Archive | June, 2014

No Politician Left Behind

30 Jun

Not realizing what would happen as a result, I recently sent the Democratic National Committee (DNC)  a check for one dollar, figuring that if a million people did the same, they would, well, purchase some office paper and some bumper stickers and some campaign signs, and maybe drive a few campaign buses out into the hinterland to listen to what ordinary people around the country wish the government would be concerning itself with. I had NO idea that the DNC thinks of little else than raising more dollars for its candidates and DOES little else but  attack the character and intelligence  of candidates from  the other party.  (Alas, I suppose, now, that the other party is churning out similar messages about candidates on MY side of the politically divided highway.) I did not realize that politics is about little except mediocrity and power. I see that more clearly now. 

Today I finally located the tiny “unsubscribe” line and removed my name from the DNC e-mail list. As I am extremely near-sighted, I had to stand up and put my nose almost directly on the monitor to do that, but, thankfully, I managed to send the DNC packing. 

What a relief! My In-Box now has only one or two actual friends named in it, and not every Democrat who’s running for office in every state in the Union, and every friend and fund-raiser of the candidate as well. If I see another campaign message, even  from the White House or from the Vice President , or  any other political person, addressing me as “Dear Nancy,” or as anything else,  I will also unsubscribe from them.   I have learned the value of my dollar, and would rather spend it on my favorite brand of natural, no-fat, Greek-style yogurt, which comes in Strawberry, Cherry, Raspberry, Lemon, Vanilla, and Blueberry, all of which are delicious,  high in protein, and reasonably low in calories.   

Now, as to the intellectual health of the nation–a much more difficult issue.

I have long thought that there is something deeply and broadly wrong with all our “systems,” but especially with our “political system” and our “educational system.”

First of all, education is not a “system,”  is not a one-size-fits-all factory, is not measurable, cannot be listed on a  transcript or in a grade point average, cannot be summarized,  bought, sold, categorized, handed out, handed down, passed on, given to us, forced upon us, is not a commodity. “Education” is certainly  not a synonym for “schooling.” Probably it is not a noun at all, but  if it is, it is, at the very least, something we GIVE ourselves throughout our lifetime, something we “lead forth” as Erich Fromm says, FROM ourselves, something we reach out for, work at, devote ourselves to, struggle for , challenge ourselves with, develop in ourselves, use our minds and hearts for, commit ourselves to–something we value highly, and , yet, never quite feel we have achieved. In other words, the attitude that develops along with our education is humility–a sense that, even a lifetime, even a fully-functioning mind, can only show us how much wiser we still need to be, how much more there will always be to learn, know, realize, become, understand, and do. 

I think our political system is a reflection of our educational system. Currently, I see no sign of wisdom in it, and surely no sign of humility, and it is hard to imagine that it can improve in my lifetime, but maybe it can, or could.

It seems to me that we, as a country, and as a world, are stuck in a place that does not look at all good.  We talk about “education” all the time, but, really, we do not WANT it for ourselves. We say we want it for our children, and other people’s children, and so we talk about how terrible it is that some children are “left behind,” that some are “behind” before they even start school. We assume, therefore, that they should just  start school earlier, and  “catch up.”  But we do not really think about this. We do not ask ourselves what they are “catching up with,” and WHY.  We do not ask ourselves what an education is FOR. We do not reflect on what is lacking in us, as INDIVIDUAL adults, not to mention as a society of adults. And we allow CAREER POLITICIANS  to make these decisions FOR us. We do not ASK  how they are qualified to make them. We do not allow ourselves to see how lacking they are in wisdom, insight, open-mindedness, reflectiveness. I don’t know why, unless we, too, are lacking in those qualities.

I was a college English professor for over thirty years. I teach art now, and poetry, sometimes, to people of  all ages who  assume they lack talent, or who would just like to explore something fresh and new–and meaningful, and free.  So many students, both teenagers and adults, have arrived in my classes lacking in confidence, afraid they are “dumb,” afraid that they will “look dumb,” afraid they will reveal their lack of talent or insight or knowledge, and feel ashamed and embarrassed. I have focused on encouragement all my life. I KNOW  they have plenty of talent, and plenty to express with it. It moves and delights me to be in such a position–helping people appreciate and enjoy their minds. I certainly never tire of it. Neither do I ever tire of exploring my own. I think that’s a large part of what life is ABOUT. I thrive on exploring, on dialogue, on reflection, on being awake and engaged TODAY.

And, so, I often imagine how wonderful it would be if all teachers , administrators, and politicians felt as I do about such things.

Of course I know they don’t. Of course it is hard for me to imagine that they might sign up for MY course, but  I DO imagine it, and I imagine it with delight–and a certain amount of mischief. Some others might like to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” That would be nice too, but I’d like, first, to take over the House and the Senate in the other Washington and teach every one of them to DRAW, using what Betty Edwards refers to as “the right side of their brain.” I’d like to teach them what Edwards refers to as “pure contour drawing,” which means looking carefully at something and drawing the edges of that something without looking at their paper. It pleases me to imagine them doing this. I’m quite sure most of them have never even considered drawing in this way.  You have to draw slowly. You have to really LOOK, really SEE, the way the edges of things go–about this far this way, down about here, over to about there. Of course you don’t know where you are if you happen to lift your pencil off the paper, so you might draw this here when it is really there–but when you finish, and look at what you have produced, you can SEE and REMEMBER what you were trying to do. Once they experience that, I can also teach them modified contour drawing–that is, I can allow them to look back and forth now and then, to see where they are, compared with where they hoped to be. This is a skill that I think all politicians, and all people in teaching and administering should have. It’s a beginning. When you practice this skill, it seems, at first, that you will never achieve it. This alone increases your humility. That is a valuable learning, humility.  A humble person is very likely to be a person open to his or her own learning.

So, then, I’d like to come back another day, and teach the House and Senate some principles of Freshman Composition–not traditional Freshman Comp, which, perhaps, was the course they “had” if they went to college–the course about thesis sentence, unity, organization,  development,  grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Oh, I’d play with that a bit too, but mostly I’d teach them about having a VOICE, and about where voice comes from, and about why it’s missing when it’s missing, and about what it means if it is there. I’d teach them that without voice nothing very meaningful is even possible–because it is their UNIQUENESS that matters, the fact that there is no  other person in the world exactly like them, and there never has been and never will be, and when they die, they will be gone, and their uniqueness will be gone. And so now is the time to appreciate their own uniqueness, and to discover it, and to share it. Now is the time to realize that it is not their conclusions that are most important; it is the process they go through to reach their conclusions, the details they have observed with their own eyes, the meaningful sounds they have heard with their own ears, the feelings they have been aware of, the moments they have understood themselves and others, the moments they knew they did not understand. That is what I would teach them: This is their value. This is what is alive in them. And, yes, realizing this, is very likely to be another path to humility, but it’s a path every other conscious person  is capable of traveling, and therefore, it can lead to what we even now refer to as “common ground.” With voice comes details. With details comes uniqueness. With uniqueness comes sharing. With sharing comes exploring new possibilities. With exploring new possibilities comes something very beautiful, called insight. With insight comes growth. With growth comes a better understanding of the common  good.

Well, and then, if I could be invited back a third time, I would teach the House and Senate to debate in a more enlightened way. I would tell them about my own experience with debate, at Grays Harbor College, many decades ago. I would tell them about my debate coach, Alfred Hillier, whose wife told us, in February of my freshman year, that her husband was dying of cancer, but that he wanted to finish the year with us–meaning he wanted to continue to coach us every day, and he wanted to attend every debate tournament with us, including the national tournament in Stockton, California. I would tell them  how we, tearfully, asked what we could DO for him, and how she said, “Just do what you HAVE been doing. Just keep on putting everything you have into understanding the issues, into researching, into learning the best arguments on every side of the question, into treating the other teams with dignity and respect, into engaging in real dialogue with each other, with the opposition, with him, and with yourselves. Because, just as he is important to you, you are important to HIM. You and your high standards are what give his life meaning.”

I would tell them how we did that, how day after day, week after week, each of us would enter an empty classroom, empty except for Mr. Hillier, who sat in the middle of  the room, with no notes, no magazines, no books, no index card file, no nothing but his beautiful and gracious and honest and compassionate and insightful mind, and debated each of us, first on one side of the national topic, and then on the other. I would tell them how he did attend every tournament, how he WAS at the national tournament, how he sat on the stage the last day of the semester, a fragile but oh so beautiful  person, and called each one of us up to tell the student body what we had accomplished that year. I would tell them how he died the next day,  his work fnished, and how, at his memorial service, someone else read aloud the eulogy which he himself had written: Do not weep for me,” It began. “I have had the life I wanted. I just preferred that it would go on longer.”

This would be the education that I would want to help our Congress persons, all our politicians, really, to have. These are the qualities I would like to see in them.

I know that they are nowhere near that now, but maybe they have the potential to  move beyond where they are. I would like to think so.        



Us and Them

11 Jun

I used to wonder why there weren’t more parents in the school during the day–not just bringing a forgotten lunch, or jacket, or assignment, but  sitting in on classes, helping with classes, teaching elective classes of their own, teaming up with other parents to teach and learn skills and information that interest them. I used to wonder why there wasn’t a real LEARNING COMMUNITY in schools.  I still wonder, of course, but it seems strange, almost laughable, to be seventy-one and wondering about such seemingly obvious things–and getting it WRONG all these years.

I always thought parents were absent from school because they were “too busy,” or because they didn’t WANT to be there.


Wow! I have been thinking about this all day.

Of course, I have heard it said before: “Leave teaching to the teachers.” “To the professionals,” I remember hearing, once–as if the teachers and administrators are the only “professionals” in the community, the only ones who know what information needs to be “covered,”  what techniques and approaches, what “best practices,”  need to be used–or even considered.

My oh my. I have been a college professor since I was about twenty-three years old. I completed my Ph. D. program in 1979.  For many years, I was a member of an international organization whose business it was to “explore teaching alternatives,” and, eventually, to “explore teaching and learning.”  EXPLORE.  Isn’t that a wonderful word? It doesn’t mean ASSUME.  It doesn’t mean DICTATE, or IMPOSE.  It means “Look around. Look near. Look far. Work together. Work apart. Try to find out, try to see if, read up on, wonder, imagine, experiment. It means THE OPPOSITE of” Assume you have all the answers,” or “all the necessary or important answers.,”  It means DON’T ASSUME THINGS–at least not for very long.

So–I certainly do NOT assume that teachers and administrators are the only professionals in town, or the best professionals, or even professionals at all. I assume I should go off somewhere and reflect a little, perhaps for the umpteenth time, on what a professional might even BE, and if the word might be on its way to being judged archaic, or at least outdated, or oversimplified.

Of course if I must have a root canal, I want to be sure that the person doing this job has the necessary training, experience, and credentials to carry out this process wisely and properly. But when it comes to reading, writing, science, math, social studies–LIFE–who’s to say that Joe or Sylvia is more qualified than I am to READ in these areas, and to teach others to read in them, or perform in them? The lines between your qualifications and mine begin to get a little cloudy. Are yours better than mine? Significantly better? Does it MATTER?  How does one  wisely and fairly make such judgments?  Is there such a thing as “wisely enough” and “fairly ENOUGH?  And who would best know that? Or even “know that well enough”?

So you see, the waters become murky, and murkier. We don’t have the breadth and depth and pure reasoning ability to determine such things–for sure, right now.  All the more reason to explore and reflect and discuss and experiment and debate and question and consider and reconsider. After all, the lives of children are at stake. The lives of all of us are at stake, eventually.

Ever since I first heard of  the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and other, similar, inventories–somewhere around nineteen-eighty or so, I have wondered WHY there are so many SJ’s in the world, that is, Sensing/ /judging  types, and why so many of them go into public school teaching. Why do they value closure so much that they assume everyone else needs it as much as they do? Why do they accept entire systems and ways of doing things , seemingly without question and without even analysis–especially without their OWN analysis? Why do they not trust their own capacity to reflect and analyze more than they DO trust it, or , at least, SEEM to trust it?  Alas, I wonder and re-read, and discuss, at almost every opportunity, but I doubt that I am any closer to an answer.

Nevertheless, I would very much like to see more parents in the schools–parents, grandparents, all sorts of people, all sorts of ages, all sorts of life experience and expertise, all sorts of lifestyles, values, income levels, schooling experiences and degrees, etc.  I’d like to see a lot of non-parents there. I’d like to hear them–talking away, and really really  listening, and thinking about the way their own view stacks up against the views around them.    

I’d like to see schools become community learning centers–including excellent libraries– for people of all ages! Enough of  what we do now-dividing everyone  into learning groups based on ability levels, experience, age, family income, neighborhood, etc.  I’d like to see all kinds of learning going on–not just rote learning for state tests, but  many many kinds and qualities of learning–that are valued by the younger and older alike.–that are listened to by them, and thought about, and valued.

I think schools will evolve. I HOPE they will. I hope they will become meaningful and important enough to everyone–so that, eventually, everyone will become highly conscious, able, empathic, reflective, good at learning and articulating and sharing and just plain being and growing. Then, perhaps, there won’t BE an “us” and a “them.” Maybe there will just be US.