Monthly Archives: May 2011

A Letter to Secretary Arne Duncan Re: the 2010 NAEP Civics Report Card

Seal of the United States Department of Education

Image via Wikipedia

Dear Secretary Duncan,

(Again, is Arne okay? We tend to be informal here at the Neighborhood, so we hope you don’t mind.)

How’s it going, big guy? Still keeping up that jump shot? I’m just assuming since you seem to be more of a perimeter player than someone who dominates the paint…

…which is a lot like your current job as Secretary of Education (just kidding, I think).

Anyway, I’d like to start out by offering condolences. It wasn’t easy being taken to the woodshed for your alleged insincerity on Teacher Appreciation Day—especially from my friend Sabrina Stevens Shupe. I know, I know: your press flunky felt that the “broader teaching community” was in agreement with you. Yet the overwhelming evidence Sabrina and others brought—of glad-handing, double-talk, duplicity and outright hypocrisy—has got the intellectual feel of a few rounds with Mike Tyson in his prime.

Nobody likes an ass-kicking, Arne, but it builds character…at least that’s what I tell kids just before they get their butts whupped again.

Now to the crux of the matter, and I’m afraid it isn’t pleasant. You see, last time we spoke, the New York State Board of Regents was destroying social studies assessment in the state while you fiddled with the Race to the Top money. In the end, you ended up giving them the dough—for making New Yorkers dumber citizens.

It’s a brilliant move, if you were an authoritarian despot that depended on mindless sheep to vote for you in sham elections. Way to make our state look more like a banana republic, Arne.

New York is now not alone. Other states, in their zeal to give you your annual tribute in reading and math data, have either pared down history, geography, economics and government curricula, removed requirements, and even trashed state assessments altogether in social studies. According to a recent study in Education Week, “…the number of states that test elementary social studies declined from 30 to 12 over the last ten years. By the 2009–10 school year, about half the states had developed grade- or course-specific standards across all grade spans in English/language arts (27 states) and mathematics (26). Slightly fewer have such detailed standards in social studies/history and science (23 and 22, respectively).”

The fruit of this labor is the recent results in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)’ 2010 Civics Report Card—results deemed “pathetic” by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

I needn’t rehash the results for you, Arne, but just to highlight the bullet points: Less than 50% of eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights. Only 10% understood how the three branches of the federal government balance national power—the old “checks and balances” system. Only 25% of high school seniors were able to identify an effect of US foreign policy on other nations. The same percentage could name a power granted to Congress by the Constitution.

In all, only 20% of eighth graders—and only 25% of high school seniors—demonstrate a proficiency in the workings of their representative democracy.

Now, there are some people who will tell you that the results are skewed and not reliable.

There are others who do not deem this to be a crisis at all.

Frankly, Arne, these people are either committed to destroying our republic or waist-high in their own bullshit.

(Don’t tell me you’re offended by foul language…you played basketball in AUSTRALIA, for God’s sake! That’s like writing an encyclopedia of barracks humor.)

Now, the numbers for fourth- and eighth- graders, while abysmal, can be corrected in time with little collateral damage. But 25% proficiency in high school seniors should make any true-blue American brown their shorts.

You see, Arne, 100% of them are the legal voting age of 18. Yet only 25% knew what the hell they’re doing in the voting booth. That doesn’t frighten you? Doesn’t it astound you that in a few years, as the electorate gets younger, their knowledge of representative democracy diminishes just as fast…

…and yet we still expect them to participate in our democracy?

How about you give Father O’Malley the key to the boy’s orphanage, or my drunk uncle the keys to the Cadillac while you’re at it…because the education establishment’s outright disdain and neglect for social studies is just as irresponsible.

How many times to we have to repeat it, Arne? We live in a representative democracy that requires an active, informed and educated citizenry to run effectively. Speaking for my fellow teachers, it is our job to train young people to be fully active in their democracy, in all areas.

That includes a thorough knowledge of their history, their geography, and the diverse cultural heritage of our nation.

That includes a thorough understanding of the development, foundations, ideologies, functions and opportunities of our democratic republic.

That includes a thorough analysis of goods, services, inputs, outputs, needs, wants, theories, models and institutions that define us as an economic entity.

That includes a thorough understanding of a citizen’s role in a democracy: to vote, to petition, to complain, to foment dissent, to attack unjust policies, and to change politics and government itself through the electoral process or even direct action.

By the way, these things are not taught in that educational paradise you love called China. It’s because China is a dictatorship. A quasi-“Communist” dictatorship, to be sure, but a dictatorship nonetheless.

My students can have all the science, math and reading knowledge they can muster. What good is it in a dictatorship where dissent is silenced and citizens have little basic rights? Is that what you want to create in this country, Arne? A population of ignorant sedated blobs just educated enough to read the propaganda slogans?

Arne, I don’t want my students to be like the Chinese. If I did, I’d have moved there a long time ago. I don’t make data points in ELA, Math or any other subject. I don’t make goal setters, essential-question verbalizers, educational inputs, lifelong learners, lifelong objective makers, coherent planners, or jargon-based drones worthy of a “quality review” like widgets on an assembly line.

My job, Arne, is to make Americans.

The disciplines of the social studies involve every subject, every skill, every concept and idea embodied in the more “accepted” subjects of reading, math and science. They need to be nurtured, assessed and empowered as a separate subject in curricula throughout the nation. Otherwise, we can just pack up the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence and call it a night.

Arne, please help us in training the next generation of American citizens, leaders and politicians. Stop the rot now. Reverse the gutting of social studies by making them just as important as reading, math and science in data, in scores, in reports and especially in funding. Keep social studies on the pantheon of American education. Make sure our country has an informed, active citizenry for years to come.

The very life of the United States depends on it.

Thanks, as always for your time.

With warm regards,

Mr. D and the good folks at Mr. D’s Neighborhood

PS: If you choose to ignore this, the actions (or inactions) of your office could merit a call to the Department of Homeland Security as a potential “enemy of the state.” Not acting on this crisis is tantamount to high treason. You’ve been warned.

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Review of Part 3 of PBS’ “Black in Latin America” – Brazil

Montage of tourist images of Rio de Janeiro, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Growing up, I had two images of Brazil: one with godlike athletic ability, the other with a fruit salad on her head.

As different as they were, both soccer legend Pele and entertainer Carmen Miranda projected an image of Brazil that, on the surface, was what everyone wanted—a harmonious mingling of European, African and Native American cultures into a purely American form. It was known as “racial democracy” and became the official established cultural ethos of South America’s largest country.

That combination of athleticism, musical prowess, and outright joy seemed so normal back then. Too bad that they mask severe economic, political and social problems that still weigh heavy with racial overtones.

This, of course, is taking place in a country that, like Cuba, has no “official” racism.

Black in Latin America recently explored Brazil, a country that imported more slaves than any other colony in the New World. It has the second largest African population on the planet, after Nigeria. Slavery was even more brutal here than in North America and the Caribbean, and ended even later.

Like in other places, Brazil’s acceptance of its African heritage was, at least officially, a top-down affair. Being a hotbed of intellectual thought, Brazil also became a center for an academic blossoming of Afro-centric and Afro-Brazilian cultural study and self-identity. From the universities of Bahia, Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro came a new amalgamated understanding of what it means to be Brazilian. This intellectual ferment gets some much-needed light through this series.

Unfortunately, the façade of “racial democracy” was just that. Once you scratch the surface of carnival floats and samba music, the racial divide becomes much clearer. The elites, as in so many countries, tend towards the lighter shades. Those at the bottom rung have little, if any, opportunity to rise above their desperate condition.

It’s an old saw, but one that’s sharpened to a razor’s edge when seen against the stark realities of Brazilian life.

Gates does a pretty fair job covering the racial history of Brazil and the intellectual development of “racial democracy.” Yet as in the other episodes, one hour is simply insufficient to adequately cover the realities, and possible solutions, of Brazil’s very real racial divide.

Two areas in particular fall noticeably short: one a simplification, the other an outright omission.

Brazil’s experiment with affirmative action was not explored sufficiently. Towards the end of the episode, Gates sat in on a college discussion about the recent move by universities in Rio to establish affirmative action policies in college enrollment and faculty placement. The debate took a familiar tone: proponents pointed out the large disparity in income and enrollment between black and white, while opponents lamented decreased standards for the sake of racial equality.

Yet there was no indication that Gates would explore if Brazil would work with such quotas any further than the college classroom. Even without official racism, would Brazil’s government, social services, and especially its mushrooming industries tinker with affirmative action as well? Have similar programs been attempted before? What is the official government response to the university’s quota policy?

More importantly, how willing would the Brazilian economy—now a white-hot engine of progress—react to policies that may threaten their levels of production and profitability? Gates’ lack of exploration into how race played a role in Brazil’s economic boom is a gross omission.

Furthermore, Gates omits the growing racial divide in an area that once saw promise for Brazilians of color—sports.

Brazil’s greatest ambassador in history, by far, is its national soccer team, arguably the most successful national team on the planet. 5 World Cups, numerous awards and trophies, players that populate the top leagues in Europe and South America: Brazilian soccer has stood as a model to all the world.

Even more importantly, soccer was a way for Brazilians of color to really shine. Brazil’s national team first integrated in the early 1950s. Ever since, the style, culture and success of Brazilian soccer had the distinct flavor of the favelas, the slum areas around every Brazilian city populated largely by blacks. Pele, Tostao, Jarzinho and others rose from the slum streets to create the uber-successful and exciting Brazilian game.

From 1958 to 1970, the face of Brazilian soccer was black. Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pele, was the smiling ebony face of Brazil and its powerhouse squad.

Today, Brazil’s face is markedly different.

Looking at recent Brazilian squads, one notices a distinctly whiter group than those generations ago. The faces of the team, players like Kaka and Pato, are as white as the driven snow. Black players like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Adriano, Rivaldo and Emerson are either retiring or on their way out.

Much of this change has to do, clearly, with money. European soccer is big business, and scouting has largely moved away from the tumble-down alleys of the favelas to state-of-the-art football academies. These academies are large, expensive, and difficult for poor applicants to enter. Thus, the talent pool reflects those who can afford to send prospective candidates to these schools.

European soccer, furthermore, has taken many Brazilian players and adapted them to more “European” methods. The flash and dash of the favelas is largely frowned upon, even though most Brazilian players rely on them for their occasional flashes of brilliance. In fact, the street style is today largely confined to the national Brazilian league itself, where local players cut, dash and dribble in the hope that a scout from Arsenal or Real Madrid picks them up.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with this development. Nor is there any shortage of black players to grace Brazil’s squads in the future. Yet it seems odd that the pride and joy of Brazil looks less and less like the country itself, even as the country struggles for more cohesion and equality.

Once again, Gates missed a huge opportunity. To research Brazil’s racial history and not mention the influence of soccer deserves a huge red card.

Three episodes into the series, “Black in Latin America” is getting into a familiar pattern. While it highlights information that may seem illuminating to the average viewer, it doesn’t have the time or concentration to really look at race problems in depth.

With a theme—and a country—as vast as Brazil, this approach offers very little and discovers even less.

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What Osama Bin Laden Teaches Us

Hamid Mir interviewing Osama bin Laden for Dai...

Osama bin Laden in 1997. Image via Wikipedia

For once, my students united behind a common enemy. It was just too bad that it was an enemy that was already dead.

With a student body that already has violent tendencies, Monday morning brought the murderous rage of my class into full froth. Even if I could start spouting about Verdun, the Lusitania or the killing fields in the Somme, it wouldn’t make a dent in kids that had nothing but Osama bin Laden on their mind.

World War I would have to wait as class after class wanted to simply share their thoughts—or dispense their dubious knowledge—about the action that killed the elusive Al-Qaeda founder. Many had doubts as to his killing. Some were spreading neighborhood gossip that it was all an act. Others were quick to continue the path of destruction to Pakistan: after all, he was under their very noses.

Still others felt it was all just a distraction from their state tests in reading this week. It took some convincing to assure them that President Obama did want them to graduate and would not consciously disrupt their studies (at least I think so).

Yet now that we’re a few days removed from bin Laden’s demise, the rage and celebration can finally settle down to the more unpleasant task of figuring out what this all means.

In analyzing the situation, and the better answers of my students (which weren’t that many) I found some useful lessons from the death of the world’s most notorious terrorist:

Everyone eventually gets what they deserve.

It’s pretty cut and dry: the bombing of innocents in New York, the Pentagon, embassies and installations abroad. The inspiration of weak-minded ideologues to do likewise. The determination to bring down our way of life at any cost—while offering a rather crappy alternative. This balloonhead was just begging for an ass-whupping, even if it was a decade too late. Let’s just hope those 72 virgins have faces like rabid camels and raging cases of the clap (although Osama may not mind the camel-faces).

Plan twice, Cut once.

You really have to hand it to Obama here. He could’ve just sent some drones in August and smashed the place to bits. Yet he knew the world wouldn’t be convinced with a crater: he needed to produce a furry, smelly body. The operation was meticulously planned and rehearsed, with the President on hand to observe the entire process. The whole business was quick, even with a snafu with a downed chopper, with no US casualties—a feat so precise it would’ve caused a NASA mission controller to tear open his pocket protector in frustration.

Never let them see you coming.

Obama’s code of silence on this would’ve made Lucky Luciano grin. The whole operation only worked if everyone kept their mouth shut: especially in two places that always seem to blab—the CIA and the Pentagon. Few people were in the loop, and even less countries knew until the very last minute. Furthermore, Obama finally caught on to the shady dealings of a certain so-called ally, which leads to:

Don’t try to be all things to all people.

The one big loser in all this is the government of Pakistan, which wound up with serious egg on its face as Bin Laden was found within an hour’s drive of the capital. Pakistan is like the new kid in school who tries to be everyone’s friend on the first day, but usually ends up as the smelly kid on the bus who farts and blames someone else.

For twenty years now, Pakistan has cozied up to whoever was in their best interest at that particular moment, be it a Taliban who terrorized its people using Pakistani weapons and intelligence, or China in finding a new ally in the next war over Kashmir, or the United States in offering support for the Afghan conflict while whistling away the home-grown Islamic extremism and terrorist breeding happening at their doorstep.

In the end, Pakistan is left with no real friends: just a neighbor who wants to take over (Afghanistan), two bully-boys who use it in their petty schoolyard fights with other countries (China, Russia), and a snarling neighbor who just wants to obliterate Pakistan off the map (India, be it with nukes or cricket bats). Even the United States, who will tough it out with anyone no matter how useless, is re-assessing its situation. It might be better for Obama to leave Pakistan to the angry Pashtuns, ravenous Asiatic hordes and software-engineering batsmen. Then we can actually make sense of a massive clusterfuck of a region.

Just because you cut out the cancer does not mean you’re cured.

Remember guys like Black September, the Al-Aqsa Brigades, even Hezbollah and Hamas? They’ve been at the Islamic terrorism racket for a heck of a lot longer than Al-Qaeda. Even with a demoralized, rudderless Al-Qaeda, radical Islam will not go away. The terror it often breeds, likewise, will not go away. Furthermore, expect attacks from those seeking revenge for bin Laden’s death—although hopefully without his generous credit line.

By the way, you don’t have to be a radical Muslim or even a plain old everyday Muslim to engage in terror: just ask the Khmer Rouge, the Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof group, the IRA, the UVF, the Ku Klux Klan and various guerrilla groups around the world that on a daily basis have engaged (and continue to engage, in some respects) in acts so brutal it would make the Ayatollah soil his robes—which could be an improvement.

Make sure you’re covered on the back end.

Something very important happened while we spent billions chasing bin Laden: China became a superpower. It already produced most of our consumer goods, bought a huge hunk of our debt and is even attempting to phase out the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Other countries, like Russia, Brazil and India, look to create a new bloc with this newly aggressive dragon.

Many Americans see no harm in this. I am not one of them.

US businesses love China, because it’s a source of cheap labor and high profits. European businesses love China as a counterbalance to the United States. Same with Russia, India and the like.

However, to truly get a sense of what it will be like under a Chinese superpower, just ask Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Indonesia: places that know all too well the ugly face of Chinese power.

Say what you will about American hegemony, it is comparatively soft compared to what potentially awaits those countries in Asia that fall under China’s orbit. The United States conquered the world with cheap cigarettes, bad movies and hydrogenated fast food.

Yet those simple pleasures were also balanced by the power of ideas, of beliefs and ethics that shape what it is to be American—even if we rarely practice what we preach. See how long conversations about democracy, human rights, the rule of law, individual opportunity and political discourse last in a Chinese satellite state that values profit and forced consensus over anything else.

What makes China terrifying is not its ideology, but its lack of ideology.

In the push to progress China to superpower status, the Chinese government has embraced capitalism better than us capitalists ever have. They will do business with anyone, no matter how loathsome, as long as they’re in the black. It’s an avarice that would make even J. P. Morgan cringe. When a money relationship is not backed by ideas or ethics, friends can become enemies in the blink of an eye.

In reconnoitering our military positions overseas, the United States should look at China for what it is: a rival that must be dealt with, not an idol that should be fawned over.

The death of bin Laden has left more questions than answers. Yet the United States has a unique opportunity to reshape itself into the superpower we all hoped it should be.

Our financial house must be put in order, and significant cuts should be shared equally, not just in the 20% of the budget deemed politically expedient.

Our commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan should be re-evaluated and, when needed, troops should be re-deployed to where they can do the most good.

Most importantly, we must realize the world that arose while the War on Terror waged. The real enemy of the United States is not in Tora Bora, nor in some madrassa in Kandahar or a mosque in Tehran. It is an ascendant rival that for all its perceived economic benefits stands in direct opposition to everything we stand for.

The United States cannot be sucked into another game as an ordinary superpower. We have to stand for something—or possibly lose everything.

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This Day in History 5/2: Nazis fall in Berlin and Italy

Red Army soldiers at a hotel near the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Thus stars must have aligned perfectly, as the day in which Osama bin Laden was announced dead marks the anniversary of another milestone in the fight against oppression and terror.

On May 2, 1945, the Red Army finally announces the capture of the German capital of Berlin.  With the Soviet flag flying over the Reichstag, the German parliament building, the European theater of World War II was effectively over.

At the same time, in the Italian front, German general Heinrich von Vietinghoff signs the documents of surrender, as German forces give up all of Italy to the Allies.  Benito MussoliniHitler‘s busom buddy, was shot and strung up a few days previously on April 28, and Hitler would meet his own inglorious end on the 30th.

Like Osama bin Laden, their deaths were long overdue.  Furthermore, the world is a better place without them.  Their deaths were met with little saddness: just as today, crowds gathered in London, Times Square, Moscow and other cities to celebrate the end of lives that did far more harm than any good.

My grandmother had a soft spot for Mussolini.  Good thing she’s not around to hear this: Il Duce was as big a piece of crap as Der Fuhrer, Comrade Stalin, and the turbaned maniac we just double-tapped.  We’re a better country–nee, a better planet–without these people.

Good riddance.

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