Education is the Silver Bullet

education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.
-Sam Seaborn, The West Wing, Six Meetings Before Lunch

Earlier this month, Judge Thomas Moukawsher of the State Superior Court in Hartford ruled that “Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty” to give all children an “adequate” education. This ruling was in response to a ten-plus-year-old lawsuit that claimed the state was apportioning its school funding in a way that privileged the wealthier districts at the expense of the poorer. If we stop there, this ruling is no different from the many others around the country that require states to review and equalize the distribution of finances between school districts.  But this ruling doesn’t stop there – in the words of the mayor of Bridgeport, CT, Joseph P.  Ganim, “This is a game changer. It’s an indictment of the application of the system, and of the system itself“. In my opinion, that indictment is long overdue, and not just in the State of Connecticut.

I have some experience with different (Western) education systems: I graduated from a private high school in NYC (with a year at a public school in rural Sweden) and went on to a private college in Pennsylvania. I then did graduate work at a CUNY college in New York before moving to the UK and earning an MA and a Ph.D. While working on my doctorate I taught for four years in the politics department and for one year in the medical school. I am currently parenting two teenagers (an 8th grader and a high school junior) in Connecticut public schools.

I am lucky on several counts: (1) I come from a family that privileges thinking & education; (2) when I was growing up my family had the financial ability to send me to a private school and to pay for enrichment programs and travel; (3) I was born at a time when the cost of a college education, while high, was not unimaginable, there was good financial aid available, and education loans did not saddle students with a debt load the size of a mortgage payment; (4) as a “third culture kid” I was exposed to a wide variety of languages, customs, foods, and “norms”; (5) I have wide ranging and near-constant intellectual curiosity; and (6) my home was always full of conversations about science, politics, history, music, art, and domestic & international current affairs.

I was also dyslexic (this went un-diagnosed until after college) and suffered from overwhelming test-taking anxiety: school was a constant logistical challenge, even if it wasn’t always an intellectual one.

So, you may ask, the school system worked for me – why do I think it needs an overhaul?

First of all, the “school system” didn’t work for me. I was in private school, and even that, in the 1980s, didn’t work particularly well. The fact that my dyslexia went undiagnosed was probably a product of the times, but there was very little, if any, discussion of different ways that people learn, different kinds of intelligence, different life experiences, basically, difference of any kind. We were provided with a “one size fits some better than others” education, and we were mostly on our own to do the alterations – how you made it work depended on you and your family’s resources.

Secondly, “the system” fails too many people. This is actually the main reason I think American education needs to be completely restructured: it is failing students and teachers alike. Experiential learners, innovative teachers, students with learning differences or attention issues, gifted students with few resources, students in under-funded school districts – none of these groups are well served by the current education model. What with overcrowded classrooms, cuts to the arts and other enrichment programs, Common Core, teaching to the test – the joy of learning, and of teaching, has been lost. If the system is failing students and teachers, it is failing families. And if it is failing these groups it is ultimately failing our society.

What are the alternatives?  At the moment, there are many ways to opt out. I know people who are homeschooling, homeschooled until high school, and are unschooling. The reasons they do this are varied, and as alternatives to formal education they have their pros and cons – just like traditional school. In these models the degree of initiative taken by home- or un-schooled students in pursuing their interests and engaging with ideas is dependent on the individual – just like traditional school. What is not like traditional school in these alternatives is access; the resources needed to provide a rich, varied, and engaging home- or un-schooled experience are simply not available to everyone and for this reason these alternatives do not provide a viable alternative to the public education system, a system which, by definition, should be available to all. Public education should not be only for people who cannot afford better; what does it say about us if this is all we are willing to provide?

The Connecticut ruling shines a light on the very real educational inadequacies and imbalances that exist in the current system. To address them will take a concerted effort from all aspects of society.  It will also require us to re-imagine public education as it was initially intended: as one of the pillars of a free society and a means of personal growth as well as social advancement.

This is the first in a series of posts in which I explore ideas of education, intellectual freedom, college accessibility, and “the school system” behemoth.


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Posted in Academia, Education, Family, Intellectual Freedom, Teaching | Leave a comment

Je ne sais pas si je suis Charlie

I have wrestled long and hard with my reactions to the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices – and my reactions to the responses I’ve seen and read. The pieces that I found (and I have not read exhaustively on the topic) that come closest to echoing my feelings are Teju Cole’s “Unmournable Bodies” in the January 9th edition of The New Yorker and David Brooks’ piece in The Opinion Pages of January 8th’s The New York Times. I think that Teju Cole’s piece is brilliant, particularly in its differentiation between supporting the right to free speech and supporting the speech itself; and I agree with David Brooks’s warnings that the silencing of dissenting, unpopular or offensive voices will create a society with, at best, only a tenuous claim to promoting free speech.

While these articles have come the closest to saying what I feel, both about the specifics of what happened at Charlie Hebdo and the larger issues of post-colonialism, free speech and offense, neither of them quite says what is in my heart, which is:

I believe in the right of artists to make art.

  • Not just art I like
  • Not just art I understand
  • Not just art that I consider “good”
  • Not just art with which I am comfortable

I believe that art has a voice in politics and can contribute to social change* – and I believe that so fervently that I spent five years of my life researching and writing a doctoral thesis on the topic. During those five years I spent time with artists in war zones, in recovering war-zones and in post-conflict societies. In 2011, as I was wrapping up my doctoral process, one of the artists I interviewed (Juliano Mer-Khamis) was killed. He walked out of the theatre he founded in Jenin Camp and was shot to death while he was sitting in his car. Like the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, he had previously received death threats. Like the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, he continued his work. And like the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, he paid for his work with his life.

I don’t think it matters if you liked Juliano’s plays (I did) just as I don’t think it matters if you appreciated Charlie Hebdo’s satire (I didn’t). What matters is that killing people isn’t the way to handle things you don’t like. We can no longer have a conversation with the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, with Juliano, with Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh because they are dead. If we accept that it is alright to silence the unpopular voice – intimating, even, that the silencing was inevitable because with such racist, culturally insensitive content they should have known better, then we are in danger of ending up in a society where none of us can breathe.



*A corollary to this is that I think social change is inherently painful and makes people uncomfortable, but that’s another topic.

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Posted in Academia, Emotion, Memory, Personal | 1 Comment

What’s Your Tipping Point?*

In which I show that I am perfectly capable of holding two seemingly contradictory ideas…

This post grew out of a dinnertime conversation about bullying, an on-line chat with a friend and former colleague and a personal struggle with my conscience about my own tipping point.

Last weekend, over dinner, some friends and I had a conversation about the laws surrounding bullying in schools. One of those friends is a fifth grade teacher, and one of them is a high school senior. I should say upfront that this conversation took place in Massachusetts and refers to Massachusetts state law, some links to which can be found here. In brief, the law now makes it a crime to defend yourself physically against bullying, even physical bullying: you may be set upon by one or more fellow students and cornered, but take one step towards them (even if that step is to try to break free of your attackers and run away) and you are considered equally culpable and a responsible party in the “fight”. “Self-defense” and “they started it” are no longer acceptable reasons for involvement. Similarly, bystanders may not intervene, even to pull one student off another – their sole contribution may be to call for a teacher.  As someone whose only physical fight took place in kindergarten – and was in self-defense – I find this law troubling.  On the one hand I completely relate to teachers and law-enforcement officers not wanting to be in the position of breaking up fights involving large numbers of students, but I worry about the lessons this law and laws like it are teaching. I fear that they are cementing ideas of victimhood and powerlessness, and I worry about the lessons children and adolescents are learning about right and wrong, respect (for others and the self) and the role of an active participant in society. Don’t we want to raise children who will stand up for the oppressed and bullied and face down their attackers, rather than saying, after the fact, “Well, officer, I saw them bludgeoning that poor boy but I figured there was nothing I could do”.  Doesn’t that remind us of some historical examples that we’d all rather were never repeated?  As will become abundantly clear later in this post, I am not in favor of violence. I have strong Quaker leanings when it comes to both non-violence and social justice and I would far, far rather that it never came to physical altercations, ever.  I also wish that there were more enforcement of zero-tolerance anti-bullying policies early on.  M has been bullied mercilessly all this year and much of last and the school’s response has been that the child doing the bullying is “having a tough time”.  I know the child, I even like the child, and I agree that her situation is hellacious – but I don’t like the message being sent to any of the parties that having a tough time in your personal life give license to treat everyone around you like dirt.  Sure, everyone has bad days when they snap and lash out at others, but usually one is expected to apologize for that, and not make a habit of it or use personal troubles as an excuse for repeated bad behavior.  It took repeated parental involvement in this case to get the school to step in. My friend the fifth grade teacher told a story about a group of children who attacked others on the school bus – hit them, flipped them over.  Their punishment? To sit in front near the driver where they could be watched. The incidents did not stop. My friend suggested that the children be given a warning and then be banned from the bus, but that was rejected because then it would be too difficult for the parents to get them to school. The outcome? The children who were attacked were pulled off the bus and their parents drove them to school. Again, what lesson is being learned here? That you’re not allowed to protect yourself, but that the people who say they will protect you aren’t going to do anything, either? That doesn’t make me feel safe as an adult, and as a child I would have been beyond confused.

So, now that I’ve written a piece that might be read as something that defends rights to self defense at all costs (including opposition to gun control), let me say that that reading couldn’t be further from the truth. Personally, I would like to live in a world with no guns whatsoever. They are things designed to maim or kill and I would like to see an international debate about them similar to the one about land mines.  I never thought that I would live in a home with three guns (two antiques, one modern reproduction, the antiques are not capable of firing, the reproduction could be live-fired but there is no ammunition in the house), and let me tell you that this gives me pause every day.

In the aftermath of Newtown, social media has been flooded with posts, links, statuses and memes about the gun-control debate and possible gun-control legislation. Some of them have been vaguely interesting, like the definitions of “assault rifle” vs. “assault weapon”  and some have been irritating, like the video that was making the rounds of British demonstrators admonishing the US not to “let them take our guns”.  My issue with the video is that most US citizens do not know enough about British social history or the class system to understand the context of what is being said. I lived in the UK for seven years (2003-2010), traveled in many regions and met, lived and worked with many different kinds of people. The overwhelming feeling about fox hunting was that it is a cruel, out-dated upper-class sport that no longer has a place in modern Britain. And when the topic turned to gun control I was repeatedly asked why the US had such a fetish for gun ownership – a question for which I had no good answer once I’d explained that some people hunt for food, and some people live in places where it is completely possible to run into a bear when walking from one part of your property to another. I have also lived in Sweden, where many people hunt; and in Israel, which is a militarized society if there ever was one. And in none of these countries is the concept of gun ownership fetishized in the way it is in the US.

The shootings in Newtown caused a kneejerk reaction, certainly on social media. Apart from a relatively small minority calling for a period of mourning unmarred by political jockeying, the reaction on the left was to call for immediate gun control reform and the reaction on the right was to predict political maneuvering by the left to call for immediate gun control reform. There is even the hopefully marginalized “Newtown was a government hoax” movement, which I find so revolting that I cannot even begin to discuss it here.
What I have been seeing recently are posts by people who feel that their rights to own guns are being unfairly attacked. After all – they are not violent criminals, they are not mentally ill, and they want neither to be tainted by association nor to risk losing their second amendment rights.

I understand feeling personally attacked and perhaps misunderstood and voiceless in a debate raging in the media. Frankly, I feel that way every time I read or hear a report about how President Obama isn’t representative of Americans in terms of background and life experience, but that is the topic for another post. What I don’t understand, however, is the lack of self-examination.

The sentence at the root of it all is: A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

At the time the second amendment was written, you were doing well if you could fire three rounds a minute. It would be stretching a point to argue that Jefferson was able to predict the future invention of weapons capable of firing 40-50 rounds a minute, to say nothing of a thousand. I am not a lawyer, nor a Constitutional scholar, and I am sure that every one of those 26 words has been parsed, interpreted and picked over, but with the specter of 20 dead kindergartners confronting our nation’s conscience I would say that this is the time for conversation about why, why we can’t have a civilized debate about this.

Now there seems to be some movement towards demonizing the mentally ill, demanding that we find some way of keeping guns away from “them”. First of all, I think the mentally ill in this country have enough to deal with without being stigmatized as potential mass murderers. Let’s talk about actual support and treatment instead of focusing on restrictions.  Secondly, I think that people who wish to buy weapons should have the same psychological evaluations that armed peace officers have to undergo, as part of either the purchase or licensing process. Why not? Someone who is completely sane and has anger management issues – wouldn’t you rather that person learned to control their anger before they walked out of a store or gun show with a handgun or a rifle?

Ainsley Hayes, a Republican lawyer who ends up working for Democratic President Bartlett’s administration in television’s The West Wing, challenges Democratic senior staffers by saying “[…] you don’t like people who do like guns. You don’t like the people. Think about that […].” As I said earlier in this post, I would prefer to live in a world with no guns. I don’t like them. But I do know and like people who like guns, and I would like to go on knowing and liking them. If I am going to make the compromise that living in a world with guns is a fact of life, and not fight with everything I have to get them banned completely, however, I would like to suggest a compromise that could come from those who do not agree with me.  Why is it a bad thing to require a wait-and-check period for gun and ammunition purchases? Under what situation is delayed gratification such a terrible thing? Why is it so unacceptable for there to be controls in place to make sure that someone about to buy something designed to kill or maim is not, in fact, so unbalanced as to go out and use that weapon to kill or maim? And is responsible enough to take precautions to secure something dangerous? If you are calm, cool under pressure, have a gun safe and trigger locks, keep your guns locked up and unloaded, with the ammunition separate, then you should have no problems. I’ve heard the arguments that other people can get access to properly licensed guns. I’ve heard the arguments that criminals have guns and you need them to protect your family. And I’ve heard the arguments that this is a Constitutional right and is therefore not open for discussion (since nothing about the Constitution has ever changed, which is why I still can’t vote and an African American is worth 3/5 of a white person. As I recall from history class those changes weren’t universally popular back in the day, either). Why is it so difficult to say “I know that this thing that I like and own is dangerous, and that you are made uncomfortable by it, so let’s talk about how we can both get some of what we want”. If we want to claim to be a free democracy we need to be able to talk about the hard questions. We need to be able to say “I see a little bit of what you are saying” and have someone with an opposing view respond in kind. If we cannot do this as citizens we have no right to complain about partisan politics.

* “Tipping Point” is a phrase coined by Malcolm Gladwell to express the idea that small things can have an impact on big issues. For more on this idea and the research that comes from it, please visit the Tipping Points project website at Durham University, UK.

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Posted in Emotion, Family, History, Living History, Memory, Personal, Teaching | 1 Comment

“She couldn’t have dressed up like Xena?”*

As is so often the case, I am sitting down to write this because of an intellectual – and emotional – conflict.  A few days ago I read this after a friend linked to it on Facebook. It is an open letter to the editors of The Cambridge Student, responding to  an article written by a third year law student titled “Stop Taking Offence, Start Taking Care” (a link to the original article is given in the first sentence of the open letter).  In the original article, the author urges feminist groups, in particular those behind the “Slutwalk” campaign, to rethink their strategy of absolving women from any responsibility in the event of sexual violence. His point (this article is written by a man) is that all the education and sensitivity training in the world is not going to impact those hard-core rapists out there – some people are going to commit sexual violence – and potential victims need to practice responsible behavior and not place themselves in or exacerbate dangerous situations. There are several problems with this article, not least that the author has adopted a removed and objective tone which, while attempting to treat the subject in the abstract, comes off as an overly theoretical take on a very emotionally charged issue and, therefore, is offensive. That said, I was not really convinced by the open letter response, either.  Oh, I was convinced that the writers were offended, and I was convinced that they wrote well and persuasively and that they had “done their homework” in terms of providing figures and statistics pertaining to the experience, reporting and treatment of rape.  But I didn’t come away from their letter thinking “Yes! Right on!”, either. Maybe this is because I have internalized some academic rubric that means that I am never fully convinced of anything – but I think it’s because I spent much of last Thursday afternoon trying to dress a twelve-year-old girl.

Both kids have shot up like weeds in the past four months and the return to school, and advent of cooler weather, necessitated a trip to the local consignment shop.  L, who is nine, is still quite easy to dress. His only sartorial requirement is “No Cammo!” (no problem!), and as long as the sleeves on his shirts are long enough and there is an adjustable waist on his pants he is good to go.  M, on the other hand, has hit that “impossible to dress” stage.  I remember it from my own girlhood – suddenly girls’ pants were too short, and going up a size to get the required length meant an enormous increase in waist size so I was swimming in fabric. The solution then, and now, was to go up to the smallest available women’s size and either roll up the legs or wear a belt.  Well and good, but I went through this in the ’80s, when pant fashions were high-waisted. Today’s low-slung skinny jeans barely covered M’s underwear and I refuse to buy her jeans that she can only wear with tunic-length sweaters.  Thankfully, M isn’t fighting me on this – she thinks low-slung jeans are uncomfortable – but an afternoon spent watching my step-daughter try on clothes certainly made me think about clothing choices and the messages they send.

The local school and PTO put on dances every other Friday evening for kids in 7th and 8th grade, and M loves them.  Well, she loved the one she’s been to, anyway, and came home squealing about how someone slow-danced with her. Obviously there is no alcohol available at these dances, but M’s father and I agree that it is only a matter of time before these innocent social events morph into less official social activities, some of which come with Consequences.  So here we are, poised on the brink of shepherding a child through adolescence, and suddenly discussions of violence and responsibility seem a lot less abstract.

I know first-hand that sexual violence cannot always be avoided. I experienced it as a teenager in the family to which I was unofficially fostered, and the effects were long-lasting. Unlike many people, I reported the situation – by which I mean I told my mother, and she either didn’t believe me or didn’t take it seriously. Either way, the effect was the same, and I spent countless hours in therapy and twenty years fighting depression before I made some sort of peace with the concepts of trust and love, and with my relationship with my mother. So, with this as a back-story, I wonder about the responsibilities involved in preparing young people for the world.

On the one hand, I can’t say “clothing doesn’t matter, wear whatever you want” – because there are some things we are not going to let her out of the house in. Whatever my opinions on the importance of fashion choice, society at large (or at least in our small town) is going to see a tween girl wearing a midriff-baring tank top and low-slung skinny jeans in a certain, sexualized way. I may not like that clothing choices impact how others see us (and every time I have to put on a suit in order to be taken seriously I rail against it), but there is not much I can do to change that in the here and now.  I can work to change societal expectations, I can do my best to raise children who are their own people, know right from wrong and stand up for what they believe in — even to the point of facing down a mob mentality. But I cannot control what other people will say or think or do, and because I cannot I have to teach M and L that sometimes bad people do bad things, and sometimes you can’t tell who the bad people are and sometimes the best thing to do is to get yourself out of a bad situation.

The authors of the open letter are not wrong: sometimes bad things happen no matter where you are or what you are wearing. It is not possible to control events to the exclusion of the possibility of disaster. But the author of the original article isn’t completely wrong, either – personal responsibility is an important part of being a functional member of society. Personal responsibility can take many forms and may sometimes involve forgoing or curtailing certain behaviors in certain circumstances. It may mean having an uncomfortable conversation with a friend whose choices are putting themselves or others at risk. The authors of the open letter write:

Rapists choose victims whom they consider to be vulnerable. That is how rape and sexual violence happens: the perpetrators choose to do it.

The concept of personal responsibility applies here, too – we have to make rape socially unacceptable, we absolutely need to hold rapists accountable for their actions/choices, both in the legal system and in the broader social structure, and we should not pass that responsibility on to their victims. But the first sentence of this quote is also important – what makes a victim appear vulnerable? We cannot always predict how we will appear to others, but we should at least admit, whether we like it or not, that physical appearance and behavior plays a huge role in how we are perceived.  This does not just apply to women, as anyone following the politicization of the hoodie can attest. By all means, let’s work to change the emphasis on appearance, let’s work for a world where clothes do not dictate the person we can be. But for right now, I have to teach my step-daughter how to recognize and side-step the most blatant and common cues of vulnerability so she can go out and change the world.

*Title taken from a line in episode 6 of the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which characters become their Halloween costumes.

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Fourth of July Shortcake

It has been remarked that I have too many thoughts. And that I dwell overmuch in my own head.  This may be true, and truth be told I wouldn’t have it any other way. But just in case my last post made you think that I am moody, intellectual and incapable of having fun let me assure you that, while I am unquestionably the first two, at the very least I know how to make cake…

This is my family’s traditional Fourth of July dessert:

A big hit with everyone I’ve ever served it to, and simplicity itself to make.

The Biscuits
2 cups sifted flour
1 T baking powder
1-3 T sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup shortening
1 egg
1/2 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 450F and line a baking sheet with foil (shiny side up).  Lightly grease the foil.
Mix the dry ingredients and cut in the shortening until the mixture resembles small breadcrumbs. Make a well in the middle and add the milk and egg, stir with a fork until the ingredients cling together.
Spoon the batter into 6-8 large cakes on the greased foil (you might need to pat them to make them stay together). Bake 12-15 minutes, cool on a rack.

These are delicious with any kind of fruit and fresh cream. Just cut the biscuits in half, spread fruit and cream on the lower half, top with the “hat” and spoon on more cream and fruit.  In the winter I like them with honey and a cup of tea, but this is a post about summer.


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Posted in Baking, Cake, Cooking, Family, Food, Personal | 3 Comments

Memory, Patriotism and Independence

This post has been knocking around in my head, in an embryonic state, since Memorial Day and it seems fitting that today, on another “patriotic” holiday, I actually take the time to sit down and write it. Or, at the very least, hammer out some of the thoughts that have been chasing themselves around in my head for over a month.

When it comes to political debate in this country I find myself, most of the time, either confused or appalled. And when it comes to what I think of as patriotic positioning I am just plain confused.  The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines patriot as “one who defends or is zealous for his country’s prosperity, freedom or rights”, which is a perfectly clear definition until you probe a little deeper and realize that the ways in which prosperity, freedom and rights are defined can differ from person to person – or community to community – and with no agreement on those meanings the definition of patriot becomes somewhat ambiguous.  What does it mean to “love one’s country”?  Is it a passive attachment, trumpeting a party line without giving the meaning any thought? Or is it a strenuous give-and-take, a love for an ideal that has not yet been achieved and the commitment to work passionately towards the realization of that ideal?  With no agreement on the “ideal”, what does being a patriot really mean?

I am the daughter, granddaughter and niece of veterans (WWII, WWI and Korea, respectively) and the views I hold I get from my family, rather than in rebellion against them.  My uncle, whose great skill was as a gardener, ran the hydroponic gardens that fed the troops in Korea. My father, whose talent for languages had him speaking nine by his early twenties, served as an interpreter and translator. It is my grandfather, though, whose story holds the most fascination for me.  He was the youngest child in a family but lately arrived in the US from what was then Prussia (and is now Poland).  When war was declared he knew that in all likelihood he had cousins serving in the Kaiser’s army, and he knew that he could not live with himself if he were, even unwittingly, to cause the death of a relative. He enlisted as a driver and drove officers all over the front lines in Europe – but never once carried a weapon. He was gassed, he suffered shell shock, and he did it for an ideal – the hope that this was the war that would end all wars.
We always celebrated Veterans’ Day in my house, but it was a day of grief.  For my grandfather in particular, it was a day that commemorated a great failing: an astronomical loss of life in service of an unrealized ideal.

My partner, T, is a Revolutionary War re-enactor and I accompany him to many events.  I enjoy the friendships I have made with people in the regiment, and the hobby at large, and I enjoy the freedom from the electronic leash that occasional forays to the 18th century give me.  I wish, however, that more of the events were focused on portrayals of actual living history – how people lived at the time, rather than on the noise, chaos and simulated death of the battles.

So here I find myself, on another July 4th, no closer to an understanding of what it means to be patriotic.  Sure, it is nice to have a day off in the middle of the week (this year, at least), and I enjoy a backyard cookout as much as anyone else.  I am not a fan of fireworks, but that is just me.  But I find it hard to believe that this is patriotism. I guess, like so much else in this country, patriotism is a work in progress.

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Posted in Emotion, Family, Living History, Memory, Personal | 1 Comment

Wendell Berry and a Day of Honey

I had an unsettling experience last week.  On Monday night I found myself in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., listening to the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecture delivered by Wendell Berry. Berry is a poet, essayist, farmer, conservationist and activist from Kentucky.  The lecture, “It All Turns on Affection”, was a wake-up call to America to desist from damaging the earth and to return to life with a greater emphasis on ecological conservation, community and love of place.   The broader themes of the talk were book-ended by personal tales of Berry’s own family, small tobacco farmers in Henry County, and their struggles to both make a living from their crop and to hang on to their “home place”, the family farm.

The experience was unsettling because, while I agree with his environmental stance, his concerns about the price we pay for industrialization, mechanization and technology, and his message about the importance of community in an increasingly global world I felt myself and my family’s experiences starkly absent from the perspective from which he spoke.  He framed his lecture around the differences between “boomers” and “stickers”, terms borrowed from Wallace Stegner, into which two groups he said that Americans have always tended to fall.  In Berry’s words, “The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property and therefore power. Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.”

He revisited the juxtaposition between “boomers” and “stickers” several times during the course of the talk, the difference between them illustrated by the experience of his small-holding grandfather and James B. Duke, the industrialist and “big tobacco” monopolist whose price gauging nearly cost Berry’s grandparents their farm.  His is the third generation of his family to farm in Henry County and it is clear that he, his grandparents and parents, and his children feel a close attachment and deep love for their “home place”.   It is understandable, and laudable, that he should feel called upon to take the American industrial complex to task, and he was courageous to do so.  Nonetheless, as the people around me rose in a standing ovation at the end of the lecture, I found myself curiously unmoved.  This was not a sudden finding.  I had felt myself personally untouched by the lecture almost from the beginning and part of my mind was occupied for much of the talk trying to tease out why I felt so absent emotionally from a message with which, on the surface, I fervently agree.  The simplest form of this answer to myself was that Berry is not “my guy”, and that I was not really the intended audience of his lecture.  The ideological audience, perhaps, but not the “bred in the bone” one, and that is important because, for the personal anecdote to succeed it must touch an answering emotional chord in its hearers and draw them into the tale.  I felt no answering echo to the personal stories, in fact I felt the jarring disconnect of complete absence of recognition.

At a point quite early in the lecture, Berry sought to highlight the many differences between his grandfather and Duke, the industrialist.  One such difference lay in the kinds of things in which each took pleasure.  While speculating that James B. Duke only took pleasure in the prospect of acquisition which, Berry says, “excludes affection as a motive”, Berry said that his grandfather:

[…] despite his life’s persistent theme of hardship, took a great and present delight in the modest good that was at hand: in his place and his affection for it, in its pastures, animals, and crops, in favorable weather.
He did not participate in the least in what we call “mobility.” He died, after eighty-two years, in the same spot he was born in. He was probably in his sixties when he made the one longish trip of his life. He went with my father southward across Kentucky and into Tennessee. On their return, my father asked him what he thought of their journey. He replied: “Well, sir, I’ve looked with all the eyes I’ve got, and I wouldn’t trade the field behind my barn for every inch I’ve seen.”
In such modest joy in a modest holding is the promise of a stable, democratic society, a promise not to be found in “mobility”: our forlorn modern progress toward something indefinitely, and often unrealizably, better. A principled dissatisfaction with whatever one has promises nothing or worse.

It was at this point in the lecture that my feeling of alienation began.  Where, in this description of “modest holdings” – and, by extension, a “stable, democratic society” – is the experience of rootlessness (or uprootedness) and dispossession of a refugee or migrant?  Where is the experience of those who are forced to leave their “home place” by war or genocide? Where is the experience of the nomad? Although this was not Berry’s stated argument I have too often heard that those who feel unconnected to place should just try harder, try to belong – but what happens when that attempt is rejected by people already there, or the act of “belonging” requires too great a sacrifice of self or cultural identity?  I can illustrate this with a personal anecdote of my own.  My family, in the early 1970’s, wanted to leave the city.  My parents, after much thought, bought a piece of land in a rural part of New England to which my mother had had ties for nearly 30 years.  Our plan was to move there, support the local school system, bring my parents’ professional expertise (doctor and teacher) to the local community and, yes, form an attachment to the land by planting a large garden to feed ourselves.  What this plan did not factor in was the community’s latent (or not so) anti-Semitism.  We “stuck” for five years, and through numerous examples of harassment, before arson claimed our house and we moved back to the city. In the city my family focused on what they called raising “global citizens”: multi-lingual, culturally aware, curious about and unafraid of difference – none of them things that are contained in Berry’s description of a “modest holding” undisturbed by “mobility”.

As the evening progressed I found my thoughts returning to Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo, a book I read several months ago and with which I felt such resonance that her words and ideas have haunted me ever since.  Ms. Ciezadlo is a free-lance journalist who followed her Lebanese-born journalist husband to the Middle East in 2003 to report on the situations in Iraq and, later, Lebanon.  The product of a peripatetic American childhood, Ms. Ciezadlo’s sense of place is closely tied to food, as is her sense of home: wherever they were, however they were living throughout her childhood, her mother always made sure to prepare and serve a proper dinner.  As an explanation of why her book about her experiences as a foreign correspondent has the subtitle “A Memoir of Food, Love, and War”, she writes:

We all carry maps of the world in our heads.  Mine, if you could see it, would resemble a gigantic dinner table, full of dishes from every place I’ve been.  Spanish Harlem is a cubano. Tucson is avocado chicken. Chicago is yaprakis; Beirut is makdous; and Baghdad – well, Baghdad is another story. (p. 7)

The book which follows is part travelogue, part cookery book and part political commentary – but more than all of these it is a story of people who live in war-torn places that appear all too often on the nightly news in scenes of unutterable devastation, often with a voice-over detailing the numbers of casualties, the vastness of the destruction.  Berry commented on that, too, noting that the industrialized West has become a nation driven by statistics, and that these statistics, posing as “objective knowledge”, are overwhelming:

The fact is that we humans are not much to be trusted with what I am calling statistical knowledge, and the larger the statistical quantities the less we are to be trusted. We don’t learn much from big numbers. We don’t understand them very well, and we aren’t much affected by them. The reality that is responsibly manageable by human intelligence is much nearer in scale to a small rural community or urban neighborhood than to the “globe.”

Again, I do not disagree with Berry’s point that an endless list of statistics deadens the reality of a situation, but the way he ties the range of compassion to geographic boundaries of a certain size does not reflect my personal experience, nor that of others I know.  The notion of a wider Jewish community with connections throughout the world, the Muslim concept of ummah, the solidarity of people in diaspora or of expats, these create communities and bonds – of duty or affection – partially or completely removed from geography.  There is a folktale that says that when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed a shard of it entered the heart of every Jew and the pain and anguish this caused will only be assuaged when the Temple is rebuilt.  Regardless of my personal antipathy for the modern political uses to which this folktale has been put, there is no denying that as a young child I learned to carry my sense of home and my love of place with me.  Maybe what we need, rather than a limiting of our scope, is a face to put on the people who live in the “globe”, maybe more people need to read Day of Honey and books like it; maybe more people could find beauty and value in difference.

A section of the Epilogue to Day of Honey struck me with such lasting force that I have reproduced most of it here:

My return to the homeland did not go well. It was late 2009, winter was coming, and everyone I knew was getting laid off. Mohamad [her husband] and millions of other people were sick with swine flu. Our government was still spending hundreds of billions of dollars and uncountable lives on two wars, both of which had been grinding on for years, yet all anyone seemed to talk about was movie stars or sports.  If they did talk about the war in Iraq, it was in neatly packaged, microwavable soundbites that bore no relation to Roaa, Abu Rifaat, Dr. Salama, Abdullah, or any of the other Iraqis I knew.  New Yorkers were so busy fondling their smartphones they seemed to have forgotten basic skills like how to walk.  Friends required me to schedule appointments weeks in advance, claiming they were “booked,” as if they were hotel rooms. People seemed afraid to express strong opinions in person, yet the Internet was crawling with them. Bedbugs were back too.
I called my friend Cara. She and Mohamad had lured me back here, and I was miserable, and it was her fault.
She laughed. “Did I ever tell you what happened when I moved back here with Amiram? We were back from Israel for about a week. And then one day he came to me, and he said: ‘I don’t understand. Why don’t the neighbors come over and drink coffee with us in the morning?’”
They do that in Lebanon too. It is called a subhieh, from subuh, morning. […] Not so much a time and place as a communion, a moment when people conspire to put the world back in its place. We don’t have that here, I reflected bitterly. We have Starbucks.
“Listen, Annia,” she said. “People like us are never going to feel at home anywhere. Ever. We’re never going to have that comfortable feeling of belonging.” (p. 316-7)

What I find interesting about this, apart from the fact that I felt as though I could have written it, so well did it capture the feeling of alienation I often feel when “at home”, is how closely it mirrors some of Wendell Berry’s opinions (on the importance of people, the detrimental nature of technology to human existence and interaction, the role of affection) while broadening the scope from a rural community or urban neighborhood to a series of connections on a global scale.  I do not think it is realistic to expect us all to become world travelers, forming personal connections with the people who make up the statistics we read in the paper or hear on the news.  But neither do I think it is realistic to strive for an agrarian utopia of small farms – for one thing, we would not all make good farmers and for another there is not enough land. I think Wendell Berry is right, we need to foster affection in our society: for the land, for people, for our neighbors, for those different from us. And it is in this last point that I differ most strongly from Mr. Berry, or at least from my understanding of the contents of his lecture.  For if we are to reject “mobility” how are we to meet, perceive and understand difference?  And if we have no experience with difference, how stable a democracy can we truly have?


The full text of Berry’s lecture is available here.
Day of Honey: a memoir of food, love, and war
was written by Annia Ciezadlo and published by Free Press of Simon & Schuster (2011).

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