21 November 2011

What have we been teaching?

This post probably began to form when I got into an argument on Twitter with a guy who is an "associate principal" of a secondary school somewhere in California. He was defending the use of pepper spray against seated, peaceful protesters at the University of California at Davis last Friday.

What I said that got him upset, to assemble the thoughts into a single quote, was, "Anyone who looks at the video from UCD and thinks what is happening there is anything but unquestionably wrong, shouldn't be working in a school."

I stand by that statement. I'd, of course, go further, and say, Anyone who looks at the video from UCD and thinks what is happening there is anything but unquestionably wrong, shouldn't be working in any law enforcement capacity in any nation on earth."

These statements are, I believe, true. They are clear truths for anyone who was, as we used to say, "raised to be better than that." They are true for anyone who learned anything appropriate from their family, their religion, or the literature of the world. As I later said to that school administrator, "I still know right from wrong."

"We had to clear the Quad, they were breaking the law, they did not move."
It isn't just what took place on the Quad at Davis which troubles me so, like at Penn State two weeks ago, it is the reaction of too many of those who share my society. Not just loudmouth fools like blogger Jim Hoft who said, "The UC Davis pepper spray incident was standard police procedure," but on CBS News, "Charles J. Kelly, a former Baltimore Police Department lieutenant who wrote the department's use of force guidelines, said pepper spray is a "compliance tool" that can be used on subjects who do not resist, and is preferable to simply lifting protesters.  When you start picking up human bodies, you risk hurting them," Kelly said. "Bodies don't have handles on them."   After reviewing the video, Kelly said he observed at least two cases of "active resistance" from protesters. In one instance, a woman pulls her arm back from an officer. In the second instance, a protester curls into a ball. Each of those actions could have warranted more force, including baton strikes and pressure-point techniques.  "What I'm looking at is fairly standard police procedure," Kelly said," and more sadly, people commenting on blogs, news sites, and Twitter often said this was a reasonable action, even teachers, school administrators, etc.

So, I am forced to ask this question, what have we been teaching, in our schools, in our homes, in our churches, in our everyday lives, that has allowed so many completely amoral people to not just be among us, but to rise to positions of responsibility?

"We had to clear the Square, they were breaking the law, they did not move." (Beijing, China, 1989)
How has a society, a global society, which once so condemned the actions of Mississippi Sheriffs (1960-1965), Chicago Police Officers (1968), Ohio National Guardsmen (1970), South African Riot Police (1970-1995), Chinese police and troops (1989), and the security forces this very year from Tunisia, to Libya, to Egypt, to Syria, become so accepting of official violence against our own children?

What have we been teaching? and what questions have we not been asking?

"We had to clear the Corner, they were breaking the law, they did not move." (Derry, Northern Ireland, 1972)
It is not just the United States. We've seen tolerance of horrid policing in the United Kingdom and far too many other supposedly "civilized" nations. We've seen it because we have allowed ourselves to see our organizations, our institutions, our governments, our nations, as more important than our humanity. So societies which back in 1943 would have (and did) laugh at the joke, "We have order, but at what price?", or "Mussolini made the trains run on time." now not only do not laugh, we do not even think about asking the price.

We have become ugly intolerant cultures obsessed with compliance, conformity, efficiency, and safety. And this has built over decades. I remember shock when New Yorkers accepted Rudy Giuliani's fencing off public access to City Hall in the 1990s, "people were walking in and it was bothering us," he said. Imagine, citizens walking in to, even complaining in, their own city hall. Well that was not just "unsafe," it was "inefficient." And once you do that, it is very easy to block all access to public streets so people cannot make noise near their mayor. And, from there, why not beat and gas people who are protesting in a public park?

As a CNN anchor said last Thursday, "these protesters are inconveniencing people." And that justifies just about anything.

"We had to clear the Street, they were breaking the law, they did not move." (Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)
In search of answers, I read and read... finding a fine piece by Eric Rauchway and Ari Kelman, both history professors at UC Davis, which included this paragraph:
"The police officer with the pepper spray, identified as Lt. John Pike of the UC Davis Campus Police, looks utterly nonchalant, for all the world as if he were hosing aphids off a rose bush. The scene bespeaks a lack of basic human empathy, an utter intolerance for dissent, or perhaps both. Pike’s actions met with approval from the chief of campus police, Annette Spicuzza, “who observed the chaotic events on the Quad, [and] said immediately afterward that she was ‘very proud’ of her officers.” Clearly in Chief Spicuzza’s mind there was nothing exceptional about the use of pepper spray against nonviolent protesters."
Yes, "bespeaks a lack of basic human empathy, an utter intolerance for dissent, or perhaps both," and, I would add, humanity.

Then I found this on a blog post via my Twitter feed...

I am a former Marine.
I work two jobs.
I don’t have health insurance.
I worked 60-70 hours a week for 8 years to pay my way through college.
I haven’t had 4 consecutive days off in over 4 years.
But I don’t blame Wall Street.
Suck it up you whiners.
I am the 53%.
God bless the USA!

It is a "young" man, around 30 I'm guess from the whine on his sign, who doesn't blame Wall Street, just poor people, for his plight. And, certainly, this shows a lack of empathy and tolerance (and interest in ever being a good partner or parent if he believes this lifestyle is acceptable), but it demonstrates something else which is part the problem I see - and I saw this in many comments belittling the kids at Davis specifically for "wasting their time" and more generally about Occupy Wall Street for "doing nothing" and "having no clear goals" - an extreme amplification of the belief that unless "it is hard, it has no value."

The young man above is incredibly proud that his entire life is filled with work. He is incredibly proud that if he gets sick the hospital he goes to will seize everything he owns for payment. He is incredibly proud that if his mother got sick, he could not spend any time with her.

What have we been teaching? and what questions have we not been asking?

Frighteningly, we have taught all of this. We have taught it in our schools, we have taught it in our homes, we have taught it in our churches, we have taught it with our "literature" - all that we read, watch, listen to.

What are you doing in your school which encourages compliance and conformity? Or which breeds fear? Or which encourages the belief that "hard" is always better? I'm not necessarily speaking of your words, I'm speaking of every part of your school environment, from corridor rules to tardy slips, from seating charts to multiple choice tests, from schedules to the non-acceptance of Universal Design technologies. From your honor roll to your homework assignments. Look around, is it really so hard to believe that a high school administrator would have no problem with the actions of Lt. John Pike? Is it hard to believe that "Mr. 53%" thinks he is living well?

Then look around your home. What is your schedule? What are your priorities? What do/did your children see of your choices? Where is your house? Have you chosen to live in a mono-culture, you know, "good schools" and all.

In politics, we usually leave it to others, or we vote for people who swear they'll lower our taxes, or we'll accept horrific things because "the other guy is worse," or we don't even vote at all, not finding an hour in our year to be part of our society. As consumers we shop at Walmart or Asda because we save a buck, a quid, a euro, so what if shopping there destroys the businesses of our neighbors?

Even, for Americans, your church is probably chosen because it is convenient, safe, has good parking, doesn't challenge your politics, and is filled with people just like you.

Yes, we are teaching every minute of every day, and we have been teaching some terrible things. And maybe worse, we have stopped asking ourselves the questions that matter.

In an open letter to her students and colleagues, Cynthia Carter Ching, a professor of education at the University of California at Davis, says eloquently, "So, to all of you, my students, I’m so sorry.  I’m sorry we didn’t protect you.  And I’m sorry we left the wrong people in charge." And she implores the faculty to, "join with me in rolling up our sleeves, gritting our teeth, and getting back to the business of running this place the way it ought to be run.  Because while our students have been bravely chanting for a while now that it’s their university (and they’re right), it’s also ours.  It’s our university.   And as such, let’s make sure that the inhuman brutality that occurred on this campus last Friday can never happen again.  Not to our studentsAnd not at our university."

"We had to clear the hallway, they were breaking the rules..."
But I'm going to add something, the University of California at Davis, like the Pennsylvania State University, are not isolated places. They are all of us. These crimes, or those on the streets of New York, or the streets of Oakland, or the streets of London, did not happen because of a few villains, they happened because we all stopped working hard enough to build a moral, fair society.

We have been teaching terrible things. And we have to stop.

- Ira Socol


Andrew Pass said...

A great post that forces one to think. I agree with just about everything that you have written. We need to learn how to question.

The greatest dispute that I have with what you wrote is "Anyone who looks at the video from UCD and thinks what is happening there is anything but unquestionably wrong, shouldn't be working in any law enforcement capacity in any nation on earth."

I would rather write - anybody who looks at this video and doesn't question it should not be an educator. What happened before that video was shot? What is happening just outside of the camera's view? Don't let a single video or a single picture determine your entire perception.


Anonymous said...

Right awn, Ira.

Andrew, what's happening is that everyone and their dog wants to contextualize that photo. But there is only one thing you need to know: People who are sitting on the ground should not be maced by police. If a police officer is macing someone who is sitting on the ground, they are abusing their power. That is the starting point; in a civilized society, all contextualization begins *after* that.

Ira's point, I believe, is that we *don't* live in a civilized society, which is why we have such a failure of leadership on this and similar issues.

Also, this Occupy stuff is reminding me of the third 'sequel' to 'If....', 'Britannia Hospital,' (full thing) which was written before the London riots of the '80s, but seemed to be commenting on them at the time.

I miss Lindsay Anderson.

-- HTB

irasocol said...


I appreciate your comment, and your challenge, and I - well, having watched every bit of video I could find - perhaps assumed that others had as well, and yet...

Whether it is this http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/f9/Nguyen.jpg or this http://www.historyonthenet.com/WW2/images/deathofapow.jpg or this http://wapedia.mobi/thumb/94cd509/en/fixed/470/330/Austrians_executing_Serbs_1917.JPG we really do not need to see beyond the frame, in space or time, to be outraged.

Perhaps I was badly trained in law at the New York City Police Academy (which consists of 9 university credits in constitutional law), or perhaps I am just too peaceful, but we were taught that you were not allowed to use any more force than was minimally necessary to effect an arrest. Any arrest. And we were taught that if a person, or persons, needed to be arrested, and they were not presenting any danger, you waited until you had enough personnel to make the arrests without force.

Because, police are supposed to be on the side of law, and on the side of everyone's rights.

As I've said on Twitter, I was trained before Rudy Giuliani began twisting the mission of the NYPD, before "9/11" and our absurd reactions to that, but, I did work for (now) NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, who, I do not think understood this even then.

But, as Homer indicates, I don't see much need for context here, and I really miss Lindsey Anderson too.

- Ira Socol

Andrew Pass said...

I will admit that I have not seen videos on this incident. From everything that I've read it was a horrific incident. However, my only point is that you can't judge very much with one source of information. As somebody who only saw this one picture, I might ask why are they sitting? Is it possible that they are sitting because the police officer had already been spraying at them for a few minutes and they had fallen. Think about Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre. Was his engraving truly accurate?


David Deubelbeiss said...

"Frighteningly, we have taught all of this."

That sums it up for me. My only response will have to be poetry, nothing else could really articulate my feelings.

Sad. Sadder to think I do participate as a teacher in this outcome. I have no answers other than to ask myself to be braver, to cultivate a better garden.

thanks again for a great, "thoughtful" post. We are all guilty, let's begin there.


Miss Shuganah said...

I watched the video that I think you linked to earlier on Twitter.

The officer steps over the students as if they were a large log instead of people. He can be seen shaking up the pepper spray. He is trying to provoke a response.

I wrote on the UC Davis wall about my father in-law. And someone responded, paraphrasing, wait, we are talking about that 1968? That Chicago Democratic Convention? Yes. We are. And he did not have his men bashing skulls in.

I asked my husband more about that. And he says it was as much for his safety as for the safety of others that he didn't have his men under his command do any of the head bashing. That gave me a whole new respect for him.

You ask good questions. What happened to teaching about ethics and honor? One of the most profound things I ever learned was ethics when I was in 4th grade Sunday school. I don't recall much about the content, but it obviously left an impression on me.

One thing my father taught me was to stand up for the underdog. The older I get the more I find myself channeling him. If things are unjust, we seek to redress the wrongs. We give a voice to those who have none.

I have noticed, over the years, long before I became a parent, long before I was married, that I was the one who would roll up my sleeves while others displayed their moral cowardice. I can look at myself in the mirror. Can they? That is what we need to be teaching. I want my daughters to grow up to be decent, compassionate, authentic and honorable women.

Miss Shuganah said...

Sorry for being a nudnik but I wanted to add this:

Newton's Third Law of Physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction frequently applies to relationships as well. It may not always be apparent but it does.

Chekhov's gun... If a gun is lying around it's eventually going to be picked up and fired.

This is more than what goes around comes around and bad karma. This is... actions have consequences. That is something that children and adults with senses of entitlement so huge that you can drive a tank through them fail to grasp. And suddenly they are shocked to discover that is the case.

Mary said...

I want to thank you for writing about this topic. I went to the quad today at UCD...surrounded by many members of my School of Education faculty, my children's second grade teacher (a UCD alumna and former Aggie mom), parents from my son's soccer team, and thousands of UC students...Several of them came from other campuses in a show of support.

I left shortly after Chancellor Katehi spoke because I had a class scheduled at 1:40pm. She, like all the speakers, was required to follow the one minute time limit in the "announcements" portion of the General Assembly.

I felt compelled to stand in support for our students. Many of them are half my age. At 38, I am one of the many School of Ed working parents, and the undergrads are the same age as many of my former elementary/middle school students. In fact, I'm almost certain a few of my former students were there.

As their teacher, I often shared stories and images from historical examples of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest. These days, I don't have K-8 students in my classes. I work, instead, as a TA for credential/MA students at UCD. I felt that if I didn't "show up" today that I would be letting my former students down. I would be letting my two children down. So I assured my 12yo that Mom would be careful (didn't tell my 7yo, because I knew she'd fret until it was over...plus I haven't shown her the video or really talked in any detail about it). And I showed up.

It's not a sacrifice to bear witness and stand in solidarity. It was 90 minutes of my time. After the rally, I walked over to class, where my tearful professor dedicated about half of our 3 hour seminar to discussion of the recent events. She asked for us to consider what we, as scholars and scholars in training, can bring to bear on these issues. Another assistant professor asked to come speak with us.

Both of them asked us to work to identify what we do moving forward. The students who protested were motivated by two key issues: privatization of California's public universities and a show of solidarity for the violent police tactics used days earlier at UC Berkeley.

Unfortunately, I was complacent a little too long. I was one of those who rolled my eyes a bit at the Occupy movement...Several of us thought a few tents on the quad weren't likely to effect systemic change, but I learned a lot from these students this week. Isn't that just like teaching? The young people can frustrate us at times, but they are also our greatest teachers. Our School of Education is having some of the most frank and personal conversations I have heard since I came to Davis in 2009. And I, for one, am going to try and do better.

Thanks again, Ira. I rambled a bit, as I am wont to do...but I am excited about the awakening within my university. It was powerful to see the way students, community members, alumni, faculty, and staff all came together today. It offers a little bit of hope, as well as a tremendous challenge to rise to our moral obligations

P.S. I know you are calling for Katehi's resignation, as are thousands of others. I must say that I am not there yet. I don't expect to convince anyone who feels passionately about her resignation, but I'm really hesitant to call for her ouster at this time.

Mary said...

The above comment should have said "show of solidarity in opposition to violent police tactics..." What can I say? It's been a long couple of days :)

Anonymous said...

This link contains the phrases 'Chancellor Katehis' and 'learning skills' in the title. Excerpt:

"So apparently — yet again — the only way everyone can begin to “heal” and “move forward” is if everyone agrees that those in power with the greatest responsibility be fully shielded from any consequences and that their bad acts be simply forgotten. I wonder where she learned that justifying rationale?"

David Britten said...

I agree with much of your argument, Ira, but I also feel that your post is symbolic of the lack of any middle ground in the debate over rights and responsibilities. It seems to me that all I read these days are arguments on the extreme ends of the spectrum. I believe the young Marine in your photo has valid points and I also believe the occupiers do, too. Our goal should be mutual understanding of positions and attempting to compromise where we can to further this country's continuing evolution. Let's stop treating every issue as having a black and white solution. All we are doing is contributing to the widening of the rift.

irasocol said...

First, for my close friend David (right above), I fully appreciate what he is saying, and, one of the things which makes David a superlative educator is that he is a far greater peacemaker than I am, or most of us are. And I need to add to that, he is far from the first person I've known well to come out of our military as a peacemaker, which is a tribute to our society, and our humanity.

One of the dangers with making any argument on "moral grounds" is that it becomes absolute, and few nations in the world have suffered from absolute moral arguments in the past half century the way the United States has. That is something else that we (and the "we" always includes me) have been teaching.

And yet, I guess we need to discover, all of us together, how to have true moral boundaries - and yet - make those moral boundaries permeable boundaries across which we can pull people with persuasion and education. Gateways rather than barbed wire fences.

Saying this does not suggest I am backing down from the statements at the top of this post. I have literally - back in the days when I moved a whole lot better and faster - jumped on other cops out on the street to stop them from doing things which I knew were "wrong." In fact, my Police Academy training included the sense that doing that was an essential part of our job - in policing, as in the military, hell, as in the classroom, tempers can flare, fear and anger can take over, and we depend on each other to remind us of our humanity.

So, excessive force outrages me, as it must - I believe - outrage all of us. This is different than saying that we can understand it sometimes. There are, for example, significant contextual issues in the Saigon execution photo I included in my response to Andrew above - http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/f9/Nguyen.jpg - and the "shooter" had what he saw, in that moment, as very good reasons to do what he did. Still, "we" - society - must be outraged, because only outrage can begin the process of trying to find ways to prevent that situation re-occuring.

The same is true for me with Lt. Pike. He believed that he was following a procedure to limit resistance. We can, and probably should, find fault with the attitude he voices. We must find fault with his misuse of a weapon (the pepper spray he used has specific rules for use he clearly disregarded). But the largest problem lies with a set of attitudes on all of our parts which made this happen.

Those attitudes begin with prizing institutions, order, and procedures over humanity and individual moral judgment. And the idea that any university administrator would suggest a maximum force confrontation against a few students peacefully demonstrating on a lawn. And the idea that we are so compliant in many organizations that, though it is obvious in the extended group of videos that many UCD police officers are uncomfortable with this, none of them challenge their lieutenant. And the fact that we have reached a point, ten years after 9/11, that the President of the University of California has to say, as if it isn't purely clear, that his university believes in free speech.

It will be very difficult to bring us "back." And I think we do need outrage now, but outrage which leads us to understanding, and to teaching, and to bringing people back to their humanity by being human ourselves.

- Ira Socol

Deb said...

I just want to say thank you. Eloquently and passionately stated. 100% agree. 100% concerned. 100% appalled at what is happening around our world today. We are creating children who fear voicing their opinions, who are receiving second rate educations due to a variety of reasons, and who are expected to accept and not critically think or speak. Kudos to you and others who are striving to change that.

Mary Ann Reilly said...

I had so much to say, so decided to say it on my blog. Here is a link. http://maryannreilly.blogspot.com/2011/11/open-letter-to-arne-duncan.html

Thanks Ira.

Torn Halves said...

You are right to spread the net wide and say that lots of current institutions are responsible for "teaching" young people all the wrong lessons. I just came back from an internet cafe full of teenagers. I didn't see any of them searching for essays written by Howard Zinn, or trawling through the lists on guttenberg.org to find gems written by the likes of Nietzsche. No, at a rough estimate 50% were on Facebook and the other 50% were shooting virtual enemies in quick succession. Both convey very dubious messages, and make it less likely, not more, that they young will develop a deeper, more personal engagement with social reality.

To be honest, in comparison with that internet cafe, schools that are quite bad start to seem like havens where there still might be a hope of of a second Renaissance.

Anonymous said...

Miss Shuganah: "This is... actions have consequences. That is something that children and adults with senses of entitlement so huge that you can drive a tank through them fail to grasp. And suddenly they are shocked to discover that is the case."

This type of response disturbs me.

No one is shocked that there are consequences to actions; that's the whole point of a protest. In fact, if you look at the various videos again, you'll see that many of the protestors are prepared with bandanas, and some with eyewear. They understand that they might get maced as a consequence of their actions.

The horror here is the utter disproportionate actions by the cops. People can die from that level of pepper spray in their face. Some of those people participating in the protest had to be hospitalized.

The reason your response disturbs me is that you think it's ok to hospitalize or potentially kill young people for sitting peacefully as part of a protest.


Torn Halves said...

A footnote to your excellent post:


JJFAHL said...

No mention yet of the First Amendment. The right screams about adhering to the Constitution but when it becomes inconvenient somehow that becomes "not what the founders intended." Nothing is more American than standing up and shouting out loud to demand our government do its job correctly. If it doesn't mean that people can peaceably assemble in public spaces it has no meaning at all.

canadasue said...

Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil. - CS Lewis

Living in Cambodia for 2+ years added an extra dimension to this quote. This post did the same

Anonymous said...

Nice straw man argument with the so called "Marine". Also,you are making many assumptions throughout. Step back and take a breath.

Tyler Davis said...

Ira, I am from the University of South Alabama in the class EDM 310. My blog is davistyleredm310@blogspot.com. I have been assigned to comment on your post, and I must say I really enjoyed this.
I started reading this and I was like this post is soooo long, but then I got to reading and you really sparked something in my brain that wanted to read more about this topic. I have heard about "occupy wall street" and personally I do not agree with it, but I have heard very little about the UC Davis campus incident. I mean I have heard about it, but I knew very little about it. I am extremely interested in history myself because that is actually my major. I agree with you that the police officer was wrong for macing innocent students, but like andrew said, is that really all that happened? I know you backed your argument with quality information and I agree with what you said, I am simply saying that I am glad that you posted more than one source with this. I think police officers should not abuse their authority, but yet we see it happen just about every single day and it is sad that they do that. Overall, I really just wanted to thank you for your posts I really enjoyed reading them, and I actually read a couple more! So, thank you I will be visiting your blog to read more interesting takes!

lio said...

Ira, you're in a rather privileged position to dismiss someone's lived experience of adversity as mere "whine."

Your arrogance makes me sick.