2012 in Review: Community

Screen shot 2012-12-26 at 12.56.15 PMWell, yesterday was Christmas, and it’s amazing how much difference a year can make. Christmas 2011 was unofficially the date that I started to make big life changes. After spending last Christmas Eve at the bar, nursing a broken heart, I woke up on Christmas alone and disgusted with myself. I started thinking then about ways to be a better person, and the changes I’ve made since helped make this season a little brighter even though my little dog and I were still on our own. I know many others are also thinking of making life changes at this time of year, so over the next few days I’m going to highlight some of the best things I’ve done for my well-being this year.

Being involved in my community has been one of those positive changes. When I was at my most depressed, my family and my therapist always recommended volunteering as a way to get myself out of the house, interact with others, and feel better about myself. But I resisted because of anxiety and because I just felt useless, like my contributions couldn’t matter to anyone. In fact, it was only about halfway through the year that I found the energy to make a real difference. In May I was offered the opportunity to teach at a summer leadership program for young women. I enjoyed it so much that I started looking for other ways to help young people, eventually getting involved as an assistant coach in a running program this fall. Coaching became something I looked forward to every week, and seeing my young runners gain confidence helped me feel more worthwhile in return.

Christmas Day at the park near the animal shelter.

Christmas Day at the park near the animal shelter.

Aside from that, I also got involved in other causes. In October I helped at a local diabetes walk, and this holiday season I gave to a local toy drive and spent part of my Christmas Day walking dogs at a local animal shelter. In 2013, I hope to be able to coach again (though I’m still waiting to hear on the schedule), and I’m already planning to spend time with the dogs again on New Year’s. Most exciting, I’m planning to go with a group of students in March to Honduras where we will assist with a health clinic and provide basic health education to rural populations.

Honduras: Courtesy of the U.S. State Department

If you want to become more involved in your community but feel you are held back, I understand. Depression and anxiety can make it hard to motivate yourself. You may find you need to start taking care of yourself before you feel “worthy” of taking care of others, but once you do it the rewards are great. And the opportunities are out there: Start with a one-time event if you’re timid, or look for activities focusing on animals or where there is less direct interaction if you are shy. If you feel like you can’t contribute, think about what you’re good at. I don’t think a soup kitchen will ever be the place for me, but I’m good at teaching and running and that was enough to get me started. I still get a little bit nervous when I go out to do something new, but consider this as well: An activity is only “new” the first time you do it. After that it only gets easier.

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Review: Precious Knowledge on PBS Independent Lens

This week, PBS’ Independent Lens turns toward the embattled (and currently abolished) Mexican-American Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District. As a Tucson-area educator, this story was of local and professional interest to me. At the start of the hour-long documentary, we are told that high school dropout rates for Mexican American students are 50% nationwide, the highest of any minority group. In 1997, the Tucson Unified School District approved an ethnic studies curriculum as a way of engaging students and lowering dropout rates. The program appeared to be a success, with over 90% of students in ethnic studies electives graduating, according to a study conducted over the course of six years. Students interviewed for the film, many of them Latino students from underprivileged backgrounds, but some white and minority students as well, express admiration for the program. We are also told that courses were created dealing with Mexican-American studies, Pan-Asian studies, and African-American studies, and all of these courses were available to students of all races.

Tom Horne: Pretty sly, for a white guy

So why did these courses come under fire? Former Arizona Superintendent Tom Horne argued that these courses were anti-American. His basic arguments, as portrayed in the film, are vague. He says that courses were teaching students to think collectively and not as individuals, which is apparently “just not what we do in this country.” More importantly, he also claims that these classes were anti-American, teaching students to “hate America.”

Initiatives aimed at breaking up the ethnic studies curriculum initially failed under Gov. Janet Napolitano, but under Gov. Jan Brewer and with the support of Former Arizona Senate leader Russell Pearce, House Bill 2281 passed in 2010. Courses in Mexican-American Studies in TUSD have ended, for now, but a federal court challenge is ongoing that may eventually bring classes back.

What strikes me about this entire debate, as portrayed in the film, is that there was a lack of understanding and dialogue about the courses. Tom Horne never attended an ethnic studies class, despite being invited. Neither did school board member Michael Hicks, who notoriously said on The Daily Show, “I base my thoughts on hearsay from others.” (Seriously?) In the absence of actual knowledge about the curriculum, Arizona legislators considering the bill make such enlightened statements as, “I looked at the citations of this book and saw Marx, Lenin, and Che Guevara.” Looked at the citations? I’m pretty sure a lot of mainstream history texts probably cite Marx as well. Heck, back in New York in the public college I attended, Marx was required reading as part of the undergraduate humanities sequence. But something that wouldn’t have caused a moment’s uproar in New York is apparently an outrage in Arizona.

To his credit, John Huppenthal (later to replace Tom Horne as superintendent) is shown in the movie visiting a class and talking to students. While there was civility on both sides in the classroom, what I saw in these meetings was an air of mutual distrust. By this time, with protests by TUSD students already taking place and attracting major media attention, and in the wake of the passage of SB1070, it was too little too late to hope that a productive dialogue might have taken place. In fact, footage from Arizona legislative debates on HB2281 show Huppenthal presenting his experience in the classroom in a negative light and using a comment made by a teacher in conversation–not as part of a classroom lesson–to support his view that the classes are anti-American. (Incidentally, the comment was about Benjamin Franklin and some racist views he expressed. Huppenthal seems to be making the point that it’s not cool to call a founding father a racist. I wonder if he knows that Jefferson owned slaves. And Franklin had at least one child out of wedlock. And none of them were fans of women’s rights. Just saying.)

The filmmakers’ sympathies here are clearly with the TUSD students, and as a result the lens is a bit soft on them at times. Yes, they got a raw deal, but some of their methods of dealing with the problem–wearing faux military uniforms or invading school board meetings and chaining themselves to chairs–didn’t really help their cause. Ultimately, though, the kids have clearly been the biggest losers in this debate. They can’t design their own curricula or teach themselves, so someone needs to have their best interest at heart. What amazed me about this documentary is that at no point did state education officials, local administrators, and teachers sit down and say, “We have a problem with these classes, but kids are succeeding. Can this program be reformed in a way that preserves the benefits and saves everyone face?” What happened instead was combativeness and bad feelings on all sides. And, unsurprisingly, nothing got resolved to the satisfaction of anyone.

Today, Russell Pearce is out of office after being recalled. Tom Horne is under investigation for campaign finance law violations. Mexican-American Studies classes have been disbanded and teachers reassigned (though, surprisingly, Pan-Asian and African-American studies classes have come under no scrutiny and continue as they did before). And supporters of ethnic studies have taken their fight to court. This show left me wondering (again): Has anyone won this fight? It seems that, in the process of getting rid of “un-American” classes, ethnic studies opponents have only encouraged students to rebel and reinforced the sense of collective identity that they found so objectionable. When you single out and disband classes focusing on one group’s heritage and history, but leave other groups alone, what kind of message do you think you’re sending? I came away seeing the disbanding of MAS classes as a short-term win, but a long-term loss. Any time that the people in power make a decision that sends students the message that school doesn’t represent them, doesn’t want them, or doesn’t care about their levels of engagement or success, the future is in danger.

*Precious Knowledge airs this week on Independent Lens on PBS. Check your listings for showtimes.

Deadbeat Men: Let’s Talk About *That* for a Change

So the lead article in the NY Times today is about the fact that the majority of births in this country to women under 30 are now to unmarried mothers. I can’t say I’m surprised, but the more I thought about this article, and the accompanying story discussing the dynamic at work in an Ohio town, the angrier I became.

Here’s the fact, folks, unmarried mothers didn’t get that way themselves. And yet in the headlines of both of these articles, the men are missing. In the second story referenced above, it is “Young Mothers” for whom marriage has a fading allure and in the first it is “Women under 30” who are described as having children out of wedlock. Where are the men? Where is the responsibility on their part?

The He-Covery in Action

I’ve heard and read a lot about the “mancession” and the “crisis of boys” in education, and I don’t want to be insensitive to that, but I’m sick of the argument that men of a certain generation (let’s call it under 35) are systematically oppressed because a generation of women have been emasculating them. For those unfamiliar with the “War Against Boys” theory, most vocally advocated by Christina Hoff Summers at the turn of this century, the argument goes that males are now more likely than females to fail classes, get punished in school, or drop out, and they are less likely to complete college degrees at all levels except the Ph.D. (where they are roughly at parity with women). The reason for this is purportedly that we have created an educational system that is hostile to men, focused on female achievement. This argument has been surprisingly persistent, despite being largely debunked by studies showing that the difference between the sexes disappears when we control for things like race and income-related factors. (A study by the AAUW reported this finding based on a study of 40 years worth of data on educational achievement.) Likewise, the much-touted “mancession” is now being followed by a “he-covery” (*GAG*), with men making more progress than women in getting new jobs and getting jobs in a range of fields once dominated by women. This article cautions that long-term employment rates for men will continue to suffer if male degree completion rates continue to drop, but I think that’s a fairly obvious statement.

All of this ties into the “unwed mothers” phenomenon. A common theme among women interviewed in the NYT pieces is that they not only view husbands as unnecessary, but they also see them as burdensome and untrustworthy. What we have isn’t a generation of unwed mothers, we have a generation of deadbeat men. In the past, when women failed to obtain higher education it was because they were openly discriminated against, drummed out of school when they got married or pregnant, and they were given a low priority for admission to programs in the first place. Now, when men fail to finish higher education, it’s not for any of those reasons. Some men, because of race or class, start off at a disadvantage, but many men don’t finish or don’t go to college in the first place because they just don’t want to do the work. Even among those men that I see in my classroom and in my graduate program, the males are also overall less likely than females to be involved in extracurricular activities, service projects, to volunteer for committees, or basically to do anything they aren’t forced to do. Then, when these same guys can’t get jobs, I hear them complaining that “it only went to her because she had a vagina.” Right. A vagina, a string of grants and scholarships, multiple publications, and a page full of demonstrated service credentials. Try again, guys.

The same attitude, I think, has spread to marriage. Men don’t want to do it unless they feel they absolutely have to. Maybe I’m biased by my history of crappy relationships, but it’s telling to me that none of the men I’ve dated long-term have as-of-yet gone on to marry. Two of them are now in their mid-30s, one is still in his twenties. All of them told me at some point they wanted to have kids, but none of them wanted to start having kids “for a while,” because it would cramp their lifestyle. A few years ago, a male friend who proposed to his girlfriend for her birthday very romantically informed me that it was because, “I’ve given her a lot of gifts over the years, and the only other thing I could think of to give her was a ring.” Hmm. So who’s really the problem here?

I can relate to the women of Ohio. I look around me and I see in my peer group that even among the women I know who are my age and married, none of them fit the traditional marriage mold–almost all of the women are at parity with their spouses or have “married down” either in terms income or educational level. The New York Times also kindly informed me just last week that if I ever want to marry, I should expect to marry down. No shit. You know how many well-traveled, marathon-running, Ph.D.-holding men I’ve met in my life? I could count them on less than one hand. I don’t expect to meet my “equal,” but I do expect to meet a man who can take care of himself, and who has some ambition in life. Those men are few and far between and mostly are already taken. Maybe it’s true that women these days are guilty of thinking they can take charge of life on their own, but I think the men of today are equally guilty of thinking they can take charge of life when they’re 40, and until then they’re willing to skate by on the bare minimum of effort.