In my second year of this writing project (2008), I began to enjoy some success after adding faculty from, both, Harvard College and Yale. What might have seemed like a man’s final steps in reaching the pinnacle of academia and the high watermark for this endeavor became just another stepping stone that would serve as a launching pad for taking my message across the country and around the world. With their names in my audience, it gave me instant credibility and critical leverage. I soon was crossing the Atlantic and knocking on the virtual front door at top universities in the U.K. (Cambridge, Oxford and the London School of Economics) and in Europe.
I felt like my voice was unique in America and I didn’t want to limit myself to the natural geographical confines of the U.S. and leave it up to someone else in this audience to hopefully share my work with the outside world. I also didn’t think that the Gospel according to Washington D.C. was universal and that professors living outside the U.S. might appreciate and even relish this one American’s honest critique of his homeland. Some in Washington and on Wall Street might call it heresy. In six years, I’ve built a web of contacts stretching from Australia and New Zealand across North America to the U.K. and Western Europe, to the Moscow Kremlin, throughout the Middle East and into south Asia.
Last fall, I set a goal to share my work with faculty teaching at colleges and universities with a prominently minority population while growing my footprint in home state of Alabama, at its two flagship universities. I also wanted to make a second and/or third pass through the U.K., Europe, Canada and Australia to add more professors. I thought my last essay, America – “She’s brain dead.”, was the perfect piece to introduce myself and my work to a new audience.
This January and February, I added faculty from three of America’s historically black colleges – Howard University (Washington, DC), Morehouse College (Atlanta, GA), Tuskegee University (Tuskegee, AL), as well as, faculties teaching at The University of Alabama and Auburn University. In the U.K., I picked up faculty at University College London (UCL) and at France’s INSEAD (the name was formerly an acronym for the French “Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires” or European Institute of Business Administration).
Both, University College London and INSEAD, a graduate business school, are considered to be among the best in the world. I was instantly sold on UCL after reading the following praise by London’s The Sunday Times which describes the university as “an intellectual powerhouse with a world-class reputation”. I said to myself, “I want that to be said of me or, at least, I want to run in the company of…”
According to the 2012 QS World University Rankings website, UCL ranked fourth in the world behind MIT, Cambridge and Harvard and one spot ahead of Oxford. Wikipedia states there are 26 Nobel Prize winners and threeFields Medalists amongst UCL’s alumni and current and former staff. Among top business schools, INSEAD’s reputation rivals that of the Harvard Business School, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia and MIT Sloan as ranked by the Financial Times for the Global MBA, in 2012.
My last commentary was well-received; several friends thought it was one of my best efforts. Here’s what two professors new to this audience had to say…
Thank you for sharing this article. It captures the essence and well crafted.
— [Name Withheld]
Dean and Professor
Good stuff … please keep it coming ! Happy to join the 99.8% of people !!”
— [Name Withheld]
The following letter (and my latest essay) is addressed to the University of Toronto’s President David Naylor. It serves as my promised written complaint to him involving a course designed and taught by one of his professors on mental health and illness that was advertised on the Coursera education platform that I participated in January. In my previous correspondence with President Naylor, which I also Cc: one of Coursera’s two co-founders, Stanford Professor Daphne Koller, I introduced myself by providing a brief biography while including a partial listing of some of the universities and their top graduate and professional schools that are in my audience (one of them being Toronto with 138 professors (2009)) along with my last essay. Like any good meal, this took time to prepare.
P > 15,500
See attachment: The case of Ted Burnett vs. Coursera, Inc. – Dear President Naylor
(Note: Some minor edits have been made.)
February 24, 2013
President David Naylor, M.D.
University of Toronto
27 King’s College Circle
Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1A1
Dear President Naylor,
I’m writing to address my concerns over the design of the course, The Social Context of Mental Health and Illness, taught by Professor Charmaine C. Williams, a member of your faculty. The course was advertised as a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on Coursera’s free education platform. I found the course posted after visiting edX, another educational platform sponsored by Harvard and MIT, only to find their site geared more towards math and science-related courses. As a political and social writer, I was looking for something more in line with my natural interests. When I discovered Professor Williams’ course I was excited that I might learn something new on the subject matter or, at least, see mental illness presented to the class in a more honest way that I’ve come to know.
Maybe I was expecting too much from this professor who’s part of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. I found the course’s focus to be academic, theoretical and distant without any depth. The first three weeks lacked empathy for the subject matter or a sense of reality as though it were taught by someone who had never eaten, showered or spent a single night in an asylum. Several of my private emails to the professor and later my posts openly challenged her approach. She never acknowledged that I made some valid points in my criticism. Instead, I was encouraged to dropout. The following email response, dated February 16, 2013, reveals a callous attitude and a complete disregard by Professor Williams towards me – someone with mental illness and a member of the very population that she’s lecturing on…
I appreciate you sharing your views with me. In a course with an audience as broad as this one, it is not possible to meet everyone’s expectations. I appreciate and understand if you believe that this course is not meeting your needs and wish you the best with your continued learning and work in this area.
I followed up with another my email and later posts by using some provocative analogies to get her attention; my reward was the class’ scorn and banishment from the course.
Since getting a diagnosis of bipolar disorder soon after my wedding (2002), I’ve learned a lot about this illness and mental illness, in general – the hard way. I’ve seen things and done things that I would’ve never otherwise acted on consciously. I’ve gone to the edge of acceptable social behavior only to go well beyond that point, several times. The illness doesn’t care who you are, what you think or what you want. It will embarrass you in front of the world, repeatedly. My reward for living an honest life has been a degree of humiliation that made me want to take my own life.
The thoughts of shame and depression coupled with suicide occupied my mind on a daily basis for four straight years. In my early thirties, my life appeared to be over when it seemed to have never gotten started. I couldn’t believe it. My only relief from this torment came in the form of an unwelcome dissolution of my marriage to my very surprise (2007). I’ve spent weeks at a time confined to mental institutions, psychiatric hospitals and in hospital psych wards. I’ve appeared before judges and testified, even while sick, on my own behalf in commitment-related hearings in, both, Alabama and Florida.
Due to mental illness, I’ve been arrested and incarcerated in, both, Alabama and Georgia jails. I’ve been Tazered by police in my own front yard before friends and neighbors. I’ve been a victim of violence while incarcerated in my hometown jail at the hands of a corrections officer. It was the first time in my life that I was knocked out cold. When I summoned up the courage to confront the sheriff about the incident months later one of his wardens, lied on his behalf, over the phone. I’ve had to endure recurring dental bills drawing from my same shallow pocket, not taping into the sheriff’s department budget. Apparently, it’s only a crime when an assault occurs in the “free world”, not while in jail.
I’ve seen and been treated by one of the city’s better psychiatrists in private practice due to having good private insurance and lately I’ve had to rely on the services of two community mental health agencies when there was no insurance to speak of. I’ve lost everything including my marriage, our home, my family, friends (new and old), a dissatisfying corporate career, my finances and credit worthiness and my reputation. I’ve been sued by banks over debts related to my illness while being unemployable. On several occasions, I’ve come very close to losing my own life – at my own hands and at the hands of the state of Georgia. A diagnosis of mental illness is so devastating, searing spirituality, emotionally and psychologically. It creates problems for an individual, for me as just described, but worse are the attitudes of others – their ignorance and prejudice towards the illness and the lack of respect shown towards us.
In order to truly understand and teach a course on mental illness with justice and compassion, one has to see the big picture that begins far away from the mental institutions and with the well-being of our society, the culture and its promoted values, as well as, the health of our organizations and institutions all the way down to the health or dysfunction of our family systems and the impact that all the above has on each person’s spiritual, emotional, mental and physical health. The root cause of mental illness and so many other medical conditions is the health of these social systems, not the character or the genetics of an individual. In America, our society is so crazy and this can be seen every night on the national (and local) news, in the popular programming broadcasted on TV, the loneliness, unhappiness and our endless consumption of “drugs” to function in everyday life.
We always blame the individual for their behavior, for the violence while ignoring society’s role in the lead up to the crisis, its contradictory values or having no values, at all. We demand that the person pay for their insane actions while our society’s actions are allowed to remain unchanged without an indictment. The conduct of this society and its institutions are never put on trial thus it’s never forced to admit to doing anything wrong, forced to grow up or go straight to jail. Better yet get booted from the country – the Catholic Church comes to mind. So the insanity keeps repeating itself in familiar stories across the country and around the world where only the names change, but not the behavior or the bloody outcome.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
(Greek philosopher, 469 BC – 399 BC)
We refuse to stop after a crisis – a murder, a suicide or a political scandal – and fully investigate the incident in a holistic manner similar to a plane crash to look at, both, the individual’s and society’s role. It’s ok for countless deaths of man, due to violent acts, to occur in society, in perpetuity, just not by the plane load. A society that denies and refuses to take responsibility for its political and social problems is a society whose citizens deny and refuse to take responsibility for their own problems. This is true with one’s spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, financial health, employment status, as well as, with one’s criminal conduct. Americans refuse to take responsibility for their life, for their problems and for their happiness. Doesn’t almost every defendant now plead, “Not guilty” even when the evidence appears to be overwhelming? Denial is thick.
Our institutions will reluctantly agree to settle a case and pay damages as long as they never have to admit to any criminal wrongdoing which might require them to change their business practices and/or expose an executive to time in prison. So, no one grows up, everything starts to clog and back up before collapsing entirely (the U.S. Government). America’s institutions have all, but stripped Americans of their freedom and power reducing them to defenseless animals, to sheep with only one’s buying power to look fashionable and an occasional vote to express themselves. We have the right to own and bear arms, but no one has the guts to use them in the way expressed and intended in the Second Amendment. Instead of shooting our tyrannical politicians causing the clog, we settle for shooting one another or some wild game.
Ownership of personal problems should occur on two levels – at the personal level and at the societal level. Taking any responsibility for these problems are rarely acknowledged by our academic, business, military, political or religious leaders for creating conflicting public policies while ignoring toxic societal belief systems that attack a person’s sacred integrity, dignity and sanity (one’s wholeness – in mind, body and spirit). The animal kingdom can’t survive this way nor can man. We’ve failed to examine our political and social conscience, much less, take any corrective action. The denial of our many political and social problems is so great. I would argue that the very artificial, inherited family, political, religious and social belief systems create torquing pressures and stressors for those struggling internally to “keep up” that can and do trigger psychotic breakdowns manifesting in the form of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression…
Or the dys-ease can take a different pathway through the body causing a physical breakdown, such as, a heart attack, a stroke, high blood pressure or a hundred other different ailments requiring emergency surgery and/or causing instant death. In truth, some ailments are more socially acceptable than others, examples being cancers, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis… Mental illness isn’t one of them because it’s so misunderstood and so under-appreciated. (Maybe the cause needs a better marketing firm.) This must be explained in order for the student, for society to finally understand the risk factors involving the illness, the presenting features when someone gets sick and to see mental illness as being no different than someone suffering with the flu or chicken pox. That’s the only way the stigma will ever dissipate in society’s mind that leads to acceptance and understanding for those with the illness.
A course of this nature has to address on the outset – what good mental health in an individual, family, organization and a society looks like and what poor mental health in an individual, family, organization and a society looks like. This should have been the starting point, the foundation for framing a course on “mental health and illness”. Only an expert would know this truth. Instead, I watched the first week’s videos only to learn about the history of lunatic asylums/insane asylums/mental institutions/… their architecture, the theory of their evolution, the name changes and the early witch doctor treatments. The first homework assignment was to fetch the definitions for each of the four terms from the internet. As someone with the illness, I couldn’t imagine a less meaningful exercise for students do. It was busy work, at best. I chose to reveal my illness and share some of my experience, instead. No assignment would have been better than to have students really think they had gained some insight into mental illness by knowing the difference between a lunatic asylum and an insane asylum.
Regardless of the name change, nobody wants to get locked up in an asylum for even one night. After reviewing the homework of the first three out of five peers and seeing virtually the same identical definitions “cut and paste”, I quickly grew bored with their efforts and my task. The evaluation of my homework by my peers resulted in me getting a zero on the assignment. I was left asking myself, “How can someone with my experience get a zero on an assignment that represents twenty percent of the course grade?” My next thought was, “Did I sign up for this course to simply please the instructor and get a passing grade at the expense of my dignity or has she failed to challenge us and does she now deserved to be challenged?” I concluded the latter and I took action by emailing her. You’ve already read the professor’s reply. This is not the first time that I’ve gotten in trouble in the classroom at the university level. I once got sideways with a professor at Auburn due to my honest comments and daring actions.
While in graduate school for community counseling, I became manic after my wife stated she wanted out of our marriage. In the ensuing weeks, feeling emboldened I confronted the department’s chair over his style, the direction of the program and later a colorful email to my classmates got me kicked out of the program, now this. I’m pretty sure that I’m done with school, but not with learning. As usual, I’ve learned something, but it wasn’t the subject matter it was everything else. We live in a culture where the free thinker, the truth-teller, the whistleblower (U.S. Army PFC Bradley Manning) gets purged, gets vomited by the system like we’re some kind of virus when in reality we’re the antibiotic that’s so desperately needed to restore the institution, society back to sanity. Our words, our voice serve as an alarm bell for the impending danger and the need for a course correction. The majority never wants to hear it, never wants to see it, much less will speak it, thus it drives everyone mad.
Insane asylums certainly have a place in this course for discussion, but it’s not at the beginning where an instructor can consciously and unconsciously create a first impression that’s so negative and colors the subject matter in such a way that nobody wants to see the mentally ill as human beings, as victims or as a barometer of the real problem – our crazy society. The professor’s presentation was up there with a discussion of lepers and leper colonies. Who really wants to understand, much less, connect with the leper or someone with a mental illness? I can’t imagine any medical condition or illness where the course would naturally begin inside a hospital – alcoholism or drug addiction, someone suffering from a broken arm or leg, cancer, migraines, other physical traumas, pregnancy, obesity…
Nor do I think a course on other minorities with a long history of discrimination, such as, African-Americans or Black Canadians, would naturally or justly begin with a discussion on blacks living in inner-city ghettos, spelling out their history, the architecture and the chronic problems they face and cause society. It doesn’t do justice for the race given American history and the issue of slavery. The story is the same for the once proud Native Americans forced to live on assigned federal reservations, Japanese-Americans put in internment camps during the Second World War or Jews shipped out to concentration camps to face their death. Professor Williams’ course on “mental health and illness” showed a lack of mastery for the subject matter. Without the personal experience of having been locked up in an institution, felt the emptiness, hopelessness and loneliness of these places, sensed the abandonment and shame by family and friends, having fought to restore one’s own integrity, dignity and sanity, few instructors without the illness could do the topic justice.
Educators and textbook publishers have long failed to tell the whole story on mental illness to generations of students by correctly pointing out its contributions to the arts, business, government, literature, philosophy, political leaders and science and therefore the advancement of humanity. How can that be? Students are finishing elementary school, high school and college graduating into adulthood thinking they’re “educated” when in fact their ignorant of the facts as it pertains to mental illness and its relationship to achievement and genius. This sets in motion the stigma and taboo nature of the illness.
This lack of knowledge generates fear and a low opinion of the mentally ill among doctors, law enforcement and corrections officers, lawyers and judges, counselors and social workers, teachers and professors, politicians and policy makers in city, state and federal governments. It’s the very people we depend on to protect us from our own families and society when we are temporary incapacitated. It’s a damn scary predicament to find one’s self and one’s interests, now, being managed by others – especially your own family. Their true colors are revealed. This ignorance affects how the mentally ill are perceived and how we’re valued and treated by society, how health insurance plans are designed (the schedule of benefits and the lack of parity for mental and nervous conditions which affects everyone) and how tax dollars are allocated for mental health services. Are we to be treasured or are we truly a burden on this society? Consider the following.
Last fall, it dawned on me when I came up, as a student – in elementary school, high school and college – I heard the names of the famous, like, composer Ludwig van Beethoven, artist Vincent van Gogh, author Charles Dickens, physicist Sir Isaac Newton, President Abraham Lincoln, British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, nurse Florence Nightingale, poet Edgar Allan Poe, author Leo Tolstoy, writer Ernest Hemingway, writer Virginia Wolfe, singer Frank Sinatra, American businessman Ted Turner, playwright Tennessee Williams, artist and sculptor Michelangelo, poet John Keats… and I studied their great works, but rarely was their mental illness mentioned for one second as the catalyst in their achievement, in their breakthrough, in their discovery.
Education failed to tie these ‘beautiful minds’ and their contributions together to leave a positive impression for their students (and future adults) that mental illness is the source of many gifts that were borne out of great suffering. Education has long failed us thus creating a hostile climate when we do fall ill. These great people are diamonds, which were made under a lot of pressure. Who wouldn’t want to attend a cocktail party where this cast of characters would be in attendance? Now, compare this group to the last party you attended, pretty boring?
What Professor Williams says about mental illness in her classroom or in her office or what’s spoken at the Harvard Medical School or Johns Hopkins I can’t do anything about, but to sign for an open course on the internet that’s intended to be taught to potentially millions of people around the world with such ignorance and recklessness seems like its grounds for class-action lawsuit, on behalf of the mentally ill, against all of higher education and Coursera in a U.S. court. Your professor’s “expertise” or ignorance in this subject continues to inflict harm on a class of people who deserve better and now demand better. This would never be tolerated in a course on African-Americans or Black Canadians, so why should we continue to tolerate it? Professor Williams, who’s black, should know better.
Its 2013, how much longer will the mentally ill have to suffer at the hands of lazy and incompetent “educators”? While the University of Toronto maybe a world-class university, this course being taught by Professor Williams isn’t. Her lecture might fly in a classroom full of 18, 19, 20, 21 year-olds who don’t know any better, but on the internet there exists real experts, individuals with a lot of experience who know better. You’ve just met one. She tried to bluff her way through this course and she got caught. Her only recourse was to throw me out. It’s time that education finally right this wrong, enough harm has been done in the name of “teaching” at the expense of the mentally ill. How ironic and how sad? Surely, this can’t be the future of online education or is it? Please redesign this course or simply remove it from the Coursera platform. I can teach this course in my sleep, maybe I just did and I didn’t take up six weeks of your time explaining it.
What finally put the whole matter of mental illness and bipolar disorder to bed for me was reading Kay Redfield Jamison’s book, Touched by Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. Kay, who also has bipolar disorder, is a professor of psychiatry at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The following quote and its source say it all.
“Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings…. the men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected it with the name of the noblest of all arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art…. So, according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense … madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.”
– Socrates, in his speech on divine madness in Phaedrus, said:
Over 2,000 years have passed and we’re still struggling to see mental illness in its proper perspective when the Greeks already understood it. Now, that’s pathetic. British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill’s historians credit his bipolar disorder with helping him to see Hitler and Germany as a great threat while his peers in the British Cabinet and in Parliament simply sought to appease the Fuhrer. Churchill correctly saw that they couldn’t, as I see what you can’t. Great Britain needed Churchill and you need me.
Daphne, AL USA
Cc: Daphne Koller, Professor, Co-founder of Coursera
Faye Mishna, Dean and Professor of the Factor Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto
Charmaine C. Williams, Professor, University of Toronto
Jamison, Kay Redfield (1996-10-18). Touched With Fire (Kindle Locations 868-869). Simon & Schuster, Inc. Kindle Edition. Socrates’ quote on divine madness
Copyright © 2013. All Rights Reserved. “The case of Ted Burnett vs. Coursera, Inc.– Dear President Naylor” by Ted Burnett.