Watched the film, The Grey. Didn’t see it in the theaters because of the criticism it received for its demonizing of wolves. A small silver lining of your wolf-loving wife travelling is a few more degrees of movie freedom. It is a terrific movie. Yes, it demonizes wolves, but only so they may serve as a metaphor for fear, the male fear that despite all bluster and the cultivation of toughness, that life will leave you in the end beaten and alone, knowing that not only did you fail to become fearless, but that your response to fear stripped you finally of the human relationships that might have made you whole.
When Liam Neeson’s character looks through the wallets of the dead he pauses over the photos that connect the men to loved ones. The men in the plane crash were on their way to do the kind of hard work that only people with little or no reason or ability to stay connected to society undertake. Some were angry, others merely lost. In the eyes of the wolves they saw themselves reduced to prey, as meat, and they could feel the truth of it.
My wife is traveling – took her to the airport this morning – already the irrational fear is upon me. That I will never see her again; that the illness she is fighting is going to take her from me. My life has not been lost to fear, I am not unusually aware of the wolf at my door, but experience has shown me that the struggle to overcome fear is real and hard – and that it helps to have a good woman at your side.
I met Valerie in August of 1976. She was standing in the kitchen of an apartment that she was still sharing with an ex-boyfriend when I and the ex entered to discuss the apartment we were going to rent – the one he was moving into post breakup, the one I was moving into post college graduation, pre adult life. I saw her first from the side. As she turned her head to acknowledge me, her hair covered the right third of her face and in that first glance she looked mysterious, both bold and shy.
Many years later I understood that I must have had a similar look (including the shoulder length hair), a survivor of trauma, and that for the two of us, love at first sight meant, in part, the recognition of the possibility of safety and understanding.
It only took three months from that first encounter to when I left her ex boyfriend behind and we moved in together. She bowled, she played soccer, read Marx, sought justice, and was still waiting for her life to bring her into her power – we were a perfect fit. Except that she was a woman and I was man and despite how attractive and pleasurable that was, I didn’t yet know how to be a man who could be a good companion for a woman.
In those early years Valerie met conflict most often with silence. When she couldn’t cope, when things felt wrong, she became withdrawn. In time I learned that she was the canary in the mine, more sensitive to patterns of destructiveness in human relations than I. But in my 20s (yes, and in my 30s and 40s, and still a little in my 50s) I was more inclined to meet conflict head on, full rage, full fear, determined to win. But when she wouldn’t join the fight, when argument to exhaustion wasn’t going to be the solution, I started to discover that I could learn other methods of expressing fear and communicating love.
During one Boston winter when our political work was going nowhere and our circle was full of tension and mistrust she simply withdrew. Told me that she couldn’t do it anymore and that she needed a change; that it was making her crazy. Her expression and voice convinced me to sidestep my reflexive pep talk, and I held down the fear I have of the unexpected, the embarrassing, and we left town, went to Provincetown on Cape Cod where we found a place to stay and time off the clock. The fact that the waitress who watched us devour a bowl of mussels asked us if we were newlyweds merely provided gratifying, but unnecessary, confirmation that we had made the right decision. We both recall that weekend as one of our most romantic memories and an important lesson in putting our relationship first, of understanding that life has to meet your needs.
When we moved to western Massachusetts it was mutual. I went to graduate school, still searching for a way to keep my radical fire burning without having to do stuff that I didn’t like and wasn’t good at, and Valerie returned to school to pursue her passion for literature and to complete her undergraduate degree. Most importantly to her, we traded years of city life for the countryside. Those next five years were perhaps our most idyllic. Impoverished, living off student loans, teaching assistantships, odd jobs, and credit cards, we hiked, we talked, studied, got married, and had our daughter. We didn’t know it at the time, but the pace of our lives would never again be as slow or the days as easy to savor.
Lot’s of great stuff has happened: our son was born, we experienced an extended stretch of not having to worry about money, experienced the pleasure of challenging work, Valerie found her calling as a shaman, we had good times with friends and family, watched our children grow into adulthood. But we’ve also struggled with the sorts of things that no one escapes, hard painful things that sometimes make it difficult to imagine the future. My wife has continued to school me on the illusion of success and failure, and the truth of being present and connected.
As a man in this culture it is hard not to internalize the expectation that you need to be a breadwinner, that you need to be the protector, that you need to be the one who can tough it out. Sometimes it feels that the wolves are out hunting, and since you know you are not the star of an action-adventure film, that can feel a little scary. Take my advice: don’t work on oil rigs in the Arctic, don’t let your toughness keep you from being tender, remember that being eaten by the wolf (or the bear, or your next door neighbor) is not as bad as it seems, and find a woman who understands fear.
This year’s Academy Award nominees provided an unusual number of films with stories anchored in American history. Argo, Django Unchained, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty all tell stories whose interest turns, at least in part, on their interpretive claims. Not surprisingly, the Academy managed to crown the least offensive and most predictable of these films – Argo – the winner. Progressive critics have lambasted Argo for its whitewash of CIA activity in Iran and it is interesting that both Argo and ZDT are crafted to turn blowback into victory. But we don’t need to dwell on Argo, no honest person could possibly have seen that film and thought, here is the best picture of the year – except as a cynical, and astute, handicapping of the Oscars.
Zero Dark Thirty is the more powerful and controversial film. Despite the protestations of such disparate commentators as Andrew Sullivan and Michael Moore who have absolved ZDT of torture guilt, the film draws us into a maelstrom of patriotic emotion that turns the hunt for Osama into a pure retributive act symbolizing the strength of a nation wronged, but now avenged. Splitting hairs about whether or not torture is shown to provide actionable intelligence is beside the point, waterboarding and other tortures are just part of the program when a great nation is on the hunt for the enemy. That the film opens with the craven use of voices from 9/11, while avoiding all reference to American foreign policy toward the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia in particular, is a comparatively small point.
Don’t get me wrong, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty were both entertaining and engaging films, and ZDT was riveting. But the film that reminded us of the purpose of history most effectively was clearly Django. If the purpose of digital history is to help “people to experience. . . and follow an argument about an historical problem” then Django is a master course in digital history. Laid out in Tarantino’s graphic novel style so that we are not spared any of the biff, pow, bam, Django presents the case for both racial justice and retribution as straightforwardly as it can be done. The cathartic effect of the story on the audience was unvarnished, with the added benefit that the victory was well earned. If it did not provide the sweeping socio-economic context, it got racism exactly right. No global solution? I guess we will just have to take it one plantation at a time.
[Side note: the best two movies of the season were not historical treatments, but rather explorations of the world of children. If you haven’t seen Beasts of the Southern Wild or Moonrise Kingdom, they are both outstanding and their crafty innocence will cleanse the palate.]
So you think you are ready to teach your students 21st century research skills? Let’s see.
Do you understand Wikipedia? Do you use it and do you have a user account? Have you read the About page and the Wikipedia: Researching with Wikipedia page? Have you gotten over all vestiges of that feeling that it is evil to use Wikipedia? Can you share with your students what an amazing creation, living community, and example of the power of digital tools Wikipedia is, while retaining enough of your equilibrium to advise of its limitations? Have you watched the video of Peruvian kids? Bottom line: it is the 6th most visited site on the internet, it is a prime example of the wiki model and of the “cognitive surplus” that drives much of what is great about the internet, and it is the most comprehensive and most widely used encyclopedia ever created.
What about Twitter? Do you still think it is only useful for letting your friends know when you’ve gotten out of the shower? Are you using it as part of managing your personal learning network? Do you have lists and do you follow interesting people who are sharing insights and resources about the subjects you care most about? As always, Clay Shirky can help you figure it out. To understand how research has been turned on its head – and how twitter has become essential – watch Nolan Markham. Have you participated in #pblchat or #edchat or #engchat or any of the many #chats?
What about RSS feeds? Do you use Google Reader, Feedly, or some other feed reader? Can you turn people on to critical resources in your area of interest or expertise? Do you use Zite or Flipboard to turn your reader (and other social media) into a personalized magazine? Fundamentally, RSS is critical to the filtering skills we need to teach to the rising generation of digital researchers (or as Austin Kleon puts it, “forget research, just search”).
What about googling? Don’t forget Google’s own learning tools. But you still get a gazillion choices so you definitely need crap detection. How do we teach our students to evaluate web sites? Are we systematic in this way, or this? And don’t forget whois.net.
Where do you turn to stay current? How about Teen Learning 2.0? For insight into the research that is shaping our understanding of this digital learning process check out the DML Research Hub. To check your attitude try the future of learning manifesto.
Now you don’t need to know the difference between the internet and the world wide web to benefit from digital tools but your students might deepen their grasp if they can understand the internet as a physical reality. And www becomes more interesting when students are reminded that this barely 20 year old revolution is tracking their lifetimes, which is easy to do with Peer 1’s Map of the Internet. Of course, a little http, html, and url will help them understand the magic of hyperlinks.
If you really want to teach 21st century research skills read The Influencing Machine and help me figure out how to teach with it. Along with Shirky’s vision of democracy transformed, The Influencing Machine announces the arrival of point of view not as technologically induced splintering but rather as multivariate voices in cacophonous pursuit of democratic harmony.
As any fan knows, your favorite sport, your favorite team, is a time machine. Once embedded in your personal clock, fan time is a gear that rotates backward in synchronicity with those lesser memories that compose a life past. What reverie is sweeter than the contemplation of the youth-charged athletic competitions in which our avatars competed with a grace and skill that although we couldn’t match, we could feel in body and soul.
David Schoenfield at ESPN.com has just posted an excellent piece entitled, “All-time top 25 players under 25.” For those of us of a certain age it is an incredible kaleidoscope of baseball history through the lens of that most precious, and evanescent, athletic commodity, the phenom. Do I remember Sudden Sam McDowell? Could anyone who ever played Strat-o-matic baseball forget him? (Not to mention that he was also briefly a Yankee in the twilight of his career – Wow, the pleasure of writing that sports cliche!) And to see that he threw 273 innings at age 22! And Vida Blue throwing 312 innings of fastballs at age 21! Ah, the heady pre-Strasburgian days of my youth.
To read through a list that finds the common thread in Mantle, Dimaggio, Trout, Bench, Williams, Gooden and Rodriguez. . . well cue up that family album on your iPad – the slideshow that takes you from baby pictures to whatever current state of dilapidation you find yourself – and you will know the feelings of promise, joy and regret that are inevitable when one remembers the beginning of a journey.
Of Mickey Mantle, Schoenfield writes, “But then … then came one of the greatest seasons in major league history. Mantle hit .353 with 52 home runs and won the Triple Crown. He slugged .705 and had a 1.169 OPS. . . . he was so good in 1956 that even a 20-year-old Mantle — even a raw kid with big speed and huge power — couldn’t have been projected to have this kind of season.” So the future is uncertain, but even if you turn out to be more Mark Prior than Hank Aaron, hopefully the sweetness will outweigh the regret.
“Irreverence is the champion of liberty and it’s only sure defense.” – Mark Twain
Enlightenment “has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them. . . . a patient labor giving form to our impatience for liberty.” – Michel Foucault
Back in June NPR asked us what our American dream sounds like. What is the American dream if not the celebration of irreverence? To make space for the new – the immigrant, youth, the underclass – requires sharp elbows. The newcomer must be irreverent to throw off the dread of inadequacy, to penetrate the present requires irreverence toward the bearers of the past. To be bold in a stratified society, to be a rebel, is to be irreverent in the pursuit of enlightenment, to be impatient for liberty that stretches the limits of what the world says is possible.
My American dream is captured by Leonard Cohen’s, Hallelujah. Democracy and liberty manifest in the free pursuit of the biggest questions. Mixing the sacred and the profane – demanding that the human receive an audience with the eternal. And measuring our success not by the final product or some transitory definition of success, but by the integrity of the process, by the expression of freedom, by the imaginative scale of the venture.
Hallelujah is a favorite sing along song of my wife and I. Much of the joy is in mimicking Cohen’s phrasing on lines like “but if I did, well really what’s it to ya?” What could be more American than puncturing the pretense of those who would judge us in our personal struggle for meaning. I don’t know about you, but I often need someone to put a little grit in my romantic gravy, and Cohen’s voice serves the purpose.
And of course it is also a love song. My American dream embraces the arc of life so the music must express both my love of the journey and for those who have been my sacred companions. God or no, I want to leave rejoicing.
But above all else, America has always been a place where people thunder with words, and out of that brawling comes the human spirit, “a blaze of light in every word.” Whether “the holy or the broken” they capture the intensity of our need to be counted, and to join our voices finally, in a collective hallelujah.
Check out NPR’s “Tell us what your American Dream sounds like.” Might make for a great classroom activity. Check out the mix.
In Digby on Friday:
“America isn’t so much a country as an uneasily balanced melange of two very distinct cultural tribes, each with its own norms, entertainment and assumptions about the basic facts of the world. And while many people find that scary, it shouldn’t be. The rising demographic is the one with a better morality and a better sense of objective reality.”
While written with reference to the presidential campaign, as an educator I love the attention given to the impact of the “rising demographic.” The spatial (cross border) and temporal (age) divides in politics have their analogs in education. The debate over the digital transformation of schooling is also, in large part, generational. When we talk about the ‘adult in the room’ we must necessarily question their generational ‘loyalty.’ Is the adult struggling to preserve a pre-digital conception of education or are they moving forward? A while back I wrote:
I believe in the rising generation. When I am in the classroom surrounded by teenagers I know that I am among the souls that will inherit the earth. I know that the rising generation has been shaped by forces that I may perceive but cannot completely know and that it is my job to help them understand the unique conjuncture, the constellation of context and experience that is both shaping them and creating their opportunity to shape the world. I am aware that in sharing the history of my own generation I can help them to see their own potentiality. That the refracted mirror of intergenerational difference contributes to the maturing of a personal sense of time and place.
But as the school becomes increasingly enmeshed in the burgeoning digital ecosystem I think my comment was too timid. The adult in the room cannot be trusted to engage with the creative opportunities afforded by generational difference if they are not actively reaching across the digital divide. The digital transformation is not the contested ground between old and new – the transformation is happening – the divide is over how quickly the transformation will be allowed to enter the classroom and reset the relationships between students and teachers, and reorder our understanding of what is possible in the creation of self-directed, collaborative learning processes.
Two helpful posts by Paula White at Cooperative Catalyst encouraged me to think further about “The Past, The Present and the Future of Education.” Referring to an article by Rob Mancabelli, she discusses the “New Pillars” of education. Mancabelli describes the old pillars as the textbook, the lecturer, and the classroom. 21st century education (that is, education in the digital age) transforms these pillars.
How does this happen? Well, the textbook gives way to multimedia; the lecturer becomes the personal learning network; and the classroom becomes the global internet. The effect of all three transformations is to loosen the rigidity implied by classroom walls and to push the student, the teacher and the school community into relationships that extend beyond the campus and which implicate the workplace, the community, and society in the actual (as opposed to imagined) education of youth. Instead of a structured, linear learning process we have complexity and uncertainty.
While most of us are at least a bit accepting of the presence of complexity and uncertainty when it comes to understanding our own lives, the challenge in education is different. As Richard Elmore explains, in the classroom learning is too often about control. To introduce genuine complexity and uncertainty in the classroom “we have to work out a way to lead the adults through a process so that it’s psychologically safe for them to experience students as powerful agents in their own learning.”
This presentation by Maria Popova is essential. Self-directed learning becomes the curation of global, essentially infinite, knowledge/experience/creativity.
When the rising generation has control of the educational agenda, then the school will become an essential incubator of societal flexibility, and complexity and uncertainty will become our happy companions.
My 40th high school reunion is happening in the fall and the magic of Facebook allows me to glimpse the process of people finding their way back – back to a time, a place, to people, and to themselves, restoring attenuated connections, reweaving the story. And I am one of those people.
A person named Mark, who I once knew – elementary school? – who I think might have briefly been a friend, but the memory is slippery, posts a picture of a girl named Leslie. She was theatrical, a singer, and I remember trying to carry her over a mud puddle – she was wearing an outrageous wine red, suede pantsuit. Of course I fell as I lifted her, my legs shooting out in front of me as I slipped, and she ended up sitting on my chest, laughing as I lay in the mud. What I remember most is that this circumstance, which could have ended in permanent social mortification, was handled by Leslie with such grace that she sent me on my way (after washing and drying my clothes!) feeling every bit the gallant young man I had set out to be.
My high school girlfriend (and friend forever after), Tracy, posts a picture and the kid in the middle looks like me – but I am not completely sure. I show it to my wife, “does this look like me?” I know who it is, but the angle, the expression, makes the image slightly opaque to me and I am momentarily stymied by my inability to connect with my teenage self in the photo. But than I realize that, of course, it is not me – it is a kid captured in a moment more than 40 years ago and I no longer have access to the circumstances and the state of mind that produced that expression.
Tracy asks if I will attend the reunion and I say no, although catching up with her recent life would be one of the reasons to go.
As I look at another recently posted photo of a girl named Nina, I wonder whatever became of Andy. I think most people remember a teenage friend who always seemed to be a step ahead, a little more alert, more knowing. These guardians help us lesser beings negotiate the difficult teenage years. Andy was my guardian. He introduced me to herb, John Barleycorn Must Die, and he taught me that with incipient attraction one must be decisive.
One New Year’s Eve, tired of hearing my incessant mooning over that girl Amy, he called her and professed my love to her. I have it on good intelligence, thankfully, that Amy has no recollection of that drunken phone call. More to the point, and getting back to Nina, one day Andy and I were watching the girls play field hockey. I shouted something or other, a boyish inanity, to Nina who responded with a quizzical look and a slightly embarrassed shrug. The next morning she approaches me at the water fountain and asks me a question that I don’t immediately comprehend and before I can even say, “what?” she backed away with that same awkward expression I had seen the day before. “Andy,” I say, “ it’s the craziest thing but I think Nina just asked me if yesterday I had said that I had tickets to Jimi Hendrix?” Andy’s eyes go galaxies wide and he sticks his face into mine and says, “My god, don’t you know what that means?” Anticipating the worst I say, “no.” He says, “It means that if you had them, she would go with you!” Needless to say, within the year Andy was going out with Nina.
I wonder where my debate partner Larry has ended up. I wonder if the other members of the freshman cross country team still get any glow from our undefeated season. I wonder if Mark (a later, different Mark) still reads Buber and thinks about the meaning of life. I wonder if Richard’s conversational pauses would still have me trying to anticipate his thoughts. I wonder if you can work at the U.N. and still be zany.
These memories and reflections in response to comments and pictures posted by people – most of whom I didn’t know well even back then – has occasioned an unusual optimism in me. As a high school teacher I have just attended this year’s school graduation, congratulating our seniors and wishing them well. It is amusing and sobering to hear their excited and emotional stories of their high school experience. To be present as they set off into the expanding universe of their future lives while holding the still vivid, but fragmented memories from my own high school years reminds me that entropy is also a distillery and our lives are a fine spirit to be savored to the last drop.
Public disservice announcement: I know that I am failing as an English teacher when “I can score the basketball” is allowed into the English language.
To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.
Barry Schwartz reminds us that, in addition to love, having work that is meaningful and satisfying is one of the keys to happiness. He also emphasizes a point that ought to be obvious but which, unfortunately, is too often unrealized, that people want to be virtuous. That doing things we know to be less than optimal is no one’s first choice. If you want to understand the demoralization within the teaching profession, that last point is critical.
Students want work that is meaningful and satisfying. If we believe in student centered education then meaningful and satisfying is a pretty good place to start. It is worth noting that during this time of testing madness, and love for all things charter, project based learning and learning for humane connections is ushering in an era of student centered education unparalleled in American education. It is the best of times and the worst of times.