Monday, August 31, 2015

The One-Percent needs feedback!

Years ago in San Felipe, Mexico, I needed something surreal to read to keep pace with the surreal environment.  In front of a shop on the dusty main street I found a box of old English language paperbacks for $1 each.  I bought a Robert Silverberg novel, Dying Inside, about a man who is tormented all his life by his ability to read minds.  One time he is waiting with crowds of people for President Richard Nixon’s motorcade to pass.  When the President is within telepathic range, the protagonist reads Nixon’s entire mind- nothing is hidden- and comes away from the experience deeply shaken.
Anyway, I was deeply shaken myself by the book because, well, I can read minds too.  I have no idea why I have this "gift"- enhanced in my case because I don’t have to be in proximity to my subjects- but I will report that as Silverberg suggests, it's not for sissies.  

Enough complaining!  You didn’t come here to listen to me whine- you want to hear the stuff I’ve been reading in people’s minds, right?  Well, I have a treat for you.  I read the entire U.S. government's mind(s) this morning, as well as the governments of virtually all other countries, and the minds of the CEO’s and boards of all the major global corporations. 

My findings would be too much to relate in one essay, so here I've boiled down the mind-reads to an amalgam of similar concepts and motives.  I’m not sure what to call the group I’m discussing.  In some parlance they’re the One Percent, the supposed percentage of the human race that is able to make decisions about what will happen to the human race.  The will of this group is generally carried out, partly because it uses misconceptions about itself in the outside world.  The most common misconception is that the group’s power derives entirely from the power of money and from physical force.  This leaves out intelligence, but the people in the One Percent are very smart, able to trick almost everyone (I’m not being superior- I was tricked several times today).  Their ability to trick everyone is dependent on their willingness to sacrifice some of their self-esteem.   They are actually aware that you think you are smarter than they are.  I’m not saying they like it, but it works for them.

As I read through minds of One Percenters, I encountered a preoccupation with strategy that is not found among the outside world.  We sip a martini and watch Scott Pelly drone on about scandals here and there, none of it adding up to a hill of beans, the only gripping and truly painful part of the broadcast being the Cialis commercials, or we read Politico, with its veneer of inside information, basically just inside out and recycled.  We think our thoughts but we don’t do anything.

That is not the case with the One Percenters.  They are thinking all the time about everything, seriously thinking about it and how to influence it, because they see the world now as a proto-world, so full of potential that it is forgetting its past in a rush to be born anew.  The One Percenters are on it, while the Ninety-Nine Percenters, though they see things and think things, do not consider themselves in a position to affect much of anything outside their immediate vicinity.  They feel led.

The main surprise I found in reading the One Percenters' minds was that they are surprised at how much of recent events have surprised them.  These people model themselves after the secret planners in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.  And indeed, a lot of stuff that looks random is planned by them.  But the universe is largely beyond human control, and no one is going to control everything.  The One Percenters, I found, are having some unanticipated problems regarding the various hot-spots they’ve set up around the world, which are to be used at times as generators of terror and coercion.  There are continual internal struggles now about who does what first, and what the outcome is supposed to be.  There is also some doubt about what the whole effort is for.  Will we have new races of cloned people, designed to live in compartmented bliss and work in softly humming factories?  Will Mad Max roam the plains?  Will there be societies of people like me, telepathic hippies who manage to find a niche?  I’m thinking Mendocino.

This brings me back to the Ninety-Nine Percent, which self-identifies as disenfranchised.  I’m not saying it isn’t; I’m saying there are times when the One Percent is a bit unsure about things, as it is now, and those times should be used to some effect.

I’m not talking about opposing the One Percent in a fundamental way.  That would be quixotic, to put it mildly.  I’m talking about helping the One Percent understand how it should manipulate you, so that you feel noticed and addressed.  In the current instance, Donald Trump, in moves very few of the One Percenter minds I read anticipated, has inconveniently revealed that the two parties, and especially the Republican Party, is in startlingly bad shape.  The hope had been, among Party leadership, that the creaky system could last through the 2016 presidential election, but now that looks iffy.

I propose that people start talking about not voting in 2016, that older generations, who have been voting for one party for years, cancel their memberships and tell other people to do the same.  People with kids in the Millenial generation should ask them what they know about political parties.  Most likely the kids, even the academic and ambitious ones, will have no preference at all, and will lump all the hoopla into the same “Old People” folder as Scott Pelly’s Polident and Cialis commercials.  Tell your kids they’re right, it’s time for change.  

A smart movement would be one in which tens of thousands of voters cancelled their membership in the two parties and stated that they would not vote in 2016.  Party leaders (mid-management between us and the One Percent) would be forced to react, to do something politically creative that had not been foreseen by the Asimov group.  There would be an opportunity to insert outside opinion into the political process.

This would be the tricky part, because the Ninety-Nine Percenters will have a lot of differences of opinion.  Not everyone, probably, would agree with my request that a giant sea wall be built off Mendocino to protect it from the anticipated earthquake induced tsunami and that the city be designated a safe zone for telepathic hippies.  But hopefully there could be some consensus on, for example, war.  There might be an awareness that U.S. firepower has sometimes been used to create and sustain our enemies and wars, e.g. as reported twice in the New Yorker Magazine over the last two years, the CIA made cash payments to the Taliban throughout the Afghan War, sometimes to influence where to attack or not attack, sometimes to help it pay its bills.  A million people read the New Yorker.  Scott Pelly is not one of them.  How about we get up off our asses and react?  Say: “I’m not voting in 2016 unless I hear a credible candidate demand that if we wage war, we wage it to win, not to instate war as a way of life.”  If you agree, please share this essay, proclaim that you won't vote, and help the One Percenters understand what we need!






Saturday, August 29, 2015

Donald Trump, millennials, and political disarray

Published in the Los Angeles Daily News at http://www.dailynews.com/opinion/20150828/donald-trump-millennials-and-the-problem-with-political-disarray-guest-commentary

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Photo-aggression

My wife and I spent two weeks this summer on a tour of Spanish museums, in which an insightful art professor led twenty-six retired, worldly and under- employed people to places of their dreams.  I could write about the art in the cities we visited- Madrid, Toledo, Seville, Granada, Valencia and Barcelona- or the hotels or the heat (we arrived during a historic August heat wave), but those things are well covered elsewhere.  What I want to write about is the photo-aggression committed by tourists, both American and otherwise. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not self-righteous about it.  I took my Droid, with its swift camera, and shot one or two photos per museum.  So I know the feeling people who love travel have, the feeling that you want to share something of what you’ve seen, to bring a bit of it back with you (and of course the more crass feeling of, “Look, this is where I went and you didn’t”).   Such feelings used to be expressed in journals and letters, but now, as the spoken word is increasingly demoted to short text expressions- these even freed from the syntax of sentences (“Las Meninas, OMG!”)- the photographic image is the way we enhance our memories.

Fine, but how interesting can your memories be to others if they include every picture and sculpture you see?  That’s right, I said “every.”   The goal of our group (who were otherwise congenial and insightful- and I hope they’ll forgive me for this one little critique!) and of groups all around us from many countries, appeared to be to photograph each and every piece of art, along with its descriptive plaque.  Indeed, as soon as we exited the bus, an advance squad would fan out to snap the exterior of the museum, catching every column, every angle and perspective, fighting for space with young couples holding out sticks like fishing poles with narcissism as bait.  Some of the men, as they rushed the museum gates, appeared to have worked as soccer refs, coming to sudden halts before a piece, devices held out front, ready to inform the eye and make the call, knees slightly bent for speed in moving on to the next call.

Indeed, the invasion of the image-snatchers broke free of the museum walls.  Any element of the environment with potential to be interesting, which was pretty much everything, was subject to photography: lampposts, signs in windows, graffiti, bad reproductions of Vermeer in restaurants, man-hole covers, and, of course, each other.

How do tourists represent their countries when they commit photo-aggression?  We learned, from the beautiful paintings of Sorolla, of the arresting custom at some Spanish beaches of permitting young boys to swim nude.  The scene we beheld at one such beach on the way to Salvador Dali’s house in Port Lligat was beguiling, and no tourist could be faulted for taking brief note of the glory of youth in a real-life Sorolla.  That’s brief note.  As we pondered whether to take off our shoes and wander over the stones to the gently lapping Mediterranean waves, a nude boy of about four walked past us with his mother.   Reasonably, a quick glance and an internal cultural note should have done it.  But, you guessed it, some of our group spotted a Kodak moment and whipped out their devices, no permission to photograph having been requested or received.  I wondered what the reaction would be on one of L.A.’s beaches if a group of Japanese tourists, cameras upraised, approached family groups to photograph the children.   Maybe the Inuit were right that having your picture taken steals your soul.  Though, again, I’m positive no one in our group wanted to steal anyone’s soul.

But if not for stealing souls, what’s it for, this compulsive creation of images?  If you were the first person on Mars, you would certainly want to record everything you saw.  Here on earth, though, we have amply recorded everything.  I found no work of art too obscure or counter-culture that I could not find its reproduction on my cell phone, for free.  Archeologist of the future will love our age-  they’ll call it, “The Age of Record Keeping.” 

Maybe there’s some psychological need at work.  Marshall McLuhan posited in the ‘60s that “the medium is the message,” meaning that the medium impacts the message and modifies it.  Perhaps we feel that works of art need to be processed through a mechanical medium, in addition to the medium of our minds, in order to be modern, or post-modern, or something.  If that’s what people think, well, they’re just plain wrong. 

But, you might counter, what’s so bad about taking pictures of great art in a museum setting if that’s what people want to do? 

For starters, museum photo-aggression robs everyone in its space of the contemplative and peaceful state of mind required to appreciate art.  How peaceful can you be when you have to be two feet from a painting before you can see it because, from further away, your view is obstructed by multiple hands raised high, waving devices as if at a Stones reunion.  When at last you're close enough to see the painting, it doesn’t help that, while you’re finally viewing, say, Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” which you’ve waited your whole life to see, a chorus of whir/whir/click/click attends you, along with multiple red dots that move across the surface of the painting like targeting lights from snipers trying to kill art itself.

I saw the same behavior last summer on another museum tour of the Netherlands, Belgium and London (the only relief I found, in London, was in the Tate Gallery’s unattended William Blake room, where I learned that no one cares about Blake anymore).  It’s a puzzle to me why so many great European art museums tolerate unbridled photography, particularly in Spain, where museum staff are as alert as the TSA.  That alertness to respect for the art of their country, though it can be off-putting at first, is ultimately beneficial to the viewer.  In the Prado in Madrid, for instance, museum staff constantly monitor noise levels, emitting a harsh “Shh!” when decibels exceed a certain point (usually a welcome service). Yet the only museum we visited that forbade photography was the Picasso in Barcelona (I don’t like Picasso anyway).  Why do most museums permit unrestricted camera use, which causes at least as much distraction as noise? 

I implore museums to ban the use of cameras.  Sales of postcards and prints would dramatically increase at the gift shop.  Let’s put the A back in Art!







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.