Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden

Last week I presented a paper at a “Globalization, Diversity, & Education” conference near Portland. It’s a small conference attended by equal numbers of liberals and radicals. An ideological oasis for lefties. At times it felt like I was on the set of Portlandia. I was kicking myself for leaving my dreadlock hair extensions at home.

People enjoy like-minded company because it’s self-affirming, but at conferences it makes for less-interesting sessions because there’s little to no tension. When everyone is of the same mind, no one is pressed to rethink or refine their ideas. Conflict is exasperating, but after awhile, blanket likemindedness can be equally vexing.

I’ve never been too fond of professional conferences mostly because networking is a weakness of mine. Also, too much of the content is theoretical and directed only at other academics resulting in an echo chamber far too removed from families’, teachers’, and students’ day-to-day lives. And too often it’s a game—participants are simply padding their vitas with an eye toward promotion. I couldn’t help but think how differently people would have to write their papers if they were forced to present them in pubs or community centers to a mix of citizens from different walks of life.

The highlight of the conference was the film “Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden” by Carol Black. Black created the Emmy award winning television series The Wonder Years with her husband Neal Marlens. TWY is one of my fav series of all time. After TWY, and the birth of her children, Black withdrew from Hollywood, got involved in the alternative education movement, and researched cross-cultural perspectives on education which lead to the making of the film. Black attended my paper presentation and helped in the discussion of it. I also talked to her right before the film screened. A lot of her thinking about alternative education resonants with me. Someone I wish I could get to know better.

Here’s the film summary from the DVD cover:

Schooling the World takes a challenging, sometimes funny, ultimately deeply disturbing look at the effects of modern education on the world’s last sustainable indigenous cultures. If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. government knew this in the 19th century when it forced Native American children into government boarding schools. Today, volunteers build schools in traditional societies around the world, convinced that school is the only way to a ‘better’ life for indigenous children. But is this true? What really happens when we replace a traditional culture’s way of learning and understanding the world with our own?

It’s as well made and provocative an educational documentary as you’re going to see. Many viewers will resist the message and leave upset. After watching the film, one person did ask Black why she drew such a sharp dichotomy between the “negatives of western education and consumer culture” and the “positives of non-western cultures and people”. Black acknowledged the dichotomy and said it was intentional because no one ever questions the premise that western education is a positive force for all of the world’s children. It was a thoughtful explanation for the film’s one-sidedness. I couldn’t help but think of how when I’m arguing with my Better Half, frustration clouds my thinking and I take more extreme stands than I normally would.

I could write a few week’s worth of posts on the film’s content. One thought. Few in the audience probably thought to use the film as a mirror for evaluating their teaching. Every educator enters the classroom with biases, privileging some cultural practices, disregarding others. Put differently, every educator sometimes slights the significance of their students’ backgrounds. While watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How do my preservice teachers and how do I impose our worldview on students?”

Another thought in the form of a premise. Even if we could close every boarding school in traditional societies around the world, indigenous cultures would still face the same challenges imposed on them by western education as a result of global media including television, music, film, and advertising. I’ve written in the past about the societal curriculum‘s effect on students. Sam Wineburg and friends have shown that modern film is the single most influential resource in shaping high schoolers historical understanding. Here’s their paper titled, “Forest Gump and the Future of Teaching the Past.

Beginning in the late 80′s and early 90′s, I was blown away by how pervasive western popular culture was in my travels through East Africa and China. In African markets, endless posters of the three Mikes—Jackson, Tyson, Jordan. Hiking up a steep trail to the Great Wall, I was subjected to Lionel Ritchie whose music was being piped in through cheap speakers tied to tree branches.  Immediately after a Chinese teacher talked teaching with some colleagues and me as required, she turned far more animated and excitedly asked if we had seen the Bridges of Madison County. My favorite Michael Jordan poster in China, like all English in China, had a wonderful typo. Under his picture it said, “Michael Jordan, MBA.” Tru dat.

So given global satellites, coaxial cables, the internet, and smart phones, the central question, “How can we avoid imposing our worldview on the world’s last sustainable indigenous cultures?” is even more challenging than the film suggests. Maybe Black’s film will inspire someone else to make a companion one on the global media. And maybe people much smarter than me will figure out how to manage globalization so that indigenous cultures aren’t completely overwhelmed to the detriment of us all.

Friday Mailbag

Readers are wondering:

What’s with Barbara Walters? Who the hell knows. Have you heard about the 69 year old woman who had an affair with JFK when she was in college and interned at the White House? She’s written a book about it. In a moment of weakness, I watched a Comcast vid of her recent visit to the television show “The View”. Ba-ba-ra was not happy. How dare the hussie allow herself to have an affair with the President and embarrass Caroline and the family with the details all these years later. This from a woman who has spent her entire career getting people to share intimate, unedifying details of their lives. Call me crazy, but Camelot or not, when it comes to White House intern affairs, I think the male with all the power deserves all the blame.

• What’s with Beyonce and Jay Z? Nothing except they’re really, really special. How can you tell? They named their child Blue Ivy. Ordinary people choose ordinary names. Special people choose special names.

• What’s with Tiger Woods? The sportswriting cognoscenti’s analysis of Tiger’s play continues to be woefully incomplete. El Tigre is playing better than a year ago, but compared to when he used to dominate, there are a lot more guys who are as athletic, as long, and as driven. Younger guys who don’t even remember when he dominated. Guys with serious game from every corner of the world. Bombers with exquisite touch. Luke Donald, the world’s #1 has never won a major. Lee Westwood, the world’s #3 has never won a major. They don’t hand them out. Tiger isn’t losing as much as others guys are winning. I’m downgrading the odds of Tiger winning more majors than Jack from 50% to 20%.

• What are the odds of someone else breaking Jack’s major record sometime this century? 10%. Imagine someone who has an unusually successful career combined with exceptional health. They qualify for and play in every major from ages 26 to 46. That’s 80 chances. To win 19 they have to win almost every fourth one. Very unlikely because of the amazing depth in professional golf these days. One major defines a career, three or four and you’re elite.

• Come on man, how many golf questions do you think you can get away with before you’re tarred and feathered as a one-percenter? Two.

• Why do some businesses send birthday cards to their customers they have almost no personal contact with? Who the hell knows. I’m sure it’s supposed to make you think, “Wow, my insurance agent really does care about me.” But I can’t help but think, “Wow, my insurance agent must really think I’m idiot if she thinks I’m basing my decision to go with her company on anything other than the rate and quality of coverage.” I’m often amazed at how salespeople have one pitch and how businesses employ one size fits all customer strategies. And to all the workers at Safeway. I know Corporate has told you otherwise, but you don’t have to chase me down the aisle just to say “Hello”. For the love of God, please stop with the faux friendliness. And to all the cashiers who can’t pronounce my last name, I hereby give you permission to just say, “Take care dude.” Or maybe I should get a special “Safeway” credit card with an “easier” last name. “Thank you Mr. Shaft.” Then I take my brocoli and almond milk and walk out like it’s 1971 and I’m Richard Roundtree. Mandatory related link on a brilliant new business concept—personal service.

• How is your training going for your little swim, bike, and run in late August? Although training officially starts March 5th, I’ve been maintaining my regular diet of two swims a week, four hours on the bike trainer, four runs a week, and one massive piece of chocolate birthday cake a day. Also, I’ve officially joined the Church of Core Strength. Lots of pushups, some bridge work, and planking every week. Those activities aren’t any fun, but they’re making a world of difference not just when swimming, cycling, and running, but in my quality of life more generally. Also, I now have another athletic goal of note.

• If you weren’t a college prof, how would you pay for your next carbon fiber bicycle? Male honey trapper.

• The fact that you felt compelled to make up this mailbag is concerning. Everything okay? Better than okay. It’s just sometimes mental decluttering is in order. Now, on Monday, we can return to normal, less vapid programming. I would like to do a real mailbag sometime so send me a question or two if you don’t want to be subjected to another faux one.

Postscript—I’m appreciative of a recent uptick in readers and subscribers. Thanks new and long-time readers for playing along and enjoy the weekend.

Divorce as Default

Washington State citizens are about to decide whether homosexuals should have the right to marry. There will be awkward moments at dinner parties, some people will switch churches, and the media spotlight will burn bright.

Meanwhile, few people will talk in any depth about when we gave up on the idea that marriage is a lifetime commitment. When did we decide it’s merely a chapter in the book of life? A chapter that naturally runs its course over time?

Some context. First, I’ve written previously that like anyone who has been married for a long time, my Better Half and I have struggled at times, more than outside observers might guess. We drive each other batshit crazy at times, but we’ve never stopped caring for one another, and we’ve persevered. I’m sympathetic to anyone whose struggling in their marriage.

Second, about two years ago, a friend of mine confided in me that he and his wife had separated. He was committed to fixing it, she wasn’t. It quickly became apparent that she was troubled and he—and I suspect his children—are better off now that the marriage has been dissolved. I acknowledge some people are better off getting divorced. Third, I don’t want to return to the days when divorcees were discriminated against.

Despite those caveats, while reading a popular blog recently, I couldn’t help but wonder when we gave up on the idea that marriage is a lifetime commitment. The post that caught my attention was an announcement that after eighteen years the author had asked his wife for a divorce, moved into an apartment, and started his life over. Childless, he and she were still getting together regularly and were committed to “always being good friends”. He alluded to underlying issues, but understandably didn’t want to go into the details.

To summarize the hundreds of comments that I skimmed, the consensus reply was, “Sorry to hear it man, but hey stuff happens, you two are great people, good luck going forward.” Even allowing for the impersonal nature of the net, the laissez-faire responses made me wonder if our sense of community has completely frayed.

Marriage ceremonies are public celebrations where family and friends form a wedding community, witness the couple’s commitments to one another, and vouch to support them going forward particularly during difficult times. In practice though, given our work-a-day mobile society, newly married couples rarely live in close community with the family and friends who pledged to support them. No man may be an island, but a lot of married couples are.

People don’t see their friends’ divorces, whether they attended the weddings or not, as a collective failure. Instead, they take a “there but for the grace of God go I” approach. Guess I’m hopelessly old fashioned. I reject the notion that divorce is to be expected, that a life-time together is unrealistic.

Whether we can figure out how to do a better job supporting existing marriages through thick and thin is every bit as important as what the media spotlight is beginning to shine on in Washington State.

The Achievement Gap—Turns Out Family Income Trumps Race

Increasingly, the widening gap between rich and poor is in the news. Despite the complexity of the problem, and the fact that inequality has steadily worsened over time, expectations for solving the problem unfairly rest on teachers. Teachers are expected to help African-American and Latino students achieve at similar levels as white and Asian-American ones so that we can compete in the global economy and maintain our standard of living. The repeated refrain to teachers is “close the achievement gap”.

Now social scientists are finding gaps in academic achievement are tied much more significantly to differences in family income.

As reported on in the New York Times recently.

Researchers are finding that while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period.

Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford University sociologist, is the author of a study that found that the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, and is now double the testing gap between blacks and whites.

In another study, by researchers from the University of Michigan, the imbalance between rich and poor children in college completion — the single most important predictor of success in the work force — has grown by about 50 percent since the late 1980s.

The changes are tectonic, a result of social and economic processes unfolding over many decades. The data from most of these studies end in 2007 and 2008, before the recession’s full impact was felt. Researchers said that based on experiences during past recessions, the recent downturn was likely to have aggravated the trend.

Nevermind that the problem is complex and it’s completely unrealistic to expect teachers to close the achievement gap on their own. If you’re a teacher expect the “close the achievement gap” mantra to be updated.  In the updated version teachers will be expected to help students from poor, mostly single parent homes (or series of apartments or homeless shelters) achieve at similar levels as middle-income and well-to-do students.

The Christian College Conundrum

Second Born wants to go to a college where she can enjoy Christian community and deepen her faith. At sixteen she’s not very political, but she’s left-leaning probably because her mom and dad are libs. She also wants to go to a college with a solid academic reputation.

The rub is most explicitly Christian colleges have theologically conservative evangelical roots which lead them to take decidedly conservative positions on pressing contemporary issues upon which reasonable people disagree. For example, here’s an excerpt from Wheaton College’s “Statement of Faith and Educational Purpose” originally penned in 1924:

WE BELIEVE that God has revealed Himself and His truth in the created order, in the Scriptures, and supremely in Jesus Christ; and that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing, so that they are fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say.

Wheaton, Billy Graham’s alma mater, is opposed to homosexuality. Recently apparently, some Wheaton alumni and students have organized to challenge the college’s position on homosexuality and support gay and lesbian students and alum. Here’s their OneWheaton letter of protest. Worth noting, it doesn’t appear as if they’re an officially recognized group and it’s unclear how much attention the administration has paid to them.

Any college that squelches open-ended inquiry compromises their academic reputation. For example, many biologists believe people’s sexual orientations are in large part genetically determined. Any self-respecting science program would pose it as a question to be investigated—Is one’s sexual orientation genetically determined? When the institution declares homosexuality is wrong, they’re stifling inquiry, crippling their science program, and compromising their academic reputation more generally.

Sorry Azusa Pacific Admissions peeps, after I reflected on this with Second Born a few nights ago she decided to cancel her visit. I told her she’d probably get a better education at a school that prioritizes inquiry and creates an environment in which conservative and liberal points of view are freely expressed. One where all students’ voices—whether conservative or liberal; straight or gay; religious, areligious, or antireligious—are encouraged, protected, and respected.

While not explicitly Christian, some outstanding colleges value and encourage religious life including Goshen and Earlham. Many ELCA Lutheran universities emphasize social-justice and embrace more moderate or liberal expressions of Christianity. And of course there’s the Jesuits who have a reputation for melding their social justice oriented Catholicism with very good academics.

Moral of the story, any student seeking opportunities to grow spiritually and intellectually should make sure whatever religious-based institution they’re considering acknowledges the complexity and ambiguity of the modern world and prioritizes open-ended inquiry.

What I’m Reading

Just finished “Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It” by Lawrence Lessig. If you plan to be, are currently, or ever were a political science major, you’ll lap it up. Lessig is whip smart. I was drawn to the book after hearing Double L interviewed on NPR. An expert on internet law, he said something to the effect of “Scholars should switch topics every ten years.” The higher ed world would be a far more healthy, invigorating, interesting place if profs universally applied that notion.

If you don’t keep a copy of the U.S. Constitution on your nightstand, you may find it slow going. The writing dragged at times. It would have been an even better book if L2′s editors had required him to reduce it by 25%.

Lessig explains why it’s understandable that 89% of the public doesn’t trust Congress. In short, every member of Congress spends 30-70% of their time fundraising because their primary objective is to get re-elected. Also, many see their Congressional work as a means towards an end of becoming high paid lobbyists. Important issues get short shrift and members’ compromise their ideals all in the name of campaign fund raising. The details depress.

Props to LL for eschewing academic norms and offering solutions to the problem. One major contradiction in his otherwise insightful treatise was this—he acknowledges that the public’s passive resignation is a rational response to the dysfunction while at the same time  he argues citizen involvement is the key to his proposed solutions. I appreciated the specificity and boldness of his fixes, but didn’t find them realistic enough.

Unintended effect no doubt, I’m less interested in politics as result of reading the book.

Needing a break from academic social science writing, I just started The Orphan Master’s Son—A Novel by Adam Johnson. Read some great reviews and saw Johnson interviewed on the NewsHour. I keep getting drawn back inside the Hermit Kingdom.

On deck, my first ever cooking/food book—An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler. Awhile back I posited that people don’t change. I hereby amend that, people don’t “Change”, but they can “change”, by which I mean personal attributes don’t change much over time, but interests can. I’ve always been an “eat to live” kind of guy, but in the last year or two, I’ve started to enjoy cooking, eating well, and spending time in the kitchen. Maybe it’s the long-term effects of the fem-vortex. Anyways, look for me to starting cooking with even more economy and grace real soon.

In the hole (baseball term for the sports challenged), the Happiness Hypothesis—Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt. I’ve downloaded the first chapter, just casually dating at this point, so I’m not committing to marrying Haidt (although that may soon be legal in Washington State, but I digress).

In related news, I sent Nineteen this link to Jonathan Franzen’s screed against e-books. She loved it because she’s also hopelessly nostalgic about the printed page. Maybe someday in the distant future Franzen and she will realize you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.