Sunday, October 30, 2011

Oh, How We Justify! Oh, How We Turn Away!

Yesterday, in partnership with Learning Specialist AE Dreyfuss, I presented a paper at "The CUNY Conference on Best Practices in Reading/Writing Instruction."  We talked about a pilot project we are conducting using Fred Keller's Personalized System of Instruction and the Peer-Led Team Learning concept.  The other papers on our panel were quite interesting--and I learned something from each.  The people at the conference all seemed genuinely caring and concerned for our CUNY students.

I should have known, when I saw who the Plenary Speaker was going to be, that many of the attendees were going to be in for a surprise.  The Conference centered on preparing students for the CUNY Assessment Test in Writing (CATW), the new entrance exam dividing students into those who can fully matriculate and enroll in First Year Composition (FYC) and those to be forced into remediation.  Ira Shor, described on the program as "Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, CUNY Graduate School, and distinguished Freirean scholar," would not normally be seen as a natural fit in such a gathering.  After all, Shor, very much on the left himself, hasn't just studied Paolo Freire, but actually worked and wrote with the Brazilian theorist and agitator for educational change.  To think that he would ignore the inequities of a test that is top-down in its execution, its formulation, and its mandate would have been naive, at best.

And, of course, he did not.  His talk, with the title "Forty Years of War on CUNY: Teaching and Learning in Dangerous Times," started quite safely.  He spoke of history, of the founding of the Free Academy of the City of New York in 1847 (first students enrolled in 1849), the ancestor of City College and the entire system.  He spoke of his own history, of coming to CUNY in 1971 during the upheaval of open enrollment.  He spoke of change and its origins.

Only at the end did he hit us where we live, challenging our acceptance of entrance exams that were mandated for political, not pedagogical reasons.  He had talked about how, in his early days at CUNY, with five times as many students as the campus really had room for, he and his colleagues at the College of Staten Island still found time to talk to individual students about which composition course to register for, how the students, ultimately, had been able to choose, Basic Writing or FYC, and could do so wisely.  He challenged our acceptance of reliance on adjunct instructors and told us that our tests were keeping the students outsiders.  He belittled the belief that, in one or two semesters, we can prepare students of adequately utilize the language of academia.

As he talked, I looked around at the faces in the audience.  They were glum; few were nodding.  Fewer still leaned forward in their chairs, paying close attention.  Some were deliberately turning away.  Shor was challenging what many of them had spent the morning justifying... on my panel, one person had extolled the exam as providing a means for preparing students for many facets of learning.  Another had claimed that students "should" know how to write on any "prompt" (writing sample) they were given, no matter the topic--and that the preparation for the exam showed them how to do this.

As Shor stated outright or implied, exam prep (even in a semester- or year-long class) cannot prepare students for full participation in an academic environment--and preparing students to write on "anything" teaches them the precedence of form over content and leaves communication out of the mix completely.  The people making such claims (and many others) merely justify a system that, Shor made clear, cannot be justified.

So, it was not surprising that the reaction to Shor was a little less than completely positive.  When he ended, there was mild applause, kept up with enthusiasm by about a quarter of us while others turned to talk to each other or got up to make their ways to afternoon sessions.  I had expected that Shor (after all, he is an internationally known figure, author of a number of quite influential books) would be mobbed by fans like me afterwards.  He was not.  I was sitting in the back of the audience, yet I was the first to approach him.

Although I suspect Shor's message was shut out by the majority of the audience, his comments were quite on target, especially in today's environment of measurement mania.  Maybe, at some point, they will seep through the walls even of those so invested in the CATW that they were, yesterday, unwilling to hear him.

For hear him they should.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Jobs I've Had

  • Advertising Time Buyer (Radio and Television--and sometime Account Executive, Production Assistant, Copywriter.  We did direct response: "Send $9.95 by midnight tonight")
  • Barista (though I owned the cafe)
  • Beer Puller ("Bartender" would be too classy for that one)
  • Car Salesman (Datsuns... remember them?)
  • Cemetery Custodian (Buried Montgomery Clift's mother)
  • Copyboy (During Watergate... now that was fun)
  • Deliveryman (On a number of occasions)
  • Dishwasher (In one place, even made Chief Dishwasher--whoo-wee!)
  • Editor (Dissertations, fiction, non-fiction, books, monthlies... oh, who knows?)
  • Educational Counselor (Don't ask)
  • 4-H Organizer and Bicycle Safety Demonstrator ("Benny the Talking Bike"--I'd say "Don't ask," but used that up already)
  • Freelance Writer (Kids, don't try this without supervision)
  • Garage Worker (Some mechanical work, general dogsbody)
  • Gas-Station Attendant (Nights along Rt. 80 in Iowa can be a little odd)
  • Grounds Crew (Cutting grass, scraping bleachers, and much else for a small college in Michigan one summer)
  • High-School Teacher (Private schools, both Quaker... one a boarding school)
  • Inventory Control, Domestic Purchasing, and Domestic Traffic Coordinator (A thankless job)
  • Janitor (My wife doesn't believe I was ever paid to clean things, but I was... and more than once)
  • Packaging-Machine Cleaner (Haven't eaten a Cheese Doodle since)
  • Paperboy (As a poor grad student?  Well, work for them's what needs it)
  • Parts Clerk (Auto dealership: the guy sitting next to me smoked five packs of Kents, each shift)
  • Peace Corps Volunteer (Working with oxen in agriculture and with reforestation projects)
  • Poolroom Supervisor (Not what it sounds like)
  • Printer (And Printer's Devil)
  • Professor (I never would have believed that one)
  • Retail Clerk (In my own store, among other places)
  • Reporter (Once, for a short time, for a daily newspaper.  Didn't like that much.  Writing for an environmental monthly proved more satisfying)
  • Shopkeeper (Running a store is much more than clerking)
  • Short-Order Cook (Served Marvin Gaye and his band at closing one night)
  • Shredder Operator (Industrial Size, for a Junkyard)
  • Sink Maker (Well, I drilled the overflow holes)
  • Sno-Cone Machine Operator (At Woolworth's)
  • Supermarket Bagboy and Stocker (Are there still IGA's?)
  • Temporary Office Help (Being able to type 80 wpm got me through any number of periods of unemployment)
  • Tutor ("Yes," I would say, "you can write, kid")
There are probably more, but who's counting?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Measure for Measure

Robert Crease, author of World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement wrote a piece for The New York Times that appeared the other day, "Measurement and Its Discontents." He notes that:
In his book “The Mismeasure of Man,” Stephen Jay Gould recounted the costs, both to society and to human knowledge, of the misguided attempt to measure human intelligence with a single quantity like I.Q. or brain size. Intelligence is fundamentally misapprehended when seen as an isolatable entity rather than a complex ideal. So too is teaching ability when measured solely by student test scores.

Crease divides measurement into two types, the ontic (measurement of things) and the ontological (Platonic 'fitting': does something 'measure up' to expectations).  We tend to confuse the two, especially in education, where we have come to imagine that standardized testing is measurement of a quantifiable thing.  But 'knowledge,' that 'thing,' is not quantifiable in the ontic sense, only the ontological... and answers on a test can't satisfy that.  We are not, it seems, addressing the question Crease asks:
Are the tests administered by schools making students smarter and more educated, or just making us think we know how to evaluate education?
When we do look at it, and then at what is going on surrounding American education, we are forced to conclude it is just the latter.   

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Service Literature Provides

Graham Greene dismissed some of his novels as "entertainments."  Yet among these are works as lasting as anything he wrote--and as interesting.  Greene was reflecting a cultural schizophrenia that Clement Greenberg, on the eve of World War II (and the time when Greene was producing "entertainments" profusely) diagnosed, calling one extreme "kitsch" and the other "avant-garde."  We still see this today.  Two years ago, writing for, Michelle Kerns detailed one modern example of the split (here and here), using Stephen King and Harold Bloom for the two sides.  Fortunately, in terms of the general cultures of the English-speaking world, Bloom is a dying dinosaur while King reflects the more vibrant world of popular culture.

Unfortunately, in the parallel in our schools, the nearly extinct remain dominant.

In the study of literature, at least.

The strait-jacket of older views of literature is so strong that those wanting to look at books in culture or at books that don't meet the artificial constraints of the "literary" have had to peel off into their own new areas of study (African-American Studies, American Studies, Comp/Rhet, Technical Writing, Cultural Studies... all of these departments, and more, frequently grew out of English departments), often eventually leaving English departments completely.

Calcification in English studies reached its height in the 1980s when "Theory" became the holy grail, when the inferiority complex of English professors, engendered in part by S. P. Snow's "The Two Cultures" lecture twenty or so years earlier, led them to imagine a strange sort of intellectual equality with physicists--but it did not start there.  Students of literature have long harbored secret fears that their explorations do not equal the value of those working in other fields (silly fears--intellectual pursuits should not be defined by subject matter or goals, but by discoveries; as much can be discovered through the study of entertainment as through the study of anything else, though its manifestation may be a little more subtle).  So, they tried to elevate their subject matter, thinking that would make what they do equal to what a molecular biologist, say, does.  As some literature was "clearly" trash, they first had to jettison that: it wasn't literature, they decided.

Real literature (defined and restricted by the critics--there was even an acceptance of the idea of "Great Books," something set forth and codified by Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins), they soon determined, was valuable in and of itself.  The author, the milieu of creation... these and other things were irrelevancies.  It was the text itself that was important, for the text 'created' the world of the work.  They (these were, at first, the New Critics) derided study of context as example of the 'intentional fallacy' and extolled 'close reading' (intimate examination of text) as the height of their craft.

Bloom, of the generation after the New Critics, continues their tradition.  In his How to Read and Why, which follows the tradition of Adler's How to Read a Book (though Adler was not a New Critic), Bloom tries to justify reading in a way not even Adler, who saw it as the way to best comprehend original thinkers, manages.  He writes, "You need not fear that the freedom of your development as a reader is selfish, because if you become an authentic reader, then the response to your labors will confirm you as an illumination to others" (24).  Shades of Ayn Rand and her The Virtue of Selfishness!  Be the best that you can be, and all will come to you.

This sort of nonsense, unfortunately, has formed and informed the study of literature for some sixty years, now.  The upshot has been a veneration of the text (Adler) and of the act of reading (Bloom) that has made it impossible (almost) to generate enthusiasm for literature classes and even to find real value in them.  They have become painful exercises, for students, in memorizing plots, themes and characters, acts whose value is questionable--unless, of course, you can make an argument for the intrinsic value of literature--which, of course, is what the New Critics and their children have been trying to do for generations, now.

It can't be done.  But people keep trying, terrified by the specter of becoming members of what are seen as merely "service" departments, those preparing students for success in other areas, but without their own majors.  It is this, I believe, that keeps the quest alive, and keeps professors like Bloom constantly turning their noses up at "bad" literature and trying to justify the reading of "great" literature as an end in itself, academically.

But literature, be it good, bad, high, low, old or new, is entertainment.  Greene may have wanted some of it to be different but, ultimately, it is not.  The first objective is always to delight... even if, with Horace, we argue that it is also designed to instruct.  If ya can't get an audience, ya ain't agonna teach anything.  The 'instruct' thing is kinda questionable, anyway.  Why instruct?  Do other forms of entertainment have to instruct?  Why should literature?

Entertainment, of any sort, can be used to instruct.  We all know that.  It's very nature raises 'teachable' questions: Why is something entertaining?  Does a particular entertainment work across cultural or class lines?  Why?  Or, why not?  What makes one entertainment more successful than another?  Why do people crave entertainment so much that it becomes a major factor in economies?  Oh, and there are so many more... and the answers to any of them help students understand human nature and human cultures a little bit better than they did before.  The Great Gatsby, in the context of American society between the wars or of human relationships within conformist constraints, becomes a lot more useful than The Great Gatsby as an end in itself--especially since we are clearly making our students hate literature when we present it this way.  Instead of creating any sort of success, even in promoting reading for its own sake, we are teaching our students to loathe it.

Yet our English departments continue to teach literature this way, and our high schools prepare them for it, making plot, character, and theme the centerpieces of instruction... and even 'theme' is divorced from most contemporary reality (at least in the instruction).

It's easy to find ways of teaching literature otherwise.  It is happening in American Studies departments, in African-American studies and in a variety of other places where culture is a primary consideration in academic pursuits.  Why are they still so rarely found in English departments?

Oh, I know: there are thousands of courses where literature is approached in fashions appropriate to both enjoyment and learning.  But the standard is still that of the New Critics.  And that standard was a dead end sixty years ago and remains so today, the likes of Harold Bloom notwithstanding.  From time to time, it is appropriate to point that out once again.  For me, as I begin to grade papers for my first solely "literature" class in a couple of years, today is one of those times.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

How to Make Education Worse: Lesson Fifty-Seven

Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University, posted a piece yesterday on his blog With a Brooklyn Accent that should make anyone with familiarity with the problems of contemporary American education grit their teeth in frustration.  Writing about the Choice Neighborhoods initiative of SUNY Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies, the city's Municipal Housing Authority and Erie County’s community action agency, he focuses on one school, Futures Academy, Naison says that:
What the students had accomplished was nothing short of miraculous, but unfortunately, such accomplishments did not register on the metrics mandated for low performing schools by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and mechanically applied by the State Education Department in Albany. As a result, Futures Academy, whose school population was drawn from students who could not get into or were pushed out of charter schools and magnet schools, went through three different principals in the ten years the Center had worked in it, each one forced out solely because of poor student performance on standardized tests.
What Naison describes is just one more example of how the rich get richer and the poor get squat.  They don't even get the chance to better themselves, for the "system" is rigged against them.

Read Naison's piece.  Especially if you still believe that testing and mandates can make for better schools.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Chapter Twenty-Three: Pushing

[Chapter Twenty-Two can be found here.]

After a time, back on the road, the motorcycle bouncing over ditches, washboard, sand patches and dry puddles, pitch of Paul’s small two-cycle engine began to numb them.  It rose and fell as he guided the bike on and off the crowded way to Tougan, the next real town south of Ouahigouya.  Sometimes, now that they were further away from the action of the war, Paul would take them out of sight of the road completely and through the brush, going where the off-road bike dared and most of the rest of the traffic, even the foot traffic, did not.  The road itself, really just a lane, had never handled the volume on it then or what were now the twin streams of people walking at its sides, bicycles and mopeds pushing pedestrians into the brush when a car or truck came slowly by, which was relatively often.
As he couldn’t stand on the pegs to gain slow-speed maneuverability, Paul often had to kick out with his feet to keep them upright and moving, a tiring and more dangerous practice, and one reason he was happy to have his boots on and why he had been willing to walk the bike for a time earlier.  Now, he was getting a little anxious.  He wanted to get them at least to Dedougou that day, preferably all the way to Boromo where he could drop off the moto and they could easily get on a bus or taxi on the Ouaga/Bobo road, so he pushed for as much speed as he dared, leaving behind the vehicles, including the white Dutch truck, they had paralleled.  As much as he could, as the kilometers passed, he edged them further away from the road, to keep away from the traffic, and to avoid the delays that military and gendarme control stops would mean. 
As time passed, they were discovering one other disadvantage to riding slowly: the heat.  When they were moving quickly, they created a breeze.  When slowed by traffic, by people, by sand, by ditches, of course, they created none.  Both of them sweated, and they stopped frequently to take small drinks from their bottles of water.  Sam wanted to take off his jean jacket but Paul wouldn’t let him.  A little sweat was a worthwhile sacrifice compared with the loss of protection, should they fall.
Paul had found riding in or near the press of traffic exhausting for other reasons.  The road was uneven, at best, and the bike, overloaded, was top-heavy.  When he could go fast enough to counteract the weight, he would, sometimes when he really should not.  Too often, he could not.  His thighs and calves started to ache as he constantly pushed with his legs to keep them upright.  He wondered at Sam, at how he could manage to sit on the back, so still, his gloved hands grasping the outside bars of the rack behind him, but he was grateful he could.  Otherwise, he would have been forced frequently to stop and walk the bike again, having both of them get off until they got to a smoother patch. 
Paul’s own hands, in fraying work gloves, grasped the handlebars as though ratcheted to them, two fingers from each hand stretched forward, the left pair over the clutch handle, the right two over the front brake handle.  His right wrist moved slightly as he accelerated or slowed, the extended fingers working in concert with the tips of his boots, shifter, like clutch, on the left side, and the rear brake, like the front, on the right.  When he had to brake quickly, he would also have to shift down through the gears to first then slip his legs from the pegs, ready to steady the bike if need be.  This happened frequently.
The people they passed by, those walking along the road, now seemed less panicked than earlier, and moved along with a fortitude that Paul was used to seeing in West African, but which always surprised him.  The children didn’t cry; the adults never complained, though the sun shone powerfully and dust enveloped them.  Everyone moved as quickly as possible, all with solid determination.
Those lucky enough to ride on vehicles kept their eyes away from those on foot, as though they felt their luck unwarranted.  The drivers never honked, but waited patiently for people to get out of the way.  Because the road was so crowded, most of those with bicycles, and some with mopeds, now walked them.  Most of the rest of the mopeds and the few motorcycles moved mainly in the wakes of slow cars and trucks, idling along slowly.  As far as he could tell, Paul’s was the only bike built for off-road riding, giving him an advantage over all of the other vehicles.
Cars and trucks that had broken down were pushed from the road by their erstwhile passengers, assisted by those walking by and by passengers in vehicles that would otherwise be blocked.  The ex-passengers, without complaint, then began to trek along the others they had before passed so easily.  Three or four times, Paul and Sam noticed men who had chosen to stay with their cars, sitting inside them with all doors open to keep them a little cooler, feet hanging outside.  Once or twice, they even passed abandoned cars that they recognized from the line at the BP station that morning.
Paul had told Sam, when they had first mounted the bike in Ouahigouya, to pretend he was a sack of potatoes, to keep his feet on the pegs and his hands loosely on Paul’s sides.  Sam had been willing.  Now, what he wanted most was to drop his hands and close his eyes, be still—and let it all go by and away.  As long as they were making progress, as long as they were moving south, he didn’t care, didn’t need to pay attention.  He struggled to find the strength to sit still, to have confidence that this would somehow end, to not worry how it would end, just to know that it would.  Now, he had managed that.  He was glad, though that he could not see much around Paul’s helmet.  The views off to the side, too often, were scary enough for someone who knew nothing of this land.
Sam reminded himself again that he was no longer an actor in this drama, at least not one who could have an impact on the scene.  He was now only a prop, baggage for what was really Paul’s story.  All he could be was the best passenger, the best sack of potatoes, he could be.  If he wanted to help them get out of this, at least, he had to simply tag along inobtrusively.  He just had to keep faith in Paul.  Were he on a 747 and it got into trouble, he told himself, he would have to maintain confidence in the captain.  There would be nothing he could do to help; his panic would do nothing to save the plane.  It would help no more, here.  So, he sat as he had been told, and prayed for time to pass.
They kept going, Paul in front, fighting to keep the bike on course, sweat now seeping through the back of his jean jacket.  A couple of times, Sam thought Paul was going to stop, to take a break, but he would suddenly accelerate again, forcing them through whatever ditch or sand patch they were struggling against.  The only time they did stop, now, was when the going was easy, and then just for another quick sip or two of water, the men passing the bottle back and forth.
The bike, of course, wasn’t really meant for the weight of the two of them plus their packs and Paul’s tools on the rack.  But Paul had been riding it daily for more than a year and understood what could be asked of it.  He had paid attention to it, getting to know its limits and vagaries.  Now, he knew how much he could push it, knew when to cut back, to let the strain off.  Also, he had made sure the night before, there was a new piston as well as another spark-plug among his tools, so he could repair almost any damage he might do to the engine, if it did come to that—though he doubted it would and hoped it would not. 
There were times, though, when Paul thought they would stall or fall, or both.  Sam, to his relief, continued to remain still and silent on the back, especially when the ground was rough or the road crowded or difficult to negotiate. 
So it was that they continued, and the trip continued, though sometimes it seemed that the only thing that was passing was time, for the people they passed seemed the same as the people they’d passed, the countryside they passed identical to that gone by.  The road seemed monotonous to both of them, just more of the same after more of the same, he knew that trouble ahead could become trouble now, each kilometer they progressed.  Paul wished that he could stop somewhere for a beer or two, but knew that was ridiculous.  He didn’t want to go into any town if he didn’t have to, so he just pushed on, and on.  Eventually, they passed most of the others fleeing Ouahigouya, finally coming to stretches of road where he could open up the throttle and move them with a little more ease and confidence.

Chapter Twenty-Four can be found here.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Post-Investigative Journalism

Commenting on the story that James O'Keefe has targeted a couple of progressive think tanks for his pranks:
Ryan Girdusky, a spokesman for Project Veritas, the 501(c)3 organization O'Keefe started, declined to confirm whether EPI was the subject of an ongoing investigation, arguing that it would undermine the remainder of the group's work.
"Ongoing investigation"?  Oh, please.  Maybe their idea of "investigation" is something like attempting to lure someone onto a houseboat for a sex sting. Or breaking into a Senator's office.  Whatever it is, it is certainly unlike anything that has ever before been called "investigation."  On his website, O'Keefe prides himself on being an exemplar for "modern-day muckrakers"--but he hasn't the patience to do the real research, the old-fashioned investigation that was the hallmark of the muckrakers of a century ago.

O'Keefe, though he would be the last to admit it, is trying to make a career for himself as an entertainer.  He wants to be the performer on stage, the one people look at and ooh and aah over.  His idea of "investigation" is nothing more than preparation for his next stunt or "gag"--as it would be called in Hollywood.

Though they may look good on TV, his "investigations" have no more substance, no more reality than a clip of Harrison Ford fighting in the open bay of a flying cargo plane.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"We're Here, We're Unclear; Get Used to It"

My title comes from a marker-on-cardboard sign I saw yesterday, held by a young man sitting by the edge of  Zuccotti Park, one of the Occupy Wall Street people.  I won't call the people there "protesters" for just reasons as his sign reacts to.  You have to have an agenda to protest.  The OWS people don't.  After much thought, I applaud them.

The critics of OWS like to assume, as I was doing up until recently, that an agenda is a good thing.  You need to know what your goal is, I would have said, before going out and making yourself heard.  Else, why bother?  But a focus can be twisted, can become something that tramples over people, rather than supporting them in their anger--witness Russia in 1917, where rage against the state was hijacked into the agenda of what had been a small cadre of true believers.

There's something wrong in America, something inherently unAmerican, when the wealth of the richest 1% doubles over 30 years and the wealth of the rest decreases.  Expression of that doesn't require a goal or a plan.

Peter Finch's character Howard Beale, in the 1976 movie Network, incites people to lean out their windows and yell, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."  That was comedy but, like all good comedy, is contains truth, and the truth has come home today, in OWS and all the other outpourings worldwide (for the something wrong in America relates to something wrong everywhere else, as well).

What might the result be?  Well, if the Russian aristocracy had been able to understand, somewhere around 1915, that having it all and leaving the vast majority nothing was a recipe for disaster--for their own deaths--perhaps they would have abandoned their unsustainable system in favor of one that provided room for everyone, and not just the elite, to prosper.  Maybe, just maybe, the 1% in America today, faced with OWS, can recognize that they, too, face eventual destruction--unless they become a little less grasping and a little more concerned for the broader community.

There were groups talking about all sorts of things in the park yesterday (I listened in mostly to ones on education), with no attempt to focus them into a single force.  That's good.  Right now, as Occupy events grow in size and frequency, the diffused message that something is wrong becomes clearer and clearer.  Eventually, it might even become clear enough for our politicians and billionaires, clear enough so that they will begin to respond.

In one version of his "Talkin' Dust Bowl," Woody Guthrie ends with:
But that was mighty thin stew.
And I have always believed
That if that stew had been just a little bit thinner,
Some of our Senators coulda seen through it.
The OWS people don't need to be any clearer; the people in power simply need to learn how to see.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Chapter Twenty-Two: Masking

 [Chapter Twenty-One can be found here.]

Making good, finally, to a promise he had made the first day they had met, Eric introduced Paul to the mask-maker he had called the best in West Africa, a man named Bakary Kabouré from Ouri, down in the southwest of the country.  Bakary’s family had been making masks for the Bobo people for generations, had lived among them, worked with them, but had never become a part of them, always keeping their own alien identify and connection with family far away in Mali.
The artist was a slender man, a few good inches shorter than Paul, with longer hair than most Africans and a love for wood that kept him talking and stroking his creations as he pulled them out for Paul and Eric to look at.  He exhibited an intensity, a focus that put Paul off balance a bit, for he seemed to assume that others could follow his thoughts and assumptions as easily as he did.  For Paul, who was just beginning to be able to manage a conversation in French, it was difficult to understand this man who clearly hadn’t the patience for either explanations or repetitions.  He was always looking ahead, Paul saw, to the place where his thoughts pointed, never pausing for the immediate word.  So, the two of them talked little, each paying more attention to the art than the people.
Even though Bakary paid him scant attention, especially once he realized Paul could hardly understand him, Paul found himself fascinated by the artist the more he looked at his carvings and tried to follow his conversation.  The man’s assurance, as he showed off his goods and answered Eric’s questions, demonstrated a comfort and confidence in his work, confidence of a sort Paul had rarely seen anywhere.  Lacking any similar sort of talent himself, Paul was slightly in awe of it, and in Bakary’s obliviousness to the extraordinary nature of his work.
Since arriving in Ouaga, Paul had seen other examples of Bobo masks, but none quite like these.  The circles and triangles at the heart of each mask design were neat and regular, the larger curves and connections smooth and soothing.  There were masks of three distinct sorts.  Most looked old, the wood sometimes cracked or chipped, the paint almost completely worn away.  These were like the ones Paul had examined in the market.  Some others, new looking, had been painted, quite clearly, with acrylic whites, blacks and reds.  The colors were even a strong, almost sparkling.  A few more were obviously recently painted, but with muted colors and a somewhat matte finish.  Paul wondered at the differences, and if the first group were antiques, not Bakary’s creations at all.
They were sitting on Eric’s verandah with Bakary, drinking beer, of course, surrounded by more than a dozen of the masks along with a number of wood and bronze statues and the four empty large gunny sacks he had brought them in, all four strapped to the back of his bicycle.  Bakary was arguing with Eric over a point Paul couldn’t understand.  He showed Eric something on the mask he was holding.  Nodding, Eric took it, and added it to the two or three he had already put aside as those he wished to buy.  Paul watched, envious.  Not only would he have liked the knowledge both showed of the art, but he didn’t have the money for any such purchases.  He had no place to keep them, anyway.  Even with his lock, his room was not particularly secure and the cinderblock walls were not conducive to art, anyhow.
Bakary had picked up another item, this one a wooden statue of a woman carrying a jar on her head, when a noise from outside, a motorcycle engine dying followed by a banging at the gate and then a voice, interrupted them.
“Eric!”  It was Brian’s voice.
“Over here.  We’re on the porch.  Open the gate.  It’s not locked.”  All three waited, not moving, as Brian banged the steel compound gate back with his front moto wheel, thrusting it hard enough so that it banged back against the wall, then wheeling inside and slapping down the kickstand.  He jumped off the bike and threw his yellow helmet from his head.  “Jerry’s had an accident.”
He didn’t wait for a reaction but, acting almost as though he was unconscious of what he had said, got back on his bike and started to put his helmet back on.  He turned back to them, though: “They’re medivacing him this afternoon.”  He was panting, they could hear, as though he had been running, so stopped to take a breath.  “As soon as the plane gets down from Geneva.  If you want to see him, come now.”
“Bad, then?”  Eric had risen as soon as Brian had spoken, the blood draining from his face as he listened.  Brian nodded rather than trying to speak again.  Paul got up, too.  “Where is he?”
“Embassy medical unit.”  He slurred the words, getting them out with great difficulty as he stood to kick-start the bike.
“Let’s go, then.”  Eric lifted the helmet off his own motorcycle, which was parked by the verandah, and tossed a second one to Paul.  “Bakary….  ”  He looked at the African, the question unsaid.
“Go.”  Bakary waved him away, and started packing masks back in the bags.  “We can finish this another time.  I will stop by.”
“Thank you, my friend.”  He reached his hand out.  Bakary took it.
Paul, who had been strapping the helmet to his head, hopped on the back of Eric’s little Honda dirt bike as soon as the engine roared.  They followed closely behind Brian, speeding through the Ouaga streets, dodging pedestrians and bicycles.
It only took them a couple of minutes, the way the two were riding, to reach the embassy.  As they were chaining their bikes in front of the medical unit, Brian gave them a brief description of what had happened.
“We were at Don Camillo’s last night, until pretty late.  For some reason we left separately.  I was staying at Jenny’s, and he at Alexi’s.  Maybe that was why.  Anyway, when I went home, he was still there.
“This morning, I rode out to Alexi’s, but he wasn’t there.  She hadn’t seen him, but wasn’t too concerned.  There’s a lot of places he could have slept.  But we had a couple of things to do, today, so I was surprised.  I rode over to Peace Corps, but he wasn’t there.  But a phone call came.  He was here.”
“Did they say what had happened?”
Brian shook his head.  “They don’t know and, apparently, Jerry doesn’t remember.  They found him, unconscious, bleeding, at the base of the pillar in the middle of that traffic circle by the RAN hotel.”
“Good thing,” Eric said, “that they didn’t take him to the Ouaga hospital.”
“Yeah,” Brian opened the door.  “He’d be dead by now.”  Paul listened quietly.  He hardly understood what they were saying.
Jerry, they saw once they had entered the small medical unit, was tied to a gurney to be moved to the airport as soon as the medical-emergency jet had landed.  He had been cleaned up, and was bandaged, but he still looked awful.  His helmet had saved his life, but had split, and his face was bruised and cut.  The nurse said he probably had a concussion, but the worst damage was his leg, which might be lost.  He was awake, but drugged, and obviously confused.  His beard was matted, parts of it plastered flat to his face.
“Gimme cigarette.”
“Can’t, Jerry, they won’t let me, in here.”
“Gimme cigarette.”  Eric looked at the nurse, and raised his eyebrow.  The nurse shrugged and turned to leave the room.  “Just open the door, so the place will air out.”
Brian shook one out of his pack, lit it, and held it to Jerry’s lips.
“Thanks,” he inhaled.  “Thanks.”  He closed his eyes.
They waited with him, no one speaking much, until the vehicle arrived to take him to the airport, keeping a cigarette constantly lit for him, though he was rarely awake enough or coherent enough to ask for a smoke.  The three followed the embassy van to the airport on the two motorcycles.
The plane, a small hospital jet from a rescue organization out of Switzerland known as SOS, landed quickly on the empty runway, turned by the abandoned DC-3 at the far end, and pulled as close to the terminal as it could.  Paul, like the other two, had been refused entry to the VIP waiting area where Jerry had been wheeled, so was standing with them on the outside observation deck.  There were no flights scheduled until later that day; the place was empty.
A couple of people appeared below them, pushing the gurney with Jerry on it, just as the door to the plane opened and the steps were let down.
“That thing’s even equipped with an operating room.  He should be OK.”  Eric lit a cigarette.  They watched as the people from the plane took over and lifted the entire gurney inside.  Two minutes later, the plane had turned once more and, engines roaring, was heading down the runway, its nose already in the air.
“I’m going to ride to Koupela,” Brian turned away.  “Lori needs to know.”
“I’ll go with you.”  Eric turned away first and headed out to where they had parked their bikes, Brian and Paul following.
Paul knew that it was useless, at that point, for him to say anything to the others about Jerry.  Their decision to go to Koupela, though, was a good one.  He was sure of that.  It wasn’t talking that they would need, not now, not yet.  The enforced silence of the noise on the road and the demands of riding would keep them focused and away from the possibility and reality of a loss they could do nothing about.  He had realized that on the short ride to the embassy, had seen how important concentration on something as simple as riding could be.  Plus, on the road they could be together but wouldn’t be forced to face that there was nothing to say, nothing to do.  It was over: they had lost their friend, probably until they, themselves, returned to the States.  Possibly forever.
And Lori, Paul knew from his own experience, was the best person any of them could turn to in a crisis.
They walked back to the motorcycles.  Without a word to Paul, without a look back, Brian and Eric roared off toward the highway heading east and Paul walked back into town, Eric’s extra helmet dangling from his hand.
Though he understood that he could not be a part of what Brian and Eric—and Lori—would be going through that evening, Paul felt more at a loss than he had since deciding to stay in Africa.  It was a shock, what had happened to Jerry, but it was not something that involved Paul a great deal—though much more than he had been in the tragedy back in Togo.  He had met Jerry that day in Dapaong and had spent some time with him, but had seen him rarely since, though he knew that Eric, who he now saw regularly, considered Jerry and Brian his best friends in the country.
Looking at the helmet he was holding, he decided to do what he had earlier planned for the afternoon, even though he now felt slightly guilty about it.  Why not?  He was now equipped.
After looking around for the last few days, inspecting used Mobylettes and other mopeds, Paul had decided that he had enough money to buy a new Peugeot P-50, the smallest, cheapest model available.  He had seen what sort of shape the used mopeds for sale were in, and thought they would end up costing as much as a new P-50 anyway.  Though he was shaken by Jerry’s accident, he figured he might as well go ahead and get the moped.  Or at least look at it again.  It wasn’t as large or as fast as even the small Yamahas of the PCVs like the one Jerry had been riding when he crashed, so it couldn’t be nearly so dangerous.  Or so he told himself.  He walked into town, past Don Camillo’s, which he looked at for the first time with a slight bit of distaste, and made his way to the showroom, which was only a block further on.
Though he had been in Africa only a couple of months and even though he had been a little lost when Eric and Bakary had been talking, Paul’s French had improved much more dramatically than he, himself, recognized.  There was nothing good about it, but he could now communicate adequately for his needs in Ouagadougou—as long as the conversation was slow and simple.  He quickly concluded his discussion with the sales clerk, laid out his money, and saw a new blue P-50 wheeled out of the back.  As he was leaving, thinking of Jerry and looking at the helmet in his hand, he decided he should actually buy one of his own—and a lock and chain.  He selected an electric blue helmet, solid, and full-faced and mask-like, such as those the PCVs wore.  It would be protection of a sort, he told himself, thinking of Jerry.
The way back to his house took him across a wide, open space filled mainly with pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles.  Paul realized, as he approached it, that he hadn’t bothered to check the gas tank as he left the dealer.  He pulled over to one of the many small places with a pump out front, one worked by hand through a handle at the side.  After paying for almost a full tank of the mixture of gas and oil his moped ran on, he pedaled to start the engine and moved away to rejoin the flow of traffic.
Waiting for a break, hardly moving, he saw a bicycle heading right for him.  For a second, he thought of speeding up to get out of the way, but the bicycle started to swerve to pass in front of him.  So he stopped and put his feet down, giving the cyclist a clear path around him on either side the rider might choose.  One accident today, he thought, was enough.  The cyclist, though, who seemed to have decided initially to go one way, suddenly changed his mind and swerved in the opposite direction.  He almost fell as he turned, but managed to straighten up plow straight into Paul and his moped, knocking them all to the ground but hurting no one badly.
“Ah, well,” Paul said, as he recounted the incident an hour later to one of the PCVs he’d found congregated at the Oubri, talking mainly about Jerry, moving to other things only when there seemed no more to say.  “So now the little Peugeot has been in its first accident.  I won’t have to worry about that initial blemish any longer.”  Paul had received a few scratches on one arm, and the cyclist was surely bruised, but neither had needed medical attention.  “I just wish Jerry could have been as lucky.”
“Where do you think they are by now?”  The PCV hadn’t really been listening.  Jerry and Brian had been in his stage, had been his training mates.  Though he hadn’t seen them often since their swearing-in, the near-death of one of the group had, of course, affected him deeply.
“It’s been, what, five hours?  Maybe over Italy.  I don’t know.”
“I wonder if he will come back.  I hope they let him come back.”
Paul studied him, thinking once again that the man was hardly even aware of him, or of his new moped and his small accident.  Again, he realized he was intruding on someone else’s pain, something he seemed to do way too often.  He got up to leave.
“Let me know, if I can do anything.”
The PCV nodded, but didn’t look up.  He shifted over to listen to the conversations of other PCVs.
Once again aware of how much of an outsider he really was, both in terms of Peace Corps and of Africa, Paul wanted to do something that could take him away from that, to see somebody not associated with Peace Corps and its rather closed community.  He had intruded enough.  Been rebuffed enough.
He decided, finally, to find the son of the family Lori lived with, the one who lived and worked in Ouaga.  He had long ago promised, after all, to greet him for Lori and for his family.  Now that he had transportation, he could do that, for it was a long way on foot to where he had been told Michel worked.
And he did find Michel, finally, after a number of wrong turns, in a little hole-in-the-wall shop in a mud quartier out beyond the university, itself beyond the presidential residence and the cluster of embassies to the east of the city center.  Trying to follow the directions Lori had given him, Paul had wandered around for the better part of an hour, retracing his path a number of times to a known landmark and trying again.  When he finally reached the right shop, he found a tall, slender Michel, clearly his father’s son, an excitable young man who seemed absolutely unable to keep a smile from his face.  A willing man, looking to be friendly. 
Good, Paul thought, he needed that.  Another shy or withdrawn person would only have depressed him even further.  This fellow seemed to be the right companion, right then, at least. 
Paul had liked Jerry and would have enjoyed having him as a friend, but Jerry had never liked coming in to Ouaga and Paul had no way of getting about in the countryside except by bush taxi, so the two had met rarely after that first weekend.  Plus, Paul really hadn’t been around very long.  So, even though he had seen Jerry at the medical center, the accident wasn’t having the impact on him that it had on Eric and Brian and the other PCVs.  He also suspected, remembering El back in Togo, that all of the PVC’s and Eric were feeling guilty about what had happened, though it had in no way been their fault.  He couldn’t help them with that, unfortunately. 
It was best to stay away.  Let them deal with it their own ways, and on their own.  Jerry would probably recover fully—something never possible for Joan Rodham.  He might even be able to return.  Still, Paul really couldn’t be with them for very long in a time like this, as he had already found in Togo, and they probably would resent it if he tried any further.  He needed to respect their loss and their privacy, though once again it kept him outside.
He took Michel for dinner at a place near his shop, a compound called “The College Bar,” a dance establishment across the street from one of the most impressive baobab trees Paul had yet seen.  They ordered rice and brochettes, and Paul decided to risk a salad.  They watched early dancers take to the floor as they ate and talked and sipped beer.
Michel, it turned out, lived not far from Paul’s own room.  He took a Tata bus back and forth each morning and evening, and walked—it took him more than an hour each way, in total—to the little shop where he worked.  He told Paul that he wanted to save enough money so that he could set up his own place, which he would open closer to home, but it was difficult.  The family always needed money, even though having Peace Corps Volunteers living there always helped.  He also wanted to get married, so needed to save even more.
He had finished secondary school, he told Paul, and had wanted to go to the national university for electrical engineering, but he hadn’t done well enough on the competitive entrance and scholarship exam.  Now, he recognized the irony that he fixed tape players and the occasional television in a shop not far from where he had wanted to study—learning by practice the trade he had wanted to address in school.
“Does that bother you?” Paul was finding that he could understand Michel’s French much more easily than he would have thought, certainly more easily than Bakary’s.  As a result, he also talked more fluidly, surprising himself.  Only rarely did they have to struggle over a sentence before they finally agreed that both understood what one or the other was saying.
“No.  I don’t mind.  I rarely see the students.”
After dinner, Paul rode Michel back home, making him wear Eric’s spare helmet, which he had strapped to the back of the moped right after he had bought it.  Michel objected at first, but Paul had told him about Jerry’s accidence and his own slight mis-adventure, so eventually he acquiesced.  As he dropped him off, Paul proposed that they meet again later that evening.  Michel agreed and named a bar nearby.
To some extent, Paul knew, he would rather have seen the PCVs who might be in town, but, he now was beginning to suspect that he had been a fool that afternoon, a fool for not understanding the intrusion he would represent and the triviality of the story of his own accident.  Scared it was becoming a habit, he didn’t want to barge in any longer on someone else’s troubles.  It was too bad, what had happened to Jerry, but it would have little impact on Paul’s life—and everyone knew that.  It would be hypocritical, Paul felt, for him to join in the commiseration that had, most certainly, already started.  Besides, the two friends of Jerry that he knew best had already left town.
It would be better to spend the evening with Michel who, though he had also met Jerry, on a visit to Koupela when Jerry had been staying with Lori, knew him no better than Paul did.
Michel took Paul to a dolo bar about halfway between their homes.  When Paul, after a calabash, suggested that they go to Don Camillo’s, Michel shook his head no, which relieved Paul a bit.  Michel said he would show Paul some better bars instead, places where Burkinabe went, where they could be comfortable.  Don Camillo’s, he hinted, could never be one of those.
“That’s a place for foreigners,” he told Paul.  “I can show you where the Mossi go, where the real people are.”
Paul shrugged his shoulders, and followed.
Later, though, after Michel told him he needed to go home and sleep, Paul did end up back at Don Camillo’s, drinking So.B.Bra and listening to Mousa’s plaintive guitar.  No one else he knew was there, which suited him just fine.

[Chapter Twenty-Three can be found here.]

Chapter Twenty-One: Retreating

[Chapter Twenty can be found here.]

The piste brought them into sight of the road perhaps half a kilometer down from the gendarme post where they had left the motorcycle.  Rather than resting to the side of the flowing mass, the post was now near the middle of it, gendarmes valiantly trying to get the larger vehicles to pull to a stop in what little open space they were able to maintain.  Paul glimpsed the yellow of one of their helmets, a relief.  If they could make their way to it through the crowd, the bike should still be there, amazingly enough.
As they neared, they saw that almost all of the vehicles that had been there were still there.  Apparently the Dutchmen hadn’t been allowed to leave, even though they had accepted a couple of extra riders, overloading their pick-up, leaf springs already bent straight.  One of them was sitting in the cab while the other paced back and forth behind the bed of the truck, gesticulating as he tried to explain something or other to the officer who had sent them off into the to bush all those weeks—or was it minutes—ago. 
Those fleeing were so intent on getting away from Ouahigouya that they simply went around Paul and Sam as they made their way to the post.  Their faces, it seemed to Paul, were even more determined and focused than they had been earlier—and covered, now, almost always in the dust that feet and tires were stirring from the road and its sides, creating a cloud hanging over them all.  Looking at them, Paul couldn’t imagine that things were worse now, back in Ouahigouya, than they had been earlier.  Another bombing could have killed a few more, yes, but he doubted that Malian soldiers had appeared.  Had they, those faces would wear expressions of panic and not simply determination and concern—and the gendarmes would not be still trying to maintain order. 
The man who had sent them off into the bush glanced at them as they neared, but turned his attention back to the Dutchman who, having paused when he saw the officer look away, had dropped his arms in exasperation.  Paul and Sam walked up to the bike without a word, each glancing to make sure his pack was still attached to the rack.  They put on helmets, gloves and goggles.  Paul straddled the motorcycle, inserted and turned the key and flipped out the kick-starter.  His foot on it, he prepared to bear down and start the bike when he caught some of the words the officer and the Dutchman were exchanging.
C’est impossible.  It’s impossible.  I can’t put more people on the truck, and I cannot leave these crates behind.”
Pourquoi pas?  Why not?  What’s so important?”
The white man struggled to speak slowly and clearly, his Dutch-accented French nearly failing him.  Clearly he had been through this before, but with no success.  “That these trunks aren’t ours, and neither is this truck.  Both belong to the doctor, the Dutch doctor at the hospital in Ouahigouya.  In the trunks are his medical records, things that need to be kept safe for all the patients he has been seeing since arriving here more than two years ago.  People’s lives can be lost if these records are lost.”
The officer was unimpressed.  “I cannot let you leave unless you find a way of taking two more people.”
“But there is no room!”
“Then leave some of the crates.”
“What are they saying?”  Sam, standing by the bike waiting for Paul to start it so that he could climb on behind, was wondering what could be delaying Paul.  They needed to get going, to say the least.
“Guy won’t let them leave unless they dump off some of those metal boxes in back and take more people.  They say the boxes contain critical medical records and can’t be abandoned.  Interesting dilemma.”
“Maybe to you, but we’ve got to get out of here, don’t we?”
Paul looked at Sam.  “Yeah, I suppose so.”  He started the bike.  The roar kept him from hearing what the arguers were saying now, but something seemed resolved.  Sam climbed on back and Paul pushed down into first and prepared to ease out the hand clutch.  The Dutchmen and two others were squeezing into the cab while two new passengers, young men, climbed onto the hood, one leaning against the passenger side of the windshield and the other sitting between his legs.  As no one had descended from the over-packed back and there was absolutely no extra space there, the truck could now leave.  Paul waited for it to start moving forward and then eased the clutch out slowly to follow in its wake.
As soon as he could, Paul eased the motorcycle to the side of the stream of refugees and onto the empty fields.  He had to go slowly, for he could not stand on the pegs to maneuver, not with a passenger and bags on back.  Instead, he moved over the remains of millet and sorghum using his feet to steady them, accelerating only when he had to, speeding up to keep them from falling.  Sam, fortunately, continued to be a good passenger, his hands lightly on Paul’s hips.
They could have stayed on the road.  Certainly, they weren’t moving much faster over the uneven fields.  In fact, they could see the Dutchmen’s white pick-up, though its color was now closer to that of the road than its paint job.  It rarely fell behind them, no matter how much Paul tried to pass the moving throng to their left.  The only advantage they were finding from travel through the fields was that they were away from the center of the dust, so did not need to keep their bandanas over their mouths.
At one point, they stopped so that Paul could shake out his hands, stiff and a little sore from pressing against the grips.  “Should we just walk the bike for a while?” Sam asked him.  “I could use the break.”
“If there were a path, maybe.  But pushing this over uneven fields is going to be difficult.  We can try for a bit, but I think we’ll find it easier to ride.”
“OK.  I just need something instead of sitting there, bouncing, wondering if we’re going to fall.”
Paul didn’t want to slow them down, but they weren’t moving too fast, anyhow.  So push he did, on a small path that seemed to run approximately parallel to the road, now several hundred meters off.
After ten minutes or so, he decided he had had enough.  “Let’s get back on.  We’ve got to try to find a way of making a bit better time.”  Sam nodded.  Once Paul had re-started the motorcycle, he climbed on once again and they started across the field.
Off in the distance, amid the walkers, the bicyclists, the moped riders, the occasional motorcycles, the cars and the trucks, they could see that Dutch pick-up, now only a little ahead of where they were.
[Chapter Twenty-Two can be found here.]

Sunday, October 09, 2011

How Not to Be a Journalist

Patrick Howley, an assistant editor at The American Spectator, gives a master class in how not to commit journalism in a piece posted October 8 on "Occupy" events in Washington, DC.  His article should be read by both those interested in becoming journalists (as a guide to behavior to avoid) and those trying to understand the lurch towards "post-objective journalism" exemplified by Andrew Breitbart and James O'Keefe.

Completely unaware of how he is ripping the principles of the profession to shreds, Howley even writes, without irony, that he had 'infiltrated' the protest group "for journalistic purposes."  That is, as he later admits, all he was there for was to get (or create) a story that would line up with his preconceptions and political purposes:
I had infiltrated the day before in order to mock and undermine in the pages of The American Spectator -- and I wasn't giving up before I had my story....
Howley reminds me of nothing quite so much as Stephen Glass, who almost destroyed The New Republic back in the nineties with his made-up stories.  Here, Howley is also trying to create a story, but on the ground (so to speak).  His is the classic pattern of the agent provacateur, of course.  What's strange is that Howley not only brags about his exploits, but tries to pass them off as journalism.

There's no sign of research in his piece, no sign of desire to understanding what is happening.  There are only two goals: Get a story and 'mock and undermine' the protesters.

That's not journalism... and not something to be proud of.  

Friday, October 07, 2011

Excerpt: Beyond the Blogosphere

Here is a short excerpt from Beyond the Blogosphere: Information and Its Children by Robert Leston and me.  We have just finished going over the page proofs--the book should appear in December:
There is still a need for teachers, for leaders, for exemplars. And, if their space is not filled by people who are themselves well trained and prepared, their roles will be taken on by demagogues and opportunists. David Barton, who founded WallBuilders, for example, bills himself as one whose “exhaustive research has rendered him an expert in historical and constitutional issues.”  He claims his books are on “subjects being drawn largely from his massive library of tens of thousands of original writings from the Founding Era.”  However, he shows no training at all in research or in effective utilization of a library. . . itself not a barrier to effective scholarship or writing, but something that should lead one to take a closer look at his methodology and purpose. 
 For reasons both good and bad, this sort of look at a researcher’s background has become suspicious over the last few years, with many feeling leery of exclusionary, elitist results. Though Barton is untrained, one cannot conclude that he is unskilled or that his conclusions are incorrect. This very fact, however, creates a conundrum: If training can lead to establishment of hierarchy through its resulting bona fides, then training itself might be part of the problem that the internet is, in some minds, rectifying. But, without training, the likelihood is that misinformation will too often trump information, leading to chaos rather than knowledge.
 An important concern for educators today, then, lies in how to train and certify without making the training and certification exclusive or exclusionary. It also lies in how to lead people to learn effective uses of the new tools without seeing them simply as tools for ratifying prior belief. The question, in a time when a huge proportion of the people who use the web come to it from a foundationalist mindset (or for some other reason come looking to the internet for confirmation of what they already know), is how does one lead people to a better mindset and methodology—and how does one justify the arrogance in claiming to know better? Because the internet exists outside of established hierarchical or educational structures, it would be extremely difficult to impose order on it from outside. Users want (and should have, quite frankly) the freedom to approach and use the web as they see fit. 
How, then, do we solve the problem of the lack of gatekeepers on the internet? How do we stop abuses while still promoting freedom? 
By doing what has always been necessary for successful democracy. By providing early and universal education designed to meet the needs of a people faced with an uncertain technological future. Once people have the knowledge and experience necessary for making considered and accurate judgments on what they find on the web, they will be a lot less vulnerable to fraud, self-deception (seeing only those sites we want to see), and error. Though much else may have changed in the digital age, the need and reason for education has not. 
There are many ways education for the digital age could be built, but most are going to include as a basis something like the concepts Wagner lists as his survival skills. All of them, if they are going to be effective, will concentrate on the student as doer—but doer in situations created, observed, and led by an expert teacher. All of them will focus on collaboration skills and on communication. All of them will stress flexibility and will be so in their design and in the variety of their approaches. None of them will expect one teaching tool or method to be sufficient but will use curricula designed around a variety of activities with plenty of room for invention and spur-of-the-moment change.

Thursday, October 06, 2011


[From Frederick Clarkson: Fourteen authors, journalists and bloggers who have written about the Religious Right and such related topics as dominionism and the New Apostolic Reformation have asked the Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, to stop making false characterizations of writers in the field. They also ask that he "rethink" and "withdraw" his related endorsement of an essay in USA Today, which equated the work of four Jewish writers in this field with some of the worst anti-Semitic smears in history.

Wallis, in a recent e-mail to supporters and in an essay published on The Huffington Post,  decried how "some liberal writers" who -- but he does not say exactly who -- "seem hell-bent on portraying religious people as intellectually-flawed right-wing crazies with dangerous plans for the country."   Wallis used the occasion of the publication of several widely discussed articles about the prayer rally organized by Texas Gov. Rick Perry in August to conflate these articles with much other writing in the field.

"You characterize unnamed writers -- writers like us -- as people who are 'all too eager to discredit religion as part of their perennial habit and practice," the group declared in its Open Letter to Wallis.  "This charge is as unfair as it is unsubstantiated."

"Millions of evangelicals," Wallis wrote, "are neither conservative Republicans, part of the Religious Right... and they don't believe that Christian "Dominionists" or any other religious group, should take over America -- despite what a rash of recent articles and commentaries have said." 

Contrary to claims by Wallis, the authors of the Open Letter say that none of them have ever thought or written such sweeping generalizations about evangelicals.  They insist they are religiously diverse and include Christians and non-Christians including evangelicals.  But the group nevertheless affirms  "These exclusionary Christian movements and tendencies are real, overlapping, and significant in evangelicalism specifically and in our political and electoral culture at large."

They also write that Mark Pinsky's essay in USA Today is but the latest in a recent series of prominently published ad hominem attacks on writers in this area, and that they are disturbed that Wallis would "cheer" them on.

The authors of the Open Letter say they are shocked that Wallis endorsed Pinsky’s essay that compared the writing of four Jewish writers to some of the worst anti-Semitic smears in history, as providing "one of the best responses to the recent articles about evangelicals." They call comparing the work of these writers with the false claims of the anti-Semitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, "despicable."
The Open Letter to Jim Wallis will be initially posted on a number of blogs on Thursday, Oct. 6, including Mainstream Baptist, Greg Metzger's Debating ObamaBartholomew's Notes on ReligionTalk to Action, and Wall of Separation.]

October 6th, 2011

An Open Letter to Jim Wallis from Writers about American Religion and Politics

Dear Jim Wallis,

We are writing in response to your e-mail to the Sojourners list on September 29th, and your similar piece on The Huffington Post, in which you claim that "some liberal writers" -- whom you do not name -- are broad brushing evangelical Christians as "intellectually-flawed right-wing crazies with dangerous plans for the country."  You characterize unnamed writers -- writers like us -- as people who are "all too eager to discredit religion as part of their perennial habit and practice."  This charge is as unfair as it is unsubstantiated.

You may recognize some of us as people who have written in recent years about such tendencies in modern Christian evangelicalism as dominionism, apocalyptic demonization, Christian Reconstructionism, and the New Apostolic Reformation.  We see these forces as playing a significant role in our religious and political lives.

We are concerned about your recent attacks for three main reasons.

Our first concern is your claim that writers who are critical of these tendencies are making broad, unfair claims about "most or all evangelicals."  This is just not so.  We understand and try to reflect in our work the idea that some, but certainly far from all, evangelical Christians embrace or are influenced by these important movements.

We agree with you that evangelicals are highly varied; are not all politically conservative; and that certainly not all are Republicans. None of us has ever thought or written that they are. Indeed, some of us are evangelicals ourselves.  We know that former Democratic presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are evangelical Christians.  And some of us have written about how elements of the above-mentioned movements and tendencies are also involved in the Democratic Party.

We understand that there are complexities in life, religion, and politics.  We take seriously the need for and the extraordinary privilege of constantly learning. As writers, we are quite varied among ourselves.  We are religious and non-religious; Christian and non-Christian.  We have different histories and emphases in writing about religion, theology, and politics.  We do not always agree with one another.  But we all do agree on this much:  These exclusionary Christian movements and tendencies are real, overlapping, and significant in evangelicalism specifically and in our political and electoral culture at large.  We invite our readers to consider that there are aspects to these movements and tendencies that are profoundly problematic, and we invite you to consider that as well.

Second, we are concerned that you have endorsed the essay by Mark I. Pinsky that appeared recently in USA Today.  That piece attacked some of us by name and all of us by implication. Pinsky's is but the latest in a series of prominently published smears against those of us who write about these subjects and their ties to powerful political interests.  We are disturbed that you would cheer on these ad hominem attacks.

Finally, Pinsky tries to blame much of the published criticism of these elements of evangelicalism on left-wing Jews.  We, including the majority of us who are not Jews, view this as a transparent effort to intimidate Jewish writers.  We are shocked that you are endorsing and promoting Pinsky's attack on these writers, whose work is well-sourced and painstakingly researched.

We are also shocked that you equate these Jewish writers with “secular fundamentalists” whom you say “want to prove that evangelicals are stupid and dangerous extremists.”  You do this by immediately following this claim by stating that Pinsky’s essay is one of “the best responses to the recent articles about evangelicals.”

We want to remind you that in his essay Pinsky goes so far as to compare the work of those four Jewish writers to some of the worst anti-Semitic smears in history, including false claims that Jews had "horns and tails, ate the blood of Christian children and poisoned the wells of Europe with plague.. [and] conspired to rule the world through our Protocols."

Whatever one may think of any of our published work, the fact is that none of it is remotely analogous to the false claims in the various notorious anti-Semitic forgeries known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Pinsky 's equation of the work of the writers he names with the Protocols is despicable.

We would like to believe that despite our differences with you, you share with us a common desire for a just and peaceful world.  We value honest disagreement and debate, and hope that you value these as well.  Indeed, as writers we know how essential they are to clarifying and even resolving differences, correcting errors of fact -- and dare we say, perspective.  These are necessary ingredients for democracy itself.  We invite you take issue with any specific facts or characterizations in our work.  Then we will have something to talk about.  But we will not be silent in the face of smears and intimidation tactics -- which are so very far from the values of the faith traditions from which many of us hail, and the civic values of free speech and respect for religious pluralism that we all share.

We call on you to stop making false characterizations of our work and stop promoting the false characterizations of others.  We also specifically ask that you rethink your support for Pinsky's smear and withdraw it.

Richard Bartholomew
Blogger, Bartholomew's Notes on Religion

Russ Bellant
Journalist and author of The Religious Right in Michigan Politics

Chip Berlet
Journalist, blogger, co-author of Right–Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort

Bill Berkowitz
Independent journalist. Contributor to BuzzFlash, AlterNet, and Z Magazine

Rob Boston
Assistant Editor, Church & State Magazine
Columnist, The Humanist Magazine

Frederick Clarkson
Journalist, blogger, author of Eternal Hostility:  The Struggle Between Theocracy and
Democracy; editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in

Joe Conn
Editor, Church & State Magazine

Barry W. Lynn
Publisher and Columnist, Church & State Magazine
Host, CultureShocks Radio Show

Greg Metzger
Independent journalist. Contributor to Christian Century, Commonweal, Books & Culture and

Rev. Dr. Bruce Prescott
Blogger at Mainstream Baptist
Host of Religious Talk radio show

Sara Robinson
Journalist, blogger, Senior Fellow at the Campaign for America's Future

Adele M. Stan
Washington Bureau Chief, AlterNet.

Rachel Tabachnick
Researcher and featured writer, Talk to Action

Bruce Wilson
Co-founder and featured writer, Talk to Action

Monday, October 03, 2011

The "He Said/She Said" of Education

Jay Rosen provides a smell test for he said/she said journalism:
  • There’s a public dispute.
  • The dispute makes news.
  • No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
  • The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.
  • The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.
I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, shaking my head, wondering how anyone can continue to claim journalistic excellence while indulging in such a model.  Yet even such eminences as Bill Keller of The New York Times continue it.

Today, when I opened the opinion page, there he was, with a piece called "The University of Wherever."  At the end, he writes:
There are disrupters, like Sebastian Thrun, or Napster, or the tweeting rebels in Tahrir Square. And there are adapters, like John Hennessy, or iTunes, or the novice statesmen trying to build a new Egypt. Progress depends on both.
Who could be against an experiment that promises the treasure of education to a vast, underserved world? But we should be careful, in our idealism, not to diminish something that is already a wonder of the world.
Though he waffles a bit, trying to put both sides on the "right" side, Keller is saying, essentially, that there are two models for the future of higher education, online and classroom.  He's putting things in terms of a back-and-forth that's both unnecessary and illusory.  As in most he said/she said situations, this is not a matter of one or the other... and a definite conclusion about what is "right" can easily be drawn from a little bit of study of the history of education.  Keller's waffle at the end, the classic dodge away from taking a stand, isn't needed at all.

This is a topic I've lived with my entire life.  My father was an experimental psychologist quite involved with the teaching-machine movement of the 1950s.  Later, following the lead of another Keller (Fred, of Columbia University), he abandoned machines as the center of his courses, returning to human interaction and what came to be called The Keller Method or the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) or, in a related form, Mastery (I've written a bit about this in the past).  As a teacher myself, and a writer on culture and technology, I've long explored online learning possibilities, first using digital aids in the classroom some twenty years ago, before I gave up teaching for good (or so I thought at the time).

What I see is that the "online v. traditional" divide is a false one.  The two sides don't even need to be yoked together explicitly, as in what is now called the "hybrid" classroom.  Digital possibilities in education are simply additional tools, not a new way of education working independently of more familiar ones.  Instead of arguing over which side is right, we should be trying to see what we can use of each in our quest, which should be never-ending (if it is to be effective), towards better education.

Exclusively online education gives up things that needn't be abandoned.  To focus on the classroom alone, on the other hand, needlessly restricts us from effective new possibilities.  Creating a divide between the two doesn't help anyone.

What we need to do is create a new model for education that can incorporate both traditional and digital possibilities.  This probably means abandoning the traditional "classroom" model, but it does not mean getting rid of face-to-face interaction.  In our chapter "Education Amid the Digital Revolution" in Robert Leston's and my forthcoming Beyond the Blogosphere: Information and Its Children, I present a (Fred) Keller based model that embraces both.

What I suggest isn't even unusual.  Few educators actually see a divide, not in how they address their classes, at least.  There are certainly physical problems that need to be overcome for an education that makes full use of online possibilities... one being the layout of our classroom buildings, which are themselves constructed to divide learning by providing discrete classrooms.

In education, as in journalism, he said/she said deflects us from both understanding and progress.  It sets up a milieu of perpetual debate, not solution, not understanding, and certainly not of consideration of what might have been learned in the past.  Fortunately, classroom teachers are rarely sidetracked by such red herrings.  They have teaching to do and education to improve.

Keller might have done better than simply presenting two sides.  He writes:
It’s true that online education has proliferated, from community colleges to the free OpenCourseWare lecture videos offered by M.I.T. (The New York Times Company is in the game, too, with its Knowledge Network.) But the Internet has so far scarcely disturbed the traditional practice or the economics at the high end, the great schools that are one of the few remaining advantages America has in a competitive world. Our top-rated universities and colleges have no want of customers willing to pay handsomely for the kind of education their parents got; thus elite schools have little incentive to dilute the value of the credentials they award.
But it is not one or the other; it is both.

That, however, is a much more difficult story to write.  It is a continuing story, one that began with the advent of the computer more than half a century ago, and a story of constant experiment and revision.  But, as Rosen would say, it is the real story, and is what a real journalist should focus on.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Information and Its Children

In Bertold Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, the title character eventually loses all of her children to the war she follows and tried to profit from.  My concern these days, and growing more and more over the past months and even years, is that we, too, are endangering our children (our metaphorical ones--the physical ones around right now are part of the "we") through our own slavish camp-following of the internet.

That's the reason for the subtitle of Robert Leston's and my Beyond the Blogosphere: Information and Its Children, which we are now in the process of combing page proofs for errors.  With the book finished (almost) and scheduled to appear at the end of the year, my question now is, even after losing our "children," will we (all of us) push on, as Mother Courage does?  Will we accept what the world "brings" us and try to make the best of it?  Or will we manage to find ways of taking control, even in situations far beyond our control, and make better worlds around each of us?

I'm in the process of giving up devices.  My iTouch now sits at home, where it plays music; I don't go outside with plugs in my ears any longer.  My cell phone has been gone for almost a year--phones (and the web) are so available to me almost anywhere I go that I don't feel I need to carry them.  And I don't feel that I need to be so immediately available as once I imagined.  So I don't, as Martin Lindstrom writes in today's New York Times that many do, feel "love" for any devices.  Not right now.

Though I have loved my cars.  And my motorcycles.  We had extremely intimate relationships.

Thirty years ago, I always traveled with a tool box in my car, and even a few basic spare parts.  TLC kits for mechanical objects.  In Peace Corps in Togo, I had something similar (though much smaller) always on my motorcycle.  In both cases, when I broke down, I could generally effect repairs sufficient for me to go on.  Loving care often kept us going.  Today, cars are of a different nature than they were then (who ever heard of carburetors or distributors today?), and I have given up trying to understand them, let alone trying to fix them.  I drive, and when break down, I just call someone.  Or did, until I gave up the cell phone.

In the old days, when I saw someone beside the road, I generally stopped to see what I could do, extending my love to their vehicles and even to them.  Not today. I assume they have put in a call and that help is on the way.  And we don't fix our phones anyhow; we just throw them away.

Am I, are most of us, using the fact of connectivity to disconnect?  I don't know, but I am beginning to feel that something's wrong, that we are about to drive off a cliff... or already have.

Robert's and my book explores some of this, but we may not go far enough.  It may not be possible to go far enough.  We may, in fact, be broken down.  "We."  All of us.  We may be sitting beside the road, unable to fix our car but not even knowing anything is broken, not even knowing we are not moving at all... the motion on the road giving us the illusion that we are moving, too.