Letter from Los Angeles
June 2012
© 2012 Joel

Quote of the Issue

I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.- Barack Obama

Contrast of the Issue

“Mitt Romney.... has said he favors a national constitutional amendment (prohibiting gay marriage) enshrining this particular bigotry.”- New York Times, May 5, 2012

From Joel’s Thank You Email to President Obama

I’m not in the habit of wanting to hug a president (Washington, Hoover, Coolidge- yich!) but Mr. Obama’s support for same-sex marriage merits a great big “Thank you, Mr. President!”

You still can’t take me anywhere nice.

Other Quotes of the Issue

Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living, the other helps you make a life.- Eleanor Roosevelt.

Are you taking care of your body and your mind? Are you taking care of the rooms where you spend your days and the streets you travel and the people whom you pass?- Rev. Galen Guengerich, Earth Day, 2012.

The (42nd Street Library in Manhattan’s) public catalogue room....is now a jostling strand for Internet surfers. Their interest in the printed word, to judge from what I’ve seen of their onscreen displays- is equal to your average walrus’s.- Edmund Morris

We have drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society.- Michael Sandel, author of What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life...For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.- Michael Sandel

You are alive. It needn’t have been so. It wasn’t so once, and it will not be so forever. But it is now. And what is it like to be alive in this maybe one place of all places anywhere where life is? Live a day of it and see. Take any day and be alive in it.”- Frederick Buechne

Breaking News: College Tuition Crisis SOLVED!
(by The Two Hundred Million Dollar Man)

Mitt Romney offered the following advice to a high school senior at a town hall meeting in Ohio.

“Shop around for a good price. That’s what’s so great about competition- it works! Some colleges cost less than others. The highest price doesn’t mean the best. Don’t take on too much debt and don’t expect the government to forgive your debt. Look for scholarships, loans, reasonably priced colleges- or join the military and get the finest education there.” This from a man who wants to be president.

And while we’re on the subject, if Donald Trump really wanted to defeat Obama he would run as his vice president.

The Social Darwinist In Me

If you lose another couple of billion dollars, inadequately regulated giants like J.P. Morgan Chase, don’t come to U.S. taxpayers for handouts, you Welfare Kings. We need that money to pay cops, firefighters, teachers and those who do a real day’s work.

Take a shave, corporation. Put on a suit and get a job. Become the apocryphal self sufficient individual (the Court says you’re a person) Ayn Rand admired so.

Common Pot

What do Grover Norquist, Glenn Beck, Pat Robertson, hippies- and Joel- have in common? Each favors legalization of marijuana, and I’m not smoking anything. Even in the 1970s when I was hounded by my friends for having never smoked the stuff (and I never have), I signed a petition to legalize pot. Although none of the gentleman I’ve mentioned appeals to me, I’m glad we share a bed on this.

Slap. “Ouch.”

Thirty-one year old Marissa Alexander, Floridian, holder of a master’s degree, mother of three, African American, has been sentenced to twenty years in prison for an action in which nobody was hurt. Alexander fired a shot into the wall of her garage as a warning to an abusive husband who was pursuing her. She had a right to stand her ground.

The behavior of Dharun Ravi, twenty year old Rutgers student, upper class, unapologetic, is associated with his college roommate’s death. Ravi recorded a sexual encounter between Tyler Clementi and another man in their dorm room and disseminated the scene online. Subsequently Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.

Ravi, who was guilty of invasion of privacy and a related cover up, faced up to ten years imprisonment and deportation but was sentenced to a mere thirty days in jail (and was released in twenty) by a judge whose motives are beyond all understanding. Hell of a deterrent, Judge! Reminds me of the $20 fine for driving while talking on a hand held cell phone in California. These are good times for the guilty.

Get Off The Koch, Brother

I don’t like the Koch (pronounced ‘Coke’) Bros, Charles and David, their wolves in sheep’s clothing philanthropic contributions notwithstanding, any more than many of my readers do. Their bankrolling Scott Walker’s victory in Wisconsin’s gubernatorial recall election is but the latest instance of using one’s fortune for political gain. (Donations from millionaires and billionaires are not as responsible for Walker’s victory, in my opinion, as a state of mind among that state’s electorate.) Fair is fair, however, and accurate is accurate.

Media expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson analyzed the latest political hit pieces superbly on Moyers and Company, May 13th. A Democratic rebuttal to an error-riddled Republican TV ad was faulted for exaggerations and misstatements of its own. The Koch brothers were equated with “big oil.” Untrue, objected Jamieson. The brothers’ oil holdings are small in relation to their many other operations.

I enjoy slamming my opponents as much as anyone, but in accuracy there is almost as much power as in spreading lies.

Bully For You

A seven year old Detroit boy has hanged himself in response to being bullied in his school. Recently also, fifteen year old Kenneth Weishuhn of Sioux City, Iowa committed suicide after having been bullied in social media and on the phone for being gay. In a TV interview Kenneth’s mother said that she wanted the bullies who drove her son to his death not to be punished, rather sent to counseling, and their parents held to some account. Even as I sympathize with Ms. Weishuhn I disagree. Lessons in distinguishing right from wrong, feeling shame and facing consequences must be part of the solution.

In “The Tipping Point” Malcolm Gladwell speaks of suicide contagion. The copycat is “getting permission from someone else who is engaging in a deviant act.... The people who die in highly publicized suicides- whose deaths give others ‘permission’ to die- serve as the Tipping Point in suicide epidemics.” MSNBC reporters, among others in their profession, are conflicted about reporting child and teen suicides for this very reason. What can be done to break this cycle, then? Isolating the bullies and counseling for the bullied comes to mind.

Our Little Sisters

Boston’s former, unlamented Cardinal bernard law, best known for protecting priests who messed with Catholic boys, has blasted American nuns for helping the poor instead of praying for the likes of prostitutes and gays. If memory serves, the order is Little Sisters of the Poor, not Little Sisters of the Upper Middle Class!

The American Catholic church is reforming before our eyes. Even conservative Catholics in Boston disagree with their former cardinal’s position. Visit nunsonthebus.com, and read about that group’s principled opposition to the Ryan Bill. The Vatican calls Sister Simone Campbell, the movement’s leader. a troublemaker, which she surely is, God bless her.

We Are Too Amused

“Aldous Huxley anticipated a brave new world in which we’ve amused ourselves to death.”- Bill Moyers

Readers who’ve had eye surgery know how difficult its aftermath can be. In violation of the cruel and unusual punishment provision, ophthalmologists often recommend watching TV while recovering. Don’t they know we’re too amused?

Neil Postman, a professor from my undergraduate days at NYU, wrote the classic Amusing Oneself to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 1985. Reading Postman’s book is on my outsized bucket list. Many of us have read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in college. Postman was more concerned with the public’s being controlled by a variety of amusements, as expressed in Brave New World, than with the state control of Orwell’s 1984.

Control in either case is kind of frightening. Marie Atoinette was on to something when she famously declared “Qu’ils magent de la brioche” (Let ‘em eat cake.) An infantilized public distracted from what’s really going on is ripe to act contrary to their interests. Economics got you down? Go see a show, or watch almost anything on a screen. Job prospects for college graduate’s looking dim? Behave like a comic at your graduation. Romney and Obama getting kind of boring? There’s always Lindsay Lohan. John Edwards’s affairs trump foreign affairs any day. Help yourself to a slice of contemporary pie.

USPS: FU

The heading stands for USPS Follow Up (what did you think!). A friend received a birthday card from me postmarked July, 2010, on April 22, 2012! On the other hand, our carrier in L.A. gave us his cell phone number and instructed us to call if we have a problem with our mail being forwarded to the Berkshires. The postal personnel in Stockbridge, Ma. have gone to bat for us so many times, and an employee we know well regards his unseen customers as friends and doesn’t let them down.

I Love Luce

According to Tom Friedman, “Ed Luce, the author of the new book Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent notes that if you believe the fantasy that America’s economic success derives from having had a government that stayed out of the way, then gridlock...(is) just fine with you. But if you have a proper understanding of American history- so you know that government played a vital role in generating growth by maintaining the rule of law, promulgating regulations that incentivize risk-taking and prevent recklessness, educating the work force, building infrastructure and funding scientific research- then a vetocracy (in which no one can aggregate enough power to make important decisions) becomes a very dangerous thing.”

Friedman concludes, “We can’t be great as long as we remain a vetocracy rather than a democracy. Our deformed political system- with a Congress that’s become a forum for legalized bribery- is now truly holding us back.”

“Deformed” is more than kind of scary.

School Daze X
Joel on Joel

The other day I asked myself some questions, as I wanted to conclude this series in a different kind of way. Please remember the words of a sage: “True education is to learn how to think, not what to think.”

Q. So, Joel. Are you sorry you didn’t remain a teacher?

Yes and no. Back in 1976 I couldn’t wait to leave the kids, the Bureau, the east coast’s weather and everything I had ever known behind. Still, the teacher in me stayed alive. I thought of becoming an education writer the summer I left New York but never followed through. In the 1990s I got my teaching fix as a volunteer reading tutor with adults in San Francisco.

Q. What is your most vivid memory from your teaching days?

Fear. Everybody was afraid, it seemed- of the boss, the children and the parents. You didn’t want a parent complaining because the principal was under pressure to automatically take the parent’s side. The kids knew this. Some, not many, threatened I’d be hearing from their parents. The guidance teachers cautioned "Watch out for the parents" more often than advising "Take care of the child."

Q. Do you think things are the same today?

Certainly. Bullying is not restricted to the kids. If parents behaved the way they do in some schools in a store or on the street they’d be taken in for observation. During an especially contentious teacher’s strike, a gentle teacher gently touched an angry parent on the shoulder both to make a point and calm him. The parent, a professor, screamed he had been assaulted and called for the police.

The militants who occupied the main office of the elementary school at which I taught ought to have been cuffed and booked. In the 1970s people got away with that. Principal Arthur Block was a model educator who ran a model school, so I don’t know what they were complaining about. Maybe they were unhappy about their lives and looking for a way to make trouble with impunity.

Q. What do you think needs fixing most?

I don’t know if we can fix the fact that American kids are stupid.

Q. What?

I’m just saying that for shock value, but didn’t we used to believe that African American students were low achievers because they were dumb? No other factors were considered.

The world outside the classroom has changed dramatically over the past few decades. We’ve become accustomed to the politics of stingy, especially in a time of decreased revenue due to unemployment, tax cuts for the wealthiest and uncontrolled health care costs, and previously unimaginable budget deficits due to our ill considered wars . We’re told that smaller classrooms are not the answer and that teachers are to blame. Inner city schools, most notably New York’s, are now re-segregated. The best and brightest women are lured, not unjustifiably, by far more prestigious, better paying jobs than teaching. Global competition has hit an amusement-crazed America that fails to recognize, as Tom Friedman never tires of reminding us, that “good” is no longer good enough.

Back to what needs fixing. Attitudes first, as you might expect. I’d like more people to understand that public education issues are devilishly complicated, and that succumbing to the prevailing propaganda, e.g. “We’ve got to hold teachers accountable” is the kind of empty slogan that will get us nowhere. I would begin by calling for a truce. I’m asking no one to abandon any principles, and I find nothing wrong with being firm, but please check your baggage at the door. That includes teacher union bashers and teachers who assert “my union right or wrong.”

After calming down and becoming kind of rational, let’s agree to holding all fifty states to a similar standard for their schools, and for God’s sake give them the money needed to accomplish that. Kids in Mississippi need an education of the quality available in, let’s say, Maine.

I’m not advocating “teaching to the test” when I speak of common standards. A wonderful New York City English teacher named Claire Needell Hollander wrote in The New York Times, “All the teachers are increasing their number of test-preparation sessions and practice tests, so I have done the same.....But if literature has no place on these tests, and if preparation for the tests becomes the sole goal of education, then reading of literature will go out of fashion in our schools.”

I’m not advocating another “bloated federal bureaucracy” or abridging local control of schools either. I favor school districts partnering with nearby teacher training institutions and businesses that stand to profit from a better educated populace. We need everyone on board, you know. We need to be more Friendly.

Q. Why do you capitalize friendly?

How many readers remember the Fred Friendly Seminars on PBS in the 1980s and 1990s? Experts in public policy ranging from lawyers to scholars and public servants, once even Jimmy Carter, assembled at Columbia University to tackle a given problem. A cross examining law professor chaired the meeting.

Q. And everyone promoted her or his own agenda, right?

Surprisingly, not. Whether it was due to the selection of participants, the power of the moderator, the ground rules or the spirit of the enterprise I can’t be certain. But everyone worked together on a problem. Let’s revive the Friendly tradition and organize a seminar on our public schools to be transmitted in movie houses across the country like HD opera, or on prime time TV.

George Clooney played Edward R. Murrow’s legendary producer Fred Friendly in Good Night and Good Luck, and he’s a civic minded, famous type who could pitch in. Maybe Oprah could get behind the project or even chair the meeting. Assemble a panel of principals, teachers, politicians, parents, union leaders, critics and education scholars. Encourage Broadway and Hollywood publicists to do what they do best- whip up enthusiasm for a “not to be missed” event.

Require everyone on public school payrolls, school board members included, to watch the program. Following the presentation, break into discussion groups in every school district in America and see what can be learned. Give more than lip service to a national priority.

Q. Can every child be taught?

You don’t beat around the bush. The answer is probably, technically, yes. I mean, even the developmentally delayed can learn. But if as an exemplary a teacher as Rafe Esquith of the Hobart Shakespeareans admits he’s not reaching a third of his students, then what? Imagine a far less capable teacher’s experience.

No one benefits from disheartened students, disruptive kids and dropouts. In some instances the best a teacher can do is make a child feel welcome and respected in her classroom, in hopes that something better will happen later on. Even that isn’t always easy. The teacher may have to dig hard to find something to acknowledge in the kid, like a Nella Gonzales or a Mildred Grady in this series did so well.

So many kids come from households that are so dysfunctional- you know, chronic unemployment, drugs, crimes, God knows what- that their parents can’t be counted on even to be present. It must be hell to be a kid in that position. Parent surrogates like nearby relatives or willing neighbors may be called upon to help. Many districts have volunteer mentor programs.

Sylvia Mininberg was known as the principal of her school’s neighborhood because she saw the problem as a whole. Some districts are offering parents literacy training and GED preparation just to get them in the building. Schools can serve the parents, too.

Q. So what would be your ideal school?

A perfectly imperfect one, as private school head Eileen Mullady advocates, in which a kind of messiness trumps perfection. Eileen favors students serendipitously discovering things they never knew before. No one size fits every school, you know. In some buildings purposeful disorder connotes enthusiasm. Others must be run more strictly: school uniforms, looking at the speaker, shaking hands.

Know what I would like to see? Principals telling their top notch teachers to shut their doors and do their thing, then hesitating. “Wait. I want other teachers to see what you are doing.” Then telling the others to do something they can show off to their colleagues, too. “Make us proud of you. I’ll help you if I can.”

Q. What if the other teachers resist change?

Well, they need to be motivated not to resist. What about a bonus for a district’s teacher of the month, or an entire school? I don’t mean that exemplary teachers shouldn’t be given bonuses all along, I mean also reward the teacher who shows that he or she can change. Those who don’t improve may need to grow or move along. Teachers unions must get used to that.

I’m a big supporter of negotiated teacher protections, and I recognize that “average” exists in every field. I suppose it all depends on the employment market. If suddenly a million superior teachers came along the average would be out of work. But don’t make book on that.

We can make good teachers happen; in fact we’d damn well better. Start by exciting prospective teachers in their undergraduate days. Identify students with promise in high school and assign them to tutor younger kids. Mentor education majors beginning with their student teaching. Convince them that teaching matters- then pay accordingly.

Publicly thanking and praising the most effective teachers, not necessarily on the basis of their student’s scores on standardized tests, isn’t rocket science. Just follow the parents to the ones who, like my mother, change children’s lives. “Suzie didn’t spell before she met you.” “Kevin couldn’t sit still and listen till he was in your class.” “Miguel gets excited about going to school each day.” “Jennifer scored higher on her standardized test” isn’t quite the same.

Invite your child’s valued teacher to your home for lunch some Saturday afternoon. Let’s see Mr. and Ms. Chips at their student’s bar mitzvahs and confirmations. Show kids their teachers are important.

Q. And for kids at risk of dropping out?

An exceptionally close relationship with an individual teacher whenever possible may be key here. A high degree of interest in a student’s life and serving as an example can’t be overestimated. The availability of after-school programs should be a no brainer; they’re proven winners yet among the first to go. That’s not entirely unreasonable when there’s no more money.

Why not offer a different kind of schooling for kids who are at risk? I don’t mean “tracking” or giving up on them. Robert Kennedy espoused work-study programs in the 1960s to teach work habits and employable skills, both of which bolster self-respect. Students don’t feel good about themselves for failing, but feel-good programs alone are not the answer. Kids know when they’re being taken on a ride. Find their academic and personal strengths and play, play, play to them. Students feel good when they accomplish something.

Q. But Joel, we already have the answers, plenty of them. Take out teachers unions, restrict the profession to the brightest college graduates, fire entire schools-full of employees, spend less money on public education.....

Look, we’re in a quandary. Anyone who pretends to have all the answers is a horse’s....never mind. Even the most conscientious educators have been known to change their minds. Falling back on mantras and clichés is far too easy, and we’ve heard them all. Worn out teachers are the problem. We spend too much on schools, we spend too little. Smaller classes, give more homework or don’t give as much, buy computers, shake up parents. Hold teachers to higher expectation. Not that there isn’t a grain of truth in most of these.

Q. You mentioned parents. They give birth, they pay their taxes. What more would you have them do?

What President Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union. “We have to win the race to educate our kids.... The responsibility begins not in our classrooms but in our homes and communities. It’s the family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and the homework gets done. We have to teach our kids it’s not the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair. We need to teach (children) that success is not just a function of fame or p.r., but of hard work and discipline....

After parents the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In South Korea teachers are known as Nation Builders. Here in America it’s time we treated people who educate our children with the same level of respect. To young Americans Obama said, “If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation (and) in the life of a child, become a teacher. Your country needs you.”

Obama eloquently expresses our ideals, but hardly the realities. In today’s America money talks; you know the rest. Anyone who denies that has been sleeping.

Thomas Friedman amplified what the president said. Studies show “we need better parents.” Such moms and dads “regularly read to their kids and show an interest in what goes on in school. They reward their (children’s) efforts and talk up the idea of going to college,” this father of two girls maintains. “Better parents can make every teacher more effective.”

Q. You want to keep politicians as close to public schools as pedophiles and junkies. Do you see any role for the political class in improving education?

Potentially, elected officials have much to offer- they’re leaders, aren’t they?- and the schools are public after all. In the 1950s President Eisenhower mobilized America behind math and science education when Soviet domination came nipping at our heels. A decade later Lyndon Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act funded impoverished schools. (Johnson had successfully taught poor Mexican kids in Texas when he was young.) Today’s crisis of the American middle class and our country’s standing in the world should surely inspire improving education.

It would be instructive to study how our public schools have met challenges ranging from the one room schoolhouse to learning mills born of urbanization, industrialization and immigration, then adapting to the age of superpower status and the revolution in technology. Our schools have accommodated monumental changes. What were the elements of each success? Which of them can be used today?

Q. Joel, you’ve been given nine installments in which to explain American education. One more page and you are finished, so make your final thoughts some good ones.

In that case I’ll go back to the children, K-12, and the kind of lives they are going to lead.

What does America need, and what do the students need? What should we expect of them? The answer lies in the economic and social context of our times.

The comic asks if infants have as much fun in infancy as adults do in adultery. (They don’t.) If we were to emulate the Asian model, would our kids no longer engage in play? A Japanese doctoral candidate tells me that in his country youngsters compete their way through school and spend the rest of their lives working, which is why he moved to the U.S.A. Are circumstances preparing a similar fate for Americans? Gaining admission to highly rated universities is now a full time job involving, for those who can afford them, coaches, private agents and, as recently reported in the New York Times, ingesting “good-grade pills,” aka amphetamines. After four years of what Wesleyan University’s President Michael S. Roth calls “a training period for economic competition” and likely grad school, comes the debt and daunting hunt for jobs.

Those who possess highly marketable skills or are born to affluence will have a more than even crack at the American Dream. The financially and scholastically average student may have to settle for the economic insecurity, social immobility and less expansive lifestyle their parent’s generation thought they had forever left behind. How long the downsides of unchecked global competition, technological change and sanctioned social inequality will persist and what will follow is still anybody’s guess. Will Americans again have the luxury of contemplating leisure or the goofy prospect of “doing their own thing?”

How, then, can schools prepare students of all backgrounds and abilities for a better life ahead? Whether we produce better competitors or fulfilled, liberally educated human beings seems a false choice to me. We want the coming generation to be both.

We owe our young ones something else, even in an era of mom, apple pie and the Almighty Buck: a playing field on which rules apply equally to everyone. The rules seem to have been broken in, of all places, politically liberal New York City. “$1 Million PTAs Help Fill Budget Holes,” proclaims a headline in the Sunday New York Times. Parents at P.S. 87, the school at which I taught, have raised among themselves $1.57 million in the last school year, as have several other schools in upper class Manhattan neighborhoods. PTA-raised funds underwrite such necessities as teachers assistants, enrichment teachers, dictionaries and classroom computers as well as the more exotic 3-D digital projectors, swimming lessons and gourmet chefs in cafeterias.

A parent in one such privileged school understands that “These rich schools are semiprivate.” The City’s Department of Education uses a “fair funding formula” for schools with needy student populations, but the program’s $217 per pupil pales in comparison with $1600 per child raised by parents in one Upper West Side public elementary school. Now we know why kids in inner city schools are “dumb” and “lazy.”

Q. Wrap it up; you’re on page ____

Here, then, is what I have to say directly to these kids. Your education can make you smart and prepare you for a good life, maybe one even better than your mom’s and dad’s. Learning can be fun, but it takes sacrifice and effort, with lots of both along the way. You’re going to be expected to do a lot you may not like, but studying, homework and class projects are not the same as being given “orders.” These tasks are what your parents, their parents and their parents before them labored hard to master. It’s part of life. Don’t let anybody down, least of all yourselves.”

To parents, this from a pair of neuroscientists. “Americans can take one tip from Asian and French parents: abandon the idea that they must support self-esteem at all costs. Children do not benefit from routine empty praise, like the cries of “Good job!” that ring out over American playgrounds.....More effective is to praise a child for effort...’’Wow, you kept working on that math problem and you got it right.’”

A reader in North Carolina believes “if students came to learn, and thought of school as a beginning job, teachers could teach.” Americans students need to want to learn. Maybe pop heroes will help sell that “success in school is cool.” A reader who heads a high school language department in Florida related what she has known for years. The most qualified teachers insist on middle school or high school assignments, when they are needed most in elementary school to give the kids a good beginning.

A reader and father of two in a San Francisco elementary school is also on to something. He believes that “active, participating parents” are key, and that parents can’t just sit back and figure “Well, I’ve paid my taxes” and leave it to the school. In a phone conversation he put it less poetically than Joel ever would. “You get ten parents together and shit gets done.”

Come on, America- Grunt! Harder!!!

Q. Sir?

Oh, I’m sorry. Class dismissed.

Joel: Letters