Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Naïveté? Or Exploitation?

If there was one thing I learned from my Peace Corps experience it was that people everywhere know a lot more than the lucky few in the worldwide elites believe they do—and that the idea of helping them is really, at its heart, an idea of helping that elite. We lucky ones, generally from industrialized and, often, formerly colonizing nations (or from the very rich of the rest of the world) are the beneficiaries of a concentration of power and wealth—not of talent, intelligence or ability—a concentration that continues to be reinforced today through what are really sham efforts at development. And, it seems, at education.

“Sharing the wealth” should only be seen as exactly that. The only way “we” can bring “them” up to our level is by eradicating poverty and distributing power equitably. Many of the elite continue to believe that something else—particularly education—is the way to do that. That this is nonsense is not something they are willing to even contemplate. The only way out of poverty is by first making sure people can feed and house themselves. Education alone will never do that, nor will anything else brought to the poor by the rich.

What I learned in Peace Corps slips over into my philosophy on teaching: Many of my students exhibit the disadvantages of poverty, making their education within a system geared to the needs and predilections of the elite nearly impossible.

There’s not even a “wealth” in education that can be shared. You can’t give your education to me the way you could give me money, for example. Yet a belief that such sharing is possible can be seen in continued reliance on Paolo Freire’s “banking concept,” where the teacher deposits knowledge into the students, making them benevolent givers. What nonsense.

Ways need to be found for the students to take charge of their own education, just as communities need to be the leading edges of their own development.

Just as successful development in underdeveloped countries starts with the population itself and not with the imposition of projects by outsiders, successful education begins with the students themselves, not with what teachers can give them. The role of the development worker and the teacher is to assist with what is already there, providing connection to possibilities that the population and the students might not find on their own, enhancing motivation through an understanding of obstacles that the local people and the students might not yet be able to see or understand that they can overcome. The main role of the outsider is to provide access to resources and support, not to “give” things.

The outsider, in other words, is never the answer. The best the outsider can be is a useful tool.

I wonder at those who seem to believe that outsiders from the worldwide elite can zoom in solve local problems. Are they merely ignorant or foolish? I certainly was both in Peace Corps, when I arrived at my village in northern Togo in 1988 ready to teach animal and equipment care and plowing techniques to farmers who had enrolled in a government program that provided them with oxen and plows to be paid for through a loan program. For one thing, I did not understand that, by putting the farmers into debt, “we” were tying them to a monetary economy where they have little control over their income (I should have remembered the Frank Norris story “A Deal in Wheat”). To pay for their oxen, the farmers now had to plant cash crops—cotton, in particular. This meant two things: First, they could no longer plant enough food crops to sustain their families, so also had to sell cotton to buy food. Second, they now had to buy more fertilizer and pesticide—and were straining land that, at best, should only see cotton grown on it every third year, with a nitrogen-fixing crop planted at least one of those other years.

What they could earn was dependent on the price for cotton, something beyond their control, so they had to plant as much of it as they could, so they could be assured of sufficient income even if the price dropped. Animal traction, by itself, is a good idea—but forcing farmers into an economy that can easily break them? We might as well be condemning at least a part of them to poverty worse than they had experienced as subsistence farmers.

Rather than a program developed “for” the farmers by foreign experts working with the government in Lomé at the other end of the country, a better program could have been developed by the farmers themselves, working with a single development worker (perhaps a Peace Corps Volunteer) who could serve as a liaison with outside sources of information and resources. Rather than each farmer buying oxen and setting up a stable, etc., perhaps a deal could have been made with a Peul (Fulani) herder to provide and take care of a pair that would then be owned by a group of farmers. The Peul, after all, are traditional cattle herders with more expertise in dealing with animals in that environment than any foreigner could have. The needed equipment could even have been made by local blacksmiths from designs provided by the development worker. All in all, such a program would have taken greater advantage of local skills and would have placed the farmers at much less risk.

That this would even be possible would not likely have been known by outside experts.
In addition, it would not be popular with the elite. It would not profit those who would, in the program that I was working for, provide the oxen and equipment and the loans. There would not have been a net shift of wealth from the farmers to the elite of the country.

A similar model holds true for education. My mantra, one resulting from my Peace Corps experience, is “start with the students.” Find out where they are, what they know, and what they have been through. Teach through their experiences, taking what they know and showing them ways of expanding it. To do this, I have to stand away from my own abilities and successes and listen. To do this, I have to develop ways of allowing the students to teach each other, acting as a facilitator not always as a “teller.”

All of this is a lead in to my highly negative reaction to today’s Thomas Friedman column in The New York Times. Enamored, as usual, by what the elite can do for the rest, Friedman calls looks to “the makers,” extolling the ability of the elite to “help” everyone else. Traveling with Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America and, now, Teach for All, he is seeing what he believes will be the wonders of the urban elite helping the rural (and urban) poor.

But what goes on, really? Is something gained in the poor communities? Or is the real profit going to the elite? In the United States, Teach for America does quite nicely for Kopp and the others who run the program, and provides a learning experience for the young college graduates it recruits. But what has it to show, after twenty years, for the communities it claims to help?

Not a lot, as far as I can see. In this case, as in so many others, the wealth goes to the wealthy.

Friedman, as I said, calls the Teach for All recruits “the makers.” I have a sneaky suspicion that all they will be making is more money for the elite.

Maybe Friedman doesn’t know that. Maybe he really is so naïve that he cannot see the exploitation, that Teach for All, like Teach for America… like most every program supposedly for the poor, really helps the rich much more.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Want to Understand the Tea Party? Look to How They See Themselves

This map comes from the U.S.Census Bureau (and thanks, Rodger Cunningham, for alerting me to it). It is based on self-reporting on the 2000 census. What is fascinating to me is the number of people who identified themselves simply as "American." Their location covers almost all of Appalachia and, I suspect, if you took out "African American," would dominate the entire old Confederacy (except for Texas and the south of Florida).

These are primarily people of European ancestry who see themselves as simply "American," with no ties to other nations or other cultures. They do not descend from post-Civil War immigration; ties to any "old country" were broken long ago, probably even before the age of steam. Many of them are associated with the Borderer culture that rose between Scotland and England and that was hardened on Ulster Plantation in the 17th century, either by descent or incorporation--and all of them see themselves as being the "real" Americans who created the United States.

They do not feel that they have been treated well by the federal government, of late. In fact, they may never have felt themselves treated well (they were the rebels of the War of the Regulation in the 1760s and the Whiskey Rebellion thirty years later--not to mention, many were the stalwarts of the Confederate States of America, though few would have been counted among the rich slave owners). In The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth, I quote Albert Votaw, writing in Harper's about them in 1958, at a time when a number of them had moved north to work in the factories of Illinois, Ohio and Michigan:
These farmers, miners, and mechanics from the mountains and meadows of the mid-South--with their fecund wives and numerous children--are, in a sense, the prototype of what the "superior" American should be, white Protestants of early American, Anglo-Saxon stock; but on the streets of Chicago they seem to be the American dream gone berserk. This may be the reason why their neighbors often find them more obnoxious than the Negros or the early foreign immigrants whose obvious differences from the American stereotype made them easy to despise. Clannish, proud, disorderly, untamed to urban ways, these country cousins confound all notions of racial, religious, and cultural purity. (quoted in Cult 193)
Faced with attitudes like this (and it was--and is--commonplace), is there any wonder that the Borderers have turned the tables, rejecting anyone but themselves as the "real" Americans? I think not.

To them, America has never consisted of a federation of states but was forged by the white people who escaped the financial and social tyranny of the East Coast and, as they moved West, created a new culture and new land. From their first arrival in the 18th century, they were the people of the backcountry--which in those days included almost all but the coastal parts (and the areas along the major rivers) of Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas. They weren't welcome in Philadelphia (the biggest number of them coming to America through the Delaware Valley) or in any of the established cities or towns, so they quickly moved West. Though their "base" remains in the Appalachian Mountains, they were among the first moving farther west throughout the 19th century, often establishing the communities that were soon further populated by newer immigrants.

Their descendants today are proud of this heritage, but have seen themselves demeaned by the powerful intellectual and financial elites of the East for generations--their very value as Americans denigrated while newer immigrants--and African Americans--get (in their eyes) the fruit of their own hard labor through government largess--largess made possible through their own taxes (or so they believe). America is being stolen from them, they imagine. Congressman Pete Sessions' declaration to President Obama, "I cannot stand to even look at you," is nothing more, in fact, than a declaration of the frustrations so many Borderer descendants feel in face of a President who, through his very appearance, brags (it seems to them) of the theft of America from its "real" inheritors.

These are not simply racists, the contemporary Tea Party, and to call them that continues to process of denigration that has now gone on for three centuries. Their attitudes are much more complex and do, at times, come from real grievances--and not just the imagined ones we know so well. In the East, for example, it is commonplace to speak of "white privilege." But "white privilege" is not something many of the Borderers have ever experienced. Yes, many of them were better off than the African Americans in their communities, but not much more so. Just look at images from James Agee's and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; many Appalachian counties did not see indoor plumbing until the 1950s or later. Yes, Borderers could blend into the dominant white culture of the East (and many did--my family among them) and gain "white privilege," but for many others life was (and is) one of deprivation and desperation.

We're going through a time, right now, of real cultural divide and hatred. It is showing up in our politics, making our government more and more unworkable. The tendency is, from our nice perches in New York City, Washington, San Francisco, Minneapolis... wherever... to see the Tea Party as the "Other," as the vicious and horrible. That's not going to solve anything.

Remember, the Tea Party sees us, the 'secular-liberals,' African Americans, Latinos, Jews, and everyone else who has not joined with them, as the "Other," as the vicious and horrible.

Which side is right? Neither.

Until both can get off their high horses and start seeing things from the perspectives of their enemies, both will continue to be wrong.

Friday, October 18, 2013

What Is Behind the Shutdown... and Why Is the Tea Party So Unapologetic?

What happens when there are two major cultures in a country, and one feels that, though they represent the real spirit of the country, they are being pretty much ignored by its rulers?

Lots of things can, from protest to revolution. We've just seen a rather unusual one, though completely appropriate (in the eyes of the perpetrators), given the beliefs and situation of those who see themselves shoved to the outside of their own country.

The American right sees a United States dominated by people who, in their eyes, don't even represent the "real" Americans who built this country in the first place. They see a country dominated by immigrants and minorities, by people who don't understand the work that it took to make this country great--people who are simply taking advantage of its greatness.

They see (or imagine they see) others coddled and cut to the front of the line while they work and wait their turn. They think government, to aid these others, has gotten too much into their business and their finances, making them struggle while others relax. They look at laws that many (to their eyes) hide behind, or that favor the non-"Americans" over the true children of this country.

To them, central governments have always been villains. Since the time of the War of the Regulation in the 1760s, they have been struggling against those who want to impose their own law upon them. Though they supported the Revolution and loved General Washington, they hated the taxes that they saw as an unfair imposition on an already overburdened population. They rose up against the federal government in the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s--and it was only the presence of their beloved general, now President, that took the wind out of their sails.

Could resentments from so long ago be influencing attitudes to many generations later?

There's a line that can be traced from the Whiskey Rebellion right to Junior Johnson and the birth of NASCAR, not all that long ago.

More tellingly, feelings associated with the Civil War, only a couple of generations more recent than the Whiskey Rebellion, still crop up in association with the Tea Party, so why not those just a little older (and more than a little related)?

But who are they, these Americans so close to being at war with their government?

In The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth, I identify them as the inheritors of the Borderers, the Scots-Irish immigrants of the 18th century who settled in the backwoods of the time and who were the leaders of the movement westward of the 19th century. The book is a start at telling their story, a start because theirs is a story seldom told today, in a country that celebrates immigrants of the 19th, 20th and even 17th centuries but elides the Borderers almost completely from almost all of its intellectual and media discussions (making it no wonder, by the way, that they hate the media... and most intellectuals).

Here's what my publisher's website says about the book:
American culture is divided—and it always has been.
American individualism: It is the reason for American success, but it also tears the nation apart.
Why do Americans have so much trouble seeing eye to eye today? Is this new? Was there ever an American consensus? The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth explores the rarely discussed cultural differences leading to today's seemingly intractable political divides.
After an examination of the various meanings of individualism in America, author Aaron Barlow describes the progression and evolution of the concept from the 18th century on, illuminating the wide division in Caucasian American culture that developed between the culture based on the ideals of the English Enlightenment and that of the Scots-Irish "Borderers." The "Borderer" legacy, generally explored only by students of Appalachian culture, remains as pervasive and significant in contemporary American culture and politics as it is, unfortunately, overlooked. It is from the "Borderers" that the Tea Party sprang, along with many of the attitudes of the contemporary American right, making it imperative that this culture be thoroughly explored.
• Documents how the concept and execution of "American individualism" is as diverse as America itself. • Explains how the American notion of individualism has roots that extend back to cultural myths that predate the founding of the nation. • Spotlights the role of the "Borderer" culture spearheaded by the Scots-Irish, whose legacy fuels much of America's contemporary cultural and political divides. • Provides eye-opening information for any reader who wishes to know why so many of our 21st-century political debates in America seem hopelessly irreconcilable. 
Sample Topics: 
American Backwoods,American Folkways,Appalachian Culture,Daniel Boone,Horatio Alger,Individualism in America,Movies and Small Towns,Red States vs. Blue States,Scots-Irish in America,Self-Made Myth.
Excerpts can be read here

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Excerpts from The Cult of Individualism

This link will take you to excerpts from my new book, The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth. In it, I explore backgrounds that can make the "shutdown" a bit more understandable--historically, at least. Making sense of it in current terms is beyond me.

The book is available in a number of places online, including Amazon.