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Igor, Is this you now?

Hey Igor, It seems to me that when I knew you in Moscow  in the spring of 1991, the time of the Gulf War that we listened to on your radio, you did keep up a healthy lifestyle.  What did you do? Tennis was it, or perhaps jogging, although that’s not what I remember most about you. No, what I remember is drinking a lot of vodka which was plentiful at that time right at the end of the Soviet Union. while sitting there at your kitchen table à la Sakarov and chewing on the remains of a fish that had been hanging outside on what I think was also your clothesline.

Good times! I hope what you’ve sent us on FB is not a true image of Igor today.

Also, you might check my translation. Do you remember my old pocket dictionary that always accompanied me during our Moscow walks? Well I still have it, out today and on my desk as I translate: Рано или поздно наступает такоӣ возраст…



Рано или поздно наступает такоӣ возраст, когда
Sooner or later there comes such an age, when
больше нет смысла вести здоровый образ жизни
there is no longer any sense to lead a healthy lifestyle
Но ещё пока вести интересный
But still while leading an interesting (life)

Journal, “Gott ist tot.”

Evolution means change, as does immigration, not to mention personal growth.

Who was that Greek who said that you can’t  step into the same river twice? And who were those Greek philosophers who saw everything as being in constant movement. Not to mention as we’ve learned, all kinds of movement, the movement of the earth, the solar system, the Milky Way and the Cosmos itself. There have always been those who have recognized that change could not be avoided, that change was the very nature of life. Our president is not one of them.

And in fact there are loud voices among us who don’t accept this, who would have things fixed in place, and for all time. As, for example, those who would have us returning to a point in the past and trying to restore this fixed point in the present. In fact there are even those who would build their own wall, a private wall, to keep change, new people out, (while waiting perhaps for the country to build a wall).

MAGA all-stars visit border to plot private wall project

People meet at the U.S.-Mexico border
A group of Trump supporters including (from left) former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, Brian Kolfage, Kris Kobach and former Sheriff David Clarke convened in McAllen, Texas, to discuss a new plan for building a wall along the southern border. | Photo courtesy of Brian Kolfage

All of us to some extent would like to have things stay the same. Otherwise we are frightened for our children, even more so for our grandchildren.

And yes, we would like to tell them that things will not change, that yes, there is a Santa Claus, and more seriously that yes, there is a God overlooking, caring for them and for us. And in fact in order not to have to confront the constant presence of  change and movement, most of us, children and grandchildren, go on relying on that God.

But alas, we have known even since the Enlightenment, from the moment when the  German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, announced that ‘ Gott ist tot“ by which he meant that the Enlightenment had “killed” the possibility of belief in God or in any gods, that any gods had ever existed, God being the most permanent element in our lives up until then, Nietzsche’s words, “God is dead,” struck us, hit us hard, sprung us loose as it were, and we’ve never really been able to fully accept that we were not fixed in place with a God watching over us but alone and afloat, and that there was no anchor to hold us, nor island where we could land and be safe.

I got to thinking about all this as read the internet reports and accounts of Trump’s State of the Union speech. Trump is of course one of those who doesn’t accept the world, and our own country which is afterall in the world, as constantly changing, and that we have to be constantly moving, almost running in place if we would just stay where we were or are. Trump would say even that we had to go back to a past time when things were fixed in place.

swastikafour hats

I understand this, Trump’s own swastika or MAGA, although I don’t agree with him about this, or about almost anything he said in the State of the Union.

I do look at my own grandchildren and fear for them, at all the changes they will have to encounter in their own lives as they grow older. Will they be up to it? Sure, I’d like to help them to hold onto a time when things were more secure and comforting, —Santa at Christmas time, God on Sunday in the church, and parents, and grandparents who would not leave them behind, leave them forever, but somehow they parents and grandparents would always be there to assure their children’s comfort and safety.

But of course I couldn’t do this, and thinking about them I had to face the very real possibility that they wouldn’t make it through all the troubles and suffering that they would inevitably encounter, and most likely through no fault of their own. Because life is without fixed points. Life is constant change and constant adapting to the changes. Would my grandchildren be OK, be able to do that?

In his speech Trump would assure everyone that if they followed his prescriptions things would be OK. That’s the best explanation I’ve seen for the continued support of his Republican base. Th wall would be built, he said, and he would build it.

That base, his followers, are for example against immigration (illegal they say, but they really mean all immigration) because immigration first of all brings change. There was a point when things were better, at least according to Trump, and the country’s aim following his lead should be to bring us back to that point in the past. Of course there was no such point….


Hanna Arendt, two ideas

The month of October is almost over and I have posted nothing. That this not happen, that I allow a month a pass, I’ll share with you a couple of ideas that I take from Hanna Arendt’s Crisis in Education.

First this: “… the essence of education is natality, the fact that human beings are born into the world.”

If nothing else this statement does have a certain beauty of its own, our being born into the world. But what does it mean —that the essence of education is natality, and being born into the world? Of course we’re born into the world.

Perhaps it means that when we look at the child the world into which the child is born should determine the child’s education? Or that when we look at the child we can’t ignore that his education has to be all about that world?

Is it that the schools are not paying enough attention to the world? And if not doing what instead?

Second there is this: “In America education plays a different and, politically, incomparably more important role than in other countries. …the explanation lies in the fact that America has always been a land of immigrants.”

Now at one time or the other every place on the surface of this earth has been a “land of immigrants.” The movement of peoples out of Africa and into other lands is, or at least was for nearly all of the 100,000 or so years of homo sapiens’ time on the earth, what history, our history anyway, is most about.

If America is exceptional in this regard it has to be because of the speed, the rapidity with which this movement has taken place during the most recent centuries. And it’s still going on.

I note daily that there are politicians who would, perhaps to protect what they see as their native interests, no longer have us be a land of immigrants. Apparently in their eyes those who continue to come here are no longer the same as the millions who came before them.

Whereas for Arendt the education of successive waves of immigrants into our world should be what most characterizes our schools these politicians would now, in flagrant denial of our history, and perhaps greatness, deny the newcomers, the most recent wave of immigrants, the right to attend our schools.

Schooling and Education, Two

Schooling, not education, is what mostly goes on in those places we call schools. for schooling as a rule has little direct relation to learning. When learning does take place it’s usually in spite of, not because of the school. What happened that schooling and education have grown apart? (Were they ever together? Perhaps in schools for adults. Perhaps at Plato's "school" in Athens.)

Education, or learning, is what life and the best schools are all about. Learning, which is life long, depends primarily on just two factors, the teacher and the student.

Now most educational reformers think that by positively impacting other factors, such as class size, length of the school day, standardized testing, school uniforms, disciplined classrooms, progressive classrooms, the degree of school autonomy etc. student learning can be given a boost. It can’t, of course, as has been abundantly shown by the history of failed school reforms.

A good teacher and a motivated student are the only two factors that can by themselves significantly boost the amount of learning that goes on, in school, or more commonly, in life. For learning to take place the teacher (which could also be a good book, work of art, or even the natural world itself… Lincoln's teacher was a book, Darwin's was nature) needs to be both knowledgeable and caring. The student needs to be ready, to listen and to want to learn. Absent either one and learning does not take place.

The tragedy of our schools stems directly from the fact that they are not primarily concerned with recruiting the very best teachers and with arousing the curiosity and interest of their students.

OK, that’s not easy to do, and there’s the rub. But rather than work on the “hard problem” (teacher recruitment and student motivation) we busy ourselves with endless “solutions” to the "soft" or easy problems mentioned above, length of school day, order in the school and classroom etc.

What happened that we have now in our schools so few excellent teachers and so few motivated students? For the first the answer is easy. Our country early on gave its respect, and resulting monetary rewards, to those who care for our bodies, our doctors, to those who protect our contracts, our lawyers, and to those who grow our economy, our business men, not to mention our media and sports celebrities. To those who would “school” our children, care for their minds, we gave, and continue to give as little respect and dollar recompense as possible.

Why we did this is not so easy to answer. Perhaps it was because those of us who made it to the highest levels of power and influence in our country always knew how little our own success depended on what we had done in school. Schooling was a minor factor in our lives so why should we by our tax payments heavily subsidize an industry whose major function seemed only to be holding children safely and securely in a place apart, in school, until they were of age and were ready to enter society.

So in regard to the one factor, the teacher, things will not change until we decide to give the teacher the respect and monetary rewards that the importance of the position (being close to the child during the child's formative years) demands.

What about the other factor, student motivation? What happened that most students in our schools, most often before they reach the fourth grade and ten years of age, will lose their natural curiosity and interest in everything they encounter in the classroom? What happened that so many of them by the time of Middle School have little or no interest in what their teachers are doing and saying?

Many have tried to answer this question. The most common answer is hormones. The advent of puberty. The child’s interest in his or her body, in sex, trumps the beginning algebra, foreign language, history and literature classes. The real question is, given this fact of the child's interest and preoccupation with other than school subjects, why do we act as if it were not so?

The right teacher may somehow get through the child’s growing physical awareness of body and self to the child’s mind. This is what happens to those children with particular aptitude and talent for the lessons of the classroom and who are naturally obedient. We call these the "good students" of whom there are always a few in every classroom, their presence enabling those teachers who do remain, to remain. This is not, however, what happens with most children.

Is school destined to fail because it doesn't give proper place and importance to the physical changes taking place in the child's body, let alone to the popular culture that most occupies the child's time everywhere but in school?  There are those who would put middle school aged children to work on a farm, especially one with lots of animals, and where bodily functions may be readily and openly observed and discussed. And there are those who would bring popular culture into the classroom. But both "reforms" have failed to make schools also a place of learning.

Most of all in regard to the second of our two factors, the child’s motivation to learn, we need to give the child a lot of slack, and not pretend that the child is with us when he's not. We need to take into account and deal with the fact that the child is only a little bit with us in the classroom and a lot more somewhere else. The classroom lessons in math, science, literature and history while endlessly fascinating in themselves are probably of little or no importance, probably boring, to the child.

What is important to the child, especially in the tween and early teen years, are the “life lessons’ that they are experiencing all the time. These “lessons” may stem from their close contacts with their friends, from the many hours spent with their games, from the music, films and other forms of the popular culture that surrounds them, from their trips to the mall, shopping and just hanging out.

It's not at all that children are not able and ready to learn. In all the respects just mentioned they are far more knowledgeable than we are. There is no question about their ability to master what interests them. Ask them about the things they are curious about and are motivated to learn, their music, their computers, their video games, their interactions with their peers, and they will quickly lose us, as we lose them in our classes, but in this instance because of our absolute ignorance of what they are knowledgeable about.

Children are of course learning all the time. That’s what being alive means. It’s just that very little of that learning goes on in the places we call schools.