Trying to drain my swamp, and have a cookie.

It has been a struggle to form coherent and meaningful ideas in my head these days. This is my swamp – filled with Twitter hashtags, Facebook feeds, editorials, vitriol, Trump’s transition team. Perhaps, with a president elect who communicates through disingenuous and poorly formed ideas in 140 characters or less, this will be okay – perhaps an inability to effectively communicate is part of the “new normal” I keep hearing about.

Fnding time and space to allow my thoughts to try to reassemble – to find the signal in the noise as Nate Silver has always, until the 2016 Election, been able to do, remains a challenge. I considered deleting all the “social” media, but like an accident one cannot look away from, I keep returning. I feel like I am still waiting for people to see how badly they got played – are still being played – by believing that SOCIAL media is NEWS media. I am waiting for people to see that when China warns you about bad environmental policies, Germany is leery of your understanding of human rights, and Netanyahu says be better to Muslims – to say nothing of Glenn Beck announcing that we have done our nation a terrible disservice electing the likes of Donald Trump – that we have crossed into uncharted territory. This is real. This is happening.

I want to drain my swamp.

I do not even know how to have the conversations that need to be had – the ability to have discourse is gone, one look at the comments on any given news item will make this clear. When presented with unfavorable opinions and ideas, there is always some “news” we can turn to that presents our feelings and opinions as facts. And as we have seen, they are shared and repeated over and over and over until, somehow, they become truisms.

I have likened this impossible kind of conversation to dealing with a small child:

*Toddler takes cookie from cookie jar*
“Stop. You are not allowed to have cookies before dinner.”
“You never told me I could not have cookies.”
“I did, and I am telling you again. Put the cookie down.”
“Put the cookie down, you cannot have a cookie before dinner.”
“I do not have a cookie.”
“You are holding a cookie in your hand. I see the cookie right there.”
“This is not a cookie.”
“It is a cookie, and you need to put it back.”
“My friend said this is not a cookie. It is fruit and cake.”
“You cannot eat that before dinner.”
“You never said I could not have fruit and cake, you said no cookies.”
“So you know I said ‘no cookies’.”
“It doesn’t matter, this is not a cookie.”
“You may not have that before dinner.”
“But I want it! You get cookies! You get everything!”
“I am not eating the cookie.”
“But you will! You will eat my cookie and then I will get nothing!”
“I will not eat the cookie.”
*toddler completely falls to pieces screaming about the non-cookie crushing it and rendering it non existent*

How do you have conversation with people who look at the exact same thing as you and see something totally different? How do you avoid being so totally patronizing – as might be appropriate with the toddler in certain instances? More importantly, now that we have made conversation impossible, and the basis for determining FACTUAL information has disappeared with the ability to always find something on the INTERNET that says what you feel is factual and what you do not believe is a LW or RW media conspiracy?

What do you do when feelings become more important that facts – or completely replace them?

I had my students read this article months ago. The premise is that “a democracy is in a post-factual state when truth and evidence are replaced by robust narratives, opportune political agendas, and impracticable political promises to maximize voter support.”

In class we talked about the impact of “fake” news long before the presidential election results made the rest of the country start getting serious about it. I asked my students if they shared political stories on social media, to which they generally said yes. I asked them is they fact checked the information. They said, no – unless it looked ‘outrageous’. On getting to the point of what in the world might be outrageous in these days, we concluded that things which brought out our negative disbelief were the only things we fact checked. [A couple of them said that they considered me their fact checker, which although mildly flattering is really pretty scary if you take that to any number of logical extensions.]

In spite of the declaration that “the global risk of massive digital misinformation sits at the centre of a constellation of technological and geopolitical risks ranging from terrorism to cyberattacks and the failure of global governance,” from the WEF, no one wants to talk about the cookie in their hand. They want to talk about how they feel about the cookie, or their right to the cookie, or how your criticism of the cookie is unfair/wrong/hurtful/a conspiracy against the truth.

When feelings become more important than realities facing the world [climate change, human rights, for example], we have lost the ability to communicate.

Sitting with this frustration I came across this article [yes, the author is a white male, no, that does not invalidate it], and it provided a clearly articulated (much more than 140 characters, I’m afraid) explanation of so much of what I have been witnessing in my community, my work, the world. If there is a place on the planet that embraces, condones, and validates identity politics, it is Berkeley, California. Interestingly (and many may find, counterintuitively), as many of my intimates know, I have consistently said that Berkeley is the most racist and sexist place I have worked in my entire career. I actually don’t think those labels really accurately express what I have meant. Basically my sense has been that Berkeley is one of the least tolerant places in which I have ever spent time.

This year I have been faced with an even more extreme version of all of this, a result, I would guess, of an incredibly charged political year, but also a consequence of the notion of identity politics. I have students with whom I cannot talk about a growing variety of subjects because the subjects are unsafe for them. While I am not opposed at all to the preservation of safe spaces and acknowledging that trigger warnings are real and must be respected, I find myself constantly stuck in a tough place when I ask a student to meet an academic responsibility and they do not because said responsibility is causing them anxiety/panic/stress/ideological discomfort.

The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country.

I am so frustrated by this reality.

Last year on a field trip with some of my very favorite students, we ended up at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The exhibition was a retrospective on Bill Graham. There was a photo of the iconic SF Mime Troupe in the exhibit. One of the players was in blackface. My students were horrified by the photo. HOW COULD THEY HAVE THIS PHOTO ON THE WALL IT IS SO RACIST OF THEM!

In my efforts to explain several things to them [1. What the SF Mime Troupe was actually about; 2. What satire is; 3. That photos of racism/ists, while uncomfortable – and by the way not at all what this was – are not in themselves racist, they are historical artifacts which document our racist history and are therefore useful tools] I realized that their sense of self was preventing them from understanding what they were looking at. And these are good kids who want to learn things and understand things. Because they were never taught the historical context of the photo, and instead have been told to focus on their personal identity at every turn of their education, their feelings were impeding them from hearing the objective details and contextual history of the photo. These feelings are not inappropriate or something to bury, but they shouldn’t preclude the ability to take in information. In my work, feelings have become so paramount that if school work or historical information gets in their way, it must be set aside.

This is where the two articles intersect. Stories have power and the moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Our identities largely give rise to our stories, and the effort to acknowledge people’s stories is real work that should not stop. The trick is remembering that they, the stories and the identities, are not mutually exclusive realities, and that their coexistence requires understanding the real facts behind all of the stories. And yes, FACTS ACTUALLY DO EXIST.

In a country as actually diverse as we are, the stories are some of the best parts – but stories are not policy. They are not data. They are not that which mandates for everyone should be built upon. [Filed under one more reason I love Joe Biden.]

The articles could come together thusly:

Because these narratives typically involve a selective use of facts and lenient dealings with matters of truth, they have given rise to symptoms of a post-factual democracy. A post-identity liberalism would also emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote. 

Until there is a place where there are some baseline realities that can be agreed upon, I remain at a loss as to where I go from here.

Maybe the only thing to be done is to insist that a cookie may be a cookie – or it may be fruit and cake – but it is my responsibility to do the work of reading the boring details of the label and the background of the naming of things, regardless of not wanting to for whatever reason I might have… triggers or facts or bursting my bubble.


This one time I was on the radio…

I was interviewed on the Monday that Darren Wilson was not indicted for the shooting of Michael Brown. It was an impromptu thing that I had no idea was coming… and a little odd  considering the grand jury was holding off on releasing their decision for several hours after I spoke with the interviewer, but anyhow here it is.

And then came the Eric Garner non-indictment.

And then one of the young black men in my class said to me, “I am just so tired of having to talk about this all the time.”

Kenny, my man, I can’t even begin to understand what this is like for you, but my god I wish society would give us some new material as well.

Back to school.

This is the last weekend before the commencement of the new school year for me. I am using the word commencement because as a high school teacher this word is overly associated with the end of the school year as a general rule… but really it means beginning. However, this morning I am considering the notion that the practice of celebrating the end of traditional (read American public (and institutionalized private) secondary educational programs as a commencement (a beginning) might be doing those of us who choose to participate in education quite a disservice.

Of course I did not wake up thinking about this. No. I woke up pleasantly enough, detached from the impending reality (doom? You know you have something to think about when the conventional humor around the return to school held by both students and teachers is something along the lines of the death of fun, relaxation, and time to grow in ways that truly nourish us…) of going back to school(work). No, I woke up and reread some of Anna Deveare Smith’s book Letters to a Young Artist, which I am teaching this year as a way to show my vastly talented art students that the kind of rigor required to make it (read ‘make it’ as survive beyond cup noodles and automotive domiciles) is the same sort of rigor that us banal work-a-day types rely on. It is a great text. Then I made some coffee. I watched Max make biscuits in the air for a good five minutes wondering what he must be thinking about and didn’t get up when I wanted more coffee because Matilda was in my lap. So, you know, my standard non-working morning.

But then I read a post someone had put on the Facebook about “unschooling.” That, by the way is not a word, and please do not get me started on the totally unsubtle and unhidden meaning of such nomenclature because I will never get to my point. I posted a comment to the post that said this:

The downside of perpetuating this idyllically presented narrative of non-traditional education is that this parent is neglecting to articulate how completely unusual he and his partner are. Not that I personally do not know people like this, but the majority of Americans who will take up this call to be “unschooled” are the same who rail on about liberal brainwashing in schools, shop for all their food at Walmart, feel the need to fight for their gun rights, and watch reality tv, which they mistake for the news. The kind of consciousness this sort of thing requires is deep, complex, and labor intensive. How many parents, especially the working poor, or people who simply lack the ability to think abstractly, or themselves are not curious but just pissed off at anything resembling government influence in their lives, could manage this?

But that wasn’t really the whole of what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say also was this.

If I had a even a penny for every time I heard someone, (usually my kids to be fair because I am working with the part of the parent population that has not totally turned on public education) say that school should be built around what kids are naturally interested in and that they should only have to do what they like to do… I could buy myself a car. Seriously. Not a new car, but I’m trying to make a point absent my usual hyperbole. From the pennies of those thoughts I could for sure by a nice used Honda. Seriously.

So I often think about this idea, this fantasy that by cultivating – exclusively – the desires of children and teenagers (do you really even want to go there??) somehow we would grow more creative, motivated, curious, productive adults… And without LOL’ing (and I am using that neologism intentionally too because teenagers think that is a real freaking word) this true story comes to mind:

When I was six years old, I was already quite sophisticated in the relative world of six year olds. I could read. Well. I loved practicing my handwriting. I flew on airplanes alone, and regularly, to visit my grandparents in LA. I was comfortable around most adults because I was around them all the time. I believed I was  great draw-er and thought being a ballet-er and an ambliance driver were perfectly compatible life goals. I loved animals, especially – wait for it – cats. I was pretty articulate as things go and had a lot of ideas about the world. I was definitely curious about things ranging from how grown ups might participate in things that cause their faces to become fully engulfed in flame (seriously) to divorce to the relative significance of inanimate objects. I observed that people are all weird and different and strange in their own way, and experienced the nuanced distinctions between my former kindergarten community school and my new school that had bells of an unknown significance. And most of this was because I was an only child to exponential degrees: the first grandchild, first niece, etc. who had a lot of direct, international, interested interactions with people around me (in spite of attending school, apparently.)

It was at this point in my young life that my aunt made a proposal to me. This aunt was an amazing globetrotting person who was doing things that at six I realized were basically spectacular. Her proposal was this: When you turn eight, I will take you on a trip anywhere you want to go in the world.

I died (as much as a six year old will) and promptly answered: LA!

Consider this. Just back from Bangladesh or India or who knows where, my aunt makes this proposal and my six-year-old mind knows LA. This was not a product of oppressive schools, a lack of curiosity, or waning creativity. This is the result of the simple fact – which i reiterate to my high school students all the time – that there is no way to really know what you might like/love/be inspired by if no one pushes you out of your known universe of likes by exposing you to new things. Some of which you might not like. The world of possibilities grows through experiences that you might not ever even know to take without the guidance and even pressure of those around you.

The trip we took  took me out of school for a month or so and ended up being a train ride across the US from La to New York, then off to London by plane, the to the Netherlands – then more usually Holland – by boat. Then I flew home from Heathrow to LAX on my own.

Now consider my adult life (well, at least those of you who know me can do this, and frankly I assume most of my readers do know me) and think about how it might have turned out differently if I were allowed to make all of my own choices based on my known likes, dislikes, and interests. We will just say it might have been more limited in order to avoid more judgmental terms. I would have gone back to the Valley.

I think about all the things that move me and inspire me now, and the experiences I am grateful for having, often in hindsight, that I would have never sought out or undertaken  if left to my own choices and devices because I was simply ignorant to all of the possibilities that were out there. I was six. Or thirteen. Or sixteen. Or 21. Just consider your priorities at those ages.

Often I hear people (myself included) say something along the lines of school not being about teaching students information, but rather how to think. In some ways I believe this, but in an effort to be more precise I would say that it is not about teaching how to think… It is about teaching why one would want  to think. Or about the myriad ways out there that people do  think. I also believe that school gives students a wonderful opportunity to hone in on things that they really don’t like or that don’t work for them, and that is also important. School also teaches us about the infinite number of frustrations that are out there at the commencement (and beyond) of the no-more-school life. It helps students understand that there are innumerable ways to deal with people and situations and they all beget unique results – and that with only a very few exceptions – you are going to have to deal with people and situations out there on your own, and the trial and error method is far safer in school than say, in a new job. I am not suggesting that Fin and Rye (really dude?) are not going to be able to deal with people and situations, but understanding human systems (bureaucracy if you’re feeling like casting aspersions) is necessary in the modern world and this requires practice with actual bureaucracy. Not because you have to participate in it, but because you are going to be a part of it regardless. Plus, You cannot effectively break and then change the rules of a system – any system – you do not like if you are unfamiliar with those rules or that system to begin with. Living totally off the grid is nice for some folks, but not a reality for most. And I would go so far as to say the ones who can make it work have real experience ON the grid.

It is clear that assessment based teaching is garbage and makes everyone miserable – and my theories as to why this has become such a point of emphasis in America belong in a different diatribe (and I am not even going to touch the implicit suggestion in most alternative education circles that anyone can be an effective teacher because… they have kids or draw breath, or whatever.) But the idea that school is a great oppressor and that kids should never have to endure that which they do not love is equally ludicrous. School has great potential – I think more than homeschooling or unschooling or whatever you want to call it – for the simple opportunity that it affords for varied experiences of world views. It is why I have to share so intentionally with my students what life outside the Berkeley Bubble is like. Life in Dhaka, or Alice Springs, or Appalachia, or Fresno for goodness sakes,  is nothing like what they are used to in the day to day of living in Berkeley, California. Nothing at all.

The more ideas, experiences and ways of thinking that people are exposed to – whether they agree with them or not – the more likely the possibility that we might actually create a more tolerant, contemplative – dare I say enlightened? – world. Fin and Rye are missing a lot of the realities of the modern world. And as I said, those might not be great realities, but there it is in the word itself: they are real.