Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Reflection on 41 years

41 years is not a particular milestone for a career. 40 years would be a more appropriate time to stop and reflect, but quite honestly, I just now did the the mental math and realized this term ends 41 years. The time has slipped by quite quickly, so if that indicates anything, it likely suggests that I have enjoyed a “good” career to date. So, what have these last 41 years teaching meant for me? Why have I continued in a career that many would never consider? Did I just never get over the idealized view that “teachers can change the world”? Did I just not feel prepared to take on any other career? Was it just easier to stay with the known, “don’t rock the boat”?

For me, it has been something deeper than those over-trivialized questions we tend to ask ourselves about careers. So what was it that drew me to teaching and has kept me in it? How have the last 41 years been?

To be honest, the initial draw was probably the safety of doing something I knew and something that was approved of by my immediate family. Lutheran teaching, what could be more safe than that? It didn’t take long for me to realized that there was nothing more magical about teaching in a parochial school than anywhere else. There were parent issues, “problem” students, and even issues within faculties and between pastors and teachers, and the pay was not great in the beginning. But…no matter what those other issues might bring, when I walked into my classroom, 99% of the time they all were forgotten. Here, it was just the kids and me. Here, I got to exchange ideas with my students, I got to expose them to new ideas, watch them as they confronted those new ideas and made them their own. I got to watch them grow in ways their parents might never get to see.

To be honest, there have been times when I thought of getting out of the classroom, but those feelings never lasted for long and I always came back to it, not with a sense that I had nowhere else to go, but rather with a renewed energy. At the end of the day, I have loved the challenge of working with kids, teaching them academics but also how to be in this world with each other, how to be their better selves. Many look for education to simply be an avenue for a good job. I see education being an avenue for having a good life, for growing an individual into someone who will make the world he or she inhabits into a better place, someone who will advance humanity just by being there.

So…I guess I have never gotten over the idea that good educators can change the world. And, as I look towards the end of my career, whenever that may be, I think that is what I will have the hardest time giving up. Working with kids and ideas and helping them to be their better selves so they can make a better world.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Thoughts on Emerson's "The Poet"

From Emerson, “The Poet”

I am thoroughly enjoying Emerson’s writings. I wish I had read him sooner, but maybe you have to come to a point in life to be able to appreciate certain things. In any case, I have found all of his essays to be very thought provoking, and then I came to “The Poet” in Essays: Second Series. I almost put it down, but decided to just keep reading and I am so glad I did. About two-thirds through, I came across this gem. It’s long so be forewarned and it is in the context of the poet, but Emerson suggests earlier that the poet is simply the one who has the ability to put to words that which he experiences in nature. Anyone, he would argue, can relate to the deep experiences of nature which is what he also writes about here. (At least that’s how I read him)  I also don’t think he is saying that technology, cities, etc are bad things (he traveled himself) but rather he warns against finding our happiness in things. This passage is loaded with thought provoking ideas, glean from it what you will. 

For me; it brought to mind my mother and the simple life she followed; early marriage when we couldn’t even afford to travel home, but with each other for company and a few simple ingredients, our Christmas Eve feast was born; my daughters playing in our back yard or at a campsite on a lake; my grandchildren playing as the tree limbs taken down in their back yard became a make-believe wonderland; my granddaughter as she hunted bears in our vineyard with her bow and arrows made from a pear tree branch and store string; my own times growing up and wandering along the creek or now spending time among the vines. As I read this passage, Thoreau’s words rang in the background, “simplify, simplify, simplify”

“…The sublime vision comes to the pure and simple soul in a clean and chaste body. That is not an inspiration, which we owe to narcotics, but (which is but) some counterfeit excitement and fury. Milton says that the lyric poet may drink wine and live generously, but the epic poet, he who shall sing of the gods and their descent unto men, must drink water out of a wooden bowl. For poetry is not ‘Devil’s wine,’ but God’s wine. It is with this as it is with toys. We fill the hands and nurseries of our children with all manner of dolls, drums and horses; withdrawing their eyes from the plain face and sufficing objects of nature, the sun and moon, the animals, the water and stones, which should be their toys. So the poet’s habit of living should be set on a key so low that the common influences should delight him. His cheerfulness should be the gift of the sunlight; the air should suffice for his inspiration, and he should be tipsy with water. That spirit which suffices quiet hearts, which seems to come forth to such from every dry knoll of sere grass, from every pine stump and half-imbedded stone on which the dull March sun shines, comes forth to the poor and hungry, and such as are of simple taste. If thou fill thy brain with Boston and New York, with fashion and covetousness, and wilt stimulate thy jaded senses with wine and French coffee, thou shalt find no radiance of wisdom in the lonely waste of the pine woods.” (Emerson, “The Poet”)

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Thoughts on Term Limits

In recent weeks there seems to have been a rise in the calls for consideration of term limits for our public servants elected to serve in Washington. These calls invariably come from the people who don’t like the way things are going. However, when things are going their way, we seldom hear from them. I happen to live in a state, Missouri, which over 20 years ago decided to implement this idea for our state legislators. I believe it was in 1992 that the people voted to make this change, so we have been living with it for some time. Although I am a Missouri transplant, I have lived here since well before the change and the entire time since.

So how has it worked? From my perspective, it has been a disaster. In fact, folks here are starting to talk about how to “tweak” the law so some of its negative effects will be mitigated. In our case, as some readers know, we allow individuals to serve a total of eight years in the House and another eight years in the Senate. The result has produced a series of what I will call legislative greenhorns. I am not a legislator, but as I look at what they are supposed to be doing, it looks to be a position, when approached with knowledge, wisdom and good judgement, that has a steep learning curve. One that may take a couple of years to get a handle on. So, just as a legislator hits her stride, our law says, “Sorry, you’ve got to move on.”  What if the individual is doing a good job? The voters of our state don’t get to make that decision. After eight years, it’s time to move on to someone else.

Obviously, one result of term limits is that we are not allowing ourselves to benefit from the experience these seasoned lawmakers can bring to their positions.  Another problem is that since there is so much opportunity for mandatory change, people with little experience or knowledge of statesmanship line up to take their shot. It seems, at least to me, that in order to get noticed, they have to be more outrageous than their opponent and, of course, that first occurs within the party. This can have the deleterious effect of pushing the parties further to the extremes and further apart from each other. The art of compromise is then not only lost but becomes a four letter word.  Additionally, we have seen that those who wish to continue in the public sphere have found ways to get job offers near the end of their terms and we have experienced a number of individuals who, knowing they could not run again, have resigned before the end of their final term to accept another offer, thus leaving their respective party and constituency with a vacuum of leadership.

The reality is that in a democracy we have built in term limits. It is simply called the “vote”. If citizens exercise their right and responsibility to vote and to vote intelligently, they don’t need additional voting measures to protect their democracy.

But what about “rigged” elections and voter fraud?  The facts are quite clear. These are basically nonexistent in our system. Calls for closer monitoring of elections through photo IDs are quite simply fear mongering. This is a solution for a problem which is statistically insignificant in our voting culture; and, recent federal court rulings have taken steps to keep voter restriction laws in some states from adversely affecting the vote. As far as rigged elections, Bernie Sanders was making reference to the Democratic Party’s use of super delegates and to some states’ laws which mandate party declaration in primary elections. While these may be issues that need to be addressed, they do not rise to the level of the charges of rigged national elections candidate Trump is alluding to in some of his statements.

I do think that we have to keep an eye out for candidate and election manipulation, but my concern is more over the effects of big dollar and nameless donors as well as the impact of well funded lobbyists and PACs. These cannot be regulated by term limits, but they can and do exist even while we impose term limits on qualified individuals who want to serve.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Did I Miss the Memo?

People are angry in America and seemingly have been for several years now. This anger seems to have grown more heated, more public and more political in recent years. My own recognition of it started in the mid 1970s, the post Nixon, Vietnam years; however, this was also the beginning of the Reagan era, the culmination of years of work by the resurgent conservative movement that emerged with the likes of William F. Buckley in the 1950s. This movement was not new, however. It reflected anti-federal policy attitudes of the post New Deal era and prior to that, it reflected the failed policies of the politics of prosperity of the post World War I era.

It was also in the 1970s that America began to once again hear echoes of the faded religious fundamentalist movement of the 1920s merge with Nixon’s 1968 railings for “law and order”, culminating in a call, similar to post WWI, for a moral or cultural “return to normalcy”; and the US experienced the emergence of what we now call the religious right.

So where did the anger come from? I recall a ‘70s movie, I think it was entitled Network, which was based on a character responding to what he felt were injustices which were beyond the average person’s ability to fix. He began a career, or show on based on the chant, “I am as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” He was a television personality and he engaged in a televised rant against the system. He had people all over the country opening their windows and chanting “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”  Actual American viewers responded well to the movie, and it was about this time that I personally recall the political right begin to actively court the religious right and begin to preach the message that Americans needed to take back their country. Interestingly, the movie character, at least as I recall was ranting against corporate policy, but the movement conservatives that emerged channeled their anger toward the federal government. Because of my chosen profession, I tend to run in very conservative circles and I recall many voices echoing the sentiment that Americans needed to be afraid and angry and stand up and “not take it anymore”. Our way of life was at stake.

So, I began with the question, did I miss the memo? This past week, we saw the Republican National Convention and I listened to the party’s presidential nominee. If I believe what I heard during and before the convention, my life should be in ruins, and America should be on the verge of falling apart. After all, I’m in the middle class right in the cross hairs of this disaster. I should be “mad as hell”. But, here’s the thing. My life is not a disaster. I have managed to get a BA and two masters degrees, I have health insurance, a steady job, my house is all but paid for, I have a property with a vineyard and a small winery, we were able to put two kids through college (with their help) with no debt, I can worship freely.  All of this and I still only make a 5 figure income, just barely into the top half of 5 figures at that. Yes, my wife works as well, also 5 figures just under half in that category with a BA and a masters degree. I pay taxes and to be honest, I have more often voted for tax increases than against. My experience is that Americans are better working together and for each other than when we try to all go it alone.

So, from where does this anger come? I get the message that I should be angry with my government, but that is not my experience, and as I look around, at least in my community, that is not the reality for most people. We need to stop and think about this call for anger. Given our history, I suggest there is something else at play here. If I can be convinced to be blindly angry, I can be convinced to follow any plan to help me express that anger. I submit that anger and fear have been the tool employed by the political and religious right to get people to follow their political agenda.

So, I guess I missed the memo that told me I should be angry with my government for all of the misfortunes in my life. Those of you who know me know that I am no Pollyanna who thinks everything is always rosy.  There are always problems to be confronted and solved, but fear mongering and telling people they should be afraid and that “I” have the silver bullet that will solve all of their problems is not the way to confront important issues in a democracy.