief amount of time, and the issue submerges into forgetfulness.  Quantification thus is the prime measure of influence in social media; that is, How many followers does it generate?  How many friends?  How many hits?  It’s never about “the force of  expression."

The insidious nature of this cancer is its relentless diffusion into all social institutions and especially into the bonds of social integrity, like friendships and all numbers of relationships.  But what no one seems willing to acknowledge is that these so-called ties and links are merely 1s and 0s; to borrow from Gertrude Stein, there is no there there.  The systems provide no smells, no touches, no human sensations of any kind.  In short, for all the human activity involved in this digital onslaught, it is bereft of humanism.  And like all cancers, its horror is that it metastasizes quickly and stealthily, so that by the time society is aware of its corruption of our institutions we are at a loss where to begin resistance.  We unconsciously have welcomed an actual matrix that was fiction in 1999.  Our acceptance of this disruption driven ethos has been evolving us into a flattening world disorder.  We can see it in the bland expressions on our faces.  We have reached the point where we don't or won't even consider such questions as:  What is the character of our society?  Is it what most of us want it to be?

In closing, I want to look at a dilemma that has emerged as a direct consequence of this quantitative ethos.  Its label comes in various terms, the most common of which is education reform.  First as one who spent his entire adult life in the world of facilitating learning (what some people, especially the reformers, call education and/or teaching), I spent probably the majority of that time finding ways to make learning better and more purposeful.  I know how learning can be reformed in a humanist way, because I've done it.  But what virtually everyone involved in the "reform" agenda completely disregards is that data driven education is a dead end process.  Just as data driven improvements in cities and factories provide end game solutions to problems, data driven improvements in education in their conception are end game processes.

Schools and classrooms are not factories, and students (at every level) are not commodities.  And yet the "reform" techniques are specifically designed to apply the same constructs and metrics to education that are applied to factories.  In all my years in the classroom and lecture hall, whether acting as the one in charge or observing a colleague, I never saw a teacher or lecturer whose performance could be measured ("reformers" prefer evaluated) through data.  No standardized test anywhere can determine the degree and kind of learning that takes place in the mind of each individual in that room.  I referred to the teacher's "performance."  Yes.  That is what happens the moment the teacher enters the room, even before a word is spoken, and each individual is reacting silently in his and her individual way.  This is one of those moments of transcendence I mentioned above.  Learning is a humanistic experience.  All the data driven machinations devised to flatten that experience, whether Common Core Standards or other types of regulation, will result in a matrix world of chilling sameness.

I chose education, because I know it the best, but we can all observe what is happening.  Social media—indeed, all media—have as their purpose to determine what is worth knowing, what, in fact, knowledge is.  And when we consider that this determination is driven by data collected from how we humans respond in real time to flash points or long term experiences in our lives, we should stop and think how limiting this is:  It encloses us in what has been and doesn't inspire us to determine what will be.  The best kind of learning is aspirational, the thinking that what has been can be changed not because of what we know but rather because of what we think can be.

I don't want to have to live in a world of what has been.  The word "standard" has to do with sameness. And we don't become better humans that way.  The best of human development derives from a simple question:  What if?  Whether in medicine, the arts, architecture, education, engineering, any expressions of the human will, this is how actual human transformation occurs.  Disruption can be very positive, so long as it disrupts and transcends the sameness.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Community Colleges Conditionally

I occasionally respond to some of David Brooks’ ideas as they appear in his New York Times op-ed pieces.  I admire his efforts to apply Edmund Burke’s principles, even though they fit less into our post-modern lives than they did into Burke’s or, for that matter, into Brooks’.

In this case, he thinks community colleges can be re-imagined into a force for positive change.  Like most people who have never had the temerity to make learning happen, Mr. Brooks, has the temerity to advise Pres. Obama on how to make community colleges better facilitators of post-K-12 learning.  On their faces, these principles or “instructions” have merit, but in essence they will face the same dilemmas that have been facing public education for decades.

First, consider that his “instructions” to the policy wonks and administrators (esp. Pres. Obama) are all couched in the conditional tense.  For example,
“you’d focus on living expenses”
“You’d subsidize guidance counselors and mentors.”
“You’d figure out the remedial education mess.”
“You’d focus on child care.”

And he summarizes by writing, “you wouldn’t write government checks for tuition. You’d strengthen structures around the schools. You’d focus on the lived environment of actual students and create relationships and cushions to help them thrive.”  Alas, writing government checks is always the ultimate bĂȘte noir for this Burkean policy advisor.  He also seems to be channeling the title of Mike Huckabee’s new book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy, when he writes, “The new research emphasizes noncognitive skills — motivation, grit and attachment.”

Brooks includes other ideas about how community colleges can and must step up to the challenges of creating a viable 21st century workforce, just like all the rest of the bloviators on education who have never been responsible for a learning process in a classroom at any level.  But he never even flirts with the idea that all of the above conditional ideas are what experienced learning facilitators (classroom teachers) have been saying ever since America thought it might be a good idea to consider how people learn and how we must apply a holistic approach: i.e., improve the community’s social and economic viability, increase funding for mentors and counselors, provide “remedial” learning before it is remedial, and so on…and all this ought to be done during the K-12 experience.  Why wait for community college? 

Much as he would like his ideas to be new, Brooks is simply stirring an old stew that the “decision makers” have been ignoring for decades.  Nobody wants to get gritty in those communities that represent the 51% of American children who attend public schools while they are living in poverty.
K-12 learners find learning to be very difficult when they have to decide on what will be the one meal they eat on any school day and where they will be sleeping, and will it be a place safe from theft and abuse?  And too many Americans focus on the plight of the poverty/education vicious cycle in urban schools, while they overlook the enormous range of the same cycle in rural and exurban schools.

As I have written many times, there are no quick, easy cheesy fixes in learning.  Learning begins in the home, as the child listens to the words of its parents’ and relative’s voices, sees the various relationships developing, wonders at the marvelous tales being read at bedtime, and the child learns from the community, from how neighbors act toward each other, from the sounds and smells of the community and from the well being of the community.

I doubt that Mr. Brooks considered these things while he was focusing on the conditional foundations of the promises implicit in a community college education.  And I doubt that Pres. Obama will mention them in his exaltations about the community college panacea. (But I’m pretty sure he’ll have a stellar success story sitting in the gallery.)  And I doubt that many of us will be willing to take a very hard look at and spend the huge amounts of what will be necessary to make our large and small communities and their people viable opportunities for learning.  The costs and tectonic social shifts would be mind-boggling.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Fire Next Time?

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so 

stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will 

be forced to deal with pain.” 

“If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only 

be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot 

do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” 

[both quotations from James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time]

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

I Seriously Wonder

The following letter to the New York Times got me thinking, wondering about how facile we can be regarding our assumptions about who we are and what we think.

"To the Editor:
Re “Huge Show of Solidarity in Paris Against Terrorism” (front page, Jan. 12)It is an insult to all in France, all in Europe and all in America that the Obama administration failed to send a high-level representative for the Paris march on Sunday denouncing last week’s murderous Islamic terrorist attacks and proclaiming solidarity with the principles of free speech and a free press. Our attorney general, Eric Holder, was in Paris but didn’t show up. Our secretary of state, John Kerry, was in India (though he plans a Paris visit this week). The Obama administration could have sent the vice president, or even the speaker of the House or Senate majority leader. And maybe even the president?I am mortified, and I know the vast majority of my fellow Americans are as well.
Rye Brook, N.Y., Jan. 12, 2015"
My concern is not with the sentiment expressed.  I agree that for such an historical moment, the U.S. should have had leadership representation.  But that's only me.  And the letter writer is only himself.  With all due respects to Mr. Hubert, for either of us to presume to project outward from ourselves to include "the vast majority of [our] fellow Americans" is a reach way beyond credulity.

Consider the meaning of "vast majority" of Americans.  Let's be conservative and say that a vast majority of Americans is about two thirds; that is, 200+ million of our "fellow" citizens.  Everything I have been able to understand about the opinions of these numbers of us concludes that mostly they pursue what has become the growing response to everything from tsunamis to cops killing kids bearing toy guns—the "meh" response. I'm going to guess that among the readership of the NYTimes (a so-called cosmopolitan-minded readership), perhaps 50% are concerned about our lack of representation.  I don't like concluding that, I don't like thinking cynically, but the evidence is everywhere. 

In fact, I'm willing to say, within the "meh" response to this particular incident, an abiding feeling festers that the French got what they deserved.  They did not take seriously enough the terror threat simmering among Muslims and let them wander into their country unheeded.  That's sort of the "meh" mentality.

You see, I wonder about my fellow citizens.  I wonder about them every time I leave my home.  What sort of self-absorbing rudeness and incivility will I encounter?  Who will veer into my driving lane transfixed by the wonderfulness of themselves and their Friends and Followers  on their smart phones?  You see, I wonder about this, and it informs me to the point that the hubris it instills and the "exceptionalism" it engenders fully explain why our representatives to the world could not be bothered to alter their schedules to commiserate and support our oldest historical ally, indeed our spiritual kin.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Who Diminishes Us?

"These people control most aspects of public life. Whether you live poorly or well, you work so they can be richer. You’re fired when they want you fired. You’re killed — in their wars; by their poisons; by their unaffordable health care system; by your poverty; by their police — when they want you to die.

Like fish in water, you live with their greed every day. You watch their propaganda (we call it “entertainment”). You vote for their candidates. Their touch and reach is everywhere, yet they’re invisible to us. The key to their destruction is to expose their lives to view.

I’ve talked about “collapse” — social, political, climatological — most recently on Virtually Speaking. When collapses come, they usually come fast. The last time we came close to collapse was the Great Depression. If we’re poised on the cusp of another, god help us … no one will have fun then, not us, not them. But if things do break apart, it won’t be for lack of patience on our side, but hubris on theirs. They will have forced it themselves … unless they’re stopped."

From Bill Moyers on naked capitalism.  "I can't breathe" is about more than racism.