Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cut the Cord

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to the White House to attend the State Visit of the French President. Actually, it was a kind of contest the White House Instagram feed offered to all of its 260,000 followers. And I LOST. But you might ask, what business does a high school social studies teacher have with meeting President Fran├žois Hollande, anyhow?

Good point. But instead, please answer this question: what business does the chief lobbyist of Comcast, David Cohen, have with meeting the French President? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Comcast is about to buy Time-Warner cable? If this merger is approved, it would give Comcast, among many other advantages, "enormous power in negotiations with networks over licensing fees and in determining what shows reach consumers on mobile devices, laptops and television sets" as well as "flexibility to set the market rates" since it would be absorbing Time-Warner, its biggest cable competitor.

I wonder if the FCC and Department of Justice will approve the deal? Is there an emoticon for sarcasm?

L-R: Brian Roberts, President Obama, and Jim Kim
Consider the following:
Hmmm. A kind of "Media-Industrial Complex", no? I thought the USA was all about capitalism and competition: higher quality products/services and lower prices? Furthermore, this merger of Comcast and Time-Warner would literally shrink the number of voices in the media landscape and allow Comcast to control almost 40% of broadband internet market. Thoughts? How do we (or should we) "cut the cord" of influence between government and industry?

UPDATE: Here's a more eloquent critique featuring an interview with Harvard Professor Susan P. Crawford.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Against Docility

Last week in class we talked briefly about what gets valued in school. Or, at least, that's what I hoped to introduce. Remember: the way docility (which means passive) is rooted in the Latin word for "teachable"?

I was reminded of that topic again when I came across this Onion piece: The headline makes the point right away: "English Professor Suddenly Realizes Students Will Believe Literally Anything She Says."  (They really do. Trust me).

While the piece is funny, I think it also reveals a deeper truth. William Deresciewicz, a Yale writing professor, explores this topic in his compelling essay "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education." Here's a brief excerpt of his condemnation of "elite educations":
"Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there. 
Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time. Paradoxically, the situation may be better at second-tier schools and, in particular, again, at liberal arts colleges than at the most prestigious universities." (bold, mine).
It is out of our hope that you become intellectuals that Mr. B and I urge you to create your own philosophies on the issue of civil liberties and why it is paramount that you stake out your own positions on your blogs!

How does our school promote individual thinking, the questioning of authority? Where does it fall short? How might we do better?

Monday, February 10, 2014

History's Missing Pages

Watching the impossibly expensive Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Olympics on Friday, I was intrigued to see how the organizers of the event would present the entire span of Russian history (starting as far back as the 10th century, CE). After all, with a limited amount of time and space, the designers, much like textbook authors, would have to make choices about what to highlight, as well as what to include, and what to omit.

Opening Ceremony, Sochi Olympics
While the tsarist imperial period, starting with the accomplishments of Peter the Great, was impressively beautiful (see above), I was most interested in how the Russians would deal with the period after the Russian Revolutions of 1917. As USA Today put it in their recent headline,"5 things you will, and won't see in opening ceremony", I, too, wondered how the Russians would deal with the long and rather recent Soviet period (ending in 1991), which is widely viewed as a failure. For example, how would we "see" Josef Stalin, the towering figure who not only presided over the rushed industrialization and agricultural collectivization of the USSR during the 1930s (killing at least 20 million people), but also over the undeniable victory against Nazi Germany in the 1940s?

Soviet Cosmonaut Team, 1970s
We wouldn't "see" him at all, apparently. He would be erased from the historical record, of course. Now, this is not the first time the Russians or the Soviets "photoshopped" their own history: numerous examples abound. And a "De-Stalinization" started as early as the 1950s. But to eliminate someone so influential so completely seems an insurmountable task, as opposed to what was done to these relatively smaller historical figures featured in this doctored photo.

But I would argue that Russia is an easy target for Americans: we've been in a kind of war with them ever since the US government refused to recognize the Soviet Union in 1917. A more interesting challenge might be to identify people and periods in American history that have seemingly been whitewashed away from our collective memory. What would you choose to write in the blank pages of American history?