07 January 2012

Changing Gears 2012: learning to be a society (again)

(1) ending required sameness     (2) rejecting the flipped classroom     (3) re-thinking rigor     (4) its not about 1:1      (5) start to dream again    (7) re-thinking what "literature" means       (8) maths are creative, maths are not arithmetic     (9) changing rooms     (10) undoing academic time     (11) social networks beyond Zuckerbergism     (12) knowing less about students, seeing more     (13) why we fight

The adults could argue about anything,
and did every night.
I grew up in a family, in a place, in a community, in a culture which could and would debate anything anytime. It could debate politics and religion and sport and music and literature with wild passion, and it did, wherever two or more people gathered.

I remember very clearly how my father would play sports on Sundays, and he, an absolute socialist, was in constant debate with one friend who was a true Communist (he subscribed to Soviet Life magazine and New York Communist newspapers) and another friend who was a very-right-wing Republican State Senator. They agreed on almost nothing, yelled a lot during their conversations, but, and here's the thing... they were never anything but the best of friends, they never doubted each others' patriotism or each others' positions as respected members of society, they never threatened each other with anything more than electoral defeat.

I was thinking about this on a Friday night when my "spousal equivalent" looked at her Facebook stream and saw, from the friend of a friend, a person threatening to "shoot all liberals with a rifle." Nice. This came at the end of a week in which certain commentators on the American political right appeared willing to stir up threats of violence against an elementary school because they disliked something eight-year-olds had said.

You understand what I'm talking about. All over the US supposed "leaders" are willing to describe their opponents in terms so vile that it cannot be surprising that some are inspired to violence. But don't let that kind of ultra-extremism fool you into thinking this is a fringe thing: The governor of New Jersey has built a big political career out of insulting people in public. More Republicans in Iowa voted for a man for President who routinely insults large segments of the population in vile terms than voted for anyone else. Chicago just elected a mayor who's political career, including White House Chief of Staff, is based on incivility.

And it is certainly no surprise that our children learn the wrong things. "We" are the models, and "we" are acting in some horrible ways. Yes, I include "me" in "we" - it is not that I casually advocate violence, I don't, but I'm surely guilty of "saying" things on-line which go beyond provocation (which I think is generally a good thing) into angry denunciation (which, while perhaps being required on occasion, should be used very sparingly).

A Civil Education

Civility among us might be described in various ways, and, depending on the environment, things change. This is, and has always been true, which is why the larger the audience we seek, or agree to (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) the more careful we must be. Where I live in Michigan, for example, people often say, "Eye-talian" when referring to people (or food) with an ethnic background in the nation of Italia. And in West Michigan, that's usually simply written off as lingual ignorance, no big offense taken. Where I grew up, however, a place where every phrase used in the classic "ethnic insult" scene from The Godfather was used and accepted, "Eye-talian" would have gotten you punched out pretty instantly. So would "Jewed," as might some reference to the mascots of either Lucky Charms or the University of Notre Dame. On the other hand, the simple "God Damn" I was raised with can really offend the people who grew up where I live now...

This is the only version I could easily find on YouTube... Whatchagonna do?

But I was raised, I think, well enough to understand that when I left the confines of the "New Rochelle to City Island culture zone" I watched what I said much more carefully. No reason to start a fight with someone before you even actually meet them. This was reinforced when I attended the Police Academy. "First do no harm," one of my instructors said, "no one ever became less of a threat because someone called them a motherf***er. Watch your language. Be a professional." So, I am always stunned, and deeply disappointed in the training, when I hear cops cursing. What part of a "be a professional," or, "be a role model," don't they understand?

No, not everyone understands, one writer, complaining about "PC gone hardcore" in The Observer, suggests that, "perhaps we should all adopt the kids-on-the-bus attitude: accept that everyone is different, make jokes about it, but don't take offence unless it's meant. As Finn said to me: "It's about how you take a word, as much as what people mean by it. It's just words." How personal do you want to get?"

But I do, and we all should. Basic civility is what allows us to hear each other, to meet each other, to work with each in this thing called "society."

Less than two miles to the north, Thomas Paine tried to retire in peace,
but he was already too radical for the United States
"The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole." Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man

Now Paine was a "provocateur" of the highest order. He truly made the American Revolution possible through his writings. He raised a large part of British North America up to a point of armed revolt against their government, then he helped do the same in France, and yet, it was never his goal to divide the people of a nation against each other, or against the people of other nations. He was English, yet he was equally at home in America and France. He was a Marxist more than a generation before Marx was born, but he worked comfortably with landed gentry like Jefferson. In doing so, he changed the world.

The Power of "Consensus"
I always believe. Faith in the Gunners, the Mets, the Jets, the Spartans,
the Gaels, the Rangers, and once they're back across the Hudson, the Net

Consensus, is one of those good and bad things. A consensus which is "fixed," which is impervious to new information, say, "African-Americans are not really the same species as Whites" in the "old American South," are toxic. This is where "faith" and "education" come into conflict. Faith being a belief in things despite facts or despite the lack of facts - I begin each English football season believing that Arsenal
 will win the Premier League, the FA Cup, and the Champions League. I begin each American football season believing that the Jets will win the Super Bowl and Michigan State will win the Rose Bowl. I begin each baseball season believing that the Mets will win the World Series. These are "faith" beliefs, facts can not shake them. In sport that is fine, the social contract surrounding sport is that we root for differing teams, believing in them absolutely. No one in Green Bay, or Ann Arbor, or Philadelphia has to agree with me for the world to keep spinning. In other areas this creates bigger problems.

Consensus is a particular problem when it is based in majority opinion alone, and majority opinion, apparently, takes on real power even before we get most children into school.
"In this study, three- and four-year-old children watched as a small group of people (either three or four members) named a novel object. The majority of group members would use the same name for the object; the lone dissenter would pick a different name. The children were then asked what they thought the object was called.
  "The results revealed that majority rules when it comes to influencing the opinion of preschoolers. The children in the study would consistently select the name that was used by the majority of the group members. And even more interesting, in a follow-up experiment in which only two members (someone from the majority group and the dissenter) remained in the room and named a different object, the children would still go with name that was provided by the majority group member.
   "These results indicate that children as young as age three and four are able to recognize and trust a consensus."
Thus it is important that we help our students, from the very start, how to do multiple things: How to separate faith from fact. How to separate belief from knowledge. How to accept new information and incorporate that into a belief system. How to listen to a group, and yet, how to stand up for one's own beliefs. How to persuade. How to be persuaded. And, in all of these sometimes contradictory things, how to do all this without making enemies, how to do it without insulting people... essentially... how to argue in ways which allow you to argue with the same people the next day.

Step six of Changing Gears 2012 is committing ourselves to helping our students to be part of a civil society. Because we cannot exist long as a society if we continue to act towards each other as we have been doing.

It must be OK for us to say that our leaders are using
language which should be unacceptable.
We have to help our students understand that the words we choose matter. That our willingness to listen to diversity of opinion matters. That our willingness to respect each other matters. We have to say to parents who object to their children hearing divergent views, "you can keep your child at home, but this is public education in a nation founded on the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and respectful differences are welcome here." At the same time we must be clear, "disrespectful opinions are not OK."

This isn't really difficult. I went to school in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-racial community with very strongly contested politics. Republicans came to speak in school, Democrats did, extreme Conservatives did, the Black Panthers did. All of our religious schools brought all of us to all the other religious services as we moved through our studies there. So I sure knew that my father thought Mayor Ruskin of New Rochelle was dangerous,1 but he would have gone ballistic if I had refused to listen to him when, running for re-election, he visited my seventh grade. So, I was appalled that there were American parents who objected to their children hearing the President of the United States in September 2009. I didn't like what he said, but that has nothing to do with anything. I would have listened to him as I listened to New Rochelle's Mayor as my son listened to the State Senator from Holland, Michigan... with critical listening skills, and the ability to debate.

That is step one. We can learn to listen. Step two, is we can learn not to insult. And we can begin not insulting by considering the weight of words. Let me give you an example, less apparently loathsome than say, Newt Gingrich telling young Americans, including many veterans, to "take a bath," or Mitt Romney attacking former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman for serving his nation. I tend to get insulted when a certain political group describes themselves as "pro-life," because the implication is that those of us who disagree are somehow "anti-life." Now I can - and have - defined being "pro-life" differently, I think a "pro-life" politician or voter is one who favors universal health insurance, family and parental paid leave, higher "living" minimum wages, required minimum vacation time, and a right to housing, which, I guess I could say, makes all against those bits of legislation "anti-life." I am also very happy that a number of young women I know, faced with "accidental" pregnancies, could depend on Welfare and Medicaid systems which allowed them to give birth and begin raising their children safely, and so I could declare that my state's Republican government, which has drastically cut those programs, is "anti-life," but here's the thing... kind of like that instructor told us in the Police Academy, it's probably true that you rarely begin to win someone to your side by calling them a murderer.

'"The Catholic public official lives the political truth most Catholics through most of American history have accepted and insisted on,” [New York Governor Mario] Cuomo declared [in a 1984 speech on abortion at the University of Notre Dame], “the truth that to assure our freedom, we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful. I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to believe as a Jew, a Protestant or nonbeliever or anything else you choose.”'

Mario Cuomo, 2000, "We owe one another an obligation to treat each other with dignity, with respect."
"I know it may be hard for Mitt Romney and some people to take," Jon Huntsman said this Saturday night, "but most of America is with me because in the end they want this America to be working together,” and he is right. We need to be a nation which works really hard to find ways to speak across our divides, we need to find ways of speech which allow us to listen across our divides, we need to find ways to respect each other. I don't ever want to see a crowd of American "patriots" boo a combat veteran again, or cheer the idea of letting fellow citizens die. And I don't want anyone to call anyone a Nazi ever again, that is, unless the person is an actual Nazi (and if you can't tell who is an actual Nazi, you may need to go back to school).

Third, we need to practice. We cannot learn to be better by avoiding the difficult issues, we can only learn to be better by helping our children to learn how to confront the ideas which most challenge us. "A good citizen questions, informs himself or herself, thinks issues through, reaches conclusions, and participates in public life. A good teacher helps students to understand that controversy is the lifeblood of democracy, to learn how to inquire into past and current controversial issues that are meaningful to them, and to participate in public life," AlanShapiro wrote in an essay in teaching controversial issues, which is where I am sending you readers next.
Bring the controversies to your students, but... (in shorthand)
(1) Examine yourself and your own prejudices, 
(2) Create a safe environment where disagreement and minority ideas are not threatened, 
(3) Find out what students know and think about an issue before beginning an inquiry. Start where the students are - wherever and whatever age they are, 
(4) Examine questions. After listing student questions on the chalkboard without comment, the teacher invites scrutiny of them. Which require factual answers? Which call for opinions? What words may require definition before a question can be answered intelligently? Which contain assumptions? Which are unclear and need to be reworded? Which are impossible to answer or useless to the inquiry? 
(5) Have students experience multiple perspectives and the complexity of public issues. Exposure to different points of view on a controversial issue is necessary but insufficient, 
(6) Promote dialogue. Students usually need help in understanding the differences between dialogue and monologue, between dialogue and debate. Dialogue aims for understanding, enlargement of view, complicating one's thinking, an openness to change, 
(7) Be responsive to students' feelings and values, 
(8) Encourage both independent and collaborative work. Students need opportunities to pursue inquiries by themselves and with others. In either case, they need to understand the purpose, what they are going to do and how to go about it, ways to communicate findings and conclusions, 
(9) Provide opportunities for students to act on their conclusions. The idea of taking action may seem pointless and hopeless to students. Confronting and dealing with students' sense of powerlessness then becomes essential.

Yes, this is can be hard in today's toxic political environment, it can be really hard. But if we are to have a true democracy it is essential that our children learn to be better than we have been.

- Ira Socol
next: re-thinking what literature means
1 - Republican Mayor Ruskin sold David's Island, the former Fort Slocum, to New York's Consolidated Edison Corporation to be used as a spot for 12 nuclear power generating plants. Those of us living a half mile away were understandably troubled by this plan which, they said, "would "only raise the temperature of the surrounding Long Island Sound ten degrees." A great guy named Dr. Jim Egan, a professor, devout Catholic, powerful liberal, ran against Ruskin in 1967 and was crushed, but I met Bobby Kennedy when he came to New Rochelle to campaign for Dr. Jim.

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