Monday, August 17, 2009

There’s an interesting on-line debate in the NY Times today regarding higher degrees for teachers. In the back and forth discussion, the value of education degrees is debated, as the numbers of teachers seeking higher degrees has skyrocketed in the last eight years as a result of the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

As a general rule, I tend to come down on the side that great teachers aren’t necessarily made, but that the combination of crucial thinking skills, communicative ability, and desire for learning in oneself and in others (educational ambition/optimism) is often a part of an individual’s very core being. The ‘not made but born’ construction is one applied to every manner of profession (including historians) and is one with many problems. But, I think at the heart of this construction is a fundamental truth that some people make for better teachers than others simply because they have the aptitude and personality to make it in the classroom.

In my own experience, some of the best teachers I have had, by far, have been those who lacked formal educational training. Some of the worst teachers I have had were those who could only be described as educational methodology pedagogs. The best encouraged me to think critically, to read broadly, and to write sceptically. The worst had us doing group projects that often went nowhere.

My evidence, however, is purely anecdotal and I am by no means an educational expert. I will say that in higher education, the desire for specialist master’s degrees has led to these programs being seen as ‘cash cows’ for universities intent on making the master’s an occupational degree, rather than advanced training in a particular subject. New masters programs are popping up all the time leading one to wonder how many of those with these degrees have any sense of mastery of their subjects beyond a few extra credit hours or a few extra papers.

Surely, who would want a degree in education unless you simply had to get one? For secondary and high school teachers, wouldn’t a degree in your subject field have more educational (and personal) value? For elementary school teachers, wouldn’t you rather have a specialist’s degree in early childhood development or child psychology? Educational certification is one thing: two to four years of required graduate classes in what most good teachers already know is quite another.

Anyone who has spent any time in front of a classroom knows that the best training for a would-be educator is on the job. In time, they’ll either succeed or fail regardless of advanced training initiatives, study days, or continuing education in education.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

I spent part of last week in Leeds. There are few cities I would rather not visit again. I know – I’m perhaps not being fair. Well after visiting I can say that Leeds wasn’t very fair to me either.

On my first night in my ‘guesthouse’, a British term that loosely means a mediocre cross between a youth hostel and a B&B, I asked the hotel ‘manager’ where a chap could procure some decent victuals. He replied, ‘Everything around is good. Just walk up the street.’

So I did and I found the world’s longest stretch of kebab shops. I passed ‘Homer Chicken’ and two pizza joints. I looked in on a chippie that by the state of mould on the walls, doubled as a homegrown penicillin factory. I sauntered to a corner pub, which disappointingly looked like the very place where a fellow could get a pint of Tetley’s, a social disease, and a knife in the kidney. I kept walking.

After nearly an hour circling the University of Leeds, I was back where I started. I popped into a corner shop across the street from the campus to buy a paper. They didn’t sell newspapers, or so I was told, so I bought some ginger snaps and walked on.

Eventually, I made it to a pub called “The Library” a name that would appear witty there wasn’t a bar by the same name in every university town in the United Kingdom and quite a few in America as well. Upon entering, I went to the bar and ordered a hamburger. While waiting for my change, a 18 year-old came up to order drinks for his mates and cordially asked if ‘this lady’ was being served. By ‘this lady’ he meant me. I said ‘no’ and he said ‘oh, sorry mate’ before ordering 5 double vodka red bulls.

All this on a Monday night.

On Tuesday I decided to walk into the city after a disappointing lunch on campus consisting of a yogurt pot and some instant coffee. I made it just past the nicest building in the city, the juvenile court, when two aggressive drunks, begging for change, began heckling me with many loud expletives. Defeated, I went back to my ‘guesthouse’ for some decaf Nescafe and ginger snaps.

I have no small experience with drunken people, but for some reason the UK produces a very high number of talkative drunks that seem drawn to Americans. They are compelled to tell us three things: that they are drunk, that they are unhappy about something in their lives causing said drunkeness, and that they have been to Florida. Last night, while sitting down for a pub dinner at 6 PM in Glasgow, a morbidly intoxicated vagrant in sweatpants fell into our table and then began telling us of his marital problems. Then he kept telling my wife that A: he wasn’t gay and B: her husband was a very attractive man. And that he had been to Florida.

We eased him away after a very laboured conversation, and he fell out the door with the same dexterity he exhibited in falling into our table. It was most enlightening and a fateful warning against getting too close to anyone who would wear sweatpants in a public house.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Big news in the United Kingdom today is about the possible release of the Pan Am Flight 103 bomber Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi. The Times and the Daily Telegraph both have called his possible release a travesty of justice and it certainly is. He’s a mass murderer and a terrorist but many people in the United Kingdom, and organizations such as the Church of Scotland, believe he should be returned to his homeland to die. Americans, well, aren’t so forgiving, in particular the relatives of his victims.

Also, a Times blogger has an interesting post on a possible American apocalypse. Anyone else think this has a touch of anti-Americanism to it?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Though I am contented to be cynical in my views toward the motivations of those in political power, I am an optimist to a large degree, about the progress of American life in this new century. In my youth we were a nation still ascendant. The last ten years have had many trials and have seen many political developments which have contradicted that ascendancy. War, torture, lying, scandal, and of course, the fragmentation of once great parties into screaming bands of brigands and political hooligans.

People have short memories. The media this week has been all a twitter about Conservative activists mad as hell about socialized medicine and President Obama. Liberal activists, who have been complaining about conservative activists (most who are cut from the same activist cloth as themselves) were no less vociferous while they were burning Bush in effigy. What makes the conservative case something different, to me rather disturbing, is that activism, by itself, is not fundamentally conservative.

Make no mistake about it; the people shouting at Members of Congress, spouting their paranoid eyewash about protecting the Constitution, are self-aggrandizing anti-democrats. The very nature of representative government, in the American form at least, is based on Congressional debate and not catch-phrases regurgitated from extremists radio show hosts. The same right wing people who are now so concerned about the Constitution and ‘socialism’ are the ones who voted for George Bush who advocated direct government aid to the banking industry, the Medicare Prescription Drug Act, and the explosion of federal spending after 9-11 by Republican Members of Congress who have landed us in the greatest federal deficit in the history of the Republic.

I suppose what really bothers me about this turn to GOP activism is that it is simply undignified. When we are identified as a party with the lowest common denominator, with the ignoramuses and conspiracy theorists spewing their venom in all directions, we are losing the policy debate. We need an alternative vision for healthcare: rising prices and coverage restrictions are problems that desperately need to be confronted. Not by signs and not by slogans but by legislation, policy, and debate.

Conservativism is found in restraint. It is moderation. It is discussion. It is, fundamentally opposed to rabble rousing and sceptical of mobs. It is founded in anti-extremism. I would argue that those speaking the loudest at these so-called Town Hall meetings are right wing extremists – but they aren’t conservatives. If they are the future of the Republican Party, well, then the great elephant of the GOP deserves to die at the hands of its own gun toting mob.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I’ve always admired those who can keep a regular diary. Take for instance the Orwell Diaries, a page from the folks at the Orwell Prize, who are publishing the writer’s diaries daily. The question is, of course, who really cares how one person’s life was lived enough to read their diary on-line? Even if you are George Orwell, most diaries aren’t worth publishing (could you imagine if they were!), and even the lives of writers aren’t really eventful enough to warrant this kind of attention.

Most of our lives are rather mundane and those of us who have kept journals scarcely ever go back to re-read what our lives were like, what insane or inane thoughts we had when we were kids or worse, when we were young adults and knew better before writing emotive drivel to ourselves. I have gone back and been shamed by some of the stuff I’ve written, by the moments of self-pity, by the vanity or shockingly weak moments of my life, recorded and filed for some yet-to-be-determined future use.

I suspect a lot of diarists write when they are feeling the need to get something down. This inevitably means that we write when we are feeling rotten. For those of us who write volumes when sad but scarce words when content, it means that our record for posterity is a melancholic one indeed.

I have a friend who told me the following. “Most people (in their diaries) never write what other people actually say.” Those who do, like Boswell, may get some quotes wrong or even manufacture them. For a diarist, I suppose, the gist of a conversation is what really matters. If you’ve ever tried to reconstruct a conversation on paper, you will quickly realize how difficult it is to do with any sense, any true sense, of accuracy to write from memory.

What is striking about the Orwell Diaries, from the little of it I have read, is how mundane and ordinary his life was lived. But (of course there is one) his ordinary life exposes two key components that I think are important at a first glance. 1) Orwell has a diligent eye for details that are easily overlooked. 2) His record is more reporting than strictly retrospective on life – meaning he writes about blackberries as well as on the great political issues of his day. Both of these are huge lessons, I think, for any diarist who is interesting in recording the stuff of life that is really interesting.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Let me get this out there . . . I do not support bathroom sex in any form. I could not possibly endorse something so unhygienic. I have a hard enough time opening a bathroom door without using a paper towel as a buffer so that my freshly washed hands don’t get soiled. I simply can’t fathom sensual fondling in some place so horribly unsanitary as an airport bathroom.

Oh yeah, and there’s that whole public thing too. Why individuals want to subject the public to the awkwardly squeamish, decidedly jerky, and completely unpleasant sight of middle-aged lovemaking is completely beyond me. We all deserve better than seeing Larry Craig’s face peering in through the crack of our bathroom stall, his hand motioning under the stall, soliciting us for sex. Leave us alone Larry Craig; we just want to poop in peace.

People hate hypocrisy. Unfortunately most politicians are hypocritical – this is the dilemma of politics. Republicans, I think, more than Democrats. Because we are the party of tradition, we have locked ourselves into all kinds of stupid beliefs in terms of public morality. If we weren’t the “values party”, then Larry Craig probably would have been able to go home after being arrested, have a weird conversation with his wife (as if she didn’t know), and then probably keep his seat in Congress, maybe with a few additional smirks from the press gallery.

That is if he wasn’t a big fat hypocrite. I will pose the question from inside the Republican Party: What exactly is wrong with electing a gay Republican senator?

Larry Craig’s alleged sexual preference is taboo in the “values party” because our party is dominated by bigoted notions (and, well, bigoted people), who dehumanize homosexuals for reasons of fundamentalist religiosity, profound ignorance disguised as tradition, or maybe, just good old fashioned prejudice.

I’ll pose the question again: What is wrong with electing a gay Republican? A person’s sexual preference has little to do with their moral development and you can be just as adamant about “family values” and be gay. There is nothing excluding a gay Republican from public office except for the fact that the Republican Party doesn’t like homosexuals.

I believe in calling things what they are; if you are advocating a position that I consider to be questionable morally, it is my right to challenge that position. From my experience in dealing with the Republican Party faithful, I have seen very blatant bigotry toward gay people. You can tell by the way that your average Republican committeewoman says the word homosexual – like it is taboo – her face tense and tight, like she’s trying to work out an unpleasant popcorn kernel from her teeth. The majority of GOP faithful talk about gay people like they aren’t people at all. They hide behind values as a way to ignore gay people – to passively disenfranchise them from society by wishing that they would just keep to themselves.

Stupidity, to me, is the conscious decision by a person to remain intentionally ignorant because it is easier to hate what you do not know or understand, to be paralyzed by it, than it is to admit that you might be wrong. The GOP’s bigotry toward an entire demographic is based upon fear and upon constructions of morality that reinforce stereotypes of a cruel cultural past.

Unfortunately, it took a stupid senator’s solicitation of public sex to show how stupid the GOP is. Larry Craig’s Party is abandoning him not just because he solicited sex in a public place – lots of Pols have done that – but because he wanted to “do it” with a man. Though I don’t like lewdness of any orientation, I have no moral issue with homosexuality. I am not threatened or intimidated by any sex, whether gay or straight. My position in my party is in the decided minority.

By condemning gay sex so blatantly, by being so repulsed by it, the GOP is sending a message of intolerance hiding behind rather stupid “values”. They are also telling moderate and liberal Republicans, those who like me believe in equal treatment for people of all sexual orientations, that in moral terms, we don’t measure up. They are condemning not only homosexuals, but also, those of us who believe in that very American value, equality.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

It would be a severe misstep for the County Council to implement a drink tax in Allegheny County. Though we have heard from tavern owners in opposition to the tax, we haven’t heard from a lot of tavern patrons. Eventually this tax will trickle down to middle and working class people who like to go out for a drink.

Americans are notorious for our strange relationship with alcohol. Religiosity has something to do with it – after all taxes on alcohol and cigarettes are commonly called “sin taxes” – but it’s about time that we grew up as a nation. Anyone who’s been to the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts can tell you that the Puritans, our original cultural policemen, drank beer in quantities we would now view as decidedly immoderate.

A tax on drink hurts taverns and their patrons. Which demographic of patron will be hurt the most? The working class – any additional tax on alcohol distributes the burden of collective revenue unfairly on those who have the least amount of money to pay for those taxes. For the tax on cigarettes this is understandable; we have long known that cigarettes kill and it is in the public interest to decrease the number of cigarette smokers.

Alcohol is a different substance and one that, unlike cigarettes, is determined by the individual’s relationship with it. There are significant health risks in drinking immoderately. There are also public risks. Drunk driving should be penalized, perhaps, even more heavily than it is now and particularly for repeat offenders.

However unlike cigarettes, where exposure increases one’s chances of getting cancer exponentially, the moderate use of alcohol has been shown to be, well, somewhat healthy. It’s not as healthy as going for a jog but there is nothing wrong with a glass of wine a few times a week. The majority of drinkers are moderate in their consumption but we make laws that seek to passively impose an abstentious morality on people that don’t want it.

A good, reasonably priced drink, is one of those quiet luxuries that crosses class divides: an investment banker and a welder can both share an affinity for Belgium beer and afford to do so. A strapped for cash graduate student and a successful lawyer can both order the same glass of Pinot Grigio at an Italian restaurant in Oakland and be, at least in terms of food and drink, equal patrons.

Any ten percent drink tax won’t break the bank of most people, but it may make them think twice about going out for a drink. On a $4 glass of beer, a ten percent tax would increase that drink to $4.40. If a person drinks four of those beers a week at a local bar (certainly not an immoderate amount), that is an increase from $16 a week to $17.60. In a year that’s the difference between spending $832 dollars on weekly drink compared to $915.

To a person who is making eighty thousand dollars a year, the $83 difference isn’t that much. To a person who makes twenty thousand dollars a year it is. Critics would say that if a person is one a shoestring budget then they shouldn’t be out at a bar drinking. To say this is not to understand the social motivations for doing so. Meeting friends for a drink is one of the cheapest ways to socialize in the evening, particularly those strapped for cash and for young people. It is far cheaper to have a drink than to see a movie – it is cheaper to have a drink than to go to a play or museum – in some places, it is cheaper than a latte.

For all the lip service by public officials in Pittsburgh about economic development and especially the declining number of young people, it is amazing that the County Council would consider a tax that would hurt businesses and disproportionably hurt young drinkers and the working class. A sin tax on drink, whether used on transportation or whatever, does exactly that. It’s a backward step from a region that, frankly, can’t afford any more backward steps being made by their government.