About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Tawdry President: Donald Trump, the Public Library, and COVID 19

During the last week that has included President Trump's daily updates on COVID 19, I have been watching Frederick Wiseman’s three-hour-and-seventeen-minute documentary on The New York Public Library, Ex Libris. If you’ve never seen a Wiseman film, and if you’re stuck indoors, this might be a good time to start. 
Wiseman has been making documentaries for 50 years —he was 87 when Ex Libris was released in 2017— that cover everything from an asylum for the criminally insane, to a ballet company, to a boxing gym, to the University of California at Berkeley. His films are long (Belfast, Maine runs just over four hours) and the camera lingers, sometimes for quite a while, on mostly everyday scenes, with no voice-over narration, visual cues, or musical score. There is great craft at work here; Wiseman doesn’t simply turn on a camera and leave. His films are the result of careful scene selection and editing, and his genius lies in the way he quietly renders the richness and drama of everyday human reality, often within institutions —such as a library. Though there might well be scenes that shock —in the asylum, a hospital, a public housing project— the overall pacing and feel of a Wiseman film is the slow passing of ordinary events, which, admittedly, can be in a location foreign to most of us. 
Mercifully, Donald Trump’s stints at the podium during the COVID briefings are shorter than Wiseman’s films, and they couldn’t be more different with their disjointed rush of bombast, preening, assault, and mendacity —and the lurch from a middle-school thespian’s impersonation of somber leadership to hot blasts of id. It’s all political theater, of course, to distract and grasp advantage out of chaos, but it is also a compulsive act of self-creation, a vulgar stream of advertisements for himself (he demands, for example, his signature on the federal relief checks), a creation of tinsel and needy hate. 
The New York Public Library is a vast, sprawling institution —92 locations— and it is closed. New York City is ravaged with illness. To my knowledge, the libraries in most states are closed. The virus closed them. The President has denied the virus, called it a hoax, finally acknowledged it, saying he had been handling it brilliantly all along. He effusively touts questionable drugs for it, the availability of tests for it (“Anybody who wants a test can get a test.”), the rapid production of gear to protect us from it —and predicts the imminent end of it, the economy rebounding with a “bang.” A woman speaking at a meeting filmed for Ex Libris says “Libraries are not about books… Libraries are about people who want to get knowledge.” There is barely a trace of knowledge in the President’s remarks —except the occasional fact provided by staff for his impersonation, a fact he will likely distort. 
As we linger with Wiseman in the main branch of The New York Public Library and travel to other branches in Manhattan and some of the boroughs we see public lectures ranging from Elvis Costello showing a rare clip of his father performing a kitschy song and dance routine to a scholar discussing conflict between royalty and Muslem clerics during the 18th Century African slave trade. We observe a piano recital and chamber music and a spoken-word artist riffing on Coltrane and Questlove leading to an appeal to his lover and a reflection on manhood —a baby in the audience cries intermittently as he performs. There are many children being tutored in after-school programs, selecting books, completing sentences, doing arithmetic, and in separate clips thoughtful young staff members discuss how best to reach them. At many points in Ex Libris, library administrators address the budget, community engagement, how to serve the homeless, the shift to digital books, the digital divide. In one scene a librarian is checking out mobile “hot spots” for Internet connection to a long line of patrons. There is a book club on Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and a job fair, and a visually impaired man holding a cane explaining options for housing assistance to a group of people with various disabilities. We watch as employees in a processing center sort returned books on a conveyer belt and listen in as reference librarians with headsets take calls from the public and watch as well as Wiseman’s camera scans slowly over patrons of many ages, many races and ethnicities sitting at computer terminals, searching everything from job information, to medical conditions, to esoterica of all stripes. Things people want to know. 
The President doesn’t want to know anything that doesn’t have immediate payoff for his self-regard. On April 15, Mr. Trump held conference calls with business leaders as part of his much-touted Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups initiative. What he was told was that expanded testing was necessary before Americans could safely return to work, but according to a source quoted on April 17 in The Los Angeles Times, “...the message was largely drowned out by Trump’s determination to solicit praise from the participants.” “It was a joke,” the source noted, “...a complete farce.” 
Throughout Ex Libris there are shots of reference books, encyclopedias and dictionaries, guidebooks and handbooks, rows and rows of them, still physically present but increasingly online. Rows of patrons sit before computers accessing digital words. An American Sign Language interpreter demonstrates for a hearing audience the emotion of signed words, the beautifully dramatic variation in tempo and gestural emphasis she brings to different readings. 
The President ignores words, distorts and mangles them, can’t hear them over the din of his own trumpeting voice. There are many words used to describe this president: ignorant, racist, autocratic, narcissist. A number of his former advisors have used more potent ones. The word that keeps coming to me this week as I toggle between Ex Libris and the President’s daily briefings is tawdry. Synonyms for tawdry: gaudy, brash, low, mean, base, garish, inferior, meretricious. Let’s look up meretricious: pretentious, fake, fraudulent, “…having in reality no value or integrity.” Vocabulary.com adds this: “Tawdry things often have a hint of desperation.” Last week the President falsely accused the World Health Organization of lying and neglect, deflected to them his own lying and neglect, and said he will cut their funding —an act that will contribute to the death of the world’s most vulnerable. Low, mean, base. The tawdry desperation of evil.  
The New York Public Library has its fair share of the brash and pretentious, and as Ex Libris progresses, vast social class and racial disparities among branches and events become evident. Opulent banquet rooms for board meetings or donor celebrations and small, crammed gatherings in poorer communities. And libraries as social institutions reflect the ugliness of their time and place —read Richard Wright’s account in Black Boy of the insult in trying to gain access to library books. Still, the public library is a grand ideal, and one of the virtues of Ex Libris is the way it puts so many faces on that ideal, animates and humanizes it. 
During the last hour of the film, the Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture —a research division of the library— affirms “the public value of what we do,” how the work of the Center is “mind-building and soul-affirming.” He is talking specifically about the Center, but what he says applies, I think, to the public library generally. To that end, he quotes Toni Morrison, “libraries are the pillars of democracy.” Lofty words, to be sure, but given the Presidential miasma of cheap and dangerous language hanging low over our infected country, we need to aspire. A man in a small branch of The New York Public Library located in The Harlem River Houses complex says that because he was taking care of his kids, he couldn’t afford to go to film school, so learned the basics through his library. In a gentle and deliberate rhythm, Ex Libris offers us image after image of what a public institution can do —and in mid-April of our plague year, that is mind-building and soul-affirming.  

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Thursday, March 26, 2020

Risk and Everyday Heroes

In the terrible and constant flow of images related to the coronavirus pandemic, the pictures of grocery clerks at their stations have been catching my attention. The images are so familiar and benign: the clerk tapping keys on the register, or, hand extended, passing packaged meat or a box of soap over the scanner, or leaning over to help a customer insert a credit card. How many times a day is this commonplace human-commercial drama repeated?
But these are not commonplace times, for while countless businesses are shuttered and we are told to keep our distance from each other, and in some cities and states to stay at home, grocery clerks are doing their job face-to-face with a stream of their fellow human beings. Depending on the store, the clerks have as protection gloves, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, marked boundaries, and, as I write this, the promise in one grocery chain of a plexiglass barrier. But in most cases, these protections are inadequate. Still the clerks are at their stations. And, it seems, the nation sees them. And acknowledges the risk they take. And thanks them. 
In terms of occupational rankings, grocery clerk is relatively low in status. One woman in a long radio interview stated flatly that she’s aware being a grocery clerk is considered a “low-status job,” so walking to work she never wore her apron but carried it folded over her arm, in a manner, I assume, that hid the company logo from view. Now, she says, she puts the apron on when she leaves her house. She appreciates the gratitude she receives for the work she does. 
But she and all the other grocery clerks I’ve heard interviewed also express ambivalence, worry, and anger. “We’re lucky to have work,” one clerk told a friend of mine, but as her customers’ isolation and economic distress intensifies, she continued, “people are getting grumpier.” And day by day she worries about exposure to the virus. “I’m just trying to keep my spirits up.” “It’s the same old job,” another clerk says, “but now it’s scary.” Efforts of clerks and their unions to gain more protections and compensation are increasing, with varying degrees of success. Still, grocery clerks show up. One woman poignantly expressed what most must feel in some way: The work is risky, but she has a family to support, so what can she do? An awful dilemma. 
We rightly praise first responders and front-line health-care workers during a crisis. They save lives and put their own lives at risk —a number of them are testing positive for the coronavirus. But as NPR reporter Alina Selyukh keenly observes in a recent profile of a grocery clerk, “in times of crisis, some of the lowest paid jobs become essential.” Though these jobs are not adequately protected or rewarded, they do become visible. And thus, perhaps, we, for a time at least, value the everyday work of the world. 
Let me close by reprinting a related reflection I wrote about my mother, a career waitress, for the Tenth Anniversary Edition of The Mind at Work. It is a tribute to her and to all the other workers who, as the poet Marge Piercy puts it, “do what has to be done, again and again.” 


When my mother Rosie came home after a long day waiting tables, she would spread out on the bed an old white kitchen towel turned gray from years of coins and dump her tips on it. As she told my father and me about her day—a fight with the cook, a regular’s troubles at home—she would count and separate the coins. I had a weird fascination with that towel. Old, dirty, but the grime had a silver cast to it, the color of money. “If it wasn’t for the tips,” she told me many years later, “we wouldn’t have made it.” There was a front and back counter in the restaurant, and she described working with her sidekick, Ann, another career waitress, how they’d listen—when they could slow down enough—“listen real hard” for the sound of the tip and know if it was a dime, a quarter, a half-dollar, “or no sound at all…you either got stiffed, or they left a dollar.” I don’t remember many dollars on the bed.
I take some coins out of my pocket, close my eyes, and give each a short toss onto the table. She was right; they have distinct sounds, a tink, a thunk. The sound of groceries, of rent, of school supplies, of gas for the car. 
There is a direct line between those tips and me being able to sit here and write about my mother’s work, and my uncle’s, and all the other people who make so much possible through their labor. There are about two million waitresses in the United States. Through a combination of physical and social skill and the ability to think on their feet, they support families and put kids through school, or pay for their own school, or help aging parents. They make restaurants function at the point of service. They contribute to the social fabric of the neighborhoods where they work.
There are roughly two million home health care workers in our country, tending to those who are too sick to care for themselves. There are somewhere around one and a half million plumbers, carpenters, and electricians, daily clearing the flow of water, completing a circuit, building and repairing our shelter. The list continues, outward and across the country: ranch hands and farm workers, long-haul truckers and local drivers, firefighters and miners and welders, the untold numbers of people who work in factories, canneries, and meat-processing plants.
Collectively, these men and women form a massive web of skill that makes our country function, that maintains and comforts and, at times, rescues us. They are so present, their mental and manual abilities so woven into our daily lives that their skills are taken for granted, at times slip out of sight. 

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