What does it take to dislodge undigested assumptions? I'm thinking of the worlds of education, art, and finance, but I got there via Thanksgiving. There can be a claustrophobic quality to Thanksgiving dinner (apart from being stuck at table with an army of seldom-seen relatives). Often, there are so many dishes that even if you practice extreme restraint, taking just a spoonful of each one, the meal has the doomed character of a forced-march toward digestive discomfort.
The underlying assumption is that a Thanksgiving meal should telegraph extreme abundance by making everyone at the table cry "Uncle!" My childhood memories of the holiday are populated with well-padded relatives determined to fill their stomachs with food the way a baker fills eclairs with whipped cream. After dessert, they levered themselves up from the table and staggered over to the couch for a postprandial kvetch, holding their distended stomachs and groaning companionably, like so many beached whales.
I suppose anyone might question the equation of Thanksgiving with eating to exhaustion, deciding to dial the menu back a few notches. But despite yearly stomach aches, mostly, we don't.
Years ago, some friends and I came up with an idea for an interactive educational Website. It was to be called HIYA! (an acronym for "Hello! Interrogate Your Assumptions"). The idea was that visitors would be led through a series of questions designed to expose the unexamined assumptions clogging their thoughts. We never made it happen, but no question: the need persists.
Consider education. Yesterday I had one of those high-decibel conversations with a friend as we stood, swaying, on a BART train making its noisy way beneath San Francisco Bay. My friend is deeply involved in—and deeply distraught about—the current numbers-driven trend in education, exemplified for many teachers and activists by the film Waiting for Superman. There's an increasingly large and vigorous counter-dialogue facilitated by Rethinking Schools under the heading "NOT Waiting for Superman." And the whole thing turns on unexamined assumptions.
"It's so frustrating," my friend said. "You get sucked into this conversation about how to raise test scores, about valuing and even firing teachers based on test scores—making test scores the point of education—and no one even stops to consider whether raising test scores helps children in lasting, meaningful ways."
There are countless resources available to show that test-score gains may be short-lived, that enduring benefits come from investment in the quality of education that is not driven by testing. Here's a discussion of research that shows test scores' failure to predict future success. Here's a World Bank blog on a longitudinal study of low-income African American kids showing that despite no comparative gain in IQ or other test scores, students who received intensive preschool support showed major gains 40 years on: higher earnings, job stability, etc. Start clicking the links, and you can read for days without covering all the reasons to question the assumptions that are now destroying public education. So why the chorus of commitment to test-driven educational policy? Undigested assumptions!
Consider art. In the art world, unexamined assumptions are so thick on the ground, you can barely wade through them. Yesterday, various people sent me a blogpost by Judith Dobrzynski on "defining the arts down," by which she means including in the category "art" things that don't in her opinion deserve that label or the support that sometimes attaches to it. The underlying assumption is that art is damaged or diluted when the word is applied too generously.
At least Dobrzynski is an equal-opportunity snob: yesterday's post dismisses small-town arts festivals and a museum exhibit on a hockey team, and also includes links to her earlier posts condemning a museum exhibit on Princess Diana and questioning whether another museum exhibit, on wine, is "pandering and pop culture (not art)." The key word is "pandering," which neatly encapsulates the writer's undigested assumptions. The original meaning of "panderer" is "pimp," and the word still carries the connotation of gratifying base desires. It asserts that there are high and low aesthetic desires, and arts funders and institutions ought to keep their gaze fixed heavenward.
What's wrong with that attitude? So many things, I hardly have room to list them. It's pinched and puritanical, disqualifying as art anything that gives too much enjoyment to people who might otherwise not frequent museums; it conveys the pervasive artworld assumption that to be worthy, art's fun factor ought to be leavened with enough difficulty to make us work for any modicum of pleasure it affords.
It blithely establishes as the benchmark of excellence the personal taste of the individual who lodges the accusation of pandering: I reserve the right to disqualify as art things I dislike, or even more egregiously, things I deem declassé (in Dobrzynski's case, these evidently include Peruvian dancers and small-town residents). It completely ignores the way money functions in the museum world: how corporate sponsorships drive programming; how museums collude with collectors in driving up work's value, creating economic benefits for both the institution and the collector; and much, much more. If you want to complain that the artworld is polluted by crass commercial considerations, fine: just recognize that the charge rings as true in the most-esteemed marble halls as in the tackiest giftshops.
Consider finance. According to the Department of Commerce, corporate profits in the third quarter of 2010 attained an annual rate of $1.659 trillion, "the highest figure recorded since the government began keeping track over 60 years ago." Yet there continues to be endless commentary about how everyone is hurting in this economic climate, and the army of long-term unemployed should just suck it up and shoulder their share of the burden. If you don't read Paul Krugman or alternative news sources, you may never hear the underlying assumptions questioned.
Have you heard of "The Robin Hood tax"? It's a British campaign to place small taxes (a tiny fraction of one percent) on banks' financial transactions, using the money to address poverty and social problems. Watch the 3-minute video to get the gist of it: they estimate that a tax of 0.05% on financial transactions like stocks, bonds, foreign currency trades, and derivatives could raise £20 billion in the UK alone, and £250 billion a year if it were applied worldwide. They sensibly point out that large sums of public money have been used to bail out banks and corporations, which are mostly doing just fine now (in the U.S., they are rolling in dough: reread the previous paragraph). Time to give back.
A year ago, Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio introduced legislation that would have authorized a more modest financial transaction tax. In a full year, "H.R. 4191: Let Wall Street Pay for the Restoration of Main Street Act of 2009" has acquired a paltry 31 sponsors and been moved into committee, where it is permanently parked.
Why aren't these realistic, painless revenue solutions being talked about? Undigested assumptions are clogging our ears!
If Thanksgiving at your place gets too sluggish from food-induced torpor, feel free to lob any of these themes into the conversation to wake things up.
Or shake a leg. I really like the new Black Dub album, a project of the multitalented Daniel Lanois. "Surely" is the kind of slow, syncopated song that will get the whole family up and moving after dessert—but not too fast—reminding us to be thankful for the glorious abundance of human creativity. (This is an acoustic version, not the version on the album.) Remember, unlike stuff, gravy, or those those tooth-ache-y sweet potatoes with teeny marshmallows on top, you can never consume too much music! Happy holiday!