I generally shy away from blogs that are too much about the author, his/her friends and family. Unless you’re Winston L. S. Churchill, the chances are that the internals of your life are of interest principally to you. Even “reality” television is anything but that; the producers spend a tremendous amount of time and energy concocting neat slices of “reality” that – mirabile dictu! – happen to fit into a standard television time-slot, net of advertising. Isn’t that just amazing from an evolutionary perspective? Human society, ancient as it is, has by some force of divine providence so developed that it will dove-tail perfectly into modern television’s business model.
I’ve thus tried not to clutter up this ‘umble little blog with tales of my own woes and would-be triumphs. I won’t claim the widest or most rarefied circles of acquaintance, but by a pretty depressing margin I’m the least interesting person I know. My life and its ups and downs offers the fewest useful insights to my fellow passengers on this earth.
So when I write this, my third post in four or five which deals with a vignette from my family, I think an apology is in order. Consider it offered.
Yesterday whilst purging my spam filter, I noticed several e-mails from my boys’ school. I generally make no effort to pull them up and read them. We live sufficiently far away that much of what we can describe as the Social Calendar aspects of their parent communications just has no relevance to me. We access what information is there about the boys’ respective homework assignments and leave the rest to sort itself out. So I’ve never released or white-listed any of the school spam. Until yesterday, that is, when I saw something from a teacher whose name I recognized as being the art teacher, mentioning something about the fifth-graders’ “film projects.” This was the first I’d heard about this, and given the sometimes easy and unwarranted assumptions that today’s school teachers seem to make about what we have lying about the house (such as shoe boxes for dioramas; we don’t have the money around here to have so many pairs of brand-new shoes that we’re awash in empty shoe boxes to cut up and make into “projects” for school subjects) I figured I’d better give it a once-over to make sure they weren’t just breezily figuring all we parents had home media production studios.
I was relieved to discover that this “film project” is something the children are doing in a “lab,” on the school’s computers. I was less relieved to discover the due dates are next week. Around our little house we (ahem!) sometimes have trouble with getting started soon enough to make deadlines. Mommy is of the “start at 9:30 the night before it’s due” philosophy; daddy is of the “start it as soon as you know about it” persuasion. You can imagine the conflicted signals our children get.
And then I read a bit further, and my mood became unhinged. This is the guts of the assignment:
Students will create a film using IMovie in the computer lab Macs. Your film must relate to the theme of the environment. The films theme should be taken seriously.No slap stick, no comedies allowed. The film should focus on a problem that is taking place in our community, whether it’s a lack of recycling, community gardens, accessible education on caring for our environment etc.Step 1 : Come up with one problem that you see in the environment that you want to focus on in your film.Step:2
Research your problem and find out if there are solutions to helping eliminate or lessen the problem affecting the environment
Create a StoryBoard. A storyboard looks a lot like a comic. It usually has four boxes and you draw what 4 major scenes you will cover in your film.
This assignment is for a class of fifth-graders, remember. They are supposed to “identify a problem that is taking place in our community” and which relates to “the environment.” It’s supposed to be “taken seriously.” No levity, children; remember art is never about using humor to make or illustrate a point. And what sorts of “problems” are suggested? Is the anthropomorphism of the world and non-human existence a possible problem? How about the difficult question of trade-offs and how do you keep six billion humans fed while maintaining a pre-lapsarian purity in the natural environment?
Oh no; those aren’t “problems taking place in our community.” Whose community again, sister? Out here in my “community” a lot of people still heat with wood cut from their own land. That’s not because they want to make some sort of statement but rather because they can’t afford the sky-high electrical prices which have resulted from the forced closure of scores of coal-fired electrical plants. They don’t have “community gardens” because their garden isn’t some hobby they indulge in to make themselves feel as if they’re cocking a snook at “corporate America”; it’s how they feed their families. A very good friend of mine had a father who “taken sick” (as they say out here) for the better part of a couple of years. The only meat the family had during that time was what my buddy – a teenager back then – could kill, in season or out. He got to where he could spotlight a deer, bring it down with a single shot, field dress it in the dark, and be gone before he could be caught. And so the family survived.
Apparently this goof-ball of a teacher thinks that “community gardens” have something to do with the environment, specifically that more of them would be good for it. Perhaps she thinks that you can feed much more than one family off a garden the size of the arable portion of a town building lot. Perhaps she thinks that thinning out urban population so that you have one garden per inhabited lot is a great thing for the environment. Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to her that (i) having entire cities trying to feed themselves off quarter-acre gardens is about the biggest waste of human, physical, and financial capital you can imagine (it’s as if she never heard of Adam Smith’s observations about the division of labor); and (ii) when you thin the population by half you double the amount of land it occupies. That’s math, lady, and unless you can come up with some other solution to getting people co-located with their job sites, you just astronomically increased the fuel consumption associated with getting Americans to work in the morning. Remind me how this is a good thing?
“Accessible education” about “taking care of the environment” is a “problem taking place in our community,” it seems. Mind you, this is when you can’t pick up a magazine, or a newspaper, or turn on the television, or browse the internet without seeing something about how you can juice up ol’ Ma Nature. You can’t listen to a politician of any level gas on for more than five or ten minutes without witnessing some sort of genuflection to Saving the Environment. You’ve got everyone from coffee shops to your greengrocer to the hot air hand dryer in the men’s room reminding you to recycle this, use less of that, and Aren’t We Wonderful for Reducing Waste. In short, today’s American as he moves through his day is greeted by didactic noise about “taking care of the environment” with the dreary repetitiveness and predictability of the monk scene from The Holy Grail.
My objection is of course to the transparent use of school as propaganda forum. The issues this assignment allude to are incredibly complicated, and to start the reasoning (to give it an undeserved credit) process halfway down the line – that lack of X or the prevalence of Y is prima facie a “problem” – is the height of dishonesty. Even more so do I resent the presence of this assignment in an “art” class. What does making a documentary have to do with “art”? What is artistic about a polemic? Ding-Dongs and Zingers bad; granola bars good. Whatever else you might call that, it is not art in any meaningful sense of the word.
This woman is not teaching art with this assignment, but rather schooling the children in a catechism.
If you really wanted to have this sort of assignment and have it be relevant to the subject matter of a specific class, it ought to be in social studies. It should be part of social studies because of all the inherently social, economic, and political issues it implicates. Social studies is (or ought to be, if taught honestly) about little more than the trade-offs that humans make in their effort to live with each other without devolving into a Hobbesian state of nature. “Lack of recycling” as a problem? Well, what are the alternatives with which recycling has to contend? What are the relative burdens and benefits of taking a used plastic trash bag and turning it into a usable something else? Where are those burdens felt and who enjoys the benefits, and how are those groups/places determined? Is there something to be said for answering the questions to those questions in one fashion rather than another? These are not questions of art but of human interaction. To treat them as properly the subject of art – which can have neither right nor wrong “answers” – is to divorce them from the realm of decisions which have measurable consequences for living humans. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the only reason we do not enjoy starvation – not mere hunger, but true starvation – on a massive scale in the United States is precisely because our agricultural system is so highly mechanized, centralized, and commercialized. If you’re looking for what a society of “community gardens” looks like, you needn’t look much past the nearest UNICEF fund-raising poster. Those bloated-belly stick children lying in the African dust, their eyes staring blankly as they feel themselves dying by inches? They’ve been fed from “community gardens.” Way to think it through, lady.
All of which to say is that the nostrums so loyally parroted by this art teacher are not self-evidently value-positive to society. But you wouldn’t know that from the approach this assignment takes, would you?
Finally, I object to this kind of assignment being foisted onto children much, much too young to understand the implications of the pat answers their teacher so obviously expects of them. There’s something more than just vaguely Komsomol about the whole exercise, when you ponder it. Let’s all have “community gardens” and every household on the block can raise three-sevenths of one row of string beans. That’s really going to feed the world. I don’t want to go too deep into the weeds of imagining what’s going through this commissar’s teacher’s mind, but is it too much to speculate that she sees herself as training this generation’s Pavlik Morozovs, lurking behind the living room drapes to see if mommy and daddy are engaging in Trotskyite counter-revolutionary failure to recycle last Sunday’s New York Times Review of Books? And then dutifully reporting that to their pediatricians when such questions are mandated by whatever amendments to the “Affordable” Care Act are cooked up by the lunatic fringe (don’t laugh; pediatricians are already being leaned on – hard – to pepper their patients about whether mommy and daddy have guns! in the house).
Not only is there the creepy recitation of Mao Thoughts aspect of this. In point of fact this assignment is not age-appropriate. As a group fifth-graders are not at the point where they’ve been exposed to enough of the world’s hard lessons to understand the nature of trade-offs. At eleven or twelve years old they’re still by and large in the phase of “it would be really neat to have X; therefore let’s have X.” [N.b. Sadly, we must point out that most government entities do their budgeting on precisely that basis, which explains way more about the state of our republic than is very comfortable to think about.] Don’t get me wrong, though; there are out there children of that age who understand that in order to have X you’re going to have to give up some Y, and maybe some Z as well. And while doing that you’re going to put yourself in a position that A, B, and a good bit of C are going to be out of your reach either temporarily or forever. There is an expression for children who have been sufficiently exposed to Life that they understand such things at that age: “old beyond their years.” They’re not to be envied, those children. The husband of a friend of mine was his family’s principal means of support from the age of twelve. That family had nothing – nothing – but what he could go out and break his back to earn. They didn’t have a “community garden”; they had their own garden and they had it in order that they did not starve. They didn’t recycle to propitiate Gaia; they recycled because they couldn’t afford not to use everything to the point of disintegration. They weren’t worried about “accessible education about taking care of the environment”; they were worried about accessible heat for the winter.
Years ago my mother, who was a junior-high English teacher for about 182 years or so, assigned her little scholars, in lieu of a “What I Did Over the Summer” essay, to interview an old person. I think 70 was the minimum cut-off. One of her students’ mothers was a nurse in a VA hospital in the area. Among the resident patients was the widow of one of the most famous American war heroes of the entire 20th Century. So this 8th-grade kid interviewed her. Riffing on that same notion, and if you want to assign the children something that is (i) true, (ii) relevant, and (iii) important, all while tying the task into another school subject area, assign the children to do an oral history project. Here are some suggestions for interviews:
- a World War II combat veteran (they’re dying at the rate of over 10,000 per month, and just for example the last surviving Medal of Honor winner from D-Day just died);
- a Korean War combat veteran;
- a former prisoner of war;
- a surviving German, Italian, Russian, or Japanese soldier from World War II (growing up a buddy of mine had a grandfather who lived one street over from us and who had been a machine gunner for the Kaiser; I still kick myself for not getting to know him);
- a displaced person from Eastern Europe;
- a Holocaust survivor;
- someone who participated in a lunch counter sit-in during the Civil Rights struggle;
- someone who was at Selma with King;
- someone who grew up without electricity or running water.
People like that are all over the place. Some years ago I did a will for an older fellow, a widower. He was ethnic Ukrainian, but his village ended up in the reconstituted Poland after the Great War. They were right in the path of the southern invasion from the former Czechoslovakia in September, 1939; he told me the entire countryside was littered with corpses, everywhere you looked. His village ended up just on the German side of the German-Soviet partition line. His eighteenth birthday was June 25, 1941; that night a German slave labor battalion swept through and grabbed every male eighteen and up. He’d never seen his village or his family again. The only reason he survived the war was that he was sent as a slave laborer to a farm in Austria. He stayed there for ten years after the war and married a local girl. In the mid-1950s he signed up for a DP program and ended up with a job at a meat-packing company near here. He’d since retired, but there was a former slave, who had lived through some of the most horrific times in Western history, right there in my office. I told him I wouldn’t charge him for the will if he’d promise me to sit down in front of a tape recorder.
I have an aunt by marriage who is East Prussian. She, her mother, and her three sisters (the father had long since been killed on the Eastern Front) made it out on the last airplane to leave the airfield. A friend of their father’s was on the local commanding general’s staff and hooked them up with an officer who would have an airplane available when the Red Army got there. The oldest sister married an American after the war and she and my aunt ended up living here permanently. When I did the sister’s will I got her memories fired up after we’d signed everything (I’d motioned our staff to sit tight and listen). She talked about looking back through the staff car’s rear window – before it was strafed by a Soviet fighter, killing the driver – and seeing the entire horizon lined with pillars of smoke and flame from burning farms and villages.
But let’s keep the fifth-graders’ minds focused on the important things, like “accessible education about taking care of the environment.”
Collectivists of all stripes have understood that you have to get them young, and you have to get a wedge in between them and their parents. My children’s art teacher gives all appearance of being a willing stooge in the Greater Effort. Maybe they’ll let her stand a few rows higher on the bleachers, next May Day parade.