Pat Barrett’s Worldview

Recently, several events impinged on my dulling consciousness that jarred me into thought.

A panel discussion on Book TV on the closing of the American mind came in the middle of a thread on a mailing list re multiculturalism. That drove me to a book I read some years ago on “P.C.” which contains a large number of articles representing a variety of viewpoints, many on multiculturalism. I attened yesterday a presentation on teaching Russian at the first and second year level which revealed some considerations of culture that, again, made me think about our education system and who gets valued.

And finally, today, I attended a graduation ceremony at the University of Phoenix.About 800 people graduated, some with masters, a couple with Ph.D.s, from a university that is nothing like my conception of a university. Looking at the families gathered there, comparing them with my own, with the families of some of the people I had been encountering the past several days, it made me think.

I’ve left this entry in the “general” category b/c it’s not restricted to culture or politics and it definitely has a lot to do with teaching and learning. And it’s very personal. I suppose you might even say it has to do with word meaning, the only category I haven’t mentioned, since I will deal with our understanding of words like ’culture’, ’educated’, and so on.

It’s personal b/c I find myself getting very angry. A sense of unfairness grips me and my first impulse is to turn and go the other way. Confronted with attitudes that say, “You don’t belong”, I want to reply, “You’re right” and go off into my own realm. Pulling me back into the fray is, first of all, the realization that such divisions are artificial: everyone belongs. I do not belong to that group of people who say some people don’t belong???? You know what I mean. I am a human being, a person, an American, a man, a professional, a citizen of my state, county, town, and HOA. So I do belong, but sometimes it’s hard to face down those who would set up barriers to that belonging.

Next, experience tells me that those who appear to be setting up barriers often are not intending that. They are more open to me than they sound to me. If I lower my barriers, they may lower theirs. The laugh-provoking cliche now is “… and we all sang Kumbayah,” as if life really is nothing but competition and strife, with winners and losers – it really is a football game. But I take heart when I hear a woman say (npr interview) that while she was spat on and despised for being Black in her school, her brother found his White teammates even drinking out of the same dipper with him b/c he was an asset to the team. And when I heard that fiercely competitive financial companies shared equipment and even personnel with their rivals who had been devastated in the 9/11 attacks, I wonder if I have these people right. Maybe we can get Americans to stand down from our militaristic “bomb ’em into hell” stance and at least listen to those who fear us and loathe our culture and see us as a threat, even before we bomb them.

So this blog entry is as good a summary as I can come up with in the face of simple provocation. It’s not all that well thought out b/c it is reactive. I hope it provides a spring board for discussion and a clearer exposition of my own views.

My gut reaction to claims of superiority is immense anger. I remember once my close friend and colleague made a remark about kids not having “student skills”. I reacted so violently to that remark that it scared even me, and puzzled me. What was there in those 2 words that sparked that anger?

B/c my friend is a kind person, he explained what he meant by students skills and that gave me time to calm down and explore the infrastructure of my angry response to those little words. The image of a scared little kid (I was always the smallest in my class) in yet another new school came to me, faced with a big, disapproving adult. My worst experience, from an educator’s viewpoint, actually occurred when I was rather far along, a high school sophomore, and I entered a school at the last quarter. Having made As in algebra all along, my new teacher matter-of-factly informed me that I would surely fail her class b/c I had already learned what her class was doing but they were doing it using methods I had not yet learned… so I would fail. And she was right.

So what are we looking at here? It’s helplessness. Fear brought about by helplessness in the face of power. Fortunately, my mom had a defintion of The Good; it was whatever I did. So I did not suffer at home, but I have to this day a fear of falling short, of not measuring up. This is hard to understand in someone raised with the Rogerian philosophy of unconditional positive regard, but we exist in the larger society and I found myself forced over and over again to fit in, to do well. I did not give up as so many kids do b/c I was a good reader, an avid reader, and that allowed me to navigate school with a little success – nothing outstanding but OK.

One thing that arouses my anger is the lack of awareness I see in people. Being over 65, I easily remember how life was in the 40s and 50s. Early on, probably by 14, I had read a couple of books by Black authors about their experiences. My step-father was a Southerner whose easy racism contrasted strongly with the open attitudes of my larger family. We moved to Alabam, 1956. It was incredible, and more than just racial prejudice. My Latin teacher lectured me daily on the evils of ’niggers’, all the while trying to keep me afloat in Latin. Little White girls my age screaming at Black women to move back when they entered the bus. Anyone who defends the South is equivalent to someone excusing the Holocaust.

The reason I stress this issue with Blacks is because within a few years, I entered the Black community after a fashion. Younger readers of my blog will perhaps not understand the word ’enter’: the society was segregated, you either lived among Whites or you lived among Blacks. So when I associated with Blacks, I was separating myself from the rest of the society. Now it was nothing dramatic but it was a fact of life. Within 8 years of my Alabama experience, I had married a Black woman – two years after Arizona rescinded its antimiscegenation law and four years before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all such laws as unconstitutional (Alabama kept its law – this is what States Rights means to me).

So the “race question” has been central to my life as an adult and was foreshadowed in my childhood. But of equal importance is my growing up in a working-class family. I experienced small town prejudice when I was forbidden to walk a certain girl home b/c her mother had dated a married man who committed suicide. My parents had divorced and my mother and I could only find rooms to rent so I had to live in with strangers, and often my mother had to leave me with strangers. (I realize now that may have been the post-war housing shortage).

So when my dad invited us out to Arizona and within two months we had our own house, my life got real good. Some bad times followed that I won’t go in to, but we returned to AZ where I finished high school, preparing to find work in a gas station. But my h.s happened to divide a middle-class/working-class neighborhood of tract homes from a very wealthy section of Phoenix, incl the students of Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen West (I met him shortly before he died as I was friends with the son of the architect who married Stalin’s daughter – quite a group of people). Therefore, many of my classmates were college-bound. I remember being very puzzled as to why anyone would take a test (the SAT) when they didn’t have to. Nevertheless, I was thrilled when someone showed my an AZ State U. catalogue showing courses in history, anthroplogy, languages, and so forth. My mom, a secretary for the government civil service, easily came up with the $56.00 for one full-load semester of 18 hours at ASU.

My mom’s work was another factor. She was a sec’y for one of the main public health planners for the Indian Division of the U.S. Public Health Phoenix area office. So I met anthroplogists, Native Americans, social workers and others who spurred my interest in culture and in discrimination. My mom gave me the job of squiring around visiting doctors from Africa here to see our reservation health programs and she gave me a list of the few restaurants I could take them to. My first year a major Phoenix resort told the ASU faculty that the wife of one of the professors could not attend b/c she was Navaho. The faculty cancelled in protest.

This latter example helps to clarify my reaction to claims of ’political correctness’. That’s the kind of thing faculty memberes protest, so when I read or hear complaints against ’political correctness’, my first thought is that the complainers want to bring back the days when hotels and restaurants could routinely bar Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, and so forth from the premises. Frankly, I don’t remember complaints about p.c. until universities began clamping down on the racist and anti-Semitic actions that were routine in the fifties and sixties. I had one person older than me tell me he had never heard a professor tell a ’nigger joke’ in class. Maybe he wasn’t listening.

When I went to graduate school in 1971, great changes had occurred. There were a few more, very few, Black and Hispanic students on campus. A few of them had discovered that White professors and administrators were easily intimidated into giving money to anyone who made the most noise. While the majority of minority students and the growing number of women searching for a better life were busy getting their degrees, these opportunists clamored for empty tokens of ’recognition’ and for money. They got both. This foolishness then gave the racists the fodder to begin their campaigns against p.c., claiming to defend academic freedom and rigor. Opportunists were again found among minorities who joined in this unwarranted attention given to con artists (I know some of them and they are con artists – later some of them returned to AZ to try to get former classmates to join pyramid schemes).

I thought ASU had given in to a ’training’ mentality back in the early 60s. I identified with the student protests against the system that was grooming them to be corporate cogs. But I think even then I realized that a few babies would probably be thrown out with the bathwater. After all, most students needed to be dragged kicking and screaming into history and literature courses and if those and foreign language courses could be deleted and they could just study accounting or marketing, those students would happily support such a move toward “relavance”.

So as the University of Phoenix grew and as I talked to people who worked there as admins, recruiters, instructors, and also students, I was extremely skeptical. But today, when I saw the families of those graduates, I was able to put into perspective. And that perspective is what I’ll take up in the next entry tomorrow.

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