Saturday, October 05, 2013

Be a Savior: Rising Above Twerkish Conversations

For the first time in about 20 years of teaching, the majority of my students said they read on a regular basis, when I asked about their educational habits at the beginning of the fall semester.  I was a bit surprised, but then I realized that a number of recent films have promoted youth novels and that the Internet has done a great job encouraging young people to read news items on a regular basis.  The quality of what they had been reading, however, became clear once the diagnostic exams came in.  Again, after their reading revelations, I was a bit surprised, but then I quickly understood why.  It is the classic difference between a bookstore like Barnes and Noble and the St. Mark's Bookstore.  The former gives you a boatload of horse dung and a few items of gold within the feces, and the latter selects only quality books, ensuring that your purchase will be awesome.  The St. Mark's Bookstore exhibits media savvy, and the word savvy has its root in the word "savior."  It is not easy to be a media savior, guiding ourselves and others to the right places.  The majority of us, like my students, have experienced a media blitz of Barnes and Noble-like information for the past 10 years that has not allowed us to understand what conversations we should actually be having.  And, the truth is, in some circles, diversionary media has been a standard for much longer than a decade.

For example, my husband Vincent and I went to the Guggenheim, in September, to see what was touted in many respectable publications as the most amazing light exhibit known to man.  Anyone who knows my artist background, or my tendency to decorate my living spaces with light, knows how much I love light as an art form.  I was incredibly excited to see the James Turrell exhibit.  After waiting for nearly an hour, Vincent and I entered a dark room, with several other patrons and looked at an empty room with two dim yellow bulbs.  After about 60 seconds we all began to the artist, yes, but mainly at ourselves for having been so silly for following the hype.  We believed the conversation that was thrown at us in the media.  This kind of diversionary media has been a norm in the art world for centuries.  We have decided that certain art forms are valuable and we have conversations about them, and any art that takes place outside of exclusionary, elite museum walls is rarely included in the conversation.  It is for this very reason - let me be clear - it is because of bullshit artists like James Turrell that the majority of the population doesn't understand art and has no interest in it.  We might fund our art programs in a better way if we had conversations about artists like Adrian Viajero Román, who combines family history, issues of race and gender, and rarely seen skill into works that take your breath away.

This work is a charcoal drawing of Viajero Román's grandmother;
it is on a box that you can step up into and inside are all her personal
items and there are recordings of her favorite songs playing.
Wow, we can understand it and it inspires us - what a concept!  A woman is at the center of the art and she isn't passively reclined, how refreshing!

Speaking of reclined ladies, we often have a lot of diversionary media shaping our conversations about women, too.  Everyone, for some reason, has found it incredibly important to talk about the Mickey Mouse chicks over and over, as if we still don't understand that the expected trajectory is cutesy all-American girl turns into raging whore.  We act shocked as if we hadn't seen it from Britney, Christina (Xtina), Vanessa (I refuse to link to the nude pics she has online, but you can easily find them), and Selena.  Many of us end up in the same old conversation that basically claims, "Wow, she's being a whore, she should cover up, she's only making White men money."  True, Sinead, true, but isn't it too late for that conversation?  I mean, these women made their own money, too - have you seen Xtina's pad?

Here's what the conversation SHOULD be about:

1. Women should not be made into slaves.  That's what we are until we get paid the same amount as our male counterparts.  The Mickey Mouse girls, the Victoria's Secret girls, pretty much any very famous Hollywood actress, have all made their money by showing us their lady parts.  They're whores and they know it and they probably feel that there aren't many options that are better, and they are right.  Do you know how hard I've had to work to get a living wage out of this world?  It's much harder than licking a wrecking ball, that's for sure.  If women weren't made into slaves, I'm sure less (wrecking) ball licking would happen.

2. We shouldn't insult women for being sexual.  I once saw Billy Idol hump a boxing ring on an awards show.  I've seen Matthew McConaughey's naked bod more times than I can count.  I've seen Viggo Mortensen's penis in  A LOT of movies.  None of these men get talked about the way women who flaunt their sexuality do.  Why?  Oh right, it's because we respect men.  If we can still respect men if they flaunt it, why can't we do the same for women?  It's time we grow up and stop acting crazy every time some young twerk is around.

It's easy to make jokes about that kind of diversionary media, but while some insensitive types might not understand the very serious and grave mechanics behind shaping a shallow conversation around gender roles, even those folks will have to acknowledge how our democracy is at risk when important rallies for our rights are diverted.  Today, there are rallies all over the country in support of immigration reform.  One of those rallies was supposed to take place in Washington, D.C., in the same exact area where someone decided to light himself on fire, supposedly for no reason.  As a result, the rally will be moved to another area in the city.  You can take the conspiracy theory approach on the matter and wonder if the person who chose to light himself on fire diverted attention from a nationwide rally on purpose, but most of us won't go there.  However, it is certain that most folks who decide to Google "Washington, D.C." today or sometime next week will get information on the person who lit himself on fire, or information on a mentally ill woman who drove her car into an off-limits area of the Mall, or the much-hyped Federal Government shutdown.  Regardless of whether these things just happened to coincide or not, the rally will not be the first piece of information that comes up during a search because the other ones seem more important and grave to us.  I hadn't even heard of the rally until yesterday and a Google search would not have likely brought it up easily.  Again, an important event - which marks TWO MILLION people being deported under the Obama administration (more than under any other administration) - has been buried under Barnes and Noble-like diversionary media.

That is a one time event that has been buried, but what happens if entire concepts get buried?  What if we are buried under inane conversations so many times that we stop having certain conversations and ideas altogether?  For decades we have been reading articles that portray teachers as molesting idiots and we have constantly been hearing how our schools are terrible and that we have to conduct major reforms.  These major reforms often involve corporate firms either creating charter schools or creating curricula that is imposed on a wide number of schools and not adjusted for particular populations of students.  We have stopped stating the obvious answers because of the diversionary media that narrows our conversation to nonsense.  Here is how we can fix schools immediately (but for some reason our Federal and State Governments never choose to hear these solutions):

1. Hire more teachers.  We've been cutting the number of teachers even though for the past 20 years we've gone on and on about how we don't have enough teachers.

2. Create smaller classrooms.  Every teacher I know says that the best classrooms have 12-15 students. The link backs the claim up with research - that politicians choose to ignore.  Most of us have 30 or more students in our classrooms.  If we have a troubled kid in a class of 12, her friends will help her because the class develops a unity and a desire to learn.  If we have five troubled kids in a class of 33, the class will have significant problems.

3. Vary teaching methods.  Lecture all the time - no.  Lecture sometimes - yes!  If you create interesting lectures, it teaches students the art of speech-making and it allows students to practice concentrating on a subject for a longer period of time.  Memorization all the time - no.  Memorization sometimes - yes!  It's how we learn basic math and language elements.  Science and experimentation is impossible without memorization.  Everyone knows that!  Phonics instruction for all students is vital.  They stopped that in some places for a while and it was a huge mistake.  Some places allow "creative spelling."  That doesn't work.  I see the damage it does at the college level.  Make kids memorize word parts; that, in conjunction with phonics, will make them amazing spellers.

4. Everyone gets a book.  Even a shitty book.  We can always supplement bad books with better material, but everyone needs a book.  All school age kids should have their own book.  All college age students should be able to afford their books.  Punto.

That's it.  It's as easy as that.  Honestly.  Even in urban areas.  Stop diverting the conversation to the crap they feed you.

And speaking of crap they feed you, please remember that religious organizations, no matter how much you like or hate them, have been treated the worst under this scenario.  We do not have ANY conversations in the media about the value of religion and that is because diversionary media only focuses on the corruption.  There is corruption everywhere, not just in religious organizations. We can't get around that.  In regards to religion, the conversation needs to get away from the rare extremists and instead propose the more inclusive idea of ethics.  Religious books and organizations, regardless of their original purpose, can NOW be used to discuss the idea of ethics.  When I say discuss, I mean it - we are not here to assume what any of these works mean or what these organizations represent.  Heck, our new Pope has taught us that.  We must debate, understand, and accept a variety of interpretations (something my minister father and Buddhist mother have always done - you read right, she's Buddhist AND Christian). All of our religious books are guides for how to live our lives and that is what we should focus on.  All of the books have outdated ideas, and all of the books have great ideas that still hold.  Let's have THAT discussion, please.  How censored is this idea?  Try doing a search on ethical conversations.  The concept is usually relegated to adult professions.  Ethics in education, for example.  Young people are completely excluded.  The concepts are limited to: "They believe this," and "This book says you can't," and "How crazy is it that" blah, blah, blah.  Don't let the diversionary media pigeonhole you into that terrible corner of Barnes and Noble where all of the $1 bargain books and clearance self-help books are.

There's NOTHING there that is a bargain or that will help in any way.

Instead, find the specialized guide.  The ghost of Coliseum Books, per se.  Find people or places that allow you to think of the ideas in the world, or hidden from the world, in a fresh way or in a common sense way.  If you find yourself commenting on what everyone is commenting on in the same limited ways, think of Stevie Wonder's line: "When you say you're in it but not of it/make sure you're not helping to make this earth a place sometimes called Hell."  Be open.  Expand into new territory, or remember the path others have forgotten.

In the end, I'm happy that everyone is really into the shower of media we have out there - the participation is wonderful and necessary.  My hope is that my students take this wonderful enthusiasm and use it to develop fresh perspectives and to uncover old ones that we should have never discarded.  My hope is that they won't be diverted from their ultimate goal: to learn, create, and make the world a much better place than the one they were given.  My hope is that they become media saviors.