Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How Did This Happen? Part II

It is interesting to note that so many public intellectuals are now examining white, working-class people as a sort of anthropological exercise. On the one hand, it's a good thing that highly educated, liberal people are trying to understand their less educated counterparts. On the other hand, it's a bit depressing that there is such a gulf between the two groups. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that many academics in the U.S. today find it easier to understand and certainly to have empathy for someone living in the developed world under very different circumstances from our own than we do with the average Trump enthusiast.

One of the discoveries of these cultural anthropologists of the white working class is that the subjects of the study view themselves as middle class. That distinction is a telling one, for I think it's an assertion of both being at the heart of America's identity (a status they fear is slipping away) and that they are not people who need things--though one of the great ironies of modern American politics, I can't help but point out, is that states and areas whose residents express the most antipathy to government tend to be subsidized, through federal and state taxation and expenditure, by places highly populated by pointy-headed intellectuals.

But I think we pointy-headed intellectuals play a leading role in the modern social, cultural, and political divide between highly and less educated white Americans.

I recall years, when I was a young radical, a friend remarking that she felt like she "could not keep up with" me. By the time she accepted one of my positions, I had staked out a new one, farther away from normal people like her. And of course that was the point, to be more radical than thou. It's a very human and understandable impulse, to wish to "distinguish" oneself, to use Pierre Bourdieu's term. Intellectuals like to turn their educational advantages not simply into cash, but into "cultural capital." We adopt ways of living and thinking that set us apart from--and above--our less educated peers in our taste in food, entertainment, and, of course, politics. Hence we are often perceived, by those we view as our inferiors, as walking around with "stick up our ***."

One of the problems with using one's education to assert superiority is that it so often generates humiliation and resentment in those who are made to feel excluded. Another problem is that if you are determined to be in the minority, you won't win many elections.

Monday, November 14, 2016

How Did This Happen?

I apologize to my faithful blog readers--both of you--for this long pause between blogs.

Like many people, since Tuesday I've been trying to come to terms with the results of the U.S. Presidential election. Though certainly there are millions of Americans, at least, who will disagree with me, I believe that we elected someone who is patently unfit for the office, a fact that a large number of conservatives, as well as liberals, have been pointing out for months.

So that raises the question of how he could be elected. There are of course all sorts of economic and strategic considerations here, a sort of perfect storm of antipathy for Secretary Clinton and economic decline among the aging white working class, especially men, who not so long ago were apt to vote Democratic. But I like to focus on variables that I think I can shape more directly, such as my work as a professor, my teaching.

It seems to me that universities contributed to the election of Mr. Trump. Sure, he did great among relatively uneducated white voters. But he also (thanks to men) won most of the white college graduates. How could so many highly educated white voters vote for a candidate who was not only patently unfit for office by experience and temperament, but who also expressed the sort of racist and misogynistic views that university professors so commonly condemn?

1) Universities do a poor job of teaching and encouraging civic engagement. About 45 percent of registered voters did not even vote.

2) We also do a poor job of teaching students to handle intellectual and moral complexity. Many commentators have remarked on the election's false equivalences, such as the notion that since each candidate bent the truth, they were equally guilty of lying.

3) The very fact that university professors in the humanities and social sciences have become so liberal leads to all sorts of problems, ironically, for liberals. When universities become silos of an ideology (no matter how praiseworthy) that bears little resemblance to what most of the country believes, it loses the capacity to communicate with the rest of society. Too many well-educated Americans don't even know someone with conservative beliefs, let alone how to communicate with one. Not only that, but students with more conservative values may "hunker down" and keep their ideas to themselves during class to avoid being labeled intolerant, backward, or bigoted, but this feeling of being censured and ridiculed fosters a sense of resentment. A large fraction of Trump voters admitted (anonymously) to being reluctant to express their support for the man publicly, just as a large number of university students with conservative views about religion or sexuality will keep quiet during class.

It seems to me that at least part of the solution to the cluster of civic problems we now face is to work to foster a sense of civic engagement and responsibility that includes respectful dialogue with those who have very different views from our own. Years ago I co-facilitated dialogues with Oregon Uniting and Uniting to Understand Racism in which people of diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds met in small groups and discussed their experiences of and beliefs around race. I think it changed and opened a lot of minds, at least when we created an environment in which people felt safe to be candid about their views and experiences.

None of us has all of the answers, and we can all learn from each other--especially at times like this, when our first inclination is to start shouting.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Not Quite Fifteen Minutes of Fame

I was pleasurably shocked a couple of months ago to be perusing the book section of Costco and come across a stack of my textbook on Oregon's history. I bought a copy, since the price was good, and I figured that, well, someone had to do it.

A few weeks later I returned to find that it was gone. Maybe I should have bought more than one.

Being an author is interesting. It tends to bring one a lot of respect, deserved or not, and even status. But it's very rare for many people to read one's book, and if I were to add all the money I've earned from my books, it would come to less than $20,000. If I were to add up all the time I have spent on those books, it would be the equivalent of about five years of full time work. So you can do the math. And I doubt that the few thousand books of mine have been passed around, from person to person. I remember the words of a fellow graduate student many years ago, at Northwestern University, who summed up the life of the scholar with this observation: "You'll spend many tedious years researching and writing books that no one will read."

If I had it to do over again, I might well spend those five years on other things. But every year or two, there's a little unexpected surprise--a warm email or, once in a lifetime, a cameo appearance at Costco.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Miss Farida: Loss, Determination, and Inspiration

A few months ago Elizabeth, Wendy, and I had the honor of meeting Miss Farida at ECG School in Tamale. Farida had recently lost her father and seemed very sad. But the school has a fund for such students that was helping her to stay in school.
A few days ago Mr. Joseph, our fine coordinator at ECG, sent us a photo of her with her new books. It's good to see her smile.

I have some friends in developing countries who believe that the only way to get people in the West to pay attention to their problems is to feature children who look forlorn and hopeless. Certainly I have been tempted to use such tactics when trying to raise money that Yo Ghana! uses to help such schools.

But the reality is that Miss Farida, her family, and ECG School are doing the hard work here. She is determined in school and refusing to let sadness overwhelm her life. Her family, despite losing its main wage earner, is paying most of her school fees. Her school had a fund for helping such families long before Yo Ghana! came along to contribute to it.

And it's really not accurate to say that Yo Ghana! came to ECG School. Rather, Yo Ghana! has emerged from ECG and other schools in Ghana and the Pacific Northwest, a family of inspiring people and institutions. There's not really a "we" and "them" here.

Farida is as much a part of Yo Ghana! as anyone else, and her determination and smile are an inspirational gift to us all.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Turning Dreams Into Reality In Dambai

Two years ago Brando Akoto and I visited Dambai Demonstration School in the Volta Region and heard about how the school had become so popular that they were expanding to include another three grades--a junior high school.

But where would the classrooms come from? A big NGO had built them a classroom some years ago that had not met their needs, but they hoped that Yo Ghana! might come to their assistance. Mr. Brando, who had worked in community development for many years before coming to the U.S., said, "why don't you you start something, create a building that will meet your needs, and Yo Ghana! will help." Not only that, but "twenty years from now, Yo Ghana! will still be visiting with and working with you."

So last year the school had laid the foundations for a new block of three large classrooms.  When we visited this June, three months ago, the block had a concrete floor and a sound roof, and the walls were creeping up. So at our last board meeting, remembering Brando's promise, Yo Ghana! awarded the school enough money to just about finish the walls. The school and community will provide doors, windows, and interior finishing. When done, the community will have donated thousands of dollars of money and untold hours of labor to create three large classrooms that meet and express their own priorities. Yo Ghana!'s role will be significant, but secondary.

Brando passed away about fourteen months after visiting Dambai. But not before teaching all of us a lot about how to promote development in a way that respects and encourages local initiative.

One of my life goals is to visit Dambai regularly until at least 2034, twenty years after Brando visited. Each time I'll be fondly remembering a dear friend and mentor.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Awesome Responsibilities and Opportunities of Being Wealthy

Few people I know in the U.S. consider themselves wealthy. But consider the story of Criscent Bwambale, the boy pictured here, as related by the BBC..

Criscent was born with cataracts and was unable to see. The photo was taken as he's on his way home, looking out the window at a delightful world he is seeing for the first time.

The cost of the surgery? According to the website of Sightsavers, the NGO that funded Criscent's surgery, it's $75.00.  $50.00 for adults.

Yes, that's $75.00.


None of this is to say that people with $75.00 to spare should start throwing it at the health problems of developing countries. It is important to choose organizations that have leadership from the nations they are serving and that have a strong record and reputation for spending money ethically and effectively.

But there are plenty of organizations in Uganda, the rest of Africa, and the rest of the developing world doing this sort of amazing work. And the complexity of trying to help is no excuse for not helping.

And look at Criscent's face. Wouldn't you give much more than $75.00 to play even a small role in transforming someone's life like that?!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Nicholas Kristof and Heroes

Nicholas Kristof is perhaps the only major newspaper columnist in the U.S. who writes regularly about developing countries. He long ago learned that writing a column about Africa or poorer areas of Latin America or Asia that people will actually read requires the presence of two stock characters: an attractive victim and a "bridge character" who saves the day, an American protagonist with whom readers can identify.

As Amanda Hess pointed out a couple of years ago in Slate, the online magazine, Kristof makes a good case for his approach, which has drawn tens of thousands of Americans to take a greater interest in problems such as human trafficking in far-away places. Many of these readers have donated time or money to combating problems they otherwise would have ignored. Sure, Kristof knows that local people have been and continue to tackle these problems, often with great success. But Americans are seldom interested in those stories..

One danger of this emphasis on Americans' agency in solving the problems of the developing world is the impact that it has on the people of the developing world. I have myself noticed that it is very easy for Yo Ghana! to do more harm than good if we slide into the role of Western Savior rather than doing the more time-consuming work of listening to, collaborating with, and recognizing Ghanaians on the ground who were identifying and solving problems long before we showed up.

It is very dangerous for Americans abroad to start thinking of ourselves as heroes because of what we have done for "our school" or "our village." That sort of thinking exaggerates our impact and can easily blind us to what we have to learn from our partners. It is even more dangerous if the people in the developing countries start thinking that heroes can only be outsiders. I am frightened by how easy it is for both sets of people--myself included--to slip into those roles. That is one reason we like to honor our teachers in Ghana whenever we get the chance, such as Madam Akoto of Akalove School, shown here, a woman who was instrumental in starting the school in the village a few years ago. Very few people in America may ever read about her. And that's fine. But it's important that the people of Akalove remember and honor their heroes--and remember that if they want great things for their community, they don't need to wait for outsiders to come to their rescue.