SYNDICATED COLUMN: Schools Should Teach Nowology

Everyone has a strong opinion about education. But the controversies are always about the same topic: testing, teachers unions, funding, merit pay, vouchers/school choice, charter schools. Is college a smart investment? Is affirmative action fair? Has political correctness supplanted the basics?

I keep waiting for someone to bring up Now. As in the study of now — what’s currently going on in the fields of politics, history, literature, mathematics, science — everything.

Can we call it Nowology?

From K through 12 through senior year of college, American education focuses obsessively on the past. No matter what you study, the topics either relate to the past or the knowledge is dated.

Since I was a history major in college, I’ll focus on that.

I’ve never understood why history is taught chronologically. A book’s opening is crucial; either you get hooked straight away, or you get bored and turn blasé. So how is it that textbook publishers think it makes sense to start a fourth-grade history textbook with prehistoric humans who lived 10,000 years ago? It’s tough enough for me, at age 50, to relate to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. How can a typical American 9-year-old, who lives in the suburbs, connect intellectually to people who foraged for food (not in the fridge)?

Another problem with teaching history chronologically is that teachers rarely make it to the relevant, interesting history students might actually care about — what’s going on now. From junior through senior high, my high school teachers got bogged down in the battlefields of the Civil War. We never once made it as far as Reconstruction (which is actually fascinating), much less to the controversies of my childhood (Vietnam, Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis).

TV, radio and newspapers — that’s where what mattered was discussed. My classmates and I had fathers who served in Vietnam. We had neighbors who’d dodged the draft, whose faces stared at us from wanted posters at the post office. We argued over Nixon and Ford and Carter, but all that stuff — the controversy, the drama, the Now — took place outside school.

The not-so-subliminal message soon sunk in: school is where you learn about old stuff. Now stuff is everywhere else.

This is, of course, exactly the opposite of how we choose to teach ourselves.

Example: pop culture, like movies and music. No one’s musical education begins with recordings of recreations of primitive music, simple claps or banging objects together. Most children start out listening to contemporary music — whatever they hear on Pandora, Spotify, the radio, TV, etc. Those who decide to dig further usually work backward. They listen to older works by their favorite artists. They hear a musician talk about the bands that influenced them, and they check them out.

(When I was a kid, friends were surprised that Paul McCartney had been in some other band before Wings.) They might wind up getting into ragtime or Bach. Last. Not first.

Ditto for movies. No one starts out watching silent films.

There is some discussion of teaching history in reverse chronological order in other countries. Writing in the UK Prospect last year, Christopher Fear of the University of Exeter argues: “We should begin by showing children how to scratch the surface to find the recent pasts of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations — pasts which they can talk about together.” But the British too continue to teach history the boring/chronological way.

We’re constantly worrying about whether our schools are preparing children to compete in the global marketplace. To support their calls for reform, activists (mostly, but not exclusively, on the political right) point to surveys that show that Americans are woefully ignorant about basic facts such as evolution, essential geographic knowledge as the location of the country where U.S. troops have been fighting, killing and dying for a decade and a half, and even heliocentricity.

Sure, it would be nice if more Americans cracked open a newspaper (or its online edition) now and then. On the other hand, a lot of this material ought to be taught in schools — and it isn’t. Day one of American history class should begin with Obama, Congressional paralysis, the early jockeying for the 2016 presidential campaign, America’s clash with Russia over Ukraine, and the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. All of these subjects naturally require digging deeper, back in time, to explain why and how what’s going on now is happening.

And it’s not just history. Studying physics at Columbia in the 1980s, no one taught us about the latest advances in cosmology and quantum mechanics — some of which, ironically, were being discovered in labs in the same buildings by the same professors who were filling our heads with obsolete material.

Nowology: better late than never.

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TALE Podcast: Ted Rall and Lynn Bixenspan

TALE is an awesome The Moth-like storytelling live show in New York City. If you know me personally, and you’ve seen me with beer inside me, you know I like telling stories. So anyway, TALE has launched storytelling podcasts! I’m in the first one, along with comedian Lynn Bixenspan and cohosts Harmon Leon and Alex Schmidt.

It’s about my personal experience as the target of post-9/11 government surveillance.

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LOS ANGELES TIMES CARTOON: It’s Easier to Fight Poverty Where People Are Rich

Easier to Fight Poverty in Wealthy Areas

 

The United States of America in Year 2014 is the wealthiest nation that has ever existed. Poverty among Americans is an obscenity: immoral, unnecessary, counterproductive. As disgusting as it is to watch $100,000 cars zoom past homeless panhandlers, however, there’s something even worse: politicians who pretend to care, who say they’re trying to help the poor and downtrodden, but are actually ignoring them as they revel in the institutional corruption of politics as usual.

As The Times’ Michael Finnegan, David Zahniser and Doug Smith reported:

In January, President Obama announced a block-by-block approach to relieving poverty in Los Angeles. Federal money, he said, would pour into a newly created Promise Zone.

The boundaries encompassed crowded immigrant communities around MacArthur Park and Koreatown, as well as upscale areas of Hollywood and Los Feliz. Left out was South L.A., where the poverty rate is higher. The exclusion stunned many South L.A. leaders.

Why did the White House snub South L.A., which is quantifiably poorer?

Only those previously funded organizations were eligible to seek Promise Zone aid. In Los Angeles, there was only one such group: a nonprofit led by Dixon Slingerland, a major campaign fundraiser for Obama and frequent White House visitor.

Under rules set by the White House and federal agencies, Mayor Eric Garcetti‘s office, working with Slingerland’s Youth Policy Institute, was required to draw the zone’s boundaries around an area where the nonprofit already was focusing its federal grants — either Hollywood or the northeast San Fernando Valley.

The result was an anti-poverty zone that left out communities south of the 10 Freeway, including areas of chronic poverty that drew worldwide attention after the 1965 and 1992 riots. Neighborhoods around Watts have a poverty rate 21% higher than communities within the Promise Zone, according to a Times analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Neighborhoods east of USC have a poverty rate 39% higher.

This appears to be a political manifestation of the phenomenon described in the important 1996 book “The Winner-Take-All Society.” Influence begets influence, wealth and power aggregate into increasingly fewer hands. It’s why, for example, the best-paid professional athletes get the biggest offers for lucrative product endorsement deals. The more famous you are, the more stuff you can sell. The more stuff you sell, the more famous you get.

“It just seems like those that have keep getting,” shot U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn, who represents South L.A., after the news broke that South L.A. had been excluded. “And those that never had don’t even have a chance.” Hahn “pointedly skipped” a White House ceremony where Obama announced L.A.’s Promise Zone.

City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who represents part of South L.A., pointed to Dixon Slingerland’s influence with the president: “You know exactly why they came out first. It was preordained.”

Slingerman denies that the Promise Zone’s odd mapping had anything to do with political payback.

Perhaps not. But if Slingerback wanted favors from Obama, he was certainly in a position to ask. Finnegan et al noted: ” Since Obama took office, Slingerland has been to the White House 19 times, logs show. The visits included one to the residence for a reception, three to the West Wing and 10 to the Old Executive Office Building. He attended two receptions at Vice President Joe Biden‘s home at the U.S. Naval Observatory.” I don’t know about you, but I’m still waiting for my first invite.

The soft corruption of coziness, or coincidence? I know not. But it definitely looks bad.

And it doesn’t just look bad in Los Angeles. The other four PZs are drawing fire too.

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, “several areas of the city face challenges similar to or worse than Mantua,” the West Philly neighborhood designated as that city’s Promise Zone.

Politics appears to have influenced the selection of at least three of the first five Promise Zones. “Rural Kentucky, of all the distressed rural districts and deserving areas across the country, seems a somewhat random choice, but Kentucky Senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell both attended the [Promise Zone] announcement, perhaps boosting the chances of bipartisan support,” wrote Susan Greenbaum.

But hey, maybe residents of South L.A. should be relieved that the Obama Administration gave them the cold shoulder. If the Promise Zones work as advertised, planning experts say, they’ll spur gentrification, rising rents and — ultimately — evictions.

And as always, the rich get richer and the poor get ignored.

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Four Cartoonists of the Apocalypse

Support a roster of four smart political cartoonists – Marxist environmentalist Stephanie McMillan (“Minimum Security”), conservative Scott Stantis (Chicago Tribune), anarchic wild man Steve Notley (“Bob the Angry Flower”) and yours truly. For $5 a month, you get all our stuff pluseverything else at Beacon. Click here to support the Four Cartoonists of the Apocalypse.

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Like a Stephen King Story

When I was 14, this man kidnapped a 14-year-old girl walking to school three miles from my house, raped and killed her. She was not his only victim. Now, due to a DA screwup, he is back in town and may soon be released. This is such a creepy flashback, like something out of a Stephen King story. I never imagined I’d be so upset by something like this, especially since I didn’t know the victim, but it’s like I’m right back there.

http://www.daytondailynews.com/news/news/crime-law/oakwood-girls-murderer-back-town/nfRYH/

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LOS ANGELES TIMES CARTOON: Bruised Egos in Sacramento

Bruised Egos in Sacramento

 

 

 

Anything can be a point of pride. Your local baseball team. The weather. Political corruption.

The genesis of today’s cartoon is a barroom argument I found myself having at least 20 years ago with a Chicagoan. “The Illinois state legislature,” he stated confidently, “is the most corrupt in the country.” I made cases for my home state of Ohio and my adopted home of New York. Overhearing us, a third man approached, loaded for bear, to make clear that anyone who challenged Harrisburg, home of Pennsylvania’s state house, as the stinkiest cesspool in all of American politics would have to deal with him and his voluminous knowledge of the Keystone State’s seemingly infinite list of dirty deeds.

There was never any doubt that this week’s piece would be about Leland Yee, the pro-gun control state senator accused of attempted arms smuggling. As they say, you can’t make these things up. To think that people still ask me where I get my ideas!

“[Yee] held press conferences denouncing violent video games and helped pass legislation in California prohibiting sales of such games to minors. And yet, secretly, he was living the life of a Grand Theft Auto character,” Scott Shackford writes in Reason. Me, I thought Walter White from “Breaking Bad.” Whatever. Hand slaps forehead, jaw drops.

But how do you cartoon a story whose central character is itself a cartoon? Exaggeration isn’t possible; it’s already too extreme.

You can go with straightforward editorializing. “Isn’t it just awful.” “One more reason people don’t trust politicians.” “What a hypocrite.” Trouble is, the ballpeen hammer to the skull approach disproves the cliché that “it’s funny because it’s true.” It’s true — Yee’s alleged misdeeds are awful and do nothing to help citizens feel good about government ­ — but it’s not funny. Nor interesting.

Instead I approached this story through the back door. Inspired by having recently watched the finale of “Breaking Bad,” a show in which viewers are simultaneously appalled by and admiring of a criminal character, I decided to turn the perspective around. Rather than single out Yee as a bad apple (whom, thanks to the FBI, we can feel happy has been extracted from the newly virtuous political gathering in Sacramento), I depict his corrupt colleagues bemoaning their own lack of ambition and scope compared to Yee’s staggeringly over-the-top perfidy. Given the string of recent scandals out of the state capital, from Roy Ashburn (the gay state senator who voted against gay rights, arrested for DUI) to Michael Duvall (the family values conservative caught bragging about his affairs over an open mic), Yee’s arrest does not likely signal a 99-44/100ths pure state assembly.

It makes a bigger point about a more important issue.

With a little luck, it might even make you laugh.

Bitterly laugh, but still.

Appeared originally at The Los Angeles Times.

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LOS ANGELES TIMES CARTOON: Bruised Egos in Sacramento

Bruised Egos in Sacramento

 

Anything can be a point of pride. Your local baseball team. The weather. Political corruption.

The genesis of today’s cartoon is a barroom argument I found myself having at least 20 years ago with a Chicagoan. “The Illinois state legislature,” he stated confidently, “is the most corrupt in the country.” I made cases for my home state of Ohio and my adopted home of New York. Overhearing us, a third man approached, loaded for bear, to make clear that anyone who challenged Harrisburg, home of Pennsylvania’s state house, as the stinkiest cesspool in all of American politics would have to deal with him and his voluminous knowledge of the Keystone State’s seemingly infinite list of dirty deeds.

There was never any doubt that this week’s piece would be about Leland Yee, the pro-gun control state senator accused of attempted arms smuggling. As they say, you can’t make these things up. To think that people still ask me where I get my ideas!

“[Yee] held press conferences denouncing violent video games and helped pass legislation in California prohibiting sales of such games to minors. And yet, secretly, he was living the life of a Grand Theft Auto character,” Scott Shackford writes in Reason. Me, I thought Walter White from “Breaking Bad.” Whatever. Hand slaps forehead, jaw drops.

But how do you cartoon a story whose central character is itself a cartoon? Exaggeration isn’t possible; it’s already too extreme.

You can go with straightforward editorializing. “Isn’t it just awful.” “One more reason people don’t trust politicians.” “What a hypocrite.” Trouble is, the ballpeen hammer to the skull approach disproves the cliché that “it’s funny because it’s true.” It’s true — Yee’s alleged misdeeds are awful and do nothing to help citizens feel good about government ­ — but it’s not funny. Nor interesting.

Instead I approached this story through the back door. Inspired by having recently watched the finale of “Breaking Bad,” a show in which viewers are simultaneously appalled by and admiring of a criminal character, I decided to turn the perspective around. Rather than single out Yee as a bad apple (whom, thanks to the FBI, we can feel happy has been extracted from the newly virtuous political gathering in Sacramento), I depict his corrupt colleagues bemoaning their own lack of ambition and scope compared to Yee’s staggeringly over-the-top perfidy. Given the string of recent scandals out of the state capital, from Roy Ashburn (the gay state senator who voted against gay rights, arrested for DUI) to Michael Duvall (the family values conservative caught bragging about his affairs over an open mic), Yee’s arrest does not likely signal a 99-44/100ths pure state assembly.

It makes a bigger point about a more important issue.

With a little luck, it might even make you laugh.

Bitterly laugh, but still.

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ANewDomain.Net Essay: The NSA Manifesto

The government knows we’re pissed off at the NSA. But the proposals they’ve floated so far barely scratch the surface of what they need to do to regain our trust and respect. I’ve set the bar in my essay for ANewDomain.net:

Clearly, politicians don’t get it.

The American people are overwhelmingly opposed to the NSA domestic surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden. Even after Obama promised reforms in a high-profile speech in January, polls showed that most Americans still don’t want the NSA spying on them. Not under any circumstance — not even as part of a terrorism investigation.

Hey Washington! Want to restore our trust? Here, from basic to best, is what you’re going to need to do.

Read the whole thing.

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