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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.

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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.

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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.

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Anyone with more than a cursory glance at the history of this blog may have noticed several book-based posts. See, I like books. I like readings stories of peoples and places and things; whether or not they are true makes little difference. An author (Stephen King, I think?) once described fiction as the “truth inside the lie,” a sentiment with which I agree whole-heartedly. Chances are that someone somewhere at some time has experienced, to some degree, anything that the human mind can conjure on paper. In some dark corner, it is all real and true, if only in the reader’s mind.

In celebration of the written word, I joined a great little website called Good Reads which, you may have gleaned from the title, is all about books. There is a small but lively discussion board and neato widgets galore (though most don’t work in WordPress, sadly) but the site is primarily for book-lovers and books. Once joined you can review any book you’ve ever read (unless it hapens to be a quite obscure tome that even Amazon and Ex Libris have never heard of), read other people’s reviews, track what books or authors interest you, check out up-and-coming publications, even enter to win free copies of new books as they hit the shelves. I’m not big on places like MySpace or Facebook or Twitter, or whatever holds the honor of latest flash-in-the-pan, but if you enjoy reading, this is an excellent community to join. Period.

And if you enjoy writing, it’s even better. Discussions are littered with published authors offering tips and advice and opportunities. As with any writing site, a fair amount of bad poetry leaks into the threads but don’t think this is merely a group of mediocre writers with less talent than a junior high poetry class. A lot of these people are truly gifted writers and are sharing relevant information, not just the common vagueries of so many sites. I promise, you won’t find a single post or poem along the lines of

Roses are red
Violets are blue,
Gucci is cool
And so is Jimmy Choo.

On my mother’s eyes, I swear. I don’t know why I hadn’t heard of this place earlier but it’s quickly becoming a favorite.

So grab your latest literary conquest, write a scathing review or two, and drop into the discussions to see who’s accepting entries. Honestly, it’s worth a look. And in case you missed it the first time, here it is again: Good Reads.

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Though it often feels like it, I realize I do not experience most things in this life alone. What I mean is, I’m not the only person to ever have experienced a given thing. Reknown author C. S. Lewis once noted, “Nothing, I suspect, is more astonishing in any man’s life than the discovery that there do exist people very, very like himself.” I’ve spent the majority of my life thinking I was alone in so many ways…only to discover I was only one of many, but a quiet many. The internet helped a great deal in those discoveries, as nothing is left unsaid somewhere in the vast unmonitored reaches of cyberspace.

But before the internet (yes, Virginia, there was life before internet) I found great companions in printed typeface and good books. And yes, Virginia, there used to be several good books published every year. I know they get more and more scarce all the time but there was a time you could walk right into a bookstore and find tomes worthy of reading on every shelf.

But I digress. In my innocent and ignorant youth, I stumbled upon a few authors who seemed to know exactly how and what to write. Like doctors setting bones, and if needed they knew just how to re-break things to help them heal. For better or worse, I don’t think any books, stories, articles, essays, etc. that I’ve read as an adult affected me as deeply as those of my younger days. Even today I often read my favorite authors of yore and find them as sharp and relevant as ever…proof, I believe, of a good and true author.

One, in particular, I really loved. That author honestly changed the course of my life on more than one occasion (and for the better). In an attempt to thank the writer, I labored over page after page of a letter expressing my most heartfelt appreciation … but never had the guts to mail it. Years later I wrote another, very similar letter, which met a very similar fate. And so it was every few years: wash, rinse, repeat. That person is still my favorite author … and I still have not sent a thank-you letter. Being a well-known figure, I’m sure other letters with likewise sentiment pour in on a regular basis… But I suppose I wanted it to be more than just fanmail, something with more meaning, even if I were the only person to ever read it.

And why go to so much trouble for someone I will never meet and who would never in a million years know I exist? For the gift of knowing I was not alone. At a time when I may as well have been the last person on Earth, a few pages full of words changed my world and showed me, unequivocably, that others had been to the same place and survived. That some were still there, as lost as I was, and that somehow we would find our way out. Those are pretty big stepping stones for a tween, a teenager, a young adult, and letter or no, I am eternally grateful.

To all those authors, and my friends along the way, and the family who had never left me, even when I feared they had … thank you.

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