Burroughs Adding Machine

Social justice, arts and politics, life in New York City

Public Education and Politics

Michelle Rhee, D.C. School Chancellor, will resign from her post tomorrow. Breaking news, yes, but expected: her tenure as the no-nonsense head in the struggling school system has been the subject of endless controversy, praise, and, in part, a new documentary on the failings of U.S. education. I first learned of Rhee’s uncompromising expectations from a long profile in Time; in her public appearances, she comes off as both fearless and resigned. Seems like the D.C. public schools are losing one of their great leaders.

How do we–all of us, not just those with kids in schools or kids in “good” schools–care for our ailing public school system? How do we remove politics–tying property values to school funding, resources to test scores, school leadership to local elections–and put the students first?

I was a kid who went to public schools. In Iowa, there never struck me as much of a disparity between the public and the parochial or prep schools. Some part of me knew that the private school kids had more homework and better college-prep, but even at that young age, when my mother asked me if I wanted to attend the local Catholic secondary school, I mulled it over and said no. The immature kid in me just didn’t want to leave my friends; looking back now, I wonder if I made that decision partly out of fear of higher expectations in a school that seemed, from the outside, more rigorous, more academically-intimidating, and less the slacker atmosphere I knew at my public high school.


Kandice Washington, a University of Chicago Charter School teacher, works with her students. The UEI will refine and expand its successful teacher preparation program with an $11.6 million ARRA grant from the U.S. Department of Education.


I’m no education scholar but I often wonder about our public system in the U.S. It’s a trickle-up theory, no? If we begin educating our children with low expectations in high school, fast-tracking one student to college-prep while sending another on an alternate, more labor-oriented program of study, how do we divide instead of pool our human resources? Doesn’t our nation suffer from this two-track system as a whole?

All to say that my suburban education system was flawed and yet, pretty good. I’m ambivalent in retrospect. But ultimately I have this luxury of retrospect. I received a strong K-12 education, an even stronger undergraduate experience, and the necessary training and flourishing of the mind as a post-graduate. In my urban neighborhood in Boston, I sometimes ask myself if the kids on my street have the same kind of excellence in teachers, funding, and leadership.

I don’t know the answer.


Filed under: education, intelligence, iowa, politics, united states of america, , , , , , , , ,

Parents, Give Your Kids Books

I was one of those kids, raised in small-town Iowa, baffled by adolescence and most definitely oblivious to affairs outside the United States. Yet I was always surrounded by books.

My mom, a teacher and school counselor, is as much of a bookworm as I am: Filipino American authors, pulpy romances, child psychology texts disguised as children’s books. Her choices were idiosyncratic and a bit haphazard (we didn’t have that much money), but they strike me now as multitudinous and wide-ranging. Her books were a source of endless possibility.

As an adult and someone intimately connected to literature in my life work, I know that access to these books shaped me in unconscious ways.

Outside the house, one memory I have is of visiting the Council Bluffs Public Library with my mother sometime in middle school and picking up The Stranger. Junior high! The language in The Stranger was simple, the plot a real thriller with something sinister that I couldn’t put my thumb on, and I was captivated. I knew nothing of Camus’ existentialism at that age, but I know that my mom’s trips to the library were the foundation for a great love of the very act of reading and of thinking about my life through literature.

Now there’s proof that book owners make smarter kids. Perhaps one of the most obvious theories ever to be given its own research study, the conclusions summed up by Laura Miller in Salon reiterate that more books in a household exponentially increases the chances of smart kids. Books, it seems–more than education or income–are a real predictor of your kid’s intelligence.

If my mom had chosen to invest in an Atari or a Nintendo set instead of books (which I definitely nagged her about), where would I be now?

Filed under: consumerism, intelligence, literature, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Letterman tops himself

I laugh a lot when I watch Letterman. But this video, a compilation of his great, ongoing series of “Great Moments in Presidential Speeches,” had me cracking up. When you watch him, you sometimes just feel the pain he’s feeling as a poor public speaker.

Bush just doing what Bush does.


Filed under: intelligence

Against intellectualism


Things I’m thinking about: commerce depends upon preying upon the dumb. I want to say that I’m not an elitist, but sometimes I am. Why apologize for being smart? Why pretend we’re all equal, intellectually, when we’re not?

Let’s face it: I know that people are smarter than me, and I don’t fear them or take offense. If someone I respect mentions a theory or author I don’t know, my instinct is to note her or his name for later. Happened just now with the writer John Bellairs. Who is he? What did he write? Thanks for sharing, Trevor, I’m curious to find out.

The movement in America against intellectualism is so strong, and so apparent, that I feel guilty when I crave literature–a simple essay, a good book.

I recently read an essay entitled “The Fender Bender,” about an American citizen who happens to also be an “illegal” alien (an idiotic phrase–people can not be illegal). The author’s name was Ramon Tianguis Perez (a pseudonym, for obvious reasons), relating a narrative about dealing with a simple traffic accident. It gave me pause; expanded my already liberal mind to consider the challenge of interacting with police if you don’t have official documents–a driver’s license, a checking account.

Yet for all my intellectual curiosity I’m still drawn to The Real Housewives of Orange County; I want to waste time on the sofa learning how to decorate cakes with fondant. Tell me you don’t want to click on the links in the previous sentence. Totally irrelevant information when people are hungry in other parts of the world, when my country attacks and murders civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What right do I have to enjoy shallow TV? How do we, as citizens of the wealthiest and most powerful entity in the world (except for the Catholic church) work to help the poorest countries in the world?

I’m depressed by the idea of complacency.


Filed under: intelligence, pop culture, world, ,



» "Pinays," AGNI, Spring 2016
» "Dandy," Post Road, Spring 2015
» "Wrestlers," Fifth Wednesday, Spring 2014
» "Babies," Joyland, August 2011
» "Nicolette and Maribel," BostonNow, May 2007
» "The Rice Bowl," Memorious, March 2005
» "The Rules of the Game," Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images (Coffee House Press, June 2003)
» "Deaf Mute," Growing Up Filipino (Philippine American Literary House, April 2003)
» "Good Men ," Genre, April 2003
» "The Foley Artist," Drunken Boat, April 2002
» "Squatters," Take Out: Queer Writing from Asian Pacific America (Asian Am. Writers' Workshop, 2001)
» "Deaf Mute," The North American Review, Jan 2001
» "The First Lady of Our Filipino Nation," The Boston Phoenix, 1999
» "Paper Route," Flyway Literary Review, 1996
» "Brainy Smurf and the Council Bluffs Pride Parade," Generation Q (Alyson, 1996)
March 2018
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About Me

Ricco Villanueva Siasoco is a Manhattan-based writer and non-profit manager. More

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