Posts Tagged ‘education’

There We Were

Monday, December 12th, 2016

La Entrada

La Entrada (Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company) ©2016  David Jouris / Motion Pictures

“It takes a long time to become young.” Pablo Picasso

When Marcia gave me the news of the terrible fire and deaths of many young people in the Oakland warehouse that had become a haven for artists, I first worried about a few young people I know in Oakland who would have been attracted to such a scene. When I confirmed those few were alive and well, I settled into grieving for those who died in that conflagration.

Their tragic deaths are no more tragic than the thousands of deaths in Syria and other war zones around the world, no more tragic than those dying in shootings in cities and towns in America and many other countries, no more tragic than those dying from lack of access to decent healthcare, but the death of those dozens of young people hit me especially hard because when I was in my teens and twenties, the artistic ferment in that warehouse scene would have been highly enticing to me.

When I was twenty-two, I rented an old three-bedroom house in Santa Cruz with my friend Thom and we invited seven other people to live with us. The garage became a bedroom/potter’s studio, the sunroom off the living room became two bedrooms, the master bedroom became two smaller bedrooms, and the basement became a bicycle repair shop and art studio. We got an old piano to go with our many guitars. We often had several overnight guests, and we were the in-town mail drop and crash pad for two rural communes.

Our collective took shape spontaneously, was highly imperfect, and ultimately dissolved, but for a few years we provided a safe, warm, stimulating home for young artists and those intrigued by living in ways counter to the dominant cultural paradigm—none of us with much money.

Men’s groups and Women’s groups and musical groups used the living room for meetings and rehearsals, we dined communally, we had a big vegetable garden, we helped each other through illnesses, and we encouraged each other to pursue whatever it was we wanted to pursue. People came and went; we adjusted. We were trying to figure out how to be happy without following the dictates of our parents and societal norms aimed at making us obedient and unimaginative servants of the overlords.

Nowadays in California, nothing is cheap. That house the nine of us rented for four hundred dollars a month in 1972 is worth at least three million dollars today. For young artists and fringe dwellers without much money, California is no longer an easy place wherein to find a niche. And yet, there in Oakland, in that unworthy warehouse, something kin to our Santa Cruz communes tried to happen again in response to the exorbitant cost of living in the Bay Area.

We have an odd culture. In nursery school and kindergarten and through the first few grades in American schools, making art and music and inventing games and writing fiction and poetry are encouraged. These are the most formative years in our lives, so no wonder the seeds of making art take hold in so many. But then, strangely and abruptly, the message is reversed. Art is not practical say our parents and teachers. Making art, writing stories, making music, those are games, not real work. Furthermore, except for a lucky few, society and economic reality will not support those who try to make livings as artists.

But the seeds of artistry have taken hold, and happiness for many people is bound up in focusing their energies on being creative artists. Those who can be happy making art as a hobby while working at so-called real jobs will not be so conflicted as are those who identify themselves as artists in a society that does not support artists. Self-identity drives us. Those who must be artists will live in garages or derelict warehouses rather than take jobs that have no meaning for them.

This is not to suggest our society should be more supportive of artists, but to say I understand why those young people chose to live and dance in a death trap. I understand why I chose to live on little money and no health insurance and no car for much of my life: so I could be an artist first and foremost.

When I dropped out of college to pursue my dream of becoming a professional writer and musician, my mother was heartbroken. Several times over the next ten years, she urged me to go back to college and offered to pay my way if I would do so. In my thirties, she started suggesting I join a trade union and become a plumber or an electrician.

“Write for fun,” she would say. “Play music for fun. You don’t want to be poor when you get old. We are young for a short time and old for a long time. Being poor when you’re young isn’t easy, but when you get old, being poor is unbearable. A living death.”

But it takes all kinds. We do what we do. I think of those young people, many of them artists, dancing to original live music in that warehouse, and I am filled with sadness that they died so young. I see myself there, dancing with them. I see my artist friends dancing with them, too. I hear Joseph Campbell saying, “The path of an artist is one of great danger.” But so is it dangerous to stifle our passions, for that, too, can be a living death.

 

Waiting For Disaster

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

water tank

(This article appeared in the drought October 2014)

“There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” Henry Kissinger

As the drought continues and a weakening El Niño lessens the chance of a good wet winter in California, we are having a second water tank installed to give us five thousand gallons of storage capacity. So far, knock on redwood, our well continues to provide us with sufficient water for our basic needs. Sadly, more and more of our neighbors are experiencing water shortages, and if we have another dry winter or two or three, even the most draconian conservation measures won’t keep our well from running dry for at least part of the year.

Thus we want that greater storage capacity for several reasons.

First, the water delivery companies in the Mendocino-Fort Bragg area deliver with trucks carrying 3500 gallons, and if you have less than a 3500-gallon storage capacity they still charge you for the entire 3500 gallons. Should we need to buy water, we want to be able to receive the full load.

Second, five thousand gallons provides us with two months of water for our minimalist needs, and those two months might carry us through the driest months of the year to a resurgence of our well.

Third, we will be more emboldened to plant a larger vegetable garden and water the orchard more generously if we know we have sufficient water for our basic needs and plenty more for our vegetables and fruit trees. We can monitor our supply, and when the well gives signs of waning, we can curtail water to the plants. This year, not having that extra capacity, we reigned in the size of our garden and were perhaps too sparing in watering the fruit trees we inherited and the five new apple trees we’ve planted since moving onto this property two years ago.

“


Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Alan Lakein

When our new storage tank arrived (it has yet to be coupled with our old tank) several neighbors inquired about what we were doing. Lively discussions ensued, and every single neighbor I spoke to said either, “We should get another tank, too,” or “We don’t even have a storage tank and really should get one.”

When I encouraged them to do so as soon as possible, they all acted somewhat sheepish (ashamed?) because they probably aren’t going to get a storage tank or a second tank until their wells run completely dry and they are forced by dire necessity to get those tanks—their body language saying, “Why spend the money when we might have a wet winter?”

Buckminster Fuller wrote that human evolution and human history are essentially records of people reacting to crises. His hope was that the vast stores of information made available to everyone on earth via computers would usher in an era of humans taking actions to avert disasters before such disasters engulfed them. Alas, his hope has not been realized. Humans, it turns out, are hard-wired creatures of crisis and rarely take sufficient pre-emptive actions to avoid disasters.

 “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.” George Washington Carver

Speaking of thinking ahead, higher education in Germany is once again absolutely free throughout that socialist country, and that goes for international students, too. “We got rid of tuition fees because we do not want a higher education system dependent on the wealth of the parents,” said Gabrielle Heinen-Kjajic, the minister for science and culture in Lower Saxony.

“Tuition fees are unjust,” said Hamburg’s senator for science Dorothee Stapelfeldt. “They discourage young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up study. It is a core task of politics to ensure that young women and men can study with a high quality standard free of charge in Germany.”

Wow. Imagine if ensuring free higher education and excellent lower education were core tasks of politics in America, along with ensuring excellent free healthcare for all? For a fraction of the annual military budget we could have all three. But that is not going to happen because the American people are now thoroughly entrained to believe we are not a collective of people working for the greater good, but a vast list of individuals, each with the inalienable right to have piles of stuff we never have to share with anyone else if we don’t want to. And we don’t want to share our stuff because sharing is…yucky.

However, deep in our genetic memories is the fundamental truth of our evolution, which is that we would never have survived as a species had we not developed the ability to form and maintain highly cooperative groups of individuals living and working for the good of the entire group. This is why during crises, large populations of theretofore selfish, separate, disconnected individuals often become highly cooperative in order to enhance everyone’s chances of survival.

One of our neighbors came to take a look at our new water tank and said with a twinkle in her eye, “I know where I’m coming when I run out of water.”

And it occurs to me that we ought not only be outfitting our separate homes with more water tanks, we should be looking into creating a community water storage capacity, and a community solar electric system, and a community ride sharing system, and…hold that thought, my favorite television show is about to start and we’ve got enough water and food and stuff for at least another week, so I’ll talk to you later.

How Stupid?

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Simon

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2013)

“Kids: they dance before they learn there is anything that isn’t music.” William Stafford

A recent phone conversation with a friend caused me to comment, “How could they have been so stupid not to know that?”

Our conversation was about a film my friend is working on, a documentary extolling the virtues of a pilot program in California called Pre-Kindergarten. I know what you’re thinking, and I thought the same thing. Isn’t pre-kindergarten just another name for pre-school or nursery school? No. Because kindergarten in America is no longer what kindergarten used to be. Why? Because Bill Clinton and George Bush and now Barack Obama have overseen a demolition of education in America that has damned an entire generation of students to ignorance and semi-literacy, and that demolition includes a tragic transformation of kindergarten.

To make a long horror story short, beginning some twenty years ago the morons (evil ones?) in charge of dispensing federal education dollars to the public schools of our fifty states, declared that America was falling behind the rest of the world because of low test scores in our public schools. The thinking of these evil ones (morons?) who had somehow gotten into positions of power in our government went something like this: “Well, heck, if low test scores is the problem let’s just bring those test scores up by making the kids memorize a bunch of useless crap so they score higher on the dang tests. Yeah. Sure. That should do the trick.”

Well, making kids memorize a bunch of useless crap without also teaching them to read and write and think and understand didn’t do the trick. In fact, it did the opposite of the trick because memorizing is not learning. Hence most Americans graduating from high school today can barely read, cannot write worth a damn, and they don’t know how to reason or think critically and creatively, nor can they speak in complete sentences, nor do they know anything about anything except what’s on television. Thus no one wants to hire them for anything except the most menial of jobs.

There are currently, right this minute, many thousands of internet technology and bio-technology job openings in the Bay Area and other techno-hubs across America that are simply off limits to most Americans because most Americans looking for work today are not even minimally qualified for such jobs or even qualified to be trained for such jobs; and so American companies continue to bring in jet loads of men and women from China and India and Russia and Pakistan to fill these positions because for some reason China and India and Russia and Pakistan have no trouble producing jet loads of literate and well-educated people.

So…back to the evil ones (morons) continuing to pursue the disastrous No Child Left Educated programs that currently hold sway in America. Confronted by the failure of trying to make uneducated children memorize useless data in order to attain higher test scores, these cretins (devils) decided: “Hey. You know what? Maybe the problem is we’re not forcing these slaves, er, children to memorize useless crap when they’re really young. How about we start the usual idiotic First Grade training in Kindergarten? You know, get those teeny kids learning their ABC’s and adding and subtracting while being forced to sit at desks and act like drones right after they learn to walk and talk so they can start memorizing useless crap pronto. Yeah. That should do the trick.”

Well…guess what? Aborting children’s natural creativity and curiosity while they try to learn to read and write and add and subtract and sit quietly at desks before their brains and bodies are organically ready to learn those kinds of things, is the surest way to produce an epidemic of dyslexia and learning disorders and behavioral problems that qualify nearly all children subjected to such insanity for, you guessed it…Special Ed!

Faced with this disastrous tidal wave of seriously fucked up children, and confronting the formidable power of the evil morons, a few brave educators and educational bureaucrats in California said, “May we make a suggestion? How about we try a little something before kindergarten, not nursery school or pre-school, but pre-kindergarten to see if that little something we want to try improves the kids’ learning abilities and better prepares them for actual kindergarten and First Grade and beyond.”

“You mean start them memorizing useless crap even earlier than we were already making them do that?” asked the evil morons, liking that idea, of course.

“Well, no,” said the brave educators. “That doesn’t seem to be producing very good results. We thought we’d try something else. Just to see. Okay?”

Though the vagueness of the educators’ plan perplexed the evil morons, they gave the California educators the go ahead to operate a number of pre-kindergarten pilot programs wherein the kids sang and danced and finger-painted and went on nature walks and listened to teachers read stories and, you know, kind of exactly like good old kindergarten used to be, and by golly those kids did do much better in the new moronic kindergarten and idiotic First Grade classes than the kids who didn’t go to pre-kindergarten.

And that is what prompted me to say, “How could we have been so stupid not to know that?”

One of the answers to my question is that over the last twenty years (and before that, too) tens of millions of people, those that could afford to, removed their precious children from the ass backward public schools, and so those millions of people were too busy earning money to pay for private schools to join in any sort of meaningful fight against the evil morons destroying our public educational system with the blessings of our evil moron presidents. Another answer is that most people, smart or stupid, don’t question how their children are being educated but get mighty upset when their children graduate from high school and can’t read or write or get a job.

“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.” Somerset Maugham

I became interested in dyslexia some forty years ago when I was working in a day care center and three of my little friends insisted on signing their drawings and finger paintings, though none of the other three and four-year-olds attending our center knew how to write their names. Each of the three precocious scribes had well-meaning parents who thought if they could make their children learn to read and write when they were only three and four-years-old that their kiddies would have a competitive advantage over their classmates.

One of the three children who had been pushed prematurely to learn to write his name would labor for several minutes to sign SIMON upside down and backwards. Another of the children always misspelled her name with oddly incomplete letters, and the third child made a line of various-sized rectangles she insisted spelled SUSIE. What especially concerned me about these three children was that they all exhibited extreme anxiety about making mistakes, no matter what the activity, even when they were just finger painting or drawing with crayons or building towers with blocks.

Concerned for my kids, I began reading articles about learning disorders, including dyslexia, and was heartened to find that a number of comprehensive studies had proven conclusively that most cases of dyslexia and many other learning disorders, too, could be traced directly to children being forced to try to learn to read and write and do mathematics before their brains were ready to learn these things.

But what about my cousin Ward? He learned to read when he was two! He used to dazzle us by reading the dictionary aloud, no word too big for him to pronounce. I know this may come as a shock to the evil morons, but exhaustive research has proven that every human brain is unique, and each unique person attains his or her optimal brain state for learning to read and write at a unique moment in his or her life. Shocking but true: some people’s brains click into readiness, so to speak, to learn to read at two, three, four, five, six, on up to twelve-years-old. And if someone’s brain is not ready to learn to read and write, and that someone is forced to try to learn, there is a strong probability they will develop some form of dyslexia or learning disability.

What’s more, this cause of learning disorders and dyslexia has been common knowledge among educators for forty years. Yet our public education system has done virtually nothing to accommodate this incredibly important truth about how we learn. Waldorf education, you may know, makes individual brain readiness a centerpiece of their learning system, but our public schools and charter schools and even most private schools…well, how could they have been so stupid not to know what precipitates learning disorders?

“One cannot wage war under present conditions without the support of public opinion, which is tremendously molded by the press and other forms of propaganda.” Douglas MacArthur

The recent news that our overlords are trundling out the same old Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction ruse to pave the way for the United States to start bombing and/or invading Syria, made me snicker at first, until I realized that a population of semi-literate tweeters will believe anything if that anything is presented to them as the truth because they were never taught to think critically or logically or even just minimally for themselves. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but it certainly appears that the overlords have engineered a perfect system for creating mass stupidity to serve their needs in the short run, and short runs are all they care about.

Genuine Praise

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2010)

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” Carl Jung

My recent essay on the shams of mockeries of travesties that masquerade as Creative Writing programs in America’s universities inspired a wide range of responses, including miniature treatises on the disintegration of American education, the impact of mass media and real-seeming special effects on human psyches, the validity of vampires as cultural metaphors, and a general theory of mediocrity. To wit:

“From a systems analyst’s point of view we can see that vampire novels turned into movies or boy-wizard novels turned into movies inspire similar art formats in that systems follow the myriad paths of least resistance; and so whenever there is a popular something on TV, movies, theatre, books, music, etc. the purveyors of those things will copy that something ad nauseum. Thus our cultural reality, from a systems perspective, is that the more consumers of system output there are, the more influence those consumers have on what is purveyed, and if you accept that what is purveyed is driven by the most common of popular culture, i.e. what has the broadest appeal, then all successful art forms can only become more and more common as population increases.”

This same correspondent, a successful Internet Technology consultant, said there are hundreds of jobs available in the Bay Area for people with decent computer skills and competence in Word and Excel, two programs found on nearly everybody’s computer. But these jobs go unfilled by Americans and necessitate outsourcing and/or the importation of foreign labor. This seems crazy in the face of millions of unemployed and the ease with which any moderately intelligent and literate person can become proficient at Word and Excel. So what’s up? The key word here is literate. For the past thirty years our high schools have churned out tens of millions of graduates who cannot write well enough to be of much use to any but the lowest tech employers. Our youth may send forth billions of impromptu text messages at lightning speed, but most of these same youth cannot construct coherent sentences, let alone useful paragraphs. In short, our public schools don’t work. Why not? Is it because teaching has devolved to crowd control and forced memorization? And if so, what caused this devolution?

One correspondent suggested that the ethos of non-criticism underlies the demise of our educational system. “Circa 1975 and for decades thereafter it was verboten in public elementary schools to correct kids’ grammar and spelling for fear of injuring their self-esteem. Furthermore, children were praised for anything they did, even if what they were doing was wrong. You can see the results today. It isn’t that our young people aren’t intelligent, it’s that they are essentially illiterate and incapable of critical thinking, and so don’t even have the option of educating themselves.”

Which would leave out learning how to use Word and Excel.

When I lived in Berkeley, I tutored a Berkeley High School senior, a brilliant young woman who, at the outset of our working together, could not construct the aforementioned proper sentences. And verily she said unto me of her regular English class at one of the better public schools in the Bay Area, “If you show up most of the time and don’t cause any trouble, you’ll get a C. If you try to do some of the assignments, you’ll get a B. And if you do all the assignments and run them through spell check, you’re golden.”

A Special Education teacher had this to say about praise. “Praise is a primary tool teachers use to engage their students, assuming the praise is authentic and specific. As long as teachers are also passing along foundation skills as well as some rationale for doing good in the world, I see no problem with praise in that context.”

Another teacher wrote, “Far more important than praise is engagement. My best response is one that ignites or continues discussion. Otherwise, I’m just patting people on the head for knowing the right answers. Answers are only valuable if they further investigation, and learning to investigate, to uncover the intricacies of a subject, that’s the essence of learning. And, of course, nothing meaningful can take place if a class is out of control or the students have tuned out.”

A high school English teacher wrote, “I teach five classes a day, thirty-five students in each class. If I assign one short essay per week, which isn’t nearly enough to provide sufficient writing practice, that makes one hundred and seventy-five essays I have to read and correct and grade. Every week. Where would I possibly find the time to do that even remotely well? And remember, most of these students, this is regular English, not remedial, haven’t mastered even the most basic writing skills. What they were doing in elementary school and junior high, I don’t know, but they come to me with terrible skills. And people wonder why English teachers burn out so quickly. It’s an impossible task. We should be refining their skills at this point, working one-on-one, not teaching basic grammar. As for praise, I don’t have time to praise anybody.”

Some years ago I was hired to teach a one-week course of creative writing at a GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) elementary school in Sacramento. I worked with seven different classes, kindergarten through sixth grade, twenty kids in a class, and each day I spent an hour with each class. I suggested to the folks who hired me that it would be better for all involved if we spread the work out over several weeks, but that didn’t fit the school’s learning schedule, so I endeavored to do my best under those rather concentrated circumstances.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the shocking revelation of the decimation of individuality and creative thinking that intensifies with each step up the educational ladder. My kindergarteners did not yet know how to write, but their inventiveness was remarkable and their lack of creative inhibition thrilling. Sparks of such inventiveness remained in some of the first and second graders, but most of these youngsters already exhibited profound symptoms of numbness and stress from being penned up in classrooms for months on end and having to know answers to irrelevant questions hour after hour under fluorescent lights. By the third grade, the grapes, if you will, were thoroughly crushed. Conform or be ridiculed (by the teacher or your peers) had become the fully operational default setting for the group mind; and this governing ordinance would only strengthen thereafter, so that by the fifth and sixth grades I might as well have been talking to child soldiers trained to only reveal their names, ranks, serial numbers, fart jokes, and the plots of popular television shows about morons.

And though it was tempting to blame the individual teachers, the sameness of their styles and techniques made it clear they were only following the dictates of wholly inadequate teacher training for people who are not necessarily themselves well educated. And therein, I think, is a primary source of the decline and fall of our educational system: poorly educated teachers trained by misguided educators to be behaviorist drill sergeants otherwise incapable of actually teaching anything.

Consider your own education. Can you not recall a moment in fifth or seventh or tenth grade when it dawned on your benumbed consciousness that the older person standing in front of the class was not very bright and might possibly be a moron? Sure you can. And trust me, you didn’t think this person was an idiot simply because you were a surly, disenchanted teenager. No. You thought this person was an idiot because he really didn’t know what he was talking about.

When I was in my late twenties I attended a New Year’s Eve party at the home of my high school Drama teacher, one of two excellent teachers I was fortunate to have in high school and with whom, not coincidentally, I developed a lifelong friendship. Attending this party was another of my former teachers, an English teacher I labored under for two of my four years in high school. In the course of my conversations with her that evening, as she grew drunker and drunker, she confessed that she found teaching so stressful she frequently resorted to alcohol and/or valium on the job, she was addicted to pornography, she fantasized constantly about having sex with her teen charges, and she felt like an utter failure.

And I said to her in all honesty, “What I most appreciated about your teaching was how you encouraged us to engage in lengthy discussions, and how you only intervened to keep us on topic.”

To which she responded by bursting into tears and saying that in her twenty-five years of teaching no student had ever sincerely praised her for anything.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com. Praise, flattery, or MacArthur Genius Grants may be sent to him there.