Sunday, September 13, 2009

Wine-and-cheese Marxists or vodka-and-borscht Burkians--they still rant

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 8/13/2009
This summer I took a break from the blogosphere. Last week when I returned to my familiar trek through it, the shrill rhetoric from all points, right-left-center, was so off-putting that I felt like I had been dropped into a shriek fest. This is progress from reading two or three good daily newspapers?
The rant of the moment was President Obama’s pablum speech to the nation’s school children about the importance of staying in school. With a high school graduation rate among the lowest in the industrialized world, 70 percent or so, I suppose among all the other pressing issues that President Obama must focus, a speech to youth about the importance of staying in school is plausibly justifiable. I doubt the speech will “move the needle” on the high school graduation rate and since the speech doesn’t signify (another new) policy to “fix the nation’s” schools, I don’t expect much “impact” from this event.
Yet, apparently there are many who fear that President Obama addressing K-12 students about the importance of staying in school will have an impact. It will spawn a new generation of socialist/commie/fascists. The slurs of socialism, communism, and fascism, are so shrill and ill-used that it is laughable but this kind of response has caused schools to expend limited resources on notifying parents of the interloper Obama with his controversial messages (“The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough, it’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.”) to the students in our schools and the creation of alternatives to keep the students occupied. As parsed as the school day is already, what valuable time will be lost in teaching to the state mandated tests?
The left wing has it’s “wine and cheese” Marxists, those well educated, high earning, and portfolio managed who sneer at the workings of capitalism, who posture by choosing to invest in or purchase from “socially responsible” dividend paying firms, and who send their children to private schools to keep them away from the “riff raff.” The right wing has their “vodka and borscht” Burkians, who rant at every government “intervention,” who label everything they dislike socialist or communist, who wish to live according to late 18th century policies but unlike the Amish who pretty much do live in the late 18th century, aren’t willing to do much beyond rant.
Just as the wine and cheese Marxists aren’t going to do anything to threaten their interests such as helping to organize workers and poor people into a political force or abandoning the Democratic Party in favor of a more labor oriented party where the interests of workers are front and center instead of Wall Streeters, the vodka and borscht Burkians aren’t going to do anything to undermine the “socialized” aspects of our country like prisons, law enforcement, the court system, or public schools. How many of the vodka and borscht Burkians are going to refuse to eat food grown with an agricultural subsidy? How many will organize a tax protest and refuse to pay taxes that go for roads, police, parks, and licensing boards for such occupations as physicians, dentists, lawyers, school teachers, plumbers, barbers, and the list could go on and on? All of these are “interventions” in the free market, hence, socialism, right? And the cost of funding these interventions are paid for by all of us, whether we use them or not. Sounds like socialism. Yet, I suspect the same groups who rant about “socialism” are the first to line up to support more money for prisons, more for police, more for the military. These are three of the most “socialistic” institutions in the US. Why aren’t the vodka and borscht Burkians demanding that the military be run like Wal-Mart? For the same reason that the wine and cheese Marxists aren’t leaving the Democratic Party for mouthing concern about cutting taxes on the rich.
As ill-informed as the ranters seem to be, Thomas Jefferson’s belief that "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be" (from a letter to Charles Yancy, 1816) seems especially timely. At a time when information is so available, so free of gatekeepers, that a technologically sophisticated people would seek only to validate its fears over reason and understanding, seems a triumph for those who would traffic in fear and ignorance, the antithesis of civilization.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

That's Entertainment! (Are We Talking About College?)

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star (1 September 2009)

“Are we going to have fun today?” A student asked me that question at the beginning of a class this summer. Summer classes are, contrary to popular belief, more intense than regular classes. Indeed, this particular class was a special class that involved class meetings for nearly six hours a day for two weeks, an entire semester’s worth of work in two weeks. I told the students and their parents less than 48 hours before that this would be the most demanding academic challenge any of them had undertaken. The question about having fun was a statement about expectations than anything else.

This student’s question/statement triggered something that has been nagging at me for some time. After attending a high school open house and listening to the principal’s welcome, where again “fun” was a central message, the message finally got through my thick skull…”school” is not fun, but we offer other attractions that are.

In the last three years, I’ve been on college tours with my daughters. At this point, I have toured a dozen or more . There is a rhythm to the presentations the schools make and they follow one of two. Either the rhythm is “fun, fun, fun, academics” or “academics, academics, academics, fun.” I’ve toured both public and private, big and small campuses, and the rhythm isn’t really related to those distinctions. Indeed, the loudest “academics, academics, academics, fun” rhythm was on a large public university. When did learning and fun become mutually exclusive?

The usual college tour is conducted by a current student. Often parents ask questions of the student guide like “why did you choose this school?” or “what has been your favorite class so far?” Inevitably “fun” is part of the answer, even eating in the cafeterias is described as “fun.”

“Fun” is used so much to describe the college experience that it seems to lose its meaning (at least for over-thinking folks like me). Maybe fun means “enjoyable.” So, when the campus is described as “fun” it is enjoyable. It could mean “acceptance.” The students are fun here because I can find people who accept me. It could mean “I’m happy.” The beauty of some of these campuses would make the sourest person happy. One school’s campus was an arboretum.

Nevertheless, I don’t really think that is what “fun” means in these contexts. I think it means “entertaining.” The fun message is really saying, “come here and we’ll entertain you for four years.” Students increasingly expect everything to be entertaining, hence “fun.” One school I recently toured spent an incredible amount of time talking up one of its sports teams. Few people participate in the sport itself, rather, the “fun” is being entertained by the team on its way to another championship. Even the school’s president was described as “fun.”

I’m not bashing students; they reflect our culture. The pursuit of “happiness” is a core value of our society. “Fun” is part of that pursuit. Learning and formal learning (education) has long been a path to pursuing happiness. The US has never been a society where formal learning was a goal in itself, rather it is a means to an end. Colleges are better known today by their role in the entertainment industry (big time college sports) than by accomplishments in their core mission, despite the efforts of public relations and information offices.

The juxtaposition of academic work and fun seems to send a negative message about academic work. When did it become necessary that academics be “fun,” or entertaining? For some students, some classes are fun because it stimulates an interest they have or they discover a talent for a particular subject. For others, learning calculus is a gateway to designing technology to deliver communication signals across a radio spectrum.

Entertainment, especially “spectating,” is a passive activity. Surfing the internet, watching YouTube videos, and even catching up with friends on Facebook are mostly passive entertainment forms. Learning is not. Learning requires effort ; it is not passive. Entertainment is not hard, it is easy, it is something we consume. Education (learning) is something we do, or at least we should be doing. If you follow the “issues” in higher education, one of the bigger issues is “retention,” or keeping first-year students persisting to the second and on to graduation. If part of the retention problem is student expectations of being entertained, no wonder they exit.

Oops. Time to get ready for class. Now, where is my clown suit and ventriloquist dummy?
Blog Directory - Blogged The Steiger Counter at Blogged