Try To Stay Present

After a fun fiction jag, I’m reading David Brook’s #1 Best Seller in Philosophy of Ethics and Morality, The Second Mountain: The Quest For a Moral Life.

I’m only a third in, but my overwhelming thought so far is that it’s uneven. Some parts are clear, insightful and inspiring; others however, like Chapter Six, “Heart and Soul,” are so vapid I wonder if his editor is afraid of him. Brooks is like a batter that drills one pitch off the wall for a stand up double and then strikes out looking the next time up.

He argues Millennials are lost, which of course, is an exaggeration. Lost because nearly every American institution has declined in importance and young people are left with the admittedly inane advice to “do you” whatever you may be. He argues all people would benefit from living more committed lives to some combination of a vocation, marriage, philosophy and faith, or particular community.

He tells his story and stories of many others who prioritized their work lives and wealth and notoriety at the expense of deeper, more meaningful commitments based upon mutual vulnerability and selfless service. He’s best when he explains how these “Second Mountain” people lose themselves in listening and caring for others in ways that are mutually transforming.

The problem he slips into though is highlighting people whose transformations are so radical as to be nearly unrelatable. Like Kathy and David who extend dinner invitations to a hodgepodge of 40 struggling young people on a weekly basis. David left his job to create a nonprofit, All Our Kids, and gave his kidney to one of the young women when she needed a transplant.

Yeah, I’m sure I can high jump 10 feet if I just put my mind to it.

Or Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman in Holland during World War II, who maintained a supernatural inner peace and joy all the way up to the point that her parents, brother, and she were killed in Auschwitz.

I set Brooks down for awhile to watch the first episode of HBO’s Chernobyl which is as scary a story imaginable for anyone who has ever worried about exposure to radiation at the dentist and/or airport. After that harrowing experience, I sought refuge in The New Yorker instead of immediately jumping back into Brooks.

There I think I found a more subtle and nuanced way forward for mere mortals like me. In a very short story about Maggie Rogers’s rise, John Seabrook, who hangs with her in New York one afternoon, tells this story:

A fan recognized her. “Wow,” he said. “Biggest fan. Can I actually ask a question?”

“Dude, I have no idea what I’m doing,” Rogers said, laughing.

“That’s what your album is about, right?” the fan asked. He was her age.

“Exactly,” Rogers said. “I’ve just really been trying to stay present.”

How does one stay present? By giving off a particular vibe that communicates “Heck no I’m not too busy for you.” By maintaining meaningful eye contact. By thinking about what others are saying instead of what you want to say the second they pause. By asking clarifying questions. By empathizing instead of problem solving. By learning to appreciate what’s unique about others.

Much easier to write than do.

 

 

Teach Skepticism

The Tacoma News Tribune has a lengthy, sordid story on a 41 year old con artist named Ryan Rhodes. The story’s utter ordinariness makes it noteworthy. At the center were well-to-do parents who took on faith that Rhodes would build a “high end” competitive baseball league for their 10-14 year old sons. Little did they know that Rhodes ripped $100k off of his grandparents when he was 24 years old and had a history of writing bad checks.

The final sentences of the article:

The list of parents and families dismayed by the Pioneer debacle includes Ed Troyer, Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman, who had a grandson in the Tacoma-based league and coached in his spare time. No stranger to scammers, Troyer said the real cost falls on young people who just wanted to play baseball. “Tacoma really needed a league like that, and now it’s gone,” he said. “It’s pretty sad that all those kids don’t have a league.”

ET, please tell me you’re kidding! That’s the take-away?! The most important take-aways from this case study have nothing to do with baseball. The real cost falls on young people who will never cultivate a healthy skepticism if their parents and grandparents don’t detail for them all of the mistakes they made from the very beginning of the sad saga.

If the boys learn these life lessons all is not lost:

• Learn from your mistakes.

• Never trust anyone automatically. Especially people asking you for money. Know that some people will lie to you, steal your money, and run.

• Be doubly wary of solicitors that are more personable and charismatic than normal.

• If you’ve never done business with a person or group asking you for money, never give it to them in advance of whatever their promising.

• Before giving money to any unfamiliar individual or group, find independent references who can vouch for the veracity of whatever they’re claiming about themselves.

 

 

 

 

Apple Inc. and the Betrayal of the American Dream

Big week for Apple fanboys and girls. New iPhone. You better keep up with all the cool people and buy one. It will change your life. Well, maybe not, but you’ll be the envy of all those iPhone 4 losers. “Wow dude,” you can say to them, “that’s one short, thick, throwback phone.”

A recent book by two Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporters titled, “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” criticizes Apple for outsourcing too many of its jobs. Here’s a National Public Radio story on the authors and their book.

Even though I’m an Apple fanboy and investor, I believe the bigger the company and the greater its influence in the world, the more we should hold it accountable for being transparent, honoring workers’ rights, and protecting the environment. Apple’s marketing, products, and momentum can bedazzle at the expense of critical inquiry.

I’ve been swapping emails with my friend—Dan, Dan, the Transportation Man—about driverless cars. The last one I sent him linked to an article that suggested, initially at least, driverless cars will cost around $300k. “Just do what Apple does” he wrote back sarcastically, “and outsource it (the manufacturing of the driverless car) to China.”

In the United States, especially during election season, knee-jerk criticism of outsourcing is legion. Few of the critics take any time to consider how much more they’d have to pay for their toothbrushes, clothes, iPads, bicycles, and cars if they were all completely manufactured in the United States. Heaven for bid if we connected a few dots.

In their critique of Apple, I wonder whether the “Betrayal” authors factor in the daily benefits of its products to users around the world. I made light of the newest iPhone, but you’d have to pry my MacBook Pro from my cold dead fingers.

Also, outsourcing is an abomination only when economic nationalism prevails. It’s possible, theoretically at least, to think more globally without sacrificing love of country, and therefore, to cheer job growth irrespective of political borders. Especially given global economic interconnectedness and the fact that most of Apple’s foreign-based employees buy some U.S. imports.

The authors would chuckle at my naivete. They’d point out we continue to run a tremendous trade deficit with China because international trade is conducted on a grossly uneven playing field. China has far fewer labor and environmental regulations, pays workers far less (even when adjusted for cost of living), and places protective tariffs on our imports. The uneven nature of the international trade playing field is a pressing problem.

But I wonder what the authors would say about the charitable giving the GalPal and I will be doing the next few years as a result of recently selling some Apple shares that had quadrupled over the last four years.

For me, the jury is still out on what kind of corporate citizen Apple is. I value critical analyses, but at present, I will continue to use its products and invest in it. I am not a model to follow. Apple’s fate will be determined by the individual and collective decision-making of technology users around the world.

For cutting edgers like me, there’s just one decision left. A black or white iPhone 5?

An Open Letter to College Admissions Committees

From Andrew F. Knight, former physics teacher, Potomac Falls High School–originally published here. See my response at the bottom.

As a physics teacher who recently resigned from Loudoun County Public Schools, one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing public school districts in America, I urge you to altogether stop considering high school grades in your admissions process and decisions.

Our schools are failing. Rarely does real learning happen in modern classrooms, and when it does, it is often merely a byproduct of each student’s pursuit of an independent and potentially conflicting goal: high grades. While I can only speak to grading practices at my school, I suspect that these concerns are endemic throughout high schools nationwide.

First, high school grades themselves are very poor indicators of a student’s competence. As a graduate of MIT and Georgetown Law, I have experience in earning high grades and gaining admission to competitive universities. My grades were in part due to “grade engineering”: the process of maximizing grades with minimal effort and without regard to learning or understanding material. In other words, I received high grades partially by exploiting the weak correlation between grades and mastery.

At one time, I suppose, grades might have been an objective and reasonably accurate measure of competence in a given subject. Not anymore. Today, they primarily measure how well a student can game the system. It is quite easy for savvy high school students to pass a course, and in some cases even to receive an A or B, without actually knowing or understanding any of the course content. Here’s how:

• They choose easy teachers. Many teachers at my school believe that all students are capable of getting A’s; not surprisingly, very few of their students receive lower than a B. Are these amazing teachers who push their students to succeed or spineless grade inflators who don’t want to deal with angry parents? Because a student’s grade depends largely on his teacher’s philosophy of grading, students can avoid the annoyance of actually having to earn high grades by rationally choosing teachers who want to give them.

• They harass teachers about grades. Students and their parents often cooperate to make a teacher’s life a living hell. They pester the teacher weekly with requests for progress reports. They call the teacher during her lunch break to request extra credit or test retake opportunities. They write demanding and condescending emails. They schedule early-morning parent-teacher conferences to negotiate higher grades. They complain to the principal. They meet with guidance. They flex their muscles and put the teacher in her place. During my last week as a public school teacher, a colleague actually cried after receiving a nasty parent email. Given enough harassment, many teachers will either succumb to inflating grades or quit.

• They cheat. At my school, the likelihood of getting caught is low. Students can easily copy other students’ homework or plagiarize from the Internet. They can even cheat during tests, as many teachers give the same test version to every student. Even if a student is caught, there is essentially no consequence for first-time offenders so perceptive students readily make use of this free hall pass. Does cheating actually occur? In an anonymous survey of my 130 physics students, all but three admitted to copying homework or test answers from other students.

• They get into special ed. Not all of special ed is a sham but some of it is. I am not an expert in special education and I absolutely agree that specific learning disabilities exist that can be addressed with research-based interventions and procedures. However, instead of a shield, special ed (and its even shadier cousin, the child study) is often used by parents as a sword to gain competitive advantages over other students, particularly the small-group testing accommodation, in which students are taken to a different room by a special ed teacher who may “coach” the students. In my experience, this coaching tends to involve providing hints and interactive feedback that would be considered cheating if provided by fellow students, thus allowing students who are otherwise clueless in my class to ace my tests. Sadly, many students have learned to exploit their special ed status as a crutch and excuse for nonperformance, resulting in higher grades in the short term at the expense of accountability and achievement in the long term.

• They earn “completion” points by turning in all homework, projects and assignments. Completion is the new competence. Modern grading practices encourage children to turn in lots of shoddy work products because completion points, which now account in many classrooms for the majority of the grade, reward quantity over quality. By copying off other students and the Internet and even scribbling worthless nonsense to give the semblance of assignment completion, a student can receive the vast majority of credit on these assignments with minimal effort. Even if they bomb the tests — reflecting a total lack of understanding in the subject — they’ll still be able to pull off a B or C.

When students are judged for college admissions on an indicator that may or may not bear any resemblance to their actual level of mastery, an entirely rational response is to focus on the indicator itself. Why go through the arduous process of actually learning physics if you can pull off a B merely by copying homework, getting last-minute extra credit points, and having your parents harass your teacher for a retake when you bombed the test you didn’t prepare for? These grade-increasing strategies are now the rule in public education, not the exception. Sadly, the hardworking students who have integrity, an old-fashioned American work ethic, and a desire to actually learn are at a competitive disadvantage to their less-honest counterparts.

Consequently, the drive for high grades is blinding students and parents alike to the real purpose of education: learning. In parent-teacher conferences, “How can my child bring up her grade?” has replaced “How can my child better learn the material?” The system’s response to angry grade-obsessed parents and disgruntled students has been to fudge the indicator instead of improving the system in other words, to inflate grades in spite of worsening performance. I was routinely pressured by parents, students and even administrators to inflate grades in the form of curving scores, providing extra credit and retest opportunities, and more heavily weighting homework and projects that are easy to copy from friends. It is instructive to note that two-thirds of our students are on the honor roll. (That’s right.) When a majority of students routinely receive As and B’s in all their classes, the distinctions intended by a traditional A-F grading scale become hazy and meaningless.

Finally, grades are far too personal to be effective. When an A student receives a C in algebra, for example, she is fooled into believing that she is no good at math when, in reality, a C is (or should be) an indicator of perfectly acceptable performance in which there is room for improvement. As a result, her self-esteem and confidence take serious beatings and she gives up, even though real excellence is molded from a long cycle of falling and then getting back up again. Teachers are thus given the option of assigning honest grades that reflect true mastery — and of dealing with angry, discouraged students who have not been held accountable for their own education — or of deluding C and D students into believing they’re A and B students. The latter option will result in a generation full of misled “straight-A” students possessing few actual skills and a subpar work ethic who don’t understand why America is no longer economically competitive in the global marketplace.

The solution I propose is comprehensive exams at the end of each course, much like Advanced Placement exams, that thoroughly and objectively distinguish students on merit alone. The emphasis in each classroom would then shift from fighting the teacher for high grades to cooperating with the teacher to learn the material necessary to perform on the exam. Unlike Virginia’s Standard of Learning tests, which are essentially worthless baseline tests of rote memorization that do not distinguish the most competent students, AP exams test a broad array of knowledge and understanding. There is no such thing as “teaching to the AP test,” because fundamental understanding and application of knowledge cannot be mastered by memorizing the answers to past exam questions.

The focus on grades is killing American education. In my book, “Full Ride to College,” I specifically teach students how to engineer their grades and exploit the weak correlation between grades and mastery, thus giving students a competitive advantage without the inconvenience of working hard and learning. While I consider this strategy to be a mockery of American education, it is also effective. Until such time as college admission committees stop soliciting and using archaic, meaningless high school grade information in their admissions decisions, I plan to continue teaching grade engineering, because it is the rational and efficient response to a grading regime in which students are rewarded for cheating, harassing teachers, and choosing classes based on the ease of grading instead of the quality of teaching. [end of letter]

Props to Mr. Knight for having the courage to point out the emperor has no clothes on. However, he doesn’t go far enough. Denise Clark Pope illustrates the problem in gory detail in her 2003 book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. Knight’s solution to the problem of grade engineering, introduce high stakes Advanced Placement-like end of course exams, is an unsatisfying fix.

We must dig deeper. We have to not only acknowledge the detrimental effects of academic competition, but experiment with narrative forms of assessment and learning structures where students are expected to work together in substantive ways, like most of us do in our families, in our civic organizations, in our workplaces. Myopic, “grades as an end-all, be-all parenting” and intense individualism endemic to the U.S. are the greatest impediments to change. When honest, many “A” students say what they like most about getting “A’s” is knowing their classmates don’t receive them. I don’t see how A.P.-like exams will do anything to dent the zero-sumness that explains most of the behavior Knight laments.

Adolescents are the most social of animals, yet in school, we almost always require them to work individually and we assess their work individually. And of course, college admissions offices assess them individually too. But talk to eighteen and nineteen year olds about what they most value from their high school experience and almost to a person they’ll say the groups they were apart of—band, drill team, service clubs, student government, choir, orchestra, drama, athletic teams. Why? Because in contrast to third period physics, they develop collective identities in those activities and enjoy the community that results from them.

What do you think about Knights’ description of the problem and proposed fix?

Garage Ethics

Check out how I’ve arranged things in the freezer in our garage. Nagging question. Is it ethical? I call the first act of subterfuge the “berry overlay,” the second, the “butter block”. Only way to keep the ice-cream goodness from evaporating in the course of a few days. If it does pass your ethical test and you’re inspired to do the same, be sure to credit me.

Upgraded the sticks recently. I’m so deadly with the luscious new putter, the PGA may declare it an “unfair advantage”. I was dropping bombs from all over the Capital City greens this morning. Think Jason Dufner, first 69 holes of the PGA Championship. Note how the manufacturer worked my name into the label. A legend in my own mind.