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Saturday, February 24, 2007

On the Spread of Stupid

The recent revelation that high school seniors are less competent now than a decade ago probably won't be met with the outrage it deserves, in light of considerable increases in per pupil spending during that period. Public schools are like congressmen, in the sense that most of us agree they are a lousy bunch, but tend to be pretty pleased with our own.

I recently crushed the dreams of about 400 high school students. I was asked to give them career advice, and so I told them to stop believing that they can achieve anything they want simply by wanting it. "I Believe I Can Fly" may be an uplifting song, but it's a stupid life philosophy. You can't fly. If you study about ten times harder, and have an ounce of common sense, and work really long hours, then perhaps you can build yourself a plane, and then you can fly. Otherwise, get used to walking.

It was not altogether well-received. I think they are used to being told that they will achieve their dreams, as if dream-achievement is some kind of massive entitlement program, and one is enrolled in it simply by aching for things.

I asked these students how many have a MySpace account. Most of the hands flew up. "Facebook?" I asked. More hands. I got the same response when I asked who had an Xbox, or a Playstation, or a Wii (don't ask).

This came to mind when I saw the latest news about NAEP scores, revealing that while high-school students are getting better grades and taking more advanced-placement courses, they are decidedly less proficient at the fundamentals of math and reading. On a hunch, I checked into statistics on teen Internet use. The Pew Charitable Trust's research is the most comprehensive I could find, and their data only go back to 2000, but the results are striking. Eighty-seven percent of teens report regular Internet use. While Al Gore (along with public school IT administrators) may tell himself these kids are downloading Frost poems and physics problems, I suspect otherwise.

Eighty-one percent, however, report that they regularly play games online. And most prefer instant messaging to "old-fashioned" emails, which is unsurprising. One can be partially literate and still text-message, after all. Email probably feels too much like composition.

It's not the technology that I'm suggesting might deserve blame, mind you, but the stupid things that our ignorant children, under our incompetent tutelage, choose to do with it. Consider that the average teen in the Pew study reported spending about 18 hours a week in some form of social activity with other teens, either in person or online. Another Pew study found, for example, that the majority of American teens are active on one or more social networking sites. Add to this the reality that nearly half of U.S. high-school seniors work 20 or more hours per week during the school year (very likely with other unskilled people), and the picture becomes clearer: a large portion of high-school seniors spend nearly 40 hours a week interacting primarily with other ignorant individuals. It's almost as if we've made the study of stupidity a full-time job for them.

Then, to remedy this, we stick our kids for six hours a day in front of teachers who largely lack a coherent pedagogy, and many of whom can't meet the very standards we expect them to help our children achieve. And we wonder why children don't have the basic skills to write — or even comprehend — an essay. Clearly, the government isn't spending enough on education, right?

But don't believe the data if you're not inclined, just listen to teenagers talk. I don't mean your own teens, who I am sure are brilliant, but other people's teenagers. Go to the mall and just listen. People knock homeschoolers for not exposing their children to "socialization," but maybe it's a good thing. Being socialized into a society of idiots is not exactly great preparation for life success.

We have allowed our children to spawn their own personalized societies, worshipping as we do at the altar of individuality and personal space (the very name of the most popular social networking site reflects it: MySpace). To be sure, teenage years are a tribal time, when the overriding desire is to belong. They are called to their species like bees to honey. But this is precisely why we have to channel this impulse; given his druthers, the average teenager would like nothing more than to spend every scrap of time with other teenagers. But that's not a model for learning, or for maturation; it's Lord of the Flies.

The social impulse is a good thing, but as families disintegrate, and churches become less community than fleeting social club, we seem to offer our children little in this regard. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that they cling to each other like shivering animals. In this respect and many others, these national tests that we are so enamored of administering to our children are really more telling about our own performance.

I read somewhere that we know a boy is becoming a man when he seeks the company of men over boys. If that's a true standard, then we are lodging our boys in perpetual childhood (girls as well), extending past high school and into college. If you live near a university, take a walk on campus during lunch on a school day. Ask yourself whether you see young men and women in training, or boys and girls on extended vacation. In fact, something nobody seems to have mentioned yet, given the jarring news that high schoolers are doing poorer even as they take more college prep courses, is that maybe this is preparing them for college, given the sorry state to which so many universities have sunk.

But perhaps picking a fight with higher education, in the same post where I pick on high schoolers and their teachers and their parents and the rest of us who let news like this roll off our backs without changing our behavior one bit, is, well, just one fight too many.

Which is what I excel at, you know.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Friday, February 23, 2007

Spam Mystery Solved

Two smart readers, David Allen and the monomial Jared, emailed me separately in response to my recent rambling post wherein I complimented the beneficent Amanda Frazier while denigrating Spam. Given that they both identify the same source as the inspiration for Spam as a descriptor for junk email, I am quite certain that they are right.

Apparently Monty Python is to blame. Now it makes perfect sense. Velveeta has too many syllables.

And if you think the Monty Python skit is entertaining, check out Hormel's official Spam website. (Shiver)

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Girl Scout Jones

You have to understand that when I made my impetuous and ill-considered Lent commitment to forsake sugar, I didn't realize that 10,000 aggressive Girl Scouts would descend on every doorstep and grocery-store parking lot in Wichita. Ordinarily I wouldn't be tempted to support a gyno-Marxist paramilitary organization, but it's only Day Three of the Great Woodlief Sugar Embargo, and right now I would kill for a Thin Mint. So delicate and crunchy, yet thick with mint-chocolatey goodness.

<Homer Simpson voice> Mmmm, Thin Mint. </Homer Simpson voice>

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Serial Comma Killers

Suppose you read the following while browsing the Internet:

"Jeffrey's first year as an independent architect was so successful that several of his corporate clients decided to throw a reception in his honor. We're talking some of the biggest names in the city, too: Joyner & Hasting, Manning Incorporated, Vandelay and Piper. It was a classy event, except for the hors d'oeuvres, which were the strangest selection I've ever seen. Every tray you saw had the same odd assortment — bagels, bread, crackers and peanut butter. Despite the strange food, we all had a great time. A number of people even led the crowd in toasting Jeffrey, including his parents, Al and Marge."

It's a little puzzling, isn't it? Is Vandelay and Piper a single firm, or are they separate firms? Was the peanut butter available for spreading on the bread and bagels, or was it already married to the crackers? Are Al and Marge Jeffrey's parents, or are they two additional people who toasted Jeffrey?

Were you confident that every writer in America still adhered to the wise and sensible tradition of the serial comma, then you might immediately have your answer. But no, thanks to the seditious influence of journalists and Brits, we can no longer be certain of what the heck we're reading. To be sure, including the serial comma can introduce ambiguity as well, but at least in the past we all knew that everyone was following the same rule. Now you have to scan the entire document in an effort to discern which rule the writer is following.

Apparently journalists are most responsible for the change, seeing no problem (being the only writers they read) with replacing the old, occasional ambiguity of serial commas with a whole new dimension of ambiguity via its absence. Of course we can't expect journalists to appreciate the virtue of not tampering with social norms, but it's a pity to see corporations, already distinguished by a distinct lack of clarity in their communications, following suit, as so many are.

I suspect the serial comma will go the way of tipping one's hat to a lady and wearing a suit to church. But I'm not changing until Fowler changes, and that isn't happening, because he's been dead for seventy-four years.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Dumber By Degree

On my way to work this morning I saw a Lexus with this vanity plate:


I don't understand how someone with that much education doesn't see that he is living out a caricature. We all know one of those people, the one who manages to inform everyone he meets that he has a doctorate. I haven't done a formal sample, but it seems that the people most likely to do this are the ones with the least impressive degrees.

My own experience is that I feel stupider since earning my PhD. It reminds me of something Socrates supposedly said: "I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance."

All of this mitigates, in other words, against advertising one's degrees on a license plate. Even though it would require an even bigger plate, perhaps Mr. 2MAS1PHD should go back to school. Apparently all that learning has yet to kick in.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Popcorn Friday

It's popcorn Friday. I've got several little things to share with you, but rather than cram them all into one disjointed post, I'm going to be like a traditional blogger, and spread them across several brief posts. I call them popcorn posts.

Why popcorn Friday? If that's what you're asking, then you are asking the wrong question. What you really ought to ask yourself is this: Why not popcorn Friday. I think you see my point.

Those of you who get an email announcement when I post can rest easy — this is the only post you'll be alerted to. Of course if you don't check back later, you may miss something worthwhile. Probably not, but maybe.

Let's lead with something undeniably cute, like Isaac. I think I've mentioned that one of his most frequent replies, when asked why he's not only rooting through a kitchen cabinet, but is all the way in the cabinet, or where his pants are, or why he whacked Eli with a spoon, is, "I don't know." He says it like he's just as exasperated as we are.

A couple of nights ago, after a rough day which led to, among other injuries, a big scrape on his elbow, Isaac crept upstairs to the bathroom. I say crept because he likes to wash his hands, only if you don't monitor him, he'll use the entire bottle of grape-smelling kid's soap. Isaac doesn't like to be monitored. So he crept up the stairs.

Not long after, I heard him crying in the bathroom. I ran upstairs to find him standing over the sink with his little arms in the air, a thick layer of suds covering each arm from fingertip to armpit. "What are you doing?" I hollered.

"I don't know!" He wailed. The suds had gotten on his elbow ouchy. I rinsed his arms and lectured him about not sneaking off to do what he knows he shouldn't be doing. He sniffled and said "Okay." This is his other staple phrase, and it means, "Can you stop lecturing me now, because I'm only two."

I dried his arms and picked him up. He hugged my neck, and put his face against my cheek. He smelled like a very clean grape.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Books, Yes; Cheese, No

Imagine my delight when I found this book in my mailbox, courtesy of the brilliant and philanthropic Amanda Frazier. Amanda, as some of you may recall, sent me a little something from my Amazon wish list once before. This is how they used to do it back in the day, you know; wise and discriminating patrons (like Ms. Frazier, for example) would identify worthy artistic talent (which I guess — since we're using Amanda as an example of the noble patron — in this case would be me), and then buy them nice things. As all of you know, I am a firm supporter of tradition.

Of course now that it counts, I am at a loss to conjure something witty and insightful to say. So I'll just say thank you, Amanda.

And thank you as well to all of the nice people who send me emails (the corollary, for those of you who've sent me unkind emails, is bite me, though I can't expect you would know what the word "corollary" means). I am terrible about replying in a timely fashion, but be assured that I keep all of your emails until they've built up like a great ponderous snow drift of guilt, and then I reply to them in a marathon email session that leaves me almost as drained as if I'd spent the time engaged in actual human contact.

As an aside, some of you have asked why I've disabled the comments section of my website. It's not you; it's me. I got tired of policing them for spam. Speaking of which, did you ever wonder why we call it "spam?" Why single out that particular processed food product for ridicule? Why not pork rinds, or Fruit Roll-Ups, or Velveeta?

I've gotta get one of those Internet filters; my Inbox is stuffed with Velveeta.

Doesn't that sound more exciting? Plus, if you think about it, Velveeta is more capable of combining itself with other things, and the reality is that lots of email that isn't quite officially spam sure has plenty of extraneous junk in it. It's infused with Velveeta, in other words. Try it out for a while and see if it works, that's all I'm asking.

But the point here is not to bury Velveeta, but to praise Amanda Frazier, who is far more classy and generous than a rectangle of gelatinous cheese spread. And I'll bet nobody's ever complimented you that way before, have they Amanda?

In conclusion, I'd like all of you to think something nice about Amanda. Right now. But please, don't feel pressured to emulate her example. Not everyone can be as kind and generous and thoughtful of other people, after all. I'm sure the rest of you have really important things to worry over, and can't be troubled to think about whether Tony will ever get all the delightful things taunting him from his Amazon wish list. So don't feel guilty one bit. Really.

And thank you, Amanda. It's nice to know that somebody cares.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

What's In Your Temple?

I'm forsaking sugar. Not the kind that comes to me on the lips of three little boys happy to see Dad, mind you. I'm talking about the refined kind, and the high-fructose corn syrup kind. Yesterday I splurged on sugar, putting the gras in Mardi Gras. But today I am a new man.

High-fructose corn syrup, by the way, is in everything. Good luck buying a loaf of bread that doesn't have it. Or a can of soup. Ketchup, salad dressing, anything marketed to children — it's all teeming with this goop. One of the many unintended consequences of immoral trade tariffs that enrich companies like Archer Daniels Midland while impoverishing people in third-world nations is that this treacle contaminates more and more of our foodstuffs every year, contributing to a growing number of children diagnosed with diabetes. At least the smokers congregate in bars and casinos. Kraft slips their poison directly into what your kids are eating.

But it sure does taste good.

This is my first time giving up something for Lent. To be honest, it is the first year I have been cognizant of when Lent actually takes place. A colleague who learned about my sugar fast was surprised that Protestants observe Lent. I really shook her up when I explained that we also have catechisms. In fact, Caleb and Eli can both tell you the chief end of man. There's quite a few men of the cloth who can't do that, and not a single philosophy student, at least that I've ever met.

Caleb can also tell you, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, that God is a spirit whose being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth, are infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. The funny thing is, he always adds faithfulness to the mix. At first I tried to break him of it, because by golly, we have to get these answers right. Four out of five irascible British clergymen can't be wrong, after all.

But I've come to like Caleb's faithful rendition of a modified catechism. I'm sure there's a host of cold-blooded theologians out there who can explain how faithfulness is bound up in the words already in the catechism. It's always helpful to keep in mind, I think, that Satan was the first theologian. So we'll stick with faithfulness. I don't think God minds.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Striving

I'm learning patience from the lady who is teaching Eli how to play the violin. She is a long-time public school music teacher, the kind we wish or imagine still ran things there, kind and competent and able to talk to little ones in a way that makes them feel listened to and special, yet with a firmness in everything she does that quietly, gently whispers, "Don't cross me."

She listens while Eli tells her about Caleb's birthday cake, or shows her that the music notes look like balloons and golf clubs (they do, you know), or explains how his little brother thinks the chorus to "Old MacDonald" is "Eli-Eli-O." She always manages to steer him back to the task at hand without saying, "shush it and pay attention," which is my method. Sometimes when I watch her I am ashamed of the times that I have been impatient with Eli and his brothers, because there is no excuse for it. If a four year-old boy can be quietly and gently taught to sit still and learn the violin, then I have no excuse for bellowing at him to brush his teeth.

I learned from someone who has raised several wonderful children that the secret is not so much in shaping them, as in shaping ourselves. He told me that whenever he confronted something in one of his children that he knew didn't belong there — selfishness, say, or a spirit of anger — he found that there was some corresponding attribute in himself that needed changing. It's a frightening and humbling thought, because there is so much about me that is bad right down to the core. Don't look to ancient stories of fish and loaves if you want to see a miracle, look to the changed heart of a man.

Every time I pray for my children, I am praying for a miracle, because where they fall short, I have failed. Last week, Caleb frittered away his time rather than doing his schoolwork, to the great frustration of his mother. He spent the day resisting her and manufacturing excuses. His brothers were too loud; the work was too hard; his eraser didn't work right. It had become a battle of wills. So he went to bed without supper. I had to explain that he wouldn't die from missing a meal, because he was quite certain that he would.

As he calmed down, Caleb asked if I was going to eat. "No," I told him, "because the fact that you didn't get your job done today is proof that I haven't done my job." We were both satisfied with that, him because he knew he wasn't suffering alone, and me because I know it is true. The training up of my children goes hand-in-glove with the breaking down of my own self-centeredness.

I used to think that I would have the luxury of somehow raising my boys to be real men of honor, strength, and grace, without ever possessing those attributes myself. Now I face the frightening reality that this is an impossible task. If we want our children to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God, then we have to do the same. Sunday school: it's not just for kids any more.

This is on my heart today because I have decided to oppose something that I believe is wrong, and doing so may cost me. Here is the curious thing: I feel compelled to do it because I want my sons to have courage, yet if I don't do it, they'll never know.

But I'll know. That's the catch. If I fail to act after being convicted to do so, then I have been a coward. Our children see through our eyes, you know. A man can't be a coward, or hate-filled, or faithless, and not have his children see it. And they love us so much that they try to become us, even if what we are is reprehensible.

I am a coward; we should be clear about that. But because I love them, today I will not be a coward. That's how it works, I think. We are weak and broken and dark-hearted, yet we resist these things within ourselves. Where I am weak, He is strong.

When you realize that works are intimately bound up in faith, and further, that as a parent your path is the easiest for your children to follow, then you really have no choice. There is no waiting and endlessly preparing and ruminating on holiness, there is just the doing of it, the slow, painful separation from the path of the world.

I wonder, were more people aware that in Hebrew the word we call "holy" means "separate," if that would change anything. Holy doesn't mean being good, it means walking the separate path that God has laid down for you, his beloved, chosen when all you knew to do was follow the herd. Anybody can be good, especially when we let good be defined by the safe, church-going masses.

But to be holy, well, that is another matter, isn't it? The separate path is a dangerous path. As parents, we are conditioned not to lead our children into danger. Yet we have no choice. Walk the holy path, or let the world sweep them down its well-trodden road. There is no sending them off to do what we failed to do, no handing them a Bible and a sack lunch and wishing them well; we have to walk the path ourselves.

I suspect I may fail at this holiness thing. Let's be honest; my track record is terrible. You see the good parts, the ones I show you here. The people who know me see some of the rest. My therapist sees all of it, and word is that he's going to need his own therapist now. I am a very bad person in many ways.

So I pray that it's the trying that matters, the desperate striving, and throwing ourselves at the feet of grace. There is redemption in the striving, I think. I hope so, for my sake, for their sake, for yours. And I think there is.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Monday, February 19, 2007

Nice Church

An acquaintance once told me about a wealthy benefactor in his church, a man who likes to point out that he "isn't one of those Bible thumpers." He just believes that it's a good thing for families to go to church. So he's donated millions over his lifetime to the building of churches. He is an upstanding and well-regarded church member, this man.

He came to mind yesterday, when I read Bonhoeffer's essay on Christ's admonition to be salt and light:

". . . the light may be covered of its own choice; it may be extinguished under a bushel, and the call may be denied. The bushel may be the fear of men, or perhaps deliberate conformity to the world for some ulterior motive, a missionary purpose for example, or a sentimental humanitarianism. But the motive may be more sinister than that . . . [it] pretends to prefer to Pharisaic ostentation a modest invisibility, which in practice means conformity to the world. . . The very failure of the light to shine becomes the touchstone of our Christianity."

Yesterday I talked to a friend who had just returned from Belgium. While he was there he attended service in a large cathedral. He said it was beautiful and ornate and almost vacant, with rows and rows of empty pews spreading out behind a clutch of old women huddled toward the front, awaiting the sacrament.

I suspect this is what happens when the smooth and upright exclude the Bible thumpers from their midst. The church becomes unobjectionable, even socially advantageous to join, and over time it becomes irrelevant. I suppose there's a danger in the other direction as well; those whose relationship with God is based entirely on emotional experience have their own means of separating him (and therefore themselves) from his work in the world — religion becomes a tearful, emotionally-charged experience confined to Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, with little thought in between.

The path certainly is narrow, isn't it? Bonhoeffer wrote that it is exactly the width of one man, the man who dragged a cross up Golgotha, and our only hope is to follow him alone. I suspect that the man who cast the moneychangers from the temple probably smiles on a little Bible thumping from time to time. The man who prayed alone at Gethsemane probably also values the unobserved communion.

I wonder if he smiles, or weeps, or perhaps both, as he watches those faithful old women, the last dregs of Christian Europe, touching their creaking old knees to the stone floors of beautiful dead churches.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Sunday, February 18, 2007

There's No "I" in "Team," But There Is In "Hubris"

One of the wickedly enjoyable things Henry Mintzberg does in his Managers Not MBAs is mock the way Harvard Business School case studies and business press accounts portray the chief executive as Superman. This CEO "built a new division from scratch," while that CEO "developed and advanced profitable new strategies" — single-handedly, one would think. It put me in mind of a study I saw years ago, showing that when publicly traded companies have good years, their annual reports are filled with claims of how their deliberate actions led to the better results, while in bad years they blame market conditions and other external factors.

Mintzberg observes that the descriptions of CEOs — often encouraged by the CEOs themselves — follows a similar pattern. This came to mind when I was going through some old files yesterday, and ran across this quote by Novartis's chief, Daniel Vasella, after his company re-acquired (at a hefty premium) rights to a drug they had abandoned, only to see it developed by a small start-up:

"The fact that we are where we are is the best proof that they were wrong."

The "we," of course, is Novartis. "They," meanwhile, refers to other people at Novartis (not Vasella, mind you). It's those other people, you see, who frittered the opportunity away.

A slip of the tongue? Maybe so. With Mintzberg's book still on my mind, however, I dug up Vasella's approved biography and learned that he "strengthened Novartis's research capacity" and "implemented strong pioneering initiatives." Elsewhere I discovered that he "co-authored" a book about his courageous efforts to develop and produce a breakthrough cancer treatment.

Busy guy. Yet with all this hands-on strengthening and implementing and developing, it's someone else's fault when Novartis lets a profitable new drug slip away.

Something I always liked about UNC basketball coach Dean Smith is that when his team won, he deflected all the credit to his players. When the team lost, however, he always used the word "we." Useful advice for a manager at any level — maybe even for a superstar CEO.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)