Friday, January 30, 2009

Not Everything Has to Have a Point

As many of you probably know my real job is in the world of education, but I believe I would have this same concern for how things are going even if I made a living trimming poodle fur or running Apple computers. Also, I would like to point out many people in the field of education disagree with me. What am I worried about? Well, I’ll tell you. I am concerned too many people believe everything done by a student in school should be useful.
First I guess I need to define “useful”. To most people useful is something which makes it possible to accomplish a particular task. Useful like being able to balance a checkbook. Useful like being able to change the oil in your car. Useful like being able to identify which kinds of mushrooms you can eat without poisoning yourself which is only slightly more useful than being able to identify which peanut butter has peanuts, dextrose, hydrogenated vegetable oil, salt and salmonella.
Don’t get me wrong I approve of useful. I want my children to know how to balance a checkbook. Unfortunately there have been times in my life I decided it was just easier to open a whole new account than try to figure out the Gordian Knot which until recently had been an orderly list of debits and credits. I would like it if they can change their own oil. I am a car ignoramus but I am not as bad as a co-worker who once told me they added oil to their car because it was squeaking. (I did not make that up.) Also, if I am ever hopelessly lost in a forest I want someone who can say helpful things like, “Don’t eat that mushroom” and “You know what bears do in the woods? You’re standing in it.”
The point I am trying to make is the reason for education should not just be the achievement of utilitarian goals. Schools should not be creating worker drones. Schools should give students useful tools and make it possible for people to do all those useful things, but that is not where it should end.
Too often educators fall into the trap of thinking we are making the next generation of employees. Actually, we are making the next generation of employees and participants in the electoral process and handlers of our environment and choosers of our nursing homes. I like to think being all of that requires an understanding beyond the times tables, the four-step problem solving method and the parts of speech. An understanding of things not testable with multiple choice questions.
I was reading a column in The New York Times by Stanley Fish. He quoted the philosopher Michael Oakeshott saying, “There is an important difference between learning which is concerned with the degree of understanding necessary to practice a skill, and the learning which is expressly focused upon an enterprise of understanding and explaining.” To me what this is all about is we need to expand our definition of what is useful.
I happen to think the ability to make others laugh is very useful, but you will never see an ad in the yellow pages for a joke repairman. In regards to humor the usefulness is less hammer and chisel useful and more temporal lobe useful.
Sir Jonathan Miller, who graduated from Cambridge, became a medical doctor, directed many productions of Shakespeare’s plays, became a research fellow in neuropsychology at Sussex University and wrote comedy with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore is a genuinely smart fellow. He knows a thing or two about what is useful beyond nuts and bolts. I heard him on a panel discussing how humor makes us human. At this time he said, “One of the rewards which is contained in humor and the reason why we seek it, is because it mobilizes cognitive versatility and the evolutionary advantage of cognitive versatility is self-evident.” I can attest that he really said it because I rewound and played it over and over until I got it all written down properly.
I have to say even though that quote was hard to get right I like it much better than the quote attributed to Richard Teller Crane (a big time rich guy plumbing magnate): No one who has “a taste for literature has the right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness…are those who are useful.” Oh, I hope not. I don’t fit that description unless there suddenly becomes a demand for joke repairmen.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The New Guy is on the Job

Well, the new guy has moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Many people are piling a lot of hopes on this man’s plate. Some of them are realistic and some, not so much. Before he gets too busy I have some requests.
There is a lot of consternation about the economy. While I agree he should look into this issue, first he needs to appoint a blue ribbon, bi-partisan commission in conjunction with a special investigator (has anybody seen Ken Starr lately) in order to explain why Jack Bauer has not been named the Secretary of Homeland Security. He accomplishes more in 24 hours than anyone can possibly imagine. Actually, he does everything in about 17.6 hours when you subtract commercials.
The new Mr. President is a learned man. He went to Columbia University and Harvard Law School and was a professor at the University of Chicago. He has written books and his speeches are hailed by many for raising the general levels of discourse and rhetoric in today’s politics. My hope is he will lead this nation to value the artistry and power of words, to raise beyond the third grade reading level of mass media, and inspire today’s youth to embrace Dickens, Shakespeare, and McCartney. McCartney? Yes, Paul McCartney who wrote those immortal, life affirming words: “Ob-la-di ob-la-da life goes on bra, la-la how the life goes on.” Was there ever a better example of John Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”?
Restoring the United States’ reputation internationally is something the new president looks to accomplish. This may not be an easy task. Even one of our earliest friends has issues with us. I’m talking about France, a country who threw in with the upstart thirteen states in 1778 and helped them gain their independence from the England (even though they did so more because they were still ticked at England for the whole Henry V kicking their butt at Agincourt thing than because they liked us, like that girl in tenth grade who went to the dance with you just because she knew her ex-boyfriend thought you were a complete dweeb).
My suggestion to get France to like us again is a win-win situation for both countries. You know how France thinks one of our own native sons is an artistic genius. I am referring to Jerry Lewis, who the French Minister of Culture called the “French people’s favorite clown” when he bestowed upon him the Legion d’honneur. Well, I say send him to France as a present. Throw in Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller and it makes our country a better place as well.
If I may be allowed to stray from the silliness for a while I would like to say I have placed some of my genuine hopes for the future on President Obama’s plate. While watching the inauguration on television Tuesday I choked up a few times. Granted I can be overly sentimental and have been known to cry at Hallmark commercials, but that which was on display January 20th should make most Americans reach for a tissue.
Whether you voted for Senator McCain or the eventual winner everyone should agree when this country puts on its best and tries to live up to the reputation as the beacon of freedom and opportunity for all it can be impressive. The most jaded and pessimistic of us would say we are just pretending. Well, when you were a kid in the backyard you pretended to be the ultimate example of your dreams – an amazing athlete, a hero with superhuman powers, a princess who was the epitome of charm and grace or a fireman rescuing the helpless. Even if we were pretending and have not attained the level of justice and moral strength described on that podium at least we are pretending to be something valuable, something worth striving for and something I want my children to believe is possible to achieve in their everyday lives even if it is not always on display in our government.
I liked President Obama’s list of American values requisite for the tasks ahead: hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism. I work in a school populated with over five hundred children and I know we try to give them exposure to these values, but it is often an uphill battle to make them stick. If our new leader can do anything to help those children and the ones like them throughout our country grasp those ideals there is no way we won’t make headway against all the obstacles in our path.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Getting Rolled Over as a Role Model

I am a family man. This means a lot of different things. It means I have been awakened in the wee hours of the morning because a person measuring less than two and half feet tall has managed to usurp nearly the entire surface area of a king size bed and in the process placed a heel directly into my kidney. It means I have an abnormally high amount of concern regarding the number of lights left on in the basement, why there are seven pairs of shoes in the living room when only five people live in the house, and what exactly is allowed to go into the drain of the kitchen sink. It also means I have to set a good example. All things being equal, I would rather have my kidney mauled by a three year old.
Being a role model is truly one of the most important aspects of being a parent. One of the difficulties is you are one whether you are aware of it or not. My parents were much better at this than I am. I never heard my father say a word which could be deemed R-rated and very seldom heard him use any curses beyond what one hears in comic book adventures from the fifties. To this day I have yet to hear my mother say anything mean spirited. But when my first born daughter was out in the back yard and became displeased with something and the word “damn” emitted from those cherubic lips all eyes turned immediately to me. Actually, the only eyes in the vicinity belonged to my wife, but as all married men know those eyes are powerful eyes, laser beam powerful, triple garlic sauce breath powerful, don’t look directly at the eclipse or you’ll go blind powerful. My daughter had, of course, learned this word from me. In my defense I only used it as an adjective when discussing the dog. So I was surprised Emilyjane used it in a sentence not pertaining to the canine. When I tried to point out her usage of the invective in a whole different context was a sign of her advanced intellect it did not help my cause, but it was a creative way to attempt to get out of damn dog house.
Recently my wife and eldest daughter (whose use of blue language has improved) decided it was time to pay more attention to eating in a healthy manner. This means more vegetables, skim milk, cereal not featuring cartoon characters on the box, and snack foods which have the calorie count written in a font larger than the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline from the Chicago Tribune in order to shame you into only eating one serving, which turns out to be not so difficult after you taste them. You’ve heard the phrase “collateral damage” meaning the unintentional injury or damage which occurs around military action. Well, I am a victim of collateral diet.
A product which has infiltrated my home is a “shake” in a can which describes itself as chocolate. This is like Barry Manilow advertising himself as a rock singer. There may be similarities on some very basic level, maybe a molecular level, but that is as close as it gets. This product not only has the temerity to call itself chocolate but it also claims it is “a delicious meal substitute.” Well, I have news for you Mr. Nutritious Chocolaty Liquid in a can. I know another delicious meal substitute: a bag of Fig Newtons.
But, as I said, being a family man means I have to be a role model. Ergo, I eat the vegetables served at dinner, refrain from complaining about skim milk (which should really be called milk tainted water), and hide the real snack foods in my sock drawer.
If I’m being truly honest I think there is one thing missing in today’s society which existed in the kinder gentler days gone by which should be brought back in full force. I’m not talking about such out-dated things as mothers who have no choice but to stay home and cook dinner and do laundry. I do not mean that children should be simply seen and not heard, not even fully valued as people. I mean double standards should not only be allowed but encouraged.
“Mom, how come Dad gets to have seven chocolate doughnuts and Dr. Pepper for breakfast and I have to eat this pebbles and twigs cereal?”
“Because he’s the dad.”
Hey, I guy can dream can’t he?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Words to Live By, or at Least Near

I like smart people. I like to listen to smart people talk. I like to read what smart people write. I don’t always understand what they are saying but I like to try. In my office I have a long roll of paper tacked to the wall on which I have images of people I admire as well as quotes from smart people.
I know these several syllable prescriptions for a better existence are superficial when removed from the bigger picture from whence they originated, but I get a kick out of them. I frequently fail to use what wisdom they do offer when making the choices which decide my fate, but I still like them and I do endeavor to remember them as I stumble through life.
Smart is important, but I think kindness is the most important personality trait a person can possess. For proof of that I point to a quote on my wall which was attributed to one of the most world renowned smart guys ever, Plato. The quote is: “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” My less than brilliant Greek philosopher interpretation of that is: “Life can really stink so don’t add to someone else’s stinky life by being mean to them.” My way won’t fit so nicely on a marble tablet or a papyrus scroll which is probably the only reason Plato didn’t say it the way I did.
Another aspect of human nature I have to keep reminding myself about connects with Mr. Plato’s statement. People have a tendency to be more than a little self-centered. I don’t mean thoughtless of other people but rather most folks think of the world only how it relates to themselves. Another quote on my wall points this out. Franklin D. Roosevelt is quoted as saying: “Remember, you are just an extra in everyone else’s play.”
Think about it. As you go through your day you are the star. The story doesn’t start until you wake up. The theme music fires up when you get out of bed. Personally, I imagine the theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark even if I cut a less than dashing figure as I trudge towards the shower in my flannel pants adorned with dozens of penguins and prepare for my day of not uncovering riches and defeating Nazis.
The thing President Roosevelt was telling us is as we move through our day as the star of the show we keep bumping into people who are the star of their shows. What we need to remember is not unlike too many cooks spoiling the broth too many stars can spoil the movie. Case in point, the movie Wholly Moses had more A-list movie stars than you can shake a stick at and after watching it you would want to use the stick less for shaking and more for striking, pummeling, and bludgeoning. Anyway, we need to remember everyone thinks they are the most important person in the story and we are the wacky neighbor. I don’t mind being Fred Mertz but I draw the line if someone wants to cast me as Monroe Ficus (the Jim J. Bullock character on Too Close for Comfort).
Another one of the quotes on my wall is attributed to William James. It says: The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook. I really like that one because being able to correctly select which things to care about and which things to let fall away truly makes life better.
Admit it you have spent a good deal of time and effort focusing on things which later turned out to be of no real importance. There have also been times you ignored things which should have garnered your full attention. Like that time in college you left undone your term paper comparing and contrasting the basic tenets espoused by Machiavelli and those put forth by Jean Jacques Rousseau because the Twilight Zone marathon was running on television. (Actually, in retrospect I think you made the right choice.)
Finally, the last quote on my wall is not from a great philosopher taught in universities throughout the land but it sums up much of what I feel on a regular basis. It speaks to life being a struggle which cannot always be understood, a struggle which gets the better of us all from time to time. I leave you with these words from Warren Zevon: Sometimes I feel like my shadow’s casting me.

Christopher Pyle also loves a quote once attributed to Socrates: I drank what? You may dispute this by e-mailing him at