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Archive for May, 2008

Can the cyclical nature of history be explained through science? Ecologist Peter Turchin attempts to do just that in his book “War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires.” Turchin argues that imperiogenesis (the birth of empires) occurs on the fringes of civilization, where members of one society interact with members of another. This interaction causes a higher level of asabiya (a term coined by 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun), or the level of social connectivity among groups. People living on these metaethnic frontiers recognize the cultural differences from the other society, thus feeling a stronger bond with fellow compatriots also living on the frontier.

Sound like an “us versus them” argument? Absolutely. Any casual scholar will recognize that history is filled with societies demonizing their rivals in order to subjugate their power and obtain their goals. Turchin, however, makes the argument that cycles of imperiogenesis and imperiopathosis (the decline and eventual death of empires) occur like clockwork. Is this so? Since this book is written with the general reader in mind, the mathematics have been omitted. Still, Turchin cites examples of where imperial decline coincides with decreasing levels of asabiya. The rise of competing aristocrats and their inability to unify against external threats led to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Asabiya led directly to the strength and ascendancy of the Roman Empire. Conversely, the decline of asabiya weakened Rome’s prominence.

Does this theory explain most empires? Turchin’s argument is convincing but I’m undecided as to whether it defines all empires. The British Empire, for example, was the largest empire in the world yet it was nowhere to be found. Instead Turchin discusses the birth and growth of the United States, where the asabiya of frontiersman expanded American borders well into Native American territory and across the continent.

In all, Peter Turchin’s “War and Peace and War” illustrated how the internal affairs of civilizations affect their expansionist ambitions. Highly recommended.

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Talk to any professional educator in the United States today and you will hear endless gripes about underperforming students, helicopter parents, and unsympathetic and detached administrators. What is noticeably lacking (at least noticeable to me, anyway) in this discourse is a vital question: In a technologically hyper-connected 21st century, where does morality fit and, how does one achieve–as what the ancient Greeks called–the good life?

Tensions between teenagers and adults are timeless. Ancient Roman parents quipped about their undisciplined and spontaneous teenage children just as their American counterparts do. The increased relationships between parent and child, however, have never been closer. Moms and dads are more likely to act less “authoritarian” and more “collaborative;” in other words, parents are more likely to be their children’s best friends. Just like the show “Gilmore Girls”, where mother Lorelai and and daughter Rori share every thought and whim, parents have developed a much closer bond with their offspring.

Is this new bond healthy? Today’s teenagers, however, are less likely to act like the responsible Rori but parents are more likely to blindly defend their child. After all, today’s parents grew up not to trust anyone over 30; teachers were seen as antiquated curmudgeons who were concerned more with discipline than education. More than any other generation, today’s parents best understand teenage desire for rebellion.

Teenagers also understand teen angst but instead of serving as a collaborative point its a stumbling block. Part of adolescence is rebelling against authority and in the classroom teachers represent that authority. Parents today can relate to their children because they grew up with James Dean, Holden Caufield, and David Lee Roth. It’s what I’d like to refer to as “I tortured the teacher, I turned out okay” syndrome. But did those parents turn out okay?

Anyway, I’ve digressed. With all the focus on standardized testing and mastering content, how do we get our students to understand what it means to be ethical? What is the “right thing” in 2008? Have ethics changed or do they remain timeless? Does advanced communication–where an individuals can instantly communicate with one another–break down barriers that would lead to conflict, or do they speed up the process? Does a 21st century educational system need to require an independent ethics curriculum or should ethics be inserted throughout coursework? These are questions that I’ll seek to explore in further blog installments.

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It’s been awhile since I’ve last updated this blog. From January to early May, I’ve been consumed with the transformative exercise known as student teaching. At a fairly white, suburban high school in culturally-deprived northern New Jersey, I taught American history to juniors, seniors (my high school was unique in that it required a fourth year of social studies whereas the state only requires three) and–in my elective course called American History Through Film–sophomores and even freshman. So its fair to say that I experienced a well-rounded student teaching internship.

Initally student teaching can be brutal. As a not-yet-rookie teacher (education professionals still contend that the first year of teaching is the most difficult) you don’t know what you are doing. You try some things and they either work or they don’t. One particular physics teacher gave me some pertinent advice: “If you’re able to execute one good lesson a week, you’re ahead of the game.”

I’m not sure if I delivered a good lesson each week. Perhaps I did, but I certainly survived with a more fundamental grasp of what it’s like teaching in today’s public schools.

If I were to advise education majors who are about to emark in student teaching, I would give the following advice:

1. Plan, Plan, Plan. And then Plan. This cannot be stressed enough. My cooperating teacher decided to throw me into the fire quickly; consequently I did not have enough time to create any new ideas. I found myself planning the night before, especially into the wee early morning hours.

2. Be Flexible to Deviate from Said Plan. You have to plan just so you can deviate from it. And you will deviate from it. Students will ask you questions and you might go off on a sidebar. You might realize that the beautifully created activity takes more than the 40 minutes for which you planned.

3. Seek Advice From Everyone Who Will Give It. I was lucky to have such a welcoming and inspirational social studies department. Everyone was tremendously supportive and offered advice whenever I asked for it. Seek out other members from your department. Also consult teachers from other disciplines–I asked for help from English to Spanish to physics teachers.

4. Don’t Take This Too Seriously. This is advice that for the great majority of my fifteen-week experience I didn’t follow. It wasn’t until after spring break that I found that I could relax. Once I became comfortable in the classroom environment, it was time to go! Enjoy the kids and they will enjoy you back! Relax! Have fun! Experiment. This is where you can discover yourself as a teacher.

In later installments I’ll be writing more on this subject but now that my student teaching experience is finished I’m off to find a job. Wish me luck!

 

 

 

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Thank God Lucasfilm and Spielberg decided not to go with this title. Still, the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones franchise involves–you guessed it–extraterrestrials. Originally Lucas wanted the swashbuckling archaeologist battling Martians a la cheesy 1950s pulp fiction. Spielberg and Ford said no. Who could blame them?

Through our well-established connections among the Protestant elite (not really), Melissa and I saw “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” at an early screening in our local theater. Not bad, actually; the film was better than I expected. Yes, Harrison Ford looks ancient. Yes, Shia LeBeouf doesn’t really carry the bad-boy persona well. However, the plot lines and the action sequences were top-notch. It was fun reliving the Indy Jones universe, even though its set in the late 1950s and the evil Nazis have been replaced with evil Commies. Cate Blanchett plays Irina Spalko, Dr. Jones’ nemesis and Soviet badass in her quest for the Crystal Skull. Karen Allen reprises her role as Marion Ravenwood, Indy’s original heartthrob in “Raiders of the Lost Ark“.

Kudos to Spielberg for successfully bringing back that campy-but-not-overdone feel to the Indy franchise and putting together a film that is (probably) Indiana Jones’ farewell cinematic finale.

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It’s been quite awhile since my last post but I’ve returned! Here’s what kept me busy these past several months:

student teaching!

From mid January to early May, I’ve spent an exorbitant amount of time student teaching in a northern New Jersey suburban high school. I taught American history and an American history through film course. It was both an exhilarating and challenging experience. Now I’m in the process of looking for a job. Wish me luck!

By the way, I expect to update this blog more frequently now that I have the time to do so.

Wish me luck!

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