Saturday, March 29, 2014

David Simon and the Audacity of Despair

David Simon, creator and writer of The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008) and Treme (HBO, 2010-2013), author of the nonfiction crime classics, Homicide:  A Year on the Killing Streets (Houghton Mifflin, 1991) and The Corner:  A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (Broadway, 1997), and former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, can now add cultural critic and riveting public speaker to his resume, although I would argue that his work has always involved sharp and barbed cultural criticism whether in television fiction or in signed pieces of simmering nonfictional journalism.  In every case, in every word, he is a force of nature.

My love for his work led me to his blog, The Audacity of Despair, a perverse reworking of Barack Obama’s 2008 memoir and political wax job.  The subtitle is “prose, links and occasional venting,” which about sums up the content.  Simon’s writing is piquant and cutting at times, but he also does a good job, better than most writers, of taking a sweeping, gigantic public policy issue or philosophical moment and rendering it in small, powerful scenes and interactions between characters.  Although his work has a definite point of view, he does not skimp on character.  He is like a reincarnation of famed Baltimore Sun reporter and cultural critic H.L. Mencken for the digital age.

His intimate revelations between characters are best illustrated by his March 4th post entitled, “Carnival Time.”  It is a spare, moving dialogue between Simon and his daughter as they walk the streets of New Orleans one night at the start of carnival season, that rich and evocative time Simon captured so well in Treme.  In a few short lines, he gives us childhood, life, death, and a reflection on what makes us human and what makes such moments the fleeting gems of pure love and grace we all live for.

He can also be the angry man raging at a merciless and unforgiving God or a blustering fool of a politician, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christy.  Check out his post, “The Highway’s Jammed With Broken Heroes…” for Simon’s gleeful takedown of the former Republican presidential candidate.

Through his blog, I found several videos of Simon speaking in a variety of forums about the state of America.  A good sampler can be found on Bill Moyers’ website.  Moyers has interviewed Simon a few times.  His most recent appearance is entitled, “David Simon on America as a Horror Show.”

One of his best public speeches was at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in 2013.  Here’s the entire video:

For me, David Simon’s work, whether it be on HBO, at the lectern speaking to a packed audience, or on his blog, is crucial to the dialogue that should be taking place across America.  Like Charles Dickens, his cultural critique can be a little heavy-handed at times, but always imperative.  I look forward to his next film project, and until then, will continue to read his blog and whatever else he publishes.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

How To Save America (Or At Least Catholic Education)


It is, admittedly, a hyperbolic title.

If you are looking for answers to Iran’s nuclear development, the war in Afghanistan, or what exactly happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, you won’t find them here.

This post deals with the growing controversy over Common Core Standards, the voluminous and quite frankly confusing bureaucratic boondoggle supported by the Obama administration and Bill Gates, that allegedly will impose benchmarks equaling a national standard of achievement in American schools.  Republicans, especially the Tea Party nut jobs, hate Common Core because they fear the federal government is taking over classrooms and forcing teachers to teach—gulp!—liberal ideas.  However, there are Republicans, and Democrats who liked the standards and even voted for them initially.  Now that people realize Common Core will cost states billions to implement, everybody has become skittish.  Indiana this week became the first of 45 states to opt out of the program.

It comes down to this:  supporters say Common Core institutes consistency and academic rigor across the curriculum and across the United States to guarantee that every teacher and student works from the same educational playbook to meet the same standards.  This is problematic because every state is composed of its own constituency, a populace that has its own special needs and requirements in all facets of life, including education.  There are things best left up to the state to decide, and other things that the federal government can mandate, and like the education of the human mind, it is not always easy to form blanket statements about what constitutes an educated person across our multicultural land.  For instance, the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District have different needs from students in the Aleutians East Borough School District (approximately 700,000 students versus 275 students; southern California versus southwest Alaska).

More disturbing to me is the lemming-like behavior of Catholic school departments of education across the country who are rushing to embrace Common Core.  Catholic schools have prided themselves in offering a better education than their public counterparts.  The curriculum was known for its rigor, and the schools for graduating high-performing students who excel in college and in life.  You could argue that I am presenting a biased view of the success of Catholic education, and you’d be right, but I can back it up both from personal experience as a student and as a teacher.  There is also a wealth of statistics to support my assertion, but I digress.

My point is that Catholic schools should be running away from endorsing Common Core.  If anything, parish schools should return to the rigorous teaching and learning that has distinguished those institutions throughout their history.  I always thought that was the selling point for parents who must pay tuition on top of taxes that support public schools to get their kids into the local Catholic K-12.  Sure parish schools are suffering a decline in enrollment due to the poor economy and a financially stressed middle class, but the marketing key is the kind of education Catholic schools have always offered—superior, disciplined, successful, rigorous, and yes:  Catholic!  A Catholic school education will meet and exceed the Common Core standards if we remain true to our traditions.

So why are Catholic schools chasing the Common Core bandwagon?  Well, let’s be clear:  there is a battle going on for control of the Catholic school train.  The New York Times reported that 100 Catholic scholars besieged Catholic bishops to reject Common Core standards.  Meanwhile, the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization founded in 1993 to “promote and defend faithful Catholic education,” revealed that the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) accepted more than $100,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote Common Core in Catholic schools.  There is not enough evidence nor have any studies been done to indicate that these standards will insure a quality education and student success for those who have jumped whole hog into the big vat of Kool-Aid Gates and Obama are asking students, teachers, and parents to drink.  To blindly follow means allowing the federal government to dictate Catholic education.

Who stands to benefit from Catholic schools adopting Common Core?  Well, Bill Gates and his technology interests will definitely benefit, as textbook companies are now rushing to develop apps and programs that are compatible with Windows 8 touchscreen operating systems.  According to the Cardinal Newman Society, “The Common Core System of Courses is the first curriculum built for a digital personalized learning environment that is 100 percent aligned to the new standards for college and career readiness.”  There is no evidence yet that students graduating under these standards will be better prepared for college or a career, but this is evidence that these standards will be used to dictate school curriculum and of course, standardized testing.  Standards must be measured—assessment equals standardized tests.  Teaching material found on the tests means aligning curriculum with assessment.  So the standards will, in fact, influence what is being taught in the classroom, as well as how it is being taught, despite denials of such influence by the Obama administration.  Textbook publishers such as Pearson, Sadlier, Inc., and Riverside Publishing are all rushing to create texts, workbooks, apps, programs and other resources to meet the demand of schools clamoring for Common Core materials.  Unfunded mandates of over 10 billion dollars, as well as annual costs going forward will be foisted on the individual states, according to at least one news source.

The NCEA found out that their full-throated endorsement of Common Core also comes with a philosophical cost.  The Cardinal Newman Society reported in December that the NCEA had “to correct the first-grade unit plan by removing three resources which celebrated families headed by same-sex or divorced couples.”  That is a double revelation:  one, it is shortsighted in this day and age to remove such material from the classroom as many same-sex and divorced couples are a vital part of parish congregations and school families; and two, the NCEA now finds itself in bed with some questionable partners who may have hijacked Catholic education.

How to save the nation, or more specifically, Catholic education?  Catholic schools should stick to the kind of education offered for more than a hundred years in their American institutions, one that graduates successful men and women who have time and again demonstrated their ability to enrich the fabric of our society.  There is no substitute, no computer program, no benchmark standard, no newfangled fad that can replace such a tradition of teaching and learning excellence.  Catholic schools should not be running after public schools; they should continue to proudly lead the way in educating students to be well-rounded, thoughtful citizens.  Our children’s education is too important to surrender to those professing “new ideas” composed of unsubstantiated promises with a hefty financial, intellectual and moral price tag.  Catholic education has never tread on common ground and should not do so now.  For the good of our students, we must continue to aim higher.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Conspiracy Theories

Photo courtesy of Reuters

Last night, while speaking with someone who spent some time in the aviation industry, I was startled to hear the beginnings of a new conspiracy theory regarding the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

My source told me that the only thing that could have so obliterated the Boeing 777 was a bomb.  She also revealed that over the last few days, she had contacted a former colleague who now worked for another airline, and this woman refused to say much over the phone, except to caution that all phone calls were being monitored.  They had been told not to discuss the disappearance of flight MH370.

In and of themselves, these two pieces of anecdotal evidence are not earth-shattering revelations.  The fact that search crews have found no wreckage could mean that the pieces are very small and scattered widely over a huge swath of ocean.  Or, it could indicate the search is in disarray, as The New York Times is reporting today.

And of the monitored calls, it comes as no surprise after Edward Snowden’s and Wikileaks’ revelations that our calls, emails, internet searches, personal data, et cetera are all being mined all the time.  Privacy, it would seem, is a thing of the past.

Still, we have an airliner disappearing over land or sea, populated areas or non-populated areas depending on the flight path and course drift, and we are left without a trace so far.  That is a bit unusual, considering we can pinpoint the location of landmarks, spacecraft, aircraft, automobiles, and people with GPS technology as well as with more conventional radar and communication devices.  If this were the Bermuda Triangle instead of southeast Asia, the internet would really be exploding with conspiracy theories.

Those pesky theories—stories that JFK was killed by the CIA, Cuban assassins, the mob, even Vice President Johnson, that 9-11 was an inside job perpetrated by Vice President Cheney, or Israel, or some secret organization within the U.S. government, that aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico, that Death Valley houses a secret underground lair of aliens waiting for the right moment to invade—all indicate that human beings love a good story.  We need and crave narrative; it is how we make sense of our world.  It is the same impulse that led ancient Greeks to formulate a mythology to explain lightning strikes and dangerous seas, the Aztecs to sacrifice to the sun god, the Native Americans to worship the wind.  There is a story behind every mystery, and in the absence of fact we will invent a fiction, or a partial fiction, to explain the inexplicable.

But we must be careful in cases such as MH370.

Remember, it was a turbaned or Arab man who was seen walking away from the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  Hundreds of Jews, or Arabs, stayed home from their jobs in the World Trade Center on September 11th.  And how many different suspects were considered in the Unabomber case as well as when white powder began showing up at offices across the country?  How many white vans were stopped and drivers proned out in the street during the D.C. sniper rampage?  All tangents and distractions leading nowhere except away from the true story that eventually emerged.

Stories, once they get started, are difficult to correct when the facts come in.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is indeed a strange one.  A big plane like that should leave some telltale wreckage behind on the surface of the ocean.  There should be some indication of a crash, some way to discover evidence of just what happened.  But we should also prepare ourselves that evidence might never surface and the story of this flight and its doomed passengers may be composed of conjecture and best guesses.

We crave story, but we are also rational beings, and we need to think objectively and rationally, evaluating whatever evidence exists, and not lose ourselves to the bogeyman behind the door, lurking in the shadows of every cataclysm that occurs in our world.  I have always liked Occam’s Razor:  the thesis with the fewest assumptions is often the best, or in other words, the simplest explanation often is the correct one.  Flight MH370 has been missing four days; obviously, it has crashed, and much of the evidence, if not all of it, rests at the bottom of the ocean.  Given the lack of communication from the pilots regarding an in-flight emergency, the plane either experienced a very quick end, or whatever brought it down crippled communication from plane to ground.  Was it a bomb or something sinister?  That certainly must be considered.  But we must remember that stories are not always finished, and they can be revised and added to as more layers are uncovered.

Life contains mysteries, things we must take on faith, truths we validate only through our own experiences.  This is the way of our existence.  It is a product of our intellect, our ability to see into things and realize that nothing is ever as it appears.  All we can do is question everything, our governments, our leaders, community authorities, as well as our own prejudices and assumptions.  As I tell my students, the questions are far more important than the answers.  The questions will lead us home.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

SAT For Dummies

The College Board has their spin doctors on call and ready to tell us a story.  But the fairy tale makes them out to be the white knights coming to the aid of over-stressed, financially strapped students.  What a crock!

Beginning in 2016, the SAT will have only an optional writing prompt that will be graded separately from the main test.  This reverses changes made in 2005 when colleges, spearheaded by the University of California system, threatened to stop making the exam mandatory for incoming freshmen and in some cases, abolishing altogether any requirements to take the exam.  In a panic, the College Board revamped the SAT, adding a writing portion (and an additional 800 points) to go with the traditional verbal and math portions for a grand total of 2400 points possible.  With the latest changes, the exam will revert to the old 1600 perfect score.

Where the bull really starts flying is in the statements by the College Board publicity machine.  This new and improved SAT will align the exam with what students learn in high school and eliminate any advantage gained from hiring test prep tutors?!  First of all, students are not learning all that much in high school, so this is the equivalent of “dummying down” the test.  That is nothing new; even the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) is an impossible hurdle for many students, and that test is tied directly to what students supposedly learn in public high schools up and down the state.  But the second part of that statement is a doozy: we are to believe that the College Board is so intent on erasing the economic advantage students who can afford tutoring have over their poorer brethren that they are rewriting the test to help those less fortunate?  Yet, they are also announcing a new partnership with one of the biggest test prep tutoring firms around:  Khan Academy.  Yes, the College Board owns the SAT and will now also profit as part of one of the largest test prep companies.  They’ll collect on both ends—student exam fees and test preparation tuition.  What a sweet deal!

In addition to dropping the writing portion, they will modify the vocabulary questions to drop more obscure words for more commonly used vocabulary.  This is Orwellian doublespeak meaning they will dummy down the vocabulary section.  They will do the same for the math portion, moving away from the theoretical questions and emphasizing more real life problems.  I can imagine an example:  if a well-known testing company sees an opportunity to boost their revenue by partnering with a test preparation company, how much profit will they make every year?  In addition, if they make the test easier both to take and to score, will that increase profits even more?  It does not take a genius to see that they will own the test and cash in on the test preparation industry, an industry they have maligned for years saying such tutoring does not help students do better on the test, even though independent research indicated the opposite.

Of course, the SAT must remain competitive against the growing influence of another college entrance test, the ACT.  Many colleges now accept ACT scores along with, or even in place of, SAT scores.  The ACT has an optional writing section, and its scoring system will now be closely copied by the College Board for the new and improved SAT.

One more way the College Board is “looking out” for students:  the revised SAT will now be tied closely to the new Common Core Standards espoused as the savior for our failing schools and their unfortunate graduates.  Less imaginative literature in favor of more informational texts like business memos, reports, and workplace writing.  Common Core is like the “new math” curriculum in the 1960s and 70s, or whole language in the 1980s and 90s.  Like those abandoned “revolutions” in education, will Common Core still be around in five years?  Undoubtedly, the SAT will, because the folks at College Board are experts at reading trends and milking the most financial gain out of hapless students caught in the switches.

Here is what should happen:  abolish all admissions testing for college.  Already, admissions committees are looking at grade point averages, teacher recommendations, extra-curricular activities, and even the course selections of incoming students.  At best, the SAT was simply one piece of evidence in a holistic admissions profile.  It is not, nor has it ever been, a good indicator of how students will do in college.  That is best indicated by how well they did in high school, how challenging the curriculum, how they adapted and flourished within the system.

The only thing the new SAT will do is make its owner, the College Board richer.  Anyone with critical thinking skills and an analytical mind can see that.  I wonder if the new SAT will do any better at determining if students have those skills?  Probably not, because that is not the goal of the College Board.  For them, it’s all about profit.