Sunday, December 6, 2015

Demagoguery 2015: Trump and Why Education Matters

If you've not read this story on today's New York Times in which they do a rhetorical analysis of over 95000 words spoken by Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump during his campaign, you ought to.  It's a long article, but it's well worth the investment of time as it clearly indicates the rhetorical patterns and choices Trump makes which ally him with a long history of American Demagogues like Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, and the like.

I'm not going to review the article.  It's something everyone should read but which, of course, those who most need to read it won't because it doesn't jive with what they "feel" is right.  And it is that, more than anything else, that is telling about Trump.  His policies...they're non-existent, little more than soundbites about building really tall walls and bombing the hell out of people.  But those soundbites are powerful as they are really at the heart of the NYTimes' analysis.  Those words, whether carefully chosen due to some deep understanding of the neuroscience of how the brain processes language, or, more likely, because Trump knows something about neurolinguistic programing and the art of negotiating (the latter he certainly does), speak to the emotional centers of the brain.  It is those centers, below the conscious, higher-order thinking layers of the brain, that actually drive most human decision making.   (And this one, for a more in-depth look.)

Unless, of course, we know better and are practiced at truly listening and questioning the words and intent of speakers like Trump.  But that's hard work, and requires a good deal of training, neither of which seem in plenty supply in America anymore.

This is not to paint Trump's supporters as idiots or puppets.  Rather it is to point out that Trump knows what he's doing when it comes to speaking and presenting himself in order to manipulate, and it's not only akin to those people I mentioned in paragraph #1, you can link his propaganda techniques straight to the even more sinister people who stepped into the limelight during periods of great social upheaval (which I would argue we are in right now) and came to manipulate the masses.

It would not be wrong to say that Trump will "buy" this election, should he win it, because what he's done is nothing different than plying the manipulative language and propaganda techniques that mark American marketing and advertising.  He packages his ideas in easily digested emotionally fortified bits and allows the unsuspecting to swallow them, turning their hearts black and smoldering with fear and hatred.

Read the article.  The intent is clear, the patterns undeniable, the impact...chilling.  We must be ever vigilant against demagoguery, but far too many of us don't smell it when its BS approaches.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

It's Funny How Things Work Out

(I wrote the first 1/3 of this last year.   I wanted to give it a place to be.)

Like many people, I am a fan of quotations.  These pearls of wisdom that seem so perfectly formed and easily spoken are as close as I can come to the word of God, for they appear, seemingly unbidden, at just the right time in my life to comfort me, prod me, or give me direction and counsel.  

How words find me in this way is eternally mysterious to me, but such thinking pumps at the very heart of religion.  It is not a coincidence that one version of the Old Testament begins, "In the beginning was the word."  I find…I have always found such solace in the thoughts of others, and I moved away from that, drawn by the desire to do more than play with words and, perhaps, to run from the fact that I could never master them.  What I found in design was a place where my thoughts could rest in the real.  Where ideas were manifest in objects, places, things.  To me this was peace.  Chasing the dreams of words, however beautiful, however playful and melodic, was just playing with ideas.  Design brought thought and ideas into the real world.  I lived there and preached it for several years.  

And then I gave it all up to go back to words as a teacher of a new English class for gifted students at the High School.  

We and our worlds are little more than the stories we tell ourselves.  For 20+ years I had been writing one story and then...?  Then I changed it.  I'm not sure how some people do it, how they can change themselves so easily and quickly and write a new story.  Or I wasn't sure how they did it until I did.  Truly, I struggled to hold myself together last year.  Even with Campbell's words of guidance and my wife and friends to help me, I couldn't see how to begin a new story until I learned to open my eyes and accept the life that was waiting for me. 

And that's where Campbell's words ring so true.  I encountered them in late August of last year, just before I started in my new position.  And I rediscovered them (and the better part of the first 1/4 of this post) just today.  I accepted the life that was waiting for me.  I don't think I'd go back now.  And that's the funny part.  I visited a therapist a few times last year to talk things out.  He helped me immensely, and one of the things he said was, "these things have a way of working themselves out." I know what you're thinking, "You paid for that platitude?"  But it was true.  I'm on a different career path now, finding a way to combine my passion for getting kids to learn by thinking like designers with my love of words.  And my district is offering me a chance to design an entire academy within the school driven by this philosophy I've followed for so long.

I've no earth shattering realization here.  Something happened, I lived through it, I came out on the other side, I'm the better for it.  Campbell seemed to know so much, 'cause right now I'm thinking, "Hey, that's just like the monomyth, Campbell's Hero's Journey."  And maybe it is, and if so, then it just proves I'm human.  

I'll live with that.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

What Counts in Education and Why

My title here alludes to a quip by, Einstein, I believe:  "Not everything that matters can be counted; not everything that can be counted matters."

I've been thinking a lot about my former teachers lately.  Maybe it was the quip that my colleague at the High School made about my corduroy sports coat and our former German teacher, Gordon.  Or maybe it was this blog post I found today.  Regardless, those thoughts led to me find the eulogy I wrote for my good friend Ron T., my former Chemistry teacher in HS.  I wanted to post the eulogy again because I've been thinking so much about what matters, what counts, and how we can ever freaking know such information with any accuracy.

Off and on since I graduated HS back in 1986, I would stop in to see  Ron.  I used to drop by his house on my way to and from my father’s, or, more recently, about once or twice a year my family and I would try to get to see Ron and just talk and enjoy some of the simple food he would make with vegetables from his garden.  No matter when I would stop by, he'd always great me with a smile and welcomed look of surprise.  "Well,  Gary..."  I can't think of any time, not even in class, when it wasn't so.  His demeanor rarely changed and you always had a sense that he felt it a pleasure to have you visit.  He was, more than anything, a genuine spirit, unassuming in his countenance and personality, who taught his students as much by what he did as by what he said.

One summer, before I was married, Rob H. and I helped Ron paint the clapboard siding of a barn and twin home he owned as a rental property in East Greenville.  High on the ladders, all of us working side-by-side, Ron would tell stories and his gentle humor made the days pass quickly.  As we grew tired, we would take a break, and Ron would produce his lunch, a lettuce sandwich--just two pieces of pumpernickel bread with some fresh lettuce between the slices.  To two boys who grew up in the great consumer morass that was American culture of the 70s and 80s, you can imagine how we might have perceived his meal.  But, simple as his food choices were, there always existed some flavor up-front.  The caraway of the rye seeds in the pumpernickel, or the dill he mixed into a homemade soup he once served when Heather and I stopped by one night.   Truth be told, I have never met anyone whose appetite so closely matched his personality. 

Just so, Ron was a simple man, but never dull.  He filled his life with a love for his heritage and treasured nothing so much as sharing with people.  When we were still in HS, Ron invited some of us up to his home to view his Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas Putz, a unique collection of animals, buildings, and all manner of figurines which, when setup like a model train display, produced a fascinating landscape for the wonderment of children.  This collection was his from his childhood, and he kept it with the same precision and organization that guided everything he did in his life…so far as I could tell.  As he grew older, he donated his Christmas Putz to the Schwenkfelder Heritage society in Red Hill so that children would evermore be able to marvel at what children past used to occupy their play. 

Other times, I remember Ron inviting his students to make candy during the holidays.  Ron possessed a collection of molds into which, with the right guidance, we learned to pour a hot, colored, sugary mixture.  I believe we would add to this a lollypop stick and when the mixture cooled and the candy was removed, one held in her hand a miniature delight—a clear, yellow, green, or red sweet that shined like a Christmas light but tasted much better. 

My family and I visited Ron in late August of 2011, and then again in November after learning he had renal cancer.  He was tired, but his kind wit had not abandoned him.  We spoke of school, photography, and somewhat of his illness.  We knew the cancer had spread and that there might not be many more chances for us to visit, and so we made plans to visit with him on December 26th.  But my daughter had come down with a stomach virus.  I called Ron to reschedule but we were not able to get up to see him.  He suffered a setback on the Thursday before New Years and was never able to recover.

If this be eulogy, then let it be this--a eulogy that reminds us all of our teachers and of this important truth:  We can never tell where their influence stops.  Whether I remember how  to balance out an oxidation reduction reaction (if that’s even what you do with them) is not nearly so important in my life as that Ron T. cared…that, for the most part, all my teachers cared, that they shared their lives with me, and that I learned, whether intentionally or not, a good deal about how to be a decent, intelligent, and caring human being.