Sunday, May 17, 2015

Breaking the Cycle of Cynical Manipulation

(Part 3 of a series; see Part 1 and Part 2)

"Presumably, one of the great general goals of education is the promotion of critical thinking. But despite all the lip service that educators devote to that goal, most students–including most 'honors students'–learn to avoid thinking critically about their schoolwork. They learn that their job in school is to get high marks on tests and that critical thinking only wastes time and interferes. To get a good grade, you need to figure out what the teacher wants you to say and then say it.... [T]ruth be told, the grading system, which is the chief motivator in our system of education, is a powerful force against honest debate and critical thinking in the classroom."
- Peter Gray, Ph.D.

“Modern education and knowledge is mainly about how to better dominate nature. It is never about how to live harmoniously with nature. Living well is all about keeping good relations with Mother Earth and not living by domination or extraction.”
- Victoria Tauli Corpuz

"We are shut up in schools for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bellyful of words and do not know a thing. We cannot use our hands, our legs, our eyes, or our arms. We do not know an edible root in the woods. We cannot tell our course by the stars, nor the hour of the day by the sun. It is well if we can swim and skate. We are afraid of a horse, a cow, a dog, a cat, a spider."
- Henry David Thoreau

These three quotes serve as a pretty apt summary of the failings of modern education. Dr. Gray refers to it as "forced education", in which we incarcerate young people in what amount to prisons. I would more broadly argue that we live in a society of "cynical manipulation" (which I have previously written on) composed of two stages: grade slavery as youth, wage slavery as adults.

It has become clear to me over the past several months that what is taught in our schools and colleges is characterized by a severe disconnect from reality. There is an extraordinary lack of practicality in education. Most of what we learn in school is completely peripheral to our actual needs as human beings. In essence, education has created a "culture of dependency". By not learning how to directly obtain our basic needs for survival (i.e. food, fuel, clothing and shelter) we are forced to rely on institutions that do not have our interests as their focus. How else can we explain why, in a world that has never before seen so much material wealth, there are billions who do not have enough to eat, do not have clothes on their backs, and do not have roofs over their heads?

The institutions that I refer to are, broadly speaking, business and government. Although both purport to be serving the public good ("efficient distribution of resources", "protection of the general welfare"), in practice neither does. Instead, they serve as vehicles to increase the already concentrated wealth and power of the elites of society. They are able to do so through their manipulation of the forces of political socialization: the media, religion, and education. I believe that most people would agree that the media is largely controlled by corporations, and that religion often has a self-serving agenda of its own. However, I doubt that people realize just how vital of a role education plays in centralizing power in modern society.

Some reflection reveals that our educational system isn't terribly different from that envisioned by Plato, in which he sought to establish a ruling class of "philosopher-kings". Indeed, modern education serves as much to separate the wheat from the chaff as anything else. Education, along with voting and the free market, give the illusion of a democratic society, with its role cited as being the "great equalizer". What is usually failed to be pointed out is that those who come out at the top of the education system are the ones who started high up the ladder in the first place. Criteria used for college admissions generally favor those who come from wealthy families and live in wealthy school districts. Who you're connected to is often more important than how intelligent you actually are.

Furthermore, what is taught (and how) is highly elitist. Most history courses, for example, focus on the "great men", the kings, generals, presidents and captains of industry who made our world what it is today. This approach fails to acknowledge the contributions made by the oppressed classes of people in driving society forward, such as women, minorities, and the poor. In other words, history is taught from the "top-down", not from the "bottom-up". This furthers the idea that the average citizen is relatively powerless, and fails to challenge the notion that citizens' only duties are to vote, pay taxes, and obey the law.

I would thus propose that any fix to our supposedly "broken" schools would be to change what is taught in the first place. Currently there is a big push to emphasize the STEM subjects in schools: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. While they are undoubtedly important, putting them front and center is an unfortunate (though calculated) decision. All of these subjects are highly regimented, lacking the open-endedness and ambiguity that promotes independent critical thinking. In addition, it sends a message that "progress" is our ultimate goal, and that human suffering will end once we have bent nature far enough to our will. The consequences of this worldview, of course, are now the threats of global warming and climate change, nuclear annihilation, pandemic disease, and mass crop failures. All of these prospects have been caused by the so-called advances of human society.

A more appropriate education would instead focus on fostering genuine curiosity, creativity and critical thinking. Doing so would turn our young people into lifelong learners, who are able to direct their own education based on personal interest. Children in primary school should be exposed to art, music and theater, and encouraged to use play and interaction with the natural world as learning experiences. They should not be spending springtime sitting in classrooms preparing for and taking standardized tests.

Secondary school curricula would focus on more practical manners. Civics courses would educate young people on how they can participate in the democratic process, through a combination of bottom-up history lessons and directly exercising their own First Amendment rights. Courses in current events would be offered to allow them to engage critically in modern issues of foreign and domestic importance. Classes in personal economy would allow students to prepare for managing their own finances when they enter adulthood. Health classes would be improved and expanded, particularly in the fields of nutrition and sexual and mental health. Lastly, courses promoting sustainable practices, such as conservation and small-scale agriculture, would help prepare for the transformation in daily life that will be brought about by global warming and climate change. These would all be complemented by voluntary courses in literature, philosophy and the arts, for those who want to explore their creative passions. 

Colleges and universities would have their status as vocational schools strengthened. It is here that the next generation of teachers, doctors, scientists, engineers and the like will receive their training. These schools would place much more emphasis on field-learning and much less on classroom pedantry. The main difference, however, would be that the students entering these schools would be much better critical thinkers and, frankly, better human beings. They would be less focused on advancing their own careers and making money, and more focused on using their education to better the society around them.

The most pressing change needed above all, however, is the abolition of grading systems. They serve only to encourage unhealthy competition and to fit every student neatly into one statistic. A more beneficial system would be similar to a narrative evaluation, which would promote introspection on the part of the student and free the teacher from having to place everyone on a bell curve.

Our current "one size fits all" education system serves only to further centralize power into the hands of the few. The changes suggested above are necessary if we are to achieve the Jeffersonian vision of a democratic America. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

2015 MLB Standings Projections

American League EastAmerican League CentralAmerican League West
Toronto Blue Jays89-73--Kansas City Royals94-68--Seattle Mariners94-68--
Baltimore Orioles84-785Cleveland Indians91-713Los Angeles Angels88-746
New York Yankees75-8714Detroit Tigers88-746Houston Astros88-746
Boston Red Sox74-8815Chicago White Sox88-746Oakland Athletics75-8719
Tampa Bay Rays74-8815Minnesota Twins75-8719Texas Rangers73-8921
National League EastNational League CentralNational League West
Miami Marlins86-76--St. Louis Cardinals91-71--Los Angeles Dodgers99-63--
Washington Nationals85-771Pittsburgh Pirates83-798Colorado Rockies76-8623
New York Mets77-859Milwaukee Brewers79-8312San Francisco Giants76-8623
Philadelphia Phillies70-9216Chicago Cubs79-8312San Diego Padres72-9027
Atlanta Braves62-10024Cincinnati Reds78-8413Arizona Diamondbacks66-9633

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Post-Winter Meetings 2015 MLB Standings Projections

American League EastAmerican League CentralAmerican League West
Toronto Blue Jays92-70--Cleveland Indians90-72--Seattle Mariners88-74--
Baltimore Orioles87-755Kansas City Royals89-731Los Angeles Angels87-751
Tampa Bay Rays80-8212Chicago White Sox88-742Houston Astros81-817
Boston Red Sox75-8717Detroit Tigers87-753Oakland Athletics77-8511
New York Yankees73-8919Minnesota Twins78-8412Texas Rangers70-9218
National League EastNational League CentralNational League West
Washington Nationals94-68--St. Louis Cardinals92-70--Los Angeles Dodgers99-63--
Miami Marlins79-8315Pittsburgh Pirates86-766Colorado Rockies78-8421
New York Mets77-8517Milwaukee Brewers80-8212San Francisco Giants76-8623
Atlanta Braves72-9022Cincinnati Reds75-8717San Diego Padres73-8926
Philadelphia Phillies69-9325Chicago Cubs74-8818Arizona Diamondbacks64-9835

Monday, December 8, 2014

On Cynical Manipulation, Self-Sufficiency and the Value of Human Death

If nothing else, I hope that this essay reveals the immense power that a single Calvin and Hobbes comic strip can have.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Illusion of Progress

One can only imagine what Henry David Thoreau would think of modern society. He would see a world of superhighways connecting suburbs to the cities, on which people drove their gasoline powered cars from home to work and vice versa. He would see a world of industrialized agriculture, of tractors and trucks, of hydrocarbon based fertilizers and pesticides. He would see a world of corporate advertising, of mass media, of consumer culture. He would be, I think, rather appalled.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Some Comments on the Election Results

Man, what a disaster. Turnout was the story, hands down. In New York, less than a third of registered voters actually voted. The reason may be quite simple: the man at the top of the Democratic ticket, Andrew Cuomo. He drew no enthusiasm from his base, so they didn't bother to show up. Cuomo's victory was underwhelming, to put it mildly. In the Capital District, for example, he carried only one county (Albany) and even then by only a 44-42 margin. Even more stunning is that at the same time Tom DiNapoli won the county by over 40 points. This was clearly a rebuke of Mr. Cuomo, his policies, and his methods (see: Moreland, LIPA, fracking study).

Cuomo's weak performance likely hurt Democrats running in congressional races down ballot. Lee Zeldin defeated incumbent Rep. Tim Bishop by almost 10 in the 1st district. Michael Grimm (despite indictment on 20 federal counts) easily beat his weak opponent in the 11th. Dan Maffei lost reelection in the 24th, a district that handily went for Obama in 2012. Most stunningly, Louise Slaughter is (as of this moment) barely holding on in the 25th, a district every commentator regarded as "Safe D".

But the real loser undoubtedly was the Working Families Party. For the most part, they got what they had coming to them. They nominated Cuomo in May (I was there). He did nothing but screw them over afterward. Now, they're relegated to row E for the next four years (their vote undermined in part by Cuomo's "Women's Equality" line). Even worse, the state senate fell into Republican hands outright. Democratic control of the senate was the whole point of endorsing Cuomo; he didn't deliver. The WFP's complaining after the fact seems awfully weak, considering that they knew (not should have known, but knew) that this was likely to happen. In other words. they dug their own grave

The real winner (well, besides the Republicans, obviously) was the Green Party. Howie Hawkins drew nearly 5% of the vote, many times over what he got in 2010. They drew double digits in several upstate counties (Tompkins - 16%, Albany - 13%, Columbia/Ulster - 11%, Otsego/Rensselaer 10%). The party will now occupy row C on the ballot. This despite limited campaign cash, little media attention, and only one debate. Moreover, Matt Funicello captured 11% in the 21st congressional district.

Nationally, it was a disastrous evening for Dems. They lost the Senate, not all that surprising but ugly nonetheless. Mark Pryor in Arkansas did worse than Brad Hutto in South Carolina. Mitch McConnell outperformed his 2008 marks. David Perdue avoided a runoff and won outright. Dems lost in Colorado, Iowa, and (most disappointingly) North Carolina. Virginia proved to be a nail-biter, and still isn't quite over. They're losing in Alaska, and likely to lose the runoff in Louisiana. Even Pat Roberts managed to win reelection by double-digits. A bloodbath most definitely.

The governors races, however, are what really proved shocking. It was thought that Democrats might pick up a seat or two; instead, they lost seats on home turf. Only dead-man-walking Tom Corbett (and perhaps Sean Parnell, to an independent) went down for the Reps. Meanwhile, Democrats lost not only Arkansas (a tough race to begin with) and Illinois (thanks to the extremely unpopular Pat Quinn), but also Maryland and Massachusetts, two open seat races in blue states. They lost to Tea Party wavers in Maine, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all states that twice went for Obama. Sam Brownback, who has completely wrecked the economy of Kansas, somehow won reelection despite trailing in almost every poll. Once promising targets like South Carolina and Georgia (where Nathan Deal avoided a runoff) proved to be duds. Even newly minted Texas Democratic superstar Wendy Davis underperformed her counterpart from Oklahoma! Even the races they won were unimpressive. Democratic candidates won only pluralities in Rhode Island, Oregon, and Vermont (where the legislature will have to vote to officially elect soon-to-be-former DGA-chair Peter Shumlin).The only real bright spots were that Democrats held on in Colorado and Connecticut, two very tough races indeed.

This was truly a "tornado" election. Republicans will almost certainly hold their largest House majority since the Herbert Hoover administration. As for state legislatures, Democrats will control their fewest since 1860 (!). Meanwhile, Republicans will likely set a record for the most seats they have ever held, as they picked up the lower chambers in WV, NV, MN, and NM (and perhaps CO and WA), along with the upper chambers of NV, NY, ME, CO, and WA (and tied WV). Dems also lost other crucial local and statewide races (perhaps none more important than the Secretary of State of Ohio, a key 2016 battleground).

The next few years will be very red (tea?) flavored indeed.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

How to Transform Society

The world is in a state of crisis. Warfare, epidemic, economic disaster, and impending climate catastrophe pose existential threats to societies around the globe. Something must be done. For too long, the people of this planet have waited for our political leaders to solve our problems for us. Now is the time for us to take matters into our own hands, to empower ourselves to make the necessary changes. 

To ask an age old question: what is to be done?

First, we must create alternative instituions in order to recreate society. Banks must be replaced by credit unions, supermarkets by farmers' markets. Workers' and consumers' cooperatives must replace the corporate model. Neighborhood and tenants' associations must be established. Political parties that represent our interests, not those of the corporate oligarchy, must be built. Students' unions must be created in schools to raise the voices of our young people. Creating these institutions will empower us to take further, more fundamentally transformative actions.

Among these would be to take control of existing institutions through the democratic process. I do not mean the US Congress or the White House, at least in the near-term. More immediately, we must win back those bodies closest to the people: school boards, city councils, town boards, and eventually state legislatures. From here we can enact direct changes in our own communities, instead of operating according to the directives of corporate party officials. Processes like participatory budgeting would empower people and encourage them to partake in the new civic process. We must break the cycle of cynicism that has justifiably gripped the people.

The ultimate step would be to overtake the entirety of the government of our country. This would allow for us to finally dismantle those institutions that serve only the corporate interest. From there we can implement policies both domestically and internationally to redistribute power back to the people. This, however, is a very final step, and can only be achieved once popular institutions have been established and lower entities controlled. This is governing from below, a nonviolent revolution that must realize the limitations as well as the values of the ballot box. In essence, we must "overgrow the government", not overthrow it. Only then can a truly participatory economic and political democracy be established.