Cultural Neural Network

In recent years, I have grown aware of a newish way of people’s separating themselves out from and above others, a newer form of elitism. In the past, educated people were rather legitimately accused of elitism as they held themselves above the uneducated, unwashed masses. Those masses had the good sense to retaliate with a much more pervasive anti-intellectual movement. Long Live Homer Simpson! This making the elite look silly had to stop, of course. In an effort to recover some dignity from the ignominy of dummy-bashing in the PC era, the educated elite embraced those less favored in a new way—through their “studies.” Gay studies, women’s studies, cultural studies…, something like crosses between sociology and natural science. The result of this superficial shift in perspective is that the modes of discourse preserve the cultural disparity between haves and have-nots.

By studying discrete social groups, those who are educated can show some level of respect for “marginalized” people, much as we would identify an endangered species, but they still identify such others as not-themselves. “Othering”—assuming a position of power that allows one to say who is outside the circle of power and privilege—identifies and labels people who differ from an educated norm as “marginalized,” at once creating a category of people to study, award rights, offer respect, and in the same breath placing them at the margins of main-stream society. Marginalization can only occur from the center, after all. Liberal academics will tell you that it is other empowered elements that have placed such people at the margins of society. But privilege is privilege and power is power. The academics comply with this othering when they study the marginalized, not the process of marginalization. Were it any less the educated empowered, they would have set the conversation differently. As it is, academia accepts and supports, even thrives on, an axis and rim vision of society and its relationships to its people, one center, many margins.

I want to look at an entirely different model for thinking about cultural difference. This assumes that cultural difference is significant in some meaningful way and not just as a means of elevating some folks over others. Culture can be considered as a group of people who share characteristics that make them identifiably different from others. Members must understand membership in the culture at some level. A gang will have a culture, but a random group of criminals will not, unless perhaps, they share an extended period of incarceration. Cultural groups should empower themselves by coming together for the purpose of defining themselves in some significant and presumably justifiable way as different from others. Such self-defined groups should examine their defining characteristics and determine how their group identity serves the needs of their members. Cultural groups should be self-defined and purposeful; otherwise, there is no reason to separate themselves, or be separated from the herd.

Such self-defining places a cultural group at the center of its own wheel with relationship to other cultural groups each of whom is at the center of its own wheel, each spoke representing a unique perspective. There is no need for a cultural “norm” that defines those at its margins. With no central power, there are no margins. The visual image of the wheel becomes increasingly less useful as we picture many groups sharing spokes with many other groups. Taken all together, these self-defined groups and their tangle of perspectives and relationships becomes a sort of cultural neural network. With the greater society viewed as a sort of brain, studying itself becomes just that—studying itself, not one part getting to study all the others, but a collaborative effort that results in a vastly more powerful understanding of who we are and how we fit together in the world.

Academia may not like this arrangement, as it dislodges them from privilege and asks them to share power; although sharing it could increase their power. The educated do not need to define any group but their own. I count myself in this group, while others may count me out. So be it. Academia is able to define itself, e.g., diplomas, publication, or perhaps simply demonstrable facility with knowledge. Without its privilege of othering, it might be hard to see the usefulness of a culture of educated. And the educated would have to redefine their relationship to other groups, no more Us and Them. Group identity must be about defining ourselves, not excluding others. So with a network of cultural study groups, we could study and be studied by other cultural groups. We must first study ourselves, however. We must first know who we are, if only to answer others’ questions about us. Within each group, would almost certainly be members who are also members of other groups. Much could be gained by learning from this intra-group diversity. Once we know ourselves, there would be learning and sharing dialogues between and among groups where inter-group relationships exist. These dialogues must be two-way conversations that ask, “Who are you?” and answer, “This is who I am.” No more is there a single source that says, “This is who they are,” or worse, “This is who you are.”

What does this say about the universities and colleges courses of study? Cultural Studies becomes Intercultural Studies with academia serving as a forum and occasionally as moderator. The content of such programs would not be the content of the cultures, but the perspectives among selves. New questions would be studied:

“Who am I?”

“What do I see through my eyes?”

“Who is he?”

“What does she see through her eyes?”

“How do our perceptions matter to us?”

“How do our perceptions define us and how are we defined by our perceptions?”

“How does it feel to me us or them?”

“What are our dreams and fears, shared and at odds?”

“How can or should we change how we look at things and ourselves.”

This may not be the ultimate goal, and it will require new thinking and a reorganization of some deeply vested resources. But it can greatly improve how we could get along, and it could greatly increase our potential for making real and sustainable progress in social status and material wellbeing.

 

Be True to Your School?

28 December 2009

Members of the Minneapolis Board of Education,

I live in Minneapolis Park Board District 6, as do some of the Board members. I attend caucuses and I support candidates who are trustworthy and work for the people of this city where I have lived for 33 years and taught for 28. I have dedicated my life to the young people of this city. In the past few years, I have been sadly disappointed in the decisions of the Minneapolis School Board to ignore promises it has made to its citizens and its employees. Has this board taken its lead from the Wall Street scammers, to promise great things it never intended to honor? How does this help the children? What is your word worth?

I struggle every day to improve the chances and lives of some of the city’s most neglected students at Edison High School. Mine are students who need hours of individual help and small group, interactive time to get caught up with their age-mates elsewhere. Yet day after day, I lose the time to meet individually with students or parents, because I am in meetings intended to improve my performance. The meetings are keeping me from performing at all. And while my performance scores are more than proficient, I am denied the pay increases my good work was contracted to earn through TAP and ATPPS, pay structures for which the district receives millions of additional state dollars.

“The School Board now refuses to pay teachers what was rightfully earned through traditional means as well as the through the ATPPS MOA and supported through the continuing contract language in Article I, Section C.1 of the MFT 2007-09 Teachers Contract which states ‘This Agreement shall remain in full force and effect. . . until a new agreement is reached,’”  states a recent teachers’ union petition.  Business as usual? Promises never meant?

A similar conflict between teachers’ learning and students’ learning surrounds the time spent learning AVID—the same skills but with different names, the adoption of which brings more money to the school. This conflict hobbles us with the days we are pulled out of class to learn the very same skills again in IB training, and again in IFL Disciplinary Literacy training. Small wonder the students leave. They see what’s happening. For many whole days, students are deprived of their teachers. Their education suffers because the District pays millions of dollars to hire reserve teachers, while “training” the regular teachers to be better educators in a vacated school building.

Students do not learn in the absence of their regular teachers. Meetings, training and testing pull me away from my students more than ten percent of the time. MPS policy is depriving its students by “improving” its teachers.

Yet the focused training teachers get on their own, often at their own expense, that meets the real and everyday needs of teaching the students in their rooms –students who may be the first in their family to graduate high school, students who are taking college prep classes with three and four years of English experience—this training that we know helps goes unrewarded, in fact uncompensated.

If you see no need to compensate me for improvement, I see no need to improve, especially since the MPS model of improvement hinders our teaching and our students learning. Are your interests politics and public finance, or Minneapolis children and their education?

Break with the past; be true to your word.

Jay Ritterson
Edison High School, English Dept.
Minneapolis, Minnesota

In the “Race to the Top,” who gets left behind?

[This is a rambling hodge-podge. Maybe there’s something in here.]

Our obsession with competition as a solution has thrown us all into Life Lotto. So here goes. I have twenty ziglets. I need six ziglets to make my mortgage payment, two for utilities, three for food, and five for my daughter’s tuition. She’s majoring in ziglet management and will make lots of ziglets in a few years. So I have four ziglets left. I can buy two chances in the billion ziglet Life Lotto game!

Now let’s see: my two chances…one billion ziglets…the Lotto Commission keeps 50% of revenues…Hey! My chances of winning are 2 in 1,000,000,000! Imagine that if you can. I certainly can’t, but I understand this: To have a chance to be a winner of the big ziglets, I’d have to start with a lot of ziglets. What if I earned a lot of ziglets? What if I could give myself a billion ziglet bonus on top of the two billion ziglet salary I already earned? (I not sure earned is the right word there.) I could buy a half a billion two-ziglet chances, and still have billions left over, and my chances of winning are even! I’d hold have half the chance tickets! These are good odds. But all I do is win back what I paid half the time, and lose half the time. The commission is the only winner, pulling billions of ziglets out of the system, mostly from the hundreds of millions of people who buy few chances and always, always lose.

Okay, let’s get rid of the commission. Free Market Life Lotto. Now we’re ready to fly. I buy my two tickets at 4 ziglets. The pot is doubled; it’s now 2 billion ziglets. My odds are still 2 in a billion, but Ms. Golds-Sackman is loaded with ziglets. She could buy half the chances, and the odds would be that she would break even over the long haul. Hundreds of millions of losers would still feed the process, and a very few – about one every other year, if Ms. Golds-Sackman nullifies half the game – would win really big and lose most of it by investing in the Golds-Sackman Brokerage Bank. So really Ms. Golds-Sackman wouldn’t play Life Lotto, because she profits by having more one-time winners investing with her. She knows the principle of Life Lotto: some people get all the ziglets and the rest of us just gamble ours away.

Okay. Everybody knows that lotteries are just big shell games. So why do we insist on applying the principles to everything else we institutionalize? In education, we pay rewards to the success for the most advantaged while denying the least advantaged the additional resources they need just to keep up. We tilt the playing field – The New York Times article “Administration Takes Aim at State Laws on Teachers” makes clear that there is a belief that all children arrive the same and learn the same and that all content is taught the same and can be tested in an assembly line model. States must be allowed to pass laws requiring teachers to be evaluated on student test scores, i.e., pay for performance. That being the case, the teacher’s class list is their available ziglets in the “…$4.3 billion Race to the Top competition…,” as the Times calls it. And it is a competition indeed. Teachers will compete for the best, most able students, compete to teach in the most well endowed schools, and will teach to the tests, no matter how shallow the skills they assess. Their goal is not to better the students; it is to best their colleagues. And with limited resources, most will still lose in the long run.

Lose? What about the children left behind? The students who have already to suffer the indignities of not being native English speakers, not coming from a home with two college educated parents, not having had adequate prenatal care, not having adequate healthcare, not having access to healthy food, not having a home to go to after school? The Principle of Life Lotto tells us that the odds of being a biracial child, raised by a single parent and rising to the presidency are very, very long, so long that just the novelty of it at all substantially reduced those odds. But now it’s not even novel. One off.

The obscenity of such actions is depicted in the article “Professor’s Arrest Tests Beliefs on Racial Progress” also for The New York Times. In the United States, we, meaning empowered mostly white people, mostly men, are pathetically blind to the world we have created and now blame for its shortcomings. The election of a biracial president has rightly returned the spotlight to issue of race, but not back to the core of the issue. It was empowered white people, mostly men, who defined race in the first place to define what would be allowed privilege and what would not. In our “classless” society, we have formed and cemented “class-like” definitions into our psyches, on all sides of all lines, with such success that we simply assume that there is a real difference because for hundreds of years we have said, there is.

We have built the walls along the borders of our thoughts, and we all hold those walls up in our minds no matter which side of the walls we are on. Walls are our societal Frankenstein’s monster that will obsess us and drive us screaming into the frozen waste to wrestle to some end. Like Dr. Frankenstein, we have no way to uncreate this horrible force that in its rage ravages blindly. Perhaps we need to start by understanding that we too are on one side of these walls, as those across our walls have always understood.

Then we need to release the limited resource of power. It was power, not authority that put up the walls. It will take power to bring them down. In the giving up of power and the taking on of power, we need to end the competition. Power, like ziglets, is a limited resource. Deserved power is backed by authority, which brings with it responsibility. These are human rights: the basic rights to make decisions about ourselves, in our own self-interest, without impingement on others, and to continue our lives in the form of offspring for which you are then responsible and therefore over whom we have some authority. Nothing in this empowers anyone to define “other.” There is no need to define other, unless we assume authority we do not have by sheer dint of power and for the sake of disempowering, that is taking power from, others.

What we have done has been to focus our struggle, not one neutralizing the definition of race, but over who has power, because it is clear to the people on one side of their wall that they don’t have the power that the people on the other side of that wall do have. The struggle has been to get over the walls. The walls cannot be removed, at least not entirely, because they are part of who we are and have been.

The empowered people, mostly white, mostly men, don’t recognize or won’t acknowledge the unauthorized power they have. Furthermore, when they do recognize it, usually rarely and only slightly, they are at a loss as to how to give it back. Most of us have been somewhat disempowered in other power competitions anyway. Remember the principle of Life Lotto: some people get all the ziglets and the rest of us just gamble ours away. But that’s just it. The more power one has, the more one can acquire. The rich get rich, and the poor… But do the white get whiter? Well, yes. Especially if you view Whiteness as something collateral to color.

Let’s say I’m biracial, but was raised mostly by my white parent side of the family. This could be a perverse advantage of single parenting. I look black enough to get into everywhere black. I can be trusted. At the same time, I know white. I can jump across the wall and look black enough to capitalize on white guilt, people like this writer who are going to encourage “others” to get into the power. I’m truly bi-cultural, fully functional in two, competing cultures. And I can use my great intellect (God bless the DNA that built a brain that can form dendrites easily.) trained at white power-culture institutions to maneuver easily into considerable power. What cultural traits, common language and/or beliefs, have increased and which been diminished to get here? What culture defines who I am and how I am? What defines any success in this country? From infancy to wealth and power, who has the most changing to do? Why will lottery winners never become powerful, and will probably never stay rich? Because the white power-culture has been consolidated into a super-norm that even most white people can’t achieve. Whaddaya think? Pick the winner:

Image1

[1. Lost her identity, sorry; 2. Sgt. James Crowley who arrested Professor Gates in Cambridge; 3. Kenneth C. Griffin, 40 year old founder of the Citadel Investment Group, the $20 billion hedge fund; 4. Al Vivian, left, is a diversity consultant in Atlanta. images 1, 3 and 4 from The New York Times, image 2 from the Christian Science Monitor.]

In Life Lotto, is it hard to guess who has the power, just from the pictures? If you say yes, I’d wager you are way white, and are having a hard time getting what I’m writing.

Living in air doesn’t demand thinking much about air until the air starts to run out. It’s easy to see that those without enough air have the problem. It’s not easy to see that having so much of the air is the problem. It’s also easy to see why everyone is trying to get where the air is. It’s a privilege to be where the air is from the start. What percentage of your chances in this world is determined at the moment of conception? It may not make much sense when everyone, especially people who look and sound different from you, starts trying to get into your space, breathe your air, share your privilege. It may seem threatening. But here’s the real question: Who said it was your air? Whose air was it in the first place? Surely air wasn’t in the sole possession of the European aristocracy and subsequently spread throughout the rest of the world through benevolent colonization.

So as we race to the top, who gets left behind? Where isn’t there enough air? In teaching, it will be the teachers who need the most support to help kids learn, and are shoved aside to make room for new teachers. The first five years of teaching are the least productive, yet the Race to the Top will encourage churning. In learning, it will be the ones who start out behind. While the top is the target and the models are the Ken Griffins, we will never get those who start out farthest from that reality across the cultural wall into that game. If greed and avarice are deeply antithetical to your own heritage, it makes you a very poor competitor. And in life, it will still be the ones who are already gasping for air, playing Life Lotto, hoping and dreaming of getting across to a world they don’t “belong” in.

Who got to say what was top? Maybe we should just test the “best,” and forget the rest. We can define a new wall: education. Those inside the education wall will have most of the education, most of the ziglets, most of the air, most of the power. Real reform that will get us right to the top! We can build the wall on the foundations of classism and racism, maybe even sexism. Educationism!

Some people get all the ziglets and the rest of us just gamble ours away.

Biculturalism a code word?

I was engaged in an unexpected, but interesting dialogue today. I’ll explain first why I call it a dialogue. It wasn’t just a discussion, that catch-all term for a wide range of various numbers of people talking. It wasn’t a debate, colloquially known as an argument, though there were two sides. It was two people talking on two sides of an issues, or perhaps two issues, as it was a lopsided dialogue. My other side dialoguer was asking questions in a faintly Socratic mode, but clearly trying to get my understanding of the validity or at least accuracy of her position…well, not position really. I had a position; she had a term that she had a definition for, and it seemed she wanted badly for me to embrace it…Well, really, I think she wanted me to say, ”Oh, I see. I’m wrong; you’re right.” As in my saying, “You don’t need to change what you have been saying or promoting or, for god’s sake, thinking…maybe even believing.” The problem with the dialogue was that I was in a different one than my counterpart. I was saying my belief, although I was sort of working it out as I was going, and I didn’t really care if she agreed, but I did expect her to do the academically honorable thing and agree to disagree. She is, after all, a college instructor, officially if not in practice, and I am too, in practice if not officially—mine being only adjunct.

Here’s what it was all about: newly arrived, acquirers of English in our mixed classroom (English language learners and native English speakers) who will not make eye contact. Her position was that we should develop the students into bi-cultural, bi-lingual individuals so they can succeed in mainstream culture. I can agree with that. She believes that if we have such a student in our class, we should gently and respectfully confront this behavior, statedly, because it will advantage them to know and be able to do this in our culture. We all acknowledge that eye-contact sanctions vary greatly across culture groups, and in many cases are linked to respect. I couldn’t see that bringing this to a student’s attention was my role, and I don’t see how it can be done either gently or respectfully. I’m not about setting up an impression that I, who have some interpersonal power over students to say noting of my culture group membership, devalue one of that student’s cultural standards.

My position was that such behavior, on the part of teachers, is in the category of cutting the hair of American Indian children who had been abducted and imprisoned in 19th century Indian schools to be turned into Americans. It is very different in degree, but I believe it is in the same category of abuse of power to impose one culture on another. It suggests, or may suggest to the student a state of right and wrong, good and bad, in reference to cultures and cultural values. I will not assume the right to do that to another human being.

I might have a conversation with a student of any culture who doesn’t seem to be getting the message from his peers, cultural or intercultural, about acceptable social norms, if two important conditions exist. First, I must have already earned a deep trust of that student, and I mean deep, virtually familial. Second, I must believe that what I am going to advise is truly necessary and in the best interest of the student. I already do this with my generic advice on Standard English and accurate spelling.

Another consideration I have on this subject is that we have as much responsibility for promoting tolerance in those of the mainstream of American culture as we do for preparing those NOT of the mainstream of American culture to thrive in it. Most of our New Americans, as has been the case with American Indians, will never be assimilated, and will never be accepted as bicultural, but will always be viewed as “other.” The same blind chauvinism that expects immigrants to become like the mainstream, will never allow them to do so, because it then redefines the mainstream. As long as one culture dominates American society, that shall be so. So efforts at assimilation and biculturalization appear to me as efforts to bring “aliens” into cultural compliance, thereby affirm the cultural dominance of the mainstream culture.

Now, I think my dialogue counterpart is well-intentioned. I am well-intentioned too, but even though I have been examining where I am in this dominant culture, and particularly where I am as a white man, I must admit that I find new facets and different perspectives that have been as difficult to recognize and realize as air. I make the effort. I intentionally surround myself with the unfamiliar. I still think I’m far from getting it. What must it be like for those who live in a cultural bubble? What what it be like to know you go anywhere, essentially, and do anything and be allowed to be first always? How does traveling as a privilege inform traveling as a refugee? And herein lies my conclusion. By what power do we tell? Telling implies a priory knowledge. What if with respect we strove more to simple ask? Asking implies incompleteness and an openness to becoming complete.

No, I guess biculturalism isn’t a code for assimilation. It is perhaps an effort to use language to escape the shame of assimilation, but they are only words. I think a better starting point than renaming an assumption of right is in respectful questions that seek to learn what is right. By learning we better and empower ourselves with our knowledge and understanding of ourselves through understanding others. By learning we show others the road to self-betterment and self-empowerment, and showing is better than telling. I want to say something pithy about being here, but I think that’s a different dialogue.

Fresh start/Fresh stop

Sitting at my desk, in my denuded Edison High School, Minneapolis classroom, at the end of the school year, reflecting on the past year. This year has been bad and good. Perhaps not the worst year; that would be 2002-2003 when I worked as the alternative compensation plan coordinator, a bureaucrat. Certainly not my best year; that would probably be one of the years at Sanford, maybe 1983-84, or Ramsey, 1988-89, or Seward 1996-97 or 1997-98. But these were all good for the students I had and classes I taught. If I calculate in administration and colleagues, the picture becomes more mixed. It becomes hard to say what are the best really, and it’s a pointless exercise.

The bad this year: As a school that has been “fresh started”, as in reconstituted, Edison was a wounded bird trying to rise. The damage was not as severe here for the remaining staff as at Washburn, but it was bad enough. “Most” is most in one’s perception, and for the survivors, this was probably the most painful experience. Whether that damage carried over into classrooms and to kids, I can’t really know, but if the relationships among teachers does impact the classroom and kids, it did have an impact.

Most pronounced in the relationships was the stationary front lingering between the high pressure zone of new faculty to Edison and the low pressure zone of remaining teachers. Certainly there were crossovers and even whole areas where the productive blending took effect, in the English department for sure and the social studies department apparently and perhaps in others. Between departments was a wholly different matter. I asked, suggested, advised and all but begged through the second half of the year for meetings between the English and social studies departments to discuss novels and other readings thus avoiding duplications. To date, no joint meeting. The physical education department’s passive/aggressive complaint about using a rarely used gym half way through the fourth day of our use of it. Walking up to a group of established teachers to ask a question and being invisible. The barrier becomes a little more solid.

The good this year: As a school that has been “fresh started”, Edison found many new teachers and a hopeful attitude among its students. That students at Washburn had walked out and demonstrated over the loss of teachers last year, I was probably leery and certainly unprepared when students complained about their teachers from last year. It didn’t help that they tried to paint me, as a declining returnee to Washburn, with the lousy teacher brush. Yet, by the end of the year, I liked even the most difficult of them, they seemed to like me, and many made good gains by the middle or end of the year.

I like kids, and I pull hard for the disadvantaged, marginalized and disenfranchised. I know that they may be ungrateful, unsuccessful and obnoxious, but I have to try and I don’t need much success feel rewarded. Not the best year, it was a pretty good year for caring about kids; they needed it. I am no less amazed at the love kids are capable of and their clumsiness in expressing it. Maybe I’m as bad. I am not at all amazed that the thing that makes teaching good is spending my time with kids. I am getting old though. I just don’t have the energy for it any more. I think it is only the kids that will bring me back here. The adults are too busy being about being adults together. Maybe I’ll just dub my room the Hermitage. Kids won’t get it; so they’ll come in. Adults…no they probably won’t get it either, but they don’t come in now.

None of this should be taken too seriously, you know.

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