Seeking only perfect role models means failing to learn from history

Like many others—including the city’s mayor—I find the choice by the San Francisco Board of Education to spend its time focused on name changes for 1/3 of its public schools in the midst of a pandemic quite shocking. It strikes me as a misuse of resources when the children the Board is commissioned to serve are struggling to learn remotely with no* firm re-opening plans in place.

Binder page listing high school courses for grade 10Contrary to the far right, white supremacist commentators who unilaterally dismiss that Board of Education’s actions as essentially foolish, I’d like to make clear that I support discussion of social justice issues in this context. The feelings of enrolled students about the namesake of their institution deserve to be recognized, though, crucially in my opinion, not catered to by default, and never without extensive study and careful reflection when a preponderance of reasonable people hold differing opinions.

Talking about thorny questions is helpful, even vital to each pupil’s education. Confronting difficult episodes in our shared history enables us to be better as a nation and to become better individual human beings. I disagree with some of the ultimate decisions made by the San Francisco Board of Education about striking particular names from schools, but it’s not because I am unaware of mistakes made by leaders in earlier eras.

By my reckoning, the great hubristic error shown by that Board is the futile quest to pretend any perfect role model exists, unblemished enough to “deserve” to have a school named for him or her.back side of Christopher Columbus monument in Barcelona, Spain

No man or woman can be held up as a paragon of all virtues for all times. All of us fail; the very best of us will lead a life full of foibles. Some of us succeed handsomely in our own time, but later run afoul of changing notions of decency in another era.

The greater the risks taken in life, the more likely we are to make at least one real doozy of an error. People who devote lives to public service will fail with an audience, by definition. Should we teach our children to avoid any action to circumvent the possibility of failure? Do we want tomorrow’s adults to be more afraid of being judged by history than they are of taking part in—and becoming leaders of—public life?

Speaking for myself: no, I would not choose to teach that lesson to my kids or anyone else’s. I think the San Francisco Board of Education is doing a grave disservice to the children it serves by wielding nuanced history as a blunt instrument. Ironically, time is unlikely to be kind to its members. If they are remembered at all, it may well be for presumption and self-righteousness.

There is evidence that children allowed to fail, shown how to learn from their mistakes, then given opportunities to try again to find success grow into healthier, more productive adults. Given the 100% probability that a human being will screw up, a focus on incremental improvement seems like the wisest approach to raising and teaching young ones.

Christen your institutions with improper nouns defining high ideals if you still demand perfection: Liberté, égalité, fraternité, perhaps? Freedom? Justice? Unity? My personal favorite is Integrity.

Statue of LibertyIrreproachable individuals don’t exist, San Francisco Board of Education, but I’m curious to see who you believe holds up better to scrutiny than yesterday’s heroes with their feet of clay.

The social justice warriors on San Francisco’s Board of Education might not like being compared to fascists, but, to me, the parallels are obvious. People in power are attempting to strong-arm the world into abiding by their own narrow standards, ignoring complex reality in favor of pat party lines and simplifications that cast “the other” as willfully evil. Without a doubt, extremist elements on the left are also prone to seeking economic and social regimentation with forcible suppression of opposition.

Our young people didn’t invent cancel culture. Students of history will recognize the eradication of the names of pharaohs such as Akhenaten and Hatshepsut as a similar insult to non-conformists. The term damnatio memoriae may be modern**, but the concept is not.

Let’s teach our children to honor what’s good in our history while recognizing errors for what they were: human failings. Then, we learn what we can from those past mistakes, incorporating their lessons into our own pursuit of a better future. Isn’t that the ultimate point of public education?

* As of January 29, 2021, as I write these words, only one school’s re-opening plan has reached the Site Assesment stage and zero (0) applications to re-open have been accepted.

Presenting a role model as too perfect actually prevents teens from seeing a path to similar success for him- or herself. According to the linked study, kids benefit more from learning about Thomas Edison who worked very hard to achieve success (in spite of his reputation as a real jerk) vs. Albert Einstein whom most regard as a born genius with preternatural intellectual abilities.

On a television show I watched recently, the teens attended a school called Excellence. That’s a fine paradigm for which to aim.

Too bad one of the hyper-pressured teen characters felt compelled to abuse drugs to keep up and cope with the stress, and an otherwise ethical teacher on the show guides a young child toward cheating on high stakes exams to chase the academy’s pursuit of excellence in its reputation over the needs of that pupil.

** 17th century

Café notes: Coffee, the Congo, and Lynn Nottage’s play, “Ruined”

I had a great cup of single origin Congo Ituri coffee at the mall last week.

NZ restaurant espresso - 1This is remarkable for several reasons:

  • First, I was at the mall.*
  • Second, I got a great cup of specialty coffee therein.
  • Third, my beautiful pour over arrived with a side order of coincidence.

I simply haven’t the foodie palate or terminology to give you a better explanation for why my cup of coffee was so great, but the barista on duty that day was particularly knowledgeable. He probably prepared my cup with great skill. Certainly the flavor profile of the beans and the roast landed right in the sweet spot for my tastes.

What struck me as I sat down in the café with my cup and opened my library book was the coincidence. Here’s the top of the first page of Lynn Nottage’s play, Ruined, setting the scene:

“ACT ONE, Scene 1: A small mining town. The sounds of the tropical Ituri rain forest. Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

The tropical Ituri rain forest? It rang a bell. I went back up to the café counter and read the menu board once more.

That day, the Nordstrom Espresso Bar was offering a Congo Ituri microlot coffee in the light roast** I prefer. Probably why I’d chosen it from amongst several offerings, including a light roast Kona I’ve enjoyed before.

I drink Ethiopian Yirgacheffe pretty often, and regularly select it preferentially, but I haven’t hit upon another African region for beans that’s become a steady favorite. I’ll certainly seek out more Congolese coffees moving forward, however, on the strength of this one notably wonderful cup.

But here are a few painful questions that I can’t answer, all stimulated by the tough subject matter of Nottage’s play that I read while sipping said cup.

  • How sustainable is coffee cultivation in DR Congo?
  • Does coffee cultivation there typically help the Congolese people, and especially the vulnerable women of Congo whose plight is underscored in Ruined? Is it a path helping average people rise above the legacy of the nation’s bloody civil wars?
  • Are major brands like Nordstrom and Starbucks doing enough to support the individual coffee farmer in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Or are these rich corporations paying less than they should for their beans because they’ve got the might to get away with it?

Honestly, I can’t answer any of these questions after a few days of searching.

Coffee is a delight to me. It is one of my daily pleasures, and, yes, a minor addiction. Coffee is also one the world’s most valuable legal commodities, like petroleum or precious metals. It’s big business on the order of tens of billions of dollars per year, and the needs of the coffee plant itself dictate that it be grown in what are often unstable, developing regions.

It can be hard to evaluate for oneself whether a coffee purchase meets one’s personal standards for ethical sales, environmental sustainability, etc.

Thanksgiving Coffee bean package of Ethiopia YirgacheffeThanksgiving Coffee, an artisan roaster I’ve patronized many times, encapsulates best what a consumer like me seeks with their motto: Not Just a Cup, but a Just Cup. I want to drink great coffee, but I’d prefer not to do so on the backs of modern day slaves.

Nottage’s Ruined is not, I should add, a play about coffee. Its setting is a bar/brothel, and beer, whiskey, and Fanta are the beverages I recall from the script. The subject matter is intense, and should be painful to anyone with an interest in social justice. Or to anyone with a heart.

Like other works I’ve read/seen by this playwright, Ruined is a story about women getting by in a world where someone else wields most of the power. It’s a tale of making do with one’s terrible circumstances, and coming to terms with it all as best as one can.

One needn’t look as far as the Congo to find such injustice and resilience, either. We’ve got plenty of it here at home in America. One of the best plays I’ve seen performed this decade was Nottage’s Sweat*** at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Aside from being a masterful work in and of itself, Sweat also inspired an “immersive transmedia” art project This is Reading in Reading, PA, the Rust Belt setting for that tale of struggle.

It can be hard to unravel the threads of thoughtful consumption in an era of broad scale multinational trade. You could give up completely, or simply begin where you can: by asking questions, and by sharing what you learn. My quick research into coffee farming in the Congo led me to more new questions than answers. Yours may yield better fruit.

Where we all benefit is by calling attention to those with less power than ourselves, and making even small efforts to do them good. Our strength increases with numbers; so, too, does our ability to enact positive change.

*The mall is not my natural habitat.

**As I understand it, it is easier to identify the flavorful nuances of a particular bean when the roast is lighter. I think I’m looking for extra complexity in my cup.

It’s a common misconception that dark roast coffee is “stronger” in every way than light. Roasting destroys some of the caffeine in the beans, so breakfast blends are usually a medium roast to maintain their power to perk!

Dark roast coffee has a deeper color, but it isn’t stronger in every sense of the word.

A few days later, I found two distinct Reserve varietals from different regions of the Congo at a local Starbucks with a Clover machine (used for making specialty single brews and not offered at most locations.) I enjoyed a cup of Idjwi Island Reserve, but not quite as much as the Nordstrom Congo Ituri.

But NOT the world’s second most valuable commodity, as you’ll see misstated all over the internet. My brief bit of research suggests that was true back in the 1970’s or so, but hasn’t been factual for quite some time. If you want to read more, try this article.

***And, in what has been my favorite performance in years, I must draw attention to the quiet dignity of actor Carlo Albán who traveled with Sweat from its world premiere at OSF to New York City. He played an often nearly invisible busboy in the play, usually reacting to the “bigger” characters swirling around him, and did it with such a beautiful, aching intensity that I was frankly honored to spend a few hours with him at an OSF dinner later on. I’m not the only one who was similarly affected by Mr. Albán!