Never Forget

The report I reviewed  [“Do Our Public Schools Threaten National Security?‘] was written by a task force chaired by Joel Klein and Condaleeza Rice. I believe the report is part of a campaign to undermine public education. Public education needs constant improvement, of that there can be no doubt. But it does not need to be disparaged and demeaned as a national security threat.

As I say in the review, the real threat to our future is growing poverty and income inequality and intensifying racial isolation. The report mentions these issues but fails to offer any suggestions to reduce their negative impact on our society.

Stop the Campaign Against Public Schools!” Diane Ravitch

It’s time to demand a new model: classrooms that eschew rote memorization and test prep; teachers with the power to implement effective and flexible teaching strategies; students who are connected to their teachers and love to learn. Policymakers will find it hard to argue with that.

Is this really what education is about?’ Valerie Strauss

It’s Memorial Day, and I suppose I ought to be writing something about my father, who drove a tank in WWII, and died of a heart attack in 1982. He’s buried in the National Cemetery in Houston, Texas.  It’s a very moving place and it’s exactly where he ought to be buried. He was proud of his service. I have to say, though, that even a  few days of memorializing soldiers is very depressing. It doesn’t make me feel in any way patriotic, or grateful; it makes me feel that I live in world whose history is long chain of brutal collective violence.

It also reminds me that my Dad , and many of his generation, felt that social development and education, not violence, was the only long-term solution to authoritarianism and fascism. Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, the ideology of the standardized test, deeply rooted in eugenics, has ties to the same racist nationalism that has fed so many conflicts.  Then, as now, some sought an objective proof of superiority; the shift from defining race to determining merit is mercurial at best, a supremacist slight of hand at worst.

We don’t need the standardized test or its attendant distortions of classroom practice– and wars against collective bargaining– to pursue the long-term goal that was so important to men like my father.  There are lots of alternatives, all of them related in some fashion to a projects approach of the sort outlined in “A Step-by-Step Guide to the Best Projects.”  (A petition to end the over use of standardized testing is here, too.)  A revitalized system of public education would be the best memorial to collective sacrifices.



Less Than Zero

In the year ahead, Texas plans to reduce its arts budget by 77 percent; Wisconsin by 67 percent. Kansas will eliminate arts funding altogether. Even New York, with an economy that is driven by culture, will cut funding by 12 percent. Since National Endowment for the Arts statutes don’t allow a state to receive a distribution without an arts budget, Kansas will receive no appropriation from the NEA either, leaving the arts without a penny of public support in that state (“As Appropriations Dry Up, Arts Infrastructure Is Dismantled“).

One of the main reasons economics in general, and the discussion of politics in particular, bugs me so much is that so little energy seems to be devoted to what we want to do as opposed to what we are supposed to do. Or, at least, what we are told we are supposed to do. It’s an obvious point, but it’s worth asking: do we want the wealthy to get wealthier or do we want the arts in our schools and in our communities?

What we are supposed to do, what we are told we have to do, what Europe is being asked to do, and what the U.S. will be asked to do soon, is to set aside our desires so that material privilege and profits can be protected. In the schools, administrators rarely cut their own salaries or trim their own budgets in times of crisis, and in the economy at large corporations rarely accept reduced profits in the name of the public good.

An Aging Luddite

I work online, and I think online writing classes work at least as well as face to face teaching. I love technology and gadgets too, even though they are too often tainted by consumerism. I am not certain of the source, but someone left this Douglas Adams quote as a comment on my site recently:

First we thought the PC was a calculator.  Then we found out how to turn numbers into letters with ASCII — and we thought it was a typewriter.  Then we discovered graphics, and we thought it was a television.  With the World Wide Web, we’ve realized it’s a brochure.

I went on short trip last weekend to Meramec Caverns— my GPS is the greatest thing since sliced bread on these trips–and I was struck, once again, by the image of people waving their cell phones around in the air, trying to get what we euphemistically call “service.”

I understand the impulse. The motel and the campground that surrounds the caverns is old-fashioned and doesn’t have internet connection. (Many modern campsites do.)  I don’t use my cellphone much, and as long as there’s television of some sort, I’m fine. I felt that little twinge of anxiety, though, knowing that I couldn’t call anyone if I got lonely.

What’s making me feel more and more like a Luddite, though, is the sheer ubiquity of people– almost all of them under 40, and most under 30, who seem so helpless addicted to nothing. I enjoy Facebook, to cite this year’s model as an example, but there’s no there there;  you look at a picture or two,  or maybe follow a link someone shared, laugh at a video, and then you are done.

Why is the brochure is so compelling that it requires almost constant attention, almost as if it were a pet or a child? I don’t believe that this is generational. When I was young, say, a teenager, I loved rock and roll music, but I was also aware that some people went too far with it and became fanatics. It was embarrassing at best, at worst dysfunctional. This fanaticism about the latest trend has become the norm.


I lived overseas just long to realize that I had to either come home or accept a kind of permanent status as an expatriate. I didn’t come home because I loved my country, though, I came home because I missed and loved my culture. I’ve never been a patriot, because, as the cliché says, it’s the last refuge of scoundrels.

A so-called “love” for a nation is more than a little creepy, and I can’t see much difference between a false patriotism and an authentic patriotism. There’s something inherently false about loving something as abstract and intangible as a nation. How can a nation be an object of love? It can’t.

What people really love is their culture in all it’s contradictory complexity: the music, the movies, the television, the food, and whatever else they might include on their lists. That’s what the 4th of July is about, behind the red, white, and blue buntings, the BBQ and the parades of government officials, firefighters, and children.