Archive for September, 2009

Not America’s Best Idea

September 18, 2009

This week because of an acute pain in my knee I’ve been taking the subway rather than cycling  to  work and this   has allowed me to witness and partake in that peculiar and-all so-normal human circus that is the morning and evening NYC subway commute. As it happened, all week I’ve sat in cars festooned with ads for  Ken Burn’s latest documentary, The National Parks:  America’s Best Idea.  For  a couple of days  something troubled me about the ads but, as is sometimes the case when something is staring you in the face, I could not for the life of me see what it was.

I could not see it because it was too obvious: obscured by their transparency were the words “America’s Best Idea. “  I do not mean to build mountains out of mole hills nor to nit pick.    Nor in any way do I wish to disparage the works of Burns whose enormous films  The Civil War, Baseball, The West, Jazz, I have thoroughly enjoyed and will doubtless enjoy again.  Are they  conventional ?  Yes, but they are no less important for being so.  They  have informed millions – and that is no  little thing.   (And yes, the works have long ago become formulaic, and yes, Burns the man has more corporate backing than most members of the US Senate but at least he brings something worthwhile into the world.)

What troubles me is the conceit that National Parks are somehow America’s best idea.  What troubles me is the dynamic of the misuse of language.  What troubles me is that these words will be read or heard by millions of Americans, some of whom might come to believe they are true.  What troubles me is that any misuse of language is potentially very, very dangerous as it   can have and has had very definite and very negative political and even spiritual consequences. Find any tyranny and you will find misused language.

Are the parks a great idea on every conceivable level?   Of course, they are.  Are they treasures to be protected and revered? Who would argue otherwise?  ( Other than a Ronald Reagan — blessed be his name !   — and the  men who created him.)  But are the parks really America’s best idea or even anything close to it?

Let us consider. A better idea than freedom of speech?  A better idea than the Bill of Rights?  A better idea than the separation of church and state?  A better idea than the right of every child in the nation to receive a free public education?  A better idea than universal healthcare?    A better idea than one man one vote ?  A better idea than government of the people, by the people, and for the people ?

Well, you get the point.

It will not do, I do not think, to dismiss such language as mere rhetoric or advertising or wishful thinking.    This work will be seen and heard by millions and as such, whatever the author’s intentions, these words constitute a very powerful and seductive political statement, all  the  more powerful and all the  more  seductive because of their sheer incoherence. They are the kind of words that seep unexamined into one’s consciousness and   become by sheer repetition to be regarded as true. Recall  the manner  in which    the words “9/11 changed everything”  — words that became a mantra on the very day they speak have — were used to justify   change any manner of things.  Recall the manner in which the Bush administration repeated the lie that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the horror of that day and upwards of 60 % of Americans bought into it as late as two years ago.  Witness the creation and consequent acceptance of so called “free speech zones”  in which American citizens who wish to practice their   first amendment rights at certain political events are penned in like wild animals as far away from the event they are protesting as possible.    Witness the mass insanity of those who are running around   howling about “Obamacare” and bureaucratic  “death panels” created to decide who  lives and who dies under the  Godless government controlled  health care  —  like, for example, Medicare.

The key in all these situations is a misuse of  language  and what we need recognize is that  misused language has a dynamic that  takes on a life of its  own.   There are those, I suspect, who honestly believe that our National Parks are indeed  somehow the  best idea to  be hatched and implemented in the great and troubled and glorious and bloody history of this land.  But I also suspect such people have either never tasted the fear of unemployment or poverty or racism, have never known, except abstractly, want or  oppression or have long forgotten  what it  feels like.   Either that or they have fallen to the place, championed by so many of our New Age brethren   where a worship of nature – an oak tree, an antelope, a raging river — is somehow seen as a loftier spiritual state than the struggle and the beauty of human empathy and compassion.  Well, it is certainly easier in that Nature doesn’t ask much of you.   And it certainly fits in more neatly, oh so neatly with our increasingly post-partisan, non ideological every more  Darwinian reality.

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Fear and Loathing and the Sickness We Have Become

September 5, 2009

Fear and Loathing and the Sickness We Have Become

So here we are a couple of days or so before the start of a new school year, an hour when once upon a time dedicated teachers would be filled with trepidation, yes, but also with joy and expectation. Alas, alas, these days under the relentless “ reform”   (read “revolution”) championed when not rammed down the throats of municipalities across the land   by a handful of various billionaires and their stooges in Washington, in the press and in capitals across the nation, every teacher I’ve spoken to is  instead experiencing something very, very different indeed than those sentiments and emotions.

They are experiencing something much closer to depression or demoralization or even dread at what new schemes await them and their charges.

And why is this ?  Many reasons —  but here’s one. Imagine a world in which people who have never done your job, who know nothing of your work, who will never be required to do your work or any thing remotely like your work are somehow allowed to make the rules and requirements for those who do. Better still, these very same people —  almost all of them whose  sole  qualification for remaking the entire education system in their images is that they have made an enormous  amount of  money somehow, somewhere —   are allowed to establish the criteria that measures how well or poorly you do your job.  Even better,   these same people are trying desperately to find ways to strip you of your job if you do not fulfill their absurd, cynical and ignorant demands.   And what are their demands?   That  every child in America learn the same way at the same pace till “proficiency” rules the  land.  And how  will you  know the day of glory has  come ?   You will know by the scores of  endless and endlessly dumbed down standardized tests.

This is  not the Simpsons but it could  pass for the Simpsons.  Except the Simpsons is  funny.

Many in New York, myself included, were hopeful that some measure of sanity — or at the very least some checks and balances — would be brought to bear on what is virtually the Bloomberg/ Klein dictatorship of the past eight years.  Many, including myself were hopeful that  some in the public sphere, some in the New York  State Senate and Assembly would  come to the unremarkable conclusion that it is  not  a  sound idea to  allow the largest public  school system in the  nation to  be run by  two amateurs whose  collective pedagogical  experience amounts to  zero —   that much the more when the duos open contempt for educators across the board is Napoleonic in scope.   Many including myself were hopeful that parents would at last   see through the testing mania that has turned teachers into low level bureaucrats and trainers and their children into human test takers if not lab rats… but no.  Those parents who did rally were simply ignored. Wholesale.  Teachers, as a  matter of course with this  gang,  were not even part of the discussion.  Most of all many were  hopeful that with the election of Barack Obama, he of the hope and change mantras, the moronic policies  of the Bush administration – in this case  the absurd and grossly irresponsible No Child Left Behind act — would be seen for what it is  and be properly gotten rid of or at least dramatically reformed.

Surprise, surprise!  No  less a figure than Diane Ravich has  stated  publicly and  repeatedly that in terms of  education, Obama is nothing  less than Bush’s  third term. I would go much further.  I  would say that  in terms of education Obama is  Bush’s third term on steroids. The  man is  attempting things  that   Ronald Reagan (  Blessed be His  name )  never dreamed of:  systemically undermining the teacher unions the better and the  quicker to privatize (  read “corporatize”) what  we now know as  public education.  And note this well:  Obama has the advantage of having something Bush possessed for a very short period of time: credibility and good will.    People want to believe Obama.  Talk about his education polices   with most people and they stare in disbelief,  change the subject, search for rationalizations or just walk away. They don’t want to know.  They can’t know.  They invested too much in this man for him to be what he is revealing himself to be.    Look at his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, demanding that states surrender all principals and rights to Washington and remake them in Arne and Obama’s  image to even be considered eligible for some of the billions in the economic stimulus money.  “ Just to be eligible, “ states the August 17 New York Times, “ a state must have no   barriers to linking data on student achievement or student growth   to teachers   and principals for the purpose of teacher and principal evaluation,” the rules say.

Arne’s other condition is there be no limit to charter schools, a Trojan horse for union busting if there ever was one.

What to make of this?   Here we have a nominally Democratic administration openly union busting, openly treating its own constituents, its own people, in the same manner that the World Bank and the IMF treat the third world:  do exactly what we say or we will starve you to death.   Not surprising, states are surrendering all over the nation. What choice do they have?

But that’s really not the question.    The real question is how did we get here why are we accepting this ?  What does this  disgraceful coercion reveal about where we are as a nation ?  What does it say about us that we are allowing a handful of amateurs —  very rich amateurs to be sure but nonetheless amateurs —  to completely  re-write educational policy in this  nation   at the same time they are doing all  they can to privatize it ?  Where are we ?  What happened to us ?  Why do we allow this ?

The greatest argument I will make for profound and true educational reform in this country  is this:   only a nation in extreme intellectual, cultural and spiritual poverty  could have  allowed this handful of  monstrously arrogant jackasses and ignoramuses  to  do what they are doing as we do  nothing, nothing at all to  stop it  or even call  attention to what it is.