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Tomb-Sweeping

April 5, 2011

 

Today is Qingming here in China, or “Tomb-Sweeping Day.”  It’s a national holiday devoted to visiting family grave sites and honoring ancestors and those who have passed before us.

In honor of this day, I thought I would visit my grandparents in writing, offering them gifts of remembrance – celebrations of life and those bits of my own soul and personality that I believe they originally gave me.

And, to me, life is in the random little things – those moments that don’t feel particularly powerful or extraordinary in the passing, but end up being the most telling and important of them all.

So I bring you four short meditations on my grandparents.  Four simple memories and acts of life that I had the honor of sharing with them – and that I will always hold close as I move forward in my own time.

We’ll start with my mother’s father.

Unfortunately, I never got to know Kung Kung very well, as he died when I was still pretty young.  However, I have heard plenty of stories, and they all tell me that this one distinct memory I hold of him was quite in character:

When I was a kid, somewhere between 9 and 11 years old, I have memories of Kung Kung visiting us at our home.  And in those memories – he’s always sitting in our armchair in the living room – a glass of brandy (or whiskey) in one hand, and a smile on his lips.  I remember him laughing – in my mind, he’s always laughing.  And in those memories, he commands the social atmosphere of the room like a captain his ship.

More clearly I remember him calling me over to his side and telling me, “You need to taste my drink.”  When I asked him why, he told me that it was my duty to make sure that his drink hadn’t been poisoned, and that the only way to know was for me to take a big sip.  If I died, I could rest easy that I had saved my grandfather.  If I lived – well, even better.

From the shine in his eyes, I knew he wasn’t serious, and so I ended up taking a sip of his drink – and gasping and choking as the fire water burned down my throat.  By the time I could breathe again, I was able to notice that Kung Kung was having similar difficulty – because he was laughing so hard.

And it’s that slightly-devilish sense of play that I find myself struck with, at times, as well.  Those who know me can attest to that same gleam coming into my eyes when I get a notion that is undoubtedly going to entertain me to no end . . . and I like to think that – at those times – Kung Kung is having a good laugh with me when those times come.

Then there’s my father’s mother.

Grandma also died when I was pretty young (pretty much the same time as Kung Kung), so – again – I missed out on knowing her well.  However, she also left a strong impression on me (and on my personality, as well).

Now, it’s easy for me to over-emphasize the very Russian cultural traits that were embodied in Grandma.   She was truly strong beyond all imagining.  Stoic.  And brave.  In her fight with cancer, I remember her wearing her head-wrap with such grace and determination -  I never really understood how sick she was, because she was just so damn powerful and strong throughout.

And I’d like to think that I inherited even a small piece of that strength.

But – beyond her power, she exhibited traits that I have only now begun to appreciate fully – a warmth and caring which, I believe, she developed in her older years as a conscious way to temper her strength and the intimidation that could spark in others.

My clearest memories of her involved pancakes.  Her cooking up special pancakes in her house as my brother and I showed her our favorite animals for her to replicate in batter.  And she did it well.

Now, as I said, Grandma could be an imposing figure when she wanted to be (and then some), and she knew it. Yet, in those memories of her (and others which involve eating her alphabet soup), the overwhelming sensation that fills me is one of safety.  And comfort.  Because she had learned, at that point, how to use her strength to warm us – me and my brother.

And I find myself appreciating that ability more and more, as I grow older.  From what folks have told me, when I am not conscious of it, I can tend to look a little less-than-friendly, and I often find myself extending extra smiles and cheer to people in compensation.  And in those times when I do so successfully – I can only give my grandma credit for providing the model.

Next comes my mother’s mother.

Now, I’ve written about Ah-bu before. I could reference her strength, as well.  Or her stubborn fire.  But I’ve already done that.

So the memory I want to focus on today is of her and her “molecule.”

I’m not entirely sure what sparked this, but one day my brother got a gift from Ah-bu – a basketball-sized model of a (water?) molecule.  It was handmade from styrofoam – hand-painted, as well.

It turns out that it was a model she had made decades before when she had been a teacher back in New York.  She must have made it for demonstration purposes, but that’s not what I love about this story.

What I love is that she had kept it.  For at least 20 (probably more than 30) years, she had kept that molecule model in her possession.  For what?  I’m not really sure.  But I imagine now that she had kept it thinking, “some day, this is going to come in handy again.”

And so she took it to her home when she stopped teaching.  She took it with her from New York when she and Kung Kung moved to California.  She kept it in their apartment after he passed.

And then, one day, she decided that the molecule’s purpose had arrived, and she gave it to my brother.

Again – I don’t even remember why she gave it to him (my brother was hardly a “science-y” guy).  But I remember the astonishment we all felt when he got it.

And – oddly – I think of that little molecule model often.  I don’t even know why, exactly.  But it seems to represent Ah-boo’s tenacity and faith.  At some point, she decided that that molecule had a purpose beyond use in her classroom, and so she lugged it around with her (without breaking it) for years, just waiting.

And I can only imagine the feeling of triumph that rushed through her when she decided that she had to give that molecule to my brother, because it’s time had come, and her faith had been proven worthy.

Maybe that strange, ridiculous story gives me hope in doing the work I have chosen to do.  When I pour my faith and belief into a better world coming out of tomorrow – and so seldom see evidence to support that fact.  But I think – if Ah-boo could push through decades without throwing away that model, and end up with her success on the other end; maybe that same weird faith that courses through my veins will end up with its own moment of triumph on the back-end, as well.

Finally, we come to my father’s father.

I have quite a few memories of Grandpa, but the ones that stand out the strongest to me all revolve around his love of learning.  From the thousands of National Geographic magazines stocking the shelves at the farm to his vast mineral collection, being around Grandpa always entailed learning something new.

But one of my fondest memories is of him sitting on the porch-swing at the farm, with a cup (not a glass – a cup) of his home-made dandelion wine in his hand.

I can see him there so clearly – telling us all about the process of making dandelion wine.  How he picked the dandelions.  The feel of the juiciest stalks.  Pressing the juice.

In his well-worn plaid shirt; relaxed and happy as his soothing voice wrapped us all up and took us into his world.  The joy of discovery and learning as tangible as the cup of wine in his hand.

And I tasted that wine, and I have to be honest – I didn’t find it so delicious.  But Grandpa?  He loved the stuff.  And now, I wonder: Did he love drinking the wine because he liked the taste of it?  Or was it for completely different reasons?

In my opinion, it wasn’t really about the liquid at all.  Instead, it was that the wine represented a discovery.  The wine was a physical embodiment of learning in action; the trial-and-error and steady improvement that comes from all the most satisfying learning experiences.  And he had so many to cherish.

So, for Grandpa?  Every time he got the chance to sit down with a cup of dandelion wine – and an audience – it represented the chance to share a discovery, and hold it up to the light for everybody else to see (and taste).

And for me?  I don’t drink dandelion wine (although I’ve thought about trying to make some numerous times).  But I know exactly that feeling he got from making it.  The discoveries and examination and joy of finding out about something new – something that may have already existed in the world, but never existed before in his own experience, and which he got to – rightly – claim as his own due to that fact.

It’s this same love for learning and exploration that pushes me to constantly strive for better understanding and self-improvement.  And I only hope that I can channel even a small degree of Grandpa’s energy in doing so.

 

And so this particular set of offerings is set before them all.

Ah-boo, Kung Kung, Grandma, Grandpa – I loved (and love) you all, and I thank you so much for these pieces of life that you gave me.  May I hold them and grow them until I have become a man that would make you all proud.  I hope that wherever you all are now is filled with laughter,  warmth, rewarded faith, and continued opportunities to learn and improve.

Lovingly,

Your grandson.

 

 

 

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Facebook as a Guide for “Multi-racial Understanding”

March 1, 2011

My next installment of “Educating the Masses” is still in the works.  In the meantime, here is a re-visiting of a topic from way back to send on to Racialicious.

With the lead-up to Obama’s inauguration, there was a ton of chatter about multi-racial people and what that meant for the future of the U.S., in regards to racial relations and understanding.  (*1)  Some years passed, the 2010 census went down, and now the conversation seems to have reappeared in the public arena.  (*2)

The ideas are nothing new, of course: there are drastically more people claiming a mixed-race identity than ever before, with the numbers expected to continue trending upwards; and somewhere around 2060, the U.S. is expected to be less than 50% white.  The resulting question is deceptively simple – does this mean that we are getting closer to a “post-racial” world, and that, subsequently, racial conflict and inequality is on the downslope?

My simple answer?  Um . . .

Hell no.  And that’s it.

But for those of you who would like a bit more complicated answer, I’ll see what I can do here.

Check the “Multiracial” Box

I’m going to start this all off with a quick tear through some points I’ve mentioned in the past that touch on why current statistics on “mixed-race” folks doesn’t necessarily mean anything in regards to racial understanding or equality.  For those looking for a quicker-read, y’all can just stick to that.

For those looking for a little bit deeper analysis (and why I referenced Facebook in this post), that will come in the last section.  Cool?

Alright, here we go . . .

Statistics.

First off, I know statistics and how people use (or mis-use) them to come to questionable conclusions, and let’s just say that the statistics we’re looking at here are questionable, at best.  (*3)

It’s basically just a matter of sampling – nobody’s going to deny that “multiracial” wasn’t an official option until the last decade or so in  any official data collection attempts.  So the question is – how can we compare current numbers of “multiracial” folks to past numbers, if there are no past numbers?

We can’t.  At least not accurately.  Instead, folks employ all sorts of other statistical methods (all with their own flaws) to extrapolate that data from what they can find from past records.

But past records didn’t allow for “multiracial” individuals.  For all practical purposes, we’ve been talking “one-drop” up until now, so any “mixed” people were “monoracial” back in the day.  Hell – even Obama isn’t acceptably “multiracial” in a lot of folks’ eyes today.  So any guess – no matter how “statistically rigorous” – on how many “multiracial” folks there used to be is just that: a guess.

So yeah – anecdotally-speaking, it seems like there are a lot more mixed folks, but we can’t really prove that.  It’s probably true, but I bet it’s a much smaller increase than everybody’s claiming.

“Mixed kids are a step towards greater overall racial diversity.”

So let’s say there really is a huge increase in mixed folks in the U.S.  Then what?

The bolded statement above?  A huge assumption that’s not necessarily true, either.

Let me give you an example: take a bi-racial (white/Asian) gal.  Say she marries a “mono-racial” white guy and has kids.  In all likelihood, what are those kids going to look like, and how are they going to identify themselves, racially (and be identified)?  Yeah – probably as “white.”

So, in that case, the mixed girl was actually an interim step towards less blood of color in her family’s genepool.  Add to this example the fact that most white-and-”other” mixed folks tend to marry and have kids with other “monoracial” white folks (especially in Asian communities), and it just stretches out the case that mixed kids often lead to less racial diversity on an overall level.

Is this the majority of the cases?  (*4) Maybe, maybe not.  But it’s certainly common enough to dispense with that particular myth, and call into question the drastic increases expected based on current numbers.

“Brazil.”

Brazil is ridiculously mixed (between 40 and 50% of the population).  There are specific names for many of the different racial combinations possible, because it’s so common.

So Brazil must be “post-racial,” right?  Um.  Not so much.  The racial hierarchy remains the same, color-wise (lightest skin at the top, darkest at the bottom). They just have more names for the “in-between” folks.  Subsequently, there is just as much (or more) racism and conflict, but with more epithets to throw around.

Great.

In the States, Hawaii is the most-mixed State by far, and the extent of racial conflict (kids throwing stones at white people in the street, for instance) and tension definitely competes for the highest in the U.S.

In real life, greater levels of true diversity (ie. not just a couple “token” folks, but more evenly-represented groups) tend to bring on greater levels of conflict.  Because, in those situations, when there is cultural misunderstanding and/or negative interactions, the “majority” doesn’t have the overwhelming numbers to make the “other” folks just “shut up and take it.”  Suddenly, “those minorities” are actually speaking their minds and standing up for themselves on a regular basis – and this shakes things up, obviously.

“We’re all human beings.”

We are.  It’s true.

However, that doesn’t make race “not matter.”

It does mean that some mixed folks have better racial understanding and ability to “see it from both sides.”  It also means that plenty of mixed folks have no f-ing clue, or don’t care, or “don’t want to get involved” just like all the rest of humanity.  Meaning a whole lot more ethnically-ambiguous folks like me doesn’t necessarily suggest that “understanding” is going to increase at all

And finally . . . “The Social Network”

So I don’t agree with the pundits.  I don’t think the numbers mean what other folks want them to mean.  Great.

That said, it’s more than that.  Because I worry about how people are using these numbers.  How people are talking about the “inevitability” of a more-diverse nation, and the subsequent “inevitability” of greater racial understanding as a result.

My problem with that is that it’s so passive, and it completely ignores how social/political change actually happens in the world.

To better understand what I’m getting at, let’s check out Facebook, the newest world superpower:

The most current statistics I can find seem to have Facebook carrying about 250 million users, with the numbers continuing to increase.  (*5)  The site is pretty much omnipresent, as far as modern media goes,  they made a dramatic movie about it that got all sorts of Oscars love, and now folks are claiming Facebook’s responsibility (along with Twitter, of course) in fomenting revolution across the Middle East . . .

Now how the Hell did that all happen?

To state the obvious – they created a social movement, which worked like any other social movement:  First, some guy (or multiple guys – I’m not trying to judge) got an idea and got a bunch of hard-working folks together.  Then, these folks took all sorts of risks and developed a product.  Next, they convinced other folks higher up to take their own risks to fund it and push it out into the world, “early-adopters” took some social risks to get on board, then more folks, bla, bla, bla . . . and then Facebook took over the world.

But was any of it “inevitable”?

Well, let’s look at Facebook about five years ago:  Lots of folks were using their product, they were in the public eye, they were getting a decent chunk of MySpace’s market share.  Other up-and-coming social networks were out there, too, but Facebook was near the top.

So what if the Facebook folks had seen all that and said, “We’ve arrived. We’ve been increasing in size steadily, and if we continue to grow like that, we’re going to be huge in five years.  So let’s just chill on it, leave our product as-is, and wait for the world domination to begin . . .”?

Um.  Right.  That seems patently ridiculous, and it’s obviously not what they did to become the power that they are today.

And yet, with another social trend – that of “increased multi-racial individuals in the States” – we all want to read the statistics and pretend that it’s all going to continue and keep getting better without any extra effort on our part.  Folks want the comfort of thinking, “I don’t have to actively do anything at all, and racial conflict will handle itself – see the numbers?”

As if thousands of individuals (maybe millions) haven’t sacrificed and risked and fought for the last many generations to get to this point.  As if thousands (and millions) more won’t have to fight to keep up the momentum and get beyond this current, still-unequal, state.  As if Facebook could have gotten so huge without “normal” people signing on as active users.

The same applies to the U.S. today.  Everybody got all “rah-rah” and excited about voting for Obama, patted themselves on the back and hit the streets for his victory, and then said, “we arrived.”  And now?  Our lawmakers are more racist (Arizona), classist (Wisconsin), and nationalist (“outsourcing” debates), than any other period in my generation’s lifetimes.

Because Facebook has active users, and Obama got the equivalent of millions signing up for an account (a vote) without ever checking or updating it.  And then everybody gets disappointed with the results?  Please.  The U.S. president only has the power to do what is “safe” or generally acceptable enough to get away with.  And if the general public isn’t doing the work to make “equality” safe or acceptable for the lawmakers to act on . . ?

So.  There are probably more mixed folks in the States.  Meaning more interracial relationships.  Possibly meaning a little bit more racial understanding in the world.  Right now.

But where is it all heading?  That, we can’t know.  No passive numbers or statistics can tell us that.  Only the actions of large numbers of individuals.  Only risk and hard work.

And right now?  While a bunch of us are passively looking at these statistics or patting ourselves on the back for a freaking vote, the Tea Party and Arizona and Wisconsin lawmakers are getting active users ala Facebook.

So great – you signed up for an account.  But now what are you going to do to make your “social network” mean something?

(this article was written by the CVT, who has no affiliation, public or private, with Facebook or any of their people . . .  really)

(*1) I wrote on it back then.  However the writing was, in my opinion, pretty bad, which is why I’m “re-visiting” in this fashion, but if you want to check it out for a laugh, it’s here.

(*2) With articles such as this one from the New York Times.

(*3) I’ve seen some pretty shady “data massaging” in my past work in the field of Psych research.  Sadly, I’ve since learned that that’s pretty standard practice, which is why I’m certain that the majority of scientific “findings” out in the world are complete fabrications.  When results are the only way to get more funding (via grants, etc.), people do what they have to do to get “results.”

(*4) I’m kicking myself here, because I read a great article that had all the numbers on this many years ago, and I haven’t been able to track it back down.

(*5) Unfortunately, I’m not one of those 250 million, cuz I live in China.

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Educating the Masses: China vs. the U.S., Part I

February 19, 2011

This post is a continuation-piece.  Please read the first “Educating the Masses” post prior to reading this one.

China vs. the U.S.: The Long, Winding Road of EduCultural Development

Now that we’ve taken a look at a very simple example of the effect of culture on any educational institution, we’re going to “go broad” here and compare two “competing” educational systems – those of China and the U.S. 

Part I: China

Let’s look at China and how its educational system got to be the way it is:

When it comes to education, it all begins with language, as, without a written language, a true, formal education system is an impossibility.

Therefore, it makes sense that China was pretty much the birthplace of formal education (as China has had a written language system for about 3,000 years).  By the 600s AD, Chinese citizens were studying fiercely for the standardized Imperial Exam; one in which success could lead to earning a position as a government official – from a (relatively) lowly minister to a governor or aid to the emperor.

These exams were created as the first merit-based systems, so that, in theory, anybody at all (even a poor farmer) could ascend to a position of power if they did well on their tests.  Do poorly (no pun intended), however, and it was back to nothing for you (or worse – as all the time you had “wasted” on study with no results would set you further behind those who had never tried to begin with).

Therefore, from the very beginning, education in China has been designed as a competition with high stakes.  Do you gamble on your child’s abilities and have them focus on study – over earning a livelihood – in the hopes of a big payoff?   This has been the root question behind  Chinese education for thousands of years – and the broadening of access to education has only strengthened this concept in the Chinese cultural pysche.

On top of this, the Chinese language is like few others out there, in terms of it being character-based.  This means that for almost every single word, there is an individual character that represents the word.  With 3,000 characters necessary for basic conversation – and up to 10,000 for more specific comprehension – that’s a lot of memorization to do to be able to read.  And to write?  Hours of practice writing for every character – and hours more simply to avoid forgetting a previously-learned character.  There’s simply no way around it.

As a result, to be able to master written language – a key to academic success – typical Chinese students  have had to rely on  a level of mental discipline and memorization in and out of class that those with alphabet-based written languages simply have not. (*1)   Subsequently, the foundations of Chinese schools and teaching philosophies have been built on these concepts of discipline, memorization, and practice – as literacy alone is an impossible achievement without them, and further academic success is impossible without being fully literate.

Of course, other subjects are taught in school, as well – and when we’re talking about China, the two that pop into most people’s heads are math and science. (*3)  This is because these are the subject-areas that China has been so consistently successful in (in recent years), and – after breaking down how language and culture has affected education in China, it becomes pretty clear why:

Because the Chinese education philosophy, built off the form and function of the written language, is so perfectly conducive to these subjects.

Take math, for example.  What is math mastery, at its most basic level, other than successful memorization and practice of facts and concepts?  Being able to add or subtract, divide or multiply efficiently comes down to simply memorizing how particular numbers combine together.  I go from counting my fingers to just remembering that “6 plus 5 equals 11.”  “Four plus four plus four” turns into the rote fact that “three times four equals twelve.”  The facts change and get more complicated, but the basic tenet remains the same – being successful at math means spending the time memorizing facts and practicing solving equations.  Of course, at higher levels of study (late secondary school and beyond), this is no longer true – but this is, not coincidentally, when China stops leading the way in academic performance.

So you’ve got the necessity for disciplined study, memorization and practice  for any sort of academic success.  And you have that pursuit of  “success” as a high-stakes competition against other students, nationally.  Push that for three thousand years, and you have a pretty strong base for the current Chinese educational system.  Then add in 1.3 billion citizens and recent educational reforms, and the competition only gets so much fiercer.  (*4)

This all creates the current situation where Chinese students spend the majority of their lives, six days a week, focusing on core academic subjects – because any time spent on other things is time that your competition is spending getting ahead of you – and there is plenty of competition. (*5)

This, of course, then places extreme importance on the role of teachers – and gives them real power.  At any stage of academic development, a single teacher can derail a student’s future (and again – in China, it really can be their whole future).  As a result, teachers must be shown utmost respect (up to the giving of monetary “gifts”) to have any chance of moving past one’s classmates.  This subsequently feeds the notion that a teacher’s word is irrefutable – nobody dare question a teacher, because the risks of “getting on their bad side” are simply too high.  (*6)

So taking all of these cultural and historical pressures into account, the real question is: how could the Chinese education system have ended up any different?  And on the flip side – is it even possible for it to change to take on more U.S.-inspired characteristics?

With China  – unlike most other nations in the world – the answer to the latter question is actually . . . yes.  Because there is one huge piece I’ve left out of this equation: the current system of government.

This is a single-party, centralized government – it’s not a representative democracy like the States.  This is a country where the government can decide to build, then plan, budget, and carry out the construction of the world’s fastest commercial rail system, covering thousands of miles – in a fraction of the time it would take the U.S. government to approve a smaller-scale project.

Say what you will about the Chinese government, but it is efficient in a way that no other government in the world is capable of being.  (*7) When the inner-circle at the top make a decision, it happens, and in the case of the education system – and even culture – if the government makes the decision to truly shake up the current state of things, I have no doubt that it could pull it off.

It wouldn’t be easy, by any means – but it’s possible.  And as my current work gets me some inside-knowledge on the direction Chinese education is headed, don’t be surprised to see some major changes in the next 10 or 20 years.

Of course, this all brings us to the U.S education system – the one the Chinese government wants to better emulate, all while the U.S. is trying to be more like the Chinese system.

The Chinese system can become more like the U.S. system.  But can the U.S. system become more like the Chinese one?  And should it even be trying to do so?

All that and more in the next installment, “China vs. the U.S., Part II: the U.S. and Global ‘Competition.’”

(*1)  In the 1950s, acknowledging the difficulty of learning the Chinese written language, the government chose to “simplify” the characters.  Although this did make the system much easier (in relative terms) to learn, this still left thousands of characters to memorize to achieve literacy.

(*2) The same concepts apply to other character-based languages and subsequent education, and this seems to play out consistently.

(*3) Although, in relative terms, the focus on science has been a “new” addition to the Chinese curriculum – starting around 1905.

(*4)  These numbers – 3,000 years of cultural history and a population of 1.3 billion – are far beyond the comprehension of any U.S. citizen, who thinks a single generation is “a long time.”  In China, the entire history of the U.S. has the same significance as any one year does to the States.  A “small town” has 1 million people living in it.  The top 30% of Chinese students totals the same amount of ALL U.S. students.  A U.S. native simply cannot truly understand the kind of weight these numbers bring to bear on how this country became the way it is.

(*5) The stereotype is becoming less and less true – as most Chinese kids can no longer spare the extra time to learn to play an instrument, for instance, in the current competitive academic climate.

(*6)  I know many would argue that the “respect for teacher” and general authority comes from Confucian tenets, but – to me – this is a “chicken and egg” scenario.  I would argue that the whole culture and history of the education system and “Imperial Examination” actually led to this – Confucius simply starting out as one more teacher in this system.

(*7) As far as I’m concerned, this is the real reason China is poised to leave the rest of the world, economically-speaking, in the dust.  While U.S. infrastructure falls to pieces (how’s that “Big Dig” coming?), and Republicans and Democrats pettily stop each others’ attempts at actually doing anything, China is doubling its economic capabilities every decade.

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Educating the Masses: Education, Culture, and the World

February 14, 2011

This post is just the beginning of a multi-part series that will examine education on three continents (North America, Africa, and Asia) to determine the role culture plays in the success of specific educational models – and to see what, if anything, can be done to adapt models successful in one culture to a completely different cultural system.

 

I’ve been a professional educator for 7 years, on top of another 7 doing more generalized youth work.  (*1)  I’ve taught on three continents (North America – U.S., Africa – Tanzania, and Asia- China) and delivered and developed curriculum for every age-group from pre-school through high school (with trainings for other teachers and adults, as well).  So let’s just say I have some pretty broad knowledge of  world education systems (and cultures) – not to mention an understanding of how general human teaching and learning works, as well.

But recently, I’ve found myself getting more and more involved in the politics of education.  If you’ve read my blog, you know that that entails how systems of oppression overlap with the education system, but I’ve also begun to get  involved in general education reform,  (*2)  and I can’t help but notice some screaming ironies:

In the U.S., everybody is concerned with “catching up to China” and replicating aspects of the Chinese education system in order to do so.  (*3)   This includes increased focus on the math and sciences while cutting “peripheral” arts and physical education programs, as well as more emphasis on standardized testing, more class hours, and stricter, more intense study.

But in China?  Yup – you guessed it – parents and teachers (and the government) are concerned with trying to integrate  U.S. models of education into their system.  This includes more emphasis on creative thinking, the arts, and general problem-solving.  It also examines decreased specialization and creating more time for “kids to be kids.”

And in Tanzania, where the school system is a devastating  failure – they are concerned with copying anybody else (*4) with pretty much zero integration of their own ideas and culture.

The end conclusion seems simple – the “grass is always greener” and there may be no such thing as a “perfect” education system.  But the reasons behind that go much deeper than most education reformists or “experts” tend to go – and that failure is linked to a lack of true understanding or thorough examination of the cultures in which these education systems have grown.

Because education, quite simply, is a cultural system.  Its success, failure, or otherwise is completely dependent upon the culture of its teachers and students.

Over my next few posts, I’m going to examine this concept in more detail – starting with how education and culture mix on a micro level (in this post), and then explaining how that applies to the current Chinese, U.S., and Tanzanian systems (and how that keeps them from being able to successfully replicate each other’s educational successes).

So let’s get started.

Part I: The “Small Schools” Model and Cultural Ignorance

So what do I really mean when I say that “education is a cultural system”?

To clarify, let’s take a common U.S. example: the “small schools” model of education.

There are all sorts of model schools and anecdotal evidence out there that suggest that “small schools” (schools with a small student body, smaller class sizes, etc.) tend to bring out better academic results in their students.  As a result, in the last decade, there has been a big movement in various school districts (and at a national scale, as well) to push for adjusting schools to be based more on a “small schools” model.  This has been implemented in many places, and the results are coming in . . .

And . . .  nothing really seems to be any better.  Some of the schools are doing well, some haven’t changed, and some are doing much worse.  Just like the general story behind all the other “large schools.”

With the “large schools,” of course, that makes sense – because many of them are patterned after unsuccessful models.   But these “small schools” are all patterned off of the same “small schools” model – many directly patterned off of specific successful schools.  So what’s going on!?

Well, in this focus on a single variable – “small” vs. “large” schools – educators are completely ignoring the key to the million other variables involved in any student’s academic success.  And that’s culture.

Schools are cultural systems.  What I mean by that is that they bring a group of people together – some with more or less authority – and have them interact at a social level within boundaries set by explicit and implicit “rules”  of behavior.  Thus, the people that are part of this group – not limited to those in authority – dictate and create a culture specific to that one, single school.

Of course, that specific cultural system is highly influenced by the larger cultural backgrounds of those participants (which brings in class, geography, ethnicity, race, and all the rest).  Therefore, no matter how focused or determined authorities are on creating a specific cultural dynamic within their school, they will soon see that culture shift due to the pressures put on it by the backgrounds of the staff and students.

If intensive work isn’t done to take the effects of outside cultures on schools into account, a school designed to be exactly like another, successful school will quickly change into one with a very different dynamic.  And that, of course, goes on to affect the subsequent success (or failure) of the students and staff involved.

So the problem with the “small schools” model is that it tends to skip right over the power of culture on education. (*5)  Yes, on a theoretical level, it makes sense that “small schools” should be better for students, but without adjusting for culture, that doesn’t do anything.  I can’t just take a successful school model from New York and apply it to my school in Portland and expect the same results.  (*6)  The cultural pressures involved are just too different.  Hell – I can’t even take a successful school from SE Portland and think I can apply it as-is to a school in NE Portland, because even such small geographical differences can make a huge impact (as well as the cultural backgrounds of my staff, etc.).

Taking that concept to a worldwide level?  Aiyaaaaa.

So when national governments are fighting over educational reform concepts and demanding their schools to be more like those of a totally different country, the challenges to successful adaptation increase a hundred-fold.  Therefore, for the U.S. to have standardized test results and a school system more similar to China’s, we actually have to shift our entire culture to be more like China’s, and vice versa.

Can that even be done?  Possibly.  But it can’t even be considered until we spend more time delving into how these two very different education systems came into being to begin with.  And we can’t do that until we better understand the cultural histories within which these systems developed.

Luckily, this particular Chinese-American educator has a little bit of insight on that, and I’ll gladly share that with you in my next post.

Upcoming: “China vs. the U.S.: the Long, Winding – and very different – Roads of EduCultural Development”

(*1)  One of those years was spent in a public school in Tanzania (East Africa), 4 in the U.S. (public and alternative) school system, and coming up on two here in China (a combination of public school, supplementary-public school, and even subbing in an international school). My main focus is math, but I’ve taught biology, physics, creative writing, psychology, public speaking, music and general audio production, P.E., and English (for English-Language-Learners and otherwise), among many others.  And I’ve taught sciences and math – as well as English -  in public schools outside of the U.S.

(*2) I’m currently associated with organizations in the U.S. that are looking into developing new school models, and the work I’m doing here in Shanghai involves direct interaction with various official Chinese educational entities around new models for Chinese education.  My work in Tanzania also involved collaboration with governmental education entities.

(*3)  And please don’t bring up the “Tiger Mom” here.

(*4)  Simply duplicating the UK system – going so far as to teach and test in English, as opposed to the official language – Swahili.  And you guessed it – very few people are even competent English speakers (including the teachers), so you can imagine the kind of disaster that entails.

(*5) As well as the million variables that shape individuals’ academic success that are tied into culture.

(*6)  Which is why I highly admire the Harlem Children’s Zone model, for instance, but am a bit skeptical about its scalability.

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We Really Are All In This Together

February 10, 2011

LGB youth are 40% more likely to be punished by school authorities and the "justice" system. Hmmm – do those kinds of numbers sound familiar? Oppression is oppression is oppression.

Read the summary here: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101206093707.htm

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Is “Diversity” Really a Good Thing?

February 7, 2011

 

I know, I know – the title of this post is practically sacrilege considering all that I write about, but I’m kind of serious.

See – we are all currently living in this time where “diversity” is such a popular buzzword.   We attend “diversity” trainings (*1) hosted by the businesses and organizations we work for as they try to encourage a “more diverse workplace.”  We ask that tv shows and movies run with more “diverse” casts.  Those of us who have them like to brag about how “diverse” our groups of friends are.  We compliment people on their “diverse” tastes and interests.

In all of this, obviously, we assume that “diversity,” in itself, is a good thing.  We never, ever question that . . . at least not out loud.  Because we all know that if there was somebody out there who expressed doubt about the absolute “good” of diversity – well, they’d have to be an evil person.  Probably a racist.  Certainly ignorant.  So no moral, upstanding citizen would ever question that – because “we all know” that “diversity” is GOOD.

Except.  Well.

Except I work with kids.  And kids aren’t so hesitant to ask questions when they pop in their minds.  And many times I’ve seen kids ask of adults – why?  What’s so good about “diversity”?  Why do I have to learn about Civil Rights?  If I’m white, what’s the purpose of learning about Black History?  If I’m a man, what do I get out of learning about the women’s suffrage movement?  If I’m anybody at all, why should I have to interact with people that don’t agree with me or think like me or share my interests or background?  Why?!

And then I watch the adults try to answer . . .

I watch as the adults flounder and hem and haw and give these pat no-answers like, “because we need to remember that things haven’t always been like they are now;” or “because Black people have contributed to our history, as well, and we need to acknowledge them;” or “because learning from people different from ourselves makes us better people.”  I see the kids’ eyes roll up to the back of their heads as they respond, hitting the truth of the matter as only kids can – “See?  You don’t know, either.”

And that’s the thing.  I’ve met few people in the world who can ACTUALLY tell me why “diversity” is a good thing.  So few people can say out loud why talking about Civil Rights is actually important.  If it’s “not your problem,” let’s be honest – how many of you think it is truly, honestly in your best interest to learn about it or become involved (and not just because it’s “the right thing to do” – another no-answer)?

So I’ll see what I can do to actually ask this question, say all those things that a lot of you folks are probably thinking but don’t say out of fear of being branded “evil” (or “racist,” or “sexist,” etc.), and figure out if “diversity” is really any good for us at all.

Part I:  Doesn’t Seem so “Good” to Me

The following section will contain some comments that may rub some folks the wrong way, maybe even trigger them a bit.  If that happens to you, please understand that I have a purpose to saying what I do, and read all the way through this post before responding.

Okay.  So let’s get right to it.  “Diversity” may actually be a bad thing.  Seriously.  Check out the following thought experiments if you don’t believe me:

1)  What if there was only ONE religion in the world?  Goodbye Crusades, the Inquisition, all “holy wars,” in general.  The World Trade Center is still standing, Israel isn’t a war-zone, and we all agree on what THE “moral code” is.  So much less violence and fanatic hate in the world.

2)  What if we all just looked the same?  Peace out, hate crimes, anti-immigration legislation, and racial profiling.  Hitler doesn’t get his Holocaust (and probably loses the chance at provoking WWII), and Rwandans live peacefully side by side without the sounds of machetes re-traumatizing the population every day.

3)  What if we were asexual creatures that just budded off clones to reproduce?  No more rape or domestic violence, sexual objectification or degradation on video.  Everybody’s just as “strong” as everybody else, and there’s never a question about whether somebody else can “handle the job” or not.  Homophobia not even conceivable.

4)  What if we all just shared the same interests, and culture, and ways of being?  No misunderstandings turning into fights.  No judgment or projection or fear-turned-hatred.  We’d all just hang out together and be able to feel comfortable and share a good conversation with everybody we met.

I could keep going, obviously.  But every time I play this “what if” game, I come up with some pretty horrible things erased through a simple lack of diversity.  And, obviously, we can’t just make all these things go away, but we certainly could self-segregate and just hang out with people that look like us, talk like us, share our culture, interests, sexuality, etc.  We can definitely do that.  Many of us do.  And that’s much less uncomfortable, there are less misunderstandings, less chance for judgments, hurt, etc.  I mean, that seems a lot better than mixing us all up and pretending that we can “all get along” and connect over our “shared humanity,” doesn’t it?

So why the Hell would anybody say that “diversity” and creating a “diverse community” is a good thing?  I’ve lived and worked in “diverse” places, and it seems to me that it just leads to more arguments, more discomfort, more people getting offended or hurt or frustrated . . .  that’s certainly all that most “Diversity Trainings” look like when somebody comes in and makes us all talk about this sh– with people we don’t want to talk about it with.

So why is “diversity” actually important or good – for ANYBODY?

Good question.

Part II: The Social Network

Let me give you the shortest version of my answer first:

Because even ants fight wars.

Yup.  Ants.  They fight wars.  And to the best of my knowledge, they don’t have religion or race – and even gender is largely controlled for.  But they still fight wars.  They enslave other ants.  They kill each other.  Because they’re social animals, and social animals – when they are close enough to other groups to share resources – strive against each other.  It’s a biological inevitability because difference is an infinite variable, and there is always a way to differentiate between “my” group and “your” group – even within the same species – if I deem it necessary.

And humans do deem it necessary, because we are also social animals.  There are a few of us who live completely outside of social bonds and networks, but that is a rare exception, and it is not how we have been biologically designed to survive in the world.  And so, as long as we continue to be social animals, we will strive against “other” human groups.

It is ingrained in us to very quickly determine who is one of “us” and who is one of “them.”  And whatever factor determines that will become our focus in interactions with the “other.”  Race, gender, religion – all good indicators of “other”ness.  But they’re not the only ones.  Nope – depending on the circumstances, we’re just as likely (or even more so) to use music choice, food taste, style of dress, accent, which hand we eat with, athletic ability, hobbies, presence or absence of body modifications, etc.

We are brilliantly designed to take the smallest differences and build them up to be threats.  Why?  Because if I ran into a complete stranger back in the day, that probably meant he was from a competing group, and we were going to end up fighting.  That’s not true, anymore, of course, but we haven’t had time to evolve out of these dialed-in reactions, and I’m still going to have that residual emotional response from when my systems were “designed” – that uncomfortable gut-reaction, fear, and distrust when I run into somebody that I deem “different from me.”  It’s just how human beings are.

And so our biggest problem – as humans – with “diversity” is our ridiculous ability to over-simplify.  We take single indicators of “other”- ness and create elaborate stories in our heads (some call them “stereotypes”) based on those single indicators to tell us what that “other” person is like.  Sometimes we do that in a “positive” way (she’s got good musical taste – like me – so I’m more likely to trust her).  We also do it in more obviously “negative” ways, of course, and use our ensuing fear or distrust to turn us against these “others.”

Ironically, it’s this same over-simplification process that makes “diversity” a problem for us, in general, that causes most “Diversity Trainings” to be such disasters.  Because “Diversity” trainings are seldom about true “diversity” at all.  They’re about race.  Just one thing.  And, although I obviously believe race plays a large role in how the world is today – it is not the only thing that plays a role.

Gender also plays a role.

Religion plays a role.

Socioeconomic class.

Sexuality.

Appearance.

They all play roles.  Huge roles.  And, in this world, as human beings, we cannot treat any one of these things in isolation.    Because we do not live in isolation.  We are part of a large, interconnected social network.  The second we begin focusing on one thing as THE one thing, we are falling into the same oversimplification trap that got us all here in the first place.  (*2)

We must remember that these bigger things are hugely important, and need to be addressed and dealt with – but they are only symptoms of a much deeper issue.  Doing a “Diversity Training” focused on race is the equivalent of taking Tylenol for tension headaches.  Sure – it temporarily eases the pain and feels a lot better, makes me a little better able to cope and buy time to deal – but it can never SOLVE the problem, because it attempts to address a web by plucking out a single strand - which still leaves the basic structure and end-result in place. (*3)

Our deeper problem is simply “Us” and “Them,” however we divide those lines.  It is the problem of all social animals.  It is our amazing ability to take somebody totally different from me and throw a uniform on him and have me claim him as “mine.”  And the equally amazing ability to take somebody else JUST LIKE ME and throw a different uniform on him and have me hate him and feel morally right in shooting him in the face.

“Solving” the race problem will not fix that.  We’ll just move on to something new.  “Solving” sexism or homophobia or class distinctions changes NOTHING in terms of some people oppressing and hating other people that “aren’t like us.”

So why is a true understanding of “diversity” important?

Because gender issues are not my problem.  Neither are homophobia nor anti-Muslim rhetoric.  But “Us” vs. “Them” is my problem.  It’s your problem, too.  Whoever you are.  Even a straight, white, middle-class male in the U.S. has this problem, and is going to have to deal with it – when he walks in a room and his clothes don’t look like “their” clothes, and there’s hesitation, discomfort, maybe even dislike.  When he speaks differently from other people, and that “other” ness keeps him from becoming a partner, or gets him beat up at school, or laughed at, or without friends growing up, etc.  (*4)

And so we are all, actually, on the “same side” here.  Because you cannot allow somebody to “Us” vs. “Them” in one context and hope that their mind can truly alter and adapt to NOT do that, in others.  It’s all about reinforcement and balance – if I am encouraged to handle conflicts with violence, I’m going to do that for ANY conflict, whether it’s over race, gender, or who’s going to win the Super Bowl.  Same situation if I’m encouraged to handle difference with an “Us” vs. “Them” mentality (of judgment, stereotyping, and treating as “less-than”).  It doesn’t matter if you let me do it “only in regards to women,” because the underlying systems and biological pathways are the same, and so I will subsequently “slip” and also do it in regards to race or class or whatever, as well.  A kid of color cannot allow bullying to exist in the world – in any form – and expect that not to come back in the form of racial “bullying” (or oppression) in the future.  This goes in every other direction, as well.

True “diversity” and social justice work is about this running battle against “Us” vs. “Them.”  Because my brain is going to do all it can to oversimplify the world and the people I come across, in every situation.  So the more I can actually interact with people that don’t look like me, or act like me, or talk like me, or think like me, etc., the more defenses I have against those oversimplifications.  If I’ve spent a lot of time around black folks, I know they aren’t “all the same.”  I’m also more comfortable with them, and less likely to fall back on stereotypes out of discomfort or fear next time I meet a new black person.  It will also be harder for a new black person to be uncomfortable with me, as I sit in ease in their presence, and their preconceived judgments and oversimplifications now become reduced.

The same goes with everything else.  The more opinions I’ve listened to, the more music I’ve appreciated, the harder it is for me to “other” somebody else over those things later on (or be “othered” by them).  Religion.  Class.  Food. Whatever.  The more and more I come to understand and be around and actually participate in, the less often I find myself out of my comfort zone, and the stronger and more stable I am, while making it more difficult for people to pigeonhole me into a stereotype.  (*5)

That’s what’s “in it for me.”  Not the moral high-ground or just “relating to anybody,” but to be better able to defend against other people’s discomfort.  If I’m at ease and can buy time for them to stop “othering” me – then my life just got easier.  I have more opportunities, less conflict, and just less social stress, in general.

Of course, it’s not so easy as all that.  Being around true diversity is uncomfortable, by definition.   And even being more diverse in your own experiences, skills, and knowledge doesn’t guarantee anybody else will treat you any differently for it.  But it’s about playing the odds: the deck is stacked against us – we are built to make these snap distinctions between “other” human groups – so everything you can do to even out your chances a bit is well worth it.  And if we were able to improve in our abilities to respect every aspect of “Us” vs. “Them” (and not just the one that we know the best) as one worth putting down, then it might get a little bit easier, as well.

This post is just the beginning of a whole lot more.  In subsequent posts, I will delve much deeper into the biology involved in all of this, and how we can use knowledge of that biology to “trick” ourselves (and others) into reducing our own stereotypes and “othering” tendencies.  In the meantime, the next time you’re asked to explain the importance of this type of work – just think of the ants.

(*1)  Strange name, no?  I mean, honestly – how do you train people to be “diverse”?

(*2)  For instance, try to tell a woman of color that race is the only thing that matters in her life – that she has the same experience of oppression as a male of color . . .

(*3)  Of course, me saying that it isn’t about just “one thing” doesn’t mean that “one thing” can’t ever be the focus.  If somebody else is telling you about their experience with race, for example, it doesn’t help matters or advance the cause by trying to change the focus back to something that more directly affects you.  Because the whole point is it all does, and you’re going to do more learning and improving when you’re listening to other people share about what you know the least about.

(*4)  The perceived “severity” of these situations doesn’t matter, and I’m not playing “Oppression Olympics” here.  The fact is that nobody feels good about these situations, and the majority of hurt and frustration in everybody’s lives stems from this basic issue.

(*5)  As long as you truly engage the other person with respect and give them a chance to be one of “us.”

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One more time

February 1, 2011

Again – I think it’s better to music, but hopefully this does something for y’all. If this doesn’t post this time, I think I’ll scream:

Balance

I-
Never asked for this
Passive kiss from a world packed with
Racists, sexists, violence
And all of this
Oppression from which
Resistance seems so pointless, sometimes
But I –
Do what I can
Not enough – I’m just
One man
I can’t stand
Up
To the pervasive power of this entrenched system.

But if I could get a hand
Maybe I could withstand
One more landed
Punch
To my bandaged
Gut
Laughs and
Thrusts
From a rapist’s tongue
Forked as a snake’s is
Numb
To its own poison.
But then
I tell them
How the world makes me feel, and they tell me I’m wrong
Again
So I still
Hide my soul in my songs
Please listen.

This has gone on so long
That if I hold it in for one more minute
My passionate
Vision will move beyond
Problems solved
To an oppressor’s bond with a war of attrition prolonged
By the oppressed’s very actions
Against a real solution.
Because I want mine – I block you access
To yours
“Equality just for me” such a commonly
Enforced oxymoron.

Cuz when men of color de-humanize our mothers and daughters
How much of our humanity is left?
Yet when women suggest that my struggle is an “overreaction,” how can I walk with them?
My fight is not yours
And yours is not mine
They’re ours
We’re all less-than human
In the eyes
Of this unjust system
And the power
Given us is a chance to listen
To the common “truths” by which we’re so often beaten
To find the real Truth which we have allowed to stay hidden:
“Emotional, irrational, angry, violent, incapable or less-intelligent”
Is how we keep ourselves “above” our potential allies
And how we keep ourselves below a glassed-off sky

And I-

And I -
Beg.
Please forgive me
Cuz I never meant for my shit
To pile on your shit
But I did.

Fatigue left me frustrated
I let it feed my hatred
And I hid
My pain behind an “F-the-world” mentality
That ostensibly
Protected me
But actually
Hurt you.

The words I used
So abusive
I knew
The minute they got free
We
Were all about to lose
That unsteady
Foundation from which we hoped to shake victory
Loose.

But I did not choose
To make so many mistakes in my youth.

And
I want you to understand
That though I walk and talk with swagger
I refuse to lose my balance
Hands
Outstretched
Reaching for a chance to grab
Onto all that has eluded my grasp

I’m so young
And I’ll never go through what you have

I don’t have to consider your opinions
While you don’t have to live my experience
But together we can withstand
The combined might of our independent ignorance
And turn shared wisdom
Into talismans
Against this oppressive system
From which we all come out branded as
Heathens.

And so –
I’ve shared my thoughts, but I choose to repeat them:

I am not enough – just one man
I can’t
Stand
Up.

But if I could
Get a hand . . ?
Then what?

Then what?

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