Posts Tagged ‘Leonard Pitts’

I am a big fan of the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr.  Mr. Pitts, who writes for the  Miami Herald, invariably has something to say that is worth the time to listen – or, in this case, to read.

Here is this week’s column (first published this past Saturday): http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/03/31/2723566/r-rated-column-not-suitable-for.html

And here’s an excerpt.  The topic is the New York City’s Department of Education banned words list:

“… It seems the department has sent to companies bidding to revamp the city’s standardized tests a list of words and topics they do not want those tests to contain. The reason: Those words and topics might make children uncomfortable. Or as a spokeswoman for the education department told the New York Post, which broke the story last week, banning those words ‘allows our students to complete practice exams without distraction.’

“So how are those words a ‘distraction?’ Well, let’s look at the list.

“’Dinosaur?’ Not everyone accepts the theory of evolution.

“‘Birthday?’ Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate them.

“‘Pepperoni?’ Junk food. That stuff’ll kill ya.

“‘Dancing?’ Didn’t you see Footloose?

“The full list is said to contain 50 objectionable words and topics, which also includes: ‘Halloween’ (too pagan), ‘divorce’ (upsetting to the child whose parents have split), ‘disease’ (upsetting to the child whose Nana has taken ill), ‘home computers’ (not everyone can afford such luxuries), ‘terrorism’ (scary), ‘slavery’ (bad) and space aliens (Sorry, Superman).”

The point Mr. Pitts is making, of course, is that we aren’t expecting kids to grow up anymore; we aren’t expecting them to learn how to live and work in a world where people have different beliefs and where there are lots of unpleasant things to upset them.  We aren’t teaching them to have a strong inner core to face the world, and to develop the strategic thinking they will need to navigate through that world.

I sometimes see telltale signs of this in my students.  It shows up in the student who says “I want the grade I think I deserve” prompting me to reply, “You’ll get the grade that you earn.”

It shows up when a student begs for an override – an exception – when a class is already full and wants to be enrolled, and I say “I have to limit this class size so that I can give appropriate attention to each student.”  This prompts some students to reply “But I need the upper-division credits!”  Last time that happened, I told the student if that was the case it might be a good idea to sign up for an easier class, because my classes are not easy.

It shows up when students in their 20s – who don’t seem to hesitate making very strong statements when they want things to run their own way – completely crumble under corrections on a paper, assuming it means the teacher thinks they are terrible, horrible people.  This prompts a response from me (among others) that they need to separate out grammar corrections from character evaluation, and that in any event, no one class and no one teacher should determine what they think of themselves.

The “20-somethings,” as we often call them, are fragile.  They’re fragile, of course, partly because they are young and haven’t been exposed to a lot of what the real world is going to throw at them yet.  But many of them are fragile because no one ever expected them to toughen up or to grow up.

But here’s the good news: once they begin to understand what they don’t know, they want to learn.  Once they are in a contact with a teacher who sees their potential, they want to develop it.  Once they understand that they can express their opinions – as long as those opinions are based on fact – then they feel much freer to grow and expand.

They have it in them, these 20-somethings.  They’re really bright kids and they want to do some good in the world.  They also want to make money.  With any luck and a lot of strategic thinking, they’ll find ways to do both.

But most of the time, I could cheerfully choke their parents and their former teachers, who never bothered to tell them how the world works and never bothered to hold them to the standards necessary to carve out a good career and a good life in our modern times.   I do understand that teachers in K-12 are working under enormous pressure with high expectations placed on them – and few resources to fulfill those expectations. I also understand that, as a country, we have lost much of our commitment to education – which is only going to continue to shortchange our kids as well as our economy.

I’ve never understood, however, why it takes more than a chalkboard and a piece of chalk to teach good English – or, for that matter, to teach literature.

When we get back to the basics, and when we decide we are going to uphold standards and high expectations for our kids, they will rise up to meet the challenge.    How can we believe in them so little?  Every single time we protect our kids too much, we are expressing a belief that they can’t possibly make it.  How dare we pull them down this way?

My experience in the classroom says that these kids are worth the faith and effort that many have not been willing to give them.

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Last Saturday, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts wrote an article entitled “Get Ready for Conservative Bible” – http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/columnists/story/1287092.html.  The column appeared in this morning’s Oregonian, my daily newspaper.  Pitts makes a more universal point in talking about the fact that the Conservapedia web site is “correcting” the Bible according to conservative principles and interpretations.  That point is this: we are becoming a society where we only have to listen to, or read, information with which we agree.  Here’s how Pitts puts it in his column: 

“Rather than trust those beliefs to stand or fall in the free market of ideas, some conservatives now apply a kind of intellectual protectionism. So now you have your conservative newspaper, your conservative radio station, your conservative university, your conservative “facts” and, apparently, your conservative God, and you may build yourself a conservative life in a conservative bubble where you need never contend with ideas that challenge, contradict — or refine — your own.

“But here’s the thing: When no authority can be regarded as unimpeachable by both right and left, when no fact can be universally accepted as such, when anything you prefer not to believe is automatically dismissed as a product of “bias,” you impoverish intellect and render informed debate impossible.”

Those of us engaged in tracking new media and teaching it; those of us engaged in public communication of any type, whether making a living or just following trends, have been worried about this for a long time.  No, not worried about conservatives taking over the universe; worried about the larger point of how people are tuning out information, opinions and dialogue with which they disagree.  Complicating the issue is that it had become increasingly difficult to sort out truth from opinion from entertainment.  Witness the mainstream media last week, falling for the story of a complete 180-degree turn by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on its position regarding climate change:  http://theplumline.whorunsgov.com/climate-change/whoops-reuters-acknowledges-that-hoax-story-on-climate-change-could-have-moved-financial-markets/ 

News moves at warp speed anymore, and in trying to keep up, much of which passes for news is just not credible stuff.  How do we educate our young people to have discerning minds without turning them into complete cynics?  How do we once again grow a country which is intellectually rigorous and willing to consider different information which may actually change our minds?  These are questions we’ll be having to answer for a long time in the future.

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