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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