Archive | February, 2014

The political economy of cynicism

19 Feb

Hypothesis 1:

The  cynicism, flippancy, snarkiness, and anxious arrogance of the American  intelligentsia is produced by obnoxious shards of academic humanities programs clashing with each other as the wrecking ball of austerity hits US universities.

Evidence: 

As the bourgeoisie restructures education, there are fewer tenure track positions at universities, especially in the humanities. So the existing pool of graduate students must compete with each other to get those jobs. This turns graduate school into something like a training camp for an academic American Idol contest.  Postmodernists and Enlightenment Grand Masters go at it like characters in the Hunger Games.   The social mission of the graduate student is to destroy the competition, to come up with some new boutique intellectual product that can be sold.  Often this is a critique of someone else’s product, like an up-and-coming Pacific Northwest coffee shop with it’s sarcastic anti-Starbucks ads.

This competition does not drive up the quality of intellectual production; it incentivizes splitting hairs and trivializing language and analysis.  Niche markets proliferate to the point where everything becomes a niche, so nothing is.

To make it as the next Intellectual ™,  grad students and young professors have to hate on each other, get into all sorts of petty fake rivalries that drive up each others’ status, use their  privilege, critique their  privilege, critique other people’s  privilege, use this to gain privilege, critique themselves for doing that,  participate in social movements, wish they were participating in movements, critique movements for not confirming their theories, and so on.

Out of the thousands who do this, a few emerge as the next  Slavoj Zizek.  Most become overworked functionaries who entertain people with sarcastic jokes when they are drunk.

There are graduate student comrades who resist these immense social pressures and end up playing sincere roles in social movements or in the education of future undergrads.  They are less snarky because they learn to think and act with others.  But most of them will never be recognized by academia and will become adjunct community college professors if they’re lucky.

Given these pressures,  people should think twice before they encourage young intellectuals  to enter PHD programs in the hope of becoming professors.

One possible alternative:

Over time, those of us who like thinking and learning creatively will end up building communities where we can learn all the things people try to learn in PHD programs and more –  in a healthier, less competitive  environment.

Hypothesis 2: 

The snarkiness, cynicism, flippancy, and anxious arrogance of the American  intelligentsia is also a product of journalists competing for attention in a world overstimulated by an unprecedented level of media production.   Shock value becomes an asset if you want to be heard above the chatter of the Internet.  So does  that old modern sarcastic game of “whatever you can do, I can do meta”.   Like graduate students, journalists compete to find the hidden truth behind what other people say, to the point of reducing everything to cynical games of words and images.  Expose everyone’s hypocrisy except for your own – unless a market for self-deprecation emerges.

Evidence: 

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One possible alternative:

Over time, those of us who like searching for truths will end up building communities where we can share difficult stories fearlessly without fake objectivity or cynical self-consciousness.  We will realize we are all hypocrites in some way, which is why we need to communicate with each other, finding out what’s going on together.

Bill Gates’ Pipelines to Hell: Reflections on the 2012 Education Policy Throwdown

10 Feb

On March 1, 2012, uplifted by the spirit of Occupy, a group of us picked a fight with the largest private foundation on the planet.   

Two years later, we are now facing the very real possibility that in addition to reproducing the education pipelines that lead to prison, precarious labor, or privilege, Bill Gates is encouraging his fellow billionaires to railroad highly explosive Bakken shale oil and Tar Sands bitumen through the middle of our city.

“The 99% Challenges the Gates Foundation to an Education Policy Throwdown”

Back in 2012, we challenged the education policy experts at the Gates Foundation to a street-style debate as part of a coordinated National Day of Action for Public Education.  (We even delivered a fancy engraved invitation .)

We joined together to protest the outsized influence that the Gates Foundation wields to push its neoliberal education model.  To our amazement, their staff actually came out to debate with us when about 300 or so of us descended on their palatial headquarters in Seattle.

 

Frankly, considering that this was their full time job, the Gates Foundation policy experts were woefully unimpressive in this General Assembly style interaction.  The parents and teachers in our crowd gave them quite a drubbing over some key issues that these “experts” are clearly getting wrong:

  • Standardized Testing and Teacher Pay – the Gates Foundation was (and still is) one of the major players in the push to tie teacher pay to standardized test results.  A member of the crowd (an editor at Rethinking Schools magazine) nailed them over the numerous studies that showed the volatility of test scores from year to year.  Teachers with stellar scores one year are painted as failures the next.  Gates Foundation experts sheepishly agreed.

  • Racist Origins of Standardized Testing  – Another participant stumped them completely by asking about the origin of standardized testing.  The Gates Foundation experts were not aware that the tools they promote were originally designed by the Eugenics movement to apply assembly line models to classrooms in attempt to prove the ‘genetic superiority’ of whites.   Standardized tests continue to do what they were designed to do — maintain a system of racially segregated education.

  • Charter Schools – the Gates Foundation was (and still is) one of the major players in the push to advance charter schools.  As we have pointed out repeatedly in words and actions, the public schools are failing youth of color and working class youth.  It is understandable that many parents, communities, and progressive teachers will want to build alternative schools that have some degree of autonomy – ability to develop their own curriculum, to set their own schedules, etc.  Many people start charter schools thinking that they will offer such freedom; Bill Gates, on the other hand, wants charters in order to help take capitalism to a whole new level.

The charter movement may have started with good intentions but it has rapidly become a tool of corporate privatization rather than a viable laboratory where new forms of teaching can blossom and spread throughout the public system.   Charter schools become just as bureaucratic and authoritarian as public schools – some even more so, because charter-ization often paves the way for military academies or militaristic, heavily disciplined forms of teaching.   Many charter schools have admissions requirements, which makes it easier for elitist schools to maintain class and race segregation; this can also lead to discrimination against students with disabilities, which federal public education legislation was designed to prevent (whether it actually does that effectively is another whole conversation, but charters can make it worse).

Many charters are non-union, which means their teachers are more stressed out due to longer hours and lower pay. This can make it harder for them to focus on building relationships with students.  It can also mean the teachers have less academic freedom and can be fired more easily for teaching something that the administration doesn’t like.

When Bill Gates and his foundation push for charter schools they are not pushing for the dream of parents and teachers who want to opt out of an oppressive public school system.  They are pushing for their own dream – a corporate controlled education system with fewer public roadblocks in the way of billionaires who want to fashion education to suit their own goals.

The crowd made these criticisms of charter schools perfectly clear to the Gates Foundation.

People over Experts

At the “Education Policy Throwdown” we learned firsthand that what these “experts” are doing is not driven by observation or science.  They are paid pseudo-scientists who are paid to go find facts that support the preconceived ideology of Bill Gates.   They manipulate public policy behind the scenes by selective funding of research and by creating an atmosphere where everyone in academia is afraid to point out that the 800-pound gorilla has no clothes.

We also learned that they are vulnerable.  When called out into the streets to actually explain themselves to the public that they foist these policies upon, the Gates Foundation is simply defenseless.  

Gates’ Policies Are Still a Train Wreck

So, what else have they gotten wrong regarding education?

  • Small Schools Initiative:  The Gates Foundation spent over $2B convincing school districts to break their large schools into smaller “academies”.  Gates later admitted that the results were “disappointing” AFTER districts spent their OWN capital dollars physically re-architecting their campuses around a rich guy’s baseless hunch.  (BTW, ask the folks at Seattle’s Cleveland High School about this one.)

  • Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project:  The Gates Foundation spent years trying to validate their preconceived belief that teacher effectiveness can be scientifically measured.   They were wrong.  According to the National Education Policy Center, their “…results do not settle disagreements about what makes an effective teacher and offer little guidance about how to design real-world teacher evaluation systems”.  (This study even won the NEPC’s 2013 Bunkum Awards, recognizing lowlights in educational research).

Bill Gates and his foundation get it wrong because their policies are based on the neoliberal belief that the most important dimension of a human being is their contribution to the economy.   This ingrained belief expresses itself in systems that make the role of education to simply prepare workers for the labor market.  

In fact, this is the explicitly stated goal of their post-secondary education program:  “Our goal — to ensure that all low-income young adults have affordable access to a quality postsecondary education that is tailored to their individual needs and educational goals and leads to timely completion of a degree or certificate with labor-market value.”

Bill Gates is also wrong because he is a hypocrite.  He brags about the quality of his own relevant and relationship-based education at Lakeside, yet funnels everyone else into the pipeline that creates worker bots.
Preach One Thing, Invest in Another

Hypocrisy, or something darker, must motivate the investment portfolio of the Gates Foundation.  According to an analysis of their 2012 tax returns by Mother Jones Magazine:

  • They preach nutrition, but invest billions in MacDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Burger King, etc.

  • They preach support for the working poor, but invest billions in Walmart

  • They preach about fighting climate change, but invest billions in fossil fuels like Exxon Mobile, Arch Coal, Peabody Coal, Baker Hughes, etc.

  • WORST OF ALL, they preach that they will not invest in companies with “egregious corporate activities”, but invest in private prison companies like GEO Group and G4S Corporation, which operates 19 juvenile prisons in the US.   (GEO Group publicly stated that their profits would suffer from “reductions in crime rates” that “could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences,” along with immigration reform and the decriminalization of drugs.)

The Gates Foundation directly profits from maintaining the School to Prison Pipeline and from maintaining the dysfunctional economic status quo.

However, as we have written about on this blog before — our struggle is not JUST against the School To Prison Pipeline, but against ALL of the pipelines that systemically strip people of power and possibilities.  The pipelines to prison, to precarious employment, to overworked technology labor, or even to the stressed managerial class* are ALL BAD for the people in them.  (*Note that suicide now kills more 40-60 year old white males than car accidents).

Next Target, Higher Education

Bill Gates and his foundation continue to build the pipelines that perpetuate privilege for some and prison for others. Their latest target is now the university system, which they seek to destroy and rebuild in their own techno-capitalist vision.

The Chronicle of Higher Education released a detailed report that sharply criticized their new approach, which they state is “designed for maximum measurability, delivered increasingly through technology, and…narrowly focused on equipping students for short-term employability.”

One structural change promoted by the Gates Foundation is the channeling of Federal Student Financial Aid toward schools that do not require ‘credit hours’, instead allowing students to demonstrate competency by completing online training.

According to the Chronicle’s report, the tremendous financial power wielded by the Gates Foundation creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within the administration of colleges and universities.   Few are willing to speak out against Gates’ vision of education as job preparation.  If schools follow this vision, we all lose the many other critical roles that colleges have played in society.  The university will no longer be a place for reflection on the meaning of human existence (or other such “non-productive” activities).

Automation and Education in the Era of Robots

The Gates Foundation goals are shaped by Gates’ plans for the next era of capitalist accumulation.  As Gates, Jeff Bezos at Amazon.com, and other tech company titans push for increasing automation of the workforce, more and more workers will be replaced by robots.  As this happens, society could be increasingly divided into new classes – those who own the robots, those who manage them, those who serve these two groups, and everyone else who is deemed a “surplus population” and targeted for mass incarceration and other forms of social destruction.

If this stratification proceeds, the corporate owners would need to reproduce it in the schools.  Since charter schools make the  education system more flexible, their presence might help speed up this process.   Gates and his technocrats might push for elite, holistic, creative schools for the future robot owners, heavy STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) schools for the future robot operators, discipline-based job training programs for the future servants, and prison-like schools for everyone else. Some teachers might become highly-paid professionals training the global elite and their programmers and engineers.  Others might become low-paid service industry workers who deploy automated “teacher-proof” online curriculum, punishing students who don’t pay attention to what Bill Gates wants them to see on the screen in front of them.   

The Gates Foundation is already deploying electronic bracelets on students’ arms that measure their arousal levels in the classroom;  they could use this data to help automate teaching, creating online and cybernetic technologies to replace teachers.  This might seem far-fetched, and it is admittedly decades away at least.  But the world we live in today would seem extremely far-fetched to early 20th century auto workers.  Little did they know that the time-study researchers watching them do their jobs would use this data to  replace them with robots.

Bill Gates Might Just  Blow Us All to Hell

Clearly Bill Gates has been wrong about many things before and will be again.

However, one his miscalculations may cause immediate searing and painful death to some and will likely accelerate the death of all of us through climate change.

You see, according to Forbes Magazine, Bill Gates is the person that convinced his friend Warren Buffet and his investment company, Berkshire Hathaway, to invest in Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) and Canadian Railway (CN).   

Bill is pretty clever, and he saw that all of that Tar Sands and Bakken Shale Oil might not be able to get to market in China, ESPECIALLY if the Keystone XL pipeline was not approved by the Obama administration.  So, Berkshire Hathaway invested heavily to increase the capacity of these rail systems so that they could carry more of these petroleum products.

The cruel irony is that last month, the State Department ruled that Keystone XL will have no impact on CO2 emissions because, even if it not approved, the oil/tar in the ground would get to the market anyways via the newly expanded rail capacity.   The result is that the staggering amounts of Canadian Tar Sands will now be strip-mined and sold overseas, accelerating the pace at which the planet will become a climate-ravaged hellscape.

The Gates Foundation holds more than $10B worth of Berkshire Hathaway.  They took a minimal risk in the railway investment — even though the rail lines may have profited more without Keystone XL, they win.  They can afford to take risks and lose a few.

 However, folks in the pathway of their rail cars filled with these highly explosive materials are not so lucky.  Perhaps Bill Gates should have educated himself on one of the key themes of Greek literature – Hubris.  His unwarranted self-confidence puts our schools, our communities, and our climate at extreme risk.   

Upcoming activities vs. the School to Prison Pipeline

7 Feb
Hi folks,
     The past few weeks we’ve been working with a coalition of people who are coming together to organize against the school -to-prison pipeline.  We have these activities coming up if you’d like to join us:
1)  We will be passing out flyers raising awareness  this Sat (Feb 8th),  11 AM in front of  Grocery Outlet in the Central District/ Africatown (1126 Martin Luther King Jr Way).
2) We will also be passing out flyers this Sun (Feb 9th), 11 AM in front of the Red Apple store on 23rd and Jackson.
3) On Thurs the 13th at 6:30 pm, Seattle Public School officials will be holding a public forum at Meany Middle School, 19th Ave E. and E. Thomas St.  We will be setting up the mock isolation booth outside that meeting and will be engaging parents and community members in discussion as they enter the meeting.
We are in the process of brainstorming further actions, outreach, and workshops – if you have suggestions or would like to participate, please hit us up at creativitynotcontrol@gmail.com
Here is the flyer we’ll be passing out: Destroy the School to Prison Pipeline

Seahawks lesson plan – writing / discussion prompts

6 Feb

As everyone knows, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, and over 700,000 people flooded the streets of Seattle today for a victory parade.   I’m hearing rumors that 1,500 Seattle Public Schools teachers called in sick, and I imagine many more students skipped to attend the parade.  For all the teachers out there who want to turn this into a “teachable moment” tomorrow, here are some writing and discussion prompts I made that might be useful.  I’m going to assign them in my classes and we’ll see what kind of discussions get going.

Just in case someone questions whether this is “academically rigorous enough”, these prompts meet one or more of the  WA State EALRS (state standards) for grade 11 Social Studies skills:

5. SOCIAL STUDIES SKILLS The student understands and applies reasoning skills to conduct research, deliberate, form, and evaluate positions through the processes of reading, writing, and communicating.
5.1 Uses critical reasoning skills to analyze and evaluate positions.
5.2 Uses inquiry-based research.
5.3 Deliberates public issues.
5.4 Creates a product that uses social studies content to support a thesis and presents the product in an appropriate manner to a meaningful audience.

Super Bowl Writing / Discussion Prompts

Objective: to analyze literary and social themes in popular sports through written  reflection and verbal discussion

Please choose two of the following writing prompts, and write two paragraphs for each, on a separate sheet of paper.  As you write, please provide specific details from the Seahawks season/ postseason, from your life, from other sports, or from other texts (books/ articles/ movies/ songs/ etc).  If you are not a football fan, no problem, several of these prompts can be done even if you don’t care about the Seahawks.  Once we are done, each student will share one of your responses verbally with the class and we will discuss these themes together. 

– What does it mean to be an underdog? Write about a time you were an underdog and you succeeded at something when everyone thought you were going to fail.  Or, write about a time when you aim to be an underdog in the future.

– Write about a movie or book or song about being an underdog.  What happened in the story?  What lessons can we learn from it?

– Some commentators have said the Seahawks are a “team of misfits”.  What do you think they mean by that? What are some other teams of misfits that have done important things in history? Do you consider yourself a part of a “team of misfits”?  Why or why not?

– What does it take to build a team?  Is a team good only because of its best players?  Or is a good team one where every single player can shine, even if they are not all stars?

– What role do you think the 12th Man (the fans) played in the Seahawks victory?  Do you think the fans actually helped them win?  Or is this a myth (a story we create to make meaning out of our lives)?   Why do you think people are so drawn to being the 12th Man?  What do we get out of it?

– After the superbowl, they gave the trophy to Paul Alllen, former Microsoft executive, and owner of the Seahawks, saying he could bring it back to the 12th Man. Do you think this is fair?  Should the trophy go to the owner, to the players, or to the fans?  Why?  What does this say about our society?

– Please choose three quotes from  Seahawks players (e.g. Marshawn Lynch saying “I’m just ‘bout that action, boss”, or Russell Wilson asking “why not us?”).  What message do you think each player was trying to get across about his perspective on life?   Do you agree or disagree with his perspective?

– Over 700,000 people flooded Seattle for the victory parade.   People skipped school and work for it.  Could you imagine that many people coming out into the streets for any other reason?  What other situations would you like to see that many people caring about?  Why?   (If you’d like, you could write a short story describing what it would be like for that many people to get together for another reason, e.g. to stop global warming, to end poverty, etc.)

– The Seahawks have brought a lot of attention to Seattle.  What do you think defines Seattle right now?  What are the 5-10 most important things about this town?   Extra (if you can): Do you think the “real” Seattle was shown accurately on the TV coverage of the Superbowl, or were there biases towards certain sides of Seattle, and against others?

– Please summarize the controversy around Richard Sherman’s comments.  Do you think the response to him was racist?  Why or why not? What does this show about American society in 2014?

– Choose your favorite sport.  Who do you think is the best player in that sport today?  Please back up your argument with specific evidence; please consider a possible counter-argument, and argue against that counter-argument.

– Some of my friends have argued that the Superbowl is a massive distraction from more important issues and problems in our society that we urgently need to deal with.  They have said the rich people who run our society want us to party and forget about all of the problems they are causing.  Do you agree or disagree?  Why?

– Both Colorado and Washington state legalized marijuana the same year that the Seahawks and the Broncos went to the superbowl.  Do you think these state’s teams’ athletic success is evidence supporting arguments for legalization?  Or is it irrelevant?  Why?