Sunday, July 13, 2014

Gloria Kathurima, Tom Robinson, and the Nature of Racism

in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson
in the trial scene in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird

Sometimes there’s a purely coincidental propinquity of events that helps bring a little clarity… or at least a little introspection.

A few days ago, I wrote about that bizarre float in the 4th of July parade in Norfolk, Nebraska. So, a day or two earlier, did Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall. We came to many of the same conclusions, although whereas Jack was to state unconditionally that the display was not racist, I was a little more circumspect. Here’s what I wrote as a comment on Jack’s essay (with one typo cleaned up):
I’m intrigued by the discussion of racism. Certainly I agree that nothing in the events described qualifies as inherently racist… but I think the word “inherently” matters here. The fact that there is not an obvious racial motivation for what is clearly an intentionally offensive float, one which displays its creator’s “disgust,” does not mean that it is intrinsically devoid of such volition. Even the little boy who cried “wolf” was right once. Similarly, whereas there are those who reflexively scream “racism” at every criticism of the current President, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t expressions of anti-Obama sentiment which really are grounded in the fact that he has a little more melanin than you or I do.

In this case, Ms. Kathurima and her daughter have experienced racism—or believe they have—and you say that you “don’t blame her” for perceiving it in this instance. Nor do I. That Mr. Remmich intended to insult the POTUS, I think goes without saying. Why, specifically, he set out to do so is an open question. Maybe it’s racial. Maybe it’s political. Maybe he knows his neighbors and pandered to their predilections. I certainly don’t know, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t, really, either.

I grapple with a variation on this theme constantly in my professional work, especially in the area of communication theory as it applies to aesthetics. Oversimplified a little, the modernist/positivist view is that the sender of a message creates and encodes meaning, and the receiver’s job is to “find” the meaning through a process of decoding. The post-positivist view, however, is to argue that the sender catalyzes rather than creates meaning, that meaning is in fact created by the receiver of the message. To me, the two positions are equally valid.

One of my standard approaches to this dilemma is to suggest to students that “somewhere in this room is someone who has had a major fight with a loved one because what one of you thought you said was not what the other thought he/she heard.” Moreover, whether the “blame” for a misinterpretation should be placed with the sender or the receiver is likely to be influenced in your mind not so much by philosophical or theoretical concerns as by which of those positions you happened to occupy on the occasion in question.

We are left, then, with two significant questions, neither of which I am prepared to answer with confidence. 1). Is the meaning of a communication determined by the sender, the receiver, or by some presumably objective external agent? 2). At what point does a particular reaction pass from confirmation bias into, well, experience?
Jack was kind enough to make my commentary his “Comment of the Day,” and posted it separately on Friday. As a tag to that post, he wrote
1. The meaning of a communication is determined by the sender’s intent.
2. Since most bias is based on experience, I think the answer is both “always” and “never.” Experience doesn’t excuse or validate bias, it just explains it.
The problem with associating meaning with the sender’s intent, of course, is spelled out in Jack’s own later comment on the same post—it requires the presumption of “competent communication.” And if nothing else can be asserted with confidence about this particular mess, I feel comfortable in asserting that Mr. Remmich cannot be counted on to provide such competence, or it would have been a hell of a lot easier to figure out that a). he was portraying himself as the zombie-ish figure standing in frustration outside the outhouse/presidential library on the float, and b). that he was upset by the VA and Bergdahl incidents. Indeed, we could lay the entire responsibility for the communicative process on the listener if only we could limit ourselves to “competent interpretation.” Alas, there far too many potholes in far too many places along the road to communication to blame any one source.

In a comment on his own post, Jack added, “If the woman who thought the float was racist thinks any criticism of the President must be racist, the sender [can’t] do a thing about that, other than not communicate at all.” There is no evidence to suggest that she thinks that at all, and Jack’s comment could be taken either as a true hypothetical or as an assertion that she is guilty of this narrow-mindedness. I’m guessing the former. But I base that conclusion in part on “knowing” Jack—we’ve read and commented on a lot of each other’s blog pieces over the last three and a half years, and we even met in person for a few minutes once. Anyway, the idea of different perceptions stuck with me later in the day.

My wife and I went to see a university production of To Kill a Mockingbird directed by one of my colleagues Friday night. In the play, as in the book and movie, Tom Robinson, a young black man, stands accused of assaulting a white woman. By the time he testifies, two things are clear: that he is innocent, and that he will probably be convicted anyway, despite a spirited and persuasive defense by our hero, Atticus Finch. Robinson had in fact run from the scene of the crime, however, after being seen by the girl’s father (who, by now, has been clearly established as the real cause of his daughter’s injuries; there was no rape at all). Here’s are the questions and the testimony (this is from the book; the play may be slightly different):
”Then you ran.”
“I sho’ did, suh.”
“Why did you run?”
“I was scared, suh.”
“Why were you scared?”
“Mr. Finch, if you was a nigger like me, you’d be scared, too.”
What struck me, apart from the obvious truth of the statement given the setting in 1930s Alabama, was the use of the word “scared.” That word stood out. Gloria Kathurima, the Kenyan immigrant/naturalized citizen who had become something of a flashpoint in the Norfolk controversy had used it, too: describing her reaction to the float and the responses of her fellow parade-goers. “That's when I really became scared,” she said.

I remember thinking that was a strange turn of phrase, especially for someone as articulate and seemingly unflappable as Ms. Kathurima. I could understand “disgusted” or “resentful” or even “irate.” But “scared” seemed odd. I didn’t think much of it until seeing the show last night and hearing Tom Robinson talk about being “scared.”

The scene and the story of To Kill a Mockingbird as a whole are structured so that there is absolutely no doubt that Tom Robinson has every right to be afraid. If he didn’t get out of that shack and as far away as possible as fast as possible, he’d be beaten or possibly lynched. Everybody knew it—everybody in the fictive courtroom that day, and all the real people who read the book, saw the movie, or watched the play. Still, our reaction was probably more sympathetic than empathetic—most of us can approximate an intellectual understanding of what would be going through the mind of someone like Tom Robinson, but few—I hope—will have first-hand experience of that sort of terror.

The case in Norfolk is more nuanced. The bad guys of the piece—such as they are—are merely boorish in an ignorant and unsophisticated way: they are nothing like the embodiment of evil we see in the Ewell clan in To Kill a Mockingbird. It is impossible to believe that Gloria Kathurima’s “really… scared” was anything like Tom Robinson’s. On the other hand, it would be the height of arrogance to suggest that someone who looks like me understands completely what someone who looks like Ms. Kathurima goes through on a daily basis. If I were “[black] like her,” if I had endured the quotidian slights, the subtle ostracisms, and possibly worse, perhaps I’d be scared, too.

It is perfectly possible that a dispassionate observer would say that Ms. Kathurima has suffered the effects of racism not at all, that her perceptions of it are totally unfounded. It is even more plausible that the same objective witness would see no race-related intent on Mr. Remmich’s part. But I can’t see that that’s the end of the discussion. We can’t know what was in Remmich’s mind; someone even suggested on Curmie’s Facebook page that his stated reasons for making the float had been made up post facto when someone called him on his racism. That’s possible, although I doubt it.

And whereas Jack was right in his original post to suggest that Kathurima “has been told over and over again by Melissa Harris-Perry, Chris Matthews, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the NAACP and others that President Obama is a great man who is being robbed of the credit due him by the racism of his enemies,” he also points out that “she is used to racism, [and] the scene of a mostly white crowd laughing at what she may have thought was a crude depiction of black President must have felt like a minstrel show to her. I don’t blame her.”  I might add, too, my oft-repeated observation that whereas all racism is stupid, not all stupidity, even when dealing with people of different skin colors, is racist.

It is, after all, all about perception. Because, as Atticus Finch reminds us, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Good advice.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Matter of Context: Yes, That Float Was Tacky

The world’s first great democracy, ancient Athens, showcased the strength of its government and citizenry by a variety of means, not the least of which was self-mockery. At the Lenaea Festival and later even at the Great City Dionysia, the polis staged rowdy and vulgar satires that left no one free from the scathing wit of the likes of Aristophanes, whose barbs were aimed at everyone from the strategos Cleon (The Knights) to Socrates (The Clouds) to the demi-god Dionysus himself (The Frogs). Variations on the theme appear in other governmental systems as well: the Feast of Fools, for example, or the wide political latitude granted to the court jester.

The phenomenon may seem counter-intuitive at first glance, but a little reflection leads us to the simple fact that the ability to laugh at oneself is a sign of strength, not weakness. This phenomenon has also played out in this country’s fairly recent history. One of the most reassuring moments in the period immediately after 9/11, for example, was when David Letterman went back on the air in New York. But we knew we were really going to be all right when he started telling Bush jokes again.

So there is nothing whatsoever wrong with satirizing American politicians, up to and including President Obama. Except, well…

In Norfolk, Nebraska this 4th of July, a float carried on the back of a flatbed truck showed, in the words of the Omaha World Herald’s Hunter Woodall:
... a figure standing outside an outhouse labeled the “Obama Presidential Library”.…
The figure was dressed in overalls and standing next to a walker outside of the outhouse. The hands and head of the figure were greenish and appeared to be zombielike; the hands were pressed against the sides of the figure’s head. Miniature American flags were atop the float and on the truck.
As one might expect, there were two fundamentally different responses, or rather two fundamentally different sets of responses. There were those, like Gloria Kathurima, who regarded the float as “not OK,” and indeed as “not just political [but] absolutely a racial statement.” Kathurima, who immigrated from Kenya as a girl and is now a naturalized citizen, was, according to the NBC affiliate in Sioux City, IA (about 90 miles to the northeast), “deeply offended.” The station aired an interview with her in which she says, “[Some people were] laughing, some people were pointing, some people were clapping, and that’s when I really became scared. I was thinking ‘What are you guys laughing at? What's remotely funny about this?’ I don't see any sort of policy being argued. I don't see any sort of stance being taken.”

We can argue with the characterization of racism—see Jack Marshall’s piece at Ethics Alarms, for example—but in a town in which whites outnumber blacks by a ratio of about 55:1, an apparently gratuitous insult to a black man who also happens to be the President of the United States does take on a certain distastefulness. Couple that with Kathurima’s daughter’s experience in the local school district—descriptions of the other kids’ not liking her, always wanting to touch her hair: this speaks to an alienation, whether or not inspired by racial animus. Intended or not, that’s going to look a lot like “a racial statement” to a lot of people, especially those with a little more melanin than average in a small Nebraska town.

But even if we discount the racial element altogether, we’re still left agreeing with Jack Marshall’s list of adjectives: “wrong,” “harmful,” “ugly,” “inept,” “unfunny,” and “divisive.” Ms. Kathumira is unquestionably correct that there really isn’t a policy statement to be derived from the display: just contempt for the current President. And here’s where we get to the other group of people mentioned earlier: the ones who approved the float, the ones who laughed—these are not the cream of the nation’s intellectual crop.

But H. Dale Remmich, who designed and built this monstrosity, is a special kind of incompetent. He claims to have had two impetuses for his creation: the “ongoing issues of the Veteran's Affairs administration” and “the government's handling of the Bergdahl scandal.” OK, if you tell me that I’m looking for the former in this float’s satiric intent, I might be able to find my way there with a guide dog—I guess the figure could be taken to be a veteran whose benefits got bound up in VA incompetence. (Remmich claims it was intended to represent himself… why it was so intended is less than entirely clear.) But the Bergdahl case? How in the name of all that’s holy are we supposed to derive that particular meaning, based on this ill-conceived and poorly constructed monument to self-described “political disgust”?

For all this, Remmich is an intellectual giant compared to the judges who gave the float an award and especially to parade committee member Rick Konopasek and announcer Wally Sonnenschein, whose mental superiority to a decaying cucumber is not immediately apparent. Konopasek, having just said that floats could and would be denied for being “morally objectionable,” meaning, apparently, that anything sexual would be banned, immediately proceeds to claim that “If we start saying no to certain floats, we might as well not have a parade at all.” Uh, Rick… you are, presumably, saying no to certain floats.

The prize-winner, however, is Sonnenschein, who, it seems, was able to keep a straight face while declaring that “I really don’t see anything wrong with the Obama float and I’m kind of amazed anyone is complaining.” The first part of his statement is no doubt true, more’s the pity. The second part is either utterly disingenuous or ol’ Wally would come in third place in a battle of wits with a corn dog and an anvil.

The fact is that context matters. If this parade has a history of poking a little fun at political leaders, so be it. But no one seems to be defending the float on those grounds, meaning that this year’s entry was probably an outlier: one that should have been denied a spot in the parade for being out of tune with the purpose of the event. Analogously, when Representative Joe Wilson interrupted the State of the Union address a few years back to shout “You lie” at the President, he was rightly rebuked not because his accusation was inaccurate (although it was, at least in that particular moment), or that he didn’t have the legal right to object to the speech, but rather because expressing himself in that way, in those circumstances, was boorish, disrespectful of the presidency (not merely of the President), and a disgrace to his own constituency.

One of the things that stuck in my mind this Independence Day season was the number of friends who rejoiced in the fact that for this one day, at least, we get to cease being members of a particular political party or religion or race or socio-economic status and simply be Americans. Remmich, Konopasek, Sonnenschein and their ilk seek to deny us that unity, and we are all the poorer for that.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The NEA Demands Arne Duncan's Resignation; No One Cares

Yesterday, the rank and file of the National Education Association passed a resolution demanding that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan resign, not that you’d know that from any of the major news organizations: as I write this, it’s now been about 15 hours since the vote, with nary a peep from CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, the New York Times, the Washington Post, even the Chronicle of Higher Education… well, you get the idea. Hell, it didn’t even make it the NEA’s own website, although the election of new officers is right there at the top of the main page.

One would have thought that such a declaration of no confidence in the nation’s foremost education administrator from the country’s largest educational organization (3,000,000+ members) might cause at least a ripple in the national media. Nope.

There are, no doubt, a number of reasons why. For one thing, the vote came late in the afternoon, on a holiday, at the beginning of a weekend. That’s pretty much the gold standard if you want a take-out-the-trash announcement. So was it intentional, or inept? It’s hard to say. It was certainly the latter if NEA wants its resolutions to be relevant to a larger discussion of education issues. But it’s tempting to think that the leadership, which has always been a lot cozier with the reformist movement (Common Core, charter schools, etc.) than the membership has been, anticipated the possibility that they just might not be able to deflect the anger of the rank and file again, just because similar “business items” in previous years failed. So having the vote when the rest of the country was firing up the grill and waiting for the fireworks to start may have been a strategic move. I doubt it, but only because I don’t think the NEA leadership is that smart.

After all, Secretary Duncan has proved himself repeatedly to be the worst kind of arrogant, duplicitous, corporatist hack. Everyone in the education business knew that last year and the year before that and the year before that, but now we also have his remarkably tone-deaf initial response to the Vergara case in California, which essentially eliminated tenure in the public school system in that state:
For students in California and every other state, equal opportunities for learning must include the equal opportunity to be taught by a great teacher. The students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students. Today’s court decision is a mandate to fix these problems. Together, we must work to increase public confidence in public education. This decision presents an opportunity for a progressive state with a tradition of innovation to build a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve. My hope is that today’s decision moves from the courtroom toward a collaborative process in California that is fair, thoughtful, practical and swift. Every state, every school district needs to have that kind of conversation. At the federal level, we are committed to encouraging and supporting that dialogue in partnership with states. At the same time, we all need to continue to address other inequities in education–including school funding, access to quality early childhood programs and school discipline.
He backpedaled a few days later, but a lot of teachers—rightly, I think—read the first statement as an indictment not only of tenure but of teachers’ unions and indeed of teachers in general. The Vergara decision was, of course, an abomination, although some of the underlying issues do need to be addressed. Duncan’s second run at saying something intelligent about the case wasn’t too bad—supporting tenure but arguing that it shouldn’t be granted after only 18 months on the job, for example—but, especially given his support of what detractors have called the GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement) movement, it was too little, too late.

So, in Curmie’s ever-so-humble opinion, Arne Duncan richly deserves to be out of a job. But that’s not really the question here. The question is why nobody cares that the NEA thinks so, too. For one thing, the resolution carries no teeth. The NEA hasn’t demanded Duncan’s job, before, but they’ve certainly passed sweeping condemnations of his job performance: Here’s a link to Valerie Strauss’s coverage of a 2011 resolution, for example. And he’s more influential in the Obama administration now than he was before those scathing critiques. The principal reason for this is encapsulated by Mike Antonucci on the Hot Air site:
This particular item was introduced in a rather odd speech from California Teachers Association president Dean Vogel, who went on about leaders needing to take responsibility for what happens under their charge. Vogel asked rhetorically “Where does the buck stop?” and concluded “The guy at the top has got to go.” Apparently the buck stopped far from the guy at the top if Arne Duncan is the cause of all this angst.
That’s it, in a nutshell. The problem isn’t Duncan (well, it isn’t just Duncan); it’s the guy who chose him, the guy who really sets policy, the guy who either didn’t demand or didn’t accept Duncan’s resignation at the end of his first term (as he did for, say, Hillary Clinton), the guy whose former mouthpieces Robert Gibbs and Ben LaBolt are now scurrying across the countryside stoking anti-tenure lawsuits.

The real problem isn’t the guy on the left; it’s the guy on the right.
The problem, in other words, is Barack Obama, who won the NEA’s endorsement in both 2008 and 2012. The NEA has never endorsed a Republican for President (they have in gubernatorial races), and Mitt Romney sure as hell wasn’t the one to break the precedent for, but they’re under no statutory obligation to endorse anyone, of course. It is more than a little telling that the Education Week piece linked at the top of this piece says that the union “had no choice but to throw its weight behind Obama” in 2012. This is, of course, unmitigated bovine feces. Yet, as I wrote about two years ago, the 2012 NEA convention had all the trappings of an Obama re-election rally, with t-shirts inscribed with Obama’s name, videos, and delegates’ being encouraged to hold “house parties” to “educate their friends about why Obama… deserves a second term.” There were even encomia to the ACA, which seems sort of out of the organization’s purview.

The NEA, in other words, can’t seem to wrap its collective head around the idea that 1). all the proclamations in the world aren’t going to get President Obama to fire Secretary Duncan or to get him to resign (as Peter Greene at Curmudgucation points out in an essay well worth reading in its entirety, it’s “[interesting] that the resolution calls for Duncan to resign rather than the President to fire him”) and 2). replacing Duncan wouldn’t mean a new direction for the Department of Education, just a new second-in-command to the same President who thought Duncan was an even vaguely appealing choice to begin with.

It may be, as Greene also notes, that there will be a message sent:
... that teachers have had it with this amateur-hour bullshit trash-and-dismantle approach to our profession and the public education that we've devoted our lives to. Let's continue to make it clear to the folks in DC that we have had it with their assault on American public education. Let's continue to make it clear to the Democratic party it's not true that they don't have to stand up for us because we'll vote for them no matter how many times they attack us. And let's continue to make it clear to NEA leadership that we expect them to represent the teachers of America, and not politicians who keep attacking them.
But that, as Greene is well aware, is both wishful thinking and long-term, at least as far as having substantive impact on national decision-making is concerned. In the here and now, the NEA has less power to influence educational policy than it has at any point in my lifetime, and an utterly ineffectual (and close) vote, clearly not sanctioned by a diffident and equivocal leadership, to remove the Secretary of Education isn’t going to strengthen their political suasion, especially since Obama, like most politicians, is not above petulant retaliation.

All these reasons, then, help to account for the deafening silence about the NEA’s resolution that we hear from the corporate media. That, and the fact that they’re lazy bastards who can’t be bothered to actually cover the news.

Friday, July 4, 2014

American Apparel and More Than One Disaster

What American Apparel Posted
The Interwebs brouhaha du jour comes to us from the fine folks at American Apparel, the troubled but still (perhaps) trendy purveyor of overpriced clothing and sexualized advertising—all with a social conscience, of course. Apparently some enterprising lad or lass with admin access to the corporation’s Tumblr account posted a Photoshopped image of the Challenger explosion in what may have been somehow related to celebrating Independence Day. The actual post has now vanished (of course), but a screengrab shows that it was tagged “smoke, clouds.”

Was this image intended to be fireworks? That’s a rather bizarre claim, but so says the Ryan Parker of the Los Angeles Times.* I find no evidence to support this assertion. Of course, a dazzling array of other media outlets blithely repeated the Parker’s claim without checking it out: here’s Talking Points Memo, NBC, and WHNT (Huntsville, AL), for example. (Who’d have guessed that the New York Daily News, of all places, would actually get the story right?)

* Note: in the time it’s taken me to write this piece (taking time out to watch the Colombia-Brazil match at the World Cup), the LA Times has amended their on-line story to suggest that “It is unclear if the image was mistaken for fireworks or clouds.” Nice try, guys, but I know what your story said at first, both by having read it and having seen it widely cited elsewhere. You made an irresponsible claim, and now you’re saying it’s “unclear.” As in, “it is unclear whether reporters for the LA Times are required to obey any sort of code of journalistic ethics,” apparently.

The more iconic photo used in the LA Times story.
I should also note that the Times and TPM, among others, used what are in fact instantly recognizable photographs of the explosion to accompany their coverage, rather than showing the Photoshopped, re-colorized, image American Apparel’s social media maven found on an English designer’s Tumblr page.

Anyway, American Apparel issued a public apology:
We deeply apologize for today’s Tumblr post of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The image was re-blogged in error by one of our international social media employees who was born after the tragedy and was unaware of the event. We sincerely regret the insensitivity of that selection and the post has been deleted.
There are three levels of wrong here, and Curmie admits he’s not sure which one is worse. But I’m pretty sure of who’s the least culpable: the person who actually made the mistake (assuming, and I’m not so naïve as to take this on faith, that it actually was a mistake). True, the image found on Tumblr doesn’t look a whole lot like smoke and clouds (and still less like fireworks), but I confess I wouldn’t have instantly recognized the source. It is not the iconic image of the Challenger explosion; it’s the sort of picture where a lot of people might say, “oh, yeah, I see it now.” And remember, the image is actually upside-down (and yes, that matters.)

The company’s apology is more than a little weird, however. “Born after the tragedy and… unaware of the event”? Born after January of 1986? Sure. This person could be in his/her mid-to-late-20s by now. “Unaware of the event”? Are you freaking kidding me? We’re talking about one of the signature events of the decade, here, even if that “international social media employee” means that American Apparel, which touts its American roots when it works to the corporation’s advantage to do so turns its social media over to non-Americans. Unaware of the event? As in, not “didn’t immediately recognize an edited photograph,” but “had no idea this ever happened”? Let’s see, what’s an equivalent event that happened a couple of years before I was born? Bobby Thompson’s home run against Ralph Branca? Nope. Too obscure unless you’re a baseball fan. The end of the Korean War? Too general. I’ve got it: Edward R. Murrow’s famous rebuke of Senator Joe McCarthy. And hey, guess what? I knew about it before I graduated from high school, let alone before taking a full-time job in a position of responsibility post-college.

Moreover, this isn’t the first time American Apparel has done something outrageous in their self-promotion. There was the obviously completely intentional “Hurricane Sandy Sale” a couple of years ago, for example, available only in areas hit by the storm and advertised by the cutline “In case you’re bored during the storm”. Were I of cynical disposition (perish the thought!), I might suggest that, given their history of questionable social media behavior and their hypersexualized ad campaigns (designed, no doubt, to stir controversy for its own sake), that someone—more likely a group of someones—high up in that corporate structure is convinced of the aphorism that all publicity is good publicity.

We are left inevitably with only four possible explanations: American Apparel is collectively illiterate (they meant to say something other than what they did in their apology), they’re lying, they hire uneducated buffoons and put them in the position of representing the corporation to the rest of the world, or they’re just a collection of right little assholes looking for notoriety in whatever form it might come. I confess that I find all of these possibilities rather unsettling… indeed, I’d stop shopping there, except for the fact that in order to stop, I’d have to start.

The press’s response, of course, has been a lot closer to sensationalist than to sensational. I’m happy to run a retraction if someone can provide legitimate evidence that I should, but for now I’m going to go with this: Ryan Parker and the LA Times published an assertion with no evidence, hosts of media outlets blithely repeated these speculations (if they even rise to that level) as fact, and a fair number of “reputable” news websites ran versions of the most famous photographs of the Challenger disaster rather than what American Apparel actually posted, thereby quite intentionally attempting to deceive their readership.

Why? Because they’re lazy? Absolutely. Interested in making the story “sexy,” whether it’s true of not? Of course. Unprofessional? Self-evidently. Dishonest? Yep.

In short, no one looks good here.  Imagine my surprise. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

More Updates and Variations on Themes

Curmie is not yet ready to respond in an adult manner to the mind-blowingly stupid SCOTUS decision in the Hobby Lobby case—calling five Supreme Court Justices doo-doo heads probably isn’t the most eloquent of rebuttals, but I’m so bewildered that even the likes of Alito and Thomas could be that illogical, could so readily ignore precedent, could so conflate personal religious conviction with sound legal opinion that I can’t do better right now. Justice Ginsberg calls it a “mine field.” Curmie thinks she’s being optimistic.

Anyway, let’s return, instead, to the updates and variations on themes started a couple of days ago.

The Nation’s Rape Capital
We start with a story I first covered in July 2012: the term “rape culture” may be thrown around a little too frequently these days, but it certainly applies to Missoula, Montana, the University of Montana, and especially the football team. I wrote then that:
There’s little wonder that there’s a widespread belief that 1). sexual assault is not being treated very seriously in Missoula—not by the university and not by the local police, 2). the looking the other way is especially pronounced when football players are involved, and 3). the intervention of the DOJ is not merely appropriate but necessary.
Now there’s more from Missoula: a petulant display from the County Attorney, rejecting not merely some but apparently all of the DOJ’s recommendations for his office. Keep in mind here that Curmie is no fan of federal interference in local affairs, but when a city of under 70,000 people is seeing a sexual assault reported well over once a week for a period of several years (who knows how many weren’t reported), when that small city has come to be known as the nation’s “rape capital,” well, it’s pretty clear that the locals are either unwilling or unable to do the job. (Curmie bets on the former.)

Dana Liebelson of Mother Jones describes the proposed changes as follows: “The DOJ recommended adding two or three new staff positions, including an advocate for victims; ramping up training for county supervisors and prosecutors; and collecting more data on sexual-assault cases, including feedback from victims.” In some, perhaps even most, environments, telling the Feds to take a long walk on a short pier would be absolutely justified. But, in a city where a detective told a woman who was vomiting during her assault that “she might have had a case if she had been unconscious during the rape rather than merely incapacitated,” where another victim was asked why she hadn’t fought harder and asked “Tell me the truth—is this something we want to go through with?,” then I might perhaps be permitted a little skepticism about the claim that “the Missoula Police Department and our office have done a very good job of handling sexual-assault allegations regardless of what national and local news accounts may indicate.” If this is “very good,” one shudders to imagine what “horrible” looks like.

So Missoula remains Rape Central. Everyone from the police to prosecutors seems to be more concerned with proclaiming their competence than in proving it. There may be—or may have been—a very bad atmosphere swirling around the university football team. But the real problem lies with those sworn to protect the citizenry and—intentionally or otherwise—utterly failing to do so.

Gwendolyn Williams: Not Overweight
The “Fat Letter”
Next—a story I wrote about in October 2013, when 11-year-old Lily Grasso, a healthy, athletic girl in Naples, Florida, received the so-called “fat letter” because, although she’s fit enough to be on the volleyball team, at 5’3” and 124 pounds, she meets some idiot’s definition of “at risk” and “overweight.” A variation on the theme has now occurred on Staten Island: 9-year old Gwendolyn Williams (4’1”, 66 pounds), who is apparently precisely one pound over the average weight for her height and age. For this, she was described as “overweight” by some sub-moronic “Fitnessgram” from the city Department of Education. As might be expected, the DOE digs its own grave snootily defending itself. Here are the last three paragraphs of the New York Post article:
A DOE spokeswoman defended the Fitnessgrams Thursday as “just one indicator … which helps students develop personal goals for lifelong health.”

But for Gwendolyn, the Fitnessgrams are just dumb.

“I know that I’m not overweight, so why should I believe the New York Department of Education?” she said.
If Fitnessgrams are “just one indicator,” why not get more information before labeling children, especially girls, as overweight? In fact, Gwendolyn is absolutely correct: Fitnessgrams are indeed just dumb, and she shouldn’t believe the New York Department of Education about, well, anything. And that’s the problem—the DOE has made itself look silly, and has lost considerable credibility. That’s a bad thing, on the off chance that there are some things at which they are not as arrogant as they are hopelessly inept.

Moving on… In January of this year, I wrote about an online poll that got hijacked first (perhaps) by SeaWorld employees and then (for sure) by people reacting to the perceived manipulation. The poll had to do with the publicity generated by the documentary film “Blackfish,” which shows SeaWorld in a considerably less than positive light.

Now comes more evidence against SeaWorld’s protestations that “No one knows for sure how long killer whales live. Long-term studies will ultimately answer this question. By counting growth layers in teeth, scientists find that killer whales in the North Atlantic may live to 35 years.” If orcas “may” live to be 35, then the fact that most of those held in captivity at SeaWorld die in their 20s and the average lifespan in captivity is 4 ½ years is only mildly troublesome. Unfortunately for the spinmeisters at SeaWorld, J2 (a.k.a. “Granny”), recently spotted off Canada’s western coast, is 103 and was photographed in the 1930s. Oops. Tell me again how captivity doesn’t harm these magnificent, intelligent, social, creatures. But you’d better bring your A game if you want to leave without a bitch-slapping.

“Gang Signs”
In February I wrote about two brothers in Wisconsin who were (initially) suspended from school for making “gang signs” in a photograph published in the local paper. The fact that they are basketball players (the photo was of them in the uniform of their high school team) and that the principal ever-so-scary gang sign in question was universally recognizable as the signal for a three-point shot never quite penetrated the fog that surrounds the brains of school officials.

Dontadrian Bruce: Not a Gang-Banger
Whether there’s a racial element at play here is up for debate. What isn’t is that the students in question are African-American. So, coincidentally or otherwise, is Dontadrian Bruce, who was suspended from his school in Olive Branch, Mississippi for the same infraction. There are two differences: Dontadrian plays football instead of basketball, and his gesture, he says was to illustrate the number on his uniform: 3. This is a little less obviously innocuous than the Jackson brothers’ gestures. That makes me only virtually certain that his gesture was completely innocent, whereas the Jacksons’ case attained ontological certitude.

Nonetheless (or, given the genius displayed by most high school administrators, therefore), a disciplinary committee ruled in favor of “indefinite suspension with a recommendation of suspension” because, apparently unknown to young Mr. Bruce, the seemingly innocent gesture we see him make—that looks exactly like the way a European would signal the number 3 (not to mention virtually identical to the ASL sign for the number)—is “affiliated” with the Chicago-based gang the Vice Lords, which according to one news report “has a known presence in the nearby area,” whatever that means. Dontadrian says he was “trying to tell [his] side, and it was like they didn’t even care.” I believe him. Why? Because there has better be some real evidence before throwing a kid—any kid, even a trouble-maker (and Dontadrian isn’t one)—on the scrap heap. Stupid “zero tolerance” policy (the usual apologies for redundancy) or not, a little common sense had damned well better enter the equation at some point. Assistant Principal Todd Nichols and every member of that disciplinary committee deserve to be fired and paraded through town in stocks wearing signs that say “I convicted a kid on no evidence because I couldn’t be bothered to care about justice.” I was tempted to put “stripped naked” in the previous sentence, but nobody wants to see that.

Seriously, though, if schools in general were as interested in teaching our kids as they are in convicting them of phony transgressions, I’d be a lot more confident about the nation’s future. (By the way, the school finally lifted the suspension—the world-wide humiliation the school faced and the 2600-member Facebook group of Dontadrian’s supporters has nothing to do with that, I’m sure.)

Steve Green: Not Law-Abiding
Steve Green
Finally, we turn to another of the ongoing exploits of Hobby Lobby’s sanctimonious Hypocrite-in-Chief, Steve Green. Back in April, I wrote about Green’s successful attempt to convince the blithering idiots of the Mustang school district in suburban Oklahoma City that an unquestionably evangelical course on the Bible was just what that public school curriculum needed. Green’s pitch was patently disingenuous—same as his Obamacare complaint—but, given the complete lack of concern for, say, education or the Constitution evinced by school board members, the proposed course sailed through.

Now it turns out that Green met privately with members of the school board just hours before the vote: an apparently clear violation of Oklahoma’s Open Meetings Act.
The April 14 meetings with Steve Green and other members of the Museum of the Bible curriculum team occurred just hours before the Mustang School Board approved the course as an elective for the fall. The Mustang superintendent acknowledged insisting on separate presentations so the public wouldn’t have to be invited, and did so at the direction of Green and his public relations representatives.

“I want to emphasize again that per my conversation with Ashleigh and the decision to break into two groups, that this will not be a public meeting,” Superintendent Sean McDaniel wrote in one of the emails obtained under an Open Records Act request, referring to a woman at the Saxum public relations company, which represents Hobby Lobby and helped set up the meetings.

The Oklahoma County prosecutor said the move—which involved the board leaving its base in Canadian County and traveling to Oklahoma City—could create a potential violation if it is proven to be a deliberate attempt to go around laws that require government bodies to meet openly.

“Even if there’s an out-of-county board, if they come here and meet in an attempt to circumvent the Open Meetings Act, just because they’ve met in a place that’s not routine, doesn’t mean they circumvent their requirements for meetings,” Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said.”  If someone is going to that great of length to avoid quorum, it sounds like they’re being pretty darn careful.
So it turns out that Steve Green is not only a duplicitous, pompous fraud and a disgusting human being—we knew that long ago, after all—he also quite likely broke the law (or told his minions to do so). But there is a bright side: he strengthened Superintendent McDaniel’s case for Curmie Award consideration.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Arne Duncan Outdoes Himself

In my antepenultimate (to this) post, I described Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as “the worst cabinet member of the millennium (and yes, Curmie includes the likes of Alberto Gonzales and Donald Rumsfeld in that analysis).” It wasn’t always that way—I even praised him for his confrontation with the NCAA over graduation rates for athletes. But a). virtually anyone looks good by comparison to the NCAA, b). that was over four years ago, and c). give enough monkeys enough typewriters…

Since that good start, moreover, Duncan has managed to espouse positions which represent the worst of both political perspectives. An arrogant buffoon who has never actually taught a day in his life, Secretary Duncan manages to blend the union-busting, anti-teacher, corporatist Machiavellianism of the GOP with the top-heavy bureaucracies, nanny-state sensibilities, and documentation fetishes of the Democrats. He has become a self-styled Tsar, and President Obama has not only let him get away with it, he’s encouraged it. Obama’s education policy is probably no worse than Bush’s, but it’s no better, either, and that’s a rather scathing condemnation when you get right down to it.

Arne Duncan Attempts to Be Worst Cabinet Secretary Ever

But now comes a statement from Arne the Idiot that boggles the mind in its inanity—even by Duncan’s standards. In announcing a “major shift” in the way the government evaluates federally-funded special education programs, he declared that whereas most states are indeed in compliance with federal standards, including an “individualized education plan” for each student, “it is not enough for a state to be compliant if students can’t read or do math.” And it is certainly true that the dropout rate for students with disabilities is twice that for those without, and that two-thirds of students in special education programs perform below grade level in reading and math. Um… that’s why they’re in those programs, Ace.

Here’s the response of teacher and blogger Peter Greene, in a post aptly entitled “Quite Possibly the Stupidest Thing To Come Out of the US DOE”:
Arne Duncan announced that, shockingly, students with disabilities do poorly in school. They perform below level in both English and math. No, there aren’t any qualifiers attached to that. Arne is bothered that students with very low IQs, students with low function, students who have processing problems, students who have any number of impairments—these students are performing below grade level….

But who knows. Maybe Arne is on to something. Maybe blind students can’t see because nobody expects them to. Maybe the student a colleague had in class years ago, who was literally rolled into the room and propped up in a corner so that he could be “exposed” to band—maybe that child’s problems were just low expectations. Maybe IEPs are actually assigned randomly, for no reason at all….

We don't need IEPs—we need expectations and demands. We don’t need student support and special education programs—we need more testing. We don’t need consideration for the individual child’s needs—we just need to demand that the child get up to speed, learn things, and most of all TAKE THE DAMN TESTS. Because then, and only then, will we be able to make all student disabilities simply disappear.

This is just so stunningly, awesomely dumb, it’s hard to take in. Do they imagine that disabled students are just all faking, or that the specialists who diagnose these various problems are just making shit up for giggles?
If what we were discussing here was only that group of students with ADHD, dyslexia, or similar conditions, it might make a little sense to expect to see progress roughly equivalent to norms for students without those conditions. But no, we’re also talking about kids with developmental disorders so severe they can’t sit, talk, or hold a pencil to take one of Duncan’s precious high-stakes tests.

And now we get the capper, an utterance so mind-meltingly idiotic that it would embarrass Michele Bachmann: “We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to a robust curriculum, they excel.” Really, Arne, and where is the evidence for that assertion? Any evidence for that? You’re dealing with educators here, dude. You can’t just make shit up and think you can get away with it.

Despite the cringe-worthiness of Duncan's absurd assertion, the Secretary did manage not to be the stupidest person on the conference call. That dubious distinction went to Tennessee’s education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, who put forth the proposition that it is lack of testing, of those magical words “strong assessments,” that’s the real problem. Because mandated testing cures everything from Down Syndrome to celebral palsy, apparently.

Seriously, it’s difficult to imagine what it must be like in the universe these guys inhabit. Unfortunately, the fact that what Duncan, Huffman, and their fellow charlatans propose is utter nonsense doesn’t change the fact that there are serious implications associated with their delusional ravings.

First, tens of thousands of good and effective teachers will have their hard work demeaned by Duncan’s transcendent silliness. Second, schools, already facing budget crises across the country, will have to re-direct resources to accommodate this boondoggle. That means less money to pay teachers, to support libraries and technology centers, to underwrite gifted and talented programs, in short to, well, be a school. Third, since Duncan seems pathologically incapable of doing anything without attaching a threat to it (do it my way or lose your funding), he further alienates anyone who actually knows anything about education from both his own inanities and the DOE in general, and enhances the impression of Chicago-style politics run amok in the Obama administration.

Finally, whereas high-stakes testing of the regular student population is unnecessarily stressful, often incompetently administered, and frequently used as “evidence” of utter falsehoods, at least we can understand the impulse. As a university professor, I do often despair at how remarkably underprepared many of my students are when they arrive in my freshman classes. If testing actually worked (it generally doesn’t), at least we’d have some means of determining what they know and what they don’t—and, as I’ve said before, I do look at a prospective student’s ACT or SAT scores as part of my decision of how to vote on a scholarship application. (I’d never use those scores to evaluate a teacher or a school in any way, however.)

Here, though, the proposal makes no sense at all. There’s no possible way that testing disabled students could do any good at all, could provide any useful information, could in fact accomplish anything remotely positive. The only way this makes sense is if it’s some sort of elaborate ruse to get people like Curmie to say “testing of the regular student population isn’t so bad, because see how much worse it could be.” (Note: ain’t gonna happen Arne—regular high-stakes testing is still awful, even if this is worse.)

Either that, or Arne Duncan is off his meds.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Two Updates (more to follow)

Curmie is, as noted on the Facebook page, way behind in his writing. Here’s a first salvo, with updates on a couple of stories I’ve discussed earlier. There are more updates to come, but let’s keep the posts of manageable size. We’ll take the cases in chronological order of the original posts.

We start, then, with a case I’ve actually written about three times: first in May of 2010, then in November of 2011, and most recently in May of 2012.

The offending garments.
The short version of the events: five students at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill High School in California wore clothing with American flag designs to school on May 5 (Cinco de Mayo), 2010. Although there were no substantive problems by lunch-time, the Assistant Principal, Miguel Rodriguez nonetheless told the boys to turn their shirts inside out, go home, or face suspension. They refused. After the fact, Rodriguez invoked the “potential for disruption” argument that is the only loophole available in what is otherwise an open and shut 1st Amendment case.

He also claimed that he hadn’t seen any students wearing Mexican flag apparel, although news reports at the time make it clear that numerous students were in fact doing so. Indeed, whereas Rodriguez’s actions were arbitrary, petulant, and almost certainly unconstitutional, he—like generations of cops and other violators of civil liberties before him—dutifully consulted his lawyer, found out what wildly distorted version of his actual mindset might get him off the hook, and proclaimed that as his motivation all along.

The boys’ parents sued a month or so later—not for damages, but just to prove a point—only to have their case rejected by federal judge (and serial prevaricator) James Ware. They tried again, but (and here’s where we get to stuff I haven’t discussed before) this February their appeal was denied by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Needless to say, although I still think the boys were and are “right little assholes” (my term in 2011), they also have the stronger case, at least in common-sense terms. As I wrote in 2011,
… the whole “potential for disruption” argument is now, and frankly always has been, little more than an excuse for intellectual cowardice. It’s what gets controversial speakers uninvited from college campuses. It’s what justifies the worst excesses of “political correctness.” It’s what craven administrators, mayors, and police chiefs hide behind when they really, really, really want to censor speech (cf. the #Occupy folks) but know they have to circumvent that pesky First Amendment somehow.
Or, as someone with considerably better legal credentials than mine—Eugene Volokh—puts it:
This is a classic “heckler’s veto”—thugs threatening to attack the speaker, and government officials suppressing the speech to prevent such violence. “Heckler’s vetoes” are generally not allowed under First Amendment law; the government should generally protect the speaker and threaten to arrest the thugs, not suppress the speaker’s speech.
Volokh then describes the exception to this principle as expressed in the 1969 Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, and says the 9th Circuit “might be” right in purely legal terms to use this as the guiding authority.

More importantly, however, he adds the following note:
… even if the judges are right, the situation in the school seems very bad. Somehow, we’ve reached the point that students can’t safely display the American flag in an American school, because of a fear that other students will attack them for it—and the school feels unable to prevent such attacks (by punishing the threateners and the attackers, and by teaching students tolerance for other students’ speech). Something is badly wrong, whether such an incident happens on May 5 or any other day.

And this is especially so because behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated [emphasis his]. The school taught its students a simple lesson: If you dislike speech and want it suppressed, then you can get what you want by threatening violence against the speakers. The school will cave in, the speakers will be shut up, and you and your ideology will win. When thuggery pays, the result is more thuggery. Is that the education we want our students to be getting?
This is indeed the lesson that will be learned, that the heckler’s veto works. This is why exceptions must be rare, and why, irrespective of the legalities of the case, justice took a shot to the solar plexus in this case.

Next up: schools that force students to divulge Facebook passwords or open their accounts the prying gaze of school officials. I didn’t write about the specific case in question here, but I talked about the phenomenon in May, 2012 in a case in Geneva, Illinois in which busybody administrators, responding to rumors which had nothing to do with school and nothing to do with violations of the law, demanded that a 7th-grade girl open her Facebook page for their delectation.

Riley Stratton
This update is about variation on the same phenomenon at roughly the same time—except for a different girl, a different Midwestern state, a different sorry excuse for school administrators. This time it was then-6th grader Riley Stratton in Minnewaska, Minnesota who was subjected to the humiliation of having her private social media posts pawed over by both school and police officials. (N.B., her friends’ posts were, of course, also subject to scrutiny, although their authors weren’t even suspected of wrong-doing.) 

First, she was given an in-school suspension for posting, from home, that she hated a “mean” hall monitor. She was 13, remember. That kind of response happens. Then, having been punished for something that is none of the school’s damned business, she took to Facebook again to wonder which alleged friend had narked on her. Another punishment from the school. And finally, the mother of a male friend got her skivvies in a twist that her son and Riley had engaged in an on-line conversation about sex. Naturally, it couldn’t have been innocent, or the same conversation they could have in person, or instigated by the boy, so school officials, who have more prurient interest than their charges, the brains of a banana slug, and the moral courage of overcooked linguine, demanded—in the presence of a sheriff but not of Riley’s mother—all her passwords so they could get their rocks off peeping at an adolescent girl’s secrets.

Yeah, yeah, sure. It was all for the best of intentions. “The school’s intent wasn’t to be mean or bully this student, but to really remedy someone getting off track a little,” quoth Superintendent Greg Schmidt. If you want to see someone who’s off track (and more than a little, at that), Mr. Schmidt, look in the fucking mirror, you voyeuristic asshole. What students—any students—say on social media is NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS unless it significantly affects the operation of the school per se: a threat of violence, for example. This obviously doesn’t qualify. Butt out.

What’s new is that young Ms. Stratton (or her parents) enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued (or at least threatened to do so), and got an out-of-court settlement. Here are the details, according to the ACLU’s press release:
As part of the settlement the School District agreed to change its policies to better protect students’ privacy and train its staff on the new policy to ensure it is correctly followed. The School District also agreed to a $70,000 settlement which will be divided between the Strattons, for damages, and the ACLU-MN to cover case costs and support future ACLU-MN efforts to protect the civil liberties of Minnesotans.

“We are pleased with the settlement and hope this sends a clear message to other schools that it is bad policy to police students behavior on social media,” stated Charles Samuelson, Executive Director of the ACLU-MN. “There may be times when it is appropriate for schools to intervene, but only in extreme circumstances where there are true threats or safety risks.”
The consummation devoutly to be wished here is that maybe, just maybe, some other school district somewhere will collectively think twice before callously and self-righteously invading the privacy of its students. Curmie isn’t holding his breath, but stranger things have happened.

More updates forthcoming…

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Case of the False Credentials (and the Idiot Administrator)

Curmiphiles of a certain age will remember well the phrase, “it’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up,” one of the incessantly-intoned mantras of the Watergate era. I was reminded of that line today in reading about recent events at Birch Vocational Academy in Providence, RI. Birch is the district’s school for children with developmental and/or intellectual disabilities.

Nancy Stevenin: Liar and Cheat
After a scandal involving Birch students’ being forced to work essentially as prison labor, the district needed to turn things around. Part of the solution was to have been the hiring of Nancy Stevenin as Supervisor of Transition and Community Development (whatever the hell that means). Trouble is, the job requires a college degree and Stevenin doesn’t have one. Or, rather, she purchased hers online from a whorehouse diploma mill called Ashley University. Ashley University has no physical campus, no accreditation, presumably no actual faculty who can be contacted, and it’s kind of significant that their website is a dot-com instead of a dot-edu, don’t you think? But they’ll sell you a PhD for $648 (including tax, apparently) with no apparent concern for anything other than whether your credit card company approves payment. One supposes PhDs are pricier than other degrees; Stevenin probably didn’t have to pay that much for a Bachelor’s. And, after all, they’ll even backdate the degree for you, so they’re a model of customer service, right?

Everyone who works for Ashley is dishonest, and every one of their… erm… clients is worse. This is, after all, not Monsters U., Hogwarts, or the North American School of the Artsy and Somewhat Musically Inclined, who sent me a couple of brochures twenty-odd years ago for t-shirts, mugs, and the like. No, Ashley University is nothing more or less than a scam and a fraud: they really want unsuspecting people—like the folks in Providence—to believe in their legitimacy as an education institution.

Stevenin got the job, which pays roughly 50% more than Curmie makes with well over 20 years’ experience and an honest-to-God PhD from an actual university, because although nobody on the hiring committee had presumably ever heard of Ashley University, nobody checked to see if it was…you know… real. That’s not the quintessence of good hiring practices, but it’s at least understandable: no one can possibly know every college in the country, and even HR folks can be a little too trusting at times. So far in the story, then, there’s nothing to precipitate a Curmie Award nomination. Dishonest people exist. Other dishonest people will help them. And sometimes one of them gets away with something.

Susan Lusi: Dumber than a Sack of Hammers
Ah. But we’re not done. Having found out about Stevenin’s dishonesty, you see, Providence School Superintendent Susan Lusi described her underling’s perfidy as “a lapse in judgment,” and proceeded to… wait for it… “put Miss Stevenin on a corrective action plan immediately in February when we discovered that.” A corrective action plan? How about firing her sorry ass? No, because you see “Lusi said Stevenin is getting results at Birch and has an impressive resume.” WHAT??? First off, she’d only been on the job a couple of months when the school discovered the deception, so it’s unlikely she’d really done much yet. More to the point—her “impressive resume” has already been proven to be fraudulent. No one ought to give a single solitary damn about what it might contain in the way of alleged credentials.

The problem, in real terms, isn’t that Stevenin is a liar and a cheat. It isn’t that whoever is behind “Ashley University” makes Chris Christie look ethical by comparison. It isn’t even that Stevenin was hired for a job for which she lacked appropriate credentials. It’s that she wasn’t promptly shown the door when the revelations of her mendacity became known. The problem, in other words, is that Susan Lusi is a card-carrying moron.

Frighteningly enough, it gets worse. When parents, teachers and other sensible people who have a legitimate stake in the matter—paying Lusi’s $190+K salary, for example—made the obvious point (well, obvious to anyone with either a whiff of ethical sensibility or the brains of a kumquat) that allowing Stevenin to continue would be to condone cheating, Lusi replied, “No, I don't think so at all. If cheating was OK we would not have put her on the immediate corrective action plan.” Meanwhile, the cheater in question continues in her current job and salary but is responsible only for paying her own tuition to an accredited university to actually earn the degree she lied about already having. Genius.

Lusi further embarrassed herself, her district, and her profession, in response to a statement by Maribeth Calibro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union. Calibro noted that her members, who actually have university degrees and are making only a fraction of Stevenin’s salary, are “extremely disconcerted” and “very angry” about the situation, as well they should be. TV reporter Katie Davis (who appears to be an actual journalist) suggested to Lusi that it must be “frustrating” to teachers making “$30,000 or $40,000 a year with a bachelor's degree, [seeing] an administrator making $94,000 a year without.”

Lusi, of course, seizes on the seemingly no-longer-required credential rather than the integrity issue and presents an argument truly remarkable for its inanity. Remember, it was presumably Lusi who either insisted on or at the very least signed off on the bachelor’s degree requirement to begin with. And yet we get: “I guess people may get frustrated that Bill Gates doesn't have a degree. But he's judged on the merits of his work.” Actually, of course, there’s no stated requirement that Bill Gates needs a degree, he has never to my knowledge purported to have one, and (of course) he’s a particularly horrible example for any argument involving education, since his hypocrisy, arrogance, and pseudo-philanthropy have probably done more harm to the education system in this country than anyone whose name isn’t Michelle Rhee or Arne Duncan.

The real issue, of course, is skirted by Lusi. If you want to say that the job doesn’t require a degree, that’s OK with me. But there remain two unresolved issues. First, it’s not the teachers who need a degree who are the real victims of Stevenin’s dishonesty and Lusi’s ineptitude, although they certainly have a right to be upset. But what of the other applicants for Stevenin’s job—the ones who actually had the required credentials? Shouldn’t they be a little peeved that not only did the job go to someone without the necessary degree, but that Lusi did nothing to remedy the situation when the fraud was discovered? If I were Ms. Lusi, I might just be expecting a call from someone’s lawyer in the near future.

The most important point, of course, is that Stevenin simply can’t be trusted… nor can Lusi, albeit in a different way. Curmie may be old-fashioned, but lying on a résumé is about the surest way to prove to me that you’re fundamentally incapable of functioning in an ethical universe.

Be it noted, there are sometimes judgment calls. For example, had Stevenin de facto passed the last class required for a real degree but the BS (could have been a BA, I suppose, but Stevenin and “BS” seem to go so well together) hadn’t officially been awarded yet at the time she applied… maybe. If she had fulfilled the job description of an assistant director of a project without ever having officially been given that title… maybe. If her undergrad college didn’t have minors (Curmie’s didn’t), but she’d done enough coursework in a discipline to have qualified for a minor at a different university… no, but at least there’s a case.

But this little escapade? There is literally no way to spin this as anything but an absolutely intentional deception without the slightest bit of actual justification. Ashley University is a fraud. Stevenin knows it to be a fraud, and is apparently utterly unrepentant (or she’d have resigned, thereby defusing the situation considerably). Stevenin should, of course, be fired. “Ashley University” should be roundly denounced as the deceitful enterprise it is (if not investigated for criminal misrepresentation). But the fact is that dishonest people will behave dishonestly, regardless of occupation. The greater threat to education per se, and therefore the Curmie nominee du jour, is Susan Lusi, whose transcendent incompetence is an inspiration to idiots everywhere.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Valerie Strauss’s Double-Header: A Pair of Curmie Contenders

If there is a better education journalist in the country than the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, Curmie doesn’t know who it is. The last two days in a row, her column, “The Answer Sheet,” has highlighted a couple of prime contenders for the coveted Curmie Award, presented annually to the person or institution who most embarrasses the profession of education.

Steve Green, who apparently runs the Mustang schools now.
Yesterday, it was about the Mustang school district in suburban Oklahoma City that has blithely decided that including a year-long course on the Bible would be just a peachy idea. Of course, sanctimonious and venal plutocrat Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green, whose Museum of the Bible (could I make that up?) minions wrote the curriculum, assures us that “This is not about a denomination, or a religion, it's about a book. We will not try to go down denominational, religious-type roads.” Gentle Reader, if you are even tempted to believe that line, may I humbly suggest that perhaps you have stumbled onto this blog by mistake. There’s a living-in-the-real-world requirement here. Turn back while your tender ignorance is unsullied.

First off, there’s the whole “Museum of the Bible” thing. No, that couldn’t be about (gasp) religion, could it? Next, notice the first person subject: “we” won’t be proselytizing. In other words, it’s not the district, much less the teachers, who will control the curriculum. Need more? Well, there’s this, from the AP article by Bailey Elise McBride:
From the outset, the book describes God as eternal, “faithful and good,” “full of love” and “an ever-present help in times of trouble.”

“The first pages of the Bible spotlight God's desire for justice and a just world,” the second chapter says, but adds, “When humanity ignores or disobeys his rules, it has to suffer the consequences.”

The course also says people should rest on the Sabbath because God did so after six days of creation.
Nope. No religious indoctrination there. Look, if you really want to have a course detailing the relationship of the Bible (and of Christianity) to history, art, and literature, fine. But somehow I doubt that students in such a course are likely to hear much about the barbarities associated with the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition, or pay a lot of attention to that business about camels and eyes of needles, or read that barely a generation ago even evangelical doctrine argued that fetuses aren’t the same as babies. Here’s McBride again:
Andrew Seidel, a lawyer with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote to the Mustang district this week complaining that “negative aspects” of God, such as jealousy or punishing children for the actions of their parents, are not mentioned in the course.

The book phrases contradictory questions and answers — such as references to the Israelites being slaves — in ways designed to favor Christianity, Seidel said. He said it also poses Christian thought as rhetorical questions, such as asking, “How do we know that the Bible's historical narratives are reliable?” rather than, “Is the Bible historically accurate?”

“They assume the answer in the question and stifle all scholarly discussion,” Seidel said.

Dr. Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University who reviewed the curriculum at the AP’s request, said it lacked scholarly insight.

“It’s more of a very basic background book,” he said, adding that he found the curriculum “full of land mines” and used scripture from only one tradition, evangelical Protestantism.
Of course, the yahoos who run Mustang schools intone that the clown show that passes for a school board wouldn’t have approved the curriculum if they thought it “crossed a line.” There are only two possibilities, which of course are not mutually exclusive: they have the cumulative IQ of a pile of rotting tilapia, or they’re lying. My money’s on the latter, although thinking that no one would notice their egregiously unconstitutional indoctrination attempt does require a level of stupidity beyond the comprehension of the average mortal.

Today’s Strauss story of educational ineptitude may be even worse. At least there’s a logic to what the folks in Oklahoma want to do: they want to use public schools as a means of advancing their religio-political cause. It’s not constitutional, it’s not wise, and it’s not honest. But at least we can figure out why they want to do it. Not so with the news out of Elwood, NY, where the kindergarten show at Harley Avenue Primary School was cancelled because… wait for it…
What it lacks in substance it makes up for in pomposity.
We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.
Yes, that’s right. That’s why the five-year-olds can’t do a show that, according to more than one signer of the petition on (which Curmie wouldn’t object to your signing and sharing should you be of a mind to do so), is a long-time tradition at the school.

Curmie has seldom seen so much stupidity in one place. We’ll leave aside the smugness and pomposity of the school’s response. “Please don’t fault us” [because we know what’s best, you insignificant little parent]? Or the fact that none of the letters’ signatories were available for comment after their obnoxious missive? Superintendent Peter Scordo wouldn’t talk about the glaring idiocy of it all, but sent forth a minion, one Michael Conte, who pompously pronounced that “the Harley Avenue Primary School educators believe that this decision is in the best interest of students. I don’t have anything more to add for your consideration.” Anybody but Curmie think these folks are a little longer on self-image than on sense? Finally, the apophasis du jour: we won’t even mention the irony of career-readiness being advanced by someone like Keri Colmone, who doesn’t even know where to sign a business letter.

For the school’s decision to make any sense in pedagogical, inter-personal, or public relations terms, three things must all be true. (None of them are.) First, it must be something other than laughable that it is in any way the “responsibility” of any pre-primary educator to prepare his/her charges for “college and career.” That this is the insane rhetoric of wealthy helicopter parents who “love” their kids so much they deny them a childhood, and of Arne Duncan, the worst cabinet member of the millennium (and yes, Curmie includes the likes of Alberto Gonzales and Donald Rumsfeld in that analysis) doesn’t make it any less risible.

Secondly, we must forget everything we know about child development, or of our own educations. I learned how to read in 1st grade, not kindergarten, and yet I somehow managed to get an Ivy League undergraduate education and subsequently a PhD from a really fine Research-1 university. And… get this… I actually had some fun as a kid. I read literature because I wanted to, learned about science because it interested me, and I performed in some musical and theatrical activities. Every authority on childhood behavior (and the current Secretary of Education is about as far from that as it is possible to be) agrees that play is not merely a significant part of a child’s development, it is in fact crucial. Play teaches, and any educator who doesn’t understand that is fit for no job requiring intellectual skills greater than those required to inquire whether the customer would like fries with that.

But, let us pretend that the function of kindergarten is to move five-year-olds a step closer to career-readiness, and that having fun is at best a distraction. Fine. So in order to cancel a “show” for that purpose is to suggest that there are no careers in the arts per se, that speaking in public is never going to be required, that learning to be part of a team is irrelevant as a life skill. It is to declare the long-term uselessness of confronting and meeting deadlines. It is to pronounce that problem-solving never manifests in the production of a show. It is to proclaim that the memorization, development of muscle memory, and inter-personal requirements of mounting a production, any production, aren’t central to developing the intellectual and social maturity of any child.

And let’s take it yet one step further. Let’s even pretend (if that’s still allowed in this post-cancellation-of-theatrical-event world) that the school’s rationale has the slightest relationship to reality, that there’s a kernel of sense buried somewhere under that mountain of bovine feces. So… the school needs to spend more time on developing other skills than those relevant to the production of the show. Perhaps the way to do that would be to have full-day kindergarten classes, like virtually every other district in the area does. Ah, but that would require work and money, precisely the two things no one in the Elwood district seems ready to expend.

Had Interim Principal Ellen Best-Laimit and her dim-witted underlings drooled down their chins and slurred a few sounds that never quite rise to the level of language, in other words, they’d look better than they do now. The letter is condescending, rendered especially ironic by its utter disregard for tradition, pedagogy, child development, logical argument, or comprehension of what happens in the mounting of a show. One suspects that the “teachers” found out that producing a show actually involves a little more than a pile of old clothes and an uncle with a barn, and they really didn’t care to do their jobs if they… you know… had to work. Luckily for them, there’s enough pseudo-pedagogical jargon to wrap themselves in. Alas, it’s a little less fortuitous for anyone who actually cares about kids, education, or the future of the country.

But I can pretty much guarantee that Best-Laimit and company won’t go away empty-handed. There is a virtually certain Curmie nomination in this for them.