Tuesday, January 28, 2014

An Affectionate General Education

We went to the movies yesterday.  The show started with a preview of “Monument Men,” George Clooney’s flick about a group of art experts whose mission was to save European art masterpieces at the end of World War II.   Clooney describes the mission as (paraphrasing), “saving the foundation of our civilization.”   Then, the movie began:  “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a true story about self-absorbed criminals who operated under the dictum, “the best way to get rich is to ignore the rules.”  This wasn’t a cautionary tale, but a celebration of a con man’s success.  The protagonist, who was responsible for stealing more than $200 million from investors, wound up spending less than two years in jail and is now being promoted on b national news and elsewhere as a “motivational speaker.”  Interestingly, this movie celebrating sociopathic greed had the biggest crowd of any we’ve been to this winter.
When we got home, we got the news that three people had been killed during a shooting at the Columbia Mall, near where we used to live.  We were reminded during the news coverage that there had been at least one public shooting incident—in a school or other public place—every day last week.  Later, I read that a Penn State-Altoona student from Russia had been arrested that same day for building a weapon of mass destruction in Altoona, about 45 miles from our home.  
That got me looking for facts.  Between December 2012—the month of the Sandy Hook/Newtown elementary school massacre—and December 2013, there were 12,042 gun deaths in the United States (  Mother Jones reported that, during that same year, at least 194 children have been shot to death; of these, 103 were murders, 84 were accidents, 3 were suicides, and 4 had unclear motives (  Within a single year, the death of so many children at Sandy Hook has faded from the public consciousness—and conscience.  We simply don’t connect with those lost lives.  We don’t see them as our children, our neighbors, our fellow citizens.  They became, in just a year, statistics—facts out of context of the reality of daily life, while murder in public places became an almost routine part of life in America.
We know that culture is changing not just in America, but around the World as a new global information society matures.  However, that’s no excuse for the way Americans have become accepting of everyday violence in our society.  What holds a democracy together is not just the idea of individual liberty, but the understanding that we live in a community: we establish government so that each of us can protect all of us.  Today, we seem to be turning responsibility for community over to the so-called free market.  Corporate and industrial interests, rather than community interests, carry the day. It is time for us to ask:  what is our proper relationship—as individual Americans—to the community in which we live?  Wendell Berry has made that question the focus of his work for many years.  In It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lectures and Other Essays, he writes:
For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it.  To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it.  By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it.  By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place.  By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of pre-emptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world.  As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection.  And in affection we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy. (Kindle version, pp. 13-14)
How, in this global economy, can we create affection—a pre-emptive sympathy--for our local community and the neighbors who live in it with us?  How can we imagine our place in this new environment?
Here’s a thought:  William Irwin Thompson some years back wrote about a model for understanding our place in the world—the “expanding communities” model.  It assumed that, over the history of human existence, humans have had to expand their understanding of their relationship with the world.  It is a cultural process that mirrors what we all go through as we mature.  As small children, our immediate family is our community.  As we grow, that expands to our neighborhood, our school, our town, and then as we grow, we become part of broader communities—our state, our nation, our region, etc.  With each step, we assume a broader public identity and personalize or privatize the older identify.  
Let’s take that idea of expanding communities as the basis for a civics-oriented general education that begins in pre-school and continues into graduate education.  Early on, the goal would be to help young children imagine and gain an affection for their school as their public community and for their family as their private community.  In elementary school, we would help students imagine their relationship to increasingly broader communities, and, in high school, help them see their role as citizens, voters, tax payers, workers by teaching civics, the Constitution, and how we have, as a society, solved the problems of democracy.  Then, as we move into college, we would focus on ensuring that students imagine the impact of their chosen professional in the community and help them develop a sympathy and affection for how they will contribute to that community.
Such a curriculum must also include a service component—certainly from high school forward and, perhaps earlier.  The purpose is to engage students in a community so that they begin to develop an awareness and, one hopes, an affection for being part of a specific community.  Ideally, a year of service—not necessarily military service, but many avenues of service to the community—could be a natural transition from high school to college or vocational training.  Similarly, upper division internships and practica in professional programs would help students better understand the professional community that they are preparing to join.
It has been a while since educators have seen that kind of continuity as a common thread of responsibility across institutions.  Industrialized education has tended to fragment learning, making general education a sampling of disciplines, separate from their professional studies, rather than a preparation for exercising one’s profession in the community.  Too often, general education is like Monument Men—an attempt to save the past—rather than a way to help students of all ages and interests to imagine their community and their role in it.  Our job, as Berry notes, must be to help students imagine their place in the world so that they can develop a responsible relationship to it.  In this context, “affection” stands as a context for learning that motivates and guides students.  “Knowledge without affection,” Berry writes, “leads us astray.  Affection leads, by way of good work, to authentic hope” (p. 34).

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

National Service and the Declaration of Independence

E.J. Dionne Jr.: A call for national service - The Washington Post

In this opinion piece, published in the Post's July 4 issue, Dionne reminds us that the founding vision of the United States is of a community in which citizens care for each other.  National service--not necessarily military service, but an environment in which young people spend a year helping to improve their community through many avenues of service--is a way to realize that vision.

The August 2013 issue of Harper's includes a transcript of a speech given by Mark Kingwell in which he states:
You can either use a pillow or a gun to kill a person, but people with guns kill more people than do people with pillows.  Marshall McLuhan was correct:  the medium really is the message.
 What is the message?  It is not complicated.  If you own a handgun or, certainly a semi-automatic rifle, the message you are sending is that you are willing to kill another human being at your own discretion.  That is the only reason to own such a weapon.  One can make the case that the message is that the gun owner will protect him/herself at any cost, but the end result is the same.  Gun owners tell us:  I will kill you if I feel personally justified in doing so.

The amazing thing is that millions of Americans send that message every day.

Letter from Bill and Melinda Gates - Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

 Letter from Bill and Melinda Gates - Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The annual letter from the Gates Foundation focuses less on what the Foundation has done over the past year and more on three myths that we need to overcome in order to realize the full potential for growth around the globe.

The myth that resonates most with me is the idea that poor countries are doomed to stay poor.  Adherence to that myth contributes to the idea that the U.S. is falling behind in the world when, perhaps, a better analysis might be that we are all becoming more equal.  As Fareed Zakaria wrote, we are witnessing "the rise of the rest."

Americans need to become comfortable with the idea of global equality as a goal.  Robert Reich has a movie entitled "Inequality for All."  In fact, inequality for anyone IS inequality for all.  We need to work toward global equality just as we did in the 1960s for equality among Americans.  This is not a goal where war can help.  It is a goal that is best pursued through compassion and a willingness to see ourselves as part of a larger family.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Living versus Touring

We are just back from what is becoming our annual vacation trip to Ogunquit, Maine.   We went the first time on our honeymoon in June 1972.  We had stopped in Boston to visit friends (who treated us to a memorable Bloomsday tour of Boston and surrounds) and then started for what we thought would be a trip up the coast of Maine.  Our first stop was Ogunquit, where we found a nice bed and breakfast for the night.  The next day, we decided to stay the week.  On our last night, our host introduced us to another honeymoon couple from Quebec and sent us out for dinner and a show.  While they spoke only French and we mostly English, we had a great time.  It was a memorable stay.  We had not been back since then, but in 2011 we drove up for another June visit and then went back again in September. We missed last year because we had just moved into our new house, but we couldn't wait to get back this past week.  Ogunquit has grown, but it has kept the spirit of an artists' retreat and high-end resort town.  But the real draw is the ocean, the Marginal Way path along the rocky coast, and the little restaurants, galleries, and museums that dot it and the surrounding area--the Yorks, Wells, and Kennebunkport.  No sooner had we returned than we booked another four nights in September.  I am sure we will do it again every year as long as we can handle the 9-hour drive.

Of course, we've already heard the complaint:  Why do you always go back to the same places?  There is a big world out there. Why not try something new?  It is a question worth exploring a bit.

Sure, the world is big.  But what is better, to skim the surface of many places or to get to know a few places that speak to you and, at whatever level you can, become a part of them and find within them whatever reflection they may have of the universal?  I've been to a lot of places over the years--every continent except Antarctica--and while I have enjoyed new sights and sounds, I much prefer when I can to linger, to get to know a place, to become familiar with it and to enjoy its essence.  Touring is interesting, but not satisfying.

This is true in other areas of life.  For instance, I've pretty much stayed with one area in my career--changing with technology, but keeping to the vision of how we use technology to connect people and ideas.  As a result, I think--or at the very least, I hope--that I've been able to make a greater contribution because I came, over time and by dealing with change within the field, to understand the underlying realities of the field.  I also became part of an ongoing and vibrant professional community and developed both professional relationships and friendships with colleagues from many places around the world who are connected by our shared commitment to the profession.

The world is a big place.  While we need to be reminded of its diversity, we also need to understand what holds us together.  We can best understand it, perhaps, not by trying to see it all, but by trying to experience a few parts of it as deeply as possible.