We Need Something More Than “Heroes”

As we approach yet another national holiday that the media will imbue with a military undertone, an “essayist and critic” writing in the New York Times asks if “heroes” in various styles of uniforms are really what the country needs at this point in our history.

“America needs heroes,” it is sometimes said, a phrase that’s often uttered in a wistful tone, almost cooingly, as if we were talking about a lonely child. But do we really “need heroes”? We need leaders, who marshal us to the muddle. We need role models, who show us how to deal with it. But what we really need are citizens, who refuse to infantilize themselves with talk of heroes and put their shoulders to the public wheel instead. The political scientist Jonathan Weiler sees the cult of the uniform as a kind of citizenship-by-proxy. Soldiers and cops and firefighters, he argues, embody a notion of public service to which the rest of us are now no more than spectators. What we really need, in other words, is a swift kick in the pants.

That’s the last paragraph. The whole piece is well worth your time to read.

This is all part of our national tendency to spend far more time and effort memorializing the past than we do in planning for and constructing the future.

Too Big Not To Fail?

Some ideas from a recent post by Clay Shirky have been running around in my head for more than a week, although I’m not sure have enough of a grasp on them for this rant to make complete sense.

He starts with a book by an anthropologist and historian titled The Collapse of Complex Societies in which the author theorizes that past civilizations collapsed because they became too complex.

Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

Shirky sees a direct connection between those collapsing societies and some of the complex organizations with which he consults, particularly media companies that are largely in denial about the collapse of their traditional corporate models.

The focus of his entry is business, of course, but I wonder if Shirky’s thesis could also apply to public institutions that grow too large and inflexible to respond quickly to changes.

Like American education, an increasingly complex system that seems to define the concept of “too inflexible to respond”.

In discussing bureaucracies, Shirky notes that “it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one”.

That observation might very well apply to our overly-large school district, where we seem to spend a lot of time trying to write regulations to cover every possible contingency while discouraging individuals from experimenting with new ideas.

So, am I being too pessimistic in thinking that our educational bureaucracy (both local and not) is fast approaching that point where it’s too large to re-tool in less complex ways?

Have we grown too big not to fail?

The Decade From Hell

As we approach December 31, it’s time for the news media to wallow in their annual end-of-year lists and other reviews.

Except that 2009 also marks the conclusion of the decade (the aughts?) so we also are forced to look back at the past ten years.

1101091207_400.jpgTime magazine calls it the Decade From Hell, and after reading their long retrospective, I’m inclined to think that’s an appropriate title.

It’s pretty depressing to read in one article all the crap that happened in a relatively short period of time.

It’s even worse to realize that almost all of that long list of disasters “came about at least in part or were greatly exacerbated” by four societal attitudes.

Attitudes that, unfortunately, only seem to be getting worse as we head into the next decade.

Neglect. Our inward-looking culture didn’t heed the warning signs from around the world – and from within our own country – that Islamic terrorism was heading for our shores.

Possibly a better word in this case would be hubris, the swaggering attitude that the US is too big to fail.

Greed. Our absolute faith in the markets, fed by Wall Street, combined with the declawing of our regulators to undermine our financial system.

Don’t stop at Wall Street. On Main Street there’s also the rampant attitude of “I refuse to pay for anything outside of my little bubble”.

Self-interest. The auto industry disintegrated while management and labor tangoed from one bad contract to the next, ignoring their customers and their competition, aided and abetted by their respective politicians.

Auto industry? What about the naked self-interest demonstrated daily by many (if not most) of the politicians who are supposed to represent us and the news media that’s supposed to hold them to that responsibility?

Deferral of responsibility. Our power grid needs an upgrade and our bridges are falling down because we have not mustered the political and popular willpower to fix them. New Orleans drowned because authorities failed to act before Katrina busted the inadequate levees.

Which also applies to anything else that requires commitment, change to the status quo, and/or money (other than the military and other stuff that goes boom, of course).

I’d like to think we as a society might have learned some difficult lessons from the past ten years.

However, that kind of optimism requires more energy than I can muster right now.

Maybe next year.

We Need a New Vehicle

In a column at Scholastic Administrator, Alexander Russo tries to make the case that schools should not be addressing social issues that directly affect student learning.

There’s no doubt that students’ home lives play an important role in their school success. The question is whether schools are really the best vehicle through which to address deeper social issues such as poverty, lack of childcare or health insurance, inadequate access to transportation, and adult illiteracy. My view is that they’re not.

He’s right, of course.

But only if we continue to accept the traditional concept of “school”: a place where kids are segregated from the real world for six hours a day, 180 days a year.

Where students are expected to progress academically in that hermetically sealed environment at the same pace as their peers, regardless of their background, the support they receive at home, or the community outside the door.

Schools, the ones found in most American neighborhoods, certainly are not the best vehicle to correct all the variety of social problems that influence an increasing number of our students.

Educators, however, cannot ignore those factors and that’s one more good reason why we need create a totally new concept of “school”.

Arrested For Blogging

According to a report from World Information Access, an organization based at the University of Washington, that’s happened to 64 people since 2003.

Only 64? I would have expected the number to be much higher. And the researchers themselves admit that the exact statistics are hard to pin down.

It acknowledged that the true number of bloggers arrested could be far higher than the total it found as, in some cases, it proved hard to verify if an arrest had taken place and on what grounds.

For instance, it said the Committee to Protect Bloggers has published information about 344 people arrested in Burma – many of whom are thought to be be bloggers – but the WIA could not verify all the reports.

While you might expect to see people picked up for speaking out in places like Burma and Egypt, the study also reports that some of those 64 were jailed in the US, Canada, and Britain.

This issue would be a great one to discuss with students, especially with those who already have a web presence.

Is there any reason why a government should fear the blog posts of one of their citizens enough to put them in jail?

I can’t think of one but for some of our “leaders”, I suppose that’s a rhetorical question.