Tuesday, July 21, 2015

One sin too many

One sin too many
tipped the scales,
mortality, not life

For Eve, you know
just couldn't wait,
the female hunger
hard to sate.

The serpent eyed her
thinking how
he'd transfer all his weakness now:

The weakness of not wanting much
the weakness of
his cold dark touch.

Take this, he hissed,
God won't be pissed;
the obedient creature
is seldom missed.

Eve was not sure
and for a while
thought this is naughty,
not my style.

But then she thought
our life is hard in
this infernally pleasant

God must know
that stories need
a conflict
for the mind to heed.

Thus did the serpent
choose most fit
she who knew
before she bit

The fleshy fruit
raised to her jaw,
the story is our god's,
she saw.

And Adam
more prone to be led
saw the truth of what she said.

Swallowing hard
he looked about
in mortal fear
he turned to shout:

"Oh no! We're in
the story line,
we'll have to be interesting,
not devine!"

Creation's ratings, now assured,
though we'd rather not have any.
We wonder, should we have demurred
before one sin too many?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The U.S. needs an opposition party

An opposition party is one that opposes the party in power.  We in the U.S. do not have one.

The GOP is certainly not a credible opposition party, as its inability to generate a front-runner for the 2016 presidential race indicates.  The Los Angeles Times reports (“GOP donors await a favorite,” 5/17/15, http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/la-na-gop-fundraising-20150517-story.html#page=1) that although there are just as many wealthy GOP donors as ever, unlike recent presidential elections when there was a GOP front runner (e.g. Mitt Romney in 2012), this time no GOP candidate for president is polling over 20% (and many are polling less) so the donors don’t know whom to back.

The Democrats, of course, already have a front-runner in Hillary Clinton, who is polling about 80%, far above any other candidate of either party, though her strategy of saying nothing on difficult issues, perhaps hoping to glide in mainly on being the first woman president, may upset some of her base later on. 

Republican donors are waiting, but what are they waiting for?  A front-runner?  That could be a long wait.  What they are really waiting for is the Party to redefine itself in the wake of Romney’s defeat by President Obama.

What does it mean for a political party to re-define itself, and why would it need to do that?  The Democrats know the answer, which is why they hold the presidency now.  After the 1984 presidential election, when Ronald Reagan defeated Walter Mondale in a landslide, there was much talk of the demise of the Democratic Party, much like the talk today of the demise of the GOP.  But in contrast to the GOP’s current lack of reaction to its losses, the Dems created the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which turned the party away from “New Left” and FDR New Deal traditions, towards positions on the right in areas like free trade, union power and welfare reform.  Public spats were purposely engaged in- for instance with Jesse Jackson, who called the DLC, “Progressives for the leisure class”- to impress the change on potential Democratic voters.  The result was the ascendency of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party, an ascendency that continues through Obama.

But the Republican leadership does not appear to have undertaken a similar assessment of the Romney defeat.  If it had, it would have found that far-right social positions, such as those associated in most voters' minds with the Tea Party, were the single most important cause of that defeat, as those positions have negated the electability of GOP candidates for state office in California.  

These social positions were made prominent by Senator Rick Santorum, Romney's 2012 rival for the GOP nomination, e.g. that abortion doctors should be tried for murder; that contraception and homosexuality are sins; that the Founding Fathers never intended separation of church and state, the last relevant because religious interpretation is used to support far right social positions.  It happens that I am opposed to these positions, but here I am talking about the numbers.  Far right social positions are supported by about 30% of the electorate, but the real problem is that the other 70% are so repelled by them that they will vote for a Democrat they hate before they’ll vote for a Republican who is associated with the Tea Party.  The problem was enough to doom Romney, who was ill-advised that he needed to keep the Tea Party vote, rather than sacrifice some of it for a wider slice of the electorate.  Republican leadership needs to look at far-right social positions and ask if official party endorsements of them are worth the cost. 

Minus a GOP reassessment, there seems small likelihood that a definitive GOP front-runner could appear in 2016, or that this front-runner could beat Clinton.  Jeb Bush, the closest to a front-runner (though he too polls no more than 20%), is trying to distance himself from the Tea Party and run on his own positions, which include shifts to the left on immigration and education, and in doing so he faces complications with his base.  As noted, though, it's not the base that's the problem; it's the leadership.  Bush may take his own stands, but people will identify him with the national party, whatever he says.  The Republican leadership needs the guts and foresight to do what the Democrats did with the DLC, and take a stand.  [Update: Donald Trump has moved ahead of Bush on the basis of demagoguery on immigration, but Trump brings no benefit to the GOP, which will sink with him.]

Why do I care?  I am registered "Decline to State" - the fastest growing "party" around - meaning I'm looking for a party to represent me but have not found one yet.  The Democrats are deeply corrupt in two areas I care about: education (pushing Obama's ill thought-out, pork-driven Common Core Standards- CCS), and foreign policy (Obama has single-handedly destroyed the anti-war movement, which has proven no match for him and supportive sophisticates in Washington), but how do the Republicans, the only hope for an opposition party, stand on these issues? 

Romney's confused statements against Common Core- a combination of Tea Party hyperbole about Big Brother coming for your children and misinformation about the nature of the funding (Romney complained that the Feds were bribing the states to accept CCS, but the states are paying nearly all the bill) squandered millions of potential votes.

The Republicans have been no help with foreign policy.  Rather than pointing out that the world left us by Obama is much more dangerous than that left us by G.W. Bush, they shoot off demagogic rhetoric along party lines, sounding like uninformed bullies on the playground.

Thus we have no opposition party.  The GOP, in my view, now plays the role of a prizefighter throwing a fight.  In return for giving up the presidency and (especially in California) statewide office, it gets safe rural seats and a spoiler role in Congress.  Ideologically, It will stand for nothing in 2016, not even Tea Party ideas, which will continue to go down to defeat.  Much of GOP leadership is fine with this role- but the obvious lack of utility of our old "two party" system will start to gum up the presidential election in new ways, demonstrating to the Millennial generation that the machinery of American democracy is archaic, neglected and corrupt.  The Millennials are the big prize, currently being lost in a big way.

What's stopping the Republican Party from being more than it has become, from fixing itself the way the DLC fixed the Democrats?  One factor is that the old system of party bosses is gone, replaced by consultants whose purview is limited to particular candidates, not the health of the party or the credibility of the democratic process.  What's left of party leadership does not relish the thought of messing with its base, but what is that base?  My impression from talking to self-identified Tea Party members is that there is no consensus in the Tea Party on social issues.  I attended a Tea Party meeting in Hollywood where the featured speaker was a gay man who talked in support of gay marriage, and no one batted an eyelash.  The president of the group told me that the Tea Party does not take positions on social issues. Who knew?  Someone should tell the media, and then tell the Party.

Republican leadership faces a choice.  The Party can retreat to rural seats and give up state offices and the presidency, or it can take a page from the Democratic playbook and figure out how to survive as a national party.  Clearly a shake-out involving far right social positions would entail a struggle, but that is how parties and candidates are defined, and definition brings success.  Most importantly, America would have an opposition party.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Governments or corporations- which should rule the world?

The answer to which will rule the world, according to most science fiction novels, is corporations, e.g. Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash," in which the U.S. government has been reduced to the Federal Building in West L.A., or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” where Henry Ford is the icon of the corporate state.  Both stories are combination utopian/dystopian visions, “Snow Crash” with its exhilarating free enterprise (e.g. pizza delivery boys on jet-powered skateboards) versus its frightening chaos,  “Brave New World” with its freedom from social anxiety versus its total control of the citizen’s emotional state.  

There is no science fiction book I can think of in which the future maintains the current nation-state system; our visionary writers do not see countries and traditional government surviving the current crises.  The corporate state, just by virtue of its being untested, is the natural next candidate (by the same logic, we may see the rise of female power, simply because it hasn’t had a chance to screw up yet).

As for which should rule the world, corporations or governments, that’s one of those high school debate topics chosen because it cannot be answered, in spite of or because of the ample evidence on both sides. 

Arguing in the negation for both state rule and rule by corporations, consider President Obama’s end- run around the government he heads during last month's consideration by Congress of the Administration's Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, apparently heavily influenced by corporations.  A key disputed provision involves the “Investor State Dispute Settlement” (ISDS) mechanism.  Per the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/terra-lawsonremer/the-obscure-trade-provisi_b_7297342.html?utm_hp_ref=world&ir=WorldPost), “ISDS gives foreign corporations the right to bring private lawsuits through secretive supra-national tribunals when governments pass laws that protect the public interest but might harm profits.”  Senator Elizabeth Warren, playing a role many would have liked Hillary Clinton to play, led the charge against TPP and ISDS.  The charge failed and the TPP passed, after one of those "extended" negotiations our government indulges in to give opponents the impression they had a voice.

Is the conclusion for reasonable people that both governments and corporations are unfit to lead us?

We might consider avoiding the “Manichean” route, so-called from the third century Persian prophet Mani, who described the universe as a struggle between light and darkness.  We are accustomed to Manichaeism as an organizing social principal.  If we are for charter schools then we’re against public, and vice versa.  If we’re for capitalism we’re opposed to communism.  There’s no crossover between positions in most public discourse, no Venn Diagram overlap.  Manichaeism puts people into easily manageable groups.  But it doesn’t always reflect reality.

As I walk through my house, I see numerous wonderful things that were developed and made affordable by corporations: a TV that shows any movies or programs I want, a microwave oven, the computer I’m writing on, my car, my cell phone which is a portable computer, not to mention my family’s health, served from the private sector by the pharmaceutical industry and giant medical groups.  If the corporate world were the “darkness” confronted by Mani, middle-class life in America would be much worse than it is. 

Likewise I see the benefits of government everywhere: My house is supplied with ample, relatively cheap and dependable water and electricity through state controlled utilities.  Robbers and others with malign intent are kept at bay by police.  If there’s a fire or earthquake, appropriate state agencies do, usually, an excellent job of responding.  If rule by government emanated from Mani’s darkness, modern American life would be much more difficult.

On the other side, there’s no denying the vast abuses of corporations and governments, but that does not prove Manichaeism, which requires absolute light or darkness.  

Once you’ve abandoned the idea that your side is light and the other darkness, you’ve got a mobilization problem.  People don’t respond readily to dry analytics.  They want “action,” which can be loosely defined as conflict, with its adrenaline rush.  People crave that rush, which is how governments trick populations into going to war.  It’s simply exhilarating, at least at first- until it isn’t.

Giving up Manichaeism is a humbling experience.  Instead of being part of a group expression of righteous fury, you’re limited to your own rationally thought out actions, like not buying a specific product, or declining to vote in 2016.  It’s a quiet sort of rebellion, but effective if it spreads.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Tales from the front

Now that I’m officially old (69 last January), I notice that my definition as a “senior” is relentlessly reiterated and emphasized by our culture.  The message is: “You are old; get in your place.”   In response, to break the definition, I need to do things outside my “age group” so I’ll have something vital to write about (for instance, I don’t think two weeks of pain in my right hip will hold the reader’s attention, interesting though it is to me).

With this in mind I told my colleague at the high school from which I retired six years ago (where I now coach debate in the morning) that I would cover his classes for two weeks, though I knew the substantial quantitative and qualitative differences between part-time and full-time teaching.  It seemed unlikely I could work the two weeks without finding something to write about.

That expectation was confirmed on the first day, in fifth period, when I distinctly heard, in a male voice from across the room, “Fuck Jews.”

I walked over to the area where the voice came from and stood, taking in the peer solidarity, all eyes attentively looking away.  I lingered for a few moments, then returned to my seat.

The next day, in fourth period, came another “Fuck Jews,” from the same side of the room.  I walked over and saw a boy, Atilla, black with rasta hair, from fifth period who had sneaked in.  The boy thus became a suspect, but I thought it wise to just look around, ask Atilla to leave fourth period, and say nothing.

On the third day, in fifth period, Atilla came at me with what I felt was false friendliness (“Hey, can I call you Mr. L?” with a big smile).  I responded, “You know, what sticks in my mind is that I heard someone say something terrible from this part of the room in fifth period two days ago, and the same thing in fourth period when you sneaked in yesterday, and I’m wondering if you said it.”  A look of shocked innocence appeared on Atilla’s face, and I added,”In thirty years of teaching, I’ve never heard anyone say this terrible thing before,” which was true.  A white boy sitting nearby, who I later learned was Jewish, then said, with a smile, ”There’s a first time for everything,” to which I replied, “And a last.”

That was the end of it, anti-climactic perhaps, but I felt I had made as much of a point as I was going to, or needed to, and indeed for the next two weeks the classroom was mercifully free of “Fuck Jews.” 

What is going through the mind of a teenage boy who says, “Fuck Jews,” anyway?  Is this likely a boy who knows any history?  Who has had an unpleasant experience with a Jew or Jews?  It seemed more likely he had just discovered how much commotion could be caused with this simple utterance and decided to give it a try, though one does have to wonder if the current climate played a role.  This is a pivotal time for Jews as a group.  The view that the U.S. is overly obligated to Israel, simmering for years, has suddenly taken political shape with the odd dance between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama.  I call it odd because of the alliance it suggests between Israelis- and thus, in a sense, Jews in general- and the far right Christian movement in the U.S.  The idea seems to be that there’s a common bond between Jews and Christians expressed in the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelations, which, we’re told, portend a time when Israel faces attack from “Gog and Magog” (generally interpreted as Russia) and when a red heifer will be born indicating that, try as it might, the whole world will not be able to destroy Israel, and Jesus will come down and carry all the saved Christian souls to heaven, leaving the Jews on earth to pay any outstanding taxes.  I suppose I should be happy with the news that the Jews don’t die, but World War III, if that’s what this is supposed to be, will not be kind to anyone, so I’m holding off celebrating.

But I digress.

There were other interesting revelations during my two-week close encounter with teenagers.  In their dual status as children and adults, teenagers display a strange combination of intelligence and ignorance (suggested in the etymology of “sophomore”).  A video was planned for the first week: the original 1975 “Stepford Wives,” about husbands who turn their wives into fawning robots.  Part of the assessment required students to speculate on how this movie would be different if it were made today.  A number of students wrote that an important difference would be that today famous movie stars would be used to draw crowds, not unknown actors as in “Stepford Wives.”  I thought this misapprehension was important enough to merit a special lecture, so I informed the students that Katherine Ross and Paula Prentiss, stars of “Stepford Wives," were famous in 1975.  Blank stares from the students told me reinforcement was needed, so I told them that the day would come when they would mention Taylor Swift to a younger person and this person would have no idea who they were talking about.  Further blank stares indicated not, I thought, that they did not understand me, but that they did not believe me that all generations seek and lose fame- that their minds were uncomfortable with the idea that plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.  I witnessed the same phenomenon in the 60’s when many felt that no generation before ours had needed a sexual revolution.  It’s hard for all of us, isn't it, to accept that humans haven't changed much in the last 50,000 years?

Many students corroborated Steven Spielberg's comment that if he had to make "Jaws" again today, he would need to put a death-by-shark earlier after the opening credits, because today's audience will not wait longer than a few minutes for violence.  The first violence in "Stepford Wives" comes after about forty minutes of character and plot development, and several students commented that it was boring to wait so long for violence, that there needed to be much more violence and killing in the movie to make it interesting.

In spite of their predilection for violence, many students were taken aback by the dark ending of "Stepford Wives," in which evil wins, and several wrote that today's audiences prefer a happy ending.  In fact the 2004 re-make of "Stepford Wives," justly panned by critics as a ruined husk of the original, changed the ending to a happy one, where the robotic wives manage to turn off the chips implanted in their heads by their husbands (in the original, each robot strangles its original human model, so there's no going back).

There was a gender divide over the movie.  Many of the girls liked it; only a few of the boys did.

Another salient feature of the two-week job was how much work was involved.  I haven't worked this hard since I retired in 2009.  I implemented curriculum, gave tests and graded them, and handled discipline (by far the most arduous of the tasks).  I did that for 25 years, but it carries a special poignancy in retirement.  Teaching public school sure is hard, and getting harder.  Why?  Because there is little attempt to update public schools, to infuse them with the modern world.  I hear the objections to this statement already: We wire our schools to the internet, buy computers for everyone, etc.  How can I say the schools are not updated?

I can say it because the updating is more a gift to technology vendors than a transformation of learning.  Though word processing is a tremendous leap forward from the typwriter, facility in typing and editing has little bearing on students' writing skills, which, as most parents and teachers will tell you, have not improved significantly since the internet arrived.  Nor have reading skills improved, or understanding of history, math, or much of anything beyond understanding of the technology itself.  We have mistaken technology for cultural consensus and awareness. 

Of course, this situation will not last.  Sometime in the future, perhaps after the red heifer is born and Gog and Magog get the green light, we’ll have the technology sorted out.  Kids will enter the classroom, turn on the computer, put on a headset, and interact with the software, while the “teacher,” now a computer technician, oversees. 

That will be the easy part.  There is also the problem of unemployment, caused in large part by the same machines we celebrate.  There are very few jobs awaiting the students in my colleague's classes.  Why would that change?  No doubt the answer will come, as it has in the past, from war.  Whether it’s battling Gog and Magog or ISIS, we’ll find work for idle hands, as the forces we're fighting have done.

Finally, I was struck by the indifference to politics in my students.  Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for president in the second week, but I heard no mention of it from any student.  Quite a contrast to 2008, when every student was mesmerized by the election of Obama.  That moment of credibility is gone; teenagers are among the most cynical and skeptical of politics of any demographic.  And why not?  Who from the exalted heights comes “down” to the high school level to talk to them, to explain the world and their role in it? One thinks of the former Iraqi official who, from his classroom, told a "Vice" reporter that, for criticizing the regime, he had been "exiled to teach high school." Siberia with bells!  

America should take a lesson from its teachers:  If you want our culture and country to survive, make the young a priority, in more ways than buying them breakfast.  Tell it like it is about public education, if you can.  

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Why I quit politics

"Why I quit politics" is reposted from Andrei Codrescu's journal, Exquisite Corpse: http://www.corpse.org/archives/issue_12/clash/lasken.html

Of course you have to do something before you can quit it. I was a novice politician for almost a year in 1993, the year I ran for a seat on the Los Angeles School Board. I walked door to door, badgered people on the street, debated my opponent at public forums and on T.V. I talked to the newspapers, gave them statements, bios, photos. My opponent was the incumbent, well connected in Democratic circles through his political family, fast with facts and figures, thinner and younger than I.

From the start I had dumb luck. Most importantly, the teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, declined to make an endorsement in our race, although they had supported the incumbent in his first campaign. I would have been dead in the water against them.

I also had luck in packaging. I was a classroom teacher, and this turned out to be a greatly saleable ballot label against my opponent's "Board member" (Political operatives have learned about this, and will scrounge deeply to find any past connection between the classroom and their candidates).

I stumbled into a lucky situation with a political sign company. The first company I approached, a major one in L.A., had been stiffed by a series of candidates and was reluctant to commit to me. My father had loaned me two thousand dollars for my campaign, and I blurted out that I would pay this up front in the form of a cashier's check. Within two days hundreds of signs saying "Keep Askin' for Lasken" were all over the turf in contention (so called Region 5, the western edge of the city running north from Westchester to Chatsworth). Compounding this beginner's luck was what I found to be a striking naivety in seemingly sophisticated people. For instance, a school administrator, a follower of news and an activist in neighborhood politics, said in reference to the signs that she had no idea I had so much "support."

My timing with the issues was lucky. The opinion in the San Fernando Valley was almost entirely for breaking up the giant L.A. school district (second largest in the country after New York's), and the west San Fernando Valley, the part in Region 5, was the most intensely pro-breakup. The incumbent was not in a position to support breakup, and I had supported it for years.

The issue of bilingual education worked in my favor. Though I supported California's efforts to help non-English speaking children with native language support, I was opposed to the withholding of English language instruction until higher grades. This played well with voters, anticipating the landslide passage five years later of Proposition 227, which mandated English language instruction in addition to native language support. Newspaper editors, most particularly Jack Miles at the L.A. Times, liked the topic, and I was able to publish a series of articles on bilingual education; several appeared during the campaign.

One week before the election I got a call from a pro-choice organization. They had been planning to send thousands of mailers in support of the incumbent because he had paid them a sizable fee and, of course, was pro-choice. I had only evinced the latter virtue. It happened that someone in the incumbent's campaign had angered them, and they had decided to support me in the mailer for free.

Topping off my luck, I won a raffle that placed my name first among the seven candidates. The effect of " 1. Doug Lasken-Teacher" was hard to beat as product placement.

The result of my luck: I received 36,000 votes, coming in second behind the incumbent's 50,000 ( turnout was large in this election because of the Riordan-Wu race). Had I taken 1% more of his vote, we would have been in a run-off. The day after the election the L.A. Times referred to "...newcomer Doug Lasken's surprising showing."

I remember standing at a newsstand off Hollywood Boulevard at 6:00a.m. reading, with trembling hands, the Times' hopeful obituary of me. Something sank inside me. The Doors '"This is the End" comes to mind. I knew I would not "capitalize" on my dumb luck, but I did not know why. I did not know why I had, at that moment, quit politics.

Well, perhaps what I didn't know was how to say it. I'm going to try to say it now: Politicians can't say "I don't know."

Politicians, in fact, can't say much at all of what they think. Well "Duh",you say. Yes, but when you're in a political situation where you're setting yourself up as the person who knows what's best, who has an answer to complex problems, there's a certain poignancy that comes with the knowledge that you're constructing a facade, a veil of words that sounds right, while the much vaunted human cortex watches as from the end of a long tunnel.

The above mental state was produced by certain types of questions, such as, "How would you increase test scores?" There is familiar boilerplate to deal with such questions: "Every student must receive quality instruction...We must have accountability and standards... Education must be our number one priority...", etc. Not that there is anything incorrect in such sentiments, but if they contained any important policy ideas we would be experiencing a much larger number of high scoring children. I did my best to sling a few slogans, and I used the English language instruction and breakup issues with some effect, but my brain was uncomfortable, my speech somewhat hesitant, and this perhaps cost me the 1% and the runoff.

Delving deeper into my uncooperative mind, I found something truly scary. It's not just that I wasn't in a position to say what I really thought about raising test scores. My hands hover now above the keyboard, waiting for a sign. No sign comes. Some muse has got me this far, but at the crucial moment she stands silent.

What the hell, here goes. Well you see, the thing is... I didn't really know how to raise test scores. I did believe that breaking up the district might improve efficiency, and that teaching English would improve English skills, but I wasn't completely sure test scores would go up significantly as a result. After all, when we talk about raising test scores we're not just talking about a few numbers going up; we're talking about real improvement in children's intellectual abilities. How do you get fifth graders in large numbers to know their times-tables, and remember them into secondary school? How do you get secondary students in large numbers to read books, really read them, from beginning to end? Why would a few corrective policy changes produce such profound educational outcomes?

Hindsight has justified the hesitation I felt during my campaign. Proposition 227 reinstated English instruction. A well funded "Standards" movement took hold in California and in much of the rest of the country, accompanied by millions of dollars in new textbooks and teacher training. There has been math reform, with renewed emphasis on basics. These reforms have helped a lot of kids, but they have not "raised test scores" in the real sense. In other words, although there have been small jumps in scores, there is no systemic, widespread change in our students. If you walk into a California classroom at random you are unlikely to find kids who can read well, or want to read, or who do math with the facility you find in Asia. Nor will you find this two years from now, or four years from now. It's not happening and it's not going to happen.

Why not? Because the discussion is political, and therefore incomplete. Standards are important, and logical instruction is important. But those are the easy parts.

Back to the reporter asking me how I would raise test scores. Let's say a cosmic force had ordered me to tell the truth. What would I have said? I might have stammered, "Well... I'm not sure." The reporter's brain would then have closed my file, stamping "loser" on it. If he was polite, though, there would be a pause, and then I would begin to think. This in itself, the sight of a politician lost in thought while the world waits, is anathema to a successful image. But if the cosmic force could get everyone to wait a bit, I could have given a decent answer. The discussion might have gone something like this:

Me: Well, we have a fundamental disconnect between our media based culture and the school setting. Virtually every kid is taught by the media to gaze at colored images which ridicule schools and teachers. We have nothing effective to counter this. We have not figured out a modern motivation for students. The U.S.is one of the few countries in the world that has ruled out physical pain as an educational tool (Singapore, much admired by math reformers, achieves the highest secondary math scores in the world partly by beating underachievers with bamboo canes). We do rely on the psychological pain implicit in the report card grade, but because of grade inflation, rampant from kindergarten through graduate school, and the glorification in the media of school failure, grades alone have become a weak motivator for all but a few students.

Reporter: So you advocate beating our students?

Me: Of course not.

Reporter: Then what do you advocate?

Me: We've forgotten economic incentive.

Reporter: For teenagers?

Me: Yes. Our surplus based society has extended childhood, resulting in dependence on parents at later ages, but teenagers are in their physical and intellectual prime, and will remain so into their twenties. They are designed to create and work, but the automation that gave us our surplus has resulted in a more seriously underemployed society than we like to admit. There are over 100,000 gang members in L.A., but there are not 100,000 jobs for them, not even menial ones. The standard curriculum in high school does not relate directly to visible jobs. Perhaps shop and computer classes do, but the thousands of jobs it would take to rationalize that curriculum do not exist. Honors students, the handful of clever kids who know how they will work the system, put up with non job-related curricula because they see a path to employment based on grades and general literacy, but they too have to wait. It is arguable that one of the purposes of secondary school is to serve as a holding facility to keep teenagers out of the job market. The first several years of college may serve the same purpose.

Reporter: So...you would propose.....?

Me: Well, somehow we need to have an economy that can absorb many more teenagers and people in their early twenties, and a school system that clearly feeds into this economy. But our technology, automation, may have made this impossible.

Reporter: How do you propose to remedy this?

Me ( after very long pause): I don't know.

End of dialogue, and career. Even an answer like, " We will have to replace our world economy, built up in haphazard form over two hundred years of industrial revolution, with a completely new, rationally organized economy", impractical as it might be as a campaign position, would be better than "I don't know." Anything is better than "I don't know."

It might seem strange to an extraterrestrial visitor from an advanced civilization that we have no place in our public discourse for "I don't know", since we so often, clearly, don't know, but it's basic human psychology at work. Management theorists have shown that leaders get approval for making decisions, for being decisive, regardless of the results (advice routinely followed by politicians). This is understandable given the human condition. We really don't know what we are supposed to do on this earth, or even if we are supposed to do something. If our leaders admitted this in public, society at large might collapse in terror. Still though, it can be something of a hindrance to problem solving to maintain at all times that soothing platitudes are solutions.

So after a refreshing brush with the fast lane, I returned, sober but wiser, to the classroom, where I find I can say "I don't know" a lot,to students, to parents, to my colleagues, and they don't seem to mind. Hey wait a minute, these people vote, or will vote...Hmmm.