Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Continuing The Search For Intelligent Life

In the 1994 movie whose title bears his name, Forrest Gump asserted that "Stupid is as stupid does." Beloved octogenarian blogger Helen Philpot recently wrote:
"Have you listened to Rush Limbaugh recently? And if you have, please tell me why. We know he never graduated from college. We know his mother said he flunked everything. We know that much of his career was spent high on hillbilly heroin. And we know for damn sure he lies. There is actually an entire organization dedicated to exposing his lies from each and every broadcast. So how in God’s name can you repeat his garbage in your emails and comments to me and not expect me to immediately discount you for a fool?

For the record, I have no issue with all these morons asking to see President Obama’s birth certificate. After all, for eight years I demanded that President Bush produce a GED document to prove he had a brain. I never did get proof, but I also knew when to give up… right about the time he said that the human being and fish could coexist peacefully. The birth certificate argument is a horse as dead as the coyote that almost ate Governor Good Hair."
The closing night of the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival was devoted to a screening of Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's new documentary entitled Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. One classic piece of archival footage included in the film shows Johnny Carson grilling Rivers on The Tonight Show as he tries to get her to admit that most men are attracted to intelligent women. After emphatically responding "NO!" to each one of Carson's questions, Rivers went for the jugular:
"There has never been a man who stuck his hand up a woman's dress in the hope of finding a library card!"
The good news is that intelligent women are increasingly being seen as role models. From Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Warren to Sonia Sotomayor and Nancy Pelosi, from Hilary Clinton and Janet Napolitano to Elena Kagan and Christina Romer, the current administration has brain power to spare. I dare anyone to listen to Rachel Maddow's recent commencement speech to Smith College's class of 2010 and not feel inspired by this supremely intelligent woman:

One doesn't develop one's intellect without a sense of curiosity and a solid education. The sad truth is that the masses prefer to have issues dumbed down for them. Ever since the Reagan administration, there has been a growing tide of anti-intellectualism in America that has cost our nation dearly. Some people actually prefer that you lie to them in order to pander to their ideological prejudices.

Two documentaries shown during the recent San Francisco International Film Festival raised important questions about how much respect we have for a person's innate intelligence and how we treat intelligent people. While there is no doubt that solid minds are frequently called in to clean up the wreckage created by impulsive fools who mishandled Iraq, financial derivatives, and safety regulations for offshore oil platforms, all too often intelligent people instill fear (rather than admiration) in the minds of the masses.

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Jeff Coplon's recent article in New York Magazine entitled The Patron Saint (And Scourge) of Lost Schools focused on Eva Moskowitz. As the woman running the Harlem Success Academy, Moskowitz has become a controversial figure in education circles. Like several other heads of charter schools, she has refused to compromise her goal of a quality education for students who might otherwise fall through the cracks of New York City's public school system.

Like her colleagues Geoffrey Canada (founder and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone) and Daniel Levin (co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program), Moskowitz grew tired of the obstacles created by teachers' unions and disinterested parents that prevented young children from progressing toward a college education. Writing about an educational partnership between the New York City Department of Education and Bard College that allows highly motivated students to complete a two year Associate of Arts degree while still in high school (similar to Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, Massachusetts), New York Times Op-Ed columnist Bob Herbert stated:
"When you look at the variety of public schools that have worked well in the U.S. -- in cities big and small, and in suburban and rural areas -- you wonder why anyone thought it was a good idea to throw a stultifying blanket of standardization over the education of millions of kids of different aptitudes, interests and levels of maturity.The idea should always have been to develop a flexible system of public education that would allow all -- or nearly all -- children to thrive."
In the five years since The Huffington Post and YouTube were launched, aspiring filmmakers, bloggers, and citizen journalists have found potent new outlets through which they can express themselves. Still, there is no escaping the fact that American society places much more emphasis on monetizing intellectual property than on the continued nurturing and development of young minds.

In Davis Guggenheim's probing new documentary, Waiting for Superman, the audience hears from minority parents as well as industry titans like Bill Gates (all of whom vent their frustrations with the challenges faced by today's schoolchildren). The boastful claims of the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" campaign become pretty pathetic when viewed against current drop-out rates.

One of the most interesting and passionate voices in the debate belongs to Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the District of Columbia's Public Schools. In 1997, Rhee founded the nonprofit New Teacher Project which, since its inception, has hired and trained nearly 37,000 new teachers. If Rhee has antagonized people like Randi Weingarten (the current president of the American Federation of Teachers), it is partly because of her refusal to accept the status quo.

For the past quarter of a century, American students have done a spectacular job of developing their self esteem. Unfortunately, many of them lack the intelligence to justify feeling so good about themselves. One of the most interesting points made in Guggenheim's documentary is that it's not bad neighborhoods that make bad schools, but rather bad schools that make bad neighborhoods.

Many of our nation's poorer schools don't -- or can't -- make an effort to identify gifted students. In situations where it has become impossible to fire tenured teachers who are failing their students -- and where, because of class size, gifted children may not be given opportunities to develop -- the inability to steer children toward a better education which can lead to better jobs is reflected in the dropout rate at many of the nation's high schools.

In the following clip from the 2010 Sundance Film Festival (where Waiting For Superman won the Audience Award for Best U.S. Documentary), Guggenheim discusses why he was driven to make this film:

With teachers being laid off around the country -- and boards of education in a constant state of budget crisis -- Waiting For Superman points to one path that is clearly helping to improve the lives of schoolchildren (I loved the scene in which a young charter school student is asked how many books he thinks he'll read in the upcoming school year and, shrugging his shoulders, replies "Probably the same as last year -- about 105").

The aching tragedy of our nation's educational goals is that charter schools can't help everyone. Seating is so limited that most slots are filled by lottery.

While there are some genuine surprises in Waiting For Superman, the bottom line is that, unless drastic changes can be made to our nation's priorities with regard to education, we will continue to lose the battle for our children's future. Here's the trailer:

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How well does the intellect survive in old age? For many people, it withers and fades. Many a senior ends up suffering from Alzheimer's disease. The rare exception is Yoshiro Nakamatsu, a Japanese inventor who holds three times as many patents as the previous record holder: Thomas Alva Edison.

The inventor of such gadgets as the digital watch, floppy disk, compact disk, and DVD, Nakamatsu has also spent the past 35 years photographing and analyzing every single meal he has eaten. A new documentary by Danish filmmaker Kaspar Astrup Schroder follows Dr. Nakamatsu around Tokyo as he prepares to celebrate his 80th birthday.

Although only an hour in length, The Invention of Dr. Nakamats is lots of fun to watch. The wealthy octogenarian is seen working out in a gym, swimming in a pool while using one of his inventions to write notes to himself while underwater, and enjoying his celebrity as he travels around metropolitan Tokyo. The audience sees him dining with his family, encouraging his daughter's work as a designer, and making numerous appearances before adoring fans.

However, the sequence I enjoyed most involved his encounter with two young entrepreneurs who, after researching the costs of motorized rickshaws for their business, were interested in equipping their fleet with one of Dr. Nakamatsu's inventions (a modernized rickshaw whose engine is powered by water). When they inform him that they are hoping to get his rickshaw for half the price of another popular model, Dr. Nakamatsu sternly takes them to task.

First, he tells them how rude they are to disrespect his creativity and all the years of hard work that went into creating his water-powered rickshaw. Then he lectures them about how they have dishonored his work and caused him to lose face (a major breach of etiquette in Japanese culture).

The instant change in attitude from cocky young entrepreneur to contrite, groveling commoner is amazing to watch --and impossible to imagine happening in America. It is a scene that will thrill any creative person who has had to deal with businessmen intent on negotiating a lower price (who remain oblivious to how they have devalued the creative process). Here's the trailer:

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