Sunday, February 24, 2013

“Come and Take It” - Arrested Development Armed to the Teeth

Tea Partiers and Technology 

I was stopped in my tracks this week when I opened one of the many current issues sites to which I subscribe and was confronted by this image. The photo illustrates an article at Mother Jones’ online site which discusses how a Tea Party rally for guns was organized by an online site described as a “data harvesting site.” The point of the article is that Tea Partiers were being ripped off by their own online organizers and as a result their credit accounts and personal information had been jeopardized.

Image by aken from Stephanie Mencimer article, Tea Party Group Behind Saturday's Gun Rallies Under Fire found at

Clearly this is one of the many problems a culture experiences in an age of Technopoly (see Neil Postman). Indeed, this story comes on the heels of revelations Friday that Chinese hackers have been busily tapping into virtually every aspect of American life from national security to individual consumer transactions. 

When a culture operates out of the presumptions of a technopoly, all technological innovations must be seen as progress. If such innovations can be created (and marketed) they must be used. Their presumed technological utility will inevitably outweigh any ethical questions regarding the use of that technology. As such the ethics of technology is always a consideration after-the-fact, often seeking to mitigate damage already done.

 What struck me about the article was the photo. Of course, the invitation to “Come and take it” is hardly original. It is one of the many guises of the “You make me!” taunting that we see in middle school boys desperately intent upon proving their budding manhood to their peers. At some level it could be seen as charming in adolescents, an expectable stage of development enroute to a mature adulthood which comes in part from realizing the childishness of such bravado.

But when we hear this kind of childishness in adults whom we presume should know better, it’s not so charming anymore. And what makes this image particularly chilling is the weapon of war which adorns the center of the flag. The resulting combination of a defensive, immature adult with access to a weapon of war in a society which is neither threatened by invasion nor civil war is quite chilling.

Some guns are less dangerous than others

In years past, I was much more of an absolutist about gun control than I am today. I knew that places like Australia had dealt with mass shootings by banning automatic weapons like the one depicted above. It also created a tight system of permitting and restricted ownership that has dramatically decreased gun violence in that country. In my younger days, I simply wanted all guns off our streets with guns relegated to shooting ranges or hunting preserves where they could be used and stored on-site. The “shooting clubs” in the UK, many of them operated by the UK version of the National Rifle Association, is a good example of how limited access to guns could work.

But as I’ve thought about this over the years, I have changed my mind a bit. I am hardly convinced by the determinist arguments that “You could never collect the guns from Americans” (of course we could, the question is at what cost). But I’ve come to believe that some guns in some contexts are less dangerous than others. And I’ve become more convinced that all-or-nothing approaches to public policy often exacerbate the problems they sought to address, paralyzing the potential for any progress on this crisis which demands redress.

While I’ve never been a hunter, I have come to understand the primal urge among many rural men to engage in a modern day version of their paleolithic ancestor’s practices of “bringing home the bacon.” Of course, I hardly have bought into the description of such slaughter as a sport. There’s no actual sport in a lopsided fatal encounter between two species of animals, one armed with superior weaponry (including night vision lenses and hovering helicopters in some cases) and the other totally at their mercy. As my Great-Aunt Louise always said, “If you armed the deer and taught them to shoot back, that would be a sport!”

Even so, I have come to see little point in trying to pry these symbolic self-reassurances of manhood from the hands of rural gun owners. At some level that would be about as pointless as trying to ban the American flag or close the churches across the country and just about as bloody. This is an ingrained, assimilated aspect of self-understanding among rural men in America, many of whom see themselves as the self-reliant inheritors of a mythical rugged individualist frontier legacy that defines them. Insisting that these folks critically reconsider that socially constructed understanding is no doubt a waste of time and energy.

But indulging hunters in the woods with rifles is not the same thing as tolerating assault weapons in school rooms and movie theaters. Nor is it the same thing as assuming the potential presence of multi-round hand guns in convenience stores or office buildings to simply be expectable. In such cases, the arguments for access to such weapons by the average American are simply not compelling given the overwhelming dangers they present to the general public on a daily basis. That the advocates of the unlimited weaponry currently saturating our culture are driven by an almost palpable fear does not somehow create a privilege for them to place the rest of the public in fear.

Of course, the childish slogan under the image of an assault weapon on the flag is hardly the only understanding of guns in American society possible. This photo evoked memories of my trip to the United Nations in New York City years ago. On the grounds of the UN is a sculpture by a Luxembourg artist featuring a handgun with its barrel twisted into a knot. The artist found his inspiration for this vision in the senseless killing of John Lennon just across town in NYC in 1981. Sadly, Lennon would have stood a much lower chance of being mowed down on the street in front of his home in the artist’s homeland of Luxembourg whose tightly regulated access to guns by their citizenry is 41st in the world.

Adolescent Reasoning + Weapons of War

What is troubling about the “Come and Take It” flag is not the juvenile nature of the slogan. Much of American politics is conducted in such adolescent sloganeering these days, i.e. the childish “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” slogan in the gay marriage debate. While we should be able to expect adults to conduct their social relations in terms that reflect adult levels of maturity, such expectations are not always realized in a culture pounded daily with the consumerist mantra of “It’s all about you”  evincing the moral reasoning of children. 

Where the problem arises is when adult men who evidence signs of arrested development by utilizing the reasoning of middle school boys are granted unlimited access to the weapons of war. While I would say that no one needs weapons of war in countries which are not, in fact, at war, this is precisely the person who should NEVER have access to weapons of any kind, much less high powered killing machines.

The failure – or refusal - to recognize any kind of social duties to others evidenced by this slogan, beginning with the safety of the community in which one lives, suggests that allowing such persons to become armed with weapons of war is a very bad bet indeed. And the recent history of our country provides more than enough evidence of the truth of that assertion.

Just ask the parents of Newtown.


Post-scriptum – As I wrote these words this morning, the following “breaking news” was filling my in-box at my email account:

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was on lockdown after a gunman was reported on the campus Saturday morning, but police called the report "unfounded" after searching the campus, according to Boston TV station WCVB.

Maybe the time has arrived to simply come take them.

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

 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, February 19, 2013

All Are Punish-ed

A Warning from the Trenches

This morning I ran across a remarkable essay. I had heard it mentioned briefly in the Chronicle Review but had not seen the actual essay at AAUP site until today. Written by Ken Bernstein, a former high school teacher from Maryland who retired much earlier than he had planned, his “Warning from the Trenches” seeks to alert those of us in higher education to a pattern that many of us have long suspected -  that the students coming to us from the high stakes test driven pedagogy of No Child Left Behind are largely unprepared for higher education.

I was not only moved by the passion Bernstein clearly holds for education, a passion I also share in the trenches of factories producing degrees that have in Florida replaced higher education, I was struck by his ability to zero in on the metaproblem of NCLB – a reductionism and minimalism that reduces the educational process to little more than a mechanical memorization of unnuanced data in pursuit of success in a standardized test game.

A Critique Right on Target

Bernstein’s essay moved me to write this response left on the AAUP site. I reproduce it here:

I am the fifth generation of educators in my family and I have taught at every level of education from elementary school to doctoral candidates. Over the past 31 years, I've taught many undergraduates in community colleges, private universities and state universities. I left a lucrative practice in law to return to the classroom knowing I would never be paid what my hard work was worth but believing the sacrifice was worth the opportunity to serve the state that had permitted me to become an educated human being.

Sadly, not only is Mr. Bernstein on target here but the evidence of the accuracy of his observations has already arrived at our colleges and universities. Over the past 30 years, I observe that my entering students have become more and more limited in their capabilities, both in writing but more importantly in thinking. NCLB has produced students who can perform admirably within the limited parameters of the test game for which they've been trained. But they are not only largely incapable of translating those limited skills to anything outside the testing context ("Will this be on the test?"), they are inveterately resistant to doing so. NCLB has taught them many things. Perhaps the most damaging has been a lack of curiosity and an impoverishing reductionism in their approach to becoming educated human beings.

Avoiding the Easy Out of Scapegoating

I do not blame Mr. Bernstein or any of his colleagues in public education today for this situation. This is the result of public policy which has produced a whole generation left behind. No doubt the sense of dismay Mr. Bernstein so obviously experiences here is compounded by the sense of frustration that the inability to impact or even critically assess the very pedagogical procedures one is required to administer as a condition of employment must be terribly painful.

N.B. Bernstein’s article referenced another essay, “Teachers Should Be Seen and Not Heard,” by Anthony Mullen, the National Teacher of the Year in 2009 who relates his experience of attending a national conference on education and standing “like a fly on the wall” at a reception while policy makers engaged in mutually affirming truisms about education, all the while ignoring the only teacher in the room. Finally asked his opinion, he relates his response in this essay, a portion of which is instructive here:

Where do I begin? I spent the last thirty minutes listening to a group of arrogant and condescending noneducators disrespect my colleagues and profession. I listened to a group of disingenuous people whose own self-interests guide their policies rather than the interests of children. I listened to a cabal of people who sit on national education committees that will have a profound impact on classroom teaching practices. And I heard nothing of value. “I’m thinking about the current health-care debate,” I said. “And I am wondering if I will be asked to sit on a national committee charged with the task of creating a core curriculum of medical procedures to be used in hospital emergency rooms.”

The strange little man cocks his head and, suddenly, the fly on the wall has everyone’s attention.

“I realize that most people would think I am unqualified to sit on such a committee because I am not a doctor, I have never worked in an emergency room, and I have never treated a single patient. So what? Today I have listened to people who are not teachers, have never worked in a classroom, and have never taught a single student tell me how to teach.”
I have also observed the wisdom of the National Teacher of the Year quoted above who echoed the observation of my own teacher father years ago: "The problem with education is that everyone thinks they're an expert." As I often tell my own students, I did not let my clients tell me how to make objections or closing arguments at trial when I practiced law and I do not let my students tell me how to create and execute my pedagogy as a college instructor.  Even as I readily listen to their suggestions regarding both content as well as process, for the most part students too readily confuse what they actually want to do - which is increasingly less and less - with what an actual learning process actually requires.

We No Longer Have the Luxury of Naiveté

However, there is a day of reckoning for all of the parties identified here. Like the alcoholic who wakes up the next morning for the first time and does not remember what happened the night before (including how they got home), there is no longer a luxury of naiveté. There is a problem that may be denied but it will never simply go away.

For the policy makers, it's precisely articles like this which illustrate problems already statistically documented by publications such as Academically Adrift which suggest their policies are at best a mixed success if not an abject failure in many aspects. For the general public which elects those policy makers, it's confronting the reality that quick fixes such as NCLB do not produce the instant gratification they have been trained to value as consumers. For public school educators, it is the recognition that silent acquiescence to what could readily be seen as educational malpractice through dutiful tailoring of pedagogy to NCLB minimalism demands an outcry, perhaps even a revolt. For the products of NCLB, the students who come to the universities seeking the easy path to a profitable career but rarely to become the educated human beings our society will require, the luxury of naivete ends when they are confronted with not only their ignorance about the world but their sense of entitlement to minimal effort and maximal grades. And for those of us in the academy, it comes when our own silent retreat into the trenches of research to avoid the devolving reality we encounter in our classrooms  becomes a form of denial and enabling a destructive paradigm to continue unchallenged.

The bishop of Verona in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet pronounces judgment on an entire community at the end of that tragedy: "All are punish-ed." The problems that Mr. Bernstein has so eloquently elaborated here are not the problems of any segment of our culture, it is an indictment of an entire society which has sought the easy way out of a problem that simply requires much more engagement, investment and delayed gratification in observing and assessing results. The question that we must now address is what, if anything, will we do about it. In answering that question, we would do well to bear in mind Albert Einstein's warning that the definition of insanity is continue to do the same things (operating out of the same presumptions) and expecting a different result.

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

 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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++