Monday, October 27, 2008

Witch Hunt

Pioneers in the Settlement of AmericaImage via WikipediaOur recent discussions about the Salem witch hunt and the broader notion of Communist witch hunts in The Crucible has put me in mind of the recent charges that Senator Obama has been "pal-ing around with terrorists." This allegation is a thinly veiled attempt to link Obama to the Weather Underground, a radical group from the 1960’s, through the person of William Ayers.

The McCarthy comparison seems apt here since the media used the mere suggestion of an alliance between Mr. Ayers and Senator Obama in one context to imply one in another: That Senator Obama was willing to sit on the same charitable board with Mr. Ayers somehow showed he was in agreement with Mr. Ayers’ politics of 40 years ago. The media felt no need to consider the tenuousness of the connection they hoped to establish.

The alliance between Ayers and Obama is slight and New York Times reporters concede that “since 2002 there is little public evidence of their relationship.” But the fact they ever spoke at all is being used to imply Obama's nefarious intentions. Remember, Obama has already told us he’s willing to talk to any world leader. Imagine the ilk of his speed dial list – Hugo Chavez, Kim-Jong Il …Raul Castro, perhaps? The logic would be hilarious if the stakes weren’t so high. And, in this case, the matter is personal for me.
I know Bill Ayers. I know him to be an extra-ordinary teacher, a generous mentor, and a deeply principled human being who has worked tirelessly in the pursuit of social justice. The Bill Ayers I know is a far cry from the cartoon the media are currently drawing of him.

For political purposes, or perhaps to sell papers, human beings are rarely seen as three dimensional – complicated and sometimes contradictory.
It’s hard to get a clear picture of who people are beyond the stereotype shorthand. 
This is literally true of Ayers, whose name is often accompanied by decades-old mug shots and provocative quotes presented without context. This, perhaps, most of all recalls the McCarthy Era “Us vs. Them” mentality. It’s all black and white with no room for nuance in the pursuit of complicated truths. And as Oscar Wilde reminded us, “The simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.” 

How would your understanding of Ayers be different if you only only saw one of the above pictures?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Our America

On Friday, remember to go straight to the EPI-Center for a special talk by LeAlan Jones. Here is a short bio:

Mr. Jones is a freelance writer and journalist in Chicago. He began his career in journalism in 1993 at the age of 13 when he collaborated with his friend Lloyd Newman and radio producer David Isay to create Ghetto Life 101. This award-winning radio diary about growing up on Chicago’s South Side aired on National Public Radio. Jones and Newman spent ten days collecting stories on tape about their day-to-day lives; the stories ranged from throwing rocks at cars to a harrowing encounter with Newman’s alcoholic father.

Two years later Jones and Newman produced another radio diary called Remorse, which examined the horrifying murder of Eric Morse, a five-year-old living in the Ida B. Wells housing project in Chicago. Again, Jones collected interviews from members of the community to produce this Peabody Award winning radio documentary.

In 1996 Jones, Newman, and Isay together wrote the book Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago, which was based on the previous radio programs. Today Jones works as a freelance writer for N’Digo, a weekly paper in Chicago.

Jones’s mission is stated in Our America:

"We live in a second America where the laws of the land don't apply and the laws of the street do. You must learn our America as we must learn your America, so that maybe, someday, we can become one."

Here are some questions you might think about in advance of LeAlan's visit:

  • What stories would you collect that best represent your neighborhood?
  • What are some advantages in using radio to communicate ideas as opposed to visual arts?
  • Who gets to tell the story of your life, our lives? Whose voices do not get heard?
  • What might Jones mean when he says, “We live in a second America ...”?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Should Teachers Reveal Their Biases?

After Ellery's wonderful post on teacher bias, I noticed this related article from the Chronicle of Higher Education which references a recently published book, Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities, written by three faculty members from George Mason University. Remember, our class discussion focused on whether teachers should ever reveal who they are voting for, etc. Would that action have an inappropriate effect on their students?

The book's authors state that based on their recent (2007) study, the majority of professors "say they keep their own politics out of the classroom". In fact, only a minority of college faculty (28%) admit that they openly reveal their political bias to their students.

But even if the above statistics are true, does it even matter if teachers conceal their political leanings? Another study, conducted by two professors from Pennsylvania State University may have the answer. In their research-based article, "I Think My Professor Is a Democrat", they published two related findings, based on student surveys:
  1. College students agree that most professors do not reveal their political bias (thus corroborating the findings from the book mentioned at the beginning)
  2. But 75% of students were able to guess correctly their professor's political leanings, anyway.
Finally, the biggest question looming behind this discussion: if the great majority of college professors call themselves liberal, does this influence their students to become more left-leaning as well? The same researchers conducted another study which found that students started shifting slightly to the left under both Republican- and Democrat-voting professors -- not just under liberal-leaning teachers.

What do these studies mean for our class discussion? What could be responsible for the shift toward Democrats? Is there a difference between college-level classrooms and high school with regard to these findings?

Monday, October 13, 2008

There is no "I" in "Intellectual";
There are Four.

PRINCETON, NJ - OCTOBER 13:  Princeton Profess...Image by Getty Images via DaylifeThere is an anti-intellectual streak in the United States. It is not new, but it is perhaps most visible during election season. Barack Obama has been called an elitist for having attended Ivy league schools. So, he uses code language, saying he was lucky enough to live the American promise and go to the "best schools." Anything but the "H-word": Harvard.

Portrayal Of Obama As Elitist Hailed As Step Forward For African Americans

George Bush, Al Gore and John Kerry all have Ivy League degrees and all have tried to downplay their connection to these schools because they are afraid of being tarred with the reputation of elitist. The further implication is that well-educated people are utterly disconnected from the "real world" (whatever that is) and that the academic elite should be quarantined inside their ivory towers! Sarah Palin (who attended 5 colleges, culminating in a degree from the University of Idaho) proudly compared herself to Harry Truman, the last president without a college degree.

What's going on here -- especially from candidates who argue for a meritocracy (rule by the best qualified) on issues related to affirmative action?

That's why I was so excited to hear that Paul Krugman won the Nobel Prize in Economics yesterday. It was a sort of Revenge of the Nerds. Krugman is not only a widely admired Princeton scholar, he is also a columnist for the New York Times. In other words, he is a public intellectual. He is not only a world-class thinker, but also a man of enormous common sense. As a small example, click on the title of this post. Krugman is blunt here as always -- and check the date of his piece. He warned of a housing collapse long before it happened.

Do you agree in the existence of what historian Richard Hofstadter has termed the Anti-Intellectualism in American Life? Extra credit if you can explain what the title of this post means!

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Fires in the Mirror WORDLE

"The word, the word above all, is truly magical, not only by its meaning, but by its artful manipulation" (xxiii).

Think of our discussion of author diction and bias in the "Secret Messages" activity/discussion. As we begin reading and viewing Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman play, Fires in the Mirror, we asked ourselves to pay close attention to individual words and their connotations. For a visual representation of the words chosen by our class members here is a "Wordle" (word cloud) of the first fifteen pages of the play.

By the way, here is a link to the NY Times "word clouds" we viewed in class before we generated our own. Remember that these represent the actual words used in the two party conventions.
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