The Broad is Back!

May 19, 2014

Thinking About Free Speech

“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins. Republics and limited monarchies derive their strength and vigor from a popular examination into the action of the magistrates.” ~ Benjamin Franklin in “On Freedom of Speech the Press,” Pennsylvania Gazette, November 17, 1737

Nothing we like better in this country than to expound on what the “Founding Fathers” wanted for our country. We talk about what they would have wanted, but really we should spend more time reading what they wrote. We pay attention to myths and apocryphal stories as if they were gospel truths and largely ignore large bodies of published materials.

Saw this today and it made me think. Hard.

Freedom of speech and the press?  Slowly but surely being eroded, not just by the government, but by the government in complicity with the corporations that are now running America.

This information is a little out of date, but in 2011, six corporations controlled 90% of media in the US. You can find the nice little chilling infographic here.

A little something to chew on this Monday morning.

April 6, 2014

Poor Education Spells Death of Freedom

“The only sure bulwark of continuing liberty is a government strong enough to protect the interests of the people, and a people strong enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control over the government.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

The longer I’m back in America, the more my heart is breaking.  When I came back almost seven years ago now, I was frankly shocked by the difference in the freshmen I started to teach. Their skills were worse; their knowledge base was worse; and their critical thinking skills were practically non-existent. I was teaching the same demographic I had taught before I left, so that wasn’t a factor.

 

The bulk of my teaching is at urban community colleges, but since I’ve been back I’ve taught at elite schools and middle ranked private and state schools as well.  The only differences I see are classroom skills levels, or in some cases, the ability to quickly adapt classroom skills.

 

 

I am slowly and surely becoming convinced that liberty is at stake here: my students’ as well as my country’s.  I have written about this before, so obviously this is pressing on me.  I don’t actually have time to write now.  I have one week left until spring break, and I have much to accomplish before then. But I think during that break I will take the time to work out some of my ideas on this blog.

 

 

But in the meantime, look to your children’s education. Look to your own education. Who is behind educational reform? If you say “government” or “the overly strong federal government” please look again.

 

 

Look to your sources of information about what’s going on in the United States. Look beyond the razzle dazzle of partisan politics, the rhetoric of Left and Right. Most of that is absolutely meaningless.

 

 

We the people, a hackneyed phrase, perhaps, but we the people have got to rise up and let our voices be heard. So many people try to argue that “they” are trying to make America a “godless country”. That will never happen, because right now, the mightiest god worshiped here in Mammon.

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!

 

July 4, 2013

A Thought about a Declaration

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” From the Declaration of Independence of the thirteen united States of America

I really can’t say it any better than this section of a document written 237 years ago before this was the United States. We were just united. This is what we’re celebrating in America today.

And this is a very long segment from that Declaration, one of the main documents forming American culture. But when I read it today, it makes me think. And it makes me think hard.

I do think that the American form of government is a fine one. But I have to wonder if the Government itself is protecting our citizens and allowing us life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Daily I see a “long train of abuses” done in the name of the American people that are actually causing nearly irreparable harm. Change is scary. Revolution is a hard word. The men who wrote this document knew that they were taking a destiny-changing step. They were either about to change the world or die trying, quite literally. Had the revolution failed many, if not all, would be hanged as traitors.

I would truly hate to see armed conflict in this country. But I also hate to see my country run by corporations and oligarchs. And from what I see, this is what it’s become. Maybe I’m alarmist. Maybe I’m crazy. Or maybe I’m just paying attention.

I believe in the ideals of this nation. I love this nation. But when I see what’s happening to my nation, my heart breaks.

We need change, change we really can believe in. A number of times in my adult life, I’ve thought there was going to be real change. But so far all I can think is: “The king is dead. Long live the king.” A few things change, but nothing of substance.

I know this isn’t very cheery and holiday-ish. I should be barbecuing and picnicking with family. And later today I will be. But I couldn’t let this solemn and important day pass without voicing some very real concerns. If we want another 237 years–another 50 years–something has to change.

*****

This is another blog inspired in part from Patchouli Haze, my daily inspirational blog. I realized that it had turned dire, so I moved it here and expanded.

March 29, 2013

That Jefferson Man

I ran across a quote today and it struck me as relevant:

“I hope we shall take warning from the example [of Great Britain] and crush in it’s [sic] birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws our country.” (Letter to George Logan, Nov. 12th, 1816)

That’s Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, principle crafter of the Declaration of Independence, US ambassador to France, inventor, polymath, slave holder, complicated human being.

Today far too many people negate the good about him because he held slaves. He was sexist, racist and probably a bunch of other “-ists”. He was an 18th century man. He was well ahead of his time, but for these politically correct days, that’s often not enough. If one doesn’t possess 21st century sensibilities, one is diminished in people’s eyes.

That’s a shame, because Jefferson had one of the finest minds ever to sit in the White House. As John F. Kennedy famously quipped at a White House dinner for Nobel laureates,

“I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” (You can find the full text here)

Obviously Jefferson was aware of the dangers of a monied corporation. If he could come back and see the US right now, he’d be aghast. His word “aristocracy” was prescient. It was not crushed at birth, and now it crushes so many.

Every day I work with people whose lives have been crippled by the aristocracy of the corporations. They dictate what is taught in schools, creating a class of workers and consumers for their products so when I see them in college, I’m often faced with young people incapable of independent thought.  If you think this is hyperbole on my part, read Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Joseph Roksa. Published in 2010, here’s a blurb from Amazon’s page:

“According to their analysis of more than 2,300 undergraduates at twenty-four institutions, forty-five percent of these students demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills – including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing – during their first two years of college. As troubling as their findings are, Arum and Roksa argue that for many faculty and administrators they will come as no surprise – instead, they are the expected result of a student body distracted by socializing or working and an institutional culture that puts undergraduate learning close to the bottom of the priority list.”

There’s no corporate influence there, so why do I blame them? Corporations aren’t making people socialize.  Of course not. It’s not that simple. Watch television. Watch movies. Read popular novels.  What images are being churned out about education, its role in people’s lives, and so on.  That’s the diet our children are on.

Yet corporations don’t hire secretaries without a four year degree. The corporate model prevails in even public universities. I’ve read that corporations are dictating college curriculum.

I really just wanted to share Jefferson’s quote here today. And now I’ve written over 500 words, and I’m just getting started. Just warming to the subject. I still have 90 papers and midterms to read between now and Monday, so I don’t have time for this.

But I hope I gave you something to think about.  I’ve raised a bit of the curtain. I hope you take a peek underneath.

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