29 December 2008

Random End of Year Thoughts

Getting ready for the new year to drop in, and as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. A few notes at the end of the year, then.

Israel is still in open warfare with its neighbors. Cease-fire agreements don't seem to mean much to enemies which vow to destroy the Jewish state, yet Israel is the one demonized by the "international community". Whatever that is. One wonders if the Israelis have finally had enough and will impose regime change on the Palestinians in Gaza, or if they will bow to "international pressure". Funny how "international" this and that generally seems to side with the autocrat.

Compassionate conservatism, in all its domestic glory, will be put on steroids with the coming of the Obama administration. I fear for the freedom of our people under the guise of soft-sounding terms like "equality" and "fairness". The next four years will be a real test to see if Americans can be talked into happily giving away their individual rights - most notably to liberty from government, as much as that is possible. I fear that we may bow all to quickly under promises of greater days. But I hope that, when faced with real personal limitations at the cost of much higher taxation, that we will bite the hand that feeds once we understand that it feeds us our own flesh, so to speak.

I have found it quite interesting how compassionate conservatism has found it necessary to eat the free market in order to save it. I would have thought that would come after January 20th - and not to save the free market, either. But having the ground prepared for it, Mr. Obama and Liberal-Progressive-Democrats have a precedent for ever more government intervention, thanks to a conservative administration. Pardon me, a domestically compassionate conservative administration.

Before I am taken for joining a Bush-bashing party as he heads out the door, while I disagree with many of his domestic policies, he has kept the US safe for the past 7+ years, and that is no small task. Whereas defense might win championships in football, the best way to win a war is with offense. Mr. Bush has done that - even with all of the mistakes which unfortunately come with waging war. I hope that Mr. Obama keeps us on offense.

Lastly, one thing which has changed this year has been my beloved Chicago Blackhawks. It may be crass to say, but the passing of the elder Wirtz and the club being taken over by Rocky has been a Godsend to Chicago hockey. As I write, the team is on a franchise record nine-game winning streak. They will host the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, and for the first time in a long, long time, Blackhawk fans are thinking playoff hockey with high hopes. It is refreshing; all things renew and grow, if given the right impetus and chance.

23 December 2008

Post Script to The Vampires of Our Youth

After reading a number of comments on my previous piece on American Thinker, "The Vampires of Our Youth", I felt the need to add a bit of post script.

First, I must admit that I omitted some qualifiers in the piece which may have expounded my point of view more accurately. This was done purposefully, as the danger of being overly explicit can sometimes seriously hamper discussion. My goal in writing, then, was more to put forward a pair of propositions tied by a common threat - the idea that evil can be (and is) "lightly coated" in good, and sold as wholly good (or admirable or desirable) to the impressionable.

One way which I have qualified my argument is that I have not read a single page of the Twilight series. I probably won't; it's not my taste. Therefore, I rely on reports from students who have read the novels (and seen the movie). Because I am relying on synopses of the story from students, I cannot pull apart the novel through a systematic analysis. I therefore only focused on the nature of vampire characters in previous novels, most notably Bram Stoker's Dracula, but also Anne Rice's novels as well. Therefore, my commentary rests on the "fictional norm" (if there can be such a thing) that in works of fiction vampires are damned. And whereas the students with whom I have discussed Twilight with see the main vampire character as "good", I counter that the nature of the vampire character is one of evil. The point I attempt to make is that while it may be possible to "mask" our true nature, nevertheless that nature is still there. It makes for great discussion in the classroom (as I don't mind playing devil's advocate).

But my point in the piece was not to be overly didactic, and therefore I omitted, purposefully, any discussion of redemption or, as one commenter put it, "rehabilitation". As far as the piece is concerned, it's a topic for another time. By not broaching the idea of redemption, I think perhaps I made my point a bit harder to grasp, or caused some readers to turn away all together. For that, I regret the omission. I could have, and perhaps should have, made some reference to the subject.

What I wonder most about is that so many folks decided not to comment on the link between my point about the novel and popular culture's view on criminality. Have we as a culture - or have large portions of our culture - accepted infamy as a basis for popular fame? Do we not wonder what the glorification of real criminals does to the idea of criminal behavior in our youth? When the despicable becomes admirable because of the spotlight and excuses of "it's not his fault…he's had a hard life…he didn't know what he was doing…and he is famous (or he will be)", then we have a problem.

The Vampires of Our Youth

Originally posted on American Thinker.

Something interesting is happening in our society, and while it may seem obvious to many, restating the issue in different terms may be beneficial. For our young people, it appears that all things bad - and by bad, I mean evil -- are being made into good things -- and by good, I mean admirable or desirable.

Take the relatively recent phenomenon of the Twilight series, which concerns vampires. Many, many teenagers have read the novels. I admit that I haven't, though with as much as my students talk about it, I sometimes feel that I have. What I find interesting about the novels is that readers, mostly teenagers (and not all female, despite the novels' appeal to that group), are convinced that the main vampire character is, in fact, good. There are evil vampires in the book, but the "good" one does things a bit differently. Apparently, he feeds off of animal blood; some readers have gone so far as to call him a "vegetarian vampire" - a term which I can only guess in somewhere in the novels, a contradiction in terms that mirrors the "good vampire" contradiction.

The young readers are sold on the idea that an inherently evil thing, a vampire, can be twisted into something good. Perhaps we, the wider public, just have to "understand" a certain point of view in order to see the "good" within the inherently evil thing. Because really, it is all about perception and point of view, not about objective right and wrong. After all, there is no objective right and wrong.

How easy it is to follow this line of thought, this mode of believing. And yet, I propose that it is damaging to our young people. It makes other evils -- real, demonstrable evils -- easier to accept because they can be lightly coated in "good". Good intentions, good methods, and promised good outcomes can conceal any evil. It is, after all, all about perception and what is good for the perceiver.

The light coating of "good" is, indeed, easy to believe until the vampire comes to your neck. Then it becomes all too real -- and too late. In traditional fictional vampire stories, being bitten tends to result in being damned. All the bravado of youth aside, not a desirable outcome at all.

A parallel to this, another example which comes directly from the youth "culture", has to do with crime. Criminal behavior is seen, I have been told, as entertainment and therefore is a "good" to those around it. The criminal provides a diversion for the public to wonder at, and in doing so is no different than television personalities, musicians, or sports stars. Indeed, the convergence of criminal behavior with "star" power is the ultimate entertainment combination -- all of the wonder of celebrity with the celebrated infamy of brash, criminal activity.

Of course, much like the fictional vampire, brash criminal activity is entertaining right up until the point where it hits you in the face (or shoots you in the face, for that matter). And for the participants, the damnation that comes with brash, criminal activity is more of a claim to fame than a blot on their character. Perpetrating crime may be seen as an endeavor of personal advancement . After all, who can criticize one's point of view if personal actions taken are "good" for that person? And certainly infamy has become, in some circles, a delectable form of "good".

But what is good for the vampire -- either fictional or social -- is bad for the community and the nation. That seems so obvious to me, yet I think that perhaps through various media and cultural influences, it is far less obvious to many of our youth. The vampire is alluring; a read of Bram Stoker's Dracula is useful. It describes an attempt to surreptitiously conquer the community by poisoning innocence. Twisting innocence to achieve some end is nothing new, nor is it new for those who wish to preserve a culture to fight against the evil influences. Those of us who would see our American culture survive would do well to help the younger generation recognize and reject evil in all its forms - even those which "seem" good.

21 December 2008

Global Warming and Learning the Hard Sciences

My initial thought here in writing this morning was to get into the recent scare advertisements put out by environmentalist groups. The ads seem to be aiming ever more at hooking the audience with scary words, spoken words, than before. But then it occurred to me that those who have imbibed the Global Warming/Climate Change (GWCC) Kool-Aid couldn't care less what tactics they use to proselytize. And the young are ever so vulnerable to hip messages, especially those with a bit of scariness to them.

So instead of critiquing ads (which in the end is more of a hobby for me than anything else), I thought perhaps that a bit of a challenge ought to be made, particularly to younger folks who live in fear of our climate and its (inevitable) changing. What young, or even older, GWCC believers ought to do is study hard the sciences and engineering behind understanding weather and climate and the proposed solutions. They ought to gain first hand knowledge of the background information and scientific techniques used to diagnose GWCC. They ought to work diligently at mathematics, physics, chemistry - the hard sciences - so that they can fully understand how anthropogenic GWCC comes about.

By pursuing these studies, they can also actively and truly make progress on ways to "fix" GWCC. Only through understanding the hard sciences can real "progress" be made. If one is particularly distraught by what GWCC might do to the planet, it would be imperative for one to work towards a fix him or herself. This can only be done through knowledge and practice in the hard sciences, and this study is of the most importance to the younger generation of GWCC believers. They, it may fairly be argued, can build their minds so as to build their world later.

Letter writing and Facebook groups and MySpace friends all worried about GWCC do nothing compared to a mind educated in the hard sciences when it comes to issues of climate. Yet sites like Mr. Gore's "we" extravaganza promote petitions and "connecting" over personal learning and scientifically intellectual involvement. It is, after all, much easier to join a Facebook group than to understand the dynamics of, say, ocean currents - or master trigonometry, for that matter.

At a time when everyone seems to bemoan the educational system (myself included) as a failure, it would seem to go without saying that anything that may be used to promote learning the hard sciences would be attempted. I do not believe in GWCC whatsoever - except for the fact that the climate is indeed always changing. But I'm more than happy to urge my students who do fear GWCC to get into the sciences, to work hard at understanding all of the fundamentals (math, chemistry, physics, etc.) behind the higher-level science. The learning will serve them well later. And in the end, those students who understand their sciences - GWCC believers or not - will make better judgments about the physical world around them. Perhaps that's the scary part for Mr. Gore and his GWCC crew; an informed public is a questioning one. With snow falling in Las Vegas this past week, they can't handle the questions.

20 December 2008

Fast Track to a Bankrupt Nation

Now that President Bush has apparently authorized some of the TARP money to bail out the auto industry, everyone expects others to line up for their share of the TARP funds. The $700 billion TARP (troubled asset relief program) was supposed to only go to financial industries; the public was told that the financial sector - lending and mortgage firms in particular - were supposed to be the source of our nation's economic woes. These institutions, we were told, were simply too big to fail. Though some did, and were allowed to (yet the sun still rose).

Now, after being turned down in Congress, GM and Chrysler have gotten a TARP handout from the executive branch. (Ford did not take any money, but may well reap rewards of any UAW concessions.) I don't doubt that the Congressional effort was more of a punt until after January 20th than anything else. President Bush's blessing of the release of TARP money is much the same. Under his "plan", GM and Chrysler would have to prove that they could become "viable", they must have a plan, by March 2009. If not, they have to pay their billions back…even though they won't have them. They're broke, and if they spend their TARP allowance, they'll be broke again in March. But never mind; we are told that GM and Chrysler are too big to fail.

One must wonder, then, which things are not too big to fail.

California is in a serious financial crisis - $38 billion dollars worth of shortfall. Will TARP funds, or some yet to be created federal money transfer program, bail out states and municipalities? Will they all be too big to fail?

Is the New York Times too big to fail? Supposedly the "paper of record", the company had to mortgage its own building recently to inject itself with cash. Will it become, in some form of twisted logic, too big to fail? Will it become a government paper of record?

Surely there are many more businesses and institutions waiting in the wings for federal largesse. It's the idea that something can be had for nothing. Yet the billions and trillions that are being created seemingly out of thin air will come to account at some point in the future. And while some may say that the day the bills will come due for this recent spending spree will be some day long in the future, I do not agree. The bill will come due much sooner, I believe, then anyone wants to believe. The imaginary land where capital value can be created from nothing can only last so long. With the rapidity of developments in our (seemingly) ever-shrinking financial world, it seems reasonable to believe that the real world will come crashing in sooner rather than later.

10 December 2008

Un-Bail-Able

Discovered this morning through Neal Boortz's site, a Reuters report "that over half of mortgage modifications seemed not to be working after six months". That measurement comes from the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Not exactly one that offers hope for bailouts.

And yet, the US public has been expected to believe that some things really are for every single person - some equality of outcome is a right. Home ownership is the latest, largest casualty of this attitude. The bipartisan belief that home ownership is something every single American is entitled to has resulted, along with other helping factors, in the housing mortgage mess of today. What the Comptroller's report suggests is that there is nothing that government or industry can do to make some people pay their mortgages. Foreclosure, or threat thereof, does not work; restructuring the loan did not work in half of the restructure cases, either. Therefore, neither stick nor carrot is the answer. Abstention from home ownership is. Home ownership, as Mr. Boortz points out, is just not for some people.

But home ownership is only one of many seriously misguided "all must be equal" subjects in our country. Take universal health care. I know it may sound heartless, but if a person pays, literally with cash or credit, large sums of money to damage their own health, why is it then someone else's responsibility to provide health care for that person? Why would, or should, the public at large bail out the defaulted mortgage of one's health? (And I do not mean accidents here, or unforeseeable illnesses; I mean self-created illnesses, largely from willing abuse of the body through overeating and ingesting any variety of substances which are known to be harmful.) Some people's health, I would suggest, is un-bail-able. And yet, the public may soon be told that they must support the self-ruined houses of some people.

A more furtive example of wildly unrealistic equality of outcome demands is the idea that every student, every child in America should go to college. The idea of equality - that college is for everyone - is both wildly unrealistic and unbelievably harmful. Students who have no business considering post-secondary education are told over and over again that they can, and should, go to college. Never mind that many students do not have the background knowledge for college. Never mind that these students have no idea why they might be going to college in the first place (other than the vague promise of a "good job" after graduation). All students are told, over and over, that college is the only way - it is the house of their future. It is the equal outcome - and it is, in a sense, pre-bailed-out by making student loans and financing available to all. Or might that make these not-so-ready for college student prospects for later bail outs? Either way, the reality that college is not for everyone is clouded by exhortations that everyone must go to college to obtain…happiness? (Or money, or both, if money does indeed equal happiness.)

These are just a few examples; more certainly exist. And while it may be tragic that one individual person can, in the course of his own life, delude himself into thinking that one or more of the above is true for himself, at least that singular tragedy does not have massive effects on the whole population. A wide-spread belief that home ownership is an imperative for every single American has caused our nation great harm. Attitudes toward health and education may well have massive, ill effects as well. Indeed, whereas the individual delusion can be tragic, national delusions such as those discussed here can create situations which are truly world changing…and not it a good way.

09 December 2008

Our Road to Nationalization

The Drudge Report calls it right this morning. The headline on its front page is simply "Nationalization". As Congress makes the argument that the American taxpayer needs something in return for the "loan" extended to the Big 3 automakers (GM, Ford and Chrysler), it seems to me that this excuse is simply a cover for nationalization of the auto industry - and all of the jobs that come with it.

How this would be preferable to bankruptcy - both for the automakers and for the nation as a whole - is beyond my understanding. Most analysis that I've read indicates that the $15-17 billion that Congress is offering up is really only a band-aid, and a small one at that. Those billions will be burned through before spring...and then the automakers will come calling again.

It amazes me that Congress would spend that sum with more than half of the American people rejecting the idea of a carmaker bailout, according to a CNN poll. Perhaps Congress would have us believe that it can pick good investments, and that GM, Ford, and Chrysler are great investments, even if they need infusions of billions of dollars from time to time.

I say Chapter 11 for those who are unable to stand under the weight of their negotiated contracts. I do not want a stake in the Big 3. I do not want to support bloated labor structures and contracts. What's more, I do not want Congress to spend my money chasing the nationalization of an industry after they've already nationalized the credit system.

03 December 2008

Defining Customers and Products in Education

Originally posted at EdNews.org.

Recently, I went to a local school board meeting where goals were to be set for the district. One thing that was plugged throughout the formal presentation was that the school district desires to become more aware of customer service. In fact, much of the talk revolved around the "customer". However, there was almost no discussion of who the producer is and what the product actually is. It seems that perhaps these were taken for granted. Surely everyone knows what the product of an educational facility is, right?

Definitions are important, especially when the stakes are high. The service provider would be the teacher, the school, and the school district. While this may seem like a big tent for this group, it's permissible because this group is not my focus. The customer, to use the term quite broadly, may consist of the parents and the local community. Indeed, the customer group might be "nationalized" – though I hesitate to be that bold. But the most problematic customer group belongs to the students.

If the student is the "product", then some conflicts that must be addressed. First and foremost is the obvious clash that emerges from the simple coincidence of customer and product in the student. If the student is not compliant or does not buy into the kind of "product" he is becoming, then the system simply fails. One product-chosen failure equals one failed student at or approaching 100 percent of the time. From a macro perspective, if 30 students out of a freshman class of 300 don't buy into the "product", that's a 10 percent product failure rate – and that's without adding students who fail while still buying into the "product". If certain "sub-populations" (which I've discussed before) don't value themselves as a "product", then schools flirt with failing under No Child Left Behind. Despite NCLB and its stress on accountability, the micro is more important here: individual student-chosen failure.

The convergence of customer and product in the student allows for a system with a singular failure point in all cases, and that single point is always free to choose to break the system all by himself. If the student chooses to fail, then there is virtually nothing that the service provider can really do to overcome that. However, since the student is also the product, the service provider (the teacher, the school, the district) may be (and publically usually is) held responsible for the failed product regardless of the actual performance of the service provider.

The most bothersome part of this is the equation of the failed student with a failed system. However, the perception of system failure is preventable when we realize that the student is not the product. This may trouble those who believe that schools revolve around students, that individual student success and failure are the hallmarks of good and bad schools. But that just isn't the case, and I suggest that it can't be. This is because the student-customer does not necessarily know what will make him a good "product". He doesn't know this precisely because he is not yet educated. It seems self evident, then, that the student must solely be either product or customer. Because the student is a thinking, feeling being, I submit that he cannot be the product.

So just what is the product, then? It is the teaching that is made available. The product is the information, techniques, and values which fills the space and time of each classroom. And this, too, is problematic, though for far different reasons.

Bureaucrats like numbers and percentages. The media likes them, too. People in general find it easier to judge things through statistics. It is easier to quantitatively measure two things and find out which is better (or worse), or which has more value. People can measure, judge, and move on. It's quicker and easier than the alternative, which is qualitative analysis.
Thus, the information, techniques, and values which fill the time and space of a classroom are problematic because they are difficult (if not impossible) to measure quantitatively. The "product" demands to be evaluated qualitatively, which requires subjectivity. Subjectivity invites all sorts of bias and requires a level of trusted professionalism that sadly seems lacking. To make matters worse, high-stakes testing and the quantitative analyses which result from it do not raise collegial relationships or deepen professional trust, rather they erode them. (For much more on this see "Below the Bubble" by Jennifer Booher-Jennings.)

So while more and more focus is leveled on tests, score, and student "success" (defined as passing the test) metrics, there seems to be less and less focus on teaching as an art in the real-world classroom. Yet ironically, teachers, schools, and districts are held accountable for students' test scores. And here is where there is a shift to the macro. Test scores themselves – the quantitative measurements – are used to validate what happens in the classroom regardless of student motivation or "buy in". To some extent, this is reasonable. However, when whole schools can "fail" based on student desire, drive, and ability, there is a clear problem.

The way to address this problem, I suggest, is a return to autonomy in the classroom and for the school. Teachers, under the professional (not quantitative) supervision of principals, should be given great latitude on how – and even what – they teach in their classrooms. This does not mean complete freedom; it means that year-end goals are set by the principal and the superintendant (where applicable) and teachers work to meet those goals. Principals, districts and states could then conduct qualitative assessments of teachers. Again, this would require a great amount of professionalism and trust between teachers and administrators – indeed greater professionalism at all levels. And it would have to be understood explicitly that the information, techniques, and values are being measured during an evaluation.

In this way, trusted professionalism among educators may be greatly increased. Students may rightly become consumers of learning instead of reluctant or hostile "customer-products" of schools. And folks at all levels may regain focus on what really matters in education: the quality of information, techniques, and values espoused in the classroom.

02 December 2008

Mumbai and the Smaller Picture

In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, there is a great deal of attention being paid to why the attacks happened where they happened, who was targeted, etc. In some places, the hand-wringing gets closer and closer to the US.

But the best theory I’ve heard to date, and I’ve heard it in a couple of different places, is that the attacks happened in India specifically to gin up conflict between India and Pakistan so that pressure could be taken off of terrorists operating in the western part of Pakistan, in the tribal areas. The simple logic is that if the Pakistani military is forced to deal with an angry India, fewer troops, if any at all, would be allotted to hunting terrorists in the tribal areas.

Think of it as an extension of the maxim “all politics are local”. It seems a great deal more plausible than uber-macro, pessimistic opinions on why the attacks occurred. And if this “local” explanation of the attacks is accurate, it would be best that India work quietly to assist Pakistan in the tribal areas (if it can at all). In that way, pressure can stay where it belongs – on the terrorists – and away from the terrorists’ “release valve” – India/Pakistan hostilities.