End of the world

Having read The Road last year, and having just finished Far North, I’ve been increasingly fearful as I read Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future . While McKibben does try and point out some of the ways that the world is not ending, the combination of globalization and agricultural specialization highlights the tenuous nature of our so-called advanced civilization…if the food in most American houses has traveled 1,500 miles to get there, what happens if this distribution network breaks? Maybe it’ll be less about 28 Days or the Machines than a Grapes of Wrath Style Dustbowl.

Happy thoughts on the night before everyone goes back to school.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

I watched these books fly off the shelves at Colin’s book fair but hadn’t had a chance to read them yet. My nephew had two of them that I read in rapid succession this week…awesome stuff. Reminded me of this New Yorker article about the purpose of children’s literature, where Elizabeth Kolbert offers a split between permissive vs. protectionist visions of children’s literature. These books are on the far side of permissive — not unlike Calvin and Hobbes — I feel like I’d have to read them with my kids to ensure that some of the jokes or activities weren’t attempted.

(How do you acknowledge the hilarity of your kids’ comments without encouraging inappropriate language?)

Curriculum and commercialization

So there’s a great article in Sunday’s Times about how the new brain research is influencing early childhood education. I’m fascinated by this process, and not just because my son is in kindergarten.
One striking thing, though: each researcher has their own curriculum attached to their research. So…what’s the sequence? Do research, assess results, develop curriculum, sell it? Develop curriculum, do research, tweak curriculum, sell it? Even assuming that every researcher described here approaches each step with integrity, it just seems troubling that the end result of the research is a product that can be sold. I know that no one is getting rich here — or maybe they are — but in a world where “research-based” has become a selling point, how do we make sure that the “product” is free of commercial considerations?

On the other hand, I’d rather it was a researcher trying to bring their studies into a classroom then a textbook company…

Reminds of the time a vice principal came into my room and asked me where she could order the curriculum I was using. I snorted… she couldn’t understand that I spent much of my free time designing that curriculum, with my own skills and my own knowledge of my students, and with the help of feedback offered by my students. Isn’t that the best part of teaching?

Walmart and Retailing

I’m reading Nelson Lichtenstein’s new book on the impact of Walmart on American life. One development he stresses throughout is the shift from manufacturers having all the data about customer habits — they know what’s selling where based on orders and such — to retailers, particularly Walmart.

Last week, while searching for the new Bob Dylan Christmas record at Best Buy, I asked an “associate” where to find it. She pulled up the screen for this album and this long list of data emerged: which store was selling the most copies, how many copies were selling each week and each day, how many copies were in the store and available in the warehouse…I only get a few second glance at this screen but it was amazing just how much information they had about EVERY SINGLE product in their store.

School Budget Announced

So a new budget has been announced. Two curious paragraphs from the Inquirer’s coverage of this development:

There’s also a cut of about 0.5 percent in individual schools’ discretionary budgets.Asked if principals had been notified of the cut, which amounts to a savings of about $1.2 million, Masch said: “I hope so.”
Michael Lerner, president of the principals’ union, said his members had not heard a word.”They have neither been notified nor consulted on the budget cuts,” said Lerner.

Second snip, which will undoubtedly show up in the casework of a special education attorney:

Masch said the district was able to reduce costs by dismantling some “self-contained” classrooms and putting those children into regular education classrooms with teachers able to teach students at multiple levels.

Poverty and film

I liked these two paragraphs from A.O. Scott’s review of Precious and The Blind Side:

Both movies tell stories that suggest a way out of poverty, brutality and domestic calamity for certain lucky individuals while saying very little about how those conditions might be changed. For all their differences, they ultimately occupy a common ground that is both optimistic and, at the same time, curiously defeatist. Both locate the problems facing their main characters in the failure of families — of mothers in particular — and find solutions in better families, substitute mothers (Ms. Rain and Leigh Anne), whose selflessness and loyalty exorcise the biological monsters who have been left behind. The fact that “The Blind Side” is based on a true story lends credibility to this sentimental idea.

Snipping a bunch to get to this line:

We believe she (Precious) will be all right because we would rather believe that than confront the failures of institutions, programs and collective will that leave so many other Preciouses unrescued.

One more reason why The Wire rules.

Harry Smith quote

Fan of Greil Marcus…re-reading the Basement Tapes book and found this quote from Harry Smith (the assembler of the Anthology of American Folk Music):

“When I was younger, I thought that the feelings that went through me were — that I would outgrow them, that the anxiety or panic or whatever it is called would disappear, but you sort of suspect it at thirty-five, and when you get to be fifty you definitely know you’re stuck with your neuroses, or whatever you want to classify them as–demons, completed ceremonies, any old damn thing.”

Soothing on a Friday when one’s book manuscript seems miles from completion.

Gordon Wood

So I found this article a few days ago, a brief essay by Gordon Wood describing the “choices” made by historians about writing analytic vs. narrative histories. And it got under my skin a bit…he writes:

“Instead, most (new historians) have purposefully chosen not to tell stories; that is, they have chosen not to write narrative history.”

While I have great respect for Professor Wood’s work, he’s not really being fair here. There are many graduate students and scholars who would love the opportunity to chose to write narrative history. But those sorts of books will not get you tenure at many, if not most, places. The initial choices made by “new” historians are those that will best serve them if they want to remain university based historians. He’s also fails to acknowledge the historians who can do both — write a book within an analytic framework that still offers a compelling narrative. Two recent books, Lisa Levenstein’s A Movement without Marches and Hilary Moss’s Schooling Citizens, manage this quite well. And both books are written beautifully.

Either way, why isn’t there at least a paragraph on the ways in which scholarship is evaluated in the university? And why isn’t there a paragraph asking why senior historians, who have tenure, don’t chose to write larger narratives? Or why those that do are not always successful?