Love, art and fear in Florence

In John L’Heureux’s The Medici Boy, a failed monk and failed artist narrates the story of the Renaissance artist Donatello and his passion for the vain and “whorish” Agnolo, who becomes the model for his bronze David.

Enemies of Donatello’s Medici patrons try to destroy the artist using Florence’s laws against homosexuality. Penalties start with fines, exile or public torture and burning alive — or dead, for those who confess. Yet sex between men and adolescent boys was so common the Germans called it florenzen, and the French called it “the Florentine vice.”

The narrator, Luca, struggles with love, jealousy and fear. Will Donatello burn in the public square? Will Luca burn in hell?

L’Heureux was my creative writing professor many years ago. We didn’t waste time to unleash our creativity. We wrote stuff.

 

Immersed in Mandarin

A Mandarin immersion charter school is proving popular in Minneapolis, reports the New York Times.

Yinghua Academy teaches all academic subjects in Chinese through fourth grade before moving to a half-English model for grades five to eight. That creates cultural understanding and “real bilingualism,” says Luyi Lien, the academic director.

The academic director leads Chinese-style morning calisthenics. Photo: Jane Peterson

“We bring together both East and West traditions,” says Lien, who tries to balance Eastern discipline with Western fun.

Just ahead of snack time in kindergarten, the teacher, who speaks only in Mandarin, thrusts an orange plastic disk in the air and 28 little hands shoot up. She points to one girl who answers correctly — “chengse” — before dashing to the nearby sink to wash her hands. In just minutes, all the students have identified a color and are happily tearing open their snacks. One 5-year-old asks, “Can you open this?” The teacher replies, “bangmang dakai?” On cue, the child repeats and then says, “xie xie” — thank you.

Yinghua, which was started in 2006, has ranked within the top 15 percent of all Minnesota public schools for the past three years on multiple measures.

Parents who choose immersion tend to be well-educated and committed to their children’s education. Forty-seven percent of students are Asian-American and 46 percent white.

Math results, which are particularly strong, are partly attributed to the Singapore Math curriculum and its eight-step approach to word problems, as well as the Chinese-educated teachers who move through material more quickly than their American peers.

Mathematical terms in Mandarin are also clearer. The word for “triangle,” for instance, “sanjiaoxing,” means three-sided. And when counting to 100, the Chinese use only 10 numbers to build all others; 71, for instance, is written 7-10-1.

China’s Ministry of Education pays for two instructors at the school as part of a campaign to support the teaching of Mandarin and Chinese culture.

Halloween: Too pagan for schools?

When some parents complained Halloweeen is a pagan holiday, a New Jersey school canceled the annual celebrations.

But Halloween is back on the schedule at Seth Boyden Elementary School in Maplewood.

District officials decided they needed more time to discuss the issue.

Each year, students whose parents object to celebrating Halloween are given an alternative activity.

Parents who think Halloween is the work of the devil must be frustrated by how much fun the holiday is for its celebrants. It’s tough to compete.

Enumerate!

This season, Sesame Street will parody Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, X-Men, Batman and possibly Game of Thrones.

Closing the skills — and earnings — gap

Manufacturers are working with high schools and community colleges in hopes of closing the skills — and earnings — gap.

Ice-cream racism

You scream. I scream. We all scream for ice cream. And racism.

When you hear an ice cream truck play Turkey in the Straw, think about the racist lyrics written for the tune 100 years ago, writes Theodore R. Johnson III on NPR’s blog.

By the time ice cream trucks existed, Turkey in the Straw was associated with farms or with its nonsense lyrics, responded linguist John H. McWhorter in the New Republic.

Johnson wants ice cream lovers to reflect on the tune’s racist history along with other minstrel songs such as Camptown Races, Jimmy Crack Corn and Oh, Susanna.

McWhorter makes The Case For Moving On in City Journal.

We should reflect often on slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining, yes. But ice cream? . . .  We are not simply to live in the present; lord forbid we look ahead with anything but wary caution and, most importantly, an endless consideration that this present was furnished by people singing about nigger this and watermelon that, and doing much worse besides.

An ice cream truck goes by, playing a tune which—if anyone in 2014 is even aware of the lyric—is about the barnyard. Your average person is thinking about getting a popsicle or cone.

Demands for a “national conversation” on race will not transform the lives of black Americans, writes McWhorter. “Shouldn’t we focus on race as it exists in the only real world we will ever know—where there has never been a way to settle old scores perfectly, but in the end, what matters is getting over? Change happens, if slowly. As blacks in America move on, we can admit that sometimes, an ice cream jingle is just an ice cream jingle.”

By the way, the lyrics to “You Scream, I Scream  . . . ” could be considered demeaning to Eskimos. Who knew?

Education, Politics, and Cultural Identity

No links to start discussion today. No quotes with snarky replies. Just a few thoughts that I’ve been working on for a little over a year now. I thought that it’s about time to toss a preliminary version into the public space and see what happens.

First, a few assumptions (which could easily be wrong):

1. It’s not incoherent for a country to aspire to multicultural pluralism.
2. A multiculturally pluralist country nevertheless will have some sort of shared culture.
3. At the most fundamental level, the primary purpose of the education given to children in any society, at any time, is to reproduce a culture and to give children the ability to fit into that culture. (This is straight from Dewey.) The sorts of things that are often said to be purposes of education — economic success, survival, the growth of powers, etc. — are the purposes of the various aspects of the particular culture in question.

The tension is obvious: if education is about cultural reproduction, then which cultures in a multiculturally pluralist country get to reproduce?

On the one hand, the answer seems obvious. “They all do. They have a right to reproduce themselves, and to exist. That’s what multiculturalism is.”

But we also have to educate for the “shared” culture, the over-culture that makes our multicultural country a nation in the first place. And we need to do that without interfering with the reproduction of the various subcultures.

When we, as a country, find ourselves contemplating something like the Common Core — which proposes to establish a “national” curriculum (and that is exactly what it proposes, despite the protestations of some of its proponents) — we’re faced with the question of what, exactly, our shared culture is that needs to be reproduced. And not only are we then in the business of picking and choosing what parts of the culture get included and which do not, we’re also inevitably going to have to deal with the notion of cultural change and how we should alter our culture by altering the values and practices that are transmitted to the next generation.

This is, of course, one of the reasons (if not the reason) that education is so politicized in this country: education has been institutionalized to a tremendous degree in the United States, and that means it’s something of a “winner take all” in terms of cultural (re)production. All of the fighting that goes on — whether it’s about textbooks or Howard Zinn or Heather Has Two Mommies or prayer in schools or “Evolution is just a theory” — it’s all about the struggle to seize control of the mechanism of cultural reproduction and establish the culture that is desired.

One strategy to avoiding this sort of life-and-death struggle, of course, is to “thin” out the notion of our shared culture. (Note — I touched very briefly on this issue in the third chapter of my dissertation.) Instead of having our public schools serve as a center of substantive values creation and the inevitable culture wars that follow, we might think to “dial back” the public school’s curriculum to include only those things upon which universal (or near-universal) agreement can be established.

Nearly everyone — even the Amish, the Gangsta Rappers, and the Hippies — seems to think that learning to add and subtract and read is a good thing. But while that might fly with mathematics, with reading it’s almost impossible to teach the skill without having something to read. And that means exposing children to ideas, which necessarily means presenting them to kids as “endorsed” by society.

So it’s easier said than done.

I suspect that the great push to make schools into job-factories, that is, institutions whose sole purpose is to prepare students for some sort of “career”, is a reaction to the cultural battles that (I think) reached their apex in the late 80’s and early 90’s. If the schools just limit themselves to producing economic widgets, and leave the culture to the local institutions, then everyone’s happy, right? We all share the thin “culture” of economic efficiency, don’t we?

Well no. First off, it’s not clear that everyone got the message that there was supposed to be a truce in the culture wars. There are many political factions (primarily but not exclusively progressive) who desperately, desperately want to teach substantive values in schools, and who aren’t happy until they win. (And they never win, because no matter what sorts of institutional change they manage, it’s never enough.) That’s one problem.

A second problem is that this sort of thin-culture “education” (if we can call it that) really requires that there be some local, supplemental institution providing a substantive, value-laden culture. Otherwise it’s just a skills-training center, and not a proper education for children at all. If a student is not given a culture into which they can fit, not given a culture in which they can take up a meaningful role… well, we’re ignoring the fundamental purpose of education. (And this might help explain why so many students are shooting up their schools these days, but that’s probably a cheap rhetorical point unworthy of me.)

Additionally, for the greater part of the last century, schools have served as a (albeit contentious) source of cultural values. Our national culture has gotten quite used to the seeing schools as sources of civic value, and we’re ill-equipped, I think, to have the rug pulled out from under us with so little warning.

This post grows over-long, so to sum up: there is a fundamental tension between the fact that we want (to the extent “we” want) to live in a multicultural society on the one hand, and the notion that we can have some sort of centralized education curriculum on the other. There may be a way to deal with this tension, but I think it first requires that we acknowledge that it exists, and that we explicitly attempt to deal with it.

Opting out of testing

And I mean really opting out. Dean Donald Heller of Michigan State’s Education School explains why he let his younger daughter drop out of high school:

We knew she was not as engaged as well, and to understand why, we talked to her, spoke with her teachers and counselor, and examined the curriculum in her school. What we came to realize was that her high school did not meet her needs as a learner. While she was an interdisciplinary thinker and was intellectually curious about a number of different creative areas, her school was highly traditional in its structure and curriculum. We concluded it had largely a singular focus: to improve performance of students on the state tests rather than to encourage them to grow intellectually and to develop a breadth of learning. Our daughter was performing well on tests, but she understood that she was not reaching her full potential as a student.

Read the whole thing. The last paragraph, in particular, is rather touching.

Public schools are of remarkably uneven quality, and their goals are not always perfectly in sync with the goals of parents (or of students). The mania — and it’s a bona fide mania at this point, I think — for standardized testing as a way of determining school, class, teacher, and student quality is driving schools in particular directions that may or may not equate to “quality” in the eyes of all of the school’s potential clientele. It’s hard to please everyone.

One the one hand, your children are only young once, and they are largely your responsibility. If you can do better for your kids, you probably should. If your kids can do better for themselves, well, then they probably should, too.

But on the other, carrying that train of thought out to its logical conclusion suggests that the public school system is basically a remedial measure for parents without the desire and/or ability to do better for their kids, in terms of cognitive and social development. We might not be unjustified to start thinking of schools as a sort of “safety net” for parents and students.

But that’s a very different view of public education than is held by many — and probably most — people in this country. Public education is more often seen, I think, as a sort of public institution at large, and the primary way of producing an informed citizenry, with private schools and homeschooling and such serving as a sort of minor variation on the theme. Our public schools, we might think, are part of the fabric of our democracy.

Then the paradox: to serve the entire democracy, we must serve the disadvantaged. But serving the disadvantaged requires tremendous resources, and often involves the schools essentially replacing parents who are unable or unwilling to raise their students in a manner considered by the voting public to be “responsibly”. Yet more tightly schools focus their services on the most disadvantaged students, though, the more I think we can expect schools to bring upon themselves the mantle of being remedial institutions that “the right sort of people” want little or nothing to do with. And that will probably mean less public support for those schools as well.

It might be the case that public schools (and we, their supporters), to ensure their survival and their place in civic life, must accept that the best we can hope for is to marginally improve the lives of disadvantaged students, and that fixing them entirely is simply not a realistic undertaking.

Warning: Bears! Nuts! No recycling!


Sue Lyon and James Mason in Lolita

The National Association of Scholars has announced the winners of its Trigger Warning Contest:

Lolita: Disturbing novel.  Narrator DOES NOT RECYCLE. –Earl V. Bobb

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Warning: May Contain Nuts — Greg Britton

Green Eggs and Ham: Glorifies GMOs — Jim Eltringham

Among the honorable mentions, my favorites are:

Goldilocks: Warning: bears! — Adam Kissel

The Road by Cormac McCarthy: Warning, portrays a low carb, high protein diet of free range, non-factory farmed meat in a negative light — Aaron Sheer

The NAS staff came up with some of its own:

Don Quixote:  scenes of graphic violence against alternative energy sources.

Beowulf: depictions of violence against endangered species.

In a satiric memo, Rob Zaretsky, a French history professor at the University of Houston,  warns that the Book of Job can be a real downer.

“Are you sure this is part of the Bible?” asked many respondents, who also exhibited intense unease with God’s actions, as they did with Job’s questions.

. . . While the groups’ expectations were raised when a voice came from the whirlwind, they were deflated by the voice’s answers — which, according to one respondent, weren’t answers at all. (“Like my parents, only worse.”) At the end of the session, a palpable sense of dread, along with isolated cases of fear and trembling, were in evidence — all matters of concern for our office.

The Iliad not only has no empowered women, but the dog Argo is left to die on a dung heap!

The killer narcissist

Could Therapy Culture Help Explain Elliot Rodger’s Rampage? asks Brendan O’Neill on Reason. The 22-year-old started therapy at age 8 and reportedly was seeing multiple therapists while living in Santa Barbara and plotting “retribution.”

. . . he was full of self-regard, was incredibly self-obsessed, and was utterly outraged when people, especially women, didn’t treat him with the love and respect he felt he deserved.

Could Rodger’s fury at the world for failing to flatter his self-image as a good, civilized guy be a product of the therapy industry, of the therapy world’s cultivation of a new tyrannical form of narcissism where individuals demand constant genuflection at the altar of their self-esteem?

Therapy’s children are “invited to focus” on their inner selves rather than the world around them, writes O’Neill.

We see it in university students who want to ban everything that they think harms their self-esteem, because they’ve been educated to see any attack on what they think and how they feel as utterly unacceptable. We see it in the growing cult of self-revelation and the search for validation on social networks like Twitter, where individuals’ frenetic tweeting and their desperate desire for that all-important retweet speaks to the reorganization of society around the need for recognition, the need for an “admiring audience” to make the self feel puffed up. And we potentially see it, in its most extreme form, in Elliot Rodger, the son of therapy . . .

In his murder manifesto, Rodger complains that people’s attitudes towards him “really decreased my self-esteem. . . . if they won’t accept me… then they are my enemies.”

And then he makes the key cry of our therapeutic era: “It’s not fair. Life is not fair.”

Watch Rodger’s video. The most alarming thing is how cool and well-spoken he is. This is a man used to talking about himself, following years of practice in therapy sessions. Clearly having decided to have a love affair with himself, Rodger terrifyingly declares: “I am the closest thing there is to a living god… Magnificent, glorious, supreme, eminent, divine!”

He’s not a religious nut, writes O’Neill. “It’s a therapeutic thing.”

You might call Rodger a homicidal narcissist. His own life has supreme value. Nobody else matters.

Does “therapy culture” turn loners into enraged sociopaths?