TIME Education

How U.S. Colleges Can Make the Grade

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Professors, administrators and education innovators describe what an ideal American university would look like

Higher education in America could be headed for rock bottom. Tuition has continued to rise at a steady pace, and years of deep cuts in state funding have forced colleges and universities to absorb many of the costs. As for the well-documented burden of student loan debt in the U.S.—well, even Taylor Swift can’t possibly pay off the entirety of what so many young graduates owe.

Going beyond crisis-intervention mode, however, educators and administrators are also tasked with a more complex set of challenges—bigger questions about how to direct young minds in the face of rapidly advancing technology, an increasingly global economy, and a shift in marketable skills in the wake of a major recession.

In advance of the Zócalo event, “How Do We Fix American Universities?”, we asked scholars: What does the ideal 21st century American university look like?


Mark Bauerlein — The antidote to youth culture—a moral obligation to be intelligent

I don’t know what the ideal school looks like, but I can tell you about the ideal experience for a student in his first two years of college.

The student takes a broad range of courses and becomes immersed in great books and artworks, important historical events, profound religious convictions, and basic scientific knowledge. No pop culture, no topical current events, and no political correctness or identity politics.

The student studies 25 hours per week, limits email and text messages, and frequently leaves the iPhone and tablet at home. He spends two hours each week talking to professors in office hours. During those four years, the student finds his taste in entertainment changes, his desire to communicate with peers lessens, and his sense of time and space expands.

He will learn the necessity of arduous and solitary mental labor. He will learn to be alone. His speech will improve—no more “like” and “awesome” and “stuff” in his sentences—and his knowledge of history, politics, philosophy, art, religion, and science deepen.

After those two years of intellectual challenge and growth, the student selects a major and begins to adopt career expectations. These formative semesters will serve as the antidote to youth culture—“the moral obligation to be intelligent,” as eminent 20th century writer and critic Lionel Trilling put it.

These academic rigors create a counter-culture: anti-adolescent, anti-consumerist, anti-utilitarian. College should reject the currently popular urge to be up-to-date and socially conscious. Relevance should be expelled. We want the first two years of college to be a reprieve from the rush of social media and the pressures of the 21st century. Let’s give American youths some time to reflect and ponder and listen and see, within a space shielded from all the concrete demands that will hit them as soon as they graduate.

Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University. He is the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.


Veronica I. Arreola — Future leaders need liberal arts more than ever

Our higher education system is having a moment. We need it more than ever, yet it is becoming more and more out-of-reach for middle and working-class families. The ideal 21st century American university is one that not only welcomes students of all classes, but also provides financial support.

In order to reach that goal, we must get out from under the weight of student loan debt. This pushes students and their families to question the need for a well-rounded liberal arts education and value only courses that will lead to “real jobs.” Too many people believe there is no need to know how to read and analyze a book or to ponder philosophy or understand how gender and race impact our interactions.

As our economy becomes more globalized, our future leaders need a liberal arts education more than ever. They will need to understand the people they are working with and for. An engineer in Miami will need to know how to relate to her coworkers in India. An accountant in Chicago will need to know what motivates his boss in Hong Kong.

As our economy continues to move towards a knowledge economy, we will need great thinkers, not just great doers. We need economists who consider the human impact of their decisions, not just the numbers on the page. We need computer scientists who keep in mind the privacy issues of their algorithms, and not just what they can build.

And this can only happen if we return to supporting our state and land-grant institutions with our tax dollars. We also must increase support for low-income and first-generation college students. The affordability of our universities is connected to our ability to develop the kind of thinkers who will propel the U.S. to great heights while keeping us grounded in our humanity.

Veronica I. Arreola is the assistant director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Research on Women and Gender and directs its Women in Science and Engineering program.


Richard DeMillo — Ingenuity and diversity will decide who survives

The rapid growth and diffusion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), learning analytics and adaptive learning platforms has convinced many that higher education is undergoing revolutionary change.

Some have speculated that the old, familiar institutions will be swept away as bigger and better institutions claim a greater stake. Some have even suggested that the very idea of college is doomed. But this is unlikely.

What is likely is that colleges will fail, evolve, or prosper according to the inexorable laws of Web commerce. After all, higher education in the U.S. is comprised of a decentralized system of largely autonomous entities, and the Internet has become a necessary organizing tool for how they run as businesses.

In the same way that Google, Amazon, and Facebook dominate the online consumer market, higher education will increasingly become dominated by a relatively few institutions—ones with the scale and brand to serve large numbers of students.

But as student populations shift, some colleges will also adapt to become smaller and more specialized, serving the so-called “long tail” of a marketplace that demands diversity: not only of content, but pricing, credentialing, and scheduling.

A possible model for this is the Online Masters of Computer Science at Georgia Tech. It’s a MOOC-based degree program of 2,300 students who pay less than $7,000, which coexists with a traditional Master of Science program of 200 residential students, some of whom pay more than $40,000 for the same degree.

Every student satisfies the same entrance requirements and the degrees themselves are indistinguishable. The University of Illinois has just announced a similar MOOC-based MBA program for one-third the price of their traditional degree.

No industry has ever withstood the kind of change we’re seeing now due to an onrush of new technology. The only lesson we can draw from history is that ingenuity and diversity determine who survives and prospers. One thing is clear to me: the future of college is not a cookie-cutter world of ideal institutions.

Richard DeMillo is the Charlotte B. and Roger C. Warren professor of computing and a professor of management at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities and author of Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable.


David Hoffman — Take action, and leave the ivory tower stereotype behind

This is certainly a difficult moment of reckoning for American higher education, but also one of great energy and potential—many universities, including the one I work for, have become hubs for discourse and action around today’s most pressing problems.

Two weeks ago, hundreds of University of Maryland, Baltimore County, students, faculty and staff gathered on campus to discuss the ongoing protests that followed Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. Engaged scholars contributed insights about the origins of Baltimore’s complex social and economic inequalities. Students shared stories of frustration, as well as their deep commitment to working for a better future.

During the event, UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, observed that a university’s value lies in its ability to help caring people think critically together about the challenges we face.

Two aspects of that powerful campus-wide conversation were vital. First, its focus was on deploying knowledge to support action that could produce tangible improvements in people’s lives. This is a notable departure from the caricature of higher education as an isolated and inward-looking ivory tower. Aside from its positive community impacts, a focus on deep engagement and learning-by-doing corresponds with improved academic outcomes for students.

Second, and most importantly, the tone and dynamics of the conversation reflected an appreciation for the value of all participants’ stories and their capacity to make meaningful contributions to our collective well-being. That spirit of mutual respect and creativity belies the dichotomies common to conventional thinking about higher education: distinctions between teacher and learner, scholar and citizen, research and action, university and community.

Similar ideas and practices are emerging through higher education networks like Imagining America and the American Democracy Project, and in publications like Democracy’s Education: Public Work, Citizenship & the Future of Colleges and Universities. They embody a vision for 21st-century university education that is both enriching for students and deeply relevant to everyday life.

David Hoffman is assistant director of student life for civic agency at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and an architect of UMBC’s BreakingGround civic initiative.


Claire E. Sterk — Ignite passion for research—and allow for failure

Here is a recipe for the ideal university, in nine easy-to-follow steps:

1. Start with an emphasis on diversity that not only reflects the world’s changing demographics, but also brings wide-ranging perspectives to solve its most challenging problems.

2. Add a heaping helping of innovation in teaching to take students beyond typical classroom approaches and immerse them in learning from teachers and each other, in order to shape them into critical thinkers.

3. Bring thoughtful use of technology to instruction by engaging “digital native” students with the newest tools, from creative formats for testing to online instruction for select basic-level coursework.

4. Sprinkle the academy with a liberal education that leads to lifelong learners who have broad analytical and communications toolkits at the ready, not only for their first career but also for their entire lives.

5. Stir in one cup of the nature of evidence to ignite a passion for research from within and across disciplines.

6. Whip up data from benchmark institutions and internal assessments to calibrate the process and demonstrate value through quantifiable measurements.

7. Mix well and let the batter settle—but not for long. Nimbleness and adaptability are crucial ingredients to this recipe. Test the temperature often, evaluate the product, adjust the ingredients, and repeat the process.

8. Allow for failure from which comes true advancement.

9. The final and most important ingredient is empowering the university community of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and donors to work collaboratively for positive transformation in the world.

Claire E. Sterk is provost, executive vice president for academic affairs, and Charles Howard Candler professor of public health at Emory University in Atlanta.


Steven W. Anderson — What I wish for my daughters’ future

I remember the first computer I ever owned. It was 1998, and I was a freshman at Western Carolina University (where I would go on to earn a degree in education in 2003). This was the first time ever that I had enjoyed access to a high-speed Internet connection.

Fast-forward almost two decades, to the year 2015, and look how far we’ve come. We can plug in from anywhere in the world, gaining access to just about anything we’d want to know. This rapid shift in capability has forced a change in the way we go about higher education.

Forcing young people to sit in large lecture halls crammed with 300 peers while someone bores them to death with PowerPoint slides does a disservice to today’s students. It robs them of existing opportunities to go further with learning.

For my young daughters, ages six and one, I hope that in the years to come we see major leaps in the way that institutions of higher learning structure their lesson plans around technology.

An ideal, modern, American university needs to embrace the “anywhere, anytime” learning model and get students more involved. Professors and teachers need to focus less on the “stand and deliver” methods of teaching and allow students to solve problems that provide meaning to their learning and allow them to work in situations of learning where they can collaborate with others around the globe. Traditional, front-of-classroom, hands-off learning is not what modern employers need or want. That may have worked in the Industrial Age, but it certainly won’t in the Digital Age and beyond.

Steven W. Anderson is a learning and relationship evangelist who works with educators across the globe to help them discover the power that technology has in learning. On Twitter, as @web20classroom, he promotes the use of social media for learning, reflecting and growing.


Jonathan Kroll — Outside environments don’t matter—it’s what happens in students’ minds

Universities take on many forms. There are the traditional brick-and-mortar campuses, the online spaces that may have thousands of students in a course—or the hybrid, which might utilize hotel conference rooms, as well as homegrown electronic hubs.

More important than the appearance of the physical environment, though, is the reality of the learning that is taking place within it.

The learning relationships cultivated in college can often become rooted less in learning than in putting on programs (for instance, in the residence halls), winning competitions (for instance, athletics), or reactively navigating cultures of hazing (for instance, fraternities and sororities).

Rather than engaging students with reflective queries for hands-on learning, we mindlessly dictate to them what they should be learning or doing. Not only does this method weaken students’ potential to absorb knowledge, it also limits their development as people.

21st-century universities will become ideal learning centers—places where students acquire the knowledge and skills for technical competencies, enhance their leadership capacity, and advance along the developmental spectrum—when a holistic focus is enacted, not just espoused.

So how do we create this kind of environment? As educators, we need to consciously relinquish control and provide opportunities for students to wrestle with important questions. An initial set of questions should assist students in thinking through how they might apply their technical knowledge and skills. And another layer of engagement should challenge students with questions of significance and depth: What lights your fire or quenches your thirst? Where is home? When do you feel most alive? What will you accomplish next?

Questions can provoke deep thinking—a critical tool in the developmental process. Let our next interactions with students include reflective questions and the space to ponder responses.

Jonathan Kroll earned a doctorate in human and organizational systems from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara. He is co-founder of The Institute for Leadership and Training, which focuses on preparing college athletes for optimal performance in competition, leadership, and life.

This article was written for Zocalo Public Square.


TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Books

Brilliant and Brainy Books to Take to the Beach This Summer

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

World-class minds pick their favorites to pack with your sunscreen — from a grisly true-life murder investigation to the life of Willie Nelson

Summer is a time of familiar comforts: the scent of sunscreen and the feeling of sand between toes, the taste of Bomb Pops and the sight of long, late, orange sunsets. But with the multiplexes filled with sequels, reboots, and retreads, and the beginning of a long election season crowded with familiar names, don’t you think something original is in order? In the spirit of getting out of our comfort zones this summer and taking a crack at something new, we asked recent Zócalo guests for the fresh and forthcoming nonfiction books they think curious people should bring to the beach, pool, bar, and porch this summer.

Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth A. Fenn

This book is for all readers who think that we don’t have enough evidence to tell the histories of Native American peoples. Fenn counteracts that view with a marvelously deft history that weaves together resources as disparate as textual evidence, folkloric traditions, and climate science. The book fills long-lived holes in our collective understanding of the experience of Native American peoples on this continent. — Danielle Allen, author of Our Declaration and Institute for Advanced Study political philosopher

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

This is what the best nonfiction should be, and why a great true story will always trump an amazing novel. There’s savage, whip-smart, acid prose, iconic characters, and a driving narrative, but underlying that is a deeply argued, impeccably researched, gut-wrenching look at the tragic and flawed injustice at the core of violence in black America. A must read, but also a thoroughly enjoyable one. — David Sax, author of The Tastemakers

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

As always, McCullough is terrific at describing the personal and social side of important historical events. — Robert D. Putnam, author of Our Kids and Bowling Alone and Harvard University political scientist

Everything You Ever Wanted: A Memoir by Jillian Lauren

Everything You Ever Wanted is, in brief, about an adoptee who adopts a baby herself, but like all the best memoirs, it’s both personal and universal. It expands outward to encompass so many experiences and feelings we all share: love, loyalty, struggles with the past, what it means to take a profound and longed-for risk. Lauren is fierce and funny and unsparingly frank, and this book crackles with pain, love, truth, joy, and an abundance of excellent writing. — Kate Christensen, author of Blue Plate Special

The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by Dale Russakoff

Russakoff offers a rare window inside urban school reform in an age of unprecedented investment—but precarious-at-best community support. — Elizabeth Green, author of Building a Better Teacher

It’s a Long Story: My Life by Willie Nelson

As a music journalist, I’ve interviewed Willie Nelson a few times—and yes, one of those times was on his tour bus. He was a candid and captivating storyteller, a warm-hearted outlaw with a unique perspective on his life as a singer, songwriter, and activist. And so first on my list of summer beach reads is his new autobiography. We all know Willie’s music, but equally interesting are his musical journey and his boundary-pushing, from bucking the established Nashville Sound of the ’60s to his current crusade to legalize marijuana. — Denise Quan, entertainment journalist and producer

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

This book should be required reading in schools, the U.N., the IMF, the Chinese Politburo, and everywhere else. Kolbert knows her stuff—hard-edged, data-driven science!—and she writes swimmingly well. — Ann Louise Bardach, author of Without Fidel

Even This I Get to Experience, by Norman Lear

It’s moving, funny, beautifully written, and it spans show biz, politics, history, and dysfunctional families. Bonus: If you get the audio version, Lear recorded it—and he’s a terrific performer. — Marty Kaplan, USC communications scholar and Jewish Journal columnist

Spain: The Centre of the World 1519-1682 by Robert Goodwin

As an artist whose work is highly involved with Mexican history and culture, I have been trying to fill in my historical gaps on the history of Spain. After recently reading Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors by Edward Reston, I have been searching for another book that picks up the thread. I’ve already pre-ordered Spain: The Center of the World 1519-1682 by Robert Goodwin, which will be published in July. The book picks by where Reston left off and examines the Golden Age of Spain and its supremacy in Transatlantic exploration. — Judithe Hernández, muralist

Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat by Barry Estabrook, The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of Our Food by Ted Genoways, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight by Timothy Pachirat

These three books about meat/processing plants/pigs are wonderful reads (doesn’t sound like it, right?). In order of easier to take to gutsier (sorry): In Pig Tales, Estabrook takes an engaging look at the pig—its wild and domestic origins and our relationship with it on small sustainable farms—and focuses a critical eye on our large industrial “factories.” In the absorbing The Chain, Genoways focuses on five Hormel plants. It’s hard to underplay how riveting this tale of line workers, union leaders, hog farmers, local politicians, and activists is. You will never eat Spam again. And in Every Twelve Seconds, which began as a doctoral thesis, Pachirat goes undercover as an employee in a large slaughterhouse to investigate how the workers are affected by the seen and the unseen. It’s a fantastic read. — Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s “Good Food”

This article was written for Zocalo Public Square.


TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Education

What Educators Can Learn About a Southeast L.A. Turnaround

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

The addition of a bold college readiness program transformed a struggling high school into an example of high academic achievement

Bell Gardens High School in east Los Angeles County was a sorry mess when science teacher Liz Lowe arrived in 1989. More than 3,000 students crowded into school buildings surrounding a concrete quadrangle with patches of grass and some trees. Expectations were low. Not much learning was done.

“It hurt my soul that here were these wonderful students who were very, very capable, but they were expected to be the working poor,” Lowe recalled.

Today, that community is still poor and ethnically isolated. Bell Gardens High has a student body that is 99 percent Latino. According to the 2010 census, the education level of its students’ parents was the lowest of any community of similar size in the state. The median household annual income was slightly more than $30,000.

Yet something unexpected has happened to the level of learning at the school. Bell Gardens High’s Academic Performance Index score, the 1,000-point scale that was used by California to measure test score success, has gone from 469 in 1999 to 704 in 2013 (the latest reported year). The school was ranked in the top 7 percent of all U.S. schools on the 2015 America’s Most Challenging High Schools list, a measure of college-level test participation I put out each year for The Washington Post.

Bell Gardens educators and parents agree that a program called AVID, short for Advancement Via Individual Determination, has much to do with the transformation.

Non-profit AVID (pronounced like the word that means “eager”) is the largest college readiness program in the country. Its success has much to do with unusually effective teacher training and a tutoring system that goes deeper than any I have ever seen.

AVID began in 1980 when Mary Catherine Swanson, the head of the English department at Clairemont High School in northern San Diego, decided to experiment with 32 low-income students coming to her suburban school as part of a busing program. Many teachers at her school said those Latino and black children should be put in remedial classes, but Swanson felt that if they were placed in a daily class that taught study skills and time management and provided tutoring, they could eventually handle even college-level Advanced Placement classes.

As Bell Gardens learned, the program was not easy. AVID classes demanded that students keep their work in order and, even more shocking to American teenagers, required that they learn how to take notes properly and do so in all of their courses. The tutoring was even more of a challenge.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, tutors, usually college students, would arrive to help students with homework questions that stumped them. The tutors did not follow the usual practice of telling tutees where they went wrong. Instead they trained the students to ask questions of whomever was discussing a particular difficulty, to help think through the problem. It took weeks, sometimes months, to get the hang of it.

Lowe, now the AVID coordinator at Bell Gardens, in 1994 was the first teacher at the school to get the one-week AVID training course. But it took three years for Bell Gardens to start its program. Juan Herrera, now the school’s principal, was then the school’s state and federal project director. He was very taken with the AVID emphasis on recruiting average low-income students. His father had been a janitor, his mother a seamstress. Kids like him tended to be left out, he thought, even though they would have benefited from an extra push.

State and district backing for the program has been helpful. Bell Gardens has about $115,000 for tutors this year. Its AVID program grew from 29 ninth graders in 1997 to 566 students, about 16 percent of the total school enrollment this year. It became so successful maintaining standards that it achieved National Demonstration School status, a designation given to only two percent of AVID schools.

Mario Martin del Campo, a former Bell Garden AVID student who became an AVID tutor, said he noticed at California State University, Northridge, where he was an English major, that students without AVID experience often gave up. They’d just say, “I don’t get it.” By contrast, del Campo said, his reaction to a difficult college assignment would be “I don’t know how to do it but I’m going to try it and see how far I get.”

The AVID classes make Bell Gardens High School a very different place from what it was in 1989. Educators like Lowe and Herrera think more schools stuck in poverty could make the same transition, if they are willing to fight for the money and make it extremely difficult for their kids to give up on themselves.

Jay Mathews, a Washington Post columnist, is the author of Question Everything: The Rise of AVID as America’s Largest College Readiness Program. He wrote this for “Reimagining California,” a partnership of the California Endowment and Zócalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

Baltimore’s Refusal to Be Silent Was an American Triumph

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Like the youth of the 1960s Free Speech Movement, the citizens who took to the streets in April 2015 roared against unfairness

Four days after protests in Baltimore turned violent, I found myself looking into every black face I saw as I made my way through Pittsburgh International Airport, wanting to say something huge-hearted and restorative. My eyes were wet, my chest full but also empty, as if a balloon were lodged there and about to pop. I looked at all the white faces, too, thinking, Don’t you know me? Don’t we mean something to each another?

My emotional state surprised me, but then again it didn’t. I’d spent the night before talking about race with my brother and his family, talking about Baltimore, about what it means to be the mother of black sons, even in a town with a black mayor. I felt vulnerable, disappointed. I also felt complicit, as if somehow I, in speaking only in the safe setting of family about the nature of my own fears, had become part of what I now sensed to be the problem.

I am a writer not because I am seldom at a loss for words, but rather because it is language itself that alerts me to what I think and believe. So how could it be that I’d kept so quiet about a topic of such urgent intensity, such relevance to someone exactly like me?

Our sense of race shapes the ways we explain ourselves to ourselves, and, by extension, what we tell ourselves about everyone who isn’t us. And yet, how often does the centuries’ old knot of race—a knot you can set out with every intention of unraveling, even as someone standing directly behind you gets to work tying the thing right back up again—render even the most expressive among us hopelessly tongue-tied?

There are numerous ways to connect the dots linking the three white cops, the three black cops, Freddie Gray’s severed spinal cord, his ensuing death, weeks of outcry from black community members, police cars destroyed, and a pharmacy looted and burned. But practically all the news outlets summed up the unrest in largely black communities as rioting, a label that gave some viewers permission to frown upon it, condemn it, hold it up as evidence of black barbarism and self-destruction—as proof of why inequality exists in the first place. The term rioting let those of us watching from a safe distance and buffered by privilege or sheer luck off the hook. What should have been our nation’s shared burden of collective failure was borne instead by those who had been failed. I don’t think I ever caught myself using the word “rioting,” but how many times did I turn away from images of that frenzy, the mess of those streets?

But if what happened in April 2015 in Baltimore was indeed rioting, then I would wager that so were the uprisings in Paris, Mexico City, and Prague in 1968—tumultuous unrest that cemented for citizens the world over the absolute value of democracy. If citizens who took to the streets of Baltimore in April 2015 were rioters, then so was UC Berkeley undergraduate Mario Savio, who helped galvanize upper-middle-class, white, educated American youth around the Free Speech movement in 1964 with this admonition:

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!

The visceral quality of that machine metaphor conjures the physical nature of conflict, of vulnerability, in such moments of all-out commitment. It invokes our sense of Civil Rights activists “going limp,” the lynched bodies hanging from the branches of American trees, the bodies made to march under the weight of guns, made to take aim at other bodies in the name of war. And the relevance of those terms to the events happening only days ago in Baltimore makes me feel foolish—outright delusional—for having once thought the many decades separating us in our 21st-century now from that awful then might keep us—and not just those of us who are black, but all of us—safe.

The beliefs we hold, whether they are expressed or not, live inside of language, even private language. Years ago, when the news was filled with stories of Somali pirates holding passenger ships and international cargo ships hostage, I wrote a poem called “Ransom.” It began:

When the freighters inch past in the distance

The men load their small boats. They motor out,

Buzzing like mosquitoes, aimed at the iron

Side of the blind ship as it creeps closer.

I wasn’t an avid reader of stories that trucked in the romantic, swashbuckling pirate clichés, but I could sense that the particular anger incited by stories about the Somali pirates, even in me, was not remote from a racially charged subtext.

My poem, though I didn’t know it until after it was finished, was an act of empathy, an attempt to pull myself away from the facile nature of the prevailing narrative—the one about depraved African villains preying upon innocent westerners. I shocked even myself when I found my way to these lines late in the poem:

The white men scramble. Some fight back.

When one is taken, the whole world sits up

To watch. When the pirates fall, the world

Smiles to itself, thanking goodness. They

Show the black faces and the dead black bodies

On TV.

The explicit verbal acknowledgment of the complicated things race causes us to think and fear and feel is a necessary counterbalance to the race-based disregard (or worse) that so often infects our views of one another. Sometimes it seems that the words we live with and by do little more than delineate a line separating a constantly shifting Us from Them, solidifying the barrier between what we are comfortable claiming and what we can see, but haven’t yet learned to name, let alone admit.

When I caught the news of Marilyn Mosby’s decision to bring charges against the six police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray—moments after my flight had landed—I gave myself over to tears. In Mosby’s charges, I heard someone saying no to Freddie Gray’s assailants, no to the false terms that too often trick us into letting not just bad cops but ourselves, too, off of the hook. Terms like “thug,” like “suspicious activity,” like “stand your ground,” like “ghetto.” Even the milder but no less dangerous statements (“playing the race card,” “you’re so articulate,” “angry black woman”) that give a toehold to a breezy, glib self-satisfaction that allows us to get away, too much of the time, with telling ourselves that we’ve got one another all figured out.

When I am content to be an American, it is because, for the most part, we have developed the capacity to live beside one another without much gawking and pointing, or worse—and because, when we fail in this regard, we sometimes find ways to talk about it. But when I am truly humbled by America—when I find myself ecstatic with gratitude and hope—it is because someone has made the difficult choice to address the failure of our silence in language that complicates things rather than simplifying them, that urges contemplation rather than pat summation, that invites the listener to join in the difficult work of grappling with and admitting to the many nuanced and sometimes troubling layers of private feelings each of us houses. It is because, no matter what might be waiting to render the attempt futile, someone has lent a set of hands and pair of able eyes to the task of teasing apart that troublesome knot.

Tracy K. Smith is the author of the memoir Ordinary Light, and the recipient of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Life on Mars. She is a professor at Princeton University. She wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Education

Taking State Tests on Computer Is a Drag Even for the Tech Generation

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

When it comes to learning measurements, this high schooler wants to stick with good, old-fashioned pencil and paper

Remember the days when computers were a passing fad and information was derived from dusty encyclopedias after hours of searching? Me neither. I was born in 1998. By the time I was 14, my teachers stopped asking if we had a computer and Internet available because they had become a necessity. By now, at age 16, I can code a website, use Photoshop, and do more with an iPhone than the folks at the Apple Genius Bar.

But this spring I, like 11th graders around the state, had to take the new California State Testing exclusively on computers. And my feelings about the testing, which started just this spring, are decidedly mixed.

To the good: having a computer was much handier for writing essays on the English section of the test, since I could type faster than I could write longhand. Editing text on a computer was so much easier. Of course, the questions felt dated — one part of our test examined the pros and cons of newspapers and blogs using social media, a decade-old question. And the software was definitely outdated — one classmate lost part of hers when her computer crashed.) But overall, English went smoothly. Most people managed to finish in the time allotted. I didn’t feel as nervous as I would have if I had to do the entire test by hand.

But testing math on computers? “Horrible and ridiculously hard,” in the words of my friend and classmate Caleigh Zwahlen. The problem goes beyond computers. The new Common Core Standards make the questions more confusing and difficult than they need to be.

For example, we students could not respond to the geometry questions by drawing out geometric figures — because the computer did not permit it. Instead, we had to write out our answers in words, and then explain, also in words (as opposed to graphs or figures) how we got the answer. This felt like testing a contestant’s eye-crossing skills on the show So You Think You Can Dance. It missed the whole point of the exercise.

Computer testing posed other challenges for my school in the San Gabriel Valley. Our campus only had a certain number of computers, fewer than the number of students tested. For months, we heard rumors that we would switch to a block schedule so all students would have the time necessary to test. Typically, classes are 50 minutes long with a 25-minute study hall, with seven periods in the course of the day; under a block schedule, each class is two hours long — but we only have four classes a day. The rumors proved true — and when testing time came in April, the changes to the school schedule, affected my life schedule as well.

The testing took place over 16 days; during each two-hour testing period, a new class would come into the computer lab and test. The test consisted of two sections which were spread out over three or four days. Sometimes, students wouldn’t finish so they would have to be pulled out of another class later on to finish. So, depending on how quickly the student could write essays, completing the entire test could take anywhere from four to seven hours.

I normally got out of school at 1:45 p.m. Unfortunately, the new schedule had me getting out at 2:40 p.m. almost every single day. And that wasn’t the worst of it. The schedule took away our study period, when we can reach teachers outside of class and complete various other assignments. There were weird holes in the new schedule — some days, I went to my first class, then had two hours until my next class. The administration suggested we go to the library and do homework. I have a lot of homework, but some of my peers, as you might imagine, were not that happy about it.

The last straw for me was when they eliminated the late start for school that we had on Wednesday, forcing me to be at school even earlier. Because of testing, I spent more time at school last month than I ever had in three years of high school — even though I was spending less time in actual classes.

When you consider all the impacts, the cons of online testing far outweigh the pros. Yes, I love technology. Yes, my older brother is a web designer and my 12-year-old brother is already working on taking apart and putting together computers. And yes, my generation will bring forth a multitude of web designers, software developers, and mechanical engineers.

But that doesn’t mean we’re dependent on technology or unable to live without it. For all of technology’s uses, there are times when it is better to honor time-tested traditions. And when it comes to testing, I think it’s best if we stick to the good ol’ pencil and paper. If the state continues with the Common Core Standards and online math testing, they can expect scores to plummet as fast as the iPhone 3’s popularity.

Rebecca Castillo is a writer who enjoys sunsets on the beach and rainy days. Her work can be found on HelloGiggles and HerCulture, and she participates in WriteGirl, a creative writing and mentoring organization in Los Angeles. She wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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Noah Webster Would Have Loved Urban Dictionary

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The founding father of American English was a radical who wanted us to write the language the way we spoke it

In the late 18th century, as the recently independent states were working to define what America was—after fighting with England about what it wasn’t—grammar books were still teaching American children to speak like proper Englishmen and women. The books taught such formal, outdated usages as the correct verb forms for thou (thou goest, thou wilt) and proper uses of shall (used with I and we for simple future, with you, he, she, and they to imply insistence or a threat). They spelled words like flavour, musick, and centre the British way. They also introduced some new restrictions on the language, such as banning prepositions at the end of a sentence, in favor of phrases like, To whom did she speak. And they insisted on using subject pronouns after forms of the verb to be—It is I, It was she.

The approach of the English—and therefore Americans at the time—was to model their tongue after Latin, a high-status language typically taught only to boys attending elite private schools. The study of Latin, besides being required for admission to the universities, was considered excellent mental training. Unfortunately, Latin and English aren’t a good fit—their structures are very different. Forcing English into a Latin template led to sentences that felt artificial.

Noah Webster, in many ways the father of American English, rejected these rules. A true revolutionary, Webster thought Americans should break free from the old country, take charge of their language, and build a new standard from the ground up—one that reflected the way most of his countrymen actually talked. Like others who participated in the new country’s founding, he took the democratic ideal seriously. “As an independent nation,” he declared in his 1789 book Dissertations on the English Language, “our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government.”

As a linguist and former librarian, I had long pictured Webster as the stuffy 19th-century figure who gave his name to the ponderous dictionary displayed on a stand in the library. But, as I delved into his story for my book Founding Grammars, I realized that Webster was a visionary—even a radical—so far ahead of his time, in fact, that grammar and style guides are only now catching up with him.

Webster was born in West Hartford, Connecticut in 1758 to parents whose families could be traced back to the Plymouth Colony. As a student at Yale, Webster participated only briefly in the Revolution. In 1777, he marched with other West Hartford men, including his father and brother, to join the fighting at Saratoga, New York. Although they arrived after the battle was over, the experience stayed with Webster all his life. He could never speak of the American victory in later years without being moved to tears.

“For America in her infancy to adopt the present maxims of the old world would be to stamp the wrinkle of decrepit age upon the bloom of youth,” he wrote in Dissertations. Instead, he believed, this new nation needed a new language, to be used uniformly across the United States to cement new national bonds. Grammar books of the time were doing “much more hurt than good,” he complained. “The authors have labored to prove, what is obviously absurd, viz. that our language is not made right, and … have tried to make it over again, and persuade the English to speak by Latin rules, or by arbitrary rules of their own.”

He therefore proposed that American English ought to be based on the natural rules of the language and “the general practice of the nation.” In other words, if everyone said it, it ought to be standard. And he set about writing books and essays, and eventually creating dictionaries, in defense of his approach. The first volume of his three-volume grammar and spelling series for schoolchildren, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, appeared in 1784. In 1806, he published an early version of his dictionary—the first to feature American English—and followed up in 1828 with the groundbreaking American Dictionary of the English Language, which included 12,000 American words never before recorded.

Webster championed the use of more natural grammar, as in It is me and Who did she speak to? He embraced new words like electioneer and snack, repurposed old words like congress, and included slang like ain’t. And he introduced many new, simplified spellings, including dropping the u in words like favor and the k in words like music, and changing re to er in words like center.

Some reviewers criticized his new dictionary for including “low, coarse” Americanisms. Writing to his brother-in-law, Webster asked, “What is the difference, in point of authenticity, between respectable American usage and respectable English usage?” Clearly, he thought the answer was “none”—to him, they were equally legitimate if they were in daily use.

Webster did have some biases: For example, he was prejudiced in favor of his native New England dialect, which he thought had fewer faults than speech from other parts of the country. He did frown upon a few New England pronunciations that he considered nonstandard: For instance, he noted that the region’s “yeoman” class pronounced er like ar in words such as mercy. He was nonetheless one of the few language scholars of his day to recognize that linguistic diversity and evolving usages are natural.

Webster also occasionally pushed usages and spellings that most people thought were eccentric. For example, he fought a long, losing battle to make you a singular subject—trying to make saying you was standard. It was marginally acceptable in the early 19th century, but became less so over time. He also proposed extreme spellings, such as wimmen for women and tung for tongue, that never caught on.

Over the years, Webster’s political views grew more conservative. He was friendlier toward the mother country and less impressed with his fellow citizens than he had been in the patriotic fervor of his youth. He strongly disapproved of the folksy backwoods politician Andrew Jackson, elected as the first “people’s president.” Webster’s experiences with local and national politics persuaded him that Americans were better off governed by more patrician leaders, such as John Quincy Adams. In spite of his changed political outlook, however, he remained staunchly committed to the ingenuity and progress of American speech, including American word inventions and the common people’s grammar.

Webster would surely be pleased to know that modern Americans are beginning to come around to his grammatical pronouncements. Among others, Patricia T. O’Conner, author of Woe Is I, is in favor of using me and other object pronouns after to be. Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, says that the rule against sentence-final prepositions is “spurious.” Voicing a sentiment that Webster would no doubt heartily approve, Garner admonishes, “Latin grammar should never straitjacket English grammar.”

Webster’s flexible attitudes would fit right into today’s world of language professionals, who post new words and phrases online and hold grammar forums on their blogs. From the intrepid word collectors of the American Dialect Society, who recently voted the hashtag #blacklivesmatter their word of the year, to the new generation of editors at the Associated Press Stylebook, who now approve of hopefully to mean “it is hoped,” it seems that the guardians of our lexicon are embracing language change these days.

And anyone can make contributions. We can all submit a new slang word or phrase to Urban Dictionary, along with our own definition, and anyone else can vote it up or down. At last count, selfie had 64 definitions, with the top vote-getter garnering over 7,000 thumbs-up. Regular folks like Peaches Monroee can introduce terms like on fleek, and see the term tweeted around the Internet in record time.

If Webster were still around, he would no doubt say that’s how things should be. He’d probably be surfing the Internet to collect material for the latest revision of his dictionary. And to those who would argue that English needs to stay rooted in the Old World, he might just tweet, “Bye Felicia.”

Rosemarie Ostler writes books and articles about language, especially the history of American English. Her new book is Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War over Words Shaped Today’s Language. She wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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Can Barack Obama Uphold Bill Clinton’s Free Trade Legacy?

President Barack Obama pauses during a meeting at the White House in Washington on May 1, 2015.
Susan Walsh—AP President Barack Obama pauses during a meeting at the White House in Washington on May 1, 2015.

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

A new deal could bind together a dozen Pacific nations. But Democrats—including Hillary Clinton—have been slow to rally behind it

It’s poignant to watch President Obama fight for the legacy of Bill Clinton while Hillary Clinton coyly refuses to join in, lest she offend the regressive forces within her party that the Clintons once eagerly confronted.

Obama is selling the nation on an ambitious free trade deal to bind together a dozen Pacific nations in the Americas and East Asia. This Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would represent 40 percent of the world’s GDP and a potentially valuable counterweight to Chinese influence in Asia. In pushing passionately for this deal, Obama is following the playbook of Bill Clinton, who – embracing the notion that the outside world offers the U.S. more opportunities than dangers — faced down organized labor to adopt the North American Free Trade Area.

Presidential candidates tend to make anti-trade talk. But America hasn’t had a truly protectionist president since Herbert Hoover. That’s no accident. When it comes to the nation’s overall welfare, the case in favor of expanding trade is too overwhelming to ignore if you sit in the Oval Office. It is hard to lead the world if you are afraid to trade with it.

But in politics, trade has become to many on the left what immigration is to the right: the convenient foreign scapegoat for everything people uncomfortable with change are upset about. Call it bipartisan xenophobia: Conservative Republicans unfairly demonize foreigners in this country; liberal Democrats unfairly demonize foreigners in other countries.

Those opposing the trade deal disingenuously accuse the administration of shrouding its pernicious giveaway to corporations and foreigners in unprecedented secrecy. Never mind that treaty negotiations between nations are always conducted behind closed doors, and that presidents have been granted congressional authority to negotiate such deals and refer them for a straight up-or-down vote since the 1930s. Of course, alleging there is something dodgy about foreigners is an old tactic. Hence the Republicans’ absurd charges that the administration acted dictatorially in its executive orders on immigration.

Here are facts on trade. Clinton’s much-maligned North American Free Trade Agreement led to an explosion in trade within North America. Mexico is now the second-largest buyer of American goods on earth, importing more U.S. goods than all of the once-heralded “BRIC” countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) combined.

Democrats in Congress who oppose their president on TPP, and a similar proposed deal with the European Union, should all read a recent Wall Street Journal story on how Mexico become the fourth-largest exporter of cars in the world. Mexico has attracted more than $20 billion in new investments by automakers and parts suppliers in recent years. Most of their recent investment decisions have gone Mexico’s way, but not because of labor costs. Mexico now has something precious the U.S. does not have: free trade agreements, beyond NAFTA, with many of the world’s largest economies, including the European Union. The lead example in the story was Audi’s decision to build its Q5 in Mexico instead of the US, because the company doesn’t want to pay the costly tariffs it would need to bring a U.S.-made car into Europe.

The current TPP fight, like many of our other debates around trade, is stuck in a caricature-ish and outdated view of a global economy neatly divided between north and south, one in which it is unreasonable (so goes the labor unions’ argument) to ask us affluent folks in the global north to compete with those striving underpaid poor people in the global south. The fact is that by 2030, an estimated two-thirds of middle-class consumers in the world will live in Asia. It would be self-defeating for the United States to retreat from its free trading agenda just when the purchasing power of consumers elsewhere reaches new highs.

Obama, who enjoys rare GOP backing on trade, needs to bring along a face-saving number of Democrats to close the deal, but a presidential primary season is hardly the best time for encouraging hustling politicians to “dig into the facts” of trade. Hillary Clinton advocated for the TPP as Secretary of State, but now ducks it, worried as she is by anyone outflanking her on the left.

Which leaves her husband. My free trader’s dream consists of Bill getting a hall pass from his wife’s campaign (or maybe slipping his security detail?) to speak out, on behalf of his own legacy.

Andrés Martinez is the editorial director of Zócalo Public Square and a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. He wrote this for Zócalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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The Tenacious Woman Who Helped Deliver Mother’s Day to the U.S.

Undated picture of Anna Jarvis.
AP Undated picture of Anna Jarvis.

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

For Anna Jarvis, a holiday devoted to moms was not sentimental fluff, but a practical exercise in patriotism

One hundred years ago last May, President Woodrow Wilson signed the first congressional resolution and presidential proclamation calling upon all citizens to honor Mother’s Day. The observance of the Mother’s Day holiday may have had an easy birth, but not an easy transition to maturity.

Anna Jarvis, who deserves credit for the holiday’s popularity and organized the first official Mother’s Day services on May 10, 1908, in her hometown of Grafton, West Virginia, and in her adopted hometown of Philadelphia, designed the celebration in honor of her own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis. As a young girl, she was inspired by a prayer she once overhead her mother give: “I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life,” Jarvis remembered her mother saying. Jarvis chose the second Sunday in May to mark the anniversary of her mother’s death and selected Mrs. Jarvis’ favorite flower, the white carnation, as the holiday’s official emblem.

As a single woman in her 40s, Jarvis viewed motherhood simply through the eyes of a daughter. Thus she constructed a child-centered celebration of motherhood for Mother’s Day: a “thank-offering” from sons and daughters and the nation “for the blessing of good homes.”

Commercial industries quickly recognized the marketability in Jarvis’ sentimental celebration of motherhood. Her themes became central to Mother’s Day advertising campaigns. The designation of the white carnation emblem energized the floral industry.

Jarvis, however, considered Mother’s Day her intellectual and legal property. She wished for Mother’s Day to remain a “holy day,” to remind us of our neglect of “the mother of quiet grace” who put the needs of her children before her own.

Jarvis’ attacks on the commercialization of Mother’s Day became legendary. In 1922, Jarvis endorsed an open boycott against the florists who raised the price of white carnations every May. The following year, she crashed a retail confectioner convention to protest the industry’s economic gouging of the day.

The biggest threat to Mother’s Day was another holiday: a more inclusive Parents’ Day. In 1924, New York City philanthropist Robert Spero sponsored his first Parents’ Day celebration on the second Sunday in May. His rallies earned more holiday converts and media attention as the decade progressed. “We want fathers to feel they are more than breadwinners, that when they go off to work they have some responsibility for what goes on in the home,” Spero told The New York Times in 1926.

In 1930, when New York Assemblyman Julius Berg introduced a bill in Albany to legally replace Mother’s Day with Parents’ Day on the state calendar, he was confident that New York State mothers would have no complaints about sharing their day with fathers.

But Jarvis complained, vehemently. Not only did she consider the bill a personal attack on her legal copyright protection; she saw it as a patent, “humiliating” insult to the state’s mothers. For Jarvis, a threat to Mother’s Day was an affront to motherhood and, in turn, to family harmony. Although often criticized by her more feminist contemporaries, as well as modern scholars, for her failure to acknowledge mothers who were active in the era’s social and political reform movements, Jarvis never faltered from her defense of a mother’s preeminent role within the family.

The state and national success that Spero predicted for Parents’ Day never materialized. Berg’s bill failed repeatedly in Albany. And even George Hecht, the publisher of Parents magazine who had once endorsed Parents’ Day, abandoned the movement in 1941 to chair a new national committee on Mother’s Day.

Perhaps the holiday’s lack of broad appeal mirrored the larger cultural recognition of the unequal division of child care—that when contemporary child care experts or social pundits addressed “parents,” they were still really addressing mothers. Although many Americans certainly believed that fathers deserved regard beyond that of breadwinner, most hesitated to equate the maternal and paternal roles. Ultimately, Americans opted to honor fathers in a way that did not threaten the status of mothers or marginalize their role as children’s primary care takers. As the Parents’ Day movement faded in the 1940s, the celebration of Father’s Day grew in popularity.

On a national calendar already crowded with tributes to American fathers — from Presidents’ Day to our “pilgrim fathers” on Thanksgiving — Mother’s Day is the only culturally, commercially popular holiday that explicitly celebrates women. And that explains Jarvis’ protectiveness: “When a son or daughter cannot endure the name ‘mother’ for a single day of the year it would seem there is something wrong,” she implored.

Katharine Lane Antolini is an assistant professor of history and gender studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She is the author of Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for the Control of Mother’s Day. She wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


When Life Hands You Lemons, Make Cinco de Mayo

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In one California town, a holiday co-opted by beer companies has roots in a celebrated citrus crop

What’s with Cinco de Mayo, anyways?

Corporate advertisers treat it as the de facto Mexican Day, if not Latino Day, in this country. In 1998, the United States Post Office issued a Cinco de Mayo stamp featuring two folklórico dancers. In 2005, Congress passed a resolution making Cinco de Mayo an official national holiday to celebrate Mexican-American heritage. And it’s customary for presidents to celebrate Cinco de Mayo on the White House lawn with margaritas flowing, mariachi music playing, and dancers in brightly colored traditional costumes.

Don’t they all know that Mexican Independence Day is actually September 16?

Growing up in rural Zacatecas, Mexico, in the early 1970s, holidays and festivities were big community-building affairs. I attended fiestas with tamborazo-style band music, rodeos with charros showing off their roping and riding skills, and the religious procession honoring the town’s patron saint. What I remember most, though, was El Grito, the traditional cry of “Viva Mexico!” to commemorate Mexico’s independence from Spain on September 16. Like Christmas, the holiday is celebrated on the eve of the big day, and the day itself. But I have no memory of Cinco de Mayo, at least not before migrating to the United States.

It was in my elementary school’s bilingual education classroom in Ventura, California, that I first learned about the holiday, which had been incorporated into lesson plans and school assemblies on cultural diversity. In high schools at the time, Mexican-American students began organizing their own Cinco de Mayo celebrations to show off their cultural pride and make a public claim of belonging.

But what does Cinco de Mayo commemorate originally? It is indeed a holiday in Mexico, to be clear, but a lesser holiday not associated with any particular form of revelry. It is the anniversary of the famous battle of Puebla, in which Mexican liberal forces defeated an occupying French army and its Mexican conservative allies during one of Mexico’s serial 19th-century civil wars. By helping to impose an unemployed Hapsburg prince as Mexican emperor, the French were hoping to gain a new beachhead in the Americas while the U.S. was distracted with its own epic civil war.

There are a number of competing (but not mutually exclusive) theories as to why this, of all Mexican holidays, was the one to stand out on this side of the border, in the face of ostensibly stronger contenders. One theory is that it would have been awkward for Mexicans in the U.S. to be too eager to celebrate the official independence day of another country. The generations of Mexican immigrants who came to America weren’t necessarily on best terms with the authoritarian Mexican governments of yesteryear, and weren’t keen to celebrate as if they were those governments’ blind followers. Better to select a different one: Cinco de Mayo.

There is an additional, more prosaic, explanation for Cinco de Mayo’s stature on this side of the border—and that is the fact that it is a more convenient time for migrant farmworkers to celebrate, as was driven home to me when I did doctoral research on the holiday’s popularity—going strong since 1923—in Corona, California.

The Southern California town once known as the “Lemon Capital of the World” was one of the earliest to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. Mexican workers made up the majority of the labor force working in the 2,000 acres of lemon groves, 11 packinghouses, and lemon processing plant in 1930s Corona. Lemons were grown in winter months but harvested in springtime, just in time for Cinco de Mayo. The timing of the lemon harvest made Cinco de Mayo a well timed holiday, when people would welcome a reason to rest and celebrate and have a little more disposable income than usual, not to mention ideal weather. When May 5 fell on a weekday, employers paid workers early, and students were dismissed from class early to attend the festivities. As early as 1939, the Los Angeles Times reported, “All work in the citrus industry was suspended for the Cinco de Mayo holiday and several thousand persons came to participate in the celebration.”

Corona is typical of other agricultural communities in California that rely on Mexican farm labor during harvest time, where Cinco de Mayo became an entrenched holiday both because of what it represented and when it fell on the calendar. For example, La Habra’s Spring Citrus Fair incorporates a full day of Cinco de Mayo activities, and thousands attend the Fallbrook Avocado festival during harvest season to sample delicious guacamole and attend Cinco de Mayo festivities.

Corona’s Cinco de Mayo celebration—which continues to this day—has long sought to keep its events local, intimate, and inclusive. The morning parade still features local heroes and role models as grand marshals—for instance, the mother of a World War II hero killed in action or a Latina superior court judge—rather than outside celebrities. The town limits sponsors to local businesses and nonprofit organizations, continuing the spirit of the late 1940s, when the holiday was used to raise money to finance the first youth community center that later became the Corona Boys and Girls Club, which provided recreation programs for kids and teenagers. Proceeds from the celebration provide college scholarships to local Latino high school students. The crowning of the Cinco de Mayo Queen is not simply a beauty contest, but a way to encourage young Latinas to gain public speaking skills, gain confidence, and take on a leadership role in their communities. When organizers had trouble raising funds during the recent recession, the city stepped in to make it an official civic event—fully incorporating the Mexican holiday into American public life.

There is no beer or alcohol sponsorship of Corona’s Cinco de Mayo, even though you can’t talk about the popularity of the holiday everywhere else without talking about the other Corona. The corporate marketplace started pushing Cinco de Mayo as a day-long happy hour when we’re all supposed to down cervezas and margaritas when it recognized the demographic growth of the Latino population in the 1980s. Corporations thought that advertising, sponsorship, and promotion of Cinco de Mayo events would enable them to tap into that young consumer market. Beer and alcohol companies led the charge by spending millions on marketing the holiday. Corona Extra (the beer—no relation to the town) alone spent $91 million in 2013, according to Kantar Media, advertising around the holiday in both Spanish and English, calling itself “the original party beer of Cinco de Mayo.”

I don’t think that means there were kegs on the battlefield in Puebla, but it’s an amusing image. So go have a drink on Cinco de Mayo. But when you do, take a moment to reflect on the evolution of this holiday that commemorates the Americanization of a Mexican diaspora eager to assert its own identity—and, increasingly, the Mexicanization of mainstream U.S. culture as well. ¡Salud!

José M. Alamillo is professor of Chicano/a studies at California State University Channel Islands and author of Making Lemonade out of Lemons: Mexican American Labor and Leisure in a California Town. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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The Destruction in Nepal Is Sickening

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As an American, here’s what I’m doing to help

I was at my house not far from the center of Patan, a city right next to Kathmandu, when the shaking started. It was about noon on Saturday and my driver, Runjin, and I were talking about hanging some Tibetan flags in my bedroom.

As we both fell to the floor, sliding around, he grabbed my arm and kept trying to reassure me, “It’s OK, Olga Didi” (older sister). A heater on wheels with a propane tank came rolling toward us, and I kicked it back, slithering to get under my desk—my “go to” place in the event of an earthquake. The shaking stopped, and we went outside with Ram, my cook.

The earthquake happened four hours before a big early birthday party for me—I’ll turn 90 in June. We were expecting 600 guests, including many people who made long bus trips from other parts of Nepal.

My first thought was for the children who live in the J and K houses, the two children’s homes in Patan run by the Nepal Youth Foundation, which I founded in 1990. These 60 boys and girls range in age from 2 to 16; some of them are orphans or were abandoned by their parents, some were child beggars, and some are disabled. Thankfully, all the children survived the earthquake, along with the foundation staff and their families.

For 25 years, I’ve divided my time between Nepal and Sausalito, Calif. I first visited Nepal in 1984 when I was 60 and about to retire as a research attorney at the California Supreme Court. I was overwhelmed by the stunning scenery and friendliness of the people—and especially by the children I encountered. They had so few material possessions, yet they were the most joyful, funny, amiable little kids anywhere on earth. Their most fervent wish was to go to school someday.

Totally unexpectedly, I discovered a country and a cause to which I would devote the rest of my life. I formed the Nepal Youth Foundation in 1990; since then, the organization has provided education, health care, shelter, and freedom from servitude to more than 45,000 children.

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, about 50 people took refuge at my house, including 19 girls who came to my home from West Nepal to perform their incredible local dances at the birthday party. These girls were once trapped in the Kamlari system—sold into domestic slavery by their desperately poor families. Since 2000, NYF has liberated over 12,000 of these girls and paid to educate them, giving their families piglets to compensate for lost earnings. Recently, the government agreed to cover these costs—but we continue to provide former Kamlari girls with training and mentoring. I was worried about the girls, but we thankfully managed to find them. They were quite traumatized, and some were crying. But within a few hours, they calmed down. They napped in the sun and felt safe—together and in an open space.

That night, the girls helped Ram to prepare the Nepali staple dinner of dal bhat and tarkari (rice, lentils and vegetables) for the big crowd. For that meal, Ram used cabbage from my garden. I’m worried that food and water may become a serious problem; our water filter operates on electricity. There has been no electricity since the quake, and the Internet connection is spotty.

There have been more than 80 aftershocks, some of them quite severe. Everyone who wasn’t injured in Kathmandu spent the afternoon outside—and hundreds of thousands of people slept outside all night.

My house has a large garden with a high wall around it. There was a crowd of people camped in the empty space on the other side of my wall, and every time the earth shook, a great shout went up.

Almost everyone at my house slept outdoors, including two families with newborn babies. The former Kamlari girls also slept outdoors on mats until it started to rain and they ran inside and spread out on the floor of my living and dining rooms. I told them that, as a California girl, I wake up two or three times a year in a shaking bed at my home in Sausalito. I just put the cover over my head and go back to sleep. They told me later that when the aftershocks began on Saturday, they thought about what I had said and went back to sleep.

The girls left on Sunday for the 14-hour bus ride back to Dang in West Nepal. That day, I wanted more than anything to see the kids, but CNN called for interviews, and by the time I finished with them, it was dark. The children have been camping out at the empty lot next to the J and K houses. I understand the little boys view this as an adventure, but I am sure many of them are shaken by the experience.

Some of the alumni, who are now college graduates, have returned to the J and K houses—not only because they view them as their homes, but also to help the “uncle” and “auntie” who supervise the kids.

I returned home to California on Wednesday night. The international airport is open, but (tragically) the airport for domestic flights is not operational. The devastation in rural areas, where 80 percent of Nepalis live, is overwhelming and there is no way to get relief to most of them.

I am so sad to be leaving at a time like this, when so many people I care for are suffering. But I think I will be more useful working from California to raise money for the relief effort.

Because NYF is on the ground, we know where the greatest needs are in Nepal right now. The hospitals are jam-packed with the injured and lacking in beds, medical equipment, food, and medicine. On Monday, NYF bought 200 mattresses, and bedding and delivered them to one of Nepal’s main government hospitals. We also bought $30,000 worth of surgical supplies for the most advanced and efficient public hospital in Nepal.

NYF has also established a shelter for patients who are ready to be discharged from the hospital but have no place to go because their homes are destroyed, there is no transport, and their relatives can’t come for them. Doctors are desperate to discharge these patients because seriously injured people are lying in the corridors or outside, waiting for a hospital bed.

We have a beautiful facility we constructed right outside Kathmandu a few years ago to rehabilitate malnourished children. We began moving discharged patients into it on Tuesday afternoon. Some of these patients will need ongoing care, so 40 former bonded girls we are training as health assistants are coming down from Northern Nepal to work in the facility.

Looking ahead, we already know there be a massive demand for skilled construction workers. NYF has experience in job training and construction projects, and we plan to train 1,000 people in construction skills that incorporate seismic safety, mostly in villages where the majority of the destruction occurred. In addition to allowing them to earn a livelihood, this will enable people to rebuild their own homes. NYF will provide them with supplementary funds to purchase steel rods and concrete so that they can replace their mud homes with solid structures.

Hundreds of schools have been flattened. Using our experience in building more than 100 schools or schoolrooms, NYF also plans to rebuild 50 of these devastated structures so that children can resume their education.

We’re certainly not the only group that has sprung into action to help in the aftermath of this catastrophic earthquake, but we are trying to address the most pressing needs. The scenes of destruction all around Nepal are sickening. My heart goes out to so many people here who have lost so much. Now we have to do what we can to help them recover from this devastation.

Olga Murray is the founder of the Nepal Youth Foundation, which has provided education, health care, shelter, and freedom from servitude to more than 45,000 children. To donate to NYF’s relief efforts, visit http://www.nepalyouthfoundation.org/nepal-earthquake-disaster-relief-fund/. She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

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