The Heart of Darkness, Indeed!

September 25, 2014

President Obama “issued a fervent call to arms” at the UN yesterday, according to the New York Times, as he “charted a muscular new course for the [US] in a turbulent world.”

Oy! That doesn’t sound good.

And it gets worse: “Russian aggression in Europe recalls the days when large nations trampled small ones in pursuit of territorial ambition.”

Recalls the days? It sounds like ancient history unless you replay the entire American experience up through yesterday, or turn your attention to Israel’s brutal assault on the people of Palestine. (Incidentally, this is difficult to keep straight: is Israel still a US client, or has the US become Israel’s miserable but smiling lap dog?)

President Obama reaches further: The brutality of the terrorists “forces us to look into the heart of darkness.”

He’s gone completely off the rails here, and I suggest he reread the Heart of Darkness and dig a little deeper into its significance then as well as its meaning for us today.

Marlowe observes at the outset the fierce reality of imperial conquest: “They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind. . . .”

The despicable and homicidal acts of a band of zealous terrorists should not be allowed to wipe clean our collective consciousness of the wicked international system that underlies the tumultuous and roiling world we inhabit.

Marlowe discovers in due course that everything he’d been taught to fear and loath about Africa, all the white supremacist logic and assumptions were actually deep inside the Europeans themselves. The horror, the sickness, the heart of darkness, is us.

That’s Joseph Conrad’s entire point.

What value do you see in using graphic novels in school?

September 24, 2014

Graphic novels are part of the wildly diverse, wacky, and rich gumbo of our culture. If you were teaching a history class today on the Holocaust in Europe, you would mobilize memoir (Ann Frank, Elie Wiesel) essay (Hannah Arendt, Thodor Adorno), and film (Shoah, The Sorrow and the Pity) to help students get a deep and meaningful, nuanced and complex picture of the entire sweep of the times and events. To leave out Maus would be to banish a fresh and intimate work that adds immeasurably to our overall understanding of the Holocaust.

Dykes to Watch out For is an essential text if you hope to understand the Clinton/Bush years. On and on and on: teachers integrate poetry and literature, art and science, film and painting into everything they teach.

Why not comics?

I teach a writing class on memoir, and I use Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, and Epileptic along with Homage to Catalonia and Black Boy. Students respond variously, but I would be irresponsibly narrowing their horizons if I left out the comic books.

BANNED BOOKS WEEK: Comic Book Edition

September 24, 2014

Captain Underpants tops the banned comics list, and coming in at number 10 is Bone, my oldest grand daughter’s favorite series. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s brilliant coming of age novel from Iran makes the cut. A couple years ago Rahm Emmanuel’s school beauracrats banned Persepolis from Chicago Public Schools. A phone call to the private school Rahm’s kids attend revealed that there are 9 copies in the library there, 2 in the original French. All seventh graders read the book—they get real art and real literature while CPS kids are sentenced to another period of drill and kill.


Educating for Insurgency

September 23, 2014

Read: Educating for Insurgency by Jay Gillen from AK Press—another book not to be missed.

It’s brilliantly conceived and beautifully written—easily the most perceptive and useful book on education for freedom I’ve read in years.

Jay Gillen offers insights and revelations on every page, but it’s the heart of his argument that warrants closest attention: in the long and sorry history of race and class and caste in America, we have resolved nothing and progressed little. He uncovers the stench of the slave market in every corner of modern schools for the descendants of formerly enslaved people, and he plots an insurgency and a powerful pathway out of bondage.

To be a slave is to be measured and assessed, inspected and counted, evaluated and regulated, admonished and corrected, indoctrinated and reformed, threatened and prodded and punished. It’s to have one’s agency ignored or constrained or systematically crushed. To be free is to overthrow that condition through self-activity, an insurgency that involves seizing and practicing one’s own agency, stepping into history not as an object—a fraction of a human, or 3/5 of a person—not as a label or a collection of deficits or someone else’s imposed statistical profile, but as a fully realized and three-dimensional human being.

Gillen illuminates the fundamental goal of education—enlightenment and liberation—in masterful detail. To deny people an authentic education is to distort meaning and destroy freedom; to alienate people from their own judgments is to turn them into objects; to prevent people from naming their situations and entanglements and predicaments is a form of cruelty and violence.

This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand on the deepest level the educational catastrophe we are experiencing, and the corridors toward a hopeful and more human future for students and families and teachers—and, indeed, for all of us.

Educating for Insurgency is finally an offering of wisdom and an act of love.

READ BANNED (Children’s) BOOKS!!!

September 22, 2014

After encountering the lively little anarchist in John and Jana’s delightful A Rule is To Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy, I will always remember the playful little devil with a mind of her own. A children’s book on anarchy seems somehow just right: an instinctive, intuitive sense of fairness, community, and interdependence sits naturally enough with a desire for participatory democracy, self-determination, and peace and global justice.

Hard Times, Our Times

September 17, 2014

Charles Dickens published Hard Times in London in 1854, over 160 years ago. In the opening paragraphs, he describes – with raging fidelity – the first harsh lesson drummed into the heads of unsuspecting new teachers:

“’Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, Sir!’ …

“The speaker, and the schoolmaster … swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.”

This fraught description of 19th-century English schooling sounds weirdly resonant, curiously close at hand, quite a lot like the school-world we teachers face right here, right now. One would think that education and schooling in a modern contemporary “democracy” should look remarkably different from the tyrannical classrooms of Great Britain under the rule of Queen Victoria. Monarchies, after all, demand fealty first and foremost, while democracies, at least theoretically, are built on the active engagement and participation of a free and enlightened people. And since schools—no matter where or when—are always mirror and window into whatever social order that created and sustains them, we can easily imagine what society those “imperial gallons of facts” were meant to maintain and reproduce. What’s harder to reconcile is the oddly familiar feeling of that autocratic classroom picture—and the brute logic behind it—in our own contemporary classroom contexts.

Charles Dickens’ introduction of the severe schoolmaster in Hard Times appears in a chapter appropriately entitled “The Murder of Innocents,” which constitutes a kind of meditation on the dangers of imagination and freedom, “self and the imaginary,” to men without ethics, those who are drunk on power, facts, and order. Dickens shows us the degradation and fear that always marks the classroom as slave galley—a place of standardization and hierarchy, dogma and static, established truths—where the teacher’s central task is to beat the drum mindlessly.

Dickens himself turns at last to the schoolmaster with this indictment: “When thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim him and distort him!”

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.

September 15, 2014

In this riveting book, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz decolonizes American history and illustrates definitively why the past is never very far from the present. Exploring the border-lands between action and narration—between what happened and what is said to have happened—Dunbar-Ortiz strips away our forged innocence, shocks us into new awarenesses, and draws a straight line from the sins of our fathers—settler-colonialism, the doctrine of discovery, the myth of manifest destiny, white supremacy, theft and systematic killing—to the contemporary condition of permanent war, invasion and occupation, mass incarceration, and the constant use and threat of state violence. Best of all, she points a way beyond amnesia, paralyzing guilt, or helplessness toward discovering our deepest humanity in a project of truth-telling and repair. AN INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES will forever change the way we read history and understand our own responsibility to it.

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