Saturday, December 13, 2008

Media-and-culture dots ...

Once again I'm turning to lively and impassioned correspondence regarding the dots post of a few days ago.

This time the response is from the Red Electric's Tacoma correspondent, Aaron Corvin. The post is his second on the topic. His first is here.

(Note: Aaron was a University of Portland classmate of Lizi Zach, Berlin correspondent, and Chris Clair, Chicago correspondent now on special assignment for the Red Electric analyzing graft and corruption. To their credit, all three survived my teaching in the early '90s.)

Aaron is a journalist surfing the waves of change in the profession.
He sent me and his fellow correspondents a long "dot" response. I've decided to share part of it. It has to do with media, culture and parenting (Aaron and his wife, Nancy Nilles, another UP alum, journalist and former student, have an infant son, Ben.)

Here Aaron begins by referring to a story he wrote on educational reform.

.... I recall quoting a couple people talking about the need for parents to turn the damn TV off and to read and interact with their kids... This is where the parents can act or fail (among their other responsibilities in educating their children) in a really big way. I don't need to go into the Neil Postman research on the deteriorating effects of television, but my point is that beyond policy proposals and school-system fixes, we need people and leaders, like Obama, to start reinforcing the idea that we need to change our culture.

The venture capitalist I mentioned earlier said he thinks state governors, families, pastors, etc. need to speak out against the Culture of TV. Instead of schools celebrating the high-school football team's winning season like it's the Academy Awards, why not celebrate your math, science and English stars?

That's what they do in India and China, according to a former Microsoft executive I interviewed. He said those countries and their media treat good students like rock stars, even devoting entire sections of their newspapers to educational issues that inform families of what's going on inside the schools.

Can you point to a single American newspaper that takes education that seriously? Instead our newspapers splash the achievements of student athletes and sports role models all over their pages.

You have to change the context before people will listen and change their behavior. The context is the American political system, educational system and family. Why does America love sports? Why do we tune into the bluster and stupidity on the field and on the TV? Why aren't we tuning into our children?

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

America, the isolated

Lizi Zach, our Berlin correspondent, responds to Chris Clair, our Chicago correspondent and his thoughts about dots in need of connecting.

Me? I'm enjoying the back-and-forth.

I'm with Chris - all politics is dirty, and since the advent Bush/Rove, I must admit, I see no evil in the Left (or, rather, what Americans think of as the Left) throwing counter punches. (Let it be known that while registering Americans here in Berlin to vote, another volunteer and I never bothered to put up the "Republicans can also register here!" sign on our booth.)

Just read Chris' post on the Red Electric re Sarah Palin and civics lessons and self-education. Roger Ebert (bless his heart for in this time of great moral crisis, he has put aside his movie reviews and delved into political commentary) opined some months ago about Palin's lack of curiosity. It would seem that indeed that is the crux of the problem, and not just hers, but America's.

The country is so utterly isolated (not just geographically) and, moreover, is purely content that way. Consider one fact along: the overwhelming majority has no more than two weeks of paid annual leave. No wonder so few travel abroad and see how the other half (or 3/4) live on this planet.

The sheer refusal to institute any viable foreign language curriculum in the schools is another embarrassment.

The government has no serious interest at all in having an educated populace. It makes it easier to launch unwinnable wars, fart around with public monies, and pass ineffective legislation that way.

I think back to my father, age 80, immigrating to the States from Hungary in 1956, fleeing the Communist Revolution. If anyone should have been a cheerleader for capitalism and the GOP, it is he, and indeed, many, if not most, of his compatriots became card-carrying members of that ilk.

My father waffled, questioned, thrashed about. And then came Watergate and he asked an American colleague how anyone could possibly remain in the Republican party after such an event. It's irrelevant what his colleague answered; my father's conclusion is that Americans like crooks for politicians.

There seems to be no other explanation.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chris weighs in — Part 2

Chris Clair, who lives and works in Chicago (and is now officially The Red Electric's Chicago correspondent) has been sharing his impressions of the Blagojevich scandal in e-mails. That's a subject to return to.

Here, though, is the continuation of his thoughts about some unconnected "dots" I mentioned the other day.

He takes up with Sarah Palin's demonstrated ignorance during the campaign. I had suggested she suffered from a lack of education. Chris has a different take.

What was her education? I would ask what does it matter? What is education? Jane Jacobs said in "Dark Age Ahead" that today's colleges and universities do little more than grant certifications. Very little "education" takes place. But whose fault is that? Do we blame the professors or the academic programs themselves?

I happen to think education is a personal matter. You choose to be educated. I'm sure her K-12 experience included the standard civics classes, but what did she take from them?

I spent half my time in 12th-grade economics goofing off in the back of the room. I absorbed some information, sure, enough to pass the tests. But what I've learned about Keynes, Adam Smith and bell curves, as well as the Constitution, government and issues like freedom of speech I've learned on my own, by seeking out information, either in college or in books or magazines or online.

The fact that Sarah Palin doesn't understand the First Amendment isn't her high school social studies teacher's fault; it's hers. The same goes for not understanding the duties of the office to which she was seeking election. As individuals we have a responsibility to educate ourselves through a variety of means, including but not limited to, formal schooling.

What about personal curiosity – the desire, or even the need in some cases – to learn more about the world around us? How can anyone else be responsible for that? What about parents? What is their role in fostering curiosity in their children? As a parent, how do you teach curiosity? How do you teach critical thinking?

What's the difference between information one is given (traditional, formal education) versus information one seeks (reading for pleasure, magazine/newspaper subscriptions)? Is the latter somehow more valuable?

Who's to blame here?

We are. Individually and collectively.

What does it mean to be informed…? What does it mean to be aware…? Does a mass of disconnected information block awareness? Maybe seemingly disconnected information only blocks our awareness if we let it. But why don't people employ more filters? Perhaps that's something civics classes in high school should be including in their curricula, and maybe colleges should include "media studies" as a core requirement. Again, you can't teach people what they don't want to learn but you can plant the seed.

Why does the nature of information have to change because the medium changes? Isn't information information? Our interaction with it may change, but does that really change the information?

So many of our problems fall to the schools to solve, but are the schools … up to a task of this enormity? Why is it schools' responsibility? What about parents, other family members? This goes back to the question of who teaches critical thinking skills?

Are our leaders intelligent? Who ARE our leaders? Elected officials? Corporate chief executives? College professors? Pundits? TV and radio talk show hosts? Actors? How do we choose them? I see where Fran Drescher's spokesman has indicated she's interested in Hillary Clinton's N.Y. senate seat. What qualifies her to serve in the U.S. Senate? What does it mean to lead?

What is wealth? Monetary wealth is transitory and based on collectively agreed-upon values. What happens when agreement disintegrates, as with credit? Can wealth disappear or is wealth accumulation a zero-sum game – for every loser there is a winner, for every loss a corresponding gain elsewhere? Who controls our financial future?

Those are a few dots.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Chris weighs in — Part 1

Another former student, Chris Clair, has responded to the "dot" questions. He's written a long response. I'll publish it in parts. Here's part 1:

So first off, anyone else's governor arrested today? No? In Illinois, our last two governors have now faced federal charges; both hailed from the Chicago area. The tradition continues. It took me quite a while longer to put this together today than I expected; I found I couldn't stop reading the Blagojevich indictment. If you haven't I highly recommend visiting the Tribune's web site and perusing it. It definitely sets up a clear distinction between "hubris" and "sociopathic." Anyway, here are some thoughts on the previously listed dots, and some new dots. Then my take on the whole "thinning the herd" discussion.

Building off Rick's and Aaron's emails….

What is the difference between information and knowledge? One thing to consider – knowledge could be the synthesis of information with experience, context and possibly emotion. Further to that, what roles do emotion and experience play in turning "information" into knowledge?

Which vehicles … does the public use to obtain information and/or knowledge? Increasingly the Internet? Newspapers, print or online mostly? Their neighbors? Television? Radio? Video games? Don't forget movies. Also, we have to subdivide "the Internet" and "newspapers." When we speak of the Internet, do we mean blogs? CNN? Matt Drudge? Online newspapers? Daily Kos? WSJ's Best of the Web? Conservative sites? Liberal sites? Similarly with newspapers are we talking Chicago Tribune (oops)? NYT? Washington Times? (Note I did not say Post.) Wall Street Journal? Chicago Reader? Willamette Week? SW Connection? Sherwood Gazette?

You see where I'm going here. There's so much fragmentation in the information space it really requires drilling down, getting at the filters through which information is flowing, and how people self-select those filters. Are they doing it consciously? In fact, ARE there "general" news sources any more? CNN? Fox? MSNBC? In addressing "which vehicles," we have to consider partisanship and bias in news.

The late Bob Fulford, my university media professor, used to beat this gong: there is no such thing as unbiased news. To get the full picture on, say, the election, you have to follow CNN, MSNBC and FOX; read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and your local paper; listen to NPR and Rush Limbaugh. The more sources of information, the better "informed" you are. Of course, you'll also have to work harder, but maybe that's the true payoff.

When they obtain information and/or knowledge, do people act? Or just talk? Or forget it? Or ignore it? How do people use information? What information is useful? What constitutes action? How does the method of action depend on where that intersection of knowledge and information is for an individual?

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Monday, December 08, 2008

More for the "dot list"

Aaron Corvin, a former student, has weighed in on the "dot" list.

More questions (and a thought or two):

What is the difference between information and knowledge?

How does the public become "informed" or "knowledgeable"? How do you know the public is either of those things? By what measure, if any?

Which vehicles media ((the medium is the message))) does the public use to obtain information and/or knowledge? Increasingly the Internet? Newspapers, print or online mostly? Their neighbors? Television? Radio? Video games?

When they obtain information and/or knowledge, do people act? Or just talk? Or forget it? Or ignore it? How do people use information? What information is useful?

My thought: I recall talking with Rick about Sarah Palin (yes, I know, this is a tired subject, but ...). I think his comment was that she isn't stupid. Maybe she's even smart. But what was her education? Rick said he recalls Palin saying her First Amendment rights were being violated because people were criticizing her. Huh? Hello? The First Amendment doesn't work that way.

How is it possible for a major candidate for a major national public office to fundamentally misunderstand the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution? (Palin demonstrated this again in her debate with Biden when she remarked that the vice-president presides over Congress !?) What happened where Palin went to school? Or, better yet, what didn't happen?

My guess: No civics lessons whatsoever. No sense of what the country was founded on. No teaching of US history and of the Bill of Rights, beyond perhaps scratching the surface. Do you need these things to become the governor of a state?

To carry this further, go back to "Idiocracy" (the film): If all you're concerned about is where you're going to get your next box of Cheez-Its, and whether Channel 8 will have reruns of "Friends," then why shouldn't media (newspapers, too) give "the people" what they want? Paris Hilton, a slogan or two about America, and a 12-column inch story about a neighborhood shooting with no answer as to whether crime overall is actually up or down.

Who's to blame here? What happened to us as Americans? Why so much candy and so little broccoli?

Or am I off my rocker, and things are better than I think? Sarah is, after all, back in Alaska cooling her Jimmy Choos.

Questions, questions ... perhaps the dots will begin to connect ...

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