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The Cost of Voyeurism

violent-imagesWhere were you on Tuesday, August 19th, 2014? That’s the day ISIS terrorists beheaded American journalist James Foley. Or, to be more accurate, that was when they posted the video of their atrocity on YouTube

Did you watch it? If you did, you had plenty of company. According to one poll, an estimated 1.2 million people in Great Britain watched the beheading in just the first few days after the video appeared online. In the United States, pollsters found that 9% of those surveyed had watched the brutal execution, suggesting that about 30 million Americans had witnessed the spectacle by mid-November.

And back in 2004, the video of Islamists beheading freelance repairman Nick Berg was the most popular search topic for a solid week; the al-Qaeda-linked website hosting the video received so much traffic it had to temporarily shut down.

According to Oxford anthropologist Frances Larson, this fascination with violent images is nothing new.

Read more at: http://www.learning-mind.com/voyeurism-violent-images/

The Great Divide: Ignorance and Insecurity

Conor Friedersdorf writes in the Atlantic:

temper-tantrum[At Yale University, one] resident declared in a campus publication, “I have had to watch my friends defend their right to this institution. This email and the subsequent reaction to it have interrupted their lives. I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns.” One feels for these students. But if an email about Halloween costumes has them skipping class and suffering breakdowns, either they need help from mental-health professionals or they’ve been grievously ill-served by debilitating ideological notions they’ve acquired about what ought to cause them pain.

This is the reaction of Ivy League students, the best and the brightest, the cream of the crop, the hope for the future, the movers and shakers of the next generation, the political, social, and economic leaders of tomorrow.  Their entire world collapses because someone, somewhere disagrees with them.

The depressing irony of the episode is that Erika Christakis’ noble attempt to accord students a greater measure of personal and moral responsibility resulted in the students themselves protesting for — and thereby demonstrating — their own incapacity to take responsibility for their actions on any level at all.  Without a trace of embarrassment, academe’s most elite sons and daughters dissolved into a collective hissy-fit because one of their instructors suggested they should be treated as adults.

Read the whole article here.

 

The Language of Confusion

2015-005-La-tirannide-non-tirannicaPolitical Correctness has reached a new high — or low — at the University of New Hampshire, where administrators have issued a Bias-Free Language Guide.  Forbidden words include the following: “mothering, fathering, healthy, homosexual, rich, poor, senior citizen, and American.”  

Perhaps we should find it comforting that a taxpayer-funded school is prepared to go so far to protect its students from hurt feelings.  Presumably, educators believe that this measure will improve student’s self-esteem and thereby lead to greater success in the workplace.

Once again, life imitates art, as I discussed in this essay from 2009, written to honor the 60th anniversary of George Orwell’s 1984.

If only they would teach it in New Hampshire.

It never takes more than a day or two into the new school year before I hear the chant of my students’ favorite refrain: That makes no sense!

“What you mean,” I answer the first student who utters that unutterable phrase, “is that you don’t understand.”

“That’s what I said,” the student responds, predictably. “It makes no sense.”

“It makes perfect sense,” I insist, “as you will see once you understand it.”

The student doesn’t give up without a fight. “You know what I mean,” he says. “What difference does it make how I say it?”

It makes no sense implies that, if the material we are learning does not conform to your way of thinking, then it must be wrong. I don’t understand acknowledges the possibility that the flaw in reasoning may reside in you, rather than in the material.”

He stares back at me, trying to digest this new idea. Over the course of the year, through constant repetition, most of my students will learn never to saythat makes no sense. At least not in my class.

I’ve been challenged on this many times. Is it really my job to belabor this point, to demand that my students express ideas concisely, even when the intent is clear? After all, I’m not a speech or language instructor. Why not just teach the material I’m being paid to teach?

WE THINK WHAT WE SPEAK

In his essay “The Principles of Newspeak,” the appendix to his classic novel, 1984 (published 60 years ago this month), George Orwell describes how the leaders of his totalitarian future have contrived to assure their hold on power by replacing English with Newspeak, a language containing no vocabulary for concepts contrary to the platform of the state-run Party. By controlling language, the Party controls its people’s very thoughts.

quotes-1984-george-orwell-HD-WallpapersIntuition suggests that language is a product of thought: if we think clearly, automatically we will speak clearly. Orwell demonstrates the opposite, that thought is a product of language. Because we formulate our thoughts in words and sentences, incompetent use of language guarantees muddled thinking. If there are no words for rebellion, uprising, or discontent people will find it difficult to formulate and articulate the concept of overthrowing even the most corrupt and oppressive government.

Students of Orwell will shudder when applying this simple axiom to the corruption of modern language. Advertisers and politicians have known for years that the best way to manipulate public perception is by arranging words in unconventional combinations. Car dealers know that potential customers will feel better buying cars that are “pre-owned” rather than “used.” A certain former president knew that the American people would not respond to the gravity of his presidential peccadilloes if distracted by pondering what the meaning of “is” is.

But linguistic confusion became institutionalized with the rise of political correctness. By dodging frantically out of the rain of potentially offensive terms, we soak ourselves in a torrent of euphemisms for simple words the thought-police deem pejorative. When illegal aliens become “undocumented workers,” we lose all sense of the danger posed by the porous condition of our borders. When terrorists become “insurgents,” we more readily accommodate the moral equivalence that blurs the line between aggressors and defenders. When abortion becomes “reproductive freedom,” the horror over the indiscriminate murder of innocents vanishes altogether.

Similarly, when marriage is bereft by judicial fiat of the definition that has served for thousands of years, the foundations of the family structure erode like sand castles before the approaching tide. And as it becomes taboo to make any direct reference to race, class, ability or performance without fear of hurting one group’s collective feelings or another group’s collective self-esteem, the words that form our thoughts and understanding end up so fully shorn of their dictionary definitions that they cease to mean much of anything at all. In short, nothing makes sense.

CONFUSION BY DESIGN

In truth, for advertisers, politicians, special interest groups, and the politically correct, the real purpose of language is no longer to convey meaning – it is to obscure meaning, to appeal to emotions while bypassing the intellect. Their motive is obvious: it is far easier to evoke a strong emotional response than it is to present a logically developed argument. But by allowing meaning to be drained from our language and our words, we have not only denuded them of their clarity, but also of their depth.

Even worse, we are no longer allowing confusion to reign free but legislating it into the public square. Earlier this year, London decided to remove apostrophes from its street signs. King’s Heath will now become Kings Heath. What’s the reason? Apostrophes are too confusing.

According to Councilor Martin Mullaney, who heads the city’s transport scrutiny committee, “Apostrophes denote possessions that are no longer accurate, and are not needed,” he said. “More importantly, they confuse people. If I want to go to a restaurant, I don’t want to have an A-level (high school diploma) in English to find it.”

Linguistic laziness in both syntax and vocabulary has worn smooth the sharpness of our minds. When I say that I love my wife, and I love my car, and I love ice cream, am I not indulging a subtle self-hypnosis that affirms an equation between all three, that suggests that my feelings for my wife is no more profound than my taste for Baskin Robbins and BMW? By impoverishing our words, we impoverish our thoughts as well.

6a00d8341bfb1653ef01b7c6f82d6e970b-400wiWhat is love? And what is honor? and loyalty? and commitment? As we strip our language of both its clarity and its nobility, these concepts become caricatures of what they once were, defined by the mass media who, like the Orwellian Party, have as their only concern the selling of their own values and their own agenda. And as much as we the people are willing to buy, they will continue to sell.

“Teachers, be careful with your words,” warns the Talmud, “lest the disciples who follow you will drink of evil waters and die.” When the waters of wisdom become polluted with confusion and contradiction, it is society’s youth who will pay the price through the erosion of moral clarity and moral principles.

Back in the classroom, my student continues to stare at me, contemplating my rebuke for a few more seconds before he responds. “What I meant to say,” he finally answers, “is that it makes no sense to me.”

I shake my head. “Don’t make it sound like what you want it to mean,” I tell him. “Just say it the way it is.”

Originally published by Jewish World Review

The Key to Personal Success… Just Ask!

ask_questionsDoes this sound familiar?

You’re running out the door to take your wife to the airport, only to discover you have a flat tire.  You don’t have time to wait for a taxi or the auto club.  You want to ask your neighbor for a ride, but you’re afraid it’s too much of an imposition.

Or… you see someone on the subway reading a book by your favorite author or about a topic you find fascinating.  You want to strike up a conversation, but you’re afraid of intruding on the other person’s privacy.

Or… you have a lead on a promising job opportunity, and an acquaintance has dealings with your prospective employer.  You want to ask her to make an introduction, but you don’t want to put her in an uncomfortable position.

Maybe you’re afraid of rejection; maybe you’re afraid of overstepping the bounds of the relationship; maybe you’re afraid of being a pest.

Sure, there are boundaries, and sometimes we do cross them.  So if these scenarios arise often, you might need to examine whether you’re overly needy.  

But most of us aren’t looking for such situations; they just happen.  And when they do, here’s the key:  just ask!

Click here to read the whole article.

Are you a brick?

Daily-Quotes-Life-Is-The-Most-Difficult-Exam-Inspirational-Quotes-PicturesA rabbi walked into a brick-making factory.

No, this isn’t a joke.  It really happened, many decades ago when Jerusalem was still a quiet, provincial village.  The rabbi watched as workmen filled up iron trays with moistened clay and slid them into large baking kilns, removing each tray to make room for the next.

“Tell me something,” the rabbi asked one of the workers.  “The clay looks exactly the same coming out of the kiln as it does going in.  What would happen if you didn’t put it into the fire?”

The worker laughed.  “It may look the same,” he replied, “but without the mold holding the clay together it would disintegrate the moment it began to dry.  You have to bake it in the fire if you want it to become a brick.”

The rabbi learned an important lesson from the brick-maker:  Our schedules and responsibilities “hold us together,” keeping us productive and forcing us to be efficient.  But what happens after work, on the weekends, or over vacation?  Do we remain disciplined with our time and solid as a brick, or do we crumble like so much dust into idleness and fritter away our time?

For parents especially, summer vacation poses a challenge, with two months of unstructured time looming before their children.

On the one hand, children need free time to learn to create their own schedules and manage their own time.  Too much structure deprives children of a critical component in their development.

But children shouldn’t be left entirely on their own, particularly in this generation when electronic toys provide limitless junk food for their growing minds.

As in all things, the best parents are consultants, gently but persistently helping their children to recognize the options in front of them and prodding them to make the choices that will serve them best.

And the best way to teach our children is by modeling the behaviors we want them to learn.  Be a brick, and your children will be bricks, too.

Honor (is learned from) Thy Father

Pearland defensive back Matt La Chiusa and his teammates stand during the playing of the National Anthem before the Oilers' opening game of the 2014 Texas high school football season against the Conroe Woodlands College Park Cavaliers played on August 29, 2014 at Woodforest Bank Stadium in Shenandoah, Texas. Pearland would go on to win the contest 25-14.

I was ten or twelve years old. My father and I had arrived at the stadium early, and I felt a thrill of excitement as we stood up for the Star Spangled Banner. Down on the field, our home team, the Los Angeles Rams, stood in a line holding their helmets under their arms. And in the row in front of us, a middle aged man stood with his hat perched casually upon his head.

The man didn’t respond.  “Hey you,” my father said, louder, “take off your hat.”

The man grunted an unintelligible, though clearly dismissive remark.

“You unpatriotic SOB,” growled my father; he didn’t abbreviate, either.

Dad!” I whispered, mortified and afraid, but also faintly confused.  My father had never before demonstrated any dramatic displays of patriotism.

The national anthem ended, the game began, and I guess I forgot about the incident because I never discussed it with my father, never asked him to explain an indignation that seemed entirely out of character.

But now I’m a father myself, and I don’t find my father’s action thirty years ago perplexing at all.

Why should we take off our hats for the national anthem?  Why should we stand up for the flag?  Why should we address strangers as “Sir” or “Madam,” wear coats and ties to church or synagogue, and give up our seats to the elderly?

It’s a matter of respect.  Respect for people.  Respect for institutions.  Respect for wisdom and values and human dignity.

Unfortunately, respect has been going out of fashion for a long time.  Sex scandals and no-fault divorce have eroded respect for marriage and commitment.  Partisan politics has eroded respect for leadership.  Inflated grades and deflated standards have eroded respect for teaching.  Abortion-on-demand and doctor-assisted suicide have eroded respect for life.  “Reality television” has eroded respect for ourselves.

Which was our first step onto this slippery slope?  Maybe it was the noble ideal of social equality, set spinning so wildly out of control that we began to equate respect with elitism.  Maybe the information glut convinced us that we know as much about medicine as our doctors, as much about cars as our mechanics, and as much about education as our children’s teachers.  Maybe our relentless pursuit of leisure time has made us too selfish to value age and experience, too lazy to act civilly toward our neighbors.

When respect is not earned, it disintegrates; when respect is exploited, it implodes.  Indeed, after his desperate quest for legacy, Bill Clinton was best remembered at the time of his departure as the American president who made his underwear preferences a matter of public policy, who pilfered the White House china,  and for whom a large percentage of once-self-respecting Americans so casually excused perjury in federal court.  Barack Obama will leave behind the first video of an American president making faces in the mirror in preparation for an historic selfie.

conversation-startersBut we should never rely on respect to percolate down from the top; it is our responsibility to grow it up from the grass roots.  It is the job of parents to teach their children to say “please” and “thank you,” to not interrupt and not talk with their mouths full, to speak civilly and give up their seats to the elderly, to pick up their own litter and maybe even someone else’s.  By doing so, parents instill in their children an intuitive sense of respect for others, even if their children may not understand why all these social minutiae are indispensable.

But too many parents have abdicated that job, either because they’re not around enough or because they never learned to be respectful themselves.

The Talmud says that where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader yourself.  In today’s increasingly fatherless society, teachers, scout leaders, and little league coaches have a greater obligation than ever to teach respect by showing respect for others — and so do we all every time we walk down the street or through the supermarket aisle.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  And a journey through life begins with a step in the right direction.  Help a child take that step and, many steps later, his success will speak his thanks louder than words.

Every Father’s Day offers a reminder to say every day:  Thanks, Dad.

Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Proverbial Beauty: Browse paperback and Kindle versions at Amazon

Are your kids ready? They’ll let you know.

On a summer afternoon many years ago, I stood in my front yard and watched my neighbor teaching his four-year-old son how to pedal a new bicycle. The father hovered nervously as the boy tried to balance himself between his bike’s rear training wheels. Just then a blurred figure whisked by – my own four-year-old son, riding confidently on his own two-wheeler, sans training wheels.

“That’s amazing,” my neighbor gasped.

Was it? I hadn’t thought so, even though I couldn’t ride a bike with confidence until I was nearly 12.

Father teaching son how to ride a bike

I’m not one of those parents who push their children to become hyper-achievers. Rather, it was my son’s relentless petitions to remove his training wheels that had prompted me to reach into the tool box and retire that extraneous hardware to the back of the garage with so much other junk. I never consulted books or articles or experts about the age at which a boy is developmentally ready to ride a bicycle.

My son wanted to learn. Who was I to stand in his way?

It took some time on my part, and a good bit of huffing and puffing, gripping the back of the seat with white knuckles and running along beside him, first in the back yard and later in the street. But who ever said being a parent was easy?

In less than a week my son was tooling around on his own, a bit shaky at first, but more boldly and self-assured with each circuit around the neighborhood. By the end of the school year, he was still in only boy in his class who had learned to ride. It was hard not to be proud. Maybe my son really was amazing. Maybe he would excel in basketball or football as well as bicycling. Maybe he would win an athletic scholarship to UCLA or Ohio State, become a college all-star and a first-draft pick, break every professional record, and land a $50 million endorsement contract with Nike.

Or maybe not. Was I already turning into one of those over-zealous parents who live vicariously through their children and make them neurotic in the process? What if I pushed my son too hard and made him hate sports forever, or convinced him to set his heart on an unachievable goal? Wasn’t it safer to take it slow and err on the side of caution rather than encourage him to reach for the sky and risk setting him up for anxiety or disappointment?

THE ROOT OF ALL FAILURE

For decades now, psychology and education gurus have been telling us that all our problems stem from a single root: low self-esteem. When we don’t feel good about ourselves, we lack confidence in our own ability to achieve; without confidence, we can’t motivate ourselves to try; unmotivated, we never do achieve, reinforcing our feelings of inadequacy and perpetuating a vicious circle of substandard performance.

By lowering expectations, by diluting standards, by broadening the definition of success to include effort and attitude and environment, we make it possible for our children to succeed and enable their self-esteem to flourish. That’s the theory. The problem is that it doesn’t work, mostly because kids are neither as shallow nor as fragile as its advocates would have us believe.

If I have learned anything in my years standing in front of a class room, it is that kids can spot a phony a mile off – and certainly when it’s standing only a few feet away at the front of the class. Students know whether they have had to work for their grades. And every student, no matter how grade-conscious or grade-indifferent, feels better about himself for having earned a B than he does for having been given an A. Even the student who fails because of laziness learns the consequences of inaction and, with a little guidance, learns that he can climb out of the hole he has dug for himself.

THE ULTIMATE GIFT

True, low self-esteem will produce a vicious circle of low achievement. But high yet realistic standards will create a virtuous circle wherein genuine achievement begets sincere aspirations to attain ever-higher goals. By sheltering our children from expectations that challenge their abilities, we steal from them the opportunity to experience the joy of meaningful accomplishment and condemn them to a life of complacency and mediocrity… as well as that bugaboo, low self-esteem.

King Solomon warned us, parents and educators alike: teach every youth according to his own way. Each child is a unique combination of talents, abilities, emotions, and desires. To help our children channel those qualities in the pursuit of excellence, to awaken in them the passion to reach for the stars – this is the greatest gift we can give them.

7604866396_d2182f8058_bMy son hasn’t grown up to become an Olympic athlete. I’ll probably never find his name in a sports almanac or see his picture on a box of Wheaties. But I’ll always remember the expression on his face that summer’s day as he zipped up and down the street, standing up on his pedals, shooting me a grin as he watched me watching him and recognized the pride I felt.

No one ever told him that four-year-olds can’t ride bicycles.

On his next pass, he locked down his coaster breaks and skidded to a stop. “Will you teach me to ride with no hands?” he asked, eager to conquer his next mountain.

“Not today,” I said with a smile. Understanding limits also builds self-esteem.

“Okay,” he said. And, still grinning, he was on his way again.

Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

 

Dining on Bound Grief

The other day a Fox News anchor reported on the political crisises facing the world.

Crisises?  From a national anchorman?

imagesReminds me of the time a middle school vice-principal asked an auditorium full of students to hold their applauses until the end of the presentation.

Finally, an answer to the age-old question:  What is the sound of one hand clapping?

One applause vs. two applauses.

A very unique answer, don’t you think?  Extremely unique.  Singularly unique.  (Then again, how one of a kind can something be?)

Or maybe, to borrow from George W. Bush, I’m just misunderestimating.

This isn’t quibbling or gotcha.  If we can’t speak properly, we can’t think properly.  If we want to make the world a better place, we have to be able to communicate so that others can understand us.  And we have to be able to understand ourselves.

More on this topic:

The Language of Confusion — 60 years later, George Orwell’s dystopian vision is more relevant than ever.

When does encouragement turn deadly?

A New York Times article last month highlighted suicide clusters among Palo Alto high school students over the past few years.  Many believe the reason lies in mixed messages from parents who tell their children to do their best and be happy, but who clearly won’t be happy themselves if their children’s best doesn’t get them into Ivy League universities.

Dr. Glenn McGee, the district superintendent, thinks that parents don’t get it.  “My job is not to get you into Stanford,” he said he tells parents and students. “It’s to teach them to learn how to learn, to think, to work together — learn how to explore, collaborate, learn to be curious and creative.”

Symbolic of the dependability of the steam engine is this shot of a B. & O. steam locomotive in a snow storm, 1954. (Hans Marx/Baltimore Sun)

But the pressure to compete and perform remains.  During this past school year, three boys laid down on local train tracks and took their own lives.  Their parents’ words of assurance couldn’t offset the pressure of uncompromising expectations.

Indeed, one wonders whether Dr. McGee gets it himself.  “Can we put sensors up there?” he wonders, suggesting some sort of system to alert the train operators. “This is Silicon Valley. There ought to be something we can do.”

But the solution isn’t to monitor the train tracks.  As the old cliche goes, you don’t save people from falling of a cliff by putting an ambulance down in the valley.

The only answer is to change the culture so that success is measured not by standardized test scores and status but by cultivating individual talents and the attitudes that contribute to a healthy society.  When parents make it their mission to fulfill each child’s unique potential  — and not to satisfy their own dreams — then children are likely not only to meet parents’ expectations but to exceed them.

The New Polarization

imagesA college student who rarely attended classes and turned in assignments poorly done or not at all, emailed his professor after receiving his final grade to ask if there was any way he could raise his grade — an F earned with a 25% average — to a C.  Even grade inflation couldn’t help this hapless soul.

But hope springs eternal, and wishful thinking has become so pervasive that it has a new name:  magical thinking, as if wishing just isn’t enough anymore.

It’s everywhere.  Government programs with no revenue to pay for them.  Students acquiring massive debt from loans to procure degrees in art history, classical philosophy or — no joke — viking studies.  State sponsored alternative energy schemes built on nothing but high-minded intentions.  School boards hiring puppet administrators and then firing them when student performance crashes.

On the one hand, we indulge in the most irrational flights of fancy with no concern for the consequences.  On the other, we resist thinking out of the box by denying ourselves the opportunity to engage people with opposing viewpoints in civil discourse.

Is this the new face of polarization?  Not just between groups, but within our own minds?

Instead, let’s turn it around:  challenge yourself to seek out new viewpoints and strategies, not to escape from reality but to deal with it and succeed.