Writing is an Itch. This is a place to scratch.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Dead Still Speak. But Are We Listening?

By Ruben Rivera© 6 Nov 2010

The Greek philosopher Socrates (5th c. BC) famously said "The unexamined life is not worth living."

But Socrates did more than examine his own life -- testing the reliability of what his senses told him, even questioning the cultural assumptions, intellectual knowledge and religious beliefs upon which society's institutions and behavior were built. He spent much of his time questioning the people of ancient Athens about everything they thought they knew. They did not like it. So they had a democratic vote and told Socrates something like this: "You are one sick, sick anthropos. But if you swallow this drink made from a delightful little herb -- Ahhemlock! -- it will all be better."

"Death of Socrates," Daniel Chodowiecki, 17th C.

The Socrates affair has crisscrossed the globe through the ages in many different forms, but with the same caution to the wise, the summation of which only the king's English will do.

Never expose unto the people that they knowest not what they thinketh they know. Neither reveal unto them the gaps between their vaunted ideals and who they are in truth. For thou shalt surely suffer for it, and that right smartly.

Perhaps this maxim is easier to remember: The truth shalt get thee in a pickle. Pray, therefore, to love pickles.

I have written elsewhere on the need for education as soulcraft. I am saying here that foundational to soulcraft is the examined life. I am saying here that examining self and society may be an important step in the salvation of both.

One thing that desperately needs examination today is the difference between what we think we know is going on, and what is going on. Another thing that needs examining are the gaps between our ideals and who we really are. Take, for example, our much vaunted ideals of liberty.

Excerpt: Declaration of Independence.

Some inconvenient truth here. When Jefferson said that "all men are created equal" and endowed by their creator with rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he did not mean black people, whom he himself owned as slaves; he did not mean women, who did not get the universal right to vote in the U.S. until 1920; he did not mean Indians, whom he called "savages" in the Declaration. Jefferson, and the other founding fathers who signed the Declaration, did not mean a lot of people.

However, the Declaration, despite its obvious shortcomings, was actually a more radical document than the U.S. Constitution that was constructed for the new nation. For the Declaration stated the Enlightenment basis for a revolution for liberty. The Constitution promptly codified inequality and denied liberty to many.

For example, the Constitutional Convention of the new United States not only refused to abolish the very antithesis of liberty -- slavery -- but to add insult to injury, the Constitution defined black slaves as 3/5th persons for the express purpose of legally denying them democracy while simultaneously giving the white southern elite strong democratic representation in congress (U.S. Constitution, 1789, Article 1, Section 2).

"The elite," the great Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar once lamented, "want liberty, but only for themselves." That sentiment has never changed.

The 20th century was characterized by three developments of great importance, said Alex Carey:
"the growth of political democracy; the growth of corporate power; and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy."
Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy (1995)
In 2005, the international financial conglomerate Citigroup sent an equity investment memo recommending a strategy of luxury investment in the era of emerging "Plutonomies" which are, especially, the U.S., UK, and Canada. (See the whole document here.)

"Income inequality", said Citigroup, is at "the heart of plutonomy". For example, in the U.S. 1% of richest households have some 40% of the nation's wealth, "more than the bottom 95%...put together".

Citigroup was careful to disclaim that it was not arguing whether Plutonomies were good or not. It was just stating the fact of their existence. The question for investors: "How do we make money on this theme?" But it seems that pesky democracy can ruin the whole investment opportunity. No, wait. Good news. The growing gap between the few haves and the many have-nots will likely never be challenged, as long as "enough of the electorate believe they have a chance of becoming a Pluto-participant...the embodiment of the American dream". Translation? Plutonomies, their illustrious 1%, and you as a prospective investor in what the 1% luxuriate in, have little to fear that actual democracy by the other 99% will ruin your day.

Does anyone see anything wrong with this thinking? Is this a civilization that values anything higher than money -- when push comes to shove, in the final analysis? Are political parties of the right and left manipulated into demonizing and fighting each other for scraps from the tables of the Plutocrats while plutonomies may be the biggest threat to democracy in generations? What about this year's Supreme Court decision to lift the ban on corporate political spending? Do we really still believe there is one-person-one vote democracy in this country? Think again.
"We are now in a situation where a lobbyist can walk into my office...and say, 'I've got five million dollars to spend and I can spend it for you or against you."
Alan Grayson, Dem-Rep, Florida (defeated in recent election)
Why isn't government working for everyday Americans, asks Bill Moyers?
"Because it's been bought off. It's as simple as that. And until we get clean money we're not going to get clean elections, and until we get clean elections, you can kiss goodbye government of, by, and for the people. Welcome to the plutocracy."
The victorious rise of plutocracy is just one issue in a sea of troubling issues that face all people. I am challenged to my core to examine my religious beliefs and my life. To ask myself: is mine a faith that is heavenly minded and earthly good?

I think the reader can see that engaging in the examined life, let alone trying to get others to do so, is not a work for the faint of heart. One needs the strength of Hercules, the patience of a monument, and the conviction of a martyr.

The Hebrew prophets of old tried to convey to the world somet
hing of the realities of eternity. The world conveyed its appreciation by sending them there.

Jesus of Nazareth once said that "a prophet has honor except in his own country." His message, that right belief means little without right action, crossed a line. He ended up crossed.

But what of the claim of the resurrection? It is true that Jesus' resurrection for life in the hereafter has long been popular with Christians. It is Jesus' teaching about life in the here and now that historically has not been so popular. Following Jesus into heaven is one thing. Following him on earth is another.

And therein lies the paradox. Oh how people love and admire these prophets and teachers of rational ideals, religious verities and social conscience -- but from a safe historical distance, when there is often little at stake in loving and admiring them. This allows us to believe one thing and live another.

But where would we be without these gadflies of the world who examine self and society? What would the world have been like if people listened to them while they were alive? But there is still hope. For, if I may borrow a phrase from the Christian New Testament, "though they are dead, yet do they speak". What may the world still become if we would but listen to them now?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Education as Soul-Craft: Supplement to previous post: Resistance is Better Pedagogy

Based on some comments to my last post, both here and via email, I make the following comment which may help to clarify and supplement the point I was trying to make in my previous post: RBP: Resistance is Better Pedagogy.
R. Rivera

Having taught for almost 14 years, I can prove that teachers can captivate, engage, and even revolutionize, positively, the souls of young people with little or no technology use at all, and without needing to transform education into cool and trendy edutainment. Among my most successful teaching strategies utilizes the ancient Socratic question - answer method, and uses, or needs to use, little technology. The only requirement is a brain.

I love the wonderful things technology can do just as much as anyone, and when appropriate I use it in the classroom. But just because a technology or trend is new and popular does not mean it is good of itself, nor that schools and teachers should accommodate it. Conversely, just because something is old doesn't mean it's bad or outdated for teaching methods.

Now let me say something even more dangerous. I do not think that education in America should primarily be about meeting the needs of the market (to keep America strong and on top of the world, which is what I keep hearing from politicians and the business community), or accommodating to youth trends as the way (we are told) to educate them most effectively.

I concede that education should prepare young people to succeed in a world constantly being changed by technology and market trends. When certain jobs are doomed in America and shipped overseas, it only makes sense that young people know this and seek skills appropriate to those changes.

But a central feature of education should be similar to what the ancient Greeks thought of as soulcraft: the development of people who know the world in something approaching accuracy, who hold a worldview in something approaching honesty, and live by an inward character in something approaching charity.

My concern in education is that our culture is largely not conducive to education as soulcraft (unless there are conscious efforts to do otherwise). Education as soulcraft is, I would argue, even more important than trends adaptation or being technically savvy. What good is education that makes a person who knows all about what's cool and may even create the next technological or cultural phenomenon, but functions as if he/she has no knowledge the golden rule?

Norman Rockwell, "The Law Student." What I find interesting in Rockwell's rendition of a law student, are the pictures that surround the humble study space: Abraham Lincoln. This indicates that becoming a lawyer was, for this young person, more than about the lucrative living to be made. It was about truth, justice, and liberty. It was about serving not just self but others. Whatever you think about Lincoln, it is the motivating idea that I am trying to point out here. Here we see in one picture, what I mean by education as soulcraft.

Believe me, I've read those who argue that schools should eschew attempts at education as soulcraft. And yes, I am well aware that every generation complains about where the current generation is headed. I even see some merit to arguments that amount to "When in Rome..." But the Roman Empire is no longer around, and the results we are seeing from current trends don't appear too promising.

I'm reminded of the old definition of insanity (attributed to Einstein): namely, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Friday, October 8, 2010

RBP: Resistance is Better Pedagogy

©Rattus Scribus 8 Oct 2010

David Brooks, one of my favorite Op-Ed columnists, has an interesting piece on the new movie "The Social Network," about Mark Zuckerberg, the genius who created facebook. Ironically, Zuckerberg has little social and moral skills himself, yet creates the global online social networking revolution. In so doing, the character study suggests, he creates with his intellect a "medium he understands to conquer a medium he doesn't."

I find this interesting as it comes right at the time my wife (8 years now a 4th grade public school teacher) tells me daily how increasingly difficult it is to "teach" this generation of young people. These are the "natives" of the social network revolution, their day marked by constant interruptions of task-switching (not "multi-tasking," which is impossible) usually connected to on-the-grid time, and bred to be the consumers par excellence.

Most of the people reading this (if you are anything close to my age) are what sociologists term "immigrants" in this online technological world. The natives have the advantage of familiarity of this culture that is as second nature as the language acquisition of the country of one's birth. Older immigrants who finished with their formal education before this revolution and may even be already in their professions are constantly having to acquire new knowledge and cultural skills as if in a foreign land. On the other hand older immigrants have the advantage of knowing that other worlds have existed before this one, and other cultural options and directions are possible and maybe even preferable to the current cultural directions.

Discussions about education in this country are political footballs that ultimately lay the increasing burden of all the problems that need to be overcome on the shoulders of teachers. Witness the documentary "Waiting for Superman" and the flurry of articles it has spawned: the single most important factor in the educational success of America's children is teachers (professional, quality teachers), not more money, not better technology, not social location, etc.

That is actually old news. Only someone who is not a teacher or who has long forgotten what it was like can come up with something so obvious to we who actually teach, and make it sound like a new discovery.

But here is something you will not hear much about. Few politicians or anyone for that matter want to discuss America's cultural problems, only one of which is the emergence of a culture that sees itself as customer (who is always right) and education/school (indeed, everything) as but another product for consumption, the purpose of which is to help them fulfill (you guessed it) their programming for consumption. Add to this the Zuckerberg factor (the trend in the lack of social and moral skills as a cultural norm) and one may begin to see what teachers are up against, especially at the primary and secondary school grades, but even at the college level.

While I agree that teachers are a critical factor in the educational success of students, it is simply unrealistic to expect that every teacher everywhere will be able overcome the tidal wave of American cultural values, assumptions and habits that young people bring with them into the classroom of the type that are largely not conducive to a learning attitude and overall environment. And by the way, the very term "success" (which goes to the very purpose of education) itself needs much critique.

Another problem I'm having with the "all roads lead to the teacher" argument is that it is often lip service, at least in practice. The powers that be still lay off teachers even as they spend gobs of money on Promethean Boards, and subscribe to the "build it and they will come" corporate model, which, for all the arguments used to justify it, never adequately addresses how any of this is GOOD PEDAGOGY FOR THE SPECIFIC EDUCATIONAL GOALS the school has in mind.

The new Promethean Boards in the midst of layoffs is a particularly instructive example at the public school where my wife teaches. The remaining overworked, consumer student and parent (e)valuated teacher-baby-sitters certainly have more bells and whistles to up the entertainment value of education. But nowhere in the training of the use of this technology (so my wife tells me) are the teachers told how more magic boards make for better pedagogy in the face of challenges like larger student to teacher ratios, and "I'm the consumer" student attitudes. (Indeed, such technology only feeds that attitude.)

Here's a thought. Instead of catering to the cultural trends of young people (who, contrary to their own view, do not always know what's best, and in the case of the people who market products to them, may not even care as long as their quarterly statements get fatter), maybe in certain instances Resistance is Better Pedagogy (RBP).

PBS, Frontline documentary, 2007.

Instead of bowing to the tyranny of technological and consumer trends, maybe RBP. Instead of accommodating the cultural assumptions where everything is ultimately judged by "the bottom line," maybe RBP. Maybe RBP is a way to address the current trend in the lack of moral and leadership skills of the next generation who are nevertheless next in line to run things.

Jackass phenomenon: mook icon for boys.

Brittany Spears: pioneer "midriff" icon for girls.
From "Merchants of Cool."

David Brooks concludes his article by saying, "The character gaps that propel some people [like Zuckerberg] to do something remarkable can’t be overcome simply because they have managed to change the world." I think if we want anything like a positive moral outcome to America's educational enterprise, and not just more cultural reproduction, we should seriously consider RBP.

Ruben Rivera

Monday, October 4, 2010

Hey, Who Took My Peace?

By Rattus Scribus© 4 Oct 2010
(Much revised and condensed from a speech I gave a few years ago.)

Peace means many things to different people.

There is "Peace on Earth": an end to all wars and hostilities between races, classes, parties and nations, and the institution of interdependent and mutually beneficial understanding, friendship and cooperation.

There is "Green Peace" (the moniker taken by the world famous organization): an end to the thoughtless stewardship and openly destructive exploitation of the planet, and the institution of interdependent and mutually beneficial environmental sustainability.
There is "Social Peace": an end to all the human-created divisions, prejudices, and oppressions between races, classes, genders, religions and cultures, and the institution of universal dignity, justice and equality.

There is "Relational Peace": an end to all broken and exclusionary affective associations, and the achievement of reconciliation, not merely as toleration, duty, or reluctant obedience to law, but as genuine conviviality and heartfelt embrace.

There is "Inner Peace": an end to the mental, emotional and spiritual state of turmoil, regret and self-condemnation, and the achievement of unfeigned calmness, contentment, and assurance even in the face of adversity and the unknown.

There is often so little peace in the myriad areas of life, that writer, director, actor Woody Allen once put it humorously:

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

Challenges ranging from the personal (family and relations, health and finances) to the global (war and recession, crime and disaster) seem to conspire to make us all ask at some point in our lives: "Hey, who took my peace?"

Troy McClure, The Simpsons, Fox TV

Unfortunately, there are many oversimplified explanations about what robs or prevents peace and what to do about it. I remember an old Simpson's TV episode that mocked such easy answers.

Troy McClure (TV host): "Hi. I'm Troy McClure. You may remember me from such self help tapes as 'Smoke Yourself Thin,' and 'Get Some Confidence, Stupid'." [...Let's welcome our guest, Brad Goodman.]
Brad Goodman (self-help guru): "Troy, let's say this circle is you."
Troy McClure: "My God! It's like you've known me all my life!"

I am not here to claim (1) that I have the patented answer (do exactly what I do and you'll get the same results), or (2) that I experience complete peace in all areas of my life under all conditions seen and unforeseen. Most of us still register disappointment with questioning, doubt, anger and tears. That only means we are authentically human.

But I do believe that an undercurrent of peace as a part of our being and apart from and undiminished by the tumultuous waves of circumstances is possible. I have read of it; I have seen in others; I have personally experienced it. And I have learned that it does not exist or come by accident.

David Hunt, Walking on Water at Bosham

I have come to see that peace is something that comes gradually with maturity through the habit of conscious effort. For me it starts with the principle of the "golden rule" which is foundational to my faith. But you need not be of my religious tradition to live by the "golden rule," a rule not owned by one religion, nor applicable just to humans, but in all relations: international, environmental, social, personal, and yes even inward.

Peace Dove, artist unknown

For if you are consciously committed to nevermore think, say or do anything to anyone that you would never want thought, said, or done to you, that conscious commitment is the beginning of wisdom. And the beginning of wisdom is surely the beginning of peace.

"What lies behind us
and what lies before us,
are small matters compared to
what lies within us."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wisdom & Peace