Sunday, September 22, 2013

In Defense of the American Way Regarding High School Sports

It is fall in New England. The foliage is beginning to turn and the soccer fields are thronged. I've got three kids and all of them play soccer. It entails a certain amount of sacrifice, time when we could be doing things other than ferrying children from practices and games. But I wouldn't have it any other way. In an era when budget constraints and education reform are conspiring together to force changes to sports offerings, many critics of the American emphasis on school sports look at Asian and European youths climbing ahead of Americans in academic performance and see sports as a culprit. By cutting back on the amount of time and money spent on sports, they reason, children would be able to focus on what really matters,. And there's no question we need to improve the academic outcomes for American youth.  But here's why why i think cutting sports would be a bad move.

*Sports provide focus and cohesion and a communal pride that is distinctly American. Those Asian and European countries that reformers look to as models have social structures in place that are much more homogenous and cohesive than ours. Sports is a unifying force in our cities and small towns, a rallying point for morale and unity.

* There's no evidence that an absence of sports opportunities leads to improved academic performance. In fact there are plenty of studies that show the opposite, that higher rates of sports participation at the high school level lead to greater graduation and college attendance rates, for example. In fact the best way to improve academic performance is to improve teacher practice in the classroom, not to cut funding for after school activities. Greater emphasis on individualized instruction, smaller classrooms, and better prepared teachers are the best way to improve our children's academics.

* Sports provide opportunities for real-life learning that by and large do not take place in a classroom. Learning how to operate as a functional unit, to subsume your own ego in the name of a greater good, to sacrifice immediate pleasures for the sake of long-term benefits, these are all lessons in character development that are difficult to replicate with the same level of passion in a classroom setting. The holy grail of recent pedagogical insights is the opportunity for so-called "authentic" classroom experiences. The playing fields, the practice sessions, and the competitive environment of game situations are as authentic as you will find and they do not happen for Asian and European youth unless they are the elite of the elite in their respective sports. But our kids all have an opportunity for that sort of experience and training through their high school teams. We should strive to widen access to this and see it as a laboratory for how to model authentic learning in our classroom settings, not look to kill it for the sake of budget savings. Cutting sports is like cutting band or theater or foreign languages. These are not frill programs, they are the essence of what makes public schools worth fighting to save.

Sure there is a misplaced emphasis on sports and athletic performance, symbolized most vividly by spoiled and misbehaving athletes at all levels in our country whose sense of entitlement and lack of responsibility is enabled by the celebrity cult of athletes. There is a societal neurosis at work there that needs to be healed, but killing off sports at the youth levels in our schools is not the way to do it.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Franzen vs. Bezos -- Battle of the Titans

Jonathan Franzen is a writer whose work harks back to the good old days of the belle lettres when The Great Writer acted as a social oracle reflecting the concerns and currents of thought of his or her day. Franzen's novels, unusually for mainstream publishers, live up to their hype, and his ambitions as a satirist are matched by his talent and acuity of observation. So I like him. And he's my age exactly, so his generational anxieties and experiences basically match my own, although the temperament and bourgeois outlook of his characters, their comfort and passivity, don't always sit well; so sometimes I find his books, honestly, hard to get through. But I admire him and his talent and what he does with his success, which is to sit down and apply himself again and again to the task of the great man of letters and chronicle the age through the filter of his own sensibilities.
Which is why I feel the need to respond to his article in the Guardian Review on Friday announcing his latest novel and using the occasion to vent on the state of play in the publishing industry. In the article, Franzen reveals the roots of his writerly motivations - his anger as a young man at his perceptions of the failures of popular culture, bad headlines and typos in newspapers over breakfast in his apartment in Somerville as metaphors for a general failure of realization. As time went on, sustaining a career as a novelist necessarily meant letting go of some of his anger at modernity and its shoddy status quo, and starting to enjoy a more placid, less emotional breakfast, presumably. But now, writes Franzen, he is poised to take up his lance again and ride Quijote-like to face the enemy of humanity and all that it holds dear, which he has identified as Amazon head Jeff Bezos.
My contention is that Franzen is essentially a grump complaining about the fact that the rug is being pulled out from under his comfortable and well-established feet, willfully ignoring the complicity of mainstream publishing in its own demise.
Point one: Franzen doesn't like the rise of ebooks and social media and the fact that writers as a class are having to take their acts on the road, so to speak, in search of readers. Okay, it would be nice to not have to do that, but it's not necessarily a bad thing to have to work to make contact with an audience beyond the boundaries of the page.
Point two: Franzen decries the Amazon customer reviews as amateurish and prone to being falsified. Yeah, like newspaper reviews are not both of these as well. Again, Franzen's perspective is not in touch with reality, although he himself admits as much in the closing paragraphs of his article when he says that "I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances."
His own sheltered social circumstances are that of an incredibly fortunate, incredibly successful writer and of course any change to the status quo will be perceived as a massive threat to his well-being.

I have no illusions that the changes wrought by Bezos on the publishing industry herald a new golden age for the written word. In fact, I share Franzen's frustration with the shoddy nature of most books, the sheer glut of crappy entertainment in the form of genre fiction. But who are we to judge how people seek escape and solace? Serious writers who are persistent will eventually find an audience, even if many if not most will never be remunerated for their work. And hasn't it always been this way.

It is absolutely disingenuous for someone of Franzen's status to not recognize the enormity of his good fortune and the potential benefits of widening the appeal of books to a mass audience as opposed to an elite who then trickle their tastes to the masses via an entirely coopted reviewing/book-marketing industry -- the aesthetic equivalent of trickle down economics.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Passion and Suffering in Today's Marketplace of Life - Thanks Obama

I'm sitting out here on the porch in the morning with the new puppy reading a book my wife got from the library about how to pay for college. We are about to experience the financial wringer of the college years with our oldest son entering his junior year in high school. One thing I've learned through hard experience is that pain forewarned about stings less than the sudden kind. The only kernel of truth I've gleaned so far universally applicable is that the base income year used by college financial aid offices begins in the January of the child's high school junior year, in other words, for us it would be next year's tax returns that matter when calculating the amount of aid. Life sucks, but not so much. I guess that's the main thrust of my post this week. You can stop reading now, or if you enjoy the sheer poetry of my writing, you are free to continue to read.

Have you seen this video?
 I thought it was funny and apropos of the idea mentioned above. It's tapping into a meme making the rounds on the Internet making fun of begrudging right wingers pissed off at life. I first encountered it when reading the comments in an article by Paul Solman on the problem of the government's official unemployment figures not taking into account the third of the work force that has stopped applying for full time jobs and now relies on freelance work to make ends meet. There is genuine pain out there in the land with the convoluted and shrinking landscape of remunerative and sustainable work, and opinion is generally divided as to the proper way to meet these challenges. About half of the commenters in the article were of the opinion that individual pluck and fortitude could get you through, and the other half were full of the idea that individuality is merely a mental construct and we are truly just chaff in the wind of the large social forces about which we can do little. I think both camps are correct and here's where it gets deep. Getting ahead, progressing in your life, is about passion, and passion is inseparable from suffering. This is what the great teachers in all ages have sought to pass on. There are certain things you can't get away from, but your individual outlook will determine your ability to align with those universals in a more harmonious way. For Christians, we lay our suffering at the feet of Christ who suffered beyond all imagining for our sake when He could have chosen a different path as the son of God.

Whether you are homeless and out of work due to forces beyond your control, or whether you are a comfortable middle-class citizen with a family and a pension facing the squeeze of college expenses, the amount of suffering is relative but nonetheless pretty constant if you look at it through a lifetime. There are some people who suffer more than others, and that is one of the mysteries and inequities that gnaw at you. The victims of chemical attacks in Syria - the children who didn't deserve it - they arouse our compassion, and there is that word again - passion - this time shared out among us like communion bread and companionship. Suffering has no value for those that suffer, that is all of us. But it is a currency, a gold standard, if you like, that we deal with and in all of our lives.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Drums of War on Syria

It's Labor Day weekend and the roads are abuzz with frenetic vacationers towing trailers and boats, all the paraphernalia of our true national religion, the pursuit of leisure. And the hills around here are about to take on their fall sheen of color while the fields are full of the last wildflowers of the summer, lilies, golden rod, foxgloves, Queen Anne's Lace. That's how we roll; we take to the roads to escape, finding a place by a lakeside or a seashore to pause on the precipice before plunging into the mad rush of fall - school, sports, the gathering of harvests of all kinds in the face of the coming darkness of winter.
It's appropriate that in these days we are faced with a collective danger in the form of the Syrian crisis that has caused us to pause before the precipice and take stock. Are we the world's policeman? Is it in the nation's interest to be enforcing international conventions on the use of chemical weapons? If so, is a missile strike an effective form of action against the madness of Assad?
Obama has showed his strategic sense again by placing the onus on our do-nothing Congress to make the call. By doing so, he has wisely given us a chance to reflect before taking any irreversible steps that could lead to unintended consequences, as wars seem wont to do.
It's true that the collective American will seems burnt out, a fatigue has set in at the sound of the drums of war after two Middle Eastern adventures over the last decade or so have led to no greater sense of stability or security and have drained our treasury and taken a toll on countless lives here and abroad.
For those who haven't seen it, I recommend watching the PBS segment of News Hour with David Brooks and Mark Shields debating the Syrian situation. For me, these two guys are a hope for a revival of civility in our political discourse - Shields the old-time voice of Kennedy liberalism and Brooks the face of Republican moderation and common sense. They seem to be bucking the sentiments of their political brethren, with Shields calling for restraint and questioning the use of unilateral American power and Brooks playing the internationalist card of world order and stability dependent on outing Assad for his atrocious misuse of chemicals against his own people.
My own thoughts are that at this point our action or inaction will make little difference to the situation on the ground in the suburbs and hospitals of Damascus or elsewhere for people victimized by the horrors of this civil war. Going forward, there is a consensus that America has no true dog in this fight and that our best bet is to let the conflagration burn itself out without allowing it to spread.

(Illustration: English civil war drummer bronze statue by John McKenna, from Wikimedia Commons)