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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Sunday, September 6, 2020

Some Modest Advice to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris from Someone Who Has Never Run a Political Campaign … But Is Apprehensive About This One

An article in the Boston Globe written right after the end of the Republican National Convention captures the anxiety a lot of us feel who desperately want Donald Trump voted out of office. Even though Biden leads in the polls, we are “wary of a 2016 repeat.” “Trump looms like some horror movie villain,” writes journalist Jim Puzzanghera, “Who just keeps coming no matter how much is thrown at him.”
This wariness is not simply a case of free-floating political anxiety, for Trump and Company are doing everything they can to suppress the vote by crippling the postal service and spreading lies and sparking fears about voting by mail. And in some states led by Republican governors or legislators there are a host of efforts to disenfranchise potential Democratic voters and to make voting difficult.
The further concern I have is the enthusiasm gap between Trump’s base and a wide swath of likely Democratic voters. Let my offer two recent spots on NPR that reflect the extremes of this gap. What I’m doing is selective and anecdotal, I realize, but though not systematic, I think the two spots offer probes into some of the beliefs and emotions running through the 2020 presidential campaign – and voting, as endless studies demonstrate, is a highly emotional phenomenon.
The first NPR spot is an interview with three voters who are considering or are committed to backing Joe Biden. The interviewer, Mary Louise Kelly, doesn’t say how the three were selected, but does note that “they are different ages in different parts of the country, all voters of color.” Carl Day is a 35 year old African American pastor in Philadelphia (a Democratic city in a crucial swing state); Parul Kumar is a 20 year old Indian American woman in Chicago; and Adrienne Smith Walker is in Atlanta and identifies herself as “a Gen X Black woman in her 40’s.” Asked by Kelly to rate their enthusiasm for Biden on a scale of 1 to 10, their answers range from 0 to 3. The selection of Kamala Harris as a running mate did not positively affect Pastor Day’s or Ms. Kumar’s opinion, seeing the selection as a “surface level” or “pandering” move. When pressed by Kelly as to whether they would vote for Biden come November, Ms. Smith Walker was firm in her commitment to vote for him but because “if Trump wins, our democracy will fail.” Both Pastor Day and Ms. Kumar in different ways express pessimism about national-level politics making a different in the lives of common people and rather see either local politics or activism as the path to social justice. They both leave open the possibility of voting for Biden, but, as Ms. Kumar puts it, want to demand more of him first. 
The second spot is a report on Trump’s rally on September 3 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a city of about 8,000 in a deep red Trump county. According to the reporter, Scott Detrow, who has been covering Trump’s rallies since 2016, “this crowd seemed even more intense about the president…than what I saw four years ago.” Detrow interviews three attendees, a dairy farmer and his wife and an aerobics instructor. Though the farmer has taken a financial hit because of Trump’s trade polities and the aerobics instructor has been unemployed since COVID hit Western Pennsylvania, they are gushing about the president – the aerobics instructor is close to ecstatic. Pennsylvania matters hugely in this election, and these people will vote for Trump if they have to crawl over broken glass to do it.
As with all elections, turnout will be key on November 3, 2020. By all accounts, Trump’s base has not grown, but it remains solid and highly motivated. Democrats will need to execute a first-class get-out-the-vote effort – in a pandemic. And in the face of multi-pronged voter suppression.
Trump will continue to use his office in every way possible to campaign and will continue to ignore public health restrictions to hold the rallies that allow him to create himself anew and fire up his base.
Biden and Harris are trying to fashion another approach. In the last few days we’ve seen several promising examples of that approach, and I am heartened by them. And just-released huge fundraising numbers for August instill hope. In the spirit of what I see emerging and with all due respect to people who know way more than I do about this business, let me offer some suggestions to the Democratic candidates.


Dear Vice President Biden and Senator Harris:

You have to be more than the Not-Trump. You have a number of proposals that will make people’s lives better. State them and explain them in brief, memorable language.

Please do not just refer us to your website. The digital divide is as wide as ever. And even if it weren’t, we don’t want to go to yet another glowing screen – especially now. We want to hear from you. And often. 

Yes, Trump is a “threat to the soul of the nation.” But for many people that threat is an abstraction. They face more immediate threats daily, from housing and food insecurity, to limited educational opportunity and medical care, to physical danger because of the color of their skin, or their place of worship, or who they love. Tell them how you will help them.

Be the Educators-in-Chief about Trump’s policies. He has lied so often, and created such a haze of chaos and falsehood, that many people don’t realize how directly they are being harmed by this man. Start with health care.

Beware of the technocratic enchantments of the digital. You have to get out on the road from now to November 3, in whatever ways are safe. You have started to do this with visits to Pittsburgh, Kenosha, and Milwaukee. Please continue to hit the campaign trail, separately and together. Don’t follow Trump. Get out ahead of him. Out do him. You won’t be holding reckless rallies in Trump fashion, but press conferences and ceremonial events. Even if you are only videotaping campaign ads, you are doing it in Phoenix, Houston, Detroit, Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Manchester. It matters to people that you are setting foot on their soil.

While in these cities, shine a light on local community groups doing laudable work. You did this during your visit to Kenosha. I received an email asking for donations to the Social Development Foundation and United Migrant Opportunity Services, without a dollar going to your campaign. This is a worthwhile and laudable thing to do on its own, and it might demonstrate to younger (and not-so-young) progressive voters who are disenchanted with your candidacy that your talk about social justice is not just political-rhetoric-as-usual but is connected to vulnerable peoples’ local struggles.

You are both skilled retail politicians, a talent constrained by COVID, because, unlike Trump, you believe in the basics of public health. There is a great challenge before you, and I hope all the bright campaign people around you are focused on it: How to integrate the potency of human encounters on the campaign trail with the communication possibilities of virtual technology. Unfortunately, you have to solve this problem while the campaign is in high gear, steer the boat while building it. But if you can do it, you will make history – and reclaim what remains of our democracy.


To readers: If any of the above has merit in your eyes, would you please email or Tweet a suggestion or two to the Biden/Harris campaign?

I want to acknowledge a long, rich conversation with two of UCLA’s wonderful graduate students, Earl Edwards and Elianny Edwards, that helped me think through the issues in this blog. Of course, they cannot be faulted for any lapses in good sense, which are entirely my own.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2020

“It’s Not Wants That We Want, It’s Needs”

This is a lightly edited transcription of an interview with Sandy Villatoro, a hotel housekeeper from Arizona who was laid off during the pandemic. Her husband is a roofer whose income has suffered. The interview aired on August 6, 2020 on NPR, one week after the expiration of the $600.00 per week augmentation to unemployment benefits. I’ve removed most of the reporter’s introduction and framing questions because I wanted to highlight Ms. Villatoro’s comments, for she expresses in a plainspoken, heartfelt way the difficult situation so many are in and the worries that trouble their sleep. 

Within her individual story, within each expression of anxiety or determination or longing, lie the societal issues that characterize our time — present before COVID and exacerbated by it — and make life precarious for so many: economic instability, affordable health care, housing insecurity, the many manifestations of the digital divide, chaotic and inhumane immigration policy. And within Sandy Villatoro’s story, running through her sentences with the rise and fall of her voice, is an unassuming dignity, so often challenged as people seek a grip on an increasingly tattered social safety net in an increasingly unequal society. 


“Well, at first I didn’t want to apply for unemployment because, uh, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but I have DACA, and my husband is also petitioning for me. So I didn’t really want to apply for unemployment benefits. But then, I’m on a group on Facebook with a bunch of DACA recipients and they are [telling me], ‘No, uhm, unemployment has nothing to do with that. It’s paid by your employer, so you should be fine.’ So I was like, okay, maybe I should because my bills are piling up, my husband’s check wasn’t enough for all the bills that we had before I was laid off. And I had a lot of bills from when I had my daughter – still coming in from the hospital. It was all just coming so fast that I couldn’t keep up with it.” 

“Honestly it [the $600 per month] helped me pay for all the bills that I had. I actually used some of that money to pay ahead on my car. So I thought ahead, like with all the money that I was getting from the six hundred, I was paying ahead … just in case, you know.”  

“I’m going to have to work with what I can and ask them [the lender] if they can, you know, help me with a couple months where I don’t have to pay it.” 

Reporter: What are your biggest expenses?

“Mostly our house. We’re renting a house and that’s a thousand dollars a month. I had to get internet service for my son since he started going back to school, and the service we had before was the cheapest one. So we had to get another better one ‘cause the one that we had before was not working for his remote learning. So it’s not like wants that we want, it’s needs. We need a vehicle to get back and forth. We need to live under, you know, under a roof.” 

Reporter: It sounds like rent is a worry… especially with a new baby.

“Especially in this heat! (laughs) I don’t want to be having to move house to house in the heat. I don't want to be homeless in this heat. So it’s really hard. We just want someone to listen to us. We’re not lazy people. We’re hard-working people that just need a little bit of help for now.” 

“Honestly it [the possibility of being homeless] is [a big concern], it is. I’ve stayed up nights just hoping that some miracle will come, that I don’t have to resort to that. Or, you know, having to ask someone to let me stay with them for a little while while I get back on my feet. I feel so vulnerable. I hate asking for help. I hate asking for hand-outs, but it’s, you know, it’s something I need at the current moment. My kids need it. It’s so hard to even say I need it.” 

Reporter: As you’re looking ahead to the next month or two, what worries you most?

“Just losing my mind (a soft, sad laugh) and losing my house – losing everything that I worked so hard for. I mean, I want to go back to work. I worked every day for five years at the current job that I’m at. It’s so hard just… not to see myself working anymore, you know. I just want to get back to normal, is pretty much what I’m trying to say.”