Monday, November 23, 2009


These days education is in roughly the same shape as the economy: that is, those at the top are doing fine, in fact, probably quite a bit better than in the past, but those at the bottom aren’t even included. They are out there somewhere mysterious, existing in some kind of parallel world with rules of its own, though it sometimes intersects with others. It escapes every attempt to control, tame, or even understand it. Feral culture. I have little or nothing to offer in the way of wisdom about it. Ask Tim.

But I know quite a bit, maybe unconfirmed but real, about small town and high culture educations, the former yearning forever after the latter, hoping that education is the way to “rise” to prosperity and security. The most notable thing about education at the moment is that education has shattered. The homogenizing, patriot-creating public school education of my childhood is embattled. The action is with home-schooling, charter schools, correspondence schools, and the like. The old “free schools” paradigm, which comes alive when change is needed.

Tim embedded in the Cinematheque blog ( an interview of Melinda Gates by Charlie Rose because he works with HIV guys, but there is considerable content about education as well. Charlie is nearly worshipful of this earnest, so clean, dressed-like-Hillary young woman -- soooo intelligent, sooooo well-meaning. What Sarah Pallin ought to be. But Tim’s dry comment is that she has no contact at all with people in this country struggling with HIV/AIDS. Her management skills are used to deliver meds to people in Africa, the same as the anti-malaria bednets for children: finance, logistics, stats. She feels that if Bill and she go there and help administer oral vaccines one afternoon, they “know” the scene. NOT.

I think that Tim is wrong about one thing: if the Gateses are moving among gays at all in Seattle -- and I don’t see how they could avoid them since so many are in computer fields -- they DO know people infected and on antiretrovirals. But these are folks with high incomes, good educations, a support community, and probably no kids. Very technical, very cool, very nonthreatening. You can’t identify them by looking. The Gateses do not know the feral people with HIV-AIDS, surviving in the street, teens or younger because mortality hits early, abused and neglected, often with brain damage like FAS, PTSS, autism or old-fashioned schizophrenia. Tim is right to say, “Melinda, put on jeans and a hoodie and come on down to our nabe to meet the folks.

She wouldn’t have to travel so far. Seattle has its street people.

All that aside, when Melinda talks about education she is so far into Dilbert territory that it’s funny. “Let the teachers sit down together at the end of the day and examine their skills and strategies,” she says, never having been knocked out the way by teachers rushing home to take care of their own kids or get to second jobs made necessary by low pay. “We need to incentivize good teaching,” she babbles, not knowing that in a small town out west on the prairie the best incentive is a relative on the school board who can protect your job. And WHAT teachers’ union? She is totally unaware of the Native American or African American anti-intellectual kid who sneers, “I’m not gonna learn anything from YOU! You’re my ENEMY! You try to destroy my people!” Their point is valid. (Not useful.) Neither is she aware of how just flat out-of-control so many kids are today, conceived by accident and growing up under rocks. We used to exclude them. Their parents didn’t used to have any rights, since they were labeled low-class semi-criminals. A Microsoft-type manager is totally irrelevant.

She doesn’t seem to know how much the schools in small towns are dominated by the athletic program, which is the identity of the town which so desperately wants to be Number One and Best in State that they tolerate a high level of sports injuries and hope their cheerleader gets inseminated by a good athlete -- probably at a kegger subsidized by someone in the town hoping to “incentivize” a winning team. Then there are the car crashes and the many many many many long sleepless health-eroding miles on million-dollar Bluebird buses as the teams crisscross a state bigger than many countries in order to play commensurate schools. The main ethic they learn is “winner takes all” and that’s the way our political system works today. With loser kicking and screaming and undercutting all the way. One thing about it: this system make good soldiers.

In spite of all that, there are kids who succeed, who turn out to be solid citizens, who qualify for high-class universities, and every other good thing. The trouble is that they leave. The ones still there facing the world from a high school stance hire old coaches to be principals, sell all the books in order to buy a few soon-obsolete computers, keep up with the old cliques and, when eulogized at their early deaths from heart attacks, are remembered for their performance in some long ago basketball tournament. They run the town’s business and law enforcement and infrastructure maintenance. I’m caricaturing, but there’s truth in what I’m saying. The kids themselves will tell you so. And it’s not all bad.

Progressive culture is a city phenomenon. But the kids who disappeared before they got to high school (fifty per cent on the rez in 1961 and probably still the same) are lucky to survive at all. In small towns we know their names and wonder where they went. In cities the morgue picks them up and toe tags them Doe.

In the end I guess it’s a failure of imagination, that one part of the country -- not regional but by layers -- is so blind to other parts. It’s a failure of the media as well, since it drives us in a little circle of what-you-expect-is-what-you-get. So it’s up to the arts, slamming into the heads of many in that same dizzying way that the counterculture used to. I think they’re beginning to get their point across, thanks to the Internet. At least the point is there if anyone thinks to look. I have a mental image of a kid, not necessarily in the USA, crouched somewhere dark, studying the screen of a handheld device. It’s autodidacticism.

1 comment:

Lance Michael Foster said...

right on, Mary. A lot here in this post (catching up on the older ones-- I have been working on my art the last few days)

right on about well-meaning privileged people who do a stint and think they know it all

right on about how it works in small communities

right on about autodidactic kids and their own ways of teaching the self

this was a right on post, Mary

i personally love teaching at the community college level because this is where many of the autodidacts and rejected human "flotsam and jetsam" go to learn what they can in this crazy world...they are trying to figure out themselves and the world, and that counts for a helluva lot