Sunday, March 14, 2010

Making Peace with Reverse Colonization

Hal Pepinsky,,
March 14, 2010
Wherever, however, you act affirmatively to diversify people with whom you hook up, you enhance your social security. Norwegians have taught me that this applies to nations as fully as it does to daily life.
Last week’s lecture in the locker room of my high school at Ohio State by my Norwegian mentor Birgit Brock-Utne reminded me of lessons I have learned from life in Norway beginning in Trondheim in 1961-62.
Norwegians remained chronically poor seafarers when I was in Trondheim. When my parents spent a few weeks on the European Continent, I ate in cafeterias. There I ate fish balls (cod balls in white gravy) and unadorned boiled potatoes (and it took me years after returning to the US ever to eat boiled potatoes again). Since the fall of the first great seafaring empire, that of Norwegian Vikings, Norway had become chronically poor. They survived and kept their population under control in particularly hard times by emigrating, as to farm in the Upper Midwest in the United States. When Napoleon lost at the Battle of Waterloo, sending soldiers abroad in combat became unaffordable for all time. A generation later, Norwegian incarceration rates fell from a rate equivalent to that in the US in 1960 to roughly the same internationally near bottom rate it has today even in its own mini-incarceration wave.
When I first left Norway in 1962, it was an article of faith across the political spectrum that economic inequality was the greatest threat to Norwegian national security. One time in my school’s social club, votes for president had been marked off one by one as each secret ballot was read out loud. A woman beat her male opponent 32-5. I felt so bad for him. A friend corrected me: No, it was she who had to deal with sticking out. Until oil was discovered in the Norwegian North Sea, overt displays of wealth and privilege were as veiled as those of Mafia dons in the US.
Birgit Brock-Utne and I continue to share that vision. Inequalities that linger across generations are the starkest structural manifestation of violence. Political and economic inequalities imperil the social security of everyone involved, high and low. As the NPR/Library of Congress project puts it, when it comes to social control, this I believe.
It is implicit in the definition of “real profit” that the successful entrepreneur gets more from economic exchange than s/h/it gives. Aggregate that, and you get measures of corporate and national economic “growth.” Is that growth real or inflationary? It is only “real” when those who are growing are accumulating wealth faster than others in some reference group. We only “really” progress economically relative to others, that is, by leaving others further behind. It should be no surprise that time and again, exacerbated by race, class, gender and age as by those now highlighted in wealth between single white women and single women of color in the US. One feminist saying of the 1980s globally was that women do 99 percent of the work and own 1 percent of the wealth. These manifestations of structural violence have only deepened since. Here, too, growing inequality threatens social security, period.
Today, the second largest party in the Norwegian parliament is nationalist: Norway for Norwegians, to whom immigrants are a threat. Norwegians are part of a global wave of white xenophobia. For the last half millennium, Northerners from Spaniards on have colonized the South. They came with gunpowder. It is poetic “justice” that in desperation, Southerners now colonize the North just by settling there. But poetic justice makes for poetic violence. I no longer celebrate justice.
The good news is that in the midst of structural violence, there are always exceptions. In some cases, communities and families of choice thrive because members make a conscious choice to meet, hang out and live among people because of the vitality of their differences, of their diversity. As Darwin put it for species and ecosystems, we become fittest to survive because in unforeseen catastrophe, some of us have what it takes to teach the rest of us to get through and get on.
On one hand, the inertia of human colonial progress is increasing so-called “ethnic” friction. On the other hand, as a friendly social control counselor, I can attest that in any social context, from classroom to workplace to neighborhood to friendship, affirmative action has proven to be my most reliable social insurance. It is also educational. Can’t be bad for humanity or mother earth either.
Thanks, Birgit, for your visit and for bringing this to mind. L&p hal

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review of Diane Ravitch's Death and Life of the Great American School System

a review by Hal Pepinsky,,
March 7, 2010

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University, a historian of education. As assistant secretary of education under President Bush I, she advocated testing, accountability, choice and free markets for education. She describes herself as an “educational conservative.” In her new book, she argues that educational conservatism has been “hijacked” by the privatization of public education. The subtitle of her book is How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. She particularly derides US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s flagship educational initiative, “Race to the Top,” which in President Obama’s words “rewards excellence” in state competition for federal funding of public education.
As luck would have it Terry Gross interviewed Ms. Ravitch just as my main mentor in feminist education, Birgit Brock-Utne, arrived to stay with us. Next Tuesday, she gives a lecture on “language, policy and culture in Africa: a power perspective” March 9 for OSU’s graduate School of Educational Policy and Leadership, devoted to studying and practicing alternative education. That school is housed in the building that was University High School when I graduated in 1962. This is the ungraded high school that led me to resist grading students all my four decades as a professor. Birgit is the person who taught me that the crucial problem of grading is power of teachers over students, and who led me to focus the last half of my teaching career on educating FOR rather than ABOUT peace. Day after tomorrow, I will help introduce her in the mini-auditorium that was the music room in which the recently deceased Mary Tolbert taught me and so many others to make singing and playing music central to our adult lives.
Since President Clinton introduced high-stakes testing of public school students in 1995 (along with “welfare reform” a year before his bid for re-election), federal educational policy has been highly discouraging. I had been brooding over Obama/Duncan’s “race to the top” and thinking of blogging over it just as Ravitch appeared and Brock-Utne re-appeared in my personal space. They remind me that the dominant narrative—in this case in a context, education, so dear to me—is not the only narrative. We school our children in many ways, not only to suit presidential politics.
Still, U.S. belief in meritocracy runs so very deep and wide. We all lose when we make access to education and certification a competition, which in her interview Ravitch very succinctly describes. I only fault her for blaming the failure of universal education on corruption of her conservative agenda. Testing institutionalizes institutional and school failure, where winners eternally live on the competitive edge. The silliest part of the whole exercise is the presumption that every child ought to “know” the same stuff at a “grade level.” A not-so-silly consequence of putting this attitude into practice is that we train students that they know and feel nothing of consequence except what they learn that “we know” in school, where what we know is defined as what yields higher test scores a grades.
Alexis de Tocqueville concluded his Democracy in America by warning against “the room for despotism” in the United States. In our period of imperial decline, we are falling back more and more on turning our children into political sheep. It has not only been boring and frustrating to meet and greet students whose opinions are political/cultural clich├ęs; I consider it a progressing national tragedy. May resistance like Brock-Utne and Ravitch’s help us change national course. Love and peace--hal