Archive for October, 2012

October 25th, 2012

The Pedagogy of the Oppressed

The title is shared with a book I picked up on my last visit to Northern California; my Dad had reserved a shelf of his bookcase to volumes that had been owned (and predictably underlined, highlighted, and margin-noted) by my late Grandfather, who was a school principal and a professor of education. In fact, I picked it up pretty much for the sake of the title, perhaps a flippant or indulgent act; it seemed exotic, something to flip through now and then. Since I’ve had it I haven’t done much of any flipping, but the title has worked its effect on others, recently calling attention to itself when used as a hard surface on which a business acquaintance signed some papers. After the book’s political slant (if such a slant is to be found –the book remains unread) was jokingly called into question, and in the course of my recent return to the study of basic chemistry, the words “pedagogy” and “oppressed” have begun to take on increasingly relevant meaning for me.

Why? Because pedagogy, at least in my experience –which is limited to three albeit second and third-tier universities, and a great deal more independent study–, is suffering an intolerable and frankly disgusting state. Because the oppressed aren’t limited to what we in the first-world countries imagine is the third-world, but in fact is making quite a meal of the world at large, at least in terms of education. The proof, if you want it, is anywhere you’d care to look; it’s in the general public having little to no clue about such basic things as the order of the planets in our solar system or how to make change without a calculator, it’s in the recurring dramas of altered standardized test scores and the failure of entire swaths of adolescents to pass exams. More importantly, it’s in the fact that apologies are made in lieu of actual teaching.

Apologies to the emotions, apologies to catalogued and medicated “conditions” based on those emotions or even the lack thereof, apologies to the attention span and to the desire for speed and ease. Much of modern education seems to lean towards this culture of apologetics, from the book I remember my Dad picking up in his post-graduate days many years ago (Statistics for the Terrified) right on down to the infuriating line I came across an hour ago after trusting a chemistry resource for a few chapters and finally discovering it was uselessly apologetic: “Why does this matter? What significance do electron shells have on the fact that “you’d rather be fishing”?

Maybe it’s supposed to be funny. I’m not fucking laughing. The idea that those who have tasked themselves with teaching should take into account, and should actually cater to this modern state of affairs in which students can’t be assed to actually learn something entirely undermines, at least from my point of view, the task of teaching in the first place. I understand that educators are more often than not held accountable for the performance of their students, and that the path of least resistance may well be the path that leads to a decent living, some comfortable shroud of prestige, and the ability to move upward into some ivy-covered leather-loungered candyland of “the real thing,” where you can have a lab or a grad student and maybe find someone who shares your ultra-specialized interests. But as with pretty much any other widespread issue in which standard practice has gone to shit, those who are practicing thusly, for any reason whatsoever, are a large part of the problem.

Which isn’t to say that the onus is completely on the educators. It’s on everyone engaged in the act of learning, no matter their position or angle. As a reformed undergraduate earning straight As after a slew of failures, I quickly picked up on the fact that gorging on properly formatted bites of information and storing them for a few days was perfectly adequate for getting the grades and the certificates and the praise. Years later, I realize that I didn’t learn anything at all, really, other than the system itself. And I’m far from being alone; following the system is an educational problem old and widespread enough to be a major topic in this pedagogy I’m describing. And if I reference Chomsky here and his discussion of the problem of obedience to the system outperforming meaningful learning, would I actually help anybody learn anything, or would I just be sending the right signal of systemhood to obedient compatriots?

As far as I can see, there are two equally important, and importantly interdependent, beasts to approach if we’re interested in liberating ourselves from the oppression of modern pedagogy. The first is arriving at the purpose of learning. Of all the many things in this life that are subjected to our “shoulding” indoctrination, learning takes a backseat perhaps only to religion. Some of us are told that we should learn because it’s what everyone else does, or because if we do it, we’ll get a reward such as more money or the approval of other people. Some of us are told that we should learn or else we’ll get into trouble. Few of us are told that if we learn, we’ll actually become functional human beings. The purpose of learning isn’t to pass someone else’s test, or to become certified. It isn’t to get more money (and in fact, as countless people have discovered, the route of learning to get more money is frequently derailed by the costs of that route). The purpose of learning isn’t to impress your friends or to “become an expert” or any other trashy carrot on a stick so often dangled in front of us as children (or adult children). The purpose of learning is to fucking learn. It’s not glamorous, it’s not material, and for both of those reasons it has nothing at all to do with a cap, a gown, a piece of paper on your wall, or a piece of paper in your wallet. And the conclusion isn’t that it won’t actually win you anything. It will. It will win you the most important thing of all: your self, your personhood, your ability. I suppose you don’t have to want that. But if you don’t, by no means should you go through the motions of learning as though you’re doing anything other than contributing to the stupidification of the entire human race.

The second beast is understanding what learning is, and how to do it. This is what you’re supposedly being taught as a child. Supposedly, it’s the foundation you’re given before you breach into specific subjects. Unless you’re one of the modern elite, though, and I do mean elite, as in the ability to master any subject you’d like and disseminate it correctly and meaningfully for any given audience*, you haven’t actually gotten it. Alternatively, through some unfortunate miracle you could arguably have gotten it but are so lazy or apathetic you haven’t put it to any use. Learning is a process, obviously, and requires the location and verification of reliable sources, which is a far more difficult task than it would seem. Wikipedia is not a source. Encyclopedia Britanica is not a source. The vast majority of university courses are not sources nor do they actually provide you with them. This isn’t easy to accept in a world where we’ve been taught that you can Google something and “learn” it. Nevertheless, if you wish to learn you must identify the actual learning of actually learned people. As a consequence of our modern problem, this usually means that you’ll have to look back several decades if not centuries, if not millenia. You want seminal pieces. You want thoroughly unbiased peer review. And you need to be able to cross-check, and to test. When you find truth, then, you must toil to understand it, until you can fit it into your own tree of knowledge, so that it can rationally interact with everything else you’ve learned in this manner. It’s a bitch. It’s also the only way. No, you won’t ever “finish,” but if you’re particularly lucky you might stand a chance at discovering something, at contributing to our knowledge.

Certainly, and most importantly, you will without a doubt lead a more fulfilled, more capable, and more meaningful existence, whether you’re rich or poor, whether you’re fat or thin, whether you’ve suffered a little damage from today’s bullshit or you’ve been digging through it for years. Confronting both beasts requires a great deal of honesty and discipline on your part, and you’ll also need plenty of patience. There’s no fast-track, no accelerated option. It is what it is, and at times, like me, you’ll realize three chapters into what you thought was an already-verified source that you’ve been fleeced yet again and you’ve got to go back to the drawing board because the world is so freaking full of this apologetic half-assed approach to learning, and jesus h. christ enough already! Stand your ground, this is what we are fighting for. There are those who believe, either in a nod to the ancient ideas on pedagogy or because of their own idiosyncrasies, or both, that you will have to be physically beaten, starved, and put through the ringer in order to do this. It is my deep and earnest hope that this isn’t actually true. It’s also my deep and earnest hope that in my lifetime learning will be accomplished not with whips and chains, nor advertised with cars and houses and social labels, but will become again the natural and meaningful pursuit of people.

When my Grandfather was still alive, I was sadly still meandering through today’s broken system, and I never really made the effort to get to know his perspective on learning or to talk to him about his experience. This article is dedicated to him; a reminder to myself of the time I’ve wasted, and of how many great unknowns still and will ever lie ahead.

*Yes, this exists, though I’ve only met one such elite and have sacrificed much to even gain access, and I’m not at this point convinced that there is more than one such person on this earth, though I have my hopes and suspicions.

October 13th, 2012

Soup’s On

Today I watched a pot boil. Immature as it may sound, I nevertheless find a little piece of pleasure in checking on a pot just before it hits the boiling point, proving the old adage wrong. I suspect we grow up with too many adages, whether they’re formalized or not.

The pot I watched began to bubble and stir around various herbs of its own momentum; I was making soup. I’ve been making soups and having a bowl almost every day for a few years now. One of the major differences between cooking and eating in the US and in Romania is that here, there’s always soup on offer, and generally it’s eaten before the dinner meal. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve had soup before dinner back home. When I came to Romania, the tradition seemed insignificant –soup was more like this needless and boring thing, and it took me forever to make one, not to mention that I had no real idea of what to put into a pot. Today I make them in about twenty minutes, and a pot’s good for me and company for three to four days. It’s splendid how a good soup fills the house with the inviting scent of herbs and vegetables. It aids digestion. It’s filling enough that it gracefully encourages eating smaller meals throughout the day. And while the cost varies according to season and what exactly I’m making, that three to four day pot runs ~$4.

In many parts of the world, soup is absolutely integral; in some areas soups are served in parlors specifically for the purpose of gathering people together to have a small repast and enjoy a game of backgammon or discuss whatever ongoing concern. Soup’s good if you’re sick or if you’re well, whether you’re old and frail or young, whether you have a meager grocery budget or want to try something epicurious. It’s even been suggested that the proliferation of modern restaurants has as its original raison d’ĂȘtre the provision of soups for the public. The staple’s been commercialized to all hell, of course, and cans of soup take up a big piece of your given grocery store aisle now, but I think the shortcomings of processed soup were largely to blame for my disinterest in the dish before I started to make it myself. When you make your own soup, you’re free to put in exactly what you want, leave out what you don’t, and perhaps most importantly, avoid all the preservative, chemical crap your body certainly doesn’t need.

There are a few things you absolutely need for good soup, and a variety of things that can help but which aren’t totally necessary. In that first category, perhaps the most important would be a good pot. Thick-bottomed, able to hold a gallon or more, and with a securely-fitting lid, preferably vented. And then you’ve got to have some ingredients. But there aren’t really any absolutes. It’s a good idea to have a basic herb garden (as it is within the context of all cooking). I grow a couple of pots of basil, and one each of rosemary, tarragon, and mint, though depending on your taste and your light situation you might also grow some coriander, fennel, thyme, or dill. Lovage, which doesn’t seem too popular in the States, is absolutely wonderful, with a slightly sweet, broadly herbal taste that incorporates notes of licorice. I tried to grow it on my balcony this year, and learned the hard way that local birds apparently think it’s some sort of ambrosia. I went out one morning and found my plants completely severed at the stalks, and caught a bird hopping around now and then checking out the damage to see if there were any scraps left. Next year I’ll have a proper battle plan. I round out what I grow with what’s in my cupboard. Paprika (which I wish was available smoked here, but they haven’t quite caught on yet despite the fact that next-door Hungary is the preeminent producer of paprika), parsley, black, white, pink, and green peppercorns, powdered ginger and rosemary, coriander seeds, cumin, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, whole nutmeg, lemongrass, curry leaves, whole allspice, cayenne, oregano, and bay leaves make up the bulk of my stash and often find their way into soups in different teams.

Then you’ll need liquids. This summer and fall I’ve been using plain old tap water for my soups, which is great when fresh vegetables are available at the market. In winter months, or if the goal is something particularly special, a stock is in order. I haven’t yet found any prepared stocks here that are sane; there’s a plethora of over-salted, hydrogenated fat-laden stocks that I won’t touch, so I make my own stocks. For chicken and beef you’ll need some bones, a little lean meat if you want, and some basic vegetables (carrots, a whole onion, celery root or stalks) and some bay. Simmer these in a big pot of water for a few hours, skimming off any foam on the surface, and discard the solids. For seafood, get some shellfish husks. For vegetable, follow the chicken/beef bit above but obviously omit the meat and bones. You can pour well-reduced stock into ice cube trays and freeze it, which gives you better quantity control.

By now, all you have to do is pick some core ingredients, like diced or pureed vegetables and/or bits of meat, and maybe some pasta, add your herbs and you’re done. In Romania a lot of soups are heavily modified at the table, with lemon wedges, sour cream, hot peppers, and so forth. I like to eat the following soup with a splash of whole milk and a little bit of Sriracha (oh Cholula hot sauce, how I miss thee). So here’s a soup I’ve been feasting on all summer, a welcomely sweet and herbal pause in the bitter iron-heavy diet I’ve slowly been phasing out as I get over some devilish anemia.

Summer Soup

Bring a pot of water to boil, and throw in sufficient salt, pink peppercorns*, paprika, turmeric, and ground fennel and fenugreek seeds. While the water heats up, peel and dice 3 – 4 carrots and a few ounces of celery root, and dump them in. Leave the pot be for a while, and in the meantime peel and chop a cup or so each of zucchini, green beans, and tomatoes. Slice a couple of green onions and chop a few basil and rosemary leaves; set these aside. After the pot has boiled for anywhere from ten minutes to an hour (depending on how done you like your vegetables and how strong you want the soup), dump all the other ingredients in and turn the heat down so it barely boils; leave this for about fifteen minutes. Sometimes I’ll throw in a little fresh ravioli, which goes in with the zucchini etc.

Crusty bread drizzled with olive oil goes nicely.

*I like peppercorns floating freely in my soup, but if you don’t especially enjoy the idea of biting down on a spicy bit of pale pink heaven, tie them in a cheesecloth before you drop them in.

October 11th, 2012

I’m Sorry, America

I recently got into an argument with a friend who declared that he wouldn’t visit the United States under any circumstances so long as the TSA existed. How preposterous, I thought, in part because he’d visited the US in the early naughts, and certainly the agency had existed then, and moreover, sure the whole pat down thing is stupid, but really it’s not so bad that it should prevent people from visiting an entire country, especially if they have otherwise compelling reasons to go. My friend and I went around in a few circles as I tried to pinpoint what I imagined was some other issue of anti-US sentiment or belief in exaggerated claims about the TSA’s operation. As happens often enough, though, what I ended up discovering was that it was I who didn’t quite have a reasonable argument, because I didn’t have a properly strong basis of fact to use. Sure, my convictions were strong enough, but it hardly makes sense to pitch one’s own convictions against someone with an argument built on data…unless you’re into religious fanaticism or whatever.

So I pledged that I’d inform myself. It sounded like something of a boring task, which I guess is why, in the six or so years I’ve been away from my home country, I haven’t really bothered to make any meaningful investigation of what the TSA and traveling in the US has become. Sure, I read the occasional news reports on the implementation of this or that, or the growing concerns over such and such “threat,” but I tucked them comfortably away in the “eh, no government agency is perfect” file, certain that while there’s plenty I don’t like about the US, it’s still the country I know, and still among the “good” ones.

After a mere hour of looking at the TSA’s history, its operation and plans, however, I’ve blown that file to pieces. It’s not any one thing in particular, though the things themselves, such as the implementation of giving airline passengers the “choice” of either being touched in the specific areas our indoctrination as children has taught us shouldn’t ever be touched by strangers or else viewed through a scanner that shows (and perhaps records) every bit of our naked bodies, and a Homeland Security official’s interest in tazer-bracelets capable of painfully immobilizing the wearer at the will of whoever has the right title, to be worn by all passengers, certainly have their own disgusting shock value. What really concerns me is the apparently deep-rooted belief that by handing over privacy, we’ll keep all the bad things away. The idea is of course prevalent in other areas, and has been around for a while, but I honestly didn’t realize it had become so strong.

A recent piece in the NY Times outlined an important point: to date, the policies of the TSA have basically been crafted in reactionary bids to prevent travel terrorism after the fact. Once someone tries to sneak explosives in their shoes, shoes must be removed by everyone. After some gasoline makes it through in soda cans, we’re unable to carry liquids of a certain size. Completely ignoring the fact that actual terrorist attacks can and are likely to evolve and diversify, by their own momentum and by the simple conclusion that perpetrators are privy to what we scan and will deliberately change tactics to avoid discovery, these policies are nothing better than palliatives. Not only are they ineffective in glaringly important ways, they’ve apparently successfully carried out the task of making the American people feel safe about flying. I suppose the reactionary operation of the TSA follows logically from the fact that the administration itself was created in response to the September 11th, 2001 attacks. But to imagine that this administration and its policies are actually carrying out the –duty– of “making sure nothing like that ever happens again” is beyond preposterous. Are we really that fucking stupid?

Unfortunately, it’d seem we are. Not because everybody blindly accepts what’s become of the TSA. Clearly, it’s an issue, and there are several people speaking out against the nightmare of personal invasion and incompetence the administration has become. But several really isn’t enough. I know that it cannot be expected that every American citizen will be particularly smart, or will particularly care about things that affect them, but the simple idea here is: if you are indeed concerned about what “bad things” other people can do to you, you should not be in any way supporting the TSA. You should be part of the effort to get this clearly abortive morass of insanity out of your country, out of your bra and underwear, out of your luggage, and out of positions of power. Did you know that the ~400 TSA workers actually caught and fired because of stealing passengers’ items have freely described a culture of “convenient” and “commonplace” theft at airports? That one such man alone was able to steal $800,000 worth of passengers’ goods before he was caught? Of course he was able, walking into the terminal of a US airport has essentially come down to handing over your possessions and access to any and all parts of your body by distant representatives of Uncle Sam. It’s reprehensible, but it’s still not quite as bad as a public that has allowed this sort of behavior from a government agency to continue for over a decade.

The current effort to change TSA policies isn’t fast enough, and isn’t strong enough. If the US is really a country able to boast of its strength and its defense of freedom, it has no business whatsoever putting its citizens –and any visiting travelers– through the prison-like motions of ensuring that nobody gets away with doing that small percentage of bad things we’ve all seen before. I don’t care if there isn’t anything better to put in its place right now. I don’t care if it’s impractical to rally against the TSA or to stop flying within the country while it continues to operate. This kind of dominion of the government over the people will rot the country as a whole a hell of a lot faster than anything anyone from any other place could possibly bring from outside.

So, there you have it: I was wrong. And I’m sorry. I had no idea how bad this had become. It’s no longer just about the annoyance of putting your bags on a conveyor belt, or slipping off your shoes. It’s about what kind of people we are.