Tuesday, December 21, 2010

One Solitary Life

As we celebrate Christmas, I want to share a Christmas poem that always seems to speak to me about the power of the life and message of Jesus. Merry Christmas


 He was born in an obscure village 
The child of a peasant woman 
He grew up in another obscure village 
Where he worked in a carpenter shop 
Until he was thirty 

He never wrote a book 
He never held an office 
He never went to college 
He never visited a big city 
He never travelled more than two hundred miles 
From the place where he was born 
He did none of the things 
Usually associated with greatness 
He had no credentials but himself 

He was only thirty three 

His friends ran away 
One of them denied him 
He was turned over to his enemies 
And went through the mockery of a trial 
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves 
While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing 
The only property he had on earth 

When he was dead 
He was laid in a borrowed grave 
Through the pity of a friend 

Nineteen centuries have come and gone 
And today Jesus is the central figure of the human race 
And the leader of mankind's progress 
All the armies that have ever marched 
All the navies that have ever sailed 
All the parliaments that have ever sat 
All the kings that ever reigned put together 
Have not affected the life of mankind on earth 
As powerfully as that one solitary life 

Dr James Allan © 1926.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Honor, Privilege and Joy of Teaching

Two days ago (Dec 14), my semester of teaching officially ended when I turned in the grades for my fall classes. I am sure there are varying degrees of joy and sadness among my students for the grades earned. However, for me the evaluating of final projects and determining the grades for my students is not only an evaluation of them, but also a time when I evaluate myself as a teacher.

When I was in my doctoral program, I had a professor who shared his philosophy of teaching, which I have since adopted for myself. At the beginning of the course, like my former prof, I always say: Here is my philosophy of teaching. I set high standards for your work and learning; my job as a teacher is to help you reach those standards. So when a course is completed, I find myself asking how well did I do in part in the teacher-learner exchange? How well did I motivate my students to learn? How well did I provide them the opportunities to grow not only in the subject area, but also as persons who think critically and creatively, and care deeply about the suffering in the world? Did they leave my class better informed, and were they stretched and challenged in appropriate ways?  Where did I fail them? Where could I have communicated more clearly? Most importantly, were they able to come away from my course have gained what they needed to gain, and learn what they wanted to learn?

When I tell people I am a college professor, the next question is usually “What do you teach?” I always stumble over that question, because the real question for me is not what I teach but who .  When I start a class I want to know: who are these men and women sitting before? What experiences, skills, and areas of knowledge do they bring? What do they need and want to learn in my class?  How can we together create a learning community that enables all of us to achieve our goals? While  I wonder about them, I also wonder about myself; I wonder: what do I need from them, and how will they teach me and stretch me? You see, for me teaching is really about a relationship, a mutually beneficial relationship through which knowledge and understanding in mediated. At the end of each class, I find that I have grown; have been stretched and challenged; and have had my mind opened to new ideas and new visions of what could be.

Because teaching is so personal and relational for me, I always go through a period of grieving at the end of a semester. That is where I am now. I am grieving the things I didn’t do that I should have done to enrich the learning experience. I am grieving those students who did not seem to grasp or appreciate the material, and wondering if and how I let them down. I am grieving the loss of those brilliant students whose ideas and zeal for learning made me feel like the best teacher ever. Most importantly, am grieving the fact that I will not again have this special opportunity with this particular group of people. Now granted, I will have some of the same students in another class, but each course, and each group of students is special; and I grieve that  I will not have that experience with that group again.

I am fortunate these days to teach graduate students, who are highly motivated, incredibly intelligent, wildly creative, genuinely compassionate, and intensely committed to social justice. There is hardly a week that goes by that I don’t tell someone how fortunate I am to teach the students I have. However, I have also taught students at the undergraduate and associate level, and have even mentored fellow faculty. Certainly, there are students and groups that frustrate me,  push me to my limits, and keep me humble. However, with most groups of students I feel profoundly grateful for having had the opportunity to enter their lives and interact with them in ways that challenge and transform both them and me.

So tonight as I reflect on another semester that has ended, I feel some sadness of what has just past and will not come again, but I also am grateful for having a job that gives me such a profound sense of meaning and joy. I am honored, blessed and privileged to have people who call me their teacher.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Mad as Hell at Plutocracy

At different times in this blog, I have referred to the US government as a plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) rather a democracy (rule by the people). Exhibit A of this reality is the current debate in Congress over whether or not to extend the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans (those earning over $250,000) while also haggling as to whether or not to continue unemployment benefits to the long term unemployed.  On the one hand proponents of extending the cuts say we must continue the tax cuts (thus foregoing something like $70 billion in potential revenue), while on the other hand they are saying the government cannot afford to continue to support the unemployed. The audacity of this position is so outrageous that Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest men in the world, and a group from Boston called Wealth for the Common Good have called for the tax cuts to be allowed to expire on December 31, 2010. Even these 400 wealthy Americans are saying the Republicans’ position on these issues is out of bounds!

The efforts of Buffett and his wealthy colleagues aside, this current Congressional debate illustrates how far we have strayed from what Abraham Lincoln referred to as a government “for the people, by the people and of the people.” However, this is not a new problem. When the U.S. Constitution was originally ratified  in 1787, only white men who owned land were allowed to vote. From the beginning, our country has operated on the principle that the wealthy would rule on behalf of the masses, a kind of benevolent oligarchy. Over time the right to vote was extended to all white men, then men of color, (14th Amendment, 1868) and then eventually women (19th Amendment, 1920). Even so the original notion that governing was for the few and not the many has persisted throughout US history. So it is no wonder that today only those with great personal wealth (e.g. Meg Whitman, Ross Perot, Mitt Romney) or those with access to money (everyone else who can find a lobby or a PAC or special interest to finance them), can afford to run for election.

What is the effect of this trend toward plutocracy? The greatest inequity between the haves and the have-nots in the last 30 years. According to Nicholas Kristof  in 1976 the wealthiest one percent of Americans earned 9 percent of the nation’s income; today that number is 24%. In 1980 the CEOs of America’s largest companies earned 42 times the average worker; today that ration is 531 to 1 – an increase of over 1200 percent! Moreover, the incomes of the highest earners in the U.S. (those earning over $50 million a year) increased fivefold between 2008 and 2009 in the height of the recession.

This increasing disparity has not come by accident. Two noted political scientists, Jacob Hacker of Yale, and Paul Pierson of Cal-Berkley, have studied this trend and documented their findings in a new book, Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – and Turned Its back on the Middle Class. Contrary to popular belief, these scholars have concluded that this increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots is not primarily a result of either technology or globalization, but rather due to a pattern of U.S. government policy changes that have continually favored the wealthiest 5-10% of the population.

So for instance, earlier this year The Supreme Court ruled in the “Citizens United"case that the government can not place any limits on the amount of money corporations can give to political campaigns. In 2009 when the Health Care Reform bill was being debated, according to Open Secret.org, the health care lobby spent a combined $545 million is influencing legislation – the highest in its history. And now we find the Congress embroiled in a debate that appears to pit the tax cuts for the wealthy against benefits for the unemployed. According to Hacker and Pierson such a pattern is not something that has just occurred in the last year, but has increasingly developed over the last 30 years (if you do the math that means since Ronald Reagan became president and shifted the tide in that direction).

As much as I appreciate the beneficence of people like Warren Buffett, and the philanthropy of wealthy Americans like Bill Gates, I don’t think the policy change will come from the top. The rich will not have a massive conversion to equity economics. Don’t get me wrong, I am not bashing wealthy Americans; I come from that stock and literally some of my friends and family are in this group. However, as Frederick Douglass said over 150 years ago “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will” (1857). Change will only happen when folks get together and demand a redistribution of the wealth: the poor, the working class, the unemployed, the white, the black, the Hispanic, the Asian, the native American – all those who have been shortchanged in the process of wealth redistribution over the last 30 years.

I was fortunate to have come of age during the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. I participated in the Clamshell Alliance that stopped the construction of an additional nuclear power plan in Seabrook, New Hampshire. I have participated in many other actions since those early days with more modest success. I have seen what can happen when people get organized, get focused and get busy demanding that justice be done. I am not sure where or how such a movement will emerge, but there are rumblings all over the place. I felt that rumbling in a big way at the U.S. Social Forum  last summer in Detroit, where 15,000 activists gathered to envision a more democratic future.

I am reminded of the famous line from the 1976 movie Network,  where newscaster Howard Beale urged his listeners to go to their windows and shout: I AM MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANY MORE !” Plutocracy must go, true democracy, a democracy of the grassroots, must come. Folks must get together and demand equity and justice for all. This cruel foolishness must end before the whole system collapses, and more suffer than already are.