Thursday, October 22, 2009

Life Is More Powerful Than Books

Dictator Augusto Pinochet

President Salvador Allende of Chile

This September, Dr. Felicia Nimue Ackerman, a philosophy professor at Brown University, published an essay in the Providence Journal, “What we will not say in my classes.” This is the beginning of her essay:

“BROWN UNIVERSITY’S fall semester classes began this month, and I began by telling students my usual ground rules. This presentation goes approximately as follows: 

“I expect you to come to class, but you don’t have to give me explanations for any absences. I will suggest paper topics and completion dates, but you don’t have to stick to them. I have one strict rule, though. In my courses, we never, never, never, never . . .” 

At this point, I add that I hope all these “nevers” are arousing everyone’s curiosity. Sometimes I ask students to guess. What is it that we never do? 

We never discuss our personal lives."                                                                                                    

I couldn't disagree more. Her essay reminded me of two experiences I had when I was a graduate student teaching assistant at UCLA.

One of my students was Mai, a young Vietnamese woman enrolled in the freshman summer program (much like our Talent Development Program at URI) who was the most fanatically intense student I have ever had. She took down every word I said and studied the entire weekend. She came to class exhausted from having studied half the night. I began to worry that she would make herself sick and I spoke to her about approaching things in a more moderate way, (This is the ONLY conversation like this I have ever had with a student.) Finally, I asked her why she was pushing herself so hard. She began to cry and she told me this story: 

She and her family were boat people. They had been standing on the shore, scrambling aboard the boat when Viet Cong soldiers came and started shooting. Her father jumped in the boat and pulled his children in; mom was helping them by pushing from the ground. When the soldiers started shooting, the boat took off leaving mom stranded on the shore. Her father and the children, including my student, came to America; they didn't know if mom was alive or dead. My student was working so hard because she wanted to finish college in as short a time as possible so she could go to law school to become an international lawyer, and go back and look for her mother. I had little doubt that her mother was dead but I had heard of a group that looked for missing Vietnamese people and I put her in contact with them. 

Our class had been discussing immigration and the civil wars in Central America. After she told me about her experience, she agreed to tell our class. You can imagine how shocked her classmates were that she had undergone such an ordeal. They gave her a great deal of support. I have always believed that sharing the story with them helped her a great deal and it opened their eyes to things they had never imagined. 

Another student I had during that period was Ana, a Chilean student. When were discussing the overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973, she looked stricken; so much so that when the class ended, she did not leave her seat. I asked her what was wrong. This was her story:

Her father had been a minister in Allende’s government. General Augusto Pinochet, with the help of the United States, overthrew President Allende, the democratically-elected president of Chile, and installed himself as dictator. He detained 30 to 40 thousand people. He tortured and disappeared and/or killed some 3000 people during the 17 years he was in power. Ana was 5 years old when the coup occurred. 

Her father disappeared during the initial days of the coup. The family was sick with worry, sure that he had been killed. Weeks later, he was brought home, half-starved, ill; the signs of torture on his frail body. The family was told that they must take what they could carry and that they were being sent to the United States. (I do not know why her family merited this treatment, especially after what they had done to her father.) Certain that they were going to be killed, Ana’s mother gathered a few belongings and gathered the children. They were taken to the airport where they were indeed sent to New York. They arrived with the clothes on their backs and little else. Ana was so traumatized that she stopped talking and stopped eating. It took a long time before they could convince the child to eat; it was years before she spoke. And they were the lucky ones; they got out. 

Ana wanted to tell the class about it but wanted to be sure I would not object. After hearing her story, her classmates looked shell-shocked. All the lectures, books and movies that I used to bring history to life could not compete with the lived-experience of oppression described by their classmate. 

We were lucky that these two young women were able to share their experiences with us. I grew up in a household where my mother adamantly refused to talk about the past except in the sunniest, Pollyanna ways and I did not know until I was in my thirties that she had lived through La Matanza, the infamous genocide of 30,000 indigenous people in the western departments of El Salvador. 

Neither history nor philosophy exist in a vacuum. These are humanities; in one way or another, they reflect and distill human experience. For my students and for me, Mai’s and Ana’s stories were gifts; each a dose of reality as an antidote to the sunny version of heroic history our governments tell our people. Undoubtedly, Felicia Nimue Ackerman would disagree. (967)

Monday, October 19, 2009

On Distance Learning

University of San Francisco, my alma mater

To me, getting a college degree via “distance learning” is like having a cab driver deliver your babies: You do it out of necessity not because it’s the best choice. 

Colleges and universities have always been arbiters of wealth and advancement in American society with elite private universities with huge endowments able to skim off the best students while state universities duck the endless cuts to their budgets by a state government and a citizenry who don’t value intellectual achievement. Community colleges are the unsung heroes of the system, providing remedial help to those whose secondary educations have fallen short and a foot in the door for the ambitious poor who cannot afford the tuition at the barely-subsidized state universities.

In fact, the funding from states to their universities has become so slim as to be barely significant. I teach at the University of Rhode Island, where only 11% of the university's budget is provided by the state of Rhode Island. Offering so little to the state’s flagship university, it is unmitigated chutzpah for the governor to cut the budget of the university, forcing students into paying more tuition. How far must the state’s share drop before we officially stop being called a state university? It seems to me that URI creates far more income for the university than it requires for its functioning. 

Lately, spam offering sexual enhancement pills and devices seem to have been surpassed by advertisements for quick on-line professional and PhD degrees. I don’t know how many of these are charlatans looking to make a killing but the gradual acceptance of distance learning as part of a regular college curriculum concerns me greatly because it creates an educational market where legitimate universities and the credentialed professoriate are mixed in with those who lack the proper qualifications for university instruction. 

The opportunity to listen to a professor’s lectures, to the comments and questions by their classmates, and to view the films that are shown are invaluable in gaining an understanding of a subject. I cannot judge chemistry or art history classes, but in my field, Latin American history, it is hard enough to understand the textbooks with  2- or 3-times-per-week contact; trying to do it on one’s own is forbidding, particularly for beginning students. 

There are advantages to the DL system: Students have direct time with the professor on-line but this does not make up for the fullness of the experience in the classroom. In terms of the professor’s time, only a small number of students can be enrolled in the class if anything besides Scantron tests (electronically graded, objective exams) are employed. I believe that part of mission of a liberal arts education is to produce literate citizens: Students need to write, and not just for English classes. 

I attended the University of San Francisco, a small Jesuit university; except for classes that fulfilled requirements for all students such as “Introduction to Western Philosophy” or “Physics for Non-Science Majors,” which were quite large, classes in my major typically had no more than 10-15 students. It might have been different for those departments with a large number of majors like English or history, but philosophy had only 38 majors. Naturally, this meant that even though I was a working-class student whose classmates were predominantly middle-class, I had the privilege of a lot of face-time with my professors, particularly since they were almost always in their offices when not in the classroom, and always welcomed our visits. My experience was closer to the Oxford or Cambridge model of tutors and small seminars than to any of my experiences as a professor. 

My undergraduate degree is in philosophy; I took very few tests besides essay exams, and very few of those, at that. Mostly, I wrote papers: Short papers, long papers, research papers, and opinion papers, all of which received careful attention from my professors. However, it was a very different situation from the one encountered by my students today.  

I teach in a state university. My classes usually have between 30 and 40 students; small by the standards of the University of California at Los Angeles where I did my graduate work (400-student lectures) but bigger and less personal than my undergraduate experience. On-line courses are restricted to 20 students each but the degree mills out there are unregulated; they could have 20 or 80 students or more; who’s to know?

When I was in the eighth grade and decided, on my own, to attend an academic high school, I did it with no guidance from my eighth grade teacher who celebrated my Italian- and Irish-American classmates but spent virtually no time with me, despite the fact that I had the highest grades in the class. (I earned more degrees than any of them.) You’ll do all right, she told me, and I had to figure everything out for myself. As a working-class high school student, I had little guidance when I picked a university. As good as my high school was, they did not provide counseling in choosing a college; or maybe they did but not to me; it has often been the case that I was ignored—like many Latino, working-class students--by guidance counselors. In college, when I asked for advice about graduate school, my otherwise attentive Jesuit professors didn’t take me seriously. I was a good student but the idea that I--a working-class Latina--aspired to study for a doctorate in medieval philosophy at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto or at Yale University was downright comic to them. With a little help, I would have arrived at my goals much earlier. That’s the thing about not being a part of the upper-classes, or even the middle-class; nobody believes that you can succeed because you don’t have the right background with all the shadings that that implies. 

Yet despite my economic challenges, I managed to achieve my goals; it just took me a little longer. I figure that I am ten years behind my colleagues of the same age because I had to figure out my own route and draw my own road map. Given today’s economic situation where so many of us have lost a significant portion of our pensions, I’ll have to work longer anyway. Maybe I’ll catch up by the time I retire.  

When I started college, I was armed with only an electric typewriter; I cannot even imagine what it would have been like to have had the resources, a personal computer and the Internet. The UC Berkeley Extension offered “correspondence courses,” but they were even more attenuated from the classroom than today’s distance learning classes since they relied on the U.S. postal service to transmit the student-teacher correspondence. 

What will happen to today’s working-class students? Some, like me will stumble along and with luck, find themselves in one of the outstanding graduate programs (like my other alma mater, UCLA), earn a degree and find a great job. What I fear is that instead of offering wonderful opportunities, the proprietary on-line learning programs will bestow second-class degrees on them, burden them with staggering debt, but offer them little chance to really “make it.” They will be proud when they earn their degrees but the market will chew them up and spit them out, giving the good jobs to those who attended "real universities."                                (1225)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Thinking About Human Sacrifice in the Americas

Recently, a student asked me about "Apocalypto," actor-director Mel Gibson's 2006 saga of a Maya peasant in pre-Colombian Mexico. Is there a Latin American history professor anywhere who hasn't been asked about  "Apocalypto"? Is there anything more sensationalized in Latin American history than human sacrifice?  If one goes by "Apocalypto," the Maya hunted-down and sacrificed anyone they could get their hands on.  In the film, a farmer with the physique and endurance of Superman is hunted down, captured, prepared for sacrifice but manages to escape despite what would be crippling wounds for anyone else, and outruns a jaguar as well. All of this is against the background of continual and unending human sacrifice; rows of captives painted blue and dragged to the altars to have their hearts ripped out while still alive, and their bodies tossed down the back side of the pyramid like so much firewood. Can you imagine the stench? The vermin?

I have always taught my students that religion is the incarnation of culture but some aspects of ancient cultures, like human sacrifice, are difficult for them to grapple with. Looking at Latin America's pre-Colombian history, the great tributary empires like the Maya, Aztec, and Inca, practiced human sacrifice not because they were inherently cruel and bloodthirsty but because they were trying to exercise some control over the unpredictability and arbitrariness of the natural world. The sacrifice was not random but part of a cosmology. Moreover, some empires, like the Aztecs were more centered on human sacrifice than others--like the Maya. 

Why didn't the Aztecs sacrifice just anybody or everybody? They sacrificed warriors captured in battle because warriors, according to their belief system, were seen as the most powerful and valuable members of society and thus the best sacrificial offerings to the gods who they regarded as capricious and cruel. The stakes were very high: Without adequate appeasement, Tlaloc, the rain god, could withhold the rain that made their crops grow; Cinteot, the Maize god could produce an inadequate crop and they would starve; and Huitzilpochtli, god of the sun, would lose its struggle with the Darkness and all would be lost. Only the sacrifice of the best could ensure its victory. The sacrifices, contrary to popular misunderstandings, did not occur daily but only at special festivals. There were other special festivals where children were sacrificed. The ancient peoples of the Americas did engage in other activities besides human sacrifice!

The same impulse that has motivated cultures around the world to develop arcane and elaborate strategies for dealing with the capriciousness of life and the natural world motivated the Amerindians to perform human sacrifices. Religion is complex because we use it to engage the forces that threaten us and at the same time, to create a protective barrier around ourselves. The big question is (to those who care about these things), is religion humanly motivated, divinely mandated, or divinely inspired? Or is it just the expression of our need to do SOMETHING in response to our feelings of helplessness? From our 21st century perspective, we have no doubt that there are no gods of rain and corn and the sun; only the Aztecs' desperate attempt to appease the hostile and overwhelming forces of nature. 

Atheists and humanists like Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," and Christopher Hitchens, author of  "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" regard our modern religions in the same way that modern people regard the religion of the Aztecs. Is it possible to examine another's beliefs without feeling superior or patronizing? 

The Spaniards, whose devout Roman Catholicism informed all of their actions, had little question about the religious practices they witnessed: To them, the Aztecs, Inca and Maya were simply savages, and there was no question that they were motivated by mere superstition rather than devotion to the "One True God." Their embrace of human sacrifice was the proof the Spanish needed.  The tables were turned, however, when the Spanish massacred the indigenous people they came in contact with, generally for no apparent reason. When the dust had settled, the Europeans' massacres coupled with the diseases that they spread inadvertently, had killed 90% of the indigenous people.

I think about and struggle with how to present these issues every semester when I teach the conquest. I still tear up when I read the words of the Aztec account of the conquest, even though I have taught "Introduction to Latin American Civilizations" every semester for the last 17 years, , "Broken spears lie in the roads; we have torn our hair in our grief. The houses are roofless now, and their walls are red with blood..." These are among the saddest lines in human history. 

I make no apology for being a deist so I ask myself how could those who ostensibly worshiped a benevolent creator of life, massacre whole peoples with impunity? How? How? But then, that is the real "big question" of history for those who care about these things. How do religious people of any stripe justify the killing of those who oppose them? More fundamentally, why do people kill randomly and how do we stop it? Ironically, one would think that stopping the killing would be the proper role of religion rather than providing people with a sword and a crucifix to stand behind. 

Mahatma Gandhi said, "The most heinous and the most cruel crimes of which history has record have been committed under the cover of religion or equally noble motives." Not to let religion off the hook, but Adolph Hitler (Germany), Josef Stalin (Russia), Nicolae Ceausescu (Romania), Slobodan Milošević (Yugoslavia), Pol Pot (Cambodia) and Roberto D'Aubuisson (El Salvador) balance the boat, for they remind us that men do not need religion as an excuse to kill people. Hitchens and Dawkins lay all the blame at the foot of religion and simply ignore the "equally noble motives" because, it seems to me, that they are more interested in scoring the point against religion than in looking honestly at humanity's propensity for violence. 

By now you're probably thinking that you have landed in the territory of religionists of some sort who hate atheists. I'm a moderately religious secular Jew which means I'm not much of a synagogue-goer though I share certain core Jewish beliefs and values; and I love the melodies, and many of rituals of the Conservative movement in particular.  I don't hate atheists; I hate intolerance which is a word much tossed about by liberals until they encounter people they really disagree with such as religious fundamentalists. 

If I didn't teach Latin American history, I might ignore some of these questions completely but because that is my subject, I struggle with how to portray the Church fairly, with its persecution of Jews and its murderous relations with the native peoples of the Americas; and with the blood sacrifices by the indigenous people of the Americas that inspired the Spanish to think that they were dealing with demons, using that as an excuse for their own murderous impulses. From their perspective--and, incidentally, the traditional way of viewing the conquest--they believed that they "brought civilization" to the new world. If one ascribes great importance to the human sacrifice, then the Spanish did indeed bring "civilization" because it brought it to an end. If only someone had found a way to civilize the Spanish and other Europeans. (1231)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Justice Sonia Sotomayor - Trial by Fire

President Barack Obama and Justice Sonia Sotomayor portrayed as gangbangers on   They got his hair wrong!

I have been bouyed by the ascendance of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. I never expected to see a Latina on the court in my lifetime; maybe gazing down from heaven but not before. 

I have a law school degree but I didn't practice law. My experiences as an intern and the time demands when I entered a practice quickly made me realize that I really didn't want to be a lawyer. My daughter was an infant then and nothing could make me stay at work beyond my eight hours. But it was also that I hated many things about the last firm I worked at, among them, the lawyers who took advantage of their working-class clientele and spent most of their time on the phone discussing their investments; the cutthroat competition, and the exploitation of the all-Latina staff.  Moreover, the neighborhood scared me.  When I came to work one morning and walked past the corner phone booth which was covered with blood from a weekend altercation, I nearly fainted.

They had hired me because I was bilingual but when I translated carefully--because legalese is not the easiest jargon make understandable to working-class clients--they complained because I didn't do the instant and slapdash translations they had come to expect from their clerical staff.

The day I quit was one of the happiest days of my life. I had dreamed of being a judge but I'd have to be a lawyer first and I just didn't have what it takes. I closed the door and walked away; several years later, I found myself in graduate school, studying history, but that's another story. 

When Judge Sotomayor was nominated, I wrote articles in support of her and when she was confirmed, I prepared a public presentation on her career and nomination. Among the things I found in researching her career were almost 300 cartoons and photoshopped pictures of her, most of them criticizing her nomination; most of them caricaturing her in the most racist and sexist terms, such as the one above. By the time I was done, I felt beaten-up just looking at the hatred pouring out at her. How she withstood the barrage is beyond me. It is disheartening when an occasion such as her nomination gives the racists and sexists an excuse to crawl out from under the rocks where they've been hiding. 

I presented my talk during our university's "Diversity Week." In part, I wanted to talk about some of the nuts and bolts of the legal system; things that non-lawyers might not understand. I wanted to show the differences between the federal and states' systems; how a circuit court judge is only one of three on a panel of judges; how only about 80-90 cases of the 7000 sent to the court are heard by the court.

I also wanted to talk about Judge Sotomayor's nomination itself and to go beyond the quick glimpses of her life as offered up in the press to talk about what her record had been; how many cases are reviewed by the circuit court that she had come from, and how cases came to be heard by the Supreme Court. Most people would not have the patience to sit and sift through thousands of drawings and pictures to cull such a collection but I wanted people to see, in concrete terms, the racism and sexism directed at her. So I set up a slide show of the 300 cartoons and images to be screened as the audience came into the auditorium to be seated. It's one thing to hear or read about them; it's another thing to see each image, after image, after hateful image.

The slide show was very effective; as I waited to be introduced, I could hear the gasps from the audience as they watched the slides. 

Most of the people who talked to me afterwards said they had no idea of how the system worked. Social studies classes, even in good schools, stop short of explaining these fundamental functions. Civic education never gets to the Supreme Court yet the decisions made there affect all of us. Maybe it's considered too complicated for high school students to understand but if they can be made to understand calculus, they can get a rudimentary understanding of the legal system.

Misinformation about the courts allows demagogues to persuade an ignorant public that the Supreme Court is hijacking the law instead of actually showing how the judiciary checks the executive and legislative branches of government. I was very happy with the way the talk went. 

The morning after my talk, I exhausted but relieved to be done with it. I was dragging a bit as I went to teach my classes. My get up and go isn't what it used to be! Stopping at my mailbox, I saw an envelope from The United States Supreme Court. I had written a congratulatory note to Justice Sotomayor and sent the articles I'd written in support of her. I was giddy as I opened it. She thanked me for the articles and my good wishes. It made my day! We chose different lives but we're always happy to learn that people understand our journey.                      (873)