About that next post

A funny thing happened on my way to writing another post. I read “Why We Must Disestablish School” by Ed Nerd Hero Ivan Illich, from his book “Deschooling Society.” And I lost all interest in writing about this stuff, or myself. It’s depressing. So, here is a quote from this essay which I really enjoyed:

Equal educational opportunity is, indeed, both a desirable and a feasible goal, but to equate this with obligatory schooling is to confuse salvation with the Church. School has become the world religion of a modernized proletariat, and makes futile promises of salvation to the poor of the technological age. The nation-state has adopted it, drafting all citizens into a graded curriculum leading to sequential diplomas not unlike the initiation rituals and hieratic promotions of former times. The modern state has assumed the duty of enforcing the judgment of its educators through well-meant truant officers and job requirements, much as did the Spanish kings who enforced the judgments of their theologians through the conquistadors and the Inquisition.

The Ed Nerd Cometh

The last New Year’s Resolution I made was to stop making New Year’s Resolutions. However, one post a week seems like a good goal. To make this easy, I suppose I should write about myself. I’ll start with where I was born (Kansas), what my family was like, why I call myself “the Ed Nerd,” and other points of note.

There was a time when people would ask me where I was from and I would say that I was from my mother. I used that joke all the time. But you know how they say that there is always some truth in a joke? My mother actually looms large in my life by never really being there to begin with. She was 16 when I was conceived. Roe v Wade happened that year and if she knew it was an option, she would have used it.

Her and my dad split early on. My earliest memory is them fighting. I spent most of my time at my mom’s parents’ house until first grade. My mom worked a lot and I cannot remember her being around during the day. The house was not in a neighborhood so there were no neighborhood children to speak of. I remember my mom being annoyed with me a lot. I also remember her taking me with her to parties. Sometimes she would leave me sleeping in the car. I remember waking up, having no idea where I was or where my mom was, and not crying. I had learned nobody would answer.

Half way through first grade, I remember that I was given the option to live with my dad and I accepted—a boy in first grade willingly leaving his mother’s side. There is a story I have been told many times about what a smart, independent boy I was. Before I had a child, it made me proud to hear. I remember my mom sleeping in a lot. I guess I was a toddler at the time and I was hungry. One morning, I went to the kitchen, got out a pan, cracked some eggs—shells and all—in the pan, added ketchup, chocolate syrup, and whatever else seemed good, put the concoction on the stove, turned on the burner and let it cook. At the point I pulled the pan off the stove, I touched it to my stomach and that was it for my early days in the kitchen.

At this point I feel I should mention that my mom was sexually molested as a girl. It was a longtime babysitter and it happened over many months. I feel I should also mention that she was once drugged and raped repeatedly by a cousin and his friend over the course of many hours. I feel that I should also mention that she was raped by someone she went to school with. She said he was so threatening, she thought she might die. She tried to run away. She tried to kill herself. That was before I was conceived.

I lived with my dad and his new wife for a time. I lived with my mom’s brother and his new wife for two years. I lived with my dad’s sister for a summer. I lived with my dad’s mom and dad and their son, my uncle. That puts me in fourth grade. My grandpa died soon after from cancer and it was my grandma, uncle and me until I graduated high school.

I did well in high school. I think I finished sixth in my class. I received some scholarships, even. Even Wal-Mart gave me some money to go to college. I lasted two years and I did well, academically. However, I was very miserable; so depressed. The years of neglect had caught up with me. College was not the place for someone seven years socially retarded. I tried to get away. I picked Tucson, Arizona. I was going to establish residency in Arizona and go finish school there.

I could not support myself. And I got my first dose of educational reality—reality as I saw it. School was easy for me, but I still put a lot of my best into it—day after day, year after year. I was sixth in my class, damn it! I got scholarships! I had a GPA around 3.3 in 2 years at the University of Kansas! And here I was with about the same prospects as a high school dropout. I could get a part-time fast food job and that was it. I was disillusioned, to say the least. I resolved to get back home and re-enroll at the University of Kansas in the education program—I really did want to be a teacher.

In the time before I went back to school, I decided I wanted to embark on my own study of education. I knew things needed to change, but I did not really know what that change might be. I think my first thought was something along the lines of “If only kids could be made to…” I went to the library and the first two books I pulled off the shelves were ‘Instead of Education’ by John Holt and ‘Deschooling Society’ by Ivan Illich. Both books would have a profound effect on my thinking.

I made it back to school, but I never made it to being a teacher. I met my ex, had a child, and eventually got a degree in something I never used. I now work as a programmer. I allowed my daughter to be educated in the public school system.

I call myself “the Ed Nerd” because there is a web site called exiledonline.com. The editor, Mark Ames, was a focus of my first post. There is a writer there called Gary Brecher who is referred to as “The War Nerd.” I think his stuff is brilliant and explains war in a way unlike any I have read before. I hoped to channel that for education. I still hope to.

Superman says Lex Luthor controls Public Education

I wish a flying, unbelievably strong extraterrestrial humanoid who could huff and puff with hurricane force winds and shoot lasers out of his eyes would show up and say these very words: Public Education is controlled by Lex Luthor. In fact, that will be my wish with every shooting star; with every extinguished birthday candle; with every wishbone for the rest of my life. It would really help to sell the message if he would wear red underwear outside blue tights with a matching red cape. I will not hold my breath.

I do not have to see the movie ‘Waiting for Superman’ to know that I would give it a thumbs down. Because I know that it does not frame the education debate in a way that is meaningful to me. Because I think the debate was framed long ago, by the ancestors of Lex Luthor.

Old Lex, I guess, started out as an otherwise normal man with extraordinary genius—the mad scientist bent on world domination. In his first appearance in 1940, “Luthor” is attempting to start a world war from a city in the clouds. He is thwarted by Superman and, from there, it was on. Apparently, Lex Luthor’s iconic baldness is explained though an artist’s mistake. For his first year, the character had hair, until one day, in a newspaper strip, he did not. A 1960 origin story for Lex shows that he was a friend to Superboy in Smallville. A freak accident led to Lex going bald, among other injustices, and Superboy getting the blame. From there, it was on. In the 1980s, Lex Luthor was re-imagined as a corporate multinational executive.

I never really thought of Lex Luthor as the mad scientist-type until I looked up his history. I thought of him as the corporate villain. But that does not change my joke. I think Andrew Carnegie was really smart. I think Henry Ford was very intelligent. I am sure John D. Rockefeller was a sharp cookie. I am certain Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are exceptionally bright. Combined, these men have contributed billions upon billions to public education. Their foundations have driven and still drive education policy in this country. And you know what? If I were a multi-billionaire, I would do the same thing. However, I would not do it like they do.

Let me just say, for the record, that I love education. Knowledge is one of my true passions. However, knowledge, I have come to believe, is suffering—basically, the first tenet of Buddhism. On the one hand, the more I know, the more I realize I do not know. And, even more troubling, the more I know, the more I realize that I have been taught and told a great many things which are inaccurate, half-truths, or flat-out lies.

Maybe I am just dense in thinking that there is something wrong here. There is a clear economic component to education. I get it. Everyone wants to get ahead. Going to good schools accomplishes that. The statistics prove it. Somebody has to pay for it. Somebody has to come up with something to do about it. Someone has to decide that math and English testing and scoring is the ultimate determinant of success.

Thank goodness British creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson (and Ed Nerd Hero) thinks it is important. In a speech he gave on changing education paradigms, he says that, except for Jesuit training, there were no systems of public education prior to the middle of the nineteenth century. “The current system of education was designed and conceived,” he says, “in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment and the economic circumstances of the industrial revolution.” The Enlightenment gave us the ideal that possessing academic knowledge—the classics and deductive reasoning—meant smart. Non-academic meant not smart. Too many brilliant people go about their lives thinking they are not smart because they are judged against this false dichotomy.

“We have a system that is modeled on the interests of industrialization and in the image of it,” says Robinson. The separate facilities and separate specializations and ringing bells mimic a factory setting. Robinson wonders why children are educated in batches, as if the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture. “If you’re interested in the model of learning,” Robinson asserts, “you don’t start with this production line mentality.” Education increasingly becomes about standardization and conformity. He says we need to go 180 degrees away from standardization and conformity in education. This is what he means by changing paradigms.

Instead, we have a system paid for and operated by business leaders—who send their own kids to private schools. They are looking to break the teacher unions and turn any low performing school into a charter school. In a story from the New York Times in May, one hedge fund manager knows exactly what teacher unions are up to by opposing charter schools: “To protect their own self-interest, often at the expense of children.”

The money managers are drawn to the businesslike way in which many charter schools are run; their focus on results, primarily measured by test scores; and, not least, their union-free work environments, which give administrators flexibility to require longer days and a longer academic year.

I cannot see altruism and philanthropy here because I read this story, also from May, published in the New York Daily News. The New Markets Tax Credit—strangely, unmentioned in the Times’ article—allows an investor to back construction of things like a charter school and then “almost double his money in seven years.” This, I think, is the real reason that hedge fund managers are so high on charter schools.

And, in case you were not sure, here is an idea of what a good charter school looks like:

At Williamsburg Collegiate, whose middle school students annually outscore the district and city averages on state tests, Jason Skeeter stood before his math students the other day as tightly coiled as a drill sergeant. He issued instructions in a loud, slightly fearsome voice, without an extra word or gesture. “Five minutes on the clock,” he told the 26 fifth graders, as they began a “Do Now” review sheet on least common denominators.

On the whiteboard, an agenda told students precisely what to expect for the 60-minute period. Mr. Skeeter placed his digital Teach Timer on an overhead projector so the countdown was visible to all. When the buzzer sounded, he announced, “Hold ’em up,” and students raised their pencils.

“Clap if you’re with me,” he said, clapping twice to snap students to attention. The class responded with a ritual double-stomp of the feet and a hand clap.

Mr. Skeeter, 30, a stocky man in a dark blue shirt and tie, moved swiftly to a second timed exercise, the “Mad Minute,” 60 multiplication problems in 60 seconds.

“Pencils down,” he ordered after the minute was up. “Switch papers with your partner.”

The teacher read aloud the 60 answers. “Hands on your head when you’re done counting” correct answers, he told students. He started the timer again as he called students’ names — DeAndre, Alejandro, Nakeri, Lyric — typing their scores into a laptop. He announced the class average: 37.86.
“Brian Leventer,” he said, making what the school calls a cold call to one student rather than looking for a raised hand, “what does it round to?”

“Thirty-eight.”

“Thirty-eight is correct,” Mr. Skeeter said. The class had fallen two points shy of fifth graders in a rival class. “Close, close, close,” the teacher said.

This is what “results” look like because Williamsburg Collegiate’s students are outscoring other students. This is academic achievement for what are mostly poor black and Hispanic students. Let us assume that the academic achievement of one of these poor black or Hispanic students were exactly the same as one of these hedge fund private school offspring. Who is ahead?

I sure hope there is a big red “S” underneath Sir Ken Robinson’s tweed jacket. Please save us! Save us from Lex Luthor!

Sir Ken Robinson, Ed Nerd Hero

William Deresiewicz, Ed Nerd Hero

A friend alerted me to an essay called, “What Are You Going To Do With That?” by William Deresiewicz. Deresiewicz—who, I should mention, has just reached Ed Nerd Hero status—taught English at Yale for ten years. The essay was adapted from a speech to Stanford freshmen in May, 2010. The message was for students to have “moral imagination” to, basically follow their bliss.

Deresiewicz uses the term “moral” to mean having a choice. He encourages the freshmen to embrace their “moral freedom” to decide on a path right for them: painter; musician; economist; doctor; engineer. However, they are to choose with full volition of the necessary losses involved and to “resist the seductions of the cowardly values our society has come to prize so highly: comfort, convenience, security, predictability, control.”

The essay recounts the seemingly pre-destined events leading to the sure success awaiting the students. Parents, teachers, and peers nurture a series of self-fulfilling prophecies: the best schools; special lessons; competitions; awards. Then, students “get into” Stanford and “go from being a political-science major to being a lawyer to being a corporate attorney to being a corporate attorney focusing on taxation issues in the consumer-products industry.” He says there is nothing wrong with any of those things, individually. However, the focus on specialization “cuts you off, not only from everything else in the world, but also from everything else in yourself.” And then the midlife crisis hits.

I love the message. However, what happens when these people have children? Will they go against the grain of what parents, peers, and society call for when raising a child? That is, will they push their kids into the best schools, special lessons, and competition? Is there any way to combat “the cowardly values our society has come to prize so highly?” Will the cycle be broken?

I do not think I am wrong when I say that capital is amoral. I use the term amoral to mean without any sense of right or wrong. I do not think it is wrong for me to say that corporations are amoral entities—potentially immortal and devoted to the accumulation of capital. I think I am right to say that corporations are amoral entities with the rights of personhood which were granted in the 1886 Supreme Court case Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad.

In his book, Life, Inc., Douglas Rushkoff says that a clerk (a CLERK!!!) included an ‘oh, by the way’ statement—called an obiter dictum—in the decision that effectively granted personhood to corporations thereafter. “The elevation of corporations to personhood,” writes Rushkoff, “was accompanied by a slow, corresponding devolution of human beings to something less than personhood.”

The president of Southern Pacific Railroad at that time was one Leland Stanford. Stanford also happened to be a United States Senator and a former governor of California. Leland Stanford, like pretty much every other robber baron, gave a sizable amount of his fortune to fund education, from the public model to the elite universities.

So leading industrialists funded public schools—at once gifts to the working class and powerful tools for growing a more docile labor force. They hired education reformers, like Stanford’s Ellwood P. Cubberley [Ed. Crazy, huh?!], to design a public school system based on a Prussian method that sought to produce what he called “mediocre intellects…and ensure docile citizens.” Cubberley modeled our public schools after “factories, in which the raw product [the children] are to be shaped and fashioned…according to the specifications laid down.”
–Rushkoff, Life, Inc.

I cannot, for the life of me, understand why Rushkoff did not explore this line of inquiry further given the premise of his book. I guess he wanted to get to the part where he joined a farm cooperative and started a babysitting club that illustrated how alternative currencies could work. I think this was his proposed solution to end the vicious cycle of corporate encroachment.

In an earlier essay titled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” Deresiewicz wrote the “liberal arts university is becoming the corporate university, its center of gravity shifting to technical fields where scholarly expertise can be parlayed into lucrative business opportunities.” Yet, Deresiewicz would suggest that students can have the “moral imagination” to eschew those cowardly values embodied in the corporate university. He says there are many choices after entering a Starbucks. One of the least considered is turning around and leaving. William Deresiewicz implies that students might consider their choice of university in the same way. For that, he is a heretic—therefore, a hero.

Richard Franklin Pettigrew, Ed Nerd Hero

I really would like to post more than once or twice a month. That will not happen this month. I have a promise to myself to write more. And I will, I promise. I have a backlog of disturbing stories to share. I have a backlog of personal history to share. That will not happen in this post. What will fill the space at this time is a relatively short biographical sketch of Richard Franklin Pettigrew.

Who the hell is Richard Franklin Pettigrew, you ask? Well, he was the first Senator from the state of South Dakota. He served for two terms, from 1889 to 1901. Before that, he was a Congressman from the Dakota Territory. He is virtually lost to history, but he also reminds me why I still love the internet, especially Wikipedia and Google, for search and books. If Richard Franklin Pettigrew was mentioned in any history class I ever took, I missed it. The reason I even heard about him was because he was mentioned by Robert Anton Wilson in Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything.

According to Wilson, Pettigrew said that the United States had become a country “by the corporations, of the corporations, and for the corporations.” Pettigrew is also credited with saying “Capital is stolen labor and its only function is to steal more labor.” Furthermore, he said the Republican Party “had come into being as a protest against slavery and as the special champion of the Declaration of Independence, it would go out of being and out of power as the champion of slavery and the repudiator of the Declaration of Independence.” You might begin to see why he has been lost to history.

The Russian Revolution is the greatest event of our times. It marks the beginning of the epoch when the working people will assume the task of directing and controlling industry. It blazes a path into this unknown country, where the workers of the world are destined to take from their exploiters the right to control and direct the economic affairs of the community.

And I think you really see why Pettigrew has been lost to history. Which I also think is too bad. The interwebs took me to an essay called ‘A Forgotten Fighter against Plutocracy’ written by George Novak who was—gasp!—a Communist. Plutocracy is rule of the rich and I firmly believe that is what we have on our hands. And I firmly believe it is wrong. And I firmly believe that our education system is specially designed to help perpetuate this condition.

But, really, I am here to talk about Mr. Pettigrew because he is against Plutocracy. Novack states that Pettigrew levied corruption charges against the Republican Party after a man named Cramp had complained to Pettigrew about a $400,000 donation to the Republican campaign fund in 1892 in return for contracts. Cramp said the money was “misused” and padded the wallets of the Republican National Committee. Pettigrew also charged Republican bigwig “Dollar” Mark Hanna with bribing his way into the Senate. Four members of the Ohio Senate Committee on Elections had signed a petition stating as such.

However, the charges were not looked into. Hanna and the Republicans engaged in a campaign to undermine Pettigrew. When it appeared that Pettigrew might win re-election in 1900, a half million dollars was raised to defeat Pettigrew. “Farmers were promised ten dollars before and ten dollars after the election if they voted right,” according to Novack. Bankers were included in the election rigging as well. Pettigrew was defeated.

Pettigrew did not go away quietly. He stayed active in national politics and eventually wrote a book called Triumphant Plutocracy: The Story of American Public Life from 1870 to 1920. The book was quickly reprinted as Imperial Washington. I found it on Google books and I would love to go into a synopsis and review, but I am tired. Novack can explain its import:

Triumphant Plutocracy was Pettigrew’s last testament to the American people. He died four years later in 1926 at the age of 78. He had traveled a long and winding road in the course of his political career and his final position was far from his starting point. He had entered the Republican Party soon after the Civil War, a devout believer in the virtues of capitalist democracy, the Constitution and the Flag. As the bankers and industrialists tightened their grasp upon the economic and political life of the nation, throttling resistance to their ever-expanding power, plunder and privileges and extending their sphere of exploitation around the globe, Pettigrew, fighting them all along the way, gradually shed his illusions.

Pikachu to the Rescue!

In May, a paper was presented at the Association for Psychological Science called “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis,” by Sara Konrath. Sara is a researcher at the University of Michigan and she has found that college students are “40 percent less empathetic than those of 30 years ago, with the numbers plunging primarily after 2000.” For the purposes of this study, empathy was measured across four criteria: Empathic concern, perspective taking, fantasy, and personal distress. Empathic concern is showing sympathy for those less fortunate and perspective taking is about walking in someone else’s moccasins. They are the more important factors and kids these days are scoring 48% lower in empathic concern and 34% lower in perspective taking.

The first thing I love about this “Studied” piece by Pamela Paul is how it begins: “Fed up with the Me-Me-Me MySpace generation?” When I said May, I meant May 2010. “MySpace” is already a relic, but it is so much more alliterative. The next sentence asks if you are “Inclined to believe today’s young ’uns are blindingly self-aggrandizing and entitled?” For one thing, I do not think self-aggrandizement is incompatible with empathy. Come to think of it, I do not think entitlement is incompatible with being empathetic, either—so far, so good.

Narcissism is going up and kindness is going down and the question is asked, “What happened?” This is my favorite part of the article, entirely. The author of the study, Dr. Konrath said, “We don’t actually know what the causes are at this point.” However, in the next sentence, we are told “the authors [emphasis added] speculate a millennial mixture of video games, social media, reality TV and hyper-competition have left young people self-involved, shallow and unfettered in their individualism and ambition.”

It is all scientific stuff; it’s been proved. However, I would like some clarification as to what is meant by “social media.” I mean, are we talking about MySpace—which is so popular that a whole generation has been named for it—or perhaps the less well-known Facebook? Twitter? I assume the “authors” think it is narcissistic for people to post personal updates about their day or their cat or their insufferable children without any regard to how annoying it could be. Or, perhaps, the “authors” assume the narcissism spreads like a crowd-sourced virus–#mememe. Yes, we are powerless in the face of “social media.”

What about “reality TV?” Are we talking ‘The Biggest Loser’ or ‘Survivor’? What if I watched the first three seasons of ‘The Real World’ and then another season of ‘American Idol’? Is that combination going to decrease my level of empathy? Actually, now that I think about it, ‘American Idol’ seems like a study in narcissism and lack of empathy. I mean, how many people have they filmed walking away from the auditions with some profanity-laced diatribe about how Simon does not know what he is talking about and “I’ll show them!” I can see how exposure to those people can decrease feelings of empathy. But that Pedro guy died from AIDS in ‘Real World: San Francisco’ and it was really sad. So, that has to count for something.

We also have “hyper-competition.” Hyper-competition, I assume, is very easy to test in the laboratory. I mean, we all know what it is, right? In my mind, I think of the parents of grade school beauty pageant participants. Perhaps the 1996 murder of JonBenét Ramsey, aside from being a tragic spectacle, opened the eyes of parents across the county who thought, “Hey, there’s a way to be famous!” And it did not have to be beauty pageants—soccer, piano, skating, ballet. Anything that the child could be enrolled in, they could be pushed in. After all, it is natural for young children to organize themselves hyper-competitively. Parents are just helping along a natural process.

Really, I think we can end our investigation at video games. The author—or is it authors?—say that the numbers plunge after the year 2000. And I think I know the reason: Pokémon. Game sales show the stark reality. In 1999, there were 5 Pokémon titles among the top 10 sellers. In 2000, there were 6 in the top 10. However, 2001 saw the introduction of the PlayStation2 and games like Grand Theft Auto and Madden NFL started dominating sales. Pokémon’s heyday was over.

By the way, Pokémon are “pocket monsters” that live in softball-sized houses. (An electrified yellow mouse, Pikachu, serves as the Pokémon mascot.) When summoned, the little monsters magically assume normal size, attack other Pokémon, and go back to their Pokéball when they are finished battling. They do what they are told without question and will even battle to the death if that is what the trainer wants. The trainer also takes credit for a victory so the Pokémon are humble too.

My point is to show that Pokémon are great role models and without their guidance and influence in our lives, we are doomed to be “self-involved, shallow and unfettered in [our] individualism and ambition.” I kid.

I do not expect any sympathy now, but, I am going to be serious for a paragraph. You see, I have arthritis. At least I have a type of arthritis that they do not have a name for, exactly. It started with my toes and feet, then my spine. The disease has also affected my knees and back and fingers and elbows. They do not know what caused it and they do not know what cures it. All they can give me is some of the same stuff they give cancer patients. They hope that the treatment will shut down my immune system so my body will stop attacking itself. The downside is that my liver will probably fail.

For everything we know, or think we know, there is so much more that we are infinitely ignorant about. We are particularly ignorant of my disease and the causes of decreasing empathy in the world, even when those things have been “studied.”