Friday, March 30, 2012

Meditation On A World Without Art

“The Los Angeles Unified School District has proposed total elimination of its elementary school arts education program. This unprecedented step will reverse a ten-year effort made by the District to restore arts education to its 700,000 students.”

Arts For LA, February 6, 2012

In a world without color, no one looks for rainbows after a storm.  No one looks for truth in blue skies.  The word green has no meaning.

In a world without beauty, we will once again be people lost in a desert.  In a void, all journeys are stillborn.  Stars in the night sky are ignored.  There is everything mired in nothing.

In a world with abstract numbers and words, no one recognizes the poetry falling from trees or the patterns inside us mirroring the universe.  There is no cohesion, no connection.  We wait patiently in the dark by dead telephones for a voice we have not been taught to hear.

In a world without song, we lose the ability to fly.  We grumble and mutter our discontent.  We attempt to raise our voice to fill the void, but silence reigns like a despot in winter.

In a world without imagination, everyone is stillborn.  They squat in alleys, waiting for time to finish with them.  They pray for rain that will never fall.  Drought begins in the heart and spreads out across the land to infect the moon.  Heat in the night oppresses, it suffocates.

Oh, how we wail and gnash our teeth.  Oh, how we wear sack cloth and ashes.  We murder our children by murdering their vision.  We sell ourselves short and stare at the bone fragments under our feet.  Stories are flat houses.  Our lives lack the arc, the scope and sequence of beauty or meaning.  “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

We train our children to be computers, to be automatons, or worse, to be ruled by machines.

Over the next hill, “ignorant armies clash by night.” In black and white, blood on the earth loses its meaning.

I want to map out the sky.

I want to sing songs.

I want to paint my dreams.

Write a sonnet.

Ring bells of beauty.

Education without grace is learning the curve of emptiness.

To feel, to think, to achieve, we must dream.

We must imagine.

We must search for beauty in the streets and alleys of our broken world. And we must teach children how to see the grace in the decay, the wonder in the truth, the sanctity of color.

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

“Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Except When I Write

In his book, Except When I Write: Reflections of A Recovering Critic (Oxford University Press, 2011), Arthur Krystal displays a dexterity and charm with the essay in general, the literary essay in particular, that few can match these days. He does not write down to the reader or condescend. He simply gives us an education with wit and verve, never making us feel we are being schooled.

The book begins with an author’s note explaining a concept readers of the prose essay going back to Montaigne will surely recognize: essayists often write in order to think. Great reading inspires great thinking, the two traveling hand in hand. It is no wonder a student once went to university to read the law or to read history. Long before there were general education requirements and majors and minors, there was reading. And of course, there was writing. Reading naturally pairs with writing, subject and predicate, yin and yang, Batman and Robin. Get the picture?

Krystal uses this dynamic duo to launch an attack on the charge that writers are less than impressive in public. They stutter when they read. They trip over their tongues. They under whelm and then mumble when they sign the freshly purchased copy. Krystal says writers are bumbling public speakers because they have already said all there is to say in the writing. The only reason a writer talks about his creation is commerce. Some publisher thinks that a personal appearance by the guy with the pen will sell more books. Maybe it does, but the baseline in all this is a mind alone, writing, writing, writing, and then sending the ink and paper out to the world to be absorbed by other minds, the original wireless connection brain to brain, author to reader. To have the writer show up and read a few pages is almost beside the point.

“Writers don’t have to be brilliant conversationalists,” says Krystal. “It’s not their job to be smart except, of course, when they write.” Hence the title of his book. Writers revise and shape their words over time—days, weeks, even years. They are not off-the-cuff creatures like talking heads on TV, all noise and no substance. Very few ink-stained wretches can do both, and personally, when I see a writer who can, I am suspicious. Krystal includes all platforms for writers who are forced into public speaking in this inarticulate category. “To hear yourself on radio is to wonder why anyone has ever slept with you,” he says. Of course, I have heard that one reason a writer steps to the stage at the local Barnes and Noble (if there are any left) is to get laid.

What I like about Krystal’s writing are the details he offers beyond strict literary criticism. He is a true cultural critic, connecting his reading to the world, and broadening his scope to show us the power and breadth of the literary form. From a book on sleep, he branches out to an historical view of the way our ancestors used their horizontal unconscious state: “Western Europeans on most evenings experienced two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of wakefulness,” he quotes from A. Roger Ekirch’s book, At Day’s Close: Night In Times Past (Norton, 2005). “People, evidently, awoke after midnight and instead of tossing and turning, they regularly got up to talk, study, pray, and do chores.” He goes on to discuss when people began to stay up later, citing sources regarding caffeine consumption as counterpoint to Ekirch’s book.

Krystal analyzes the prose of Hazlitt, Coleridge, and Samuel Johnson, all of which morphs into a discussion on essayists who lie and the essay as a self-portrait “of the author at his desk, not in the world.” He assails aphorisms and Edgar Allan Poe in equal measure. He makes the connection, as others have, that Conan Doyle owes Poe a debt of thanks for helping him create Sherlock Holmes. He celebrates Jacques Barzun as a man who read everything. Do you see the pattern in the chaos? Krystal’s purview goes in many directions.

My favorite pieces in the book are the ones on duals and famous dualists, the Great Depression (which, in Krystal’s take, sounds suspiciously like what is happening now), and the book’s concluding essay on his time as a night watchman at a seedy hotel on the Upper West Side circa 1972. That was in the time before Giuliani’s reign as mayor, when Manhattan was the wild, wild west. It is in this last piece that Krystal tells us why he’s not a novelist. His fiction fell flat, but his essays soar, and we are the better for it.

Arthur Krystal is the kind of omnivorous critic I love, the Everyman in his writing and his interests, a natural raconteur. I absorbed the book like a visit with an old friend, and I missed him when I closed the book for the last time and he was gone. But if I was to meet him on the street, I would most likely find him nondescript, shabby, a real wallflower. I have to remind myself that he is under no obligation to be as witty, insightful, and intelligent as his book; he cannot boast of being the life of the party, except when he writes.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Higher Education?

So much attention has been given to our failing elementary and high schools lately. We face a barrage of depressing tidbits on a daily basis: falling test scores, dismal teaching, sexual misconduct, financial ruin. It should come as no surprise, then, that our college and university system, the envy of the world, is facing significant challenges as well. In their recent book, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Out Kids—And What We Can Do About It (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011), Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have little positive information to offer us. Instead, they give us a scathing analysis of failure, corruption, and lost ideals.

In the 4352 colleges and universities in this country, an undergraduate degree now costs, on average, $250,000. Students often face enormous loan debt upon graduation, sometimes in the six figure range, and recent economic reports tell us that student loan debt is now outpacing all other financial obligations. Some economists argue that student loans are the next bubble to burst, since in a depressed job market, many graduates cannot find employment that offers enough salary to make even the minimum payments.

Dreifus and Hacker address these financial concerns, but more to the point, they zero in on two important questions: “The first is how much of what the schools are offering can reasonably be called education?” and “even if not vocational, how far can what is being taught and learned reasonably be called higher?” They argue that our colleges and universities have become a vast job training program, not higher education. “We suggest that a purpose of college is not to make students into better citizens,” they write. “We want young people to use their minds as they never have before, thinking hard about realities and issues that strain their mental powers. They should be urged to be imaginative and inquiring, to take risks without having to worry about their transcripts or alienating their teachers…Higher education is an ongoing conversation, created for students poised at adulthood, which can and will continue throughout their lives.” Very noble, if not too idealistic views, to be sure.

The authors also lament the president’s focus on science and math exclusively. In their view, we are “lagging in philosophy [and] or the humanities” as well. Some of the greatest thinkers in human history may have been scientists, but it is interesting to note that they also incorporated philosophy, history, writing, and psychology into their work. I am thinking of Einstein, Hawking, and Fenyman, to name just a few. I would argue we need to return to the Renaissance ideals of education and not trivialize or reduce any subject, but rather study everything as an inter-connected whole. If anything, our colleges and universities should move away from departments and adopt a more inter-disciplinary curriculum. I have seen several institutions explore this direction in recent years, an encouraging sign.

The authors’ principal premise “is that higher education has lost track of its original and enduring purpose: to challenge the minds and imaginations of this nation’s young people, to expand their understanding of the world, and thus of themselves.” This is the thing that makes the book so readable, even in the face of the many failures they outline. Their writing is well organized, precise, clear and surgical, if not particularly uplifting. They take apart and explain how faculty are categorized, the travesty of tenure, and how a PhD might be a black mark because there is a glut on the market. This last point is verifiable; many, many college teachers today are adjuncts, meaning they are temporary, part time workers. Often, they have to teach at various colleges, one class here or there, to make a buck. One teacher I worked with last year shifted her time between three different campuses over 250 miles apart. She literally lived in her car most of the work week.

Hacker and Dreifus explain college rankings and what they truly mean. Several publications, must prominently, U.S. News and World Report, take great pains to publish yearly rankings and statistics, but these facts can be manipulated, and the meaning can be obscured. The authors clarify for us just what it means to be a top tier school. One of the areas they explore is the quality of teaching. The goal of most universities is to promote research and publication, not teaching. Classroom instruction is almost an after thought. With sabbaticals, teachers are often released from the classroom to do research and publish. Meanwhile, adjuncts are brought in to teach. This is a fundamental flaw in the system.

The writers single out the over-emphasis on theory, especially in schools of education. “The quest for theory is not only misdirected, it warps the whole ambiance of education,” they write. I am not sure what they mean by “ambiance,” but I know first hand that so many faculty in education departments have never taught in a high school or elementary classroom, or if they have, it was not for a long period of time. There is a fundamental disconnect between practical application in the classroom on a daily basis and the lofty theories espoused by education faculty. So many teachers come out of credential programs simply unprepared for the rigors of daily teaching. I have seen this time and again in my 24 years of instruction.

The book does not only focus on what is wrong.  They offer solutions to the common problems that plague the system, including reducing costs, abolishing tenure, and limiting sports programs.  The last point is a major focus of a chapter.  They detail the drain sports programs are to the university, and how these athletes are really professionals who spend time in the classroom only as a side job.  Many are offered full tuition to play, as well as a variety of other perks.  This has trickled down to high schools as well.  One principal of a local Catholic high school told me recently that a neighboring school pays their football coach a “six figure salary.”  He does no teaching; he simply coaches.  Schools with lesser endowment funds or financial resources cannot compete.  More important, what does this say about the institution’s priorities when teachers are paid a bare bones salary while the football coach rakes in the green?  Athletics used to be a recreational sidebar to an institution’s educational offerings.  Now it has become big business, and a gateway to professional sports.  Many of these athletes get caught up in cheating scandals, jeopardizing the status of the program.  In addition, if we pay an athlete to play and not encourage academic pursuits, are we not shortchanging that student?  Overwhelmingly, many of the most prominent sports—football and basketball—are staffed with students of color.  Is this not a subtle form of racism if we bring a student on campus and pay his tuition so he can play football without also supporting his academic success?

Hacker and Dreifus conclude their book with a coda that brings everything together, including a detailed list for how we should reform education. In the end, we need to ask ourselves: How much does college prepare a student for life? Yes, schools can offer job training and the opportunity to excel in sports and possibly attract interest from professional teams, but at its heart, a college education should inspire wonder and inquiry. Students should graduate as intellectually mature citizens, ready to go out into the workforce with not only the resources to compete in the job market, but with the foundation in place to have a healthy life of the mind. And they should not be sentenced to a life of indentured servitude to pay for the degree. That, however, is a tall order.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Notes From The Inauguration

Ann McElaney-Johnson was inaugurated as the twelfth president of Mount St. Mary’s College last Friday, March 16th, 2012.  The ceremony took place at St. Vincent’s Catholic Church in the West Adams district of Los Angeles, next door to the Mount’s Doheny Campus.  The church was standing room only for the nearly two hour service, with 500 students clad in yellow lining the aisles.  Honored guests included many civic and religious leaders as well as academics from a number of universities and colleges.  Ms. McElaney-Johnson was led into the church by a procession of alumnae, faculty, and students.  The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet who founded the college in 1925 provided a sense of scope and history to the occasion as the school embarked on a new era of education for women in Los Angeles.  The entire procession and ceremony streamed live on the internet and can be accessed for replay here.

St. Vincent’s is one of the most beautiful churches in Los Angeles, dedicated in 1925, and only the third parish constructed.  Albert C. Martin (no relation) was the architect, and much of the funding came from Edward Doheny whose mansion was next door.  That property became the Doheny campus of the Mount.  The church holds 1200 worshippers.

The interior is stunning with many side altars and niches containing statues, candles and elaborate carvings.  Two of the most striking features are the ceiling and the main altar.

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez attended the service and spoke to the crowd.

Richard J. Riordan, 39th mayor of Los Angeles from 1993-2001 attended.  He processed into the church with Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas (Second District).

The procession moved from the Doheny campus down Adams to the church, led by 500 students in yellow followed by alumnae, faculty, dignitaries and the new president.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Texture of Trees

I have become acutely aware of trees.

Robert Frost used them as a recurring motif in his poetry.

If one wishes to sustain the health of the planet, he risks being branded a “tree hugger.” Is that a bad thing?

Many nights this past winter, I sat up in front of the fire, the red glow bouncing off the walls, the ghosts of history all around, whispering out of the darkness.  The flames popped and hissed through the textured wood, warming the room against the chill, bringing comfort and dreams.

I taught a class last fall where I would give my students a topic to write about and turn them loose for twenty minutes to create.  While they tapped away at their laptops, I watched the trees outside the window, huge old Eucalypti, swaying in the wind off the ocean.  I felt as if they were whispering to me, calling my name, telling me that although I have loved being in the classroom for a long time, maybe I needed to break away.  Maybe I needed to be elsewhere, to go off and be bold and courageous.

Trees are the sentinels of our lives. Their rings tell a story. Their bark contains the scars of old fires, the careless ax, the hand-carved names of lovers long broken up, or even dead.

And of course, trees are us. Our bark tells a story. Our roots in a place go deep, and when we fall, we do so with a suddenness that shakes the very earth where we stand, a huge crash.

This year, a few days of high winds toppled trees through out southern California, littering the streets with branches and trunks, ripping down power lines, crushing cars. Trees hold power. Even against a bolt of lightening, the tree often still stands, smoldering.

I once learned an important lesson about words sitting in a tree.

My love and I carved our names in a tree when we were in the early days of our life together.  We returned to that tree older and wiser.  Our names were gone, subsumed by the trunk and bark, but we were still together.

I have come to appreciate the texture of trees.  I listen and meditate to their whispering language.  Even when I feel that I am alone in the world, and far from those I love, I know the trees are there, standing tall.  For this reason, I love them, like I love the mountains, like I love a blue sky in early spring, like I love the possibilities and the promises.  We grow old with them, and their silence is their wisdom.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Our Lady of Fatima

On Sunday, St. Elisabeth School and Parish dedicated a street corner to Our Lady of Fatima, complete with grotto and statue.  About 500 people crowded the streets to witness the event.

The story of Fatima is legendary in the Catholic Church. The Virgin Mary appeared to three small shepherd children in the village of Cova da Iria in Portugal beginning on May 13, 1917. She would appear many times over the next six months, always on the thirteenth day. Her message to the world was one of prophecy, including a second world war and the grave challenges the church would face. Some say she predicted the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981, as well as the sex abuse scandal that has shaken the very foundation of the institution.

Two of the children were cousins, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, who died in the Spanish Influenza outbreak 1919-1920. The lone survivor was Sister Lucia dos Santos, a member of the Discalced Carmelite order of nuns. She died at the age of 97 in 2005. The bodies of Jacinta and Francisco were exhumed in 1935 and 1951. Francisco’s corpse had decomposed, but Jacinta’s face was incorrupt, a common sign of a saintly person, according to church history.

St. Elisabeth School sits in an economically depressed area where police cars, crime and violence are frequently present.  But the students are good kids with concerned and motivated parents willing to make sacrifices to send their kids to a Catholic school.  Often, vendors with carts and stands line the sidewalks outside of the church to sell food and religious trinkets.  The neighborhood teems with life amid the rough and tumble streets of the barrio.

For this one Sunday, though, parishioners flooded those streets to watch the statue installed on the corner of Cedros Avenue and Kittridge Street.  The project was spearheaded by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization which has offered hope and assistance to an almost infinite number of people around the world.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Spring Break At The Mount

Today ends spring break at Mount St. Mary’s College.  Monday, students will again flood the campus, classes will be in session, and we will all focus our attention on the inauguration of our twelfth college president on March 16th.  But during this calm before the storm, the campus takes on its other personality, that of a monastic place of peace and serenity.  Walking the grounds, one hears the birds, the bees, and the thrum of nature in the Santa Monica mountains.  Far down the hill is the bay and pier.  An oil tanker lounges lazily in the glassy water.  A slight breeze cleared the sky of smog and clouds.

It is good, this quiet before the storm of papers and tests, inauguration and graduation.  We gather our energy to finish the semester.  Then, summer will arrive, and the monastic peace will return, but that season has its own story to tell.  Here, today, spring has arrived.

The Mount is truly a special place, full of history and tradition, even as it prepares to launch a new beginning with a new president.  To know the history, to feel it in the walkways, stone stairs, and glorious architecture, one need only to take a walk around campus.  A visit to the Mount Archives blog might also be of help.  It is a truly beautiful place to study.

Over the course of the week, on several short excursions during my breaks from my office, these photographs tell the story of the Mount at spring break.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Art In New York

Bill Cunningham’s photographs have graced the pages of The New York Times for decades. He is the quintessential street photographer, spending his days bicycling the busy thoroughfares to catch candid shots of fashion on the avenue. He is both a cultural anthropologist and documentarian of beauty. In his blue smock and working stiff’s clothes, he snaps away, catching exquisite intricacies of what is fashionable this season.

Bill Cunningham New York (Zeitgeist Films, 2010) delves into his life as well as his work, both of which are so interconnected that one cannot separate one from the other. His is an ascetic’s existence. His apartment in the Carnegie Hall building is packed with file cabinets and boxes, containing thousands of negatives amassed during his daily shoots, of which only a few wind up being published on the pages of the newspaper. His bed rests on milk crates, and is little more than a mattress with a blanket. His apartment does not even have a bathroom. All of his time and energy—and he has a lot of the latter for a man in his 80s—is spent shooting on the streets during the day, and traveling to charity and fashion extravaganzas at night. He rarely takes a break, even to eat. His life is consumed with his work, and he would not have it any other way. This clear in every frame of film.

Herb & Dorothy (Arthouse Films, 2009) profiles Herb and Dorothy Vogel, who since the 1960s have been collecting Minimalist and Conceptual Art. Although unknown when their works were first sold, many of these artists have gone on to extraordinary careers. The couple is not wealthy and never have been; they purchased their collection on her librarian’s salary and his wages at the post office. Their cramped, cluttered apartment has the look of a hoarder’s, a fire hazard in the very essence of the term.

After decades of collecting, the couple gave their collection to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. They refused to take any money for it because they considered themselves caretakers of the works. The museum catalogued and transported the materials, and then set up an annuity for the pair as a way of compensating them at least in small part for the extraordinary gift. The couple took the money and turned around and purchased even more art. The end result is that their collection has been parceled out across the country to nearly every major contemporary art museum, and will be available to patrons for years to come, long after the Vogels are gone. They are an eccentric and intense couple, single-minded in their pursuit of art. They are not posers or members of high society. They are, like Cunningham, religious in their devotion to their work.

That is the most inspiring aspect of the two films. Bill Cunningham and the Vogels do not do what they do for money or fame. In fact, if no one recognized their work, they would continue their efforts in anonymity. They are passionate and strange, unfazed by what others might think of them. With Cunningham, he refuses to shoot with digital equipment, wandering the streets with his old film camera and developing film at a one-hour photo shop. An assistant scans his pictures and files them for his stories. The Vogels collect art that some might consider junk, but they have a unique vision for what will be considered invaluable works down the line. Their taste is unwavering. Both documentaries are insightful and inspiring.