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Archive for April, 2010

Silence

So, as you may or may not be aware, today is the Day of Silence. This day is…it’s something I find valuable. While I can’t participate to the fullest extent this year, as I have for the past four (I need to be able to order food and similar), I am observing it in my own way, by maintaining silence on Twitter and Tumblr.

Because I think doing this, choosing this silence, is a valuable thing. Even if my particular silence goes unrecognized by the world at large, it still causes me to reflect on how very lucky I’ve been in some ways. I’ve been fairly open about my sexuality for nearly five years now, and I’ve never been bullied in any substantial way. Do you know how rare that is? Nearly nine out of ten LGBT students experience harassment in school. Nine out of ten. That’s inexcusable.

I admire so much those who will be silent today in a way that is organized and visible, silent in their schools or their workplaces. It’s a hard thing to do–I know, because I’ve done it! And I wish I were doing it this year as well.

But instead, I will maintain a personal silence. I’m very open about everything, online. Being able to be so is a privilege, and I’m well aware of that. So I am going to use today to reflect on those who don’t have that privilege, who have been bullied, or hurt, or even killed because of who they were, or who they were perceived to be. I am going to use today to think about all those who have to keep silent every day, because the risk of being open is so great.

And I’m going to think about all those who are open despite that risk. All those who fight for rights boldly and stand up to what is wrong. It’s easy for me to be outspoken–I’ve always been in relatively safe environments. But for those in highly unwelcoming communities to take the same stand? They have a kind of bravery I can only imagine. And I’m using today to think of them as well.

I hope you will too.

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First thing’s first. This post is in reference to this here song, so go have a listen. I’ll wait. (I apologize, I couldn’t figure out a less convoluted way of doing that).

Listened? Good. So, here’s the deal. I love Celtic music. It’s pretty, it’s flashy, it’s surprisingly musically complex sometimes. What people don’t realize is that it (like most folk music really) can also be raunchy as hell, and in some songs, like this one, it pulls that off in a way that is remarkably progressive! Before we discuss further, I’m putting up the lyrics.
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So, I’ve decided to occasionally write non-social-justice-focused posts, as a way of keeping at least a marginal blogging rhythm going. I’m not going to start posting every day or anything, but this will at least keep me going when I’m really experiencing writer’s block (as I have been lately). As the title says, this one is a review of the new Broadway cast album for Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.
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[NB: This post is very Canada-centric. I apologize, but it’s the perspective I know. I imagine things are quite, quite different in other parts of the world]

Now, I don’t know if you’re all aware of this, but this weekend many people observe Easter.

Oh wait, that’s wrong. This weekend, seemingly, everyone observes Easter. It’s a statutory holiday. Things are closed. And this is what I have a problem with.

I understand the importance of statutory holidays–if anything I think there ought to be more. What I object to is how strongly they are tied to religious tradition, and, specifically, Christian religious tradition.

The four biggest statutory holidays here in Canada are Christmas, Easter, Labour Day, and Thanksgiving. Of those, one (Labour Day) is secular in nature. (Here is where I point out that the roots of our Thanksgiving, while in many ways just as problematic as those of the USA one, are quite different–it’s tied to Martin Frobisher, but also, more importantly for this post, to a liturgical festival within the church). The other three are all Christian. We have, of course, other statutory holidays (Family Day here in Ontario, for example), but these are the ones most people will think of first.

And that’s a problem. It privileges Christian observations over those of other religions. There is no statutory day for Passover, or Rosh Hashanah. There’s so little recognition of Islamic holidays that I can’t even pinpoint which ones are most important, which is inexcusable. And non-monotheistic religions are elided entirely.

All too often, people who don’t fit within the Christian religious framework are forced to take time off work to accommodate their religious needs. Sometimes employers are cooperative–other times, I would imagine, they are not.

But what’s important is not how cooperative the employers are–it’s that cooperation is even an issue. Because for Christians, it’s not. They don’t need to worry about getting their employer to recognize their religious observance–chances are the government already does. Chances are it’s coded into law that they get religious days off. No fuss, no muss, no worry.

Some may point to the secularization of the Big Three (Xmas, Easter, Thanksgiving) as evidence that I’m wrong. That no-one thinks of these holidays as religious any more. This may be true for Thanksgiving. I am willing to entertain that idea. But it certainly isn’t for the other two.

Well, that’s not quite true. Some people have the luxury of thinking of Christmas and Easter as secular. But these people almost all come from Christian backgrounds, even if their family doesn’t currently practice. I myself fall into that category–my family does Christmas, even though none of us are what you would call Christian.

But these holidays aren’t secular. Their roots are keenly religious, and you bet that people who don’t fit into the religious tradition they uphold notice that. I have a friend who is Muslim, and whose mother’s family is Jewish. There is no place for him in the observation of Christmas or Easter. He is not included, no matter how “secular” the holiday now is.

Do you know what I would do, were I in charge? I would make all of the statutory holidays secular. And then I would encode protections to allow anyone, regardless of faith, to take off days that are sacred in whatever form of religion or spiritual belief they practice. This strikes me as a relatively simple idea! I am not sure why it is not more widely-disseminated.

To close, I want to recount one anecdote that shows how some people get it right. Recently I was on the costume crew for a play. Closing night of the play was this past Saturday (not yesterday). On closing night, there is striking the set, and everyone is expected to stay and work until strike is completed.

But the observant among you will note that Saturday was Passover. Now, the fact that there was that conflict at all, and that it went unnoticed for quite a long time, is problematic–and symptomatic of what I’ve been talking about, the privileging of Christian identities and observances over those that differ. But my professor’s response was simple and effective. “If your religious observance conflicts with being here for strike, don’t come”.

That’s all it takes. And I fail to see why the same standard can’t be applied for Christian holidays. Let’s level the playing field.

Happy Sunday, everyone.

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An Education

As you are probably aware, I am a university student! (I only talk about it in, like, HALF OF MY POSTS). And I take classes, and one of those is a sociology course. And in that class today, we were talking about education. And here is where the trouble starts. (Prepare for some jumping around; this post has ended up being structured as a series of vignettes, somehow).

We were talking about university. And my prof was talking about how very important it is. About how 15% of undergrads drop out and this is obviously a TERRIBLE THING. How people in countries where tuition is free sometimes take many years to finish their degree, and this is a TERRIBLE THING (and, it is implied, self-indulgence on their part). And so on.

Here’s the thing. University education does not work for everyone. It doesn’t, okay? There is a huge amount of pressure to go to university. Better to excel, to graduate with honours, but, at the bare minimum, to make it through. But that just doesn’t work for everyone, and there’s a couple of reasons that that’s so. It’s been a while since I wrote a list, so let’s do that.

—–

1) Finance:
University is really expensive. Really really expensive. I have been lucky enough to be eligible for a student loan, but I still don’t have enough! Many people get scholarships their first year, and go for that reason. If those scholarships aren’t renewed, though, you might need to drop out! THIS IS NOT A PERSONAL FAILING.

2) Stress:
University is also stressful. It’s a highly unrealistic environment and one which most people are not adequately prepared for by high school. Some manage to adapt well. Others don’t. THIS IS NOT A PERSONAL FAILING.

3) It Just Doesn’t Fit:
This is the one that affects me most, and therefore the one I’ll talk about at length. See, when she talked about how many students drop out, and talked about how it is IMPERATIVE we avoid falling into this trap ourselves (because oh yes, she went there), it hit me hard. Because, see, I’m not sure I am going to be able to finish university. I love learning. I love attending lectures and taking notes, and talking out ideas with really smart people. But I’m bad at homework. It is agonizing for me. A lot of the time I barely manage to finish, or don’t finish at all, even if I know exactly what I want to say and how I want to say it.

Can you guess what a lot of the university experience is about? Homework. Getting assignments done. Things that are not the same as learning and that not all people can do effectively. Including myself.

If you can’t properly function in an environment, is it any wonder that you might drop out? THIS IS NOT A PERSONAL FAILING.

—–

I’m worried about dropping out of school at some point. And part of that is because I like education. Which is a valid reason to feel worry about not being able to complete it. But part of that, part of it is because of the enormous social pressure to succeed in this environment. Part of it is the society telling me that if I can’t handle university, the problem is with me not wanting it hard enough, or not trying hard enough. The problem is me, not the system that isn’t set up to accommodate more than one (fairly specific) type of learning. And it’s really hard not to internalize those messages, even if you know about the problems with them. It’s hard not to buy into something you see everywhere.

—–

That would have been a fairly natural place to end this post. But there’s one more thing I want to address, which is the disapproval our professor evinced when telling us how sometimes in countries like France or Germany, people can take like fifteen years to finish their post-secondary! It being free, you see, there is no incentive to FINISH AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE LEST THE DEBT CONSUME YOU. Which apparently is a bad thing?

But see, I don’t understand that perspective. To me, if people are taking that long to graduate (presumably meaning they are only taking a course or two each semester), I see it as, well…kind of a good thing. I see it as them knowing the pace at which they need to work to be able to function at their best, the pace that works for them. With our system as it stands, with the personal cost incurred to students, there’s an enormous disincentive to taking time. If you don’t finish your degree in three or four years, every extra year is going to add a solid ten thousand dollars or so onto your debt. That’s horrifying. And for students who can’t handle more than a couple of courses a year, devastating.

And there are many of reasons that could be! A student could maybe not handle the workload. Or they could need to have outside work at the same time. Or they could have children or other dependents. Or, y’know, they could just not want the additional stress more courses would incur. All of these are excellent reasons for taking school slowly. And, y’know, might actually lead to more people not dropping out, since that is apparently the Ultimate Goal or something.

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Look, the bottom line is this. It is undeniable fact that 15% of undergrads drop out. Or at least I assume my prof would not actively stoop to lying about statistics, so we’ll take it as true for the moment. If this is the case, shouldn’t we be looking at the reasons for that? Don’t judge those who drop out–they have reasons to do so. Let’s focus on improving the university environment so that it works for all students. Lower fees so people can afford to take their time. Change structure so people who don’t fit into the current model can function. Accommodate. It’s the only way.

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