Friday, August 24, 2007

Time to Recharge the Blogging Batteries

There won't be any new posts for the next two weeks or so as I take a break from the blogosphere. When I return, I hope to go back to the more issue-oriented types of pieces I was writing when I started in June.

Enjoy the rest of the summer, and for those of you returning to the classroom, all the best for the upcoming year.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hamlet Part 5 – The Illusory Nature of the World (3)

In recent posts I have been looking at the disparity between appearances and realities as an important theme in Hamlet and, increasingly, in the world we live in. I suppose one could argue that governments have always used propaganda and various media to convey a perspective that they want their citizens to share, but I can’t help but think there is something much different about what is going on today. It seems to me that all kinds of policies are being enacted and promoted that have little concern with the common good, so that the lies currently being propagated have, in many instances, become vehicles for promoting hatred, evil, suspicion and paranoia. Certainly these are not results that strengthen society. People deserve, and are entitled to, much better.

The most obvious illustrations of this revolve around the American-initiated ‘war on terror,’ a war which, as in the one depicted in Orwell’s 1984, will seemingly have no end. Ever since that horrifying attack on the Twin Towers, George Bush and Dick Cheney have used the politics of fear and manipulation to further their goals. For example, although Iraq had nothing to do with the attack, the administration carefully, in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, suggested there was one.
The effect of this manipulation was such that as of January 2003, 44% of Americans believed that some or all of the Sept.11 highjackers were Iraq. Of course, the truth is that none of them were. One can see the motive behind this manipulation was to make the invasion of Iraq much more palatable to the American people.

Yet the truth is never obvious. Fortunately, with the formidable access to information afforded by the Internet, there is at least the potential for citizens to be able to sift through what they are told and come up with reasonable conclusions about their leaders, who often, when the data is analyzed, seem to be sneering at the electorate. For example,such is the contempt the U.S, government has for its own people, it even indulges in www.huffingtonpost.com/taylor-marsh/stephens-hayes-hearts-dic_b_60861.html revisionist history. If you have the time, the link in the previous sentence will take you to an entry from the Huffington Post which then offers a link to NORAD tapes which clearly show Dick Cheny caught in an egregious misrepresentation of his role during the 9/11 crisis.

But the lies and malfeasance continue, costing so many lives, both American and foreign, in remote parts of the world. And to what end? In the play Hamlet, only after the waste of many lives is there a sense of restored order and the beginning of healing; in our world today, I suspect that the latter is still a long way off.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Change of Pace

Today, a brief departure from my ruminations on Hamlet. If interested, please go to my other blog for a review of John Updike's latest book, Terrorist.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Help Change The World – For As Little As A $25 Loan

Many of you will be familiar with the concept of microfinance, the process whereby small amounts of money are lent to poor people in various countries to enable them to start businesses. These businesses provide a means for them to support themselves and their families, and in many cases, provide employment in their communities.

In doing some research on microfinance, I have come to realize that there are several organizations worthy of consideration. The one I am most impressed by is one called Kiva. If you are interested in helping to make a difference in people’s lives, please consider visiting their website for more information.

Hamlet Part 4 – The Illusory Nature of the World - Manipulative Political Practices

Last day I discussed how the Canadian political establishment, like Claudius in Hamlet, shows little respect for the citizens. I’d like to continue with this idea in today’s post before going on to examine some American examples tomorrow.

The current Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper, promised in the last election to establish a regime that stresses transparency and accountability. That promise has proven to be just the usual political rhetoric one expects from today’s caliber of politician, in other words, just another illusion of respect for the people. The most recent and egregious example of this is the fact that Harper and his cronies tried, on the claim of national security, to keep secret blacked out parts of the O’Connor commission of inquiry into the Maher Arar false imprisonment
and torture debacle. It turns out that the reason given, national security, was a lie; the actual reason was the report was embarrassing to Canadian and American security officials, as they knew from the outset that the alleged evidence used to send him to Syria was obtained from another man through Syrian torture. Fortunately, the courts have now forced most of this material to be made public.

The Freedom of Information and Privacy Association had this to say:

The decision to cite national-security grounds to censor about 1,500 words of Judge O'Connor's report was made by Conservative cabinet ministers, and it was they who ordered federal government lawyers to fight their release in court.

"This failure to inform Canadians truthfully about key mistakes of government serves to highlight Tory hypocrisy over our right of access to information," said FIPA executive director Darrell Evans. "We were deeply disappointed in the Conservative government's failure to deliver on their election promises to increase federal government transparency."

For the full story, click here.

In Hamlet, Claudius’ smooth fa├žade conceals some terrible realities. I think this one Canadian example suggests the potential of the same truth in my country.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Hamlet – Part 3 – The Illusory Nature of the World (1)

In my last post I talked about Hamlet as a story of the transition from childhood to adulthood. Today I’d like to discuss how a related theme, the disparity between appearance and reality, is relevant to our lives today.

Almost from the play’s outset, Hamlet discovers that the world he thought he knew was more of an illusion than a reality. First comes the discovery of his mother’s seeming fecklessness in hastily marrying her brother-in-law Claudius, a union considered incestuous at the time. As things progress, Hamlet learns about other types of betrayal. The woman he loves, Ophelia, rejects him at her father’s behest, and two childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, essentially spy on him to curry favor with Claudius, who wants to know why Hamlet has been acting so strangely. Ultimately, the Prince is able to ascertain that Claudius did commit fratricide, as claimed by the ghost early in the play, and therefore is a usurper. All of these discoveries send the young prince into a depression and a despair of paralyzing proportions.

So how is any of this relevant to 21st century life? Today, isn’t it becoming increasingly difficult to discern truth from lie, illusion from reality? Most people, of course, on some level understand the nature of advertising, with its beguiling yet completely illusionary promise of happiness and fulfillment through a better dust collector, brighter teeth, or, ‘six-pack abs,’ so I think I’ll skip that discussion. The more serious and insidious gulf between appearances and reality, in my opinion, lies in how the government, aided by much of the media, shapes our view of the world, both domestically and internationally.

If we go back to the play for a moment, Claudius is the consummate politician – adept at reading and manipulating people, and skilled in the discharge of foreign policy. He uses these skills to hide his corruption. In his very first speech in Hamlet, he addresses his court, acknowledging national sadness over the passing of King Hamlet, making reference to the possible impending war with Norway, and implicitly justifying his incestuous marriage to Gertrude (“Th’ imperial jointress to this warlike state”) as a way of ensuring continuity in these difficult times. Indeed, this speech and an analysis of it should be required reading for all those who aspire to power! (Actually no, since I have no interest in electing more such politicians.)

When contemporary politicians fail to find public support for policy initiatives, their most common explanation is, “We haven’t communicated our message effectively enough.” Never is there a consideration that the policy might be flawed or should be reconsidered, the subtext being that they just have to find a more effective way of manipulating the people, of spinning an illusion or half-truth to get the people ‘onside.’

One example from my own country illustrates this succinctly: since Canada’s participation as part of the NATO contingent in Afghanistan has become increasingly unpopular here, there has been a shift from the earlier, bellicose rhetoric of the chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, about killing “scumbags and murderers,” to greater emphasis on aspects reminiscent of more traditional Canadian military operations, such as helping a school open and handing out food to displaced Afghans. This public shift does not mark a change in the mission, which is to hunt down terrorists; the loss of Canadian soldiers’ lives continues, but such is the contempt in which the public’s intelligence is held that the government hopes the voters will be fooled by a few treats handed out to Afghan children as being in the Canadian humanitarian tradition, and we’ll forget the realities of the war.

In my next post I would like to continue examining this facet of Hamlet’s relevance to our lives.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Hamlet – Part 2 – From Childhood to Maturity

In the last post I gave a brief synopsis of the play. Now I would like to begin addressing its importance for us.

In many respects, Prince Hamlet is the most human character I have ever encountered in literature. Although of royal lineage, he is in many respects an everyman who is called upon to respond to a world I think he would prefer to ignore; just as we have little choice in our engagement with the world as we mature, neither does Hamlet.

Although the play begins less than two months after the death of his father, there is much to suggest Hamlet had a rather idealized, innocent life prior to that traumatic event. We can infer this from the shock and despair permeating his first soliloquy in which the melancholy Dane says, “O that this too too solid flesh would melt/ Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!" “In other words, he wishes he were dead. But his disaffection and disappointment with the world goes deeper: “Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” In fact, he wishes it were not against God’s law to kill himself. Here is a young man, reacting with despair to two events: his father’s unexpected death and his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle, a man young Hamlet sees as vastly inferior to his father. Both events have shaken his faith in the world and in human nature, leading the Prince to see the world no longer as Eden-like, but as “an unweeded garden/ That grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature/ Possess it merely.”

Perhaps the most painful revelation for Hamlet is the fact that his parents’ marriage was not the utopian union he had imagined: “Why, she would hang on him/ As if increase of appetite had grown/ By what it fed on and yet, within a month - …married with my uncle/ My father’s brother … O most wicked speed: to post/ With such dexterity to incestuous sheets…” So there we have it, revelations of unpalatable realities: love that was a sham and a hasty and incestuous remarriage.

If we were to view this part of the play allegorically, we could see it as the beginning of the transition from childhood to adulthood. The world poses challenges to all of us in its imperfections. How we respond to those imperfections is ultimately a measure of our character. Do we turn our backs on them and seek oblivion in one form or another? Or do we confront the challenges and engage with the world? That is Hamlet’s challenge, and it is also ours.

While this brief examination of an important idea hardly does justice to the theme, I hope it gives you at least a hint of how it resonates with the human condition. In my next post, I will continue discussing this and related themes of the play.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Great Books and What They Have To Teach Us – Hamlet – Part 1

The following post is much briefer than I had originally intended, the reason being that I love the play so much that I want to take extra care in writing about it

Every semester that I taught a senior English class, I made certain to leave one book to the end, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It wasn’t that I dreaded teaching the play – quite the opposite. But my enthusiasm for the work meant that if I taught it at any other point, I would spend far too long on it. It is that rich a tragedy.

Very briefly, the plot of Hamlet revolves around the assertion by a ghost that he is the spirit of the late King Hamlet. He reveals to King Hamlet’s son, Prince Hamlet, that he was murdered by Claudius, the King’s brother, the man who has now claimed the throne and married the late Hamlet’s widow, Gertrude. Additionally, the ghost suggests that Claudius and Gertrude were carrying on a relationship while the king was still alive. His purpose in appearing to Prince Hamlet? He asks the lad to avenge his murder. The rest of the play revolves around the prince determining if the spirit’s story is true, and the impact on him of discovering the truth.

While the plot sounds simple, it is considered by many to be Shakespeare’s most complex play, and that complexity is found in both its themes and its imagery. But what has any of this got to do with today’s readers and audiences? Well, just like Macbeth, it has much to teach us, both as individuals and as a society. In my next post I'll begin to talk about its value.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Great Books and What They Have To Teach Us – Macbeth

For the next few posts, I’d like to address something that I think is undervalued in our society and our school systems today: literature. I have already touched upon how it can help to cultivate critical thinking, but now, at the risk of sounding somewhat airy, I’d like to talk about how it can also cultivate the spirit and teach us important things about human nature. These aspects perhaps are not taken as seriously today when put against some of the ‘hard skills’ taught through public education, but, I would argue, are essential in order to live fully and meaningfully.

I was never one of those teachers who stand in awe of everything written by Shakespeare, (let’s face it, Romeo and Juliet really are just a couple of very immature teenagers who make some very bad decisions), but I never tired of teaching certain of his works, including his darkest, Macbeth. Set around the eleventh century, ‘the Scottish play’ has no end of relevance for our own times. Revolving around a military commander of great prowess and courage, the play tells the story of what happens when you start believing your own press. Praised by his King and colleagues, emboldened by the prophecies of some witches, and encouraged by a seemingly amoral wife, Macbeth gives in to his hidden ambition, setting down a dark road that will see him kill that King, assume the throne, and embark on a bloody reign of terror that will take many innocent lives and cost him everything: his virtue, his humanity, and ultimately his life.

So what does such a tragedy have to teach modern audiences? For me, it always put in stark relief the essential emptiness of pursuing purely material goals; even though we live in times that try to convince us that the key to happiness is “the next big thing,” be it the latest cell phone, plasma T.V. or ______________ (you fill in the blank), experience teaches us that we are doomed to be continually disappointed by such pursuits. Macbeth, however, learns this truth far too late for it to do him any good. We see him early in the play contemplating assassinating Duncan, both his King and his cousin; he asserts that if he could be guaranteed success in this venture, “We’d jump the life to come.” This willingness to sacrifice his very salvation for the acquisition of power is contrasted much later in the play when he admits, “…my way of life/ Is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf,/ And that which should accompany old age,/ As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,/ I must not look to have; but in their stead,/Curses, not loud but deep, mouth honor, breath,/ Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.” In this quotation, Macbeth realizes that the achievement of his ambition has not been worth the price he has had to pay, the complete absence of all the indicators of a life well-lived: integrity, love, respect, friendship. All he has instead is those who obey him out of fear.

A chilling lesson, both for Shakespeare’s time and all others.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Critical Thinking - Considering Alternate Views

One of the keys to being a critical thinker is the willingness to consider alternate points of view instead of being wedded to one idelogical position. In order to sharpen my own thinking and expose myself to perspectives other than those advanced in mainstream media, I have always enjoyed the work of Canadian writer Linda McQuaig. What follows is my review of her latest book.

Holding the Bully’s Coat – Linda McQuaig

Whether holding forth on the global economy, the excesses of capitalism, government deficits or the U.S. invasion of Iraq, author Linda McQuaig never disappoints. Her willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, especially that which is promulgated in the mainstream media, is always guaranteed to provide the reader with new insights and rich material to allow him or her to critically examine previously-held beliefs. Whether or not one agrees with the things she asserts, this is her greatest strength as a writer.

Her latest book, Holding the Bully’s Coat, reflects this strength as she examines in both an historical and contemporary context, Canada’s relationship with the United States. She argues that by aligning the country too closely with the policies of the United States, our political, military, and economic elites are sacrificing Canada’s international reputation (one she acknowledges as being exaggerated) and our role as a middle power, as well as jeopardizing our independence as a nation.

McQuaig deals with a number of issues that will have occurred to thinking Canadians over the years, including how our reputation for peacekeeping and compromise is being unjustly denigrated by the right wing; how the United States’ penchant for exceptionalism has essentially made it a law unto itself as it chooses to flout international law, the United Nations, the World Court, the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition on torture, and any other potential restriction on its dominance; the destabilizing effect of the U.S. opposition to nuclear disarmament; and its military’s refusal to abandon Cold War thinking, having simply substituted Islamic extremism for “the Red Menace.”

While the above description may make this book sound like an anti-American rant, it is not. Rather, McQuaig shows, through copious examples and careful analysis, how the citizens of both Canada and the United States are being ill-served by those in power who are quite willing to mislead and manipulate their respective peoples. Indeed, some of her harshest criticism is reserved for the Canadian government, both the current Conservative one and the previous Liberal one, and its often uncritical deference to American policies of very questionable merit.

The book will be offensive to those who think the motives and policies of the United States (and Canada, for that matter) should never be questioned. It will, however, be appreciated by those who want to go beyond media rhetoric and think deeply about issues of importance. It will also appeal to those humble enough never to have subscribed to the jingoistic notion, “My country, right or wrong,” a very dangerous mantra for the people of any free society to adopt.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Transforming Education – The Mantle of Leadership- Part 6

I was discussing earlier the role that literature can play in cultivating critical thinking. One of the most important means by which this goal can ultimately be achieved is through exposure to a variety of viewpoints, an area in which literature truly excels.

One of my favorite playwrights to teach was Arthur Miller. A man of integrity, blacklisted for his refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee which had its heyday in the McCarthy Era, Miller wrote, amongst many other works, The Crucible. The play, inspired by the madness of McCarthyism, revolves around the Salem witch hunts of 1692. A powerful piece of literature for any era, it addresses what happens when a society, gripped by hysteria, abandons logic and common sense and turns on its fellow citizens. The worst aspects of human nature emerge as the play progresses: jealousy; lust; greed; self-preservation at any cost. In the midst of the quagmire stands John Proctor, a man who, despite his high standing within the Puritan community, is deeply flawed, having secretly committed adultery with an adolescent servant, Abigail. From his religious perspective, he is condemned in the eyes of God, yet, after enduring a lengthy crucible (one of the word’s meanings is ‘a severe or trying test’) he is able to find “his goodness,” what we today would call his integrity, by refusing to lie in order to save himself from hanging after having been falsely accused and convicted of witchcraft.

One of the many benefits of teaching this play is that it affords students the opportunity to explore the concept of integrity, for some quite a novel notion. As a class, we would examine how Proctor ultimately places the needs of his community above his own interests. By refusing to falsely confess to witchcraft, a confession that would save his life, he takes a stand against the injustice of the witch hunts. The point is made in the play that because he has standing and reputation in the community, he accepts his responsibility to that community by refusing to further the evil, even if it means he must pay the ultimate price.

Predictably, some students saw his sacrifice as a meaningless gesture, while others appreciated it as a rich symbolic act. Again, the purpose of the discussion was not to convince students of anything, just to expose them to a concept and discuss it accordingly.

I like to think that it at least provided an alternative view to the very utilitarian times in which we live.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Critical Thinking – The Mantle of Leadership – Part 5

Just a brief posting for the time being. Pursuant to the theme of my last several posts, I am providing a link to a Newsweek article that traces and exposes the tactics of global warming deniers. The article is a timely reminder of how important it is to think critically about issues.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Power of Literature - The Mantle of Leadership - Part4

Continuing with the theme of transforming education to produce more informed, critically aware democratic participants who will ultimately be able to demand the kind of political leadership they deserve, today I would like to talk about the role that literature, taught through high school English classes, can play in achieving this goal.

For me, literature only succeeds when it engages both our hearts and our minds. Arid tracts that advance philosophical positions devoid of flesh, blood and passion are of no use to anyone, in my view. Fortunately, there is a wealth of good literature that can engage us totally.

Now, before proceeding, I should address something that may have occurred to you. Am I suggesting here that the classroom should be used as some sort of ideological platform? The answer is an unequivocal no. What I am suggesting is that it should be used to teach people that there are a number of sides to an issue, that there is no absolute truth, and that it is incumbent upon individuals to think deeply and critically about issues of import and try, as much as is humanly possible, not to succumb to preconceived ideological positions. That, of course, is easier said than done, but it is an absolute requirement if we are ever to raise ourselves above the current base level of political discourse and leadership.

One other personal note I feel I must add before proceeding: I have never considered myself any kind of a political radical; I believe there is some merit in most parts of the political spectrum, but the problem for me arises when a group, be it left or right (unfortunately, it seems today that the right has most of the media power) insists on the absolute correctness of their position to the exclusion of all others. It is this kind of polarizing philosophy that produces polarized people. If you, for example, insist that private business does everything better, I am as contemptuous of your position as I am of the one which insists that all important businesses should be nationalized. These kinds of extreme positions are, and should be, repugnant to the thinking person. With these provisos in mind, I will continue.

One illustration of literature that appeals to both the heart and the mind is the classic Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Set in the ‘dirty thirties,’ the novel tells the story of dispossessed farmers, leaving behind the dustbowl conditions that have destroyed their livelihoods and traveling to California to begin life anew in a land they have been mislead to believe offers unlimited opportunity. During the course of the novel, which centers on the extended family of the Joads, these migrant workers are mercilessly exploited by selfish landowners. Profit is put before human health, welfare and dignity.

One of the things I used to do in teaching the novel in order to cultivate critical thinking was to ask if Steinbeck was being fair in his portrayal of the wealthy in the novel. Of course, the answer is no, as he only presents one side, the side used to elicit sympathy for his protagonists; we would discuss how almost all writing is manipulative, inasmuch as the author writes with a bias. This is true of both fiction and non-fiction. We then looked at some of Steinbeck’s techniques in creating that bias. This in no way undermined the power of the book, but it did serve as a useful lesson in how the reader has to think and interpret everything he or she reads.

In my next post I would like to talk about some of the other materials I used in this pursuit.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Activism for Change- The Mantle of Leadership – Part 3

Transforming Education - The Mantle of Leadership – Part 3

In my last post, I talked about the importance of education in ultimately changing the political culture that besets us today. Specifically, I examined the role that a knowledge of history can play in providing much needed context for interpreting events.

Although this knowledge may not necessarily provide easy answers to the many problems we face, it does give us the tools to ask the right questions and evaluate the answers. And it is precisely for this reason I am not hopeful that governments will mandate more history in their curricula. With a more informed citizenry, governments might be challenged on the facile rhetoric that allows countries to accept the abrogation of civil rights, violations of constitutions and charters, interception of personal communication, imprisonment, without charge or due process, all in the name of “the war on terrorism.” People might demand answers as to why their country can’t afford universal health care while billions are spent monthly to wage war in a country that never posed a threat. Informed citizens might want to know why aboriginals live in third world conditions while corporate and personal income taxes are cut, and budget surpluses are accruing. This list of potential queries is endless. Just imagine if leaders knew that their misbegotten policies were going to held up to vigorous public scrutiny and could no longer be justified by platitudes!

So it is doubtful that governments will make the changes to education needed to produce a thinking and critical people. Yet I do believe change is possible, and that history can be made a core subject occupying the same position of importance in the curriculum as do English and mathematics. The responsibility for bringing this about rests with the teachers themselves. Most history teachers I have known over the years have been very passionate about their subject, and they now need to begin to channel that passion into political action, forcing the issue into the public arena.

As well, the public, especially that segment that currently has children in the system, has an even bigger role to play. They first must realize that the critical thinking skills which a study of history can develop are as crucial as any computer or other job-enhancing skill that public education can impart. Next, they must make their demands known to their school districts and their provincial and state governments. Obviously it is not a process that will see results overnight, but it is vital that it begin immediately.

It was Socrates who said that the unexamined life is not worth living. A knowledge of history can contribute significantly to that pursuit, and it can also give us the skills by which we can intelligently evaluate the society in which we live.

Monday, August 6, 2007

A Timely Column

I just read an article by Linda McQuaig which amply demonstrates what happens when the government assumes that its citizens are disengaged from the political process. Especially interesting is the fact that extraordinary efforts are being made to keep ordinary citizens far away from the meeting site.

Waking People Up! - The Mantle of Leadership – Part 2

In an earlier posting I discussed how the mantle of leadership is a heavy responsibility, much of it discharged in an irresponsible and self-aggrandizing manner. I suggested that when power is abused, the people can suffer in many ways: physically, economically, and, perhaps most significantly, spiritually. I also suggested that the world is hungry for direction from those who are selfless and morally centered. Today I’d like begin discussing how to achieve such leadership.

The beginnings of change, I believe, lie in cultivating a more aware citizenry through improvements in education. Such a citizenry would then have the means to resist a phenomenon all too apparent in recent years, the drift toward simplistic thinking, the kind of thinking that allows politicians to go unchallenged in their abuse of rhetoric and logic. Consider such statements as “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists,” (George Bush); “We aren’t the government; we’re the people who have come to fix government,” (Mike Harris, former Premier of Ontario); “People who criticize the Afghan mission aren’t supporting the troops,” (Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada).

What changes should be made? Ask a Canadian student the historical significance of a man named Macdonald and they might say he constructed the golden arches as readily as they might identify him as Canada’s first Prime Minister, the man responsible for building the Canadian Pacific Railway. I don’t know how it is in other jurisdictions, but in Ontario, only one course in History is mandatory; I would make it required throughout the four years of high school, so that upon graduation, each student would have had some exposure to Canadian, British, Ancient and World History, thereby possessing a tool invaluable to informed democratic participation: context.

Without context, citizens can become pawns in the hands of powerful interests. Take, for example, the commonly accepted assertion of business that continuous downsizing, rationalizing of resources and the pursuit and achievement of ever-increasing profits at the expense of workers is a necessity in today’s global marketplace. If we lack historical context, what choice do we have but to accept as unavoidable the consequent disruption in people’s lives through layoffs, endless pressure to increase productivity, and less and less participation in the profits that their work makes possible?

We must accept it unless we know something of the history of the Industrial Revolution. During the early 19th century, men, women, and children were ruthlessly exploited for their labour and then callously discarded when they had no more to contribute. 14-16hour work days were the norm, and children as young as five entered the factories and coals mines, only to emerge years later, crippled, deformed, incapacitated by lung disease, awaiting early death at about age 25.

It was a time, of course, when there were no benefits, no workplace protections from hazardous conditions, no compensation for injuries, and it was not uncommon for women and children to be beaten if they were late for work or found to be in any other way impeding the production process. Only through the brave and moral leadership of activists, thinkers and politicians were these horrible conditions ultimately ameliorated.

Without this kind of historical context, how can a citizen counter or even disagree with the ever-increasing notion that government is a bad thing and should have very little role in our lives, and that only an entirely unfettered marketplace will somehow ultimately redress all imbalances and problems. For example, one doesn’t have to look hard to find some commentators suggesting that, even though corporations are making record profits, workers need to temper their wage demands and even give wage and benefit concessions. Or that trade with China will promote human rights; if this is so, why has the United States had a trade embargo of Cuba almost 50 years? Aren’t both countries Communist? What is the difference in the suppression of human rights that one country should be traded with and another embargoed? Who can ask these questions if they don’t know basic history?

I will be continuing this thread in my next post.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

People Responding Selflessly

As reported in the local paper today, people in Ontario have been responding to the Premier’s call to conserve energy. Despite the extremely hot and humid conditions of the past several days, we have managed to keep our energy usage below record levels. According to the item, Ontario's all-time record for electricity demand was set last year on Aug. 1, when users powered through 27,005 megawatts. That record hasn't been cracked so far. Even in this week's heat wave, usage peaked at 25,584 megawatts. This is directly attributed to both individuals and businesses reducing their power usage.

I post this information only to demonstrate how people will respond positively to aid the common good, reinforcing the need I have been discussing for strong, morally-centreed leadership, a theme I will be returning to next week.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Manipulation of Marks

After reading the New York Times about mark manipulation referred to in the previous posting, I started feeling a little guilty about thus far not discussing my own acquaintance with such practices. Let me preface what is about to follow by saying that while administrators have the legal authority to overrule a teacher’s judgment, the circumstances under which they do so are more often motivated by political expedience than they are by any stretch of pedagogical justification. In these instances, the effect of this poor leadership is to breed cynicism amongst the staff, underscoring the “unseen but highly contagious disease” metaphor of Hamlet discussed earlier.

One instance from the past I can personally attest to arose when the Grade 10 science class went on a fieldtrip as their culminating activity. The tasks were fairly involved, but because all did rather poorly on it, retroactively the criteria for the activity were changed to, as I recall, ‘data collection’, so that each participant got at least 80%. The teachers of the students who did not go on the fieldtrip were instructed to alter their culminating tasks so that each would achieve at least the same mark. Now, I can’t honestly say whether the administration was aware that this was done; however, the fact that such a dereliction of academic responsibility occurred has to be, even indirectly, an indictment of the kind of atmosphere established by that administration.

Another instance involved, once again, the science department. A teacher who had been experiencing some health problems failed to mark 2 or 3 student assignments out of about 35. None was a major assignment. After a couple of complaints from parents, the administration, after consulting with the teacher, decided to raise everyone’s mark by 4 percentage points. Now, given the small number of unmarked assignments in this case, probably the most that would have been involved was about 1 percentage point. The effect of the change in marks meant that students who had failed the course now passed; since this was a senior class, conceivably some students gained an unfair advantage in competing for university scholarships; the students, of course, and all their friends became aware of it, so one can imagine the resultant cynicism; and finally, such an act really paved the way for more such ‘compromises’ in the future. Once that kind of precedent is openly established, teachers, especially inexperienced ones, assume this is the ‘way of the world,’ and thus see less reason to remain principled and resolute in the future.

Quite a price to pay in order to placate a couple of disgruntled parents.

A Very Interesting Story from Dennis Fermoyle's Blog

There is a very interestng posting by Dennis Fermoyle, based on a New York Times article discussing the sad state of academic standards in a New York school, aided and abetted by administrative interference. Check it out through this link:
From the Trenches of Public Ed.: There are no heroes in this one!

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Mantle of Leadership

As Peter Parker, aka Spiderman, learned long ago, with great power comes great responsibility. For the past two posts I have been discussing what happens when that power is abused. Today, I’d like to begin looking at the powerful effect strong and morally-centered leadership can have on all of us.

Perhaps the best immediate demonstration of this effect can be seen in the recent announcement of the formation of a group called “The Elders.” Consisting of such moral luminaries as Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, and Kofi Annan, their envisaged role is to try to solve problems in the world through a combination of diplomacy and moral suasion. I submit to you that the world is hungry for such selfless leadership. As cynical as I am, I couldn’t help but feel a thrill upon hearing of the involvement of my personal hero, Mandela, a man who shows all of us the best that is possible in humanity. Enduring many years of imprisonment to maintain his integrity, when freedom was promised if only he would renounce the goals of the African National Congress, allowing himself to grow old in prison, here is a man who had every right to be bitter and ultimately seek revenge on a government that had oppressed him and his people. Instead, rising to become the President of South Africa, he embraced, not retaliation, but rather forgiveness and reconciliation. Here is a man who was able to put ego aside for the greater good.

In earlier articles I talked about administrators who earned both my respect and my admiration. Their secret was that same ability to put aside ego in order to serve the greater good, education. They were, through their examples, able to motivate the staff in like manner. While the schools were never utopias, they were, for the most part, harmonious, with administration, staff, and students working toward common goals.

I believe that the existence of these two models demonstrates the potential for application in the world of government leadership. But the transition to such a world will not be easy. How do we get there? I’d like to discuss that in upcoming posts.