March 08, 2007
"Stupid" American Schools and Teacher Unions
"STUPID" AMERICAN SCHOOLS AND "STUPID" AMERICAN STUDENTS?
On television recently viewers encountered a biting video of ABC journalist John Stossel showcasing American students flunking a test Belgian students aced. The conclusion: "stupid" American schools produce "stupid" American students.
But is this so? What do you think? EXPLAIN! How much of this might have to do with the teachers' unions (teacher tenure, obstacles to reform)?
What is "fair" to teachers and their families? Fair for students and their families? What is currently wrong with the system? How could it be fixed?
For more info, check out the following sites:
- Ventura Unified Education Association (VUEA) President Steve Blum
- Foothill Technology High School Media Specialist Linda Kapala
- Mr. Geib's comments on this topic
- Recent debate among teachers on instructor tenure
-- in addition to these websites:
- "Stupid in America" news report by John Stossel
- "Stupid in America: Why your kids are probably dumber than Belgians."
- Stossel and skewed 20/20 segment on "stupid" public schools from Media Matters
- National Education Association
- California Teachers Association
- "UFTers Rally at ABC Headquarters to Demand Fairness"
- "Stossel Watch" at the United Federation of Teachers
What do you think?
In this blogsite posting please try, if possible, to draw specific examples from your own life and what you see with your own eyes. As longtime students in the K-12 public school system, you are the "experts" as much as anyone else! Add your perspective and opinion to make more full and rounded the conversation about education, teachers, and unions.
FIRING "INCOMPETENT" TEACHERS?
"You prove I'm a bad teacher... and if you can't prove it, don't try it!"
January 18, 2007
From the Ashes of the Civil War: Modern America
THE WORLD THE CIVIL WAR BIRTHED: MODERN AMERICA
The antebellum South had a vision of life as “traditional,” emphasizing local control, a small government with few taxes - an agricultural economy of independent small farmers, dominated by a planter aristocracy and slavery. Society had clear gradations with a distinct hierarchical structure - people “knew their place.” Life did not change much. The rhythms of life were traditional. Southern society looked to the past. Even to this day, this is a way of life not without its defenders:
- Confederate War Department
- Confederate American Pride
- The Confederacy Project
- Confederate Pride Webring
as well as the War of Northern Agression Letter to Students we read in class.
In contrast, the Northern vision of the future emphasized a relentless innovation, aggressive individualism, social fluidity, advanced science and high technology – a modern colossus of capitalism and industry, ready to take its place among the “great powers” of the earth. It had little time for the past or for Negro slavery. Northern society looked to the future.
But what about that future? How have we chosen to live since 1865? What kind of America rose triumphant from the ashes of the Civil War? Who were its leaders? Its creators?
Sir Isaac Newton. Adam Smith. Benjamin Franklin. Alexander Hamilton. Samuel Slater. Eli Whitney. The Whig Party. Henry Clay. Daniel Webster. The Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln. Andrew Carnegie. John Rockefeller. J. Paul Getty. Alexander Graham Bell. George Westinghouse. Mark Hanna. William McKinley. Theodore Roosevelt. Henry Ford. The Wright Brothers. Frederick Taylor. Henry J. Kaiser. J. Robert Oppenheimer. Sam Walton. Ray Krok. Lee Iacocca. Michael Milken. Bill Gates. Ted Turner. Steve Jobs. Rupert Murdock. Donald Trump. Howard Stern.
The railroad. The metropolis. The skyscraper. The corporation. The automobile. The assembly line. The transistor. The radio. The airplane. The dishwasher. Hollywood movies. The entrepeneur. The celebrity. Advertising. Robotics. The television. The washing machine. The freeway. The suburbs. Rock and roll. Fast food. The mall. Rap. The computer. The Internet. Satellite radio. The cell phone. Blogs. The iPod. Outsourcing. Globalization. GPS. The space shuttle. The DVD. Biotechnology. Nanotechnology. The colonization of space.
WHAT DOES IT ALL ADD UP TO?
As we have seen in our Jefferson project research, V.L. Parrington referred to modern America as a “leviathan state” – a sort of cruelly massive machine indifferent to the individual lives it ruins. It operates in the interests of things and interests, not people. Thoreau echoed this: “We don’t ride the railroad; it rides upon us.” Spiritual emptiness. Money is all. A lack of connection with other people. Winning and competition. Busyness and mindlessness. Technology and greed. An impersonal society linked by the “cash nexus.”
V.L Parrington claimed Jeffersonians were "foredoomed to failure, in presence of imperious forces that shape society beyond the capacity of political means to change or prevent." Parrington claimed modern America had seen "the function of government seduced from its social purpose to perpetuate the inequalities which spring from the progressive monopolization of natural resources, with augmenting corruption and injustice." He exclaimed “future generations may return most hopefully" to Jefferson. A selective, tendentious reading of Jefferson? “Presentism”? Or is it merely the “truth,” bold and painful as it may be to us?
Let us get to the point: During and after the Civil War, did the United States of America follow the wrong path? Have we done those political and economic things we should not have done? Would Thomas Jefferson look at our world and be ashamed? Be disappointed in us? How about Alexander Hamilton? George Washington? Andrew Jackson? Ben Franklin? Henry David Thoreau? Think about the way in which you, your friends, your family, your neighbors, your school, and your society lives. The good, the bad, the ugly.
We recently read the following:
"Every time I look at modern Atlanta, or almost any other big Southern city today, I see what a quarter million Confederate soldiers died to prevent. It is factories, pollution, crime, a breakdown in community and morals - a loud ugly world where people are strangers to one another, money and materialism is the god all worship, and family is everywhere besieged. The Northern vision of the future won out in 1865 over the Southern way of life. That is a tragedy. The wrong side won."
With 20/20 hindsight, in this blogsite posting please state your opinion as to whether the "wrong side won" in the Civil War? Was the Civil War about control and money, or was it about slavery and nationhood?
"[Jefferson] understood how the movement from simplicity to complexity - from freedom to regimentation - creates a psychology and an institutionalism that conducts straight to the leviathan state, controled by a ruling cast, serving the demands of exploitation, heedless of the well-being of the regimented mass."
THE LEVIATHAN STATE?
Northern Vision Wins Out:
"The Northern War of Aggression was a tariff war. The war did not touch the question of slavery, or any other moral principle; and, in fact, it turns solely on the Northern lust for sovereignty and control."
January 08, 2007
Text vs. Image
PHOTOGRAPHY AS A MEDIUM FOR TRUTH
Let's keep the prompt for this posting short but sweet:
"All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth."
Support, qualify, or dispute the above statement by Richard Avedon in a well organized and well written ("insight + evidence + fluency") blogsite posting. Support your argument with appropriate evidence.
Feel free to use examples from your own experience, observations, and reading from the commercial, artistic, historical, and/or political uses of images in America today. Feel free to reference Plato's Allegory of the Cave, or any of the various writings from the Susan Sontag et al packet I handed out in class (or the text vs. image).
""Mysteries lie all around us, even in the most familiar things, waiting only to be perceived."
January 01, 2007
"Terrorist" or "Freedom Fighter"?
"He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light."
-- Henry David Thoreau, on John Brown after his execution
from "A Plea for Captain John Brown"
JOHN BROWN: MARTYR OR MURDERER?
It is almost a cliche to say that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. George Washington, for example, was a "terrorist" to the British and Loyalist forces who opposed him during the Revolution, and he was a "freedom fighter" to the Patriots. If the American Revolution had failed, the history books might have recorded him as a "criminal" rather than a "Founding Father." Much depends on the interpretation of the political circumstances surrounding the man, as well as the tactics used.
What about John Brown? In your opinion, is he a "terrorist" or a "freedom fighter" in his actions in "Bloody Kansas" and at Harper's Ferry?
To give it perhaps more relevance, try to put it in contemporary terms. For example, Mr. Geib read this article recently about a man who condones violence in the name of animal rights:
What do you think? Preventing the "murder" of animals by murdering human beings? How about those who kill abortion doctors to prevent the killing of "unborn children"? Those who kill in the name of their religion for supposedly hallowed causes?
This argument is one that often grows heated and turns on sharp angles where foundational beliefs come into play. Please use equal parts philosophy and opinion, with equal parts historical detail from the facts of the situation as they were circa the late 1850s.
In fact, let us take this one step further. In class, Mr. Geib forced you to take sides by having you vote either one way or the other about John Brown; Mr. Geib felt no qualms in doing this, as with people like John Brown you are either with him or against him. John Brown would have no time for the lukewarm who would not take a moral stand, and he (like Dante) would put the cowardly neutral in purgatory where they belong. As it says in the Bible: "I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth." (Revelations 3:15-16) Not a time for "on the one hand," and then "on the other hand" wishy-washy equivocators who travel to the middle of the debate to plant one's flag. The spirit of the times, after all! As Brown explained himself to the Court that decreed execution for him:
".. I believe to have interfered as I have done, . . . in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it be deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit: so let it be done."
Stirring stuff... many see Brown as a hero. Many don't.
So, in explaining your thinking about John Brown, make sure and respond to this recent development: The RiverPark housing complex in Oxnard has proposed to name its new high school (to be completed in 2009) "John Brown High School." Do you approve of this completely fictitious event? Are you aghast? EXPLAIN!
John Brown - "terrorist" or "freedom fighter"? "John Brown High School" here in Ventura County? What do you think?
Charlestown, Va, 2nd, December, 1859
I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that withought very much bloodshed; it might be done.
John Brown's last prophecy, written on day he hanged.
November 24, 2006
Near and Familiar or Remote and Abstract
THE HOMOGENIZATION OF AMERICA?
THE FARMERS' MARKET OR SUPERMARKET?
The decline of individuality and diversity...?
THE CENTER? OR THE PERIPHERY?
Writing about the complex interplay of the local (states' rights) and national (federal power), the eminent early American historian Forrest McDonald wrote the following:"Programmed into the human soul is a preference for the near and familiar and a suspicion of the remote and abstract."
Is that true, in your opinion?
Do you, like Thomas Jefferson, prefer the local and the familiar? Or do you like the efficient and the widespread?
Do you like the fact that you can go into a McDonald's anywhere in the world and know what you will receive? Go to a Barnes and Noble and have a certain quality control? Do you prefer the authenticity of the local farmers' market? Or do you prefer the convenience and selection of Ralph's or Von's? Or would you prefer a more diverse and "real" offering on a smaller scale? "Direct" democracy?
THE SPIRIT OF '76 IN 2006?
"There is an instinctual anarchism in the American people, and it goes back to the Jeffersonian tradition."
November 11, 2006
Is the Pen Mightier Than the Sword
"Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword"
Edward George Bulwer-Lytton
Richelieu, 1838 II, ii
THE SPIRITUAL VERSUS THE MATERIAL
Think back about the struggle in North America to secure respect for “the traditional rights of Englishmen” from 1763 onwards. How important was the use of language in the Patriot cause that argued its case in pamphlets and in Parliament, declared its cause in the Declaration of Independence, won the Revolution on the battlefield, and secured the peace in the Constitution?
Think back about the political elites in Virginia and Massachusetts and the movement to present a united front against the Stamp Act and other imperial measures. Think about Benjamin Franklin using his charm and people-skills to explain the colonial cause to Parliament and to garner the Franco-American Treaty of 1778 from France. Think about Thomas Jefferson and his magical words in the "Declaration of Independence." Think about Thomas Paine and his powerful and punishing prose about Great Britain and monarchies. Think about George Washington and Valley Forge and during the Newburgh Conspiracy and that elusive quality of leadership and trust. Think about James Madison and Alexander Hamilton and the other authors of “The Federalist Papers” and the powerful influence of their argumentation on the ratification debates.
Think about Franklin’s final comments at “The Constitutional Convention,” as well as his self-deprecating stories, his way of qualifying his words with “maybe” and “it might be,” and his letting others take the credit for actions for which he was responsible. Think about Colonel William Prescott’s stirring lines on the top of Breed’s Hill. Think about Patrick Henry exclaiming, “Give me liberty or give me death!”
On the other hand, think about the substantial French assistance to the Patriot cause in the form of money, weapons, and eventually diplomatic recognition, combat soldiers, and a naval fleet. Think about loans from Dutch bankers. Think about all the soldiers in the continental army, their losses and victories, the suffering and sacrifice - the English soldiers they killed. Think about the Battle of Long Island, the winter at Valley Forge, and finally the seige at Yorktown. Think about the emerging world war and the changing strategic winds of fortune that forced Great Britain to seek terms after 1783.
After having thought about the entire period in question, I would like you to respond to this question: Can words win a war and secure a peace? Did they do so in 1776 at war and in 1789 during peace? Or did French gunpowder and de Grasse's fleet do that?
Some people see the intellect and questions of spirit to be absolutely central to our affairs; and it is thus both in our personal and public lives. This is very much an Enlightenment stance. (Lux in tenebris lucet!)
Others see high-minded rhetoric and expressions of belief as only so much hypocritical blather that belies deeper and more fundamental material interests. Talk about whatever you want and think what you think, but in the end it are material realities and physical laws which determine the nature of our lives. No matter what we say, the argument goes, we are really driven by the darker and less rational drives of greed, hunger, desire; as the Marxist historian would claim, “If you really want to see what it is about, ignore the rhetoric and follow the money!“ Words are naught but self-delusion – we know ourselves not, or are too afraid to look a base reality in the face. And by the time a word is uttered, it is already dead in our hearts.
What do you think? Did language win the American Revolution (in the “Spirit of ‘76") and secure the subsequent peace (in the United States Constitution of 1789)?
WORDS VERSUS WEAPONS
"In war there is no substitute for victory. … Whoever said the pen is mightier than the sword never saw a machine gun."
General Douglas MacArthur
November 03, 2006
The Social Contract in America: Reality or Myth?
"...whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."
Federalist Paper #1
MONARCHY VERSUS REPUBLIC
Saddam Hussein headed a government that few Americans would enjoy: one of those, common throughout history, that used cruelty and repression to cower the population - a police state. Yet there was relatively little public opposition to his regime, as none would be tolerated. Fear kept order. Iraq seemed orderly (especially compared with nowadays).
Yet as soon as his grasp on power slipped, the country descended into chaos. It was like all the bottled up energy of many years came flying out. When people saw they could get away with it, they got away with as much as they could.
Now for some three years Iraq has lumbered painfully towards a democracy, and they are trying to hammer out a constitution and build a nation where all interested parties can have a say in government. But the progress has been uneven, and the country seems close to civil war as ethnic Kurds battle ethnic Arabs, and the Shia and Sunni Muslim sects seem set on slaughtering the other. The ties of blood and tribe and religion seem stronger than anything else. Saddam Hussein supposedly claimed that if you got rid of him you would need "nine dictators to keep control of this country."
Events seem to have born him out. But only time will tell if reason and negotiation can result in consensus in a democratic Iraq, or if religious and tribal strife will bring about chaos and civil war -- or another dictatorship that will rule with an iron grasp equal to that of Hussein’s. Will the traumatized people of Iraq by then welcome such a leader? Would another bloody dictator who could bring iron-fisted security to chaotic Iraq be better than an anarchic republic with a feckless government? Too much government? Too little government?
As we have discussed in some detail, a Republic is founded on very different lines than a Monarchy. Instead of relying on a cop on every corner and a secret police force, it relies on its members coming into voluntary agreement with laws in which they have some say in creating. Instead of seeing power come down from a virtuous ruler to an unruly people, power flows up from an involved and aware people to its elected representatives. Through education and a free press and open elections, mankind can rule himself. There is no need for a parental force. As UCLA basketball coach John Wooden put it, "Discipline yourself and other won't have to." Free individuals can control themselves - or at least that is the idea. We can trust each other.
We can move beyond contention and reach consensus. Change can occur at the ballox box, obviating the need to effect change at the barrel of a gun. As Alexander Hamilton noted, in explaining his hope for the ratification of the Constitution in "Federalist Paper #1," the question was "whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force." The people can discuss, debate, and deliberate on the burning issues of the day. Once a decision is arrived at collectively, the people will agree to follow the rules.
But is this true? Think about Polybius and his theory of the cycle of governments. Think about Iraq today as it painfully tries to develop a democratic government. Think about the United States around the time of the Constitutional Convention. Think about the America in which you live today. Think about Foothill Technology High School and Ventura County? Think about your family. Your religion.
Are the cynics, like Saddam Hussein, right? In this world with people as they are (often bad – very bad!), is the hope of people compromising and reaching consensus a fool's hope? Ben Franklin thought it almost laughable that his fellow men were “half beasts, half devils”? But considering the evidence one sees almost every day, is it so laughable? Jonathan Edwards might have responded that real evil does exist in the world, and reason is not enough to defeat it.
In the end is it really about power? Is the use of reason and persuasion overrated? Is America really a place where we obey the laws and see society as based on a “social contract” between the governed and the governing? Can we reallly agree to trust each other? Or at the end of the day is “the Man” with the gun enforcing the law what keeps people in line, no matter what some say? Do we obey the rules because we are afraid of the consequences of not doing so? Or do we obey the rules because we rationally believe that rules keep a society safe and stable?
How about going a bit deeper...?
How in America might there be rules that are enforced by others besides the government? Short of breaking a written law enforced by police, what rules keep order in the community and establish social norms? Who makes these rules? How are these rules communicated between us? What is the penalty for failing to heed them? (Is it possible that we have LESS freedom in the United States than in countries ruled by dictators?)
Click on graphic to see whiteboard from class discussion.
Do power and force rule? Do the strong “do what they want, while the weak suffer what they must”? Or do persuasion and reason work? Can individuals make rational decisions for their own benefit? Or do they need rules and their choices to be made by others? Does anyone really care about freedom? Or are most people content to "go with the flow," wherever it might lead them? Is the natural flow towards irresponsibility, anarchy, self-slaughter - and then monarchy again?
From what you have seen and read about, how closely does the reality of our Republic contrast with its theory - the idea that Americans live in a country where liberty reigns, where they can make their own rational choices to live free and at peace with their neighbors and themselves.
Or are we not really free?
What do you think?
"A monarchy is a merchantman which sails well, but will sometimes strike on a rock, and go to the bottom; a republic is a raft which will never sink, but then your feet are always in the water."
Massachusetts Congressman Fisher Ames
October 20, 2006
Predestination vs. Free Will
THE POWER OF THE HUMAN WILL
"He that waits upon fortune, is never sure of a dinner."
PREDESTINATION VERSUS FREE WILL
In the beginning of our class we spoke much about goals and dreams for the future; implicit in this conversation is the belief that we have the power to forge our own paths and create the lives and characters we want for ourselves. Benjamin Franklin, the poor-boy-done-good and the prototypical "self-made" man, would approve. It is perhaps a very "American" point of view.
George Whitfield, on the other hand, might feel that there was too much pride and self-indulgence in this point of view and not enough humility in the face of God's plan for each of us. An orthodox believer might very well preach more submission to God and His grace and less concern with the things of this world. In a different vein, the Greeks used to exclaim, "The gods laugh at those who make plans!" In ancient Greece only a hubristic fool thought he had full control over his fate, and in such a case punishment from the gods was not far off. Islam literally defined means "submission to the will of Allah."
Much in contrast to Franklin and his energy and industry in the things of this world, George Whitfield claimed the following: “And there is still the more occasion for such an alarm, because worldly-mindedness so easily and craftily besets the hearts of men.” One sees those men who think in their heart of hearts that they know better than their Maker! Whitfield also explains, “Various are the pleas and arguments which men of corrupt minds frequently urge against yielding obedience to the just and holy commands of God.” As the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale would have understood, what is started in error and pride can end only in sin and death; what is an "error" or "sin," hence, take on great importance. The role of God becomes more exalted, and the actions of men come clearly within the context of Godliness and "right" action.
One can imagine Franklin would remain unmoved. He once tersely said, "Lighthouses are more helpful than churches." Elsewhere Franklin commented, "I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue. The scriptures assure me that at the last day we shall not be examined on what we thought but what we did." He was much more of a man of the world than Whitfield, and he put more emphasis on the improvement of this world - and even on its perfectability! Another "Deist," Thomas Jefferson, claimed similarly, "For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be judged."
In a similar vein, William Shakespare in his play "Julius Caesar" once asserted -“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”
Yet his fortune seemed to be predestined. You might also remember Romeo and Juliet were also "star-crossed lovers" doomed to tragic deaths. Shakespeare seemed to deny to them the power to alter their fates.
Is this true? How much of our lives are dictated by fate? How much of our lives are determined by predestined circumstances vs. our own determination to create and change our futures as we see fit? Are our lives planned out for us even before we are born? Or do we have some control in how they turn out? How much? Do things really happen “for a reason” – a reason that is ultimately part of this giant plan seemingly so much larger than any of us? Or, rather, do things happen as a result of our own actions, of the choices we make and the decisions we follow through with? What role might religion (or lack thereof) play in a person’s view on this subject? Personal experiences or background? How might one’s opinion influence the way they live their life?
Think carefully about your own views and be sure to analyze the complexities of the foundations behind the concept of predestination. Wade into this discussion and discuss what most interests and/or concerns you.
“The doctrines of our election, and free justification in Christ Jesus are daily more and more pressed upon my heart. They fill my soul with a holy fire and afford me great confidence in God my Saviour.”
October 18, 2006
Narrative and Argumentation: Literacy at Risk?
"The future," he said, "may demand minds less self-reflective."
"We may be heading for a great, global irony. Never before has the world been so quickly in communication with itself. But now that we are 'wired,' no one may have anything to say."
CONTEMPORARY AMERICA: REIGN OF THE SEMI-LITERATES?
Yesterday we read an essay by Richard Rodriguez that questioned the relationship between technology and literacy in late 20th century America with more and more outlets for one's time and attention: sustained periods of time spent with literature and the written word seem to be the big loser in this equation. Rodriguez ends his essay ominously: “Of what news is it that they have no skill writing words of narration or persuasion? Neither do we.”
Rodriguez implies that semi-literate and overcommitted dot.com American adults have raised overcommitted and semi-literate children (eg.). Movies, cell phones, IM-speak (“lol!” "luv u!" “l8r!” [translation]), video games, myspace, and rap music have squeezed out serious reading and self-reflection. Reading is “boring.”
Two friends, for example, in different classes at school might text message each other under the table:T1: i only read a book when forced 2 by teachers, and the scarlett letter is, like, more boring than most! it does not “entertain.” It sux!T2: whatev!T1: mayb they can, like, “sex it up”? mayb they can get demi moore to star in the movie, u know? mayb then it would b kewl! like, than mayb I would go c it!T2: u think so?!?! rofl!!!T1: whatev!!!T2: ttyl!!!
So a typical conversation might run?
Rodriguez asserts the following: “I tell you that we Americans are losing our capacity to create or understand language that is dense and structured with feeling and thought.” But is that true? Completely? Partially? Not at all? How? Why? For what reasons? EXPLAIN! (Go for depth in your thinking and analysis, as reflected in your prose!)
So we arrive at the topic of this blogsite posting:In the context of “’The Scarlet Letter’ is boring” debate and the low reading and writing test scores in American schools, please support, qualify, or refute Rodriguez’s claim that the future "may demand minds less self-reflective."
Go ahead and share your thoughts and experiences with the wider Ventura community in this first blogsite posting. I, and everyone else, will be reading with great interest.
(Further Richard Rodriguez essays.)
“Are you ready for a world in which everyone is talking at once, but no one knows how to form a complete paragraph? Are you ready for a world where teenagers play hate on their computers and then go out and kill their classmates at Columbine High School?”