Friday, February 1, 2008

Illusions in America Today #5

Our schools abound with amazing people and success stories. But, the general decline of education in America continues in spite of the dedicated efforts of talented people. Thousands of research projects in recent decades have produced no universal answers to the problem, and massive bureaucracy limits the scope of our interventions to mere incrementalism.

Before identifying the causes of the problem and possible solutions, we must recongize that schools as we know them today are a very new invention of human society. And yet, there are those who want you to believe that the institution is sacrosanct; that the current structure exists for good reasons. The fact is that the American educational system remains the biggest social experiment in human history, but that this juggernaut has no captain or navigator.

I believe that the problems of the American educational system are many, but are mostly rooted in these issues:
  • Lack of equitable funding -- How can we ever hope to overcome classism, racism, poverty, and other societal ills when some schools get $20,000/year to spend per student and others get $2,000/year per student?
  • A time structure that is out of sync with society -- At a time when most couples must both work to survive financially, it is madness to send children to empty homes in mid-afternoon and for one-quarter of the year.
  • Lack of student focus -- Our curriculum is far too rigid to allow teachers the freedom to facilitate student-centered learning and the encouragement of unique talents.
  • Isolation -- Our schools have become the easy repository of too many community problems without the benefit of community support and interaction.
None of this is news to anyone familiar with our educational system. However, if we start with the assumption that every element of the school paradigm is negotiable, where would we start? For instance, imagine:
  • a daily school schedule with hours of time for recreation, socialization, and open exploration;
  • a curriculum based not on grade levels and standardized test scores, but on each student's individual capabilities and talents;
  • full integration with family and community life so that school is more about learning and less about indoctrination and discipline; and
  • a goal of producing independent thinkers, free spirits, happy and creative young adults, who leave school knowing what they want to do with their lives.
In an intentional community, a new paradigm of school is not only possible, but essential. The organization of work must provide parents more time to integrate family and school. We must re-examine the concept of "adolescence" through a postmodern lens to determine the real purposes of formal education in society. Every child must feel safe, healthy, loved, and wanted not just in the schools, but everywhere in the community. Children can develop a sense of worth if they see a point to school and are encouraged to develop their talents to their full potential. Education can succeed if goals come from a community-based core, not a corporate core.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Test Pattern of Our Identity

Sitting here trying to work, and all I can think about is Lost returning to TV tonight (woo , hoo!) Now, I watch my share of television programming, but have found myself uninterested in the recent hit shows. Reality television bores me and I can't bear to watch these cruel competition series. And frankly, after 50 years, there just are not too many new ideas out there.

But, looking back over my life, there have always been one of two shows that I never missed. I don't mean shows like Law and Order, which I have eventually caught in re-runs, but shows for which everything else in life stopped. In a world of TIVO and On-Demand viewing, I think people are missing out on the expectation and planning involved.

So, here is my life defined by shows I never missed (at least until they ran their creative course - I can't watch the death throes of past favorites).
  • Lost
  • West Wing
  • ER
  • N.Y.P.D. Blue
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • L.A. Law
  • Hill Street Blues
  • Dallas
  • M*A*S*H
  • Hawaii Five-O
  • All in the Family
  • Rowan and Martin's Laugh In
  • Star Trek
  • The Addams Family
  • Outer Limits
  • Twilight Zone
I imagine that there is a psychology/self help book in here somewhere -- you know, some kind of typology like Myers Briggs. I would be an RFCJ, a Realistic Fantasist with a sense of Comedic Justice.

Of course, I'm sure others might look at my list and think, "no wonder he is so strange - look at what he watched growing up!" It is bizarre that Unitarian Rod Serling had such an impact on me as a child, since I did not discover Unitarian Universalism until long after his death. And, Gene Roddenberry had far more to do with my theological formation than any minister.

So, what does the list of your life look like?

Monday, January 28, 2008

"To snore, perchance to dream..."

On a (much) less serious note, let me add my (considerable) weight in support of the growing use in common parlance of the word 'snarky.' In the months-old tradition of the pizzatorium, snarky combines the tantalizing flavors of British and American slang, with a solid saucy foundation of meaning and auditory pleasure.

A "snarky" comment is critical in a sarcastic and cynical sort of way. Apparently, the adjective dates back to early 20th century British slang. According to one online dictionary, snarky comes from snark, meaning to nag, snore, or snort from the Dutch and Low German word snorken. To be honest, I don't care about the origin - I just like the word. Snarky is one of those words that one does not really need to know in order to surmise its meaning from context. When someone says, "That was a really snarky thing to say," you really get the picture without Webster's help.

Some definitions I found included a tint of snottiness or arrogance to the meaning of snarky. I wholeheartedly concur, as this adds the anchovy to an already delightful slice. A snarky comment is not only sarcastically witty or cynical, but also best delivered with nose slightly tilted and eyes cast aside in a carelessly caustic manner.

I must admit, however, that too much snarkiness may not be a good thing. I am not nearly as fond of snarky's cousins, sharkily, snarkier, sharkiest, or other variations. The way snarky slithers off the roof of your mouth, beginning the required nose curl in the process, and ends with the harsh finality of the exhaled breath that exposes the canines as if they were fangs, does not translate nearly as well to other applications. So, let's do our best and keep snarky pure and unmodified for future generations to appreciate.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Illusions in America Today #4

I am fortunate to have a little earth mother friend in California who I love dearly. We are kindred spirits in vital ways, particularly regarding our passion for youth ministry. But, one issue separates us. She is vegan and I am an unrepentant carnivore.

I kid her about her diet, mainly because I am a wise guy and I tend to poke fun at people I care about. But to be honest, I respect her immensely. I also know that many of my dietary choices are not choices at all, but simply 50+ years of conditioning and bad habits. Discussing disillusions of America today, we must address our increasingly non-sustainable lifestyle and our hypocritical reverence for life.

The vegan issue recently arose in my church, followed by the strident and intemperate voices that always seem to surround the discourse. Like many other topics we Unitarian Universalists discuss, we often fail to allow people time to process the information, express their own points of view, and perhaps in time, come to agreement. Many people know far more about diet and nutrition than I do. But even the most ardent meat-eater must experience a twinge of angst at the industry surrounding the production of beef, chicken, pork, etc.

The cruelty of slaughterhouses and industrial farms does weigh heavy on my mind. I also recognize that the food I learned to eat as a child and to prepare as an adult is not the best diet for human health and well being. But, to me, to essential issue for Unitarian Universalists is life. If we affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence, then we must respect all life. That commitment calls on us to stop extinguishing billions of lives each year to sustain a diet that is not healthy or sustainable.

The answer is at least vegetarianism, and eventually a vegan lifestyle. I will be the first to admit, this choice will be hard for me. But, my little earth mother makes a mean vegan brownie and delicious cookies. So, maybe she can help me learn to like tofu and edamame beans on my pizza, too.

P.S. Right on the ball, my friend sent me this article from the January 27, 2008 New York Times, titled "Rethinking the Meat Guzzler." I'm not moved by some of the arguments, but there are enough different approaches to the subject that I imagine any carnivore will experience some discomfort.