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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.


January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King, a childhood hero

I was brought up in a house where dad out Archie Bunkered Archie Bunker and mom and her mother were fighters for social justice. Luckily mom’s view took root in me. So in my house, Martin Luther King was a hero. I was seven when he was assassinated, and even with all the things we hear about him today, he’s still a hero to me all these years later.

Surprise, surprise! He was a human being, and humans are flawed. But the good he did far outweighs any of the bad and in my accounting, that’s what counts.

I’m a professor at a public university because education is the way to change lives and promote equality. I believe this deep in my soul. It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I really do believe that love is all we need and love will light the way and all that hippie stuff of my childhood. Or more precisely, all that Transcendentalist stuff I drank in when reading Alcott as a child. And all the charismatic Catholic social justice stuff my mom taught me. I was doomed from childhood to be an idealist, and that’s all there is to it.  No wonder I have an activist Christian preacher as a hero.

But this is a rough world for idealists. Lately I find myself discouraged. I have students in the South Bronx of New York City who tell me that they never heard of Martin Luther King in school. I’m not sure whether or not to believe them, and I suspect they never heard of King because they weren’t listening, but still, this is disheartening.  I know my students overseas know King. In fact, America’s civil rights struggles are very interesting to those abroad.  They love reminding me (as if I needed it) that America has a troubling past when it comes to race. Find me a place that doesn’t, though.  Sometimes I sense a little spite in their glee.

I seem to live in a world consumed by hate, anger and nastiness. Reading the papers is a chore that I will put off for days at a time sometimes. I used to read three papers a day, but lately Twitter is about all I can handle. Actually, Twitter keeps me abreast of most things, and 140 characters on the topic is about all I can take at times.

I think that’s one reason why I haven’t been blogging as much as I used to. I’m so overwhelmed. There is so much that needs fixing.  What would Dr. King think if he were still alive?

Things are definitely better than they were in 1968. There are President Obama, Secretaries of State Rice and Powell for starters. I know many young people who don’t even “see” race and this fills me with joy.

Statistics still stink, though. According to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, Blacks and Hispanics have higher poverty rates than other groups (see NPC’s Poverty facts). A lot of this ties to education. Blacks, especially Black men, are less likely to finish high school, especially here in NYC.  In 2006, two-thirds of young Black men in NYC didn’t graduate on time. These statistics chill me. We are wasting one of our most precious resources! Black men are also over represented in correctional facilities, which leads in turn to the finishing high school problem.

I teach a number of the success stories, the young men who graduated high school or earned a GED. Like their female counterparts, most have terrible academic skills, weak vocabularies and below par reading ability. They are bright, and they want to succeed, but they don’t know how. I’m told by people who study these things at my school that nationwide, 75% of those who start at community colleges in America never finish. How can they succeed when they aren’t prepared?  Of course, I have a number who do graduate. And many of them go on to four year schools, even Ivy Leagues. As I tell my students, anyone can get into CUNY, but if you get out with a diploma, you can go anywhere.

Black and Hispanic women have similar problems, of course, and they are over represented in the teenage pregnancy statistics. Too many American teens are getting pregnant, but Black and Hispanic women are three times more likely to been teen moms here in New York.  Going to school takes hard work. Going to school with a baby? Not good odds there. Not impossible, though. Some of my best students are former teen moms who have realized the importance of education in order to make their children’s lives better.

It all gets back to education with me, doesn’t it? But I think Dr. King would agree. After all, his doctorate isn’t honorary. He earned a PhD from Boston University in 1955 at the incredibly young age of 26.  He pushed through and got the degree. PhDs aren’t worth much in American society, believe me, but they represent something. They show, on some level, that education is important. It’s not the only thing, but it’s something.

So today as we remember Dr. King, I want to thank all those who still work for the dream. I’m a battered idealist, but I’m an idealist all the same. And as long as there are people out there working, the Dream stays alive.

And I can only say Amen to these famous words:

“Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: / we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I Have a Dream Speech, 1963.


March 29, 2010

Time for a Reset? Better than some of the options

In an earlier post I mentioned an article by Kurt Andersen.  I liked his piece so much that I checked out his website and found that he has recently published Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America“Values” can be a tricky word in America, as it can mean conservative Christianity.  I have nothing against conservative Christianity, per se, but those aren’t the values I see missing in America, but after reading the blurb on, I decided to read for myself.  And I’m very glad that I did.

While I didn’t agree with all Andersen had to say, I do recommend the book–more of a long essay, really–to anyone interested in the future of America.  The part that had me nodding my head in agreement was his argument that basically my generation of Americans needs to grow up on many levels.  He used the tale of the grasshopper and the ant.  The grasshopper plays all summer while the ant works hard preparing for the coming winter.  Andersen compares America of the past 30 years–since the Reagan years and just when my generation was coming of age–to the grasshopper.  And he points out that Americans used to be ants.  We’ve had cycles, and we needed that grasshopper streak in order to become what we’ve become, but it’s been dominant too long now.  As he put it, “it’s simply time to ratchet back our wild and crazy grasshopper side and get in touch with our inner ant” (20).

One thing Andersen hopes this crisis will do is bring back America’s pragmatism.  We’re not the only pragmatic people in the world, but once upon a time we were very good at it.  So good at it, in fact, that probably the most influential school of homegrown American philosophy was called Pragmatism, and was founded in the 19th century by Charles Sanders Peirce and followed by some of our more well known philosophers, William James and John Dewey.  On some levels, they took a national trait and codified it into a philosophical tool.

Another great 19th century American school of thought was Transcendentalism, and one of its major proponents, Ralph Waldo Emerson, is also cited in the book.  To be very reductionist, the Trancendentalists encouraged people to work hard, develop themselves to their highest state, and spare resources and live frugally and in harmony with nature.  Henry David Thoreau, another Transcendentalist, was Emerson’s good friend and neighbor and is today best known for living in his hut by Walden Pond, an early proponent of “reduce, reuse, recycle.”

Like many people, Andersen sees times of crisis as potential good.  As he says, “This is the end of the world as we’ve known it.  But it isn’t the end of the world” (17).  And some of the things in the world we’ve known haven’t been good.  Too few are in control of far too much; workers’ wages have not been increased at the same rate as the bosses’.  He gave some interesting statistics on this.  “An average American CEO has been getting paid several hundred times the salary of his average worker, a gap an order of magnitude longer than it was in the 1970s.  In Japan, the ratio is just eleven to one, and in Britain, twenty-two to one” (11).  America is a capitalist country, I get that.  But we’ve also given lip service to fairness and justice.

Andersen likened America at the beginning of the 21st century to the British Empire at the beginning of the 20th century.  While there was something in that, I must say that there are times when it reminds me much more of the Court of Versailles around 1785.  There was a very small ruling elite, sometimes giving lipservice to “the people,” but for the most part stuck in an Ancien Regime.  Back then, some were valiantly trying to bring the French government into a new era, but too many people were angry, hungry, jobless and frightened.  That was a recipe for disaster.  I’m not saying that there will be a violent and bloody revolution–21st century Americans aren’t that bloodthirsty towards their own kind–but I do think we’re heading for a major change and I fear it might be bumpier than we’d like.

Andersen’s book is short, only 72 pages long, but it gave me a lot to think about.  I post this to encourage you to have a read and have a think.

Andersen, Kurt. Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America. New York: Random House, 2009.

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