Nothing to Celebrate

Some Limits on Freedom

Ok, it’s been an exhausting year of almost non-stop social chaos in this country. I’m sure there are plenty of retrospectives of the events of the past twelve months (and much trivia) you could watch and read this weekend but I’m not going to look for them.

I’m also not going to write one. I just have a few thoughts about all this crap, mostly recycled from three previous rants. Feel free to ignore them.

The origins of this mess we’re in go back farther than one year, of course, and I continue to assign primary responsibility to the dead weight of indifference expressed by a significant number of American citizens in 2016. I can only hope that enough of those who opted out of voting, or worse, voted as a “message” to some unknown entity, are now paying attention.

I’m sure many more people are now at least awake, as expressed by the so-called resistance of the past year. However, as I ranted previously, resistance is not futile, but it’s also not enough. Pushing back does not move the country forward. At best, it maintains the status quo. Most likely, resistance will only keep us from sliding too far back into that past you hear so much about. The one that was “great” for some, but not for most.

One positive will be the many new faces who will be running for office this year. However, they, as well as the more familiar ones who want to stay in office, need to do more than put up a lot of scary ads saying “I’m not with him/them”.

They need to explain, clearly and forcefully, their vision for positive change and how it can be achieved. Engage us with how we can progress and improve society, as opposed to returning the “normal” that obviously wasn’t working for large parts of the county.

Finally, much of what has been written and said by our so-called leaders over the past twelve months, also brought to mind an essay written almost twenty years ago by the great Isaac Asimov.1

His point in the column (published in Newsweek, an actual paper magazine), is that, although many in American society loudly exclaim that the people have a “right to know”, they rarely are referring to having accurate and meaningful information. Instead they ridicule and devalue knowledge.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Asimov ends the essay with this idea:

We might begin by asking ourselves whether ignorance is so wonderful after all, and whether it makes sense to denounce “elitism”.

I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval and social rewards for learning.

Asimov’s refusal to accept willful ignorance would make a wonderful message for any candidate, for office at any level, to include at the center of their campaign.

The image is of a t-shirt for sale in The Newseum. If you are visiting Washington DC, plan to spend half a day in this wonderful alternative to that other museum of American history.

1 The whole essay is a little dated, as you might expect, but worth reading.

Resistance is Not Futile. But It’s Also Not Enough.

Many people know the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. Some can even recall something about religion and a free press being in there.

But there are two other parts of at the end of the run-on sentence opening the Bill of Rights that are often overlooked1: “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

Projection 188

It’s a good thing James Madison thought to include them. Assembling and petitioning have gotten a vigorous workout this year.

We certainly need to exercise our rights to push back against the racist, xenophobic, mysoginistic, Islamaphobic, and anti-immigrant policies being forced on us by both the Executive branch as well as the majority party in Congress.

But that need to resist is always there. Anytime governments or organizations, at any level, try to make changes we feel are not in the best interests of society, we should speak up.

We must resist the attempts to privatize our public school system, to degrade health services for women, to remove basic protections for the environment, and to completely unravel the already fragile support system for those on the low end of the economic system.

We need to push back against “leaders” who claim to know it all but don’t want the public to know anything about what they’re doing. Ones who say they have all the answers but won’t reveal even the questions.

However, resistance is not enough.

Pushing back too often results in maintaining the status quo. The same old ideas and leaders who got us to this point in the first place.

Resistance alone does not move society forward.

For that we need leaders who will clearly articulate and advocate for positive policies and laws. The people currently forcing regressive policies on the country need to be replaced with those who are not afraid of change and the future. It’s not enough for candidates to simply be “not them”, or run on trying to make us afraid of what “they” might do.

Unfortunately, that’s very much what is happening in the current off-off-year election for governor and other state-wide offices here in Virginia. The messages from Democratic candidates I’ve seen2, is very much of the “help us resist” variety rather than articulating a vision for the future of the state. And both sides are actively engaged in scaring people rather than giving them something positive to support.

I have no idea what will happen in this election. Despite all the noise, I suspect there are still too many indifferent people who are not paying attention and will not vote, leaving the choice to a minority of activists more concerned with gaining power than with building a better society.

I can only hope I’m wrong.

1. According to polls, only 12% of Americans know about their right to assemble. On the other hand, many also misread the part about Congress not making any laws abridging the right of speech and assume everyone else has a Constitutional obligation to put up with their rants.

2. I admit I haven’t seen all that many political messages since I actively avoid advertising of all kind. But the negative campaign has been very hard to miss.

The image is from an article in the Washington Post about an activist who pulled off an interesting protest at the Old Post Office building in DC, currently occupied by the Trump Organization.

3-2-1 For 10-30-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

Many parents (and other relatives) post millions of pictures of kids on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other places online every day. The co-author of a parenting book wonders if that is an invasion of the child’s privacy. It’s a good question. At least everyone should remember that any materials posted to Facebook is fair game for them to use in ways you may not like. (about 7 minutes)

The Guardian has for you a list from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, 40 things you can stop doing right now. A couple of them are UK-specific, and I’m pretty sure I can never talk my wife into the one about never owning more than 10 items of clothes, but the serious entries are intriguing. (about 6 minutes)

Despite living right outside DC, I don’t pay close attention to the minutia of politics, although it’s hard not to notice during this never ending presidential election. However, New York Magazine’s inside look at the Final Days of the Trump campaign is thoughtful and very compelling. Read it, then go watch some Adult Swim to regain a little sanity. (about 16 minutes)

Two audio tracks for your commute.

For rational members of the 50% or so who believe there is “massive” voter fraud going on in the US, know that it is really, really, really hard to pull off that conspiracy. Really! Listen to this episode of Decode DC for directions on how you too can be a fraudulent voter, and why it’s not happening. (33:02)

The Smithsonian is trying it’s hand at podcasting with one called Side Door. With only two episodes, it’s promising but still a little rough around the edges. But the first episode, titled tech yourself, is worth a listen just for the discussion about how teens use their smartphones. They could have spent the whole program on that topic. (20:00)

One video to watch when you have a few minutes.

You may not think of the Blue Man Group as musicians but the folks at NPR invited them to do a Tiny Desk Concert anyway. It’s very entertaining to watch these performers up close. I want someone to try that Meditation for Winners activity at their next faculty meeting. “Your day won’t get any better than this, I guarantee it.” (13:15)

3-2-1 For 10-9-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

Following visits to elementary schools in Finland, the 2016 Kentucky teacher of the year wonders “What If High School Were More Like Kindergarten?”. The absolute best idea is the observation of a Finish business owner: “education is important, but learning matters more.” So why can’t we apply the “playful curiosity” approach to learning inherent in most young children to high school? (about 6 minutes)

I’ve playing with and watching the concept of virtual reality over the past few years and see a lot of potential for learning in the technology. However, there is also a lot of hype (some of which is on display in the Google announcements from this week). This article from the BBC offers some good examples of how VR might be used to help people understand places and experiences foreign to them, and maybe tell stories in new ways. (about 16 minutes)

A writer, comedian and “former Googler”1 asks Do You Take Yourself Seriously? Read this piece; then turn it around and apply the concept to your students. How many of them take themselves (and their ideas) seriously? What are you doing to help them change that attitude? Or possibly, maybe unintentionally, to reinforce it? (about 4 minutes)

Two audio tracks for your commute.

One distinctive feature of the societies pictured in Star Trek and other science fiction is the lack of money. But some countries here on Earth in 2016 are moving quickly towards a cashless life. Freakonomics Radio takes an interesting look at some of these efforts and asks Why Are We Still Using Cash? Personally I love Apple Pay and think it would be great if every business would stop taking my money. (45:59)

Much of the political discussion about immigration is framed in very stark black and white. But there are many, many different pieces, including the issue of guest worker programs that shouldn’t be included at all. The DecodeDC podcast offers an interesting look at the problems US farmers are having in finding workers to pick their crops, and how Congress is getting in the way with their simplistic fights. (34:01)

One video to watch when you have a few minutes.

Why are most middle and high school students in US schools sent down a math path that begins with Algebra and aims straight towards Calculus? Especially since “[a]t most, 5 percent of people really use math, advanced math, in their work.”, according to the author of The Math Myth. In this segment from PBS Newshour he discusses why students need mathematical literacy far more than that the formal structure of our current curriculum. As a former math teacher and member of NCTM, I can’t support the president of that organization interviewed in the video. (7:03)

Supply, Meet Demand

Something to think about as we stumble forward with the completely flawed process of electing a president (or pretty much any other office). Watch and read the content that passes for “news” with this in mind:

This part won’t come as a surprise. The media doesn’t cover the issues. They cover the game. Political races and sports are covered in the exact same way in America. You get predictions about what a competitor needs to do to win, a brief spurt of action, postgame analysis, and a bunch of repetitive talkshows during which former players provide often obvious insights – which consumers continue to rehash around the social media watercooler. Seriously, is Chris Matthews any different from any SportsCenter anchor? If anything, he’s more sports than they are. His show is called Hardball. Even the MLB Network’s shows aren’t called Hardball.

And it’s not just MSNBC, Fox, and the political blogs. It’s every major news source, from PBS’ Shields and Brooks to Charlie Rose’s roundtables to the opinion (and front) pages of the top newspapers.

If you’re thinking the news media is totally to blame for current situation, consider Dave’s premise that at least half the fault belongs to the audience (that’s you and me).

Whenever the media tries to cover the issues at stake in an election, you turn them off. When they cover the game, you leave them on. You watch their shows and read their columns. You tweet. You post. You talk about it at dinner parties. You can’t talk about the issues themselves in that setting because no one in America ever has dinner with someone who doesn’t agree with them on the issues. And how could that not get boring after a few minutes?

The ultimate example of give the audience what they want.

On a side note, if you want an excellent, brief curation of the best stories, delivered free of charge most weekdays to your email or iOS device, subscribe to Dave Pell’s NextDraft.