Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Apocalypse Postponed

This month we did not witness the predicted rapture, but we did see the fall of some transgressors. From mere boors, like the braggart Arnold Schwarzenegger and the insufferable John Ensign, to monsters like the genocidal Ratko Mladic and the sanctimonious Osama Bin Laden, May brought a welcome breath of justice.

But justice can be a meager dish. None of these downfalls improves our lot. From none of them may we assume that successor culprits will be chastened. The propensity of megalomaniacs, once in power, to believe they are above common decency, remains undiminished. Indeed each of these four, along with dozens of other leaders recently disgraced, imprisoned, or eliminated, still has followers who believe in his virtue.

Tolstoy argued that the role of a leader, either hero or villain, tends to be overstated in our histories. It is not emperors and generals, but the efforts of the masses and the current of the times, mixed with chance and changes in the weather, that determine events. We should not believe that merely removing a foe or a hypocrite will thwart our enemies abroad or restore good governance within our shores. This lesson is especially pertinent today in the Middle East.

Our struggle is not against obnoxious individuals--that would be too easy-- but against much more formidable horsemen: ignorance, greed, hatred, and want.

The Four Horsemen by Albrecht Durer, 1498. This is the most famous of fifteen woodcuts that Durer published as a book called The Apocalypse. It may have been the first printed picture book published by an artist and it was a great success. Durer's Four Horsemen are, left to right, Death, Famine, War, and Conquest, or if you prefer, Pestilence. Note that one of the fallen beneath Death's pale horse wears a crown. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

No posting this week

I'm on the road, visiting friends in Oregon, and unable to post. Please come back next week.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Fast Reshuffle

The school where I taught for nearly twenty years, Huntington Park Senior High, is being reconstituted. This means that everyone--the administrators, the teachers, the clerical, maintenance, cafeteria, and security personnel, every one of them--has been given notice. If they want their jobs back, they must reapply, and the rules state that only half of them can be rehired.

Disruption for the students will be dire, especially those preparing for college. The Los Angeles School Board has apparently not considered what happened the year following a similar reconstitution imposed upon nearby Fremont Senior High. Many of its best teachers chose not to reapply, in some cases taking their expertise, programs, even grants, to other campuses. Sixty per cent of the classes wound up being taught by substitutes and temporary volunteers.

A former colleague told me yesterday that hiring interviews will be handled by four panels, each consisting of district officials, a parent, and a student. I don't know how evaluations can be performed fairly and uniformly by four separate panels, but apparently time pressure necessitates a decentralized approach. Huntington Park's new school year begins in just six weeks.

Of course most teachers will land on their feet. The district can't actually fire them without cause, so they'll either be reshuffled to other campuses or they'll stay home and collect their full salaries.

My greater concern is for the lower paid classified workers, many of whom live in the neighborhood and walk to work. If they must transfer to remote campuses, some will have to take buses, lengthening their day and perhaps turning their kids into latch-key-students, who are, almost by definition, at risk.

I don't wish to hyperbolize, but I think it is fair to say that reconstituting is a top-down attempt to force change upon a school's culture. There can be no line of argument for replacing the man who cuts the grass, vis a vis raising student achievement, other than desperate faith in authoritarianism.

All my life, I've been suspicious of anyone who utters such phrases as crack-down, no-nonsense, zero-tolerance, and across-the-board. Ignorance of nuance, indifference to root causes, and refusal to refine priorities, is hardly a virtue. In other postings I'll continue to share my experiences and comment upon the educational challenges we face, but let me say for now that executive petulance will solve nothing.

Smiling Tom by Robert Henri, 1924. Henri, an Ashcan School luminary, painted lots of children, often smiling, and of all races and ethnicities. It's evident that he genuinely liked them. I've rarely heard school board members, educators, or government officials speak of children except in the aggregate. By the way, this painting is to be auctioned at Christies next week with an estimated price of between three and five hundred thousand dollars. Click on the picture for a closer look...and let me know if you decide to bid.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Springtime for Bin Laden

At times our public discourse feels empty. Osama Bin Laden was killed late Sunday night, and since then very little print or air time has been given to any other story. And yet, the content of these articles and pronouncements has largely been trivialities, cavils, and conspiracies. Very few have ventured into the deeper water of the historical significance of his life and death.

His demise has come during the Arab Spring, a season of immense historic potential. For example, two weeks ago, the rival Palestinian powers, Fatah and Hamas, resolved to bury the hatchet. The former was prompted by the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, the latter by the instability of Assad in Syria. Even before Bin Laden's death, many commentators recalled their failed attempt at rapprochement begun in Mecca in 2007, and predicted the alliance would not be consummated. Bin Laden's death may prove them right. Hamas has condemned the killing of this "Arab holy warrior" as "a continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood." The Palestinian Authority, however, says that his death is "good for the cause of peace."

The Arab Spring took both the US and Al Qaeda by surprise and neither has formulated a response. I believe Bin Laden was eclipsed before he was killed. His jihadist and anti-democratic, anti-Western, philosophy was tacitly rejected by people brave enough to venture into the streets, unarmed, to demand empowerment and an end to tyranny. The problem is that these tyrants were nominally friendly to the United States. So the question now is whether Bin Laden's death will make him relevant once again.

Untitled by Ismail Gulgee, 2006. This beloved Pakistani artist trained as an engineer in the US but was self taught as a painter. He received many royal commissions for portraits, but turned to abstract art which, in his hands, is spiritual and expressive of his deep Sufi faith. Gulgee, aged 81, his wife, and their maid, were strangled in Karachi in 2007. The crime remains unsolved. Click on the picture for a closer look.