Squandering Childhood

I feel lucky. During my childhood, I learned some important stuff. Hats off to my parents and teachers.

I used to take it for granted. No more. The last year has been enlightening.

The first wake-up call was in the college classes I was teaching. On one of the exams, the correct answer to a question was “June 30,” the last day of the second quarter. (The question concerned companies’ financial statements.)

Quite a few students answered “June 31.”

When going over the exam in the following class session, I discovered that quite a few students didn’t know which months have only 30 days. They never heard of the rhyme that has been taught to me when growing up. Or the knuckles method. I tried to impress on my students that there are some things they simply have to know — without resorting to their smart phones.

As I’m apt to do when a significant number of students don’t know something, I repeated the question, in different format and slightly different context, on the next exam. This time the correct answer was “September 30.” You guessed it: some students answered “September 31.” The rhyme and knuckles be damned.

This was a jaw dropping experience for me. But it wasn’t the last.

Recently, I accompanied my mother to the surgeon’s office to have some clamps and stitches removed. The doctor asked the nurse to schedule my mother for a follow-up appointment Labor Day week because he wasn’t going to schedule any surgeries that week. The nurse commented, making it clear she thought Labor Day was the last week of August.

It was an embarrassing moment. The look on the doctor’s face was priceless.

When my students and I were reviewing course material in preparation for the final exam, one of the students asked if they’d have to know how many days are in a particular month. Progress. Or not. It was clear some of them still didn’t know. And hadn’t been particularly bothered by their ignorance. Their concern was passing the exam. That’s it.

I like to think I have a great relationship with most of my students. Our classes are authentic and honest. Our classrooms are no-BS zones. I respect them. I don’t assign busy work. We have lots of two-way dialogue, and wrestle with important questions. But sometime I think I’m too tolerant, or that my humor is misinterpreted, sending the wrong message about what’s required to succeed.

Had I failed to impress upon them the importance of knowing things in my effort to foster critical thinking, analysis and problem solving? Had they mistaken humor for a license to skate?

This time I decided to take a blunt approach, since my previous softer tactics obviously had failed to achieve the desired results. So, in a kind tone, I told them this: “When you’re in the workforce, you’ll be expected to know certain things. If you were working for me and wrote or said something that revealed you didn’t know how many days are in the months of the year, I’d think you were stupid.”

I doubt it made a difference.

These kids aren’t stupid. But something was missing from their childhoods. I don’t blame them. I don’t blame anyone. It’s not a matter of blame. Indeed, it’s not my problem.

But it is a problem if you can spend 12 years in school and 18 years at home and not learn some basics. If you can make it to your 30s without recognizing obvious patterns (such as the fact Labor Day always falls on the first Monday of September), then it says something about awareness and priorities.

Similarly, from my time in higher ed it’s obvious many students don’t know basic athematic. I’m not talking about algebra. I’m talking about simple math.

I doubt this will be a problem for you, Vera, because you have parents who value learning and probably will have high expectations for you. I hope they’re not too high. I hope you don’t succumb to the achievement disease that afflicts so many. But I do hope you learn something. More importantly, I hope you have an insatiable appetite for learning. And are troubled by ignorance. And are curious.

As your grandfather, my goal will be to help you learn and experience new things. And to encourage you to question. And wonder.

I’ll do this not because I want you to be “smart” or “succeed” by getting the best grades or job, but because learning is key to living a fulfilling life. And it’s fun. And because the questions are so much more important than the answers.

I wish all kids were so lucky. I wish all of them had loving, capable parents and teachers who helped them learn how to navigate life. But not all do.

I wish we could learn how to change that.

Francis or Donald?

The meeting in the Vatican today brought opposites together: Pope Francis and President Trump. They’re not opposite in all respects of course. They’re both men. They’re both elected leaders. They’re both over 70, much closer to death than birth. They both oversee large organizations with massive resources. They both are adored by many. They both consider women inferior to men. They both claim to believe in God and the divinity of Christ. Actually, when you think about it, they have a lot in common. Yet they are very different.

One sees the world as full of children of God. The other sees everyone as either a winner or loser.

One lifts up the path of community and service. The other embodies the values of individualism and greed.

One stops his car to kiss the head of a disabled young person. The other mocks a disabled person to garner votes and amuse his disciples.

One builds walls. The other builds bridges.

One washes the feet of others. The other grabs people by their privates.

This is the choice we face, Vera: which path to follow.

The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of us choose a path in the middle. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the path chooses us.

We seek security in things and strive to have more than others, yet we cannot turn our back on the others.

We sense what is right and good, yet long for the comforts and security of riches.

We find appeal in the concept of the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind, but are appalled by the banality of some of our fellow humans and would like nothing more than to distance ourselves from them.

We simply cannot commit ourselves to go all in on either path. Perhaps it’s out of fear we’re wrong. Or perhaps our heart or brain simply won’t allow it. Or, maybe, it’s just that we weren’t lucky enough to have born into the right family.

Some of us have tried to walk the path of life straddling the two paths, one foot in each. We can’t commit. We find fault with both. Risks in both.

We want and think we can have both. But we find we can’t. At least not fully. Something has to give.

A troubled discontent sometimes settles in. Often, self-delusion takes root. We find theological and philosophical justifications for our compromises. We become blind to the hypocrisy that envelops us.

Meetings such as the one that occurred at the Vatican today are helpful. They force us to confront important questions of life.

It’s tempting to trivialize them. Or to turn our attention to other matters. But I submit we should not avert our eyes and attention too quickly. We should linger in the moment for a while.

Generational Theft

In my lifetime, we have witnessed the greatest intergenerational transfer of wealth ever seen. Seniors have benefited. Our youth have taken it on the chin.

Oddly, even so-called conservatives don’t seem to mind this massive redistribution of wealth. It enjoys broad support. The reasons are obvious; 1) older people vote at a higher rate than young people and 2) people (both voters and their elected representatives) tend to vote their self interest.

Hence, at least thus far, the Boomers and their parents’ generation are doing just fine, the recipients of massive transfers; the youth are massively in debt and on the hook for trillions of obligations owed to what I call the dying generations.

I’m not going to get into the numbers here. If you want to catch a glimpse of them, you can watch this video of renowned investor Stanley Druckenmiller (a former Pittsburgher so he must know what he’s talking about!).

But you shouldn’t have to be convinced. Just think for a moment of the massive transfers that take place in the form of Social Security (people take out far more than they pay in), Medicare, special benefits extended to seniors by state and local governments (e.g., real estate tax breaks) and the less visible countless tax breaks and subsidies that inured mainly to the benefit of the Boomer and their parents’ generations, both in earlier times (education in particular) and now as they age and die.

The result? Continue reading Generational Theft

Class Matters

Vera, I hope, when you grow up, you appreciate the importance of class. Here is a recent example of the lack of class:

President Donald Trump weighed firing his FBI director for more than a week. When he finally pulled the trigger Tuesday afternoon, he didn’t call James Comey. He sent his longtime private security guard to deliver the termination letter in a manila folder to FBI headquarters. (Politico)

It’s not surprising our president exhibited a total lack of class. That’s who he is. But if this is what he means by “making America great again,” I hope he fails. His America is an ugly place. And utterly devoid of class.

I’d like to say that being classless has negative consequences. But I’m not so sure anymore. After all, the man got elected president. Perhaps we’re simply becoming a society devoid of class. I hope not, but the jury is out.

In any case, you get to decide how to live your live. You have it within your power to take the high road. I’m confident you’ll be a better person than our president.

As for his decision to fire the top cop in the midst of an investigation that could implicate the president himself, what can I say? It’s reasonable to conclude this act constitutes an impeachable offense: obstruction of justice. Time will tell.

It’s hard to understand why the president wouldn’t be bothered by Russian interference in our election unless the president was indeed collaborating with the Russians or, at the very least, being complicit. Perhaps there is another explanation. Yet the president’s consistent efforts to prevent inquiry into the matter cannot help but raise suspicions about his motives.

But this post highlights yesterday’s classless act, not the broader issues. The man chose to fire a dedicated public servant by having a letter delivered to the F.B.I. director’s office when the director was out of town. I’d be livid if any of the managers at any company or institution I managed would have engaged in such conduct. What a cold and heartless — indeed, totally classless — act.

But we knew what kind of man he is. None of this comes as a surprise. Yet our nation decided he was fit to be our president.

You’ll soon be two years old. We have a lot of work to do if we are to leave the world in a better place by the time you come of age — by the time you have the right to vote.

But no matter whether we fail or succeed, remember: you choose how to live your life.

Naturally, I hope you make good choices. Conducting yourself with class would be one such choice.