Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reflections from Italy

John Gardner

I have been in Italy for 5 days now. I do not bring good luck to countries when I travel. I was in France on 9/11. Was in Christ Church New Zealand the morning of the great earthquake. And this week I have been in Italy with my wife, Betsy Barefoot and they have had terrible floods and their political leader has been forced to announce a plan for his resignation.

We had a wonderful guide in Florence, a late 40’s or so guy with a son who had just graduated from University. The guide told me what I had been reading about already, namely, that the Italian unemployment rate for recent college graduates is running about 30 percent (much worse than in the US). And I know thanks to one of our political parties that is doing everything possible to make the economy worse in order to defeat President Obama, that the prospects for appropriate jobs for our college graduates is going to get a lot worse. As I have written before, when I graduated, I had only a very few options for life after college: work for a defense contractor, seminary, marriage, or war.  I got drafted and so the choice was made for me. And then I had to make the most of it. And I did. But given our employment prospects for our college grads, we better be teaching them in college more than what to do to earn a living. We better be teaching them to find meaning outside employment.

I met a server in a restaurant who was from Albania. Had been in Italy for 13 years, except for one year when he went to Phoenix and worked for Marriott. Can’t wait til he returns to the States. Sees us as the land where anyone can work his way up, pay little or no taxes, be free of intrusive government regulations and where the notion of upward social mobility for those who take risks and work hard is alive and well. I thought: “hey, is this the country I know?” All the data that I am reading suggests upward social mobility is now greatly constrained. And our lack of regulations brought on the great financial collapse of 2008. Interesting how long we hang on to our myths and that it takes for reality to catch up with and revise stereotypes. This applies to how long it took me to finally buy an American made car (in December 2008) which meant getting over my perception that Detroit couldn’t build a quality automobile. It can and I am delighted with my American made car.

But the big story in the week I am away is what is going on at Penn State. I have long viewed the ultimate measure of quality of life in any country tobe the concern that is extended to the welfare of its children. So here is a story where people in power had reason to believe that someone else in a position of power may have been molesting children. By the standards of post industrial societies and western democracies the US doesn’t rank well in terms of its care for the least powerful: our children—witness the dramatic rise in the number living in poverty. As I drove from Siena to Spoleto in Italy today I commented to my wife that since we had been in this country we had seen no overt signs of poverty anywhere, no matter what they are paying for interest on their bonds. Yet, paradoxically, this is the country that has given the world the largest and most powerful organization that protects adults who molest children. As I think about all my friends back home that adore their alma mater or their employer, Penn State, one of the top 32 public research universities in the country, all I know is that the institution somehow failed to pass what for me is the ultimate litmus test of a civilized society: protecting children, the least powerful, first. There is much I do not know about this sad set of circumstances, but it does appear that there were other considerations than children first. In that respect, Penn State is an allegory of the larger host country—both the one where I am a citizen, and the one where I am a guest.

Since I have been away, I have read a report submitted to me by one of our Foundations of Excellence participating institutions. The report was on how the institution was, or was not, measuring up to a standard of excellence for diversity. And I got the usual pablum that I find in American colleges and universities that “diversity” can and must be addressed by “programming” and by special sessions in orientation and bolt on components in first-year seminar courses. Sadly, I see that we treat diversity like we treat the other things in our culture that we are most uptight about: drugs, sex, religion, alcohol use, political differences. We marginalize and trivialize them and do not subject them to in-depth study and analysis. My travels this week remind me that one of the best ways to teach “diversity” is to make it possible for our students to experience it through travel and study outside the US, where diversity is the norm, life, all what matters most.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Veteran’s Day 2011

John Gardner

I am glad I am a “Vet”. That term is, of course, culturally defined in the US to describe someone who has served in the US military. I am proud to know and say I did and was honorably discharged in 1968 after a tour in the US Air Force which sent me to South Carolina and also introduced me to my career with the University of South Carolina.

In my non-profit organization, we celebrate and recognize Veteran’s Day as it is now called (as opposed to our original name – “Armistice Day” which signified the signing of the armistice which brought the killing to a halt in World War I on November 11, 1918—even though technically I am the only “veteran” in the organization. But without that experience there would be no such organization as it was the military which brought me this career.

I am glad I am a veteran because of all that I learned and experienced and especially because of the service(s) I performed. My duties were as a psychiatric social worker in an Air Force hospital. Much as I was opposed to the Vietnam War and did not want to support it, support it I did. I was one of the millions of little human cogs that kept the wheel turning. In my case, I helped keep the war machine operating—my part of it being the unarmed reconnaissance planes that flew over North and South Vietnam taking the pictures which were used to plot the bombing runs—by helping to keep the troops and their dependents functioning. And that I did.

This was also great experience in dealing with anxiety and depressive disorders, character and behavior personality disorders and sexual deviancies, that laid such a useful “foundation” for my subsequent work in the academy with mostly “normal” but some not so normal people.

When I arrived at my permanent base in SouthCarolina, Shaw AFB, in Sumter, S.C. my squadron commander called me in for reasons I did not understand (this was on January 11, 1967). He told me that he had been reviewing my “record” and said “Gardner, you have a lot of education—more than anyone in the Squadron except for the physicans.” This means that we (the Air Force) want and expect you to perform some “service.” I responded “yes sir” but did not understand what he meant by “service.” I was less than a month short of my 23rd birthday and no one had ever told me I was expected to perform “service.” I asked him for an explanation and he offered that he meant “teaching” and told me the base was “desperate” for qualified adjunct instructors to teach in the on-base college program sponsored by the University of South Carolina. So he had the Base Education Office arrange a visit for me two days later, on a Saturday because there were still Saturday classes at USC, to have my credentials reviewed. I was approved to teach six different courses, five in History and one in Sociology. And for the next several years I taught as many as five nights a week and Saturday mornings. I loved it and decided to make that my career after discharge. I am so thankful to the Air Force.

Moral of the story: how many of my readers ever say to their students “I want you to perform some service”? And if you did say it, what would you mean? What options would you give them?

Of course, the draft has long ended. Now we have only the “volunteer army” and entice the poor of our country to go and give their “all” as a form of last resort employment in a society that offers them few other opportunities.

I think that many college students would benefit from some kind of mandatory national service-as I did. What did I learn?

I learned the intrinsic value of performing service, and of its great satisfaction.

I learned that some things mattered far more than I did, for example, our country, and how we cared for others, those less fortunate.

I learned that it is the obligation of government to perform for its citizens those functions which government can perform in ways that individuals can not and that improve the quality of individual citizen lives.

I learned to live and work with a broad cross section of my fellow Americans—a range of people I would never have had such intimate contact with in my previous upper middle class home life and residential, full-time, traditional age college experience.

I learned how large, complex, hierarchal, authoritarian bureaucracies work—and don’t work—how they function rationally, and irrationally, and especially by their own immutable laws.

I learned that responsibility is the most powerful teacher. This came from my observing a culture which gave extraordinary levels of responsibility for life and property to individuals that would never have been so entrusted in the larger society.

I learned the role the US military has played in promoting upward social mobility and in advancing social justice for all minorities.

I learned that the military in a democracy must look like the people of that democracy.

I learned that even in the largest and most rigid of organizational cultures that I could make a difference, make an impact.

As my own career post the Air Force evolved, and our country simultaneously but coincidentally of course, ended the draft and thus the proportion of college educated people like myself in the military declined dramatically, I found myself constantly wondering what kind of experiences I could recommend to my students that would provide for them comparable value to what I had gained from my own military service.

Again, the bottom line for me is that had not a person in authority said to me “Gardner, we believe in having people like you perform service”, I probably never would have discovered this profession where I have made a difference. That “person in authority” was an African-American male, the first person of a race and ethnicity other than my own that I had ever “reported” to. That experience in and of itself was a lesson in democracy.

What is the one thing that you my reader might be able to say to a college student that could turn the direction of the student’s life in some new direction characterized by socially redeeming value?

I savor each Veteran’s Day and remind myself anew what all this means to me.