Monday, September 12, 2011

Learning Through Life: No Teacher, No Curriculum

Many years ago, in my travels around the large (86 buildings) Richmond City public school system providing services requested of the Media Services department from all levels of the food chain, I found that most of the schools suffered from an unnecessary choke point called a Curriculum Specialist, who often had as much power as the principal. Some required that all requests and requisitions be routed through them, and prevented any direct contact with the worker bees. One battleaxe challenged me upon entering the building (this was way before all that security stuff), which caused me to then research what the heck this obstruction was.

With a large headquarters downtown populated by many Assistant Superintendents and Directors of this and that, and a principal or two for each school to meddle with all such weighty concepts as "curriculum," the only reason for the C.S.'s existence was probably as a very well-paid reserve corps of future assistant supers, principals and directors. Bored and useless, they became petty dictators. I dealt directly with the teachers and librarians after that, learning which entrance to use to avoid the Reaper.

Not the only reason I've thought about education for many decades. My own, and your own, standardized school experiences as students give us all enough to contemplate for the rest of our lives (if the phrase WTF? had existed back then, I'd have used it every day).

Conventional school is too much like a factory; the innate contradiction is that each part is different instead of being the same. We learn in different ways, something little understood even now, and we learn on very different timelines. We get bored and inattentive if we encounter a subject too late in our development, and frustrated when we meet it too early. Curiosity is innate in human and animal young; they all want to learn. But there are such overwhelming limits on what can occur in a classroom setting in strict conformance to the clock, that enthusiasm just shrivels. Inescapable, pervasive testing is a cruel joke, since all souls must be evaluated the same when they are as different as snowflakes. Do-or-die testing and fear of failure do not encourage, but erode abilities and interest.

With the dizzying pace of change, we can't know what knowledge will be needed in the future. Learning how to learn will serve us better than ending up with a stack of boxes of knowledge with a diploma on top.

Cyberschools and homeschooling are now available, but the motivations for their establishment and growth alongside the conventional public systems are often negative. Parents who fear for their children in bad schools or neighborhoods are grateful for alternatives other than church school, but about three-quarters of homeschoolers do it to ensure religious instruction and to insulate their progeny from any worldview but their own. I used to have several volumes of religious homeschool texts and workbooks; the propaganda included little gems like the statement that all fossils were deposited during Noah's Flood, and dinosaurs existed a few thousand years ago.

Not mentioned in any but the most obscure journals is the "unschooling" movement, proposed by John Holt, Ivan Illich and Raymond Moore in the 1970s (the most active and productive era in educational thinking since the turn of the 20th century). Unschooling is based on learning through natural life experiences and explorations initiated by the students themselves -- superfically similar to, but very different philosopically from, homeschooling. It asks: Can you make a better path for yourself than someone else can make for you? As an inmate, I sure thought so, but there was nowhere to go with that idea back then.

Adults and parents involved act as navigators, provide access and introduction to mentors, while sharing their interests and skills. A high level of supervision slides down to a lesser one as the students age and grow. Even in conventional schools, the project a student takes the lead on and explores deeply will be the experience he/she will benefit the most from. This is proven over and over again by home-schooled children succeeding at consistently higher rates in higher education and in life; they are more mature and confident.

Our society is only going to tolerate a few who value cooperation over competition and don't value coercion at all, so the unschooling movement will remain small, and should, to survive.

Two working parents is a common enough situation which would prevent participation. The school calendar is a just a tyrant to families --those who can follow an alternative program will miss that rigid calendar as much as a toothache (and they can participate in some of the local school activities). And the commonest objection, "lack of socialization," is not the problem critics may think; the artificial context of the schoolhouse environment actually retards socialization due to lack of contact with many adults in the community, the loneliness of the crowd and age segregation.

It makes you wonder where a different path may have taken you.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Desert Rat War

On Wednesday, I had the car due to taking Nancy in to work, so I was able to go to the lively Cornerstone Cafe in Camp Hill instead of the few places I'm usually limited to due to traveling on foot.

I ran into and joined an old friend who regularly meets with his geezer and geezerette buddies around 8 a.m. before heading out to do one or another volunteer jobs for the borough.

People drifted away one by one (a few actually had to go to work), and the last fellow told me about an eccentric friend of his who is a scenepainter for the studios in Los Angeles, but lives way out in the desert in a small collection of shacks without permits or property taxes. Like most movie/TV people, he works long and hard for a while then has some nice breaks between gigs (right now he's on Glee, so he has a three-year commitment). He's entirely off-grid, but that's a necessity where utility lines (not to mention the unwanted attention they would attract) are hugely expensive to run.

I've never been in the dry interior areas of California, but driving in Arizona a few years ago we had noticed similar situations: a lone trailer, maybe with a few cobbled-together outbuildings, baking in the sun at the end of a long gravelly road. You figure they pretty much want to be left alone and won't bother you if you respect that.

The next day, I came across a story about the ongoing drama involving these "desert rats" like my new acquaintance's friend in the high desert country of Antelope Valley, about an hour from Los Angeles. These 2200 square miles have attracted refugees from city and suburban life, mostly truckers and harmless nonconformists who, it turns out, knew little or nothing of required land-use permits and county building codes ever being applied to isolated rural dwellings.

Elderly Jacques Dupuis and his wife, residents near Llano for 22 years, were raided by a Nuisance Abatement Team from the county codes enforcement bureau, who called Mrs. Dupuis out, demanding identification while they surrounded her with guns drawn. In 1984, they got a permit for a water tank (water is delivered by truck, like in Mexico), but the county was now demanding they install a well, which after all the subsequent requirements were totalled up, would cost almost $90,000 (what there is of ground water is full of nitrates -- thus the water tank decision they made years ago). They eventually were forced to dismantle their home and move away.

Why did L.A. County Supervisor Michael Antonovich re-activate the NAT's in 2006 (they had been used in previous decades to deal with serious health and safety issues like giant boars at a residence)? Why, when questioned about the raids and destruction of homes in a public meeting, did he refuse to answer anything?

Kenny Perkins, who moved his antique car business out of the city to the desert because of gang vandalism, has been harrassed almost to bankruptcy -- he has met all demands including moving a large outbuilding which "did not meet set-back requirements," even though it was at the end of his private dirt road. He had rented the cars to movie and television productions, but the county shut his business down. Is creating a new group of unemployed, homeless people a legitimate function of local government? Fourteen people have left the area already, broke and propertyless.

After spending 30 years building, from telephone poles and I-beams, his whimsical but sturdy "Phonehenge West" near Acton, Alan K. Fahey was arrested for not having sufficient permits. He and his family were evicted and the animals were impounded this summer (picture above). In other cases the residents were cited due to anonymous complaints supposedly from neighbors, about their "interference" and "offensiveness" -- they remain nameless and indeed are few and far between; in one case no nearer than 10 miles in any direction. All Native Americans, as well as many of the first '49ers, know what the real Code of the West is -- use any tactic or level of violence to muscle people off their land, no matter how dry, remote or forlorn it is.

Either Mr. Antonovich is a classic case of an authoritarian, "punishing" personality gone mad with power, or someone wants to acquire this land cheaply for minerals, fossil fuels, a pipeline or a highway. Remember the historical basis of Chinatown?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ghost Cities

Against my better judgment, I started reading an article in Forbes magazine based on the cover teaser headline. Normally I avoid it, along with Fortune and Money, and only take the Economist in with my critical/skeptical antennae up. Despite what looked like a credible author, all the sentences in the first two paragraphs were spin, lies and mis-statements along the lines of the current Repub/Conservative/Fox propaganda memes. The place for this is hysterical internet pages like, not a periodical with some claim to expertise.

However, I did delve into an odd, thankfully apolitical story about cities that may soon go to their graves. So, having given proper credit, here's what the Grim Reaper may be currently surveying.

Mexico City has about 20 million inhabitants, and that's way too many for such a dicey geological spot. It sits on an aquifer (an ancient lake covered up, in this case) which the population is draining dry. As it collapses, the city sinks about 8" a year; in the last century, parts have sunk as much as 9 meters. Streets are collapsing and the combination rainwater/sewage tunnels are tilting backward, recently flooding 4000 homes with waste.

The probable disaster threatening Mexico City would have a social and economic impact that would affect its neighbors in very bad ways. One of our own, however, will likely just quietly disappear. Cairo sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers at the southern tip of Illinois. It is the deteriorating home to 3,632 souls, down from about 20,000 in the 1920s (its namesake in Egypt is home to about 7 million and also claims a significant river, but seems to be holding its own otherwise). The proximate cause of death is not geological, but racial conflict. Violence in the 1960s and a ten-year boycott of white businesses (there weren't any other kind) led to everything closing up and leaving. One writer called the picture (above) taken in its empty downtown "ruins porn."

Lasting 1000 years, as the original Cairo has, is no guarantee that a city will endure. Equally old, Timbuktu, the ancient caravan stop in Mali, Africa, is being strangled by advancing desertification of lands bordering the southern Sahara. The same process is encroaching on northern China and the western United States. Parts of the city are already buried in sand as dunes swallow once greener acres.

Lack of water isn't the looming problem for the urban areas of the Netherlands (one much lower than New Orleans' Ninth Ward) or Male, the capital city of the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean (hang around Just Sayin' long enough and you will clean up on Jeopardy!). There is a range of predictions, but on average it seems ocean levels will rise about two feet in this century. The average elevation of the Maldives is six feet; the city of Male's highest point is 15 feet. Will it still be safe there, after subtracting two from six? Hardly; way back in 1987 high waves did $40 million in damage. The waves aren't going to get any kinder.

This is creeping me out. I need to find some cute furry animal pictures.