Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Problems I See: Time, GMOs, Education

        The hands of the clock stretch towards me. With each passing second they tap me on the shoulder, reminding me with the utmost discretion – but unnerving candor – that another moment of my life is gone. Most of the time I try to shrug off the clock; at other times I greet it with an uneasy smile. Whichever the case, it comes with the same message: tick-tock, tick-tock. I do not know whether its message is supposed to be cause for alarm or hope; perhaps both. In any case, the clock drones on, its percussive beat unchanging. Clocks are in the business of manufacturing time and taking it away. 

        For me and many others, the clock is the soundtrack of our lives. One starts to wonder if the clock is designed to make life easier, or rather, life designed to appease the clock’s savage pedantry. Slowly but surely, it devours us whole. Set the alarm, turn it off; punch-in, punch-out; set the deadline, mind the dates; organize the calendar, make space in the agenda. Today we are told to fit our lives into boxes, above lines and between dashes. And while there are a thousand ways to organize time – that is, a thousand ways to cut life into a thousand fragments – there is one imperative that underlies it all: speed. They assure us that we are to think and we are to enjoy. But above all, we are to act with a sense of urgency, to run until we do not remember why. Congratulations, we have achieved our goal. Now can someone remind me why we were running in the first place? 

         Time’s march is sadistic. As I watch the clock I feel puny, impotent. Like a prison guard gloating over his prey, he watches me from the other side of the wire. I am stuck inside these four walls, wedged between earth and sky. So I resist. It strikes me with its cast-iron arms, the only thing that does not seem to age. The scars are plain for all to see: lines scrawled across the face, a body sagging under its heavy load. Some of the prisoners give up, for there is no escape. No exit. The prison warden assures us that no one ever makes it out alive. But is there really anything on the other side of the wire? In defiance, some decide to hunger strike. They refuse to play by the rules of the 
 game, rejecting the very cards which make the most serious joke in the world possible; their torment. 

        A rebellion suddenly breaks out. Rocks are flying. Someone has snuck weapons into the prison. But the guards are ready. They’re smiling. Tear gas and bullets are exchanged. I am hit. Slowly my mind recedes as a pool of thick, warm blood collects on my hands and torso. What does this mean? Will I finally make it across the wire – in a casket? But suddenly I awake from this dream, this nightmare, to the sound of my alarm clock. 

        Prisoner 10101990, welcome back.

        The level of disconnect between words and reality is almost unbelievable. Sometimes I just want to scream. Take the latest round of voting in Washington, for instance. By a strong majority, Washington voters chose to not label GMO (genetically modified organisms) on food labels and packaging. They were told by Monsanto and other agro-corporations that doing so would increase the cost of food by needlessly stoking consumer fears and inflicting price distortions across the board. More importantly, the voters were assured that GMOs cause no negative side-effects, this being proved by rigorous testing. All of this is wrong. 

        For the agro-corporations to claim that GMOs do not cause any negative side-effects – and insinuate the “scientific” facticity of these claims – shows just how bad their “science” is. Right now it is impossible to test GMOs for side-effects because the companies that produce them refuse to release their patented secrets. Since the only people who can “test” them are the very people who make money off them, such testing seems less than impartial, transparent and rigorous. It definitely is not “scientific”.

        The fact that these corporations argue that excluding ingredients from a label can be considered a “scientific” practice says it all. To make informed decisions, consumers need to be told where their food comes from, its caloric density, and which ingredients constitute it. I do not know of a single scientist who would argue that having this information makes for bad “science”. To the contrary, any real scientist knows that you need to have information to make a scientific decision in the first place. At this time, no such information is publicly available. It is this censorship, after all, that the lobbyists are pushing for in the first place. In other words, the anti-label measure is an attack on science – the mere possibility of assessing GMOs through scientific standards.

        It is also worth remembering exactly who is peddling these supposedly “safe” and healthful products. One of the wealthiest corporations in the world, Monsanto, is at the forefront of the anti-label fight. Incidentally, Monsanto is the company that championed DDT as a “safe” cure-all to the world’s ills, advocating its use on everything from malarial swamps to wheat fields to infant children. Eventually people learned that DDT can cause birth defects, and its toxins rapidly accumulate in the fatty tissue of mammals. The ubiquitous use of “safe” DDT caused massive ecological damage and drove some species to near-extinction. 

        Besides producing the curious combination of food and industrial chemicals, Monsanto also specializes in the production of weapons of mass destruction. (Interestingly enough, some of its labs were used for work on the Manhattan Project.) The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to one million people have either been disabled or suffer from serious health problems due to the use of Agent Orange, a lethal defoliant manufactured by Monsanto for use in the Vietnam War. A significant number of these casualties are American soldiers who released the defoliants, only to later suffer their terrible effects. This was, of course, unexpected. After all, Monsanto’s methods were “scientific” and its products touted as “safe” for usage. 

        The anti-label lobbyists consequently leave us with an interesting question: if we have questions about GMOs, should we take them to the company’s weapons production, industrial chemicals, or food laboratory hotline? Do they even have separate departments? Perhaps these companies are anti-label because they are afraid that if they had to produce labels, these labels might get mixed up from time to time. Imagine a box of GMO cereal or maybe a bag of apples saying, “Warning: flammable, radioactive, poisonous and explosive.” Or simply, “Warning: lethal weapon. Use responsibly.” Some soldier might end up with a couple of bombs that say, “120 calories, 20 grams sugar; part of a well-balanced diet.” 

        If people were well-informed, they probably would be antsy if they just saw a label that said, “Produced by Monsanto,” and for good reason. Of course, this is precisely what Monsanto fears. 
        If you have not noticed, there has been a lot of hype about education in the newspaper lately. A bunch of school districts across the country are adopting what are called “Common Core State Standards,” a curriculum which is supposed to prepare students “to compete and succeed internationally,” to quote Oregon deputy superintendent Rob Saxton. Citing perennial fears about the rest of the world “overtaking” U.S. students, yet another solution to America’s festering education crisis is being offered. What does it involve? The exact same measures that federal and state governments have been pushing for the past two decades: “Students are [going to be] reading more nonfiction… across multiple subjects,” which essentially means more math and science. 

        How will “progress” be measured?  The exact same way that progress has been measured for the past two decades: more standardized testing. This supposedly innovative, but, in truth, laughably redundant “solution” is also very lucrative. Not surprisingly, the “makers of the SAT and ACT” – who have carved out a business niche for test services – are the most vocal champions of this approach. And they are bound to make a killing off it. As ‘The Oregonian’ explains, these tests would “need [more] human eyes” to grade, consequently making them more expensive than previous testing “solutions”. You know, the “solutions” that apparently failed before. How do you fix a broken education system mired in standardized testing? More standardized testing of course! (And let’s make it even more expensive while we’re at it.)

        To be sure, there is an education crisis going on, but standardized testing is not the solution. Standardized testing is part of the problem – a major part in fact. Administrators competing for funds, ratings and promotions want a way to quantify “learning,” and tests provide a ready-made way to do just that. But rather than encouraging students to learn, the time-sucking, money-grubbing, narrow-minded approach that these tests necessitate actually prevents it from taking place. What results is the spectacle of learning for the sake of the spectacle itself – a rating – rather than the substance of learning: the stimulation of curiosity and expansion of intellectual horizons. 

        With administrators breathing down their backs, teachers are coerced into employing a strategy called “teaching to the test” – that is, teaching what is specifically on the test, instead of pursuing pedagogy which would help their student’s grow intellectually. The results are, again, predictable. Students are induced towards apathy, as they spend days listening to the teacher monologue about specific test concepts which have no pedagogical value. Learning is reduced to a crude means to pass a test, rather than a way to grow as a thinking being. 

        This fact is most vividly illustrated by test lobbyists’ championship of testing math and science. For decades the U.S. has been “behind” in the education arms race – education is about being able to “compete,” after all – especially in its math and science scores. The solution has always been more testing. The topics covered change but the overall blueprint is the same: test more, teach less. This is stupid. If students are memorizing math subjects by “wrote memory” without fully comprehending them – the most substantive charge made by test lobbyists – this is because they are memorizing them to pass the tests

         Teaching for the ultimate purpose of having students pass a test inevitably fosters rigidity. The focus is not on practical application or context, but, rather, the predictable questions posed by an established test curriculum. Furthermore, the blueprint for teaching math and science has been test-centric for decades. To suggest that tests are the solution is myopic: it is the test approach itself which has bastardized the teaching of math and science. 

        There are a few telling assumptions which should be drawn out from the education discourse:

        Firstly, education is understood in business terms; thus Saxton’s jargon about students being competitive, and the focus on technical knowledge (science and math) with economic utility. But the industrial discipline and blind deference to authority which the modern workplace demands – if anything – stifles creativity. Just as it is near-impossible for teachers to teach creatively within a corporate hierarchy, whereby administrators call the shots, it is near-impossible for workers to innovate when their superiors are pushing for conformity. Applying a business model to education is disastrous for other reasons as well. The proliferation of for-profit schools with very low standards attests to the poverty of the business model for educational purposes, as does the for-profit test industry, which, we must note once more, is sapping the fiscal vitality of teachers, students and school districts. 

        Secondly, intelligence is now equated with uniformity in the worst sense. When Saxton and his peers aver that students need to “succeed internationally,” they are essentially arguing that in order to “compete,” students must – ironically – be like everyone else. They are trying to shove the right knowledge into students’ brains, the knowledge that people “internationally” – that is, everywhere else – are learning. Real education denotes a process, not a set of facts that are imbibed in the petri-dish that Saxton is trying to make out of the classroom. Students should be encouraged to think, not just told what to think. China has tried this test-centric approach for decades, and teachers generally agree that their students are less inquisitive as a result than students elsewhere. They are beginning to reject the test-centric approach because it does not work. In ignorance, Americans have chosen to affirm standardized testing with a vengeance. The result: creativity now means conformity and obedience to those in power. 

        Thirdly, fictional work and abstract ideas are not regarded as “serious” by education experts, the most obvious reason being that fiction and art are less marketable – again everything is judged through the business lens. It is should be noted, though, that the significance of fictional works are often not readily grasped; mediocre minds fail to understand their genius. It should then be no surprised that those in charge of education fail to appreciate their importance and insist that “nonfiction” take precedence. To appreciate Zola, Hemingway or Faulkner one needs more than the ability to understand that two numbers squished together makes a new number. More importantly, it is often in novels and works of fiction that life’s subtle truths are most effectively evoked. 

        What is the take-away from all this? Educators need to be allowed to teach, and administrators need to get out of their way.

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