Saturday, September 25, 2010

How We Misunderstand that Vastness of Human History: One Recent Example

In my 5th grade classroom last month, I showed students a 1.7 million year old hand axe that I acquired at an auction many years ago. This tool was made by homo habilis, an ancestor of modern humans. I used this artifact to represent the end point on a timeline we were to construct that morning, a timeline that would illustrate how long humans have lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. In addition to visually and dramatically representing our long tribal past with a 500-foot piece of yarn stretched across a field, I also wanted to make the point that our modern social studies books ignore the large bulk of human history. I make the case that we ignore the past because: (1) it is hard to fathom big numbers; and (2) beyond stone tools, fire pits, and cave paintings, we tend to think that there is little to impress us about these early humans. Prior to the relatively recent bronze age, there are almost no examples of monumental architecture like the Egyptian pyramids to attract the attention of scholars and tourists. Many people think the pyramids are 'old', but on our 500-foot timeline, in which one yard equaled about 10,000 years, the pyramids were only 18 inches from the present. The voyage of the Mayflower was less than two inches away. At a full yard away from the present moment, we already have entered into the vast era of human prehistory during which time we lived as nomadic, tribal, hunters and gatherers. The timeline that my 26 students and I excitedly stretched across Mariposa Elementary School's vast grass field used up an entire 170 yards of bright red yarn. At one far end was our beautiful stone tool, while at the other was the present moment. We marked several other key points, including the discovery of fire 800,000 years ago. Then we climbed up the nearby hill and looked down at our creation. The bright yarn was clearly visible. Clustered at one end was the voyage of the Mayflower, the agricultural revolution, and the Egyptian pyramids. They were all within the first yard of the timeline. At the other end, fully 520 feet away across the field, was the stone hand axe of our tool-making ancestors. Everything in between represented thousands of generations of nomadic tribal ancestors. Civilization, including the pyramids of Egypt, just happened 'yesterday' on this timeline.

Ironically, a reporter and photographer from a local newspaper were at our school the day we made our timeline and they photo-graphed our class at work. When the article came out, and a photo was published on the website, I was not
surprised that -much like the textbooks I had been lamenting to my students- the local reporter misrepresented and sadly underestimated the vastness of human prehistory that our lesson was striving to reveal. The caption read, "Paul Astin, a teacher at Mariposa Elementary School of Global Education in Agoura Hills joins his students as they create a timeline of events back to the Egyptian Pyramids." Granted, the reported never interviewed me to see what we were doing. I imagine that for most people, any timeline going 'way into the past' probably goes back to the Egyptian Pyramids, right?
A few days later we diagrammed this same timeline, adding the famous Laetoli Footprints of Tanzania, made by another human ancestor, Australopithecus. These very human-looking footprints from 3.75 million years ago extended our timeline backwards in time to well over 1,100 feet in length.

Until we humans can begin to grasp the expanses of time during which our ancestors lived in direct contact with wild nature, sharing rituals of celebration for the earth's cycles of regeneration, creating stories and myths to guide their lives through the terrain of space and mind, until we grasp the relative spans of time and see how recently we emerged from this home in a tribal world, we will continue to struggle with the reality of who we really are.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Three Abandonments of Youth

In Present World, two vital and interdependent age groups –youth and the aged- are socially marginalized from one another through a cultural and even physical isolation at the two extremes of the adult lifespan. Instead of elders who, through relationships and mentoring, guide youth across the threshold to adulthood, we witness an abandonment of youth, dismissed en masse as hormone-crazed narcissists, delivered to impersonal and developmentally inappropriate middle schools, stowed away for years in a culturally-created cargo bay of ‘adolescence’ while society anxiously awaits their eventual emergence hopefully intact, all this, coupled as it were, with the consistent neglect of those members of society best equipped to guide and mentor youth, those grey-haired retirees viewed as no longer capable of ‘meaningful’ work, long-lived elders with stories and lessons untold, shelved without obvious use or purpose, dumped in prison-like retirements homes, or sitting by the dusty window as they await some dignified death.

In addition to the isolation produced by our school structures, young people today experience another set of obstacles to establishing authentic connections with adults in Present World. While the agricultural revolution ended our nomadic lifestyle, and with it the ritualized support structures for youth inherent in tribal initiation rites, young people in agricultural times continued to receive mentoring through trades apprenticeships. In fact, early adolescents remained very closely tied to adults and mentors until the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s produced massive cities where urban living and alienating factory jobs replaced extended-family farm life and mentor-based, small-town craft apprenticeships. In these new urban cities, an adolescent culture was born distinct from adult culture. Divergent generations emerged as separate and isolated horizontal social layers, and youth fought the increasingly alienating fa├žade of ‘progress’ –a cultural frame in which they felt consistently abandoned- through ever more distinct and dangerous rituals of self-initiation. Together with the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution represented a kind of ‘second’ abandoning of youth.

Today in Present World, we are in the midst of what may constitute a third revolution, and a third abandoning of youth. Certain features of the Digital Revolution (aka The Information Age) have further alienated many adults from contemporary youth. As young people have adopted new technological language and new sets of digital skills, they have become the ‘digital natives’ in an adult world of digital ‘immigrants.’ Some of these adults are actually functionally illiterate when it comes to digital technology, and only a small fraction of parents and grandparents manage to approximate the levels of digital literacy of their children. As young people immerse themselves further into the growing digital world, especially into the new social networking media that has appeared in the 21st Century (constituting what is commonly called Web 2.0), the adult world has become further isolated from the world of young people. For much of the 20th Century, adults were openly critical of the clothing and musical tastes of younger generations. In much the same way, many adults in Present World are quick to dismiss the new social media (such as Facebook and Twitter) and are staunchly unwilling to become students of these trends, applications, and social phenomena. There is a collective disdain among certain segments of the digital ‘immigrant’ adult population, expressed in books such as The Digital Amateur, where best-selling author Andrew Keen accuses Web 2.0 of promoting, “digital narcissism, this embrace of the self.” Yet unlike the traditional outward symbols of generational differences –be they clothes, pop music, or street lingo- the hardware, software and the cultural changes brought about by the Digital Revolution are not passing trends. They are here to stay, integral features of a still-blossoming Information Age. When adults shun technology out of dismissal, fear, or misunderstanding, while at the same time criticizing technology trends or youth involvement in technology, this only creates further alienation between adults and young people.

Another potentially divisive element within the Digital Revolution worthy of note is the fragmenting of youth into sub-cultures. As access to choice within popular culture has expanded exponentially, with unlimited online music genres and artist, thousands of radio stations and cable television channels, and niche-based online social communities, young people no longer need to share pop cultural preferences with same-age classmates or neighbors. A dozen teenagers plugged into iPods on the school bus might be listening to playlists that have nearly no overlap in content. They may be members of niche-based online communities that have nothing in common with one another. Thanks to the unlimited choice provided by the internet, ‘culture’ for youth is no longer determined entirely by geography. As a result of this heterogeneity of tastes and preferences among youth, many adults cannot even assemble a clear picture of youth culture in order to engage it in a meaningful way.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Peace Pilgrim's Unpublished Journal

In 1942, at the age of 34, Mildred Norman Ryder, later known as “Peace Pilgrim,” made her first entry into a small, spiral notebook:

“Running a liberal newspaper is like feeding melted butter on the end of a hot knife to an infuriated wildcat. However, almost anyone can run a band-wagon newspaper. Most of your stuff comes canned from wire services and syndicates, and you can always hire a few dull young men to wield the can openers.”

Towards the bottom of that same first page she quotes Jesus, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

At the time of these entries, Mildred was working for Scott Nearing, “a radical economist and staunch pacifist, who had been a Professor of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. Mildred helped distribute his newsletter World Events.” (Marta Daniels, author of a short biography of Peace Pilgrim).

So begins this small, 32-page journal. The earliest and latest entries found in the journal are February 1942 and August 1944, a decade before Mildred Norman began her famous 28-year pilgrimage for peace. During this pilgrimage she crossed the United States on foot nearly seven times, and walked all the provinces in Canada. The writing of the journal corresponds to the time she later called her 15-year “preparation period” leading up to the pilgrimage which lasted from 1953 to 1981. This preparation period began after she had made a decision to completely give her life to service. Peace Pilgrim describes this epiphanous event in a book of her writings compiled after her death, “As I looked about the world, so much of it impoverished, I became increasingly uncomfortable about having so much while my brothers and sisters were starving. Finally I had to find another way. The turning point came when, in desperation and out of a very deep seeking for a meaningful way of life, I walked all one night through the woods. I came to a moonlit glade and prayed. I felt a complete willingness, without reservation, to give my life –to dedicate my life- to service…And a great peace came over me. I tell you it’s a point of no return." (From Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, p. 7. Because of her vow of poverty, Peace Pilgrim never wanted anything associated with her to be sold for money. You can therefore order it from the Friends of Peace Pilgrim for free here. Also you can download the entire book in pdf format at this link).

This early (and as yet) unpublished journal is approximately 6” x 8”, and was given to the late Ann Rush, a long-time friend of Peace Pilgrim’s, a founder of the first Peace Pilgrim Center, and one of the compilers of her writings. Ann received it shortly after Peace Pilgrim’s death in 1981. According to Ann, it came from Peace Pilgrim’s sister, who was living in New Jersey and who had been helping forward all of Peace Pilgrim’s correspondence to her during her pilgrimage from 1953 to 1981 (Ann Rush, personal communication).

From 1981 to 2002, the journal remained in an inconspicuous folder of miscellaneous writings of Peace’s that was filed at the Friends of Peace Pilgrim Center in Somerset, California. I found the journal in July 2002 while visiting the center. Ann, and volunteer at the Center, Kathy Miller, had given me permission to look through a series of file cabinets located in a large room in the Center’s main house. The file containing the journal was labeled "Peace's Early Writings."

The journal was written in script handwriting with a pencil. Horizontal lines were used by Mildred consistently throughout most of the journal in order to separate entries. Most entries are less than a page in length and rarely more than a couple of paragraphs. Each short entry generally focuses on a single theme addressing social and political issues relating to war and human suffering. There is a lot of writing that seems to express Mildred’s deep frustration at the hypocrisy and corruption of political leaders and of contemporary economic systems in the United States and Europe. At one point she laments the huge waste of resources on the war effort through a set of acute analogies:

"Have you stopped to think what America’s $229,000,000,000 for war means? Do you realize that it represents the spending of: $44 per second since our nation was founded, $16 per second since the discovery of America, $3.50 per second since the birth of Christ? Do you know that it could be used to build: 6,543 Golden Gate Bridges, 1,145 Grand Coulee Dams, 436 Panama Canals? Yes, and it would provide a fine house and car for every man, woman and child in the U.S.!"

The writing is passionate, highly articulate, confident, and at times sardonic. It reflects a penetrating and insightful mind, which is struggling to expose the myriad causes of human suffering. She interspersed her entries with quotations and personal thoughts of a more spiritual nature, such as "It's the not-me in thee that makes thee valuable to me" and "People do not act according to what they know, but according to how they feel about what they know."

Below is the first dated entry, which appears on the fourth page of the journal:

If you are interested in obtaining more information about this journal, please contact me.

Also, a copy of the journal has been made available to the Swarthmore College Peace Library.

~Dr. Paul Astin

(Note: My own personal path to the life and message of Peace Pilgrim is briefly recounted here).