Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bowling Alone and other fulfilling activities

Recently I've been revisiting a book that I leaned heavily on during the writing of my undergraduate thesis called "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community." While writing my thesis I used this as a springboard to dictate that the use of social capital for gains (both personally and for the community) was faulty, and capitulated my distaste for the wishy washy idea that reciprocal love, trust, and relations could save the world. My harsh cynicisms about human nature and our inherent desire to question or feel intimidated by difference still stands; only now it is complicated by the fact that tasks are getting accomplished, despite these teetering forms of community they function under.

Let me preface this with my experiences with community: I've worked within communities before. I've always been an advocate for the queer/GLBT community, but this is a pieced together community with a distasteful history and present of infighting; I've never felt "part" of it (meaning my social capital reciprocity has not been met). I've supported strike workers at the U of M when I could not strike with them. Currently I work as a literacy tutor in not just any SPPS school, but in a school that promotes social capital and reciprocity as school values. I teach English to adults in a small community on the West Side, in which students help each other out daily. The best intentions come with all of these communities; to promote knowledge and understanding, a feeling of family, or the improvement of a whole school and learning system.

After WWII and before the advent of television as the main form of entertainment at home, families and individuals participated in (almost across the board) about 30% more volunteer activities, as well as societies and associations than the average person does today (today being the late 1990s, when the book was written). Putnam asserts that several factors have caused this decline, and that interestingly enough, none of them are more important than the other. He leaves it up to the reader in many examples to decide whether the individualized entertainment afforded by televisions in the home, or less carpooling due to the burgeoning auto industry (merely two examples among hundreds of factors) is more detrimental to people's desire and inclination to devote time on things other than themselves.
Not only does Putnam assert that this decline is frightening, but he says that a revival of social circles and other networking is essential to more than just the social capital of communities, but also to the physical and mental health of community members. Many studies show that in places with higher volunteer participation (and therefore higher reciprocal trust), physical health (few doctor visits, less infections, etc.) of individuals fares better. His thesis is that volunteering and being part of communities should be more a part of American life than it currently is.
It is very easy for people from all walks of life to claim they are too busy, too rushed, too swamped to partake in civic engagement or social capital building activities. The important thing for me to remember after my service is that there is no such thing as too busy for maintaining and reinforcing trust and community health for personal, professional, and interpersonal relations. This book has inspired many conversations between me and my friends about staying civically engaged, and how to begin a dialog with someone who is currently not civically engaged.

So, has my cynicism waned? I suppose it doesn't matter as long as I keep doing that thing I do--caring anyway.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

False Praise and other Ignant Shiz

I just got back from a workshop on “Challenging Behaviors in Students.” I learned about a lot of helpful ways to approach the challenging cases, who I call “the stinkers,” but I also learned a lot about the contradictions and confusions that each kid faces (because of teachers, and a broken education system) every day.

I was telling a story about how hard it is to get through to some kids with the notion of “where they're supposed to be” to pass on to the next grade when, no matter what, they will. This was when a woman piped up, rather passive aggressively, to tell the group how “saddening it is to hear people say 'kids can't read” because we should be positively encouraging them at every turn. Then the workshop leader tells us that we should be nurturing kids to read for reading pleasure, not just to move on to the next grade. This is an entirely valid point, which I bring up to my kids frequently. I tell them that I practice reading, and show them the stack of books (usually 2-3) that I keep at my desk for my own reading, because I like to. At the same time, it's an incredibly moot point. Just after the workshop leader tells us to nurture kids for the sake of reading, she also adds “yes, education is a broken system;” she acknowledged the problem that kids get passed into the next grade without merit constantly.

My point is this: in order to create a permanent and viable solution1 to this enigmatic “broken system” we're all speaking of, we need to help these kids excel within and beyond it. If a child goes through school, reading only how and what they want because it “nurtures” them, and they pass along to the next grade, lacking the knowledge necessary, it will eventually be a detriment to them. There comes a point where false praise and “success” bites you in the ass, and that point is college applications. If a kid can't take a test or even take it because they don't feel like it, they won't get into the higher education that they're told they're capable of—the world isn't as shiny, comfortable, and successive as we tell our kids it is. Once the youth are educated in a way that allows them positions of power within and around schools, then the “system” can change. However, to argue that inadequate reading and learning practices are acceptable because it makes kids “feel good” is a ridiculous notion. It won't feel so good when the 2nd grader I tutor now gets to high school or even junior high, and realizes she's been cheated and left behind.

Children need to know where they stand and what they stand to lose. Do I think I should tell my 2nd grader she can't read? No. Should I make it clear that, while reading can and mostly is fun, reading at a certain level is vital to continued success? Absolutely. Many educational theorists (Jonathon Kozol and bell hooks) advocate the idea of a metropolitan solution that would reform education(the kinds that enforce cross district busing in certain areas to reduce white flight, etc.) and fix our achievement gap. I propose an individual solution that involves each educator being open and transparent with their students, eradicating false praise that breeds confused, bored, and lazy citizens. I advocate honesty.