I paraphrase Camus’s The Rebel

When they have finally gone too far, you draw the line and say “No more.” And “No” to all you have put up with so far. Then you have defined who you are and left behind who you had been told to be. Now you speak for all, in chains and free of chains. This is freedom.
Someone may say, “I have a right to be above you. I am better because I am who I am.” Such a person may believe that, but there is no support for such a belief. We are all who we are; therefore no one can be above another any claim of birthright. Only when we submit to that false belief, and are who it says we are, and thus accept the inequity do we support the inequitable superiority of anyone else. We are complicit in mastery and slavery as we are in government and citizenry.
Leadership and citizenry are not rightful. They are an agreed partnership, and they systematically advantage both the leader and the citizen. Any actions or situations that precipitate from that partnership advance the greatest good for the greatest number and disadvantage the fewest the least. This a common social contract with specified rights and limits, expressed in both letter and spirit.
Mastery and slavery are not rightful. They are a contrived falsity, and they systematically advantage the master and disadvantage the slave. Any actions or situations that precipitate from that contrivance violate our most fundamental human value. This is the basic and universal human right. When any leadership attempts to force itself on its citizens, it violates the spirit of agreement in its social contract. It goes too far and negates the freedom to choose to follow. The actions of even a single rebel then both affirms and negates un-rightful mastery. No counter action is required, only non-complicity in the broken social contract.
This is only my reading of Albert Camus’s essay, The Rebel, which I find quite informing to discussions of right and wrong in modern society, and guiding in my actions.

To Be a Goldfinch

The goldfinches gather at the feeders by our kitchen window.

They cling to the metal netting surrounding the nyjer seed,

Pecking and eating, pecking and eating.

They must eat nearly their weight in the diminishing seed

To provide the heat to endure the cold

In the eight windy, sub-zero hours of daylight.

 

They cling and peck and eat and peck and eat and peck and eat.

And they will start all over again at dawn tomorrow

Pecking and eating, pecking and eating.

And they will do so the day after, and the day after,

Until the weather warms and they begin to molt.

And soon come the eggs and the young.

 

Then they can flit and sing into summer’s warmth,

When their melodic songs trill out

And their yellow plumes light up the days.

They cling and peck and eat only sparingly now,

Awaiting the harvest of autumn when they will begin to prepare

To survive another winter of deep cold and bitter winds.

 

They will come around again to where they were before and before and before.

Gathering at the feeders by our kitchen window,

Clinging to the metal netting surrounding the nyjer seed,

Pecking and eating, pecking and eating.

 

And when they fail to find enough,

And they drop to the ground,

To be eaten by cats and rot and time,

They next generation will carry on,

Clinging and pecking and eating,

Day after day, year after year, generation after generation,

Pecking and eating, pecking and eating.

 

January 2017

Gates

The world convulses once again.
Stunned, we watch in horror as
Bloated dragons careen across her flesh.
Homelands are swallowed in hatred and despair,
As All,
The mighty and the frail,
Are devoured in vapors and flames.

Wave after wave of bewilderment
Sweeps toward us and over us,
Crushing our complacency into fear.
We see the monster at our door.
Panic runs like acid through our veins, and yet
We must not hide inside our walls.
We must not shut out the terror and the pain.
We must not close our Selves behind our gates.

Shutting ourselves in, to be free of terror and risk,
Is to doom ourselves to the other side of chaos.
Hiding from Grendel has always been an arrogant delusion.
Famine, war, disease and murder are
The rampaging agents of
Vicious persecutions,
Wanton bigotry and
Deranged greed,
And we must sally forth to meet them.

Hiding in our enclaves,
Closing our eyes and ears,
Shutting our lives away
In the illusion of security
Is consigning those lives to
Isolation,
Stagnation,
Desiccation,
Desolation and
The death of the selves we might have been,
Entombed instead in anti-life behind our gates.

Beowulf sought out Grendel and his mother, and slew them.
So we too must come from inside our walls.
We must come out into the light of the world.
We must seek out the monsters and dispatch them.
Then we can join the human festival of the living,
And set aside our lethal fear and crippling timidity.

Our world clamors with exciting diversity.
We must reach out to the teaming dance,
To the brilliant colors, to the ringing songs.
Humanity is a glory, and we must remain part of it.
We must throw open our doors to the vast adventures of living.
We must taste the startling honey and pepper kaleidoscope of life,
Inhale the inebriating fragrance of far ranging gardens, and
Join the choruses of the world’s joyful songs.

We must be our most incredible Selves.
We must throw open the gates and
Be of Our world

July 2106

grendel

The Problem with the “Achievement Gap”

Words carry baggage. A gap in a society has a near side and a far side. We put people on one side or the other. “We” are of course on this side and “they” are on the other. So a gap forms groups, absorbing individuals into one group or another. “Gap” and “group” are constructs imposed on reality, not derived from it.

If the separating measure used in creating a gap is achievement, it ignores the fact that achievement occurs on a continuum. So “gap” is a false construct, which not only does not accurately reflect reality, but which must serve some other agenda as well.

When we align the achievement-gapped construct with the long-standing race construct, we simply reinforce the notion of racial difference. In addition to focusing our attention on achievement, one very impersonal aspect of education’s many acculturating functions, it turns our attention away from the broader cultural and institutional aspects of a society that so stubbornly exclude individuals from opportunity and access to full and equitable participation based on superficial characteristics, such as skin color.

The achievement gap is only a glimpse of the vastly larger culture gap from which we suffer, and for which there is no self-elevated committee, council or cause resourceful enough to correct us, it seems. Even the good news is bad: we are not the only ones. Almost every culture on this planet suffers the same twisted, albeit self-serving, perspective on reality. Markers of “group” difference are plentiful—race, religion, ethnicity—all social constructs that have no basis in essential reality.

The problem, as I see it, is that there may be no solution to a “gapped” world. In the absence of the motivation of six billion plus individuals, there may only be resignation or eternal angst. Given how many of the world’s people will read this article, what are the chances?

Meanwhile of course, we can use “achievement gap” as a political tool for funding and policy decisions, the other agenda.

Morning News

What makes us who we are is not skyscrapers, not smart phones, not war machines, not cars that drive themselves; it is the scope and depth of our intangibles–Son House, Jackson Pollack, Martha Graham, George Gershwin, Robert Altman. When we count these defining achievements as dead history, when we consign our true American history to the trash heap and value only what is new and material, though doomed to ever shortening life spans, we erase our identity; we become creatures of a moment and then are gone. We become stranded in an endless and undefined present, isolated in time, striving to define who we are. Without a recognized course through a coherent past, we cannot project a trajectory into a meaningful future. We don’t see where we’re going or feel any reason why we should be going there. We are resolved to a kind of hopelessness in which we just wait for the next present moment, the next new thing, the next ‘today’ in which we relive the same, as yet, undefined newness. And the worst is that we have become not what we bring with us to each new day, but the ‘pay-to-play’ response to what we are given by the anonymous cosmic powers. We are following a trail of crumbs that was dropped by we know not whom and which leads we know not where.

Education in a Post-Modern World

I was struck recently by an article by Terri Seddon (2015) from Australian Catholic University in which she presents a description of a shift in contemporary in education, from an emphasis of teaching to a whole population to one of learning as individuals. I would characterize this as a shift toward a post-modern paradigm, deconstructing the old world. Seddon certainly details a framework of deconstruction of traditional education in Australia, which largely parallels American education.

Seddon uses the following quotation in her summary:

“… teachers are neither ‘gamekeepers’ that protect the balance of nature in a national territory, nor ‘gardeners’ who intervene to redesign a natural order. Rather, the 21st century space of education locates worlds where ‘hunters’ aim to fill their own hunting bag with kill irrespective of others. The hunt, the project-by-project achievement of success, becomes the end in view.” (Bauman, 2005)

This quotation aptly summarizes Seddon’s deconstructed educational institution, and aptly casts a doubt across teachers’ influence over empowering students as independent, free-ranging, life-long learners. There are outriders on this trajectory that cloud the underlying philosophy of contemporary education, in Seddon’s writing and in our observations of the quotation above.

First, learning is becoming a largely outside-in process. While successfully accessing sources of content is vital to learning, the process and purpose of learning itself are at least equally important as simple acquisition. Education is not just loading learners up with tools, techniques and the assumption that they should be used. Determining what content Bauman’s “hunter” should seek and how to use it effectively and appropriately, even civilly, seem critical understandings for learners to acquire, and here Seddon concurs.

We are well aware of the enormous amount of material available to anyone via the Web, a relatively small amount of which is useful or even accurate, and much of which is purely subjective. What is more, we have seen the sour consequences of gathering large quantities of data and then determining what to do with them—occasionally inventing uses well after the gathering. Marketers seem particularly good at framing gleanings from random data into essential everyday consumer “needs.” The shift in learning is a reality to which educators must adapt or become irrelevant. Education could perhaps provide a framework for thinking about a better world in which students learn to become well adapted personally and socially, valuing themselves and others while functionally independent.

Teaching as coaching is an insufficient model. As such, pointing out good grounds to hunters encourages the food hunter, the trophy hunter and the ivory hunter equally. Such a model on its own does not limit the decimating harvest of whales or the choking consumption of gasoline. Reasonable choices in what and where to hunt, and how much to leave for other hunters or other generations are survival decisions beyond the individual. Even fully autonomous individuals must share the planet in some way. And while the individual constructs a world of his own experience and conditions, others are constructing walls and bridges that shape those experiences and conditions. Who creates the choices of hunting grounds, who stocks the game, and who sets the limits? Will not production competitors shape the hunting landscape to their own purposes? Who plants the lures in the Apple orchard or the oil field? How is the hunter to judge? How to respond?

Who coaches the coaches? If educators are not developing a sense of prudent choices and reasonable limits, are they abdicating their role as mediators of the renewal of a culture? Such a question also asks what culture we wish to conserve. On a scale beyond education, we might need to assess and revise what we call culture, perhaps or perhaps not a culture rooted in religiously founded nationhood. Seddon seems to say educators are facilitating access to a landscape that is as much outside teachers themselves as it is outside the students, and because this globalized landscape dismisses a moral common core, it contributes to the deconstruction of a moral common culture, a civil community, resulting in an ever more fractious and contentious set of sects.

We know that learning is not just an outside-in process, an acquisition process. It is also a personal development process. And it is inside that the moral world exists. What growth occurs inside is critical to how the tools and techniques can be used, abused or just set aside. Additionally, learning is, or has been, a social development process. How we develop in a world with others as a part of a greater whole has been at the very heart of acculturation, the Titanic mother of education. The resulting atomization of our society is evidence of a partial failure of our binding social fabric, at least. Without question, we are becoming an increasingly global, our boundaries erased by monetary transactions, trade routes, and satellite signals. Even educational institutions serve local and international student bodies. How will we socialize students for such a global society?

The 19th century not only gave us broad public education fit to its times and places; it gave us the Romantic sense of unity, loyalty to the greater good and a belief that that greater good binds us with a self-correcting power. The natural order would always prevail. The more realistic Modernists response half a century later could see that this binding moral center was not holding us together. Greedy exploitation, brutal colonization and a Great War made that clear, but the notion that there was a universal center that morally binds us to one another and our world remained a real if abandoned thing. Now the Post-Modern world simply denies even that belief. It finds no evidence to support a unified universe, which is simply random and without purpose, a universe in which we must wend through a here and now as painlessly and perhaps enjoyably as possible, a world in which the only constant is self. “Cogito ergo sum.” Period. If each of us defines “the” world as we encounter it, then I must construct my teachers. They don’t construct my world; they don’t construct me.

Seddon begins her paper with a quotation that raises a fundamental questions:

What is the point today of the institutions and systems built in the 19th century to provide various forms of education: the schools, the working man’s colleges, the universities? In the world of the information society is education better left as an unfettered relationship between a consenting individual and their smart phone? (Yates, 2012)

What is the purpose of education, and what the role of teachers? Are we adapting knowingly into a world that has no center, or are we simply being drawn blindly into a vortex of post-modern deconstruction of anything outside our microcosmic selves? The only thing that remains the same is change; anything else that remains the same becomes history.

References:

Bauman, Z. (2005). Liquid Life. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Seddon, Terri. Learning, politics and globalisation: Why have education? [Das Argument_Submission draft_June 2015.docx, Complied: 20/6/15} academia.edu, viewed 30 July 2015.

Yates, L. (2012). “My School, My University, My Country, My World, My Google, Myself…: What is education for now?” Australian Educational Researcher 39: 259–274.

I Learned Everything I Know from Wily Coyote

We may not like it, and we may not understand where it is leading us as human beings, but this is what is happening.
I sit here at a computer screen and I feel nothing for it, for it is a soulless and uncaring thing. I had teachers I loved and teachers I hated. With more maturity, of the thousands of students who passed through my classrooms, I had hundreds I truly loved as if they were my children–and some I was glad were someone else’s children, and I made a personal effort to do something good for even those. I never wanted to be rich or famous, but I wanted to be appreciated, and even loved a little. And I think maybe I was loved, a little. I am a human being, after all.

 

What is this brave new world we live in? And how is it that, in creating this new world, those I once cherished, now sitting on the other side of a computer screen, will blindly abandon their own children to the sterility and isolation of such an education? I at least lament their loss.
I retired with tears. And society may leave me beside the road to die at some point. Still, I am so thankful to have gotten out when I did. I did my teaching with passion and dignity. And I am rich beyond the wildest dreams of any plutocrat or their science and technology minions.

Fall, Calm

Fall, calm,
A solstice solemn,
But not sad–
Preparation for gravity
Grounding in the present
Freeing from the moment
A test of hope,
Looking beyond today.
 

Autumn, poignant,
A time reflective,
But not terminal—
Inhalation awaiting uncertainty
Appraising the past
Becalming ambitions
A test of faith,

Looking beyond ourselves.

October 2014

Why they are called the humanities

Well, the study of humans seems fairly hopeless. Doesn’t it? I mean first of all, knowing what humans are is the domain of physiology. Isn’t it? Humans are giant amoebas. Vast colonies of smaller organisms and microbes collaborating to achieve one thing—to continue. You know—to survive, to beat off competitors and to reproduce, hence to survive, etc. The current collective is only of value if it procreates; it’s the simplest of evolutionary principles. This iteration is insignificant; only replication counts.

So, what’s to study? If all we are, are self-replicating biomechanical devices, engendered by the quadrillionth roll of the carbon-based slime dice, the only thing to pin down are the genomic odds of any one of us happening. Of course we might want to study ways to make humans better at surviving the odds, sacrificing ourselves in the interest of assuring that there are children and children’s children. Logically, we should have as many children as we can produce, preferably of superior quality. Our off-spring will have to compete against all competitors for our available resources after all. Then we should bury our own future in the economic compost to contribute to the resources for our children, who must be competitive in an arena with neighbor children, so they can do the same for their more competitive children. – Oh, wait…we do that now!

Anyone who sees this existence as other than a seriously grim reality would, I believe, be someone who would neatly fit this definition, which is not humanity at all. This reality would be ours with all of our humanity stripped away, and that is not who we are. But it is all too much who we are becoming.

The study of the humanities is the study of who we have been able to become, well beyond the biomechanics of evolution. Yet, there is a close tie in the humanities to the physical human as well. The humanities appeal through our senses beyond food, fighting and sex. Free-marketeers, however, have certainly seen the economic advantage of mimicking the humanities to tap into these basic impulses, and this has not been lost on the purveyors of the humanities themselves. The arts use the visual and auditory to catch our attention and stimulate responses unnecessary for and not contributing to our continued existence, yet we come back to them over and over—Mona Lisa—Beethoven’s 5th—Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet. Literature pulls us out of our reproductive cycling by using our sensory imaginations not just as a preparation for the hunt, but being transported into an alternative existence—Morrison’s Beloved—Homer’s Ulysses. And for what? None of these assure our great-grandchildren’s fecund existence.

The humanities help us build a context for who we are, as a species, as a people, as an individual. Among the humanities, history seems to hold a unique place. All that we have been is who we have become, and this story is what history tells us. Even how our history is presented—Euripides or Doris Kearns Goodwin—informs our minds eye, human voices sounding human voices from the past.

With a foot in two boats, philosophy has, for millennia, achieved something that the sciences have not yet satisfactorily achieved—seeing outside the solidity of the mundane. It is in this contested frontera between the lands of theoretical physics (a form of math) and religious exegesis, in this transcendent reality that philosophy carries us into an existence beyond all else, genuinely room into which to move as only humans can.

The arts, literature, history and philosophy are only unimportant if our world has not humanity, if humans are competitive rather than compassionate animals, if we are self-serving rather than self-aware beings. Who we are as humans cannot be gleaned from gathering food, fighting off raiders and producing children. An amoeba does that. We must see a much broader horizon, glimpse distant, misty peaks, be stirred by the striving songs of others, and to care and wonder why. The sciences may seek the answers, while the humanities will ask the questions for which there may be no answers.

If the humanities are allowed to dim into obscurity, how will we even know what we have lost? If that which lets us be human is gone, what will it mean to be human? Yet the sad truth is that we are not choosing to shed our humanity; we are offered new clothes which will let us appear as emperors of our domains, and we are allowing that, even inviting it. In whose interest is it that we discredit the humanities and embrace the sciences? Who benefits if we don’t ask why? How will we be served by diluting the uniqueness of ourselves in the engineered seas of progress? How will we know how best to move forward? And what is the price of our wealth, after all?

Art in the Age of Narcissism

   She had flown to Paris in the high season with three friends. They were staying in a typical European economy hotel; a double room meant a double bed and a small sink in the room, shared showers and toilets, a three-story walk up. The four women’s two rooms up different staircases. The rooms not big enough for the four to visit and talk about the creepy people on the plane, in the airports and those French customs people. And drink a little wine. This was France after all. The shot: two twenty-something faces mugging, backed by a bit of dormered window on the left and a quarter of a pillow, some of a metal headboard and a dingy wall on the right.

   Getting to the Louvre had been a nightmare. A taxi driver they approached just stared blankly at them. Using a smart phone they mapped themselves and the Louvre, started off in the wrong direction for a couple of  blocks before checking again, not finding streets names on sign posts, corrected direction and trudged on anew. Then it took twenty more minutes to get there – walking! “My God, we’re only here for a couple of days.” And once, at the Champs they found lines a block long. The shot: four grimacing faces squeezed together against a backdrop of one of humanities favorite activities: waiting in lines and crowds.

   Once inside, the density and intensity of crowds increased. Some of Europe’s masterworks in linseed oil and pulverized stone framing a shuffling mass of pained expectation. The goal is the Mona Lisa, undoubtedly the most famous and certainly the most viewed, albeit in reproduced forms and photos, painting in the West. A remarkable accomplishment for an industrial and military engineer, and meticulous researcher and draftsman, especially appreciable in this time when engineering is the great hope of the middle classes, much as prize fighting was held to be the great hope of the poor Irish a century ago.

   Finally our traveler manages to reach the cordon, forcibly held in place by a substantial matron in a grey guard’s uniform. Pushed and jostled, our traveler turns to face the murmuring crowds, her back to Leonardo’s enigmatic smile. The shot: a young American woman, carefully made up, hair long and flowing, perfectly crafted smile looking directly into the lens, over her left shoulder, an eye, forehead and hair, slightly out of focus, possibly the Mona Lisa.

   On the streets of Paris again, they search out a sidewalk café, where they will sit and noticeably watch people passing, as they nurse their coffees and discuss their plans for conquering Amsterdam. But what now? Window shopping, maybe? “How much money do we have left?”

 

There is no yesterday and no tomorrow.

There’s only now, and that’s the sorrow.