The Broad is Back!

February 11, 2017

Spineless Wonders

Every day I read the news, incredulous at the members of my government. I’m also heartbroken that party is more important than our beloved country. When are the 535 members of the United States Congress going to grow spines?

A few have chosen to use their voices and their votes to challenge the insanity, but sadly, that’s mostly on party lines, and the Democrats are in the minority.

But don’t the Republicans see that we’re in danger of being destroyed? They can’t be as stupid as they seem to be, can they?

I’m not a member of any political party but I admire members of most parties. When I see men and women who I thought had a measure of integrity blithely rubber stamping obviously unqualified people for Cabinet positions, my faith in our leadership dips ever lower.

When Senator McCain, a man whose integrity I’ve never questioned, approved Betsy DeVos, my heart cracked a bit more. That woman is going to tear down what’s left good in American education. And if you’re a regular reader of mine, you know that I don’t think much of American education at all.thanks mostly in part to federal interference.

The administration in today’s White House leaves me speechless. It is not only inept and amateurish in the most negative meaning of that word, it is either woefully ignorant of American law and government structure or so megalomaniacal that it truly believes that it is above the law. And I’m not just looking at the chief executive. I’m looking at all of them.

Why is this happening? That’s rhetorical because I have no answer.
(more…)

Advertisements

January 27, 2017

Too Big to Fail

When the financial crisis of ’07-08 was addressed by incoming president Barack Obama, many Americans were unhappy with the resolution. Yes, we got “back on track,” and things did get better for many. But banks were declared “too big to fail” and were bailed out.  That, I think, was one of the seeds that led to our current president.

For good reason, people blamed the banks. When banks got help and no punishment, many Americans who had lost homes, cars, jobs, and even a lifetime’s work got rightfully angry. And for the next six years that anger brewed.

Sure we got the ACA, which to me will always be Romneycare as I first encountered in when I came back to the US in ’07 and lived in Massachusetts, but I know people who literally had to choose between insurance and food. Even the subsidies through the ACA were not enough. It depends, of course. When I came back to the US the second time, I used the ACA because I had no health care in my part time jobs. I paid a lot but got excellent coverage. My subsidy was about $500 a month, but since I literally paid more into the government in taxes than American Airlines, United Continental, and Hewlitt-Packard, and now it seems, President Trump, my conscience is clear. I have always paid every penny of taxes due, and I am willing to pay them to cover things like medical care and roads and so on.

So in spite of the ACA, we have millions of people who realized that they were unimportant to the government in spite of all its propaganda. Protecting the banks was protecting them, we were told, because if the big banks failed, the economy would suffer.

Well, you know what else is too big to fail? The United States of America. And failing we are.

We have a sitting president who is totally unfit for the job. Yes, he is a businessman who gets things done, (including bankrupting himself and many, many small businesses left in his wake) but countries are not businesses. It’s not about the bottom line. It’s about people’s lives. He has not divested himself from his businesses. He has named unfit people for almost every position in his Cabinet. Most are now in the position to make the very wealthy even wealthier. Many of them have outright conflicts of interest.

Many don’t know a thing about the departments they’ve been nominated to head. I could see Ben Carson as Attorney General. I wouldn’t like it, but the man is a physician. But as head of HHD? No experience. And don’t get me started on Betsy DeVos. As a career professor, I am appalled. I have been teaching students who have suffered at the hands of federal interference in education for decades. I’ve seen the steady decline in knowledge and skills. Not intelligence—preparedness. The thought of her policies literally makes me shudder. And I know the meaning of literal.

Ironically, in light of people’s growing fears of more wars, I think one of his best picks for a Cabinet position is Gen. James Mattis as Secretary of Defense. While more hawkish than I’d like, he has the experience needed and is respected by folks in the Pentagon.

But the worst thing I see is the polarization between every day Americans. It’s been growing since the 2016 election cycle started, but instead of calming down, it’s getting worse. We are hating like we haven’t in a long while. We’re mean, petty, bitter, snide, personal, not only to people in government, but to one another.

We call each other names, generalize and stereotype. We’re more openly prejudiced than we have been in the past 50 years, not just against race but against one another based on political beliefs. I was never a fan of being “politically correct,” but I have always been a fan of trying not to offend people. I try to use non-gendered and people first language. I try to use the identifiers people prefer. To me, that’s just good manners and a fulfillment of the Golden Rule. Many quip that the new Golden Rule is “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Not a quip, the truth, and always has been the truth. But if we say we are the best country on earth, let’s treat each other with respect and humanity. Let’s act like the nicest people on earth. Bullying and hatred are not parts of greatness.

Don’t like someone’s choices? Think their life is a sin? Fine. But don’t curse them, threaten them, harm them or kill them. That’s not acceptable. And I’m not looking at one side or another or another here. I see people on ALL sides of the political spectrum acting unacceptably.

The true core values of our country, democracy, equality, and freedom, have eroded at a pace that frightens me. America is the only thing that’s too big to fail. And we are. America is an idea. And ideal, really. And because we are no longer living up to our ideals, because democracy was trampled on for decades, because corporations have the same rights as citizens, we’ve been a functional oligarchy for a long time. Equality in this country is a joke. Some lives are just worth less. Many see this on color lines, but I believe it’s more on wealth lines. The poor of this country have been abused, manipulated, lied to, and used as tools of the ruling powers since the beginning.

Race is also a problem. A middle class person of color does face stereotypes and prejudice. I am not unaware of the problem, and I’m not stupid. My own son identifies as “non-White” and has faced prejudice both from law enforcement and regular folks. But a poor white person has more problems and inherent difficulties than that middle class person of color. I live in a predominantly white place and the problems of poverty I see are only slightly different than the ones I saw in NYC. Drugs, poor education, lack of family structure (I’m not saying a traditional family is necessary, but when mom and dad are meth dealers, life is nowhere near normal), poor nutrition, poor medical care, and the list goes on.

This economic disparity, this racism, this throwback to “traditional Christian values” of intolerance and hatred for those who choose to live outside one’s ideas of Christianity, these are also seeds that led to Trump’s shocking victory.

Folks like to argue that race is the only reason he’s president, but that’s balderdash. Back in ’92, Bill Clinton’s famous campaign reminder was “it’s the economy, stupid” hasn’t changed these 24 years later. We allowed the oligarchy to grow, and now the White House has become the Palace of Versailles, especially the gilded New York White House in Trump Tower. Cronies and supporters are put into positions of power, regardless of ability, and dissent is harshly treated.

I’m not buying into Trump’s rhetoric of “make America great again.” It has needed work my entire life, but it’s always been a great country. Things are possible here. I am the daughter of a construction worker who earned a PhD. I have taught young people who have literally gone on to change the world, young people who grew up in poverty, or were immigrants, or were people of color, or all of the above. They are America. I love my country, and I love its people. We are what’s made America great, but America has failed too many because money rules.

Greed is not one of America’s values. We’re too great to fail, and this is something that needs to be addressed. I am not calling for communism. That was tried and failed in the USSR and China, among other places. I’m calling for competence in government, experts in charge of departments, not political cronies, corporations losing the rights of citizens, and support for measures that give a leg up. I’m calling for democracy to come back, unhindered by lobbyists, restrictive voting laws and outside manipulation, for freedom to come back through solid educations so that people can make good choices and for humans to live as they wish as long as they remember that their rights extend no further than the tip of their noses. That’s what I learned in 7th grade social studies. My rights are for me, and I can not force others to do what I think is right unless it’s something protected by the Constitution. And finally equality. No human being is born better than another. There is one race, the human race. Because of my personal beliefs, I believe we are all brothers and sisters, and I should treat you as I would a sibling. You may infuriate me, you may test me, but at the end of the day, I do love you. But you do not have to share my beliefs. Believe me, most people don’t as I don’t identify as any specific religion. But as members of the same race, we have to work together.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is my manifesto, I guess. We’re too big to fail. We’re an experiment in democracy that needs to backtrack a bit and see where we went wrong. I’m pretty sure I know where that was. Who will join me?

May 3, 2014

It’s the Worry that’s Killing Us

“Work is healthy, you can hardly put more upon a man than he can bear. It is not work that kills men; it is worry. Worry is rust upon the blade.” ~ Henry Ward Beecher, quoted in The Teachers’ Institute, Vol. 18, No. 1 (September 1895)

I used this quote today in my inspirational blog, and as I was writing, I knew I had to come over here, because this reflects something that’s been on my mind a while. Of course, I don’t have a lot of time to develop it today, but it’s a taste

I’m one of those people who works on weekends–that’s when the majority of my grading gets done. So work is on my mind today. I saw this quote, and it resonated greatly.

I do love my job, and even the grading doesn’t bother me overly much. I’d rather have fewer classes or the same number of classes with fewer students, and that’s where the worry comes in.

Am I spending enough time on each student’s paper? Will I get it done in time? Will I have time to spend with my son? Will I have time to sleep? Probably similar questions to what others have.

Education has changed in America, especially public higher education. As teachers, we know that the optimal number for a composition class is around 15 students or so. You want enough for a lively discussion but few enough so that the professor has time with each student. Depending on where I’m teaching (as one of America’s permanent adjuncts, I teach at up to three different schools at a time), I have between 29-45 in a composition class. Most of the time I have to teach six sections at a time to make ends meet.

So on average, I have about 150-170 students a term. And every one of them writes a paper, usually one a week. And some of those papers are 1200-1500 words. So in a heavy week, I can read 238,000 words. But I also grade them. Each paper takes me 10-20 minutes. Sometimes it’s longer if I have a particularly weak student; sometimes it’s shorter for a brilliant job. But even if I average 15 minutes a paper, that’s 2550 minutes during a heavy week, or 42 hours or so. I’m in the classroom 18 hours, have four hours of office hours (where I can often get some grading done), and so there you go. Welcome to the life of a composition adjunct.

So that worry about my students? I think you can see where that’s coming from. I went into this field to empower people with communication skills. That’s the theory, at least. How much am I really teaching them?

And like all positions, I worry about work related things that have nothing to do with my job. Because I’m not a permanent worker, every 15 weeks, I worry whether I will have work in the next term. Summers and January are the hardest times as jobs are scarce but the rent is still due. This is my reality. The vagaries of the student population and the state budget impact whether or not I’ll have work, but my friends in all fields face similar worry. I don’t think I have a friend who hasn’t either been laid off or had a spouse laid off in the seven years since I’ve been back in America.

Many have gotten new positions, but always at lower pay with more hours and no job security.

No wonder we are a nation of obese, unhealthy people. Our stress levels, worry levels, are off the charts.

Beecher is right. It’s the worry, that’s getting to us.

As a nation, we say we want to combat our national poor health and obesity, but we have created an employers’ paradise in which individual Americans have fewer days off than workers in most other industrialized countries. The Far East Asians beat us on hours worked, but they are about the only ones.

If we all just died from stress-related illness, that would be bad enough. But mostly we don’t die. We’re left on medications, or medically handicapped, and that is where it starts getting expensive.  According to Cornell University, obesity accounts for 21% of US health care costs. Now there are many reasons for obesity, but stress is a major factor, as is eating junk food or fast food as it’s called, which many who work long hours rely on.

I know that this term I have packed on pounds because I don’t have time to cook all the time, so dinner is often a peanut butter sandwich or two. I don’t like to eat fast food, so as a result, I eat far too many carbohydrates because they are quick and easy. No time to eat? Grab a bagel and go. Not the best of diets for a woman of my age, let me tell you!

So just putting this out there as some points to ponder.

 

February 27, 2014

Pay Attention! The Grapes of Wrath are Filling Up

“In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” ~ John Steinbeck

 

This quote comes from that great novel of the Depression and the Dustbowl, The Grapes of Wrath by the Nobel laureate John Steinbeck. Today would have been Steinbeck’s 112th birthday, so in honor of him and his view of America, I wanted to post something.  His novel, one of 27 books he wrote, is an American classic and one of my favorites in the American canon.  Its theme of social justice called to me when I first read it as a high school senior;  later readings only made me love it more.

 

Steinbeck wrote of the radically unequal America of the Depression, and as he said when he was writing it,  “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this.”  After it was done, he said, “I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.”  He certainly did for this reader, and for millions of others since its publication.

 

But Steinbeck wrote this novel in 1939. That was 75 years ago.  I wonder what he would think of this America, now in 2014.  Based on his writing, I suspect he’d be shattered.

 

His words still fit today. I see the grapes of wrath building, building, building.  Something has to give.  Something must give.  There must be social change.  Greed has taken over, and the “greedy bastards” are kings in our society.

 

What has happened to my America? Have we learned nothing from history?

 

If you haven’t read the novel, please do. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

November 28, 2013

I’m Thinking Maybe He Should Reread the Gospels

Many of my friends are abuzz with Pope Francis’s most recent pronouncements.  In his first apostolic exhortation. “Evangelii Gaudium” “Joy of the Gospel” he basically blasted unchecked capitalism and consumerism as “selfish”. I’m beginning to like this guy.  He said a lot of other things, and admittedly, I haven’t read the entire thing (it’s over 50.,000 words long), but unsurprisingly, this topic is what made headlines.

My cousin Dolores (faithful readers have read her ideas here) sent me an email this morning ending with:

Rush Limbaugh called the Pope a Marxist for preaching the gospel of Jesus…astounding!!!

I really think Mr. Limbaugh needs to read the Bible.  Actually, I think a lot of American “Christians” who shout and holler about how “socialist” America is becoming really need to reread the Bible.

Let me direct them to the Gospel of Luke, chapter three, verses 7-14

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (NIV) (emphasis mine)

Granted, this is John the Baptist speaking, not Jesus, but Luke left it in, and really, Jesus gave John His seal of approval, so I think we should take this as, well, as Gospel.

Admittedly, as I tell my students, it’s tough to use the Bible to support an argument, because it’s so contradictory, but we’re talking about basic tenants of Christianity here. I do realize Jesus himself said, “The poor you will always have with you,” but the end of the sentence was “but you will not always have me” (Matt 26:11 NIV).  He was responding to a very specific incident.  Here’s the context for those who like to see it:

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.

When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

10 Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. 12 When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Matt 26:6-13, NIV)

In his comments about the poor, Jesus was echoing the Old Testament in his speech to his followers:

“There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” (Deut 15:11, NIV)

A lot Bible quotes, perhaps, but a national commentator just called the head of the Roman Catholic Church a Marxist.  I’m thinking someone doesn’t understand Christianity. Still, when I was in grad school, at a Catholic college, one of my favorite professors, Sister Francine Dempsey, CSJ, mentioned in class that someone once said that the only place Marxism would ever work was in a monastery.

Think about it.

What Marx says about wealth, while political and overtly anti-religious, is basically the same as the message of John the Baptist and his cousin, Jesus.  But they are speaking from a place of Love.  We share because we’re all brothers and sisters, and we love our brothers and sisters.

So I can see why Mr. Limbaugh was confused. Marxism/Christianity. Rather close. (can you hear my heavy sigh?)

And Pope Francis isn’t the first pope to condemn unchecked capitalism. In his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (Church’s Social Teaching), Pope John Paul II (you know, that Nazi-fighting, freedom fighting guy?) wrote:

The tension between East and West is not in itself an opposition between two different levels of development but rather between two concepts of the development of individuals and peoples both concepts being imperfect and in need of radical correction.

(you can read the entire encyclical here)

This wasn’t the first time Pope John Paul went after unchecked capitalism. In 1984, in a speech to fishermen in Canada, he said

The fishing industry has also been concentrated more and more in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Around the globe more and more small or family fishing concerns lose their financial independence to the larger and capital intensive enterprises. Large industrial fishing companies run the risk of losing contact with the fishermen and their personal and family needs. They are exposed to the temptation of responding only to the forces of the marketplace, thus lacking at times sufficient financial incentive to maintain production. Such a development would put the security and distribution of the world’s food supply into ever greater jeopardy, if food production becomes controlled by the profit motive of a few rather than by the needs of the many.

It’s actually a pretty kickin’ speech, and you can find the the entire text at the Vatican website.

And Pope John Paul II was pretty consistent in his economic message throughout his papacy.

Can you imagine Mr. Limbaugh trying to get away with calling Pope John Paul II a Marxist?

So just what did Pope Francis say that has put everyone’s knickers in a twist?

Here are some key passages I found on the website Aleteia:

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us. (54)

Oh my! That’s the same song I’ve been singing for years.  I’m really starting to like this guy.  And then there’s this:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule. (56)

Some might call hypocrisy here, as the Church doesn’t pay taxes and is incredibly wealthy. But he also called for reform:

“Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy. It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization. Pope John Paul II asked for help in finding “a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation”. We have made little progress in this regard. The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion. The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit”. Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” (32)

So, a start.

I despair of America sometimes, where we’re going, what we’re becoming, and I think the reason Rush Limbaugh’s comment goaded me into writing was that it exemplified the ignorance of so many Americans I meet.  As a professor, a teacher, I spend my professional life removing ignorance. But willful ignorance? That’s my nemesis. And since I’ve returned to America the level of willful ignorance I’ve encountered is dumbfounding.

I do have so much to say, and hopefully at least over the Thanksgiving   break I will be able to carve out some time to write.

It’s Thanksgiving in America, the time we set aside to be grateful for our bounty.  To those who celebrate, I wish you a wonderful day full of beautiful memories.

October 3, 2013

Still Hoping for Power to the People

“We want to empower our people; we want to strengthen them; we want to provide them with the kind of qualifications that will enable them to build up their own country themselves.” ~ Aung San Suu Kyi

When Aung San Suu Kyi said these words, she was referring to the people of Burma, but I think this is what we should want for people in all places.  But instead of empowerment, much of American culture (and I’m speaking as an American–I know it’s similar in other places) sets out to disempower the people.

Yesterday I spoke of our broken educational system. I do often wonder quite seriously how much is done deliberately. We have a popular culture that glorifies ignorance, stupidity, vapidity and violence. We undermine authority figures in almost all genres of entertainment. Authority isn’t a bad word, but if we teach people it is, no one will want it or seek it other than those who turn it into a bad word through their actions.

This post started on my other blog, but as often happens when I’m thinking about things that are important to me, it spills onto this one.

I’m deeply disturbed by the state of America right now. Not just the current crisis, but by all the factors that brought us here: poor education, weapons of mass distraction, selfishness and even a sense of ennui in so many people. Working hard for too little money, scraping by, living paycheck to paycheck dulls the mind to other things.   According to a report released last year, over two-thirds of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.  It’s hard to think about eroding freedoms when you’re worried about missing work and getting pay docked.

This is a trend that must be reversed.

I teach to empower people, but as much as I want to give my students the tools they need to take control of their own lives, true control, free from the overbearing corporate influences playing on people today, no one can be empowered with the desire to wield power.

So many people are perfectly willing to abdicate responsibility for their own lives. This is a sad way to live.

Actually, as I tell my students, this can be a fine way to live. Nothing is your fault when it fails and no hard decisions need to be made. Multitudes aer plenty happy in this kind of life.

Those who want to live freely know that they must have power over themselves. And as Francis Bacon famously wrote, “Knowledge is power.”

Societies have changed radically in the past. All things are cyclical. When I call for change, people tell me, “You can’t change anything. This is the way it is now. It is what it is.”

Lie. That’s a lie sold to us by people who don’t want change. We can turn this around, hopefully. It will not be easy, but it can be done, but only if people want to be empowered.

 

October 2, 2013

Another Fine Mess You’ve Gotten Us Into

Sequestration. That’s a rather benign sounding word, isn’t it? Doesn’t sound like it could hurt a fly. Automatic budget cuts that put some people temporarily out of work and cut services doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

And as everyone here in the US knows, we’re in day two of sequestration. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

On Tuesday morning, I found myself steaming mad. Why? Because a small, and I mean small, core of hard line Republicans are holding America hostage because they don’t like a law that was passed by both houses, signed by the president and decided upon by the Supreme Court of the United States. Welcome to democracy, folks. Welcome to the “three ringed circus” that is American federal government.  Checks and balances. Sometimes you don’t always get what you want.

Maybe it’s not a great law. It’s certainly not perfect. But bad laws have been passed before. Then even repealed sometimes. But the repeal didn’t come from playground level hissy fits. It came through getting out to the people and changing their minds. Engaging in discussion that leads to change. Instead of winning the people, theoretically the most powerful force in a democracy (but I’m not an idiot. I know the reality of that scenario), most Americans are now livid with all of the government.

Personally, I’m glad.  We need to be mad. We need to be hopping, spitting, crazy mad.  And we need to channel that anger, hone it to a fine point and use it to say “Enough! We the people are taking, no, wresting back our government!  Because obviously the people we’ve elected are not fit to lead.”

I pray that this comes to pass.

As Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.” The press is this country is freer than in many, I admit. But it’s tamed. My first career was as a reporter, a legislative correspondent in Albany, NY, to be precise. That was 30 years ago. A lifetime ago. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hirsh just wrote about the decline in the quality of the American press. He called it “pathetic,” which sums it up from my view. Very interesting reading, and you can find it here, ironically in The Guardian, a British paper!

The whole point of this blog is that I left America for 14 years, but now I’m back, so I comment on the changes. One of the huge changes is the quality of the news media. While I was gone 9/11 happened, and that event, terrible and evil, has done more to change American cultural values than I care to admit.  The Internet has changed people, as well. Because of it and jumps in technology, ideas about personal privacy are shifting at an alarming speed.

Whistle-blowers are vilified and praised. That’s a topic for another day, one I don’t find myself ready to discuss.  But we have truly undergone a cultural sea-change.

And then there’s education. This, as faithful readers know, is my personal bailiwick. I am a professor. I teach writing and literature, but mostly writing these days because few students can write well and even fewer can read. I teach college level students, but I’m teaching skills I learned in 6th-10th grade. If I had to guess, I would say the average reading level of my students is 8th-9th grade. They struggle to read The New York Times, a paper routinely read in American high schools. I do not teach stupid people. I teach bright people, lovely people, hardworking people. But they have been very poorly educated in New York City’s public schools.

When my parents attended New York City’s public schools, they were the finest in the nation. In fact, my mother remembers observers coming from all around the world to see how excellent public education was run. She graduated reading adult level works, in two languages, with a third language at conversational level. Sure, she was a smart cookie and worked at it, but she went to the neighborhood PS4 and Long Island City High School. Now I’m not saying New York City doesn’t still have some fine schools, some of the finest in the nation. But statistically speaking, over 50% of New York City high school graduates are not prepared for college level work or an entry level job when they leave school. And that comes from the city’s own reports.

Sure, there are a lot of challenges facing New York, and I’m not picking on New York, but I’d guess that about 80% of the students I teach are from New York City high schools, so it’s what I know best. About 5% are from other places in America and the rest are from foreign schools. I had a class last term with a student from Italy, one from France and one from Germany. I almost wept with joy as their academic skills were so strong. Until I wept with pain that their American peers were so weak.

And I do spend time from students from other places and even at other schools, good schools, Ivy Leagues, even. And I am amazed, constantly, at what they don’t know that I know I knew when I was their age. This is what happens when as a culture we glorify stupidity and are proud of ignorance.

And sometimes, in the dark recesses of my slightly Orwellian soul, I do hear whispers of “This is not a terrible mistake.” And Orwell’s whispers are joined by Huxley’s ruminations in Brave New World. There are times I think the brave new world is now. (Though to be perfectly honest, I do not believe in a huge government conspiracy. A huge corporate conspiracy is much more likely. As far as I can see Congress is the lap dog of corporate interest in this country. Corporations really don’t want you educated. Why educate a slave race? That was Hitler’s view. It’s rather pragmatic when striving for world domination.)

So, we live in a populace without a truly free press and with men, and women, since it’s the 21st century now, who are unable to read. We are not safe. We have much to fear.

If our government is so easily hijacked, it needs to be replaced. If the people ruling this country are so weak and ineffective that a tiny minority can close down government, well, I can’t see why they are staying in office. With pay yet.

Many have called for their pay to be docked. We the people are their employers. Fire them. And if we don’t do that, at least don’t pay them. Not that I think the predominantly wealthy people who run this country will suffer much with the loss of a month’s salary or so.  But how many of the federal workers who are now sitting home, effectively out of work, are living pay check to pay check? How much do support staff, park rangers, computer tech people make?

I realized yesterday that I had to do more than tweet my anger, that 140 characters weren’t enough. Well, I’m about to hit 1200 words, and all I can really say is please, Americans, let’s join together to stop the madness. Even if we’re of different parties we have to realize that what’s happening in America is a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. It’s stupid, pig headed stupid, and we deserve better than that!

 

September 19, 2013

The Sad and Lonely Death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, Adjunct

A story has been circulating academic newsletters and forums this week, a column called “The Death of an Adjunct” by Daniel Kovalik. It’s terrifying, to me at least, for it tells the true story of 83-year-old adjunct professor of French Margaret Mary Vojtko who died last month in abject poverty.  You can find the story here if you would like all the sad details.

I found the story terrifying because it’s the future I face. Teaching at 83 is not unheard of. I know many people who are working long after retirement age because they can not afford to stop.  In the comments, someone posted, “what about Social Security?”  I was very surprised to learn that there is actually no minimum monthly benefit, but for administrative reasons, the SSA won’t pay less than $1 a month.  And we all know, or should know, that benefits are based on salary. If Prof. Vojtko was an adjunct for 25 years, her yearly salary was low.

Why adjunct? It used to be the domain of grad students or people who wanted to keep their hand in or make a little money. Now I know a number of full time adjuncts, but obviously not all at one school.  I am one, something I’ve bemoaned for a while. I left America (because a Taiwanese school was the only full time job I could get) and was out of the country for well over a decade. Since I’ve come back, nothing full time permanent.

I have glowing reviews from peers and students, and frankly, I am very very good at what I do.

But my income varies and my health coverage is spotty, in spite of my union.  The SSA very helpfully sends me what my social security benefit is currently projected to be when I retire. It’s in the three digits per month still. I have a very very very small IRA because one temp job I had was a year long, so I was part of the Massachusetts Retirement Fund, but when I left I had to roll it to an IRA.  And that’s about it.

I would love to sock away funds for my future, but right now I’m not making enough money for living now. So Prof. Vojtko’s story? This could very well be me in 30 years.

I have hope, of course. Hope of a full time job somewhere in the near future. Or of moving out of America again (which is getting harder and harder to do–everyone’s economy is bad). Or I will finally have time to finish my book and sell it. And then maybe publish another.

I’ve written about the adjunct situation before. Schools have figured out that they can hire “contingent faculty” with little to no benefits, no job security and very little pay. In that way we’re no different from many who work in corporate America. Except most of us have advanced degrees. We’re some of the best educated and least appreciated people in the country. We hear the pundits and the politicians say “We need more educated people in this country.”  But why bother if there will be no jobs?

I didn’t go into this field blindly. When I was deciding between a PhD or law school, I did my research. I talked to people in both fields. I looked at the market research. According to statistics, there would be a 13-20% increase in college teaching jobs. The law field was facing a glut of graduates. Seemed like a wise choice.  And there would have been that uptick in jobs. The hirees of the 60s and 70s were getting ready to retire when I was finishing grad school in the mid-90s. But instead of replacing those who left with other full timers, schools hired two or three adjuncts instead and saved a lot of money.

I can’t totally blame not-for-profit schools, especially the public schools, whose budgets are being slashed. But quality is hurt.

But here I am, living one paycheck away from poverty. I can’t afford to be ill or hurt because I’m allowed one paid sick day per term.  And anything that would entail a few weeks of healing time? They’d get someone to replace me. I get it. Students can’t miss the class time.

Something in this country has got to change. Our colleges and universities were some of the best in the world, but running schools with a majority of adjunct labor is not a sustainable situation. Students suffer; education suffers; America suffers; and the adjuncts suffer.

I cried for Prof. Vojtko when I read the article. She died in miserable conditions, in spite of working hard all of her life. She died alone, stressed, and frightened. I would cry for anyone in that situation. But quite literally, there but for the Grace of God go I.

To anyone thinking of an academic career in America, I have one piece of advice: don’t do it. I love teaching. I don’t teach; I am a teacher. But I can’t live a sustainable life and I know many many others who are in the same boat.

September 2, 2013

A Call for Labor

Because today is Labor Day, I want to make a plea for those who would labor in this country but who can’t. I want to make a plea to bring manufacturing back to America.

We keep saying the jobs of the future are in technology. Many of them are. And factories don’t need as many people as they used to before robotics. But because Americans want to buy cheap, cheap, cheap, we’ve taken bread out of our neighbors’ mouths.  And hurt the country in the long run.

Why should a company pay a living American wage to a craftsman or a worker when work can be done in a developing country by someone with no union, no laws protecting workers? I may be thought naive because I’m going to answer, “it’s the right thing to do.”

Our country prospered when our working class prospered. When a “working man” or in many cases a working woman, could support a family with an honest wage. I hear many people blaming the unions. Hogwash. Unions got you a weekend and safe working conditions. Unions make sure you’re compensated if you’re injured at work.  Is there corruption in unions? Yes. Is there anywhere humans are that does not have corruption? No. Unions, churches, governments, corporations. It’s humans who are corrupt, not unions.

Since I’ve been back in America, I’ve gone through countless small appliances, clocks. chairs, the list can go on and on. Things break. They just stop working. I’m not saying one country or another is doing shoddy work, and I often think, in my paranoid moments, that companies do it on purpose to up their bottom line. But I know I would rather pay more for something that will last than keep throwing things in the trash. Living in a disposable world is wrong on so many levels.

But I’ve started to look at labels very carefully. I’m buying more things built in Germany, Switzerland and England because I want better quality. Yes, I’m paying more, but in the long run, I am sure I will save money.  I would rather buy things made in America in order to support my fellow Americans. But I can not find them!

I’ve said it before, more than once. If a clever person opened a factory here and made kitchen appliances, he or she would make a mint. Yes, I would pay twice as much for an American made toaster. I did it already for an English made one.

Not everybody wants to go to college.  Not everybody wants to work in an office. I’ve never worked in a factory, but I’ve worked in a factory lunch counter. It was not pleasant. It was hard work. But it was 9-5 with a regular and good paycheck.  The more skilled workers got paid more, which makes sense, but they had jobs. Now the jobs are gone.

Don’t tell me that working for a subpar wage with no health care or retirement benefits at a big box store is less stressful or easier on people.

My late father-in-law was a machinist in a mill. He and my mother-in-law raised nine kids on his paycheck. It was tight. Very tight. He supplemented his income with providing much of his own food with gardening, hunting and fishing, but his children were fed, educated and went on to good lives. But there’s no mill anymore for any of them to work in. The area they live in has been hit hard economically, and not just in this century. Things were getting bleak there in the 80s and they’ve never truly bounced back.

There are only so many tech jobs that can open up.

We’re being sold the story that we live in a service economy. That the jobs have moved overseas and there’s no getting them back. Why not? Prices will go up if people get paid a living wage. Americans have to say well, I will pay $6 for quality that will last instead of $1 at the dollar store. I’m no stranger to dollar stores. But how many times have I thrown out things in a matter of months and then had to replace it?  That’s false economy.

I feel like I’m on a soapbox right now. There are so many issues that are part of this problem. But I know there are people who want jobs and we keep telling them: “There are none. Learn a new skill.”  We have the factories, shuttered, many being turned into luxury housing for those in the professions. Housing is good. But so are jobs. Why repurpose a factory into housing when we could reopen it and start bringing in jobs?

I’m not an economist, so what the hell do I know? I read, though. I know history, though.  We see what happened to Detroit. We’re at a crossroads. Time to start a revolution in thinking about this country. Americans have to wrest America back from corporations and governments, local, state and federal, that pander to their needs.

August 21, 2013

Free Might Not be Better

I saw a tweet today, and it prompted me to write. The tweet said, “It’s this simple #education should be #free #strikedebt” But as an educator, and as someone who has lived in places where education is free, I know it’s really not that simple.

First, education is not free. You may want to screw capitalism, young tweeter, and yes, your professors are usually rather idealistic, but I have to eat, too. I need to pay my rent, get healthcare, and buy clothes. Researching isn’t cheap. I must get paid. And I’ve invested years and hundreds of thousands of dollars into my education. I have loans, too.  So first you must pay us. And then there’s the equipment, the buildings, all the things that make up a university. It all must be bought and maintained. Running a university is an expensive endeavor.

So free education is actually paid for through taxes. That’s the whole idea of state schools.  In fact, I work for a public college.  And here’s part two of the “not simple” part.

Once upon a time, CUNY was free. If admitted, one earned a top class education for the price of books and supplies. An excellent deal.

The kicker was not everyone got in. And not everyone got into his or her first choice.  My mom was a top NYC high school student, graduated Long Island City High School, class of ’50. She had her heart set on going to Hunter College. But Hunter only accepted X number of women (it used to be a women’s college) from each of NYC’s high schools based on the woman’s class standing. Mom was X-1. She missed getting in by a less than a full point on her average. She went to her next choice, Queens College, but she still talks about missing Hunter with regret.

This still happens in countries with free education. Not everyone gets in. There aren’t free options for everyone. Students get in based on academic merit. In some countries, especially Asian, there’s a national exam and students get placed into a university and a major based on numerical test results.  In other places, students’ high school transcripts are the main bulk of the determination of if and where they get in.

Students who don’t get into a free education can still go to school, but they choose private options and pay.

CUNY did have open admissions for free for almost a decade, but the financial realities ended that in 1976. Open admissions also meant remedial classes were instituted. These are intensive classes with more hours than regular classes, and they are very expensive. I teach remedial or developmental or pre-credit (pick your label–they mean the same), and I believe in the rightness of having them. If high schools aren’t doing their job, my colleagues and I will do it. I’ve had students in my remedial classes go on to graduate from the community college I teach in and transfer to NYU, Columbia, Yale and all of the CUNY senior colleges, which are some of the best schools in the world.  Proud doesn’t even begin to cover it.

But. And there’s always a but. But the drop out/failure rate in those remedial classes hovers around 50-60%. I start each term with 28 and end with 12-15, or in a good term, 16. And not all of the 16  pass the class. They just finish it, often passing the second time they take it, if they haven’t lost the desire.

That’s a lot of money. Yes, these students are paying tuition, but one subsidized by the state and city. I have also taught at a private school, and earning an associates there costs about $20,000. Currently an associates at a CUNY school is $8400. And most of the students have financial aid, so they are paying substantially less than that. That’s a heavy subsidy, and that’s the tax burden.  Someone is paying that money, just not the students or their parents.

So, free education is great, but it closes the path of education for many people. That’s a negative.

But I also believe that the requirement for a college education in this country is out of control. Some companies now will not hire someone as a word processor, mail clerk or office assistant without a college degree. This is madness.  A college degree now holds the weight of a high school diploma when I graduated. Something is wrong with this picture.

In the countries I have lived in with free or incredibly inexpensive public education, college is not required for career and life success. In America we have devalued college educations by making them required for everything.  But that’s a blog for another day.

So, it’s not so simple. Free education is a wonderful and worthy idea, but nothing is free. What are we willing to trade for it? Higher taxes? Less access to higher education?

I do realize the counter argument: we could afford to provide education to all students if we stopped the war and ended the military build up. Totally agree, but I live in the real world. Don’t always like it, but so it goes. I do think the war will end. Eventually. But obviously the war is still rewarding, somehow, somewhere. I don’t see it, but then I don’t play in that schoolyard, so to speak.

I admire the young debt strikers, honestly I do. The student debt crisis in this country is the next financial disaster. It’s bigger than the housing debacle, and it’s not going away.

But as a thinker, I do not like reductionist arguments. Granted, Twitter isn’t the place for nuanced argument, but things saying things are simple when they are not is never a good start to a conversation.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.