Sunday, October 21, 2012

Occupano L’Italiano-Americano Mondo Globale!

Italy 2011, Apparently Free of Cultural Imperialism

A year ago seated at a tiny expertly designed kitchen table in Parma, Italy, where I found myself in a very broad conversation about America and the world. My host sister’s father was asking me some difficult-to-answer questions. I chose to answer either flatteringly (“America loves Italy, its culture, its food, its fashion, its beautiful sights!”) or mildly (“Which countries do America hate? None!”) In response to my return of the same questions, he rattled off many countries Italy hated (Russia, Mexico, China, France, the entire Middle East) and immediately and sincerely answered “America!” when asked which countries Italy loved. I looked around the table noticing the father’s Harley Davidson shirt and my host sister’s Abercrombie sweater, though my host mother’s appearance was purely Italian (Dolce & Gabbana). As the first thing she had her daughter translate to me was “I will not speak English to her, she can speak Italian to me”, her all Italian attire fit her general attitude on the subject. Also fitting was the fact that both father and daughter eagerly spoke English to me. As someone who would never say “I love America!” with the genuine fervor that this family could, it got me thinking about how well the United States’ pop culture and identity has permeated into Italy and the global culture.
So how did the United States manage to assert its own culture and way of life as an ideal into the world culture, and in the process expand its consumer market across the globe? As expected these two realities are closely tied. Noam Chomsky helps explain an aspect of this and covers a lot of ground of the near-recent US history of the economy in his opinion piece on Al Jazeera. The US achieved and has maintained the biggest economy in the world since the 1920s, which it procured by part using imperialism to obtain cheap material and labor to begin a production based economy with high export rates. In the process it also achieved cultural imperialism and secured an enthusiastic world market for the products America manufactures. The US economy originally was able to continue to grow at such a profound rate despite the depression which shocked the 1930s due to the government’s manipulation of fiscal policy. This economic growth ushered the country into a position which allowed it to begin spreading all that was America across the world, from McDonalds to Disney to the Hollywood movie industry in general. The international fame in brand and entertainment plus the high immigration rate held by the US further perpetuated American culture and the products it presents as both modern and quality. It must be kept in mind that although the American market produces amazing and advanced products such as the airplane and the Internet, just because a culture is dominant it does not mean it is because it is better. In fact, one must often be wary of any dominant culture, ideal, or belief. Being number one often goes hand and hand with manipulative or exploitive forces meaning the dominant force is probably not in power due to its inherent superior qualities.
In the 1970s the US economy began to decline and there was a fear that Japan’s economy would surpass the United States’ in growth and size. This sparked a fear in Americans and economic practices began to shift. There was a massive deregulation of financial institutions and this slowly concentrated the wealth to those in charge of these institutions. Money and politics were now linked very tightly and the economy changed from one secure in high production to one built on the unstable and unregulated union between Wall Street and Washington. This shift led to an environment and economy so beyond the point of return to stability and normalcy that it resulted in the financial crash of 2008. The Occupy Wall Street protest was an interesting development and response in the second half of 2011, as a visual reminder to the citizens of the US who was responsible for their misfortunes as a result of the crash. One of the amazing things about Occupy Wall Street is the speed at which other Occupy movements popped up around the entire world, from big city demonstrations in London and Rome, to smaller demonstrations at universities like UC Davis and even cities as small as Parma. This is a completely different type of cultural imperialism, in this case inspired by the backlash in response to corruptness of the very institutions that originally made a living off of similar cultural imperialism. Although each Occupy Movement has its own reasons for coming about as well as its own focus, it cannot be ignored that the idea was born in the city which is the epitome of American culture, on the street that is the center of America’s economic glory and decline. I only wonder what my host family thought as they drove their Italian made Fiat past Parma’s small occupy movement, dressed as they were in American garb possibly even drinking Starbucks Italian roast coffee. 

North Beach, San Francisco LITTLE ITALY

Monday, October 8, 2012

Teaching to the Test, the Masses, and the Individual

Colored chalk dust, a thirty foot may poll covered in colorful ribbons, pentatonic flutes, refrigerators filled with jars of watercolor paints, and children without technology in their classroom. From Kindergarten until 8th grade I attended a Waldorf-inspired school in California, and this was my life. Over the years we painted, drew, wrote, gardened, sang, knitted, played, and learned in a variety of different ways. We danced around a May Pole every spring, we had enough flute, recorder, choral, and violin concerts to last anyone a life time, and younger grades had a wonderful coming of age Winter Spiral (Kitania is walking to get her little light, all the stars are watching her by day, and by night. Now she has her little light, and her face is shining bright, carefully she’ll guard it all through the winter’s night.) and that was from memory. Memory, especially memorizing verses, songs, stories, and plain old facts was highly encouraged. We learned to read in second grade, had two years of Kindergarten (I am old for my grade), and switched from instrument to instrument depended on one’s age and focus. These various techniques were designed by Rudolf Steiner in the early 1900s as an attempt to fine-tune education to a child’s development, some would argue in an inefficient or misdirected way of teaching children. Steiner argues that although a child may have the ability to learn a new way of thinking, they may not yet have the maturity level ready to tackle it yet. Online education is profoundly efficient as it gets readings, tests, slides, videos, lectures, and grades to many people quickly, without the added cost of teachers, materials, and facilities.
In classic Waldorf schooling, one has the same teacher from grade one to eight, allowing each student to form a very close, trusting, and lasting relationship with the teacher. This teacher sees each student grow up from childhood to graduation as young men and women, and each student is able to grow as he or she did naturally with little push or pull from that teacher. This close relationship is lost in many education systems, but is especially lost in an online education where the teacher has little interaction and absolutely no physical contact with his or her students. The respect and trust I cultivated for my teachers I brought with me to my high school, an almost hilariously academic and rigorous  public magnet school in San Francisco. The teachers, students, and classes were very different, the sense of mutual respect and trust between student and teacher that I was used to was completely lost to me here and I had a lot of trouble with that. I did find a few teachers I felt comfortable with, but they were few and far between.
My respect and focus on teachers I think is what makes it difficult for me to completely accept and wish to follow the pedagogy of Paulo Freire. His book Pedagogy of the Oppressed discusses issues with the traditional and long practiced style of “banking” education. Continuing the current practices and attitudes of the oppressing class upon the oppressed create a new class of oppressors. The basis of banking education survives on the idea that teachers are the source of knowledge, and must fill the empty vessel that is every student with this knowledge. It assumes students have nothing to bring to the classroom, and that the teacher doesn’t learn anything from the process. It also makes for a very stagnant classroom set up, consisting of the teacher lecturing at the front with dutiful students writing all that is said down, no room for questioning or discussion. In the context of an oppressed class, questioning is seen purely as challenging authority and therefore a threat to the social status quo. I personally have a lot of trouble with the fact that the US education system today, although not entirely a banking system, still has a trend of the educated getting more educated which perpetuates the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Even though I appreciate Freier’s conclusions for their attempt to eradication class division and disrupt the oppressive status quo, I can’t get behind all his conclusions. Another aspect of his pedagogy, is that the classic model of teacher lecturing/students listening had to be upended and that teachers and students should be in a constant discussion, with room for questions and challenges from any student for the teacher. What goes with that is a labeling of a lecture style set up as sustaining any oppressive status quo that may be affecting. This is what stops me from completely agreeing with Freier on the role of a teacher, I feel like there can be something beneficial about just listening to a teacher and hearing everything they know about a subject, lecture style. But I think this is an example of my Waldorf schooling coming out, where lectures, stories, and performances were a big aspect of how we learned things. It therefore cultivated in us an instinct to give respect to whoever is the teacher in the situation. So I tend to have focus on the lecture portion of any given class, whether this is because I believe I learn better by ear (rather than by visuals, or reading, etc) or because I have this deep rooted inclination to give my full attention to anyone at the head of a classroom.
The classroom set up practiced by so many does not fit in with the pedagogy practiced by “free” schools whatsoever. Schools like the Brooklyn Free School have a completely free curriculum, where each student can use his or her democratic vote to decide where, when, what, and with whom they want to study. This turns lecture style teaching on its head, with no room to force lectures on students and no traditional classroom set up. Every day is different, anyone can call anything to the school’s attention, and everything is up for debate. A big aspect of Freier is his emphasis on debate and discussion, things that are practiced and encouraged at the Brooklyn Free School. The truth is, not all educations are the same. Many people don’t need an education fine-tuned to their individual needs, but if one gets a chance, different education techniques can be amazing. For the entire system to keep creating individuals ready for college or work, however, a stable and consistent system must be in place, and this system could soon become online only classrooms, with its cost and time efficiency. As seen in NPR’s piece about Coursera, it is difficult to argue there is anything bad about opportunities to take classes from top universities online for free. A balance must be struck up, of student to teacher, of specialized to standardized teaching, and most importantly between the maintenance of the status quo and progress.