Perspectives: A Review of 2012
(Swans - December 17, 2012)
The Jobs Crisis
It is really hard to summarize the year since most of the media's energies have been absorbed with the November presidential election and the ongoing dispute over federal budgets and deficits. But as economist Paul Krugman recently observed, the federal government has largely ignored the jobs crisis in which 3.9 million people have been out of work for over a year. (1) What Krugman does not address is the distinct possibility that this unemployment statistic may simply emerge as the new norm. Whereas 5% unemployment has historically signaled low unemployment, (sometimes this is perhaps wrongly identified with a thriving economy), 7% or 8% unemployment may eventually serve as the acceptable rate of unemployment. I could of course make the argument that unemployment levels may simply correspond to population levels, and that the greater the overall population of an economy increases, employment decreases and/or wage levels of the employed. We certainly seem to have that if one compares the US population by year (2) and unemployment figures by year (3) and see the correlations. While there has been a modest decline in unemployment recently in the last two months, we still need to know whether the government's numbers are accurate enough to capture the numbers of the unemployed who are not counted in the data (i.e., those individuals who have run out of benefits and employment options).
So how does this all relate to the events in America that have transpired during 2012? The US elections were somewhat focused upon "jobs": but this was only seen as whether the unemployment index percentage was higher or lower than the previous month's percentage and whether that percent helped or hurt president Barack Obama in his re-election bid. It is rather a sad state of affairs when we look to an abstract percentage -- a percentage that does not even begin to measure total or real unemployment -- to notice that there is a serious jobs crisis around us. But also problematic is the direct tie of unemployment percentages to the president: as if this can or should be expressed as a pure causal relation. We have to be careful about establishing such relations, as many aspects of the economy are beyond the control of one person despite the political power he or she wields. While it might seem plausible to blame the last recession on the Bush administration, we need to look at the decades-long pattern of deregulation and perhaps make the case that the recession was a decades-long culmination of financial policy mistakes by government, the financial sector, and the consumer.
My Educational Travels
I've noticed this year in my journeyman educator travels a troubling series of initiatives in the American education system. The profession of the teacher used to be a venerable one but it now faces troubles. From outside of the profession, we have witnessed more calls for teacher accountability that is tied to student test scores; (4) that teachers unions -- with their purported low standards and left wing politics -- must be shut down; (5) and that in higher education, tenure should be abolished because it allows for academic laziness once it has been achieved. (6) Of course on this last point, college professors generally are tagged with a left-wing label so that doesn't help those of us who are fortunate to be teaching college students.
But in my position as lowly adjunct professor, (7) this year has been extraordinarily busy but rewarding in some ways. I'm glad that at least most of my students have come out of my classes with an understanding of history that is largely theirs and not mine. Contrary to the notion that learning involves the memorization of facts one hears in a lecture, I have tirelessly promoted the approach of student-centered learning, wherein the student thinks for himself or herself and grows to not rely upon me to tell him or her what something means. Not all of my students have been satisfied with that approach: indeed one student I had this past year complained that I was not teaching the class because I was too busy encouraging students to participate in the delivery of information. But that was the whole purpose! As a teacher, oral participation is one of the ways in which I can take a survey of what the students have read or researched on their own.
On the one hand, in teaching at the community college level, I've discovered this year that I am somewhat at odds with my teaching compatriots at the high school level. In my position I do what I can to remediate learning issues that were missed in secondary schools. Community colleges generally have open admissions and many students are there to transfer into the public university system when their grades and/or test scores were not good enough to gain entrance into the university system. I have, of course, had to face criticism from friends and relatives who teach in the secondary system who bristle at the notion that they have culpability in sending students into the world who are ill prepared in terms of basic reading and comprehension skills. Yet this has occurred and remediation remains one of the most challenging things that I must do.
On the other hand, my approach to teaching (and consequently my understanding of how students learn) puts me at odds with the university professoriate that I hope to join one day. Professors, even the freshly minted young ones, still rely upon the lecture approach to disseminate information instead of engaging in a more interactive approach to allow students to reflect upon the material and perhaps even generate their own interpretation of it.
Irony in the Nation's Capital
Living near the heart of the nation's capital has given me a rather humorous perspective on politics this year. I can recall walking into a rather working class bar, Solly's, on U Street this past summer for a quick brew and noticing a couple of suits in a heated conversation about policy prescriptions (they obviously worked for a congressman or senator). Yet U Street is one of the more eclectic areas of D.C. ("hipsters," for lack of a better word, are prominent here) and I would have never expected to find congressional types in such a hole-in-the-wall dive: Georgetown, Foggy Bottom, or other swanky rich neighborhoods are where congressional types like to schmooze. But this has taught me that anything is possible in D.C.: hopefully, compromise is possible here too as the "fiscal cliff" (the new media colloquialism) draws near.
Solly's Tavern on U-Street in Washington, D.C.
Not a place you would expect to see congressional
types since it is too far away from the swanky
comforts of Georgetown or Foggy Bottom.
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About the Author
Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/. (back)
4. http://magesoapbox.blogspot.com/2012/06/education-teachers-testing-and.html. I do find it somewhat ironic that Bill Gates, the Microsoft tycoon, promotes the idea of teacher accountability through his wife Melinda when Mr. Gates actually dropped out of college to pursue his technology career. This would suggest that completing a formal education has no necessary bearing on future success. (back)