What has ignorance produced? A small sampling:
- Ignorance fishes bread from the toaster with a fork.
- Ignorance believes World Wrestling Entertainment is real.
- Ignorance says, "All we need to do is. . . . "
- Ignorance wears no condom.
- Ignorance chooses terrorism to kill innocence.
- Ignorance creates Nazi death camps and claims it was "just following orders."
- Ignorance uses power to suppress reason.
- Ignorance is a racist.
- Ignorance is a Darwin Award.
- Ignorance explores the attic of a horror film.
- Ignorance isn't a defense for the law.
- Ignorance smokes.
- Ignorance blames the victim.
- Ignorance can't do algebra.
- Ignorance sends money to "Nigerian bankers."
- Ignorance can't make change.
- Ignorance doesn't know how to vote.
- Ignorance always believes Mr. Hands.
- Ignorance mistakes pleasure for love.
- Ignorance thinks MTV's Viewer's Choice is a choice.
- Ignorance drives drunk.
- Ignorance brainwashes child soldiers.
- Ignorance gets a truTV series.
- Ignorance doesn't read.
- Ignorance needs still more shoes.
- Ignorance beats his wife.
- Ignorance beats her child.
- Ignorance mixes colors and whites in hot water.
- Ignorance is Captain Hazelwood.
- Ignorance never gets the joke.
- Ignorance attacks another soccer fan.
- Ignorance ignores Bhopal.
- Ignorance lives by aphorisms.
Ignorance isn't as happy as it thought it was.
I've been wanting to write for some time about the Sarah Palin-Paul Revere-Wikipedia controversy. You may remember the hoopla last June when former and potential presidential-candidate Palin, then on a historical America tour, was quoted in videos and newspapers for applauding "he who warned the British that they weren't going to be taking away our arms, by ringing those bells."
Assuredly, Revere did not warn the British but warned the colonists. And we all know that he did it by riding through the streets, screaming "The British are coming!" Right?
For me, though that's not the story. No sooner had she made the comments but Palin's supporters went on Wikipedia to change the article to match Palin's description, an obviously politically-biased act to lend support to Palin's gaff.
At first, I thought that I would write about this idea, that somehow history is being reshaped by the conscious and slanderous manipulations of political lackeys, that the extremist rhetoric of our two political wings has gone so far as to alter the very identity of our country, of the truths of its history. That somehow Palin was only the most recent example of how we turned the famed silversmith into a hero for Second Amendment Rights: Americans will keep their guns!
But even this is not the story.
Consider what we know of Revere. We've been exposed to no end of elementary school stories, museum sidebars, and even comic book versions of one of our country's founding heroes. If it weren't for Revere riding and screaming through the streets of Lexington and Concord to warn the rebels, we may well have been caught by surprise at the invasion. Oh, and of course, the story is told best by Romantic poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who made clear his importance in a lengthy poem written nearly 100 years after the event:
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
Is our own knowledge of history, so quick to scoff at Palin, formed from anything more superior than her own characterization? Longfellow's work, while based in fact, is literally a Romanticization of history, a heroic spin of what likely occurred very differently. In fact, the Paul Revere Heritage Project was established in part to combat this very Romanticizing of his history. Sadly, though, few visit the site in contrast to the literally millions who went to Wikipedia after the Palin controversy. Longfellow is merely the 19th century popular knowledge equivalent of Wikipedia.
We shouldn't be surprised. Too much of our "common knowledge," our popular understanding of our culture is based not upon scholarship, but upon Disney, Oprah, cable news anchor spin, childhood stories, the simplification and mythologizing of our past. Yes, in part this is the old adage that the winners write history, but more than this, our attacks on Palin might come from an equally tenuous foundation, one which we uncritically accepted as true while we cast our own political stones at the right wing.
And wait. Setting aside the Second Amendment spin of Palin's version, was she wrong? Scholarship around Revere's ride suggests that bells and gunshots were probably more effective and certainly used in the warning to Patriots of the impending attacks. It's also likely that Revere told the British (who briefly arrested him) that they would be resisted by armed forces. Say what we will of Palin's Wiki-revisionists; but many thoroughly documented their evidence with genuine scholarship. The Paul Revere Wikipedia article now has more than 90 historical citations to support it, many more than the pre-Palin story.
But we're too busy defending our own mythology to evaluate Palin's inaccuracies fairly. One of the strongest attacks on Palin (and her subsequent lop-worded defense of her own version of Revere) comes from the Atlantic Wire, the online news version of the Atlantic Monthly.
And it was the Atlantic Monthly which first published Longfellow's version, without apology, in 1860.
This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. . . . In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.
--Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Somewhere in my experience in Cuba, each of our travelers have had some type of epiphany, some rising awareness of a different reality. I’m not here speaking of the “Cuban Reality” which I recently wrote about in attempting to bring my Cuba chapter to a close, but something more personal. As I chatted with my new friends, we found new understandings of what we once believed and affirmations for what we had always expected.
To illustrate, on one of our last breakfasts in Havana, our guide Beatriz asked us somewhat bashfully if what she had seen on the hotel televisions was true, that the cosmetic products advertised could actually make women look younger. Moisturizers are rare in Cuba, and the wind and heat work hard on the skin of women. But we had to tell her that many advertisements are persuasive, but rarely authentic, rarely trustworthy. Such an anecdote perhaps affirmed what Beatriz already suspected of capitalism, and it raised an aspect of it in my own consciousness.
In one sense, the people of Cuba espouse a complete trust in their non-transparent government. They are told month to month what will appear on their ration cards. They are told that when the government wishes to remodel/rezone/retask a building, they will be relocated and they will receive new homes. They are told when the services to care for stray animals will be suspended, or when vision care may be ended. The government takes care of its people, they know, and so they can trust it.
There is no need to advertise (beyond the socialist orthodoxy, that is). There is the acceptance of the reality. As Beatriz told us when one of our group asked where Fidel and Raul live, no one really knows. There have been many assassination attempts, and so they live in seclusion for reasons of security. As important, she waved the question off: “We don’t really wonder about it.”
This is a trust that we will likely judge naïve, and it is also one, I believe, which fed her question about what she sees from our culture. Most Cubans receive little information outside of the government line, but more and more are exposed to mainstream capitalist media as Cuba is compelled into tourism. Beatriz’ question is the result and perhaps the beginnings of Cuba’s wondering what other choices are out there. (Recall that while many from around the world may visit Cuba, not many Cubans are able to go abroad anywhere legally or financially.) I am not equating this to the “child growing up,” but I am suggesting that it does mark a significant paradigm shift for Cubans.
My own epiphanies, however, come from the other side of Beatriz’ question: the first is an acknowledgement that the practice of capitalism depends upon distrust and deception. We are persuaded to spend, often against our own interests. I need not elucidate the varied and lurid tactics employed by Sonic Hamburgers and Abercrombie, Aquafina and PETA. But, unlike Cubans, we have been trained to distrust, to enter relationships with a skepticism and doubt, and I wonder if we are healthier for it. There is a difference between the valid and essential skill of critical analysis (which we must always employ in evaluating our culture’s texts) and human trust.
The second realization which follows from this is where our own trust ends and skepticism begins. We are quick--too quick, I think--to denounce everything Cuban because of a history of socialism. The country and its people are far more complex than this simplified judgment. More, the judgment can dangerously imply the opposite, affirmation of everything American. (I use the term “American” advisedly, as nearly everyone in South and Central America also identifies himself as “American;” many see our exclusivity in its use as elitist.)
So where do we unconsciously place our trust when our problems are beyond our ability to change? Some with politicians like Palin or Obama or Paul, all charismatic, at least. Some in religion and some in Wall Street. Nevertheless, none of these forces are without powerful critics, and our debate about them, at times, is constructive.
Most of us do not buy into the Nigerian 419 scams (“My Dearest Sir or Madam, I need your PIN number to deposit $32 million…), but years after they began, they are still earning $400 a minute from duped Americans. More of us are conned into reverse mortgages, perhaps because they are hawked by former Senator and Presidential candidate Bob Dole. Still more of us literally buy in to the “iPhone4,” 4G and 5G, and insert-your-latest-technology-gadget here endless parade of top-dollar promotions, knowing full well that six months from now they will be replaced with a new (but absolutely positively essential) application which will bottom out the price of what they just purchased. A postmodern mantra: “Need what previously didn’t exist.”
How is our naïveté any different from that we might judge in a Cuban who sees Oil of Olay advertised for the first time, who enters into the relationship with trust, and is open to exploitation as a result?
There is cruelty in the world, in countries autocratic and democratic, in systems socialist and capitalist. By viewing us as objects for their goals, they work to deny our humanity.
In one sense, many Cubans understand that the human virtue of trust is still worth judging a virtue.
Cuba: July 6, 2011
I want to write of a formula for understanding Cuban politics and culture. I want to say that all of these poor and oppressed people, holding together through music and art, would be happiest if we were able to remove the evil Castro regime and let them breathe freedom. Or I want to say that the manipulations of the Cuban government have turned the Cuban citizenry into brainwashed masses.
I would like to write that the people I have met are just like we US citizens but for the happenstance of history which compels us to live different stories. Or I would write that a continuation of a US blockade is the best/worst solution to putting pressure on the government to shift and to enter the international community as a constructive democratic force.
Of course, none of these statements can be defended easily.
As we continue to meet government officials, teachers, ordinary Cubans, and everyone in between, I am confounded by a values system, a culture, which fits uncomfortably into political ideology. The amalgamation is difficult to judge in simple terms. Scenes stand out as corrupt, others as noble. Most are something different.
My absence from this blog for the past few days is due to our journey to Pinar Del Rio, a region southwest of Havana where cell service is dead and the internet is a near mystery. It is an area slowly growing into its role as a tourist destination, an industry which became necessary for Cuba after the Special Times when Russian aid dried up.
A quintet of musicians performs for us while we are plied with complementary drinks and offers to buy CDs. We are taken to a volunteer service for children with Downs Syndrome and told that they are funded entirely through the sale of art produced there. We are shown a new community computer facility where anyone can learn basic programming and OpenOffice software skills, but are reminded that, sadly, the computers are ten years old, another problem from the blockade. We are asked to be interviewed by reporters from the national radio network to offer our opinions on the Cuban Five Heroes (we decline). When our new friends Miguel and Maria in Havana complete their meal and conversation with us (see previous blog entry), they ask us for 20 CUC (about $25 US) for “special milk for their children.”
We are told that marijuana is never grown in Cuba, not ever, but that drugs have now entered Cuba with the beginning of tourism. We are told that any Cuban can begin a new career at any time by returning to the university for a new fully-paid education. We are told that women forced to stay home to raise children with special needs are granted a full salary in compensation. And we are advised that since the internet connections are poor, citizens cannot use email that sends outside the country; more, since there is so much misinformation about Cuba on the global internet, the country is creating its own Spanish-language Wikipedia for its own people so they may know the “Cuban Reality.”
“Reality” and “The Cuban Reality” are terms we hear repeated often, and we can hear the capital letters in them. They are spoken without irony, however, as if the sincere belief in Cuba is that the rest of the world (or at least the United States) is living a delusion about one of its closest neighbors. Cuba is, after all, on the US list of nations sponsoring terrorism.
And these incidents may serve to strengthen the prejudice most Americans have against Cuba; they do mine. There isn’t “another side” to Cuba, in this regard. I wish to describe these next incidents as “the same side.” That is, they are so integrated into the people, their culture, that my separating them here is merely and artificially for rhetorical effect. My mind has sought to divide them, but the Cuban Reality may be that they are inseparable.
The quintet of musicians perform at an ecological park, a sustainable restoration of a mountain and valley environment ravaged by careless use of resources prior to 1950. Within the park is a community of farmers, foresters, and artists. One painter says to us, “It is important to feel useful. By creating this art of the flora of Latin America, I can share it with everyone.” He offers to sell us nothing, but shows us his collection of Charlie Chaplin photographs.
The leader of the Downs Syndrome center has created an accessible art technique she calls PaintingDowns. We marvel at the art produced by children who many developing nations might cast aside. The program was funded for many years by the Swiss and administered through Catholic ministries. They are houses in a government building. The children come from miles away to work here, to paint and to sing and to dance. Their smiles could not be more genuine. We dance with them.
At the computer center, the interest of those taking classes is real, the programming skills are valuable, and while they hardly have modern equipment or free access to information, the facility (one of dozens in the country) is impressive. One student asks us to tell him more about Edgar Allan Poe, who he is researching. Another is struggling with a programming language. A third plays “Plants vs. Zombies” when the instructor is not looking. School teachers can assign their students homework on a computer now; and they can do it. And the limited access only creates a hunger for more.
The reporter for the Cuban Five we meet at a welcoming bash of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). While we were anxious at first (this organization was initiated in 1961 as a neighborhood “watch” for dissidents), we were surprised that the “meeting” resembled more of a block party. There was karaoke, dancing, speeches of warmth, and some amazing fruit dishes prepared by each of the women of the neighborhood. While the music boomed through the streets, we stumbled through cross-language conversations about schools, raising children, and the powerful closeness of neighbors. I was embarrassed to say that after 15 years in my own neighborhood, I still do not know all of mine well.
Song, dance, a willing dropping of the curtains of privacy to let others into their lives, art, greetings with kisses, an integrity in the belief of opportunity and equality for all, and an equally compelling resolve that most of the problems of Cuba do not result from a failed system of economics and politics but from a “blockade” and an imperialist US imprisonment of five heroic defenders of Cuban sovereignty. Cuba seeks American friendship without conditions.
I have not researched the Cuban blockade with enough thoroughness to render an opinion on it. More, like most Americans, I knew nearly nothing of the Cuban Five prior to my trip. However, it is very clear to me that neither of these is working within Cuba to bring about internal change. Quite the opposite, the blockade is working very well in Castro’s favor as a scapegoat (accurately and inaccurately) for Cuba’s domestic failings. The campaign to release the Cuban Five is similarly an effective sympathetic symbol to focus political energy on a US antagonist.
That Cuba is doing its best to secure its information monopoly and form it into a “Cuban Reality” is clear. Would a release of the blockade see a flood of US tourism and US culture, thus undermining that ideological power? Perhaps. Would it alter, however, the larger belief system of the Cuban people, provoking them to embrace democracy, global educational standards, and “middle class lifestyles?” Maybe not.
Politically or not, the Cuban identity is not rife for change. There seems on our visit little anxiety, little restlessness, little excitement for much that is different from what they already have.
And who can challenge those ideals? Equality for all; free health, education, food, and shelter for all—fundamental human rights; an intimacy with neighbors, family, and friends, and a spontaneous readiness to make more; a willingness to initiate grassroots programs to meet local needs, driven by a common desire to improve and contribute to one’s community; and a heart of music and art.
A thunderstorm rolls in from the south across the sparsely-forested mountains, and for the first time since we’ve been here, the temperature drops below a steamy 90 degrees. A trio of local musicians has arrived and is pounding out complex rhythms with zeal. A crowd is gathering around them, and this time there are no CDs to buy.
Cuba: July 4, 2011
My US Independence Day amounted to five meetings on the education system of Cuba, four of them official. And to assemble the eight hours of information is not my mission here; however, I am sensing a timely trend I wish to share tonight.
Our meeting with the Foreign Affairs Department of the Ministry of Education was, perhaps, an object lesson in the differences between policy and reality. We questioned educational theory and systems at length. The Cuban system, similar to those in many developing nations, is uniform and systemic for all teachers at all schools. All use the same textbook, the same national exams.
However, when I asked about national curriculum development, we were told emphatically, “Teachers, teachers, teachers.” Annual meetings of teachers inform the Ministry of changes that should be made. In Sept. 2010, for example, Cuba has rolled out its Curriculum D, apparently the fourth incarnation of a national curriculum since the Ministry began work in 1961. Cuba has no charter or private schools; 100% of its students are taught the same curriculum with the same materials.
When my colleague followed up to ask about viewing sample curriculum or even textbooks, the representative became evasive. Suddenly, since classes were out (though schools were not closed), materials were not available. The Ministry itself, apparently, did not have any copies or samples of its own national curriculum to view.
Further requests for textbooks or the internationally-marketed “Yes I Can” Spanish literacy program were met with the same answers.
It was unfortunate, disappointing, but not surprising. As the Ministry reported early on as an explanation for the importance of its literacy campaign, “National security depends upon education.”
But what of the claim, then, that teachers create the curriculum? How does the socialist ideal of the people creating community and policy really play out?
When asked about specific examples of this in action, our representative from the morning’s ICAP meeting (a social institution designed to encourage friendship between Cuba and the rest of the world) reported that she had spoken out for more cosmetic products for women of color and found some improvement in that area.
As one teacher told us, “Socialism is a plannified system.” Yes, it absolutely is. And while members of the educational associations reminded us that freedom comes from the security of community, it became clear that this meant that students could select to study a field only in areas and numbers for which the government has predicted job availability, a natural consequence of its guarantee of employment for all.
Perhaps it is coincidental that on our search for dinner, a few of us met Miguel and Maria, a young married couple, who immediately invited us to hear music and dine with them at a local paladar (family-run restaurant). Both spoke excellent English and were well-versed in American pop culture. Both also emphasized that what they have in Cuba cannot be freedom. “They do not want you (tourists) to talk to us,” said Maria. “I love Cuba, but there is no freedom here.” We spent the rest of the evening talking about what was and was not possible for Cubans.
And so we met, today, tangentially, the international system of education in Cuba, and we learned a lesson on freedom.
The Ministry of Education tells us that we cannot see the curriculum of Cuban social design, but we do each day we are here. We see the two national television stations and hear the one national radio station, “The Voice of Father Cuba.” We read a version of the Granma, the national newspaper, named for the boat which brought the Castro brothers’ Revolution here. We visit the Museum of the Revolution which reports a history and national identity for the people. And we find a nationalist symbolism pervasive in the barrios and hearts of Cubans everywhere.
There may be a difference between the agencies which fashion political policies for social(ist) engineering and the people who live those policies, who integrate them into a community of heartfelt culture and solidarity. Cuba’s agencies insist that a humanist center is at the center of their work.
For me, and for now, however, I see that Cuba’s teaching is not about testing the limits and potentials of students, not about academic freedom to create lessons from the dynamic culture about them, not about personal life choices for students. It is about a worker skilled at delivering a pre-designed product to achieve a prescribed effect. This is Cuba’s socialist revolution.
It is not about a dynamic process of exchange between teachers and policy-makers, not about best practices to meet local conditions, not about the involvement of parents as participants in the creation of curriculum. It is about a compulsion of a macro-design upon every student object. This is Cuba’s socialist revolution.
A belated Independence Day to everyone in the United States.
Cuba: July 3, 2011
As I write tonight, the hotel satellite station plays an A&E special on “The Kennedys,” translated into Spanish.
It is fitting, as I had planned on writing about our visit to the former Presidential Palace of Cuba, now the Museum of the Revolution, in Havana. Here the Castro government has assembled three floors of memorabilia surround the early year of the regime, from the late Batista reign to the 1970s. More exhibits are planned.
The museum does not disappoint. It tells the story of Ernesto Che Guevera, of Raul and Fidel Castro, leading the popular revolution to end the suffering of all Cubans and affirming a vision of equality and prosperity for all. Maps, newspaper clippings, inspirational letters, grenades, and even a frying pan are displayed with pride. Outside the boat which carried them to the island, the “Gran Ma,” is protectively sealed behind glass. The accounts reveal the presence of the Commander in Chief Fidel at nearly every noteworthy event, a fact confirmed by our guide.
That the history is lop-sided is almost too obvious to report. Significant chapters of the Cuban Missile Crisis are absent, the role of the Soviet Union is oddly neglected, and the failures of the early (and later) steps of forming a government are minimized. The United States is habitually referred to as an imperial enemy, its Republican presidents since Reagan are parodied as “cretins,” and bits of fallen US aircraft are trophied, including a turbine from the U-2 spy plane recovered during “the so-called October Crisis.”
That the stories are largely believed by the populace is made clear by the interpretations provided by our guide. And as I remarked to her and others at dinner this evening, one of the greatest challenges for educators is to help our students become critical examiners of the media we consume.
To be sure, our own reporting of the Cuban Five arrested in Miami ten years ago is all but absent from our discourse. Even the adoption scandal of Elian Gonzales captured our attention for only a few brief weeks. And yet this recent chapter of US-Cuban relations remains a significant part of Cuban nationalism, symbolism. The museum has donated an entire gallery to art around the issue. I would suspect that fewer than 1% of our Michiganders could even tell us in general who they are.
This, of course, is not an indictment of American knowledge of news events, but a fascinating anecdote—or perhaps more than that—about how perspective alters our worldviews. And it is this perspective shift that our visit to Cuba forces upon us in several ways.
I am also not suggesting that there are merely two sides to any US-Cuban story or that all of Cuba is rallied around this particular cause. However, each anecdote is a thread of story that weaves itself into a mythology, a national identity.
We were fortunate today, for instance, to travel to the outskirts of Havana to find the Community Project Muraleando, a neighborhood which has decided to elevate art for community identity, for growing children’s expressive skills, and for global peace. It receives visitors from around the world, these three impoverished blocks, and is an inspiring example of the skills and hearts at work here.
We walked the murals, touched the sculptures which may have seemed familiar with our own Heidelberg Project, and again danced to the music spontaneously created. A young boy explained to us how much the local teachers meant to him.
This is where we met Mario, a former convict who has now immersed himself in this community and become a Cuban hip-hop artist. He lamented to me that artists like 50 Cent have fallen away from the music and now send twisted messages for money. However, he was grateful for Eminem whose songs have taught him a great deal of English.
These people have little, yet their pride in their work and in their country is powerful. We did not hear much from them about the Cuban Missile Crisis, President George W. Bush’s removal of the US dollar from Cuba, or even the embargo. The United States holds a key space amongst dozens of other countries on the Muraleando peace pole. There is celebration here, there is work, and there is hope.
I do not know whether the turbine outside of the Museum of the Revolution came from our U-2 plane. I do not know how often the Cuban people are able to watch A&E, as I do now.
I do know that I have yet to meet anyone who seems truly unhappy. We have walked the dark streets of Havana late at night without trepidation. We have met people with a humble yet unassailable pride.
And nestled amongst the neighborhood sculptures for peace and happiness in Muraleando is one which remembers the Cuban Five.
- - -
Tomorrow, the Fourth of July, we begin our meetings with the Ministry of Education and Cuba’s Pedagogy Association. Our introduction to Cuban culture ends, and our work begins in earnest.
Cuba: July 2
Today, I attempted an Afro-Cuban rumba dance on the streets of the Salvador art project in Havana, Cuba.
I was not successful, as I am certain future photos will reveal. U.S. teachers seldom find the opportunity to learn Afro-Cuban dance while lesson planning, grading papers, and completing reports. Nevertheless, it is my peculiar classification as an educator that has allowed me and 10 others in the profession to travel to Cuba to conduct educational research. Only journalists, diplomats, and those with various family connections are otherwise legally permitted to travel here.
And my rumba follies are also aligned with the research. The Salvador art project is the dream of a single man who is painting the faces and spirits of Cuba upon its tenement walls, fashioning park seating from bathtubs, and assembling artists to perform for any who find them. More, behind a newly-assembled wall is a makeshift courtyard dotted with sculpture and private spaces: a community-centered school for art.
Amongst my most powerful first impressions of Cuba are these—that education is of such vital importance to this culture that it will build itself into empty spaces, that little is done without a learning component for children, and that compulsory education means that learning will happen, not merely a fulfillment of seat time.
For Cuba, education is a fundamental human right which cannot be denied. Along with shelter, food, and health care in this communist system, the nationals who guide us speak to us of this idealism. The environment is commonly protected; discrimination and homelessness are not tolerated; crime (especially youth gangs) is unheard of.
And, in part, we are here to test these ideals. We buy the Cuban newspapers and read about how the US media censors information about terrorism in Cuba and freedom fighters arrested in Florida. Our guides tell us that there are black markets and that some corruption occurs, but that Cuba is part of a grand design to bring equality to all, despite its inconveniences.
For me, the Salvador art project is a simple niche in this broader system, a testimony to the work of the impoverished to bring education to all, to enrich their lives with music and art. The smiles of our rumba musicians are broad; they live the music and drag us into it. The shirtless children gather around our chairs to listen. The art on the walls around us is a montage of faiths and mythologies: part Cuban Revolution, part Catholicism, part Masonry, part indo-Cuban mystery, part syncretic voodoo.
We are already asking questions, led by our capitalist-borne skepticism. We know of the drop-outs in the United States, the failures of underfunded systems, the logistic nightmares of measuring genuine success in teaching literacy. We won’t meet school officials until Monday, and for the next 10 days, we will question and challenge.
So my first impressions cannot speak to the realities of the claims we hear. My engagement with the dancers, artists, and street beggars gives me only the first clues to a complex system which is remotely engineered from a central bureaucracy.
All I can say from today is that in one small ghetto of Old Havana, a single man has a vision of a living educational community based in art, that he works apart from the government’s projects, but that he works with the idealism and conviction of education as a basic human right. He has few resources but from his gathering of raw materials around the city and the contributions of those who dance with him.
I buy a $10 CD of the music.
This will be a fascinating study, and my colleagues from around the country are from nearly every facet of US education: K-College, administration to teachers to education lawyers. I am encouraging them to write here, as well.
I don’t know what we will find when we assemble the pastiche of images across these next meetings. I do know that in this July heat we will ask. And we will ask again.
And for now, I believe that as financially and ideologically challenged as the US school system has become, we are not so desperate as the children of Cuba. And the Cuban system is not nearly so desperate as we may like to believe.
P.S. Our cell phone service in Cuba is non-existent and the internet connections are rare. I hope to update as often as we are able.
The following is a republishing of my blog post on The Royal Oak Patch, June 27, 2011
Somewhere through the middle of a week like Joplin I begin to ask myself what I can possibly say to help my students process their experience, to learn from it whatever lessons they most need.
I am a teacher that can be full of lecture; I recognize that. And I know that for most of us, the role of the teacher is to imbue knowledge to young people, to offer them the correct grammar and to help them practice their mathematics. This English teacher corrected no grammar all week.
But I did tell all of the students that they had two jobs: to work and to listen. And, as always, I had no idea how important those simple directions would be. Even having run similar trips before, I did not anticipate the impact they would have on the people of Joplin or on my students. And of such encounters is education made real.
To be sure, our work in Joplin was important. We worked on a total of five different home sites and on Joplin High School, completing work on three of them. Our original goal was to complete two home sites during the week. We were scheduled to work a Salvation Army distribution center all week. We did, but we also staffed the Salvation Army’s “Oasis” tent to help residents apply for FEMA aid. Some of our students created and staffed an impromptu children’s center with coloring books, chalk, and now stuffed animals for each child who arrives. And when time on Friday afternoon ran out, four of our students protested and completed work on our fifth home site in 95 degree heat, even as the rest of us sorted and packed tools.
We did not expect to meet the art teacher whose home was destroyed and yet insisted our students find ways to save materials for re-use by his neighbors. We left the basement of our second site intact, the place where an elderly couple huddled against the storm which flooded them with mud and debris. We met Troy, a local radio DJ, who was so impressed with our work that he bought our group passes to a local fair. We met a man from Washington state who drove down without a plan, just to help.
We could not anticipate the man who would cry on the shoulder of one of our interns, or the woman who begged for simple detergent at the distribution center. (When our students found some, they literally cheered, but such finds were rare.)
We were overwhelmed by the devoted attention of the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the local police and media, and dozens of residents to our work. Down the block we saw Americorps volunteers, Samaritans, and even the Kansas City Chiefs working on homes, and it was not enough. Trucks would stop to offer water, snacks, and medical attention.
As freshman Calum carried supplies to the car of one resident, the cascade of thank-you’s made him “feel like a superhero.” As another couple looked on while we dismantled the remains of their home, the words “God Bless you” seemed to them inadequate.
We were forced to turn away some residents asking for aid, perhaps because they did not have their FEMA aid number, or because they could not provide written evidence of insurance or residence status: we learned first-hand about government bureaucracy. We witnessed a dozen trucks through the week scavenging metal; we heard stories of the people of Joplin scammed by con artists looking to take advantage of their plight. We saw the “Tornado Pets” shelter and knew it held hundreds of homeless animals. We were there while the death toll from the tornadoes rose twice more.
We helped children draw pictures of their experience, one boy insisting that we add Transformers to his violent image to stop the tornado from destroying more homes.
Dale from Joplin walked me through the remains of his home as we removed its front wall, showing me the bathroom where he crouched over his 18-month-old grandson, telling him that “If grandpa stopped talking to him, not to worry, because his dad would come home soon.” The ceiling of the bathroom ripped away and water poured across them, but the walls remained.
And so we worked, but we listened.
At our Friday reflection, I had a hard time telling my small stories. But these and others poured out of our students. We write words, sometimes, which are wholly inadequate to the experiences we carry with us.
One of our students said that he did not at the beginning of the week believe his work could mean anything here. Several said they wished they could stay, no matter how sore we all were. Another reminded us that while we were here for a week, the people of Joplin would live like this for many months more. And one said that before this week she had never before felt proud of herself.
Education, I remind myself, the kind that counts, cannot always be measured by an ACT score. And I don’t have to have every answer to the questions of our students’ experiences. All we need to do is open an opportunity for young people to find a genuine purpose in their lives, one that does not require the bribery of a GPA or the distracted rewards of Nintendo privileges. Service to others teaches much of what we need, if we create opportunities for this kind of education.
And, for better and for worse, the world is full of them.
--Steve Chisnell, Advisor, Interact of Royal Oak
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Please find out more about Interact of Royal Oak at our website: www.chisnell.com/interact. There you will find more photos of our work and information on our other projects.
Many thanks go to National Relief Network who organized our work experience, perhaps the only non-profit that works with minors in disaster relief service trips.
And more thanks to editor Beth Valone and reporter Judy Davids of The Patch for this terrific opportunity for my students to reflect through their week in Joplin.
The following is a republishing of my blog post from The Royal Oak Patch on June 18, 2011.
Royal Oak High School Interact members Katherine Visci (from left) and Shamus Carey and chaperone Rayna Ketchum work on a Nashville home damaged by floods in August 2010.
Interact's trip to Joplin, Missouri, will be a unique and powerful experience for us! On Sunday we leave for our fifth disaster relief trip with National Relief Network (NRN), it will be the fastest we have ever responded to a disaster. Interact (youth Rotary) students will work in an area of incredible devastation, perhaps meeting some families who are only now returning to the ruins of their former homes.
We don't know yet all of the work we will do. The Salvation Army has a relief center that is in constant need of help. The American Red Cross is on the ground there. We know that we will work on demolition of structures that cannot be saved, conduct salvage of valuables (both sentimental and material), and clear properties in preparation for rebuilding.
The work will be hot, challenging, but also vitally important both for Joplin's neighborhoods and for our Royal Oak students. As an educator, I can prepare my students for ACT exams, but there are few experiences that are as empowering as literally putting hands on a problem and making that difference. When so many might turn to apathy or worse, our students will be left to their own devices to solve problems in the service of others. It's education in the idea of community.
Our 25 students with five chaperones will meet this challenge, they will be changed by it, and they will do genuine good in the world. I could not be more proud of them.
I do not know what we will meet, even now. I do not know how everyone will react or what they will write on this Patch blog. I do know that we will offer everyone an opportunity to reflect in this space, offer some photos, and share them with so many in the community who have made this trip possible.
Whether it is Skanska for donating hard hats, Royal Oak residents who met our students throughout the community, or anonymous donors who just wished to "make it happen" with dollars, gloves, med kits, and dozens of other items, I would like to personally thank all of you. I wish you could be with us and see the impact of your donations; I hope this blog is a small substitute for that experience.
Follow us here. Find Interact's work on all of our projects, or follow our brief updates on our Twitter feed at twitter.com/schisnell.
What an amazing start to our summer!
In just a few weeks, Hollywood will release the latest in its parade of superhero films, Thor. As the trailer suggests, there is a returning thunder hammer, a Loki trickster figure and, in the Marvel superhero universe, references to other superheroes and Stan Lee. Whether a blockbuster or bomb in ticket sales is yet to be seen, but his appearance this spring may offer some synchronous and mythological meanings to ponder beyond the big screen.
Western (mostly Scandinavian) mythological tradition sets the thunder god as a metaphor for several abstract forces, but foremostly Order, moral virtue, and fertility. Thor's hammer (arguably a male lightning bolt which strikes the fertile earth and returns to the heavens) becomes a tool to enforce Order in Asgard and Midgard (the realm of humans). The ancient Thor—the center of the Nordic pantheon—wore a golden crown of stars signifying his place in the heavens, his power in the creation of storms (and also, hence, rain) which would fertilize the earth. The goddess of fertility, Sif, is his legendary wife (and linguistically, Sif is a form of sibba, the etymological root of sibling or family). It is a short step, then, to see Thor as progenitor defender of female fertility and virtue, both agricultural and human.
In the ancient myths, largely told in the Nordic Eddur, Thor defends Sif and other women (representing that fertility, light, and summer) from giants which represent destruction, darkness, and frost/winter. Through the stories, we see Thor fighting giants of mountains (rock slides), of rivers (floods), and frost (harvest killers). Historicists might see the ancients grappling with the chaotic and unpredictable forces of nature and giving them corporeal form so that they might be fought. The upcoming film similarly will employ the frost giants and Marvel's own creation, the abstract Destroyer, for this purpose.
It is fitting and expected, then, that after countless battles with minor natural disasters, Thor should have an arch-enemy: mythologically this is Jormungand, the world serpent; in the Marvel universe, the Destroyer. Jormungand survives in the stories of the Scandinavians, but not the mainland Germanic peoples. This is because he is an undersea serpent, a chaos dragon who swallows his own tale. Banished there by Odin, his thrashings cause great waves, storms, devastation. He is the ur-Dragon (the primal spirit force), and thus he is present at the beginning of the world, and Thor's final battle with him will spell Ragnarok, the Nordic Armageddon, for when he surfaces he will poison the sky; and Thor's slaying of him will also mean his own death.
The structuralist division between Order and Chaos is easy enough to understand. St. George slays dragons and so do countless other heroes. Over the course of time, the god Thor will diminish to a hero tale where Beowulf slays a dragon (which also kills him) and Siegfried slays a dragon (which will fatalistically initiate events leading to his death). For the West, because mythologically it finds no way to escape, the final destruction of the Chaos principle by the hero of Order yields the destruction of both and the end of the world.
My sense of this suggests another reading, however, and that is the significance of the Ouroboros tradition within Jormungand. The Norse say little about it, but the symbolism of Ouroboros (the serpent devouring its own tail) is difficult to ignore. It is a globally prevalent image, finding its way into the mythologies of India, Mexico, Greece, Haiti, and Egypt, into theosophy, freemasonry, and alchemy. And so its initial meanings—nature/chaos/evil untamed—in opposition to mankind's desire to restrict or tame it, bears complex meaning.
Western myths at their simplest retain the oppositions (good must defeat evil), but the Ouroboros suggests a cycle in its ringed pattern, a dynamic but repeating movement from chaos to order (the expectation of the snake and ring) and back to chaos (the violence and senselessness of its own self-consumption), a natural order. To disentangle this pattern, as Thor surely does, spews poison and the end of the time, as surely it must. Thus are life and death, order and chaos, fertility and barrenness, ultimately undone.
"Studying myth," says Michael Kelsey of Nanzan University in Japan, "is comparable to looking at the surface of a pond after a stone has been thrown into the water. One is confronted with an ever-increasing set of ripples, each of which has its own peculiar existence but which, taken as a whole, will alter the pattern of water to create a new totality." Perhaps the Japanese professor's water metaphor applied to a mythological chaos-water serpent is unfortunate today.
Amongst the mythological stories of Japan, the snake, a daikaijū (giant strange beast) finds its way most often as a symbol of the underearth, of the natural world, of death.
We may find redemption, however, in the idea of the Ouroboros, which might be similarly understood in the Asian Yin and Yang. The Japanese mythological tradition has never hesitated in its syncretism, its open acceptance of multiple truths, seemingly paradoxical to Western thinking. Thus Shinto Japan quickly accepted Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity as well into its understanding of the world. In my train of thinking here, the ambiguity of meaning found from mythological daikaijū is a wisdom which the Scandinavian heroes never understood.
The Raging Deity of Japan, writes Kelsey, is ambiguous intentionally.
"They were capable of raging out of control and killing mortals for no apparent reason, [and] they were also—if dealt with properly—the source of life for both humans and their crops. . . . These deities were forces which enabled mortals to rise to the full limit of their capabilities. Their violence, far from being uncalled for, was actually a necessary part of the human condition for the ancient Japanese."
And as Scandinavian god-kings devolved into heroes and later into Hollywood stars (without losing much of their archetypal meaning), a similar movement occurs in Japanese legend. Off the shores of Japan lie dragons and other elemental spirits which cause havoc for the islanders. They are fought and slain (though as often vanquished) by the sky gods (the Shinto storm god Susanoo fights the eight-headed sea Orochi, for instance). It isn't long before such archetypes renew themselves into modern film.
Japan's daikaijū Gojira (Godzilla) is, however, not born from weather, but from the horror of nuclear power. In 1954, in clear response both to the detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Daigo Fukuryū Maru incident (where a US nuclear test poisoned a Japanese fishing boat crew), the serpent-lizard Godzilla rises from the stormy radioactive seas as the most ominous force of chaos of the 20th century. It is little wonder that the Japanese have found the Ordering harness of nuclear power deeply problematic. The past decades have had numerous critics, including famous film-maker Akira Kurosawa. They have challenged the hubris of containing the wild power which kills, which renders sterile both humans and land, and modern imaginations have made the abstraction corporeal, into a giant, a beast that might be vanquished but never defeated, and one that has populated over 30 movies in the last 60 years.
But I don't mean this as a mere prophecy against nuclear power. I mean for us also to understand Kelsey's hypothesis and the meaning of the serpent Ouroboros. Godzilla begins as a demon, a creature which rages across Tokyo with ocean storms and fire; indeed, many broadcasters have remarked that the recent 8.9 earthquake "woke Godzilla." It seems outrightly tacky, even offensive, to use such a reference when thousands have died and the nuclear danger is, as I write, unresolved. From myth, however, we can sometimes find meaning. Over the course of his legends, the Godzilla myth (like so many myths of the Japanese serpent) has also transformed it from an image of chaotic nature to villain and even to hero. It is, in this sense, that the creature acts as the Yin and Yang, the cyclic concept of life and death, of preservation and destruction, and "if dealt with properly," potential.
Perhaps unintentionally, Stan Lee's creation of the Destroyer as the ultimate villain for Thor the movie, fits this concept. An "indestructible" force of hollow armor, the Destroyer acts according to whomever is at the controls, be they the wicked Loki or a fertile Sif. It is not, as I tried to explain to my AP Lit class this past week, that Order and Chaos act as opponents, but that Order and Chaos simply is, a totality, a paradoxical Ouroboros.
Not ironically, the Japanese taught me this on my visit to Hiroshima many years ago. The city has regrown itself to a place of real beauty, yet it has maintained the Atomic Dome and a profound museum to its tragic history. I watched teens sing pop songs to each other beneath the Dome's fiery orange lights; I saw thousands of paper cranes dangling from the Peace Park trees; and I felt the hand of my high school guide as she showed me the burned out uniform of a 1945 schoolgirl, one which matched her own. I've been similarly moved by my students who literally want to travel to Japan and help rebuild with their own hands.
Sorrow and hope live together in our cultural signifiers. We can fight violence and evil, but it will return; and the senselessness of nature's cruelty vanquishes our human ambition, but it does not defeat it.
Gokouun o inorimasu, tomodachi.
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