Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why I Love New York

We are a web of small communities, connected by the moments we share in the public places that shape our daily lives.

Despite having a hundred native tongues, we speak a common dialect.

Thriving on anonymity in our constant interactions with strangers,we learn the most personal things about our neighbors and the people who surround us, even if we never learn their names.

Friday, March 27, 2009

New York Is a Friendly Town

In the Student Service Center at Columbia, black and white pictures of New York line the walls. At one end, a high-contrast shot of Grand Central depicts the calm in the station before rush hour. At the other end, the columns and statues of the New York Stock Exchange loom over students awaiting transcripts, the processing of a request to drop a class, and other administrative steps that build and categorize their education here. How many of these students were once destined to hallow the halls of these New York giants? How many of them were to be passing through the terminal to a hedge fund or a bank, or turning a close eye to the trade floor with each day's opening bell?

As this New York crumbles, what are their destines now? Will courses in Greek civilization and Western humanities equip them with alternate paths? Will they put their heads together and, moving full-force through the gates of their alma mater, begin something that is thus far undefined?

After September 11th, this city thought nothing would be the same. Together, we acknowledged a crisis and we began to pick up the pieces, to re-build our homes, and to fight to make it to a better time. We took pride in being a city that accepts difference and used the irony of the attack as an opportunity for empowerment and for return to the comraderie that defines this city. For two years this city felt shell-shocked, but over time we began to put a new face forward, storing that frightful day in our permanent memory banks and continuing onward as soldiers in the most powerful metropolis.

This time in New York's history is different. After months of newspaper headlines screaming crisis and failure, I am surprised at how much we continue to operate as if business is usual, as if nothing has changed. I can feel it when I turn any Manhattan corner that this is a farce, that we are players in a game that has surely run amok. When outsiders imposed tragedy on our city we embraced it and joined together to fight it, facing it head on as our truth. Yet now, when we impose it on ourselves, we are less willing to confront it. When will we acknowledge a new chapter in our history? When will we begin to re-imagine our destinies? When will we take all this to heart?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Can Education Save Us?

Obama’s invitation for questions yesterday brought over 100,000 inquiries from people across the country. Among the top categories was education, with over 13,000 questions voted on by 28,000 people. In times of massive layoffs, complete financial insecurity, and national struggles with homeownership and health care, why are Americans asking about education?

For starters, we’ve gotten to a point where we require or expect a costly and time-consuming college education for the majority of our workforce. With this expectation, Americans want to know how they will pay for college, or how they will get out of the debt they accumulated when they attended college ten, five, or even two years ago. These questions hinge on financial concerns, but they speak to a larger issue. In the last 20 years, we’ve turned to colleges and universities as a critical contributor to individual success. While this can be partially explained by the increase in specialization and growth of the knowledge economy in a post-industrial society, I don’t think this explains it all. Perhaps we’ve transformed higher education into a nearly mandatory task because these institutions aren’t as regulated by the government and therefore don’t seem to be failing us in the same way that our K-12 schools are. In some ways, we are unique in this situation; in many countries, secondary education is sufficient schooling for individuals to be deemed able to participate and engage in society in an informed and articulate way.

In the underbelly of all these questions about college loans and elementary school music programs, I think that Americans want to know how education might save us. An inadequate education system, in which students continue to fail against our nation’s own measures of success, can only hurt us. But an adequate or even innovative system, one that empowers all citizens with the ability to be productive, to think critically and creatively, and to master new tasks will make for a better equipped, more efficient workforce, a globally competitive American population, and, perhaps most importantly, a broader base of Americans able to say, “what were we thinking.”

As a superpower, we have very few colleagues to check us. We are able to behave irrationally or irresponsibly without too many peers to talk us down or call us out. What if we were able to check ourselves? What if within our population, we had diverse constituents equipped with the tools and the means to provide our own balances? This is the formula we rely upon for our government—why not rely upon it for our society as well?

Maybe America is sensing this. If we can turn our schools into 13-year breeding grounds of citizenship and articulation, rather than holding pens for rambunctious or starved (in any sense of the word) children, we may see one of the central social welfare mechanisms of our society transformed into the great arbitration tool of our nation. If our financial bailouts fail and the quality of life that most of us experience suffers, could our schools, the place where we train the next generation how to behave responsibly and act civilly, be what saves this nation in the long-run?

In my next post I’ll make some recommendations. These are lofty goals that require innovative thinking coupled with tangible reform. I’ll focus on how we can tweak our approach to school financing to ensure appropriate taxpayer contributions to education, and how we can reform how we use these dollars to ensure that the most valuable resources in schools are prioritized. It’s a meager start, but if we are to reverse the trends that got us to this awful place where we are now, we must begin at the beginning.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Initial Impressions of Berlin

Many people are unconventionally employed or unemployed here. Berlin is so cheap that they spend their days in cafes and galleries, their evenings in beer gardens and clubs, and the wee hours in large, dark flats in five-story walkups, whose vast windows flood with early morning sun when it’s time to begin the whole circuit/routine again.

Trams and bicycles occupy the majority of street traffic, but not to the same extent as in Copenhagen or Amsterdam. The U-Bahn and the S-Bahn offer compelling, cheap, and comprehensive train transport.

Many things operate on the honor system. At cafes and many restaurants, food and drinks are served at a promise to pay before leaving. On public transport, sporadic enforcement of payment does not deter people from paying anyway. In a few bars, you pay what you like for as much as you drink and eat.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Some Food for NYC Thought

The New York Times has published the results of a survey of thousands of New York City residents. The results are interesting but not surprising. Here's a quick summary and brief analysis:
  • The areas that indicate the lowest satisfaction with NYC's government services are also the poorest, meaning that they are the ones most likely to utilize government services and most likely to need them.
  • Measures of sidewalk maintenance, playgrounds, street maintenance, rat control, and neighborhood cleanliness all get the lowest ratings in the poorest neighborhoods, suggesting that the city concentrates its efforts in more affluent areas.
  • While only 33% of NYC residents surveyed are satisfied with NYC's public after-school programs, 57% of those who have attended a NYC public school after-school program in the last 12 months give good or excellent ratings to the program's service. This suggests that the data presented here don't tell the full story--in other words, as usual, statistics are misleading.
  • 78% of those surveyed gave excellent or good ratings to the way the City of New York provides services in "your language." This suggests that either the survey was offered in multiple languages, or it was only given to those who speak English or Spanish.
  • New Yorkers are dissatisfied with NYC's public housing, its services for protecting children at risk of abuse and neglect, its services for addressing homelessness, the NYC public schools, air quality, and the way NYC spends tax dollars.
  • However, New Yorkers are very satisfied with, the city's public libraries, 311, 911, citywide fire protection, neighborhood emergency services, Medicaid, public senior centers, and subway daytime safety.

On Our Generation, and Optimism in Recessive Times

I have mixed feelings about this article from today’s New York Times Magazine titled “Generation OMG.” I recall learning about an era called the Roaring ‘20s, a time right before the Great Depression when life was lavish, parties were like dreams, and the future seemed wide open for anything to happen. Is it really true that a generation on the brink of entering this possibility-filled world, a generation so close to this recent forgotten time that they can see it in the tired eyes of parents and older friends, abandoned all ideas that the prosperous life that those before them had lived could become a possibility for them too?

In this article, the author quotes an English professor as saying, “The ‘30s challenged the whole idea of the American dream, the idea of open economic possibilities…The version you get of that today is the loss of confidence on the part of both parent and children that life in the next generation will inevitably be better.”

I think there are some crucial cultural differences between our generation and the one that came of age during and immediately following the Great Depression. For one, we are significantly more connected. We are in communication constantly and we participate in digital forums where we bounce ideas off each other, form interest groups and partnerships before we even meet, and develop programs before we acquire the resources to support them. Additionally, overall we are significantly more educated. We have the social, human and cultural capital to understand the economic situation and how similar situations have played out historically; further, we have the tools to make the best of our situation and the ability to balance risk with safety and security while pursuing innovative courses of action.

For our younger counterparts, those whose parents are seeking to put them in daycare because they’re working longer hours or those who are just learning to read and write in Kindergarten, those who are learning life through the lens of an economic downturn, I think there is actually great hope. For all the reasons cited above, the youngest of our citizens have resources and tools at their disposal that were unfathomable in the 1930s. Further, these young people ten or twenty years behind us will come of age in a world that is being redefined by us. They may face more of the “psychic scars” that Kate Zernike discusses, but couldn’t they be mediated by the unabashed optimism of impressive innovation, young leadership, and bold assertion of new approaches?

Zernike acknowledges these possibilities toward the middle of her article. She writes:
Surveys have shown young people becoming more civic-minded in the last four years, and those who study them suggest this will increase, if only because the jobs will be in creating the public institutions and infrastructure of a new economic order. And with the assumptions of the past decade now popped, the older among the recession youth might feel bolder striking out in more creative directions.
Through questionable stimulus bills and excessive layoffs, through the closing of companies and the changing of mindsets, we, the 20-somethings, wild and smart, are poised to re-frame the American economic and social order. Perhaps we saw this coming--many of us have been trained to think outside the box, to push the limits of the way we understand the world and to seek creative solutions to problems we identify. We have been building this capacity and this energy, almost as if we have been waiting for this moment to throw it all out there into the world and start something new. Whether we repeat the trends of the early 20th century or we define a new world order, unique from anything seen thus far, has yet to be determined. As we break up the forms and feel new things, to use the words of Michael McClure, we must declare ourselves the shepherds of change and the leaders into the brave new world. For our peers and for those who tread lightly behind us, soaking up the world through our schools, we must fearlessly build a future full of days that are definitionless and open, that prioritize creativity and maximization of talent over commitment to routine and safety at the expense of innovation.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood

I wonder if I should have taken the one less traveled by.

If I weren’t sitting here right now, reflecting after a class at Teachers College and a long day at my desk at Columbia, I would have just returned from Spain, exhausted and exhilarated from a year of teaching English to 2nd graders and living in a rural, coastal town quietly distanced from the epicenter of this global financial meltdown.

It’s incredible to me how much single decisions shape our lives, and even more so how those decisions are rarely made on the impact they will have on our lives long-term. Instead, they are often made by prioritizing one tiny factor on which they hinge: a friend in town who we could always spend more time with, the immediate appeal of a higher salary, the weighing of two options when each should be considered independently, the fleeting priorities we think we will live by indefinitely. Our daily lives are defined by these individual components that we consider in isolation, though they collide in every moment to build the beginning and end of our days, the thoughts that preoccupy us before sleep, the frameworks with which we understand our purpose.

As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, I am one of the floaters. I do not have a predefined path or even a clear, distant end goal—instead I have diverse interests, competing priorities, and at times an inability to balance rational thinking with emotional investment. As a result, the individual factors of a decision play heavily in my selection; without a clearly defined purpose, I rely on the sub-components to understand my choices.

After graduating from college, I spent the following summer weighing two options: accept a one-year position with the Spanish government, imparting my native tongue on youngsters in a small town, or begin employment at a prestigious university in a global city, in a position requiring an ironically vague specialization and carrying an equally vague indication of where I could go from there. I picked the latter, partially because I thought that if I picked the former, I would spend the next summer engaging in a similar decision-making process, having spent a year doing something fun but not career-advancing, engaging but not necessarily skill-imparting. To prevent a wasted year, as it seemed at the time, I opted for the safer, more standard choice of immediate salaried employment in New York City.

I’m not sure what I thought would happen when I started this real life, full-time job. I couldn’t fathom being there for long, nor could I imagine where I might go next. After learning the ropes for a few weeks, I began to apply my old patterns of behavior to this new situation. I sought immediate advancement, rapid and incremental change, and new challenges. I scoured job postings without any sense of what I was looking for—I wanted significance, I wanted growth, I wanted a change of scene. I wanted agency over my own status. For a year and six months now, I have remained in this position, changing projects, acquiring new responsibilities, building relationships. I frequently wonder what my days would look like had I gone to Spain or taken a risk or chosen a challenge over safety. I look at the graduate program I’ve committed myself to, a spin-off of my job and an excuse for keeping it, and measure out the months until I’m through with this phase of my life. Yet in all these daydreams, in every calculation, the next destination remains unapparent.

Though I believe in the power of individuals to overcome obstacles and remedy effects of poor decisions, I’m cautious about this next one. Each step we take as young adults plunging forward into the world shapes and defines us—what happens if the next step poorly defines me? What if I place too much weight on the individual pieces of a decision without understanding the greater implications? What if I’m unable to holistically, strategically, wholeheartedly understand what I truly want to do?