Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What We Talk About When We Talk About Debate

Alessandra Stanley, writing in The New York Times about the addition of Al Sharpton to MSNBC's nighttime lineup, says:
And in the evening at least, MSNBC is less a news provider than a carousel of liberal opinion — potential conflicts of interest are swept aside in the swirl of excitable guests.

Unfortunately, so is conflict. There is almost no real debate on any of these evening shows: a conservative is brought on and put on the spot, then in a different segment two people who agree with the host on a given issue answer the host’s questions, usually, with words like “you’re so right.”
She has set a stage of partisanship, CNN at the center, MSNBC and Fox at the wings. Debate, she implies, happens only at the center, where people from both wings can intermingle in a fair fight.

But is that really debate?  Is what we see on CNN any more debate than what happens on Fox and MSNBC?  The guests on CNN, if from different viewpoints, talk over each other as much as even guests who agree do on the other two stations.  No one listens; each person (each host as well, even CNN hosts) has an allegiance to a particular stance, a stance that keeps them in the money by keeping their profile clear and simple--and understandable to news-channel programmers.  They don't dare change their views and haven't the time, in the short segments allocated on news television, to respond adequately to the views of others--so they ignore them.  Or, at best, make fun of them.

CNN, Fox, and MSNBC all traffic in entertainment, not news, and they invite entertainers as guests, entertainers who have each developed as identifiable a public persona as Ish Kabibble or Captain Kangaroo.  These entertainers are not going to step out of character to engage in real debate.  To do so would be to sabotage their future guest appearances, their future income.

Criticizing MSNBC for lacking debate (especially when tacitly claiming CNN provides it) is like criticizing a donkey for not being a donkephant, a cross between donkey and elephant.  It's useless.  And rather silly.

Monday, August 29, 2011

"Oh literature! Oh here, oh now, oh hell!"

In Ray Bradbury's "Usher II," it's 'realism,' not 'literature.'  But the sentiment remains.  It was mine, more and more, these past years... though that may be beginning to change.

Over the past semesters, I've slowly slipped away even from the teaching of literature--and have written less and less about literature.  Until this year, that is.  I have finally come to grips with what was bothering me about the teaching and study of literature, and am now beginning to find ways of doing something about it. For one thing, I have discovered that, in the words of Joseph Epstein, "Literature, as taught in the current-day university, is strictly an intramural game."  And that bored me.  Tomorrow, I will embark on teaching a literature class for the first time in over a year in a way that interests me (moving literature into the public sphere, so to speak)--though not in a fashion Epstein might imagine.

And not on a writer he'd approve of, not he who thinks Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser are America's best of the 20th century.  The course is an exploration of the fiction of Philip K. Dick, the wonderful nut I wrote my dissertation on.  A writer who could produce trash as easily and often as brilliance.

And that's fine.  It really doesn't matter, as most of us who teach learn at some point in our careers, for it's not the subject matter that's of importance, but what is done with it.

My aversion to the teaching of literature results in part from what people like Epstein have done to it.  And from what the people he complains about in The Wall Street Journal in his review of The Cambridge History of the American Novel have done to it, as well.  All of them, almost as though they put their differences aside to reach this goal, aim towards making literature tedious.   And I am sick of that, sick of both the arrogance of the Epsteins and the political agendas of those the Epsteins resist.

Tacked onto the bottom of Epstein's review is this:
In the final chapter of "The Cambridge History of the American Novel," titled "A History of the Future of Narrative," the novelist Robert Coover argues that, though the technologies of reading and writing may be changing and will continue to change, the love of stories—reading them and writing them—will always be with us. Let's hope he is right. Just don't expect that love to be encouraged and cultivated, at least in the near future, in American universities.
Coover, author of (among other things) The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., not only loves stories but has a sense of humor.  Perhaps he'd laugh.  Love of literature encouraged and cultivated at a university?  Oh, come on!  Love of books comes from reading, not study, for all fiction (at least) is entertainment.  Yeah, from Horace to Sidney and on, we've been told that literature should delight and instruct.  The delight comes through consumption through choice; the instruction comes through what one does with the things that have provided delight (not, I repeat, through the things themselves, but through their usage).  Lighten up, Epstein.

I went to graduate school because I wanted to read.  Working in Chicago in the parts department of an auto dealership days and selling cars evenings and weekends, I had picked up a stack of random books, including Balzac's Pere Goriot and Faulkner's The Hamlet.  Soon, I realized that my appetite for books was not going to be satisfied by browsing in bookstores and libraries, accidentally discovering the gems.  I needed something more.  So, I enrolled in grad school--to read, and to be exposed to books in a systematic fashion.

Not everyone comes to school with a desire to read, of course.  Few do.  I was lucky, and understand the difference between me and most students.

As a teacher, my mantra is 'Start where the student is.'  OK.  Most students say they don't like to read, so where does one start with a literature course?  Certainly not with Dreiser or Cather.  For all of their importance to Epstein, they mean nothing to my students.  The issues they address are alien.  But Philip K. Dick?  Ahh!  Though he's been dead for almost 30 years, Dick remains interesting to my students.  If not because of Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly, because his visions of the future relate eerily to today's reality.

Literature?  Great stuff, but it includes more (like Phil Dick) than Epstein imagines.  He writes:
What [English] departments have done... is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.
What he doesn't do is explain why chronology is important (it is, but because it provides context), more important than what he claims are secondary considerations (why are they secondary?  Why can't they be as important as chronology?).  And just who are these young people he refers to?  And what makes a book good?

It's this last question I want my students to answer, each for himself or herself, in my new course on Phil Dick.  They don't have to like all of his stuff, but I hope they will enjoy some of it, and will begin to think about just what they do and don't like, and if their taste might not be examined and enhanced.


Monday, August 22, 2011

"No Dog In This Fight"

When someone says:
I had no dog in this fight
Look out!  What they are saying is that they do (or did), but don't want to admit it.  Personally, I have never seen any claim of impartiality that proved true.  I know, that's a blanket statement, and I am sure instances could be dredged up where someone really was objective... but I can't think of one.  Humans operate from subjective stances necessitated by their physical limitations, cultural backgrounds, and personal experiences.  No one comes to anything without these.

Steven Brill, whose book Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools came out last week, makes his own claim to impartiality in the piece for Reuters linked above.  The irony is that he starts with a story about the danger of taking anyone's statements at face value, and then expects us to accept his own.  What makes it doubly so is that his claim isn't that he has done this or that, but that he is impartial.

Very quickly, he invokes as evidence his own assumptions as to why others act, making it clear that, even if he did start out impartial (not likely), he is no longer so:
I watched assistant principals in the public schools mostly stay in their offices, fearing they would be accused by the union of harassment if they observed and coached too much.
Judge Judy would stop him right there.  He can't know what's going on in the minds of others or what their motivations really are.  He is making assumptions... even if one or two of them have admitted such fears to him (what about the others?  And were they making objective statements themselves?).

Brill also plays rhetorical games in his essay, making it clear that he has long since thrown any pretense towards objectivity out the window:
Sitting in successful charter schools and then the failing public schools in the same communities and watching what they do differently... helped cut through the rhetoric about what makes some schools effective and others failures.
The implication here is that charter schools are "successful" and that public schools are "failing."  Thing is, there are successful public schools and failing charter schools aplenty.  The fact of being a charter school does not lead to success any more than the fact of being a public school leads to failure, but the implication of his statement is just that.  Actually, the two operate in completely different situations and cannot be simply compared one-on-one: charter schools have options (and not simply because they are non-union) unavailable to public schools.  Brill, a journalist by trade, knows full well what he is doing when he writes such sentences... and it has nothing to do with impartiality.

When Brill gets around to talking about Diane Ravitch, rather that honestly characterizing her positions, he writes:
there is no there there. Ravitch presents no alternative path; she mischaracterizes the reformers’ arguments (by saying, for example, that they want to rely solely on test scores when they always say that rigorous classroom observations and other subjective evaluations should be at least as much, if not more, a part of the equation); and , as with other anti-reformers, she cherry-picks all kinds of data, lunging for whatever she can
He really should, were he trying to do more than dismiss her, grapple with what she says rather than stating what he thinks she says in simplistic and unfair terms.  (Yes, I am doing a bit the same to him, but I make no pretense to objectivity and am making use of his words directly.)

Brill also continuously tells us how many papers he has gone through, how many people he has talked to... making the argument that he, then, knows best.  Until we've gone through it all, we can't know as much.  Not even, I would like to ask, if we've actual classroom experience (something that, as far as I can tell, he lacks)?

All of this is prelude to what he presents as "The Facts":

  • American schools are failing.  He is "amazed" that anyone would deny this, but provides no evidence for it.  American schools, though, are a patchwork, as they have ever been (especially under segregation), some doing well, others poorly.  The difference today is that we are looking at the whole and not simply at the middle-class part.
  • It is not a matter of money.  We spend more, he says, and get "lousy" results.  He might want to take a look at the Scarsdale, NY schools, where "more" is indeed spent, and ask if the results are lousy.
  • Class size doesn't matter.  This is only a claim one who has never spent a semester before a class can make.  It does matter: a single teacher can only do so much.
  • Charter schools are not the answer alone.  Well, that's not even a fact on the face of it, but an assertion.
Enough.  Brill goes on, and I read on (and you can, too), but he retreats into false balance (neither side is completely right) and solutions that, as far as I can tell, are not solutions at all but are an outsider's wishful thinking.

Certainly, we should all be working to improve our schools, but let's all (Brill included) start from our own biases.  Let's stop saying we (each of us) are the ones who determine what the facts are and what the solutions should be and start working rather than merely pontificating.  That way, maybe we can learn from each other.  Brill, his high self-esteem to the contrary, does not know everything about education, not for all his brilliance as a journalist or hours spent pouring over documents or talking to people.

Brill, if he really wants to learn about education enough to effectively help reform it, could take some time off from his so-called "journalism" and try working in a classroom for a year or two.

His "facts," after that, would be quite a bit different.  As his solutions would probably be.

Until then, though I'll listen to him and take him seriously (something he is not doing, for example, with Ravitch, though he claims to have read her work--he misrepresents her and criticizes her for not doing what she never claimed to be doing), I doubt he will really contribute much towards improving our schools.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Empress Bessie

My pantheon of 20th-century American musical performers hasn't changed much since the 1960s.  There are others who should be in it (like Louis Armstrong), but they never moved me the way these did: Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan....  Others include Leadbelly, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, and Sarah Vaughan.

The first of these I became aware of were Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, and Woody Guthrie, all around the same time in the early 1960s or possibly the late 1950s.  Of this trio, the one whose music still moves me most is Bessie Smith.

Here's a sampling of her music from YouTube (you may have to click on the link to watch on the YouTube site).  She's worth a listen, for those not familiar with her, though style and recording technology have changed dramatically since her day:

Last week, Jan and I went to see The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith.  Miche Braden's Bessie is excellent, though she hasn't quite the power of the original, or the ability to tug quite so hard on the heartstrings.  Still, she made remember all of the times when listening to Smith's music fit my needs perfectly.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Sick, Yes, But Infected by Whom?

Kurt Andersen, writing in today's New York Times, argues that our politics is sick, making the metaphor almost literal, seeing an autoimmune disorder:
It’s now considered reasonable to regard organs and limbs of the federal government — the E.P.A., the education department, the Federal Reserve — as tumors that must be removed. Taxation itself is now considered a parasitic pathogen rather than a crucial part of our social organism.
True, but Andersen doesn't manage to identify the cause of the illness, laying the blame on stress instead of pointing out the self-aware Typhoid Mary still spreading the disease. The situation we find ourselves in is not accidental, not no way, not no how.

The disease is something that has been growing for more than thirty years, the infection deliberately spread. Only now are people beginning to even recognize that it exists, though Cassandras like Frederick Clarkson have been warning about its deliberate spread for well more than a decade. In 1994, he wrote:
The significance of the [Christian] Reconstructionist movement is not its numbers, but the power of its ideas and their surprisingly rapid acceptance. Many on the Christian Right are unaware that they hold Reconstructionist ideas. Because as a theology it is controversial, even among evangelicals, many who are consciously influenced by it avoid the label. This furtiveness is not, however, as significant as the potency of the ideology itself. Generally, Reconstructionism seeks to replace democracy with a theocratic elite that would govern by imposing their interpretation of "Biblical Law." Reconstructionism would eliminate not only democracy but many of its manifestations, such as labor unions, civil rights laws, and public schools. Women would be generally relegated to hearth and home. Insufficiently Christian men would be denied citizenship, perhaps executed. So severe is this theocracy that it would extend capital punishment beyond such crimes as kidnapping, rape, and murder to include, among other things, blasphemy, heresy, adultery, and homosexuality.
 It's no wonder, then, that he was more than a little frustrated by this:

That two so-called savvy news analysts should be completely unaware of Christian Reconstructionism or Dominionism is itself quite startling, and not just because Clarkson and others have been warning about the movement for so long.  The recalcitrant, anti-compromise Tea Party faction in Congress acts as it does because of belief, even if unacknowledged, in this movement.  Two current presidential candidates, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, are extremely influenced by this movement, as is Sarah Palin.

The movement has been hidden right in the open, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and others first setting its agenda years ago.  They cloak their agenda in a pseudo-patriotism, "pseudo" because what they are about is a complete destruction of the commitment to compromise (witness that Tea Party faction in Congress) that has provided the staying power of the American republic since its founding.  These are absolutists, operating in a system whose basic document, the United States Constitution, rejects absolutism completely.  Yet they claim to defend that Constitution, redefining it as a "Christian" document based on their own convictions, not on its historical or present-day being.

So, yes, our politics is sick, but it is not a sickness we can fight simply by identifying the symptoms, as Andersen does.  We need to admit that we have among us, in America, a movement antithetical to the very core beliefs of the nation, a movement whose goal is its destruction.  This may sound paranoid, and it may be, to some degree, but I fear for our nation if the power of the Christian right is not soon checked.

Friday, August 19, 2011

"Failing Public Schools"

One thing we, as a nation, need to get straight is that our public schools are not a failure, not now, nor have they ever been.  Yes, there are individual failing schools, and all schools could be improved, but the meme of "failed public education" is nonsense.  Especially so, if one looks a little at the history of public education in America.

The whole idea that our schools are failing has arisen since the advent of busing for integration in 1974, when desegregation forced the citizens of the United States to see its educational system as a whole, not simply as the part that educated middle-class and rich children (or poor children, or white children, or black children, etc.--depending on one's perspective).  If you come from a white, middle-class background, public schools have indeed declined since the 1970s, a decline compounded by white, middle-class flight from public schools, to home-schooling and private academies (something that has not only removed the children best prepared, culturally, to take advantage of the educational system but that makes it more and more difficult for school-bond issues to pass).  If you come from most other backgrounds, educational opportunities are better, now, than they ever were.

This was brought to mind again this morning as I read a New York Times Book Review piece on Steven Brill's new book Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools.  Reviewer Sara Mosle says that "Brill wants us to believe that unions are the primary — even sole — cause of failing public schools." She goes on to demolish this argument quite quickly:
hard evidence for this is scarce. Many of the nation’s worst-performing schools (according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress) are concentrated in Southern and Western right-to-work states, where public sector unions are weakest and collective bargaining enjoys little or no protection. Also, if unions are the primary cause of bad schools, why isn’t labor’s pernicious effect similarly felt in many middle-­class suburbs, like Pelham, N.Y., or Montclair, N.J., which have good schools — and strong unions?

More problematic for Brill’s thesis, charter schools, which are typically freed from union rules, haven’t succeeded in the ways their champions once hoped. A small percentage are undeniably superb. But most are not.
What Mosle doesn't address is, again, that underlying meme, the idea that all of our schools are failing.  The closest she comes is at the end of the review, where she writes:
Brill likens the battle over the nation’s schools to “warfare,” but the better analogy may be to the war on cancer. For years, scientists hoped a magic pill would cure this ravaging disease. But increasingly, doctors have recognized that they will have to fight a multifronted war, as cancers (like failing schools) aren’t all alike. Each comes with its own complex etiology.
Talking in generalities about failing schools, just like the blaming of teachers for this "failure," is too easy, and extremely misleading.  And, generally, such talk stems from particular political and cultural biases, and not really from a concern for education.  Blaming teachers leads to blaming unions, something quite useful to those who want to demolish the power of America's working class, power that arose through unions and is still, to some degree, wielded through them.  Blaming schools deflects from questions of race and class, and excuses parents who want to remove their children from situations involving people from other classes and races.  Blaming schools allows us to ignore greater problems, such as those generated by poverty, in our society, for we can then pretend that improving schools will somehow itself get rid of poverty.

As a whole, our schools are probably as good as they have ever been.  That we now see problems that once we ignored, that now we now include what once we refused to see, does not mean that the whole is not as good now as when "we" looked at only a partial picture.

Somehow, we need to change the debate, stopping focusing on failure and, instead, exploring means for improvement.  Do that, and the nature of our national conversation on education will change, and the likelihood that our schools will get better will increase.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Colossal Misunderstanding

Christine O'Donnell's strange exit from Piers Morgan's show on CNN made clear to me more than ever some of the collateral damage done by the "de-professionalization" of the news media over the past decade:

She, like Sarah Palin, like Michele Bachmann, does not understand the role of the news media, but believes it should be nothing more than a conduit for her own viewpoints and under her own control.  She does not understand the adversarial tradition of the American news media that has grown with the nation and that long served us very well.  All she wanted to do was promote her book.  She does not understand that, as a public figure, she does not get to do that, in a traditional media context, without having to respond to what can be, sometimes, tough questioning.

Public figures have long wanted to control the media, but they recognized the limits of what they could manage.  And they had no choice but to operate within a limited media milieu.  Even if they founded their own publications, the power of the independent press, by the time of the Civil War, made their own efforts at establishing a useful media presence almost laughable.  What existed was something of a balance of power, the watchdogs having real teeth.

Today, with the diminution or diffusion of traditional news-media strength, politicians are finding ways of reaching the public that completely bypass what once were immovable barriers.  Ones with more experience, that is, those who honed their political skills before the new-media explosion of the last decade.  These are able to negotiate the traditional news media--those who are successful, that is--and to make use of the new possibilities in conjunction.

Newer political figures, especially those who have come to prominence in association with the Tea Party, have a disdain for the "lamestream" (to use Palin's neologism) media, for it does not act to serve their purposes the way malleable new media avenues can be made to.  They operate under a colossal misunderstanding of the role of the news media in American politics, a misunderstanding similar to the one that led the Tea Party in Congress to refuse to negotiate in relation to raising the debt ceiling.  They see their role as one of imposing their beliefs, not of defending them or of negotiating with the beliefs of others.  They are right, and any challenge to them is, in their minds, traitorous.

They have come to prominence within intellectual cocoons, cocoons that the media, in the past, were able to break--or the person himself or herself eventually broke themselves by bashing against the broader debate, as happened to Father Coughlin when World War II started.  This has yet to happen to the current crop, their illusions continuing to both grow and harden.

The real contribution of the news media over the past century and a half was that it forced people into a national debate--for both good and ill (the Civil War, of course, was a failure of debate in certain respects).  For the most part, this has been necessary.  Today, a newer sort of politician, such as Christine O'Donnell, feels that he or she needn't participate in the debate at all, merely needing to 'get the message out.'

Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Herbert Cain, and others all seem to believe that the 'real' country is behind them, that Americans, if they get the chance to hear them, will be behind them.  When they lose, it is because the media have thwarted them, that the people have been misled.  That may be, to some degree, but their real defeat may come from the fact that they have not been willing participants in a debate that can and should change their own views as they change those of others.  Or, at least, that leads to compromise that both sides can support.

The consensus view of American history and politics has long been shown to have been nonsense, but the necessity for compromise in the process of any success has not.  In fact, it has been the great strength of this country.  When we can compromise, we move ahead.  We we cannot, the country breaks apart, as it did during the Civil War.  As may be happening now.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"The Help"

The HelpGrowing up in and out of the south during the 1950s and 1960s, I was extremely attuned to the disparity between the lives of whites and blacks.  Everyone was.  Even though my Quaker family supported the Civil Rights movement without question, we still lived in what were, to all intents and purposes, segregated neighborhoods (in Atlanta, certainly).  Though some whites would have had us pretend that black neighborhoods didn't exist, we all knew they did, and that they were not the same.  Where blacks lived wasn't just different (the myth of separate-but-equal), but qualitatively different.  The houses weren't nearly as elegant, the cars not so new, not by a long shot.  The white neighborhoods showed clear signs of wealth and more to come; the black ones--and I even recognized this as a child--spoke of nothing but dead ends.  The white neighborhoods were places to aspire to (for those who did not live there--for those who did, well, that's another story), the black ones to get out of.  The only blacks who did make it into the neighborhood where we whites lived, however, were never welcome to move in.  They worked for the white families--as maids, as gardeners, and as nannies--and then went home.  Few whites ever went into the black neighborhoods--except, perhaps, to collect money.

This was not unusual.  In fact, it was the standard for middle-class white neighborhoods in the south and the black neighborhoods that served them.  It was also standard where we lived (a somewhat more liberal area than most) that the blacks who worked there were treated a little more humanely than they were elsewhere--but as employees, not as equals, and not as people who would be welcome to move in down the street.  No matter how much my parents, for example, wanted to treat with respect the man who killed the snakes down by the creek and did other chores occasionally, they could not ignore the barrier the culture of the south placed between them.  Their own contribution to integration was a move the other way, to a Brooklyn, NY neighborhood on the edge of Crown Heights, half of which was made up of middle-class blacks, the other half by middle-class whites.

What made me think of that was the movie The Help, based on the long-popular novel of the same name.  At the end of the movie (I haven't read the book), the main white character, Skeeter, heads off to New York for a new life.  This was one of the bits of realism in the movie: for all but the extraordinary few, the only road to success in the south lay through the north.  This was true for both whites and blacks, for the poor as well as those of the rich who wanted to be something more than abettors of a corrupt and immoral system.  Since World War I, this has even been one of the key motifs of southern literature, no matter the race involved.

What's fantasy about the movie is that black maids would unburden themselves to a young white woman, a product of the very system that oppresses them, who still lives amid that system, to one still taking in its largess as one of the lucky.  That's not a horrible conceit: There's no way the story could unfold through realism, for there's no way the story of 'the help' could have been told publicly at that time, as happens in the novel and movie.  The culture of oppression was way too strong for that.  However, without this bit of fancy, what truth there is in the novel and movie would not be accessible to most Americans.  Something was needed to make a relentlessly abusive system understandable to people with absolutely no clue as to how horrible it was.  Something was needed that would allow them to read and watch without rejecting the whole of it.

When I returned to New York City in the early 1990s (after four years living in West Africa), I was a little surprised by the revulsion I felt on seeing more and more black nannies shepherding white children in neighborhoods like Park Slope and Cobble Hill.  I would try to explain it to friends, but they invariably told me I was over-reacting, that I just didn't like people using nannies, that I was only noticing those because of the racial distinction between nanny and child.  It's true: I was reacting to an increasingly divided America, where once again we are moving towards a system of masters and servants, something we had been moving away from since World War II.

But there was that 'other thing,' too.  Something northerners just don't understand, and that many white southerners from middle-class backgrounds don't want to look at.  Though I recognize the class issues at stake, they are not what bothers me when I see a black nanny with a white child.  What bothers me is that the family involved has absolutely no understanding of the resonances of America's greatest failure, and of using women of an oppressed race to raise its privileged children--children who should have known better by the time they grew up, but who then continued the same oppression.  All I can think of as I watch is that the parents should know better, too, but don't.

I've heard all the excuses: Hiring only same-race nannies is itself a type of oppression, keeping skilled and able people from work they desperately need.  The difficulty of finding nannies who are not black.  Etc.  But none of these can erase the legacy of racism and abuse that is still ingrained in our culture.

The Help, whatever its naivete might be, does try to show those who did not see it first hand (though without, in my case, having had a nanny myself) just how colossally horrifying the situation was in the American south, even up into the 1970s.  Even if just for that, its fantasy aspects should be forgiven.

Perhaps it can even help northerners understand my gut revulsion when I see a black woman pushing a white infant's stroller.  If it can manage that, even partially, then I have absolutely no problem with the fantasies in The Help.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Deconstructing Reconstructionists

Frank Schaeffer, himself a former fundamentalist Christian and the son of Francis Schaeffer, one of the foundational thinkers behind the rightwing "loonies" now dominating American politics, writes on AlterNet, "Michele Bachmann Was Inspired By My Dad and His Christian Reconstructionist Friends -- Here's Why That's Terrifying."  Christian Reconstructionism is a belligerent movement that sees all who are not 'friends' as 'enemies'--and that, of course, is almost all of us, even fellow countrymen and women.  Its essential postmillennialism leads to a celebration of government and institutional failure and a self-righteous belief in the possibility of their own essential self-reliance (they believe they alone will be able to survive when everything else collapses) and special relationship with god.

In other words, they like disasters, and enjoy creating them.  Like pyromaniacs, they love watching the rest of us try to put out the fires they created.  After all, they can't be hurt by them--or so they believe.

Schaeffer writes, and I believe he is right:
Anyone who wants to understand American politics, not to mention North American religion, had better get acquainted with the Reconstructionists. For instance these folks just held America hostage in the debt crisis, an attempt to – literally – destroy the government’s ability to function at all a manufactured “crisis” in which Bachmann was a leading proponent of scorched-earth, destroy the system “politics.”
Whatever you think of Bachmann personally--and I find her something of a joke (and her husband an insult to all real therapists)--she does not come out of nowhere, isn't simply a loose cannon careening over the deck of our nation.  If anything, she is a cannon deliberately cut from its moorings in a time of high seas.  There is a pernicious and, yes, anti-American movement behind her, this Christian Reconstructionism, and it has been operating below decks for decades now, only recently feeling it has the power to explode onto the bridge, take control of the vessel itself, and scuttle it.

That may sound alarmist--and it is.  But this force cannot be fought in kind.  Just as violence against terrorism leads to more terrorism, fighting the Christian Reconstructionists via their own tactics only helps them on the road to their goal of total destruction of the United States.

We have to be better than they are.

I don't know how, but the time is now.  I think I'm going to go read a little Gandhi and Thoreau--and Martin Luther King.  My suspicion is that they outline the only way we can fight the Christian Reconstructionists successfully at this point.  Our strength has to be other than destructive.

Otherwise, we will all be destroyed, and they will win--or will seem to, until they realize that their apocalyptic vision is nothing more than their own self-congratulatory myth, and that they destroy themselves just as soon as they destroy the rest of us.  Though they believe otherwise, they will burn, too.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

"Oh, outcomes! Oh, here, oh, now, oh hell!" A Rant

In Ray Bradbury’s story “Usher II,” it’s ‘realism,’ not ‘outcomes.’ But the point remains the same: too often humans attempt to reduce existence to the physical, the countable. The imaginative, the flight of fancy, the speculative… these are dismissed as unproductive, as a waste of time. As useless.

We’re doing that to education today. Not only are we relying on standardized tests to an excessive degree, but we are defining our learning down to “outcomes.”

One site providing testing of outcomes claims:
Multiple measures taken over time allow an institution to envision the dynamic of its students as they progress through a degree program. Comparability of those measures is an essential element for decision making intended to refine and improve programs.
Even if I approved of outcomes assessment, I would never turn to those people. Institutions envisioning dynamics? Certainly, I hope they never assess writing majors. Comparability of measures… I think I know what they are trying to say (though they say it poorly), that things need to be able to be compared. Like apples and oranges? Well, maybe what I don't really understand is why.

One college, on its page about outcomes assessment has this:
outcomes assessment is meaningless unless the information learned is applied to future institutional decisions
Hmmm… information is applied to decisions? Not to understanding? One of the problems with outcomes assessment is that people pretend to use it to imagine that they can remove... people. In both of these quotes we have decisions being made… but not by people. In the first, we don’t know who is making them at all, only that they are to ‘refine and improve’ programs (no mention is made of improving student education). In the other, it is institutions making decisions, not people.

This comes from a ‘white paper’ on outcomes assessment:
In recent years, educational accrediting agencies have mandated that institutions focus on learning outcomes. This mandate has helped to weaken the allure of exclusive reliance on process variables and raise the probability that outcomes will be examined and assessment results will meaningfully impact programs.

Well, not exactly. This makes it sound like the accrediting agencies are making educational institutions focus solely on learning outcomes. Actually, they still want them to focus on learning. The outcomes are merely a way of keeping things on track. Nor has there ever been ‘exclusive reliance on process variables,’ alluring or not—and outcomes assessment has not been a counterbalance. Reductive, this is. And inaccurate. But this is the problem with outcomes: they, and not education, becoming the driving force.

Maybe this explains what it means:

The current interest in outcomes assessment represents a major shift in recent decades in attitudes about evaluating education. Outcomes assessment deals not only with assessment, but with accountability, usually in terms of accomplishing goals defined as desirable by the institution in question. It questions the results of educational processes, and focuses the argument on what students, faculty, and administrators demonstrably do.

Which brings me back to "Oh, outcomes! Oh, here, oh, now, oh hell!" ‘Demonstrably do.’ So much of education just isn’t demonstrable, certainly not through outcomes. Assess this:

I believe that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction.

That’s from John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed.” He’s talking about education as a dynamic, not as something that can be, as T.S. Eliot might have put it:

formulated, sprawling on a pin

But something living, something that is always in the process of adjusting.

Education, anyway, isn’t something that is, but something that will be. It is always in the process of becoming, never quite there. When we pin it to outcomes, we kill it.

For education’s outcome to be educated people, then, it can’t focus on outcomes. As Hamlet says:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your outcomes.

Or something like that.