The Autumning Empire

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Archive for the category “Education”

Hello, Mr. Chips! The Autumning Empire’s Back to School Guide for Teachers


Mr. Chips
Wow! Where did all the time go? Seems like summer just got started, and here we are in mid-August! That means it’s not just back to school for students, but for teachers, too! Now, educators, you all know perfectly well that teaching isn’t just a job; it’s a calling! Still, even the most idealistic of our ranks may feel some degree of anxiety as that impending first day approaches. But never fear: The Autumning Empire is here! Let us be your teacher’s assistant with these fifteen indispensable tips to help you prep for the upcoming year:

  1. Re- watch Dead Poets Society, a heartwarming story of a man who achieves what no other teacher has by getting a group of sensitive, privileged, teenage boys from New England to appreciate Western literature.
  2. As you sit down to prepare your course material, spend 2 hours cleaning your desk and sharpening your pencils.
  3. Enjoy a restorative day at the beach. Gaze at the calming waves. Remember that at any minute melting polar ice caps could create a devastating tsunami that’ll wash you and your loved ones out to sea.
  4.  Move to Albuquerque and start cooking meth to help pay for your chemo.Bad
  5. You know that novel that you’ haven’t been writing all summer? Well start writing it. Now.
  6. Become critically injured in a parachuting accident; then have Oscar Goldman’s crack surgery team at the OSI bring you back to life through the miracle of prosthetic bionics.
  7. Remember that there is no higher calling than giving young people the skills they need to pass a standardized state test.
  8. Relax. Nah. Just kidding. I had you there for a second, though, didn’t I?
  9. Make a list of professions that pay better than teaching and require far less education.
  10. Remember The Alamo. Just be careful how you teach it in Arizona or Texas. Seriously. Consider yourself warned.
  11. Follow Jack Black’s example in School of Rock by using students to form a band in which you are the wacky, irreverent front man. That’s really what the students are there for, anyway, isn’t it? To make you look good?Black
  12. Get out your old copy of Led Zeppelin II and crank it. It may not help. But it sure won’t hurt.
  13. As the anxiety of the impending school year causes you to vomit uncontrollably, comfort yourself with the realization that it’s bringing you this much closer to your summer weight loss goal.
  14. Look at your fading 2008 and 2012 campaign bumper stickers; bitterly realize that your life as an underpaid, overworked professional educator under President Obama is no better than it was under President Bush.
  15. Scream.

August 14, 2013 

Disclaimer: this Autumning Empire post is a piece of satire. We neither condone nor recommend the manufacture or consumption of illegal drugs in New Mexico or elsewhere. Similarly, we condemn procrastination, anxiety induced vomiting, and over-rated star vehicles for Robin Williams and Jack Black.

We are, however, dead serious about Zeppelin. 

ZepDude. Those guys were awesome.

Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

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One Teen’s Fight To Make Gay Marriage A Reality (And How You Can Help Him)

Kenneth PhotoKenneth Sergienko is 17 years old. I met him five and a half years ago when I was the youth minister at St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon. Since that time I’ve directed Kenneth in two Shakespeare plays, and invited him to host or co-host innumerable fundraising events at both St. Michael’s and Northwest Academy where he studies acting. So it’s been with a great deal of interest and pride that I’ve watched Kenneth’s social conscience and activism develop over the years. Kenneth knows his stuff, and is frankly better informed and more politically active than most adults I know.

Kenneth supports the legalization of gay marriage, which comes before the United States Supreme Court on March 26 in the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry. This case is important enough to Kenneth that he created a petition on the White House website asking it to File an Amicus Brief supporting the freedom to Marry in Hollingsworth v. Perry. As a supporter of gay marriage, I signed the petition myself – something that I’m encouraging you to do right now.

When Kenneth agreed to allow me to post the link to the petition on this blog and write a piece about it, I wanted to get a few words from him about why this particular issue is so crucial. I e-mailed him: “You appear to be concerned about a wide range of political issues. Why is the Hollingsworth v. Perry case so important? What about the case put it on your political radar?” About an hour later, I received this response from Kenneth, which I present to you in its entirety:

David,

In 2008 the California State Supreme Court decided that same-sex marriage could be allowed under the state constitution. After that decision California voters approved Proposition 8 by a 5 point margin. Proposition 8 amended the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. After voters approved Prop 8 a lawsuit was filed challenging its constitutionality.

This case is important because it has the potential to be the Brown v. Board of Education of the Gay Rights movement. When this case was first decided by the San Francisco District Court the Judge found Prop 8 unconstitutional on a broad basis. He ruled there was a constitutional right for same sex couples to marry. In finding Prop 8 unconstitutional he also found any other state ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

When the Ninth Circuit took this case on appeal they ruled on a narrower level. They found that because the California Supreme Court had granted the right to marry for Gays and Lesbians, California voters could not take away that right without a compelling reason. The Ninth Circuit found Prop 8 unconstitutional, but only with the specific events in California.

This case is so important because it’s an “all or nothing” case. The question presented for argument is broader than one might think with the narrow ruling of the Ninth Circuit. The main question presented to the court is:

“Whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the State of California from defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”

With this question, the court could issue a broad ruling, finding a constitutional right to same-sex marriage under the Fourteenth Amendment. This would nullify all 31 bans on same-sex marriage in the US. The Court could also follow the narrow Ninth Circuit ruling or reverse their decision entirely. If the decision was reversed Prop 8 would stand, and Gays and Lesbians in California and across the country would still be unable to legally wed.

This case is on my radar for a few reasons. The two attorneys arguing the case are David Boies and Ted Olson, the lawyers who argued against each other in the forever infamous Bush v. Gore. Those two coming together to argue a substantive equal protection question is the stuff of a Stephen Spielberg biopic. The reasoning, evidence and law behind their arguments also interest me greatly. It’s one thing to feel that something is right. It’s another thing to be able to cite a mountain of evidence to prove that it’s right. I also have a personal stake in this case.

As a Gay person I have a deep desire to see justice done. For me, for my friends and family and even for the thousands of kids like me living in California awaiting the outcome of this case.

On one level the issues presented in this case transcend law. When the Supreme Court rules in June, to many it could be a landmark victory for Equal Protection and constitutional principles. To many more it could be a defining moral statement. An affirmation that Gays, Lesbians and their relationships are normal, healthy and worthy of acceptance. One some level the court will rule on whether or not Being Gay is OK. That’s not only huge for the adult plaintiffs who wish to marry today, but to the thousands of kids like me who wish to marry in the future.

Kenneth

Well? What are you waiting for? Sign the petition! Circulate it to others via e-mail, Facebook, or any other means at your disposal. Please do it now: a total of 25,000 signatures are needed by February 10. Filing an amicus brief (literally “friend of the court”) in this case would demonstrate that the Obama administration is serious about its support of gay marriage. Anyone familiar with our current Supreme Court knows that its bent is conservative; this case could go either way. An amicus brief from the White House would remind potential swing justices such as Roberts and Kennedy that their votes are being viewed by not only the public, but history itself.

I believe that when he reaches adulthood, Kenneth has the right to marry whomever he chooses. More importantly, he believes it, and is pulling the levers of participatory democracy to make our government recognize that right. Won’t you invest five minutes of your time to help him? It seems to me that more is at stake than gay marriage. When young people put their faith in the system, we owe them our support. It is often said that “our children are our future.” What’s so often ignored is that young people are also our present, and they have to forge their own future from a harsh reality so carelessly tossed in their laps. As our country embarks upon the warm and fuzzy, self congratulatory ritual known as “MLK Day,” I hope you’ll take a moment to honor Dr. King’s legacy of equality for all, and work for the future of Kenneth and millions like him: make a defining moral statement that can change the law, and ultimately transcend it.

David Berkson

January 20, 2013

 Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.

An Open Letter to America’s Gun Rights Advocates

My Dear Fellow Americans,

When it comes to being a gun control advocate, I am a living stereotype. Take every preconceived notion you have of what a blue state left-winger might look like, and you’ll pretty much wind up with me. I’m a vegetarian who lives in Portland, Oregon. Like most vegetarians who live in Portland, I voted for Barak Obama. And like most vegetarians who live in Portland and voted for Barak Obama, I have a predictable set of opinions on a number of well-worn issues. I’m concerned about climate change. I obsessively recycle. I drive a fuel-efficient car, but not on the days when I bicycle to work.  My job should come as no surprise either: I teach English Humanities and Theatre at a private 6-12 school located in downtown Portland. I am pro-choice, pro-taxes, pro-government, pro-union, pro-Obamacare, pro-anything on that list that you’d expect from someone who shares my demographic profile. My political biography reads like a checklist; everything on it will fail to surprise. Even my former job as a Christian youth minister fits into the blue state liberal mold: I served and still attend a  church where many of our clergy are openly gay. In September, our rector was married to her partner by Oregon’s bishop within the very halls of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church.

Knowing all of those things about me, it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine my response to Friday’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children between the ages of five and ten were shot to death with a semi-automatic rifle. 6 adults were also murdered in the massacre. As a west coast liberal, I did everything that you’d expect. I got angry. I got outraged. I got sad. And I cried. I posted on Facebook. I read what other people posted on Facebook. I asked myself how could this happen? I’m not sure if it was the size of the massacre, the age of the children, or the fact that I’ve lost count of the number of American shootings this year (the last one was less than five miles from my own home in Oregon)…

…but, whatever it was, something made the public response to Friday’s events play out with nauseating predictability. At least that’s how it seemed to me: I no longer felt like my own person, but a background character in a sickening tragedy of which I was both participant and observer. Everything that I said and did, and everything that I heard and saw, played out as if written in a script. Then again, I shouldn’t complain: my nine-year old son is still alive. So are my students. In the shadow of all of our massacres, every child I know has somehow, miraculously been spared.

And so I am free to play my scripted part. Even writing about Friday’s tragedy feels like a cliché, including this blog, which is, at best, read by a modest number of people, most of whom (I’m guessing) share my outraged feelings. What are the odds that this message will reach its intended conservative audience? There is, of course, no way of telling, but my hunch is that those odds are incredibly, depressingly slim.

But when faith is all there is, what else can we do but grab? That is why I am writing this letter not to my fellow lefties, but gun owners, and especially gun rights activists like members of the National Rifle Association – anyone, really, who has a stake in keeping our nation’s gun laws exactly the way that they are.

I am not looking for debate. I am not asking you to give up your guns. I am not asking you to stop supporting or defending the Second Amendment. And I’m most definitely not asking you to embrace a left wing ideology that would rob Americans of the right to shoot, hunt, or defend themselves. I am asking for one thing, and one thing only.

I am asking for your help.

I am asking because I believe that it is wrong for children to be murdered. Especially in large numbers in a place of public learning. More than that: I believe that there is something deeply immoral with a country where this kind of atrocity is even remotely possible. My son could have one of those victims. Or one of my students. Or one of your kids. Or you, or me, or anyone who ventures out into the public space that all Americans share. For all that divides us, we are still human beings: fragile, mortal, and deeply connected to the people who surround and love us.

So believe me when I say that I have no interest whatsoever in changing your mind about gun rights. We’d be wasting each other’s time with a comment-section-shouting match that would just make both of us angry. I don’t know about you, but after this last election, I’m exhausted from the political sissy boy slap fighting. Not just exhausted, but depressed, almost to the point of despair, with this nagging and awful suspicion: that in the echo chamber of what passes for civil discourse in this country it is impossible to change anyone’s mind about anything, anything at all.

So let us agree to disagree. We don’t need to argue about gun rights. But maybe we can discuss safety. Let’s take a moment to pretend. What if you and I were on a boat in the middle of a very deep lake? Imagine that the boat had a leak, and began to fill up with water. What would we do? Call me crazy, but I’m willing to bet that we wouldn’t start to argue about your right to own some of the lake’s water. My guess is that you and I would start working together to get that water out of the boat as quickly as humanly possible so that the two of us didn’t drown. We’d get a bucket and start bailing, and try like hell to patch up that hole with anything we could find – sweatshirts, wine corks, chewing gum, anything – to keep that water out in the name of our own survival. And I’ll bet we’d work even harder if there were children on that boat. Because we’d both have a responsibility, not only to ourselves, but to the young, helpless, and vulnerable. Afterwards, there’d be plenty of time for the two of us to be enemies again. Once we’d plugged the hole, and got the little ones safely ashore, you and I could argue ‘til the sun went down about taxes, charter schools, state’s rights, you name it – and believe me, I’d get right in there with you. There is nothing wrong with a good argument, or even a bad one. I like to argue; I enjoy it, and as my wife and I so frequently point out to our son: there’s a time and a place for everything.

But not if we’re starting to sink. And after Friday’s shooting, I think we can agree that America is now a rapidly sinking ship. It’s time to put aside our differences and start to work together.

Now there is a lot that I’m willing to give up. For starters, I’ll give up my dream of a gun free society, which is what I really want. Seriously, if I had it my way, we’d live in a left wing utopia. I would abolish the Second Amendment. I would cut America’s defense budget by more than half. I would outlaw the death penalty, and help our president create a massive stimulus program that focused on mental health and education, because I believe that it’s by underfunding these areas that we create our mass murderers. Trust me, if I had it my way, I would embark upon a program of social engineering that would shock even Paul Ryan.

But guess what? I have to live in this country with other people. People who hold radically different opinions than my own. Some of those people are gun owners like you. Some serve in our military. Some hold deeply held convictions that granting more power to the government is a slap in the face to our constitutional liberties. And because I live with other people, I cannot have all of the things that I want. It’s part of being an adult; there are some things you just have to give up. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

What about you? As a gun owner, and defender of the Second Amendment, what are you willing to give up to help ensure that a tragedy like Friday’s never, ever happens again? And please don’t say it’s impossible, because you know in your heart that it’s not. So much has happened during the span of my life that was once the stuff of dreams. Computers were transformed from science fiction oddities to commonplace household appliances. An African American was elected president of the United States. A man walked on the moon. At the core of the American Dream is the belief that nothing is impossible. Nothing. We would still be British subjects were it not for the temerity of a few determined colonists with an unshakeable belief in the power of radical change.

So to quote from one of my favorite movies The Untouchables (which has more than its share of bloodshed and guns): what are you prepared to do? You want your Second Amendment? Fine. Do you need to own a shotgun? Please, go ahead, be my guest. Shoot all the animals you want. I don’t like it, but I’ve had to sit through enough Thanksgiving dinners to understand that I’m in the minority when it comes to the lives of non-humans. You feel like you need to own a handgun? Let me be honest, that’s a little harder. I agree with Bob Costas: “Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it…”

But it appears that Mr. Costas is not made himself any friends with his reasoning. Fine. Why don’t we argue about that one later? After all, we’re in a sinking boat; now is the time for action. So let’s cut to the chase and talk about semi-automatic weapons. Like the ones that were used in Newtown and Aurora. Can we please agree to legally ban all firearms that were designed for the sole purpose of killing a whole lot of people very, very quickly? Make no mistake, I am talking about legislating an outright ban on semi-automatic weapons. Is it possible to agree upon that? Even if you don’t like it, would you at least give it up as a compromise? An area where we can work together? Think of it as a small stick of gum to stick in a hole so the boat doesn’t sink to the bottom.

I wonder what you felt when you read and heard about the Connecticut shooting. In particular: what was your first response? The one you had before you started talking, or posting, or blogging, or even forming an opinion. Weren’t you horrified? Didn’t you feel incredible anguish, pity, and agony? Did you for a moment (as I did) imagine your own child, or a child you knew, as one of the twenty murdered school children? Didn’t it feel as if the world had been turned upside down, that you were caught up in a never ending nightmare where any tragedy of any kind could happen to any person at any place or any time for no apparent reason? And in that wave of horror did you not, at least for a moment, feel in some sense of responsibility?

I did. I still do. Call it a guilt complex, but I blame myself for what happened in Connecticut. And Clackamas. And Aurora. I blame all of us. If the Nuremberg Trials of Germany and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa teach us nothing else, it is that we are responsible for what happens in the world – and especially the countries in which we live. Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

It is time for us to be grownups. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, but it seems to me that the ultimate character of a civilized nation is measured in how it treats its children. This week, we allowed twenty of our own to be murdered at the point of a gun. Have we passed the test of civilization? Or have we failed? If you want to end a nightmare you must start by waking up.

Back in August, I got into an argument with a Facebook friend about the movie theatre shooting in Aurora. He felt that the answer was more guns, not less. He believed that had the employees of the theatre been armed they might have prevented the midnight bloodshed. Perhaps that’s your answer to massacre in Sandy Hook. Maybe you believe that every K-5 teacher needs to be armed and fully loaded. Maybe you’d like every principal in America to have an arsenal of weapons in his or her office. Perhaps you’re in favor of private security firms patrolling the classrooms where kindergarteners play with their toys and draw with their crayons.

If that is your answer, if your solution to this crisis of violence is more guns, not less, if you would like to see firearms in our places of learning, if you truly believe that what’s needed to save a sinking boat is just a little more water, then I just have to ask you:

Really?

Is that any way for a child to grow up? Is that the way you grew up? Or your parents? Or your grandparents? If you call yourself a “conservative,” what is it that you wish to conserve? What part of the past do you want to hang on to? What childhood traditions do you find worth preserving? What kind of an educational environment is best for a little boy or girl learning to read, write, solve math problems, and discover wonders of our planet? What can we really do to protect them, not just from becoming victims, but future perpetrators of these horrific, ugly, and inexplicable crimes?

As the father of a third grader, I am willing to do a lot. I have already started (and it’s only a start) by demanding that both my president and legislators take immediate legislative action. What are you prepared to do? After all, I’m just a blue state blogger from Portland, Oregon. I’m pretty much playing by the script. But I wonder what would happen if you wrote a letter or your own blog, or called a press conference, or posted a video on YouTube, and said these words to the world?

I am a gun owner and a conservative. I love, cherish, and support the Second Amendment. I believe that it is my God given right to own and carry firearms. As an American, I treasure this belief, and I will carry it with me to my grave.

And now, I’ve had enough. No belief of mine is more important than the life of an innocent child. I am ready to do everything in my power, exert every effort, and make every sacrifice necessary to be sure that nothing like the Connecticut massacre ever happens again. I will be introspective. I will lay down my arguments. I will work with my enemies. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But now, I’m no longer a child; now, I’’m an adult, and a protector of children. It is time to for me to discern the difference between my needs and “rights” from the time honored prerogatives of my selfish desires.

As a gun rights activist, imagine the power those words, or something like them, might carry coming from your own keyboard or mouth. Trust me: people would listen. And while I’m sure you’d piss off a lot of your friends and neighbors, in exchange you’d receive the freedom of spirit that only comes to those of us who have taken that blinding fall on the long hard Road to Damascus.

Or, for those whom I’ve offended with my liberal quoting of scripture, let me bring you the words of a modern day prophet named Dr. Phil. “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” I don’t know about you, but the prospect of being right is becoming a whole lot interesting. And I’m certainly not happy, not after Friday. It’s simply unconscionable for us to be screaming at each other while children are being slaughtered. The time has come for America’s Truth and Reconciliation. Like I said, I am willing to be reasonable; I’ll give up a lot. But it is simply illogical, and ultimately barbaric, to pour water on a ship that’s already sinking.

There is nothing that can bring those twenty kids back to their families and loved ones. Our collective failure to fashion a responsible society has robbed those children of their lives and futures. It’s the kind of failure that cannot be ignored. It demands deep and painful introspection, followed by profound acts of contrition and atonement. What are we prepared to do, to sacrifice in wake of this bloodshed? Our acts in the next few days, weeks, months, and years will shape how future generations judge our civilization. More importantly, our actions can make damn well sure that we don’t murder the lot of them first.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

David Berkson

December 16, 2012

Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.

 

The Hunger Games: Why I’m Teaching It To My Sixth Grade English Class

Two springs ago, l lobbied to add Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense to the syllabus of my sixth grade English Humanities class. The response was positive. But not heated. It wasn’t even really that excited: “Sounds good,” I heard. “Seems like fun. Always a good idea to mix things up and keep the reading list interesting.”

One year later, I made the same pitch for The Hunger Games. This time response was different. Very different. It seems that everyone has an opinion about this book. Including people who haven’t read it. My very favorite reaction came from a student who, scandalized that it hadn’t been on this year’s reading list, begged: “Would you please fail me so I can take this class again?” Envy ruled the day, and many of my former sixth graders felt as if I’d betrayed them with the most unkindest cut of all. “Did you have something against our sixth grade? Because I think you did!” cried one. Yet another wrote to me: “David! So unfair! We should have gotten to read The Hunger Games!”

But the response wasn’t totally positive. That’s not to say there were really any negatives. I mean, no one came right out and said, “What are you thinking?” No, the dissenting voices were more…skeptical. And confused. This was expressed with tremendous clarity (and no small measure of courage) by an eleven year old girl about to finish her sixth grade year. Amid the barrage of “how-could-you-let-next-year’s-class-read-this-and-not-give-it-to-us?” questioning, this student meekly raised her hand and, when called upon, said:

“Well…not to be disrespectful or anything, but…well, it doesn’t really seem as if The Hunger Games belongs with the other stuff that we read in this class.”

I was prepared for the comment; I just didn’t think it would come from a student. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well…I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be rude, but…think about it. I mean, we spent the whole year reading Edgar Allan Poe and Kafka.” (My sixth grade students read and write critically about Poe during the fall semester; by spring, they are doing the same with some of Franz Kafka’s shorter works, including The Metamorphosis.) She went on, “I mean, even To Kill a Mockingbird seems more…I don’t know, when I think about the other books, it seems like The Hunger Games doesn’t really belong.”

And there you have it. Sure, Suzanne Collins’ runaway bestseller is great story telling. And fun. And exciting. Like the Harry Potter series that came before, it is getting kids excited about reading. Which, in an age of shortening attention spans, is really saying something. We may differ on the merits The Hunger Games, but still agree on its social and cultural importance.

But what about as a piece of literature? How does The Hunger Games stack up against the other books on this august, impressive reading list?

When Stephen King accepted The National Book Foundation’s Medal  for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003, he said:

For far too long the so-called popular writers of this country and the so-called literary writers have stared at each other with animosity and a willful lack of understanding.

The same might be said of readers. Even those of us who read and enjoy both “genre fiction” and “literature” still feel the need to make the two of them separate. I mean, I like a good beach read as much as the next guy. But The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? It’s not exactly Moby Dick, now is it? Or Bleak House. Or The Metamorphosis. No, ours is an age of compartmentalization, especially when it comes to culture. I can read genre fiction. I can enjoy genre fiction. I’ll even put my neck out and recommend genre fiction. But at some point, if I’m going to be worth my weight in critical essays, I have to know that this genre fiction is different from, well…you know. Jonathan Franzen? Alice Munro? C’mon! I don’t really need to explain this, now. Do I?

I’m pretty sure that my brave sixth grader hasn’t read Franzen or Munro. (Then again, knowing her, maybe she has.) But like so many of my students, she is smart. She pays attention. And she’s figured it out: a genre book like The Hunger Games is fundamentally different from a literary classic. Isn’t putting them all on the same reading list giving The Hunger Games a promotion that’s, at the very least, premature?

Perhaps. And to be fair, comparing anything to the mind bending, bizarre genius of Franz Kafka is a dangerous proposition at best.  So I have no intention of ranking the books on my syllabus. (“Coming in at number one we have The Metamorphosis, followed by Annabel Lee at a close second!”) But a syllabus is (or should be) a family of books. With this in mind, here are three reasons why, in just two weeks, I’ll be teaching The Hunger Games to my sixth grade English class:

1.    Myth, Folktale, and the Lessons of Joseph Campbell

 As of September 4th, I have four to six weeks to teach a  folktale and mythology unit. It’s a great place to start with kids who are at the very beginning of their lives as middle school English students.

But for the past two years, I’ve felt less than satisfied with my approach to the myth and folktale unit. It’s not that anyone was complaining. In fact, we were having a great time reading, discussing, and writing about  such myths as Daphne and Apollo and Echo and Narcissus. But my teaching plan lacked one essential ingredient: an intellectual framework that helped students understand how these myths related to other stories they would encounter, both in and out of the classroom.

At about the same time, many of those same students were encouraging me to read The Hunger Games. (A word of advice to my colleagues: if more than student recommends a book, make time in your personal schedule to check it out.) Finally, I picked it up and started reading. Thirty pages in, I decided I wanted to teach it. Not just as a book, but as the primary text in the folktale/mythology unit.

The Hunger Games is set in a futuristic North America known as Panem. (Here’s your spoiler alert.) A brutally authoritarian government long ago repressed a popular rebellion. Now, as punishment, it annually requires that each of its twelve districts provide two young “tributes” to participate in a reality television program known “The Hunger Games.” The players are chosen by lottery; everyone between the age of twelve and eighteen must enter. The chosen two from each district must participate in The Hunger Games.  Every year the rules are the same: twenty-four young people are set loose in an enclosed and dangerous outdoor environment. These children must fight to the death.  The final survivor wins.

It’s a terrific premise for a middle reader, futuristic adventure tale. But does it belong in a folktale/mythology unit? Absolutely. Fans of the TV series Battlestar Galactica know that sci-fi frequently draws heavily on religion and mythology for plot and theme. The Hunger Games’ heroine Katniss Everdeen bears more than a passing resemblance to the archeress/huntress nymph Daphne, as well as the goddess Artemis. Collins herself has stated that the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur served as partial inspiration for the plot of the book.

But in my opinion, Katniss’ true mythological antecedent appears in the character of Odysseus. Her journey is long, painful, and fraught with tremendous danger. Her trials are harrowing, and seemingly insurmountable. Her adversaries are monstrous. She fights her battles not with brute force, but planning, calculation, shrewdness, and cunning. Like Odysseus, her fate often rests arbitrarily in the hands of the Gamemakers (who in The Odyssey are called simply, “the gods”). Most importantly, Katniss and Odysseus want the same thing: to survive. Survive, get home, and be reunited with their faithful and long suffering families.

Sixty-three years ago, a scholar by the name of Joseph Campbell wrote a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces. His thesis was both simple and radical: every myth and folktale ever told or written follows essentially the same story. He called it “The Monomyth” –  or “The Hero’s Journey”. Odysseus, Guatama Buddha, Jesus, Gilgamesh, even Cinderella: in each we find protagonist who

…ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons upon his fellow man.

Campbell further argues that the Hero’s Journey is our journey, writing: “…dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream.” And the life and death stakes of these adventures arise from the terrifying, awesome mystery of existence itself: “Only birth can conquer death-the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new.”

And the model only begins with folklore and antiquity. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, an up and coming film maker named George Lucas picked up his well loved copy of The Hero With a Thousand Faces and began to read it again. Joseph Campbell’s fingerprints can be seen all over the original Star Wars movie (which, as my nine year old son never tires of reminding me, is now called Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope. Nick has me well trained, but I still can’t get used to it.) Lucas has never been shy in acknowledging his debt to Campbell; towards the end of the scholar’s life, the two men became friends.

So it is that Katniss Everdeen takes her place alongside Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Frodo Baggins, all modern incarnations of the ancient, primal archetype: the hero.

2.    The Hardships of Adolescence

Earlier this year, film critic David Denby reviewed the film adaptation of The Hunger Games for The New Yorker. His attempt to explain the extraordinary popularity of the book and its sequels amongst young people drips with equal measures of snark and condescension:

“…the reason for its success is simple: it makes teens feel both victimized and important.”

Oh, those teenagers. So full of drama. Always feeling sorry for themselves. Riddled with self pity and narcisism. What a relief that adults aren’t like that, huh, or where would the whole world come to?

With all due respect to Mr. Denby…teens are important. Not to mention victimized. The NCCP tells us that the number of American children living in poverty increased by 21% between 2000 and 2008, which means that (as of 2010) at least 2.5 more kids live in poverty today than did twelve years ago. And America’s official threshold for “poverty” is atrociously low: $22,050 a year for a family of four. Earn one dollar more per year, and you’re no longer considered impoverished. So much for the American commitment to so called family values.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in the 2012 film adaptation of “The Hunger Games”

They don’t call it The Hunger Games for nothing. Before the book begins, Katniss Everdeen’s father has died in a coal mining accident. She becomes the head of household, and, with her father’s handcrafted set of bow and arrows, supports her mother and sister by hunting illegally. By establishing these given circumstances in the book’s first pages, Collins connects her fictional heroine with millions of real life young people who don’t know where their next meal will come from.

You’d think that during an election year, at least one of the major candidates for president would aggressively propose a solution to the problem of 41% of our children living in low-income families. Oops. Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney has made it a campaign issue. In fact, both candidates have been strangely silent about any issue pertaining to the well being of people under the age of eighteen.* Gee, I wonder why. Is it perhaps because eighteen is the threshold age for voting?

Sure. But here’s the real reason: people who do vote don’t care about kids. If that sounds harsh, take a look at the polls. Kid specific issues aren’t even on the radar. Sure, you could argue that “economy in general” affects everybody. But what about our embarrassingly underfunded system of public education? What about bullying? Where is the national conversation about the wellbeing of our young people? Evidently, it’s a talk that most of us just aren’t ready to have.

The candidates, the media, and the voters missed (or ignored) a major opportunity to address one of these issues last spring. On May 10, 2012, The Washington Post ran a meticulously researched article showing that Mitt Romney had bullied a fellow prep school student by forcibly cutting his hair. (Romney reportedly had a group of friends pin down the victim, who sobbed and tried to resist.) When the story came out, nobody suggested that this incident should bar Mitt Romney from the Oval Office – a reasonable and appropriate omission. There are lots of statistics on bullying; all show that it is prevalent among middle and high schooler students. If bullying disqualified a person from becoming president, the field of selection might be very narrow indeed.

Yet here was an opportunity for a national conversation. Romney might have come clean, and used his past as a means to work towards a safer environment for young people. President Obama might have praised his opponent’s candor. And both candidates could have, just this once, put aside their differences, and addressed one of the most troubling concerns facing young people today. And if either man balked, the voters could have held both candidates accountable. We could have demanded that conversation. That would have been an awesome moment, not just for our young people, but for all Americans.

It didn’t happen. Romney said he couldn’t remember the incident, punting: “I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far. And for that, I apologize.” Obama and his campaign shamefully refrained from pressing the issue. And the voters? We simply allowed it to drop.

Are American teenagers thrown into a bloody arena and left to fight it out to the death? Perhaps not literally. (At least not on our shores.) But they don’t need to read The Hunger Games to feel victimized; the book simply uses fiction and metaphor to dramatize conditions that already exist.

And yet, if Denby is right, and The Hunger Games does make teens feel important…well, that’s just one more reason for me to get in the classroom and teach it.

3.     The Hunger Games is Well Written

At least two of my students disagree with me on this one. A friend of mine confessed to that she’d read and enjoyed the book, only to call it ‘trashy’. While I will never discourage a kid from critiquing a book’s prose, I sometimes wonder if adults offer up the ‘guilty pleasure’ excuse as a middle-brow insurance policy against the slings and arrows of outrageous snobbery. Which puts us back where we started. Genre vs. literature. Art vs. entertainment. Enrichment vs. fun. It’s so important to know the difference; none of us wants to appear ignorant.

Actually, I’m more than happy to appear extremely ignorant. So somebody tell me: what’s wrong The Hunger Games? Let’s focus on the writing: what specifically is wrong with it? Does somebody want to point to a specific passage in the book and suggest how it might be improved?

When I forget how to write well (which happens frequently) I turn to an essay called Politics and The English Language. Written by George Orwell, it is the first, last, and best word on clear and excellent writing. If you’ve never read it, click on the link and learn from the master.  But if you only have time today to read one essay, here is the thrust of Orwell’s argument:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

Virtually every page of The Hunger Games answers “yes” to Orwell’s four essential questions. Employing the immediacy of the first person, present tense narrative, Collins eschews florid, elaborate descriptions in favor of short, terse sentences that Dashiell Hammett would have been proud of. Here are just five examples of Collins’ prose, quoted from different sections of the book:

The reek of vomit and raw spirits almost brings my dinner up.

 Slowly, my mother returned to us.

 When I wake up, the other side of my bed is cold.

 Suddenly, the birds fall silent.

 I wonder if she’ll enjoy watching me die.

A teacher of mine once said: “If you want to understand Shakespeare, pay attention to the beginning of the very first scene. Everything you need to know about the play is right there.” The same is true of great novels. The first page of The Hunger Games appears deceptively mundane, describing Katniss getting out of bed, then being accosted by her sister’s cat. But that first page sets the reader up for virtually everything that follows. From the use of the word “cocooned” to describe the insular safety of the mother and sister sleeping together (and foreshadowing seismic transformations about to occur), to the recollection of Katniss’ earlier, unsuccessful attempt to drown the cat (already revealing that the heroine is a natural predator), Collins demonstrates a sure, admirable, and exciting control of her craft.

_________

Of course, there’s more, so much more, that makes The Hunger Games a wonderful piece for young people to read, re-read, and critique. How abot book’s exploration of gender roles? Near the beginning, Katniss’ glamorous transformation into a celebrity mirrors Cinderella’s; once in the games, she takes on the prince’s role in Sleeping Beauty by rescuing her ailing love interest (?), and reviving him with a kiss. Or how about the book’s blistering critique of pop culture, and its implicit comparison between modern day America and the gladiatorial games of the Roman Empire? The Hunger Games is a terrific book by any measure, one that will live comfortably alongside the other titles on the class reading list. And if all goes well, the now familiar creations of Suzanne Collins will pave the way for the less familiar worlds of Poe, Kafka, and Harper Lee. Where’s the allegory in The Conqueror Worm? What does Katniss Everdeen have in common with Scout Finch? Teachers should always seek material that inspires their students to risk; I know I’ve found that in The Hunger Games. Regardless of how we choose to classify this book, I’m confident that it has something to teach all of us, with endless opportunities for enrichment.

And we might even get to have fun.

 David Berkson

August 22, 2012

Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.

 * Since the drafting of this article, President Obama stressed the importance of Pell Grants as a means of helping young people go to college affordably. Whether or not this sparks a sizable debate, or has any traction with the voters remains to be seen.

 

 

 

 

 

The Triumph Over Will: Why Educators Need to Get it Right About Who Wrote Shakespeare

Imagine that you’ve enrolled in a creative writing class. Perhaps it’s not the only course you’re taking, but for you it’s by far the most important. So you throw yourself into your work with passion. Every day you hit the page, and soon, you begin to stretch the limits of your ability and imagination. Characters leap out from nowhere. Your facility with language skyrockets, and your work as an artist matures. Even your classmates and instructor begin to take note of the scope and depth of your writing. And at the end of the year you are rewarded, because the incredible risks taken have paid off with an enduring and meaningful body of work.

But now pretend that after the class is over (perhaps a year or two has passed), you are abruptly called into your professor’s office. There, he accuses you point blank of plagiarizing every single word. “This can’t be your work,” he says. “I mean really! You lack the background, the breeding, and the life experience to write anything even approaching this level of talent and creativity. This is the work of another author.”

What would you do? Well, you might reasonably challenge this professor to conclusively prove his accusation. But he refuses, and instead has the temerity to put the burden of proof upon you, saying: “Enough of your lies! Prove to me that you aren’t a plagiarist.” Your reputation at stake, you scramble to retrieve notes that you’ve handwritten, or stored away on your computer or USB key, anything to get this professor off of your back and clear your tarnished name. But you’d better do it quickly, because in the meantime your former instructor is drawing up a lengthy list of alternative candidates as the work’s true author. You are guilty until proven innocent, slimed by association, and discredited by crass and baseless innuendo.

It’d be tough, but chances are that you could set the record straight by finding the necessary documentation. But what if a full decade passed before that professor called you in? Or two? Or even three? You might have to work a little harder. The evidence might be tougher to track down. But in the end, you’d probably still be able to advocate on your own behalf, and clear your name while looking your own accuser in the face.

But now imagine that the unfounded smear comes not during your lifetime, but almost two centuries after your death. There wouldn’t be a whole lot that you could do. The defense of your integrity would now be left in the hands of historians and educators, and the public’s perception of the truth might forever be clouded by a thick and impenetrable fog.

Welcome to the world of the authorship “debate.” William Shakespeare’s work and influence is ubiquitous. His plays dominate high school and college reading lists. There are over 115 Shakespeare companies and festivals in the United States alone. It’s all but impossible to count the number of film and television adaptations of his works, but they certainly number in the hundreds. Such an overwhelming cultural presence makes it hard to remember that four centuries ago, someone – a real live human being – had to sit down, pull out a quill, and pump those suckers out. Perhaps I’m speculating, but I’d be willing to bet that writing at least 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and two erotic poems must have been one hell of a chore. I think we can all agree that it involved painstaking hours of intense and exhausting work. And while scores of doubters edge their way into the market place of ideas, there isn’t one shred of reliable evidence to cast any reasonable doubt upon the author’s true identity: William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon.

You want me to prove it? Sure you do, and I’m happy to oblige. Declarative assertions demand nothing less. Those of us who celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday mark it on April 23, so the time seems awfully ripe. But before we get down to the case at hand, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the very backwardness of this scenario: any reasonable standard of jurisprudence establishes that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. But thanks to the legion of Doubting Thomases, all but demanding that Shakespeare rise from the grave and present an ink stained stigmata as proof of authentic authorship, the burden appears to have shifted to the Bard’s defenders. Thus, it falls to us to prove a case that was never raised once during the author’s lifetime.

William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564 (we actually don’t know his date of birth), and died on April 23, 1616 in the Warkwickshire town of Stratford. He was an actor and shareholder of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later The King’s Men) theatre company, which erected the Globe Theatre in 1599.  These facts are not in dispute. The “controversy” is over who actually wrote the plays, sonnets, and other poems that bear William Shakespeare’s name. But as earlier mentioned, no such controversy existed when Shakespeare himself was alive. Indeed, in 1964 William M. Murphy cited at least 23 historical documents establishing the man from Stratford as the author of virtually all the works in question, including diary entries and legal papers.  (This list does not even include the title pages of plays and poems crediting William Shakespeare as their author).

One of the most impressive of these is Frances Meres’ Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury, first published in 1598. Meres, a minister educated at Cambridge, was an avid enthusiast of the London theatre scene. He was especially taken with Shakespeare’s work, as evidenced in the following passage:

“…so Shakespeare among y’ English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witnes his Ge’tleme’ of Verona, his Errors, his Love labors lost, his Love labours wonne, his Midsummer night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice : for Tragedy his Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.As Epius Stolo said, that the Muses would speake with Plautus tongue, if they would speak Latin: so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake English.

Palladis is one of several primary historical documents that acknowledges Shakespeare as the author of the works in question. (It’s also been an indispensable tool for dating his plays.) No one has brought this evidence together more concisely and authoritatively than James Shapiro in his book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? Shapiro shows us a Shakespeare deeply rooted in a specific place and time. We see a well-known man of considerable accomplishment and reputation. More than seventy editions of his works appeared in print during his lifetime. Moreover, as we have seen above, Shakespeare’s contemporaries wrote about him, and they had a lot to say. Greene’s Groats-worth of Wit, written in 1592, lampooned Shakespeare’s ‘upstart crow’ pretentions. The author, Robert Greene, was shocked that a lowly actor might presume to be a man of letters, mocking his fellow poet’s “Tygers heart wrapped in a Players hyde…” Other writers appear to have been more positively disposed to Shakespeare’s work. Shapiro cites the Parnassus trilogies, performed at King’s College at the turn of the 17th century, in which one character exclaims: “We shall hear nothing but pure Shakespeare!”

Those of us curious about Shakespeare’s relationship with other writers would do well in turning to Ben Jonson. Shakespeare acted in more than one of Jonson’s plays, and appears to have cast quite the shadow over the younger writer’s career and psyche. Jonson’s reviews of Shakespeare’s works are decidedly mixed. He effusively praised Shakespeare in the First Folio, which was published in 1623. But Jonson could also turn on Shakespeare, as when he took the older poet to task for his geographical inaccuracies in A Winter’s Tale. (How can you have a shipwreck in Bohemia?)

But Jonson’s admiration for Shakespeare appears to have won out, as shown in this excerpt from his private notes, which were published after his death in 1641 as Timber, or Discoveries; Made Upon Men and Matter:

I loved the man, and do honour his memory (on this side of Idolotry) as much as any. He was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature; had an excellent fancy; brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that it was sometimes necessary that he should be stopped.

William Shakespeare of Stratford died in 1616 a wealthy, famous man. As an actor and shareholder in an incredibly successful theatre company, he’d experienced innumerable business and artistic interactions during the fifty-two years of his life. By his peers and contemporaries, he was both loved and hated. If all of the works attributed to him were actually written by another person, doesn’t it seem like somebody would have figured it out and said something? An Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre company was an extremely competitive business venture; the same was true with publishing. Proving, or even asserting, that a major shareholder and actor in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men didn’t actually write Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet would have been a major (and potentially profitable) coup.

Or let’s just say that this was a conspiracy astoundingly executed for a period of roughly 27 years. This means that virtually every literary, theatrical, and even major political figure in England was either a participant or a dupe. But what about after Shakespeare’s death? Was the awful truth finally revealed? After all, entire books questioning The Warren Commission’s findings on the JFK assassination were being published as early as 1964. If Shakespeare had been the front man for an authorial cover up and conspiracy, somebody would have surely let it slip.

But no one did. For over a century after his death, Shakespeare was universally acknowledged as the author of all the works that bore his name. So where did the controversy start? If the case for Shakespeare is so obvious, why would anyone ever believe otherwise?

To find the answer, we have to go back towards the end of the 18th century, when historians became extremely curious about the facts of Shakespeare’s life. But the discovery of historical documents can be a slow and tedious business; perhaps the lack of ready and immediate evidence seemed suspicious. In the meantime, William Shakespeare was becoming the victim of his own posthumous success. While many of his plays enjoyed great commercial and critical acclaim during his lifetime, his literary reputation ascended dramatically during the late 18th and much of the 19th centuries. Indeed, this rise caused George Bernard Shaw to coin the term ‘Bardolatry’ in derisive reference to the growing deification of Shakespeare and his poetic genius.

But the emerging biographical information discovered proved to be somewhat less than pleasing. It turns out that Shakespeare was not an abstract, idealized personification of genius. The man had many faults. The creator of Shylock was a moneylender himself: in 1609, when his neighbor John Addenbrooke defaulted on a six-pound loan, Shakespeare had the man arrested. Like Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare was self-educated (which I would consider a virtue, not a vice); the man from Stratford did not attend a university. His first child was apparently conceived out of wedlock. Shakespeare wasn’t much of a family man, living most of his life in London with only occasional visits to his wife and three children back in Stratford. He was probably not even present for his eleven year-old son Hamnet’s burial.

These facts didn’t sit well with some of the 19th century’s more prominent men and women of letters. Rather than abandon their preconceived notion of Shakespeare’s character, they chose instead to abandon Shakespeare:

 “I am… haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.” Henry James

“[Shakespeare] carries the court influence with him, unconsciously, wherever he goes… He looks into Arden and Eastcheap from the court standpoint, not from these into the court.” Delia Bacon

 “(Shakespeare) was a jovial actor and manager. I cannot marry this fact to his verse.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

The anonymous author of the Shakespeare Oxford Society’s FAQ page puts the case forward in no uncertain terms:

“Nothing about the Stratford man rings true: his character, his background, his education, his family, his friends, his behavior towards his debtors and his neighbors, his recorded conversation and his attitude to money and property. It would have been very surprising if someone like that had become the world’s greatest author.”

And there you have it. William Shakespeare was incapable of such genius. He was too ordinary. Too un-aristocratic. Too common. Too actorly. Too….just not exactly what I want him to be to have written the greatest plays on earth. If I can’t understand it, then I guess it just isn’t true.

The argument is not simply ridiculous. It is downright dangerous in its pernicious elitism. Worse yet, it’s an insult to the wondrous capacities of the human imagination. The mystery and miracle of genius is its sheer inexplicability. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but some people come into the world with astounding abilities and talents that the rest of us don’t have. If aristocratic background and formal education were the only prerequisites for sensational writing, we’d be reading masterpieces penned by the likes Prince Charles and George W. Bush.

But let’s put aside the obscenely classist premise of the “anti-Stratfordian” arguments. I am willing to assume for five uninterrupted minutes that the actor manager (how did Emerson know he was “jovial”?) did not write the works for which all of his contemporaries gave him credit. The accusation begs the question: who really wrote all of Shakespeare’s works?

Brace yourself, people, because answer is shocking. Ladies and Gentlemen, the real author behind the fraud of William Shakespeare is….Francis Bacon!

No, wait, I’m sorry, I got that wrong. It’s actually Christopher Marlowe. It’s not? Ok, wait, hang on, I got it, I got it, it’s, um…it’s Queen Elizabeth! Oh, Jesus (not him either), I’m sorry! It couldn’t be her. Or him. Ok, wait, I’ve got it now: the real author behind the Shakespeare conspiracy is…Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Go ahead. Pick one. You don’t like them? Don’t worry, there are lots more; keep looking, and eventually you’ll find a candidate who suits you. As long as you’re convinced that Shakespeare wasn’t capable of writing his plays and poems, you can twist any fact to fit your foregone conclusion. And you will have to twist a lot of facts. Of the candidates I just mentioned, only Francis Bacon had the good taste to die after Shakespeare passed away. The rest of them met their respective ends before Shakespeare had written some of his most important work.

The current favorite is Oxford, the misunderstood hero of Anonymous: that Roland Emerich film that everyone talked about and nobody saw. As with every candidate, there are numerous holes in the Oxford candidacy. For now, let’s just look at two. The most obvious is de Vere’s inconvenient date of death: June 24, 1604. Even the most conservative dating of Shakespeare’s works gives us eleven plays composed between 1605 and 1613 (including King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest).*

The second piece of evidence is more circumstantial, but to my mind, no less compelling. Edward de Vere was an avid patron of the arts. In fact, the 17th Earl of Oxford sponsored his own theatrical troupe, which existed from 1580 to 1602.   If Oxford really was the author of Shakespeare’s plays, why wasn’t he penning his best work for his own company, instead of its rival, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men? For it was Shakespeare’s troupe, and not Oxford’s, who staged Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and all the other works of the cannon. Doesn’t it seem odd that the anonymous earl didn’t use one of his own actors as a front man? Wouldn’t a more probable authorship candidate be someone who was a member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men? Perhaps an actor, and a shareholder in the company? Isn’t there a slight possibility that the real author of Shakespeare’s plays is William Shakespeare himself?

Examine the biographies of the other would be Shakespeares; as with Oxford, their cases fall apart.  And when you get right down to it, the sheer number of candidates (some count at least 70) tells us everything we need to know. The scramble for anyone but Shakespeare reveals the flimsy reasoning of his desperate nay-sayers. If I’ve already decided that Barack Obama simply couldn’t be an American citizen, then even a certified copy of his birth certificate will fail to change my mind.

It would be comical if nobody took it seriously. But last fall, a major Hollywood film touted this fiction as fact; once again, the authorship debate became part of our cultural conversation. At the time I was directing an 8th grade production of Hamlet, and for a while, I couldn’t get through a rehearsal without the issue coming up. Parents at my son’s soccer games began to ask me: “So! What do you think about the idea that Shakespeare didn’t really write all of those plays?”

I’m always happy to answer a student’s question. And when it comes to my son, I’ll always take one for the team. But my patience finally snapped several months ago during a chat with a friend, an educated man who is not unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s works. Perhaps I wore him down with the passion of my argument. Whatever the reason, I knew he was ready for our conversation to be over when I heard these words: “Well, in a sense, it doesn’t really matter who wrote these plays. They’re great. They’re beautiful. Why don’t we just leave it at that?”

I have heard this argument before, and I’ll be honest: I find it more troubling than the most improbable anti-Stratfordian dogma. Why? Because in fact, it does really matter. It matters because denying an author credit for his or her work is a slap in the face to basic fairness. It matters because what biographical information we have about Shakespeare does help us understand the world of his imaginary creations. And it matters because we know the author’s identity, and to pretend otherwise is simply craven and irresponsible. It isn’t hard to believe that Shakespeare wrote those plays. What’s hard to believe is that anyone wrote them at all. To inhabit the world of Shakespeare – be it as a teacher, student, actor, designer, director, or audience member – is to find yourself in the throws of a life long love affair. Those eighth graders that I mentioned earlier did astonishing work with Hamlet, giving me and a sold out crowd a wild and beautiful night at the theatre. As is so often the case with young actors, these kids tapped into the play’s crazy, angsty, and anarchic spirit with more zest and honesty than I’ve seen in most highly trained professionals.

Those kids in the Hamlet cast are my students. Were I to catch any of them plagiarizing, there would be serious consequences. So I would need to be sure before making the accusation. I couldn’t just draw up a list of alternative authors. I couldn’t just say to my student: “You didn’t write this essay. Nothing about you rings true: your character, your background, your education, your family, your friends.” No. I’d have to lay my prejudices aside and look at the facts. We all have our hunches. And conspiracy theories are always tempting. But the search for the truth demands a rational and coherent respect for the cold, hard facts.

I owe that to my students. And if you’re a teacher, you owe the same to yours, whether you’re looking at their work, or Shakespeare’s. For most of my career I sidestepped the issue with, “Well, some people believe that he wrote the plays, and some believe he didn’t.” I now realize that’s just as much of a cop out as saying Columbus might have proven the world was round, or that climate change might not be man made. There are times when impartiality imparts nothing, and some arguments are more equal than others.

400 years ago, the world was given a body of theatrical and poetic masterpieces that continue to delight, horrify, astound, and amaze. William Shakespeare was universally acknowledged by his friends, enemies, colleagues, and acquaintances as the author of these astonishing wonderworks. Since every effort to prove otherwise has failed, it’s time to stop asking who wrote them. Let’s get back to the business of asking the questions that will help us understand them.

David Berkson

3/26/12

* The dating of Shakespeare’s plays is a favorite line of attack amongst his doubters. The reasoning goes that because we can not always affix a precise date to his plays without absolute certainty, the entire process is no more than professorial conjecture. That’s sort of like saying that meteorology is not a science because the weatherman is sometimes wrong. Just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we know nothing.

For instance, many of Shakespeare’s later plays such as The Tempest call for special lighting effects that weren’t present in the earlier plays. Scholars attribute this to the fact that in 1608 Shakespeare’s company took possession of the Blackfriars Theatre, an indoor venue with different production capabilities than the outdoor Globe Theatre. Oxford died in 1604. While this in and of itself does not prove Shakespeare’s authorship, the burden still rests on the prosecution. Their best line of attack is that deVere wrote a number of the plays before his death that happened to be perfectly suited to a venue that Shakespeare’s company coincidentally acquired four years later. I guess that one of Oxford’s agents must have secretly fed these plays to Shakespeare’s company. Feel free to believe this line of reasoning if you like, but be sure to ignore the mountain of evidence supporting Shakespeare, especially the fact that no one during his lifetime challenged the universal acceptance his authorship.

Post Script

Well, if I wanted to end the debate on who wrote Shakespeare, I didn’t do a very good job, did I? For some reason, I just didn’t think asserting that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet would be very controversial. But as the responses to this piece clearly demonstrate, I was wrong.

And it’s been a fun debate, albeit one that I’d love to bring to swift conclusion. But since that probably won’t happen, and especially since my colleagues, along with my students and their families, are starting to read this, I wanted to make a few things clear:

  • I would never shut a student or anyone else down who disagreed with me on this or any other matter. Respectful debate is good, and I hope that the one we’ve had in the comments section of this blog has modeled that mantra. When I felt that my rhetoric bordered on disrespect, I tried to check in with the respondents to make sure that they felt welcome to come back and share their views, even (and I guess especially) when they disagreed with me.
  • I’ve learned a lot from the below discussion. “Edward” in particular gave me a run for my money. I had to do some extra research and fact checking when attempting to disprove some of his arguments. But perhaps more importantly, I’ve learned that two people can look at the same piece of evidence, and come up with completely different conclusions regarding what that evidence means.
  • I’ll speak only for myself on this one: the only reason why I sidestepped this issue in the past was because I felt as if I didn’t have enough information. Now, being better educated, I speak with a clearer voice. I believe that an informed educator with a strong view, and who acknowledges that view while inviting debate, does his or her students a tremendous service. To be sure, it’s not the only way to teach. But it can certainly lead to some interesting discussions. I’m looking forward to many more.

David Berkson

4/8/12

 

Un-Discovering Columbus: An Interview with Bill Bigelow on Censorship, Tucson, and Democracy in Education

“Let’s see, how to sum up Mr. Bigelow? Favorite teacher ever.” So says Andrew Rohn, co-creator of the off-Broadway musical Walmartopia. Andrew and I were both students at Jefferson High School in Portland, OR, where Bill Bigelow taught from 1979 to 1994. Allen Mueller, another Bigelow student, is now an administrator for Atlanta Public Schools. Allen traces a direct line from Bill’s classroom to his own work, saying it “…is unquestionably influenced daily by things I learned from Bill thirty years ago.” Angie Morrill, a Visiting Instructor of Native American Studies at Oregon State University, wanted to know when I’d be done interviewing Bill because, “I would love to tell (my students) about a teacher who I was lucky enough to know (and) had such a material impact on so many lives.” Andrew speaks for so many of us when he says that Bill “challenged my assumptions and pressed me to think more deeply about the world.”

My sophomore year in high school was a nightmare. I managed to flunk just about every course I took. But not Bill’s. There was no way I was going to miss my Global Studies class. It was way too much fun, and so incredibly exciting. What would we be rethinking today? Columbus? The Vietnam War? Central America, Lincoln, Reagan, slavery, colonialism, capitalism, art, Christianity, even Dr. Seuss – nothing was off limits. Apparent abstractions such as history and democracy were transformed into living, breathing realities in which I myself became an active and eager participant. Best of all, Bill infused me, and so many other young people, with a profound sense of hope. Hope that we ourselves might be the agents of social change to a new and better world. Arne Johnson, co-director of the documentary Girls Rock, says it best: “Bill was a signpost in high school, you could choose which direction you were going to go, but you couldn’t miss him.”

Bill Bigelow officially retired from the classroom five years ago, but he’s still pretty tough to miss. If you’re a teacher with any commitment to social justice, chances are you’ve benefitted from some of his work. Bill is the curriculum editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, and co-directs the online Zinn Education Project, both invaluable resources for progressive educators. He is a prolific writer and editor, whose books include The Line Between Us, A People’s History for the Classroom, and Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years.

Does that last title sound familiar? It should. Rethinking Columbus is an amazing collection of lesson plans, critical articles, and Native American poems that has served as an invaluable classroom resource for the past twenty years. It is also one of seven books that have been banned by the Tucson Unified School District. In January of this year, district officials came into Tucson’s high schools, confiscated the offending books, put them in boxes, and carted them away. These books were taken while classes were in session, so that the teachers and students wouldn’t miss the point. What’s even more terrifying is that their actions were in compliance with an Arizona state law. HB 2281 has terminated Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program, a virtually one of a kind social studies and humanities high school program that seeks to close the “achievement gap” by encouraging Tucson students (of whom at least 60% are Latino) to look at American history critically in regards to race, gender, and ethnicity. But Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal will have none of it, and threatened to withdraw 14 million dollars in state funding to the Tucson Unified School District if it failed to comply with the law, which criminalizes, among other things, “any courses or classes that…advocate ethnic solidarity…” And so hundreds of students have had their curriculum literally snatched away from them at mid-year; their teachers are now required by law to assign them more “traditional” reading material that ignores the racial, gender, and class biases that have so tragically shaped our country.

When I was in high school, Bill always told us to avoid despair, get educated, and get active. So when I catch up with him in late February, I’m not surprised to find that he is leading by example. “I called Tucson Schools’ director of communications, Cara Rene, to check on this and she denied that the book had been ‘banned,’” Bill tells me, in one of our many conversations about the events in Tucson, “but (she) admitted that they had been boxed up, removed, and taken to a storage site. She said that the books were ‘evidence,’ as if teaching them were some kind of crime. I’d been following Arizona’s attack on Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program, and read in late December that the administrative law judge Lewis Kowal, had upheld Superintendant John Huppenthal’s order that Tucson kill its Mexican American Studies program or face financial retribution. The whole thing was such a racist attack on the students and teachers in the program, as well as an attack on the whole idea of critical, social justice teaching.” When I ask Bill what makes this outlawed program so unique, he replies:

“The classes are electric with meaning.” (That should sound familiar to anyone who’s been a student in Bill’s classroom). “This is a curriculum about things that matter. It addresses burning issues of inequality and oppression, of race, class, gender, and ethnicity. And the teachers have high expectations of students, not just in terms of test scores, but in terms of engaging in big ideas, in thinking about how to make the world a better place, in thinking about a future where they can make a difference. The teachers have respect for the students and also affection for them. The whole program embraces Chicano/a culture. It asserts that, ‘You have a rich history, you have a rich culture, and we are going to ground the curriculum in that history and culture.’ Students are encouraged to see themselves as activists for social and racial justice. This program is the ‘threat of a good example.’ It’s no wonder that people threatened by this kind of activism set out to destroy the program.”

Officials in Tucson, of course, dispute this characterization. Arizona’s Superintendant of School’s John Huppenthal, the driving force behind enforcing HB 2281, has used words such as “biased” and “irresponsible” to characterize the MAS program. Bill’s response?

“There is so much that is offensive in the attack on the Mexican American Studies program, but one piece of this is the notion that (it) is “biased”, “propagandistic”, etc., and the mainstream curriculum is fair and true and balanced. No. It’s not. For starters, I’m aware of no U.S. history text that deals adequately with the United States’ theft of Mexico in the U.S. war with Mexico, and the human consequences of that war. That’s a bias, but because we’ve become so accustomed to curricular silences and inadequacies, it’s only when those silences are addressed that the ‘bias’ label gets pulled out. They want their ideology taught as fact, but they represent it as commonsense, as neutrality.”

I confess that I’m tempted to see this latest episode in Tucson as just another right wing nightmare from Arizona.  But Bill sees it differently, suggesting that HB 2281 isan extreme example of a much larger trend:

“The standard curriculum throughout the country is becoming more and more dominated by…a handful of huge corporations that control the textbook industry, and textbooks are increasingly shaping the curriculum. Here in ‘green’ and ‘liberal’ Portland, OR, for example, students take onlyone class in high school dedicated to the study of the world. It used to be called Global Studies, but now is called Modern World History, which is the same title of the Holt McDougal textbook. The textbook contains exactly two pages on the Iraq war, and only one ‘critical writing’ activity: ‘Imagine you are a speechwriter for President Bush. Write the introductory paragraph of a speech to coalition forces after their victory in Iraq.’ I’m not kidding. There is not a single mention of popular opposition to the war.” Bill reminds me that in February of 2003, the world saw the largest anti-war demonstrations in the history of the planet, a fact barely covered by American mainstream press, and completely ignored by the textbook in question. “This is simply to point out that the broader struggle that Tucson is a part of is between programs like Mexican American Studies — which are critical and alert to issues of class, race, gender, ethnicity, oppression, popular resistance, connected to community activism, with high and meaningful expectations for students — and a top-down, corporate-driven, scripted, test-heavy curriculum. In curriculum, like everywhere, I suppose, it’s the 99% vs. the 1%.”

I’ve been teaching for almost twenty years, and I’ve never met a colleague who didn’t want to make the world a better place. But Bill has never been content to see that mission as an act of blind faith. He once wrote: “I see teaching as political action,” and he is good to his word. “How can one think intelligently about society when a law insists that teachers and students cannot look through the lens of race, class, or ethnicity? According to the Pew Research Center, whites in this country have 18 times the wealth that Latinos have.Why is that? I guess Arizona lawmakers don’t want students to ask questions like this. So through Rethinking Schools, I’ve been doing what I can to spread the word about what’s happening in Tucson and organizing solidarity with the program. Rethinking Schools joined the national Teacher Activist Groups network to organize No History Is Illegal, a campaign to encourage teachers around the country to teach lessons from the Mexican American Studies program or to teach about the program’s suppression and book banning there. This is not a done deal.”

Since we’re back on the subject of censorship, I ask about Bill’s book. Why rethink Columbus? Why choose him as a focal point for a progressive curriculum for American history?

“Columbus is still probably the first place in the curriculum that children encounter different races, different cultures, different languages – different nations – confronting each other. So it’s a metaphor for how we should treat one another, and how nations and other cultures should treat each other. And this metaphor is a metaphor of domination, of colonialism, of racism.” And here, I find myself reminded of the “lies my teachers told me” back in Illinois, where I attended grade school. Columbus discovered America. Columbus proved that the world was round. Columbus is our national hero. “Children’s books as well as textbooks cheered Columbus on – they cheered on naked imperialism. A representative of an empire thousands of miles away, comes to lands that are inhabited and takes over. In some ways, we didn’t choose Columbus, he chose us. Who else in the curriculum is so universally known? Even today, if I start out the little jingle, ‘In fourteen hundred and ninety two…’ students can finish it. But ask those same students, ‘So who was here first, who did Columbus find when he got to the Americas?’ A few students may say, ‘The Indians.’ But if I ask them, ‘Which nationality?’ I’ve never had anyone say, ‘The Tainos.’ So ‘Columbus’ makes a great lesson in whose lives the curriculum celebrates and whose lives are rendered invisible.”

This is how Bill used to introduce Columbus to high schoolers: he’d steal a student’s purse. Announcing to the class that it was now ‘his,’ he dismissed the howls of protests with the claim that his possession of the purse proved ownership. Finally, after a protracted battle with his students (whom he describes as “generally fair minded”), he’d ask: “What if I discovered the purse, then would it be mine?” The inevitable rejection of his absurd claim opened the door for Bill’s kicker question: “Why do we say that Columbus discovered America?” Looking back on it now, Bill says, “In some ways, I simply followed my students. They responded with such passion – and compassion – when we studied about Columbus’s arrival, that I kept developing new lessons.”

The foundation of every lesson in Bill’s class was student involvement. Today, “project based learning” is practiced with great frequency, but back in the early ’80s, Bill was the only academic teacher I had who used role-plays. Bill recalls, “I remember well the first one I wrote at Jefferson High School here in Portland. It was my first year there, 1979, and the role-play was about the Cherokee Indian Removal, and the lead-up to the Trail of Tears. The response of students was a revelation. The class fired to life. Arguments were more passionate, more imaginative, and afterward, students seemed more eager to learn about how things actually turned out in real life — and also seemed to remember the events more fully.” Bill decided to make role-plays a staple of his work in the classroom. “(They) allow students to see that history is not inevitable. It’s not laid out in a neat little row of ‘this happened, then this happened, then this happened.’ Through participating in role-plays, and confronting difficult historical choices, and building alliances with other groups, students can see human effort makes a difference.”

Does it? Really? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just getting tired. Maybe I just haven’t entirely shed my adolescent penchant towards despair. Whatever the reason, I start to find the whole this episode in Tucson, and the state of education in America, incredibly depressing. So I ask my former teacher: is there cause for hope?

“I spent all of this morning with my two and half year old grandson, Xavier,” Bill answers me. “So I have no right NOT to be hopeful. His future – everyone’s future – is at stake. Despair is self-fulfilling, and self-indulgent. Hope is not the same as optimism. One may or may not be optimistic, but hope is necessary to keep doing the work that can, that may, make a difference. When we have people we love, when we care about the world, we need to stay hopeful, we need to stay politically active.

“So hope is essential, but there are also some grounds for optimism. Think of all the activism of the past year. Think of how quickly many people have embraced a language that challenges inequality, that speaks critically of “the 1%.” I recommend watching the film about the Tucson Mexican American Studies program, Precious Knowledge. Young people included in the film show a capacity to change and grow and to see themselves as part of broader movements for justice. Whenever I see that happen, it makes me hopeful. And no one connected to this program in Tucson is giving up. Another source of hope, as I mentioned, is the No History Is Illegal campaign, joined by teachers and students all over the country — actually, from all over the world. There have been so many imaginative acts of solidarity.

“With respect to how to support folks in Tucson, people can donate to the Save Ethnic Studies legal struggle, which is ongoing. And people can join the No History Is Illegal campaign at http://www.teacheractivistgroups.org/tucson/.” And now I’m reminded of the real gift of Bill’s classroom. Many teachers have encouraged me to think critically; only one has challenged me to take action, to see myself a part of living history, and become a catalyst for justice and social change. It was through Bill’s work that I finally understood Marley’s admonition to Scrooge and made it my own: mankind is indeed my business.

Thirty years ago, Bill Bigelow was my teacher. I got participate in a thrilling classroom environment that provoked me to ask essential and uncomfortable questions. My peers and I learned that we had freedom – freedom to speak out, freedom to dissent, freedom to critique our own country – a freedom and a right that every textbook trumpets as a bed rock of our American democracy. It was everything that education is supposed to be: fun, challenging, and profoundly exhilarating. Nobody interrupted that process. Our books were not taken away. Our lesson plans weren’t made more “traditional”. Our ideas were not outlawed. And now, we are better citizens: administrators, teachers, writers, and artists who believe wholeheartedly that we are responsible for the world in which we live.

Things are different for teenagers in Tucson. Like me, these students have come to life in a classroom full of excitement and electric with meaning. But now, their education has been short-circuited by a small and well-placed group of lawmakers and administrators. These powerful adults are America’s un-teachers. Given their way, students in Tucson would un-learn their critical thinking skills, un-remember their thrilling classroom discoveries, and un-discover Columbus himself, forever forgetting his and their place in American history. John Huppenthal derides the Mexican American Studies program’s curriculum as “Marxist”. But his leadership is pure Stalin, whose mantra: “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We don’t let our enemies have guns; why should we let them have ideas?” is alive and well in Tucson.

But history is not inevitable. It’s not laid out in a neat little row. Human effort does make a difference, and when we have people we love, we need to stay politically active. Everyone’s future is at stake. So when you’re choosing your direction, pay attention to the signpost. It’s time to get busy.

David Berkson

4/7/12

Click here to read the unedited transcript of my interview with Bill Bigelow.

* Bill always spoke with the owner of the purse prior to the start of the class to get her permission. Bill describes his work in this area with great detail in his book Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years.

Transcript of Interview with Bill Bigelow

Bill Bigelow began teaching high school social studies in Portland in 1978, and taught at Grant, Jefferson, and Franklin. He is the author or co-editor of numerous books on teaching including The Power in Our Hands: A Curriculum on the History of Work and Workers in the United States, Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, Rethinking Our Classrooms (Volumes One and Two), Rethinking Globalization, The Line Between Us, and A People’s History for the Classroom. He is the curriculum editor for  Rethinking Schools magazine and co-directs the online Zinn Education Project. He lives in Portland with his wife, Linda Christensen.

I interviewed Bill over a period of several days between February 20 through 27 of 2012. Below is the unedited transcript of our conversation:

David Berkson: How did you find out about the suspension of Mexican American Studies in Tucson, and the subsequent boxing up of Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years?

Bill Bigelow: I’d been following Arizona’s attack on Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program, and read in late December that the administrative law judge, Lewis Kowal, had upheld Superintendent John Huppenthal’s order that Tucson kill its Mexican American Studies program or face financial retribution. The whole thing was such a racist attack on the students and teachers in the program, as well as an attack on the whole idea of critical, social justice teaching. And Kowal added a log to the fire, saying that the program taught in a way that was “emotionally charged,” as if one can teach about the vicious history of racism in this country, and Arizona in particular, and war, in a way that is not “emotionally charged.” So it was racist, but it was also just plain stupid. At the request of Kris Collett, who coordinates the Rethinking Schools blog, I wrote a blog post on this, “Repeat After Me: The United States Is Not an Imperialist Country–Oh, and Don’t Get Emotional About War,” which was picked up by Commondreams.org. Then on January 13th, I heard from Jeff Biggers, the journalist who has done the best work following events in Tucson, that the book I edited with Bob Peterson, Rethinking Columbus, had been banned by Tucson Schools. In fact, school officials had actually gone into class with students present and boxed up the books and removed them. I called Tucson Schools’ director of communications, Cara Rene, to check on this and she denied that the book had been “banned,” but admitted that they had been boxed up, removed, taken to a storage site, and that teachers in the Mexican American Studies program were not allowed to teach from these any longer. She said that the books were “evidence,” as if teaching them were some kind of crime. Biggers’ first story about this for Salon.com, “Who’s Afraid of ‘The Tempest’?,” went viral, as they say, and helped alert people around the country that all was not well in Tucson.

It doesn’t appear that you’ve been sitting back in despair and watching these events take place. As an educator/activist, and editor of one of the books that was banned, what kinds of steps have you been taking in response to HB 32281 and its implementation?

Right. The attack on Tucson’s program is definitely an example of “an injury to one is an injury to all.” The rationale for the law, HB 2281, is wrong for so many reasons. It’s an attempt to end a program that helps students stay in school, do well in other classes and even on the standardized tests that are supposedly so sacred these days, that leads to higher graduation rates and acceptance to college. And it’s wrong academically. How can one think intelligently about society when a law insists that teachers and students cannot look through the lens of race, class, or ethnicity? According to the Pew Research Center, whites in this country have 18 times the wealth that Latino/as have. Why is that? I guess Arizona lawmakers don’t want students to ask questions like this. So through Rethinking Schools, I’ve been doing what I can to spread the word about what’s happening in Tucson and organizing solidarity with the program. Rethinking Schools joined the national Teacher Activist Groups network to organize No History Is Illegal, a campaign to encourage teachers around the country to teach lessons from the Mexican American Studies program or to teach about the program’s suppression and book banning there. Both Rethinking Schools and the Zinn Education Project, which I co-direct, have posted regularly on our facebook pages. This is not a done deal.

What’s special about Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program, and what have the students lost as a result of its suspension?

David, yes, great question. First, I need to say that I have not visited the program there, so my thoughts are based on the film, Precious Knowledge, talking and corresponding with teachers there as well as with others who have spent time in classes, reading over parts of the program’s curriculum, and also reading the official audit of the program that the school district commissioned. There are many qualities about the program that strike me as, well, precious, and that ought to be preserved — and emulated elsewhere. First, this is a curriculum about things that matter. The classes get students focused on real-world issues. And the classes address burning issues of inequality and oppression; of race, class, gender, and ethnicity. The classes are electric with meaning. And the teachers have high expectations of students — not just in terms of test scores, but in terms of engaging in big ideas, in thinking about how to make the world a better place, in thinking about a future where they can make a difference. The teachers have respect for the students and also affection for them. The whole program embraces Chicano/a culture — it asserts that, “You have a rich history, you have a rich culture, and we are going to ground the curriculum in that history and culture and in your lives. One line from Precious Knowledge struck me. Dr. Augustine Romero, one of the key people in Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program says that the school is not just part of the community, we need to make the community part of the school. That’s exactly right. Romero says that if you peel the program down to its essence, it’s about love; it’s about respecting our common humanity. And then there is the activist component. Students are encouraged to see themselves as activists for social and racial justice. This program is the “threat of a good example.” It’s no wonder that people threatened by this kind of activism set out to destroy the program.

I was struck by the fact that officials went into the class and boxed up the offending books in front of students. You’ve spent decades in the classroom. What do you make of this? Does it strike you as a tactical PR blunder, or might the administration deliberately have been trying to intimidate the teachers and students?

Yes, I was incredulous that this is how it was handled at some Tucson schools. At first I thought that maybe they were trying to draw national attention to the absurdity and obscenity of Arizona’s crushing of the program — that this was an intentional over-reaction to embarrass the state officials who initiated the attack on Mexican American Studies. Again, I’m not there and don’t know these administrators, but my impression now is that this was an attempt to show state officials that the elimination of the program was being faithfully carried out. When I spoke with the district spokesperson after Jeff Biggers’ Salon.com piece had been published, she was adamant that no books had been “banned.” So in a very brief period of time the school district recognized that the physical removal of the books was turning into a public relations disaster. Cara Rene and other district officials protested that some of the books were available in libraries, so students had access to them, and the books had not been “banned.” But this just drew attention to the fact that they were not allowing teachers to use these materials in class — in fact, that the books HAD been banned for use with students. How ridiculous that kids were permitted to read these in the library, but not discuss them with their peers in a classroom context. But back to your point. Yes, the fact that school officials entered the classroom to seize these books was a way of saying, “We’re watching you.” It was a gesture of intimidation.

You were quoted in print as saying that the only other body that banned your work was South Africa. You then went on to say: “We know what the South African regime was afraid of. What is the Tucson school district afraid of?” Care to take a stab at answering your own rhetorical question?

When I wrote about this, I was a bit more careful than when I was quoted in Jeff Biggers’ piece. I don’t mean to imply that this is just a Tucson thing. This is a state law, signed by the governor and put into play by the Republican state superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal. So let me begin there. In South Africa, a white elite was afraid of an education that didn’t call into question only “gutter education” — but questioned the entire gutter: the whole system of racist power and privilege. I think a similar dynamic is at work in Arizona. The fear of a white elite is not just that these kids will learn to read and write, but that they are learning critical skills. The superintendent is obsessed with Paulo Freire and his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. If there is an oppressed then there has to be an oppressor, Huppenthal says. And both he and the former superintendent Tom Horne insist that this is a dangerous idea for kids to learn. As Tom Horne says, “Those students should be taught that this is the land of opportunity, and that if they work hard they can achieve their goals. They should not be taught that they are oppressed.” So for the right wing, if students are not achieving their goals, it’s not because of racism or capitalism or structural inequality — it’s because young people are not taking advantage of this great land of opportunity. Huppenthal, Horne and crowd are fearful that students will begin to question “the gutter,” as they did in South Africa, and that they’ll come to see themselves as activists, as the Mexican American Studies teachers encourage. On NPR, Superintendent Huppenthal expresses the fear that the country’s racial composition is changing and this fact raises “serious concerns” about the values that we should pass on to young people. This is not narrowly about school, it’s about the character of the society we want to live in. In that respect, the ideologues who pushed HB 2281 “get it.”

I’m glad you mentioned that it’s not just about Tucson; you anticipated my next question. Is Tucson an aberration, or its banning of Mexican American Studies indicative of a larger national trend in education?

One concern is that with the extreme actions taken in Arizona or in Texas, that we can be left with the impression that all is good everywhere else. But, in fact, the standard curriculum throughout the country is becoming more and more dominated by corporations. There are just a handful of huge corporations that control the textbook industry, and textbooks are increasingly shaping the curriculum. Here in “green” and “liberal” Portland, for example, students take only class in high school dedicated to the study of the world. It used to be called Global Studies, but now is called Modern World History, which is the same title of the Holt McDougal textbook. (Holt McDougal is owned by the giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.) The textbook contains exactly two pages on the Iraq war, and only one “critical writing” activity: “Imagine you are a speechwriter for President Bush. Write the introductory paragraph of a speech to coalition forces after their victory in Iraq.” I’m not kidding. There is not a single mention of popular opposition to the war. Remember, in February of 2003, the world saw the largest anti-war demonstrations in history. But other than some mention of qualms by UN Security Council countries, there is not a hint of opposition activity. This same textbook, by the way, has a mere three doubt-soaked paragraphs on climate change. This is simply to point out that the broader struggle that Tucson is a part of is between programs like Mexican American Studies — which are critical; alert to issues of class, race, gender, ethnicity, oppression, popular resistance, connected to community activism, with high and meaningful expectations for students — and a top-down, corporate-driven, scripted, test-heavy curriculum. In curriculum like everywhere, I suppose, it’s the 99% vs. the 1%.

Ugh. You’re killing me, Bill. So what are teachers who are handed these textbooks supposed to do? Especially if they have HUGE classes, when the temptation to teach right out of the textbook would be hard to resist? Where does Rethinking Schools fit into this picture, and what kind of support are you offering teachers who find themselves in this corporate paradigm?

No doubt, there is a war against teacher creativity and autonomy being waged by the corporate education reformers. But teachers, especially social studies teachers, still have a lot of freedom. And there is often language in the standards about “multiple perspectives,” “diversity,” and “balance” that can be used to push for the inclusion of content in the curriculum that most likely is not in the textbooks — and certainly not there in meaningful ways. Rethinking Schools publications like Rethinking Columbus, Rethinking Globalization, Teaching for Joy and Justice, Rethinking Mathematics, The Line Between Us, etc., offer teachers practical, hands-on resources to teach a richer, more authentic, more critical curriculum. These are not just books of lesson plans developed in cubicles far removed from the classroom. Our books — and our magazine, Rethinking Schools — are filled with stories from practicing teachers who describe how this teaching plays out in particular schools with particular groups of students. On one level, these are concrete lessons that are an alternative to the textbooks. But in a broader sense, Rethinking Schools is a way to say to teachers, “There is another model. It’s possible to teach about the real world, to encourage students to question, at the same time we teach academic skills.” Of course, this in-school work is not instead of joining campaigns to challenge corporate reforms, and to demand that our unions fight for our right to teach and for kids’ right to a real education. It’s in addition to it. It can all seem daunting, but there is magnificent work going on all around the country, so there are grounds for hope

The use of the word “balance” is interesting. I noticed the Huppenthal bandied the word about quite a bit in the Democracy Now debate. He seemed to be positioning himself and the Tucson Unified School board as bastions of reason against a dangerous, left-wing, Marxist cabal of irresponsible teachers. Did you ever have to deal with accusations like that when you were in the classroom? Was there ever a specific incident when an administrator or parent personally confronted you with a similar complaint? If so, how did you deal with it?

I’ll answer that, but first I want to comment on Huppenthal. There is so much that is offensive in the attack on the Mexican American Studies program, but one piece of this is the notion that the MAS program is biased, propagandistic, etc. and the mainstream curriculum is fair and true and balanced. No. It’s not. For starters, I’m aware of no U.S. history text that deals adequately with the United States’ theft of Mexico in the U.S. war with Mexico, and the human consequences of that war. That’s a bias, but because we’ve become so accustomed to curricular silences and inadequacies, it’s only when those silences are addressed that the “bias” label gets pulled out. And Huppenthal and Horne both begin from the explicit and oft-stated premise that kids should be taught that this is the “land of opportunity” and everyone can make it as an individual. We’re all entitled to our opinions, but we are not allowed to represent our personal conclusions as Truth. They want their ideology taught as fact, but they represent it as commonsense, as neutrality.

To your question. Sure. When I taught at Franklin High School I remember a parent coming in at parent conferences holding a reading that I’d given students. He was shaking, he was so angry. It was an article by Kevin Danaher discussing the roots of hunger in Africa. Danaher’s thesis was that poverty was not an original state — that Africa has been underdeveloped, as the historian Walter Rodney called it; that poverty was the product of colonialism and lingering unequal patterns of trade and ownership. Why this one article would be so offensive, I’m not sure. But it pointed the finger away from individuals, and challenged the notion that people are poor because they are lazy or bad workers or stupid. And I’ve had parents tell me explicitly that high school is a place to learn facts and then facts can be analyzed in college. “Just teach my son the facts,” a student’s father told me one time. But I should say that in almost 30 years of teaching, I’ve had relatively few complaints. Maybe they just complained about me over the diner table. I think that for the most part, find a more critical, conversation-rich, antiracist curriculum exhilarating — at least at the schools where I’ve taught. Students tend to have a pretty strong sense of fairness and they bring that to class.

Is it fair to say that the battle we’re seeing in Tucson is ultimately a battle between two different and ultimately irreconcilable narratives of history?

I think so. One narrative proposes that we are all autonomous individuals — albeit united in a nation. That our freedom lies in our individual pursuit of happiness, opportunity, “success.” The other narrative insists that individuals are embedded in social classes, races, ethnicities, genders … and that our lives become better when we recognize our common interests and work with other people to advance those interests. This me vs we plays out in so many arenas. Think about climate change. One understanding of the world insists in my personal freedom — to buy and drive any car I want, to fly wherever my bank account allows, to fill my life with whatever things I can afford. A different understanding says that there is no such thing as personal consumer choice, that all our decisions have an impact on people around the world we’ll never meet and people in the future who have never been born — that these and so many others are social (and ecological) choices, not merely personal. So, yes, this is a fundamental dividing line that plays out in Tucson, but everywhere else, too.

I want to talk about Rethinking Columbus and your own work in the classroom, but as I think about your answer, it occurred to me that virtually every educational struggle I’ve seen played out seems to boil down to an argument between a democratic, participatory vision of education vs. a top down, authoritarian model. Battles over tenure at the university level, curriculum at the high school level, basic funding and class size battles, they all seem to follow that playbook, and I’m curious what you think about that.

Yes, I think that there is a lot to that, although I wouldn’t want it to seem that these are mere preferences or orientations. Different visions of education serve different social interests. The Horne/Huppenthal model may be “top down” and authoritarian. But it may be better understood as elitist, insofar as it serves the interests of the elites: Don’t think about our history (or present) in terms of class and race; don’t think about solidarity with other oppressed people; in fact, don’t think about oppression at all; and don’t encourage students to see themselves as activists for greater justice. This is an education that serves a ruling class because it discourages questioning of power relationships. The Mexican American Studies program in Tucson is — I’m not going to put it in the past tense — part of a small ‘d’ democratic movement for social equality. I guess what I’m trying to work around to saying is simply: even though we’re talking about schools and education, we’re really talking about the kind of society we want to live in. Paulo Freire — who Horne and Huppenthal hate so much — said that when we criticize authoritarian education, really we’re criticizing the capitalist system that gave rise to that kind of education

Let’s talk about one way that you’ve put forward that critique. You are co-editor of one of the banned books in Arizona, Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years. I’m going to risk asking an obvious question: why Columbus? Why choose him as the focal point of a curriculum, and why is he so important to rethink?

In some ways, we stumbled into Rethinking Columbus. In the late 1980s, I had written a number of articles for Rethinking Schools about my teaching of Columbus. And with the approach of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival, it was clear that there was going to be a major national discussion, national struggle, over the meaning of Columbus. So we decided to put together a booklet that would offer resources for how teachers could teach a more critical, more multicultural, and more honest history. But why Columbus? First, because Columbus is still probably the first place in the curriculum that children encounter different races, different cultures, different languages — different nations — confronting each other. So it’s a metaphor for how we should treat one another, and how nations and other cultures should treat each other. And this metaphor is a metaphor of domination, of colonialism, of racism. Children’s books as well as textbooks cheered Columbus on — they cheered on naked imperialism. A representative of an empire thousands of miles away, comes to lands that are inhabited and takes over. He claims and re-names. “In the beginning there was Columbus..” In some ways, we didn’t choose Columbus, he chose us. Who else in the curriculum is so universally known? Even today, if I start out the little jingle, “In fourteen hundred and ninety two …” students can finish it. But ask those same students, “So who was here first, who did Columbus find when he got to the Americas?” A few students may say, “The Indians.” But if I ask them, “Which nationality?” I’ve never had anyone say, “The Tainos.” So “Columbus” makes a great lesson in whose lives the curriculum celebrates and whose lives are rendered invisible. In some ways, I simply followed my students. Students responded with such passion — and compassion — when we studied about Columbus’s arrival, that I kept developing new lessons.

Well, David, this interview is a great opportunity to ramble.

I know more than one of your former students who are very excited to read this when we’re done, so ramble away.

One of my memories of your classroom work is the heavy reliance upon role-plays. They were super fun, and as a sophomore in high school, I’d never encountered anything like this outside of the acting classes I’d taken. Where did you get the idea to rely so heavily on role-plays? What is the message of this particular teaching medium?

I co-taught a class called “A People’s History of Dayton,” after I graduated from Antioch College in 1974 and lived for a while in Dayton, Ohio. I think that was the first role play I ever did with a class. But I remember well the first one I wrote at Jefferson High School here in Portland. It was my first year there, 1979, and the role-play was about the Cherokee Indian Removal, and the lead-up to the Trail of Tears. Today, the idea of having students assume the roles of different social groups to confront the issues those groups faced in history seems obvious. But the response of students to that first role-play was a revelation. The class fired to life. Arguments were more passionate, more imaginative, and afterward, students seemed more eager to learn about how things actually turned out in real life — and also seemed to remember the events more fully. Howard Zinn used to say that countries are not families — that they are stratified based on race and class and ethnicity. Role-plays are a great way to bring that insight to life in the classroom, to help students grasp that idea through experience, and not simply through my telling them. Another benefit of role-play is that it allows students to see that history is not inevitable. It’s not laid out in a neat little row of “this happened then this happened then this happened.” Through participating in role-plays, and confronting difficult historical choices, and building alliances with other groups, students can see human effort makes a difference. And when it comes to social knowledge that I want my students to walk away with, that’s really a “basic skill”: we can make a difference; just because powerful interests want one thing to happen doesn’t mean that they will get their way. If I can put in a plug for the curriculum project that I co-direct, the Zinn Education Project, www.zinnedproject.org, has collected lots of the best role plays about U.S. history and offers them for free online. It’s a project of Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change and aims to give teachers resources to teach a more critical and experiential curriculum.

What are the causes for hope? And what action can we take now in regards to Tucson specifically, and more generally, education in America?

I spent all of this morning with my two and half year old grandson, Xavier. So I have no right NOT to be hopeful. His future — everyone’s future — is at stake. Despair is self-fulfilling, and self-indulgent. Hope is not the same as optimism. One may or may not be optimistic, but hope is necessary to keep doing the work that can, that may, make a difference. When we have people we love, when we care about the world, we need to stay hopeful, we need to stay politically active.

So hope is essential, but there are also some grounds for optimism. Think of all the activism of the past year. Think of how quickly many people have embraced a language that challenges inequality, that speaks critically of “the 1%.” I recommend watching the film about the Tucson Mexican American Studies program, Precious Knowledge. Young people included in the film show a capacity to change and grow and to see themselves as part of broader movements for justice. Whenever I see that happen, it makes me hopeful. And no one connected to this program in Tucson is giving up. Another source of hope, as I mentioned, is the No History Is Illegal campaign, joined by teachers and students all over the country — actually, from all over the world. There have been so many imaginative acts of solidarity. The very week that the program was ordered shut by the Tucson school district, students and teachers at Western Washington University in Bellingham created a public display of and discussion about the banned books and curriculum materials and posted a YouTube video about their efforts, and teachers and activists in Atlanta, at the other end of the country, organized a “Teach-In on Tucson,” that same week. With respect to how to support folks in Tucson, people can donate to the Save Ethnic Studies legal struggle, which is ongoing. And people can join the No History Is Illegal campaign at http://www.teacheractivistgroups.org/tucson/.

On your broader question about education in the United States, unfortunately, it seems that many people who are otherwise thoughtful and well-intended, do not always recognize when the corporate agenda is masquerading as progressive policies. For example, the online social justice petition site Change.org promotes a petition by Michelle Rhee’s organization, Students First. Rhee was the teacher-hating, test-loving superintendent of Washington, DC schools who was sent packing. Change.org should know better. Stand for Children is another organization that touts its pro-kid credentials, but is really a union-busting, and also test-loving outfit. And Obama’s education policies have more or less been a continuation of George Bush’s education policies. So where is there hope? There are new organizations like Save Our Schools (and locally, Oregon Save Our Schools), Parents Across America, the Teacher Activists Network, and also new teacher union leadership in places like Chicago and Milwaukee, which articulate a vision of schools and curriculum that are responsive to the communities they serve and to students’ needs — and to social justice more broadly. There has been a revival of activism, in part inspired by the Occupy movement.

And to end on a plug for Rethinking Schools: people can support this social justice education movement, learn more about innovative, progressive teaching, and stay current on real versus phony school reform initiatives, by subscribing to Rethinking Schools, www.rethinkingschools.org. We just turned 25, and we hope to be around for years to come.

So much of your work involves ‘rethinking’ basic assumptions. It sounds as if the Cherokee role-play in ’79 was an opportunity for you to rethink your own approach to teaching. Can you think of any other instances, either in the classroom, or perhaps even in your youth, that caused you to rethink your approach to history, and what it means to be an American?

Right. Too many to recount. I was a strong supporter of the war in Vietnam when I was a sophomore in high school, and even remember being conflicted when LBJ announced that he wouldn’t run again for re-election in 1968. So I’ve done a lot of rethinking since then. For me, learning about the history of Vietnam, and the U.S. role in supporting the restoration of French colonialism after World War II was key — learning how profoundly immoral U.S. policies were. The more I learned, the greater the sense of betrayal I felt, and the more it opened me to question other aspects of U.S. history and society. And the antiwar movement was itself a school. One of my housemates in 1971, when I worked with the Marin Peace Coalition in California, Bob Grassi, had been in the Marines in Vietnam, and had returned with deep anti-imperialist convictions. Spending time with Bob, reading activists like Dave Dellinger, George Jackson, as well as Gandhi and Marx … all of it led me to question not just the war, but the whole nature of U.S. society. The antiwar movement solidified my basic notion of what it means to be an American. As Thoreau said in Civil Disobedience, you have to “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” If we want the world to change, to become more democratic, we have to plunge in and try to do everything we can. This didn’t make me “anti-American,” because I constantly drew inspiration from social justice currents in U.S. history, as I do today.

But how to build an everyday pedagogy — a curriculum — that helps students question, that engages them fully, that respects the knowledge they bring to class, that makes them want to know more, that is intellectually challenging, and academically solid, and one that is hopeful — that’s a lifelong endeavor. I could teach for 30 more years and I’d still be rethinking.

* * *

Testimonials from Bill Bigelow’s Former Students

I asked a number of my former classmates to write a few words about how Bill’s class has impacted them. Here’s what they had to say:

Let’s see, how to sum up Mr. Bigelow? Favorite teacher ever. He is about 90% responsible for me turning from a self-absorbed teenager to having a mission to fight injustice in the world. Many of my most exhilarating moments in school (including college) were in his role plays, where students of many races and academic backgrounds would loudly debate how the Continental Congress or a labor negotiation should proceed. He would challenge my assumptions and press me to think more deeply about the world.

Andrew Rohn, Musician, Activist, and Co-Creator of the off-Broadway play Walmartopia

Bill Bigelow shaped the way I think by helping me to see that the study of history is a precondition to understanding the self and that personal and national identity are inextricably intertwined—heady stuff for a teenager to tackle, but Bill made it accessible and engaging. My current work in public school innovation is unquestionably influenced daily by things I learned from Bill thirty years ago.

Allen Mueller, Administrator for Atlanta Public Schools

I am teaching Ethnic Studies 101 next term and focusing on it being a time of crisis for ES, we will be watching Precious Knowledge, which my students loved last fall. I would love to tell them about a teacher that I was lucky enough to know who has had such a material impact on so many lives. It is hard to say what is most important, but one thing I think is that Ethnic Studies should prioritize pedagogy more than we do, that the classroom is a space where we can act upon our ideals and engage power in critical ways. But of course (in regards to) my time with Bill, as his student, well as a teacher, I try to remember: you don’t know what they will take away from your classes. Or when it will impact them. I remember being invited to meet a writer at Bill’s house, because he knew I wanted to be a writer, and even going to dinner at Bill’s house, meeting his partner….If you want to say that his Rethinking Education impacted me, yeah, you would be right. How can we participate in education and not be the man? That is the question!

Angie Morrill, Visiting Instructor of Native American Studies in Ethnic Studies at Oregon State Univerisity

Bill Bigelow was somewhat legendary amongst our group of artsy wanna be intellectuals long before I actually took his after school class Literature and Social Change. I never took his normal history class, but wished I had. I remembered sitting in once with Linda’s class when he was doing a role play of slave auctions and feeling exhilarated and jealous. I loved Lit and Social Change, mostly because of the exhausting and charged arguments we got in. I felt like Bill’s class was one of the few places it was safe to really sink your teeth into a political debate without fear of harshing everyone’s vibe. Bill took us all very seriously, which I’m guessing from reading some of my writings from the time, must have been a challenge. I never felt looked down upon, though I found myself arguing with him often…I remember my ideas forming in that class, often in opposition to Bill, in a way that still is firmly embedded in my mind and heart today. I often felt like Captain Kirk in that class, arguing against Marge Piercy’s vision of utopia or Bill’s relentless political vision in favor of scratching and clawing, but in the end that was mostly ironing out minutae. Bill was a signpost in high school, you could choose which direction you were going to go, but you couldn’t miss him.

Arne Johnson, Co-director of the documentary film Girls Rock!

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