Philanthropy is funding serious journalism in the US, it could work for Australia too


Bill Birnbauer, Monash University

Non-profit investigative journalism centres have invigorated watchdog reporting in the United States over the past decade, a period commonly associated with despair over the state of serious journalism. My research attributes a sharp increase in the number of such centres in the United States directly to philanthropic funding, made more attractive by tax deductibility, and this same model could work in Australia.

This rescue mission of quality journalism has seen philanthropically funded news centres winning the most prestigious awards in journalism including several Pulitzer Prizes. Millions of Americans access stories written by non-profit investigative journalists, either on non-profit websites or published in mainstream media such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, PBS and other outlets.

Three key ways exist to fund the labour intensive and time consuming work of investigative journalism. The traditional media model, which today is characterised by market failure. Funding by government such as the ABC’s Four Corners program – a model that has worked well in Australia but that elsewhere raises questions of independence and funding security.

And there’s funding by foundations, wealthy benefactors and individuals. That’s different from crowd sourcing which may finance a specific story project but does not fund the necessary infrastructure (office, computers, rent, salaries etc.) or build the journalistic capacity required for a sustainable model.

In the United States, there are about 150 independent non-profit centres doing investigative and public interest journalism. The budgets of the biggest centres such as ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting are about US$10 million a year; smaller centres less than US$100,000.

Non-profit investigative and public interest news centres see their work as a form of public service. In the United States, these centres are recognised by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as eligible for non-profit status under Section 501©(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Non-profit status enables these organisations to avoid federal and some state taxes and donations to them can be tax deductible. The IRS does not have a distinct category for media organisations. Instead, investigative and public interest news organisations attract non-profit status under a broad education category.

There has been a profound cultural transformation in the way mainstream media organisations regard non-profit centre stories. Collaborations between legacy and non-profit media are commonplace in the United States because non-profit journalists have the same ethics, news values and editorial practices as journalists in the commercial and public media.

Foundation-funded journalism does not come close to replacing what has been lost due to staff and other cuts by mainstream media since the financial crisis. But it has been embraced by key media outlets as a means of boosting the quality of their stories. Non-profit centres do not compete with mainstream media; they complement it.

How this could work in Australia

A recent study found only a handful of Australian not-for-profit news organisations have been granted deductible gift recipient status by the Australian Tax Office and that news organisations face seemingly challenging obstacles in gaining such status. This may well discourage the creation of news organisations.

Given the diminished resources of Australian media to hold power to account, other measures to bolster democratic processes should be considered. Investigative journalism cannot readily be monetised.

It is expensive to do, takes a long time, sparks legal action and upsets powerful interests. It takes a big commitment by media organisations.

But the societal benefits can be huge: lives saved, corruption exposed, environments improved, governments and corporate interests held accountable. A recent book by a media economist found that for each US$1 spent on a specified investigative story, US$287 in policy benefits resulted.

Tax deductibility for independent journalism centres would provide incentives for individuals and philanthropic organisations to donate to producers of quality journalism.

The availability of tax deductions has the potential to increase the sum of quality journalism in Australia, enhance our democratic processes and better serve the community. I believe legacy and digital media in future would enter collaborative partnerships with non-profit investigative and public interest centres, ensuring a wider distribution and impact of their stories.

The Public Interest Journalism Foundation has some recommendations for the Australian Tax Office to consider when it comes to determining who should be granted deductible gift recipient status.

First is the history and background of the journalist who is applying, particularly their adherence to professional and ethical standards and whether the organisation they work for has conventional editorial practices. The organisation should create stories that are in the public interest and educate audiences rather than covering news of popular interest.

Another is introducing a commitment that the media nonprofit lists funding sources, including publication of the identities of donations of more than A$1,000, on its website. It also says anonymous grants, or funding from political and other entities where the source of the funding is not transparent, should be banned.

The foundation emphasises that individuals and organisations that advocate particular causes, should not be granted non-profit status under any media category.

No-one knows how sustainable the non-profit model will prove over time. However since 2007, I estimate that more than US$350 million has been donated to US non-profit investigative news centres; others have said closer to US$500 million.

The ConversationWe are in the midst of financial and technological disruption of traditional media models. No-one has yet worked out how to bolster accountability journalism that is essential to healthy democracies. The United States’ experience to date offers a potential solution that we should not ignore.

Bill Birnbauer, Adjunct senior lecturer , School of Media, Film and Journalism, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What would Mark Twain think of Donald Trump?



Image 20170302 14706 11eclga
Twain was an opinionated, prolific commentator on the personalities and political issues of his day.
Terry Ballard/flickr, CC BY

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, University of California, Irvine

Thanks to the criticisms they’ve leveled in articles, interviews, tweets and letters to the editor, we know that many contemporary authors, from Philip Roth to J.K. Rowling, have a dim view of Donald J. Trump. The Conversation

But what would leading writers of the past have made of him?

We can only speculate (well, until someone invents a Rowling-like potion capable of bringing long dead writers back to life). But if I could ask one dead writer what he thinks of Trump, it would be Mark Twain, my favorite American author and someone whose travel articles I’ve written about in the past. While Twain is best-known for his novels, he was also an opinionated, prolific commentator on the personalities and political issues of his day.

I suspect Twain would have found Trump the showman – the pre-2016 version – a fascinating figure. He would have been appalled, however, by much about Trump the president.

A champion of irreverence

I have no doubt about two things that Twain would find objectionable: the way that Trump has lashed out at TV sketches that mock him and his use of the phrase “enemy of the American people” to describe news organizations that criticize him.

Twain felt that no one was too grand to be satirized.

“Irreverence,” he wrote, “is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.”

In America’s press, he admired its tendency to be “irreverent toward pretty much everything.” Even if this led to the newspapers laughing “one good king to death,” it was a small price to pay if they also “laugh a thousand cruel and infamous shams and superstitions into the grave.”

But pondering what, beyond this, Twain would make of Trump is an apt, tricky and timely exercise.

It’s apt because one of Twain’s novels, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” features a man who travels through time.

It’s tricky because Twain’s views on many issues, including race, changed during his lifetime. Hence there are different Twains – as well as different Trumps – to consider.

Finally, imagining how Twain would view Trump is timely because when some have tried to look to history for an equivalent political moment, they’ll sometimes point to two decades – the 1880s and the 1900s – that happened to also be important in Twain’s life and career.

One of these Trumps is not like the other

The Twain of the 1880s would have probably found the Trump of a decade ago – a brash, self-promoting businessman known for his candid comments and penchant for media attention – fascinating. He may have even befriended him.

But the staunchly anti-imperialist Twain of two decades later would have been as disdainful of Trump now as he was of the man he once called “far and away the worst president we have ever had” – the muscular nationalist Teddy Roosevelt.

My basis for the first claim comes from Twain’s friendship with a flashy, boastful Trump-like showman: Buffalo Bill Cody. Among the most successful entertainment impresarios of his day, Cody founded and starred in a traveling Wild West Show, which drew large crowds in America and Europe and was famous for its reenactments of legendary battles.

In 1884, Twain sent a letter to Cody praising his Wild West Show as a realistic, “distinctly American” form of entertainment. In Cody’s spectacle – as in “The Apprentice” – the emcee was a famous man who played up a version of himself, capitalizing on the audience’s awareness that he had done things in real life that he did in the show: firing guns, in one case; firing people, in the other.

An advertisement for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a circus-like show that toured the nation.
NPGpics/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

During this period, Twain wrote four of his best-known books. It was also a time of intense nativism in the United States. Many white laborers, especially in western states, became convinced that Chinese laborers, who had crossed the Pacific in large numbers during the Gold Rush, were unfairly depriving them of jobs that rightfully belonged to them.

This prejudice triggered several violent outbursts – such as the 1871 Los Angeles riot, which cost 18 Chinese men their lives – and led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade the entry of Chinese workers to the United States.

Twain mocked the hypocrisy of the Exclusion Act: Just as the U.S. government was preventing Chinese from coming here, American traders and missionaries in China were denouncing the Chinese government for hindering their pursuit of profits and converts in the Middle Kingdom.

Some critics of Trump’s executive order on immigration say it “eerily recalls” the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. In both cases, we see fear, stereotypes and prejudice fomenting an environment in which some groups are deemed less worthy of rights and protections – indeed, less human – than others.

In one of his early works, 1872’s “Roughing It,” Twain was already castigating those who bullied and abused Chinese immigrants as the “scum of the population.” His disdain for xenophobia and prejudice only grew later in life.

He would be a fierce critic of Trump’s nativist rhetoric even if – perhaps especially if – he had previously praised Trump the entertainer.

Twain targets Teddy

By the early 1900s, Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. Trump – whom some have compared with Roosevelt – has said that when he speaks of trying to “Make America Great Again,” one period he has in mind is around the turn of the 20th century.

A 1904 New York World cartoon criticizes Teddy Roosevelt’s militaristic and imperialistic impulses.
Wikimedia Commons

Around this time, Twain was not just a celebrated author but a leading figure on the lecture circuit. As both a speaker and an essayist, he was known for his satirical jabs. A key target of his became American expansionists, whom he skewered in, among other works, the 1901 essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” which lambasts Americans for committing violence across the Pacific under the guise of “civilizing” backward peoples.

In 1900, there were two U.S. military campaigns underway in China and the Philippines. In China, U.S. soldiers joined forces with a host of other countries to fight the anti-Christian Boxer militants and the Qing dynasty. In the Philippines, American troops brutally suppressed Filipinos who sought independence.

Teddy Roosevelt was an enthusiastic supporter of these campaigns. The main goal in the Philippines and in China, Roosevelt insisted, was not enrichment but defeating “barbarous” enemies.

Twain disagreed. In his caustic “Salutation Speech from the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth,” Twain dismissed the military campaigns as “pirate raids” that “besmirched” Christianity’s reputation.

Where Roosevelt saw the Boxers as just the latest wave of savages to be suppressed, Twain viewed them as patriots defending their threatened homeland, spelling out his position in essays, personal letters and public lectures.

Sticking to his guns

The anti-imperialist Twain would likely have criticized other recent presidents. He wouldn’t have approved of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, nor of the way Barack Obama employed drones.

Nonetheless, the writer would find Trump’s disparaging of Muslims and various other groups on the campaign trail – in addition to the immigration ban – particularly distasteful.

He wasn’t afraid to change his mind, and to admit that he had been wrong (as Trump is loath to do). He briefly supported the Spanish-American War, for example, but then spoke openly about how jingoism had blinded his moral concerns. And as American studies professor John Haddad has detailed, Twain’s previous praise for Cody didn’t stop him from walking out of a Wild West Show performance in early 1901. Cody had performed a reenactment of a 1900 Chinese battle, uniformly depicting the foreign invaders as heroes and the Boxers as barbaric villains. Twain thought his old friend was deeply misguided – and he let him know.

In 1901, Twain wasn’t alone in holding and expressing fervently anti-imperialist views. But he was in a minority. Most Americans felt that allied actions in China and U.S. ones in the Philippines were completely justified. So did many famous writers of the time, from Rudyard Kipling to “Battle Hymn of the Republic” lyricist Julia Ward Howe.

That’s one difference from today: Twain would find himself firmly in the literary mainstream – and would be far from alone in saying that a president who wanted to govern a truly “great” America should not look to the country at the turn of the 20th century for inspiration.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Professor of Chinese and World History, University of California, Irvine

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ can inspire those who fear Trump’s America



Image 20170130 7685 15qhqab
A Soviet-era stamp depicts a scene from Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace.’
Wikimedia Commons

Ani Kokobobo, University of Kansas

As a professor of Russian literature, I couldn’t help but notice that comedian Aziz Ansari was inadvertently channeling novelist Leo Tolstoy when he claimed that “change doesn’t come from presidents” but from “large groups of angry people.” The Conversation

In one of his greatest novels, “War and Peace” (1869), Tolstoy insists that history is propelled forward not by the actions of individual leaders but by the random alignment of events and communities of people.

The unexpected electoral victory of Donald Trump last November was a political surprise of seismic proportions, shocking pollsters and pundits alike. Myriad explanations have been provided. Few are conclusive. But for those who disagree with his policies and feel powerless as this uncertain moment unfolds, Tolstoy’s epic novel can offer a helpful perspective.

The illusory power of an egomaniacal invader

Set between 1805 and 1817 – during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and its immediate aftermath – “War and Peace” depicts a nation in crisis. As Napoleon invades Russia, massive casualties are accompanied by social and institutional breakdown. But readers also see everyday Russian life, with its romances, basic joys and anxieties.

Tolstoy looks at events from a historical distance, exploring the motivations of the destructive invasion – and for Russia’s eventual victory, despite Napoleon’s superior military strength.

Tolstoy clearly loathes Napoleon. He presents the great emperor as an egomaniacal, petulant child who views himself as the center of the world and a conqueror of nations. Out of touch with reality, Napoleon is so certain of his personal greatness that he assumes everyone must either be a supporter or take pleasure in his victories. In one of the novel’s most satisfying moments, the narcissistic emperor enters the gates of conquered Moscow expecting a royal welcome, only to discover that the inhabitants have fled and refuse to pledge allegiance.

Meanwhile, the heart of a novel about one of Russia’s greatest military victories does not rest with Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I or the army commander, General Kutuzov. Instead, it rests with a simple, loving peasant named Platon Karataev who is sent to fight the French against his will.

But even though Platon has little control over his situation, he has a greater ability to touch others than the authoritarian Napoleon, who only sets a pernicious example. For example, Platon offers the motherless hero, Pierre Bezukhov, an almost feminine and maternal kindness and shows him that the answer to his spiritual searching lies not in glory and blistering speeches but in human connection and our inherent connectivity. Pierre soon has a dream about a globe, in which every person represents a tiny droplet temporarily detached from a larger sphere of water. Signifying our shared essence, it hints at the extent to which Tolstoy believed we are all connected.

The case of Platon and his spiritual power is only one example of the grassroots power of individuals in “War and Peace.” At other times, Tolstoy shows how individual soldiers can make more of a difference in the battlefield by reacting quickly to the circumstances than generals or emperors. Events are decided in the heat of the moment. By the time couriers return to Napoleon – and he boldly reasserts his conquering vision – the chaos of battle has already shifted in a new direction. He is too removed from the real lives of soldiers – and, implicitly, people – to really drive the course of history.

In depicting Napoleon’s campaign this way, Tolstoy seems to reject Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory of history – the idea that events are driven by the will of extraordinary leaders. Tolstoy, in contrast, insists that when privileging extraordinary figures, we ignore the vast, grassroots strength of ordinary individuals.

In a sense, this vision of history is appropriate for a novelist. Novels often focus on ordinary people who don’t make it into the history books. Nonetheless, to the novelist, their lives and dreams possess a power and value equal to those of “great men.” In this dynamic, there are no conquerors, heroes or saviors; there are simply people with the power to save themselves, or not.

So in Tolstoy’s view, it is not Napoleon who determines the course of history; rather, it’s the elusive spirit of the people, that moment when individuals almost inadvertently come together in shared purpose. On the other hand, kings are slaves to history, only powerful when they’re able to channel this sort of collective spirit. Napoleon often thinks he is issuing bold orders, but Tolstoy shows the emperor is merely engaging in the performance of power.

A united, public opposition

All of these ideas are relevant today, when many who did not vote for President Trump are concerned about how his campaign rhetoric is shaping his presidency and the country.

Obviously, the president of the United States has tremendous power. But here is where “War and Peace” can provide some perspective, helping to demystify this power and sort out its more performative aspects.

There’s quite a bit of action coming from the White House, with President Trump furiously signing one executive order after another before the cameras. It’s hard to say how many of these executive orders can go into immediate effect right away. Many – like the recent ban on immigrants from seven Muslim majority countries – are certainly affecting lives. But others will also require legislative and institutional support. We hear every day about government workers and departments, mayors and governors vowing not to follow President Trump’s orders.

While those who oppose Trump might not have philosopher peasants like Platon Karataev at their disposal, mass marches and protests broadcast united opposition – as do all the petitions, safety pins, pink pussy hats and rogue tweets. Some of this might be derided as #slacktivism. But collectively they map out tenuous networks of connections among individuals.

Thinking in essentialist terms, Tolstoy felt that Napoleon failed to destroy Russia because the collective interests of Russian people aligned against him: a majority of people – wittingly or unwittingly – acted to undermine his agenda. Is it possible that we will see a similar alignment of grassroots interests now? Could men, women, people of color, immigrants and LGBTQIA individuals make their voices heard against some of President Trump’s executive actions, which may threaten many on a personal level?

I can’t see Tolstoy wearing a pink pussy hat. But always a voice of defiance, he would have certainly approved of resistance.

Ani Kokobobo, Assistant Professor of Russian Literature, University of Kansas

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ can inspire those who fear Trump’s America


Ani Kokobobo, University of Kansas

As a professor of Russian literature, I couldn’t help but notice that comedian Aziz Ansari was inadvertently channeling novelist Leo Tolstoy when he claimed that “change doesn’t come from presidents” but from “large groups of angry people.”

In one of his greatest novels, “War and Peace” (1869), Tolstoy insists that history is propelled forward not by the actions of individual leaders but by the random alignment of events and communities of people.

The unexpected electoral victory of Donald Trump last November was a political surprise of seismic proportions, shocking pollsters and pundits alike. Myriad explanations have been provided. Few are conclusive. But for those who disagree with his policies and feel powerless as this uncertain moment unfolds, Tolstoy’s epic novel can offer a helpful perspective.

The illusory power of an egomaniacal invader

Set between 1805 and 1817 – during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and its immediate aftermath – “War and Peace” depicts a nation in crisis. As Napoleon invades Russia, massive casualties are accompanied by social and institutional breakdown. But readers also see everyday Russian life, with its romances, basic joys and anxieties.

Tolstoy looks at events from a historical distance, exploring the motivations of the destructive invasion – and for Russia’s eventual victory, despite Napoleon’s superior military strength.

Tolstoy clearly loathes Napoleon. He presents the great emperor as an egomaniacal, petulant child who views himself as the center of the world and a conqueror of nations. Out of touch with reality, Napoleon is so certain of his personal greatness that he assumes everyone must either be a supporter or take pleasure in his victories. In one of the novel’s most satisfying moments, the narcissistic emperor enters the gates of conquered Moscow expecting a royal welcome, only to discover that the inhabitants have fled and refuse to pledge allegiance.

Meanwhile, the heart of a novel about one of Russia’s greatest military victories does not rest with Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I or the army commander, General Kutuzov. Instead, it rests with a simple, loving peasant named Platon Karataev who is sent to fight the French against his will.

But even though Platon has little control over his situation, he has a greater ability to touch others than the authoritarian Napoleon, who only sets a pernicious example. For example, Platon offers the motherless hero, Pierre Bezukhov, an almost feminine and maternal kindness and shows him that the answer to his spiritual searching lies not in glory and blistering speeches but in human connection and our inherent connectivity. Pierre soon has a dream about a globe, in which every person represents a tiny droplet temporarily detached from a larger sphere of water. Signifying our shared essence, it hints at the extent to which Tolstoy believed we are all connected.

The case of Platon and his spiritual power is only one example of the grassroots power of individuals in “War and Peace.” At other times, Tolstoy shows how individual soldiers can make more of a difference in the battlefield by reacting quickly to the circumstances than generals or emperors. Events are decided in the heat of the moment. By the time couriers return to Napoleon – and he boldly reasserts his conquering vision – the chaos of battle has already shifted in a new direction. He is too removed from the real lives of soldiers – and, implicitly, people – to really drive the course of history.

In depicting Napoleon’s campaign this way, Tolstoy seems to reject Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory of history – the idea that events are driven by the will of extraordinary leaders. Tolstoy, in contrast, insists that when privileging extraordinary figures, we ignore the vast, grassroots strength of ordinary individuals.

In a sense, this vision of history is appropriate for a novelist. Novels often focus on ordinary people who don’t make it into the history books. Nonetheless, to the novelist, their lives and dreams possess a power and value equal to those of “great men.” In this dynamic, there are no conquerors, heroes or saviors; there are simply people with the power to save themselves, or not.

So in Tolstoy’s view, it is not Napoleon who determines the course of history; rather, it’s the elusive spirit of the people, that moment when individuals almost inadvertently come together in shared purpose. On the other hand, kings are slaves to history, only powerful when they’re able to channel this sort of collective spirit. Napoleon often thinks he is issuing bold orders, but Tolstoy shows the emperor is merely engaging in the performance of power.

A united, public opposition

All of these ideas are relevant today, when many who did not vote for President Trump are concerned about how his campaign rhetoric is shaping his presidency and the country.

Obviously, the president of the United States has tremendous power. But here is where “War and Peace” can provide some perspective, helping to demystify this power and sort out its more performative aspects.

There’s quite a bit of action coming from the White House, with President Trump furiously signing one executive order after another before the cameras. It’s hard to say how many of these executive orders can go into immediate effect right away. Many – like the recent ban on immigrants from seven Muslim majority countries – are certainly affecting lives. But others will also require legislative and institutional support. We hear every day about government workers and departments, mayors and governors vowing not to follow President Trump’s orders.

While those who oppose Trump might not have philosopher peasants like Platon Karataev at their disposal, mass marches and protests broadcast united opposition – as do all the petitions, safety pins, pink pussy hats and rogue tweets. Some of this might be derided as #slacktivism. But collectively they map out tenuous networks of connections among individuals.

Thinking in essentialist terms, Tolstoy felt that Napoleon failed to destroy Russia because the collective interests of Russian people aligned against him: a majority of people – wittingly or unwittingly – acted to undermine his agenda. Is it possible that we will see a similar alignment of grassroots interests now? Could men, women, people of color, immigrants and LGBTQIA individuals make their voices heard against some of President Trump’s executive actions, which may threaten many on a personal level?

I can’t see Tolstoy wearing a pink pussy hat. But always a voice of defiance, he would have certainly approved of resistance.

The Conversation

Ani Kokobobo, Assistant Professor of Russian Literature, University of Kansas

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Most Popular Library Ebooks in the USA for 2016


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the most popular library ebooks in the USA for 2016. Do any of our readers read library ebooks? If so, what has your experience been like? Let us know in the comments.

For more read:
http://goodereader.com/blog/digital-library-news/these-are-the-most-popular-library-ebooks-of-2016

What’s behind America’s insistence on instilling grit in kids?


Paige Gray, Fort Lewis College

In the same way that actual grit accumulates in the cracks and crevices of the landscape, our cultural insistence on possessing grit has gradually come to the forefront of child-rearing and education reform.

Recent academic papers on grit include the education-leadership dissertation project of New England College’s Austin Garofalo, titled “Teaching the Character Competencies of Growth Mindset and Grit To Increase Student Motivation in the Classroom,” and UMass Dartmouth professor Kenneth J. Saltman’s “The Austerity School: Grit, Character, and the Privatization of Public Education.”

In contrast to the range of perspectives on grit offered in academia, the popular media will often frame it as an essential characteristic for healthy, productive maturation – and certainly a necessary component for academic success.

In 2012, Paul Tough’s book on the topic, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” was a critical and commercial success, earning positive acclaim from Kirkus Reviews, The Economist, The New York Times, Slate – and even former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

And last year, in a column for The Washington Post, Judy Holland, editor and founder of ParentInsider.com, wrote that the “coddled kids” of the “‘self-esteem’ movement in the 1980s” produced children who were “softer, slower and less likely to persevere.”

“Grit is defined as passion and perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals,” she continued. “Grit determines who survives at West Point, who finals at the National Spelling Bee, and who is tough enough not to be a quitter.”

As someone who specializes in children’s literature and cultural attitudes toward childhood, I’ve been interested in this insistence on fostering grit. I’ve also taught writing and literature over the past year to West Point cadets, who, it seems, must learn how to acquire this somewhat elusive quality.

But I can’t help but wonder if we’re talking about grit in an unproductive way. And maybe one of the problems is that it’s presented as a concept: abstract, indeterminate and somewhat magical or mysterious.

How can we define grit, or the idea behind it, in a way that means something? What if we’re not framing the discussion of grit in the right way, since grit can mean something entirely different for a kid living in the Chicago’s South Side than it does for a kid living in the suburbs?

A slippery buzzword?

In 2014, National Public Radio’s Tovia Smith looked at how educators and researchers are using the concept of grit in the classroom. She interviewed MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Angela Duckworth, associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” which was published in May. In it, she considers how teaching grit can revolutionize students’ educational development.

“This quality of being able to sustain your passions, and also work really hard at them, over really disappointingly long periods of time, that’s grit,” Duckworth told Smith in the NPR segment. Expanding on the national significance of grit, Duckworth added, “It’s a very, I think, American idea in some ways – really pursuing something against all odds.”

But more recently, Duckworth has backtracked from some of her earlier advocacy. In March she told NPR’s Anya Kamenetz that the “enthusiasm” for grit “is getting ahead of the science.” And Duckworth has since resigned from the board of a California education group that’s working to find a way to measure grit.

As Kamenetz notes, part of the problem with buzzwords like “grit” – and the attempt to measure or implement them in the classroom – “is inherent in the slippery language we use to describe them.”

Is grit something that can even be taught? Can we measure it? Is it a trait or a skill? If a quality like grit is a trait, then it may be genetic, which would make it difficult to simply instill in kids. If it’s a skill or habit, only then can it be coached or taught.

Grit’s place in children’s literature

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that grit – the kind that describes “firmness or solidity of character; indomitable spirit or pluck; stamina” – originated as American slang in the early 19th century. It’s easy to see its kinship to the other definition of grit: “minute particles of stone or sand, as produced by attrition or disintegration.”

It’s come to represent a refusal to give up, no matter the odds – a refusal to wash away, break down or completely dissolve.

American children’s literature has long had “gritty” protagonists: characters who’ve arguably instilled moralistic values of bravery, industry and integrity in generations of readers.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, another word featured in the Oxford English Dictionary’s “grit” definition figured more prominently in mainstream children’s literature – pluck.

Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn both exhibited pluck, seen in their wily charm, adventurous spirit and underlying moral conscience. But the notion of pluck, grit’s forefather, was largely popularized in Horatio Alger’s stories, which are known for their hardworking young male protagonists trying to eke out livings and educate themselves within the American urban landscape.

“Dick knew he must study hard, and he dreaded it,” Alger wrote in his landmark text, “Ragged Dick.” “But Dick had good pluck. He meant to learn, nevertheless, and resolved to buy a book with his first spare earnings.”

Grit goes mainstream with Charles Portis’ plucky protagonist Mattie Ross.
Author provided

Though he hates it, Dick studies hard because he believes he needs an education “to win a respectable position in the world.”

The determined, plucky child figure arguably evolved into one of grit through Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’ 1968 western novel of revenge set in the late 19th century.

The novel quickly establishes Mattie’s resilience and resolve, which solidify after the murder of Mattie’s father. Mattie, reflecting on her doggedness, says, “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood.”

Grit to what end?

Mattie Ross and Horatio Alger’s clever street boys helped shape an American ideal of youthful grit. But these fictional characters asserted their grit because they had goals. What good is grit if you feel like you have nothing to strive for?

In early children’s literature for African-Americans, publications such as W.E.B. Du Bois’ monthly youth magazine The Brownies’ Book attempted to also give its young readers an idea of what they could achieve. While much of American children’s literature during the turn of the last century – and even today – filters ideas of grit through the perspective of the middle-class white child, The Brownies’ Book specifically addressed the lives and experiences of African-American children. First published in 1920, the magazine encouraged African-American children to fully embrace their cultural identities, participate in their communities and become citizens of the world.

The Brownies’ Book was a monthly magazine for African-American kids.
Author provided

But that was 1920, during the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance, a time when the work of African-American artists, activists and thinkers brought newfound optimism to the push for racial equality and cultural pride. Over the course of the 20th century, circumstances for many children of minority communities changed. As Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has explained, a public policy of ghettoization has left many urban school districts impoverished and underserved, with few examples of hope or achievement outside the drug trade. Yes, kids could develop grit – they could find confidence, diligence and resilience outside the law – a version of grit demonized by mainstream society.

David Simon’s Baltimore-set HBO series “The Wire” illustrates the narrow possibilities for black kids growing up in the city. Grit, as depicted in “The Wire,” comes via success in the drug trade. This kind of grit has the bottom line of economic gain. It’s not about a search for identity, cultural understanding or artistry because kids don’t think they have the same opportunities and potential highlighted in the issues of The Brownies’ Book.

A 2014 study from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights found that in America, there still exists a pattern of racial inequality in public schools, whether it’s course offerings, teacher performance or student expulsion. These statistics – the same as those echoed in “The Wire” – leave many somber, dejected, angry or, too often, complacent.

So how can students have – or learn – grit when all kids face different realities – different struggles, different dreams and different social structures?

Yes, it’s important to reevaluate the education system, as monumental a task that may be. But all institutional or systemic change starts with the individual.

“A lot of what ‘The Wire’ was about sounds cynical to people,” Simon said in a 2009 Vice interview. “I think it’s very cynical about institutions and their ability to reform. I don’t deny that, but I don’t think it’s at all cynical about people.”

Maybe the first step is to think of grit not as something to cultivate in students. Instead, maybe grit is the debris – the dream – that lingers. If children and young adults get that piece of grit stuck to them, they’ll be motivated to keep going until the grit is gone.

Perhaps the job of adults, then, isn’t to tell kids to buckle down and work through adversity. It’s about opening their eyes to the innumerable possibilities before them – so they’ll want to persevere in the first place.


Correction: In an earlier version, the academic papers on grit were conflated with popular media coverage. A paragraph has been rearranged and a phrase added to differentiate the two.

The Conversation

Paige Gray, Visiting Assistant Professor, Fort Lewis College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Dostoevsky predicted Trump’s America


Ani Kokobobo, University of Kansas

As a professor of Russian literature, I’ve come to realize that it’s never a good sign when real life resembles a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel.

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, with its riotous rhetoric and steady stream of scandals, calls to mind Dostoevsky’s most political novel, “Demons,” written in 1872. In it, the writer wanted to warn readers about the destructive force of demagoguery and unchecked rhetoric, and his cautionary messages – largely influenced by 19th-century Russian political chaos – resonate in our present political climate.

To show his readers just how bad things could get if they didn’t pay attention, Dostoevsky linked his political nightmare to unhinged impulses and the breakdown of civility.

A passion for destruction

Dostoevsky was as addicted to newspapers as some of us are to social media, and he often plucked crises and violence right from the headlines, refashioning them for his fiction.

Russia during the 1860s and 1870s – the heyday of the author’s career – was experiencing massive socioeconomic instability. Tsar Alexander II’s Emancipation of the Serfs freed Russian peasants from a form of class bondage, while the subsequent Great Reforms aimed to restructure the executive and judidical branches, as well as the military, tax code and education system. The reforms were supposed to modernize the country by dragging it out of the caste-like system of estates and legal privilege. But it didn’t do much to improve the economic lot of the peasant.

It was a reversal of America’s present political landscape. While today there’s simmering discontent from the right, in 19th-century Russia it was leftists who were enraged. They were angered by the reforms for not going far enough and had lost hope in the government’s ability to produce meaningful change.

Sergei Nechaev influenced Dostoevsky’s Pyotr Verkhovensky.
Wikimedia Commons

One of the only unifying ideas among the more radical left-wing political factions of the period was the belief that the tsarist regime must be eliminated. Important public figures, like Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, advocated for destruction of the status quo as an end greater than all ideologies. As Bakunin famously exhorted: “The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too.”

Bakunin’s conviction that a new world could rise only from the ashes of tsarism was actually put into practice by his one-time disciple, Sergei Nechaev, who was the inspiration for Dostoevsky’s protagonist in “Demons,” Pyotr Verkhovensky.

A slippery slope from incivility to violence

In 1869, Nechaev orchestrated the murder of a young student, an event that so shocked and angered Dostoevsky that it became the basis for “Demons.”

The novel begins in a boring provincial backwater inhabited by middle-aged people and ineffectual young liberals, all engrossed in their romantic lives. Pyotr Verkhovensky arrives and persuades many of these same characters to join his underground revolutionary society. Passions are stirred and the local order destabilized as the town enters a downward spiral that concludes with arson and several murders.

What’s most relevant to our time in “Demons” is not its ideologues but the anti-intellectual and impulse-driven nature of Pyotr’s rebellion. In Pyotr, Dostoevsky created a demagogue and pure nihilist, a political figure who appeals to people’s baser desires. Under his influence, the townspeople lose all impulse control and grow reckless, rebelling against all conventions of decency for a good laugh. At one point they desecrate a sacred icon; at another, they gleefully gather around the body of someone who has committed suicide and eat the food he’s left behind.

If their pranks, insults and disorder seem harmless, the decline in the level of public discourse act as a precursor to the violent and destructive acts at the novel’s conclusion. A skilled psychological writer, Dostoevsky never saw violence as divorced from normal human behavior. What’s most haunting about his works is just how close otherwise ordinary people are from doing extraordinarily awful things.

In “Demons,” narrative tensions escalate in a deliberately gradual way. What begins as minor impoliteness becomes scandal, arson, murder and suicide. Dostoevsky is essentially saying that criminal acts are rooted in social transgression; uncivil behavior facilitates scapegoating, dehumanization and, eventually, violence.

‘Make America Great Again!’

Donald Trump’s unconventional campaign for president powerfully evokes Dostoevsky’s novel. Aside from his pro-gun and anti-immigration positions, Trump doesn’t offer many concrete political plans. As we evaluate what motivated 14 million Americans to vote for him in the primaries, we might consider new research showing that his candidacy has a primarily emotion-based – rather than ideological or economical – appeal. There are notable anti-establishment sentiments among his supporters; many are disaffected, middle-aged white people who believe that American institutions aren’t working on their behalf.

And while his notorious campaign motto “Make America Great Again” is framed in a positive way, it actually advances a version of Bakunin’s creative destruction. It stands for purging the establishment, for recreating a nostalgia-tinged version of some lost, past America. We’ve already seen this destructive drive in its more Nechaevist, low-brow form at Trump rallies, where several people have been attacked.

A delegate at the Republican National Convention holds a ‘Lock Her Up!’ sign, referring to Hillary Clinton.
Mike Segar/Reuters

There’s another aspect of Trump’s popularity that ties him to Dostoevsky’s “Demons.” Trump, in the way he carries himself, embodies the complete disavowal of impulse control we see in the novel. Unlike most political candidates, he speaks off the cuff, simultaneously reflecting and stoking the anger and pessimism of his supporters.

For instance, he said he wanted to “hit” some of the speakers who criticized him at the Democratic National Convention; in his words, there’s anger, a need to provoke and deep-seated irreverence. His supporters feel empowered by this. Without weighing his policies, they’re viscerally drawn to the spectacle of his candidacy, like the townspeople following Pyotr Verkhovensky in “Demons” who delight in the gossip and scandals he creates.

To complete the parallel, we might turn to the novel’s ending, which could have a sobering effect. Basic incivility gives way to an anarchic vision of creative destruction; many die or lose their minds due to Pyotr’s machinations. At one point, seemingly without thinking, crowds crush a female character to death because they falsely believe she’s responsible for the violence in town.

When audiences at Trump rallies verbalize violence by screaming “Lock her up” and “Kill her,” or when Donald Trump – either wittingly or unwittingly – advocates Second Amendment violence, I wonder whether they aren’t coming dangerously close to the primal violence of “Demons.”

The Conversation

Ani Kokobobo, Assistant Professor of Russian Literature, University of Kansas

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Jail For Overdue Library Books


A library in Alabama in the United States, is threatening people with jail time for overdue library books. The link below is to an article reporting on the story.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/sep/03/borrowed-time-us-library-to-enforce-jail-sentences-for-overdue-books

How should reading be taught in schools?


Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

When my son was nine years old, he put aside the large Harry Potter novel he had been slowly, but enthusiastically, reading each evening and instead began ploughing through lots of fairly uninspiring books that he brought home from school each day.

It turned out the Year 4 teachers had devised a competition at his school – whichever class read the most books would be rewarded with an end of term pizza party.

The aim, I presume, was to motivate the children to read. It is ironic then that the effect was that my son stopped reading for pleasure and instead began reading for the numbers.

Reading is now increasingly being reduced to a numbers game in schools.

What level is your child at?

At pick up time, parents quiz each other about what reading level their child is on. Inside the school staff room, teachers are directed to have children on level 15, 20 or 30 by the end of the school year.

Six year olds are deciding whether they are good readers or not based on how many books they have ticked off on their take home reader sheet.

These levels are based on algorithms that calculate the ratio of syllables to sentences, or measure word frequency and sentence length.

The rationale is that these formulae can be applied to rank books on a scale of readability and thus guide teachers to match books with children’s reading ability.

There are two key problems with this numbers approach to reading. First, the algorithms are faulty. Second, publishers misuse them.

What makes a book hard or easy to read?

The missing variables in readability algorithms are the authors’ intentions, the readers’ motivations and the teachers’ instruction.

These are key omissions, and they seriously reduce the usability of the algorithms and the credibility of the reading levels they produce.

Fictional stories often use familiar and high frequency vocabulary, and many authors use relatively simple sentence structures.

However the use of literary tools like allegory and metaphor, along with challenging text themes, increases the difficulty of works of fiction in ways that are not captured in readability algorithms.

For example, readability formulae give Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” a reading level suitable for primary school students. They may be able to decode the words on the page but comprehension of the book is less likely.

The same formulae may rank a non-fiction book on dinosaurs, for example, as only suitable for high school students because of its uncommon vocabulary, lengthy sentences and multi-syllabic words.

Yet a child’s interest and familiarity with the topic, or a teacher or parent’s support and instruction, can make that non-fiction book very readable for younger children.

Reading schemes

As readability formulae are not always a good fit for books, the solution has been, instead, to write books which fit the formulae. And publishers have been very keen to supply those books.

These are the books that our children take home each evening. They are written according to the numbers – numbers of high frequency words, numbers of syllables, numbers of words in a sentence.

What is missing in those books is author intention and craft, reader engagement and interest, and teacher support and instruction.

Essentially, then, what is missing in these books is the very essence of reading.

What books should children read?

We have been using the reading scheme system for decades and we still have children struggling to read.

When we use these quasi books to teach reading, we are not adequately preparing them for real reading.

These books, written to fit algorithms, don’t build broad vocabularies in our children. They don’t teach our children how to read complex sentence structures or deal with literary language or read between the lines. In many cases, they turn children off reading altogether.

Children learn to read by reading a book that is a little beyond what they can already read. The gap between what they can read and what they could read is reduced when the child:

  • is highly motivated by the content of the book;
  • has existing background knowledge about that content;
  • is receiving good instruction from a teacher.

We don’t need books arranged in coloured boxes labelled with level numbers to teach a child to read.

Beautifully written pieces of children’s literature will do the job.

Books full of carefully crafted writing by authors whose intentions are to engage, entertain and inform.

Books that teachers can work with in the classroom showing how sounds work in words, and how words work in sentences to make us feel, see or think new things.

Beautiful books that parents can also buy and delight in reading with their children.

Why it matters

The way we teach children to read will fundamentally influence what they understand the purpose of reading to be.

When we teach children to read through schemes that tally their books, we teach them that reading is simply about quantity. If reading is about getting a reward of a pizza, then children are less likely to read for intrinsic rewards.

The claims made for well-written children’s literature are many and varied.

Reading books to your children brings you closer to them, can teach them philosophy and about world issues.

But they can do something else. They can teach our children to read.

The Conversation

Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.