Monday, December 29, 2008

History on the Landscape

Lies Across America is a fantastic study into the truth behind the thousands of historic markers found nationally on and off the beaten path. Every time I think I might have a good understanding of a topic in history, an author like James Loewen presents himself to me as a challenge to keep learning. Thank goodness.

His is an intriguing thesis. Those who place the historic markers, usually local groups, or national ones like the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), seize control of a part of our history. They control this very visible portion of history that tourists read when we travel. We can ignore the markers, read and accept their texts as fact, or explore the true nature of what has been foisted into the landscape for our inspection. Much more than simply stating that there is more than one side to a story, the author proves that some of these markers are simply false. I don't mean wrong or bad interpretations of an event, but actual and deliberate fiction has been passed off as history.

More common are the markers that commit what some call lies of omission. And also the question is raised regarding all of the worthy people and events of history that go unrecognized; why do some earn markers and others do not?

History books are often scrutinized and authors are criticized for improper treatments of a topic in history, and this is only proper among people who claim to value free expression. But the bits of history given in these markers like pages in a pop-up book, if bound together and sold as a history of our country confuse, offend, shock, and outrage nearly everyone who bothered to read it. So why do we allow the makers of historic monuments to get away with publishing faulty history right under our collective noses?

I will not say too much because the author does a superior job of expressing his own ideas in the book. Read it for yourself. You will not likely put it down without thinking differently about how we choose to represent our history in public places.

Live Well.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Wishes

If a wish is a request for something that you just can't manage to get on your own, or for something that really is not possible to get, then I have a few to put on record.

1. A cure for Type-1 Diabetes and Rheumatoid Arthritis: Many lives are lost or altered due to dozens or hundreds of illnesses or diseases that medical science cannot combat. I suppose I could wish for a universal cure, but these specific disorders have a personal impact on me and my family. It is my most selfish wish.

2. Wisdom within our nation's politicians and leaders: Students of history know how rare it is to see wise leaders in the world. They also know how powerful and dramatic social changes can come from the leadership of wise men and women. Corruption tempts all leaders. May our current world leaders find the strength to avoid corruption in all its forms.

3. Sincere adherence to religious teachings: Among all people who claim faithfulness to a religious tradition, please be mindful of the essence of those teachings in your daily lives. No legitimate leader or founder of any major world religious movement has ever advocated hatred or philosophies of destruction in order to achieve a divine purpose. Religious devotion is not a matter of convenience. Always practice your espoused faith. Through such practice, love will dominate life.

4. A daily recognition of our common humanity: No matter what we do, everything can be done and should be done with attention to humanity. To be humane means to consider the overall condition of those lives you have become involved with. Ask always if what you are about to do will add to the improvement of humanity, or reduce our collective greatness. This is at the heart of all religion, but outside of religion, it also has meaning. We all should have a personal interest in the collective well-being of everyone around us. While it is true that some among us profit from the depravity and misery of others, it is my wish that we each make every effort to elevate humanity and ease others' burdens. Do this and you will be happy in your work, and happier in life.

5. Share your knowledge, and happily learn from others: Talk about what you know, and listen to others when they do the same. Keep your mind open to new learning. Ideas inform dialogue, and dialogue shapes opinions. Opinions and ideas are behind any action. So be active in the dialogue around you. Use your education, and always add to it. Knowledge is one of the most reliable keys to power and influence. Everyone does the best he or she can do based on what they know. If you know more, you can do more.

6. Appreciate the life you have now: Even if you are striving to improve your situation, or that of others, don't forget to appreciate the happiness and beauty that exists around you in this moment.

There are more wishes, but these few make up the majority of the sentiment. I can do many things for myself, but I cannot control the actions of others. This is the intent, I think, of the wish. There's nothing original on my list, but that does not make them unimportant. What it does mean is that there is an urgency behind unrealized wishes.

Whoever can read this, please make your best effort to make one or more of these wishes a reality, if only in your own life.

Merry Christmas!

Live Well.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Dangerous and Secret Life of Boys

I have a son and two daughters, all under the age of nine. I have very little time left before my son starts experiencing "the urges." No, not the urges of bodily stimulation, but those of the curious minds of boys. Already my son has displayed his desires to hold or even be near things with blades, things made of metal, or things designed to shoot projectiles. Flashing lights and sound effects are also high on the list of drool inducers. He likes to build as well as destroy, arguably mankind's most highly developed skills. My son will soon exercise and practice his skills with or without supervision.

How do I know? I lived it. Any man who claims he did nothing stupid, dangerous, and destructive growing up is lying, has repressed the memories, or was never beyond sight of his mother. Notice I used the conjunction "and" instead of "or." We practice all three types of acts,-- stupid, dangerous, destructive-- often together. Please understand that this propensity for risky explorations has little to do with intelligence. Smart kids have no immunity against our biological urge to endanger ourselves and others around us. You can resist, for a time, but resistance is futile (the Borg are right). Lest you think I am exaggerating, I will present a short list of truly asinine stunts, topics, and experiments I was involved in over the years. I will leave out the dates and names of others, although my older brother was usually directing the chaos.










The list really does go on and on. All I know is that I will soon have to figure out how I will react to my own child's version of the same idiocy I performed. It's true that I am here, and I "turned out OK," but surely there has to be a way to break the cycle.

I suppose that's why men invented contact sports. We need a confined arena in which to dangerously bang into each other and cheer about it. Here's to the future. There isn't much time.

Live Well.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Heroic Leader Wanted

“Individuals who are unable or unwilling to purposefully, knowledgeably, and courageously work for social justice in education should not be given the privilege of working as a school or district leader.” --Marshall and Young, 2005

My eyes have been opened through my recent course work to the higher nature of public education. Leaders in education cannot become concerned only with standardized test scores. Leaders cannot afford to mistakenly believe that their schools are islands of learning beyond other concerns. The community of school is bound to the human community that surrounds it, and, by extension, to the rest of the world. The issue of involvement and interaction with the school environment is important, but only as it is a strategy that leads toward social justice.

We have learned that schools are filled with teachers and leaders of good intent, but also lack of clarity concerning the real problems of schools. We mostly fail to confront our complicity as agents responsible for the very inequities we rail against. We are complicit and instrumental agents who usher along cycles of social reproduction, even when the model we reproduce is the essence of racial and class hegemony. Jonathan Kozol calls our education system a kind of American apartheid. I would stretch a bit further and liken it to an Indian caste system, or the Mexican encomienda. In these old-world systems of social hierarchy, the effects of which are still actively being worked out, social status is determined by the nature of your birth. In India your occupation was a copy of your parents’ social level and associated work tradition. There were strong racial and ethnic restrictions built into this system, but all was cloaked in the primacy of religious mandate. The Brahmins, the keepers of religious tradition, not surprisingly, enjoyed the most privileged status. Social mobility was not a provision of the caste system. In Spanish-controlled colonial Mexico, the encomienda system was focused on your ethnic or cultural birth rights in a more blatant manner. The Spanish born, or peninsulars, were most privileged, of course because they were the conquering culture. As time passed other social strata had to be created. The criollos, or Mexican born of Spanish parents, were less affluent. The mestizos, or those of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage, were a level further removed from power. The indigenous population, still the bulk of society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, received the least amount of access to the cultural capital of their day. Of course the African slave population was valued the least of all.

If some educators would read this, powerful reactions may arise. I’m crazy for drawing comparisons of American education to colonial racism. But am I that far off? America’s history runs parallel with that of Mexico. We are also still reconciling ourselves with our own history of slavery followed by legalized institutional racism. Social inequities in education continue to exist. How can that be unless social reproduction is being continued and managed through our public schools? Consider the explanations in another light. If “school” is not the problem, meaning the current system of education as practiced commonly today, then gross inequities must be explained in other ways. Try out these answers. Poor kids are just too ill-equipped socially, mentally, or otherwise deficient, and cannot learn well. They will never “measure up.” Those foreign language speakers just aren’t trying hard enough; they’re faking it anyway. Those special ed kids are hopeless, or they use their disabilities as a crutch. And those African-American kids just are a mess. They act entitled to everything and argue and complain whenever they’re held accountable for something. Once you see the counter-arguments for what they are, racist and elitist twattle, then what is it that remains? The system itself perpetuates social and racial inequities. Who fares consistently well while other identified sub-groups lag behind year after year?

And so the leader of the American school first must challenge himself or herself to face this ugly reality eye to eye. Call it by name. A leader in education must think and act like a social reformer. Social justice will never become real by wishing for it. It will never come to pass by waiting for others to make it happen. The easiest path to follow is the one that already exists; this path leads to social reproduction. Those who seek social justice in schools must blaze new trails in the landscape of educational practices.

Creating a school environment in which authentic dialogue among all parties involved is practiced and expected; this should be a high priority of the leader seeking social justice. Raising the level of educational discourse is essential if justice is desired. Anything less is just complacency. Leaders who are willing to engage in the tough and uncomfortable issues that really need to be the topics of staff development meetings; they are the ones who will move us closer to social justice. Leaders who understand that parental involvement takes on hundreds of forms, not just ten or twelve; they will earn the respect of the community. Leaders who take time to understand and appreciate the diversity of their student body; they will inspire students to achieve higher levels of learning. Leaders who speak of social truths and realities instead of test scores; they will earn the respect of their teachers.

Saint Maximilian Kolbe was executed by a lethal injection of carbonic acid at Auschwitz, 14 August, 1941. During the weeks before his execution he was regularly and savagely beaten and starved, once left for dead. Guards seemed to reserve their harshest torture for this affable priest. He continued in this nightmare environment to minister to others, perform Mass, give last rites, and generally share the work of God. He would use smuggled wine and bread for his Mass services. Relevance? Those dedicated to a great and noble cause will do anything necessary to bring about the desired change. Educational leaders should, indeed, view their position as a privilege as well as a heavy responsibility. Social change will only come when leaders actively seek such change. In the last issue of his publication, The Knight, Kolbe wrote,

“No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”

Those who would be real leaders in education must dedicate themselves to social justice in the same way that religious leaders dedicate themselves to divine missions. In fact isn’t the educational mission another kind of divine mission? Do we not speak of love? And what is love if not an acute and sincere concern for the well-being of others? Social justice must ultimately be based upon a deep concern for the well-being of others. This requires school leaders who recognize the humanitarian mission of education. It requires individuals who will not compromise the educational mission out of fear of retribution or fear of angering teachers and parents. It requires a bravery and dedication usually attributed to heroes and saints. Anyone who moves into a school leadership position must accept this responsibility, or hopefully recognize their own limitations and allow someone else to take up the challenge.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Coffee, regular, keep it coming

My mom started giving me coffee when I was a small child. This is not unusual in Germany, but apparently it is in the USA. The coffee kids usually get is made for kids, and is made from wheat. It really is a coffee substitute, not the true drink. Still, I only knew that coffee was usually one of the normal drink choices around the house growing up. This normally did not cause a problem, but once in a while I got funny looks and comments from kids in school when I poured coffee out of my thermos at lunch. Some teachers raised an eyebrow as well. But they were mostly distracted by the manly sized sandwiches I would normally bring. Looking back as a teacher, I can appreciate the humor of it. Other kids are eating bologna on white bread, or braving the school offerings, and I sit with the deli special and cup of coffee. I suppose they were waiting for the smoking break next. Mom sure did make great lunches. That really was a great part of the day.

Coffee shifted at some point from wheat substitute over to the real bean. Even then my parents made it with milk and sugar. I still prefer it that way. I don't know if there ever was much thought or conversation given to the coffee situation; it was just normal for me. I'm glad it was. For now, it is a pleasurable part of life's routine. It is a habit like reading the newspaper, but not like habits of addiction. I will run out of coffee and then not have any for many days until I remember to buy more. No worries. I like coffee, and I choose to have it, but life goes on without it. I'm just a bit less satisfied with the world.

On one trip I took with my mom to Germany, we took a side trip to Poland. We actually went back to her hometown which she had not seen for over forty years. The town was part of Germany-- OK, Prussia-- at the time of her early childhood, but WWII politics shifted the borders around. While we were in Poland we were staying with people in their homes. These were people who either didn't know us at all personally, or who had not seen my mother in over forty years. What great people. All they needed to know was that my mother was friends with Mrs. J---, someone everyone knew. They did not have much, but we were invited to have some of what was being offered. At one point one of the women asked me what I would like. I said a coffee would be great. They were speaking German to me, incidentally, which was fine, because I was not prepared with much knowledge of Polish. It is a very cool language, I think. I understood many things before we were done that week.

The coffee that was brought to me was an unexpected and lovely experience. They had made the coffee in a style common in the east of Europe as well as the Middle East and North Africa. With Turkish Coffee, as it is known, the fine coffee grounds are boiled with the water and poured together into the cup. The dregs settle to the bottom. It was served to me in the Russian style tall tea or coffee cup. This is a glass that is held by a metal decorative holder. In the glass I could see all of the dregs that made up about two inches of the five inch vessel. My only thought of hesitation, having never had this style of coffee before, was the question of the grounds. Do you drink it down, or leave it? I was told later that some of the old men would drink the lees, but it was normal to leave them. That was the only coffee I had while we were in Poland, but it was fantastic. I enjoyed it very much because it was a dear commodity given joyfully to me by distant kin who had never met me before. Such a flavor is rare, indeed.

I started to really ponder on that trip what coffee might taste like around the world. Since before the journey in Poland I have tried to experience whatever I can of cultural food expressions. What a beautiful introduction into someone's world.

Back on my dad's side of the family there are the culinary offerings of South Central Kentucky. I actually never recognized that kind of food as anything other than normal. My grandma was an excellent cook, and I ate anything she made happily. But since this is about coffee, I have to share the one coffee trivia fact I know that connects coffee to the town of Burkesville, Kentucky. Joel Cheek of Burkesville was a traveling dry goods salesman in the late 1800's. He started blending different coffee varieties that he sold to customers after he realized that the most expensive varitey he carried was not actually the best in taste. He experimented with the blends until he arrived at the best tasting product. His customers agreed. Mr. Cheek then struck a deal with the kitchen manager of a Nashville hotel to buy his blend and serve it in the hotel dining room. When Cheek's blend ran out, the kitchen served their old coffee, but the customers complained. When Mr. Cheek returned, the deal was given a new life. He would continue to bring the coffee to the hotel, but in order to sell it abroad, he also agreed to give it the name of the hotel, the Maxwell House. (The only other culinary claim to fame for Burkesville is a burger joint called Dovey's. That is definitely a different story.)

My parents have never developed a liking for coffee that is much stronger than the kiddie coffee they used to give me. They get very dramatic over the coffee I drink now. How can I drink that stuff, they wonder. It's about enjoying experiences in life. Coffee can have a great range of flavors in much the same way as wine, beer, or chocolate. I savor the flavors of well-brewed coffee. It brings me a sensory experience that does not come with just any beverage. Tea can provide a similar experience, but proper brewing is important. That's another blog, I think.

No one has yet convinced me that coffee is bad for you. It's been said, for sure, but always on shaky evidence, or laced with propaganda. I'll go on brewing, drinking, and thoroughly enjoying the coffee I make at home. I will aslo gladly partake in coffees made for me by generous family members, friends, or the occasional barrista. And my children, too, will enjoy coffee if that is their choice.

Live well.