Saturday, July 29, 2006

The invisible almost shines

The New York times reports that art education benefits literacy skills in third graders, at least according to a study conducted with funding by the Guggenheim Museum.

Does learning about paintings and sculpture help children become better students in other areas?

A study to be released today by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum suggests that it does, citing improvements in a range of literacy skills among students who took part in a program in which the Guggenheim sends artists into schools. The study, now in its second year, interviewed hundreds of New York City third graders, some of whom had participated in the Guggenheim program, called Learning Through Art, and others who did not.

The study found that students in the program performed better in six categories of literacy and critical thinking skills — including thorough description, hypothesizing and reasoning — than did students who were not in the program. The children were assessed as they discussed a passage in a children’s book, Cynthia Kadohata’s “Kira-Kira,” and a painting by Arshile Gorky, “The Artist and His Mother.”

The Guggenheim’s program began in 1970 in response to New York City Public Schools cutting programs for the arts. It’s hard to imagine that this was a big issue in 1970 since it is still such an issue today. You’d think that there wouldn’t be anything left to cut. But I guess there’s still a little bit of blood left in that big old apple.

Of course it’s not just New York. Programs for the arts are being cut in schools all over the country in favor of additional classes in reading, writing and arithmetic. And it’s not just the visual arts, but music and even academic subjects such as science, history and social studies are being cut.

The ability to test is what distinguishes which programs are out of favor. Curriculums for art and music are all over the place, if at all. Without a national curriculum, it is impossible to even conceive of an arts or music test for fifth graders nationwide. Even with a curriculum, the competitive judging of a students art or music knowledge and skills would be so subjective as to make it worthless, if not actually harmful.

But whether a student is actually talented as an artist or a musician is not the issue. The question is whether or not an arts education is helpful to an overall education. Is it good for the brain? Most people see the answer as simple common sense. Unfortunately in this case there is no "common" sense on the subject. Some think the answer is obviously yes, others that it's obviously no. The value of an arts education is something that has proven difficult, if not impossible, to quantify.

I can tell you this from personal experience. I spent over a year researching the finest independent schools in New York City. I did a lot of reading, I spoke extensively with independent experts, I visited the schools, met with teachers and headmasters, and sat in on many classes. These schools, many of which are rated as among the best in the country; these schools that feed the Ivy league and other elite universities; these schools that are as exclusive as exclusive gets; these schools emphasize the importance of an arts education. Their arts programs are one of their strongest selling points.

The belief is that an arts education teaches skills that get to the heart of basic intelligence, especially in young children, such as sequencing, pattern recognition, and spatial reasoning. As the child progresses through the grades. the belief is that the arts provide an essential base for the understanding of our place in the world, of history, civilization, social studies, and ethics. It’s an overused example, but Guernica says more about the morality of war than most of the history books combined. Music builds complex pathways in the brain. The theatrical arts bolster confidence an public speaking. The creativity that goes into any of the arts applies to everything else in life. The best in any field, be it medicine, law, business, architecture, or whatever, are creative individuals. Learning to be creative enhances a person’s opportunities in almost any field.

That’s what the elite education establishment believes, and I think it’s safe to say that educators in general agree. But we live in a time in which metrics rule. Value must be quantified. If the numbers do not support it, then it does not exist.

So the folks at the Guggenheim give it a go. And although they report some happy results, not all is well in metric-land.

Yet the study also found that the program did not help improve students’ scores on the city’s standardized English language arts test, a result that the study’s creators said they could not fully explain. They suggested that the disparity might be related to the fact that the standardized test is written while the study’s interviews were oral.

“We purposely chose to have students talk to us instead of writing because we thought they would show language skills, not purely reading and writing skills,” said Johanna Jones, a senior associate with Randi Korn and Associates, a museum research company conducting the study over three years with a $640,000 grant from the federal Department of Education.

Does this failure of an arts education to improve results on standardized tests indicate that arts education is not as valuable as its adherents believe or does it indicate a limitation of the standardized test?

Well, I have my opinion, as do you. But what I find interesting about this study is that the people who conducted it have their opinion as well, and they do not hide it.
“We really held our breath waiting for this year’s results, and they turned out to almost exactly the same — which means that last year’s don’t seem to have been an anomaly,” she said. “That’s a big deal in this world.”

While it is unknown exactly how learning about art helps literacy skills, she said, “the hypothesis is that the use of both talking about art and using inquiry to help students tease apart the meaning of paintings helps them learn how to tease apart the meanings of texts, too. They apply those skills to reading.”

The researchers admittedly have a hypothesis and great hopes that the studies will prove them right. And as much as I, too, believe that their hypothesis is correct, I am uncomfortable with researchers cheerleading for particular results, especially when those results also match the hopes and dreams of those funding the research.
Officials at the Guggenheim said they hoped the study would give ammunition to educators in schools and museums around the country who are seeking more money and classroom time for arts education.

“Basically, this study is a major contribution to the field of art and museum education,” said Kim Kanatani, the Guggenheim’s director of education. “We think it confirms what we as museum education professionals have intuitively known but haven’t ever had the resources to prove.”

So I wouldn’t even categorize the Guggenheim’s effort as a nice try. It is an exercise in advocacy research little, if any, better than outright propaganda.

I understand that showing a link between arts education and an improvement on standardized reading tests would be a great thing, but I don’t think unapologetic advocacy research is going to do a lot to help the cause. And it’s possible that the link simply doesn’t exist. My layman’s guess would be that it would be more likely to show up on math tests than literacy.

And my layman’s advice would be to consider a different type of testing. If arts education enhances brain functioning, it should show up on a CAT scan. or whatever kind of scan shows brain activity. That’s the kind of test I’d like to see. Take brain scans of kids at the beginning of third grade. Teach one group a curriculum heavily integrated with arts, music and recreation. Teach another group today’s preferred curriculum with its heavy emphasis on preparing for standardized exams. Then let them take both brain scans and standardized tests. I’d like to see those results.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The awful fullness of life

We sat in his backyard under the trees.
He drank beer.
I opened a bottle of red wine.
That is when he said it had taken him a thousand years, a hundred lives to get to this moment, this place, this pain, this understanding.
It all made perfect sense to me.
That is what this book is about.
Getting to this place.”

Charles Bowden’s latest book A Shadow in the City: Confessions of an undercover drug warrior tells the story of a very successful undercover narcotics officer in an unnamed American city.

The story is true, or as true as these things can be. Possibly even more true. Bowden is one of the great writers of our time and he has gone far, far deeper into the drug world, the heart of which encompasses both sides of the U.S. and Mexican border, than any other writer, great or not.

This man he portrays, this undercover narcotics officer, is one of the very best at what he does. He would never open up his life to such an extent for anyone less competent than himself or someone who did not understand the world in which he operates. Bowden is the only writer on earth that could have gotten this story. No one else is that competent as a writer and as knowledgeable about the life, as they call it.

Probably the main reason that Bowden is not better known is that he is so difficult to categorize. His early books are classified as “environmental.” He was friends with Edward Abbey, he wrote a prophetic book about the loss of water resources in the southwest. That makes a certain kind of sense. But then he became something more. In Blue Desert, Desierto, Blood Orchid and Blues for Cannibals he describes the Sonoran desert, among other things, in simply incredible prose. Many pages and paragraphs are truly as good as it gets. He also works with photographers. Jauarez: the laboratory of our future showcases the work of Mexican photojournalists and tells the story of hundreds of poor, young Mexican girls who were kidnapped and murdered. Others describe beautiful places and peoples who are endangered by encroaching modernity and the destruction that accompanies it. And he is a journalist. He had unusual access to Charles Keating and wrote or co-wrote several books on the S&L scandal. His previous book, Down by the River told the true story of a DEA agent whose nephew was killed.

A Shadow in the City is journalism. It is the kind of journalism that used to be called “new.” Bowden does not just describe the man’s actions. He is inside his head, speaking the man’s thoughts.
“Here are some rules, like all rules made to be broken. never use product, that will take away the edge. never relax, that will let danger near. Never get close to anyone, that will destroy judgement. Never share information, that will cause death and ruin. Never trust, never, never, trust.

Never drink to excess, or when the moment comes that drink takes over the senses, be in a safe place. Never believe there is a safe place because that place will become a tomb.

Never hurry, no deal is ever better than the deal not done.

Never make a mistake, eyes are watching.

And enjoy the wait, savor it, cherish it, languish in it.

The wait is the test. Impatience is a tell, a clue to others, blood in the water, a signal for a feeding frenzy and destruction.

Tires whir down the night street, the wait continues, and what is your favorite book?“

Yes, this man has some issues. He lives in a world of which most of us are only dimly aware, at best.

The arc of the story concerns two major heroin deals, over half a billion dollars street value total which leads to a great number of individuals being imprisoned in three or four countries. Note that this is no way portrayed as any kind of victory. Many of the details surrounding these and other deals bring new depth to the term ”bittersweet.“

But the book is not about the deals. It is about the man and the the things he has seen, the things that haunt him. They include:

A young girl, strangled in a snuff video.

The death his young son and the resulting heartbreak that can never be fixed, and only barely tolerated.

A Jew in the concentration camps finding reasons to live in the worst of human degradations.

The sickness that comes with destroying people, especially people one comes to like, perhaps even love, and respect.

The despondency of working for a bureaucracy of losers you view as less honorable and hard working and ultimately less moral than the drug dealers whose lives you destroy.

The “innocent informants,” high school losers, wanting to be popular, conned into dealing drugs by this narc to become popular. How does it feel having targeted people like that after they commit suicide when the bust comes down and they face long prison terms?

A beautiful woman who lives only for her children. A love story that is not to be. A casual betrayal. Putting one you love in prison for life. Why? Out of habit? What kind of person does something like that? How does it feel?

These are the stories that help define a man who cannot define himself. A predator ferociously waging a war in which he does not believe, doing a job of which he is not proud and taking great pride in doing it better than everyone else.
When you sense danger, instantly move, fuck reasons, don’t sort it out, move, and if you must, kill, but for God’s sake don’t pause, don’t ponder, because you get only one serious mistake and then it’s over.

The reason for the move, the reason you act, the signal you have picked up, well, you can sort that out later. Maybe you will never understand what you sensed. That does not matter. But paying attention to this feeling, this sudden warning shout within your body, that does matter. And if this shout is loud and raw, and you bring that gun up and fire, then shoot to to kill, empty the whole fucking clip except one fucking round, don’t try any finesse, forget marksmanship. Obliterate the thing that threatens you.

He has learned that the best backup is your willingness to stab someone over and over and over, to be hyper-aggressive.“

The world of guns and murder and multi-million dollar drug deals are far outside my personal frame of reference, but in my distant youth I was involved in countless small time drug deals (for personal use only) in many countries on four continents. I understand what he says about paying attention to the feeling. I’ve had a gun pointed at my head in D.C. during the murder capital years and been threatened with a knife in several African countries without feeling the least bit of fear. Other times I was in situations in which everything seemed just fine but I felt intense fear and walked away as fast as I could. You rarely know if that kind of fear is justified when you walk away, but I’ve always trusted my instincts and my lack of fear in seemingly dangerous situations takes away any macho bullshit about cowardice. The only time I ever learned for sure was one time in Tunisia when I walked away from a deal and was immediately accosted by the police. All my experience tells me that what the narc in Bowden’s story says is true. There is such a thing as extra sensory perception and I can well believe that people in those kinds of dangerous situations better damn well pay attention to it. Like he says, so many times throughout the book that it is a mantra, "no deal is ever better than the deal not done."

But as much as the particulars of this book are about the deals, the book itself is not. It is about humanity and the struggle to hold onto it in obscenely degrading circumstances.
He remembers when his boy died, and then the bad times came and the viciousness poured out of him like lava, and the killings followed and the beatings and the sense of being numb to what he was doing but not near numb enough to what he had endured, he remembers that time and how, finally, he realized he was crossing lines, lines inside himself.

So he holed up for three days and wrote, tried to sort it out, to make some sense of the evil he felt within himself and the evil he saw around him. And the dead boy also, he tried to face that.

Maybe that is alone. Or maybe that is finally facing the awful fullness of life.

A Shadow in the City: Confessions of an undercover drug warrior is an important book. It tells a story that needs to be told and is well-written far beyond any other story of its kind. If there is a moral, it is not the one you would expect and it is neither simple nor straightforward. Take from it what you will.

Polish Beer Review

This is a new feature. For the foreseeable future I will review Polish and other eastern European beers. For the purposes of this series, Czech beers will be considered western European.

Today's beer is "Warka." According to the label it is brewed with natural ingredients and spring water. The Warka brewery is located in the Mazovia region of Poland, which is the home of some nobleman and general with a difficult name to read in the fine print. He was also a hero of the American revolution, or so they say.

The beer is typical of the lesser eastern European beers in that is is heavy and cloyingly sweet. I do not like it. I do not like it at all. I wouldn't go so far as to say it really sucks, but I am comfortable saying that it kind of sucks.

Final grade: B+.

(In order to locate C on the curve, we condsider Budwieser to average)

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Late City Final

I’v been staying away from the news lately, but I picked up a New York Post off the subway on my way home. What the hell? Let’s check it out!

The front page features a large picture of Hillary Clinton in the arms of a creepy teen stalker. They are looking deeply into each others eyes, apparently about to kiss. The creep’s wife is giving him a dirty look. The picture is from 2001, long before anyone knew the guy was a stalker. The “story” is that he gave her campaign contributions. Yep, sucking up to Rupert Murdoch sure is paying off.

The other front page headline announces a major Israeli victory in their insane murder spree across Lebanon. I read the headlines and the ledes in all the major papers today, but that’s the first time I heard of a “major victory.” All of the other stories featured lines like “unexpectedly strong resistance,” “growing international outcry,” “targeting civilians,” “bombing the U.N.” or “war crimes.”

A side note mentions that Hillary’s opponent in the Democratic primary accused Israel of atrocities against Palestinians. “Accused?” Wouldn’t “noted” be the accurate way to phrase it? A Clinton advisor said it was “outrageous, deeply offensive and beyond the pale.” Not the atrocities, mind you. For Clinton and her fellow Republicans, it the honest reporting of reality that they find deeply offensive and beyond the pale. What a sick, empty shell of a woman... I didn’t even know she had an opponent in the primary. Man, I should register.

In other news a massive marlin spears a fisherman and a man bites a dog.

Then Bloomberg gets the treatment. For those of you unaware, thousands of people in Queens have been without power for about a week now and Bloomberg is defending the electric company’s management. Probably not a good P.R. move on his part. Once a CEO always a CEO and in these times catastrophic failure merits a multi-million dollar raise and stock options. Bloomberg speculates that there's a cabinet position in that guy's future.

Meanwhile, a deadbeat dad gets half the estate of the tragic girl he abandoned and Bush vows troops for Baghdad. Yep, another victory on the horizon. Once we finally capture Baghdad, the war will be over. Millions weep with joy as Bush wins again and his opponents are forced to eat their livers.

While all that’s happening, a $1M scam doc gets two to six, a slay buddy ‘fesses up, a ’family’ bust KOs a champ, a hubby and wife are caught in a city bid scam, there was a hit and run slay on 3rd avenue, a killer rips his victim’s kin and cops kill a pit bull.

In another shocking development, a perv files a lawsuit against his boss, police are hunting a midtown bank robber, a teenage girl was arrested fro stabbing another youth, a Bloods gang member was arrested after shooting a Crip, a man was arrested after dowsing a coworker with gasoline and trying to set him afire, two cousins were arrested after they attacked each other in an argument over cigarettes, two men were arrested in a double stabbing in Sunset Park, a driver was arrested after he nearly mowed down two cops, a drug addled driver was arrested after he struck a police officer and a ‘rape’ teen flipped, resulting in freedom for the guy she wrongly accused.

Turning the page, there was a bloody rumble in the ramble, weight doomed a tourists’ boat, a creepy obsession was the motive in a slaying, CUNY faces a bias probe, a slay nightclub lost its license, a gang in N.J. was taken down, there was a gay-tryst murder in Chelsea, banking bigs were caught in a check-cash rap, a Bronx tot choked to death on a pill, peaceniks, it turns out, are lethal, U.S. ‘allies’ back terror, Kofi blames the victim, a goat and an adding machine were used in the ritual of a western sect and a topless dancer likes decorating her home with body parts. She had six human skulls and a human hand she called “Freddy.”

I wonder what’s on tv?

Dick in the Observer

Andrew Sarris writes a review of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly in today’s New York Observer. You may recall that chuckling made a few comments on the same move a few weeks ago.

Sarris, as you will find if you click on the link above, is a god among movie reviewers. I very much enjoy reading him, but only if I do not plan to see the movie. Like all of the top reviewers, he gives away too much of the plot. The practice of regurgitating the plot is so widespread, I suspect that it is a requirement to get a review published. I guess most people will not continue to read a critic if they did not find out what happens in the movie, and they certainly wouldn’t want to see anything that they couldn’t prejudge based on a plot synopsis. Like, The Godfather, is like, a movie about gangsters, you know, and I don’t like movies about gangsters, but A Scanner Darkly is a movie about drugs, and I like drugs, so I wanna see that.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The mobilization of fate

I’ve gotten an unusual amount of feedback on the tornado photo and the post below. Several friends have wondered why I didn’t mosey on up the road to photograph the mobile home park. After all, I am not a Christian fundamentalist asshole who would exploit the tragedy simply to reel in a few more suckers to fill up the pews and, more importantly, the collection plate. Any work I did would be valid journalism at the very least, and maybe art if I had a good day.

That’s the thing though. In that kind of scene, a good day would most likely be pictures of people grieving, or poignant artifacts of trailer park lives strewn among the devastation. I am capable of that kind of thing. I can stick a camera in the face of someone who doesn’t want to be photographed, or take pictures of the pathetic remnants of their lives, but I have to think it’s worthwhile. In this case, I simple didn’t think it was worthwhile. The event was several days past and it was extremely unlikely that I would get anything that hadn’t been gotten a thousand times before. Over twenty people died. Many lives were ruined. It was not a good day.

And I didn’t give it a lot of thought at the time, but now that I’m looking at the pictures and writing about it, I am content to communicate the message of the trees. These forests were healthy. I’ve seen a lot of tornado damage in my time. That was some fucking tornado. Any little tornado can rip up a trailer park, but you don’t see too many that decimate a healthy stand of trees like that. No, you don’t.

The picture above is a bit more stylized, or if you want to be technical “way over-exposed.” I only offer it as an alternative view.