“A Bold, Socratic Examination of American Education”

Nathan Gauer, a graduate of Soka University of America and Harvard University currently resides in Asuncion, Paraguay where he works as a freelance writer. He recently published his first book, a memoir entitled Songs to Make the Desert Bear Fruit (please see my review here). His review of Lost Apple is an excellent overview of my novel, and one that gives a clear idea of my ideas and intentions.
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A Review of Lost Apple by Nathan Gauer
Reading Iain Coggins’ bold examination of the current state of American education, one can’t help but reflect on the central question at the heart of Lost Apple: what is the purpose of education?
Coggins’ narrative approach – Socratic in nature and fearless in its insistence not to hold the reader’s hand and spoon feed conclusions – asks readers to engage with the questions the book poses. Nearly halfway through, Schimmel, the billionaire who founded the eponymous Lost Apple educational park/training program, observes as follows:”Those business interests that would make our school system as profitable as our medical system, they see education merely as a commodity, while the general public sees it merely as an economic opportunity; they’re like the blind men and the elephant. Education is neither of those things. Education is a human right, as inalienable as any that Locke, Rousseau, or Jefferson ever conceived of, and it is time that society begin serving education rather than the other way around.”While one might rush to assume that this is the author speaking through Schimmel, in true Socratic fashion Schimmel’s beliefs – along with those of Lost Apple’s two main protagonists, Frank and Paul – are continuously tested, hammered, and recast in the fire of the dialogical encounters that propel the story forward.After finishing Lost Apple, one also can’t help but reflect how rare it is to encounter serious reexaminations or explorations of the purpose of education in America. Other questions – none of which can be disentangled from the book’s central question regarding the purpose of education – emerge as well. For example, will we ever be able to remedy the vast, interlocking structural realities that perpetuate social and economic inequality in America? Will we ever provide world-class humanistic education to all of our nation’s citizens, regardless of if they are rich or poor, white, black, Asian or Latino? In the skeptical eyes of many, no; perhaps these problems are intractable. To such defeatists that lack the will to wage an earnest struggle, I would remind them of Victor Frankl’s hard-earned insight that “When we are no longer able to change a situation – just think of an incurable disease such as an inoperable cancer – we are challenged to change ourselves.”Ultimately, Lost Apple reminds us that we ourselves must change if we are to provide America’s youth with the education that is their right by virtue of being born into this world.

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Unfashionable Hope

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Friend and fellow SGI Buddhist Nathan Gauer has put out his first book, a memoir entitled, Songs to Make the Desert Bear Fruit. To my knowledge, this is the first American foray of Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhism into literary non-fiction. There are plenty of books available on the Soka Gakkai Buddhist movement and its president, Daisaku Ikeda, titles such as The Buddha in Your Mirror, The Reluctant Buddhist, Encountering the Dharma, and most recently Waking the Buddha. Songs, however, is not such an informational commentary, but the coming of age memoir of a youth who happens to be a practitioner.

In 1999 18 year- old Nathan Gauer leaves behind a troubled adolescence of inadequate schooling, drugs and friends lost to violence to go on a cross-country road trip with his mother. Their ultimate destination is a place well below the radar of most Americans, the impoverished Rosebud Reservation of South Dakota. Gauer poignantly captures people’s lives there, as they are, without a Euro-American guilt complex, nor a noble savage perspective. In fact, were the Lakota not reminding him that he is a white outsider, a reader might forget that the story is being told by an Anglo. On the reservation we see America in all its ugliness, beauty, sincerity and despair, from Gabrielle’s stolen wristwatch to the Rosebud residents crying around the t.v. at the news of JFK Jr.’s death: “Camelot was our story too, you know.”

Trenchant passages in the book detail his inner journey away from anger and aimlessness: “My unwillingness to take responsibility for my past was limiting my ability to envision the future.” Yet Gauer presents his personal transformation as part of a larger reflection on alienation, violence, poverty and mis-education in America. Readers may find themselves compelled to question a society that so easily provides the mire through which he must slog. There is, however, no preaching here, nor does it smack of a recovery story. Gauer simply takes a snapshot and hands over the picture. In describing some young men who are brutalizing a pit bull to ensure its viciousness in the betting ring, he writes:

Watching these sad, violent young men beat that dog every night, you found yourself looking into a mirror that, depending on your angle, reflected either everything or nothing.

As a reader I was left to decide what this meant to me, and it is this hands-off approach that lends his writing its power. Yet this isn’t to suggest that he is afraid to share an opinion. He comments in the epilogue:

Although America still prides itself on carrying the torch of its own ideals into the world, millions of American youth remain marginalized and disempowered, little more than consumers who figure abstractly in competing bottom lines.

Through such statements, Songs takes on the aspect of a generational work, in this case for Generation Y. As such, it stands in contrast to Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, the book that named the preceding generation. Like Brecht’s assertion that art is a hammer rather than a mirror, Gauer does not reflect the zeitgeist, he challenges it head on:

To put it mildly, it is clear that there will be no simple answers regarding the world we, the last generation of youth to graduate from our nation’s public schools in the twentieth century, will soon inherit. However, I have hope. I have deep, abiding, unfashionable hope, for there is another inheritance that can guide us as we grow into our responsibility to create a new age. This inheritance beats at the heart of the dialogue I began with my mentor [Daisaku Ikeda] nearly 15 years ago; a dialogue that has strengthened my sense of responsibility for the links between our past, our present, and our future; a dialogue that I approach every day as a mirror; and above all, a dialogue that calls upon me to act.

Such grounded, open-eyed vision is definitely not fashionable today. In America’s present state of ever-deepening entropy, if there is one thing we still hold in common as a people, it is resignation to a future we imagine will be far worse than the present. Ours may yet become a land of self-fulfilling prophecy, but Gauer shows the courage to counter it. His is not a story of rootless youth, nor of impossible hope. It is a call to arms anchored in the “conviction that our individual and collective voices can create a new era; the belief in our innate potential to sing songs to make the desert bear fruit.”

 

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The Gaze of Educators

teacherkidsdogThis past week has been a heady flight, but I am happy to report that my feathers aren’t ruffled. A few days ago I joined the nascent Badass Teachers Association. Today I left the group. On a personal level it has been the final step in my movement away from direct activism in the progressive education movement. This has been a long journey for me, but I can confidently say that my role as an education reformer is necessarily very different from that of many of my peers.

I have been both supported (mostly) and criticized for leaving the group. Critics told me that I was being premature, that the group is going through necessary growing pains. When I criticized the redundant messaging (preaching and venting) of many members, as well as the snarking, sniping and outright fighting among them, I was met with the justification that teachers have been pent up with rage for so long that they need to get this out. I find this argument weak to the point of being childish. In the group there were times when I couldn’t believe actual adults were saying these things.

Prominent voices  (I won’t say leaders because this group was the purest form of anarchy to which I have ever been party) reassured me multiple times that it would eventually all come together. But I found myself scratching my head in puzzlement: aren’t we social animals? Don’t we naturally gravitate toward those individuals who naturally take leadership initiative? But there was no taking of such initiative. The founders of the group, as best I could see, were content to unleash a maelstrom and let it play out, only becoming anxious when it became clear that conflict was accelerating and cohesion diminishing.

I could go on, but it would sound like I’m complaining and I’m really not. In my post yesterday, I identified the problematic role of anger in the group dynamic. I would add that the essential difficulty here is not anger so much as it is the negative state of mind engendered by it. Anger can be either good or bad depending on how one uses it to good or ill effect, or by how much one is controlled by it. Teachers are an interesting lot. I saw the same problems manifesting in the BAT forum that I see in my work as an educator: too many nice, generally passive people who store up anger for too long before explosively letting out. Too many teachers are wounded birds. They entered the profession out of the goodness of their hearts. They give and give and give. And what are they met with in mainstream society? Indifference by many and outright abuse by those who would profit from hijacking their profession. When you care so much about what you do, helping kids develop their lives, this can all be a bit much.

On the other hand, American school teachers can be very weak willed at times. Last summer I posted here on the life of Janusz Korczak, the Polish educator in the Warsaw Ghetto who walked into the gas chamber at Treblinka with all of his Jewish students, even though he had been given numerous opportunities to save himself. And let’s not forget the teachers who gave their lives at Columbine and more recently, Newtown. If we can show that kind of resolve in the face of a drawn gun, why can’t we handle dialogue? Is a genocide or a school shooting easier than the process of listening, thinking, responding, listening again, re-thinking?

The truth of the matter is that teachers have always been the targets of power, for we hold the keys to the door that leads to power. We’re the first to be rounded up in purges and pogroms, the first to be silenced by politicians in less violent times. The public can easily be turned against us, especially by business interests. And our work is generally misunderstood and undervalued. All of these drawbacks to a teaching career should fill us with pride. These impediments should be badges of honor we wear on our hearts every day. Just think, what we do is so critical, of such social importance that the most potent forces in the world want to suppress and harness us!

There have never been such challenges to education as we see today. Certainly our role is daunting, but do we believe in ourselves enough to worry less about what the outside world is throwing at us, and consider more how to strengthen our own hearts? In another recent post, I quoted from an essay by Daisaku Ikeda on the role of teachers. I offer another excerpt from the same regarding the fundamental spirit to which we must hold true:

No matter how callous and indifferent the eyes of the public may be, the gaze of educators must always shine with an unwavering belief in the worth and potential of all students. No matter how fiercely society’s winds may blow, educators must have the compassion to staunchly protect their students and open the path to a bright future for them. When students know that their teachers believe in them and would never abandon them, it can become a source of tremendous courage, enabling them to achieve immeasurable growth (World Tribune, 6/14/2013, 5)

Ultimately, is this not the only thing that really matters?

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Zhou Enlai’s “Guidelines for Myself”

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I just dug this up off of my hardrive, words from the iconic premier, and a figure whom I greatly admire. Educators, especially activist educators, as well as anyone else striving to live a goal-oriented life may benefit from Enlai’s ethos:


1. Study diligently, grasp essentials, concentrate on one subject rather than seeking superficial knowledge of many

2. Work hard and have a plan, a focus and a method.

3. Combine study with work and keep them in proper balance according to time, place and circumstances; take care to review and systemize; discover and create.

4. On the basis of principles, resolutely combat all incorrect ideology in others as well as in myself.

5. Insofar as possible, make the most of my strengths and take concrete steps to overcome my weaknesses.

6. Never become alienated from the masses; learn from them and help them. Lead a collective life, inquire into the concerns of the people around you, study their problems and abide by the rules of discipline.

7. Keep fit and lead a reasonable regular life. This is the material basis for self-improvement.

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Revolutionary Chinese Peasant Denunciations and the BATs

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During and immediately after Mao’s victory in the Chinese Civil War (1946-1949), agrarian land reform was initiated by the Communist Party. It was an ugly episode in Chinese history, and one to be repeated again and again until the reforms of Deng Xiaoping after the Great Leader’s death. This policy, however, was much more than a simple matter of taking land from the rich and distributing it among the poor. According to Chang and Halliday (2005):

[L]and resdistribution was not the main aspect of Mao’s land reform. The part that really mattered was a practice called dou dizhu, “struggle against the landlords,” which in reality meant violence against the relatively better-off….The violence typically took place at rallies, which all villagers had to attend. Those designated as targets were made to stand facing large crowds, and people were pysched up and organised to come forward and pour out their grievances against them. The crowds would be led to shout slogans while brandishing fists and far tools. Village militants and thugs would then inflict physical abuse, which could range from making the victims kneel on broken tiles on their bare knees, to hanging them up by their wrists or feet, or to beating them, sometimes to death, often with farm implements. And there was often torture of even more ghastly kinds (Mao: The Unknown Story, 315).

What Chang and Halliday don’t focus on in their damning biography of the founder of modern China is the pyscho-social conditions that made his atrocities possible. I read this book several years back, but I recall being bothered by the narrow focus of the work: the authors’ intent seemed simply to condemn Mao rather than engage in a deeper investigation of his influence on Chinese society. But I digress.

My point in this post is to identify anger, and how it works in the mind of an oppressed class. Without a doubt, American school teachers are such a class, albeit far, far less oppressed than the Chinese of sixty years ago. I do not mean to draw that correlation. Rather I mean to point out that even Mao couldn’t have gotten the peasants to brutalize their neighbors if there wasn’t a torrent of rage and powerlessness coursing through their lives.  Mao was a genius manipulator of social discontent, of a caliber that makes his contemporaries, Hitler and Stalin, appear amateurish. Latent anger was the fuel. Mao was the match.

Now we have the Badass Teachers Association, its emergence a remarkable phenomenon. Rather than a catalytic proto-movement, however, I am beginning to fear it will shape up to be little more than an outpouring of denunciations by the disenfranchised. Yes, teachers in this country are terribly abused by business and governmental figures who use the media as an instrument of that abuse. On the other hand, such power has always been pitted against teachers in one manner or another throughout time.  Again, and again I read posts and comments by BATs justifying their cacophony of ranting by claiming the need to express their frustration. This state of affairs is not the makings of a mass movement, but rather the makings of mass petulance.

The founders of the BATs can congratulate themselves on bringing thousands of teachers together, but now they must steer the major conversations, focusing them into practical actions that can be long lasting. Simply asking everyone to bombard perceived enemies with phone calls will, at best, bring only temporary recognition; Warhol’s famous fifteen minutes.

So what is the correlation between the BATs and Chinese anti-landlordism? Both rely on anger, which is a short term expedient at denounce1best. Where do the two differ? The Maoists were highly organized and the whole atrocity was carefully orchestrated from above. With the BATs, so far, it is really quite anarchistic. They would do well to consider the limits and ultimate destructiveness of anger, then turn to reasoned dialogue and the search for wisdom. The enemies of public education can be teachers’ greatest allies in empowering them to bring out their better selves. Instead, too many of are caving into their lesser selves, because it is easier, and it feels right for the moment. After all, if one’s enemies are going to engage in slander, would it not be better to rebut them from a position of great inner strength and resolve, rather than going after them with the same dark impulse that compels their assault?

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How Many Teachers Really Understand Dialogue?

hickmangarrisonikeda“A Multiplicity of Dialogues” is a thought-provoking article from the Ikeda Center in regard to the explosive flurry of interactions within such online groups as the Badass Teachers Association. I have spent the past week engaging with the BATs with an odd mixture of joy and dismay. On the one hand, it is a long time coming that such bold, open and honest discussions occur between educators. On the other hand, there is much spouting of opinions, venting of frustrations and often an unwillingness to go deeper. On this latter point, however, I wonder if it isn’t an unwillingness so much as not-knowing-how to deepen and expand conversations?

In this article, Jim Garrison, Professor of Philosophy of Education at Virginia Tech University, and Larry Hickman, Director, Center for Dewey Studies, and Professor of Philosophy, Southern Illinois University Carbondale spoke with students about the role of dialogue in terms of identity and the greater self. As is the focus of the Ikeda Center, both professors centered their comments on the work of Daisaku Ikeda, observing that he:

articulates an important perspective by insisting that “in striving to discover the greater self, the genuine Buddhist approach is not to try to suppress or wipe out the lesser self, but to control and direct it so as to help lift civilization to better, higher levels.” …Buddhism, Dr. Garrison added, also teaches through the doctrine of dependent co-arising that no self or phenomenon exists independent of other selves and phenomena. Thus, the movement toward a greater self must always occur in relationship. Dialogue, he said, is a form of relationship that is especially fruitful in fostering the greater self.

This is heady stuff, and I encourage a full reading. What I found particularly pertinent to teachers’ online discussions was this passage, in reference to the ideas of John Dewey (1859-1952):

Dewey insisted that we must understand our identities not just as individuals but also as members of what he called “publics,” i.e., groups that form around shared concerns. According to Hickman, Dewey believed that for these publics to thrive and contribute to society they must first develop “a clear sense of what internally the group is about.” Second they must develop “a clear idea of how that public relates to other publics.” The possible combinations of negotiations and dialogues in this framework are nearly limitless.

Clearly, groups such as BATs, Teachers Letters to Obama, and many others are such “publics”. How much progress or effectiveness such a public has, I think, depends on the dominant perceptions of the group members. Some are clearly coming to these online forums to vent. Others are genuine activists who want change in public education. In the case of BATs I see a real tug-o-war between these two streams, but genuine, transformative dialogue? I am not so sure yet. Oddly, I have seen individuals very vocally drop out of the BATs group, ironically complaining that there is too much complaining, among other things. I have felt this same frustration, but I am sticking around to see where things go. The bigger question is, can online forums such as BATs become genuinely dialogic, as Paulo Freire would have termed it, or are they by their very nature doomed to be nothing more than pressure valves for the disgruntled? A potential answer, or beginning of an answer, can be found in the latter part of the article:

To provide some more context, Professor Garrison took a few moments to talk about popular misperceptions about dialogue. First of all, we need to acknowledge that there are some situations in which dialogue is not appropriate or helpful. Resonating with Dr. Hickman’s remarks on the tasks of publics, Garrison noted that dialogue across groups, especially when power differentials are present, are often counterproductive until after dialogues have first occurred within given “affinity groups” as a means of strengthening identity and self-conception.

It may be premature to think that a Facebook forum can make real change in a social context, but perhaps building “affinity”, as messy a process as it is, will be the start. I am keeping my eyes and mind open.

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Quickwrite: Why Teachers Don’t Read

In an effort to post more frequently I am inaugurating what I will call “quickwrites”, after the popular classroom writing activity.

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La Lettura, by Achille Boschi (1852-1930)

A discussion in the car this morning brought up the question of what would make for a better professional class of teachers. My argument, based on my fifteen years of teaching experience, is that far too many teachers lack the much-touted “lifelong love of learning”. I noted that while many teachers espouse this maxim to their young proteges, they fail to practice it in their own lives, especially when it comes to reading. Time and again I’ve had colleagues sheepishly admit that they don’t read. The most common reason I am told is, “I know I should read more, but I just don’t have time.” I find this curious because I don’t have time either, and yet I read voraciously, an average of one novel every one and a half months. Now, before you scoff at my glib self-praise, let me clarify: reading isn’t any easier for me.

I understand why people don’t have time. It’s because there are so many other things one believes one could or should be doing. Not that this wasn’t always the case, and not that electronic media don’t bewitch and entice us away from books, but reading simply isn’t all that valued. Case in point, reading at home for me is quite difficult. As soon as I sit down the dishes call, or the laundry, or paperwork of one form or another. The next thing I know I’m streaming Netflix because I just need to relax for a bit. Even naps trump reading.  There is this inner voice, a channeling of the collective unconscious that is perpetually whispering in my ear: You should be using this time in the way everyone else would use this kind of time…. Put down the book! The only difference between myself and the average non-reader is that I’ve chosen to fight this voice. And isn’t that what education is about, showing children and youth how to manifest their own voice in opposition to voices (internal or external) that seek to control them?

A natural question at this point is, how do I do it. I could describe my very simple methods, but I won’t. My point is, I have made a choice to read regularly. Aside from enjoying it immensely, I avoid hypocrisy when I say to my students, “You need to be reading everyday!”

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