Saturday, April 30, 2011

Education reform

The topic today is school reform, building on Joe Nocera's op-ed column from April 26th and the letters this column prompted that appear today. Nocera's essential point: regardless of how much schools improve, increases in student learning will always be limited by poverty, inequitable funding, parental neglect, and a variety of other forces outside the influence of schools. Today's letters largely support Nocera, though one of them, while perhaps agreeing with Nocera, argues that his argument may be beside the point. No matter how poor or abused some kids may be, teachers have to teach them as if their potential were unlimited, as if by virtue of their teaching, they could turn these kids into geniuses. Seems right to me, actually, but what we must not do, and what none of these commentators quite touches on, is hold these teachers exclusively accountable when their students don't progress as much as we had idealistically hoped. Which doesn't mean there isn't accountability; it just has to be right kind that takes into account how great the challenge truly is of bringing these learners up to grade level in, say, a single year.

Part of this complexity has to do with the actual details of the challenges faced by the children in one of those teacher's classrooms. For instance, as one letter writer points out, what can you accomplish with the student who was in a mental hospital for 2 weeks? Or the two who ran away? Or the one who has no way to get to school? Or the three who have been suspended for drugs? Too often, school reformers show no regard for these very specific and very real issues.

How then do we hold educators accountable, while also recognizing there are many factors beyond their control that foil improvement? My admittedly inadequate answer is by telling more stories - as many as we can find really - about the nature of these many challenges, so that policy makers and law makers can begin to see that if we want true improvement in schools, it must be a united effort. Such an effort must hold schools at least partially accountable, while also insisting that much, much more be done to help kids get to school and stay there. This often huge challenge of ensuring that kids can get to school - a job schools cannot do alone - could make a huge contribution to better schooling and better learning.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


The excerpt from the new book about Stanley Ann Dunham that appears in the Sunday Times Magazine section gives me an excuse to get something off my chest about one of the meanings of the Obama Presidency. Ms. Dunham was, of course, the President's mother, and as the profile in the Times and in the upcoming book suggest, she was a remarkable person who left an indelible impact on the President's character and outlook. The final paragraphs of the article are largely quotations from an interview that the author, Janny Scott, conducted with the President and they are powerfully revealing.

The President praises his mother as resilient and persistent, but also characterizes her as poorly organized, someone who could not have accomplished what she did without the assurance that her parents would provide a stable home for her son and his sister. Obama's concluding remarks simply affirm that the greatest gift his mother gave him was the unconditional love that he never doubted he could count on.

What I want to add is a kind of non sequitur, I guess, but, in any case, it is simply this. I think the Obama Presidency is, among other things, a test for the American people of their ability to face up to this country's shameful racist past and to learn something that will begin the process of healing the wounds this past has wrought. It also holds up a mirror to the American people's ability to confront everyday racism. So far, the results are not promising. I attribute a significant part of the controversy regarding Obama's birthplace, his personal history, his current policies to the persistence of racism.

A friend told me recently that a relative of his believes that Obama is a Muslim AND a terrorist. He said there is no persuading her otherwise; this is just part of what she is convinced is true. And this is not some white supremacist, neo-nazi we're talking about. Just a relatively ordinary, middle-class, white American, who believes, among other things, that the President of the United States is intent upon destroying the very country he ostensibly serves. Seemingly crazy?! Of course. But my point is that the Obama Presidency has brought out into the open the depth and breadth of American racism. This is scary, to be sure, but it also could be healthy over the long run for this country to see more clearly than ever how much race shapes Americans' thinking and actions.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Self Portraits

Somewhere, deep in the Friday Arts section of the Times, an advertisement for a detail from a Rembrandt etching appears called Self Portrait, Frowning: Bust, 1630. Here is a copy of that particular self portrait:
Farther down is another, perhaps more famous, self portrait from the same year that Rembrandt completed at the age of 25. Both of these self portraits were part of a series he did during this period to capture different expressions and emotions. As you can see, it is great fun and utterly arresting, even today.
I have always been drawn to self portraits of any kind, as they represent a kind of visual journal or pictorial autobiography of artists' lives and development. In the case of Rembrandt, his self portraits, particularly those from a much later time when he had passed through a period of prosperity and happiness to one of impoverishment and despair, are among the great works of art ever created. His ability to show how the face can be drawn to reflect all the hardships that human beings endure is one of the great miracles of European art. Like other giants such as Shakespeare, Beethoven, Tolstoy, and Fred Astaire, his art is inexhaustible.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fact-Free Texas

The inimitable Gail Collins writes about abortion and the reproductive rights debate in Texas and how untethered from the world of evidence and reasonableness the anti-abortion forces in the Lonestar State have become. The experience of one State Legislator, Mike Villarreal, is instructive. When he proposed that information communicated under the State's abstinence-only sex education program be medically accurate, his suggestion failed to progress to the full legislature when a pediatrician, who represented the swing vote, said no.

This is what Collins refers to as the fact-free zone. She adds that "We’re currently stuck with a politics of reproduction in which emotion is so strong that actual information becomes irrelevant." Her best example: Senator Cornyn's apparent endorsement of Senator Kyl's staff follow-up to his remark that nine-tenths of what Planned Parenthood does is abortions. When this claim was shown to be utterly baseless, Kyl's staff answered that the Senator never intended to make "a factual statement." Senator Cornyn, for his part, who had a chance to denounce such anti-intellectual claptrap, defended Senator Kyl and asserted that he wasn't so sure his colleague had "screwed up."

Which means what exactly? That in spite of all the factual evidence, we should perpetuate lies so that ignorant people will continue to believe them? Remind you of anything? Like maybe the 25% of the population that continues to think, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Mr. Obama was born somewhere other than Hawaii?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Seen and the Unseen

One of the enduring miracles of New York City, undiminished by repeated visits and prolonged lingering, is Central Park. Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux in 1858, The Central Park, as it was called then, very quickly became, at least by 1870, exactly what Olmstead and Vaux had in mind: a place for all the people of New York, regardless of their wealth or station, to interact, mingle, and to learn to be together.

What we tend to forget and what a new documentary about Olmstead's Legacy focuses on, according to a review in the New York Times today, is the breathtaking vision and ambition of this project. Arguably bigger than all the highways and parkways promoted by Robert Moses, the Park had no obvious benefits or advocates. It didn't appear to assist commerce or to advance transportation opportunities. It was just a scrupulously planned park that truly was an attempt to improve on nature. After all, what Olmstead and Vaux were proposing, among other things, was adding thousands of trees to an area that only a few years earlier had been prepared for development by eliminating trees! The Park didn't have an obvious use even then. But the visionaries behind it knew it would make the City far more livable and help to democratize it at the same time.

As the documentary points out, the genius of the Park can be found most strongly in its unseen, constructed beauty. Just about everything that makes it a glorious place to visit is unnatural and human-made. Despite all the praise it has received, it remains still one of the underestimated products of the human mind. We New Yorkers, especially those close enough to enjoy it daily, can never forget how much we owe Olmstead and Vaux for helping to make this enormous urban landscape one of the most humane cities in the world.

Central Park is one of the few places I know of that can be described as inexhaustible. For this, as well, we have Olmstead and Vaux to thank.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Serious After the Fact

I have a new way to judge the seriousness of politicians and political candidates. What do they choose to do after their political careers are over? In the case of President Bush, as revealed in a recent interview with Laura Bush, the ex-President's focus right now is almost entirely on the well being of his fish. As Mrs. Bush recently indicated in a New York Times interview, her husband is "always worried about our small lake that is stocked with bass, because he loves to fish. There’s always some concern: It’s too hot. It’s too cold. Are the fish not getting enough feed? That’s what he worries about." Kind of amazing, don't you think, that in a world wracked by war, famine, natural disasters, and nuclear catastrophes, this is what Mrs. Bush puts on the record as her husband's primary worry?

And then we have the current preoccupation of the Republican and arch-conservative former Senator from the State of New York - Alphonse M. D'Amato. The Senator, it turns out, is the chief lobbyist for the internet poker industry. Senator D'Amato, who has proudly represented and promoted such august companies as PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker, recently learned that the heads of all of these outfits have been charged with fraud and money laundering. Mr. D'Amato who has apparently garnered millions as a lobbyist for these groups and has contributed huge sums from his earnings to other arch-conservative politicians in New York, has boldly declared, "Online poker is not a crime and should not be treated as such." Right on, Senator. How bold you are.

Should examples like this influence our judgments about the seriousness of current politicians who seem intent on controlling a budget process that could set this nation's social priorities for decades to come?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Passionate Curiosity

Close followers of this space know that I admire Adam Bryant's "Corner Office" column that appears every Sunday in the Business section of the Times. Each Sunday, Bryant interviews a CEO of a corporation or the head of a non-profit to find out how they lead. It frequently offers insights into organizational leadership that you don't get anywhere else. Over the past year, I have probably saved four or five of these interviews because they were so good.

Now, not surprisingly, the lessons learned from these interviews have been synthesized in a new book by Bryant called..."The Corner Office." In a piece in the Times today, "Distilling the Wisdom of CEO's," that is adapted from the book, Bryant summarizes the five qualities that all of the leaders he interviewed apparently share. They are: 1) Passionate Curiosity, 2) Battle-Hardened Confidence, 3) Team Smarts, 4) A Simple Mind-Set, and 5) Fearlessness.

All of these strike me as both very important and really quite rare, and when I measure my own rather feeble attempts at leadership against this list, I am dismayed by how much I fall short in pretty much every category. Of course, there is always room to improve and I hope to use Bryant's findings to upgrade my own leadership. But at the risk of distorting what Bryant has to say by singling out only one of these qualities, let's briefly look more closely at Passionate Curiosity.

Implied right from the beginning in Bryant's own treatment of passionate curiosity is that strong leaders are humble people, willing to talk about their mistakes and failures and to learn from them. I am deeply drawn to this attitude, as I am to the next theme that Bryant highlights: the desire of such leaders to know people's stories, to understand what they do and what makes them tick and how they themselves rebound from adversity. Bryant goes on on to say that what especially marks such leaders is their "relentless questioning," their uncompromising commitment to finding out why things happen as they do and how better outcomes can be achieved. Nell Minow affirms that this particular combination of qualities - passion combined with curiosity - results in a person who is "alert and very awake and engaged with the world and wanting to know more."

Accordingly, Bryant concludes, while top leaders are often said to be worth their salaries for having vast stores of knowledge and insight, they are probably most valuable as incisive questioners who use this capacity to "push their company in new directions and marshal the collective energy of their employees."

A couple of years ago, Stephen Brookfield and I wrote a book about leadership called "Learning as a Way of Leading" in which we said that one of the key learning tasks of such learning leaders is to develop the ability to ask helpful, energizing, formative questions. It is deeply satisfying to find someone I respect saying the same thing about the leaders he profiles.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

An American Family

When the cinema verite documentary "An American Family" aired for the first time on PBS in 1973, I became one of its biggest fans. Living alone and struggling through my first year of public school teaching, I found the trials and tribulations of the real-life Loud family somehow reassuring. I watched each week with increasing interest and trepidation. I can still recall when Lance Loud revealed to his mother that he was gay, and remember with striking vividness the moment when Pat Loud told Bill Loud, her husband of at least 20 years, that she wanted a divorce. (Many years later, by the way, they reunited.) The Louds were a sensation. Plastered on the cover of news magazines and discussed voluminously in op-ed columns, they became the poster children, if you will, for the dysfunctional American family. They also became very famous, however fleetingly. As Lance Loud, a former pen pal of Andy Warhol, affirmed, the series allowed Lance and the rest of his family to live out "the middle class dream that you can become famous for being just who you are."

Now, 38 years after the documentary first hit the airwaves, the Louds are back, only this time not as themselves, but portrayed by an ensemble of accomplished actors, led by Tim Robbins and Diane Lane as Bill and Pat Loud. But the new film called "Cinema Verite" is less about the impact of the documentary and more about the conflicts behind the scenes between the producer and the filmmakers and how their disagreements regarding their treatment of the Louds influenced the end product. There was much talk then about how a reality-based series can distort people's lives through selective editing and a widespread feeling prevailed, at least among members of the family, that the series ultimately offered a very skewed view of their lives.

So many years later, it doesn't feel that all this matters very much. But they probably wouldn't be making this movie if there weren't considerable interest among the American public. So why now? Something about the power of media to influence our lives, to shape how we see the world. And since that now matters more than ever, perhaps the story of the Louds and how their lives got portrayed on television can shed some light on the role of media in distorting our experiences and convincing us of one thing when almost the exact opposite is closer to the truth. As you can tell, I am confused. But fascinated, nonetheless, that somehow the Loud Family is still news.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Clash of Ideologies

A fascinating ideological battle is being waged before our eyes on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. The battle is between David Brooks and Paul Krugman and it has everything to do with America's economic and social future and what budget course is most likely to be supportive of this country's long-term growth.

Not surprisingly, Brooks is an unabashed admirer of Congressman Paul Ryan and his belief that slashing the federal budget while maintaining tax breaks for the rich is the only way to ensure long-term economic growth. Brooks has called Ryan smart, courageous, admirable, and genial, but especially courageous for taking on the Washington D.C. bureaucracy's addiction to what he feels is unsustainable deficit-spending. To be fair, incidentally, Brooks also admires Obama for possessing many of the same personal qualities as Ryan.

Paul Krugman, on the other hand, remains a reluctant supporter of Obama and a no-holds-barred critic of Ryan. He derides the claim that Ryan is a courageous and "SERIOUS" legislator and has referred to his budget plan as a "sick joke." He also calls Ryan's cuts "savage" and insists that the supposed cost savings are "pure fantasy."

So, how do we make a judgment about who to believe? Who makes the better case? At first blush, it seems to be Brooks because he tries so hard to be balanced (praising both Ryan and Obama) and temperate (avoiding Krugman's harsh rhetoric). Brooks must be right, it at first appears, because, well, because he comes across as so reasonable. So score one for Brooks...maybe.

But take a good look at their respective columns today. Brooks employs large strokes and big claims that are based largely on various people's opinions. Krugman, on the hand, being the skilled progressive economist that he is, relies on specific budget data to make his case. Check out what he says about Mr. Ryan's 200 billion dollar error in his own budget proposal or the ways in which Ryan distorts the current prescription drug benefit that is part of Medicare. Or notice how Krugman attacks the Medicare Advantage Program that is strikingly similar to what Republicans propose and yet costs 12 percent more per person than traditional Medicare.

In the end, Krugman develops and backs up an argument against Ryan's proposal, whereas Brooks largely bases his support for Ryan's proposals on what he thinks is Ryan's outstanding character. Brooks trusts Ryan's figures because he's a good guy, but Krugman does an analysis of those figures and demonstrates how much they are wanting. Sure, Krugman is a little harsher in his characterizations, but it's pretty obvious to me that the pundit we should be relying on in establishing the course for the future is Krugman, not David Brooks, for all his good intentions.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Remembering the Civil War

In an Op-Ed piece in today's Times, author Edward Ball reminds Americans that how they remember the Civil War still makes a huge difference in how they see ourselves today. For instance, as Ball says, the desire to regard American history as a fairly steady path toward freedom and tolerance and the refusal to come to terms with the War's essential tragedy "presents us with an unacceptable kind of self-knowledge" and blinds us to the real legacy of the Civil War.

Even progressives tend to look to the Civil War as a tremendous collective sacrifice that resulted in a resounding new birth of freedom. The only problem with this view is that it almost completely conflicts with the facts. The War led to a brief period of Reconstruction in which ex-slaves enjoyed a fleeting taste of freedom, only to be crushed once again by 100 years of retrenchment, bitter injustice, and unparalleled oppression. As Ball says, the South lost the War and won the peace by demanding, often with force, that white supremacy prevail.

Until the country as a whole learns to confront this history more forthrightly, racial injustice will remain its greatest challenge. Even a second presidential term for Mr. Obama, however unprecedented that would be, cannot "redeem the tragedy at the core of American history." Only Americans' shared willingness to acknowledge and learn from this tragedy can do that.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sidney Lumet, Front Page Obituary

Hey, everybody, remember the New York Times front page obituary game? Oh, c'mon, you know, the one where you have to gauge whether a celebrity is famous enough to warrant a front page death notice? Well, to my surprise, Sidney Lumet, the great film director, who died on Saturday morning, April 9th, made it! In today's Times, on the bottom, right-hand corner of the front page, Mr. Lumet, best remembered for such films as "12 Angry Men," "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "The Verdict," and "Network," is reported to have died in his Manhattan home at the age of 86. The cause of death was Lymphoma.

My guess would have been that Lumet was not renowned enough to enjoy this kind of attention. For instance, as the obituary by Robert Berkvist indicates, Lumet never won an academy award, despite being nominated 4 times. I'm glad I was wrong, though, as at least a handful of his films, including "12 Angry Men," "Network," as well as "Long Day's Journey into Night," "Fail-Safe," and "The Pawnbroker" will endure. There wasn't anything showy about Lumet's direction, but he could be extremely subtle in how he used the camera and was a master at getting excellent performances from actors. I'll never forget learning from Lumet's own book "Making Movies" (one of the great books about the craft of directing films) that to convey the sense that the jurors in "12 Angry Men" felt trapped by their situation, he employed progressively longer lenses as the film proceeded, while also gradually lowering the orientation of the camera so that in the end the ceiling and the walls seemed to be closing in on the men. This is the perfect example of what Lumet himself called "good style" which is unseen. "It is style that is felt."

I don't know if you could say that Lumet was one of the last members of a dying breed of director, but it is certainly true that we will not see his like again. Despite Lumet's own demurral, Manohla Dargis was right to call him "one of the last great movie moralists," which, in part, meant that he saw film as apt terrain to dramatize some of our most daunting social problems, ranging from criminal justice to nuclear war to the holocaust to media sensationalism. How he approached these issues and shed light on them through film remain his major legacy and his great contribution to helping all of us understand our own culture better. That's a noteworthy accomplishment and helps to explain the Times' decision to acknowledge him. In the end, though, the best way to remember him is to sit down with a friend or two and to slide a disk of one his classic films into your media player. You may not love what you see, but you will be surprised, provoked, and challenged. Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Educating Against All Odds?

There is a gorgeous piece of educational journalism by Jonathan Mahler in the Times Magazine section this week about principal Ramon Gonzalez and the public middle school (not a charter) he runs in the South Bronx. What makes this article so great are the insights Mahler provides into the struggles of an outstanding inner city school head, and the detailed profiles he offers of teachers like Garrett Adler, the inexhaustible Emily Dodd, and the KIPP-trained master teacher Silvestre Arcos. Particularly striking is Gonzalez's reliance on Teach for America alumni who apparently can be taught to teach better but whose total commitment to supporting poor kids remains rare and an essential prerequisite to success.

Perhaps the most moving part of the article focuses on Saquan Townsend, a chronically absent 7th grader, whose intellectual gifts Emily Dodd quickly discovers, while going to great lengths to bring him to school in the morning. Her efforts pay off and he begins to thrive academically while also starring in the school's version of "West Side Story," (directed by Dodd) and becoming a fixture in the Principal's after school book club.

The future seems to be bright for Saquan, but his homelife is so unstable, including time in a homeless shelter, that his family eventually moves away from the school and he ends up being unable to sustain his desire to attend, in part, because of a long commute. Regarding Saquan's situation, Mahler writes eloquently about the tension between a reform movement that insists poverty should not get in the way of higher school achievement and the reality of how hard it is for a youth hounded by poverty, homelessness, and a mother who works around the clock, to stay focused on school.

Gonzalez has the last word however and insists that what gets him up in the morning are children who need his help most. May his school, MS233, thrive for a very long time to come.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

More Corporate Larceny

On the second page of the business section of the New York Times in a brief but surprisingly feisty article, Christopher Swann and Peter Thal Larsen report that Transocean, the company that owned and operated the rig that resulted in the tragic BP spill last year, awarded its executives $250,000 each for maintaining such a terrific safety record in 2010, oh, that is, except for the 11 workers who died in this 2010 disaster. This decision was regarded as so outrageous and produced such a loud public outcry that Transocean finally decided to give the money to the families of the 11 victims. What I love about this short piece is the way it begins: "Wall Street Banks have recently been in a league of their own when it comes to rewarding executives despite poor performance," and then goes on to say that Transocean has taken corporate greed to a whole new level, beyond even what Wall Street could conceive. And accordingly concludes with this: "Transocean has achieved the rare feat of making Wall Street bankers look relatively restrained on pay."

So where does such feistiness come from? Well, I don't think it's the New York Times. It turns out that this is one of two short pieces about business that the Times has snared from the Reuters News Service. I find that fascinating. That tone, that insistence on holding the most privileged the most accountable, is almost unheard of in American newspapers, but not overseas. Leave it to Reuters, the European news service, to tell America the way it really is.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Real "Take Me Out to the Ball Game"

The New York Times reports today that among the treasures to be incorporated into the audio archives of the Library of Congress is a 1908 recording of the song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" that includes the song's rarely heard second verse. But even this doesn't tell the whole story. Turns out that the only part of the song we ordinarily hear is just the chorus. The whole song actually has TWO verses and tells the story of a woman who is baseball-mad and would rather attend a baseball game than do anything else. There is also a 1927 version, but that is simply too much information to absorb. Here, then, is the 1908 version of the song in its entirety. You will have to go to Wikipedia to get a feel for the melody and to learn why the verses shown below have been completely forgotten and are, thankfully, very rarely ever sung.

Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev'ry sou
Katie blew.
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she'd like to go
To see a show, but Miss Kate said "No,
I'll tell you what you can do:"

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don't care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don't win, it's a shame.
For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out,
At the old ball game.

Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names.
Told the umpire he was wrong,
All along,
Good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:

[repeat Chorus]

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Clueless Chancellor

The New York Times reports today that Cathleen P. Black, the recently appointed chancellor of the New York City Schools, enjoys a 17 percent approval rating among adult residents of the City. To put that in perspective, even on the eve of Richard Nixon's resignation from his Watergate embroiled Presidency, his approval rating was considerably better than 17 percent. Even as George W. Bush presided over the second worst economic crisis of the past 100 years, a crisis that could have produced a full-fledged depression, his approval rating stayed well above 25 percent. I think if I were Chancellor of the New York City Schools, I could get a higher approval rating than Ms. Black. Now it's true that the percent of people who had never heard of me would be much higher than Black's 23, but I think I could break the 20 percent approval ceiling just by inhabiting the office. So why is she, or perhaps more exactly, why is Mayor Bloomberg's appointment of her so despised by the general public?

Unfortunately, the Times' article is not much help in answering this question. Her gaffes about recommending birth control to families where school overcrowding is occurring, of course, made things worse, and the fact that she is largely kept under wraps, making brief appearances with programmed remarks and limited questioning from the press also contribute to the sense that she remains poorly informed and largely disengaged from her chief responsibilities.

My guess, though, is that all of this has something to do with the ways in which New Yorkers' patience with Mayor Bloomberg and his outlandish belief that he can do anything he wants has become strained almost to the breaking point. His own approval rating has plummeted to 39 percent, though please note that this remains a far cry from 17. But most likely it is the combination of Bloomberg's arrogance in thinking that he could appoint anyone he wanted regardless of her qualifications and Black's own unwise decision to say yes, despite knowing absolutely nothing, really zilch, zero, breathtakingly bupkis, about public schools and their challenges.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Crime Ripple

In a story about John C. Roe, 40-year veteran of the New York City Police Department, readers of the New York Times learn a bit about how much safer the streets of New York have become over the past 4 decades. In 1970, when Patrolman Roe was making $9500 a year, there were 1,117 homicides and 74,102 robberies in New York. Last year, there were 536 homicides and a dramatically reduced 19,484 robberies. Back in 1970, police officers fatally shot 93 people, while last year it was only 8. Back in 1971, 12 officers were killed in the line of duty and 47 were wounded by gunfire. Last year, NO officers were killed or wounded by bullets. Additionally, whereas officers actually fired their guns in 810 incidents in 1971, there were only 93 such incidents last year.

We often hear about how much safer New York City has become. But these statistics, which are meant to illustrate how much has changed in the daily life of police officers since Mr. Roe initiated his service to the City back in 1970, are also among the most persuasive evidence I have seen that the crime wave we have for so long associated with New York life has now been reduced to little more than a ripple. This is good news for everyone.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Human Tenacity

Oh, the stories of resilience and tenacity we humans can recount. I rarely read about sports, but today I was trying to catch up on the latest news regarding the NCAA basketball championships when I came across this story near the back of the New York Times sports section about Bethany Hamilton. It turns out that Bethany is a championship surfer who won the the 18-and-under national title when she was 15 and eventually became a successful professional surfer working out of Kauai. They have even made a feature film about her.

Of course, as accomplished as she was at a young age, you don't usually get somebody to make a move about you unless you're extra special. What makes Bethany so unusual is that at the age of 13, two years before she won the national championships, she lost her left arm while surfing when a 14-foot shark savaged her, causing her to lose 60% of her blood and nearly losing her life. After spending 7 days in the hospital, Bethany fully recovered and was surfing again within a month. Teaching herself to paddle with one arm and to use a powerful kick to propel her forward and then learning to re-balance herself without the help of that second, seemingly all-important arm, she soon returned to competitive surfing and was recognized in 2004 by ESPY as the Comeback Athlete of the Year.

She has continued to excel and remains a top surfing competitor. Bethany credits her parents for encouraging her to maintain her relationship with Jesus Christ and for fueling her continuing passion for surfing, but there is also something here about how tenacious and resilient we human beings can be. I am reminded of the famous line from Eleanor Roosevelt that "you must do the things you think you cannot do." And certainly, few people have had more experience in coming back from the worst kind of adversity than Mrs. Roosevelt, whether helping her husband to recover from a polio attack which left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down, or becoming the most notable spokesperson for the rights of oppressed peoples from around the world despite being an extremely self-conscious and retiring person. She overcame all of this, in part, because it was necessary for her to overcome it. There was so much at stake.

I say all this not to suggest that Bethany Hamilton and Eleanor Roosevelt were not extraordinary people, but to affirm that most of us can accomplish far more than we sometimes imagine. Having the vision to imagine something different is part of it, and simply believing, despite apparent limitations, that we are capable beyond our wildest dreams is still another. So why not begin? Imagining and envisioning something different for ourselves and to begin right now to do those things we have always assumed we cannot do.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Rest in Peace Manning Marable

"His every fiber was devoted to completion of this book. It's heartbreaking he won't be here on publication day with us." So mourns Wendy Wolf of Viking Press who, as editor of a new, groundbreaking biography of Malcolm X, is expressing her anguish over the untimely death of its author, Manning Marable. The quote comes from a front page story in the New York Times today about Dr. Marable's passing.

A prolific and well known Marxist scholar of African-American politics and history, Dr. Marable suffered for many years from Sarcoidosis and finally received relief from the disease owing to a recent double lung transplant that required two months of hospitalization but that appeared to result in a full recovery. During the many years in which he was hampered by this disease, Dr. Marable traveled undaunted with the help of oxygen tanks to dozens of archives to research this biography which many believe will eventually be seen as his magnum opus.

As the article suggests, this new biography offers many new insights into Malcolm's life and accomplishments. For instance, Marable characterizes the now classic "Autobiography of Malcolm X," largely penned by Alex Haley, as fictive and as the product of Haley's liberal Republican, integrationist roots. Marable shows that Malcolm's views, though evolving, remained staunchly radical and that Haley's attempt to portray him as increasingly moderate does not square with the facts.

There are many other revelations, including a 24-week sojourn to Africa and the Middle East based on Malcolm's own diaries that occurred after his famous trip to Mecca, and details about a campaign to get the United Nations to condemn the US for entrenched racism.

I have been a reader of Dr. Marable's work for many years and once used his brief but incisive study of W.E.B. Du Bois's life in a course I taught on Biography and Leadership. The book about Du Bois, subtitled "Black Radical Democrat," reflects Marable's passionate commitment to participatory democracy exhibited strongly throughout his career. I have also had occasion to teach from Marable's "Black Leadership," a volume containing an important essay called "Black History and the Vision of Democracy," that poses the question: "how do oppressed peoples come to terms with their exploitation?" His answer? For African Americans, it is by pursuing without let-up a just and democratic society in which everyone is united behind the common goals of treating each person with undiminished respect, supporting "unfettered participation in the economic and political life of this country, full civil liberties, and equal protection under the law."

For all of us, this should continue to be our shared vision. We would do well to consult the writings of Manning Marable to rededicate ourselves to believing in and living out this essential creed.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Entitlement News

The refrain I still hear repeatedly is that those incompetent teachers we hear so much about would never be able to last if we ran our schools like businesses. Could be. I honestly don't know enough about business to say whether this is true or not. But I have two examples for you. One could not be more mundane. We have a soft drink vending machine outside our office which is often empty but it literally takes a series of increasingly irate phone calls to get the vending company to come and refill the machine. Is this the sort of business we have in mind?

Or maybe a far more grandiose example is helpful. Consider the "taxpayer-backed mortgage finance" corporations - Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac - that are featured on the front page of the New York Times today. Apparently, these faltering giants that have lost billions of dollars over the last couple of years, in part because of poor management, arranged to pay their top six executives 35.4 million over this same time period. How can this be? Is this an example of the good business practices that our schools can learn from? On the one hand, even successful management seems not to be worth quite this much, but when the management is that bad, how in the world can these people stand to earn so much money? I don't get it. However, I am inclined to venture a guess. These corporate executives now feel entitled to their huge bonuses, regardless of performance. It has simply become part of what they are guaranteed when they sign on. Which, by the way, is why they just love to talk about government entitlements. You know, things like Medicare and Social Security and education. They want to keep our attention on these so-called entitlement programs so that we will forget to notice what an outrageous and unearned entitlement really looks like.

So, the next time you hear corporate executives talking about the problem of government entitlements, dig just a little deeper. I think you may find evidence of their having benefited from another kind of entitlement that is much more insidious and that often ensues from nothing more than services rendered, even if those services lead to ruinous losses for those they are supposed to be serving.