A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Education Notes Continued

It has been clear to me since even before I first walked into a classroom to teach in 1966 that how a society thought about and supported the education of its people was determinative of its form and future.  There are two great uber-institutions for that education: schools and media. Both are imperfect. 

Behind both are the forces of cultural habit, institutional form, collective interest and self interest, all marinated in a mix of power relations and ideologies that the Human Genome Project software couldn’t figure out.  But that is what there is.  Different ones of us grab some little ‘flying by’ piece of the problem and hold on for dear life. 

It is not clear to me which is ultimately more important in the long run: the plans and practices of the economic and political elites, the real power brokers who say ‘do it’ and, not matter what it is, it gets done; or the collective moods and movements of the Great Many, that which is swayed by argument and event, propaganda from the elite and ‘imperfect education’ from the trenches.

But if I (and others) accept that the elite power brokers control it all, then I (we) will give up and never know.  If I (and others) continue to believe that changing the mood and minds of the masses can influence the elites in useful ways, then making the effort might at least answer the question.  History seems remarkably unclear on the subject; however, it occurs to me that, since it is the elites that, if not write at least, edit history, ambiguity on the subject might speak well for mass influences. 

So, while the malevolent elite and their sinister plans for us slaves and cannon fodder may be the salient reality of our time, I am going to assume that collectively some real changes can be made by keeping on keeping on and that individual lives will, without question, be positively impacted, not the least of which, my own. 

The little piece that I am holding on to is the notion that the most important force in the education of children is the quality of the teacher as both learned person and human being.  I was once ‘escorted’ out of a district elementary school curriculum planning session for, politely I assure you, making a similar suggestion; the ‘masses’ were not ready for the idea that there might be teachers who fell short of those criteria. 

With these various caveats in mind, I intend to fix education. 

A student from Atlanta was asked what would fix education from her point of view.  She answered, “Good teachers.”  It is really just that simple… and that difficult. 

What makes for a winning team (any sport)? Great players.  What lets great players show their stuff? Great coaching and management.  What brings all of these together to the highest level of performance? Great facilities and an energized and appreciative audience.  Every bit of the program development and jargon based “fixes” that have come to characterize education are attempts to get around having weak players, poor coaching and management, inadequate facilities and general social disinterest. 

If you can think of a way to have a winning team without quality players, quality management, quality facilities and enthusiasm, then you go girl; your future is made.  Every now and again a great player, coach or enthusiastic audience will drive a team for a time, but overall it takes the whole package. 

In my experience teachers in general just make it to adequate.  That, of course, means that there are too many who are inadequate, but simply getting rid of them will only replace them from the same pile and also get rid of good, even great, teachers who are a pain in the ass for management.  The ‘just adequate’ average for teachers also drives off the inspired who eventually seek more enlivening and honest climes. Something more systemic is needed. 

The majority of teachers could be much better.  But, Professional Development and other jargon fixes usually end up being just another conference to go to, another week spent experiencing things that are not supported by facilities, materials, available time/scheduling or school culture back in the classroom. 

On site administration is generally inadequate, often lacking in the people skills of coaching and often lacking an understanding of good teaching – and this is important—even if they were good teachers.  In the current climate, changing administrators as a fix is buying a pig in a poke picked from the same pile of pig filled pokes.  The largest high school near me has had 7 principals in the last 14 years. 

Parents and the community are also generally inadequate, yet that is different matter.  They are easily blamed, but they don’t have their hands on the reins.  And more to the point their hearts are in the right place; they disparately want the best for their kids, they want safe invigorating communities and they want customers and employees who can do their respective jobs.  Their inadequacy comes primarily from having given up on schools that don’t seem to know how to do what they say they are doing and can be unsafe places for children. 

So there it is, the playing field; the goal of our little game: good teachers in the classroom. 

Just as there are qualities that make for a great baseball player there are qualities that make for a great teacher.  How it is that the baseball scouts and managers of the world could sit down together and without too much trouble come up with a list and that the principals and superintendents of the world would, after a while, leave blood on the floor given the same task for teachers is telling.  It could well be that the wrong people are selecting teachers for the schools. 

Students can tell what a great teacher is, and so can every administrator who takes off the administrative dunce cap and remembers being a student.  It is the reason that they are there, a great teacher.  The ‘good teacher’ (or great one if you prefer that image) in the mind’s eye of that Atlanta student would like and respect her, not in some hyped way, but really.  The teacher would not be this student’s friend; even though she might think of the teacher as a friend, she would know the difference.  

The teacher would know things, would believe that those things were important for the student to know and would care enough to meet the student at her present level of comprehension of the material to give her that knowledge and understanding.  The teacher would never put her down and would always be the adult in the relationship.  The teacher could be trusted.  The teacher would not be crazy, or if crazy, then in a good way.  Students often think their best teachers crazy because they don’t act like the majority of the teachers in their experience.  Students often think of a teacher who listens to them with attention, remembers what they say and ties that knowledge of them to the lessons as “crazy.” 

Students want their teachers to be special, they want their teachers to teach them how to live their lives.  Teachers can become among the most important adults in the lives of children, not just in grade school, but all the way to and through college. 

Now, stop a moment and reflect on your own education.  How many teachers did you have like this?  What might have happened if your algebra (science, Latin, American history, etc.) teacher had been this teacher?  What might have happened if most of your teachers had been like this and if this had been the climate and culture of your school, if the teachers expected a great deal of each other, liked and respected each other, and expected a great deal of the students and were willing to work to get it?  That would be a winning team. 

I suspect that that was not your experience and it has not been my experience as student or teacher.  So, can it be done? Can we deliver an education that is really good enough for the beauty and potential of our human young, an education that enchants and enlivens them and not one that chains and condemns them to a limited and an unreflective life? 

Tune in again and I will try some more to figure this out.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Last Word From America

OK, I didn’t see all of America.  I did see 4,200 miles worth, from the state and county roads as much as possible.  I spoke with people from the cars and trucks parked beside me in various store parking lots, restaurants and other places; local folks mostly, other motorcycle riders sometimes.  A motorcycle packed for traveling is a sign that says, “Ask me something.”  Local folks in small towns would ask, “Where’r you from?” and “Where’r you going?”  And much more often than you might guess, I think because of the bike, “Why are you going there?”  I would talk about my ancient and infirm parents and their troubles.  They would listen with real human interest about people they didn’t know and would never meet – ‘there was this old man on a big ole motorcycle riding all the way across country to see his just about dead parents; now what do you think of that?’ 

We talked about how hot it was.  It had never been that hot… ever.  And we edged at what was going to happen.  People seemed to feel that something was going to happen, it was in their view like a pendant hanging from a rear view mirror.  I can’t really explain it; I only talked to a couple of people about a direct concern for the future – it was more like it was on the wind, on the mind, almost ready to pop out, “Is it going to be OK?” 

That is what my mother finally asked me after all the talking about what to keep, what to give to what relatives and what to give away or throw away, the other plans for their move into assisted living a thousand miles away from the town they had lived in, either part time or full time, since 1945.  She finally said it, “Are we going to be OK there, are we going to like it?” 

That was the question people wanted to ask an old man on a big motorcycle traveling across the country like it was nothing; the sort of man who has seen things, who might know an answer.  But, of course, they couldn’t directly.  So we talked directly about the heat, oil spill, government, my bike and being careful with a subtext of concern.  The one man I talked to directly about it being OK didn’t know, but didn’t think it was going to be. 

There were lots of people driving around, just like other times that I have traveled many of those same roads.  I couldn’t see any real difference.  The one place with an obvious difference was the parking lots of community colleges.  It was first of all surprising how many community colleges I rode by; at least 5 or 6.  I didn’t realize the importance of keeping count until I was struck by the fact that their parking lots were full, all the way out to those spaces in the farthest corner, sometimes a quarter mile from the buildings.  No other places had full parking lots, not Walmart or other stores, not a Tyson chicken packing plant, not the government offices, not the beach parking areas.

Unexpected things happened. A big Harley with a big guy in full motorcycle gang colors with patches pulled up beside me at a stop light in a southern coastal town, turned to me and yelled over, “Welcome home.”  I thanked him.  I figured out later that he thought I was an old Vietnam vet out traveling.  “Welcome home,” damn right and it is about time.  If the country wasn’t going to do it, if the government wasn’t going to do, then by God, he and his guys were going to do it. 

I pulled off the road in a little town in northern Louisiana to replace one map for the next in the map pocket on the tank bag (motorcycle talk!); a UPS guy turned off the road just to ask if I needed directions and tell me about a coffee shop around the corner where I could get out of the heat.  Now when has that happened to you in your Chevy Caprice? 

And creepy.  At a gas station in Arkansas I left my riding gloves tucked in a spot under the handlebars and came back from getting something to drink to find them lying loose in my helmet that was latched to the side of the bike.  

It is a big country filled with all kinds of people and way too much stuff to be healthy, way too much of everything for us to change without a major event; nobody knows how even though they know it’s coming. That was my other big revelation.  There is so much stuff. There is so much waste.  People talk about ‘government waste’, how about private waste.  Wasted time, wasted effort, wasted resources all protected as private. 

Well there ain’t anything private any more.  You can see that from a motorcycle.  All the effort to make a little town of 791 people habitable is of a piece.  I could see the town coming (actually it was I who was coming into the town) from some miles away; fields were being worked, maybe soy beans; cars would pass me, or me them, actually going to the town for some purpose other than passing through since this was not a road to somewhere; going to the town to make it a town.  They all worked together whether they realized it or not, otherwise there would be no town of 791 on that bend in the road. 

If they only knew. If we only knew.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Gulf of Mexico, an Hosannah

You know what the Gulf of Mexico is; that is, where it is; that it is a salt water sea of some considerable size. But what are its dimensions [1] and its capacities to respond to the one quarter of a billion gallons of oil released by the collapsed BP rig and the other millions of gallons of oil that spill and seep into the water, some naturally and some as a consequence of drilling. And what about the other processes acting on the water and the life in the water?

Observing what is happening in the Gulf from my living room is one thing, but having just traveled along the Mississippi, Alabama and Florida Gulf coast it is abundantly clear that all of the influences on the region, its land, people and wildlife, are of a piece. Oil released into the environment, hurricanes, agricultural runoff, over population, habitat destruction, the complex garbage of an industrial/consumer society and the increasingly noticeable effects of climate change: these all are working together.

I grew up on the gulf and have watched its changes for 60 years. There has been one overarching force driving these changes: human agency. It is defined simply as an increase in all human actions: roads, structures, fishing pressure, pollution and trash.

‘Environmental free services’-- all the chemical and biochemical processes that naturally functioning ecosystems do to “metabolize” the toxins that are a consequence of energetic systems like the earth’s surface -- can be modeled by a filling bucket: if water is added to a bucket slowly (and slowly enough, evaporation can equal the input) the bucket completely contains it right up until the moment when it hits the rim, at which point it is as though the bucket were not even there; the newly added water flows straight onto the ground. The question for us is not only; “What are the effects of the BP oil infusion into the Gulf?” But; “What is the limit to the depth of the bucket of free services correcting our excesses and mistakes?” It is not only the BP oil being added to that bucket, but all the rest. It is not only the oil all together, but the industrial pollution and agricultural runoff. And it is not only all of the direct economic activities, but it is hormones and antibiotics from our bodies, runoff from the millions of square feet of roads, roofs, and parking lots. It is in the changes to the very air that flows from our cities and highways out over the water. All of these together are filling the bucket and contributing to that moment when environmental free services are overwhelmed.

Should this argument let BP off the hook? Absolutely not. It should redouble our anger and our demand for BP’s full restoration of damages. Though not so fast: In order for BP to pay for all the damage done, the company will have to contribute to the use of environmental free services both in the gulf and elsewhere in their oil empire. The making of money by an oil company increases the rate of filling the bucket. I know it will not happen, but tangible wealth should be taken from stock holders, upper level executive personnel, board members; these people should not be made wealthier by the damages caused to other places in the accumulation of the wealth needed to pay for the damages to the Gulf.

BP has used environmental free services belonging to all of life on earth without asking. These are services that are the truest of the Commons. They can be claimed (legalistically), but they cannot be owned. Any person or institution that misuses them should have to pay dearly. BP should have to pay with its corporate life; the oil industry should have to pay by being forced by governments worldwide to wind down their extractive operations and devote resources to less bucket-filling energy producing processes. Pipe dreams! Gulf induced hypnotic trance!

The reality is that it is becoming more and more difficult to live, as in to have a productive engaged life, on the Gulf coast. Just being outside in much of the summer is an act of courage, stupidity or desperation. It was 90º F at night with an effective temperature of over 100º F on the Florida coast. I tried sleeping outside, as I did as a young swamp-rat, in a hammock. I quite literally could not cool. My body temperature rose to uncomfortable levels and what was supposed to be sleep was a fitful, sweaty entertainment of hallucinations. My only escape would have been an air conditioned RV energized with BP’s oil (or some version there of). I was told that these were not the hottest days!

Still people fish there, shrimp and oyster. Still logs are cut; vegetables are grown. Tourists enjoy the beaches, and livings are made. But if we continue on as we are, the crumbling will soon be unavoidably upon us. At the waters edge this should be especially clear.

Two eternal systems meet in easy union, but different worlds. The sea carries the image of the land in its chemistry and presages our future. I fear that we are only moments from overtopping the rim of the environmental free services bucket, and in places like the Gulf it will be clearest as fish disappear, mollusks become uneatable, birds reduce in number along with crabs and shrimp, sea turtles begin to go, whale and dolphin populations are reduced; But the water will still be a beautiful blue-green and even clearer without the plankton.

The fisherman’s cottage, the farmer’s fields (and my family’s former river front) will be paved and built over with thousands of little (and not so little) houses as the final act – an economic bubble to get the most of the last. The beauty will remain and draw us to it even as it is dieing.

I am not describing the future, just what I saw as I rode coast roads from Gulf Port to Bradenton.

[1] The Gulf region covers approximately 600,000 square miles, measuring approximately 995 miles from east to west, 560 miles from north to south. The Gulf of Mexico basin resembles a large pit with a broad shallow rim containing a volume of 2,434,000 cubic kilometers of water (6.43 * 1017 or 643 quadrillion gallons). (taken from: http://www.epa.gov/gmpo/about/facts.html)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Florida Coast

Which is your ‘hard reality’; the eternal value, ecological stability, beauty and sustaining food supply for millions of species including humans or is it the turning of one dollar into two dollars and the devil take the hindmost?  The New York Times has a gently accurate editorial today (8/19/10) about the Gulf, weak in passion and driving syllogism, but accurate non-the-less.  And that is the bargain, eternal verities versus the power of immediate reward to be gathered up, from the private jet crowd to the ‘what can we afford to eat this week’, much larger, crowd. 

Basic human understanding is not well suited to be the arbiter of such a bargain, and therefore of ecological events.  The most of the universe’s most important processes happen in nanoseconds and eternities; ‘we’ are almost universally locked into hours, days and weeks – often enough even years can boggle us.  The Gulf oil spill looked to us as though it were happening over weeks and months when it in fact it happened in nanoseconds, only the playing out the details took longer.  Whatever it was that gave way, eternal rock or human pipe, happened in a molecule’s moment; the rest is, as they say, history.  The human trick is to not have that moment happen, that is our power. And we have not been doing it very well for sometime, being tricked by our bargain as we are. 

And somehow, we have come to think that we should be making the bargain, somehow we have come to believe in a kind of parity between the eternal and the dollar – meaning that what we think matters.  But it doesn’t matter.  The biochemistry of the water matters.  The reactions of reactions of the species and ecosystems matter. 

It can be said that the oil is consumed by the bacteria and therefore removed, but its addition to the environment changes things; the increase in the total physiological impact of bacteria changes things.  It is not up to human judgment to either know or to decide how to change such things. 

The people that I talked to in the Florida panhandle, Alabama and most of the Mississippi coast – people who live by the gulf, whose lives are affected by the interface of land and water, by the products of the sea – these people and their activities have not actually been greatly affected. (The coastal islands off parts of Mississippi and Louisiana have suffered the most.)  They report having seen little to no direct evidence of oil and the related toxicity. 

The oyster fishers were out by the hundred in Apalachicola bay; one and two man operations in small boats, little changed in design since I was a child, doing the demanding muscular work of “racking” the oysters up from the oyster beds – skinny men eking out a skinny life style. 

Contrast: on St. George Island the giant RVs (recreational vehicles?), while not exactly crowding the camp (sic) grounds, were there in some abundance.  One drove by as I was setting up my hammock with mosquito netting that, with matching trailer, cost ½ a million if it cost a dime.  The recreating inhabitants rushed out to collect the ambience and also plug in the appropriate electrical connector for air conditioner and entertainment center and returned to the comfort of their space pod environment.  The camp ground volunteer said business was a little better than last year. 

I don’t intend to disparage these RV campers personally.  I saw and waved to (in the air conditioned cabs of large ‘tow-package’ pickup trucks) and spoke to a lady walking her little dog and a boy on a bicycle – they seemed perfectly nice people.  But from their vantage the Gulf is unchanged – even if it were dying.  The conversations that I overheard (granted only two) were about the RV motorhomes they were staying in. 

They were right to be in air conditioned motorhomes.  It was too hot for humans.  90 at night with an effective temp. of over 100; too hot to sleep; too hot to be safe for fragile people.  Too hot for an old man trying to sleep in a hammock. (I was struck by the panic I would have felt if I could not escape the heat by taking a tepid shower and then heading north, but that is another topic.)

I walked for an hour or more on the beach at St. George into the night, lighted by a half moon.  There was no human there (other than me, of course): terns, gulls, sanderlings and a few other birds; ghost crabs and the sand fleas and mollusks mostly under the sand. It seemed to me not enough.

I could not escape the timelessness.  It was like being in the boardroom of a corporation where one could not escape the dollar.  This was the same sea that lapped at a shore where amphibians first moved to land, where the first whales walked, looking like a little deer crossed with a rat, into the water.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mississippi and Alabama Coast

As I approached the Gulf coast through the jungle of roads, bill boards, street signs, cacophonous businesses/buildings having no natural or rational order, yet not random – a new order made of opportunity and expectation, an order fully appreciated by no one – and there was more.  Little islands of irrepressible real coastal jungle, tall grass and low trees, filling the gaps left by roads, parking lots and buildings: as I approached the beaches that had so captivated our human imagination that we built taller and taller as we built closer and closer; like an exponential growth curve climbing to its zenith and then diving into the sea: as I approached I seemed to see in the coastal haze and seemed to smell on the salt air the devastation of the drilling and the spilling in the Gulf. 

And yet, the approach road ended.  I turned east along the shore.  People were walking on the beach and playing at playing in the water, if not in droves, then in some abundance.  The coast road was filled with cars. I could see oil rigs out in the water, a mile, two miles or more from shore violating that clear demarcation of land and water, giving the sense that we humans were poised to spring out, cat-like, onto the sea with our buildings.  

Katrina had come and gone leaving the occasional hulk and husk of a building too embarrassed to continue on, but altogether most of Katrina’s scars had been internalized as ruined lives and anxious fears; no longer visible from the street and therefore no longer real except to the scarred.

Now there was oil in the northern Gulf, perhaps 5 million barrels, perhaps more, but other than the strangely named floating walls called booms, strategically placed to look silly and useless, there was little evidence of it. I could not smell it, could not see it.  People were using nature’s facilities in reasonably large numbers.

Now and again I thought that I smelled something, but one always smells something along the gulf coast: dead fish, the heavy breathing of diesel boat engines and the general aroma of human activity mixing with the salt sea air.  I could never pinpoint a passing aromatic molecule as errant crude oil or chemical dispersant. 

The human investments in buildings, boats, activities, etc., are just too big to be compromised by having damaged the water, the ecosystems of the water, the air.  “Our way of life” had somehow become more important than life; no amount of damage is too much in support of our way of life.  And conversely, if the damage is not immediate and directly impacting on the obvious manifestations of our presence, then it has no reality even as it may be the most “real.” 

I am, like most of my fellow humans, greatly influenced by the behavior of the crowd.  If people are running for the door yelling ‘fire,’ then I too will be running for the door.  If people are calm and staying, figuratively or literally, in their seats, it is difficult to think about the building collapsing.  The visible world of the Gulf coast seemed to be running along smoothly.  

The 24/7 news (sic) machine had created the expectation that Billy Nungesser and others like him would be out on the street corners demanding justice.  It was not beyond the imagination that lines of hazmat suited tar-ball pickers might have been seen.  No, the only signs were bits of retaining boom, too many fishing boats moored up tight in the commercial marinas and a vague, perhaps imaginary, whiff of organic or corporate corruption.

* * *

I pulled up to some shaded tables, parked and began looking for information about the ferry that crossed the mouth of Mobile Bay.  A pleasant looking couple, the only people around, were seated at one of the benches.  I asked and they knew. 

The gentleman, it turned out in further conversation, was retired from BP and had been asked to come back because of his experience with large scale management issues.  He talked with the candor and stealth of a wise man.  I can’t say that I learned anything new from him, but I can’t say that I didn’t either. 

When the rig burned and sank there was literal panic in the regional BP offices.  Operations with 4 or 5 people went to 40 and 50,even 100, overnight.  Equipment of all kinds was rushed to the Gulf coast; the impression that I got was that it didn’t matter so much what it was, only that it be staged ready for use.  I have to assume that confusion was primary, real information almost absent and planning nonexistent.

My correspondent didn’t talk about the adequacy of the various measures reported on the news and I was more interested in what he would volunteer than interrogating him.  He clearly knew crude oil chemistry as well as the conditions along the coastline and surface water – places that the public could see directly.  He also knew the history of the Campeche and Exxon Valdez spills.  And he was not predicting the future for this one.  

When I suggested that a million barrels might have been released into the Gulf, he didn’t correct me.  Actually my math gives a figure closer to 4 or 5 times that amount [1].  I expressed a concern about the effects of dispersants both directly and on the crude oil and the long-term consequences.  He minimized the consequences to the Gulf of the Campeche spill and pointed out that the Exxon Valdez effects are still on going.  What he didn’t do, didn’t seem possible for him to do, was to claim that all was fine, that there are nothing to worry about. 

The fishing fleets are returning to business in some areas, I saw a couple of shrimp boats that seemed to be working and a few small sports fishing boats running to some potentially productive spot, but the real test will be next year as the effects of toxicity on coastal breeding and hatching areas are tested.  The real test will be in the behavior of oil companies and government oversight agencies and whether if not having devastated the Gulf’s ecosystems will be seen as a dodged bullet and a caution or as license to greater excesses of risky behavior. 

My parting words with the gentleman from BP were about our children and the price that they would almost certainly have to pay for our present excesses.  There we found agreement in concern, but no solutions.

[1] 50,000 barrels a day for 89 days equals 4,450,000.  60,000 barrels per day for 89 days equals 5,340,000.  There is no reason to think that the early delivery was less than later on since BP makes the argument that the pressure was reduced toward the end of the free flow period when 50,000 barrels per day is an accepted figure.