Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Opportuity and Single-Gender Schooling

I was struck this week by the following headline from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review: "Westinghouse's Single-Gender Academies to Bolster Opportunity." I found myself wondering "What kind of opportunity?" Perhaps, in light of the traditional gender stereotypes that have been used by many advocates to support the call for single-gender education since President G.W. Bush endorsed it earlier this decade, this means the opportunity for boys to explore the world using their rambunctious natures without the distraction of pretty girls, and for girls to more actively assert themselves without being trumped by the pesky shouts of exuberant boys. Perhaps, as is the case with the proposed all-male, all-African-American proposed charter school in Madison, Wisconsin, this means the opportunity to overcome persistent educational struggles by targeting the needs and strengths of one particular population.

I read further into the article to discover that the single-gender schools are thought to provide the "opportunity to show promise." Is promise something that is squelched or overlooked in mixed-gender settings? Can one only show promise in light of or because of one's gender when the other gender is kept at bay? Can one's talents only shine through when the radiating glow of the other gender is shielded? With perhaps a few rare exceptions, I find these unlikely to be the case.

What about the opportunity to learn from and interact with children different from themselves? What about the opportunity to break down gender stereotypes of the opposite gender by seeing counterexamples firsthand? What about the opportunity to prepare for the real world where genders work side-by-side daily in most fields? What about the opportunity to learn about how persistent systems of sexism trickle all the way down to influence the inter-gender relationships of children? What about the opportunity to expand our understanding of gender as two discretely defined categories? Those seem like the types of educational opportunities I would like to see.

Friday, December 10, 2010

This Economic Chance-World in Which We Live

As news of Obama’s deal with the Republicans to extend tax breaks to the wealthy was breaking on Monday night, I was sitting on my sofa finishing William Dean Howells’s classic novel about American social class mores, A Hazard of New Fortunes. At the heart of the novel are a set of characters who, in today’s terms, would likely fall into all three major groups touched by Obama’s spineless compromise of a plan: an energy millionaire, middle class professionals striving to keep afloat in uncertain economic times, and an angry, unemployed war veteran. It is striking how much better Howells saw the hazards of the economic situation than Obama does.

At the climax of the book, New York transportation workers strike for fair pay and a series of violent events ensues, which end up transforming the outlook of rich and middle class alike. (I’m not giving away what happens, because if you haven’t read this book, you should get hold of it and start reading immediately – for reasons mentioned in recent posts here and because this book is both timely and much funnier than one might expect from a weighty, socially serious novel.) Basil March, the middle class editor of a New York literary journal, has throughout the novel disdained social activism and treated the miseries of the working poor as a matter for distant intellectual curiosity, a picturesque subject to be used as subject material in stories for middle class readers. This changes when two of his companions are caught up in the violence. To his wife, March declares, that yes, life is risky,

“But what I object to is this economic chance-world in which we live, and which we men seem to have created. It ought to be a law as inflexible in human affairs as the order of day and night in the physical world, that if a man will work he shall both rest and eat, and not be harassed with any question as to how his repose and his provision shall come. Nothing less ideal than this satisfies the reason. But in our state of things no one is secure of this. No one is sure of finding work; no one is sure of not losing it. I may have my work taken away from me at any moment by the caprice, the mood, the indigestion of a man who has not the qualification for knowing whether I do it well or ill. . . . and so we go on, pushing and pulling, climbing and crawling, thrusting aside and trampling underfoot; lying, cheating, stealing; and when we get to the end, covered with blood and dirt and sin and shame, and look back over the way we’ve come to a palace of our own, or the poor-house, which is about the only possession we can claim in common with our brother-men, I don’t think the retrospect can be pleasing.”

Basil March’s words perfectly capture the reasons we should be outraged by Obama’s tax deal. It props up the poor for another 13 months with an extension of unemployment benefits. It props up the wealthy (not that they need much help) with tax breaks that worsen the national budget deficit. As Paul Krugman and other economists have pointed out, tax breaks to the wealthy are a completely ineffective way to stimulate the economy. It fails completely to prop up work, the middle class, and economic stability, which is what a tax plan should do. Obama himself is finally getting angry, accusing liberal democrats of overlooking the needs of working Americans, but Obama should get himself a copy of A Hazard of New Fortunes too. It might show him how ultimately laughable is the professional class’s insistence on decorum in the face of the pushing and pulling (not to mention the lying, cheating and stealing) in which the wealthy engage. Nothing short of work that leads to economic security can satisfy the reason, and there is no promise of that in this ridiculous tax plan.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, or such was the conclusion that Adam Gopnik came to in a response to this novel published in the New Yorker 10 years ago (reprinted in the Modern Library edition of this novel). “A hundred years ago, the one thing that Howells – and Henry Adams and so many others – knew for sure was that a society with a tiny plutocratic class, a precarious middle class, and a large and immigration-fed proletariat simply could not go on”, Gopnik comments. “Now, at the turn of another century, we find it is the only thing that has gone on, in nearly perfect duplicate.”

How has this happened? “Hope”, answers Gopnik, a willingness to forget about recession and inequality and go on as if we all might turn out ok. (This before Obama ran on the platform of hope, no less.) As the US continues careening around with the poor getting poorer and the rich richer, and our future in doubt as our politicians squander one opportunity after another, I wonder whether Howells might turn out to be right after all.

The ethically serious in America have been predicting disastrous consequences to our moral shortsightedness for nearly 400 years, so perhaps we’ll go careening forwards out of this crisis too. About this, though Howells is surely right: when we look back, I don’t think the retrospect can be pleasing.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Serve the Rich! A Comment on Ann Beattie

I'm a sucker for book lists. I was scanning the latest list from Slate, of the best books of 2010 and found Ann Beattie's New Yorker Stories listed.

Now I will admit that I am an Ann Beattie fan, and an avid reader of both The New Yorker and of the contemporary American short story more generally. (It helps sustain my appreciation that Ann's husband, Lincoln Perry, was my first painting teacher, in 1976).

So I was struck by this line:

Beattie's characters of the '70s are young people foundering in nostalgia and quiet loss, trying to figure out how to move forward in a world where every choice is open but no markers of adulthood seem fixed.

I think the situation is much worse today, especially after the recession. And I don't think things will get better anytime soon.

The young coming of age in the 2010s are finding that no markers of adulthood seem any more fixed than in 1970, and yet very few choices are open. In the 1970s you could still go to college and grad school, study something you loved, and eventually maybe find a job you loved, too. But those pathways were already shutting down.

Today a few who are bright, ambitious, and vicious enough can "move forward" working for and serving the rich -- in investment banking, gourmet food, high fashion, personal coaching or whatever. I recently read one of those US News items of "news you can use" about future careers (I have a twenty year old son in college) and the advice was "serve the rich - they're going to be the only ones left with any money."

Nostalgia has given way to postmodern irony or worse, cynicism, and quiet loss has in many cases been replaced by desperation.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A happy face on your report card? A sitcom wades into the Québec school reform debate

We're all familiar with the well-worn criticisms of progressive school reform. It's "soft", it's written in "eduspeak", and it's ineffective. But when this kind of criticism makes it into popular culture, you know that it's having a significant impact.

In the clip below (which is subtitled), two major components of the Québec comprehensive school reform are targeted: non-percentage based report cards and cross-curricular competencies. Cross-curricular competencies are simply skills that are acquired across a range of subjects (e.g. critical thinking, problem solving), but the term itself ("compétences transversales" in French) has been surprisingly controversial, as the clip reveals... 

I'm still uncertain about why, exactly, cross-curricular competencies have received so much criticism. It's not as if the idea is particularly difficult to articulate or to understand, and goals like problem solving and critical thinking are uncontroversial. Percentage-based report cards, on the other hand, are part of people's established picture of how school is supposed to be, and so resistance here is less surprising.

Stretching through art

(This is cross-posted from Smart and Good.)

I am breathing slowly and deeply this morning, puzzled and saddened by something I heard yesterday on NPR. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery pulled part of the art exhibition “Hide and Seek” on Thursday under pressure from, among others, the Catholic League. Removed from view was a 4 minute video exploring death by AIDS and depicting Jesus on the cross being eaten by large black ants. However, my concern here is not the piece, nor the protest nor even the pronouncement that the Smithsonian would remove David Wojnarowicz‘s representation of his lover’s death, “A Fire in My Belly.”

Others have had interesting things to say on both sides of this issue if you want to pursue it:



I am most distressed today as an American educator by the post-game comments of Bill Donovan, the President of the Catholic League. Donovan, reveling in his triumph, is now working to undercut any and all taxpayer supported arts in the United States. What would this do to educational possibility in our present cultural and economic position? What do we lose if we fail to support the images and ideas that stretch us?

Donovan’s case goes something like this. Because there is no taxpayer support for that which “working people” appreciate, specifically the World Wrestling Federation, then there should be no taxpayer support for any other kinds of arts and entertainment. Hmmmm.

[Sidenote here: The government of Abu Dhabi has initiated a revitalization of their economy by importing branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre – a decidedly different take on what impacts a people toward productivity.]

Now there’s a lot of art I don’t understand and a lot I don’t appreciate (including WWF), but even the stuff I don’t understand (sometimes especially that stuff) stretches me (including WWF). And that stretching is part of my ongoing education. Because WWF is widely supported by both people who work and people who don’t, it is available to me. I can be – and very occasionally am – stretched by it. But other arts not commercially viable are nonetheless valuable. Sometimes that which we most need to enhance our collective sensibilities, to expand our abilities to respond to each other with understanding and appreciation, is that which we avoid, resisting enhancement or expansion, because it is uncomfortable. We don’t want to be stretched.

WWF may be one way of exploring the human condition, but it is not the only way. The visual and performing arts have this exploration as their raison d’etre. Videos like “A Fire in my Belly “ are such an exploration, an invitation to feel, to think, to act with integrity in the world.

Now here’s the part that’s tricky. That which is shocking can either prompt or impede educational stretching. Shock is, by definition, experience marked by strong feelings. Such feelings can open us up to educational possibility, but they can also harden into fear (flight, fight and/or paralysis) before reason or reflection can connect those feelings to possibilities for new understanding or action. Mr. Donovan is afraid. Something has scared him. It’s not this particular video (a Christian who has pondered “The Passion of the Christ” has already dealt with images more shocking than these), but there is something that has prompted the members of the Catholic League to flee deeper understanding, to fight those who seek it for themselves, to freeze in the track of past experience rather than renewed possibility. As an educator, I have to name this as fear and resist it – and resist as well any effort to shrink the artistic world or narrow the aesthetic sensibility that is available to me.

Government-supported funding of the arts serves precisely this purpose: to keep in play just those representations and explorations of that human (American) experience that we do not necessarily seek out, that we don’t readily pay to support. It is never time to cut the budget for what educates all of us.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Without a 'canon' what?

I have been enjoying a Facebook multilogue on the great books initiated by Dianne Allen. Dianne posted a book list from the BBC of 100 significant books; although most are squarely in the Western cannon, the BBC estimated that the average reader will have read no more than six of them. My magic number was 22, but as I looked at the list I was amazed, and somewhat chagrined, that I had not read many more.

Several of the participants in this conversation mentioned that of the few they had read, most were assigned in high school. The question I want to raise is this: Now that we have pretty well destroyed the idea of a 'canon' on the grounds of its Eurocentric, racist and sexist implications, how will we ever have any common touchstones. Phrases that once echoed in our heads from the Bible, Shakespeare and Aesop will no longer provide these.

I am preparing to travel to Italy with my wife next year -- the standard (note that term) Rome Florence Venice tour. I am already reading about these cities and their cultural institutions, and am getting familiar with the locations of the main sights on the city maps. So for Florence I already can locate the Duomo, the Baptistry, the Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi, etc.

But imagine a city with no canonical works of art or architecture, no "standard" sights, no reference points. A city where everything is as significant, potentially, as everything else. Would this make the experience of the city liberating and fascinating, or just confusing and ultimately boring?

Yes of course, the real pleasures of travel have little to do with "doing" the sights. They are about chance meetings in coffee houses, unexpected and unpredictable experiences, personal self-discoveries. But where do you find these? On the way to the Duomo, or Botanical Gardens, or Uffizi, that's where.

So it goes with reading. Serious writing does not stand in isolation. It is a response to what has gone before it, and a portent of what is to come. This situation in a living history is what makes writing "literature". We always tell our grad students that when they write a term paper or thesis they have to do a "review of the literature". They they are making a "contribution to the literature". That they are "joining a conversation.

Would it be fascinating, or liberating, to just say whatever you wanted in response to anything, or nothing? Of course not. That is why reading books is important, and why we need some touchstones in literature. And we need them not so that we can say that everyone "did" the Bible or Jane Austen or Dickens, but so that as people have their chance encounters and make their personal discoveries they have something to talk about, and a sharable vocabulary.

Or perhaps you do not see it this way, in which case, please join the conversaton!

PS. I stuck the picture of Emerson on this post because (1) I always like to include a picture and hear that having a picture makes a blog post more inviting, (2) I had this on my computer, and (3) I think Emerson is worth reading if you want to talk about social issues within an American context.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Reading books as "silver bullet"?

Len Waks reminded us earlier this week of the impact of reading books. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that we who inhabit academic settings might have a vested interest in promoting the writing and reading of books. But my intuition is that Len is right, and his post reminded me of the lengths I went to turn my daughter into a book reader.

Emily was a rising sophomore in high school the summer I decided that I couldn’t abandon her to a lifetime without the entertainment, the consolation and the provocation of books. It wasn’t that she couldn’t read. She read easily and well, comprehending and putting thoughts into words without difficulty. But she was not “a reader.”

So I played “Let’s Make a Deal.” I offered this 14 year old an article of clothing for every book she completed that summer. Her eyes lit up but did not light upon a book until I started to read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible to her one June night at bedtime. (Do I need to remind any of us that we all like to be read to, even when, especially when, we are “too old for that”?) I read about 10 pages to her each night for five nights in a row. One night I was not at home when she went to bed. She picked up the book without me, started reading and never looked back. When she completed the book, she earned a skirt. When she completed the second book that summer, she earned a top that went with it. When she completed the third book, she didn’t ask for any sartorial compensation. Today, ten years later, she is never without a book close at hand.

I sometimes wonder why she became a reader that summer after ten years of successful schooling had failed to lead her there. Was it the external reinforcement of a material reward? Perhaps, the companionship of mother and daughter reading and talking about the same book? Or did those two extrinsic elements keep her nose in the book long enough to feel the intrinsic pay-off of reading as a window into minds and worlds not our own?

More importantly, what was it about reading in and for school that did not encourage that habit? I’m not a believer in “silver bullets” when it comes to solving educational problems, but if I were, the one I could believe in would be turning all the Emilys of the world into readers of books.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Most Important Thing to do is Read Books

Mitch Joel, the inimitable guru of web marketing, writes an important post on 'the most important thing'. Two times on one day he ran into thought leaders who said, unequivicably, that the most important thing to do to move ahead in your life is to read books.

Yesterday morning, I went to see Jeffrey Gitomer (best-selling author) speak. Gitomer is pretty clear about what it takes to be successful. After spending some time with him, it's obvious that the real secret (for him) is in the reading. Gitomer reads a ton. He not only collects the books that inspire him, but he devours them and surrounds himself with them. He loves words. He's constantly learning and educating himself, and - from there - the ideas for his writing (whether it's a book, article, presentation or tweet) flow from an overflowing brain of ideas and inspiration.

Then, it happened again.

After Gitomer's presentation, I went for lunch with Julien Smith (co-author with Chris Brogan of Trust Agents)who told me about Charlie Munger (one of Warren Buffet's peers) and his passion for reading. Munger loves reading. Munger believes that the most successful people he knows are those individuals who are constantly reading... like in a non-stop kind of way.

Most of us really give up on reading after university.

I've been thinking a lot about reading lately (and how much I love it)... Tweets, status updates and Blog posts that tell you how to generate more Blog readers don't count much . . . The majority of newspaper and magazine articles are probably right on the edge of valuable reading, but the guts of reading that will truly make you smart and successful comes from the high brow stuff. The books, periodicals and longer thought/research pieces.