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Today concludes somewhat of an experiment in my pedagogy. In my AP World History class, I completely “outsourced” the unit on Islam to students and devoted a week and a half of class time to practicing skills, analyzing documents, and teaching essay writing.


AP World History class gets lesson on Islam from Pakistan

The unit culminated today with a live teleconference with Pakistan that led into a Harkness discussion. The student in Pakistan, a practicing Muslim named Abdullah, answered our questions about Islam based on our reading of the text.


Students ask questions that arose from their reading about Islam in the textbook.

Adbullah told us about his Haj to Mecca, cited the Koran in Arabic, and fielded our historical and theological questions about Islam. I was very pleased with my students’ intelligent questions,their politeness, and the level of gratitude they showed him at the conclusion.


Our guest talking about Islam and patriarchy, then telling us how he accompanied his mother on the Haj to Mecca

What I found most interesting was his description of the Shia Sunni split, which he described as a divide between democratic and dynastic politics providing the basis for today’s Islamic democracies. Incredible POV opportunity. Several students were able to synthesize what they learned from this experience with their textbook knowledge, and brought both to bear upon our Harkness discussion today.

Looking forward to speaking with China in two weeks.


My teaching about the fall of communism this week was supplemented by a live video conference with students living in the former Soviet Union.

Conference with Tajikistan on the Fall of the Soviet Union. We also compared American and Tajik education.

Conference with Tajikistan on the Fall of the Soviet Union. We also compared American and Tajik education.

Tajik students from Qurgonteppa collected oral histories from their parents who lived through this event, then talked to mine about what it was like from the inside. I have been incorporating skype into my classroom since 2008 and have found that students not only get excited about the novelty of the experience, but get perspectives on world events much different than their own. Some of my best “teachable” moments have come from the surprise my students have had during these international exchanges.

These students in Korea told us the US was hypocritical for bailing out corporations in 2008 because the US and IMF would not allow Korea to do the same thing after the Asian currency crisis of 1998.

Korean students in Seoul told us the US was hypocritical for bailing out corporations in 2008 because the US and IMF would not allow South Korea to do the same thing after the Asian currency crisis of 1998.

For example, today my students asked the Tajiks who they thought the best political leader of the Soviet Union was . From the American point of view, it was astonishing to hear the Tajiks  debate among themselves whether this honor should fall on Lenin or Stalin. It was even more surprising when they unanimously agreed that Gorbachev, the architect of glasnost, was the worst. But after the video exchange ended, this gave me the perfect opportunity to explain to my class the historical reasons for this different perspective. No textbook reading could have ever hooked them into content as these video conferences have.

Although the outcome of these video conferences is not always as serendipitous as it was today, they have injected my classroom with excitement and real world relevance more than anything I have ever done.

These students in China explained why the issue of Taiwan is so important to them.

Chinese students explained why the issue of Taiwan is so important to them.

From Chinese students we learned their perspectives on Taiwan and the Dali Lama; from Koreans, how US policies affect people’s lives there; and from Russians, their side of the story regarding the conflict with Georgia in 2008. (My classes have also had sustained connections with students in Germany, Turkey and Greece.) In some cases, these encounters have embarrassed my students about their ignorance of the world compared to their international peers, and motivated them to learn more. Most importantly, they give my students the curiosity to ask why opinions and beliefs can be so different outside of the United States. And as Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “To caste answers like stones at minds that have never asked the questions is the greatest pedagogical mistake.”

One of my goals for this trip was to connect the Tajik school with my own via webcam. I had recently completed a graduate degree on the use of video conferencing for international collaboration, and Tojiddin and I saw this as a way give his English students practice with native speakers, and my students a chance to learn about another culture. I have done this with many other countries but this was the first time I had ever seen my own classroom via webcam from the other side of the world. 

It was a great success. The moment the connection was made was magic, as I saw my students in America appear before me. You could hear excitment on both sides of the world. 

When the conversations began, there was a little shyness on both sides.  It can be intimidating getting in front of the webcam. But students began to talk. I think one of the most positive things for the Tajik students was having their English understood by native speakers. Tojiddin and I have discussed setting this up again when I return home for more of the conferences.

Mr. Nurali shows some of the delicious bread his wife made for us

I had a remarkable day. After morning classes, we went out of the city and I shared in a veritable feast with the men of the village. There must have been 20 of us, siting Tajik style on the floor, with more food spread out in front of us that I have seen in a long time. It was expained to me that I was participating in a Mulsim tradition for a deseased member of the village. This feast takes place in intervals of one week, 21 days, one month, 6 months, and then one year after the death of a loved one. It was a rich feast of Osh, meats, fruits, vegetables and sweets.


Bread baking in a communal oven

After this meal we went to the home of Mr. Nurali, and English teacher from my school. Here again was another feast. The family showed me how Tajik bread was baked by pressing the dough on the inside of a wood-fired oven. Like everthing there, it was delicious.


As the meal went on, leaders and educators of the community came and joined us. We ate and shared some vodka as the men cited Tajik poetry about friendship and hospitality. With Tojiddin acting as our translator, I had a remarkable conversation with these men. We shared information about our countries, culture, and history. What surprised me the most was their negative attitude toward former Soviet leader Gorbachev. Gorbachev,  theylamented, was responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union, an even they considered a major calamity. As stated earlier, the Soviet Union provided Tajiks with stability and an social infrastructure. After its demise, inequality

Food, spirits, poety, and great conversation with leaders of the community

and crime increased (although crime was declined since the 1990s). I saw abandoned factories in ruin and the roads were in need of repair. I was told that during the Soviet Union water, electricity, gas, and even air-conditioning were stable. It’s amazing how travel can open us up to view events from more than just the perspective we are accustomed to.


Can American folk music get any better than this? So simple yet beautiful. I can almost see the Appalachians rising out of the morning fog.

The United States is the only country to issue “report cards” on how all the other nations of the world measure up to our expectations. Perhaps some introspection is in order to assess our own grades.


In the last 4 years General Motors lost 72 billion dollars in profits. Instead of reorganizing their corporate structure or actually building a car people might want to buy, the US government breathed billions of dollars into GM to keep their failed business model alive. And where did this money come from, money US taxpayers will have to repay? We borrowed it from China who, as the bailout proceeded, announced their development of an all-electric car that will be available in a few years and will cost less than $20K.


So connect the dots. We borrow from China to bail out the inept managers of yesterday’s technologies while the Chinese pioneer tomorrow’s.  And for all their hard work in thus mortgaging our future Congress awarded themselves with a raise last month.


In 2008 alone we increased our national debt by 1.3 trillion dollars bringing our total federal deficit to 67.5% of our Gross Domestic Product. I am no economist, but something tells me that’s bad. Terribly bad. No wonder Thomas Friedman said our whole country is like one big General Motors. GM R Us.


Yet our delusions about ourselves and the world persist. Just to take one example: “the French are lazy pacifists who make little more than perfume and wine.” In reality, the French military has been much more active in the post-WWII era than most European countries. Moreover, French President Sarkozy was prominent in brokering deals between Israel and Gaza, Russia and Georgia, and solving the problem of Somalian pirates in the India Ocean.  That used to be us. 


And by the way, the most important industry in France today is aerospace technology, something that was not lost to the US Air Force who recently gave a 40 million dollar contract to a joint French-European company rather than to Boeing. Congress, supported by lobbyists from US firms, was appalled as if contracts are corporate America’s birthright regardless of the quality of work we do.  Brazil too just completed a 12 billion dollar defense contract with the French. It is highly probable that one or two decades ago that would have been with us.


We are choking on the delusion of our own superiority.


But that’s not the only bad grade on our report card. We continue to chide other nations for their human rights violations (China, Russia) even in the wake of Abu Ghraib and Guatanamo. Could our leadership be any more out of touch with the world? 


Yes it could. Last Fall as the economic disaster was becoming the most pressing global issue, Bush failed to mention it once in his speech to the UN General Assembly. Yet he used the word “terrorism” 32 times in 22 minutes making him “the laughing stock of the gray corridors of the UN.”


Last February we instantly recognized the independence of Kosovo but refused to do so with South Ossetia, a region whose independence could be justified on many of the same principles (the politics behind this is not hard to figure out). We continue to push NATO–a military relic of the Cold War–into the former Soviet countries and wonder why Cold War attitudes have revived in Russia. Despite these glaring inconsistencies we cloak our unilateralism in the rhetoric of international principles and expect the world to take us seriously.


And then there’s the homefront. According to data collected by the Atlantic Monthly, several noteworthy trends can be identified between 2000-2008: the number of billionaires rose by 50%, the number of people in poverty increased, and so did the number of people with no health insurance; we have more people in prisons; we have only one state with an obesity rate below 20% (there were 28 such states in 2000); and the amount of disposable income Americans put in savings dropped to about half of one percent during this time while our consumer credit card debt went from 684 billion to almost a trillion dollars. And how did we react to all this? According to the report, we were playing more video games and watching more television.


There was some good news in the report: our oil consumption dropped slightly and violent crime dropped significantly, as did the number of major armed conflicts in the world. Yet in the larger balance, it doesn’t take a teacher to figure out what grade we should get.

(I am posting this as a historical curiosity, not because I have any theological affinities with it. I don’t think you would see it in the US media).

“Upon the anniversary of the birth of Jesus, Son of Mary, the Word of God, the Messenger of mercy, I would like to congratulate the followers of Abrahamic faiths, especially the followers of Jesus Christ.


All Prophets called for the worship of God, for love and brotherhood, for the establishment of justice and for love in human society.  Jesus, the Son of Mary, is the standard-bearer of justice, of love for our fellow human beings, of the fight against tyranny, discrimination and injustice.


All the problems that have bedevilled humanity throughout the ages came about because humanity followed an evil path and disregarded the message of the Prophets.


Now as human society faces a myriad of problems and a succession of complex crises, the root causes can be found in humanity’s rejection of that message, in particular the indifference of some governments and powers towards the teachings of the divine Prophets, especially those of Jesus Christ.


The crises in society, the family, morality, politics, security and the economy which have made life hard for humanity and continue to put great pressure on all nations have come about because the Prophets have been forgotten, the Almighty has been forgotten and some leaders are estranged from God.


If Christ were on earth today, undoubtedly He would stand with the people in opposition to bullying, ill-tempered and expansionist powers.


If Christ were on earth today, undoubtedly He would hoist the banner of justice and love for humanity to oppose warmongers, occupiers, terrorists and bullies the world over.


If Christ were on earth today, undoubtedly He would fight against the tyrannical policies of prevailing global economic and political systems, as He did in His lifetime. The solution to today’s problems is a return to the call of the divine Prophets. The solution to these crises is to follow the Prophets – they were sent by the Almighty for the good of humanity.


Today, the general will of nations is calling for fundamental change. This is now taking place. Demands for change, demands for transformation, demands for a return to human values are fast becoming the foremost demands of the nations of the world. The response to these demands must be real and true. The prerequisite to this change is a change in goals, intentions and directions. If tyrannical goals are repackaged in an attractive and deceptive package and imposed on nations again, the people, awakened, will stand up against them.


Fortunately, today, as crises and despair multiply, a wave of hope is gathering momentum. Hope for a brighter future and hope for the establishment of justice, hope for real peace, hope for finding virtuous and pious rulers who love the people and want to serve them – and this is what the Almighty has promised.


Once again, I congratulate one and all on the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. I pray for the New Year to be a year of happiness, prosperity, peace and brotherhood for humanity. I wish you every success and happiness.”


Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran (Excerpts, as delivered on channel 4 of the BBC)


Offered as a follow-up to the Lipsyncing story from August:

The free exchange of information compels honesty. The irony, however, is that the paper that carried this story–the New York Times–is itself now being blocked throughout China.

I’ve noticed an almost immediate reaction from people whenever Vladimir Putin comes up in our conversation. I know the pattern well. After some general eye-rolling, I prepare myself to hear a few thoughtless cliques about his KBG connections or his desire to turn back the clock to communist rule. To most Americans, he seems an accident of history, an aberration in that flow of historical progress so many thought was set back to its normal course after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia has certainly taken a different path than most Americans thought it would back in 1991. But Russia is not America and its trajectory since Putin is no aberration, but the path of a new Russia reinventing itself on the global scene.

As a product of American political culture, I admit that some of Putin’s policies are unsettling to me. First of all, having an economy based so much on a single commodity, such as oil, is never sound policy. I think the recent volatility in that market has certainly underscored that point.  Moreover, I never think it is a good idea to attenuate basic civil rights, such as the freedoms of the press and expression. (For example, last summer Putin had political opponents edited out of a Russian talk show. Their image was even digitally removed before the show aired. I am reminded of Stalin having images of Trotsky airbrushed out of photos of the Russian Revolution.) But until the revocation of the Patriot Act here in America, I will withhold further thoughts on that issue.

For the average Russian, here is what the presidency of Putin has meant. The powerful oligarchs and criminals who seized control of many of Russia’s energy profits and committed crimes with impunity during Yeltsin’s rule have been reigned in. (In the western media this was almost exclusively portrayed as Putin stifling his political enemies. Of course they were his enemies–he threatened their livelihood.)  In 1999 inflation in Russia rose to 127 percent and unemployment was at 13 percent. By 2007 inflation fell to single digits and unemployment was only 7 percent. Foreign exchange holdings went from 8 billion to 300 billion dollars and much of Russian’s foreign debt was paid down. And as far as Russia’s war with Georgia, the United States has lashed out unilaterally for much less provocation. And the facts in this case were terribly misconstrued by our own media. To use Pat Buchanan’s words, Georgia started it, Putin finished it. True, Putin replaced democratically elected regional leaders with Kremlin appointees, but this was done to curb corruption. Ironically, those who cite democratic scruples against such an action should consider that Putin’s approval rating still hovers around 80 percent. What American president can claim such confidence from our people?

Putin, like all politicians, has his flaws, some quite profound. But the current opinion of Putin on behalf of many Americans, I am sure, is a result of our abysmal ability to perceive ourselves and the world from any other perspective but our own.



It hit the global news like a tsunami. The beautiful song at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, though unknown at the time, was performed by two Chinese girls—one providing the face and the other the voice. But as usual, the US media missed the real news item here: that it was the Chinese press who broke the story.


To be sure, the Chinese media is not free by any stretch of the imagination. The government imposes leviathan censorship and the story was pulled from news agencies’ websites as soon as it began to attract enormous attention. Which is to say, almost immediately.


However, during that brief moment when Chen Qigang, the director of the opening ceremony, was telling the story across Beijing Radio—the story of how the politburo ordered the ruse and, by implication, seemed to be censoring the program down to the smallest details—the government got a dose of what can happen when the media does what it’s supposed to do.  


Although the Chinese might be demonstrating that capitalism is possible without democracy, they have undoubtably learned that both thrive best on the unfettered flow of information. The same flow that allows business to streamline practices, to operate most efficiently and competitively against the ebb and flow of market currents, creates a dangerous challenge to authoritarian rule. Whether or not Beijing can maintain this paradox remains to be seen, but is doubtful.


The concept that information is free is new to China. For centuries, information was not something to be taken and exchanged at will. Rather, it was a tool of power reserved for those with the mandate to rule. But those centuries are gone, and attempts to stop the flow of information are in our times pitifully inadequate.  And trying to prevent it might turn out for Beijing what keeping slavery, according to Jefferson, was like for the US–like holding a fox by the tale: you can’t hold it forever but the longer you do the harder it will bite you when you let it go.





December 2018
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