How ‘Friends’ led to the fall of civilization

Friends and its “tragic hero, Ross Geller,” triggered the downfall of Western Civilization, writes David Hopkins on Medium.

Ross Geller was a professor of paleontology on Friends.

Ross Geller was a nerdy paleontology professor on Friends.

“Ross was the intellectual and the romantic,” he writes. His so-called “friends” groaned with boredom whenever he talked “his interests, his studies, his ideas.” Eventually, Ross went crazy.

The show ended in 2004, the year that “reality television became a dominant force in pop culture,” writes Hopkins. Paris Hilton released an autobiography.  Joey Tribbiani, Friends‘ dimwit actor, got a spin-off TV show.

Hopkins was a teacher that year. As coach of the chess club, he saw his students picked on and bullied, he writes. “My students were smart, huge nerds, and they were in hostile, unfriendly territory.”

Astronaut Mark Watney was smart and studly in The Martian.

Martian astronaut Mark Watney was a smart, studly scientist.

I just saw The Martian on DVD. Matt Damon plays the hero astronaut, who uses his knowledge, strength and courage to survive. “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this,” he pledges.

The Martian glorifies a specifically male nerdery, one whose values sync up with those of traditional masculinity: physical endurance, survival in a hostile landscape, honor, adulation,” writes Katy Waldman in Slate. She complains because the brave and brainy female astronauts are also beautiful.

Is that so bad?

‘Mockingbird’ will cost more — and be read less

imagesTo Kill a Mockingbird is taught in 74 percent of U.S. schools, according to a 1988 survey by the National Council of Teachers of English. That number may decline, reports the New Republic. Harper Lee’s estate will no longer allow publication of the low-cost, mass-market paperback edition. Schools will have to pay more to buy a “trade” paperback.

“The fact that To Kill a Mockingbird is both so accessible to young readers and so widely taught in America is crucial to its cultural importance,” writes Alex Shephard. Next to Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Huckleberry Finn, it’s probably the most assigned novel in America’s middle- and high schools.

Lee’s legacy appears to have fallen into the hands of stupid, greedy people.

 

Asians: Stress is OK, focus on academics

A high-achieving New Jersey school district needs to ease pressure on students and focus more on “social-emotional development,” West Windsor-Plainsboro Superintendent David Aderhold argued in a letter to parents.

“The perpetual achievement machine continues to demand higher scores and greater success each passing year,” he wrote. “The grade has become the end point, not the learning.”

The changes have revealed a divide between white parents, who welcome the changes, and Asian parents, who think achievement should come first, reports the New York Times.

Educated immigrants from China, India and Korea have flooded into the district, which is near Princeton: 65 percent of students are Asian-American, compared with 44 percent in 2007.

At follow-up meetings, Aderhold talked about two clusters of suicides in the last six years in high-achieving Palo Alto (California) schools. Many blame stress. (Most of the suicides were Chinese-American or had one Asian parent.)

Helen Yin, the mother of an eighth grader and a kindergartner in the district, told a crowd at the board meeting that reforms by Dr. Aderhold were holding her children back. Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times

Helen Yin, the mother of an eighth grader and a kindergartner, spoke against the district’s new approach. Credit: Mark Makela/New York Times

Catherine Foley, a former president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at her daughter’s middle school, backs the changes. “My son was in fourth grade and told me, ‘I’m not going to amount to anything because I have nothing to put on my résumé,’ ” she said.

Another parent, Mike Jia, condemned “dumbing down” his children’s education. “What is happening here reflects a national anti-intellectual trend that will not prepare our children for the future,” he said.

The changes include “no-homework nights, an end to high school midterms and finals, and a ‘right to squeak’ initiative that made it easier to participate in the music program,” reports the Times.

 Asian-American parents are enthusiastic supporters of the competitive instrumental music program. They have been huge supporters of the district’s advanced mathematics program, which once began in the fourth grade but will now start in the sixth. The change to the program, in which 90 percent of the participating students are Asian-American, is one of Dr. Aderhold’s reforms.

Asian-American students have been avid participants in a state program that permits them to take summer classes off campus for high school credit, allowing them to maximize the number of honors and Advanced Placement classes they can take, another practice that Dr. Aderhold is limiting this school year.

 At a meeting, white parents sat on one side, while Asian parents sat on the other.

This has been an issue where I live, in Silicon Valley, for years. Asian immigrant parents put heavy pressure on their kids to earn high grades. (It’s not the schools. It’s the parents.) Some white parents worry their kids can’t compete — or will go nuts trying. The pressure to get into an elite college means all the A students feel they’re in competition with each other.

My daughter, a Palo Alto High graduate, was talking about the suicides, which were after her time, with a classmate. “Paly taught me that I didn’t always have to be the best,” she said.

“But we were the best,” he replied.

Linus vs. Santa

It’s the time of year to fight about Silent Night, Santa and — it’s 2015! — Allah.

In Johnson County, Kentucky, Linus won’t recite from the Gospel of Luke in the elementary school’s production of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Students will not sing Silent Night.

Meanwhile, San Jose parents are angry that a school canceled the kindergarten field trip to see Santa after a mother complained it “left out” kids whose families don’t celebrate Christmas.

The school had planned “a short walk to a nearby coffee shop . . . where the kids enjoy hot cocoa and sit on Santa’s lap,” reports the San Jose Mercury News. Children also were told to write a letter to Santa.

Not everyone in class celebrates Christmas, wrote “Talia,” who’s Jewish, in an e-mail.

Some parents have threatened a boycott and accused her of making “war on Christmas.” They say the majority should rule.

Charlie Brown Christmas is explicitly Christian. Charles Schultz wanted to rescue Christmas from Santa and stress its religious meaning. Therefore, it’s a poor choice for a public school play.

Parents can take their kids to visit Santa on the weekend.

At my elementary school — public and heavily Jewish — the first-grade teacher had us decorate ornaments. I put a Jewish star on mine. In the “winter sing,” we sang Silent Night in German and Spanish, but never in English. Maybe they could try that in Kentucky.

Yoga class canceled for ‘cultural appropriation’

Fears of “cultural appropriation” led student leaders to cancel a free yoga class at the University of Ottawa, reports the Ottawa Sun.

Seven years ago, the university’s Student Federation hired Jennifer Scharf to offer yoga instruction at the Centre for Students with Disabilities. Sixty students — disabled and able-bodied — typically participate. Until now.

Jennifer Scharf taught yoga at the University of Ottawa. Credit: Errol McGihon, Ottawa Sun

Jennifer Scharf taught yoga at the University of Ottawa for seven years. Credit: Errol McGihon, Ottawa Sun

“Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately,” according to an email from a Centre official, because it is taken from cultures that “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy.” Therefore, “we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.”

Romeo Ahimakin, acting president of the Student Federation, said yoga is on hiatus for consultation with students “to make it better, more accessible and more inclusive to certain groups of people that feel left out in yoga-like spaces. . . . We are trying to have those sessions done in a way in which students are aware of where the spiritual and cultural aspects come from, so that these sessions are done in a respectful manner.”

“I’m not pretending to be some enlightened yogi master, and the point (of the program) isn’t to educate people on the finer points of the ancient yogi scripture,” Scharf told the Sun. She suggested changing the name from yoga to “mindful stretching.”

“Student leaders debated rebranding the program, but stumbled over how the French translation for ‘mindful stretching’ would appear on a promotional poster, and eventually decided to suspend the program, reports the Sun.

Really. Not The Onion.

‘Help! I’m being repressed!’

Monty Python is wonderful.

Halloween costume parade is on!

The Halloween costume parade will take place at elementary schools in Milford, Connecticut, thanks to parents’ complaints. The district had moved holiday celebrations to the evening, so parents could attend — and children who objected to Halloween for religious or cultural reasons would not be pressured to participate.

Supt. Elizabeth Feser sounded testy in a letter rescinding the parade ban. “We have been accused of being un-American, of denying children participation in an American tradition” by protesting parents, she wrote.

In the CBS story, many commenters assume the district is trying to accommodate Muslim parents. I think they’re actually worried about conservative Christians, who object to making light of devils, witches, etc. But most will dress their kids as a non-supernatural being and make no fuss.

The Asian advantage

Why do Asian-Americans do so well in school? asks Nicholas Kristof in a New York Times column. What’s the “Asian advantage?”

It’s not IQ, writes Brooks, citing Richard Nisbett’s book about intelligence.

Columbia University’s commencement in 2005. Photo: Peter Turnley, Corbis

Columbia University’s commencement in 2005. Photo: Peter Turnley, Corbis

Chinese-American and white children with the same IQ scores were followed into adulthood by researchers. Fifty-five percent of the Chinese-Americans entered high-status occupations, compared with one-third of the whites, Nisbett writes. Chinese-Americans with a 93 IQ did as well as whites with a 100.

In The Asian American Achievement Paradox, Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou note that many recent Asian immigrants are educated professionals. But working-class Asian-Americans tend to do well in school too. That’s certainly true of the children of the Vietnamese boat people.

The “model minority” may be a myth, but Asian kids walk into a math or science classroom knowing their teachers will expect them to excel.

Kristof credits the Confucian emphasis on education.

Immigrant East Asians often try particularly hard to get into good school districts, or make other sacrifices for children’s education, such as giving prime space in the home to kids to study.

There’s also evidence that Americans believe that A’s go to smart kids, while Asians are more likely to think that they go to hard workers.

Asian-American parents have high expectations for their children. A B is an “Asian F,” kids joke. (Kristof says A-, but I think that’s extreme.) And a B is “a white A.”

Asian-Americans also are likely to grow up in two-parent families.

“The success of Asian-Americans is a tribute to hard work, strong families and passion for education,” he concludes. “Ditto for the success of Jews, West Indians and other groups.”

But their success does not “suggest that the age of discrimination is behind us,” he argues. The “black boy in Baltimore who is raised by a struggling single mom, whom society regards as a potential menace” will not be reassured by the success of Asian-Americans. “Because one group can access the American dream does not mean that all groups can.”

Shouldn’t that kid be reassured by the success of West Indian blacks?

Shakespeare in court

Why read Shakespeare? Familiarity with the Bard will help understand Supreme Court opinions, writes Sasha Volokh.

Justice Scalia writes in various places in his King v. Burwell dissent:

Understatement, thy name is an opinion on the Affordable Care Act! . . .

Impossible possibility, thy name is an opinion on the Affordable Care Act! . . .

Contrivance, thy name is an opinion on the Affordable Care Act!

Scalia’s dissent in Johnson v. Transportation Agency (1987) cites Henry IV:

GLENDOWER: I can call Spirits from the vasty Deep.

HOTSPUR: Why, so can I, or so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?

I discovered this exchange when I was a kid watching The Hollow Crown,  a BBC series of Shakespeare’s historical plays. I’ve always loved it. (The BBC has released a new version of The Hollow Crown.)

Scalia isn’t the only Shakespeare-quoting justice, notes Volokh. In Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition (2002), a child pornography case, Justice Kennedy cites the teen-age lovers in Romeo and Juliet.

Is Shakespeare necessary?


Does Romeo and Juliet have any interest for today’s students?

Shakespeare’s just another dead white male with nothing to say to ethnically diverse students, writes a California English teacher, who’s featured on Answer Sheet.

Dana Dusbiber doesn’t like Shakespeare herself — the language is too difficult — and doesn’t teach it to her “ethnically diverse” students.

I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition. I do not believe that not viewing “Romeo and Juliet” or any other modern adaptation of a Shakespeare play will make my students less able to go out into the world and understand language or human behavior.

. . .  as long as we continue to cling to ONE (white) MAN’S view of life as he lived it so long ago, we (perhaps unwittingly) promote the notion that other cultural perspectives are less important.

Shakespeare lived in “a small world,” she believes. The oral tradition of Africa, Latin America or Southeast Asia “includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior,” writes Dusbiber.

If there’s not enough time to do it all, dump the Western canon. “If we only teach students of color, . . . then it is far past the time for us to dispense with our Eurocentric presentation of the literary world. Conversely, if we only teach white students, it is our imperative duty to open them up to a world of diversity through literature that they may never encounter anywhere else in their lives.”

It is “ridiculous not to teach Shakespeare,”, responds Matthew Truesdale, who teaches English at a rural South Carolina high school. He likes to teach Othello.

So what Shakespeare wrote 450 years ago is not applicable to her teaching today?  Ethnically diverse students don’t foolishly fall in love and over-dramatize every facet of that experience?  Or feel jealousy or rage?  Or fall victim to discrimination?  Or act desperately out of passion?  To dismiss Shakespeare on the grounds that life 450 years ago has no relation to life today is to dismiss every religious text, every piece of ancient mythology (Greek, African, Native American, etc.), and for that matter, everything that wasn’t written in whatever time defined as “NOW.”

. . . When the general Othello, who has lived a life full of valor and who has had experiences far beyond and far greater than those of his men, still falls victim to Iago’s head games for no other reason than that he is different, an other, and can’t quite forget that, no matter his accomplishments, we empathize precisely because we’ve been there.

Teachers can link Shakespeare’s plays with other traditions, writes Truesdale. But we shouldn’t assume Shakespeare is for whites (or white male British-Americans) only.  Dusbiber’s argument “turns the English classroom into a place where no one should be challenged or asked to step out of their comfort zone, where we should not look beyond ourselves.” 

I’ve always thought people read Shakespeare for the language, not for life lessons. Well, I guess students could learn that feigning death is not the best way to get out of an arranged marriage. And don’t commit suicide — or murder your wife or your king —  too quickly. It might not be a good idea. On the other hand, don’t think too long about murdering your uncle. Get on with it before 3/4 of the Elsinore population is dead too and you need a Norwegian mop-up crew.

As it happens, I’m on my way to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland to see some plays. For fun.