Wednesday, January 26, 2011

An open letter to the President regarding education

Thank you, Mr. President, for some of what you said about education last night.

But only for some of it.

Let me start, Mr. President, by telling you that I am a PhD Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition. That means I teach college students to write and I study the use of words and language (and visuals and other symbol systems) in the creation of arguments--and speeches. And your State of the Union Address, as you know quite well, is one of the more symbolic forms of rhetoric in which our country engages.

But as a university teacher, let me also tell you why I wanted to thank you for only some of what you said last night.

First, I must agree with you that education begins at home. I believe, as you seem to, that education in the home is a matter both of what parents value and model, and of discipline. Yes, the TV has to be off and the homework done, but there is more, sir. There is also the active education parents provide for their children when they turn the TV on and watch the news together and discuss what it means. Here, students can learn about history, current events, and most importantly, critical thinking.

Mr. President, I believe you modeled one of my most dearly held positions on education in the home when you discussed the discipline of education: that parents are to be leaders, not friends. Teachers must be leaders, not friends. Peers and others will be friends for our children (and the best parents make sure even those are appropriate), but parents must be role models. They must provide structure and discipline and model values. Parents have stopped, it seems, using the word "no" with their children. Some teachers have stopped being leaders as well.

But, Mr. President, our educational system not only lacks good teachers and money and classroom innovation. Our educational system lacks ethos. Children learn not to value the struggle that true learning must entail. They come to believe that effort must be rewarded with success, even though oftentimes it is failure that comes of great effort--and is most instructive. They come to see grades as the outcome of their "education," and fail to see education as the outcome of their investment.

Also, and here I'll admit to bias, Mr. President, it is not only Maths and Sciences that are causing us to lose ground in the global marketplace. It is also languages, arts (of every stripe), philosophy, history, social sciences and English. Children who study music outperform those who don't in every area of academia, including maths. Children who study foreign languages have an advantage when facing the global marketplace.  Children who are taught history and social science have a greater ability to think critically about the world around them. And English is being studied everywhere around the globe, yet American native speakers of English have a harder time with standard written English than most non-native speakers.

It's no longer enough to cry out "maths and sciences." That cry passed in the '80s. I watched other presidents bemoan our lags in those fields. Because of those cries, universities around the country over-fund their maths and sciences programs and treat the humanities as a secondary concern. If you want people to choose teaching as an occupation of the future, it must become a lucrative and glorified field (like basketball). If you want maths and sciences scores to rise, you must raise the value of all education. And if you want to raise a generation able not only to understand maths and sciences but to think critically about the ethics of the discoveries and technologies that arise from those fields, as well as how they can serve humankind, you must make humanities a priority.

We began losing the technology wars when we began dropping music from our curricula. We began losing the global marketplace wars when we prioritized a college degree over an education (and the two are by no  means equivalent).

Please, Mr.President, please understand that your positing of education at the fore of your plan for our union makes sense only when all of education (and education over grades) is the goal in mind.

Please also understand that this is not the greatest nation on earth. It is ours, and we love our country. But there are other ways to live, and some are just as good. American exceptionalism, with which you ended your speech, is not helpful to the goal of education. American students must stop thinking of themselves in terms of exceptionalism and begin thinking of themselves in terms of their potential to rise to exceptional heights; the difference is one of work ethic rather than one of entitlement.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

When a woman getting educated is "news" and good at that...

Ruhksana looks, through the Burka she wears to first grade, like the most beautiful woman in the world, to me.

But it breaks my heart that a woman getting an education is "news" anywhere in the world. Her husband put it best when he said that an educated mother will make for an educated family.

According to the authors of Half the SkyNicholas Kristoff and Sheryll WuDunn, an educated woman also makes for a wealthier family--as she is more likely to budget money for family education and health than if a man is in charge of the family money. An educated woman is also the means to a wealthier, healthier, and more educated society; as she is more likely to form the networks that allow a village to create a greater marketplace (a global one). 

I have a vested interest not only because of my gender.

I attended, from fourth grade on, the Phoenix Hebrew Academy. Despite being an incredibly unpopular kid (in a really small school, you have to have talent to be totally friendless until eighth grade), I can only say that I LOVE the PHA. For everything it taught me--in class and out.

But, of course, the PHA was an Orthodox Hebrew Day School, and I am female. So, there were struggles. I had to wear skirts or dresses (a fashion I now prefer over pants), and so when I decided to play basketball with the guys, who were not too keen on the idea AT ALL, I started wearing pants under my skirts. Same for soccer. I was lucky, though; I had enlightened rabbis and teachers (mostly) who saw my resistance to being gender programmed as teaching moments.

In sixth grade, the decision was made that the class would be split in two for one hour daily. In that hour, the boys would study Mishnah (the books of legal commentary that apply the Torah's 613 laws to society as it progressed from the desert), and the girls would have "choir."

There were 4 girls. NOT a choir

But I had a beautiful voice and loved to sing! In fact, at that age I wandered listlessly behind my mother as she shopped, singing whatever came on the store muzak in the hopes of being "discovered."

And that made what I did next an incredibly difficult thing to do. I made an appointment with the head rabbi and the rabbi in charge of curriculum. Going in, I was expecting that I would be fighting a losing battle and would return to my class and join the choir.

I told the rabbis, basically, that they kept insisting that a woman's role in the Jewish home was not only to have children, but to educate them. They kept telling me that my work as a woman would be more important than any man's because I would be shaping the next generation of Jews. I then said that relegating me to the back of the classroom (a mixed metaphor, since we were actually going to be assigned separate but unequal classrooms) was to hobble me. That I would not be able to educate my children, male OR female, if I were not fully educated. That they were not only discriminating against women and asking us to believe that was a Jewish behavior, but that they were abdicating their responsibility to educate me Jewishly (a responsibility they took on when they admitted me to school).

I was shaking when I left, but I was standing tall. Taller, in fact, than I had ever felt.

The girls hated me because they were being "forced" to study Mishnah instead of being allowed to play in "choir."

And so, I kept living in the world my parents had built: one in which everyone, regardless of any creed, gender, color, etc., had the right to an education. What we made of that education, we were always told, was OUR job.

I fought that minor battle more than two decades ago.

But women today still have to fight the same battle--and only a very few win. There are more women sold, stolen or drugged into human trafficking than there are women enrolled in school in this world. There are more men who still hold to the fascinatingly oxymoronic idea that women hold immense power because of their sexual "wiles" and therefore are somehow inferior. There are still many who believe that women need to be "controlled." And even in our great country, there are many who believe a woman's life is worth less than that of a fetus.

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people, too.

Womanism is the radical notion that men and women will all benefit when they are all brought into the fold of educational and economic power.

I have a radical notion that the world will be called a truly better place when Ruhksanna is not news--when her attendance at first grade will only be remarkable because she will have been the only woman in her village to not have gone at the age of 6.

As we reach the 38th anniversary of Roe V Wade, a decision that made into law the radical notion that a woman's life and health are more important than a man's right to control her reproductive organs, let's keep in mind that we are lucky. That as a lucky nation of educationally privileged people, we have a lot to offer Ruhksanna. 

And let's not keep ourselves blinded to the plight of most of the world's women. Rape only became illegal in Haiti in 2005. Selling girls into sexual and domestic slavery is still legal in many parts of the world. Keeping girls from education is not only legal, but the norm in more than half the world.

It's time to change that. Because even if one's world view is that a woman's place is in the home, raising children and building a family, that world view must take into account that she will do that job so much better if she is educated. Because even if one fears that educating women will lead to the destruction of the family as a unit, one must take into account that not doing so leads the family into a continuous cycle of poverty and ignorance. 

Finally, because educating women is the first step toward making the world a more peaceful, balanced place.

Monday, January 17, 2011

In defense of the "shit-talkin'"

On this MLK day, I find myself angry and frustrated.

My frustrations are aplenty and likely boring to most.

My institute of education--the place that is named on one of my degrees and will be named on the next--prefers that I be liked than that my students succeed. So be it.

This week, my students and I listened to Sarah Palin defend herself against the stupid possibility that her poor choice of rhetoric caused someone else to make a far poorer choice of action. We discussed the rhetorical content of her speech--a rather fine speech, which would have stood as her finest if she had not hit the worst possible note when making the center of her point. The tenor, the word choice, the ethos, all were well put together. But the speech writer didn't recognize the irony of the use of such a rare term as "blood-libel"--a term that all the journalists who've picked up on it had to define for the majority of America that simply doesn't grasp it.

But my frustration, rather than lying with Palin's speech writer, who committed a basic act of verbal stupidity, lies with the responses to the shooting that have included people who want to limit speech to what they find acceptable.

As a First Amendment junkie, as a Jew who actually knew what a blood libel was before having to explain it to her students, as a woman, I honestly think that making people stop their vitriol is far more dangerous than allowing them to scream it from the mountaintops.

A racial slur committed aloud can be refuted. A slander spread in the silence of hatred driven underground can only gather force, speed, and violence.

Hate speech is our best warning shot. It's a bright red flag that lets us all know where ignorance needs to be fought, loudly, and with words--to avoid fighting it bloodily with weapons.

Let all who hate loudly proclaim it. Let the rest of us take MLK's example and love them into seeing the other in themselves.

"I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant. " -The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sorry for the gap

But the first week of school is an annoying, fun, fascinating, boring, difficult, easy time for me (listed by preference of my multiple personalities). Simple truth is my teacher and student self have so much to do to make everything start on the right foot that I spend all my down time literally down. And yesterday, I spent two hours on the floor raising money for the Jewish Braille Institute before realizing I was sitting badly and my bulging discs had pinched a nerve. ALL that said, I really need to talk about Giffords.

My dear friend (known as big bro, though he's younger than I am), Ed Braun, is a brilliant literary critic, scholar, and gunsmith.

Yup, some of us folks in the ivory tower like guns--myself included: I learned how to fire a weapon in the Naval Academy and was an expert at the M16 but just barely passed on the 38 because I became afraid of the kickback and began counteracting it. The outcome: I had perfect shot circles in the berm.

All that aside, Ed is truly a brilliant guy. Brilliant to the point of that slightly mad part of genius. He decided to start building guns a few years ago and then to apprentice himself to a gunsmith. I'm not sure where in the process he is, though I do know that even when he started he showed the same promise he shows with everything he starts.

And here's what Ed has to say about what happened in Arizona this week (from his facebook page):

AZ has been progressive the past 4 years instituting particular rigors for not only firearms ownership, but concealed carry, including into various previously barred institutions, such as universities. *It should also be noted that not only are some of the most prestigious open enrollment weapons training facilities in the country are embedded in AZ, but the majority of high end custom firearms shops and gunsmithing schools. Previous stands for CCW permits included not only a thorough background check by extensive local, state, and federal agencies, but furthermore required no less than 20 hours training by at one of said previously state and nationally recognized shooting academies. The full extents of that certification program eliminates not only questionable individuals, but likewise serves to act as a redflag pending any future efforts to purchase various weapons as it shows up in any NICS background inquiry.
However, in April, 2010; Gov. Jan Brewer repealed her previously installed system in favor of concealed carry without a permit pending individual locations. Yet the obviated problem remains--discerning certified CCW holders versus the armed Joe Q. Regardless of what she thought she was doing, Brewer cost her constituents millions garnered with the previous system and now a congress woman

I have a lot to say about this, but I think the most important thing is the end. Until April, Arizona, a state that is rather Western in its outlook (meaning that in general it's high on the state's rights and conservative far right wing "right to build a militia" attitude fount in many Western states), almost to the point of Alaska and Texas in its belief in seceding from the union as a working option, had the best system for gun control.

The system was not about infringing the rights of Americans to keep and bear arms. It was about empowering any person who wished to own and or carry arms to know how to use them safely. The system required education, it required screening, and it highly encouraged more education as an outcome.

If you screen out the crazies who are looking, intentionally to be dangerous by making sure they meet a set of requirements for weapons ownership and use, you take the first step in keeping what happened in Tuscon from happening.

Second, if you train anyone who wants to own a weapon in its safe use as well as its mechanism, you take the first step in keeping weapons from being used in kid play and accidental deaths.

The system Brewer canceled was the best possible balance between rights and security, and in keeping with the idiotic political climate we live in, she failed to take training before she shot it dead.

Worse, this shooting is now causing people to consider shooting the freedom of speech--if not to kill, at least to maim.

In March, Palin said Gifford's congressional seat was "in the cross-hairs." Palin is now trying to rollback the meaning of her own stupid rhetoric (no, it wasn't a weapon's cross-hairs...), and worse, people are now reacting by suggesting that we take away the right of people to publicly threaten using stupid rhetoric.

The solution, folks, is not to roll back Palin's right to be a public idiot, to say dangerous things, or to publicly show her own violent tendencies. In fact, I'd rather know about her stupidity, her threat to others' safety, and her violent tendencies than have to guess who would have said the ugly violent thing.

The solution is not to disallow all persons from keeping and bearing arms. Because there are millions of gun owners who are using their weapons properly and who are NOT a threat to anyone in society--not even those with whom they have political disagreement. 

The solution is to educate. It is to screen. It is to make sure that weapons are controlled, as is their use, as is their ownership.

The more we push against people's rights to speak freely (even if they speak poorly and express violent tendencies), the more we push against people's rights to carry arms, the more we push against rights in the name of security, the more we push our centrist allies on either side of the political spectrum to their furthest point of extremity.

Extremism in ANY form and from any political side is danger. Silencing the fringe elements of our society only empowers them as they go underground and find safety in darkness. 

I know that most of the people I know are wishing for the best for the congresswoman and the 7 others wounded, as well as for the families of those wounded and those dead (including a 9 year old). Let's also wish for some intellect from those we have elected in dealing with the legal and systematic errors that allowed this to happen. 

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Missing: Dignity. Last seen in Barcelona

I owe you a lot of pics and writing on Paris, Roses, Pamplona, trains, how not to break your camera, and maybe a million little tidbits in between (especially how I got a pic of the top of a bird of prey's wings!).

But I think this needs some discussion first.

So, New Year's Eve; two days before we're scheduled to leave Spain, we left Pamplona and took the four or so hour train ride back to Figueres, where Dali and Jaime were born (years apart). Jaime's family lives about 30 minutes away, on the Mediterranean, in Roses. The towns and region are beautiful. I think my love for the Navarre region that I acquired this year is nearly equaled by my love for the Costa Brava. Each is beautiful in its own way. And when I have the camera on me I will post more on this.

But we come back to Roses for New Year's when we can because Jaime's parents attend a gala party for New Year's eve that involves some of the world's greatest cooking along with some fun and dancing (which I do on my own because Jaime says he can't).

On the train ride, I realized my ear was hurting. It was bugging me all the way down to my jaw. So, after some prodding I asked Jaime's dad, a doctor, to look. He said it was the beginning of an infection and prescribed me some antibiotics to be begun immediately because I was flying in two days.

I hate antibiotics. I don't know anyone who actually likes them, but really, you have to be serious to get me on them. I had two whole sips of champagne on New Year's Eve because I took my first antibiotic that evening.

New Year's Day, we traveled to Barcelona, one of the loveliest port cities on the planet, and one we haven't had much chance to visit (been there twice and only for a day each time) because we were flying out the next morning. We walked the Rambla, which its name should tell you is the whole point of what you are to do. We bought some last minute gifts. We hung out at the bar in the hotel, eating patatas bravas (one of my favorite tapas) and watching a recap special on the World Cup. I'm in love with most of the Spanish team--probably because I knew from the start they would go all the way and they didn't let me down, though their looks help, too.

The next morning at quarter till butt-crack-O'-dawn we got up and I felt a bit heartburnish. I bought some mineral water (with bubbles) because it's got the same stuff in it that heartburn meds do, and figured I'd put the whole thing behind me.

Only it wouldn't go away.

Within the hour, we were standing in a mile long ticketing queue, because Delta wouldn't let us get early boarding passes. I turned to Jaime, "I don't feel good," I told him. He asked, "How?" My answer: "Kinda pukey."

Now, I am one of those people who would pretty much rather die than puke. I know. I know. You feel better getting it out, it's better to let your body get things out if it wants to, you never know if you have food poisoning, you may actually die. I've heard it all. To hell with it! I would rather die than puke.

We were nearly at the front of the queue with me complaining, and Jaime trying to keep me together when I grabbed the bag with the leftover sparkling water and part of a cake his mom had given us and began.

The bag had holes. But I didn't find that out until I came to, on the floor, with puke in my mouth and the sudden realization that if I didn't roll over I would choke and die. I rolled straight into the puddle coming out of the bag, and added to it.

And then I felt better.

I'd still rather die than puke.

Ok, I didn't feel completely better, just better enough to stand and tell the people staring at me I was ok and thank the woman who handed me a packet of tissues and refused to take them back. They let us get boarding passes anyway--don't ask me why. Jaime and I just knew they were going to tell me I couldn't fly. But we told them about the ear infection and the antibiotics.

We got our passes and I went to the toilet to clean up, change clothes and throw away my Salamanca University hoody (Damn!). And proceeded to the gate.

I spent the 10.5 hours on the plane flitting between the toilet and a semi-coma. That is after I showed the head  flight attendant my antibiotics to prove I was on meds and would live.

Little did we know. My ears are fine now, thanks for asking, but this had nothing to do with antibiotics or ear infections.

In Atlanta, as we were about to go through passport control (that post soon, too!), Jaime said, "I don't feel so good, honey."

Thankfully, by then I was mostly ok. Thankfully, too, his food poisoning which we think may have been a patatas bravas thing was far less acute than mine. Most thankfully, I have phenergan (promethazine) an anti-emetic at home because I take terrible meds that make me sick.

I made it to my meetings the next morning, but none too happily.

It's good to be home. It's bad to fly sick. And it should be better to puke than die.

But even though I know my dignity got cleaned up along with that puddle on the floor of a ticket queue in the Barcelona airport, I still say it:

I'd rather die than puke!