Amusing Ourselves to Death

Disclaimer: I’m a fan of media. When I finish writing this, I’m heading to watch a couple episodes of Buffy. I own an impressive collection of dvd’s and cd’s–although not as good as my daughter’s. I raised her right, I think. I have oodles and oodles of music on my Amazon cloud, which has some but not all of the same music as my iPod, which still only has part of my collection. I use streaming Netflix and Hulu Plus pretty much daily. I like media.

BUT…..the Mexican restaurant I like now has television screens everywhere I look. So does Applebees and the Beer Barrel. And McDonalds and Burger King. And WalMart. In fact, WalMart has small screens at the end of some aisles, just in case you get bored making your way between the big screens, I guess.

AND….now my high school has random huge screens in hallways. We have enough trouble with kids blocking the intersections between classes; now there’s a constant stream of…I’m not sure what they will play….to distract the human roadblocks even more.

Then I went to put gas in my car today, and the pump was blaring country music at me.

When did America become allergic to silence? When did people become so boring that any entertainment is better than conversation? Recently, I went to a popular restaurant in Lima–one big room–with 8 televisions all on different programs, all with subtitles and sound, AND music was playing as well. Major sensory overload–and impossible to talk. I didn’t even attempt to stop my daughter when she pulled a book out of her purse to read as she ate; conversation was impossible. I sat there reading twitter and RSS feeds; yes, I see the irony in that: more media saturation, when that’s what I’m grousing about.

I didn’t say I’m holier than anyone else in this case. If I could find a Sy-Fy/Alt Bar, playing Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, Buffy, and other favs, I’d be there. Especially if they had amazing nachos like Applebees used to have.  But, if my hypothetical bar existed, I promise I’d be there arguing Kirk v. Picard, and counting the times Luke whined–not just sitting there comatose, senses too overloaded to function.

Eating Knowledge

The story By the Waters of Babylon by Stephen Vincent Benet shows a civilization that has been decimated by “eating knowledge too fast,” as John the Son of a Priest says as he explores the ruins of modern day New York City. John observes that there must be a balance between wisdom and knowledge or a civilization isn’t safe.

I could rant and point fingers about the educational reformers, creating a culture of accountability while neither employing or espousing wisdom. And some other day, I might. But this week at my school, the value of having teachers with wisdom as well as knowledge was made clear.

A young, healthy teacher died suddenly. One day, he was lecturing, badgering kids to complete assignments, interviewing to become principal, even. The next, we were explaining to his students that he died that morning as he was getting ready for school.

Testing can be mandated; work hours can be mandated. Even the content of the classes and the knowledge the teachers possess and impart can be mandated. And knowledge is important–no argument about that.

But students are not widgets or cogs in the education machine. Students are not merely “stakeholders” in the process, either. They are people, with all the weaknesses, issues, emotions, and baggage that our reality shows parade across America’s television screens daily. We can make the acquisition of knowledge more efficient and effective,  but there’s a tipping point where the educational system will become so weighted towards “knowledge” than the human element will be gone–the ability to bring school to a standstill to hold sobbing students, when needed even–and there will be no wisdom left to find in our classrooms. That’s what was most clearly illustrated this week as my school dealt with that teacher’s sudden death.

There is little wisdom in our statehouses and our leaders; our churches and holy places are too often focused on big screen projectors and growing their market share. If we do not want John the Son of a Priest’s tale to be prophetic, schools may be our last hope for finding the balance between knowledge and wisdom.

Seeking Wisdom

Note: this was the first post I wrote on a blog site I dedicated solely to education. And just in case you don’t know: all the things I feared are more true now.

I started this blog intending to write about education issues regularly. For a long time, I’ve been in the front lines in urban education, then in the vortex of urban education reform–I thought I had something to say.

Then all hell broke loose in educational reform, and the inmates started running the asylum. There’s no shortage of words, no contemplative silence while people seek wisdom. There’s not even a common vocabulary for identifying and discussing the issues. George Orwell’s “doublespeak” has come to pass in ways he couldn’t have predicted.

In times like this, I start looking to literature for comfort and answers. The greats often provide perspective;  The Beatles “Fool on A Hill”  and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” gave me some ideas and options, for instance. Jesus clearing the temple from the moneychangers seems like an equally appealing model.

Then my class read MacBeth and heard Sir Patrick Stewart offer this observation: “….it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (MacBeth Act V, scene 5).

There are fools on the Hill–and in the statehouse. And even more people are offering tales full of sound and fury–no meaning, nothing that helps address the real issues in our classrooms and cafeterias–nothing that addresses the real crises in our governmental budgets and priorities.

But still they talk–the politicians and media mavens, the philanthropists and businessmen, strutting and fretting their hours onstage like the poor player MacBeth disdains.

I don’t have answers, and I’m not sure I know the questions, but it’s time that I start talking. As Fox Mulder asserted, “The truth is out there.” It’s getting lost in a tsunami of hyperbole.  I’m a  teacher who deals primarily with poor minority teens–kids who are becoming more marginalized, more stigmatized, and more disheartened; at this point, those words describe their teachers, too.

I’m tired of giving the fools and idiots the power. It’s my turn. Stay tuned.