Sparks fly around the table–of the seminar room or the lunchroom

There’s something seriously wrong when the dominant methods of education do not foster the skills most valued by potential employers.

In a recent spate of op-ed pieces in The New York Times, pundits have explored this disconnect, which seems to be grower wider as we advance into the 21st century.

David Brooks, making a distinction between what he calls “technical knowledge” and “practical knowledge,” says that online education is good for transmitting and measuring students’ mastery of technical knowledge, but does little for helping students gain the practical knowledge they’ll need to be successful in the workplace.

“Practical knowledge is not about what you do, but how you do it,” Brooks says. “It is the wisdom a great chef possesses that cannot be found in recipe books. Practical knowledge is not the sort of knowledge that can be taught and memorized; it can only be imparted and absorbed. It is not reducible to rules; it only exists in practice.”

Brooks points to the college seminar as one of the important incubators of important workplace skills, and as someone who teaches exclusively in seminar style, I agree with him.  The college seminar is where students learn how to listen to each other, build on each other’s ideas, articulate their own ideas clearly and concisely, and take away crucial insights that they’ll use to construct their more fully elaborated written papers (which in the workplace might be called briefs or reports).

But Brooks and I part company when he suggests that seminars should be used as laboratories for the dissection of intellectual exchange.  He thinks that a smart use of online education technology would be “to take a free-form seminar and turn it into a deliberate seminar….Seminars could be recorded with video-cameras, and exchanges could be reviewed and analyzed to pick apart how a disagreement was handled and how a debate was conducted. Episodes in one seminar could be replayed for another. Students could be assessed, and their seminar skills could be tracked over time.”

Deep groan.  This sounds like a perfect recipe for a disastrous seminar in which students—and faculty–would be made to feel increasingly self-conscious, where the delight of the “free-form” exchange of ideas would degenerate into a stilted, scripted, uber-careful caricature of what a seminar should be.

Occasionally taping a seminar and analyzing it might be fruitful, especially in one of those inevitable groups where the dynamics are terrible and everyone, by mid-semester, wants to just crawl under the table and hide. But making the focus of the semester the “how” rather than the “what” seems like a terrible idea.

It’s also in sharp contrast to the most cutting-edge ideas of how to spur human innovation and creativity, which lord knows we desperately need as the 21st century advances.

In his own recent column on education, NY Times columnist Tom Friedman interviewed Harvard education specialist Tony Wagner, also looking for ways that educational practices could better connect to workplace imperatives. According to Wager, who just wrote a book called Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, “because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge. As one executive told me, ‘We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative.’ ”

Critical thinking, asking the right questions, and taking initiative are indeed what should be taught at every level of education, from kindergarten to college and beyond.  Interestingly, Wagner also points to another important goal of education, which is to motivate students to want to learn.

“Young people who are intrinsically motivated — curious, persistent, and willing to take risks — will learn new knowledge and skills continuously,” Wagner says. “They will be able to find new opportunities or create their own — a disposition that will be increasingly important as many traditional careers disappear.”

Unfortunately, in our current education environment, where passing standardized tests becomes a goal in itself, keeping kids engaged is a serious challenge.

I saw this myself when I taught at a large state university, where the students were much more interested in finding the best watering holes for their weekend parties than in any of their classes.

As Friedman reports: “We teach and test things most students have no interest in and will never need, and facts that they can Google and will forget as soon as the test is over,” said Wagner. “Because of this, the longer kids are in school, the less motivated they become. Gallup’s recent survey showed student engagement going from 80 percent in fifth grade to 40 percent in high school.”

Wagner’s solution is to re-imagine the classroom, and the educational system, so that teachers are focused on “teaching the skill and will to learn and to make a difference and bring the three most powerful ingredients of intrinsic motivation into the classroom: play, passion and purpose.”

That is a tall order, really, and it has to do not just with the classroom, but also with the dining room table—with what happens at home, in students’ family environment.  How to inspire passion and persistence in students who are being reared on smash-em up video games?  How to foster critical thinking and collaboration in students who come from plugged-in families who rarely spend much quality time together?

Somewhat paradoxically, it appears that it’s precisely in web-based interactive technology companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and others that the qualities of human innovation and creativity are most dogged sought.

And how are they trying to foster these skills among their workers?

Google350x233By going back to good old-fashioned lunchroom tables, at which, it appears, the unstructured back and forth of ideas is what prompts the greatest leaps in creative thinking.  Just like that other good old-fashioned table, the one in the college seminar room!

In a New York Times article provocatively entitled “Engineering Serendipity,” Greg Lindsay points to a recent study in which “researchers at Arizona State University used sensors and surveys to study creativity within teams.” The study found that “employees who ate at cafeteria tables designed for 12 were more productive than those at tables for four, thanks to more chance conversations and larger social networks. That, along with things like companywide lunch hours and the cafes Google is so fond of, can boost individual productivity by as much as 25 percent.”

If our best, most innovative companies most value creative, collaborative thinking, which is best fostered in face to face interactions, why in the world is K-12 education focused on teaching technical knowledge measured by standardized tests, while higher education is flocking to online learning, which isolate students in front of their computer screens?

Give me the old-fashioned seminar table any day, with a smart, dedicated teacher and a roomful of students who are absolutely forbidden to use their computers or phones or tablets for the duration of the class session! Give us some provocative material to discuss, and just watch the creative sparks fly!

Holding the Fort for the Humanities

Michael Berube

Michael Berube

In a recent address to the American Council on Graduate Schools, out-going Modern Language Association president Michael Bérubé argues trenchantly that American graduate education in the humanities is in a state of crisis, and in urgent need of structural revision.

But to my mind, he does not go nearly far enough in his thinking.

“Graduate programs in the humanities have been designed precisely to replenish the ranks of the professoriate; that is why they have such a strong research component, also known as the dissertation,” Bérubé says.

But “the overall job system in the humanities has been in a state of more or less permanent distress for more than 40 years,” with doctoral programs “producing many more job candidates than there are jobs; and yet this is not entirely a supply-side problem, because over those 40 years, academic jobs themselves have changed radically. Of the 1.5 million people now employed in the profession of college teaching, more than one million are teaching off the tenure track, with no hope or expectation of ever winding up on the tenure track.”

So, he asks, how can we, in good conscience, continue to encourage students to enter graduate programs in the humanities, knowing the grim future that awaits most of them?

Bérubé reminds us that “the study of the humanities is more vibrant, more exciting, and (dare I say it) more important than it was a generation ago….The sheer intellectual excitement of the work, whether it is on globalization or subjectivity or translation or sustainability or disability, is one thing. This work is so valuable—and it offers such sophisticated and necessary accounts of what “value” is.

“And yet when we look at the public reputation of the humanities; when we compare the dilapidated Humanities Cottage on campus with the new $225-million Millennium Science Complex (that’s a real example, from my home institution); when we look at the academic job market for humanists, we can’t avoid the conclusion that the value of the work we do, and the way we theorize value, simply isn’t valued by very many people, on campus or off.”

Unfortunately, Bérubé doesn’t bring up the deeper questions about why our society currently values science and business so much more highly than the humanities.

Why is it that professors in the humanities make a fraction of what professors in business, law or science earn?

Why is it that academic programs in the humanities are under constant threat of the budget ax, while programs in business and science continue to attract huge inputs of resources?

Is it any surprise that students take a look at the depressed adjunct faculty in their dingy offices and take the nearest exit for the shiny new science building?

To me it’s pretty obvious: in our capitalist society, the academic fields that are most highly valued are those that create the possibility of more profit—with profit crudely conceived of as dollars in the bank.

My work in the field of comparative literature over the past 20 years, for example, has little to show for it in terms of money in the bank.

I’ve been focused on bringing the voices of marginalized or lesser-known women writers and activists to wider audiences within and outside of the Ivory Tower, because I believe that the perspectives offered by these women writers bring important, under-recognized and certainly under-valued ideas to the intellectual table.

For example, writers I study, like Rigoberta Menchu (technically not a “writer,” as her texts are transcriptions of her oral testimony), Vandana Shiva, Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldua, have been arguing for many years that human society must begin to honor our differences and value our interconnections with each other and with the natural world, in order to create a just and sustainable society.

Lorde, long ago, recognized that the “masters” are interested in keeping the oppressed divided, competitive, fighting with each other for the crumbs.  She urged us to think outside the box, “for the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

The truth is that the humanities are dangerous ground for the “masters” of Euramerican society, because it is in the various academic terrains of the humanities that moral and human values are debated and interrogated.

It is no accident that critiques of capitalism itself, along with capitalist tools like elitism, militarism and globalization, have found their strongest purchase in the humanities.

Humanists who follow the lines of intellectual inquiry stretching back to the dawn of human written traditions and forward into the speculative reaches of science fiction and futurism, often find ourselves thinking outside the box of the current capitalist structures into which we have been born and indoctrinated to accept.

The moral questions raised in many humanities classrooms are themselves alternatives to “the master’s tools,” and they have the potential to dismantle the master’s house.

That is why, I believe, the humanities are currently being starved and derided by the masters.

That is why adjuncts in the humanities are being paid less than a living wage, discouraging the best and brightest from choosing that educational and career path—unless they are independently wealthy.

Bérubé ends his speech by suggesting that graduate programs in the humanities need to begin to combine the traditional focus on research, writing and teaching with the development of skills and connections that can help Ph.D.s secure good jobs outside of the professoriate, since he does not foresee any change to the current trend of an overwhelmingly low-paid, adjunct humanities workforce.

He points to the “digital humanities” as a prospect, since highly trained academics who can translate their knowledge into digital formats are more likely to find work in business, publishing or media.

I wish he would think a bit more radically.

As one of the humanities thought leaders of our time, I would like to see him come out and say that the deep questions of the humanities–questions about society, ethics and social and ecological justice–are precisely the ones that we need to be asking most urgently today, whether the masters like it and support it or not.

I know, up close and personal, how hard it is to wage this lonely battle, watching all the honors and riches going to colleagues who are willing to do the masters’ bidding more compliantly.

Sure, biotechnologists and creative financiers are going to get more funding and more accolades than someone like me, who studies ethics via personal narratives by little-known women writers.

But in the long run—or what is increasingly, in our era of climate change, seeming like the short run!—I believe that the wisdom these women have to offer will be more important than the latest patent on bio-engineered corn, or the most ingenious restructuring of debt derivatives.

Humanities education is one of the last outposts of oppositional thinking within the Academy.

Let’s hold our positions with honor, knowing that even if the material rewards are scant, we do get to keep our integrity, and do our best on behalf of the planet and all its denizens.

Fault-lines of American Educational Policy & Practice

When I read about how students at Stuyvesant High School and Harvard University, to name only two recent prominent examples, used everything from notes on scraps of paper to texting answers on cell phones to help each other out on exams, I shake my head—not at the students’ behavior, but at the institutional culture to which they were responding.

I am fortunate to be teaching at an institution that values collaboration rather than competition, and thoughtfully constructed arguments over right-or-wrong multiple choice tests.

Granted, I teach in the humanities, where memorization is less important than in the hard sciences.

But even in the sciences, given the ready accessibility of our collective auxiliary internet brain trust, do we really need to be forcing students to memorize the periodical table anymore?

Isn’t it more important that give them assignments and challenges that will develop their teamwork skills and encourage them to think creatively, rather than spit back knowledge that has already been established?

Nearly fifty years ago, the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire published his influential book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he described “the banking system of education,” whereby students are treated as repositories for information that will be deposited into them by teachers.  Teachers are then able to “withdraw” the information from the students by means of tests.

Notice that it’s the teachers who are the active ones in this scenario; the students are simply passive recipients of knowledge.

In contrast, Freire proposed a dialogic form of education, where students’ ideas are valued by their teachers, and the pedagogical method is more of a conversation than a one-way lecture.

While still popular in some theoretical educational circles, it’s clear that Freire’s ideas are not in ascendancy in current American educational policy, which, in the No Child Left Behind era, has turned education into a process of leaping through the hoops of a long series of standardized tests.

I see this in my 14-year-old son’s current schooling in our local public school, which is in many ways about as good as a small-town American public school gets.  But nevertheless, even the best teachers there are forced to spend a lot of their time coaching the kids on passing the MCAS standardized tests that will be administered next May.

 ***

Back in the 1970s, I went to a selective New York City public school, Hunter College High School.  When I took the entry test, in sixth grade, I had no test prep whatsoever.  My parents were very nonchalant about the whole thing, so I wasn’t nervous about it—it was just something I had to do, so I went in and did my best.  I got in, along with five others from my elementary school, P.S. 6.

Hunter College High School

What I remember from my four years at Hunter is earnest, thoughtful discussion classes in English and Social Studies and even Spanish, with teachers who treated us like budding intellectuals.  When I left Hunter after 10th grade to transfer to Simon’s Rock College, now known as Bard College at Simon’s Rock, the classroom conversations got even livelier and more compelling, and the written assignments more challenging.  We were asked to write analytic essays, persuasive essays and informed opinion pieces…over and over, at ever-higher standards of rigor.

The process culminated in the required year-long senior thesis project, which for me, as an English major, was an in-depth study of the trope of androgyny in the novels of Virginia Woolf.  There is no doubt in my mind that the joy I got out of reading everything Woolf wrote, and all the literary criticism and proto-queer theory I could find, led me to eventually choose to return to graduate school for a doctorate in Comparative Literature.

My point in relating this personal trajectory is to reflect that if I had only been asked, at each stage of my schooling, to memorize information and spit it back out to a teacher (or worse, a robo-grader) on standardized tests, I don’t know that I would have chosen, in my time, to undertake the hard work of earning a doctorate and becoming a professor myself.

I would have had a very different idea of what education was all about.

And sadly, competitive, test-taking does pass for education in too many scholastic and even academic environments these days.  Given this reality, who can fault students for trying to game a system that so clearly disrespects them as intellectuals and original thinkers?

 ***

Last week, The New York Times reported that “a coalition of educational and civil rights groups filed a federal complaint…saying that black and Hispanic students were disproportionately excluded from New York City’s most selective high schools because of a single-test admittance policy they say is racially discriminatory.

Stuy HS students, 2007. Photo by Annie Tritt for The New York Times

“Although 70 percent of the city’s public school students are black and Hispanic,” the article continued, “a far smaller percentage have scored high enough to receive offers from one of the schools. According to the complaint, 733 of the 12,525 black and Hispanic students who took the exam were offered seats this year. For whites, 1,253 of the 4,101 test takers were offered seats. Of 7,119 Asian students who took the test, 2,490 were offered seats. At Stuyvesant High School, the most sought-after school, 19 blacks were offered seats in a freshman class of 967.”

These are demographics I recognize from my memories of my time at Hunter College High School, back in the 1970s.  There were hardly any Black or Latino students there then; Asian students accounted for most of whatever ethnic diversity the school could claim.

Why aren’t the city’s African American and Latino students doing well on the admission tests?

 ***

An article from the current issue of The Atlantic provides a window of insight into this question.  In “The Writing Revolution,” author Peg Tyre takes us inside one of New York City’s failing public high schools, New Dorp in Staten Island, and shows how student performance dramatically improved once school principal Deirdre DeAngelis began demanding a greater focus on essay-writing in the classrooms.

In this, DeAngelis was bucking the national trend observed by Arthur Applebee, the director of the Center on English Learning and Achievement at the University at Albany, who, Tyre says, “found that even when writing instruction is offered, the teacher mostly does the composing and students fill in the blanks. ‘Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding,’ says Applebee, ‘has become increasingly rare.’”

At New Dorp High School, it turned out that the students simply did not know how to construct the kinds of good sentences that would enable them to build a logical, well-thought-out argument. They weren’t used to talking in such sentences, they didn’t do much reading, and they didn’t come from a home environment where the adults spoke in the way the students were being asked to write in school.

For someone like me, an avid reader with parents who were also educated, enthusiastic conversationalists and readers, learning to write came very naturally. But for kids coming out of underprivileged backgrounds, more has to be done in school to make up for what they’re not getting at home.

So I’m glad to see that the new Common Core standards that will be adopted by 46 states in the next two years do require the teaching of expository writing from elementary school on.

“For the first time,” writes Tyre, “elementary-school students—­who today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction—will be required to write informative and persuasive essays. By high school, students will be expected to produce mature and thoughtful essays, not just in English class but in history and science classes as well.”

Tyre predicts that it is likely that “the new writing standards will deliver a high-voltage shock to the American public. Last spring, Florida school officials administered a writing test that, for the first time, required 10th-graders to produce an expository essay aligned with Common Core goals. The pass rate on the exam plummeted from 80 percent in 2011 to 38 percent this year.”

 ***

Maybe a high-voltage shock is what America’s public education system needs to move it from teaching to multiple-choice tests to teaching kids how to think creatively and write eloquently.

As a writing teacher myself, I know how hard it is to “teach” good writing.  When I grade a paper, I know what I’m looking for, but I can’t always tell a student exactly how to get there.

More than anything else, it takes practice. Lots of reading good writing, and lots of writing, rewriting, and writing again.

At Bard College at Simon’s Rock, our orientation workshop for entering freshman is actually a writing boot camp, the Writing & Thinking Workshop, in which we have students reading, discussing, writing and workshopping writing for five hours a day during their first week at school.  We follow this up with three semesters of a required general education seminar, in which students are reading, discussing and writing almost constantly.

As a graduate of Simon’s Rock, the parent of a recent graduate, and a veteran of nearly 20 years as a Simon’s Rock professor of literature and general education, I know this approach works.

Sure, once in a while we have a student who tries to get away with plagiarizing a paper.  They are generally caught easily, because of all the draft stages we require students to go through on the way to turning in their final paper.

Relatively few students try cheating at Simon’s Rock, though, because they know we professors really want to know what they think about a given topic.  For us, learning is truly a dialogic process, and students quickly respond to the seriousness with which we take them as creative, original thinkers and writers.

 ***

Fundamentally, American educational policy needs to start treating students with the respect they deserve, whether they are at elite private schools or underperforming public schools.

It’s not the kid’s fault if he doesn’t know how to construct an expository argument in good English, any more than it’s the kid’s fault if she decides to cheat on a test she knows doesn’t measure her accurately as a thinker.  It’s the school’s fault, and ultimately the nation’s fault.

Given the multiple crises today’s young people will be facing as they become adults on our overpopulated, environmentally damaged, violent planet, we need to be educating a generation of creative, collaborative problem-solvers for whom spoken and written eloquence is a necessary leadership tool.

This is not a matter of policy or even ethics.  It’s a matter of survival.

Welcome to the Knowledge Factory

The lead article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education Review is titled “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps.”

More than 350,000 Americans with advanced degrees applied for food stamps in 2010, part of “an often overlooked, and growing, subgroup of Ph.D. recipients, adjunct professors, and other Americans with advanced degrees who have had to apply for food stamps or some other form of government aid since late 2007.

“Some are struggling to pay back student loans and cover basic living expenses as they submit scores of applications for a limited pool of full-time academic positions. Others are trying to raise families or pay for their children’s college expenses on the low and fluctuating pay they receive as professors off the tenure track, a group that now makes up 70 percent of faculties. Many bounce on and off unemployment or welfare during semester breaks. And some adjuncts have found themselves trying to make ends meet by waiting tables or bagging groceries alongside their students.”

And the numbers of impoverished Ph.D.s may actually be much higher than this.

“Leaders of organizations that represent adjunct faculty members think that the number of people counted by the government does not represent the full picture of academics on welfare because many do not report their reliance on federal aid.

“Even as the number of highly educated aid recipients grows, shame has helped to keep the problem hidden.”

Yes, I know that shame well.

How could it be that a highly educated, well-groomed, extremely intelligent individual with everything going for her is so embarrassingly poor?

Why is it that after more than 20 years of teaching college—and doing a very good job of it, I might add—I  still make only $10,000 more now than I did as a freshly minted B.A. starting out in publishing in New York back in the 1980s?

It is very hard to earn a Ph.D., in case you didn’t realize.  It takes many years of study, great determination and self-motivation, the ability to see a major, high-quality independent research project through to its conclusion, generally a book-length manuscript.  It also takes a lot of money, especially in the poorly funded humanities.

By the time one finishes the intense slo-mo marathon of the Ph.D. program, one feels like someone of consequence: someone who has jumped through every hoop, earned lots of accolades, managed to accumulate a great deal of social capital.

And yet all that evaporates in the face of the reality of American higher education today.

Except for a very few lucky ones with good connections or true star quality, most of us discover that it’s a buyer’s market out there in higher ed, and whatever we’ve got to sell is a dime a dozen.

You take that first adjunct job telling yourself it’s going to be temporary, only to find five years later that you’re still doing the same frantic shuffle of trying to teach enough courses, at something like $4,000 apiece, to make ends meet.

If you want to get on with your life and have a child, good luck!  You’d better have a spouse working a real job—because adjunct pay and adjunct uncertainty is not what a family needs as its bedrock.

This is what 70% of American faculty—70%!!—are doing now.

And I am afraid it’s going to get worse.

Just as American manufacturing turned belly-up in the face of the out-sourcing of labor in the globalized market in the 1990s, higher ed is now poised to do exactly the same thing with the professoriate.

Distance learning, the fastest growing segment of the higher education market, will make it possible for a Ph.D. in New Delhi to teach that big section of Chemistry 100 to students from all over the world.  And in New Delhi, $4,000 will probably seem like pretty good money.

Within a few years, I will not be surprised to find that American Ph.D.s are competing with academics from all over the world for the same few positions.

What does it say about us as a society that we not only force our students into deep debt to buy their educations, but also refuse to pay their teachers a living wage?

***

There are some alternatives on the horizon, such as the free, online University of the People, a start-up that is attracting a fair amount of attention right now.

Maybe in the future education will be free, entirely online, and totally globalized.  I am not so enamored of bricks and mortar to cast this shift in a wholly negative light.

Perhaps the end result will be that American professors will simply have to up and move to cheaper locales…teaching their classes from an internet cafe in Central America, let’s say, or East Asia.

But we need to be careful, as the transition to online education shifts the sands beneath our feet at lightening speed, that we continue to focus on the most important aspect of any education: the shared excitement over common interests and new ideas that is the hallmark of a good student-teacher relationship.

This excitement can be transmitted just as easily over the internet as in the classroom, as long as the ratio of students to teacher remains humane, and as long as neither student nor teacher is driven to distraction by the bank creditors slavering in the background.

To tell the truth, I am more interested in strengthening local education, rather than following the dangerous globalized outsourcing model.  But I’m willing to play the game, as long as we, the players, are treated with respect as human beings, not wage slaves and pawns.

May Day: Here, There and Everywhere

A reader asks why I did not stay home from work and join the May Day protests today, and I feel like this question deserves a serious response.

Partly, I have always had a phobia about crowds, and never willingly put myself into a crowd situation.  I don’t even like to go to an agricultural fair, or a peaceful parade.  In my Manhattan youth, crowds and violence often went together, or at least crowds and the fear of violence.  I am a wimp.

Partly, I felt like I could do more good in my classroom today than anonymously out on the streets.  It is the last full week of classes at my institution; students are finishing up projects that need response and guidance.  If I didn’t show up to work today, it would throw a monkey wrench in the plans I made for a graceful and productive ending to our semester together.

Partly, I don’t have any beef against my own employer, so not showing up for work today would affect the wrong target, while making no difference at all to the intended target, the 1%.

I guess the biggest reason I felt like my presence was expendable to today’s protest is because no one would notice if I was or was not out there on the street, but I would definitely be missed from my classroom.

However, in at least one of my two classes today, I did spend some time talking about May Day and the reasons for the protest.

I was surprised to learn that very few of my students had any clue as to what May Day signified to the labor movement, or why the protests today were taking place.

I don’t know why I assumed that my students would be more politically aware than I was at their age.

Turns out, few of them even realized there were going to be significant protests today, much less what they were all about.  Some also had their doubts as to whether the Occupy approach was likely to be effective.

Well, I pressed them, if occupying public spaces is not an effective means of protest, what would be more effective?  Joining a political campaign?  Writing a letter to the editor?

No one had an answer to that, but I could see the wheels turning.

And that’s why I am glad I decided to stay at work today.  At least with this one small group of students, I was able to foreground these historic May Day protests in their minds, and ask some questions that no one else probably would have asked them today.

Maybe as a result they will be paying attention to the news in a different way, and thinking more concretely about how the issues blazoned across all those posters and banners are relevant to their own particular lives.

Whether working on the small canvas, in the classroom, or the big canvas, out in the street, we are working together to build up the necessary momentum to blast our way to a better world.

 

Who’s Afraid of Distance Learning?

It used to be that a smart, motivated young person could work hard, earn a doctorate, do a good job as a junior professor, and live happily ever after as a tenured professor.

It also used to be that a smart young person could work hard, get into a good college, and expect to be taught with passion and enthusiasm by a corps of dedicated professors.

Despite the ever-increasing cost of college tuition, neither of these expectations holds water any more.

Academia, as a profession and as a social landscape, is deeply troubled right now, in ways that are profoundly connected to wider social and economic problems in our society.

In today’s New York Times, pundit David Brooks suggests that colleges need to do more to ensure that their high sticker price is delivering measurable value. However, his solution—standardized exit testing of college seniors—shows how out of touch he is with the real issues and problems facing academia today.

At a recent high-level conference hosted by Lafayette College, ponderously titled “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and its Leadership in Education Around the World,” “Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss laid out four major challenges facing liberal arts colleges — affordability, public skepticism about the value of a liberal arts degree and college in general, decline in the share of U.S population who fit the demographic patterns of students who traditionally attend liberal arts colleges, and questions about how to incorporate technology into the college and serve a generation of students that is increasingly networked.”

Smith College

At small liberal arts colleges like Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where I teach, we pride ourselves on a low student-faculty ratio. At Simon’s Rock the ratio is only 9 students to each professor.  But of course that’s a big part of why our tuition is so high, to pay for the one-on-one, intensive engagement with each student.

From the perspective of college presidents and administrators trying to make ends meet, this educational model may not be sustainable.

Certainly that was the case at the University at Albany, SUNY, where I taught for nine years in an interdisciplinary first-year seminar program designed to “give a small college experience in the big university.”  The program, which had just received an enthusiastic external review that trumpeted its successes in retention and learning outcomes for the roughly 800 students we served each year, was axed in 2011.

Now those 800 students are sitting in the big lecture halls with 500 others at a time—or, just as likely, not bothering to go to class at all.  It was a common complaint among my SUNY students that the professor wouldn’t know or care if you showed up or not—all it took to pass the course was cramming for the exam with the textbook.

Given this scenario, it’s not surprising that more and more of our large universities are shifting to distance learning.  Why go through the trouble of housing thousands of undergraduates, when you can deliver the lecture and the exam to them in their own bedrooms at home?

There is truth to this, and I have no doubt that networked, globalized distance learning is going to be the standard form of higher education delivery in the years to come.  It’s already happening incredibly fast, and even small liberal arts colleges need to be thinking about how to jump on that train before they miss it entirely.

As someone who teaches media studies, with a special interest in new media, I am in many ways delighted and intrigued by the potential of distance learning in higher education.  I have even been trying to persuade the administrators at my college to give it a try.

While it is never going to be the same as the old-fashioned model of nine students sitting around a seminar table with a professor, with current video capabilities it can come pretty close, as anyone who has tried a Google “hang-out” can attest.

And wouldn’t it be exciting to “hang out” in a seminar classroom with students from around the world?  We higher ed folks like to trumpet the value of diversity and international education—well, distance learning provides the platform to make the dream of a truly diverse and globalized classroom a reality.

However, there is a catch, and it is the same catch that has dogged other American industries as they have leaped on to the globalization bandwagon.

U.S. higher ed is already troubled from within by the shift from stable, tenured fulltime faculty to legions of roving part-time adjunct faculty.  With distance learning, the adjunct model gains even more steam, and goes global.

Why not outsource that first year Calculus course to a professor in India, who will teach 1,000 students for a fraction of what even an adjunct in the U.S. would earn?

Welcome to the knowledge sweatshop of the future.

According to the Inside Higher Ed article on the Lafayette conference, “Williams College President Adam F. Falk argued that the principal reason for adopting technological innovation should be for educational improvement, not just productivity gains. ‘College education isn’t simply about most efficient or innovative means of delivering content,’ he said, arguing that the engagement component of what colleges like his do was over all more important. ‘It’s hard for even the best students to learn on their own.’ Falk’s presentation was warmly received by the crowd.”

But Williams College is one of the richest liberal arts colleges in the nation, with an endowment of nearly $2 billion even after the economic downturn of 2008.

The social stratification that is affecting every aspect of American society is no less marked in higher education.

In the near future, we will be looking at an academic landscape where there will be a few highly paid tenured research professors and a vast majority of poorly paid adjunct professors all over the world, working mostly from their home offices via distance learning networks.  While there will always be a few lucky students who will be able to gain access to ivied classrooms through scholarships, those classrooms will increasingly be reserved for the children of the super-elites of the world.  Ordinary kids who have the motivation and discipline to go to college will do it from home, a financial decision their parents will have no choice but to support.

Distance learning is often lauded as a way to level the playing field, since it makes higher education accessible to kids who would not otherwise be able to go to college.

This may be so.  But it is also going to be yet another way to divide our society into Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons—in other words, to harden the de facto caste walls that are already making the old rags-to-riches, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American dream a quaint memory.

A Crucible Moment in Education

There was some rolling of eyes in my community when President Obama announced he would like to see high school mandatory until age 18.  That’s because at Bard College of Simon’s Rock, my alma mater, where I’ve been teaching for the past 17 years, the standard procedure for students is to leave high school at about age 16, generally after 10th grade, and shift into our early college program.

Most Simon’s Rock students are motivated to step off the beaten path and try a different approach to college because they’re high achievers who are bored in high school.  A few come to us because they’ve been so socially mauled in high school that Simon’s Rock becomes not only an academic, but also a social refuge for them.

In any case, for my students, being compelled to stay in high school until they were 18 years old would have been torturous, and would not have improved their future chances of success any more than “dropping out” to try a more innovative form of education—early college.

President Obama’s instinct that staying in school is better than dropping out altogether is absolutely correct.  It’s just that if we’re going to compel kids to stay in school, we need to make their schooling compelling.

Lots of great minds have already weighed in on the question of how to make learning fun and meaningful, but somehow we do not seem to have made a dent in the great battleship Education, which is still plowing its way implacably through the cold waters of Teaching to the Test.

It’s true that there is a certain amount of knowledge that you simply have to be taught, in that passive sense of receiving information and committing it to memory.  For instance, the alphabet.  The multiplication tables.

And having got these basic tools, you need to be taught how to use them: how to read, how to manipulate numbers.  If you’re going to be a doctor, you need to be taught how human systems work, just the way an engineer learns how a mechanical system works, or a mechanic learns how a car works.  OK.

But beyond mastering these kinds of basics in any field, there are two things students most need to get out of their education: learning how to figure things out for themselves, and learning how important their educated selves are to their communities and the larger society as a whole.

In today’s networked world, we no longer need to have kids waste their time memorizing all the state capitols, or learning by rote anything that can be measured in a multiple-choice test.  What kids need to learn is how to find the information they need to answer the questions they have about the world.  They need to learn how to frame their questions, understanding that the way a question is asked will often guide or predetermine its answer.

Reading is still a fundamentally important skill, but what we need to be teaching kids is how to read between the lines.  How to see through propaganda that passes for “fair and balanced” journalism, for instance.  How to sift through multiple sources of information on a given topic, and understand the criteria for determining which source is most credible.

But even that is not enough. Students not only need to become active readers, but also nimble thinkers, capable of taking in a spread of ideas on a given topic, and responding with their own original thinking.  A society where kids only learn how to feed back to their elders old, predigested ideas is a stagnant society, and we can’t afford that kind of stagnation at this time.

And here we get to my second point: kids not only need to learn to think for themselves, they need to understand how important this activity is for our rapidly changing society.  And that means taking the skills they’ve gained through their education out of the school and the academy into the street.

Students at every level, even the littlest ones, will benefit from a much more active engagement with the social and natural environment beyond the walls of their classrooms.  Little kids should be planting gardens in their schoolyards and composting the remains of their lunch. In Waldorf kindergartens like the one my sons attended, kids partake in preparing their mid-morning snack, and in keeping their classroom clean and neat.

What kids learn through activities like these is the importance of collaboration to community—an invaluable life lesson that needs to start early and be reinforced in different ways as they grow older.

Instead of our current competitive test-based system, we need collaborative learning that anticipates the kind of team-based environments of the most successful communities and businesses.  Instead of seeing kids hunched on their own behind raised folders taking a test—no cheating!—we should see groups of kids assembled around a problem, working collaboratively, noisily, joyfully to solve it.

The task of the teacher in this kind of learning environment would be to set the kids ever more challenging and interesting problems, with clearly visible and defined real-world applications, and guide the kids to the tools they need to solve the problems and evaluate their successes or setbacks.

Lord knows there is no shortage of serious problems in our world today, problems that demand every ounce of our most focused attention to surmount.  We need to get kids out of their classrooms and into their communities, bringing their creativity, their intelligence, their caring and their wonderful energy to bear on the challenges that lie just outside their classroom doors.

The Obama administration has just released a major new report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, prepared by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, which brought together leaders in higher education from around the country to come up with recommendations for ways that education can help students become engaged, responsible local and global citizens.

The report concludes that given all the “pressing issues” facing us today—“growing global economic inequalities, climate change and environmental degradation, lack of access to quality health care, economic volatility, and more,” educators need to focus on “expanding students’ capacities to be civic problem-solvers using all their powers of intellect and inventiveness.

“The kind of graduates we need at this moment in history,” the authors say, “need to possess a strong propensity for wading into an intensely interdependent, pluralist world. They need to be agile, creative problem solvers who draw their knowledge from multiple perspectives both domestic and global, who approach the world with empathy, and who are ready to act with others to improve the quality of life for all.”

The report “urges every college and university to foster a civic ethos that governs campus life, make civic literacy a goal for every graduate, integrate civic inquiry within majors and general education, and advance civic action as lifelong practice.”

Specifically, the task force advocates developing service learning and community engagement programs that move beyond simple volunteerism to actually involving young people as active participants and innovators in making their social environments more vibrant, more responsible, and more equitable.

Sounds good, and sounds simple to implement, but as I know from trying to develop community engagement structures for students at my home institution, it takes staffing—and therefore funding—to provide the channels students need to quickly jump into productive off-campus programs.  Commitment to this kind of active learning environment needs to come from the top, and that’s why I am excited to see such an array of distinguished leaders in education come together as the signatories of this new National Task Force report.

Let’s hope some of that energy and enthusiasm will trickle down to schools and campuses all over the country, and soon.  The tone of urgency evident in the title of this report, A Crucible Moment, and in the President’s remarks about education this past week, is not exaggerated.

We are in a crucible moment in so many ways, and we desperately need to equip our young people with the skills and outlook they will require to bring us safely through the turbulence that awaits us in the foreseeable future as the globe heats up and pressures on human society increase.

Keeping our kids in high school until they’re 18 is only a good idea if high school becomes a meaningful, active learning environment.  Let’s do what needs to be done to make that so—or let’s come up with another model.  Early college, for example—a good idea whose time may finally have come.

Green Teaching: What the World Needs Now

In President Obama’s speech last night, he talked a fair amount about the importance of making higher education affordable for all Americans, and about how essential a highly skilled workforce is to America’s future.

I felt like I was in some kind of time warp.  Wasn’t Bill Clinton talking about just the same things, almost generation ago? Not only has insufficient progress been made, but while we’ve been fiddling and squabbling amongst ourselves, the whole landscape behind us has shifted radically.

It reminds me of one of those cartoon scenes where the mice are fighting amongst themselves and don’t even notice the huge cat face looming over them licking its chops.

The huge cat face, today, is the drastic heating of the planet.  Obama went on and on last night about manufacturing—we need a skilled workforce to support American manufacturing, we need to bring outsourced manufacturing back home, we need to adjust the tax code to benefit workers and manufacturers.

All the while, looming above the statehouse, is the runaway monster of climate change, which is at on the one hand fattened by all this manufacturing, while at the same time threatening to blow it all away.

I quite agree with Obama that we need to be pouring resources into education.  The question is, what kind of education is going to be most valuable for today’s children, tomorrow?

At the very least, we need an education that does not have its “eyes wide shut” about the fact of global heating and the impact this will have on us all in the near future.

I was encouraged this week when I picked up a print copy of the journal Green Teacher, and found an article by David Selby and Fumiyo Kagawa entitled “Unleashing Blessed Unrest as the Heating Happens.”  In it, the authors offer concrete curricular suggestions for how to introduce students in grades 5-12 to the reality of climate change, without sugar-coating it but also without leaving them so devastated that they lapse into denial or despair.  Since the article is not available online, I’m going to quote from it liberally in what follows, because this is news we can use.

The authors quote Jess Worth, who likens climate change denial to “finding out that you have cancer, but then delaying going to the doctor’s for treatment for a few months because you want to repaint your house.”

Selby and Kagawa speculate that because the “ever more dire accounts of a global climate lurching towards ever-deepening crisis” are so frightening, we tend to practice a kind of avoidance, which in education takes the form of “characterizing climate change as a technical problem that can be managed by a mix of technological innovation and policy solutions that avoid challenge to ‘business as usual.’”

For example, they say, “the recycling bin in most classrooms is…often cited as evidence of the school’s commitment to sustainability,” but “it can easily convey the subliminal message that consumerism approached responsibly can be benign.”

Reviewing American curricular materials for K-12, the authors found “a reluctance to investigate the culpability of neo-liberal economic growth models and to explore slow growth or no growth alternatives…. There is, too, an avoidance of envisioning and addressing personal and societal climate change scenarios that are likely to be played out in the learner’s lifetimes.”

This is certainly the kind of education I see my own son getting in his American public middle school.  The focus in his social studies, English and science classes has so far been squarely on the distant past.  There has been no discussion that I’m aware of about the fact that here we are at the end of January, and we are still seeing green grass outside.  NASA has just confirmed that nine of the ten warmest winters on record have occurred since the year 2000, and 2011 was the 9th warmest since 1880. Excuse me, shouldn’t we talk about that?

Selby and Kagawa say that instead of maintaining an “eyes wide shut” avoidance pattern with our youngsters, we need to engage in “an honest education facing up to the onset of what Alastair McIntosh describes as ‘a great dying time of evolutionary history’” and “overturning…the comfortable delusion that major disruption of Earth’s climate can be avoided or neutralized.

“Recognizing that present and future generations need hope, we have to ask what the hope is grounded in and what kind of hope it is.  Is it a spurious optimism, a comfortable fiction based on what we would prefer to see happen while keeping our ‘eyes wide shut’?  Or is it a pared down and realistically straitened optimism born of confronting the present and future earth condition?”

We have a responsibility as educators, parents, and elders to tell our children the truth about where we are as a global civilization, and where we are likely headed.  Wouldn’t you rather be forewarned, rather than bowled over by surprise when the shocks start coming?  Don’t you see it as the responsible thing to do to start preparing for those shocks now, both emotionally and practically?

The educators brought together in Selby and Kagawa’s new anthology Education and Climate Change advocate for a transformative learning agenda, involving “conscious, deep and sustained processes of engaging with pain, despair and grief over what we are losing, moving towards acceptance while searching for radically new meaning and values, and equipping ourselves for personal and collective empowerment and action.”

Concretely, they offer classroom exercises to guide students through these stages, including some pretty heavy-duty visioning of possible future scenarios that we may all have to live through.  The goal is not to depress students, but to empower them by moving from the disaster scenarios to hopeful plans of action to stave off the worst effects of climate change, or adapt successfully to whatever comes.

“A citizenship education for “blessed unrest” in a time of rampant climate change,” the authors say, “needs to be shaped by engagement in community-based action that creates, resists and transgresses in the name of sustainability.”

The time to start talking about these issues with our students and children is now, while we still have options as to how to confront the changes that are coming.  To do any less is to fail in our responsibility as the adults who should be out blazing the trail for the kids following behind us.  If we know there’s white water up ahead, let’s at least give those behind us a heads-up and see what we can do to ride out the rapids safely, together.

Censorship in Academe, 21st century style

Unfortunately, the banning of books by Mexican Americans in Tucson last week was not an isolated incident.  It’s part of a larger pattern in American education.

At the elementary school level, it takes the form of resisting bilingual education for students whose family language is not English, and—for example—still teaching “Thanksgiving” as though it were the happy, peaceful start of a triumphant positive march towards a shining, splendid American empire.

At the middle school level, it’s about teaching Egyptian history—mummies, anyone?—instead of Native American or Mexican history.  Mummies are safe—there’s no politics left in them, they’ve been dead too long.

In high school, students are asked to stand and pledge allegiance by rote to the American flag representing “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” but not asked to interrogate the proposition that liberty and justice really are available to all in our great land.

In undergraduate education, after a brief, highly contested period in the 1980s and 90s when the gates guarding the required curricula were wrenched open to let literature by ethnic minorities and women in, the tides have turned again.

Just as in middle school it’s safer to teach about the ancient Egyptians, in college the safest route is towards ancient Greece.  “After all,” I was once told blandly by a senior (white male) colleague in the course of a heated meeting on the core curriculum, “the Greeks are a minority too.”

The modern Greeks may be struggling, but the ancient Greeks are alive and well and generously represented in curricula throughout the Western world, where ancient figures like Plato, Sophocles and Aristotle still exert remarkable influence.

Meanwhile, graduate schools in the humanities are focused on jazzing up the study of history and literature through fancy digital applications.

I’m as digitally oriented as the next prof, but I won’t support “digital humanities” if it means that we no longer have the time or resources to engage in what I see as the most important functions of the humanities: teaching students how to analyze and wield the tools of narrative and argument; giving them the time and space to explore complex ethical issues; and most of all, empowering them to become informed, autonomous individuals who can research and think for themselves.

In theory, this could be done within a digital framework.  But the problem is that much of the push towards “digital humanities” is coming from the great surge towards online education as a business model for universities.  Of course you can do online education much better if you have high-tech online tools.  No argument there.

The problem is the bigger picture of online education, where tenured professors are being replaced with adjunct faculty who can teach in their pajamas from home, at a fraction of the salary or responsibility and no influence at all over what gets taught.  If you have an army of part-time online instructors working with students from remote locations all over the world, it’s pretty hard to have the kind of discussions that I’m remembering from my department’s deliberations over the core curriculum.

Most decisions over what gets taught in those burgeoning online courses are made by administrators who remain faceless to the instructors, with the result that professors become paid employees rather than professionals who are not only engaged in the process of teaching, but also in the process of deciding what gets taught.

It’s as easy as the push of a button for some administrator to decide that HUM 26X, Chicano/a History, will not be taught, while HUM 25X, History of Ancient Greece, will. And for the most part, no one will even notice.

This is going on all the time.  The incident in Tucson last week, when administrators were so sloppy as to order physical books pulled from the shelves, was a rare slip-up that brought the insidious practice of censorship into the public eye.

Most of the time it’s going on invisibly, under the radar, and so subtly that most of us won’t notice it until all of a sudden we look up and find that there are only a handful of Ethnic Studies Departments or Women’s Studies Departments left in the country, so there are hardly any graduate degrees being offered in those fields, so within a generation the whole hard-won movement to open the curriculum will be gone.

No, I am not over-reacting.  I am not hysterical.  I am not crazy.  Open your eyes, people, and you will see what I’m talking about.  Open your eyes, before it’s too late.

A new generation rises, and with them, our hopes

Today I gave the keynote address at the regional Model UN student conference sponsored by Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

On the one hand, it was heart-warming to look out and see that crowded lecture hall filled with bright, eager young faces, ready to step on to the world stage, if only in theory, and play leadership roles.

On the other hand, it was sobering to have to be the bearer of such grim tidings.

I started out by taking them back to a choral Ode in the Antigone that has always haunted me, the one where the Chorus sings the praises of human technological prowess, while at the same time sounding a warning note about how mankind’s “cunning…is the fertile skill which brings him, now to evil, now to good.

“When he honors the laws of the land, and that justice which he has sworn by the gods to uphold, proudly stands his city: no city has he who, for his rashness, dwells with sin.”

In other words, I told the students, we humans can do all kinds of amazing things with our great intelligence, but we will only prosper if we keep our moral compass and use our powers for good.

The Ode is basically a list of areas in which human beings have excelled, and that list is as valid today as it was in the 5th century B.C.: our power of navigation and transportation; agriculture; our dominion over other animals, wild and domestic; our ability to withstand the elements by building shelter and creating fire; our medical arts; our facility with language and “wind-swift thought.”

Truly we are a “wondrous” species.  And yet the fact that this list is recited in the tragedy of Antigone bears witness to the fact that our great “cunning” does not always guide us well.

In Antigone, Creon is a proud, vindictive tyrant who demands absolute allegiance from his subjects, including his niece Antigone.  When Antigone defies his order to let her brother’s remains be left in the open for the crows to feast on, and goes out alone to bury him, Creon goes into a fury and orders her arrested and sentenced to death.

It’s clear that the Chorus in this play believes Creon’s action is wrong.  Antigone was obeying her own moral judgement, putting her filial and religious obligations before her allegiance to the King. And just as the Chorus predicted in the initial Ode, because he is not using his power wisely and ethically, in the end Creon’s house will fall.

In our time, I told the students, the same kinds of battles rage, of good people standing up for their beliefs against oppressive tyrants, who don’t hesitate to imprison and even execute any who defy their power.

The Arab Spring showed us what can happen when enough people dare to speak truth to power and defy an authoritarian state  In the United States, the Occupy movements are now standing up, not so much against the state, as against the corporate capitalist elites—who often are the power behind the thrones of the various nations.

Even in our own country, the price of defying the status quo can be high.

But, I told the students, given the perilous state of the world today, the price of staying quiet and going along with the flow is inevitably going to be much higher.

I reminded them of the many dangers that face us today, including:

  • the homogenization of media and the reduction of education to multiple choice tests, instead of a media that stands strong in its watchdog role and an educational system that focuses on teaching students how to think creatively and question authority;
  • the tremendous militarization of police and national forces, with most countries fairly bristling with lethal weapons, from handguns to bombs;
  • environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, including the contamination of our air, soils and waters with toxic chemicals caused by the very agriculture celebrated in the Antigone Ode;
  • serious health problems caused by environmental toxins and chemical additives in our food supply;
  • and above all, the looming menace of anthropogenic global warming.

These will be familiar themes to anyone who has been reading my blog these past few months.  But it was good to speak these ideas out loud this time, to the young people who are going to have to bear the brunt of the problems.

I quoted U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who told negotiators from 200 nations gathered at the recent COP17 climate conference in Durban that the situation was so urgent that they could not afford to wait for unified global action.

“Don’t wait for a binding agreement,” he said. “It could take years. All member states should take their own measures,” before it’s too late.

“Last year we saw the highest emissions ever,” Mr. Ban said. “If we carry on as though it is business as usual we will be out of business.”

Those are pretty stark, unequivocal words from the leader of the closest thing we have to a global government.

Given the need for drastic change in the way we do business as a civilization, I challenged the students to dare to think outside the box.

I encouraged them to let Antigone be their guide as they began their Model UN negotiations. “If you know that a policy is wrong, don’t be afraid to say so, and to fight for what you believe,” I told them.

I urged them not to let artificial boundaries like nation, race, class, religion or gender cloud their vision of what is needed to succeed in the goal of making human society safer, more nurturing, and more sustainable for us all.

“It is a deeply flawed, damaged world you will all soon be stepping out into as young adults,” I said.  “We live in a time of accelerated change and unprecedented transition.  None of us knows what lies around the bend.  But we do know that no matter what, we will be better off if we work proactively to overcome narrow national self-interests and begin to think in planetary terms—and not just about human interests, but in terms of the good of the entire web of life of which we are a part.”

Our only chance at changing the way we do business as a civilization, I said,  rests with our ability to successfully communicate with one another–to use the powers of “speech and wind-swift thought” commended by the Chorus of Antigone. 

What we need are not the stylized battles of debate, but the true, open-hearted communication of consensus building, where all viewpoints are listened to respectfully, and all positions are judged both on their own merits and on how well they’ll contribute to the collective goal of making the world a better place.

As I stepped away from the podium, I felt sad that I had to lay such a heavy burden on these bright young people, who through no fault of their own have inherited a planet in such disarray.

But I also felt the surge of hope that always rises again with each new generation.  Maybe this generation will be the one to turn off the beaten path and forge a new relationship with our planetary home.  Perhaps they will be able to resist the centripetal pull towards conformity.

As they all filed out of the room to take up their places at the Model UN negotiating tables, my heart went with them.  They are our last best hope.

 

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