Tag Archives: culture

Covid-19 Has Revealed the Dual Nature of Schools in the USA

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The debate over whether to open schools is revealing an important question that has lurked just below the surface for a generation–indeed, perhaps for as long as free public education has existed in the United States: what is the purpose of our schools? Is it to teach people crucial skills and allow them to acquire important knowledge, or is it rather to provide a holding tank, a safe and dependable place for a part of the population that cannot yet care for themselves?

Some teachers take umbrage at the thought that K-12 schools are used as childcare centers; they say that they are not babysitters, and that the push to open schools is an attempt to get the economy going again by providing workers with childcare that is not otherwise available to them. There is truth in this assertion. But universities, too, have been used for the last fifty years as childcare centers of a sort, places where a group of people is deposited under the guise of acquiring a higher education until they are ready to enter the workforce, or until the working world is convinced to let them in. Our educational institutions, in other words, have been, at least for the last fifty years, both places of learning and care facilities at the same time.

It’s best if we accept this dual role of educational institutions, rather than rail against it. A K-12 school can be both a place where education occurs as well as a place where parents can send their children for safe care (school shootings and pandemics aside). A university or college can be a place to teach important skill sets, including knowledge that is difficult to acquire on one’s own, as well as a place where young adults are sent while they wait their turn to enter a work force that isn’t quite ready for them yet. This leads to the question of opening the schools: are they essential for our country? In the short-term, the answer is a resounding “yes”: providing such a safe space is essential in order to run the economy we’ve grown used to, one in which financial necessity compels parents to scramble to find childcare, as well as one in which young adults require an expensive university education merely to snag an entry-level job in a field that becomes outmoded within years.

In this sense, teachers and professors are indeed essential workers; they are, in fact, babysitters. (Note that I do not say “mere” babysitters. The term itself is a demeaning one, indicating that a caregiver’s job is completely passive, but anyone who has ever been around young children knows this is far from the truth. I will leave that topic for future post, however. At any rate, babysitting is at least as important a role in our society as being a university professor, perhaps much more so.) But at the same time they are caregivers, teachers are also purveyors of knowledge and skills, and we need to keep both functions in mind as we think about the job they do.

I’ll be honest: I can see no clear solution as to whether schools should be opening up in a few short weeks. Sadly, we have completely squandered the time we bought back in March, when schools were summarily shut down in order to stem the spread of Covid-19. We did not stop the disease from spreading, which is bad, but what is even worse is that we completely failed to create a workable plan for re-opening schools and instead just held our breath, hoping that the pandemic would simply die down or fade away. It didn’t have to be this way; the complete lack of leadership at the federal level is to blame for this awful situation. During this time, other countries’ schools have created solutions  that we can learn from, and we must study them closely to find our own, but here is one simple takeaway: flexibility is the key to fighting this pandemic. As argued in Tomas Pueyo’s important article published the early days of the pandemic, we need to shift between strict containment measures, including lockdowns, and loosened restrictions, again and again until Covid-19 becomes manageable. This demands that we act with flexibility, becoming responsive to the current situation.

And here we find a heartbreaking irony: flexibility is precisely what is lacking in the educational institutions we have come to rely on for childcare. And this in turn is a direct result of the binary role of schools in our society and our unwillingness to recognize it. In other words, what matters in childcare is dependability, after all; we need to know that our children have a safe place to go with someone watching over them whenever we need to be at work. But as far as education goes, flexibility is the most important thing. If one learning method doesn’t work, a good teacher always has a host of other methods to try out. Learning itself has to be flexible, because knowledge is acquired through a series of attempts, failures, and (hopefully) successes; a good education should always provide its student with the ability to be flexible. In other words, critical thinking, simply described, is the ability to see a problem in a variety of ways in order to solve it. Flexibility, elasticity, and adaptability are excellent things in education, however unwelcome they may have become in the working world (or the political world, for that matter). I would even argue that ignoring the role of flexibility in education has actually led to the demise of its effectiveness in our country, as we came to rely on testing and objective-chasing rather than more organic approaches to teaching, but that, too, I will have to leave for another post, or to another blogger.

My point here is simply this: it isn’t necessarily bad for education to serve as child (or young adult) care, but not recognizing and accommodating this dual nature of our educational institutions will lead us to make faulty, even disastrous, choices as we move forward to confront our new future. 

This pandemic, awful as it is, may well have good consequences. One of them, I hope, is the bright light it shines, often harshly, on the institutions and traditions we’ve come to accept so blithely through the years. Though it may be painful in the beginning, we can work to make these institutions work for our society much better than they have in the past. But the first step, as always, is to see things as they are, and in this case, we must accept the idea that schools have been necessary in this country not only because they teach the skills and knowledge that citizens of a democracy must have, but also because they provide childcare to people who need to work and otherwise could not afford to do so. Let us look at the situation clearly, transparently, and earnestly: only then can we hope to meet the challenges that face us in this difficult and unprecedented time.

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Filed under culture, Education, Politics, Uncategorized

How the Study of Literature Could Save Democracy

Beowulf MS, picture from Wikipedia

Usually, I am not one to make grand claims for my discipline. There was a time, back when I was a young graduate student in the 1980s, that I would have; perhaps even more recently, I might have argued that understanding ideology through literary theory and criticism is essential to understanding current events and the conditions we live in. But I no longer believe that.

Perhaps in saying this publicly, I’m risking some sort of banishment from academia. Maybe I will have to undergo a ritual in which I am formally cashiered, like some kind of academic Alfred Dreyfus, although instead of having my sword broken in half and my military braids ripped to shreds, I will have my diploma yanked from my hands and trampled on the ground before my somber eyes. Yet unlike Dreyfus, I will have deserved such treatment, because I am in fact disloyal to my training: I don’t believe literary theory can save the world. I don’t think it’s necessary that we have more papers and books on esoteric subjects, nor do I think it’s realistic or useful for academics to participate in a market system in which the research they produce becomes a commodity in their quest for jobs, promotions, or grant opportunities. In this sense, I suppose I am indeed a traitor.

But recently I have realized, with the help of my friend and former student (thanks, Cari!), that literature classes are still important. In fact, I think studying literature can help save our way of life. You just have to look at it this way: it’s not the abstruse academic research that can save us, but rather the garden-variety study of literature that can prove essential to preserving democracy. Let me explain how.

I’ll begin, as any good scholar should, by pointing out the obvious. We are in a bad place in terms of political discourse–it doesn’t take a scholar to see that. Polarizing views have separated Americans into two discrete camps with very little chance of crossing the aisle to negotiate or compromise. Most people are unwilling to test their beliefs, for example, preferring to cling to them even in the face of contradictory evidence. As social psychologists Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris point out in a recent article in The Atlantic, “human beings are deeply unwilling to change their minds. And when the facts clash with their preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong.” They use the term “cognitive dissonance,” which means the sense of disorientation and even discomfort one feels when considering two opposing viewpoints, to explain why it is so hard for people to change their ideas.

To those of us who study literature, the term “cognitive dissonance” may be new, but the concept certainly is not. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, in an essay which is largely forgotten except for this sentence, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function” (“The Crack-Up,Esquire Magazine, February 1936). In addition, cognitive dissonance isn’t that far removed from an idea expressed by John Keats in a letter he wrote to his brothers back in 1817. He invents the term “Negative Capability” to describe the ability to remain in a liminal state of doubt and uncertainty without being driven to come to any conclusion and definitive belief. Negative capability, in other words, is the capacity to be flexible in our beliefs, to be capable of changing our minds.

I believe that the American public needs to develop negative capability, lots of it, and quickly, if we are to save our democracy.

But there’s a huge problem. Both Fitzgerald and Keats believe that this function is reserved only for geniuses. In their view, a person is born with this talent for tolerating cognitive dissonance: you either have it–in which case you are incredibly gifted–or you don’t. In contrast, Aronson and Tavris clearly believe it’s possible to develop a tolerance for cognitive dissonance: “Although it’s difficult, changing our minds is not impossible. The challenge is to find a way to live with uncertainty…” While their belief in our ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance and to learn from it is encouraging, it is sobering that they do not provide a clear path toward fostering this tolerance.

So here’s where the study of literature comes in. In a good English class, when we study a text, whether it’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Beowulf, students and teacher meet as more or less equals over the work of literature in an effort to find its meaning and its relevance. Certainly the teacher has more experience and knowledge, but this doesn’t–or shouldn’t–change the dynamic of the class: we are all partners in discovering what the text has to say in general, and to us, specifically. That is our task. In the course of this task, different ideas will be presented. Some interpretations will be rejected; some will be accepted. Some will be rejected, only to be later accepted, even after the space of years (see below for an example).

If we do it well, we will reach a point in the discussion where we consider several differrent suggestions and possibilities for interpretation. This is the moment during which we become experts in cognitive dissonance, as we relish interpretive uncertainty, examining each shiny new idea and interpretation with the delight of a child holding up gorgeously colored beads to the light. We may put a bead down, but it is only to take up another, different one–and we may well take up the discarded bead only to play with it some more.

The thing that makes the study of literature so important in this process is that it isn’t really all that important in the grand scheme of things. To my knowledge, no one has ever been shot for their interpretation of Hamlet; the preservation of life and limb does not hang on an precise explanation of Paradise Lost. If we use the study of literature as a classroom designed to increase our capacity for cognitive dissonance, in other words, we can dissipate the highly charged atmosphere that makes changing our minds so difficult. And once we get used to the process, when we know what it’s like to experience cognitive dissonance, it will be easier to for us to tolerate it in other parts of our lives, even in the sphere of public policy and politics.

If I seem to be writing with conviction (no cognitive dissonance here!), it’s because I have often experienced this negative capability in real time. I will give just two examples. The first one occurred during a class on mystery fiction, when we were discussing the role of gossip in detective novels, which then devolved into a discussion on the ethics of gossip. The class disagreed violently about whether gossip could be seen as good or neutral, or whether it was always bad. A loud (and I mean loud!) discussion ensued, with such force that a janitor felt compelled to pop his head into the classroom–something that I had never seen happen either before or since then–to ask if everything was ok. While other teachers might have felt that they had lost control of the classroom, I, perversely, believe that this might have been my most successful teaching moment ever. That so many students felt safe enough to weigh in, to argue and debate passionately about something that had so little real importance suggested to me that we were exercising and developing new critical aptitudes. Some of us, I believe, changed our minds as a result of that discussion. At the very least, I think many of us saw the topic in a different way than we had to begin with. This, of course, is the result of experiencing cognitive dissonance.

My second example is similar. At the end of one very successful course on Ernest Hemingway, my class and I adjourned for the semester to meet at a local bar, at which we continued our discussion about The Sun Also Rises. My student Cari and I got into a very heated discussion about whether the novel could be seen as a pilgrimage story. Cari said it was ; I vehemently disagreed. The argument was fierce and invigorating–so invigorating, as a matter of fact, that at one point a server came to inquire whether there was something wrong, and then a neighboring table began to take sides in the debate. (For the record, I live in Hemingway country, and everyone here has an opinion about him and his works.) Cari and I left the bar firmly ensconced in our own points of view, but a couple of years ago–some three years after the original argument occurred–I came to see it from Cari’s point of view, and I now agree with her that The Sun Also Rises can be seen as a sort of pilgrimage tale. It took a while, but I was able to change my mind.

It is this capacity to change one’s mind, I will argue, that is important, indeed, indispensable, for the democratic process to thrive.

In the end, it may well be that the chief contribution that good teachers of literature make to culture is this: we provide a safe and accessible place for people to learn what cognitive dissonance feels like, and in doing so, we can help them acquire a tolerance for it. This tolerance, in turn, leads to an increase in the ability to participate in civil discourse, which is itself the bedrock of democratic thought and process. In other words, you can invest in STEAM classes all you want, but if you really want to make people good citizens, do not forget about literature courses.

In view of this discovery of mine, I feel it’s my duty to host a noncredit literature class of sorts in the fall, a discussion-type newsletter that covers the great works of English literature–whatever that means–from Beowulf to the early Romantic period, in which discussion is paramount. If you’re interested or have suggestions, please let me know by commenting or messaging me, and I’ll do my best to keep you in the loop.

And in the meantime, keep your minds open! Cognitive dissonance, uncomfortable as it is, may just be what will keep democracy alive in the critical days to come.

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Filed under Criticism, culture, Education, Literature, Politics, Teaching

A Very Short Story

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Image from Wikipedia: By U3173699 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81674970

 

I want to refer to a day many years ago, back when the world was normal and my kids were still at home. It was a weekday afternoon, and I was making chili for dinner, chopping up ingredients at the kitchen counter. My daughter, a high school student who was also taking classes at the local community college, breezed through the back door, walked through the kitchen, put her books down on the dining room table, and returned to the doorway to say, “Mom, the kids in my school are so stupid. I mean, they’re just so dumb that I get worked up about it. I actually think I’ve gone through the Stages of Grief about their stupidity.”

“What?” I had been dicing bell peppers, but I put down my knife and looked up at her. She had just come home from her college psychology class.

“Well, we were learning about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s theory about the stages of grief, and I realized that the kids I know are so annoying and stupid that I’ve gone through all those stages about them.”

I asked her to explain, and she went on. “So, the first stage is Denial. I start out thinking, ‘I cannot believe these people are so stupid. Maybe if I ignore them, I won’t have to deal with them at all. The extent of their stupidity actually scares me, so I’ll stay away.'”

I nodded and said, “Go on.”

“The next stage is Anger. I get angry at their stupidity, because they frustrate me, and they make me anxious. I’m just mad that they’re dumb and they don’t care about changing.”

I waited for her to continue.

“Okay, then comes Depression. I seriously get depressed about how stupid they are. I begin to think that they’ll never be anything but stupid, no matter how much I — or anyone else — tries to help them. It makes me sad that anyone can be alive and so dumb.”

By this point I had nothing to say. It’s always a little overwhelming the first time your child shares a truly interesting thought that you didn’t plant in their brain.

“That’s when I start Bargaining. I say to myself, ‘Oh, they may be stupid in this class. They may be stupid in all their classes, but maybe they’re good athletes. Yeah, they’re probably great at football or basketball or volleyball. They’re in band, so maybe that’s what they’re good at. See, they’re really stupid, but there are ways to compensate for that, aren’t there?”

She paused a moment, then finished by saying, “But I always end up Accepting their stupidity. I just factor it into my plans, sometimes I even use it to get what I want, and then I move on to something else.”

She stood up, grabbed her books, and went upstairs to her room, leaving me staring after her. I had nothing to say in the face of such brilliance, but she didn’t even notice.

Every single thing she’d said made perfect sense, and I promised myself one day I would write about it.

And now, 15 years later, awake at the crack of dawn because I can’t stop thinking and fretting and worrying, I realize that we’re probably all going through the Stages of Grief about the Coronavirus, and I’ve finally made good on my promise.

P.S. If you’re looking for more stuff to read, check out my friend John’s blog: TomatoPlanet! at https://ininva.com/. John’s been doing this blogging stuff since way before it was cool, and he’s got some great stuff there.

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Filed under culture, Education, Miscellaneous Musings, Stories, Writing

A Change is Gonna Come

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Sam Cooke. Scroll down to link to “A Change is Gonna Come”

Although it sounds strange to say it, I am optimistic today. Of course, being in quarantine, my optimism comes and goes in erratic waves–often I am depressed, and worried, and downright frightened about the future. But this morning, I can see a silver lining, and I want to take a moment right now to share it with you, my readers.

I am more hopeful about the survival of the human race today than I was a week ago. Now this may seem strange when we consider that we are facing a pandemic that threatens a large portion of our population. I am terrified that deaths will start to climb fast in the United States, as they have elsewhere (is anyone else addicted to the worldometers coronavirus site)? It’s a scary time to be alive, there’s no doubt about it. But I need to share with you that this morning, I see some real hope for our future.

In the last week, we’ve seen sweeping change occur in the blink of an eye. We’ve seen schools close, athletic events — both professional and amateur — cancelled, and even restaurants and bars shut down. All of this has happened voluntarily, so to speak. No one’s out protesting in the streets about these closures, because we all know it’s necessary to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Strangely enough, these changes have happened at the behest, not of the federal government, but of state and local governments. I applaud the courageous governors who have made these tough decisions, just as I deride the lack of leadership at the federal level. I am proud of our local community leaders, too, who are stepping up and not only following but also preparing to enforce these new rules, should any enforcement be necessary. In the last week, the federal government has become, a kind of inconsequential afterthought, a  lazy bystander watching all these changes take effect. In fact, it may not be an exaggeration to say that Washington has become irrelevant in the past last week.

And this is why I am optimistic. For eight years now, on and off, I’ve worked for change. I realized long ago that if the human race is to survive the threat of global climate change, we will have to make drastic adjustments in the way we live. During most of that time, I have been pessimistic about the possibility of enacting any change. To put it bluntly, in the eight years I’ve been working for systemic change, I’ve been able to achieve very little: the sum total of my labors at this point is getting myself elected to my tiny community’s city council and, if I am to be honest, this blog. It’s not much; in fact that’s a pitiful list of accomplishments. But this past week I have seen that change is possible, and that’s what gives me hope on this cloudy, cold spring morning, sitting at my desk in the middle of a pandemic.

Look at it this way. We are entering a very frightening period. Things are changing every moment. But the point is, we are capable of change. By the time we get through this coronavirus crisis, each one of us will have changed. More importantly, the country as a whole will change, too. Look at how much we have already changed in the span of a week. In a year’s time, we will be a more collective society, one in which we look out for each other even in the midst of isolation. We will begin to rebuild our federal government, which has been systematically dismantled over the past forty years, because we see now how very much we need it. We will create a global health system that works to prevent pandemics, that stops infectious disease before it can gain a toe-hold. We will change in other ways, too, which no one, especially me, can predict.

This shift will not happen all at once. In fact, it may not happen in my lifetime. But my children, who are young adults, are watching this change, this revolution, occur in real time. And because they are experiencing sweeping changes now, they will know throughout their lives that radical change is a real possibility, one which doesn’t rest on the charisma of one political candidate or another, but on a society of intelligent and educated people who heed scientists, and which is motivated not by profits but by safeguarding the lives of those they love. This generation and the next will  remember these lessons, gaining important knowledge about the flexibility of the society they live in, and that knowledge will guide them into the future.

Change isn’t always good, though, and we should prepare ourselves for the probability, indeed the certainty, that things will get much worse before they get better. As the federal government rebuilds itself, it will make mistakes. Personal liberties have already been curtailed, and that is a serious matter. But sacrifice is often necessary for survival. By the time we emerge from this crisis, everyone–Republicans and Democrats alike–will look a whole lot more like Socialists, and that’s a good thing. We are experiencing a powerful correction, one which is painful now, but which just might allow us to make it into a future that requires nimbleness rather than ideology, that places the value of human lives higher than that of profits.

So that’s why I’m optimistic on this cold, gray morning. Perhaps it’s also because I’ve received proof of the kindness of strangers in the face of this crisis: James, from the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, has read my blog and offered to replace my poor little knitting bag as soon as he is able to get back to the Museum. That’s a wonderful story–and right now, there are millions of stories like that happening all over the world. Focus on these stories, readers, whenever you need a break from the news.

And one more thing–if you find this post helpful at all, feel free to share it on your own social media page. Who knows? It could help someone who needs a dose of old-fashioned optimism.

Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come

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Filed under culture, Environmentalism, Miscellaneous Musings, Politics

Against Cynicism

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Like many other people, I have been very worried about the direction we’re going–not just the United States, but the world in general. Populism–which in its most innocuous form is little more than cheering for the home team but which can be so much more insidious and damaging–is on the rise, and partisanship seems to have infiltrated many western governments, causing us to question the efficacy of democracy itself. Couple this with the imminence of climate change, and the future of human civilization seems dire indeed.

So I understand why many of us might live in a state of worry, of fearful suspense. I know how it feels to wake up each morning, wondering what new terrible thing has happened while I slept, and how it feels to wait impatiently for the slow-moving wheels of democratic rule to right themselves, and to hope for a period in which government works for its citizenry rather than for corporations and billionaires. I, too, have lost hope at times, allowing myself to be convinced that the struggle against injustice and oligarchy is fruitless; like so many other people, I have frequently succumbed to cynicism and inertia, telling myself that any action is doomed to failure.

But that attitude is wrong. I know that now. More importantly, I feel it’s my duty to lead a crusade against this type of cynicism, even if I do so all by myself.

If you’re reading this blog post, excellent. We can work together. On the other hand, if this essay slips unacknowledged into cyberspace, read by no one at all, so be it–that doesn’t matter. The struggle is important, and it must be waged, even if by only one person, and even if I myself am that person. What follows, then, is my small own contribution in the war on cynicism–my manifesto, if you like.

The time for idle anger is over. The time for pessimism is past. We do not have the luxury to sit back and watch knowingly as the world falls apart, nodding as we say, “Of course, we always knew it would be this way. The system is rigged.” Whether it is or is not rigged is beside the point. This is a question that can be debated by future historians, much like the question “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Saints and scholars can debate such a question; they have that luxury. But we no longer have the luxury to debate whether government is or is not effective. We have to act, and we have to act now, if we want to save our way of life.

And actions start with beliefs, primarily the belief that when we act, our actions have effects. I believe–rather, I know, with certainty–that they do have effects. At the local level, our actions, indeed, our mere presence at meetings and councils do have an effect; I have seen this demonstrated in the past year in my role as a city councilmember. Government, at least at the most local level, works–but only if we work hard at it by electing the right people and by holding them accountable. In short, democracy is not compatible with either cynicism or complacency; yet throughout much of the last generation, our citizenry has been guilty of both these things.

Why? Because cynicism is easy. Cynicism is seductive. Cynicism is cool–so cool, in fact, that many voters in 2016 agreed that “draining the swamp” was the best thing going for a candidate who had no other ideas or attractions. So here is my advice: do not give in to the lure of cynicism. It leads nowhere but to the self, to an inflated view of one’s own cleverness and perception, to a self-satisfied egocentrism that congratulates itself on seeing the worst at all times, in all places. 

Close to the climax of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch prevents a lynching from happening merely by demonstrating her own naive lack of cynicism. As the crowd of angry white men encircles Atticus, who is guarding the innocent Tom Robinson in his cell, Scout does more than anyone else to quell the murderous mob and send it home. Her simple, naive words, her attempt to connect with Mr. Cunningham on a human and neighborly level, represent a belief in innate goodness and the power of community, and  it is just enough to disarm a group of angry men bent on taking the life of an innocent African-American man. (Click here to watch this pivotal scene; my apologies for the commercial at the beginning.)

That Tom Robinson ends up dying at the end of the novel for a crime he didn’t commit is part of To Kill a Mockingbird’s tragic impact. As readers, perhaps we can be cynical about that tragic message; but as actors, as characters in our own human drama and, most of all, as real-life community members, we cannot afford such cynicism. We must be like Scout if we want to survive.

Reader, I implore you: give up your cynicism. Today, I ask you to believe in something grander than your own cleverness in discovering the duplicity of others, and to act in good faith, even though no discernible good may come out of your actions in your lifetime. Be naive, if you have to. But say good-bye to cynicism today, this minute. I am certain the generation that comes after us will thank you for it.

 

 

 

 

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To Be Read Before the Midterm Elections

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This year, my husband and I decided to host a foreign exchange student. “If a kid wants to come to the United States in these dark days,” we told each other, “let’s do all we can to show him or her that we are not the nation we appear to be under the present regime. Let’s welcome that kid with open arms and praise the bravery that brought him or her here.” And so hosting a foreign exchange student became part of my own private resistance to the 2016 election.

We were so enthusiastic, in fact, we offered to host two students. After all, our house is fairly big, we live quite close to the high school, and, most of all, our youngest son was a foreign exchange student in 2015, and I felt that it was my karmic duty to reciprocate in some way.

Our international experiment, as I called it, did not go well–but more on that in a later post. We are down to one foreign exchange student now, and things are going much, much better, but that’s not what this post is about. What I want to discuss here is something I’ve learned from being a host parent of a European teenager, a discovery that I think needs to be shared with other Americans. And I also want to share something that I’ve learned about myself.

Here is my discovery: Europeans do not understand what is happening here. They do not know how much we despise the present regime; they do not understand that we feel our country has been commandeered by a power elite that is aiming to enslave our population through hatred, racism, ignorance, and overpowering greed. They understand that Trump has a lot of opposition, but they do not comprehend the ways in which an outdated system of voting was manipulated (in all likelihood with foreign help) in order to take over our government. According to our student, who is admittedly young but was chosen by the German government to study our culture and government while on a scholarship here, the Women’s March in protest of the inauguration was not a focal point in European news, and pussy hats are virtually unknown there. The massive resistance that is part of our everyday lives simply isn’t understood in Western Europe.

We have tried to explain certain things to her. We have said that Trump’s election was so shocking and horrifying to us and to our friends that we did not leave the house for several days. We have compared the night of his election to the day on which JFK was assassinated: a moment which showed just how awful Americans can be and how easily our hopes for the future can be wiped out. We have explained that we are afraid to watch Tuesday’s election returns for fear that the 2016 election might have been a signpost for the future, and not a terrible accident, a result of complacency, laziness, and foreign interference.

I think she is beginning to understand. But more importantly, we have begun to understand, too. We understand now that the rest of the world thinks we just made a mistake in 2016, that Americans did something stupid and inexplicable–after all, our nation has done that so often. We are beginning to see that our sense of despair and anger, our horror at Trump’s policies and the Republicans’ willingness to comply with them, is not registering across the Atlantic. Our government has been hijacked, we tell our student, but she is only beginning to understand that.

Meanwhile, I’ve learned something about myself as well.

I love my country. Of course, I am not always proud to be an American. For forty years, I have criticized the United States; I have never withheld judgment on what I see as a culture overpowered by greed, smug ignorance, and rapacious, unfettered capitalism. I know our faults and our flaws, many of which go back to the days of the Puritans, resulting in the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, and the wholesale oppression of minorities. Clearly, our history contains many things to be ashamed of.

But there are things to be proud of as well: NASA, baseball, multicultural neighborhoods that are teeming with people of all ethnicities and languages, Muslims coming forward to help Jews, Jews coming forward to help Muslims, people protesting the actions of a cruel and oppressive government by massing in the streets, in airports, and at border resettlement centers. Last night, during dinner, I shouted the word “jazz!,” to the surprise of everyone at the table, then explained that it’s the one, truly original American art form. It’s a contribution to world culture that all Americans can be proud of.

For the past couple of days, I’ve been trying to explain both to my student and to myself why I am afraid to watch the election returns on Tuesday night. Will I be overcome by despair again? Will I have to throw up my hands in disgust and say that as a country we deserve what we vote for, that our grand experiment in democracy is finally over? I’m not sure how I’ll bear that, considering how awful November 7, 2016, was for me.

But what if the opposite happens? How will I manage a blue victory, given that the thought of millions of people coming out to vote in the midterm elections to show they are not sheep, that they believe in right and wrong, that they will not be complicit with a government that is irresponsible, ignorant, and self-serving–how will I cope, given that this possibility also overwhelms me with emotion? Since the mere thought of this possibility makes me tear up–I can be very sentimental when confronted with evidence that human beings can be kind and decent–I think that either way, I might be in for some kind of an emotional collapse on Tuesday night.

(I will just add here that there’s another, minor, concern, of mine, too: I’m running for local office, and I will be watching election returns on Tuesday night to learn the results of my race. But the stakes are so much lower for that race that I am not expending much thought on it.)

So here’s to all of you out there who, like me, regard Tuesday’s election with an uneasy mixture of heavy dread and stubborn, overpowering hope. Let’s remember that we can take our country back and set it on the right path again. If we get out in strength on Tuesday, maybe that will be the very first step to re-fashioning our country into the nation we want it to be, the nation it needs to be.

Godspeed to us all.

 

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The End of Democracy

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Chief Petoskey might agree that democracy is a failure.

It may be my bad luck, and my generation’s bad luck, to be alive at a time when we are witnessing the limits of democracy. We’ve had a good run–over two hundred years now–but it may be time to call it a day and start over with some new form of government.

I suppose I am as patriotic as anyone. There are two times in my life when I felt tears well up in my eyes solely because of my pride in being an American. One was after a three-week trip to Iceland, Scotland, and England in 1996, when I returned with my young family to Houston Intercontinental Airport. Waiting in customs, I noticed a babble of languages, and looking around, I saw myself surrounded by people of color, dressed in a variety of ways, many with headscarves or turbans. At that time, it was easy to imagine that these people, if not Americans themselves, would be welcomed as visitors to the United States, or perhaps as potential citizens. That was enough to make me sentimental about the diversity of my country, to be thankful to live in a country that valued all people.

(I will pass over for now the very real possibility—indeed, the near certainty—that this was simply a fiction, even at that time. My belief, however, was real enough to draw tears of pride from my eyes, which of course I quickly wiped away.)

The second time I became emotional with pride in my country was in about 2003 or 2004, when, as a union member from the local community college I stood in solidarity with nurses who were striking at the hospital. I was proud to do so—it is our right as Americans to stand and protest, as so many of us have recently found out. I was proud to be a citizen of a country that allows its citizens to congregate for such a purpose, despite the inconveniences that may be caused by it.

In the last couple of years, I’ve seen protests, but I haven’t taken part in them. I’ve supported them, but I have not been able to make myself participate in them. During the Women’s March, I stayed home, dissolved into a teary mess most of the day. But these were not tears of pride. Perhaps there was some pride mixed in, and admiration for the women who dedicated themselves to the cause, but there was also a feeling of profound despair at the need for such a march. It was the same thing with the March for Our Lives. What a beautiful expression of solidarity, but why should the people of this country need to march in order to protect our children, in order to stand up against an organization that should have no part in our electoral process, to protest the very electoral process that has been shown to be corrupt—not only because of foreign interference, but because of outrageously large campaign donations that fund and sway our elected officials?

Don’t get me wrong. To those of you who are participating in these movements, I want to say that I admire and love you for what you are doing. Yet I cannot help but feel that the need for such movements marks the decline of democracy, the end of this glorious experiment in civic rule that began over 200 years ago.

(Again, I will pass over the fact that this glorious experiment probably started, as so many others have, with the desire for personal gain on the part of the architects of the experiment.)

Democracy cannot work when it is corrupted by the desire for financial gain. It cannot work when the electorate is divided along the lines of hard-held, incontestable beliefs that brook no argument or discussion. It cannot work when our elected officials are, like the people who elect them, small-minded, fearful, and utterly dependent on large corporations who try to direct every facet of their lives and thoughts and are free to do so if they spend enough money on licit and illicit media campaigns.

Recently, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens called for the repeal of the Second Amendment. It may in fact be time for such a step. But I fear it may be time for a more drastic step: to admit that our democracy, such as it is, has failed, and that it is time to go back to the drawing board to find a new, more equitable, more humane way of living together in this world that we have created for ourselves.

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Teaching Behind the Lines

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French Resistance Fighters putting up posters.  Image from “History in Photos” Blog (available here)

It’s been a year now since the election, and here I am, still fighting off a sense of futility and hopelessness about the future. During that time, the United States has pulled out of the Paris Accord in an astounding demonstration of willful ignorance about climate change, suffered a spate of horrific mass murders due to lax gun laws, and threatened nuclear war with North Korea. Suffice it to say that things are not going well.

But I should point out that the emphasis in my first sentence should be on the word “fighting,” because that’s what I’m doing these days: in my own small way, I’m waging a tiny war on some of the ignorance and egotism that seems to be ruling my country these days. Somewhere (I can’t find it anymore, and perhaps that’s just as well), the French novelist Léon Werth said that any action taken against tyranny, no matter how small, no matter how personal, helps to make things better. I’ve taken his words to heart, and I’m using this space to take stock of what I’ve done in the last year. I do this not to brag–far from it, because I know I’ve done far too little–but to remind myself that although I feel powerless too much of the time, I am not quite as powerless as I seem.

Let me begin, however, by saying what I haven’t done. I have not run for office. I did that in 2012, perhaps having had an inkling that things were not going well in my part of the country, but I was crushed by an unresponsive political system, apathy, and my own supreme unsuitability for the task. I am not ready to run for office again. In fact, I may never be ready to run again. I did write about my experience, however, and over the past year, I have encouraged other people, specifically women, to run for office. I’ve talked to a few activist groups about my experiences, and perhaps most important of all, I’ve donated to campaigns.

The thing I’ve done that merits any kind of discussion, however, is what I would call “resistance teaching”: going behind the lines of smug, self-satisfied ignorance, and using any tools I have to fight it. I still believe, naive as I am, that education can fight tyranny, injustice, and inequality. So I have engaged in a few activities that will, I hope, result in creating discussions, examining benighted attitudes, and opening up minds. I haven’t done anything too flamboyant, mind you–just a few actions that will hopefully develop into something more tangible in the months to come.

Here is my list:

  1. In spite of feeling gloomy about the future, I’ve continued with my writing, because I felt that even in difficult times, people should concentrate on making art. I self-published my second novel, and I wrote about it here, explaining why self-publishing can be an act of resistance in and of itself.
  2. I began to translate a novel about WW I, written by Léon Werth. I am now nearing my second revision of the translation. I have submitted a chapter of it to several fine magazines and received some nice rejection letters. I will be using my translation to present a short paper on WW I writing and Hemingway at the International Hemingway Conference in Paris this summer.
  3. I’ve traveled–quite a bit. I went to Italy, to Wales, to France, to Dallas, to Boston, and some other places that I can’t remember now. Traveling is important to open up barriers, intellectual as well as political. For example, in France I learned that while we Americans thought of Emmanuel Macron as a kind of savior for the French, he was viewed with some real skepticism and even fear by his electorate. Sure, he was better than Marine LePen–but he was still an unknown quantity, and most French people I met expressed some degree of hesitation about endorsing him.
  4. I directed a play for my community theatre group. Although it was hard and very time-consuming, I discovered that I really believe in the value of community theatre, where a group of individuals come together in a selfless (for the most part) effort to bring the words and ideas of a person long dead back to life. So what if audiences are tiny? It’s the work that matters, not the reception of it.
  5. I gave a talk at the C.S. Lewis Festival, which you can read here. It was fun and stimulating, and I remembered just how much I enjoy thinking and exploring literature and the ideas that shape it.

All of these things are fine, but I think the most important thing I’ve done in the past year is going back into the classroom again, this time as a substitute to help out some friends, but also to engage in what I think of “resistance teaching.” As a substitute professor, as a lifelong learning instructor, I can engage students and encourage them to think without being bound by a syllabus or any other requirements. I can get behind the lines of bureaucratic structures and work to create an atmosphere of free discussion and intellectual exploration. It is small work, and it may not be very effective, but I have taken it on as my own work, my own idiosyncratic way of combating the heartless ignorance, the dangerous half-assed education that prevails in our society.

I have always loved the idea of Resistance Fighters. I just never thought I’d be one myself.

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Making Art in Troubled Times

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Image from the webpage of the Ashmolean Museum: http://britisharchaeology.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/highlights/alfred-jewel.html 

I will admit it: after the election in November, I succumbed to a sense of defeat. What is the point, I moaned, if autocracy and tyranny are not merely accepted but welcomed by the masses, if the great ideal of a democratic country is systematically dismantled before our eyes? Why bother with anything, much less with the last fifty pages of a novel that no one will ever read?

At the time, I was working through the last part of a story I’d begun a couple of years earlier, and I was ready to give it up, because, well, why would I finish it when the world as I know it is coming to an end? (My feelings arose not only because of the U.S. election results or the ensuing realization that a foreign power had tinkered with our “free elections,” but also because of the global rise of a dangerous populism, coupled with imminent global climate change.)

But a good friend gave me some advice, and I soldiered on and completed the draft. Right now, I am steadily working on it, revision after revision. And I am doing this not because I think my novel can change the world. It certainly won’t; it won’t be read by more than a hundred people, and that’s if I’m lucky.

But this short essay is not about the art of writing without readers; I will deal with that in a future post. For now, all I want to do is to encourage everyone who reads this blog to go on and continue their artistic activities. I say this not as a writer, or even as a reader, but as a scholar. And I have a very simple reason for doing so.

Art is the residue left by human culture. When civilizations disappear, when lives and institutions have crumbled into the dust, what remains is the art they created. Some of this art arises from genius, like the works of Mozart and Shakespeare; some of it comes from normal people, like the rest of us. But we need it all–every last scrap of it, not only the wonderful pieces that make us cry with joy or sadness, but even the average and ungainly works of art, because even bad art is an expression of human experience, and in the end, it is the experience of being human that binds us together on this lonely little planet.

So go ahead with your art. Draw, paint, weave, write, compose or play music. Do not worry that you are fiddling as Rome burns. Rome will, ultimately, burn–history tells us that. But what is left behind are wonderful murals that will take your breath away, mosaics, epic poems, statues and monumental structures. Don’t worry about whether your art will be appreciated; it is the act of making it that is important, not whether or not it is celebrated. Think of that lonely monk who produced Beowulf; he  was probably scared shitless that his Anglo-Saxon culture would be erased by the next Viking invasion, but he fought off this feeling of futility and kept going, thank goodness. Remember his small act of courage, try to emulate it, and above all, keep going.

Do not be afraid of working in the darkness; you may not be able to dispel it, but your work could provide light for others, not only now, but in the future as well.

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On the Limits of Education and the Meaning of Work

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From the opening scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange (1931) from http://filmtravers.com/reviews/FT_Rich_and_Strange_1931.html

A couple of weeks ago, I told my freshman composition class that they needed to think hard about whether they should be in college. This flies in the face of what community college professors are supposed to say. We’re programmed, in one way or another, to tell students that getting a college degree is important to their success, that it can help them to a good, stable job, and that it will improve their lives–all of which are excellent things. There’s only one problem.

I no longer believe it will.

I won’t go into the fact that my students, like most community college students, live on the edge. It takes little to derail them: an illness, a sick parent or child, pregnancy, a missed payment on their house or car, a pink slip. Granted, these are not the kind of people who are movers and shakers, who are watching TED talks on how to make their work meaningful as well as rewarding (a sample of which you can find here). Yet these very students are among the most ambitious I’ve ever encountered in my 25 + years in higher education, and all they want is the lowest degree possible after high school: an associate’s degree, which may not be worth the paper it’s written on.

I won’t even go into the argument alluded to above: that the value of associate degrees is not guaranteed (although articles like this one in the October 3, 2013, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education make that sobering point). My point was quite different, and it’s one I wish more people would consider.

It stems from the fact that most of us–99% of us, in fact–have to work to feed, clothe, and sustain ourselves. Of course, humans have always had to work for sustenance, and for much of our history, this work wasn’t too engaging. How interesting is it, for example, to gather berries or tend livestock? It may be satisfying, to a certain degree, but it isn’t mentally stimulating–at least, not in the same way that studying philosophy, or working on a multi-national marketing project, can be. Some time in the last fifty years or so, it seems that Americans have added several requirements to any job that we consider for a career: it must be lucrative, it must be meaningful (whatever that means), and it must be intellectually engaging. Any truly desirable job must exercise our minds and feed our souls as well as fill our pockets.

And because of this expectation–that our jobs will exercise and use our minds–we have given up the responsibility to do so ourselves. What this means is that when we take a job that is not intellectually challenging, as some of us must, we tend to give up on seeking out ways to enrich our minds through work. We succumb to the lure of popular culture, with its insipid siren call to watch pointless television shows; we anesthetize ourselves with a partying culture that emphasizes drinking, drug use, and sex as a means of escape from an existence of drudgery. Once thoroughly anesthetized, we are seduced into accepting the status quo without questioning if it is, after all, the best way to live.

It doesn’t have to be this way, however. What I told my students is that they need to find out what’s important to them and make that their Work–with a capital “W.” This Work, I said, is what will get them through all the crummy jobs–and there will be many of those–they’ll be forced to take. For example, maybe their Work is writing short stories, or playing jazz guitar, or spinning wool and knitting sweaters: the actual Work they do doesn’t matter. Rather, it’s the devotion they bring to it, their dedication to it, that will enrich them and allow them to deal with having to take work that doesn’t allow them to find life meaningful. Be a barista if you have to, I told them; but make sure you have Work to make your work worth doing.

Those of us who live in capitalist countries, whose work is appropriated by others for profit, have the greatest need to find our own Work, so that we make our lives count for something other than a ledger sheet of profit and loss. If we must labor to live, and if only a few of us can find work that exercises all–or even a majority–of our faculties, then it is up to each one of us to find the Work that makes us human. This is what I was urging my students to do when I told them to think about whether they should be in college: do not let college prevent you from finding your Work and dedicating yourself to it. Don’t expect to find a job that will line up perfectly with your Work (although some people are lucky enough to do that). Instead, I said, get a job to help support that Work and make your life possible; your Work will make it meaningful.

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