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, February 17, 2015

Philip Levine, In Memoriam


            The poet Philip Levine died on February 14. I suspect that many of the readers of this blog are familiar with Levine’s poetry, but for those who aren’t, let me write just a few words of introduction.

            Levine was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, and was born in Detroit in 1928, the height of the Great Depression. As a young man he worked a number of blue-collar jobs, lifting and stacking, running a punch press, operating a jackhammer. Much of Levine’s poetry is about work, the people who do it, and the lives they lead. He writes in a straightforward narrative style, unadorned and unaffected, but carefully crated and emotionally powerful.

            I see my uncles in his poems. And today’s factory workers and miners and hospital aides…and the guys lining up in the mornings outside lumber yards and big box home improvement stores looking for a day’s work.

            I reprint below one of Levine’s best-known poems “What Work Is.” In honor of Levine, NPR replayed him reading the poem. Click here to hear it.

“What Work Is”

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to   
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,   
just because you don’t know what work is.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

On Being Smart

            This reflection on the word “smart” appeared with minor differences in the Fall, 2014 issue of The Hedgehog Review, a magazine I’ve touted on this blog before.

***

            After sleepwalking through high school, I landed in a senior English class that caught my fancy, and one of the first things I did was shell out 35 cents for a Roget’s Pocket Thesaurus. After years of disaffection and tomfoolery, I wanted to be smart. And one way to be smart, by my adolescent reckoning, was to pepper my essays with words like “disaffection” and “tomfoolery.” I was being a smarty-pants rather than smart, perhaps, but new words represented for me a fresh world of books and writing and using my mind.

            That old thesaurus, crumbling a little more every time I open it, has a wealth of synonyms and antonyms for a word like smart, and I would roam through it, as I am now, finding threads and connections. To be smart bears similarity to being intelligent, ingenious, or resourceful and to being clever, witty, or quick. And then there are book smarts versus street smarts. And working smart. And, look out, a smart aleck with a smart mouth. Humanity lofty and flawed lives in these definitions.

            About five or six years before I bought that thesaurus, the brilliant computer scientist John McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence” to describe the simulation of intelligent behavior by computers: recognizing visual shapes, solving certain kinds of problems, and improving performance through repeated trials. These capabilities combined with the computer’s extraordinary processing capacity would within a few decades result in a deep embedding of the computer in our lives. By the 1980s, Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff would be writing about the world of the smart machine. Now we have smart phones, smart cars, smart classrooms, even, God help us, smart bombs.

            Language is complex and adaptable—smart also means to sting or be stylish—so it’s no surprise or big deal when smart is used to describe the added cognitive processing power computer technology brings to objects and places. As opposed to the term artificial intelligence, however, there’s no qualifier in front of smart phone or smart classroom to denote the anthropomorphism. Semantically we cede intelligence to the machines we make, enhancing our era’s faith in technocratic solutions to just about any problem and, in the process, narrowing our definition of what it means to be smart.

            Consider the smart classroom or, in the more materially accurate phrasing, the wired classroom. This is a classroom equipped with computers that potentially enable students to do research on the Internet, work with all sorts of digital media, and network with others in and beyond their classroom. Students can also receive individualized instruction and have their progress monitored by their teacher. Marvelous things can happen in the wired classroom.

            Although obvious, it needs to be said that all this potential will be realized only if the computer technology is well-designed and its programming is done by people who have a deep understanding of teaching and learning. The technology also has to be integrated into a rich curriculum, and the teacher needs to be pedagogically astute about the instructional uses of the computer. Only then can smart things happen in the smart classroom. Conversely, cognitive sparks can fly without laptops and iPads. The most sophisticated instructional technology in the classroom that lit me up about language was a chalkboard.

            This distortion of the word smart, and of our understanding of intelligence in general, is also found in the commonplace distinction between the “new economy” – the emerging work of the smart machine and the smart worker – and “old economy” work of heavy manufacturing and traditional services. There’s no denying that the last few decades have seen significant changes in the organization and technologies of work, and many blue- and white-collar occupations require new skills and knowledge, particularly of computer technology. But these developments have been reduced in endless opinion pieces and popular management books to a simplistic and cognitively loaded separation between the economy of previous generations and our own. “Whereas organizations operating in the Industrial Age required a contribution of employees’ hands alone,” write Sandra Burad and Sandra Tumolo in their award-winning Leveraging the New Human Capital, “in the Information Age intellect and passion – mind and heart – are also essential.” Before the era of the smart machine, it seems, you didn’t have to draw on much of your intelligence to build airplanes, or keep the books, or care for the sick.

            The word smart is being appropriated into a broad technocratic world-view that includes not only the schoolhouse and the workplace but the very space in which we live. Some urban theorists are promoting smart cities that are heavily wired and connected, driven by business development with emphasis on high-tech and entrepreneurship, and populated by critical masses of highly educated people. Smart schools provide smart citizens who work in smart corporations in the smart city. To be sure, there are many advantages to such a city, from flexible work hours to traffic control. But there are possible downsides, including the danger of expanded surveillance and lopsided, business-dominated development, for in the smart city, high-tech and managerial smarts carry great power.


            This is not a Luddite’s lament; I used Google and a word-processing program while writing this essay. My worry is that our digital rapture will blind us to the fact that smart, as my old thesaurus reminds us, is a big tent of a word. The guys delivering a truckload of stoves and refrigerators are working smart. The class clown is smart. So, too, is the kid who deflects the clown’s barb by turning away. The Mars rover team is smart, and Sojourner Truth was smart. To lose sight of this intellectual abundance would be simple, unwise, and, well, anything but smart.

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