Three years.

Hmmm…

Man, I’ve had a pretty lousy year.

I suppose plenty of people around the world have too, what with that pandemic and all.

I’m joking, but I do feel pretty bad.

Materially, my life has probably never been better. Living with my parents again, I am enjoying the luxuries of an American suburb in my first full year back from abroad. Let’s just make the comparison stark: spending two years out in a literal shack in rural Japan instils a good deal of perspective about the marvels of air-conditioning and central heating. America is simply much richer than other large nations, even fellow developed ones like Japan (inequality issues aside, going off some quick World Bank figures, the US has something like 50% more GDP per capita!).

I think a substantial number of Americans forget this. Consider that back in the last year of the Trump administration, talk floated around of America as a “failed state” (below):

Hmmmmm…

Clearly, no.

If we take the Covid vaccine rollout as a bit of a puckish state capacity index, the US came third behind Israel and the UK. Delay, incompetence, and worse along the way? Sure, but with the final “results” coming in across the globe, that’s not bad for a failed state! Vaccine hesitancy among the population remains a concern, but the government itself has demonstrated the ability to mobilize resources in the public and private sectors on a massive scale. You know, the opposite of a failed state.

With that said, I am frightened for America.

As I wrote in my second-year review, I more or less cold-turkey quit reading the news last spring. A year later, I don’t even scan the headlines anymore. To see why, just take another look at the stories already posted above.

Once respectable outlets will, with what feels like increasing frequency, clown themselves. No sober thinker would compare the USA to genuine failed states like Libya or Somalia, but hey, there it is – in the New York Times. Yes, I know each piece carries nuance and caveats beyond the shock-value headlines. However, that style of headline is part of the problem. In this new era of partisan presses, news and opinion stories blend together on digital feeds which, when amplified on social media and sequestered into algorithmic bubbles, take on a memetic life of their own. For example, the author of the Atlantic piece, George Packer, later tried to clarify that he was “writing figuratively.” But the clarification came too late. Click-bait copy-cats smelled a good hyperbole and had already spun up the content mills, thereby making any careful public discussion almost impossible.

In such an environment, I just don’t see the good of keeping up with “the discourse” anymore. Through the previous year, any news important enough to reach me, like pandemic updates, did. Though less polished and sensational than the national media, local channels proved adequate, with the additional practical consideration that I have much more power to affect change in my local community than in national debates. For the coming year, I hope to avoid it all again, especially that roiling, present-tense crucible of elite opinion-making called “Twitter.” However, even I couldn’t miss a few key stories.

January 6th. Polling estimates suggest that maybe around 1/4 of Americans agree that “[The 2020 election] was the result of illegal voting or election rigging.” That’s not good. Leaders in the Republican Party, with the former president most significant among them, continue to circulate the lie that Democrats somehow stole the election. However, democracies depend on the losers of an election admitting their defeat. To do otherwise denies the legitimacy of “the people” even making a choice in the first place, bringing the whole edifice of popular sovereignty down with it. Or, in simpler terms, if a sufficient number of people believe that a democracy has failed, it really already has.

I don’t think American democracy will “fail” in the long-run, though maybe I only convince myself of that to avoid jumping on as a +1 in that previous formula. However, considering the apparent decline in democratic legitimacy together with events like January 6th, sporadic violence through the previous summer, and domestic deployments of the National Guard, I am concerned about an increase in political violence such has occasionally flared up throughout American history. To revise Clausewitz just a bit, Violence is politics by other means (or even just politics, period). If a political system cannot accommodate competing factions, extremists seek alternative recourse. The stakes might not be civil war, as some pundits have suggested, but they are high. That’s not good.

Those are the peak concerns of my lousy year, but personal frustrations have figured high as well. I worked to get a teacher’s license through a state university this past year and just… despised the process. I will not repeat myself from the 6-part Ed School TnT series, which consumed this blog for the year, but suffice to say that I did not receive a good education at the School of Education. Though I now have a teacher’s license, I don’t know if I still want to use it – when faced with the overwhelming mediocrity in the academic the study of pedagogy, I recoil at the thought of spending a career breathing that air in professional development sessions. In my darker moments I ask myself if I would even send my (hypothetical, non-existent) children to a public school if their teachers had preparations as poor as my own.

Those moments pass, but the feelings put me in a confusing position in relation to the future. The otherwise enjoyable “path” I have pursued into teaching these past four years has twisted up into resentful concerns about the intellectual quality of the field and, more importantly, its culture. Many American Schools of Education are dramatically ideological, even by the standards of the already left-liberal academy. This trickles down into the policies adopted by public schools and the approaches of individual teachers. Though the partisan media stupidly exaggerates that effect, that’s part of the problem: I do not want to work in a career so intensely politicized into a future whose politics looks more and more fraught. Even as a mere student, I began to notice a reluctance in myself to express dissents as simple as “I disagree” against strongly ideological professors and peers. Attach professional consequences to such divergent opinions (and I have many) in an employer-employee relationship and, well, I’ll probably just say nothing at all. That’s… not good.

I want to drop the personal troubles though and return to the concept of luxury again. I have the luxury to entertain the notion of not using my teacher’s license because I have other, financially viable options via my actual undergraduate degrees, just as American journalists have the luxury to entertain the notion of America as a failed state because they do not live in a failed state. Apart from a miserable recovery from a non-essential surgery last summer (another luxury), very little bad has happened to me even in this year of pandemic. Instead, my complaints are almost purely intellectual – unproven, prospective, basically neurotic. In the now, however, I can disconnect from this terminal of a computer, step outside, eat an apple, watch the birds, or ride my bike. I can more or less forget it all.

I do not discount the possibility that intellectual matters might become real, especially through those problems of polarization and politicization discussed above. People have a weird habit of enacting dire ideological fantasies.

But for now, at least, I’d like to go water the flowers. I think I even saw an ad in the local paper that the 4th of July festival is returning to town again this year. That’s nice. I should not deny the luxury.

Like I’ve done in previous years, I’ll answer a few questions. I’ll skip the negative ones this time though.

Favorite Anime of the year?

It’s not a new anime, and I had already seen it, and it’s not even really a favorite of mine, but I rewatched Little Witch Academia with my mom. She likes witches and things, so I think she enjoyed it, and I enjoyed her enjoyment. For a new, personal pick, I loved Japan Sinks from last year. It’s just ridiculous, one of the funniest anime I’ve seen, even if it didn’t mean it. MVP goes to that crazy old man.

Favorite Book of the yaer?

I read a lot this year, to the exclusion of other hobbies.  Much of that reading probably wasn’t healthy… I spent obsessive hours digging through university catalogues and Google Scholar reading academic literature on education. I learned little but that I learned little “engaging with the scholarship,” as they say (oh my god, it’s sooo bad). I did a bit better reading some of the big, old names in the field – Dewey, Vygotsky, Freire, etc. – in an attempt to self-educate past the low standards of my licensure program. Mostly though, those guys are all just really, really boring. I more enjoyed two recent writers, David Labaree – a historian of the American education systems who helped contextualize some of my frustrations with Ed School – and Kieran Egan – a philosopher who wrote a (I think) strong critique of the assumptions behind progressive pedagogies. I’m not sold on his replacement “Imaginative Education” system, but Egan might be the funniest, most engaging “serious” academic writer I can recall reading.

What next?

Dunno. Right now I’m intimidated by the job search process. =/

2 thoughts on “Three years.

  1. I either never came across the America-the-failed-state rhetoric, or I so thoroughly ignored it as vapid rhetoric that I have no memory of coming across it. I followed your series on eductation for a carreer in education, even if I stopped replying. It’s not a topic I know much about. I was a tad confused that “critical theory” seems to extend to the postmodernists; I’ve only ever heard it used with respect to the folks around the Frankfurt school (Adorno, Althusser, Habermas etc.).
    Haven’t had too strong a year myself, but there’s actually good things, too. We’ve had a couple of lockdowns and less workload, so I now have less money (but enough), however I’m also better rested than I was in years (not only less workload, but also generally less party noise, something I learn to appreciate now that the noise is coming back).
    Hope things’ll look better in the near future. Hope you find a nice job.
    I did like both Little Witch Academia and Japan Sinks (I think my favourite comedy moment was the escalation from gulls to shark, if you know which scene I mean). I can’t remember my favourite anime of last year right now (I can never remember what aired when if it didn’t air just last season), but I thought spring season was rather strong (Fumetsu no Anata e, Odd Taxi, Fruits Basket, Shadows House, Pretty Boy Detective Club…). One season is about all the attentionspan I can currently muster.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I’m glad to hear your year hasn’t been so bad.

      I think the thing with critical theory is mostly just linguistic shift since the 70s and Americans mucking stuff up =)

      In like “serious” academic philosophy, critical theory still refers to the Frankfurt type, but in the wider American academy the term has transformed to capture all kinds of disperate “lenses” from (especially French) post-structuralism, postmodernism, etc. In one of the Ed School posts, I cited a good intellectual history from Cusset on the process: Americans transformed and kind of bastardized the original ideas to fit the US political context. However, that political salience has been really corrosive to the concept: hack pundits redefine it however they please and second-rate scholars in low-prestige fields like education have a habit of using it badly (like Okun in part 6). As a result, the term has kind of lost its specificity: it’s either a catch-all term for narrow subfields like “critical race theory” / “critical legal studies,” a term of abuse deployed in conservative polemic, or an unstable weasel-word used by pedantic leftists trying to deflect from those conservative attacks (the “that’s not *real* socialism” -type arguments) .

      I just try to avoid it, but when textbooks literally self-define as “critical pedagogy” or “critical social justice,” I suppose I’ve got to follow the authors. I’m hardly an expert.

      I missed most of last anime season while full-time student teaching. I’ll have to catch up this summer!

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