Finalzzzzz…

No post tonight, not because I haven’t been loyal to my commitment to write for 365 days starting on October 1st, but because I don’t have anything like a blog post to share. Working on a research proposal for a critical discourse analysis within the research paradigm of participatory action research (PAR). It’s actually more fun than it sounds…which maybe isn’t saying much.

Here’s an image to enjoy in the meantime. I look just like this sitting on my couch tonight.

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Good luck to everyone else in the midst of finals at the moment.

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Street art in Cambridge

Boston gets flak for many reasons, not the least of which because it’s not the most fashionable and it’s got terrible drivers. My personal beef with the city is the 5-month-long winter that drives its inhabitants into down coats and snow drifts (hey, maybe I’ve explained the first two issues mentioned above…). Add to that expense and neurosis (it is, after all, New England), and you’re looking at some stats that are tough to argue with.

Yet I like Beantown for many things, too, not the least of which include its vitality, diversity, and energy. I was in Central Square today and found a little alley I’ve walked before full of images I’ve never paid attention to, until now. Color, play, fire, community…it was all there on the wall, and it’s all Boston, for sure…

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Day of thanks-action

A silly title for what I hope will be a simple post. It’s Thanksgiving, though in Spain (and perhaps other hispanoparlante parts of the world) the holiday is called “Día de Acción de Gracias.” As in, getting your thanks on.

Since this is an education blog (see About), I am taking a moment to be thankful to some of the people in my life who have been educators in my life.

I want to thank my mom for reading my blog. She is an amazing mother, and even when she doesn’t have time or energy for herself, she always has both for me.

I want to thank my family and friends for supporting and loving me through my moves to Spain, my tattoos and piercings, my punk hairstyles, my uncertain love life, and my many other changes. I have learned from you through tough conversations, losses, and surprisingly strong bonds through hard times.

And I want to thank my 91-year-old grandma who today reminded me that no matter how serious and important I think my writing, work, or career should be, all I need to do is look at the tie she gave me as a gift for the holiday:

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I mean, what else do you need to know when you have a frog yoga tie to keep things in perspective? Thanks, Grandma.

And thanks to everyone who reads. I am learning as I write and you are a part of that. It’s an honor to know you’re out there.

Whites and the Brown conversation

I’m writing from a cafe with wifi now which is closing soon, but I suppose that’s a good thing. Today I don’t have much to say in light of everything going on in this country related to the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO and the verdict not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him. So much has been said, so many angry and sorrowful and uplifting images shared, so many powerful moments yet to come.

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A quick comparison: Fox News published a quick summary of its version of the events of August 9th, 2014, in which Wilson told his side of the story and said there was “no way” Brown’s hands were in the air and that his conscience was clear. Case closed, right?

A different version came out today in U.S. News and World Report to detail the myriad mishandlings of the case put before the grand jury in Ferguson, not the least of which included the prosecutor’s poor management of evidence and procedure, as well as his possible bias due to his own (White) police officer father having been killed by a (Black) man 50 years prior.

My only thought here is: Fox, you’re wrong. The case is not closed, even if Wilson and you and other nervous White conservatives want it to be. The Brown conversation will continue, and we will all be a part of it, whether you like it or not.

This runaway beast  

I’m on my way home for Thanksgiving on a bus that has been delayed several times due to traffic. What should be a 4-5 hour ride is looking like at least 7 in total. Weird that a group of people who don’t know each other (except for those who bought tickets together) are found careening together through space, hurtling from one city to another, seeking out loved ones hundreds of miles away and stiffening away from the slumbering person in the seat next to them.

What is our community, nowadays? Do we have one, or are we members of many? We are Westerners, by and large, and even those of us who wouldn’t identify as Western World by birth still buy into the values espoused in Western societies: economies exist to support the population (thus positioning resources – human, natural and manmade – as having a value in direct relationship to their support of our society), and work is considered the most valid contribution to this economy. Capitalism dominates now, but socialism and communism also existed as economic models in the past (and still do today, though they have adopted capitalist priorities, as in China); through the gradual building of civilizations that consider themselves now above, and custodially linked to, the fate of Nature, our world has become a web of extraction of energy to be converted into a life support system that sustains, albeit more and more weakly, an ever-growing world population.

Yet feelings of isolation and depression, even in an era of massive connectivity dominated by social media, advertising, cell phones and computers, and other means of shuttling messages and meanings across space, are growing. Experiments have been done to show that when people use more social media, they feel less connected to each other. Perhaps a bit less human, as well.

All of these disquieting thoughts are inspired by a speech given in 1980 by Russell Means of the Lakota Tribe, which is called one of the First Nations. Means – who supported an interesting explanation as to why the term “American Indian” may not the misnomer we have been trained to think it is – spoke in 1980 about the sickness of humankind that has been brought by European thinking, European ways, European influence, and European dominance in modern times. He argued that capitalism’s ills cannot be remedied by Marxist solutions, because Marx’s thinking – like that of other social “radicals” such as Paulo Freire and John Dewey – originated in the same mode of Westernism, which dictates first and foremost that man stands above Nature, and uses it to his benefit. This thinking I remember seeing in John Locke, as he spoke about the conversion of Nature in his theory of property, which is inert and without inherent value, into something of use to humanity through labor. The purpose of Nature, by this logic, is to serve man. While this is both a pre-capitalist and pre-Marxist view, each economic system indicates such a viewpoint as instrumental, if latent, to its formula.

Why is this a problem? Take a look around. We are causing the global temperature to rise, emitting more pollution than we can ever hope to eliminate, and soaking up fossil fuels, forests, animal populations, and natural habitats so quickly that projections for the end of natural energy in the form of fossil fuels are signaling crisis within 100 years. With the notion of human capital as developed by Becker in the mid-20th century, we have turned to each other – or more often, to the less powerful among us – to be producers of value as well. Couldn’t we argue that the “labor” a manager or CEO applies to the potential of a worker “converts” this worker into a source of value?

With such a functionalist view of our environment and even each other, we alter our ability to perceive loss or the subjugation of what is natural without our interference. This has become much, much more sinister in the last couple of decades of corporate involvement in government decision-making, education, health care, policing and prisons, and environmental actions. Such influence carries a familiar banner: it’s all about the value added! We seek to quantify, to measure, to calculate outcomes nowadays – I’m using neoliberal discourse here now – and further mediate our ability to perceive through this lens. A good example of such changes is taking place in education; by this model, our children are only doing well if a test can tell us so, thus indicating their “success” or “failure”; we are working on the beginnings of a system which will monitor their “progress” and report back constantly on every change, hiccup, or moment of resistance. We will then reward submission with more opportunities to submit in the future, in the form of jobs.

Sound conspiracy theory-y? Might be. I have heard recently that people tend to reach for such theories when they have become desperate, losing a sense of control over their lives. I know we’ve lost a sense of control over the machine that inhales raw materials into its hungry mouth and spits out products for the many and profits for the few. And I feel a loss of control over my role in that process. I feel useless, powerless, ineffective, and hopelessly bleeding-heart leftist.

And I want to ask Russell Means of the Lakota People: If my culture has made me, and I make my culture, what room is there for you and yours…even if you are right? How do we stop this runaway beast tearing down the mountainside, savage and faceless, mouth full of dying forests and choking air, to consume us all?

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Freedom of thought and the future American citizen

In my Modern Political Theory class, I am reading John Stuart Mill. Mill wrote about utilitarianism – a concept he and Jeremy Bentham forged in the 19th century – and the idea that freedom of thought, not just freedom from a despotical leader, was necessary for human beings to achieve their full intellectual potential. Really interesting stuff, and very applicable to the world of today. Mill felt that the tyranny of the majority (see Tocqueville, who coined the phrase) could serve to oppress us, and even the loss of a single voice represented a tragedy of humanity to be avoided.

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Concurrent to these ideas, my studies of late include reading about the privatization of education in America and the world over by multinational education corporations (“edu-businesses”) in “Global Education Inc.: New Policy Networks and the Neoliberal Imaginary” by Stephen Ball. The book documents the influence of the neoliberal ideology in education management – meaning that priorities include measurements, outcomes, and that key term so often used, accountability. Education, according to Ball, is becoming a product rather than a process, supported by the belief that America is and should continue to be the preeminent economic (and military and political and cultural) force in the world, a position which can be consolidated only by maintaining that our children must be able to compete – and win – on the world stage. The Executive Summary for the Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology (2010) initiative by the U.S. Department of Education says it all:

Education is the key to America’s economic growth and prosperity and to our ability to compete in the global economy. It is the path to good jobs and higher earning power for Americans…The challenging and rapidly changing demands of our global economy tell us what people need to know and who needs to learn. (7-8) (emphasis added)

So this means, in essence, that the goals, priorities, design, and philosophy of education should be defined according to the global economy. Let’s just be clear about that. It may not seem like a big deal, but consider the fact that what we’re talking about here is preparing children to perform as future contributors to an economy above all else. Of course, as citizens in this country it’s hoped that part of their lives would encompass their participation in commerce at some level, whether this be as a worker or an owner, and certainly important nowadays, a consumer. However, read the last line carefully: both what students need to learn, as well as who needs to learn in the first place, are defined by economic outcomes. The critical eye will pick up that this is a political agenda as well as an economic one, and a sinister one at that.

The reason why I mentioned Mill in the beginning of this post is that his work is relevant to such a conversation about the purpose of education. If the greater good is served by the freedom of every individual to have his/her beliefs, rather than acquiesce to the dominance of one kind of thinking which trains the creative mind into a position of servitude – by this I mean that education in such a context would serve to develop workers, rather than free thinkers – then the model proposed in the “Transforming American Education” document represents a form, albeit seemingly logical and even necessary, of enslavement. It could be argued that we are always forced to adapt to social norms as we grow up, either through schooling or other processes of learning acceptable behavior and beliefs in various contexts. However, it has not always been the case that education has become a prescribed form of mental training to serve the economic goals of a country, at least not to the detriment of the development of creativity, curiosity, the capacity for abstract thought, and the ability to consider oneself a democratic subject. John Dewey, an American educational philosopher in the early 20th century, argued strenuously for the responsibility of education to do just this, when powerful socioeconomic forces resulting from the Industrial Revolution brought into question the purpose of education: creating workers, or democratic subjects?

I vote for the latter in all moments of history. I don’t think we need to worry nearly as much about economic dominance as we do about our children’s right to free thought, exposure to different ideas than the most commonly valued ones, and support and care from educators and their community not as units of human capital growing to feed the economic machine, but as future members of a society we have founded and claim to uphold as democratic.

“Research” and the Lammily doll  

I am digging this new Lammily doll. Created not by Mattel but by an individual named Nickolay Lamm, the doll has the dimensions of an “average” 19-year-old and comes with “cellulite, acne, and scar stickers.” A now-famous video shows 2nd graders (mostly girls, though there’s also a boy in there) in Pittsburg responding to the doll in comparison to the traditional Barbie doll. The kids seem to really like the doll, saying that she seemed “unique” and “real,” more like a “regular girl,” and they talked about how they could see her doing gymnastics or working as a teacher.

It’s thrilling, for sure, to see that kids can perceive the differences between the Barbie and the Lammily doll, that they seem to like her (most of the children were shown to choose her over the Barbie). Yet a comment from a friend of mine on Facebook (“anything to make a buck…”) reminds me that there’s certainly another reason why the creator would have wanted to design a doll like this: she’s new and different. And that means that there’s a potential market out there. In fact, when asked which of the two dolls they would want to get as a present, every child said “the Lammily doll” – but more than one gave the reason that she already had Barbie and so the Lammily would be a new addition.

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Not the new Lammily doll.

In fact, if you look at the video critically, there may be different reasons why the kids featured prefer the Lammily doll in the first place. Some make sense in a very healthy way; one of the girls says the doll looks a lot like her sister, and another comments on the fact that her toes are separated rather than together (so she seems more human). I looked for psychological phenomena that might account for this and first encountered counter-evidence to my point: the mere-exposure effect, also known as the familiarity principle, which simply states that we tend to prefer things that we are familiar with. Okay, so that would mean that Barbie should have won out there.

Maybe that’s less the point than the fact that Nickolay Lamm himself made the video, which has gone viral, and perhaps he also made the choices about how this “research” was conducted (what questions the adults showing the children the dolls asked, and how the dolls were presented, for example). Even the order of questions – e.g., asking the child what activities they saw the Lammily doll doing first, and then asking what the Barbie would do – can create a certain set of responses that may indicate a preference for the Lammily doll that the child didn’t actually have. This activation of researchers’ assumptions is called confirmation bias and can be problematic in experiments in which researchers don’t fully examine their own preferences (or worse, are covert about their goals to find one product superior to another) before designing the project.

But back to the point my friend was making. The video was made by the doll’s creator, with a clear purpose in mind: to market the doll. Getting kids to say they prefer one toy over another may not be as complicated as we think, which unfortunately defeats what we feminists hope would be a much more revolutionary response to the preeminence of unreal images of women in the form of hourglass-shaped dolls in the hands of little girls. But it certainly fooled me for a while.