Sunday, December 12, 2010

Spending Our Way -- commentary

We are again spending our way through a happy holiday season with Christmas representing the epitome of a consumer economy, lured on by the plethora of ads stuffed into our daily newspapers.

I am no economist and don’t understand that complex science, but I am troubled by an economy based on endless buying where the credit card has replaced the crèche as a primary holiday symbol.

I think a consumer economy contains the seeds of its own destruction. It works only if we keep spending more and only if we keep creating more people to consume. However, we live in a world with limits of both space and resources. To exacerbate the problem, our consumption has become a measure of success. I was recently channel surfing and came across a documentary featuring one of my former employers and his $50 million yacht. His conspicuous consumption lets the world know he has succeeded.

A serious young salesman working for me would often receive a monthly commission check of $10,000 or more and ask, “how much is enough?” In a consumer economy where the amount we are able to spend is our indicator of success, the answer is there is never enough. So, we continue to build or rent more and more mini-storage space to house our purchases after we have stuffed our two car garage so full we have to park our cars in the driveway.

Finally, we use all this stuff to expand the inventory of garage sales and flea markets so the less successful can also participate in the consumer economy. If we can afford to store it for a lifetime, it will then pad the pocket of the estate auctioneer or become treasure for “The American Pickers.”

It reminds me of Christ’s parable about the rich farmer who continued to build bigger and bigger barns. I think the punch line was “foolish man. Tonight your soul will be required of you.” My serious philosophical bent began with a reading of “Walden.” Thoreau, observing a railroad being built wrote, “We do not ride on the railroad, it rides upon us.” Was he prophetic?

As a younger man wanting to join in this madness, I often attended success workshops where presenters would advise, “find a need and fill it.” I think that advise has evolved into “create a product and convince the consumer it is a need.” The line between wants and needs has become so blurred that most of us can’t tell the difference. In a consumer economy, yesterday’s wants become today’s necessities. Consider the cell phone.

Where does it all end and what are the true benefits? Are we trapped in an unending cycle? If we quit consuming, manufacturing slows. If manufacturing slows, jobs are lost. On one hand politicians and bureaucrats want us to spend, spend, spend to stimulate the economy. Keep those interest rates low so we can afford to buy those big consumer items. At the same time we get public service commercials telling us to “feed the pig,” that is our piggy banks. To be (a spender) or not to be (a spender), that is the question.

Keep the interest rates low so we can borrow money for the real big items. A modern car, well cared for, should last 15 or 20 years, but the consumer economy needs us to get a new one every three or four years.

Is there some other kind of economic system that works better? Are
capitalism and consumerism necessarily tied together? What was our economy based on before consumption began to dominate? I wonder.

Once I realized the things that interested me would never make me wealthy in a consumer economy, I redefined wealth to suit me. To be wealthy is to achieve a life style that is comfortable and convenient and accrue enough assets to sustain it for a lifetime. This precludes having to rent a mini-storage space or park the car in the driveway.

Though consumption has become the hallmark of Christmas, it doesn’t have to cloud our understanding of what it is all about. Yes, it is about gifts. In that traditional nativity scene there were gifts representing two different economies.

There were the gifts brought by the three wise men: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In many ways, we try to emulate these gifts with our own giving in our consumer economy.

There was also a gift in the manager, the Christ child. It was God’s gift to mankind from an economy of love, a sacrificial gift to inspire “peace on earth goodwill toward men.” This kind of gift giving is much more difficult to emulate but much more worthy of the effort. To again quote Thoreau, “Money is not necessary to buy one necessity of the soul.”

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Immigration Reform -- commentary

With mid-term elections over maybe we can now have an honest and open discussion on comprehensive immigration reform.

People in both political parties want it but the extremists keep it from happening. Some Republicans want it because their business constituents need the cheap labor that comes from south of the border and some Democrats want it because they anticipate a new flock of voters.

The left is so eager for that new block of voters that they want immediate amnesty for all illegals now living here. The right objects to handing the Democrats a new block of voters, especially by rewarding people who are breaking the law by coming here illegally, plus they claim the illegals are taking jobs away from Americans.

To be sure, constructive reform will create new voters, they can be wooed by both parties. Yes, immigrants come here to work, but they are not predominantly taking jobs that Americans are willing to do and do well. This will only be true when Americans can no longer live better off government programs than off the jobs being done by immigrant labor.

The key to this discussion lies in the word “comprehensive,” which does not mean another 2,000 page bill with the rejoinder that it has to be passed so we will know what is in it, as we saw in the health and financial reform bills recently passed by congress.

Central to comprehensive reform is to untangle the bureaucratic red tape necessary so that immigrants from south of our border can get legal status in weeks rather than years. This is key and without it reform is not comprehensive and not much will change. A Sun column by Gary Latanich on Oct. 1, explains how the system now works and how unreasonable and unfair it is. I knew it was a bureaucratic mountain, but I had no idea it was a Mount McKinley rather than a Mount Magazine. His column is worth the read. Suffice it to say it is no wonder so many come here illegally.

The fact is, we need the immigrants from south of the border and they need us. The real producers in our society have been shrinking and we now have more than half of our people receiving benefits from the public treasury through one program or entitlement or another. As long as the benefits are there, our people are not going to do what the illegals will do. It reminds me of Kuwait after President George H. Bush ran Saddam Hussein’s army out. The locals were so use to living off the oil riches that they couldn’t soil their own hands to rebuild their country. They had to bring in foreigner labor to do it.

We also need more new blood than we are producing to support our Ponzi scheme called Social Security. With the Baby Boomers retiring, we are not going to have enough people paying into this scheme to make it work and politicians are cowards when it comes to significantly reforming it. We need working immigrants to support this program. We also need to capture any taxes lost by forcing them to operate clandestinely in a cash economy.

In spite of what the right wing nuts say, we need immigrant labor. I talk to farmers and contractors occasionally who hire Mexican labor and they say there is no comparison to the responsible, hard work they get from them than from resident citizens when they can find any who will work.

We also benefit from what our neighbors to the south add culturally in terms of music, art, literature, religion and celebration.

Just as importantly, they need us. The Bible counsels us not to withhold good when it is in our power to do good. People south of our border come here because they have families to feed and they can’t support them on their local economies.

Most of us would not move to a foreign country where we would be criminals just for being there, with no guarantees, unless we had to. Neither would those who immigrate here from Mexico and South America. Many of our own people are frustrated with our current difficult times, but we know things will get better. Imagine what it would be like if there were no hope of things ever getting better.

Amnesty, of course, is a big part of this discussion. Let me offer a compromise: Since the Democrats want more voters and the Republicans always fear voter fraud, Republicans could agree to quit blocking amnesty and the Democrats could agree to quit blocking a requirement for photo ID at polling places.

Whatever the various issues involved, my Libertarian instincts tell me people should be able to cross borders with as little restriction as possible and to make that happen requires comprehensive reform.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Williams Firing -- commentary

I can’t let the firing of Juan Williams, by Vivian Schiller, CEO of National Public Radio, pass without comment. First because I am a fan of Williams, and secondly because it affirms an opinion I have held since my college days in the sixties. Juan Williams and Leonard Pitts are two black journalists I have listened to and read over the years as they have both broadened my understanding of black issues. These two men bring rational arguments to bear on current issues and are more likely to change my opinions than most.

So, when someone I admire is publically treated unfairly, I feel compelled to comment, and it would appear Williams was treated unfairly. The first unfairness was for Schiller to fire him with a phone call without giving him opportunity to discuss the matter face to face. The second unfairness was to dismiss him for doing what other NPR journalists do regularly, apparently with impunity. The third unfairness was to base the dismissal on a statement that was truly taken out of context. I know public figures often declare their statements were taken out of context, whether the context matters or not. There are times, though, when a statement is taken out of context to create a pretext for some nefarious agenda, and this was one of them.

In her first statement about the issue, Schiller said the action was taken because Williams was hired as a news analyst, not an opinion columnist, and he was not supposed to express opinions whether on NPR or Fox News where he also provided commentary. I wonder how one does news analysis without expressing opinions since analysis is interpretation and interpretation is usually opinion based. I often read news analysis by the Associated Press in The Sun that is loaded with opinion. It is the nature of analysis.

News analysts from across the political spectrum immediately began to opine about this story, concluding that people with an axe to grind against Fox News or maybe the Council on American Islamic Relations were behind it. Few seemed to buy Schiller’s reason and she had to come out and deny all the other speculations, but her spin was not near as convincing as Williams who called it “evidence of one party rule and one sided thinking at NPR.”

My second reason for not letting this incident pass unnoticed is that it confirms an observation I made as a college student in the 60’s that there is nothing narrower than a broad minded liberal. At the time I came to this awareness I was a student at Alaska Methodist University, a liberal, non-sectarian school. I was probably the only vocal conservative student on the small campus. This awareness began when the dean of students banned Campus Crusade for Christ from the campus after some students complained about being proselytized, and it has often been reaffirmed since.

It seemed to me a liberal school should welcome opposing points of view and that college students need to learn to deal with propagandist on their own. Being editor of the school paper and a student councilman, I took the issue up with the college president and got the order reversed.

I was not surprised 45 years later to read Williams comment, “I’ve always thought the right wing was the ones who were inflexible and intolerant. Now I’m coming to realize that orthodoxy at NPR, if it’s representing the left, is just unbelievable.” Well, Juan, it is believable.

I know I am painting with too broad a brush as liberalism constitutes a spectrum. Honest liberals, please forgive me. The far left of that spectrum prefers the label progressive and their movement has been around long enough to have produced its own fundamentalist and its own orthodoxy.

I grew up in Christian fundamentalist churches and we were often accused of being narrow minded as opposed to the more virtuous broad minded liberal. That was fine with us and almost a badge of honor. We were doctrinaire absolutists, and I heard many sermons on the New Testament metaphor about the broad road that leads to destruction and the narrow road that leads to life everlasting. This could be applied to either doctrinal or moral issues. Listening to other viewpoints would only lead to heresy.

The liberals, however, pretended to be different. They claimed they were open to giving all points of view a hearing and encouraged people to make up their own minds. But, the doctrinaire liberal pretends to be broadminded while being just as narrow as any other doctrinaire group whether Christian, Muslim, or Marxist. What sets a liberal like Williams or Pitts apart is that you get the feeling they are rational, they listen, and if it makes sense, they will actually change their position.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Positive Thinking -- commentary

I was a seventh grader searching the school library shelves. Television had not yet come to our neighborhood, and video games were so far into the future they hadn’t even made it into science fiction yet. Reading was still a pretty exciting thing to do.

My search that day led me to a volume that would set my course psychologically: Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive thinking.” The book is a classic for positive thinkers. I wish I could say I haven’t had a negative thought since reading the book. I can say positive thinking has served me much better over the years than the negative thinking of a fundamentalist preacher I once heard say, “Peale is appalling and the Apostle Paul is appealing.” This is clever but so telling of his fondness of negativity.

Well, Peale got old and passed from the scene. The next prophet of positive preaching was the Rev. Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. His book “Moving Ahead With Possibility Thinking” earned him a place of honor among positive thinkers. It reaffirmed in my mind the attitudes I had acquired from Peale. And yes, I did one time attend a Sunday service in the Crystal Cathedral. However, Schuller too is aging and probably spends most of his time now singing “Nearer My God To Thee,” or “Lord I’m Coming Home.”

The positive thinking torch has now been picked up by a young upstart, Joel Osteen, of Lakewood Church, Houston, Texas. At age 68, I no longer need my positive attitude reaffirmed. I have a lifetime of experience to affirm it for me, so I haven’t read anything by Osteen, though I do have a recent experience to share with you.

My wife, Pearl, and I drove to Houston recently to visit our son, his wife, and the grandkids. Greg wanted to take us to Lakewood Church. Being a positive thinker, I was positive I wanted to go, so we loaded the family in the car and arrived at the church as thousands of others were doing the same.

The church building began life as a stadium for an NBA team and I’m guessing it seats 20 or 30 thousand. The entryways and main floor were crowded, but we found our way to seats in the second level. As I looked up in the balconies, there were people seated here and there, but by the time the meeting started, those seats too were full, all the way up to the top of the nose bleed sections.

I began to look closely at the people and one would be hard pressed to find a more diverse gathering. There were Asians, Hispanics, Blacks and Whites. Not just a token smattering of each, but hundreds. I have watched segments of services of this church on television, but my capacity for televangelism is pretty limited, so I have never viewed an entire Lakewood Church service. I didn’t know what to expect, but one could feel drama and excitement in the air.

As Osteen ascended the platform, a rhythmic clapping started up, rising to a crescendo until he spoke. I assumed this was their traditional way of launching the service. Osteen opened the meeting and turned it over to his music man/worship leader and praise band. I believe the music man was black. There was about 30 minutes of singing of contemporary Christian music with an occasional oldie thrown in for people like myself. It was what one of my traditionalist friends calls “rock and roll church.” And the place did rock.

Both Peale and Schuller were ministers of the staid Reformed Church of America, and their services reflected the solemn traditions of their upbringing. Osteen however, follows in the footsteps of his father, a Southern Baptist preacher turned Charismatic, and the church exudes charisma. Osteen assumed leadership of the church when his father died, even though he had only preached one sermon in his life at the time.

People pretty much did what they were comfortable with, whatever seemed like appropriate worship to them: stand, sit, shout, clap, praise, wave hands. A stadium seemed like an appropriate venue, though I assume the motivations were different than when basketball fans did the same.

Osteen did not preach that morning, but rather the honors went to Bishop T.D. Jakes, a black preacher of a Pentecostal, mega-church in Dallas. I have seen segments of Jake’s preaching on television. He is a classic Pentecostal, black preacher. Like Osteen, though, he too does not dwell on negative, guilt rising preaching. He laces his sermons with lots of common sense and practical living And, this particular morning, he was in fine form.

With that visit to Lakewood Church, I can now add one more positive experience to a long list of such experiences.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Bicycling -- commentary

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made news last March when he announced a policy change which is supposed to bring "the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of nonmotorized." The new policy states, "Walking and biking should not be an afterthought in roadway design."

Bicycling may not be an afterthought in LaHood’s mind, but it will be forever in the minds of the public. However, I like the idea so I’ll help his fantasy along. After all, history has been known to take some weird twists.

Besides, bicycling is hard to beat for exercise and recreation; it is great for both the young and the old. If you haven’t been on a bicycle for years, you should try it again. The modern bicycle is not your father's bike. Index shifting, hydraulic suspension, lighter metals, quick release hubs, quick adjust seats, ergonomically designed seats and better braking make the modern bicycle a joy to ride. My 69-year-old brother bragged that he had recently ridden a 104 mile day on his bicycle. I don't compete with him for distance, but I do ride 12 miles twice a week as part of my workout regimen.

If you are new to bicycling, I would advise you to start at a bicycle store rather than a big box store. To begin with, how you are going to use the bike is much more important than price. Do you need a mountain bike, a road bike, a hybrid, or maybe a step through? A knowledgeable sales person can help you make those choices.

If all you intend to do is pedal around the neighborhood or the RV park where you are camped for the winter, then you can forget about gears and skinny tires. If all your riding is going to be on pavement and often involves a dozen miles or more, you'd better go for gears and skinny tires.

If you are going to get off the pavement some of the time, go with a mountain bike. If you need the skinny tires for pavement, but don't like those handle bars that stretch you out like a racer, then you need a hybrid which is a cross between a road and a mountain bike with flat handlebars, allowing you to ride in an upright position.

If you are going to do a lot of uphill downhill get one with lots of gears. Gears are a wonderful invention and most bicycles now have 21 of them. Don’t let that scare you; you never use them all. Just develop a pattern. Here’s mine: There are three sprockets on the pedal crank. Think of these as high range, medium range, and low range. Then there are seven sprockets on the rear wheel. These are gears one through seven. Seven is the high gear and one is the low gear.

When the riding is easy, you ride in high range, gear seven. As it becomes more difficult, drop down to gear six, then five.

Your next shift will be to mid-range. While in mid-range, as the riding becomes more difficult, you drop down to gear four, then three.

Your next shift will be low range, and as riding becomes even more difficult, you drop down to gear two and finally gear one. By this time you are going up a pretty steep hill. If you find yourself going slower than a walk, get off and push. Around Jonesboro, I rarely find myself in low range, gear one.

As the riding gets easier, you just reverse the process. In the higher gears, you can easily move across flat ground at 15 to 20 mph, and in lower gears, the hills are easy.

In Arkansas, you can comfortably ride several months out of the year, making a bicycle commute to work possible. Up to fifteen miles would be a reasonable commute. A few years ago, maybe 20, I did a long term teacher substitute in Big Flat and lived in Mountain View. I would park by car at Fifty Six and ride my bicycle the remaining twelve uphill, downhill Ozark miles to the school.

When I taught in Grubbs, I would park my car at Little Texas Missionary Church and ride the remaining eleven flat miles to the school. The beauty of it was that since I rode the bicycle to school, I had to ride it back and this gave me two good workouts a day.

If you want to commute by bicycle, you can buy a garment bag and brief case to attach to your carrier so you can freshen up when you get to work and have your files, etc. with you. It works, it’s good for you, and it will make LaHood happy, and someday, this fantasy might really come true.

School Bus Safety -- commentary

Three recent school bus accidents in Arkansas prompt me to again mount my hobby horse of school bus safety. There are many things we could do to make school buses safer. We could make the seat backs higher. We could put seat belts on every seat. We could put air bags at every seat. Every one of these has serious unintended consequences. We could put a trained, adult monitor on every bus.

Every one of these suggestions is expensive and every dollar spent on them takes away from something else in the educational system, and there is never enough money to do the necessary things for many school districts.

What we are dealing with in most school bus accidents is a distracted driver. Distracted drivers are big in the news lately because of ever increasing cell phone use. A school bus driver should have enough sense not to use a cell phone while driving; however, the legislature deemed it necessary to make it illegal.

Yet, the bigger distraction remains: The behavior of the students behind the driver. Every second the driver looks in his mirror to monitor student behavior is a second he is not looking at the road. At 30 mph, that bus travels 44 feet for every second that driver’s attention is not on the road. The solution to this problem requires a change of attitude on the part of school administrators.

Administrators, here is a common sense solution that won’t cost a dime: Quit treating school bus discipline the same way you treat classroom discipline. Make it a zero tolerance matter. Any misbehavior on the school bus should mean a forfeiture of bus privileges, starting with the first infraction.

The average classroom is about 750 square feet and by law can only accommodate 30 students, fewer in some elementary grades. The classroom is headed by a teacher who has been trained in classroom management. Plus the teacher has several ways to handle misbehavior from standing next to the disruptive student, to moving the student, to isolating him, to removing him from the classroom.

The average 200 square foot school bus, however, can legally accommodate 60 passengers or more. It often travels down the road at the speed limit. The driver must not only drive the bus safely, but must also manage the load, which distracts from the driving and which he is usually not trained to do.

When considering the potential outcome stemming from disorderly behavior in the classroom verses on the bus, common sense says there is no way these two should be treated the same when it comes to punishment. Normal classroom misbehavior should be thought a misdemeanor and bus misbehavior a felony. Yet, the most common complaint of school bus drivers is that discipline is not taken seriously.

While the law says your child must go to school, it does not compel the school to provide transportation. Riding a school bus is a privilege that should be readily taken away.

There was a time when students respected authority more than they do today, and often older high school kids were hired to drive the buses. The duty often fell to the kid who lived at the end of the route. The students respected the young driver’s authority. We probably cannot bring those days back, but we can put the trouble makers off the bus, thus making the ride safer for the rest of the riders. But, most schools won’t take such a drastic action until a student has been written up for disruptive behavior several times. As a result, neither the student nor his parents, take the matter seriously, knowing he gets several chances.

It only takes one distraction to cause an accident. When the bus driver has to look in his rear view mirror to monitor student misbehavior, his eyes are not on the road and his attention is not on his driving.

I was at a training session recently, and we got on this topic. A fellow from St. Croix in the Caribbean related when he was a kid, the school met bus discipline by simply eliminating the entire route for a period of time. That was certainly a bit extreme since most kids really do behave themselves on the bus. But it certainly should be used individually, starting with the first offense.

The only way to solve this problem is with parental involvement and nothing will get them involved quicker than having to deliver their own kids to school. And if that doesn’t get them involved, then the kid needs to walk. Just as it was not fair for the school in St. Croix to punish all the kids, neither is it fair for us to jeopardize all the kids over the misbehavior of a few.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Back in the Saddle -- commentary

As the old western song implies, it is good to be back in the saddle again, only I’m talking motorcycles not horses. Nearly two years have transpired since the last time I got to throw my leg over one of these two wheel addictions.

My last ride morphed into my first helicopter ride. I had always wanted to take a helicopter ride, but not to an emergency room, and I would like to have had a memory of it. Also, the $17,000 airfare was a little steep. Fortunately I didn’t have to pay for it.

But, old addictions die hard and when all the legal aspects of my ride and a paltry settlement were completed, there was enough money left to buy an inexpensive, new ride, so I did.

Motorcycling is admittedly risky, and people think those of us who ride are a little crazy, and we may be, but I’m puzzled no one thinks the same when I ride a bicycle, which I do often for health reasons. Look at bicycle stats: 662 bicyclists killed in the U.S. in 2002 with 48,000 injured. Since we started keeping records in 1932, 47,000 bicyclists have been killed in accidents. (Next column I’ll talk about bicycling.)

Admittedly, it takes a little rationalizing to maintain this addiction. My rationalization involves the science of probabilities. The probability of one serious accident is low: the probability of two is nearly non-existent. And so, the rock climber who had to amputate his own arm is back to rock climbing and the teenage girl surfer who lost her arm to a shark is back to surfing.

I suppose, however, if you asked former Alaska Senator Stevens, and it would take a spiritual medium to do so, he would say though the probability of being in two airplane crashes is nearly non-existent, it can happen. It was the highly improbable crash that got him.

I’m amused by religious people who argue against evolution on the basis of probabilities. If there is any probability that something could happen, even one in a gazillion, it could happen. I remain agnostic on the issue, but for those who would argue this issue on probabilities, either declare it a zero probability or find a better argument.

There is a story about the fellow who wouldn’t fly for fear there would be a bomb on the plane. There came a time in his career when he was going to have to fly. He went to his friend, an insurance actuary, and asked him to figure the probabilities he would get on a plane with a bomb on it. His friend came back with the answer: one in a million. The fellow wasn’t comfortable with those odds, so he asked him to calculate the odds of getting on a plane with two bombs. The answer came back one in ten billion. Now the fellow says, “That’s why I always carry a bomb in my suitcase whenever I fly.”

Getting back to motorcycles, what is it about these two wheel machines that attract riders and make them willing to take the risk? Some say only a dog riding in a car with his head out the window and pointed into the wind really knows, but he can’t say.

I categorize travel according to how it allows the traveler to interact with the environment. Walking is the best form of transportation for maximum interaction with environment. You experience every shift in the wind, every change in smell, and every change in temperature. You feel it when a cloud hides the sun. You see the butterflies, the flowers, the deer, or the snake slithering across the road. The problem is 30 or 40 miles a day is max for the person in good condition.

Bicycling is one step back. You can still fully experience those things around you, while extending your distance to 80 or 90 miles a day if you are in good condition, though it still takes a lot of energy.

On a motorcycle, you still get to experience important aspects of your environment, such as temperatures, smells, and unobstructed sights while going the speed of an automobile.

The worst form of travel is the automobile because it cuts you off completely from the environment. You are in an air conditioned atmosphere and might as well be viewing your surroundings from a television screen. Motorcyclists refer to cars as cages and those who occupy them as cagers.

If you enjoy riding around in a cage, I only ask that you quit doing things that distract you, causing you to wander into my lane and that you look twice before entering a highway from a driveway or side street. Look specifically for motorcycles. It might surprise you how many you see. Look twice, save lives.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Frame It Right -- commentary

The success or failure of a discourse is usually determined by the way a debate gets framed. Those who favor allowing the Muslims to build a mosque next to ground zero of the 9/11 disaster have tried to frame the debate as a freedom of religion issue, and for reasons he will probably not articulate, President Obama tried to help them out. When his comments created a swift backlash, he of course backed off.

Those who support building the mosque want to frame it as a freedom of religion issue because such freedom is a cherished part of our culture and is guaranteed by the First Amendment of our Constitution. Framing it as such allows them to pull on one of our emotional heart strings, hoping it will be more powerful than the negative emotions evoked by their actions.

Anyone who has ever built a church knows that there is a difference between freedom of worship and the freedom to build a building wherever one wishes, even on private property. Most cities of any size have zoning laws to control what is built where.

I don’t know about here, but I know that in Anchorage, Alaska, where I oversaw the renovation of an existing church, there were no zones for church buildings. That meant every church building project required a zoning exemption. This meant holding a public hearing where all those with objections could voice them. If the church would negatively impact the area or if there were a significant number of people or even a few significant people who opposed the project, the exemption could be denied. I suspect New York City too has zoning laws with which projects can be denied. The most common issue is traffic patterns and how it impacts a neighborhood.

It was never a freedom of religion issue in Anchorage as there were dozens of places in the city where people of all faiths could worship, as is true in New York City. It was a freedom to build issue and apparently the constitution does not guarantee that freedom.

Surely an Ivy League elitist and experienced community organizer like President Obama knows this and yet he tries to frame it, at first, as a freedom of religion issue. Instead of trying to spin it this way, he needs to tell us his real reason for supporting construction of the mosque on this site, unless of course he spoke from ignorance. His best course of action would have been to have stayed out of it. Those who feel passionate about the issue aren’t going to be swayed by the freedom of religion argument and he just runs the risk of antagonizing the voters.

Just to remain bipartisan, let me say that in my memory, the most disastrous example of a president framing a discussion wrongly was George W. Bush’s argument for going to war with Iraq. It was the right decision but the wrong argument. He argued that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s) that had to be neutralized.

With that argument, Bush could only win if WMD’s were found when our troops invaded, and they weren’t, so he lost the discussion and his credibility. This wrong argument plagued him the rest of his presidency.

To understand what his argument should have been, we need to go back to his father’s presidency. If you remember, Saddam invaded and occupied Kuwait. The United Nations came to the defense of Kuwait by asking the United States to go in and remove Saddam’s occupational forces, which we did.

Unfortunately, the wimpy UN saved Saddam the embarrassment of a surrender. They agreed to allow him to get by with only a cease fire agreement. They didn’t even make his generals suffer the embarrassment of surrendering their weapons while at the signing of the cease fire agreement.

As is always the case, a cease fire agreement carries with it conditions, and in this case, those conditions included Saddam allowing free and open inspections to assure the world that he did not have and was not developing WMD’s. And of course, Saddam did not live up to these agreements and had no intention of doing so.

With this background, Bush’s argument should have been that a failure to keep the cease fire agreement made it null and void. This means the hostilities resume as the basis on which they were stopped is no longer valid. With this argument, the fact that there were no WMD’s would have just been an interesting detail. The important fact would have been that at last we had our free and open inspections and the truth could now be confirmed.

So, Mr. President, be careful how you help frame an argument. If you do it wrongly, it will always come back to bite you.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

High Tech Classroom -- commentary

I was pretty excited when I was offered a job last school year in a school that had gone high tech: a laptop computer with internet capability for every student and an interactive white board and document camera for every teacher. Since this is the coming trend, the latest savior of American education, I need to share my experience.

I am certainly no techie nerd, but I am fairly adept at using technology and quick to learn new things, so neither am I a Luddite. I could see real possibilities. I took the job with a good bit of excitement. That excitement, however, turned to ambivalence and then to negativity in about two months.

An internet connected computer is a great tool for the serious student. For the rest, which is most, it is the biggest distraction you could possibly provide.

Let me use an analogy we country folk can relate to. Let us say you are a farmer, and when your son comes to breakfast, you tell him you have gassed up the four wheeler, put the post hole digger on it along with the shotgun and a hand full of shells. You tell him there are a dozen fence post holes that need digging in the back pasture. He has to go through the woods to get there, so you tell him to bring home a couple of squirrels for supper. He knows there are no short term consequences for not getting the holes dug. Please answer the following questions: At the end of the day, how much gasoline will be left in the fuel tank? How many shot gun shells will be left? How many post holes will get dug? Now think about the electronic classroom with all its distractions and ask similar questions concerning school work.

Aside from the distractions, there are other real problems. Put yourself in a classroom of 25 seventh graders who have been assigned to go to a particular web site, but the computer can’t make connection. Fifteen minutes later, a third of the class still can’t connect to the site. These students are not going to sit quietly while waiting. A textbook would have been so much easier. Fifteen seconds will get you to any page you want.

Consider the day an assignment is due. The high tech equivalent of the dog ate my homework kicks in. “I had it all done, but it disappeared.” “My battery is dead and I don’t have my charger,” and so on. For those who turned it in, you must check closely for cut and paste jobs, which is so much easier than old fashioned copying from a friend’s work.

All these headaches would be worth it if in fact real learning was being enhanced, but it is not. I read a quote recently and regret I didn’t note the source, only that it was one of our big shot techies, maybe one of the founders of Google. In essence he said if you want real learning to take place, shut off all the screens, the computers, the Ipods, the televisions, the cell phones and open the books.

Technology is the latest fad. It is being pushed by the technology industry. We are being told that kids’ brains have become wired differently in the high tech age and so they learn differently, or that they need the technological experience to be able to compete in the world of work. Nonsense! If kid’s brains are wired differently, it means in some way they got rewired. So, apparently they are malleable. Wire them back. And since technology changes so rapidly, we don’t really know what to prepare them for. They will learn on the job the technological skills needed no matter what we provide for them now.

The technology, unfortunately, is producing a generation of kids who can’t work with a block of text, study it and think about it. They must have lots of graphics with short cut lines or they move on (the perfect mind for the 30 second, political sound bite).

A computer at every desk brings more problems than benefits. Instead focus on the teacher, giving each one an interactive white board, a document camera, a good laptop computer with support software and training. Then, equip the school with quality computer labs, with the ability to monitor every computer from a central place, for those projects truly enhanced by internet access.

If your school is going high tech, it is because the leadership is falling for industry propaganda. Listen politely, but for the rest of the story, for the side not getting told, read “High-Tech Heretic” by Clifford Stoll. For good reasons, Stoll is a techie very skeptical of the claims made by his industry for the classroom.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Real World -- commentary

"We must prepare our kids for the real world," has become the justification for the expenditure of mega bucks on technology in our schools. It sounds good but I think people who say this have in mind employers like Google and Microsoft. But, what is real world employment going to be for most of our kids in Northeast Arkansas?

To begin with, I find educators preparing students for the real world a bit ironic. Most educators went from their public schools to college and back into the public schools, having bypassed the “real” world. When I first set foot on the modern public school campus at age 50, I was struck by the artificial nature of it all. That aside, most of our kids will go to work for entrepreneurs and start-up companies in our communities where most new jobs are being made, and any needed technology will be learned on the job.

Real world work is different for each of us, but I'll share it from my experience, something for which neither school nor technology could have prepared me.

I landed my first real job at age 16 milking cows, $200 a month plus board and room. Not bad for 1958. My first 15 seconds on the job went like this: "Good morning Oggie; what do you want me to do first."

He was highly frustrated by a malfunctioning bottle capper which was missing every third bottle or so. He grabbed a quart, glass bottle of milk and smashed it on the cement floor. "Get out of here, just get out of here," he shouted in his heavy Danish, nearly impossible to understand brogue.

Of course I left, but I returned about 10 minutes later, and we restarted the relationship. He was mostly a good boss, but at times I could hear him shouting at some poor hired hand while I was a quarter of a mile out in the field. He went through hired hands like a philanderer goes through girl friends, but I kept my job and learned to put up with the occasional explosion.

As an 18-year-old Air Force enlistee, I worked for a warrant officer who had as one goal to see me in the stockade before he rotated to his next assignment, as reported to me by my lead sergeant. I frustrated the officer’s attempts to reach that goal, and in the process learned another of life’s many lessons: Life is a cat and mouse game and you are the mouse. Learn to play smart.

In my mid 20's, I worked for an editor who thought it appropriate to scream and swear at employees in front of the entire staff; yes, I was the victim on occasion. He couldn’t understand why I left when a better opportunity came along, one which didn’t have a screamer. In my late 30's, I worked for an insurance manager who thought it appropriate to berate me on an elevator full of strangers because I was selling products my clients needed rather than ones that made the most money for the company.

The best bosses I have had by far have been school administrators: Grover Cooper, James Dunivan, Myra Graham, Keith McDaniels, Karen Curtner, Jim Best, and others. Unfortunately, we can’t all work for the schools.

I will talk about technology in the classroom in my next column; however, I was teaching in Tuckerman when computers first started showing up in the schools. It began with computer labs. I was surprised at how fast the students went from “Do we get to go to the computer lab today,” said with excitement, to “do we have to go to the computer lab today?” The change took place when they discovered computers were there to enhance their work, not for playing games.

Technology will not equip our kids to deal with the bosses I describe, but such bosses are still out there, and bosses, no matter their style, must be kept happy. Our students are not going to fail in the job market for a lack of computer skills. They are going to fail for an over inflated sense of self esteem based on hollow praise instead of actual accomplishment, an unwillingness to respect those in authority, the failure to get to work on time, and the failure to do anything worthy of their pay once they get there. If they can overcome these weaknesses, the technology skills will take care of themselves.

A good work ethic, a sense of responsibility, and respect for authority should be taught in the home, but too often they are not. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know computer skills will not compensate in the real world for lack of these skills.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Elite -- commentary

In his column published in The Sun July 26, Richard Cohen bemoans the fact that politicians have to dumb down their message and credentials in order to get elected. He claimed they have to hide their academic degrees from prestigious universities and avoid their erudite vocabularies and play down their intellectual abilities. He seems puzzled as to why we commoners don’t appreciate these elitists.

For the most part, I have avoided politics in this column, but I can’t resist taking this opportunity to enlighten Mr. Cohen. To begin with, his column reflected the condescending attitude of so many elitists. We commoners may not be the smartest people on the planet, but there are some things that insult our common sense. Intuitively, we know it does not take a 2,000 page bill, unread by those who voted on it, to reform health care or our financial institutions. In both instances, we were told it must be passed so we can know what is in it. Such actions tell us it is not intellectual aplomb that rules in our capital but rather political savvy and gamesmanship.

Secondly, those who are elite, erudite, and graduates of prestigious universities often promote an ideology unacceptable to us common folk. They eschew the label liberal and prefer to call themselves progressives. Either way, the ideology goes way back.

The late Malcolm Muggeridge, tells about his experience with progressives back in the 1920’s. He had grown up with a socialist father, and Beatrice Webb, the famous British socialists, was his aunt, fore runners of modern progressives.

As a young reporter, he moved his family to Moscow, Russia, where he intended to live out the rest of his life and contribute to the development of the great, people’s utopian experiment known as Soviet communism. He was quickly disillusioned with this progressive ideology. Even as the failures of the experiment became obvious, there continued to be regular visits by American elitists, mostly college professors and government bureaucrats, to Russia to get a glimpse of this wonderful experiment.

Muggeridge reports in his autobiography that these elitist so badly wanted this experiment to be a success that they would believe just about anything they were told, and so, he would try and see how far he could stretch their credulity. It was common for the visitors to ask why there were so many lines of poor peasants at stores and government offices. Muggeridge would explain that these people were so committed to the grand experiment that they would work themselves from morning to night to make it happen. The only way the government could insure that the people would get some rest was to engineer these long waits. Yes, many of the elitists bought it, according to Muggeridge.

As an ideology, progressivism has been around long enough that it has developed its own fundamentalists. The latest iteration of this ideology is being expressed by politicians like Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi. It makes no difference that their progressivism has been tried and found wanting around the world in a number of venues, these current progressive fundamentalists are going to try it anyway. In many ways, they are like the religious fundamentalist who says, “Don’t bother me now; I’m looking for a scripture to back up my preconceived idea.”

Those of us who live in what the elites dub fly over country, who graduated from common state universities, or didn’t even get that far, see political games being played with our borders, our taxes, our health care, our investments, our jobs and our energy. We look at the messes in our country and around the world, and we realize that these things are the results of policies of the erudite, elitists who graduated from prestigious universities, and we become suspicious of those who govern. We just want straight talk and solutions.

Mr. Cohen might ask himself why an intellectual heavy weight like Bill Buckley would rather, “entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” Why didn’t Buckley, an erudite, intellectual elite, graduate of Yale University, trust people with his qualifications to run the government? What did he know that we don’t?

One of my college professors and a lifelong friend and novelist, the late Robert O. Bowen, once explained to me that a true intellectual is a person who observes life going on around him, thinks carefully about what he observes, and learns from it – nothing said about books.

So, Mr. Cohen, those of us who are suspicious of the elite, the erudite, and those with credentials from prestigious universities, are people who can learn from the past, something the progressives you want us to embrace don’t seem to do.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

An Adventure -- commentary

My last column, I applauded Abby Sunderland for launching her around the world sailing adventure and ended by saying it is better to reach old age with memories than regrets. To affirm that I live by my own philosophy, let me share one of my own adventures.

It was 1976. I was 34-years-old, married to Pearl, with a son, Greg, in the second grade. One afternoon, I asked Pearl if she would like to take sixth months off and tour Europe and the U.S. “We can’t afford to do that,” she objected.

“You apparently misunderstood my question,” I replied. “All I asked was how would you like to?”

“Well sure, I’d like to,” she responded.

“Good,” I said. “Now, let’s figure out how to make it happen.”

I was making about $10,000 a year plus housing; Pearl had not worked outside the home since Greg was born. The morning paper had an ad for a mortgage loan closer, Pearl’s previous occupation. My work allowed me to be home when Greg left for school and when he came home, so I told Pearl to apply for the job, which she got. And , I got a part time job for a custodial firm specializing in cleaning restaurant hoods. We banked all the income from these jobs for a year, except for money used to purchase a used Volkswagen micro bus, camper conversion.

This was the old timey kind of VW bus the hippies liked so much with the boxer, air cooled engine and manifold heater. With the vehicle paid for and $10,000 in the bank, we set out from Anchorage, Alaska, to drive to New York on January 2, 1977. We drove around the clock; Pearl drove days and I drove nights. As we travelled through the Yukon Territory, temperatures were a minus 50 to 55 degrees. There was so little heat in the camper that our water jug froze while setting on the floor in the middle of the bus.

A memory imprinted on my mind as I drove through the Yukon Territory is the most spectacular display of Northern Lights I have ever seen. The Northern Lights at their finest are truly one of the most outstanding displays of nature. Unfortunately, they seem to be at their finest when it is the coldest; most tourists go to Alaska in the summer and never see them.

Even though we took a motel two nights, we still made it to New York, in six days. We got tickets for London on the Freddy Laker flight and left our bus with a friend in Connecticut. Freddy Laker was a British aviation entrepreneur who tried to compete with the government owned British Airways. It was dubbed the hippy flight because it was a bare bones, cut rate, bring you own lunch airlines.

This was a time when hundreds of young Americans were traipsing around Europe, living out of backpacks and traveling on Eurail passes. They stayed in hostels, pensions, or just rode the train for a place to sleep, not caring where it went. We joined them with our own backpacks. The only thing that distinguished us from the hippies was that we did not have rich parents at home to bail us out if we ran out of money or got into trouble.

We went from London to Switzerland where I attended a study center in the Alps for a few weeks. Then we went on to Spain where we shared an apartment on the Mediterranean with Tony Cox, the ex-husband of Yoko Ono and their daughter, Kyoko. This is a story all in itself, but among other things, it involved me making a clandestine trip to Majorca with Tony, whose motto might have been “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

We went on to France and finally back to Connecticut to pick up our VW bus. Then it was off to Florida. Greg had endured the sights of London, Paris, the Alps, the Louvre, the Cathedrals, the museums, the ferry ride across the English Channel, the Eiffel Tower and other incidentals as something he had to do to get to Disney World. Once we got back to the U.S., we still had three months before I had to be back to work, so we had our fun at Disney World and then begin wending our way north and west to Kentucky, then Minnesota, where Pearl grew up, and out to Washington State, where I grew up.

While in Washington, I traded the VW in on a brand new Dodge Aspen wagon, paid for in cash, and headed back to Alaska. We arrived back in Anchorage with a grand collection of memories, a new car, and still had $1,000 in the bank. Lots of memories; no regrets.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Risk Takers -- commentary

Sixteen-year-old sailor, Abby Sunderland, has been in the news following her rescue on her solo attempt at sailing around the world. Pundits have been quick to castigate her parents for allowing such an adventure. I say hooray for her parents and will try to put a few things in perspective.

First, most 16-year-olds have adult bodies and if physically active, they are in as great shape as they will ever be and can handle such challenges. Whether they are mature enough depends on their upbringing.

Secondly, her chance of doing this is better now than later as she has no other responsibilities. Such adventures done later in life usually involve the neglect of family or career. The movie “Seven Years in Tibet” comes to mind.

One pundit belittled the parents’ justification that driving a car down the freeway is also risky, but parents let their kids do it all the time. The pundit said the difference was that driving is necessary to get from point A to point B while sailing around the world is optional. The fallacy here is that most teenage driving is also optional. Do they really need to go to the mall or a friend’s house?

He further argued that the girl’s adventure cost the Australian government big bucks to rescue her. True, but we spend big bucks every year rescuing adventurers from Mt. McKinley, Mt. Everest, and many other places adult adventurers go. People regularly have emergencies while hiking or mountain biking on forest trails and have to be rescued. We also spend thousands getting victims from roadside accidents to emergency treatment whether their being on the road was optional or necessary.

There is a bigger issue here. It is the incessant drive by “do gooders” to eliminate all risk from our lives. If kids get hurt playing dodge ball, then we must do away with dodge ball. If kids get hurt on four wheelers, we must do away with four wheelers.

This “anti-risk spoiling life” syndrome even affects our military. A recent news article describes a 70 year tradition at the Annapolis Naval Academy where plebes, at the end of their grueling first year, scale a 21-foot obelisk. The obelisk is usually greased to make the climb more difficult. The tradition may be ended by the commanding admiral because of “unnecessary injury risk.”

I have argued and will continue to argue that our culture suffers, especially among males, from the lack of a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. I believe this lack is what drives extreme sports, gang initiations and the like. The more we work to eliminate risk, the more wimpy our culture becomes, especially our boys, and they will seek out ways to affirm their manhood. To some extent, girls undergo biological changes that confirm when they have reached adulthood. Boys, on the other hand, never quite know for sure unless there is a ritual which confers manhood on them and such rituals usually involve risk. If we shelter our kids from all risk, we will wind up with adults like T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock.

We are rapidly becoming a culture that experiences all risk vicariously. I think this is behind the popularity of reality TV. We sit and watch TV as ice road truckers, crab fishermen, and NASCAR drivers take all the risks. From our TV sets we learn how to survive in the wilderness or launch a business. The only risks we have to take are those that come from obesity brought on by inactivity.

The real key to living life to the fullest is risk management. Abby Sunderland’s father schooled her in the art of sailing and through proper planning, minimized the risk. Even at that, there are some things you cannot control. The storm she encountered would have broken her mast whether she was 16 or 26.

You can teach your kids how to safely ride a four wheeler and make them wear protective clothing to minimize the injuries they will probably experience.

We learn from experience, preferably other people’s, how to manage risk. There was a time when it was considered unmanly to wear a mitt when playing baseball, whether pitching, catching or playing in the field. As a result, there were a lot of broken bones, but the players developed appropriate gear. The gear has evolved over time as a way of managing risk.

It is risky to have high school football practice in the hot August, Arkansas sun, but wise coaches learn to manage that risk. Yes, there are heat injuries and an occasional death, but we still play football.

I applaud Abby and her parents. With time, we all grow old and it is better to have memories to share with our grandkids than regrets.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Outdoors -- commentary

The common reaction I get from people when they find out I spent 30 years in Alaska is "I'd sure like to go there sometime," and I wonder, "Have you checked out Arkansas lately? "The Natural State" is not just our motto; it is also a reality. Arkansas can be just as spectacular as Alaska. Summer is a good time to take the kids and explore our wonderful state.

Since coming to Arkansas 20 years ago, my wife and I have explored the four corners of the state, staying in many of the state parks, as well as Corps of Engineer parks. When travelling alone, I often tent and when travelling with Pearl, we stay in our RV. Either way, I have been happy to see the parks being used by families enjoying the out of doors: kids on bicycles, swimming, boating, fishing, hiking and camp cooking.

Thirty-one state parks offer campsites, four of them have lodges, 11 of them offer cabins for rent, and three of them have golf courses. There are also many National Park Service camp grounds in Arkansas, many Forest Service campgrounds, and many National Forest campgrounds. These various facilities cover the spectrum from most amenities a camper could want to primitive sites with basic outhouses and no washroom facilities. Our state parks include much more than camping. Many of them incorporate museums and scientific attractions. Some of them sponsor educational events to help people enjoy the out of doors even more. It was at Lake Charles State Park several years ago that I took a class in Dutch oven cooking. The class included a Dutch oven which I use regularly.

A web site that will help you plan an outing to our parks is A good book to help in your planning is “Arkansas Adventure Guide.” It can be obtained at various tourist centers or from the web site The adventure guide lists the many campsites of the various agencies as well as private RV parks. It lists innumerable hiking and back packing trails and a number of multi-use trails for ATV’s, mountain bikes, and motorcycles, including maps. If you want to get out into nature but aren’t fond of hiking, there is also a section on back country drives along with maps.

There are serious reasons to get our kids out into nature. In 2005, Richard Louv published “Last Child in the Woods.” A quote by Bernice Weissbound, contributing editor to “Parents” magazine, appears on the cover and says, “Nature is a key factor in children becoming sensitive, expressive, and essentially human.” Louv says we need to save our children from “nature-deficit disorder.” There are serious mental health reasons to do so.

Louv says, “A widening circle of researchers believes that the loss of natural habitat, or the disconnection from nature even when it is available, has enormous implications for human health and child development. They say the quality of exposure to nature affects our health at an almost cellular level.… humans have an innate affinity for the natural world, probably a biologically based need integral to our development as individuals.”

I can’t help compare my own nature rich boyhood with the video game environment of today’s youth. We lived on the edge of town in my pre-school and early elementary years. My brothers and I went out the back door, across the alley and we were in the woods where we spent hours and hours discovering periwinkles, tad poles, pine tree pitch, and how to dam a stream. We climbed huge sand stones and wore out our shoes and trousers sliding down them. Even when we moved, we were never far from the woods where we spent hours of free time.

How different from what Louv points out: “Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle maintains that each hour of TV watched per day by preschoolers increases by 10 per cent the likelihood that they will develop concentration problems and other symptoms of attention-deficit disorders by age seven.”

In another quote, he says, “We can now look at it this way: time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health.”

The state and federal governments have spent millions to make it possible and easy for families to make “The Natural State” more than a motto, and there are very serious reasons to do so.

In a recent cartoon, Ziggy was standing on the scales and his doctor was saying, “I’m taking you off the food channel and putting you on the exercise channel.” This summer, let’s help our kids do more than just change channels. Making time to play in the great Arkansas outdoors is a terrific way to get them away from the inactivity of TV, their video games, and their computers.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Survival Stories -- commentry

I enjoy reading survival stories to students, but I also like for kids to find practical applications from what they read. This is a little harder to do with survival stories, but in at least three such stories I use, there are lessons that can be applied to the students’ lives: “Hatchet,” by Gary Paulsen, “The Cay,” by Theodore Taylor, and a movie, “The Earthling,” directed by Peter Collinson.

In “The Hatchet,” Brian, a 13-year-old boy is flying in a small plane to Canada to be with his father. As he leaves, his mother gives him a present, a hatchet. The pilot has a heart attack and dies as they are flying over a wilderness area and the boy crash lands the airplane into a lake. He now must survive in the wilderness with nothing but his hatchet. It is an exciting story as Brian learns to build shelter, hunt for food and hope for rescue.

In “The Cay,” 11-year-old Phillip lives in the South Pacific with his parents during World War II. His father works in an oil refinery and German U-boats are attacking the oil tankers and freighters. His mother insists they return to the states. Since she is afraid to fly, they take a ship. The ship is sunk by a U-boat and Phillip finds himself stranded on a small island with an old black man and a cat. Phillip received a tough blow to the head as they were abandoning ship, and he soon goes blind.

In “The Earthling,” the young, pampered Shawn Daley is with his parents in the Australian outback. The father accidently drives their RV over a cliff and the boy alone survives. In the area of the wreck, an old man is making his way through the wilderness back to his childhood home. He has cancer and wants to get back to the abandoned homestead where he can die in peace. If he guides the boy back to civilization, he can’t get to his destination before he dies. If he takes the boy with him, the boy won’t survive on his own after the man passes.

In each situation, the young person finds himself in an environment in which he is unprepared to cope. The survival stories are important to our kids because soon they too will be cast into strange environments.

One time I read the following and I believe it involved an Eskimo and a white man: “You are not stupid if you don’t know what I know. You are stupid if you don’t know what you need to know to survive in your environment.”

In each of these stories, survival of the boys depends on how fast they learn. And in each case, they learn in different ways.

Brian is on his own with no adult resources to call on. He takes the one thing he has, a hatchet, and learns how to use it by experience. He also learns by closely observing his surroundings as he struggles to get food and create shelter. He is the consummate self educator.

In “The Cay,” Phillip has a different problem. His roots are in the old South, so he has to overcome prejudice and learn to trust the black man. The old man becomes his teacher and mentor and their key to survival is not education, as Timothy already knows what they must do. Their key is preparation. There is work to be done, but Phillip isn’t used to working and tries to use his blindness as an excuse not to do anything. With a sharp slap to the face by Timothy, Phillip comes to realize he now lives in a different world with new rules and he begins to play the game a new way.

In “The Earthling,” Shawn Daley also has a teacher, but he is a hard teacher. The old man knows the kid has a very limited time to learn his lessons and if he fails, there will be no second chance. There is no time for nurturing and softness. It is the Spartan approach to education; learn or die. He is harsh and demanding with the kid, but he knows what awaits the kid if he fails.

These stories give us the three things our kids need to survive in the world they will inhabit: the ability to learn from experience and observation, a mentor who helps them prepare but will give the equivalent to a slap in the face when needed, and the demanding teacher who knows that most of us will only get one try at success.

These survival stories are more than just entertainment; they show our kids what it takes to survive in the hostile world in which we all must live.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

College Degrees -- commentary

According to a recent Sun editorial, the number of women obtaining college degrees now exceeds that of men, though the gender gap in pay remains. I have watched this growing trend of women getting college degrees for several years. At times, I have warned my male chauvinistic students if they don’t get serious with their studies, they will find themselves either working for a woman or reporting to a woman to get their welfare checks.

I have noticed in recent years that most of my serious students are female and that more females tend to be willing to take the difficult academic courses. So, if the women are willing to take the courses and obtain the degrees, why do we still have the gender gap in pay? I offer a couple of hypotheses badly in need of research.

First, I believe there has been a major shift in what colleges do that accounts for the increase in the number of college degrees going to women. Historically, colleges provided a liberal arts education for students to enhance their quality of life or to prepare them for professional schools, primarily law, medicine, theology, the arts and maybe business. Not many women entered these fields, and so at the turn of the 20th century, only about five per cent of college degrees went to women.

A hundred years ago, the college degree meant entry into the intelligentsia, but things changed over the 20th Century, and colleges have become primarily vocational schools, offering degrees that were unheard of a century ago. A college degree now amounts to entry into a vocation. Many of these modern degrees are now necessary to obtain jobs. Many of those jobs are primarily sought after by women, plus many, many more women now enter the job market. The gateway to many of the jobs sought after by men is still found in technical schools and union apprenticeships. All this accounts for the increase in the percentage of degrees going to women.

Second, and this is pure speculation, I suspect in many instances, industry is bypassing college degrees in favor of indentifying employees and prospective employees with potential and training them for their specific industry. Of course, those who occupy the executive suites still come from colleges, as do engineers and other technical types, but I think many others are not. It has been a common practice of large corporations to employee several college graduates for each position they wished to fill, and then watch how these new employees perform. They keep the one or two they need and send the others packing.

I suspect this practice continues; only the college education is no longer necessary to get into the pool of those being considered. Even as industry no longer trusts the high school diploma to mean much, the same thing is happening to the college degree. I remember a pundit commenting a few years back that he knew American education was in trouble when the first Ph.D. degree was awarded in drivers’ education.

At the high school level, education is diluted by having to deal with students who don’t want to be there. The same thing is happening at the college level in a little different way. Between student loans, grants, and scholarships made plentiful by government programs and lotteries, students who couldn’t afford college in the past, can now find ways to finance it. This means there are more and more students there because parents want them there, or they don’t know what else to do, or they want to avoid the work force as long as possible. But, they are not there to be serious students.

What happens when these students won’t produce a decent product and a professor starts to flunk too many of them? Remember, a college is in the business of marketing credits and they have spent millions creating attractive facilities. These facilities must be paid for.

When a professor flunks too many students, the administration gets concerned. They need those students buying credit hours. Pressure is brought to bear to pass those who don’t earn a pass. Also, if a professor gets too demanding of his students, they look for an easier boss. That professor who used to require a dozen books be read besides the text, finds fewer and fewer students taking his class. The result is grade or degree inflation.

If the degree doesn’t mean much, why not just look for responsible people with or without degrees and train them? In this regard, my guess is that at a time when more and more women are getting college degrees, ironically, some in industry are bypassing the college system and still rely on the “good old boy” network to fill many slots. These are just a couple of hypothses.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Left Back -- commentary

Left Back, A Century of Battles Over School Reform, by Diane Ravitch, will never be a blockbuster, but it should be. This book should be required reading for all those involved in or interested in our schools. Ravitch is an historian of education, has served in the Department of Education and has edited papers for the Brookings Institute on educational policy.

I was surprised to learn, maybe not so surprised, that the current trends we think will cure our educational woes, such as project based learning or problem solving based learning, are simply being recycled, having been tried before. “There is nothing new under the sun.”

It became obvious that policy makers and parents have different agenda. Most parents believe the function of a school is to teach the kids how to read, write, and cipher at least competently enough to gain meaningful employment and operate a household. Those who influenced educational policy throughout the last century had a whole different agenda in mind and often still do.

They didn’t like rote learning, memorization, skill and drill. They argued that students don’t need to learn stuff they can look up. Instead they needed to learn higher order thinking skills, analysis, and problem solving skills. They forgot, or never figured out, that these skills require facts as a starting point. Facts are the building blocks of thought.

Ravitch says, “What was sacrificed over the decades in which the schools were treated as vehicles for job training, social planning, political reform, social sorting, personality adjustment, and social efficiency was a clear definition of what schools can realistically and appropriately accomplish for children and for society.”

Most of what a public school can realistically and appropriately accomplish for children can and should be accomplished by grade nine or ten. The parents of people my age had a better education by the eighth grade, if reading, writing, and math are the goals, than the above average high school graduate of today.

The failed theories of those who led the reform movements of the last century left us with barely literate students applying for jobs with empty high school diplomas. A couple of examples come to mind. Early in my teaching career, I had a straight “A,” 11th grade student, brag that she had never read a book in high school. I had an “A “ student in the 10th grade, when asked to identify the verb in the sentence, respond with “blue.” These examples are not atypical.

We will continue to recycle these worn out reforms until we are ready to face the real problem with our schools. Early in the book, Ravitch inadvertently touches on the real problem, though she never says as much, I assume because she doesn’t see it as the problem, though most secondary classroom teachers know what it is.
Here are some quotes that hint at the problem: “The schools would work their democratic magic by disseminating knowledge to all who sought it.”

“The report urged that young people should go as far in school as their talents and interests would take them.”

“…every subject … should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it…”

Note the phrases “all who sought it,” “as far as their interests would take them,” and “so long as he pursues it.” Each of these assumes a desire on the part of the student. For all of the reforms attempted in the last century, none of them solved, or even dealt seriously with the student who doesn’t want to be there.

Compulsory education until age 18 is a sop to organized labor to keep cheap labor off the market and a way of placating well meaning child advocates who think they are being humane by giving every human a childhood. The problem is many 16, 17, and 18-year-olds are no longer children and don’t really appreciate a childhood which forces them into a classroom six and seven hours a day. I speak from experience, having been one of those students.

It would improve modern education significantly if we allowed students to leave the system when they want to. We need a constructive alternative for those students. The student who doesn’t want to be in school dilutes the process for those who do. He consumes instructional time by being disruptive, and he doesn’t listen well and so needs things explained over and over again. We get all worked up over the high school dropout rate and we solve it by corrupting our system. Surely educators who think we need to teach kids higher order thinking skills, can apply the same to finding a better solution to this problem than forced learning, which can’t be forced at all. I can think of several.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Insurance and You -- commentary

There have been a lot of poorly thought out ideas floated on talk radio and letters to the editor columns during the ongoing debate over health care, and I can’t help but take my swing at a couple of them.

One idea compares the government forcing people to buy health insurance to forcing people to buy automobile insurance, the idea being that one is no different than the other. But, there is a difference. The government only forces us to buy liability insurance. If you are forced to buy comprehensive and collision insurance, it is the institution financing your car that insists on that.

The law requiring you to buy liability insurance is there to protect others from the damage you might do. In most states, if you can prove you have the assets to self-insure, you don’t have to purchase liability insurance on your car. The fellow who came into my lane of traffic, knocked me off my motorcycle, and put me in the hospital for two months suddenly incurred a $400,000 liability. He carried a minimum liability policy of $25,000 required by the state of Arizona. Who gets stuck with the difference, since he had no assets worth pursuing? Insurance and me. Medicare and Tri-care covered a large part of the medical costs. I ate the rest, plus missed wages, and compensation for pain and suffering and diminished quality of life. Obviously, the law was inadequate to protect me, even though it was intended to do so.

I don’t know what the state of Arkansas requires, but I believe the state of Arizona is amiss by not requiring a much larger liability policy. If you think the government is being intrusive by requiring you to purchase liability insurance, explain how you would meet such a liability in case of an accident?

So, then we hear the argument about the intrusive government requiring people to wear seatbelts and motorcyclists to wear helmets. Though I wouldn’t think of leaving my driveway without a fastened seatbelt when in a car or a helmet when on a bicycle or motorcycle, my libertarian instincts agree with those arguing against such laws. But those instincts get checked by something else.

To begin with, insurance companies should be enforcing the wearing of seatbelts and helmets through their pricing schemes, and maybe they do. But, the government also gets involved, because it is expected to be the payer of last resort. The law states, I assume with the consent of the governed, that a hospital cannot turn away anyone in need of medical attention. Therefore, the cost of treating the uninsured is born by paying patients and government programs. This gives the government a vested interest in passing laws to minimize this expenditure.

If you want to repeal seatbelt and helmet laws, you should first repeal the law requiring medical providers to make their services available to those who can’t pay. I promise you the average motorcyclist suffering a severe head injury cannot afford to pay the ensuing medical bills. Until we are willing as a society to let people die for lack of adequate medical attention, somebody is going to have to pay for those services, either the individual, an insurance company, or the government.

Since the government has the taxing capacity, the ability to make law, and is looked upon by the people as ultimately responsible, these laws will prevail. In fact, with the advent of the new health legislation, the government now has an even bigger, and rightfully so, interest in how you live your life as it relates to your health. I say rightfully so because as long as it is paying for health care, it has a right to expect certain behavior from those it cares for.

Life and health insurers have done this for a long time. If you want to jump out of airplanes, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol excessively, ride motorcycles, participate in combat, or be overweight, you pay extra. They do this because they have a vested interest in your behavior. Now, the government too has such a vested interest. However, the government’s response won’t be to charge extra so much as it will be to pass laws restricting your behavior. The price we pay for allowing it to pay for our health care is to accept this intrusiveness.

My libertarian bent is often tugged at by my Christian convictions. I have to ask myself if I am willing to live in a society where people are allowed to die in the streets for lack of medical care or where many people do not have adequate health care? I am not, though I wonder if it takes a 2,000 page bill with lots of back room bargaining to solve the problem.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Signs of Spring -- comentary

I saw the first sign of spring today, or I should say heard about it when a student exclaimed, “Mr. Grove, we had a mosquito in our house last night!” There is nothing louder than a mosquito buzzing around your head as you lay in the dark trying to doze off. Mosquitoes aside, in spring, brain cells begin exploding, especially in our agricultural setting here in the Delta. At my age, these little explosions don’t lead to romance but rather to polishing up old memories.

There is a different buzzing sound that first catches my attention in the spring, the buzz of crop dusting airplanes doing their spring thing. These yellow Ag Cats screaming across a field a hundred feet off the deck trigger excitement. Are they flown by ex-combat fighter pilots seeking yet another adrenaline rush? They scream down the field and at just the right second steeply climb. Look out for that power line! And they do! I suspect my eyes follow them for the same reason I watch stock car races.

Though I would like to fly one of those Ag Cats, I don’t know how. The closest I’ve come to such an adrenaline rush is riding a sport motorcycle, so when motorcycles escape from winter garages, I again sense spring in the air. My motorized two-wheel addiction tugs at me insanely. One spring day, I hope to again be in the saddle, taking my rightful place in the Cripple Old Biker Boys Society. (Boys isn’t exactly what that last B stands for, but it will do. You can Google it: C.O.B.B.)

There are also some docile signs of spring. The giant tractors busily till the soil, and I wonder how life would have been different had I followed my youthful urge to farm instead of joining the Air Force. Memory plays tricks on us, especially where nostalgia is concerned. But, when I see all this farm equipment at work and have to dodge some of it on the highways as farmers go to their fields, a fondness for the past seems to overtake me. Sometimes I think I should buy an old two cylinder John Deere Model B tractor, drive it around the yard and get in the way of neighborhood cars to get this foolishness out of my system before I do something muddleheaded, like hire out to a farmer.

Raise your hand if you too remember days spent on an old Johnny Popper. Hour after hour it was pop, a, pop, a, pop, a, pop. And as you lay your head on the pillow at night, it was still there: pop, a, pop, a, pop.

The Johnny Popper that I so fondly remember from my youth was owned by a poor guy who failed to stomp out a wave of nostalgia that was overtaking him, and he bought a dairy farm as a retirement project. It nearly worked him to death before he could get rid of it.

There are other things that endear me to spring. The first Jonquils start to pop out. The wild yellow ones we see popping up around here hint of the acres and acres of daffodils that colored the Puyallup Valley in Western Washington near where I grew up. Even as the Californians had their annual Rose Parade, we had our annual Daffodil Parade. I dressed in my dark blue band uniform, cleaned off my white shoes and gave them a fresh coat of paint, shined the bell of my trombone, and boarded a school bus for the trip to Puyallup Valley and the several mile march in the big parade. While polishing these memories, I think about the trombone and wonder if I could ever play it again. I bought a used one once to give it a try: no practice, no luck.

And with the coming of the Jonquils, I know the blooming of the dogwoods is not far behind. The blooming Dogwood tree is one of my truly Southern joys. They are an experience of the present, stirring no memories of the past. Every year I patiently wait for the time when I can drive to Spring River, trout fish and report back that the Dogwoods are blooming. There is nothing that makes a ride along the country roads of Crowley’s Ridge more enjoyable than the white flowers of the Dogwoods scattered among the many other trees of the forest.

As the old song says, “June is busting out all over.” You are probably reading this on a Sunday morning. Check and see if the sun is shining. If it is, put the paper down, pack a picnic lunch and go for a ride on the back roads and byways and rediscover spring. See what it does for your disposition.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Stargirl -- commentary

We teach from stories in school because through stories we pass on cultural values. With this in mind, I just introduced my seventh graders to my all time favorite girl in adolescent literature, Stargirl, which is also the title of the book in which she stars as the main character.

Stargirl, born Susan but self named Stargirl, is an eccentric teenager who has been home schooled but is trying her luck at the public schooling in Mica, Arizona, a fictional place.

Her eccentricities include things like researching student birthdays and then going to them in the cafeteria on their birthdays and singing happy birthday, as she accompanies herself on the ukulele.

She wears pioneer dresses and carries a large hand bag with a huge flower on it. In each class, she takes a cloth from her hand bag, covers her desk and then takes out a vase to place on the cloth and a flower to put in it.

At first, the kids don’t know what to make of her. In time they recruit her as a cheer leader; however, she has a disturbing practice of cheering for every basket no matter which team makes it. Her philosophy is that we should all celebrate everyone’s happiness not just our own.

In time Stargirl’s exuberance infuses a new sense of school spirit where none existed before. This school spirit leads to a winning basketball season, something that hasn’t happened before.

As the team begins to win, the students learn to boo and hate, rather than celebrate the other team’s success. They don’t realize that Stargirl is the well from which this new school spirit has sprung and they soon turn on her.

Stargirl also has a habit of befriending every misfit, grieving, or in some way troubled person in town. She learns who these people are by reading the things in the paper over looked by most people: hospital admissions, obituaries, society pages, and fillers. Just as she celebrates other’s joy, she feels other’s sadness and responds by sending cards or leaving anonymous gifts.

During her brief period of acceptance, she becomes the girlfriend of Leo, one of the popular kids and it appears to be as close to true love as teenagers experience.

As Stargirl’s acceptance wanes, Leo faces having to choose between her and his own popularity because the kids have begun to shun her. They won’t sit with her in the cafeteria, talk to her in the halls or have anything to do with her. And when Leo is with her, they treat him the same way.

I am fond of asking the kids how they think Stargirl would fare at fare at their school. Mostly the kids self perception is that they are very tolerant of people who are different and they often see themselves as highly individualistic.

The reality is that in most schools where I have taught, there is a fairly narrow bank of acceptance. Students will allow for some individuality, but it doesn’t take much to be an outcast.

Stargirl is really about two things: Having the courage to make the right decision even if you must stand alone, and the acceptance of those who are different either by choice or by things
beyond their control.

As I think about Stargirl, I’m reminded of the quote, “Everyone is born an original and dies a copy.” I don’t know the source of the quote, but Stargirl’s challenge is to maintain her originality. In an effort to keep her relationship with Leo, she tries for a brief period of time to become like all the other kids, but it doesn’t work. She is a great original but not a very good copy.

Many things work against our retaining our originality. Schools want to us to conform to the ideal of a model student. Many churches are great for turning us into copies. Governments often have an image to which we are to conform as seen in regulations they adopt for the many social programs they sponsor. And above all, advertisers try their best to make us into copies. If we want to be part of the in group, we must wear this brand or have this product. A father told me recently he had a pair of Wal-Mart brand jeans hanging on his son’s door to remind the boy if he didn’t get his grades up he will have to wear them to school. The implication being that this would not be cool. This doesn’t end with jeans; it includes cell phones, jewelry, make up, shoes and so much more. And, then there is peer pressure.

To my relief, Stargirl reverted back to the original. She loved Leo, but she couldn’t pretend to be somebody she wasn’t. Our challenge, as adults, is to rediscover the original us, reclaim it, and celebrate who we really are.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Working Out -- commnetary

The acerbic columnist Malcolm Berko recently ranted about health care and health insurance. He bemoaned the fact that we Americans are “becoming increasingly reluctant to take responsibility for our own actions.”

He pointed out that 74 per cent of health care costs are derived from four things: cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity, all of which are highly preventable. Two things play into this in a big way: nutrition and exercise. My wife insures our healthy eating habits; I am on my own for the exercise.

I have learned some things about exercise over the years. First, regular exercise requires motivation. For many years, having to pass the military annual physical test motivated me. As I got older, I could not wait until 30 days before the test to get in shape. I had to stay in shape.

The bathroom mirror also motivated me. When my image reached the disgust level, it was back to the workout regime. Of course the results were motivational. I remember an ex Marine who ran five miles a day saying he “hated the process but loved the results.” The results are worth the effort.

Age 60 brought forced retirement from the Army National Guard and there went my best motivator. For the next six years I quit working out and joined the ranks of the obese, until an accident, which led to physical therapy, got me back on track. A desire to return to normal and the need to stay healthy, knowing that I have already consumed more than my fair share of medical costs, became the new motivator.

For me to stay with a workout regime, I have to make it as convenient as possible. That means rolling out of bed and going straight to my workout. To do this, I have had many types of home exercise equipment over the years.

The cheapest was a good pair of running shoes. There was a time when I ran six miles a day, six days a week. During this time, I could eat as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted and not gain weight. It came to an end when I damaged a knee. Jogging, though enjoyable, is hard on the joints, especially as you age.

Also, in Alaska running was pretty much a summertime workout; something else was required in the winter. For several years, I had a Concept Two rowing machine, which was supposed to be the closest thing available to competitive rowing. This provided a great workout in that it worked both upper and lower body and the respiratory system. Unfortunately, it took up a lot of space and had to be left behind when moving. For a while, I had a single station weight lifting machine that I liked. It was good for bulking up muscles. Somewhere in this mix there was also a Nordic Track cross-country ski simulator, a Power Rider and a snow shovel.

After coming to Arkansas, bicycling became my primary workout. It is hard to beat bicycling. It is very aerobic, doesn’t jar your skeleton like jogging does and is good ten months out of the year. The furthest I have ridden was 150 miles over two days, from Conway to Russellville and back, for a charity fundraiser. I also rode to Batesville once on a hot, summer day, and rode back the next day. This was my introduction to heat exhaustion.

Sadly, Jonesboro is not a bicycle friendly town and bicyclists take a risk on the public streets. However, there is an active bicycle club working on making it a friendlier place for riders. I also read where a bike trail will be added to the Crowley Ridge Historic Highway. It sounds like a great ride.

Now that I am back in a workout frame of mind, I have purchased a Bowflex home gym and am working on building a Bowflex body. I have also purchased one of those gadgets to turn my bicycle into a stationary, exercise bike for winter use.

Before obtaining this equipment, I had a gym membership for $17 a month, but I had to work out in the evenings and only got in two sessions a week. It costs me $20 a month to pay for the home gym, and now I get in five or six workouts a week. (The spirits of our overworked ancestors must think we’re insane spending money on machines dedicated to making us work.)

So, Mr. Berko, I do take some responsibility for my wellbeing. By so doing, I hope to avoid getting more involved in the high cost of health care than is absolutely necessary. Aside from that, I kind of like the idea of dying healthy rather than surrounded by doctors. I invite my readers to also get involved.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Schol Consolidation -- commentary

The school consolidation dragon is about to swallow up the Weiner School district. However, this victim is not going to be eaten without a scream or two. They discovered a legal loop hole that might allow them to keep their school in operation while saving the Delight School District from also being eaten by the dragon. The districts, though 200 miles apart, intend to consolidate, allowing each to keep their schools open. By consolidating, they will no longer be below the 350 student population which requires consolidation or closing. I hope they make this succeed.

To begin with, a school is the heart and soul of a small town. Over the years, I have not been a great sports fan, but when I started teaching school, I felt compelled to attend the athletic events my students participated in. To my surprise, I discovered a football or basketball game wasn’t so much about the game as it was about the fellowship of the town folk who had come out to cheer on the players.

The high school ball game is where the people of the town exchange gossip, visite with those they haven’t seen for awhile, exchange greetings and comments with their kid’s teachers, and keep up with what goes on at the school. And of course, it is nice if their side wins the game. To take this out of the community devastates it. How do you replace it?

In a small town, the teachers get to know their students’ families. This puts a teacher in a much better position to accurately empathize with her students. Also, a small community acts as a conscience for its citizens. I wanted so badly to steal a car when I was a teenager and go for a joy ride. However, I knew what it would do to the family reputation in our small town. The community served as a restraint, as a part of my conscience. When my son was in a small, neighborhood elementary school, he did all right. Things started going wrong when he had to go to the distant, larger junior high school. But when he then had to go to a huge, and even more distant high school, it was the end of his schooling. And, the anonymity of the situation allowed him to misbehave without our knowledge.

Theologically, I belong to that branch of Christianity that believes man has a fallen nature. Because of that, we must train children to be civil and moral. Unfortunately, not all children get trained adequately. If you have three hundred students, and 10 per cent of them didn’t get trained adequately, you have 30 problem kids. The teachers and administrators all know who those students are and they are able to keep track of them. When you have a school of 3,000 students, you now have 300 hundred such students. It is impossible to keep track of them and they spread their poison.

What is the justification for this seeming need to consolidate our schools? It seems to be that we can offer a much more diverse curriculum: more foreign languages, more music, more art, better laboratories, etc. There was a time when this argument had some legitimacy, but with modern technology and distance learning labs, even a small town like Weiner can provide anything their students desire. This is no longer a valid argument for creating larger schools. Isn’t it ironic that Arkansas insists on closing down smaller schools, while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is spending millions to create and promote smaller schools?

I was listening to “Booknotes” on C-span recently and Brian Lamb was interviewing Dianne Ravitch, author and education historian. He asked her why she thought educators promoted these huge school campuses. She said it was a way to track students. Tracking students, that is grouping them by ability, became a big taboo in education in the 80s and 90s. It hasn’t produced better education for anyone, and by having a greater selection of electives, the kids will sort themselves out, thus skirting this issue.

In her book, “Left Back, A Century of Battles Over School Reform,” Ravitch says, “Large schools may have worked well enough when adult authority was intact and educators set the tone, but they became dysfunctional when adult authority dissipated in the late 1960s and early 1970s.” (You will hear more of this terrific book in future columns.)

Weiner and Delight will get the news sometime in March as to whether they are going to be allowed to do this most unusual and creative consolidation. I hope they do succeed. They may be skirting the spirit of the law, but they didn’t create the loop hole and they are justified in taking advantage of it.