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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)