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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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Reading a Difficult Book

            With the exception of a few classes, I was a mediocre student in high school, unengaged, drifting along, spending huge amounts of energy trying to find my balance on the runaway train ride that is adolescence.  In my senior year, I had the sheer, dumb luck of landing in the English class of a new teacher, Jack McFarland, a Columbia University graduate student who had come back home to Los Angeles and found a job in our small Catholic high school.  He taught us what he knew: the Mid-Twentieth Century Columbia Western Civilization course, starting with The Iliad and The Aeneid and, after nine months, concluding with Graham Greene and the Existentialists.  The year before, our Junior English teacher had us half-heartedly reading Animal Farm and another short novel and writing a few brief papers.  Mr. McFarland hurled me and my classmates into the very deep end of the academic pool, and we flailed and sputtered and learned way more than we thought possible.

            I tell this story in Lives on the Boundary.  For a complex set of reasons, Mr. McFarland caught my attention in a way no other teacher had, and I worked like crazy for him.  He was the person who recommended I go to college and, despite my sorry grades up to the point of his class, got me into one.  He changed my life.

            Even though I’ve written about this experience, I have recently been thinking about it again…a lot…feel driven to understand it as deeply as I can.  Over my many years in education, I’ve encountered a number of other students who have had experiences similar in form to mine: they were drifting along and then had a teacher, or entered a program, or had life smack them in a way that flipped a switch for them.  School began to matter.

            One thing I’ve been doing to further examine that year in Mr. McFarland’s class is to reread all the books he assigned—and, believe it or not, I still have some of the original paperbacks.  When I don’t, I try to find the edition we read through used booksellers or eBay; I want to hold it in my hand and see the typeface and illustrations I saw then.  I also have the many papers I wrote for Mr. McFarland and my class notes as well.  Finally, I am still in touch with Jack McFarland, and we are rereading some of the books together.  I’m doing everything I can do to achieve the impossible: to put myself back in time to better understand that life-changing year.

            The vexing question that came up early in my rereading extravaganza is simply how it was that I was able to make my way through the books.  Reading some of them now is no walk in the park, so at 17 with such a limited background, how did I do it?  I must have wanted desperately to make this class with Mr. McFarland work.

            The little reflection below is an attempt to recreate the experience of reading Virgil’s Aeneid.  I hope you enjoy it.

***

            I am lying across the bed on which my father died, a game show on the t.v. in the next room, concentrating with all I’ve got on The Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem celebrating Aeneas’ long, torturous journey that will lead to the founding of Rome.  I read propped up on my elbows, a pencil in my right hand, shifting now and then to mark with wobbly underlines events that I think might be on Mr. McFarland’s quizzes.  I’m hoping I’m right.  We just finished The Iliad—which Virgil drew from—and the quizzes shocked us into reading more carefully, not the gliding half-steps we were used to.  I don’t have any particular technique to help me, so I mentally grunt, bear down a little harder, and use this pencil, something I didn’t do with The Iliad.  My copy of that book is spotless.

            The quizzes.  I mark some of the places where gods interfere in the lives of the characters—a constant in The Iliad and here in The Aeneid.  There’s frightful omens: A swarm of bees shape themselves into a buzzing sheet hanging from a tree while nearby a young maiden’s hair bursts into flames.  And I mark high drama.  Queen Dido, her heart broken by Aeneas, impales herself on his sword atop her moonlit funeral pyre. 

            I can zero in on stuff like this.  But a good deal of The Aeneid is less accessible to me.  As with The Iliad, I am awash in names I have trouble sorting out, let alone pronouncing: Anchises, Cloanthus, Philoctetes.  Long passages don’t hold my attention—Aeneas’ endless trials and tribulations and the winding geography of his journey.  I had read the standard poetic fare of the mid-century American curriculum: Longfellow and Poe and Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain.”  But The Aeneid is nearly ten thousand lines long, translated into a high-brow English verse by C. Day Lewis, Britain’s Poet Laureate (and, it would turn out, the father of the actor Daniel Day Lewis):

            The wind blows fair, and we leave palm-fringed Selinus behind
            To skirt Lilybaeum’s waters, tricky with reefs submerged.
            After which, we put in at port Drepanum, a landfall
            Of little joy; for here, after so many storms weathered,
            I lost, alas, my father, him who had lightened my cares
            And troubles—lost Anchises.

I push myself off the bed, my shoulders stiff, and move to the small metal desk my mother bought for me at Sears.  It is wedged between this bed where I now sleep and my mother’s, a single box spring and mattress close to the bathroom, so she can get up before sunrise to make it to the breakfast shift at a chain restaurant across town.

            Sitting upright gives me second wind.  I cradle my chin in my left hand, allowing freer movement to the pencil in my right.  My father was frail in his house, slowly succumbing to arterial disease before there were medications and treatments that could have saved him.  A year before, he slipped into a coma and died.  On the bed, at my desk, Aeneas is iron-willed through a journey of storms, and battles, and a descent into the tormented shadowland of hell.  He is fierce in combat, driving his sword deep into his enemy’s heart.  He is loyal and devoted, carrying his beaten, grieving father on his shoulders out of the burning ruins of Troy.

            I count the pages I’ve read so far and the number left to go.  If I really concentrate, I can finish them by the time my mother has to go to bed.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

College Affordability and the Low-Income Student

            On June 10, 2015, the Shanker Institute hosted a terrific panel on college affordability that included Senator Elizabeth Warren; Sara Goldrick-Rab (a professor at the University of Wisconson); Beth Huang from Jobs with Justice; and Zakiya Smith from the Lumina Foundation.  You can access the entire presentation here.

            I want to focus on the short talk by Sara Goldrick-Rab, for she made a strong case for the way the affordability crisis particularly affects people of low to modest income backgrounds.  The data she presented demonstrate that the link between college degree attainment and parental income is stronger than any time in recent memory, and that there is a huge disparity in degree attainment between students of similar ability but different income backgrounds.  She also presented data on the prohibitive cost of college—including community college—for low-income students, even with the financial aid that is currently available.

            Watching Goldrick-Rab’s presentation, I kept thinking of a group of low-income community college students I’ve been following.  These are successful students, students who have strong gpa’s and who have education and career goals that they are working hard to realize.  Yet these students face financial and other barriers that keep stalling their progress toward these goals.

            They live in a tight web of financial constraint.  Making the rent is a month-to-month worry.  Even with the Affordable Care Act, medical coverage for some is out of reach.  Child care is a major concern for those without robust family networks.  Transportation in sprawling Los Angeles presents another challenge, for many low-income students don’t have a car—or a dependable one.  It is in the midst of these constraints that they go to school.

            They have different packages of financial aid—some combination of grants, work-study, loans—but it is rare, as Goldrick-Rab demonstrates, that they get enough aid to cover their costs.  There are times when they cannot afford textbooks or supplies for occupational courses.  Or they can’t pay phone or Internet bills.  Or they have to move back in with parents or live with relatives—which sometimes wreaks havoc with the demands school places on them.  One of the students I know lives in a two bedroom apartment with eight other people.  Their small financial aid checks or checks from the work they do at the college are frequently late because of administrative glitches—glitches that result in anxious negotiations with landlords and bills going unpaid.  Money is always on their mind.

            Responsibilities beyond school also weigh heavily on them, for they have no financial reserves to draw on—none whatsoever.  One woman was making good progress toward completing an Associate of Science degree on top of an occupational certificate, but had to leave college for a year to pay medical bills and help support her mother.

            The promise of the community college has been access at minimal cost, making college affordable to a broad sweep of Americans.  But for students such as those I’ve come to know—and again these are diligent, motivated people—community college is just within tenuous reach.  And sometimes slips out of reach.  There is understandable concern among policy makers about the time it takes many students to complete a certificate or degree or to transfer—and sometimes the reason is not a lack of focus or motivation, but a lack of adequate financial aid and services that would support students’ efforts to succeed.

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