July 2007 Archives

Poet Sekou Sundiata Dies at Age 58

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Performance poet Sekou Sundiata died today of a heart attack. Sundiata will be profoundly missed. Click here to listen to a 2005 interview of Sundiata on National Public Radio's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Professors are Supposed to Teach - So Why Don't They?

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Jodi Hilton for The New York Times

"Using the ‘Beauties of Physics’ to Conquer Science Illiteracy"
The New York Times
By Claudia Dreifus
17July 2007

See below an excerpt from a NYT article on Eric Mazur, the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at Harvard. Mazur believes in one, teaching students, an anomaly in university education; and two, teaching concepts through experience and student intra-action. This he seeks to accomplish within an educational site--the university--where experiential, interactive, and active critical pedagogy is unfortunately, anathema.

Q. Why do you willingly teach an introductory physics course?

A. First, it’s part of my job description. Professors are supposed to teach. The problem is how we teach . . .

Click here to read the complete article.

Poor Kids in the U.S. Zone

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Jonathan Elderfield "Living Under South Street"

On Bob Herbert's "Poor Kids Living in a War Zone"

In a 14 July article in the New York Times, Bob Herbert discusses the recent spate of youth murders in Chicago, what Herbert refers to as the killing of "schoolchildren." By using the term schoolchildren as a collective noun, Herbert provides readers with an image of deserving youth of color. Herbert is alluding to an imagined group of "rational" young do-gooders who attend school, who make the grand effort, despite the overwhelming odds, (as if when born, youth living in poor and working class neighborhoods of color put money in some infant slot machine hoping to luck out and get a different address), to obtain the benefits of a supposedly class-equalizing education that a "rational" "liberal" society such as the U.S. offers. These are the youth of color for whom readers of the NY Times supposedly should mourn--at least these are the youth Herbert is encouraging his readers to mourn by promoting through negation the image of dark youth "thugs" roaming daytime streets, "wilding" while good liberal students take "responsibility" for themselves in that harbinger of U.S. safety and social equality: school.

In "Poor Kids Living in a War Zone," Herbert quotes Arne Duncan, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Duncan's comments, in fact, support one of Herbert's arguments--that a lack of "quality education" and federally funded summer jobs is what's killing the kids. The claim fits neatly and nicely into Duncan's and Chicago Mayor Daley's on-going efforts to construct a mass system of racially spatialized appropriation through the education policy "Renaissance 2010" (Ren '10) and the Chicago Housing Authority's "Plan for Transformation." Herbert puts the federal government at fault. The state becomes the evil-doer once again in this neoliberal lexicon of blame and denial. Public schools and jobs are at fault in Herbert's account of the problems in urban America for Black and Latin@ youth. What he neglects to address are the ways in which the economy has shifted over the last thirty years allowing "government" to act through private hands to usurp jobs, urban space (the reconfiguring of public housing hoods into supposedly "mixed" income neighbor-hoods), and the education of youth (privately managed schools like charters through public education policies like Ren '10).

One reason why there are less federally funded summer jobs is because the federal government has contracted the social safety net out to the private sector. One reason public education is of poor quality is because the standards by which we now judge public education are artificially manufactured. Based on mass standardized testing and "skills"-based learning, we deem students (and thus, their schools) "proficient" on skills unrelated to their current lives and taught in ways inapplicable to real-world situations. Schools were initially designed to create factory-oriented workers, to reproduce the various levels of the class hierarchy, and, through a hidden curriculum, to reproduce the various cultural norms and values that attend to those classes. Certainly, there are teachers who are trying to thwart the continuance of a similar more contemporary paradigm through curricular practices that support critical literacy and pedagogy. But it is hard for teachers to share this pedagogy amidst education policies like NCLB that force teachers to be creative test-preppers, test-managers, and test-facilitators.

Today, we can see workers being developed in schools for the service-sector. Students are developed as workers who will work not only as non-union ADT telemarketers and PetSmart "associates," but also as non-union FedEx marketing managers. In neither situation will the worker, though, be an owner of the operations that command her labor, nor is there assurance that she will be able to secure an "associate" or management position as de-skilling in low-wage service sector employment continues and as "skilled" employment continues to shift to countries in the process of deindustrialization. And, the latter simply shifts already low-wage jobs out to be conducted at lower wages. Thus, a different and more distant class of people are exploited instead of those around the corner.

I think Steven Pitts's analysis of the job crisis in communities of color is more accurate than Herbert's. Pitts is a labor policy specialist for U.C. Berkeley's Labor Center. In his recent article in New Labor Forum, "Bad Jobs: The Overlooked Crisis in the Black Community," Pitts attributes the crisis to what he calls the "two-dimensional crisis of work . . . [that is] the crisis of unemployment and the crisis of bad jobs. Unemployment is extraordinarily high in the Black community, and a very large number of Blacks work at jobs which don’t pay family-sustaining wages. Embattled communities must broaden the approach to the job crisis they face and develop the organizational capacity to energize Black workers in order to enact policies and programs which reduce unemployment and transform bad jobs."

In his article for Urban Habitat ("The Fight for Quality Jobs: Our Battle Against Neoliberalism"), Pitts does not neglect, as Herbert does, the global aspects of the local problem Herbert is targeting: "The policies which harm many people in other countries are closely linked to the policies which harm many people in the United States. Just as people and nations are battling to transform structural policies with respect to international economic forces, there is a need to transform certain structural policies in this country." In addition, Pitts offers a more critical direction for social complaints like Herberts. Importantly, in the area of work and employment, Pitts calls for people to "develop campaigns to transform the jobs which workers in the United States currently hold."

After characterizing Duncan, the man who is helping to close over 100 public schools in Chicago, as a "fierce champion" of gun control, Herbert ends his article with a discursive ploy to the liberal capital philosophy of self-responsibility: he blames the "victims'" families:

"And in far too many cases, the very people who should be caring for these youngsters the most, their parents, have walked away from their most fundamental responsibilities. Fathers, especially, have abandoned their young in droves."

"Life is not fair. Society will not make these vulnerable youngsters whole. We all have a responsibility, but the kids desperately need those closest to them to step up, especially the ones who gave them life."

Herbert imagines Black and Latin@ families as the negative cause and potential positive effect of bad schools and unemployment. In the area of work and unemployment, Pitts's target is not the Black and Latin@ family as is Herbert's--his target is instead political and class-based. Herbert's conjuring leaves readers thinking that Black and Latin@ mothers and fathers aren't living up to the liberal ideal of American conjugality and citizenship; he puts the total weight of social and economic responsibility on a cultural formation of family. Maybe the fact is that some Black and Latin@ parents don't want to, don't value the ideal of family as it has been constructed. And, too, maybe some just can't pay the bills on sub-standard wages. Herbert completely ignores the political economy of family; he obfuscates the notion of family responsibility as a state constructed economic management tool as well as an ultimate social safety net when the state fails at its responsibility to take care of itself, i.e., the people.

Why does Herbert not ask where the state is and where local Chicago government is? I mean, Waldo ain't been in the ghetto, evah. Why doesn't Herbert ask about the political and economic avarices and policies that continue to dismantle neighborhoods, dislodge women and men--those who have chosen to co-habitate, to wed or not to wed--from their homes? Why doesn't he ask why the state has abandoned civil society? Could the destruction of dark bodies by politicians, education officials, local and federal government and private corporations through institutional apparatuses like public schools and public housing really be so innocuous that Black and Latin@ parents could overwhelm them with their seeming skills of abandonment? All poor and working class Black and Latin@ mothers/fathers do not "walk away" from their "young" "in droves." We are not animals who when we see weakness in a young cub leave it to die in "the jungle" or murder it ourselves. Black and Latin@ children are not our "young"--cubs. Some of us have left our children, far more of us remain in the home, in the ghetto despite the enormous ideological and state apparatuses; even more of us succumb to these tools of power and we, like Herbert, espouse them, too. We criticize ourselves for not "taking responsibility" for self, for "failing." We attribute it to "bad morals" and a faulty culture. But that is all discursive sway. Herbert has picked the wrong targets. The "war zone" to which he refers is, in fact, outside American ghettos. The U.S. has produced poor kids and it has produced 'those poor kids.' The U.S. has constructed the war on many lands and on many fronts, and the country imagines the war's containment in "dark" ghettos of abandonment and despair. Ain't so. Reality is, those poor, poor kids is livin' in the U.S. zone. True that . . .

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