Letters of the week

Readers reflect on education, air-conditioning politics and feminism.


Salon Staff
August 23, 2008 1:50PM (UTC)

Read the story "Does Air Conditioning Make People Vote Republican?"
Read other letters from the story here

I've been saying this for 20+ years.

But the article writer said it better.

He just didn't go far enough. The situation is far worse than he states. There's also the transfer-of-wealth-through-disaster factor.

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Back before A/C was common, Americans were more connected to the cycles of Nature. Northerners' character was shaped by dealing with the bitter winters, making them frugal, patient, tough, and with a long-term focus. Southerners' character was similarly shaped by the hot humid summers, making them also frugal, patient, tough, and with a long-term focus -- but in a different way from Northerners. (Southerners knew the summer would end, Northerners knew the winter would end.)

People who couldn't take a Northern winter/snow/ice/blizzards moved south. People who couldn't take a Southern summer/humidity/hurricanes moved north.

The hot dry Southwest had its own similar situation. People who expected things like greenery and water moved away.

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The result was that people made allowances for things like "the weather." Washington DC before air conditioning was so awful in the summer that the federal govt. all but shut down for a couple of months. Summer was for some things, winter was for other things, and almost nothing was year-round, regardless of where you were. People lived, dressed, ate and set their expectations in sync with the weather. And they became acclimatized to the seasons. They also built in harmony with the climate.

But the widespread use of A/C insulated people from Nature. Americans lost connection with the reality of Nature and expect everything to be available and operating at full speed 24/7/365. Millions moved directly into the path of drought, hurricanes and earthquakes (let's not forget California). Every place was supposed to be just like everywhere else, and totally under human control.

To which Nature has repeatedly responded: "HAH!"

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The evidence is all around us.

People build fragile wood-frame buildings right next to the beach and are upset when a hurricane blows them away or floods them. They build similar structures in the dry southwestern wooded hills and then get all upset when a brush fire burns them. They put tall structures right next to each other and then are surprised when an earthquake makes them fall down.

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And we keep right on doing it. A city with inadequate levees that failed when most needed, which is below sea level, and is sinking, gets rebuilt right in the same place.

The result is that Nature comes through every so often and makes a mess, which everyone (including folks back in the Rust Belt) wind up paying for to clean up.

Think about it. When's the last time anywhere in the Northeast was declared a major disaster area due to a weather event and got billions of dollars of aid to fix it?

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-- JugSouthgate

Read the story "What Does It Mean to Be an 'Anti-feminist'?"
Read other letters from the story here

There are lots of kind of feminism. There are some avowed feminists who think that if women ran the world there would be no war. But that view does not believe that men and women are equal.

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There are feminists who believe that there should be girl-only math classes, but that boys don't need boy-only classes of any sort.

Rather than quibble about whether or not those are real feminist positions, it is far simpler to acknowledge that there is a wide range of feminist views and room for disagreement, even among feminists. That feminism is not just one thing.

From there, it is not a very large to step to acknowledge that a real feminist might even disagree with some of the views of another feminist.

And from there, it is not at all hard to understand why someone might call his/herself an anti-feminist in the name of equality. And why, at the same time, another might label his/her views as feminist, too.

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Of course, this is all much harder if a self-described feminist refuses to acknowledge that the ideas of another self-described feminist with which s/he disagrees might count as feminism.

But all of this leaves me to wonder, how useful is this term? If contradictory ideas can both be feminist, what does it mean, anyway?

-- ceolaf

Read the story "Who Will Save Public Schools?"
Read other letters from the story here

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Now that we are finally on the topic of public schools, I would highly recommend the article in the current issue of Harper's 09/08 -- Tyranny of the Test, by Jeremy Miller. As a thirty-five-year veteran of the public and university education systems, I have an opinion or two on the state of education, particularly post-NCLB ("No Child Left Behind"). Saving the public schools requires a great effort on the part of all who recognize the necessity of informed and open discourse in a democratic state. Please forgive my tendency to rant -- I propose only questions here and hope for a rich diversity of response.

In my Bachelor of Education classes I frequently introduce students to a discussion of just what it is that we really want our public education system to accomplish in light of the many changes that have happened since John Dewey first revolutionized the North American classroom. I begin by asking them to list all of the incidental skills -- those beyond the specifics of content -- that we commonly learn in school. The list is lengthy and includes things like raising our hands to speak, listening passively as someone else determines the topic and the answers, a subject's context and its value, asking permission to go wee-wee, neatness, competition, summarizing, etc. On and on, we've all been there. The students who are comfortable with this and survive the biases of formalized learning and testing do well. Those who approach information with playful independence, by choice or cultural/genetic predilection, typically find it difficult to perform (note my choice of words). As the discussion with my students evolves, we compare these skills to those required by employers and big business. (Clearly, these are desirable traits in certain many job markets.) I then introduce the question of what kind of behavior and learning we might require in a healthy democracy; qualities like good judgment, independence of mind, creative solutions, empathy, a deep understanding of the socioeconomic lessons of history and contemporary culture.

Inevitably, we come to consider how what happens in most of our classrooms typically discourages informed active questioning and participation in actual social events by the majority. Instead, we have shaped the education of our young citizens to encourage indifference and involvement through distanced content and methodologies. Meaningfully "informed discourse" belongs to the text, to the media, to the teacher, to the "smart" kids, to everyone but the majority. If, as a disenfranchised "average or challenged" student, I sit passively and in my seat for six+ hours a day, six days a week, I can safely assume that someone else will inevitably carry the ball and maintain the status quo. Big box schools add to this indifference by creating big box communities that reinforce my lack of public worth and my political impotence, offering choices in the form of prepackaged commodities.

So what have we done to further this with NCLB policies? We've distanced our children from active intellectual participation by reducing knowledge to information and teaching to tests that in themselves are merely a means for isolating test scores as the measurement of success and "learning." To worsen the situation even further, we farm out testing and curriculum to billion-dollar for-profit corporations (like Kaplan Corp. or The Princeton Review or Newton Learning) at exorbitant expense to our education budgets. Again, we undermine the status of our teachers (those who work directly with our kids), elevate the status of experts and abdicate our responsibilities as citizens to the values and interests of corporate inefficiency. We might here at least ask a few questions. Do articulate, ethically engaged, reasonable human beings threaten or complement the interests of our political and economic systems? What ends should education really serve? Whose interests? What is it worth to us to respond to this challenge of educating informed responsible citizens rather than producing mere consumers and trained employees? And one last question, please -- Is there a journalist out there who might inquire more deeply into this?

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Thanks, I feel somewhat better now.

-- otisredding

Read the story "Our Cupboard Was Bare"
Read other letters from the story here

Two-and-a-half years after my loss of a well-paying corporate job, the experience of falling into severe depression and catastrophic financial collapse has changed me and my family in ways that are too painful to speak of. I am not the same person; my marriage is forever altered, my children's view of themselves in the world has shifted in a myriad of ways, tiny and large, that break my heart on an ongoing basis.

I once wrote for a living and was paid well to do so. Today, I eke out meager earnings patched together from freelance articles, part time jobs and temp work. The food pantry canned and dry groceries that come home with me once every few weeks stay hidden in my car, as I pretend to my family that I "found" them in our own cupboards. I pretend doctor and dentist appointments or trips to get new prescriptions for glasses are just inconveniently scheduled, not out of our reach. I try to make lame jokes about our "extended tour" of the lower middle class, knowing "middle" is a stretch. I've become adept at using words to hide the truth from my children, even from myself.

Still, until now, I've never found the words that would allow me to reveal or share the soul-destroying things I've had to do to keep my family fed -- or the pain I see in my kids' faces at moments when the reality is too real.

Thank you, Ms. Ryan, for finding the words.

-- pattybeth


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