January 8, 2013

State Education Funding Trimmed

LANSING, Mich. – A new Senate Fiscal Agency report estimates that state tax revenues will be lower than anticipated for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, according to the Battle Creek Enquirer.
The report estimates that revenues during fiscal year 2013 will be 1.9 percent smaller than expected 2012 revenues, the Enquirer reported.
Tax changes passed in 2011 and 2012 will impact state revenues, the Enquirer reports, and could result in a 2 percent drop in 2013 state tax revenue for public schools, and a 6.5 percent decline in general fund revenue.

Is the NRA missing the point?

December 22, 2012

Today, Friday, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre held a press conference in which he recommended that an armed policeman or retired service person be placed in every school building to protect students from another massacre such as the one in Newtown on the premise that only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun.   Have any of you heard that your school board or district plans to implement this proposal when school starts up again in January?      Is it the best immediate change than can be implemented?

Education Reform is “Right to Work” for Teacher Unions

December 21, 2012

In my view, Krauthammer’s analysis of the Michigan Right To Work law as an adjustment to the reality of global competition can also be applied to public education.   The fundamental impulse behind the education reform movement is probably a way to lower the cost of education through lower wages for teachers by eliminating unions in schools.

The right-to-work dilemma

By Published: December 13

For all the fury and fistfights outside the Lansing Capitol, what happened in Michigan this week was a simple accommodation to reality. The most famously unionized state, birthplace of the United Auto Workers, royalty of the American working class, became right-to-work.

It’s shocking, except that it was inevitable. Indiana went that wayearlier this year. The entire Rust Belt will eventually follow because the heyday of the sovereign private-sector union is gone. Globalization has made splendid isolation impossible.

The nostalgics look back to the immediate postwar years when the UAW was all-powerful, the auto companies were highly profitable and the world was flooded with American cars. In that Golden Age, the UAW won wages, benefits and protections that were the envy of the world.

Today’s angry protesters demand a return to that norm. Except that it was not a norm but a historical anomaly.  America, alone among the great industrial powers, emerged unscathed from World War II. Japan was a cinder, Germany rubble and the allies — beginning with Britain and France — an exhausted shell of their former imperial selves.

For a generation, America had the run of the world. Then the others recovered. Soon global competition — from Volkswagen to Samsung — began to overtake American industry that was saddled with protected, inflated, relatively uncompetitive wages, benefits and work rules.

There’s a reason Detroit went bankrupt while the southern auto transplants did not. This is not to exonerate incompetent overpaid management that contributed to the fall. But clearly the wage, benefit and work-rule gap between the unionized North and the right-to-work South was a major factor.

President Obama railed against the Michigan legislation, calling right-to-work “giving you the right to work for less money.” Well, there is a principle at stake here: A free country should allow its workers to choose whether to join a union. Moreover, it is more than slightly ironic that Democrats, the fiercely pro-choice party, reserve free choice for aborting a fetus while denying it for such matters as choosing your child’s school or joining a union.

Principle and hypocrisy aside, however, the president’s statement has some validity. Let’s be honest: Right-to-work laws do weaken unions. And de-unionization can lead to lower wages.

But there is another factor at play: having a job in the first place. In right-to-work states, the average wage is about 10 percent lower. But in right-to-work states, unemployment also is about 10 percent lower.

Higher wages or lower unemployment? It is a wrenching choice. Although, you would think that liberals would be more inclined to spread the wealth — i.e., the jobs — around, preferring somewhat lower pay in order to leave fewer fellow workers mired in unemployment.

Think of the moral calculus. Lower wages cause an incremental decline in one’s well-being. No doubt. But for the unemployed, the decline is categorical, sometimes catastrophic — a loss not just of income but of independence and dignity.

Nor does protectionism offer escape from this dilemma. Shutting out China and the others deprives less well-off Americans of access to the kinds of goods once reserved for the upper classes: quality clothing, furnishings, electronics, durable goods — from the Taiwanese-manufactured smartphone to the affordable, highly functional Kia.

Globalization taketh away. But it giveth more. The net benefit of free trade has been known since, oh, 1817. (See David Ricardo and the Law of Comparative Advantage.) There is no easy parachute from reality.

Obama calls this a race to the bottom. No, it’s a race to a new equilibrium that tries to maintain employment levels, albeit at the price of some modest wage decline. It is a choice not to be despised.

I have great admiration for the dignity and protections trade unionism has brought to American workers. I have no great desire to see the private-sector unions defenestrated. (Like FDR, Fiorello La Guardia and George Meany, however, I don’t extend that sympathy to public-sector unions.)

But rigidity and nostalgia have a price. The industrial Midwest is littered with the resulting wreckage. Michigan most notably, where its formerly great metropolis of Detroit is reduced to boarded-up bankruptcy by its inability and unwillingness to adapt to global change.

It’s easy to understand why a state such as Michigan would seek to recover its competitiveness by emulating the success of Indiana. One can sympathize with those who pine for the union glory days, while at the same time welcoming the new realism that promises not an impossible restoration but desperately needed — and doable — recalibration and recovery.



January 2, 2012

I have my own theory on HAMLET which has not been adumbrated anywhere that I know of, but I haven’t made a dissertation type search. My notion is that Hamlet’s hamartia is an excess of religiosity. It accounts for his purity of soul as well as his cosmic vengefulness in that by not killing Claudius in the chapel he presumes he can exploit God’s laws of condemnation and forgiveness to damn Claudius. Of course, his “blindness” is that he cannot see inside Claudius’s mind and judge whether the external act of prayer represents an internal repentance. Claudius’s two line soliloquy at the end of the chapel scene shows that he was not repentant, and thus if Hamlet had skewered him then Hamlet would have accomplished his objective. Classic irony. The first Shakespeare I ever directed was with students and was HAMLET. We had no budget. The boy playing Hamlet brought in the shishkebob skewers from his family’s barbecue outfit to serve as swords in the play. Claudius would have been skewered indeed.


January 1, 2012

I have never taught an AP Lang. course per-se, though I did do a highly popular, and I think effective, elective, Expository Writing (i.e. Creative Non-Fiction) course with seniors. My two texts were Ken McCrorie’s TELLING WRITING and Orwell’s SELECTED ESSAYS. Although I didn’t emphasize argument I did start with “Shooting an Elephant,” went on to “Marrakech” and then “Those, Those Were The Days,” as examples of what could be done. They were my models. I said, “That’s the kind of writing we’re aiming for by the end of the course.”

The core of the course was daily free writing, unfocused to start, followed by focused free writing, followed by a series of focused writings on the several topics suggested by McCrorie. I required a weekly piece of writing, and spent class reading each student’s piece, anonymously, out loud, and allowing only two kinds of comments: appreciations, and clarifications. I made my comment only at the end of comments from the class. The writer was not supposed to say anything, explain anything, but just be a ‘fly on the wall.’

Some years, if the group was good enough I added toward the middle of the course permission for a “what if.” That meant a student could make a suggestion IF the suggestion was specific. E.g. “What if the word ‘impacted’ were changed to ‘affected’?” That is what in AP Lang would be called rhetorical critique, but without using any, any, any device names. My instruction never went beyond that sort of seat of the pants close reading (mainly because of my own ignorance, I suppose). However, it developed their ear, and didn’t over abstract. All of those in that course had taken the AP Lang. exam in their Junior year at the end of a year of American Literature in which rhetorical analysis of an informal sort was a means to the end of determining what a particular author was saying. Whether there was carry over from their Junior year to my course, I don’t know, but by the fourth or fifth week many of the class members were getting to quite moving essays of personal experience.

My provisional hypothesis is that if students can be supported in determining exactly what an author is saying without reductionism, they will be able to reexpress their observations without a lot of technical rhetorical terms. That my students were able to write powerfully, i.e. use language to connect to a reader, without a formal technical framework suggests to me that perception of ‘meaning’ through reacting to the manifold details of language is the essential skill and that naming the causes of what moves is a secondary skill.

I hope I may eventually be able to teach an AP LANGUAGE course and get to rethink how to do it from first principles. The questions you raise help me greatly in anticipatory rumination. I had Freshman English in 1953-54. It is still the most important course (for me) I ever took.

The Game of Chess in The Tempest

December 5, 2006

The Game of Chess in the RSC’s THE TEMPEST
There is so much to praise in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of THE TEMPEST at the Power Center that it may well seem unnecessary to undertake any clarification or commentary on it. It is a remarkably clear and transparent production. The line speaking is flawless, the attention to acting detail exceptional, and the use of spectacle judicious and effective. But there is a puzzle about a chess board in the last minutes of the play. Ferdinand runs on stage from behind Prospero’s cell carrying a fabric chess board. He drops it when he sees his father, and no further use is made of it. Why, we may ask, is the character made to run on stage carrying a chess board?
The First Folio has a different stage direction: “Here Prospero discovers Ferdinand and Miranda, playing at Chess.”(orthography modernized). Presumably Prospero is intended to pull back the curtain that serves as the door of his “cell’ or cave, to show his daughter and the King’s son playing chess. If Shakespeare’s playhouse had an “inner stage” covered by a curtain, that disclosure would have been easy. What is the point of this association of chess playing with Ferdinand?
Miranda and Ferdinand had fallen in love at first sight and had become engaged. Prospero pretends to treat Ferdinand harshly to test his love for Miranda. He sets Ferdinand to piling up a thousand logs, the same kind of work he compels Caliban to perform. Caliban does so only under threat of pain, and even then still with utter begrudgement. Ferdinand, however, because he is doing it for Miranda, does it with humility and without complaint. In fact he finds such degrading labor, so ill befitting a royal prince, a “pleasure” since it is done for Miranda. She reciprocates. She begs Ferdinand to rest a bit from his log carrying while she takes it over. For her too, love lifts any degradation of labor to noble service.
The mutual virtue of these two noble lovers convinces Prospero to permit the marriage. He tells them so and indicates he will now allow them to talk in private together inside his cave. Before he lets them go off by themselves, however, he lays upon Ferdinand a stern injunction not to break Miranda’s “Virgin-knot” before the marriage is solemnized in church. Who knows how long that will be? It can’t be until they have returned to Naples. It might be days, weeks, months? What are engaged lovers to do? Refrain?
They are true lovers. There is no question of seduction. Miranda’s delight in Ferdinand is such that presumably she would not refuse the consummation before the ceremony, should Ferdinand lead her down that pathway. The consequences of getting the ceremony and the consummation in reverse order, are, however, according to Prospero, disastrous:
“No sweet aspersions shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow; but barraine hate,
Sower eyed disdain, and discord shall bestrew
The union of your bed, with weeds so loathly
That you shall hate it both”
Ferdinand easily reassures his father in law to be, saying:
“As I hope
For quiet dayes, faire issue, and long life,
With such love, as ‘tis now the murkiest den,
The most opportune place, the strongest suggestion,
Our worser Genius can, shall never melt
Mine honor into lust, to take away
The edge of that day’s celebration.”

Prospero is satisfied. While he takes a turn outside his cell (in the RSC production, a little wooden cabin) to cool his angry mind at the plottings of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo, Prospero invites the young lovers to “If you be pleased, retire into my Cell,/ And there repose . . . .”
Prospero exits his cabin. They are alone. Certainly an opportune place and time. Will they “do it,” in spite of their pledge, or at least Ferdinand’s? We see Miranda climb up into the top bunk, lie down flat on her back, and cross her hands over her chest. Ferdinand hesitates for a moment, but eventually throws himself into the lower bunk, yet remains sitting, presumably thinking about the proximity and ease of ascent to the heaven lying just above him. Did he really mean what he said to Prospero, or are his promises, like “the strongest oaths . . . straw/To th’fire ith’ blood.” Will he actually have the restraint to wait?
All of the other plots of THE TEMPEST turn on restraint as well. Sebastian, Prospero’s brother wanted the sole power of the Duke of Milan, and set afloat his brother and niece in a rotted boat to get rid of him. Alonso, the King of Naples assisted Sebastian in overthrowing Prospero. Caliban was taken in by Prospero and Miranda and treated as a member of the family at first, and taught to speak human language, but in a lack of restraint Caliban made an attempt to rape Miranda. The drunken clowns, Stephano and Trinculo, are clear models of drunken lack of restraint. Even Prospero in his own plot will be tested for restraint. His enemies have been wrecked on his island by his magic. He has them in his absolute power. Will he avenge himself on them, or, like a good Christian, will he forgive them? His rage at how he has been betrayed by his brother, by Caliban, by the entire civilized world except the old counselor Gonzalo, might well bring him to vengeance. But he too, on their repentance, shows restraint. He offers forgiveness to all who have mistreated him:
“the rarer Action is
In virtue, then in vengeance. They, being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frowne further.”
Thus, the restraint, or absence of it, between the young people is essential to completing the action and thought of the play. Will they too show the restraint this play postulates as necessary for happiness? How will we know that they didn’t misbehave while they were alone in the cell?
In this production the answer is given outside Prospero’s shack. We remember than Miranda and Ferdinand have been left in bunk beds within. How is the disclosure to be wrought? The shack is not on a turntable in this production. Rather, Ferdinand come running on stage from around the back of the shack being chased by Miranda as she complains that he cheated her in the game they were playing. Ferdinand carries a small flexible mat marked off in the traditional alternating dark and light squares pattern of a chessboard. He drops the mat on stage as soon as he sees his father. If you were passingly puzzled as to why Ferdinand was carrying a fabric chessboard, the reason he does so is that chess is a legitimate nearly natural symbol of the cool strategy and restraint needed for happiness in life. Although no further use is made of the mat, it is the crucial, necessary allusion to the game of chess as a symbol of their having obeyed their “nobler reason” rather than their blood. I think we can conclude that Ferdinand and Mariana have indeed whiled away their private time together playing chess rather than consummating the marriage before it had been celebrated.

In this, as in every other aspect, the RSC has mounted an immensely thoughtful production worth every penny of its ticket price for its insight into the life of the lines, into the meaning of the play, and into the right balance of spectacle and performance. Many thanks to Ralph Williams, Ken Fisher, and The University of Michigan for bringing the RSC’s version of THE TEMPEST to Ann Arbor.

John H. Underhill

Hello world!

December 5, 2006

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