Basic training

I got a little heated at an MPS school board meeting this week. The board, of which I am a member, was gathered to hear State Superintendent Libby Burmaster inform us about the intervention strategies that the state will be using on MPS now that we have been designated a District Identified for Improvement (or, a DIFI -- say it like "die-fie" if you want to sound fluent in No Child Left Behindism).

The intervention strategies are tolerable (some state-paid monitors, a mandate for designated amounts of reading and math instruction, plus a few other bells and whistles) and I know that Supt. Burmaster is a strong advocate for the children in MPS, but I couldn’t help snapping on NCLB, the law that produced all this nanny-ness.

We in the public schools world have been shuffling through the red-tape distractions and jumping through the mindless hoops of NCLB for six years now, seeing how it works for kids or doesn’t. The law is up for reauthorization in Congress and I thought for sure that key congressional leaders would, at minimum, object to the shaky math used to set performance goals that increasingly become more statistically impossible to reach by the 2014 deadline set in the original law.

But no. There’s no leadership in Congress against NCLB, which only meaningfully applies, by the way, to low-income districts with diverse populations. White, middle- and upper-class districts are largely off the hook. If you’re a district with immigrant children, with poor children, with children with a lot of special needs, you will become a DIFI. If not today, then soon.

NCLB is a racist, classist law designed to keep poor children’s noses to the basic-skills grindstone (Reading! Math! Reading! Math!) while preventing their teachers from helping them develop critical reasoning skills like logic, statistics, media literacy and the scientific method; or a sense of history and the citizenship skills needed for resistance against a repressive regime. Heaven forbid th…


Indiana Jones and the temple of kaboom

As a middle-schooler, I wanted to be Indiana Jones. I was always digging holes in the backyard, hoping to find the long-lost trinkets of the people who lived in this suburban subdivision before me. Maybe it was fate, then, that I attended Beloit College, the alma mater of Roy Chapman Andrews (class of 1906), the worldly adventurer-academic on whom the Jones character was reportedly based.

I worked at the college's Logan Museum of Anthropology and also for my favorite anthropology professor as a sort of clerical assistant/librarian. Although I wasn't an anthropology major, these jobs afforded me a lot of time in the museum, including the basement, where the drawers and shelves are bursting with what was once the largest collection of anthropological artifacts in the United States.

My interest in this stuff hasn't waned, so although I was briefly distracted by the latest hairpin turn in the Senator Craig story Friday morning, I did find something more meaningful on the cover of the New York Times: "Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones."

Turns out the Pentagon has developed a "Human Terrain Team" for all 26 combat brigades active in Iraq and Afghanistan. The "human terrain" is Rambo-speak for what the rest of us might call local culture and the societal structures that hold it up. Important structures like intertribal relationships and gender power balances and opium markets.

Turns out that when you put some anthropologists on the ground who can figure out who's angry at whom and why, you can do a better job of keeping those angry people from becoming suicide bombers.


One example from the Times article is an anthropologist who did some basic demographic research on an Afghani village that was producing more than its fair share of violent young men. She discovered that the village had an unusually large number of widows, whose collective penury was making the financial enlistment incentives offered by the Taliban pretty attractive to the …