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, June 27, 2017

A Half-Dozen Poems for Your Pleasure


            My posts have been anything but lighthearted lately, so I thought I’d give you a break with what I hope will provide a few minutes of enjoyment. Through the 1970s, and into the mid-1980s, I wrote a lot of poetry, much of it not very good. But you know how it is with writing: I kept at it and kept at it and managed to finally write some poetry that was half-way decent. I’ve been working on a project over the last year that led me to dig up those poems. Here are six. I’ll provide some context.
            I enjoyed writing small, comical vignettes, a fanciful riff on something I read or heard. “Cognitive Science” sprang from a New Yorker profile of Marvin Minsky, a major figure in the last generation’s research in artificial intelligence and robotics. I was taken by Minsky’s purchase of a big jukebox for his wife and wondered what the result would be if he turned that whimsical streak to his scientific work.

COGNITIVE SCIENCE

“…in the Minsky house…there [is] a huge jukebox—a present from Minsky to his wife.”*

So this wizard of robotics
builds a big, grinning neon ox—
a thinking machine that flubs checkers
but carries a tune.

The maid palms its blue dome
and taps the keys for “Hound Dog.”
Graduate students take pictures
with their arms around it.  
Minsky brings it to conferences.
It rocks and flashes
and breaks out a case of beer. 
The chess machines are envious.
They always roll home alone. 

____________
*From Jeremy Bernstein’s New Yorker profile of MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky, December 14, 1981


            I was looking for a Valentine’s card in a Hallmark shop and, after being there for too long, began to imagine romantic life inside the world of those cards.

BELATED

When we met,
I was temping at Condolences and
you were piercing arrows through lacy Hearts.
Your note came with the afternoon crates of Grief,
so, at the 5 o’clock whistle, I pushed through Bereavement
and hurried to find you drying tears
at the corner of 5th and Love You Dearly. 

I fumbled for a hanky.
Sorry For Your Loss, I said. 
Get Well Soon.
H-Happy Graduation! 

You turned away
and I felt Blank Inside. 

So I Passed On to my night job
at the Sympathies mill,
leaving you looking for Someone Dear. 

Later, I heard that Tender Regard
swept you away in his Heartfelt 88.
And now I’m staying till midnight in Sorrow,
rhyming the Gospel,
gaining overtime,
and Thinking of You. 

            Finally, there I was creeping up on forty and still seeing a dermatologist, so what else was I to do but write a poem about it?

TO ACNE

“As you age, it will disappear,”
soothed Dr. Glop. 

But tiny buds defy gray beard
and Glop’s wisdom. 

The Medical Encyclopedia recommends
tetracycline, radiation, dermabrasion.   

The Psychiatric Handbook opines
“hormone imbalance well past the prime.” 

I say, rage little oils,
you’re my last stay against time. 

Women will say, “How his hair is growing thin.
But, look, the rosy eruption of his skin!”


***

            I also wrote poems—less goofy ones—about my forebears and my early life in Altoona, Pennsylvania. My mother and her parents settled in Altoona after immigrating from the region of Calabria in southern Italy. About one hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh, Altoona was a bustling railroad town that suffered gradual economic collapse as the railroad industry began its decline in the decade after World War II. I lived there until I was 7, and then we moved to Los Angeles. My mother and I visited Altoona regularly for family reunions until the late 1980s when the trip became too difficult for her.

HOME MOVIES

Cut to Grandma vigorously stirring.
The daisies on her dress rise and fall.
She turns to the camera.  Smiles.
Scoops endive from a colander
and raises it to the lens.
This is a lesson on preparing greens.
Other lessons follow:
The shredding of cabbage.
The pounding of meat.
Grandma understood the limits of film.
She knew it would miss the spices,
the fine dicing. 


BEIGE

The ceiling bulb has tanned the shade
as has the dust of hapless moths.
The phlox and hydrangeas on the wall
are caught in the half-life of paper bloom.
Bedspreads and rugs lie monochromatically—
their Persian arabesques gone to beige
in this rented room in Altoona. 

A mother and her son play dominoes
on a table beneath the light. 
The rectangles shine against their fingers. 
A fly buzzes into a Pepsi bottle.
Silence.  One move.  Another. 
Then click click and the boy
hits his dots. 
The mother claps.
The boy laughs. 

Nothing fades. 


OFFICE VISIT

Cabot’s Differential Diagnosis,
Browne on Diseases of the Throat,
lace curtains, handwritten hours,
a soft voice explaining the inner ear.
Dr. DeSantis still sees patients.
A dumbwaiter locked into place
holds a cutaway of the vestibular canals. 
His voice carries my mother
through the curves and delicate bones. 
Vertigo. 
The dizziness of old age.
Fear of the open street. 
She stands on one foot.
DeSantis catches her.
Again.  His arm snaps up.
The curtains rustle.
The doctor explains the winds
beginning on the street.
How the bones are like sails.
How she can leave her fear
in his arms.
How the wind heals
with its own risky balance. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Inside the White House, It’s Not Just Education Policy That’s Threatened, But the Meaning of Education Itself.


            In his May 3, 2017 column in The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-has-a-dangerous-disability/2017/05/03/56ca6118-2f6b-11e7-9534-00e4656c22aa_story.html conservative commentator George Will wrote a sentence that I can’t get out of my head. Will is trying to pinpoint what he sees as the “disability” that makes Donald Trump unfit to be president. “[T]he problem isn’t that he does not know this or that, or that he does not know that he does not know this or that. Rather, the dangerous thing is that he does not know what it is to know something.” I’m not typically in agreement with George Will, but his insight here is, I think, stunning—diagnostically astute but also exceedingly relevant to those of us in education.

            Knowing what it is to know something is a key concern in epistemology, that branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of knowledge and methods of analyzing knowledge. Epistemology can get pretty heady, and, to be honest, I quickly find myself in the weeds when I try to read deeply in it. But the general concerns of epistemology are central to education and, for that fact, to many human pursuits, to the professions and trades, for example. Good electricians as well as good surgeons acquire a body of knowledge and use it flexibly in different situations with different features. This flexibility requires an awareness of what one knows, what to do when one doesn’t know something, and when experience in the field might require a revision of what one knows. When surgeons or electricians display a lack of such awareness, we consider them incompetent—and possibly dangerous.

            These observations apply to both teachers and their students, from the primary grades to the graduate seminar. If an education involves more than the most mechanical rote learning, then by definition it involves consideration of what we’re learning, how we’re learning it, and how to assess what we’ve learned. A good education helps us be more deliberate thinkers and think about our thinking.

            And so I come back to George Will’s observation about Donald Trump not knowing what it is to know something, and how that quality marks Mr. Trump as unqualified to be president.

            Along with abundant evidence of Mr. Trump’s ethical transgressions, we have daily proof of his disregard for the truth—and his moral laxity and dismissal of fact interact to his advantage. We also have continual display of his ignorance and intellectual carelessness—his confusion about U.S. history, for example. But if you want an extended illustration of the muddled state of what he does know and the related defects in his thinking, read the long interview he recently gave to The Economist. http://www.economist.com/Trumptranscript The interview is on Mr. Trump’s economic policy, a topic that one would assume is his strongest suit, given his continual self-advertisement as a business wizard. The editors note that the interview was “lightly edited,” though I bet the editors had to do more than light editing to make the interview readable. Still, the interview reads in many places like a word salad of policy fragments and clips of economics-talk blended with Mr. Trump’s trademark non-sequitors, meandering sentences, and evasions.

            The Economist is a pro-business, pro-market publication which in theory would make it sympathetic to Trump’s economic policies, though the editors would differ with him on trade. But in separate articles, the editors blast the incoherence and shallowness of the thinking behind “Trumponomics.” “Trumponomics… is not an economic doctrine at all. It is best seen as a set of proposals put together by businessmen courtiers for their king…. The economic assumptions implicit in it are internally inconsistent. And they are based on a picture of America’s economy that is decades out of date.”

            Donald Trump is a master pitchman with a keen sense of how to exploit (and, lately, undermine) the media. As I wrote in my blog of November 30, 2016, http://mikerosebooks.blogspot.com/2016/11/donald-trump-celebrity-culture-and.html, he has managed through his tenure on The Apprentice and other self-promotions to create the persona of the ultra-successful and all-powerful businessman, and he sold that image to a lot of voters who were desperate for the economic transfiguration he promised. But as Pitchman moved to President, the celebrity illusions of omniscience and transformative power dispelled like smoke rings, and we are left with a bundle of emotional pathologies and the intellectual limitations George Will describes so well.

            A lot of us in education have denounced Donald Trump for his appointment of the supremely unqualified Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education and for the policies the two of them champion. But there is another reason we educators, regardless of political affiliation, should be deeply concerned about Mr. Trump’s occupation of the White House: his continually evident lack of knowledge and the significant defects in his thinking—and his nonchalance about both.

            Mr. Trump’s supporters use a language of education to defend the neophyte president’s performance: He’s learning on the job, they say, or he’s a good listener. Yet we have little evidence that he’s actually thinking through what he’s hearing versus simply reacting to it. Nor do we have evidence that he’s learning very much at all, as demonstrated by the recent incident involving the sharing of classified information with his Russian visitors.

            People critical of President Trump say that his fragmented and digressive language is strategic, is used to distract us and keep us off balance. This may well be true, but what Mr. Trump says can be strategically evasive and still reveal the liabilities in thinking that concern me here.

            Many of us have spent our professional lives helping students of all ages think more deliberately and carefully. Learning new things and checking what you know is central to this work as is developing strategies to find something out when you don’t know it. To have all this violated daily is an affront to education—a statement by example that the fundamental processes of learning and knowing do not matter.

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