The Broad is Back!

January 21, 2017

Childhood Flashbacks

As I have said many times on this blog, I am a child of the 60s. I was born in the opening months of 1961, and I have been blessed and cursed with a long memory. My earliest memories are of early 1963. I’ve been blessed and cursed with intelligence, so I was processing things faster than some of my peers. And right now, I’m having flashbacks to that era.

Unlike many people, I’m not a fan of nostalgia. The good old days weren’t all that good. My earliest childhood memories of the world are Vietnam, civil rights marches and abuses, National Guards shooting college students and the Cold War. Sure, I had fun playing with my friends, but my bestie and I discussed what we’d do when we learned the bomb was coming. We really thought there was a good chance we’d die. We were going to run to Our Lady of the Lake Roman Catholic Church and be near the statue of Mary if we couldn’t get into the church. These were serious conversations held by 8 year old girls.

We weren’t alone in those fears. Soviet children grew with fear, too. I know that my Swedish husband had no fond Cold War memories. Vietnamese children lived out many of our fears, of course. Bestie and I were relatively safe in our little New York City suburb.

Things changed. Vietnam ended, civil rights were almost fully codified into law, and the Wall came down. My fears died down, and I moved on to actively trying to change the world and keep the dream of a better world alive. So did my bestie, who after all these years is still my bestie and still fights for human rights and justice and a better America every day. We matured into True Believers and our 60s values of equality and justice for all races, creeds, colors and, a later addition, orientations have just grown stronger. We do not walk alone in this country, but there are far fewer of us than I’d like.

But everything old is new again. Today, the war has moved west to the Middle East, civil rights marches are still needed and happening, government authorities are still killing young people, and I actually saw the phrase Cold War 2 in print this week, written by a professional writer. Today talking to my adult son, I felt myself choking up when relating my flashbacks, because that’s what’s happening. The violence and hatred of that era is alive again. Much of what we fought for, and even in the 60s I fought, is gone.

Those childhood impressions run deep, and my childhood fears are reignited. But I am no child, and I know I must not only fight the fear but help the young ones, as well.

Today ushers in a new era, one that is terrifying me more than Reagan’s inauguration and later GW Bush’s. These are two presidents whose policies I believe harmed America. Lest you think me fully partisan, I also think President Obama’s financial policies harmed America. I shall miss him, but I wrote a fair share of letters of complaint to the White House during his tenure. But I fully believe all three men had a clear set of principles. Pragmatism, as well, and a too-large debt to the wealthy of this country, but principles. I admired them on some levels. OK, admire is strong, especially for GW Bush. Pity has always been the dominant emotion there. But while I feared what might happen, I never thought it a massive turning point in the history of my country. Obama’s election was historic and a great step in our country’s maturity, but I didn’t think it would bring a sea change.

But we have turned a corner and found ourselves back in the Gilded Age.  Almost. America in the Gilded Age had high wages, much higher than Europe, and that brought in waves of immigrants. Well, we do have higher wages than developing countries, which is bringing many immigrants, but wages for our middle class have dropped when adjusted for inflation. I know as a professor overseas, I made a comfortable wage. I’d never be rich, but I earned a wage that allowed me to work one job and use my summers for scholarship and learning new technology and methods of teaching. In the US, I’ve never held a college teaching job that has made that possible, and I’ve even had to turn down three positions because the salaries they were offering were literally not enough to live on in the urban areas the schools were in.

I’ve said it before. If we adjust for inflation, in America, I have yet to make an annual salary equal to what my father, the high school dropout, earned in the decade before he died in 1972. He was a heavy machine operator in NYC, a union man who helped build the original World Trade Center, the Verrazano Bridge, Madison Square Garden and countless New York skyrises. Yes, his job took skill. Yes, his job was dangerous—he operated the cranes up on the scaffolding—but my job takes skill, as well. And education. And in today’s world, it can be dangerous. I have been threatened with a beating by a screaming student (while pregnant), stalked for a while by another angry student, and threatened with murder by a very angry student. As an urban teacher, I’ve taught in schools where shootings have happened on the sidewalks outside our buildings and knife attacks have happened in the school.

And I’m not alone. One of my high school friends is a crackerjack secretary. Her grammar and spelling are above the level of the freshman I teach in college. She’s organized, professional and cool under pressure. Earlier generations of executive secretaries made good wages. She doesn’t. Many of my friends are teachers. Teachers are the lowest paid professionals in the country, and their pay has been stagnant for almost a decade. We have an education crisis because teacher burnout is so high and many people just can’t afford to stay in the profession. Even many of my lawyer and doctor friends aren’t making what they thought they’d make when they went into the professions.

These are the angry people who just want a square deal. But instead of Roosevelt (and I mean Teddy, the Republican, not his cousin, the Democrat), we now have as president Donald Trump.

I can’t tell the future. I don’t like the signs I see, but as the eternally optimistic idealist, I have hope. I’m trying not to worry because worry only makes us suffer twice. But I am concerned about my “kids.” In fact, I’m concerned about all kids. I don’t want any child anywhere growing up in fear. I’m worried about my country.

Today was a surreal day. I’ve avoided social media, only popping on for a few minutes before I left in disgust. Too much hate and nastiness from both sides. In remembrance of my 60s values, I wore my best tie dye.  I also wore my “courage” and “wisdom” bracelets, not because I think they give me anything, but as reminders that what we need are wisdom and courage so that this country that I love so much emerges from this dark period stronger and wiser than we’ve been since the beginning of this century.

October 22, 2013

Infant Nation

My students are currently reading Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” one of my favorite Emerson pieces. Ironically, I didn’t even assign it to them–the department did.  As I tell my students, I’m not a fan of Emerson’s style, but what he has to say? Wow!

Rereading the essay, I’ve been struck by how very relevant it is in 2013.  There’s one line I particularly wanted to talk about today:

“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”  Taking in stride the 19th century use of mankind to mean all of us, this is pretty much what I see every single day of my teaching career.

I teach at a college. I do not teach at a high school or lower because frankly, I don’t like having to deal with children’s recalcitrance. And I don’t like spoon feeding information.

But American society treats young people like children far into their adulthood. We know this is getting worse. Just google “extended adolescence,” read and weep.

My students have been infantalized throughout their k-12 educations, by teachers and parents alike, and information is spoonfed into them. They no longer take responsibility for their own learning, but worse, they don’t like to take responsibility for their own behavior.

Emerson would despair.

I despair.

We have crippled a good chunk of a generation with all the good intentions in the world.  Maybe. But what if the point of infantalization was to create a generation of sheep more easily manipulated than many generations that went before?

I have been told, point blank, that I must change the standards I set for student behavior, lower them, because this is what we do now.  The Transcendentalist in me, and I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s as good a label for me as any other, roars in pain.

I am calling for a revolution. It’s not just our government that needs to be changed. Our whole society needs reform. I’m not saying go back to some “good old time” in the past. I’m saying look at the mistakes we’ve been making and change. Change radically.

We are too married to the old ways of thinking and the old dead forms of authority.  It’s time to take bold measures. As Emerson says: “It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; their property; in their speculative views.”

I say, “bring it on!”

Points to ponder, I hope. And in the meantime, take a look at “Self-Reliance.” It’s a doozy.


July 23, 2013

Babies are Signs of Love I Thought

Yesterday, a baby was born. A little boy who seems destined to take a role in the world, one he didn’t ask for, but that’s the point of destiny.  His birth became an event, and it was celebrated around the world.  He is not the savior of the world, but people need something happy to latch on to, so they latched on to his arrival.

Like all babies, he’s a sign of love and hope, but you wouldn’t always know that reading press reports.

The press has been waiting outside the hospital where he arrived for the past two weeks, just waiting for his mother to go into labor. When she arrived early Monday morning, a feeding frenzy started. I was amused. A first baby? Nothing is going to happen for a while.  The parents, knowing that this child of theirs would also belong to the world on many levels, waited four hours to announce his birth. They had four precious hours when their boy was theirs and theirs alone.

Yesterday somewhere around 370,000 other babies were also born. Each one’s life just as precious as the one born in St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington.  But these little ones are not carrying the baggage of a 1000 year old monarchy on their little heads.

Too many of yesterday’s babies will die in the first years. Others will live a life of grinding poverty, be exiled from their homelands, be terrorized by war. Still others will grow up happy and comfortable, educated, pampered and secure.  Most are loved, though some are unwanted.

But each of these babies is a blessing–a sign that the world is still going to continue and should still continue.

I am happy to share in the birth of a baby–any baby, really. Parents sharing their joy with us makes the world a better place. Some of those parents are people I know, yet others are in a public position.

Unless there is a radical change to the structure of British government, that one baby boy in London will someday become king. As an American, I don’t really “get” monarchy, but as a scholar of English literature, I surely do “get” how important his ancestors have been. And he may very well take his place in a long line. His job will be ceremonial, but for many people he’s a symbol of something they love and hold dear.

But for many other people, he’s a symbol of all that’s wrong with the world. Once again, at what is a happy event, I see vitriol being poured out, aimed at a little tiny baby too young to have done much of anything yet but eat, sleep, cry and poop.  And again, I don’t really understand vitriol.

I’m amazed at how many people waste precious energy hating, hating with a passion.  Yes, we all do actually know that there are babies being born every day who will live lives of unutterable misery. Yes, we need to remember that and work to change to world every day.

Many of my fellow Americans are mad for British royalty, but most of the people I know don’t seem to care all that much. That’s fine. Ignore, but hate? I don’t get it. Anger? Why be angry at other people’s joy?  Some people just confuse me.

Personally, I’d like to welcome him to earth, him and all the little ones who joined us yesterday. They are all made of stardust, and deserve love and magic.

I wish the new little one health, happiness and love. Many blessings on the new little prince and on his parents. New parenthood is tough, and I do not envy their visibility.

And I wish the same to all of yesterday’s children. Many blessings on all the babies born.

And may we all be blessed with the wisdom to find ways to make all babies’ lives better

May 5, 2013

The Unholy Trinity: Salt, Sugar, Fat

I just finished reading Michael Moss’s book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. It was full of very appalling information, and if you haven’t been paying attention for the past 20 or so years, I highly recommend it.  Luckily, I have a mother who is very aware of the evils of processing, so she passes the fruits of her research on to me.

Sometimes we tease her about her diet choices, but the woman will be 81 in a few months and takes no medications. Her blood pressure and cholesterol are low, and in fact her 40-something physician told her that she wished her numbers were that good. So obviously Mom is doing something right.  And she’s regularly mistaken for being in her late 60s. It’s partly genetics, but also partly vigilance.

As I was reading the chapter on Lunchables–and yes, that particular product has its own chapter–I realized how lucky I was to have “missed” them.  We left America in 1995 when my son was 4; we returned in 2007 when he was 16.  His entire schooling was in other countries.  By the time we returned, his tastes and preferences had been set. And in other countries, at least the ones we lived in, children’s school lunches were serious business.

My son went to school in Taiwan, Switzerland and Sweden, but at every school hot lunches were supplied every day, and children were not allowed to bring a packed lunch. They learned to eat what was put in front of them. If they didn’t like something, they could fill up on salad and bread.  Sweets were not allowed on school grounds, and the beverages served with lunch were water or milk. Plain milk, not chocolate.

So thanks to the rigidity of the schools he went to, I never had to fight the peer pressure of Lunchables or any of the other vile products marketed to children in this country. Although I almost always gave him plain oatmeal, sugary cereals were always available, but super sweet American cereals were not. When we came home to America on visits he was allowed a box of Froot Loops or Lucky Charms, his favorites, and I allowed him Pop Tarts, something I wouldn’t have had I lived here.  Ironic, I know, but as ex-pat moms, we just have different ways of working out our guilt.

Before we left America, I was much stricter. Until he was about 2 1/2 I had him convinced that rice cakes were cookies. The babysitter’s house disabused him of that notion, but at home, after the rice cakes deception was up, he got juice sweetened organic cookies. I was trying hard to give him good eating habits and not develop an overly sweet tooth.

Something worked as he’s not a sweets person. After the first few months back in the US, eating all the things he’d missed in Europe–Pop Tarts, donuts, root beer, sugary cereal–he mostly stopped. He felt glutted just like some tourists to America who come and eat all of our foods, loving it, but then are very happy to go home.

For me, though, reading this book was partly preaching to the choir.  Many of my students write papers about the obesity epidemic and almost all of them cite the cheap availability of fast food or convenience food as a main problem.  This riles me because I know for what you’d pay to eat at a fast food chain, even one with cheap menus, I could prepare a meal that’s half the price and immeasurably better for them.  I even once wrote a cook book (unpublished, alas) of cheap, unprocessed, healthy recipes.

And per pound, much junk food is much more expensive than carrots, apples or any in-season fruit or home popped popcorn not done in a microwave.  But as Moss points out in his book, we’re pretty much addicted to the salt, sugar and fat in junk food.

The overprocessing and over commercialization of food in America is a real and serious problem.  I have no answers for a quick fix.  As with everything, I believe education is an important step. More people should read Moss’s book. More people should read nutrition labels.

One interesting point that Moss does make is that poor nutritional choices are marketed at certain economic classes.  Upper middle class folks and above, well their children aren’t taking Go-Gurts and Lunchables to school.  I see this as problematic in two ways.

First, there is a perceived notion that “healthy” food is “expensive” food.  This is sadly true when it comes to organic in this country, but the fewer processed foods in the grocery cart, the lower the bill.  Even if we buy minimally processed goods, it’s still cheaper than buying convenience foods.  A can of tomatoes mixed with some garlic and herbs, dried is fine, makes a fine pasta sauce without the added sugar, fat and salt found in commercial pasta sauces. It also costs less.  A PB&J, even using natural peanut butter and spreadable fruit on whole wheat like I do, is still cheaper than an Uncrustables PB&J. I’ll get off the soapbox now.

Second, and I see this as much more insidious, children in certain socio-economic groups are getting poorer nutrition and are already facing high cholesterol, high blood pressure  and diabetes, all of which are debilitating. But what I see as even worse, they aren’t getting what they need for their brains to develop to their fullest potential.  In this way the academic divide between rich and poor is ever so slightly widened.  All I can think when I think of this is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which the strictly delineated classes are fed differently from gestation on. This, to me, is chilling.

I’ve written about food in America before, and I do see this as a major problem of American society.  If you’re looking for some hard facts about the situation, a good place to start is Moss’s book. But I think this might be something I come back to.

Follow up: Shortly after I posted this, I saw a photography project I’d seen before: One week’s worth of groceries from around the world. There couldn’t have been a better visual if I tried.  You can find an article about Peter Menzel’s project here.

March 30, 2013

Childhood flashbacks

Filed under: children,New Broads,war — by maggiec @ 1:05 pm
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Last night, I frightened myself by reading the news about North Korea threatening South Korea and the US. I was mad at myself for feeling fear, but I’m a Cold War baby. We drilled for nuclear attacks in my grammar school. Who remembers sitting under desks? Or filing out in the hall, lined up, faces to the wall, arms over heads to protect us from falling debris?

I actually thought about where I’d go if the bombs were coming.  We knew there would be a warning.  I remember discussing it with my best friend, Katherine, when we couldn’t have been more than 10.  I couldn’t decide if I’d rather be home or at church. I didn’t think God would specially protect me in church, just that if I had to die, it would be good to die in a church, praying.  Closer my God to thee and all that.

As a teen and college student, I remember being chilled by Doctor Strangelove and The Day After. Then I was positively shattered by Threads, a 1984 BBC mock-documentary about a nuclear bombing which was much more realistic than any Hollywood production. In college I protested nuclear arms, and in many ways the threat of nuclear war marked my childhood and young womanhood.

The Cold War ended shortly after my son’s birth, but Pandora’s Box was still open. “Renegade states” either had nuclear capability or were trying hard to get it.  Frankly, I don’t want any country to have it, my own included, but so it goes. “Poo-too-weet,” as Vonnegut wrote.

Today I seem to be the only one I know worrying about North Korea if Facebook is any indication. Maybe I’m the only one saying anything.  Tomorrow is Easter, and there’s a lot to do. Maybe I’m just avoiding grading papers so irrational fear is better than grading.

Or perhaps it’s the post-9/11 sensibilities at work.  We’re constantly reminded that we may be attacked at any time. Our large bags are searched, I can say “if you see something, say something” in two languages (Si ve algo, diga algo), police are very visible in crowded places. When I go to Penn Station or Grand Central to catch the subway, there are machine gun toting soldiers paroling.  Usually I’m quite blase about it, but every once in a while, there’s a frisson of fear.  But for the past 10 years, Americans, especially New Yorkers, are used to living under threat. And most of the time, we totally ignore it.

But I’m not enjoying the memories seeing the articles are dredging up. This is one of the downsides of living back in America. Living in rural Sweden, I felt mostly untouchable. No one attacks Sweden!  Living in Geneva, where I lived for the actual 9/11 attacks, also felt very safe. Everyone has money in Switzerland, good guys and bad guys alike. No one is going to attack the banking state, not even terrorists. They need money for arms the same as everyone else. At least that’s what we told ourselves, and we believed it.

I know this fear of war is nothing new. We’re bellicose creatures humans.  Nuclear war is scary, but really, getting hacked apart by a claymore doesn’t sound much better.

Funny where the mind wanders.  This started as a short little post for another blog I write, my “crunchy granola” positive thinking one.  This isn’t so positive, and it got a tad out of hand.  I realized this slightly longer look at Americana belonged here.

The sun is shining. I’ve lived through saber rattling before. (Once memorably in Taiwan when the ROC was threatening to invade, I had a five year old and a leg broken in three places. Americans were leaving in droves, but I was confident we’d be fine.) And that’s what this is, saber rattling. And having written down my fears, I’ve greatly managed to dispel them.  Thanks for listening!

March 9, 2010

The Contemplative Broad is Edging her way Back

It’s been a long time since I’ve really written, and I surely do have wonderful reasons for that.  I work too much.  Thanks to my wonderful sense of timing, I came back to America during a time of economic downturn, shall we say.  Because I want to live in New York City, where my family has lived for four generations now, I’m reduced to teaching part time, but I can’t live on one part time job, so for the three terms since I’ve been back in New York, I had three. Or four. In order to make less money than I need to live on. Welcome back, Broad.

But the other night it hit me that there might be another reason why I’m not writing about American culture anymore.  I’m too much a part of it again, and that makes it difficult.  One of the reasons I seem to thrive as an ex-pat, not something that everyone can manage, is that I prefer living life as a tourist.  I’m there; I’m participating; but I don’t belong.  The writer in me loves to be the observer, watching from the edges, dipping my toes in a bit, but never fully committing. I realized the other night that I feel like this emotionally much of the time.  That sounds ghastly, and I don’t mean it as such. I have a full and rich emotional life with friends and family I love deeply, but everyone who knows me well knows I need large chunks of time alone, as does anyone who spends a lot of time living an alternate life in created worlds.  So sometimes I pull back and think, “what interesting creatures.”  And it’s easier to do this pulling back when one is on the other side of the ocean or the globe itself.

So I find myself wanting to leave. I want to go back to my cocoon of geographical isolation.  When I lived abroad, I used to jokingly comment that in America people saw me as an oddball, and so I was just odd.  In Europe and Asia, my oddness is chalked up to my Americaness and thus given more of a pass.  It’s easier to have a reason for one’s oddness sometimes, so I prefer living abroad.  Many’s a truth told in jest.

But my biggest problem about writing is the longer I am back in America, the more appalled I become.  The educational system was bad when I left in 1995.  Now I’m back, teaching students who mostly weren’t in even school when I left the States, and their education has deteriorated to the point of farce.  For many years they’ve been taught to useless tests. There are more and more tests and less and less gym and arts and creativity and thinking.  But the tests are full of useless information.  When I get them as college freshmen, they can’t write, most have no basic grasp of grammar, and when it comes to having an idea of their own cultural context? Well, forget it.  My friends who are public school teachers are just as frustrated as I am.  And elsewhere in this column, I’ve written about problems with our students and education, so obviously this is something I am worried about.

I do not blame the students.  They are just as bright, just as savvy, just as eager as the crop I started with in the 80s, but what have they learned?  And sure, I teach at a NYC community college for the most part, but I’ve taught at very competetive schools, and I see problems across the class lines. 

But now I’m on the inside, and I just want to fix things immediately.  Passive observational columns don’t meet that need.

Health care is a huge debate, a mess really.  My son is one of the millions of uncovered Americans.  But after seeing the state of Sweden’s national health, I am very leery of nationalizing health care.  The best system I experienced was Geneva’s.  Health care was mandatory, but there was a very affordable government option for those who had no other choice.  My son was in the local cantonal hospital, and the care was good.  They misdiagnosed my kid, but I felt like they were earnestly trying to find answers, at least.  And I’ve written about the health care mess as well, but the more I see, the more disheartened I become.

And politics in this country.  I don’t even know where to begin.  I know that there was never a “golden era” of American politics, of politics anywhere, but, well. I’m speechless.  Luckily, Kurt Andersen isn’t, and he wrote the brilliant analysis “Is Democracy Killing Democracy” in New York Magazine in February.  I encourage you to read his article, but one statistic he gave got me thinking:

So part of the problem is most likely under-representation (though how on earth could we manage with 2100 senators, I don’t know), but another part is tied in with poor schooling, a lack of civic spirit on the parts of many, and so much else.  Believe me. It’s much easier to write explanatory essays for non-Americans than to figure out what’s going on in the here and now.
No, that’s not true.  I see things. I think of solutions, none of which are very politically correct, frankly.  I have much to say, but I don’t say it because it just would take too much time now that I’m so fully invested.  And as I said in the beginning, time is what I don’t have.
But now I’m going to try to write more frequently.  I think it’s good discipline, and oddly, people have been asking me to write.  So perhaps the Broad is back yet again.

July 27, 2009

Unexpected Negatives from Positive Changes

Some much needed changes to American society have had unexpected consequences for education in our country.  Both feminism and educational reform opened doors and made America a stronger country, but there have definitely been negative side effects to both.

The feminist movement opened doors to women that had been closed and allowed us to enter fields that had previously been the domain of men.  And we entered those domains in droves.  But pre-feminism, one of the few career choices available to women was teaching, so the best and the brightest went into teaching as it was one of their few options for a career. There was nursing, of course, and a few hearty souls entered “male” fields, but that was statistically rare.  Since teaching had become a “woman’s field,” even then the pay was lousy and the conditions weren’t much better,  it was an enviable position for most women because it was one of the few that offered them a steady income and a modicum of respect.

When I was growing up I was taught by a number of these women—brilliant minds who held themselves and us students to the highest possible standards. Yes, a number of them were old battle axes who made me crazy, but I managed a pretty good education, though even by the late 60s, things were getting spotty.

Because in the 60s, women had more options.  By the time I entered college in the late 70s, it was much more common that the best and the brightest women students majored in pre-law, pre-med, business or accounting.  I had no intention of being a teacher when I was in school—I eventually became an English major, but I originally planned on becoming a medical doctor.  And no, I didn’t flunk out of my bio major.  Much to my mother’s dismay, I decided I didn’t want to spend so many years in school and residence programs and really wanted to be a reporter.  Or maybe go to law school, which remained an option until I finished my MA and, on the advice of lawyer colleagues, decided to go for a PhD in English instead. (On a personal note, there are days I second guess that decision, I must admit!  And the real irony is I ended up in school longer than I would have had I just gone to med school!)

Of course, some of the best and brightest were also education majors, but with so many more options that could lead to lucrative careers, it did make a change in the demographics of who went into teaching.  At my undergrad college, for many of my friends teaching was the default major.  I went to a women’s college with fantastic nursing and physical therapy programs, especially.  They were incredibly competitive programs, so many were dropped out of the program for earning grades lower than a B.  This could happen as late as junior year, so the education department to the rescue.  In fact, of my college friends who are teachers today, I think only one started out with that major, and actually, I’m not sure about her.

Many of those education majors are no longer teaching in a classroom.  Some went on to do fine in the classroom, but others got the degree and used it to get a job for which they were more suited..

But in terms of grades, things started to look bleak for teachers.  On a whole, education majors have some of the lowest SAT scores and class averages and ranks from high school, and their GPAs in college are lower than students in other professional and pre-professional majors.  I remember reading about this when it came out, so I did a quick search to find the information I wanted.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) compiles loads of statistics on education. The NCES “Digest of Education Statistics” Table 136 shows average SAT scores by student characteristics for 2001. Students who select education as their major have the lowest SAT scores of any major (964). Math majors have the highest (1174).

It’s the same story when education majors finish college and take tests for admission to graduate schools. In the case of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), education majors have an average score that’s the lowest (467) of all majors except for sociology majors (434). Putting this in perspective, math majors score the highest (720), followed closely by economics in third place (625). (Walter Williams, “Educational Ineptitude, Con’t” Jewish World Review, May 19 2004)

This means that weaker students become teachers with weaker abilities.  This is a recipe for disaster.  But this was only part one of the recipe.

Educational reforms have often been double-edged swords.  While reforms have made our educational system less rigid and more student orientated and created better thinkers, some have frankly backfired.  Somewhere along the line, it was decided that rote memorization was a bad thing.  We were no longer required to memorize poetry and other “useless” things for the sake of memorization, which is fine in theory, but this led to lack of practice in the skill of memorization itself.  And it’s pretty useful when learning geography, foreign languages and math.  When I moved overseas, I realized that one thing many Asians students had on their American peers was incredible memory skills.  Of course, they focused too much on memorization and not enough on thinking, and their American peers excelled at that, but there has to be a happy medium.  Somehow we managed to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Let me give you an example.  When I was in grammar school, it was decreed that grammar need no longer be taught.  Language arts would focus on allowing students to express themselves well.  Students would be able to intuit grammar naturally.  That’s all well and good for a large part of grammar, but in English, some rules just need to be learned and memorized, especially for students who want to be successful academic writers in higher education.  And knowing grammar is incredibly useful when trying to learn a foreign language in school.  How can I figure out Spanish sentence structure if I don’t know the difference between a direct object and an indirect object?

There are many theories of holistic language learning, and I’ve “picked up” languages in my time just from being in a country or being around speakers for an extended amount of time.  There’s definitely something to that.  But I also know that when I learn languages, and I have formally learned three foreign languages in my time, there comes a time when I just have to learn grammar from either a book or a knowledgeable person in order to read more complex writing or even write notes that sound like they came from an adult, not a fourth grader.

Granted, most Americans, even educated Americans, can live long and happy lives without learning grammar, but people who go on to teach really should have a clue.  And I don’t mean just English teachers.  All teachers are role models, and all teachers are responsible for students being able to communicate clearly and accurately.  And when a teacher sends a letter home to parents that is riddled with grammatical errors, there’s something wrong.  In the past, I have received those letters from my son’s teachers!

I remember in college seeing a poster made by students in the education department that contained a glaring punctuation error.  The poster read YOUR’S instead of YOURS.  I was frightened for education even then.

The person who wrote that poster has been teaching kids for over 25 years now.  I’m sure that kids she taught are now teaching kids themselves.  Hopefully somewhere down the line their students learned to use an apostrophe properly, but based on the papers I receive from college students now, too many didn’t.

I teach freshman English, but the course I teach is very different than the version I took 30 years ago.  I now teach my freshmen skills I was taught in middle school.  I teach how to outline and how to have a thesis statement and a topic sentence.  I teach how to find the subject and the verb in a sentence.  I have to teach these things because too many of my students are writing papers that are so weak that I don’t even understand what they are trying to tell me.  And they are native speakers!  Even worse, the students I teach were often A and B students in their high schools.

Entropy is more than just a theory.

And I am not just a grumpy English teacher here.  If I am teaching basic skills in Freshman English everything is being pushed along.  The skills students need to acquire in upper level classes aren’t being learned.  And being able to communicate clearly is pretty much one of the main reasons we educate people, isn’t it?

It literally scares me that my Taiwanese graduate students in English can write better papers in English than my graduate students in America, both in terms of critical thinking skills (at which we supposedly excel) and mechanical language skills.  Our democracy depends on educated thinkers to survive.

True story: a few years ago I applied for a position at a major law firm.  The firm wanted to hire an English professor full time to teach its recently hired lawyers how to write clearly and properly.  Neophyte lawyers who had gone through a four-year undergraduate course, a three-year law course, passed the Bar exam, but they still couldn’t write clear and error-free prose.  When the use of a comma can radically change the meaning of a sentence, one would hope someone in law would know how to use it correctly!

The philosopher George Santayana writes, “Grammar, rhetoric, and logic enrich enormously the phenomenon of being alive.”  The first time I read that, I thought, “That is the biggest piece of hyperbole I’ve ever read.”  Now I’m not so sure.  Grammar, rhetoric and logic are the three components of excellent communication skills.  Of the three, the only thing still taught on a regular basis is rhetoric, probably the least important of the three.  We now teach the other two skills at the college level, so no wonder students can’t get a decent job without a college diploma.

This leads me to the point I wish to discuss in my next installment: when did vocational training become bad and college become imperative?

July 12, 2009

Helicopter Parents and Hothouse Flowers

For a while now, I’v e been threatening to write about the state of education in America.  Well, I’m geared up and actually have some time.  But before I start writing about the schools, I have to say something about the people the schools service: parents and children.  And from the title of this blog, you can probably tell I don’t have great things to say.

For those who haven’t heard the terms, these are the new descriptors for today’s parents and children.  Helicopter parents are parents who hover around their children, and in the process cushion every blow, ward off every potentially painful situation.  Helicopter parents are the ones who are up at 2AM “helping” their kids with school projects, helping being code for doing the kids’ projects.

Hothouse flowers are the kids who result from helicopter parents.  They are beautiful, pampered and do just fine in the rarefied, protective environment of their hothouses.  But once they are exposed to the harsh realities of life, once they meet any kind of hardship, they give up—they fall apart under pressure.  When I was a kid this kind of kid was called a brat who was spoiled rotten, but there are so many of them now they have a less “damaging” moniker.

Before I get too far into this, I do want to say that not all parents and kids fall into these categories.  In my experience, I find on many levels these roles are class markers.  My students in NYC community colleges are pretty uniformly free of helicopter parents and most are not hothouse flowers.  Their parents tend to be working far too many hours to have time to hover—these kids are more likely to be latchkey kids who’ve been working for years before they get to college, even if they are still only 18.  As a result of this, I find this group much easier to teach.  Sure, they have terrible study skills and know nothing about how to succeed in college, but that can be learned more quickly than learning to lose a sense of entitlement.

As a college professor, I get to avoid parents for the most part.  Once a kid is over 18 it doesn’t matter who’s footing the bill.  The kid is an adult in the eyes of the law, and I’m not allowed to discuss certain topics with parents.  And it’s usually only in cases of extreme emergency that I ever really deal with parents on classroom issues—when a student is in the hospital, parents will call to tell me, but that’s it.  I love talking to parents at school events like plays and sports games, but that’s strictly social chit chat.

But friends who teach at higher ranked private schools than I do have horror stories to share.  At one school, the rule about plagiarism (stealing the intellectual property of someone else and claiming it as one’s own) are clear.  If your teacher catches it, there’s a mandatory meeting between the student, the teacher and the dean.  A friend called one student on the carpet and before the meeting got a call from the dean.  The student’s parents and their lawyer were demanding to attend the meeting.  Now I don’t know about you, but if my son told me he was in trouble for plagiarizing in school, my response would not to be to bring in the lawyer.  It would be to metaphorically (if not physically) hit said kid upside the head.  How dare he cheat!  But not these parents (who sadly are not the only ones).  No, these parents are teaching their kid if you break a rule and get caught, make sure you bring in help to bail you out.

The subtext of that lesson is: it’s okay to cheat as long as you don’t get caught.

Now really, the first time a kid gets caught plagiarizing, the penalty is a slap on the wrist—a scary meeting with the school authority to throw a little reality into the seriousness of what they are doing and that’s it!  Helicopter parents don’t want their kids to face consequences that might hurt them down the road, but that means the kids aren’t learning the lessons they need to learn.  But the lessons these parents are teaching are much worse.

The bottom line is if you don’t let your kids fail when the stakes are low, how will they handle failure when the stakes are much higher?

And schools are feeling the pressure from these parents.  All of my syllabi are very clear on plagiarism.  If you do it in my class, you will fail.  Depending on the level of offense, you will fail either the assignment or the class.  Well, two students were caught cheating on their midterm.  My first response was the throw them out of the class permanently, but I rethought that and decided that both would get a Zero grade on the exam.  I thought that was more than fair considering I had repeated my warnings against cheating right up to the moment of the test being given.

I mean, really? Do I have to tell someone that it is wrong to cheat on a test?

Well, the head of my program, the one who has to take the flak from parents and higher ups, “recommended” that I just deduct 20-30 points from their exam grade because a zero would be rather harsh.  So I did.  Both failed the exam by a few points, but a grade in the 50s doesn’t quite damage a final grade as nicely as a big fat zero will.  In another school, I was talking to my dean about failing a student who was totally unprepared for the level of work we were doing in class.  I was told that I could not fail that student.  End of story.  That student was to pass.

And people wonder why I am disgusted with my life’s work.

Hothouse flowers are funny to have in class though.  They provide cynics like me with endless hours of entertainment.  Students who miss deadlines expect me to accept their work no questions asked.  When they receive grades they deem unacceptable, they demand the right to do it over.  When they fail quizzes because they did not do the required reading, they want “extra credit” work so that they get a good grade in the class.  Ah, the laughs I get from these demands.  My favorite is when they are failing through sheer laziness, so they drop the course.  That way they don’t hurt their GPAs.

Grades are also a bone of contention with hothouse flowers.  They are above average in every way, so they deserve above average grades.  In fact, I have yet to find a student who considers him or herself average in any way.  In fact, while I’ve been away, Americans have become a country of extremes—above average students (according to my students, a B- is a bad grade) or failures.  A C grade means average work.  There are no averages, no C students, any more.  Well, I actually give students C grades.  As a result, I am known as a “really hard grader” (that’s the kindest way to put it).  Often it’s not put that nicely.

Oh, on a whole, we teachers do give C grades.  But while C used to be the biggest grade group in a class, it’s now a much smaller percentage. (Remember the old bell curve grading standard?)  I would say the B grade has become the “new average” with more and more teachers trying to give a B- instead of a C+.

Grade inflation is something that academics have discussed since I’ve been a teacher, 21 years now.  Even top schools recognize that an A today is not what an A was 30 years ago when I started college.  An A grade is still hard to earn from me, but they are easier than they were years ago.  The most movement comes in the B-C-D range.  I know that papers that would have earned a C- from me when I was a newbie (still using the standards of grading that had been used on me) are now earning a B-.  I’m not proud of that, but departments try very hard to use grading norms so that the departments’, and in fact the college’s, grades are on a par.

Recently I gave a senior in my class a C on a paper.  I thought the C was a little high because there were not seven sentences in the entire three page paper that did not have some kind of major grammatical or spelling error.  I really thought that was unacceptable for a college level paper, and part of me wanted to make the student do it over, but I decided to let it go.  See? Standards really are dropping.

The student was enraged.  Couldn’t understand the C.  Had never gotten a C in college level work before!  When I pointed out the reason for the C and mentioned that I had originally wanted to fail the paper, the student really blew.  Who did I think I was? (Somewhere along the line many students have started treating professors like staff.  That doesn’t sit well with me.  At all.)  I was hated for the rest of the semester, and I’m probably still hated to this day.  Such is life.  All the other professors had also let it go, but even worse, had given much higher marks.

scariest part of this story, though?  This student was an education major and has just completed a first year of teaching at a public school.  And the student teaches English.

Next time: what’s up with America’s teachers?

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