Saturday, September 15, 2018

Showing Teachers No Respect

On the cover of this week's Time magazine, there is a story I know about from first-hand experience: how little most teachers are paid. As the teacher on the cover says, "I work 3 jobs, and donate blood plasma to pay the bills."  She's not alone, and she's not exaggerating. In lots of cities, teachers (many with Master's degrees) are paid such low wages that they can barely make ends meet.  And it's not because these teachers are spendthrifts with expensive tastes-- far from it. Many are not only barely getting by-- they are forced to pay for school supplies out of their own pockets, as budget cuts affect some of the most vulnerable in our society... the kids who are trying to get a good education. 

While certain politicians boast about our great economy, they're omitting an important fact: wages in many industries have remained flat.  And nowhere is that more true than for teachers.  Reports from the non-partisan Department of Education show that teachers are one group of workers whose wages have stagnated the most.  In fact, when we adjust for inflation, teachers are earning less today than they did in 1990.  In some fields, educated professionals are seeing their wages rise.  But teachers in all too many cities are seeing theirs decline.  Worse yet, per-pupil spending has also declined, leaving all too many students stuck in dilapidated buildings, using old books. (And as I mentioned before, I know for a fact that many teachers have to pay for supplies themselves, or their students will go without.)  You can read more about the situation here:  http://time.com/magazine/us/5394910/september-24th-2018-vol-192-no-12-u-s/

I am a big fan of a charitable organization called Donors Choose, which allows people to donate money for school supplies and books.  I donate often, and I'm happy to do so; I'm glad I can help some hardworking teachers to get materials they need for their classrooms.  But I have often wondered why adequately funding our schools, and paying teachers a respectable wage, is something many states have decided is not a priority.  In some states, it's political: there are many conservative politicians who oppose teachers' unions and dislike the idea of public schools, and as a result, they have waged a war on public school teachers. But in other states, it's simply the result of wrongheaded decisions that waste money on some areas while depriving others of much-needed funds.

I understand that it has become customary for some folks to criticize public education. I wish they wouldn't.  Public schools have long been a part of American life (we have one in Boston that goes back to 1635), and many of us have benefited from attending them.  I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for the public schools, and I don't think I'm the only one who would say that.  And yes, I know there are some poorly-run schools, and yes I know there are some bad teachers-- but they are NOT the majority. All over the country, devoted and hardworking educators work tirelessly to make a difference for our kids. They are often not just teachers but mentors, counselors, and even mom or dad surrogates.  Teachers not only receive inadequate pay, but as a society, we rarely express our appreciation for what they are doing.   

Frankly, I think our priorities are somewhat skewed. We will spend money on building a big stadium for the local pro football team; and we will pay a college football coach triple what the average teacher (or professor) makes.  But when it comes to education, somehow there's just not enough money; and when it comes to new books or school supplies, some districts provide them, but others don't. And caught in the middle are the kids who want to learn, and the teachers who want to teach them.

This shouldn't be about politics, and it shouldn't be about public schools versus charter schools. While policy-makers debate where the money should go, the first priority should be improving all the schools, and giving all students the opportunity to learn.  But in too many places, educating our kids is treated like a burden or an expense. It shouldn't be either; it's an investment in our future as a society.  Few teachers get into education expecting to become rich; but a living wage would be nice, as would enough school supplies.  I can't think of a more important calling than being a teacher; if only our policy-makers agreed, because if they did, they'd show teachers a lot more respect.

Friday, August 31, 2018

What's In a Name?-- John McCain Edition

He was called a "giant of the Senate" by both Republicans and Democrats, and referred to as a man who "inspired universal admiration."  At his funeral, dignitaries praised him for his many accomplishments (especially his support of the military) as they looked back on his 40-year career as one of congress's most effective leaders. Within months after he died, a key federal building was named after him:  the Russell Senate Building, honoring the late Georgia Senator Richard Brevard Russell Jr.

Of course, not everyone thought Mr. Russell was such an amazing person. Agreed, he championed the National School Lunch Program and helped to establish what later became known as the Center for Disease Control; he chaired the Armed Services Committee for years, and was thought of as an expert in military policy. But he was also an ardent segregationist, who repeatedly voted against, or tried to block, civil rights legislation, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He even opposed the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling that ended school segregation. Despite this, his senate colleagues believed there were many reasons he deserved recognition, and in 1972, naming the US Senate building after him made sense.

But in 2018, it makes no sense at all.  For one thing, it's no longer considered admirable to be an ardent segregationist. Yes, I know that even now, there are some white supremacists who have a devoted following (especially online); I also understand that many years ago, Senator Russell's racist views were far more common.  But I'd like to believe that times have changed.  I sincerely doubt a politician with openly segregationist views could rise to power in the senate today the way they could (and did) in previous generations.  It's also true that since the late 1960s, more people of color have entered politics, becoming governors, mayors of major cities, representatives, presidential candidates, and yes, President of the United States. In 1972, there were only 13 African-American members of congress; there are 50 today, and there may soon be more.

So why are some Republican members of congress resisting the idea to rename the senate building after another "giant of the Senate"-- the late John McCain? This should be a no-brainer. John McCain was a war hero, who spent more than three decades as a senator; he was true to his beliefs, a reliably Republican and conservative vote nearly all the time, and was very popular with his constituents. But unfortunately, he was not popular with Donald Trump, with whom he publicly disagreed on several policy matters (Senator McCain also objected to the president's crass and sometimes-vulgar way of speaking). Mr. Trump rarely missed an opportunity to criticize or mock Mr. McCain; the president didn't even send out a tribute to the senator's years of service as he lay dying. (And if Mr. Trump doesn't like someone, that means his base doesn't like that person either; this evidently concerns Republicans who want to be re-elected.)

I'm not a big fan of John McCain's politics; I am neither Republican nor conservative, and he was both.  He also supported some issues, such as the War in Iraq, that I did not.  But here's what I respected about Mr. McCain.  For one thing, he was among the few politicians who was willing to admit when he was wrong about an issue-- such as when he originally opposed establishing a holiday to honor Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and later came to regret that vote and apologize for it.  And during the presidential campaign in 2008, when one of his supporters accused then-Senator Obama of being a Muslim and implied he wasn't an American, Mr. McCain promptly refuted those assertions and said Mr. Obama was a "decent man, a family man," but someone with whom he just had policy differences. And throughout his career, as political polarization worsened, John McCain had friends who were Democrats; he sometimes worked with them on issues like campaign finance reform.

Whether President Trump liked John McCain or not shouldn't matter.  It seems to me that continuing to defend a building named for a segregationist is wrong. So is refusing to honor Senator McCain's many years in the senate to avoid offending Mr. Trump or alienating his base.  There are many Democrats who didn't agree with Senator McCain much, but they thought of him as an ethical person who cared deeply about the Senate and wanted to do right for his constituents.  It's time for Republicans in congress to do the right thing now and rename the Russell Senate Building to honor Senator McCain, sooner rather than later.     

    

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Random Acts of Kindness, Neil Diamond Edition

It was a Thursday night in mid-October 1971, as I recall. And while I may be wrong about the date, I still remember the exciting opportunity I had: I was about to interview Neil Diamond.  A friend of mine, who was a top-40 deejay, was the host of a history of rock and roll called "Retro Rock," on ABC Radio's American Contemporary Radio Network, and he needed some quotes for a feature we were going to do about Neil's music. Thanks to my friend, I had become a writer and researcher for "Retro Rock." And while ABC radio wouldn't let me on the air (girls were still a rarity on top-40 radio), it was fun to hear what I wrote getting put to good use. 

Back then, Neil Diamond was not known for mellow pop music; he did some really good top-40 rock songs and he had a number of hits. I loved some of those songs, especially "Solitary Man" and "Kentucky Woman."  I also liked some of his more introspective songs like "Brooklyn Roads" and "Shilo." And now, I was going backstage to meet him.

I'll admit it:  I was really, really nervous. I mean, I had spent three years in college radio, but I didn't meet any famous people. Neil Diamond was larger than life to me. I didn't want to make a fool of myself, especially when my friend had worked so hard to help me get an interview.  I wanted to make a good impression, and I wanted to get the information for the episode of "Retro Rock."

I don't recall much about the interview itself; I must have gotten the right quotes, because the episode about Neil's work did get on the air. But something else happened. We were talking, and he asked me about myself-- and for some reason, I told him. I said it was a very frustrating time for me, career-wise. While being an anonymous writer was okay, what I really wanted to do was be on the air; but because I was female, nobody would give me a chance.  And other than my friend, few people in radio took me seriously.  It was probably unprofessional for me to talk about myself. But it was a moment, and I felt like he genuinely wanted to know, so I told him.

What happened next was a surprise. He gave me a hug and said something encouraging, telling me not to give up.  And he signed the tour book I brought with me, with a very heart-felt autograph next to the lyrics of "I Am... I Said."  He wrote: "She was... she said. And no-one heard at all... except me."

Years later, I still have that tour book. I doubt Neil Diamond remembers that evening, and unless he reads my blog (which I also doubt), he has no way of knowing that although it took another couple of years, I finally did get on the air and I ended up having the career I always wanted-- including meeting a large number of famous (and nearly famous) people, discovering a certain Canadian rock band, and doing all kinds of interviews with all kinds of entertainers.

I tell you this story because I remember Neil Diamond's kindness even though it was nearly fifty years ago. There's a message here, and it's worth keeping in mind:  sometimes, when you least expect it, someone will reach out and say what you need to hear; or someone will show you compassion where there hadn't been much before.  It may not be somebody famous, but that's not the point. These random acts of kindness can make a difference. In fact, maybe you'll be that someone. Maybe you'll be the one to reach out and encourage a person who needs a kind word.  And when it seems like nobody cares, maybe you'll be the one to let someone know that's not true, the way a famous singer did when he reached out to a young and inexperienced writer one evening in 1971.    

     

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Who Are the "Best and the Brightest"?

Most of you never met my maternal grandfather. His Yiddish name was Shmu'el Feivel (which became Samuel Philip) and according to his immigration documents, he arrived in the United States from Lithuania in 1910.  Back then, European Jews were being persecuted or treated harshly, and their economic opportunities were limited. And so, like many immigrants from many countries, he decided to seek a better life in America.

My grandfather was a tailor. He came here speaking perhaps two words of English, and while he was a quick learner, till the day he died, he spoke it with a heavy accent. He never got rich, he never became famous, but he adapted well to his new country; he got married, had three kids (one of whom was my mother), and was probably pleased that in America, he was no longer treated like he had been in the old country.

But I wonder if he would even be admitted today, given our president saying we need to move to a "merit-based" system of immigration.  Did my grandfather have sufficient merit?  After all, he was not very educated, didn't speak English, and had very little money. Further, he did not know any people in the US who could vouch for the fact that he would work hard and cause no problem to anyone.  He believed, as many immigrants did back then, that America was a nation of immigrants, and he believed that if given a chance, he could make a good life here, for himself and the family he hoped to have.

Beyond the debate over what to do about "the border," and how undocumented immigrants should be treated, there is another story that is getting far less coverage. Mr. Trump wants to restrict legal immigration. He wants to change the policy so that America will only admit the "best and the brightest." The policy he has proposed would cut legal immigration nearly in half, something we have not seen in decades. Currently, the number of immigrants being given visas has dropped by about 12% during his first two years in office; but he wants it to drop even more. He has stated that his ultimate goal is to “curb the flow of low-skilled workers into the United States.”

By those standards, I would not be writing this blog post today, since my grandfather, a "low-skilled worker," would not have been allowed to move here, and my mother would never have been born here either. I find it troubling that the country that once gave unskilled workers from other countries a chance to contribute to the US economy (which, by the way, is still desperate for immigrant labor: many industries are eager to hire them) now suddenly says only geniuses with PhDs need apply.

I hope the president will rethink his position. Today's low-skilled worker may have a family that includes high-achieving kids; or that worker may get the chance to go to school and acquire the skills he or she did not have before.  It's hard to predict how things will turn out, of course. But this much I know: the vast majority of the folks who have come here have been an asset, not a liability. It would be a shame if people who are seeking a better life, like my grandfather did, will now be told they should not seek it here. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Moving Beyond the Stereotypes

When I was in high school, we studied some of Shakespeare's plays. The one that had the greatest impact on me (and not in a good way) was "The Merchant of Venice." Some of you may remember it. The central character, and villain, is the moneylender, Shylock the Jew.  And while there are a couple of verses where Shakespeare does try to humanize him, the vast majority of the play depicts him as exactly what people in Shakespeare's day thought all Jews were-- greedy, dishonest, obsessed with petty rules, and incapable of compassion. Given that England had long ago banned the Jews from living there unless they converted to Christianity, it's likely that Shakespeare and his audience had never met an actual Jew. But everyone certainly knew the myths about the Jews, and Shylock exemplified every single one.   

As much as I liked several of Shakespeare's other plays ("King Lear" was, and still is, my favorite), the blatantly anti-Jewish stereotypes in "The Merchant of Venice" really bothered me. But what upset me even more was that I was the only one who was bothered. My teacher and everyone else in the class were Christians, and they did not see a problem with the text at all. (Back then, many of those stereotypes were still commonly accepted in the popular culture.)  Thus, when I tried to explain my reaction to the depiction of Shylock, I'm not sure anyone understood why I was upset.

Yes, undoubtedly there have been greedy moneylenders in history, and I cannot deny that some may have been Jewish.  But many others were not: moneylenders have existed in every culture, and no one religion or ethnic group holds a monopoly on this occupation (or on being greedy). What bothered me in high school, and what still bothers me even now, is when someone has behaved in an offensive manner, certain people will immediately claim that ALL members of that group behave that way.  And when you try to defend your particular group, those people will believe the stereotype and say you are just the exception.    

It's easy to generalize about an entire group; it's harder to get to know them as individuals. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen enough:  surveys show that too many of us mainly hang around with people who look like us, believe like us, and even vote like us. No wonder myths and stereotypes persist.  I wish more of us could step back from our preconceived notions, stop misrepresenting each other's views, and make a genuine effort to understand how others see the world. That's probably why I remember that high school incident, and the feeling of not being understood, whenever I'm on social media and someone sends around a meme or a cherry-picked quote intended to show what [pick one] all immigrants, or all African-Americans, or all Muslims, or all Jews are really like.

I see similar generalizations in our politics too: I cannot tell you how many Democrats are firmly convinced that ALL Trump supporters are racists and bigots; and there are just as many Republicans who sincerely believe that ALL Democrats are judgmental hypocrites.  I often get Tweets accusing me of being a "typical liberal" (whatever that means), and I am sure my Republican friends get Tweets accusing them of being "typical conservatives."  And this is where we seem to be-- stuck in our stereotypes, unable (or unwilling) to move beyond them.  I used to be a deejay (and as a professor, I still make my living from talking), yet from what I've seen, I truly believe we could all benefit from listening more and talking less.

Fortunately, I know some people who do listen, who are both inclusive and tolerant.  But I know even more who are quick to dismiss (or mock) anyone whose reaction is different from theirs.  Social media has definitely made it easier to do that, and some of the political rhetoric we hear isn't helping. But if we're living in a culture of stereotype and blame, why be satisfied with it? Shouldn't we want things to change? I may seem naive to suggest this, but I believe we can (and should) improve how we communicate.  It starts with being willing to listen rather than argue.  Given our different backgrounds, I don't expect us to agree on everything; but at least we can try to respect each other, can't we?  So, I invite you to reach out to someone who can offer you an entirely different perspective. It may not be what you're accustomed to, but you may find yourself learning something new.  And if more of us take the time to do that, perhaps society will become a little less polarized than it currently is.       

Saturday, June 30, 2018

What You Need to Know About "Fake News"

I generally try to be courteous when I blog, but I have to admit I'm really fed up with the ongoing verbal attacks on the media. I've mentioned my dismay about it on Twitter & Facebook, but some folks told me angrily that the media deserve it because "they lie all the time." That's an opinion I find puzzling. I know many honest and honorable reporters who don't lie at all, yet they are receiving not just hate mail but death threats on a regular basis.  We all know what happened in Annapolis the other day, and while I am not blaming any one person, we do have a polarized culture, and it has become very worrisome to many of us. But despite the obstacles, my journalist friends continue to tirelessly do their jobs.  I say they deserve our thanks, rather than our scorn.    

Among the most common accusations thrown at journalists is that they constantly spread "fake news."  Studies show that large numbers of Republicans are firmly convinced of this, and I'm aware that nothing I say in this blog will change anyone's mind. But I'd like to put this belief in context, if possible.  While today, it has taken on a partisan slant, the idea that you can't trust the press is actually quite old. In fact, we can find critics complaining about "fake news" more than 120 years ago.  Consider Frederick Burr Opper, an American cartoonist whose work has long since been forgotten by most of us. But in March 1894, he used a cartoon to comment on the rise of sensationalism and exaggeration in the journalism of his time, and to remark on what he saw as a disturbing trend-- and he referred to this trend as "fake news."  Yes, that was a thing even in the 1890s, a decade when certain publishers were using their newspapers to intentionally mislead the public, creating outrage in order to sell newspapers, or trying to affect government policies.  (You can read more about that period of time here:  https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/yellow-journalism-the-fake-news-of-the-19th-century/)

More recently, there was a resurgence of the term "fake news" during the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, during both Republican and Democratic presidencies, media critics were using the term "fake news" when discussing misleading reports broadcast on programs that were supposedly fact-based.  For example, TV Guide, not known as a political publication, featured a cover story about this in 1992-- author David Lieberman used the term to refer to stories that purported to be "news," but were actually cleverly-produced and corporate-funded publicity features-- created to promote a product or to sway public opinion on a hot-button issue.

In the early 2000s, President Bush became a frequent user of these features, known in the industry as VNRs ("Video News Releases"), when he was promoting the War in Iraq. But he wasn't the only one. Many TV stations and newspapers also made use of VNRs, citing them in their coverage as if these features were neutral and factual, when they were really one-sided advocacy pieces. The failure to identify some spokespeople as paid industry advocates, and to differentiate their advocacy from objective reporting became an ongoing problem, one we still have today.

So, since we live in a time when the term "fake news" gets thrown around a lot, let me be very clear about what it is, and what it isn't. First, here's what "fake news" is: An intentional effort to mislead the public, either by making up quotes, distorting/misrepresenting what someone said, or inventing events that never really happened.  Fake news is often inflammatory, because it is intended to stir up partisan outrage. And if it isn't making up quotes entirely, it often rips them from their actual context and then uses them to make a partisan point, relying on the fact that most people do not check the entire quote to see what the person really said, or what they really meant.  Fake news also relies on cherry-picking facts-- making a one-off incident seem like it happens all the time, or making a fringe figure into someone who represent all members of that party or that group.

As for what "fake news" is not-- it's not news that President Trump (or any politician from either party) doesn't like. It's not an unintended or accidental mistake that a reporter corrects and apologizes for. It's not news that doesn't agree with your views. And it's not "anything that's on [pick the channel you personally distrust]."  A word here also needs to be said about the difference between reporters and commentators: reporters are the ones who are trained to be objective and fair to the facts, and they tend to leave their personal views out of the story.  A commentator is hired to be one-sided and to express his or her opinions on that topic or that issue, whether those opinions are based on facts or not. Many people confuse the two groups: Fox News has reporters (generally fact-based) and so do CNN and MSNBC.  But they also have commentators (sometimes fact-free, and very passionate about their personal views on the subject).

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: in a democracy, we need good reporters to hold the powerful accountable, and to keep us informed about news we might not otherwise get. I understand why partisan politicians want you to distrust the press: if you can be persuaded to ask no questions and to believe ONLY your favorite politician (or rely ONLY on partisan media sources), it's easier to get your support for certain policies, and it's easier for that political party to remain in power.  But while encouraging distrust of journalists is great for politicians, it's really bad for the country as a whole.  So, rather than demonizing reporters, respect what they are trying to do; and let them seek out the facts, whether the facts are popular or not.  It's not easy to be a journalist, especially in our angry and polarized world. But as Thomas Jefferson wrote back in 1787, "...were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."  I couldn't agree more.       


Friday, June 15, 2018

What Does It Mean to be "Too Old"?

I just read an article in the Boston Globe, and it really resonated with me. No, it wasn't about politics or rock & roll or the media (the three subjects I most frequently read, and blog, about).  The article was about what it's like to be considered "too old," in a society that worships youth, one that seems very conflicted about where Baby Boomers should belong.

Since I'm 71, I know from first-hand experience about the double messages that folks in their 60s and 70s receive.  On the one hand, we're told it's never too late to take a course or support a cause. There are many politicians (including our current president and a number of members of congress) in our age group; there are also some popular 1960s and 1970s rock stars who still make new albums or even go out on tour.  A number of popular actors and actresses are in that older demographic too.  Jokes that mock older Americans for being senile or clueless are no longer staples of TV comedies, the way they used to be. And the word "elderly" has been replaced by a kinder euphemism, "senior citizen."

But on the other hand, we are constantly bombarded with images of attractive and photogenic young fashion models, product representatives, athletes, entertainers, and couples. Commercials aimed at the younger demographic are about life's many choices: new cars, new homes, new relationships, the newest devices. Contrast that with commercials aimed at the older consumer: most of them treat being older as a problem to be endured, or to be addressed with pharmaceuticals (or with products like Depends). 

In the Boston Globe article, there's a 65 year old guy who hasn't been able to find full-time work since the recession of 2008-2009 cost him and so many others their jobs in the telecom industry. So, he works part-time at a coffee shop, much to his frustration. He feels like he still has a lot to give, and he keeps going out on interviews; but wherever he goes, the reaction is the same: the folks doing the interviewing are often much younger than he is, and they seem to feel he is too old to fit in with their company's corporate culture.  (You can read the article here: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/06/14/help-wanted-but-not-from-older-workers-many-struggle-find-jobs-employers-post-openings/CIQgOC1AYXqlGIFtZWkcHN/story.html?)

As I said, I'm 71.  Fortunately, I don't look it.  And while I am not a technological wizard, I am fairly well acquainted with the newest products; I'm on social media regularly, and I'd like to believe I'm still capable of learning something new-- after all, I got my PhD when I was 64.  But the guy quoted in the Globe story could easily have been me.  I spent more than three decades in broadcasting, and when media consolidation occurred in the early 1990s, thousands of us, myself among them, lost jobs that we dearly loved.  In my case, I had planned ahead: I was already doing some part-time college teaching, and when radio was no longer available to me, I reinvented myself as a college professor.

Getting my PhD was not easy; it took me nine years (I was teaching full-time as an adjunct professor, and then I drove 100 miles out to the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, where I took the courses I needed, a couple at a time).  But I had the advantage of having been a broadcaster, as well as publishing several books and many articles. There were a few universities that looked beyond my chronological age and focused on my credentials and my skill-set.  And while I do not make the kind of money I used to make, I am happy to have a regular source of income, and to get paid for teaching about something I enjoy-- media history and media analysis.

But if I had not been able to translate my expertise into a new profession, I too might be working part-time at a coffee shop.  There's nothing wrong with that, of course; but the guy in the article has years of tech experience, and nobody will give him a chance to use it, or let him prove that he is up-to-date on today's technology. This seems like a waste of talent, and there are so many other people in his situation. While politicians love to brag about a good economy, the truth is that some folks are always left behind. In this case, many of the people left out are Baby Boomers, people in their 60s and 70s who still want to be employed, still want to make a difference, and are finding nothing but obstacles.

I understand that sometimes, it's necessary for older workers to step aside and give younger workers a chance to shine.  But what about the older workers who love to work and genuinely feel they have something to offer? Should they be arbitrarily pushed aside? And what about the older workers who have financial problems and still need a regular paycheck? There are more of them than you might think.  As for me, I'm glad that I can still bring in a paycheck; and at this point, I cannot imagine retiring.  But I also understand that not everyone shares my desire to keep working. Conversely, I empathize with those who just want a chance, and nobody believes they should have one because they are perceived as "too old."