Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Trigger Warnings

May 21, 2014


Trigger warning: this article is about trigger warnings, which may be upsetting to some people if they have ever had a traumatic experience related to trigger warnings. If this is true of you, you had better stop reading this RIGHT NOW.

Okay, now we can proceed. The student senate at the University of California in Santa Barbara recently passed a resolution urging the school to “begin the process of instituting mandatory ‘trigger warnings’ on class syllabi”. These trigger warnings are meant to alert people who have had traumatic experiences that a text may contain something they will find upsetting. Similar demands have been made at other schools. One of the texts often cited as potentially upsetting is The Great Gatsby. (No, I’m not making this up.) According to a student at Rutgers University, a trigger warning for this novel might be: “suicide,” “domestic abuse” and “graphic violence”. According to an opinion piece in the Rutgers student newspaper, Gatsby “…possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.” It’s been a while since I’ve read Fitzgerald’s novel, but all I recall with regards to violent content is that a woman is struck and killed by a car, and later her father shoots and kills a man who he mistakenly believes was the one who killed her. If that’s enough to trigger somebody, that person’s head would probably explode if he were to read Treasure Island, or, for that matter, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Oberlin College has taken this idea further. In a recent teachers guide, they advised professors that “anything could be a trigger”, and they should “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.” Triggering materials may relate to “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” So, to be safe, one should try to avoid almost the whole of world literature. In response to widespread criticism, Oberlin has tabled this policy.

This push for trigger warnings is really a form of feel good liberalism. Students who demand such policies can feel that they are “protecting” people who have been traumatized in some way. The real effect in the long run will to stymie free speech and academic inquiry. We live in a world full of disturbing ideas and events. It is not the job of the university to shield students from these things. It is, rather, to broaden their sense of the world, in all its good and bad aspects.


December 2, 2013


The Los Angeles Unified School District is prepared to spend $1 billion on iPads to be distributed to students and teachers. This is while the schools in Los Angeles are plagued by too large class sizes (40 or more students) and crumbling buildings. (A friend of mine who works as a high school teacher tells me that there is sometimes raw sewage in the hallways of the school where he works.) The iPads, which cost $647 each, will be obsolete in a few years, and in three years the district will have to spend $60 million to renew the licenses of the educational programs on the iPads. And the district apparently has no plans for what to do about iPads that get lost or broken.

This seems to me to be symptomatic of our society’s love of gimmickry when it comes to education. Standardized tests and charter schools are seen as magic solutions to our schools’ ills. Handing out iPads to students is the logical result of this shallow thinking.

The Devil’s Whore

August 11, 2013


It’s official now. I am embarrassed to have graduated from the University of Oregon.

The New York Times has an article by Greg Butler entitled Oregon Embraces ‘University of Nike’ Image. Nike, in case you don’t know, is a company that pays people pennies to make sneakers that they then sell for $75 a pair. Who wouldn’t want to embrace being associated with a company like that?

The owner of Nike, Phil Knight, recently paid for the building of something called the Football Performance Center. (I assume this is a fancy term for a training facility.) Bishop tells us:

    The Football Performance Center, which was unveiled publicly this week, is as much country club as football facility, potentially mistaken for a day spa, or an art gallery, or a sports history museum, or a spaceship — and is luxurious enough to make N.F.L. teams jealous. It is, more than anything, a testament to college football’s arms race, to the billions of dollars at stake and to the lengths that universities will go to field elite football programs.

    The performance center was paid for through a donation from Phil Knight, a founder of Nike, an Oregon alumnus and a longtime benefactor of the university. During a tour of the complex Wednesday, university officials declined to give a dollar figure, even a ballpark one, insisting they did not know the total cost of a football center where even the garbage cans were picked with great care to match the overall design. (Early design estimates placed the center’s cost at $68 million, which, based on the tour, seemed conservative.)

This is a scandal already. The University of Oregon is a public university, and as such it must maintain transparency about everything it does. Yet it now has a “Football Performance Center” that sounds like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and no one (except Phil Knight, apparently) knows how much it cost to build or about the details of its construction.

Butler describes the overall layout of the place:

    The center is divided into three buildings, all black and shiny rectangular blocks, connected by a sky bridge. Those buildings — and everything around them — are black and boxy by design. Made of black granite, corrugated metal and fritted glass, the elements are arranged like pieces of a Jenga game to show cohesion between units (they also look like the shell of an impenetrable force). A local newspaper quoted an architect who described it as a “Darth Vaderish Death Star.” The designers took that as a compliment.

So, these people feel flattered by being compared to a genocidal murderer. Interesting.

Butler and some other reporters went on a three-hour tour of this facility. This apparently left Butler feeling giddy, because he wrote this:

    For Oregon football, black is the new black, down to the black toilets in the locker room that were described, perhaps in jest, as stealth. The athletes wanted it to look cool, and architects balanced their needs — down to the custom green PlayStation consoles and pool tables made by the same Portland company that designed two for Michael Jackson — with those of the coaches, who are older and spend most of their waking hours in the center and wanted, more than anything, a diverse selection of after-shave.

    Throughout the tour, Eugene Sandoval, design partner at ZGF Architects, and Randy Stegmeier, principal interior designer at Firm 151, returned often to their favorite buzzwords, which they said guided the design: sleek, bombastic, cutting-edge. They said things like, “the material palate is elevated to a very sophisticated level” and “you will see sequencing of form and function of space.”

Aside from the more opaque rantings of Nietzsche, this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever read. I am going to break it down, in the hopes of being able to tease out the various layers of meaning here.

    For Oregon football, black is the new black, down to the black toilets in the locker room that were described, perhaps in jest, as stealth.

So they likened black toilet bowls to stealth bombers. This may or may not have been a joke.

    The athletes wanted it to look cool…

The word “it” apparently refers to the Football Performance Center, although that doesn’t follow from the previous sentence. And how does he know what the athletes wanted?

    …and architects balanced their needs — down to the custom green PlayStation consoles and pool tables made by the same Portland company that designed two for Michael Jackson…

Huh, what? They use PlayStation consoles and pool tables to train football players?

    …with those of the coaches, who are older…

The coaches are older than the players? No kidding?

    …and spend most of their waking hours in the center and wanted, more than anything, a diverse selection of after-shave.

That’s right! Those youngsters can keep their PlayStation consoles and pool tables. We mature men prefer to spend our time perusing a diverse selection of after-shave. No real man – especially an older real man – simply slaps on some Aqua Velva. And I’m sure these coaches want to smell nice if they’re going to spend their days surrounded by younger men.

    Throughout the tour, Eugene Sandoval, design partner at ZGF Architects, and Randy Stegmeier, principal interior designer at Firm 151, returned often to their favorite buzzwords, which they said guided the design: sleek, bombastic, cutting-edge.

Sleek is the opposite of bombastic.

    They said things like, “the material palate is elevated to a very sophisticated level” and “you will see sequencing of form and function of space.”

Now I know why it was that I hated the architecture students when I was in college.

Later on, Butler tells us:

    The coaches have their own locker room, complete with a hydrotherapy pool and steam shower, made from blue stone slate, and, of course, dozens of kinds of after-shave in front of the bathroom mirrors, which feature built-in televisions.

It seems to me that a built-in television defeats the whole purpose of a mirror.

All this is being done to attract top football talent. What happened at Penn State University should be a warning sign of what can happen when a university becomes all about football. (It’s worth noting here that Phil Knight defended Joe Paterno.) The people currently running the University of Oregon are like blind men stumbling towards a cliff.

Joe Paterno and the Cult of Personality

July 15, 2012

A little bit of North Korea comes to State College, Pennsylvania.

The shocking revelations of the Freeh report continue to reverberate. Rick Reilly has written a powerful article, in which he expresses remorse over his own role in building the cult of Joe Paterno. Back in 1986, he wrote an article about Paterno for Sports Illustrated. While he was staying in State College, he received a phone call one night from a Penn State professor whom he does not identify:

    “Are you here to take part in hagiography?” he said.

    “What’s hagiography?” I asked.

    “The study of saints,” he said. “You’re going to be just like the rest, aren’t you? You’re going to make Paterno out to be a saint. You don’t know him. He’ll do anything to win. What you media are doing is dangerous.”

    Jealous egghead, I figured.

It seems that Reilly owes that “jealous egghead” an apology. This makes you wonder how many other people ignored warnings that Paterno wasn’t what he appeared to be. Or how many people were ignored, who argued that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to shower so much adulation on a man who was merely coaching a football team. “What you media are doing is dangerous.” It was dangerous, and it eventually blew up in people’s faces. When the Penn State Board of Trustees rightly fired Paterno, students rioted on campus. Look at the comment threads on sports blogs, and you will find that some people are still in a state of denial about what Paterno did. All this is simply madness.

If there is one thing that life teaches us, it is that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Joe Paterno, we were told, built a winning college football team while managing to remain completely principled. Yeah, right. In recent years, it became obvious that Paterno was coach in name only, yet people played along with the pretense, because the myth of Paterno had to be maintained at all costs.

And now we know just how much it cost.

They Call It Myanmar

June 30, 2012

Writer and filmmaker, Robert H. Lieberman, spent two years putting together this documentary about Myanmar (known in the West as Burma). Much of the filming had to be done secretly, because Myanmar has a military government that is highly secretive and suspicious of outsiders. Except for Aung San Suu Kyi, a leading dissident who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, none of the people interviewed in this film are identified, for fear of government reprisals.

Myanmar used to be one of the wealthiest countries in Asia. It is now one of the poorest. Lieberman shows us crumbling buildings in Rangoon, the nation’s capitol. The military seized control of the country in 1962. They have mismanaged the economy ever since. The generals are ultra-nationalists who are deeply suspicious of the outside world. The situation is strikingly similar to that of North Korea, except that there is no cult of personality. Instead, the generals rule as a faceless bureaucracy, remote from the people.

The British invaded Myanmar in the early 19th century, and, after a series of wars, took control of the country in 1885. They ruthlessly exploited the people and their country. When the Japanese invaded during World War II, many Myanmarese welcomed them as liberators. Yet the Japanese occupation turned out to be even more brutal than that of the British, and the Myanmarese turned against them. (The parallels to the history of the US in Iraq and in Afghanistan is striking here.) The country was finally granted independence in 1948. Given the country’s history, the xenophobic views of the military actually make some sense.

The World Health Organization has ranked Myanmar as 190th in the quality of its health care. Most people cannot afford to see a real doctor. Many resort to seeing quacks who have little or no medical training. Education is also out of reach for most people. Many of the people interviewed in this film have had only one or two years of schooling. There are free schools run by Buddhist monks, but their quality of education is uneven. Many of them teach only basic reading and math and Buddhist religious ideas. Those who manage to get a college education often choose to emigrate to other countries, with the result that the country doesn’t benefit from their knowledge.

Child labor is common. We see, for example, a young girl who can’t be more than eight or nine years old carrying a basket full of gravel on her head. It’s not unusual for families to sell their children to work as servants for rich people.

Myanmar is a country with a rich culture and history. The countryside is dotted with beautiful Buddhist temples, some of them more than a thousand years old. The film emphasizes the importance of Buddhism in the nation’s culture. However, it says nothing about the country’s Christian, Muslim, and Hindu minorities. I would have liked to learn something about these groups.

There have been uprisings against the government, most notably the failed “Saffrom Revolution” of 2007. Each time these revolts have been brutally supressed. Lieberman tries to end the film on an optimistic note by saying that the young people in the country seem to feel less bound by the government’s sanctioned conventions. It is also proving increasingly difficult to keep out foreign influences. We see, for example, scenes of Burmese punk rock bands performing. Yet it’s not clear whether this will have any political consequences.

Lieberman repeatedly says that going to Myanmar is like going back in time. Is this really so? Here is a country in which a small number of people control most of the wealth, while most people can’t afford an education or decent health care, and in which the military enjoys unlimited power. Is this not the direction in which our own country is heading? Doesn’t Myanmar perhaps give us a glimpse into our own future?


December 19, 2011

In my earlier post about Paul Goodman, I pointed out that the only contemporary intellectual who has comparable influence in the U.S. is Noam Chomsky. This led me to a disturbing thought. Chomsky is in his eighties. When he is gone, who will be left? I mean, will there be any really influential intellectuals in this country? Will the deepest thinker that people have heard of be Anderson Cooper? It’s a depressing thought. However, I don’t know of anyone who can take Chomsky’s place. Slavoj Žižek is too European, and, besides, some of his ideas are, well, weird. There is Jared Diamond, of course, but a recent court case could do him irreparable damage. I know people who think that John Bellamy Foster should be as well known as Chomsky. He is certainly one of the more original Marxist thinkers around nowadays. Unfortunately, Foster is not a good public speaker. He tends to be long-winded, and he also tends to use a lot of academic jargon. One of the reasons Chomsky became famous is because he can discuss complex ideas in a clear and succinct manner, using (mostly) everyday English.

I suspect that one of the reasons for the current paucity of famous eggheads is that simply becoming an intellectual in our society is not easy. It requires being able to blot out a lot of noise. Let me give you an example. In one of the few amusing scenes in the otherwise dreary New Age film, I Am, someone asks Chomsky if he has ever seen Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. “Ace who?” says Chomsky, looking completely mystified. Lesson: you can’t be an intellectual if you watch movies like Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. I know it sounds elitist of me to say that, but it happens to be true. (Mind you, this bit of wisdom comes from a man who just watched a movie titled Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. I’m not making this up.)

Footnote One: Let give you an idea of how well-known Chomsky is. One night I went to my local Papa John’s to order a pizza. From where I was standing at the counter, I could hear a radio in the kitchen. The voice on the radio sounded strangely familiar. It took me a moment to realize that it was Chomsky’s voice. About what other intellectual could you possibly tell a story like this?

Footnote Two: I meant to write a scathing review of I Am. The problem is that every time I think about that film, my eyelids start feeling heavy. I’m afraid of slumping forward and damaging my computer monitor.

Paul Goodman Changed My Life

December 12, 2011

One rarely hears Paul Goodman’s name any more. You have to be of a certain age to have likely heard of him. Back in the 1960’s, he was, with the possible exception of Marshall McLuhan, the most famous intellectual in the United States. (The only comparable present-day figure is Noam Chomsky.) His Growing Up Absurd was a national bestseller. The book is a merciless critique of social institutions, exposing their inadequacy and arguing that people were becoming increasingly alienated from them. It helped inspire the counterculture movement of the 1960’s. It has long been out of print, but it is soon to be released on Kindle.

Goodman was a sort of thinker that we never see nowadays. He wrote on politics, sociology, psychology and urban design. He also wrote novels, short stories, poetry and plays. Jonathan Lee’s documentary tries to do justice to all these aspects of Goodman’s prolific writings, with uneven results.

Goodman came of age during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. He became an anarchist after reading Kropotkin, and this remained his basic philosophy for the rest of his life. He was a pacifist during World War II, a difficult time in which to be a pacifist. I would have liked it if the film had discussed this chapter in his life in more detail, but instead it moves on to Gestalt therapy, which Goodman developed with Fritz and Laura Perls. To give us some idea of what this is about, Lee shows us a clip from a film of Fritz Perls conducting a session. He invites a woman into his office and tells her to sit down. She lights a cigarette, smiles nervously, and tells him she feels “scared”. Perls tells her that because she smiled when she said she was “scared”, she was a “phony”. Not surprisingly, the woman takes offense at this. They go back and forth about this for a while, then Perls says, “So, now we are getting somewhere”. In all honesty, I couldn’t see the point of all this.

Fortunately, Goodman devoted his attention to other matters as well. Goodman had very strong views on education. He advocated creating small schools with no more than 25 or 30 students in each. (There is some logic in this idea. Any teacher will tell you that students tend to do better in small classes, because they receive more personal attention.) Goodman became an outspoken and eloquent opponent of the Vietnam War and of the nuclear arms race. He frequently spoke at college campuses during the sixties. However, Goodman’s traditional anarchism eventually brought him into conflict with the New Left of that period. He abhorred the ultra-leftism of the S.D.S., and he disapproved of the drug culture. By the time of his death in 1972, his influence on the left had begun to dwindle.

A large chunk of this film is devoted to Goodman’s sex life. There is reason for this, since Goodman was openly bisexual at a time when gays were often subject to legal harassment. However, this film told me more about this topic than I really wanted to know. Goodman was married and had three children, yet he spent a good deal of time having brief, meaningless affairs with men he met in bars, at the beach, and on airplanes. Just as you would expect, this behavior sometimes created strains between Goodman and his family. This is interesting – up to a point. I would have liked to learn more about Goodman’s anarchist and pacifist ideas, as well as about his troubled relationship with the New Left. Lee clearly wants to get people to read Goodman’s writings, but I don’t see how dwelling on the sordid details of his personal life is supposed to do this.

John Carlos

November 3, 2011

l. to r., Peter Norman, Tommie Smith, John Carlos.

We live to make history!
– John Carlos

John Carlos came to speak at the University of Oregon. He was one of two athletes – the other being Tommie Smith – who protested against racism in the U.S. at the 1968 Olympics by raising their fists during the playing of the national anthem. Carlos has recently published his autobiography, The John Carlos Story, co-written with Dave Zirin, who also spoke at this event.

Carlos started out by talking about his childhood. He grew up in Harlem. His mother worked as a nurse, his father owned a shoe shop. Carlos was offered a track and field scholarship to East Texas State University. It was there that he first encountered Jim Crow, finding segregated restrooms. “In Texas, my name suddenly became ‘Boy'”, he recalled. He eventually transferred to San Jose State University. The Olympics were coming up. Some people were organizing an Olympic boycott, to protest how the U.S. used the Olympics to create the false impression that Blacks are treated as equal citizens. Carlos was invited to meet with Martin Luther King, Jr., who told him that the boycott would be a great move. When Carlos expressed doubts, King used the metaphor of a lake: if you drop one rock in it, it creates ripples. During their conversation, King mentioned that he was going to Memphis to support a garbageman’s strike there. When Carlos asked him why he was doing that, King replied: “I have to stand for those who can’t stand for themselves.” Carlos recalled that when he looked in King’s eyes, he could see “no fear” in them. Ten days later, King was dead from an assassin’s bullet.

Carlos said that the lesson he learned from this is that one has to “make a total commitment.” At the Olympics, people began backing out of the boycott. It ended up with just him and Tommie Smith raising their fists during their medal ceremony. Peter Norman, the silver medal winner from Australia, wore an OPHR (Olympic Project for Human Righs) button as a sign of solidarity. Carlos said of Norman: “He is my blood brother, because he did the right thing.” Smith and Carlos were told to leave the Olympics early. They were both harshly criticized in the media, and they received death threats. Carlos also said that the Olympic committee put out the false story that their medals were taken away. He said they invented this story to intimidate any future athletes who might get out of line.

John Carlos today.

During the question and answer session, someone asked Carlos how he managed to have so much courage. He said, “I found me. Most people don’t know who they are.” In response to another question, he reminded the audience that 2,000 people were massacred by the Mexican government just before the Olympics. A student brought up the university’s recent plans to defund ethnic studies. “We need to know each other’s histories,” said Carlos. He also talked about the Occupy movement. He said that the movement is giving people courage to stand up for themselves. Another observation he made: “We’re going to have struggles for eternity.”

Louder Than A Bomb

September 25, 2011

Every year over six hundred teenagers from schools in Chicago and its suburbs take part in a poetry competition. I find this amazing. At the rich, white high school I attended, if you had suggested having a poetry competition, you would have been laughed at. It was the considered opinion of my classmates – some of whom went on to Ivy League schools – that only “faggots” read poetry. These students from Chicago clearly don’t have such preconceptions.

The students are formed into teams representing their individual schools. The teams have coaches. At the competition, which is called “Louder Than A Bomb”, audience members clap and cheer almost as if they are at a sporting event.

This documentary by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel follows several students during the six month period when they are preparing for the competition. Perhaps the most affecting of them is Nova, who was physically abused by her alcoholic father, and who is intensely devoted to her developmentally disabled younger brother. Her poems have an honesty about them that is deeply moving. Much of the film is devoted to the team from Charles Steinmetz High School, who call themselves the “Steinmenauts”. Their mentor, Coach Sloan, is a stern disciplinarian who nonetheless genuinely cares about his students. At one point, the team undergoes a crisis when three members act up at a meeting, resulting in their being kicked off the team. They are readmitted after they deliver an emotional apology. The high point of the film comes when some members of this team perform a group poem about gang violence. Overall, I was deeply impressed by how talented the students in this film are. Their poems are much better than anything I could have written when I was their age.

Louder Than A Bomb is not for everyone. It will be deeply offensive to people like Barack Obama and Michelle Rhee, as well as the producers of Waiting for “Superman”. No doubt they will angrily demand that these students should be studying for standardized tests instead of writing poetry.

I highly recommend seeing this film.

Feeding at the Trough at the University of Oregon

September 5, 2011

The John E. Jaqua Academic Center, whose upper floors are off limits to most students. A result of the brilliant planning of UO administrators.

The Register-Guard has just revealed that three months ago the University of Oregon awarded raises totaling $1.9 million a to 390 administrators. This is after university staff were forced to take a pay cut. The is at a time when the state of Oregon is in the midst of a budget crisis, and the official unemployment rate in Oregon is 9.5%. (The real unemployment rate is no doubt higher.)

What have these administrators done to deserve this raise? Let’s look at some of the things they’ve done in recent years. They spent almost a quarter of a billion dollars to build a new basketball arena that the school doesn’t need. They spent $41 million to build the gaudy and pretentious Jaqua Center, which serves no real purpose. They built the Ford Alumni Center, which, according to its website, is intended to serve as “the gateway to the university” (whatever that means). They also built an ugly and garish electrical sign in of front the new basketball arena facing busy Franklin Boulevard. (This thing is so bright that it hurts your eyes when you look at it at night. Seriously, you could use this thing instead of a lighthouse to guide ships at sea.) They wanted to create a huge neon sign saying “University of Oregon” in the middle of Portland, which is over a hundred miles from the main campus. (The people of Portland rightly stopped this.) They devised a scheme to gradually privatize the school, which will make a college education more inaccessible to people in Oregon. They have demanded that the campus police be allowed to carry guns and tasers that they don’t need. Meanwhile, the athletic department has been plagued by scandals.

And these people think they deserve a raise for all this.

One is reminded here of the banksters who gave themselves raises and bonuses after they wreaked the economy. It seems that in twenty-first century America, the way to succeed is to fail. What is important is no longer the results one gets, but one’s ability to hype oneself. (No doubt this explains the aforementioned idiotic plan for a neon sign.)

The 135-year history of the University of Oregon has followed an interesting trajectory. The place was originally conceived as a sort of mini-Harvard for people too lazy to take the week-long train ride to the East Coast. Although the school had academic pretensions (some faculty members belonged to the Klu Klux Klan), it was an open secret that the place was really a playground for the pampered sons of Oregon’s rich. These future captains of industry would amuse themselves by devising elaborate hazing rituals that invariably involved spankings. (I will leave it to the reader to try to figure out why budding capitalists would enjoy spankings.) Things changed drastically after the Second World War, largely as a result of the G.I. Bill. The university was forced to throw open its doors to members of the lower orders. The school’s fine old traditions were smashed as a result of the place being flooded by vulgar, coarse youths who actually wanted to learn about things like physics and art history. It became necessary to hire professors and instructors who knew something about the topics they were teaching. As a result, the concept of a “college education” acquired a weight and gravity that it had never previously possessed. Now, however, as tuition continues to rise and privatization looms, the university seems to be coming full circle. It appears to be becoming once again a playground for the rich.

Perhaps the idea that education is something valuable and important was merely the fleeting result of a transitory phase in the evolution of capitalism. Just look at the current campaign to destroy public education through standardized testing and charter schools. Perhaps we are returning to a situation like that in the Middle Ages, when learning was something done by a few oddballs in monasteries.

My advice to young people who want to get a college education is that they had better have a lot of money.

And it will help if they learn to enjoy being spanked.