Exploration and Play

Slate e-zine article of note, “Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School“. Subtitle—New research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire.

Add turning preschool into pre-pre-first grade to the list of “fork in the woods” ripple effects.

The article begs several questions in addition to the primary rhetorical one—In the interest of wide-ranging more natural learning, and greater creativity, should preschoolers be given more opportunities for exploration and play?

Questions such as—In the interest of wide-ranging more natural learning, and greater creativity, should kindergartners be given more opportunities for exploration and play?

And in the interest of wide-ranging more natural learning, and greater creativity, should elementary, middle, and high school students be given more opportunities for exploration and play?

For extra credit, here’s an interesting, related, two-part book review essay.

The “Bottled Water” Era of Internet News

Starting today, the Gray Lady is watching and counting. Twenty free articles a month and then at least $15/month. The Times is an excellent newspaper, probably not as good as it was a few decades ago, but still very good. It’s my homepage, I read it regularly, I enjoy it, but unlike Jack Shafer, I will change my reading habits to avoid paying.

Shafer describes the current New York Times website as free. Only if he is using his employer’s internet service or someone’s wireless signal. I pay about $70 a month for internet service (including unlimited iPad 3G service). Of course my internet service providers, Comcast and AT&T, don’t pass along any of my $70 to the New York Times, so I’ll grant Shafer his point that Times writers deserve more support than web hits and associated ad revenues generate.

The problem though is that instead of partnering with other major internet news sites, the Times is making this leap solo. There are too many free substitutes of near comparable quality. I’ve never understood the bottled water craze given the quality of tap water in the U.S. I will read the Los Angeles Times, Slate Magazine, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and the free Economist and New Yorker content more. And I’ll visit the BBC and NPR websites more.

It will be interesting to see what percentage of on-line Times readers cough up for unlimited on-line access. I heard a journalism business analyst say the Times needs 1% of it’s on-line visitors to begin paying for the experiment to be a success. If that’s true, expect to see other periodicals follow suit relatively soon. Then, thank Shafer, not me, for the “bottled water” era of internet news.

Taller People are Happier

Taller men that is, according to Catherine Rampell writing in her NYT Economix blog:

“. . . taller people generally lead better lives than shorter people. How much better? Here are two charts showing the typical levels of well-being in 2010 for men of various heights:

As you can see, there’s a pretty steady relationship between well-being and height for men. The taller men are, generally speaking, the happier they are.”

Rempell conclude’s her post by inviting “the sociobiologists among you out there to theorize about why.”

Get a load of this sociobiologist reader’s response:

Uh yeah… really difficult to figure out. Women like taller guys. Therefore taller guys get laid more. It’s anthropology 101. He who gets laid the most, or thinks he can get laid the most, is most happy. Even happily married monogamous taller men are happier by the sheer thought that if they had to, they could get back on the market and get laid.

I am a handsome but shorter man who had women chasing me constantly up until about 21 years of age. Actually my peak was about 13 years old when my height was more average and female weren’t yet completely hormonally driven toward producing tall offspring. After 21 things dropped off dramatically. Suddenly women were thinking marriage, and therefore producing offspring, and my height became my number one problem.

Never the less, due to a congenial personality, I did o.k. into my mid 30’s, where again things dropped off even more due to women seriously up against the biological clock. The cougar mentality sets in for any attractive women in her early to mid thirties. So, I moved to Asia. And I am once again a rock star. My height here is average, my income is way above average, and I am getting laid by model quality women in their mid 20’s.

If your short man and decent looking… have money… move to Asia. You will be rolling in it.. literally.

My nomination for the “all time” accidentally most funny reader response on the New York Times website. As a student of globalization, this opens a whole new field of inquiry for me. Guys switching continents to increase their odds of getting laid.

I think dad was 6’1″, my brothers are sixish, but I always worked harder than them at being tall, and as a result, I topped out at 6′ 2 and 1/4″. Unmentioned in the original post is the stress that comes with women throwing themselves at your tall self all the time—in the produce section of the grocery store, at the gas station, between church servcies. I’ve learned to let them down gracefully, but still, it can wear on you.

My sociobiological theory is different than Asian short man’s. I suspect the secret of my happiness is the repeated requests for help from mother-dear, the GalPal, and even co-workers to reach something beyond their grasp. Looking skyward, always with a sparkle in their eyes, they ask, “Can you reach that for me? Can you put this up on that shelf for me? Can you get that down? Can you put the angel on top of the tree?” “Why yes I can, stand back while I do what I do.”

Sometimes it’s pretty obvious that the GalPal makes up these requests just to leer lasciviously at my tallest, most hunky self. I’m gonna guess that the gratification that comes with putting a clean Tupperware dish on the highest shelf in mom’s kitchen cabinet trumps the satisfaction that comes with getting laid by model quality women in their mid 20’s.

A War on Oil Dependence

Photo credit: Ray Maker, DCRainmaker blog

We’ve had “wars” on poverty, drugs, and terrorism, why not oil dependence? Imagine a bold president challenging and inspiring us to reduce our use of oil by 20% in ten years. Why wait for that type of leadership? Let’s just commit to driving two percent fewer miles, per year, for ten years.

Dare we learn some things from other people in other places, like this Amsterdam family? Note the obvious: the fenders and racks; the large kid/cargo holder; the simplicity of the bikes and bike riders; no lycra, helmets, or cleated shoes; the utter normalness of it. With dedicated lanes and slowish bikes, helmets aren’t as critical. And the less obvious: the slower pace, the reduction in greenhouse gasses, the health benefits and reduced health care costs, the vitality of the sights, sounds, and elements.

City planners need to incentive bicycle commuting by integrating dedicated bike lanes, and safe, well-lit bicycle parking lots into their designs. Cities need to provide employers with incentives for bike lockers, air compressors, showers.

Car insurance should be based upon mileage traveled. Find the national average and set rates so that people who drive the national average pay existing rates. Make people self-report and audit a small percentage each year. People that drive 10% more than the national average, pay 10% more; 10% fewer miles, pay 10% less.

A nod to Friedman, raise the gas tax to $1/gallon.

I would love for someone to point me to counter examples, but our public bus systems are painfully inconvenient and slow. And unless you’re fortunate enough to live in a handful of our largest cities, subways and trains are rarely a viable option.

In the U.S. we like to pat ourselves on our collective back for being creative and hardworking, but we’ve shown no imagination or gumption when it comes to developing genuine alternatives to car travel.

Time to change that.

Raising the Status of Teachers

Excerpts from Sam Dillon’s March 16, NYT article, “US is Urged to Raise Teachers’ Status”.

To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better, and paying them more, according to a new report on comparative educational systems.

• Top-scoring countries like Korea, Singapore and Finland recruit only high-performing college graduates for teaching positions, support them with mentoring and other help in the classroom, and take steps to raise respect for the profession.

• Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation. . . . Despite the characterization of some that teaching is an easy job, with short hours and summers off, the fact is that successful, dedicated teachers in the U.S. work long hours for little pay and, in many cases, insufficient support from their leadership.

• On the most recent international tests (Pisa), the top-scoring countries were Finland and Singapore in science, Korea and Finland in reading and Singapore and Korea in math. On average, American teenagers came in 15th in reading and 19th in science. American students placed 27th in math. Only 2 percent of American students scored at the highest proficiency level, compared with 8 percent in Korea and 5 percent in Finland.

• U.S. education reformers need to adopt common academic standards, develop better tests for use by teachers in diagnosing students’ day-to-day learning needs, and train more effective school leaders.

• The top recommendation from the report—make a concerted effort to raise the status of the teaching profession.

• Teaching education programs in the U.S. must become more selective and more rigorous.

• Raising teachers’ status is not mainly about raising salaries, the report says, but pay is a factor. According to O.E.C.D. data, the average salary of a veteran elementary teacher here was $44,172 in 2008, higher than the average of $39,426 across all O.E.C.D countries (the figures were converted to compare the purchasing power of each currency). But that salary level was 40 percent below the average salary of other American college graduates. In Finland, by comparison, the veteran teacher’s salary was 13 percent less than that of the average college graduate’s.

• Only Luxembourg among the O.E.C.D. countries spends more per elementary student — but American schools spend disproportionately on other areas, like bus transportation and sports facilities.

So maybe we do have the best school system in the world if, like Fifteen a couple of weeks ago, you want to skip a day of classes, and take a school provided bus to the state basketball tournament.

Two Roads Diverge—The Conclusion

The conclusion—Our children and the fork.

What should our children do to increase their odds of enjoying some semblance of economic security?

For the last several years I’ve been preaching a liberal arts education gospel. The message has been that the key to success in our increasingly competitive knowledge economy is a rigorous higher education that develops analytical, writing, critical thinking, and related intellectual skills. Then this mind-blowing article appeared in the New York Times—Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software.

Fork anxiety alert.

E-discovery companies like Cataphora are forcing me to rethink many of my assumptions. In terms of employment success, a college education, even a law degree, guarantees less and less. Instead of starting over with a brand new gospel, I need to supplement my call for a rigorous college education with additional strategies.

One overlooked strategy, self-sufficiency, is beautifully described in the book Little Heathens. Each of our children have to decide whether to follow our model of pursuing competence or expertise in one particular area, and then trading that competence or expertise into money through long work hours, and then handing significant percentages of the money over to others for a litany of products and services including, but not limited to: growing and preparing food; making and cleaning clothes; entertainment; education, hair and related personal care; pet grooming and care; cleaning and repairing bicycles, cars, and homes; tax preparation; counseling and medical care; yard work; personal trainers and life coaches.

Rightly or wrongly, most modern peeps have convinced themselves that their time is worth more than it costs to pay for those types of products and services. But the fork will change that equation for some of our children. What if our children experience under or unemployment, what if their wages can’t keep pace with inflation? What if they have more time than money? Although no one is talking about it, self-sufficiency is a common sense insurance policy in an increasingly unpredictable woods.

In addition to greater self-sufficiency, young people who develop a specific craft or trade will enjoy more economic security because they’ll be able to use their craft or trade to supplement their income or weather periods of under or unemployment. If artificial intelligence or related technological breakthroughs make them redundant for six months or a year, every four or five years over the the course of their adult working lives, my daughters could teach violin to Tiger Mother offspring. Put all of your economic security eggs in the intellectual skills basket at your own risk. Teach your children to lifeguard or teach swimming, to cut hair, to repair bicycles, to landscape, to design web pages, to care for and tutor younger children.

Also, and we’re nearing the end of our journey, agitate and advocate for “life-skills” in your children’s school curricula. We have to push back against the President’s and high profile business leaders’ insistence that all we need to negotiate the fork is marked improvement in math and science education. Truth be told, I’m not very self-sufficient, more handsome than handy, so for my daughters to become meaningfully self-sufficient, I need the help of teachers and other adults in the community.

Where’s the room in the curriculum? Not sure, but independent, Waldorf, and other alternative schools often find room for life skills. The publics would be well advised to turn to their smaller, funkier brethren for guidance. And since I don’t expect that to happen, parents better put their heads together to figure out how to help their little heathens become more self-sufficient.

And to borrow from Sue Sylvester (I shudder if you have adolescent children and don’t get that reference), that’s how Ron sees it.

Two Roads Diverge 2

Part 2 of 3—The left, the President, and my evolving thoughts on the fork.

The left attributes stagnant wages, high unemployment, and heightened economic scarcity to conservative Republican ideology, unregulated Wall Street bankers, and all-powerful corporations. The U.S., the left contends, is not a meritocracy. Within our laissez-faire free-market capitalist economy the wealthy have many more opportunities to advance than the poor; consequently, the rich get richer and the poor poorer. Increasing the wealthy’s taxes will reduce inequality, help more people find jobs and pay for health insurance, and give the majority of people with ordinary means a fighting chance.

The right, because they insist our economic problems can be fixed by a kind of American exceptionalism positive thinking, is failing to provide any kind of realistic roadmap that might help us negotiate the fork and create genuine, lasting forward momentum.

The left, because they insist it’s impossible for individuals and families to create any kind of economic security because the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is so wide, is also failing to provide a hopeful, credible, compelling roadmap.

With an eye towards November 2012, the President tends to split the difference and articulates an American exceptionalism-lite that he couples with an unfailing belief that a renaissance in math and science education will help us reclaim our role as the world’s undisputed economic hegemon.

Neither political party’s platform offers any assurance that nearly enough decent paying jobs will be created, we’ll transition to alternative energy sources, health insurance and Medicaid will be affordable, and anyone but the already well-to-do will enjoy prosperity.

Despite the understandable fear and foreboding, I’m finding more inspiration from ordinary people living humble, simple, selfless lives, than from any political figure, party, or platform. People unmoved by materialism. People attuned to the limits of time. People who identify more as writers, artists, peacemakers, ecologists, and global citizens, than consumers. People relatively unperturbed by the fork because they’re on simpler pathways.

The wrap against minimalism or voluntary simplicity is that it’s boring. Sometimes minimalists deserve criticism for a one-size fits all mentality, but not for being boring. What’s boring is subjective. For me, inexpensive things like writing, preparing and enjoying a healthy meal with a few family members or friends, reading a good book, seeing an excellent film, working out, and watching basketball with the labradude are sufficiently exciting. I’m cool with other people thinking those things are uninteresting.

The natural reaction to our tough economic times and the fork in the woods is to be disappointed with having to live with less. On the other hand, it could be a catalyst for rethinking our taken for granted consumerist-materialist lifestyles.

Some will conclude, “An out-of-touch sentence that only a person who doesn’t have to live month-to-month or worry about basic needs could write.” I get that. I’m beyond fortunate. I’m not sharing my evolving thinking to convince anyone to give up anything, I just hope my musings about how much is enough and what’s most important resonates with some readers.

There’s a big difference between “voluntary simplicity” and “forced frugality”. A forced frugality mentality, “damn we can’t afford anything anymore,” breeds ever-increasing resignation and frustration. In contrast, a voluntary simplicity orientation that prioritizes health, interpersonal relationships, and service is liberating because not as much money is required, meaning not as many hours or years of work may be needed.

This reorientation is similar to my learning to eat more healthily. Initially, I didn’t particularly care for low sugar, non-fat, veggie and fruit based meals, but ten years later I prefer them. I don’t have to force myself to eat healthily, I prefer it. I don’t have to force myself to live relatively simply (by 2011 North American standards), I prefer it.

Wherever this non-work, simplicity journey takes me, I doubt I’ll ever reach a state of buddhist nirvana. I like to travel, I like cars, carbon fiber bicycles, nice hotels, and massage “therapy” too much. And not too proud to admit, I even like Million Dollar Listing on Bravo. Ample room for growth.

Next—The conclusion—Our children and the fork.

Two Roads Diverge

The first in a week-long, three-part series.

I’m doing some reorienting. Prioritizing my non-work identities and relationships. Mid-life crisis? Don’t think so, but time will tell. Check back in a year or two from now. Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I’m taking the first steps of a journey whose outcome is unknown.

So what follows, like my identity more generally, is a work in progress. I don’t expect anyone to agree with everything. Or anything.

U.S. citizens are at a fork in the woods. A fork formed by a decline in manufacturing, technology-based automation, slower economic growth, and heightened economic scarcity.

More details here, although you don’t need Tyler Cowen or me to tell you about what you’re experiencing day-to-day.

We talk at length about the trees in the woods—fast rising gas prices, exorbitant health insurance premiums and college costs, and declining home values —but hardly at all about what lifestyles are most sustainable and meaningful.

The fork has prompted a radical shift in thinking. In the U.S., throughout the 20th century, parents thought, “I expect my children to live a better, more comfortable life than me.” Today the default is “I worry and wonder whether my children will be able to live as well and comfortably as me.”

Two roads diverged in a wood and I—I worried and wondered.

Economic security seems outside of our control. The economy is in constant flux and no job is secure. We can’t get politicians to think beyond their re-election and balance our state or national budgets. We can’t get them to stop fighting distant wars. We can’t slow China’s and India’s growth. We can’t reduce our dependence on oil. We can’t get consumers to stop shopping at Wal-Mart and other big boxes. We can’t stop companies from outsourcing jobs. And there’s seemingly no way to improve parenting, fix schools, or reduce inequality.

The fork is doubly tough for adults responsible for young people. They worry, what does their future hold? “I’m worried for myself and I’m worried for you.”

If we stop or even slow down, we may be overcome with fear for the future and overwhelmed with anxiety; therefore, we fill our days with work, shopping, entertainment, new apps, Facebook.

I wouldn’t be able to write this sentence if I weren’t extremely privileged, but I wonder if these tough economic times are an opportunity to slow down and think through more carefully how we want to live, to find ways to live more sustainable, meaningful lives. Or maybe, since lifestyle choices are intensely personal, I should say, how I want to live, to find ways for me to live a more sustainable, meaningful life.

Before fleshing out those concepts, consider the perspectives of the political left and right who have distinct opinions about the causes and consequences of the fork. Competing voices in the woods if you will. And yes, I’m conscious I’m overgeneralizing. Sometimes when you’re painting, you just grab the broad brush.

The right interprets economic history and life more generally through the lens of American exceptionalism. They’re more anxious about accelerating ethnic diversity than they are global economic restructuring. They refuse to acknowledge our relative decline and are nostalgic for the second half of the 20th century when the U.S.’s economic, military, and political advantages were much more obvious. They’re in serious denial, but if you tell them that they’ll label you anti-American, because in their worldview, American exceptionalism is self-evident.

Stagnant wages and high unemployment aren’t a result of technology-based automation, economic globalization, or our consumer choices. They’re temporary anomalies. Small bumps in the road. If the Kenyan-born, Muslim president (okay, that was uncalled for) would just embrace American exceptionalism, reduce the government to a fourth of its current size and lower taxes by half, we’d quickly reclaim our rightful role as the world’s unquestioned economic superpower. Then we could pick up living large again.

Wednesday—Part 2 of 3—The left, the President, and my evolving thoughts on the fork.

College Tuition Inflation

“Dear Parents” started the letter that arrived today from Eighteen’s college president. “To assist you in your planning, I am writing to provide you with information about fees for the coming year.”


A few short paragraphs in the prez pats himself on the back. “The comprehensive fee increase for the coming year (3.97%) is the second-lowest in a decade.” That makes me feel a lot better, except inflation, in 2010 in the U.S., was 2.3%. Why not just write, “We’ve hosed families worse than this in eight of the previous ten years.”

“In the months ahead,” he added, “we will continue to explore routes to reduce operational expenses while preserving the academic excellence for which Exorbitantly Priced College is justly known.” A promising sentence that deserves another like this, “I will write again during the summer to update you on the outcome of those discussions and exactly how we are going to reduce operational expenses while preserving academic excellence.”

Continue to explore. Classic higher ed speak.

One wonders, when it comes to comprehensive fees at private liberal arts colleges, is there a tipping point?