The Sorry State of Social Studies Education

These are tough times for myself and other past and present social studies educators.

Exhibit A. Kathryn Schulz’s cogent explanation of everything that’s wrong with Netflix’s 10 hour long documentary “Making A Murderer”. Thanks Alison for the link, you saved me 9 hours and 20 minutes. Not quite sure how to spend those savings, maybe an extra hour of sleep for nine straight nights!

Excerpt 1, “. . . we still have not thought seriously about what it means when a private investigative project—bound by no rules of procedure, answerable to nothing but ratings, shaped only by the ethics and aptitude of its makers—comes to serve as our court of last resort.”

Excerpt 2, “. . . the documentary consistently leads its viewers to the conclusion that Avery was framed by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, and it contains striking elisions that bolster that theory. The filmmakers minimize or leave out many aspects of Avery’s less than savory past, including multiple alleged incidents of physical and sexual violence. They also omit important evidence against him, including the fact that Brendan Dassey confessed to helping Avery move Halbach’s S.U.V. into his junk yard, where Avery lifted the hood and removed the battery cable. Investigators subsequently found DNA from Avery’s perspiration on the hood latch—evidence that would be nearly impossible to plant.

Perhaps because they are dodging inconvenient facts, Ricciardi and Demos are never able to present a coherent account of Halbach’s death, let alone multiple competing ones. Although “Making a Murderer” is structured chronologically, it fails to provide a clear time line of events, and it never answers such basic questions as when, where, and how Halbach died. Potentially critical issues are raised and summarily dropped; we hear about suspicious calls to and messages on Halbach’s cell phone, but these are never explored or even raised again. In the end, despite ten hours of running time, the story at the heart of “Making a Murderer” remains a muddle. Granted, real life is often a muddle, too, especially where crime is involved—but good reporters delineate the facts rather than contribute to the confusion.

Despite all this, “Making a Murderer” has left many viewers entirely convinced that Avery was framed. After the documentary aired, everyone from high-school students to celebrities jumped on the “Free Avery and Dassey” bandwagon.

Excerpt 3, “As of January 12th, more than four hundred thousand people had signed a petition to President Obama demanding that “Steven Avery should be exonerated at once by pardon.” That outrage could scarcely have been more misdirected. For one thing, it was addressed to the wrong person: Avery was convicted of state crimes, not federal ones, and the President does not have the power to pardon him. For another, it was the wrong demand. “Making a Murderer” may have presented a compelling case that Avery (and, more convincingly, Dassey) deserved a new trial, but it did not get anywhere close to establishing that either one should be exonerated.”

Exhibit B. The Republican frontrunner (tRf) repeatedly says we don’t win anymore and he promises to make America great again. His strategy of playing on people’s zenophobia, fears, and ethnocentrism is working. Most disheartening, few ask how a simplistic, single-minded focus on the U.S., will end up benefiting the U.S. in the medium and long-term. Similarly, few ask why international competition holds more promise than international cooperation.

Because his name wasn’t in the headline, tRf probably skipped this news story from last week titled “Slow Growth Clouds Progress on Global Poverty.”

“Unprecedented global economic growth over the past quarter century has lifted an estimated 1.25 billion people out of poverty, in one of the greatest recent achievements in human history.

. . . . In 1990, 37% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, which the World Bank defines as living on less than $1.90 a day. Today, the bank estimates that 9.6% of the world is in this destitute state—agricultural workers and others who live in rural mud huts with no electricity or running water, work others’ land, and spend nearly all of their resources on food, often going hungry.”

We don’t win anymore only if “we” is defined in the most narrow of ways. Social studies education has failed when so many are so taken with someone who thinks so narrowly. If we had done a better job as social studies educators everyone reading about the stupifying progress on global poverty would immediately realize the positive ripple effects including slower population growth, reduced regional and international violence, increased security, military savings, and increased global trade.

Instead nationalism and demagoguery are winning the day. Given that, the profession and I get a big fat “F”.

One of Us: The Story of Anders Beivik and the Massacre in Norway

One of the things I most enjoy in life is traveling to different countries and eras through the filmmaker’s lens.

In 1990, at the Denver International Film Festival, I saw Rojo Amanecer, or Red Dawn, which told the story of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City from the point of view of a family that lived in one of the apartments facing Tlatelolco Square during the shooting. “The film, Amaya Rachelle Elizindok writes, “became one of the biggest hits in what’s since been dubbed The New Mexican Cinema Movement.”

The entire film takes place inside one apartment. It does not end well. Afterwards, I was overwhelmed by sadness, unable to speak or move while the credits rolled and rolled and rolled. Same with everyone in the theatre. Lifeless, we sat perfectly still for several minutes.

Twenty-six years later, I felt the same after finishing One of Us. Completely drained. Heart-broken for the families of the seventy-seven people who were killed. The word “sad” doesn’t do justice to Asne Seierstad’s story of the 2011 massacre in Norway. An entirely new word is needed. Seierstad’s account is comprehensive, thorough, disciplined, and intimate. A remarkable work of journalism. It’s a disciplined telling of the story in the sense that she describes the events and the psychiatrists’ differing analyses, only offering her perspective on Breivik after 522 pages.

03best-seierstad-slide

Wrapped within the tragedy are innumerable social scientific questions concerning child development, family dysfunction, interpersonal relationships, video gaming, mental illness, the media, violence, policing, and criminal justice. An Abnormal Psychology professor would only need this text.

Seierstad’s first and last words were most memorable. The first are from an epilogue where she quotes Hjalmar Soderberg, the author of a 1905 novel, Doktor Glas:

We want to be loved; failing that, admired; failing that, feared; failing that, hated and despised. At all costs we want to stir up some sort of feelings in others. Our soul abhors a vacuum. At all costs it longs for contact.

And from page 523:

One of Us is a book about belonging, a book about community. . . . This is also a book about looking for a way to belong and not finding it. The perpetrator ultimately decided to opt out of the community and strike at it in the most brutal of ways.

That view is echoed by Karl Ove Knausgaard in his essay “Inside the warped mind of Anders Breivik“. Knausgaard writes:

What can prompt a relatively well-functioning man to do something so horrific in the midst of a stable, prosperous and orderly country? Is it possible to ever comprehend it?

Based on Breivik’s political rhetoric and his self-understanding, and also on his chosen targets – Regjeringskvartalet and the ruling party’s youth organisation – it is natural to compare his act with the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, where Timothy McVeigh, in an anti-government protest, parked a truck bomb outside a federal building and murdered 168 people. Indeed, Breivik took the Oklahoma City bombing as a model for the first part of his attack. However, almost everything else regarding Breivik and his crime points away from the political and the ideological and towards the personal. He made himself a sort of military commander’s uniform, in which he photographed himself before the crime; he consistently referred to a large organisation, of which he claimed to be a prominent member but which does not exist; in his manifesto he interviews himself as if he were a hero; and the impression this gives is of a person who has erected a make-believe reality, in which his significance is undisputed. The way in which he carried out his crime, and the way his thoughts contextualised it, resembles role-playing, rather than political terrorism. The solitude this implies is enormous, not to mention the need for self-assertion. The most logical approach is to view his actions as a variation on the numerous school massacres that have occurred in the past decades in the United States, Finland and Germany: a young man, a misfit, who is either partly or completely excluded from the group, takes as many people with him into death as he can, in order to ‘show’ us.

A few months before Breivik carried out the assault, he visited his former stepmother and told her that soon he was going to do something that would make his father proud. His mother had left his father when he was one, and it had been years since Breivik had spoken to him.

He wanted to be seen; that is what drove him, nothing else.

Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.

In the United States we need to incentivize the giving up of guns and implement much tougher gun control laws. At the same time, Seierstad and Knausgaard remind us that seeing the invisible in our midst is at least equally as important. Seeing means making eye contact with and talking to those who’ve given up and begun withdrawing. Some of the most alienated are children. To reduce domestic terrorism, we need to see them most of all.

 

 

 


					

If You Must Be Afraid, Fear These Things

Thanks in large part to media coverage of high profile mass shootings, lots of people are feeling more fearful than normal.

If you’re feeling even a little more fearful than normal, maintain the positive routines of your life and limit your media exposure. You don’t have to completely bury your head in the sand, but you also don’t have to become an expert in all things ISIS.

If you’re resigned to being more fearful than normal, then you should study this Center for Disease Control list of threats that greatly outweigh an ISIS-inspired mass shooting.

Number of deaths for leading causes of death

  • Heart disease: 611,105
  • Cancer: 584,881
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 149,205
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 130,557
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,978
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 84,767
  • Diabetes: 75,578
  • Influenza and Pneumonia: 56,979
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 47,112
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 41,149

Source: Deaths: Final Data for 2013, table 10[PDF – 1.5 MB]

Want to truly be, not just feel, more secure? Take a walk outside, eat more fruits and vegetables, don’t drink or drive, and wear a seatbelt.

Alternatively, you can follow Jerry Falwell Jrs. advice.

 

Why We’re Likely to See More Student Protests in the Future

In some courses I use a class activity I created that requires my predominantly white future teachers to advise me, their hypothetical principal, on what our increasingly diverse and divided hypothetical high school’s priorities should be. They rank issues in order of importance, first individually, then as teams of “teacher-leaders”. They always rank “Our faculty is predominantly white; as a result, students question whether we value cultural and ethnic diversity” as the least important of the seven issues. In doing so, they say faculty members’ open-mindedness is more important than the color of their skin.

Meaning they are utterly clueless as to what it’s like to never see anyone that looks remotely like them in positions of authority. Some bus drivers, an occasional custodian, but never a teacher or administrator. How does that experience, year after year after year, effect African-American or Latino students’ thinking about what’s possible in the future?

Contrast my students’ thinking with current campus protest leaders:

libresco-datalab-students.png

From least important to single most important. The challenge will be increasing the diversity of college and university faculty given what we know about who is earning PhD’s, the typical prerequisite to higher education faculty positions. Most doctoral students attend selective undergraduate institutions which are struggling to recruit and retain students of color:

Among the 100-odd “very high research activity” institutions scored by Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research, most saw their percentage of black undergraduates shrink between 1994 and 2013, the product of modest growth in black enrollment amid a much more rapid expansion of students on campus, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.

This list includes not only Ivy League schools and selective private colleges, but also many large public universities, including UCLA, Florida State, and the University of Michigan. Meanwhile, other institutions of higher education—including speciality schools, baccalaureate programs, and colleges that primarily offer associate degrees—have seen black representation increase, sometimes dramatically. Source.

Long story short, the “x” axis, demand for increasingly diverse faculty does not align well at all with the “y” axis, supply of African American, Latino, and other PhD graduates of color. Meaning more protests ahead.

 

 

 

Assigned Reading and Viewing

• You’re interested in adolescent mental health and like long-form, non-fiction journalism. The Silicon Valley Suicides.

• You wonder what it would be like to be a young Syrian woman who escapes from The Islamic State. ISIS Women and Enforcers in Syria Recount Collaboration, Anguish, and Escape.

• You dig athletic excellence and redemption stories. After rehabilitation, the best of Michael Phelps may lie ahead. Mid-story, I wondered, has there ever been a more physically dominant athlete in any sport?

• This Thanksgiving you want to be more intentional about giving thanks. Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier.

• You’re thankful Adele is back. “Nannies talk very slow and very calm to try to make the world make sense.” Who knew?

• You’re grateful Adele is coming to Thanksgiving dinner.

Rubio, Veterans’ Day, and Default Hawkishness

They will not raise the minimum wage, but Marco Rubio and three-quarters of the Republican’s on stage last night, are playing on the American public’s fears in the hope that we spend a whole lot more money on a larger, stronger military*. “People are being beheaded, Christians are being crucified.” Repeat that enough and no one will ask where. Each candidate is more appalled than the next that President Obama has failed to invade some countries and kick some ass. How dare he refuse to send more young men and women into wars that only have political solutions.

They all suffer from a collective amnesia that is extremely dangerous unless you like repeating mistakes of the past. They refuse to honestly assess how the last few wars have gone. How much money was spent, how many people’s lives were irrevocably changed for the worse, how many were killed, how the initial problems worsened.

The Republicans would have Rand Paul and the rest of us believe it’s un-American to question whether military might is always right. I will ask questions, resist knee-jerk hawkishness, and support this President’s more conservative and disciplined alternative to mindless militarism. All in the the hope that we have fewer vets to celebrate on future Veteran’s Days.

* all while lowering our taxes

Climbing Mount Everest

This year my university picked Jon Krakauer’s 1997 best seller Into Thin Air as the common reading for first year students. Despite being an endurance athlete who likes mountains, I’ve never had any interest in mountain climbing. So two weeks ago I half-heartedly began reading about the infamous failed ascent of Everest in May,1996.

I enjoyed thinking about what it would be like to try to climb any 8,000 meter peak more than I expected, but I have no plans to scale Mount Rainier or any other mountain. I’m content scaling Tumwater Hill every now and then.

I dig when people have deep-seated passions which give their lives extra meaning. When they’re compelled to throw pottery, write novels, grow roses, brew beer, race bicycles, tie fly fishing knots, follow the Chicago Cubs, or climb over 29,000′ above sea level.

Krakauer’s fellow climbers caused me to reflect on human nature. One of the guides, an internationally renowned climber who survived only to die a year later atop another mountain once said, “Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.”

This quote fascinated me because the feel you get from Into Thin Air is that for most everyone on the mountain it was most certainly about ambition to achieve. Ego, reputation, bragging rights upon returning, and avarice were all more evident than Zen-like notions of self discovery and improvement.

I didn’t understand the willingness of the climbers to attempt the ascent with people they knew next to nothing about. Even if one were to go by themself with the help of a world class guide and small group of Sherpas, it would be a life and death gambit, but add in inexperienced climbers in less than peak fitness, and the risks increased exponentially. Why enter into a co-dependent relationship with other people who left to their own devices would fare much, much worse on the mountain.

Similarly confusing was partnering with some character-challenged people who clearly prioritized their own individual success and survival above anyone else’s.

If you see the film, let me know if I should.