Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Punk Rock Conservative?

Philosophical question: are punk and conservative antithetical or symbiotic?

As I continue to work on the idea of Henry David Thoreau as America's first punk rock poet, I have been reading through reflections and commentary on the rise of punk as a movement, and I'm pondering the political and philosophical implications. My starting point for the "what is punk" question is the Punk Manifesto, written by Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin. It's worth reading the whole piece, as well as checking out Graffin's book Anarchy Evolution. For, as many people will attest, punk is a social movement that is not just about the music or the fashion or the posture. It's an identity and belief system grounded in the integrity of individual identity amidst a world and society that pushes stifling conformity.

As I posed and discussed my question on social media, I heard many of the standard descriptors of punk as anti-establishment and even anarchistic. Yet, I want to probe deeper into those ideas. For example, is the primary focus "anti-establishment," or is it simply "pro-individual" and promoting individual liberty and self respect? That distinction is what led to my question about conservatism, as opposed to progressivism. Of course, anytime the idea of political ideology is broached, we must address the role of the Trumpian Republican party as well as the intrusion of Nazi-skinheads into punk at various times over the years. These forces are certainly problematic.

So, as I continue to ponder, I'll conclude with Graffin's summation:

PUNK IS: the personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions.

PUNK IS: a movement that serves to refute social attitudes that have been perpetuated through willful ignorance of human nature.

PUNK IS: a process of questioning and commitment to understanding that results in self-progress, and through repetition, flowers into social evolution.

PUNK IS: a belief that this world is what we make of it, truth comes from our understanding of the way things are, not from the blind adherence to prescriptions about the way things should be.

PUNK IS: the constant struggle against fear of social repercussions.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Maybe They Should Study Art History in College

My college-age son is a true GT kid and math freak of nature who took AP Calculus as an eighth grader. Yet, he chose a college that provides a liberal arts emphasis to feed his soul as much as his mathematical mind. And while he will ultimately major in math and comp-sci, he is currently taking a rich and diverse course load for his first three semesters. My fifteen-year-old daughter is a different human altogether, and as we discuss possible colleges and career paths, I am happy to steer her toward the liberal arts. She's leaning toward a communications and media/journalism focus, with the possible path toward law school as well. 

As the humanities continue to take it on the chin from myopic thinking and bean-counting market forces, I took a look at the study of the liberal arts for my column in The Villager:  

Maybe They Should Study Art History in College

On January 20, 2021, a University of Delaware graduate who was a history and political science major with a minor in English became the forty-sixth President of the United States. That background would make Thomas Jefferson and our Founding Fathers proud, for they believed deeply in the power of a classical liberal arts education. In fact, the liberal arts were the primary focus of early higher education among those great men in order to create knowledgeable leaders who were also deep thinkers. Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, a political science major, would most certainly agree.

In recent economic downturns, as liberal arts programs have continued to lose funding, the nation has pursued a new focus in higher education, and it will be to the detriment of our national identity. Colleges are cutting majors mostly in the liberal arts to focus primarily on STEM careers and basic utilitarian job training. But we go to college for more than just job skills; we study to become fully actualized human beings. And the liberal arts are more useful than many might suspect. Carley Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and GOP presidential candidate, studied medieval history and philosophy. John Mackey, the founder and CEO of Whole Foods, majored in philosophy and religion.

In 2015, Fareed Zakaria wrote In Defense of a Liberal Education, which basically explains why we study what we study. It’s about being a well-rounded, educated person. I often explain that to students after they ask “When will I actually use geometry or poetry or knowledge of the mitochondria?” The blunt, honest answer is probably never, but they will use the well-developed critical thinking brains they have for learning those things. For, education is not simply utilitarian, which is an argument we’ve been having since Charles Dickens wrote Hard Times. We don’t just teach what you’ll need for a job because education is not job training.

However, as the costs of education, especially higher ed, have soared, we’ve become more critical and narrowly focused on jobs and career skill-based education. In reality, employers often just use diplomas as a screener for jobs to identify educated people who have the persistence to complete degree programs. And this can be a problem. In the rise of a tech-STEM world, the liberal arts lose favor, though the skills and knowledge they offer are integral to all the other fields. Sadly, the necessity of a bachelor’s degree and the question of utilitarian focus in education have also become politicized.

In 2015 President Obama quipped, “I promise you folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree." And in 2019 Senator Marco Rubio said “we praise four-year college degrees but look down on technical certifications; we count ridiculous classes on pop culture as credits toward college degrees, but not wood shop.” Sadly, while trying to promote the trades, they needlessly knocked down the liberal arts. And a side-effect is that some business leaders and politicians have hinted we shouldn’t fund the liberal arts, and that students should only be given college loans for engineering or nursing, but not literature or music or social sciences. That would be a cultural and societal catastrophe.

And if that doesn’t convince you, then consider these people. Andrea Jung, the head of Neiman Marcus and Avon, focused on English literature in college. Sue Wojcicki, the first CEO of YouTube eschewed business and computer science in favor of history and literature. Coloradan Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle, was an art history major, as was Michael Lewis, the author of books like Moneyball and The Big Short. And finally, Steve Jobs, the visionary tech genius, credited his study of the humanities at Reed College for the unique brilliance of Apple computers.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Leaving Admin - a return to Mazenglish

So, ... after eight years as a school administrator, I have decided to leave admin and return to the English classroom full time. I couldn’t be happier about going back to teaching. This past year has taught us all so much, and for me, it was in losing the classroom that I found my way home.

I've now been in education for twenty-eight years, and I've worked in the United States and abroad, in public and private schools, in city and suburban communities, at elementary and middle and high school, as both a teacher and administrator. While I've mostly taught high school English, I am also an education policy geek, as well as an advocate for equity and gifted education. It has been a wonderful career, both enriching and challenging. 

When I first entered administration, I thought I might work through my school and district and perhaps even look toward a state job because I was so engaged and interested in education policy. Yet, my first admin gig was at my current school, where I'd been teaching and my two children would attend. It was undoubtedly the perfect job, for I was a TOSA, an "assistant-to-the-principal" and the GT Coordinator. However, that was only 80% of my job, and I was allowed to keep teaching one section of AP English Lang & Comp. This allowed me to stay connected to kids and content, and it was a boon to the admin team to always have a teacher voice present at the table. 

Over the years, I realized that I had no desire to move on to other positions, especially as my own kids arrived at the high school. And, as I approached the age of fifty and reflected on my career, I realized that I'd always had an inclination to finish my career back in the classroom, though that might be at the next level (as I had been heading toward Ph.D. programs in English when my son was born). And, at this point in my career, I do have some adjunct opportunities, and I am doing more writing, so it only makes sense that writing and the classroom came a calling again. And with one kid already in college, and the other approaching her junior year, it was only natural to start thinking about the admin and the teacher pathways.

So, why now?

Well, it was really the quarantine last year when our world fell apart. I had a truly wonderful AP English Lang & Comp class; it was a sharp group of juniors, many of whom I'd known since they were in middle school. We were having a great year of learning, and I felt like I was still growing and learning to be a better teacher day to day and week to week. And then it was over, and I didn't get to finish the year with them, and I felt like so much was left undone. And it made me really sad; I really missed them and regretted not being able to finish their junior year. And as that feeling sat with me during the summer, I slowly began to realize that I was no longer preferring the admin role to the classroom. So, at the end of July I went to my principal, truly a princi"pal" and a man I trust and respect so deeply, and I told him, "I think I'm done with the admin thing; I'd like to return to the classroom." He supported my decision, though he wondered if perhaps I'd do a 60/40 split and stay on as GT Coordinator. We planned to check in during December.

Well, come August, my professional world turned sideways again, as I was shifted away from my high school and over to our district's new all-online school to help on their admin team. What had been an online 9-12 program with several hundred students became an online K-12 program with more than 10,000 students. All of the high schools in the district lent some staff to help out, and I volunteered to go for my team because with my roles it made the most sense. The hardest part was giving up the one class I'd always taught; so for the past year, for the first time in nearly three decades, I was not teaching English. And I missed it all the more. The time has certainly been a professional challenge, and while I was happy to do it, the experience only reinforced my decision. So, I checked in with my principal in December, and just last week over spring break, we finalized my schedule. I now have roughly nine weeks left as a school administrator.

Next year, I return to my calling, my passion, my art, my love -- I will once again be a teacher.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

(Don't?) Become a Teacher

As an educator, especially one who works with juniors in high school as they ponder the big year and their next step in life, I am often asked by students about the teaching profession. I'm sure all teachers have had those pangs of ambivalence and internal conflict when our students mention wanting to become a teacher. For my column in The Villager a couple weeks ago, I pondered the question and my thoughts about my field:

(Don’t?) Become a Teacher

“Don’t become a teacher.”

That advice unfortunately enters my mind too often these days when talking to students. As they share thoughts on the future and mention an interest in teaching, I can’t help but pause. My reservation is not surprising. Even our most revered educators have concerns about steering young people down our career path, as in 2015, when the national Teacher of the Year Nancie Atwell shocked educators and the general public by warning students away from our profession.

Though it’s disheartening to hear, the profession has long had difficulty attracting and retaining educators, and it has a high attrition rate with more than one-third of new teachers leaving the field within their first five years. Now the precarious nature of teaching is in the news again after the Denver Post reported a poll showing 40% of Colorado teachers are considering leaving the profession. After a stressful and draining pandemic year, teachers cited safety concerns, unmanageable workloads, and low pay as primary reasons for walking away.

The revelation is troubling, but it represents a growing trend as the state and local districts continue to tighten budgets while increasing responsibilities. Nationwide, schools struggle to find qualified educators for the fifty-five million children enrolled in school. Education programs produce fewer graduates every year, and districts find themselves traveling far and wide to lure young people to the field. Additionally, the financial question is tough for future teachers, for they will knowingly enter a profession earning among the lowest starting salaries for any credentialed college degree. They will spend their entire career making 20% less than their private sector counterparts. The reluctance to commit is not hard to understand.

In addition to being content experts and masters of pedagogy, teachers are expected at a moment’s notice to become counselors, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and even security guards. At times of social unrest, such as the political protests that flooded our nation following tragedies like the killing of George Floyd, students often naturally turn to their teachers to help them process and understand. They may even speak to their teachers about issues they would never discuss with their families. Yet teachers can often feel unprepared, unqualified, and even unapproved to talk with students about the issues.

Additionally it can be dispiriting to enter a profession where so much seems beyond your control. Non-school factors are the predominant motivators of academic achievement. And issues such as vocabulary and knowledge gaps from the moment kids enter kindergarten create a daunting and seemingly insurmountable task for educators. Keep in mind that between their first day of kindergarten and their high school graduation, students spend 90% of their time outside of school. Thus, the classroom learning opportunity is a very small window to impact a young person’s life. Yet that is the commitment and expectation.

Of course, no one enters teaching thinking about those problems, worrying about those challenges, or focusing on the money. We think about our passion for learning and how we want to share it with kids. And when we think about the times a student shares an insight we’d never considered before, or asks a great question that had never occurred to us, or solves a problem in a unique way, or simply shows their joy about learning, we remember why we do this. We remember what an honor it is to be a person of trust to another human being, and we realize sometimes we might be the only one. When our students say “thank you” after we’ve given them a really hard test, we marvel at their good nature, and we’re grateful to have found such a rewarding vocation.

A longtime colleague used to pass me in the hallways before class, and he'd say, “Hey, they need you today. Bring your ‘A’ game. They need your best.” So, yes, I hesitate when young people describe a desire to teach, but then I speak from the heart when answering.

“Go for it,” I tell them. “Become a teacher. We need you.”

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Break Means Break

 I'm just coming off Spring Break, and I very happily disconnected from school for a while to refresh and re-charge my batteries for the final quarter. I wrote about it for this week's column in The Villager:

Break Means Break

For the past few days my daughter has been relaxing, enjoying herself, and not thinking about school. Hopefully many kids in the area on spring break have been able to do the same. From holidays and spring break to winter vacation and summertime, kids and teachers need breaks to comfortably step back and decompress from the pressures of school.

As a teacher I’ve always believed break means break, and it’s been my practice to complete units and assessments before we leave, sending kids off with no homework during the break. I’ve never understood teachers who assign a bucket load of work over long breaks that is turned in on the first day back. Who’d want something like that? The last thing I’m looking for after Thanksgiving weekend or Spring Break is for a hundred research papers to start grading. Ick. When we return to school, I want everyone rested and ready to start fresh.


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Support the Journalism Competition & Preservation Act

I want to use this post to acknowledge and thank Colorado's Rep. Ken Buck and Rhode Island's Rep. David Cicilline for sponsoring the Journalism Competition & Preservation Act. This piece of legislation is long overdue, and it is important and appreciated that the industry has bipartisan support for action that supports the free market and the Fourth Estate, while also standing against monopolistic and anti-competitive practices of a largely unrestrained, unregulated, and unaccountable tech industry.

“One of the bedrock values of our country is a free press, but we have seen thousands of news organizations crushed by the monopolistic power of Big Tech,” Ranking Member Buck said. “This bipartisan bill is an important start to remedying the results of Google, Facebook, and other’s anticompetitive conduct toward local news outlets, conservative media, and other news organizations.”

“A strong, diverse, free press is critical for any successful democracy. Access to trustworthy local journalism helps inform the public, hold powerful people accountable, and root out corruption,” Chairman Cicilline, who has introduced the bill in each of the last two Congresses, said. “This bill will give hardworking local reporters and publishers the helping hand they need right now, so they can continue to do their important work.”

News companies must have a free market to compete; tech companies who use & profit from print media must pay for it.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Billionaire Philanthropists Wanted: Buy a Newspaper

Print journalism, especially daily newspapers in major cities like Denver, continues to face financial pressures, and the industry needs a sugar-daddy, as opposed to the parasitic vampire hedge funds like Alden Capital that are currently buying up and gutting the Fourth Estate. As tech companies like Google and Facebook have exploited communications laws to make billions off a product they don't produce, and as print readers continue to decline, newspapers have struggled to maintain staff and resources. And at this point the billionaire philanthropist seems as good a savior as any.

Granted, some skeptics are critical of billionaires like Jeff Bezo buying the Washington Post, for they fear a compromises in journalistic integrity and interference in candid investigative reports on corporate America. While those concerns are certainly valid, the situation seems to be working well so far, and ownership of the WashPo by Bezos is definitely not worse than ownership of the Denver Post by Heath Freeman and his cronies at Alden. Regarding Bezos, I tend to view the situation more like Andrew Carnegie deciding to use his fortune to invest nationally in libraries. Perhaps he also wanted to control what people read and might have corrupted the process of which books to acquire and which to forbid, but there's no evidence of that, and the benefit of the libraries is undisputed.

And, of course, Jeff Bezos and WashPo is not the only story; billionaire Patrick Soon-shiong also saved a newspaper by buying and supporting the Los Angeles Times when it was facing insolvency and predatory interest from hedge funds. Someone with deep pockets and who doesn't have to worry about pinching pennies to turn a profit can free up a newspaper to do the important work of reporting and writing without the stress of financial spreadsheets (except those of companies and politicians who might not like the spotlight). Another model which frees papers from the conundrum of bottom-line profits is the non-profit model utilized by The Salt Lake Tribune. The non-profit approach was envisioned and ultimately implemented by wealthy owner Jon Huntsman, and to this point it has proved to be a viable business practice. Of course, strong support from the community has played a key role as well.

Print journalism is the life's blood of a democratic republic, and there are two important truths to the situation:  newspapers are in need of deep-pocket investors who will support and grow the business, and there are plenty of billionaires who could make a Carnegie-style philanthropic impact on a society in desperate need of authentic news coverage. So, if anyone could put me in touch with some billionaires like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Phil Knight, Ken Griffin, Philip Anschutz, or even some altruistic investment groups, then please let me know. We need a campaign to save journalism.

For more insight, check out this article on Stewart Bainum:

A resident of Chevy Chase, Md., just outside Washington, Mr. Bainum has had The Sun delivered to his home for years and began to worry about the paper as its print edition grew thinner over the years, said Jim Friedlich, the chief executive of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the nonprofit that owns The Philadelphia Inquirer. Mr. Friedlich added that he first discussed the newspaper business with Mr. Bainum in a Nov. 10 Zoom call.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

A Few Thoughts for Tuesday

So, I have a few blog posts waiting for development, but there are a few things on my mind today that I think are worth sharing.

First of all is my uncertain thoughts about Colorado politics and the 2022 governor's race. Everyone in the state who pays attention to politics knows that Republican George Brauchler, former district attorney for the 18th district, is clearly running for governor, though he hasn't announced his candidacy. Instead he has been writing regular columns for the Denver Post criticizing the current Democratic governor Jared Polis. And I have to admit I'm a bit torn by Brauchler basically running for governor via the Denver Post Opinion page. Granted, I think Brauchler-Polis will be a great race, and it's true that Governor Polis has the pulpit now. But this commentary campaign is a bit unseemly, and from a journalistic view it seems ... inappropriate.

Secondly, according to political writer Laura Bassett, "HuffPost employees, after a year of working through a pandemic that isn't over, were invited to a meeting today with the password "spring is here," where they were told 47 of them would be laid off. They would only know if they still had a job if they didn't receive an email by 1." And, while I agree with Bassett that the HuffPost's action was "cruel, psychotic, and ridiculous," I will go farther and say "The Huffington Post is an insult to journalism for the way it has exploited writers and obscenely profited from free labor and by using them to produce clickbait. I’ve long refused to read or support that organization." Arianna Huffington should be ashamed of herself and the machine she created. Truly, no writers should condone, read, work for, or acknowledge such a crass group.

Finally, for some positive news, CNN's new show "Searching for Italy" with Stanley Tucci is a wonderful production that I highly recommend. Of all my travels, Italy is the one place I would and will return to again and again. This travel-food show is a truly decadent pleasure. And Stanley Tucci could entertain me by just reading the side of cereal box.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Dept of Energy, or the Risk of Rick Perry Republicanism

Back in 1980, when presidential candidate Ronald Reagan quipped "The nine most dangerous words in the English language are: I'm here from the government, and I'm here to help," it was a clever campaign sound bite designed to set him and the GOP apart from a Democratic Party that had practically run the government since the time of FDR. Not even the Gipper could imagine how a stump speech soundbite would ultimately have such a dangerous and deleterious effect on the republic and the shining city on the hill he had envisioned for America in the late days of the twentieth century.

Yet, the disrespect, even contempt, for the institutions of society and systems of government that stabilize our society have become so extreme that the culminating election of an unqualified and incredibly naive man to the office of the Presidency have put infrastructure, stability, law and order, and public health at great risk. Michael Lewis, the wise and insightful author of books like Moneyball and The Big Short terms it The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy. A key player in the disaster story Lewis tells of just how badly the Trump administration fumbled their transition to the privilege of managing the federal government is none other than former Texas governor Rick Perry. No-Nothing-Do-Nothing Perry was the GOP candidate who embarrassed himself in the 2016 Republican primary debates by forgetting one of cabinet positions and departments he intended to dismantle if elected. In a purely absurdist tale, Donald Trump made him the cabinet secretary of that pivotal arm of the federal government, The Department of Energy.

“My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking,” Perry said in his opening statement to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.” -Rick Perry, 2017

This sort of inept political grandstanding and irresponsible commentary is exactly the nonsense that conservative satirist P.J. O'Rourke was referencing when he said, "Republicans are the party that says government can't work, and then they get elected and prove it." And that inept management of the institutions and systems that keep America safe, stable, and supplied with a treasure trove of information about the weather is the focus of Lewis' recent book, which should be required reading for anyone who ever runs for office or works in public service. Granted, while there is much to criticize about the size and cost and questionable decisions of "the guvmint," the focus on important, hard-working, dedicated, brilliant, and generally un-partisan civil service workers at places like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is an important education for American voters and taxpayers.