Monthly Archives: October 2013

Heisenberg and Me

I dressed up as Walter White/Heisenberg from the show “Breaking Bad” for Halloween. Although I have nothing to do with the meth trade, I do have a number of factors in common with him. And while our common situations make only anecdotal commentary on education in the USA today, they nevertheless make an informed commentary.

When I was a teacher, I dressed like Walt. Dockers, button-up shirt from a cheap store, and, above all, comfortable footwear. Teachers are on their feet a great deal, so they need as much comfort and support in that area as is possible. You want to make a teacher’s day? Give that teacher a gift card for a shoe store. The clothing is superficial, though. Let us get deeper into things.

In the first episode, Walt is slinging knowledge to a disinterested mass of faces. I’ve had that classroom, too. He’s obviously got a passion for his subject and a belief in its intrinsic value and that of knowledge itself, but the kids in that room don’t share that vision. While there’s a lot to be said for a broad education that offers a wide range of subjects to everyone in school, there’s also the counter: what is the point in learning all that stuff? Really?

If it’s worth knowing, it’s on the state-mandated standardized test, right? And if it’s on the state-mandated standardized test, it’s easy enough for people at or above one standard deviation below average intelligence to pass. While those students right around that one standard deviation below average are struggling with the content, those that are average or better are left adrift. They get asked to tutor those that aren’t as bright, do review after review, and then chastised when, out of boredom, they do something disruptive. Thanks to cell phones, disruptions tend to be quieter these days. Also thanks to cell phones, disruptions tend to be more widespread these days. But those are the options for our hapless average-and-better students in a mainstream classroom.

The next step up is a doozy: the AP track. College Board makes no secret of its pass rates. It posts them for all to see, and quite a few tests hover around the 50% mark. Even so, school boards and administrators think that hard work and gumption are the perfect tonic for getting kids to ace those tests. College Board differs, and has the data to back up its position from the outset. It offers a tool for recruiting potential AP students called “AP Potential.” I love straightforward names like that. AP Potential will look at PSAT scores to determine a child’s potential for passing a particular AP exam. Recruiters can select a pass rate for their classes. If one desires a 100% pass rate, AP Potential will offer up the names of students that scored very highly on the PSAT. If one desires a 50% pass rate, AP Potential will offer up the same high-fliers and then, working its way down the list of scores, will offer up an equal number of students that didn’t score as highly on the PSAT. Those guys are the ones College Board is essentially saying are going to fail to pass the AP exam. It’s not a matter of hard work and gumption: they simply don’t have the aptitude at that time.

No matter! Schools are ranked by the number of kids that take the AP test, regardless of outcome, so into those classes they must go! Although I haven’t yet seen an AP Chemistry section in Breaking Bad, I’ve taught enough AP sections to know right from wrong in setting up those courses. Too often, the AP class has the opposite of the regular class, with the students at or above two standard deviations above average intelligence doing fairly well and everyone else left in the dust. AP courses used to be offered as enrichment to students already familiar with the basic material. Now they are frequently the introduction to that material, which means that the less-apt students in those courses lack the fundamentals needed to flourish in that course. They go on to take the same course in college and typically do very well in the course, but it’s only after getting raked over the coals in an AP course and being part of the 50% of American kids that don’t pass the exam.

So there’s a huge chunk of kids in between the range from special education on up to above-average intelligence that aren’t really being served by the school system. I saw Walt trying to reach them, and I tried to reach them. It’s not really working all that well. I remember, once upon a time when I was in high school, that there were five different tracks for students, allowing for a spectrum of class offerings where students in the class were homogeneous with each other. Now, instead of showing the students that they’re individually important, we tell them they’re as unique as snowflakes and then warehouse them like commodities.

It’s torture for the kids and it’s a beat-down for the teachers. Teachers teach because they want to reach out to kids and show them a bigger world. They want to guide and inform. They don’t share the vision of the state that mandates their primary duty is to provide custodial supervision of minors during campus hours. They are insulted by a system that tells them to either offer up a minimum of information and then drill it until everyone has memorized it or to turn on a firehose of facts and analysis without regard of a student’s ability to receive that much information that quickly. Increasingly, school districts are reaching for canned information so that teachers have less and less discretion in the classroom. Why? It’s so that the district can absolve itself of responsibility in the event a student fails to pass a test. If the teacher didn’t present all the canned material on time, then, obviously, it’s the teacher’s fault for the student’s failure: certainly not the district’s.

And, yes, I see that in Walt’s face. Maybe the actor just copied other teachers he saw without knowing everything that went into the outward appearance but, like the clothes, it’s a dead-on portrayal.

It’s also one of the reasons I left teaching.

I suppose I should write more about that subject, now that I’m able to look back on my decision with some time intervening. I had a number of reasons for leaving the profession, and many of them stem from administrative and legislative decisions that have an adverse impact on the entire educational system.

Q. and A.

Q.: Is there a God?

A.: Yes. I believe there is a God.

Q.: Do you have proof?

A.: I have my own personal experiences, unverifiable via experimentation.

Q.: So how do you know your proof is valid?

A.: The same way I know anything, such as how blue is blue.

Q.: But shouldn’t your belief in God derive from actual, provable evidence?

A.: Why is that? Isn’t all proof subject to the personal bias of the one that views the proof?

Q.: It is, but, surely there is a consensus view that blue is blue based upon the wavelength of light that constitutes what we call “blue.”

A.: I agree. But aren’t there other things that have the same proofs, but have subjective interpretations based upon culture or historical period?

Q.: Give an example.

A.: There’s the debate on marijuana. We have evidence before us of its potential for medicinal uses, but the US Government continues to keep it classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, which is to say the USG holds the view that there are no medicinal uses for it. We all have access to the same proofs, but our conclusions are our own. Forming a consensus doesn’t make it more right, either. If a large group believes a lie, does that make it true?

Q.: No, and, hold on there… you’re asking questions. That should be my job.

A.: Why is that?

Q.: I’m Q. Q. goes with “question.” You’re A. A. is for “answer.”

A.: Not necessarily. In biblical studies, “Q.” refers to a yet-undiscovered source for the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. “Q.” is the abbreviation for the German word “quelle,” their word for “source.” You could be a source, not a questioner.

Q.: And what would that make you?

A.: I could be Alpha, for all I know. If an Omega shows up in our conversation, that would certainly perpetuate the religious nature of the discussion.

Q.: So you don’t really know who you are?

A.: I could be a fictional character in a very well-imagined story, for all I know.

Q.: That would make the author a God-figure.

A.: Indeed. And perhaps some of my experiences have made me aware of that author’s narrative. His will, so to speak.

Q.: Could you relate those experiences to me?

A.: No. There is something of the sacred about them, and sacred things are personal truths. Sacred things lose some of their value if they are shared too openly or too freely.

Q.: Shouldn’t all truth be open and free? Isn’t keeping things obscure a brute-force way of avoiding scrutiny?

A.: No, not all truth should be open and free. Do you tell an old woman in poor health that her husband has died before you give her a chance to sit down and brace herself for hard news? Not if you’re a thoughtful person. You keep a secret for a while. Other things, you keep secret always, such as in the case of physician’s privilege.

Q.: So you have no proof there’s a God.

A.: You have no proof that this isn’t some massive fictional construct we’re in, where we think we’re human with free will, but we’re really just two guys, named Q. and A., whose very existence sprang into being the moment our conversation started and will end as soon as the conversation ends.

Q.: I find such a thing to be very hard to believe.

A.: And very hard to prove, as well. Yet, it may very well be true.

Q.: So, then, what are the most important questions to ask about God?

A.: You complained earlier about my asking questions. Now you ask me to answer with questions. I love the irony.

Q.: I get the irony, as well.

A.: OK, the most important questions… Is there a God? Does he want me to have a relationship with him based upon evidence or out of trust and love? I guess after those, everything falls into place.

Q.: What do you mean? There are so many other questions to ask. What does God want me to do? Where does he want me to go? Who does he want me to help? Millions of questions.

A.: Yes, but if there is a God, and he wants us to follow him in faith, without proof, then everything else falls into place after that. Instead of looking for proof, one looks instead for love.

Now What?!

Now What

Since I’m doing a long haul every day in to work, I needed to get some new tunes for the trip. I am thrilled that I treated myself to Deep Purple’s latest studio disc, “Now What?!”. I loved “Purpendicular”, enjoyed “Abandon”, but was disappointed by “Bananas.” “Rapture of the Deep” let me know that “Bananas” was a slight mis-step, but I still wasn’t 100% satisfied with it as a put it on and leave it on disc, the way I felt about the best DP offerings. Happily, “Now What?!” returns to that set-it-and-forget-it level of quality. I can put it on and relax, knowing full well that every track hits on all cylinders.

There were times listening to it when I thought it sounded like a Yes album or a Pink Floyd set. It’s Deep Purple through and through, but they band has chosen 2013 as the year to really open up on their progressive side. I’m not complaining: I think the result is marvelous. But if you’re looking for the straight-no-chaser rock and roll of “Machine Head” or the MkIII lineup, this is not the album you’re looking for. If you enjoyed the more introspective and moody tracks from “Fireball” and “Who Do We Think We Are!”, then this is the one for you.

Lyrically, the disc has many dark moments – comments on current financial practices providing the fuel for those statements. “Blood From a Stone” pulls no punches and “Uncommon Man” is filled with acid. “Hell to Pay” is a chorus rocker from 1983 that manages to fit in well with the progressive mix on the rest of the album. How did they do that? And “Vincent Price” is straight out of The Damned’s goth playbook, but, again, it fits masterfully. These gramps with amps certainly remember how to craft a great hard rock album with richness of content that keeps a listener coming back for more. I may still pick and choose from the last two of their studio offerings, but I really think I got this lineup’s best efforts since “Purpendicular” on these tracks.

If you like classic rock, but are tired of the same thing over and over on the radio, then get this disc and get into some great tracks that should be all over the airwaves. That they are not has more to do with robot-generated playlists and MTV not showing videos than the merit of the songs themselves. I don’t know how many more albums Deep Purple has left in them, but I’m glad they got this one out. 10 out of 10 on this one, because I like DP with prog flourishes.

Old Friends

Old Friends they shine like diamonds
Old Friends you can always call
Old Friends Lord you can’t buy ’em
You know it’s Old Friends after all

– “Old Friends”, Guy Clark

This isn’t an easy one to write, because it involves a long goodbye. So I’ll just say it simply. Joe Stuart has been a good friend and neighbor for 21 years. He’s 90, nearly 91, and if his time hasn’t already come by the time I write this, well, that train’s almost pulled into the station. I took his family to the hospital the other night, late, right around midnight, and it was one of those hard rides that follows a hard phone call from someone you know, but at the wrong time to be social. Those calls are never easy, and they often involve a goodbye that you never want to say.

I’ll remember the words he said when I gave him a blessing. “Thank you. I feel so peaceful now.” Just a few hours later, we were driving to the hospital. Sometimes a blessing of health is a miracle cure that relieves suffering and gives a person joy in his life… and sometimes, that relief from suffering makes that life in the past tense.

I’m just glad that Joe, his family, and I all know who we are, where we want to go, and how to get there. There’s a place where there aren’t any goodbyes. With God’s love and Jesus’ grace, we all can get there, all of us, every one. We just have to find that blessing in our lives that makes us peaceful, and we’re there.

Goodbye, Joe Stuart. You’ve always been a person I wanted to share a bench with so you could tell me about old times and the wisdom you learned. I’ll have to say goodbye to you one day, so it might as well be today, here and now.

I’ll see you again, though. Of that I’m certain.

The Consequences of Not Compromising

The Tea Party is engaging in the politics of division, not compromise. They refuse to let others have anything they want if they are not able to have their way without compromise. The last time the USA had a round of that sort of thing on a national level, it was the pro-slavery faction that dragged the nation into civil war.

When our leadership is so full of pride and self-importance that it cannot think of statesmanship and focuses solely on selfish ends such as party fundraising and re-election for re-election’s sake, we have a situation that, in history, produced one of four outcomes. I’ve described these before, but the concept bears repetition. The outcomes from this current immobilizing rift will be either constitutional convention, civil war, national dissolution, or authoritarian regime.

A constitutional convention requires a desire to work things through: I don’t see that here. Election politics involve dividing people. American politicians are in a permanent re-election mode, so they are constantly dividing, not reaching out. No constitutional convention, or if we have one, it will fail with the same gridlock that we see now in Congress.

Civil war involves regional splits. We don’t have that here. National dissolution? In a looser federation of states, perhaps, but there is still enough will at the center to assert itself on any would-be breakaway state or region. That will at the center points the way to authoritarian regime.

It need not be an ideological authoritarianism: it could, in fact, arise out of a state of emergency declared in the face of a massive government and economic crisis. With the budget going nowhere and the debt ceiling about to be reached without extension, we are well on our way to that big crisis. But it need not be this time: the Congress may yet blink in the face of that showdown and one side or another budge to the demands of the other.

But the situation continues. If not now, then some point in the future will produce the situation in which, finally, neither side compromises and the crisis occurs. We will then see, piece by piece, authoritarianism solidify and dominate the nation.

The worst thing from the Tea Party is that they accuse Obama of being a tyrant. In their idiotic refusal to cooperate with him, they may very well have sealed their own fate and that of the nation in causing a tyrant to emerge as a consequence of their uncompromising tantrums.