Checking today’s headlines at CNN was a grim affair. First, gun violence:
Ten mass shootings happened across the nation this weekend, leaving at least seven people dead and more than 40 injured. It was the latest in a streak of violent weekends in America. The weekend before this, there were also 10 mass shootings that left 12 people dead across seven states. (CNN defines a mass shooting as four or more people shot, not including the shooter.) This weekend’s violence included shootings at several parties and celebrations, including in California, Indiana and Colorado. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 293 mass shootings in 2021 so far.
After death by gun, we have death by vehicles on America’s roads:
38,680: That’s how many people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020, according to estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s the largest projected number of deaths since 2007, despite a 13.2% decrease in miles traveled from the prior year.
And of course the Covid-19 death toll has surpassed 600,000 in the United States (one study suggests the true Covid death toll is over 900,000), with the Trump administration having rejected any responsibility for its botched response to the pandemic. Most Trump supporters seem content with the notion that, well, at least Trump tried to do, well, something, like blaming the Chinese for “Kung Flu.” Sadly, Trump’s “gifts” of bluster and boasting and bragging and bombast just had no effect on a deadly virus.
At this site, I often marvel at how Americans have so little knowledge of or interest in America’s wars overseas and the deaths and suffering they produce. But the hard truth is that we also tend to ignore mass death here in the USA, whether from guns or motor vehicles or lack of affordable health care. Indeed, I’ve seen estimates to suggest that perhaps half of America’s deaths from Covid could have been prevented if our country had a national health care system. But we’d rather die from kleptocratic capitalism (in the name of freedom) than live with democratic socialism.
I don’t think America has a death wish — but we sure could use a lot more emphasis on life and living. Readers, what say you?
“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1969) starring Maggie Smith, who won the academy award for best actress that year, challenges, at least for a moment, pedagogical orthodoxy. In this fictitious story Jean Brodie is a teacher in a private secondary school for girls in 1932 Edinburgh. From the beginning it is obvious she is the most popular as well as the most controversial teacher in the school. The rigorously traditional head mistress regards Miss Brodie as a maverick who has consistently demonstrated that her methods over the years of her tenure are starkly incompatible with the goals and values of the school. Jean nurtures a romantic attraction to social, political, and military upheavals. In her classes she avoids talking about the political and moral ramifications of historical events, seeing them as obstacles to her view of history as drama. Showing her students projected slides of classical architectural structures and paintings to engage their capacity for aesthetic appreciation is also a major feature of Miss Brodie’s classes. Engaging her students’ emotions is more important to Jean than detailed historical facts.
In first day of class for the new semester Miss Brodie describes an imaginary scene of a former lover dying on the battlefield in World War I. She seems to delight in exposing her girls (her students are “my girls”) to the emotional realities of war by providing them with the opportunity to romanticize death. Listening to the description of the former lover’s death in battle one of her students bursts into tears. At that moment, the head mistress enters the classroom to see how the first day is going. She is perplexed by the student crying, declaring: “You shouldn’t cry during a history lesson.”
“Truth and beauty” is what Jean Brodie claims she is teaching her students. To challenge her students to appreciate the romantic qualities of even ghastly historical events seems to be a goal. But what she means by “truth” is not necessarily empirical facts. Beauty is truth, Miss Brodie adamantly believes. Even war is an aspect of “beauty” because people die heroically. It doesn’t matter what the reason or cause is as long as passionate feelings can be engaged in the presentation of the lesson.
At one point in the film Jean is called to the head mistress’s office to explain her teaching methods. The head mistress suspects—and rightly so—that Jean is not giving her students the standard information regarding the subject matter. Miss Brodie argues that the meaning of education comes from the Latin word “e-ducare” which means to lead out of. Her job, she believes, is to elicit her students’ inherent love of learning. She seeks to stimulate her students’ inherent capacity to see macro and micro events, especially of war, as an art form. A scene on the battlefield in Spain is to be admired as one appreciates a Giotto painting.
Throughout the movie Jean keeps telling her students they are the “crème de la crème.” When she asks Mary, a new student at the beginning of the semester what her interests are the student says she doesn’t have any. Miss Brodie promptly tells her she will give her interests. Later in the school year that same student goes off to fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War after Jean had told the class that one is not fully living until one is engaged in major social and political events, events which elicit passionate responses. The student drops out of school and join’s Franco’s fascist army. She gets killed before the school year is over. (Jean has obviously omitted discussing with her students the moral purpose of the war in the first place.)
So, what can educators learn from the character of Miss Jean Brodie? Jean’s teaching style—you have to see the movie to really appreciate it–surely leaves something to be desired. But Miss Brodie’s love of teaching itself and her desire to engage her students’ emotions in the learning process is to be taken seriously. After all, her students love and respect her highly, as almost every scene in the film demonstrates. But Jean’s failure to acknowledge important facts in favor of the aesthetic and the romantic aspects of political events—Mussolini is a beautiful leader, she proclaims–is what brings her down. She is ultimately dismissed from her teaching post.
The film raises an important question in liberal arts education, both on secondary and post-secondary levels. Do teachers and professors need to engage students’ capacity to become emotional, even passionate, about the subject matter? Should the role of the educator be to provide students with interests, as Jean insists her purpose is, at the expense of factual information? Put simply, does the story of Miss Jean Brodie have something significant to offer educators despite Jean’s playing fast and loose with empirical reality?
For myself—I’ve been a professor of sociology for decades–the importance of emotive anecdotal examples throughout the teaching process when the subject matter pertains particularly to human behavior and socio-historical events can’t be overstated. The teacher of social sciences and history as artist and poet is a very plausible mixture. At any rate I felt very much inspired by the Jean Brodie character. She genuinely wanted to reach her students to inspire them to live passionately.
Yet, as the movie suggests, passions unguided by a sound moral compass may prove deadly.
Richard Sahn is a sociology professor who challenged and inspired his students to think differently in and out of the classroom for more than four decades.
In the early 1990s, my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting friends in a newly unified Berlin, where we were introduced to the work of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). Kollwitz lost a beloved son, Peter, in World War I and turned against war in her art. We visited the museum dedicated to her work, which reflected the causes that moved her. She was for people, for workers, for equity, for equality, for mothers and fathers and their children, and she was very much against war.
Here’s one of her powerful images with the theme of No More War:
“Never again war” was a common sentiment across the world in 1924, in the aftermath of the death and devastation of World War I. Yet that sentiment didn’t last, and in the chaos of the Great Depression the Nazis soon gained power and then ruthlessly acted to consolidate it. So much for “never again war.”
The Neue Wache: here Kollwitz has a sculpture of mother and her dead son, based on the Christian imagery of Mary cradling Jesus after his death by crucifixion. Why do we crucify so many of our young via endless war?
Kollwitz was haunted by the death of her son, Peter, in World War I. The burden of pain she carried is captured in this moving and powerful sculpture. There is no glory here. Only grief and suffering and love of the most painful kind.
It’s well worth watching this brief and moving ceremony:
For far too many, war is something like a game, as shown in this telling image of Napoleon playing chess against the Russian Winter (Andreas Paul Weber). So many of us are only pawns in the “game” of war. Where is the glory here, emperor?
Kollwitz knew the pain and loss of war, and she knew how to share that pain and loss with the world. If you should find yourself in Berlin, I urge you to visit her museum and also to visit the Neue Wache memorial to the victims of war and dictatorship.
Back in March, Tom Engelhardt had a stimulating article at TomDispatch.com on the wounding of planet Earth. He also made mention of the Covid-19 pandemic. And as I read his piece, I thought of Mother Earth suffering from a human-made pandemic. A virus of humans. A human-made flu of fevers (heat waves and fires), chills (freezes in the South), coughs (turbulent weather), thirst (droughts out West), and pain (nearly everywhere).
But, sadly, there’s no vaccine for Mother Earth. All we humans can do is relieve the symptoms by changing our behavior. Mother Earth is already infected with us; now we need to leave her alone, let her rest, allow her to recover. But we don’t. We keep stressing her with our actions (and inaction on climate change) and making her symptoms worse.
The only problem: When Mother Earth dies, we all die.
We’re on the fast track to dystopia, which puts me to mind of a recent Splinterlands trilogy written by John Feffer. His latest and last volume is called Songlands, which he writes about here at TomDispatch.com. For a dystopic trilogy, I found it strangely uplifting, for Feffer still sees hope in humans who are willing to sacrifice to save our planet. I urge you to check it out.
It’s amazing to me that ultra-rich billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are saluted for their “investment” in space exploration, as if we humans are going to save ourselves by building stations on the moon or Mars. If Bezos and Musk truly wanted to give back to humanity, they’d be focusing on reducing consumption here on Earth while fighting for preservation and conservation. But their space trips are really ego trips, and their fuel has always been money.
Here’s hoping humanity rejects the “final frontier” nonsense of Bezos and Musk and turns its attention to what really matters: the health and welfare of this wonderful yet fragile world of ours.
For if we refuse to honor Mother Earth, it may be the last sin we humans commit.
When I was 18, I thought I’d be an aeronautical engineer in the Air Force. I went to an engineering school and majored in mechanical engineering, but I also did a big project on the military-industrial complex and minored in U.S. history. Turns out that I did do engineering in the Air Force, specifically software testing and project management, but I soon moved into history and got an MA and D.Phil. focusing on science and technology. Meanwhile, forty years later I still find myself writing about the military-industrial complex. My “broader” education helped me to move away from engineering into fields that over time interested me more.
College is (or should be) about a lot more than earning a specialized degree and then cashing in. In retrospect, half of my college experience was about living on my own and with roommates, growing up, and making friends. Maturing.
You rarely know what your career arc will be. What you want at 18 years of age may not be what you want at 22 or 32. A broader education can give you the tools to branch out and pursue exciting opportunities as they come along. All these things were on my mind as I read the following stimulating article by my longtime friend, M. Davout.W.J. Astore
An Education Worth Having
My son, who aspires to be a successful software developer and entrepreneur, applied to colleges this year and is finally getting word back from the universities to which he applied. The school he preferred, a prestigious state institution focused on technical fields, rejected him and the disappointment (particularly, and perhaps even more, for his parents) was great. As other rejections came in from universities that were, in retrospect, obvious longshots for my son, I felt the need to reach out to an older cousin who recently retired after a long and successful career working in technical support, sales, and then in upper management in a globally-dominant company that sells both computer hardware and software.
As a native-born kid in the suburbs, I always looked on my cousin with admiration for how, coming to the country at the age of ten without any English, he was able to navigate the tough immigrant neighborhood of Boston’s North End and managed, through determination and hard work, to get an education at a local technical college and, afterwards, a well-paying job at a computer hardware company. Over his long employment there, he rose in the corporate ranks, while continuing to advance his technical education during nights and weekends. But there was also, I should admit, some condescension—as a native-born speaker benefitting from the well-funded public schools of the suburbs, I was able eventually to get into an elite liberal arts university whose education I considered superior to the narrow technical one that my cousin presumably had.
When I reached out to my cousin for advice about my son I expected full-throated support for a path that was practical, realistic, and single-mindedly attentive to what the marketplace promised in the way of lucrative careers. In other words, as a smug liberal arts professor, I expected my cousin to conform to my preconceptions about the values and character of business people. What I got (as demonstrated in my cousin’s replies pasted in below) was something different, a demonstration that the values of broadmindedness can flourish in many different places including the business world and that a liberal arts college professor can be as narrow-minded as they come.
I conveyed to my cousin that my son loved to code, was very focused on privacy software development as a career, and had ambitions to make a lot of money, to which he answered: “Yes, youth always thinks that way. As you know he needs a base education so that he can do that. Focusing on security software is fine, but he needs general computer understanding, hardware and software, along with marketing and business.”
I mentioned that over the last year, my son had more than once questioned why he has to spend four years in college if he already knows what he wants to do and has developed coding skills. My cousin responded: “He thinks he might have, but I assure you he has not. If he has the skills, school should help bring them further out.”
Ordinarily, I would insist on my son going to college. However, a software development friend had mentioned that his nephew successfully attended a software coding academy, which teaches coding skills over a two to three month intensive (9-5 each weekday) schedule. Tuition is $12-14K but the graduates leave with excellent prospects to start in the field at $70+K. I thought this might be something for my son. My cousin, the computer business guy, expressed skepticism: “Which academies in particular do you have in mind? As you know he should have a rounded education, especially in computers, there are many facets, focusing on just one thing might get boring, and it limits his personality.”
When I mentioned that my software friend had said that one can make a good salary without a college degree (though management jobs did usually require a BS or BA) and that half of the developers working at his companies don’t have college degrees, my cousin responded: “Yes, but the game is long term, Tino might think this is what he wants now, but only with a broader experience can he then be sure. At the end of the day, he should have the biggest say, if he is excited about coding academy, maybe he should try it. But remind him that being rounded is better than just one super skill. He might like coding now, but who knows in the future.”
In his long and successful career in business, my cousin had acquired a respect for broader education that was based, unlike my own, on the experience of working with diverse people in complex and evolving organizations, operating in-country and overseas, responding to the varying demands of customers and bosses, staying abreast of technological developments and political changes, all the while pursuing lifelong learning. I realize now that I sold him short and am grateful for his teaching me how I can better convey to my son that a broader education will serve him well not only in business but in life.
We lose a lot of imagination as we become adults. We become limited. I remember playing make-believe as a kid, when the only limits were those of my imagination. As adults, we’re supposed to be hardheaded and realistic, perhaps even cold-hearted. The world’s tough; don’t be a dreamy fool. But what if we used a bit more imagination in America? What if we returned to the days of make-believe?
Here’s a few aspects of my make-believe America:
* All workers make a living wage with raises pegged to the rate of inflation and cost of living.
* Everyone has “free” health care as a human right.
* Everyone has a home of some sort, i.e. there are no homeless or “unhoused” people living in the streets.
* Prison populations are small, with only the most violent offenders locked away for long terms.
* Climate change, recognized as a problem in the 1980s, is being controlled with massive investments in renewable energy sources.
* Nuclear disarmament, begun with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, will be complete in 2021 after thirty years of dedicated effort.
* No one leaves school with massive amounts of student debt.
* Corporations are not citizens, money is not speech, and all political campaigns are publicly funded.
* Wars are universally reviled and are only fought for defensive purposes via a Congressional declaration. Thus America hasn’t fought a shooting war since 1945.
* The U.S. political scene has a range of “major” parties and a wealth of choices, including a socialist or people’s party and a Green party, along with Libertarians and Populists and Progressives.
* The top priority for most Americans is sustainability and the environment: preserving the planet for future generations.
* There is no such thing as a billionaire, since a progressive tax code ensures an equitable distribution of resources.
* People are respected for who they are and what they do, meaning that racism, sexism, ageism, and other forms of discrimination are largely unknown.
* “Hero” is a term used to describe peacemakers and helpers, the most compassionate and giving among us, the ones fighting hardest for equal rights, fairness, and justice.
* Government is completely transparent to the people. Meanwhile, people have privacy and autonomy.
* Most drugs are legal, and essential medicines like insulin are affordable for all.
Well, I did say this was the land of make-believe. What do you say, readers? What’s in your land of make-believe?
Binary logic is common in America. Us versus them. Republican versus Democrat. BLM versus BLM (that’s Black lives versus blue lives). Love it or leave it.
I remember as a teenager reading a coda to that saying: Or change it. If you don’t “love” America, you shouldn’t have to leave it. Indeed, if you truly “love” America, you’d want to change it to make it even better.
This idea was on my mind as a I watched a couple of videos on YouTube by Americans who’ve been living overseas for many years, only to return recently and reflect on how life in America seemed to them after being away for so long. Here are a few notes I jotted down:
Features of America: Consumerism. Materialism. Advertising everywhere, especially for prescription drugs. Fast pace of life and a stress on competition. A mainstream media that’s propagandistic — and that pushes fear and outrage. Only two major political parties that stifle debate and change. Constant divisiveness.
Features of Americans: Stress on individualism and ethnocentrism. Empathy and our common humanity is downplayed. Sense of entitlement. Lack of curiosity about the wider world. A lack of purpose in the sense of living a life of meaning. Lack of integrity, especially at the higher levels of government and the corporate world.
These observations reminded me of Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” (2015). Moore goes to various countries (Germany, France, Italy, and so on), looking for ideas Americans can steal as they “invade.” I recall German workers who only had to work one job to make ends meet (roughly 37 hours a week, if memory serves), and also German workers who served by law on the board of major companies like Mercedes; I recall school lunches made for French kids by chefs using local ingredients (the contrast with American school lunches was stomach-turning); I recall Italian workers with six weeks of paid vacation per year, as opposed to American workers who are lucky to get two weeks. Why can’t America change to be more worker- and kid-and family-friendly?
The female leaders of Iceland, if memory serves, put it well near the end of Moore’s excursions. They said America is a me-me-me society, whereas Iceland prefers “we” to “me.”
I’ve written before about how Americans are kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden as a way of preventing meaningful, organized, societal change. Another “d” word related to this is discontent. Americans are often discontented in ways that inhibit change. It’s something Tana French touched on in her novel, “The Likeness,” from 2008. Here’s an excerpt:
Our entire society’s based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their décor, their clothes, everything. Taking it for granted that that’s the whole point of life, never to be satisfied. If you’re perfectly happy with what you’ve got—specially if what you’ve got isn’t even all that spectacular—then you’re dangerous. You’re breaking all the rules, you’re undermining the sacred economy, you’re challenging every assumption that society’s built on. By being content, you become a subversive. A traitor.
To which another character replies: “I think you’ve got something there. Not jealousy, after all: fear… Throughout history—even a hundred years ago, even fifty—it was discontent that was considered the threat to society, the defiance of natural law, the danger that had to be exterminated at all costs. Now it’s contentment.”
There’s a potential paradox here. Won’t the discontented favor positive change, whereas the contented will favor the status quo?
But French’s insight suggests otherwise. The discontented are so busy trying to become contented, most often through a me-first consumerism and materialism, that they can’t come together and mobilize for change. Fear drives them to pursue what their “betters” have, and to admire those people as well. It’s the contented who are dangerous, the ones who’ve left consumerism and materialism behind, the ones with the confidence, time, and independence of thought to contemplate a changed world, a better world. Perhaps even a better America.
I’d like to say I don’t see race or color or ethnicity and so on, but of course I do. We all do, once we’re alerted to it. Racism exists in our society, and in fact I’ve been an instrument of racism myself.
At my first job, when I was about seventeen, a Black man came into the shop where I worked. He was looking for an apartment to rent (there were rental apartments above the shop). He asked me to check on a listing he’d seen. I left the counter and asked the boss in back. The boss peeked out and saw who it was — that is, the color he was — and told me to tell him the apartment had been rented. I did so, and the Black guy looked at me and said, “I just called a few minutes ago and was told you had an apartment.”
I felt ashamed and used; the boss later told me he’d rented apartments to “them” before and had had trouble. The Black guy I’d talked to was the epitome of class; he just shook his head at me and walked out. I think he understood, from my apology (“Sorry — my boss told me it’s been rented”), that I was merely a messenger boy, an instrument of another person’s racism.
Three other small episodes from my high school years. I recall a race riot in my high school (there were about 6000 students at my school), and I remember one of my white friends told me he’d talked to one of his Black friends who’d said, “I’m not your friend today,” during the riot. Second, I recall a friend (white) who got into a fight with a Black kid in school, after which he told me one of the white teachers had complimented him. (Imagine a teacher complimenting a student for fighting simply because the student had punched a Black kid.) Finally, I remember taking a school bus that I didn’t normally take. I tried to sit next to a Black kid and he told me I couldn’t sit there. This was repeated again until a Black girl told me to come sit next to her.
The shock of being told I couldn’t sit next to another student because of the color of my skin stayed with me. I have no resentment against the kids who said it; indeed, it made me realize, in a small way, the prejudice these kids faced every day from white America. I gained a little empathy that day.
All this is on my mind due to this remarkable interview between Daryl Davis and Jimmy Dore, which is frank and moving in its discussion of racism and some of the ways we can fight against it and overcome it in America. I welcome your thoughts and comments on this.