Thursday, February 24, 2011

Interesting Times

“May you live in interesting times.”  So goes the ancient Chinese proverb.  More accurately, this was the first part of a three-part curse.

We do seem to be living in interesting times.  Revolutionary instability is sweeping the region of the world on which Americans are utterly dependent for the continued flow of the resource to which they are utterly addicted and to which they feel utterly entitled to consume without limit.  The relatively peaceful protests in Tunisia and Egypt have given way to violent and bloody crack-downs in Bahrain, Iran and Libya.  Iran has just moved naval ships through the Suez Canal -- something it has not done since our stooge the "Shah" was in power.  Time Magazine’s website reported on Tuesday that Libyan leader “Colonel” Qaddafi has ordered his security forces to blow up pipelines that provide oil to the Mediterranean region (as thousands of Libyan protesters are said to be marching on Tripoli from other Libyan cities).  The elephant in the living room of all this is Saudi Arabia.  The New York Times reports this morning that the Oil Kingdom is losing its regional influence to Iran.  The Saudi regime is thought to be far more repressive and hated by its religiously fundamentalist people than any other regime in the region.  If that place boils over in revolution, or its oil infrastructure is sabotaged in any way, then bend over, grab your ankles, and get ready for $10 per gallon gasoline and economic chaos unlike anything seen in our lifetimes.  When that happens, expect the "drill baby drill" crowd to scream for an invasion of the entire Middle East.

At home, we have an oil-dependent economy on life-support.  It’s an economy that is mostly based on gambling (casinos, state lotteries, and the financial markets), entertainment, debt-fueled instant gratification, planned techno-obsolesce (i.e., buying the new and improved version of each electronic geegwaw every year), military spending, and incremental improvements to the speed at which teenagers can wirelessly disseminate nude photos of themselves.  Personal, corporate and governmental debt-levels are crushing and unsustainable.  American politics is dominated by loud mouths, whiners, frauds and hypocrites.  Our collective heads are so far up our collective asses in denial that we cannot even think straight about our predicament much less respond intelligently to it.  Much less consider changing the way we live or accepting a lower standard of living, say, something closer to what an upper middle class small town banker enjoyed in the 1950s.  As Dick Cheney once famously said, the American standard of living is “non-negotiable.”

Consider NASCAR.  Here is a "sport" whose existence depends on the gratuitous pissing-away (at 200 mph) of the one diminishing resourse that is so essential to our car-dependent utopia that we're willing to invade other countries to ensure we have access to it.  Every year, millions of people gratuitously piss-away millions more gallons of gas driving hundreds of miles to watch these noisy smelly machines drive around in a circle for three hours.  (Can't one get the same basic experience standing on a freeway overpass?)  Is there any better example of how far our heads are lodged up our asses than the wild popularity of NASCAR?

By the way, here are the other two parts of that ancient Chinese curse:

May you come to the attention of the authorities.

May you find what you are looking for. 

That last one might be re-stated for today’s times as follows: Be careful what you wish for . . . you just might get it.  Americans’ most ardent wish seems to be to protect at all costs the oil-dependent standard living to which they’ve become accustomed and to which they feel entitled.  As the Middle East’s fragile stability continues to crumble, things should get very, well, interesting.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Poetry By Checklist

The following is an open letter mailed to my son's middle school principal.

Dear Principal Smith:

In his important essay "Dehumanized" (Harpers Magazine, September 2009), Mark Slouka advances a well-supported argument that the American educational system is woefully preoccupied with achieving one goal to the exclusion of all others: producing “workers” who have the “skills” needed to “compete” in a “global economy.”  In my experience as a parent in our otherwise excellent school district, I find this to be true.

As one compelling piece of anecdotal evidence, Mr. Slouka quotes from the mission statement of an organization calling itself the “Public Higher Education Leaders Convened by Carnegie Corporation of New York.”  This mouthful of a group, which represents colleges and universities from all over the country, summarizes the purpose of education this way: “Leaders of the country’s public higher education sector are committed to create [sic] a long-term plan to serve the nation by enhancing public universities’ critical role in creating jobs, increasing graduates, enhancing the quality and skills of the workforce, and assisting in national technology and energy initiatives through research.”

Creating jobs.  Enhancing workforce skills. Serving the nation.  Chilling, isn’t it?  Not a single word for cultivating independent citizens capable of intelligently questioning settled cultural assumptions, as for example, the settled cultural assumption that maximizing economic efficiency is the highest of all human aspirations.  Not a single nod to the joy of learning for its own sake.

According to these influential educational leaders, what do kids most need to learn?  Whatever will get them hired.  What skills must they acquire?  The ability to follow their employers’ detailed & complicated instructions.  For is this not the essence of what workers in our global economy do?

Dutifully following directions.  This is very nearly the opposite of the goal of a classical – dare I say, liberal – education.  In Mr. Slouka’s view, a view I share, we should be teaching “whatever contributes to the development of autonomous human beings; we teach, that is, in order to expand the census of knowledgeable, reasoning, independent-minded individuals both sufficiently familiar with the world outside themselves to lend their judgments compassion and breadth . . . , and sufficiently skilled to find productive employment.  In that order.”

This traditional view of education’s humanizing function (as opposed to its strictly utilitarian one) is memorably depicted in a scene from the movie “Legends of the Fall.”  The fiercely independent family patriarch, who resigned his commission in the Army over its brutal treatment of Native Americans following the Civil War, decides one evening that his loyal ranch hand’s half-Caucasian daughter is in need of some education.  The girl’s Lakota mother asks skeptically:  “And what will she do with all this education?”  Without even stopping to think, the Colonel answers:  “Why, she’ll lead a richer fuller life, of course.”  A modern educator would have answered:  “Why, she’ll become a productive and obedient cog in the global economy, of course.”

What seemed obvious to cultivated 19th century men like the fictional Colonel Ludlow is now considered quaint.  It would be lovely, to be sure, to live in a country whose citizens – having universal access to public education – have learned to ponder man’s essentially tragic fate and to draw humane judgments about “right living” from the accumulated wisdom of the ages.  But it is apparently far more important that our countrymen have the skills to compete with high-tech factory workers in Asia.  To quote Mr. Slouka one final time: “You’ll hear a good deal about Singapore if you listen to the chorus of concern over American education.  If only we could be more like Singapore.  If only our education system could be as efficient as Singapore’s.  You say that Singapore might not be the best model to aspire to, that in certain respects it more closely resembles Winston Smith’s world than Thomas Jefferson’s?  What does that have to do with education?”  To ask the question is to answer it.

In microcosm form, the barren state of American humanities education revealed itself this past weekend in a poetry writing assignment my sixth-grade son brought home from school.  This supposed creative writing assignment came in the form of a written checklist of ten detailed bullet-point instructions.  Did I mention this was a poetry assignment and not a science project?

The teacher instructed the students, for example, that their grades would be based on such bean counting criteria as including a “Minimum of 5 action verbs” and a “Minimum of 5 adjectives”.  Poetry by checklist, I immediately thought to myself.

I respectfully submit that this is a writing assignment perfectly tailored to the cubicle zombies our system is trying so hard to produce.  A good poem – one that receives full credit – is one in which the student has carefully checked the boxes in the grading “rubric” (an immensely annoying term of edu-speak in its own right).  The checklist serves two functions that I can discern.  It reinforces the essentially “direction following” nature of this supposed creative writing assignment and it gives the teacher some measurable criteria upon which to base a grade.  It is apparently unimportant to judge creative writing – even youthful creative writing – on general aesthetic standards.  If it cannot be measured or subordinated to business-like quality control standards, then it has no place in American education.  We are a very long way from Colonel Ludlow’s “richer fuller life.”

Reading JFK’s biography recently, I was impressed by the way his parents demanded that all the Kennedy children learn to think independently and to form their own opinions.  The father encouraged dinner-time intellectual arguments.  For all of his personal flaws and political failings, Kennedy’s classical education – his command of history and his intimacy with poems like Alan Seeger’s “Rendezvous With Death” – served humanity well during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Had Kennedy followed his generals’ checklist, or, sweet mother of Jesus, had Nixon or LBJ won the 1960 election, it is quite possible that 100 million people would have been wiped out in the blink of an eye.  Efficient, no?

Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Angle of Repose” addresses these themes.  Lyman Ward is thinking about his son Rodman who has been educated in the modern way:  “If I spoke to Rodman in those terms, saying that my grandparents’ lives seem to me organic and ours what? hydroponic? he would ask in derision what I meant.  Define my terms.  How do you measure the organic residue of a man or a generation?  This is all metaphor.  If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.  Rodman is a great measurer.”

If you will indulge me one final pop-cultural reference, I am reminded of a very funny episode of the sitcom “Friends.” Chandler Bing, the one member of the gang who holds down something like a respectable desk job, is telling his friends about the database he’s in charge of monitoring.  It’s called the “WENUS” (rhymes with “Venus”).  WENUS stands for “Weekly Estimated Net Usage System.” It’s some kind of unspecified god-awful quality control or unit tracking system.  Chandler’s purpose in life is to keep a firm grip on his company’s WENUS.  I’m sure Chandler took plenty of courses in business management and accounting.  He passed the full battery of standardized tests.  He probably learned his poetry by checklist.  Undoubtedly, his humanities course work was graded using “rubrics.”  But can he recite a single poem from memory – as the six year old Caroline Kennedy once stunned JFK’s national security staff by reciting “Rendezvous With Death” for them from memory?

I doubt poetry by checklist will contribute in any meaningful way to my son’s budding ability to think critically about his world – nurtured, mostly, at home.  But I am confident, if the occasion ever arises, that he will have been well-prepared by our educational system to keep meticulous track of his WENUS.