The world’s “black dog”

Silk Screen illustration 2016 by jpbohannon.

Winston Churchill called his bouts with depression “having the black dog on his back.” This was not original  with him, but was a common saying, referring more often to moodiness than depression. One historian likened it to the phrase “getting up on the wrong side of the bed.” But nevertheless, the phrase has been attributed to Churchill and ever since been associated with depression.

God knows, the world that Churchill saw certainly could buckle the strongest man’s knees.

And so it seems to be these past few months, as well. From Paris to Brussles to Orlando to Dallas to Nice  to Turkey to everyday traffic-stops, there has just been an onslaught of horrific and discouraging news. President Obama, in his speech after the Dallas shootings, said that “this is not who we are.”

But I wonder. Not we as Americans specifically–although I do wonder about that–but we as a species.

Sure, I know the heartwarming and hopeful stories as well: from high-school kids doing serious global service to individual neighbors coming together to help another in worse shape than they, from those who put their lives on the line to those who fight against power when it seems determined to crush the weak. I know people whose every thought seems to be how to better the lives of the sick and  dispossessed, the impoverished and the abused.

And yet these past few months have been relentless.

Last week, I read two novels by Dag Solstad, Shyness and Dignity and Professor Andersen’s Night. Both deal with teachers–Norwegian literature teachers–at the end of their careers. They both (a high-school teacher and university teacher respectively) question the value of the literature they profess. (Both are teaching Ibsen.)  The struggle to make students realize the value of literature has been ongoing throughout their career–that is always the natural give and take between student and teacher, although both feel it increasingly worse– but now they feel that that value is questioned by society itself. From evolving technologies–and  the distractions they provide–to current pedagogical trends and goals that emphasize success in a future career, they feel out of place, like dinosaurs, supporting a cause that is no longer relevant in the ultra-modern world.

And it is easy to believe that.

As hundreds are gunned down, blown-up, crushed, drowned, stripped of their homes, it is hard to rationalize the need to read a 150 year old Norse play, or a 450 year British play , or a 2500 year old Greek. Novels, poetry, drama, short fiction…it all feels so powerless against men with efficient guns and deficient ideas.

And yet, never before has it been so important.

Study after study has linked reading literature with an increase in the development of EMPATHY. Even the youngest teenager, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, understands on the simplest of levels, the importance of “walking in another man’s shoes.” Reading has always been a way of experiencing different lives, different cultures, different ideas.  And this is what it needs to continue to do. It is our insularity, our tribalism, our fear of (and intolerance to) the “other” that is that root of much of the world’s pain and horror.

I KNOW that art, music, literature, theater, dance are more than just “nice things” for entitled leisure. They are essential to us as a species.

I KNOW these things to be true. But these days I do not FEEL it.

But I must continue doing what I do, nevertheless: read and write.

However, as I read this, the “black dog” is wagging its tail frantically and banging up against the door.

 

 

 

 

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words and pictures (part 2) …and the power of MUSIC

Music...Art...Literature Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Music…Art…Literature
Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the film Words and Music, a sweet romance about a battle between an Art teacher and an English teacher. The film had interesting examples about the power of words and magnificent examples of the power of “pictures.”  But what I forgot about was the part that held it together and in a way redeemed it:

The Power of Music

In the film. after the male protagonist has made a bollocks of things and the female protagonist has had enough of his destructive behavior, it is music that is the most evocative, most informative, most powerful…and most healing.

Scene after scene the male (Jack Marcus) tries to contact the female (Dina Delsanto) to apologize for the drunken mess he made of her art. Scene after scene we see her aggressively stop his attempts or stoically ignore them. Until the moment, when she opens an e-mail and there is an audio attachment.  The piece–written for the film by Paul Grabowsky—is a chamber piece for piano, cello and clarinet entitled “I am a Small Poem.”  (This is also the name of the poem that Markus steals from his son.)  It is rich and resonant and connects with Delsanto more than any words or pictures could.

It is what saves their seemingly destroyed relationship.

I wish I could embed the music that was played when Delsanto opened her e-mail. but I can’t.  It isn’t available yet.  So instead, I will give you this: an extraordiary piece by Fauvre. It is what I often listen to when I am writing:

A while back, a music teacher (Manny DelPizzo), an art teacher (Jackie White) and I got together to make plans for a large project. (The educators call this kind of thing “Project Based Learning.”)  I was going to get my Creative Writing Students to submit their best work and the art teacher and music teacher would each have their students interpret it and we would have a performance.  Our ambitions were high–this seemed like the best outlet for student creativity– but the realities of schedules and time and curricula put many roadblocks in our way and we let it fizzle out.

The “performance” that the fictional students in Words and Pictures was much like what we were hoping for, minus the music. Our music component would have made it better.

A new school term is starting in a couple of weeks. I am newly energized (though not as drunken as Jack Marcus) and am excited about trying this for real. It doesn’t have to be a battle–as it was in the film–but a really cool examination of the power of words, of art, and of music–a real exercise in Creativity

The business of education is not business

Logic-of-business-or-education-November-12-2013

At the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in Philadelphia this past weekend,  Mark Gleason made the following remark about the Philadelphia public schools:

“As you close the lowest performers, you’re slowly raising the bar. So that’s what portfolio is, as Paul [Socolar] described it–you keep dumping the losers and overtime you create a higher bar for what we expect from our schools.”

Now, Gleason has justifiably gotten a lot of flak for describing the poorer performing schools as “losers,” but it is something else that is bothering me.

Gleason was describing school evaluation in terms of stock portfolios. His use of the term “losers” was referring to those “stocks” that were not performing. He was using business/financial parameters to measure school success.

I am getting tired of it. Schools are about students not bulls and bears.

Somewhere along the line, it seems the model for education has been hijacked by the business/financial sector. In the past few years, I have heard students referred to as consumers, I have listened to speakers hold up CEO leadership qualities as  models we should emulate, I have read articles about the business of education and been given books that prepare me for successful management skills.  I bristle when I hear “entrepreneur” as the new academic buzzword.

I attended one workshop on “coaching” fellow teachers. The consultant hadn’t bothered to adapt her PowerPoint presentation so that most of her examples dealt with a “sales rep” that needed the proper advice or coaching. I went to another workshop where the presenter began by playing a video where a woman spoke about conflict resolution to about twelve middle-managers. To add to the insult, the presenter told us teachers that “We might not know it, but research has shown that taking notes during a presentation aids in memory retention.”

And then–in case we didn’t get the point– he gave us a worksheet of the video script with important words left blank. We were to fill them in.

Perhaps it is me.

I was raised to distrust big-business.  “Plastics,” after all, was the laugh-line when newly graduated Benjamin Braddock was adrift in 1968.  For the generations before me, the man in the grey-flannel suit was the emblem of mindless conformity; for my generation, big-business was connected with the lies behind Viet-Nam, turned on the fire-hoses against the vanguard of social change, and deliberately hid its own research about what it was spewing into the environment and into people’s bodies. In my circle, they were the bogey-men.

And they were very successful.  The  following decades saw “Greed is Good” become  big business’ mantra …and within twenty-years the country went reeling because of it.  And it is still digging out.  The rich got rich…the poor got further away.

I went into education to counterbalance the influence of big business.

And I know, I am being  illogical.

I know that there are plenty of good, wise and compassionate men in business. There are plenty of great ideas and practices that can be adopted and adapted. Dear friends, respected acquaintances, close family members are businessmen and businesswomen–and some are extraordinarily successful.  And I do go to them, at times, for advice on everything, even education.

But I don’t translate their world into mine.  Our worlds are too different.

Or so it seems to me.

I am feeling very much a dinosaur these days.  Not because I cannot keep up with the latest trends in education–the project-based learning, the collaboration, the student-centered focus. Those I can handle.

No, I feel so out of step, because I can’t kowtow to business metrics. I can’t measure my students’ progress–the quality of their learning — on a spreadsheet. I can’t draw up their successes and failures in a pie-chart based on 401K investments. I don’t hold up the world’s CEO’s as models.

Instead I hold up a liberal education for them to follow–believing that if they do, when THEY become the CEO’s of their world, the world should become a better place.

Big Brother IS Watching: 1984 and Summer Reading 2013

bigbrother

In the two weeks before the opening of school I have the students who will be entering my class read George Orwell’s 1984. It is the perfect prequel to the first two books we read in class, Brave New World and A Handmaid’s Tale. (We start out with a big dose of dystopia.)

Well, one of my more ambitious students has already done all his summer reading and e-mailed me about 1984. Orwell was pretty clever, he wrote, but he doesn’t think that that kind of thing could really ever happen.

George Orwell

George Orwell

Signet Classic's cover of 1984

Signet Classic’s cover of 1984

Boy, did he pick the wrong summer to make that statement.

The other day, I saw the trailer for a film, Closed Circuit (see bottom of post). It is a terrorist-mole-investigative reporting-shady government department type of thing. And it looked very good. But, as I was telling a friend, one of the major players in the film is the network of 1.85 million close circuit cameras mounted throughout Britain. (http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/mar/02/cctv-cameras-watching-surveillance). That is roughly one camera for every 32 people. Of course, that ratio is a lot smaller in urban areas than in rural.

George Orwell saw it coming.

And then of course, the major news story of the summer was the Snowden leaks. (As Yossarian said in Catch-22, “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?”) For many, the actions of Snowden, his search for asylum, the international posturing and subsequent tensions have been the most riveting part of the story. What seems to have trouble staying in the foreground, however, is the fact that the U.S.government has been spying on its citizens, collecting data from their e-mails, their texts, their cell-phones, and their search engines. The citizens have been assured that the NSA is not going to use this data, but is simply archiving it. “For what?” is a sensible question.

George Orwell would have certainly asked it.

And the technology just gets better and better. Even the most naive teenager knows that his computer searches and activity are catalogued and sold to marketers. So it is not surprising that if the day after you search on-line for an umbrella for your father, you see umbrella advertisements popping up on your screen. (And depending who you are, where you are, and how often you searched, the price for the same umbrella will fluctuate.)

Well now this same marketing scheme has been adapted by the brick and mortar stores through face-recognition technology. Higher-end stores are testing facial-recognition technology which will alert store clerks immediately when someone (usually a celebrity) walks into the store and what his or her buying preferences are. At the moment the focus is on celebrities because their photos are already available in their databanks.

But it won’t be long. Walk into your favorite department store, spend some time in the men’s shoe department, and you might find an advert for men’s shoes pop up the next time you click on your device. They already know what you think you want.

Google has the technology for you to snap a photo of someone on the street, upload it, and learn everything you want about them. They have refrained from releasing it so far, mainly due to the legal tangle that Facebook is finding itself in.  Facebook’s ‘”tagging” photos capabilities is a subtle way to create an enormous facial-recognition database. And that database is available not only to you and your friends.

As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once famously claimed, privacy is no longer a “social norm.”

George Orwell would find it all familiar.

If things go right, the first few days in school should have a lot of interesting discussions.

I hope so.

Here’s the trailer to Close Circuit. It looks like it could be good.

Quote of the week #8: June 16, 2013

image

illustration ©2013 jpbohannon

“Mythical heroes are of obviously superhuman dimensions, an aspect which helps to make these stories acceptable to the child. Otherwise the child would be overpowered by the implied demand that he emulate the hero in his own life. Myths are useful in forming not the total personality, but only the superego. The child knows that he cannot possibly live up to the hero’s virtue, or parallel his deeds; all he can be expected to do is emulate the hero to some small degree so the child is not defeated by the discrepancy between this ideal and his own smallness.”

Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment