Category Archives: Why I write

De-centering “whiteness”: Why Critical Theory matters, and where it falls short.

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I’ve been pondering this idea for some time. I have come to a few conclusions. I’m not sure how they’ll be received, but as a thinker, amateur philosopher, and educator, I find I am compelled to at least put my observations out to anyone who may read this post.

Introduction for 2020

2020 was marked by the unanticipated, the unexpected, and the unprecedented. The words have been so overused that they have lost much of their meaning and all of their power. Still, no one could have predicted back in January just how the next months would unfold. First a pandemic, followed by controversial responses to mitigating the illness, and then a series of abuses of power by individual law enforcement officers that led to months of civil disturbances ranging from protests to riots, ironically none of which seemed to be concerned about controlling the still raging pandemic. Natural disasters from an early hurricane season in the Southeast and early wildfire season in the West led to mass evacuations an devastating loss. The economy, which had been the best in years, tanked; between government quarantines to control the viral spread, businesses damaged and destroyed by riot-induced looting, and nature’s wrath, there wasn’t really any way to maintain a robust economy. Workers were first furloughed before being let go, the result of not enough work to do. White collar jobs moved out of offices into homes, and schools went remote, requiring quick thinking by creative teachers and a paradigm shift about the role of technology in the classroom.

People around the world felt the uncertainty of a pandemic in the Internet Age. Opinions of fault for the spread of the virus began with its source in Wuhan, China, but quickly spread to national and world leaders, criticized for their responses, no matter how they responded. Some were quick to shut down their countries, mandate mask wearing, and force people into isolation. Other countries chose a measured approach, choosing to leave things open and let a herd immunity help slow the disease. Neither extreme approach made a major difference: COVID19 affected the weak and elderly first and hardest, but no particular group was unaffected, and the long term effects are still unknown.

In the middle of the chaos, a social movement gained traction and Critical Theory entered the general lexicon. It is not a new philosophy, but it has become central to a number of groups in the US, particularly in academia, in some protests movements, and even in some churches.

Critical theory is generally known as a Western European tradition that strives to merge philosophy and activism to provide liberation from slavery leading to a world where everyone is satisfied (Horkheimer, 1972). Critical theory (CT) is distinguished by its emphasis on a practical and moral response to inquiry that transforms culture by “decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Early Critical theorists focused on humans as agents of societal change with a capitalism in a “real democracy” as an entrance to a system where life operates by consensus (SEP). Social inquiry led to rational and practical knowledge that people could use to create the cultures in which they wanted to live. Human reason was a path to liberation.

Problems with this view began to emerge almost immediately. Horkheimer argued against the Marxian concept that solidarity of impoverished workers would overcome capitalism because most of the time capitalism helped people build better lives. He added that freedom and justice were dialectical in nature: “The more freedom, the less justice and the more justice, the less freedom” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBaY09Qi-w0). He said that we who live in a society cannot determine what a good society looks like, but that people can bring up the negative things that need to be changed. The problem with this view is simple: every individual can find negative things that need to be changed, but criticism alone does little but create misdirected dissatisfaction, which increases human misery rather than relieves it.

2020 was a year of many things, and the re-emergence of CT, particularly of Critical Race Theory (CRT) is among them. In the midst of a pandemic and natural disasters, CRT has migrated from academia to the vernacular, and the result has been less of liberation and more of strident division, even among friends. But CRT cannot define racists or racism. What it can do is make people aware of the lenses through which they view the world and give them an opportunity to learn through a different lens.

Continuing in 2021– coming soon

Petroglyphs

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Some I wrote more than a year ago:


The depth of the petroglyphs lets them endure over years

Petroglyphs (literally rock carvings) remind those who see them that there were people in this part of the desert Southwest long before the Europeans, Russians, and Scandinavians set eyes on the Pacific and Atlantic shores. Even a novice like me can recognize some of the stories told through these images. Sun and moons mark time. Lizards and Great Horned Sheep repeatedly appear, showing how they populated the mountains around the Las Vegas Valley. Other images might be religious or community calendars, while still others are mysteries to the casual observer.

This one is low to the ground and might represent a person? Maybe a child?
This one is a mystery to me
My favorite from this day: a mama big horned sheep and two lambs.

They do tell stories, though. Story is and always has been an essential hallmark of humanity. I may not understand the particulars of these stories, but I do appreciate that people were here. Families lived and worked and ate and dreamed here then the same way they do now. Children ran and played. Women chatted about the antics of the children and the ways the men showed off. Perhaps the women shared recipes for treating sunburns or illnesses or injuries. Did the men look to the east to test the weather for the day? Did they exchange hunting stories and compare conquests? I see these traces of human stories and my imagination fills in the empty places. I see women huddled around cooking fires while children chase lambs up and down the rugged hills. Men stand away from the women and children, planning the next hunt or the next trip over the mountain to trade with their cousin Paiutes. One nods to another, indicating a need to repair one of the community lodges. Perhaps one makes a joke and they all laugh. The artist among them, inspired by the children chasing the lambs, carves an image of a mother sheep with her kids running from the children, not in fear, but in playfulness.

I can’t say for sure what their lives were like, but I do know that they were forever changed with the Westward trek of European (and eventually American) seekers of silver and gold. There is so much to be learned from the way in which the West was settled. Misunderstanding of culture and language is no excuse for uprooting and frankly stealing from entire populations. The human propensity to enslave what it conquers and to dehumanize those it does not understand is as old as the petroglyphs on these hills. There truly is nothing new under the sun.

#why I write – a post for the National Day on Writing

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I find it interesting that the National Day on Writing is a Sunday. It seems to me a school day would be more appropriate so more people might participate. But I digress.

I write to think. I write to process information. I write to learn. I write to explore. I write to understand. I write to encourage. I write to teach. I write to implore. I write to celebrate.

I write because I can, because I must, and because I am compelled to do so.

I write because I am a writer.

What do we want schools in the US to be?

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Facebook is an interesting space for thinkers. My Facebook use is primarily for connecting to family, mindless entertainment, and, if I’m honest, procrastination. Yesterday morning, however, two stories appeared together that both intrigued and startled me.

The first story was a short video from ATTN: Life. It decried a generation of adults who can’t boil an egg (30%), change a tire (52%), or sew on a button (70%). The proposed solution? “Bring back cooking classes.” I never figured out how cooking classes ever gave instruction on changing a tire, but that became a minor thought after reading some of the more than 3000 comments. Two themes divided commenters: these skills should be taught at home and parents don’t have time, so these skills should be taught at school. One commenter even said that the school system is outdated and that schools should change to meet “needs in the modern day.”  I’m reasonably certain that home economics, secretarial skills, and vocational education are products of the past abandoned in the 1980s in favor of higher cognitive skills that can be measured on high stakes, multiple choice exams. Or, as another commentator said, “A lot of young people don’t know how to fill out basic paperwork at a doctor’s office, file taxes, and cook, but god forbid we don’t know the Pythagorean theorem.”

The second story was a psychological look at the emotional fragility of college students. Seemingly unrelated to the first, it actually illustrated exactly why secondary schools no longer include the life skills classes that will evidently solve all the #adulting problems of the first story. Additionally, it describes the challenges many young adults face, challenges that far exceed the inability to boil an egg. In this article, the author, Dr. Peter Gray, interviewed teachers, professors, employers, parents, and students, trying to discern the source of what he called, “the declining emotional resilience of college students.”

He found that secondary and primary teachers often pointed to the interference of parents who demanded to know all the details of assignments and rubric, expecting their children to excel regardless of aptitude. Teachers also held administrators who pressure teachers to pass students no matter the amount of work accomplished in order to maintain the reputation of the school. Teachers, then, feel they are held hostage to unrealistic expectations of both parents and administrators. They feel compelled to award grades based on those negotiations, rather than the progress of the student. Those grades, then, set the student up for discouragement when they go to college, believing their efforts sufficient for high grades.

Professors also blame unearned high grades for student underachievement and subsequent frustration with the reality of merit-based grading systems. Professors explained that students expected unlimited opportunities to retake exams, rewrite papers, request explicit instructions and detailed rubrics, along with extra credit opportunities. The end result, according to these professors, is a group of students who can spout facts but cannot think for themselves or accept constructive feedback. One college counselor said, ” [T] oo many students had never had a job, needed to balance a checkbook, or any of that until college or even after college. Their parents did it all…You can’t teach life skills in a class.”

Employers complained of young adults who believed they did not need constructive criticism or that their degrees automatically meant they deserved promotions and higher pay. Poor evaluations were often blamed on employers not giving adequate instruction, a reflection of the need for a detailed rubric. An HR director said, “It appears the handholding by helicopter parents and our educational system has made it problematic for our youth to ‘attempt’ to hold onto jobs. Most believe all they have to do is ‘Get the job.'”  Employers tell of young employees so resistant to mentoring or coaching that they file HR complaints about constructive criticisms they take as personal attacks.

Parents and students both blamed social pressure and the economy for the lack of emotional resilience. Parents cite the increasing cost of college, the competitive requirements of extracurricular activities in high school (taken in order to gain scholarships to college), and a perceived requirement of employers for perfect transcripts. Students, in general, pointed to all adults as sharing responsibility for their inadequacies in #adulting.

In a sense, I think each point in both articles has merit. The vicious cycle of blame, however, will not resolve any of the problems, real or perceived. As I see it, we as a society need to decide what we want schools to do. Is it reasonable to expect all teens to gravitate toward college and the white-collar employment that follows it? Are colleges so competitive that only grade point averages and test scores matter for entrance? If that is the case, then secondary schools must push for academic achievement for all. The question about how to do that better is for another time. However, is college and business right for every student? Is there a place for honoring the trades as vital parts of our economy? Have we, as a society, fallen into the trap of believing only office jobs in corporate America or positions in a STEM field are worthy pursuits? If we have, then who will boil the eggs, change the tires, or sew on missing buttons?

I think, and I suspect research would back me up, that students should be encouraged to pursue, not college, but their interests from early in their secondary education. There will be those whose aptitudes will be for the STEM fields or business models or careers that require extended years of study. Those are the students colleges should be courting. There are also students whose talents lead them in vocational directions, where trade schools or apprenticeships would be both more appropriate and more enjoyable. We need fewer tests of Pythagoras and more opportunities to explore creative or mechanical or exploratory options.  As a culture, we are all part of the problem because we value showy achievements instead of joy. When was the last time a parent or a teacher proclaimed pride in a teen’s ability to rebuild a car or replace a faucet or wire a lamp? How often do we adults brag on the student who spends hours not playing online games, but building them? Until teens feel validated for pursuing their passions, they will continue to succumb to the pressure of a society that rewards data points, high salaries, and prestige. In the process, they will not have time, energy, or interest in #adulting. Why should they? If being an adult means kowtowing to the will of a competitive culture, why try?

So, the question remains: what do we want schools in the US to be?  We can continue down the path that looks to data to determine what success looks like or we can fundamentally alter our expectations, allowing students to become adults who do what they love with the exact training they choose. But first, the US culture must learn to value all work, blue-collar, white-collar, artistic, exploratory, technological, and creative.

#WhyIWrite

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Today is National Writing Day. In my world, EVERY day is a writing day, but hey, another celebration of composition is a good thing, right? So, the prompt from the National Writing Project is this:

“The National Writing Project, NCTE, The New York Times Learning Network, and the Teaching Channel invite you to celebrate writing in all its forms: through photos, film, and graphics; pens, pencils, and computers; in graphs, etchings, and murals; on sidewalks, screens, and paper. This year we are asking people in our community to share their writing life with us.” (National Writing Project http://tinyurl.com/okwb5b2)

This makes me consider the nature of writing. Once upon a time I would have defined writing far more narrowly than I do now. Writing meant pen to paper (or fingers to typewriter keyboard). But the advent of the internet and all its affordances expanded the official definition of writing beyond simple letters and text.

I’ve always considered myself a writer. It wasn’t until later in life that I found an outlet in art. And the digital world expanded my horizons even more as I was able to execute my vision in spite of clumsy hands. And so, the purpose I had for writing found other expressions in photography and digital manipulations. This led to a love of blending images with words, which gave me a whole new voice with which to speak. As my understanding of writing expanded, I took my experiences to my students. I often blend art with essay, using photography or drawing or altered books to help students connect to themes before committing themselves to words.

But these revelations do not explain WHY I write.

I can, however, use these tools of photo and process and poem to express my own need to write:

Why I Write