Monday, April 6, 2015

The knowledge economy is neither

We will pay for our hubris, as has every other civilization that presumed to know more than is knowable.

"Education is still the key to eliminating gender inequities, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, and to fostering peace.... "
Arne Duncan, November 4, 2010

On our dollar bill, via Wikimedia

I am charged with teaching young adults biology in a culture that thrives on fantasy. Education could help eliminate gender (and race) inequities, reduce poverty, and create a sustainable planet, but in its current incarnation, it plays a larger role in maintaining the status quo.

But it's the next line by Mr Duncan where he jumps off the plane of reality altogether:
"And in a knowledge economy, education is the new currency by which nations maintain economic competitiveness and global prosperity. "

People ask me if I get flack for teaching evolution--I get some, but not much, and ignorance of our origins hardly harms any of us in the long run. Creationists get to pray for our souls, we get to chuckle in the teachers' lounge, and life goes on. To be fair, most non-apocalyptic religions recognize and trust life's cycles, recognize mortality and limits, and, until humans muck things up, have their hearts in the right places.

Here's something biology teachers should tackle head on: the knowledge economy, the mantra of the newly ordained masters of money.

Where did today's dinner come from? Where was your water a month before you drank it?
Why doesn't air get used up? Where did your shit go last time you flushed?

Where does your gasoline come from? The tires on your car?
How about your electricity you're using right now? The plastic case holding your screen?

The knowledge economy is about extracting as much goods and services from the people who do the actual work of extracting what we need.
Lewis Hine, "Power house mechanic working on steam pump" 1920.Records of the Work Projects Administration.
The most advanced genetically modified plants we know still depend on sunlight, on soil, on water, on carbon dioxide from the countless beings around us breaking down what other beings put together. And I still have a class full of kids who know more about the structure of a DNA molecule than they do about wheat flour.

Here's the dirty secret we keep from our kids, and worse, keep from ourselves. There are limits, real limits, and they will come to bear when the hubris is no longer enough. True perpetual economic growth is a fantasy.

In a land where the dominant religion has joined with the dominant political and economic forces, free market capitalism has become sacred--to say otherwise is heresy. But there are limits.
Salted almonds, via Wikimedia

California continues to water its almond groves--about 10% of its water.
Most of these almonds go out of the States--and a few Californians make a lot of money.
Our knowledge economy cannot replace the water any faster than the clouds can, yet California continues to divert water for nuts.

And the poor go thirsty because a few educated folk figured out how to extract water faster than their neighbors--"Shallow wells have run dry, depriving several poor communities of water."

Read that line again--people in our land are losing their access to water because of technology developed by educated people to serve the global economy.

The rest of us will pay for this later this year when food prices go through the roof. But we will pay, because we need to eat.

But you'll pay a little less if you learn a thing or two about biology. Here, let me share a few seeds--they cost me nothing....

Basil seeds from the garden in my hand.
Everything comes from something. Stuff comes from stuff. Our screens, while entertaining, remain just that--pieces of glass and plastic sandwiching liquid crystals. If you want to see the magic, break one.

When you do, there is nothing to see, the magic is gone, because, well, that's how magic works.

Stop inviting kids into the looking glass.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

All economies start with a seed

In the U.S., we are still just talking about the steps many leading countries are actually taking to prepare their students for a competitive global economy. Falling behind educationally now will hurt our country economically for generations.

The global economy, or the abstraction we call the global economy, is doing  immeasurable harm to countless beings, including humans. I do not care to prepare students for this. I am a public school teacher working in a public space to help students learn how to see, how to think.

Claim. Evidence. Reasoning.

The word "economy" comes from Greek roots that mean, literally, to manage one's household. "Global economy" is an oxymoron.
A classroom carrot--long since eaten, from breath back to breath.

Next week many of my students will plant the seeds to grow the plants that will bear food, using little more than calories from the sun, a patch of earth along the south side of our high school, the breath of  living organisms that live in and around our neighborhood, and rain from the sky.

This is about as simple and local an economy as one can hope, and even this is beyond true comprehension. A teaspoon of decent soil holds a universe of mystery. Still, it's a start.
Classroom basil, also long since eaten, from breath back to breath
A seed will sprout for anyone, rain is still free, and our sun's energy fuels us all--the Big Mac could not exist without all three. The fourth piece, carbon dioxide, the "waste" we breathe out, is as much a part of this as the rest--what we waste becomes what we build. Life is a cycle.

A true economy has little waste.

When somebody else plants the seeds for you, lifts the shovel for you, poisons himself for you, picks the harvest for you, slaughters the harvest for you, trucks the harvest for you, and you've lost the connection to the seed, you've lost your connection to life and to the living.

Local economies matter--Hurricane Katrina is an economic story
What makes life potentially infinite is not limitless resources, but cycles. Every piece of everything that enters your body eventually leaves it, in one form or another, and eventually gets used again, in one form or another.

The global economy is based on a race to extract as much from this land and from most peoples as fast as possible in order to, um, well, the why is not so clear.

Education matters, of course, but not for the reasons Mr. Duncan purports. A global economy, such as it is, depends on us wresting a child from her roots. A decent education, a decent democracy, a decent life depends on those very same roots.

You can "earn" a college degree without a basic understanding of how life depends on cycles; just pretend the abstract is real, accept the lies of your culture, and collect your money. Ignorance is bliss.

Harvested by hand, by me, for little more than the cost of my time.
Me? I'll continue to show kids what they're missing, continue to teach them how to see (and to trust what they see), continue to assure them (even as I have doubts myself) that a better world is possible. I also remind them that each and every one of us will die, as all living things must.

Most will still be fit for the global economy despite my efforts--our culture immerses kids in an abstract world early on, feeds them the mythologies that feed the economy.

Pursuit of happiness matters more to a democracy than pursuit of desires.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Twizzler nation

Here's the simple truth.

We eat, we breathe, we drink, we move, we love, we die

What you eat matters for a lot of reasons--politics, health, and capitalism twist themselves around every impossibly red Twizzler. But that's not what I am talking about.
Eating can bring satiety, but done well, can bring joy.

We teach kids how to use their forks and knives, which side to place their glass, where to put their napkins.

But if a child should close her eyes as she slowly chews the flesh she has been given, and savors the gift of an animal now dead, with an occasional low, throaty growl of joy, she'd likely be seen as odd, possibly mentally ill.

We think we are teaching them how to eat when we're teaching them how to obey.

Just what are you teaching in your classroom this week?

Moving about quickly can get things done, but dancing here, now, can bring joy.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Spring, another year older

 Yes, it's a couple of years old, but I liked it then, and I still do.
Seemed like the right day for this.

I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
'Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.'

'Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,' I cried.
'My friends are gone, but that's a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart's pride.

Yeats' Crazy Jane makes sense  in March. This is a hard time of year for mainstream churches. Words fall flat when the earth erupts again.

Today is the kind of day you count the old men in the neighborhood after a long winter. Still missing one, but he may be recovering from St. Patrick's Day. I will wander by his stoop again in a bit.

The cherry blossom buds are tumescent, ready to spew their sperm on our streets, our cars, our heads. Life is, again, for the living.

The big old moon reared up on its hind legs this evening. The clams are in trouble. I could feel the moon pull me along with the sea water. It seems unfair, raking clams when the moon sneaks up so close. The moonlight will dance on their siphons just past midnight tonight, and maybe a clam or two will share in the dance. They need not fear my rake tomorrow.

The crocuses have tossed off any sense of decorum, popping up pretty much anywhere they please.

The sun has returned, and with it, life. The old men left shuffle past and mutter hello, in shoes impossibly thick and black. They know, they know, what we all pretend to ignore.

Grace comes, again, unearned. None of us leave this life intact. Drink the wine, the sun, the pollen, the life.

I have spent too many of last week's hours indoors--I'm tossing this out there and taking a walk....

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Pea planting time (again)

The crocuses are back--time to plant peas again
Pea planting time again.

Much has changed, much has stayed the same. Changes at my age are often precipitous, sometimes perilous. I was never one for worshiping change.

Yesterday’s rain works its way through to my knees. The earth is pliable (again), and as I work my fingers through the dirt (again), and poke holes in the ground (again), and drop each pea, one by one, into the holes (again). I cover the peas, then get up, a little slower than I did last year, but likely a little faster than I will next year, should grace get me there.

A classroom carrot, from seed
I love teaching what matters to young folks, and what matters has not changed.
What we teach, though, has.

Soon my lambs will again push their fingers into damp peat, again plant a seed or several, but this time with the promise that their seeds, if cared for, will produce plants that will provide them with food. They will also use these same fingers to fumble their way through the PARCC these next few weeks to produce results that will provide them with, well, nothing.

For many of them, possibly most, this will be the last time they plant a seed. None of us are promised another dawn, but my students can reasonably expect 20,000 or more before they die, a bit more than me. Most of them will never hunt or forage or fish or trap or clam or grow a garden from scratch.

Dinner, caught by my daughter
I’m all for education reform, for changing a system that rewards obeisance, rewards class, rewards rote, rewards compliance. I’m not looking to raise a child to serve the global economy; I’m looking to raise a child who can maintain a homestead. The skills needed for both are mostly mutual except for a few, and it’s these few that make all the difference when planting a pea.

A good gardener solves real problems, lives in the present, is wary of new tools, knows her neighborhood, shares her bounty, and acknowledges grace. She trusts natural cycles, and recognizes death. She knows her decisions help some critters, are fatal to others. She grasps the intricate relationship between her garden and herself, and knows the health of one is tied to the health of the other.
One day last summer
I believe we’d all be better off in what’s left of our republican ways if we valued these skills at least as much as we value cheap food. The government of our land was founded on knowing, and honoring, the local, not some abstract international economy.

We're mammals of this Earth.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Pruning pale male panels

I'm wrestling with this, and thinking aloud. I'm looking forward to the conversations.

If the point of national education conference panels is to exchange thoughts to stretch minds, then what better way to quash that with several representatives of the dominant culture, many who, like the musicians of Bremen, love the sound of their own voices?

This is not about the individual qualifications of the folks on the panel--we have keynotes for that. This is about putting together a few bright, thoughtful folks in front of a room of bright, thoughtful folks to see what can develop.

Despite our polite protests to the contrary, color matters. Conversations alter when those people enter the room. Sudden tight smiles. Broken phrases. People get careful.

If the point of a panel is to allow an amalgam of authentic voices, then we need diversity. But here's a problem--if we think we are fixing anything by "allowing" voices of color on a panel, by making sure "everyone" is represented, when everyone in the room knows the default power position is white male, we've not only made open discussion much less likely, we've devalued everyone's voices.

We already know what the folks running the show think. We know what those in power have historically done and continue to do. I suspect that the presence of any white man on a panel can alter the discourse in subtle and destructive ways.

This is not to say that there are not phenomenally thoughtful, bright, generous white men who could help make any panel shine, but until folks are truly color blind (not going to happen in my lifetime), then a white man's presence on the panel will alter the discussion by virtue of his perceived position in our culture.
I'm sure this panel was enlightening....
The problem is not just too few people of color on the panels--the bigger problem is the pervasiveness of the dominant culture in spaces that need change. 

If you already have a pale male on the panel, one more is not going to help. 

The voices are out there.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Because Daylight Saving Time

A day an hour shorter makes for a longer week... 

"...[T]he shift to Daylight Saving Time (DST) results in a dramatic increase in cyberloafing behavior at the national level."
DT Wagner et al, J Appl Psychol. 2012 Sep;97(5):1068-76

A quarter of the world's population will be groggy tomorrow. A few people will die traumatically. Students' test skills will deteriorate. A few more people will die of heart attacks. The stock market may crash.

And yet we still do it.

Stonehenge time
You cannot save time.

You cannot add an hour of sunshine to your day.

You can, though, manipulate human conceits. If nothing else, Daylight Savings Time is an excellent way to demonstrate to children the folly and the real consequences of humans believing they control more than they control.

Tomorrow my 1st period lambs will trudge through before dawn through blackened banks of snow to get to school. Broad Street in Bloomfield will look like the zombie apocalypse. We'll tell them to keep their heads up (or at least wipe the drool of their desks before they leave), but we are bucking millions of years of evolution.

Photo by Eugene Ter-Avakyan, cc-2.0

Humans need sleep. Adolescents (still considered by most to be a subset of humans) need more than the 97 minutes my kids average on Sunday nights.

And why not? What better way to prep for college and career readiness in the global economy than making students take life-altering assessments while comatose? Have kids knock down a few Xanax pills, and chase it with gin and Adderall cocktails to make it really authentic.

Arne says: "Students exist To Serve Man"

Stonehenge photo by Resk, released to PD
Yep, a repeat--I ilke cycles....