Friday, April 11, 2014

Thoughts on "Nebraska" and the Decline of American Freedom

Wendy and I watched "Nebraska" last night, and it prompted a couple of reflections.

First, though it's nice of Hollywood to every once in awhile to notice the vast stretch of unexplored territory between the two coasts--especially small towns--it would be even more impressive if films on these hinterlands could treat their residents with more respect.  There are men who live outside of LA and NYC who are interested in more than how long it takes to drive from one place to another.

Second--my first point notwithstanding--I thought the film did a fine job of depicting the sort of perpetual childhood that so many aging adults (present company certainly included) become mired in.  Woody, the declining father, has certainly suffered.  We learn that his parents were strict, that the Korean War wounded him, and his life partner has been, well, challenging.  And Woody's peculiar quest is driven in part by a desire to somehow make good his many failings as a father.  But it also strikes me that his often-expressed desire "to be left the hell alone" well articulates what the American Dream and the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence have boiled down to for so many of us.

Friday, April 4, 2014

An Exemplary Professor Retires

I met Ken DeBevoise more than thirty years ago, and right away, like everyone else, I knew he would do great things--but not in the conventional way.

Ken came to the University of Oregon as a refugee from practicing law.  He was, I believe, the first student at the University of Oregon to win a Charlotte Newcombe Dissertation Fellowship, which he used to research and write a dissertation that eventually became a book: Agents of Apocalypse: Epidemic Disease in the Colonial Philippines (Princeton University Press, 1995).  His splendid scholarship got him a job at Northwestern University, where he turned to teaching with a vengeance.  Both his topics (such as Texas high school football) and his method (taking the class to Texas) were unorthodox, as was his commitment to teaching, which peers less dedicated to undergraduates (which included just about everyone) commonly passed off as a lack of commitment to scholarship.

So Ken landed back at the U of O, where he taught courses for years in History and Political Science, drawing people willing to work hard outside (the reading list commonly required the equivalent of two books a week per class) and inside (intensive class discussions) of class.  Some administrators tried to ease him out a few years ago, before he was ready, an effort that prompted a spirited defense from students present and past, and Ken kept teaching into his early seventies.  His graduates include people prominent in law, development, and other fields, people whom, once challenged to think, have kept right on thinking--and acting.

I remember a professor years ago who referred to undergraduate teaching as "making mud pies" who wished that someone would just pay him a very large salary to research and write.  We need many more professors like Ken, scholars capable of writing great books who instead focus on challenging themselves and their students to learn broadly and deeply about the complexities of the human prospect.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Discipline and Education in Ghana


The photograph to the right is from Nipaba-Brew Primary School in Sampa, Ghana, one of Yo Ghana's bright, new partner schools.

A casual observer might think that the photograph is posed.  But if one enlarges it, you will see that the young student is in fact making lots and lots of small marks on the page, striving to get them on the line.  I have observed children aged two or three devote a great deal of time to getting their letters just right--and having to start the line or page over again if their work did not meet their teachers' standards.

This is of course much different from the far less structured learning activities that youngsters in the U.S. engage in at this age, activities that seem more related to play than to education, at least in its classic sense.

I find myself in agreement with education reformers inside and outside of Africa who argue that the traditional "chew and spew" method of rote memorization has not served the continent's students well.  But I also believe that a disciplined learner can learn to think for her or himself much more readily than a lazy one can learn to work hard.

How do we nurture and train learners who are both disciplined and creative?  I do not know.  But I do know that it will require Africans and Americans to learn from each other.

Friday, March 21, 2014

March Madness and The Distracted North American Male

It's that time of year again when millions of American males--and not a few females--from President Obama on down fill out their NCAA Men's Basketball Tourney brackets.  But many of us spend hours every week or even every day year round watching or listening to sports--or even watching or listening to men talk about sports on radio or television or keeping up on twitter feeds, web sites, and so on.

Imagine going back in time to the American Revolution and telling Benjamin Franklin that in some 240 years men would have vastly improved educations, easy access to the most important books, and hours of leisure time to study government, serve civic organizations, even learn Latin.  Then imagine America's original self-made man transported to the present to find millions and millions of American males unable to name their U.S. Senators or figure out if the right to bear arms is part of the Constitution or the Ten Commandments--but fully informed on the statistics and health of Duke's back-up point guard.

Are our working lives so difficult that the rest of our waking hours must be largely devoted to such trivia, this at a time when the need for an engaged citizenry is so acute?

Friday, March 14, 2014

I Love Portland State

I found myself getting quite emotional a couple of days ago as the face-to-face class an the history of U.S. cities that Bradley (my outstanding Teaching Assistant) and I have taught this past term.

I sometimes find myself thinking about other jobs, places where I might have a nice office, more job security, and students who aren't choosing between the cost of books and the cost of food.  But I can never quite bring myself to apply for those jobs.  I grew up in rural Clatsop County, the son of a mother who had taught in one-room schoolhouse in rural Tillamook county before she married my dad, who made a living as a mill worker, longshoreman, and commercial fisherman.  True, I co-edited my college's literary arts magazine--at Blue Mountain Community College.

So it just feels right to be working with so many first-generation students, people from diverse ethnic backgrounds and walks of life, so many students who went to community college first or flunked out years ago and are coming back and who are delightfully all over the place in their political and religious views, so much more brash and refreshing than the standard upper-middle-class leftism that feels like a sort of requirement among liberal-arts students at more prosperous universities.  It's a blessing to work with so many students who see the world so differently from each and have kids and jobs, hard-won experience and some scars and wisdom from it all.

Thank you.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

On Being a White Male, Part III

Last week I asserted that progressive-minded white men's commonly expressed desire to somehow escape whiteness causes a great deal of damage.  Let me explain.

First, regarding one's ethnic or racial identity as some sort of unbearable burden sets one up for shame and distortion.  To regard everything white and male as toxic is to fall into the same sort of binary and rigid thinking so often practiced toward people of color.  All cultures and societies have much to be ashamed and to be proud of.  In terms of the latter, I think of my father's ferocious work ethic and commitment to hospitality.  If I simply write him and people like him off, I do violence to the complexity and the richness, the goodness in his life and the considerable gifts that he left me as he struggled to give me a better childhood than his father had been able to give him.

Second, divesting oneself of maleness or whiteness is impossible.  Claiming that sort of renunciation is, in my opinion, cheap and theatrical.  I could, as a Portland participant in a "World Have Your Say" radio forum on race put it some years ago, say that I am "willing to drop my whiteness."  But I would still have all the benefits that whiteness had brought me during my lifetime and before.  I would still often be viewed by students and others as the "smartest person in the room" simply based on my appearance.  Pretending that I have not been handed a bunch of privileges would simply be an attempt to deny my advantages.

Third, many people of color and white women would be delighted to have the sort of power that white men enjoy.  Rather than trying to divest ourselves of it, to somehow lose our whiteness or our gender, why not instead use that power for good, like a superhero?  Simply pointing out that we have accrued privileges we haven't earned could quality as a radical act.  Of course part of what we should be advocating for are opportunities for people of color and white women to speak.  But refusing to speak or to act ourselves simply because we have enjoyed undeserved privileges seems more self-indulgent than progressive.

Friday, February 28, 2014

On Being a White Male, Part II

When friends learn that I'm writing (what will hopefully someday be) a book on American views of Africa, they often bring up the celebrated writer Barbara Kingsolver, author of a widely read novel set in Africa published in 1998, The Poisonwood Bible.  The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and, on the face of it, seems very  sensitive to black Africans, particularly those who lived in the Congo during and after independence.

The story features a patriarchal missionary father, his long-suffering wife, and their four very diverse daughters.  The father is a cardboard figure, the sort of rigidly domineering figure that so many white liberals imagine conservative male Christians to embody.  But black Africans from Prime Minister Lumumba on down are also described with little nuance.  They all--save for those corrupted by western imperialism--appear to be completely noble.

Of course one could argue that Kingsolver is performing a necessary corrective for Americans who grew up with images of morally perfect westerners, from Tarzan to Dr. Livingston, trying to straighten out savage black Africans.  And certainly the U.S. role in deposing and killing Lumumba and then supporting the brutalities of President Mobutu should be both exposed and excoriated.

But I have two sets of objections to Kingsolver's oversimplications.  First, they are distortions.  Many black Africans will tell you that western missionaries were often useful, even admirable, and Americans who set about telling Africans otherwise are often reprimanded.  Second, if missionaries were not simply evil, nor where black Africans simply saints.  Books like The Poisonwood Bible distort the nature of human nature and of evil.  Asserting or implying that evil can only flow from white or western sources is itself a form of racism, in part because it robs people of color of their full humanity and complexity.  Second, this conflation of evil with white males and innocence with black Africans can lead to a sort of paralysis.  Indeed, the lead character, Leah, seems to believe that she escape this dilemma by becoming black.

I have noticed that this desire on the part of liberal or radical white people to somehow change their color, their racial identify, is far from rare.  Next week I'll discuss why I think this desire commonly distracts white men, in particular, from the sobering work of doing something about the considerable damage we have wrought.