Monday, February 29, 2016

Spotlight On...

If someone were to tell me that a smaller film about journalism and the molestation scandal in the Catholic Church would take home the Best Picture Oscar, I would not have believed it.  Yet, there was Tom McCarthy, writer and director of Spotlight (Anonymous Content / First Look Media / Participant Media, 2015), on stage last night at the end of the lengthy telecast thanking the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their generosity in awarding the film Oscar’s ultimate honor.  It was truly a moment.

Why was it a moment?

Well, in a time when newspaper readership is in the dumper, a film about hardworking journalists succeeded in generating a discussion.

In a time when our culture is mired in gossip, infotainment and the cult of celebrity with those celebrities having done nothing to earn that status except star in their own sex tapes and reality television shows, real, deeper truth and character won out.

In a time when most people accept what they are fed by the endless social media stream instead of questioning everything, the questions emerged victorious.

In a time when a racist, misogynistic bully, a hater of journalists and the questions to which they demand answers, is winning the Republican nomination to be president, quiet, insistent intensity to uncover the truth won out over blowhards and obfuscators.

In a time when education is overloaded with standardized testing instead of real teaching creating a classroom where students are not challenged or even given the tools to think critically instead of accepting everything at face value, critical thinking and analysis surged to the forefront.

In the end, the narrative flourished, and filmmakers demonstrated that American cinema does not have to target the lowest common denominator in our society to be successful.  Movies do not have to be packed with car chases, special effects, gore and bloodshed, or sex and sadomasochism to keep an audience.  Filmmakers can simply tell a story and people will come to the feast.

The most important truth in the success of Spotlight is that a republic is only as healthy as its journalists.  Journalism is the first draft of history, and an informed populace makes for a more democratic society.  Journalists have taken so many hits of late—murdered by terrorists, beaten by angry mobs, raped in the middle of violent protests—that it is a wonder anyone takes a notebook and tries to report the truth anymore.  It is a thankless, dangerous job that offers little financial reward.

As for the subject of the film, we are past the point of return on Catholic priests and the molestation scandal.  The claims that this is all manufactured to bring down the institution simply do not hold credibility.  The priests and those who obstructed justice to shield them—everyone from local bishops to cardinals to the popes—are a disgrace.  The problem continues to be that they have tainted the whole organization.  Many people are doing good work within the Church:  Catholic school educators, those who work in various Catholic charities, those who slave away on Skid Row and in poverty relief efforts like the Catholic Worker organization.  These groups and individuals suffer daily with the damaged reputation of the Church.  Pope Francis has made a start to rectify the problem, but this systematic cancer must be rooted out.

Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer did an excellent job of bringing the story to the screen and definitely deserved the Oscar for their screenplay.  McCarthy is an actor—most notably in the final season of David Simon’s, The Wire (2002-2008) where he played a corrupt journalist.  Singer was a former staff writer on The West Wing (1999-2006).  Their film will take its place among other cinematic celebrations of journalism, including All The President’s Men, Frost/Nixon, and the documentary, Page One:  Inside The New York Times.  Spotlight is docu-drama at its best with engrossing dialog and an involving narrative that demands the viewer’s full attention.  There are no car chases, shootouts, or special effects.  It is just a devastating story well told.

Who would have thought that a film challenging one of the biggest and most labyrinthine organizations in the world while celebrating the disappearing art of the journalist would come out on top of the heap of many deserving films from 2015?  In hindsight, however, it is obvious the academy chose well.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Intersections, Both Dangerous and Otherwise

Patricia Hill Collins posits a thesis in her essay, “It’s All in the Family:  Intersections of Gender, Race, and Nation” (Hypatia, Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer, 1998), that the aspects of gender, race, class and nation are not separate social hierarchies, but integrated or intersecting lines that, as she puts it, “mutually construct one another.”  We are all, in other words, profoundly influenced by our life experiences, and most of those influential moments happen within the structure of a family, which is a microcosm of society.

She begins her essay by discussing the concept of family values.  For several decades now, and over the course of many election cycles, family values has been the hot button issue of the Republican Party.  In 1992, former Vice-President Dan Quayle used his bully pulpit to attack a fictional television character named Murphy Brown who had become pregnant, gave birth, and decided to raise her child on her own as a single parent.  Quayle used this character and her struggles with whether or not to have the child as an example of liberal, anti-family values in the entertainment industry and the Democratic Party.  Of course, the character should have been celebrated for not having an abortion, a particularly important family value among conservatives.  She put her child above the needs of her demanding career in journalism.  The father did not want any part in the raising of the child, so the character decided to go it alone as a single parent.  Yes, family values are often embodied in the structure of a husband and wife and children, the so-called nuclear family, but the character was courageous to take on the parenting alone.  For these things, Quayle gave her no credit.

Now, in a new age, we see the Republican frontrunner for the 2016 nomination to be president spit in the face of those family values.  Donald Trump has been married several times.  He has denigrated Latinos, women, and a host of other people in our society, yet he is winning.  Why he has not been attacked by those on the right who profess to advocate for traditional family values, I do not know.  This is a guy who announced on the television program, The View (ABC, March 6, 2006) that if Ivanka Trump were not his daughter he’d “probably be dating her.”

Collins identifies family as the “fundamental principle of social organization,” but this seems like family, then, is an artificial construct rather than a fully formed system with all its foibles and problems into which we are born.  To discuss social issues within “family rhetoric,” as she puts it, postulates a structure that in many cases is deeply flawed and often dysfunctional.  Blood does not draw people together, necessarily.  Friends often can be more of a family than blood relations.  In addition, family could also be a source of oppression.  Therefore, I disagree with her statement that “The traditional family ideal projects a model of equality.”  We hope for this, but the actuality is far from perfect.  Collins writes that “Individuals typically learn their assigned place in hierarchies of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, nation, and social class in their families of origin.”  Yes, they do, but they also learn racism, prejudice, and discriminatory behaviors from family authority figures like parents and older siblings.  Many children are encouraged to continue the ignorance of their parents.  Here, Collins seems a bit idealistic because she presents people in a family working in concert, and in support of, one another.  Within families, members are preprogrammed for patriarchal power structures embodied by the father figure.  Collins says this “naturalizes masculinity as a source of authority.”  Also, racist behavior is often justified using these family hierarchies—whites become the “parents” in the greater family of society and blacks become “the children,” for example—and this is again fostering and perpetuating ignorance.

The danger in this is the we-were-here-first mentality so apparent in white, Anglo-Saxon views of the world.  The history of immigration in this country discounts those indigenous cultures who were, in fact, here first, and makes them subservient to Europeans while asserting the fiction that whites have power because they brought civilization and culture to these allegedly godless pagans.  The prevalent notion in the racist paradigm is that those native cultures were lost animals until the refined and cultured whites arrived when in fact, they had a vibrant culture of their own which was, in many cases, wiped out by the arriving white-skins.

Collins asks the readers to examine the concepts of black-on-black violence as a way to “permit patterns of Black male violence targeted toward Black women,” in the form of abuse and sexual harassment, “to remain hidden and condoned.”  Really?  If anything, the endless news footage in the media of violence in black communities seems magnified to diminish the humanity of those involved.  For example, the Central Park rape allegedly committed by a group of young black men who were, as they put it, wilding, in the park that long ago spring evening in 1989, only served to reinforce the ignorant stereotype of the black man as predatory animal out to violate the white woman, in this case a jogger out for an evening run.  After spending anywhere from six to thirteen years in prison for the crime, new evidence surfaced that exonerated the now no longer young men and their convictions were vacated in 2002.  The atrocity, however, had already been committed, doubly so if we count the victim of the original rape and the victims of prejudicial law enforcement and the legal system that prosecuted the young men.

In many ways, America is the grand experiment when it comes to race, mainly because almost every culture represented in American society comes from somewhere else.  We lack the homogenous racial congruity of a China or North Korea where the face of the Other would stand out significantly.  American society is a heterogeneous and multicultural melting pot or salad bowl (choose your metaphor).  As each wave of immigrants reach our shores, they forget, as the generations mature and assimilate, that they were once the new arrivals.  When Collins argues that people of a given nation find a commonality in blood ties, America lacks those ties and therefore, we have a country still roiled by racism and discrimination.  To go a step further, money influences the criminal justice system and the opportunities offered to those in this democracy.  People with deep financial resources often have more favorable outcomes in legal issues because they can afford the best representation.  The Constitution may “promise equality for all American citizens,” Collins writes, and “all citizens stand equal before the law,” but the number of incarcerated blacks and Latinos in this country, the sheer totality of our prison population tells a different story.  The classic example is the way powdered cocaine—used predominantly by whites—once had a different sentencing guideline than crack cocaine—used predominantly by blacks and poorer segments of society.  This disparity was reduced with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

It is also significant, as Collins points out, how race affects entitlement and other programs prevalent in American society.  In the 1930s when Social Security was developed, there were certain occupations that were excluded from receiving benefits.  For example, those working in the agriculture or domestic assistance industries were left out.  Collins identifies African-American women as the demographic most affected by this, but today, many Latinos working in agriculture are not eligible to receive Social Security, either because they work only seasonally or because they are undocumented.  The greater realization is that the American dream, so mythologized in our culture, is largely out of reach for most middle class and poor people.  So-called “Old Money” is passed from generation to generation whereas many poor people in this country cannot free themselves from economic oppression to amass enough resources to pass on to future generations.  The greatest lie of the Reagan administration was that wealth would “trickle down” to poorer people in American society.  This was all empty rhetoric to justify cutting taxes for the wealthy while the poor languished in their poverty.  It is also why the property bust and recession of 2008 was so devastating for middle class and poor people.  Just when the economically oppressed found a way to purchase their own homes, the market crashed.  Many people found themselves underwater on their mortgage and either walked away from the property, or faced foreclosure proceedings.

This assault on the poor and marginalized is clear in the Supreme Court case of Buck vs. Bell in 1927.  Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the majority opinion that “society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”  This decision “held that sterilization fell within the police power of the state” and that the “principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes…Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”  This forced birth control could be utilized to prevent the mentally challenged, those carrying genetic defects, and even welfare recipients from procreating.  The debate has raged in this country and in Britain for years leading to charges of eugenic thinking in public policy.

This constitutes the intersection of a number of cultural areas into a scaffolding that constructs a cultural milieu.  As Collins points out at the end of her essay, this white domination is not the only discussion.  Even in the African-American community, there has been “a yearning for a homeland for the Black racial family,” a desire for a way to return to a “mythical Africa.”  We are all a product of our experiences, our cultures, our traditions, our faiths, and yes, our families.  No one cultural influence can be taken on its own.  Where we meet up, the intersections of our worlds, that makes us who we are.  And for those of us searching to understand the Other, the intersections are the keys to comprehending and surviving in our multicultural world.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Schools On Trial

Nikhil Goyal is a writer of prodigious talents, all of which are on display in his book, Schools On Trial:  How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice (Doubleday, 2016).

His thesis is clear:  take students and allow them to study what they want to study at their own pace.  No tests, assignments, homework, or grades.  All work is project-based.  If this is done correctly, students become life-long learners and will naturally gravitate to a program of study that is both self-directed and incredibly rich, mainly because they decide for themselves what avenues to pursue.  In Goyal’s view, one recently formed by his time in compulsory education, a traditional classroom with desks in a row, regular structured assignments and grades, lectures and discussions, and programmed courses of study all meld together to stultify students and actually turn them away from learning.

What he advocates has been done before, and he makes this clear in his recounting of the open school movement of the 1960s and 70s.  He also admits that students coming from a traditional classroom may take months, even a year to acclimate to this new, open, self-directed program of study.

Still, at times he can come off as a bit shrill and idealistic, but he is on to something and his book deserves to be read and discussed.  President Obama’s Race to the Top program was a colossal failure as was George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind.  The Common Core Standards are being dropped across the nation, and parents, students and teachers continue to rail against the endless standardized testing that now takes the place of classroom instruction and curriculum.  It is a telling detail that the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan left the cabinet as President Obama called for limits on standardized testing in schools.  Standardized testing was supposed to be the best measure of teacher effectiveness and student learning in the wake of Common Core adoption.  Duncan, a staunch advocate of such testing, would seem to have run out of road as the president approaches the end of his term.

In the early 1990s, I wrote a grant to start a more democratic education program at the private Catholic school where I was teaching.  The grant was funded, and this allowed us to bring in experts in the field to teach us how to do inter-disciplinary team teaching with a strong, student-centered approach that left space for the kids to design at least some of the school day and be able to pursue areas of their own interests.  Teachers were reluctant to let go of control.  They felt that a rigorous curriculum directed by an experienced teacher would prepare our middle school students for the challenges of higher education.  They were concerned that students would spend all day in art, say, instead of moving through a balanced diet of all the disciplines.  They also believed that the integrity of their individual courses would be undermined by having to work as a team with all the other subject teachers.  I remember clearly the math teacher venting his frustrations because he did not see how pre-algebra could be plugged into the theme of injustice and genocide in World War II.  I realized the validity of his complaint, but I told him there would be other themes where he would be driving the lessons.  For that particular theme, the history teacher was the lead.  Maybe this was his chance to integrate statistics and other forms of scientific, math-based analysis into that theme.  He left the meeting discouraged and I felt bad about that.  Among all of the teachers in our group, many felt valuable lessons were being given short shrift to allow for an interdisciplinary and student-directed approach.

Another major concern was that students would waste the time devoted to their own directed study each week.  In practice, many of the students did use their time wisely and produced some interesting projects.  However, when we polled students about how this new structure was working, they actually asked for more structure.  This was something we didn’t expect.  Many times, students enter a classroom with the whining request of:  “Can’t we do something fun today?”  This is another way of saying “can’t you entertain us for an hour so we don’t have to think?”  So we thought devoting some time each week to self-directed study would allow students to pursue their interests, but many wanted the familiar approach of teacher-directed study.  Overall, the teachers came to the conclusion that team teaching and a more democratic classroom were valuable and since that time so many years ago, I have seen other schools adopt these structures with good outcomes.

Ultimately, when I left that school a few years later, though, the teachers reverted back to a more standard schedule and curriculum where teachers planned lessons in the vacuum of their own subjects without interaction with other disciplines.  They did keep the block scheduling which allowed for longer periods of time to work on multiple activities and lessons.  In this area, it must be noted that even when I was there, many of the teachers lectured middle school students for the full 90 minute block.  I discovered this when I would meet one particular class and they could not focus and were often disruptive.  We had a talk one day where they could share freely, and they told me they could not take one more minute of talking because they had been talked at for the last 90 minutes.  I totally understood their predicament.

Goyal does his best to portray today’s schools as prisons, using the terminology of incarceration to hammer his point home.  In the first paragraph of his introduction alone he uses terms like “claustrophobic,” “warehoused,” “metal detectors,” “police officers,” “security cameras,” “orders and rules,” and “drugged into passivity.”  Prison metaphors become a recurring theme throughout the book.  I agree that American schools do look a lot like prisons, although here in Los Angeles, the LAUSD has gone out of their way in recent years to adopt more modern architecture and to develop features that make schools more user-friendly.

He takes us through some model schools and interesting, student-centered schedules.  His research is wide and all-inclusive, and his style is more like that of Jonathan Kozol, an education and child advocate for whom he expresses much admiration.

We do have to be careful, though, about how far we swing the pendulum.  It is a no-brainer that school reform is necessary and critical to our future.  We should not, however, dismiss all previous educational methodologies as ineffective.  I often neglected my coursework when I was a student to read fourteen or fifteen books per week, and consistently throughout my education, I viewed assignments with a sense of drudgery; I wanted to go my own way and would have thrived in a classroom as envisioned by Goyal.  But every student responds differently to the learning process, so to advocate one method over another will always leave someone out.  What I have seen in the last few years are teachers who fail to teach, either out of laziness or ineptitude; administrators who are more interested in public relations and the factory mentality than on educating human beings for life; and parents who fail to support the teachers and often act as legal advocates for their children’s misbehavior and classroom disruption.  In short, we all bear some fault for the schools we have and the students we graduate.

In all of this there are also teachers who do excellent work with extremely limited resources, most of which they purchase and supply themselves.  Parents work all day and come home to help their children with homework and who wish they had more time to spend with them.  This is the bright spot in the wealth of failure and missed opportunities.  We have all had teachers who inspired us to be greater than we could ever be on our own.  Nikhil Goyal is the insightful writer he is because of teaching and a burgeoning intellect that remained unfettered by the misadventures he suffered through in the classroom during his formative education.

What I take from his writing is that we should continue the discussion, continue to try new avenues to awaken young minds, and hold our students, teachers and administrators to the highest standards.  We must recognize that some people are born to teach, and that everyone of us is born to learn.  If we continue to try new ways, to appreciate what has worked in the past, and remain open to a dialog about teaching and learning, we will find our way.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Edward S. Curtis: Anthropologist-Photographer of A Vanishing People

Mosa--A Mojave Girl by Edward S. Curtis (1903)

He gave everything to his art.  Over the course of his career, he compiled an amazing anthropological and photographic record of Native American cultures and people.  He did so as they, and the wild western United States and Canada they inhabited, disappeared into the dust of history.  I first encountered his work when I researched George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull for a recent book review.

Princess Angeline by Edward S. Curtis (1899)

Edward S. Curtis was born in Wisconsin in 1868 as America was starting its long climb back from the Civil War.  He dropped school at the end of sixth grade and built his first camera so he could apprentice with a number of artists in this emerging field.  His first American Indian photograph was of Princess Angeline, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle.  The Pacific Northwest and Blackfoot country became his backdrop as he crisscrossed the territories photographing the last of the tribes at the turn of the 20th century.

With a loan from financier J.P. Morgan, Curtis prepared to complete his life’s work: documenting American Indian culture and people in a colossal 20-volume study.  He would race against time to finish the project before they disappeared.  It was both an anthropological and artistic watershed moment.  The end product would be massive with narratives and 1500 photographs.  The $75,000 from Morgan did not include a salary for Curtis to cover the twenty years it would take to complete the project, so he was always one step ahead of financial and artistic ruin.  He lived his art, and it was his only obsession.  His marriage broke up.  He spent years away from his family.  In the end, his wife divorced him and was awarded many of his glass negatives.  He went to his studio and smashed them rather than surrender them to the courts.  He died broke here in Los Angeles in 1952.  His obituary in The New York Times ran to only 77 words.

The results of Curtis’ life work were astounding:  more than 40,000 images; 10,000 recordings of Native American language and song; journals and documents where he recorded recipes, traditions, clothing, games and daily life.  Much of this work is now in archives across the country and has not seen widespread publication.  His 20-volume set of photographs, narratives and text is available online at the Curtis Library at Northwestern University.  Additional sets and photographs not included in the original volumes are available at other research libraries across the country.

Hopi Mother by Edward S. Curtis (1906)

Below is a ten minute video of Edward S. Curtis’ life and work recently posted on The Economist website.  It is powerful and well worth viewing for the incredible story of this artist-anthropologist and his work.