May 30, 2013

Where You Come To

Working my way through the clutter of the last two years of grad school paperwork, I came across a favored quote (which I have noted before) from a book on how we see and how we create what we want to be seen. The author frames this around abstract artists who step away from the rules of convention that govern representational painting, but it's applicable to many forms of thought. He describes the process of stepping away from those rules and into abstraction as going down a ladder, letting go rung by rung, subtracting, until you find yourself in a place where you can be fully skeptical of the visible world. As he states it: "The ladder of disorder leaves conventional representation behind, in favor of images that explore inadequate representation." I love that sentence, and the notion that this sort of descent allows one to more freely act on what one favors -- because this sort of descent allows one to see beyond certain structures, and beyond the need for certain structures.

This is not a way of living, not some form of enlightenment or whatever. It is rather a forging of new connections in the brain, using vision as the tool do so...a sort of un-training while also rewiring. The author is addressing the mesmerizing idea of encountering abstraction or content of any kind that can't adequately be pictured. He positions you at the top of the ladder encountering something incomprehensible; do you climb down, subtracting as you go? And what does the world look like to you when you reach the last rung?

When one is fully skeptical of the visible world, skepticism about other things comes fairly naturally. For if you can see (without the aid of super-special They Live glasses) the difference between what the author James Elkins calls "the machinery of realism" and whatever else there is, you kind of train your brain to hear the difference too. Meaning you become better attuned not simply to hypocrisy but to how people actively construct ideas about and identities for themselves. And what becomes remarkable (at least to me, and I am maybe late to this game) is the sort of oddly beautiful, reliable, limited rhythms that people use to reify their identities. Like the beautiful, reliable, cirumscribed brush strokes representational artists use to show us the known and knowable. (Possibly this is also on my mind because of the imminent arrival of cicadas on the scene; listening to their sound is like listening to the earth thinking.)

This is something I realize is probably an after-effect of going back to graduate school at my age. I have emerged halfway through the process very far down the ladder, having let go of more rungs than I can count, but with a much better ability to assess constructions of any kind. This is especially true of theories, which are rampant in education -- theories of teacher motivation, student identity, knowledge acquisition, brain development, learning styles, affect in the classroom, etc. I see why they are rampant, see the comfort that comes from descriptions of the structures in the visible world, like the comfort we all find in our descriptions of ourselves. These are the rules of representation in my field; these are the familiar rhythms. Having now climbed well below the world of conventional representation that these generate, I am not aligning with or embracing any. Instead I am viewing them from below, as images of fascinating, incomplete, always inadequate representations. And this is yet another weirdly happy place I feel lucky to have come to.

March 6, 2013

I Wait for the Water

News out this week about efforts by Rupert Murdoch and the Gates Foundation (inevitable efforts, given the players) to go down the road of turning all K-12 student data into a funland for entrepreneurs prompted me to post my own view, from inside:

The research director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) co-authored a report in January in which he explained how he and his colleagues had miscalculated the impacts of fiscal multipliers (“the short-term effects of government spending cuts or tax hikes on economic activity”) within the various economies which were bound by the austerity policies the IMF promoted during the recent global economic downturn. The IMF had used “empirical studies from 27 economies the 1930’s” (another period when interest rates were near zero) to establish a baseline for what fiscal multipliers should have been in 2010, and forecasted a model that under “rational conditions” would have a “coefficient on the fiscal consolidation” that was quite low – or in other words, held an expectation that the fiscal multipliers for these economies would be very small and would remain fairly static over time. This was coupled with an apparently willful blindness to another context, wherein “lower output and lower income, together with a poorly functioning financial system, imply that consumption may have depended more on current than future income, and that investment may have depended more on current than on future profits, with both effects leading to larger multipliers.” Or in other words: Greece.

The IMF then realized, after prioritizing debt-repayment and austerity policies that had devastating impacts on these economies, that “a number of empirical studies have found that fiscal multipliers are likely to be larger when there is a great deal of slack in the economy…[and] fiscal multipliers associated with government spending can fluctuate from being near zero in normal times to about 2.5 during recessions.” A Washington Post story from January 3rd provided some perspective on the IMF’s policies and on this recent report by stating that: “The Fund has been accused of intentionally underestimating the effects of austerity in Greece to make its programs palatable, at least on paper” and noted that the projected fiscal multiplier number used for policy formation was “a background assumption rather than a variable that needed to be fine-tuned based on national circumstances or peculiarities.” The IMF essentially apologized in their report for the consequences of policy decisions that were not bounded by reality, or context; these decisions were not, in the end, trustworthy.

Along these same lines, the Economic Policy Institute, in collaboration with Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, published a report in January that claims comparisons of international tests of students do not provide trustworthy premises on which to base currently popular U.S. school reform policies, in part because of a very basic item: “social class inequality is greater in the United States than in any of the countries with which we can reasonably be compared…If U.S. adolescents had a social class distribution that was similar to the distribution in countries to which the United States is frequently compared, average reading scores in the Unites States would be higher than average reading scores in the similar post-industrial countries we examined (France, Germany and the United Kingdom).” The authors do not simply use income, race, ethnicity, or parental education level to define social class groups. Instead, the authors use household literacy, specified by the number of books in a child’s home, which they find “plausibly relevant to student academic performance” within an accepted social science research frame, and they posit that “children in different countries have similar social-class backgrounds if their homes have similar number of books.” By making this choice, the authors implicitly encourage policy makers to broaden their definitions of social and class distinctions, and to be aware that “countries’ social class compositions change over time” so that “comparisons of test score trends over time by social class group provide more useful information…than comparisons of total average test scores at one point in time.” And they encourage policymakers to think about a range of contexts, including time, when forming policy, the hoped-for result being policy based on more trustworthy assumptions about data.

Policymakers do often choose to sidestep contexts, or base decisions on a specific or static state without any expectation of or comprehension of change, when forming policies that they nonetheless believe are rational and therefore ethical and beneficial. Policymakers also tend to be removed (or by intention keep themselves removed) from the problematic environment they are making policy about. The two examples cited above speak to this; they are also examples of how such thinking can be challenged in a reasoned manner. And these examples also connect to the current accountability era in school reform in a particular way, as they forefront both how persuasion can be and is used to make policy arguments that seem rational and trustworthy but are not, and how this might be countered. For how one counters these reforms – the calls for accountability in education as measured through tests, “objective” evidence-based policies, “objective” data-driven decisions, the primacy of standardized testing, the commodification of teaching and learning, for the general overhaul of public education to align more closely with business priorities – matters, not simply because time and data have shown these reforms to be more about exercising power than enhancing student experience or skills, but because these policies and tenets were from the outset based on hypocritical conceits. And hypocrisy, as Hannah Arendt once noted, “cannot be met with what is recognized as reasonable behavior. Words can be relied upon only so long as one is sure that their function is to reveal and not to conceal. It is the semblance of rationality, rather than the interests behind it, that provokes rage. To respond with reason when reason is used as a trap is not ‘rational’.”

So perhaps these policies need simply to be challenged outright, to be met with the emotion suitable to them, and their “rationality” denied. 
Because if one were to reverse-engineer the IMF policy formation process, one could clearly say (and the report’s authors do say) that the policy makers engaged in that process were entirely capable of imagining varying contexts, pressures, and “peculiarities” in national economic systems had they chosen to, and were capable of incorporating these into the thinking that fueled their policies, but for political or other reasons, they chose not to do so. One can also look at contemporary school reform policies that, at their inception, incorporated the fearful predictions of 1983's fear-inducing screed A Nation at Risk and ideas on education from Ross Perot, and say that policy makers engaged in that process were entirely capable of envisioning American public education as not being a threat to global competitiveness and capable of envisioning its “chaos” as not needing to be managed like an enterprise IT system, but for political or other reasons, they decided not to. 
This may seem an extreme perspective, but it is a position that is actually given weight by much of the thorough, methodical, and decidedly not extreme analysis of school reform initiatives provided by educational researchers in the past decade. Much of this research addresses the very things that school reformers see as problematic about public  education (such as agency and control in educational practice and management, choice in educational environments, accountability in educational processes, access to educational resources, and equity in education) and finds that while these are issues that directly connect with and impact both teaching and learning, designing profit-promoting reforms that commoditize the intellectual capital around pedagogy has not been shown to directly impact either teaching or learning in a positive manner. 

January 10, 2013

And My Limousines Are Black

Watching Frontline's interview with/expose on Michelle Rhee, the former DC schools chancellor, education reformer, and "educator," helped me to see just how lucky I am to work with and research actual educators. Unlike them, Rhee did not study education in college, nor does she have any advanced degree in education. She was spawned by Teach for America, given the very brief training that organization provides, and then taught in the "worst" school in Baltimore. As is typical of TFA graduates, she spent only three years in the classroom, but used the experience to leverage something better for herself -- an educational consulting firm/Michelle Rhee professional networking organization. Which led to her job as chancellor. How 'bout them apples.

In the interview, Rhee refers to the 2nd grade students she taught, briefly, in Baltimore as "my kids," a sentiment that any actual educator who has spent some time in the field knows is usually a new teacher's mask for insecurity. She also became infamous for a classroom episode where she, in a straight up act of aggression, killed and ate an annoying bee in front of her class of seven-year-olds. She could not, after all, swat and swallow the annoying and unruly students in this urban elementary school.

Rhee presents herself as being compelling because she is a lonely warrior in a fight for student success. Of course the only thing compelling about this is that Rhee repeats the mantra so often you start to think she is simply hypnotizing herself into believing her motivations are good.  Or worse -- that she is trying, perhaps, to wrestle some deep anger into a positive sales slogan. Because again, its not like she could kill and eat those pesky "urban" kids.

But the thing I found most fascinating about her self-presentation is how removed it was from the actual experience of being an educator, particularly in an urban school. Setting aside what one thinks the core function of a school is for a moment, one thing most urban educators do share is the experience of having to be many selves in many situations to many people. And this is done in a manner entirely unlike the self-shifting one has to engage in in a corporate setting. This is done in a work environment where the actors are relatively powerless and not rewarded well, and where the subjects they have to respond to are not present by choice and range in age, developmental level, skills, etc.

And yet there these teachers are, morphing themselves on any given day into social workers, disciplinarians, narcs, protectors, legal counsel, sex educators, emergency workers, advisers and guides, resource managers, stand-in parents, what have you. The strength it takes to be that flexible and responsive is not easy to comprehend, and is not generally respected by leaders like Rhee who pin their personal success on having a very fixed self-identity.

The Rhee interview also made me think of another interview, one with a surviving first-grade teacher from Sandy Hook, who struggled after the fact with the professionalism of her decision to tell all the children she had hidden in the closet that she loved them all so much. She said, in the interview, that she knew this was maybe a violation of some kind, in terms of keeping a professional distance as an educator, but at that moment of total fear she could only think of this: if I were a six-year-old and very afraid, what would I want most to hear? And, she thought, what if the last words these children ever heard in their lives were whatever words I spoke? So she just told them, repeatedly, that she loved each one of them.

Aside from the amazing compassion and awareness she displayed (and the remarkable control of her own fear in that moment) what I appreciated about this teacher's story was that it conveyed so powerfully exactly what good educators can do. They can allow themselves to be in others, without risk to their own identities or their integrity.

That this teacher was concerned about how this ability would be perceived by those who assess the the profession in the manner that Rhee obviously does speaks to the patriarchal nature of education reform initiatives, on the one hand, and to the limited nature of how "reformers" like Rhee think about the self. It is likely this is something Rhee found out in her brief and contentious tenure as the leader of an urban school district -- that equating a static, immovable self with strength is both limiting and destructive.

When I watched Piers Morgan's recent interview with right-wing conspiracy theorist and gun fan Alex Jones, I could not help but think the same thing. Jones and his ilk speak of the traumatic consequences that will befall us all if we don't stick to "who we are," a static and unchanging notion of self that must be defended at all costs, against all imagined tyrants. I could not help but listen to his rant as a projection of his visceral fear of self-flexibility, as if his very sense of self was under threat, so much so that near the end of the interview his fear compelled him to mock the British accent "identifier" of Piers Morgan.

I really saw Jones' self-presentation in the same light at Rhee's. Both seem to be fighting for the definition of self to be inviolate, and both seem to make a living by aggressively projecting this need onto everyone around them.

Plus, I think Alex Jones would have happily swatted and swallowed Morgan if he had had the chance.

January 2, 2013

There and Back Again

Sure, it was probably not the best idea to see Django Unchained just before spending a few days with some gun fans in the south, but you can't really plan for everything, I suppose.

Circumstance, not choice, brought us together. On this trip I encountered a collection of what I can only describe as southern style misanthropes. One of the group brought his revolver with him; one was a prepper and a gun collector. Another had relocated from LA after the Rodney King riots because he apparently feared that "they" would infiltrate his neighborhood, and now he lives in a big house set back in the woods, where he can see you coming. And there was another, one who knows in their bones that there are no good people, anywhere, and you just have to keep to your kind, and to yourself.

Across town on this same weekend the Frist museum had two exhibitions up -- one on German Expressionism, and the other a retrospective of the work of Carrie Mae Weems. Both exhibitions were wonderfully done, but the Weems retrospective was also brain-changing, and deeply emotional. And aaaahhhh, the cognitive dissonance. Just writing the last three paragraphs recalled to me the almost paralyzing headache I had during this visit. Because this was real, not technicolor; I really had dinner with a racist prepper, and then the next morning cried in front of a brilliant artist's work about our collective history of race and pain. And meanwhile, on honky tonk row, the stage was going up for CNN's New Year's Eve celebration. Things just go on.

Regarding the actual movie, I don't think I am giving much away by noting that Quentin Tarantino's character accidentally blows himself to bits with dynamite near the end of the film, because that's what shit-stupid racist white men have always done when they are given a choice to make some coin. They blow themselves up. (See also: Republican party circa December 2012.)

In contrast, Jamie Foxx's Django survives intact every horror imaginable, and then blows the holy motherfucking crap out of a plantation, after simultaneously saving the love of his life from slavery and killing almost everyone there first. Except for the venal Uncle Tom character, whom Django leaves alive so he can get blown into a lot of tiny bits. In Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, the whole German high command and their acolytes and lovers get blown to tiny bits too. It’s fantastic! The kind of gorgeous, outrageous, mythical vengeance, against the most vile of humans, that you can only dream about. Or, if you are a mythical hero like Django, the kind of gorgeous, outrageous vengeance you can actually extract on a grotesquerie of southern racist whites in a fantastic Tarantino piece.

Grappling with hatred, fear, destruction, the unfulfilled desire for vengeance: these are the things you work out in art. These are all present in Weems's unflinching photographs. And in Tarantino's over-the-top films. And one can even connect a line from these two back to the way the Expressionist movement dealt with emotion and interpersonal violence visually. But grappling with all this requires what can seem a strange and visceral combination -- a deep respect for a visual imagination which can be repellent, dark, and messy, combined with an unbreakable commitment to not actually hurt others in the expression of that imagination.

And this is not, as Tarantino shows through his depiction of gun lovers in the south in this film, a commitment that those gun lovers of the southern United States whom I just spent some time with will likely ever make.Or have ever made.Which is just one more reason why the gun lovers of the United States having collections of AR-15's at home should give us all pause.