Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Our Debt to Our Ancestors

I'm at the Oregon Coast for a few days to rest and recharge. After spending September in Ghana, I returned to my teaching duties about 12 hours later, and it's been a wild 11 weeks.

While riding the bus to Tillamook I passed near where my maternal grandmother spent her early years. She dropped out of school after fourth grade because her parents couldn't afford the books for fifth grade. Plus, like many impoverished African parents today, they needed her to go out and earn money. While working as a domestic servant in a house in Netarts she met a young man who grew up on the land shown in the photograph, above. His parents rented the poor farmland, and his father, too, had a drinking and an income problem that drove him out of school at a young age. So they fell in love, got married, and worked and worked and worked to give their children (and therefore their grandchildren, like me, and all those who came after) a better life than what they had.

In Ghana I meet a lot of people who probably would have gotten along well with my grandparents, students and adults who are very earnest and serious and hard working, who are fighting steep odds to create a better life not just for themselves, but for the generations who come after--and their neighbors and their nation. Of course there's always the danger that those who come later, with much easier lives, take the prosperity that they won for us lightly. Easy come, easy go.

That would be a travesty. A very small proportion of the world enjoys the sort of choices and advantages that my grandparents passed along to me. Most or even all of the people reading this are probably in the same boat. So, then, the question becomes: what are we going to do with those choices and advantages?

Some 80 years after my grandmother's death, I am grateful to her. Will anyone be grateful to me, to us, 80 years after we are gone? Will we give them a reason to remember us, and to remember us with gratitude?

Friday, December 5, 2014

Why I Love Teaching at PSU

This photograph of Portland State University always makes me chuckle, as it is so generic, could describe most any small-town college campus.

My PSU is much grittier than this.  I have a little office in Cramer Hall, which looks like it was designed to survive a nuclear attack.  Let's just say it's short on charm.  The ground floor of our Student Union does not exude luxury.  We still have a lot of wooden desks that are bolted to the floor.  When I am teaching 3.5 hour classes, I am always thankful to be standing up rather than sitting down in such classrooms.

A very small percentage of the students live on campus.  Most of them seem to be always coming or going, not just hanging out.  They are coming to and from work, or rushing home to pick up their kids from daycare, maybe caring for an elderly parent.

It's the students who make PSU beautiful.

For starters, they are truly diverse.  Even a small class is apt to have students from several different countries.  Unlike certain colleges which will remain unnamed, PSU is not dominated by white students from privileged backgrounds who are trying to outdo each other in being more radical and sensitive than thou--not that there's anything wrong with that.  Rather, at PSU you find thoughtful students who are Mormons, Muslims, radical feminists, evangelical Christians, evangelical atheists, Socialists and Libertarians and everyone in between, and, of course, the guy who believes that hemp is the solution to every problem.  They usually listen to and respect each other.

And there are so many amazing stories, from the young woman who was a pregnant gang member at fifteen and is now headed off to law school to the guy who dropped out of high school and almost drank himself to death for years and is now getting an education to help others avoid those choices to the innumerable mothers and fathers who are somehow going to school and working one or two or three jobs and raising children and volunteering in their communities and turning in amazing papers and thank you at the end of the term.

Thank you for the inspiration.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sankofa at Ashesi

Since returning from Ghana at the end of September, I've been working on a chapter for a book on educational achievement in Sub-Saharan Africa.  My chapter, if all goes as planned and hoped, will be on how Ashesi University incorporates African as well as Western motifs.  The Akan Sankofa bird, pictured here, turns back to the past to pick up selected traditions to use in the present.  I argue that Ashesi does the same thing, that although it uses elements from the liberal arts tradition of the U.S. that its founder, Dr. Patrick Awuah, picked up at Swarthmore College, it also embodies African ideas about social and religious commitments--though it is a secular institution, I should add.

Doing the research for this piece was a lot of fun, as it mostly entailed interviewing students and faculty at Ashesi, and they are an exceptional group of people who share a strong sense of mission, a commitment to transforming Africa through raising a new generation of innovative and ethical leaders.  I think my favorite quotation on what education is for comes from a young student who, like a lot of Ashesi students, spends much of her free time helping impoverished Ghanaians: "you have to give back, you have to give back, you have to give back."

At a time when so much of college life in the U.S. has devolved into narrow specializations and the cultivation of what Swarthmore's James Kurth terms "the imperial self," this sort of earnestness is refreshing and inspiring.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Big Moment In Peter's Life

Saturday was a big day in our young son's life, as he played right back the entire game in Central Catholic's 3-0 win in the state championship game and,  as you can see, was first into the stands after the game.

Peter started playing soccer year round in second grade, ten years ago.  So it's been a decade of 6:00 a.m. indoor soccer games and wet, late-night practices.  I think what he's most enjoyed about soccer is his teammates.  Whenever a choice came along as to which team to play on, he always chose to play where most of his buddies were, and I've always appreciated what a good leader he was on the field in terms of encouraging teammates or breaking up fights before they got started or endeavoring to enlighten referees who had wronged a teammate--at least in his view.

He's also not been afraid to fail.  He'll jump in to take a penalty kick, volunteer to play keeper or center back despite having no experience, and keep playing hard even when a game seems out of reach--all good life lessons for his overly cautious father.

One of Peter's other strengths is that he knows how to have fun.  As Coach Sean put it many years ago: "he has the biggest smile when we win and the biggest frown when we lose."  Saturday it was time to smile, and no one had a bigger one.

Peter's a senior, nearing the end of a transition from a life of play to one of work.  Saturday provided a wonderful exclamation point and will be a benchmark that he'll always look back to fondly.

We are so thankful to the many people who donated their time and patience to help him over the years, a long list that includes Coaches: Dave, Sean, Parke, Reggie, Erik, Mike, Adam, and Tim.

Friday, November 14, 2014

In Praise of Crazy Middle School Teachers

Mr. Essan Weah and I had the pleasure of spending today at Briggs Middle School in Springfield Oregon.  What a delightful place!

Essan taught for several years in Ghana before becoming the headmaster of Morle Junior High School, a Yo Ghana partner, and he has a wonderful rapport with students here in talking about what life is like in Ghana inside and outside of school.

Teaching in the U.S. is in some ways more difficult than teaching in Ghana.  There are, to be sure, lots of books and often computers, and many other learning aids. But our children are often scarred by modern life, and by middle school it is considered uncool, in most early adolescent circles, to express enthusiasm for learning.

How blessed we are, then, to have so many teachers like the ones at Briggs, people who both exude and command respect, who so manifestly care so deeply about the children we entrust to their care, teachers who when faced with the unworkable demands of the modern classroom say "yes" to additional challenges and opportunities.

Thank you.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Four Principles of Yo Ghana!

Yo Ghana! is always thinking about how to define its mission more precisely.  Here is the
most recent version:

Exchanges for Transformation
We believe that becoming friends with and learning from students across the globe transforms lives by breaking open new possibilities and opportunities.

Schools in the U.S. are not above schools in Ghana.  Each set of schools has its own strengths and challenges.  We work together, as equal partners, to learn from and help each other.

Local Initiative
Yo Ghana! does not simply give money away, and we don’t want any buildings named after us.  But if your school has started a project—from a library or computer lab to visiting your partner school—we would be honored to help.
We believe that everyone is in a position to help someone.  Yo Ghana! students encourage and educate each other.  Yo Ghana! projects offer people on both sides of the world an opportunity to improve the lives of others.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Secularization, Education, and Drift

I've been reading and thinking about secularization lately as part of my research on Ashesi University and its blending of Western and African motifs.

In Ghana schools, as in the rest of life, religion is a deeply ingrained part of the routine.  Religious and Moral Training is part of the state curriculum.  The photograph here is of students and staff worshiping as part of the school day.   Religious beliefs are diverse.  Christians are in the majority in most parts of the country, but there are also many Muslims as well as followers of Traditional beliefs and practices.  But a belief in God is widely shared.

Americans of course no longer share that assumption.  In fact at most universities it's safe to say that professing strong religious beliefs will lead, at best, to people regarding you as quaint.

The shift toward secularism has been going on for a long time in American universities, but for the first two thirds or so of the twentieth century the ethos of most campuses--like the culture as a whole--was still strongly informed by Protestantism, broadly defined.  So when professors or administrators talked about serving the public interest, there was a general understanding of what that entailed. In the past several decades academic and mainstream culture have been dominated by an emphasis on what is commonly referred to as expressive or radical individualism, or what some critics have described as a shift from a focus on one's social responsibilities to a focus on one's personal rights.

This expressive individualism has led us to become more sensitive than before to injustice.  But since the alpha and omega of life is the pursuit of individual rather than collective happiness, universities have become much better at deconstruction than reconstruction; we excel at identifying oppression but struggle at advancing positive alternatives, in part because to do so would be to impose, we assume, constructed and arbitrary beliefs on radically free individuals.  The result, as Columbia University cultural historian (who identifies himself as a secular Jew) Andrew Delbanco puts it, is a sense of "drift."

His solution, (advanced in College; What it Was, Is, and Should Be)  is to recapture the sense of mission that U.S. colleges once articulated: "to serve others is to serve oneself by providing a sense of purpose, thereby countering the loneliness and aimlessness by which all people, young and old, can be afflicted."

As Portland State's motto is "To Serve the City," I think we have an excellent foundation from which to build a sense of shared purpose.