Monday, December 21, 2009

The Spirit Blows Where It Pleases

“The spirit/wind blows where it pleases; you can hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.” John 3:8 (New Jerusalem Bible)

The note on this verse from the Gospel of John in the New Jerusalem Bible reminds us that the Hebrew word for spirit and wind are the same – ruach. It also means breath and mind. When written in conjunction with the various Hebrew names for G-d, it means the spirit of G-d and usually indicates the active divine creative power.


This verse ran through my mind today as I left church this morning. I was reflecting on the column in the Richmond Examiner by the Assemblies of God layman columnist I read regularly these days. He had spent three serial columns trying to explain away the pagan aspects of Christmas, an apologia for the trite maxim “Jesus is the reason for the season” that fundamentalists love to toss around as if it were historically accurate and true beyond question.


Like my undergrads, this columnist has trouble with the notion of syncretism, a point I find myself returning to over and over in class. My students want to believe that there is a pure Christianity that has been in existence from the beginning that has over the years purified itself of all outside influences that would corrupt it. Alternatively they want to believe that the pure religion was always there, it just took awhile to fully reveal itself, a view fairly consistent with many that of many theologians historically. Either way, such visions evidence a lack of understanding of the tradition’s history and development.


I am prone to note in class that the Christian faith has historically been like a sponge, sucking up the cultural contents and ideologies of the places where it took root. A prime example of that is the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Aztec goddess cum Virgin Mary of Tepeyac, Mexico. But it’s just as easily seen in the austere, left-brain, word-driven religion of the sober cultures of northern Europe. It’s precisely the values and understanding of the Enlightenment that give rise to a 20th CE Protestant West whose self-affirming designations of orthodoxy and the designations for all disaffirming others – heretics – are tossed around as if they actually mean something to anyone outside their narrow circle of the likeminded. As Durkheim observed a century ago, religions tend to be society writ large.


On this fourth Sunday of Advent, which falls on the eve of the winter solstice as well as the Feast of St. Thomas (as in Doubting Thomas of John’s Gospel), this Episcopal priest celebrates the 15th anniversary of his ordination to the diaconate by attending eucharist. At the end of the day he will light the equivalent of a Yule fire in his fire pit in the back yard to welcome back the light to a darkened world. On the counter of his pass through to the kitchen, an evergreen wreath from Roman and Germanic tradition surround the candles of Advent, the church’s season of reflective watching and awaiting of the Christ child. Some might ask how these celebrations of my stated religious preference could possibly be tainted with the practices of other, older traditions. And why do these observances occur in the same season with the flickering candles of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa?


The answer was floating around in my head there in the parking lot at St. Richard’s this morning, coming straight out of John’s Gospel: The spirit blows where it will. I am prone to remind my students whose best laid plans have run afoul, usually around finals time, of the old rabbinical proverb: If you want to make G-d laugh, tell G-d your plans. If you want to make G-d really laugh, tell G-d G-d’s plans. Spirit cannot be contained by human systems. Like the breath escaping our nostrils, spirit is elusive, surprising. It bubbles up in unexpected places and takes on unanticipated configurations. And it readily combines with other manifestations of spirit to offer a new vision of spirit, hence the phenomenon of syncretism that is the rule, rather than the exception, of Christian – and ultimately all religions’ - history.


As I listened to the collect for "pure minds that we might hear the truth of the Christian tradition" this morning, I found my mind wandering, wondering how to make sense of such a statement. The reality is that when it comes to spirit, human beings don’t need pure minds, they need open minds. More than that, they need eyes open to see the spirit which surrounds them all the time but rarely is recognized for what it is.


This obsession with “the truth” that belief-driven religions tend to manifest more often serves as an impediment to spirit than a conduit. On a good day, the search for truth provides the best effort human beings are capable of conceiving regarding spirit in a particular time and culture. But we humans seem to have an inevitable propensity to concretize those understandings, ascribing to them qualities of absolute and eternal where tentativeness and the recognition of their partial and evolving qualities are the best those constructions merit.


Increasingly, I have come to see notions of orthodoxy as little more than the work of human hands which, when mistaken for the ultimate to which they would point and becoming the object of worship in themselves, amount to little more than idolatry. Accusations of heresy amount to little more than charges of contempt of the accuser’s idol and contempt for the disaffirming other.


Of course, the defense of idols will always be immediate, vehement and aggressive. Constructed notions of spirit purporting to be absolute, ultimate and eternal are by definition brittle and vulnerable. They are also fairly easily seen through by those with open eyes to observe them and open minds to critically consider them.

Ironically, while the self-appointed defenders of heresy would readily quote the verse from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 6:7 “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked…” when challenged, what could be more of a mockery of a G-d who is beyond all human understandings than to be reduced to a single understanding in a given place, time and asserted by a given subset of humanity which is seen by them as somehow normative for all human beings in all times and places?


So, why is there syncretism? Simple. The spirit is too large to be contained by a single human system, particularly left-brain driven systems made of words. Spirit is too dynamic to remain static and thus absolute and eternal. It blows as it pleases. It may be comforting to believe that what we believe today is “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen (so be it!).” But, ultimately, it is but one of many human attempts to describe the ultimately indescribable and to contain with our human boxes that which is incapable of ever being captured.


That being said, human beings have historically demonstrated a need for systems of explanation to anchor them, to help them make sense of that which lies beyond total understanding. All human knowledge is socially constructed or that which would be known would remain beyond the grasp of most human beings. It is when we confuse the finger pointing toward the moon for the moon itself, to borrow from a Zen koan, that our best laid plans run afoul.



++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~ncoverst/
frharry@cfl.rr.com


If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.


Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Friday, December 18, 2009

When ???
As I am going through the calls from today whose numbers are listed on my home phone, I suddenly realize that of the 12 people who called me today, only two are people I know or want to talk with. The other ten are numbers for people who either intend to remain unknown – e.g., AACC or the FOP Fdtn (now what the hell might *that* be?)– or those who clearly have called me to seek profit from me – Monumental Life, the State of California (Arnie’s calling me? Does Maria know?), Florida State University (I’m guessing they are seeking my opinion on who the new football coach should be given that anything else at FSU is clearly trivial in comparison).



As I spent the latest round of at least 5 minutes needed to remove these calls from my phone, it dawned on me that my phone messages bear a strong resemblance to my emails. Between the poorly written scams from people who say they are  in Africa seeking to create accounts so they can deposit moneys coming to me (right, buddy!) and the million and one messages one gets if they have ever had the temerity to actually donate to an animal rescue or wildlife protection agency or comment on a story in a daily newspaper online, it’s pretty clear that email is not designed for the personal use of the owner of the account. It’s really designed for commercial use in which you are merely a means to an end, that end being someone else’s profit.


As I walked away from my mailbox today, a couple of Christmas cards mixed in with about 20 pitches for donations to charities and advertisements for periodicals and consumer goods I simply won’t be able to live with myself if I don’t purchase before Christmas, the realization began to grow. This may be your home. But it's not about you. As the lyrics to The Hotel California (Eagles) observe, “We are all just prisoners here of our own device.”


I guess I just wonder this: When did I ever agree that my telephone, mailbox and email were simply one more arena for the fundamentalist free market consumerism that devours every other aspect of my life including my workplace? When did I agree to become a potential buyer for every commodity or service offered via telephone until 10 p.m. each night, the last call coming as I am brushing my teeth to go to bed? When did I ever consent to being badgered by every communication device created by humanity to engage in more and more consumerist activity rather than using it for actually communicating with people I wish to communicate with? When did I agree that if you can’t sell me something by phone, email or US mail that you could actually come into my yard, stick advertisements in my door or ring my doorbell and wait for an answer hoping to make a sale.


WHEN DID MY HOME BECOME AN EXTENSION OF THE FREE MARKET FUNDAMENTALIS MARKETPLACE? WHEN DID I AGREE TO THAT?


WHEN??????


[Yes, the all caps SHOULD be recognized as denoting anger!]++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~ncoverst/
frharry@cfl.rr.com


If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.


Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Thursday, December 17, 2009

End of the Year Musings – I



This has been a trying year. But it has also been a good year. And so, during this time of Advent quiet, I would like to lay out some of the things that I have been reflecting upon this very taxing but rewarding year. Here’s the first.


The End of Old Florida


Andy and I spent several years in Vero Beach back in the late 70s and 80s before and after my time in law school. For about a five year period, I considered Vero Beach home, even when I was far away in the arms of the jealous mistress of the law (school) in Gainesville. I have been fond of Vero ever since. Hence the reason my return to Vero for a weekend sojourn there this fall was so disappointing.


In all fairness, Vero has always been a town of extremes. As a wealthy piss-elegant queen decorator there once said, “You’ve got all the good people living on the beach, all the shit kickers in their pick-em-up trucks out on the west side of town and not much in between.”

Of course that “not much in between” included the two of us. Andy worked for Piper Aircraft out at the airport just down the road from Dodgertown where Tommy Lasorda and his LA Blue trained each spring, occasionally getting to take new models out for a spin. Meanwhile I taught emotionally disturbed kids up in Gifford, the little pocket of the third world just north of town that most of its white residents pretended did not exist.


Though I tried, I never fit in Gifford. I was too white, too well educated (at that time, with only my BA in History/Secondary Ed) and too middle class. These folks were desperately poor and most scratched out meager livings in the local citrus groves and packing houses, one of which bordered the middle school where I taught. It was always clear to me that while I could go into Gifford during the day, love my students (because, frankly, most of them had no one else to really love them, much less defend them from the brutal lives they were facing) and even party with my friend, the music teacher who lived on the edge of Gifford, at night, I always had the option - if not the obligation - to go home at the end of my time there.


I also never fit into the wealth ensconced on the beach, not that I ever particularly wanted to. The level of self-awareness and corresponding dismissal of those who were inevitably seen as NOCD (Not Our Class, Dearie) was palpable, even at the many dinner parties Andy and I were invited to attend over on the beach. The beachside was lovely as was much of the downtown areas of Vero Beach with streets lined with royal palms framing Florida boomtime stucco homes. But, as I’ve learned long ago, the beauty of a place must be matched by the internal beauty of its inhabitants to be a place I would consider truly habitable.


Since we left Vero Beach to move to Orlando in 1983, much has changed. Gigantic gated communities have consumed much of the former wetlands bordering the Indian River. The realm of the “shit kickers in their pick’em trucks” has been steadily pushed westward into the former grove land and south into blue collar St. Lucie County as gated communities have competed with retirees in trailer parks and strip malls for the remaining land. Vero has become a reflection of Florida at large with its out of control growth, its pampered retirees and its large group of peoples left behind.


I set out for Vero in the week I had off prior to the fall term, seeking some down time, some quiet and, hopefully, a little peace of mind before the onslaught of fall term. At heart, I hoped to reconnect with a little of the Vero I knew, to hopefully engage a piece of my past that I remembered rather fondly. What I found left me angry and grieving for a life – and a state – now gone.


I stayed at the Holiday Inn on the Beach, a decent 1960s era hotel with a large lounge and restaurant full of noise, smoke and tourists from the northeast. I walked down the beach as I often had to Waldo’s, the old hotel assembled in the early 1900s by Vero eccentric millionaire Waldo Sexton, and filled with antiques and historical artifacts from all over Florida. Waldo's has decent though overpriced drinks, mediocre food on a good night and a young crowd. But it also has an ocean side deck with a sweeping view of ocean complete with the wreckage of a turn of the century steamship which went down on the coral reefs offshore and which still appears at low tide, today an attraction for divers.


After a couple of drinks I decided I’d head down to one of my old haunts, Crustie’s Pizza, right on the beach by Humiston Park. I’ve spent a lot of nights in Crusties (nee Patricks Pizza when we lived there) comsuming copious quantities of cheap beer and eating so-so pizza, all the while listening to the ocean roaring right outside the window and screaming over the roar of football on the television monitors all over the restaurant. This pizza joint held a lot of memories for me. I’d hope to go relive them one more time.


But, alas. Crusties is no more. The one-two punch of Hurricanes Francis and Jeanne in 1994 did the place in and, unlike the Ocean Grill, the social gathering place of beach elite similarly perched precariously over the beach on stilts such that the ocean comes roaring beneath it at high tide, Crusties was not to be rebuilt after the storms. In its place, a chain link fence stretching across the dune line to the beach below delineated a construction site where a new condominium would soon take its place. The last outpost of the locals across the bridges in mainland Vero was gone. Even that small spot would now go to the wealthy snowbirds who visit during “the season.” Old Vero was no more.


The final nail in the coffin came the next day as I was leaving town to catch I-95 north back to Orlando. I stopped at Starbucks at the Vero Mall just before the interstate to get some reinforcements for the long ride back up to Orlando after a long night at the Ocean Grill. All I wanted was a half-caf to go. Famous last words.

The woman ahead of me in line, a local retiree no doubt from one of the many gated communities squeezed between trailer parks and the Our Lady of the Corrugated Steel Building megachurches on the edge of town, had arrived in her Cadillac. As she gave her order to the young college boy home for the summer break, she let him know through her tone, affect and words that she clearly considered him hired help and below her status. After nearly 10 minutes of negotiating and renegotiating the temperature of her drink and the amount of foam (and I thought the undergrads were bad!), I finally was able to get to the counter, order my coffee and make my escape. The old coot actually scowled at me as I went out the door. "And also with you" ran across my mind but fortunately my Mother's voice reminding me "Don't be ugly, son" restrained me from verbalizing that thought.

As I headed out SR 60 to the Interstate that morning, I was very clear about one thing: the place I had loved and considered returning to in retirement no longer existed. What has taken its place is nothing I would ever wish to deal with again. The Vero I knew is dead and buried. May it rest in peace.


But all is not lost for this fifth generation Cracker.


Two weeks later, on Labor Day weekend, I went with my sister, her boys and my Dad over to Passe-a-Grille, an old beachside community on the south end of the Pinellas County peninsula jsut across the bay from Tampa. I had spent a couple years of my life in Clearwater, just a few miles to the north, during kintergarden and first grade. Having always grieved being taken from that place to grow up in rural Sumter County, I am always delighted to have a chance to be back to one the increasingly few places I consider my old Florida “homes.”


The hotel in which we stayed was an old 1950s era hotel which had been fairly recently revamped, with decking and a hot tub. It was across the street from the Gulf, a warm, salty bathtub on a good day and the place where the sun daily makes a hissing noise as sit drops into its waters (or so I’m told by the locals in Key West). The hotel is now operated by a middle aged, mixed race couple from New York. It was low key, simple but clean and comfortable. It was perfect.

Passe-a-Grille has prohibited building condos on the beach itself. All development is at least 50 years old or older and sits across the street from the Gulf, separated from the street by on-street parking, ramps over the dunes and a good 300 foot stretch of sand and sea oats. It was beautiful. Indeed, after my experience in Vero, it was heavenly.


Perhaps even more beautiful, from my perspective, were the locals. These were folks we’d have called Conchs had they lived in the Keys. MIddle aged to elderly, skin the color of your dog’s chew treat (and largely the same texture), wearing tie-dyed bikinis and shorts that looked like they had just barely escaped from the 60s, these folks had lived here much of their lives. Their modest homes brimmed over with tropical plants, a couple of seeds and cuttings of which made their way into my own yard at the end of this trip. (I wonder how that happened!) They often smiled and nodded hello as they passed. And the women at the corner store called me "honey" when I bought the overpriced six pack of wine there.

There was little traffic on the beachside streets and even less on the beach itself. We took a long walk on the beach after dinner, flashlights in hand, just like when I was a young boy there in Pinellas County. Within yards of our passing, fish and dolphins jumped in the inky Gulf waters while overhead a large pelican floated on the warm breeze, periodically diving into the sea for her dinner. We walked along the sand, flash lights in hand, periodically stepping over sand castles from the day past, a small, moving island of light and joyful laughter in a sea of darkness. Up the coast the lights of the condos and hotels shone brightly. Overhead, all the constellations visible in the early fall sky twinkled. It was magic.


My father, a second generation Floridian, and my sister and I, fifth generation Crackers (on our mother’s side) all remarked that this was the old Florida we remembered. It was a very happy weekend and a wonderful way to celebrate my 56th birthday.  I came away from our little weekend jaunt thankful to my sister for putting together a brief sojourn in a little corner of the state which still looks a lot like the Florida I once knew and loved.


As I left that Sunday, I noticed that down the beach, the city limits of Passe-a-Grille are strikingly evident by the sudden jump in permitted building heights to 20 story condos. Passe-a-Grille is a bubble of low key, old time Florida surrounded by the relentless forces of development. No doubt the bulldozers and draglines are in a parking lot nearby warming their engines as we speak. Even so, it's nice to know a little piece of old Florida still exists even as the local self-described "developers," temporarily deterred by the real estate bust, await their turn at destroying yet another corner of a beautiful state once known as…Florida.


















++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~ncoverst/
frharry@cfl.rr.com


If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.


Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Taking on The Times

The St. Petersburg Times is undoubtedly the best newspaper in Florida and has been for most of my life. I have read it since I was a child and I agree with much of what I read on their editorial page. Yet, sometimes they get it wrong. Today's editorial today read:



Florida students overall passed a paltry 42.9 percent of AP exams in 2009 compared to 57 percent nationwide….The AP exam passing rates for individual teachers can be even lower. At Gibbs High in St. Petersburg, an F-rated school, not a single one of 35 students who took AP human geography over two years passed the exam. But schools with stronger academic reputations are also failing their AP students. St. Petersburg High, often ranked among the nation's top high schools, has AP passing rates for specific teachers as low as 8.6 percent, 5.3 percent and 0 percent. Imagine how that kind of job performance would be evaluated in the private sector.


The excuses from teachers and principals are predictable. Some point to differences in school populations, but there are dismal AP passing rates for individual teachers in otherwise high-performing schools. Others say teachers new to the rigors of AP classes need time to grow into their jobs. But there are plenty of examples of veteran AP teachers who have low passing rates year after year. The students cannot wait for the teacher to get better to have a shot at passing the test and earning college credit.


A friend of mine, when he takes issue with one of my assertions, is prone to cajole me with a quote from H.L. Mencken that reads: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. “ While, not surprisingly, I am disinclined to see my own thinking in such terms, the fact I readily see it in others might give me pause to wonder if I am projecting just a bit and that his observation might be somewhat on target. With that caveat in mind, I would still suggest that the Times got this one at least partly wrong precisely because it failed to deal with the complexity of the situation.


The first problematic aspect of their argument is the explicit assumption that public education is somehow analogous to consumer capitalism. Business tends to see human beings as customers in which human beings are either a means to the desired end –profit – or an obstacle. While philosopher Immanuel Kant might readily object that this violates the second statement of the categorical imperative in which human beings must always be treated as ends in themselves and never means to other ends, in America we insulate business from such criticisms through rather mindless assertions like “This is business” or its cousin, “It’s just business.” That translates to a rather convenient American common sense that the premises of free market fundamentalism are beyond question as are the deleterious effects such practices may have on human beings and human societies.


But public schools are not businesses. They do not have the same goals. Where sales of essentially worthless – occasionally even harmful - merchandise to half-witted consumers taken in by slick advertising campaigns may be absolutely acceptable to a business with a bottom line of profit, worthless knowledge will always be subject to criticism by the public. And it should be. Indeed, if anything, this is where the Times editorial is on target – our students deserve better.


A second important difference is this: where businesses are more than happy to leave as many consumers behind so long as profits are insured, public education is expected to leave no children behind, even as the cynical programs bearing this label have left up to 1/3 of America’s children behind with no high school diplomas over the past decade. America has no children to waste. The goal of public education is an educated public – all of it. Again, this is where the Times editorial is on target – if AP students are not learning enough to pass standardized AP exams, the public ought to be asking why not.


But the answer to that question contains a number of possible components. One of them might well be incompetent teachers. But that alone is too easy and simplistic. It is might be the beginning place of seeking to understand the problem but it is hardly the whole story. To simply stop there is to run the risk of scapegoating a whole class of workers for a much broader problem which I observe is at least partly out of their control. While that's easy, it's also intellectually dishonest and unfair.

A second inquiry might ask the the middle class, from which the majority of AP students come, to consider the unthinkable: Are the students taking these classes genuinely college material? Perhaps even more importantly – do they actually want to attend college?


Daily I see students at the university where I teach who clearly are not ready to be in college. Besides the lack of maturity and time management skills which is the nature of the beast - particularly those right out of our regimented, paternalistic high schools - they have no sense of vocation and often default to that which their parents or significant others have envisioned for their lives. But because this is not their dream they are pursuing, they have no real energy or excitement about their college educations. They see it as something to do because they had no other ideas or because they felt it was the path of least resistance. The result? Mediocre (at best) performance and misdirected resentment over any effort demanded of them.


My heart goes out to these students even as their cynicism and inability to escape their own immediate concerns often makes my life as instructor difficult. I sometimes write on their papers (which only they see) “Are you sure you are ready to be in college at this time?” It’s a serious question for me and it ought to be for them as well. But I think that question begins much earlier for them and perhaps the AP exams are one reflection of this.


But, there is an even more fundamental concern for understanding the AP exams scores. Teachers do not manufacture educations. They cannot be conferred or purchased, even with increasing tuition moneys. Educations must be achieved by the student who would become educated and is thus willing to exert the effort to achieve it. The very best a teacher can do is help make that attainment possible. And while it may be possible that some teachers are failing to do that, it simply can never be the only factor at work here. Perhaps a look at these same Advanced Placement students once they are actually "placed" in a university might be shed some light.

My observations of the university students I teach is that they often have enormous senses of entitlement, particularly the honors students I most love to teach. That translates to expectations of as high a grade as possible with the least amount of work necessary. It translates to a sense that required reading - not to mention, G-d forbid, preparatory assignments - before class is onerous and unnecessary. It translates to a sense that attendance is always optional depending upon one’s other concerns. It translates to a belief that the use of distracting technology in the classroom is a birthright. And it translates to a belief –fostered by the misguided use of standardized testing driven pedagogy in public schools over the past decade – that their grades in any class should boil down to performance on no more than three multiple choice exams. Any demands beyond that are generally seen as outrageous.


Students come to the university with such attitudes already firmly in place. They learned them somewhere. It’s possible they learned them in public schools. However my suspicion is that they learned them from the two most powerful socializing agents in our culture – their families and the electronic media (Just do it! Obey your thirst! Talk all the time!).


Might it just be possible that the blame for low AP scores must be shared with those who actually took the tests? Might their dedication to preparation and their sense of entitlement to positive results regardless of their own efforts be considered? And might their ambitious and overprotective parents also share some of this blame for pushing their children into a college path for which increasing numbers of them are uncertain they are prepared or even interested?


I think perhaps another analogy might serve us here. This is the comment I left at the Times website:


For years public school lunch room cooks and servers prepared food that was nutritious if not always appealing or attractive. Regulated by governmental nutritional standards and funded in part by federal moneys designed to insure children did not attend school hungry, their meals were designed to promote healthy diets. Yet students and their parents increasingly demanded more choices and as a result fast food, sodas, chips and candy came to mark the diet of these students.


Now, three decades later, we have a crisis of childhood obesity on our hands. Given the logic of the Times editorial, I'm guessing that accountability means we will blame the lunch room cooks and servers for the obesity crisis. That and the union to which some of them belong which obviously protects incompetent food preparers from being held accountable.


Seriously folks. What's missing from this picture?


++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~ncoverst/
frharry@cfl.rr.com


If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.


Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

What's Wrong With Education?

In today’s Care2 posts there is a two-part story on “What’s wrong with education?” It’s a timely issue, as Care2 tends to make its focus. Among the comments in the story were the following:


Before the advent of television, video games and computers, children would sit quietly in their classrooms and pay attention, no problem. Without the ubiquitous presence of cell phones, we didn’t have to be quick enough to notice the fingers moving under the desk, silently texting (how do they do that without looking?), or have to spend time communicating with parents about why their child had a cell phone confiscated yet again. It was just a whole lot easier back then. So they say.


But were we actually teaching? Despite the broken promises and political games surrounding the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), it did uncover an unfortunate truth about our nation’s educational history: Many of our children were left behind.


Shining a light on these children has been a good thing, but as any teacher knows, it’s just plain wrong to judge a student solely on the basis of a few tests. Yet that is exactly what NCLB has put in place. (Did they check in with any teachers when they were devising this system?)

Here is my response:

Having been on both sides of the desk before the advent of distracting technologies, I would say it’s a bit naïve to suggest students were necessarily paying attention prior to their arrival. The reality is that students passed notes, circulated slam books, planted whoopee cushions in the seats of unsuspecting classmates and whispered among themselves. That was particularly true in classrooms packed with 38 seventh graders sharing 20 text books as was the case in my middle school in 1976.

That was also the time when high stakes testing arrived. Mid-school year in 1977, we were told to throw away everything we had been doing up to then, that the new Florida statewide testing standards would be what we would teach. Of course, most of us were already teaching its basics – appropriate usage of punctuation, correct spelling, subject/verb agreement and reading comprehension. But we now had no choice about what we taught or how it would be taught. Our in loco parentis state Department of Education knew better.

Our students did particularly well on the tests. Our county came in second out of 67 counties statewide. Of course, our county was 97% white and largely middle class, the demographic out of which high stakes testing arose and whose children traditionally do the best on such tests. We had virtually no students speaking English as a second language and few special ed students, the demographics which tend to drag test scores down.

But what did it prove? Certainly not that our teaching staff was proficient and deserved recognition if not compensation. In the year our students scored second highest in the state, our teachers were in their second year with no contract, our starting salary was $8000/year gross with no medical benefits and our school board was fined by an independent mediator for refusing to negotiate with a union handicapped by state law which prohibits strikes. Our classrooms remained packed with more students than we could ever handle.

The test results also did not prove that our students were learning any more than they had previously. The same students excelled on the tests who excelled in the classroom. And the same students, many of them sadly headed for dropping out of high school, failed the test just as they failed our classes.

As was the case with NCLB, teachers were actively ignored in the process of creating the conditions for conducting the very enterprise for which they were trained and most intimately involved. The focus shifted from children to numbers, a dehumanizing move which also signaled the loss of any concern for context or complexity of circumstance. It is a rather mindless reductionism on a good day.

The notion that a single test score on a standardized instrument can tell an educator everything they need to know about a student’s educational process is naïve at best. Standardized tests were designed for diagnostic purposes, not evaluative. What such tests do best is identify the areas where students require more development. The employment of such tests as high stake, do or die events, signals a fundamental misuse of standardized testing.

Even more misguided is the use of such test results as somehow indicating the performance of a teacher. Horace Mann, teaching a group of students from the lowest scoring demographics, might well appear to be incompetent if his students’ test scores were all that was considered. And even a mediocre teacher with a group of college bound AP or IB students might appear to be a stellar pedagogue. Test scores alone say little about a teacher’s capabilities or performance. It’s a bit like a local supermarket offering a shipload of overly ripe peaches for sale and then suggesting that the parents of his area do not want their children to eat healthy food when the peaches failed to sell.

At the heart of this problem lies two fundamentally erroneous paradigms. The first is that bureaucrats and elected school officials are in a parent/child relationship to teachers. Admittedly part of the problem here is that former teachers who have been in parent/child relationships with actual children fail to adapt to a new reality when they are promoted to roles managing adults. The reality is that many teachers are at least as well educated as their administrators and have a lot more insight about the realities of the classroom than those who are removed from them , some for many years.

The second problematic paradigm comes from the broader societal belief that somehow everything worth knowing can be reduced to numbers. Numbers rarely convey complexity or context. And they are particularly poor indicators of human experience. Ask yourself about some of the most important aspects of being human: how much does love weigh? How do we measure the intensity (and thus the sincerity) of the grief of a widow or a parent who has lost a child? The reality is that if we want to know what children have learned, we have to do the hard work of actually observing their behavior. Such rarely lends itself to reduction to the instant gratification of a set of data.

Underneath all of these questions is a much darker concern. The reality is that Americans have steadily defunded public education even as they have increasingly regulated it and demanded more from it. More demands on fewer workers with less pay sounds a lot like free market fundamentalism with its predictable pathologies. But it does not sound much like a society that values an educated public, hence its operation of a healthy, productive public school system. Standardized testing is the mere tip of the iceberg here. Ultimately, the real question is who we wish to be as a people.


++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~ncoverst/
frharry@cfl.rr.com


If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.


Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Vocation, not Surrender

In today’s column from Care2, Deepak Chopra presents an excerpt from his book, The Path to Love ( Three Rivers Press, 1997) entitled “Have You Resolved Struggle Vs Surrender?” The title caught my eye as I glanced over the various Care2 columns (a site whose slogan is “make a difference”) . As I read the column, I came across this sentence: "Struggle is born of the ego’s isolation; it ends when you can find the Way and surrender to its guiding force." This was my response to the column:

While I totally agree with the premise - that struggle results from ego's isolation - I don't find the language of surrender or its cousin, submission, terribly compelling for mature adult human beings. These are words constructed from power relationships. I don't think spirit is about power (even as I recognize that 12 Step theology has made such thinking popular). Rather, it's about being.

What I sense as a more humane, and thus superior, way of describing the relationship of the individual to the Way is the concept of vocation. Vocatus (Lat.) means to call to. When the Way calls to a human being, the proper response is not to submit or to surrender, it is to respond and ultimately to embrace the Way. Such an understanding respects human dignity, constructs the resulting following of the Way in terms of relationship and avoids the elements of power that simply can never fully appeal to many human beings. That will be particularly true for those of us already suffering from the disadvantages we face under socially constructed power relationships.

The recognition of the rightness of the path, its salubrious if not salvific potential, and the advantages of embracing it result in a decision to answer its call. Deep calls out to deep, the psalmist says. Brahman calls out to atman. The underlying paradigm regards being, existence, not power.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~ncoverst/
frharry@cfl.rr.com

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Things that make you go hmmmm…… (11-29-09)


Bumper stickers seen side by side on the rear of an oversized truck in the parking lot at Publix, Baldwin (Billionaire Giveaway) Park


“Marines don’t suffer from insanity. We enjoy every minute of it.” And next to it: “Stop Global Whining.”

Yes. This explains much.

From a collection of photos of tee-shirt slogans on the OrlandoSentinel.com site

* “’Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses’ and Bush will leave them hungry and dying in the Gulf Coast states”

res ipsa loquitor


* (in google colored letters) “I’m not your damned search engine”

[Actually, you are. Google's engine only retrieves what you ask it to retrieve, hence the search engine on the computer is only as good as the one in your head]

* Teeshirt on a teenage boy talking on cell phone: “Out of Memory”

[Indeed. And , judging by the conversations to which I am subject on a regular basis on campus as I try to walk to class with a little presence of mind, out of much of substance to say as well]

* Image: Two icons of a girl appearing to yell at a boy. Underneath the first: “Problem”
Second icon, same image but boy now has an ipod and earphones. Underneath the second: “Solved”

[Actually, no problem can be solved that way, just avoided. Of course, that’s the purpose of most ipod, cell phone and texting usage – avoidance of the world – escapism. Rather disturbing behavior from the folks dubbed as “the next Greatest Generation.” Thus far the results are not so promising. Indeed, it looks like Twenge's "most narcissistic generation ever" is giving that title a run for its money.]

* Image: hand held computer game. Underneath the logo: "Nintendo Rehabilitation Clinic: The first step is admitting you have a problem"

[This would be funny were it no serious business for so many kids today, particularly boys who stay up all night playing computer games and then fail to make it to class the next day. Ask either of my nephews. Ask the kids in my classes in danger of failing for the same reason.]

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~ncoverst/
frharry@cfl.rr.com

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Friday, November 06, 2009

Smugness, Simplistic Bumper Stickers and Choice

It was the smugness that got me, I think. That and the simplistic view of a complex problem that never lends itself to the black and white arguments which attend it.

The bumper sticker read “SMILE. Your Mother Chose Life.” The first thing that crossed my mind was simply “How in the hell would you know?”

There is no small amount of arrogance in presuming to know the circumstances of another life. I thought back to my dear mother, whom I seem to miss more and more with each passing day. I recall her stories about my birth: “It was the hottest day in 1953. And we had to ride all the way across the state on SR 90 to West Palm Beach so you could be born. Your father had to stop the car twice so I could throw up… (This on a highway lined on both sides with signs warning of “Deep Canals” into which cars vanish and only resurface years later complete with skeletons of missing persons) And then they brought you to me and you were so beautiful.”

I miss hearing that story on my birthday each year. But the story which the bumper sticker would presume to dictate took place long before Sept. 1, 1953. The reality is that my mother did not have to choose when it came time for me to be born. She and my father very much wanted children. I was the first of three. And at some level, my birth came as a great sigh of relief for my mother who had nearly died with a tubular pregnancy on their previous try a year earlier. My mother produced three children from one ovary, the last when she was on the cusp of 40 years old. Clearly, this was a couple who wanted children.

My father had a decent job in the early 50s, working first for the USDA on a post-war training project teaching former soldiers to farm in the cane fields of South Florida and later for the local school board. After a year he headed back to the University of Florida on the GI Bill to get his masters in agriculture. Both my parents had siblings within a couple hours drive of LaBelle. My mother’s parents came down to help her when I came home from the hospital and I would go to stay with her sister’s family in Hialeah a year later when my brother’s birth proved difficult. We had places to go and resources to cover us.

My birth was simply not a result of a choice. My mother had no choices to make. She didn’t have the prospect of raising a child alone with no income to provide for it. Her child was not the result of rape or incest. She did not live in an abusive relationship nor did she live within the surround of abject poverty. My mother had two years of college under her belt and a husband with a bachelor’s degree. They were white, middle class, well respected with a strong familial support system. What choice was there to make?

I admit to no small amount of frustration over the way the abortion discussion typically is cast. Pro-life arguments are rarely about life in any sense beyond birth. Their proponents add hypocrisy to myopia in their general support for state killing and opposition to any kind of welfare spending to ease the lives of the poor. And pro-choice arguments focus far too often on rights with little consideration of responsibilities. Even so, choices regarding the termination of a pregnancy considered outside the context in which they are made can make little sense to anyone outside the parties immediately involved. Such complex decisions simply do not lend themselves to the simplistic reductionism of bumper sticker slogans.

If I must smile on command as the bumper sticker demands, I am more than happy to smile this day because I am alive, I am in decent health, I have a comfortable home and life, and a family who loves me. All of this is only partly due to my own efforts, the rest due to circumstances over which I had little, well, choice. But if I am being honest with myself, I must also admit to simultaneously feeling no small amount of pain for the many children born into poverty, abusive families, many of whom struggle to meet the bare minimums of food, shelter and clothing required for life. And I feel no small amount of sorrow for their mothers, many of them relatively powerless to change those conditions which can readily make life a living hell.

I have seen these children and their mothers in the barrios of Central America and the ghettos of the United States. I have taught them and represented them in court. I have lived in their dirt floor hovels in the countryside of Panama. I have sat with them in courtrooms packed with drug dealers and prostitutes. And as I remember them, I wonder how they would respond to the glib, self-satisfied bumper sticker on the rear of a late model automobile in the faculty lot at a large state university in Florida.

More importantly, I wonder how their mothers might react. Would they see themselves as blessed? Would they have second thoughts? Would they smile? More importantly, would they see the “choice” in as simplistic, black and white terms as the smug purveyor of the bumper sticker? I have to wonder.



++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~ncoverst/
frharry@cfl.rr.com

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Monday, October 26, 2009

Things that make you go hmmmm....... (10-26)

Tag on an SUV in a parking lot: "IN A TRAP"

One wonders if that refers to ownership of a vehicle whose mileage might well be draining the resources of the owner and prompting fearf as to what will happen when the next gas price hike occurs. Or perhaps it's a reference to a mindset that cannot (will not?) come to grips with the new reality the world faces: our addiction to petrochemicals is killing us and the time to get off the stuff is now.

Then there's the bumper sticker on the Hummer in the parking lot of Borders at the Winter Park Village shopping center: "So how's that 'CHANGE' and 'HOPE' working out for you?"

Don't you just love smug, self-satisfied Winter Park? I often say it's such a beautiful little town (little in just about every way including its collective mind and heart) and it's a shame the folks who live there can't pull their heads out of their asses long enough to see it.

Oh, as for the question, the change is working out well not just for America but for the rest of the world. Ask the Nobel Peace Prize folks. Ask the American people who have hope for the first time in a long time that they might actually be able to be medically treated when sick or injured. If nothing else, ask people like me who no longer have to grimace and frantically reach for the radio dial each time the president of the United States speaks in public. If nothing else, an administration which values diplomacy over costly invasions, which tells big business it cannot continue providing a gravy train for its execs at the expense of the American public and which consistently articulates its vision in complete sentences properly using the English language (unlike the producer of the bumper sticker of the former administration) gives me hope.

Yeah, buddy, that change is working out just fine for all of us.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~ncoverst/
frharry@cfl.rr.com

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

They Are Still Our Slaves?

A friend of mine who is a black retired teacher sent me this essay as an email. I found it shocking and provocative. I would have immediately assessed this as racist propaganda had it not come from my friend.

His email had copied one of the many pieces circulating the internet which initially cited the essay as having been written by a white man and sent to a NYC radio station where a white woman talk show host supposedly read it live on air. As is the case with many web-based legends, that never happened. The talk show host ended up posting a disclaimer suggesting that her name had been confused with a black Philadelphia comedian who had broadcast it on a local talk show in that city. That, also, turned out to be untrue.

What follows the essay is the website for the actual author of the piece who is a NYC professor at Baruch College. He included the essay in a book entitled Mental Slavery.

The essay is well worth considering. He draws a bead on self-defeating behaviors and the surrender to superficial values and materialism that is hard to escape as one looks around them in consumerist America. However, as I look out at my young undergrads, eager to get diplomas (and occasionally, an education as well) to go make money and to play the consumerist game, I wonder if the self-imposed slavery is not broader than simply African-Americans.

I offer the essay to you for your consideration. Your thoughts are welcomed.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Here is one version of the piece as it has circulated on the internet

http://pridemagazine.wordpress.com/2006/04/26/they-are-still-our-slaves-very-enlightening-article-think-about/

“They Are Still Our Slaves” Very Enlightening Article. Think About.
For those of you who heard it, this is the article DeeLee was reading on aNew York radio station. For those of you who didn't hear it, this is very deep. This is a heavy piece and a Caucasian wrote it.


"THEY ARE STILL OUR SLAVES" We can continue to reap profits from the Blacks without the effort of physical slavery. Look at the current methods of containment that they use on themselves: IGNORANCE, GREED, and SELFISHNESS.

Their IGNORANCE is the primary weapon of containment. A great man once said, "The best way to hide something from Black people is to put it in a book. We now live in the Information Age. They have gained the opportunity to read any book on any subject through the efforts of their fight for freedom, yet they refuse to read. There are numerous books readily available at Borders, Barnes & Noble, and <http://amazon.com/ Amazon. com, not to mention their own Black Bookstores that provide solid blueprints to reach economic equality (which should have been their fight all along), but few read consistently, if at all.

GREED is another powerful weapon of containment. Blacks, since the abolition of slavery, have had large amounts of money at their disposal. Last year they spent 10 billion dollars during Christmas, out of their 450 billion dollars in total yearly income (2.22%). Any of us can use them as our target market, for anybusiness venture we care to dream up, no matter how outlandish, they will buy into it. Being primarily a consumer people, they function totally by greed. They continually want more, with little thought for savingor investing. They would rather buy some new sneakers than investin starting a business.

Some even neglect their children to have the latest Tommy or FUBU, and they still think that having a Mercedes, and a big house gives them "Status" orthat they have achieved their Dream. They are fools! The vast majority of their people are still in poverty because their greed holds them back from collectively making better communities. With the help of BET, and the rest of their black media that often broadcasts destructive images into their own homes, we will continue to see huge profits like those of Tommy and Nike. (Tommy Hilfiger has even jeered them, saying he doesn't want their money, and look at how the fools spend more with him than ever before!). They'll continue to show off to each other while we build solid communities with the profits from our businesses that we market to them.

SELFISHNESS, ingrained in their minds through slavery, is one of the major ways we can continue to contain them. One of their own, Dubois said that there was an innate division in their culture. "Talented Tenth" he called it. He was correct in his deduction that there are segments of their culture that has achieved some "form" of success. However,that segment missed the fullness of his work. They didn't read that the "Talented Tenth" was then responsible to aid The Non-Talented Ninety Percent in achieving a better life. Instead, that segment has created another class, Buppie class that looks down on their people or aids them in a condescending manner.

They will never achieve what we have. Their selfishness does not allow them to be able to work together on any project or endeavor of substance. When they do get together, their selfishness lets their egos get in the way of their goal. Their so-called help organizations seem to only want to promote their name without making any real change in their community. They are content to sit in conferences and conventions in our hotels, and talk about what they will do, while they award plaques to the best speakers, not to the best doers.

Is there no end to their selfishness? They steadfastly refuse to see that TOGETHER EACH ACHIEVES MORE (TEAM) They do not understand that they are no better than each other because of what they own , as a matter of fact, most of those Buppies are but one or two pay checks away from poverty. All of which is under the control of our pens in our offices and our rooms. Yes, we will continue to contain them as long as theyrefuse to read, continue to buy anything they want, and keep thinking they are "helping" their communities by paying dues to organizations which do little other than hold lavish conventions in our hotels. By the way, don't worry about any of them reading this letter, remember, 'THEY DON'T READ!!!!

Now that you have read this, I want to get an ongoing discussion on the topic. I want everyone who reads this to post your opinions of this letter. Do you feel that is true. If so, in what ways? How can us as a black race get away from these sterotypes or accusations that are raised within this text? The evidence is provided in this letter. Did this letter take you aback as it did to me? Let me know what you think. Tell your friends to read this also. Remember that in order to have progress you must address the issues pertaining to your people so please keep this in mind and educate your friends and most importantly educate yourselves. -----Garrett L. Sawyer: Content Editor for Pride Magazine

ACTUAL SOURCE:

http://www.readlikeyourlifedependsonit.com/home.html


Read Like Your Life Depends On It

By Art Lewin

Welcome

Dr. Arthur Lewin, author of Africa Is Not A Country: It's A Continent, and member of the Black and Hispanic Studies Department of Baruch College of the City University of New York thanks you for your interest in his latest book and visiting his website.

Additional content is being developed and will be incorporated into this site in the near future. However, in the interim we would like to hear from you with your questions and comments regarding topics in the book.

Please click here or the contact button to send an email to Dr. Lewin.

Read Like Your Life Depends On It

Addendum

THE MATRIX OF THE MATRIX (Pg. 23)
DID A BLACK WOMAN WRITE THE MATRIX? (Pg. 23)
PRETTY NAILS COST MORE THAN U THINK! (Pg. 10)
MENTAL SLAVERY (Pg. 5)
HOW TO MAKE AN ECONOMIC OR GHETTO SLAVE
FULL TEXT OF BILL COSBY’S COMMENTS (Pg. 12)


MENTAL SLAVERY
In the book under the title, “Mental Slavery,” we reproduce an article that we authored that has been circulating around the net for years. On the net we titled it “They Are Still Our Slaves.” It is based on an article we received called “How To Make An Economic Or Ghetto Slave.” This original is reproduced below. Compare it to the piece in the book to see how we modified it.
Back To Top

HOW TO MAKE AN ECONOMIC OR GHETTO SLAVE
A Lesson for the New Millennium by Willie Lynch VI, building on my great-grandfather's work, we can see how we can continue to reap profits from the Blacks without the effort of physical slavery.

We will focus on the current methods of containment that they use on themselves:

1. IGNORANCE 2. GREED 3. SELFISHNESS.

The IGNORANCE of blacks is the primary weapon of containment. A great Man once said, “the best way to hide something from a black is to put it in a book.” This statement is so true. We currently live in an information age. Blacks have gained the opportunity to read any book on any subject through the efforts of their fight for freedom and integration yet; they refuse to read. There are numerous books readily available at Borders, Barnes & Noble and Amazon. com, that would help them reach economic equality (which should Have been their fight all along). However, very few of them read consistently if at all. As long as we continue to publish books for our benefit and keep books, computers and the Internet out of their hands, we will never see the masses of them rise above the slums and projects.

GREED is another powerful weapon of containment. Blacks, since the abolition of slavery, have had large amounts of money at their disposal. Last year they spent 9 billion dollars during Christmas and overall yearly have about 450 billion dollars in purchasing power. Any of us can use them as our target market for any business venture. Being primarily a consumer people they function totally by greed.

They continually want more without any regard for saving or investing. They would rather buy some new sneaker than invest in starting a business or a community development organization. Some will even neglect their children to have the latest Tommy or FUBU, they still think that having a Mercedes and a fancy apartment in the middle of the ghetto gives them "status" or that they have achieved the American dream. They are fools.

The vast majority of their people are still in poverty. Living in slums, projects and run-down homes. What have they achieved? Their greed holds them back from making better communities for themselves. With the help of BET and the rest of their black media, we will continue to see huge profits like those of Tommy and Nike. They, will continue to congregate in their 'buppie" communities and slums trying to show off to each other while we build solid communities with the profits from our businesses. Some would argue that this last method is the most powerful one of the three. SELFISHNESS, ingrained in their minds through slavery, is one of the major ways we can contain them in a slave status. We all know that any group united under one vision can accomplish anything.

The Bible shows that even God acknowledged in the Tower of Babel story that a people united can accomplish anything. With this said, we understand that the most effective way to keep them contained is to create divisions among blacks as a people. One of their own, Dubois said that there was an innate division in their culture. A 'Talented Tenth' he called it. He was correct in his deduction that there are segments of their culture that has achieved some form of success. However, that segment missed the fullness of his work, they didn't read that the Talented Tenth was then responsible to aid the Non-Talented Ninety Percent in achieving a better life.

Instead, that segment has created another class, a buppie class that looks down on their people or aids them in a condescending manner. The selfishness of the buppie class, and the "it's all about me" attitude that is prevalent throughout their people, has caused them to isolate both classes and fail to achieve solid communities, business or economic empowerment.

They will never achieve what we have. Their selfishness does not allow them to work together on any project or endeavor of substance. Their so-called help organizations, with large budgets and some existing for almost a hundred or more years, seem to only want to promote their names without making any real change to the communities in which they live. They are content to sit in conferences and conventions and talk about what they will do and award the best speakers a plaque. Is their no end to their selfishness?

They lack the essential understanding that TOGETHER EACH ACHIEVES MORE! They do not understand that they are not better than each because of what they own. Most are only one or two paychecks away from poverty. And their paychecks are written by us in our offices and boardrooms.

Yes, we will continue to contain them as long as we keep them from reading, let them buy anything they want, and keep them thinking that they are really "helping" their communities by paying dues to some organization. By the way, don't worry about any of them reading this letter, remember, they don't read!

Back To Top

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~ncoverst/
frharry@cfl.rr.com

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Summer of Their Discontent – Part II

Amidst the sea of negativity I received in my Summer B evaluations (the tenor of which my chair described as “hysterical”) was this comment: “Professor’s lack of respect for his students was outrageous.” It’s a comment that stings given the general fondness I feel for most of my students, a trait that is repeatedly reflected in the evaluations of my real live courses. But, in all fairness, I think this student was on target. By the end of a summer which had featured a mutiny and a non-stop whine session, I really didn’t have much respect for those students.

But was respect due them? The same student who lamented my lack of respect for her complained that the stripped down, bare minimum course with three tests and four Gordon Rule Papers “placed unrealistic expectations” on students. She complained that the tests did not allow students to skip questions and return to them later (which makes it difficult to look up the answers in the text the student hasn’t read). She complained that 24 hours was insufficient time to write a Gordon Rule Paper even though the prep materials needed for the paper were provided well in advance of the 24 hour window.

Comments from other students included complaints about “the enormous amount of reading” and “an unreasonable expectation of study time.” Another complained because I did not give an “open note test” while another asserted that the tests were “weird. They required comprehension and critical analysis of the reading.” Imagine that! Yet another complained because the class was so fast paced the student “did not have enough time to learn the material” (this from a student who specifically chose to take the course in the abbreviated six week summer format). And then there was the complaint that requiring submission of papers to turnitin.com, the plagiarism site, was “too much of a hassle. I think we should be trusted because we are college students now, not high school students any more to plagierize (sic).”

Some of the comments were ironic in their embodiment of the very concerns to which I often direct my comments:

· “Technical errors.u”
· “This is not an english class so assume we know how to use english properly…”
· “This is the first time I’ve taking a class online so at first the test as overwhelming some answers were there, but trying to complete the test before the time was up, lead me to overlook some of the right answers sadly.”


So, perhaps I did not show a lot of respect for this substandard writing and the constant whining. But, again, what respect is due this kind of performance?

A number of students reported taking personal affront to some of the comments made to them. Admittedly, my frustration with the onslaught of posts, many of them asking questions that were already answered by posted materials they clearly had not read, did begin to show by the end of the term. Moreover, I was having to completely revamp the website given its changeover from WebCT to Blackboard with all the accompanying technical problems that went with that shift. As some students rightfully complained, many of the links no longer worked and had to be relinked. In reality, I spent hours recreating the documents and links. No doubt my frustration was palpable by the end of the term.

What was particularly troubling in all this hysteria was the personal nature of some of the comments. One of the great weaknesses (among the many) of online courses is that the human beings involved never get to know each other. They don’t get to see the human face of the other. They make comments they would never say to a person’s face. And so perhaps it is not surprising when a frustration-filled semester ends with comments like this: “Your picture hanging in some building does not make you a good teacher.” This from a person who has never met me.

My chair is willing to write this off as simply a bad term which we all suffer through occasionally. But in all honesty, my experience last summer caused me to seriously question how long I can remain in college instruction. For the first time in my life, I found myself dreading the beginning of school this fall, a time that has always been one of great excitement and anticipation for me. I found myself wondering what other work could I possibly do and whether I could simply survive to retirement in 10 years, this from a man who had once believed he’d teach until he dropped over dead.

Fortunately, this fall has gone a long way toward redeeming my vocation as teacher. My three sections of honors students are unusually good, generally respectful and hardworking with the occasional attitude-laden narcissist thrown in for good measure. My large Encountering the Humanities class has produced some good discussions and is composed mostly of decent, good natured students. I’m actually enjoying this rather frantic fall where I am teaching four different courses including a new course team taught with another instructor. Indeed, I had almost laid this troubled past summer to rest when I received the summer’s evaluations yesterday.

Ironically, a couple of my summer students seemed to think I see myself “to be above 2000 level courses.” In actuality, I believe the Humanistic Traditions courses we teach are perhaps the most important courses the university offers. Where else will students be required to actually consider what it means to be human, what legacy they have inherited from those who have gone before and what obligations to the world they have as a result of their privilege? My graduating senior (and who knows more than them?) ended her diatribe with the comment “If you feel above basic humanities, please stop teaching it!”

The problem is not that I feel above teaching basic humanities. The problem is that the online summer format of Humanistic Traditions simply isn’t about teaching. And it’s even less about learning.

What it is about is the procurement of credit hours and crossing off of graduation requirements in as short a period as possible with as little work as is necessary. It’s about relieving overcrowded classrooms and guaranteeing tuition moneys (not to mention additional online fees) for the university’s ever shrinking budget. It’s about teachers being required to spend more and more of their own time playing technical games with substandard computer systems and being the middle man with little technological expertise between that system and its users. And it's about the difference between a $43,000/year income and $51,000/year income (this for a professional with three graduate degrees and 25 years of college teaching experience) guaranteed only by the willingness to endure online teaching in six week summer terms.

Finally, it’s about those who ostensibly came to college to be students but who instead have come to confuse themselves for consumers with inordinate senses of entitlement. That sense of entitlement includes a perceived right to make demands on everything from pedagogy to course content to assessment from those they see as obligated to provide goods and services to their specifications. One only has to read my summer courses’ evaluations to see that.

In reality, I stopped actually teaching the basic humanities a long time ago, not because it was beneath me but rather because that was no longer the job I was paid to do. Sadly, that will prove to be a major loss to all parties involved.

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The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~ncoverst/
frharry@cfl.rr.com

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.
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The Summer of Their Discontent – Part I

This past summer I tried an experiment. I’ve been teaching the HUM 2210 and 2230 (Humanistic Traditions I and II) courses online each summer for five years now. Summer classes are by definition slacker magnets, particularly online sections. They draw students who think because the class is shorter it won’t require as much. They draw students who think that because the class is online it will be easier. As a result, you get the usual online class denizens – the hung over frat boys who don’t want to have to get up for class, the students who can’t get into any of the classes they need and decide to knock out their GEP requirements online and the graduating seniors who have put off their general education requirements until the very end and who think the course work is beneath their dignity given their newly acquired vocational skills.

In all fairness, this hardly exhausts the possibilities. You always have a small group of students who actually get caught up in the material, wrestle with the questions humanities courses raise and generally perform like actual college students. And there is invariably the one or two working mothers or fathers desperately trying to get the college degree needed for a decent life while juggling child care and work schedules. It’s this latter group of students for whom I have the patience of Job and the utmost of admiration. But, sadly, it’s the former group of students who have increasingly made summer teaching online an experience in the same category with barium enemas.

For the past four summers I have placed a caveat on my homepage regarding these online courses. The link reads “Is this Webcourse the right course for me? (HUM 2211 and HUM 2230) and contains an informal survey asking students to rate their responses to questions such as the following:

7. I am not laboring under the misapprehension that a course taught online is easier or less demanding than a regular face-to-face course. Indeed, I recognize that given the demands on the student to be responsible for meeting the course schedule and managing time with no interaction with the instructor in class, it can be much more difficult.

9. I am particularly adept at managing time, at reading and following directions and acting without assistance from instructors using only a schedule and course modules (particularly critical in summer sessions where 15 weeks course material is covered in a six week session, meaning each class week is the equivalent of 2.5 ordinary class weeks).

In short, I warn students ahead of time that their preconceptions are not on target. I warn them that the online class in which they are enrolling will be an actual course - with all the requirements of a real class - simply taught in online format. And I warn them that, contrary to popular conception and fervent student desires, it will be demanding. Despite such warnings, the classes always fill (even as the face-to-face sections languish and sometimes are cancelled), dominated by the usual suspects – the frat boys, the graduating seniors and the folks working full time jobs over the summer and taking two or more courses.

In what is perhaps a paradox, I have observed that as I have increasingly cut requirements from these summer online courses, the complaining actually increases each time. This is somewhat in line with studies which suggest that students actually want more engagement in online classes - perhaps as a consolation for a recognition after the fact that online courses are often mere shadows of their face-to-face editions - even as they resent having to actually do anything to engage the class.

This past summer, I found myself facing an unprecedented situation of a student using the course email list to run a mutiny among the students. Suggesting that the work load was too high and the feedback too slow (in all fairness, a week and a half can be perceived as a long time in summer sessions), the young man drafted a sample letter to be sent to my chair essentially demanding that I be disciplined. Becoming aware of the mutiny via a student I knew from a real live class who sent me the mass mailed letter, I responded with a point by point refutation to the email that I posted to course news. That effectively ended the mutiny. Upon receiving the form letter, my chair directed the student to meet with me in person and after less than an hour of talking face to face, the student apologized for the incident, said he wished he’d taken this class in a face-to-face section and concluded by saying he would consider taking other classes with me. (So much for the “just as good as regular classes” propaganda from the IT boys.)

Admittedly, this confrontation left a sour taste in my mouth going into the second half of the summer . I was burned out from Summer A and wanted to avoid any more confrontation. I decided to minimize my interactions with the incoming students and cut the Summer B course to a bare bones bottom line which required nothing more than three exams over the three volumes of the text and the four Gordon Rule Papers required by the state. No content quizzes on the chapters, no discussions of material, no posted responses to the Gordon Rule Papers, no group activities or presentations, all of which I have used in real live classes and past online editions of the class. Even as I prepared the syllabus and schedule for what I was calling Humanities Lite, I predicted to my chair and colleagues that the complaints about the course would increase and my evaluations would drop.

Today the truth of those predictions arrived in the form of course evaluations from the summer sessions. As I had predicted, even with the aborted mutiny, the first half of the summer evaluations were much higher and fairer than those of the whittled down second half. Even so, it was not without complaints.

The first half complaints centered primarily around what one student described as “tons and tons of work.” Of course, trying to cram a 15 week semester into 6 will no doubt result in such a perception if an actual class (as opposed to an online class trimmed of any real obligations for students to perform) is being taught. My mutiny leader complained about the “classroom equivalent time” as I had designated it on the schedule to show that students don’t get the class time off, that there were activities designed to simulate the same. Like many online course students, he had decided that no class attendance meant that time was the student’s and could not have any claims made on it by pesky little assignments.

One remarkably transparent comment seemed to sum up the entire thread of complaints: “An online course is about convenience, and having 2 quizzes due at the end of everyday is not convenient.” Of course, a day in a summer session is the equivalent of 2 days of classes in a regular semester. And in all fairness, the rare day when supplementary material (and thus extra credit) quizzes were scheduled was the exception and not the rule. Even so, clearly this course was not convenient enough for this student as she ended her evaluation with “I am never recommending this professor to anyone, or this class.”

Upon reading this comment, all I could think was, “O, thank G-d.” Indeed, at some level, I have come to see the revenge sites like myprofessorsucks.com and ratemyprofessor.com as doing instructors who actually demand that students engage their classes a great public service. If students are consulting these sites because they want to avoid work and decide against taking a course from me, I think the world will be a happier place for all parties involved. And if workload and convenience was all that was involved, it would be easier to simply do with these evaluations what is most appropriate for all such acontextual and generally meaningless consumerist surveys – look at them briefly, comment upon their novelty and then consign them to the closest recycle bin.

Unfortunately, in an age of educational bureaucratic micromanagement which confuses consumerism with accountability, “evaluations” like this one can become a problem for instructors who consistently prove inconvenient taskmasters. Of course, the problem isn’t the workload or the convenience. After five years of offering courses online, I observe that anytime a teacher actually demands more of students than paying their tuition and coming out with easy three hour As, their convenience-focused, work avoidant consumers will find something to complain about. As I predicted at the end of Summer A going into a stripped down Summer B, even if you only give the minimal three tests and the required four papers, the students will complain about them.

The very first comment from the Summer B evaluations began “There was not one thing I enjoyed about this class” and continued with a critique of workload: “There is an overwhelming amount of reading to retain in a given time period and exams are impossible.” While this student felt “All text chapters were completed ignored…” the following student complained “The test questions were straight from the book, not any of the unnecessary work…the extra Worksheets.” Yet another suggested “describing the kinds of questions to students before giving them the tests to produce a better grade curve.” Of course, tests are always easier when you know the questions ahead of time, no? Indeed, one student suggested “[I]n the ‘real world’ it’s not like you can’t open a book to reference something you are unsure about.” Why bother with tests at all, right? Just give a worksheet to fill in the blanks.

As I had predicted, if all you assign is tests and papers, the students will complain about them.

Ironically, the “extra Worksheets” for each chapter referenced here were designed to develop each artifact and piece of literature with questions about them. The questions ask students to consider “What might this sculpture suggest about how the Greeks saw men v. women?” and “Where do you see ideas like this in the world around you?” I provide the worksheets as study guides for the exams. I neither collect nor grade them.

Study after study suggests that actually understanding an artifact results in a greater tendency to remember it than mere memorization of the artifact and its maker followed by regurgitation of data from one’s short term memory and nearly instantly forgetting the same. And study after study suggests that if students can connect material being learned to their own lives, they are more likely to remember it. Of course, such concerns don’t fare well in a world driven by consumer convenience and the desire to avoid “an overwhelming amount of work,” even when it only involved three tests and four required papers, the least workload I have ever assigned in any college class I have ever taught anywhere.

One final thought on all this. The student who had taken a real live class with me previously wrote the following in her evaluation: “This course really shouldn’t be offered online. Too much is lost in translation. Dr. Coverston is a stellar professor who truly cares about the transfer of knowledge and engaging education.”

I must say I agree with her initial assertions and I can only hope her final complimentary statement is true. In reality, Humanistic Traditions courses do translate poorly to online format. Art takes time to download as some of the complaints about testing suggested (particularly when taken during the 11:00 pm to midnight witching hour of all online courses when the UCF system slows to a crawl due to overuse). The concepts that these courses consider do not translate well to asynchronous discussion or written comments read in the absence of the commenter. Tests with artificial time constraints to discourage the ability to cheat (Are you listening, FSU athletic department?) require a focus on technological means rather than pedagogical ends. These are valid concerns and have been raised by a number of instructors repeatedly.

However, when the concerns that give rise to online courses are administrative (translation: monetary) rather than pedagogical, it should not be surprising that online courses end up as a dumping ground for the excess students admitted into an already overtaxed system ill-prepared to handle the onslaught. Online classes become the solution to shortage of classroom space problems. Thus one pathology gives rise to another as instructors teaching online try to adapt pedagogy and content to the realities of online courses: minimalist content and requirements driven by consumerist entitlement. The result? Low to none-existent workloads, quizzes which test little more than the ability of students to actually crack their texts long enough to look up answer, and the occasional discussion requirement which produces a slew of posts beginning “I just feel…” with little of substance thereafter. Those who seek to do more than that minimum face stiff resistance, whine-filled evaluations and the occasional mutiny. There is much to be said about such realities. Little has anything to do with education.

A second post follows.

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The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~ncoverst/
frharry@cfl.rr.com

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.
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