Karl Marx’s View on Agency and What the Individual Can Do to Effect Social Change

Last Friday, I went to an Education conference to talk about my book Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child. It is a book which emphasizes that questions whether schools can change as fast as school reformers have often wish. The point is to explain that as bureaucracies, schools are embedded in persistent habitus, which resists changes, even of the most articulate and passionate reformers.

Somehow, this degenerated into a discussion of what social scientists call agency. “Agency” is a view that social science has a responsibility to empower students and others for change–however change is defined.  In other words, social science should give actors the intellectual tools to force change.  It is the idea that the smart and passionate people (such as those at the conference) can come together and bring desirable change—if the will is enough. Such reformers often quote the young Karl Marx who in 1845 wrote in “Theses on Feurbach” the following:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it

The quote is so influential, that in 1956 when Marx’ bod) was placed in a new tomb in Highgate Cemetery in England, the quote was one of two placed on his tomb. The quote is often used to justify the idea that social science can, should, and must be used bring about social change. For the woman at my session, this change was to be toward a more democratic schooling system. My book says something different though, in particular there are limits to what bureaucratic structures can achieve, particularly in the schools.  Somehow, I couldn’t persuade her that not all things were possible, even when good people were equipped by social science with better knowledge.

So I changed the point, and started to quote Marx, but not from his 1845 writings, or even from the Manifesto of the Communist Party written in 1848 in which he insisted a worker’s rebellion was imminent. Rather, I inartfully tried to quote from the “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” which Marx published in 1852. Unlike in his earlier writings, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” was about disappointments, and why revolutionary change is so difficult. What had of course happened between 1845 when Marx wrote about change, and 1848 when Marx predicted revolution in Europe, was that the conservative bourgeois capitalists had won elections in France and elsewhere.  These elections effectively announced the end of the revolutionary era described in “The Manifesto of the Communist Party” in 1848. Big oops, and so Marx had some explaining to do. So here is what the contrite Marx wrote in “The 18th Brumaire” after his revolutionary dreams were dashed, at least for the time being:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.


And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the [French] Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the [French] Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95.


In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.

But not recalling something as intimate as your mother tongue is tough.  How many people truly do it?  Very very few.  How many societies forget the habitus of the past?  Equally few.  As someone who has learned new languages, I know that the last section is particularly true. I can never really drop my American English ways of thinking and translating, even if I am generating the most articulate Thai I can conjure. And after 28 years of living in the United States and speaking English fluently, my wife still finds herself reverting to German rhetorical styles, which only have after 28 years have come to recognize as such. In the same way, our schools do not forget the mistakes of old, and repeat them, always waiting for past practices to no longer be recalled.

In the same way, the old ancient habits of our first grade teachers, wonderful though they were, push against the efforts of reformers to introduce revolutionize themselves. For example, the habitus that my own first grade teacher, Mrs. Skagen, who was born in 1912 and herself went to first grade 1918-1919, modeled for me in 1964-1965, still influence me today. And indirectly I suppose that Mrs. Skagen’s first grade teacher, born perhaps during the American Civil War (1861-1865), or shortly after, are one of the sources of what she did to me. I have a hard time imagining that what Mrs. Skagen passed on to me, or what her teacher passed on to her is a “nightmare” as Marx put it, but still it gives life to the difficult tasks agents of change confront. Or as Marx gloomily put it:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

   I guess that what this also means is that I do not believe with the young Marx, that the only point of philosophy, social science, and learning is to change the world. Sometimes it is just to understand the world. And that is a noble enough task!

    I just wish that at that conference I had been as articulate as Marx was, or for that matter, Mrs. Skagen!

Originally posted at Ethnography.com on October 15, 2015.  Modified and edited September 9, 2016.

Does the Chinese Government Fund PhD Dissertation in Christian Theology???

I have been staying in Germany the last few weeks, hanging around academic types. Two that I came across were Chinese PhD students are studying at German Schools of Theology. Christian theology. One is trying to figure out the nature of Eschatology in a Chinese context. Eschatology is about the what happens to people after death, judgment, and final destiny (it is true—I just checked the dictionary). The other dissertation is a historical thesis about the nature of tolerance and intolerance in Augsburg, Germany in 1520-1530. This latter one uses source material in archaic German, and medieval Latin—and the article I looked at was of course written in English.

What is bemusing, I think, is that both students are funded by Chinese government funds. And of course the Chinese government is run by the Chinese Communist Party which seems to be stretching quite broadly into funding the humanities, even as the US pulls back into STEM. And so life goes on. I hope that both students do really well in their studies and are able to use what they are learning in their careers in China.

Batman and George Orwell Philosophize, or is it best to be a wimp and a fool, or just a fool?

     Colonial Burma has a strange hold on the colonial British imagination—it is a remote and exotic place where the British were not very successful in holding sway. And the place it emerges occasionally is in the inability of the west to “understand” the east. Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler in the film Batman Returns (2008) had some experience in colonial Burma which sheds some light on how the British might have thought about their imperial adventure there. Indeed, he is even able to relate it to he problem of The Joker, a maniacal character who savaged Wayne’s own Gotham City.

Bruce Wayne: “I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They crossed the line.”

Alfred Pennyworth: “You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them. You hammered them to the point of desperation. And, in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”

Bruce Wayne: “Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.”

Alfred Pennyworth: “With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So we went looking for the stones. But, in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.”

Bruce Wayne: “So why steal them?”

Alfred Pennyworth: “Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn. …”

Bruce Wayne: “The bandit, in the forest in Burma, did you catch him?”

Alfred Pennyworth: “Yes.”

Bruce Wayne: “How?”

Alfred Pennyworth: “We burned the forest down.”

I picked this exchange out of a Thomas Friedman column, in which he advocates intervention in Arab states which are “decent,” but oddly concludes that outsiders can indeed use their military power to intervene in such circumstances. This is an odd conclusion, because what Alfred is saying, I think, is that the danger of massive over-reaction (burning the forest down), can be a disproportionate response to an evil, which only makes the evil worse.

Had Alfred been on his toes though, he might have gone on to recommend the short story of his colleague in the Burman colonial service, Eric Blair a.k.a. George Orwell, to Bruce Wayne and Friedman. “Shooting an Elephant” is part of Orwell’s memoir of colonial Burma, where he was once a colonial officer developing a skepticism about the imperial project. A domesticated elephant had come into its period of “must,” and began to wreak havoc in the town, killing a low-status man. But when Orwell arrived with his big gun, the elephant’s period of must had passed, and it was placidly browsing, as elephants will do. Orwell (or his character) must make a decision. Does he shoot the peaceful elephant as the crowd expects, or does he let it browse—since it is no longer dangerous to anyone.

As the representative of British colonial power, Orwell, is widely despised by the crowd—he recalls:

I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter.

But the crowd wants blood revenge taken on the poor elephant. And besides if it is killed, they can take the meat.

So if Orwell shoots the elephant, he will satisfy the bloodlust of the crowd, but continue to be despised for killing the valuable property of a local mahout. If he lets the elephant go, the crowd will think him a coward, and still despise him. So the choice of the young Orwell is, do I shoot and be hated, or do I not shoot and be hated? By shooting the elephant, he is symbolically burning down the forest and therefore making a fool of himself. By not shooting the elephant, he is being both a wimp, and in his own word, a fool.  Some choice.

So what does he do and why?  No spoiler alert, you will have to read the brief original essay yourself to find out.  I will note though that Orwell himself noted that there was a division of opinion about what to do among the Europeans:

Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said [it was right to shoot the elephant], the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie.

But isn’t this the same choice that Alfred Pennypacker presented to The Dark Knight? Both burning down the forest and shooting the elephant may satisfy immediate short-term needs, but are they really in the longer-term interest of anyone?

Originally posted at Ethnogrpahy.com on February 11, 2016

Asking How Many Children Your Mother Has is a Complicated Survey Question!

I am teaching a Population class here in Chico, California, this semester. Sometime during the class, I generally  ask students about how many children there are in their families, and what their own fertility intentions are.  To avoid the complications of the modern family, divorce, remarriage, and so forth, I break it into three questions, which are:

1)  How many children does your mother have?

2)  How many children does your mother’s mother have?

3)  How many children do you intend to have?

Framing it this way has up to now kept the classroom discussion relatively precise, and on track.  In keeping with the traditions of population science, framing the question keeps things relatively biological–which is appropriate in this type of class.  Until now–when I was again reminded that definitions are always generated from a broader social context.

Anyway, about three days after this semester’s class, I had an apologetic Saudi student come to my office.  He had written on his (anonymous) survey that his mother had nine children.

Him: “I’m sorry that I lied on your question—I really come from a family of 29 children.”

Me: “So your father has more than one wife?”

Him: “Yes, I have four mothers.”

Me: “So you didn’t lie, since I had asked only about your own mother.”

Him: “Yes I did lie, and I’m sorry for it; my mother gave birth to nine children, but she of course has 29 children.”

Me: “No, you didn’t lie because your mother has nine children.”

Him: “Yes, I did lie, my mother has 29 children…”

It went back and forth in a friendly way for a few minutes, both of us somehow satisfied. He told me about his home in Saudi Arabia.  His father died a couple of years ago, but his mothers were still living there.  He had a great deal of affection for his siblings, or course, who he remembers as being a rambunctious lot.

I think it took me about four days to realize that despite the friendly conversation, we were still talking past each other with respect to the definition of what “mother,” “wife,” and probably “father” is.  Not to mention the relationship between “giving birth,” and being a “mother.”  Next time I give this survey I will have to think things through a bit more carefully!

Originally posted November 2013

The Connection between Crime and Immigration: A Complicated but not Conflicted Issue

This blog was originally posted in 2010.  However, the issues raised I think are timeless.  “Debates” about crime and immigration reappear it the presses around the world periodically, usually without much context.  Rather a person who happens to be an immigrant is caught doing a crime, and then inferences is made to all members of a group.  The fact of the matter though is that immigrants tend to be ore law-abiding than native born populations.  This is a settled fact among people who study crime and immigration.  For those who do not, they need to be reminded now and then, that immigrant populations tend to be more law abiding than foreign born.  Anyway, here is my post from 2010.

My first book was based on my Ph.D. dissertation, and called Crime and Immigrant Youth (Sage 1999). I of course really like it when people read it, even though it is becoming dated.  In this context, I read the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) new “Backgrounder” called Immigration and Crime: Assessing a Conflicted Issue by Steven Camarota and Jessica Vaughan in November 2009 with interest.  This paper has since received wide exposure in the popular press.  In it the authors claimed to do a comprehensive review of the literature on immigration and crime, and pronounce that there would be startling new conclusions about the relationship, i.e. that immigrants were likely to be more criminal than the native born.  But then I read deeper.  Despite claiming to be a review of academic and policy literature, they did not refer to that which disagreed with their assumption that crime and immigration are tightly tied together. And indeed, their conclusions were predictable for an advocacy organization that explicitly indicates that it favors a “low-immigrant vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted.” So even though their report actually develops new data, it did so with one goal in mind: Demonstrating that immigrants are more criminal than the rest of us.  It is with this conclusion that I take exception.

In fact much data much more data about the negative correlation between immigrants themselves and crime than the report lets on (the citations below are just a small indication), which consistently indicate that immigrants themselves, except for crimes caused by immigration itself (e.g. violating immigration laws), tend to have lower rates of crime than the native born. The academic literature is also clear on another point: Immigrants are more likely to seek employment mowing our lawns, staffing our restaurants, cleaning our houses, and staff our factories than they are to commit crime. In fact, such populations by themselves tend to have lower arrest rates than native-born US citizens.  But this is indeed an over-simplification of the relationship, too.

Indeed, immigrants have such low rates of crime that one major researcher has proposed that a way to calm cities down would be to introduce new immigrants.  And while admitting more immigrants might work to bring crime in the short-run, I don’t think that this is the whole story either. The reason for this paradox is that immigrant populations are self-selected for behavior, and age, all conditions which mitigate against the impulsive behavior which most commonly lands people in American lock-ups.  In particular, criminal behavior and arrest is strongly related with age   and gender.  Males from about 15-22 years old have the highest frequency of theft, assault, drug use, etc., as anyone who has ever survived an American high school knows.  The average age for arriving immigrants, be they legal or illegal is in the late twenties.  So in many respects, it is not all that surprising that crime rates among them are lower than the general population.

What is more, immigrants are a self-selected lot, in the sense that those who leave home tend to be self-starters, energetic risk takers, better educated and more compliant than their less-energetic cousins who stay home. This is why scholars like Rumbaut (2009), Sampson (2008), Matthew T. Lee et al (2001), and my own book (Waters 1999) typically demonstrate that immigrants themselves are more law-abiding than native populations. This is one reason why immigrants are often a good deal for receiving countries like the United States.  Another country pays the costs of raising and educating them, they show up in the receiving country, and immediately get to work.

But this belies another problem with immigrant populations, which is that they do sometimes have a “second generation” crime problem.  This issue is unfortunately avoided in the Camarota and Vaughan’s report.  The fact though is that immigrant communities in which birth rates are high, and which are impoverished and centered inner cities, often develop gangs of their own.  This happens when the males born in the US (or who arrived as small children) hit the 15-22 year old age group. When this happens a strain emerges between some immigrant boys who do poorly in schools, and immigrant parents who are unable to control them in the context of the United States’ inner cities.  In this context, parents and youth alike are often isolated from America’s mainstream society.  This occurs because the parents are isolated in the impoverished immigrant community, while the youth are isolated as a result of marginalization at school, their own behavior, and ultimately the response of the justice system.  Notably this is not a behavior brought from home countries, but developed in the context of American cities.  Their cousins who remained behind in the rural areas of the third world do not have the same problem.  The really odd thing though is that in these same American-born families, the brothers or sisters or the errant boys are often doing particularly well—many become the paradigmatic immigrant valedictorian whose accomplishments are justifiably celebrated by organizations like CIS.

The problem of course is that immigrant success stories and crime stories are often inseparable, and as a result, are not particularly responsive to pat formulas relying on legal restrictions, and blanket deportation policies that CIS advocates. But, irrespective of what CIS writes about data being “conflicted,” there is indeed some clarity in how crime emerges in immigrant communities: It arises from the conditions of American cities.  And dealing with the conditions of American cities as they affect impoverished immigrant communities is the best way to deal with the waves of crime that do predictably occur, leading to more victims and arrests.  Acknowledging the complexity of such issues is what providing a good welcome to immigrants should involve.


Tony Waters (1999) Crime and Immigrant Youth. Thousand Oaks: Sage

Matthew T. Lee, Ramiro Martinez, and Richard Rosenfeld (2001) Does Immigration Increase Homicide?  Negative Evidence from Three Border Cities.  Sociological Quarterly

Graham C. Ousey, and Charis E. Kubrin (2009) “Exploring the Connection between Immigration and Violent Crime Rates in U. S. Cities, 1980-2000.” Social Problems, August 2009.  56(3):447-473.

Ruben Rumbaut (2009) “Undocumented Immigration and Rates of Crime and Imprisonment: Popular Myths and Empirical Studies,” at http://www.policefoundation.org/pdf/strikingabalance/Appendix%20D.pdf

Robert J. Sampson (2008) Rethinking Crime and Immigration, Contexts Volume 7.

How the Rich Educate Their Children: A Tale of a Swiss Hogwarts Academy


Schools primarily teach vocabulary and inflection, styles of dress, aesthetic tastes, values, and manners only 1 percent of American teenagers attend independent private high schools of an upper class nature. (G. William Domhoff Who Rules America? 1998, 80–81).


Schooling Childhood Cover

The schools for the “1 percent” of teenagers, in America or elsewhere, are isolated from the rest of us, and in these cocoons the ultra-rich cultivate norms and connections. In 2007, I had a peak inside one such institution in St. Gallen, Switzerland. Rosenberg Academy is a school for the ultra-rich—it is a cocoon where the children of the ultra-rich get to know each other, think alike, and re-create the elite which will dominate European business and government in the future.

A description of my brief encounter with the ultra-rich is found in my book Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child. The book is available at many university libraries—and you should check it out! On the other hand, if you are from the one percent, you can afford to buy a copy on Amazon.com, where there are new copies for $45, and new ones for $95. Chapter 1 is available on my Academia.edu site, which is here.



Upper-class institutions are what sociologist Erving Goffman called “total institutions” that isolate their members from the outside world and establish a set of routines, traditions, and “automatisms” that increase the levels of cohesiveness among people raised in this fashion. Ultimately, Domhoff writes, such separateness results in feelings of superiority and exclusivity for having somehow survived the rigors of an expensive and rigorous education (see Domhoff 1998, 82), a la Harry Potter’s fictional school at Hogwarts.


Less fictional is the elite private school I once visited, Rosenberg Academy in Switzerland, where my daughter was scheduled to take an SAT exam on a Saturday morning in November 2007. I read on the Internet that the recommended budget for a student attending there was $50,000–60,000 per student per year, including pocket money of $10,000—15,000.


We arrived early, and were asked to wait in a room outside the dining commons. As we sat there, the boys aged perhaps 12–16, but dressed in suit and tie, and the girls, in conservative pantsuits, arrived for the 7:30 a. m. meal. Despite the suits, the boys were squirrelly, just like other teenagers. Except . . . Before the meal started, they lined up behind their chair. They sat down when a hand-bell rang, and the younger students ate feverishly until the bell was rung again, and they were dismissed at 7:45. Only the older students were allowed to remain for a more leisurely Saturday morning breakfast. My wife and I sat in the anteroom watching this for the hours my daughter was taking the exam. We listened to uniformed teenagers chatting in four or five languages (French, Italian, English, German, and maybe Russian) as they passed through, ignoring our presence. I remember spending some time gazing at the school’s trophy cabinet, which had the standard trophies for tennis, golf, and so forth. But also one for the school’s race car team, even though under Switzerland’s laws, students the under 18 were too young to qualify for a driver’s license.


My daughter claimed that Rosenberg reminded her of Hogwarts School of the Harry Potter series and took particular amusement at the young man who asked if he could loosen his tie while taking the SAT. Hogwarts is particularly relevant, I think, as a literary metaphor for the isolated upper class. J. K. Rowling’s use of Hogwarts as a literary device, is an acknowledgment that the upper class think and act differently than we ordinary mortals do, even if their kids chafe at the discipline. But the point of such private schools is to create a habitus of privilege. Boys growing up in such a place feel uncomfortable without a suit and tie, even at Saturday breakfast, and will intuitively seek out others with similar feelings.


Such markers of caste are perhaps most obvious in a place like Rosenberg. But they are also found in culture created in American schools where bureaucratic “measurable standards” and culture are established to separate and track the natural-growth children of concerted cultivation, segregated inner-city children, and Hogwarts-bound children into their meritocratically correct slots.


Source: pp. 129-130, Schooling, Bureaucracy and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child, by Tony Waters. Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.

P.S. Even if you do not read my book, be sure to read Erving Goffman! Re-reading, I just noticed that I made an implicit comparison between mental hospitals and elite academies when I wrote this. Goffman’s main work about “total institutions” is derived from his participant observation as an orderly in a mental institution. His point, derived though from the 1950s era mental institution in Maryland, though, applies to Rosenberg Academy, too. Both institutions create a cohesive social group which confirms each others views.  And at Rosenberg, they do it during childhood, and away from alternative views. In this respect, both are the “1%”.

Originally posted at Ethnography.com February 4, 2015

Prison Vignette: Educators Only Whisper in a Custody World

This is an extract from our book Prison Vocational Education in the United States.  Palgrave MacMillan 2016, by Andrew J. Dick, William Rich, and Tony Waters.  

The passivity of the education administrators was at first striking, but I came to understand it as a normal response to this system where the concept of safety as defined by custody officials always holds sway. Custody was in charge and they held all information confidential. Lives could be at stake, they dramatically whispered.

This perspective at first appeared melodramatic. To make matters worse, correctional custody officers in green uniforms are closely watched by internal affairs custody officers in black uniforms. The black uniforms make sure the green uniforms are not involved with smuggling cell phones, drugs, and other contraband, which can be a very lucrative side business.

The dangers custody feared became more apparent when a librarian was stabbed in one of the prisons we visited. The incident emphasized to all that inmates are locked up because they are criminals, not simply the victims of poverty, poor education, alienating foster care, neglect, childhood abuse, and violence. They could hurt other people, and the librarian was just one victim of that convoluted world.

A gang contract had been put out on a prison employee and an elaborate plan developed to carry out the contract. The outcome placed the librarian as a player in another Kafkaesque scene, because she was not the target of the contract. But the inmates were intent on stabbing the person identified by the gang arrived at the appointed location but went through the wrong door to the library. The intended victim was not there. Left on their own to figure out what to do next, they decided they should stab someone, even if it was the wrong person. So the librarian was stabbed and killed. The entire prison went on lockdown since the incident because it was feared that more gang violence would follow if inmates had contact with each other. Lockdown means every inmate remains in his cell. Inmate movement outside cells to eat, exercise, stand in line to get meds, or go to or from class is a chief source of problems for custody officials.

With such experiences in mind, education administrators inevitably deferred to custody officials. One vice principal crystallized the concept with the statement, “It’s a custody world.” For anyone operating in prisons, it is truly a world controlled and defined by custody officials. This results in a passivity among educators that gave me the impression that principals, vice principals, and teachers made few decisions. They wrote reports, accreditation applications, consulted with other officials, and moved paper around, but none actually pressed a particular instructional agenda. They seemed to have mastered the bureaucratic skill of waiting for orders. The issue detailed in the “Greenhouse” story (see Chapter XX) only confirmed this perspective.

Passivity appeared was most evident in situations where important educational decisions were made. Placement hearings serve as a prime example. When inmates enter the prison system, they are assessed and assigned to a level based on their danger of violence using a custody risk scale of I (low) to IV (high) which depends on commitment offense, sentence, gang affiliations, disciplinary record, and so on. After each inmate arrives at a new prison, they meet with a board consisting of a counselor, custody captain, an educator, and any other appropriate experts such as medical personnel. The school principal is also invited. This is a placement hearing, and since the advent of AB 900, its educational purpose is to determine the most effective path towards rehabilitation for each inmate. The educational decisions should move the inmate toward a GED and a vocational trade certificate.

However, these hearing committees have been in place for a long time before AB 900 and serve another purpose, not easily displaced even by legislation: the safe operation of the prison by placing individuals in the context of their medical needs, the gestalt of the yards and prison gangs. So, inmates were placed expediently in a class with an opening so that no seat remained empty—educational goals were peripheral. The educational representatives in placement hearings, left in the dark about the information custody officials used to make placement decisions, were relegated to making uninformed suggestions to a committee. Likewise, the inmates we interviewed believed their educational interests had nothing to do with the work of these placement committees.

For example, once while visiting a welding classroom in another prison, I had a conversation with an inmate-student who looked as if he were studying the text intensely. I introduced myself to him and he was very willing to talk with me. I asked him if he used the new electronic welding simulator in the classroom. This simulator looked a bit like a video game with a rod that students manipulated as if they were actually making a weld. The student told me in broken English that he was already a welder on “the street” so he already knew most of what was taught in this class. His big problem was that he couldn’t pass the written tests since he couldn’t read English very well. He indicated that if he had a Spanish-English text in which he could read for understanding in Spanish and then learn English at the same time, he would succeed in the course. He had already failed several tests in English and believed he didn’t have a chance to pass any other tests in English.

I wish these prinicpals would take a risk in the placement hearings. Their passivity in accepting the “custody world” left me frustrated and disappointed. To make matters worse, the areas where they spent their energy were narrowly focused on operational matters: How many days off could teachers take, and why did they take them on that day? From an operational perspective, these issues are important because they impact instruction. Yet one hopes that educational leaders would stretch beyond keeping the classrooms staffed as a mission for their professional lives.

Following these experiences, I expected that some relationship existed between the level of custody risk of the inmates in the prison and the degree of passivity exemplified by the principal and vice principal. In other words, it seemed reasonable that in the institutions that housed the highest risk Level IV inmates, the educational administrators would be the most passive. Even starker custody requirements overpowered rehabilitative efforts through education. However, once again, prison surprised me.

One prison in our study is famous, even notorious, for the heinous nature of the inmates housed there. Prisoners who entered the prison system were involved in violent behavior, intense gang activity, or increase the threat they posed to others and custody staff to be transferred to this prison.

After we arrived at this dank place, we were met by the principal, a woman who wore warm pants and a jacket. She welcomed us and was eager to know what we wanted to see. When we were checked in through the security checkpoint, the principal addressed the officer by name saying, “Good Morning Officer” and introduced us as visiting researchers.

We spent time talking about the study as we walked through the gate and saw the yards for the first time. There were many smaller sections of yard fenced off for different groups of prisoners so they would not be able to form a large group and rush a door. This had been learned through an unfortunate experience in the past.

We visited a shop class with a very effective teacher, where the principal introduced us, again addressing the person by his name. She also introduced us to the correctional officer who was assigned to the classroom and addressed him by his name. She then left us so we could observe.

Later, the principal led us to the educational programs being offered in the highest security section of the prison, in “administrative segregation.” As the principal took us up a flight of stairs, we ran into the assistant warden. He stopped and said, “Good Morning,” and the principal introduced us. He told us that he had not believed the program we were on our way to see could work but the principal finally convinced him to try it. The assistant warden is now the biggest supporter based on the results with the inmates. The principal then explained to us what a huge difference it made to work with such an open-minded, dedicated, and caring individual as the assistant warden. She let him know our itinerary and indicated she could be available at any time even though visitors were present. He indicated he would see us again in the program we were on our way to visit.

When we arrived in the area, we not exactly underground but it felt that way. We were surrounded by concrete, bulletproof glass, steel doors, and steel bars. When we entered the Administrative Segregation Unit (Ad Seg), we were required to check in with the checkpoint officers and issued standard bulletproof vests. The principal greeted each of the officers by name and then introduced us. An officer was then appointed to serve as our guide and take us into one of the pods. These pods consisted of hallways, like spokes of a wheel, with a console and armed officer at the center hub. The officer wore a helmet with a visor that extended below his chin. He wore a bulletproof vest, and an automatic rifle was slung across his chest. This officer was sitting in a kind of turret so he could easily swivel to see any of the hallways. This turret sat above us with no way to enter from below without first going through a kind of hatch that he controlled. The principal waved and said hello to him, also addressing him by his name. He smiled down and they exchanged greetings.

We were led into one of the hallways where four or five cells were lined up next to each other. Each cell held only one man who was clad in a kind of white underwear, long shorts and a T-shirt. In the cell were a closed-circuit computer and monitor that provided the programmed learning that made the assistant warden so proud. Inmate students were making steady progress toward getting a GED using this equipment and program.

The cell itself was completely concrete and contained two bunks, a toilet, and sink. We saw through what looked like 4-inch steel bars into the cell from the hallway. We spoke with the inmate who told us about the program and how glad he was to have something to do in this cell.

Two cells away, the principal was leaning against the bars and speaking very softly, whispering through the bars to an inmate and listening to him intently. I walked over slowly and learned the story. This young man was tattooed on his neck and face and finishing the last weeks of a 10 year to life sentence. He was to be paroled in three weeks and, as the system required, would be released with $200 back to the county of his crime, Los Angeles. He appeared to be upset, as if he would almost come to tears. The principal introduced me to him addressing him by his name and changed the subject to his use of the computer and the program. He explained he enjoyed the learning and felt he was close to earning a GED. We were then escorted to the exercise area at the end of the hall. It was a small concrete room outside, and looking up the 15 foot walls, one could just catch a glimpse of cloud or, if very lucky, sunshine.

She explained to me that this young man was 26 years old and had entered prison at 16. He was terrified to return to his neighborhood because he feared being killed by his gang or a rival gang if he did not rejoin and become an active member. The principal said she simply spoke reassuring words to him, but also told him she would advocate for him.

On the way out of the Ad Seg unit, walking down the tunnel-like hall, we passed a correctional officer sitting in a chair looking at what appeared to be the wall. As we came closer, we saw that he was watching a naked man lying down in a small cell. The principal introduced us to this officer addressing him by his name, and at that point, the assistant warden appeared again. He asked us about our visit, and we shared how impressed we were at the system and programmed learning that received praise from the inmates. We then turned back to the officer and asked him what he was doing. He shared that he was waiting for the inmate to pass a pen that he had shoved up his anus. The inmate could see us through the glass, and the principal moved further down the hallway. I quickly followed.

We exited and walked through the yards to the library. Along the way, we encountered several correctional officers and were introduced to each by name. In the library, a teacher and two porters (assistants) managed a closed-circuit academic program that could help an inmate earn an Associate of Arts degree through a community college in southern California. All courses, lessons, and work were to be accomplished individually by inmate students in their cells. We were introduced to the teacher and the porters as well. Each porter was addressed by his name with the respectful salutation, Mr. We enjoyed an informative conversation about the way their program operated. The porters managed an extensive file system of student work and other assignments that could be taken while locked in a cell.

We continued to visit with the principal over lunch and learned about her background in the correctional system. She had been a teacher and recently completed an MA degree at a nearby state university. Her major paper addressed the issue of selecting and educating teachers for work in prisons. I asked her if she could share her paper with me, and she made a point of bringing it to us the next day in the parking lot. Her interest and questioning perspective combined with her desire to build a team across the education- custody divide was remarkable.

It was clear from the interactions I witnessed and took part in that this principal knew and respected every correctional officer she met. She saw herself on the same team with custody officials, not a member of a group with separate goals for inmates. She moved easily among inmates throughout the institution, whether in cells, the library, or classrooms. She knew the teachers well and was able to understand what they needed. I never sensed disdain for custody staff; neither did I sense passivity about any part of her role in the institution. This principal worked through and with custody staff for the benefit of her students, and did not relinquish power to them in ways that would foster the resentment we saw elsewhere.

Subservient passivity of education to custody within prison environments is the wrong response. The institution we visited in this story contains the highest threat inmates and, in some ways, appears to be operated for the violently insane, yet this principal was not subservient to custody officials. It might be said she held a servant attitude towards the ideas and ideals of each role: custody and education. And her adherence to each did not exclude the other. Like a good teacher, she treated custody staff as her students, individuals to be understood, not opposed. And once understood, she was able to elicit a kind of membership, Gemeinschaft, in the mission she carried into the prison: rehabilitation through education.

“Building Bildung,” and Other Improbabilities among German University Undergrads


German has two words for the English word “education.”  Erziehung describes the school system, and the mechanics of what is taught and conveyed from the world of adults to that of children in order to “bring them up.”  Focus is on skills adults need like literacy, numeracy, history, and the factual basis citizens need to understand to participate socially, culturally, and economically in society.  The German education system is designed to educate all children in such basic skills. It is something that is done for children, and leads to practical apprenticeships/schooling which many German youth begin at ages 15 or 16, i.e. after completion of  9-10 years of schooling and in turn lead into the workforce.  This type of schooling makes for a very disciplined and skilled workforce, which is able to produce engineering wonders like Audi, BMW,  Mercedes and Siemens that power Germany’s modern export-led economy.


But there is another word in German for education, which is “Bildung,” which is a more important quality, and the one which is more highly valued even though it is not aimed directly at workforce preparation.  Bildung it is tucked into the programs of the primary, secondary, and really kicks in at the university level, including at Leuphana University where I am currently a guest professor.  Bildung roughly means “cultivation of the intellect.”  Unlike Erziehung, such cultivation is not something that is done for you, rather it is a quality that you as an individual cultivate as a matter of intellectual habit.  This is why primary and secondary schools in Germany have a curriculum in music, art, history, religion, the social sciences, philosophy, and so forth.  Famous German philosopher-types have written about this word and emphasize the quality of “cultivation of the intellect.”  Related to this, Germany prides itself on being the land of “poets and thinkers.”  Besides BMW, Mercedes, Audi, and Siemens, think also Luther, Goethe, Hegel, Schiller, Brothers Grimm, and Max Weber.  And in music, it’s Beethoven and Bach just for starters.  Indeed, in a country where political and military achievements are looked at with skepticism, bemusement, and sometimes disgust, cultivation of the Bildung is critical to a sense of adult identity.  The result for the education system that children are expected to develop habits of intellectual cultivation for their own sake–and to appreciate the cultural resources which are the product of such habits.  By the time they reach university, students are expected to do this on their own, without a lot of prompting from university professors like me.


To illustrate, here is a quick email I received from a student in my Post Colonial Theory class at Leuphana University last week, with a question about her term paper.  I know her well because she came to my classes for the last 14 weeks, even though there is no grade or “incentive” given for attendance; indeed the paper is the only graded work she will do for me this semester, and it is due after a six week writing period in which there are no classes.  As a full-time student, she will be completing 5-6 such papers during this period. She wrote:

Dear Mr. Waters,

you suggested to me to use Fanon and Wallerstein for my term paper about (Country X), but I would rather like to use Said and Spivak if possible. It seems pretty difficult to apply Fanon’s and Wallerstein’s theories on (Country X), since they are more focused on race, ethnicity and the relations between 1st and 3rd world or rather colonies which were overseas. It seems like Said and Spivak might fit better, also since (Country X) literature and articles about a postcolonial (Country X) refer to their theories. I still would like to refer to Fanon a little bit too. But of course I would like to know what you think about this?

Best regards,

Leuphana Undergrad in Culture Studies

What do I think?  After 15 years working at a mid-level American university, I think cool—go for it.  I mean an email like this from an undergrad is really cool!  I wonder how you could work in three languages (English, German and Language X), and where you came to have such a wide interest in social theory.  My students in America would have taken my cookie-cutter advice about using Wallerstein and Fanon, and left it at that.  But if the Language X literature leads to Said and Spivak, and you’re game to read that—go for it! And I am really looking forward to learning something from your paper about both Country X, and new ways of applying post-colonial theories.


The student’s years of cultivating the habits of the mind that are German Bildung in primary and secondary school are what prepared her to write such an email as a second year university student.  She has habits of reading widely, questioning sources, and engaging creatively.  What is more, she assumes that such things are normal educated humans do, as indeed it is  among my students here.  The funny thing for this US American professor is that any number of my students here in Germany could have written such an email—this is just the one that was handy.


But, I have rarely in my years of teaching in the US received an email like this.  Rather the focus of the US American student is on the formula that will get a good grade on my paper—And, truth be told, I give it to them: Have a clear introduction with a thesis, illustrative examples in the body, and a good conclusion to tie things off.  In other words mechanics and process are the issue I my conversation with US students.


Which brings me back to the subjects of Erziehung, Bildung, and what is now my new pet peeve, Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) Seven Practices of Good Undergraduate Practice.  In my personnel file at Chico State, I repeatedly reflected on these seven principles at the behest of administrators concerned that I earn my keep, i.e. be “accountable.”  As I wrote previously, I think that the insistence of US American administrators on using these “best practices” have over-emphasized process at the expense of what is in essence, Bildung.


Before I finish this blog, here are the Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) seven processes which administrators claim underpin high quality undergraduate teaching.  Note that little of this refers to student learning or acquisition of Bildung.  Rather it is about the faculty can be supervised on, and therefore held accountable for by administrators.  Good Teaching Practices include:


1. encourages contact between students and faculty,

2. develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,

3. encourages active learning,

4. gives prompt feedback,

5. emphasizes time on task,

6. communicates high expectations, and

7.respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

By and large, these are great principles of educational process.  But indeed they leave out Bildung.  Nowhere in these seven principles is there any mention of thinking, reading, capacity to think abstractly which is what my student’s email demonstrated.  Nothing in Chickering and Gamson (1987) for the land of poets and thinkers!  Rather it is designed for the land of process engineering—the world Frederick Taylor imagined when in 1911 he published The Principles of Scientific Management.  (Note to American students reading this: If you don’t know who Frederick Taylor was, check out his Wikipedia entry).

One consequence are email from German students like the one above who, by the way, has had little personal feedback from me during the semester, nor do I have any clue about how much “time on task” she has spent on any assignment.  But she does have high expectations for herself, and she learns and writes in German, English, and Language X which is certainly diverse, though perhaps not in the way Chickering and Gamson were thinking of diverse learning styles.  What she has are habits of the mind that are what the German system somehow cultivates. I guess this could be called active learning, though I have no idea what I did as a Professor to encourage it.  Which of course brings me back to Professors Chickering and Gamson (1987), and their Seven Principles.

What would happen if instead of addressing their seven principles on my next course syllabus, I was to melodramatically tell my US American students: Give me Bildung (Habits of Mind), or Give me Death!

I write about Bildung and other such improbabilities in the US American K-12 education system in my new book Schooling, Bureaucracy and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child.  Request it from your library, or if you have enough money, order a hardcover (or Kindle) copy from your favorite bookseller!

Originllly posted at Ethnography.com, February 2014.


A Reading of “On the Back of the Greyhound Dog: The Golden Sunshine” By ‘Rong Wongsawan

Translated by Tony Waters, Jiranan Sirikunpahisan (Taew), Airin Horatschek (Airin), Kwanjira Wiwattana (Palm), Mayweya Koryaklang (Fang), Kuansiree Suanek (Meaw), Supon Phonchatchawankun (Su), Thirawit Pung-nagm (Thor), Krittaporn Ruankaew (Yo), Hande Yilmaz (Hande), Sasithorn Katika (Cake), Nattaporn Chantajitpreecha (Nati)

Note:  This is a translation by a Thai author, ‘Rong Wongsawan about his trip in California in 1976.  It was read at a recent meeting of the Informal Northern Thai Discussion Group in Chiangmai, Thailand.  For more information, click here.  This is the first time portions of this book have appeared in English.

The last day in the last week of June, 1976

It was 102 ° F in Los Angeles. Your humble writer told Mali it was time to quickly escape from the hot weather. Not the kind of hot which came from lying soaked with sweat next to a Thai canal, but the kind of hot that challenged anyone to walk naked into the concrete jungle. So after two minutes of thinking, I chose to travel by the Greyhound bus. It was a charming and speedy iron horse that gave a smooth ride for so many years of roving around California. I did not love or hate it—like other vehicles.

“Just leave the driving to us” as the television jingle went.

“Let us accept the duty of piloting the vehicle!” they meant.

This advertisement worked quite well.

Driving your own car can cost the state more than one million dollars per mile to build the road. This state of California was so proud of its expensive roads and taxes!

Americans have a car culture. If it is possible, they will trade in their car every year—it is worth the money to them! And that 6 percent sales tax was immediately charged whether drinking coffee or buying shoes,

In the earlier paragraph it seems like I had not yet quite revived from my wine. After all, airplanes are the transportation that saves time and money; it takes only 50 or 55 minutes from Los Angeles to San Francisco by air. Most Americans usually use the plane due to the hurried nature of their lives, but there is really no scenery; we see nothing except clouds and the underwear of the stewardesses. Airline companies in this country compete with each other aggressively, and they try to attract customers in order to make more profit. Some companies intentionally or not, design seductive uniforms for their stewardesses in this competition.

Americans in fact are accustomed to being naked, and even talk or discuss “sex” openly at dinnertime, or on the bed. But, for some strange reason, that little peek at the stewardess is still a provocative sensuality.

The next reason your humble writer wanted to travel by bus is that I wanted Mali to see the western states of America through a pane of glass that has movement, not just clouds. So, I chose to ride the Greyhound.

I hope that the audience will not hate Mali when she takes some action in this story. However, I will not let her appear on paper more than necessary. I guarantee that Mali will not interfere with the story in a fashion that the audience can blame her for ruining it. After all she’s just the wife of the writer, and not that of someone like the Prime Minister.

Another Confusion for Me: The “Finding-Myself Society”

4.00 pm Paso Robles

Towns in this area have Spanish names. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my dictionary with me, so I can’t figure out their meaning.

Some passengers in this area were youthful travelers, male and female. They pack some stuff, guitar, marijuana, and some uncooked poetry in their backpack or bag. Their eyes seem to be hiding something slightly naughty. This is another feature of American society.

It is a confused society trying to create a confusion of another kind.

There is no concise explanation, but it can’t give itself the clear meaning it wants. Teenagers, they are too lazy to study in the university, and want to pay more attention to looking for themselves, or as they say in English “Finding Myself.”

And of course, this is a big worry for parents, which makes them really tired.

When talking about the situation in the family, it sounds like this, people who do not understand each other, but are inextricably entwined in their mutual love and incomprehension;

Ronnie                   “I made a decision already that I will travel the country!”

Dad                           “But Ronnie, the university has admitted you!”

Ronnie                   “It doesn’t matter!”

Dad                           “Why?”

Ronnie                                    “I must find myself first.”

Dad                           “You will find it?”

Ronnie                   “No one knows the answer, but if there is no action, nothing will ever get started”

Dad                       “I think you should start at the university”

Ronnie                    “Insane! The university is filled with fools and stupidity.”

Dad                           “If you weren’t so stubborn you would trust me, Ronnie”

Ronnie                    “However, I won’t change my mind. The university has nothing to teach me. America every day deteriorates because of the university, doesn’t it?”

Dad                          “What do you want, my son?…”

Ronnie                      “All that ever happens is so far away” (Ronnie shrugs his shoulders) “Tell me, what lessons does the university really have to teach?”

Dad                           “I really don’t know! But it is certain to be something important, and this is the reason you should go out and seek it.” Your friend Fred ran away. He is on the road now for 3 years, just because he wants to find himself. His parents only find out where he is when he calls home long distance and asks for money.”

Ronnie                    “Some people take longer to find themselves than other people.”

Dad                           “Where are you going, Ronnie?”

Ronnie                    “I will first take a bus to Nevada, John is there with many friends. Everyone is lovely there, they are real serious seekers. Perhaps after that I will go to Arizona where I know some people from the Navajo Indian tribe who weave blankets.”

Dad                           “Why? You really think that weaving blankets with the Navajo will help you find yourself?”

Ronnie                    “If I work with my hands it really might amount to something.”

Dad                           “What?”

Ronnie                    “It goes back to the inherent cruelty of the mechanistic modern society.”

Dad                           “You are annoyed with society that much?”

Ronnie                    “Of course.”

Dad                           “So what’s next?”

Ronnie                   “I will have time to think about goodness and the disappearance of capitalism.”

Dad                           “Ronny! Let us talk man to man. I always love your ideas a lot. You are not stupid, but you are not yet clever enough. Um, nothing is more important than the fact that I have saved enough money for your college. You know that the fees are increasing every day. If you hurry off to find yourself first, the money won’t be enough to pay for your college. I want to advise you: Go to college first! Then wouldn’t it be a good idea to go find yourself? “

Ronnie                   “No!”

Dad                           “Don’t you feel sorry for me?”

Ronnie                    “Our times are very different.”

Dad                           “But Ronny, I really worry about you, don’t, you understand?”

Ronnie                    “But I need to use modern reasoning. I don’t want to miss the chance to travel the country. I also want to go to South America with Susan.”

Dad                           “Susan? Does Susan also want to find herself just like you do?”

Ronnie                                      “No doubt…”

Dad                           “Lord help me!”

Ronnie                    “We are good friends and always together, but the most important thing is that Susan has a Volkswagen. And we can go wherever we want easily.”

Dad                           “So what do Susan’s parents think about this?”

Ronnie                    “Maybe I’m saying something crazy. But Susan feels she has no choic here. If she doesn’t leave home now, her life will stop at high school, she will then get married, and then she will have children. Susan said that when she looks forward from that perspective, she can’t see a future.”

Dad                “Future, The future of what?”

Ronnie            “Staying here means she will always be in this small orbit. A life which is always behind the times.”

Dad                 “Maybe it’s really true for you, having a wife and children is really too old fashioned for today’s world.”

Ronnie            “Dad, don’t you see how necessary it is that our generation should protest?”

Dad                “I don’t know! It’s up to you.”

Ronnie            “That is a cute sentence.”

Dad                 “My son, you don’t have to love me or maybe you want to hate me sometimes. I won’t be angry with you. Call me when you need money.”

Ronnie            “Thanks…”

Dad                “Can you allow me to ask you a final question? If Susan gets pregnant in South America, what would the two of you do?”

Ronnie           “Crazy! My generation doesn’t bed down like that. Don’t forget that we travel for finding ourselves! We are all familiar with such traps.

Art Buchwald: Explaining the Conflicting Thoughts which Make for Laughter

   Dear reader, your humble writer would like to invite you to take a tour of the American’s mind by borrowing a special feature. I want you to meet a part of the American’s mind by describing situations that are different from our sense of what is familiar in Thailand. In the United States, there is a very strong conflict between the generations. And it’s impossible avoid.

Do you, dear reader, ever have a question about the bad smell of the bad American boys and girls? One of those reasons is the role model of hippies (Bupachon), which can be either concrete or abstract, but includes in these times long-haired people smoking marijuana. They may lose their own philosophy, or unsuccessfully attempt to identify a new way of understanding the human condition and its times. But it destroys with loneliness the very basis of its struggle. But still the hippie civilization refuses to die during this process!

Something that young men and young women use as weapons to protest against American society is a bit dirty. They try to explain why mocking clothing fashion makes their opposition to society so logical. Conveniently they ignore the role of older people, and assert that everything comes from the traditions of the younger generation.

Art Buchwald, an American newspaper columnist, has a prudent view of these contradictions. He tried to explain about this by addressing the irony embedded in such a generational conflict. He does this in a fashion which helps the older people conceal their anxieties.

Your humble writer has adapted Art Buchwald’s script for how this inter-generational conflict occurs in the following lines.

The drama begins in the evening time where a father proudly reviews the high school exam scores of his beloved teenage son. And so the father wants to invite him to go for dinner in celebration. This is a traditional way of congratulating someone for a job well done, and the father offers to do this by using polite and congratulatory words.

Son                  “Cool! Can we go together?“ (His son readily accepts the invitation and stands up).

Father            “I think…you should wearing a proper dress shirt, it’s better” “

Son                 “I have T-shirt already, why? It doesn’t look right, does it?”

Father            “It should be a shirt and a necktie.” (The Father smiles softly)

Son                 “Are we going to have dinner, or are we going to a wedding ceremony?”

‘Rong              The son expressed his doubt through his face.

Father                     (Father smiled softly). “It surely is a shirt, but it is far from a minimum standard.”

Son                            “Are we going to dinner together, or are we going to get married?”

‘Rong                       The beloved son left little doubt that he had bettered his father in the argument.

Father                     “Stupid! Untidy! Unfashionable!”

(Father begins to scold) “But you have to act like other people. Go-go, go put on a proper shirt and a tie, no more arguments!”

‘Rong                       Mother comes out quickly from the next room and asks

Mother:                 ”Eh, Uh, why are you so loud, what you two arguing about…? ”

Father                     “I want to take him to have a dinner to congratulate him for his achievement, but he refuses to wear a tie.”

‘Rong                      The son sits and sways along with the rhythms of folk-rock;

Son                            “I won’t go! If you force me to have a tie, I won’t go, don’t go-won’t go!”

Mother                   “Is it really too hard to have a tie?” (his mother asked consolingly). “My dear son, please…”

Father                     “I am not proud of you anymore!!!! And I don’t want to be ashamed when other people know that I’m your father, and have such a dumb son like you.”

‘Rong                      The son made a snarky smile, and then walked awkwardly toward his room.

After that two minutes, he came out and standing snootily in front of his room with a frumpy shirt and a tie which was worn and old.

                                    Father was trying hard not show his feelings towards his son’s challenge. He just nodded instead of saying that it was time to go. However, he accidently saw a surprising thing before he left the room.

Father            “Hey there! You didn’t put on your shoes.”

Son                  “Oops! I guess I didn’t hear you talk about the shoes? And why do we have to wear shoes? What happens if we don’t wear it, are we gonna go to hell?”

Father              “Don’t be silly!! Put on your shoes right now!!!

Son                  “My feet aren’t that good looking! Who the hell wants to see them? I will place them under the table, so I’m sure no one will see.”

Father              “When you are entering, people will definitely see your dirty feet and you must know that civilized people consider wearing shoes an important part of their culture. Do you want to risk having those cultured people in that high class restaurant puke because of the smell of your feet?”

Son                 “Why? My nose doesn’t smell anything of my feet? Anyway, that is not so important. But, this is summer, so no one wears shoes. I swear ‒ I will not do such an out-of-date thing as wear shoes, since none of my friends wear them either.”

‘Rong              Now it was a time for mother to hurriedly return to the conversation before her son will be kicked. It is not sure whether they will fight or not.

Mother            “My dear please, put on your shoes. If you don’t like leather shoes you can wear your sneakers. Please do it for the sake of your father’s social status.” (Her son scowled.)

‘Rong                       The father tried not to show his feelings, and reminded them that they should not forget that he had never thought about having dinner in high-class restaurant.

However, to stop being annoyed by his parents, he put on a tie, and climbed into the fine car. Such a car is indeed a source of such pride for so many Americans.

Not long after leaving home, the father’s mood softened, and he began to speak gently to his son.

Father                     “I don’t want to annoy you anymore, but I’ve thought that uh… if you take off your headscarf before we arrive at the restaurant it might be better?“

Son                            “How good is that damn restaurant? Why won’t they welcome people with headscarves?”

Father                     “it’s the highest quality restaurant that we have in this town. The way they season food is well known. I just think…. You are grown enough, and you should know how to live the right way and respect the lifestyle of our society. Eating is both an art and culture, which has been passed on by many generations for many centuries. It is not difficult at all. Just try to and get used to it. Our life needs more than milkshake and french-fries.”

Son                            “What? What did you say? You said it has no milkshake and French-fries? You said it’s a high-class restaurant?”

‘Rong                       Now it was the son’s turn to choke.

The father sighed deeply and thought.

He pulled the car over to the side of the road.

Father                     “Keep it to $2! I’m giving up on you, It’s obvious now we have been born to different times. There is a hamburger stand–get out and buy it by yourself. I don’t care anymore!”

‘Rong                       The father smiled sadly.

The beloved son whistled.

Lower the curtain.

This is a model of a normal American life.

Joe Chung’s Cocktail Lounge, 891 Market Street, San Francisco

‘Rong              Your humble writer sat at Joe Chung’s Cocktail Lounge frequently during Happy Hours 5.00 pm. – 7.00 pm. The whisky and cocktail were sold for less than the normal price, i.e. for 60 cents rather than 70 cents. Even just 10 cents is not much, but it gives meaning to the relationship. So, drinkers are more likely to come and relax than at other times, and it makes it easier for friends and acquaintances to meet, because they know about this hour.

The bartender was Chinese, with small elliptical eyes shaped like a sesame seed featured prominently on his face. Among the American faces he was different. He wore a dark blue Chinese pants and a dinner jacket. He also wore an outer red jacket trimmed in gold, maybe just to show off his wealth as a Chinese, more than for any other reason.

But being Chinese also means that the costs of doing business are to be avoided, and kept down in a way that keeps profits up. No other group can copy this Chinese method of doing business.

The black man sat down on the left side of the counter. He is a young man not older than twenty-three years old.

Man                “Scotch whiskey!”

‘Rong              His manner indicated that he had little experience with the protocols of drinking.

He does not select the type of whiskey, but trusts the judgment of fhe bartender.   And in such a case he absolutely will get the cheapest whisky in the bar. This bar near the road doesn’t care more about its customer than it does profit.

Your humble writer peeps at him again. He drinks a lot, and he doesn’t wait for the whiskey to be cold enough. But he swills it down his throat before the ice can melt, and he continues with a second shot, not even a minute later.

No, he doesn’t get angry! His face is so happy, and there is a smile. He has just never learned how to love whisky. So, he hurries to drink it. He drinks it as if it were an enemy to be endured. I tell myself that he still needs to learn about whisky, and how to be a friend with it.

Then whisky will be his very good friend.

Vexed, this is one more action your humble writer observes.

He is black, with a blue suit and cream colored necktie. He looks like he has just come from the office. He has lots of money and he is a young man who seems so like an innocent calf, soon to be a vicim of the atomoshper in Joe Chung’s Cocktail Lounge..

Mali                “He looks like Sammy Davis” (whispering)

‘Rong              Sammy Davis’ dark skin was like that of every American black, and your humble writer shrugs his shoulder.

He looks with excitement for a chance to flirt with a white girl who sits next to him.

Man                “It’s mighty windy tonight!”

Linda              “It’s strong like it is every day in San Francisco, you must come from another place?”

Man               “New York”

Linda               “Well look. People from here don’t speak like that. They begin the conversation much more coyly.”

Man                “I didn’t know what I should say.”

Linda              “But you can say lots of things.”

Man                “I feel lonely. ..”

‘Rong              The young black man put his glass down on the bar, and told the                                         bartender to fill it again.

Linda              “You wanna have someone to drink with?”

Man                “What are you drinking…?. ..” (he asks rather than answers.)

Linda              “Vodka Martini ” (she looked away) “To be honest, I don’t drink vodka that someone else buys for me”

Man                           “I don’t think you should refuse ”

Linda              “Actually-you may think I am annoying and look down on you. But I have never thought about the nature of skin color.”

Man                “Vodka martini for her,”

Linda               “On the rocks.”

‘Rong             That lady is over 35 years old, your humble writer guesses, but probably not 40 years. She has a bright face that said she loved alcohol more than water or milk. She looks so seductive, like the girls I saw in the bars in the brothel districts of Patpong in Bangkok or around the bars of Bang-Lamphu Square, she would be called ‘cougar’ or whatever.

But now that I meet her in Joe Chung’s Cocktail Lounge, she’s in this story at first sight.

Linda               “How long have you been here?” she asked

Man                “2 months.”

Linda               “Do you like San Francisco?”

Man                “I’m not really sure…”

Linda               “I bet that you won’t go anywhere. People who come to San Francisco usually want to spend their whole life here.”

Man                “Are you from here?”

Linda               “I was born in Oakland but I really love it here in San Francisco, so I moved across the bridge.” (She said this with a smooth and moderate tone.)

Man                “Have you ever visited New York?”

Linda               “Nope, I’ve never been further than Reno, just three hours to the east, in Nevada.”

Man                “Did you go to play cards there?”

Linda               “If not to gamble, why would I have gone to Reno?”

Man                “Some go to get married there?”

Linda               “You’re right…” (she said while sipping Vodka Martini) “but I never got married in Reno.

Man                “Just playing cards in Reno?”

Linda             “I played every gambling game there-blackjack , keno, roulette-except I didn’t play the slot machine. I hate the slot machine–it is a bastard thief with one arm.”

Man`           “I think I don’t like it either.”

Linda          “It sucks your money, doesn’t it?”

Man                        “Yes…”

Linda          “Is it that much?”

Man                        “Not just a little,”

Linda           “I think you have not checked, have you?”

Man           “Perhaps, next Friday I will ride that iron horse, the Greyhoud Bus, to go to Reno.”

Linda          “Why don’t you invite me to go with you?”

Man                        “Would you mind….?”

Linda         “No ! I don’t mind help from a pretty boy like you”

Man           “I’ll tell you once a woman shouted at me ‘Piece of shit! Just become I am black’”

Linda          “I’m sorry for you, but that was not me.”

Man                     “You are a good girl”

Linda          “No, I’m just a combination of good and bad.

“People in the church say that I am bad, but the homeless living on the street say I am good.”

Man             “I see what you mean. ”

Linda           “But as we are going to Reno together, I beg you-please don’t be jealous.”

Man             “Why?

Linda           “I have been there-getting a divorce from two of my husbands.”

‘Rong             The man just shrugged his shoulders and whistled.

            She went to the restroom which was located behind bar.

The bartender poked his face over a counter, and spoke to that inexperienced young black man.

Charlie            “I don’t want to intrude on your business, but you must know some facts about life. Some women are o.k. to take out for dinner, watching a movie together, and making love, but they are not suitable to ask for marriage. Some are even more terrible. They are not suitable for anything. Listen to me, that woman is a blood sucking leech; you should hurry to go back home, because it is better than dating her.”

‘Rong              At that moment, San Francisco heard a young black man cuss.

Man                Shit!

But the curtain of drama didn’t closed yet, the various duty of black and white!

Man                            “Leeches! I have heard that Chinese people like to eat them, is it true?

Charlie           “Sorry, I just thought that we are friends…..”

Man                “Thanks, Charlie! But I feel lonely.”

‘Rong              Americans, black or white, they prefer to call Chinese people Charlie, which is a reference to the old Charlie Chan movies, [or perhaps their experience in Vietnam where the Viet Cong were called ‘Charlie]. It seems like it has a contemptuous meaning, just like the word “Chink.”

As for blacks, your humble writer does not have any reason to hate black people. The many black people I knew they are wonderful friends. Some of them are doctors of high esteem. Some of them are musicians who create the world of jazz. Some are very charming bisexuals that your humble writer spent time with in the gay bars without knowing whether it was day or night. Some of the black people are poets who like to explain about the trash and flowers at the same time, as well as much else. They are friends who help each other when in need.

Some novels refer to goodness of the black people, and their yearning for freedom. It is the special condition that Americans admire equality for all before the law, and it is part of the constitution of the nation. And this is the historical cause the people in the past pursued, in order to make it for people today.

It is the conflict underpinning American society.

That white girl is back from the toilet.

The cheap perfume she wears is sweetly scented.

Linda              “Shall we go together, honey?”

‘Rong              She said it as if she had slept on the same pillow with him last night..

Man                “Do you not drink more ? ….

Linda              “Yes…..”

Man                “One for the road?”

‘Rong              He used this as an excuse for one last drink.

It is the last shot at Joe Chung’s Cocktail Lounge.

Linda              “I never refuse alcohol “

Man                “I believe that…”

‘Rong             But the Drama is not over yet.

Black and white look deeply at each others eyes, through his glass of water and blended Scotch whisky, and her vodka martini, without even knowing each others names. But that’s not necessary.

The bartender shrugs his shoulder.

A lonely horny guy and an alcoholic woman. She is hungry. What misfortune hit her? Or perhaps she doesn’t have money for the cheap room rent in the slum? Is her kid sick and staying in a poor hospital? Is her husband disabled by the war? Anyway, the pension is not enough to blow away the coldness and loneliness in her life?

She can fill any one of these roles.

She is Linda, but a Dirty Bitch Linda!

‘Rong              The bartender is shaking his head because he’s bored. As with the psychiatrist and the police, a lot of people are at his bar at his counter. If he were a writer he would have a lot stories to tell.

Charlie             “Linda is dangerous woman.”

‘Rong              “Linda!”

Charlie             “She named herself after Linda Lovelace the movie star. This woman calls herself Linda in her honor.”

‘Rong              He is referring to the movie called “Deep Throat.” This movie was so scandalous that it shook the church, the court, the monks and the censors. After fighting in court to be allowed to meet the letter of the decency laws, the film was finally allowed to be publically shown. Still, the Americans were worried. They were concerned about the problems of morality, and what that meant for the country. But the nation’s erotic mood was edgy, and people were frustrated to the point that in some cases they became mentally ill. And so the film was just obscene for anyone who was pessimistic about the state of society’s morality. And the more optimistic viewed that film as reflecting the capacity of a more liberal society to throw aside old ethics. But to find that optimistic answer you must be indifferent to the relationship between sin and merit; but for the second group of people, you could almost hear them exhale. So. your humble writer promised to take Malee to go see the film on a night we were both free in San Francisco.

‘Rong             “Do you think that she is a blood-sucking leech?”

Charlie             “I don’t want to gossip about anyone. But in the garden in which she plays with men, that is the thing that is true.”

‘Rong              “Is Linda a liar?”

Charlie             “Worse than that…”

‘Rong                       “Perhaps an incorrigible bullshitter? Tricky?”

Charlie                    “It’s just a matter of how and how much trouble she will cause. I’m just saying that the bitch’s gonna take whatever she wants. She wants money, and will get money if she can. If she doesn’t get any money she will get a ring. Got no ring, take a watch. If she could take off the man’s shoes, she would, I think. Anyway, I feel like my mouth is always butting into others’ business where it does not belong. I’m feeling pity on that poor black calf.”

‘Rong                       “Blacks don’t want any pity, do they?” Your humble writer offered this thought.

Charlie                    “Everybody all over the country is the same, all throughout the country. It’s an American thing. But as for me, I am different. I do not have the feeling that I am a person unto himself. I am an Asian, so I empathize with others. ”

‘Rong                       “I understand your feeling, Charlie.”

Charlie                    “But think again. Tonight, that dirty slut Linda will surely have money for tomorrow.”

‘Rong                       “Have you known her for a long time?”

Charlie                    “Since her name was Marilyn, Marilyn on the sidewalk. Marilyn who never was the playful lover of a person like President Kennedy. But her ass is unbeatably beautiful.”

‘Rong                       “Leech?”

Charlie                    “Yes- she is.”

‘Rong“                     I am also thinking about the superstar agencies in Hollywood. They’re also leeches.”

Charlie                    “It’s similar but not the same. These leeches have different kinds.”

‘Rong                       “She’s a beautiful woman. Hmm, I mean, she was.”

Charlie                    “Many people have said the same that you do. Let’s face it, her life is sad and horrible. If it had been someone else’s life, that person would kill themself. But Linda never gave up. You know what? On some nights when she isn’t able to get a man, she sells her blood down on Mission Street. Some weeks she is thin like a zombie,

‘This was her destruction… After donating blood, the money she received could be used to buy just a few glasses of whiskey. Then she walked out and fell down in the street.

She was told that by the place where the blood was purchased is for the hospital. But it was really a private business.”

‘Rong                       Along Mission Street is found the transcript for poverty. Pawn shop, cheap grocery stores, and a rented room where big rats with wet fur run from the pipe hole to the ceiling. Thieves and starving people walk by in opposite directions. Pickpockets wait for the victim in the building corner and so forth. The blood-purchasing clinic is situated in this dejected atmosphere–in order to suck blood from the poor to help the rich.

So, the poor had no choice, and they sold their blood for food

So blood was turned into sausage, vegetables, and bread in this fashion. Some portion turns to shit, some turned into energy and that which is left is turned back into blood. It is the infinite cycle, one that does not end until the last drop of blood evaporates from the corpse.

Charlie                    “May Satan himself protect this woman.”

‘Rong                       I heard myself praying

Linda dirty bitch! Your humble writer will not forget the spark that is still inside her eye.

Her sad smile reflects crying. But she still has a lust for life, while becoming accustomed to the punishment of being human.

Her price is cheap! But somehow she is still worth more than the Buddhist nun who does not observe the strict precepts, who uses religion as a mask to cover her face, but who wanders along the street begging for money, seeking friends in this world who will share her suffering.

Tomorrow, your humble writer hopes to meet Linda again.



Graduation Season, and Graduation Songs, from “Free Bird” to “Onward Christian Soldiers”

Here is a test on graduation songs. I have actually been to many graduations, and each of them has special songs performed. Most of them I have long-since forgotten. But four of them I remember. Here are some of the places I have been to graduations. See if you can match the song with the locale.


“Onward Christian Soldiers”

“Pomp and Circumstance”

“Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd

“Alleluia Chorus” by Handel

“Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music


–California State University, Chico, where I have taught for 20 years

–Zeppelin University in Germany, where I was an exchange professor

–Bear River High School in Grass Valley, California, where my kids went to high school

–Payap University International College in Thailand

–Karen Kawthoolei Baptist Bible College in a Karen refugee camp in Thailand.

O.k., now here are the answers.

“Pomp and Circumstance” is at Bear River High School, Chico State, and Payap University. It may have been at the other ceremonies too—I don’t remember. It is such a traditional song, that it doesn’t stick in my memory. I will make a point of noting whether it is there next time!

“Free Bird” was played by a graduating senior on an electric guitar at Bear River High School about ten years ago. Sadly they did not do it at later graduations I attended—perhaps they had second thoughts about telling 18 year old that they should not be caged anymore.

I can’t remember what songs were played at Zeppelin U. , though I remember they had an excellent music program. (Hah! Bet you thought that was where Handel’s Messiah was produced!

The most impressive choirs were at the Karen Refugee Camps, where there were probably about 300 voices singing the multiple parts of Alleluia Chorus under a tin roof. The choirs in the refugee camp practice a great deal (there is not much else to do in a refugee camp) and the performance was outstanding both years that I attended the graduation there. They also did “Onward Christian Soldiers,” but sang it in Karen under that same tin roof at both graduations.

“Climb Every Mountain” was done by the Payap University Choir at a graduation I attended last week, and they too did a wonderful job. There were perhaps thirty well-trained members of the choir from the “Thai Side” of the campus (as opposed to the English-speaking “International Side.”


There must be a message about why each group chose the various songs. “Onward Christian Soldiers” (in Karen) is perhaps the most notable. Refugees have by definition been expelled violently from their country and there is an interest in re-conquest, whether spiritually, or through military action. The camp I heard the song is known for its political support of the Karen National Union, and supplying soldiers to the Karen National Army.


“Free Bird” and “Climb Every Mountain” both appeal to the idea that graduations is a beginning of a new adventure—that the old is left behind, and there are new adventures to choose. All that I find odd here is that two very different institutions, Bear River High School, and Payap University had such similar themes, both drawn from popular western music. Sometimes I guess East and West do meet!