On the radio


One of my favorite distractions as a college student in the late 70s and early 80s was to stay up late at night and listen to Chicago-based talk radio.

My favorites were “Chicago Ed” Schwartz and the husband & wife duo of Steve King and Johnnie Putnam, first on WIND and later on WGN. They would feature guests like Chicagoland ghosthunter Richard Crowe, psychic “The Amazing Elizabeth,” and various trivia experts.

“Chicago Ed” would take calls from Chicagoans of all walks of life, and the conversations would vary between the informative, the funny, and the poignant. He was especially good at talking up the city’s late-night gastronomic delights, and my mouth would water over descriptions of overstuffed sandwiches, Chicago hotdogs, and deep dish pizza. He also hosted on-air charity drives that became annual events.

The talk was warm, informed, and civil. The hosts cared about their listeners. It was an on-air community of night owls, and I loved it. For me, listening to talk radio was a much more engaging pleasure than, say, channel surfing in front of the TV.

Today, Steve & Johnnie have stepped away from their talk show after over 25 years on the air, and Chicago Ed sadly has passed on. In the meantime, “talk radio” today is commonly associated with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Co. What a shame. If more folks could listen to the likes of these “Chicago-style” talk radio hosts, they’d understand what we’re all missing.

-David Yamada


Clip art: all-free-download.com


In praise of independent scholars


Robin Wilson, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education (grrr, they pay walled the piece for now), profiles independent scholars who are pursuing their intellectual interests outside of full-time academic employment. Here’s the lede:

It might be easy to mistake Thomas Ernst for a traditional academic. His CV has a long list of journal articles, and he can often be found find on the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He attends lectures, works with graduate students, and spends time in its libraries. But Mr. Ernst is not on the tenured faculty at UMass, nor is he a professor anywhere else.

He is an independent scholar, who does most of his research and writing from the solitude of the second bedroom in his small apartment near the Amherst campus. In the past 20 years he has written a book, published a dozen journal articles, and contributed two chapters in encyclopedias.

Wilson notes that independent scholars are “a growing part of the academic landscape.” Some are working independently because of the scarcity of tenure-track academic positions. Others have taken this route by choice, though it can be a challenging one. In any event:

Like traditional professors, they perform research, secure grants, and publish books and papers. In some cases, their work is having an impact on their disciplines, challenging established views and advancing knowledge in the field.

Learned Associations

There even are learned associations for independent scholars.

In the U.S., the National Coalition of Independent Scholars welcomes those not affiliated as full-time college faculty “who are pursuing knowledge in or across any fields whose credentials demonstrate an active involvement in independent scholarship in any field, as evidenced by advanced degrees or presentations/publications. ”

In Canada, the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars “is a program that gives voice and lends legitimacy to non-faculty independent scholars.”

The Bible (Still) of Independent Scholarship

If you’re searching for a book that captures the spirit of independent scholarship, look no further than Ronald Gross,The Independent Scholar’s Handbook: How to Turn Your Interest in Any Subject into Expertise (1982 and 1993 eds.).

Ron (bio here) is a vital figure in the advancement of self-directed adult learning. He helped to popularize the term “lifelong learning” during the 1970s, and his reader-friendly books include The Lifelong Learner (1977), Peak Learning (1991 and 1999 eds.), and Socrates’ Way (2002).

My favorite of all of them, however, is The Independent Scholar’s Handbook. The Handbook is the opposite of a stuffy academic tome. Ron wrote this engaging and energizing book for those who are pursuing scholarly work outside of traditional academic settings. It intersperses stories of successful independent scholars with lots of “how to” advice. Urban activist Jane Jacobs, historian Barbara Tuchman, and futurist Alvin Toffler are among the well-known and not-so-well-known independent scholars profiled in it.

It’s a pre-Digital Age book, so its discussions about formulating your research plans, gathering resources, and presenting your work are silent on Google and Powerpoint. No matter; it continues to instruct us that scholarship can be lively, creative, pertinent, and socially relevant. The book is out-of-print, but there are affordable used copies available via online booksellers; either the 1982 or 1993 edition will do.

John Ohliger

A profile in The Independent Scholar’s Handbook led me to Basic Choices, Inc.a small, home brewed think tank dedicated to exploring societal options based in Madison, Wisconsin, co-founded by adult educator, writer, and activist John Ohliger (1926-2004). John was a tenured adult education professor at Ohio State University, but he became deeply disillusioned with academe and left it to pursue an independent intellectual and community life.

I was so intrigued by the idea of a community-based center committed to social change that I tracked down John and began to fill a drawer with his writings. I eventually became dear friends with John and his wife, Chris Wagner, and his work continues to inspire me, even as I currently occupy a perch in academe.

For more about John’s life and work, there’s a great volume Andre P. Grace and Tonette S. Rocco, eds., Challenging the Professionalization of Adult Education: John Ohliger and Contradictions in Modern Practice (2010), which received the 2010 Phillip E. Frandson Award for Literature in the Field of Continuing Higher Education from the University Continuing Education Association. I contributed a chapter on John’s role as a public intellectual in an adult education tradition.

The Importance of Independent Scholars and Scholarship

Some independent scholars manage to do their work on a more or less full-time basis. Others pursue scholarship as avocations. Regardless, it takes creativity and resourcefulness to engage in scholarly research and writing without the built-in perks of academe.

Even with these challenges, independent scholars contribute mightily to the world’s knowledge, as Wilson’s Chronicle piece and Gross’s The Independent Scholar’s Handbook aptly illustrate. Especially as academic scholarship has become increasingly insular and trendy, as academic freedom faces serious threats amid the growing “corporatization” of university culture, and as full-time teaching appointments continue to be hard to secure, we need to support and celebrate independent intellectual work.

-David Yamada

How we’ve privatized discovery and celebration

The movie “The Right Stuff” depicts the beginnings of America’s space program. Among its many wonderful qualities, the film conveys the sense of shared public excitement and wonder about the space age.

Each new space mission was an event. In homes and in schools, and even in front of department store windows displaying shiny new TVs, people gathered to watch news coverage of blast offs, orbits, and capsule landings into the sea.

Gaga over smart phones

We have no equivalent of that experience today.

Instead, we’re treated to orchestrated roll outs of the latest smart phones and tablet computers, accompanied by news coverage of people standing in long lines at electronic stores in hopes of plunking down credit cards to snag the new gadgetry.

Nowadays, rather than looking to the skies and wondering what it must be like to circle the planet in a space capsule, people are texting away madly on their phones while others try to avoid running into them on the sidewalks.

Entertainment, too

Thirty years ago, I attended a screening of “Singin’ in the Rain” at Theatre 80, a revival movie house in New York’s East Village. I had moved to Manhattan just weeks earlier to attend law school at New York University, and that evening I was desperate for a study break.

I had never before seen this classic film, and I figured that I would be among a few dozen others in search of a late night distraction. But the tiny theatre was packed, and people were clapping and cheering for the best scenes, including Gene Kelly’s iconic title number and Donald O’Connor’s brilliant “Make ‘Em Laugh.”

As each scene unfolded, “Singin’ in the Rain was becoming my favorite movie, and it remains so today.

Pop in that DVD

Today, revival movie theatres are all but gone, having fallen prey to VCRs and later to DVD players and streaming video.

“Singin’ in the Rain” and other great movies are at our fingertips in ways they weren’t in 1982, but watching them at home just isn’t the same kind of experience.

Insularity vs. community

Obsessing over new personalized gadgets instead of fascination with missions into space. Turning on the home entertainment center instead of joining a theatre full of movie buffs to watch an old classic.

We’re retreating into ourselves.

I plead guilty: I have a smart phone and a tablet, and I own a lot of DVDs and subscribe to Netflix. Would I trade them in for a redux of the Gemini space program and a comeback for the revival movie houses?

In a way it’s a silly question. We can’t go back in time on this one. And it would be utterly hypocritical of me to claim that personal access to this technology is undesirable. But I can say unequivocally that it’s more than soggy nostalgia that triggers my lamentations. If we want to rebuild community, it won’t be via our smart phones and DVD players.

-David Yamada

Reviving a ritual: Reading the Sunday paper

I’m making a deliberate effort to revive what once was a common ritual in many homes: Spending quality time reading the Sunday newspapers.

Yes, the decline of advertising revenue has led to thinner newspapers. But many of the major papers still land with a healthy thud on Sundays, replete with some of their best in-depth reporting, feature articles, and opinion pieces. There’s a tactile delight in opening up a big Sunday paper, wondering what interesting stuff lies within. Even the advertising flyers can be fun to page through, especially around holiday season.

My choices today

My Sunday choices are the New York Times and the Boston Globe. At a time when newspapers in general are struggling against the online world of free news content, the Times and the Globe continue to deliver journalistic excellence.

The Times remains one of the world’s most important periodicals. I especially look forward to its Sunday Week in Review and Book Review sections. The Globe regularly breaks important stories in Boston and New England generally, and its Sunday Ideas section runs thought-provoking features and commentaries. (I plead guilty to the fact that, politically speaking, they both lean left rather than right, but I’m not sure I could deal with the editorials in the Wall Street Journal‘s weekend edition on a Sunday morning!)

Sundays in New York

Newspapers had more substance and bulk during the days when news wasn’t available at the touch of a finger. When I lived in New York City (1982-1994), the Sunday papers were a special treat. The Sunday Times was an especially heavy load, a multi-pound door stopper packed with goodies and advertising circulars. The early edition of the Sunday Times would come out late Saturday evening (and still does), and many a weekend night out included picking up a copy on the way home.

My personal favorite, however, was New York Newsday, the (now gone) NYC edition of the venerable Long Island daily. New York Newsday wasn’t as worldly as the Times, but it spoke more closely to the city’s middle class and did a superb job of covering local politics and sports. Its thick Sunday edition was chock full of extended features and commentaries. To this day, New York Newsday remains my favorite newspaper of all time.

Chicagoland back in the day

Going back even further, when I grew up and went to college in Northwest Indiana, I always looked forward to the Sunday editions of the Chicago Tribune and the Gary Post-Tribune.  The Tribune was especially strong on covering my beloved Windy City sports teams, and the Post-Tribune did a very good job with local news.

I give both of these papers credit for turning me into a Sunday paper junkie.

Comfort habit…and more

I’m sure that anticipation of fall and the beginning of a new academic year have provided some inspiration for this post. There’s something about the (slightly) cooler weather and the start of school that I associate with reading the Sunday paper at home.

But it’s more than simply a “comfort habit.” Although I read a lot of news and commentary during the week, spending time with a printed newspaper or two on a Sunday is somehow both a more concentrated and more relaxing activity. It’s a chance to kick back a bit, even if some of the stuff I read is relevant to my work, pushes certain buttons, or prompts some follow up.

In sum, at a time when we can use more civilized, enjoyable, and affordable rituals in our lives, reading the Sunday newspaper remains a pretty good deal.


Pictured above

The big Sunday paper has roots going back for over a century. Pictured above is the cover of Nicholson Baker & Margaret Brentano, The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898-1911) (2005), a wonderful coffee table book that celebrates Sunday newspapers published during the turn of the last century.

-David Yamada

Am I a prehistoric Millennial?

As a late Baby Boomer, I’ve long felt out of sync with my place in time: Placed near the cusp between Boomers and Gen Xers (what some folks call “Generation Jones“), it’s never felt quite right to me.

Looking back

As a student of history and a captive of nostalgia (a Cancerian trait, I’m told), I’ve tended to look back in searching out where I might’ve been a better fit.

Much earlier in my career, when I was a full-time practicing public interest lawyer, I deeply regretted missing out on the heart of the 1960s. So many of the great civil rights and labor lawyers came out of that era, and I envied their experience.

Today, I’m not as enamored of that era or what it produced. Though the 60s ushered in remarkable societal changes (including those that have benefited me personally), it also spawned a lot of self-indulgent excesses. I have a feeling that I would’ve been a pretty square 60s activist.

I’m also totally, utterly hooked on World War II. I read about it (fiction and non-fiction), and watch countless movies, mini-series, and documentaries set in the era. Despite my anti-authoritarian streak, I have deep respect for the sense of duty and sacrifice that characterized the best of that generation.

However, as a Japanese-American, I know darn well that my life today brings lots more opportunity and acceptance than had I lived during that time. Racial prejudices toward Asians ran especially deep back then, and I very well might’ve been among the targets. So let’s concede that porting myself back to WWII America would be something less than a canny time travel move. (Vicarious nostalgia has its blind spots!)

Me, a Millennial at heart???

But wait a minute. Maybe I should be looking ahead, not back, to find a better generational fit. And perhaps the focus should be on lifestyle, not necessarily on politics and current events.

To my great surprise, I see a lot of myself in an assessment of the emerging influence of the Millennials — Generation Y, born in the 80s and 90s — by Nathan Norris for AlterNet (link here). Norris identifies four trends that are driving classic Gen Yers, motivated by a desire to escape from their safe, suburban upbringings:

First, the Millennials are exchanging safety for adventure: “It should come as no surprise that this over-protected generation now celebrates dangerous and exciting activities like skydiving, rock climbing and bungee jumping.”

Okay, as someone afraid of heights, I’m not exactly jumping off or out of things. But I do go on storm chase tours every summer. A lot of folks think I’m pretty nuts to want to get closer to, rather than away from, tornadoes and severe weather.

Second, the Gen Yers are trading suburban isolation for urban connection:  “They manifest this desire in their full-on embrace of social media and their desire to live in places where they can be around others; i.e., the densest, most active, areas of cities.”

I blog. I do Facebook. I still dislike cell phones, but I’m warming up to my new iPhone. I’ve been drawn to cities my entire adult life, first New York City, and now Boston. I wouldn’t rule out, say, living in a traditional “college town,” but the ‘burbs aren’t my thing.

Third, the Millennials prefer convenience over long schleps to get to places and to buy stuff: “Generation Y has a low tolerance for spending time on things associated with the suburban lifestyle — Saturdays filled with yard work or long commutes in the car. Instead, they want the convenience of living close to the things they need, the things they do, and the people they do them with.”

I’ll take a city condo over a ‘burby house anyday. And my favorite store in my Boston ‘hood of Jamaica Plain is the City Feed & Supply, a tiny convenience/grocery store about 20 seconds away from my door. ‘Nuff said.

Finally, the Gen Yers aren’t much into driving and cars: “Generation Y views freedom as being car-independent. …In fact, Generation Y would rather be on a bus or train where they can work or be connected to the internet and social media….”

Whoa, that’s me! I haven’t owned a car since I moved to New York to attend law school many years ago. A car would feel like a stone around my shoulders (and my bank account). Plus, I’d hardly ever use it! Give me the subway over driving anytime…

There are limits, but…

Well, you won’t catch me riding a skateboard with an iPod clipped to my belt. And I have to admit, I prefer owning a place (er, for now, owning a mortgage) to renting. Nevertheless, just about every day, I put what I need in my backpack and head out for the subway.

Living like this has been an affirmative choice, even if it makes me a bit weird among my peers. (Many friends roughly my age will happily opt for their houses and cars over my modest condo and Boston’s Orange Line!) I first discovered car-free, convenient city life during a collegiate semester in England. Obviously it stuck to the ribs. It’s validating to know that I’m not completely bizarre in wanting to live this way.

Therapeutic reading: Lessons, wisdom, and solace in good books

Over the years, I’ve spent time with four memoirs by authors who, as adult learners, devoted concentrated periods of time to reading great works of literature. Two went back to school and studied with college students a fraction of their respective ages. Two others embarked upon on courses of self-directed study.

Interestingly, personal crises drew each of them to this commitment to intensive reading. The youngest reached what might be called a “quarter life” crisis. Another experienced a classic midlife crisis. One survived cancer, and another lost a sister to it.

Here are short descriptions of each:

Christopher R. Beha, The Whole Five Feet (2009) — A 20-something writer, struggling to find his place in the world and dealing with the serious illness of a dear family member, decided to spend a year reading through the Harvard Classics, the celebrated, century-old set of great books that for decades offered a do-it-yourself liberal arts education to America’s emerging middle class. (Those who don’t want to buy or borrow a hard copy set can access the books for free online, here.)

David Denby, Great Books (1996) — A well-known New York City film critic and journalist ran smack dab into a midlife crisis and returned to Columbia University’s first-year Western Civilization program.

Roger H. Martin, Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again (2008) — After surviving an often fatal form of cancer, this college president spent a semester at St. John’s College, studying ancient Greek literature and joining the rowing team.

Nina Sankovitch, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading (2010) — Reeling from the death of her sister, the author resolved to read 365 books in a year. She maintained a blog throughout that year (here), and the New York Times reported her personal project (here).

Quick impressions

Beha, easily the youngest of the memoirists, struck me as being the most comfortable with himself and the least posturing in his responses to the books he encountered.

Denby brought his eyes and ears as a journalist to his journey, and he blended observations about the current relevance of the Western canon with his experiences as a returning student.

Martin may have stared down cancer and won, yet he seemed the most self-conscious during his back-to-college experience, constantly reminding us of his position as a college president and expressing frequent mortification at his inability to keep up with the young folks on the rowing team.

Sankovitch’s grief over losing her sister made hers the most emotionally gripping work of the four, and her book selections were easily the most eclectic and contemporary among the group.

Each writer proclaimed his or her endeavor a success, not surprising given that books of this nature would be a drag to read had they concluded otherwise. For what it’s worth, I found the time spent with these books to be a worthwhile investment.

But why?

And yet, at the end of the day, I’m still pulled back to the authors’ original motivations: What is it about good books that make them such a therapeutic draw? Is there something so fundamental about timeless stories and ideas contained in these works that we seek them out as a healing response to personal crises?

I’m not sure that these memoirs gave me direct answers to those questions, but it’s easy to infer that quality books help to bring us back to core values, beliefs, and questions. In that sense they dovetail with significant personal challenges or losses, meeting at the point of our very foundations as human beings.

Our society would benefit greatly if adults had more opportunities to read, discuss, and reflect upon good books of all shapes and sizes — and not just the “classics” as traditionally defined.

After all, in addition to confronting the personal challenges that we face in our everyday lives, we’re navigating through difficult times and staring at a potentially long period of economic turmoil and scarcity. What better moment to read something that helps us to sort through the messiness of life?

-David Yamada



For independent learners who seek guidance on plotting out a personal course of reading, here are some resources:

Susan Wise Bauer, The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (2003) — Recommendations for a personal course of study. For serious independent learners.

Elizabeth Diefendorf and Diana Bryan, The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century (1997) — An excellent option for those seeking contemporary alternatives to the ancient Greek classics!

Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major, The New Lifetime Reading Plan (1999) — Last updated edition of a popular guidebook to great literature, including works of the 20th century.

The Great Books Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to public discussion of great books and ideas.

The Project on Civic Reflection “helps civic groups build capacity, commitment and community through reading and discussion,” by engaging people in the discussion of “short readings—poems, stories, essays, scripture—as a means of reflecting on basic questions at the heart of their giving, service and leadership.”

The Great Courses offered by The Teaching Company — Some 350 video and audio courses, heavily weighted toward liberal arts subjects and including many offerings on great works of literature, available for purchase. (Wait for their frequent sales, which over a year will cover their entire catalog.)

Losing yourself in a big book

One of life’s most accessible pleasures remains reading a big, epic novel, featuring an engaging story that takes you to a different time or place, and introduces you to new, interesting people. I read three such books last year, and I enjoyed each very much.

Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance

It took me the better part of last summer and early fall, but I reread Herman Wouk’s monumental WWII novels, The Winds of War (1971) (set during the prelude to and early years of the Second World War) and War and Remembrance (1978) (from the aftermath of Pearl Harbor through to the end of the war in 1945). Although my introduction to Wouk’s work had come through repeat viewings of the mini-series adaptations of the books, this rereading reminded me how superior the books are to their televised twins.

Both novels center on the lives of the Henry family (whose patriarch, Victor Henry, is a career Navy officer) and the Jastrow family (Jewish author Aaron and his niece Natalie). Together they span much of the globe, with major story lines devoted to the early European theatre, the Holocaust, and the naval war in the Pacific. While the fictional characters drive the narratives, historical figures such as Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin make substantial appearances.

Wouk, a former WWII naval officer himself, stuffs into these novels a megaton of historical background. He even uses the device of lengthy “excerpts” from a fictitious treatise about the war by an equally fictitious German general to provide — as something of a foil — Germany’s perspective on the war.

The WWII era has long been an interest of mine, and I have read plenty of non-fiction books about the war. Nonetheless, Wouk’s two novels and the mini-series adaptations have combined to make the biggest imprint of my impressions and understanding of the sweep of the war. That’s a real credit to his storytelling ability and attention to historical detail.

Stephen King’s 11/22/63

In November I read Stephen King’s new bestseller, 11/22/63 (2011), which centers on a modern day schoolteacher, Jake Epping, going back in time in an attempt to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy. Even though it weighs in at nearly 850 pages, it’s an absorbing tale.  Although the challenge of saving the President is the main plot driver, the novel also offers a terrific backstory about Jake’s work as a teacher, and naturally I found myself dwelling upon it.

The first Stephen King novel I ever read was Salem’s Lot (1975), many years ago. I raced through it, and at times the story was so scary I was afraid to leave my bedroom at night to use the bathroom! It remains one of the best scary book experiences I’ve ever had.

King’s latest is not a horror story. And even the time travel plot falls short of being genuine sci-fi. Although some online reviewers wrote of reading the book in a handful of sittings, for me the pleasure of the book was in taking it slow, drinking in the world of the late 60s and early 60s that King so beautifully sets out for us. Yup, it was about losing myself in a big book.

The pleasures of reading a big book

What makes a big novel worth our investment of time and attention? Here are a few of my responses.

First, it wraps itself around a good story. You care about the characters and what they’re going through, you can lose yourself in their world, and you greet the end with a bit of sadness.

Second, it’s not a chore. With apologies to my more literary friends, novels such as Moby Dick and Bleak House — classics they may be — require too much work of me.

Third, the book teaches you something about life without being preachy. You walk away from it a little wiser.

Fourth, it’s comfortably middlebrow. Only a snob would think less of you for reading it, but it aspires to be something more than hastily churned out, formulaic junk. (Sorry, James Patterson fans…)

The benefits of reading a big book

Reading a good novel is more than a guilty pleasure or a complete escape from reality. Emeritus professor Keith Oatley (University of Toronto) is among those studying the effects of novel reading on the emotional development of readers. He and others are finding that, contrary to popular belief, those who immerse themselves in fictional worlds and characters may be more empathetic, open minded, and socially aware than those who do not.

Oatley gathered these emerging insights in an article appearing in the Nov.-Dec. 2011 issue of Scientific American Mind, “In the Minds of Others.” Here’s a snippet:

Recent research shows that far from being a means to escape the social world, reading stories can actually improve your social skills by helping you better understand other human beings. The process of entering imagined worlds of fiction builds empathy and improves your ability to take another person’s point of view. It can even change your personality. The seemingly solitary act of holing up with a book, then, is actually an exercise in human interaction. It can hone your social brain, so that when you put your book down you may be better prepared for camaraderie, collaboration, even love.

(Although the full article is not freely available from the magazine’s website, a brief summary and ordering information may be accessed here.)

-David Yamada
(Book images courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Goodbye to political junkiedom?

I’ve been a political junkie since I was a teenager. I’ve especially enjoyed the theatre of America’s quadrennial Presidential campaign, starting with the stirrings of various candidacies, and then moving into the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

It’s no wonder that I’ve watched the last two seasons of The West Wing on multiple occasions!

Looking ahead to 2012

But now I find myself unable to generate any enthusiasm for the 2012 game to come.

Of course, part of it relates to my ongoing disappointment with President Obama, who very likely will get my vote for lack of better choices. The 2008 election, and the remarkable enthusiasm and hope it generated, seem like another epoch ago.

Of the Republican candidates for the nomination, all I can say is that this party has done much, much better in election years past. I imagine that a good number of GOP voters feel the same way.

The candidates are sparring against the backdrop of a national and global economic situation on the brink of full-blown disaster, and no one on either side of the aisle strikes me as being capable of leading us out of it. Add to that the poisonous tone of public dialogue in Washington D.C., on the airwaves, and online, and you’ve got a recipe for continued muddling along…at best.

Solutions? Answers?

Please don’t offer any sympathy for my inability to delude myself further that the drama of the coming campaign actually will result in any positive change!

Instead, we all should be worried about the choices before us. And even more importantly, we need to be asking how we recover from a situation that Washington D.C. — and Wall Street, for that matter — are ill-equipped to fix.

Personally, I think we still need to come to grips with whether our holy commitment to “economic growth” as measured by more, more, and more is even part of the answer in view of the financial and environmental challenges we face.

Sure, there’s room for entrepreneurship, innovation, and especially job creation — but only if we we avoiding building them on piles of debt, worker exploitation, and ozone emissions. Otherwise, it’s time we had more important discussions about quality of life, community, and lives infused with meaning. That conversation probably won’t occur much, if at all, on the Presidential campaign trail, so I won’t be spending a lot of time watching C-SPAN.

See you at the polls, in any event.

-David Yamada

“Contagion”: Earnest scientists, a flaky blogger, and societal breakdown

[SPOILER ALERT: This blog post contains plot references to the movie “Contagion.” If you plan on seeing the movie, you might want to skip this post until after you do.]

The star-studded movie “Contagion” is very Hollywood, but it’s also a powerful statement about our times…or at least the times we plausibly could face. In addition, it attests to the ability of mainstream entertainment media to shape our perceptions of what counts as legitimate science and medical care.

Plot (briefly)

The title is a giveaway, and you may have seen the trailers, so I needn’t go into detail. “Contagion” is a Bad Bug (as in disease) movie, with a deadly, fast-acting, flu-like virus quickly spreading around the world. As panic ensues and civil society disintegrates, heroic scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) race to develop a vaccine.

It’s a well-acted, suspenseful movie with A-list performers. Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishbourne, Elliot Gould, and Jude Law are among the cast.

Traditional vs. alternative

A major subplot involves the affirmation of traditional medicine and vaccines and the not-so-subtle smackdown of alternative & complementary medicine.

The researchers and physicians associated with the CDC are portrayed as earnest, masterful, and self-sacrificing in a never-ending war against mutating microbes.

The pesky, lone science blogger who favors a homeopathic remedy (a derivation of the forsythia plant) and criticizes Big Pharma to millions of readers is portrayed variously as a crusading gadfly, flake, or possible fraud.

I hold no strong brief in the traditional vs. alternative & complementary medicine debate. My own belief, admittedly that of a layperson, is that the future of effective health care will involve elements of both. In any event, in director Steven Soderbergh’s apocalyptic world, there’s no room for kooky non-traditional stuff when a deadly virus is at hand. He even takes a gratuitous swipe at blogging, with one of his heroic Establishment characters calling it “graffiti with punctuation marks.”

A most plausible scenario?

In “Contagion,” the breakdown of civil society is swift and hard. People fight over food. They loot drug stores to obtain forsythia. In the U.S., a police state emerges. Access to a new vaccine is done by lottery.

Alas, this struck me as being one of the most realistic story lines in the entire movie.

We have forged an I’ve-got-mine, individualistic culture in contemporary America, and we are witnessing a frightening strain of meanness and selfishness in our politics and civic culture today. All the pieces are in place for a struggle of Darwinesque, survival-of-the-fittest proportions when times get especially rough.

That’s the other contagion in “Contagion,” and it’s already here, in real life.

-David Yamada

Universities and the centrality of place

Many are drawn to colleges and universities as students and faculty out of devotion to educational and research opportunities that are unique to higher learning. But beyond our given reasons for pursuing the work itself, many of us simply enjoy being in academic settings.

These sentiments are easily betrayed when academicians write about universities and place. For example:

Importance of place

In a 1997 essay, University of Virginia sociologist Krishan Kumar reflected on the “importance of place” in higher learning:

Universities are breathing spaces in life’s course.  They enable their members, young and old, to do things and to reflect on things for which the rest of their lives they will have neither the time nor the opportunity.  This is best done communally, residentially, rather than in the isolation of privatized households.

Sacred spaces

New York University president John Sexton has spoken often of universities in a spiritual sense, describing them as “modern sanctuaries, the sacred spaces sustaining and enhancing scholarship, creativity and learning” (link here):

I use the word sanctuary here not to signal detachment from the world, for our universities increasingly are in and of their surroundings; rather I use the term to signal both the specialness of what our great universities do, and the fragility of the environment in which it is done.

Schools as places

Valparaiso University art history and humanities professor Gretchen Buggeln starts her essay on campus architecture (link here) by confessing: “One reason that I am a professor is that I love schools as places, places filled with history and tradition, but also with constant newness and energy.” She ultimately concludes:

The spaces on our campuses, when working as they should, provide places to dwell in community. But for most of the people who share these spaces with us, their stay is temporary. Our mission is not to turn inward. We are called to look outward, to lead and serve, and to prepare our students to do the same.

Enamored of a university place

Many years ago, famed economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about the day he received notification of his acceptance to a doctoral program at UC-Berkeley and the years that followed:

From that day on the University of California has engaged my affection as no other institution – educational, public or pecuniary – with which I have ever been associated.

One Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1968, with my wife and oldest son . . . I strolled across the California campus – over Strawberry Creek, by the Campanile, down by the Library, out Sather Gate. . . . I was suddenly overwhelmed by the thought that I loved this place – the paths, trees, flowers, buildings, even the new ones.  I was deeply embarrassed.

Is this sense of place a luxury for the privileged?

These soggy references are very much a part of the “going off to college” narrative that has been an essential piece of the post-World War Two, middle-class American dream. As a tail-end Baby Boomer and educator, it resonates very strongly with me.

But especially with the skyrocketing cost of higher education and the struggling economy, such aspirations have become increasingly unrealistic for many.  Earning a degree in the current economic climate may involve a combination of community college courses, night classes, and online instruction. Sandwiched between jobs and other obligations, there’s not much opportunity to think big thoughts or experience campus life at Dear Old U.

I’ve experienced many facets of the higher education world. I’m a law professor at Suffolk University, a conventional commuter school in downtown Boston. I have degrees from traditional, brick-and-mortar universities (Valparaiso U and NYU Law), and I’ve done graduate work at two non-traditional schools that offer distance learning programs (SUNY/Empire State College and the Western Institute for Social Research).

So yes, based on that experience, I definitely can say that the full-time, immersive model of higher education makes it easier to define that sense of place.

Carving out space

But it shouldn’t be impossible in other learning environments. For those of us who work in or attend universities that are not built around that more cloistered, full-time model of higher education, the challenge must be to create a sense of place on a short-term basis and to make those experiences meaningful ones.

For example, at SUNY’s Empire State College, where I studied labor and public policy in a distance learning program, three-day graduate residencies book-ended the beginning and end of each semester. Several times a year, faculty and students gathered at these residencies, held in different parts of New York State, to learn collaboratively before we dispersed to complete our assignments and projects.

Very soon I’ll be spending an extended weekend at the Western Institute for Social Research, participating in an annual all-school academic conference that will include learners from around the world. These gatherings are distinctive, bringing together stories and insights from people drawn from many different walks of life who are devoted to the study and practice of social change.

I agree with Krishan Kumar: Universities are, or at least should be, “breathing spaces in life’s course.” We must strive to provide such experiences to all students, not just those fortunate to immerse themselves in full-time, residential programs.

-David Yamada