A Version of a Speech I Need to Give My Students Tomorrow

Okay guys, I’m floundering. I need your help.

About the only thing I know about this class is its frickin’ title: How to Combat Online Bullshit. When I came up with it, I had a whole idea about learning all about fake news — how it’s created, how it spreads, what kind of effects it can have — and then teaching you how to combat it.

The problem is, I don’t know if you care about fake news. I want you to feel a sense of righteous indignation toward it, but at least two of you don’t. I don’t really understand why, because my own righteous indignation is so close to the surface.

I make my living trying to get young people to understand and examine certain truths about the world, not truths that I necessarily have access to, but truths that I have received. One of those truths is that democracy is good; another is that democracy is hard; and another is that an enlightened electorate is the only weapon capable of of defending it. If that weapon gets any weaker, then the great experiment that is America will come to an ignoble end.

You two, the ones who are throwing me for a loop in this class, you two are still two or three years away from joining the electorate. But me and him, we’re already there.

And both of us are telling you that the information you find on the Internet is often completely fake, regardless of how real it may sound. I suspect (I hope) you already believe that, but I’m not entirely sure you understand the ramifications of it.

There’s something else I’m not sure about: I don’t know how much you read, or if you do, what kinds of things you might read.

When I conceived of this class, I made (and continue to make) an awful lot of assumptions about you, and I realize now that one of them is that you care (at least somewhat) about some of the events that are taking place beyond your own lives. That may have been a mistake.

Some basic knowledge of current events is necessary if I’m to rile up that righteous indignation I assumed you would already have. But if you don’t have this basic knowledge — if you don’t at least somewhat depend on the news to guide your understanding of reality — then you have no context from which to draw your anger from; you simply have no idea that we are currently being attack by an onslaught of verifiably intentionally-fake news.

Which means we need to go back to step one.

The purpose of a high-school education is, primarily, to prepare the future citizens of this country to continue the great experiment that we call democracy. Anything you learn above and beyond that in high school is just gravy.

But the key ingredient to democracy is, again, an enlightened electorate. And in order to cultivate that, I need you to become critical of everything you read, hear, and watch — I need you to become critical of media.

Because that’s where the battle is being fought now. It’s where democracy is currently being attacked. This is not hyperbole. This shit is actually going on.

Russia, that great enemy of my childhood, is literally attacking our country, and almost everyone has a reasonable suspicion that Russia may have even compromised the Chief Executive of our government, a possibility that is being diligently investigated by an incredibly powerful — and by all accounts, highly ethical — civil attorney, as well as by some of the more patriotic members of Congress. Reality is now literally a bad 80s movie that has been reboot for the 21st century, where the writers have replaced nuclear bombs with information bombs.

I shit you not.

My question to you is, “What character do you want to play in that movie?” Do you want to be someone shoveling your own shit in the background, or do you want to be someone driving the enemy all the way back to its capitol?

In the 21st century, heroes may not jump out of helicopters; they may work quietly and furiously on a laptop; but the dangers are just as real. The same menacing villain, a former high-ranking officer in the menacing KGB, is directing the same group of menacing bastards to train their sights on America. Behind it all stands a shadowy group of menacing rich bastards, luxuriating in the arrogance of their wealth, while in front of it all, the same innocent victims fall prey.

It’s up to somebody to stop them. Why shouldn’t that someone be you?

If it’s not, that means you’ve opted to become just another victim, and that  means America’s great experiment in democracy has failed.

I’ll say it again. Our democracy is really and truly under attack — not by some shadow terrorist, but by another sovereign nation whose military may not be as evolved as ours, but whose ability to engage in information warfare seems to be operating on a completely different level.

You’re both going to be 18 soon, which means, first, you’ll be eligible to participate in our democracy, and second, that you’ll be eligible to fight for it.

I want to teach you what the fight is actually about, and then teach you to defend yourself and throw a punch. I have the skills to do that.

But first, you have to show me what you know.

A Gift From Me To You

Today I asked my students, “What are you doing? Like, seriously, what are you doing?”

It didn’t take them long to get it. Some understood within seconds, others took a few seconds longer. One of my students presents as severely autistic, but even he understood the severity of my question.

What, in fact, were they doing? Not just right now, but also, only right now: what were they doing with their lives?

I only asked because the night before, I asked myself that same question. I was not being judgy. I did not ask it with a harsh tone. Sitting on the back porch, looking up at the stars, I simply wanted to know: what was I doing with my life.

I’m grateful to be able to say I was proud of my answer.

I am talking to people.

I talk to my wife as often as I can.

I talk to my daughter about everything we can imagine.

I talk to my boss; I talk to my coworkers — I consider all of them my friends, and some of them among my closest friends.

I talk to people I haven’t seen in days, weeks, months, and years, family members, high school and college friends, people I once met somewhere and only for that once.

I talk to people on Facebook when I’m able, even if only by liking what they’ve shared.

I talk to my students in honest and authentic ways about anything I think might help.

I talk to you — whoever you are — to let you know you’re not alone.

I’m proud of what I do. I get to talk to people as openly and as honestly as I can about anything and everything that any of us can imagine (with our fluid imaginations…get it?).

I asked my students that question because I wondered if they believe they have a gift, and if they do,  if they’ve discovered how best to use it.

My daughter’s fifth birthday is next week. On Sunday, we took her to her first concert, the Grand Point North festival on the public lakefront in Burlington, Vermont. One of her favorite bands appeared on the setlist, as did one of mine. It seemed like kismet, and so my wife and I decided to make the concert her birthday gift…

(for the record, I would have taken her to the festival even if one of my favorite bands wasn’t playing, and I told my wife we could leave the show well before the time limit she had set for the evening, which meant I missed more than half of my favorite band’s set — I’m not complaining, I’m just saying…I didn’t get my daughter this gift just because I wanted to play with it too 🙂

…and she loved it. She was a little hesitant at first, but once her favorite band started to play, she loosened up, and by the end of the night she was dancing on the lawn, swinging glowsticks, and chasing a red balloon. In addition, she got to have two bowls of ice cream at two different times during the night; she ate her favorite food — cheese pizza (made entirely from Vermont-grown and Vermont-harvested ingredients, though she didn’t know it) — while sitting on the rocks and watching the Sun set over the waters of Lake Champlain and the peaks of the Adirondack mountains. She got to throw large stones into the lake for a really long time. And she spent an entire evening with her mommy and daddy, who are genuinely her two most favorite people on the planet.

It was an evening that was wholly gratuitous. She received all that the world had to offer her — music, food, family, community, and the natural beauty that comes from the interaction of water, the Earth, the sky, and the Sun — in a word: she received love.

It cost her nothing. She asked for nothing. And it was simply given.

That is what it means to have a gift. She received that gift from us, and now, rich with the world’s extraneous grace, she is prepared to offer it to someone else.

Everyone has a gift like that.

It’s that thing that comes out of you that seems to mean something to someone else. That gratuitous grace that is yours to give.

That’s your gift.

And every day you should do two contradictory things with it: give it away and cultivate more of it to grow.

So now, rich with the knowledge of your gift, I ask you, “What are you doing? Like seriously, what are you doing?”

There’s More To Sex Ed Than Just Sex

How do you teach 14, 15, and 16-year-old boys not to objectify women?

I suspect the answer lies in empathy. You have to get them to understand what it feels like to become an object. That’s the only thing that would work. They’d have to step outside of their own lust and imagine being the unwilling object of that lust.

But you couldn’t approach something like that head on; they’d  laugh you out of the room. You couldn’t approach it from a perspective of media criticism either, because the concept would be too abstract for them to grasp it. You’d have to come at it on the sly, sneak it in under the cover of something else.

The something else couldn’t be academic, not for the kids I’m talking about, the ones whose ignorant state of objectifying women could eventually lead to the criminal stage of assaulting them.

An easy answer is literature and film, since the best lessons are often communicated in the language of story — but again, not for the kids I’m talking about, the ones who don’t read and who can’t sit still long enough to watch a whole movie.

So what is the hard answer? How do you teach 14, 15, and 16 year old boys not to objectify women?

Is it the kind of job that requires a woman to lead it, or maybe two women in tandem, or maybe a combination of the sexes, one to speak from the experience of the object and the other from the experience of the objectifier?

And if, for want of the students’ maturity, you can’t approach it head on, then how best to approach it?

Or maybe, in this instance, you just have to push past the maturity question and treat the subject as honestly as you’d treat math. Not by hiding it in something else, but by saying, straight up, “We’re going to talk about objectifying women,” and let the conversation go as it may, immaturity and all, until you finally get enough buy in on the seriousness of the topic that even a 14, 15, or 16-year-old boy will know enough to pay attention.

One out of every six women in America will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. Nearly one in every two women will be the victim of some kind of sexual assault other than rape in her lifetime. Nearly 25% of rape perpetrators are under the age of 20.

This part of a young man’s education matters. And because it affects the way the person treats 50% of the world’s population, maybe it matters more than most other elements of their education.

If we’re to stop the violence on women, we need to do it by curing the systemic causes in our 14, 15, and 16-year-old boys. They are tomorrow’s college students and criminals, and they need to understand the difference between biological lust and the interpersonal violence that comes from sexual objectification.

It’s too important to leave out.

Freedom Isn’t Easy

I could tell you a lot of cool things about my school, but yesterday, the sheriff’s department escorted one of our students out of our school in handcuffs; and earlier this year, one of our former students (who had dropped out) was shot in the head while sitting in a parked car at two in the morning; and one of the people in the car when the gun went off was also a former student, and he went to prison soon after because, by being in the car that night, he violated his parole; and earlier last year, two other former students were accused (though not convicted) of stealing from their employers, with each incident independent from the other.

No matter how cool our school might be, the truth is that we attract some difficult kids, and while we try to provide them with every opportunity to take control of their education and, in the process, gain control of their lives, too many of them find the freedom too difficult to handle.

One of my students told me yesterday that they feel like they’re living in a role-playing game because even for the simplest of decisions, they sometimes roll a die to decide what they should do. When the student told me this, they were thinking of episodes in their life where they actually, physically rolled a six-sided die, but they were not connecting this anecdote to their immediate reality, wherein they were seated on the floor, consulting a new-age ripoff of Tarot cards for insight into their current predicament. They honestly didn’t see a connection between their inability to make simple decisions and their desire to seek out answers to life’s problems in a deck of commercially produced and professionally marketed cards.

Earlier in the class, for reasons I don’t need to go into, I found myself having to explain to this same student the market forces that lead to SPAM phone calls and emails, a conversation that resulted in the student returning a SPAM phone call they had received earlier in the day to demand an answer from the telemarketer as to how her company acquired the student’s phone number. The conversation did not go well; my student was being earnest and the telemarketer refused to budge from her script, leading me to have to provide explicit instructions as to how and why my student should simply hang up the phone, regardless of whether the telemarketer was done speaking on the other end.

All of which is to say that most of the students who come to my school have difficulty with the simplest things. It’s not that they are dumb — in fact, most of the kids I work with are incredibly bright — it’s that some simple but important things about living in society do not click into place for them like they do for you and me. They just don’t get it, and unfortunately, some of them never will.

We designed our school for one mission: to provide every student, regardless of their abilities, with the opportunity to be interested and engaged in their own education (including their social-emotional education). But so many of our students come to us without being interested or engaged in anything beyond their own drama, or what’s worse, their own trauma, which makes them unable to stay out of their own way.

Our tactic to overcome this is both simple and incredibly hard: We try to make them feel safe. At bottom, that means safe not just from something, but also to become something. The kids who come to us have rarely heard an encouraging word; they’ve been told they are worthless, and in some cases, they’ve been abandoned by their dearest family members, literally left alone in the world with no one to protect or care for them.

It’s no wonder they have trouble making decisions. They have zero self-confidence, and so they don’t trust themselves. Every decision they’ve ever made has led them to where they are now: kicked out of almost every school they’ve ever attended — some residential, some not, some institutional, some not — told that they don’t belong, told to get out, told that they’re a freak of some kind. Their parents, if they’re around, are rarely worth much, and what they are worth is often compounded with negative interest in their kids, which can often mean verbal, physical, or sometimes even sexual abuse, resulting in the child experiencing incredible pain and suffering at the hands of the people society tells them are supposed to love them more than anyone.

Why would they trust themselves? Why would they trust anyone?

And then we come along, offering these students with incredibly acute social-emotional needs a true progressive model of education — one that is student-centered and student-driven, where they’re asked not to do as they’re told but, instead, to do as they think they ought to.

What do we expect will happen? That they’ll all start singing kumbaya, and butterflies will descend from the heavens, and within days, they’ll each be as happy and as engaged as the students on a college brochure?

No. What we expect to happen is what happened today. One student will be escorted from the building in handcuffs. Another will have such an emotional crisis that they will collapse to the ground shaking and in tears. Another will scream so loud on the drive to school that their driver will have an actual panic attack in the car and be unable to feel her hands and feet. Another will refuse to comply with even the simplest of requests, choosing instead to physically wrestle with their teacher. Still others will actively avoid your best advice and refuse to work on the projects they need to exhibit publicly in just over two weeks.

Trying to give kids conscious and moral control over their freedom is a struggle. It’s a real struggle.

Thankfully, I’ve had enough days that were the complete opposite of yesterday to know that, with most kids, the struggle is worth it.

And so while I should expect days like today, I should also be ready to celebrate success whenever I can find it. Like the fact that yesterday two of my students donated their time to complete the duties of a staff member who had to leave early due to a family emergency. Or the fact that the day before, one of my students consulted with a professional in the student’s field of interest to verify the quality of their homework, and the student did so with only the most minimal of supports. Or the fact that, earlier in the week, another of my students, despite being incredibly tired and out of sorts and despite having a history of verbal diarrhea, found enough self-control to be respectful with their peers, their teachers, and the public for longer than I thought possible.

All of them did those things not because they were told to, but because, as free thinkers, it was what they thought they ought to do.

Some days are a struggle. But the struggle really is worth it.

Pouring Love

 

During the next two months (and then some), I’ll spend around four hours a week working one-on-one with a young person who suffers from schizophrenia. I’ll also spend time with students who are diagnosed with a variety of other social and emotional disorders (not to mention learning disorders), but it’s the student with schizophrenia who will require the most from me.

This young person is almost completely detached from reality. They suffer from delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, catatonic behavior, and disorganized speech. At any given moment, the student might break out into a terrified or stress-induced screaming or crying fit.

But…and this is a big but…this student is perhaps one of the strongest people I’ve ever met because, to some extent, they are aware of how they must appear to other people, and yet, they still come to school every day, and even on their worst days, they fight and struggle to make sure they make it to our building.

Can you imagine knowing — knowing! —  that at some point every day you were going to have a mental, emotional, and physical breakdown, and yet still finding the strength to get out of bed and go to school each day?

This student is incredible. Absolutely incredible. They sing, they paint, they read, they write. And yes, they have harrowing breakdowns, but they also find some reason, every day, to be kind and thoughtful to others, to stand up for themselves and for those they think are wronged, and to be genuinely appreciative of the talents and kindness of those around them. I don’t think more than a day or two has passed without them finding someone else in the school to let that person know how gifted or beautiful they are.

The student is a walking ball of light. It’s just that, sometimes, the light gets very dim. But that’s when it becomes my job — and the job of my colleagues — to help this student find their way out of the dark.

What’s encouraging is that, from what I have seen, the student is treated extremely well by their peers. Those who are too young or too self-involved to understand what’s happening generally stay out of the student’s way, and those who have a sense of what’s happening seem to be very supportive, offering themselves up with a level of kindness and service that impresses me to no end. We recently had to evacuate one of our buildings because the student’s breakdown was so disturbing (our school buildings are pretty small), but none of the other students complained about having to leave their classroom, nor did they hold it against the student once the episode was over. And remember, more than half of the kids at my school are here because they have a history of being unable to get along with others.

The way the student’s peers have stepped up has been amazing and inspiring to watch. That goes for my colleagues as well. In a staff meeting the other day, as we discussed ways to help the student, one of my colleagues summed up our responsibility as, “We need to just pour love on this kid right now.” We’re not doctors or psychologists; we can’t prescribe medication, and while we can effectively provide a layman’s version of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (which the DSM 5 recommends for schizophrenia disorder), we aren’t trained psychologists. We are, however, humans who have decided to spend our days helping the next generation grow into healthy adults, and we can “pour love on this kid.”

I know that the next few weeks (and let’s be honest, months and possibly years) won’t be easy with this student. But to a large extent, I am looking forward to it. While we obviously want this student to get as much help as they can, I also think that with the student body we have and the staff we have, this is also a good and supportive place for them to come every day.

The Credentialess College

In an essay for The New Republic, “The Higher Education Monopoly is Crumbling As We Speak,” Kevin Carey writes that “the single greatest asset held by traditional colleges and universities is their exclusive franchise for the production and sale of higher education credentials.” He continues: “Just as people are ultimately interested in buying holes, not drills, higher education consumers aren’t buying courses or degree programs. They’re buying credentials.”

To some extent — hell, to a large extent — Carey is correct. The vast majority of college and university students go to school for purposes related to job training and career preparation. According to this 2009 article from the NY Times, only about 8% of college students pursue a degree in the humanities, and it’s been that way for decades. The rest of the students pursue degrees or credentials in business, technology, and the sciences. You also have to factor in the changing demographics of college students, where adult learners are quickly becoming the majority and where “slightly over half of today’s students are seeking a ‘subbacalaureate’ credential (i.e. a certificate, credential, or associate’s degree).”

Carey’s argument is that institutions of higher learning face a threat in the rise of a model “where the education itself costs students nothing—the availability of free open educational resources is constantly growing—and students only pay small fees to cover the cost of assessing their learning.”

All that might be true, but as a humanities kind of guy, I’m less interested in an education whose result is a professional-level certificate and more interested in an education whose process creates open-minded individuals capable of finding and creating meaning in their lives and in the lives of their fellows.

Six or seven years ago, when I was an undergrad at an environmental liberal arts college in Vermont, I designed a three-credit, independent study in the concept of memes (not “internet memes,” but “memes“). Now, the college I went to charged roughly $2,500 for a three-credit course. According to Kevin Carey, as a higher education consumer, I was hoping to receive some sort of professional benefit from designing that course. But as you can probably tell, unless I was to go into sociology or some branch of evolutionary studies, I wasn’t about to get a job or learn a valuable skill from pursuing the concept of memes.

So why I did design it and pay for it? Because it was a concept that interested me and I wanted to learn more about it. The studying of the subject was the value of the subject. I basically paid $2,500 — or really, when you factor in my Bachelor’s degree and my Master’s of Fine Arts degree, over a hundred thousand dollars — for the right to stop being a productive member of society and instead indulge myself with intellectual pursuits.

Unfortunately, we all seem to have an obligation to produce something for society. Ideally, for people like me, that means producing some sort of end result from each intellectual pursuit, a kind of travelogue of my mind’s journey, one that shows people either the value of following a similar path or wards them from chasing one of their similar thoughts into a dead-end. In reality, it means writing, publishing, and teaching.

But here’s the point. Kevin Carey’s article reports on the way the Internet is giving rise to a business model where the education is free, but the assessment will cost you. For people like me, however, where the assessment and credentials are not what interests us, the Internet provides an unlimited (and free!) education (and intellectual forum). The trick, I suppose, is to figure out how to build a business model on the idea.

I suppose I’m talking about a creating a kind of retreat…or monastery…where people pay for the privilege to be separated from the mundane drudgery of having to shelter and feed themselves while they explore the wonders of the human condition. They don’t receive a certificate from this experience, nor are they required to produce anything tangible as a result. What they’re paying for, in short, is spiritual and intellectual indulgence.

It’s a business model that would only appeal to those who can afford it, of course. But that’s essentially the business model of the entire vacation and tourism industries, and they seem to be doing okay.

Now I just need the land…