Who’s Afraid… – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?” by Yong Zhao, published in 2014. This repetitive, short ebook consists of an extended essay, mostly critiquing China’s education system. This blogger critiques the ebook below.

But first, a cute quatrain by the 11th-century Chinese poet Su Tung-P’o, translated by Arthur Waley:

Families, when a child is born
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.

It appears to this blogger that this ebook was rushed to press. Sure, the writing is grammatically correct; there are neither typos nor misspellings. But this ebook has poor structure– the author’s thoughts are disorganized and there are glaring omissions of data that might significantly affect his arguments. The subjects of the chapters appear in an unexpected order. The author has a chapter on Mao Tse Tung, and another one later in the book, arbitrarily.

In a few topic areas, the author cherry-picks the evidence for, and provides only one example for, making his points in arguing his thesis: The United States is heading in the wrong direction in copying China’s education system. I happen to agree. However, there is hardly any mention of the United States at all in the book’s second half.

The portion discussing Coca-Cola and the fact that the author uses various books (secondary sources) as references, raises the issue of credibility of the book. The further from the original source of his references– the less credible it is likely to be, like a game of “telephone.” Supporting evidence for his arguments might be perfectly valid, but are harder to verify than original sources.

The information about Coca-Cola seems irrelevant–unrelated to education, and smacks somewhat of propaganda. According to this ebook, the company was a leader in pushing to lift the ban on the sale of American products (especially its own) in China in 1978, two years after the death of Mao Tse Tung. It started its campaign to do so in 1972, but the book fails to mention there were external forces (like a political one), that might have helped its efforts– President Nixon’s renewal of diplomatic relations with China that year.

The author discusses Mao’s policies extensively in this ebook’s latter half, but fails to mention a major cultural force that affects education– China’s one-child policy. This is a policy which puts extremely draconian restrictions on families to have only one child (preferably a boy) that the government has been imposing for the last few decades in its attempts to stem the country’s population growth. Neglecting to mention this, is a major omission, in that population growth affects school overcrowding and acceptance of students to schools.

Read the book to get the details on what the author does discuss:

  • China’s misleading standardized test scores;
  • the ways the Chinese government’s education policy is detrimental to society;
  • almost halfway through this ebook– Mao’s late 1950’s “Great Leap Forward” campaign to modernize China through scientific and technological innovations; the description reminds this blogger of the Benito-Mussolini-brand of Fascism in 1930’s Italy, a mentality based on nothing but propaganda and ego (minus the imperialism, in China’s case); needless to say, there’s nothing new under the sun;
  • what happens when people are pressured to raise standardized-test scores and rankings either by the imposition of punishment or rewards
  • how an advocate for the worldwide authority, “Program for International Student Assessment” (PISA) that administers a worldwide standardized test, has come to incorrect conclusions about China’s high performance in connection therewith
  • how China’s parents are going to extreme lengths to provide their children with what they perceive to be the best education the children can possibly get because otherwise, the children will be considered failures in life, and
  • how, through the centuries, China has had its vacillations between focusing on authoritarian rule, conformity, hierarchy, rankings, standardized testing and other oppressive social, cultural and educational policies; and relaxation of those policies.

The author apparently believes education is meant to help prepare one for a profession, as he says, “As traditional routine jobs are offshored and automated, we need more and more globally competent, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial citizens– job creators instead of employment minded job seekers.”

You Might Remember Me

The Book of the Week is “You Might Remember Me, The Life and Times of Phil Hartman” by Mike Thomas, published in 2014. This biography has a spoiler in the introduction that ruins the suspense of the ending, if the reader is unfamiliar with Hartman’s life.

Hartman was a multi-talented actor. He did eight seasons on Saturday Night Live, voiced various characters on the animated TV show “The Simpsons” and appeared in various movies. A middle child with seven siblings, he had a difficult childhood.  He thought that people are filled with rage, but many do not know how to express it in healthy ways. As an aside (unrelated to Hartman), if the truth makes one angry, one is living a lie.

Read the book to learn of a major incident involving Hartman in the spring of 1998. His brother John kept a hounding press away from the family. His brother Paul explained why “If it bleeds, it leads”: “People are miserable, and when they see more misery than they’re experiencing [themselves], it makes them feel good.”

As Bad As They Say?

The Book of the Week is “As Bad As They Say? Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx” by Janet Grossbach Mayer, published in 2011. This is the career memoir of a New York City teacher.

Grossbach started teaching in January 1960 to a class of fifty(!) middle schoolers, with no books. All by herself. The principal visited her the first week. Thereafter, neither he nor any other administrators visited again. In the almost sixty intervening years since then, not much has changed in terms of education quality (or lack thereof) for New York City public school students. As an aside, her older brother attended Queens College in New York City in the 1950’s, when there was free tuition.

“Whomever you blame, do not blame Bronx students, because, despite all the obstacles we have put in their way, these amazing young people are definitely not as bad as they say.”

In the mid-1980’s, the author worked at a horrible school in the Bronx. She lists only several of the countless flaws in the building’s infrastructure and culture; among them, the elevator was often out of order; the school nurse wasn’t licensed, and had to care for 1,600-1,800 kids and staff; the author stomped when she entered her classrooms (several different ones in the course of each day) in order to scare away the roaches, rats and mice; her classrooms was on the coal-heated side of the building, so it was always freezing and the other side was boiling; there were no student lockers in the entire school– just cubbies with no locks, so they went unused…

Sadly, politicians promote misguided education policies, like voting against financially aiding a majority of students in poverty-stricken school districts because it would be potential political suicide to take from the rich and give to the poor. The last chapter is a justified complaint-fest on the education policies of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg  (doing damage from 2002 to 2013), with a little of former president George W. Bush’s scandalous “No Child Left Behind” bill thrown in. To sum up Bloomberg’s reign: “Having business leaders run the public schools can be compared to having surgeons working in operating rooms without having gone to medical school.” The author cited a study that said by their fourth year of teaching, 85% of Teach For America (neophyte teachers-in-training who completed a rushed summer course and were then allowed to teach) had left New York City.

After she retired, Mayer mentored students in Bloomberg’s “small schools.” In her first year, she found five nonfunctioning small high schools, whose personnel were all inexperienced. There were various situations of flagrant violations of the law, like special education classes whose teachers were unlicensed. The public address system was broken the whole school year. If there had been an emergency, people could have died. There were “…expensive new math books torn up and thrown all over the floor by students in classes with new teachers…” who could not control their classrooms. “The new principal, with no science background, had written a new science curriculum…” ordering the teaching of physics in ninth rather than twelfth grade to special education students. “The math teacher wasn’t licensed in special education, never mind physics.” There was no librarian to open the cartons of brand new books for the entire school year. Needless to say, there were numerous “…distraught teachers, administrators, parents and students.”

The above abominations were not isolated incidents. Third-world countries were getting smarter assistance with governance to improve education conditions than the New York City schools. Read the book to learn how the author coped.

Behind the Gates of Gomorrah

The Book of the Week is “Behind the Gates of Gomorrah” by Stephen Seager, published in 2014. This book describes the personal experience of a psychiatrist working with violent criminals in a state mental hospital in California. He was the only medical doctor on his unit. The rest of the workers who treated the patients were psychologists and nurses. Some of the patients were faking mental illness because they would rather have been there than in prison. All the patients had taken human lives; some in gruesome ways.

Almost every week, there were emergencies with sirens blaring, usually due to patients’ poor impulse control. The patients would engage in physical fighting with eyeglass stems or other sharp weapons they fashioned themselves, just like in prison. But they hurt hospital employees too, even killed a few through the years. The employees were unarmed (unlike prison guards). The patients fought for their legal rights (like obtaining eyeglasses, which they would accidentally-on-purpose damage so as to get a new source of weapons). According to the book, on the author’s first day at work, he had to have ten stitches in his scalp when he was caught in the middle of a patients’ fight.

There was a tendency on the part of the employees to rationalize their bonding with the patients. It seemed to this blogger that the employees were showing signs of “Stockholm syndrome.” In some ways, the employees were actually captives.

Read the book to learn the answer to the question: “If lots of people are mentally ill, and the great majority are not violent, who then should we be worried about?” [the ones who go on shooting sprees] Here’s a hint:  It’s not those who have autism, OCD, depression or the “foil-hat-wearing, babbling street schizophrenic.”

Mama Koko

The Book of the Week is “Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen” by Lisa J. Shannon, published in 2015.

This ebook is the product of the author’s interview of two generations of a family from the Congo, starting in the 1970’s (the anecdotes’ time frames are rarely specified). The book documents the fates of many of its members– victims of the ongoing system of violence, perpetrated by a political group called the LRA, which had migrated from Uganda. Shannon starts with biographical information on the matriarch of the family, Mama Koko.

Mama Koko’s elders arranged her marriage for her when she was a baby: “…she was called out of class at the age of twelve. Her classmates and the nuns watched as the young beauty in her Catholic-school uniform arrived in the mission’s courtyard garden to find a strange old man waiting for her, introducing himself as her husband.” She was rebellious and rejected him. She put off a life of servitude for three years in order to finish the fifth grade; after which, the priest finally pressured her, under threat of death, to accept her fate.

The culture in the Congo is to ask “Who is your family?” the same way Americans ask “What do you do?” when meeting people. Their livelihoods were mostly agricultural– growing cotton, coffee, cassava, rice and peanuts. The core family of the story ran a plantation and a shop. The people also practiced polygamy. ” Andre and his only brother Alexander were both sons of Game, who had four wives and forty-three children.”

The author suffered an attack of conscience, fantasizing about adopting a deprived child when she personally visited Congo. She saw for herself the life-threatening conditions under which the Congolese lived every day, even in geographic areas of relative calm. “I’d heard the snarky comments back home about white-savior complexes; I understood I was trampling too far into cultural sensitivities.”

Read this depressing ebook to learn the various ways people died (most of the time shot on the spot) at the hands of ruthless child-soldiers who themselves were tortured and drugged to make them kill villagers. One bright spot was that an American Peace Corps volunteer was able to provide a better life for one female in the family. They moved to the United States.

Coconut Latitudes – Bonus Post

This blogger read “The Coconut Latitudes” by Rita M. Gardner, published in 2014.

Until her early twenties, the American author was a shrinking violet. Throughout her childhood in the 1940’s and 1950’s, she was verbally abused by her alcoholic father, suffering physical symptoms of anxiety, thinking she had no recourse. This could partly have been due to the culture of her generation and unusual place of residence– the Dominican Republic, to which the father moved her, her mother, and old sister when she was five. Ironically, the father, an electrical engineer-turned coconut farmer, believed in education for his daughters. After a series of traumatic events in her two decades of existence, she says, “It hasn’t occurred to me that I might have a say in how I’m treated.”

Another aspect of the author’s coming-of-age environment was the unstable political situation in the Dominican Republic. At her fifteenth birthday party (1961), her friend told her about five men who were spying on them behind the shrubbery outside their house, in a rural village (like a small town) called Miches, many miles from the capital (currently called Santo Domingo). The teenagers thought it was “special government forces” looking for subversives.

Incidentally, around the same time, under J. Edgar Hoover’s watchful eye, the United States’ own citizens were under scrutiny even though Joseph McCarthy’s systematic effort to purge the country of “Communists” was long over. Nowadays, it is no secret that the latest spying method is electronic surveillance through the World Wide Web. Spies no long have to go through the trouble of planting listening devices in people’s homes. In America, citizens are supposedly “innocent until proven guilty.” When the government is spying on its own citizens through electronic or other means without probable cause, it is treating them as though they are already guilty.

Anyway, the author writes, “I don’t worry that anyone will think Daddy is a Yanqi imperialista or that our family is in any kind of danger. We’ve been here too long.” It is ironic that the author was unconcerned that the government would oppress her family for perceived seditious utterances. For, her father was the one who tyrannically kept her family’s embarrassing incidents secret by suppressing any talk of them and forcing her to lie to anyone who asked about her sister’s whereabouts; she felt internal pressure to lie about her own well-being.

The author’s family was sufficiently “street-smart” to stay mute about politics. There had been stories in the news about deaths of certain people who spoke ill of the dictator who ruled the country. Nevertheless, the family was not harassed for dispensing with attending the Catholic church on Sunday. Other than that one episode of spying and surveillance of their mail, the family had basic freedoms.

The author’s mind was opened to career possibilities when she was living with her friend’s family (which was significantly less dysfunctional than her own) near Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In 1966, the Apollo-Saturn projects and the race to land a man on the moon were creating jobs in the region. At that time, she was in the “eye” of the metaphorical hurricane that was her life. The calm eye “…has the lowest sea-level atmospheric pressure on earth” but it is ephemeral.

Read the book to learn of the author’s sister’s whereabouts, and the numerous “storms” in her life.

Siberia Bound

The Book of the Week is “Siberia Bound” by Alexander Blakely, published in 2002. This is the personal account of a recent college graduate who decided life in the United States was too easy.

In the early 1990’s, the author moved to Novosibirsk, Siberia to see, with a business partner, whether he, fluent in Russian, could help a region of the former Soviet Union make the transition from Communism to capitalism. He and his partner borrowed money to buy cocoa beans and sold them to chocolate factories on credit.

Blakely wrote about Siberian culture. One amusing passage told of the detergent brand “Barf” imported from Iran. “Things got dirty all the time: In summer, it was dust and car exhaust. In winter, it was coal soot and body odor trapped by layers of insulation.” The relationship between Blakely’s business partner’s wife and her mother-in-law was less than friendly. This was partly because the wife spoiled her young daughter, and the mother-in-law was strict with her– the opposite behavior of mothers and grandmothers in American culture.

Sadly, the moral of the author’s story became “Be careful what you wish for.” He realized that the major cultural, political and economic changes taking place in his community meant that Siberians had become like Americans. They started riding in cars instead of walking. They ate fatty foods for lunch and the men stopped exercising. The women started going to aerobics classes at the gym.

Blakely thought that bringing capitalism to them would be a good thing. However, they soon developed an insatiable appetite for consumer goods. Once they were made of aware of their severe deprivation by the media and increased their connections with the rest of the world, they became depressed. Previously, they had been happy due to their ignorance of how materially poor they were.

Read the book to learn of the sea changes taking place at the author’s business, which sold not just chocolate, but surgical gloves, potatoes and other products; and the formerly Communist community, over the next four years.

Another Man’s War

The Book of the Week is “Another Man’s War” by Barnaby Phillips, published in 2014. This ebook recounts two facets of WWII: how Africans– two in particular– fought for Great Britain, and why Great Britain fought in Africa, India and Burma.

The two teenagers, Isaac and David, from Nigeria and Sierra Leone respectively, were seeking adventure and thought they might increase their chances for a better future if they left their home villages. They would be provided with clothing and adequate food, be taught practical skills, and be paid, too.

Britain felt the need to protect the resources it was exploiting, such as food, rubber and gold, along the coastal cities (Freetown, Lagos, Cape Town and Mombasa) of its African colonies. Cape and Suez shipping routes needed to be retained. Burma, another British colony, had oil, rubber, tin and rice. Northern Burma was a crucial trade route for the Chinese, enemies of the Japanese.

In early 1943, Isaac, defying his father (who would have paid his secondary school tuition so that he could become a teacher), “signed up with the Royal West African Frontier Force, swearing an oath of loyalty to King and Empire with a Bible pressed to his forehead. He had become a British soldier.”

Some of the Africans were recruited through deception, such as those from Gambia; or by force, such as those from Nyasaland and Tanganyika. Their families didn’t want them to go.

The United States “had no interest in putting the British Empire back on its feet. And yet the British had become reliant on American logistical support, and especially American aircraft.”

Read the book to learn of Isaac and David’s experiences prior to combat, their incredible story involving the heavy attack on, and retreat of, their military unit behind enemy lines in the Burmese coastal region of Arakan, and the aftermath.

The Strange Case of the Mad Professor

The Book of the Week is “The Strange Case of the Mad Professor” by Peter Kobel, published in 2013. This ebook recounts the sordid story of a petty, vengeful university professor who was passionate about his field of study, lemurs.

Professor John Buettner-Janusch (aka “B-J”), of German and Austrian descent, was born in 1924. He grew up in the United States, but went to jail for evading the draft during WWII. “His desire for attention was enormous, and he never seemed to care much whether that notice was admiration, disdain, or loathing.”

B-J eventually rose through the ranks of higher education while collecting a menagerie of lemurs that were subjected to primate research. People either loved him or hated him. He was like a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. It became apparent that he was also a sociopath.

Starting in the late 1970’s, he was charged with serious crimes. “…But much of B-J’s pretrial testimony formed a farrago of lies and half-truths, of the incredible or incomprehensible.”

Read the book to learn what became of this colorful character.

So Anyway… – Bonus Post

This blogger read “So, Anyway…” by John Cleese. The author initially thought he was going to be an attorney, actually acquiring a legal education. But he changed his mind and became a comedy writer.

Cleese is a rare bird, in that he possesses capacity for analytical thinking and comedic absurdity in equal measure– the former has kept him sane, and the latter has made him funny.

The author had the luck of entering the field of British television comedy around 1960 when it was in its infancy. He worked with David Frost– a TV executive who undeservedly grabbed writing credits by listing his name first in large letters on his own show, while there were tens of other writers, contributors of original material, whose names appeared in small type thereafter. Cleese comments that people harbored little or no jealousy over this because Frost had a hands-off management style, never said a mean word about anyone, ignored his immature critics, and sincerely believed people were cheering for him rather than trying to cut him down.

The author, a major contributor to the BBC TV show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and some funny movies, also writes, “I regarded swearing as a form of cheating, a lazy way of getting a laugh out of material that wasn’t intrinsically funny enough.”

Read the book to see Cleese’s other words of wisdom on comedy writing, and how he has been able to continuously contribute creative content to various shows through the decades– a major feat for someone with a career such as his.