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Friday, December 21, 2012

The Search for Elusive Success...

I had another "teachable moment" in class the other day. A student was commenting on how little he enjoyed doing math problems. I said that throughout our lives, we all must perform certain tasks which we do not particularly enjoy. I went on to say that learning to hunker down and perform distasteful tasks was one of the keys to success. This was relatively effective in terms of getting students to "hunker down" and work on a problem they had little interest in. However, I started wondering two things: 1) do I really believe that performing unpleasant/distasteful/unenjoyable tasks is a key to success? ; and 2) is that statement true? i.e. Is performing unpleasant tasks actually a key to success?

Upon consideration of question #1 above, I wondered whether "success" was the right word to use when defining a state in which I had to perform unpleasant tasks on a regular basis. I had the uncanny sense that my own investigation into "success" had suddenly caused the ground to fall out beneath my feet. Perhaps, a clear and sensible definition of "success" would be the best place to begin this investigation. Merriam-Webster defines it as: "a favorable or desired outcome ; the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence." While that definition is not extra-ordinarily helpful, it does bring up a point worth noting: success can be a singular achievement (e.g. success on a test or success in a sporting match) or success can be a state of being (e.g. someone can be described as a "successful" person).

The achievement of singular success (on, say, a test), can be achieved by performing certain tasks that may be less than pleasant (i.e. hours of studying). However, I am thinking of some other success singularities for which preparation can be enjoyable: practicing a recital piece on a musical instrument, or preparing to give a complex and deep lecture, or practicing for a big sporting match. So it seems that tackling some unpleasant tasks can sometimes help us be successful on a singular achievement. We have thus inadvertently stumbled upon half of an answer to question #2!

It is worth a digression here to wonder why it is that studying for a big test seems like such a chore? I wonder if it could be because so much of what so many of us are tested on holds so little of our interest. Rare indeed is the test which measures our knowledge/performance on a topic/skill of practical life application in which we are deeply interested and invested. Preparation for such a test would, perhaps, be considerably more enjoyable, and might be more akin to preparing a recital piece or practicing for Friday's "big game". End digression.

Considering our second sense of "success", the state of being, is more complicated. Certainly, if I spent a large portion of my time doing tasks that I found distasteful, I would not consider myself to be successful, in the general sense. However, could it be that the pathway to becoming a successful person lies through these kinds of tasks? Indeed it might, and I cannot think of a single successful person whose life story does not include hardships and drudgery that had to be handled along the way. Really, when one considers the question from a broader perspective: aren't hardships and (at least occasional) unpleasant tasks part of the human condition? Whose life is so charmed as to be devoid of hardship?

But what seems unique or distinctive of successful people is that while handling hardships, these people focus on some long-term goal, and they continue to persevere and work toward that goal, even in the midst of hardships. Perhaps success, in the general sense, comes from being able to persevere through hardships. In which case, as it turns out, I may have revealed a deeper truth about life when I advised my students that learning to "knuckle down" and get through something unpleasant would help them be successful in life.

As a final coda, before closing, I would like to point out that I still think my above digression concerning the content of "school" is something we in the educational establishment are going to have to confront sooner or later. The disconnect between what we teach and the lived experience of our students is reaching untenable levels. We can drive the change or the change can drive us, but I suspect that things cannot remain static much longer.

Keep reading! And a very merry Christmas to you and yours!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Beauty: Debussy

I've pointed out this series that Anthony Tommasini at the New York Times is doing on magical musical moments in previous blog posts. But I wanted to highlight this one, because "Clair de Lune" is one of my favorite Debussy pieces, and one small piece of it is the focus of this video. Readers may know that I am an amateur pianist and have started taking violin lessons. I love music, and Tommasini really captures what makes this pieces so unique and special. Hope you enjoy the video as much as I do!

Exam week at school...things are crazy. I hope to return to a more regular posting schedule soon. In the meantime, keep reading! Cheers! And merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Education and Life

Quick note: I apologize for my recent lack of posting. Between the holidays, the book I'm editing, and the end of semester for the classes I'm teaching, I'm a little swamped. But I have not abandoned this blog. I'll just be posting with less frequency over the next couple of weeks. You can expect me to return to a more regular schedule around Christmas time. Cheers!

Some titles for this post I considered and then rejected: "Education and Real Life" and "Real Life vs. Education" and "Real Life vs. School". First of all, I have an inherent distaste for the phrase "real life". Isn't all life real? If it isn't real, if, for example, it's a dream (or a work of fiction/fantasy), can it be life? And certainly anything that happens in the context of a persons life must be "real" in the sense that the person exists and the events actually happened. Secondly, I disliked the idea of pitting education and school against "life" (real or imagined), as if I were announcing the heavy-weight boxing matchup of the decade. I don't see life as being in a fight or competition with education/school. I see education as that disposition which helps a person become more fully himself or herself (i.e. which frees her/him); and I see school as one place people go to get that education.

This post is inspired by a conversation I had with some of my students the other day. In my (mostly senior) pre-calculus class, I had posited a particularly challenging conundrum on the board: the kind of problem that makes students groan and teachers grin, the kind of problem that research tells us we should be using to challenge students to think critically, to gather information, and to synthesize information to reach new conclusions/solutions. My students assailed me with the familiar refrain: "When are we ever going to use this in real life?!" [Note well, dear reader, the usage of that distasteful phrase "real life"; as if seniors in high school don't consider pre-calculus class to be real OR lively!]

At this point, I spotted a "teachable moment", and stopped our usual discourse on mathematics to diverge into a meta-analysis of why we engage in this business called "school". I said, "Okay, is your boss at work going to ask you to write an equation for the distance between any point on a specified function and the origin? No. But one day your boss will come to you, sit down, and explain a very complicated problem. Then your boss will say to you, "fix it." And she will get up and walk away, fully expecting that you will fix it. There will be no hand-holding, textbooks, hints, etc. You will need to analyze the problem, creatively synthesize a solution using what you know or what you can teach yourself, and then implement the solution. That's what this problem is helping you cultivate: the practice (the art) of deep analytical thinking, creative visioning (seeing beyond what is: into the nebula of what is possible), and practical implementation. And that's a skill you'll use your whole life."

So, in short, I think education helps us practice the art of living well, and that when we are at our best as educators, we're engaged in this deep process of analysis, synthesis, and implementation. Your thoughts are always welcome in the comments section!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Beauty and Chopin

In this brief video, a writer for the NY Times (Anthony Tommasini) explores a beautiful moment in one of Chopin's ballades. It's worth a quick watch if you're a fan of music and harmonics.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

"The Singularity": Myth? Reality?

Many of you know that I listen to lots of podcasts. One that I recently picked up is called "Stuff You Should Know", which recently broadcast this episode about something called "The Singularity". First of all, what is "The Singularity"? Admitting my limited knowledge in this area, The Singularity seems to be the moment when, intentionally or accidentally, computers/networks become self-aware and possess greater intelligence than human beings. Some scientists working in the field of artificial intelligence with computers predict that this will occur around the year 2030, others suspect it may take a few decades longer, but most technologists seems to agree that it will happen.

I am intrigued by this idea, and would like to pose a few questions and make some general comments. I can be a bit of a luddite, so perhaps my comments should be taken with a grain of salt.

I'm no technology expert, but the idea of a computer or a network of computers becoming "self-aware" doesn't seem very logical. I'm not sure how a machine can suddenly obtain self-awareness. Many people talk about this as though it is a threshold, and computers just haven't reached it yet, as if it is a fore-gone conclusion that they will reach it. I don't agree with the concept of self-awareness as a threshold; it seems to me that it is an innate quality of the soul. I've never heard anyone sufficiently explain how a computer/network would become self-aware.

Furthermore, when one listens to people talk about "The Singularity", there is an implication that with self-awareness comes will or volition. This is not necessarily true. The concept of "will" is complex even to describe, and certainly no one can explain the origins of volition. Where do our desires, as human beings, come from? How do we decide to act upon our desires? How do we convert ideas into actions? No one has adequate answers to these questions, and the idea that one could "program" them into a computer is ridiculous, as is the idea that these elements could suddenly, spontaneously arise from a machine.

As evidence of this imminent Singularity, many scientists point out that in 15-20 years, we will be able to create a computer that has more computational power than the human brain. First of all, the human brain is about more than computational power. It is the seat of judgement, inference, hypothesis, etc. No transistor, regardless of its computational power, has the ability to generate these complex higher functions of the brain (what psychologists call the "executive" functions). Ever since humanity became enamored with machines in the 18th and 19th centuries, people have been trying to compare the human body and the human brain to a machine. This analogy is simply false. Humans are not some kind of organic machine. Our brains are not some sort of chemical computer. We are infinitely more complex than the wildest unattained dreams of any scientists/technologists. So much of how we operate as a person, where our identity comes from, how our personality is formed and extended, etc. remains a mystery.

I think the root of this conundrum is how one thinks about "intelligence". I am always hesitant to speak of "intelligence" with my students, because it is so easily mis-understood. Many people believe that intelligence is a fixed quality, that it can be demonstrated and measured, and that if we can simply get a computer to display "intelligence" in the same way we measure human intelligence, then we'll have reached this Singularity. I, however, respectfully disagree. I think that our attempts to measure human intelligence are inadequate at best. No test can truly measure a human being's intelligence, because intelligence is too multi-faceted to fit neatly inside of a test. There are too many dimensions to intelligence to fully describe any human being's intelligence. I humbly submit the idea that the totality of the human experience cannot be replicated or even approached by a machine. Our lives are too full of beauty (completely unquantifiable), mystery (indescribable), and a richness of experience (both internal [psycho-social-emotional] and external [physical]) to be computed or calculated or replicated by a machine.

I suspect that 20-30 years from now, there will still be individuals working on artificial intelligence and the Singularity. And I think they will have made some remarkable discoveries and contributions to humanity. But I do not believe that we will have computers that can approximate human beings or that somehow represent "the next stage in evolution or intelligence".

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Anonymity of the Internet and Free Speech

Peter DeWitt wrote an excellent article in Education Week about social media and freedom of speech which you can read by clicking here. I particularly enjoyed his comment in the article that "Those people posting negative comments on Facebook were negative before Facebook ever started." There is a lot of discussion about cyber-bullying on social networks, and anyone who has ever read the "comments" on any controversial on-line article knows that adults can be just as bad (if not worse). One of the things we see on the internet is that the ability to be anonymous certainly influences some people to write things that they would never say out loud. And sometimes, although the person is not anonymous, s/he knows that s/he is commenting on the work of someone half-a-world away whom s/he will never have to look in the eyes. But I have discovered that even in situations where adults are not anonymous and they are writing to persons they know rather well and will certainly have to continue seeing face-to-face, they feel empowered to make hurtful and uncivil comments.

I spend considerable time in my classroom working with students on developing the life-skills of politeness and civility. I don't know where parents are on this, but I must be blunt when I say that these are basic skills that a majority of students (at all socio-economic levels) lack. It takes time and patience to teach students that just because I think something is true, and just because I can say it, doesn't necessarily mean that I should say it. I refer readers back to my post on Chaminade's silence of words: "Speak only when you will it, and will it only when it is necessary."

Scripture tells us that the power of life and death is wielded by the tongue (Proverbs 18:21). I think, we, as adults, need to set an example for children both in life and on-line of using our words to foster life and growth. Positive and uplifting speech should be our norm. We need to cut unnecessary negative, judgmental, hurtful, gossipy comments out of our speech, and restore our speech (particularly our public speech) to a more civil level.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Thirst for Knowledge

One of the ways I define myself is as a seeker of truth, beauty, and wisdom. I am a life-long learner. That concept is at the heart of this blog. I realized that as someone who continues to challenge himself to learn new things, read (and re-read) great books, and to ponder the deeper questions of life, that a blog about my intellectual journey might be worth sharing. I have observed over the past year that many people (of varying ages, races, and walks of life) tend to fall into one of two categories: self-induced learners and non-self-induced learners.

This has come to light not only in my classroom (all teachers will tell you that students come in both varieties; and students who are not self-induced learners can certainly grow to become self-induced learners as adults), but in conversations with other teachers and with my wife (who deals with these different kinds of people in a business setting). A friend of mine has recently asked me to give her some instruction in Latin, because she wants to recapture a sense of what it’s like to be a student. She is an excellent example of an adult who is a self-induced learner. She isn’t getting anything out of this experience other than knowledge. She’s pursuing this purely for the self-edifying aspect of learning a new language, expanding her own knowledge and perspective. I’ve been reading about the ancient Minoan civilization, and expanding my own knowledge of Bronze Age civilizations.

There is a thirst for knowledge and an ability to investigate and “work up” a subject on one’s own that some people just seem to have instinctively. I cannot say where it comes from; but it is immensely helpful. In business, for example, people with this instinct are able to quickly pick-up on office protocol and procedure; they also learn the ins and outs of their specific company’s business more quickly than those who don’t have this instinct. In academia, this instinct is essential for authentic learning; past a certain point, real educators stop spoon-feeding you information, and start expecting you to find it on your own. If you don’t have an internal drive to learn and acquire knowledge, then this is going to be challenging.

I wish I could say that there is some sure-fire method for helping children cultivate an internal drive to learn. Certainly it seems that exposing children to many perspectives and experiences is a key pre-requisite to helping them develop an thirst for knowledge. The other thing that seems possible is that it is a kind of learned behavior; children who see this internal drive to learn in adults mimic it until it becomes part of their own personality.

Anyway, I guess the fact that you, gentle reader, are taking time to read a blog about books, reading, and life-long education, puts you in the category of “self-induced learners”. So keep up the good work!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Thomas Cole...

In my ongoing series on beautiful things, I wanted to high-light a series of paintings created by Thomas Cole. Not only do I think each of the paintings individually are beautiful in their own right, but I also find the series and its theme to be powerful and captivating. The series is entitled: "The Course of an Empire".  In it, Cole attempts to capture snapshots of the stages a civilization goes through as it develops, reaches its pinnacle, declines, and eventually disappears. Here are the five paintings:

"The Savage State"

"The Pastoral State"




I hesitate to say too much, because such beauty is better experienced than dissected, but I have always loved "The Savage State" in particular. There is something wild and chaotic about it that captivates me. The dark and bold colors make me think of the chaos out of which God created the order of the universe. As with all wilderness, there is an ominous feeling that something dangerous could happen at any moment. The dark clouds lend to that sentiment.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

What's Education For?

I was at a conference of educators yesterday. I had been invited to sit on a panel concerning the integration of professional learning communities in schools (primary and secondary). One of the attendees asked the panel how we dealt with the mindset of parents, who expect our schools to produce a certain “product” (i.e. to form their children into a certain mold). I often hear educators talking about students as “products”, and I find this terminology disturbing. It seems to me that there are two major mindsets in the educational world right now.

The first mindset is what I’ll call the “product” mindset. Educators in this mindset think of students as raw material that they must shape and form into a pre-ordained mold. They think of schools as factories that take in all different kinds of raw material and churn out homogeneous “products” (i.e. students) to certain specifications. This mindset comes out of the application of principles from the industrial revolution to the field of education. Many parents and current teachers went through an educational system that treated them this way, and so this is how they conceive of “school”.

The problem I see with this perspective is that every child comes to school as a unique individual; every child has different interests, natural talents, background, family, interest in school, work ethic, perspective, mindset, fears, hopes, dreams, habits, cultures, etc. Personally, I have always been a believer and a follower of the classical “liberal arts”--the skills which, once mastered, set the learner free (i.e. liberate her/him); and which help her/him be a better human being today than s/he was yesterday. I believe authentic education is more about discovering one’s self and one’s place in the kosmos (order of the universe/world) than about learning pre-determined facts.

I don’t see my students as raw material that I need to shape into some desired “product”. Rather, I see my students as individuals, and I try to be a mirror for their souls, to help them discover their true nature, their gifts, their deep selves, and their place in the world, so they can go forth and be authentic human beings who can contribute positively to a global society.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Beauty...what's it good for?

In Howard Gardner's latest book, "Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for Virtues in the Age of Truthiness and Twitter", he posits an idea that everyone should begin a collection of beautiful things as children that they keep and curate throughout their lives. I was struck by this idea when I read it, and I have a certain mental list of these kinds of things. But it occurs to me that it would be worthwhile to regularly post some of my personal objects of beauty on this blog to share with others; many are pieces of excellent writing, music, or visual art.

Before I do, however, I would like to engage the question in the title of this post: what is beauty good for? I don't think anyone would say that beauty is bad, but I think many people consider it a secondary concern in their lives. Many people would suggest that beauty is not more important than food, shelter, clean water, etc. I would respond that Beauty, true Beauty, should not be thought of as something separate from the everyday events of our lives. Why can't food be beautiful? It is difficult to imagine something more mundane than a work commute, but I have seen some of the most beautiful sunrises while driving to work in the morning.

I prefer to think of Beauty as something I swim in, or breath, like air. It's all around me all the time, and depending on my own mental state and my perceptiveness and level of pre-occupation or distraction, I am more or less tuned into the Beauty around me at any given moment. This time of year seems to lend itself to this kind of awareness with the extreme natural beauty of autumn (colorful leaves, pumpkins, striking sunrises and sunsets, the taste of apple cider and pumpkin pie...all beautiful things).

I would argue that Beauty is an essential element of the well-lived human life. There is something about our human nature that drives us to seek out beautiful things: a mountain, an ocean, a beautiful statue, building, or painting, a beautiful combination of flavors in food or drink, or a flower. When we are aware of our surroundings and the beauty in life, we are happier and more whole-some (i.e. more integrated and complete). Extreme beauty can also give us a sense of our place in the cosmos. There is nothing as humbling or as peaceful as standing in the presence of beauty and soaking it up.

So, find something beautiful today! For my part, I thought I'd kick my sharing of beautiful things off with the "Prelude" of Bach's Cello Concerto No. 1 in G Major. If you're not familiar with this piece, I've included a link to Mischa Maisky playing it below. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Analytical Reading (part 1)

I've recently started reading a new book by Gavin Menzies entitled The Lost Empire of Atlantis. I thought that I would take this opportunity to give a practical walk-through of some of the steps of analytical reading as described by Adler and Van Doren in How to Read a Book. The first step centers around the idea of gathering as much basic information about the book as quickly as possible without really reading anything. (I know, it sounds counter-intuitive, but it's a good first step.) Adler and Van Doren call this "Inspectional Reading", but I think it's a good first step to take in Analytical Reading too...

Step 1: Know what kind of book you're reading. For me, this new book is non-fiction in the history genre. Gavin Menzies is a retired naval officer and has written other books about naval history. This is a good time to inspect the obvious elements of the book: title, table of contents, index, dust-jacket notes. The full title of the book is: "The Lost Empire of Atlantis: History's Greatest Mystery Revealed: The astonishing true story of the rise and violent end of the Minoans, the forgotten ancient civilization that discovered America and sparked the Atlantis legend". This is a very descriptive title. The author is telling me up front that he will be linking the legend of Atlantis to the ancient Minoan civilization. He also claims that this is a "true story", and he tells us that he will claim that the Minoans discovered America. These are some bold claims for a subtitle! I don't want to type the entire dust jacket here, but it goes on to tell me that Menzies will be presenting geological, archeological, and DNA evidence.

It never hurts to know a little about your author as well, particularly on what authority he makes his claims and what others in his field think about him. The copious quotes from newspapers and book-reviewers that publishers tend to put all over the dust-jacket and the inside of a book now-a-days can give you some insight, but it is important to remember that the publisher is obviously only going to put good things in there.

The next two things you want to inspect are the table of contents and index. Browsing through the index, I notice some of the entries which occur often or have multiple sub-headings are: stars, Thera, ships, tin, pyramids, navigation, Minoans, Mycenae, languages, Lake Superior, Knossos, Homer, Ireland, India, Egypt, Crete, cotton, copper, animals, and Americas. This further supports the information I've already discovered that points to a book about a Minoan sea-faring civilization that had a vast trading empire (note all the various locations that are prominent in the index, as well as the goods which would have been traded...). The prominence of tin and copper are no surprise, as the Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age civilization, and those are the two metals that create Bronze.

Also, Menzies provides a wonderfully analytic table of contents that really breaks his book down into logical sub-sections. The 41 chapters are grouped into six sections. I don't want to type out the whole table of contents, but I will list the six sections here, and you can see how they give the reader a good idea of where the author is going: 1) Discovery: The Minoan Civilization ; 2) Exploration: Voyages to the Near East ; 3) Journeys West ; 4) Examining the Heavens ; 5) The Reaches of Empire ; 6) The Legacy.

One last preliminary note: this is also a good time to check out maps and other auxiliary items the author might have added. In the case of my book, there are extensive maps, pictures, and timelines. All of these support the conclusions about the book that I've mentioned above.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Crop rotation?

I'm working on a series of posts about analytical reading, but until they're ready, I read a fascinating article today about how crop rotation combined with the integration of live-stock into the farming business can drastically reduce the need for chemicals, and can actually increase yield! Check it out by clicking here.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Are we forming an elite ruling class in the US?

The following thoughts were inspired by two articles in the NY Times this week: "Which Millionaire Are You Voting For?" and "The Self Destruction of the 1 Percent".

In the first article, "Which Millionaire Are You Voting For?", the author discusses the decreasing representation of the working class in politics and its influence on the government's policies. In "The Self Destruction of the 1 Percent", the author discusses how in Venice, an elite class grew out of favorable economic policies that created an open environment for social mobility, and then closed the pathway to social mobility to those who might come after them, effectively choking off social mobility and becoming extractive rather than inclusive. The oligarchs began to extract as much money as they could from the lower classes to enrich themselves. Ultimately, this was a failing strategy that caused Venice to decline as a global political and economic power.

The confluence of these two articles struck me deeply. In the United States, right now, about 94% of households (which tends to be 2 incomes) have an income of less than $174,000, which is the annual salary for senators and members of the House of Representatives, on their own. Just being elected to Congress automatically puts a congressman/woman in the top 6% of wage earners in the US. As the author of "Which Millionaire Are You Voting For?" points out, the fiscal policies adopted by Congress tend to reflect what's best for those individuals in the top 5-6%, rather than the other 95% of the country. (statistics from In fact, his essential argument is that for a country to be "for the people", it must also be made up "of the people". The reality is that many of our elected officials today don't really represent average Americans in their economic make-up.

Meanwhile, there has been an increasing gap between the richest 1% of the country and the other 99%. Check out this graph from Mother Jones:

So, in the last 30 years, overall wages have remained relatively flat, while productivity has increased by 80%! That's nearly double the productivity! Increased productivity typically comes from people working harder, which means that we have people working harder but making almost no more money for their extra work. Increased productivity usually leads to increased profits. One might expect to see those increasing profits from the increased productivity going to overall wages... Meanwhile, in the same 30 years, the income of the top 1% of wage earners has increased 240%. Hmm... I wonder where all that profit went?

Check out this info-graphic from

So, it seems to me that there is a pretty strong case to be made for a growing "elite class" of Americans who are extracting resources from the rest of the country rather than working to create a society with high potential mobility and open doors for advancement rather than a closed society in which the "elite class" builds its wealth on the backs of the rest of society.

As a society, we're becoming dangerously unbalanced economically, and if we don't find a way to sort things out and create a society that is more open and has better social mobility and room for people to move up, we're going to lose economic and political clout around the world. This is what happened in Venice and in many other ancient civilizations.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Politics, Civility, and Reason

Yesterday, I had a strange experience. I was having lunch with my friends in the faculty lounge at school. A substitute came in and sat down on a couch. I asked a friend of mine if he watched the vice-presidential debate, and he said he had watched the whole thing. At this point, the substitute felt compelled to say "I think Biden's performance was emblematic of the symbol of his party." (i.e. He thinks the vice-president was a donkey...also known as an ass.) Now, whatever any of us may think about the vice-president or his performance in the debate, we are talking about the Office of the Vice-President, which is something, I think, we should respect. There are already a few important lessons that a person could learn from this story so far: 1) speaking disrespectfully about others doesn't make you look good; 2) when you're an outsider somewhere (like a substitute), don't butt into conversations between people who are "natives"; 3) and as my mother taught me, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

Okay, so, my friend and I made the mistake of thinking that this substitute was just trying to be "involved", and could have a cordial conversation. We both commented that we were refreshed by Biden's punchy attitude and his willingness to dig in and take a hard line in the debates. This was a mistake, because this substitute took this as an invitation to spew his political rhetoric. He began jumping from one politically charged topic to the next (including, but not limited to, the war in Iraq and partial-birth abortion) without even really giving anyone else a chance to speak. My friend did try to make some logical points, but this substitute was not interested in listening as much as he was interested in talking. By this point, I had stopped talking entirely, and my friend had told this substitute a couple times that he wanted to stop this conversation and just enjoy his lunch with his friends. This substitute pressed on and railed about how he hates Catholics who go to church on Sunday and then vote for candidates who support abortion. He also accused all teachers (including us) of being wildly liberal people who indoctrinate students with liberal ideology. (For the record, I wouldn't consider myself liberal at all, and certainly not wildly liberal; and I don't indoctrinate my students with any ideology. I encourage them to investigate the world and to develop their own ideologies.)

I should note that by this point, I was really concerned about this person's sanity. He was jumping wildly around from topic to topic, shouting, speaking in an aggressive tone, and saying some really offensive things. He was also ignoring my friend's repeated request to end the conversation. Finally, he stormed out of the room after ranting about how disappointed he us I suppose.

Okay, so that story is a little long, but it illustrates a couple of points worth emphasizing:

  1. You can say the most reasonable, logical thing, but if you are shouting and speaking in an aggressive tone, you sound like a lunatic and nobody is going to believe what you're saying.
  2. Making vast generalizations about people you don't know doesn't help you make your point, it just makes you look un-informed.
  3. Saying offensive things doesn't win you good-will; it just offends people.
  4. I recently heard Archbishop Schnurr, in Cincinnati, say that when discussing politics in public everyone should focus on being courageous, civil, and compassionate. I think that's great advice, which would have served this substitute well.


This is the last week of the quarter; so things are a little crazy right now. Thus, I've been remiss in keeping up with my reading and my posting. Hang in there dear reader! I'll get back on the wagon here in a few days!

Keep reading!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Electronic Textbooks?

I recently read an op-ed piece in the NY Times about a statement by Arne Duncan (US Education Secretary) advocating a switch to electronic textbooks in schools. The author made several worthwhile points including the fear-factor of having all our information available only through devices that require electricity. Two advantages of the traditional book are that is requires nothing beyond itself to be used (i.e. it is self-sufficient; no software, electricity, hardware, adapter, download, user account, plug, etc.) and that the format of ink on paper requires no special device to read. One of the complications of digital information is formatting (both of the files and the storage devices). It was not that long ago that I used to back-up my word files on a CD. Now, some computers aren't even coming with CD-drives, and I suspect that they will soon be obsolete. Furthermore, there was a time when we used to type documents in certain word processing programs that no longer exist (or that are not compatible with modern word processing programs), and so these files have been more or less lost. Is there a future in which Microsoft Word (the standard for most documents created in business and schools in the US) will be obsolete, and no one will be able to read those files?

Having grown up using books and being dependent on books for all my research in high school and college, I must admit that I sometimes miss the days when finding information required a little know-how and a little determination (qualities which I think are worth cultivating). As a teacher, I see that students have a diminished respect for data, for information, because they perceive it as being easily obtainable. We all know the old riff about things that come easily not being worth very much. It's like the guy who writes a newsletter and tries to give it away for free. No one wants it. But the minute he charges a quarter per newsletter, they sell like hot-cakes. There's an argument to be made that information shouldn't always be so easy to find. A little effort and time tend to increase our appreciation of the fruits of our labors.

So, as we move into this digital age, I think we need to give serious consideration to how new digital media affect student and cultural inclinations around information and data. This has interesting implications for education too...but I'll save that for another post!

Keep reading!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Meditations XXXV

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Meddle not with many things, if thou wilt live cheerfully.”

Simplification is the key to happiness.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Writing Lessons from Miles Davis

I've enjoyed a lazy Saturday reading and have not written anything. But I thought I'd share a curious article from the New York Times about one author's lessons learned from listening to Miles Davis. It's well written and insightful.

Click here to read the article.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Meditations XXXIV

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Death is a cessation from the impression of the senses, the tyranny of the passions, the errors of the mind, and the servitude of the body.”

While this is a slightly morbid thought for the day, I find it fascinating how little the ancient Romans feared death. At least in their literature, they are constantly saying how so many other things are worse than death, and how death can be a freeing of the soul from the confines of the body. For a people who had no particular conception of the after-life, this was a remarkably calm perspective. I think in 21st century America we are very frightened, as a culture, of death. We do everything in our power to fight it. But the Romans seemed to meet it with equanimity and a certain measure of peace. Perhaps we can learn something from them.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Meditations XXXIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Be one who feareth neither death, nor anything else, so much as he feareth to commit anything that is vicious and shameful.”

Marcus Aurelius was acutely aware of how our actions outlive us. To leave behind a legacy of goodness and love was a much more important goal to him than to live in fear of death. Something to consider today...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Meditations XXXII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Look within; within is the fountain of all good. Such a fountain, where springing waters can never fail, so thou dig still deeper and deeper.”

What a wonderful thought...the fountain of all good lies within each of us. Each of us has the potential for goodness; all we need to do is look inside of us.

Often our modern society seems very out-ward directed. We're all running around to school, work, the gym, lessons, sports, etc. We spend lots of time outside of ourselves. All the ancient spiritual masters advise us to take some time to look within each day. I think that this is what they are trying to help us find...this unfailing spring of goodness within ourselves. Once we've found it, we can tap it.

So spend some time inside yourself for your inner fountain of goodness and share it!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Meditations XXXI

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“That which is not good for the bee-hive, cannot be good for the bee.”

Human beings are interesting creatures. We are, I think, inherently social creatures. We created societies all over the world in vastly different geographic areas, under vastly different economic and natural resource constraints. And while these societies are not all identical, there was no place on Earth where human beings decided to live separate lives without interacting with their neighbors. I'm not sure what it is in our nature that causes us to glom together, but it's there, and we've been at this society building activity for tens of thousands of years.

Whenever people come together in a society there exists a natural tension between the rights of the individual and the rights of the society. As some authors, like Rousseau, have put it, individuals give up certain freedoms collectively for the benefits derived from being part of the collective. In some societies, the balance favors society (or the government), and in others it favors the individual. We (in the United States in the 21st century) live at an interesting juncture. Our culture is highly polarized, and we tend to be both hyper-individualistic as well as, confoundingly simultaneously hyper-collective. On the one hand we extol personal choice/freedom (the right to an abortion, the right to live with anyone, the right to have any kind of personal relationship I want, the right to live wherever I want, the right to go to school wherever I want [provided I can get in or afford it], etc.), and on the other hand we have a vast network of entitlement and welfare programs (Medicare, Medicade, Social Security, Unemployment, Food Stamps, etc.), the cost of which is crippling our budget and causing us to take on vast amounts of (mostly) foreign debt.

Sometimes, it feels as though we want to have our cake and eat it too. I'm not sure how we got here as a society, and I'm not sure where we're headed. But our current position seems philosophically, socially, and economically untenable. It seems to me that at some point, we're going to have to decide whether we want to be a predominately individual society in which people take care of themselves and their families and the government is relegated to making sure clean water comes out of the taps and funding the army, or whether we expect our government to do more for its citizens, and what freedoms we might have to sacrifice to make that fiscally feasible.

But if Aurelius is right, then we may need to consider what is good for the bee-hive, and not just what's good for this bee.

Thoughts on Truth (inspired by RadioLab)

I'm a regular listener to the podcast RadioLab, from WNYC. I'm a huge fan because I think it deals with deeply intellectual questions in unique ways. I find it very stimulating and thought-provoking. Their latest episode (The Fact of the Matter - Radiolab) is about Truth. In the first part of the episode they interview Errol Morris. Here are some of Morris' quotes from this interview:

"Truth isn't something you vote on."

"When you investigate anything...yes complications result. Thinking causes complications! I'm sorry. But it's part of that process that we go through of trying to figure out what's out there in the world."

"This is about absolute Truth, and the pursuit of Truth, properly considered shouldn't stop short of insanity."

It's time to get personal. One of the most personal things I can write about is my relationship with Truth. You, dear astute reader, have not failed to notice, I am certain, that I capitalize this word. Why would I capitalize the word "Truth"? In my heart of hearts, I'm a neo-Platonist: I believe there is an absolute ideal Truth, with a capital "T". Plato would have called this the form of the Truth. (If you're not familiar with Plato's concept of the "world of forms", I would recommend reading Plato's Republic.) I believe that there is an objective reality, or Truth, that can be discovered, revealed, investigated, and at least partially understood.

As a believer in objective Truth, I reject the idea that each individual can have his or her own personal truth. I reject a subjective construct of truth, in which each individual constructs his or her own truth and all these truths have little or no connection. I believe there is an objective Truth that all of humanity shares; whether we all agree on it or not and whether we all want it or not. I believe we all have equal access to this Truth, and that it is out there wanting to be found.

I believe that God is the ultimate Truth, and that when Plato talks about the "Form of the Truth", he's talking about God. For me, the merger of Platonic philosophy with a belief in God is seamless. I believe that any sustained investigation into the nature of the universe and our world (and even ourselves) will ultimately reveal Truths, realities, about God, its creator; just as a book reveals things about its author. Gentle reader, do not misunderstand me: I do NOT believe that anyone can perfectly understand all of reality this side of eternity. I do not believe that we can distill God from scientific principles. However, I do believe that God chooses to reveal Himself to us through His Creation (apologies for the familiar use of masculine pronouns; obviously God is beyond gender/sex, but English language pronouns are not). I also think that if we are open to it, we will see traces of God's work all around us. As Cicero once wrote, "If a man can look up at the stars in the night sky and not feel the power of God, I wonder if he is capable of feeling anything at all."

So, there you have some of my thoughts on Truth. I believe it exists, and that in most cases it can be found by the persistent. I consider myself a Seeker of Truth, because I consider perfect Truth, total Truth, to be synonymous with God, and thus if I seek Truth, I am seeking God. St. Anselm wrote, "Do not seek to understand so that you may believe, but rather seek to believe so that you may understand." (Fides quaerens intellectum; faith seeking understanding)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Weekend Away!

Sorry about not posting yesterday! I'm in Traverse City, MI celebrating a friend's birthday. Here's what the lake looked like yesterday:

Friday, September 28, 2012

Meditations XXX

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Keep thyself therefore, truly simple, good, sincere, grave, free from all ostentation, a lover of that which is just, religious, kind, tender-hearted, strong and vigorous to undergo anything that becomes thee.”

This is a high bar to set for oneself, but no one ever complained of being "too good". It's a goal worth shooting for, even if it is a lifetime in the accomplishing.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Meditations XXIX

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“If anybody shall reprove me, and shall make it apparent unto me, that in any either opinion or action of mine I do err, I will most gladly retract. For it is the truth that I seek after, by which I am sure that never any man was hurt; and as sure, that he is hurt that continueth in any error, or ignorance whatsoever.”

Amen! I am a seeker of the Truth, which, as Marcus says, "never any man was hurt". Again, tremendous humility is required to practice this, but how wonderful to live life as a continual seeker of Truth! It occurs to me that one must also have great self-respect and a healthy self-image to be able to take the reproof of others and accept it with humility and not feel that it is an "attack" against oneself.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Meditations XXVIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Do not ever conceive anything impossible to man, which by thee cannot, or not without much difficulty be effected.”

Just because I can't do it doesn't mean no one can do it! :) A humbling truth...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Meditations XXVII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“The best kind of revenge is not to become like unto them.”

I don't know what kind of experience Marcus Aurelius had that caused him to write this down 1800 years ago, but it is so true, and can be the hardest thing to practice!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Meditations XXVI

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“For he is a happy man, who in his lifetime dealeth unto himself a happy lot and portion. A happy lot and portion is, good inclinations of the soul, good desires, good actions.”

Good desires and good actions...two worthy goals to keep in mind.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Silence of Passion

Finally, we come to the virtue of "silence of passion", which does NOT mean that we should eradicate all passion or emotion from our lives. Blessed Chaminade recognized the value of passion and emotion in helping us be transformed to be more like Christ. Even a cursory examination of Chaminade's own life will reveal a passionate man: passionate about living for Christ and about helping others grow spiritually. This is a man who wore disguises and risked his own life during the French Revolution to bring sacraments to faithful Catholics. This is a man who spent three years in exile imagining how he could re-Christianize his homeland once he was allowed to return. This was a man who re-animated the faith of thousands of people. It is hard to imagine him doing that without passion. But it was a directed, concentrated passion: a passion for his mission.

At one point in his life, Chaminade had been a science teacher. One of my favorite images (in my mind) is of Father Chaminade teaching a classroom of students about science. We know from letters he wrote, that he frequently used experiments in the classroom. As a teacher, I know how easily my passion for my subject can bubble to the top; I imagine Father Chaminade excitedly discussing some scientific truth with his students revealing his passion for helping students learn.

This virtue challenges us to be mindful of our passions and emotions: to focus and cultivate those passions that help us live better, and to let go of those passions and emotions that are holding us back. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Silence of Imagination

As with the pattern we have been following, the virtue of "silence of the imagination" calls us to cultivate a rich imagination that can be applied to making our lives and the world a better place. As Fr. Lackner writes in Virtues for the Mission, "Only through the exercise of imagination can we reconfigure situations and free ourselves for new possibilities." I would illustrate this with an example:

In the 1960s, India had serious food shortages that threatened to starve millions of people. Many economists said that India would never be able to feed itself. But Norman Borlaug, a scientist, developed a unique strain of wheat, called Dwarf Wheat, that had high yields of grain with a shorter stalk, so it didn't fall over in softer soil. Dwarf Wheat was grown in India and changed the course of a nation, and saved millions of people from dying of starvation. But the key here is that Borlaug could imagine something that no one else had considered possible before him. He used the power of his imagination to create a better world.

Fr. Lackner also points out that one way of exercising this virtue is by reading fiction and "going into" the characters. This kind of close reading, during which we begin to identify with characters: their emotions, thoughts, experiences, etc., is one way of developing empathy, and of de-centering the self. It's a way to remind ourselves that we are not the beginning and the end, and to help us become aware of others.

Imagination, when directed in a wholesome way can be a powerful tool for good in the world. It can expand our vision of what is possible, give us hope for the future, and help us live more fully the life of Christ.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Silence of the Mind

By now, dear readers, I'm sure you've realized the pattern that all the "silences" follow. Silence of the mind is about controlling our thoughts so that we can purge thoughts that aren't good for us and embrace and cultivate thoughts are are good for us. To some degree, thoughts are like words, in that they can come into our minds unbidden, and we don't always have the clarity to separate the good from the bad, or the discipline to embrace the good and let go of the bad. Again, I defer here to Fr. Lackner in Virtues for the Mission, he writes, "...we also become what we think and what we remember." (p. 15) And later, he writes, "...the point of this virtue is to develop a habit of acting in such a way that those memories that assist us to be the kind of person needed for the mission are to be treasured, and those that handicap us are to be silenced and released." (p. 17)

One of the central points to be made here is that much of what goes on in our minds is constructed from our everyday experiences (conversations, radio shows, TV, movies, magazines, books, the internet, etc.). To a large degree, the quality of my thoughts varies depending on the quality of these mind-engaging experiences. If I fill my day with intelligent conversation, beautiful radio, thought-provoking TV shows and articles, then my thoughts are going to tend toward those things; if, on the other hand, I am surrounded every day with hateful/angry speech, music and TV (images) that degrade others, and magazines and internet articles that tell me that I need to meet certain cultural norms to be considered "popular", "beautiful", or "worthy", then I'm likely to be trapped by thoughts that tear me down instead of building me up.

I can't emphasize this enough: the quality of our mental state is largely dependent upon what we put in there, what we expose ourselves to. There is so much crap out there, I have become convinced that an important 21st century skill is learning to curate the segment of culture and reality with which I interact. I intentionally limit my radio mostly to NPR and a classical radio station; I don't watch TV at all; I subscribe to "The Economist" and "WIRED" magazines and the New York Times; and my selection in books should be pretty evident to any regular reading of this blog.

The virtue of "silence of the mind" challenges us to be intentional about filling our minds with things that help us become better people (i.e. more Christ-like), and to let go of those things that hold us back. Fr. Lackner points out, "He [Jesus] is calling them [the disciples] to a new understanding, a new perception, a new way of seeing reality." (p. 15) It occurred to me that this is primarily what we do in the classroom as teachers. We try to help our students see the world from new perspectives and open their minds to new possibilities.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Silence of Signs

The second of the "five silences" is the "Silence of Signs". Like all the silences, this virtue is not about not giving any external signs, but rather of 1) bringing our body language (especially facial expressions) under our conscious control, and 2) using our body language with charity in kindness and truth. As Fr. Joseph Lackner says in his book Virtues for the Mission, "The discipline of this virtue involves being intentional about the way we act and developing a repertoire of behaviors which invite rather than stand in the way." (p. 14)

Most of us have had the experience of receiving a withering look from someone we respected, looked-up to, loved, or whose approval we desired. Most of us have been a single person on the outside of a group bunched together in close conversation, and felt the sting of "being left out". If we are honest with ourselves, we are also sometimes the person giving the withering look or using non-inviting body language to keep someone else away/out. These are the kinds of behaviors that the virtue of "silence of signs" invites us to examine and transform.

Father Chaminade recognized that our facial expressions, eye-contact (or lack thereof), and body language send powerful and clear messages. His challenge to us is to become more aware of this aspect of ourselves. In some ways, I think this is one of the hardest virtues to practice, for two reasons: 1) unless I look in a mirror, I cannot see myself or my facial expressions as I go through my day; and 2) my facial expressions and body language flow from my sub-conscious and are thus even more difficult to control than my speech!

This is the virtue I personally find the most difficult. I know that my face is very expressive, and I know I have a "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard" look; and try as I might, I have yet to purge that instinctive look. I know that it is neither uplifting nor charitable for me to give someone such a contemptuous look, but because it is instinctive, and because I cannot see my own face (although I have a good sense of what this "look" "feels" like), I struggle with this one.

Above, I mentioned a book by Fr. Joseph Lackner entitled Virtues for the Mission, which is published by NACMS in Dayton, Ohio. I highly recommend this text for anyone interested in learning more about Chaminade's "System of Virtues". It is probably the best modern resource available on this topic. I regularly re-read it to encourage self-examination.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Silence of Words

The first of the five silences is the "silence of words". Contrary to popular belief this virtue is not about not speaking; rather, it is about using words and speech prudently and with charity. Father Chaminade defined silence of words as "speaking only when you will it, and willing it only when necessary." All of the virtues of preparation have this two-fold aim: 1) to bring a normally subconscious or instinctual aspect of my life under my willful control; and 2) to use that willful control to sanctify that aspect of my life.

So often, the words that come out of my mouth are an instant reaction or a reflex. I often speak without thinking, and I don't think I'm alone. This is something I see with my students...words just pour of out of their mouths, and often their words have little to no meaning. The first part of this preparation virtue encourages each of us to become more mindful of our words and the ways we use language, to stop and think about what we're about to say. The goal of the first part is "to speak only when you will it." In other words, I should bring my speech under my conscious and deliberate control.

Once I have conscious control of my speech, and I'm no longer reactively/reflexively blurting things out, I then have an obligation to work at using my speech (and my silence) for the benefit of all. There are times when words are needed; and in those moments, it's important that we speak with love, kindness, and consideration (taking Jesus as our model). It is important that we speak Truth, and that we raise our voices against injustice. These are times when speech is necessary.

There are also times when silence is what is needed. Sometimes silence is needed to open space in our minds for thought. Sometimes silence is needed to open space in our souls for God. And in moments filled to the brim with abundant beauty and outrageous mystery silence is needed...moments when no words can do justice to what we see and feel.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The System of Virtues and the Five Silences

Blessed Father Chaminade, a french priest who lived from 1761 to 1850, was a wise man and a master of the spiritual life. One of his great contributions to the development of the interior life is what he called "The System of Virtues". Essentially, Father Chaminade believed that true Christianity involved living a life of Faith, Hope, and Love (Charity) (the three theological virtues), and in growing in that life to the point that it the would replace some of the more undesirable, or less virtuous, traits that we all have.

The System of Virtues was divided into three sections, each one setting the stage for the next:

The Virtues of Preparation - the work of consecrating oneself to the ideal, Jesus Christ; and the work of making normally involuntary actions voluntary, so that we then have power over them (more on this later). This involves a heightened self-awareness and a willingness to enter into self-examination.

The Virtues of Purification - Once the work of "preparation" has been begun (and it is important to note that it really never ends), only then can we really work at the purification virtues, which seek to help the soul have confidence in God, exercise patience, resolve to persevere even after failure, and to develop a resistance to temptation.

The Virtues of Consummation - As their name implies, Blessed Chaminade thought of these as the highest spiritual virtues, and he believed that they could only truly be worked at after reasonable progress had been made in the virtues of preparation and purification. The idea was that the first two kinds of virtues paved the way for a person to struggle with the final set: humility (removes all consideration of ourselves as the end of our existence), modesty (removes from our influence on people all our deficiencies), abnegation of self (removes all personal interest in our relations with the world), and renouncement of the world (takes from us all consideration of the world as the end of our aspirations)

This brief summary is based primarily on the text of a talk by Father William Ferree, SM, given in 1936, which can be found in Dougherty, Benjamin, ed., A Ferree Resource Collection (Dayton, Ohio: NACMS, 2008).

I would like to write more on each set of virtues at a later date, but for the moment, I think this will suffice as an introduction to the System of Virtues. What I would like to talk about more is what Blessed Chaminade called the "Five Silences". I will go on in later posts to enumerate each silence and give more information pertaining to it, but as an introduction here are the five silences:

Silence of Words
Silence of Signs
Silence of Imagination
Silence of the Mind
Silence of Passions

Look for more information on each of these in follow-up posts throughout the week!

Chaminade Week

You've probably all heard of "Shark Week". Well, I'm having "Chaminade Week" on the blog here. For those who are enjoying Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations", never fear, we'll be back with more of that next week. But I want to take a brief break from that to talk a little bit about Father Chaminade's "System of Virtues" and what he called "The Five Silences". So stay tuned. I'll post an introductory post today, and then each day I'll post something about one of the "silences".

Also coming up...based on the comments and feedback from my post about "integrity", I'm putting together a follow-up post on current academic assessment methods in the US, and how we can begin to fix that broken system.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Meditations XXV

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Why should imprudent unlearned souls trouble that which is both learned, and prudent?”

I don't mean to be judgmental, but there are many "imprudent unlearned souls" with whom a person often interacts in a day, and recalling this little maxim can do wonders for saving one's personal sanity. Repeat after me...I am learned and prudent...I am learned and prudent...

Friday, September 14, 2012

Meditations XXIV

From Marcus' Aurelius' "Meditations":

“He liveth with the Gods, who at all times affords unto them the spectacle of a soul, both contented and well pleased with whatsoever is afforded, or allotted unto her;”

This reminds me of the old adage: "Don't worry about having what you want, focus instead of wanting what you already have." This is a very classical idea that if I can be content with my current situation, my life will be considerably happier. So much distress and anxiety comes from wishing that I was somewhere else, someone else, or sometime else...

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Meditations XXIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Such as thy thoughts and ordinary cogitations are, such will thy mind be in time. For the soul doth as it were receive its tincture from the fancies, and imaginations. Dye it therefore and thoroughly soak it with the assiduity of these cogitations.”

This is like the intellectual spin on Aristotle's concept of virtue. If you recall, Aristotle said, in his Ethics, that actions lead to habits, which form a character, which defines a destiny. Marcus Aurelius is saying that thoughts lead to habits of the mind, which forms and defines the soul. This is why it is so important to guard carefully what you expose yourself to intellectually. One who regularly "soaks" his mind (what a great image!) in rich, wise, discerning, clear thoughts, will have their character stamped on his soul. This ties in really well with what Father Chaminade called "Silence of the Mind". More on that in an upcoming series...

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Meditations XXII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Reason, and rational power, are faculties which content themselves with themselves, and their own proper operations.”

You've heard of ars gratia ratio gratia rationis.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Meditations XXI

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Be not querulous, be content with little, be kind, be free; avoid all superfluity, all vain prattling, be magnanimous.”

As with much of Marcus' sound advice, this is so much easier to agree with than to practice!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

American Culture and Integrity: Challenges and Considerations

My 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Bayshore, used to say, "Character is what you do when no one is looking." To this day, if I am walking down a deserted hallway and see a piece of trash, I may start to walk past it; then I hear his voice saying, "Character is what you do when no one is looking." And I turn around, pick-up the trash, and throw it away. Thank you, Mr. Bayshore. I also remember someone else telling me that "Integrity is much easier kept than restored."

I point out these two vivid memories from my own childhood only because, if you have been following the news lately, you must surely have noticed a dramatic rise in the number of serious cases of cheating/plagiarism occurring across the country, even in the most high profile schools (e.g. Harvard, the Air Force Academy, and Stuyvesant High School). A recent NY Times article pointed out that studies are confirming that more students are cheating, and that cheating is become more pervasive by high-performing students as a way to get an advantage over other high-performing students.

While I am an educator, and I do have to deal with plagiarism, copying, and other forms of cheating occasionally, I find this article more disturbing as a citizen of the United States and a patriot. The ubiquity of dishonest behavior that lacks integrity in our country is a symptom, I think, of a much larger cultural issue. I've blogged before about corporate greed and a lack of integrity in financial systems and on the part of those who manage those financial systems, and how thoroughly un-American I believe that kind of behavior to be, but I think we're seeing an entire generation being raised with no moral compass, no sense of integrity. In the wake of all these cheating scandals at high-profile schools, some people will, no doubt, seek to lay blame for these incidents. But I think the blame game is too easy (because we are probably all to blame to some degree), and it distracts us from the real challenge: how to fix the situation.

I see what a group of greedy amoral individuals have done to the US economy (Bernie Madoff, the Enron scandal, sub-prime mortgages, derivative trading, the executive who was caught buying and smuggling into the US highly controlled cooling chemicals, etc.), and my real fear is that the up-and-coming generation of future leaders and workers are sunk in this mindset of "make more money at any cost". And that, as a country, our future looks more bleak than our past when it comes to a record of integrity and wisdom in economic and public affairs.

Howard Gardner has done extensive research on teenage and young-adult Americans, and with respect to this problem, his research offers some interesting insights. First, most teenagers and young-adults do not believe cheating/plagiarizing/copying is wrong; they understand that if they get caught, there may be negative consequences, but because most students who cheat never get caught, they consider the "reward" to be worth the risk. Second, many students believe that "everyone" is cheating, and that for them to keep up with the highest achievers, they must cheat and cheat alike; otherwise, they risk falling behind (this, by the way, is something that came up in a brilliant op-ed piece written by a former cyclist, Jonathan Vaughters, addressing the issue with doping in cycling).

The question is: how do we reframe an entire country's cultural skew so that achieving my personal goals is no longer more important than retaining my integrity? Essentially, this is the juncture we have reached as a country. Most individuals are willing to sacrifice both their personal integrity as well as the well-being of their fellow citizens for personal gain and benefit.

My one idea is that perhaps we should develop a nationwide class or curriculum on virtue/character that addresses what students should be learning and practicing in the realm of virtue/character at each grade-level. The biggest challenge I see to implementing something like this is that the best way to pass on these traits is to learn them from elders who possess them, but as fewer and fewer living people possess them, there will be fewer and fewer people having these traits passed on to them, and it becomes a decreasing cycle.

DISCLAIMER: I am not perfect, I make poor choices sometimes, and I live with the consequences. I have never cheated or plagiarized. In fact, if anything, I am acutely aware of how intellectually indebted I am to the giants who have come before me (one of the sources of inspiration for this blog), and I am often over-zealous in giving credit for ideas to others. I try to live a life of integrity, and know that I sometimes fail.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Meditations XX

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Think thyself fit and worthy to speak, or to do anything that is according to nature, and let not the reproach, or report of some that many ensue upon it, ever deter thee. If it be right and honest to be spoken or done, undervalue not thyself so much, as to be discouraged from it.”

If it's right to be said or done, respect yourself enough to say it or do it. On that note, I'm working on a post in response to an article in the NY Times about cheating...stay tuned!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Meditations XIX

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Thou must be like a promontory of the sea, against which though the waves beat continually, yet it both itself stands, and about it are those swelling waves stilled and quieted.”

This quote rang true with me, because I have always tried to be a calming and steadying force in the lives of those around me. I hope I have brought some measure of peace, joy, and tranquility into the lives of those who know me.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Meditations XVIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“All is vanity. What is it that we must bestow our care and diligence upon? even upon this only: that our minds and wills be just; that our actions be charitable; that our speech be never deceitful, or that our understanding be not subject to error;” its simplicity and truth it reminds me of Micah 6:8: "Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."

Monday, September 3, 2012

Meditations XVII

From: Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations:

“He is a true fugitive, that flies from reason, by which men are sociable. He blind, who cannot see with the eyes of his understanding.”

Of all the things in life we run from, three seem to me the most essential: reason, the self, and God.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Meditations XVI

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Now much time and leisure doth he gain, who is not curious to know what his neighbour hath said, or hath done, or hath attempted...”

Ha! So true! Mind your own business and you'll be the better and happier for it!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Meditations XV

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Not as though thou hadst thousands of years to live. Death hangs over thee: whilst yet thou livest, whilst thou mayest, be good.”

No one knows what tomorrow good while you have the chance!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Meditations XIV

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“These two rules, thou must have always in a readiness. First, do nothing at all, but what reason proceeding from that regal and supreme part, shall for the good and benefit of men, suggest unto thee. And secondly, if any man that is present shall be able to rectify thee or to turn thee from some erroneous persuasion, that thou be always ready to change thy mind, and this change to proceed, not from any respect of any pleasure or credit thereon depending, but always from some probable apparent ground of justice, or of some public good thereby to be furthered; or from some other such inducement.”

Brilliant! Two rules: 

1) do what is in line with the common good; 
2) when someone points out to you that you're wrong, accept it, correct it, and move on. 

When I read humble advice like this, it is hard to believe that the man who wrote this ruled an empire, and yet, actually, it isn't, because perhaps Marcus Aurelius comes closest to the ideal of Plato's "philosopher king". (If you aren't familiar with Plato's idea of the "philosopher king", read "The Republic".)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Meditations XIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“...all these things, which now thou seest, shall within a very little while be changed, and be no more: and ever call to mind, how many changes and alterations in the world thou thyself hast already been an eyewitness of in thy time. This world is mere change, and this life, opinion.”

As the Greeks before him said, "Everything changes, nothing remains the same." I strive never to attach myself too strongly to anything that might not be around for too long. Think carefully before investing too much of yourself into anything, but once you find something you consider worthy of investing yourself in, give it your all!