The Bog:
sphagnum moss, dark water, and politics
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Oh Blessed Day!
The New York Times gets it (partly) perfectly, beautifully right on education - give it a gold star.

In the Sunday paper, Paul Tough examines What It Takes To Make A Student: the overlapping race and class achievement gaps, research that looks at the results of class-based childrearing practices, the strategies used by some of the painfully few schools that seem to be making progress towards closing these gaps, and comes out with this magnificent summation:
Even if schools like KIPP are allowed to expand to meet the demand in the educational marketplace — all of them have long waiting lists — it is hard to imagine that, alone, they will be able to make much of a dent in the problem of the achievement gap; there are, after all, millions of poor and minority public-school students who aren’t getting the education they need either at home or in the classroom. What these charter schools demonstrate, though, is the effort that would be required to provide those students with that education.

Toll put it this way: “We want to change the conversation from ‘You can’t educate these kids’ to ‘You can only educate these kids if. ...’ ” And to a great extent, she and the other principals have done so. The message inherent in the success of their schools is that if poor students are going to catch up, they will require not the same education that middle-class children receive but one that is considerably better; they need more time in class than middle-class students, better-trained teachers and a curriculum that prepares them psychologically and emotionally, as well as intellectually, for the challenges ahead of them.

Right now, of course, they are not getting more than middle-class students; they are getting less. For instance, nationwide, the best and most experienced teachers are allowed to choose where they teach. And since most state contracts offer teachers no bonus or incentive for teaching in a school with a high population of needy children, the best teachers tend to go where they are needed the least. A study that the Education Trust issued in June used data from Illinois to demonstrate the point. Illinois measures the quality of its teachers and divides their scores into four quartiles, and those numbers show glaring racial inequities. In majority-white schools, bad teachers are rare: just 11 percent of the teachers are in the lowest quartile. But in schools with practically no white students, 88 percent of the teachers are in the worst quartile. The same disturbing pattern holds true in terms of poverty. At schools where more than 90 percent of the students are poor — where excellent teachers are needed the most — just 1 percent of teachers are in the highest quartile.

Government spending on education does not tend to compensate for these inequities; in fact, it often makes them worse. Goodwin Liu, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has compiled persuasive evidence for what he calls the country’s “education apartheid.” In states with more poor children, spending per pupil is lower. In Mississippi, for instance, it is $5,391 a year; in Connecticut, it is $9,588. Most education financing comes from state and local governments, but the federal supplement for poor children, Title 1, is “regressive,” Liu points out, because it is tied to the amount each state spends. So the federal government gives Arkansas $964 to help educate each poor child in the state, and it gives Massachusetts $2,048 for each poor child there.

Without making a much more serious commitment to the education of poor and minority students, it is hard to see how the federal government will be able to deliver on the promise contained in No Child Left Behind. The law made states responsible for turning their poorest children into accomplished scholars in a little more than a decade — a national undertaking on the order of a moon landing — but provided them with little assistance or even direction as to how they might accomplish that goal. And recently, many advocates have begun to argue that the Education Department has quietly given up on No Child Left Behind . . . .

The absence of any robust federal effort to improve high-poverty schools undercuts and distorts the debate over the responsibility for their problems. It is true, as the Thernstroms write in their book, that “dysfunctional families and poverty are no excuse for widespread, chronic educational failure.” But while those factors are not an excuse, they’re certainly an explanation; as researchers like Lareau and Brooks-Gunn have made clear, poverty and dysfunction are enormous disadvantages for any child to overcome. When Levin and Feinberg began using the slogan “No Excuses” in the mid-1990s, they intended it to motivate their students and teachers, to remind them that within the context of a KIPP school, there would always be a way to achieve success. But when the conservative education movement adopted “No Excuses” as a slogan, the phrase was used much more broadly: if that rural Arkansas public school isn’t achieving the success of a KIPP school, those responsible for its underachievement must simply be making excuses. The slogan came to suggest that what is going wrong in the schools is simply some sort of failure of will — that teachers don’t want to work hard, or don’t believe in their students, or are succumbing to what the president calls “the soft bigotry of low expectations” — while the reality is that even the best, most motivated educator, given just six hours a day and 10 months a year and nothing more than the typical resources provided to a public-school teacher, would find it near impossible to educate an average classroom of poor minority students up to the level of their middle-class peers.

The evidence is now overwhelming that if you take an average low-income child and put him into an average American public school, he will almost certainly come out poorly educated. What the small but growing number of successful schools demonstrate is that the public-school system accomplishes that result because we have built it that way. We could also decide to create a different system, one that educates most (if not all) poor minority students to high levels of achievement. It is not yet entirely clear what that system might look like — it might include not only KIPP-like structures and practices but also high-quality early-childhood education, as well as incentives to bring the best teachers to the worst schools — but what is clear is that it is within reach.

Although the failure of No Child Left Behind now seems more likely than not, it is not too late for it to succeed. We know now, in a way that we did not when the law was passed, what it would take to make it work. And if the law does, in the end, fail — if in 2014 only 20 or 30 or 40 percent of the country’s poor and minority students are proficient, then we will need to accept that its failure was not an accident and was not inevitable, but was the outcome we chose.
Of course, it is the Times - and these times - so the article, and even parts of the passage above, has some major flaws. But I'll come back and talk about those later - I still want to just enjoy its existence.

And "a national undertaking on the order of a moon landing" is a good way of thinking about what we should be doing.

posted by Dan S. on 1:21 AM | | link

Sunday, November 26, 2006
Cohen, Iraq, Therapy, and The Myth of Regeneration Through Violence

Richard Cohen's column on (his changing attitudes towards) the Vietnam and Iraq Wars has probably been knocked from one end of the left blogsphere to the other by now - see for example digby and Hilzoy. While his account - by turns painfully sincere and breathtakingly un-self-aware - of somehow making
essentially the same mistake twice -- failing to think hard enough about why one is advocating a war that will cost tens of thousands of people their lives.
as Hilzoy puts it (doubt Cohen recognizes it) is pretty amazing and unintentionally informative, the real lightning rod has been this bit, with its astonishing quote:
If anything, I was encouraged in my belief by the offensive opposition to the war -- silly arguments about oil or empire or, at bottom, the ineradicable and perpetual rottenness of America.

On the contrary, I thought. We are a good country, attempting to do a good thing. In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic. [emphasis added]
I want to get back to the first few sentences a little later. After all, many of the real arguments against this war of choice have turned out to be tragically correct (if anything, we underestimated the administration's incompetency, and the potential for disaster), and Cohen now criticizes the war. What's really striking is the apparent disconnect between the talk of duping, repellent exaggerations, and betrayal towards the end, and the recounting of the "offensive opposition" and other rationalizations here. It sounds as if he somehow still imagines that yes, he was wrong but for all the right reasons.

But anyway, that last line, about how he thought post-911 that the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic." Some folks have taken this as a product of a mind that views war as equivalent to some aromatherapy candles; others have pointed out that in context it suggests the utopian belief that invading a random country would somehow help bring peace to the Middle East and reduce the threat of terrorism. (Which is less monstrous, if no less muddleheaded).

I'm pretty sure Cohen intended that second interpretation, and it's not at all surprising. He was just echoing an old, old idea, what's Slotkin called regeneration through violence in his book of the same name (Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860), the first of a trilogy tracing this idea into the 19th (The Fatal Environment and 20th (Gunfighter Nation) centuries. To quote the review:
His argument in Regeneration is that, as the British colonists established their own societies in the wilderness, they expressed their regional desires for territorial expansion and self-rule by reinventing their history. Their narratives, according to Slotkin, revolved around frontiersmen who internalized, then disciplined, the "savagery" of their new environments, using their newfound mastery of nature to transform the wilderness into a revitalized civilization. Slotkin begins by examining how narratives of King Philip's War transformed New England from a demon-haunted Puritan enclave to a region where Indian killing represented progress and prosperity. Daniel Boone's paradoxical backwoods mixture of aggression and reflection serves as an icon for the rest of Regeneration, which emphasizes sectional variations of the Indian hunter myth . . .
Indeed, it's oddly appropriate to bring this up now, a few days after celebrating the thankful but uneasy truce that in time gave way to savage slaughter, first in the Pequot War and finally the massive devastation of King Phillip's War. Elizabeth Furniss adds that
The frontier myth thus provides a theory of history in which conflict, violence, and the subjugation of nature and indigenous peoples are legitimated as natural and inevitable for ensuring the ‘progress’ of civilisation. The frontier myth provides a master narrative of ‘regeneration through violence’, through which American identity was initially defined, and continues to be continually reasserted, through acts of aggressive violence. . . . Slotkin sees this key metaphor of regeneration through violence, and this foundational narrative of history, to be continually expressed in diverse arenas of cultural and political activity, ranging from the military aggression of American foreign policy to the crop of urban vigilante movies produced by Hollywood in the 1980s. It is through such acts of heroic, aggressive intervention that American national identity is continually expressed and celebrated.
In a New York Times review of Gunfighter Nation Michicko Kakutani notes (PDF) that
Whereas the early settlers achieved progress (and, Mr. Slotkin implies, a sense of spiritual regeneration) through the continual annexation of new lands, Americans were forced to look for new sorts of conquests when the Western frontier closed in the 1890's. With the Spanish-American War and American involvement in the Philippines, Theodore Roosevelt extrapolated the frontier myth to the world of foreign affairs. For Americans to renew their virility, Roosevelt suggested, they must take up the challenge of empire and bring civilization "to the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway." Later administrations, says Mr. Slotkin, would invoke the frontier myth to justify the use of counterinsurgency measures in the cold war and to rationalize America's growing involvement in Vietnam. In each case, Mr. Slotkin argues, the enemy was portrayed in terms similar to those once used to depict Indians, as ruthless, savage adversaries, whom the "side of progress and civilization" must fight "without quarter and even without scruple."
Indeed, the current conflict has turned out, as a few people who knew their history predicted, to mirror (albeit imperfectly) the Spanish-American and Phillipine-American Wars, at least as much as the Vietnam War. For there, too, one sees the honest belief that we were "attempting to do a good thing," spreading freedom and democracy to cruelly oppressed people. Slotkin felt that Vietnam, with other features of the 1960s and '70s, had deeply wounded the old myth, measured in such things as the plummeting popularity of Westerns, which had embodied (and yet increasingly challenged) it in previous years. It would seem that it had unexpected resilency. Indeed, Furniss points out:
The resilience of the frontier myth as a dominant cultural myth is due to two features. The first is its flexibility . . .Second, the frontier myth conveys historical truths not so much through explicit, argumentative forms of discourse, but indirectly through narratives rich in symbolism and metaphor. ‘The language is metaphorical and suggestive rather than logical or analytical’, Slotkin asserts. ‘The movement of a mythic narrative, like that of any story, implies a theory of cause and effect and therefore a theory of history (or even of cosmology); but these ideas are offered in a form that disarms critical analysis by its appeal to the structures and traditions of storytelling and the clichés of historical memory.' . . . Of particular importance are ‘mythic icons’, which stand as condensed symbols of the frontier myth’s narrative, and which ‘effect a poetic construction of tremendous economy and compression and a mnemonic device capable of evoking a complex system of historical associations by a single image or phrase’. . . . Their power, thus, lies in their ability to convey certain myths of history intuitively and indirectly in such a subtle manner that often lies beyond our critical awareness. [italics added]
I think this speaks to the experience many of us had, trying to challenge this folly using "explicit, argumentative forms of discourse," and being completely ignored, our "critical analysis" disarmed.

posted by Dan S. on 9:47 PM | | link

Thanksgiving Poem

" . . . Morgan said he still wants his pupils at Cleveland Elementary School in San Francisco to celebrate Thanksgiving. But "what I am trying to portray is a different point of view." Others see Morgan and teachers like him as too extreme.

Even American Indians are divided on how to approach a holiday that some believe symbolizes the start of a hostile takeover of their lands.

Chuck Narcho, a member of the Maricopa and Tohono O'odham tribes who works as a substitute teacher in Los Angeles, said younger children should not be burdened with all the gory details of American history. "If you are going to teach, you need to keep it positive," he said. "They can learn about the truths when they grow up. Caring, sharing and giving — that is what was originally intended."

Adam McMullin, a member of the Seminole tribe of Oklahoma and a spokesman for the National Congress of American Indians, said schoolchildren should get an accurate historical account . . .
So we come again to table
Weary, bearing marks of travel
Years and stories to unravel
Eat, then settle down to cable.

The country through which we travel
Has pulled on autumn's worn cable
Sweater, (knitted threadbare fable)
That one tug might yet unravel.

Another table now groans here
Harvest of field and mini-mart
Cranberry, ibimi, too tart
Unsweetened for these sour years.

Now night draws near, fall's failing days:
Congratulate dear A., née Smith
And praise all the handmade house dis-
plays of Indian corn, née maize.

Thankfuls said, and goodbyes given
Tankfulls topped up, homeward driven
With living's promise: that we might
Try yet again to get it right.


Which is what I'm going to do with this poem - starting from the beginning, since it definitely isn't right. Trying to make the poem and the ritual framework of the holiday act as a kind of mediator between the two things - the present-day get together with family to give thanks (and squabble) holiday, and the history it obsessively memorializes.

In the linked article above:
"I think that is very sad," said Janice Shaw Crouse, a former college dean and public high school teacher and now a spokeswoman for Concerned Women for America, a conservative organization. "He is teaching his students to hate their country. That is a very distorted view of history, a distorted view of Thanksgiving."
Certainly there are real and challenging questions of how to teach this sort of thing, especially to younger kids, without oversimplifying one way or another. It's almost a relief (though also an annoyance) to have this sort of simplemindedness to shake one's head at!

posted by Dan S. on 1:01 PM | | link

what is a bog?
Definitions, definitions
1. ". . . one of North America's most distinctive kinds of wetlands . . . characterized by spongy peat deposits, acidic waters, and a floor covered by a thick carpet of spagnum moss." *
2. A relentless, hard-driving mix of political commentary, recipes, idle ramblings, and so on.

More about bogs here.

why "the bog"?
Something about the blog format made me think of spagnum moss slowly growing, forming layer after layer of peat deposits many feet thick, sometimes preserving (in Europe) ancient bodies . . . Also, it rhymes.

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Songs currently stuck in my head
despite all my best efforts

"My Happy Ending," by {yech} Avril Lavigne:
"Let's talk this over,
It's not like we're dead . . "

and "Laiska" by Varttina:
Laiska luotu laulmann
oikosormi soittamaan
yskin oita viettelen
unetonna laulelen

Toppling off the bedside book-pile:
Classroom Management for Middle-Grades Teachers , C.M. Charles & Marilyn G. Charles
Teaching U.S. History as Mystery, David Gerwin & Jack Zevin
Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska, William W. Fitzhugh & Aron Crowell
Arctic Crossing: A Journey Through the Northwest Passage and Inuit Culture, Jonathan Waterman
Northern Tales: Stories from the Native People of the Arctic and Subarctic Regions, Howard Norman (ed.)
Life in the Cold, Peter J. Marchand
Wandering Through Winter, Edwin Way Teale
The Winter Vegetarian, Darra Goldstein

Teas of the week:
Tea of Good Tidings: Winter Fruit Blend,
The Republic of Tea
Russian Caravan,
Jacksons of Piccailly

on the web:
Land of links:
The American Prospect
Common Dreams
FAIR: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
The Nation
The Progressive
Washington Monthly

Organic Consumers Association
Eat Wild (pasture-based farming)
NOFA: Northeast Organic Farming Association
Consumer Supported Agriculture
Edible Wild Kitchen


Blogging away:
Vassar blogs
And yes, we've been co-ed since '69...
E's Den
Useless! Worthless! Insipid!

Other blogs
Alas, A Blog
Atrios' Eschaton
Body and Soul
Daily Kos
Digby's Hullabaloo
Dispatches From the Culture Wars
Echidne of the Snakes
Feminist Blogs
Interesting Times
Late Night Thoughts asleep?
Long story; short pier
Making Light
Mouse Words
One Good Thing
The Panda's Thumb
Respectful of Otters
The Sideshow
Sisyphus Shrugged
Matthew Yglesias

old peat (archives):
December 22, 2002
December 29, 2002
January 12, 2003
January 19, 2003
February 2, 2003
February 16, 2003
February 23, 2003
March 2, 2003
March 9, 2003
March 16, 2003
March 23, 2003
March 30, 2003
April 6, 2003
June 8, 2003
October 5, 2003
January 16, 2005
October 22, 2006
November 5, 2006
November 12, 2006
November 19, 2006
November 26, 2006
September 16, 2012
December 23, 2012

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