Democracy: Destination or voyage?

Let’s hop into the car, fill it up with some cheap gas,  and take a quick tour of historic America with the help of legendary photographer Margaret Bourke-White.  The image you can see just below caught my attention yesterday, arriving here during the festive holiday season thanks to a posting in from the Rebuilding Place blog of urban designer/consultant and activist Richard Layman from Washington DC. As you can see it’s a happy holiday message. Life was sweet.

But the plot thickens. As my eyes took this in I had the distinct feeling I had somehow spotted it somewhere in the past, so I asked Richard about his source, which he kindly identified as Margaret Bourke-White.  But this unexamined good news message did not square with the tough independent world of the uncompromising  MBW that I had come to know. Something smelled there.

But the answer proved to be near at hand.  Layman also sent on a lead  noting that what I was looking at was, in fact, an excerpt from a much larger old photograph known as  “At the Time of the Louisville Flood”, which she had taken during hard times for many Americans back in 1937. Given the original cheery photo I had at first seen, I had a problem with the “Louisville Flood” tag.

And since many of us in America are today facing hard times, here is another MBW image of 1937 that tells quite a different story about daily life for many Americans during the Depression. It shows a bread line that formed up in Louisville at the time.

And now the surprising part: These two striking and entirely contrasting  images are in fact part of a single larger photo of a scene which did not escape the ever-vigilant eye of Margaret Bourke-White.  Her full photograph you can now see here:  a hidden lesson if we had stopped with the first grinning photo of the good folks and good times in their car.

There you have it. Ms. Bourke-White was once again showing us without compromise or sugar-coating life as it really was then.

Where do we go from here?

May we ponder this together for a few minutes?

If America indeed had the world’s “highest standard of living” back in 1937, to be honest we really have to put this into perspective. It would have all depended on who was measuring it for what and whom, as I believe the above photo and any careful reading of the economic and social realities of the time make strikingly clear — that even back then there was something not quite right with this hyper optimistic message up top, which we have seen has been often sawed off and presented on own.

But it’s soon 2011, two generations have passed, we all have cars now, much of the world has moved on with the result that our relative position as Americans  in terms of many of the more reliable statistical indicators is anything but best of class. Let’s have a quick look at how two indicators of America’s international performance in terms of well-being and capability in fact stack up in comparison with other more developed countries around the world in 2010. How are we doing? For example in terms of relative income levels?

Relative income stats as a measure of well-being:

The IMF statistics for GDP/capita for 2010 have the US currently listed as number nine on their world list. This figure does not however take into account either inequality of income distribution or the costs of environment distribution and dilapidation. This is not encouraging, but our hope for the future resides in our youth and the quality of our educational system. Right? Well . . .

Educational performance as an indicator

The recent OECD/PISA rankings reporting on the relative performance in reading, mathematics, and science literacy of children in middle schools of some 74 countries, have the US far down on the list of  best performers. This is grim news and indicates that it’s time to give ourselves a good shake on this and a number of scores.

The “good news” is that we are not alone since countries with previously strong performances such as Sweden, Germany and France have also slipped (that’s their problem and we can be sure that this latest PISA report ahs their full attention), but for a country that has had such pride in its educational accomplishments as the US being relegated to 19th place among the 74 surveyed, is a sign that something needs hard work and even harder thinking.

Encouragement from Finland

I like the way that the Finnish educator, Pasi Sahlberg put it in an op-ed piece  that appeared in the Boston Globe of Monday entitled “Global lessons from Finland’s schoolrooms“.

Finally, with the fourth PISA study again showing that the US education system is lagging those in many other countries, Americans should admit that there is much to learn from these systems. Relying on one’s past reputation is probably not the best approach for transforming an educational system to meet tomorrow’s needs and challenges. With America’s “can-do” attitude and superior knowledge base in educational improvement, Americans could of course shift course before it is too late.

(But we have to want to do it.)

What is particularly useful about Sahlberg’s contribution in our present context is that he makes the point that as recently as twenty-five years ago Finnish students scored well below the international average in mathematics and science. To deal with this, those responsible in Finland had to fight their way up through a combination of hard work allied with their willingness to put their pride in their pocket and study and emulate such then-advanced nations at the time as Sweden, Germany and yes, the United States. In this way they were able to adopt best educational practices from other places but also with reflection to avoid some of the mistakes being made by those leading education performers at the time.  And there they are today, right at the top of the list.

That suggests to me that this could be a recipe for United States as we try to do whatever it is that is needed to fight our way back toward our former leadership position in the many areas in which we today lag so badly. Sahlberg also makes the point that by emphasizing the values of equity and cooperation, as opposed to choice and competition, the Finns are showing us a way which, to this writer at least, is to well worth considering.  The clear suggestion is that we are working with the wrong behavioral template. Hmm. That’s pretty deep news indeed.

To conclude with TISA – the Transport International Sustainability Assessment project:

I look forward with even greater interest to seeing what will happen if we manage to create an informal international consortium to create a modest system of indicators which will help to give us some ideas about the relative national performance in terms of sustainable mobility. That of course is the TISA, the Transport International Sustainability Assessment project, about which more will appear here in the days ahead.

And let me leave you today with this, from the good book of Pasi Sahlberg:  Equity and cooperation should be our goal, the new American way. Let’s think about that one.

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3 thoughts on “Democracy: Destination or voyage?

  1. Pingback: Democracy: Destination or voyage? (via Network Dispatches) | World Streets 2011

  2. Perhaps a bit off topic but, I’ve always wondered why the Montgomery Bus Boycott is not cited as an example of innovative transportation. I’m not advocating forgoing public transit rather I’m admiring the very same values of equity and cooperation that made the boycott possible.


  3. Pingback: World Streets: Weekly digest for 3 January 2011 « Network Dispatches

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