Tag Archives: European history

Machiavelli’s advice to Mayor DeBlasio on his recent education defeat

“…there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” – The Prince, Chapter 6, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito, courtesy of Wikipedia

Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito, courtesy of Wikipedia

How does a state function when its prince has a mountain of moral and ethical rectitude and not an ounce of political sense?

New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio learned this lesson the hard way this Friday, as the far more politically adept princes of Albany reached a bipartisan budget deal that slapped the mayor in the face.

Earlier, DeBlasio acted on a campaign promise to put a leash on the charter movement in New York; a movement run rampant under his predecessor.  This was following his earlier push to tax rich New Yorkers to pay for universal pre-kindergrarten programs for all city children.   In the latter, DeBlasio went at odds with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who introduced his own Pre-K program into the state budget that didn’t require additional tax revenue.  At any rate, DeBlasio would get what he wanted, albeit through more capitalist means.

Then he decided to get personal—and stupid.

Blindsiding just about everyone, the mayor on February 27 announced the closing of three charter schools.  The three were part of about 12 that were approved in a frenzy of activity in the waning days of the Bloomberg administration, of which two were in the Success Academy network run by former city councilwoman and frequent education critic Eva Moskowitz.  DeBlasio made a point of singling out Moskowitz during his campaign, making her the poster child of everything wrong with education reform and the charter movement.

In the wake of the decision, Moskowitz staged a rally in Albany with the support of the Governor, an act that crowned her with legitimacy that DeBlasio wished he had.  The Albany minions quickly moved to silence the new mayor’s power by creating a budget deal that not only forces the city to provide space for charter schools, but also orders it to pay rent for the private building that house charters.

Andrew Cuomo comes off as the savior of New York schoolchildren, Eva Moskowitz as the Virgin Mary, and Bill DeBlasio as the demon out to unravel the whole sanctified process.

DeBlasio did not lose because he didn’t have right on his side.  He lost because he didn’t have enough political might to buttress his right.

As an Italophile of the first order, the mayor obviously overlooked the writings of the foremost political philosopher of the Italian Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli.  Therefore, let’s look at DeBlasio’s failings through the pages of The Prince, the seminal work of power politics, and see where he can do better:

“…the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”  – Ch. 6

DeBlasio woefully underestimated the forces that benefit from the charter school movement, from the parents to the operators to the businesses that fund them and the civic institutions that make their bureaucratic process easier.  Under Bloomberg, these people have always been at the table of power—putting them at the kids’ table requires political finesse and (dare I say) Machiavellian subterfuge.  The mayor exhibited neither.

“A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from snares, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize snares, and a lion to frighten wolves.”  Ch. 18

You have to hand it to Eva.  As much as she makes many peoples’ blood boil, she is an astute political operator.  The minute she heard of the closings, she made sure her kids (along with their parents) were ripped from school and sent straight to Albany for a rally.  The sea of cute children and weeping parents was a PR masterpiece.  The addition of the governor sealed the deal; it neutered the DeBlasio narrative of any righteous indignation.

“…the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.” – Ch. 3

Andrew Cuomo, contrary to what DeBlasio might think, is not running for re-election.  He is running for the Presidency.  Thus, he doesn’t need to—nor does he have to—listen to his constituency: a people who will vote Democrat even if their candidate is caught in bed with farm animals.  Cuomo is pandering to the swing states, where the education reform movement has been in full swing and maintains a solid popularity.

So when Cuomo saw what he thought was a power grab by the mayor, his action was swift, shady and merciless.  A bipartisan deal is like two stab wounds, in the front and in the back…and you’re not sure which hurts more.

“The first opinion which one forms of a prince, and of his understanding, is by observing the men he has around him.”  – Ch. 22

The mayor conducted a campaign that used commercials and live broadcasts to great effect.  Yet upon his administration, why was there not a single coherent ad campaign to “prepare the ground” in military terms?  Not a single ad, bulletin board, radio spot, etc. to whip up support.  DeBlasio’s PR machine in the campaign didn’t make a dent when confronted with the charter closings, and it speaks volumes of the people who work under the mayor.

“…it should be borne in mind that the temper of the multitude is fickle, and that while it is easy to persuade them of a thing, it is hard to fix them in that persuasion. Wherefore, matters should be so ordered that when men no longer believe of their own accord, they may be compelled to believe by force.” – Ch. 6

This battle could have been won, and won easily.  The DeBlasio administration made the assumption that the goodwill generated from the campaign and the election still carried over into the spring.

What happened was the thaw that unleashed the fickle multitude.

DeBlasio never made a point to win the hearts and minds of his supporters.  This was largely due to going into battle without a wellspring of hate towards Eva Moskowitz in general and charters in particular.  He was haranguing the masses without the masses.

The smoking guns are there, and they are plentiful: The recent allegations that Success Academy cherry-picks students and excludes students with special needs.  The studies that show charters don’t really outperform other public schools when measured accurately.  The high rates of student and teacher turnover.  The uneven distribution of resources, funds and support.  The bully tactics used when charters share space with public schools, only to see public schools swallowed up by charter monoliths.

DeBlasio never even bothered to launch a campaign for support of charter closures.  On the other hand, campaigns funded by fronts for the Koch brothers, et. al.  sprang up all over the television dial, showing smiling, happy children of various ethnicities with teachers who were just integrated enough…all praising the value of charter schools and tearfully pleading with the mayor to not take that away.

The counter argument is there, and well documented.  So why no buildup of support?

The people need to be reminded, or “persuaded by force” in Machiavelli’s words, of the supposed evils of charter schools.   This episode shows just how fickle New Yorkers can be when it comes to the education of our children.  It took some well-placed media ops to overtake the message and the battle.

Mr. DeBlasio, you got played, plain and simple.

If you want to institute the reforms you think are necessary, learn from this debacle.  Line up your allies.  Whip up support by any means necessary.  Use the resources at your disposal.  Win the PR war.

Most importantly…be ruthless and merciless to your enemies.

The time for congenial debate and finding “common ground” is over.  The opposition doesn’t bother with such niceties, and neither should you.  Play the game, and play it well.  Play to win…at all costs.

In other words:

“Hence it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed.” – ch.6

By the way…I have a spare copy of The Prince on my bookshelf if you need it.

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Video for the Classroom: A Tour through Ancient Rome, courtesy of Khan Academy and Rome Reborn

This is the type of history video Khan Academy needs!

A Tour Through Ancient Rome is a collaboration between Khan and the Rome Reborn project, an initiative to create digital models of Rome from its foundation settlements to its depopulated self during the 6th century CE.  This tour is narrated mostly by Rome Reborn director and University of Virginia professor Dr. Bernard Frischer.

The video juxtaposes a magnificent digital rendering of ancient Rome around the year 320 to various modern and ancient images of artifacts, buildings and ruins.  Dr. Frischer’s narrative contains none of the boring, linear, rote stock pedantics of other Khan humanities videos.  In fact, for a 14-minute video lecture, it’s surprisingly fun to watch.

Khan Academy had better take note: if it wants its history and humanities videos to get the same hits as its math and science films, it had better quit the light-pen Chinese takeout menu-look that it thrives upon and make the videos actually ENGAGING.

…I mean, God forbid kids actually ENJOY learning about history.

 

 

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This Day in History 6/20: Kazimierz Piechowski escapes Auschwitz through the front door

On June 20, 1942, a Steyr 220 sedan rolled out of the gates of Auschwitz, the notorious extermination camp in Poland.

In the sedan were four men, apparently members of the SS-Totenkopfverbande, or “Deaths Head” units, SS soldiers charged with administering the camps.

What seemed to be a routine jaunt by four Nazis was in fact an incredible escape from the infamous killing factory–an escape right in front of the camp itself.

Kazimierz Piechowski was a captured Polish resistance fighter who had bounced around different Gestapo camps doing forced labor.  In fact, he was merely a teen Boy Scout–apparently the Polish Boy Scouts were considered a resistance movement by the Germans, thus targeted by the SS and the Gestapo.  He arrived at Auschwitz as a political prisoner (not marked for extermination) in June of 1940, where he was assigned to carry corpses to the crematoria.  

On June 20, 1942, Piechowski led three other prisoners in an escape attempt: Stanisław Gustaw Jaster, a Polish army officer, Józef Lempart, a priest from Wadowice (which was the hometown of Pope John Paul II, so they may have known each other), and  Eugeniusz Bendera, a Ukrainian mechanic in charge of vehicles on the camp lot.

They first go through the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gate (“Work will set you free“) disguised as a haulage detail pulling a cart.  Then Piechowski, Jaster and Lempart went to a warehouse where they stashed uniforms, machine guns and grenades, while Bendera went to the motorpool to fetch appropriate transportation.  When Bendera showed up with the car, he casually went into the warehouse and put on his SS “uniform.”  The four then go to the car, with Bendera driving.  Piechowski was in the front passenger seat, as he had the best working knowledge of German.  As they approached the gate, the doors wouldn’t open.  Nervously, Piechowski opened the door enough so his SS rank insignia was showing, and barked orders in German to open the gate.

The gate opened, and the four drove off, never to return to Auschwitz.

The Nazis subsequently hauled Piechowski’s parents to Auschwitz in reprisal, where they died.  They even convened a special investigation in Berlin to see how such a brazen escape was possible.  It is believed that after the Piechowski escape, inmate numbers were tattooed on arms to better identify runaways.

Piechowski himself continued in the Polish resistance, and became an engineer after the war.  He even served 7 years in a Communist labor camp for his alleged anti-Communist role in the resistance–which was more than double the time he spent imprisoned by the Nazis.  After the Cold War, he quietly retired and refused all honors bestowed on him.

Bendera, according to Piechowski, was the real mastermind, as he conceptualized the plan and the logistics.  He would live in Poland until his death in 1970.  Lempart, the priest, would leave the priesthood, marry and raise a family before getting hit by a bus in Wadowice in 1971.  Jaster’s end remains a mystery: a book claims that he collaborated with the Nazis and was executed by the resistance in 1943.  It has since been refuted as lacking evidence, and is believed Jaster died in Gestapo activity sometime in the fall of 1943–the circumstances are still unclear.

Attached is the 2006 Polish documentary Uciekinier (“Man on the Run”), an award-winning film about the escape.

 

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How “Philosophy Bro” Helped me Corrupt the Youth, Socrates-style

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nothing excites me more than a student proving the ignorance of the powers that be.

On Monday, my room was visited for the great beauty pageant of education, the quality review.  It wasn’t to observe me, though: the technology teacher had the class that period and it was mostly to observe her.  I was sitting in the front of the room, doing some paperwork as if nothing was happening.

The reviewers entered the room, along with the four assistant principals, packed at four corners of my room.  They observed, gawked, took notes, asked questions of some of the students.  The technology lesson was supposed to be the focus.

My students, of course, stole the show.

As the teacher asked the students about the student surveys they would be taking online, one of my students rose his hand and explained, quite calmly, how the results can be manipulated to show students doing worse than they really are, so that it looks like they’re making progress.  My supervisor laughed nervously.  The other reviewers gasped.

I couldn’t be prouder.  There was my kid thinking critically—with NO coaching—and noting the glaring flaws in the system.

Furthermore, it looked like the review team was looking less at the lesson and more at my room.  Charts of Athenian democracy and Alexander the Great’s empire.  Student-produced definitions of “civilization.”  Projects about energy, including a provocative poster stating that nuclear energy “will blow your mind.”  Quotes by Plato and Aristotle above the blackboard.

My supervisor darted to me as I was working at my desk.  Usually very calm, she had a look of abject horror: “They want to know about what’s written on the whiteboard.”  I had done an introductory class on Greek philosophy the periods before, and we came up with a list of philosophical questions, “big” questions that have no right answer.  At the very top right was the ominous “Is God real?”

“It was a philosophy lesson, “ I explained.  “Those are examples of philosophical questions they came up with.”

There was no reason to panic.  A cursory look at the board would have given that clue: questions like “Where did the universe come from?”, “What happens when we die?”, “What is reality?”, etc.  Yet questioning like this makes administrators panic—even as such thinking is critical to becoming a successful adult.

This is why I love philosophy.  It makes kids smarter and scares the shit out of adults who think they know everything.

I’ve wanted to teach intro philosophy for a while, but I never found the right avenue: too many “kid-friendly” sites on ancient history are just that: too kid-friendly and not challenging enough.  I wanted to use real texts, Plato’s dialogues and whatnot, but the translations were simply too inaccessible for my young kids.

In a weird way, my problem was solved through a rather profane little blog I came across by accident.

Philosophy Bro seems, at least on the surface, to be simply a Cliffs Notes of the great philosophical texts of Western civilization.  It includes ancients, Hume, Locke, Voltaire, Russell, Marx, Hegel…you name it.  If it were simply that, it would be a great place to get a snapshot of the works that shape Western thought.

Yet for classrooms, especially those in middle and high school, Philosophy Bro is much more.

P-Bro, for lack of a better pseudonym, could’ve easily just given a summary of the main points  of each piece in a factual yet dry manner ala Cliffs or SparkNotes or any other study guide on the market.  Yet he goes one step further.  In a saucy, irreverent, often obsene manner, P-Bro gets at the essence of the text AS A TEXT, not simply as a repository of philosophical thought.  He gets the cadences, rhythms, moods and style of each author—which makes his blog special.

Take Plato, for example…an example I used in class, after all.  I could’ve easily gotten some thrown-together kid-happy reading piece about how Socrates made people think, and said things that weren’t popular and made people sad and forced him to die.  Bullshit.  I wanted to find an accessible text of Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ defense at his trial in 399 BCE.  Mostly direct transcripts at first (which would make any middle schooler pass out after page 2), but then I stumbled on Philosophy Bro.

Now, to understand my enthusiasm: my intro to philosophy class at Georgetown was basically a boot camp in Plato and Aristotle.  We read almost every dialogue, wrote a report on each one, tore it apart line by line.  P-Bro nailed it.  What’s even better, I got a two-fer: he also summarized the Crito, where Socrates talks his friend out of getting him sprung from jail.  In both, Socrates’ zest and venom roll pure, even if the language can be puerile at times.

(Apparently, according to P-Bro, philosophy is naked without F-bombs.)

So I took his summaries, cleaned up the language a bit (quite a task) and presented to my students.  They got it immediately.  It was amazing how Socrates’ method, his ideals and his worldview rang true in a funny, bawdy way that kept the kids rolling.

The quicker you get students to think for themselves and to question the world around them, the better you’ll feel as an educator.  Philosophy Bro was a great tool in allowing my kids to enter the world of Plato, Aristotle and the other thinkers of our civilization.

…and nothing feels better than scaring the shit out of pencil-pushing administrators.

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Videos for the Classroom: The Western Tradition

As regular followers of the Neighborhood can tell you, I was a pretty dorky kid.

It wasn’t enough that I sat and read the encyclopedia cover to cover.  Nor was it enough as a precocious 8 year old explaining human reproduction to my mother–on a crowded city bus.

I actually got up early for school…to watch school on TV.

Especially during middle and high school, I would get up at a ridiculously early hour.  Most of the time, it was simply to unwind and have some time to myself before I go off to the drudgery of classes.  Usually I could watch a movie on the VHS, or an old show I taped the night before.

Eventually, I was hooked on the most surprising of programs–a college lecture.

Produced by the Annenberg Foundation and broadcast on PBS, The Western Tradition was a 1989 series of 52 televised lectures given by UCLA history professor Eugen Weber.  It covered the development of Western civilization from the dawn of agriculture to the technological age, and wove many common themes together into a unified theory: trends in technology, social movements, government, economics, religion and art.

For me, it was an early entry into the world of higher education, and I was hooked.

Not only were the lectures rich, informative and compelling, they were delivered by a professor whose cadence even today is the benchmark for a great college history professor.  Dr. Weber was born in Romania and educated at Cambridge, so his Eastern European Oxbridge lilt was both comforting and erudite.  His pronunciation of names was impeccable–I thought all professors should sound like that.

Its not really for kids younger than high school age, but these lectures give a great overview of the main topics of Western civilization.  They also give kids a heads-up on what is expected of college students–it sure isn’t “accountable talk” and Common Core, is it?

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Videos for the Classroom: What the Ancient Greeks Did for Us

Since I work double-duty as a social studies AND science teacher, I’m always looking for ways to combine the two…sometimes out of piquing interest, often out of laziness.

Today’s offering is just plain fun.

I’ve seen various episodes of this BBC series over the years.  What the Ancients Did for Us is a 2005 series on  BBC that detailed the accomplishments of various ancient societies and their impact on our lives today.  It was derived from earlier shows that looked at contributions from earlier periods of British history, such as the Tudor period, the Stuart era or the Industrial Revolution.

Yet this is no ordinary history documentary.  Ancients was produced in conjunction with the Open University, the largest British university by student enrollment and a pioneer in distance learning.  As such, it not only provides information on the civilization (names, dates, and whatnot) but also practical demonstrations of the kind of technology used at that time period–often with amazing results.

I’ve attached the episode on the Ancient Greeks, as this is the next unit we will be studying in my class.  I’ve already previewed the film to a few students of mine, and they all saw the experiments (from Archimedes’ screw to Hero’s steam Jet engine) as great ideas for science fair projects.  One even wanted to try out Archimedes’ famed “Death Ray” – the mirrored weapon used to angle the sun’s thermal energy towards wooden galleys with devastating results.

I’m not sure that will fly with the principal (nor the fire chief) but the series is a great connection between science and history.

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The Story of Papal Names; or, Why is there no pope named Jimbo?

English: PORTRAIT OF JOHN XXIII Español: IMAGE...

John XXIII (1881-1963), A great Pope, a not so original name (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to believe that the supreme pontiff, the personification of Christ on Earth, was once called Fabian.

Some were even Silverius, Soter, Zachary, Hilarius, Conon, Anacletus, two Pelagiuses, and even a Sylvester—three of them.

When Benedict XVI announced his resignation effective February 28th, the Catholic Church reeled in shock, even though his Holiness had been hinting at retirement for some time now.  However, I’m sure the cardinals started jockeying for position once their pacemakers kicked in.  With the doors of the Sistine Chapel closed and locked, the conclave of the College of Cardinals will be busy in their voting, politicking and burning of paper in the process of selecting a new pope.

Since any one of these red-hatted guys can get the top job, they all probably have one thing in mind—what will be my papal name?

Since the 6th Century, almost all popes of the Roman Catholic Church have used a regnal or papal name during their reign.  The early popes, being usually in hiding, on the run, or martyred in an arena in cruel and entertaining ways, really didn’t have much time for picking new names.  Yet the acceptance of Christianity in 313, followed by its adoption as the state religion of Rome in 395, gave the papacy some long-needed breathing room for pomp, ceremony, and especially the affectations of monarchy—hence the papal name.

The first papal name was chosen by Mercurius in 533.  Once he was elected, Mercurius decided to change a really pagan name (he was named after the Roman god Mercury) to the more Christ-friendly John II.  It made sense: There were no Roman emperors named Yahweh or Osiris, either.  This change became more commonplace after the 10th Century, and would be de rigueur for all popes since the 16th Century.

The papal names followed no particular pattern.  Most popes chose the names of predecessors they admired, though some chose names of family members, members, even fellow clergymen who shared their ideas of politics and dogma.  The names cover an amazing range of styles (Adrian, Eugene, Boniface), languages (Alexander, Celestine, Miltiades) and perceived moral attributes (Innocent, Clement, Pius).

Until 1978, all popes picked one name.   John Paul I decided to honor two of his predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI (which didn’t help him much since he died 33 days later).  John Paul II continued this tradition, yet his successor Joseph Ratzinger went old school with Benedict XVI—a nice touch for a German theologian who tended to always look in the rearview mirror.

Of the eight Alexanders, most theologians agree Alexander VI was the most ready for premium cable.

Of the eight Alexanders, most theologians agree Alexander VI was the most ready for premium cable.

Some names just keep coming back: There were 23 Johns, the most of any papal name, with 16 Gregorys, 16 Benedicts, 14 Clements, 13 Innocents (most of whom were probably not true to that namesake), 13 Leos (though not of the zodiac sign of the same name), 12 Piuses (again, you’re just asking for criticism if you choose a name like Pius), 9 Stephens, 9 Bonifaces (an excellent choice of name, in my opinion), 8 Urbans (though none named Rural, oddly), and 8 Alexanders, of which the sixth one you may recognize as Jeremy Irons on Showtime.

Even with the free-for-all in nomenclature, there are some unspoken no-nos.  There is no Peter II, for example.  Peter, as in Peter the apostle, was the first pope, and no one could be pretentious enough to claim they are a second Peter (although Jeremy Irons comes close).  That’s almost as snotty as naming yourself Jesus II; and I don’t have to explain why.

Also, names often go out of fashion, sometimes thanks to one bad apple.  For over 500 years, there was no pope named John.  This was because the last John (John XXIII) was not only an antipope (or false pretender), but he was morally corrupt and such a scheming little shit that even the mention of his name would probably have gotten you excommunicated.  When Giuseppe Roncalli  was elected in 1958, they weren’t sure if he was John XXIII or John XXIV, since that other John carried such a stain.  Roncalli, the kind son of Italian sharecroppers, was no such blight on the name, and took on the moniker of John XXIII, as if the other prick never existed.

So what will the new guy choose?  It’s difficult to say, since rules and fashion continue to shift and change.   For the Neighborhood, we feel the next pontiff might do well to give one of the older, more obscure monikers a try.  We’re not ready for another John Paul.  John, Leo,  Pius or even Benedict (at least now) seems a little safe.

Resurrect old standards like Urban, Boniface, Sixtus or Celestine.  He might even choose Gelasius, Theodore, Paschal or even Zephyrinus.

Whatever name is chosen—in the grand scheme of things, a papal name is not necessarily the measure of a papacy.

Then again, would we ever gain spiritual strength today from a pope named Lando (reigned 913-914)?

Probably not…unless there’s a Star Wars convention nearby.

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