Why School?

Over the course of the last week, eight of my students served detention with me, mostly for being a pain in the neck.  (Given that this is the second week of school, the phrase “having my work cut out for me” comes to mind.)

Because I am not a believer in children sitting idle, and I never like to confuse academics with punishment, these were “cleaning” detentions.  As often happens, I did not actually have 30 minutes of chores for all of them to do and duly farmed them out to my colleagues for such rewarding work as cleaning desks, vacuuming, and washing white boards.

Afterwards, a colleague and I were commenting on how respectfully and quietly they were able to work at menial tasks, despite their disruptiveness in class. Without an audience, we agreed, these kids were just fine.

As I often do at these times, I also said that part of the problem is that these young men (and they were all young men that week) are “doers.”  They want to be doing things.  They don’t want to be sitting and listening and definitely not sitting and thinking.  They don’t even want to be walking around and thinking.  They want to be doing.  And they want to be doing things that have value and meaning for them–probably things like fixing cars or building cabinets or putting together the parts of an airplane.  Not academics

My heart breaks a little to think of the kind of torture I am inflicting on them everyday, as I attempt to persuade them to learn something they do not really want to learn.  While ninth grade is too soon to make a decision that would affect the course of the rest of their lives, the fact is that they do not have a choice about what they learn and they will not have a choice for at least two years.

High schools now are increasingly oriented towards a “college-for-everyone” approach, and the high school graduation requirements where I teach are in line with college admission requirements for the California State University system.  The argument is usually that this is more equitable–and given than students who are not “college-ready” upon graduation are disproportionaly poor and non-white and non-Asian, there is something to be said for this.

However, I do not believe a “college-for-everyone” approach really is equitable.  It causes some students an undue amount of misery and even despair about themselves and their futures.  Others turn away from education altogether, so that they are neither “college-ready” nor “work ready,” because they simply stop going to school to learn anything.

While I believe all of my students can learn college-preparatory material, not all of them want to or find in any meaning in attempting to do so.  It makes them feel fidgety and stupid.  So why do we do it?

In a word, the economy.  Our economy has shifted away from work that requires little formal education to work that requires tremendous formal education.  Even skilled labor–skills that can be learned on the job or in trade schools–is reported to require more reading and writing, more communication, and more mathematics.  I need my students to be educated, whether they want to be educated or not, and so does the rest of the nation.

East Side Union High School District Graduation Requirements
Like many school districts, East Side Union High School District requires its graduates to complete courses that meet minimum college admission requirements.
Source: http://www.docstoc.com/docs/39285156/CALIFORNIA-STATE-UNIVERSITY-ADMISSION-REQUIREMENTS

However, we seem unable to acknowledge this as the real purpose of education in America, leading to a number of contradictions in policy–especially in terms of funding.  Does school primarily give individuals a chance to advance themselves?  Or does it mainly create workers who can figure out how to stop climate change and produce the next generation of electronic device-toys? We seem to be unable to decide or to consistently hold to one point of view.

As an example of this, children living in poverty (20% in 2009 according to Kids Count) are more likely to be malnourished, fall sick more often and have less access to preventive and other kinds of health care, and are more often witnesses to or victims of violent crimes.  They are also more likely to have new teachers (poor districts have higher turnover), and new teachers are known to be less effective than experienced teachers–even well-prepared, creative, and talented new teachers.  And that is not even touching on environmental and industrial hazards that disproportionately affect poor neighborhoods.

All of these factors place poor children at risk in school.  More illness means more missed school days.  Malnourishment can lead to a poor ability to concentrate, remember, or control impulses, as does psychological trauma.  Trauma can additionally cause greater emotional reactivity or inappropriate and disproportionate reactions to interpersonal conflicts–leading to defiance, fighting, and other infractions that then lead to suspensions and more missed school.

School performance and poverty.
Most data reveal a positive correlation between academic performance and economic status. Source: http://shankerblog.org/?p=6009

If we understood that an educated population is necessary for success as a society, we would address these factors that interfere with learning and school success systematically–providing school-based medical treatment, creative responses to missed  school days, psychological counseling, and additional incentives for talented teachers to stay.  School districts in poor areas would receive much greater funding than those in middle-class areas to pay for the additional services.

Instead, they receive approximately the same or less funding than other districts.  In fact, if you remove welfare-oriented services (such as free and reduced lunch programs) from funding calculations, school districts in poor areas receive several thousand less per pupil than average (Ramirez, 2012).  Not only is there no money for extra services like counseling, there is less money to maintain school buildings, pay teachers, and buy books.

If education is there to benefit the individual, and is an opportunity and a privilege, then that approach makes sense.  Just like middle-class children, poor children need to work hard to succeed regardless of the additional challenges they may face to earn their educations.  Removing some of the barriers to their success by providing additional services is coddling and unfair.  People need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, just as our grandparents and great-grandparents did.

The economy, on the other hand, is not concerned with the character of its workers.  It does not care whether you got where you are because you worked harder than everyone else, or if you had an easy ride of it.  On the contrary, it needs nearly everyone to be at the top of the boot, as the percentage of jobs in unskilled labor fields shrinks and jobs expand in skilled and professional fields.

We need to make up our minds.


National Kids Count Program.  (2012).  Children in Poverty.  Retrieved from: http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/acrossstates/Rankings.aspx?loct=6&by=a&order=a&ind=43&dtm=322&tf=38&gclid=CMWmvNGXkrICFUheTAodZkcA1Q

Ramirez, R.  (2012, August 29).  Federal Loophole Enables Lower Lower Spending on Students of Color, Study Says.  National Journal.  Retrieved from: http://www.nationaljournal.com/thenextamerica/education/federal-loophole-enables-lower-spending-on-students-of-color-study-says-20120829


Suburban Discomfort: Across a Veil of Difference

“Would you feel uncomfortable speaking to a woman in a burqa?”

Woman in burqa protesting.
Source: AsiaNews.it 8/2/210. See http://www.asianews.it/news-en/An-anti-burqa-law-to-renew-Islam-in-Europe-17565.html

Two years ago, a diversity trainer asked this of the staff at the suburban, mainly white middle school where I taught.  I think it remains a relevant question.  For me, the question really means–at least for someone from that environment-how well have you managed change?  Are you comfortable?

I’ve been listening to the music of Faudel recently–a French-Algerian known as the Prince of Rai, although his music has drifted increasingly to mainstream French pop.  I am a huge fan of rai, but I am also reminded as I listen to what he has to sing about that Americans aren’t the only ones wrestling with questions of difference and identity.

Just as Faudel must puzzle out what it means to be French-Algerian, and the French must puzzle out what it means to be French in a nation that is now increasingly African and Muslim, we must puzzle out what it means to be American at a time when we are surrounded by difference that is, well, more different than it used to be.

I never did sit down to a parent meeting with a child’s mother in a burqa while I taught at that school, but I did meet a number who wore hijab, and I wonder about that other teacher.  Was she comfortable with the parents of the children in her class?  Was she able to navigate the change?

Hate and Difference

The rise in hate crimes against certain groups in recent years testifies to the idea that we have not as a nation been able to do so, that the change is too great for us to manage.  Some of us are quietly uncomfortable, some of us vocally so, and some of us violently so.

So let’s break down the source of this discomfort.  Let’s try together to make some sense of it.  On the one hand, there’s been a change in the world that I think most people in the United States failed to notice until 9/11 brought it home.  This is a complex change, and not one I’m sure I understand entirely.  However, to take a stab at it, extremism–including various forms of right-wing extremism, and Islamist extremism in particular–is now a serious threat to the safety and security of people around the world.

Though questions remain as to whether the ‘threat’ of the radical right is inflated and whether our fear of violence might be higher than the risk, we should not ignore this fear  (Ramalingam, Vidhya).

This doesn’t mean our hypothetical mother in a burqa is a threat, but it does mean there is a genuine threat out there with which she could be confused.  It also means some people are already more afraid, and therefore more likely to attempt to locate a reasonable source for their fear.


Meanwhile, global hot spots for armed conflicts have shifted away from the conflict zones of the 70s and 80s–Central America, Southeast Asia, Europe–and landed much more squarely in the Middle East and Africa.  Places where smaller conflagrations were already burning are now at a point of explosion.  Naturally, many people who lived in these zones of conflict and its ensuing economic problems fled–in many cases, to foreign powers involved in those conflicts, such as the United States.

Newer immigrants are, I suspect, a little more different from the immigrants who came in earlier generations–and are now more likely to be culturally, religiously, ethnically, linguistically, and sometimes racially different from desendents of the first large wave of immigration from Europe that still makes up much of the country.

Finally, immigration patterns within the United States appear to have changed as well.  Rather than heading towards large cities which have traditionally been home to much of the country’s diversity, many new immigrants are settling in suburbs, small towns, and rural areas–places that offer a quieter lifestyle and a lower cost of living.  The American Dream is now more commonly believed to be in El Segundo and Yorba Linda rather than Los Angeles and New York.

In other words, the difference is not what we’re used to, and it is appearing in places where people are less used to difference.  No wonder it isn’t all going so well.


At the same time, there is rising evidence that suspicion of difference is instinctive–and not just a bad habit or a character flaw.    It’s not just about racism or acquired prejudices, but innate.  We are anxious around people that are unfamiliar to us–the more “other,” the higher the anxiety.  The only real solution is to make the unfamiliar familiar, the worrisome safe.

However, instead, what we often do to cope with our anxieties about what is different, or simply the insecurity of the world, or our frustration at not having our grievances addressed (Ramalingam, 2012), is to retreat into the comfort of identity–especially group identities.  We look for what is most essentially “us” about ourselves, wear it prouder, say it louder, and believe it more firmly (Staub, 1992).

For example, while some of us may be more convinced than ever that the United States is superior in terms of the advancement of the status of women, and by implication, that wearing a burqa is tantamount to accepting sexism and subjugation, others are equally convinced that wearing a burqa represents being an observant and respectful Muslim.  As our discomfort increases, so do the outward markers of identity. We are uncomfortable, and this inevitably gives rise to more we might be uncomfortable about.

Today, I have no solutions.  Only problems.

Works Consulted

Ramalingam, Vidhya.  (2012, February 9).  Europe’s radical right: recognizing and managing the ‘threat.’  Retrieved from http://www.opendemocracy.net/vidhya-ramalingam/europe%E2%80%99s-radical-right-recognising-and-managing-%E2%80%98threat%E2%80%99

Staub, E.  (1992).  The roots of evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mumbai Burning

A vehicle burns on Aug. 11, 2012, at a protest in Mumbai over riots in Assam state
Read more: http://world.time.com/2012/08/13/india-continues-to-grapple-with-fallout-from-assam-violence/#ixzz24fjtbUPo

On Saturday, 11 August, a protest organized in Mumbai by NGOs to draw attention to the killings of Muslims in Myanmar and Assam degenerated into violent rioting. Police now claim that the riots were organized in advance, and that at least some individuals turned up to the protest armed for violence. Given the nature of some the injuries, the truth of their assertion seems likely.

The debate that has ensued is reminiscent of the debates that have followed nearly every event of communally-motivated group violence in India since Partition. Were the riots organized in advance?  Who organized them? How can the leaders be brought to justice?  The rioters themselves are either dismissed as naive followers or demonized as lawless hoodlums.

Meanwhile, individual police officers are held up as heroes, even as leadership is assumed to be in on the conspiracy.  However, the reality is that large-city Indian police forces who periodically must disperse violent rioters as a part of their duties almost never respond effectively.  The fact that they did not in this case is not any particular surprise.

In contrast, Los Angeles (which also has a long history of rioting and mass violence dating back to the Zoot Suit riots in 1943) deployed hundreds of officers in the streets surrounding the Staples Center in full riot gear, some of them on horseback, who quickly blocked off streets to pedestrians after Lakers fans first turned violent following the championship game in 2010. (Why LA fans riot when their team wins is a question unto itself). This effectively prevented eruption of full-scale rioting that Los Angeles had seen the year before.  The fact that there was already a plan of action, officers were already in position, and they knew when to act made all the difference.

None of this occurred on Saturday.  Officers were not in position and they acted too late, the result of either no plan or an ineffective plan for preventing violence that quite obviously could have been anticipated, given prior riots elsewhere over the same issue.

Although there is no real question regarding the corruption of the Mumbai police force, what seems more pertinent is the lack of planning, knowledge, and training to respond to such events by Indian police forces in general.  In other words, although police leadership may have been paid or promised favors if they failed to act, it is unlikely they would have been able to act effectively even if they had not.

The net result of the debate is that no one is held responsible at all, at least not in the eyes of the general public.  The leaders remain nameless, their identities only vaguely alluded to.  And, although some of the rioters are in custody, the public at large seems to consider them either too stupid or too inherently bad to be at fault.  And indignation over police corruption obscures police ineptitude.

The public response to Saturday’s riots would be less disturbing if it weren’t so predictable, and it weren’t so well-designed to allow nothing to change.  Leaders can continue to blame “hoodlums,” participants can continue to shift responsibility onto leaders, and police ineptitude will continue to remain a low priority.  Mumbai–and India–will continue to burn.  Change is harder than pointing fingers.

Madness in our Midst

In 1986, James Huberty told his wife he was “hunting humans,” took his 3 guns, and went to McDonalds—not for a Happy Meal, but to do exactly what he had said he would do.  After 77 minutes, a SWAT team sniper finally ended the massacre that left 21 dead and 19 wounded in San Ysidro, California.

This was not the first large-scale shooting incident.  In 1966, Charles Joseph Whitman killed 14 and wounded 31 in Austin, Texas.  It was the first, however, for me, and it was also geographically the closest.  Like 9/11 has become for many people, the San Ysidro tragedy provided the backdrop against which I understand other events of large-scale violence.

A motiveless, senseless crime, San Ysidro left me unsurprised at other senseless crimes—not understanding providing its own form of understanding.  In contrast, grasping for motive and cause is usually our first reaction.

After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold executed a teacher and 13 of their classmates—and wounded countless others—stories of how they were rejected and bullied at school began to surface.  These stories later turned out to be false, or at least extremely exaggerated.  For Harris and Klebold, the final analysis revealed that they were emphatically not ordinary young men pushed to the edge by cruelty, but psychologically unsound and temperamentally inclined towards hatefulness.

Relieved?  I think we should be.  Violence exists along a continuum.  Hitler with a machine gun in a crowd is frightening.  Hitler with an army, storm-troopers, and a nation of citizens willing to target their neighbors—or at least willing to look the other way while it happens—is terrifying beyond words.

Behind questions about the sanity of Wade Michael Page (the suspect in August sixth’s gurudwara shooting), is a question about if and how far the madness has spread.  While we were sleeping, or updating our Facebook statuses, or just plugging along at our jobs, has the country become one in which the most important of the ten commandments no longer applies?  Is it one person, or 10, or everyone that has slipped across the line of conscience into madness and violence?

Scale, in a word, matters—not just because it is reflected in the extent of the suffering that follows, but because it indicates the scope of the problem.  The more perpetrators and the more “average” the perpetrators are psychologically, the more likely it is that the thinking behind the violence has also become “average,” and the more likely the violence is to continue and expand.

Adolf Eichmann is the quintessential example of this: As the man responsible for planning and executing the Final Solution, he directly or indirectly caused the death of millions of people.  After being examined by several psychologists, he was found to be perfectly sane and without indication of personality disorder.  He was sane.  His culture and society were not.

What can be confusing about this are the contradictions within our understanding of what constitutes madness.  As a criminal defense, insanity means the defendants were unable to grasp that what they were doing was wrong.  In a psychiatric sense, insanity is usually synonymous with psychosis—a mental state marked by hallucinations and delusions.  Mass murderers are only rarely either insane or psychotic, and we are consequently flummoxed.

In everyday usage, “crazy” means something rather different.  “Crazy” people are functional enough to hold down jobs at least some of the time, make to-do lists and, as it turns out, plan and execute mass murder—but their thinking is often substantially disordered, has large logical gaps or errors and seems to be based on firm beliefs that are demonstrably incorrect.

In that sense, a lot of mass killers probably are crazy.  They have delusions of God-like importance, or a firm belief that they are being persecuted or have in some way been grossly victimized and are entitled to redress.  They believe the rules of society do not apply to them, or that they have some special knowledge of what is happening in the world that obligates them to act because they are the only ones in a position to do so.  Some of them really do lack conscience and others have  created elaborate justifications riddled with flawed logic and based on false facts.

If that is the case, then our main concerns are primarily mechanical and oriented toward policy and procedure–comparatively simple stuff.  The good news is that, with a few notable exceptions, local agencies have improved immensely in their ability to respond to mass shootings.  While it took police in San Ysidro more than an hour to subdue James Huberty, officers were able to surround the theater in Aurora within five minutes of the start of the shooting and had the suspect in custody after seven minutes.  If they had not, the tragedy in Aurora might have been much worse.

Unfortunately, between shootings, the general public seems to forget that violence like this occurs at all.  We forget that people like Huberty and Holmes are among us, that they have access to incredibly efficient to weapons, and that they periodically surface to use them.  Amnesia is a bad habit with us, and the consequences of it are extremely high.  Until we begin to remember, all we can ever do is react after the shooting has started.

Works consulted:

(This was not intended to be an academic paper, but I did read some things.  Also, if you are a responsible reader, you will want to check my facts.  I have attempted to make this easier by listing where I got them from below.)

Arendt, H. (1994). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil.  New York: Penguin.

Gresco, J.  (2004, July 18).  20 years later, San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre remembered.  North County Times.  Retrieved from http://www.nctimes.com/news/local/years-later-san-ysidro-mcdonald-s-massacre-remembered/article_2ba4343e-7009-54ce-98df-   79a23ff8d0d7.html

Staub, E.  (1992).  The roots of evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Timeline: Colorado Theater Shooting.  CNN.  Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2012/07/us/aurora.shooting/index.html

Toppo, G.  (2009, April 14).  10 years later, the real story behind Columbine.  USA Today.  Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-04-13-columbine-myths_N.htm

Towards a Unified Theory of Evil

Oak Creek, Wisconsin.  Photo Credit: Washington Post staff.
Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Photo Credit: Washington Post staff.

August 6th, a lone gunman toting two semi-automatic weapons killed seven people and wounded a number of others at a crowded Sikh temple in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A few weeks before, a man opened fire in a theater in Colorado, killing 12 and wounded 58 others. The first instance is classified as a hate crime. The second appears to be entirely random—murder for the sake of it.

These are difficult and frightening times we live in.  Much of the Middle East has become destabilized, with civil war raging in Syria and smoldering in Egypt. Terrorist attacks and sectarian violence have become so commonplace in Afghanistan and Iraq it no longer seems to be news. Bombs planted in war-torn Chechnya, where violence has erupted sporadically since the start of the First Chechen War in 1994, reportedly killed four individuals on the same day as the gurudwara shooting. Meanwhile, the Indian Mujahideen struck in Pune on August 1st, when serial explosions rocked Jangli Maharaj Road. The world has become a terrifying place.

Or has it? Is this really anything new?

The aftermath of the 2010 German Bakery bombing in Pune.

What about the 500,000-100,000 murdered in Rwanda in 1994? The 200,000 killed in Bosnia’s “ethnic cleansing” between 1992 and 1995? The 2 million executed, starved, or worked to death in Cambodia starting in 1975? The .5 million hacked to death or burned alive during Partition? Or, for heaven’s sake, the 11 million who died during the Holocaust under Nazi rule? And going back to perhaps one of the first genocides of the 20th century, the mass killings of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish beginning in 1915? What about them?

Targets change, weapons improve, but ordinary people are now and always have been quite capable of torture and mass murder. Evil, it seems, is part of the human heart.

In saying this, I am not arguing that we are all just sinners, hopelessly seduced by that devil. Evil, at least in my mind, is a complicated matter. It is worth making an effort to understand  These are my questions:

Why do some people carry out evil acts?

Why do some engage in more extreme acts of evil than others?

Why do these events occur more at some times than others?

How is it that some people—and not others—take a stand against evil, often at great personal risk to themselves?

This Travelodge in Oceanside was shut down in 2011 because of its use in sex trafficking by gang members.
This Travelodge in Oceanside was shut down in 2011 because of its use in sex trafficking by gang members.

Since I was about 13 years old, I have been deeply and abidingly interested in these questions. While an adolescent Stephen Hawking may have started searching for a unified theory of physics at that age, I started looking for a unified theory of evil. We need to understand the worlds we live in, and mine was for many years almost unrelentingly evil.

It might help to tell a little of my story. My dad molested me from the time I can remember. When I was two, he raped me with a pair of scissors. Like many sociopaths, he killed animals from time to time—usually in front of me—and at least once insisted I kill as well. His aim was not only to frighten, but to corrupt.

Before I was school-aged, my mother assaulted me multiple times—a few times by strangling, once with a pair of kitchen knives, once with a kitchen chair. I have incoherent memories of being dunked head-first in water—the tub or the toilet. I think she did that. But I don’t know.

To discipline me, one or both of them shut me up in a freezer until I lost consciousness. Alternatively, they chained me blindfolded to a wall in the garage, at times without any clothes on. In the garage, I was fed spoiled food, crawling with bugs, or no food at all and refused access to a toilet.

At the same time, my father was also my pimp. For 11 years, I serviced the perverted desires of pedophiles, mainly in a variety of cheap hotels, but also at home or in the homes of his friends. In addition, I performed sporadically in child pornography—both still and filmed.

I grew up in hell and the devil lived there.

Except these were people. People did these things, and in some cases, a lot of people. Unlike my mother, who acted impulsively and alone, my father was intelligent, organized, and apparently well-connected. For the most part, he abused me in the context of organizations that were systematically abusing other children and employed a variety of people—as actors and film crew, hotel managers, maintenance and janitorial workers, and human traffickers.

This was not simply the product of a single, unbalanced mind going over the edge, nor was it the result of a few people getting greedy and slipping into amoral behavior. There were too many of them—both consumers and producers—for these to be adequately understood as isolated incidents or as the work of the 1% of the population who simply lack conscience. Some of this is about ordinary people committing unbelievably, horrifyingly evil acts..

This blog is not so much the place where I am telling my story, as the place where I work to understand those stories. And also where I try to heal the scars.

Thanks for being here with me.