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Kevin Currie-Knight RSS Feed (Springfield, Illinois)

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Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country
Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country
Price: $14.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Steele's Interpretation of What Divides Us!, February 25, 2015
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Steele is a favorite writer of mine, so I've been waiting for this book for some time. For those familiar with Steele, you know what to expect: a literary and theoretical reflection on the predicament of race in the United States. For better or worse - and sometimes both - Steele doesn't try to convince us as much with fact as by offering us an interpretation of the American psyche.

This book, of course, is about more than the issue of race. Here, Steele tries to offer a framework for understanding the difference between the 'liberal' and 'conservative' mind. For my part, I think this is too lofty an ambition for his argument. Bu, like Steele's other works, it is challenging and thought provoking nonetheless.

Steele's idea is that in the 1960's, many of the hypocrisies of the United States become laid bare: a society partly build on racism and sexism but professing to believe in equality of opportunity, that professed liberty for all but inserted itself in the affairs of other nations. In acknowledging these hypocrisies - and Steele thinks the acknowledgement was appropriate - belief in the United States and its values lost the moral authority it once had. To fill the void, that moral authority was claimed by those who challenged the values of the United States. Instead of making capitalism more just, overthrow it. Instead of civil rights movement's goal of integration into American (white) society, the Black Power movement would challenge whether that society was even worth joining.

Steele does not suggest that America's loss of moral authority was wrong. But he does argue that it came with some very negative consequences, including the eschewing of freedom in favor of petitioning governments to create fairness and equity for us. Where Steele believes the proper reaction to racism and sexism was to allow oppressed groups freedom to work their way up, the new liberalism in some way chose to switch oppressors: instead of allowing blacks, women, gays, and other groups to be oppressed by discrimination, they would now be oppressed by governments who would insist that these groups couldn't do much without government help. And the tragic benefit of this new liberalism was that the former oppressors (whites, males, straights) could now atone for their sins by favoring policies like 'diversity' quotas and the like that wouldn't so much help these newly free groups, but would make everyone feel better about themselves.

Two brief criticisms: first, I think Steele's thesis - that this can explain the core differences between liberals and conservatives - is probably too grand. It explains some differences, but not others. (Does it explain, for instance, why conservatives tend to be pro-life and liberals pro-choice, or the different stances on firearm regulation?) Second - and this is somewhat typical of Steele - he doesn't tend to seriously entertain counterarguments. Steele's belief in a laissez-faire conservatism - government will leave you alone, and that is enough - will be interpreted by some (generally on the left) as ignoring the reality of "structural racism." How, they will ask, do blacks and whites have equal opportunity when blacks get paid much less on average than whites, even for similar jobs, or when blacks are more likely to be arrested, injured, and even killed than whites by a difference of 8 to 1? I don't doubt that Steele could answer these questions, but he doesn't seem to seriously consider that they need addressing.

All in all, though, Steele is a joy to read, and for my part, many of his interpretations of the American psyche make sense and ring true. If you haven't read him, you need to.

Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal
Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Concise, Thorough, and Neutral Exploration of a Troubling Idea!, January 28, 2015
Randall Kennedy's Sellout is a short, but very thorough and unbiased, examination of an idea: that to be appropriately black, one needs to accede to certain cultural norms, and that if one ventures outside those norms, one is a 'sellout.' Most of us balk at this idea and consider it limiting and stifling. Kennedy, who has been on the receiving end of this charge at times, takes the idea very seriously. In this book, he examines the history and 'logic' of the idea of the 'sellout,' not because he endorses it but because it arose for seemingly sensible reasons.

The two most meaty chapters explore the idea of the sellout in American history and in contemporary American culture. Kennedy documents the idea of the sellout having its deepest origins in the times of slavery, when slaves who were planning uprisings were snitched on by other slaves who might, afterward, be rewarded for their loyalty to the slave owner. Later, he discusses events like the Birmingham bus boycott of 1955, which involved a degree of community policing to ensure that social pressure ensured that blacks did not 'defect' from the group and ride the buses. Kennedy also goes over how fiction authors have explored the idea of the sellout (and 'passing' as a form of selling out) and how there is a kind of ambivalence to the idea of passing in the black community (on one hand, successful passing mocks the color line, but passing is still seen as a type of defection from the group).

Through all of this, what impresses me most aside from Kennedy's thorough knowledge of the subject is his unbiased handling of it. Kennedy is not advocating for a position, but exploring a topic and its history and presence in contemporary life. In several chapters, Kennedy gives very balanced treatment to some (mainly black conservative) critiques of the idea that black conservatives are selling out; instead of opining, Kennedy neutrally weighs the pros and cons of their argument. In another chapter, Kennedy examines the case of Clarence Thomas as a potential 'sellout' and, while he ultimately exonerates Thomas of this charge, he gives fair voice to those who make the charge.

All in all, this is a wonderful book. It is clearly and engagingly written, and offers a thorough and seemingly unbiased account of a troubling topic.

Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear
Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear
by Aram Goudsouzian
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.47
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5.0 out of 5 stars The American Civil Rights Movement at the Crossroads!, January 19, 2015
This year, a major motion picture about the Selma march is being released. This book is about the march that happened - in a way different than planned - the following year. The march was started by James Meredith, who planned to march from Memphis, TN to Jackson, MS to protest the continuation of segregation and Jim Crow. Two days in, he tragically got shot (non-fatally) only to have several civil rights groups converge to continue the march. The results were in some ways more powerful than Meredith's vision, and in other ways, a bit more catastrophic.

The theme of this book, aside from the obvious, is that this was the march where King and the non-violent civil rights protest groups lost a bit of steam and Stokely Carmichael's burgeoning Black Power movement gained steam. As the title says, this book really shows the civil rights movement at the crossroads, with various groups - from non-violent integrationists to more militant separatists - jockeying for position. Several issues were at play during the march. What would the march be about (what issues was it a platform for)? What role should whites play (somesaw white involvement as crucial, others thought it risked co-opting the movement), and how would the walkers handle violent resistance (which they did get)?

This book is a really interesting examination of how the March Against Fear intersected with all of those issues. Each chapter is a sort of blow-by-blow of that day's events, as told through interviews, press releases, and other sources. We see the marchers walk through different cities, and get an idea of what kind of reception they got (sometimes, it was an uneasy "let them get this over with" ambivalence, sometimes it was strategic political resistance, and sometimes, out and out violent resistance.) And most importantly, through all of it, we see the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmiacheal jockeying for the position of high moral authority (for lack of better terms) of the civil rights movement. But this was the march that in some ways, changed a lot of things about the complexion of the 'movement.'

Very good read about an important but neglected piece of civil rights history.

The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing–But You Don't Have to Be
The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing–But You Don't Have to Be
Price: $15.33

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Former K12 Teacher's Perspective: Kaminetz Says What Needs to Be Said, January 19, 2015
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I"ve enjoyed Anya Kaminetz's writing on education ever since her book DIYU, on the higher education bubble and the alternatives to "traditional" higher education. This book does for k-12 what that book did for higher education - it highlights the nature of an existing problem (the standardized testing movement), and illuminates some potential (diverse) solutions.

The first chapter is probably the best, covering Kaminetz's 10 reasons why standardized testing is a bad idea. They are:

1. We are testing the wrong things.
2. Tests are a waste of money.
3. They are making kids hate school and turning parents into preppers.
4. They are making teachers hate teaching.
5. They penalize diversity.
6. They cause teaching to the test.
7. The high stakes tempt cheating.
8. They are gamed by states until they become meaningless.
9. They are full of errors.
10. The next generation of tests will make these all worse.

If there is one flaw with this otherwise well-written and -argued book, it is that after going over each of these arguments, she moves on to chapters that forget them and rarely allude back to them. There are some great chapters on the history of standardized testing (which, really, goes back to Horace Mann and the Common School Movement but has intensified since the 1980's), as well as the politics of testing (every time we create new testing regimes, we entrench financial interests into them leading to what economists would call a 'transitional gains trap' if we were to try and undo that step).

After that section of the book - the section where Kaminetz articulates the problems with standardized testing, she gives a really good section on different solutions that various groups (tech companies, visionary teachers, even parent groups) are starting to work on. This includes everything from opt-out movements that parents and students create, where masses of students simply walk out of the test, to computer programs that fuse learning and assessment (via hidden data collection), to video games that are designed to assess student learning in more holistic, immediate, and fun ways.

Simply put, this is a fantastic book. If you are a teacher (or former teacher like me) who is really disturbed by this nation's ever-increasing reliance on standardized tests that get larger and larger in scope, or a parent who wants to find some way for their children to go through our school system as unscathed as possible, this book is for you. Kaminetz is engaging, thoughtful, and VERY comprehensive in her critique(s) of standardized testing in America.

American Democracy: From Tocqueville to Town Halls to Twitter (Political Sociology)
American Democracy: From Tocqueville to Town Halls to Twitter (Political Sociology)
by Andrew J. Perrin
Edition: Paperback
Price: $23.70
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2.0 out of 5 stars A Deliberative Democrat?, January 14, 2015
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I've never liked the term "democratic." Not because I don't like democracy, but because today, the word can seemingly mean anything from 'fair' to 'egalitarian' to a political system of majority rule. The word has, in some sense, come to mean a lot of different things, such that what it means to say something is 'democratic" is often a bit fuzzy.

This book, written by a sociologist, is an interesting discussion about democracy and its conditions. But I don't think it clears up a whole lot in giving the word 'democratic' a precise meaning. For Perrin, democracy is obviously more than a political system where rulers are decided by votes from the 'ruled.' It is also the free flow of information to and from people, a method of deliberation about social issues on the part of the people, and many of the things (respect for individual rights and freedom) that more commonly go under the rubric of "liberal" (with a small "l") than "democratic."

I will also say that Perrin is one in a long line of what might be called deliberative democrats, where democracy is not just the taking of votes, but a way of deliberating. Perrin wants the populace to come together in some sort of vigorous but respectful and informed debate when making democratic decisions. I have never quite liked deliberative democrats, not because I dislike deliberation, but because I find them (and Perrin) to essentially want people to behave like college professors who happen to be interested in political issues. ("Hey, I like politics and deliberation, so therefore, that should be what everyone wants to spend their time doing!") There are plenty of books and articles disputing the feasibility and desirability of deliberative democracy. I've been relatively convinced by them, and I"m not terribly convinced by Perrin and other deliberative democrats.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964
An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964
by Todd S. Purdum
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.69
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3.0 out of 5 stars A Good Book With a Potentially Too Narrow Political Focus, January 14, 2015
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Today, we tend to take the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for granted, as if its passage was inevitable. This book is a very good account of the events and contingencies surrounding the act. From Lyndon Johnson's difficulties negotiating enough favorable votes in in Congress, to the difficult and tension-filled meetings he had with civil rights leaders at the time. It reads like a political novel of the highest order.

My only complaint is that perhaps too much space is given to looking at the political history of the bill. The social history of (a) what the civil rights movement(s) looked like at the time, and (b) what the face of discrimination looked like in the several states, are both pretty much neglected. It would have been nice to have those more integrated into the story. I think it would have given a more comprehensive approach, rather than the book's more narrow focus on politics.

Be that as it may, this is a very good read for anyone (interested in political history) who needs a reminder of all the contingencies that led to the eventual and by-no-means-given passage of a law that we take for granted today.

Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now
Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now
Offered by Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
Price: $11.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Are There As Many Ways to Be Black As There Are Black People?, January 6, 2015
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l am not black, so unlike Touré and others, I have never been in a position to have my blackness questioned. But I taught at a largely-black middle-class high school, chock full of kids who didn't fit the mold of what black is. (Many of my students were skaters, listened to punk, etc.) So, the message of this book - and the book itself - are quite amazing. Touré's message could do a lot of good to a lot of people.

What is this message? Touré believes that we need to redefine - really, expand - what it means to be black. Illustration: the book starts off with Touré's recount of his preparation to skydive (for a tv show). One of his friends casually suggested that he'd never jump out of an airplane because... that's not something black people do. What Touré is NOT saying is that we need to get to a post-racial ethos, where there is NOTHING (of significance) it means to be black... only that the concept needs to become a lot more elastic than it is.

The book is Touré's quest to find out what being black means to people, and to find out, he interviewed a large number of black scholars, artists and public figures. And his answer: there are as many ways to be black as there are black people, and we risk unjustly stigmatizing if we police what blackness must mean.

But honestly, while I loved the book, the message, and the writing, Touré didn't deal with what I thought was an obvious and potentially damning objection: for a category to mean something, it has to have borders, and expanding the borders too much takes the meaning away from the category. In some sense, "there are as many ways to be black as there are black people" is a tautology, for how would you know who black people are if there is nothing particular it means to be black. If it is just a skin color, then there is no point in talking about cultural blackness at all (which I doubt is Touré's intent). But if there is something it culturally (or spiritually) it means to be black, then there HAVE to be borders to the concept of blackness that are something beyond "it all comes down to skin pigment."

I want to stress that I enjoyed reading the book, and Touré writes about everything from his own "You're not black!" experience to the diversity of black art, to the existence of things like stereotype threat and microaggressions. And this is why I am giving the book four stars despite what I see as Touré's failure to address a point that needs to be at the core of his argument.

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human
The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human
Price: $8.52

3.0 out of 5 stars The Real Story Behind Storytelling (Well, Kind Of)., January 6, 2015
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I had seen Jonathan Gottschall's very good TEDTalk about the human propensity for story telling (and why we have it). So, I decided to purchase this book. All in all, I found the book was a pretty average (mostly because meandering) set of semi-connected essays about how and why story affects our lives. We get everything from an up-and-coming theory about how dreams are stories our brain tells "designed" to help us learn and encode information, to how we think in narrative form, to the author's own opinions on the future of story. Some of this was good, some was a bit questionable, and I was disappointed that certain things I thought would appear didn't.

I especially liked the author's last chapter on the future of story. As a literary scholar, the author has some mild empathy for the "story is dead, because novels/poems aren't taken seriously" narrative... but probably about as much (really, as little) as I do. Story, he rightly points out, is alive and well on tv and movies; poetry is alive and well in music (and particularly rap). The author points out that people who think story is dead are incorrectly tying function to form; since form x of storytelling is disappearing (and a look at the bestseller list will show that people still read!), therefore, storytelling in general is disappearing. I also liked the author's discussion of how we conceive of our lives as stories of a sort, where we are protagonists fighting against obstacles, adversities... and making our stories often seem a bit more interesting than they might be in reality.

But, while I hate to criticize books for failing to live up to my expectations for them, I was quite mystified at the author's omission of the narrative theory of identity (you can find Dan McAdams's books on this theory on amazon). The author alludes to the theory when he talks about how we use narrative to 'construct' life histories, he didn't really go into the theory or how narrative is an important vehicle for 'constructing' of our own "who am I?" identities, and how the stories we tell are often affected by the culture we live in and what is significant in that culture. That might be worth a separate chapter, or at least a separate subsection.

Another area where I could have used more was the author's discussion of dreams as stories. It used to be that we conceived of dreams as suconscious Freudian messages to be decoded. Then, evolutionary theorists suggested that dreams are really just a meaningless biproduct of our brain's mental activity during sleep. And now, there is a fairly new theory (that is gaining steam in the research world as I understand it) that dreams are the brain's way of helping us learn and encode previously-learned information into our memory 'banks.' (For instance, when I wrote my dissertation, I would often dream that I was explaining its ideas to others, and would wake up more sure of what I wanted to say.) While I don't doubt that dreams can be seen this way, I am not sure I buy the theory completely. My main objection is that many dreams are way too bizarre and grandiose to suggest that this is our brain thinking through things so that we can better "figure out" the real world. At any rate, the author didn't address what I think was a fairly obvious objection.

So, there it is. I enjoyed the book a fair amount. The author is, unsurprisingly, a very good writer and he puts a lot of information (and reflection) into this book, though the reader never feels overwhelmed. But, by the same token, the book also lacks any real focus... aside from being a book of fairly separate chapters all loosely related to the human propensity for storytelling.

Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man
Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man
Offered by Penguin Group (USA) LLC
Price: $10.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Making the Unseen (How Gender Works in Society) Seen! And a Really Good Story Too!, January 6, 2015
This is quite easily one of the best (and thought-provoking) books I've read this year. I think we can all benefit from the research that Norah Vincent decided to do regarding gender role differences.

In brief, Vincent decided (after a night going in drag) that it might be interesting to see how a man lives... as an insider. She spent the next several months bulking up her muscles, studying how men talk and move, and crafting a disguise that included realistically-fake facial hair and a plastic phallus lovingly named "Sloppy Joe"... and "Ned Vincent" was born. She took very masculine-heavy sales jobs, 'infiltrated' a male bowling league, went on the dating scene as a male, and even went into a Catholic monastery (to be among only men).

This book is journalistic recount of that experience, broken up in chapters by subject - one chapter on her experience dating, one on employment as a man, another on the experience in the monastery, etc. She learned many things about how in some ways males are privileged, and in others, females are; privilege, it seems, doesn't go one way only. In employment situations, for instance, Vincent noticed that she was taken much more seriously as a male than she likely would have been as a female (you don't have to apologize when you are male). In other situations, like dating, Vincent noticed that men have the burden, being expected to be stoic provider, and the one who makes the first move when in the dating scene (where women are the courted).

Another interesting thing Vincent learned about manhood is those hidden social rules about men and how/when they can show emotion. Generally speaking, men keep emotion (particularly of weakness and vulnerability) locked in even in situations (hanging out with friends) where women are usually socially "allowed" to freely express it. In one situation, Vincent "came out" as a women to a male bowling buddy, upon which she noticed that this once quiet friend started really opening up about tragic events in his life; the difference between him talking to Ned and him talking to Norah.

Lastly, a really interesting find was Norah's discussion about what it means to be masculine and how the standard is different from women to men. Norah is a lesbian who is somewhat masculine in appearance. She noticed that when living as Norah, she often gets comments about how masculine she is. But when living as Ned, she often found out that friends gossiped about how feminine Ned was (even hypothesizing that he was gay). What is "masculine" for a woman is "feminine" for a man (and I am guessing vice versa).

One part sociology, one part really good journalistic story, this book will change the way you look at gender and gender roles. It makes the unseen and often taken-for-granted seen. Not only a great story, but indirectly, a really good commentary.

Bolse® Bluetooth Wireless Presentation Remotes with Red Laser Pointer Pen
Bolse® Bluetooth Wireless Presentation Remotes with Red Laser Pointer Pen

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Good and Compact Remote for Giving Presentation, September 25, 2014
Length:: 4:28 Mins

I am a professor, and like to use some sort of remote control when giving presentations (because it frees me to move around the room). This one is fantastic. It is about the size and thickness of a Sharpie, fits easily in the pocket, and has four buttons (forward, backward, laser, and a multi-purposed button). The USB plugp-in magnetically sticks to the bottom of the wand for easy storage and retrieval. The wand takes one triple-A battery, and while I don't know how long one battery lasts, I have used mine for five weeks now. Anyhow, here's the video. Highly recommended.

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