October 6, 2011 by Marc Lamont Hill
AS FAR BACK as I can remember, I have had a deep love affair with books. Years before I became a writer, I was a devoted reader, devouring any text that I could get my hands on. As a lonely child, my books were my babysitter, brother and best friend. Books allowed me to see a world bigger than my neighborhood, city or even my imagination.
Books still play a huge role in my life. Today, I read four per week and purchase 50 a month. I still rely on a good book to pick up my spirits, cure my boredom or satisfy my curiosity.
Sadly, it seems that the next generation won’t have the same relationship with books. Not because they’re less worthy of a lifelong connection to books, but because books matter less and less in our society.
The best piece of evidence for this claim is the rapid closing of bookstores around the region. In the last year, Borders, one of the nation’s biggest book vendors, as well as countless independent bookstores have gone out of business and stripped the city of a huge cultural resource.
In the era of online book vendors and electronic book readers, brick-and-mortar booksellers around the country are being pushed to the brink of extinction.
But there’s more at stake than the books themselves. Unlike other antiquated institutions, like Fotomat or Blockbuster Video, bookstores have never been just about the products they peddled. They always have served a greater social, cultural and political purpose.
For years, places like Robin’s Bookstore, in Center City, Hakim’s Bookstore, in West Philly, and the Borders in Chestnut Hill were places where people met, studied, organized, debated and shared ideas. They were where we transferred the love of reading to our children. They allowed people from all walks of life to view the beautiful diversity of the city. Although books were the main attraction, bookstores were special because of everything else they had to offer.
Of course, the extracurricular dimensions of bookstores are precisely why they’re dying. Stores wallow in the red because people do everything inside of them – from surfing the web to sipping lattes to stealing summer air conditioning – except buy books.
I must confess that I am part of the problem.
Although I still spend countless hours hanging out at bookstores, the bulk of my purchases take place online. I must begrudgingly concede that the traditional bookstore model has become economically unsustainable. Its death, while tragic, is unavoidable.
For many, the death of bookstores signifies a dangerous decline in our nation’s commitment to literacy. These cultural pessimists proclaim that the literate American mind is becoming increasingly rare and a signpost of failure to compete in the global economy.
While compelling, these claims are nothing more than hyperbole. Stories about the death of literacy are greatly exaggerated. Research shows that Americans are reading more now than ever before. The problem isn’t the death of reading, it’s the death of books. And book culture.
Of course, this type of shift occurs at every turn of human civilization. Nearly 2,500 years ago, Socrates bemoaned the birth of writing as a sign of social decline. Because of a new piece of technology known as the “book,” he argued that society would lose the art of skillful speaking, quality social interaction and strong memorization. Despite Socrates’ concerns, the whole book thing turned out to be a pretty big success for Western civilization.
And I don’t doubt that the new post-book world will also turn out just fine.
October 6, 2011 by Marc Lamont Hill
By Marc Lamont Hill
Philadelphia Daily News
IN RESPONSE to the recent wave of youth crime, particularly the much-ballyhooed teen mobs, Mayor Nutter announced that the city would be imposing stricter curfew laws. The city previously required anyone under 18 to be indoors by midnight, and anyone under 13 to be off the streets by 10 p.m. Now on weekends in University City and Center City, because of recent violence, anyone under age must be inside by 9 p.m.
Although this may seem like a reasonable solution, there are just too many reasons to say “no” to the curfew laws.
The first problem with curfews is that they strip away our rights. As citizens, youths are permitted to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech and peaceful assembly. As courts have argued, by imposing broad and constitutionally vague curfew restrictions, we limit their ability to engage in lawful behaviors like walking, driving or going to the store.
Equally important are the legal freedom and natural rights of parents to decide how they want to raise their children. With the curfews, parents are no longer able to decide when and where their children are able to go outside. This is ironic, given the current renaissance of conservatism in our country. The same folk who routinely preach gospels of parental responsibility and small government are suddenly in favor of having the state illegally usurp the power of parents to do their jobs.
Some people push back against constitutional arguments by claiming that curfews serve a compelling state interest: reducing crime. The problem with such an argument, however, is that there is no persuasive evidence that curfews are an effective means of law enforcement. According to available data, most juvenile crime occurs between 3 and 7 p.m. As such, an evening curfew does nothing to stem the tide of crime. In fact, according to some studies, the curfews actually increase crime during the daytime hours.
By imposing curfews on our youth, we also continue the trend of criminalizing our children. Over the past decade we have seen the rise in anti-youth policies like civil injunctions against gangs, anti-baggy-pants legislation and zero tolerance in schools. In the case of curfews, we literally make it illegal to be “young” and “outside.” Through these practices, we alienate our children and produce the very criminal mentalities and behaviors that we hope to destroy.
Rather than continuing to contain and blame our youth, we must commit ourselves to long-term, root-based solutions. This means expanding Mayor Nutter’s admirable commitment to keeping community centers open later, but also creating quality educational and employment opportunities for the city’s youth. In terms of direct service, we must revive programs like the Adolescent Violence Reduction Partnership (AVRP), which partnered at-risk youth with adult mentors to prevent them from becoming perpetrators or victims of violence.
Like many citizens, I empathize with Mayor Nutter on this issue. At a moment when crime is rising and many citizens are scared, tough and sometimes unpopular decisions must be made. In this case, curfew laws seem like a common-sense solution to an urgent problem.
The problem is that curfews are nothing more than a Band-Aid, a simple answer to a complex question. Until we commit ourselves to doing the hard work of being personally and socially responsible parents, citizens and leaders, we will continue to suffer the consequences. And no curfew will be able to save us.
April 11, 2011 by Marc Lamont Hill
A FEW WEEKS AGO, I was asked to speak at a public school in a major city. I arrived at the front door of the school on time, only to be instructed by a uniformed officer to “get to the back of the line.”
At that point, I turned and saw a line of students that stretched down the street and around the corner. Twenty minutes later, as I finally approached the entrance to the school, I was able to see what was causing the delay.
As students entered the building, they were forced to take off their coats, belts and book bags and place them on a conveyor belt, after which they had to walk through an airport-style metal detector.
Students who failed to pass through successfully were taken into a corner and searched by a school police officer.
All of this occurred under the watchful eye of roving security cameras, an armed city policeman and a drug-sniffing dog. It was only after this ordeal was completed that students could finally go to their first-period class.
The first thing that struck me about this scene was the amount of money that the school had invested in surveillance technologies. At a moment of fierce budget cuts all around the country – here in Pennsylvania, Gov. Corbett wants to slash $550 million for public schools – districts continue to dump millions of dollars into militaristic infrastructures that make schools look and feel more like prisons than learning institutions.
Of course, popular logic suggests that these measures, while undesirable, are necessary in order to stem the rising tide of violence in our nation’s schools. (With the Inquirer’s expose of underreported violence in Philadelphia public schools, such concerns are certainly warranted.)
Contrary to popular logic, however, these types of investments do little to make schools safer. In fact, according to every major sociological study, students actually feel less safe in schools that have excessive surveillance.
The other thing that I noticed when visiting that school was the students’ response to the procedures.
Instead of protesting this grotesque invasion of privacy, the students passively went through the daily ritual as if nothing was wrong. This is undoubtedly due to the radical shift in school discipline policies that has occurred over the course of their schooling years. As a result of these policies, an entire generation of students now views these draconian policies as both normal and necessary.
In a 15-year study of the School District of Philadelphia’s codes of disciplinary conduct, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Decoteau Irby found that, like most urban school districts, pHiladelphia has “widened and deepened its disciplinary net.”
Bringing a pair of scissors to school now constitutes a major violation, and we’ve also deepened the net by increasing the amount of trouble that students can get into for breaking the rules.
In 2004, a fourth-grade girl in Philadelphia was carried out in handcuffs and detained by police for eight hours for bringing a pair of scissors to school, even though the school acknowledged that she wasn’t using them as a weapon. These types of policies do little more than create a culture of fear and criminality within schools, which only makes students (and teachers!) more likely to walk away for good.
Rather than responding to social problems through investment and love, we hastily opt to punish and blame.
Instead of getting to the root causes of school violence, we choose reactionary zero-tolerance policies that do little more than win votes and bolster the ever-expanding Pennsylvania prison industry. “Getting tough” sounds good but, as a policy response, simply doesn’t work.
As a former teacher (and student) in Philadelphia public schools, I am not naive or idealistic about the problems that we face. High dropout rates, rising violence, limited funding and teacher attrition are real problems to which there are no simple solutions.
But one thing is certain: If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always gotten. Our students deserve better.
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