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.

Moving from suffering to pain to resistance

“Pain is an event, an experience that must be recognized, named and then used in some way in order for the experience…to be transformed into…strength or knowledge or action.  Suffering, on the other hand, is the nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain.  When I live through pain without recognizing it…I rob myself of the power that can come from using that pain, the power to fuel some movement beyond it.”

Audre Lorde,  Sister Outsider, 171

Too much of the time, we who are sensitive, aware human beings on the planet feel the burden of suffering, the “nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain.”

For example, when I read in the current National Geographic Magazine that 25,000 elephants have been killed this year in East Africa by poachers and even government soldiers who want to make money on their tusks, the nightmare of suffering descends upon me.  When I hear that the president of Kenya has declared that “elephants must pay for their room and board with ivory,” I begin to feel physically sick.

The same kind of nausea descends on me when I hear about the melting of the ice in the Arctic or the permafrost in Greenland—even more so when the loudest response to this calamity comes in the form of rapacious, competitive cheering and jostling for position to be the one to extract the greatest amount of riches now revealed beneath the ice.

Or when I read about the ongoing sexual abuse that is occurring rampantly on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota, a kind of externalization, upon the defenseless bodies of small children, of the unmetabolized suffering of generations of Native peoples trying to survive in unspeakable conditions.

Brooding over all the news of suffering that comes my way each time I take a look at the daily news, I can quickly feel myself overwhelmed with a sense of my own powerlessness.

That is where I need Audre Lorde’s fierce courage to pick me up, dust me off and send me on my way again.

The challenge is to remain open to the suffering, in order to, as she says, recognize, name and use it “to fuel some movement beyond it.”

For many of us right now, the greatest challenge is the awareness that we don’t know what to do. And maybe, even, that there is nothing we can do.

I cannot heroically save the elephants, any more than I can refreeze the polar ice caps or swoop in to rescue the frightened child who is being raped right at this moment.

No.  But what I can do is to try to leave myself open to the suffering—in other words, to not turn away, not deliberately turn off my empathy in order to try to hide from a reality that is hard to confront.

It is my belief that if more of us were to commit to recognizing and naming suffering when we see it, we would find the strength and the right channels to collectively metabolize suffering into the kind of pain that leads to action.

Each of us needs to become a vortex through which the pain can be transmuted first into resistance, and then into an active seeking for alternative paths.

It is not necessary that tens of thousands of elephants die.  It is not necessary that we see the melting of the Arctic as an opportunity to extract more fossil fuels and heat up the atmosphere still more.  It is far from necessary that the children of Spirit Lake are tormented by their elders.

Do not turn away from this suffering.  See it, name it, and turn the pain that these events awaken in you to a righteous force for change.

You don’t need to have all the answers or know what to do with the pain.  Just allow yourself to feel.  Allow empathy to flow.  And then see what happens next.

Politicos beware: the citizen journalists are coming!

Mitt Romney really hit the jackpot this time, caught on video tape callously dismissing half the population of America as not worth his time because they don’t pay taxes.

As “The Caucus” blog in The New York Times pointed out today, in fact it’s only 18% of Americans who pay no federal or payroll taxes.  And of those, “more than half were elderly and more than a third were not elderly but had income under $20,000.”

What a way to make a winning pitch to potential donors in the 1%.  Let’s just throw all those poor old folks under a bus, shall we?  Are there no workhouses?

Ripostes like this have been coming in fast and heavy for the past 24 hours, since the incriminating video clip first appeared on the Mother Jones website, and thence made its way virally around the Web.

What I think has been insufficiently analyzed so far is the provenance of this video.

Today in my media studies class, we were talking about how the old media model, what the textbooks call “legacy media,” is crumbling, to be replaced by myriads of web-based information producers, often referred to as “citizen journalists.”

The guy who released that covert video of Mitt Romney talking up a GOP horse’s ass was a citizen journalist of a sort.

We still don’t know exactly who shot the film, but we do know that it was sent to Mother Jones by James Carter, a grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.

The point is, these are obviously very different channels of information flow than scripted “press conferences,” or even the kind of access granted to card-carrying members of the mainstream media.

The video has so captured the attention of America because it affords us a ringside seat in the inner echelons of political power.  Next thing you know, someone will be shooting video (or at least making a covert audio recording) of the proceedings of a closed-door Goldman Sachs board meeting.

Hey, Richard Nixon was the master of this kind of bugging.  Let us not forget Watergate, or the Oval Office recordings.

But now the tables are turned, and the technology genie is out of the brass lamp and running gleefully through the land.

No longer are wiretaps and tiny voice recorders the provenance of James Bond and the FBI.  Now anyone with a bit of tech smarts and some fortuitous access to the workings of power can record what goes on there, and send it out for the masses to interpret as they see fit.

Last week it was the crazy anti-Muslim film, cheaply and poorly produced but sent out like a message in a bottle on the high seas of the internet, which washed ashore in the Middle East and provided the spark for a new round of anti-American violence.

This week it’s a citizen journalist with a Flip cam in his pocket, pulling back the screen in the GOP Emerald (cash-green, that is) Palace to reveal the true face of the mean-spirited man who would be the Republican President.

As a teacher of media studies in the 21st century, I am excited by the possibilities that my students will enjoy of leaping past the old gatekeepers and getting their investigative work out to the public.

I’m also not quite sure how they are going to make a living doing it—that’s one small detail that remains to be worked out.

But one thing is sure: in this day and age, it is going to be a lot harder for a politician to maintain a public image that is at odds with who he really is when he’s at home.

I hope that means that the next generation of politicians is going to have to be—gasp!—sincere.


Hats Off to the Central Park Rape Victim

The gutsy 73-year-old woman who was raped by a drifter in Central Park last week has been on my mind since I first heard about her.

The assailant has been caught, and it turns out he has a history of raping and murdering elderly women, going back to the 1980s.

The mystery is why a man like that was let out of jail.  We keep kids in prison for minor drug infractions, but we let a psycho rapist and murderer out on parole and allow him to drift across state lines without supervision?

Like so many other homeless people, he ended up drifting around in Central Park, and according to the victim, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, he had it in for her because a couple of weeks earlier she photographed him masturbating in a lonely section of the park.

The Ramble, Central Park

She was a birder who wandered the park with her binoculars and camera around her neck, in the wooded section known as “the Ramble,” which I remember well from my own youthful ramblings.  I would never set foot in the park alone without my big dog beside me, though.  I knew better than that.  And if I ever saw anyone looking suspicious, I made a beeline for the nearest police officer.  Growing up in Manhattan, you knew you always had to be on guard.

The birdwatcher probably took his picture to identify him to the police, because she did report his obscene public activity to a park ranger.  Unfortunately, her warning was ignored.

Now, after she was pushed down in the bushes and raped in broad daylight, the police aren’t ignoring her anymore.  Thanks to her alert vigilance, she was able to pick her assailant out of a police line-up just a day or so after the crime occurred.

Knowing as much as I do about sexual assault and its psychological effects (I teach a course in Gender & Violence) I have to say I am very impressed with the cool demeanor of this victim.

No hysterics or undue shame—this woman is speaking out, and in the process setting a model for other women to follow.

Rape statistics in the US are pretty ugly.

  • Every two minutes, someone in the US is being sexually assaulted.  Each year there are nearly 208,000 sexual assault in the US
  • 54% of rapes are never reported, and 97% of rapists will never spend a night in jail
  • 80% of victims are under 30, 44% under 18
  • 38% of rapists are a friend of acquaintance of the victim

So the most recent Central Park rape was unusual on every score: the victim was an elder, the rapist was unknown to her, and most important, she marched right out of the shrubbery where she’d been raped and reported it to the police.

In your more typical rape case, a young woman may not want to report the crime because a) it’s embarrassing; b) she would have to undergo invasive evidence-gathering; c) she might be afraid that the rapist, if not arrested, would retaliate against her; d) it’s common knowledge that rape trials are long and intense, and rarely result in conviction.

All this is true.  But it’s also true that if more than half of rape victims do not report the crime or press charges, then that allows the assailants to proceed with cocky impunity.

I don’t think that was part of the picture with David Albert Mitchell, the Central Park birder’s assailant.

He was just a dangerously unbalanced, violent man who has obviously been failed by the criminal justice system.  He should never have been granted parole.

But many rapists circulate in our society much more suavely, preying on young women and girls without necessarily even realizing that what they’re doing is wrong.

In a culture where violent pornographic videos are easily available on the internet, and violence against women is a common ingredient in music videos and Hollywood films as well, it is not hard to see how a young man could get the impression that violating a woman is just another way to prove one’s manhood.

More of us older women have to stand up and say no to this violence.

For quite some time, my heroine in this work has been Eve Ensler, whose V-Day organization has been incredibly successful in channeling women’s creativity and righteous passions into educational anti-violence work.

I don’t yet have a name or a face to put on the 73-year-old Central Park rape victim, but I want her to know she’s my heroine too.

All we’ve seen of the victim so far

Internet Rage

Protests against the US this week, responding to the “Innocence of Muslims” trailer

That a boorish, crude, poorly made video could set a whole region on fire with righteous rage and cause the death of a highly respected American diplomat and his staff is a sign of the dangerous new world we live in.

I asked my media studies class yesterday to think about whether we are better off now than we were before the internet age, or whether the amount of time we all spend on the Web is dumbing us down by making us restless, superficial consumers of so much raw information and half-truths that we no longer have the time or inclination to sift through it all and figure out what really matters.

My students, digital natives all, were enthusiastic about the interactivity of the internet, the unparalleled opportunities it offers for entertainment and lightspeed communication.

But we all sobered down some when we contemplated the dark side of the internet promise, given form this week in the jump from You-Tube to Muslim Main Street.

We watched a few minutes of “Innocence of Muslims,” the purported “trailer” for a full-length movie that may very well not exist.  Actually we watched less than two minutes of the film, all that we needed to understand why it has angered religious Muslims.

The film makes a mockery of the Prophet Muhammed, and presents the religion he founded as bloody and uncouth.

I’d like to see how evangelical Christians would feel if a similar film was made about Jesus Christ and his religion.

The Egyptian government issued a statement today recognizing that American filmmakers have the right to freedom of speech, and therefore cannot be prosecuted for their insulting production.

But they can certainly be condemned.  Hate speech is not allowed in the U.S., and this film walks a fine line; it is certainly insulting and intolerant, if not outright hateful.

The film only made waves in the Middle East when someone translated it into Arabic, and then reposted it on You-Tube.

Maybe they thought Muslims would think it was funny.

No one is laughing, not at all.  And the rage comes out against America and all Americans, even though the majority of Americans would be just as turned off by this film as anyone in the Muslim world.

Even as I write that familiar phrase, “the Muslim world,” I know it’s false.  The internet has shrunk our globe so much that the old boundaries between cultures and nations no longer hold.

Out there on the internet, we’re all part of a vast interconnected universe of humanity, a distributed digital brain hosted by the global Cloud.

We have the capacity to send images and words around the world at lightening speed, but on the ground we’re still the same old people we have been for hundreds of years, weighed down by our enmities and prejudices, our pettiness and our greed.

The freedom of communication facilitated by the internet is marvelous, and few of us would want to see it censored.

But we need to understand the power of words and images to manipulate and twist our perceptions of the truth.

We need to learn how to become responsible producers and informed, discerning consumers of all the representations we send up to the Web.

That ugly film does not represent America, any more than the savage reprisal on the Libyan Embassy represents the Muslim community.

The internet should be used to connect us, not tear us apart. We need to be smarter than that.

Why are we punishing America’s schoolchildren and their teachers?

Jonathan Kozol in action

Every stakeholder in the current Chicago teachers’ strike who has not visited an inner city Chicago public school should take the time to read Jonathan Kozol’s powerful book Savage Inequalities, which chronicles the author’s explorations of conditions in schools in poor and rich neighborhoods in a series of American cities.

“One would not have thought that children in America would ever have to choose between a teacher or a playground or sufficient toilet paper,” wrote Kozol back in 1991.  “Like grain in a time of famine, the immense resources which the nation does in fact possess go not to the child in the greatest need but to the child of the highest bidder—the child of parents who, more frequently than not, have also enjoyed the same abundance when they were schoolchildren.

“’A caste society,’ wrote U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel 25 years ago, ‘violates the style of American democracy….The nation in effect does not have a truly public school system in a large part of its communities; it has permitted what is in effect a private school system to develop under public auspices….Equality of educational opportunity throughout the nation continues today for many to be more a myth than a reality.’  This statement is as true today as it was at the time when it was written.”

And it remains true twenty years later.

The bedrock issue here is one of inequality, which is measured along multigenerational racial and class lines.  As long as we continue to link public school funding to local property taxes we are going to be perpetuating an entrenched system of race and class segregation, from which there is little chance for escape.

Kozol observed that kids in suburban schools, no matter what state, already have what the CPS teachers are begging for in the urban schools, and then some.

Is it right that kids from wealthy neighborhoods go to college while kids from poor neighborhoods go to jail?

Kids in poor districts need more help from the state, not less, than kids in wealthy districts.

Chicago is not the only place in America where our schools are failing our neediest children, it is just the only place in America right now where the teachers have been pushed so far that they are taking to the streets in protest.

The Chicago teachers’ strike is being presented in the media as a case of selfish, whining teachers walking out on their students because they are greedy for more money, or afraid of being held to high standards.

But when you listen to the teachers, parents and students who have managed to penetrate the media gatekeepers and make their voices heard, what you hear is not greed or shortsightedness, but deep concern for the health of the school system and the welfare of the children.

The teachers are asking for smaller class sizes (would you want your child in a kindergarten class of 45?); improvements in the crumbling physical plants of their schools, including libraries and playgrounds; and support staff for troubled students, including nurses and social workers.  They don’t want their evaluations tied so tightly to how their students perform on standardized tests, and they want to be given seniority preference if they are laid off because of a school closing.

I don’t hear anything unreasonable in these demands.

Has anyone on the editorial boards of the newspapers who have condemned the Chicago teachers’ strike, which include the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times and the Washington Post, ever set foot in a Chicago public school?

I know for a fact that Mayor Emmanuel’s children attend private school, as did the Obama girls when they lived in Chicago.

President Obama and business leaders like to exhort American children to study hard and close the achievement gap between our country and others like China and India.

They need to put their money where their mouth is, and give our dedicated teachers the support they need to do the job right.

We eat by the grace of Nature, not by the grace of Monsanto

“Organic, schmorganic,” fumes New York Times columnist Roger Cohen sarcastically in an article entitled “The Organic Fable.”

He bases his sweeping dismissal of the organic foods movement on a new Stanford University study claiming that “fruits and vegetables labeled organic are, on average, no more nutritious than their cheaper conventional counterparts.”

Cohen does grant that “organic farming is probably better for the environment because less soil, flora and fauna are contaminated by chemicals…. So this is food that is better ecologically even if it is not better nutritionally.”

But he goes on to smear the organic movement as “an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype.

“To feed a planet of 9 billion people,” he says, “we are going to need high yields not low yields; we are going to need genetically modified crops; we are going to need pesticides and fertilizers and other elements of the industrialized food processes that have led mankind to be better fed and live longer than at any time in history.

“I’d rather be against nature and have more people better fed. I’d rather be serious about the world’s needs. And I trust the monitoring agencies that ensure pesticides are used at safe levels — a trust the Stanford study found to be justified.”

Cohen ends by calling the organic movement “a fable of the pampered parts of the planet — romantic and comforting.”

But the truth is that his own, science-driven Industrial Agriculture mythology is far more delusional.

Let me count the ways that his take on the organic foods movement is off the mark:

  • Organic food may not be more “nutritious,” but it is healthier because it is not saturated with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and preservatives, not to mention antibiotics, growth hormones and who knows what other chemicals.  There are obvious “health advantages” in this, since we know—though Cohen doesn’t mention—that synthetic chemicals and poor health, from asthma to cancer, go hand in hand.
  • Organic food is only elitist if it comes from Whole Foods—the one source Cohen mentions.  I grow organic vegetables in my backyard, and they save me money every summer.  We don’t need the corporatization of organic foods, we need local cooperatives (like the CSAs in my region) to provide affordable organic produce that doesn’t require expensive and wasteful transport thousands of miles from field to table.
  • About feeding 9 billion people: first of all, we should be working hard to curb population growth, for all kinds of good reasons.  We know we’ve gone beyond the carrying capacity of our planet, and we shouldn’t be deluding ourselves that we can techno-fix our way out of the problem.  Industrial agriculture is a big part of the problem.  It will never be part of the solution.  Agriculture must be relocalized and brought back into harmony with the natural, organic cycles of the planet.  If this doesn’t happen, and soon, all the GMO seed and fertilizers in the world won’t help us survive the climate cataclysm that awaits.
  • Mankind is better fed and longer lived now than any time in history?  Here Cohen reveals his own elitist, Whole-Foods myopia.  Surely he must know that some billion people go to bed hungry every night, with no relief in sight?  Mortality statistics are also skewed heavily in favor of wealthy countries.  So yes, those of us in the industrialized nations are—again, depending on our class standing—living longer and eating better than in the past, but only at the cost of tremendous draining of resources from other parts of the world, and at increasing costs in terms of our own health. Just as HIV/AIDS is the scourge of the less developed world, cancer, asthma, heart disease and diabetes are the bane of the developed world, and all are related to the toxic chemicals we ingest, along with too much highly processed, sugary, fatty foods.
  • For someone who is calling the organic movement “romantic,” Cohen seems to have an almost childlike confidence in authority figures.  He says he trusts “the monitoring agencies that ensure pesticides are used at safe levels — a trust the Stanford study found to be justified.” And I suppose he also still believes in Santa Claus?  We cannot trust that the “safe levels” established by the EPA or FDA are in fact safe, given the fact that we operate in an environment where thousands of chemicals enter the market without sufficient testing, presumed innocent unless proven guilty—but to win the case against them, first people must get sick and die.
  • Cohen’s zinger, “I’d rather be against nature and have more people better fed,” displays his own breathtaking blind spot as regards the human relation to the natural world.  Human beings cannot be “against nature” without being “against ourselves.”  We are a part of the natural world just like every other life form on this planet.  Our fantasy that we can use our technological prowess to completely divorce ourselves from our material, physical reality is just that—a fantasy.  We eat by the grace of nature, not by the grace of Monsanto.

For the entire history of homo sapiens, we have always eaten organic.  It’s only been in the last 50-odd years, post World War II, that wartime chemicals and technologies have found new uses in agriculture.

The result has been the rapid and wholesale devastation of vast swaths of our planet—biodiversity giving way to monoculture, killer weeds and pesticide-resistant superbugs going wild, the weakening and sickening of every strand of the ecological web of our planet.

The relevant fable to invoke might be the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk.  We might be able to grow a fantastically huge beanstalk if we fed it with enough chemical fertilizers, and we might even be able to climb it and bring back a goose that lays golden eggs.

But in the end, that beanstalk will prove to be more dangerous to us than it’s worth—we’ll have to chop it down, and go back to the slow but solid organic way of life that has sustained us unfailingly for thousands of years.

Enough Political Reality TV: Time to tune in to the planet

I tuned into the Democratic National Convention (DNC), thinking I’d catch a few minutes of the action before going to bed, and I was quickly entranced by the spectacle.

This, of course, is what political conventions are all about.  They’re a great primetime opportunity to dazzle the video-feed audience, and energize the base.

Deval Patrick

I enjoyed watching Deval Patrick, governor of my home state of Massachusetts, give a moving speech focusing on the right of all children to a good education.

I loved meeting a rising political star, Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio, Texas, who was winningly introduced by his identical twin brother, state Representative Joachin Castro, currently running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Castro brothers are handsome, talented, and are buoyed by a classic American success story, coming from a poor background, working hard in school, winning scholarships to Stanford and Harvard Law, and moving on and up into politics.

Julian and Joaquin Castro

Who wouldn’t be charmed?

Michelle Obama

And then there was the woman we were all waiting for, First Lady Michelle Obama, looking tall, muscular, vigorous—and very beautiful.

Mrs. Obama was introduced not by a politico, but by an “ordinary woman,” a military mom with four sons serving in four different branches of the U.S. military, and a fifth still in high school, bound for the U.S. Coast Guard.  It was moving to hear her tell of how she had written to Michelle and been invited with her husband to the White House, to receive the Obamas’ thanks for the service their family provides to our country.

And it was moving to hear Michelle roll out the by-now familiar story of her humble family background, and how her parents’ hard work enabled her and her brother to go to college and on to graduate school, where she met Barack—himself a scholarship boy who chose to work as a community organizer in Chicago rather than take a high-paying job as a corporate lawyer in New York right out of law school.

Who wouldn’t enjoy hearing Michelle praise her husband as a father, a partner, and a dedicated professional, who truly cares about his country and ran for office not for the glory but because he believed he could make a positive difference?

I came away from the couple of hours of speeches with just the feel-good sensation the scriptwriters had worked so hard to achieve.

But that’s the problem.  It all felt too scripted.  Too perfect.  Too much like entertainment—maybe some kind of weird political reality TV show.

I didn’t watch the Republican National Convention, so I can’t compare and contrast the two, but from all I’ve read about it, it was more or less the same in form, if not in content.

The DNC emphasized the multicultural, hardworking, can-do ethos of the 99%, while the RNC emphasized the white-skinned, inherited-wealth, party-animal ethos of the 1%.

If those are my choices, I clearly belong with the Democrats.

But I can’t help but wonder what I’d see if the Green Party were able to have a  primetime convention opportunity like this.

Of course, the Greens probably wouldn’t even want to put on a big expensive consumerist circus typical of our American political conventions, so wasteful of energy and resources.

Stein and Honkala

Looking at the Green Party platform of Presidential hopeful Jill Stein and her running mate Cheri Honkala, it’s clear that  the Green Party would not just talk about personal rags-to-riches stories of success, but about the structural barriers that keep the 99%–or at least, let’s say, the bottom 50% of our population—locked in generational cycles of poverty and unfulfilled promise.

They would not just repeat the monotonous mantra of jobs creation, but would talk about the most daunting issues facing us today.

The tsunami of climate change that is like the elephant in the room of American politics.

What good will a better K-12 education or the promise of a job be if our climate becomes so compromised that food shortages become rampant?

I want to hear a politician talk candidly about the stranglehold that the chemical companies and the fossil fuel industry currently has on our children’s future on this planet.

I want to hear a politician who is not afraid to talk about the effects we can expect from the rapid melting of the ice packs at the poles.

A politician who is committed to building local resiliency, rather than continuing the death march down the road to globalization, which benefits only the corporate elite and the finance wizards who serve them.

Is Jill Stein that politician?

I wish I knew.  The problem is that I have to work pretty hard to find out what she’s all about.  And that makes me worry that she, and the party behind her, just don’t have the strength to compete in our political gladiators’ ring.

Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that we are not going to find a political messiah who can part the seas and lead us to safety.

No one person, or even one party, can do that.

We individuals have to assume responsibility for our collective, interdependent future, and begin working harder in our own spheres, where we can have the most impact.

It matters who sits in the White House.  I believe the Obamas should get another four years, and hopefully a saner Congress to work with as well.

But it matters just as much what we do in our own states, cities and towns, with or without federal aid.

Mayor Castro and the Governor Patrick and Michelle Obama have been remarkable for working hard to make a difference at the local level.

Thanks to Michelle’s efforts, my son now has a mandated healthier lunch, with no sugary drinks or white bread allowed.

Governor Patrick continues to stand by our Massachusetts state health care program, one of the best in the nation (instituted under Mitt Romney, who now, to please his billionaire buddies, disavows it).

Massachusetts is working on alternative energy sources like wind and solar, with incentives for local municipalities and individuals to convert.

We need to continue to build community resilience and mutual support as we move into the brave new world that awaits us.

It is the only way we are going to make it through the coming climate-driven catastrophes.

We’ve got two more nights of DNC speeches ahead.  Is anyone going to acknowledge the climate elephant in the room, move us out of the polished entertainment arena and speak frankly to us about what’s ahead, and how to pull together to get through it?

All that solid melts in air: Labor Day reflections on Marx, Darwin and the need for new paradigms

As always around Labor Day, I am getting ready to talk with young people about some old, dead people: Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, all of whom loom large in the curriculum of the General Education seminar required of sophomores at my college.

Rereading Darwin and Marx, who we’ll be discussing this week, it’s not hard at all to find ways to make these old thinkers, whose ideas are more than 100 years old now, relevant for our times.


Darwin believed that life is a constant battle for limited resources, with the “struggle for existence” being entirely material, rather than spiritual.  When a dominant species overruns a weaker species, it is always for the best:

“It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up that which is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.”

He believed that humans are the highest, most important species, and that within the species men are higher than women, and white-skinned, “civilized” people are better than dark-skinned “savages.”  And implicit in his theory of natural selection is the ideology of Manifest Destiny: that strong, rich people got that way because they were “better” than poor, weak people.

It’s the logic that paved the way for the ruthless capitalist paradigm that presided over the industrial revolution of the late 19th and 20th centuries, along with the relentless search for new markets and new sources of raw materials: colonialism, imperialism, globalization.


Writing back in the mid-19th century, Marx was incredibly prescient.  His description, in “The Communist Manifesto,” of the process of colonial globalization could have been written last week:

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country…. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

This actually doesn’t sound like much of a critique—Marx describes the positive side of capitalist globalization first.  But then he shows, with remarkable foresight, how the capitalists are unable to control the economic system they have created:

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells….It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.

We have just lived through one of these episodic crises that Marx is talking about here—the bursting of the housing bubble, and the broad financial crisis that was generated by an over-reliance on debt.

The “enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces” is a nice way of saying “war”; and indeed, our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have kept the military-industrial complex humming, along with companies like Halliburton that snapped up all the rebuilding contracts.

Marx believed that the capitalist system would fail because it is structurally unable to support the needs of the masses.  It is built on inequality—on the Darwinian framework of the “struggle for existence” where might makes right, the strong survive and the weak perish, and the spoils of industry are concentrated tightly in the hands of a small dominant class, the bourgeoisie.

The modern laborer… instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.

Marx thought it inevitable that the middle class would sink into the proletariat as wealth became more and more concentrated in the hands of the few capitalists controlling government and industry.  And the proletariat, having nothing left to lose, would eventually rise up and seize power, overthrowing the capitalist system and instituting a new economic system, more truly “by the people, for the people.”

However, Marx was still a prisoner of his time as regards his understanding of humans’ relation to our natural environment.  He was not able to foresee that industrial growth, whether under the leadership of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat, would bump up against the carrying capacity of the planet, providing a natural (in Darwin’s terms) limit to growth.

Darwin would look out at what’s happening to our planet today, in the age of climate change, and see it quite dispassionately, as part of the process of natural selection. People in low-lying areas will have to migrate or die. We will figure out ways to adapt to our new climate reality, or we will be swept away.  The strong will survive, the weak will perish.

Marx, on the other hand, would be ranting about how the bourgeoisie have, in his own words, “dug their own graves,” and taken everyone along with them.  He would be calling for the international proletariat to rise up and fight for a better social system, in which labor is rewarded with well-being and the profits circulate among the many, rather than being concentrated in the hands of the few at the top.

We know with the power of hindsight that no Communist system has ever actually been successful at making people happy.

This is because the old hierarchical structures that have pervaded human civilizations for thousands of years still tend to creep back, no matter what name we give our socio-economic structure.

The challenge of our time is to envision a social structure that is horizontal, circular and interdependent, rather than vertical, linear and unidirectional.

A social structure in a harmonious give and take with the natural world, rather than one that only takes and takes to feed the maw of human industry.

Darwin may be right that the strong will survive and the weak will perish, but our concept of strength needs to change to meet our new reality.

Strength is not about domination and the ability to force others to bend, it is about cooperation and the ability to bring people and the natural world into productive harmony.

Black Elk

What we need now is a renaissance of indigenous tribal social systems, based on reverence for the natural world, and respect for one another.

Those people Darwin dismissed as “savages” may turn out to be the only ones who are able to survive in our new planetary epoch, as “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”


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