Monday, December 13, 2010

Freedom for the Thought We Hate

This past weekend, a private memorial service was held to honor Elizabeth Edwards, who died of breast cancer. Yet not every voice in the vicinity of the service was respectful. A handful of protesters, according to the Huffington Post , who are followers of Rev. Fred Phelps, head of the Westboro Baptist Church, shouted slogans against Ms. Edwards and held up signs suggesting that God once killed her 16 year old son as punishment for her political views and that her own death was divinely inspired.

This is not the first time Phelps and his group have protested at a funeral. In fact, they have protested at a few hundred funerals over the past 10 years. Their most famous protest is now an important case before the current Supreme Court, Snyder v. Phelps. The Court must decide if there should be any limits on free speech—even vile and offensive speech such as the words of Phelps and his followers.  (Here is a link to the story from National Public Radio). 

In brief, the case centers on Phelps's legal protest of Cpl. Mathew Snyder, who died in Iraq. When his family gathered to pay their last respects, they were confronted with picketers who showed up holding signs that read "God Hates Fags" and "You're Going to Hell." (They do not suggest that Snyder was gay. Instead, they hope to call attention to their larger message that the war is a reflection of God's judgment). The protesters did not crash the church, and in fact stayed within the grounds specified by local authorities—as they have at every other protest.

A lower court awarded a $5 million judgment against the picketers, but a federal appeals court invalidated that judgment against the picketers, concluding that even outrageous opinion is protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. They further ordered Snyder to pay Phelps's legal fees. Phelps sees his message as guaranteed by the First Amendment and insists that his views are an expression of his religious beliefs—that "boys are coming home in body bags. That's the punishment of God almighty upon this nation." Here is a short recording of the case as it played out in front of the Supreme Court. Click on the link below to listen without leaving the page:

Listen to Snyder v. Phelps

Should there be limits on free speech—or should the court preserve free speech even for the thought it hates? 

UPDATE: "Justices Rule for Protesters at Military Funerals"

Friday, December 10, 2010

How Many Light Bulbs Does It Take to Screw Up a School?

Diane Ravitch -- the one-time champion of standardized testing -- now believes that "at the present time public education is in peril."  Schools, she insists, must be infused with "the substance of genuine learning" (i.e., learning for its own sake and NOT for the sake of a one- size-fits-all standardized test).  She calls for schools that "raise questions...explore controversies and encourage the use of primary source documents."  How well does New Trier do this? What adults in your life exhibit the sort of life skills and intellectual habits and emotional gifts that you would like to possess? Where were such qualities learned?

Or you might look at this another way. At last month's Institute Day, our keynote speaker Ron Ritchhart asked teachers, What do you hope your students will become as adults?  Underlying this question is the perhaps more basic question of why we are in school in the first place. Aside from, say, state law compelling you to be in school (!), what do you hope to get out of your high school education?  What impact beyond college admission do you hope your schooling will have on your future? What are the personal and intellectual characteristics (dispositions, Ritchhart would call them) that you most hope to possess? Where do you imagine you will you learn these dispositions? 

Look beyond some basic "content knowledge" (You might, for example, want to know how to calculate a tip at a restaurant or remember that a preposition is something you do NOT want to end a sentence with!). But what else can/should schools provide? To what extent should schools concern themselves with challenging your beliefs? Fostering independence? Problem solving? Practicing creativity? Teaching democratic values?  Learning to understand our emotional life?

These are huge topics, I realize. It might help for you to talk to parents and friends about these issues. Do they share your hopes for your education in school? In fact, you might also invite your parents to contribute their thoughts in addition to your own.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Perilous Leaks?

Daniel Ellsburg, the whistleblower behind the Pentagon Papers, recently remarked:
I'm sure there are many people in the Pentagon and CIA and the White House who are in my shoes right now. My advice to them is, don't do what I did. Don't reveal it six years from now. Don't wait ‘til the escalation has occurred.
Instead, they should do what I wish I had done in 1965, and that is tell the public what I believed right then, that my president was making a terrible mistake and that Congress should hold hearings, Congress should demand the truth and Congress should set him straight — WNYC's On the Media interview, 9/18/2009

This past week, after watching some exceptional presentations on the history of civil liberties during wartime, I listened to KCRW's political talk show, "Left, Right and Center", and the connections to our coursework were stunning, including the assassination of Diem, the Pentagon Papers, the Espionage Act of 1917, and more. Please listen to this short excerpt as you respond to the question below:

DEBATE: Robert Scheer, Tony Blankley, Matt Miller, Arianna Huffington

During these perilous times, when Washington Times writer Jeffrey Kuhner recently argued that Wikileaks founder "poses a clear and present danger to American national security", what, if anything, should be done about Julian Assange, and/or his powerful, yet constantly moving website?

Kuhner's answer, quite simply, is, "Kill him". Your own answer might help you frame your Perilous Times essay, as you decide on the extent of our rights during wartime.

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. — Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Truth About Thanksgiving?

As we prepare to take a well-deserved break from school so that we may spend time with family and stuff ourselves with copious amounts of turkey, cranberries, and mashed potatoes, it may be instructive to consider what we really know about the origins of our Thanksgiving holiday celebration.

According to James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, the Pilgrims did not start the Thanksgiving tradition; instead, east coast Indians had celebrated autumnal harvests for hundreds of years. In fact, our modern celebration only dates back to President Lincoln's 1863 proclamation of a national Thanksgiving holiday (during the perilous times of the Civil War), when the Union badly needed a boost of patriotism. The Pilgrims of New England were not even incorporated into the tradition for another 30 years.

There are literally only two brief primary sources that deal with what happened in the Fall of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The most familiar might be Edward Winslow's Mourt's Relation (modernized spelling below) in which he stated:

our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

What from the traditional holiday celebration is mentioned and what is left out? Furthermore. the above-mentioned event lacks historical context. For example, why exactly were the Indians so willing to sit down with these "invaders"? Toward answering that question, some historians have argued that our yearly celebrations whitewash the permanent colonization of America that might have been impossible without the devastating (but unintentional) plagues that preceded the Pilgrim arrival. This (understated) onslaught of disease might have been the most important single occurrence in the history of America.

Friday, October 15, 2010


Today in class we read Robert Pinsky's poem Shirt. (Wait for the play button to appear): Listen to Pinsky himself read the poem. Feel free to read the poem again several times on your own. It's surprisingly dense and makes some stunning imaginative leaps.

Remember:  your extra credit assignment is to:
  1. choose an article of clothing you were wearing today;
  2. determine the country of origin where the clothing was manufactured;
  3. investigate the working conditions in that area (feel free to use the web here, but also consult our expert librarians.  you might also consider interviewing people from the region or people who are familiar with the civil or labor situations in that country) — yes, even if the U.S.!
  4. determine U.S. trade agreements/restrictions with that country;
  5. relate your findings to the poem and to Frederick Douglass;
  6. write your investigative and imaginative findings in an original poem of your own, a dialogue, a short or an online multimedia creation — 2 page max — essay (on, say, the question of whether one can be free without being economically free), or by choosing some other genre to convey what you've learned.  You might take a tip from Pinsky and invent a character in order to relate part or all of what you have to say.

Of course it's complicated.  That's why it's called Extra Credit.  Remember this outside project is due Monday (though we will give you extra time if you have a plan for an idea you'd like to pursue by then). NOTE: Pinsky's poem appears below.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bumper Stickers Don't Adhere to Free Speech?

According to the New York Times, The Supreme Court today let stand the decision of an appeals court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by two plaintiffs who claimed their 1st Amendment rights were denied in 2005.  The duo was evicted from a public speech President Bush gave on the subject of Social Security at a Denver art museum because they drove to the speech in a car adorned with a bumper sticker that read "No More Blood for Oil."  The pair did not make any attempt to disrupt the president's speech or to protest his talk.

The court did not give a reason for its refusal to hear the case, but two justices (Ginsburg and Sotomayor) dissented saying that "no reasonable person" could see a bumper sticker as a reason for ejection to a public event.   The lower court's decision was settled 2-1 by a three member panel.  The dissenting judge, William Holloway said, “It is simply astounding that any member of the executive branch could have believed that our Constitution justified this egregious violation of plaintiffs’ rights.”  Clearly his colleagues disagreed.

How do you view the ejection of these two people?   Were they denied their right to free speech?  Or do you agree with the Appeals court in upholding the ejection, perhaps on the grounds that the president was fighting two wars at the time, and that some people clearly found the language of the bumper sticker offensive?   Where should this line be drawn?  Who should decide? 

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Cleaning House

We've been talking about denotation and connotation in class -- what words mean literally and what they imply.  Some words, like "killer" might immediately carry obvious connotations (namely, a violent, immoral person).  But words are often context-specific, and if a jazz critic said that Louis Armstrong was a killer trumpet player, she would certainly not be questioning the musician's morals, but rather would be talking about the skill and passion evinced by his playing.  In thinking about the evolution of words, I suggested we might consult a dictionary.  A good dictionary.

Here is the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of the word "killer."  Note how the first definition -- the primary meaning of the word -- is that of a violent person, a "butcher and a slayer."  But a later definition, 7B, relates to skill, particularly musical skill.  Note that this connotation of the word was first used in 1979.   

Yesterday in class some people seemed to feel that the the phrases "neighborhood women" and housewives" were pejorative, demeaning to the people they defined.  The first phrase is just plain hard to read as anything other than a group of women from a certain location.  Instead, the authors instead seem to be highlighting the extra-ordinariness of these women who are earlier -- in the same sentence -- described as a part of a grassroots movement, a term used to describe "rank and file members of the electorate."  In this case average citizens are taking on the mayor.  The word "housewife," however, might possibly seen as a more connotatively charged word -- but certainly not at the time of the events being described in American Pharaoh.

To think of "housewife" (note how the OED definition now says "usually married"; the primary meaning of the word has changed with the time) as carrying negative connotations seems rash to me even today.  Many people see the term as value-neutral.  If I were writing on the contemporary use of the word without other contextual cues,  the most I'd risk is to say that the term might be seen as dismissive to some people.  But, in 1959, the year Florence Scala's movement emerged, the word did not carry general disapproval.

In fact, four years later, Betty Friedan, an important feminist and social commentator wrote a landmark book called The Feminine Mystique that helped usher in a new way of thinking about gender roles and social relationships. (Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Anna Quindlen said Friedan's book "changed the world so comprehensively that it's hard to remember how much change was called for").

Friedan says, speaking of "the educated housewife" that "many young women -- certainly not all... feel stifled in their homes...find[ing] their routine lives out of joint with their training" (22).  She quotes a male journalist in a widely read magazine (Harper's Bazaar) in 1960 who "joked"  that the problem could be solved by taking away women's right to vote!  Further "a number of educators suggested seriously that women no longer be admitted to the four-year colleges and universities". 

Friedan finds the problem exacerbated in the suburbs.  How much so?  Check out this quote:  "The suburban house is not a German concentration camp, nor are American women on their way to the gas chamber, but they are in a trap "(309).  She suggests that "if education has made more and more American women feel trapped, frustrated, guilty as houewives, surely this should be seen as a clear signal that women have outgrown the housewife role" (308). (Italics, hers). 

But, this landmark analysis of the "ghetto-ization of women" did not exist at the time of Scala's struggle.  As historians, Cohen and Taylor could not have used a phrase like "stay-at-home-mom" as was suggested yesterday because the term did not yet exist.  It would have been anachronistic -- out of its time period.

Florence Scala, the Italian-American housewife, would have been applauded by Friedan.  Rather that accept the backseat role her society offered her as a housewife, she used her education and her intelligence to take on the most powerful political machine in the country.  She didn't win the immediate battle blocking UIC, but she helped inspire a new generation of women who could define themselves rather than accept the narrow definitions of their society.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Education Nation: A Race Relationship?

First of all, I would like to thank both Mr. Bolos and Mr. O'Connor for this opportunity. I'd just like to say that these guys taught me to look at the media and other mediums of information much more closely and in doing so led me to become a much better critical thinker. You juniors should soak up every word in this class and use it to your advantage! But enough brown nosing already, let's get to the meat of this post: America's education system.

In Matt Lauer's interview with President Barack Obama on Monday morning, viewers were greeted with some startling statistics: 1/3 of all high school students fail to graduate, a second 1/3 are not ready for college when they do graduate high school and only 35% of those seniors are as Lauer put it, "proficient in reading."

Perhaps these statistics don't mean anything to you because you go to New Trier, where something like 98% of you guys will be graduating next year. Well, you could choose to look at it that way, or you could try to understand why New Trier doesn't fall under those statistics. I understand that you all are studying slavery and race in America currently, so why not try to find a connection here?

Brown Vs. Board of Education of Topeka was settled in favor of integrating schools back in 1954. This was a flash point for the American Civil Rights Movement. But still today, blacks are scoring lower on standardized tests than whites are. How could this be if schools are no longer allowed to segregate? A study done by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that:
"In statistical models that include both school and neighborhood segregation, the effects of relative exposure of black and Hispanic students to their white schoolmates are uniformly small and statistically insignificant… the neighborhood composition matters more than school composition."
So, if this is the case, why? Why does community composition matter more than school composition? What are the possible connections you can make between these statistics and the communities we live in? And other communities as well? These are all questions you should be asking yourself when presented with such information.

Below is Obama's interview and his insight into the education crisis in America:

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fahrenheit 450: The Temperature at which Books Get Very, Very, Very Hot

"Rev." Terry Jones received enormous media coverage the past two weeks for his aborted plan to burn thousands of copies of copies of The Koran, the central holy book of Islam. Will he? Won't he? The media hyped the tension to the level of the Cuban missile crisis — or maybe an episode of 24 would be a more apt comparison.

Jones planned the book burning on the anniversary of 9/11 to oppose the construction of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan and to honor the victims of that tragedy — and can you think of a better way to honor those victims than by inflaming international hatred of the U.S., particularly in Muslim-ruled regions where we still have hundreds of thousands of troops?

What bothers me most is not Jones' stunt; rather, it is the outsize coverage the non-event received. Jones is a fringe leader of a tiny church in Florida that only counts 50 families among its members. Yet the media devoured this event because of its apparently insatiable appetite for polarizing issues — easy oppositions such as liberal/conservative, right/left, military aggression/abject capitulation.

The news coverage reminded me of a book by The Atlantic Monthly's national correspondent, James Fallows (who visited New Trier last year). In Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, Fallows argues that the media corrupts political discussions by deliberately polarizing and thereby cheapening political discussions. Seeing the world in black and white terms sells ad space on TV and in newspapers, but it doesn't allow room for alternate opinion or nuanced readings of complicated events.

The spectacle of this pseudo-event was a media bonanza because it allowed for outlandish lead-up coverage and substantial reaction to Jones' decision not to burn the books. And worse: the coverage featured most of the same talking heads whose views have long since calcified in those same mindless oppositions. And so it goes.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Continuing the Conversation

Perhaps the text from this screenshot is difficult to make out. However, that's not really the point. What's remarkable about this blog excerpt is that it was created last month by one of our students from last year, who is currently a senior. What's even more striking about it is that the person commenting on the post is one of our students from a previous year, who didn't share a classroom with the author, and is currently a college student, a freshman at Iowa State!

Hopefully this will serve as an example of what Mr. O'Connor expressed during the first week of school: we as your teachers want to become "useless" in the best possible sense. Long after you leave our class, we hope you will be "continuing the conversation."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

"The Ground Zero Burlington Coat Factory"

"Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. There's no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center."
-- presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich

Welcome to the new year of An American Studies. In our course, one of the most important skills we emphasize is media literacy, because it is the contemporary version of the textual literacy teachers have emphasized in the decades before the web and other platforms of information conveyance emerged. All of these media (including video, music, etc.) will be referred to as "texts".

Therefore, how are we supposed to read a text like the commonly seen headline, "Ground Zero Mosque"?

Consider this guide from the Center for Media Literacy:
  1. All media messages are constructed.
  2. Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.
  3. Different people experience the same media message differently.
  4. Media have embedded values and points of view.
  5. Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power.
Can you now answer the questions below?
  1. Who created this message?
  2. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  3. How might different people understand this message differently?
  4. What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?
  5. Why is this message being sent?
Lastly, ask yourselves why this post is entitled, "The Ground Zero Burlington Coat Factory". Listen below for more information and please leave a response.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Hey blog readers, here's a link (click below) to a new blog I'm working on. The site will help me — and you! — keep track of what I'm reading and writing — Doc OC

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My Old Kentucky Home

Bobbie Ann Mason, a wonderful short story writer from Kentucky, is probably the most famous literary personality in her state. (If you're looking for a great summer read, try In Country, a beautiful novel about a 17 year old girl trying to understand her father who fought in the Vietnam War). Because of her celebrity, she was asked to write a series of pieces in the New York Times on the current state of Kentucky. Read her short opinion piece -- by clicking on the highlighted links -- and see if you find any connections with the play we're reading, with other current issues in the news, or with anything we've studied this year.

Monday, May 24, 2010

TV Tokenism: A Follow-up

Last week, Mr. B presented a provocative look at tv tokenism: a practice whereby under-represented groups (women and people of color) remain largely absent from network dramas.

A quick recap: When the under-represented actors do appear, they are often marginalized (literally in advertisement photos we examined), receiving much less screen time and narrower, two dimensional characters to portray. In an attempt to placate opposition — such as the NAACP opposition we examined — network dramas often reserve apparent positions of power to under-represented actors (judges on Law and Order, police chiefs on every police show you can think of) all the while minimizing the screen time and complextity of these characters. If anything, these characters are mere obstacles for the white male leads to hurdle. At the end of class, we wondered whether the tokenism we observed in tv dramas mirrors such marginalization in our society. That's why the following story about minority contracts in Chicago caught my eye:

$1 billion in contracts that were supposed to include projects of firms led by minority and women were circumvented so that they appeared to comply with federal guidelines even as they perpetuated the practice of "whites only" contracting.

Consider Republican National Chairman, Michael Steele, who is African-American. He is the party's first minority leader. Yet many see many see him as a figure-head, a cynical attempt to attract votes from people of color (since roughly 5 out of every 6 black voters are Democrats) without any real clout of his own.

At my old school, which was on the South side of Chicago, there was only one African American teacher on a faculty that was over 100 people strong. There were three people of color in the entire faculty. Women fair better in education circles — slightly more than half the faculty were women. How does New Trier do by this measure? Do you think television networks, city government projects and public schools have an obligation to represent the American society in which they reside?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

American Studies Day

See James Fallows, editor of The Atlantic Monthly speak at the Cornog Auditorium at 6 pm as a preview to New Trier's 2nd Annual American Studies Day. The Cornog is located at 7 Happ Road, Northfield, IL 60093.

This year's theme is "Media & Democracy", based on Fallows' book, Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy.

We have an exciting line-up with many opportunities for participation. Our keynote speaker will be Maria Finitzo, an award-winning filmmaker producing and directing documentary films for network television, public broadcasting, cable TV and the Internet. We are also privileged to feature two outstanding slam poets, Kevin Coval and Idris Goodwin, performing at around 1:00 pm at the Northfield campus. Finally, we will feature student- and teacher-led panels, presentations, and discussions. Please stick to your individually-assigned schedule for the day because some of the sessions are very tightly packed.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Data-Driven Determination

After listening to this NPR report on possible SCOTUS (Supreme Court) nominee Elena Kagan (click to listen below), it reminded me of two connections to our class.

"Should Kagan's Lack Of Judicial Experience Matter?"
  1. Our brief discussion on Kagan focused on her qualifications to be a Supreme Court Justice. There was a question as to what exactly those qualifications are. Here's what the Constitution says:

    "[The President]...shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme [sic] Court" (Article II).

    This is something most of us already know — it's the President's choice, as long as the Senate approves. But what about specific qualifications? Here's all I could find:

    "The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office" (Article III).

    "good Behaviour"? It's fascinating that there isn't even a qualification that the nominee had been a judge. Furthermore, only a single justice from the landmark Brown v. Board decision had served previously as a judge.

  2. One of the main reasons recent SCOTUS nominees previously have been lower court judges is that "by looking at a lower court record, a president, or a senator for that matter, can get a reasonably good idea of what a nominee's views are." I connected this notion to the near-obsession that some of our students have with their own "record" (grades, activities, etc.) accumulated in school.
    Are we in danger of becoming a purely "data-driven" society? Think of our previous discussion of how in the future sensors will be embedded in books and shoes to measure everything. Then read this post about overcoming data with the power of stories. Does your own "record" function as a decent measure of how you want people to see you?

    Tuesday, April 13, 2010

    The Business of Education

    On Monday we talked about extrinsic incentives in schools and the idea of monetizing "success" in school. Here's a piece I wrote for the NPR affiliate WBEZ a couple years ago. (I used to be an education contributor to the program — and still am, perhaps!) Hopefully the audio and a written copy of the essay will appear on the screen.

    Click to listen to John S. O'Connor's, "Bringing Business to the Classroom".

    Have you witnessed such programs — within your family, your friends' families, other schools you've heard about?

    NOTE: Here are links to the two videos mentioned in class: Dan Pink's "The Surprising Science of Motivation" and Jesse Schell's DICE talk on games, "Design Outside the Box".

    Sunday, April 11, 2010

    National Poetry Month -- Arab Style

    April is not the cruelest month, it's the coolest month, so...Welcome to National Poetry Month! For a full 30 days (was it an accident that The Powers That Be chose a short month for poetry?), we celebrate poets. But we Americans are not the only ones who celebrate poetry. In fact, in other parts of the world, poetry is celebrated even when it's not April.

    Consider the brave poetry written by Hissa Hilal, a 43 year old Saudi woman pictured above. Hilal was a finalist on the most popular TV show in the Arab world, a reality show called "The Million's Poet." The show is so popular, 70 million viewers tuned in for the finals.

    Before I consider Hilal's extra-ordinary courage, let's take a minute to think about 70 million viewers watching a Poetry competition. (To give a rough point of comparison 48 million viewers watched "at least part of" the national championship game pitting Butler University against their opponent). Look: I like the Justin Bieber as much as the next guy (i.e., not at all), but putting aside questions of taste these staggeringly different viewership numbers alone suggest a profound cultural difference in the way language is valued in our two cultures, don't they?

    Back to Hilal: Despite being the first woman finalist ever, and hailing from a religiously conservative country, she used her poems to lash out against extremism, radical clerics, and terrorism. She received death threats against her own life and those of her four children. Yet, she refused to back down.

    According to the Daily Guardian, this is a rough English translation of one of her poems:
    I have seen evil from the eyes of the subversive fatwas in a time when what is lawful is confused with what is not lawful;
    When I unveil the truth, a monster appears from his hiding place; barbaric in thinking and action, angry and blind; wearing death as a dress and covering it with a belt [referring to suicide bombing];
    He speaks from an official, powerful platform, terrorising people and preying on everyone seeking peace; the voice of courage ran away and the truth is cornered and silent, when self-interest prevented one from speaking the truth.

    Spoiler alert: Hilal finished third and took home $817,000. (So, don't enroll in business school just yet, kids. This month at least think seriously about poetry!).

    Sunday, March 14, 2010

    This Just In: Texas Rewrites U.S. History

    According to The New York Times, the Texas Board of Education voted last week to radically revise future U.S. History and Economics textbooks. While supporters see the revisions as "correcting a liberal bias" that has pervaded contemporary education, detractors see the changes as nothing short of a "re-write of history." What everyone agrees is that the changes spin major issues in U.S. History in a decidedly right-wing direction, putting a "conservative stamp" on issues ranging from the nation's founding to contemporary issues such as civil rights. Since Texas is one of the largest buyers of textbooks nationwide, the revisions can have a substantial ripple effect across the nation.

    Some of the most surprising changes are these:
    • The elimination of the word "capitalism" in favor of "free-enterprise system" because of the latter's more positive connotations.
    • A plank on the internment of Italians and Germans during the war (however small their comparative numbers) "to dispel the notion that the internment of Japanese-Americans was motivated by racism."
    • The elimination of Thomas Jefferson from a section on "thinkers who inspired 18th and 19th Century revolutions" -- in favor of St. Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin -- mostly because of Jefferson's phrase "separation of church and state," which members of the religious right have long opposed.
    • An amendment saying students should study “the unintended consequences” of the Great Society legislation, affirmative action and Title IX legislation.
    • Insistence that students study evidence confirming suspicion of communist infiltration into the U.S. in order to tamp down on criticism of the McCarthy Era excesses.
    • The insistence on adding information on the Black Panther party to "highlight violent civil rights leaders" in addition to the non-violent Dr. King.
    • The refusal to add any new biographical information on significant Latino contributions to U.S. History.
    Do any of these surprise you? What do you make of this latest reconstruction to the on-going battle of the narrative of U.S. History?

    Thursday, March 04, 2010

    Citizen Kane

    To contribute to the Citizen Kane VoiceThread, please click HERE.

    Citizen Kane: Viewing Questions
    1. What social classes can you see in the film? Name them and identify the markers of these classes and the characters who typify these classes.
    2. The film sort of follows our "Death of Mr. Bolos" activity from the beginning of the year. Name three sources of information the reporter, Jerry Thompson, uses to infer the character of Charles Foster Kane. Evaluate each—its advantages, its flaws.
    3. How effective is the organization of the movie—this elliptical, looping structure—versus a more straight-forward chronological narrative the director, Orson Welles could have employed?
    4. Identify five parallels or contrasts between this film and The Great Gatsby, and explain each briefly.
    5. Kane says, "If I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man." To what extent is this true? To what extent was Kane a great man?
    6. This film routinely tops lists of the greatest film of all time (AFI, Sight and Sound), and critics have regularly called it a singularly American movie. What makes the movie such an enduring emblem of America?

    Thursday, February 25, 2010

    What is your green light?

    From The Great Gatsby:
    [H]e stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward -- and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock (25-26; emphasis added).
    The New York Times recently featured an article entitled, "Gatsby’s Green Light Beckons a New Set of Strivers". As you think about what it is that you desire most, consider the responses of these urban and immigrant students in a Boston high school.

    Wednesday, February 24, 2010

    Does Every Voice Matter?

    Consider our class discussion today regarding the statement: "We live in a democracy where every voice matters." Then watch this video, based on a speech by Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig. Does every voice matter?

    Monday, February 15, 2010

    Race and Insanity?

    Civil Rights March on Washington, leaders marc...Image via Wikipedia
    Many of us are familiar with mental illness because these afflictions are so common they can strike our closest family members. Certainly, one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses is schizophrenia, which many mistakenly believe is "split personality" — it's not. Psychiatrist Jonathan Metzel, has written a provocative book that relates our recent discussions of race, discrimination, and perception to this particular mental illness.

    In an interview embedded below, he argues that before the 1960s, schizophrenia was "a disease of docility", predominately affecting white women. But during the Civil Rights Movement, all that changed, especially in the media, movies and prescription drug ads.

    But the key change was in the DSM-II, the handbook psychiatrists utilized to diagnose mental illnesses. Specifically, words like "hostility" and "aggression" were added to the definition of paranoid schizophrenia. And guess what? The actual diagnosis of schizophrenic African-American men climbed suddenly.

    Since then, those words have been taken out of the latest edition of the DSM, but research has shown that schizophrenia had been over-diagnosed in African-American men ever since.

    Think again about our class discussion on "invisible" factors and institutional racism. What conclusions can you draw now?

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    Tuesday, February 02, 2010

    Pete Seeger at 90

    In light of our Herstory project in class, consider the song "I'm Gonna to be an Engineer," sung by Pete Seeger, one of my personal heroes. The song appears in the "virtual i-pod" on the bottom right of the homepage or below on a groovy you tube clip from the 1970's. Listen carefully to the lyrics and see if you can relate them to any of the presentations you've heard in class.

    I first heard this song when my wife -- then my college girlfriend -- and I went on our first date to a Pete Seeger concert. But Pete's not just a folk music hero to me; he's also a man of tremendous principle. Like Howard Zinn, he has lived his convictions. He married a Japanese woman in the 1940's when our country was throwing thousands of Japanese-Americans in prison camps. He fought for civil rights, singing with the great African-American baritone, Paul Robeson, when it nearly cost him his life. He inspired many famous civil rights leaders, including Julian Bond, who credits Seeger for opposing Jim Crow laws before the Movement really got underway. Pete even wrote some of the lyrics to "We Shall Overcome." He fought for unions and common working men (and women since he also advocated equality among the sexes). He traveled the world and recording world music like no one had ever done before.

    For all this he was branded a Communist and banned from appearing on TV for 17 years just when he had reached the height of his popularity. When the ban was finally lifted he shocked everyone by singing an anti-Vietnam War song called "The Big Muddy." Since then he has sung to end apartheid in South Africa and almost single-handedly galvanized efforts to clean-up the Hudson River. He's 90 now and just last year was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of folk music.

    Friday, January 29, 2010

    What is your Columbian Orator?

    In case you missed the news or the staggeringly large banner on this blog, historian Howard Zinn recently died of a heart attack at the age of 87. I was surprised how emotionally affected I was by his passing -- I certainly didn't know him, but saw him speak on several occasions, most notably at Northwestern University, days before the Iraq War.

    I believe Zinn's death had such an impact on me because his writings and life were so formative in how I began to finally think for myself. Although we are all familiar with Zinn's seminal A People's History of the United States, the book I always reference is the lesser-known Declarations of Independence, which has been since renamed.

    This work always reminds me of a piece from Frederick Douglass' Narrative, in which he had secretly obtained a book, The Columbian Orator, while in the depths of despair about being a slave for life. He wrote: "Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book....[It] gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance"(23-24). That's what Declarations was for me: an affirmation of my deepest-held beliefs, and a model for expressing them openly. He subtitled his book, "Cross-examining American Ideology", and challenged every one of the assumptions listed below.

    ‘Be realistic; this is the way things are; there’s no point thinking about how things should be.’

    ‘People who teach or write or report the news should be objective; they should not try to advance their own opinions.’

    ‘There are unjust wars, but also just wars.’

    ‘If you work hard enough, you’ll make a good living. If you are poor, you only have yourself to blame.’

    ‘Freedom of speech is desirable, but not when it threatens national security.’

    ‘Racial equality is desirable, but we’ve gone far enough in that direction.’

    ‘Our Constitution is the greatest guarantee of liberty and justice.’

    ‘The United States must intervene from time to time in various parts of the world with military power...[to] promote democracy.’

    ‘If you want to get things changed, the only way is to go through the proper channels.’

    ‘There is much injustice in the world but there is nothing that ordinary people, without wealth or power, can do about it.’

    What/Who is your Columbian Orator?

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010

    Toying with the Truth?

    Read the following post by the brilliant documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who blogs for the New York Times:

    Here Morris posits that the exact same photograph of a Mickey Mouse doll on a rubble-strewn street changes if the caption beneath the image changes. What do you think of this experiment? Is he right that the image changes with the new frame? Some have questioned the "fairness" of photographing a child's toy in a piece about the war.

    How would you respond to this complaint? Does it depend on the caption, the purpose?

    Tuesday, January 26, 2010

    The N-Word

    Today in class we discussed a few examples of Huck Finn using the n-word. Many in the class defended Huck by pointing out his youth and by returning to an earlier instance of Jim, a runaway slave, using the same racist language.

    To me the word is closely connected to power. Within the context of a racist 19th C. America, Huck a young white boy enjoys more power than Jim, a full-grown man. The use of the n-word by either character is a reminder of the unequal status accorded people of different race.

    That the word was, sadly, commonplace does not mitigate the ugliness of the language. Rather than attack or defend Huck, though, we might turn our attention to the author. Mark Twain uses the n-word over 200 times in the novel. (Or should I say, his characters do!). Re-examine instances of racist language in the novel. Can Twain be said to use the word in order to comment on the hypocrisy of the time? On the characters he presents? Is part of the desire to defend Huck rooted in the kind of narrative we hope to find in the book rather than the narrative arc Twain intends?

    As you think about these issues, you might also want to check out this interesting piece on The N-word done by Minnesota Public Radio:

    Monday, January 25, 2010

    Myths of Rules and Incentives

    Now that we have viewed and discussed Barry Schwartz's TED Talk, think about how the mythology of rules and incentives applies to your own life. Schwartz mostly related his ideas to the financial crisis, but what about applying these to school rules and incentives?

    For example, I was at an educational technology conference in which many of the presenters argued for the integration of cell phones in the classroom. These educators strongly believe that the policy of banning cell phones in school is wrong-headed because it is based upon a "myth". According to proponents of this idea, the myth is that cell phones disrupt the learning process. Instead, they argue that cell phones in the classroom would actually enhance learning. I am undecided on this issue: what do you think?

    Here's a link to a Google Doc version of the talk, just in case the transcript below doesn't work for you.

    Saturday, January 16, 2010

    The Branding of Obama

    Desirée Rogers, President Obama's social secretary, once remarked to the Wall Street Journal: "We have the best brand on earth: the Obama brand....Our possibilities are endless."

    Perhaps not a surprising comment from an MBA and former marketing executive. Yet Naomi Klein, author of the seminal anti-corporate book, No Logo, wrote recently of the dangers of this type of branding, which was once only reserved for corporate advertising. Such political branding is nothing new; one saw it as well with the Bush administration. The former president "had used his ranch in Crawford, Texas, as a backdrop to perform his best impersonation of the Marlboro man, forever clearing brush, having cookouts and wearing cowboy boots." Corporate privatization plagued the Iraq War (branded The War on Terror), from Halliburton supply contracts to the introduction of Blackwater (now re-branded "Xe Services") mercenaries.

    But is Obama even worse?

    Klein argues that our current president "[favors] the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change every time." For example, while he announced the end of the aforementioned Iraq War, he followed that with an escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He stated his support for "green" energy initiatives, yet he continues to endorse so-called "clean coal" technology and refuses to tax factory emissions.

    [T]his unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from which he has borrowed so much (the pop-art posters from Che, his cadence from King, his "Yes We Can!" slogan from the migrant farmworkers – si se puede)....Obama, in sharp contrast not just to social movements but to transformative presidents such as FDR, follows the logic of marketing: create an appealing canvas on which all are invited to project their deepest desires but stay vague enough not to lose anyone...

    What do you believe? Is it too soon to judge? Or is the Obama presidency just a political version of "both Coke [the megabrand] and Honest Tea [the upstart]"?

    Tuesday, January 05, 2010

    Kid Stuff?

    Even a few chapters into Huck Finn, huge issues like race and class surface. Not exactly the stuff of kid's literature, or is it?

    Earlier in the year we looked at a Puritan primer that taught little Bible lessons while teaching the alphabet (A is for Adam). And, as we discussed in class today, I've been thinking about the secret messages I remember in books I read when I was quite young, and books I read to my children before they could read.

    Here, for example, is one of my favorite nursery rhymes:

    Baby, baby, naughty baby,
    Hush, you squalling thing, I say.
    Peace this moment, peace, or maybe
    Bonaparte will pass this way.

    Baby, baby, he's a giant,
    Tall and black as Rouen steeple,
    And he breakfasts, dines, rely on't,
    Every day on naughty people.

    Baby, baby, if he hears you,
    As he gallops past the house,
    Limb from limb at once he'll tear you,
    Just as pussy tears a mouse.

    And he'll beat you, beat you, beat you,
    And he'll beat you all to pap,
    And he'll eat you, eat you, eat you,
    Every morsel snap, snap, snap.

    Not exactly a ditty to sing at the ACLU! The message is not so secret: being good equals being quiet.

    The book Mrs. Piggle Wiggle also came to mind. She (and note her title suggests she's married) is a sort of Super parent who is called in to handle recalcitrant children. In "The Never-Want-To-Go-To--Schooler," she takes a boy who pretends to be sick by speaking as though he had a cold and gives him IGNORANCE TONIC (caps, hers). The medicine makes him unable to talk in his regular voice, so the neighborhood kids say things like "Gosh, what a dummy." He learns his lesson and -- within a day -- becomes not only polite but literate. The unmistakable message: Go to school or you'll be ignorant. This is a message we all might agree with, though the methods seems rather out-of-date now.

    Many books have been revised of late because the books convey values our society no longer holds. Sometimes these changes are hugely important.

    Take The Story of Little Black Sambo, a very popular and very racist picture book from the turn of the 20th century. The word "sambo" is a racial slur and the book and subsequent cartoons depicted the black title character in rather unflattering terms. Recently the book was recast as Sam and the Tigers: A Retelling of "Little Black Sambo", by Julius Lester and Jerry Pinckney, who set out to reinvent (reconstruct?) the story with beautiful and flattering illustrations and the witty change of the title character to Sam, who lives in Sam-Sam-Sa-mara, a land where everyone is named Sam.

    Other reinventions of different books have met with more resistance. Some, for example, find wolves in Grimm's Brothers stories too be too violent for our tamer, more domesticated world. Yet, others complain about these revisions. Think of the lines from Andrew Bird's Measuring Cups: "Just another children's story that's been declawed/When the tales of brothers, grim and gory have been outlawed." I recently learned that one of the most banned kids' books in the past 30 years has been In the Night Kitchen by the brilliant Maurice Sendak. Why was it banned? Because in one frame Mickey, a little baby, is naked. Full, frontal, infant nudity. Interestingly, according to Sendak, the United States is the only Western country to object to that scene.

    What secret messages can you find in books you read or that were read to you? What else were you learning to read when you were learning to read letters?