Following Trayvon Martin’s death last year and the recent verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial, the issue of race has received much attention.  Pundits often use the phrase “national dialogue on race,” however many contributions to the current discourse are not particularly meaningful.  Yes, there are a lot of people talking, but who is listening?  For any discussion to be truly meaningful, the participants must be willing to process and explore what other people have shared.

Race is a complex issue because it is related to culture, history, identity, and experience.  As a result, grappling with the subject is incredibly challenging because doing so forces a person to confront unsettling individual biases along with unjust conditions in the broader society.  How many white people are willing to engage in an honest discussion about these issues, i.e. admit that they harbor certain sentiments and benefit from existing social arrangements?  Furthermore, how do thoughts about race inform or distort one’s perception of other people?

While the days of the “separate but equal” doctrine are long gone thanks to the hard work of civil rights activists and policymakers, the popular attitudes that made state sanctioned discrimination possible have not disappeared altogether.  Decades ago, many white Americans lived in total ignorance or denial of what people of color encountered all over this country: police brutality, restrictive covenants, and disenfranchisement to identify only a small handful of the pervasive injustices that occurred.  Undoubtedly, times have changed, but residual attitudes remain and manifest themselves now in different ways such as racial profiling.

Much of the ongoing discussion of race lacks depth.  Moreover, it is laden with defensiveness.  This keeps us from developing a meaningful understanding of why problems surrounding the issue persist.  Unfortunately, many people continue to ignore and deny the problems as they absolve themselves of any social responsibility.  Here an amazing learning opportunity is lost, and that might be the greatest tragedy of all.

A version of this piece appeared in Today’s News Herald on July 31, 2013.

When I reflect on the teacher certification program that I completed more than a decade ago, I often think about the methods course that I enrolled in.  The professor who taught it had worked as a high school social studies teacher before returning to graduate school to pursue a doctorate in history.  Throughout the semester he repeatedly emphasized that every meeting cannot simply be a ‘stand and deliver’ lecture, and that we needed a variety of approaches to be effective educators.  That message resonated with me back then, and continues to inform my teaching style all of these years later.

Now, occasionally you will have an instructor who is animated or interesting enough to keep your attention for the better part of 50 (or 75) minutes, but frequently lectures are protracted monologues where students ask few questions.  As a result, the flow of information is largely unidirectional.  If you attended college, then chances are you’ve had this unpleasant experience.  The fact that it is still very common is frustrating because learning opportunities are lost as students are allowed to be passive recipients of information who don’t engage one another or the instructor on the content.  While I am a strong proponent of in-class activities (e.g. small group cooperative learning exercises), my focus here is to explain how I am shifting away from standard lecturing and moving toward presenting information in an effort to encourage analysis and dialogue.

I believe the Socratic Method is a powerful tool.  For years I’ve felt that it’s vital to open a class with a question because I find this to be an excellent way to gauge students’ prior knowledge, revisit concepts discussed in a previous meeting, draw connections across the content area, and stimulate thought about the latest topic being introduced.  This is a valuable starting point.  I might simply ask everyone to define a term in their own words or I may ask an open ended question about an idea that requires a substantive explanation.  Needless to say, once my questions start they aren’t going to stop.

Like many college instructors, I prepare 8-15 slides per class meeting that outline the material, i.e. themes, concepts, phenomena, ideas, developments, issues, and/or events.  Where I begin to diverge is that I incorporate different sources of information into my outlines as a way to enrich the presentation.  For example, in my History of the United States classes I include quotes, images, maps, audio files, and video clips for students to interpret.  This past spring I spent hours online searching for primary documents from credible sources such as archives, museums, historical societies, presidential libraries, universities, and other government sites.

To make good use of these supplemental materials, before class I choose four or five different major items in the presentation to focus on that I think will generate student discussion.  My goal is to facilitate and guide, not direct and restrict.  When I reach each of these items in the outline (e.g. advertisements for consumer goods in the 1920s and President Ford’s speech where he pardoned Richard Nixon in 1974), I ask students to analyze the primary source(s) in an effort to explore the issues in greater depth.  If successful, this can take anywhere from 5-10 minutes.  Here I have found that students respond when they know their opinions matter.  This is important for a couple of reasons.  First, it stimulates active learning because students won’t simply be taking notes the entire time.  Secondly, it encourages analytical thinking that is immediately relevant in other contexts.  (People consider the messages in advertisements and the reasons public officials give for their decisions.)

If an institution is truly learner centered, then the flow of information cannot only be unidirectional from instructor to student because this alone does not create an optimal learning environment.  As teachers, I think it’s imperative for us to examine how we approach our craft and constantly look for ways to grow as practitioners.  Yes, this is an ongoing process of reevaluation, but simple changes to our methods can yield more desirable outcomes that have far reaching implications beyond the walls of the classroom itself.

As a new faculty member at the college I spent most of last fall writing and revising curriculum.  In addition, I rewrote a course package for Western Civilization II after my department chair informed me that the existing version didn’t articulate to one of the state universities.  Here I figured that it made sense to start over because I knew that I wanted to change everything from the course description to the objectives.  So, that’s what I did.  I found this to be a gratifying experience.  I incorporated a thematic element that connects phenomena across time (e.g. one of competencies focuses on revolutions) instead of just solely relying on a straight chronological approach.  In my professional opinion, it’s important for teachers to do this whenever possible.  Also, I used Bloom’s Taxonomy on a macroscopic level.  Previously I had only applied the taxonomy to individual assignments.  This task pushed me to rethink the courses I teach in the future. Right now I’m rewriting the package for Western Civilization I. We’ll see how that goes.

From Illinois to Arizona…

Dekalb to Lake Havasu City1849 miles.  27 hours.

It’s a long drive to make by yourself (okay, technically with my cat, Lucy) – especially when you’re leaving everyone you know and care about behind.  Yes, I had plenty of time to think about everything from teaching and friends to politics and love.  As graduate school wound down (i.e. I successfully defended my dissertation and completed the necessary revisions), the daunting reality of relocating began to set in as I finalized my plans and said my goodbyes.  The day the movers came I felt slightly anxious because I just longed to get on the road to St. Louis.  As I finished vacuuming  and then turned in my keys to the management office that afternoon, I felt relieved to be in route.

Lucy slept most of the ride.  When I tired of listening to the music I brought along, I turned on the radio.  An observation: nationally syndicated, ideologically-driven talk shows (either conservative or liberal) are hyperbolic and predictable.  No thanks.  Maybe it’s all of my graduate school training or that I simply know better, but I’m not interested in being manipulated by people who make a living spouting opinions (often with anecdotal evidence) in such a caustic manner.  So, I rode in silence for periods of whatever length of time.

Once I reached New Mexico I found myself captivated by the beautiful desert landscape.  Somewhere along the way I encountered a really intense thunderstorm.  As the dark clouds grew closer, the rain began to pour so hard that I had to turn on my hazards because I could barely see the truck in front of me.  The lightening flashes appeared to strike the ground in the distance.  The thunder shook the car.  I tightly gripped the steering wheel, focused on the road, and wondered if I should just pull off onto the shoulder to be safe.  I didn’t.  After I arrived in Albuquerque I watched another thunderstorm engulf the mountains from the hotel window.

During the last stretch of the trip, I passed numerous mesas and through the Painted Desert.  Upon reaching Flagstaff it started to rain again.  At some point, I noticed the dramatic change in temperature as the elevation decreased.  Flagstaff’s summers are more comfortable in comparison to Lake Havasu’s.  It’s common for there to be a 20-30 degree differential between them.  When I finally arrived in town Thursday afternoon I picked up my keys from the property management company and drove over to my new residence.  While unloading the car, I felt the intense heat and realized that I had just moved to one of the hottest parts of the country.

Review: The Meaning of Freedom

Angela Davis has written and lectured extensively on a variety of historical, social, and political issues.  This 2008 talk is a great introduction for anyone who would like to learn more about race as it relates to our proclivity for incarcerating people by the millions here in the United States.

As someone who has taught in a state prison, I’ve thought a lot about a number of the concerns that she raises in this lecture.  For example, a majority of the 13 million people who enter and exit some level of the penal system each year are people of color.  Moreover, the practice of removing someone from society by itself does not teach an individual what he or she needs be a productive citizen upon release.  Consequently, inmates too often experience a “civil death” because they are not reincorporated into the communities from which they came.  All of this is very important for us to reflect upon if we have any intention of reevaluating how we address criminal behavior.

However, her most profound argument involves the connection between slavery and the current prison system.  Davis acknowledges the advancements that have been made in society (e.g. abolition of the slave trade, 13th Amendment, Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965), but asks: “What about the whole scaffolding of racist ideology?” that persists today despite the commonly cited benchmarks of progress.  Racism once manifested itself as the institution of slavery, but now it does so in the form of mass incarceration.  In addition, this is further complicated by the fact that “prisons thrive on inequality” and hide social ills from us because sentencing people is much easier than determining what is wrong with them.

Beyond the ideology of racism, the relationship between our brand of democracy and capitalism allows the prison system to grow.  Private companies see the opportunity to take advantage of incarceration rates, thereby leading to increased privatization of facilities and massive profits.  The more time, energy, and money diverted toward prison building (both public and private), the less attention that is paid to other important issues like schools and employment.  Furthermore, our system becomes a model for other countries.

While Davis thoroughly examines the intersection of race and incarceration, she really needs to explain more about what can be done to counter the problem.  Yes, challenging people to rethink our conception and practice of democracy is important, but the list of suggestions that she briefly mentions at the end (e.g. living wage) must be explored in greater depth.  People can rely upon their imaginations to visualize new approaches, however providing them with more direction is imperative when it comes to complex issues like this.

Davis has long been an influential scholar.  Her work challenges you to reconsider what you know about race because her analysis of ideology and institutions is unlike any other.

Truths Among Us: Conversations on Building a New Culture, is an important collection of in-depth interviews that prolific author Derrick Jensen conducted with a handful of unconventional thinkers whose ideas merit attention.  Even if you disagree with Jensen’s views as expressed in his other works, all of these “conversations” are informative and may prompt you to reconsider what you know about some of the complex subjects discussed.

Undoubtedly, the issues explored across, and within, these interviews are vast.  They range from the effects of violence depicted on television (George Gerbner) and why young urban kids join gangs (Luis Rodriguez) to how we process traumatic experiences as part of the human condition (Judith Herman) and the consequences of objectifying women in pornography (Jane Caputi).  I also found myself fascinated by the interview with Paul Staments who explains the importance of fungi to our environment.

Jensen asks many thoughtful, pointed questions – some of which probe his interviewee’s about their own writing.  Yes, he has done his homework, and this is evident throughout.  For example, Jensen pulls a direct quote from Luis Rodriguez’s autobiography to open that interview (p. 77), and then asks a good follow-up question to further examine the marginalization that people have experienced in our society (p. 78).  This kind of approach brings a certain focus by diving into some of the most pressing issues that are central to the reason why Jensen chose to speak with these individuals in the first place.

If I have any criticism, I would say that Jensen should have sought more of a balance between the number of men and women represented here.  I believe that sex and gender inform perspective because the world is socially constructed, and therefore, incorporating additional female voices would have strengthened this work.

Also, I have mixed feelings about Jensen divulging his own personal views and stories.  While revealing details about your own life (such as when he mentions how he associated abuse with water skiing on p. 134) might build rapport with someone, doing so shifts attention away from the person you’re speaking with.  Not only does this have the potential to disrupt the flow of the interview, but you don’t want to influence what he or she has to say.

The word that immediately comes to mind when reflecting on the contents of this book is “possibility” because the content of each interview reminds me that there are always people in this world who are thinking on levels many of us aren’t.  We can’t lose sight of that.  The mere discussion of these ideas means there will always be the chance they can spread so as to transform the way we live.  Yes, Derrick Jensen has accomplished his goal of piecing together some very provocative interviews that will stimulate thought the way I imagine he intended them to.

As I watched the news of Osama bin Laden’s death unfold the other night, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy at the sight of people cheering, singing, and waving flags in celebration on the street in Washington DC and New York City.  Now, let me be clear: I am not saying this out of respect for bin Laden.  I say this because there are much larger issues to consider if we’re really serious about averting future attacks.

Citizens of this country often exalt our democratic ideals, values, processes, and system.  For many of us, they are the bedrock of our national identity – vital components of our culture that define who we are in a global community where we encourage others to live as we do.  Looking at these recent events that have transpired through the lens of how we perceive ourselves, I take issue with celebrating the calculated acts of killing someone and expeditiously burying him at sea.

Undoubtedly, religious and political violence aren’t anything new.  What baffles me is our persistent unwillingness to develop an understanding of why they happen as we settle for overly simplistic explanations that are devoid of insight.  Since terrorism is a complex phenomenon to wrap our minds around (very much like crime, poverty, and drug abuse), we have adopted irresponsible shortcuts such as “They hate our freedom,” to make sense of the radicalism.  If we’re truly honest with ourselves, we must admit that it’s far more complicated than that.

Furthermore, many believe that killing one individual will somehow undermine a movement of countless others who harbor similar feelings.  Ideologically driven people who are willing to die for their cause are not going to be deterred by the death of a leader.  In addition, even if one group disbands, other people come along who embrace the ideas and they eventually form new organizations.

As a society, we repeatedly attack symptoms instead of addressing the root of the problem, and in pursuing this course we guarantee that it will eventually manifest itself again.  While you might be able to temporarily suppress terrorism using military force, you will not prevent it with bullets or bombs over the long term.  Here we need to explore global power differentials and the alienation that leads some people to lash out in such violent ways.  Until we come to terms with these kinds of issues, I anticipate the bloodshed will only continue.

A version of this piece appeared in the Daily Chronicle on May 6, 2011.

“Bringin’ It Down” by Judge

Judge Bringin It Down1“Now I’m stronger – so much stronger, and I’ll confront myself.  I’ll live and learn and love it – I’m not afraid to change myself.  We’re here.  It’s time to get things right.  Our problems will grow if we turn and run.  It’s time to get things done.” –Lyrics from “Where It Went”

There’s a good reason why current hardcore acts like Anchor are covering Judge songs more than two decades after Judge broke up: they made an incredible contribution to the “second wave” of the genre – a contribution that should never be forgotten.  While I appreciate many of the bands active during the late 1980s and early 1990s era, I have long thought of Judge as the best among them because none of their peers could match the combination of intensity, urgency, energy, and sincerity or the unique brand of vulnerability that you don’t typically find in the hardcore scene.  In my opinion, Bringin’ It Down (1989) is a record that simply cannot be matched.  I can’t tell you how many times I spun the vinyl and sang along in my bedroom while growing up.  I still listen to the album today.  It’s timeless.

Musically, they set a new benchmark as 80s hardcore continued to evolve.  John Porcelly’s guitar work infuses a solid metal crunch with modest riffs and solos that avoid the needless flash.  Mike Ferraro’s vocals are heartfelt growls of anger rooted in personal distress.  Some of the tracks are mid-tempo while others are fast.  All of them are tight.  Furthermore, their arrangement on the record is perfect.  Now, I’ve heard a few people criticize the album’s production, but I think it’s amazing given their heavy sound.

Beyond the music itself, Judge’s lyrics are as direct as they are powerful.  A number of their songs address common themes such as drug abuse, scene violence, racism in society, and lost friendships, but it’s the personal nature of Ferraro’s writing that has stayed with me so long.  For example, “Like You” conveys a genuine sense of vulnerability: “Just like you I chose a path and fought to make it work.  Thought I found what I was looking for – oh God I’m fucking lost.  Like you, I face rejection.  Like you, I look for acceptance.  Like you, I don’t always do right, but now I’m trying to find the things I fought to hide when I was young.”  Admitting your mistakes is difficult.  Moreover, coming to terms with past experiences, and the subsequent feelings you’ve spent a lot of time suppressing, is painful work.  What stuns me is that Ferraro wrote these cathartic lyrics in his early to mid 20s.  They demonstrate a real ability to self-examine.

Interestingly, there’s a certain irony to the song “Hold Me Back” as it communicates the idea that resorting to violence cannot solve your problems: “You’ll try to tempt me – draw me off my path.  God knows I want to use my hands, but I can’t get caught up in that.  Because I’ve seen it before – fists thrown over words, and I’ve fought before – and it never changed a thing.”  If you read the lengthy interviews with Ferraro and Porcelly in Beth Lahickey’s All Ages: Reflections on Straight Edge and the liner notes Porcelly wrote for the band’s discography, there is discussion of the pervasive violence that erupted at their shows.  It’s almost like some of the fans didn’t bother to read the most revealing, i.e. most important, lyrics on this record.

I never had the opportunity to attend one of their live shows because I discovered them about a year after they split up.  Nonetheless, they’re one of the reasons why I developed a real interest in hardcore – an interest that influenced my life’s trajectory and has not faded.  Our formative years are undoubtedly a very important time for us.  As a teenager, Judge inspired me to think in ways I hadn’t up to that point.  I’m forever grateful to them for that.

Click here to watch the documentary There Will Be Quiet: The Story of Judge.

Recently I decided to read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, the true story of a young man named Chris McCandless who embarked upon an adventure following his graduation from college – an adventure that ended with his tragic death in  the summer of 1992.  Despite the fact that I have been preoccupied with my schoolwork lately, I finished the book in less than two days and spent a bit of time reflecting on what little we know about this person who has been – for better or worse – shrouded in a certain mystery.

As a reporter, Krakauer does an incredible job writing a narrative that is grounded on interviews with people McCandless encountered during his travels, as well as McCandless’ own personal writing in postcards to his friends, his journal, and his notes inside of books that he carried with him.  Much can be gleaned from these primary sources.  However, there still are a number of questions that surround what happened to him in Alaska and why.

I don’t have any interest in denigrating him or proliferating theories about his unfortunate fate.  When I think about this story, I see a complex individual in conflict with himself, his family, and society.  While these conflicts aren’t anything new, the way McCandless acted in response to them is thought-provoking.  How many people are willing to abandon their privilege and take that kind of chance on the unknown?  Not many.  Most young adults from suburbia end up following a very predictable path in life, and for those who are exposed to radical ideas during their formative years, well, any adherence  to those ideas is usually abandoned rather quickly.

Now, we don’t know what kind of person Chris McCandless might have evolved into had he survived, but we do know that he pushed himself during his 24 years while alive.  Did he act out of naivety?  Perhaps.  Was he ill-prepared to handle  some of the challenges he faced?  Yes.  Here I would argue that all of what he experienced in the year and a half  before heading to Alaska wrongly informed his perception about his capabilities.  Then again, nobody ever acts with perfect knowledge and it’s always possible that pushing yourself leaves you exposed in ways that cannot be anticipated.

Some might argue that this kind of behavior is as arrogant as it is selfish, after all, taking chances that result in death leave others who care about you grief-stricken.  I simply reject this claim altogether.  I don’t think McCandless sought to cause anyone emotional distress.  The way I see it, a person must always be true to him or herself, and it is imperative to live according to your principles.  Moreover, if someone experiences a certain restlessness that emanates from the core of his or her being, then it’s important to address those thoughts and feelings – not deny their existence.  While I don’t view Chris McCandless as heroic, I believe his motivations were genuine and many of his actions worthy of respect.

*All of you high school and college kids who are trolling the internet and stealing text from my blog post for your papers need to do your own damn work.  I know what you’re doing from my site stats.  Plagiarism is academic fraud.  If your teacher or professor contacts me, I will recommend that you receive a zero for the assignment.

In August of 1992, I began my life as a full time student at McHenry County College in the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake, Illinois.  That semester I had a schedule that included a U.S. history course which started bright and early at 8am.  Many people loathe the subject, but for some reason I didn’t feel that way back then – even at that time of the morning.

From the first class meeting, I sensed it would be a good semester because the instructor, Mr. Hill, had the amazing ability to maintain your interest with lectures that blended content, humor, and personal anecdotes that made you look forward to coming back.  He also challenged us with all essay exams.  This meant that you really needed to work hard if you intended to succeed.

I remember spending hours reading and studying in my bedroom at home, and I recall the morning of the very first exam I ever took in there.  Unfortunately, no matter how much I prepared, it seemed like I could not not earn a grade any higher than a high C or a low B.  In the end, I earned a C for the class, but I felt proud of it because of the effort I had made.

The following year I decided to enroll in another one of Mr. Hill’s courses because I knew I liked his teaching style and learned so much from him the first time around.  That fall I fine-tuned my study skills and managed to earn an A.

While I didn’t fully realize it at the time, I felt drawn to history because Mr. Hill had the distinctive ability to inspire people.  Today, he stands out as one of the best instructors I have ever had in all of my years in higher education.  It’s not enough for a teacher to possess great knowledge – he or she must also be able to communicate it in such a way that makes the subject matter appealing to students.  Yes, the delivery matters, and it matters just as much as the content and rigor.

Several months ago I felt compelled to write him a letter telling him how much he influenced my academic interests as well as my career choices.  I also mentioned how I am an adjunct instructor at M.C.C. as I make my way through my doctoral program.  When I didn’t hear back from him, I figured that he might be preoccupied in his retirement.  If that were the case, then I could totally understand since he dedicated decades of his life to the school.

Then, much to my surprise, he visited my classroom last night.  It’s hard for me to describe how happy I felt to see him again.  We chatted about our lives for 20 minutes or so, and he thanked me for the letter.  Wow, I’m so glad he stopped by.  Moreover, I’m glad to see he is still the same person all of these years later.  Looking back at a time that is now half of my life ago, I am forever thankful I enrolled in his class because he profoundly affected me in a way that I will never forget.

Review: An Unreasonable Man

Few people have influenced public policy the way Ralph Nader has in a career that spans more than four decades. The documentary, An Unreasonable Man, is a powerful, inspirational, and yes – sometimes critical, examination of his life that catalogs a number of his accomplishments working on behalf of the public interest in pursuit of social justice.

It begins with a discussion of his efforts on automobile safety in the 1960s and details how General Motors investigated him in an attempt to destroy his character. Not only did federal officials expose this effort in a congressional hearing (of which there is actual footage), but Nader also won a lawsuit against the company that provided “seed money” for him to found some of his organizations.

From there, the film briefly explores his childhood. Nader grew up in Winsted, Connecticut where he learned some invaluable lessons during his formative years. At home, his parents encouraged political debates at the dinner table. Also, he recalls coming home from school one day and his father asking him: “Did you learn how to believe or did you learn how to think?” All of this is important because his early life is reflected in the thoughtful, outspoken advocate he evolved into.

Among the film’s strengths are the interviews with former employees. Some of their accounts reveal how committed, i.e. rigid, he can be on both a political and a personal level. For example, when an employee of his, Joan Claybrook, accepted a position in the Carter Administration and did not seek to advance his agenda, this greatly angered him and resulted in them not speaking for a year or two.

While coverage is devoted to how Nader felt betrayed by President Carter (on the matter of consumer protection) and how President Reagan sought to undermine a series of regulations Nader had fought so hard for in years prior, the film could have focused more on his experience in the 1990s during the Clinton years leading up to the 2000 Election.

Much to the dismay of some on the left, Nader ran for president in 2000. While his candidacy did not receive the attention or respect it deserved (e.g. media coverage; the denial to partake in, or even attend, a debate at University of Massachusetts, Boston), Democrats blamed him when Al Gore lost by a slim margin. A political analyst points out this contradiction. Interestingly, the directors also interview Barry Burden, a political scientist at Harvard University (he now teaches at University of Wisconsin, Madison) whose statistical analysis does not find any evidence that Nader is the “spoiler” Democrats claim that he is.

The greatest message this film communicates is that Nader’s level of commitment is a model of advanced citizenship for others to follow, and that people can make a contribution if they engage the democratic process. Many of his contributions have affected our everyday lives. That said, it is also a strong indictment of a two-party system that must be opened to alternative voices.

If you have been following the issue of the possible landfill expansion here in DeKalb County, then maybe you have experienced the same feeling I have: the democratic façade is alive and well.  Like many local citizens, I sense that officials are simply going through the motions of giving ‘the people’ the impression their concerns matter when the endpoint has already been determined, i.e. the decision has already been made to expand even if the vote has not yet taken place.

Consider the recent public hearing held at Kishwaukee College.  Waste Management of Illinois, Inc. brought in a handful of paid, expert witnesses who testified that expansion of the facility will not compromise our quality of life since a number of established legal criteria have been met.  Furthermore, the company’s attorney emphasized how all of the information its witnesses provided are “facts”, not opinion.

While local citizens like Dan Kenney and Mac McIntyre have done an outstanding job voicing opposition to the proposal, I have to question the county’s procedural approach.  After all, independent witnesses who have studied landfills at length – witnesses who might offer data that contradict what the company told committee members, did not testify at the public hearing.  This is highly problematic.  Even if county officials consult other experts later, the discussion has already been framed by a major corporation that is interested in profit above all else.

Now, you might be thinking: “At least concerned citizens were able to attend and participate in the hearing, and that’s what makes the United States a great country.”  Well, I would argue that in many cases, allowing members of the public to express themselves in this particular context (and others like it) is really intended to placate people, not have them directly influence policy.  Hence, it is a democratic façade of sorts.

Unfortunately, the worst byproduct of this façade is that the public trust erodes over time because segments of the electorate develop the perception that no matter what they say or do, elected officials make decisions that are contrary to their interests.  At this point, I encourage everyone to call and email your county board member to express your disapproval of not only the landfill expansion, but also their approach to this process.

A version of this piece appeared in the Daily Chronicle on March 20, 2010.

Three years ago when I pulled out of the high school parking lot and drove my thirty minute commute home for the last time, I felt a sense of catharsis and anticipation.  I loved teaching social studies, but I can’t honestly say I felt the same about other aspects of my job at the time.  When I began working in the archives that summer and shortly thereafter found myself immersed in my coursework, I appreciated the change in my daily routine, but I really missed being in front of a classroom.

During the following winter, I thought it would be a good idea to contact one of my former instructors from the community college I attended to see if they needed a political science instructor for the summer semester.  Initially he informed me they did not, but a month or so later he called to offer me an adjunct position and immediately I accepted.

Last night I began my third summer of  teaching U.S. Government at the college, and it appears that I have another solid group of engaged, intelligent, and articulate students to work with (perhaps the best group ever).  My informal assessment is based upon our introductory activities that included a lengthy discussion of the many responsibilities that governments and citizens have.  As one might imagine, there were some divergent viewpoints expressed, but everyone shared their thoughts in a respectful manner.

I think one of the many reasons I really enjoy teaching this class is because it will be the only political science course most of my students take.  So, it’s important to teach them to analyze different arguments surrounding controversial political issues as well as the function and accessibility of governing institutions.  Much of the time  it appears the body politic is disengaged from the process, but education is one way to challenge such harmful normative behavior.

During my career as a high school teacher I advised a community service student group for three years.  We organized food and clothing drives, visited residents of a nursing home, served dinner at a homeless shelter, and painted the inside of a house for Habitat for Humanity among the many activities we undertook.  I’m very proud of the students who committed themselves to the group because there is so much that distracts teenagers.  More importantly, I know our efforts really helped people in need.

Last week I heard a talk radio host discussing a newspaper article regarding how the district I taught in may adopt a policy making service hours a necessary requirement to graduate.  So, I immediately called into the station to voice my support.  As I continued to listen to the program, many other callers rejected the proposal outright.  Oddly, some of them even sounded angry.  They kept saying that such work should only be voluntary.

For as much as people talk about the importance of community here in the United States, it appears that self-interest pervades so much of our everyday lives – so much that “community” often (not always) becomes the distant afterthought.  Now, the one major exception to this is when a major tragedy occurs, whether it be a natural disaster or a human act of violence.  Then people feel compelled to come together.  Otherwise, many spend much of their time solely focused on themselves and their family members.

This doesn’t have to be the case.  We have the power to change social norms to ensure that helping others becomes a much higher priority than it currently is, and what better way than through our public school system.  After all, teaching young people to consider the interests of the less fortunate among us through experiential learning can be an invaluable tool we can utilize to alter normative behavior.  Our communities are interconnected.  Moreover, social problems are ever-present.  While it’s very easy to only think about yourself, it’s impossible to escape the collective.

As an educator, I taught my students the history of our nation as well as the function of our governing institutions (most of which occurred inside a classroom) to make them better citizens.  To me, it’s just as socially redeemable and responsible to teach them the importance of community beyond the walls of the school itself, and service learning makes that possible.  It would mold a number of them into better human beings.

So, when I hear people complain that a total of 40 hours of work spread-out across four years of high school would be an major inconvenience for kids, parents, and administrators, I think they’re further demonstrating the rampant self-interest I find so unsettling.  From where I stand, that’s not something to be proud of.

The votes have been counted…

When I came home last night and checked the election results online, I felt a wave of shock, immediately followed by disappointment.  First, I couldn’t believe that Lynn Fazekas came in third place out of the three mayoral candidates with 953 votes, or 20% of the total.  Secondly, I noticed that very few people voted at all: only 4,717 for mayor in a city of 43,714 (the population as of July 2007 according to City Data) and a major state university with an enrollment well over 20,000 students.  Just watch our democracy flat-line…well almost.

During this campaign I attended two candidate forums, one at the Holmes Student Center and the other at the Egyptian Theater.  While the other independent challenger for mayor, Paul “The Dome” Kallembach, distinguished himself with humor and spoke with a commanding voice, he simply failed to provide substantive policy ideas.  At times, he sounded like someone who hadn’t done his homework, yet tried to answer questions as if he had.  That’s why I find it disheartening that 1,192 people voted for him.

As for the turnout, well, my expectations weren’t particularly high because local elections that don’t feature major referendums never seem to generate high levels of interest.  That said, you’d think the nation’s economic conditions would have reverberated more through local issues such as the city buying-up property for development.  Clearly, the extremely low turnout (even lower than the mayoral race four years ago) suggests otherwise.  What bothers me here is that people had a real viable independent alternative (Lynn Fazekas), but instead of exploring and seizing the opportunity, many chose to stay home.

The encouraging part of all this is the grassroots effort made by Lynn Fazekas and the volunteers on her campaign over the past several months.  These people truly care about the future of this community – they care in a way the current leadership can neither identify with nor understand.  Why?  Some of them were citizen watchdogs long before the campaign began, and they will continue their efforts in the years to come.  After all, if you really desire greater accountability in government, then people must speak out on a regular basis – not only around election time.