Tuesday, May 31, 2016


As someone who once lost her two-year-old for a paralyzing eight minutes in Baltimore's bustling Harborplace, forgive me if I'm a little sympathetic to the doxed and shamed mom of the kid who fell into the gorilla pit at the Cincinnati Zoo, leading to the death of a beloved 17-year-old ape. I get it: The gorilla was just being a gorilla. They could/should have drugged him (although it would have taken ten minutes to take effect, and who knows what that ten minutes would have wrought). Online chatter went ballistic with everything from racist blather to calls for the lazy, incompetent mother to be jailed. The fact that the dad was there, too, is only mentioned occasionally. Because we all know that any accident befalling a child or bad behavior emanating from a child is 100% the mother's fault. Today, in 2016.

It's exhausting.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

John King Doubles Down

Suppose you had the highest education job in the nation for another seven months max. What would you do with that time?

If you were U.S. Secretary of Education John King, you would go out with a bang, not a whimper. King took advantage of the 62nd anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education to declare,

We have failed to close opportunity and achievement gaps for our African-American and Latino students at every level of education. And in far too many schools, we continue to offer them less—less access to the best teachers and the most challenging courses; less access to the services and supports that affluent students often take for granted, and less access to what it takes to succeed academically.

In case people thought he was blowing smoke, the feds came out and found Cleveland, MS, in violation of the constitution after a 50-year court battle. The resegregation of American schools has been a slow-moving but inexorable process since the 1960s. Google "resegregation" to find dozens of intelligent articles about the concept.

King has decided that his best weapon in the battle to equalize resources is the money he controls under Title I. The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, currently entitled "Every Student Succeeds Act," or ESSA, proclaims that for schools that serve low-income students to to get Title I money from the feds, they must prove that they are using their other monies—local and state—to serve kids equally. It's about civil rights, which is the unspoken bailiwick of the Department of Education and really, the only reason to have a federal department at all. All those Trumpeters and others who want to get rid of the feds' role in education ought to have their children sent to the wrong side of the tracks in Cleveland, MS.

But of course people are squawking, because no one ever wants to give up what they have to give have-nots what they need. Lamar Alexander and Randi Weingarten are on the same side of the squawk battle, which probably doesn't happen very often.

Arne Duncan, the secretary who preceded King, tried to leverage Title I monies to drive reform. It didn't work. King's focus on specific inequities is more within the latitude of the department, but he's still under fire.

Here's what I think: If School A in Cleveland, MS, doesn't have a lot of low income students, and School B does, so that School A gets almost no Title I money, and School B gets plenty, Schools A and B should get equal monies from local and state taxes. It's the law: Title I is meant to supplement, not supplant local and state dollars. If the district uses Title I money to buy Reading 180 in School B and state money to buy a different reading program in School A, even if everything else is equal, that implies a use of Title I money that is supplanting state money.

It's not an easy fix. Salaries differ between School A (where teachers stay for their whole careers, because it's an easy gig) and School B (where new teachers are dumped and paid less because everyone knows it's a stepping-stone school).

John King doesn't want his legacy to be "that NY Commissioner who messed up on student privacy and Common Core." He wants to be known for something big, something important. This may be it. But it needs to land in the courts between now and December, and I hope that it does.

Nobody wants to give up what they have. But unless the pot is unlimited, what choice is there? What moral choice, I mean.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Anti-PC and What It Hath Wrought

Everyone has a point at which political correctness crosses the line and becomes more irritating than enlightened. For Bill Maher, it was Halloween costumes. For me, it's being expected to know which pronoun to use when discussing someone who has not made public the pronoun it/they prefer. For Donald Trump, it's everything.

"PC" is a term usually used disparagingly or ironically, but it refers to something real: an attempt to avoid hurting others. It emerged most likely from the Maoist concept of "firm and correct political orientation" and was adopted by the New Left, sometimes ironically, sometimes seriously—Toni Cade Bambara wrote in 1970 that "a man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist too," calling out leftist men for their treading a party line that kept women trailing behind.

Political correctness led to multiculturalism. In my world, the world of children's textbooks, we found ourselves replacing Dick and Jane and Sally with Miguel and Shonda and Lian. Dad was no longer the only one who went to work, and Mom wasn't the only one who cooked. But guess what? Those edits reflected changes in the world; they did not create the changes.

The backlash, when it came, was furious. Allan Bloom started it with The Closing of the American Mind, which could have been a little-read grumpy philosophical tome but instead hit a nerve and became, as Camille Paglia later said, "the first shot in the culture wars." The 1990s were filled with anti-PC backlash, as exemplified by this article from the Times and the conference it describes.

"It's a manifestation of what some are calling liberal fascism," said Roger Kimball, the author of "Tenured Radicals," a critique of what he calls the politicization of the humanities. "Under the name of pluralism and freedom of speech, it is an attempt to enforce a narrow and ideologically motivated view of both the curriculum and what it means to be an educated person, a responsible citizen."

Rapidly the Right (Bloom, Kimball, D'Souza, Paglia, and others) redefined political correctness; and any positive implications PC might have had regarding inclusion, diversity, feminism, critical analysis, and tolerance were buried under the labels of dogmatism, favoritism (as in affirmative action policies), and, yes, a new intolerance. For a through-the-rabbit-hole view of this thought in action, see Chapter 4: "Freire and Political Correctness" in Peter Roberts's book on Paulo Freire.

Fast forward 20-plus years, and you have the GOP presidential candidate saying, "I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I've been challenged by so many people, and I don't frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn't have time either." And when you interview his followers and ask them what they like about him, 9 out of 10 mention that he says what's on his mind and isn't PC. By which they mean that he doesn't care if his words hurt others, if he's sexist or racist, or if he appears to be ignorant about the world. They like that about him because it's how they want to be. And they somehow believe that by pushing back on political correctness, they can correct the movement of the country toward a diversity they would rather ignore.

I recently called out a woman I know on FB who said of Hillary Clinton, "When it comes to schmoozing for campaign money, she ought to have a mattress strapped to her back with the meter running." I accused her of self-hating anti-feminism and said that I was a Bernie supporter, but people like her made me question my sanity. Whereupon she replied that she, too, was a feminist, but "To go easy on Hillary because of her gender would be sexist." And that is what anti-PC hath wrought: The inability to see how certain language applied to one gender/race/ethnicity/sexual orientation can be hurtful. Men would never be accused of "having a mattress strapped to their backs," not even in an anti-PC world. PC may be rigid and foolish and often hypocritical, but anti-PC returns us to the 1950s, a Stone Age world of Dick and Jane. That just isn't the world in which we live, no matter how much Trumpeters wish it were so.

Friday, May 6, 2016


I started this blog with him in mind, and he was my most faithful reader. He would have laughed at the fact that I had to argue with the Ithaca Journal over paragraphing in his obituary.
Zahler, Stanley

Stanley Zahler, age 89, of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, and formerly of Ithaca, died April 26, 2016, of complications following a fall. Born May 28, 1926, in New York City, to Clara and Irving Zahler, Stan attended Townsend-Harris High School and started college at CCNY at the age of 15. He enlisted in the Navy air force just before his 18th birthday and was commissioned as an ensign at age 19, immediately after VJ Day.

Following his discharge, Stan attended NYU, expecting to become a doctor. Two years later, he changed his mind thanks to a great professor who described the wonders of scientific investigation, and instead enrolled in graduate school at University of Chicago. He worked in the lab of James Moulder and spent hours each day reading science in a booth at Reader's Drugstore. One day he met a young woman named Joy, who returned to her dorm that night to tell her roommate, 18-year-old Jan Haugness, that she had just met the man Jan was going to marry. Jan scoffed but finally allowed Joy to drag her to Reader's, where she asked Stan about a topic she expected to be tested on in her freshman biology class. Stan explained, Jan got an A on the test, and after she showed up in Stan's lab to thank him, they saw each other daily and were inseparable for the next 65 years.

In 1952, Stan moved to Urbana, Illinois, to work as a post-doc with Salvatore Luria. Jan went overseas with her brother and was in a serious motorcycle accident that left doctors sure that she would never walk again. Stan decided they should be married right away and that she would indeed walk again. They were married in November; six months later, she walked. From then on, they could be seen anywhere they lived, walking hand in hand every evening.

During their honeymoon, Stan and Jan attended the symposium at Cold Spring Harbor where James Watson presented the double-helix model of DNA. Fifty years later, Stan still considered it the most exciting scientific talk he'd ever heard.

Stan next spent five years in Seattle, teaching microbiology at the University of Washington. His two daughters were born there. The family moved briefly to Morgantown, West Virginia, before settling in Ithaca, where Stan would teach and do research on B. subtilis at Cornell University. He began work in the Department of Dairy Industry, teaching microbial genetics, a new course. His son was born that year, and the family moved from one side of the lake to the other, rarely staying in one house for more than a couple of years. A sabbatical in 1966-67 brought the family to southern California, an area Stan and Jan loved and to which they would eventually retire.

In his 35 years at Cornell, Stan was a co-founder of the Biology & Society program, Associate Director of the Division of Biological Sciences, and Chair of the Genetics & Development Section. He wrote dozens of peer-reviewed papers as well as chapters in books and textbooks on virology, bacteriology, genetics, and molecular biology. He mentored graduate students from his first (Ph.D. 1967) to his last (Ph.D. 1992). And he taught microbiology to some 2,000 students. In 2008, one of his former undergraduate students, who had taken his introductory course 40 years earlier, endowed a display case in Stan's honor in Mann Library.

Stan retired in 1994, and in 1999, he and Jan moved to Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, for winters only at first, but later permanently. For many years they traveled between California and New York by car, exploring every corner of the country as they went.

Stan leaves behind his wife of 63 years, Jan; daughters Kathy (Paul Lutwak) of Freeville, NY, and Diane (Philip Sicker) of Wassaic, NY; son Peter (Lisa Herb) of East Chatham, NY; his brother Burt (Sachiko) of St. Johnsbury, VT; grandchildren Ben Sicker, Olivia Lutwak, and Gabe Zahler; and several beloved nephews and nieces. At Stan's request, there will be no service, but in his memory you are invited to flip over a rock, identify a bird, argue a fine point, pick up a snake, read a good book, take a walk in the woods, and otherwise express your joy at being a fascinated human being on a fascinating planet.