Thursday, December 20, 2012

An Ode to Teachers (Sandy Hook's Saviors)

 
 
As the residents of Newtown, Connecticut and the nation attempt to carry on in the wake of last week’s abhorrent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, many Americans are understandably searching for some small scrap of hope and humanity among the ruins of the violence. Whether the tragedy prompts a long overdue strengthening of the country’s lax gun laws remains to be seen. But there is another societal change we need to make as well.

We need to end the war against teachers.

Indeed, the media’s coverage of the six slain teachers—the youngest of whom was 27-year-old first-grade teacher, Victoria Soto--represents a curious shift in the press’s typical treatment of teachers. Certainly, there is no question the teachers are heroes. They valiantly gave their lives protecting their young students.
Unfortunately, prior to the Newtown shooting it was quite rare to read the words “teachers” and “heroes” in the same sentence in the average U.S. newspaper. Instead, one was more likely to see “teachers” paired with words like “bad,” “unskilled,” “moochers,” “parasites,” and “Cadillac pensions.” Just three months ago striking teachers in Chicago were lambasted as “greedy,” and “indifferent towards students.” In fact, the New York Times’ Joe Nocera falsely claimed the teachers were striking to “maintain the status quo,” with regards to teacher tenure and termination laws. Untrue.
As blogger David Lindorff writes in a recent post (Counterpunch.org, 12/17/2012):
How many of the politicians in Washington and in state capitals and how many conservative think-tank “researchers” who attack teachers as leeches and drones would have shown such heroism under fire? My guess is damned few—if any. Yet… not one teacher in that unionized school fled the scene and abandoned the children to their fate. They all stuck with their kids.
Since the start of the recession teachers have become the country’s collective punching-bag. Union-hating right-wingers baselessly accuse them of causing the economic crash with their “Cadillac-sized pensions,” and union benefits. There have been many efforts to weed out “bad teachers”--so designated because their students scored poorly on the rigid standardized tests that have become the benchmark of education in the wake of “No Child Left Behind.” And states are rapidly adopting new measures to carefully monitor teachers at all times. (Yet there is no talk of monitoring the Wall Street bankers who actually trashed the economy through their fraudulent and illegal practices. Where, I wonder, is the effort to weed out the “bad bankers”?)
Things are not much better at the college-level, where even tenured professors must endure the juvenile criticisms of students on the end-of-semester course evaluation forms they are forced to distribute. (The forms are ostensibly designed to record students’ overall evaluation of the course itself, but they inevitably turn into scathing personal attacks of the professor.) And do I even need to mention the abject immaturity (not to mention sexism) of the website, RateMyProfessor.com?
Suffice to say, teaching is not easy work. And contrary to popular belief—or the snide mantra, “Those who can’t do, teach,”—teaching is work. A ton of work, in fact.
What those who make this accusation do not realize is only a small fraction of a teacher’s job occurs in the classroom. The vast majority of it—grading homework, designing curriculum, planning lectures and classroom activity, generating tests, papers and coursework, updating and maintaining grade books, attending meetings/conferences, submitting academic papers, meeting with parents—takes place after school and often late into the night. And educators at every grade-level are currently being assigned greater and greater responsibilities, without seeing a corresponding increase in their anemic salaries. Liberal arts professors, meanwhile, have seen university budget-cuts exclusively targeted at their “useless” courses in English, Women’s Studies, Philosophy and the humanities.
Indeed, it is no longer enough for skilled, experienced teachers to impart their knowledge onto their students. They must do so while being unceasingly energetic, apolitical and, most of all, likeable. Those who fail to meet all three criteria will not last long in the profession. Iconoclasts, critical thinkers, and educators who challenge conventional orthodoxy (traditionally the purpose of higher-education) are promptly weeded out of the schools.
To be certain, I have offered a great deal of criticism of our country’s education system on this blog. But, for the most part, I do not believe the educators themselves are responsible for these ills. Most teachers I have had the pleasure of working with—both as a student and a colleague—are honest, dedicated, hard-working individuals who attempt to do the best they can within the increasingly limited confines of their educational setting. Does this mean there are no “bad teachers” anywhere? Of course not. They exist, just as do bad lawyers, bad corporate CEOs, bad police officers, bad doctors, bad businessmen and bad state governors. However, in my experience the bad apples in the teaching profession have been few and far between.
Furthermore, the entire concept of evaluating a teacher’s proficiency through her students’ “learning” (as measured by arbitrary test scores) misses the crucial fact that teaching is a two-way street. Even the greatest teacher cannot make his students learn. Students must want to learn in the first place. As William Johnson, a special education teacher in Brooklyn wrote in an NYT Op-Ed earlier this year (“Confessions of a Bad Teacher,” 03/04/2012):

Students aren’t simply passive vessels, waiting to absorb information from their teachers and regurgitate it through high-stakes assessments. They make choices about what they will and won’t learn. I know I did. When I was a teenager, I often stayed up way too late, talking with friends, listening to music or playing video games. Did this affect my performance on tests? Undoubtedly. Were my teachers responsible for these choices? No.
In short, the job of educating our youth is clearly no easy task. Teachers are not our nation’s enemy. If we can salvage any lesson from the senseless tragedy in Newtown, it is that we need to stop treating them as such.
Victoria Soto, 27-years-old, was one of the teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary last Friday.
 

Friday, December 14, 2012

A History of Violence



I wrote this back in July after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Just four and half months later, it seems it is once again relevant. My conservative cousin, who works on Wall Street, would likely repeat the familiar mantra that "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." While I am willing to accept that reasoning to a point, let's get real here. A gun is a tool specifically designed to kill or injure someone or something. What the hell else is one to use a gun for? As a paperweight? I am not so naive as to think greater gun restrictions would instantly rid the world of all acts of violence. But it would certainly be a step in the right direction. Regardless...in the wake of today's deranged shooting in Connecticut, I feel this piece deserves prominent position on the blog.
 
We will likely never know what made James Holmes walk into a crowded movie theater, armed to the teeth with deadly, marines-style assault rifles, and fatally shoot 12 people last Friday. Such an act of violence is simply incomprehensible.

Is the man psychologically disturbed? Was this a pre-planned attack? And, if so, what provoked it? Was he, as his now infamous claim of “I am the Joker” seems to suggest, inspired by the latest Batman movie, which was showing at the scene of the shooting? Again, we will probably never know the true motive for his horrific actions. All we know is tragedies such as the Colorado shooting simply do not make sense. They defy rational, human comprehension.

The Aurora shooting once again painfully demonstrates this country’s need for stricter gun laws. This need should have been evident after last year’s Arizona shooting, in which former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was critically wounded. Or after the horrific Virginia Tech campus shooting in 2007. Or the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, also in Colorado.

Sadly, I would not hold my breath waiting for stricter policies on handguns anytime soon.

The Democrats lack the political courage to take on the NRA or the other various right-wing gun-rights groups. And the Republicans cloak themselves in the Constitution, casting any talk of even mild reductions of Americans’ Second Amendment rights as tantamount to treason. Instead, Republican leaders cling to the childish fantasy that if all citizens were armed at all times, the responsible “good guys” could shoot the psychotic “bad guys” before more innocents are harmed. Only in the conservative world-view does real life resemble a Clint Eastwood shoot-em-up movie.     

My heart goes out to the victims of the massacre. All they wanted to do was see a movie. That was their only crime. It is a stark reminder that life is fragile and unpredictable. We naively believe we have some control over the events and circumstances of our lives—that we can anticipate our day’s end. But the truth is we cannot.

“As flies to wanton boys we are to the gods,” Gloucester exclaims in King Lear after he is tortured and blinded. “They kill us for their sport.”

Gloucester’s bleak observation sums up, not only one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays, but in many ways the human condition as well. As the tragic events of the story unfold, Gloucester and Lear—both the privileged elite of their time—are forced to come to terms with their own human frailty. Lear in particular, comes to understand that, in the grand scheme of things, he too is insignificant. In the end, the universe remains utterly indifferent to the characters’ suffering.

The Aurora shooting is, furthermore, another example of our violent culture. Though we prefer to believe otherwise, America is an extremely violent nation.

We maintain 761 military bases throughout the world according to the late Chalmers Johnson in his now-classic book, Sorrows of Empire. (The precise number of military installations, however, is nearly impossible to pinpoint. Some estimates place the total at closer to 1,000.) The U.S. has been involved in countless wars, invasions, coup d’├ętats, and covert military campaigns since the end of World War II—from Panama, Nicaragua, Vietnam, the Philippines, Iraq, Chile, Bosnia, Iran, Afghanistan and Haiti. Indeed, Orwell’s dystopian vision of a nation locked in a state of permanent war has come to pass.

Perhaps the most telling indicators of our collective approval of the culture of war are the revered terms we reserve for military soldiers. The troops who fight our wars are praised as “heroes,” who “fought for our freedom.” Teachers, social workers and other public employees, meanwhile are derided as “parasites” and collectively blamed for the economic recession.

Yet we rarely make the connection between seemingly random domestic acts of violence like the Colorado shooting, and our aggressive, militaristic foreign policy. Instead of asking “What happened?” to Holmes to drive him to commit such violence, perhaps the question should be redirected to the United States.

“What happened [in Aurora, Colorado] is horrifying but it doesn’t frighten me,” Maine visitor, Doug Horwich told the Portland Press Herald Tuesday (“Moviegoers shocked, not deterred, by tragedy,” 7/24/2012). “I believe it was a unique experience, an anomaly.”

I wish I shared Mr. Horwich’s reassuring outlook. Frankly, it strikes me as highly naive. Unfortunately, our country’s long, sordid history of violence, empire and bloodshed would suggest this was no “anomaly.”

“So long as governments set the example of killing their enemies,” wrote philosopher Elbert Hubbard, “private individuals will occasionally kill theirs.”

One thing is clear: Something must be done to restrict the ease of availability of firearms. Furthermore, we must as a society, create a culture in which individuals no longer believe they need guns, rifles and other weapons in the first place. And we must evolve beyond our barbaric infatuation with war, imperialism, and violence.

Until these things happen I fear we will see more deranged individuals like James Holmes who succumb to the sinister urges of human nature that, despite our efforts to deny them, exist in all of us. 

Lear's epiphany of his own insignificance comes, alas, too late in Shakespeare's tragic play.
  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Is Maine Really the "Worst" for Business?

 

Re: “Forbes names Maine worst state for business for 3rd time in a row,” Bangor Daily News, 12/12/2012.

I am beginning to feel like the editors at Forbes magazine have something against us, here in Maine.
Still, if we are to take the ranking at face-value and accept the premise that Maine is the worst state to do business, then let’s explore why that is the case.
First and foremost, our primary income comes from tourism. This is a great industry for what it is worth, but it is hardly a stable, steady source of revenue. For one thing, tourism is seasonal. More importantly, when the economy nose-dives, people travel less, take fewer vacations, and generally cut-back on nonessential spending. That does not mean people are no longer visiting Maine in the summer—believe me, they are. But a state cannot rely solely on tourism (again, especially in an economic downturn) as its main source of revenue.
As for our aging population, it is true: Maine has the oldest median population in the country. And many of them are still working because they either have not yet reached retirement age or, those that have, are not financially secure enough to retire.
Whichever the reason, Baby Boomers’ reluctance to leave the jobs they have held for over 30 years prevents young people from getting a foot in the door. And, despite middle-aged job seekers’ frequent complaints about employer age-bias, the fact is older workers have a distinct advantage over recent college graduates in that they have years of experience. Employers do not need to train them at all—a fact they love. As a result, young Mainers become fed up with the lack of employment opportunities and leave for Boston or farther. The entire state suffers from this “brain drain” because it deprives us of young people’s skills, talents, and innovation.
And while I cannot speak to Maine’s allegedly high business tax rates (said to be the highest in the nation, though I have never seen any credible study confirming this to be the case), my feeling is business owners will always find something to complain about. They will not be happy until their taxes owed are $0.00. Meanwhile, they make their own hours, serve as their own boss, and largely have the freedom to pursue the employment of their choice. That is a luxury many do not enjoy in this economy. A lot of my friends hate their jobs.
The rest of us must pay taxes. I do not understand why the business community feels it should be exempt from them.
I do not doubt Maine has many barriers that drive away businesses. But given the various factors one must consider (climate, geography, median income, overall population, number of major cities versus rural towns, weather, etc.) I also do not know how it is possible to categorically generalize an entire state as the “best” or “worst” for business.
Regardless, I think the Democrats’ first act in the new Legislature should be to tear down the ridiculous “Open for Business” sign that now greets motorists on the highway, and replace it with Maine’s original state motto, “The Way Life Should Be.” If we’re to believe Forbes, the new sign is clearly going unnoticed.   

The Disease of Capitalism


 
Filmmaker Michael Moore makes a poignant observation at the end of the documentary film The Corporation. Acknowledging the irony that his anti-corporate films are produced and distributed by major film studios, Moore suggests this is because corporate capitalists “don’t believe in anything” other than making money.

“I’ve been able to get my stuff out there because I’m driving my truck through this incredible flaw in capitalism, the greed flaw,” he says. “The thing that says that the rich man will sell you the rope to hang himself with if he thinks he can make a buck off it. Well I’m the rope.”

Of all economic systems, only capitalism seems to contain the seeds of its own destruction. As journalist Chris Hedges explains to Moore in a deleted scene from his film Capitalism: A Love Story, “Built into capitalism is a self-destructive quality--a form of self-annihilation.”

The real question, however, is whether it will destroy us first.

Corporate capitalism (or “corporatism” as many political theorists have termed the merging of business and government) is so narrowly focused with short-term profit it turns everything—including human lives and the environment—into a commodity. While the Ayn Rand-worshipping Republicans running Congress call themselves “conservatives,” capitalism, even in its purest “free-market” form, is an extremely radical system. As Karl Marx observed in Capital (Vol. 1), the concept of using money to generate more money, rather than purchasing commodities (the process of “Money-Commodity-Money,” instead of “C-M-C,”) represented a fundamental shift in the economic structure of society.
Under capitalism even essential human needs like health care, education, and affordable housing are debased into transactional commodities. The system is unjust, unequal, inhuman and antidemocratic. And it is literally destroying our planet and the ecosystem that sustains life upon it. 

Those who dismiss me as hyperbolic are clearly not paying attention to the headlines.

Last month, the World Bank issued a startling report which predicts a global temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century if nations do not take measures to radically reduce CO2 levels worldwide. This estimate is double the 2 C rise in temperature scientists already claim would be catastrophic for the planet. Such a rise in global temperature will ensure floods, droughts, hurricanes and other climate-related disasters will become the “new normal” according to the report titled “Turn Down the Heat.” The authors also note poor nations are likely to suffer the worst effects.

 “We will never end poverty if we don’t tackle climate change,” World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim told reporters upon the report’s release (The Guardian, 11/19/2012). “It is one of the biggest challenges to social justice today.”

We know, thanks to author and environmental activist, Bill McKibben and his worldwide movement, 350.org, that 350 represents the earth’s “safe zone.” Three hundred fifty parts per million is the total amount of CO2 the earth’s atmosphere can comfortably handle, according to leading climate scientists. Any CO2 concentration greater than that, according to NASA’s James Hansen, is not compatible with “a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.” Global CO2 concentration currently stands at 392 ppm.  

One would think such urgent information would prompt the executives of giant oil corporations like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, BP and the like to, at the very least, rethink their business model. Alas, it has not. Quite the reverse, the fossil fuel industry is charging full-speed ahead with its plan to ultimately extract and burn the remaining reserves of coal, oil and gas on the planet—roughly 2,795 gigatons according to London’s Carbon Tracker Initiative. That is five times more than the 565 gigatons scientists believe we can safely pour into the atmosphere without hitting the 2 degree mark.

This is the disease of capitalism. It is not that CEOs at Exxon-Mobil truly do not believe the science of global warming (although many of them claim not to). It is that their corporate profits ultimately depend on continuing to rely on cheap, dirty fuel. (Last year Exxon raked in $9.45 billion according to Think Progress.org.) Or, as Naomi Klein puts it, “Their [the oil companies’] business model is to wreck the planet.”

And therein lies the dilemma of corporatism. Corporations and citizens do not meet each other in the metaphorical “marketplace” as equals, because they are not equals. Corporations have far more money, power, political influence and economic authority than the average citizen. The two entities are about as equal as David and Goliath.

Furthermore, the interests of corporations are completely at odds with those of citizens. Consider the for-profit, pay-or-die health care system. The only way the health insurance companies can make a profit (which, remember, is their overall goal; not providing health care) is by denying a customer’s claim. If the company covers every treatment, illness, and medication, it will not make a profit. If this means the patient must die in order for the insurance provider to cash-in, so be it. People are often offended when I put it in such stark terms, but this is the nature of capitalism. It is not about saving lives, promoting the common good, or protecting the environment. The system is about making money. Period.

As Marx writes in Capital:

[T]he valorization of value…is his [the capitalist’s] subjective purpose, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more wealth in the abstract is the sole driving force behind his operations that he functions as a capitalist… Use-values must therefore never be treated as the immediate aim of the capitalist; nor must the profit on any single transaction. His aim is rather the unceasing movement of profit-making. (p. 254)

How is such a pernicious system compatible with the inalienable “rights of man” enumerated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence (you know—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness)? It is not. Capitalism provides these ideals for a select few, certainly. But it does not ensure them for all. It is by nature an exclusive, elitist system—the very antithesis of an open, citizen-powered democracy. And, as I mentioned before, it is destroying our planet.

So…who’s ready for revolution?

Friday, December 7, 2012

"Skills Gap" is Really a Wage Gap



Re: "Augusta emphasis: Skills gap education," Portland Press Herald, 12/07/2012.

The "skills gap" is about as bogus a concept as the "fiscal cliff." Reporter Steve Mistler writes:

"A recent report from the Manufacturing Institute showed that more than 600,000 manufacturing jobs nationwide were unfilled because employers couldn't find workers."

This is business-speak for "Employers were too picky and/or too cheap to pay applicants a decent wage."

According to Peter Cappelli, management professor, director of the Wharton School's Center for Human Resources and author of the book, Why Good People Can't Get Jobs (2012), employers' constant lamentation of a "skills gap" is largely a "self-inflicted" dilemma (Time, 06/04/2012). As he explains in his book, at least 10 percent of employers, "when pressed" concede "the candidates they want won't accept the position at the wage levels being offered."

"That's not a skill shortage," Cappelli writes, "it's simply being unwilling to pay the going price."

Cappelli also points to employers' aversion to training new employees, as well as the highly selective computer software now commonly utilized to screen resumes and cover letters for precise keywords. (Because, you know, having actual people read the resumes rather than machines would just make too much sense.) As the author notes in an interview on NPR (Morning Edition, 06/12/2012), one HR Director, in an experiment, applied for his own job using the software and was deemed unqualified.

The problem, clearly, is not the "unskilled" job applicants--it's the employers' unreasonable expectations.

Furthermore, I worry that this myopic educational emphasis on skills--and the overarching concept that college is little more than glorified job-training--comes at the expense of traditional liberal arts education. You can read my further thoughts on that topic, here.

 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Citizenship 101



"Class, today we are going to learn about people power."
 
MPBN’s lunch hour show Maine Calling recently aired a notable edition which posed the question, “What does it mean to be a good citizen?” The hour was part of the show’s on-going “What Does It Mean…?” series, and offered a fascinating discussion which I believe warrants further examination. Suffice to say, as a politically involved individual, the concept of “citizenship” or, more broadly, civic engagement, as it was defined on the show, is something I have given a considerable amount of thought to.

Much of the discussion focused on the degree to which Americans have become disengaged from politics and civic matters in recent years. Indeed, this is a trend I can personally attest to, having witnessed this apathy firsthand.

I spent most of this year working with my friend and Green Party colleague, Asher Platts in his campaign for the Maine Senate. (As readers are likely aware, we received 30 percent of the vote—a highly respectable finish in a two-way race against a popular Democratic incumbent.)

While most of the voters I spoke with were generally receptive to Asher’s platform, several told me flat out, “I don’t vote.” And it was not just young people I heard this from. I encountered quite a few middle-aged non-voters. Overall, Maine tends to have higher voter turnout compared with other states. (Maine and Minnesota boast the highest turnout rates in the nation according to the Christian Science Monitor.) Still, given the relative ease and minimal effort involved in the simple act of voting, it is frustrating that more Americans cannot be bothered to engage in this most basic civic activity.

Yet, if we consider the idea of “citizenship” to encompass broad, diverse forms of civic engagement—beyond the solitary, biannual act of voting—then we arrive at another problem.

 Just as a large percentage of Americans refuse to vote, those that do are likewise limited in their civic duties in that voting is the only major form of political participation they engage in. For these Americans, democracy essentially starts and ends in the voting booth. For all the liberals, for instance, who expressed frustration and disappointment during the last four years of Barack Obama’s first term, how many of them actually got involved—by contacting their representative, organizing a local sit-in or demonstration, taking part in an anti-war or Occupy Wall Street action, writing a letter to the editor, etc.—to influence the President’s actions?

This severely myopic view of citizen democracy all but ensures that nothing will ever fundamentally change in our country. There needs to be more than just voting. For all my qualms with the League of Young Voters’ unyielding Democratic partisanship, they hit the nail on the head with their “Obama Manifesto” on this year’s voter guide: “Disclaimer: Ballot is not effective when voter remains disengaged after election.”

“Cast your whole ballot,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience, “not a strip of paper merely, but your entire influence.”

So why is it so many Americans are, as Maine Calling host, Keith Shortall puts it, “tuned-out, turned off or too distracted” to extend their civic activities beyond voting? Certainly factors such as ignorance, apathy, isolation and a purported “lack of time” all play a role.

However, I suspect the main cause of this disengagement from civic life is the fact that modern day Americans are first and foremost not citizens, but consumers. The creation of the consumer culture (what Adorno and Horkheimer termed the “Culture Industry”) combined with the false needs and hedonistic ambitions fostered by corporate capitalism have essentially shifted the role of Americans to that of passive consumers. Case in point, we just witnessed a nearly week-long, post-Thanksgiving spending-spree from “Black Friday,” to “Cyber Monday” that encourages Americans to literally camp outside for discounts at big-box stores. (Camp on Wall Street to protest wealth inequality and corporate greed, however, and you are bound to be pepper-sprayed and arrested.)

Furthermore, our education system no longer impresses upon students the importance of civic engagement. For instance, Baby Boomers often talk about something called Civics when they were in high school. People my age are unlikely to be familiar with such a class. The closest thing to Civics I took at Kennebunk High School in the late ‘90s was U.S. Government. And the only thing I actually remember from that class, was watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

High schools and colleges do not teach students how to be citizens. They do, however, teach them to be loyal consumers. Consider some of the popular courses at your average university: Marketing, Public Relations, Advertising, Communications, Accounting, Graphic Design, Business Management. All of these disciplines are in the commercial arena. Critical thinking? Ethics? Literature? Philosophy? Environmental sustainability? These things will not make anyone rich, so colleges and parents do not push them and, as a result, students are not interested in them. No wonder we lead such poor civic lives.  

As Ralph Nader explained at a 2008 campaign stop at the University of Vermont (Oct. 5, 2008) if students do not have “citizen-skill courses,” they will be left with an education that does not prepare them for “empirical engagement in practicing democracy.”

“Why don’t we revolution the salutation?” he proposed. “Why don’t we say to people, ‘Hello. How’s your civic life?’ Try that with someone… Watch their expression. After a while maybe they will start saying, ‘Robust.’”