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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A Lesson from Thomas Friedman


Like many Americans, I have spent much of the past 18 months trying to understand what is happening in the United States since the reins of government were turned over to Donald Trump and his collaborators in the Republican Party.  We have gone from laughing at their gaffes, staring wide-eyed at their lies (even as it became clear that the lies were intentional and not simply the products of ignorance or naivete), and bowing our heads in anger and shame at their treatment of others, whether they be fellow citizens suffering in the wake of Puerto Rico’s hurricanes or Hispanic families seeking refuge from turmoil in their homelands.  This week’s “no tolerance” policy that separates migrant families, putting thousands of children into make-shift concentration camps, has marked a new low, not just for Trump and his gang, but for our country as a whole.  As we sink further into the mire of racial hate and economic war, we need to turn away from the spectacle and look for solutions.  We need to ask what it will take for our country to regain its honor.
            While one Gallup Poll reported this week that Trump’s popularity rose to 45%--on a par with other presidents at this point in their first administration—CNN’s new poll showed him at 39%, down from 41% in May.  That suggests (although we have no idea what the current humanitarian crisis over separating children from migrant parents may do) that Trump’s popularity with the base population that elected him is holding fast.  Looking ahead, it is almost impossible to imagine how to respond to Trump without knowing more about the underlying issues that drive his core support and what is needed to lead us to the changes that, very obviously, are needed.
            Thomas Friedman’s 2016 book, Thank You for Being Late, explores some dimensions of the problems that we don’t hear about on the nightly news.  Friedman describes two kinds of change:  technological and social.  Technological change evolves rapidly, doubling its power and reach every few years.  Imagine, for instance, what has happened technologically in the two decades since the first web browser was launched in 1995 and compare that innovation with today’s cloud computing!  It is difficult, Friedman notes, to capture “the transformational nature of what has been created.”  The result, he says, is “a tremendous release of energy into the hands of human beings to compete, design, think, imagine, connect, and collaborate with anyone anywhere” (p. 83).   This same force has greatly multiplied the power of one person to change society, but it is also amplifying what Friedman calls “the power of many.”  “Human beings,” he reports, “as a collective are not just a part of nature; they have become a force of nature—a force that is disturbing and changing the climate and our planet’s ecosystems at a space and scope never before seen in human history” (p. 87).  However, Friedman also notes that social change takes place at a much slower pace than technological change.  At some point, the speed of technological change outpaces our ability to adapt to it, creating social disruption and leaving some people behind as others race to catch up.
            It forces the question:  Where do people whose training and experience are with the technology and industrial models of the older technology fit into this new world?  That is a question that is critical for people who work in mining and traditional industrial communities around the nation.  Most of these people are descended from people who came to the United States from northern Europe in the 19th and early 20th century.  They have been told by political opportunists that new immigrants challenge their right to good jobs.  However, the real problem is that those jobs are no longer available to anyone.  Change has created a new working environment for everyone.
            Friedman acknowledges that gap between the pace of technological change and social change is a cause of serious concern and anxiety, especially in the political realm.  “It is time,” he concludes, “to redouble our efforts to close that anxiety gap with imagination and innovation and not scare tactics and simplistic solutions that will not work” (p. 202). 
            Part of the solution is a societal commitment to lifelong education that will help all members of society to keep pace with technological change so that they can continue to thrive in a rapidly evolving environment.  We need to acknowledge that, even with a commitment to universal K-14 education, this only prepares students to find their skills.  At the same time, we need to acknowledge that, as Friedman notes, an undergraduate degree simply prepares a grad for his/her first job.  Education must become a lifelong resource to help people adjust their careers to changing circumstances and then to an active role in the community after retirement.
            Beyond that, Friedman argues that, in order to keep pace with technology-related change, we need to innovate “in everything other than technology.”  He writes:
“It is reimagining and redesigning your society’s workplace, politics, geopolitics, ethics, and community—in ways that will enable more citizens on more days in more ways to keep pace with how these accelerations are reshaping their lives and generate more stability as we shoot through these rapids” (p. 199).

            At the end of the day, the issue is not returning to a long-lost past but learning to innovate as individuals and communities to create a new social environment that can prosper in a world in which humans—and their technology—are a force of nature.   

Thursday, May 10, 2018

A Lesson from Wendell Berry

I just finished reading The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry’s 1974 novel that traces the experiences of an old farmer in Port William, Kentucky, the site of many Berry novels about life in an agrarian community.  At the end, he has this to say about how farming communities have changed over the past century:

Wheeler has been thinking about them and about the troubles that probably lie ahead of them:  an increasing scarcity of labor as more and more of the country people move to the cities; the  consequent necessity for further mechanization of the farms; the consequent need of the farmers for more land and more capital in order to survive; the consequent further departure of the labor force from the country; the increasing difficulty of preserving an agricultural economy favorable to small farmers as political power flows from the country to the cities. (p. 163)

            Much has happened since Berry published this in 1974, nearly half a century ago.  Many of the consequences that he identified have come to fruition as the Industrial Revolution has given way to the Information Revolution and the growth of a global information society.  In 2014, Berry observed this in an essay called “Our Deserted Country”:

By now nearly all of the land-using population have left their farms and home places to be industrially or professionally employed, or unemployed, and to be entirely dependent on the ways and the products of industrialism. Or they have remained, as “farmers,” to pilot enormous machines over thousands of acres continuously in annual row crops such as soybeans and corn. (Our Only World, p. 111)

            It is a fact of life in the Information Society that we are now globally connected.  One consequence has been to make more tenuous our ties to truly local communities.  Yes, those fields of soybeans are meant to be sold in great numbers to China and elsewhere around the world.  Yes, our industries require workers who live in or near our industrial cities.  In the process, though, we have lost that sense of identity—our intimate familiarity—with our immediate surroundings. Even those of us whose forebears were coal miners and mill workers—who have not had the multi-generational familial relationship to the land that Berry cherishes—are increasingly aware of the problem.  It is one reason why we flock to weekly farmers’ markets and to “farm to table” restaurants.  
            In Our Only World, Berry notes that “if the land and the people are ever to be saved, they will be saved by local people enacting together a proper respect for themselves and their places.  They can do this only in ways that are neighborly, convivial, and generous, but also and in the smallest details, practical and economic.”  (p.63)  He goes on to lay out a dozen “suggestions” for how to achieve this:

1.         Reject the idea that “the ultimate reality is political” and, thus, that solutions must be political.

2.         Avoid “standardized industrial solutions” unless they are based in an understanding of the uniqueness of every place.

3.         Replace ideals of competitition, consumption, globalism, corporate profitability, mechanical efficiency, technological change, and upward mobility with reverence, humility, affection, familiarity, neighborliness, corporation, thrift, appropriateness, and local loyalty.

4.         Understand that the solution to big problems may best be found in individual families, and local communities.

5.         Understand the importance of subsistence economies.

6.         Rethink the structure and cost of higher education, so that debt does not take young people  away from their communities.

7.         Ensure that local communities know how much of the land is locally owned and available for local needs and uses.

8.         Understand and act on the local need for local products.

9.         Have local conversations about how best to meet local needs.

10.       Understand the implications of “labor-saving” technologies that, in fact are “people- replacing” technologies.   Ensure that land-using economies are led by skilled and careful        workers.

11.       Make sure that local people who do the actual work are supported. 

12.       Confront social prejudice against people who work the land.

            Berry makes important points about how to sustain agrarian communities.  At the same time, however, I would argue that it is important to keep in mind that we have, indeed, entered a new era.  While family farms are one key to strengthening small, rural communities, we need to acknowledge that jobs in coal mining and factories on which many small communities were built are not coming back.  Most communities need to attract new jobs.  In many cases, the supply chains for these jobs will be tied to the new global, multi-cultural society that has developed around information society.  To succeed, we need to educate our young people for the work of the future so that they can create a new sense of community—one that recognizes the importance of local culture in a context that the economy will support in the future.  The challenge is to build true and sustainable local cultures that also embrace and maintain bridges to the emerging global culture and economy.  It is a challenge for our schools and for local and state governments and for individual citizens as we live our daily lives.  

Monday, April 30, 2018

General Education for the Global Information Society


Earlier this spring Inside Higher Education  reported that the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point was planning to close19 degree programs in 13 undergraduate majors, including traditional liberal arts majors like English, history, and all three foreign languages that it currently offers.  The decision was tied to a need to better position the campus to attract new students.  As the proposed restructuring document, Re-Imagining Our Curriculum for the Future, noted, “UW-Stevens Point has reached a moment in which the elimination of under-enrolled majors is the only realistic way to repair our budget and simultaneously fund the creation and expansion of programs with higher student demand.”
            The closing of liberal arts majors is a very important development.  It affects many faculty positions at the campus and the campus’s ability to attract high school graduates into its baccalaureate programs.  The change also has implications for general education—what the Stevens Point calls its “core liberal arts curriculum.” The report notes:
We must resist the false choice between providing a broad, well-rounded education or narrow professional and vocational pathways. As one strategy, we will reimagine traditional liberal arts majors for students seeking applied learning to improve their career potential. Second, we will strengthen our core liberal arts curriculum. Preparing students for engaged citizenship, ensuring that they graduate as broadly educated and well-rounded lifelong learners, and equipping them with the kinds of professional skills that we know are essential for career success in any field—these are things we owe to all students regardless of major.

            Stevens Point is not alone in wanting to re-envision its general education program.  At Cornell University, a committee has worked for two years to develop a plan to re-invigorate the 15-year old general education program of its College of Arts and Sciences.  Their final report notes that “the defining experience of the college’s liberal arts program is the opportunity to explore the breadth of our collective knowledge to inform, contextualize, and enhance studies beyond that final specialization.”  It goes on to recommend replacing the standard “breadth and depth” distribution model with a more simplified approach, in which all students would be required to take one course from each of ten categories:
            Arts and Literature
            Biological Sciences
            Ethics and the Mind
            Global Citizenship
            Historical Analysis
            Human Difference
            Physical Sciences
            Science of Society
            Statistics and Data Science
            Symbolic and Mathematical Reasoning

            In addition, students would take a first-year writing program and a “community-engaged learning” course, which might fall within with new Human Difference and Global Citizenship categories.  College Dean Gretchen Ritter, who charged the committee back in 2016, noted that “ . . . the importance of understanding human difference and exploring what it means to be a global citizen—as well as how data science integrates with a variety of disciplines—widens the breadth and complements our core disciplines.”
            At Reed College, student protest has led to reconsideration of Humanities 110, a foundational, team-taught humanities course required of all first-year students.  A student protest group, “Reedies Against Racism,” argued that the course was too focused on white, male, European perspectives.  The revised version will include four modules based on different historical eras and geographic locations, allowing faculty to address a range of humanistic questions through events and literature of different cultures, times, and places.
            My alma mater, Penn State University, will this summer and fall implement a new six-credit “integrative studies” requirement for its general education program. As the university’s website  notes, “The General Education curriculum will enable students to acquire skills, knowledge, and experiences for living in interconnected contexts, so they can contribute to making life better for others, themselves, and the larger world.”  More than 40 “inter-domain” courses in diverse colleges have been approved to meet this requirement thus far.  Colleges may also offer “linked” courses that meet the standard.
Defining the Purpose of General Education
            These examples suggest that there is more behind the current interest in general education than budgetary constraints or wanting to appeal to a new generation of students.  It is perhaps better seen as part of a broader change as higher education adapts to new dimensions of the society it serves.  In The Meaning of General Education (Teachers College Press, 1988), I surveyed the evolution of general education from the early days of the Industrial Revolution through the first three quarters of the twentieth century, drawing on the ideas of Alexander Meikeljohn, Robert Maynard Hutchins, John Dewey, and others, as well as curricular innovations at Yale University, the University Wisconsin, Columbia University, Bennington College, Sarah Lawrence, the University of Minnesota, and Harvard University.  The result was the following description of a guiding vision for general education:
General education is a comprehensive, self-consciously developed and maintained program that develops in individual students the attitude of inquiry; the skills of problem-solving; the individual and community values associated with a democratic society; and the knowledge needed to apply these attributes, skills, and values so that the students may maintain the learning process over a lifetime and function as self-fulfilled individuals and as full participants in a society committee to change through democratic processes.  As such, it is marked by its comprehensive scope, by its emphasis on specific and real problems and issues of immediate concern to students and society, by its concern with the needs of the future, and by the application of democratic principles in the methods and procedures of education as well as the goals of education. (p. 5)

            As we look ahead, it is worth noting that the general education curriculum as we have tended to see it over the years, reflects higher education’s response to the massive changes brought about by the start of the Industrial Revolution almost two centuries ago. As the new economy emerged, colleges and universities added research to their mission and greatly diversified their curricula to include majors in business, engineering, and technology, as well as the new social sciences—social psychology and sociology, for instance—that emerged from the social challenges brought about by immigration and urbanization.  It also stimulated new institutional arrangements, as universities organized themselves around disciplines, resulting in academic departments, schools, and colleges based on an ever-increasing array of academic specialties.  This organizational structure led to the distribution model, a way of introducing students to the range of subjects taught at the institution.  The model tended to be reinforced by the institution’s budget model, which distributed funds back to departments based on the number of courses offered and students enrolled.  General education courses attract larger student enrollments, which helps to fund graduate teaching assistant positions, which, in turn, supports the graduate program, etc.   Moving general education away from the distribution model could have broad implications for how the overall academic endeavor is supported.  Thus, institutions tend to innovate cautiously.  A recent report from the American Association of Colleges and Universities notes that “general education redesign is growing as a priority” among member institutions and that “AAC&U member institutions are as likely to use the distribution model for their general education programs today as in the past, though nearly all use other integrative features in combination with a distribution model.” 
            That said, it is also important to recognize that, if one role of general education is to prepare students to participate effectively as citizens and professionals, we must acknowledge that today’s institutions are being re-shaped by another revolution—the global information society that has emerged in the 21st century.  As the “Reedies” at Reed College argued, it is no longer sufficient to prepare students to live in a white, Euro-centric Western Civilization; today’s students must be prepared to be effective citizens and professional leaders in a global culture.  How institutions define the scope and depth of general education experiences in the humanities, philosophy, and history will have a major impact on how well their graduates are prepared to live, work, and thrive in a truly global information society.  We need to ask how important it will be to our students’ future to know about the social, philosophical, and scientific implications of artificial intelligence, quantum physics, and other building blocks of the next generation of the information society.  We are entering a generation of innovation in this arena.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Power of OERs: A Lesson from Thomas Paine


OERs—Open Educational Resources—are a hot topic these days among educational technologists.   They first came to international attention when a small group of educators, meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, called on educators to join a “worldwide effort to make education both more accessible and more effective.”  The Cape Town Declaration has since been signed by more than 2,500 institutions around the world.  As a step toward a more open educational environment, the declaration calls on institutions
to release their resources openly. These open educational resources should be freely shared through open licenses which facilitate use, revision, translation, improvement and sharing by anyone. Resources should be published in formats that facilitate both use and editing, and that accommodate a diversity of technical platforms. Whenever possible, they should also be available in formats that are accessible to people with disabilities and people who do not yet have access to the Internet.

          This week, I came across a much earlier example of an OER.  In his book The Written Word (Random House, 2017), Martin Puchner examines the impact of the written word across history, from the cuneiform-based Tales of Gilgamesh to the social impact of the Harry Potter books.  After reading about the history of writing over four thousand years, I was taken aback when Puchner got to the American colonies in 1776.  In those days, broadsides (single folio-sized pages printed on one side) and pamphlets—three folio-sized pages folded twice to produce a 48-page booklet—were an inexpensive way to distribute information. 
            By 1776, some 400 pamphlets on various subjects had been published in the colonies.  That year, about six months before the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin helped Thomas Paine to produce another one.  It was called Common Sense.  Franklin printed a first run of 100.  However, Paine did something revolutionary.  As Puchner describes it, “he not only forwent all royalties but also renounced his copyright, giving any printer the right to publish the pamphlet”
(p. 219).  As a result, they sold 153,000 copies of Common Sense in the first year alone, becoming, as David McCullough would observe in his history 1776 (Simon and Schuster, 2005), “more widely read than anything yet published in America” (p. 250). 
            In July, the Declaration of Independence would be distributed as a broadside on a single folio page.  Puchner notes, “As the cheapest vehicles for spreading new ideas, broadsides and pamphlets had contributed to the climate of democratic unrest among the colonists” (ibid.)
            In December 1776, as the Revolution became a difficult military campaign, Paine wrote The Crisis, the first in a series of pamphlets known as The American Crisis.  George Washington ordered it to be read to the troops at Valley Forge.  It begins, “These are the times that try men’s souls.  The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”  As Jill Lepore reports in The New Yorker, John Adams later wrote of Paine, "Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain."

Monday, April 9, 2018

Immigration: Just the Facts

        Lately, the news has been filled with all sorts of statements and proposals related to immigration. I have been hoping that one of the news networks would produce a special report to give us the facts, rather than simply sharing perspectives on the issues.  However, failing that, I went looking online forsome facts.  The Pew Research Foundation has published several pieces.  Here are links:
Five Key Facts about U.S. Lawful Immigrants  first published on August 3, 2017.
5 Facts about Illegal Immigration in the U.S.  first published on November 18, 2014, but updated for the web publication.
updated March 18, 2018.
This blog will look at what these reports tell us. 
A Historical Perspective
            First, though, let’s take a look back to the period between 1890 and 1920, when immigration was a major concern.  Prior to 1892, individual states regulated immigration, but with the opening of Ellis Island, the U.S. established its first federal immigration center.  In the 1890s, immigration was at a low point due to a financial depression.  When the depression ended, immigration grew rapidly, reaching a high of 9 million in the first decade of the 20th century.  The majority came from countries like Italy, Poland, Russia, and other eastern European countries that had not been major sources of immigrants in the 19th century and that did not share the culture and language of the majority of U.S.-born residents at the time.  They came for economic opportunity, but also to escape political and culture conflict in their home countries.   Many of these new immigrants stayed in the cities rather than moving to farms or the now-closed frontier.   They staffed our steel mills and factories.  Russian Jews re-invented American entertainment.  However, in many ways, it was a tough time to be an immigrant.  The derogatory terms that people used with these immigrants stayed with their descendants through the 1950s.  It was only in the 1960s—as the grandchildren of the immigrants gained adulthood—that they lost the hyphens and became simply Americans. 
Facts About Legal Immigration
            Pew Research Center author D’Vera Cohn writes that today, using 2015 data, there are nearly 44 million foreign-born residents in the United States.  This is 13.4% of the total population, down just a bit from the historic high of 14.8% in 1890 (when the total foreign-born population was 9.2 million).   Of the 44 million foreign-born residents in 2015:
·      33.8 million are lawful immigrants.
o   Of these, 19.8 million hold U.S. citizenship,
o   11.9 million are lawful permanent residents who do not hold citizenship,
o   2.1 million are temporary lawful residents.
·      11 million are unauthorized immigrants.
The Pew Research Center reported these five facts about lawful immigrants:
1.     One million immigrants receive lawful permanent resident status—i.e., a green card—every year, which puts them on a path to citizenship; the majority (57%) of people who get green cards already live in the U.S. on temporary visas.
2.     Lawful immigrants are most likely to come from Asia (29% in 2013), Europe and Canada (16%), and the Caribbean (12%).
3.     Lawful immigrants tend more to be concentrated in metropolitan areas than is the case with the general population, with New York and Los Angeles having the largest numbers.
4.     Lawful immigrants are more likely to be of working age (18 to 64 years) than people born in the U.S.  Lawful immigrants make up 12% of U.S. residents who were working or looking for work in 2014.  They account for 20% of farming, fishing, and forestry workers, but only 9% of office and administrative support workers. 
5.     Not all lawful immigrants who are eligible to apply for citizenship do so.  While 67% of lawful immigrants eligible to apply for citizenship had obtained it by 2015, there are sharp differences based on country of origin.  For instance, only 42% of eligible Mexican lawful immigrants had obtained citizenship by 2015, compared with 83% of immigrants from the Middle East.
Facts About Illegal Immigration
            In their article , Jens Manuel Krogstad, Jeffrey S. Passel, and DeVera Cohn of the Pew Research Center provided these five facts about unauthorized immigration:
1.     Unauthorized immigration saw a “small but statistically significant” decline between 2009 and 2015.  Unauthorized immigrants represented 3.4% of the total U.S. population in 2015, compared with 4% in 2009.
2.     The percentage of Mexicans among unauthorized immigrants appears to be on the decline—about 5.6 million in 2015, compared to 6.4 million in 2009.  Numbers from Asia and Central America increased during the same time, offsetting the decline in numbers from Mexico and South America.
3.     5% of the U.S. civilian workforce—about 8 million people—are unauthorized immigrants.  This percentage has held fairly constant since 2009.  These unauthorized immigrants are over-represented in farming (25%) and construction (15%).  They are outnumbered by U.S.-born workers in all industries and occupations.
4.     Most unauthorized workers live in six states: California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois.  Seven states saw declines in the number of unauthorized immigrants.  Six states saw increases:  Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington.  In all but one case (Louisiana), the increases were from countries other than Mexico.
5.     Increasingly, unauthorized immigrants have lived in the U.S. for at least a decade.  Two-thirds (66%) of adult unauthorized immigrants had been in the U.S. that long in 2014, compared to 41% in 2005.  The report notes that “only 7% of Mexican unauthorized immigrants had been in the U.S. for less than five years in 2014, compared with 22% of those from all other countries.”
Immigration Policy Issues
            The thirdPew posting,  authored by Jens Manuel Krogstad and Anna Gonzalez-Barrera of the Pew Center, provides background on some of the policy issues that are now in the news. 
·      Family-based Immigration—sometimes called “chain migration”—is the most common way for an immigrant to get a green card.  In FY 2016, just over 800,000 people were approved for lawful permanent residence because they already have a relative (parent, sibling, spouse, or child) with U.S. citizenship living in the country.  Under current law, any one country may account for no more than 7% of all green cards in a given year.  Currently, the Trump Administration is proposing to limit family-based green cards to spouses and minor children.  The Senate has a bill that would allow for a limited number of green cards through a “skills-based point system.”
·      Refugee Admission – The U.S. has reduced the total number of refugee admissions over the past two years.  In FY 2016, 84,995 refugees were admitted; in FY 2017, this dropped to 53,716; in FY 2018, admissions were capped at 45,000, which is the lowest number since the program was created in 1980.  In 2017, the Trump Administration froze admissions from 11 countries; that was discontinued in January 2018.
·      Employment-Based Green Cards – In FY 2016, 137,893 green cards were issues to foreign workers and their families.  A Senate Bill proposed replacing the current eligibility criteria with a point system.  One feature of the proposed system is to eliminate a green card for immigrants who invest money in commercial enterprises that are intended to create jobs or benefit the economy.
·      Diversity Visas – This is also called “the visa lottery.”  Each year, about 50,000 people get green cards through this system, which is designed to diversify the immigrant population.  The lottery is not available to legal immigrants from countries like Mexico, Canada, China, and India that generate high numbers of immigrants.  The Trump Administration has said it wants to eliminate the program.
·      H-1B Visas – This program provides temporary visas for highly skilled workers. In FY 2016, it provided visas for 180,057 workers—about 24% of all temporary visas.  While Congress has made efforts over several years to expand the program, the Trump Administration is considering restricting the number of years that a foreign worker can hold a H-1B visa.
·      DACA – This stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. As of September 5, 2017, it allowed about 700,000 unauthorized immigrants who came to the country as children to have temporary work permits and protection from deportation.  The Trump Administration ended the program in September 2017.
·      Temporary Protected Status – Under this program, immigrations from ten nations have temporary visa protection as victims of war and natural disasters.  The Trump Administration has indicated it will not renew the program for people from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan—who constitute 76% of enrolled immigrants.
Some Thoughts
            The facts suggest several things.  While the facts suggest that Mexicans are not storming over the southern border to sell drugs, it is worth noting that the southern border is an entry point for refugees from Central American countries.  Americans should be asking two questions related to the proposed “wall.”  First, how do we effectively halt illegal drug smuggling?  Second, how can we best respond to an ongoing crisis in Central America that is sending refugees north to the U.S.?
            Second, we should ask how we can use immigration laws to encourage immigration by workers who are most needed for the U.S. economy.  This includes highly skilled technologists and scientists, but also farm and construction workers in areas where there is a worker shortage.  I see no reason to limit the number of years that a skilled worker can live in the U.S. as long as that skill is needed.
            Third, chain immigration has a value just as healthy families generally are good for society.  It makes sense to encourage families to settle here. 
            In any case, it is important that we understand the facts as we try to make sense of today’s immigration politics.  It is a tough world out there.  That’s a fact.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A Lesson From Ta-Nehisi Coates


This month, the book group at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an author and journalist whose career has ranged from serving as national correspondent for The Atlantic to writing the Black Panther comic book series that has become a major motion picture.  Coates is African-American, and Between the World and Me is his account—told through a series of letters to his son—of the experience of being black in American society.  The book won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for a Pulitzer. 
            The book is an eye-opener.  While I have read other books about the African-American experience, this was the first time that I had experienced an author speaking directly, intimately, and at length about the many facets of being black in American society.  A powerful writer, he brings home the intensity of that experience, which comes into sharp focus when a good friend is gunned down by a policeman. 
            Between the World and Me contains many references to people who go about their lives, in Coates’ words, “as if they were white.”  His point is that race is socially manufactured, that Europeans and European-Americans justified their enslavement of Africans by creating the idea that there are separate races.  In other words, they created the idea of “black” as an inferior race and, in the process, created the idea of “white” as a superior race.   “Difference in hue and hair,” he writes, “is old.  But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white” (p. 7).
            His comments reminded me of a discussion during the planning of an international conference in Canada a few years back.  The discussion centered around the U.S. ideal of a “melting pot” versus the Canadian ideal of a social “mosaic” in which each individual brings his/her own unique characteristics to society.  During the Book Group discussion, I noted the common rule of thumb that it usually takes three generations for an immigrant family to fully blend into the general U.S. population—to fully melt in the pot.  At that point, people tend to privatize their historical roots and live publicly simply as unhyphenated Americans.  Perhaps Coates has a similar idea in mind when he says to his son, “You can no more be black like I am black than I could be black like your grandfather was” (p. 39).   Each generation lives in a somewhat different context that defines how they see themselves and how they are seen.  Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans—despite rough, often violent resistance to their ancestors when they first arrived—fully blend into the crowd after a few generations and use their hyphen as a point of familial pride, not as a public label.  But clearly, the value that Americans place on the idea of race as a differentiator of power has made that difficult for African-Americans.  As Coates writes, “There will surely always be people with straight hair and blue eyes, as there have been for all history.  But some of these straight-haired people with blue eyes have been ‘black,’ and this points to the great difference between their world and ours.”
            It remains true that racial distinctions both flow from and reinforce the fact that “whites” enslaved “blacks,” creating a lasting social disparity between the two groups.  In the long run, we need to eliminate these artificial distinctions.  However, it may be worth noting that it has only been two generations—since the black rights movement of the 1960s—that African-Americans have gained their full rights as citizens in the U.S.  Clearly, racism still exists, but, increasingly, it is recognized for what it is. 
            It has been good in recent months to see the melting pot ideal increasingly featured in television advertising.  It is not just that black families are more visible as representatives of the purchasing public, but that mixed race couples and mixed race families are now often seen as models.  It is a sign that the mosaic, if not yet the melting pot, is at work.  Perhaps Generation Z—the third generation since the civil rights achievements of the 1960s—who have already begun to step up for social change in light of school shootings, is the generation that will see the end to this struggle.  It is an ambitious dream, but one worth the effort.  It remains for all of us to to embrace all varieties of American as our neighbors, our friends, our extended family.  The recent shooting death of Stephon Clark is a haunting reminder of how far we have to go; the news coverage of this tragedy, though, may be a sign that we are nearing a point where racism—and race, generally—is no longer an acceptable excuse for the misuse of power.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Some Thoughts on Gun Control


On Saturday, I hope to join the local walk for gun control inspired by the students in Parkland, Florida.  In preparation, here are some thoughts on what a reasonable gun control policy might look like.  First, a reminder of the second amendment to the U.S Constitution.  It reads:
A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right
of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Automatic Weapons
            Automatic weapons—the AR15s and weapons like them, along with bump stocks and other devices that allow a gun to fire as if it were automatic—are weapons of war and should not be available to individuals.  These are not weapons of individual protection and have no value to hunters.  Since the Constitution encourages states to establish a “well-regulated militia,”  automatic weapons and related devices, to the extent that they are needed at all, should be maintained in a well-protected armory, so that they are available to the militia in emergencies.  However, they should not be available for individuals to purchase in sporting goods stores, gun shows, or anywhere else.
Other Weapons
            The situation is different for hunting rifles and pistols, given the long tradition of hunting in many American communities and concerns for home safety.  Here, we can learn from the experience of states to control motor vehicles and drivers:
  • States should conduct background checks on all individuals seeking to own or use fire arms.
  • Owners and users of weapons should be tested on their ability to safely use the weapons and, having passed the test, should be licensed.  Just as some states have separate licensing to drive motorcycles, cars, and certain trucks, states should require separate licenses for hunting rifles, pistols, and other weapons.  User licenses should be renewed annually. 
  • Fire arms ownership should be registered and that registration should be renewed annually, as is done with motor vehicle ownership.
  • Owners should be held legally responsible for any deaths or property destruction caused by fire arms that they own.  States should require owners to maintain insurance on their weapons, just as is the case with automobiles.
  • Owners should be required to report missing/stolen weapons to the local police within 24 hours of discovering that they are missing.
  • There should be adequate penalties for possession of unregistered weapons and for unlicensed use of weapons.
            The infrastructure to administer these requirements already exists in the Department of Motor Vehicles in most states.  It should be relatively easy to add these requirements and support the work through registration and license fees.
            Over the years, the process of registration and licensing around motor vehicles has become accepted as a part of daily life in America.  The driver’s exam and first license are seen by many as a rite of passage.  There’s no reason to assume that the same would not happen when similar requirements are tied to fire arms.  Since it is unlikely that Americans will give up their guns, we need this basic regulation to help protect citizens.