Tag Archives: World 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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Bring Back Social Studies – From the Pages of The Atlantic

President Bush signing the bipartisan No Child...

The beginning of the end: President Bush signing NCLB at Hamilton H.S. in Hamilton, Ohio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even if you’ve said it a thousand times, it doesn’t hurt to say it again.

Mr. D’s much more industrious little sister, Dr. D (yep, she finished that doctorate!) drew my attention to this recent article from The Atlantic.  The article advocates stopping the current trend towards neutering social studies as a distinct discipline in American education.

While the article itself breaks no new ground, it encapsulates the history and status of the issue well so that newbies to the struggle get an eye opener–whilst the veterans get a refresher course in the shitstorm that is No Child Left Behind.

Jen Kalaidis opens with the decline of student time spent studying social studies, to a whopping 7.6 percent.  More importantly, she details the history of this decline–and contrary to popular belief, it didn’t happen in the Cold War.

Kalaidis does mention the 1957 Sputnik launch as a “Pearl Harbor” moment in American education.  From that point on, millions of dollars poured into math and science programs to keep up the space race against the Commies.  Yet to assume education was a zero-sum game at the time would be false: social studies did maintain its status through the Cold War, in fact peaking in 1993-1994 at 3 hours per week on average in US classrooms.

The reasoning is simple: the Cold War was more than just a technological race.  It was a battle of ethics and morals, of hearts and minds.  Social studies was at the center of that struggle, for better or worse.  At its worst, social studies channeled jingoistic American patriotism into half-truths and propaganda.  At its best, social studies provided the historical foundations, civic structure and critical analysis that helped shape a better America–one that could hopefully achieve that moral high ground against the Soviets.

The real decline came with No Child Left Behind–and here is where the article gets mundane.

To old-timers of the education wars, Kalaidis’ retread of the decline of social studies–the sacrifical lamb at the altar of Common Core, ELA, and STEM–is an old argument shouted out in hundreds of teacher lounges, conferences and workshops across the country.  The emphasis on reading, math and science pushed social studies to a secondary discipline–one that was often not subject to standardized testing.  If you couldn’t use a number 2 pencil, it wasn’t worth knowing.

We also all know how important it is to develop critical thinking and analysis skills, something social studies was designed for.  If taught well, social studies makes students take ownership of history, of civics and economics, leading them to their own ideas, conclusions and opportunities.

One aspect of this decline that Kalaidis did mention–and should be mentioned more–is the “civic achievement gap.”  The lack of civic education has created an underclass not only ignorant of their own government, but wholly unable or unwilling to vote, to participate in local politics or pursue careers in public service.   As much as we rag on the government, we need one–a competent one–and that involves competent people working in all levels.  To ignore the civic gap in low-income Americans is tantamount to disenfranchising them.

Lastly, Kalaidis does mention steps to move social studies back to the forefront.  Obama has decried the lack of civic education in NCLB.  So has Arne Duncan in a half-hearted article in the NCSS journal in 2011 (I ripped him a new one about it).  Yet most of this is lip service, or that dreaded word integration (as in subject integration, not race).

The reality is that there is no concrete move to make social studies important again in American schools.  And I hate to admit it–but the conspiracist in me thinks the decline of social studies is deliberate.

When the lunatics run the asylum, they make sure no one figures out they’re really lunatics.  Without proper social studies education, there’s no way to tell the difference.

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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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Videos for the Classroom: Crash Course!

I cringe at the word “kid-friendly” — sounds like a bad Law and Order: SVU episode.

One of the constant missions of the Neighborhood is to find resources that tap into the caffeine-addled brains of young people.   In the quest to find “kid-friendly” material, most of what I find is directed at…okay, I’ll say it…good little white children.  Good little pasty white kids that sit still and believe anything told to them because a happy smiling face in a toga (or bonnet or Abe Lincoln-esque stovepipe hat) tells them so.

Today, even the good little white kids aren’t really that good nor that white–you can thank TMZ, MTV and YouTube for that.

So to connect with today’s kids, we need something a little edgier.  Crash Course! is a series of films about history and science, told in an irreverent, snarky way by brothers John and Hank Green.  The World History series I saw was pretty entertaining, although the producers do make clear that historical people have sex (they get around it with a folksy word that I forgot).  They are, however, loaded with data, facts and historical debate, when necessary–these guys don’t hide their biases, and it’s important for kids to see someone unashamed of their opinions.

If it weren’t for the occasional sex references, I’d recommend Crash Course! to middle schoolers on up.  It’s perfectly fine for high school, but you may need some discretion with younger viewers.  I’ve attached the episode on Alexander the Great to get an idea.  Enjoy.

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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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The Castro Retirement: Passing of the Guard, or a Prelude to Counter-Revolution?

Fidel and Raul Castro (Photo courtesy of AP)

Fidel and Raul Castro (Photo courtesy of AP)

Rare is the tyrant that manages a graceful exit.

In Cuba, the second tyrant in a row is attempting just that.

At the announcement of his re-election as Cuba’s president, Raul Castro, who took over from his brother, former president Fidel Castro, announced that he will step down as leader when his new term ends in 2018.  It is part of the slow process of handing over power over Cuba’s socialist system to a generation of leaders with no connection to the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Yet even more surprising is the follow-up.  Castro planned some serious changes for Cuba’s political system: term limits, age caps (even for president), even constitutional amendments subject to popular consent via referendum.

Have the Castro brothers thrown in the towel?  Hardly.

Over the past decade, as the 26th of July generation have died off one by one, young apparatchiks within Cuba’s Communist Party have been jockeying for position in the new order.  Those disloyal or harboring counterrevolutionary sympathies were cast aside, as young loyalists gradually filled in top jobs in the Politburo, the armed forces and the cabinet.

Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, the new top vice president selected by Raul, is a perfect example of the tumult among the cadres.  An electrical engineer, Diaz-Canel’s 52 years make him a fetus to the gang that fought in the Sierra Maestra toppling Batista.  He rose quickly, as a local party boss in tourist-heavy Villa Clara and Holguin provinces where important connections were made.  Diaz-Canel was formerly minister of higher education, and has already been influential in talks with key ally Venezuela.

So the new blood is simply that…new.  It doesn’t necessarily mean a change in mentality, unfortunately.

This transition reminds me of another blood-soaked tyrant that attempted a gradual fade: Augusto Pinochet.  His conditions to step down were ludicrous in hindsight: commander-in-chief of the armed forces for another ten years, and a senator for life, free from prosecution.  In the face of growing popular opposition, the general wanted to make sure the future governments would be under his ideas, if not his more velvet-gloved iron hand.

It didn’t help him, though.  We saw him for the tyrant he was.

Castro’s announcement, honestly, left me with more questions than answers.  In the end, I’m left with two conclusions:

First, the Castros have an even worse situation than Pinochet.  To be sure, the move to gradual withdrawal seems shrewd.  However, unlike Pinochet’s Chile, which was severely polarized, Cuba’s rank and file has been fed up with the Castros for at least two decades.  The loyalists can hold the socialist line to a point—that point being the end of Fidel and Raul’s funeral procession.  I just don’t see how Diaz-Canel can command the loyalty of a people who were clearly betrayed by two predecessors more powerful—and more charismatic (at least in Fidel’s case)—than he.

Yet even more important, as the list of potential reforms rings in my head, I cannot help but glimpse at Raul’s little sneer.  The whole reform process, even the constitutional changes, seem less a transformation of Cuba and more a stalling tactic to keep the Castros and the Communist Party in power.

The reason?  If these reforms—age caps, term limits, referenda—were so important to Cuba’s body politic, what took the Castros so long to introduce them?  Are the Castros special?  Do they not merit the same guarantees AND limitations placed on all Cubans through their constitution?

Part of the success of the American system is the realization by our founders that dictatorships don’t work—even for those who blaze the trail.  George Washington relinquished command of the Continental Army after the American Revolution.  He only served two terms as President when he could’ve been in office for life.

To make a republican system work, its founders needed to lead by example: an example of restraint.

The Castros are hardly a model in this case.  For most of its history, their regime lacked any hint of restraint institutionally, legally and practically.  Restraint meant a loss of power, at least in Fidel and Raul’s mind.  It ultimately cheapened the Revolution into a personality cult where the Castros were above any law even they conceived.

Therefore, to saddle the future generations of loyal Companeros with institutional burdens the founders lacked makes the whole exercise seem ingenuous.

These so-called reforms will turn the house of cards into a bigger house of cards—one that can fall much more easily.

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