How Not To Indoctrinate Students

Excellent advice from David Gooblar’s Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “What is ‘Indoctrination’? And How Do We Avoid It in Class?

His answer. . . by modeling open-mindedness and intellectual humility.

Gooblar thinks we can guard against closed-mindedness if we:

“. . . admit when we’re wrong, discuss our failures, and let students know when we’re unsure about something.”

When researching my doctoral dissertation, I spent two months closely studying a master high school teacher with a PhD in Mesopotamian history. Most PhD’s in Mesopotamian history would fall FLAT on their face if required to teach high school, but not this one because he never flaunted his intellect. One time, I recall, he started a story about something he had recently read about Egyptian pyramids. “I recently read in a book, but I don’t know if it’s true, . . . ” With one simple phrase, he demystified textual authority. The take-away, reader beware, authors are flawed.

However, there’s more to the “indoctrination story” than Gooblar reveals. A year ago, I was teaching an interdisciplinary International Honors course to a dozen whip smart juniors and seniors at my liberal arts university. One session, when discussing economics, a winsome but exasperated senior said, “I’ve never had a single professor here say anything positive about capitalism.” And on a scale of “1 to 10” in terms of liberal, liberal arts campus cultures, I’d rate my university a 4.

I thought long and hard about that statement, but also the student’s seeming resistance to critically question obvious, albeit unintended, negative consequences of unfettered free-market capitalism. As a conservative surrounded mostly by liberal faculty and peers, did he feel compelled to overcompensate? “I’m planting my flag on the hill of free-market capitalism come hell or high water!”

No, I don’t think that’s what was happening. I also taught the same student writing four years earlier in a seminar where we got to know one another well. I was reminded in the Honors course of how close he was to his mother whom he talked about affectionately. When I probed a little about how he came to his pro-capitalism views, he talked about his mother’s passion for it and their numerous conversations about it from when he was little. His hesitance to question capitalism as an economic system didn’t have anything to do with peer relationships, it had everything to do with his love for his mother. To even question capitalism, let alone reject it like an increasing number of his peers, would’ve required him to reject his mother. Far too high a cost to pay.

When teaching anything remotely political, that is the educator’s dilemma—how to honor each student’s familial context while also challenging them to expand their worldview. Or more specifically, given our example, how to celebrate the beauty of a loving child-parent relationship, while simultaneously cultivating critical thinking about closely held, unquestioned assumptions learned from birth.

How do educators challenge students to thoughtfully confront their families ideological blindspots knowing their intellectual awakening will disrupt those cherished relationships?

 

I Hear You

Tongue firmly planted in cheek, I think, a loyal PressingPauser chided me for being too political in recent posts. Given the state of our disunited union, and the angry nature of our national dialogue, political burnout is totally understandable. He implored me to write more about other things. More personal ones.

I do not get as much feedback on the humble blog as I would like, so I’m prone to heed any I get. Please consider following my friend’s lead in letting me know what you do and don’t like. The reader is always right.

So let’s get personal.

First off, I’ve long suspected I’m on the cutting edge of societal evolution, but now I have hard and fast proof. Context. My “friends” like to tease me about my $14 Kirkland jeans. Prolly because I look so good in them #jealousy. Get a load of what WBuffett had to say about Costco in his just released annual letter:

“Here they are, 100 years plus, tons of advertising, built into people’s habits and everything else,” Buffett said of Kraft Heinz’s brands. “And now, Kirkland, a private-label brand, comes along and with only 750 or so outlets, does 50% more business than all the Kraft Heinz brands.”

And:

“Customers see the brand as a blend of quality and value, and it gives shoppers a unique reason to go to Costco that other retailers can’t match — online or off.”

Taking names and kicking ass, one pair of jeans at a time. Once this post goes viral, I expect Costco to call and ask me to participate in an advertising campaign. Maybe a “famous bloggers in Kirkland jeans” expose. Oh wait, they don’t have to advertise because you can already find their label on my backside most of the time.

Not personal enough? Okay, brace yourself for the next level.

One time my sissy borrowed my iPod, remember those, and had a good laugh at my expense. “You’re iPod is filled with female folk singers!” Yeah, what of it! Just more hard and fast evidence that I’m secure in my non-toxic masculinity. When it comes to groovy new female folk singers, the 23 and 26 year old prove helpful. Here are three worth checking out, that is, if you’re not beholden to some antiquated notion of gender.

• Billie Eilish, When the Party’s Over. Not even old enough to vote yet. Video is weird, but that’s to be expected from a teen. I’m sharing it because 162 million people have watched it and I don’t want you to feel left out. Grooved to this track while running yesterday afternoon. Started out in a light rain and ended in glorious sunshine reflecting off the Salish Sea. 7 miles, 54:30.

• Sigrid,  Strangers. Only 44 million views, so please help her close the gap with Billie by watching. 22 years old, Ålesund, Norway.

• Maggie Rogers, Light On. 24 years old. Career launched after Pharrell Williams listened to a tape of hers in a masterclass.

Alaska is her most listened to track, but I like this below the radar vid even more:

Two predictions. Olivia Colman will win Best Actress and my running posse will give me endless shit for highlighting three young women singers. The R-17 jokes will fly fast and furious. In my defense, one of the things I like most about these young women is their rejection of the pop music dynamic of the past, where young female singers felt compelled to sell their sensuality. These women, in their Kirkland jeans and t-shirts are saying f$%k that. Accept me as I am. Or not.

Still not personal enough? Jeez, maybe I should just write about the President tweeting back at Spike Lee for reminding people that there’s an election in 2020 and to choose love over hate.

2018 fitness report? 276 kilometers swimming. 4,868 miles cycling. 1,050 miles running, thus keeping my 20 year 1k+ miles running streak alive. . . barely due to an end-of-year calf strain. Now that’s some personal snizzle fo shizzle. For the record, “snizzle” is an actual weather term meaning a “mixture of snow and freezing rain” but my hip use of it means “shit for sure”. Feel free to come up with your own meaning.

And, of course, to weigh in on your blog.

 

 

 

 

Paragraph To Ponder

From Tara Westover’s gripping and sad New York Times best seller:

“I had a thousand dollars in my bank account. It felt strange just to think that, let alone say it. A thousand dollars. Extra. That I did not immediately need. It took weeks for me to come to terms with this fact, but as I did, I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.”

What I’m currently reading.

Do Yourself A Favor

And jumpstart 2019 with some Chinese fiction. Specifically, Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak, translated by Canaan Morse. My first 2019 book, well technically a novella, but I need to round up because Eldest read 44 books in 2018, the Good Wife 20, and the Youngest is reading up a storm since devouring Becoming late last month. Hmm, I wonder if Eldest and Youngest gave me six months of HBO for Christmas to distract me from the printed page #dastardly.

A rising tide raises all boats, so as I try to hang with the fam on the book front, I’m falling further beyond on The New Yorker. Ever catching up is probably hopeless. I’m onto this now, but I digress.

Ge Fei is a Chinese Ian McEwan, who I really, really like. Wonderfully clear; whacked out characters; compelling, suspenseful storylines. It was like spending another few weeks in China.

The back of book overview:

New wealth blossoms in today’s Beijing because everyone is lying to everyone else. Friends use friends, relatives cheat each other, and businessmen steal from one and all. Superficiality is the standard, and Mr. Cui knows it—in fact, he is drowning in it. The rich clients who buy his exquisite custom sound systems know nothing about music; his sister’s family is trying to trick him out of her unused apartment; his best friend takes advantage of and looks down on him. Desperate to escape this poisonous hypocrisy, the quiet artisan stakes his future on a job for a wealthy yet mysterious client who wants “the best sound system in the world.” This man, who has a mansion and an air of thinly concealed brutality, will drag Mr. Cui to the precipice of a new yet dangerous future.”

A central concept is connoisseurship. Unless it’s paired with arrogance, I always enjoy being in the presence of connoisseurs like Mr. Cui, an expert on high end sound systems. At one point, Cui secures a pair of the world’s nicest speakers, but he doesn’t tell his wife:

“Nor did I ever reveal their real value to Yufen. One day I came home from a delivery to find Yufen cleaning the speaker boxes with a goddam steel wood scrubber and White Cat disinfectant. She scrubbed hard to make them ‘look a little newer,’ and even put a huge fucking flowerpot on top of the each box. I almost fainted.”

More on the speakers:

“To keep the speakers in good working order and prevent the sound from deteriorating into fuzziness, I warmed them up once every two weeks or so, usually during the quite hours of the night. I’d pull out a recording of an Italian string quartet’s rendition of Mozart ( my favorite composer to this day), or Walter Gieseking playing Ravel or Debussy, and listen to it as a low volume for a couple hours. I knew that the technical specs of my own system kept the speakers from producing the best sound. But it was like seeing a young, beautiful woman right after she wakes in the morning, face fresh and unwashed, free of make-up. It felt more than enough. I could sense her understated elegance, her every gesture, her intoxicating allure.”

Damn, not all analogies are created equal yo.

Also, Cui’s takedown of self-important professors is LOL funny:

“. . . They seem incapable of doing anything but complaining. If the number of mosquitoes dropped one summer, they’d say, My God, the world’s gotten so bad even the mosquitoes can’t adapt. And if the mosquito population boomed, they’d say, Shit, it looks like only mosquitoes can thrive in this world.”

I should stop writing, and start reading, otherwise I’ll be mired in fourth place at year’s end.

 

 

 

Favoring My Private Self

I learned to write at UCLA. In the early 80s. First in a small Remedial English composition class filled with future professional athletes, and later, in history course after history course. One of the myths we erroneously tell ourselves at places like my employer, a smallish private liberal arts university, is that personalized learning can’t happen at large public universities. I’m living proof that’s not true. Sure, often, those history course discussion sections were lead by doctoral students, but they were outstanding and demanding beginning teachers.

Like marathon training, there are no short cuts in learning to write. Defying conventional wisdom about large, public university professors, my teachers and their assistants bled all over my papers. I paid close attention to their feedback and quickly caught up to my peers. And then continued improving quarter by quarter.

One memorable day in my sophomore year, in a large class on Central America, my professor, E. Bradford Burns, read my name and the title of my essay and said it was one of the three most outstanding in the class.

Stunned is putting it mildly. Wish my dad had been there.

After watching me skate through high school the first eighteen years of my life, he thought I should skip college and go to work for him sweeping floors in the Los Angeles factory he ran. Or join the military. If those harangues were reverse psychology, they worked. To succeed I knew I had to apply myself, and I did.

Another leap forward as a writer came exactly one decade later when, thanks to the encouragement of a young innovative mentor from Stanford, I wrote a 324 page doctoral dissertation in novel-like form. In it, I told the story of an International Studies magnet high school in Southern California. I was the very rare doctoral student who enjoyed the vast majority of the dissertation research and writing process.

As a professor, I’ve published quite a bit, but have not found academic writing gratifying. The whole tree in the forest thing. If only a handful of other egghead professors read it, is it worth it? For better or worse, a decade ago, I cut back and started the humble blog.

Which brings us to the present. My E. Bradford Burns booster shot of confidence has faded a bit. Sometimes I think, if I was a good writer, the humble blog would have a larger readership. In fact, I might have to stop referring to it as the humble blog. More important than assessing how well I write or not is the incontrovertible fact that I enjoy it.

One thing I like about it is that it’s difficult. In particular, I struggle with how to engage people without revealing at least some of my inner landscape. For example, right now, apart from writing a semi-autobiographical novel, I can’t figure out how to meaningfully explore and explain what I’ve been thinking most about—motivation, or what causes us to do the things we do, or more to the point, what causes me to do the things I do, without compromising other people’s and my privacy. I’ve struggled with that since the beginning, and doubt I’ll ever master it. I error on the side of maintaining others’ and my privacy.

That means there’s way more unspoken content between blog posts than within them. When I go four or five days without posting, sometimes I’m out of interesting ideas, but other times, I’m just favoring my private self.

I doubt I’m unique in this regard. Isn’t there more to your thinking than you typically let on? Aren’t you semi-transparent at best? Don’t you struggle with being vulnerable? With trusting others with your innermost thoughts? Aren’t we all icebergs of sorts, with much more going on below the surface than anyone realizes?

Or maybe with you, what you see, is what you get. In which case, I am unique.

 

 

 

 

 

Coffee Is For Closers Only

Most writers, like recreational runners hitting the wall, don’t pace themselves. As a result, they shortchange their readers with uninspiring conclusions.

Evan Osnos, in his lengthy New Yorker expose on Facebook provides us writing mortals with a tour de force example on how to close. Dig his last three pgraphs. So good, let’s take them one at a time beginning with the third to last:

“The caricature of Zuckerberg is that of an automaton with little regard for the human dimensions of his work. The truth is something else: he decided long ago that no historical change is painless. Like Augustus, he is at peace with his trade-offs. Between speech and truth, he chose speech. Between speed and perfection, he chose speed. Between scale and safety, he chose scale. His life thus far has convinced him that he can solve “problem after problem after problem,” no matter the howling from the public it may cause.”

He saves a key insight to the very end—conventional wisdom on Zuckerberg is wrong. Then the Augustus reference reminds the reader of Zuckerberg’s fascination with Roman history nicely explained in the body. Then the three brilliant “Between” sentences which beautifully summarize the three tensions that weave throughout the piece. Then Osnos uses a few of Zuckerberg’s own words to thoughtfully wrap the pgraph.

The penultimate one:

“At a certain point, the habits of mind that served Zuckerberg well on his ascent will start to work against him. To avoid further crises, he will have to embrace the fact that he’s now a protector of the peace, not a disrupter of it. Facebook’s colossal power of persuasion has delivered fortune but also peril. Like it or not, Zuckerberg is a gatekeeper. The era when Facebook could learn by doing, and fix the mistakes later, is over. The costs are too high, and idealism is not a defense against negligence.”

Again, a wonderful payoff for sticking with Osnos to the end, another astute insight about “habits of mind” and the difference between growing a new business and leading a mature one. Instead of a mechanical “tell them what you told them”, Osnos leaves the reader thinking even more deeply. Will Zuckerberg be able to make the pivot Osnos so convincingly argues he must? That question gives the piece a stickiness that a typical “let’s just end this” conclusion never does.

And the last:

“In some sense, the “Mark Zuckerberg production”—as he called Facebook in its early years—has only just begun. Zuckerberg is not yet thirty-five, and the ambition with which he built his empire could well be directed toward shoring up his company, his country, and his name. The question is not whether Zuckerberg has the power to fix Facebook but whether he has the will; whether he will kick people out of his office—with the gusto that he once mustered for the pivot to mobile—if they don’t bring him ideas for preventing violence in Myanmar, or protecting privacy, or mitigating the toxicity of social media. He succeeded, long ago, in making Facebook great. The challenge before him now is to make it good.”

Whew, where to start? A vivid reminder that Zuckerberg and Facebook are in their very early years. Anything is possible. And again, respecting his readers’ intellect by leaving things open-ended, a question, does he have the will? There’s no hand holding, every reader will come to their own conclusion. The “pivot to mobile” phrase is a reminder from the body of the time period when Zuckerberg only took meetings with people if their proposals included ways to grow Facebook on mobile devices. Osnos cleverly uses that anecdote to remind the reader one last time of tremendous challenges facing Zuckerberg. And then the final sentence, which again, leaves the reader wondering, can he make it good.

Give the man a cup of coffee.

Postscript: Not a flattering portrait of Zuckerberg and FB. Increasingly, I wonder, why don’t I delete my FB account?

It’s You And A Bunch Of Parking Lots

The best description of the city of Angels I have ever read. And will probably ever read.

“No matter what you do in L.A., your behavior is appropriate for the city. Los Angeles has no assumed correct mode of use. You can have fake breasts and drive a Ford Mustang – or you can grow a beard, weigh 300 pounds, and read Christian science fiction novels. Either way, you’re fine: that’s just how it works. You can watch Cops all day or you can be a porn star or you can be a Caltech physicist. You can listen to Carcass – or you can listen to Pat Robertson. Or both.

L.A. is the apocalypse: it’s you and a bunch of parking lots. No one’s going to save you; no one’s looking out for you. It’s the only city I know where that’s the explicit premise of living there – that’s the deal you make when you move to L.A. The city, ironically, is emotionally authentic. It says: no one loves you; you’re the least important person in the room; get over it.”

Sigh. Throughout the decade I called L.A. home, no one told me I could have fake breasts and drive a Ford Mustang.

And this very sound advice:

“If you can’t handle a huge landscape made entirely from concrete, interspersed with 24-hour drugstores stocked with medications you don’t need, then don’t move there.”