Category Archives: America

Critiquing the Critic

MTE5NTU2MzE1ODYyNjMxOTQ3I value critics, but some take the job—and themselves—so seriously they go beyond illuminating their subject. Instead, they hint at their superior understanding. They assume awareness greater than those they criticize. They sound smug or condescending or dismissive and thus elicit criticism themselves.

In these publicity-hungry, hot-headed times, we’re accustomed to vehement critics. How valuable can a half-hearted viewpoint be, after all? Yet egotism often poisons criticism. Confidence helps, but self-assurance without self-awareness reveals ignorance akin to the cluelessness it denounces. Instead of discernment, the critic’s motives come first. Yet fighting over rectitude rarely convinces anyone. It rarely exposes something hidden and important. I wish all our social critics were a little less vociferous, but I prefer Jon Stewart’s dissections to Sean Hannity, Bill Mahr and Bill O’Reilly’s rants.

Printers’ Row, the book supplement associated with The Chicago Tribune, recently started a new feature called “Time Machine” offering old Tribune reviews of famous books. The first entry was H. L. Mencken’s response to The Great Gatsby, which I encountered with some skepticism. I mostly admire Fitzgerald and the novel, and the little I’ve read from and about Mencken fills me with ambivalence. Sometimes he’s witty, incisive, and unstinting. Sometimes he’s sarcastic, biting, and petty. And this review evoked both reactions—demonstrating, for me, when criticism does and doesn’t work.

In this case, I should say, “Doesn’t and does,” for Mencken swings his sword wildly in his opening before calming down to say something valuable. He calls the novel “No more than a glorified anecdote,” and writes off Gatsby as “a clown” and the other characters as “marionettes—often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.” In the end, he says, “The immense house of the Great Gatsby stands idle, its bedrooms given over to the bat and the owl, its cocktail shakers dry. The curtain lurches down.”

Maybe Mencken wanted to launch with a blast of his characteristic vitriol, but he seems so self-satisfied. As muscular as Mencken’s prose is and as much as I get his perspective, he speaks to those who enjoy (as Warren Buffet put it), “Interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

Granted, that’s most humans, but you either revel in his savagery or put the review aside immediately. If you’ve read the novel and agree, fine. If you haven’t, the critic’s snark is all you get. Illustrating broad proclamations is tricky, nigh impossible. Yet, if proof is impractical and explanation superfluous, only empty assertions remain.

Many of our pundits, politicians, and television personalities operate similarly. No longer inhabiting a three or four network world, we all have our shows. Whether to the left or right side of blue or red, you need never challenge prior conclusions. You can luxuriate in the affirmation of your disgust. Meanwhile, thought and self- examination suffer. Mencken described the U.S. as a “boobocracy,”  ruled by the uninformed. We’re no longer quite that (because it’s hard to be uninformed in a nation saturated with media), but we can bask in the sneering certainty of the critics we accept, which may be worse.

Mencken’s appraisal of Fitzgerald improves after his initial salvo, not because he begins to give the book some credit—Mencken continues to assert rather than demonstrate or prove—but because he uses the book to address the practice of writing, a subject bigger than the author, the novel, and the critic.

At first, Fitzgerald chiefly receives faint praise for improvement. According to Mencken, Fitzgerald’s earlier writing was “Slipshod—at times almost illiterate” and “devoid of any feeling for the color and savor of words.” Then, however, Mencken stops punching Fitzgerald, whose progress is, to Mencken, “Of an order not witnessed in American writers; and seldom, indeed, in those who start out with popular success.” Mencken’s point also stops being personal. It tackles artistry and success, how the latter blunts the ambition of the former. The popular author who has “Struck the bull’s-eye once” may stop learning new techniques, Mencken says, and undergo, “a gradual degeneration of whatever talent he had at the beginning. He begins to imitate himself. He peters out.”

Which seems, to me, wise and well-put. Mencken is no longer talking about Fitzgerald at all, but about the temptations and pitfalls of popular fiction. Fitzgerald is the opposite of Mencken’s scenario, a talentless author who achieves success and then labors to improve. He is the exception to a rule. Having dropped insults, Mencken also abandons dismissing The Great Gatsby and turns to what’s in it. He notes Fitzgerald’s interest in the elite’s “Idiotic pursuit of sensation, their almost incredible stupidity and triviality.” Mencken’s statement that “These are the things that go into his [Fitzgerald’s] notebook,” marks a shift toward description and criticism’s real power, its capacity for careful observation and valuable distinctions.

I wish all criticism were so thoughtful as those last few paragraphs and that all critics might leave off hollering to speak in more audible tones. I know that’s less entertaining, and maybe it’s our nature to slip into ad hominem. Yet, to me, criticism seems most effective when it’s respectful. Critics don’t have to love everything—that’d be a different evil—but it’d be nice if they made their work about their subject and not about self-righteousness.

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On Being Out of Tune

n02Today is my birthday, and I’m looking around wondering where I’ve landed.

Everything falls into four categories for me these days: things I know, things I guess, things I know I don’t know (and may never), and things of which I’m (still, after all this time) entirely ignorant. Growing older and knowing more should quiet the other categories, but, mostly, I guess. Ignorance may not have diminished a decibel—it’s hard to say. I’m not wise. I’m out of tune.

When I walk I think, and lately I’ve been doing a lot of both. Though we’ve already experienced chilly weather in Chicago, chairs and tables remain outside restaurants, pedestrians crowd sidewalks, and people linger at windows eying what’s inside. Despite congregation, walks leave me lonely. I wouldn’t eat or drink streetside without an occasion. I recognize almost no one else. I can afford little in those stores, and most of what they sell belongs in a different life anyway.

As a younger man I anticipated future confidence and self-assurance, but, on these walks, others’ knowledge seems greater than mine. They look more comfortable and animated as they chat with companions or on their cell phones. Their strides appear purposeful. Clearly, they aren’t walking to think—as I am—but to get somewhere. They don’t guess destinations. When I try to detect our common humanity, they seldom look back, rarely make eye contact, even more rarely smile. I’m so alien I imagine myself invisible, sharing streets with the ghosts asking for money at corners.

I’d say this estrangement is an outdoor phenomenon except that I sense it no less online where, because human contact has no place, social interaction is a shadow play. I like, you like, he or she likes, but without investment or consequence. The volume of such muted and largely impersonal transactions defies recall and creates one continually washed-out present. It’s silly to be nostalgic for general stores or neighborhood pubs or small town main streets, but I think I might accept guessing in more reassuring company. At least we’d know we’re all a touch dissonant. More ordinary lives in my life might assure reality isn’t bigger than any capacity to understand it.

We’re so often outraged—intolerant of deliberation, angry… but too impatient to plan for futures more distant than the present news cycle. We continually urge a response, a decision, some action. Not to be ready is to lack initiative and leadership, to betray weakness. It won’t do to discuss, as words are just words. Musing is absolutely out. Thoughts are immaterial without practical or remunerative applications.

We ought to share more than vehemence.

One of the dog walkers on my block is especially friendly and has a loud voice. Sometimes, when my window is open, I listen in on his conversations with neighbors. They say little really. They verify last night’s roof deck party was loud and late, or they laugh over some poor pooch’s latest mishap. They gossip and make small talk. Yet, though I never participate, these exchanges do more for me than I can say. These aren’t friends meeting, exactly. They won’t settle anything. They’re humans communing, affirming what they know and guess.

At such moments, I’m grateful I have non-Facebook friends in my life, ones who hear and understand my doubts, who appreciate my desire to know more, who might touch my hand or throw an arm over my shoulder and walk with me.

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Another Exchange

800_Bare-Bulb-400x320I thought it might be fun to try something dark and Kafkaesque. I was wrong, but, nonetheless, here’s another twenty minute fiction…

The inspector says, “No good fortune eliminates life’s little troubles,” and, with that, breaks another finger on the accused’s left hand. The force—he knows from experience—is big enough, and the responding howl will diminish into a whimper before long.

When silence settles again, he readdresses the accused and says, “You couldn’t have expected anything else.” Really, expectations are immaterial—the inspector stopped thinking of justice as more than fiction long ago—but the statement sits in the script he’s built over years.

“Do you want something to drink?” he asks.

Perhaps the inspector pours too fast, but the accused doesn’t expect alcohol, and what he doesn’t spray across the room dribbles down his chin, pink with his own blood and thicker than it ought to be.

“A shame” the inspector mutters. He half-expects the accused to say the same in unison—some relief might be welcome—but somehow that never happens.

“Can’t you speak?” he asks instead.

The accused’s crime remains unnamed, needs no name. The way of things places them in these roles, and they act. Outside this room, the inspector hears birds, their song filling the lapses between sobs and heaves of breath sawing the air. A gust stirs the leaves. Sunlight surges and fades as clouds pass.

“You might as well,” the inspector says, “it doesn’t matter.”

The accused is mute. It’s the nature of an accused to be so. Some transcendence would be nice but, to the inspector, it’s all so predictable—the questions, the answers, the inevitable. Sometimes, he finds himself suddenly as here-and-now as the accused, but the inspector slides into another moment, no second persisting long at all.

“Listen,” the inspector says, “We only want something, anything you can give.”

The accused may be unconscious—so hard to distinguish—and that’s fine with the inspector. The best time for acquiescence is exhaustion. Accept a reality other than your own and you shall be freed.

“Yes,” the accused whispers.

The rest joins history.

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No Us Without Them (and vice versa)

771px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(detail)_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

–Chinese Proverb

This morning, I bought a French Press coffee maker and wondered at the many tongues of its instructions. Some future alien archeologist might find the guide useful… and not just to make coffee. The Rosetta Stone seems mundane in comparison.

“How far we’ve come!” I’d like to crow—barely a word remains untranslated, and humans have rendered thoughts in scores of languages. I wish I felt as good about understanding, which lags so conspicuously. We trade words in one tongue for another—what was meant, and whether we hear and accept it, are bigger issues.

I’ve read science fiction centered on the impossibility of understanding between earth and extraterrestrials, but I always regarded that as speculation—writers ask, “What if frames of reference were so different as to be irreconcilable?” More and more, however, that what-if seems allegorical, not theoretical.

Consider war and what atrocity might be happening right this instant at the point of a knife sharpened too keenly or a gun loaded and unsafetied, its very existence daring its user to pull a trigger manufactured for that specified purpose, to impose some perceived right.

Humans are awful to one another, too stubborn to admit being one species. Maybe we are capable of just as much love, empathy, and understanding as hate. Maybe I should overlook our appalling cruelties and look for common kindness and common courage.

Sincerely, I’d rather believe in humanity, but resentment seems to matter most these days—along with selfishness, lack of foresight, deliberate denial of alternate perspectives, inexhaustible efforts to preserve self-regard, and the hegemony of our own type. Some say, “I want to change the world,” “I want to love everyone,” and “I want to help.” Meanwhile others live according to “We have ours (or want ours). The rest be damned.”

And, as much as I’d rather not, I participate. The other day, visiting with a like-minded friend, I waded knee-deep in bile and heard myself railing against corporate culture. “They don’t acknowledge anything but profit!” I said, and, “How can they be so focused on abstractions and ignore the real and genuine people—with families—standing right there?”

Luckily, I had no rock, club, or bazooka. I’m not above indulging in antagonism, humanity’s true universal trait. Like everyone else, I’d love to claim the title, “The Good Guy,” but that’d be self-serving.

In our overheated media greenhouse, it’s hard not to be contentious, and crowding has us fighting over resources and territory and—especially—rectitude, the space we want most. We crave reassurance we can’t exist without defeating or denying someone else. Anything considered “A common cause” or “mutually beneficial” drowns in skepticism and laughter.

We cry, “Beneficial to whom?” and too often mean, “How does that benefit me?”

The only solution I see is another science fiction plot—reversing Babel and plunging the planet into amnesia so profound that—even if we can’t overlook visible and audible divisions of language and geography and race and bent—we could reconsider everything that, right now, feels too important to put aside… sometimes seemingly virtually everything. Then we might restart. But I’m not sure how the story would end. Forgetfulness and forgiveness aren’t human gifts.

Idealists—how I wish I were one!—will say love is potent, equally embedded in every human heart. I’m optimist enough to yearn they’re right, but, after our well-recorded and well-noted history of animosities, oppressions, class warfare, bigotry, and grand (plus petty) violence, how do we make today new?

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School, The Place

Amanda-Fire-Alarms-768x1024As I’m on sabbatical this year, I’ll be missing the opening day of school for the first time since 1962 when I was three and not yet old enough.

Because I’ve been through 32 school starts as a teacher, I know what will happen. Students will lope down auditorium steps, dressed in new clothes to fit their continually new bodies. They will talk excitedly without being obvious… or at least only to the point of being properly obvious. Some will look left and right for the safety of faces that will beam back recognition, then wave.

Teachers, they’ll largely ignore. Teachers will line up somewhere seen, maybe along the sides, or will shepherd students as they’ve been instructed and pretend to be unbothered by another year of conspicuous invisibility.

The hubbub will resist a few attempts at quiet, but the initial syllable of the initial solitary voice will assert that all these minds and hearts and hands and bodies are actually one school. Every opening day is a new start and reunion. At some point, the gears will catch and the machine will seem to have been in constant operation, but, for a few minutes, possibility reigns.

School is a strange place, a part of the world and also apart from it. Even the most unconventional school follows basic conventions. There are teachers—however overtly or covertly they’re involved in educating students—and classrooms—whether they take recognizable form or not. There are some students who want each teacher’s knowledge and can’t contain or hide the pleasure of learning, and some students who, though at the center of it all, watch the clock, and the whole process, with impotence, confusion, and fear.

Though school starts and ends and is only in session so long, the regular schoolhouse rhythm of hour, day, term, season, and year—no matter how it’s divided—takes over as if it were reality itself.

Doing any job for a long time defines you, but a school’s structure can become a second skeleton. When each year superimposes over the last, you see ghosts as well as human beings in your classroom. Those who once occupied this space are gone—you hear news they’ve grown up to study and work in faraway places—but they’re in the building too, in the hopes and horrors of the ones arriving… who are never so different. It’s easy for a teacher to begin believing school is the world or, at least, a concentrated version of it.

Of course it isn’t. School is also a rare enclave where people still trust unlikely outcomes and bet on personal and intellectual progress. That’s the excitement—a new year and a new day and a new class can really be new. Each year begins with hope. Though sometimes the wider world undermines and discourages teachers—telling them they’re lazy part-timers or cast-offs stupider than those they’re hired to teach or misguided dinosaurs hiding from real life behind yellowed notecards—no teacher without faith lasts long. I still have faith.

My experience tells me the first day will be exhausting. My colleagues will go home feeling as if they’ve survived a prizefight, but they’ll be restless as well, already attending to the next day. I won’t miss the relentless pace of my school, the snow of papers falling from September to December, January to June, or the constant news from outside that teachers aren’t good enough.

Clearly, I need a rest, but I’ll miss the aspirational DNA of school, the ambition that is mortar to the bricks. My uncrowded life will certainly be quieter and less frantic, which is quite okay, but maybe lonely too. I’m over the idea I’m affecting eternity, but I’ll miss students who, amid the hubbub, hope their teachers will have something important to say.

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The Receiver, the Message, and the Messenger (In That Order)

0The technical meaning of the word “feedback” doesn’t exactly the match its colloquial meaning. In acoustics, feedback is sound doubling back, fuzz reverberating in dammed sound waves. Whereas, when teachers or other evaluators use “feedback,” they mean to say something new, something missed or unnoticed. In sound, feedback is a sort of echo. Teaching feedback says, “Here’s what you’re haven’t done… and should.”

Not everyone is good at receiving feedback. A teacher points out a glaring error, and suddenly the student’s competence is being questioned. The student’s face clouds. Maybe tears start. The tone of critique can make a big difference, and many teachers rely on “This work” over “You” because they want to emphasize the process over its author. They wish to make feedback an intellectual process, and, as long as any issue is repairable, it’s no reflection on the person who made the mistake. A student who can always improve his or her work—these teachers believe—receives even brutal critique as a ratification of their ability and capacity for improvement.

Yet how students respond to feedback often rests more with their personalities than how they’re criticized. Someone burned before may not want to go near any stove, and someone with an insecure sense of self might be hypersensitive to even the mildest threat. Teachers often have to guess which category this individual is in and how he or she might respond. In other words, they need to know students. Sometimes that’s impossible, and yet, paradoxically, teaching means focusing not exclusively on work  but on the workers’ feelings and investment.

And as the consequence of the work increases, the gravity of criticism grows. Discuss “the essay” with a student five days before the due date, and he or she might respond positively and hopefully. The day before the due date, some measure of reassurance may be necessary, not just “These repairs are doable” but “YOU can do these repairs.”

Perhaps all work is personal work, inseparable from the person who does it.

Bosses frequently neglect “You can do it” because, after all, employees are compensated for good work. It’s required. What’s more, a boss may think only producing matters. Though studies confirm over and over that output rises when a manager takes interest in developing skills and a worker feels valued and important, concern for employees as people seems too messy, time consuming, and expensive. It’s easier to bypass the worker and stress the work. Many businesses use feedback exclusively to cull people they deem ineffective. In that case, “evaluation” or “adjudication” might be more honest. In a time of labor surplus, employers are much more interested in finding the right person for a job than helping someone learn how to do the job right.

To a lesser extent, the same issue arises in schools when those giving feedback have more concern for assessment than education. From that perspective, feedback justifies a grade instead of improving either the academic work or the capacities of the student. As in many workplaces, some teachers hope to keep the process of “managing” students clean by stressing the product. They wish to avoid entangling themselves in the idiosyncratic.

When the academic work is central, teaching is supposed to result in the best work possible, and any “feedback” that accomplishes that end, including threats, sarcasm, and personal insults, becomes permissible.

The dilemma is that, here too, personality matters in ways challenging to acknowledge. Teachers (and bosses) aren’t immune to insecurity either and, whether consciously or unconsciously, may express those insecurities in petty authority. An impersonal process has the advantage of protecting them from examining their own motives, even if giving particularly cold or harsh feedback fulfills only a need to believe in their own competence and significance.

As a term and a concept and a practice, feedback is challenging. In the end, however, its acoustic meaning may reflect most on the way people use the word. If feedback labels the need for evaluators to double back and evaluate themselves and their motives, perhaps it’s the right word.

But if the ultimate purpose is progress, growing productivity and confidence, then maybe the word is wrong. Proper feedback doesn’t feed back at all but reaches receivers through careful sensitivity to who’s listening and what they can hear well. It speaks without echo or distortion.

 

 

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The Cyber-Me

imagesLast Christmas, idly thinking about artificial trees, I did some online screen shopping. Now artificial trees stalk me. Google, Facebook, and my email sites remind me, “Hey, what about us fake trees? Remember us?”

To watch any video on YouTube, I must first pass through a forest of phony balsam and syrupy sentimental music… at least until “SKIP AD” appears.

While no one is invading my privacy exactly, it makes me wonder what I am to the internet, what identity cyberbots have decided upon. They may know I’m male. They might have triangulated my investigation of recliners (on my mother’s behalf), a lingering visit to mental exercise site, and my interest in the death of a certain vintage of television celebrities in order to approximate my age. Perhaps they know I buy less fashionable jeans and shoes. They certainly seem to peg me as “Wealth management material” (though I have no wealth) and “Democrat” (though I’m closer to Marxist), and—based on what’s proffered by “Stumble Upon”—I’m an aesthete (though really sometimes I’m so tired I only want to look at the pictures).

Part of me wants to cry out, “Hey, you don’t know me!” but the internet clearly isn’t taking so personal an interest. It means to sell, and every iota of evidence contributes to a vision of me as a consumer.

Am I only a consumer? I want to say “no” but probably “yes.” Though I wish to be more than I buy, the internet—and maybe our society as a whole—defines “buying” so broadly it encompasses more than cash. It doesn’t take much to be a marketer these days, and, given the effort marketers apply to their tasks, some meaning we’d like to deny resides in our classification as mostly this or mostly that. We hope to be more than we use, but—maybe not today or tomorrow and for the rest of our lives—we chase identity into cash.

Some years ago, I read a science fiction novel called Feed, and nearly every character in the book accepted a brain-internet interface to enhance their everyday experience. They sought it. They accepted every absurd intrusion—say “Coke” five times in the next five minutes and we will give you a virtual coupon for a six pack!—not to be left out or, more accurately, to take their place in some group, any group. No one wanted to be solitary.

A main character, the child of hippy parents, didn’t accept the feed until her adolescence and, even then, chose to goof on commercial forces by staring overlong at farm equipment. Her reward was the same as mine, a nearly perpetual barrage from predators bent on making her interest material.

I’m feeling along a dark wall in search of a way out, but perhaps we can escape our time no more than a serf or a slave might. I wish for the courage to resist, but my resistance might be subject to interpretation too. I’d become part of a group left out, and, surely, there’s something to be sold to them.

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Finnish Envy

a_wteachers_hammond_0225Reading about reforms in US education, you’re bound to run into the term “Finnish Envy.” Until recently, Finland led the world in nearly all the categories of the PISA test designed to measure educational success, and—by any measure and despite any drop—their 30 year program to reform schooling has been remarkably successful.

In contrast, Americans, who dislike being second at anything, rank seventeenth in reading, twentieth in science, and twenty-seventh in mathematics among the thirty-four participating countries, a drop from 2009, when the US placed fourteenth in reading, seventeenth in science, and twenty-fifth in mathematics.

Particularly galling about these results is that Finland does everything the US does not. They reject tracking and elite, charter-style schooling and put their euros into failing schools instead of successful ones. Rather than financially rewarding successful schools as we do in the US, the Finnish system grows alarmed when one school attracts more students than another and seeks to make every school desirable.

What’s more—and perhaps more significant—they create a culture of reverence for teachers. Finland believes not everyone has the talent to be a teacher, so few people get to be teachers in Finland, only the best. On a relative scale, teachers in Finland are paid—on average—less than US teachers, but they’re expected to engage in continual professional development. With no merit pay, they seek long careers in hopes of experiencing the steady and dramatic raises their system promises. In short, teachers are elite, just as lawyers and doctors are in other nations and, as such, receive accolades denied American teachers who—let’s face it—often garner more contempt than admiration. From the average American’s perspective, who couldn’t teach? We know better what good teaching is because we all went to school, and, besides, those who can, do… those who cannot… well, you know the rest.

The US spends a third more than Finland on a child’s K-12 education, but a larger percentage of American funding goes into “administrative costs.”

For Americans, the most baffling aspect of Finnish education is that teacher unions are particularly influential. With 96% of in the union, teachers have much more to say about what schools should do, whereas documentaries like Waiting for Superman villainize unions as the chief cause for American education’s failures. In Finland, administrations regard teachers’ advice as knowing and central, and many of the reforms suggested by teachers—less homework and more play during the day, more cooperative learning and less competition and assessment—contribute significantly to students’ progress. Those who administer and those who teach cooperate through a common purpose without becoming defensive or adversarial.

And the Finnish are uninterested in testing. They give one test, when a student graduates, just to see what’s happened. Americans’ mania for testing seeks constant feedback, constant evidence of progress, but Finnish teachers and administrators regard scores as data to consider, one numerical version of accomplishment.

To Americans, Finnish education seems too relaxed. No one really starts schooling until seven, and high school students take vocational classes and sometimes eschew calculus in favor or cooking, bookkeeping in favor of AP Microeconomics or reading over literature. Of course, you can take those classes if you desire but only if you desire. Desire is paramount, not extrinsic necessity or guessing about future demands on students or craven computation of what stamp will credential graduates.

Critics of Finnish Envy say Finland’s solutions are unsuited to American culture, where the premium is on ambition, getting ahead, not settling into vocational training but seeking excellence over the bottom line. Americans like to believe there’s more room at the top in American education for those who have the desire and drive and aggression to take advantage. Yet, among developing nations, Finland ranks in the top three for the greatest intra-generational boost in income between birth and adult life , despite their extraordinary number of immigrants and refugees.

The US leads the world in perception of individual progress but, in fact, ranks last in actual social mobility.

Still, for a system so lauded for success, Finland seems nonplussed. “Whatever it takes” is their motto. They only desire learning and put the political and ephemeral and ostentatious aside in favor of one end, giving everyone access to an equal education.

Inspiring envy isn’t their aim but effectiveness. Trying smarter beats trying harder.

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As Far As I Know

conversation-with-godYou won’t hear me talk about God much. I think about Him or Her or It—sometimes obsessively—but generally don’t know what might be reasonable or useful to say. We each have some vision of who God might be and what God might want from humanity and for humanity. Yet others’ notions seem clearer than my own. Mostly I want to avoid fighting. Too many of us are ready to argue, even battle, over ideas of God that, to me, seem fundamentally unknowable. We contest distinctions that, by their definition and by our nature, elude human understanding.

I’m not saying others’ beliefs are fiction, mind you, just that I wonder how we can know if they are or aren’t. For me, the gulf between belief and verity is too wide to bridge. The devout fill me with wonder and—when their perspective fosters tranquility and love and understanding and tolerance and higher purpose and goodness in the world, I’m envious. I honor their faith and appreciate how much God and religion mean in their lives. However, the question of how they know what they know never leaves me. When zealots’ confidence leads to saying I, and everyone else, should think as they do, I balk. I hold very few views assuredly enough to urge them on anyone else.

Atheists who say there is no God at all seem equally bullish.

The Catholic church helped raise me, taught me Biblical narratives, instructed me on the proper way to live, and coded perspectives that are probably too deep to sort out. However, I’m not a Catholic now, partly because my churchgoing habits waned and partly because all churches appear so vividly human to me. Their stories are human stories—if they were divine they might be incomprehensible—and something desperate lurks in them, some affirmation, justification, or rationalization that, had it come simply from ourselves, wouldn’t possess the gravity and consequence needed to influence others.

If there is a God responsible for the immense order, chaos, and beauty of the universe, I’m sure He or She or It occupies a space we can’t grasp. I read a science fiction novel recently that centered around “Hypotheticals,” responsible for an immense, verifiable change in the operation of the planet. One of the main characters was very ill and the narrator, his friend, lamented that the Hypotheticals did nothing to spare him. The main character replied,

I don’t blame them. They don’t know what’s happening to me. I’m under their threshold of abstraction… you and I, Tyler, we’re communities of living cells, yes? And if you damaged a sufficient number of my cells I would die, you would have murdered me. But if we shake hands, and I lose a few skin cells in the process, neither of us even notices the loss. It’s invisible. We live at a certain level of abstraction; we interact as bodies, not cell colonies. The same is true of the Hypotheticals. They inhabit a larger universe than we do…

Getting enlightenment from science fiction embarrasses me, but I have to admit this speech—clumsy as it is—resonates with me. It makes sense that any God would live on a level of abstraction above our cellular one. Any God holds a vision so broad our narrow lives could see only an infinitesimal sliver of it.

There’s no knowing, after all, whether you and I even live in the same world. We see from one perspective with our peculiarly human sensory apparatus. It’s logical we’d believe, as any sane person must, we’re looking at reality. Yet, though you may tell me I’m mistaken and I might say the same to you, neither of us possesses an infallible means to convince the other.

We are trapped on this human-sized scale. DNA travels with us, might shout at us all day and, though we’ve learned to scope inward and outward great distances, we still may regard DNA as separate from ourselves, apart when, really, we share the same space. We understand it differently, DNA and I, but who’s to say who’s right, or if “right” is an actual thing at all.

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Not the Post-Independence Day Message You Hoped For

superman-citizenship-1303916053While visiting Canada two summers ago, I learned Superman renounced his American citizenship. Apparently—I don’t follow Superman anymore—he wanted to be a citizen of the world instead of belonging to one nation.

Or so he said. Was he just being politic, eluding the fall-out from admitting he no longer felt proud of being from the U.S? Judging his feelings by my own, I wonder, was it really Superman’s queasiness about “The American Way”? Could he no longer group America with “truth” and “justice” as he once did?

I can’t be as diplomatic. Aside from wishing—almost involuntarily—for my fellow Americans’ good fortune in international sporting events like the World Cup, aside from feeling special affection for those who risk their lives for American ideals, I’m not patriotic. Oh, our history includes grand aims. Our founding principles inspire me, and our experiment in representative democracy evinces noble intentions, maybe the most enlightened espoused up to that point. Our people, despite seemingly insurmountable struggles and a system increasingly rigged against them, remain determined to make the American Dream true. And many Americans affirm my hopes for altruism and self-sacrifice.

Yet recently I’ve felt ashamed. It isn’t just that we’ve cheapened liberty by transmuting it into the freedom to profit or that we’ve placed the needs of the quite well-off above others, it’s that we’re duplicitous, espousing values we don’t follow—consciously (and seemingly systematically) informing the disenfranchised the system is working just as it ought to, was meant to.

Harsh, I know, likely to land me on an NSA list, but idealists make great cynics. The business of business dominates American discourse. The corporation is not just a citizen but the first citizen. Shareholders and employers eat first, and employees are force-fed a steady diet of cant. “You’re lucky to be working,” they’re told and “we can’t afford to raise minimum wage.” Meanwhile CEOs net in an hour what the average worker makes in month. The brave few who, Oliver Twist-style, step forward to ask for more receive cold comfort. “If we allow unions or pay you more,” they hear, “we’ll go out of business, and your job and everyone else’s will be gone. We’re all in this together, right?” We can’t even tax those who benefit from short-changing others because, despite considerable contrary statistics, they’ve renamed themselves “job creators.”

In the past, Americans asked government to protect them, and the president and congress served to monitor and police industry and curb the excesses of capitalism. Many politicians are still at it, but others say social programs and the muscle of government won’t help, that, in fact, any restriction or handout is bad for U.S. citizens. What Americans need, they say, is “opportunity” and opportunity arises from unregulated growth and tough-love self-reliance. Yet, in American English, opportunity often translates as looking away. “We need less government!” shout those who ought to know better. A cursory scan of American society tells us the majority (which we pretend is our most wise and reasonable perspective) doesn’t stand a chance against the moneyed interests of the self-interested and self-absorbed. Though materially and statistically well-off, this minority shouts at each infringement on their right to amass more. They purchase megaphones to assure they drown everyone else out. They’ve set aside their life rafts, after all.

The Canadian newspaper that brought me news of Superman’s ex-pat status included a point-by-point analysis of how difficult it is to rebuke American citizenship. Perhaps Superman could grease legal wheels, but I suspect more and more Americans feel as trapped as I do. Our nation can’t acknowledge the need for reform, much less create it. We’d rather watch fireworks, charge the iPhone to our credit card, and congratulate ourselves for pretty ideas that, each year, vanish from our reality.

Someone made money on those fireworks, the same way they made money on that patient or that student loan or that prisoner or that gun or that access to oil or that foreign invasion or that special amnesty from pursuing higher ideals and caring for others. I don’t know how Superman feels, but being born here doesn’t inspire me to love that.

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