Summer Begins

Oh, summer. How I have missed you.

Summer vacation for us is usually a whirlwind of travel and activity, but this year we're taking it easy: a fun little jaunt last week to say goodbye to some friends who are moving far away, and a French-language course in Montreal just before we return to school. Between that, six solid weeks of NO PLANS. 

This week I cooked up a storm -- cherry recipes at the forefront, as I had picked 15+ pounds of them last weekend, but I also made dinner every night. Vegan dinner from scratch. Uh-huh.

I took advantage of two cool mornings and spent many contented hours weeding, though there are plenty more where those came from.

When two friends called on different days, needing rides from the train, I was able to drop everything, share a meal and catch up with them.

Finally, as a summer gift to myself, I spent 99 cents on a New York Times subscription so I could enjoy reading at my leisure. And on the first day of enjoying it, I ran into what might be the best news story of all time:

It’s hard to talk about Yo. The app is so simple (it lets users send the word “Yo” to each other) that even to mock it feels like taking it too seriously — come on guys, it’s just Yo! Luckily, hackers have made things easier on all of us by making Yo do some new tricks.

Pre-hack, critics had to evaluate Yo on its merits, which was somewhat difficult, since it has so few of them (and so few demerits, for that matter). Nonetheless, some rose to the challenge. At Yahoo, Alyssa Bereznak said the app’s one message “might be succinct, but then so is throwing a brick through the window.” 

An app that exists solely so you can "Yo" your friends. Man, if only we could expand it to include other words as well . . . and pictograms . . . and photos . . . and maybe even a feature that would let one user talk to another user! That would really be something.

What a gift: time to enjoy life's exquisite ironies. I wish you the same!


Choosing Wisely

Somewhere in the distant reaches of my memory is the time before I had an iPhone, and as wonderful as the device is, part of me misses that time when I had to be seated in front of a computer to research, communicate or just dawdle online. Even then, it was a struggle to keep control; now it's even more of a struggle, and I have the distinct feeling I'm losing most of the time.

But sometimes there are bright spots, and The New York Times recently provided one completely by accident. Once upon a time, the app allowed unlimited free access to "Top News" (the most recently-published dozen or so pieces on the site) and "Most Popular," a mystifying combination of science, art and news pieces that have in common an ability to inspire thoughtful consideration. Just when I was starting to read very regularly, the app changed to allow only Top News for non-subscribers. Due to the large number of [somewhat discouraging] straight news pieces, I stopped reading except once in awhile while waiting in a very long line.

Last week when I updated the app, I found the policy had changed again: now access is capped at three articles per device per day, but they could be articles from any section -- the magazine or the food pages in addition to the Top News and Most Popular lists. I imagine this policy was a compromise designed to meet the somewhat mutually exclusive goals of making money and attracting readers, but I love it. The limit has forced me to choose wisely, and I've become really picky about what I'll read (also incensed when an article doesn't deliver: "New York Today," for instance, is pretty useless if you don't live in Manhattan.)

The power of choice. It takes me back to my childhood, my mom telling each of us in the grocery store we could choose one thing. Granola bars? Fruit snacks? Ah, the agony of indecision!*

Then, all of a sudden, a piece I chose on a whim might surprise me, like this unexpected jolt of spiritual truth in what is certainly the best commencement speech I have ever read: 

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. 
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.
Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope:  Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?
Those who were kindest to you, I bet.
It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.
Now, the million-dollar question:  What’s our problem?  Why aren’t we kinder?

I really recommend you read George Saunders' talk all the way through. When I run across another like it, I'll let you know, but don't hold your breath. Wisdom like this is hard to find, and even harder to practice!

*Junk was still off-limits. My sister once famously chose a head of lettuce as her treat. Did I mention we were also restricted to public television? Was I deprived or what?! 

High-Performance Parenting

Clearly, a book with this title deserves my attention.

Here's the thing about four-year colleges, and architecture schools in particular, and my own alma mater most particularly of all. They promote an altogether false and harmful belief that their world, in which students are firmly and financially ensconced, is the ONLY world. Success or failure in their classes denotes success or failure in life. A lack of inspiration or a fit of malaise marks you as dull or lazy. 

So, okay, prepare your children for this, or go the safer, cheaper route with two years at a community college first. But what if this prevailing attitude of cutthroat competition, of days upon days in which where everything is always at stake, were present before college? In high school, or even before?

College and Community

Of all the ways in which I've changed my mind since grade school, my opinion of community colleges is probably the most surprising.

When I was applying to schools, community college wasn't even on the radar. It seemed to me one step away from "taking a year off," which was itself one step away from not going to college at all. 

Then I married an adjunct faculty member at a community college, and within a year he had been offered a full-time position there. I listened as he told stories of second careers, rededicated focus and failures that actually taught more than they punished. He himself was a community college success story, having entered as an average student with very little direction and exited into a respected university and, later, graduate school.

Now, especially in this economic climate, I can't picture swallowing the tab for a four-year university, period -- but for a seventeen-year-old with little to no life experience? Unthinkable. She needs a place to experiment with learning, where she can try out classes and schedules and the Real World without the blinding fear on which so many university professors feed or the enormous debt that will almost certainly saddle her for a decade or more. Beyond that, if her parents have done their job, she still needs them as she navigates her first steps as an independent adult: the world of newly-unsupervised grown children is getting scarier with each passing year.

This lengthy piece about a new community college in New York (called, aptly, The New Community College) describes a sort of hybrid between a demanding prep school and the open-enrollment standard that has given community colleges their slacker reputation:

All students will take the same classes for the first year, though they will be separated into two levels of math. At other schools, students who need extra help can get it from skills labs, peer study groups, tutors or advisers. Here, none of those resources will be optional. “This is absolutely crucial because so many students appear at the door of community colleges completely clueless about what is required of them, or available to them,” said Ms. McClenney of the University of Texas. “They don’t know they need to do work outside of class. They don’t take advantage of tutoring and mentoring services. They don’t know about peer study groups or interacting with faculty.”

Students will be required to spend 90 minutes a week in “group work space,” working with classmates and building on what they learn in class, with help from peer mentors — more experienced students from other CUNY colleges. Much of that time will be devoted to writing and language skills, a particular weakness at this level. (When a professor in one information session asked for a definition of the word “urban,” she had to call on three applicants before getting a correct answer. One thought it meant “what’s going on now.”)

Students will also have mandatory weekly 90-minute group sessions with advisers, called “student success advocates,” addressing issues like study habits and stressful situations outside school.

“We’ve found that students usually try to confront problems alone, and they often make damaging long-term decisions, like dropping out, in response to temporary problems,” said Donna Linderman, director of a CUNY program that has tested some of the ideas behind the new college. “It makes an enormous difference to have them sit down regularly with an adviser who says, ‘O.K., how many hours are you working? How long is your commute? Let’s make this work and keep you in school.’ ”

I can't think of a better way to help introduce apprehensive and ambitious students to higher education, while simultaneously preparing them for the next rung on the academic ladder. (Well, maybe a privately-funded institution with the same goals. One thing time has not changed is my opinion about the perils of government bureaucracy and the ensuing mismanagement of funds.)

Interestingly, the college where Rob teaches has launched a very similar initiative, which the Wall Street Journal profiled earlier this spring (in fact, fast forward to 3:30 to see a glimpse of his department!) 

The difficult part about being enlightened later in life? Seeing students come through my classroom, and knowing they are just as I was -- totally unaware of what they really need, and totally unwilling to listen to someone who does.

Poor Pianos

Right around the time I decided to end (at least temporarily) my piano-teaching career, I read one of the saddest stories ever written:

The Knabe baby grand did a cartwheel and landed on its back, legs poking into the air. A Lester upright thudded onto its side with a final groan of strings, a death-rattling chord. After 10 pianos were dumped, a small yellow loader with a claw in front scuttled in like a vicious beetle, crushing keyboards, soundboards and cases into a pile.

The site, a trash-transfer station in this town 20 miles north of Philadelphia, is just one place where pianos go to die. This kind of scene has become increasingly common.

The value of used pianos, especially uprights, has plummeted in recent years. So instead of selling them to a neighbor, donating them to a church or just passing them along to a relative, owners are far more likely to discard them, technicians, movers and dealers say. Piano movers are making regular runs to the dump, becoming adept at dismantling instruments, selling parts to artists, even burning them for firewood.

“We bust them up with a sledgehammer,” said Jeffrey Harrington, the owner of Harrington Moving & Storage in Maplewood, N.J.

It really does say something about our society that we're unable to find a use for these instruments. In the age of digital music, aspiring singers can play accompaniment tracks they've downloaded online and record themselves on vocals; fewer people need to know how to read the notes. In churches, they've moved to rock bands and recordings. 

Saddest of all? The late-night singalong jams that were such an important part of my childhood are less and less common. We used to pride ourselves on remembering all the words to American Pie; now when we get together to make music, everyone pulls out a phone and Googles the lyrics. 

I'd love to see someone step up to organize donations to low-income families, schools, churches and anyone else who wants one. It seems like we should be able to work that out.  Right?!

Plus Ca Change, Plus C'est La Meme Chose

Those French. Always eloquent, always pessimistic, and almost always right. Listen to this:

“It was all so enchanting at first,” muses our protagonist. “They were almost toys, to be played with, but the people got too involved, went too far, and got wrapped up in a pattern of social behavior and couldn’t get out, couldn’t admit they were in, even.”

When was this written? Last week? No, fifty years ago, by Ray Bradbury.

Most of all, Mr. Bradbury knew how the future would feel: louder, faster, stupider, meaner, increasingly inane and violent. Collective cultural amnesia, anhedonia, isolation. The hysterical censoriousness of political correctness. Teenagers killing one another for kicks. Grown-ups reading comic books. A postliterate populace. “I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths,” says the fire captain in “Fahrenheit,” written in 1953. “No one wanted them back. No one missed them.” Civilization drowned out and obliterated by electronic chatter. The book’s protagonist, Guy Montag, secretly trying to memorize the Book of Ecclesiastes on a train, finally leaps up screaming, maddened by an incessant jingle for “Denham’s Dentifrice.” A man is arrested for walking on a residential street. Everyone locked indoors at night, immersed in the social lives of imaginary friends and families on TV, while the government bombs someone on the other side of the planet. Does any of this sound familiar?

No? How about these:

  • "Today is August 4, 2026," said a second voice from the kitchen ceiling, "in the city of Allendale, California." It repeated the date three times for memory's sake. "Today is Mr. Featherstone's birthday. Today is the anniversary of Tilita's marriage. Insurance is payable, as are the water, gas, and light bills." Somewhere in the walls, relays clicked, memory tapes glided under electric eyes. (There Will Come Soft Rains, 1950)
  • "I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them." (Fahrenheit 451, 1953)
  • "The more I see of the mess we've put ourselves in, the more it sickens me. We've been contemplating our mechanical, electronic navels for too long. My God, how we need a breath of honest air!" (The Veldt, 1950)
  • "There sat all the tired commuters with their wrist radios, talking to their wives, saying 'Now I'm at Forty-third, now I'm at Forty-fourth, here I am at Forty-ninth, now turning at Sixty-first." (The Murderer, 1953)

Bradbury was known for his aversion to technology, refusing to use computers or fly in planes. But, in this excellent homage to his life's work, Tim Kreider explains that Bradbury was more than just a troglodyte.

But it was more complicated than that; his objections were not so much reactionary or political as they were aesthetic. He hated ugliness, noise and vulgarity. He opposed the kind of technology that deadened imagination, the modernity that would trash the past, the kind of intellectualism that tried to centrifuge out awe and beauty. 

I've been a Bradbury fan since reading The Illustrated Man in high school, but I only read his masterpiece a few years ago. He was such an inspiration, for his strong work ethic and idyllic family life as much as for his uncannily prophetic writing. I only hope that, as a society, we can start to take some of his lessons to heart.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the Classroom

One of the things I’ve been thinking about during my absence is something Rod comments on frequently: the modern phenomenon of “religulosity,” or quasi-religion, in the form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  The Wikipedia link includes the following definition, culled from interviews of thousands of American teenagers:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Why is this such a problem?  Rod points it out as an aside in this lengthy entry that’s actually about another topic:

This is why I’m always going on about the curse of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Whatever it is, it’s not authentic Christianity, not by the historical and doctrinal standards defining orthodox (small-o) Christian belief. If we Christians declare that tradition is not binding on us in any meaningful way, that we are free to believe about our faith whatever “works” for us, then we are theologically bankrupt. I find it easier in some ways to understand the atheist who believes it’s all nonsense than the self-described Christian who takes what he wants but ignores the rest, especially the hard stuff. To be clear, I don’t believe that only saints are authentically Christian. I sin. We all sin. I struggle to understand many of the teachings of the faith. But I don’t decide, on my own authority, that I don’t have to believe this thing or that thing, because it’s too difficult, or it doesn’t “work” for me. I am not a good Christian, but I can make that judgment because I have a clear standard of what a good Christian is — a standard that exists independent of my own preferences and moods.

Amen and amen. MTD is the Oprah of religions (this is part of what I loathe about Oprah.  She is NOT harmless; she advocates for a worldview in which the self is the measure of all things.)

Now, midway through Year 8 of teaching in classrooms at an extremely conservative Christian institution, I am shocked by how much of this mindset has crept into the thoughts and actions of my students.  Here are the biggest fallacies I’ve observed:

  1. Effort = achievement.  Over and over, students argue that they deserve an A on a paper because they worked really hard.  Once, after I explained that part of the grade was creativity, several students turned in papers written in colored ink and plastered with stickers.  When I expressed disbelief, they countered that they were trying to be “creative.”  This was one moment in which I despaired of ever being a good teacher.
  2. Prayer instead of effort.  We begin every class with prayer, and I am often touched by the number of students who remember the sick, the poor, the unborn and all who struggle.  But I also notice a growing number of students who pray almost as a substitute for their own efforts.  For instance, one of my students a number of years ago asked prayer for her grades at every single class, but almost never turned her work in on time.  Just about every student has prayed desperately for snow at some point in his life, but many of the students I encounter really seem to believe prayer is some sort of magic charm.
  3. Prayer as a shopping list.  In seven and a half years in the classroom, the only prayer of thanksgiving I’ve ever heard is after the birth of a family member — maybe two or three a year.  Thinking back to my own experience at a Christian school growing up, the requests always outumbered the thanksgivings (we are humans, after all, selfish by nature, and God knows I understand this!) but there were things for which we were grateful: time with friends, deliverance from sickness, and occasionally even good grades. (Aside: Most of my students are Catholic and refer to prayer requests as “intentions,” so it could be that that term is specifically intercessory, and that’s why they so seldom give thanks.  I’m not sure.)
  4. Struggle is bad.  Maybe this is an unfair expectation, since I only really learned to enjoy the struggle of learning in college (see any entry about Gussow!) But I do seem to remember understanding, as I wrestled with Geometry proofs or oil painting, that I might just have to accept that this was too difficult for me to fully understand right now. My students just can’t understand how struggling could be a good thing.  In their view, the best kind of assignment is easily completed and makes them feel good afterward — completely devoid of struggle — and the worst kind of assignment is one that requires wrestling and may not even result in a good grade (see “effort = achievement” above.)  Similarly, they argue increasingly that Hester Prynne was unfairly ostracized for her sin and had every right to abandon her life in Boston for a new one in which she could live unapologetically with a new husband and their illegitimate child.  They know premarital sex is a sin, but they have seen so much of it that they can’t see why it should have repercussions on the rest of an otherwise-virtuous life: “She’s a good person.  Who cares if she did one bad thing, especially if it was with someone she really loved?”
  5. Stress is struggle.  I’m sure I complained, as a teenager, about my stress level.  I’m also sure it was far less than what my students juggle: they are so overextended in so many areas that I could write a separate essay on the evils of extracurricular activities. What I want to point out here is the most common excuse for almost any academic infraction, which is “I’m so stressed out right now.” Somehow they have taken the work of learning and replaced it with activity — which becomes an excuse for not completing required tasks.
  6. It’s all about me.  My friend Terry, a journalist and educator, has been an unbelievable source of support in this area: students love to write about themselves, to the extent that they expect to use first-person narrative in most academic papers.  I had one student argue that she didn’t see how I could take points off her paper, since it was based on her opinion: “How can my opinion be wrong?”  Yeah.  It’s come to that. Curiously, they appear simultaneously self-conscious about their opinions: if I had a dollar for every time I’ve crossed out “I believe,” “I think,” or “I feel,” I would be writing this entry from French Polynesia.  They want to state their opinions and make sure you thow they’re their opinions.

What does all this mean for teachers?  I’m not sure yet.  For now, I’m just aware (and wary) of this philosophy’s pervasiveness.

A Certain Kind of Laughter

In his Preface to “The Order of Things,” Foucault writes of his laughter upon reading about something at once disturbing and hilarious: a Chinese encyclopedia that categorizes animals into (among others) “those that belong to the Emperor,” “those that tremble as if they were mad,” and “those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush.”

This laughter eventually inspires his own seminal work, “The Order of Things,” in which he attempts to make a little more sense of the science of taxonomy. It is the laughter, though, that I will always remember. His laughter expresses bitterness, insecurity, even horror, and helps him find control over a situation that seems ridiculous and inescapable.

It is for this reason that, in the wake of the recently-discovered child abuse tragedy in State College, I turn to The Onion:

After former Penn State defensive coach Jerry Sandusky was charged Saturday with multiple counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, corruption of minors, indecent assault, and unlawful contact with minors, the national sports media sought out his victims this week to ask if they were worried about Joe Paterno’s legacy and how their molestations might affect the recently fired head coach’s place in the history books.


“The victim I spoke to, who was 12 years old when Sandusky first took advantage of him, looked very upset throughout the entire interview,” Sports Illustrated writer Stewart Mandel said. “And when I asked whether he was concerned not just for how Joe Paterno would be remembered, but also for the football program’s ability to recover, he told me the interview was over and I should get out of his house.”

“Can you blame him, though?” Mandel added. “A coaching legend’s reputation hangs in the balance. I’m just as hurt and frustrated as he is.”

A more serious and logical summary of my personal opinion can be found in John Scalzi’s scathing and (justifiably) profane invective, certainly, but somehow I find The Onion’s story more compelling. Probably because it reassures me that there is a perverse humor in the reactions of the college community that have rendered me speechless with incredulity.

There is a certain kind of laughter that says, “This is funny precisely because it is not.” The Onion clearly established its ability to inspire that laughter with its first issue after the September 11 attacks: the three-word headline was succinct and incisive, echoing the thoughts of most of us. Holy ——ing ——.

I have heard many enlightened people say that sarcasm is poisonous, an unacceptable response in any situation; and indeed, its literal translation is “tearing of the flesh.” This is why I think it is perfectly appropriate for a situation this dark and ugly. At the very least, it could save you from tearing your own.

Two Sides of Social Justice

Yesterday I read an action research project by an inner-city Chicago teacher.  In a unit about social justice, she encouraged her class of twenty-five first and second-graders to think about fairness and compassion, and they responded accordingly:

If I were President I would tell the builders who build houses for rich people to build the homeless houses and I would give them food and a car.

If I were President I would take care of lots of people. People would have 3 day weekends. There would be no school for a week.

If I were President I would give money to school and help all the people in the world improve their schools.

If I were President I would make things good.  I would love the world and I would buy anything for kids and I would get people homes.

Part of me read these sentiments with a great deal of cynicism.  How sad that these children view government as a benevolent, even indulgent caretaker – that rather than giving people freedom to live their lives, they wanted the President to bestow material comfort upon them. 

The Occupy Wall Street seems, at its core, to have a similar idea: they want to stop the most successful people in society from continuing to be successful by spending their money on the foolish and hapless masses who have financially gotten in over their heads.  This (besides the pretentions of activism and the lack of hygiene and decorum) keeps me from being too enthusiastic about their mission and the press that’s glued to it.

So I was pretty shocked, later that evening, to read the following in the Psalms:

Why dost thou stand afar off, O Lord?
Why dost thou hide Thyself in times of trouble?
In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor;
let them be caught in the schemes which they have devised.
For the wicked boasts of the desires of his heart,
and the man greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord.
In the pride of his countenance the wicked does not seek him;
all his thoughts are, “There is no God.”
His ways prosper at all times;
thy judgments are on high, out of his sight;
as for all his foes, he puffs at them.
He thinks in his heart, “I shall not be moved;
throughout all generations I shall not meet adversity.”
His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under his tongue are mischief and iniquity.
He sits in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places he murders the innocent.
His eyes stealthily watch for the hapless,
he lurks in secret like a lion in his covert;
he lurks that he may seize the poor,
he seizes the poor when he draws him into his net.
The hapless is crushed, sinks down,
and falls by his might.
He thinks in his heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”
Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up Thy hand;
forget not the afflicted.

If God’s not too good to care for the poor, maybe we should think about doing the same.

Kitsch, Pornography and Other Evils

You can always count on a monastic to stir things up.  Recently at a professional development seminar, I heard a Dominican sister speak about liberal arts education: the “free arts,” by their more ancient name, are so called because their concern is with attaining knowledge for the betterment of the whole person and, through it, freedom for society as a whole.  By contrast, the “servile arts” create a utilitarian product that serves a purpose and, often, a person.  As one who attended a liberal arts high school and now teaches in one, I wholeheartedly support this approach, which is under attack at the moment by a depressed economy and a secular population that believes practical / monetary value to be the highest good.

As an example, Sister took us through a brief history of visual art, starting with the Classical and Renaissance Periods and continuing through the Impressionists and modern times.  In what has been called (by someone whose name I didn’t write down, of course) the “schizophrenic fragmentation of narrative,” modern forms of art have now imploded: in the absence of an expression of truth and a respect for the history of the discipline, we’re left with the empty shell of a thing — form but no substance.  Duchamp’s toilet bowl.  Mondrian’s blocks of color.  Pollock’s drips and splatters.

Consider the praise chorus, a shallow repetition of three chords and some non-rhyming phrases that, more often than not, center more on the worshipper than the Worshipped.  There’s nothing wrong with it, really, but without the benefit of the history of sacred music, it becomes a substitute that younger generations will begin to mistake for the real thing.  And it’s not.  Real worship is at once painful and enlightening.

Ultimately, Sister argued, we come to the most empty and dangerous forms of “art.”  One is pornography: a glorification of the sexual dimension of the human body without reference to soul or society.  The other is kitsch: garden gnomes, Barbie and Thomas Kinkade.  These, too, present a reality that is devoid of any substance, having been stripped of sacred values.  They’re “pretty” if you look only at the colors and designs, but they are not good, and they are certainly not liberating.

Not what I was expecting to hear from a lecture on the liberal arts.  But I think she’s right on the money.  And I’ll endorse the Thomas Kinkade Defamation League any chance I get.