Friday, July 16, 2010

Rings on the Water


The newish charter school my kids attend doesn’t have it together enough to offer a foreign language until this year, Because most colleges have a three year requirement, the17 year old will be short a year of language credit. I attempt to enroll him in summer school at a community college but most courses are cancelled due to the budget shortfall. For many families, including ours, the option of community college as an inexpensive alternative to the first two years of college, becomes less attractive due to budget cuts and overcrowding. The likelihood of completing an A.A. degree at an inexpensive community college in a reasonable amount of time has diminished.

The only alternative for coursework equivalent to high school Spanish available is online coursework. I research a couple of different high school credit recovery programs. They are all very pricy, averaging about $350.00 for a single semester of credit. The Brigham Young University program is much less expensive and even lists courses in bowling, personal responsibility, Mormon scripture and genealogy that can be taken online and free of charge. I am curious about online bowling. Even though it is the least expensive alternative, so much Mormon money is poured into supporting Proposition 8 and other causes I find repugnant, I would really prefer not to send the LDS any of mine. The school college counselor recommends BYU though and also tells me that our high school itself will be using the online BYU program for many subjects next year. With this recommendation, he enrolls in the BYU online program.

A CD with 45 minutes of audio material and log on instructions for Spanish II A arrives in the mail. After a few hours online his complaints don’t surprise me but his delivery of them becomes so shrill that I sit beside him at the computer. The course is comprised of seven long lessons. Each is followed by a test. There are no graphics at all, only word processed text appears on the page. The accompanying audio is poorly recorded and difficult to understand. We complete exercises based on the recorded dialogue and we aren’t sure if questions refer to Graciela or Louisa because all of the female characters are read by one actress and the males, by a single actor. Although Utah is 10% Hispanic, I doubt if many of these inhabitants hail from Spain. The course however presents a lot of Spanish vocabulary and grammar forms that are not common to the Spanish spoken in most Latin American countries. I realize our school’s rationale for subscribing to the BYU program is economic and that there is probably not an affordable alternative but it makes me sad to think that other coursework will be as clumsily and ineffectually presented as the Spanish class.

I don’t know if it’s chicken or egg or if not mastering second and third languages foments xenophobia or if it’s the other way around. The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t require intensive second language instruction until the secondary level. I suppose my late starter seventeen year old will pull through and get credit for a second year of foreign language but this online travesty will not bring him any closer to experiencing the satisfaction of actually communicating in a language other than English.

Exorbitant college tuition is not breaking news but verbiage addressing steep hikes seems narrowly focused on the correlation of tuition to graduate’s earning capacity. This is addressed in a recent New Yorker piece, College By Degrees. Author Rebecca Mead quotes a paper by Professor Vedder (Ph.D., University of Illinois) noting that fifteen percent of mail carriers have bachelor’s degrees and adds that “some of them could have bought a house for what they spent on their education.” My own education, dollar for dollar, was probably a lousy investment but there is no material possession I’d trade it for. It is confoundingly shortsighted to assess the value of higher education with regard only to vocational placement.

A college degree is not a requirement for most of the jobs listed on a list of the “Top Ten Fastest Growing Occupations,” most of which are low level and hands on and in the areas of healthcare, food service and retail sales; pretty much stuff that can’t be outsourced. This seems etched in stone but is it right to assume and accept that the inevitably large percentage of the populace who will earn a living in the performance of physical labor should be cut off from the cultivation of mind and imagination? I agree that the traditional college experience is not for everyone but the notion that learning must end with high school serves no one and a populace committed to and engaged in lifelong learning will inevitably score higher on the happiness scale. A kerfuffle in the occupational outlook is a given but it is sad that the innovation and creativity, nurtured by our educational institutions which made the U.S. a formidable force in the world, will have to be outsourced too as we allow our schools to flounder.

Argentina, and it seems like a big thing for a predominately Catholic country, legalizes same sex marriage the same week and in the same hemisphere, there is news of efforts in Uganda to pass wide sweeping anti-homosexuality laws that would impose the death penalty for the crimes of engaging in sex with a minor or if one is HIV positive. It will be a crime not to report a citizen suspected of homosexual activity to the authorities. Self-called AIDS activist Pastor Martin Ssempa wields a lot of the muscle behind efforts to pass the legislation. Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church shared the pulpit there with Ssempa and although prior to Obama’s inauguration, where Warren’s presence sure didn’t’ bode all that well for the hope and change thing, Warren quietly disassociated himself from his long relationship with Ssempa. There are other large congregations in the U.S. that make no bones about supporting Uganda’s ostensibly Christian position on the status of homosexuals.

It’s not a big surprise that American evangelical congregations would jump on this bandwagon but a number of conservative U.S., Canadian and British Episcopal dioceses have split off , from what is regarded a bastion of tolerance and liberalism, and affiliated with the Church of Uganda which declares itself in full communion with the Anglican Church of North America, a denomination formed by American and Canadian Anglicans opposed to their national churches' policies regarding the ordination of women and gay priests. The Church of Uganda takes issue with the proposed homosexuality legislation only with regard to criminalizing the failure to report homosexuals which the church feels is a violation of the sanctity of confession. Better a church that favors the execution of homosexuals than one that acknowledges the diversity of those chosen to serve God.

Obama chooses Pastor Suzan Johnson Cook as ambassador at large for religious freedom, a daunting assignment in a world where the Pew Foundation reports that 70% of the citizenry are subject to some form of religious repression. Johnson Cook would have her work cut out for her if anyone intended to actually let her get to work. We have to tread lightly, and evoke religious freedom as an excuse to turn an expedient blind eye to repression and intolerance.

Not much can be done about hard line militant Muslims, bent on the repression of women and draconian measures to subvert anyone daring to propose a more enlightened and nuanced reading of the Koran. If armed conflict can be reduced it really doesn’t matter if the tradeoff dooms women to be treated like shit. The Chinese are owed too much money to made accountable for the obliteration of ancient communities of faith in Tibet and Nepal. There is a fear that it is impossible to affect equal rights for gay citizens without offending the faithful of many persuasions. What of the churches that took a stand against integration in the 1960s evoking “the curse of Ham” to prove the inferiority of African Americans? This history is a source of shame for these congregations now and so will it be, and I hope in my lifetime, that discrimination against gays and lesbians will be remembered with incredulity and shame. The subjugation of any group runs counter to the core tenets of every faith yet America is loathe to confront those who manipulate religion in the defense of hatred.

Another outstanding documentary my company had no part in is A SMALL ACT by Jennifer Arnold. It’s on HBO and screening a bit at festivals and fundraisers. The film follows Chris Mburu, the acting coordinator of the Anti-Discrimination Section of the U.N. Mburu grows up in a Kenyan village in a family of itinerant coffee pickers. Home is a tarpaper shack without running water or electricity. He attends primary school and excels despite nights when he is unable to study due to lack of oil for the lamp.

Education beyond grade 8 in Kenya requires tuition, and while Kenya boasts one of the best educational records in Africa, still fewer than 24% of its citizens attend secondary school. Chris’s secondary education is subsidized by a European charity. He goes on to scholarship at the University of Nairobi and then graduates from Harvard School of Law. He remembers that his tuition is paid by a Swedish nursery school teacher. Mburu begins a program to provide secondary scholarships for the children of Kenyan villages and names it the Hilde Back Foundation. With the assistance of the Swedish Embassy, Mburu is able to locate the 85 year old Hilde.
Chris states that in his mind’s eye his benefactress was extremely wealthy and he is surprised that Hilde, never married and childless, lives alone in a very modest apartment. Hilde is not a native of Sweden. She was born of German Jewish parents who, when the Nazis barred Jews from schools, were able to get their young daughter an exit visa. They were never able to secure their own and Hilde’s father died in Terezin and her mother in Auschwitz.

Hilde is thrilled to see that the money she scrimped to send matters and is also a bit overwhelmed by the hoopla and the film crew. After their first meeting Chris and Hilde discover a genuine affinity for each other and after the initial awkwardness of meeting in such unusual circumstances, they speak on the phone and, as Chris is headquartered in Switzerland, visit often. Hilde travels to Kenya and is feted by Chris’s Kenyan village and at her 85th birthday party, among her teacher friends, Chris presents Hilde with a sweatshirt that says “Harvard Mom.”

It is noteworthy that a country with a Catholic population of near 75% is only the second in the southern hemisphere to sanctify same sex marriages, South Africa, perhaps in a proactive gesture , remembering the shame of having clung to apartheid for so long, is the first. Uganda, heedless of future shame, would acknowledge same sex unions, not with the rite of marriage but with execution. It is simplistic to attribute this polarity solely to disparities in education but the substantially higher rates of adult literacy found in Argentina and South Africa may have a bearing on the existence of two such distinctly unparallel universes.

Chris travels the world documenting instances of hatred and genocide. He returns home to Kenya in 2008 and when a contested election leads to an explosion of ethnic tensions over 800 die in violence. Hilde’s familiarity with the human capacity for evil is etched on her soul. Near the end of the film One Small Act, the tiny elderly Hilde Back and Chris Mburo, statuesque and very conspicuously black to Swedish passerbys seen in the footage, stroll a public square with a big modern fountain. How odd they must look, walking arm and arm ,unless you know how inextricably they are bound together by their faith that educated people are less inclined to stoop to hatred and violence. Water shoots from tiny jets on the concrete floor. Instead of succumbing to numbness or cynicism these witnesses to the worst keep alive in each other the belief that people can and will be better. Hilde surveys the large installation and says, “If you do something good, it can spread in circles, like rings on the water.”
Shabbat Shalom

5 comments:

Fionnchú said...

Timely, yes. We do move in the same big pond of ideas. A cyberfriend, blogger Tamerlane at ""True Liberal Nexus," called me along with himself as one of "two spiritually inclined apostates" this morning. I thought that summed it up nicely!

Religion fascinates me and will to my if not past my dying day. I alternately rejoice and despair at its hold over us, the joy and sophistication it brings many, and the barbarity and idiocy it foments in many more. As a race we are evolving, but which direction?

Two case studies: "Paintballers attack women in Grozny over Non-Islamic Clothes" is not an "Onion" headline. Sam Harris weighs in "A Letter to a Christian Nation" as it happens, and as I happened to post about this very morning! My Harris review.

And yes, shabbat shalom. xxx me

harry said...

Re: the life of the mind and cultivation of the spirit that four year liberal arts college provides as opposed to gaining skills for a career. It is potentially classist to privilege the elitist model of four year college. The life of the mind, the cultivation of a rich and broad experience of art and philosophy, of the sense of history... all this can and should happen beyond college, instead of college, in spite of college. And should be available to those who didn't get to fit the bourgeois college pipeline profiling. The whole sucker needs to be torn down and rebuilt. IMHO.

Fionnchú said...

As an employee more than a professor by actual profession, I agree with Harry. Layne and I have been going back and forth about this. She supports the idea that one can spend nearly $100k now to find one's self over four years. I sympathize, believe me.

But, I tell her that college has evolved the past couple of decades amidst grade and financial inflation into a commodified certification rather than a mark of refinement. The BA or better BS now represents one's ticket of admission to a career or a higher placement at a job. Look at the billboards and banner ads. Lobbyists fight for accreditation. Yet, with roots as with both of you in adult ed, I recognize that the M-Th, classes 11-3 model does not fit the majority of "customers" that make up the market of those seeking college. Not to read Plato or contemplate Kafka.

That may be the idea 50 years ago, but few can afford to follow that journey now. I also think more of us can make that intellectual quest on our own, without the debt and paying back of loans that imprisons many graduates in a cruelly constrained post-grad world. That's why I support, as HRH avers, a whole dismantling of the institution of "higher learning."

Yet, as my own "market-funded" (sic, but their euphemism) entity proves, the profits for any college now are too lucrative for the private sector to back away from. The shift away from tenure to part-time and f/t "at hire" profs bodes well for shareholders and pols but poorly for the viability of a place where research and liberal arts are valued alongside sports teams, corporate "campuses" by freeway exits, and BYU as online, pre-fab "provider" of cheaply constructed "education."

As Layne shows with LAUSD, this cost-cutting, band-aid reaction saves money we don't have, as individuals or as taxpayers. Grants get cut, loans are sold to more struggling students while bankers rub their hands and line their pockets. Meanwhile I have students coming in living in homeless shelters, with no idea how to cut and paste. This too is our market, and our nation's debtor class desperate to improve their lot. In a hurry, and not by mastering the classics. Our citizenry also expects that the money given college students for loans, by taxes, as debt, goes to "practical" majors and quick-return, rapidly-placed, occupations. Public schools, colleges, and universities reel from budget cuts, given we must fund our wars and bailouts after all, as our nation's priorities.

I wish I had simple answers. I am caught up in the same Combine I fight against, a humanist in a soulless realm. This may prove some kind of poetic justice, eh? A learning opportunity of its own.

harry said...

Brilliantly set forth John. One of your clearest rants (and that said not just because we agree). The myth of the Academy lasts to serve hegemonic Greed, not Truth. There might be a correlation of sending the rich young woman to a finishing school in the 50's - preparation for a world that no longer exists. Get a good and rewarding job, and read Proust after work; join a study circle to read Hannah Arendt; take a class to learn Hopi dancing; and work for the Revolution (there is where you and I probably diverge... but I claim as our Creed Peter Weiss' "the only true revolution is of the cell, everything else is a prison revolt." Hence the seditious nature of your explorations in buddhism.

Fionnchú said...

I think of the philosopher cabbies that at least used to wander San Francisco & NYC. Maybe an odd comparison, but scanning a moment before I read your response to mine to Layne's an offering from the Teaching Company's taped series by leading profs, I compared the cost of their 25 lectures to that of tuition. I think as the Net pushes more content out to the world, that we don't necessarily need to pull ourselves into a room to pay $25k/yr for that privilege to learn from wise people lofty ideas.

That being said, you and I grapple in ivy-less draped, flourescent and monitored stations to those paying (in your case at least!) less but probably driven more to confront the challenge of face-to-face guidance for immediate, fundamental skills. Education can work in both settings.

Have the radical visions of those who wanted to bring a glimpse of the life of the mind into the fields, the factories, the cubicles faded? Under pressure from the skills-based this and the competency-based that? Always the test looms. And the expectation that without the diploma, you aren't qualified. This gatekeeper, and the late 20c inflation always upward from h.s. to bachelor's now to master's for a legitimate grounding in a field does diminish, however, the force of those who labor to find the rewarding job outside the grid. We all have to jump through these hoops to get the chance to teach, to certify our skills. The free schools and alternative community projects of the counterculture never lasted long. Now, there's too much lobbying, too much pressure, from the educational establishment. By nature, top-down.

Perhaps the liberalizing potential in Hopi dancing, Proust (on tape now after all too at least in part, as Layne found out), and Arendt can even blend with the basic 3 R's that we are tasked at hegemonic, greedy (or "privately funded") institutions to inculcate within and model for our charges. (And a spoonful of seditious Buddhism on the low-down!) I do cheer you on, Bob, at your own position now to create the change that you've/we've dreamed of.

P.S. Never heard of Peter Weiss, but what a great quote. I keep learning from you & Layne-- thanks.