Which Way the Economy?

One of the perks of living in the upper left hand corner, is getting Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) television programming. I dig me the CBC. So much so if hockey was my religion, I might move North.

A recent CBC documentary titled “Secret Suppers of Vancouver” was interesting on several levels. This 2+ minute trailer provides a nice feel for the case study of grassroots economic change.

When new business models bubble up, like Uber and Airbnb, the established businesses they most threaten, such as city-based taxi cab companies and hotels, hire lobbyists to get legislators to pass more and more legal requirements for businesses to operate which makes it virtually impossible for cash-strapped startups to comply.

No surprise that most of Vancouver’s restaurant owners find this loose network of semi-secretive personal kitchens threatening. The restaurateur in the trailer who says, “. . . and I respect the hell out of hustlers” is an outlier.

Some regulation is necessary for large swaths of consumers to trust businesses are competent, and in the case of the food service industry, to ensure public safety is maintained. But it’s wrong to use regulations as a tactic for limiting competition. Doing so stifles the creative destruction that’s part and parcel of a vibrant economy.

I couldn’t help but think about my industry, teacher education (and also charter schools) while watching Secret Suppers of Vancouver. My industry works tirelessly to make sure teacher licensure requirements remain sufficiently rigorous, thus protecting our jobs. Clearly though, one person’s “rigor” is another’s excuse for limiting competition.

Whether Vancouver, San Francisco, or your municipality is getting the regulatory dance just right is something upon which reasonable people will disagree.

It’s too simpleminded to generalize about regulations, we have to ask whether the current level is appropriate on an industry-by-industry basis. Once public safety is assured, we should error on the side of limiting regulations so that new new types of economic activity, like Secret Suppers of Vancouver, will regularly bubble up. Large, established companies should be expected to adapt to upstarts creatively meeting consumer’s needs and desires.

More personally, I was really conflicted by some aspects of Vancouver’s secret supper network. In all honesty, I would love to be a member of the club eating amazing food with all the cool kids. But the movement also has an exclusionary feel to it. You have to have ample social capital to even learn about the personal kitchens and to score an invite. Then you have to have more money than average to be able to afford the exquisite, personalized service.

Watch the full length documentary and then help me be less confused.

 

 

 

 

Salinger Documentary (2013)

A bevy of blockbuster movies are premiering, but I recommend an under the radar mindbuster. Salinger is an intriguing meditation on literary genius, fame, privacy, and mental illness.

About midway through the lengthy documentary, I became convinced that Salinger was mentally ill. The filmmakers convincingly argue that his WWII military service had an indelible impact on his psyche and his writing. If he knew what the first 48 hours on the ground would have been like, June 6-7, 1944, I wonder if he would have volunteered. He was fortunate to survive the first two days. 

Salinger’s was not a dangerous or violent mental illness. The truth be told, no one is “normal”, most of us suffer from mental abnormalities or quirks of some sort. Salinger’s imaginary characters and families took precedence over his living, breathing family and friends. He only harmed people who competed with his imaginary characters for his attention. When they interfered too much, he banished them from his life.

One form our mental illness takes is thinking accomplished artists or athletes owe us more than their art or public performances. Oddly, more and more people are following public figures on Twitter. Receiving tweets directly from celebrities seemingly deludes people into thinking they’re in some sort of relationship with them. After reading The Catcher in the Rye, many people so identified with Holden Caulfied they felt entitled to know everything possible about his creator. Sometimes to the point where they’d drive to rural New Hampshire and knock on Salinger’s door.

Maybe because people are so desperate for notoriety, they’re offended when someone like Salinger consciously rejects fame. Salinger practiced Zen Buddhism for many years and became an adherent of religious teacher Sri Ramakrishna and Vedanta Hinduism. Fame was another intolerable distraction from the imaginary, literary world he greatly preferred.

How should we live with present and future Salingers, single-minded geniuses whose work isn’t just the most important thing in their life, but the only thing? By leaving them mostly alone to write, to compose music, to draw, to sculpt, to fulfill their specific life purpose.

One additional thought. It was fortunate that Salinger never needed to teach writing at a University because he never could have controlled his affinity for women decades younger than him. He would have kept a few university attorneys employed all by himself.

A Land of (Still Imperfect) Opportunity

Watching an ESPN documentary about Mary Decker Slaney, and The Wire, and the Netflix original series “Orange is the New Black“, has me thinking about the American Presidency, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and how illusive equal opportunity still is.

Without a doubt, U.S. citizens have greater opportunity to improve their lives than the average world citizen. And U.S. citizens have more opportunity today than fifty years ago when King and others marched on Washington. Those two points are inarguable, but too many U.S. citizens extrapolate from them to argue that everyone in the United States—young, old, female, disabled, dark, poor, heterosexual, non-English speaking—has equal opportunity to succeed. Thinking that we’ve achieved equal opportunity for all may be the most pernicious myth we tell about ourselves.

I was shocked by a scene from the middle of the Slaney documentary. In one of her best performances ever, she won the 3k at the 1985 World Championship in Helsinki, Finland. Amazingly, there wasn’t a single East African in the race. Today, nine or ten of the fastest ten middle distance women runners in the world are Ethiopian or Kenyan. They have only had the opportunity to demonstrate their excellence on the international scene for a few decades. Now, the international track is a level playing field.

Watching the Wire and Orange is the New Black back-to-back is eye-opening. They remind the viewer just how white and middle class most television is. And the incredible amount of acting talent that resides in every ethnic group. The Wire, about Baltimore’s inner city, had a mostly African-American cast. Orange, set in a women’s prison, has a culturally diverse, predominantly female cast. The writing, acting, and producing on both shows is remarkable.

It makes one wonder how many other just as talented culturally diverse writers, actors, and producers are trying desperately to get their feet in Hollywood’s mostly monocultural door. For every actor we see on a small or large screen there are at least another hundred who are equally talented. The only difference is they lack connections and opportunity. Give black, hispanic, asian, and female actors equal opportunity and they will do memorable, award winning work.

And if that’s true in athletics and the arts, why wouldn’t it also be true in education, business, medicine, politics and every aspect of modern life? It’s laughable that we maintain the myth of equal opportunity in the U.S. when we’ve had 44 in a row male presidents.

We should celebrate the slow but steady extension of opportunity in the United States, but not kid ourselves with claims of equal opportunity writ large. Everyday, some in our communities are told by others that they’re too young, too old, too female, too disabled, too dark, too poor, too queer, too foreign. Refusing to see that doesn’t change reality.

See These Films

1) Mud. 2) Take Shelter. 3) A Place at the Table.

Like most everyone, when I plop down big bucks to see a film, I want to be be transported far from my familiar surroundings. But I most enjoy believable stories, so films set in outer-space, or featuring cataclysmic events, or starring super-heroes don’t really do it for me. Which means I usually seek out independent films that play at our one screen, decrepit, “hippy” theatre.

Friday night, Costco coupons in hand, Ms. PressingPause and I were standing in a longish line at the local cineplex. Knowing Ironman 3, Oblivion, Star Trek into Darkness, and Hip Hop Hemingway were about to start, I said, “None of these people are seeing Mud.” What a shame that I was right.

Worth every bit of our $15. The Jeff Nichols film transports you to rural Arkansas a decade or so ago. Think river life, snakes, boat engines, beans and franks, motorcycles, pick up trucks, Piggly Wigglies, and snakes. So damn authentic it reminded me of Winter’s Bone. It’s a wonderful counterpoint to Hollywood’s steady diet of intelligence insulting romantic comedies. See it for the cross cultural experience and for a greater appreciation for just how hard it is to find and nurture love.

Afterwards, for an incredibly poignant window into mental illness, find and watch another phenomenal Jeff Nichols film. Take Shelter (2007).

A Place at the Table is a powerful documentary that explores hunger in America. It will be available via instant streaming on Netflix sometime in June. See it to meet some hungry families, to better understand hunger’s underlying causes, and to learn about solutions. Given our economically segregated neighborhoods, it’s easy to lose touch with hungry people. I see that disconnect in some of my friends and in myself. The lack of understanding largely explains the associated lack of empathy. The further removed from experiencing hunger you are, the more important it is you see the film.

Lots of new readers last week. Welcome and thanks for the continuing support.

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.

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.

Documentary Film

Francis, one of my ace commenters recently read my “Of What Value is Art?” reflection which inspired him to weigh in on “subjectivity in art and why the notion of experts in this field is problematic.” I agree that art inevitably produces different reactions in people. The social scientific notion of “selective perception” suggests that when you and I go to a film, stand and view a photograph, or watch a dance concert, there’s so much visual stimuli that we filter it differently and therefore don’t see the exact same film, photograph, or concert.

In addition, we interpret the film, photograph, and/or concert based upon our differing life experiences. In large part, that explains how you can excitedly send a friend to a favorite movie only to have them ask why on earth you liked it so much.

Even though selective perception and differing worldviews lead to idiosyncratic interpretations of art, I believe it’s possible to reach agreement on some broad criteria for discriminating between good and bad art.

For example, below I propose two criteria for identifying especially excellent documentary films.

Apparently, movies are relatively recession proof because people like to temporarily escape the worsening realities of their economic lives. I like watching documentaries not to escape reality, but to think deeply about someone else’s reality that I’m not familiar with. It’s less about entertainment than intellectual stimulation.

There are different types of documentaries all which find audiences so I don’t presume to have a monopoly on how to think about them. For me though, I have a two-part litmus test of documentary excellence. To illustrate the first, let’s rewind the tape of my life ten years to one night when I was channel surfing before going to bed. I stumbled upon a documentary on public television titled “The Farmer’s Wife”. It was just beginning and I was so mesmerized by a topic—farming—that I had no connection to and relatively little prior interest in, that I had to carve out six hours over three nights.

So that’s the first criterion, to what degree does the documentary film engage viewers with no previous connection to or interest in the subject?

The second litmus test is how intimate is the portrayal?

In the best documentary films, I’m grabbed by the collar and pulled into the screen as a result of authentic dialogue, compelling characters, subtle interactions, and sometimes music. “The Farmer’s Wife” was the ultimate in intimacy. For six hours I lived in a midwestern farm house with a hardworking struggling farmer, his equally hardworking and stressed out wife, and their daughters. Afterwards I had far more understanding of how difficult it is for small family farmers to survive in an era of increasingly large commercial farms.

The same filmmaker, David Sutherland, made another interesting documentary a few years ago titled “Country Boys”.

My all time favorite documentary? Hoop Dreams. I was at a conference in D.C. and went to an independent theatre in Georgetown by myself to watch it. Afterwards in the subway, replaying it in my mind, I realized I learned a lot more about what it’s like to be a poor African-American living in a large inner city than I did about high school basketball. 

And for those of you interested in learning more about one of the most maligned groups in society, middle schoolers, I enjoyed SpellBound, and  more recently, The Boys of Baraka.

Lastly, I’m not a fan of  intensely ideological documentary films. I like films that prompt questions because they stimulate my thinking far more than films that are one-sided arguments utterly lacking in subtlety. Maybe that explains why I’m probably the only liberal Democrat in the country who likes documentary films, but has never seen a single Michael Moore film. People tell me I’d really like Bowling at Columbine, but I still haven’t made time to watch it.