You STILL Have a Wired Doorbell?!

A wonderfully quiet, calm, early morning. Just me and the iPad Air, on a stool, at the kitchen island. I’m George Foreman and my green tea latte, banana with peanut butter, and bowl of oatmeal are Frazier. I open ZITE and select one of my “Top Stories”, an article titled “Interior Design Tips & Furniture To Consider When Moving Into a New Home”. I want to be prepared in case I buy a new home today.

Scrolling, scrolling, some cool ideas like a pallet coffee table or a “murphy bed for the kids’ room”. Then the game changer. “Connect With Your Home Via Your Smartphone.” Here’s the paragraph. Savor. Every. Word.

These days our smartphones can do almost anything. There’s an app for everything so why not take advantage of this? In your home, you can have things like a wireless doorbell. Whenever someone’s at the door your phone will ring so, even if you’re in the garden, you’ll hear the doorbell.

Our smartphones. Never be lonely again. We’re a club and you’re in it.

There’s an app for everything. I have read there are a whole lot of apps, but I never knew there’s one for everything. Had I known about the one that heals calf muscles, I would’ve been running all January and February. And had I known about the app that enables you to peer into the near future, I would’ve avoided last weeks argument with the GalPal. And had I known about the ones that rake leaves, mow, and pick up doggie do, I would’ve spent all weekend inside learning more about interior design.

A wireless doorbell. Hot damn. Whenever someone’s at the door your phone will ring so, even if you’re in the garden, you’ll hear the doorbell. Until now, I thought my most pressing hardships in life were health related—persistent skin cancer, an enlarged prostate, worsening vision. Now that I think about it, I have long been tormented by a litany of missed house guests as a result of my feeble, wired door bell, and my gardening. Because thanks to technology, we have way more time on our hands than ever before and we’re spending a lot of that freed up time dropping in on one another.

Just the other day, three young women stopped by to give me a birthday present, an advanced copy of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. They emailed me later to say they rang the doorbell and waited as long as they could. I guess that’s why Marley was barking so excitedly. At the time I was knee deep in compost.

And then a few weeks ago, Jimmy Fallon stopped by to ask if I would be his first guest on the Tonight Show. He emailed me later to say he rang the doorbell and waited as long as he could. At the time I was planting seeds.

And then a few months ago, President Obama stopped by to see if I wanted to play golf and help troubleshoot the Affordable Care rollout. He emailed me later to say he rang the bell and waited as long as the Secret Service would let him. At the time I was stringing up some snap peas.

And then a year ago, Kate Middleton stopped by to ask for some parenting advice. She emailed me later to say she rang the bell and waited as long as MI6 would let her. At the time I was installing a drip water system into a raised garden bed.

And then two years ago, Pope Benedict XVI stopped by for some personal counseling. He emailed me later to say he rang the bell and waited as long as the Gendarmie Corps of Vatican City State would let him. At the time I was weeding.

Someday, I will gather my children’s children around and tell them exactly what it was like to live through the wired doorbell era. I won’t spare their feelings and I’ll use big words like “distressing”, “harrowing”, and “horrifying” because they’ll be sups smart.

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Three Things I Don’t Understand About the Election

1) Why isn’t anyone describing it as historic? Granted, President Obama’s victory in 08 was more groundbreaking, but it’s as if the historic nature of this accomplishment is lost on the chattering class. President Obama’s election in 2008 made it more likely we’ll see a series of non-white male and female candidates from this point forward. His reelection makes that even more certain.

2) I understand why many on the right despise President Obama’s policies. Reasonable people can disagree about the optimal size of government, the strengths and limits of free markets, and how best to provide healthcare, strengthen the economy, and conduct foreign relations, but why are so many conservative critiques of Obama petty, personal, even pathetic?

Exhibits A and B from consecutive comments attached to an election article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Charlene Larson, who assumed Romney would win (in response to another commenter): You’re right, of course. Obama will go back to doing the only thing he’s a success at: creating a racial divide. He will try to undermine the Romney administration. He will violate the gentleman’s agreement that states no past president will speak ill of his successor. Because he’s no gentleman. He’s a bitter, delusional child. Michael Bukowski in response: I believe Charlene is rightly referring to the fact that not once in his Presidency has Obama ever acted like a grown man (see: leader). He does nothing but complain about what he “inherited.”

I’m not in the habit of accusing anyone of racism, let alone faceless names in a paper, but given the nature of Larson’s and Bukowski’s attacks, the onus is on them to prove they’re not racist. My conservative friends will accuse me of selective perception, correctly pointing out that some liberal ideologues routinely criticized “W” in ways that were also petty, personal, and at times pathetic. For example, making fun of the times he misspoke, jokingly labeling them “Bushisms”, the suggestion being he wasn’t nearly intelligent enough to govern. Certainly, some leftist ideologues demonstrated elitism and arrogance, but racism? A pox on anyone that hasn’t outgrown the grade school playground.

Exasperated with his incessant personal attacks on the President, I asked a close conservative friend whether his criticism was motivated in part by race. He said he’d vote for Walter Williams in a heartbeat. Nice return of serve, but still, the onus is on those whose attacks are especially personal to prove they’re not racist. I won’t hold my breath.

3) When will Republicans come to grips with changing demographics, embrace immigration reform, and seriously contend for nonwhite voters? An illuminating sentence from yesterday Wall Street Journal, “Romney thinks his path to victory is to win 61 percent of white voters as long as white voters comprise 74 percent of the vote—and the Obama camp agrees.” Add age into this mix. People between 18-44 tilted heavily for the President. As long as Republicans slight young Hispanic and African-American voters, sell your Republican stock.

The U.S. Electoral College Map Explained

Take a gander.

Since you always aced your social studies courses you already know the President needs 270 electoral votes out of the 538 up for grabs. The winner can lose darn near forty small states, win the most heavily populated ten plus, and be the first to tag the bible on January 20, 2013.

Show the above map to grade schoolers and ask who is likely to win. They’ll say the Red Team.

Even though you understand how the Electoral College works, you probably don’t know why some states tip blue and others red. That’s what I’m here for.

It all starts with cool ocean breezes in the Pacific, upper Atlantic, and Great Lakes region. Those cool breezes translate into more moderate temperatures especially on the West Coast and in the upper Northeast. In contrast, the great, red, middle swath of the country is mired in hot and humid summers and killer cold winters almost all the time. Ocean and Great Lake breezes and cool temps contribute to blood flow, heightened brain activity, and altogether clearer thinking. Sadly, over time, people living in the great, red, middle swath of the country develop cognitive deficits as a result of oppressive heat and humidity and dramatic temperature swings. The technical term for this is Climatic Induced Cognitive Deficit Disorder or CICDD.

Also, until the last presidential election, very few people knew that on clear days you can actually see Russia from the West Coast of the U.S. That proximity to Russia—coupled with shared suffering during earthquakes, mud slides, and forest fires—explains the more collectivist mindset of Left Coasters.

Then there’s dietary considerations. Reds don’t just like their heat, humidity, and bugs, they like breaded and fried meat casserole-based potlucks more specifically. All washed down with whole milk. Blues prefer roasted vegetables, fresh fruit, and wine. That explains the dramatic physical health divide, which like the climatological differences, translates into a mental health chasm. Eat well, be well, think well.

Then there’s preferred outdoor activities. This time of year Blues hike among trees and meditate silently upon their changing colors all while looking forward to snow shoeing and cross country skiing. Reds hike among trees too, in search of large defenseless animals to shoot and kill. Then they drag them home, bread them, and fry them. All while looking forward to firing up their snowmobiles and making lots of noise and pollution. Blue outdoor activities lead to enlightenment. Red to blight and lunacy.

Then there’s different artistic sensibilities. Blues prefer classical music, independent and foreign films, modern dance, national public radio, and The New Yorker. Reds, country and heavy metal, Arnold Schwarzenegger films, reality television, Fox News, and The Washington Times. Heightened enlightenment and even greater lunacy.

Class dismissed.

Stop Linking School Improvement, Economic Competitiveness, and National Greatness

This commentary of mine is currently appearing here.

Most efforts to improve schooling in the United States have limited impact because opinion leaders’ repeated appeals to global economic competitiveness and national greatness don’t inspire teachers or students.

Following World War II, the United States enjoyed steady economic growth, which led to unprecedented prosperity. People’s standard of living steadily improved, the U.S. economy became the world’s largest, and successive generations of parents assumed that their children would enjoy even more secure and comfortable lives.

More recently, the fastest growing countries, particularly China, India, and Brazil, have grown more quickly and made long-term investments in infrastructure to further reduce the economic gap with the world’s largest economies. Also, many Chinese and other Asian young people are attending U.S. and European universities while their governments invest in higher education at home at record levels. Meanwhile, the United States has been challenged by higher than normal unemployment, declining real wages, the bursting of the housing bubble, and runaway health care and higher education inflation. Now parents increasingly fear their children will not enjoy as secure or comfortable lives as they have. It’s impossible to overstate how much economic anxiety informs proposals to improve schools from opinion leaders such as Bill Gates, Thomas Friedman, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and President Barack Obama.

Gates, Friedman, Duncan, and Obama sing from one choir book with this chorus: “Our economic dominance is ebbing, our standard of living is threatened, and righting the ship depends upon improving our schools.” They’re also of one mind on what’s necessary to improve schools—a distinct emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and making teachers more accountable for student learning by tying together their students’ test scores, their evaluations, and their compensation.

They implore students to work harder for the sake of the country. For example, consider Secretary Duncan’s October 2011 speech in Portland, Oregon, to the Oregon Business Association. Early on, he said, “I absolutely believe education is now the engine for long-term economic growth. But that is not a Democratic theory. In fact, the vast majority of governors from both parties subscribe to that view. And it’s a view shared by many business leaders as well.” “This summer,” he added, “I was at a White House meeting with President Obama and a number of leading CEOs. And the consensus about the link between education and economic growth was striking, even among corporate leaders who might disagree with the president on other issues.”

Or consider President Obama’s “Back to School” pep talk to Wakefield High School students in Arlington, Virginia, in September 2009:

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that—if you quit on school—you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in 20 or 50 or 100 years say about what all of you did for this country?

A year later, in September 2010, the president gave another “Back to School” speech at a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania school. The speech was also streamed to students nationwide:

The farther you go in school, the farther you’re going to go in life.  And at a time when other countries are competing with us like never before, when students around the world in Beijing, China, or Bangalore, India, are working harder than ever, and doing better than ever, your success in school is not just going to determine your success, it’s going to determine America’s success in the 21st century.

Taken together, Gates, Friedman, Duncan, and the president articulated what Maxine Greene has referred to as a utilitarian purpose of schooling. In this view, business principles are applied to schools, and economics trumps everything. Students are thought of much more as future workers and consumers than citizens. Schools primarily exist to prepare students for the workforce. Greene labels this a “self-regarding, education for having” orientation that emphasizes math and science coursework, competition, and job skills. In this now dominant paradigm, concepts like “self-actualization,” “service,” “citizenship,” and “democracy” are slighted, along with the arts, the humanities, social studies education, and foreign languages.

Teachers and students are told to work harder for the sake of our economic competitiveness and national greatness. Again, the president asks students, “What will a president who comes here in 20 or 50 or 100 years say about what all of you did for this country?” Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Gates, Friedman, Duncan, and Obama don’t understand what motivates public school teachers given that none of them has ever been one.

Teachers don’t commit to the profession the way some enlist in the military. Few educators are motivated by nationalism. Most elementary teachers love working with children and get great satisfaction from helping their students become literate. Most secondary teachers love some particular content and get great satisfaction from introducing their students to that content. The best ones also enjoy working with adolescents and helping them mature into competent and caring young men and women. Teachers don’t lack patriotism; their patriotism just doesn’t inform their day-do-day work with students.

If teachers find appeals to economic competitiveness and national greatness uninspiring, it’s doubly true for students. Academic achievement isn’t a question of how much young people love their country; it is whether they have inspiring teachers, positive peer pressure, and, most important, caring adults in their lives who combine high expectations with tireless support and encouragement.

The debilitating disconnect between opinion leaders’ rhetoric and what motivates teachers and students has at least two costs. First, when science, technology, engineering, and math are all that’s important, and qualitative aspects of learning and living are ignored, teachers, students, and families grow disenchanted with reform proposals. Teachers, students, and families want schools that acknowledge and honor the whole child and develop skills and personal attributes that may not have immediate and obvious economic benefits. They resent the opinion leaders’ myopic materialism and assumption that our nation’s gross national product is more important than children’s well-being.

Teachers and parents want schools to help students develop skills and sensibilities that will enable them to not just earn a living, but also live well. Teachers and parents instinctively know that if schools succeed in creating curious, caring, well-rounded, and resilient young people in the short term, the economy will be fine in the long term. Economic growth should be a positive by-product of a humane, child-centered school system, not the all-pervasive starting and ending point that Bill Gates, Tom Friedman, Arne Duncan, and Barack Obama want us to believe.

Second, appeals to national economic competiveness and greatness will do little to inspire a new generation of culturally diverse, high-achieving undergraduates to enter the teaching profession. Half of the United States’ 3.2 million teachers are expected to retire in the next decade. Our greatest and most important educational challenge is to recruit and retain over one million culturally diverse, academically accomplished candidates. Because teacher compensation is unlikely to improve much, the way the profession is presented to potential candidates is especially important. If people are encouraged to teach primarily for the sake of our nation’s economy, we will fail to inspire the number of new culturally diverse, academically accomplished candidates we need to reinvent schooling in the 21st century.

Ultimately, as educators and citizens, we have a choice. We can passively defer to the combined voices of the opinion leaders who dominate the nation’s newspapers and airwaves, or we can resolve to challenge their narrow utilitarian assumptions about the purpose of schooling and instead frame teaching as a profoundly challenging, rewarding, and important form of community service.

Chinese Test Score Hysteria

China’s ascendancy is inevitable because they’re willing to work for much less than American workers and American consumers are deeply dependent upon inexpensive “made in China” consumer goods. Thus the unprecedented trade imbalance, and as the recent G-20 meetings made evident, our relative loss of leverage.

My self-image isn’t tied to an accident of birth, living in a country long thought to be the world’s economic superpower. The next few years and decades are going to be tough for Americans whose self-image is somehow tied to being the world’s economic superpower. Asia, and China in particular, will continue to gain leverage and we’ll lose it.

Despite many reasons for this gradual reorientation of global economic and political power, the next few years and decades are going to be doubly tough for teachers because they’ll be blamed for it. U.S. citizens are deeply anxious about their waning hegemony and precarious standards of living. That collective anxiety will be projected onto public school teachers.

For educators, a New York Times article titled “Top Test Scores From Shangahi Stun Educators” by Sam Dillon last week doesn’t help matters. Some excerpts:

With China’s debut in international standardized testing, students in Shanghai have surprised experts by outscoring their counterparts in dozens of other countries, in reading as well as in math and science, according to the results of a respected exam.

The results also appeared to reflect the culture of education there, including greater emphasis on teacher training and more time spent on studying rather than extracurricular activities like sports.

“We have to see this as a wake-up call,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview on Monday.

“I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better,” he added. “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

In a speech to a college audience in North Carolina, President Obama recalled how the Soviet Union’s 1957 launching of Sputnik provoked the United States to increase investment in math and science education, helping America win the space race.

“Fifty years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back,” Mr. Obama said. With billions of people in India and China “suddenly plugged into the world economy,” he said, nations with the most educated workers will prevail. “As it stands right now,” he said, “America is in danger of falling behind.”

Tom Friedman recently wrote a scathing expose detailing why he thinks the U.S. is falling behind China. Friedman is a fairly predictable critic of U.S. education, but this time, to his credit, he said the primary problem is a broken political system and a parochial, lazy citizenry.

Duncan, Obama, and Friedman not only see improving education as an international competition and zero-sum game, but their rhetoric suggests you and I have to see it that way too. But the genius of our political system is we get to decide for ourselves.

I’m increasingly convinced that Duncan is the one in need of a wake-up. Few educators find jockeying for global economic supremacy inspiring. Like me, they tend to be humanitarians who don’t begrudge the Chinese the marked educational and economic progress they’re making. The Shanghai test scores are only a Sputnik moment if we decide to compete in a zero-sum game with the Chinese (and Singaporeans, Koreans, Finns, etc.).

Educators have to let the Secretary of Education, the President, and the opinion leader know that there are alternative starting points. For example, what can educators in different countries learn from one another and how might we capitalize on what each national educational system does best to solve challenging global economic, environmental, social, and political issues?

Educators aren’t parochial or lazy. They’re quite willing to think globally, just not exactly the way those in the bully pulpit might prefer.


Religion and Politics

History suggests you can’t get elected to high office in the U.S. without at least marketing yourself as a practicing Christian. Yet, once elected, Christian principles often take a backseat to Realpolitik. Why do Christian constituents seemingly give a pass to faux politicians like Sarah Palin for subverting the “turn the other cheek” challenge of the gospel by advocating for “a punch for a punch” on children’s playgrounds? Much more importantly, why do Christian constituents give a pass to real live politicians like Barack Obama for greatly increasing the use of drones to kill people in Afghanistan?