Saturday, March 31, 2012

Danger, Super Vidoqo, Danger!

So, apparently Vidoqo is not so Super after all.  Well, that was kind of the point of the title*, right?  Who am I, lowly teacher with an undergraduate degree in Social Sciences and a Master's degree in Elementary Education from a state university, to think I could play with the big boys on issues as complex as race, class, philosophy and human development?  Well, in many ways I am not.  Yet in many ways I am.  I have a good deal of first hand experience with these issues, spending nearly two decades of my adult life among the disadvantaged, disabled, disenfranchised and generally dissed.  In many ways, my experience has given me insights that plenty of people with more prestigious academic credentials couldn't possibly obtain without direct experience of their own with the subjects on which they write, from behind the walls of an institution.

(*It occurs to me that I have never officially explained where the name Vidoqo comes from.  It's a pretty silly inside joke.  But it comes originally from a mispronunciation of the title (itself a mispronunciation) of a avante garde children's book I once created, titled "I am not Vidoco".  You can find the book, available for purchase here.)

And isn't this the beauty of blogging - that by simply having access to the internet and a linkable address, I can put my ideas out there for the world to see?  And I try to give you guys the good stuff.  I think a lot about these issues and when I write I do my best to bring thoughtfulness and clarity to my subjects.  But sometimes even the most thoughtful blogger makes mistakes.  Or, more generously, makes new discoveries about prior misunderstandings.  

So, why the long wind-up?  Well, one of the key areas of exploration and articulation on this blog is the concept of human and social capital.  That is why it has been somewhat unnerving for me to discover that my usage of the term social capital has been largely misapplied.  Apparently, the general consensus among sociologists and people who have spent years researching and writing papers on the subject, is that the term refers to the value of social relations.  I had been using the term, rather, to describe the value of one's external relations with society in general - a far larger and more generalized definition.

I think my original problem might have lain in trying to stretch the term out to transcend what I felt were its limitations, and thus provide a much more coherent and descriptive conceptualization, one powerful enough to functionally explain, alongside human capital, the total of human development and subsequent endeavor.  My interest was in developing a frame work for human agency, in terms of the process of input and output.  The social sciences have long found profound evidence that human agency is determined by genetic and societal forces.  Humans exist not in isolation, but rather as intimately wound players in the larger human drama.  Within this framework, there seems to be little room for determination that is neither rooted in genetics nor environment, certainly not in terms of explanatory power.

If one fears this framework to be overly reductionistic, I would caution that the explanatory claim is, like many powerful theories, not attempting to provide evidence for every human action, but merely laying the groundwork upon which any further causal mechanism might work.  For instance, we cannot possibly know with much resolution the precise causal mechanism for a vast range of human behaviors.  But we can, however, stipulate that any such behavior will have been rooted in genetic or environmental conditions.  It is then up to us to gather further evidence to increase the resolution of the causality.  An example of a similarly fundamental theory, would be evolution by natural selection.  While there are an almost infinite number of causal factors involved in the process - from the interaction of individual DNA base pair mutations up to the forces of nature such as weather patterns, and tectonic plate movements.  At the individual level, the process of evolution is quite low-resolution, yet in terms of broadly explanatory and predictive power, the theory is unmatched.

My interest in such a comprehensive narrative is largely a product not only of my readings in social science, but also in what I have witnessed in my life and career.  I suppose it should also be said that one of the imperatives of both adult civic, as well as interpersonal and self-reflective engagement, is to understand not merely what one believes but why one believes it.  At a most fundamental level, conscious life can be boiled down no further than the most basic and primary act of thought itself.  As Descrates famously wrote I think therefore I am, so too any claim we have as intelligent human actors must be derived from this basic premise: if I am what I think, then why do I think what I think?  In attempting this question, social science has been indispensable in providing evidence-based answers.

From this basic existential inquiry, arises all subsequent political, economic and cultural analysis.  No better example of this is in the frustratingly polarized political climate of our current era.  Almost every issue at which our countrymen find themselves at odds can be reduced down to fundamental questions of human development and human action.  Whether how to fairly tax the public, how to school our children, how to determine the morality of our laws, how to attack inequality and promote economic and social justice... all of these questions hinge upon the deeper question: why do men do what they do?

And here, I propose, social science has answers.  In terms of specifics, much less large-scale policy prescriptions, there is a vast amount we do not understand.  But all the evidence so far points to this very clear narrative: that human agency is a sum of Human Capital and capital that is derived from one's external resources, everything from a healthy uterus, the language spoken in a child's home, the condition of the neighborhood, the availability of health services or civic institutions, the adequacy education and social relationships that encourage emotional and cognitive development, the availability of employment opportunities, the quality of police and emergency services, and the quality and availability of government representation and journalistic inquiry

All of this, which I had wrongly been calling social capital previously, I will now refer to as Societal Capital. This term is, in my opinion, a much needed counterpart to the established term Human Capital.  Where the latter represents one's internal capacities, and therefore leverage and self-efficacy in society, the former represents the societal conditions which serve to either promote or inhibit those internal capacities. 

One of the main reasons the term Societal Capital is needed, is that neither term is static; neither is solely functional on its own.  One's Human Capital must often be understood in relation to one's corresponding Societal Capital, dependent as it often is both in its prior and future development.  Societal capital, likewise must often be understood in relation to corresponding Human Capital.  Without Human Capital, Societal Capital is often unclaimed, and thus unleveraged.  For instance, the ability to read is meaningless if there are no books available to read.  Likewise, the availability of books is meaningless if one is unable to read.

One of the powerful features of this framework is in its insight into the dynamic effects we see between Human and Societal Capital.  A lack in both will often produce a compounded effect that minimizes future capital acquisition, while an abundance of both will also compound, producing an increased future capital acquisition.  To return to the example of literacy, an absence of books and the capacity to read them will lead an individual to attend to other matters, and both forms of capital will likely remain dormant; no capacity to read stimulates no acquisition of books, no acquisition of books stimulates no capacity to read.  Yet capacity to read stimulates the acquisition of books, and visa-versa.

One can easily see how this dynamic, compounding effect has innumerable ripple effects throughout individual and community life.  This basic premise is a core feature of human culture and civilization, embedded in our societal relations at every level.  A defining feature of families, peer groups, communities, cities, states and countries is their implicit organization around the interaction between Human and Societal Capital.  We are a learning species.  We seek out friends and communities because of their utility in maximizing total Human and Societal Capital.  A friend calls on another friend for support in hard times, and both become stronger for it, their individual Human Capital is strengthened and Societal Capital is formed.  A government builds a system of mass transit that increases the individual Human Capital of nearby citizens, who then in turn vote to make the system better, increasing their Societal Capital.

There is of course the possibility of negative effects embedded in all of these interactions.  But the theory of Human and Societal Capital is only a general measurement designed to guide our analysis.  Some human interactions will have unintended negative consequences, and they will have to be accounted for in the design of our models.  Negative cognitive patterns of mind, for instance, are built that could be thought of as actively negative, in the sense that they actively contribute to a lowering of total individual or societal agency.  But I think it will be more practical, from a theoretical design perspective, to see these patterns in terms of being the result of a reduction in positive Human and Societal Capital.

In future posts, I look forward to continuing to hone this framework.  The term Social Capital, while certainly useful in a more narrow sense, I think fails to deal with what seems a glaring deficit of conceptualization in not taking on a role as an external counterpart to Human Capital's description of the internal mechanism of human agency.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Plastic Social Surgery

My first real experience with public housing projects came when, at the age of 19, I got a job delivering meals and groceries to people living with AIDS in San Francisco.  I did the "project route", and earned an extra dollar an hour in hazard pay.  I would fill up my van and then chart a wide, circular course around the city, starting off at Folsom, then heading to the Misson, Portrero Hill, out to Hunter's Point, then onto the freeway and finishing up in the Marina. 

The buildings were generally designed in the same eastern-bloc concrete architecture, painted in various shades of brown, gray or violet single-tones.  With the exception of the Marina, each was hellish in its own way.  The Folsom towers were decrepit - I remember a broken elevator standing ajar, filled with garbage, and a pigeon flying in and out of its shaft through a missing ceiling tile, forcing me to take the urine and blood spattered stairwell.  Mission was only two storied, and thus felt somewhat safer.  But Portrero hill was often "jumping" - a lot of people hanging out, gang colors flying, cars driving by real slow with tinted windows and menacing glares - especially on Friday nights, or after the first of the month, when everyone was partying.  Fortunately, we scheduled our deliveries around noon, so as to avoid the afternoon action.  However, dinner meals were still delivered, usually by local volunteers.  But I had to fill-in frequently, especially as the ghetto-routes were hard to find volunteers for.  More than once, I found myself surrounded by a group of young thugs asking me my-motherfucking-business.  I came to cool to these encounters, as I soon learned that a white kid in a white government-looking van making a delivery was a reasonable invasion of territory.

Hunter's Point was by far the scariest.  Surrounded by heavy industry, it was a veritable island of poverty and lawlessness, a corner of San Francisco most would never see unless somehow having taken a wrong turn out of Candlestick park after the Giants game.  Here, broken glass littered the sidewalk, trash would go uncollected for weeks, and children would play dirty and half-hazardly clad in the street.  Row upon row of low-income housing spread over what could have been water-front property.  Drugs were sold openly on corners, and fights seemed often on the verge of breaking out.
Hunters Point residence, 1973, EPA - This was also a common sight during my time there in the 90's  
When I would return to the Marina projects for my final last stop, turning down streets lined with tourists, cable cars and 4 star hotels, I would marvel at how the same bland, oppressive concrete structures that housed the same desperate inhabitants could exist alongside such fanciful plenty.  The yards were scrubbed of debris, walls were freshly painted, and the sidewalks devoid of local residents.  No drugs were going to be sold here.  No fights were going to break out, except maybe among young drunken tourists.  But when I knocked on doors, the interiors reeked of poverty and sadness, hermetically sealed away from the outside.  Which was real?

So, I thought of this when I read the NY Times article today on the rehabilitation and redesign of a low income public housing project tower in Sevran, a suburb of Paris, France, the flashpoint of the 2005 riots. The transformation was stunning.  Before and after shots were included.  Rising up out of a poor, disadvantaged community, the tower - once a beacon of hope, a safe-haven for local residents - had become a living monument of desperation and neglect.  The article waxes artistic, placing it in a "preservationist" context, referencing an ideal of "reusing obsolete structures".  The upgrades seem pleasant enough - things like opening up balconies to let in more light, more interesting textures and materials, or niftier color palettes.  This building does look magnificent.  The article ends by calling the new tower the addition of "an exemplary landmark to the Paris skyline."

In the US, project towers have come to represent the pinnacle of wretched, violent inner-city poverty.  Rap music brought them to us in the late 1980's, singing us a complex narrative of bittersweet triumph in a world in which violence prevailed and tragic sociopathology reigned.  According to the Black Youth Research project's online database of rap lyrics, the term "projects" peaked in 2001.  The "projects" served as the Dickensian reality in which young toughs proved their mettle.  It became increasingly clear that, far from a safe refuge for low-income families, project towers had become giant, ugly monoliths of concentrated poverty and inequity that only endangered the lives of their residents.  Crime was rampant, and neighborhood gangs would battle to win them over as territory.  This was of course, nothing new to poor communities.  But the cold institutionality of their presence and physical structure seemed almost designed to inspire pathology.  In retrospect, one wonders what the designers must have been thinking.  Could it have been possible to design a more dysfunctional and problematic housing solution? 

My guess is that this insight is born as much out of obvious history as of a changing perspective of poverty.  One could have imagined a view in the 1960's of poverty as something purely the result of factors external to a poor population: racism, lack of jobs, proper housing.  If only we built the poor brand new houses (likely even deemed beautiful at the time, according to contemporary modernist aesthetic), they would flourish.  A stretch, this view is, but with enough naivete it might have explanatory power. Maybe it was only ever supposed to be a first step, an opening shot in the war on poverty. 

Apparently the cavalry never arrived.  No doubt they were lost in the woods.  The projects fell into disrepair, the crack epidemic came on like a holocaust, welfare checks were too little, too late, and education had hardly woken up, even after Reagan's commission on education published A Nation At Risk in 1983, detailing the dismal state of poor schools in America.  Fast forward past welfare reform of the 1990s, and project towers are being detonated in controlled explosions across the United States. 

So where are we now?  The poor haven't left.  Their schools are still dismal, despite millions of dollars in Microsoft and Apple technology grants, millions of hours of professional development, and around 20 years of misguided school reform centered around the fallacy that teachers alone can break poverty and send every kid to college.

So, an old project tower outside Paris gets a new coat of paint and the New York times hails an improved skyline.  Has anything even changed?

Monday, March 26, 2012

On Being Better

Life is hard, especially when dealing with people who drive us crazy.  But I think when properly applied, a bit of methodology can go a long ways towards being more compassionate, confident, and effective in our daily interactions.

We tend to be a bit sloppy when faced with dysfunctional behavior, in terms of how we view the cognition behind it. Where I teach, 16 and 17 year old kids routinely act like 3 or 4 year-olds (no – I’m not exaggerating). A common – completely understandable – response from staff is disbelief, shock and offense at such immaturity. “What are you, some kind of dummy?!!”. (Not usually in such disrespectful language, but we have our moments).

Because when we have a chance to take a step back, there is no real reason for shock or disbelief. The explanation is perfectly clear, when taking into account the particular student’s life experiences, and ultimately their failure to have properly learned appropriate self-control, self-discipline, emotional management, etc. Whatever their story is, the fact of the matter is that they have not been able to develop adequately.
Something I have found fascinating in working with such teens is that, once a degree of rapport has been established, how often it is that they are able to express their own insight into their behavior. Unformed, lacking in narrative, etc., sure, but they know at some level their inadequacies. Some of the best work I feel I have done, the most progress I have made with students, has been achieved through helping them to better understand themselves by trying to create an environment in which they feel safe enough to be vulnerable. This is not done by diminishing them and provoking their superficial pride and ego through humiliation (flying off the handle is actually embarrassing, in that you are not in control of yourself, and end up with regrets).

One student of mine, who I, for pedagogically tactical reasons, chose to essentially counsel all period instead of doing my normal rounds, wanted so adamantly for other people not to treat her like she was “crazy”. This, she asked for, while recounting the time she got in trouble for yelling at the cops to leave her the “f#ck alone”. “But *****”, I told her, “you ARE crazy. You have serious anger problems. But you know what, that’s OK. We’re all a bit crazy at times. And most of us haven’t been through half of what you have. “More than anything, she wanted validation. She knew she was a mess, but she didn’t want to be only a mess. Ever since that day, she still barely does her work. But some kind of calm seems to have come over her, and she no longer seems like the quietly brewing tempest she once was. If only she can continue to find others in her life who validate her, she’ll have a chance of making it.

There’s a deep logic to human behavior. So many of us take our developmental maturity for granted, and subsequently find it difficult to understand the behavior of those who fail to behave appropriately. In what might be described as egotistic arrogance, we imagine their level of cognitive awareness to be equal to ours, and thus the behavior to be not an outgrowth of natural development, but of conscious disregard. And when we treat them thusly, I think it entirely logical for them to take extreme offense. Because yes, if they knew better, they would be “dummies”. But they obviously didn’t really know better (in a sort of universal, developmental sense). We can see this illustrated quite clearly in the classic case of the cold, unloving parent or guardian: a child makes an honest mistake, and the caregiver over-reacts, i.e. assumes more developmental capacity than is appropriate. We naturally understand this to be a miscarriage of justice.

While adults are not children, and the infractions maybe more severe, the same dynamic is at work. We ought to recognize our intuition about the child’s treatment and imagine it in the emotional composition of the perpetrator. If he is not treated with dignity, there will be no object to which he will be able to appeal for justice, other than that which resides within his own, internal understanding of fairness. A subjectivity which of course, considering transpiring events, and certainly in the “heat” of the moment, as higher brain functions are limited, ought not be something in which to place our faith. So as we still have a leveraging role to play in our relationship, mutual respect is an invaluable commodity.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Capital Imperative

Karl Marx (1882)
America, it seems, is waking up to the reality of human and social capital.  As attitudes have shifted, racism has largely been removed as a prime obstacle to social equality.  Even as its pernicious effects are all-too real, we are starting to realize that there are larger, more systemic pressures at work in the perpetuation of disadvantage and underclass permanency.

As I wrote about in my last post, although this awakening has lead to a renewed interest in the primacy of public education as an equalizing force, it has had the unfortunate consequence of confusing cause with effect; education is seen as a solution to poverty, and yet as students continue to fail, it is seen as a driver of poverty.  The reality is that poverty is driven by the larger forces at work in capitalism, and the fact that the public education system as we know it is entirely incapable of remediating the resultantly profound deficiencies in social and human capital.

One of the ideas that has been tried in the past is the concept of bussing. Originally designed to enforce racial equality in a society that treated minorities as second-class citizens, it came to be seen as somewhat anachronistic as the old racism faded away.  The costly and inefficient program was ended, and students no longer spent hours commuting across town before and after school.  However, what became increasingly clear was that while the problem of racial prejudice had largely ceased to exist as a barrier for minority success, something deeper and more troubling lay just beneath the surface.

Poor neighborhoods are disproportionately populated by historically disadvantaged groups, namely Hispanics and African Americans.  But this is no longer explained by skin color or ethnicity, as much as inheritance of human and social capital.  In fact, when you look at these communities (which by the way have plenty of Whites), the common denominator is access to capital.  Whether Black, Hispanic, White or Asian, the commonalities are consistently lower levels of family education, family cohesion, income, as well as other indicators of socioeconomic status.  All of this is borne out in the data on the performance of students at poor schools.  (Interestingly, this is something that NCLB testing has been showing for over a decade, but that anyone involved in education could have told you for decades.  A profoundly cheaper, less disruptive and simpler indicator could have been something as simple as looking at graduation rates, and population sampling).

So, how then to best deliver equality of opportunity to children growing up in these neighborhoods?  One innovative concept has been the concept of school integration not by race, but by class.  Similar to the bussing model, students would be bussed from poor to more affluent neighborhoods. While I admire the sentiment, ultimately I don't see it as practical.  My biggest worry is that these students would, while benefiting from higher-capital kids around them, still not be getting their needs met.  Plus, bussing can often add hours to a kid's day - precious time!

It would seem to me to make much more sense to keep kids where they are, in their communities, and target them for intervention with excellent social  and educational services.  Often, it isn't just the kid who needs help, but extended families.  We could have well-funded clinics, community centers, job-training , counseling, treatment facilities, etc. that create enormous social capital in a community.

Poor neighborhoods are going to essentially be collecting pools for the most disenfranchised, exploited and lost in society.  They will be where the low wage service workers live, where the drop-outs, the ex-cons, the single moms, the mentally ill, and anyone else who's suffered tragic struggles in life.  I don't see them going away anytime soon.  But I think we can do great good by optimistically thinking of them as places of great opportunity, as long as we don't forget about them, pretend their problems aren't as bad as they are, and instead make the appropriate social investments.  Hopefully, instead of quicksand, they will be springboards back to real human and social capital that are the real foundations of opportunity.

I'm increasingly feeling disappointed by the deficiencies in our contemporary discussion of education and class in America.  We are constrained in language and thought by a political philosophy that is generally right of center (witness the debate's capture by the neo-liberal and conservative thinkers), and thus incapable of offering the kind of radical, transformative analysis and subsequent policy prescription that real solutions require.

We Need to Be Bullish on Marx
Regular readers of this blog by now are used to my abundant usage of the concept of human and social capital as a framework for understanding society, education and human development.  Their resemblance to financial capital is no accident, and as such, they cannot but be put to use as part of a Marxist critique of social dynamics.  While Marx was primarily concerned with the distribution of power according to financial capital, so too must we be concerned with the distribution of power according to human and social capital.

Much research has been done in the century since his ideas were born, and I think in many ways an updated sociological application better represents a coherent vision of human relations and power dynamics.  Our egalitarian ideals are built on an assumption not merely of external opportunity, but more immediately and fundamentally on an assumption of internal opportunity, in the form of self-efficacy and agency.  True freedom can only come from this development in consciousness and leverage, which does not appear out of nowhere, but instead is the product of social design.  Thus, our design must be towards an egalitarianism not merely of social, but of individual, human potential.

Marx's idea of a state-run economy has been more or less abandoned in favor of a mixed economy, for a variety of reasons.  Equal economic results are an outcome few would champion in the modern economy.  Yet public education is still a concept as strong as it ever was - possibly stronger, in principal.  As a political reality, however, it is as weak as ever, in the face of recognition of the task at hand - the responsibility for imparting in every adolescent citizen an equity of result.

Fortunately, while equal outcomes in the economy are unrealistic, they aren't so in education.  What they do require though, is a thinking much more in line with communism: massive state intervention responsible for assessing inputs and outputs, differentiating and intervening as appropriate, and generally managing the system as a whole.  While the national economy is infinitely complex, as much so as human interaction itself, education is relatively simple.  We already do a relatively sophisticated job of delivering a basic skill set to the majority of American children.  All that needs to be done is to become more nuanced and agile in our delivery, starting with an acknowledgement that certain demographics have different educational needs, and schools need to be designed accordingly if they are to meet those needs adequately.

Differentials in human and social capital establish this framework, and everything flows from there: community need assessment, design and implementation.  This hasn't been tried before in any systematic way, for reasons philosophical as much as political.  And it may end up costing two, three or five times as much.  But when you consider the payoff - utter transformation of the lower classes and poverty as we know it, it doesn't seem to me to be too big a price to pay.  And when considering that those paying it will be doing so because of their own fortuitous inheritance of human and social capital, it will only be fair.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Chasing Windmills

Honoré Daumier, "Don Quixote and Sancho Panza"
Keith Humphreys reminds us that many of the "easy" problems in politics have died off, and thus what are left are the hard ones.  But he then makes the very reasonable point that getting elected often means pretending that there are easy answers, when reality is in fact much more complicated.

I think all of this is true.  But ironically, we also make our problems much more intractable by going after simple-minded solutions instead of seriously grappling with larger underlying problems.

A lot of what seem like intractable problems can be boiled down to education. Or rather, the issue of equality of opportunity for children to grow up with the developmental resources they need to mature into socially healthy citizens. Things like crime, neglect, abuse and hardcore substance abuse arise much more disproportionately in these populations.

So, here is where the huge gap is between policy and effective solutions. There certainly plenty of unknowns, but there are also plenty of knows that aren’t being addressed.
Right now, we aren’t dealing with the dynamic of locational poverty – the tendency of poverty to concentrate geographically, which leads to large communities of low capital (income/human/social).

We aren’t dealing with home or neighborhood environments. We have a smattering of non-profits and outreach, but little is coordinated. Most of the interventions we do provide are through a disorganized public education system that is designed more around the concept of teacher as parent/counselor/instructor/mentor. But in over-crowded classes, over-burdened teachers can’t begin to meet the needs of high-risk students. There is little or no systematic integration of family needs intervention. For instance, a student could be struggling in one class, and a teacher can try to help remediate, possibly send the child for counseling (if it hasn’t been cut), but the larger issue of parent situational dynamics is absent, even if there are likely multiple siblings in the same family experiencing problems across multiple district sites.

I was recently non-reelected (i.e. let go) from a continuation school because I wasn’t providing the kind of direct (whole-class) instruction that the administrator felt was necessary for academic achievement. My pedagogical approach was to emphasize personal relationship building and individualized instruction, which didn’t fit into his assessment model, and thus resulted in my receiving low evaluation scores. Unlike the other teachers at the school, as a new hire I lacked tenure, and thus even though my instructional method (favoring relationship-building and emotional rehabilitation over rigid adherence to unrealistic standards) was fortunately the norm at the school – the teachers here are practically saints considering the clientele – I wasn’t immune from administrative autocracy. (Nothing could make this point better than staff meetings devoted to improving test scores, when our population has a drop-out rate of over 50%, severe substance abuse and mental health issues, and a majority of whom do have little motivation to do work in class – often because they are too high – much less on a state test for which they have zero explicit incentive to do well on).

This is symptomatic of a larger “no excuses” trend in education that assumes that a child’s emotional, behavioral and cognitive development are largely irrelevant to instruction, and that a “well-designed” lesson is essentially a cure-all for what can be an extensive legacy of developmental deficiencies. Thus, something like ongoing trauma at home must be ignored in favor of an authoritarian model of instruction in which the teacher is expected to be capable of adequately remediating entirely on his or her own, alone in a classroom of 25-35 students.

Implicit in this pedagogical assumption is the explicit disregard for student needs that years of research and behavioral theory have proven true. For instance, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model, before a student can achieve high-level cognition, fundamental stresses need to be resolved. Many at-risk students enter class after having suffered any number of environmental stressors that put them at a very low operational level. For instance, if your dad was drunk and beating your mother (or you) the night prior, it is going to be difficult to concentrate on the process of DNA base pairing. Further, the concept of the Proximal Zone of Development shows that learning is context-dependent, and a student with a 3rd grade reading level shouldn’t be asked to study 11th grade material.

These are the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts underlying so much of the teacher anger surrounding current education reform that emphasizes union-busting charters, pay-performance, and other “accountability” measures designed around the assumption that bad teaching is to blame – an assumption itself based on the notion that teacher efficacy should be able to remediate even the starkest developmental and sociological deficiencies. Of course teacher quality matters and you can always find great teachers doing great things. But this would be true in multiple domains, and yet we are generally not so foolish in basing our performance expectations on outliers in other fields.

So, why do we do this in education? I think the reason is twofold. First, the stakes are so high – we know now more than ever the importance of human capital, both in terms of self-efficacy as well as democratic egalitarianism, and public education is naturally the primary policy response. Second, as I have outlined above, there is a deep failure to grasp the magnitude of the challenges, and thus it is apparently quite easy for people not familiar with the front lines of low-SES education to adopt a simplistic, naive perspective and buy into misguided solutions.

These two dynamics – social imperative and naiveté – conspire to create a policy environment in which easy answers are prescribed for serious problems, leading inevitably to a sense of frustration and powerlessness. Compounding this problem is our tendency to want to find scapegoats, easily identifiable characters around which we can build convenient narratives; if only these simple obstacles were removed, our story would have a happy ending. But to extend the fairy tale analogy, single-minded, quixotic adventures distract us and waste time better spent targeting specific problems and integrating them into more reality-based approaches.

Generally, we have not done this in education. Our failure to properly grapple with the problem has led to vastly wasteful expenditures in time and money, as millions of teachers across the country have been asked to do the impossible in lieu of serious state and federal policy designed to tackle the roots of low-SES developmental patterns. The system we exist in now is largely socially Darwinian, in that those with sufficient levels of human and social capital are able to survive and develop adequately, while those without are stranded in a wasteland of broken, uneven or simply nonexistent policy. As misguided policy prescriptions based on flawed assumptions continue to fail, we continue to risk a subsequently misguided sense that generational poverty and the SES achievement gap are intractable problems.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Planet Max, P.1

I just printed out two things: my letter of resignation, and my letter of interest in a teaching position with a local band of Indians.  They had actually offered my a job a couple years ago, but I had just been hired with the district and after my terrible experience with a charter, I had hoped the traditional district would be a safer course.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get to my 2 year tenure before caprice overcame commitment, and my career in education is yet again hanging in the balance.

It's been one of the hardest things I've had to deal with in life yet, my wife and two daughters, our mortgage all dependent on my ability to be successful in education.  I feel like I've been on a daily hormone drip of stress for the past two months (years, if I take the long view of dealing with narrow-minded and misguided administrations). 

So how am I dealing with it?  In part, by escaping into science fiction.  What this apparently means for this blog, is that you'll now be treated to (probably) regular installments of my own fictional narrative: Planet Max.  Well, for lack of a better title.  In many ways, the character mirrors myself, his crash landing and feelings of doom and alienation a reasonable analogy for my own current circumstances.  Max doesn't however, have a wife and two daughters he loves and adores.  Nor does he have a roof over his head, and a cup of coffee in the morning.  But, then again, he doesn't have to work at a continuation school, with a boss who has fired him him, and for whom he must serve out 2 more undignified months.

What a galaxy.


Max took off his helmet and looked around.  The land here was lush and muggy.  A subtle din of water and life mingled in the night air.  He unlocked his gear and took one last look at the ship.  The distress beacon was operating dutifully, alternating green to red.  A rescue party would see it if they came.  But Max knew the likelihood of that.
His pack was digging in to his lower back and if he didn’t stop soon it would blister.   How long had it been since he’d worn one?  He thought of Sarah, Tom and Alejandro – the old gang.  They’d gotten lost once and ended up huddled together in a cave for two days straight, waiting out a hurricane on a training moon.  Tom kept trying to convince them to go with him and explore the cave deeper.  He was always like that.  Max remembered Tom in grade school, hurriedly finishing his lunch so he could go show off in the gymnasium.  He was always jealous of that part of Tom, how he was always up for anything, how others would admire him and give him such devoted attention.  Max was never like that.  He was cautious and thoughtful.  Too much “in his head”, Sarah would say.  He cursed this tendency in himself.  But there was a quiet pride in it, one that he grew to appreciate.  He came to understand that the respect and admiration of others would have to be based on something stronger, if it were to be counted on in times of adversity.  It no doubt saved them in that cave.  They never did go exploring with Tom.  And when the storm cleared, they made it back to camp safely, cold, tired and hungry, but alive.
The sun was going to rise soon.  Max would be able to get a better picture of the landscape.  He had spotted a suitably elevated rock formation earlier that looked accessible, if he could just make his way around this marsh.  In the morning light he could make out more of the life around him, although the mist was still heavy.  He knew nothing about this planet.  It wasn’t on any of his charts - just one of thousands of suggested emergency planets listed in the survival index for this galaxy.  So far it was quite habitable.  The air was oxygen rich, the temperature moderate and tropical at this latitude.  Before the crash he had re-routed all power to stabilization and had no way to test abiotic conditions below.  But so far the index was spot-on.  His primary goal was going to be to find intelligent life, access a communications relay and send word home.  But for now he just had to survive.
He made his way through a field of large, leafy ferns.  The ground beneath him was a soft and spongy layer of thick peat moss, and he had to be careful not to step into the occasional weak spot and find himself knee-deep in muck.  In the distant sky a purple moon was receding.  He wondered how many moons this planet had.  People long ago used to question whether there was life beyond earth.  How small the universe must have seemed, limited as they were to their tiny orbit around the sun.  Their telescopes brought them only the dimmest portraits of other galaxies and star systems.
Max paused and took a swig of water.  His back was really killing him now.  The skin was surely broken and he’d have to repair it soon.  He was nearing the edge of the marsh and he would be climbing the hillside shortly.  Still no signs of life apart from swamp bugs and vegetation.  He reminded himself to use one of the immune booster packs in his kit.  Who knew what kind of parasites and micro-organisms were swarming around him?  All in all, though, he felt rather pleasant.  Things could have been a lot worse.
The air up here was drier and his clothes were becoming less damp.  An hour or so and he would be at the summit.  He was following what seemed suspiciously like a trail.  He had first noticed it at the edge of the marsh, what appeared to be a path up and out of the thick fern foliage towards the rocky cliffs.  If it was a trail, it hadn’t been used in a while.  But it seemed to lead confidently enough around the sheer rock walls, slowly winding higher and higher up the hillside.  The morning sun was bright in the Eastern sky now and Max was glad to be hugging so close to the cliffs to still be in its shadow.  A trail would have to have been made by a larger animal, possibly intelligent.  Although he still hadn’t seen any evidence of it.  The trail was too rocky to make out tracks, and unless the droppings were fresh, the rain would have washed any away.
Max felt a misty breeze wash over him and heard its echo.  He noticed then another sound, a deep roar, like that of rushing water.  He checked his footing and carefully maneuvered around a large boulder.  Before him stood a majestic waterfall, pouring forth from an opposing cliff face.  At least one hundred feet tall, its source meandered down into a cove carved into the mountainside as if in secret, before plunging down into a dark pool below.  Max sat back on a rock and took a breath. 
Alone again, like always.  This time he just happened to be sitting across from a waterfall on a strange planet.  But he could have been anywhere.  Sitting in a café, quietly reading the news as a group of friends shared a laugh.  Taking the long way home on his grav-cycle after work.  Wandering a mall, riding escalators to and from boutiques filled with things he didn’t care about.  Catching the double-feature in a darkened theater.  Speeding through the galaxy, surrounded by stars.
Drops of water fell slowly.  The sunlight bent in the mist, radiating rainbows.  Maybe this would be a fitting final chapter to his life.  The lonely man, alone at last on an empty planet.  He wasn’t really alone, though, was he?  He had his thoughts.  He always had his thoughts.  They would engulf him like an ocean, filling his mind with weeds and creatures.  So much water, of which he was king.  Poseidon must have been lonely too.
The bio-ointment penetrated his epidermis and began at once to stimulate new cell growth.  A few more minutes and the repair would be complete.  He couldn’t see everything from up here but he could see a bit.  And there were no signs of intelligent life.  Nothing but marshland and canopy for as far as he could see.  When he reached the summit he would be able to see the other side of the hill.  Maybe there would be something there.
The path had become much more delicate, and Max struggled to keep his footing.  In places the trail had eroded completely, leaving nothing but sparse granite juts on which to step.  But he managed to keep his balance and avoid a fatal slip over the edge.  He had circled around to the waterfall now and was mere feet from its source.  Large trees extended their branches out high above, their roots winding down over the edge of the cliff, probing into what wet, rocky soil they could find.  He grabbed hold of one and hoisted himself up, hand over hand to the top.
He was standing at the edge of a thick forest.  The waterfall had been pouring from a small stream that seemed to disappear into the undergrowth.  Max had hoped to find a view of the other side of the hill, but he hadn’t expected such an extensive plateau.  Looking back across the waterfall he saw the mouth of the cove, how the path he had taken wound around and back into the cliff-side, the marsh beyond that, his ship somewhere out there.  His eyes searched for the beacon but the morning mist had yet to burn away.  He would have to press on.  His best bet was to follow the stream up into the forest, hopefully reaching higher ground and getting a look at what lay to the East, on other side of this plateau.  He had enough food and liquids to last a week if he needed to.  Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that.  He had been alone before, but never this alone.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Blind Nobility

Radical politics is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is to be admired for its relentless enthusiasm and firm commitment to principle. When facing down a mortal enemy, it fights with a vigor and tenacity that can be profoundly constructive. But on the other hand, it can lead one blindly into the wilderness, chasing after shadows.

Barbara Ehrenreich does some of the latter in a recent article, How We Cured “the Culture of Poverty,” Not Poverty Itself. She notes correctly that in the last 50 years, America has, led by a convenient marriage of conservatism and neo-liberalism, pretended that poverty was solely the product of bankrupt culture; instead of attacking the institutions and social dynamics that perpetuate poverty, it has been sold - under the banner of a "classless society" - as a purely behavioral problem. 
By the Reagan era, the “culture of poverty” had become a cornerstone of conservative ideology: poverty was caused, not by low wages or a lack of jobs, but by bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles. The poor were dissolute, promiscuous, prone to addiction and crime, unable to “defer gratification,” or possibly even set an alarm clock.
Ehrenreich is right to dismiss this right-wing narrative as simplistic, misguided and uncompassionate.  The right and neo-liberal left has mistaken symptom for underlying problem.  But in attempting to critique their over-reliance on a sort of underclass demagoguery, she wrongly denies that the symptoms even exist.  The reality is that the poor, as a class, certainly do suffer from behavioral issues that the more affluent do not.  Yet by denying this truth, she ends up missing the opportunity to take a larger perspective, and account for the causal mechanisms involved in dysfunctions that plague poor communities such as violence, substance abuse, educational failure, etc.

I've worked in poor communities all my life, and nowhere is this more evident than in poor schools. While I applaud Ms. Ms. Ehrenreich's defense of the dignity of the poor, as well as her pointing out that they are not a homogeneous class, the picture she paints can actually end up limiting our ability to deal with poverty by underestimating its complexity.

What we need to understand when thinking about poverty is that human social development requires two forms of capital: human and social. They are both dynamic, and reinforce each other in that each leverages the other to promote self-efficacy and success. A persistent lack of either among classes of citizens represents a serious threat to our core values of democracy and egalitarianism.

Unfortunately, when we assume in general that the poor have more human and social capital than they do, that they are merely poor in financial capital, we do not take seriously their plight, not the larger social dynamics at work that conspire to further marginalize and disenfranchise them. A serious, modern critique of capitalism and subsequent policy implications simply cannot be entertained without first grappling with the mechanics of human and social capital leveraging.

To truly see the dignity of the poor, we must recognize the reality of the struggles they face, trying to raise families in neighborhoods in which poverty is concentrated and capital of all kinds is in short supply.  She ends her piece with this summation:
And if we look closely enough, we’ll have to conclude that poverty is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw. Poverty is a shortage of money.
It is actually much more serious than this.  The sooner we recognize it, the better we will be able to truly help those in need.  It does not help those who are treated without dignity to pretend that their problems are not as severe as they in fact are.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Alternative Education

Rick Santorum's recent comments on the notion of universal college education have spurred some interesting debate.  While it may be true that his rhetoric was based on a flawed perception of Obama (Obama's actual speech included trade schools as perfectly valid career options), and designed to appeal to a stereotype of liberal "elitism", there was an element of truth in his denunciation of the common assumption that public education should be preparing all students for college.

In a perfect world, all students would have the social and human capital required to pursue a traditional course of academic study.  Even those setting their sights on a technical career should certainly have a solid understanding of liberal arts, math and science.

However, that is not the world we live in.  Communities all across the country are profoundly damaged, and hundreds of thousands of children raised in them are coming of age with profound deficiencies, such that even technical school, let alone 4 year university careers are out of the questions.

What we always have to remember in talking about education is that students vary widely in their levels of human and social capital, thusly emotional, cognitive, behavioral development.  Vocational programs would need to be structured with this differentiation in mind.

I teach at a continuation high school, and the majority of students have suffered academically their whole lives because of the severe circumstances in which they have developed.  Most come from incredibly dysfunctional homes, many have emotional and mental problems, most have substance abuse issues.  It is quite common for them to be currently living in abusive homes, or to be members of incredibly dysfunctional peer groups.  Numerous students read at an elementary grade level, and absolutely despise standard, grade-level curriculum.

Before these students can even think about academic learning, they need to develop basic emotional and behavioral skills.  So what I'm interested in is the element of vocational schooling that better facilitates the remediation of these skills through cooperative, non-authoritarian, student-centered learning that provides the kind of hands-on, project-based, real-world enrichment activities that return to the student a feeling of confidence, purpose and ultimately a sense of self-control. 

For these at-risk students, dropping out is a severe problem.  What they need is to want to come to school, to feel that it is a rewarding, satisfying, and genuinely stimulating experience.  Because of their limited development, the traditional model of relying about student interest in academic learning simply doesn't work.  They hate reading, listening to teacher lectures, taking notes, and otherwise engaging in learning as a positive experience.  In their world, with their norms, authorities are not to be trusted, and reality is to be escaped at all cost - generally by looking forward to getting high, drunk, etc. at the end of the day - often with family and friends.

If anyone has not yet seen the documentary The Wild, Wonderful Whites, I would recommend it as a primer for the kinds of behaviors and lifestyle of the very poor and dysfunctional in every community across the country.  What you see in that movie is exactly what we're dealing with in the continuation environment, only often with minority groups having the added frustration of being cultural outsiders and having developed dysfunctional defense mechanisms.

At my school, vocational classes were long ago abandoned in favor of strict adherence to state standards and an assumption by administrators that the traditional, mainstream model of classroom pedagogy - if only perfectly applied - will somehow lead to students engagement and better test scores.  The result is a sort of cacophonous medley of worksheets and teacher hoop-jumping in which administrators are placated with show-lessons designed to represent an imaginary administrative ideal, as opposed to the reality of what the students really need, and a pedagogy that delivers it to them.

Two classic concepts in education are currently being violated in this model: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and
 Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development.  The former is a psychological model for the order in which human needs must be met before advanced thinking and behavior can be performed.  Before something like algebra can be learned, the body must be fed, rested, adequately free of stress, etc.  The latter describes the process of learning itself, in which new ideas and thought is constructed not from nothing but by a continuous cycling back to prior knowledge and experience.  You can't expect a child to do multimplication if he hasn't masted the concept of addition.  You can't teach moral relativism without first defining morality.

Most of my students have severe deficiencies not only in academic, contextual knowledge, but in basic emotional, behavioral and cognitive development.  Worse, they'll have come from toxic home environments that on a daily basis actively deteriorate their ability to even consider higher-order needs, i.e. traditional academic instruction.  The current model represents a sort of social-Darwinian dynamic in which only those students who for whatever reason have been able to have their needs met succeed, and the rest drop out.  Any initiative that is truly egalitarian (i.e. allows every student to be successful), and makes a meaningful difference in all of these students' lives, must take these two concept into account as a foundational premise.  Vocational training, with its utilization of hands-on, kinesthetic, co-operative and real-world problem solving, and  properly designed and administered to facilitate not only academic, but more importantly personal, emotional, behavioral, social and cognitive development, would seem to be a clear pedagogical alternative the the traditional, mainstream model.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Beyond Fatalism

Allegoria Della Vita Umana, Guido Cagnacci (1601 - 1663)
Getting hung up on fatalism seems one of the biggest problems people have in accepting the determinist view (that there is no free will; the choices we make have been fully caused); even if they see it as rational, they worry the implication will be so dire that to accept it would be embracing something immoral.

This is incredibly flawed logic, of course, in that it puts the cart before the horse, and accepts the idea that you don't have to accept reality if you don't like it - as if your views had any bearing on the laws of the physical universe!

But it is also flawed in that it assumes that determinism implies fatalism. For me, rather it implies compassion, empathy, understanding of the ego, and the path to making better decisions. It implies humility and the recognition that we are all doing the best we can. It implies that our positive and negative actions are merely consequences of larger dynamics, and thus allows us to better understand how to ultimately shape those larger dynamics and increase human happiness.

I was reminded of this after the recent school shooting. At the end of the story, the newscaster noting the grief being experienced throughout the small town community, his final words were that the "community was left grappling with one question: why?" It occurred to me that this question is at the root of so much human despair and anguish. When something painful is not understood, it is in our nature to agonize all the more over it. Feelings of fear mix with anger and frustration into a toxic concoction. These emotions cloud our judgement, and often lead to an impulse of retribution, likely itself an attempt to banish the uncomfortable emotions.

Yet as I heard the newscaster's question, and sympathized with the sentiment, I was experiencing none of the angst to which he referred: there would clearly be a reason why, there always is. The boy was disturbed. Whether it was from a personal history as the victim of abuse, or his suffering from mental illness, or dysfunctional cultural influences, or, more commonly, a mixture of all three, he was clearly created by his genes and their interaction with the environment.

Any of us who has ever thought, "well, I would never do something like that", intuitively grasps this notion, that the self is relative: the reasons you would never do such a thing yourself are precisely the things that were absent from the shooter's self.

Parents also intuitively grasp this notion whenever they take the time to provide guidance to their children: they recognize that their child's behavioral development is a physical process dependent on positive multi-sensory stimulation: touching, hearing and seeing the world in ways that stimulate the positive brain growth responsible for improved cognition, emotional regulation, etc. These things don't happen by accident - everything in our cultural and religious heritage since the dawn of history has evidenced that, as advanced primates, humans are practically defined by our ability to learn, and teach, so as to pass on specific behaviors and development that we desire in successive generations.

So, while the question"why" is interesting from a scientific perspective, as there is clearly an infinite number of things to learn about the process of consciousness and individual choice, the larger, existential, question has clearly been answered. We know in a general sense why "bad" people do bad things, as well as why good people do "good" things: because they have been made that way.

This may all lead to a refutation of the second claim in the worry about fatalism: that acceptance of determinism will lead not only to despair and meaninglessness, but to a morality devoid of personal responsibility.

Even if one believes (knows?) that life unfolds according to physical processes beyond our ultimate control, one's practical experience is remarkably unchanged.  One still has needs and desires.  Surely the fact that I do not choose to become hungry, or that my taste buds have been designed to respond to make certain foods pleasurable, doesn't mean that I cannot enjoy a delicious meal.  Or, that my pain receptors have been designed to give me discomfort when they are stimulated by injury?  I cannot escape this fact of human life.

But what of the choices I make?  Here lies what may be the nub of the issue.  Every conscious choice I make is essentially a selection among a variety of options, each given variations of "weight" towards my ultimate goal of making the "best" choice.  This is at one level a physical, mathematical process, in that there exist multiple variables that are adjusted and defined according to discrete relationships, so as to give each meaning in context of the others.  Our brains have been designed to "learn" to make these choices as unconsciously as possible, firmly laying down complex routines and sub-routines, so as to maximize efficiency and free up mental resources for expanded conscious capacity.  For instance, when first learning to ride a bike, 100% of conscious attention is required to manage the feedback of innumerable stimuli.  Yet once bike riding is "learned", the routines have been laid down to the degree that it is now possible to ponder direction, carry on conversations, or ruminate over other, more transcendent concerns.  What began as a complicated series of conscious decisions (keep pedaling, lean left, lean right, watch out for the tree!), has become entirely unconscious.

Yet many decisions in life are unique, and require more sophisticated analysis.  Surely picking a president, or deciding to get up on time to go to work, or to quell one's anger so as not to go on a killing spree, or to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior, require more conscious choice.

Or do they?  Individual decision-making is difficult to track, especially on complex, dynamic issues such as religion, politics, or motivation, where a seemingly infinite set of variables come to bear.  But when people are looked at as a group, in categories defined by set variables such as family history, education, wealth, culture, mental health, etc., patterns begin to emerge.  It becomes increasingly possible to predict the likelihood that any given individual in a group will make particular decisions.

What this implies is that people, no matter how conscious they might regard themselves to be when they get out of bed in the morning, or step into the polling booth in the afternoon, are in fact much more determined than they might themselves recognize.  Knowingly or not, they are on courses of patterned behavior that their brains have been evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to establish systematically.  

Can we break free from these determined patterns?  This is actually the question the fatalist gets at:  If one were to, after accepting that he is fully caused and thus not ultimately responsible for any of his behavior, commit murder in cold blood and feel no guilt or shame?  

He certainly could, but only if he were able to completely extricate himself not only from everything he has ever learned from society regarding the immorality of murder, but also from the biological structures in his brain responsible for the human emotions of empathy, compassion and love for others.  He would have to be the proverbial "superman".  

Not only would this be a highly unlikely development in any average man, it would have to be entirely deterministic.  That is, he must recognize that whatever behavior he undertakes to choose, it will have arisen from his own special circumstance as a "self" that had been created under the precise conditions so as to allow him to carry out such a morally radical action, one in direct opposition to biological and social norms that society has not inherited arbitrarily, but largely having been designed with regard to maximal individual interest.  

The decision to flaunt this design would be tantamount to denying one's biological imperative to eat, or even move.  If there is truly no point to anything, as we are all determined, then why should we do anything at all?

I tried this once, when I came to a similar conclusion at the age of 18.  I remember sitting on a chair in my bedroom, realizing that I could find no clear, rational purpose to life, other than to fulfill preordained social and biological (at a certain point these blur together) impulses.  I had no real option other than to adopt a catatonic posture towards waking reality, and simply let nature take its course.  I moved to the floor, laying down onto my back.  I had to breath - that was largely a autonomic response anyway.  I didn't need need to pee just then, which in retrospect was probably a bonus, as I would have had to wrestle with the thought of allowing my bladder to release its contents of its own volition.  

So, there I was.  Waiting.  For what, to die?  I imagined my then girlfriend arriving home and finding me there, inevitably arguing with me to get the hell up off the floor (maybe by then lying in my own excrement).  It began to dawn on me that what I was undertaking required enormous willpower.  By choosing to make no choices, I was stuck in a paradox.  Any behavior would be chosen behavior.  This was simply a physical reality of being human.  And any choice I made was going to be dependent on prior choices, or naturally occurring stimuli.  If I were to truly stay in this catatonic state, and I suppose eventually be taken away on a stretcher, I would have to have process enormous amounts of prior learning and have managed to re-route those innumerable sub-routines.  To do so - and here is the bottom of it all - would have all been entirely determined anyway; reaching this point would have required a specific set of environmental and biological processes to occur that would have caused me to make whatever choices I was pretending not to make.  Maybe it was because I read Camus.  Maybe because I rebelled against my parents' religion.  Maybe I was simply depressed. 

In the end, I could not escape choice.  I would have to then take responsibility for the choices that I did make, even if they were ultimately chosen for me.  I thought first of my girlfriend, and my loving feelings for her. I thought of the sunshine.  I thought of bagels and cream cheese, and riding my skateboard.  I thought of making others happy, of doing good deeds, and of all there still was to learn in the world.  These were all things that gave me pleasure.  They were, of course, all products of my life up until that point.  They were the final result, the now, of the particular way in which all the elements that originally spun together, accreted into the planet Earth, assembled into lifeforms, evolved into humans, and over thousands of years gave rise to little old "me".

As I rose up of the floor, I felt a sort of ecstacy.  I had found an answer to the question "why".  It may not have had much explanatory power - that would come as I continued to live my life, learning and digesting the world before me.  But it was an existential answer.  It integrated my self with the natural world around me.  It established, through reason, a purpose for my existence.  Above all it elevated humility, a word rooted in the basic understanding that we are all only human.  Not only need we not be anything more, but we simply cannot be any more.  As Descartes famously wrote, "I think, therefore I am".  No matter that my thoughts came from some determined place in the past; I am my thoughts.  I am not omnipotent, and I must be satisfied with that limitation.    I must be satisfied with these physical limitations, even as I seek to expand my consciousness - that which is defined by the relationship between the self and it's own immediate history.  

Just as a serpent cannot eat its own tail, the self cannot think itself away.  It is trapped in its own causality.  All we can ever do is try to understand as best we can that which we have come from, that which makes us, as it will lead to the kind of fulfillment we cannot help but desire.  What this fulfillment is, or even how to attain it, is nothing less than the human project.  We are involved in it whether we like it or not.  It is indeed fate, but it is a fate much more profound and dynamic than we can hope to understand.  All we can do is go along for the ride, our contribution, in no matter what capacity, preordained.  

And there is beauty.  

Of course.