Sunday, November 22, 2009

Reading the World

I'd like to continue here with the discussion of William Cronon's list of qualities of a liberally educated.


The second quality of a liberally educated person:  They read and they understand.


One would, it seems, have to have been beaten with the idiot stick to even question the presence of this item on the list, and Cronon admits as much (see the excerpt below).  However, and this is why Cronon bears a wider audience than I think this piece has received (and I would urge every school district administrator in the nation to read/reread this piece), he makes it clear that he is not speaking merely of the ability to read words.  He believes liberally educated people apply skills similar to those employed in reading words to how they look at and move through the world.  In a sense, liberally educated people read the world and construct their own understanding of it.  Here's Cronon:


They read and they understand:
This too is ridiculously simple to say but very difficult to achieve, since there are so many ways of reading in our world. Educated people can appreciate not only the front page of the New York Times but also the arts section, the sports section, the business section, the science section, and the editorials. They can gain insight from not only THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR and the New York Review of Books but also from Scientific American, the Economist, the National Enquirer, Vogue, and Reader’s Digest. They can enjoy John Milton and John Grisham. But skilled readers know how to read far more than just words. They are moved by what they see in a great art museum and what they hear in a concert hall. They recognize extraordinary athletic achievements; they are engaged by classic and contemporary works of theater and cinema; they find in television a valuable window on popular culture. When they wander through a forest or a wetland or a desert, they can identify the wildlife and interpret the lay of the land. They can glance at a farmer’s field and tell the difference between soy beans and alfalfa. They recognize fine craftsmanship, whether by a cabinetmaker or an auto mechanic. And they can surf the World Wide Web. All of these are ways in which the eyes and the ears are attuned to the wonders that make up the human and the natural worlds. None of us can possibly master all these forms of “reading,” but educated people should be competent in many of them and curious about all of them.

Certainly reading books and the printed word is key to academic and life success.  But look at how Cronon extends those skills.  This is "reading the world" and it is a full body experience.  Thus, the liberally educated person uses all her senses to experience the world.  What Conon is suggesting is that liberally educated people live fully conscious lives, that they are the embodiments of Plato's statement:  "The unexamined life is not worth living."  To read the world as Cronon suggests, one must continuously ask questions, must search for patterns, must understand different standards of quality and be able to identify them within the world's many texts.  All of this, and more, all good teachers model for their students.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"They Listen and they Hear"

I've read the William Cronon article from which I've taken the new name of this blog at least seven times.  Each time I come away from the article as a teacher with a deepened and renewed sense of purpose.  So, I thought it might be a good idea to pull the ten qualities Cronon lists as characteristics of a liberally educated person and deal with them in ten or so short blog entries.  In each I'll summarize the point as it exists in Cronon's article and offer some observations as to how one can achieve such goals in a contemporary public school classroom.

It is utterly important to note that I'm adapting (you decide if it's an improper adaptation) Cronon's article, which is written from a college perspective, into a secondary school classroom, not because I want to foist top-down management into our schools any more than it already is.  Rather, I'm convinced that the current climate under which we teachers and our students must suffer is inimical to the most important goals of American public education, which are, in short: to perpetuate the democracy, the economic system, and humanize us all so that we endeavor to push the race forward rather than to destroy ourselves.

Furthermore, I don't want to assert that Cronon's goals are mutually exclusive of other, more measurable goals.  Skills in math, reading, and some measure of scientific literacy are crucial to achieving the larger goals of American Public Education I list above.  No, Cronon's goals are actually prerequisites for all other types of learning.  More importantly,  they are also not goals in the traditional sense.  That is, they are not end states.  One never achieves such a goal as "They listen and they hear."  One can only ever get better and better at it.  My bone of contention, then, with the current state of affairs is that we spend little time on developing these goals--on even letting students know that these goals are honorable and salable--because they are not easily quantifiable.  The old saw applies here:  Not every thing that matters can be counted; not everything that can be counted matters.

So, onto Cronon's list...

1)  They Listen and they Hear.

Cronon states that this goal of a liberal education is something you'd think goes without saying.  Essentially, it describes people who "work hard to hear what other people say. They can follow an argument, track logical reasoning, detect illogic, hear the emotions that lie behind both the logic and the illogic, and ultimately empathize with the person who is feeling those emotions."

I'll admit to a good deal of bias here.  I'm a debate coach.  Offering students activities that help them work towards this goal is easy.  Engage them in structured controversies like debates and constructive discussions.  There are any number of debate structures you might employ, with the more formal styles outlined clearly and fully at websites like the National Forensic League, The Pennsylvania High School Speech League, and other such leagues around the nation.  Additionally, teachers can employ structured discussions.  Programs like Paideia Seminars, Socratic Circles, Literature Circles, or The Touchstones Discussion Project all offer students opportunities to speak and listen and learn from each other in many different curricula (not just language arts or social studies).

My list is not exhaustive, but I am certain of the solid outcomes each of the different strategies I suggest can produce if a teacher buys into and believes in their individual processes.

And in the end, listening and hearing?  Sure, you can't necessarily test for it, but you sure as heck aren't building a solid foundation for a democracy if all you focus on is computation and comprehension.   At least by focusing on a goal like this one we'll have a chance to erase future episodes of The Jerry Springer Show from our airwaves and promote more civil discourse than what we saw in this summer's town-hall meetings.



Monday, September 28, 2009

"Drill, Baby, Drill!!!" (a hole in my head).



So the other day this humble blogger was listening to Sean Hannity, on the way home from school.  (Editorial note:  I try to listen as much as possible to right-wing talk radio as I do to national public radio.  Mind you, I don't believe that makes me some kind of centrist.  No amount of listening to NPR will ever balance out the rhetoric of Mr. Hannity and the other "nattering nitwits of negativism" (that's my nod to William Safire, sans "nabobs", may he rest in peace).)

Anyway, Mr. Hannity was painting with his broad brush again, speaking of liberal environmentalists as the harbingers of doom for the American economy.  You know, those tree-huggers block US access to the huge resources of oil in ANWAR, etc.  That got me to thinking, "Is Hannity really that stupid, that in bed with the entrenched industries of oil and coal, to be that near-sighted  Is he that deaf to the voices of liberals like Bill Clinton who, almost upon stepping his first foot out of the White House in 2001 announced that the future of American industrial dominance was in clean energy?

But I shouldn't lay all this on Hannity.  He only gets it honest.  I mean, look at how few businesses in America are really going all-in on environmentally sound energy production, or even hybrids.  The American auto industry was years behind on alternate fuel innovations.  Heck, over a decade ago my debate teams spent a year developing cases on just such a topic.  As a country we're hardly any closer to long term solutions than we were then.

(Now, you may be wondering what this has to do with "a life of liberal education."  Again, I'm not invoking the adjective "liberal" in the political sense.  However, the adjective, placed as it is before "education", indicates a person whose worldview is at least open to alternate ideas and other perspectives.  Thus, I'm not averse to those of Mr. Hannity's worldview... at least not so long as they are open to points of view different from their own.  That I've yet to find such a person who actually lives such a credo (Hannity paid serious lip-service to such a supposed view he possessed at the beginning of President Obama's term...but it was only lip service) doesn't mean I'll give up.  My liberal education leads me to believe those people are out their.)

But back to the original post, about clean energy and American economic health.  I give you Sir Thomas Friedman, he of the flat world with lexuses and olive trees.  Do you think he'd have any sway with Hannity and the nitwits?  Well, maybe... especially if Friedman invokes the specter of communism?  (It's a great article I've linked to here. In short, Friedman labels China's decision to go full-steam ahead on clean energy production to be the "new Sputnik.) Of course, that's the kinder, gentler, more economically liberal communism of Red China.  Probably not close enough to the communism banished by Hannity's saviour and idol, Ronald Reagan, but I'd like to think that something could force Hannity and those who opposed Van Jones as the "green jobs czar"  to see that they and their stagnant, status-quo worship is keeping us from entering into a world economy in a timely fashion.  One wonders just what they think we'll gain from this waiting posture.  All I can come up with is that they're waiting to gain back some political position in the US government so they can claim some role in doing the right thing.

Too bad.  They had eight years of a republican president, and more than enough time with republican majorities in both houses to do the right thing.  All they did was drive us to the brink of depressions and destruction.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

That's What I'm Talkin' About

If you were a reader of this blog in its original "Big Styrofoam Things" incarnation, then you might have read my posting on Daniel Pink's book, Johnny Bunko.  While that book is fine for it's purpose, you might remember that I referenced another book by Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind:  Why Right Brainers will Rule the Future.  I said I would write about it at a later time.  Toward that end, I'll simply write this.  If you are an educator, or if you care about education, you need to read this book.  It is a tremendous act of synthesis, looking at trends in business, medicine, education, video games, and pulling them together into as coherent a thesis as you're likely to find in any such work of social criticism.  In fact, I'd liken it to a modern day Future Shock.   I actually took the book from my school principal several years ago after learning that she and all the other administrators in the district had been asked to read it by the district superintendent.  I suppose this was to engender some sort of innovation in the buildings, though, truth be told, I see little in my district to indicate that we've embraced the ideas Pink champions.

I consumed A Whole New Mind over the course of a week, annotating most every chapter, continuously finding connections to my curriculum and ways that I could improve my own thinking and thereby my students' thinking.  For the past 3 years I've been championing this book to my fellow teachers, to the teachers I teach in graduate education courses, and to administrators whenever I get the chance.  Pink has been traveling and speaking about this book and the ideas he put forth ever since it hit the bookshelves.  He's been interviewed in professional magazines dealing with the business world, education, and the arts.  Of the books that have most influenced my work in the classroom, A Whole New World ranks in the top three with William Glasser's The Quality School  and Thomas Armstrong's Awakening Genius in the Classroom.

So I just found Daniel Pink speaking at TED.  While he's not speaking about A Whole New Mind, he is still trolling the same melody.  If you'd like more links regarding A Whole New Mind, you can find them below.

Here's Daniel Pink on YouTube.  There are more You Tube videos of him that you can find for yourself.

How about a blog radio interview with Pink?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

How to Sink a Ship

Below is the mission statement of the school where I work. It's really not much different from the statements you'll find at most schools around the nation. I copy it here because September is a perfect time of year to reflect on how teachers' actions in the classroom and their buildings are true to such generalized statements of decent human action, and how we often have to defend such statements against actions taken by adults outside the school environment.  Sometimes such reflection helps us place our actions and the actions of others in a light that will make us better people, and sometimes it allows us to see the hypocrisy inherent in such actions, be they our own or the actions of others. Either way, we ought to think and use the historical moment to improve ourselves.

Mission Statement
In order to create responsible citizens,
it is the mission of Perkiomen Valley Middle School East
to provide a learning environment that utilizes all resources to enable students to reach their highest potential;
to foster respect for others and self;
so that students may excel independently and interdependently; and to ensure educational opportunities for all.

So it might clarify things if I were to place the above information in context.  On Tuesday, September 8, 2009, the President of the United States, Barak Obama, is planning to address the students of America's public schools.  Districts around the country (including mine), bowing to pressure from parents and others opposed to the President himself, have made the decision to deny students and teachers the opportunity to watch the speech live and will, instead, recorded it, decide upon it's appropriateness for certain curricula, and then allow it to be shown.

I bristle at such actions.  It makes no difference whether the president is a black liberal or a white, fortunate son of the south.  If the President of the United States wants to address the students of America with  a positive message, students should see it, and teachers should be allowed to use the historical moment as a teachable one.  Sure, I'm a teacher, I'm a believer in the enlightening and redemptive powers of education.  So call me biased.  I'd rather live in a world where we listen to and have the right to criticize all people than one in which we silence a leader because others paint him as a dictator, "racist", or the antichrist.

Below is a letter I've mailed to several newspapers, local and national, about the situation.  I don't know if it will be published.  But I'll do so here.  Most of the information in the letter appeared in another, more detailed form, in a letter I sent to the administration in my district.

I encourage open discourse on this topic.




For almost twenty years I’ve taught a humanities class in the same school district.  For almost twenty years I’ve enjoyed helping students understand the myriad ways that human beings have created to express themselves, their desires, their dreams, and their differences.  For almost as long I’ve coached students on the district debate team where one must know not only how to rebut arguments of the opposition but they must also prepare arguments both for and against the given resolution.  I do this because I believe in the power of human language to achieve consensus and community.  I do this because I know that when my students enter college and the workforce, their abilities to listen to and persuade others will make them productive and prosperous members of a civil society.  And thus, I work to achieve one of the primary ends of public education in America—the preservation and perpetuation of the democracy.  At all points in my curriculum, I am open to assistance from the community in helping make my curriculum authentic and lively so that achieving this goal is somewhat easier. 
And so, I’m turning to those citizens who have successfully blocked the live viewing of the President’s address to students to ask for their help in understanding the purpose of the lesson our national argument teaches.  (Make no mistake, we are teaching a lesson.)   Was the purpose to protect students from dangerous rhetoric and propaganda?  Was it to exhibit the achievement of ends through fear and hatred and vocal disagreement without intellectual discussion?  (Or is that a definition for racism?  Sorry.)  I’m just not sure, but I doubt it really matters.  The kids won’t be paying attention to the lesson but rather to the manner in which the lesson is delivered.  And to me, it seems what our children will take away from this event is what they always take away from watching adults argue: a heightened sense of the ridiculousness of the institutions created by adults, and of adults themselves and their utter hypocrisy.  Here we are, in this historical moment every American a teacher, trying to maintain a democracy predicated on civil discourse, open access to information, and reasoned argument, and what do we do?  We listen only to those with whom we already agree—that’s called prejudice. We show up to political speeches with weapons—in my book, while that may be an exercise of second amendment rights, that is an ignorant and dumb (in the sense that it is silent) exercising of rights.  And we use the power of threat and fear to achieve our selfish ends--eg, “I’m going to keep my kids home if you show this, and you’ll hear about it at the ballot box.”  Such ignorance teaches children nothing but that acting like a hurt child can achieve certain ends, that pouting and crying “foul” at the local baseball diamond and then taking your bat and ball and going home so that no one else can play is a productive way to react to perceived injustices.  In the end, such actions engender a distrust of the very same public institutions we’re trying to promote through education and role modeling.
As someone who has been involved in pubic education for almost two decades, I know the importance of strong parents in a child’s life.  Thus, I’m not deaf to the complaints being made at districts around the country.  I, too, believe that some of the suggestions in the lesson plans accompanying the speech are ridiculous and should be ignored, regardless of whether or not you believe them to be worshipful adulation of “the anointed one.”  However, these lessons are not reason to ignore the president, or even to record the speech for a later time.  Doing so calls into question the professionalism and decision-making capabilities of the very teachers to whom we entrust our children each day.  (Besides, no one is making teachers use the lesson plans.)  But districts that are bypassing the teachers and taking the decision out of their hands communicate nothing so much as that teachers are powerless automatons, capable only of running scripted curricular programs designed for the least common denominator so as to leave no child behind.
In my own district, we were told that the president’s speech would be recorded and distributed on DVDs to teachers with appropriate curricular tie-ins.  The assertion is that this  “will provide a better opportunity to have an honest and educational discourse."  Sure, that sounds good, but how is honesty born of silencing the voice of the leader of the free world (or anybody for that matter)?  How is discourse educational when it will come predigested to a select few?  In the end, what do we teach our students about civil discourse when we deny them authentic participation in such?
Of the ends of American Public Education, none is more important to me than the preservation and perpetuation of the democracy.  But at the point that any district makes the decision that it's better to just ignore or, perhaps better stated, to "mediate" the words of a president with whom some disagree (which is the only way to read a district’s decision to “tape and show at a later date”)...at that point, those districts countenance an acceptance of all such actions, from screaming as a form of public discourse, to censoring access to information, to carrying a [insert weapon of choice here] as a means of silently, sinisterly announcing disagreement. Thus, because they have bowed to hatred and fear, these districts abdicate a central role of their institution and perpetuate the dissolution of the people's power to rule.  And this, I suppose, is the lesson we teach:  that government of the people, by the people, and for the people isn’t worth the intellectual struggle it takes to listen to those with whom we disagree. 
Thomas Jefferson tells us that people always get the kind of leaders they deserve.  Given the lesson we have taught them at this time, these children deserve much better than many of us.    

Friday, September 4, 2009

Only Connect

I've decided to change the title of the blog to signal a more focused experience. Yet at the same time, I do not want to limit the scope of what's possible to talk about. Thus, I borrow my title from an article of the same name which appeared in The American Scholar some years ago. Only Connect...: The Goals of a Liberal Education by Prof. William Cronon is one of those rare texts that has the ability to shift the reader's perspective almost immediately it is so profound and far reaching in its view of "the goals of a liberal education," which are really (though we've lost this history) the goals of American Public Education. I couldn't avoid this article when I first spied it in an abridged form in the Phi Beta Kappa Key Reporter. I consumed the article, copied it numerous times, distributed it to high school juniors and seniors, and it has become a seminal text in my education library.

The thing is, the article is not simply about education as something that happens within the walls of an institution. It's about living, growing, and learning to think freely and openly. And in that, I find the best description of what this blog will now be about. "Only Connect" means to live so that every experience is an opportunity to learn, to grow. It's what I try to instill in my students, it's an imperative that if practiced regularly leads one to find patterns and similarities rather than differences and distances. It's a way of seeing the world that is unsurpassed for clarity and understanding and appreciation of beauties of all sorts.

How, in the end, could education be more beautiful than that?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Healthcare Reform: "It's dejavu all over again."


I recently wrote to a friend about the decline in the level of discourse in the healthcare-reform debate. Both sides in Washington, the administration and those opposing it (mostly conservative republicans) are at fault. Questionable republican tactics (organized disruptions at meetings designed to inform the public) lead to democratic name calling (disruptive "mobs", "brownshirts", "fascists") which helps to galvanize and rally more opposition against the administration doing the name calling. What gets lost, then, is any substantive discussion of the actual content of the damn thing that so sorely needs fixing--healthcare. One would think it's exactly what the republicans wanted in the first place. The president is seen as a failure, the status quo remains, and nobody has to take responsibility for the failure.

Look, I'm all about discourse. I'm a debate coach. I get the whole Hegelian thing: Thesis met with Antithesis=Synthesis. Democracy is supposed to work in a somewhat similar manner. But what's happening in America cannot lead to any real resolution because those opposing the thesis are simply not offering anything other than a "shoot the messenger" antithesis. What we'll wind up with, after all the acrimony and handwringing and self-flagellation and claims that we need to secede and dissolve the government is the status-quo. The broken thing itself.

Of course, it's only broken if it doesn't work for you. Unfortunately, it doesn't work for those voiceless, powerless Americans: The working poor. It works fine for people like me (I'm a teacher), for those who are, generally, of a higher educational status and have secure and well-paying jobs. Oh, and it works for those entrepreneurs and business owners who have, through their own blood, sweat, and tears, created and grown a thriving company and are thus able to purchase their own coverage. For those people, health care works. That's all that matters. We don't want to change it because we don't want to have to suffer so that others can have some minimal amount of care. And so people take to the internet, to sites like freedomworks.com to learn what they can do to stop the government from forcing them to help solve a problem that doesn't really effect them.

Of course, it does effect them. But they don't know it, or refuse to think the government can solve it. And such ignorance is hard to remedy for it is the Sysiphean task of the teacher. Teachers have to get students to do something they know is good for their students, but the impact of which is hidden from them because they are so young. Similarly in healthcare reform, the government has to get people to do something they know will be good for them (help fix the healthcare system so that it doesn't bankrupt us all or at the very least sentence an entire segment of the American population to death by denying coverage) but whose true impact is hidden from a great deal of them because they are: a) unaware, b) uneducated on the system, c) comfortable (and thus unwilling to help others lest it make them less comfortable).

And so what have those opposed to healthcare reform done to help solve the problem of "ignorance" or "discomfort"? They've counseled their masses to yell down the senators and representatives at meetings designed to help teach the public about the healthcare reform possibilities. They've labeled the plan "obamacare"--a thinly veiled, sophomoric debater's ad hominem attack conflating existing hatred of the president with the plan to reform healthcare. And through it all, they've offered no real counterplan...no antithesis. Instead of being part of the solution, they deny there's any problem to begin with, they counsel that private enterprise and the invisible hand of the freemarket will solve the problem, and they foment fear by spreading lies and deceptions about the ideas coming out of Washington.

But here's the real kicker. Everything I just said, could have been written over 15 years ago. And it actually was. Ok, so it's a "left of center" magazine, but for christ's sake! History does repeat itself, and such a repetition as I note here only serves to validate the source.

Read it. If that isn't enough to force you to question whether the health insurance industry and conservative republicans cut from the same cloth as Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey have your best interest in mind, then I've got a doctor with a six-shooter 'sez he can cure your migraine before you can even blink.