Strategic Thinking

I hate using the term “strategic” as it implies a kind of top down approach to problem solving where a few brilliant people are responsible for all the planning and, eventually, the outcomes. It’s a kind of heroic thinking as well, where you lionize a few key people and then everything makes sense.

Perhaps the best example of this is the grand-daddy of so called great strategic thinkers, Winston Churchill. Yes, the man was sure strategic. He triggered a naval arms race that led to World War I, came up with the disaster that was Gallipoli, had his fingers in the cruel and thoughtless partition of Ireland on religious grounds after the equally cruel deployment of the Black and Tans and when he returned as First Lord in the Second World War immediately went to work undermining Norwegian neutrality. Was late to the game on convoys and thought that Greece and Yugoslavia, an area known for mountainous goat paths that defied invaders for centuries, was somehow a “soft underbelly” to Nazi Europe and preferable to the coastline of Normandy. Thank goodness Eisenhower and Roosevelt were able to hold the old boy back, but he’s celebrated as a great leader because he gave great speeches, so he must have had a strategy. Well, no. He was a meddler and wrong on many things.

Educational reform movements are led by contemporary figures who probably believe all the hype about Churchill, or at least they act like they do. No one has been more wrong on improving education that one Bill Gates, who parlayed the shittiest operating system he could find into a monopoly position because of good lawyering. Basically he did for computers what old man Rockefeller did for petroleum using nearly identical legal strategies. No one thought Rockefeller created oil though, and when somehow engineers figured out automobiles could run off of the byproduct of making kerosene for lamps, the lowly waste product we call, gasoline, a fortune was made even more impressive.

Rockefeller spent the rest of his life giving out shiny new dimes and then building memorials to himself that barely made a dent in his fortune. One of those memorials was the modern American research university. At least that reform worked.

Bill Gates has so far had an absolutely horrible impact on K-12 and university education, not to mention his impact on the teaching profession, but no one will say otherwise. He must be brilliant after all. He’s rich. And he has a strategy to improve education, but it never seems to do any good whatsoever.

When it comes to strategy I’m more in the Tolstoy mode. You want to improve things in schools then get the teachers involved. They’ll figure it out. Education is managed from the middle, not the top. When strategies from the top work you have figures like Horace Mann and Humboldt who start from the premise that you are educating whole human beings who are going to be enlightened, truth seeking citizens. In short you aren’t focusing on the practical, but the impractical.

Which is, in retrospect, why Winston actually was for a brief time a great strategist…

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson

The young Michelle Obama at Princeton

For those of us who work in public higher education there’s something that we need to always keep in mind. Our students are better than we think they are. That isn’t to say they don’t need the services we provide of course, but that we tend to underestimate them or act on our own bias about them directly but instituting structures that prevent them from achieving what they can.

I think this is particularly the case with much of what we are trying to implement with reform initiatives that come from the private sector, especially the reforms that the Gates Foundation is pushing forward, such as the idea that college education needs to lead to a career. It sounds reasonable of course, but it’s also quite limiting, especially when you consider that for most children in high school who come from a home where no one has been to college the idea of a career isn’t as much abstract as it is alien. I still remember when the child of a neighbor came to my CUNY campus for a Boy Scout event and he was convinced that I had to be a janitor because in his experience if you worked in a school you were either a teacher, a security guard or a janitor. Nothing else made sense to him. He ended up in prison. For him a career was not an idea he could even wrap his head around.

Education shouldn’t be about outcomes. Yes, that sounds radical on some level, but you don’t go to college to get a bunch of skills you can check off. That might be some of what you do, but mostly you go to engage yourself with people, ideas and situations that are beyond your current capacity. You go to college to not do anything particularly useful and the things you learn aren’t really useful at all until they absolutely are at the time you need them. They aren’t quantified or qualified. They are experienced and embodied. You create, as Bourdieu would say, a person with a durable habitus.

When CUNY was started in 1847 as the Free Academy the big debate was why should the sons of shopkeepers, tradesmen, and even worse, unwashed immigrants, spend any time on the liberal arts when they could be simply educated in the practical arts. That was all they needed. Only the gentlemen needed to be educated like gentlemen. The “practical” people lost that debate in 1847 but it never goes away. It comes back regularly, usually put forward by the rich, the powerful and the people who send their own children to Waldorf schools and expensive liberal arts colleges.

The young Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was a working class kid whose father was, to put it less politely than we hear more often than not, worked in a plant that dealt with the effluent of sewers, or better said, shit. Her mother was a homemaker. Her ancestors were kidnapped, enslaved and driven out of the South by Jim Crow and all that went along with that. In a world of outcomes and careers what would a typical reformer do but put her into some nice program that would lead to perhaps being less than we know her to be now. Still, she went to Princeton.

She didn’t go to Princeton to have a “career.” She went to Princeton to become a powerful, confident, fully formed human being. That’s a liberal arts education.

I often think that when the British Army had their back against the sea at Dunkirk their officers looked into the turbulent waters of the English Channel and remembered their old, worn schoolbooks in dead languages and the cry of joy of the Ten Thousand when they reached the shore in Xenophon’s Anabasis. Thálatta! The sea! They would not be defeated. Back at Downing Street, at the docks of Dover and in the halls of Parliament the sea became not a barrier, but salvation. Those who struggled with the ancient texts in hoary cold classrooms didn’t learn how to conjugate verbs or pronounce dead words. They learned how to react to something that a small child couldn’t imagine or foresee.

That’s education.


Stay Out of the Bushes

It’s probably fair to say that anything nice you say about George H.W. Bush and anything you say that isn’t nice about the man are going to both be true. He’s the guy who helped build the Southern Strategy to bring the GOP into power by exploiting white racist resentment around civil rights but he’s also the guy who brought Colin Powell and Condi Rice into prominence. But he replaced Thurgood Marshall with Clarence Thomas. Heck, before Reagan and Bush completely politicized the Supreme Court it was Republicans like Justice Warren who could be counted on to support basic human rights. Bush was, compared to the open sewer we have with the current GOP, a gentleman, but let’s remember he came to power by exploiting racism blatantly and without any regrets. He was nice to those he knew but in the abstract he’d do anything to hold on to power.

He was a Yale graduate who claimed some bullshit colonial lineage but it was all phony. His grandfather Walker was a rough and tumble business partner of Rockefeller who made his money extorting the railroads to purchase essential equipment in return for the right to ship Standard Oil. The Bushes were grafted onto the Walkers to link wealth to a veneer of noblesse oblige. Just like H.W. and W. were phony cowboys they were also phony eastern elitists. It was all for show, purchased with hard cash that got them into the Brown Brothers Harriman Bank and the United States Senate.

I have some level of emotional attraction to some of the surface qualities of Mr. Bush. Yeah. That’s what we remember. But don’t dig too deep.

Panther Partners

I’ve gotten myself involved with helping first generation college students with this program we call Panther Partners. Basically I mentor and provide support for a student who is the first person in their family to go to college. I’m technically second generation myself, but as the only one of six children to finish high school  I kind of know what they are going through. College success isn’t about intelligence or what some like to call “grit.” It’s more about feeling that it’s a good fit for yourself based on something you cannot quite articulate. It’s about seeing a reasonable trajectory for yourself that makes sense to you at the time.

Sometimes I think we abuse social science and the tools of academic assessment and management to the harm of students because we set up pseudo-scientific measures about suitability and preparation that are really much more about class, social standing and our own views about institutional prestige than what the actual needs of the students are. I think this is particularly true in how we abuse subjects like mathematics and high-fail courses like speech and chemistry to essentially weed out students. Students don’t do well because they are smart, work hard or are prepared. They do well because they fit into our own perverse standards built around artificial scarcity and class. We get the students and graduates that society wants, not the one the student needs.

Success is about knowing you belong, that your choices are valid and that you see yourself in a better future where you are valued. Not about anything else.

What’s a University?

I’ve been struggling over the years with questions around instructional technology. What took me years to understand is that I shouldn’t be thinking about technology. I should be thinking about schools.

When Wilhelm von Humboldt set in effect the proposal for the first modern university in a Prussia that was an authoritarian state dealing with the consequences of revolution throughout Europe he wasn’t thinking about content delivery. He was thinking about establishing a durable institution that could carve out some independence from the state to create new knowledge and create a place where the Enlightenment could grow and thrive. This required thinking about faculty and scholars at least as much if not more than thinking about students.

Technology can support that of course, but too much of our thinking around that is situating the technology primarily as a content delivery tool, and of course repositioning the student as a customer, not a scholar. Faculty are reduced to the things you can describe as transactional.

Not too sure if we can separate this from the rise in contingent faculty either. If you have your faculty reduced to atomized hourly employees then you have something much less than a university in the long run.

We have to get back to the university. Not too sure how technology will help with that.

Another Year…

As should be fairly obvious I don’t post here as often as I should. I mostly keep a paper journal that’s very private and not meant for anyone else other than me. I’ve been doing this since around 1978 or so and they’ve been piling up in a bookcase in the apartment.

I write with a fountain pen. It’s a Pelikan classic M200 with a black cap and a green body. I started using Pelikan pens thanks to an old friend in Berlin who swore by them as they have an internal pump and no need for cartridges. I’m currently using Waterman ink.

Writing with a fountain pen isn’t for everyone for sure but it is a pleasure and makes me very happy. Pens like this adapt to the hand and give a bit of an interesting feel compared to other types of pens.

Paper has changed, and I think that’s somewhat a result of technology. Ink and paper have a symbiotic relationship that’s not a trifling one. You can’t use paper that doesn’t go with the writing instrument and be a happy writer.

After years of working with nice, pedestrian, quad ruled composition books I’ve been forced to go the Moleskine route and use a more expensive notebook as the cheaper books aren’t dealing with the ink all that well.

Needless as it is to say this isn’t as much of a pleasure. It reminds me of Roland Barthes and Biarritz. “No progress in pleasures; nothing but mutations…”

Underway and Making Way

I am and have been for some time in the throes of a bi-continental lifestyle for about twenty years now but for the past three it has been somewhat intense with the wife and children entrenched in the heart of the EU. It isn’t tourism. It’s life. I once had this fantasy back in 1988 or so I would see the world but now I see specific small parts of Germany. It’s been interesting but I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not going to Burma any time soon.

i spent Christmas in the old Roman outpost of Xanten. From there Varus and his legions left to be obliterated in the dark forbidding forests on the other side of the Rhine. Now it is a charming “city” of 10,000 or so with a charming gothic cathedral, a regular market and a working windmill/organic bakery. It was unfortunately the place Montgomery choose to cross the Rhine but it also was visited by Napoleon who disestablished the cathedral canons. During the Thirty Years War the city walls were torn down but the towers were left. Today you can rent one for a vacation home. Under the Romans the town had running water, hot baths and toilets, amenities which didn’t come back fully after the decline and fall until after World War II.

Now I’m in the Free and Hanseatic City of Lüneburg. At one point in history it was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. J.S. Bach lived here as a boy and learned how to play the organ in one ornate church on one side of town while he learned how to play the organ in an equally ornate and even bigger church on the other side of town. All paid for by salt. Another huge church collapsed when the foundations gave way after all the salt under them was tunneled out. There are still altogether three big churches and one small Catholic one tucked away.

Bourdieu and Habitus

There has been a great deal of disappointment in my field of instructional technology as our experimental methods seem to show no difference when we apply a technological innovation. I think part of the problem is, as Howard Budin noted, education is itself a technology. We just don’t see it. Also, it is a pretty difficult thing to measure like a drug trial using quantitative methods. So I am pretty fascinated right now by this:


More to follow.

December 17, 1903

On this day in 1903 two brothers standing on a beach in North Carolina understood something better than anyone else in the world and did something that no one else had ever done before. They were a decade ahead of everyone else. Listen.

The world doesn’t change gradually. It makes leaps, sometimes from unexpected places by unexpected people at unexpected times. And, even though everything is amazing, nobody is happy…

Be happy.


When I was young I developed quite a relationship with guns, albeit all from the receiving end.

I first was held up with a gun outside of Seward Park High School. I was 14 years old.  It was 1974. Three big guys grabbed me, pointed a gun at me and dragged me up to Delancey Street. I managed to get loose and run into a bank. They didn’t shoot me but they hit me very hard on the top of the head. I was bleeding. I was alone.
Later, as i got older, much of my experience with guns was working as a restaurant manager. I was held hostage, ironically by a student from the college I work at now. First time I even heard of BMCC. Really! It was the early Eighties, so when the cops finally came they acted like it wasn’t a big deal. I got everyone out alive but the police didn’t care. I think I handled it quite well. When I was tied up with my head in the toilet bowl it did occur to me that the boss really wouldn’t miss the money in the safe all that much. I was the manager. I had a cook, a busboy and a cashier. The cook had a gun to his head. My head was in the toilet bowl. I didn’t have much leverage but I think I negotiated a pretty good deal for everyone. It was win win.
Without being held hostage I was held up at least a dozen times with guns. .22, .38 and .357 Magnum pistols among others. Once by what I was sure was a toy gun, but why take chances? Another time someone tried to rob me saying he had a gun. Then a knife. Then he knew Kung Fu. Needless to say in that situation I demanded proof. In any case I saw lots of guns. Shiny ones chromed like a car bumper. Blue ones. Black ones. Tiny ones. Big ones. Revolvers. Automatics.
One time I had to fight two big transsexual purse snatchers who stole a customer’s purse. I locked the restaurant door and they attacked me with plastic takeout knives. They were over six feet tall and looked like RuPaul before there was a RuPaul. I got the purse back but the police officer said “lucky they didn’t have a gun.” I didn’t think about that. I should have thought about that.
Once I was on the D train when three guys with guns robbed the entire car. When we got to 125th Street my friend and I got off and reported it to two nice policeman in the station mezzanine. Then one guy with a gun went running by followed by two other guys with guns chasing him. The two nice police officers excused themselves and ran after them. Two hours later we were still there waiting for them to come back. They never did. We jumped the turnstile and went uptown. I ended up at the lake in VanCortlandt Park watching the sun rise as a flock of swans swam by. It was beautiful. I had only one subway token in my pocket. I was hungry. I was alive. I wanted to throw up.
Then I was shot at. On 139 Street between Broadway and Hamilton. He missed. He was far away. But I felt the bullet go by my left ear. I remember clearly it was my left ear.
I also had to break up a fight with two roommates, one of whom had a crappy little revolver. The other had a machete. When you are between a gun and a machete I have to admit the machete is much more impressive.
Then a mentally unstable relative threatened to kill me. Multiple times. So I threw his rifle out the window and destroyed it. My mother made me pay for it. It was expensive. Monthly installments.
While doing my thesis film on the Emergency Medical Service in Harlem (on 16mm film no less) we picked up a guy on New Year’s Eve shot in the arm above the elbow with a large caliber handgun. You could tell because the wound was huge. We weren’t filming so, as the crew were short handed I got the job to cut the sleeve off the leather jacket at the level just below the arm pit. It was tough work. A large amount of blood was held in the sleeve by the cuff of the jacket and splattered all over the floor. It was bright red. Arterial blood. The man was scared. He was in intense pain. His arm looked like hamburger. He was going to start the New Year in the hospital, in intense pain and he just lost a beautiful leather jacket. It was his right arm. At the hospital I mopped the floor of the ambulance. Blood is sticky, like cherry jello before it gets hard, and it is warm. It is hard to clean.
These are all true stories. I think the time between 1978 and 1990 must have been some kind of golden age for gun related crime. At least from my perspective.
Last year I went to shoot a gun. I did very good. Most of my shots ended up in the center of the target or close by. With practice I could really be great at this I thought.
It was something of a let down. Having someone shoot at you is much more exciting than shooting at someone yourself, or at least shooting at a paper target in a basement. I think I’ll stick to being shot at instead.
I found I don’t like guns much. At least real guns. While shooting the gun it reminded me of bad sex. Not that most sex is bad, but when it is bad it is like shooting a gun, but not as loud and you have your clothes off. I think for some people it must be like good sex but I really don’t want to have a conversation with them about it. I don’t talk about sex with strangers. Abortion, birth control, prostitution, but never sex. Sex related things only. But it gave me an idea.
If the First Amendment can guarantee you freedom of speech but still make it illegal to do things like child pornography can’t the Second Amendment make it just a little harder to kill a kindergarten class? I know I am asking for a lot here, but why do we even need to talk about it all that much? Do we really need to make a big national debate about this?
I guess so. Oh well. Here we go. Let’s make it really hard for someone to kill children in a kindergarten class with a gun. I think we can agree on that. If we can’t, then we should really be ashamed of ourselves. Each and every one of us. Really ashamed, because it means we suck. Right now, we suck.
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