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Okay, I’ve been miserably long in posting this (and it’s still not complete) but here is the first installment of a look at U.S. education.

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I recently finished the classic tale of The Brothers Karamazov, written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (or Theodore Dostoevsky, as it’s sometimes anglicized). If the name didn’t tip you off, he’s Russian, and so are the brothers he writes about. The tale was written in the nineteenth century, about the scandals of nineteenth century life in a small Russian town … and yet I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is a masterpiece in every sense.

Once I came to that conclusion, I wondered why it was that my school-age self never got the chance to read him. Was, in fact, forced to slave through stories that were boring and verbose, like Last of the Mohicans, instead. How was Dostoyevsky dismissed (never even mentioned, actually) when Romeo and Juliet was crammed down our throats not twice but three times in high school alone? At least I heard about Tolstoy’s massive classic War and Peace, and Hugo’s Les Miserables, though neither ever had a place on our bookshelves nor in our library nor curriculum. So I began thinking about our education system. I began to wonder, what are students actually learning? When English class rolls around and pupils open their textbooks, what greets them?

From my own school days I recall curricula that rarely wavered from writings of the “Big Three” – the US, the UK, and Ancient Greece – with virtually nothing newer than the nineteenth century except for a handful of short fiction and poetry. It never really struck me at the time how little we read of international authors. Even my university literature classes – open to anything written anywhere, anytime – featured little outside the well-worn paths of American, English, and Greco-Roman classics. Just in case we missed them in high school, I guess. I recall only two exceptions: a piece by Voltaire, a Frenchman; and Metamorphosis, by German author Franz Kafka. For crossing borders, that’s a terribly poor selection. Not that those authors don’t have writings worthy of study, but they were the only representatives of the greater world. I had in fact read Kafka’s famous tale as a teenager without realizing he was not American, which seems an even poorer world lit choice. I expected a great deal more out of my “education.”

I expected my horizons to be stretched; I wanted to be introduced to all manner of thing new and exotic (to me, at least). Growing up in rural mid-America and attending a small public school, I understood they operated under certain limitations. There were few frills – no AP classes, no special college jump-start programs. It was a small school with only a handful of faculty and staff, with mostly older buildings and low district millage rates. It was considered a stretch of our horizons to read Antigone (the story of Oedipus was pretty scandalous for the youth of a town with one gas station, one bank, and five churches). But now our “small” public schools have budgets rivaling that of my university alma mater. So I wonder if the latest crop of students are more well-read than my antiquated little class.

I still live in a rural area, very much like the one I grew up in, and I’m going to use the nearest public school as my model. Its middle and high school sections (with adjoining campuses and shared buildings) serve less than 900 students with more than 100 faculty and major staff (not including higher school officials or secondary staff). The middle school includes thirty-five classrooms; the high school has more, though I’m not sure by what margin; and most of the buildings are less than ten years old. Students can compete in eight different sports and graduate with more than 20 college credit hours. Sounds good, right? So let’s see how they measure up via ye olde standardized testing (not the best judge but the most decent judge I have easy access to).

Let me pre-empt these numbers by noting that very little is available on post-8th grade rankings, and virtually nothing prior to 1998. So, for starters at least, I will have to settle for comparing the 8th graders of 2009 to the 8th graders of 1998 to get any picture of the system at all. Now, on with the show. Since we’re talking literature, tests in Reading and Writing seem the most relevant, and from 1998 to 2009, there was a whopping change in our 8th graders statewide. Writing showed an increase of 5% and Reading showed an astounding increase of … [drumroll, please] … 1%. Wow. Wait a second; let me pull my socks back on before plunging ahead. In 1998, 8th graders in the state ranked 29th nationwide in Reading; in 2009, they ranked 41st. In Writing, their ranking fell from 33rd to 36th. But those are statewide and nationwide numbers, not a representation of my model school. So let’s see what else we can find.

According to 2009 literacy test results, my local high school ranked 96 of 253; the middle school section ranked 102 of 299 – both solidly mediocre. Not bad, not good, but I find it very disappointing given the present funding. Compared to what my former high school worked with, this model school is rolling in money. For instance, my high school had unpaved parking lots, not ideal but certainly functional and low maintenance. The model local school recently spent $1,000,000 on one paved parking lot. Let me repeat that: they spent ONE MILLION DOLLARS to prepare and blacktop ONE LOT so visitors and employees could walk to the main building without getting dirt on their shoes. Never mind the curriculum, crushed rock is hell in heels. But maybe their test scores are fantastic and their budget is overflowing with surplus … which I’m presently researching and hope to include in the upcoming Part 2.

As an interesting aside, I checked the state requirements, and the language arts standards specifically mention only “American, British, and Greek/Latin” literature, with later mentions of “and/or other” literatures. No wonder our school featured nothing else; the Big Three were the only outside sources of literature specifically approved by the state.

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What to look for in Part 2:

Local school results
Teachers’ pay versus test scores
State and National test scores
and anything else I run across that looks juicy

Stay tuned.

Green Updates

I’m not disappearing again; I am working on a piece about literature that is taking longer than I expected. So, in the meantime, here’s a quick garden update.

Using store-bought potatoes, I eyed and planted a few small rows of red potatoes on Friday, March 4. A week later, I started several varieties indoors, one dozen “starts” each of the following:

Late Flat Dutch Cabbage
Nineveh Tomatoes
Reisentraube Tomatoes
Great White Tomatoes
Rutger Tomatoes
California Wonder Sweet Peppers
Chichiquelite Huckleberries

Yesterday, a packet of Sugar Snap Peas went in the ground, and I sowed a small patch of Bloomsdale Spinach.

As for the seed providers, SkyFire Garden Seeds again provided almost instant turn-around with no substitutions, a friendly note, and a free packet of seeds. Baker Creek Heirlooms proved slower but not untimely; I received my order, also with a free packet of seeds, about two weeks after placing it by mail. The order had one substitution and one notice of a variety no longer available (I declined a substitute on the one no longer available and a refund for it was included with the order).

My assessment is that both are good seed sources. For future plantings, I think I will order the tried-and-true staples from SkyFire Garden and rely on Baker Creek Heirlooms for anything else.

More and More

Mary Wollstonecraft, an acclaimed 19th century writer and activist, once said, “No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness.” In everyday life, I believe this is largely true. We give in to the yearnings of either lust or money (and, really, there is very little difference) and Hell follows. A few years ago, one of the richest men in the United States was interviewed after throwing a magnificently overdone party which cost more than most Americans earn in a year. He was so wealthy, and had been for so long, that he had lost track of what he owned, forgetting cars, houses, jets, entire businesses… When asked what he could possibly still want, he answered simply, “More of everything.” Now, I don’t consider that evil – offensive and nauseating, but not evil per se – but I think it is that kind of runaway greed and self-indulgence that leads to evil things.

So why all this talk about evil? Well, I believe evil begets evil. The more bad stuff that’s going on the world, the easier it is for even more bad stuff to happen. A negative feedback loop, if you will, where the situation gets progressively worse with every trip around the loop. Or, say, sun. But it’s an intensely difficult system to change, not one you can easily knock off balance once it has some momentum. And momentum, unfortunately, has never been the problem.

Humans are easily manipulated, panicked, frenzied. A few well-placed hoorahs can put a man in power, or leave him dead in the street. We have quick tempers, long memories for grudges, and a lust for vengeance. But we are also quick to forget treacheries that did not involve us directly, and we easily swallow lies as long as our standard of living remains acceptable. We have the intelligence to fabricate fantastic weapons able to produce the heart of a star on the surface of our own planet … but not enough intelligence to accept peace. We are an interesting but dangerous species, classified as a mammal but with all the trademarks of a virus. What we need is a vaccine.

A vaccine does not kill a virus. Instead, it prepares the host for the potential of a battle with a virus. It posts guards and rallies the troops, if you will. Then, if the virus later infiltrates, the host is prepared and the virus is controlled before any damage is done. The battle is averted. The war is won, essentially, before it’s begun. And the trouble-making virus isn’t really destroyed. It is incorporated into the host, becomes a peaceful part of it, and its antibodies survive as long as the host lives. That way, if another faction of the virus invades, it can also be quelled before war breaks out. This is exactly what we need. The trouble, with humans and vaccines, is that they only succeed on one issue at a time.

As a species, I’m not sure where we’re headed. The utopian society envisioned in the early 20th century never materialized. The Jetsons are as far away as ever. As long as we keep focusing on material goods and indulgent comforts, it will probably stay that way. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with wanting a decent house, a reliable vehicle, or three squares a day. But it’s hard to work toward political stability, reduced international tensions, and peaceful resolutions when all you can think about is “more of everything.” It’s important that we not let the pursuit of perceived happiness lead us down the wrong road, toward decisions with irreversible consequences and no redeeming outcome in sight.

Preaching Hate

For an UPDATE on this issue, scroll down to the section heading that reads UPDATE: September 9, 2010.

After an extended summer break, I’ve returned to the blogosphere with a story that has been burning up the airwaves … or whatever passes for them anymore. Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, has fallen into the media spotlight with his ultra-controversial plan to burn copies of the Koran on September 11 (and for the uninitiated, the Koran is Islam’s holy text, equivalent to Christianity’s Bible). This bonfire is set to take place on the grounds of his church, the Dove World Outreach Center, and he has encouraged the participation not only of his congregation but of any and all Christian persons. Now, this has raised two main issues: 1) does he have the right to burn a holy scripture, and 2) should it receive media coverage.

I say “yes” on both counts. First, the Amendments to the United States Constitution (the Bill of Rights) clearly allows the freedom of religion and freedom of speech. That includes religions you don’t agree with, like radical factions that preach intolerance and sow the seeds of hate. Likewise, the freedom to express oneself should be recognized. If protestors can burn the flag and I can rally a group to burn, say, L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology doctrine, then Jones should be allowed to burn Koran.
Second, I think this is a good topic for media coverage, when done properly, as it shows the ugly face of intolerance within our borders. Every nation and every religion has its extremists, its radicals, its zealots. I think it’s good to expose them for what they are, to publicize their inexcusable acts so that we can try to move forward, to progress away from narrow-minded bigotry and toward goals of common decency and respect.

Islam gets a lot of bad publicity but let’s not forget that Christianity has a long and sordid history of violence, prejudice, and intolerance despite the peaceful teachings of its prophet Jesus. Does that make every Christian violent, intolerant, prejudiced? Of course not. And not every Muslim is a terrorist. It’s ridiculous to think otherwise. And I think Jones’s plan is completely reprehensible. What would he say to a group of Muslims burning Bibles and denouncing the Christian faith as evil? I dare say he wouldn’t care for it. I think he is, at best, a misguided fool and, more likely, a religious zealot with more mouth than brains. That this pageant of prejudice is set to occur on the nine-year anniversary of the September 11 tragedy further illustrates his poor judgement. Instead of focusing on the people injured and killed, he wants to focus on those who perpetrated the attacks, a radical faction that preaches intolerance and sows the seeds of hate. Hmm, sounds familiar.

It’s obvious to me that Jones isn’t familiar with Islam. Nor am I, actually, but I’ve spoken with several Muslims and read part of the Koran (or Quran, as it’s often known) and not once was there mention of bombing people. It advocates spreading the word to others, of course, as religions generally do, but Islam is as peaceful a faith as Christianity. Perhaps moreso. At any rate, I think the best advice for Jones comes from the New Testament when Jesus says all the teachings of all the prophets boil down to two commandments: 1) love God. 2) love your fellow man. In taking those two things to heart, you cannot fail.

UPDATE: September 9, 2010
My local evening news reported that Pastor Jones has cancelled the Koran bonfire. I find that good news indeed. An ABC news article relates that the change in plans came after Jones spoke with Imam Abdel Rauf, the Muslim leader proposing a mosque and multi-faith religious center near Ground Zero in New York. They are due to meet Saturday, September 11th, in New York but Jones said the Imam has agreed to move the planned center elsewhere. The proposed mosque and cultural center has become a point of contention, with some saying a Muslim-based center should not be allowed so near the site of the Twin Tower tragedy. (Which I think is bollocks, but freedom of speech clearly allows them to say so.) Other sources do not agree that the Islamic center is being moved, and the ABC Evening News reported that the Imam had not yet even spoken with Jones. So we’ll have to wait for more information and clarification on that. But as long as there aren’t any organized book burnings this Saturday, I think it will be a step in the right direction.

Sports Mania

After suffering through seven endless games of the NBA finals, I have never been so glad to see a trophy handed out. I understand the idea behind the popularity of sports, the opportunity for people to transcend political differences and language barriers and, at times, the human condition itself. But it seems to me that sports has become far too like a religion. And I don’t see how people get so wrapped up in a silly game.

Yeah, I said it, a silly game. Football, hockey, bowling, golf, water polo – pick your sport – it’s all supposed to be for fun, for recreation and entertainment. Kobe Bryant is, in fact, not the patron saint of basketball (and God forbid there should ever be such a thing) but you wouldn’t know it from watching his flock. People do everything but bow to him and ask his blessing. Sports are taken way too seriously. They are, quite bluntly, an opiate. They are an escape, a diversion from everyday life in the same manner as movies and TV.

And yet when I watch sports, I am only reminded of the everyday. Rampant advertising aside, most players seem much more interested in their checks than their performance, more interested in their off-field frivolities than the nature of the game. Movies and television can at least bare incredible truths and tell great stories. Who hasn’t seen part of Casablanca or been touched by the evening news? But what great truths do sports reveal? That people with money can do as they please? That people are replaceable, can be sold to the highest bidder, or, once past their peak, are no longer of value? That’s not a very nice legacy. Granted, there were amazing feats in the early days of organized sports in the U.S., from men like Babe Ruth and Roy Campanella, Jim Thorpe and Bronko Nagurski. But those days are long gone. And what remains? A tired, cheap display built on fabulously overpaid athletes of only mediocre talent.

I can almost hear the cries of blasphemy at those words. But who among all our major sports will be remembered in seventy or eighty years? What new, worthy show of goodness, or even of human endurance, have they brought to the world? It’s not even fun to watch anymore. A game that was supposed to last a little more than an hour now takes three to five, to make room for commercials and time-outs and fouls and a lot of nancying about without any real purpose. Most of the games have no real consequence, and the players are as uninterested and uninvested as high school seniors with spring fever.

What fun is that? What good is that? And contrary to popular belief, being six-foot-three and 350 pounds doesn’t automatically make you a good linebacker. Being seven feet shouldn’t bring NBA agents busting down your door. Those things have nothing to do with talent or determination or heart. And that’s what sports are really supposed to be about. Until those things work their way back into sports, count me out.

Perhaps I should note, right up front, that I am not equating Barack Obama to a douche. Or more accurately, I am, but not in the spirit of meanness. South Park fans will understand immediately. For the rest of you, let me explain. After major elections overseas and several state primaries, my thoughts turned to voting and the process of election. A friend, discussing similar topics, brought up episode 808 (#119) of the well-known satiric TV series South Park, wherein a new school mascot must be decided by vote and the two choices are anything but ordinary: a turd sandwich and a giant douche.

To cut a complex story short, a boy who is told he must vote refuses, citing that he doesn’t agree with either of the candidates and it is a pointless exercise anyway. After heavy pressure from family, friends, and community members, including threats of bodily harm, he relents. But before doing so, he is advised by the leader of a nationwide activist group that “every election is between a Giant Douche and a Turd.”

So we have our foundation. And I am inclined to agree with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators and principal writers of the South Park series. Most elections do seem to come down to the choice between between a douche and a turd. It is one unfortunate result of a two-party system. As much as we tout the wide variety of choice in political preferences, it really comes down to Democrat or Republican on the ballot. Though a few shudders of revolt have been felt from the Independent and Tea factions, most candidates elected to major offices still carry an (R) or (D) by their names. (Is it a mere coincidence that douche begins with (d) and turd contains an (r)? I wonder.)

So what should one do, when faced with the choice of selecting between a turd and a douche? How can one determine the lesser of two evils? Either way, the populace effected is sure to lose. Yet not voting – refusing to choose – is seen as an insult, not only to the nation as a whole but to the many who fought and died to bring the nation to where it stands today.

I argue that refusing to choose is not an insult to the nation but a measure of the abuse the political system is experiencing. Without strong figures of reason and credibility to vote for, what impetus is there to cast a vote? Why mark the box for a turd if a turd isn’t wanted in office? It becomes a catch 22: the only candidates with enough political savy and sway to reach levels of importance are all douches and turds, so only douches and turds can be elected. Which I believe is the point made by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. And for the more patriotic, who see refusal as a dismissal of the battles that gave us the freedom to vote, I can only ask if those same battles were fought so that we would only be able to choose between two corrupt, greedy, unappealing, unwanted, money- and power-hungry candidates. I don’t believe that was what any of those men and women fought for. I don’t believe that is what men and women the world over continue fighting for.

I whole-heartedly support the right to vote. 1,000%. It was meant to be our greatest freedom, our most powerful weapon of peace and justice against our own government and political system. I value that right beyond words and will defend it to my last breath. With force, if necessary. But it has been so misused. It has become such a pitiful shadow of what it could and should be. It’s the 21st Century. We are surrounded with technological and biological marvels. And yet we vote as though we are still in the Dark Ages, ignorant, apathetic, afraid. James A. Mishener once said, “An age is called dark, not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it.” Well I see it, or at least the potential of it, and I refuse to vote for darkness. I refuse to vote for turds and douches and rampant liars and unconscionable thieves. Not when we, as a nation, are capable of so much better.

Mosaic Returns

Since I hadn’t done anything “artsy” in a while I thought perhaps it was time for a mosaic again. As always, photos are courtesy of Flickr.