Maybe this was the thought that finally centered me and prompted me to return home because it articulated my sense of loneliness in the midst of my life in this here giant city while reminding me of the bigger picture. It allowed me to cast aside the self-importance that lies at the other side of stress and remind myself of the beautiful insignificance of being a part of something much greater than myself.
Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed–even in part–the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world. . .
Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection. . .
If it is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings. Dialogue is thus an existential necessity. . . .
Dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people. . . Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and the dialogue itself. . . . Because love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is commitment to others. No matter where the oppressed are found, the act of love is commitment to their cause–the cause of liberation. . . If I do not love the world–if I do not love life–if I do not love people–I cannot enter into dialogue.
On the other hand, dialogue cannot exist without humility. . . Men and women who lack humility (or have lost it) cannot come to the people, cannot be their partners in naming the world. Someone who cannot acknowledge himself to be as mortal as everyone else still has a long way to go before he can reach the point of encounter. At the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.
Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of an elite, but the birthright of all). . .
Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is the logical consequence. . . False love, false humility, and feeble faith in others cannot create trust. Trust is contigent on the evidence which one party provides the others of his true, concrete intentions; it cannot exist if that party’s words do not coincide with their actions.
One of the characteristics of oppressive cultural action which is almost never perceived by the dedicated but naive professionals who are involved is the emphasis on a focalized view of problems rather than on seeing them as dimensions of a totality. In “community development” projects the more a region or area is broken down into “local communities,” without the study of these communities as totalities in themselves and as parts of another totality . . . the more alienation is intensified.
–Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
An Introduction and Discursive Rambling On Why I’m Writing This
I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long while, ever since the EWA conference where I met some great fellow educators and education reporters. At dinner after the conference, I was speaking with David Ginsburg, Samuel Reed, and Michael Hicks about the concept of equity and a level playing field in schools and how this critical need so often gets shoveled under the rug in current public discussions of education, and I brought up one of the concepts I’d come up with after my first year of teaching, which is the idea of what I called an “invisible curriculum.” Michael Hicks informed me that this concept has been around for a while and was entitled the “hidden curriculum.”
This was a critical concept to me, so at the behest of Mr. Hicks, I did some “research” (Google questing) and found that the Wikipedia article (BTW, why do people always debunk Wikipedia as a viable source of information? There’s some really well written articles on that sucker!) provides some fairly good background on the subject, tracing the concept of “presumptive teaching” back to Dewey, up through Philip Jackson, Benson Snyder, Paulo Friere, and more recently to John Taylor Gatto. Now that I had a trail, I was determined to do some deeper investigation.
Not to make excuses, but I don’t have allocated time for research, and I’ve thus far been stymied by the craziness of a public school right before state testing, writing graduate school papers, creating IEPs, wedding planning, and other assorted tasks that keep pushing this research aside. I’m currently reading Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (good stuff—he doesn’t even hesitate to discuss love in pedagogy!), but that’s about as far as any of my own research has progressed.
Rather than wait an indeterminate amount of time to gain deeper theoretical background knowledge on the subject, I am electing to post what my thoughts are so far on the subject, and I will elaborate on it further as I learn more.
Curriculum and Equity
There’s a few strands which I will be pulling together around the concept of a curriculum. The first strand I will examine is the concept of a hidden curriculum. The second strand is the concept of a unified core curriculum. The third strand, which I have explored somewhat already, is the concept of open source curriculum development.
These strands are unified under the idea that if we are truly committed to the concept of equity in public education— or the concept of education as a civil rights issue—then we had better take curriculum seriously. What we choose to leave out of our curriculum are often the most critical pieces of knowledge that our students require to succeed in an extremely polarized and socially and economically sick nation.
There are a couple of ways of interpreting the notion of a hidden curriculum. One is from the perspective of class or cultural oppression, as in the biases of a dominant culture are propagated through unwritten but clearly expressed social rules, thus perpetuating inequity. Another is from the perspective of socialization, in which there is an assumption of implicit understanding, as in the “unwritten social rules and behavior that we all seem to know, but were never taught.” In the first interpretation, the deficit lies in the oppressor, who enforces their dominant perspectives either blindly or coercively. In the second, the deficit lies in the student, who fails to recognize implicit social or behavioral rules.
I think there is a middle ground to be found between these two interpretations of hidden curriculum, in that in either case, it is the responsibility and duty of the educator to render explicit what is assumed implicitly. Teaching is all about making tangible what is abstract, dredging up the invisible conceptual and procedural foundations that underly knowledge. If we are going to instill values from a selective standpoint, then we should give voice to those values and make them readily apparent, thus allowing parents and families a choice as to whether they feel that is the right kind of school for their child. If we are going to be addressing social skill or behavioral deficits with our students, then we should be clear about what social norms are and how healthy relationships are fostered and sustained.
We fail our children when we don’t acknowledge the hidden values and rules of our society’s social behaviors. We also fail our children when we pretend that there isn’t much more to succeeding in our society than academic success and intelligence, and ignore the critical need for the development of character. In a recent article in American Educator, The Economics of Inequality: The Value of Early Childhood Education, James Heckman makes the case for the dire need for recognition of character development in education.
While important, cognitive abilities alone are not as powerful as a package of cognitive skills and social skills . . . Cognition and personality drive education and life success, with character (personality) development being an important and neglected factor.
I believe that children and families in disadvantaged communities desperately want to understand these rules. They want to become empowered through knowledge. We oppress them when we pretend they already understand or that they should implicitly understand class rules and values. And all of the terrible behavior that you will witness in inner city schools–the fighting, the cursing, the bullying—are calls for understanding. Students need to be taught what these unwritten class expectations and rules are. They already understand the rules of poverty, of the street. They already know how to speak that language. Some educators throw up their hands and say, “But they don’t want to learn! They aren’t motivated! They don’t value education!” That’s not true. It’s just that we aren’t being clear enough about what that learning will do for them. We assume that they understand the implicit value in formal education. We assume that they know how to sit in a chair and behave appropriately in a formal setting and respect formal authority figures. We need to stop making these assumptions. We need to assume, rather, that when a child enters our schools they need to be taught everything about how to succeed in a democratic and capitalistic society. And I mean that just as much for the child in the wealthy suburban enclave as the child in the ghetto. The child who sits in a wealthy classroom is just as much in need of understanding implicit societal rules and values, such that they don’t take their luxury and status for granted, and live a sheltered life unexamined. Inequality is perpetuated most fundamentally by ignorance, not by willful avarice.
Business leaders are telling leaders in education that they are looking for employees with social skills and interpersonal capabilities. Research tells us that self-control is far more important in predicting future success than IQ. Educators keep telling the world that they have kids that don’t know how to sit still for more than one minute, don’t know how to organize their supplies, and don’t know how to interact with each other in a positive way. Is anybody listening? Schools need to do much more than teach academic content. They need to teach—as many educators have been saying over and over again—the whole child.
Not only does our society fail to acknowledge the hidden curriculum, but we furthermore fail to acknowledge the foundations of any curriculum. We have politicized content, such that it has become an issue of nationalizing required content, as opposed to rationalizing the foundations of learning. Anyone who has been a teacher—most especially anyone who has been a teacher of children with exceptional learning needs—knows that all academic concepts have underlying foundations that must be clearly and explicitly taught for students to master the content. Let’s take one mathematical skill as an example: rounding. Rounding is easy, right? All you have to do is round a number up, or round a number down, and bingo! Right?
Wrong. If you think that’s true, then you’ve never tried teaching it. My students struggle with mathematical concepts, especially with procedures that require multiple steps, and most especially with concepts that require any level of abstraction. Let’s break rounding down into the steps required to perform it: 1) You have to decide what place value you are rounding to; 2) starting at that place value, you then must look at the number to the right; 3) you must ask yourself “do I round that number up or down?; 4) you must remember the rounding rule, perhaps taught to you via a rhyme such as “5 or more, let it soar; 4 or less, let it rest”; and 5) finally, you must move back to the original place value you are attempting to round to, then alter it accordingly (add one, or let it remain the same, and change the remaining place values to the right of it to zero).
Those are the steps, which we could easily add more to, as it could be argued that I condensed some mental steps into one. Now think about the foundational concepts needed to perform this operation. First, you must understand your place value and be able to locate the given place value of any number. If you don’t, you can forget about rounding, because you are lacking in the necessary understanding to simply begin the operation independently. Next, you must understand the rather abstract concept that when you round that place value, all the remaining place values after that are changed to zero. Also, they must understand and be clear about the idea that when you rounding “down,” you are not subtracting one from that number, you are simply “letting it rest.”
Try explaining that to a child who struggles with basic numeracy. Suddenly, what was such an easy concept, implicitly, has become an extremely complicated concept when you attempt to render it explicit.
But the point is here that there are concrete steps that can be developed, and we can pinpoint and target exactly where a student is struggling based on the evidence or discussion of their work. Different teachers will have different ways of addressing that struggling student’s needs, but the foundations are there.
Why would we pretend that the foundations underlying concepts don’t exist? Why would we leave it up to the independent exploratory process of a student, a teacher, a school district, or a state to determine these foundations? Why wouldn’t we pool together all of our evidence, from teachers, researchers, and content experts, to create a sequenced map of the foundations to learning?
I recently (randomly) learned about the concept of “learning progressions,” which I found in an article from a publication from the Teacher’s College educational policy program. This concept has been around for several years, and apparently had some influence on the development of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. I’m surprised, frankly, that the concept isn’t wider known and more fully explored.
Another concept aligned with these ideas which has been around literally for decades is E.D. Hirsch‘s notion of cultural literacy. I remember buying Hirsch’s The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy when I was a kid! I was fascinated by the idea of having a tome that would teach me the secrets to my society. It turned out to be kind of boring, but I thought some of the quotes in it were interesting. I still have the book, and now as a newer teacher, I have discovered that Hirsch’s concepts were developed into a Core Knowledge Sequence, which is available for download.
I can understand the criticism of Hirsch’s concept as an attempt to simply indoctrinate all students with the dominant culture, and the concern that having a unified curriculum would be an impediment to true learning. I share the criticism of the Core Knowledge Sequence from the perspective of it being fixed, in the same way that I would criticize any set of fixed standards by grade level. I teach students with disabilities, and I am angered by how they are made to feel stupid because they are 2-4 years behind grade specific benchmarks. Benchmarks should be based on individual student capability, not by this antiquated concept of grade level (/end diatribe).
When I introduced the Core Knowledge Sequence to the teachers at my school at a faculty staff meeting as a tool to guide their curriculum mapping, I expected to hear some of the critiques I just offered above. But on the contrary, teachers were overwhelmingly thrilled by the sequence and gratified to have a copy of it to refer to. Aides and preparatory teachers were snapping the copies up like candy, such that we ran out of copies for core content area teachers! Teachers, just like students, are desperate for guidance.
At some point, we have to come to an agreement about what knowledge is important to the content that we elect to teach. And at some point, we have to come to an agreement about the benchmarks that students must reach to acquire knowledge at the level that will best enable them success in an academic or career setting, whether we elect to do so by grade level or other tracking method. In terms of indoctrinating students with the dominant culture, I will refer you back to the concept of the “hidden curriculum.” It’s not about protecting students from the dominant culture. It’s about handing the keys to that kingdom over to them. And that requires not only academic content knowledge, as I argued earlier, but knowledge of social skills and the self-knowledge that comes from self-control.
And I think that simply because content is “fixed” to some degree does not necessitate that it is dead. No teacher comes into a classroom (at least, not in a self-contained classroom; I would welcome someone who thinks they can fly by the seat of their pants coming into my classroom every day and trying to perform free jazz pedagogy; in a classroom, you have to be able to perform jazz on top of a classical foundation) and begins to conjure the content they are to teach out of thin air. What a good teacher does is to conjure critical thinking and dialogue around the essential content of a subject. The content may be given, but not how we approach it and develop it as a class, with students and teacher exploring the concepts together to recreate them anew. Curriculum must be able to adapt to these explorations and to the creation of new knowledge, but that does not mean that we should not come to a consensus as to what content should be taught. In other words, a unified curriculum does not necessarily mean a dead one, and I think we have move beyond such polarizing notions; I will explore this idea more in the next section on open source curriculum development.
Currently, there is a movement, spearheaded by the Shanker Institute, to reintroduce the idea of a core curriculum of content, which has been cosigned by many different leaders in the education field. Of course, this is making people who are politically right leaning shiver in their boots, because the idea of anything being nationalized gives them nightmares of socialism. But this is a perfect example of how the political grandstanding and petty oversimplication of adults operates to the detriment to children. Knowledge cannot be nationalized—but the underlying concepts necessary to achieve mastery can be outlined and unified.
The process of establishing any sort of national consensus on matters of education, such as through the current establishment of the Common Core Standards, is ridiculously contentious (read Diane Ravitch’s The Life and Death of the Great American School System for more history on the political machinations behind the standards movement) . But that should not stop us from having those conversations. Adopting a voluntary, common set of national standards was a great first step. But in comparison to the actual content, standards are relatively clean of contentious items and specifically applicable items for classroom use. The only item where standards provide direction on the actual content to be learned is in the math standards, as they are fairly clear about what content will be focused upon within each grade. In ELA, social studies, and science, however, the standards are intentionally vague, as these are the areas that can swiftly become politically contentious.
We need to stop being cowards and hold the essential public discussion over core content. Our children are sitting in classrooms that are all too often simply boot camp preps for a lifetime of imprisonment, with none of the essential knowledge that will enable them to succeed in this society. Our teachers are spending hours alone planning their lessons, attempting to dissect concepts in order to teach them effectively to their students. Why are we throwing our children and our teachers’ knowledge and ability to the wolves?
Open Source Curriculum
Reflect for a minute on the last image I just concluded the prior section with: a teacher sitting alone at their desk, planning lessons for their students. It’s after a long day of teaching. That teacher may or may not be a content expert in the lesson that they are crafting, given that most teachers are treated like widgets (as described well in the policy paper, “The Widget Effect”) and are thrown into different grades and different subject areas every year. Why is that teacher alone? Why does that teacher not have the guidance of other experts in that content area to guide their task analysis? Why is that teacher not sitting with other teachers during a scheduled, paid time of their day?
That image is of a dedicated teacher, a teacher who knows that they must reflect and ponder the underlying foundations of content in order to teach effectively. Other teachers are downloading lesson plans of questionable value from the internet, or simply turning to the next lesson in the curriculum that is provided by their district, which was purchased from a contractor who makes a lot of money supplying flashy, colorful textbooks to schools. Meanwhile, people are arguing against providing these teachers with any sort of direction or guidance on content whatsoever. Are you kidding me? When I began teaching, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content I was supposed to be teaching my students (http://gothamschools.org/2011/04/01/persistence-through-failure/). I would have loved a sequenced guide to the underlying foundations of the concepts I was expected to teach and that my students were expected to learn.
Now wouldn’t it be better if that teacher was sitting at a table with colleagues, discussing the content of the lesson, performing task analysis through the process of dialogue with other knowledgeable experts of pedagogy and content? In some schools, this sort of collaborative lesson planning does occur. In all too many, however, it doesn’t. In either case, imagine extending that table to include teachers from all sorts of different settings, with all sorts of different students. They can discuss how they alter the delivery of the content to challenge their gifted students, how they alter the delivery of the content to reach their students with exceptional learning needs, how they alter the delivery of the content to reach their students learning English.
This is what we can do with technology. Why wait for one of the big curriculum companies to develop our curriculum for us? In fact, this is the very problem: how we’ve been developing anything in public education, whether policy or content: everything is developed from the top down, then handed to the teacher. But we need to stop this never-ending cycle of dissociation. A unified core curriculum incorporating social skills and character development should not be developed by some group of distant “experts” and think tanks.
I’ve been thinking about this concept ever since I learned more about open source software development. One of my friends is involved in the open source software industry (yes, people other than Microsoft are making money by developing open source software! Who woulda thunk?), and in conversations with him, I began to think about how the process could be applied to education. He recommended a book for me to read to learn more about the history of open source and how it works, and the more I learned, the more I grew excited about the potential for transferring the fundamental concept of open sourcing into curriculum development.
The revolutionary transformation of open source in software development in the computing industry was that it turned the concept of intellectual property on its head. Intellectual property, under the GNU license, shifted from the right of exclusion to the right of distribution. This allowed software code to be developed outside of a proprietary license and outside of hierarchical business models not always conducive to creativity and collaboration.
This is what the development of curriculum requires. Curriculum development is creative and challenging work, and teachers shouldn’t be doing it by themselves. We should be doing it together, via collaborative networks, not via conventional, hierarchical pathways remote from our classroom work.
I’ve started the process in my school by first creating a file structure within our school Google Docs to store and share our curriculum mapping. Then, I introduced the Core Knowledge Sequence, as described earlier, as a resource to be used in the mapping process. Next, I created a unit plan template, based on a format provided by ASCD, within Google Docs to guide and standardize the development of unit plans across grade levels. Finally, I will create a spreadsheet to synthesize all the unit plans as they develop school-wide, so that different grade levels can examine each other’s work.
My next plan is to open this process to teachers on a national level. I’ve created a wiki for this purpose, but swiftly realized that I had to create an underlying structure to guide the process. So this summer I will be working on building an underlying structure based on those effective in software development.
It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be challenging. But I firmly believe that teachers can create a viable and unified curriculum that will be far superior to anything that will be published by giant textbook corporations. And the best thing about doing it via the open source method will be that it can be a living, breathing curriculum that will adapt to new input and feedback by teachers.
A Summation and Wrap Up of the 3 Strands of Curriculum
In creating a curriculum that can target inequity and enable disadvantaged students to gain access to the middle and upper class tiers of our society, we must address these factors:
- Curriculum must explicitly address the non-academic skills proven necessary by research for life and career success, such as social skills, self-control, perseverance, and character
- Curriculum must be unified to clearly delineate the underlying foundations of content
- Curriculum must be an adaptable, living creation developed collaboratively by actual teachers and content experts via networks operated under a GPL style license
If you believe in any of these precepts, then I encourage you to follow some of these steps:
- Go to www.ashankerinst.org/curriculum.html and sign to support the concept of a core curriculum
- Notify your local representative about the necessity for a core curriculum that incorporates the concept of character development or write a letter to your newspaper
- Go to my website and keep up to date about my progress in developing an open source project for curriculum development, or start your own and let me know!
In my last post, I sought to balance the concept of achievement with the necessity of equity in education. Before I dive into curriculum (I know, I keep saying I will get into it), I would like to expound further on an analogy I made at the beginning of this series between ecology and public schools, and which has given the title to this series.
I’ve begun with the premise of schools as ecosystems. In any healthy ecosystem, there is a dynamic and interactive balance between all of the components of that ecosystem, from the trees, to the low lying shrubs, to the soil, to the bugs, the birds, the berries, the squirrels, the bears, and what have you. All components function to create an interconnected, interdependent system that naturally self-regulates to create sustainable conditions for the most productive life possible within that given environment.
Now that’s a “natural” ecosystem I’m discussing. Let’s explore the concept of a man-made ecosystem in order to better adapt that idea to schools. In a man-made ecosystem, such as a garden, the gardener works to recreate natural environments, but with a focus on a purpose that suits the gardener, such as food growth, or flower cultivation. Sometimes that focus is so monolithic that the gardener ends up in constant battle with nature, and must maintain their garden on life support infusions of toxic herbicides and pesticides. Fortunately, there are methods of deliberately harnessing natural processes and dynamics to best serve our own selfish interests. When the gardener best recreates the conditions that will foster interconnectivity and diversity of life adapted to their environment, their garden will thrive.
Now let’s bring that idea back to schools. In education, instead of growing food or flowers, our work is to grow our kids’ minds. A lot of times, this effort of increasing achievement is presented as a type of competition, which is furthered through the use of punitive grading systems and high stakes testing. Sometimes the way we talk about it makes it seem like all we want to do is pump steroids into the minds of our youth. But we know that’s not what it’s about. Education is about nurturing, developing, instilling, guiding. And in terms of an ecosystem, the big idea is that ultimately, no one is really competing, even if it looks like that on the surface. Ultimately, we work to counterbalance each other and create an environment that best harnesses the resources available within that given community.
This all sounds relatively banal, even to me, but the reason I keep pushing this analogy between gardening and education is because I’m seeking to apply permacultural principles to the ecosystems of schools. Permaculture is a philosophy of cultivating land grounded in holistic and sustainable design practices. I believe the permacultural approach is not only necessary to counter current devastating ecological practices, but is in fact superior to traditional methods and approaches to land use.
I believe that one of the critical issues underlying education reform is that we are all too often seeking superficial means of enhancing student performance. In a garden, we might temporarily achieve enhanced production through an arduous turning of topsoils and expensive input of chemicals. In a school, we might temporarily raise student test scores through test prep and infusions of outside contractors. But ultimately in both scenarios, we are only doing battle against nature and economy. In order to enhance productivity sustainably, we have to build up the foundations of our communities, our ecosystems. This requires targeted investments in the communities that most require it. There is no other way.
- What are typical parts of an ecosystem? (greenanswers.com)
Two distinct but equally real organizational forms exist in parallel to each other. The dynamic relationship between hierarchies and networks over time determines both the nature of the transition and the endpoint. One form may defeat the other through competition. Both may coexist by settling into nearly separate niches where they are particularly advantaged. Most interesting will be the new forms of organization that emerge to manage the interface between them, and the process by which those boundary spanners influence the internal structure and function of the networks and the hierarchies that they link together.
One of the most intriguing chapters in Weber’s book on open source is the final chapter, in which he examines the potential of generalizing the open source model to other paradigms. I found his delineation between open sourcing as “networking” and traditional, propriety methods as “hierarchies” particularly useful, especially in my considerations of applying open source to collaborative curriculum design. This interfacing by innovative “boundary spanners” between hierarchies and networks is precisely what is at issue in the field of education and so desperately needed. Schools are operated primarily in an antiquated hierarchical model in nearly all structural forms. Nearly all decisions, from curriculum to school programs to scheduling are passed top down. Some decisions must be made in such a manner, and this is why hierarchies exist, but the decisions that are similar in all schools yet exist under different conditions necessitate distributed, localized, network based decisions. Curriculum should be developed by the teachers that implement it. The knowledge and learning that is obtained from students (because learning is not a two way street–the students are teaching adults what they need) must be incorporated into whatever decisions are made that will impact a classroom or school directly. That means connecting classrooms and teachers directly to policymakers. The leveling platform of technology can enable this to happen (I’m going to discuss this more in another post soon).
I don’t know if I subscribe to such a dire black and white portrayal of networks vs. hierarchies that Weber presents above, however. I think they can and will successfully coexist in the same manner that the structure of a leaf or a body is hierarchical in coexistence with networks, such as veins. I’m not sure if that’s the best analogy to make here, but I think it conveys what I mean. Perhaps more akin to the idea of holons portrayed by Ken Wilber in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality?
The notion of open-sourcing as a strategic organizational decision can be seen as an efficiency choice around distributed innovation . . . The simple logic of open-sourcing would be a choice to pursue ad hoc distributed development of solutions for a problem that (1) exists within an organization, (2) is likely to exist elsewhere as well, and (3) is not the key source of competitive advantage or differentiation for the organization.
The reason this open source model applies to education is because education and knowledge should be considered a public good, a product of the commons. This is why it doesn’t make sense to develop curriculum within closed, proprietary means. Effective methods of teaching and learning content should not be copyrighted. As Weber effectively details in his book, the power in open source is that it turns the notion of property on its head, from that of exclusion to that of distribution. Knowledge and learning should be disseminated and shared as widely as possible, because everyone benefits from it.
Note that I am not suggesting that companies or individuals should not be able to profit from offering services to schools. They will continue to do so even when effective curriculum begins to be developed via open sourcing; it will simply be that the nature of their services will change, just as the music industry is (still) learning to shift the nature of its services to accommodate the digital information age.
The open source process is more likely to work effectively in tasks that have these characteristics:
- Disaggregated contributions can be derived from knowledge that is accessible under clear, nondiscriminatory conditions, not proprietary or locked up.
- The product is perceived as important and valuable to a critical mass of users.
- The product benefits from widespread peer attention and review, and can improve through creative challenge and error correction . . .
- There are strong positive network effects to use of the product.
- An individual or a small group can take the lead and generate a substantive core that promises to evolve into something truly useful.
- A voluntary community of iterated interaction can develop around the process of building the product.
All of these conditions exist for curriculum design in public education, in addition to other aspects of teacher collaboration, such as research (as I suggested in my last post on this subject) and policy.
Well, so now–if you are one of the 4 people that may sometimes read this blog on a semi-regular basis–you are probably muttering unto yourself, “Manderson, what in the hell are you talking about? A school as an ecosystem doesn’t really make any much more sense than foundational systems of interconnectivity! Come off it already!”
But I feel I must persist, regardless, as this is one of the few avenues I have in which to ponder semi-abstract thoughts in regards to the systems in which I am currently embedded as a public school teacher. Let’s be honest: not many teachers in my school would care to sit down over whiskey and discuss the public school system as a whole, unless it accounts for a preponderance of venting and complaining. So I continue brazenly–or perhaps snoozingly–on the aforementioned topic: school culture.
In my last job in retail management, our company would talk about the “intangibles” in leadership training sessions. What they were referring to were things such as how a customer feels when they leave a store, the interactions that were had through conversations between customers and staff, and the overall sense of happiness or adventure that a customer might feel in the store. Another way of stating the idea of intangibles when we are discussing business is “anything that you can’t gauge by a dollar sign.” But the fact is, that company is extremely savvy because they explicitly recognized that their bottom line would be enhanced by paying attention to things that might not be immediately quantifiable. And believe me, that company is doing pretty damn good when it comes to their bottom line. Because they pay attention to something that many businesses (and as I will now begin to examine–schools) do not take into consideration: the culture of their everyday business.
Similarly, in public schools across the nation, children and adults every day enter buildings where they succumb to a sense of drudgery, fear, paranoia, and even just plain chaos. The reasons for this reality are myriad, but one of the things you will hear frequently referred to when you talk about problems in education is the whole test-taking and accountability movement. You’ll hear the horror stories from teachers about having to “teach to the test”. In public education, the tests are to schools what the bottom line is to a business. All decisions are made based on the tests, more or less. Such is the nature of things, currently. I’m a centrist on such matters, and believe that at some point you have to measure something.
But as the teachers and their unions are so angrily pointing out, there is much more to teaching and to students than what shows up on a standardized test. And I would argue that what does show up on a standardized test has a lot to do with factors that are contextual, not simply a matter of an individual teacher and an individual student. Just as the company I was speaking about enhanced their bottom line and profited from addressing the “intangibles” directly, so too could a school raise the test scores of their students if they spent more attention to factors within the school that have nothing to do directly with the test.
Now let’s be careful here. We all know that there are things going on in students’ lives that delimit their capabilities academically. A school can’t do much except perform consistent outreach efforts to the community to address such matters. But what we’re talking about here are the intangibles that are under a school’s control.
We’re talking about the feeling that you get before you even walk in the front door. And we’re not just talking about the signs, the display cases, the bulletin boards, the colors–although all of those things factor into it. We’re not just talking about whether the school follows some program of anti-bullying or anti-drugs or a social skills or life skills program.
We’re talking about how the students talk to each other. How the adults talk to each other. How the adults talk to the students. The everyday interactions, relationships, and rituals that foster and nurture a community. These are things that are perhaps largely intangible and not easily quantified (unless one is trained to quantify such things), but certainly worth investing attention in.
I would be willing to place a bet that if research were conducted that attempted to quantify the presence of a school culture, they would discover that school culture correlates highly with student performance on tests. In other words, they would find that something so fuzzy as how happy or accepted students and adults feel overall would result in stronger performance on state tests. It would also most likely correlate with greater retention of effective teachers.
In my next post on this topic, I will explore the concept of applying the open source model of development to public education.
Now that I have a rare moment wherein time is somewhat suspended (the woman is sick and passed out and I’ve finished grad school work due tomorrow), and I’m imbibing some Dominican ambrosia and just relaxing and feeling reflective, I think I’d like to verbalize some thoughts on public education, as right now it’s surprisingly caught the drift of a lot of national attention, due in no small part to Waiting for Superman (which I pledged to go see but never did, because . . . you guessed it, didn’t have the time (but that’s what Netflix is for, in any case (plus, I’m opposed to seeing movies in movie theaters any more))), as well as concurrent talking points like Race to the Top, Common Core State Standards, Michelle Rhee, Cathie Black, reformed systems of teacher evaluation, bullying and deaths in school, etc.
The strange thing about education is just how damned political the whole undertaking is. The field of education is a messy conflux of policy and politics, with many stakeholders taking often quite adversarial positions even when they ostensibly have common goals. Education is a hugely dynamic and complex field, and it doesn’t really make sense to view it through the lens of only one stakeholder.
Therein, perhaps, lies the crux of the issue. No one can really quite agree on what public education is supposed to do, exactly. We certainly agree that we should be teaching our children, but often in actual application, it would appear that us adults (whether parents, teachers, administrators or policymakers) are quite confused about what is worth teaching and might need some further schooling ourselves. Often we end up simply capitalizing off of children, in the same manner that giant corporations capitalize off of war, and industries capitalize off of prisons.
Coinciding with the rise of public education was the rise of agribusiness. Both of these services to society, I would argue, were crucial and entirely necessary. The drive to efficiency and scalability of agribusiness has resulted in some unforeseen issues, however, such as rampant dependency on pesticides and herbicides, and the ravaging of topsoils. Awareness of these detrimental side-effects has grown, and the organic and whole foods movement has caught on at a mainstream level in order to address some of these imbalances, though the jury is still out on whether we’re even capable of rectifying them. At the very least, society is beginning to recognize that short-term gain is not always worth long-term detrimental effects, including impacts on global and personal health.
There are links between food growth and education that I think should be elucidated. When you grow food, you are not simply growing a product, you are sustaining soil life. The more vibrant and diverse that soil life is, the more abundant, sustainable, and healthy your final product is. In education, you are not simply building student dendrites and promoting academic development, you are cultivating a community. The more inclusive, diverse, and vibrant that community is, the better the academic and other outcomes will be for students. We don’t need research to tell us this.
The Big Idea
The big idea here is that post-modern farming and education, as in the permaculture approach, is all about fostering foundational systems of interconnectivity. When you are dealing with complex systems of life, you need to promote those interconnections at all cost, or else you will end up weakening those systems at an incalculably large cost to greater society.
It’s this idea that I think can promote a unified vision for where education needs to go today. It’s not just about technology or knowledge work or global competitiveness or what have you–it’s about societal health and a sustainable future for our nation. If we can’t cultivate self-sustaining communities that are vibrant, interconnected, and teeming with diversity, then we will be able to do little else than continue infusing unhealthy doses of industrial era, one-size-fits-all reforms into school systems, propped up on federal money and compliance based policies.
It’s kind of weird, don’t you think, that blogging, texting, Facebooking, Twittering, etc, have become so blasé that no one thinks to even comment on these technological everyday manifestations of our interconnectivity anymore? I mean, these are things that didn’t really exist a mere 10 years ago, at least not in the form of critical mass that makes them truly meaningful in a social context. Now we take it for granted that we can constantly communicate with each other in what is tantamount to another dimension. We can convey ourselves immediately through the written word in a way never before possible, not to mention the addition of video, sound, and photos. It’s all so mundane now, but once upon a time getting onto your modem and then onto a bulletin board to share your hobby or chat with someone about something was a strange new world. Now it seems like there’s a blog for every locale, activity, and interest. And I think that’s a good thing, of course. I’m just amazed at how swiftly and easily we have taken it in stride.
What this portends, I believe, is that–contrary to the fear of a sci-fi future of disconnected blobs hiding behind self-stimulating machines–technology is evolving to enable us to connect with each other more effectively. In every type of way, both deep and shallow, both in sex and in spirit. You’ve got the guy using craigslist to find a prostitute on one hand and the mother sharing photos of her newborn baby on the other. And while there is truth to the statement that internet is the new TV–and I am guilty of wasting away far too much time doing nothing productive–the fact is that what you get out of technology is pretty much what you want to get out of it. The tools that we have at our fingertips are impressive. We can go to zoom in on a city street and find out exactly what the building looks like where we are meeting someone and what side of the street it’s on. We can look up the quote that has been bothering us and not only find out who said it, but furthermore what line on what page it was written in.
A lot of our use of this new power is purely narcissistic or for entertainment or voyeuristic, but then again, that’s what humanity is all about, aren’t we? You take a look at all the wide range of blogs out there, I mean, my god, you could write an anthropology paper on it. And yes, half the time Facebook is just people taking personality quizzes or posting status updates about how drunk they are, but it also gives you a glimpse into the lives of people who you may never have gotten to know otherwise. You may not want to talk to many people on the phone and keep up with them, but there are people that you grew up with or have met that you remember sometimes and get curious about. And it’s nice to be able to see their new baby, or to know that they moved to another city. In other words, a lot of stuff is a waste of time, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s all about how much you invest in it and how much you expect from it. It can be completely shallow, or it can be a tool to communicate things about yourself that you may not be able to otherwise.
Not everyone is effective at socializing in traditional contexts, like at a bar or even just in any face-to-face conversation. Some people just don’t understand body language, or come off as incredibly conceited, or don’t have much to say immediately. But new forms of communication allow such people to interact without confusing signals or ambient noise. Which can create some other forms of confusion, such as misunderstandings over sarcasm (hence the use of emoticons), but overall, there is the opportunity to convey many things that could not be conveyed in a traditional context.
So I’m a big fan of these developments. I feel like all these new tools are an opportunity to explore myself and others more deeply. My fiancee reads my blog and I read hers. We learn things about each other that we would never have said directly in a conversation. We announced our engagement on Facebook. So much more effective and easy than calling a bunch of people, which I never would have done anyway. And I remember farther back, when we were “going steady” or whatever the hell you call it now when you are not just hooking up with someone, how big of a step it was to change our relationship statuses on MySpace. Now look, I maligned MySpace and cellphones and every other social technological development just as much as anyone when they burst forth onto the scene. I resisted having a cellphone for years before I finally gave in. But now I obviously accept social tools for what they are, and I don’t feel weird about “advertising” my life anymore on the web. I think it’s great, that we can share so much about ourselves with each other. Is 85% of it TMI? Most definitely. But in the eyes of a god, it’s all food and fodder for understanding.
I have defined myself by loneliness, a barrenness of expectancy. Any light that passes through me is not my own, I am a hollowness that is sounded by the passing breath of what the universe elects to bestow, just as it so readily and inevitably draws away, to leave me again enshrouded in silence, in the magnitude of a void that lies at the root of every being. For this solitude is not my own; it is the very concavity of the universe, against whose form I am embedded within, a child pregnant with nothingness, like the deadened sacs of jellyfish that wash to shore, glancing in the moonlight like glass blown bubbles, a horrifically beautiful detachment of alien life forms deadened of meaning. The eye that views us wholly is not our own. It is in the distance of aqueous rock, beholden to a history that extends far beyond the parasitic need of life.
As I unravel from out of my comfortable discipline, from out of the mountainous wilderness of my solitude and into a daily existence that necessitates immediacy, haphazard intimacy, and action, I find myself flailing, looking to strike out again for the deep water, where life slows until it is still.
But I have made a choice. I have turned my back to the night and descended into the electrified city of the people, where we choose to listen to the music of our own crafting. My deepest self, rooted in empty blankness, must belatedly put on the masks of human aspiration and join in the ritual dances of the season. To become a proselytizer of the human future, laboring for fecundity. To have hope, to believe in a collective expansion of spirit, that what we take will be less than what we make.
The individual light within me has been lessened, intentionally, to make way for the lights of other people who will come with me. The one light that we shine can only be stronger, the one song that we sing can only be that much more steady, defined through the legislated breath of each other, not simply by the passing happenstance gift of the beyond.
It isn’t just about conforming, see. It’s about learning that confining yourself temporarily—or even on a leased, indentured status–into a box is a part of what it means to develop concurrently personally and alongside of the world. It ain’t just “pop culture”, see; that’s a residue of the 60′s. It’s about what we are learning about together, in this crazy super hyper-generated nexus of instantaneous communication. Yes, there’s wanna be B-boys with their blackberries and I-phones, the Top-40 lovin’ hummer born and bred without a trace of irony or self-awareness about them, those whom zoom forward, heedlessly, into the things that they want. And that’s OK. That’s what we are all about, as a species, as a collective. Like corporations, we are conglomerations whose growth and predisposition is bound by the market and interplay of self-worth and public policy. We conform to the latest happenings on the news. We shy instinctively away from that for which time has not yet come. That which will be is. Simply is. There is the reflection and there is the surface. This is not a Postmodern thing but rather a post-consumerist thing. People are animals drawn innately by a higher determination, and many of us will fail, and that is precisely the point: we will fail only ourselves. Because we Know. We Know, by our internal habitual addictions, from our balloon mounted intuition gatherings (from whence came this hallucinogenic image, I know not. I seem to be channeling a mix of Thoma Pynchon and Chartreuse), of those forces arrayed against us that we must shun, ignore, and pretend away.
Because every test that comes your way is a challenge of your integrity. What is it that determines what you are? Is it All, or is it You? Is it everything, or is it nothing? Because this isn’t just about chemistry, y’all. It’s about humility. It’s about will. It’s about love. And part of that is accepting—is embracing—that every little itty bitty thing, and every One, for What They are (it’s fun to capitalize unOfficially Designated words), as a part of you, as you are a part of all. Too stumbling, too fragmented are my words, Yoda-like in their sheared grammar, perhaps. Anyway.
We must be vigilant—almost paranoid—in our readiness for complete annihilation. Yet we must also be like fascinated babies with our every waking moment. Everything that is most important to our deep interconnected existence passes all too readily away into ignorance. So lubricate it with alcohol, or tea, or whatever damn substance or thing or habit or belief it is that sustains you beyond yourself and into an empathetic, intuitional understanding of outside edifices, institutions, and other such everpresent structures known as Strangers. These could be Trees, Buildings, or People. You know what I mean. Everything that is beyond yourself. Beyond your surface understanding.
Anyway, this is turning into a rambling treatise whose narrative zenith I’m not sure I’ve attained. Hope you enjoyed the ride. Comments are appreciated, though not necessarily replied to. Copyright breaking readings to sodden audiences in liberal enclaves in cities and townships across the world are encouraged. Over and out, til I’m on the other side of this politically designated range of turf known as the US of A.
Well, it’s ’bout time for me to post some thoughts about the current state of the world. I sometimes wish that I had a column in a major newspaper, so that I could generate national debate and establish talking points for The View. But, alas, my blog is just too random, too all-over-the-place, too largely mundane and only intermittently insightful, too much me, to ever hold such a place in the pantheon of established punditry. I wouldn’t have it any other way, of course. I will hold forth, in any case, as if the entire world listens attentively to my every last quest for meaning.
To the point: the major news item on our collective plate is the economy. We all know that the “bailout” plan, as it is called, is pretty much a bunch of hogwash, but we also all know that we need to do something, and not many of us are economically minded enough to know quite what that is. We just know that we want our retirement funds to stop being depleted, etc. First of all, I recommend checking in with Paul Krugman’s blog from time to time for some academic economic insight parsed down, relatively speaking, for the average Joe. He has written a short paper explaining what he thinks is going down right now, and to parse it even more simply into my own think-speak, it basically has to do with the global interdependence of financial markets. Which is why shortly after our economy started nose diving, the European economy has started feeling the effects of free-fall gravity as well.
If you follow my random output of thought consistently, then you’ve noted that I have a certain fascination with the concept of interdependence (go ahead and check out my posts filed under the topic of ‘interconnectivity‘ if you don’t believe me). I see interdependence, interconnectivity, the intwinement of multiple beings into one collective entity, as a source of greater strength. An individual vulnerability that establishes greater collective depth and power. This is the strength of the artist, the strength of the family, the strength of the nation. It makes us more open to superficial attack, but better resilient to sustained barrages.
Our economy—and hence, the global economy—is undeniably, at this point, in for some hard times. For how long, of course, no one can say. I have discussed elsewhere about how the economy is inevitably headed towards seeming disaster, but also about how what appears as tragic at the moment could potentially turn into a deeper manifestation of something necessary and redemptive i.e. the movement towards a more sustainable society. However, this transformation can only occur if we are willing to make some changes, such as move towards more Democratic—even *gasp* Socialist—notions of political governance as opposed to continuously giving in to Republican “small-government, big business” ideals. Obviously, putting Barack Obama into office is a great first step on this path. But beyond the presidential campaign, we need to push much harder for a move towards responsible government policy and regulation.
It’s sort of ridiculous that it takes a crisis or tragedy for people to awaken to the importance of individual sacrifice for collective betterment. It’s what we do in hard times, and it’s what people who live in poverty always do: help each other out. It’s about time that we start taxing the rich, taxing or putting caps on destructive and wasteful practices (such as lawns, SUVs, and plastic product packaging), and investing back into our society as a whole.
We all know that Communism and/or Fascism has failed. We all know that we believe in freedom and democracy for all. But it’s time that we grew up and recognized, as mature adults, that firm regulation, investments, and incentives must be established for people and businesses to do the right thing. And we must further recognize that we can’t go this alone. We need Government, with a capital ‘G’, and that means ‘G’ as in Global in addition to national. The US, for far too long, has been able to get away with insouciant and unconsidered behavior because we once were a superpower. We will henceforth be known as the last of the world’s superpowers. There will be no more superpowers, just as there will be no more Picassos. There will always be nations that have greater power, just as there will always be individuals who have greater influence. But no longer will there be a singular entity that can completely dominate and determine the direction of world commerce or culture.
What does this mean for us as a nation, and as individuals, then? It means that we have to become a team player. It means that we have to know our place in the world. It means that we have to not only compete, but cooperate. That’s what it means, at an extremely basic and fundamental level.
This ultimately ties back into deeper issues such as environmental stewardship, spirituality as opposed to religious fundamentalism, scientific advancement and technological development coupled with social progress, etc. But I’m not going to get into any of those wonderful issues at the moment because I’m beginning to get sleepy, and I’ve got another long week looming ahead of me. Due to my inability to post as frequently as I would like to, I’m going to begin utilizing WordPress’ nifty new function of sticking old posts up on my front page, so that you can see some selections of my old shit that I feel is worth perusing. Til next time, piiiiigs iiiin spaaaaaaace. . .
Identity. The schizophrenic fragmentation of postmodern relativism allayed into a collective of temporal disparities, a helixing bondage of singularities, a hyphenated straddling of cultures and unbound references and desires, all bolstered by the descendant nectar abstraction of capital, an ever evolving conception of divinity, the final distension of empire, bloodshed, one-dimensional identities, and coalescence. Black or white, good or evil morphed into uncertain spotted shadows of each other. The invisible movement of power from solid hierarchical entities into amorphous ladderings of pulleyed scales, splayed back and forth between paradigms.
Each one of us is many, our strengths discovered in our multiple outlets. Where we are weak we are shared, a node tangled into impenetrability. We are activists, we are CEOs, we are priests, we are Hollywood bimbos, we are Asian fused Californian Art Deco subway jazz, curry eating freedom fighters, graffiti installation curators, airbrushed, obese, horny, lonely, terribly powerfully unknowingly interconnected, interdependent, intravenous subterranean and astral projected sons of bitches. And how dare you tell me who you think I am.
I am a third generation Estadounidense Swede, an African hand drum player heavily influenced by classical Indian tabla masters, a habanero hot sauce addict, a WordPress.com weblog writing introvert, a fast runner, a master of housekeeping, a French herbal liqueur idolater, a hard worker, a listener of R&B, world folk music, jazz, fusion, hip hop, reggae, Latin, pop/rock, classical, electronic, shit man, don’t you see that I won’t be confined by even labels that I might come up with? None of us can be pinned down, nobody can be so easily quantified by data.
We have so much to share with each other. Our capabilities gather strength from collaborative interaction. I’ll teach you how to understand me. You’ll force me to grapple with your expectations. I’ll sit back and wait for the right time to speak. We’ll dance the night away.
I’ve been undergoing a mild case of “writer’s block” lately, wherein everything that I attempt to write just comes out flat or completely uninspired. Frustrating, because then it drives me to playing mahjongg instead of articulating deeper sentiment (mahjongg here being the virtual “bottle” in which to drown my woes).
One of the things I’ve been constantly trying to write about but having trouble clearly spelling out is my perspective on enacting progressive change. I’ve discussed elsewhere my evolving views on politics and economics, and I’ve been trying to find a way to more fully explicate my new views while still embracing, intellectually speaking, the perspectives which I’ve developed out of, such radicalism, anarchism, anti-globalization, postcolonialism, etc.
Rather than present a cohesive thesis, therefore, let me just discuss what my thought process is at the moment vis-a-vis these general topics and maybe I can work my way over the obstacles I’m currently facing just by talking it through.
I think what I’m finding is that I can still relate very well to viewpoints such as socialism and anarchism because such perspectives are ultimately humanist, in that there is an idealistic attempt to extricate humanity from what are perceived as inhuman and oppressive structures. There is still a lot of misunderstanding out there about what “anarchism” really means, and you can see this quite powerfully in The Dark Knight as depicted by the Joker, as one current example. People think of chaos, terror, pimply youth in black apparel heaving Molotov cocktails as an expression of aimless hormonal angst. But anarchism is not about chaos and terrorism: it is simply a philosophical rejection of the need for institutionalized systems of governance. Extending out of this are many disparate branches of anarchist philosophy, but that is its central tenet. Contrary to being a negative and nihilistic perspective, this is in actuality an extremely positivist take on human nature, in that anarchists believe that human society will run much more efficiently and naturally when not subsumed to overarching systems.
I was drawn to anarchist philosophy because of this deep humanism, and some anarchist writing is the most well-articulated writing out there on politics. You don’t feel like you are being talked down to. Go here and browse through the library to see for yourself. It isn’t much at all about violence or chaos. It’s about believing in a world that can be better than what we are taught to accept.
However, one of the problems with this perspective is in answering the question: well, how do we get from here to there? There are many different answers to that, some of which I will agree with, but ultimately, what one comes to understand is that holding the highest of ideals makes it extremely difficult to come to terms with the existing state of the world, generating anger, bitterness, and violence and/or apathy.
I will devolve into an oblique comparison here: in a long-term relationship with another human being, you come fairly quickly to realize that compromises must be made between you and your partner’s ideals in order to live together. If your ideals are too high, it may be that instead of coming to terms with the human reality of your partner and accepting them as they are, you are rejecting parts of them in order to try to fit or mold them to your ideals. These high expectations can blind you to the beauty of the person that already exists right before you, if you could allow them to be themselves rather than what you want them to be. You both can work together on developing towards the ideals that you share and cherish.
This does not mean that you should accept a drab reality. What I am getting at is that there is a process in working towards ideals. There must be development and evolution in order for ideals to become reality. Perfect harmony does not just fall into your lap without extensive effort. So one could feasibly hold anarchist philosophy as the ideal state of human society, but still work within and around existing government and market structures in seeking to achieve that ideal.
That is fairly self-evident, I suppose, but as I talked about in my other post, it seems to me that there are a lot of idealists out there who are constricted, rather than motivated, by their ideals.
In any case, even though I sympathize with the philosophy of anarchism and of radical thought in general, I ultimately feel that it is misguided. Anarchists and other philosophies of dissent rightly perceive that there are problems with institutional and market systems, but they wrongly perceive the correct redress as being a complete rejection of these systems. To use another obtuse analogy, it is like looking at a fan which doesn’t blow air very efficiently or equitably about a room, and deciding that the solution is to throw out the fan. While such a solution might appeal to instinct, it would make much more sense to attempt to analyze the failure of the fan and seek to alter, jerryrig, or otherwise upgrade to a whole new model.
To say this, however, doesn’t mean that one couldn’t choose to live ones life according to anarchist or other radical ideals. One has that right and capability. But what I am talking about is being involved in the greater community, and subsuming some of those ideals to accepted law and policy in order to extend greater influence.
Another issue I think I see with philosophies that reject existing market and government systems is that they are often mired in a mentality of a bygone era. We have come into a time, due to the unforeseen confluence of technology and rapid information dissemination and sharing, in which civil society and individuals as a whole have a power and command that they did not once have. Civil society thus is becoming evolutionarily enabled to play the critical part in balancing and restraining and guiding the efforts of institutions and markets in providing a fairer and more sustainable society. Demonstrators and protesters, even when not covered explicitly by the big media outlets, have a strength that corporations and governments have had to pay close attention to. Anti-globalization protesters, though misguided in their conclusions (multi-national corporations and interconnected markets = evil), have had a tremendous and positive impact on drawing attention to economic inequity and iniquitous barriers to trade. Similarly, the increased influence and power of “bloggers” has given big media a run for its money. Due to this increased power of civil society and of individual citizens, people are not simply oppressed workers underneath the inhumane strictures of the one-dimensional demand of capitalism. In collaboration—not opposition—with public policy, the legal system, and economic investments and incentives, civil society, government, and the economy can work in tandem to address the problems that exist in society.
This is not an argument against dissent or protest. What I’m attempting to get at is that the process of speaking up and getting involved and asking critical and probing questions is in fact a necessary and positive aspect of well-organized and functioning social systems. It is not a movement against the “system” or against the “machine” or whatever one chooses to call government and business structures: rather, it is a movement that enhances, collaborates, and guides these systems into greater harmony.
I have argued elsewhere for the need to view these systems in the sense of design, with a holistic, whole-systems approach. This is especially apparent when it comes to entrenched issues such as the current failure of many of our public schools to adequately and equally educate all our nation’s children, irregardless of race, class, or gender. Educational policy, on both a federal and state level, often nobly, but wrongly, attempts to tackle their problems solely within the confines of the classroom by initiating misguided programs that work to increase performance on standardized tests. Obviously, there are circumstances outside of the classroom that are critical to a child’s success, such as family, friends, and wider local community support, in addition to institutional programs. It will take a multifaceted approach, addressing not only education, but furthermore socio-economic conditions, access to information and technology, not to mention access to healthy, positive, inclusive environments and public spaces for children to study and play in.
Our schools have become effectively segregated due to the seemingly innocuous effort by well-to-do parents to place their children in “successful” schools. The successful schools being the ones with money and community support. It is thus apparent that investments must be made simultaneously not only in education and the public school system in general, but furthermore broader investments must be made in low income neighborhoods, to provide access to healthy public spaces, to provide access to technology and information, to provide smart planning for a sustainable future in employment, etc. The more that the middle class divides itself from the poor, the greater problems will become.
What is evident in an issue such as this is the approach that I am talking about: a whole systems, collaborative approach. Civil society must do its part to draw attention to the problems. Government must do its part to respond with effective and unbiased policy changes. The market must do its part with directed investments and innovative micro-businesses. What is apparent, to me at least, is that we can’t rely on any one of these systems to do the job for us. The market is not going to solve any of our problems unless we direct it and harness it with policy and incentives. Government will not update its policy or open up funding unless it has its attention drawn to the problem. Civil society, NGOs, citizen organizations must agitate, petition, utilize the media, and organize to focus on the problems.
Furthermore, policy making and business governance and legal affairs cannot be over-specialized. They can’t be compartmentalized and vivisected such that they can’t work effectively across the fields of public health, education, fiscal tuning, management philosophy, environmental departments, etc. They need to be able to unite and work within these fields all at once.
This kind of approach demonstrates that no matter what ones particular ideals may be, what is the most important is a pragmatic and responsive attention to the current climate and issues in our society. Putting our heads in the sand, whether due to reactionary or radical or centrist thought, is simply unacceptable. Good management, governance, and policy practices are forged by looking ahead to the future, constantly and consistently. Our future lies in our children. Whatever our beliefs may be, we all want our children to be healthy, to be successful, to have access to the resources that will empower and enable them. We want them to be educated, to be well fed, to be well read, to be sound of body and of mind. We want them to be positioned to respond effectively to reality, to be positioned for a market that looks ahead to sustainability.
The process, therefore, in achieving an equitable and sustainable future is determined by the collaborative interdependence of differing aspects of human identity, mind, infrastructures, and society. Only when these multiple points converge and work together are effective and positive changes made. It is misguided to focus ones efforts solely in rejection and opposition to existing systems. The more positive approach is to focus on working across boundaries to enact changes beneficial to all.
Phew. You can see why I’ve had trouble laying this out. It’s kind of a big mess in my mind. I’m working on getting this out in a more concise manner.
“As has been amply demonstrated in empirical studies, the nature of market outcomes are massively influenced by public policies in education and literacy, epidemiology, land reform, microcredit facilities, appropriate legal protection, etc., and in each of these fields there are things to be done through public action that can radically alter the outcome of local and global economic relations. It is this class of interdependences that have to be understood and utilized to alter the inequalities and asymmetries that characterize the world economy.” [My italics]
–Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny
“The bell jar [as described by Braudel, signifying the exclusivity of the capitalist sector of society] makes capitalism a private club, open only to a privileged few, and enrages the billions standing outside looking in. This capitalist apartheid will inevitably continue until we all come to terms with the critical flaw in many countries’ legal and political systems that prevents the majority from entering the formal property system. . .
Few seem to realize that what we have here is one huge, worldwide industrial revolution: a gigantic movement away from life organized on a small scale to life organized on a large one. For better or for worse, people outside the West are fleeing self-sufficient and isolated societies in an effort to raise their standards of living by becoming interdependent in much larger markets. . .
Like computer networks, which had existed for years before anyone thought to link them, property systems become tremendously powerful when they are interconnected in a larger network. . . .
Political blindness, therefore, consists of being unaware that the growth of the extralegal sector and the breakdown of the existing legal order are ultimately due to a gigantic movement away from life organized on a small scale toward one organized in a larger context. . .
The primary problem is the delay in recognizing that most of the disorder occurring outside the West is the result of a revolutionary movement that is more full of promise than of problems.”
De Soto’s insights are tantalizing: his essential message is that the poor are seeking to become a part of the larger market system, but are denied access through exclusive laws and fiscal policies. Faced with the inability to become a part of the global market, the poor then must operate within small-scale, community “extralegal” markets and negotiations. I have referred to this market activity, so visibly abundant and active within South America, as a “micro-economy,” not recognizing that this teeming market life was not necessarily included within the larger economy in a formal sense.
What I also like about De Soto’s vision is his recognition that the poor have always historically recognized the opportunities inherent in a larger market. The movement to urban centers during the Industrial Revolution is well documented, and the same movement is now occurring in developing countries daily. The poor innately recognize opportunity when they see it, and recognize that fundamentally, global markets can provide access to a wider network of capability and progress.
Of course, simply giving the poor land titles and opening up their economies to globalization does not necessitate a better life, due to the great imbalance of power and wealth in favor of developed nations and small populations within developing nations. De Soto’s simplistic diagnosis has thus been rightfully critiqued. But with corrected fiscal policy and global law, these imbalances can be addressed to become more inclusive. De Soto’s insights can very neatly be coupled with the insights provided by social entrepreneurs like Muhammad Yunus. With the tool of microcredit, the poor can be given the ability to become included within the wider market and use their properties as capital assets.
The wider the embrace of networks can become, the more powerful and effective they will be. A market that can include and embrace all of the teeming activity of the micro-economies of the poor (and thus raise them out of poverty) is a healthy and balanced market.
What I also appreciate about De Soto’s vision is his emphasis on the global movement towards interdependence. Accepting membership into a greater community is to shed a degree of self-sufficiency and isolation. There is a strong undercurrent within environmental activism as well as nationalist reactionaries towards self-sufficiency and isolationism. It is certainly important to have integrity and inner strength. But at a certain point, interdependence within greater networks provides a greater strength and resiliancy.
I can best phrase this within the context of death: when someone you are close to passes away, you can feel a humongous hole cut out from inside of you. It makes you realize just how interconnected you are with everyone else in your life, and of how illusory is the concept that you are alone and detached.
When acts of violence and terrorism are committed, they are best viewed as perverted and desperate attempts to become included into the networks that they have been excluded from. The answer, therefore, in fighting terrorism is not in utilizing weapons and occupations, but rather in fighting poverty, by seeking to include, in an effective and positive manner, the developing nations and those in extreme poverty into the global market and body politic.
It is no secret that those nations mired in extreme poverty harbor terrorists. So what should we do? Bomb them? Or seek to include them into the greater networks of which they so desperately want to become a part of and which they have been routinely denied. Isn’t the answer obvious?
In this day and age, as the perennial problems of humanity grow ever greater in the face of our increased global interconnectivity and environmental fragility, it becomes more evident that all of our problems are interrelated and cannot be solved without an enlightened holistic approach. We cannot tackle the problem of public health without tackling the problems of poverty, which cannot be tackled without confronting the issue of rampant hydrocarbon dependency, which cannot be conquered without resolving fundamental issues of human rights and freedom, and this goes on and on and on. It can also be phrased thus: we cannot ignore human rights abuses in Sudan, nor environmental degradation in China, for the cost will ultimately fall upon all of us.
While that may at first make resolving any of the major dilemmas humanity faces in the oncoming years of increased natural disaster and antibiotic resistant microbes seem especially daunting, these compounding converging problems in fact present us with opportunities to enact revolutionary structural changes that can work to harmonize disconnected and fragmented elements of humanity and bring them together in a greater, unifying global interconnection.
An example of this point could be taken quite literally down to the case of a human body. Our bodies eventually let us know when we have pushed them beyond their capacities of maintaining health, and some organ will fail, or a disease will take hold, or a heart will exhibit stress. At that point, we look at immediate symptoms and seek a means of addressing that sole symptom. Beyond that, however, we then seek to discover how to prevent a reoccurence of this problem, as well as to prevent other related issues springing from the same source, and we thus must seek manners of altering our lifestyles, our behaviors, and our perspectives in order to resolve more fundamental issues.
Our environment is letting us know that we are toeing the line–and may well have already significantly crossed–on the path to complete destabilization of all life supporting habitats. There is no doubt in the mind of any cognizant scientist, activist, politician, nor concerned citizen that we are facing some major problems due to global warming and widespread environmental stress. And so we are now looking at immediate ways to address these symptoms, such as by seeking alternative sources of energy, carbon emission cap and trades, and worldwide standards of environmental regulation. But as we begin to look beyond these immediate symptoms, we also begin to see that we must address even more fundamental issues in our societies, governments, economies, cultures, and perspectives, as they all stem from the same source.
So now is the time that we are really gaining the opportunity, as a human species, to deeply address issues that we have had since the birth of human consciousness, such as disparity between the rich and the poor, segregation and bigotry due to birth and appearance, and all other manifestations of hatred, division, and greed. Does that sound idealistic and glorifying of my own age and time? Undoubtedly. But what can also undoubtedly be stated is that the world we are living in, as of this writing, is a world quite unlike the world that it was a mere 50 years ago. We are globalizing, networking, trading, and traveling at an exponentially snowballing rate. And due to this global interconnection, all of our actions and behaviors become magnified in effect. So while once upon a time we were only destroying some land downstream, now we are destroying the entire globe. We cannot detach ourselves from the fate that we are creating. We cannot ignore the effect that our actions will have on our children.
Anyway, I could go on like this for a while. The point that I wanted to make is that all of these major problems that we are now facing can be seen as an opportunity for widespread positive change. Never before has humanity as a species been so positioned as to fundamentally address our disconnection from our planet, from each other, and from ourselves. The time is now.
I grew up with my momma cleaning up most of my scattered detritus after me. I’ve never been a terribly messy person, but I certainly wasn’t clean either. I considered myself organized because I would make piles in terms of accessibility: the most recent thing that I had just used would be on top, so I would know where to find something I used frequently.
Since then I’ve learned how to maintain cleanliness and organization. Having girls as roommates for a couple of years has helped, as they would yell at me about being messy until I started cleaning up after myself. Then after working in the housekeeping department for a few years, I developed a higher level of personal standards of organization and cleanliness, because I had to tell other people how to clean, and not only how to clean well, but furthermore why they should want to clean well. I would generally approach this issue from a philosophical standpoint regarding the broader issue of why working hard and applying yourself fully to work–no matter the given task–is a definitive life-skill.
I’m going to take the argument for why working hard is an important capability for everyone to have and broaden that concept a little more to introduce the idea that how we think, act, and organize ourselves in our private lives is deeply and intimately related to how we develop and achieve our goals professionally. This might seem simple to you in concept, but in reality not many people really make that connection. So let me see what I can make of it.
Clean Up, Organize, and Maintain Your Life
Yeah, I know. This is sounding like a self-help, motivational thing all of a sudden. But sometimes hearing it from other people is refreshing, because I can tell ya, hearing it from myself is refreshing. Look, you need to clean up after yourself. And I’m not just talking about your dishes or your clothes. I’m talking about behind your couch, behind the toilet, underneath the sink, those boxes full of junk in the attic. Every inch of living space that you leave to fester unattended is representative of a space within yourself. If you have a tendency to hoard things and allow them to pile up until it overruns your living area, then guess what? Chances are quite good that you allow emotional baggage in your life, both professionally and personally, to build up until they affect and infect your everyday existence as well.
Obviously, there’s differing levels of maintenance required, dependent on high and low traffic areas. But it’s all ultimately part of a whole. You’ve got to get a handle on the whole thing in order to know that you are on top of it, and the only way you can do that is by starting now in tackling all the areas that you’ve been pushing away and allowing to sit unattended. Once you’ve done a “deep clean”, or “spring clean” or whatever you want to call it, then you can settle back into the daily routine of doing your dishes, picking up your clothes, vacuuming your carpet, etc, and simply doing semi-deeper cleans periodically. But every single space, outer and inner, top to bottom, must be accounted for if you want to get your life in order.
Don’t believe me? I don’t got no psychology degree, but I can tell you that cleaning (please only use non-toxic cleaners!) is indeed therapy. We reflect our living environments. There are some things that we can’t control, like the guy on the subway who curses us for no good reason, or the pinecone that fell on top of our head right as we walked underneath it. But in the areas of our lives that are under our control, it is imperative that we empower ourselves to organize and maintain those areas in order to allow ourselves to develop.
I’m not saying to be OCD about it. But I’m letting you know that allowing your baggage to build up and sit for years in a corner is equivalent to effectively blinding yourself to your own problems, even as they culminate to become a visible monster, visible to everyone except yourself.
This baggage, this junk, this dirt, mildew, mold, mice, and other assorted benefits of laxness will manifest itself in your life in terms of your relationships and work life as well. You will be the person who never moves upward in job responsibility, who never moves forward in a relationship. You will be the person who wants to ignore their own hand in their failure to achieve. You will be the person whose computer runs so slow that it’s basically an Apple IIe in boot time.
Present Yourself Well to Everyone
We like to think that when it comes to friends that we can let our guards down and just let it all hang out, without being judged or condemned. But in fact, it is often our friends that are our harshest critics–for the very reason that they have greater insight into our lives and how we live it. Unfortunately, our friends don’t often want to tell us straightforwardly their criticisms, and so we rarely get the feedback from the people that are best capable of giving us that feedback. Instead, we get that critical feedback from strangers or hostile acquaintances, and by then, we aren’t really positioned to listen to them.
It’s important that we present ourselves well to everyone, from strangers to family members. Everyone judges. It’s human nature. We aren’t saints–we use our brains and our eyeballs and we compare and contrast other people with ourselves. With friends and family members, we CAN let our guards down, and we know that we can always come back to open arms. But only to a certain point. You see, if you keep acting like an inconsiderate slob or snob around a loved one, at some point, they will get fed up with it. And no matter how much someone may like you for your wit and company, they will probably not recommend you to their employer when you are looking for a job if you walk around all day with the crack of your ass showing. You can’t take your friends and family for granted. In fact, you shouldn’t take anyone for granted. You should treat every single person in your day with the same respect. Because it all comes back to you.
And another point here is that appearance is related to integrity. That ties in with my overall theme, which is that your personal life ties in intimately with your professional life. The way you look, the way you talk, the way you think. How you lead your private life has repercussions on the way your interactions on the street and on the job go. Call it karma, call it do-unto-others-as-they-would-do-unto-you, call it what you like. Just recognize that everything you do is related to everyone else, and that people may not be able to see who you are in your fundamental being, being as it are that they are not saints, don’t really give a shit about you, and have enough to deal with in their own lives, BUT, even completely random strangers on the street get a vibe from you. People in your workplace get a feeling from the way you talk, the way you carry yourself. Your friends know you for certain qualities. Your family jokes about how you always did this and that as a tyke. Who you are and what you do are unimpeachably interrelated.
Take All Criticism Into Consideration
I kind of went into this point a little bit above when I talked about how even the closest of friends can be your harshest critics. But sometimes a complete stranger will criticize you. Sometimes it will be your boss at work. And you will want to say “fuck you” and disregard everything they said to you. And that’s completely understandable, and in certain situations, that is exactly what you should do. However, there are also many times when you should be listening. Criticism, especially when it occurs on the job, should be taken as constructive, even when it sounds harsh and demeaning. Some managers simply aren’t good people, aren’t good managers, and don’t know how to communicate well with different people. But they are trying to get something across. And sometimes your friends, family, and even complete strangers are as well.
Taking a criticism of yourself into consideration does not weaken you unless you feel that it is so valid that you can’t see any way of answering it. So you need to take it head on. Let yourself be challenged. Take every criticism as a lesson from a teacher, and see how you can use it to develop yourself and make yourself stronger.
It’s like on American Idol. Paula Abdul thinks she’s everyone’s friend. She’s not. Simon Cowell is the one to listen to. He is honest, to the point of being brutal. If you did a shitty job, he will tell you that you did a shitty job, while Paula blathers on about dreams and how wonderful you are. If the contestant listens to Paula, and shuts out Simon, then he/she is most likely just about to be voted off the show. Simon may be harsh, but he is attempting to provide constructive criticism that should be taken into consideration if the artist wants to develop and progress.
Sometimes people just don’t phrase it to you in the right ways so that it can slip in past your ego. So you need to just drop your ego sometimes and really listen to other people when they critique you. Let yourself be judged. Learning to wade through other people’s problems and picking out what is of use to you and what drags you down is how you grow. Often in the midst of the bricolage of someone elses’ jealousy, desire, rage, and anguish is a gem of constructive criticism that is waiting to be taken into your consideration and worked on.
Alright, so I think I am just about cleaned out on any further burning nuggets of wisdom that I feel the need to bestow on you right now. I’ll plop out any new ones as they come along. I’ve still got a lot of growing and learning to do myself, but I’ve been thinking about these particular things that I’ve learned as I’ve been coming up against extreme change in my life, both professionally, emotionally, spatially, and otherwise.
I sometimes wonder how technology has transformed our development and everyday lives. For instance, the generation preceding mine grew up utilizing typewriters or just writing by hand; I grew up writing on a computer. Even that little difference is quite monumental, when you think about it. With computers, we can backspace. We can mouse up a paragraph earlier and revise a whole sentence in the space of a few seconds. We can spellcheck and autocorrect. We don’t have to worry about typing precisely, accurately, and with correct grammar and spelling as we type. This must affect not only the flow of our written language, but even, perhaps, our very processing of thought. Writers like Faulkner perhaps derived their drunken ecstatic run-on sentencing from the creative flow that was generated by the sense of forging onward on a typewriter, with no turning back.
I think written language on a computer is in some sense more loose, immediate, and both more improvised and edited. Of course, you can write any way you want on a keyboard. But when you have the option of re-editing everything you’ve just written, even as you write it, in any way possible with no consequences, and you can continuously save it as you go along, then I’m sure that that must in some way change the overall manner with which everyone approaches their writing.
Taking this idea further, think of how computers have affected memory. We maybe have 3 or 4 photos of our grandparents or parents when they were kids. Now we have whole harddrive disks worth of videos and pictures of our children. They are well documented. They have websites. People oggle over their niece and nephews on YouTube. Think of how this will change how these children perceive themselves: perhaps they will have a stronger sense of identity. They will have their memories enhanced with footage and soundbytes.
Furthermore, our memories are enhanced with blogging and email. I personally utilize this blog not only for the purpose of catharsis, fostering a sense of connection with my greater community and with myself, but furthermore to remember. I have a terrible memory. But now I have a reference point for my emotional, creative, political, and philosophical developments. I can scroll backwards through time and see where I was at 5 years ago and compare it to where I’m at now.
Our relationships are also enhanced by computing. We can have immediate updates on our friends, families, and random acquaintances (sometimes with much more information than we need to know). You can find out that your friend in Peru just barfed on a street corner an hour ago on her birthday from your Facebook account. You check up on your friend Manderson on his blog and see that he’s in NYC and looking desperately for a job. You can IM some random girl from high school that you don’t even remember that found you on MySpace and ask how her experience in grad school is. Our intimate personal lives are now catalogued on Google search. We connect to each other through cellphones, videoconferencing, Skype, and all the other assorted candies of the technology spectrum. Our grandmothers are talking to us over the computer. Our grandfathers are buying collector’s rifles on-line and chatting with other old farts about them on discussion boards. Our dads are checking their Hotmail 24/7. Our children are looking up porn and playing video games. It’s one big happy interconnected networking family.
And video games: that’s another thing to consider. Perhaps this phenomena of “ADD” is really just a reflection of the different development that is occurring due to all the new stimuli of our technology. Maybe it’s not a disorder, it’s just multi-tasking in our brains so well that we can no longer learn via conventional, non-technological means. I don’t know. Discuss amongst yourselves.
At every stage in the evolution of the human species, when we develop tools with greater and greater capabilities of empowerment, we also gain the capability of greater destruction, and vice versa. Every sword is double-sided, every tool a weapon. An airplane as the most accurate of guided missiles. Misguided youth and passion strapped with shrapnel, the stealthiest of dirty bombs. Every versatile development of intelligence bends alternately to creation or destruction—the greater the power, the greater the atrocity.
Yet in order to develop, we must chance our ultimate demise. There is no advancement without struggle. There is no progress upward without the danger of falling. This applies to all of mankind, as well as to the individual existence. The alternate threat and promise of extinction is what drives us to create. To distinguish ourselves from inconscient matter, to approach the flame of divinity, to grasp at it with groveling, greedy fingers of competing awarenesses, until we discover, the hard way, that we are all of each other, all of the light that we seek, all of the matter that we shed.
So on the way to this discovery we slaughter, we suffer, we sear our desperate imperfections across the face of the earth, spreading the disease of despair and hollow complacency with a missionary zeal that results only in complementary rage and anger, in blind lashing-outs by voices bound by their own inarticulate tongues of selfishness. This sickening beauty of humanity, the terrible power of our destiny. Killing ourselves to know of ourselves, so that we may better live alongside of our silences. The way Miles Davis kills everything around him for that solid punch of harmony in the midst of chaos. Creating the space for momentary beauty to shine out of its darkened backdrop of everything.
Not every flower will find the outward sun. But every form of life, whether fallen to the earth for sustenance to the hunger of the future, or rooted into the highest of heights, holds within the seed of bliss, the joyful dance of incomplete perfection. For not any one thing could ever exist without the other.