Archive for December, 2009

Night Visions: Celebrations in Failing Light

Dec 21 2009 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,education,politics

There’s not much sunlight in the interior of Alaska these days. Today is the winter solstice, and we have just about three and a half hours of daylight to work with. At this latitude the sun barely climbs above the horizon at mid-day, and it has virtually no warmth. Bit still, it’s reassuring to see it parked out there on the southern horizon, knowing that eventually we’ll swing back around for a better angle on it.

News from the outside world never stops, though, and thanks to the internet I can now read about the big Climate Summit in Copenhagen where nothing changed, and the watered-down health care legislation that nobody really wants, the contractor “surge” in Afghanistan, and the good-for-nothing shock doctrine education reforms, all of which seem to fit my solstice-inspired musings. It’s like what digby said:

One thing the old political hands may not realize is that in this era of 24/7 cable and the internet this is the first time most people have watched a big piece of legislation enacted in such close-up detail. And what they are seeing is shocking and disturbing — the obvious corruption of the process by wealthy corporate interests. There’s a lot of populist resentment out here and it’s coming down on the heads of the Democrats who are now ironically seen to be funneling taxpayer dollars to rapacious corporations which have been making people’s lives miserable, insurance companies being among the worst of them. This health care debate has reinforced that perception.

I’m thinking about the importance of maintaining optimism as we work to compensate for chronic neglect and institutional abuses, looking for sustainable ways of living. Teachers who see the standards and accountability movement in education as a toxic substitute for real democratic reforms can take a lesson from activists in Copenhagen. They gave Monsanto an award. When criticism doesn’t work, we can always give ridicule and mockery a try.

The Angry Mermaid Award has been set up to recognise the perverse role of corporate lobbyists, and highlight those business groups and companies that have made the greatest effort to sabotage the climate talks, and other climate measures, while promoting, often profitable, false solutions.

Hey, I’m thinking, we could use an award like that to give away, too! We could call it….

The Happy Stripy Leech Award

Happy happy stripy leech

Nominations are open. Deserving contenders would include test-making companies, neoliberal think tanks, corporate charter school management organizations, Eli Broad and Bill Gates, and anyone who feels inspired listening to Arne Duncan.

It is becoming very clear that education reform – the official version – has never been about teaching or learning. Without addressing education specifically, Glenn Greenwald explains why the Obama administration policies look so much like the Bush administration’s:

Whether you call it “a government takeover of the private sector” or a “private sector takeover of government,” it’s the same thing: a merger of government power and corporate interests which benefits both of the merged entities (the party in power and the corporations) at everyone else’s expense.

But there are rays of hope. Climate activists announce, “We’re not finished yet,” and they point out that the reform model is, itself, a failure:

Klein, meanwhile, highlighted what she saw as the “successes” of the last two weeks. “The rich world can no longer claim not to know (what) failing to act (entails). The voices of the South, the cost of millions of lives, the disappearance of countries and cultures – all that has landed on the agenda,” she said.

Paul Rosenberg did a post featuring many formerly unheard voices from the global South that he gathered from various sources over the past couple of weeks. And he ended with a Gary Snyder poem that I want to leave here, too.

Revolution in the Revolution in the Revolution
by Gary Snyder

The country surrounds the city
The back country surrounds the country

“From the masses to the masses” the most
Revolutionary consciousness is to be found
Among the most ruthlessly exploited classes:
Animals, trees, water, air, grasses

We must pass through the stage of the
“Dictatorship of the Unconscious” before we can
Hope for the withering-away of the states
And finally arrive at true Communionism.

If the capitalists and imperialists
are the exploiters, the masses are the workers.
and the party
is the communist.

If civilization
is the exploiter, the masses is nature.
and the party
is the poets.

If the abstract rational intellect
is the exploiter, the masses is the unconscious.
and the party
is the yogins.

comes out of the seed-syllables of mantras.

(from Regarding Wave. New Directions. New York. 1970.)

While I’m thinking about Gary Snyder, here’s a little story he shared in an article called Writers and the War Against Nature:

One time in Alaska a young Koyukon Indian college student asked me, "œIf we humans have made such good use of animals, eating them, singing about them, drawing them, riding them, and dreaming about them, what do they get back from us?" I thought it an excellent question, directly on the point of etiquette and propriety, and putting it from the animals"™ side. I told her, "œThe Ainu say that the deer, salmon, and bear like our music and are fascinated by our languages. So we sing to the fish or the game, speak words to them, say grace. We do ceremonies and rituals. Performance is currency in the deep world"™s gift economy." The "œdeep world" is of course the thousand million-year-old world of rock, soil, water, air, and all living beings, all acting through their roles. "œCurrency" is what you pay your debt with. We all receive, every day, the gifts of the Deep World, from the air we breathe to the food we eat. How do we repay that gift? Performance. "œA song for your supper."

I went on to tell her that I felt that non-human nature is basically well-inclined toward humanity and only wishes modern people were more reciprocal, not so bloody. The animals are drawn to us, they see us as good musicians, and they think we have cute ears. The human contribution to the planetary ecology might be our entertaining eccentricity, our skills as musicians and performers, our awe-inspiring dignity as ritualists and solemn ceremonialists"”because that is what seems to delight the watching wild world.

Happy solstice. And singing, too.

Photo: by Laurie Pink

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Reading Wendell Berry

Dec 13 2009 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,education,politics

Reading Wendell Berry’s Citizenship Papers, I see that Berry’s “agrarian argument” might also serve to counter the corporate ethos which has dominated the rhetoric of education reform for several decades, and which is now being carried forward by the Obama administration. The agrarian argument asserts the responsibility everyone has to care for that which everyone depends on, including the responsibility to care for human culture. Berry reminds us, “Poverty and starvation also can be cultural products – if the culture is wrong.”

Having spent the past 30 years nurturing the social, emotional, and intellectual capacities of human beings, I want to echo this argument. I want to offer it in opposition to toxic side effects which come from ill-advised efforts to “fix” our schools without also attending to economic injustices afflicting students who are routinely referred to as “disadvantaged.” If people stopped for half a moment to think about what the phrase “disadvantaged students” means, there would be no allowance for further discussions about using test scores to rationalize false notions of equality, since equality without justice is nothing more than an empty promise.

Berry’s essays address problems of sustainability and the destructive influences that industrial agriculture has on rural community values and on the land itself. Likewise, it seems, what flies under the banner of education reform has less to do with curriculum, instruction, and child well-being, and much more to do with economic concerns rooted in measurement and progress, leadership, and finance. An argument in favor of humanizing educational practices is needed to interrupt the drumbeat of commercial interests that promote change as an unqualified “good,” and educational products – which all too often now means “human resource” development – as the inevitable result of educational processes. To what end?

Wendell Berry contextualizes what I see and hear in debates about what should happen with public education these days. “Our situation is both comic and tragic,” he says. Continuing:

On the one hand, the self-styled “realists” of the corporate economy are unable to conform their thinking to any reality except that of selfishness. The utterly dull and humorless “realism” of the self-absorbed has done what it was bound to do: It has brought absurdity, waste, and ruin to an unprecedented magnitude. It has made violence normal, both as war and as “economic growth” (Tuscany, p. 179).

A recent article about hedge fund managers and charter schools serves as an object lesson, as it airbrushes over problems with charter school management organizations, and paints an unnaturally rosy picture of corporate hubris. Read as a companion piece with Geoff Berne’s Barbarians at the Gate we can see what public education, and our society as a whole, is up against:

When the dynamic that drives the system is privatization, gratuitous wars are waged at wantonly padded expense, prisoner remediation vanishes and jails are stuffed to the gills by judges handing down inordinately extended sentences, medical insurers nickel and dime over coverage, and children are marched off to low-budget and non-union charter schools in desolate and abandoned shopping plazas and vacant industrial facilities for the sole purpose of making profit on investment and of maximizing profit yield for corporate investors.


It"™s about opening, ultimately, the whole education sector to for-profit management. However, first the public has to be sold on the need for "œturn around." First the public has to be whipped into a frenzy over a crisis in the schools, that is, the urban schools, a crisis requiring urgent "œreform." And then in the name of reform, the way is paved for business to be brought in on a white horse as reformers.

In the guise of reformers, celebrity tycoons from the world of business, opportunistic social advocacy personalities, and ambitious officials seeking to make a name for themselves as advocates for corporate interests have been the leading players in the new world of investment and career opportunity in privatized education.

I was reintroduced to Wendell Berry from reading Michael Doyle’s excellent Science Teacher blog, where one can find numerous references to Berry’s work. I put together a Wendell Berry reading list of what I found on the internet. He first came to my attention in the ’70′s through the Whole Earth Catalog, as in:

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you to die
or profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace the flag.
Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
(excerpt from Manifesto: The Mad Cow Liberation Front)

In this often discouraging time of CommonCor(porat)e educational standards, Wendell Berry finds hope in what he calls The Agrarian Standard, which elevates sustainability and community as values that supercede growth and competition:

What we have undertaken to defend is the complex accomplishment of knowledge, cultural memory, skill, self-mastery, good sense, and fundamental decency"”the high and indispensable art"”for which we probably can find no better name than "œgood farming." I mean farming as defined by agrarianism as opposed to farming as defined by industrialism: farming as the proper use and care of an immeasurable gift.

I believe that this contest between industrialism and agrarianism now defines the most fundamental human difference, for it divides not just two nearly opposite concepts of agriculture and land use, but also two nearly opposite ways of understanding ourselves, our fellow creatures, and our world.

The same could be said of good teaching.

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Home for the Holidays

Dec 12 2009 Published by under borderland,commonplaces

There’s a week of school left before Christmas break. It’s tough to keep everyone focused, me included, so I’m going to run with that and indulge a bit of randomness here.

Over the course of the 30 years I’ve lived in Alaska, I’ve traveled Outside only a couple of times on holiday vacations, and I’m always amazed at how many people are on the move. This isn’t limited to holiday travel, though, and the best illustration I’ve seen of air travel congestion came this week via an email forward of this video, showing air traffic worldwide in a 24 hour period.

The video has been around for a year or so. It’s an animation based on flight schedule data produced at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, where there are links to more high quality downloads in wmv and mov file formats.

It’s something to think about as you head for the gate.

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Peace on Earth

Dec 06 2009 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,politics

Pacem In Terris:

But first We must speak of man’s rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of illhealth; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.

Letter to Eve

Clearly, we have our work cut out for us.

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