A Formula For Success

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While visions of sugarplums should be dancing in my head, instead I am inundated with thoughts of foci and directrixes on parabolas, and unit circles whose angles and radians haunt my dreams. I want to be enjoying the spirit of Christmas present but am forced to patiently explain the nuances of mathematical concepts to my grandchildren who are being rushed through advanced topics by teachers feverishly staring down deadlines that won’t stop for the holidays. The mad rush of the season is as evident in classrooms as at the malls and Amazon distribution centers. Christmas will be here and gone before anyone associated with schools manages to catch a breath and this year I’m caught up in the insanity because my grandchildren are drowning in information overload and I have the tools to help them survive.

The human brain is capable of great leaps of learning but knowledge must be ingested in appropriately measured chunks and then practiced and reviewed well enough for mastery of concepts. When new ideas are presented before the old ones are completely understood the brain tends to seize up in frustration and the individual experiences a sense of failure that is only compounded as more and more information is piled on a foundation that is faulty. This is what I am seeing in my grandchildren as they attempt to balance unreasonable demands on their capacity to learn. They are literally operating at full tilt each day while falling behind in the race to meet the demands of their teachers. It’s not that they are lazy or slow to learn. The problem is that nobody seems to realize that they are existing on five hours of sleep each day while filling every waking minute with assignments that take far longer to complete than their teachers seem to understand.

One grandson recently took a fifty minute test in Pre-Calculus that was four pages long. He knew how to do every problem but ran out of time when he was only about three fourths of the way through the questions. He made one of the few passing grades but it was still rather low. The teacher chided the students insisting that he had been able to do all four pages in only thirty minutes, hardly a reasonable way to determine whether or not the students should have been able to finish in a timely manner. He has been teaching the topics for decades and he made up the questions. Of course it would take him less time than those who had first learn the concepts only a week before the test.

Another grandson who is generally quite competent with all things mathematical described the breakneck speed at which his teacher is pushing the class. On the last exam the class average was 62 and the highest grade was a low eighty. This is a group of hard working gifted and talented students who are members of the National Honor Society. It is not that they did not expend the necessary effort to better learn the concepts. The problem was in the pacing which required them to deconstruct all aspects of exponential functions in the space of about four days time and then take a major exam on the concepts. There was not enough time for them to develop fluidity in their understanding and, even worse, in spite of their poor performance on the test they had to move on to the next topic while still in a state of confusion.

Much of this insanity is driven by the demands of the College Board, a group that mainly focuses on testing, an industry that brings them great financial profits. They develop tests like the SAT and then create workshops and curriculum for both students and teachers. All of the moving parts cost money that fills their tills in the guise of being helpful.

Today’s successful high school students are leaving for classes in the dark, spending spending seven hours in a classroom, participating in another three or four hours in after school activities, arriving home in the dark, and then studying until well past midnight. They are exhausted and often confused particularly when their teachers and society view them as being lazy. Their frustrations are real and few people are taking them seriously.

Each teacher is in turn encased in a pressure filled bubble with the scope and sequence of the curriculum more often than not predetermined by administrators who never see the struggles of the students to keep pace. The classroom often feels like a long distance race across a desert that leaves all but the strongest behind. The teachers see the problems first hand and realize all too well that in the process over which they have so little control so much potential is destroyed.

Sadly schools have become political tools for individuals who have little or no understanding of how the brain works or what proper teaching and learning looks like. There is often a one size fits all approach to education that does not take the needs of each individual into account. The platitude, “All children can learn” is true but with a caveat. The rate at which they truly master concept varies considerably and in a reasonable situation they are not tested for a grade that defines their abilities until they are ready. The goal should never be to frustrate, but to encourage. Time and patience is a critical aspect of the process. Because we are each so very different it is a huge mistake to assume that a canned program tied to a calendar will work for everyone.

Our schools are in trouble not because they are filled with incompetent teachers and unmotivated students, but because they are being run from afar. Learning should never be a race. When it is not a pleasant and encouraging experience it changes minds in negative and unpredictable ways. It’s time we all speak out about the problems that we see and seize control of the process from politicians and businesses who do not know our children. We have to return to a formula for success, Good teaching + time for practice + attention to individual needs = Mastery. That should be our goal.

Our Human Dilemmas

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There was a time when most of us who are common folk knew little about what was happening in the world outside of our own little communities. News from other parts came slowly if at all. We humans concentrated on the problems of daily life that affected us directly with little thought of what life was like outside of our narrow sphere of reference. Even as late as the end of the nineteenth century most people lived in relative isolation.

My grandfather often spoke of life on his grandmother’s farm and his lack of knowledge of the happenings outside of the insulated world of his youth. It was not until World War I that the average person began to take notice of the symbiotic nature of world politics. That feeling of being part of something larger than a radius of a few square miles beyond our homes grew even stronger with World War II. By the mid twentieth century we were developing a worldview that even included a foray into the universe.

As we have navigated the political waters of worldwide citizenry we have had to determine what exactly our obligations to people outside of our own borders are. There are few clear guidelines and so we tread a wary line between isolationism and serving as geopolitical saviors of those who are being persecuted across the globe. Sometimes it is difficult to determine who the players are. There are no perfect guidelines for choosing sides, and often we wonder if we should even think of getting involved in the politics of places so far from our own. Moral questions abound in the many decisions that we must make, none of which are without contradictions.

Our human natures prefer clear choices between good and evil and so we often attempt to distill complex issues into very simple ideas. In the process we are bound to make mistakes because very few political questions have easy answers. When we make our issues partisan we run the risk of ignoring realities on either side and making things ultimately worse. Rhetoric and emotion are more likely to result in stop gap measures rather than long tern solutions that will endure the tests of time.

The world is on fire in so many places, few more frightening the Xinjiang region of mainland China. In the north west corner of that nation there live a Muslim minority group known as the Uyghurs ( pronounced “Weegurs”). The Uyghurs speak a Turkic language and have a culture far different from the rest of China. They were incorporated into the country in 1949, but mostly lived in their own way until more recent times. Of late the Chinese government has cracked down on them with tactics that should alarm the entire world, but very little of their plight has been discussed by the world powers.

It is believed that upward of one million Uyghur men have been sent to reeducation camps that were hastily built in the Xinjiang region. Some of them have seemingly disappeared and are thought to be dead. Stories of torture and murder are rampant. While the men are imprisoned Chinese males from other parts of the country are sent to take over the Uyghur homes, often forcing the wives who have been left behind to cohabit. Whispers of rapes and great fear are captured by the thousands of cameras that police the region. At any given moment the people are subjected to random searches and accused of being enemies of the state simply because of the way that they walk or present themselves.

There are countless stories of minority people being threatened, imprisoned, and killed in places across the globe. Our instincts tell us that we should somehow help but caution asks us to wonder if and when it is right to interfere in the workings of countries that are not our own. After all, we argue, we have enough of our own problems right here. There are signs of injustice in our own backyards. Should we clean our own house before we are audacious enough to find fault with others? What is the red line beyond which we can no longer simply sit back and watch horror unfolding? How much of our own human and financial treasure are we willing to invest in problems that don’t appear to directly affect us?

These are the questions that plague us and none of the answers are either obvious or without grave concerns. Doing nothing or doing the wrong thing has consequences, some of which we cannot foresee. Our natures leave us frozen with indecision while ideologues rush in head first  often seizing the day and the power. For the most part the rest of us just quietly go along, allowing the squeaky wheels to get all of the attention until things come to a dangerous head forcing us to act one way or another. In the meantime there is so much suffering in the world that is seemingly unchallenged.

Our own civil war was bound to occur because slavery was indeed wrong and our nation was irreparably divided as to how to uncouple itself from something so horrific. In the end as is too often the case it took outright war and horror to force the issue. Perhaps the fact that the rest of the world chose to simply watch as we fought brother against brother rather than choosing sides whether for humane or financial reasons was the right response. Maybe in the long run each country has to find its own way out of social and political divisions, but what about those instances that aggressively overtake and murder innocents? Are we morally bound to help them in some way?

These are the kind of questions that fill my head and I know enough about history and human nature to understand that the world has been filled with intrigue since its very beginning. Knowing when to intervene on behalf of a person or a group is a tricky thing but something that we should always seriously consider not as a means of gaining our own power but as a way of protecting those unable to protect themselves. Such discussions should not be a matter of partisan preference but honest communication in search of reasonable answers.

Right now it feels almost impossible to achieve such noble goals. I worry about what may have to eventually happen to bring us to our senses, to help us understand that we should not be enemies. History tells me that it may be a very unpleasant learning experience that we must endure before we find our way. I pray that we figure that out before it is too late.

Our Hunter Gatherer Past Present and Future

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Attempts to understand the many conflicts between people across the world can be rather confusing. Sadly most of them occur because of perceived religious or ethnic differences. Race is often seen as a dividing factor when in reality the genetic differences between one group of people and another are generally superficial. The reality is that when taken down to a biological level we homo sapiens are more alike than different. The things that divide groups generally have more to do with environment than biology. Mankind’s history is sadly one of creating alliances to maintain or grab power and using manmade concepts like ethnicity or religion as rationale for struggles to get a fair share of the world’s resources.

Survival has always lay at the heart of the human experience. Our ancestors moved from place to place in search of food and shelter for thousands of years before learning how to take control of nature through farming. Suddenly the idea of claiming the land and settling down became a way of life for much of the world’s population. Obviously  this new advance created unexpected problems that are still the focus of most of the problems that plague us today. Determining who gets what and how to divide resources is the stuff of politics and conflict particularly as the population grows. Over the course of history the concept of survival of the fittest has all too often meant the ones with the biggest clubs and the most stuff.

Our genetic ancestors were often a violent bunch not so much because of the DNA that they carried as for the need to fight for food and a place to sleep at night. Scientists have found the remains of people from tens of thousands of years ago that show signs of blunt force trauma. Life was often brutish and short for those from whom we descended. It’s likely impossible for any of us to truly understand what kind of daily challenges they faced. We judge them from a perspective of hindsight.

Wars between people still rage today. Most of the problems in the Middle East center on religious differences that take the form of political ideologies. All across the globe we humans argue over sociological concepts and their effects on the fair distribution of resources and justice. We create alliances and rant about differences when the reality is that what we all really want is a place to call home that is safe and filled with the comforts that we need to survive our time on this earth. We long for the freedom to be left alone even as we cling to relationships. We are living breathing contradictions and keeping us all happy seems to be an almost impossible task. Thus we can’t seem to all settle down into peaceful coexistence in spite of one valiant attempt after another throughout the long stretch of history.

There are only so many ways to tell a story. There are major themes that tie together the human search for peace and tranquillity. When all is said and done the king is not so different from his servant. The things that separate us from one another have very little to do with our natures, but everything to do with how we view each other. We create artificial structures and definitions in our attempts to explain things that we don’t understand. Sometimes that process leads us to false conclusions and grave misunderstandings.

In a sense we are all still hunter gatherers of a sort. From the time that we are young we begin the training that we will need to one day leave our homes in search of work that will provide us with the funds that we need to purchase our food and clothing and necessities. Our daily grind may be less dangerous than that of the primitive people from whence we descended, but the idea of finding a way to survive is still the basis of our endeavors.

The most remarkable thing about humans is that we long to for lives that are more than just an unending repetition of work. We are innovative and our creations have given us incredibly rich and remarkable existences that were unimaginable to our ancestors. History has not been just about our wars with one another. It has also included our better natures and the creation of arts and sciences. We have used our remarkable intellect to impose our will on medicine and music. We have civilized our barbaric ways so much that we are gravely appalled when we see evidence that we have not evolved as much as we would like to think that we have.

Our human past is filled with both horrendous mistakes and great advances. We often learn through trial and error. Our best efforts seem to occur whenever we set aside our differences and operate from a sense of concern for a common good. None of us are perfect and neither are our decisions, but it is possible to rise above anger and fear. Such moments created the Magna Carta, freed slaves, and eliminated murderous tyrants.

As I look around today I see a preponderance of alliances formed out of concern for a world that seems to be out of sync. It’s difficult to know how to think or feel. We are weary of the battles with one another because we instinctively understand that we should not be enemies. We want the same things but have different ideas about how to achieve them. Sadly the old ploy of dividing us into warring camps is being used rather effectively all across the globe. Our ethnicities, religions, socio economic statuses and political leanings are part of a grand power struggle that is in fact little different from all such maneuvering in the past. It’s a dangerous game that we should refuse to play.

I will continue to speak out against the death penalty but I will not turn my back on those who believe that it is an effective tool to fight crime. I believe in the tenets of my Catholic faith but I will not use them to hate those who think I am deluding myself with religion. I respect the human made differences in philosophies and ways of living because I understand that when all is said and done they are only superficial aspects of our most basic desires. People are breathtaking and the fact that they represent so much variety makes them all the better. Perhaps one day we may even learn how to hunt and gather in peace.

Can We Just Laugh?

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The Saudi Arabian government has cracked down on freedom of expression. Those who speak against the government often find themselves being questioned, jailed or worse. One noted journalist left his birth nation out of fear and then felt compelled to write about the events that he saw unfolding with his fellow countrymen who voiced their concerns. His wife became so afraid of what might happen to her because of her husband’s views that she asked for a divorce to protect herself and her children. The man nonetheless continued to speak out about abuses of freedom and ill treatment of dissidents. Eventually he found new love and decided to remarry. When he visited the Saudi embassy in Turkey to complete the necessary paperwork he was never again seen alive. Eventually his dismembered body was found, leading many to believe that he had been silenced by the government that he had been criticizing as a warning to those who dared to speak their minds.

In Hong Kong citizens have been protesting the prohibitive excesses of the Chinese government. The once democratic and free city that operated under the wing of Great Britain now struggles under the excessively restrictive rules of China. Those who dare to defy the government are being publicly beaten into submission. While here in the United States those who dare to side with the demonstrators in Hong Kong are finding that doing so can bring unexpected consequences. 

It’s seemingly unthinkable for those of us who live in the United States to imagine living in a place where we have to watch every word that we utter or write lest we be chastised or ostracized or imprisoned. We live under the assurances of our Constitution and the free speech that our Founding Fathers thought essential to a healthy democracy, and yet there is a kind of shadow hovering over our public interactions that is ruled by mobs intent on controlling what we believe. In the world of tweets and social media comments those who stray from conformance with certain opinions are sometimes figuratively pilloried in the public square.

Much that occurs on the platforms of social media worries me. I am appalled by the rush to judgement that occurs with the flick of  the fingers on a keyboard. The anonymity that we believe we have often leads to cruel and bullying behaviors from perfect strangers who somehow delight in raising our ire with the things that they do and say. Luckily a true hero emerges now and again from the sound and fury of the ether.

I have been an avid fan of Ellen DeGeneres from the time that she first emerged as a talented comedian. I find her to be an honest and loving person with a heart of gold. She’s also quite funny which makes her daily program a fun way to spend a bit of time escaping from the stresses of the world. She is lighthearted and one of those people who mostly stays away from controversy which I appreciate because I have grown weary of encountering everyone else’s political commentaries wherever I seem to go.

On a recent weekend Ellen was invited by her friend, Jerry Jones, to attend a Dallas Cowboys football game where she shared Mr. Jones’ private box with former president George W. Bush and his wife Laura. Ellen admitted that she had a good time even though she is more of a Green Bay Packers fan and to her delight her team actually won. Like any average person being treated to such a grand afternoon she took selfies of herself cutting up and laughing with President Bush and posted them proudly on Twitter.

What should have been an innocent bit of fun turned into a controversy as people excoriated her for daring to even talk to someone like Bush much less have a good time with him. The process of raking Ellen over the coals went berserk despite the fact that she had done nothing wrong other than be polite and appreciative of the hospitality that she received at the game. She behaved in a perfectly respectful manner but so many thought she should have instead ignored the Bushes or even expressed her disdain for having to be with them.

To her credit Ellen used the platform of her television program to clarify her feelings. She courageously told her audience and those who had criticized her that her friends do not have to agree with all of her views to be embraced by her. She admitted that she actually likes George Bush and that his beliefs have nothing to do with their relationship. Once again she proved her mettle in standing up to her detractors and in the process she demonstrated the content of her character. In that moment she became a role model for all of us who are weary of the often illogical and violent divisiveness that is tearing our society apart.

This is not Saudi Arabia nor is it Hong Kong. It is the United States of America and heretofore our nation has mostly been tolerant of different ideas. Sadly many among us more and more often choose sides and steadfastly ignore and despise any thoughts that diverge from their own to the point of insulting and even ostracizing those with whom they disagree. There is so much anger in the public square that many American citizens have grown wary of expressing themselves and often rightfully so because there are extremist groups who actually believe that certain ways of thinking should be illegal.

Our country is treading a very thin line that must never lead to the muting of individual opinions and actions. We must always be free to associate with whomever we desire and to freely state our points of view. It would be wise for everyone to remember that it is never a good idea to strive to be of one voice. We need our dissenters and our revolutionaries. Who knew that one day we would also realize that we sometimes need a brave comedian to remind us of the importance of respect and tolerance and the power of a good laugh?

Life

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October is respect life month. It seems intuitive to think that every human would respect the life of another and yet the headlines are filled with evidence that such is not always the case. In fact, we are all too unable to even agree on the definition of life. One simple definition based on scientific theories is that life is “ the property or quality that distinguishes living organisms from dead organisms and inanimate matter, manifested in functions such as metabolism, growth, reproduction, and response to stimuli or adaptation to the environment originating from within the organism.”

The religious definition of life is that  our life as a human begins at the time of conception. Using the more scientific definition above it is easy to see that functions originating within the embryo begin the processes that define an organism as living rather than dead. The legal definition of life has become more and more convoluted, depending on the politics of the people from which it is encoded. There is much disagreement as to whether a clump of cells inside a woman’s womb are the essence of a person or little more than a gooey mass. The controversy is at the center of ethical discussions that are far from resolved.

For those who believe, as I do, that life begins at conception it is unarguable that purposely doing anything to harm or bring death to an embryo or fetus is murder. Such beliefs make abortion unacceptable for me and a vast segment of the population. When we hear of the millions of babies who have been killed in the name of women’s health or rights or whatever euphemisms one might use, it is an unbearable thought. If I witnessed someone being killed in the street I would immediately call for help to intervene. I would willingly serve as a witness at a trial for the perpetrator. I would be considered a hero for doing so, and yet if I protest the use of abortion for all but those cases in which a mother’s life is in danger, I am viewed by many as a kook or, even worse, someone who is heartless and unkind.

I actually feel somehow complicit in something that is very wrong because I tend to be more than reluctant to speak out against a practice that I think goes against the very nature of all that is decent. I worry more about what people may think of me if I reveal my thoughts or attempt to influence theirs than about the fact that I am by omission providing my acceptance of something that I feel is wrong.

Our society sends so many mixed messages about life. We are willing to convict someone who kills a pregnant woman and her baby for two murders, but we do not consider the work of an abortionist to be a crime except under the most extreme circumstances. We have no problem arresting someone for killing or cruelty to animals and yet some argue that abortion should be legal all the way up to the point of birth.

I not only cannot abide by such thinking, but I am feeling more and more guilty for not working to end such barbarous practices. I suppose that admitting such a thing will cause me to lose friends, readers, people that I love, but somehow I don’t feel I can continue to look the other way as though I do not see. If I am to show respect for human life then it must include the child who is growing inside a mother’s womb.

There is a brilliant writer named Kevin Williamson. He is a Texan who was adopted after his birth mother gave him up. He is a master of words and a joy to read. I do not always agree with him for he is far too conservative in some areas, but I always appreciate his total mastery of expression. Perhaps because of his own circumstances he is unapologetically pro life. He often considers out loud what his own fate would have been had his birth mom decided to simply end her pregnancy rather than carrying him full term and giving him to a family that wanted him. For the world it would have been the loss of great talent at the very least, and the extinction of a beautiful individual at most.

Mr. Williamson was hired by The Atlantic not long ago, an honor of which he was quite deserving. The magazine wanted to bring more political balance to its readers which is a worthy cause in these days of so much division. Sadly Mr. Williamson did not last a week at the job. Other writers and many of the readers protested his views on abortion and loudly exclaimed that his very presence was triggering their anxieties.

In particular Mr. Williamson had once been interviewed about abortion and during the conversation he admitted, like me, that he felt that abortion was murder. The interviewer then remarked incredulously that if it were indeed murder then all those involved including the woman would be tried for murder and given the appropriate punishments. He asked if that would be okay with Mr. Williamson who answered the ridiculously hypothetical question by saying that he supposed that would have to be so. From that point forward he became known as the man who thinks that women who have an abortion should be tried and punished for murder which was hardly the whole truth of the purposeful entrapment by the reporter.

We must respect life and we must also respect the deeply held feelings of those who have strong beliefs that abortion is wrong. We honor those whose faiths do not allow them to stand for the pledge of allegiance. We let girls of the Muslim faith wear head coverings to schools where head gear is against the rules. We constantly defer to religious beliefs but freak out whenever someone admits a strong feeling against abortion even though they base their beliefs on conscience. We argue with them. fire them and make them feel as though they are somehow mean. In truth nothing is further from the truth. Pro-life proponents are simply demonstrating the respect for life that they believe begins at the moment of conception and continues util the last breath. There is nothing egregious about that.