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One of my personal heroes is Yong Zhao, a Chinese-American scholar from whom I have learned much about education. I first met him through his writings, which are informative and provocative. Over the years, I met Yong at conferences, and we became friends. Not long after Anthony Cody and I created the Network for Public Education, we invited Yong to be the keynote speaker at our annual meeting in Chicago. He was a sensation. He had no prepared speech, but he did have a computer loaded with images. As he flashed from one image to another, he told a coherent story that was both based in scholarship, personal, and uproariously funny. When I created a lecture series at Wellesley College, I invited him to speak, and he again gave an informal talk that was illuminating, authoritative, and delivered with grace and humor.

I reviewed one of his books—demystifying the myth of Chinese super-schools—in the New York Review of Books.

I recently learned that Yong Zhao collaborated with Bill McDiarmid of the University of North Carolina to tell the story of Yong’s life. I remember his telling jokes about his impoverished childhood in a rural village and the unlikely trajectory of his life. He explained with a smile that he was too small and scrawny to plow the fields with a water Buffalo, so he was allowed to go to school instead. If you read the excerpt from the new book, you will see that this was no joke.

This is a column in Valerie Strauss’s blog, The Answer Sheet, at the Washington Post. She excerpted a part of a new book about Yong’s life.

Valerie Strauss wrote:

This is an excerpt of a new book, “Improbable Probabilities,” about and co-written by Yong Zhao, whose unlikely story starts in a village in China during the disastrous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and takes him to a renowned career in academia. An internationally known scholar, author and speaker, Yong’s research and work has focused on how globalization and technology affect education. He has also been a prominent critic of school reform efforts in the United States that rely on high-stakes standardized tests and look to China — whose students excel on these tests — as a model. He has written for The Answer Sheet over the past decade on this and other topics.

In telling Yong’s story and why he consistently challenges conventional wisdom in education, Yong and co-author G. Williamson McDiarmid look at what factors are needed for success and how “forces outside human control play an essential role in the unfolding of human life.” I am publishing this because I think it offers valuable insights into what leads to success in school and in life.

Yong has written some 30 books, which education historian Diane Ravitch once said were “saturated with remarkable scholarship and learning,” and he has done extensive work in creating schools that promote global competence and language-learning computer games. He is now professor of education at the University of Kansas, as well as professor of educational leadership at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education in Australia.

Yong has taught at other schools, including the University of Oregon, where he was presidential chair and director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education, and a professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy, and Leadership. He was previously university distinguished professor in the College of Education at Michigan State University, where he was founding director of the Office of Teaching and Technology and the U.S.-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence, and executive director of the Confucius Institute. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Education and elected fellow of the International Academy for Education.

McDiarmid is dean and alumni distinguished professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and distinguished chair of education at East China Normal University in Shanghai.

This is part of the introduction of the book:

Too often, the lives of people who have climbed out of dire circumstances and subsequently left their mark on the world are portrayed as miracles of the human spirit or valorized as the main character of a rags-to-riches tale. Such narratives perpetuate the idea that only extraordinary individuals succeed against overwhelming odds; they focus on the individual qualities that led to a person’s success while downplaying the circumstances that contributed to their success. Even less often is chance or luck assigned a major role in these success stories.

In 2018, scholars Alessandro Pluchino, Alessio Emanuele Biondo, and Andrea Rapisarda set out to investigate the “largely dominant meritocratic paradigm of highly competitive Western cultures [that] is rooted on the belief that success is due mainly, if not exclusively, to personal qualities such as talent, intelligence, skills, smartness, efforts, willfulness, hard work or risk taking.”[i] They conclude that, while talent contributes to a person’s success, it’s not the most talented people who are most successful; mediocre people who get lucky often surpass talented people.[ii]

So, what’s really going on? Evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin suggests that forces outside human control play an essential role in the unfolding of human life; if we wish to understand living things, we must see that genes, organisms, and environments (Lewontin’s triple helix) are not separate entities.[iii]. Observers may attribute individuals’ successes to their genes or to their environment – or the interactions of these factors. Lewontin argues that a critical third strand must be included if we are to understand how people’s lives unfold: chance.[iv] The American myth of rugged individualism (the belief that humans succeed against heavy odds solely through their individual talent, determination, and intelligence) obscures the role that the interaction of genes, environment, and chance play in shaping a person’s path to success or failure.

In what follows in this chapter, we examine the roles that these three factors played in determining Yong’s improbable path. We start with the role that chance events play in all aspects of our daily lives. We then describe some of the chance occurrences that helped shape Yong’s life. We consider how Yong’s unfavorable environment offered him, paradoxically, opportunities to develop his interests and abilities. We also examine the role that Yong’s personality traits may have played in his taking advantage of those opportunities. We conclude with an overview of the book.

Chance Encounters

Rags-to-riches and rugged individualism narratives ignore the fact that contingencies play a determinative role in individual success. Challenging these myths, Historian John Fea writes about the role contingency plays in events and people’s lives:

Contingency is . . . at odds with other potential ways of explaining human behavior in the past. Fatalism, determinism, and providentialism are philosophical or religious systems that teach that human behavior is controlled by forces—fate, the order of the universe, God—that are outside the control of humans. . .. [I]t is undeniable that we are all products of the macrolevel cultural or structural contexts that have shaped the world into which we have been born. Karl Marx suggested that human action is always held in check by “the circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” It is unlikely that any proponent of contingency would deny that human behavior is shaped by larger cultural forces, but in the end, historians are in the business of explaining why people—as active human agents—have behaved in the past in the way that they did.[v]

Fea uses the example of the Union army’s victory at the Battle of Antietam during the U.S. Civil War that turned the conflict in favor of the Union (at the cost of 6,200 casualties).[vi] Prior to the battle, a copy of General Robert E. Lee’s battle plans fell into the hands of the Union command purely by chance. Fea quotes fellow historian James McPherson, who wrote that the “odds against the occurrence of such a chain of events must have been a million to one . . . yet it happened.”[vii]

Many of us are uncomfortable with the idea that chance occurrences have significantly shaped the world in which we live. We prefer to believe that there is a grand plan, that “everything happens for a reason.” The idea that success is not simply a function of our hard work and talent and that chance plays a significant role in how our lives unfold challenges both culturally imbedded beliefs as well as our sense of control over our destinies. Sociologist Duncan J. Watts points out that:People observe unusually successful outcomes and consider them as the necessary product of hard work and talent, while they mainly emerge from a complex and interwoven sequence of steps, each depending on precedent ones: if any of them had been different, an entire career or life trajectory would almost surely differ too.[viii]

Let’s examine some of the chance events that, had they turned out differently, would have changed the course of Yong’s life. Of particular interest are random circumstances, events, or encounters that could have been debilitating yet, somehow , moved Yong down the path to success.

• Historical moment:

Yong was born between two events that killed millions of Chinese—the Great Leap Forward and the Great Cultural Revolution (see the Preface). Social chaos, political uncertainty, internecine conflict, and continuing depravations characterized this period. A boy born in an obscure village to the lowest class of peasants, Yong was in a vulnerable position. If he had been born earlier, he might have died of starvation, malnutrition, or disease. If he had been born later, he might not have had the opportunities that opened to him as a member of the lowest peasant class under the reforms of Chinese communist leader Deng Xiaoping (page XX).

• Family:

Yong had the good fortune to be born into a family that placed no expectations on him, loved him, and allowed him to pursue his own path. Although illiterate, the family saw the value of schooling for Yong, especially as his poor health and corporal weakness made him ill-suited for manual labor. They supported him in whatever way they could as he worked his way up the educational system and allowed Yong to decide for himself how to live his life. If he had been born into another family, Yong might have faced familial expectations for what he should do and what he should become, which was common among his peers. He might also have been subjected to the physical and verbal abuse that undoubtedly left many children with physical and emotional scars.

• Schooling: Despite woeful conditions, Yong managed to succeed in school when no one else from his village did. He benefitted from a few teachers who recognized his potential and found ways to help him. He also benefitted from Mao’s educational reforms, which opened more opportunities for learning and brought experienced teachers to rural China (page XX). If he had not had the teachers that he had, gained access to Mao’s reformed school system, and learned English instead of Russian (the required second language until the early 1960s), his path might have been very different.

• Higher education: Because his university career was delayed for a year due to his small stature, Yong qualified for a newly created English teacher-training program at the Sichuan Foreign Language Institute (SFLI), the flagship university for foreign language education and information in southwest China. The program covered student tuition and fees and offered access to a much wider world, including a bookstore that sold English-language books, journals, and magazines. Yong’s success in computer and pedagogy courses earned him a spot on a research team, where he taught himself coding and statistics and wrote a program to analyze the survey data. If Yong had not been malnourished, he might have entered higher education the year before the English-teacher training program was created. If he had not been able to take and succeed in courses in computing and pedagogy, he might not have come to the attention of his professors or earned a spot on the research team.

This is, of course, a highly condensed account of a few of the chance events and contingencies Yong experienced in the first 25 years of his life. Each of us could chronicle our life in a similar way, identifying myriad random events, occurrences, encounters, and people that nudged us this way and that.Along the way, chance events shape our environment to create unforeseen opportunities. Do we recognize opportunities? Do we take advantage of them? Let’s examine some of the factors in Yong’s environment that influenced his ability to capitalize on opportunities and embark on a path to success.

Environmental Factors

Yong’s life illustrates how random events create unique and unforeseen paths. Changes in our environment present us with opportunities. Changes cause disequilibria that people, if they are ready, can exploit. What factors in Yong’s environment shaped him throughout his life?

• Yong’s father’s influence: Yong’s father was the most influential person in his early life. He was loving and caring toward Yong, allowed him the freedom to explore his interests and passions, and modeled an entrepreneurial approach to embracing opportunities rather than settling for the status quo.

• Village life: Life in Yong’s village was almost exclusively focused on survival. As members of the peasant class, villagers were fully occupied with feeding, clothing, and sheltering themselves just as their ancestors had done for thousands of years. Given this survivalist mentality, villagers did not judge how Yong spent his time, his chosen career path, or his adherence to social norms.

• Positive teacher relationships: Yong had teachers who noticed his unique academic gifts and sought to encourage and mentor him, opening doors for him into higher education.• Chinese education: Historically, the Chinese have seen education as a means toa career (preferably as a government official), prizing obedience to authority and rote memorization over all else. Student autonomy and critical thinking were typically punished. thus perpetuating a culture of student apathy, acquiescence to authority, and conformity. As a result, Yong’s penchant for creative thinking, risk-taking, innovation, and love of learning for its own sake made him an outlier who was unusually attuned to opportunities that others missed.

• Global perspective: As an adult, Yong traveled widely, developing friendships and collaborations with people from many different countries, As a result, he recognizes that no single culture or ethnicity can claim to be the bearers of “the truth” and that contributions to solving global problems can come from anyone.

Every person, even siblings in the same family, encounters a different set of environmental factors shape who they are and offer various opportunities. This is an experience common to everyone. The difference is that some people recognize opportunities while others don’t. Some people jump at the chance to walk through an open door while others hold back or turn away. Why was Yong able to recognize and take advantage of opportunities when many around him did not? Part of the answer to this may lie with his personality traits.

Influence of Personality

Research on the recognition of opportunities has focused almost entirely on entrepreneurial opportunities and the characteristics of those who seize on what appear to be promising opportunities. Most of the factors that researchers have identified and explored, such as social capital and prior knowledge of a given business sector, seem unhelpful in understanding Yong’s ability to recognize opportunities.[ix]

However, one vein of research—focused on the psychological and cognitive factors that help explain the phenomenon—may help us understand Yong’s eye for opportunity. Researchers have found that personality traits play a vital role in a person’s ability to recognize and capitalize on opportunities.[x], [xi], [xii]

Researcher Scott Shane and colleagues conclude: “Genetic factors account for a large part of the variance in opportunity recognition by influencing the probability that people will be open to experiences.”[xiii] This research speaks to Lewontin’s formulation, supporting the idea that genes interact with both the environment and chance. Is it possible that certain personality traits could tip the scales, could increase the probability that some people are more likely than others to encounter promising opportunities?

Researcher Richard Wiseman became curious about this very question. Why do some people seem to be luckier than others?[xiv] Speculating that luck might not be totally random, he conducted several studies to learn more about what lucky people have in common and why they differ from those less lucky. When he studied the underlying dimensions of personality that psychologists had identified as universal, he found that luckier people shared four of the “Big 5” personality traits: extroversion, neuroticism, optimism, and openness.[xv] How did these traits seem to play out in Yong’s life?

• Extroversion: Evidence of Yong’s extroversion includes his wide circle of friends across the globe and the numerous (over 100 annually) invitations he receives to speak to business, educational, and governmental audiences. This speaks not only to the value others find in his ideas but also to his inherent likeability and the genuine pleasure he takes in meeting and talking with others, especially those whose backgrounds differ from his own.

• Optimism: Despite the harsh conditions of his upbringing, Yong consistently expects good fortune.[xvi] He has an unflagging belief that if a door closes or an opportunity doesn’t pan out, something else will emerge.

• Neuroticism: Wiseman notes that lucky people have “a relaxed attitude toward life.”[xvii] The less anxious we are, the less absorbed we are in worrying about what others think of us, the more attention we can focus on our environment and, therefore, the more likely we are to see opportunities. Despite his full schedule, Yong seems relaxed whatever the situation. This is rooted, in part, in his wealth of experiences. Across his life, he has faced many adversities, and yet, he has not only survived but thrived.

• Openness: Being open to new experiences or embracing a sense of adventure means that when opportunities do arise, lucky people tend to seize them. Research suggests that openness is moderately associated with intelligence and creativity.[xviii] Because Yong remains open to new and novel experiences, he embraces and thrives on an unconventional life of adventure and innovation.

The story of our lives is a complex fabric of many factors. As Lewontin observes, not only do our genes and environment intertwine, but chance plays a major part in how that fabric is woven.[xix][MB1] This is clear in Yong’s life in the unique environmental factors that shaped his experiences, the chance encounters and events that opened unforeseen opportunities, and the inherent qualities and predispositions that allowed him to capitalize on them.

Book Overview

In this book, we strive to understand Yong’s success by exploring the complex interplay of genes, environment, and chance. Each chapter examines a phase of Yong’s life through this lens, containing a brief vignette from that time, relevant historical factors, an account of events that characterized that period of his life, and reflections on the implications for education.

In chapter 1, readers meet the boy from Sichuan Province: five-year-old Yong tagging along behind his father, the primary influence in his early life. Adults in Yong’s rural village are concerned with feeding, clothing, and sheltering their families, which leaves Yong free of social expectations. As Yong uses his free time to devise entrepreneurial ventures around the village, he capitalizes on unlikely assets—his curiosity, penchant for rule-breaking, and rebellious nature—to follow his instincts toward what would become a scholarly life.

Chapter 2 describes how Yong teaches himself to read and enters school amid the upheaval of China’s Cultural Revolution. Educational reforms after the establishment of the People’s Republican of China (PRC) in 1949 allow Yong unprecedented access to school in rural China, as well as teachers who recognize his intellectual interests and gifts. Believing education to be the means to a career only, the Chinese have long valued diligent and compliant students. Relentlessly curious, questioning, and innovative, Yong is an outlier. This doesn’t prevent him for mastering the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in school and pass the extremely stringent university entrance exam — not once but twice. His facility with languages earns him entry into the Sichuan Foreign Language Institute (SFLI) at a time when English-language teachers were in high demand.

Chapter 3 follows Yong during his time at SFLI where he indulges his wide range of academic interests in the library and at a local bookstore. He also cultivates friendships with foreign faculty, opening opportunities to improve his English and learn more about the world beyond China. His success in his classes impresses his professors who ask him to accompany a visiting scholar from Beijing to SFLI in Chongqing. From the visiting scholar, Yong learns about the potential of desktop computers to run data analysis software. Asked to join an international team conducting research on English-language learners, Yong sees an opportunity to develop a program to analyze the survey data. He teaches himself statistics and programming to create the first data analysis program for PCs in China.

In chapter 4, Yong joins a team of faculty who have volunteered to teach English in a remote Sichuan Province. Designated as the deputy team leader, Yong learns valuable leadership lessons and tests his capacity for managing a group. One of his fellow volunteers, Xi, catches his eye, and they begin dating. During a visit back to SFLI, Yong’s roommate convinces him to travel to the newly created Special Economic Zone on Hainan Island. There, Yong and a partner create a successful translation business. Despite his success in Hainan, Yong finds himself missing the scholarly life and returns to SFLI to resume teaching and publishing.

Chapter 5 chronicles how Communist Leader Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms open China to Western culture and, in the late 1980s, spark debate on college campuses around the country. Eager to join the conversation, Yong opens his apartment as “ salon” for faculty and students to gather and discuss the future of the country. As the tragic events of June 4, 1989, unfold in Tiananmen Square, the momentum Yong and others had felt building dies abruptly, leaving him despondent and aware that he needs to seek opportunities elsewhere. A visit from a U.S. professor to SFLI results in a friendship that, in turn, leads to an invitation to spend time at Linfield College in Oregon.

In chapter 6, Yong embarks on his first trip to the United States, an experience that expands his view of the world, education, and emerging technologies. During his time at Linfield, Yong teaches, makes friends, explores the world of the just emerging World Wide Web, and realizes that becoming a college professor will allow him to pursue the life he wants for himself and his family, which now includes a son, Yechen in addition to Xi, his wife. Yong decides to pursue a graduate degree and gains admittance to the doctoral program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Yong completes his master’s in one year, welcomes his young family to the U.S., and leaves an unsatisfactory job at Willamette University on Oregon for a more promising opportunity.

Chapter 7 begins with Yong, Xi, and Yechen making a home at Hamilton College in New York, where Yong is part of a collaborative project between Hamilton and Colgate to enable students to take courses offered by both institutions. His successes earns him a tenure-line position at Michigan State University in Lansing, Michigan, where he works on a project to increase student engagement via online learning. He also creates an online submission platform for the America Educational Research Association annual meeting. Success in these projects as well as his outstanding publications record and award-winning teaching earns him the title of University Distinguished Professor. Although thought by some as only an educational technology specialist, his interests and scholarship have expanded to include pedagogy, assessment, policy, globalization, and other issues.

In chapter 8, we attempt to explain the central ideas and themes that run through Yong’s prolific scholarly output. Over his career, he has engaged several of the seminal questions in education such as: What kind of educational model best serves students? What are the consequences of schooling as a mechanism of state control? What are the pernicious effects of high-stakes assessment? How does personalized education benefit students? How can technology best serve education? How can promoting global thinking help us solve the world’s most pressing problems?

The epilogue provides a brief review of Bill’s life and how he came to collaborate with Yong on this book. He describes the events that have shaped a worldview that is remarkable similar to Yong’s.

[i] Pluchino, A., Biondo, A. E., & Rapisarda, A. (2018). Talent versus luck: the role of randomness in success and failure. Advances in Complex Systems, 21(3.4). Plucjinco et al. (2018).[iii] Lewontin, R. (2001). The triple helix: Gene, organism, and environment. Harvard University Press, p. 38.[iv] Lewontin, R. (2001). 38.[v] Fea, J. (2020). What is historical contingency? Fea, J. (2020).[vii] Fea, J. (2020).[viii] Watts, D. J. (2011). Everything is obvious: once you know the answer. Crown Business. 8.][ix] George, N., Parida, V. Lahti, T., & Wincent, J. (2014). A systematic literature review of entrepreneurial opportunity recognition: insights on influencing factors. International Entrepreneurship and Management Journal, 12(2). 309–350. DOI 10.1007/s11365-014-0347-y.[x] Baron, R. (2006). Opportunity recognition as pattern recognition: how entrepreneurs “connect the dots” to identify new business opportunities. Academy of Management Perspectives, 20(1), 104–119.[xi] Heinonen, J., Hytti, U. & Stenholm, P. (2011). The role of creativity in opportunity search and business idea creation. Education + Training (53: 8/9), pp. 659-672. DOI 10.1108/00400911111185008[xii] Shane, S., Nicolaou, N., Cherkas, L., & Spector, T. D. (2010). Do openness to experience and recognizing opportunities have the same genetic source? Human Resource Management, 49(2), 291–303.[xiii] Shane et al. (2010)), 299.[xiv] Wiseman, R. (2003). The luck factor. Arrow Books.[xv] Soto, C. J. (2018). Big five personality traits. In M. H. Bornstein, M. E. Arterberry, K. L. Fingerman, & J. E. Lansford (Eds.), The SAGE encyclopedia of lifespan human development (pp. 240-241). Sage.[xvi] Wiseman, R. (2003). The luck factor. Arrow Books, 96.[xvii] Wiseman, R. (2003), 48.[xviii] Jauk, E., Benedek, M., Dunst, B., & Neubauer, A. C. (2013). The relationship between intelligence and creativity: New support for the threshold hypothesis by means of empirical breakpoint detection. Intelligence, 41(4), 212–221. Lewontin, R. (2001), 38.[MB1]I added a citation for Lewontin. Is this sufficient?

We have seen President Zelensky’s oratory on several occasions, most recently when he addressed the U.S. Congress. He is a master at communicating the plight of his nation, which has been under nonstop assault since last February 24. Putin thought that he would quickly decapitate the leadership, send Zelensky fleeing or kill him, and take control of Ukraine in a matter of days or weeks.

That didn’t happen. Shocking the world, Ukraine pushed Russian forces away from Kyiv, then slowly but surely pushed them out of many of its cities and towns. Now Ukraine endures a daily flood of missiles and drones aimed at destroying its infrastructure—a war crime—intended to cut off power, heat, and water to the civilian population. The point of the Russian onslaught is to terrorize the population.

Please watch and read President Zelensky’s inspiring words to the Ukrainian people. His message: we are united and we are not afraid.

I know that many readers of this blog are not on Twitter. One of the reasons I remain there is Julia Davis. She watches Russian television and reports on what she sees, with video clips. She writes for The Daily Beast and is creator of The Russian Media Monitor. @JuliaDavisNews

A few days ago, she wrote this:

Meanwhile in Russia: the host and his guest concur that Ukraine should be erased off the map and even the memory that it existed should be destroyed. The host says that Russia will always be an empire and being in a state of war is only natural for any empire of Russia’s size.

The text is accompanied by a video clip.

And this:

Meanwhile in Russia: in all seriousness, pundits and experts on Russian state TV argue whether President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky is the Antichrist or just a small demon.

And she retweeted a photo of Kiev last Christmas, two months before Putin’s brutal, pointless invasion:

She also retweeted a video of Mariupol last winter, its trees and buildings bedecked with festive lights, completely unaware that the city would be reduced to rubble in two months, all that beauty utterly destroyed, its people dead or dispersed.

I just made a donation to the AFT’s emergency fund to buy generators for Ukraine. As you probably know, Russia is losing on the battlefield so has targeted Ukraine’s infrastructure. Thecc Cc winter has begun, and Russia has destroyed power stations that generate heat, water supplies and light. Russia is making war on the civilian population, hoping to reduce their circumstances so that they die of the cold and/or starvation. Making war on the civilian population is a war crime, but Russia is determined to destroy Ukraine regardless of international norms.

Please contribute to the purchase of generators for Ukraine:

I hope you will consider making a contribution.

Chef Jose Andres created an organization called World Central Kitchen that goes wherever there is hunger and feeds people. Their mission right now is to serve food and deliver water to the people on the front lines in Ukraine.

I give regularly and will give again.

Here is the letter I recently received from WCK.

Since the invasion of Ukraine began, WCK teams have provided more than 180 million meals to people in need. However, families still need our support as they head into what will likely be the toughest winter of their lives. By fueling our work, you’re helping us bring hope and comfort to communities across Ukraine—and now, a generous WCK donor is matching all gifts up to $10 million made now through December 31 for Ukraine. Make a donation today to double your impact. HELP US CONTINUE OUR EFFORTS IN UKRAINE

Ground report from José in Kherson

On November 11, after eight long months of occupation, the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson was liberated. Having arrived as soon as we were permitted to enter Kherson, WCK local teams were greeted with hugs and tears of joy while delivering food kits. Several days later, José arrived in Ukraine, keeping his promise of returning to Kherson once it was liberated. Below, José shares a ground report from his trip, detailing the growth of our response since WCK first arrived in the newly liberated city.

Yes, WCK has been able to previously support some local restaurants cooking for neighbors in Kherson and safely delivered food kits to frontline communities in the region…we even delivered a generator and fixed the broken water supply for five nearby villages. But no matter how much we wanted to do more, we were unable to reach so many families who were possibly going hungry because of Russia’s brutal occupation. In Kherson, residents lived without basic necessities, cut off from the rest of Ukraine…so many feared for their lives for eight long months. So when Ukraine’s troops entered Kherson on November 11, our WCK team knew we had to be there immediately next to the people, as soon as it was safe to do so.

When I arrived in Kherson on November 16, our WCK team had been delivering food aid each day, working on how we could increase our support every time we returned to the city. What I saw when I first got to Kherson… people celebrating, children were walking the streets with Ukrainian flags, it was a moment I will never be able to describe. But reality sets in as the day goes on and night falls, and people go home without electricity, food, or water. It’s still dangerous too…earlier in the morning a mine left behind exploded inside the train station. Thankfully no one was hurt. During our distribution we also heard shelling as the frontline is not too far away.

Still, when we were doing our food distribution, people remained calm and didn’t mind standing in the rain. I went around and spoke to families who told me they did not have much food at home. This is how WCK meets the needs. We work with the community and everyday we learn and get better.

We travel neighborhood by neighborhood, delivering thousands of food kits to families.

Now we’ve been delivering and have been talking to the people, we’re growing our distributions across different neighborhoods to make sure we reach as many families as we can. For residents with gas and able to cook at home, we’re providing 30lb food kits filled with the majority of Ukrainian products. We are also bringing thousands of plates cooked from our WCK Food Truck in Mykolaiv.

WCK’s Food Truck in Mykolaiv has the capacity to cook up to 5,000 meals. Once the food is prepared, we package it for delivery.

It’s been amazing to see how fast our WCK teams in Ukraine have been able to scale and adapt to the challenges of every situation. With safety systems in place, the Relief Team is moving quickly so people are not gathering or staying outdoors for a long time. Delivery has also been difficult because access to Kherson is still limited, roads are destroyed, and rain has made things very muddy, but WCK keeps going no matter what!

Bringing aid to Kherson is challenging—roads are damaged and rain is causing mud.

There is also no water in Kherson and many people are collecting it directly from the Dnipro river. Filling nine large, 5,000 liter barrels, we delivered and installed water distribution sites throughout the city for residents to drink and cook with. In the next few days, we will install more water sites. WCK now has water distribution sites set up across the city, and we’ll keep expanding.

During my trip I also witnessed a special moment in Ukrainian history—the restoration of trains to and from Kherson. As Ukraine continues to fight for freedom and liberty they are sending a powerful message to the world that they can overcome anything. These are trains of hope, connecting Ukraine again.

Throughout our response, WCK has worked closely with our friends at Ukrainian Railways to transport critical supplies across the country, so we were very proud to stand alongside them during this amazing accomplishment. I rode on the first train to Kherson from Mykolaiv with nearly 200 other people. Some were returning home, some were going to see their relatives, but there were also people who simply decided to be there on this beautiful day. And for WCK, we brought along thousands of food kits with us!

Before I left Ukraine, I took another trainfrom Kherson to Kyiv where I was honored to meet with President Zelenskyy. He presented me with the Order of Merit honor, something that I humbly accepted not for me, but in recognition of the thousands of Ukrainian Food Fighters I get to work with every single day. It is these people who are the heroes behind WCK’s efforts…the people who make the impossible, possible and have been working tirelessly for months under uncertain circumstances to get food to communities in need.

It is why we have been in Ukraine since the very beginning. We know we cannot solve every problem, but the very least WCK can do is make sure that food and water is not another issue people living under attack have to be worried about. We promised the people of Ukraine that as cities become liberated we would be there.


So in Kherson, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with WCK teams as they got food and water so fast to families in need, was one of the proudest moments of my life. It is because of WCK Food Fighters and supporters around the world that we are the only large-scale food aid in the city. Together, we will all help Kherson, and other regions around Ukraine, get through the long, hard winter. Thank you for your support and for continuing to believe in our mission.

José AndrésDOUBLE YOUR IMPACT BY DONATING TO WCK TODAYCopyright © 2022 World Central Kitchen, All rights reserved.

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Professor Maté Wierdl teaches college-level mathematics in Tennessee; he is a native-born Hungarian and travels there regularly. In this post, he reviews the teachers’ strike in Hungary, which has dragged on for more than a year.

Throughout the strike, the Hungarian government has shown its disdain for the teachers’ union and the teachers. American right-wingers love the growing authoritarianism of the Hungarian government, even inviting Hungarian President Victor Orban to speak at the annual meeting of CPAC, the conservative political action committee.

Wierdl writes:

Hungarian teachers have been openly protesting for almost a year now. The formal protests began in January. As a response, Orbán, Hungary’s Prime Minister, basically took away the teachers’ right to strike (they cannot skip their teaching obligations while they “strike”), and quite a few protesters have been fired from their jobs. Just this week, 8 teachers were fired since they protested during school hours.

Why the protests? I think Hungarian teachers used to have a pretty good job. But in recent years, their load increased a great deal, more testing was introduced and kids need to go to school more. I have to say, I see the US influence, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone after seeing in the news that Orbán was invited to the US to give the keynote address at CPAC, and then he paid a visit to Trump.

I have many teacher friends and they say the main issue is not just about money but the general worsening conditions of teachers, and as a result, there is a huge teacher shortage.

Though numbers don’t tell everything, they clearly indicate serious problems. For example, here is a chart showing teachers’ salaries relative to other college educated people’s salaries (I think most of the countries’ names are recognizable; EU22 is the EU average). Note how the US (Egyesült Államokin Hungarian) and Hungary are the last two

The next chart shows the mandatory classroom hours in several European countries. Hungary is at the top (meaning, most hours) and in fact, since there aren’t enough teachers, the average teaching load is close to 27 hours. (US teachers teach even more, like 6 classes per day which means a 30 hour load)

Below, I put together some reports of the protests in the international media in the last two months.

Bloomberg writes this about today’s (Dec 2) protests

Hundreds of Hungarian teachers joined a widening strike action across the nation’s school system following a government decision to fire more educators for protesting low pay.

Almost 700 teachers from 71 schools walked off the job on Friday, forcing several institutions to suspend classes, according to the Teacher for Teachers Facebook page, which compiles the information.

Thousands of students joined in solidarity, many of them placing black tape over their mouths. They decried what they called a hardline response by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government to silence teachers who earn among the lowest wages in the European Union.”

Nov 18

BUDAPEST, (Reuters) – Hungarian teachers, students and parents stepped up their protest calling for higher wages and education reforms on Friday, forming a 10-km (six-mile) human chain in central Budapest, with smaller rallies held across the country.

Teachers launched their “I want to teach” movement in September, calling for civil disobedience to demand higher wages for teachers and an adequate supply in the workforce. They are also protesting against restrictions on their right to strike.

Here is a video of the protests a few weeks earlier. As you can see many students support the teachers.

Oct 6:

Wednesday’s rally, which started with students forming a chain stretching for kilometers (miles) across Budapest in the morning grew into the biggest anti-government demonstration since nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s April re-election.

 Protesters carrying banners saying “Do not sack our teachers” and “For a glimpse of the future, look at the schools of the present” crammed a Budapest bridge near parliament, blocking traffic amid light police presence.

This appeared on the website of the New York Times. It is about five minutes long.

Just this past week, there were two mass murders by gun: one at Club Q in Colorado Springs, another at a Walmart in Virginia. There have been more than 600 this year. When will enough be enough? When will our leaders—especially in Congress—stop the carnage? When they are personally affected? Maybe not even then. After all, a mob ransacked the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and most Republican members of Congress thought it was a group of excited tourists.

But “only” five people died. So the GOP did not mind.

Would they draw the line at carnage? Now, I think that Trump’s grim Inaugural Address, where he spoke of “American carnage,” was a prediction, not a reflection.

When, if ever, will enough be enough?

The Council on Foreign Relations published an important international study of gun ownership and gun deaths. The U.S. is far ahead of its peers in both categories. Thanks to Lloyd Lofthouse for sharing this study.

The study begins:

The debate over gun control in the United States has waxed and waned over the years, stirred by frequent mass shootings in civilian settings. Gun violence is the leading cause of death for children and young adults in the United States. In particular, the ready availability of assault weapons and ammunition has provoked national discussion after multiple mass shootings of school children, most recently in Uvalde, Texas. However, Congress has repeatedly been unable to pass meaningful gun legislation in the wake of these tragedies despite broad public support for new restrictions.

Recent years have seen some of the worst gun violence in U.S. history. In 2021, guns killed more than forty-five thousand Americans, the highest toll in decades; and the upward trend is on track to continue.

Many gun control advocates say the United States should look to the experiences of wealthy democratic peers that have instituted tighter restrictions to curb gun violence.

What’s the chance of Congress enacting gun control?

Republicans are adamantly opposed to any limits on access to guns.

Republican governors enact laws to allow anyone to carry a weapon, whether concealed or in open view. Texas passed a law eliminating the need to have a permit to buy a gun.

Two relatives of mine in Texas used a gun to commit suicide. Neither should have had access to a gun.

John G. Rodden writes on the website American Purpose about the educational struggle between Ukrainians and Russiand. Ukrainians want their children to learn the Ukrainian language and literature. Wherever Russia has captured tos, cities, or villages, it switches the curriculum to Russian language and literature. Rodden is a scholar who has written several books about George Orwell.

Rodden writes:

The 2022–23 school year in war-torn Ukraine began this fall under conditions that Americans—and even Europeans old enough to remember World War II—can barely fathom. Three-quarters of the schools have been unable to open at all because they lack bomb shelters, air raid sirens nearby, or underground classrooms and lavatories. Russian bombing campaigns can last for several hours; all classes are therefore held remotely, insofar as children have access to computers and Wi-Fi.

Understandably, the attention of the world, including that of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his advisors in Kyiv, is focused on battlefield advances and reversals. And yet a parallel war is under way, one that has received only spotty attention in the English-language media, though the German and French presses have covered it more extensively. It is a culture war, a Slavic “Battle of the Books” that goes far beyond the imaginary world in Jonathan Swift’s 1704 book. In Swift’s Battle of the Books, he imagined an epic battle in a library—a so-called “quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns”—where books come alive, with authors both classical (e.g., Homer, Pindar, Plato, Aristotle, Vergil) and contemporary (e.g., Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Dryden, Aphra Benn) duking it out.

The twenty-first century Eurasian counterpart is no mere entry in a game of literary fisticuffs conducted with courtly fellow men of letters. It is a deadly serious affair that Ukrainian officials regard as a retaliatory counteroffensive. For the Ukrainians this isn’t just a Battle of Books–this is a deep, visceral, and emotional reaction to their country being eviscerated and destroyed by Russian forces.

In their view, they have been forced into it by the ruthless “reeducation” policy that Russia has undertaken in occupied Ukraine. The Slavic Battle of the Books is about which authors Ukrainians will read and study. It is a war to “win the minds of men,” as the old Stalinist slogan phrased it. Wherever it leads, it has already validated one venerable contention about which both the Ancients and the Moderns were in full agreement: Ideas have consequences.

The rest of the article is behind a paywall.

Timothy Snyder, historian at Yale and expert on European history, invites you to contribute to a very important fund that he created.

He writes:

Sometimes things are very simple. If you can easily do something to halt a genocide, then you should.

As I have been arguing here in “Thinking about…”, the Russian intention in Ukraine has been genocidal from the beginning.

The notion that Ukraine does not exist, that its state is artificial and its national consciousness a confusion — this Putinist rhetoric was genocidal. Moscow’s claims that Ukrainians are all Nazis or gays or Jews or Satanists (the current line) is nothing more than a fascist politics of us-and-them: the enemy is defined via hate speech as subhuman, as beyond any ethical concern, existing only to be destroyed.

The standard Russian occupation practices of kidnapping children, raping women, and executing local leaders are genocidal. Everywhere that Russia has been forced to leave Ukrainian territory, for example in Kherson region these last few days, Ukrainians find the death pits and the torture chambers. These and other actions constitute genocide in the sense of the 1948 convention, as I explain in this lecture.

It is Russian policy to deprive Ukrainians of light, heat, and water during the winter by destroying civilian infrastructure. Just yesterday Russia fired dozens more missiles at civilian targets, leaving about ten million people without electricity during very cold nights and days. As I write, people I care about are in bomb shelters, listening to explosions.

This deliberate creation of misery and lethal conditions for civilians is contrary to the laws of war. It is also another violation of the genocide convention, which forbids “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” That this is indeed the intention is gleefully affirmed practically every day on Russian state television.

Yesterday’s attack was the largest on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure since the war began. Russia launched 95 missiles and drones. To stop the missiles, Ukraine needs Western government help with air defense and aircraft. The Shahed drones, from Iran, are what is known as loitering munitions. For weeks they have been used to destroy the Ukrainian power grid as well as other civilian targets. They are a terror weapon put to a criminal purpose.

The Ukrainians are good at repairing what the Russians destroy. But the large number of drones has made it hard to keep up. And the loss of the electricity grid as such will lead to horrific conditions and tremendous loss of life, especially among the vulnerable and the elderly.

This is where we can do something. We can help stop the drones. President Zelens’kyi’s United24Foundation asked me to raise money for a cause of my choice. As a historian, I could have chosen a destroyed library (which I visited in Chernihiv a few weeks ago), and in the future I will do just that. But right now Ukrainians need to get through this winter and win this war.

So rather than indulge my own preferences, I asked where I could be most immediately helpful. The answer from the Ukrainians I asked was a system to defend against the Iranian drones. And so that is what, as an ambassador of the president’s United24 platform, I have pledged to do: to raise $1.25 million for such a system, a Shahed Hunter.

Donate to fund a Shahed Hunter

I am honored to be among a wonderful group of ambassadors — including Mark Hamill, Liev Schreiber, and Barbra Streisand — who have made similar pledges to raise funds.

Now, the Ukrainians might think that I am famous, but I am not famous like these wonderful actors! So I am counting on you to help, and to spread the word.

A difference between this genocide and others is that you can do something to stop it easily and right now. Please make a contribution here to protect Ukrainians from the drones that are destroying their conditions of life. And then please share this post with others who might wish to do the same. Thank you.

Another great actor… and profoundly decent man. I did get him to laugh once or twice. The warmth and intelligence he is able to show in these profoundly distressing conditions is just hugely admirable. Help me to get to that smile again by providing Ukrainians with what they need most.