Sunday, February 08, 2015

One Flew East Is Moving!

You will find new posts on One Flew East here.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

There's a Little Bit of Truth...

The best lies sail as close to the truth as they can; the best demagoguery creates canyons out of cracks. And politicians, of course, use any tools they can to rally their supporters, making them feel good about themselves while demeaning the opposition.

When Mike Huckabee, in his new book God, Guns, Grits, and  Gravy, sails close to a truth, his means of turning a crack into a canyon is a cultural divide that I also have written about--in my 2012 book The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth.

Yes, he is right: there are two Americas, one descended from the Enlightenment culture the older colonial settlers participated in, particularly in the Northeast, and the other descended from the Scots-Irish who came to the colonies a little later, often fleeing Ulster Plantation in northern Ireland, many arriving as indentured servants. They weren't welcomed by the descendants of the Puritans or by the Quakers; many of them quickly headed to the wilds of western Pennsylvania and Virginia or headed down the Great Wagon Road into the Carolinas.

It was in the Carolinas that the divide sparked organized violence, in a pre-Revolution conflict called "The War of the Regulation" that pitted the Scots-Irish and those who had joined them against the coastal "elite" of the southern colonies. They were also the disgruntled people of the Whiskey Rebellion shortly after the new nation  had been established. The Scots-Irish, along with the ragtag groups of Germans, Irish and even English who couldn't abide the coastal colonies and who had joined them, were the first Europeans to head west in substantial migration. Except for California and the northern tier of Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas, they were the first European settlers of most of the nation after the Revolution.

The red-state/blue-state divisions of America go back a long, long time. The Scots-Irish even took over some of the older colonials' areas, the defeated South, where the so-called Cavalier culture had been destroyed, became a mainstay of this particular American culture.

The divide, though, isn't nearly as wide as Huckabee makes it out to be. Electoral majorities are not consensus; in few places, do the winners in our political contests gain more than 60% of the vote and, even then, the percentage of people who actually vote is rather small. There are plenty of liberal Democrats in Mississippi and New York City, where I live, is home to many conservative Republicans.

There are also many who, like me, are descended from Scots-Irish ancestors, whose families settled in the Appalachian Mountains, who grew up with grits and gravy but whose inclinations are not toward god or guns.

Huckabee writes:
The three major “nerve centers” of our culture are New York City, Washington,  D.C.,  and Los Angeles.... They are the three “bubbles” of influence in our modern culture and they are indeed “bub- bles.” I call these cities “Bubble-ville.” I intentionally live in what I call “Bubba-ville.” It’s where “Bubbas” live, and where a lot of people are called by two names: Mary Elizabeth, Katherine Grace, Jim Bob, and Darryl Wayne. 
I travel to New York City every week to host my TV show on the Fox News Channel.  Because the  show originates from there,  most people think that I surely must live there. I’m quick to say, “I don’t live there and won’t unless they will let me duck hunt in Central Park.” I’m quite certain that isn’t going to happen since it’s all but impossible to own a gun in New York City, much less legally use it. Unless you’re a cop or a crook, you probably don’t possess a firearm in New York City. In fact, you’ve probably never seen one in person.
But it’s more than guns. Have you ever tried to order grits in a fancy Manhattan restaurant? Good luck. Not even for breakfast! And you’ll get some real weird looks if you ask for “sawmill gravy” on your potatoes or biscuits—that is if you can find real biscuits. And I’m sorry, but gravy on a bagel just doesn’t work for me. If I want to chew that hard, I’ll take up chewing tobacco, which I won’t. I’m not even that rural! I can somewhat understand that New York restaurants might not typically have red-eye gravy or chocolate gravy as those might be a bit regional, but how can an eating place that fancies itself fancy have the audacity to open its doors and not have biscuits and gravy or grits on the breakfast menu?
Huckabee sees only the New York of the very rich, and he's simply flattering himself that he's not part of them, using superficial badges of what he imagines (incorrectly) is the core of the Scots-Irish based culture that he demeans (unintentionally) as the "Bubbas."

One of the key words in this passage is "fancy." You won't find grits in a "fancy" restaurant almost anywhere in the United States... but that doesn't mean you can't get them elsewhere--even in New York City. Toomey's Diner on the edge of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, where the Dodgers ate breakfast in the days of Ebbet's Field, serves grits (or did... I moved out of the neighborhood five years ago so haven't recently checked) as do the diners around my current Marine Park neighborhood.

Though guns may be illegal in New York City, Huckabee would probably be shocked by the number that can be found here in Marine Park, once the home mainly of Irish and Italians, now with a large influx of Orthodox Jews, Asians and people of all sorts. But Huckabee is not likely to come here; his New York is only Manhattan, and a small part of even that.

Huckabee is creating caricatures of the two major American cultures, doing so for his own political purposes. There are real differences between the cultures: The Scots-Irish were never affected by the Enlightenment of the 18th century in the way New England was, and that created a quite distinct vision of the world. What Huckabee does point out are simply things that anyone can don or shed--as politicians often do when wanting to appear, one day, to be part of "the people" and, then next, of the "elite."

Huckabee is adding nothing to what should be national discussions of significant issues. All he is doing is exploiting cultural distinctions to create a political force that, though it will never move him into the White House, will certainly make him tons of money.

Good for him; bad for the rest of us.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Strange Truth--Or Fiction?

[Cross-posted from the Academe blog.]
“Brian Williams Admits He Wasn’t on Copter Shot Down in Iraq,” says the headline in The New York Times. The newscaster “apologized Wednesday for mistakenly claiming he had been on a helicopter that was shot down.” A decade-and-a-half ago, Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Ellis apologized for having claimed in his classrooms to have served in combat in Vietnam when he had not done so.
Neither of these incidents is unusual. People exaggerate their experiences all the time. Our stories get better as time goes on, often until they have little relation to the truth—as happened in both of these cases. What is unusual is that both have high profiles in the media, where such deviations tend to get noticed.
I’ve an exercise I use each time I teach a writing course, one on authority and honesty. I tell the story of an incident in Togo when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). Looked at dispassionately, it seems like it couldn’t be true.
The truncated version is this: Only the morning of August 2, 1990, while I was drinking coffee under an awning outside my house, listening to the BBC about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, I saw an elephant approaching. It would pass near me on its way back to the Fosse aux lions, the game preserve whose border was just across the road. I wanted to take its picture, so I grabbed my camera bag and the radio and walked to the top of a small rise the elephant would likely pass by. It was just about dawn: I pulled out my light meter and two cameras, checked my settings and waited for the elephant, which was following a path between bean fields. When it was as close as I dared stay, I snapped two pictures and prepared to slowly back down the little hill and return home.
Elephant001But the elephant had other ideas: Without raising its trunk or flapping its ears, usual warnings, it charged straight at me. I ran, but fell, losing my sandals as I slid to the wet ground and turning to face the elephant, wanting to see what was going to kill me.
It didn’t, obviously, but stopped a few meters from me and stared at me. Slowly, I removed the straps from cameras, the meter and the bag from around my neck—they’d been flopping around as I ran. Next to me, speaker in the mud, the radio babbled. The elephant turned, looking at me sideways. I scramble up and sprinted past it, heading the opposite way it was facing. Stopping eventually, I turned to see it go over to my cameras and radio, pick each piece up with its trunk, taste it and drop it. Finally, it swung my camera bag by the strap and threw it—then turned and walked into the Fosse. I collected my scattered belongings and returned home.
Over the years, I’ve written about this in numerous fashions—even as fiction—starting with a recounting in the little PCV newsletter we had. I try to keep as close to the truth as I can but a quarter of a century has passed and I sometimes wonder if I haven’t changed the tale in the writing. There are versions, I know, that are not quite accurate: In one, I write of telling the story to other PCVs who had arrived at a restaurant in a nearby town on motorcycles. They hadn’t. They had arrived in a Peace Corps vehicle, having stopped by my village and having already heard the story from people there who had witnessed it.
Anyhow, when I tell the story to my students, I warn them that they should be careful of what a person in authority says, for it is too easy to believe—but that they should not be completely skeptical, either. I then give them a few days to think about the story, to research what they can, and to come to a determination about its truth. When they do, and I have collected their writings, they always want me to tell them which it is, fact or fiction.
“Should you believe me, one way or another?" I respond. That stumps them.

"Standards!" Why the Fuss? I'd Rather Concern Myself with Education

[I posted this on the Academe blog on 12/28/2104.]
Education "reformers," in an attempt to save the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), are now attempting to decouple "standards" and "high-stakes testing." In an op-ed in The New York Times today, for example, David Kirp, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, writes:
Although the Obama administration didn’t craft the standards, it weighed in heavily, using some of the $4.35 billion from the Race to the Top program to encourage states to adopt not only the Common Core (in itself, a good thing) but also frequent, high-stakes testing (which is deeply unpopular). The mishandled rollout turned a conversation about pedagogy into an ideological and partisan debate over high-stakes testing. The misconception that standards and testing are identical has become widespread.
Well, no. CCSS is not, "in itself, a good thing" and it was not the "rollout" that attached it to testing. David Coleman, the creator of CCSS, after all, didn't become the head of the College Board (the holy grail of American high-stakes testing) soon after that rollout by accident.
Implicit in Kirp's comment is the assumption that standards, no matter how they are created and no matter what they consist of, are themselves a reasonable goal. That's about as meaningless as saying happiness is a goal. Sure, but what is happiness? What if the things that make you happy don't do it for me? "Standards," like "happiness," is a generalization. It does not follow that the specific pieces making up what is called a specific "standard" can be rationalized into a universal of any utility. Furthermore, a universal standard, to be universally accepted, would have to have at least a bit of the universal in its development. CCSS does not. It is the vision of a small group that has been 'rolled out' onto the rest of us. As an English professor who has worked with a high school to develop a CCSS-compliant curriculum, I can say for certain that the English Language Arts "standards" for CCSS do not reflect current practice or belief within the discipline. I see no sign that college professors contributed their expertise to help CCSS "create" college-ready high-school graduates.
To create real and useful standards (if standardized education should even be the goal), one would have to take into account all sorts of constituencies for those standards--not even just college professors. What are the standards necessary for participation in a democracy, and who should be asked to define them? What skills can we expect from high-school graduates, and who should determine them? These and other questions need to be addressed before the standards themselves are created--and they were not, not publicly, at least, with CCSS. And the standards, too, need to be created in public through a process that includes as many constituencies as possible.
And that's only if we agree that universal standards are, themselves, desirable. Maybe standards need to be much more personal, as is happiness. Maybe one size does not fit all. I chose the college I attended precisely because it did not have exactly the same expectations from students as every other college. Though CCSS claims not to determine curriculum, it certainly carries assumptions that have an impact on curriculum development, assumptions that, if CCSS is successful, will make education an assembly line, with parts (students) manufactured in one school identical to those of another, and either fitting perfectly into the higher-education machine (which is also heading in a CCSS-like direction through its current mania for "outcomes").
Standardization may be a good thing in manufacturing. It does not follow that it is always good for education. I know, "standards" and "standardization" are not really the same thing. In this case, however, I think maybe they are.
There are, of course, certain skills that everyone should gain. These, however, are not the totality of an education, be it one that stops at high school or that proceeds on to college and beyond. And not even these are universally agreed upon. Again, if we are to insist on standards, we first need to hammer out the "why" and the "what." Then we can turn our attention to the details. CCSS started with the details; its only rationale seems to have been that standards are, on their face, good, simply by the fact of being standards, so its creators worked from there.
Though the current tactic of education "reformers" is to try to separate CCSS from high-stakes testing, their's is, I think, a doomed task. Universal standards cannot be universal without universal assessment, and we are a long way from developing assessment tools that can work the same everywhere outside of quantifiable standardized tests. As things stand, CCSS cannot exist without high-stakes testing. Without the latter, the former has no more power than suggestion. So, there's no sense in trying to save CCSS by pretending to jettison high-stakes testing. People already see through that.
Personally, I think we need to go back to the beginning on all of this. Scrap CCSS and see if we can develop flexible standards that have real purpose in student lives--and standards that can be assessed by means other than numeric ones. The standards need to be simple and able to take into account differing needs of different people in varied situations. They need to be meaningful in how they are assessed. And they need to be agreed upon by the American people, not rolled out upon them.
Then teachers will be able to concern themselves with education and students with learning.

Anti-Intellectualism: A Continuing American Legacy

[I first posted this on the Academe blog in January.]
One of the most influential books on my own vision of academia and American life is Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Though I have serious reservations about parts of it, I return to the book again and again. Not surprisingly, I thought of it once more, today, when I read Patricia Williams' article in The Guardian, "Anti-Intellectualism Is Taking Over the US." It's almost three years old, but worth reading if you (like me) have not previously seen it. Williams writes:
There are a number of factors at play in the current rash of controversies. One is a rather stunning sense of privilege, the confident sense of superiority that allows someone to pass sweeping judgment on a body of work without having done any study at all. After the Chronicle of Higher Education published an item highlighting the dissertations of five young PhD candidates in African-American studies at Northwestern University, Chronicle blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote that the mere titles of the dissertations were sufficient cause to eliminate all black studies classes. Riley hadn't read the dissertations; they're not even published yet. When questioned about this, she argued that as "a journalist… it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them," adding: "there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery." Riley tried to justify her view with a cliched, culture-wars-style plaint about the humanities and higher education: "Such is the state of academic research these days…. The publication topics become more and more irrelevant and partisan. No one reads them." This is not mere arrogance; it is the same cocooned "white ghetto" narrow-mindedness that allows someone like Michael Hicks to be in charge of a major American school system yet not know "Rosa Clark's" correct name.
He meant, of course, "Rosa Parks." That anyone in the United States, to say nothing of someone with responsibilities for education, would make a mistake on that name is beyond belief.
Belief trumps inquiry for many Americans. It always has. Many of the opponents of American institutions of education are people believe they are secure in their knowledge--but who have never tried to put it to the test. When challenged, they lash out against the structures facilitating the challenge: schools and colleges. The difference, today, is that they are increasingly in charge of those schools and colleges rather than simply railing against them from the outside.

From Great Universities to "Knowledge Factories": Another American Institution in Decline

[I first posted this on the Academe blog in December.]
Thomas Frank, perhaps best known for What's the Matter with Kansas?, an examination of America's new conservatism, has an article in Salon, "The New Republic, the torture report, and the TED talks geniuses who gutted journalism." Toward the end, he writes this:
The new press lord’s deeds are all made possible by the shrinking significance of everyone else. Compared to the patois of power, the language of journalism is but meaningless babble. Compared to once having been a friend of Zuckerberg, no form of literary genius matters any more. Compared to the puissance and majesty of the CIA, we amount to nothing. We are playthings of the powerful, churned out by the millions every year from the nation’s knowledge factories. We are zeroes to their ones, ready to rationalize monopoly or rectal hydration at a moment’s notice.
We've been through all of this before, though Frank doesn't write about that. The late 19th century press barons such as William Randolph Hearst also reduced almost everyone and everything else to insignificance (that's the rationale for his San Simeon estate--its grandeur reduced even Hollywood stars to bit players). What's different today is that, after a century of progress toward providing real and substantial security for the majority of Americans we are returning to an age of insecurity, not moving farther from it. After building the possibilities of careers with stability in all sorts of fields (including journalism and academia, the two I want to talk about here), we are moving toward emphasis on the freelance, the contingent, the (to put it the way corporations like to) consultant. Today, we are both those who are churned out and those who do the churning--all without resistance. All of us, in the eyes of the new elite, are quickly and easily replaceable.
Frank, in applauding the mass resignation of the staff of The New Republic recently in response to changes being made by a new, rich owner with no background in journalism (Hearst, to give him his due, at least learned the business he bought rather than just "managing" it from the stratosphere--though he, too, completely revamped his first newspaper for a new age), also calls the act “'Hopeless' because, as The New York Times noted in a story about the changes at TNR, 'freelance writers are in abundant supply' these days." This, Frank goes on to say, is the real story, writing that "It has been obvious for some time that the great age of magazine journalism is coming to an end." For there to be great writers, there needs to be at least the possibility of stability of place and of income (see Virginia Woolf on this, in "A Room of One's Own" and "The Three Guineas").
But Frank is too narrow. It is not only the age of great magazine journalism that is ending, so is the age of great American universities (among other things)--and for somewhat the same reason. When the factory model is imposed, articles and graduates are but widgets and the workers are much the same, identical and easily replaceable. If part of the problem with magazines today is reliance on freelance writers, the same holds true for universities--where up to three-quarters of undergraduate courses are taught by contingent (basically freelance) instructors. As Frank writes, to understand this:
we would do well to take our rapidly polarizing class system into account—the insane arrangements that allow tycoons to buy presidential campaigns while journalists and intellectuals become glorified temps.
He leaves out universities, but they are being bought and sold today, too (look at the outsized influence of the Koch brothers, who increasingly have a say in who is hired in academic programs they fund). The professors have less and less influence, to the point where the former Chancellor of the City University of New York could write that "governance of the University on all matters rests with the Board of Trustees." The owners, to the members of the new American elite, are the only ones who count.
As Frank writes, "they are geniuses—everyone tells them so."