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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Blasts from the Past

In more ways than one.

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from an old college roommate, someone I haven't seen or spoken to in fifteen or so years. He said he'd stumbled across my site, that I looked good, that he hoped we could talk sometime. Then he mentioned some news--that Scott Swaner had died from pancreatic cancer. Scott was a brilliant, cool, charismatic person, someone who I often crossed paths with in years long since gone by. His death was a tragedy and a great loss to all those who knew him well...

...which, to be honest, doesn't entirely include me. And after I read my old roommate's e-mail, I wondered about that; I wondered about it more and more. Mostly, I wondered about the news itself. You see, Scott died nearly a year and a half ago, and I had known that. I can't remember how I knew it; just that some time ago--months? a year? more?--somebody who knew me or knew Scott or knew something about who all he and I hung out with back at BYU in the early 1990s, when we were all in our twenties and finally getting a start on adult life, passed the news along. And I was, I presume, momentarily shocked--damn, I probably thought, he was only a year older than me--and then I filed the news away. And forgot about it. But this time I didn't. Partly it's because my former roommate (Jeff Bohn is his name; why do I keep calling him "the roommate"?) sent me a link to an incredible, heart-rending blog which Scott kept during the short months between being diagnosed with terminal cancer in the spring of 2006, and his death in December of that year. What an odd, in some ways simply fascinating, in other ways simply disturbing thing, to read someone else documenting their own demise. But partly, I think it's also because the time was right. The news--this time around, anyway--caught me at a moment in time, a moment when I'm remembering, or trying to remember, other moments long past.

Scott Swaner was my AP. Only my fellow Mormons will get that reference, so let me explain. Those young Mormons who serve full-time proselyting missions for the church get sent all around the world, and experience a wide variety of forms of mission life. However, it's an absolute rule that every missionary gets assigned a companion (you're supposed to keep eyes on each other and inspire one another to obedience and faithfulness at all times, though it doesn't always work out that way), and every companionship is assigned to a district, and every district is a part of a zone, and every zone has appointed missionary leaders who report to the mission president, and every mission president assigns a couple of older, more experienced missionaries to be his "assistants to the president," or "APs," to help keep track of all the foregoing. Scott served in the same mission I did--Korea Seoul West (specifically, the western part of South Korea, from Seoul to Inchon and quite a ways down the coast). He was a little more than a year ahead of me in the mission field. I was never in the same district or zone as he was; I knew him almost solely as one of the APs, as a distant, busy, confident and unflappable character, as someone who would show up at missionary training meetings and switch from Korean to English and back again with perfect aplomb. I was, frankly, a mess for much of my two years in South Korea, full of doubts and questions and unresolved grudges and sins and fears, and the way Scott radiated humor, confidence and self-possession, was simply beautiful to me. There's a man I want to get to know, thought little-19-year-old-me.

And later, when the mission was over, when I resumed my college education as a sophomore at BYU in 1990, I did. We kept bumping into each other, showing up at the same places as the same time. We never had classes together--he was into comparative literature, I was into journalism, then political science, then philosophy, then all three--but we'd crash the same parties, nod at each other at the same movies, attend meetings for the same campus events and activities. Through Scott, I discovered and found my way into a network of people that seemed to me to be far more aware than any group of people I'd ever known. (Which means--I can say now in retrospect--that I was experiencing part of what the modern liberal university is supposed to make possible, right?) Suddenly I was involved with an underground campus newspaper, the doomed-but-fun-while-it-lasted Student Review; I was hanging out with rabble-rousers of all sorts and ages over at the Honors Building; I was going to jazz shows in Salt Lake City and ska concerts up at Snowbird (a ski resort) and a cappella jams all over the place. Some of these connections I made entirely on my own, but many came through people like Scott and those who followed in his wake. BYU may be a pretty big school, as far as undergraduate institutions go, but the number of folks I'm talking about was pretty small (at least in comparison to the teeming thousands who camped out overnight to get season football tickets). A lot of us ended up rooming together at various spots around Provo, UT, or at least spent so much time at each other's apartments that we might as well have been roommates. There was one ramshackle old place we called The Amityville House: Scott was there, and Bob and Rick Ahlander, and Dave Boyce and maybe Dave Jenkins too: a lot of people that I used to consider great friends and whom I haven't heard from or spoken with in a very, very long time.

It's weird when you look back on it, one's early college years. (Even us Mormons at BYU could find ways to make it weird, and did.) I suppose I could critique the whole thing (and have before), but now I'm just reminiscing about the strangeness of being entrusted with the expectation of suddenly growing up with relatively little real social preparation beforehand. Some, of course, had done a lot (or a little) of that preparatory growing up in high school or during their freshman year or at their jobs or on their missions, but most of us 21 or 22 or 23-year-old virgins were more than a little stymied at the prospect of--at last!--some truly unsupervised and unstructured Saturday nights. What did we do with our weekends, once our papers were done? We explored; we got busy; we went driving; we went bowling; we made rash and oh-so-serious proclamations; we dorked around. What do I remember? Scott introducing me to O'Douls. Scott and various pals protesting the Gulf War late one night in January 1991, holding up signs in front of The Palace (a dance hall), me lurking in the background and writing up the whole thing for the official campus newspaper (the one I would later be fired from for lying about my continuing ties to the aforementioned underground campus paper). Scott taking charge on a Halloween night, when a bunch of us were visiting Chicago together, making sure we all ended up at a truly hip club. Scott and Jeff and I wandering around apartment complexes back in Provo, randomly knocking on doors, pretending to be doing a study for some campus program, in reality just trying to meet girls. (Anyone remotely familiar with the social scene around Provo, or indeed any socially conservative Christian milieu, will know that the male of the species in such environments will do just about any damn fool thing as part of his quest for love, marriage, and sex--preferably in that order, of course--and we certainly weren't exceptions.) I can't say Scott and I ever became close friends through all this; more like, he was the ever-reluctant-yet-ultimately-willing ringleader, and I was a reliable member of his gang (a gang which he denied existed, but was all that apparent just the same). And at that age, if you're one of those geeks for whom social near-catastrophes seem to be practically a weekly occurrence, who wouldn't want a ringleader to follow?

A lot of this I'm bemused by now; some of it I'm proud of, and more than a little of it I'm pretty embarrassed by. (See here and here for more on all that.) But anyway you look at it, soon--assuming you have no more problems than the average white middle-class twentysomething male--the maturing, whether early or late, whether easily or through hard lessons you wish you'd never had to learn, happens: you get your bearings, you start to figure out what works and what doesn't, and then you're in your junior or senior year and trying to add up all that's come before. I can remember attending Scott's wedding reception, a lavish affair up in Salt Lake. And a few months later I was over at their house for some party or other, and things weren't quite right. (The fact that his wife appeared to be flirting with me was a bit of give away.) And then things were breaking apart: I could see that what I understood to be Scott's confidence was also, at the same time, a kind of stylized obliviousness; the latter didn't eclipse the former, but they weren't entirely distinguishable either. Things get complicated; you and your friends realize you're not entirely a project of your own making, that you have facets which will probably always both complement and contradict in part all that you think you are or hope to do. Your delayed rumspringa comes to an end. You start making choices, which means there are things you don't do, paths you don't take. Of course it's not that tidy; nothing ever is. I doubt hardly anyone can truly take one moment in their life and see it as the dividing point separating all that came before and all that came afterward. I certainly can't, and I shouldn't pretend that Scott embodied anything like that for me--for heaven's sake, we were so young then. Nonetheless, it's a tempting reconstruction: one semester it seemed as though the time was still all before you as you make choices about the roads you'll take; then it's another semester, and you've survived one controversy or catastrophe after another, and you look around and realize that you've been making choices all along, and you're a good ways down one road already--so far, in fact, that you can't even see any longer those people who you were once sure you'd be walking down some road with forever. That day came, and realized I hadn't seen Scott in months.

I'm lucky; I know I am. I've been able to stay in touch with a few old friends here and there--sometimes I've even been able to find one (or been found by one) which I'd lost, and make up for lost time. But you can't do that with everyone. The last time I spoke to Scott was a phone call, back in the summer of 1993. I was on an internship in Washington, DC, and was planning on getting married in August. I was going to go on to get an MA in International Studies, and was thinking about journalism or academia as a career; by that time...was he already at Cornell by then? Or still at BYU? I don't remember where I called to track him down; I just felt a need to hear his warm, intelligent, always slightly ironic tone of voice again. He'd left Mormonism behind, or was leaving it at any rate, and was burrowing deeper and deeper in the culture and language he'd fallen in love with while we were on our missions. (He ended up getting a Ph.D. in Korean from Harvard University, and obtained a position teaching Asian literature and poetry at the University of Washington, where by all accounts be was much loved by his students and colleagues.) We talked about mission times, goofball times, people that even by then were retreating far back into our pasts and whom we tried to help each other remember. And then we hung up, and that was probably the last time I thought much about Scott for nearly a decade and a half.

What to say, in the end? He was smart, he was funny, he was fearless, he was kind, he lived life as he saw it to the fullest, he was a born leader, he strove, for better or worse, to be entirely his own man. He taught me a hell of a lot, he gave me something to aspire to, something to follow, at a time when I suppose I really needed it. Then we were out of touch--and who knows? Perhaps we could have been better, closer, more equal friends if I or he had reached out then; certainly it was only after I'd escaped graduated from BYU that I really started to get some balance and perspective in my life, and started doing some arguably interesting things. But that's not how it worked out. Not much of a eulogy, is it? Those who knew him better--like Dave Jenkins, who'd been his friend since high school--can do much better than I. I just find myself thinking that I'm now older than he ever got to be, and that I'm twice as old as the young man who fascinated and inspired me nearly twenty years ago in South Korea. We're all mortal, and even our pasts are dying, with all our moments passing away every day. Thank God for the people we get to meet, the people who do us some good, and perhaps allow us to do some good in return, along the way.

Scott H. Swaner, January 6, 1968-December 20, 2006. Requiescat in pace.

And, of course, cue the soundtrack (one of Scott's favorites--or at least, a favorite of the Scott that I knew, way back then):

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Presidents on Film: A Bleg

I haven't done a bleg in ages; I hope this one works as well as the last one did.

This summer I'll be conducting a teachers workshop on "The Presidency and Presidential Elections." Friends University does dozens of these every summer, to help elementary and secondary school teachers pick up credit hours towards an eventual degree, and also just to help them develop or upgrade lesson plans for the coming year. This is the first time I'll be teaching one, and I'm not too worried; though it'll be a different kind of audience than I've ever had before, the subject matter shouldn't be a problem, especially given that we've already had more than enough drama this election cycle to fill up discussions about political primaries, the electoral college, frontloading, fundraising, and all the rest. But I'm thinking about how I'm going to present these discussions, since I want to do it in such a way that will provide some resources which those in the workshop can then take into their classrooms (they'll all be middle school and high school teachers, if that matters). I'm putting together some interactive stuff that may work, but I also want to make use of the medium which most of their students are going to be more familiar with: movies. And so, I ask you, my Internet Friends--what are some of the best films, or short bits of films, that I could recommend or show in the workshop as part of a discussion of presidents, presidential elections, and the presidency?

I'm completely open insofar as "historical" vs. "contemporary" presentations are concerned; just so long as the film itself or some excerpt from it can be use to demonstrate a point. There are, of course, the big guns I could haul out: Seven Days in May, Primary Colors, Fail-Safe, and I could do so...except all of those films feature pretty outlandish or historically-specific characters and scenarios, and thus trying to use them as a way of talking about the sort of people who run for president, the sort of people who surround a president, and the sort of decisions presidents and the people around them have to make, may be difficult. But then again, maybe not. What I'm hoping for is some scene out there, some plot point or storyline (even a minor one) that I could use to exemplify the reality (or the perception) of presidential requirements, power, responsibilities, limitations, and agendas. I've never seen Oliver Stone's Nixon; anyone know if there's anything there? How about The Best Man? (Like my class on politics and the movies back in Arkansas, this may be a fun opportunity for me to check out a bunch of films that have been on my to-see list for ages.) Or how about any of the romantic comedies featuring presidents? Dave and The American President are, if I remember correctly, fun but basically worthless (though Martin Sheen's A.J. MacInerney kills me in the latter film), but maybe there's something in State of the Union?

Hey, speaking of Sheen, there is of course The West Wing. No doubt there's tons of stuff there, assuming the workshop attenders don't run screaming from the room at the sound of Aaron Sorkin's dialogue. My wife and I watched the show pretty faithfully for the first three or so seasons, then got burned out. Any particular episodes come to mind as a likely prospect? I'm remembering lots of angsty drama and clever executive maneuvering but nothing particularly, well, real.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Friday PSTSS: "Birdhouse in Your Soul"

This actually isn't my favorite tune off of They Might Be Giant's 1990 album Flood, which actually isn't my favorite TMBG's album either. For the former, I think, the answer is either the surrealistic "They Might Be Giants" (if only for the completely mad line, "Everyone needs to hang on tighter / just to keep from being thrown to the wolves"), the trenchantly minimalistic "Minimum Wage" (which consists of nothing but a whip cracking), or "Particle Man" (which I can't listen to now without hearing the Bob's brilliant calliope cover, complete with Matthew "Bob" Stull shouting out in the middle of song, for no apparent reason, "Waiter!"). Truly, it's a great recording, stuffed with brilliant, funny, weird tunes. But as I said, out of all their recordings, I'm not sure it's their best, I think; that title I would give to their 2002 kids' album, No!, if only because I love singing "Where Do They Make Balloons?" with my kids.

Still, here we go with TMBG's biggest mainstream hit. A tale of love and obsession, of history and theology, it's the sort of thing that Ray Bradbury could have turned into a fabulous, freaky sci-fi/horror/romance. ("Honey, our little night light has been talking to me, and I think it loves me, and I think it's going to kill you to get at me." "That's nice, dear.")

I'm your only friend--
I'm not your only friend--
but I'm a little glowing friend--
but really I'm not actually your friend--
but I am...

Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch
who watches over you.
Make a little birdhouse in your soul.
Not to put too fine a point on it:
say I'm the only bee in your bonnet.
Make a little birdhouse in your soul.

I have a secret to tell
from my electrical well;
it's a simple message and I'm leaving out the whistles and bells.
So the room must listen to me
filibuster vigilantly.
My name is blue canary one note spelled l-i-t-e.
My story's infinite--
like the Longines Symphonette it doesn't rest.

Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch
who watches over you.
Make a little birdhouse in your soul.
Not to put too fine a point on it:
say I'm the only bee in your bonnet.
Make a little birdhouse in your soul.

I'm your only friend--
I'm not your only friend--
But I'm a little glowing friend--
But really I'm not actually your friend--
But I am...

There's a picture opposite me
of my primitive ancestry,
which stood on rocky shores and kept the beaches shipwreck free.
Though I respect that a lot
I'd be fired if that were my job,
after killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts.
Bluebird of friendliness--
like guardian angels its always near.

Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch
who watches over you.
Make a little birdhouse in your soul.
Not to put too fine a point on it:
say I'm the only bee in your bonnet.
Make a little birdhouse in your soul.

(And while you're at it,
keep the nightlight on inside
the birdhouse in your soul.)

Not to put too fine a point on it:
say I'm the only bee in your bonnet.
Make a little birdhouse in your soul.

Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch (and while you're at it)
who watches over you (keep the nightlight on inside the)
Make a little birdhouse in your soul (birdhouse in your soul)

Not to put too fine a point on it:
say I'm the only bee in your bonnet.
Make a little birdhouse in your soul.

Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch (and while you're at it)
who watches over you (keep the nightlight on inside the)
Make a little birdhouse in your soul (birdhouse in your soul)

Not to put too fine a point on it:
say I'm the only bee in your bonnet.
Make a little birdhouse in your soul.

What John Says (The University Today, Part 3)

Ok, I've no more meetings to rant about. But I've got one more thing to say about Professor X's article, and about class and academia and the meritocracy, and about all the other issues tied up together in what universities are doing today. Or rather, fellow Wichita blogger (and community college professor) John Buass has something to say about it. Several somethings, in fact. First of all, commenting a little slyly on my "fit of communitarian pique" over much of globalist, progressive, "new world"-techno-speak thrown at us Friends University faculty as part of our "strategic planning" last week (expressed in Part 1 of this series), John casually observes that, well, some folks like Thoreau were saying the exact same things over 150 years ago:

"But," says one, "you do not mean that the students should go to work with their hands instead of their heads?" I do not mean that exactly, but I mean something which he might think a good deal like that; I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? Methinks this would exercise their minds as much as mathematics. If I wished a boy to know something about the arts and sciences, for instance, I would not pursue the common course, which is merely to send him into the neighborhood of some professor, where anything is professed and practised but the art of life; -- to survey the world through a telescope or a microscope, and never with his natural eye; to study chemistry, and not learn how his bread is made, or mechanics, and not learn how it is earned; to discover new satellites to Neptune, and not detect the motes in his eyes, or to what vagabond he is a satellite himself; or to be devoured by the monsters that swarm all around him, while contemplating the monsters in a drop of vinegar.

Reminding us also that the writer of Walden was himself "Harvard-educated and a child of privilege," John makes clear what I probably only reluctantly acknowledged in passing in both of my "university today" posts: namely, that the localist/traditionalist/populist/communitarian critique of much of the language and baggage brought to us by the modern liberal order and the universities which serve it--as true and needed as I think much of it may be!--is, in the end, as Michael Walzer noted long ago, a "recurring critique" at best...if only because the fundamental conditions of critique in America today happen on the terms of liberal individualism, on the terms of choice and growth and progress. Those of us worried about all that--whether inside academic or outside of it--have been worrying about it for a long time, which at the very least needs to give some pause to those of us who spin out long thoughts on the socio-economic struggles and assumptions of students and the institutions that teach them today. So ok, point taken.

Secondly, but more importantly, John uses Professor X's article, and the dilemmas of mass education (or is it just "mass credentialism"?) today, to think about his own student experience, as one stumbled into a college education that he originally didn't think he was prepared for, and who--by his own account, at least--continued to benefit from other lucky accidents and unknowing choices, all the way through graduate school. This has left him with good deal more wonder for the happy happenstance which is the process of education for so many of those he teaches--more at least than Professor X, who at least owns up to his own "paranoia" in the classroom in the Atlantic essay which started all this. John writes:

I'm not at all arguing with Professor X's contention that many (most?) students in colleges and universities are not "college material" or, at least, don't need to be there--I certainly see my share of such students where I teach....However, in my own experience as both a student and a professor, I know that predicting who will do well and who not is no sure thing. It's like when students ask me if a school is "any good": I tell them that the only way to know for sure is to enroll and go through it. I too know very well, many times over, the sinking feeling Professor X describes feeling during his/her interactions with Ms. L., but I've also seen some--not all, but some--of the students with whom I've had those conversations pull off minor miracles of freshman-level scholarship. One can know certain things only in retrospect....This semester a student thanked me for granting him an Incomplete for the semester rather than failing him; he said he wasn't accustomed to people troubling themselves on his behalf and so he was grateful. After telling him that it was no trouble, I said that education, no matter the grade level, in its essence is the offering of a chance to the student. It's not a promise or a gift or a guarantee of anything. It's the offering of a chance. It's up to the student to do with it what s/he will.

John also discerns in Professor X's piece an echo of the confused bitterness which characterizes many graduate programs in America--a reminder that frustration is hardly the sole property of those who struggle with the meritocracy; those who are earnestly climbing it can indulge in the same as well. But anyway, read the whole thing (and wait anxiously for his own Part 2 next week).

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

My Wife Leads the Way (to Local Food)

Melissa is becoming a bit of a proselyter. She's never been a particularly ideological person, in any way, which is generally a good thing. But for the better part of a decade, she's become increasingly passionate--and increasingly open--about our family commitment to buying local, to eschewing the world of Big Agriculture as much as possible, and most importantly to keeping as much that is processed and synthesized and commodified away from our stomachs as possible. In other words, she believes in, as Michael Pollan put it, "eating food"--as opposed to all the other manufactured gunk that the corporations sell and the vending machines (and often the school lunch rooms) stock. This attitude of hers has 1) melded nicely and helpfully with my high-falutin' communitarian-Marxist-traditionalist preferences, and 2) is turning her into a bit of a localist guru for her small (but worthy!) segment of the blogosphere.

I've talked about our various and ongoing attempts to live, consume, and eat locally before, but usually when I've done so my own political and philosophical proclivities lead me to wax theoretical and at too-great length about populism and conservatism, environmentalism, and all the rest. So when it comes to what we're actually doing with our kids, Melissa's brevity is probably to be preferred. So, if you're interested, check out Melissa's genealogy of how the Fox family has striven to go local over the years, and the ideas that have done the most to lead us down that path. The books she recommends are all good ones that you should read; the arguments they make are all ones you should take seriously. And if you have any questions, feel free to comment either here or there....but honestly, if you want more practical advice, I'd try her first.

Massaging the Meritocracy (The University Today, Part 2)

So, getting back to my meetings from last week...

The second day, Tuesday, was taken up with reviews of how the state expects those of us responsible for education majors here at Friends to collect, interpret, and present data on their performance in the classroom and on the various assessments which we've had to design to prove that we're satisfying state standards--as well as, just possibly, along the way, producing some good teachers. I've complained about this process before, confident that my complaints would be echoed by just about every instructor involved in teaching aspiring educators who happened to read my rant...which in fact has turned out to be the case. And that actually has been helpful to me--it's always good to figure out just how many people you have beside you, suffering with the same regulations, fighting the same bureaucracy, working to get things done and out of the way so you can get back to, you know, teaching. And so Tuesday wasn't so rough. There's also the fact that our eventual rejoinders to the Kansas State Department of Education, in history and government teaching and in everything else, all passed with flying colors; and plus the simple fact that I've been doing this for more than a year now, and I'm starting to figure things out. I still have data I have to collect and massage into formats which the state will accept, but I think I might actually be gaining ground insofar the improvement of teaching in my area is concerned, as opposed to just treading water.

Speaking of "massaging," that leads me to Wednesday, the last of my three days of meetings, and far and away the one which gave me the most thought. No, we didn't receive massages; rather, we received a couple of books: Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, and a volume titled StrengthsQuest, which is the physical embodiment of the website, educational philosophy, and organizational tool found here. It is the latter book which, it seems to me, is all about "massaging"--specifically, about taking some hard and rough truths and trying to present them as pliable, negotiable, tolerable.

Friends University is going to be instituting a "First Year Experience" for all incoming freshman next fall, which I think is a fine idea. A lot of universities do this, and have had some real successes with their various plans to have their new students, often placed together in small cohorts, share a core educational experience or a common bit of socialization or both. We did it at Western Illinois University; there, the common text that everyone was supposed to read and discuss and which teachers were supposed to build writing assignments around was Eric Scholsser's Fast Food Nation (which I ended up discussing a bit here and more here). The choice of our college--Kidder's book on Dr. Paul Farmer's experiences in trying to share the blessings of modern health with desperately poor people in some of the most deprived conditions in the world (mostly in Haiti, but also elsewhere; read more about him here)--is more focused on broader issues of social justice and service than Schlosser's polemical book (as right as it is about many things), and thus is probably a more appropriate fit for this Quaker-Christian university. I'm anxious to use it, talk about it, try to get my first year students to think and argue about, and to work it into my Christianity and Social Justice class as well, which should be a snap. My feelings about the other book, however, are quite a bit different.

StrengthsQuest--as a book, a test, a way of life--was presented to us (again!) by a couple of devotees of basically the same educational/organizational worldview I talked about last week. Like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Color Code test (both of which I've taken, been analyzed by, and seen used in situations ranging from personal counseling to relationship advice), StrengthsQuest is one of these jury-rigged sciences of the personality, an attempt by way of seemingly random questions to identify traits and skills, aptitudes and attitudes, all for purposes--presumably--of helping people Know Themselves and know better how to Work With Others. I call it "jury-rigged" because I don't know how else to describe a system which plucks out certain reactions and propensities--in this case, thirty-four of them, ranging from "Achiever" and "Activator" to "Strategic" and "WOO" ("Winning Others Over")--from a person's gut reactions, labels them "strengths" or "positives," and cobbles them together into a set of proposed goals, plans and tasks. In a university context, it's the sort of thing that can--and often is--used to program much of the student's whole experience, beginning with such comparatively minor things such as helping one's students frame and construct a written self-assessment (writing a personal autobiography being a common first assignment in many of these freshman programs), all the way to using the data pulled from the test to coordinate class registration and scheduling, assign advisors, even determine roommates in on-campus housing. (And it's not just students; some of the schools that have embraced StrengthsQuest which were presented to us as examples have their faculty categorized according to their supposed strengths, with committee assignments and other duties distributed to them in accordance with the kind of groupings which different tasks presumably require.)

All this was, to say the least, a bit much (and to his great credit, our dean acknowledged the concerns and doubts which properly should go along with bringing into a freshman class environment such a purportedly comprehensive--and thereby perhaps overly determining--system). But my basic worries and criticisms were not focused on StrengthsQuest itself; I don't have any truly fundamental or methodological objections to honest attempts at self-identifying and hence labeling, as long as people recognize that said labels should be understood as analytical tools, not normative guides. No, my real difficulty with what was presented to us--and here I'm referring to the StrengthsQuest presentation itself, not our university's overall aims for the First Year Experience, which I think are exemplary and which I plan to be a part of--was the contradictory nature of the implied message of StrengthsQuest.

Basically, it packages an approach to the world which eschews limitations and weaknesses, preferring instead to turn every encounter with the real world--another person, a new subject, a difficult textbook--into an opportunity to highlight and finagle into some kind of relevance one's "strengths." One of the presenter's cardinal points was "Each and every entering student already has all the talents needed to achieve and persist in college!" Well, this is simply false; the thing we call "college"--or "higher education," if you prefer--represents a historically and disciplinarily determined set of specific strengths, standards, expectations, and priorities; a student can be strong and smart and decent and good and yet still happen to lack the requisite mix of talents, skills, and interests which match this always-evolving-yet-mostly-predetermined thing called "college." This is not to say that we, as teachers, should try to shape people, to improve and even (heavy qualifications here) "enlighten" them, to change them into the sort of people capable of achieving their goals: that's another way of defining education itself, after all. Yet this subtle message of students as creatures of infinitely adaptable strengths runs counter to another one of the presenters' subsequent cardinal points: "Not all behaviors can be learned; it is false to assume that 'if you try hard enough, you can do it'!" Exactly! Which I think plainly means, at least as far I can tell, that one shouldn't assume that "college"--or more particularly, any number of the practical and theoretical tasks and knowledge sets it contains--can always be taught to anyone, even someone of goodwill. I tried to point this out, by making the presenters reflect on their praise of hiring in part according to StrengthsQuest results, hoping to indicate that if sometimes people weren't hired in part because their projected strengths don't fit the needed tasks, then that might imply that not everyone's strengths should always be assumed to be adequate to any institution or set of demands. But they brushed my questions aside, assuming--or so it seemed to me--that college is just some borderless (again!) and empty field of action, within which anyone can, with the proper guidance and priorities, figure out a way to maximize themselves in regards to any particular point. Which, as last week's post shows, is something I just don't believe.

Over the past couple of weeks, Professor X's brilliant and true screed about the lack of preparedness and lack of relevance which crashes down upon those who struggle--as both students and teachers--to live out the liberal arts ideal "in the basement of the ivory tower," has gotten a fair amount of comment. Laura McKenna has picked up on it, pointing the finger primarily at "a shoddy public education system," about the results of which "only the invisible adjuncts know the truth." Rod Dreher picked up on it too, and began a long, fascinating discussion of the way in which our late-capitalist, post-industrial economy constantly rewards--not just monetarily, but in terms of presumptions about the good life, about who should rule and who should make the rules--the cognitive elite, the one's who, for reasons of luck or home environment or good elementary schools or all three, do very well at algebra, creative writing, and all the rest (but good luck in asking them to fix your car or your plumbing). The point that I see ringing forth loudly from both of these bloggers' comments, and from those of many others--to say nothing of all that is obviously being often muttered not a little angrily by hundreds of thousands of students and adjunct professors and employment counselors across this country, all trying to make sense of the disconnect between "American Dream"-type aspirations now more than a half-century old on the one hand, and a thoroughly changed economy on the other--is that we live in a meritocracy...and not a meritocracy of pure and democratic talent, one of the sort that anyone who respects individual difference and achievement (and that even includes me!) can reasonably approve of. No, a meritocracy that has reified itself with all the social and institutional advantages of class on its side, a meritocracy which sets rules--rules about the superiority of some kinds of work over others, rules about the importance of one kind of education over another, rules about what qualifies as "progress" in the bright light of globalization and technology and all the rest...and what, well, doesn't. StrengthsQuest is, ultimately, one of a thousand ways out there in which highly educated and probably genuinely compassionate individuals try to take the hard limits and long-since-built-in qualities of higher education, and turn them into something whereby one can massage all the breakdowns, all the varieties, all the dissents, all the denials both within and from our meritocratic system; in other words, a way to tell everyone to come as they are, because they can be part of a big, borderless, endless project of empowerment. Which is, of course, a wonderful siren song to many. But to Professor X's students--well, I'd say that they'd probably rather just have a chance for good, steady employment (and offered with a minimum of condescension, if you please).

There was a time when I struggled with this tangle of issues a fair amount--mostly, it was back when I was teacher at Arkansas State University, trying to figure out what I, the Highly Trained Political Theorist Only a Couple of Years Out of Grad School, had to offer the good students of northeast Arkansas, some of whom wanted to get out and go on to other things, but most of whom wanted a BA (so they could get the sort of work for which these days such is a requirement), and perhaps to pick up a little odd learning along the way. I tried to figure out what my own class perspective was on all this, and ultimately I had to kind of shrug my shoulders, acknowledge my own elitism and my own contribution to an educational system that is so thoroughly a product of a globalized and technology-amplified (not to mention cheap-oil-fueled) mindset that I might as well just find a niche where I could feed my family and continue to teach in the best way I could, balancing (and perhaps even occasionally combining) the classical aspirations for liberal learning or "Humanität" which I still held (and still hold today) on to on the one hand, and the populist needs of the people I increasingly felt my greatest allegiance to on the other. I wrote: "It's not easy being an academic, especially when it seems that the internal contradictions of the whole system--and, more especially, its complicated and sometimes near-absurd relationship to the socio-economic world of America today, where an education in the elite liberal arts or research-university sense is often irrelevant to the sort of jobs most people are able to obtain and sort of schooling options available to most of their children--are promising an inevitable and total collapse." I still believe that...though, I guess one could argue such a response dodges the hard burden of our mostly meritocratic reality; it is written, after all, for and about me and all the rest of us there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I non- (or at least no-longer-) Professor-Xes of the world, while the focus ought to be on the students themselves, and what they should make of what higher education offers them, and of how America looks to reward those who navigate their way through it. One populist friend of mine--a much more serious dissenter from the modern liberal world than I--will have nothing to do with all these nostrums for massaging the meritocracy we have built...and which has, to some degree, grown out of control:

Most college grads learn almost zilch. Except how to be Dilbert-drones in an economy that demands wage-servitude in exchange for weekend-consumer-bliss. That plus a degree, which is seen as the golden ticket granting access to Wonka's factory of modern delights....The fact is, most people are dumber, less curious, lazier, and more pliable after college than they were when they started. The degree will also get you, if you're lucky, a pass to the middle class. You and your spouse will earn, together, again if you're lucky, around 80 grand a year. In addition to student loans, you will rack up consumer debt at an astonishing pace because you never learned the real cost of things, and you began your adult life partying on borrowed money. By the time you realize the fix you're in (and most don't realize it, or they suppress their realization with another trip to Best Buy), it's way too late to get out of it, unless you have really extraordinary spiritual resources and resolve in your soul, family, extended family. By the time you get around to having the 2 kids that your bondage permits you to have, you believe that feeding them back into this system is your obligation as parents to get them "on their way." There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Random exceptions are scattered about and occur where students have the internal and external skills and resources to get educated despite the best efforts of their universities to prevent this from happening. There are also those who break free sooner or later after leaving college. The big systematic exception to the rule that the investment in higher-ed is shit are those who go on to careers which require a certain degree before public licensure will be granted by the state/profession. Primary examples include: doctors, lawyers, vets, clergy (most), architects, engineers (some), and probably a few others.

The question them becomes, if higher-ed is so obviously a royal rip-off [for most], why do we perpetuate it? We don't want to grow up...Along with this pressure comes the lie that says we owe the "best shot at success" to our kids. The best shot, of course, being the Wonka-Molech monster. Our closed-ness to the possibility of failure, either real failure, or simply "failure" to be "normal," is the force driving parents to spend enormous chunks of money so that if failure occurs, guilt is distanced as far as possible from the parent. The "failure-rate" at higher-ed institutions is so small from the disordered perspective of modernity because it is far easier to keep people from learning than it is to teach them anything....So what is the alternative?...[A]bandoning the higher-ed ship. Make the standard for admission for your own kids a full or near full scholarship. No one who can't get such a deal should be in, or should need (if they had a proper k-12 education), higher-ed. I will encourage my kids to develop skill, character, and a love of learning. If they show aptitude and desire, I will encourage them to apprentice in some kind of trade early on, and will be happy to spend what I might otherwise spend on college (50k on the low end) to set them up in business before they are 20. As for liberal learning, I consider that a life-time pursuit, and by the time they are 18, they will either have acquired a love for learning and the skills for self-teaching or they won't. Depending on their own level of motivation, they can pursue their own educational interests with guidance from good mentors and friendships. With that kind of head start, they'll likely run circles around their brainwashed debt-ridden un-skilled flabby weak-willed peers. Or they'll end up broke in the poor house. But better for them to be a regular old bum with a good story to tell than one of the mass of post-college consumer-bums that dwell in cubicles all across the country.

That's an even finer screed than Professor X's, though I can't sign on with all its righteous defiance. I have to admit that I like a lot of the modern, liberal, meritocratically enabled and empowered world--or, at least, like it enough that I'm unwilling to dump wholesale condemnation upon all those who sustain it (which includes, of course, me). The forms of equality and opportunity, in matters ranging from health to politics to leisure, which the modern world has made available is too great to list, and the post-WWII explosion in higher education played a not-insignificant role in all that. Nonetheless, my friend makes a strong claim, a claim which finds resonance in things my wife and I have been discussing for years, going all the way back to when we newlyweds living in Utah, she finishing up a degree in journalism (which by that point she didn't like, wished she hadn't chosen, and has never used--I'm actually the only one who has ever worked at a real-world newspaper), me beginning the first of my many years of graduate school. We talked about whether we would want our children to go through what we had, and we agreed that, if they truly wanted to, knowing full well what was involved, we would, though that doesn't mean we'd happily pay for it all (my wife's parents helped her with books and travel costs, but never gave her a dime towards tuition...and frankly, when you compare her undergraduate experience to mine, supported as it was by parents and scholarships all the way through, the differences in attitude and the sort of learning that really matters are obvious). Moreover, we thought about the alternative, about how we'd feel about our children not wanting to go our route, and we considered about how nice it would be to live in a world where apprenticeships and local economies were more vibrant, where people could exit the K-12 world with greater assurance that their dignity and vocational opportunities would likely remain intact. (And this was long before we were reading Wendell Berry!)

Given the fact that for a great many of us, that world has long since been lost, what remains? Can we, or our children, wait on the Great Localist Revolution? Or conversely, be guaranteed the chance to relocate to human-scale environments where land for growing and neighborhoods for working and learning are still plentiful? Well, I tend to think that Wichita, while definitely on the large end of the scale, still qualifies at least in part as an example of the latter, so perhaps our kids will be all right. But what about everyone else? What about Ms. L, about whom Professor X writes so poignantly? Ms. L, who "had done everything that American culture asked of her. She had gone back to school to better herself, and she expected to be rewarded for it, not slapped down. She had failed not, as some students do, by being absent too often or by blowing off assignments. She simply was not qualified for college." What can or should we do for or about her, and all those others who feel impelled to race across that bridge of "strengths" and "retraining" and who-knows-what-else to the 21st century? Telling them to wait on the revolution, or move (with their families? with their health care needs? with their non-existent savings accounts?) to some rural idyll and start farming, is simply cruel. I suppose that's why, when I first waded into the discussion of intelligence and education and meritocracy which Rod's post prompted, I alluded to our need--riffing here on Ross Douthat's and Reihan Salam's forthcoming book--to serve the "Sam's Club Socialists" out there: not because I buy into all of their arguments about the appropriateness of the Republican party at this historical moment to be a vehicle of all the needs and hopes of the Ms. L's of the world, but because we need to recognize and respect the need for a socially democratic and responsible politics which isn't tied to liberal nostrums of flat, borderless, endlessly massageable and reworkable world of opportunity. A politics that is conservative in a very crucial sense, in that it provides the requisite "socialist" policies (ranging from better health and daycare to stronger unions and better job protection) to conserve the possibility of greater personal, family, and local economic sovereignty and dignity, and thereby to help prevent the meritocracy which surrounds us from perpetuating ever greater social divisions--divisions based on education and culture as well as wealth--which all too many otherwise perfectly capable and hard-working people throw themselves vainly at college in a desperate hope of overcoming.

The students I'll be teaching in my First Year Experience classes won't be particularly desperate...but, if current odds hold, probably at least half of them will be there because public education passed the buck, and because there were too few practical, hands-on vocations--or too few people supporting, and too few policies encouraging the responsible pursuit of, those vocations--available to show them avenues that would be genuinely better suited to their "strengths." A good society, I think, need not be one where everyone excels and everyone is smart in the same ways; a good society is one that gives recognition and respect (and a decent wage) to everyone person of good will who works hard at their vocation, no matter what side of the cognitive or environmental divide they fall on. At best, as a college teacher--one who sustains the system as much as I question it and wish for something better--I can only gesture at the possibility of doing more than just massaging one's "strengths set" or one's resume to attempt to slip past the meritocratic divisions in our society. I can remind my students of how much worse it be, and try to teach them to value the local and the communal and those laws and traditions which empower such. And I can let them know about those who reject the whole system, and find their own way. I won't bring down American higher education, and I wouldn't want it to. But a little awareness of the options, a little familiarity with all the other ways besides reaching for that BA that people can--or at least ought to be able to--find themselves a place to be, is no small thing.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Friday PSTSS: "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)"

I wasn't a Talking Heads fan back when they were still together and making music; in fact, the only recordings of their's I own are the two-cd collection Sand in the Vaseline (which includes pretty much every song of theirs that ever got so much as a moment of radio play) and their awesome live album, Stop Making Sense, both of which I picked up used long after the Heads had dissolved and gone their separate ways. (Wait, I take that back: a friend of mine a couple of years ago burned me a copy of The Name of This Band is Talking Heads, a collection of early live tracks; it's definitely a good record, if only for completion's sake.) They were, to be sure, an enormously accomplished and fascinating band, but there's also something distant and creepy and nihilistic about much of their music, despite how terrificly cool and fun a lot of their songs are. Much of that creepiness surely was the result of David Byrne, whom comes off in most of the accounts I've read as a seriously weird (and not in a friendly way) individual. The tortured artist and all that? Maybe. He writes good tunes though.

I liked this song (which was originally recorded for Speaking in Tongues) when I first heard it; a clever and funky love song, I thought. But I didn't really get it, didn't really grasp it as the pop gem it is, until I was married and in graduate school, reading philosophy and thinking about hermeneutics and interpretation and "naivete," trying to move forward in my relationship with my wife, and listening to Shawn Colvin. She covered this song on her album Cover Girl, and her plaintive, beautiful rendition of it--climaxing with her reading of the line, "you've got a face with a view"--sent me reeling, and sent me back to the original another listen. It is, simply, one of the most duplicitously simple (indeed, "naive," in what I would argue is the full, Ricoeurian sense) odes to belonging and being in the right place at the right time and the lucky (or is it?) happenstance of love that I can imagine. It's that good. (At one point I was actually going to include the lyrics in the acknowledgments section of my dissertation, but then decided that not even a true Heads fan would be that pretentious.)

Home is where I want to be;
pick me up and turn me round.
I feel numb--burn with a weak heart--
I guess I must be having fun.

The less we say about it the better--
make it up as we go along.
Feet on the ground;
head in the sky;
it's ok--I know nothing's wrong . . . nothing.
Hi yo--I got plenty of time.
Hi yo--you got light in your eyes.

And you're standing here beside me.
I love the passing of time.
Never for money;
always for love;
cover up and say goodnight . . . say goodnight.

Home is where I want to be;
but I guess I'm already there.
I come home--she lifted up her wings--
guess that this must be the place.

I can't tell one from another--
did I find you, or you find me?
There was a time,
before we were born;
if someone asks, this where I'll be . . . where I'll be .
Hi yo--we drift in and out.
Hi yo--sing into my mouth.

Out of all those kinds of people:
you've got a face with a view.
I'm just an animal,
looking for a home.
Share the same space for a minute or two.

And you love me till my heart stops;
love me till I'm dead.
Eyes that light up;
eyes look through you;
cover up the blank spots--hit me on the head . . . ah ooh.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Futurist Says... (The University Today, Part 1)

I've spent the past three days in meetings. I got three free lunches out of it, and did learn several good things, but a lot of it consisted of the sort of busy work, open gripe-sessions, role-playing, and "future visioning" that I'm mostly rather suspicious of. Probably any instructor at any level at any college or university anywhere in the United States can sympathize with me: meetings--with all their discussions of always changing plans and procedures and policies--are simply an unavoidable feature of institutionalized higher education today, and are to be endured. Well, endured I did...sometimes even with a little humor, though I'm not sure the numerous, well-meaning and hard-working hosts who put these programs together for us always appreciated my contributions.

Monday was the longest and most difficult of the three days, at least for me. There is, abroad not just in academia but all throughout the organizations and institutions which characterize our late-capitalist world, an often inchoate but still powerful worldview, one which is bound to be familiar to a great many of you. This worldview takes various, always vaguely defined processes--like "education," "communication," "improvement" or "teamwork"--and turns them into topics fit for evaluation and assessment, often separate from any actual content: that is, from what one is actually being educated in, or what one is actually communicating, or what one's team is actually trying to do. We're not talking, of course, about some sort of philosophical immanent critique: we're talking various commonsensical observations and truisms being brought into a meta-existence, wherein we can reflect upon "adaptability" or "problem-solving" without slowing ourselves down with hard and fast references to any specific adaptations or problems. I'm not sure this vague unreality is necessarily intended; perhaps it's simply a by-product of traveling professionals attempting to put large and varied groups of people though exercises separate from the particular contexts wherein these exercises were first imagined. In any case, the language of this worldview is quickly recognizable: technocratic, globalist, and high-tech, yet also earnest and evangelical. In our case, a good number of those who led several of our small groups had a background in Protestant missionary work, and so their frequent references to the "emergent intelligence" of the "scale-free networks" and the "infinity clusters" which increasingly characterize our "chaordic" (a combination of chaos and order), "glocal" (global and local), and "coopetive" (cooperative and competitive) world were regularly accompanied by lines from the epistles of Paul and the gospel of Mark. I confess, it wasn't a mixture I cared for.

I hasten to add that a couple of the sessions our visitors put us through were quite good: it was beneficial, for me at least, to address in a collective way some of the perennial concerns which attend Friends University's attempts to understand , honor, and make use of its Quaker and Christian heritage, whether in terms of the faculty (such as through consensus decision-making) or the students (such as through programs in faith and learning). Another session on the university's essential strengths and weaknesses as we observed them was also fairly helpful, if only to increase the sense that there is a strong consensus regarding certain key problems which we face and some resources which we share to combat them. But other sessions I have to admit I simply found annoying. Joining hands with the person next to you and drawing a visualization of the university while holding onto the same pen at the same time? Give me a break.

The longest session--and the best example of the worldview I mentioned above--was one that put us through an hour and a half of "horizon mission methodology." The conceit here is that attempts to predict the future and prepare for it accordingly always fail, because we simply end up extrapolating upon what we already know. The man running the session (a self-described "futurist" and "missionologist," meaning, I presume, that he's an expert in figuring out how to create missions towards the future, or something like that) said that such "linear extrapolation and logic" never "looks beyond the beam"--the beam being the beam of light which in our limited capacities we weakly cast upon the future. So instead, what we need to do is to place ourselves in the future, and work backwards, figuring out how we got where we are. Supposedly this is a technique that has become popular with planning teams at NASA, and who knows? Maybe it makes more sense in the context of scientific inquiries where parameters are more clearly defined. In the case of an educational future, however, we were simply given to know that it was 2023, fifteen years into the future, and that Friends University was now a provider and deliverer of a (patented, perhaps?) "Friends Global Education," a "borderless educational world" which is accessed simultaneously around the globe through holographic presentations of "content" designed by faculty whose research and teaching had been radically transformed by the universal availability of all library information everywhere around the planet, as well as the simultaneous translation services provided by omnipresent nanotechnology. And then we were asked: what obstacles did we overcome to get there (excuse me, "here")?

The whole 90 minutes was made infinitely more tolerable for me by the presence at our table of a few fellow faculty who, like myself, are highly dubious of any kind of tech-speak, and who look askance at attempts to transform the project of educating students into some sort of unspecified, technologically-mediated process that apparently provides no substantive or practical resistance to any of the social transformations and compromises of our day, but instead can be aligned with them, and expressed in terms of presumably eternal "innovation." And so, of course, we (there were four of us) snarked. One said that said such a world would be "a nightmare," "a dystopia"; another simply shook his head, bemused at the whole thing. I, predictably, waxed eloquent with communitarian rage at the idea that anything worth saving could really be "borderless"; that we think the lure of instantaneous technical content (direct from the U.S. of A.!) could or should ever transcend the affections that people do feel and ought to feel for their places, languages, traditions, perspectives, etc. We pointed out that if somehow we--the people we are today, with all our traditionalist and neo-Luddite sensibilities, as-yet mostly unconverted to this admittedly perhaps inevitable future--were present in 2023 and were expected to "teach" into a webcam to be downloaded a day or week or year hence in Cairo, then we probably would have in fact long since quit teaching by then, which would have removed some major obstacles right there. (Certainly my rules against laptops, cell phones or any other kind of portable electronic communication devices in the classroom, not to mention my insistence that my students cite at least a few physically published books in their papers, and my rejection of Wikipedia as a legitimate citation source, would all have had to have long since been thrown away.) Then, getting creative, we spun scenarios which disregarded the whole "borderless" notion, and instead suggested that with the breakdown of the nation-state as a viable unit of socio-economic ordering sometime following the complete collapse of the global oil economy in the early 2010s, there was a huge revival of interest in a practical education, one which merged the liberal arts with vocational training--one of our number cleverly called it the "2-2 program," with two years of liberal arts studies followed by two years apprenticed to a mechanic or tradesman somewhere--and which was provided in a hands-on, personal way by faculty who lived in the same local community as the the students did (which is good, because no one could afford to put gasoline in their cars anymore). We decided that, in order to serve our students more effectively and eliminate the creeping class sensibility which characterizes much of higher education, we would get rid of the administration (thus saving a huge portion of our budget), re-institute complete Quaker-style faculty governance, buy up some new land near the campus so everyone can live close by where they study and learn, and develop some additional land into farms so fresh vegetables--farmed by students and faculty alike--can be sold at a co-op run in the basement of what used to be the administration building. Oh, and along the way, we brought back the Socratic method of instruction (that one was thrown in at the last minute). And that was it. Nothing about "asynchronous content availability," nothing about buying every student an Ipod as soon as they register, nothing at all. The fellow in charge tolerated us, I suppose. We four had a grand time playing the radical reactionary card, though.

I happily admit that much of my criticism of the "new educational world," and how one can or should turn universities into representatives of such through means of technology and organizational innovation and the streamlining of those idiosyncratic individuals and disciplines that have historically amounted to an "education," draws upon the contrarian delight of pushing against something which, as I said, may well be inevitable. Patrick Deneen has been taking on the "techno-optimists" and the negative impact their teachings are having on the ability of students to actually stay in one place and concentrate on one thing long enough to really digest and be changed by it a fair amount lately, and I concur with practically everything he says...except that I think he's able to write what he does with some confidence that he'll be able to create, in his classrooms at least, a space where more traditional notions of learning still hold sway. For the great majority of other academics--certainly for myself--it's a matter of picking battles, of submitting to and trying to find the occasional wheat in the great wave of chaff which is the modern organizational ideology of assessment and delivery and process, a wave which has long since drowned much of the older educational model, and that those of us to love teaching must therefore need to some extent to accept and swim in, if only because many of the students we'll be teaching--the interconnected, often rootless, often organizationally-obsessed students who come into this nation's universities--have been swimming in it for so long they no longer know any other way to learn. And really, it's all about the students: if I just loved politics and philosophy, but didn't care about spreading it on to others, I'd have found myself a job and lifestyle that would have given me more reading time, and fewer meetings.

Well, the next two days didn't provide nearly so much occasion for good-hearted mockery, but there were items worthy of comment in them nonetheless. I'll try to get to them tomorrow. Perhaps, then, summer blogging can really begin.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Friday PSTSS: "Summer's Here"

As I said just yesterday, the academic summer has begun for me. Summer classes and workshops loom in June and July, plus various committee and prep work. And there's stuff at home to do, and stuff to do at church, and so on and so forth. But hey, I'm looking out my window as the Kansas wind rustles the treetops across the Friends University campus, and our complete-boondoggle-but-still-happily-deposited check from the Bush administration arrived this morning (so we've got the Discover and Visa cards paid off for once!), and all the rainstorms lately have been arriving at night and the days have been sunny and fine, and in general, I'm feeling great. Time to have some fun.

This is only the second James Taylor tune I've done a PSTSS on, which is surprising, since Taylor is the one pop artist whose recordings I can claim to have a near-complete collection of. This is a fine, lazy tune off 1981's Dad Loves His Work; not one of his best efforts (which isn't surprising: his marriage to Carly Simon was falling apart at the time, and he was addicted to heroin to boot), but filled with good music nonetheless: "Her Town Too" is something of a melancholic masterpiece, and "I Will Follow" took on brilliant new life in live concerts, with Arnold McCuller, one of Taylor's regular back-up singers, taking the lead. But for now, let's stick with this number and celebrate a time to grow and play and recharge and enjoy the blue skies. I won't be joining in the beer drinking, and autumn is actually my favorite season, but as far as everything else goes, this song says something I can definitely sing along with.

Summer's here;
I'm for that.
Got my rubber sandals,
got my straw hat.
Got my cold beer--
I'm just glad that it's here.

Summer's here;
that suits me fine.
It may rain today
but I don't mind.
It's my favorite time of the year
and I'm glad that it's here.

Old man wintertime,
he goes so slow:
it's ten degrees below, you know.
You can take your ice and snow
and let my balmy breezes blow.

Yeah, the water is cold but I've been in;
baby, lose the laundry and jump on in.
I mean all God's children got skin--
and it's summer again.

Old man wintertime,
he goes so slow:
it's ten degrees below, you know.
You can take your ice and snow
and let my balmy breezes blow.

Summer's here;
I'm for that.
Got my rubber sandals,
got my straw hat.
Drinking cold beer--
man, I'm just that I'm here.

It's my favorite time of the year,
and I'm glad that it's here, yeah.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Education, Equality and Sam's Club Socialists

There's a great deal that could be said about, and argued with, regarding the points made in Ross Douthat's short post on the Republican and Democratic coalitions today, and the long and reflective post Rod Dreher wrote about education yesterday, but I'll just focus as succinctly as I can (ha!) on a small place where they overlap. Here's Ross digesting some data that had been crunched over at the National Review:

[T]he GOP is now a working-class party (with class defined by education and culture more than income, just to be clear; there are plenty of skilled craftsmen who make more money than teachers and journalists and academics), and that it needs to start acting like one if it's going to rebuild its shattered majority.

And here's Rod, thinking through the possibilities of justice in a world where the "romanticism" of universal education and equality are dying away, to be replaced with, presumably, a world dominated by the meritocratic empowerment of the rootless and ambitious:

Personally, I don't see anything wrong with designing an educational system that recognizes plainly that all people are not equally gifted. As I've said before here, in the Netherlands, social attitudes are very egalitarian, but the Dutch see no value in pretending that everybody is equally intelligent, or intelligent in the same ways. They test kids and put them on one of three different tracks, depending on their capabilities. Kids who are not cut out for college-level work are not expected to do college-prep work in high school; rather, they prepare for vocational and trade work. Why is this bad? (N.B., the Dutch welfare-state economy redistributes material rewards in a more egalitarian manner, taking the edge off social differences)....

It is surely better to live in truth than dwell in the therapeutic fiction that all kids are capable of being above average in school, or that everyone should go to college. [Christopher] Lasch would no doubt disagree, but I don't believe that everyone in a given locality should go to the same schools, or sit in the same classrooms, if they aren't capable of doing the work. We need a system of education that's more based on the needs and capabilities of actual people....Let's agree that the idea of sending nuclear physicists out to work in the soybean fields is insane, and, in turn, that keeping a boy who has the potential to be a nuclear physicist down on the farm out of a sense of tradition is also pretty unjust. Let's also agree that an educational system that denies real and substantial differences between human beings is a sham....And finally, let's agree--well, you may not agree, but this is what I think--that the meritocratic system and its assumptions are great destroyers of institutions and customs that we need for human thriving.

How can these positions be reconciled? Through taxes? Quota systems doling out special privileges based on class, race or other criteria? Agreeing to live with a certain amount of injustice and inefficiency for the sake of helping those less genetically gifted save face (and which forces the genetically gifted to realize that their advances depend largely on unearned merit, via the genetic lottery)? Paying higher salaries to men and women who earn their living with their strong backs and nimble fingers? (Didn't unions do that, once upon a time, before we turned on them?) If socialism is not only unjust, but a foolish way to organize one's society and economy, does that imply that pure capitalist meritocracy is the most just, smartest way to organize one's society and economy? And if not, where is the compromise to be struck?

As I said, much that could be--and should be!--argued with here. Rod is, I think, a little too easily swayed by the kind of meritocratic (and libertarian) individualism which dresses itself up with I.Q. testing data or school test scores and presents itself as an old-fashioned conservative "realism" dumping cold water on supposedly irresponsible liberal efforts to "deny" nature or the family--the kind of conservative strategy Charles Murray has specialized in for years--but at least he's smart enough to recognize the underlying philosophy, and be wary of its dangers. Lasch--who had extremely harsh things to say about our therapeutic culture--was not a fan of the ideal of universal public schooling because he subscribed to a dreamy "educational romanticism" which Murray easily mocks; rather, he embraced it because he believed in "equality" as a political--a classically republican, a populist and communitarian--ideal necessary for American democracy to work. We need to be able to learn how to share power, to share sovereignty, within our localities and within this nation, if true self-government is going to succeed, and schooling is an essential part of that. Obviously, this doesn't mean equal in the sense of "equally intelligent, or intelligent in the same ways"; it means equality in much more limited, much more specific and concrete, and therefore (I think, anyway) much more practical and valuable sense. It means recognizing that education is, first and foremost, a kind of socialization, and therefore pertinent to citizenship (there's a reason why Brown vs. Board of Education was arguably the most essential step in the development of civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s). Our problem--ok, ok, one of our many problems--is that education for a great many people in our late-modern, late-capitalist world has become overwhelmingly tied not to citizenship, not to building affection or social trust or even basic vocational capabilities, but to enabling the middle and upper-classes to pass along tickets to the perpetuation of their class, their cultural and educational niche. Which is what brings us around to Ross's (debatable, but still worth considering) point: that today's "conservative" party--whatever that means--is a party that increasingly draws a fair number of its voters from those who either have not, or at least have not fully, taken advantage of this particular meritocratic privilege encoded in our society. Which means that, if "conservatism" (again, however defined) is going to find a political home in America's (ridiculous, but that's an argument for another day) two-party system, then the Republicans need to find some way to reach out to those (obviously, overwhelmingly white) voters who--for reasons of family or religion or genetic failure or meritocratic competition or personal choice--have dissented from or failed to ascend to some of those privileged places society. (Obviously, we're not simply talking about money here; we're talking about the particular slots reserved for the "new class", the "mandarins", the "symbolic analysts", the professionals (and bloggers?) that dominate the culture in our media-saturated world...though given the way families pass along advantages to their children, relative monetary success is pretty much a given here as well.)

So, let's cut to the chase: we have an social and economic environment in America today which is undermining the ideal of public education, one of the great egalitarian social inventions of twentieth century, in part because that invention has often foolishly embraced a notion of "equality" that can be easily derided and attacked, and therefore it has come to be seen by many as an institution that either doesn't work, doesn't actually serve or respect the real talents and real needs of the people who support it with their taxes, or both. What is to be done? In the short run, perhaps dozens of different things, some no doubt more or less effective or economical or plausible than others. In the long run, as I see it, only one thing matters: helping people realize that "conservative" interests--by which I mean, most simply, those interests grounded in the limits and rhythms of community and tradition and family and locality, those interests which point out (whether they realize it or not) that real social justice and equality involves getting over or beyond or past class, rather than the liberal dream of lifting all people up to the same one--are not at all well-served by Murray's "libertarian realism," however nicely tough-minded it may sound. Rather they are served by...well, I suspect by at least some of the sort of things Ross and Riehan Salam have been working out for years, some of the things which Rod says you can see in Amsterdam, and which I've observed about Sweden. Things that many conservatives would denounce as "socialist," though that's what they are--legislation involving child and health-leave policies, health care access, different forms of trade and job protection, empowered unions, family-friendly salaries, and more. These are all things that might prevent economic and cultural differences from hardening into social and political ones, thus making it more likely that better, more respectful, more local, but still essentially egalitarian projects like public schools might someday be treated as more than a passing (or dying) fad by the American people.

The likelihood that the Republican party will start drawing out from the inchoate and disorganized self-identifying conservative population of America a bunch Sam's Club socialists is about as likely as my hopes that the Democratic party will suddenly turn into a home for a bunch of populist Christian democratic "left conservatives," I know. But hey, a man can dream.

Gardens, Budgets, Projects

So it's summer--or at least, summer insofar as us academics are concerned. I submitted my final grades for the spring semester yesterday, the annual end of the year luncheon for all faculty and staff is tomorrow, and graduation is Saturday. Then comes a couple of weeks of meetings and summer registration work, and then it's June, and my summer schedule--only one class this time around, plus a couple of workshops I'll be giving for secondary school teachers--will begin. I'm ready for it.

I've got quite a few things to occupy my time over the next three months or so, before we head out across the country for a long (and--given rising oil prices--perhaps our last for a long time) trip to see my family in Washington state. A paper to put together for a panel at APSA, an old paper to polish for submission somewhere, several smaller writing projects that might actually pay me something, and books to read or reread in preparation for some new classes and responsibilities that I'll be taking on in the fall. But that's all...what? Work stuff. What's on my mind for this summer that doesn't involve me sitting here in my office, looking out of my third story window at the Friends University campus?

1. The garden. I've already mentioned that we're trying to make an even larger and more successful effort this year than last; this past weekend, we put in 15 tomato plants, a couple each of zucchini squash, cantaloupes, cucumbers and pumpkins, about five red and green pepper plants, and four rows of corn. We were hit with some heavy rains and hail over this past week, and we've lost some plants already, but we can get replacements in. We didn't do potatoes or onions; perhaps it's too late for this part of the country? I should look that up. Potatoes are easy: just drop pieces of cut up potato (so long as each piece as at least one eye on it) into a six trench, then cover them up and water them well; at least, that always worked for us while I was growing up. Onions I can remember my family having a somewhat more difficult time with. But we ought to do onions, since if we did, and the tomatoes come through, then combined with our herb garden, we might be able to make and preserve salsa produced almost entirely by ourselves. (Salsa is probably our second biggest and messiest canning project every summer and fall; only applesauce is more of a hassle. But we, unfortunately, don't have any access to apples of our own.) Well, we'll see. Our garden space is still new, and the soil--which is heavy with clay--will probably need a fair amount of work (composting mostly, though getting some worms in there would be even better) done this summer and the summers following before it becomes really productive. But I'm up for it. Anything to have some fresh corn on the cob that we wouldn't have to run to the supermarket to buy...

2. Our budget. For most our married life, we didn't have any savings, always living just over the edge of what we could afford, and paying off the credit cards and unexpected costs as necessary to keep us from going all the way over. But the house has changed things. Between all the additional expenses that home ownership entails, a car accident last year, increasing food prices and costs at the pump--I just heard a Goldman Sachs analyst on NPR predict that oil prices could hit as much as $200 a barrel by next summer, which could mean as much as $7 a gallon--all put together have really hit us hard. Well, no, let me qualify that: we're not in any truly hard place: the house payments will be made, the health insurance premiums will be met, etc., etc. Our position in America's middle-class is, I suppose, secure. But there are heavy changes coming down the pike, I think, and we're looking to find ways to cut back on expenses or increase our disposable income even just a little bit, so we can start making some headway on paying off the credit cards and stocking up on necessities while we still can. Unfortunately, all of our brilliant plans thus far have mostly come up empty, or run up against the realities which lifestyle choices have forced upon us (higher than typical food bills because we patronize local farmers, a single income so long as we still have children at home during the day, etc.). The single biggest problem, I suppose, is that we probably bought a little more house than we reasonably should have, and it's not in a neighborhood where prices are appreciating, and plus we've only been in it for 18 months; refinancing therefore isn't a practical option, and that means our biggest monthly expense can't be budged. Ah well--welcome to the real world of responsible adulthood, I suppose. Did I say these were issues that were on my mind this summer? Scratch that; this is on our minds all the time.

3. So what projects do I have in mind for when I'm not working on writing, not weeding the garden, and not messing with the checkbook? Well, of course, I'll let me inner geek out, a little. The Dark Night will be released in July, and dammit, we'll be there opening night; I have a review to follow up on. I have a copy of Tolkien's The Children of Hurin sitting on my desk that I'm anxious to dive into. And, well, that old fan fic thing is still calling me... But, hey, I'm also a philosopher, even when I'm not teaching it. And so, inspired by Camassia's comment on my most recent post about Damon Linker and religion (incidentally, where have you gone, Camassia? I used to read you all the time, back in the day), I'm going to make a goal to finally make it all the way through--and blog about as I go--Charles Taylor's A Secular Age this summer. 776 pages (851 with notes!) of theology, philosophy, European history, and political theory--almost none of which, I am confident, that I'll ever be able to directly bring up in any class I teach here at Friends. That just means more fodder for posts here! Aren't you excited? I knew you would be.

Best wishes for whatever your summer plans may be. Check in here, when you have the time; I'm sure I'll be around.