“Sweet Little 78” and Back in Class Again

Aronowitz

As readers of this blog might remember, Peggy and I have just moved to Westport, Connecticut. In an earlier posting, I explained that we’re here largely to be near our four grandchildren. My daughter, Maggie, our son-in-law, Kerry, along with Eva (9 yrs.), Oscar (7), Orlando (5), and Markandeya (3) live at 69 Clinton Avenue. Peggy and I are now located at 33 Clinton. It’s a 10-minute walk between our two houses.

And so far, it’s working out just fine. We’re pretty well moved into our new digs which are quite a bit smaller than what we became used to in Berea, Kentucky. But we’re finding comfort in the down-sizing. After all small is beautiful.

33 Clinton

Along those lines, however, I do find myself missing the small-town atmosphere that we got so comfortable with in Berea. Forty-five years in Kentucky definitely turned me into a country mouse. Here in Westport, a virtual suburb of New York City, things are quite different. The pace if faster; the traffic is heavier; the prices are higher.

But with Westport and that proximity to NYC come a lot of benefits. For instance, our new location has a wonderful Playhouse. Just this weekend, Peggy and I took in “Man of La Mancha” that had been performing there to rave reviews. The reviews were well-deserved. We came away truly inspired.

And then there’s a nine-week course I have enrolled in and am attending each Saturday in the heart of Manhattan. That’s what I want to tell you about here. As Chuck Berry might say, at sweet 78, I’m back in class again.

The course is called “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory.” The sessions are taught by Stanley Aronowitz (pictured above), an emeritus professor of sociology, cultural studies, and urban education at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. Stanley is a widely-published authority on critical theory. Peggy and I had met him years ago (around 1990) at the Socialist Scholars Conference at CUNY. His work on Paulo Freire and our friendship with Paulo were our connecting points.

My primary purpose in attending Stanley’s class is to deepen my understanding of critical theory, which lies at the basis of my related book The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: Seeing Through Alternative Fact and Fake News.

True, my book addresses what is called “critical thinking” here in the United States. But the latter’s exclusive emphasis on logic and detecting fallacies is a far cry from critical theory as understood in the rest of the world. There it is profoundly informed by Marxism and the work of Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Eric Fromm – all members of the so-called Frankfurt School.

Just as my book does, the Frankfurt School emphasized the structural causes of the way we think: capitalism, its ideology, and the ways thinking is influenced by capitalism’s history, colonial practices, and associated understandings of violence, terrorism and other obfuscations. As I explain in my book, I picked up almost everything I know of that kind of critical thinking from the liberation theologians I’ve studied with in Rome, Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Mexico, Cuba, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India, and Israel. Liberation theology is deeply influenced by the Frankfurt School.

So, my first purpose in attending was to learn more about critical theory unfiltered through theology. My secondary purpose was to meet other leftists, to find out what they’re up to in the NYC area, and to possibly join them in their efforts at creating a world with room for everyone.

The Aronowitz class meets Saturday afternoons from 12:00-2:00 at The People’s Forum on 320 East 37th Street. Getting there has me taking the 10:08 train from Westport to Grand Central Station. That reaches its destination about 11:30. Then I walk a mile and a quarter down 42nd Street to Broadway, and then to East 37th. On the way, I pass the New York City Library and thousands of very interesting-looking people.

The first meeting drew about 30 people. Though extremely interesting, it frustrated my purpose of getting to know people. Stanley didn’t have us introduce ourselves. So, I came away with only the vaguest notions of who was there. They were of all ages, though slightly tilted towards my own cohort. Mostly men, though about a third were women.

For homework, Stanley assigned a very difficult reading from Adorno’s Critical Models. It was an 18-page essay called “Progress.” It turned out to be one of the most abstract pieces I’ve ever read. I found it kind of exciting though. It made me feel like I was in graduate school again – reading something very serious. However, Aronowitz was right: “You have to read it about three times to get what Adorno’s saying.”

Well, I did that. It took me about half-an-hour to read each page. And later (even though it wasn’t part of the assignment) I wrote a 1000-word essay of response. It’s the kind of essay I always wanted my students at Berea to produce after readings I assigned there.

In any case, Stanley’s second class had about half the number of attendees as the first. Our actual class size is 12 students. (Stanley said the class size-difference is normal.) As it turns out, most of them (largely 50 yrs. and older) are Aronowitz groupies. As far as I can tell, I’m the only one who hasn’t taken a previous class with him. The others are all Marxists more or less (I guess I fall into that category as well) – all very smart and well-read.

So, I’m having fun here in Westport. The three classes I’ve attended so far have been dynamite.

Tomorrow or the next day, I’ll share the essay I mentioned above.

My Interview on Rob Kall’s “Bottom-Up” Podcast/Radio Program

Two weeks ago, Rob Kall posted an interview with me on OpEdNews. It centered on my book, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact & fake news. I had great fun doing the show. Here it is.

Apologies for Not Publishing More Regularly: We’re Moving

33 Clinton

I’m sorry for the long gap between my last posting and this one. The truth is, however, that Peggy and I are in the process of moving. We’ve sold our house here in Berea. It’s been our home for the last 25 years, after moving from Buffalo Holler out in nearby Rockcastle County where we lived for about 20 years.

Our destination is Westport Connecticut just down the street from our four grandchildren [Ineva (9 years old), Oscar (7), Orlando (5) and Markandeya (3)], our daughter, Maggie, and our son-in-law, Kerry. We want to be part of our grandchildren’s lives.

So, following graduation ceremonies in a couple of weeks, Peggy will be leaving her post as director of Berea’s Women and Gender Studies Program. She’s made such a wonderful contribution to college life, especially through her very popular “Peanut Butter & Gender” speakers’ program. For years under that rubric, she’s hosted stars like bell hooks, Gloria Steinem, Ana Thomas, Matthew Fox, Winona La Duke, Rosemary Reuther, and Vandana Shiva. The list is long and glorious.

Our new home is one Peggy and I have been lusting after for the 10 years that Maggie and Kerry have been living in Westport. As you can see from the picture above, it’s very pretty with lots of windows and even has a picket fence around it.

Here in Berea, we’ve signed a contract with the buyers and we’ll close a month from tomorrow. That’s the day we must vacate the premises. So, as everyone can imagine, we’re gradually packing our belongings as well as making many trips to Goodwill with clothes and things, and to the library with books we regretfully realize we’ll never open again.

So, I guess what I’m announcing here is a little hiatus from regular blog postings. I just have to devote this next month to full-time packing, and to saying goodbye to the friends we’ve made over our 46 years in this lovely college town, where my office was a 12-minute walk from my front door.

I’m sure everyone will understand. I might be able to write sporadically in the meantime. So please feel free to check in now and then. I’ll write more often once we get settled for the summer at our lake house in Michigan. We plan to move into our new home in Westport in September. Once we’re installed there, I’ll resume my regular writing schedule – probably at the beginning of October.

Wish us luck.

Press Release: The Critical Thinking Manual Progressive Teachers Have Been Waiting For: My New Book

Magic Glasses Cover

Mike Rivage-Seul has just published the book progressive teachers have been waiting for to ground their post-secondary courses on critical thinking. Available on April 17th from Peter Lang Publishing, the book is called The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news.

Rivage-Seul is an emeritus professor of peace and social justice studies at Berea College in Kentucky, where he taught for more than 40 years. He publishes a monthly column in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

His approach to critical thinking – to education itself – should be familiar to progressives. It starts from the position that the purpose of such process is not primarily to interpret the world, but to change it. Therefore, critical thinking and education should not be neutral. It should equip students with the tools they need for social activism.

Magic Glasses summarizes what Rivage-Seul considers the most important insights he gathered over his years of travel and study throughout Europe and especially in the Global South – specifically in Brazil, Nicaragua, Cuba, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and India, as well as in Israel-Palestine.

“As you can tell by the title,” Mike says, “The Magic Glasses could hardly be timelier. The concept comes from the great comedian and social activist, Dick Gregory. He spoke of critical thinking as functioning like a set of spectacles. They confer special insight enabling their wearers to see things quite differently from what is considered ‘normal.’

“However, Gregory warns that the glasses come with three rules. The first is that once you put them on, you can never take them off. The second says that once you put them on, you can never see things the way everybody else does, but only as they truly are. And the third is that you can never force anyone else to wear them.”

In other words, Rivage-Seul’s book might be a dangerous read. For instance, he echoes Global South scholars by seeing sinister intent in the Declaration of Independence’s celebrated statement that “All men are created equal.” With those same scholars, he refers to World War II as the “Second Inter-Capitalist War,” and sees the United States as currently occupying the same global position that Adolph Hitler aspired to attain – with similar effect.

“I’ve been wearing Gregory’s magic glasses for years,” Mike says. “They’ve shaped my all my teaching and have often got students mad at me – at least at first. And you should read some of the comments my newspaper columns get! It’s all because I constantly apply the ten rules for critical thinking that my book explains.”

Those rules include: (1) Reject Neutrality, (2) Reflect Systemically, (3) Select Market (as the root of political differences), (4) Suspect Ideology, (5) Respect History, (6) Inspect Scientifically, (7) Connect with Your Deepest Self, (8) Quadra-sect Violence, (9) Detect Silences, and (10) Collect Conclusions.

As a result of employing those guidelines, Rivage-Seul understands U.S. history, terrorism, the renewed nuclear arms race, world hunger, trade agreements, immigration, Black Lives Matter, and other hot button issues in ways that end up being 180 degrees opposed to the mainstream.

“I’m in good company though,” Mike observes. “I’m trying to channel the spirit of the world’s great critical thinkers. Think about it. None – not Jesus, the Buddha, not Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, or Helen Keller – was neutral. They weren’t worried about ‘balance’ or offending anyone. For them, speaking truth to power and living with the results were all that mattered.

“I’m hoping that my book falls into that tradition.”

That social activist tradition is indeed developed in The Magic Glasses. And each point is illustrated with movie clips from films such as Traffic, The Post, Avatar, Sausage Party, The Distinguished Gentleman, Good Will Hunting, American Sniper, Captain Phillips, American History X, War Dogs, Bulworth, and even with the Broadway musical, Hamilton.

In sum, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking represents and attempt to supply secondary and post-secondary teachers with a complete syllabus for a course on critical thinking that will help students radically revision their world in ways that inevitably challenge all of their preconceptions.

As such, Rivage-Seul’s book on critical thinking is not only the one progressives have been waiting for, it’s a page-turner as well. As Rob Kall, the editor-in-chief of OpEdNews puts it in his endorsement:

“I love this book. It’s brilliantly written by a very wise man who’s been serially enriched by spending time with some of the world’s greatest visionaries. And he shares what he learned from his conversations with them. The book is addictively readable. I started to skim the book to see if it was worth putting my time into and found I couldn’t stop reading. Michael Rivage-Seul brings sparkling vivacity to the potentially dry topic of critical thinking. As one who has interviewed hundreds of visionaries, I found this book to offer new perspectives and ways of seeing-which is what building critical thinking skills is all about. This book offers so much more than what its title, at first glance suggests. Have a taste and you, will like me, find yourself wanting to consume all the courses of this delicious meal.”

Captain Fantastic Cleans House Before His Final Journey (Part 3)

Death Cleaning

This is the 3rd part in my series of reflections on “Captain Fantastic.” The first addressed the film’s theme. The second recalled how Peggy and I attempted to live, like the film’s hero, “off the grid.” This final posting offers my reflections on what’s happened to us over the last 20 years as family considerations have made us compromise.

I’ll be moving on soon.
They say to CT.
But, really, I know
It’s far beyond.
So (as other Swedes put it) I’m ‘death cleaning.’
 
That means getting rid of
All that stuff which
(Pace, Captain Fantastic, please!)
I’ve managed to accumulate over 77 years
To save my kids the trouble.
 
What a burden it is!
Books I once labored over and annotated so carefully
And loved and left and forgot
Like my forsaken lovers.
Reduced to inert, mute strangers now
With nothing to say.
Computers and cell phones
And chargers and wires
I don’t even know what they’re for.
Not to mention the clothes and shoes
I haven’t worn for years.
It all cost me (or somebody) thousands.
But now I can’t give it away.
(No one else knows what those wires are for either!)
 
Then there’s this old house
In Berea, Kentucky
Just seven minutes away
From the place I worked those 40 years.
Where I’m now a stranger
And must show my card to babies
Born when I was sixty
Who guard the shiny gadgets
in the college gym
And ask ‘Mike Who?’
 
We bought this place 20 years ago.
Painted it twice
Finished the basement
Rented it to students
Bought a lake house in Michigan
And a pontoon Party Boat,
Acquired 2 Volvos (used)
This Apple Watch on my wrist
And more green paper
Than I know what to do with
Along with countless other trinkets.
 
And now I’m about to leave it all
With little to show.
In the end (and I’m close now)
It all means nothing.
Did it ever?
Surely, you agree.
 
Once in my early days
I gave no value to such things.
Then, I took literally
The Master’s words (And still do!)
“What does it profit a man
If he gains the whole world,
And loses his soul.”
 
So, at the age of 14,
I gave it all up
(With joy and such earnestness!)
Left home and family
And for about 20 years
Lived (as a communist, I guess)
Owning very little of what they call ‘mine.’
Wore the same clothes as everyone else.
Ate the same food
Making no choices anywhere
And wanting nothing more
Even gave up women and sex
And the prospect of family.
What freedom then!
And I didn’t even know it.
 
Meanwhile, I accumulated nothing there
But learned to pray
To think deeply
About things that matter
Ultimately.
To realize that possessions
Are merely dreams
That in the end (like now)
Mean nothing at all.
 
I hope to take most of that with me
When I move on
And wake up from this dream.
Don’t you?

Captain Fantastic (Part Two): Our Early Attempts to Live off the Grid

Appalachia

(Not a photo of our family. But it reminds me of the way our house in Buffalo Holler looked originally and of how I remember us looking back then.)

This is the second in a three-part series reflecting on the film “Captain Fantastic.” It recalls the years when Peggy and I tried to live off the grid in an Appalachian Holler. I write it in part to remind my children of the reasons for what they sometimes complain about. I’m also hoping it might elicit similar reflections on the part of other readers of this blog.

__________

To begin with, Peggy’s and my aspirations were idealistic like those of Ben and Leslie in Captain Fantastic. When we were first married, the two of us definitely wanted to live off the grid. We had both read E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, Frances Moore Lappe’s Food First, and Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America. We were teaching those books in “Issues and Values,” a wonderful two-semester freshman course on critical thinking at Berea College. Our desire was to walk the walk.

So, in 1980 four years after our marriage, we bought a house shell for $8000 cash in an Appalachian holler. There, everyone was kin. We were “those outsiders” from Berea college.

At times our status as relatively well-off foreigners in a situation of Appalachian rural poverty caused us problems. One morning we awoke to find our car up on blocks and all of its wheels and tires gone. Another day after a heavy snowfall, we discovered that “neighbor boys” had turned our little Subaru on its head. Additionally, our road was unpaved and after heavy rains, the mud prevented us from leaving the holler. (I remember “taking a run” at getting up the hill leading to the main road. Time after time, I’d nearly make it to the top, only to be stalled with spinning wheels just short of the hill’s crest.)

Our phone was the only one in Buffalo Holler, so neighbors would frequently be at our door seeking access.

Despite everything, Peggy and I were determined to acquire the skills necessary to live self-sufficiently. So we learned to roof, plumb, tile, dry wall, dig a well, and to lay and finish wooden flooring. We gathered second-hand barn wood and paneled our walls with it. We gardened and cut logs for our wood-burning stove that was our only source of heat during some of the coldest Kentucky winters either of us can remember. I dug a full basement underneath our house using pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow. It provided us an additional family room, bedroom, office and bathroom. Peggy canned our food. At Christmas we would cut down a pine yule tree from the forest that surrounded us.

We also built a solar addition onto our home’s south-facing end. Its seven long double-paned windows were glass refrigerator doors recycled from a local food store undergoing renovation. Below the windows we placed 10 fifty-gallon drums filled with water to store the heat they gathered from daytime exposure to the sun. (We salvaged the drums from a nearby ice cream factory where they had originally contained chocolate. Each barrel still had an inch or so of syrup covering its bottom. Once carefully removed and frozen that chocolate provided us desserts for the next 2 years!) Mylar solar shades covered our windows at night to keep the heat inside. We also covered the addition’s floor with bricks we had transferred from the torn-down Berea College Sears Building. The bricks would provide additional heat storage for the solar space. One Saturday afternoon we even hosted a group from Appalachian Science in the Public Interest to show off our proud “cutting edge” technology.

Peggy’s and my alternative lifestyle also had us taking our children to live off the grid in other ways. We worked in Brazil for six months during my first sabbatical from Berea. There we learned Portuguese and studied with Paulo Freire. Peggy worked with his literacy team in Sao Paulo’s favelas. Meanwhile, I studied liberation theology with theologians I had been reading for years. We took our kids to revolutionary Nicaragua and later to Cuba. Then we lived in Costa Rica for a year, in Zimbabwe for another 12 months, as well as in South Africa, India, and Mexico for similar periods. So all 3 or our kids learned Spanish as well as studying Shona. During our travels we often lived with local families and always in working class neighborhoods, where our children made fast friends and went to school.

Like the couple in Captain Fantastic, Peggy and I had different ideas about educating our kids. In the film, Leslie had secretly helped Bodevan, their family’s eldest, apply to all the best Ivy League schools, where he was accepted enthusiastically.

When Ben Cash finds out about that, he demands, “Why would you want to go to any of those schools? You already know far more than most of the professors you’d have in those places. And they’d just be preparing you for a lifestyle we all know is bullshit.”

Ben’s words reflected my own attitude. Teaching “Issues and Values” at Berea was helping me see the worth of Appalachian culture, its history, art, music, and simple, close-to-nature lifestyle. The school was committed to social justice for African Americans and to students coming from limited economic circumstances like my own family’s back in Chicago. Wasn’t it fortunate, I thought, that my own three children could have all of that for free?

Peggy’s attitude (like Leslie’s in the film) was wisely different on this score. She fully appreciated all those Berea values we were learning and teaching. However, she also thought that our kids needed to get out of town, where, as high school students, they had already taken so many courses at Berea that they qualified to enter college as sophomores. So Peggy spent a lot of her valuable time taking them to schools that interested them outside of Kentucky. In the end, our daughter Maggie ended up at Wellesley in Boston and at UCLA for her law degree. Brendan went to Lafayette in Pennsylvania and then to Harvard’s Kennedy School. Patrick attended Davidson in North Carolina. All three are extremely grateful to Peggy for that. They’re thankful that my wishes didn’t prevail. In retrospect, I am too. Getting away from home and broadened their horizons.

Still, I remember receiving wonderful urgent phone calls from my daughter at Wellesley. She took several economics courses there. And after class, she’d often phone asking for the “real story” about the way capitalism works, especially in relation to the Third World countries that were such a part of her upbringing. During their college years, I had similar interactions with my sons. To this day, I treasure those calls and conversations.

Similar interactions occur in Captain Fantastic that like mine show the lasting and even overriding benefit of the education Ben’s children received at home. In the end, Bodevan follows his father’s advice and doesn’t go to any of those schools he qualified for. Instead, he goes off to Namibia to gain the social skills he didn’t receive within his family group – but in Africa, rather than New England. His 8-year-old sister sends him off with the words, “Stick it to the Man.” Bodevan replies, “Power to the People.”

Those (resistance and commitment to radical democracy) are the attitudes we’ll need to survive in a world threatened by what in 1974 Robert Heilbroner direly described as “the human prospect.” That prospect threatened by climate chaos and the proliferation of nuclear weapons is what shaped my 40 years of teaching at Berea College.

Next week: I share my retirement experience in the light of Captain Fantastic. I wonder about the compromises I’ve made – not unlike Ben Cash’s accommodations to the outside world. Have I gone too far?

Captain Fantastic: Can We Successfully Live off the Grid? (Part One)

Capt. Fantastic

This is the first in a series of 3 posts inspired by Captain Fantastic. Watching the film at the beginning of this new year has caused me to reconsider the direction of my life whose circumstances during retirement have led me to gradually drift away from the simple living ideals that Peggy and I embraced so fervently at the beginning of our life together more than forty years ago. This first posting will introduce the topic and the Captain Fantastic plot. I highly recommend the film. It is extraordinarily thoughtful.

__________

Over the holidays, one of my adult children persuaded me to watch Captain Fantastic. That’s the critically acclaimed film by Matt Ross about a family committed to the back-to-nature lifestyle Peggy and I aspired to at the beginning of our marriage more than 40 years ago. Captain Fantastic stars Viggo Mortensen, who in 2015 received an Academy Award nomination as best actor for his role as the title-character.

My son Patrick (now 31) recommended the film as something I’d love. He said he saw similarities between what’s depicted in the movie and the somewhat regretful experiences of his own childhood with Peggy and me. “You’ll love the film’s father,” Patrick observed wryly. “He’s a lot like you.”

After seeing Captain Fantastic, I could see Pat’s point. The main character, Ben Cash, was a mixed bag. On the one hand, he was indeed inspiring in his commitment to living off the grid. And he was such a good teacher – so open in answering his kids questions and urging them to think for themselves.

On the other hand, Cash’s shortcomings were all too familiar. Like me, he was driven by his clear (not to say rigid) concepts about the way the world works. He was convinced that capitalism is the root of the world’s problems. Socialism offers better prospects. The U.S. medical system is not to be trusted. Ditto for mainstream education. Organized religion is bogus. And holidays like Christmas are not worth celebrating. I could identify with all of that.

But the film offered much more than a nostalgic walk down memory lane. It was more than an opportunity to reflect on my own approach to life with its quirks and shortcomings. It was even more than a demonstration that another world closer to nature is possible. Instead, Captain Fantastic principally represented a reminder of the continued relevancy of the counter-cultural life and education Peggy and I tried to offer our children, even though they’ve largely rejected its intellectual underpinnings. Most importantly of all, it made me see that my present highly consumptive way of life veers sharply from the ideals I once embraced.

Let me show what I mean by first considering the film’s story. Then I’ll share Peggy’s and my attempts to replicate something like it with our own children. Finally, allow me to draw some rather urgent postmortem conclusions about Captain Fantastic’s continued relevancy and challenge to the lifestyle in which I find myself immersed.

Captain Fantastic is about Ben Cash and his family of 4 girls and 2 boys ranging in age from 8 to 18. For 10 years, the 7 of them, along with Leslie, Ben’s wife, had set up camp in the wilds of Washington State where they lived in a large tepee. Over that time, the children had learned the intricacies of foraging, hunting, and growing their own food. They are all homeschooled in philosophy, political science, half a dozen languages, and in the critical analysis of Noam Chomsky. In fact, instead of Christmas, they celebrated Chomsky’s birthday each December.

Captain Fantastic tunes into the Cash tribe’s saga at a moment of extreme crisis. The family’s mom, Leslie, has just committed suicide. She had earlier experienced a psychological breakdown and had been institutionalized. And Ben is blamed for Leslie’s death by her father and eventually by his own children. At one point, Ben’s youngest son shouts at his father, “You killed mom!”

Turns out that Ben’s wife (who doesn’t appear in the film) was no longer fully on board with Ben’s back-to-nature project. Increasingly, the couple had disagreed about its continuation. Apparently, all the resulting tension led to Leslie’s breakdown and eventual suicide. Eventually, Leslie’s wealthy father files a child-abuse lawsuit against his son-in-law in order to gain custody of his children with the intention of returning them to normal life.

None of this means that Leslie had wanted to return to daddy and his way of life. As a committed Buddhist, her final desire was to be cremated and have her ashes flushed down the toilet. This, her Catholic father could not understand, much less accept. So he arranged a traditional Catholic funeral presided over by a priest who barely knew Leslie’s name.

This proves unacceptable to Ben and his children. So they resolve to “rescue” their wife/mother, cremate her body, and flush the ashes. The rest of the film depicts their accomplishment of this feat. It is also about what leads Ben to tone down (but not much) his radicalism and allow his children to attend a mainstream school to help with their socialization.

I can see how all of that reminded Patrick of his life with Peggy and me. The next posting in this series will briefly review that life to set up a contrast and evaluation of the way I’m now living.