The House That Fails to Excite

I think our builder thinks there’s something wrong with me. We’re buying a brand new house in a wonderful town. It’s a nice house. He thinks we should be excited. I’m not.

Don’t get me wrong: it matters. If I had to live in poverty, or in an apartment with noisy neighbors, or beside barking dogs, or next door to a dump or chemical plant, I’d be even less pleased.

So what’s wrong with me? Why am I not excited by the privilege of moving into a new house? Continue reading The House That Fails to Excite

It’s a New World (i.e., I’m a Dinosaur)

The internet has dramatically changed — and will continue to change — the world. At times, it makes me feel like a dinosaur. I’m not alone, but that doesn’t make it any better.

Two systems that are replete with dinosaurs are health care and education, although the former is well ahead of the latter in catching up to the 21st century (mainly because there is more money to be made in health care).

If you want to get a flavor for what I’m talking about, take a half hour and watch this presentation on internet trends by Mary Meeker.

Keeping up or, in my case, catching up, seems like an impossible task. My generation didn’t grow up with the internet. Yours will, Vera. Your parents’ generation was the trailblazing generation. I expect much more to come from that generation. I don’t have such high expectations from mine. I can’t begin to imagine what yours may deliver.

One disservice my generation and the Xers provide to younger folks is interpreting the world, and guiding kids, with a 20th-century mindset based on 20th-century experiences. In short, many of us fail to appreciate how the world has changed and is changing. Consequently, we’re preparing many of our children and grandchildren for a world that no longer exists. Fortunately, it’s hard to keep young people down. Many see what’s happening and are responding.

I came to believe that I’m not technologically savvy enough to do my students justice in the classroom. Few professors and teachers are. But that will change as the dinosaurs retire or expire. Until then, most of our schools and colleges will remain behind the curve. This is one of the most critical reasons no millennial should outsource his or her education to our formal education system.

Enough said! Watch Mary’s presentation and, if you’re really enticed, read her slides.

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.