Canaries in the Roundup Ready Fields

This morning I woke up with the phrase “canaries in the coal mine” playing over and over in my mind.

Maybe it’s because one of the last things I read before going to sleep last night was an article about the harmful effects of methylmercury in songbirds.  Methylmercury is the organic form of mercury, a biproduct of coal burning, which falls to the ground with rain, gets into the groundwater and begins to make its way through the food chain, starting with leaves, snails and worms, and going up into birds, fish and mammals.

Mercury poison is slow and insidious, showing up in erratic behavior and a kind of deadly dullness in birds and other animals.

“Songbirds with blood mercury levels of just 0.7 parts per million generally showed a 10 percent reduction in the rate at which eggs successfully hatched,” writes Anthony DePalma in the New York Times. “As mercury increases, reproduction decreases. At mercury levels of greater than 1.7 parts per million, the ability of eggs to hatch is reduced by more than 30 percent, according to the study.

“Over all, birds in contaminated sites were found to be three times as likely to abandon their nests or exhibit abnormal incubation or feeding behavior. In some nests, the chicks seemed to have been affected most; they vocalized less and did not beg as aggressively to be fed.

“Such consequences mimic the effects of mercury on humans whose primary contact with the toxin is through the consumption of fish. The contamination can be passed to children in the womb or while they are nursing, damaging their nervous systems and impairing their ability to learn.”

Still mulling this information over, thinking about the mysteriously rising rates of autism, Asberger’s and other neurological disorders in our children, I poured myself a cup of coffee and opened up Facebook, often a good source of information about what is on people’s minds on any given morning.

At the top of my news feed, I found several glaring stories about Monsanto, the biggest and baddest of the industrial agriculture corporations.  Much has been written about the evils of GMO crops, terminator seeds, and the effects of Roundup on the environment.  But now, as with mercury poisoning, we’re beginning to realize how glyphosate, one of the main ingredients of Roundup, is infiltrating water and food and making its way up the food chain—to us.

Glyphosate is being blamed for infertility, mental illness, decreases in beneficial gut bacteria, and cancer.  Of course, it’s hard to find large-scale, reliable studies documenting these side effects, because no one spends more money than Monsanto in discouraging research that might affect its sales.

And Big Pharma is also along for the ride, since the more sick people, the merrier the cash register rings.

Yesterday I went for a walk on the golf course that sits in one of the most beautiful pieces of land in my neighborhood, a flat plain with the Housatonic River looping through it.  As always, I was struck by the complete absence of broadleaved plants in the thick grass of the course.  Not a dandelion; not a plantain; nada.  And nary a bird, either, except for a few stray chickadees chirping in one of the few thickets remaining by the river.  A microcosm of the Roundup Ready world we live in.

It strikes me that we are far beyond the canary in the coal mine moment now.  The canaries have died…but we are still advancing into the darkness, taking our chances, going on a toxic mixture of blind faith, naïve optimism and sheer stupidity.

The politicians have been paid to keep their eyes shut, and the rest of us don’t want to see what’s right in front of us.  Most of us who do see don’t act.

Until now.  Tomorrow there will be a big protest in lower Manhattan, in front of the Courthouse on Foley Square, where a major lawsuit has been brought against Monsanto by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA).

It’s no secret that Monsanto has used harsh bullying tactics to force farmers to use its expensive artificial seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides—the rash of farmer suicides in places like India and South Korea have borne mute testimony to the despair that comes of the resulting debt bondage.

European farmers have been more savvy about keeping Monsanto and its GMO crops at bay, and although we in the U.S. have been fairly passive until now, the times they are a’changing.

Listen to the combative tone in OSGATA President Jim Gerritsen’s voice as he rallies his 300,000 members to stand up for their rights:

“Today is Independence Day for America.  Today we are seeking protection from the Court and putting Monsanto on notice.  Monsanto’s threats and abuse of family farmers stops here.  Monsanto’s genetic contamination of organic seed and organic crops ends now.  Americans have the right to choice in the marketplace – to decide what kind of food they will feed their families – and we are taking this action on their behalf to protect that right to choose.  Organic farmers have the right to raise our organic crops for our families and our customers on our farms without the threat of invasion by Monsanto’s genetic contamination and without harassment by a reckless polluter. Beginning today, America asserts her right to justice and pure food.”

A bus for farmers and allies from Columbia County will be leaving for New York at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning (meeting at the old Walmart parking lot at 351 Fairview Ave in Hudson) to join the protest in front of the federal courthouse.  I’ll be in my classroom tomorrow, but my heart will be at Foley Square.

How many canaries have to die before we wake up?

A Crucible Moment in Education

There was some rolling of eyes in my community when President Obama announced he would like to see high school mandatory until age 18.  That’s because at Bard College of Simon’s Rock, my alma mater, where I’ve been teaching for the past 17 years, the standard procedure for students is to leave high school at about age 16, generally after 10th grade, and shift into our early college program.

Most Simon’s Rock students are motivated to step off the beaten path and try a different approach to college because they’re high achievers who are bored in high school.  A few come to us because they’ve been so socially mauled in high school that Simon’s Rock becomes not only an academic, but also a social refuge for them.

In any case, for my students, being compelled to stay in high school until they were 18 years old would have been torturous, and would not have improved their future chances of success any more than “dropping out” to try a more innovative form of education—early college.

President Obama’s instinct that staying in school is better than dropping out altogether is absolutely correct.  It’s just that if we’re going to compel kids to stay in school, we need to make their schooling compelling.

Lots of great minds have already weighed in on the question of how to make learning fun and meaningful, but somehow we do not seem to have made a dent in the great battleship Education, which is still plowing its way implacably through the cold waters of Teaching to the Test.

It’s true that there is a certain amount of knowledge that you simply have to be taught, in that passive sense of receiving information and committing it to memory.  For instance, the alphabet.  The multiplication tables.

And having got these basic tools, you need to be taught how to use them: how to read, how to manipulate numbers.  If you’re going to be a doctor, you need to be taught how human systems work, just the way an engineer learns how a mechanical system works, or a mechanic learns how a car works.  OK.

But beyond mastering these kinds of basics in any field, there are two things students most need to get out of their education: learning how to figure things out for themselves, and learning how important their educated selves are to their communities and the larger society as a whole.

In today’s networked world, we no longer need to have kids waste their time memorizing all the state capitols, or learning by rote anything that can be measured in a multiple-choice test.  What kids need to learn is how to find the information they need to answer the questions they have about the world.  They need to learn how to frame their questions, understanding that the way a question is asked will often guide or predetermine its answer.

Reading is still a fundamentally important skill, but what we need to be teaching kids is how to read between the lines.  How to see through propaganda that passes for “fair and balanced” journalism, for instance.  How to sift through multiple sources of information on a given topic, and understand the criteria for determining which source is most credible.

But even that is not enough. Students not only need to become active readers, but also nimble thinkers, capable of taking in a spread of ideas on a given topic, and responding with their own original thinking.  A society where kids only learn how to feed back to their elders old, predigested ideas is a stagnant society, and we can’t afford that kind of stagnation at this time.

And here we get to my second point: kids not only need to learn to think for themselves, they need to understand how important this activity is for our rapidly changing society.  And that means taking the skills they’ve gained through their education out of the school and the academy into the street.

Students at every level, even the littlest ones, will benefit from a much more active engagement with the social and natural environment beyond the walls of their classrooms.  Little kids should be planting gardens in their schoolyards and composting the remains of their lunch. In Waldorf kindergartens like the one my sons attended, kids partake in preparing their mid-morning snack, and in keeping their classroom clean and neat.

What kids learn through activities like these is the importance of collaboration to community—an invaluable life lesson that needs to start early and be reinforced in different ways as they grow older.

Instead of our current competitive test-based system, we need collaborative learning that anticipates the kind of team-based environments of the most successful communities and businesses.  Instead of seeing kids hunched on their own behind raised folders taking a test—no cheating!—we should see groups of kids assembled around a problem, working collaboratively, noisily, joyfully to solve it.

The task of the teacher in this kind of learning environment would be to set the kids ever more challenging and interesting problems, with clearly visible and defined real-world applications, and guide the kids to the tools they need to solve the problems and evaluate their successes or setbacks.

Lord knows there is no shortage of serious problems in our world today, problems that demand every ounce of our most focused attention to surmount.  We need to get kids out of their classrooms and into their communities, bringing their creativity, their intelligence, their caring and their wonderful energy to bear on the challenges that lie just outside their classroom doors.

The Obama administration has just released a major new report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, prepared by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, which brought together leaders in higher education from around the country to come up with recommendations for ways that education can help students become engaged, responsible local and global citizens.

The report concludes that given all the “pressing issues” facing us today—“growing global economic inequalities, climate change and environmental degradation, lack of access to quality health care, economic volatility, and more,” educators need to focus on “expanding students’ capacities to be civic problem-solvers using all their powers of intellect and inventiveness.

“The kind of graduates we need at this moment in history,” the authors say, “need to possess a strong propensity for wading into an intensely interdependent, pluralist world. They need to be agile, creative problem solvers who draw their knowledge from multiple perspectives both domestic and global, who approach the world with empathy, and who are ready to act with others to improve the quality of life for all.”

The report “urges every college and university to foster a civic ethos that governs campus life, make civic literacy a goal for every graduate, integrate civic inquiry within majors and general education, and advance civic action as lifelong practice.”

Specifically, the task force advocates developing service learning and community engagement programs that move beyond simple volunteerism to actually involving young people as active participants and innovators in making their social environments more vibrant, more responsible, and more equitable.

Sounds good, and sounds simple to implement, but as I know from trying to develop community engagement structures for students at my home institution, it takes staffing—and therefore funding—to provide the channels students need to quickly jump into productive off-campus programs.  Commitment to this kind of active learning environment needs to come from the top, and that’s why I am excited to see such an array of distinguished leaders in education come together as the signatories of this new National Task Force report.

Let’s hope some of that energy and enthusiasm will trickle down to schools and campuses all over the country, and soon.  The tone of urgency evident in the title of this report, A Crucible Moment, and in the President’s remarks about education this past week, is not exaggerated.

We are in a crucible moment in so many ways, and we desperately need to equip our young people with the skills and outlook they will require to bring us safely through the turbulence that awaits us in the foreseeable future as the globe heats up and pressures on human society increase.

Keeping our kids in high school until they’re 18 is only a good idea if high school becomes a meaningful, active learning environment.  Let’s do what needs to be done to make that so—or let’s come up with another model.  Early college, for example—a good idea whose time may finally have come.

Green Teaching: What the World Needs Now

In President Obama’s speech last night, he talked a fair amount about the importance of making higher education affordable for all Americans, and about how essential a highly skilled workforce is to America’s future.

I felt like I was in some kind of time warp.  Wasn’t Bill Clinton talking about just the same things, almost generation ago? Not only has insufficient progress been made, but while we’ve been fiddling and squabbling amongst ourselves, the whole landscape behind us has shifted radically.

It reminds me of one of those cartoon scenes where the mice are fighting amongst themselves and don’t even notice the huge cat face looming over them licking its chops.

The huge cat face, today, is the drastic heating of the planet.  Obama went on and on last night about manufacturing—we need a skilled workforce to support American manufacturing, we need to bring outsourced manufacturing back home, we need to adjust the tax code to benefit workers and manufacturers.

All the while, looming above the statehouse, is the runaway monster of climate change, which is at on the one hand fattened by all this manufacturing, while at the same time threatening to blow it all away.

I quite agree with Obama that we need to be pouring resources into education.  The question is, what kind of education is going to be most valuable for today’s children, tomorrow?

At the very least, we need an education that does not have its “eyes wide shut” about the fact of global heating and the impact this will have on us all in the near future.

I was encouraged this week when I picked up a print copy of the journal Green Teacher, and found an article by David Selby and Fumiyo Kagawa entitled “Unleashing Blessed Unrest as the Heating Happens.”  In it, the authors offer concrete curricular suggestions for how to introduce students in grades 5-12 to the reality of climate change, without sugar-coating it but also without leaving them so devastated that they lapse into denial or despair.  Since the article is not available online, I’m going to quote from it liberally in what follows, because this is news we can use.

The authors quote Jess Worth, who likens climate change denial to “finding out that you have cancer, but then delaying going to the doctor’s for treatment for a few months because you want to repaint your house.”

Selby and Kagawa speculate that because the “ever more dire accounts of a global climate lurching towards ever-deepening crisis” are so frightening, we tend to practice a kind of avoidance, which in education takes the form of “characterizing climate change as a technical problem that can be managed by a mix of technological innovation and policy solutions that avoid challenge to ‘business as usual.’”

For example, they say, “the recycling bin in most classrooms is…often cited as evidence of the school’s commitment to sustainability,” but “it can easily convey the subliminal message that consumerism approached responsibly can be benign.”

Reviewing American curricular materials for K-12, the authors found “a reluctance to investigate the culpability of neo-liberal economic growth models and to explore slow growth or no growth alternatives…. There is, too, an avoidance of envisioning and addressing personal and societal climate change scenarios that are likely to be played out in the learner’s lifetimes.”

This is certainly the kind of education I see my own son getting in his American public middle school.  The focus in his social studies, English and science classes has so far been squarely on the distant past.  There has been no discussion that I’m aware of about the fact that here we are at the end of January, and we are still seeing green grass outside.  NASA has just confirmed that nine of the ten warmest winters on record have occurred since the year 2000, and 2011 was the 9th warmest since 1880. Excuse me, shouldn’t we talk about that?

Selby and Kagawa say that instead of maintaining an “eyes wide shut” avoidance pattern with our youngsters, we need to engage in “an honest education facing up to the onset of what Alastair McIntosh describes as ‘a great dying time of evolutionary history’” and “overturning…the comfortable delusion that major disruption of Earth’s climate can be avoided or neutralized.

“Recognizing that present and future generations need hope, we have to ask what the hope is grounded in and what kind of hope it is.  Is it a spurious optimism, a comfortable fiction based on what we would prefer to see happen while keeping our ‘eyes wide shut’?  Or is it a pared down and realistically straitened optimism born of confronting the present and future earth condition?”

We have a responsibility as educators, parents, and elders to tell our children the truth about where we are as a global civilization, and where we are likely headed.  Wouldn’t you rather be forewarned, rather than bowled over by surprise when the shocks start coming?  Don’t you see it as the responsible thing to do to start preparing for those shocks now, both emotionally and practically?

The educators brought together in Selby and Kagawa’s new anthology Education and Climate Change advocate for a transformative learning agenda, involving “conscious, deep and sustained processes of engaging with pain, despair and grief over what we are losing, moving towards acceptance while searching for radically new meaning and values, and equipping ourselves for personal and collective empowerment and action.”

Concretely, they offer classroom exercises to guide students through these stages, including some pretty heavy-duty visioning of possible future scenarios that we may all have to live through.  The goal is not to depress students, but to empower them by moving from the disaster scenarios to hopeful plans of action to stave off the worst effects of climate change, or adapt successfully to whatever comes.

“A citizenship education for “blessed unrest” in a time of rampant climate change,” the authors say, “needs to be shaped by engagement in community-based action that creates, resists and transgresses in the name of sustainability.”

The time to start talking about these issues with our students and children is now, while we still have options as to how to confront the changes that are coming.  To do any less is to fail in our responsibility as the adults who should be out blazing the trail for the kids following behind us.  If we know there’s white water up ahead, let’s at least give those behind us a heads-up and see what we can do to ride out the rapids safely, together.

State of the Union or State of the Planet?

Tonight is President Obama’s State of the Union.  I love to watch that man orate, but I just can’t summon much enthusiasm this time.  It’s so obvious that he will be reciting lines that have been scripted for him, after much vetting by all the stakeholders.  So I don’t expect any surprises or delights in tonight’s speech.

Like a racehorse, Obama has many owners, and he has to answer to all of them.  The only thing they care about is that he wins.

The problem is that winning, in today’s terms, means ignoring what’s really important.  If we were going to focus on what is urgently needed right now, we would start with a massive push to shift from fossil-fuel energy to renewable energy.

This is starting to sound so old-news, and yet—hello!  It’s not being done!  Instead we’re still expending energy on fighting over the Keystone XL pipeline, which is so clearly a 20th century dinosaur that SHOULD NOT BE BUILT.

Rather than pour billions of dollars into thousands of miles of pipeline for dirty crude, we need to be drastically ramping up our manufacturing output of solar panels.  I have mixed feelings about wind power, but solar seems to be a no-brainer.  Put solar panels on rooftops across the USA, as so many in Europe are doing, and away we go to a brave new world of energy autonomy.

President Obama is not going to talk about solar power tonight.  His handlers won’t let him.

And so, he will continue to lead us down the daisy path of delusion—what David Selby and Fumiyo Kagawa, the editors of the new volume Education and Climate Change  (Routledge, 2010), call the  “eyes wide shut” approach to “global heating.”

If we were bring truthful, Selby and Kagaway say, we would admit that “future scenarios look grim: a mix of ubiquitous environmental disaster (including a huge loss of biodiversity), ongoing and massive internal and external population displacement as a result of sea incursions, seasonally recurring wildfires and desertification (and resultant social dislocation), hunger, starvation, internecine strife, violent conflict, tribalism, aggressively defensive localism, as well as the ever-lurking danger of genocide.”

Do you think Obama is going to address this stark scenario?

Not on your life!

He will talk about jobs creation and economic improvement as though we were living in a world divorced from our planetary base.

Most of us exist in this delusional sphere.  Plugged in, it’s hard for us to imagine that there could come a time when the physical disruptions of the planet could actually interfere with our digitized lifestyles.

Could there be a time when food from all the corners of the globe is not available in our grocery store?  Could there come a time when electricity is not either flowing freely, or about to be restored?

No one wants to hear this, but I have to say it anyway.  It is very possible, even probable, that there will be interruptions of food supplies and electricity  in the foreseeable future.

You won’t find any politician willing to talk about this.

For all politicians, and for most of us ordinary citizens, it is akin to heresy to suggest that sometime in the near future, the corporate capitalist economic model, based on endless growth and endless extraction of resources, is going to take a nosedive off the nearest cliff.

Neither the State of the Union, nor any political speech that will make prime time in the next year, will honestly engage with the reality of climate change.

Birmingham, Alabama, Jan. 24, 2012

That means that when storms hit, as they did just this week in Alabama, we will still be interpreting them through the conventional frame of “freak storms,” rather than as the steadily advancing harbingers of a future we don’t want to see.

We have such a limited window to prepare for the deep systemic planetary changes that are heading our way.  The difference between us and the dinosaurs is that we know what’s coming.

Are we going to squander this knowledge with shortsighted power struggles motivated by greed? Or are we going to use our superior intelligence to help our species, and countless others, avoid the fate of the dinosaurs?

It remains to be seen, but this much is certain: tonight’s State of the Union address, being just so much more smoke and mirrors, is not going to provide any answers.

Webizens Unite!

The fuss over the SOPA/PIPA legislation last week is the marker of a generational shift in our understanding of the media: we’re at the transition point between 20th century media models, which rely on centralized, profit-driven control over production and consumption, and 21st century media models, which are all about open access and the free circulation of ideas.

While I’m generally a strong supporter of the open-access model, I do see some dangers to it.

For one thing, when we operate on a distributed intelligence model, information is so widely available that none of us really has to feel responsible about knowing anything.  We can just look it up, after all.

But when we rely so much on others to be the keepers of our collective intelligence, we become vulnerable on at least two crucial levels:

  • Vulnerable to being manipulated by the producers of that knowledge—think Fox News, for example, with its so-called “fair and balanced” reporting.  As long as we are aware that Fox News is reporting from a distinctly biased point of view, we can take their information under advisement, and balance it ourselves with other sources.  As long as there are other sources.  And as long as we have the education to be able to sift through it all and form our own informed opinions.
  • Vulnerable to loss of access—as in the one-day blackout on Wikipedia last week. It’s like kids who rely so completely on the calculator that they never learn their multiplication tables.  All well and good, until the day when they don’t have a machine available to make the calculations, and they’re left helpless.

Our society has become so totally tuned in to media that we would be lost without it.  And that kind of dependency is dangerous.

I think about the big push now to digitize libraries.  Of course, I love the idea of being able to carry 4,000 volumes around with me on one slim little e-reader.  It’s awesome!  But on the other hand, a little voice in the back of my head worries: what would happen if we lost ready access to electricity?  What would happen if there were shortages, so only the elites were able to power up their notebooks and Kindles?  Where would our libraries be then?

We’re already living in a society where social class, access to the Web and social influence form a tight, circular web.  Privileged kids today are growing up totally plugged in and able to make the best use of the amazing collective intelligence of the Web, while kids from poor backgrounds, worldwide, are growing up on the other side of the digital tracks, out there with the garbage and the weeds.

As the big media companies work ever more aggressively to stake their claim in the wild west of the Web, fencing off bigger and bigger areas of the digital commons, we need to become more vigilant about guarding our freedom of speech and our free access to the Web, and making sure that more and more of us really do have that access and the knowledge needed to make good use of it.

WordPress blogging platforms like the one I’m writing on are like little free information lanes alongside what are becoming ever more hulking, fenced and patrolled toll highways.  The fact that anyone can start up a blog or a Twitter feed or a Facebook page for free and get their voice out to the public immediately, with no censors, is a 21st century version of a time-tested Constitutional right that we need to make sure we defend.

Corporations don’t like the free circulation of “media content” because it escapes their profit-driven model.  That’s what they were trying to accomplish with their anti-piracy legislation—a way to shut down any website that did not pay its toll.

Looking into the brave new future that awaits us, I see increasing conflict over these basic issues of access to and control over the media.  I also see that unless we are successful in making the shift to renewable energy sources, it is conceivable that basic access to electricity, which we in the West now take for granted, may become less easily obtained.

As a blogger who relies on platforms and hardware that I could not possibly produce myself, I feel my vulnerability keenly.  I need Apple and WordPress to get me going, and the electric company to power me up, or I’d be dead in the water.

If I ever woke up and found the power out and my web browser blank, well…I could always go back to zining! But I would miss the incredible distribution powers of the World Wide Web.

Last week some 7 million webizens barraged Congress with protests of the proposed SOPA/PIPA legislation, and we won the battle!  We have to maintain our stations though.  As with the Keystone XL pipeline, it’s going to be a long siege.

Censorship in Academe, 21st century style

Unfortunately, the banning of books by Mexican Americans in Tucson last week was not an isolated incident.  It’s part of a larger pattern in American education.

At the elementary school level, it takes the form of resisting bilingual education for students whose family language is not English, and—for example—still teaching “Thanksgiving” as though it were the happy, peaceful start of a triumphant positive march towards a shining, splendid American empire.

At the middle school level, it’s about teaching Egyptian history—mummies, anyone?—instead of Native American or Mexican history.  Mummies are safe—there’s no politics left in them, they’ve been dead too long.

In high school, students are asked to stand and pledge allegiance by rote to the American flag representing “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” but not asked to interrogate the proposition that liberty and justice really are available to all in our great land.

In undergraduate education, after a brief, highly contested period in the 1980s and 90s when the gates guarding the required curricula were wrenched open to let literature by ethnic minorities and women in, the tides have turned again.

Just as in middle school it’s safer to teach about the ancient Egyptians, in college the safest route is towards ancient Greece.  “After all,” I was once told blandly by a senior (white male) colleague in the course of a heated meeting on the core curriculum, “the Greeks are a minority too.”

The modern Greeks may be struggling, but the ancient Greeks are alive and well and generously represented in curricula throughout the Western world, where ancient figures like Plato, Sophocles and Aristotle still exert remarkable influence.

Meanwhile, graduate schools in the humanities are focused on jazzing up the study of history and literature through fancy digital applications.

I’m as digitally oriented as the next prof, but I won’t support “digital humanities” if it means that we no longer have the time or resources to engage in what I see as the most important functions of the humanities: teaching students how to analyze and wield the tools of narrative and argument; giving them the time and space to explore complex ethical issues; and most of all, empowering them to become informed, autonomous individuals who can research and think for themselves.

In theory, this could be done within a digital framework.  But the problem is that much of the push towards “digital humanities” is coming from the great surge towards online education as a business model for universities.  Of course you can do online education much better if you have high-tech online tools.  No argument there.

The problem is the bigger picture of online education, where tenured professors are being replaced with adjunct faculty who can teach in their pajamas from home, at a fraction of the salary or responsibility and no influence at all over what gets taught.  If you have an army of part-time online instructors working with students from remote locations all over the world, it’s pretty hard to have the kind of discussions that I’m remembering from my department’s deliberations over the core curriculum.

Most decisions over what gets taught in those burgeoning online courses are made by administrators who remain faceless to the instructors, with the result that professors become paid employees rather than professionals who are not only engaged in the process of teaching, but also in the process of deciding what gets taught.

It’s as easy as the push of a button for some administrator to decide that HUM 26X, Chicano/a History, will not be taught, while HUM 25X, History of Ancient Greece, will. And for the most part, no one will even notice.

This is going on all the time.  The incident in Tucson last week, when administrators were so sloppy as to order physical books pulled from the shelves, was a rare slip-up that brought the insidious practice of censorship into the public eye.

Most of the time it’s going on invisibly, under the radar, and so subtly that most of us won’t notice it until all of a sudden we look up and find that there are only a handful of Ethnic Studies Departments or Women’s Studies Departments left in the country, so there are hardly any graduate degrees being offered in those fields, so within a generation the whole hard-won movement to open the curriculum will be gone.

No, I am not over-reacting.  I am not hysterical.  I am not crazy.  Open your eyes, people, and you will see what I’m talking about.  Open your eyes, before it’s too late.

Shades of an American Kristallnacht?

Tonight at dinner the conversation turned to politics, although it seemed that everyone at the table was reluctant to mention the name “Obama”—a sign of the deep disappointment in our erst-while hero.

There was some enthusiasm for the political satire of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, who are probably doing more to educate young people in politics than most high schools in America today.

There was derision for the spectacle of the Republican primaries, which I, for one, have been unable to stomach watching—not even for a moment.

And there was deep sadness over the unavoidable truth that now, in the wake of Citizens United, it has become totally legal for rich people to run politicians the same way they might run horses or greyhounds.  Just like that.

Maybe that’s what provides the eerie, zombie-like atmosphere in politics these days. You really have the sense that most politicians, especially the ones at the top echelons of power, are like old-fashioned Kabbalistic golems, animated out of clay by skilled magicians who can control them from afar.

Of course, that’s been going on for a long time.  Remember George Bush, a wind-up man getting remote control instructions through his earphone in the 2004 Presidential debates?

But it’s getting worse and worse.  That’s why I can’t stand to watch Gingrich and Santorum and all the other Republican wax model men mouth their lines on the stage these days.  You know they’ll say whatever they’re told…whatever they think it will take to win.

There is certainly a good chance that one of the Republicans will win.  The Democrats are dispirited and grumpy, not much in the mood to get all fired up about yet another election.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are rabid to take back the White House.  They’ve been busy as hell redistricting to try to gain every electoral advantage, and I have absolutely no faith in the electronic voting machines that they’ve been installing in every town and city in the land.

It’s very possible that Mr. XY Zombie Republican could seize power in November, with the backing of endlessly deep pockets like the Koch brothers, Big Energy, and Big Finance, and the blessing of the Supreme Court.

What then?

If the Republicans controlled all three houses of government, they could ram through the legislation they’ve been concocting during the past decade or so: legislation powering up the assault on the environment, on health, on social services, destroying any kind of safety net for people, animals or the environment.

They could escalate the war on dissidents (like me), who dare to oppose their plans.  In short order, the United States could turn into just another big banana republic, with a military-backed regime of elites governing through the indiscriminate use of fear tactics, with violence applied as necessary to keep the people in line.

Lately I have been re-reading Margaret Atwood’s marvelous sci-fi novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and finding it chillingly prophetic.  In Atwood’s dystopia, environmental catastrophe has rendered the elites infertile, and pushed them to withdraw into gated communities where food shortages are common, and people are regularly hung in the public square to keep everyone fearful and docile.

The narrator remembers how just before her world fell apart, there were signs of repression: books being banned and burned, identity cards being issued and required, mobility restricted, media censored.  All of a sudden, one fine morning, it was no longer possible for her and her family to get in their car and drive away to seek safety in Canada.  All of a sudden, they were trapped in a nightmare that went quickly from bad to worse.

Augusto Pinochet of Chile

This reminds me also of the many testimonials I have read from Latin America—true stories, not fiction—from the 1970s, when wealthy politicians wielding military power and complete control over the ballot boxes ruled their countries with iron fists, “disappearing” anyone who might remotely be a threat, including thousands of innocent students.  This happened in Chile and Argentina, in Guatemala and El Salvador and many other countries.  Often the shift from democracy to fascist dictatorship happened literally overnight.

As in Germany before the Kristallnacht, none of us here in the U.S. wants to believe that anything could happen to destroy our cherished freedoms, our vaunted  “American way of life.”  We don’t want to admit, even to ourselves, the extent to which our freedoms are already being encroached upon, day by day.

Just last week, for example, there was an outrageous episode in Arizona, where the government declared a whole long list of books by Mexican Americans to be unsuitable for school use, and went so far as to direct the school librarians and teachers to pull them from the shelves, box them up and put them into deep storage.

Among the authors banned are some of my favorite writers—Gloria Anzaldua, Elizabeth Martinez, Paulo Freire.

Paulo Freire

Yes, that Paulo Freire, the famous Brazilian educator and free thinker who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a brilliant analysis of the way that traditional education indoctrinates students into conformity and submission to authority.

Freire proposed that instead of a banking style of education, where knowledge is deposited into students, who are then required to spit it back upon demand, education worth its salt should empower students to think for themselves.

Such a simple idea, but so powerful, too.  Education should teach people to think for themselves, and to work with each other to come to consensus on issues of importance to the larger society.

Isn’t that just what the Occupy movements have been trying to do?  If Freire were alive, he would be out there in the thick of the Occupy action, inspiring the young to shake off the false animation of Zombiland, and insist on dancing to their own authentic beat.

This reminds me of another beloved science fiction book, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, where the sinister IT controls all the inhabitants of a city by forcing them to conform to ITS rhythm.  Their hearts pulse to ITS rhythm, their eyes twirl to ITS rhythm, their thoughts are entirely subsumed by IT.  The only way to break ITS control is to think for oneself, to be creative, resilient and determined.

The children Meg and Charles Wallace succeed in rescuing their father from the clutches of IT by dint of their own powers of creativity and love, with a little help from some eccentric and freethinking guides.

Will the science fiction tale we’re living through now have that kind of happy ending?

Oh yeah, it’s not fiction, is it.

A new generation rises, and with them, our hopes

Today I gave the keynote address at the regional Model UN student conference sponsored by Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

On the one hand, it was heart-warming to look out and see that crowded lecture hall filled with bright, eager young faces, ready to step on to the world stage, if only in theory, and play leadership roles.

On the other hand, it was sobering to have to be the bearer of such grim tidings.

I started out by taking them back to a choral Ode in the Antigone that has always haunted me, the one where the Chorus sings the praises of human technological prowess, while at the same time sounding a warning note about how mankind’s “cunning…is the fertile skill which brings him, now to evil, now to good.

“When he honors the laws of the land, and that justice which he has sworn by the gods to uphold, proudly stands his city: no city has he who, for his rashness, dwells with sin.”

In other words, I told the students, we humans can do all kinds of amazing things with our great intelligence, but we will only prosper if we keep our moral compass and use our powers for good.

The Ode is basically a list of areas in which human beings have excelled, and that list is as valid today as it was in the 5th century B.C.: our power of navigation and transportation; agriculture; our dominion over other animals, wild and domestic; our ability to withstand the elements by building shelter and creating fire; our medical arts; our facility with language and “wind-swift thought.”

Truly we are a “wondrous” species.  And yet the fact that this list is recited in the tragedy of Antigone bears witness to the fact that our great “cunning” does not always guide us well.

In Antigone, Creon is a proud, vindictive tyrant who demands absolute allegiance from his subjects, including his niece Antigone.  When Antigone defies his order to let her brother’s remains be left in the open for the crows to feast on, and goes out alone to bury him, Creon goes into a fury and orders her arrested and sentenced to death.

It’s clear that the Chorus in this play believes Creon’s action is wrong.  Antigone was obeying her own moral judgement, putting her filial and religious obligations before her allegiance to the King. And just as the Chorus predicted in the initial Ode, because he is not using his power wisely and ethically, in the end Creon’s house will fall.

In our time, I told the students, the same kinds of battles rage, of good people standing up for their beliefs against oppressive tyrants, who don’t hesitate to imprison and even execute any who defy their power.

The Arab Spring showed us what can happen when enough people dare to speak truth to power and defy an authoritarian state  In the United States, the Occupy movements are now standing up, not so much against the state, as against the corporate capitalist elites—who often are the power behind the thrones of the various nations.

Even in our own country, the price of defying the status quo can be high.

But, I told the students, given the perilous state of the world today, the price of staying quiet and going along with the flow is inevitably going to be much higher.

I reminded them of the many dangers that face us today, including:

  • the homogenization of media and the reduction of education to multiple choice tests, instead of a media that stands strong in its watchdog role and an educational system that focuses on teaching students how to think creatively and question authority;
  • the tremendous militarization of police and national forces, with most countries fairly bristling with lethal weapons, from handguns to bombs;
  • environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, including the contamination of our air, soils and waters with toxic chemicals caused by the very agriculture celebrated in the Antigone Ode;
  • serious health problems caused by environmental toxins and chemical additives in our food supply;
  • and above all, the looming menace of anthropogenic global warming.

These will be familiar themes to anyone who has been reading my blog these past few months.  But it was good to speak these ideas out loud this time, to the young people who are going to have to bear the brunt of the problems.

I quoted U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who told negotiators from 200 nations gathered at the recent COP17 climate conference in Durban that the situation was so urgent that they could not afford to wait for unified global action.

“Don’t wait for a binding agreement,” he said. “It could take years. All member states should take their own measures,” before it’s too late.

“Last year we saw the highest emissions ever,” Mr. Ban said. “If we carry on as though it is business as usual we will be out of business.”

Those are pretty stark, unequivocal words from the leader of the closest thing we have to a global government.

Given the need for drastic change in the way we do business as a civilization, I challenged the students to dare to think outside the box.

I encouraged them to let Antigone be their guide as they began their Model UN negotiations. “If you know that a policy is wrong, don’t be afraid to say so, and to fight for what you believe,” I told them.

I urged them not to let artificial boundaries like nation, race, class, religion or gender cloud their vision of what is needed to succeed in the goal of making human society safer, more nurturing, and more sustainable for us all.

“It is a deeply flawed, damaged world you will all soon be stepping out into as young adults,” I said.  “We live in a time of accelerated change and unprecedented transition.  None of us knows what lies around the bend.  But we do know that no matter what, we will be better off if we work proactively to overcome narrow national self-interests and begin to think in planetary terms—and not just about human interests, but in terms of the good of the entire web of life of which we are a part.”

Our only chance at changing the way we do business as a civilization, I said,  rests with our ability to successfully communicate with one another–to use the powers of “speech and wind-swift thought” commended by the Chorus of Antigone. 

What we need are not the stylized battles of debate, but the true, open-hearted communication of consensus building, where all viewpoints are listened to respectfully, and all positions are judged both on their own merits and on how well they’ll contribute to the collective goal of making the world a better place.

As I stepped away from the podium, I felt sad that I had to lay such a heavy burden on these bright young people, who through no fault of their own have inherited a planet in such disarray.

But I also felt the surge of hope that always rises again with each new generation.  Maybe this generation will be the one to turn off the beaten path and forge a new relationship with our planetary home.  Perhaps they will be able to resist the centripetal pull towards conformity.

As they all filed out of the room to take up their places at the Model UN negotiating tables, my heart went with them.  They are our last best hope.


On MLK Day, Opening the Hearts of the Privileged

When I first heard the phrase “privilege is invisible to those who have it,” it seemed like the answer to a question I didn’t even know to ask:

How can people who are so nice, who would never hurt a fly, be so oblivious to the ways in which their lifestyles are deeply hurting others?

Oblivious is the operative word here.  Most privileged people really don’t have a clue as to how “the other half lives”–or make that, the other 90% or so. Just as I don’t understand how it is to be a child slave working on a cocoa farm in Africa, or for that matter a honeybee bringing poisoned pollen back to the hive and dying of it myself, people way up on the class ladder in the US can’t understand what deprivation feels like–and if you can’t get to that feeling place, it will be very hard to arrive at any sort of comprehension or even curiosity.

There are so many examples of what I’m talking about, but having just signed a petition to President Obama calling attention to the issue of contingent faculty, my mind is going to a memory I can’t shake, from my days of adjunct teaching.

I had been teaching as an adjunct at my alma mater for a couple of years, having decided to forgo a serious tenure-track search while my first son was an infant.  In the spring, after a busy year of adjunct teaching, I went to talk to the Dean, to see whether it would be possible to improve my status at the college so my salary would not be cut off during the summer.  I don’t remember the exact words of her response, but her attitude was plain: what happens to you over the summer, when we don’t need you, is none of our concern.  Next!

I was naive, I guess, to imagine that she would care that she was not paying me a living wage.  But I had grown up among the privileged, for whom it was really unfathomable, the idea of not making a living wage.  If you weren’t making enough to live on, then something must be wrong with you.  You’re not trying hard enough, you’re not talking to the right people, you just don’t have what it takes.

In this situation, I felt the duality of on the one hand being outraged, as any privileged person would be, at being treated in such an unfair, exploitative fashion, and on the other hand, feeling shamed and inadequate because of course it must be true, it must be my fault that I’m being treated so badly.

For people from a different background than mine, it would be quite easy to internalize those feelings of shame and self-doubt, to the point where one would begin to believe them.  I have studied many autobiographies by people who were marginalized and disadvantaged from birth by their race, ethnicity, gender, etc, and this self-loathing is a common feature of what W.E.B. DuBois called “double-consciousness,” seeing oneself through the eyes of another.

But I grew up with every advantage, and was always a star in the academic realm, a child prodigy in reading and writing who received a BA magna cum laude at 19 (it would have been summa if I hadn’t had to take those damned statistics classes!), a straight A student through grad school who excelled at jumping through every hoop set out for me.

Thus my amazement at finally attaining my goal of teaching at the college level, and being told that while I was doing a great job, there was no chance of being paid fairly for it.

My point in relating this story is that most people who grew up like me would never have such a story to tell.  For us the red carpet rolls out automatically wherever we go; people bow and beckon, smiling; life is easy and delightful. And when you live that kind of existence 24/7, when it’s your whole life from earliest childhood, it’s just inconceivable that it could be otherwise.  Or if it is, then as I said, there must be something wrong with you personally.  It’s not the system that’s at fault if things aren’t going your way, it’s your own personal inadequacies.

That seems to be the explanation that many among the 99% accept when they fall upon hard times.  Home foreclosed? What a fool you were for signing that mortgage!  Lost your job?  Why didn’t you go into a more stable field?  Single mom?  Honey, don’t you know how to keep a man?  And so on and so forth.

Both sides of the class divide need reminding that we are all born into a pre-existing social structure, some with gold spoons, and some with plastic spoons in our mouths.  The playing field is most assuredly not level.  Those who are living well need to realize that they owe their good fortune as much to their favorable placement in the Game of Life as to their own smarts and hard work; and those who are struggling need to realize that it’s not all their fault.

Pointing fingers at individuals is not going to lead to a fruitful discussion.

Was it the Dean’s fault that it was standard practice at the college to pay adjuncts by the semester?  She was just going along with the flow, wasn’t she?  Was it the mortgage lender’s fault that people took on more debt than they could repay?  The mortgage officer was bending over backwards trying to give that family the house of their dreams, wasn’t she?

Right. Rather than seeking to cast blame, we need to be looking for ways to make the system fairer for all the new children being born into it every minute.  One of the most basic steps we can take is making privilege visible to those who have it.  The privileged, who have more social power than the disadvantaged, need to know and understand how their complacency with a warped social system impacts the less well-placed.

Knowledge is the first step towards compassion, and from compassion comes the desire to make what’s wrong right.

It’s not about casting stones.  It’s about sharing experiences, and hoping that those in power will listen with open minds and hearts.

On the eve of MLK Day, that is my fervent wish and prayer.



Follow the Money–Somewhere New!

People in the know always advise us to “follow the money.”

Thanks to the Occupy movement, it’s become plain to a lot more of us that huge amounts of money are concentrated in a very few, very influential hands.  Big business interests control politics at every level, and the name of the game is profit for the top managers and owners, with the bare minimum allowed to “trickle down” through taxes and philanthropy.

Nothing new in that picture.  But there are some provocative new ideas arising about how to change a system that seems so entirely entrenched that most of us don’t even bother to think too hard about alternatives.

Last night I had dinner with some folks who are working on an alternative local finance program, called Common Good Finance.  The idea is somewhat similar to local currencies like, for example, our homegrown BerkShares.  But instead of paper money, Common Good will be an electronic credit system, based on R-credits.

One R-credit will equal $1 US, but the use of R-credits will be incentivized: if I spend R-credits rather than dollars, I’ll get a 5% rebate on every purchase, and even better, the merchant will get a 10% kickback for accepting my R-credits.  That sure sounds win-win!  What’s the catch?

There doesn’t seem to be a catch as far as the ordinary consumer and local vendor is concerned.  The ultimate goal of Common Good Finance is to create a local, democratically governed credit union, to which businesses and individuals in a community could apply for low-interest loans and grants.  The main criteria for approval would be: would extending this credit line be in the interests of the common good?

Forget about bankers getting rich on those exorbitant interest rates attached to every debt.  Forget about too-big-to-fail banks preying on consumers in every town and city in the nation.  Forget about municipalities cutting back on social services, including health care, education and affordable housing, because there simply isn’t enough money.

The people behind Common Good Finance believe that scarcity is a convenient fiction created and upheld by the central bankers who control the Federal Reserve.  It’s convenient because it keeps the pace of debt constantly accelerating, and it’s the interest on all these debts that provides the profits that line the bankers’ pockets.

Common Good would create a monetary system where money circulates locally, and any surplus in the form of interest is plowed right back into the local community in the form of loans and grants to worthy individuals and causes.  The local members of the R-credit system would be the ones to decide democratically, by facilitated consensus-building, who would get what.

As we talked about these intriguing ideas over dinner, the question came up of cronyism and conflict in this collective decision-making process.  But as John G. Root Jr., one of the founders of the Common Good initiative, put it, “We know the system we have now is not working well for the majority of Americans.  Why not try something new?”

In making his case for the R-credit system, John referred often to the American revolutionaries who decided to throw off the yoke of British tyranny and strike off on their own, founding a new country.  Now, going on 300 years later, Americans find ourselves under a new yoke: multinational corporate interests that may make judicious grants to communities and non-profits through their well-heeled foundations, but would not want to see communities empowered to divorce themselves from the thrall of big business.

Having R-credits would encourage people to shop local, and it would encourage businesses to source locally too, since they could keep their R-credits in circulation that way and keep earning those 10% kickbacks on every R-credit exchange.  Pricechopper and WalMart wouldn’t like this–but who knows, maybe they could be drawn into this network too!  Maybe the idea of democratically controlled local finance is an idea whose time has come, an idea could even go global!

As an example, take the Grameen Bank, which was founded in one of the poorest countries in the world to provide poor women with low-interest micro-loans to start local businesses.  It has grown exponentially; its founder, Muhammad Yunus, won a Nobel Prize in 2006; and its model is being replicated in many other parts of the world.  Why not in the U.S.?

Common Good Finance is not alone in searching for outside-the-box answers to our current financial predicament.  Economist David Korten has been working on what he calls “living economies” for about twenty years now; he is one of the leaders of the New Economy Working Group, which includes free thinkers like Gus Speth and Gar Alperovitz.  The New Economy mission statement sums up the vision quite well:

“Effective action will shift the economic system’s defining value from money to life, its locus of decision making from global to local, its favored dynamic from competition to cooperation, its defining ethic from externalizing costs to embracing responsibility, and its primary purpose from growing individual financial fortunes for a few to building living community wealth to enhance the health and well-being of everyone. We humans face an epic choice between the certain outcome of continuing business as usual and the possible future it is within our means to create through conscious collective action.”

It does feel like an epic moment, a transition time pregnant with the possibility for positive change.

Let’s follow the money and let the revolution begin!


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