Category: society and human existence

I voted today: getting from one place to another, together in New York City

I love to vote. Some people find the process tedious, full of long lines and old-fashioned procedures involving paper and bubble-filling, but I love going to my local school, finding my council and assembly district, signing my name in exchange for the ballot in its huge long sleeve, and heading over to the area where I make my choices as a citizen. Not only do I get to participate in civic life in an active, direct way, I also get to say hello to neighbors I never otherwise would have met.

In a bizarre twist, I ran into my choice for mayor in person on the Upper West Side only three hours later.

It was definitely a what-are-the-odds type of situation and reminded me that being a New Yorker, for all of its stress and expense, also means being on the streets, on the subway, in shops and parks together. Lots of people hovered around De Blasio, a few hollered obscenities, but most just looked on peacefully as the incumbent shook hands and engaged in last-minute connection with the public.

On my way to the library to study, I gazed over my subway car and enjoyed the sight. Being in New York means being with people. There’s plenty to struggle against – including attempts to eradicate our city’s status as a sanctuary city, the pressure to privatize more and more schools, housing injustice and gentrification, complicated issues with policing and its history of racial profiling, not to mention my personal gripe with all the screens clogging up out attention spans – but at the same time, we’re all still human beings, getting from one place to another…together.

A case against charter schools: send back your saviors

As a professor, I work with public school teachers who are in the process of becoming certified to teach in the New York City Department of Education in a program called the New York City Teaching Fellows. These new teachers support students from all over the world, many of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants, emergent bilinguals (meaning people who are developing multilingual competences and literacies for a world that, they are told, will value these unique abilities when they enter the workforce), Black and Brown, and generally, within a single classroom, quite diverse. The important task of working with these young people puts my teachers into all kinds of schools and programs across the city, some in the neighborhoods where they grew up, and when we meet on a weekly basis, I hear great – and sometimes hard – stories about their experiences.

Some tell me they struggle with a demanding schedule, rushing from one teaching block to another with little time for a bite of lunch. Many have classrooms filled to the brim with students, working, for example, with 30 or 40 second-graders with wide-ranging individual needs requiring differentiation, personnel, and resources that the teacher often cannot provide. Others work in places like transfer schools which serve students who are struggling to graduate before the age of 21, when they age out of the system, because they have different language and academic needs and backgrounds than their more advantaged counterparts in other parts of the country. There are disciplinary issues, academic challenges, programmatic limitations, and a host of other struggles that these teachers face on a daily basis as they enter their classrooms and hit the ground running with “Miss!” “Miss!” called from the back of the room in the morning.

These classrooms are microcosms for the broader sociopolitical context of the United States and the city. For example, several of the teachers in my classes have received an influx of Puerto Rican students whose families have emigrated from the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria this summer. Others work with large numbers of lower-income students  (the term “free lunch” appears in such conversations) who make up a sizable portion of the New York City public school population. One of biggest challenges is the policy environment we’re working in, known as the high-stakes testing era, where student test scores can help define how much funding a school gets, what teachers are retained or receive tenure, and even how teachers teach their classes. Both causes and effects of inequality and injustice at municipal, state-wide, and broader levels, the victims are students often essentialized according to their race or immigrant identity and consequently blamed for the deficits in their “performance” (a term I put in quotes because so often in our social context we are primarily concerned with test scores, rather than with growth and development, which pits students against each other in the race for scant academic and economic resources).

Underlying most of these difficulties that tax our new teachers and demand their time – weekends, early mornings, evenings included – and health is the fact that the public school system has been perceived by our leaders as a bigger and bigger problem needing resolution, and, paradoxically, a place where less and less funding should go. Betsy Devos, current U.S. Secretary of Education, has been proposing since Summer 2017 a 9 billion dollar cut to public education while singing the praises of school choice, the blanket term used for the implementation of school vouchers and the expansion of charter schools across the country. Devos has suffered an embattled tenure thus far in office, for good reason. She is a huge proponent of privatization of education in this country, which she and her family directly benefit from, while showing little real understanding of the schools and their inhabitants, the teachers and students who engage in teaching and learning there every day. Devos’s perspective is critiqued as characteristically a policy maker’s one, with a dark twist: a belief that free-market thinking and business models, which emphasize streamlining, accountability, competition, and cost reduction above all else, will “cure” our schools of their problems. Charter schools represent such thinking because they ostensibly take the burden of education off the backs of tax payers and allow private entities to do better what our schools have not been able to.

However, I have never, ever heard one of my teachers say, “We should close my school and send our students to a charter school.” They have never said, “Someone with money from outside the community could do this better than we could. We’re just waiting for them to come in on their expensive white horse to help us out.”

A knight and his lover astride a horse try to escape ghostly figures of Death. Engraving by Harding after Lady Diana Beauclerk, 1796. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The problems our schools face are rooted in an issue that our government and much of the United States public are gravely mistaken about. We blame our schools for being ineffective, for not keeping us in the international game as economic competitors and leaders, for listening to teacher unions who, we say, slow down the important process of getting rid of bad teachers and replacing them with good ones. All of these points have some truth to address. But we do not give our schools enough money to solve their own problems. We don’t trust our teachers, who have over time been demonized by “bad teacher” scare stories in the press. Sucking the funding out of public schools, through policies that cut this funding, and put it into the hands of private enterprise that starts charter schools – which, incidentally, can be nonprofit or for-profit – while popular over the last few years, is much to blame. And policy makers who support this approach have failed in their promises that such an approach, paired with privatization, will save our schools. Cited in public debate as a savioristic option for youth of color in cities who struggle through the public education system, charter schools as a symbol of this corporate and philanthro-baron takeover in education have fallen far short.

Read “There Is No ‘Progressive Case’ for Charter Schools” in Truth-out for a thorough discussion of this issue. While some of my colleagues will disagree with me and cite their own schools as examples of charter school success, the pars pro toto argument cannot and does not apply across the board, though it provides an easy out for policymakers who face pressure to cut taxes. To avoid the much bigger, more complex, interrelationship of racism and capitalistic profit – where prejudice against Black and Brown and immigrant communities and the mad search for profit by the elites and corporations that influence political leaders to depict our schools as needing a business approach to “correct their missteps” go hand in hand – is to see schools as sick patients, rather than as groups of individuals already working together in and committed to their communities. My teachers see this, and suffer from the effects of social myopia that refuse them the resources, policy, and social support that they need to help our country’s youth engage with all of the possibilities of the future ahead of them. I fear that in a generation’s time, the problems we cite today will pale in comparison to the loss of creativity, diverse thinking, and responsibility to our fellow community members that is becoming normalized as we demonize “low-performing” schools and scapegoat our teachers for the starvation diet, on ideological and economic terms, we’ve put them on.

Trunk or Treat: silly, spontaneous community in a cemetery

Yesterday I was walking in my neighborhood along a path that includes a beautiful cemetery with winding paths and lovely bent old trees. A cheerful orange-and-black clad woman greeted me from her seat at a welcome table as I walked up to the gates. “What’s happening today?” I asked, as kids in Spiderman and gorilla costumes milled around beyond the entrance. She grinned widely and replied that this was Trunk or Treat, an event for Halloween that families participate in across the country.

Why am I posting about this, when I write about education, democracy, social justice, and other topics more directly related to my PhD and my work in community? Because my previous post, “Time Enough at Last: screens and the elusive book,” brought up the way our google-eyed preoccupation with screens in public spaces can replace basic human activities, like reading, making small talk, or just gazing around and taking things in. Because I guess I’m wondering about humanity at a moment when it is being questioned by political uncertainty, social anxiety, and the widespread and pervasive influence of technology on our lives and our ways of seeing ourselves and each other.

The Trunk or Treat I visited yesterday heartened me, reminding me that we have choices, we have community, we have beautiful and silly customs that bring us together. Sure, accuse me of nostalgia, of being a Luddite, but don’t overlook the fact that my restlessness (and hopefulness) stems from an itching for human contact in spontaneous, unmonitored, unfettered ways that feels like it’s becoming rare.

 

 

“Time Enough at Last”: screens and the elusive book

I’ve been watching episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” an old black-and-white TV series that ran from 1959 to 1964 and told weird, sometimes futuristic, often Kafkaesque tales that made the viewer twist uncomfortably or stare rapt in suspended horror at the screen. Unknown, mostly White male actors, limited and mundane sets (by today’s standards), oddly-rhythmed voices and dialogue make it a target for accusations of archaism and its fans of nostalgia, though I think going back to seeing work like this can reveal how little we really need in the way of effects and artifice to tell a good story, perhaps with a good point about humanity.

The episode I watched last night was entitled “Time Enough at Last” and told the story of a bank teller, Henry Bemis, an avid reader who was never able to find the time or the freedom to read. The plot is laid with the care and intention of Rod Serling’s trademark attention to detail, from a boss who threatens to fire Bemis if he can’t behave more like a professional and stop reading on his breaks, to a bullying wife who destroys Bemis’s book of modern poetry that Bemis tried to sneak out of the house. The plot takes a turn when a global disaster ensues: an H-bomb is dropped (while Bemis is in the bank vault, secretly reading on his lunch break), and Bemis emerges to be the last living person in the world. He wanders around, searching for others. He finds food, eats and sleeps. He laments, considers suicide…and then he discovers his salvation: the public library, broken apart like an Easter egg awaiting one such as he to plumb its trove of Shelley, Byron, Shakespeare, Keats, and thousands of others to be read year after year. As is typical, the episode ends with a surprise ending, and it leaves the viewer thinking.


As I finished the episode, I reflected on the fact that so few people seem to be reading nowadays, especially literature but even just good old fashioned paper books. I scan the subway platform and the train cars on my way around the city, and at any given time, you can find anywhere from a third to over a half of the people around you staring at their phone. Are they reading? What are they reading? I have no proof of this, but from the quick snippets of flashing lights from Candy Crush and other games, TV episodes, videos, Facebook or Instagram feeds that I spy over shoulders, I am not persuaded that people are reading to learn on the train.

Does it matter? Is it my job, as a highly educated, highly privileged PhD student, to police people in how they spend their time? But I guess that’s my point: do we secretly feel that we’ll have plenty of time to learn, and find out something new, when we’re finished watching that last episode of whatever on Netflix or reading our friend’s updates (or blogs like this, for example)? Do we think we will have the time to get back to reading something inspiring, enlivening, frightening, which allows for our imagination to roam and range around, or are the screens somehow, secretly winning?

Too bad Rod Serling isn’t here to make a Twilight Episode about this. I’m sure he’d have a surprise ending for all of us.

A Night at the Garden: White supremacy and collective forgetting

“A Night at the Garden” is a short film that depicts a pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1939. Billed as a “pro-American” rally, the images of the columns of white, uniformed men from the ethnic German group called the German American Bund striking drums, carrying swastika-adorned banners, and displaying rows of American flags in front of a cheering, saluting audience are terrifying, to say the least.

This might like an anachronism in terms, perhaps, of haircuts or police mounted on horseback, or a distant document that should inspire immediate disgust in the 21st-century viewer. Nevertheless, the shock it produces also indexes the collective forgetting by an America that sees itself as a cultural leader in a globalized world, always moving forward in postures of innovation and newness, in denial of much of the anti-Semitism and white supremacy that has underpinned our country’s history.

The final image of the film:

As a testimony to the fact that such thinking is not so far away from the realm of possibility, one need only look at the rise of the right wing in Europe, most recently with the election of Austria’s newest prime minister, Sebastian Kurz, whose People’s Party is likely to build a coalition government by allying itself with the former Nazi-affiliated Freedom Party in that country. And if that seems too far away, too foreign to our own experience of life here, there has been a rise not only of right-wing activism (as we’re all well aware of in the infamous and deadly Unite the Right demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017) but also in less visible locations. Recently, Bard College, a small, private college in New York, hosted a conference entitled “Crises in Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times.” One of their speakers: a representative of Alternative for Germany, a far-right anti-immigrant nationalist party from that country. It could be inferred that his invitation represented an ethic of free speech, of seeking a balanced approach to the conversation.

Yet when I asked a colleague in attendance whether anyone protested his being there, or even asked a question to challenge his ideas, the answer was “no.” Was this politeness, a commitment to hearing all sides…or a quiet addition to the rising normalcy of violent nationalism percolating in the world nowadays?

Education is a right

Just got home from teaching at City College, where I work with public school teachers developing their pedagogical practice and scholarship as grad students in the City University of New York, arguably the oldest public university system in the country (rivaled only by the University of California). I am a teaching fellow in the same system, and teach at City in exchange for my ability to do a PhD at no cost.

A rare thing to consider, nowadays: that education be considered something everyone should have a right to. Education is becoming increasingly commodified, rarified, costly, and competitive. This gets me down when I think about the pressure in the 21st century to value education solely as job preparation, not as a space for creativity, exploration, political inquiry, and inspiration. A banner on the wall at City reminded me that this was not always the case, at least not in New York City.

Here’s hoping the city that never sleeps continues to inspire and excite the imagination of the rest of the country.

The intellectual’s desperate need for self-parody as a Professional Smarty Pants

After the inspiring first class of Introduction to Dialectics with Stanley Aronowitz this weekend among many seasoned thinkers and established intellectuals, I felt the need to reflect on the experience of being a Professional Smarty Pants and my socialization, for better or worse, into this motley group. I’m increasingly convinced that self-awareness is in desperate need in academic circles, by which I mean awareness of the fact that we have inherited a tradition of righteous soap-boxing that should, frankly, be laughed at now and again.

Here are two examples. First, an old comic short from Monty Python entitled Philosopher Football, in which the Germans play the Greeks and Confucius is the referee:

And second, a Vanity Fair video of Kate McKinnon, one of my favorite Saturday Night Live players, improvising a PowerPoint presentation to a rapt audience:

My takeaway: It’s okay – in fact, it’s probably good – to see what you’re doing as ridiculous now and then. It means that you know that all of this work as a Professional Smarty Pants is only a square on this huge Tron grid called life.

Public schools: the starting point for questions, for possibility, for the anti-dictate

I am a field mentor for student teachers getting their masters degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at New York University. I myself am not a public school teacher, and for this reason, I love coming to schools and working with student teachers and their mentoring cooperating teachers over the course of a semester of developing lesson plans, new strategies, and relationships with the students. These are precious, powerful times for new teachers. Student teachers are learning to be authoritative rather than authoritarian, kind yet clear, and knowledgeable as well as inquisitive. This experience tends to be particularly meaningful for teachers who come from very different backgrounds than their students, especially White teachers from homogenous suburban middle-class towns very different from the busy, multilingual, multiple-way-of-being neighborhoods of New York. By extension are beneficial to these new teachers the ways in which these complex, dynamic communities express themselves in schools, the ways they push their children to think about the world and their place and participation in it.

Community Roots Middle School in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan-Brooklyn Overpass), a shipping area-turned-artist-haven-turned-locus of gentrification off of the York Street stop on the F train, asks these questions in politically active, clear-voiced ways. The display on the bulletin board in the 7th-grade hallway I visited included the following signage:


Beautiful. Because it always starts with questions.


Image of Angela Davis (above) and political cartoon depicting labor protest.


A brilliant question, one that should be asked over and over again.


The question of resistance.


One of my favorite quotes by Alice Walker.

This is where questions, and questioning, start. Public education cannot be about competition at the global level, or about test scores, or about conformity in and preparation for economically and politically strident times. We are in a time when we believe this is so. Schooling is about starting to ask questions, to learn what is possible, to explore ways of being that are not dictated to us, which is the essence of democracy. Community Roots Middle School, at least in these images, expresses just this.

Crisis → recovery → crisis → recovery, etc…and the alternative: Bakhtin’s/Tina Turner’s co-authored future

19 minutes ago, my phone lit up with a headline from the New York Times:

Top Stories: President Trump’s reckless threats could set the nation “on the path to World War III,” said Senator Bob Corker, an influential Republican

Headlines like this feel relatively common, a reminder that crisis upon crisis has become the status quo in 2017. We recover, barely, from bad news (not from the outcomes of Hurricane Maria, not even close), when new and horrible events replace the last news story. We’re having a terrible year, and this seems to be plaguing people’s health and mental capacity to maintain a sense of balance, a feeling of being able to find perspective in a world that seems bent on chasing all sanity down and devouring it.

I wonder if this is simply a bad year, or possibly also a series of events that may generate changes in our ability to imagine different possibilities. How does this cycle of crisis and recovery occupy our consciousness, our creativity? I’ve written about a Baudrillardian take on our world, in which we have come to exist in a hyperreal social existence in which we don’t participate but simply experience as consumers. We are becoming shellshocked by the devastation wreaked by tropical storms, mass shootings, cholera epidemics, an opioid crisis, violent suppression of secession movements – by the way, all of this has occurred since August 2017 – which we experience as both perceived as “what those poor people have to deal with,” and in some cases, what is happening in our own communities. We seem to be perpetually stuck to our phones, our screens, fearful of the latest takeover of our already limited attention spans with the latest chaotic and terrifying news. Is this our mindset now?

Mikhail Bakhtin, a 20th century Russian philosopher and literary theorist who is coming into fashion again in academic thought, might suggest that we are experiencing our worlds in a sort of crisis ⇒ recovery ⇒ crisis ⇒ recovery mindset, where we are in a perpetual state of reacting to the hardships of the world. I’m not suggesting that our reactions are in our heads, much less the crises we’ve been dealing with on environmental, political, military, and social levels. Rather, I am interrogating the mindset that such a cyclical obsession generates: a sense of being trapped, of losing sight of any version of the now, or the possible future, as something we can contribute to. Bakhtin suggested an alternative mindset to this, a way of perceiving ourselves as what he called unique and once-occurrent Beings, each of whom is authentic and valuable as an author of the world. To own this, to view ourselves as responsible for our worlds and for our moments in it, is politically conscious, active, and powerful.

Sounds pretty hokey, right? I definitely don’t know how to get to this alternative road, as I’m slipping around in the dusty rubble on the ground like everyone else, trying to find a sane existence in the ruins of what seemed like a long-gone reality. Yet to be nostalgic about “better times” is to deny the suffering of others in the past and present, as well as to remove ourselves from the position of participant, of stand-taker, in a time of rising injustice.

Tina Turner’s anthem from 1985 (yes, it’s also the theme song from Mad Max, Thunderdome) pops into my mind as I write this:

Out of the ruins, out from the wreckage
Can’t make the same mistakes this time
We are the children, the last generation
We are the ones they’ve left behind
And I wonder when we are ever gonna change?
Living under the fear, till nothing else remains

We don’t need another hero
We don’t need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 11.10.07 PM.png

Now, this was intended for a post apocalyptic action movie, but I believe there are elements of Turner’s triumphant call to action that are more timeless, resonating for all who feel hopeless in the face of crisis, of a future that seems lost. The only place Turner got it wrong (beyond the video with the bizarre outfit and the shirtless sax man) was the line where she called this “the last generation.” It’s not Fukuyama’s end of history, or the end of theory. Nevertheless, her lyrics put the key line forward: We don’t need any heroes. No one is coming for us. And trying to return home will doom us to repeat and recycle the same stories. Where we stand, right now, can also be the beginning, as long as we can imagine and remember that we are here, co-authoring our future together, with all of our voices.

The question of community: climate change, DACA, and environmental racism

Hurricane Harvey is striking Houston and 50 other counties in Texas, pounding the region with enough water to fill the football stadiums of the NFL and all colleges across the country 100 times. Nearly impossible to imagine. At the same time, one-third of Bangladesh is under water in a monsoon season that has been strongly augmented by climate change (also called climate chaos or climate disruption). Both disasters, the latter of which has led to the deaths of over 1,000 people thus far, relate to the larger issue of the abuse of the environment that we as a species have undertaken for profit.

Coincidentally, President Trump is under pressure to end the DACA program in the United States, threatened by impending lawsuits from a cadre of Republican lawmakers across the country. DACA, also known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is an Obama-era program for amnesty which provides the opportunity for immigrants who came to the United States illegally as minors to work, live, and participate in society without the threat of deportation. About 750,000 individuals in the United States benefit from this program, which has historically been a controversial one but has emerged as a polarizing issue since the 2016 election. Trump’s leadership on Muslim travel bans and the pardoning of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who profiled immigrants and maintained a detainee “concentration camp,” have revealed our president’s quest for popularity with his conservative, nationalistic base through nativist, Anglocentric, xenophobic speechifying backed up by executive action and regional actions like SB4 in Texas.

The connection between climate change and the marginalization of immigrants and other people of color and poor people is powerful. Hurricane Harvey exemplifies the devastating impact natural disasters (if this term really applies) have on communities of color and poor communities, including immigrants who are undocumented, constituting a clear form of environmental racism that is often accepted under the logics of deregulation and capitalistic expansion. As Harvey’s destructive consequences reveal themselves, reports state that many undocumented immigrants are not contacting authorities for help during the disaster, producing widespread health, safety, and economic concerns. Even when people are able to return to their homes and begin to rebuild their communities, they will need to work to make up their losses, to continue their lives, and, unfortunately, to prepare for disasters that surely will come in the future.

However, if DACA is ended, its 85,000 beneficiaries who live in Houston will be left without the possibility of doing just this. Immigrants activists like Cesar Espinoza, an undocumented immigrant and guest on Democracy Now! this morning, speak of his community as it responds to these questions. “The fight continues,” Espinoza says:

For a lot of people, though, it’s a piece of devastating news. They’re relying on their deferred action, on their ability to work, so that they can rebuild, they can go back to work, and help their families rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, if DACA does get rescinded in the next couple of days, these young men and women are going to be left with nothing, the rug is going to be swept from under their feet, and who knows how long it will take for them to rebuild.


Image from the Houston Chronicle

Community is where the strength to face such possibilities comes from. The question is, who belongs to this community? Who should be responsible for the fall into, and struggle out of new and continued poverty, housing instability, health complications, and other problems that members of Houston’s incredibly diverse community will face? The answer is, all of Houston, and all of our country, should be. Undocumented immigrants are a part of all of our communities, and should be valued as contributing members with the same concerns other residents have. We all share the same civil rights to life, to live without discrimination, to the ability to participate freely in society and build a life with self-determination and dignity. Climate disasters reveal that our thinking is not there yet. But we still have time to reconsider the political and social disasters to come if we don’t.