Hey, Mister, Can You Spare a Job?

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A Post in the “A Modern School” Series

The unemployment situation in the United States is dismal.  Take a look at this graphic published in the New York Times September 17, 2011:

Poverty and Unemployment in the United States. Graphic Courtesy The New York Times

To my way of thinking it is incomprehensible that the human suffering caused by this economic nightmare would be considered acceptable by a single individual in Congress, but that indeed appears to be the case.  My motivation for writing this post is, however, not to slam either party for the abdication of their constitutionally sworn sacred trust to govern (although I admit I just did that very thing).

Instead, I want to look at an emerging storm that is the consequence of the situation.  As each month passes, for those who are out of work there is an assumed degradation of their skills, their ability to be “shovel ready” the moment they get that call to show up on Monday for work at their new job.

The impact of this Great Recession, as some call it, is multifaceted. Yes, the facet we hear most about  is the economic impact.  Another facet, however, continues to grow and become increasingly important: how do we reeducate the fourteen million out-of-work individuals whose job skills are either rusty or their job has disappeared altogether?

I suggested in my previous post, “A Modern School” that not only are American schools not prepared for the emerging age of Virtuality in terms of the way we construct our buildings, we are equally unprepared in the way we educate our teachers.

Add to this growing storm fourteen million adults whose job skills are degrading at an incredible rate as they sit idle, who will not just need retooling for the last place they worked, but will need comprehensive educational transformation, something we are not prepared to provide in any meaningful way, and we are in a huge amount of trouble.

Some will say, well, that’s what the community colleges are for.  The answer to that is yes and no.  Community colleges are an invaluable resource for a wide spectrum of jobs, but their ability to meet this demand is limited.  By their very nature they are institutions that are tied to their local constituents and serve often very specific missions within the community where they are located.

It is also reasonable to assume that the network of community colleges cannot absorb even half of the currently long-term unemployed.  Like the public schools, they do not have the resources, faculty, or staff, to admit numbers of that magnitude, let alone be radically restructured, themselves, for teaching these adults how to successfully work in the age of Virtuality.  Even if it were possible to for half the unemployed, 7 million!, to get the financing to enter community colleges, the schools simply could not accept anything close to that number.

America’s education crisis, let’s just be honest and call it what it is, is made far worse by this unemployment disaster, amounting to another sucker punch to the recovery.  I have little confidence that the current political atmosphere has any capacity whatsoever to either comprehend or take the action needed to reverse this rush toward the waterfall of educational disaster.

The great tragedy is that we have in every state the university and college education scholars fully capable of not only figuring out what we need to do, and along with the other professionals working in the schools themselves, equally prepared and willing to do it.  Will they be given the green light?  I’ll keep posting on this topic but I’m not holding my breath.

A Modern School

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With President Obama throwing down the gauntlet daring Congress to pass his American Jobs Act legislation, including $30 billion allocated for the repair and refurbishing of American schools, I decided it was time for me to weigh in on the subject.  More specifically, the school buildings of the American education system.  Back to that in a moment.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a number of months.

The American Education Revolution of 1916

The title of this post is nearly 100 years old.  It wasn’t a book written by John Dewey (1859-1952), who led the progressives to reform education in America, and is still widely read by students and scholars of education.  No, this was the title of a small work by his contemporary, Abraham Flexner (1866-1959).

A Modern School was published in 1916, and had a major influence on the huge revolution taking place at the time in our nation’s education from the top to the bottom. Flexner argued, and successfully for that matter, that the Classics as The Foundation of education were out of date.  He foresaw the United States as a growing economic power, that despite the huge emphasis on manufacturing and industry fueling the national economy that propelled us through WWI and later WWII, the country was inexorably moving toward an urban and white collar world.  He was largely right; the Classics never really recovered as the core of the nation’s curriculum and we indeed became financially the most powerful nation on earth.  He stated,

It follows from the way in which the child is made, and from constitution and appeal of modern society, that instruction in objects and in phenomena will at one time or another play a very prominent part in the Modern School. It is, however, clear that mere knowledge of phenomena, our mere ability to understand or to produce objects falls short of the ultimate purpose of a liberal education. Such knowledge and such ability indubitably have…great value in themselves; and they imply such functioning of the senses as promises a rich fund of observation and experience. But in the end, if the Modern School is to be adequate to the need of modern life, this concrete training must produce sheer intellectual power. Abstract thinking has perhaps never before played so important a part in life as in this materialistic and scientific world of ours,—this world of railroads, automobiles, wireless telegraphy, and international relationships. Our problems involve indeed concrete data and present themselves in concrete forms; but, back of the concrete details, lie difficult and involved intellectual processes. Hence the realistic education we propose must eventuate in intellectual power.  Source: Abraham Flexner, “A Modern School,” American Review of Reviews 53 (1916): 465–474.

Bits

Flexner’s day, however, has come and gone (and Dewey’s, too, but Flexner’s vision has truly run it’s course). There is an emergent paradigm for which America’s youth must be educated.  It is my opinion as an educator, however, that they will not receive that essential new pedagogical foundation.  In fact, we are already at least twenty years behind.  If you think that the key to education is still, “Our problems involve indeed concrete data and present themselves in concrete forms; but, back of the concrete details, lie difficult and involved intellectual processes. Hence the realistic education we propose must eventuate in intellectual power,” you haven’t yet switched paradigms, either.

Why such a radical breaking with these giants of American educational history?  Bits. Simply put, the virtual reality created by cyber-bits has dissolved, for all intents and purposes, the structures and pedagogical foundations of American education, of global education, really.  I would submit that we aren’t teaching our children how to live and work in this new reality, and will go so far as to say we don’t for the most part even know how to teach them what they will need to know this afternoon let alone tomorrow or next year.  Flexner’s world dominated by “intellectual power” has evaporated like so many quarks into the quantum foam.

The Building is the Curriculum

It is said art imitates life.  In the same vein, schools imitate reality.  Their architectural design imitates the work place.  Their schedules imitate the daily routine of the nation.  Their curricula imitate, since Flexner and others, America as the urban and financial powerhouse of the world.  That world is crumbling before our eyes at an astonishing speed.

So, I am pondering the question, should we really refurbish and rebuild our schools in the way President Obama envisions?  I support passage of the AJA.  I strongly support students having school buildings that are safe, enhance the learning process, are energy efficient, etc., etc., but will that $30 billion be trying to repair that which can no longer serve these functions in this new paradigm?

Consider that the school building is a teacher, too. As a manifestation of the Flexner paradigm, our schools are far past retirement.  Add the way we teach our teachers, to the degree our teacher education conforms to the Flexner model, we are preparing them exclusively to teach in those outmoded buildings.  They will not know how not to teach in those schools. Teaching in a sparkling new building with the most up-to-date technology money can buy will make no difference in the alternate universe of the emergent digital paradigm.

What if we did the most radical thing imaginable: Tear down all those worn out schools and design new ones to reflect the new paradigm that is ruled by the  bit, the byte, where those who command the power of Virtuality have truly been educated in “A Modern School.”

West Coast Universe

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The pursuit of life, liberty, and liberality…

Hello there from the West Coast Universe.*  This summer I’ve been blogging using the occasional series I’ve called “Hospital Food for the Mind,” which was based on the simple idea that I was writing short pieces during lunch from the dining room of the hospital where I work**.

It has long been recognized by all sorts of -ologists that regionalisms run deep in the cultural genetic structure of the country.  In the years since the National Media began using the Red State/Blue State concept for their political and election broadcasts, the visual impact of those disparities have been accentuated.  Added to that, the recent constant media chatter about “The Beltway” referring to the “alternate reality” of Congress and the Administration inside the Beltway highway ringing Washington, DC, the term kept popping into my mind. The more I thought about it the more I liked it and I decided to try it out in place of Hospital Food (admittedly, which still gets a bad rap even though my hospital has a classically trained chef running the kitchen).

I had to have a more evolved operational definition for WCU (see, it shortens nicely, too). After giving that some consideration I came up with the tag line: The pursuit of life, liberty, and liberality.

Yes, it’s a twist on the phrase from the Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  I want to convey, however, a new twist, a XTO twist, so to speak, with a not so subtle reference to being liberal.  In many parts of the country, being labeled a Liberal is the equivalent of being labeled a dirty pinko commie (the fact dirty pinko commies no longer exist is largely irrelevant to those who do the labeling.  They know one when they see one).

I chose the term “liberality.” For one thing, it conveys a different sense of what being liberal is.  Those who find it necessary to sneer when they are forced to say the word out-loud will have to really work at extending that to liberality.  And for those who religious beliefs are welded to modern fundamentalist conservatism, they will be faced with the discomforting fact that the very concept of liberality is rooted deeply in biblical theology.

The Hebrew prophets, Jesus Christ, and the Apostles of his Gospel made it clear: liberality toward the care of our neighbors is the highest calling set out by God.  There is not, I assert, even one prohibition in scripture for the role of government—a government of, by, and for the people in particular—to care for those very people and for the taxes of those people to be used to provide that very care (in the sense of loving one’s neighbor as oneself).

To those who think they can challenge my knowledge of the Bible in this regard, let them try.

So, I’m offering my thoughts from here in the West Coast Universe, a place where those who are progressive and liberal in their politics live and thrive.  It is a land of patriots who are proud to be Americans without apology or compromise, unbowed by the radical Right.

We see our Inalienable Rights as the pursuit of life, liberty and liberality.  That’s the essence of the West Coast Universe, at least here at Extreme Thinkover.

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*I can’t take any credit for coining the term “West Coast Universe.”  A Google search came up with just over 260 hits of the phrase used in one form or another from a variety of sources around the world.  I can offer the disclaimer that my use is not affiliated with anyone else’s and is solely for the purpose of commentary on Extreme Thinkover and under fair use not intended as an infringement on any copyright or trademark.

**The SMS policy of my hospital prohibits naming it unless I provide a disclaimer on every single thing I write as being my opinion and not necessarily theirs.  Since I find this policy ludicrous and an infringement on my 1st Amendment Right to free speech, I refuse to list the organization by name in any of my online sites.  It’s their loss, really.  I like the organization otherwise, and would write all sorts of nice things about it.

Trollish Tirades

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Trolls (Internet):

In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory,[2]extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[3] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.[4] The noun troll may refer to the provocative message itself, as in: “That was an excellent troll you posted”. While the word troll and its associated verb trolling are associated with Internet discourse, media attention in recent years has made such labels subjective, with trolling describing intentionally provocative actions outside of an online context. For example, mass media uses troll to describe “a person who defaces Internet tribute sites with the aim of causing grief to families.”[5][6]  Source: Wikipedia.

Paul Krugman, (New York Times columnist, professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, and 2008 Nobel Prize laureate in Economics), on his NYT blog “Conscience of a Liberal” recently posted a short, curt message regarding the constant flow of comments he receives written by “trolls.” See the above definition.  Still thinking about my previous post “Hospital Food for the Mind: Benanke, Jackson Hole, and the Importance of Being Wrong,” I realized that trolls fall into the category of ignoramuses I referred to there.

Krugman’s ongoing problem with the troll attacks is that he writes as a pundit as well as an economist. His often pointed remarks and his notoriety as a Nobel Prize winner make him a high-profile target for those who do not see eye-to-eye with him.  This is not a surprise.  Trolls have often been historically portrayed as quite large.  All of us familiar with the Lord of the Rings movies, along with the Harry Potter series also know the wide range of images in which they are portrayed. The point being that by their very stature rather than character or intellectual capacity, mythological though they may be, trolls can’t see eye-to-eye with anybody.

Battle Troll from Lord of the Rings. (c) New Line Cinema. Photo: allthetests.com

Since trolls were certain to respond to Krugman’s banning them (the fact that doing so would reveal themselves probably never crossed their minds), I, too, decided to write a comment.  I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not a troll. I’ve have had numerous comments published on Krugman’s blog (22 to date) so I’m a known quantity on the positive side of the equation, even when I disagree with him. He decided, however, not to publish any comments.  I don’t blame him, really.  But I’d written what I though was a pretty good comment, so I present it here.

Reply to “Trolls:”

It seems counter-intuitive–or just odd, if you like—to comment on this particular post.

The trolls (although I fancy your use of the term “ignoramuses” in a recent post) seem to have three flaws in their character. First, they have no capacity to understand either irony or sarcasm.  Therefore, they won’t understand this comment.  Second, because they think they are completely right, they also believe they are clever enough to slip one of their tirades past your anti-troll sensors…or perhaps they are just oblivious to the fact you can read and recognize their M.O.  Finally, they think they are right, not because they have ever studied economics or whatever else you happen to be writing about, but because they can point to who is wrong.  That’s very important.  They know they are right because they know you are wrong. That’s their rule: you have to be wrong.  About everything, it would seem.

Troll from Harry Potter (c) Warner Bros. Photo: http://www.flixster.com/

That creates an interesting dilemma for the trolls (along with certain pundits, bloggers, etc.).  The problem, of course, is that here we have two diametrically opposed solutions on how to fix the economy. Everybody can’t be right.  Somebody gets to be wrong.  Somebody has to be wrong.

This probably keeps them up at night agonizing over the prospect that they aren’t the ones who are right, even though they believe they must be right, because if they get to be wrong, then you get to be right.  And based on the negative reaction to your recent comments about Texas (from not just the trolls, but pundits and certain economists clinging to failed models), it looks like that their growing sense of anxiety about getting to be wrong escalated into a full-blown panic attack.  They, of course, won’t get that either.

Afterthought: Trolls looked a lot different when I was a kid…

Troll Toy (c) RUSS

Hospital Food for the Mind

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Bernanke, Jackson Hole and the Importance of Being Wrong

And, lo, from the great wilderness, from the antlered gate of the Hole of Jackson, the voice of the Fed, the high priest of the economy, Ben the Reserved has declared what the fortunes of our land shall be; and verily he has declared that it shall be pathetic and the fault of those who…who…who…well, those whose fault it truly is, but now that we are mired in the trap of non-liquidity and are bound ever lower, his hands are tied. And great will be the suffering of all the people. All the people who don’t have a substantial personal fortune, anyway.

I’ve got a question.  How can everybody who declares they have the true answer to our current national economic morass be right? Doesn’t somebody get to be wrong; doesn’t somebody have to be wrong, when opposing theoretical positions and hermeneutical assumptions are irreconcilable? Ben Bernanke, as head of the Federal Reserve doesn’t automatically get to be right about the future of the economy simply by virtue of his office.  Alan Greenspan, his predecessor, is Exhibit #1 for the fallacy of that attribution.

Two Economists Fighting Over Who's Wrong. Photo: Yellowstone National Park

Even a brief foray into the cyberland of pundits, op-ed columnists, and bloggers reveals that every single one of them believes he or she is right about his or her solution to our economic woes.  The reason these folk cite for their veracity is that they can point out who is clearly wrong and therefore is an ignoramus. Only rarely does one find an inspired author who actually is working from a model that has been tested under the withering scrutiny of scholarly review and has been further field tested on the roiling surf of economic reality.

The ultimate test for intellectual honesty would be to have all these very-certain self-proclaimed para-ignoramuses stand under the great antler arch in Jackson Hole, during a wild Wyoming thunderstorm with its hurricane force winds and recite the principles of their economic “truth,” on the superstitious belief that if all they were blowing was just hot air, that would dislodge one of the antlers and…the result wouldn’t be pretty.  That’s certainly much more humane than pseudo-presidential candidate Rick Perry’s lynch mob approach. Of course, he has jumped head-first into the pool of para- ignoramuses who believe they are right because they can point out people who have to be wrong.  Perry evidently has exceptional talent for pointing out who is wrong, along with great hair, but that’s another post.

The World Famous Antler Arch of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Yes, they are real antlers. I've been there and walked through the arch. Note that I survived. Photo Courtesy: ALifeLessSweet.Blogspot.com

So, who’s going to be wrong? That in my mind is far more important with regard to our pathetic economy than who’s right. To sneakily slip in a biblical allusion, we really need the tares to be winnowed from the wheat.

The facts are that someone is wrong about their economic model/dogma/delusion being the one that will revitalize our economy. They need to either get out of the way or in an act of self-preservation we need nudge them out of the way so the folks with the model that will be guaranteed to work can get their economic engine running in high gear.  That we truly need.

From the pronouncements of Ben the Reserved, it’s increasingly clear that the folks who wrong are getting wronger by the day. After all, the economy stuck in pathetic is just plain wrong.

Detail of Antler Arch, Jackson Hole. Photo Courtesy Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce

Hospital Food for the Mind

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I had to be in a meeting at lunch yesterday, so I didn’t get to write this post in my normal manner: thumb-typing on my smart-phone between bites of food.  I hope that doesn’t affect the quality of this piece.  I have a question:

Is the Presidency of the United States obsolete?

Up front, I’ll admit that perhaps if I was more impressed with President Obama’s performance in the job, and thought that even one individual in the Republican pack of hounds bounding and baying after his job was truly qualified, I might not even ask the question.  That not being the case, however, I am asking the question: Is the presidency, as one of the three constitutional pillars of our Union, now an obsolete political paradigm best abandoned and replaced by something else?  Or anything else?  Okay, that second question is just for the sake of rhetorical sarcasm.

Here’s my beef with the current situation.  I was always taught that the three branches of government in the United States were specifically designed to provide a balance of power, and that principle was to be inviolable to the degree that no one branch could supersede another.  This idea is based on that handy little political doctrine called the Separation of Powers.

Looking back over my lifetime, I generally place the beginning of this nightmare on the near-destruction of the Constitution by Richard Nixon. Ever since it seems we have been sliding toward a full-blown night-terror (the infamous pavor nocturnus) complete with an Incubus sitting on our national chest.

I would suggest that as the country has become more politically partisan, like a fault-line sending up waves telegraphing a coming earthquake, the election process has absorbed those toxic seismic waves. Apparently closest to the fault-line, the Judicial Branch has become all too often no more than a political equivalent of the Roman Coliseum, fought over by the conservatives and liberals in Congress–the Legislative Branch–the floor of each chamber devolving into an arena for ideological gladiating.  Only, there’s no emperor to give thumbs up or thumbs down, and so they just go on bashing each other, oblivious to their complete abdication of their Constitutionally sworn oath to govern.

Gone, in my humble opinion, is my confidence that the Justices of the Supreme Court (and the lower courts they oversee), selected once as the best of the best, view their appointment as a sacred duty to ensure their decisions rise above the everyday fray of American politics.  Yes, I know in reality it was never quite that noble, but in prior generations there was at least a generally accepted principle that the people who wore the robes and sat at that bench comprehended the high calling to which it is enshrined in the Constitution.

As for Congress, any sense of statesmanship is long gone, of dignity–even though they put on a show of being polite most of the time through gritted teeth–and an utter evaporation of “the loyal opposition.”  Factionism has permeated both the House and the Senate because factionism has permeated our political culture.  We have created this incubal demon through the ballot box and I fear it is only the beginning of a great price we will pay as a country for this gathering divisiveness.

So what of the presidency?  With the continuing deterioration of two of the three branches of government, can we expect the Executive Branch to weather the temblors and quakes unscathed?  I just do not think so.  The Legislative Branch’s warfare shows no sign of abating, even as we teeter on the verge of a double-dip recession. The Judicial Branch has become a hammer used by well-funded special interest groups to sledge their will into law, regardless of the damage they do to the rest of us.

Can one man or woman effectively push back the crumbling pillars to maintain the Constitutional integrity of the office of the President of the United States, like a reverse-Samson holding up the walls and roof, sparing the Philistines from certain death rather than bringing down the edifice upon them?  I don’t know the answer to this question.  Would the parliamentary model of governing be better?  Looking at all the problems our best international friends have (e.g., Great Britain) in managing that approach to government, I would not be eager to jump to that solution.  Nor would I ever endorse the fractured model currently used by the Russians in which two people apparently share power, but not really, but the one who is supposed to be the subordinate has figured out a way to actually control the other one and…  God protect us from a mess like that.

We are rushing headlong into another general election season (not that you can tell any difference, because the 2012 election has been in full-gear since the moment Barack Obama was declared winner in November 2008).  If I could work my will upon the country, the presidential election season would start six months before the actual date.  No one would be allowed to campaign.  No one, individual or business, would be allowed to contribute money to a candidate.  Political Parties would have to hold their nominating conventions 90 days before the election.  No political ads could air for any candidate or for any party until the parties had nominated their candidates.  I’ve got more to say on that, but it will have to wait for a later date.

Is the presidency obsolete?  Again, I don’t know the answer to that, but I know that it is every bit as battered as the other two branches of our government, and because of that, the future of the Republic is at stake.

I do hold one hope.  I continue to believe that we the people, by voting and exercising our right to petition our government, can reverse this earthquake of factionalism.  We are not beyond saving the Union.  But the day is upon us in which we must begin to do just that. To end this national night terror we must push the Incubus of Factionalism off of our chest, and, most importantly, wake up!

NASA Misses Its Own Historic Moment

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1:30 a.m. PDT.   I’m sitting in my living room watching NASA-TV in the middle of the night to see the space shuttle Atlantis’ final landing, and with it, the end of the STS program. But the most important factor in Atlantis last touchdown is it also signals the end of the United States’ manned spaced program. 

I have a few opinions to express over this turn of events.

On a practical note, I’m wondering why NASA decided to end this historic flight in darkness, when the vast majority of Americans are still in bed (leaving only a handful of hardcore flight watchers willing to sacrifice sleep to say we were there). It gives one pause to ponder why NASA decided it was better to sneak Atlantis back down earth under cover of the pre-dawn gloom rather than plan a final landing with a huge celebration to tout the value and successes of putting humans into space?  It is my studied opinion NASA has, once again, been its own worst enemy with regard to publicizing its accomplishments.

My other thought sitting here is having the full awareness that we as a country have ceded our predominance in human flight, a fact that the Russians, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and European space agencies can only consider an enormous gift to their programs. They will undoubedtly continue to accelerate their efforts to exploit the infinite and rich discoveries that await those first humans who have the vision and courage to push past the bonds of low earth orbit. 

It deeply grieves me to know in my lifetime, I witnessed both the beginning and the end of my country’s foray into that great human endeavor to explore above the sky and beyond the finite limits of our oceaned world. 

But my grief is tinged with frustration, because it didn’t have to end this way. In fact, it shouldn’t be ending at all!