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Monday, May 27, 2013

School and Education

High school, it seems, has changed. It has become competitive. Young men and women — 13 to 18 years old — must work more or less tirelessly to ensure their spot at a college deemed worthy to them and their families. So rather than living their adolescent lives — lives brimming with desires and vitality, with vim, vigor, and brewing lust — these kids are working at old age homes, cramming for tests, popping Adderall just to make the literal and proverbial grade. And for what? So they can go to a school that puts them in debt for the rest of their lives. School has become a great vehicle of capitalism: it quashes the revolution implicit in adolescence while simultaneously fomenting perpetual indebtedness.” (Daniel Coffeen)


I'll get back to Vonnegut and Player Piano soon, but I wanted to share this quote I found online. I don't necessarily agree with everything in the quote, but I think the author has a point that in developing an educational system for teenagers, we've lost some of what makes this time of life unique and enjoyable. I particularly like his point at the end. Real education should challenge students to think and live outside the constraints of the previous generation. It should push us into new frontiers and experiences to enrich and deepen our understanding of the human experience. Unfortunately, I think, too often, we get caught up in the informational side of education and forget the formative side of it. Education should impact who we are throughout our lives; it should be about more than just memorizing information for an exam (something I think about a lot this time of year with exams around the corner or just behind us).

Saturday, May 25, 2013

New Blended Learning Video!

In a previous post I mentioned my school's integration of "blended learning" and talked a little about why I'm excited about this opportunity. I decided to make a brief video explaining what blended learning is and what some of its advantages are. Check it out!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Player Piano XII

"Paul wondered at what thorough believers in mechanization most Americans were, even when their lives had been badly damaged by mechanization." (253)


This is an interesting thesis to play around with. There does seem to be a bit of a "wow" factor with most people and technology. The "wow" factor certainly dissipates as time passes (e.g. I remember how amazing it was when tablet computers first came out and we could control things just by touching them, but now the idea of manipulating computers with touch commands seems second nature.), but there is a degree to which, in the US at least, we are "wowed" by the bells and whistles of technology (mechanization in Vonnegut's language). Vonnegut's thesis goes beyond being "wowed", to suggest that  Americans are "believers in mechanization", by which he means the power of technology to improve the quality of life and solve a variety of problems. I think there is a certain unstated belief among many Americans that we are on a path of "progress", and that this progress will continue unbounded and will impact everyone equally. I think in some of the "occupy" movements, there were hints of disillusionment, but I think that represented a small part of the country.

The second part of Vonnegut's thesis is that mechanization has "damaged" American's lives. This is one of the repeated themes of Player Piano. Vonnegut is trying to demonstrate how "mechanization" has devalued culture by removing the creativity from art, and how it has taken productive labor away from workers, who are left to stew in menial jobs or to sit at the bar wasting away. There is some truth here: the tractor allowed farms to be run on fewer people (i.e. put people out of jobs); the factory (the epitome of mechanization in the workplace) introduced horrific labor practices; the application of mechanization and factor principles to food production and cattle raising has given us some of the least healthy food in the history of US agriculture (although we have way more of this unhealthy food). Mechanization has also allowed us to sequence the genome, land on the Moon, cure diseases, produce enough food to save countries experiencing famines, etc. So I don't mean to say that technology/progress/mechanization is evil. But it has not always produced what's best from a human standpoint.

Ultimately, however, we can't turn back the clock. We can't undo our mechanized world. The best we can do is start where we are, and try to figure out how to move forward in the way that's best for everyone and that is the most humane.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Piano Player XI

"Anyone that competes with slaves, becomes a slave." (281)


This reminds me of a quote from Suli Breaks (follow him on Twitter @sulibreaks or visit his YouTube site here; he has lots of great videos worth viewing; his website is, the well known British poet, who said, "Even if you win the rat race, you're still just a rat."

When I look around, I see many people striving to be the best at what they do, and I think improvement and growth are good things. But what are you striving to be better at? The mechanics in the Manhattan Project strove to be the best bomb makers in the world, and they succeeded to a degree that would change the world forever. Bernie Madoff strove to be the best swindler that he could be, and succeeded in ruining the lives of many people in the process. What are you striving for?

I believe that we're put here on Earth to better ourselves and our communities. I believe that we need to strive for self-improvement, but that our self improvement should never come at the detriment of our communities, and that we should watch carefully what race we run, because to win the rat race gives us no honor. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Player Piano X

"And my husband says somebody's just got to be maladjusted, that somebody's got to be uncomfortable enough to wonder where people are, where they're going, and why they're going there. That was the trouble with his book. It raised those questions and was rejected." (245)


At this point in the book, there's a woman who is talking about her husband, who is an author. He had his manuscript rejected by the national publishing company (the only publishing company in this fictional world), and it's basically because his book challenged the status quo and for challenging people to think critically about their culture. There's this ancient idea of the societal "gadfly" as Socrates called himself: this individual who questions and challenges the group currently in power and the cultural status quo. That's exactly what the government in "Player Piano" doesn't want to happen. They don't want people to question progress, technology, mechanization, or any of the developments their organization has brought about. They just want people to mindlessly do their work.

I think this is a perennial problem with groups in power: they don't want anything to change that might cause them to lose their power. Thus, they don't want people to consider new possibilities or think about "where they're going, and why they're going there", as Vonnegut wrote.

I think this kind of loyal dissent is at the heart of what makes democracy work. Without individuals who stand outside the power base and question and prod and challenge, we can never grow. As Vonnegut wrote in an early quote, only those on the edge see the undreamed of possibilities.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Player Piano IX

"It was as though a navigator, in order to free his mind of worries, had erased all the reefs from his maps." (221)


I liked this quote, because the main character was thinking about how people ignored rather glaring "warning signs" that not everything was alright. He was pointing out that this was as ridiculous as a navigator erasing the reefs from his map to "free his mind of worries", which is, of course, silly, because the reefs are still there whether you know about them or not.

At school, we're planning for some big transitions in the near future, and one of the things we're focusing on is finding the "reefs", so that we can navigate around them. I think rather than ignoring the "reefs" in life, we need to pay attention to them, and learn how to get around them. Everyone hits rocky patches in life (work, home life, personal life, spiritual life, etc.), but the trick is to look for the things that will sink you and to try to work around them.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Player Piano VIII

“Used to be there was a lot of damn fool things a dumb bastard could do to be great, but the machines fixed that. You know, used to be you could go to sea on a big clipper ship or a fishing ship and be a big hero in a storm. Or maybe you could be a pioneer and go out west and lead the people and make trails and chase away Indians and all that. Or you could be a cowboy, or all kinds of dangerous things.....Now the machines take all the dangerous jobs, and the dumb bastards just get tucked away in big bunches of prefabs that look like the end of a game of Monopoly, or in barracks...” (p. 207)


This passage caught my attention in the book, because there are ways in which the world seems more "tame" or less "adventurous" than it used to. Part of that is simply the march of time. We explored the west and tamed the frontier by settling it. Eventually we ran out of land. There are a couple really good books about the psychological impact of wilderness and frontiers if you're more interested in that subject: Nash's "Wilderness and the American Mind" and Turner's "The Significance of the Frontier in American History". But Vonnegut's point here seems to be that technology and "progress" removed opportunities for people to feel "on the edge" or as though they were interacting with something larger than themselves that had purpose and meaning; something they were truly a part of, not just present within; something, dare I say the word, *dangerous*.

It has always seemed to me that a little danger is a healthy thing. I used to go backpacking in Colorado in the summers, and while we took precautions and thought about safety, no such endeavor is ever without an element of danger. But the danger was part of what made the trip worth doing! It was exciting to be in the back country for days. And I was there once when something went terribly wrong, and a member of our party almost died. That would have been tragic, and fortunately two members of our party hiked out and got search and rescue to fly a helicopter in at first light and med-evac the woman out to save her; she's fine. But the reality is, we were in a dangerous place, and if it hadn't been for that element of danger, then we might as well have gone for a walk in our neighborhood park.

I think our culture has tried to strip away risk and danger, and I don't think that it has served us well as a country. I think our entire country and culture ethos was founded on risk taking and embracing an element of danger: pilgrims and settlers who sailed across the Atlantic under adverse conditions to settle in an unknown land; pioneers who went West into an untamed wilderness full of predators and possibilities; revolutionaries who stood their ground and fought a war to be free, because they valued their freedom so highly that they were willing to give their lives for it. Our own Benjamin Franklin once said, "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

So, my message for the something dangerous! Live a little!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Blended Learning

Being an educator, I try to stay abreast of current educational trends. The rise of online learning opportunities over the past few years has been vertiginous (MOOCs, iTunesU, The Great Courses, nearly every university, and most states offer an online option for high school public students). At my own school, we have launched an online branch of our school, which makes us one of the first Catholic schools to delve into the world of online learning. I have been impressed (and sometimes not impressed) to varying degrees with the options I've seen. But there is a third way...

Blended learning takes the best of what online learning has to offer and combines it with the best of what human classroom teachers have to offer. In blended learning, students take classes on a computer in the context of a brick-and-mortar school with other students, sports, electives, clubs, theater, etc. And then teachers pull students out in small groups (or one-on-one) to introduce new concepts, remediate learning problems, extend coursework into real world application projects, and challenge students with enrichment.

Some of my colleagues and I have been in Michigan for the past two days touring schools which are trying to implement this new blended learning concept. We have seen lots of good stuff. I've been considerably more impressed with blended learning than straight online courses. The combination of online and human work and interaction, when done well, seems to be a winning combination.

As I tell my students, we have to let the computer do what it does best: assess for rote memorization and short answer questions, crunch large amounts of information quickly, give students instant feedback on formative and summation assessments, display digital learning content that actually helps students grow conceptually, and engage students with multi-media. We also have to let human teachers do what we do best: engage students in critical thinking, extended dialogue, meta-analysis, inspiration, application, the joys of learning, the personal touch, intervention, and reading the affect of the student. With a computer doing its part and a human teacher doing her/his part, students get the best of both worlds and can thrive. I'm excited about this new opportunity on the frontier of education.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Player Piano VII

"In order to get what we've got, Anita, we have, in effect, traded these people out of what was the most important thing on Earth to them-the feeling of being needed and useful, the foundation of self-respect." (175)


This is one of the central themes of the whole book: that the unchecked "progress" of technology and the mechanization of human tasks has robbed humanity of it's dignity. I thought this was an interesting theme, just because it lines up so well with Catholic Social Teaching and the papal encyclicals on labor. 

I don't usually wave my Catholic flag too much on this blog, but I am Catholic, and I teach at a Catholic school. The papal encyclicals are very strong on this same point: labor is fundamentally good and work is a natural part of human life; part of our sense of self-worth and dignity is derived from working hard and producing a positive effect in the world. It feels good to mow and trim my lawn; it's hard work, but at the end of the day I can sit back and say "wow...that looks nice!"

I'm not suggesting that we hit the "undo" button on technological development. But I think as human beings we need to find a way to get in touch with the elemental facets of the human condition, one of which is work. If you haven't ever worked a hard day in your life to produce a desired outcome (yard work, cutting down a tree, building a shed/barn/house/deck, etc.) then you're missing a piece of the human experience.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Player Piano VI

"Paul had a vision of civilization as a vast and faulty dike, with thousands of men like Doctor Pond in a rank stretching to the horizon, each man grimly stopping a leak with his finger." (152)


This quote comes from a section in the book when Paul is trying to purchase an old run-down farm without any modern amenities or conveniences. "Doctor Pond" is the realtor, who is trying to talk him out of this and explaining to him that it is "below his station". Doctor Pond's job is to help people find real estate that matches their station in this highly structured and hierarchical society, so that those folks at the top of the hierarchy have nicer homes than those "below" them.

Paul can sense that his highly structured society has undercurrents of instability, and that the whole thing, while appearing solid, is really build on very shaky ground. His analogy of the people trying to put a finger in the "dyke of society", to keep the facade in tact is an apt one. By the end of the book, Paul's observations will ring true, as the dyke breaks and the flood-gates open (metaphorically).

It makes me wonder: what structures in our own societies seem solid but are really just a facade? What structures might be on the verge of extinction/collapse, but we haven't quite recognized it yet?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Player Piano V

"Somewhere, outside of society, there was a place for a man-a man and wife-to live heartily and blamelessly, naturally, by hands and wits." (146)


Again, this quote shows how the main character, Paul, sees society as something that has disrupted the "natural order". He sees the "system" as interfering with the ability of humans to live "naturally by hands and wits". I'm not sure that I 100% buy into the idea of technology as something that interferes with the natural state of humanity (particularly because technology is a creation of humanity). I think that technology, like many tools, can be used for good or for evil. And sometimes people use technology to separate humans from one another and to keep us from reaching our full potential as humans; that I think is bad. But when technology helps us connect, explore, engage, learn, strive, and hope...these I think are characteristically human things, and anything that helps us do them better cannot be all bad.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Player Piano IV

"He wanted to deal, not with society, but only with Earth as God had given it to man." (137)


The main character of the story, Paul, becomes obsessed at one point with buying a farm and living more "naturally", away from machines and such. He starts to see society as the obstacle to a more authentic order of God and nature. It strikes me as interesting that while technology has permeated our society, there are not many people who reject technology as interfering with the natural order of God. I've never met anyone who was anti-technology for theological reasons. I'm not sure that Paul's reasons in the book are entirely "theological" either; but there is certainly an implication in the book that somehow humanity has messed up God's natural order with our societal worship of technology. Technology and the concept of "progress" can be a kind of idol that society worships instead of God.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Player Piano III

"...nothing of value changed; that what was once true is always true; that truths were few and simple; and that a man needed no knowledge beyond these truths to deal wisely and justly with any problem whatsoever." (124)

Comments: I like what he says here about truths, that they are "few and simple". I have generally found this to be true in life. A real, honest-to-goodness, eternal Truth, seems to come from nowhere and everywhere all at once. It strikes you as both profound and simple. And you wonder why you never noticed it before. Robert Pirsig has a quote about this in "The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance": "The truth knocks on the door, and you say, 'Go away, I'm looking for the truth,' and so it goes away. Puzzling." I've always liked that quote, because I think it can capture the myopic nature of our linear, finite, bounded human existence.

Back to Vonnegut, I like what he says that these "few simple" truths are sufficient for one to deal wisely and justly with the world. This also rings true with my own experience. Staying focused on these few simple truths also helps one act justly and wisely. One ought not to let one's perspective become too crowded or clouded. Clarity must be a priority.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Player Piano II


“He’d pull me back into the center, and I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” He nodded. “Big, undreamed of things--the people on the edge see them first.” (p. 84)


In the book, the main character, Paul, has this old friend Ed Finnerty. They came up threw the ranks together as young men out of college, and Ed had been assigned to some important bureaucratic job. Ed shows up at a critical point in Paul's life, and gives him a different perspective on the current state of affairs in their world. Ed has rejected the whole machine based idea of "progress". He has retreated from "the system", and is trying to find his own way. He is struggling to reconnect with his own humanity, and I think he goes to Paul, because Paul's the only real friend he's ever had. This quote is his, and I think it reflects his position well. Finnerty has left the norms of society, and is living "on the edge" (like a modern John the Baptist). And there's a tension between Paul's wife and Finnerty. Paul's wife is trying to pull Paul to the center, but Finnerty is trying to pull Paul to the "edge".

I like what he says about people on the edge seeing "undreamed of things...first". This is worth reflecting on. Those who are solidly in the center of the current system, I think, are too trapped to really see what's coming next. As Finnerty says, only those on the edges, on the periphery, can see what's on the horizon. That's where innovations and even revolutions happen.

Monday, May 6, 2013


I am an avid chess player, and I moderate our chess club at school. I am often looking for good on-line resources for chess puzzles and such. Today I found This site has a puzzle of the day (not too difficult, but good strategy reviews), an endgame simulator, a database of openings, training modules for visualization, and articles and videos about chess. This is a virtual treasure trove! I highly recommend checking it out if you're into chess.

Play on!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Player Piano I

A few couple months ago I read the book Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut. It's a relatively easy read. It was Vonnegut's first book, and it was published in 1952. I would highly recommend it. Here's a brief thematic synopsis:

Set in a "futuristic" society (futuristic for 1952), in which nearly all jobs have been replaced by machines, Player Piano is a social commentary on the effects of mechanization on society, workers, and managers. The society in the book has two very distinct classes: 1) the lower classes of people who used to do manual labor for a living, but whose jobs have been replaced with machines. Many of the middle-age people in this class have "retired" (which means they go to the bar and hang out with other retired folks). Young people in this class are forced to choose between joining the military or joining a civil service program that handles the manual labor projects (e.g. repairing potholes) that machines don't do. 2) the upper classes of people who are managers or engineers, who enjoy the privileges of wealth. People are sorted into these two classes based on their IQ.

Vonnegut's overall theme is that by replacing manual labor with machine labor, society became more efficient, but removed the dignity of manual labor. Also that in this society, people became increasing disassociated from each other and from the tangible world. At one point, the main character wants to buy a farm so he can work the farm and actually grow real plants, because he feels such a yearning for a connection to the land.

Dr. Paul Proteus is the main character. He is a promising young manager of one of the major manufacturing plants in the East. He starts the book as a great supporter of "the system". But by the end of the book, he realizes how the system has de-humanized them and how it does more harm than good. He becomes part of a revolution to try to over-throw the system.

In posts to follow, I'll be taking selected quotes from the text, giving them some context, and then discussing their significance. Hope you enjoy!

Keep reading!