Let’s Say You’re a Non-Conformist

And you find boxing medieval and barbaric. Let’s say you used to like the violent science back in the day when heavyweights like Foreman, Norton, Frazier, and Ali roamed the earth. But you’ve learned about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and evolved. Hell, you may even be done with football.

What are you going to do late Saturday night when everyone else is watching a guy with a history of domestic abuse take on a legislator who has left his constituents hanging?

Happy to help.

If you’re a non-conformist like me (pun intended), evolutionary history still has some hold on you. Meaning you like a good fight as long as it doesn’t end with anyone bloodied, bowed, and maybe permanently damaged.

Turns out there’s a major brouhaha taking place within the upper reaches of the black intelligentsia. In one corner, Cornel West. In the other, Michael Eric Dyson. Spend Saturday night reading Dyson’s 9,000 word roundhouse punch for the ages. Like a fighter in the early rounds, Dyson’s spends the first few thousand words bobbing and jabbing. Then mid-way, he attacks with a remarkable, astounding, vindictiveness.

Then read this anti-Dyson counterpunch from a Harvard doctoral student. Spoiler alert: like in war or any protracted, especially vicious fight, no one is going to win this one.

west-header-crop

Why Obama Will Be Playing Even More Golf

I’m doing my best to block out Presidential politics, but you can’t expect me to remain completely silent.

My liberal friends roll their eyes at me when I predict this election is going to be really close and could very well go Romney’s way. They don’t appreciate the magnitude of conservatives’ dislike for President Obama (P.O.). As one of my right wing nutter friends puts it, “ABO—Anybody But Obama”.

W was a mountain biker. Obama is a golfer. My guess is he likes golf because it’s the exact opposite of Presidential politics in that you control your destiny. No person is an island. . . except for when they’re on the first tee. Roll in a 25 footer for birdie and bask in the glory. There’s no infielder you have to throw to for the relay at home, no catcher that has to hold onto the ball, no other oarsman or woman to keep rhythm with, no doubles partner to cover the alley, no teammates at all. Slice it out of bounds and accept the responsibility for the two stroke penalty. No projecting.

P.O.’s re-election hinges upon improving economics at home. And because our economy and Europe’s are increasingly interdependent, that will be determined in part by people named Angela, Francois, Mario and Wolfgang. And then there’s Congress. P.O. wants temporary tax cuts and spending initiatives to spark public sector job hiring, but Congressional Republicans have no incentive to help him.

And China is letting its currency devalue again, making its exports cheaper and those from the U.S. to China more costly. India’s economy is slowing and the phrase “financial contagion” is appearing with increasing frequency in business periodicals. Eurozone unemployment is at 11%, the highest since tracking began in 1995.

Then there’s the Supreme Court which sometime soon will decide whether P.O.’s controversial first term focus—expanded health care coverage based upon required participation—is constitutional or not.

And there’s this picture from my California cycling sojourn.

A suggestion, fill up before or after Lee Vining, CA.

Economists are quick to say a President doesn’t control the cost of gas or the nation’s growth rate, let alone the unemployment rate in Europe or at home, but perception is reality. Add up last week’s anemic job growth numbers, the tick up in unemployment, higher than average gas prices, the mess that is the Eurozone, stagnant wages, especially tough job prospects for college graduates, and any challenger would have a decent shot at defeating the incumbent.

If those variables don’t improve or get worse, an Obama loss will not surprise me. Either way, look for him to play more golf whether as a second term president or a former president because the golf course is the only place where he alone controls his destiny.

Teaching Grit Continued

[Editors note: Please notice that in the right-hand margin I’ve moved my twitter feed up. My tweeting is just too genius to reside anywhere else.]

Thanks to last week’s comments, I’ve continued thinking about teaching and grit. The two primary questions I’ve been grapping with are: 1) What is grit? And 2) Should it be taught in public schools?

1) What is grit? We think it consists of courageous acts in the face of opposition. For example, a hiker survives for six days after an 800 pound boulder pins his arm. Eventually, he uses his pocket knife to self amputate his arm and somehow he survives the ordeal. The height of grittiness right? Or the marathoner who withstands 80+ degree temps and a series of surges to hang on and win.

But Duckworth and her colleagues define grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” The hiker wasn’t thinking long-term, he wanted to live to see the following week. The marathoner’s performance probably doesn’t qualify as gritty as his months and years of race prep. Is it possible that the elderly couple who have stayed married for sixty years despite personality differences, debilitating illnesses, and financial hardships are especially poignant examples of grit? Or the baseball player who breaks into the “bigs” in his mid 20’s after years of honing his craft in single, double, and triple A?

Or the alcoholic who has been sober for several months, years, or decades?

Or Jim Abbot, the one-handed former professional baseball player who I heard interviewed on a Seattle radio station this week. Abbot pitched at the University of Michigan, and in the 1988 Olympics, and in the “bigs” for a decade. His “grit quotient” has to be off the charts.

Or just read the opening of Michael J. Fox’s most recent book, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, about what it’s like to get out of bed, shower, shave, and get dressed with advanced Parkinsons. Fox’s resolve in the face of daily challenges is inspiring, but I’m not sure it constitues grit since it doesn’t involve long-term goals. Clearly though, his grit is evident in the foundation he’s spent years building, a foundation that has radically improved the pace and prospects of Parkinsons research.

If my “grit quotient” was higher, I’d have published a book or two by now.

2) Should it be taught in public schools? Not as simple a question as it first appears. Seymour Sarason, in The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform, contrasts teachers with docs. Docs he says have been honest about how difficult it will be to cure cancer. He argues they’ve done a great job of managing expectations. They continually remind the public that there are genetic and environmental variables (like smoking and nutrition) that are outside their control. They repeatedly say any progress will be slow. As a result, the public appreciates the real progress that is being made.

On the other hand, teachers, too altruistic for their own good maybe, have taken on more and more intractable social problems—like hunger and poverty, teen pregnancy, racial reconciliation, and most recently, childhood obesity. And let’s not forget that business leaders, journalists, and politicians like Bill Gates, Tom Friedman, Arne Duncan, and President Obama routinely, if somewhat indirectly, blame teachers for our slowing economy, for letting our lead slip in the global economy, and for our declining standard of living.

What should families be responsible for? What should “the community writ large” be responsible for, whether non-profits, religious youth groups, or civic associations? I anticipate one loyal PressingPause reader, a school counselor in a poor community, to protest, “But if families aren’t teaching grit, what are we supposed to do, just sit back and watch their children not accomplish meaningful long-term goals?” Fair question that highlights this is a real dilemma.

Back when Obama was smoking dope at Occidental (belated and weak 4/20 reference), and Nineteen was about to start kindergarten, the Good Wife and I had a meeting with her two teachers who wanted to know what we most wanted her to learn during the year. I suspect my answer was different than most. Growing up in a reading intensive home with two experienced educators as parents, I wasn’t worried about basic literacy. “I’d really appreciate if you’d help her develop a social conscience,” I said. “I want her to be in touch with her privilege and to be an empathetic person.”

That was a private Quaker kindergarten which I grant is a little different animal, but one wonders, should public schools teachers be held responsible for young people who don’t have a social conscience? Do public school teachers set themselves up for failure by taking on way more than literacy and numeracy? Does their seeming willingness to take on a never-ending list of social problems partially explain why the “powers that be” are so dissatisfied with their performance and are pressing to evaluate and pay them based upon their students’ test scores even though the problems with those proposals are painfully obvious?

Despite Sarason’s insight, I believe the study of grit, it’s absence and presence, can most definitely be taught in the context of reading and writing instruction. Student have to read and write about something. Why use innocuous, fictional reading material when they could be introduced to stories that prompt discussion about perseverance, long-term goals, and grit? If Sarason were still alive I wonder if he’d see any harm in that.

If a grit curriculum doesn't fire you up, what about a grits curriculum?

What the Hell is the Presidency For?

The on-line magazine The Root recently asked, “Should Obama endorse gay marriage?” And then suggested, “Doing so before the election has some risks, but it could re-energize segments of his base.” Notice their question doesn’t have anything to do with whether it’s the right thing to do or not.

I’m so accustomed to “what will get me re-elected” political thinking, I had to read these two paragraphs about Lyndon Baines Johnson from my first book of 2012, Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Lawrence Lessig several times. Based on the assumption you may also be in need of inspiration, I share them with you as an abbreviated refresher on bold political leadership:

In his first speech to Congress, he (Johnson) placed civil rights at the core of his new administration, and hence at the core of the values of the Democratic Party. The decision was profoundly controversial. In a six-hour meeting before the speech, Johnson was advised strongly against making civil rights so central to his administration. As described by Randall Woods, Johnson was told, “Passage [of the Civil Rights Act]… looked pretty hopeless; the issue was as divisive as any… ; it would be suicide to wage and lose such a battle.” The safe bet was against the fight. Johnson replied, “Well, what the hell is the presidency for?” These were not the words of a triangulator from the U.S. Senate, but of a man who had grown tired of that game, and wanted to try something new.

When he decided to make civil rights central to his party’s platform, Johnson knew that he was forever changing the political dominance of the Democrats. His decision to pass the most important civil rights legislation in history was a guarantee that the Republicans would again become competitive. Yet his loyalty was more to truth, or justice, or his legacy—you pick—than to party politics. To that end, whichever it was, he was willing to sacrifice a Democratic majority of tomorrow in order to use the Democratic majority of today.

Indeed, what the hell is the presidency for?

Winning the Future?

Gotta hand it to the President for at least having a memorable, recurring theme in his State of the Union speech last Tuesday. We can win the future. Among other things, he used the notion of out-competing other nations to inspire young people to choose teaching as their career.

It shouldn’t be surprising that nationalism and zero-sum economic competition inform his administration’s priorities. At the same time, when he took office I held out a glimmer of hope that he would be a different kind of politician, one who would inspire us to make tangible and intangible improvements in ours and other people’s lives.

His emphasis on nationalism is problematic because national identity is both too small and too large an organizing principle.

It’s too small because our well-being is intricately linked with other countries’ well-being including Mexico’s, Canada’s, China’s, and India’s. And it’s too large because teachers-to-be are not inspired by the “global economic race” metaphor. The idea of global competition might inspire people to enlist in the military, but teachers-to-be are motivated by personal, intangible, humanitarian, community-based reasons. They don’t want to beat other nations, they want to make a positive difference in young people’s lives and their small corner of the world.

An emphasis on nationalism and zero-sum economic competition leads to a narrow math and science-based curriculum. We’ll be okay if we just produce more engineers, nevermind the universal questions posed by literature, the insight provide by historical perspective, the creativity engendered by the arts, and the struggles we have living and working peacefully together.

To earn the respect of teachers the President should have said the era of top-down federal government policy making is over. The “Race to the Top” program he described is more of the same with governors bypassing teacher leaders and pressuring school officials to adopt the reforms Arne Duncan has said will be funded. Reforms similar to the ones promoted by the previous administration.

Also, apart from a two-year freeze for federal workers, I was disappointed that the President didn’t call on us to make concrete challenging sacrifices to “win the future”. Absent calls of sacrifice, the good ideas felt disingenuous, especially in the context of the out-of-control deficit. I wish President Obama had tweaked his theme this way. Secure the future—for yourself, your family, your community, and others.

Last week, in a Florida grocery store mother-dear and I were on a mission for some non-frosted shredded wheat. There must have been ten different boxes of shredded wheat, but alas, almost all frosted. Running out of patience, she said, “There should only be two choices of each cereal.” Exaggerating, she added, “We’d all be better off if in life there were only two choices.”

When it comes to political parties, I wish there were three.

Politics Stream of Consciousness

• Just like her opponent, Senator Murkowski from Alaska says she wants to reduce spending and reduce the national debt. And then in the same breath she says she will work hard to maintain all of Alaska’s federal funding because one-third of Alaskans’ jobs depend upon it. And she might win as a write-in candidate. So what she meant is she wants to reduce federal spending in the other forty nine states.

• Newsflash, President Obama is ordinary. The problem of course is that he was an extraordinary campaigner. ARod isn’t supposed to hit .255, Tiger isn’t supposed to be a Ryder Cup captain’s pick, and Meryl Streep isn’t supposed to make bad movies. He’s a victim of unrealistic expectations. I’m cautiously optimistic that he makes the necessary adjustments and steadily improves throughout years three and four.

• In a recent Washington State Senate debate Dino Rossi and Patty Murray were both asked two times if they would raise the minimum age for full social security benefits. Neither answered. Four non-responses. Are any politicians willing to tell constituents what they need to hear and not just what they want to? Why couldn’t Rossi or Murray say what’s so painfully obvious, “Yes, for the well-to-do at least, we’re probably going to have to raise the minimum age for full social security benefits again. More generally, we have to make serious changes to our entitlement programs to have any hope of balancing the budget and reducing the national debt.” I’m sure their non-responses are based upon political science research. By desiring honest, straightforward, specific, succinct answers, guess I’m in the minority.

• Juan Williams has been fired by NPR for comments made on Bill O’Reilly’s show. I met him once in Kyoto, Japan. I agree 100% with this commentary on his firing. As the Quakers say, “That Friend speaks my mind.”

• Get a load of French high schoolers. When I taught high school I struggled to get my students to think beyond Friday night’s game and dance. In contrast, these adolescents are protesting something over forty years down the road, having to work to 62 instead of 60. Talk about long-term thinking. Guess they anticipate hating whatever they’ll end up doing for a living and maybe they already have detailed plans for when they’re 60 and 61.

• Favorite campaign development. . . multimillionaire candidates spending tens or hundreds (in the case of Meg Whitman) of their own millions and still looking like they’ll lose.