Love For Sale

Recently I had a couple of my college English classes working on an essay assignment where they compared and discussed contrasting viewpoints regarding the flavor of the month in progressive American politics: legalizing (or at least decriminalizing) prostitution, which its proponents describe as sex work.

My studentsviewpoints concerning this idea varied greatlyas their essay titles made clear.  Some saw sex work as just another job and the decision to do it as a sign of personal choice and agency (Its My Body) while others were frankly frightened and appalled at the prospect (Your Legs Should Not Be Open For Business).  Many landed somewhere in the middle, not wanting to encourage prostitution but wishing to make life a little safer for those who need to sell their bodies to earn money.

I assigned this essay because we now have at least two politicians vying for the 2020 Democratic nomination for President, Kamala Harris of California and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, who have suggested this is a topic worthy of consideration.  This idea has also been the subject of many serious and weighty commentaries and academic studies that support a legal framework for legitimizing what is widely known as the worlds oldest profession.  Given that prostitution is now legal (sometimes with restrictions) in approximately 65% of 100 countries recently examined, the laws of the United States are an outlier insofar as legal prostitution is now permitted in only a few areas of Nevada.  Public opinion polls in the U.S. seem to suggest that roughly half of Americans favor fewer punishments and more protections for prostitutes as a matter of basic fairness and compassion.

Sympathy for those perceived to be victims and a rush to shrug off the shackles of conventional morality are the two most prominent features of progressive social thought todayand these two ideas neatly dovetail when it comes to supporting the cause of sex workers.  However, the liberal-minded disinclination to ever discuss values or moralitywhich implies making a judgement of another and is therefore forbiddenlends a certain unreality to the logic of those advocating for prostitution as a legal and legitimate form of commerce.  If we reduce physical intimacy to the level of the bland and unemotional directions that we use to build a bookshelf (Insert Part A into Slot B and press into place), discussions of the wearying physical and emotional toil involved with daily swapping bodily fluids with strangers can be conveniently set aside in pursuit of the rightto turn flesh into cash.

In addition, you cannot help but wonder what framework of laws and regulations will spring into existence to manage the inevitable collision of sex work and a society that will suddenly be confronted with the friendlyand now legalprostitute on the corner.  If a father expresses anger at a sex worker or sex worker supervisor who seems to be recruiting his daughter, could he be hauled into court and charged with harassing a local business owner?  Will we be paying the salaries and benefits of state employees tasked with inspecting the safe installation of the sex swings hung from the ceilings of the local brothel?  Will Washington lobbyists now be advocating for federal tax breaks for National Sex Work Incorporated?  I cannot wait to see how the I.R.S. handles the development of a depreciation schedule for lingerie or the decision regarding whether governments cut of the business should be classified as a Service Fee or Entertainment Tax.

In addition, given that our society still struggles at times with showing proper respect for women, one has to wonder how the status of womenwho will certainly make up the vast majority of this new industrywill be affected by a new reality where it would be legal to rent a female orifice for your personal pleasure.  It does not take much imagination to see a future where women are even more objectified than they still often are and teenaged girls and young women will be regularly and cruelly scrutinized as a potentially lucrative commodity.  I am certain the job interviews will be interesting.

I pity the 3rd grader who, should this dystopian future actually come to pass, finally figures out what mom does for a living; realizing there is no Santa Claus will be a minor trauma by comparison.  I also pity a nation where ideas as hare-brained and injurious as this regularly fly from the mouths of supposedly responsible leaders.

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In Defense Of Homework

Over the past several decades, although there have been sporadic attempts to revive it as a classroom practice, homework has largely disappeared from K-12 instruction.  The memories many grandparents might have of laboring to finish all homework assignments before bedtime are totally at odds with current pedagogical theory that deems homework the enemy of the innate intellectual curiosity within each child.  Therefore, aside from the most piddling homework that is occasionally still part of elementary school educational practice—often assigned for the sole purpose of encouraging parental involvement in a child’s education—most students can presume their day is done when the final bell rings.

Homework has few fans these days.  Students hate to do it because it interferes with their texting and video time, parents hate it because it requires their time and attention, and teachers hate it because designing it and grading it is very time consuming.  Moreover, the progressive professors who have long been entrenched in our nation’s graduate schools of education—and who make certain yet more of their ilk receive tenure each and every day—have deemed homework the bane of “authentic” learning, which apparently springs only from those activities that conscientiously avoid memorizing facts, practicing skills, or intensive study.  The consequence of this focus on avoiding the sheer grunt work involved with learning has been generations of high school graduates whose most notable characteristic has been a stupendous ignorance of even the most basic knowledge of the world around them.  Anyone who has taught at the college level has quickly learned through harsh experience that presuming even the most cursory topic background knowledge when starting a class is a grave mistake—and will guarantee a lot of blank stares unless you fill in the blank minds in advance.

Homework has also collided headlong with intense pressures now put on many K-12 educators to pass every student.  The equation is a simple one: No student will bother to do their homework unless a grade in involved + reducing a student’s grade for not completing their homework will create problems with school principals and parents = no homework will be assigned.  Wasn’t that easy?  Nobody has to do any work, and everyone passes their classes.  Happy students, happy parents, happy administrators, and happy school board members can proudly point to the “success” that results from crushingly low expectations regarding teaching and learning.  Are you concerned about those terrible scores on the ACT and SAT tests that your students routinely bomb?  Don’t be!  Some students are lousy test takers, the test is only a snapshot of student progress, and everyone knows those awful standardized tests are inherently discriminatory.  Got that?  Besides, colleges and universities are now so starved for students that many are now ditching the standardized test requirements in favor of admission criteria that purport to evaluate the whole wonderfulness of applicants—so we’re all cool.

Of course, the only problem with this system is that most colleges and universities are only too happy to take a student’s money—regardless whether their academic preparation is sufficient.  The nationwide bloom of “Developmental” courses in higher education, which translates into colleges tuition but no college credits, has led to a continual churn of students who accumulate academic debt but never earn an academic degree.  There is a reason that the 6 year graduate rate at 2 year colleges hovers around 39%.

Better models of college remediation have resulted in improvements for those students whose reading, writing, and math skills require only nominal improvement, but the reality for the most academically challenged first-year college students, who often have graduated from the most deficient school systems, has remained the same because a single semester typically cannot teach all that was not mastered during 13 years of being pencil whipped through public school.  We can readily help students who need more practice with using source materials to support a line of reasoning in an essay; unfortunately, those students who did not learn to even write their own names until eighth grade (true story!) have likely already had their academic futures destroyed by K-12 systems that were intent on graduating them—no matter what.  Isn’t it great they don’t have to waste their time doing any of that pointless homework?

However, perhaps the most devastating consequence of the argument against homework is one that is discussed very little—if at all—and it concerns the fundamental difference between the nature of K-12 learning and that of higher education.  

Because K-12 essentially functions as state-sponsored daycare, the school day is long, and there is ample opportunity to complete assignments during daily classes, which generally feature a substantial amount of non-instructional downtime.  A college class might, in contrast, have only 40 total hours of professor-student (or graduate assistant-student) contact time, and this might occur in a large lecture class with a couple of hundred students.  As a result, most class assignments and study must be completed outside of class, which means that 2 hours or more of independent work time must be completed for every hour in a classroom.  What will happen to that eager new college student if they have no experience with working outside of class time because their K-12 instruction featured no homework?

The end result for students who are utterly unprepared for the self-study and self-monitoring required in higher education is often a first semester flame out.  Not understanding until it is too late that a full course load translates into a full-time job, many freshman overcommit to outside work and extra-curricular activities, which results in an anguished trip to academic advising and multiple course withdrawals that immediately put their financial aid eligibility into jeopardy.  

To combat this problem many colleges are pushing Developmental course models that require extra classroom time in order to, in essence, create supervised study hall periods where students can complete their class work, or students are forced to check into a monitored campus study center each week as part of the course they are taking.  Academic coaches also remind students of the need to study and work outside of class, which can be helpful for some but still requires students to acquire the independent work habits that K-12 failed to impart—on the fly and under intense pressure.  The pain of the “no homework” philosophy that rules our nation’s public schools is borne entirely by those who graduate unprepared for the opportunity to succeed or fail based on their own study skills—or lack thereof.

I suspect that those who criticize young adults for a lack of work ethic or personal responsibility may sometimes be unaware of how terrifying it is for many to be independent with no practice at working or studying independently.  Want to help more young adults succeed in higher education—and life?  Try a little homework in K-12 to help more young people develop the study skills, personal accountability, and self-efficacy that will later help immeasurably.  It may cause a few students—and parents—to whine and complain, but it might be the greatest possible kindness in the long run.

And Now We Must Move Forward

Many years ago I had a friend who described the time in the late evening when the squalling children were put to bed as the “Grown-Up Time” of the day.  No longer did every daily action and reaction need to be dictated by the needs of those too immature to understand that the world did not revolve around their needs, whims, and moods.  Adult thought could finally be allowed to flourish, and hopefully this would result in a better life for all.

I cannot help but feel a similar sense of relief—and hope—now that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has delivered his final report regarding allegations that Donald Trump or members of his team colluded (a word at once devoid of specificity yet strangely ominous) with the Russian government and its agents to subvert the 2016 Presidential election, which Mr. Mueller found to have no basis in fact.  Given the sketchy provenance of the accusations, which lead right back to efforts by Democrats to stop Donald Trump in 2016, it seemed likely all along that the whole affair would add up to a pile of mouse droppings—and this is exactly what has now happened.  Democrats and other enemies of President Trump will now, of course, devote themselves to parsing the full text of the report—scrutinizing every comma, noun, and adjective in hopes of the whiff of a crime—but the end result will certainly be the same.

Now we can hopefully have some Grown-Up Time.

I cannot help but believe that the swirl of concocted scandal surrounding this whole episode weakened President Trump’s negotiating position with foreign friends and adversaries, ate up enormous amounts of time that an incredible range of government officials should have been devoting to substantive problems, and further corroded faith in our democratic processes.  There is healing needed, and I can only hope that both President Trump and his opponents will now act with appropriate restraint concerning this unfortunate business.  This is a time for neither gloating nor glowering.  We must now move forward toward discussing and finalizing critical military, trade, healthcare, immigration, budget, educational, administrative, and technology laws and policies that have been smothered by the onerous weight of Russia-gate and its companion imbroglios.

It is, of course, an open question whether those accustomed to infantile screeching can actually embrace Grown-Up Time.  Just as it is sometimes difficult to leave a bad marriage because you have grown strangely accustomed to the daily dysfunction and no longer recognize how destructive it is, so will it be difficult for many journalists and politicians to reorient to a reality that does not feature endless jabbering about crackpot theories, unsubstantiated rumors, and overblown innuendo.  Nonetheless, we must find a way to dial down the irrational tone of so much of what has passed for actual news over the past couple of years so that we can refocus our attention on matters more worthy of our attention.

We Live In The “Non-Information Age”

I miss the news.

I know this seems like an odd assertion when all the data in the world is—quite literally—at our fingertips, but I sometimes find it frustrating to dig through all the noise to find a straightforward presentation of fact that has not been spun into a prediction, rumination, admonishment, speculation, warning, or outright fantasy.  One lesson that I find increasingly easy to teach my college students—sadly enough—is that biased presentation of information is a fact of life today.  Worse yet, what even is a “fact” is now often a subject of intense partisan debate.  I sometimes wonder whether putting ten people in a room today to discuss whether the sky is blue would result in a brawl worthy of the Jerry Springer Show.

Of course, the primary reason that tempers flare when any matter beyond the most mundane is discussed relates to the stakes at hand when we try to attach the terms “right” and “wrong” to behavior, beliefs, or beliefs about behavior.  To be “right” can provide workplace advantage, educational preference, and legal protection.  To be “wrong” results in both a variety of benefits being unceremoniously jerked away and a beat down on social media as an added—and unwelcome—bonus.  Not surprisingly, “news” articles and programs are the primary mechanisms for both conveying and justifying the “correct” attitudes and perspectives, which many times means what passes for news is actually a mechanism for transmitting social, cultural, and political beliefs—not factual information that a reader or viewer can use to form independent judgments of their own.

I wonder how many journalists are even aware that in the not-too-distant past editorializing was confined to the editorial page (how quaint!), and every bit of information had to be confirmed by at least two credible sources identified in the notes that were reviewed by an editor prior to publication or broadcast.  Now “news” stories are many times exercises in rumor mongering and anonymous accusations.  This has, sad to say, resulted in a crushing drop of public trust and confidence in news media, a well-documented phenomenon that perversely seems to have incentivized yet more partisanship in the mainstream media in order to hold onto those readers and viewers who enjoy having their pre-existing beliefs confirmed.  Just to add another layer of crazy to this craziness, partisan journalists on both sides now launch regular attacks on one another’s credibility and judgment, which only further shreds whatever tattered public trust they each might still retain.

Reliable, credible, and unbiased journalism is as necessary to a functioning democracy as air is to human life.  Voters need sources of information that are free from the taint of partisanship in order to make thoughtful judgments about questions of public policy and to choose elected officials to implement those policies.  Lacking this, debate quickly descends into personal attack rather that reasoned discussion.  

It has, of course, always been the case that people have disagreements that result from differences in their judgments, experiences, and values.  However, when these differences are turbocharged by “news” that presents those with opposing ideas as deluded, stupid, or simply evil, any possibility for the type of compromise that allows both sides some satisfaction and creates the public trust necessary for democracy to thrive is eliminated.

As much as I might hope we can return to yesterday’s model of staid and boring journalistic practices, I know this is not possible in a modern media environment where scandal, shock, and salaciousness is necessary to attract viewers and readers.  Therefore, I fear that we may be irrevocably trapped in a pointless and destructive cycle of anger, insult, and accusation that will further deepen the already catastrophic divides in our nation.  

Until the day arrives when we finally realize what passes for news today is many times an addictive and damaging drug in disguise that is consuming both our public discourse and personal sanity, we are going to need to be reconciled to never ending conflict that is feeding a crippling distrust of one another rather than providing the tools we need to manage and build our nation.  How long we can proceed down this path before we take to the streets to start clubbing each other is anyone’s guess—I hope this day never comes—but it is a realistic concern for a nation whose “news” often cannot distinguish between what is real and what is fantasy.

 

The Privilege Walk Of Life

The college admission scandal now consuming our news cycle speaks to the many contradictions that now confuse our discussions about privilege and power in America today. To be shocked that the rich are able to buy their way into opportunities closed to the average person speaks to either an enormous naïveté or ignorance about the power of wealth across the timeline of civilization. Money has always been the lubricant of choice to make life a smooth and untroubled path for the fortunate few, and the wealthy always exert outsized influence on the world around them. To presume otherwise is sheer foolishness, and this is the primary reason why those with money and power are typically obsessed with yet more money and power—it is always nice to be very, very rich.

This scandal also is an object lesson in the importance of social and cultural signifiers in a world where developing your “personal brand” is now far more important than being a thoughtful and decent individual. Given that a degree from one of the most elite colleges in the United States—the ones with the name recognition necessary to improve your coddled child’s personal brand—is now considered a critical life accessory by the fashionable elite of Hollywood stars and corporate heavyweights, it should not be a surprise that a well-paid industry of fixers exists to plow the road to admission. A CEO whose child has to settle for a degree at a state college in East Podunk sees this “failure” an implicit rebuke of the parenting abilities of mommy and daddy, so such a sad state of affairs simply cannot be allowed to exist. Bring before me the “consultants” who will ensure my spoiled scion will succeed and reflect well on me!

However, this scandal perhaps most clearly points out our misunderstandings about privilege—and who actually has it—in America today.

Several years ago a former colleague related to me the dismal failure of the “privilege walk” she had her students complete. For those who are unfamiliar with this activity, it requires individuals to stand in a line and then take steps forward or backward based on “privileges” granted them by society. Below is a list of these privileges and deficits (you might want to grab a cup of coffee first), courtesy of Pennsylvania State University:

  • ​If your ancestors were forced to come to the USA not by choice, take one step back.
  • If your primary ethnic identity is “American,” take one step forward.
  • If you were ever called names because of your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If there were people who worked for your family as servants, gardeners, nannies, etc. take one step forward.
  • ​If you were ever ashamed or embarrassed of your clothes, house, car, etc. take one step back.
  • If one or both of your parents were “white collar” professionals: doctors, lawyers, etc. take one step forward.
  • If you were raised in an area where there was prostitution, drug activity, etc., take one step back.
  • If you ever tried to change your appearance, mannerisms, or behavior to avoid being judged or ridiculed, take one step back.
  • If you studied the culture of your ancestors in elementary school, take one step forward.
  • If you went to school speaking a language other than English, take one step back.
  • If there were more than 50 books in your house when you grew up, take one step forward.
  • If you ever had to skip a meal or were hungry because there was not enough money to buy food when you were growing up, take one step back.
  • If you were taken to art galleries or plays by your parents, take one step forward
  • ​If one of your parents was unemployed or laid off, not by choice, take one step back.
  • If you have health insurance take one step forward.
  • If you attended private school or summer camp, take one step forward.
  • If your family ever had to move because they could not afford the rent, take one step back.
  • If you were told that you were beautiful, smart and capable by your parents, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever discouraged from academics or jobs because of race, class, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back
  • ​If you were encouraged to attend college by your parents, take one step forward.
  • If you have a disability take one step backward.
  • If you were raised in a single parent household, take one step back.
  • If your family owned the house where you grew up, take one step forward.
  • If you saw members of your race, ethnic group, gender or sexual orientation portrayed on television in degrading roles, take one step back.
  • If you own a car take one step forward.
  • If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever denied employment because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were paid less, treated less fairly because of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were ever accused of cheating or lying because of your race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you ever inherited money or property, take one step forward.
  • If you had to rely primarily on public transportation, take one step back.
  • If you attended private school at any point in your life take one step forward.
  • If you were ever stopped or questioned by the police because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were ever afraid of violence because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If your parents own their own business take one step forward.
  • If you were generally able to avoid places that were dangerous, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever uncomfortable about a joke related to your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back.
  • ​If you use a TDD Phone system take one step backward.
  • If you were ever the victim of violence related to your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • Imagine you are in a relationship, if you can get married in the State of ___ take one step forward
  • If your parents did not grow up in the United States, take one step back.
  • If your parents attended college take one step forward.
  • If your parents told you that you could be anything you wanted to be, take one step forward.
  • If you are able to take a step forward or backward take two steps forward.

Quite a long list, to say the least….

Apparently some of my former colleague’s students vociferously and angrily objected to many of the items on this list (or one similar to it) because they felt these simply reflected wise or responsible life choices made by themselves or their parents and grandparents rather than some inherited “privilege” that is presumed to be unearned and unfair. Of course, those who believe in the veracity of this exercise would assert such an annoyed or disbelieving reaction is proof of an inborn sense of entitlement that is the result of privilege, so a discussion of the individual items on the list might be considered by some to be beside the point. However, there does seem to be cause for reasonable questions about the benefit of this exercise and the purpose of some of the items used. For example, a reliance on public transportation is perhaps more indicative of whether you live in a city rather than the sometimes dubious privilege of individual car ownership.

There are, of course, items on this list that perhaps reflect a tougher road ahead for some because they touch upon issues of discrimination or disability that obviously speak to challenges that no one wants to face, but the overall problem with the exercise might be that it focuses on “micro” rather than “macro” issues that affect success and failure—and some important problems are curiously omitted.

It is surprising that being a victim of sexual abuse or violence is not included—only the threat is mentioned in this list—but it could be the case that the authors wanted to avoid prompting any uncomfortable self-disclosures in a classroom setting. However, it is well known that victims of sexual assaults, which sometimes sadly begin in childhood, are at far greater risk of depression, low self-esteem, drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal ideation or attempts that add up to a far greater loss of “privilege” than whether your parents rented instead of owned your home as a child. Moreover, it is surprising that no direct mention is made of household income as a child. Although some items, such as summer camp attendance or household servants, might function as effective proxies for family wealth, there are still too many individual variables—maybe your summer camp was, for example, designated specifically for low-income children—to make a completely reliable connection.

What this type of list also fails to recognize is that privilege is often a more multifaceted conundrum. Sheer physical attractiveness or athletic skill opens a great many doors for a great many people—and to refuse to acknowledge this seems shortsighted. In addition, basic intelligence—or the lack thereof—is a significant precursor of both academic and career success. Moreover, the implication that a multi-lingual upbringing presents an all-but-certain life deficit also seems unsupportable when applied across a broad population. What about those who leverage their foreign language skills into well-paid positions in business?

However, one item does seem to me to be highly predictive of the type of privilege that many find both frustrating and disheartening: “If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.”

Moving back to the college admission scandal now in the news, the mastermind of this scam did not have a billboard up on the highway offering to help bribe Ivy League team coaches or assist students with cheating on their SAT tests—wealthy parents learned about this “service” through word of mouth networks comprised of other wealthy friends and family. As with a great deal of what has passed for “privilege” since the dawn of civilization, most life advantage accrues through personal connections who provide inside information: the stock tip, the job opening that has not been advertised, the great deal on an expensive purchase, the zoning change that is suddenly going to increase the value of a piece of property. These conversations that are leveraged into more money, power, and influence are impossible to track—and unavailable to all but the most privileged few. As a result, the highest circles of power in most societies tend to be both self-perpetuating and supremely exclusionary. Prejudices and poverty obviously impact many lives, but our understanding of privilege tends to be both overly preoccupied with labeling and oblivious to the fact that some realities have more weight than others when it comes the exercise of privilege.

These privilege walks might be an interesting activity that provides fodder for the kinds of heartfelt and clueless conversations that fill many college classrooms today, but they also demonstrate a gigantic blind spot regarding our understanding of how power, privilege, and elites actually operate. Our preoccupation with labeling one person as privileged—and another as not—tends to reinforce simplistic explanations for individual success and failure that fail to account for the many complexities of life and grotesquely understate the enormous influence of family wealth in terms of providing access to information and opportunities that are not available to the average person.

We do still, thankfully, live in a nation that generally rewards hard work and personal initiative, although government enabled—or mandated—mediocrity is a real and growing problem. Moreover, we have to recognize that laws and regulations that are written to allow the elites to invisibly and effortlessly skim money from the economy ultimately turn the American Dream into a a cruel joke for those not born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

As long as government officials continue to trade campaign contributions for one-sided and destructive legislation that is designed to pit the poor against the slightly less poor, the lives of many Americans will continue to consist of catching the crumbs that drop from the tables of the rich and powerful. We don’t need a privilege walk; we need a People’s March against the fixers and insiders who devote their lucrative careers to robbing the many to enrich the few. That would be far more useful than expending our time and energy parsing degrees of victimhood or fighting with one another over matters that are ultimately of little or no importance to the futures of our children, families, communities, or country.