yes, those jeans make you look fat… it’s your teacher’s fault

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
– Albert Einstein

fat butt jeansWhile Occam’s Razor is a valuable tool, when we misuse it, we fall into the trap of the reductive fallacy, an explanative approach in which highly complex processes are reduced to their elementary components to such a degree that any sense of cause and effect gets lost in the argument.

To wit: “Fewer than half of Ontario’s elementary schools have a health and physical-education teacher, raising questions about efforts to stem rising obesity rates among schoolchildren.” Globe and Mail, March 18, 2013

Physical exercise, (and by implication, physical education), is absolutely crucial to the maintenance of a healthy body, but it is not a panacea and it does not work in a vacuum. The factors that contribute to the growing obesity crisis in Canada are social, psychological, political, economic, cultural, evolutionary, environmental, and biochemical all at the same time, and trying to address this incredibly complex phenomenon simply by mandating thirty minutes of physical activity a day in schools is over-simplistic to the point of naïveté.

First, consider our obesity epidemic from an evolutionary perspective. Despite the blog wars raging between the “carb” people and the “no-carb” people, a growing body of evidence suggests that human metabolism evolved primarily in the era prior to organized agriculture, and that for the first 190,000 of Homo sapiens’ 200,000 years of genetic evolution, our species subsisted on wild, grass fed meat and fish (and their respective fats), as well as naturally occurring (evolution of obestitynot cultivated) fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Not only did 95% of human genetic evolution occur in the era prior to the production of cereals, in addition, the feast-or-famine nature of the hunter/gatherer society created “thrifty” genes wherein the ability to store energy as fat became a desirable genetic trait that was passed to future generations by the process of natural selection. Because wheat and barley gradually appeared in the human diet over the last 10,000 years or so, human beings have been eating grains for 5% of their total existence on the planet, and are therefore genetically better adapted to eat fruits and vegetables as their primary source of carbohydrates. The first impacts of cereal production on human health were seen in the nineteenth century with the advent of the industrial revolution and the invention of high-speed rollers mills, which processed grains to the consistency of talcum powder, effectively removing any fiber from the cereal and significantly speeding up the rate at which the carbohydrate was digested and absorbed.

Moreover, "modern wheat is no more real wheat than a chimpanzee is an approximation of a human. While our hairy primate relatives share 99 percent of all genes found in humans, with longer arms, full body hair and lesser capacity to win the jackpot at Jeopardy, I trust you can readily tell the difference that 1 percent makes (Davis, 2011, p. x)

Moreover, “modern wheat is no more real wheat than a chimpanzee is an approximation of a human. While our hairy primate relatives share 99 percent of all genes found in humans, with longer arms, full body hair and lesser capacity to win the jackpot at Jeopardy, I trust you can readily tell the difference that 1 percent makes,” (Davis, 2011, p. x).

Thank you, Gillette!

hmmm….  thanks, Gillette…

But I digress…

Not only has the trend towards mechanization and refinement continued to the present day, its negative impact on human health (hugely exacerbated by the Harvard-led anti-fat campaign of the 1980’s) has resulted in an obesity problem of pandemic proportions. At a general biochemical level, the typical Canadian diet makes, and keeps, us fat because it interrupts the normal regulation of the glucose/insulin cycle. How quickly a carbohydrate is absorbed into the bloodstream is measured by its “glycemic index”, with glucose itself (at a score of 100) determining the relative speed of all other foods. The more refined a carbohydrate, the higher its glycemic score; the higher its glycemic score, the faster it enters the bloodstream; the faster it enters the bloodstream, the faster the pancreas releases insulin (a hormone) in order to drive down glucose levels by escorting excess blood sugar into muscle and liver cells. Constantly eating high glycemic carbohydrate foods leads to chronically  elevated insulin levels, which in turn are directly correlated to obesity. Not only does insulin cause blood sugar to drop rapidly, which signals the brain (whose preferred fuel source is glucose) that it’s time to eat (even if you’ve just eaten), but insulin is the hormone responsible for regulating energy storage in the human body.

Perversely, the high levels of insulin that remain in the blood after ingesting a high glycemic carbohydrate load prevent the storage cells in the muscles and liver from re-releasing previously stored glucose back into the bloodstream. While it’s true that the body (especially the brain) does need a steady supply of carbohydrate to function properly, we have all but replaced the genetically preferred seasonal fruits and vegetables in our diets with calorie-dense, high-glycemic, refined carbohydrates that lead directly to insulin resistance, increased hunger and weight gain. For this reason alone, the standard formula of “calories eaten, minus calories burned, equals net weight gain” is over simplified, and we cannot address obesity (childhood or otherwise), simply by increasing the “calories burned” or decreasing the “calories eaten”.  What we eat is as important as how much we eat and more important than how much we exercise.

And still, it’s not that simple…

Recent research also suggests that obesity is hormonally correlated to the circadian rhythms that regulate sleep. While increased gaming and Facebook time have both been fingered as an “inactivity” factor as it light-pollutionrelates to weight gain, studies also indicate that our ever-increasing exposure to light (and the negative effect of light pollution on the body’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin) in conjunction with the abnormal sleep patterns generated by our “24/7” lifestyle negatively impact the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin, both of which are also under circadian control. Especially disturbing, given our propensity for nightlights and digital alarm clocks, is the fact that exposure even to very dim light during sleep has the same effect (although the brighter the light, the greater the weight gain). Indeed, even on its dimmest setting, my newly acquired clock radio glows such a violent shade of green that one might reasonably conclude a UFO had landed in the bedroom, and I have relegated it to the bottom shelf on the bookcase where it casts a smaller “shadow”.

or maybe the dust mites are having a party...

or maybe the dust mites are having a party…

At an individual biochemical level, weight gain is even more complex, because there are also genetic variations within our population that affect our hormonal responses to carbohydrate intake. A significant percentage (approximately 25%) of the population experience a blunted insulin response to elevated blood glucose, and, as a result, are not genetically predisposed to insulin resistance. By the same token, about 25% of the population is extremely carbohydrate sensitive, and cannot eat refined carbohydrates in any amount without gaining weight. To complicate matters still further, there are other individual hormonal responses unrelated to insulin production that further drive weight gain.

Over the course of human evolution, for example, the brain has developed so that it produces the neuroendocrine transmitter, dopamine, after the successful ingestion of food. Commonly known as the “reward hormone,” dopamine plays a key role in human motivation, and it appears to be a primary player in completing our internal atta-boy reward circuit. Research has indicated, however, that the dopamine receptors in the brains of obese persons are compromised, as compared to the dopamine receptors in those test subjects with a normal BMI, leading to the hypothesis that obese persons feel compelled to overeat in the same way that heroin addicts feel compelled to mainline when their dopamine levels are low. Interestingly, one way that dopamine receptors are up-regulated is through calorie restriction, which may explain why gastric bypass surgery remains the only proven long-term solution for morbid obesity. In obese persons with disrupted dopamine receptor sites, the obesity problem cannot be overcome with physical activity alone.

Switching lenses from the micro to the macro, consider next the influence of politics and economics on rising obesity rates. Crop production and food manufacturing are big business (as is the weight loss industry), and school catering services and vending machine operators are in it for the money, not out of an altruistic concern for our children’s health. The crop production and processing industries that constituwonder womante local and global agribusiness, along with their respective lobby groups, all have a vested (read, monetary) interest in keeping us fat. To paraphrase biochemist Barry Sears (and to use an American example), the “eat less” message is a difficult one for agribusiness to digest: “Today agribusiness produces more than 4,000 calories per day for every American. For Americans to eat less, every sector of agribusiness (except the fruit and vegetable sector) has to make less money.” In light of the millions of dollars that American agribusiness (led by the sugar industry), donates directly to political campaigns and lobby groups, it would take a superhero remarkable politician, with the political will of Athena to lobby for meaningful changes to the American food pyramid.

The politicization of our food supply also has huge implications for the way obesity divides along socio-economic fault lines, and unsurprisingly, obesity is far more prevalent in lower income households. Calorie for calorie, eating well is expensive, and refined carbs and sugar are cheaper than lean meats, fruits and vegetables (according the USDA, the cost of fruits and vegetables rose 120% between 1985 and 2003, while the cost of sugar and sweets rose less than 50%). In addition, for the “working poor”, who often struggle to feed their children by working two jobs, the time constraints and transportation issues involved with shopping for bulky food items such as fruits and vegetables make it even more prohibitive. On the other hand, research also indicates that once household incomes top $120,000, obesity rates start to rise again, as people in higher income brackets also spend more time working and less time shopping and cooking.

Other environmental factors also drive eating habits; companies spend billions of dollars luring adults and children alike into eating foods they know are unhealthy, and millions more on products development, manipulating their foodstuffs with salt, sugar, and a host of chemicals to make them more addictive. Given that we make more than two hundred food decisions each day, (mostly on auto-pilot), we are unconsciously influenced by marketing, our immediate environment and the people around us far more than our own hunger.

And I haven’t even touched on the psychological issues that drive emotional eating, or considered time-constrained parents who create a life-long pattern by stifling their babies’ cries with a bottle, whether or not said babies are hungry. Rather, I have very briefly touched upon (and grossly oversimplified) some of the issues that contribute to our growing obesity epidemic, not because I think that physical exercise is unimportant, or because I think it shouldn’t be implemented into our schools, but because in trying to explain an extremely complex set of circumstances by isolating a single “cause,” we have created a reductive fallacy in which public education (now there’s a surprise), takes the fall.

The trend towards lower levels of physical activity is itself a nebulous social phenomenon that is difficult to link to a single cause: increased mechanization; urban sprawl (including the rise of neighbor-unfriendly Monster Houses) that discourages old fashioned “playing outside”; the uptick in parental paranoia generated by increased media coverage of sexual predators; the exponential growth of electronic entertainment, in addition to crunched school budgets that squeeze out gym time, all converge to keep children inside and sedentary, rather than outside and active. Moreover, the absence of a dedicated physical education teacher is not the logical equivalent of “no gym class.”

Adiposity is truly a multi-faceted affair and identifying any given factor as “the” cause of obesity is tantamount to trying to understand a food web by studying a single organism. To make any sense of it, and to have any hope of improving it, we must examine the ecology of human obesity as a whole.

© copyright 2013 ingrid baier all rights reserved

Brand-Miller, Jennie et al. (2003). The New Glucose Revolution: The Authoritative Guide to the Glycemic Index. New York, NY: Marlowe and Company.

Bray, M.S. and M.E. Young. (2006). “Circadian rhythms in the development of obesity; potential for the circadian clock with the adipocyte.” Obesity Reviews. Retrieved March 27, 2011 from:

Capponi, Pat. (1997) Dispatches from the Poverty Line. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books

Davis, William. (2011). Wheat Belly. New York, NY: Rodale Press

Ehrnreich, Barbara. (2001). Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting by in America. NY, New York: Henry Holt

Gittleson, Wendy. (2011). “The Politics of Obesity”. The Pragmatic Progressive. Retrieved march 28, 2011 from:

Lollie, Summer. (2010). “Crop Production & Basic Processing”. Open Secrets. Retrieved March 29, 2011 from:

Paarlberg, Robert. Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Payne, Ruby K. (2005). A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Highlands, Texas: aha! Process, Inc

Schlosser, Eric. (2002). Fast Food Nation.New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Sears, Barry. (2005). The Anti-Inflammation Zone: Reversing the Silent Epidemic That’s Destroying Our Health. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Spurlock, Morgan (Dir). (2004). Supersize Me: A Film of Epic Proportions. (Roadside Attractions).

Wang, Gene-Jack et al. (2001). “Brain dopamine and obesity”. The Lancet. Retrieved March 27, 2011 from:

Wansink, Brian.(2010).  Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

catch-22; bridging literacy and literature in the classroom (part 1)

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one…. Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”  – Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Postman published his book in 1985, a year after George Orwell’s temporal setting for his dystopian novel, 1984, but ironically, the culture of surveillance that Orwell so abhorred is a circumstance our post-millennium citizens largely welcome. We have devolved into a celebrity culture in which it is normal, desirable even, to be relentlessly observed, and we tally our social success using tweets and twitters and likes facebook_like_button_bigon Facebook, where we blithely post huge swaths of our lives with nary a concern for personal privacy. It doesn’t occur to us that much of what happens on Facebook is stalking behavior, any more than it occurs to us to worry about highly networked government data banks or corporate computer surveillance. In a culture where a Paparazzi tail is the sincerest form of flattery and renegade civil libertarians are the new social pariahs, we have invited the brazen and unremitting violation of what used to be our constitutional right to privacy.

The implications for pedagogy are profound. As we move deeper into the digital age, trading the printed word for the glittering image, we find ourselves straddling the divide between process and result with regard to literacy development. Studies indicate not only that children learn to read most effectively by reading, but also that they can be most easily enticed towards literacy by reading what they like. This creates a catch-22 for teachers, as research demonstrates that texts that reflect and incorporate popular celebrity culture do not facilitate higher order thinking skills to the same degree as more challenging literary texts, an unintended consequence of which appears to be the systematic loss of the linguistic and intellectual tools needed to separate political truth from illusion. As a result, teachers find themselves in the unenviable position of choosing between literacy and those who choose to function as illiterate.

Notwithstanding the eternal vitriol raging between highbrow scholars and the literary déclassé, the twilight-book-coverbenefits of non-literary fiction are myriad, for children – like adults – tend to resist what is forced upon them. They crave personal autonomy and control over what they read. Choice in turn is affected by interest, which is itself influenced (though not fully determined) by individual taste, need and background, and – more often than not – involves selections damningly defined as “pop fiction”.

(As an aside, the very notion of self-selecting anything from popular culture itself raises intriguing philosophical questions. There is a tendency for students and teachers alike to conclude that when students choose their own reading material, they are in fact expressing individual preference, thereby creating a sense of empowerment by bringing to the classroom literary content that their teachers would rather not legitimize. In many instances, however, children are influenced to choose materials that are imposed upon them by the social and cultural norms that surround them. Indeed, this same social determinism could be attributed to self-selection in music, food, art and clothing:)

Yes. Well. Meandering down the path of inquiry again… sorry about that.

Ultimately, however, the fallout from the pop-fiction/literature debate lands far beyond mere pedagogy. Western democracy cannot, by definition, flourish without a fully literate electorate, and if schools are graduating citizens who are incapable of distinguishing between verbal claims and published facts, then political leaders no longer need to be competent, sincere or honest, but only to appear as such. We tend not to pay attention to a political candidate or government minister based on issues, but rather on popularity and newsworthiness: a federal aide with a money-laundering, ex-hooker in his past is newsworthy; a charismatic foreign president with a glamorous, fashion-forward wife is newsworthy; a local politician who proposes serious regulatory reform regarding cross-country oil pipelines, on the other hand, is boring.

As a culture, we have been hooked by what is easy: theatre, full-size (non-tabloid) newspapers and literature have been relegated to the margins of cultural life, where they are ignored as elitist or intractable because they do not provide effortless entertainment. This popularization of culture as mere amusement leads to social “decay”, writes philosopher Hannah Arendt, “and those who promote it are not the Tin Pan Alley composers, but a special kind of intellectual… whose sole function is to organize, disseminate and change cultural objects in order to persuade the masses that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and perhaps as educational as well. There are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining (emphasis mine) version of what they have to say.”

If school is a microcosm of the larger political perspective, then we pander to our children’s need for entertainment in the classroom at a serious social cost. In a cultural age where reality television reigns supreme, and popularity, thinly disguised as “google-hits”, dictates newsworthiness, it behooves us to re-establish complexity in our classrooms and to re-connect our children with the literate, print-based world of ideas.

copyright © 2013 ingrid baier all rights reserved

dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

Here I stand, I can do no other.
– Martin Luther

Georgia O’Keeffe

If you were a nation, would you be at war?

This question downloaded itself—seemingly at random—into my consciousness during a particularly turbulent era in my own life, creating a “eureka” moment that directed me—one baby step at a time—towards a discovery of peace.

I’m still working on it.

During this week of Remembrance Day preparations, I have been considering our assumptions about the way we model peace in the classroom, and I have concluded that Remembrance Day should be more than the theme of the week, more than a poppy project in art, or Dona Nobis Pacem in music. I would never wish to undermine the purpose of Remembrance Day, or its focus on our veterans, but I tend to shy away from the lone perspective and I can’t help wondering whether an approach that engages students at a more sophisticated intellectual level—one that more closely matches the complexity of war itself—might be more useful in preventing war in the first place…

Consider, if you will, the Vietnam War.

Yes, I hear you,

… we’re Canadian, that war doesn’t concern us on Remembrance Day, that was an American crusade…  

but that assumption actually serves to highlight the very ways in which human collectives memorialize military conflict. What most westerners actually mean by “The Vietnam War” would be more accurately described as “The American War in Vietnam,” given that the geographical collective currently identified as Vietnam had essentially been at war since the French colonization of the Indochina Peninsula in the mid-19th century, (a state of affairs complicated during the Second World War when the Japanese interned the French), and by the time Lyndon B. Johnson escalated American involvement in the region in 1963, Vietnam had been the subject of external military domination for more than a century. U.S. troops pulled out of the region in 1975 only to be replaced by invading Chinese forces in 1979, and yet western perception continues to define “The Vietnam War” as the era of American involvement between 1963 and 1975.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Consider as well this particular conflict in light of the purpose of Remembrance Day itself: the nature of the “Vietnam War” sparked an unprecedented reception for American soldiers returning home and it was the first (American) full-scale war in which the perception of soldier as hero was challenged, and personal bitterness became the defining characteristic of a war largely regarded as “meaningless.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

Divorcing our veterans from the conflicts in which they served, as per sanitized public education Remembrance Day services, is as disingenuous as it is ineffective. The truth is, we can’t ethically or logically separate military business from the people who conduct it, and an examination of the effect of political  conflict upon thousands of drafted soldiers may give students a more meaningful perspective regarding the social and psychological realities of serving in a warzone than making papier-mâché poppies.

I want to engage our students in a deeper discussion of these concepts that doesn’t reduce the sacrifice of millions of soldiers to a Friday afternoon art project. I want our kids to actually think about their own peace-time assumptions without trivializing the individuals who comprise the military.

But I also want them to consider the words of John McCrae in light of the conclusions of Wilfred Owen, who died a week before the signing of the Armistice on November 11th, and whose poetry has never been read at any Remembrance Day ceremony I have ever attended.

The question becomes, then, can we direct our students on this kind of inquiry without undermining the very security that the social studies curriculum seeks to promote?

© copyright 2012 ingrid baier all rights reserved

Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

abandoning the space shuttle… a lesson for educators

A Space for Learning

The U.S. Department of Education, and more than a few state-level departments, could take a lesson from NASA.  On a recent evening, I had the opportunity to again hear one of my favorite local celebrities; Kathy Thornton, engineer, professor, UVa associate dean, and a 4-mission retired space shuttle astronaut. Kathy doesn’t hold back when it comes to sharing her informed perspectives on space. She’s earned that right, having been key to several major payload deployments into space including the first service work on the Hubble telescope. She’s a real-deal spacewalker. And, she’s fascinated with the human narrative of exploration. She began her talk with an image of one of the earliest maps of the globe in existence.

So, what does Kathy’s focus on the narrative of human exploration have to do with education?

Kathy Thornton created a metaphor in my mind as she spoke. Here’s what she shared…

View original post 673 more words

when good blogs go bad; or… When. No. One. Gets. Your. Point.

If assessment is textured and finely-grained, and is supportive and diagnostic, I’m all for it. If it’s coarse and simplistic and judgmental and uninformative, then it seems to me always to be negative and have the wrong sort of effects in education.
– Sir Ken Robinson

We talk a lot about creativity in education—what it is, whether it’s innate, how it can be fostered—sprinkling our dialogue with the nauseatingly ubiquitous “think outside the box.”

But we don’t mean it.

Not really.

Much of what we do in education is to model the concept of the one right way, justifying social convention as good citizenship and pedantic conformity as academic rigor.

But is this really in the best interests of students today?

Although we take public education for granted in modern western society, it hasn’t actually been around for all that long; philosophically rooted in the Aristotelian model of deductive reasoning and logical analysis, it emerged a scant 150 years ago to complement the economic underpinnings of the industrial revolution. This model worked extremely well for the Ford Motor Company in 1908, but will it serve our children as they move into the bleak, resource-challenged future that economists and environmentalists predict?

Consider for a moment the social and technological change of the past two decades. My first university papers were painstakingly typed on an antiquated, cast-off Underwood typewriter in my cracker-box dorm room; my first computer had a processing speed of 25 MHz; my first cell phone was the approximate size and weight of a breadbox. The digital natives entering kindergarten this September will graduate in 2025 and will retire in 2072. How can we possibly predict the knowledge, skills and attributes that will best serve them on their time travels? As we move from the information to the conceptual age, our kids will seek employment in an increasingly complex economy that demands innovation, creativity, and the ability to think in divergent ways. They will require “sophisticated talent with global acumen, multicultural fluency, technological literacy, entrepreneurial skills, and the ability to manage increasingly de-layered, disaggregated organizations.” [1]

In short, they will need the ability to think outside the proverbial box that we know and love so well.

Unfortunately, public education is designed to corral kids inside that very box.

Divergent thinking is the ability to depart from conventional thought, to consider a multiplicity of aspects, to make unique connections, and to generate novel ideas and innovative solutions. In their groundbreaking book, Breakpoint and Beyond, (1998, Leadership 2000 Inc), Beth Jarman and George Land document the results of a longitudinal study involving 1600 children tested for divergent thinking in eight categories over a ten-year period. Between the ages of three and five, 98 percent of these children scored in the “creative genius” category for divergent thinking. When they were re-tested five years later, only 32 percent scored in the “creative genius” category for divergent thinking.  Five years later, a mere 10 percent scored within the “creative genius” category for divergent thinking.

What happened to these kids between the ages of five and fifteen that we lost 1,408 creative geniuses along the way?


Ten of years of modeling the one right way.

We are drilling divergent thinking out of our kids, and then, oh irony of ironies, simultaneously trying to relearn it as adults through creativity seminars and professional development, typically with dismal results (in fact, only 2 percent of adults score in the “creative genius” category for divergent thinking).

This doesn’t surprise me.

One of the most interesting things I have noted about school is in the area of special education, where young children with myriad developmental “disorders” (including autism) have individual learning plans that specify daily, monthly and annual goals. Here’s my favorite: “This week, Little Johnny will play with a toy in its intended manner, without verbal prompts, 3 out of 5 times, on 3 out of 5 days.”

If divergent thinking itself is the ability to depart from conventional thought and connections, then isn’t this going in the opposite direction?

Standardized curricula and standardized assessment are set up from the get-go to promote conformity. Indeed, that’s what standardization means: to conform to standards. And when you’re talking about railroad track gauge, this is, indubitably, a good thing. In education, however, the result is a marked reduction in our children’s ability to think outside the box.

Convention, which is nothing more than the way a thing is usually done, reclines comfortably within that box.

So why, you might ask after my last post, (or not) do we follow certain conventions when we write academic papers?

Because people who have more education than we do taught us that writing with a certain scholarly gravity is the right thing, indeed the only thing, to do. Ergo, when we omit a sufficiently reverent tone while discussing The Western Canon, we are subject to a red-pen-spanking.

But think about it.

When people are afraid to challenge their cultural norms, that culture stagnates. If no one ever challenged convention, we wouldn’t have rock ’n’ roll, steampunk spec fiction or Cubism. We’d all be reading Dickens instead of Fifty Shades of Grey (yikes, don’t you hate it when you accidentally unravel your own argument?).  If The Bard himself (arguably the greatest English-language writer in history), were to manifest in London today, he would understand no more than five out of nine words of modern English; language, it’s syntax, vocabulary and style, is—must be—dynamic.

Ultimately, however, this isn’t about an English paper; it’s about the message we are sending students when they fail to conform to convention.

Am I afraid to challenge literary norms and try something new after my Archetypal Whore debacle?

Absolutely not.

But I’m middle-aged and (relatively) secure.

What if an eighteen-year-old frosh got slapped with “excessive vitriol,” on a lower-level English paper? Would she be likely to color outside the lines again?


Maybe not.

The point isn’t the paper itself, the point is that teachers and professors wield enormous power and it behooves us to examine the nature of that power in the context of our own vulnerability. Simply put, our species is in trouble. Planet Earth will undoubtedly survive the next millennium; Homo sapiens may not. As such, educators must consider the unintended consequences of that power for our survival. By carrot-and-sticking kids into intellectual conformity, we are educating them out of the very creative capacities they will need to navigate the next century.

In the meantime, I’ll put my money on the kid who’s playing with his toys in a way not intended by the manufacturer.

(BTW… this is what I was trying to say in my last post; I guess it’s a lot to read between the lines. Mea culpa).

© copyright 2012 ingrid baier all rights reserved

[1] Robinson, Ken. (2001). Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative. Oxford, UK: Capstone Publishing. (41)

the beauty of summative assessment; or why i love english class…

If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.
– George S. Patton

The Archetypal Whore: Hemingway’s Women in The Sun Also Rises

Notwithstanding cameo appearances by waitresses, concierges and loud American tourists, only three female characters populate the pages of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. These characters, in order of appearance, consist of Robert Cohn’s fiancée, Frances Clyne; a “poulet” named Georgette whom Jake Barnes picks up on a Paris street; and Lady Brett Ashley, the woman whom Jake loves passionately but with whom he cannot consummate a physical relationship. Hemingway’s unflattering portrayal of these women ventures beyond his usual domineering harpy DOMINEERING HARPY?? INGRID, TRY TO AVOID STRONG, BIASED LANGUAGE (you mean, avoid the literary equivalent of fire-engine red, capital letters in your critique?) .  ALSO, YOU SHOULD EXPLAIN WHAT YOU MEAN BY “USUAL” BY REFERENCING OTHER TEXTS BY HEMINGWAY (YOU SHOULD ALSO NOTE, TOO, THAT THE CRITICAL READING OF HEMINGWAY’S PORTRAYAL OF WOMEN IS COMPLEX), however, as he brands all three with that most damning of female epithets, the archetypal whore.

While the word ‘prostitution’ naturally conjures up cultural stereotypes of the nocturnal streetwalker, the concept itself is by no means limited to a romanticized vision of the Parisian red light district; prostitution can and does encompass any relationship in which sex is exchanged for financial compensation, whether that compensation takes the form of cash, rent, theatre tickets or fabulous emerald earrings.

Georgette, of course, is a prostitute in the narrowest sense of the word, “an actual harlot” who openly trades sex with strangers for cash. And while Frances and Brett are painted with warts of varying size and shape, they do share one basic common denominator with Georgette: all three women are portrayed not only as sexual objects, but as parasitic sexual objects. Coming from Hemingway, this is not a compliment; in Hemingway’s world, there is no “hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold” and the women in the novel are ultimately portrayed as selfish, self-serving and destructive to the men around them. YOUR LANGUAGE IS SIMPLY TOO HARSH FOR WHAT NEEDS TO BE AN OBJECTIVE CRITICAL DISCUSSION.  I AGREE WITH YOUR NOTION OF HEMINGWAY’S OBJECTIFICATION OF WOMEN, BUT YOU ARE STRETCHING THE HOOKER/WHORE ANALOGY TOO FAR.  ONE THING YOU MIGHT WANT TO KNOW IS THAT HEMINGWAY BASED HIS CHARACTERIZATION OF BRETT (AND OTHER SUCH WOMEN) ON HIS ACTUAL UNREQUITED LOVE AND ADMIRATION OF GRETA GARBO. (and this has what to do with anything? Greta Garbo was a hooker with a heart of gold?) YOU MIGHT ALSO NOTE HIS USE OF THE QUOTATION FROM GERTRUDE STEIN (CERTAINLY NOT SEXUAL OBJECT).  HEMINGWAY’S MISOGYNY IS A LARGE ISSUE IN CRITICISM OF HIS WRITING, SO YOU DO HAVE QUITE A STRONG CASE TO MAKE HERE.  HOWEVER, YOU NEED TO TEMPER IT WITH A LARGER READING OF THE TEXT ITSELF, NOTING THE WOUNDED NATURE (because a wounded nature justifies misogyny?) OF THE CHARACTERS THEMSELVES, THE POST-WAR EFFECTS OF TRAUMA, THE EVOLVING NOTION OF WOMEN’S INDEPENDENCE, AND ALSO SUCH THINGS AS THE NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE ITSELF (ALL CHARACTERS ARE PRESENTED THROUGH THE BIASED LENS OF JAKE—AND THIS IS CRITICALLY PROBLEMATIC (why, yes it is, which is why I refer specifically to it later in the essay…)

Consider first the light in which Hemingway casts Frances Clyne. On at least three occasions, he makes it crystal clear that Frances has pursued the hapless Robert Cohn for reasons that have nothing to do with love—or even sex—and everything to do with personal gain. He bluntly tells the reader that “Cohn had been taken in hand by a lady who hoped to rise with the magazine” (13). This sentence describes a woman who has chosen her mate for the singular purpose of furthering her career, and the use of the overtly sexual expression “taken in hand” is unlikely to be coincidental. When the magazine fails and Frances feels disgust for Cohn, she nevertheless pursues the relationship in order to “get what there was to get while there was still something available” (13). Frances’s intentions are clarified further when she finds her looks going and her attitude changes from one of “careless exploitation” to the determination that Cohn should marry her. Once again, Hemingway’s choice and placement of vocabulary underscore his meaning when he follows this information immediately with the sentence, “during this time Robert’s mother had settled an allowance on him…” (13).

Most telling of all, however, is the conversation Frances has with Jake after Cohn has ended his relationship with Frances: “…he’s got money, and he’s got a rich mother… And I haven’t got any money at all” (54). Although she is being abandoned after a three- year relationship, Frances is unconcerned with the loss of the man himself and her distress stems solely from her lost financial security. Shortly thereafter, her final scene with Robert involves a direct referral to his money: “I’m going to England… Robert’s sending me. He’s going to give me two hundred pounds” (55).

In a corporate setting, this would be called severance pay.

The most significant female character in the book, Lady Brett Ashley, on first examination appears to be the antithesis of the prostitute, sleeping with whomever she wants, whenever she wants, with no regard or consideration for her male counterparts, but this prima facie conclusion is misleading. While Brett appears to be motivated by an overactive libido, this appearance is undermined by the fact that she never sleeps with waiters or steer handlers or leather-faced Basque peasants. She sleeps with money and with roués who have the expectation of money. INTERESTING OBSERVATION (in the nicest possible way, of course) Even her bankrupt Scottish fiancé is “going to be rich as hell one day” (46) when he comes into his inheritance.

Consider her lovers: her ex-husband is rich and titled; Count Mippipololous is rich and titled; Robert Cohn is merely rich; Pedro Romano, who tries to give Brett “a lot of money” (246) is, at the very least, well-heeled. PARAGRAPHING

Hemingway clearly establishes that Brett has no money of her own. Her fiancé, Mike Campbell, states that “she never has any money” (234), and Brett herself confirms this when she summons Jake to Madrid because she “…didn’t have a sou to go away and leave him” (246). Despite having no visible means of support, Brett manages to trot around the continent in the lap of sybaritic luxury, primarily in the company of men who are more than happy to pick up the tab. Indeed, Brett’s very infidelity underscores her subtle sex-for-support mentality: that Mike fails to satisfy her emotionally and/or sexually is implicit in her string of affairs. Why then, is she engaged to him in the first place? Bankrupt or not, he foots the bill.

To dispute this proposition, one could argue that Brett’s refusal to accept money from her lovers on at least two occasions automatically excludes her from the prostitute archetype. Brett refuses the Count’s offer to go to Biarritz for $10,000 (41) and she refuses Romero’s money when he leaves her at the hotel in Madrid (246). What she is actually rejecting here, however, is not the role of harlot, but the label. She shrinks from being treated overtly as a prostitute, just as she shrinks from the notion of explicit solicitation involving a direct financial transaction. Indeed, Hemingway’s use of the concept of prostitution, as opposed to the word itself, is deliberately understated; he uses a finer paintbrush to portray Lady Ashley, but ultimately her picture is the same.

As real people, these three women would undoubtedly amount to more than the sum of their faults, but through the biased observations of his protagonist, Jake Barnes, Hemingway deliberately presents them as financially dependent social leeches.

GRADE:  80 (yikes, that’s barely a “B”)


and that, boys and girls, is what you get for having an opinion…

© copyright 2012 ingrid baier all rights reserved


Hemingway, Ernest. (1926). The Sun Also Rises. New York, NY: Scribner.