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Friday, December 24, 2010

One Team

Last week Nancy and I visited Lincoln Center to hear the West Point Band playing Christmas and Hannukkah music with the New York Philharmonic Principal Brass Quintet. A marvelous performance of traditional holiday music from sparkling brass players and vocalists.

Just before the performance I met one of the West Point Band’s officers, thanked him for his service and then said, “As a former Navy person I offer my condolences for yesterday’s game on the gridiron in Philadelphia.”

Army lost to Navy 31-17 for ninth straight time, a record winning streak in this service rivalry.

He smiled broadly and then responded, “It’s all one team.”

All during the magnificent musical performances that followed this brief encounter I recalled players from the football game and announcements that this Navy quarter back would be serving on destroyers upon commissioning and that Army running back had signed up for infantry or this wide receiver would be assigned to field artillery.

Many of these cadets would be serving in Afghanistan before the end of next year, perhaps supported at sea by their navy comrades in arms.

Very sobering thoughts. Regardless of one’s political persuasion we pray for the life of each of these future officers and the enlisted who serve with them.

“One team.” That phrase kept resounding in my mind as I watched the lame-duck session struggle mightily, it seemed, to pass several major pieces of legislation—repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; the huge tax bill; 9/11 first responders health and ratification of the New Start Treaty with Russia.

It seems as if politics has, indeed, changed since the last election. Democrats are working with Republicans to pass significant legislation. Somebody said, “We ought to bring them in for only six weeks and set them loose!” Has the era of Good Feelings returned?

Probably not. The hyper-partisanship that has characterized the political wrangling during the past year made me sick of the whole process for a while. It was worse than sausage making. It was like small boys in a schoolyard yelling and screaming at each other when they didn’t get exactly what they wanted, and that meant everything.

This lack of conversation across the aisles—the almost total grid-lock on the field of politics—this hyper-partisanship--led to the recent formation of a new movement called “No Labels” led by Republicans and Democrats.

But reason seemed to prevail during these last weeks, even though die-hards claimed “There’s no time. . .we’re not going to rush things.” Well, both sides passed significant legislation.

But where is the sense of “One Team” for 2011? I remember former Congressman Chris Shays, Republican of CT, saying he got up every morning realizing he served not only Republicans in his Bridgeport area district, but Democrats and Independents as well. There aren’t too many folks in Congress who reflect that spirit of attempting to solve America’s problems first, not working to ensure that President Obama serves only one term or to eliminate certain tax cuts.

“One Team” means that we think, for example, of the economy, the need to mount huge efforts to compete with the Chinese who have just invested almost 1 trillion dollars in new green energy. We must think not as ideologues from one party or another, but as Americans needing to solve a problem. Too often what passes for legislative problem-solving is acceding to the wishes of one’s political base to ensure re-election.

We think of what Senator John McCain said about what he would have done post 9/11: ask for “shared sacrifice.” Such sacrifices would mean that we think first about the best ways to deal with immigration policy and not about who are our campaign contributors and ideological soul-mates.

“One team” means that we realize that those men on the gridiron serve one nation, one America. We don’t ask them to pull the trigger in defense of Republicans or Democrats, the poor, or the middle class or the rich, but of all citizens.

Yes, we’ve had our divisions since the first Washington administration when you had Madison and Jefferson strongly disagreeing with the advice Hamilton was giving the President (see Madison and Jefferson, 2010 by Burstein and Isenburg) about building standing armies and assuming a large national debt. Political discourse became rather vituperative, accusatory and inflamed at times.

My fantasy is that one day I would be given 60 seconds to speak before a joint session of Congress. During this presentation I would mention McCain’s call for “shared sacrifice” from all Americans. Tell them of my parents’ many contributions during WWII (See “Mutual Sacifice” 11/23 below) —along with millions of other American citizens.

Then I would ask them for one week—even one day—to shed any semblance of party loyalty, forget their always imminent re-election campaigns and work diligently to solve the problems we face as men and women whose only allegiance is to all the voters in the country.

Be Chris Shays for one day, just one day!

Fantasy? Sheer fantasy. Yes, I know, but I keep rehearsing my lines.

The men and women from all of the military academies serve our country—we owe them our supportive acknowledgement that we are, indeed, “All one team.”

Peace for this holiday season!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Great Askers

Great Askers

Driving north toward Albany recently to visit a high school where they challenge students to think by solving real-world problems, I happened to turn on an XM radio station that played a very short clip from a Glen Beck radio broadcast the previous day. In this segment Mr. Beck said the following (slightly paraphrased from memory):

“What is the number of Muslims who are terrorists. 1%? I think the figure is closer to 10%.”

I heard nothing of what might have followed that claim.

The person who played it, of the opposite political persuasion, however, asked the right question, “How do you know? What evidence do you have to make this seemingly outrageous claim?”

Reminded me of Beck’s similar claim on TV that President Obama was “anti-white,” that he was “deep down a racist.”

We’ve heard this claim many times over, but I’ve never heard of anybody’s challenging him to support this judgment about the President. What was it based on?

Made me think that if he’s anti-white, he must be schizophrenic, in the common definition of that term as being of a split personality.

Then I asked, “Well, which portion of himself does he hate, since he’s both black and white? The lower/upper half?”

I never heard the logical follow-up question, “What leads you to that conclusion?”

So, driving back from this terrific high technology school in Rensselaer, NY where they foster 21st century skills such as inquiry, problem solving and critical thinking, I was wondering how Mr. Beck models for his radio/tv audiences arriving at logical conclusions using valid, representative evidence?

I’ve heard Mr. Beck so many times laying on his audience that they should fear the coming revolution, just recently, the approaching chaos that will result in a communist state or the dreaded one world government. Several nights later on TV he claimed that “They [I think he means progressives since they are mostly the big bad wolves here] they feed on fear and violence.”

One way to propel your own agenda is to characterize what others do to conceal your own use of the same tactics.

This from a spokesperson who sees the coming of a Reichstag-like fire incident that would lead to dictatorship, just as a similar event led to the Nazi take-over of the German government in 1933.

This from a person who plays tapes of students in London and Berkeley demanding free education and concludes that this is evidence that we’re headed for a socialist/communist state and a loss of freedom.

But the critical thinker asks, “How representative are students at Berkeley of the entire US? What other evidence do we have that the country is headed for a dictatorship or any stripe?” Yes, there are groups here and there that might give suggestion of that idea, but what say the three major branches of the federal government, to say nothing of their state and local counterparts? Where’s the preponderance of evidence?

Makes one think that evidence/data/facts/verifiable information is of little or no consequence. Say what you will. Nobody will challenge you and some may agree. (What Jonathan Schell recently, in The Nation, called "casting off factuality."

We must be so careful in listening to folks in the media.

Each side throws claims around that baffle the mind of an educated person:

“The Obama Stimulus Effect? Zero?” (WSJ, 12/9/10) Why did they say that? Because spending almost 800 billion dollars did not lead to significant “purchases” by the states that received the money. Are there other criteria for success?

You have economists on the other side from Harvard, for example, claiming on Charlie Rose “I can’t explain why the wealthy got tax breaks.”

One wonders who amongst the young people at that NY high school accepts these kinds of claims without the requisite and healthy skepticism that demands we ask probing questions like “How do you know? What leads you to that conclusion? How good/representative is your evidence?”

Historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a most revealing book, The March of Folly (1984) about governments that pursue policies “contrary to their interests.” She cites British policy in our Revolutionary War and ours in Vietnam as examples of “folly,” that is, “perceived as counter-productive in its own time. . .[with a] feasible alternative course. . .available. . .” (p. 5) A better policy would, I imagine, be based on solid evidence to the contrary.

To avoid such future disasters Tuchman concluded that “What government needs is great askers.” (385)

What society needs to counter claims that seem outrageous, that represent only one ideological point of view, or that are merely presented without any supporting evidence are “great askers” at home, schools, in the media, and in all political parties, people who daily challenge us to examine issues in accordance with evidence, who ask us to do what very few people are willing to do, that is ask, “What’s the other side of the coin? What evidence contradicts my favored point of view?”

This is the nature of good citizenship, especially in these days of hyper-partisanship in Washington politics.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The King's Speech

The King’s Speech

As the movie critics sometimes say, “Run, don’t walk to see Colin Furth in The King’s Speech.”

Why run? Because Furth delivers a most moving portrait of a monarch, George VI, as he ascends the throne after his brother Edward’s abdication to marry Mrs. Simpson in 1936.

George VI suffered from what they then called a “stammer.” He choked up when he had to speak in public and this is something a monarch does rather often, especially if his country is heading into World War II against a man with Hitler’s articulate passion for enflaming his people against the world.

Furth recently recalled that he had what actors call an emotional memory of his fear of public speaking:

When he was eight years old he was caught talking in class and the punishment was rather severe. “The teacher said, `Oh, do you want to give the lesson?’" The following week, after several sleepless nights, Furth was made to teach an hour-long class on the topic of soil. "It’s the only thing I ever really learned during my entire school years,” he said. "I still remember words like loam and subsoil, and different levels and layers. I brought in samples and little test tubes.’” (The New Yorker, 12/6/ 2010, p. 30)

Here we see the efficacy of teaching. If you want to learn something, teach it. If you want to know if students understand something, challenge them to teach it to those who are novices.

Of course, there is the element of total fear about this learning experience and we would not want to terrify our students by putting them in Furth’s position. The actor said, “It was punishment.”

“The King’s Speech” demonstrates once again the vitality of our speech patterns, our ways of communicating. We can joke, as The New Yorker did recently, about being the only “between you and me” chap in a “between you and I” world. But for those of us who really care about “the King’s English,” as my mother always did, it’s vital to pay attention to words, their pronunciation, usage, their connotations and denotations and even their derivations. What a joy it is when we learn that “stammer” is derived from the Old English word “stamerian. . .related to stumble." That’s just what Furth did as King George VI, stumble over his words as if he had these natural or psychological blocks deep within his psyche.

Language usage sets certain expectations.

I always remember Elizabeth Barell correcting those in the media for saying, “This is a really/most/very unique experience” or rather strongly chastising them for mis-pronouncing the word “dour.” The latter drove her crazy.

What are words? They are our means of communications amongst ourselves, our concepts for understanding the world (from pen and peace to Pater Noster) and, finally, they are most assuredly magical, mysterious human creations for exploration and discovery of newer worlds of awe and wonder.

Words reveal our souls, passions, aspirations and the stories we tell with our lives.

Attention must, therefore, be paid.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mutual Sacrifice

Bob Herbert in today’s (11/23/10) NY Times reflects on the meaning of JFK’s candidacy, inaugural and presidency, as short as it was.

Herbert: “What Kennedy hoped to foster was a renewed sense of national purpose in which shared values were reinforced in an atmosphere of heightened civic participation and mutual sacrifice.”

As so many have pointed out over the years, we are currently engaged in fighting two wars that directly affect only a small percentage of US citizens—those doing the fighting--troops, support forces and commanders-- and their families, relatives and friends.

Nobody has asked us to do much of anything to support these troops. They were hardly mentioned during the 2010 mid-term elections. No controversy?

At this time of Thanksgiving I like to remember what my parents did during WWII:

1. Used ration stamps for food and gasoline

2. Flattened tin cans and contributed them

3. Conserved water, especially in the bathroom

4. Dug and cultivated Victory Gardens

In addition, my mother, Elizabeth Barell, knitted black watch caps for sailors on the deadly convoy runs from NYC (or Norfolk) to England and/or Russia. Remember these were convoys of cargo vessels carrying much-needed war supplies that were stalked by Nazi U-boat wolf packs. Thousands lost their lives in terrible explosions from torpedoes.

She donated blood on 26 January 1944 and 27 June 1945.

And, finally, like her father, she became what we might today call an air-raid warden, trained to spot enemy planes over her community, Hartsdale, NY. She became an “authorized member of the Air Defense Command Filter Center Staff” in White Plains, NY, not far from our home. This card was “Not Transferable,” which means, I guess, that she had special training that could not be passed on to my father or others.

Today, what have we been asked to do?

Former-President Bush said he thought we were sacrificing because we have to take off our shoes in the airports, and now we go through full body scans to reach our destinations.

President Obama hasn’t asked us to do anything in terms of “mutual sacrifice” that I can identify. We hardly ever hear about these wars.

The point, I think, is that we have men and women implementing our foreign policy in two distant countries where in one, Afghanistan, we’re spending upwards of 1.6 billion a week and we’re not paying for it.

Former Senator Alan Simpson (Co-Chair of President’s Debt Commission) said we’ve always paid for wars even back to the Revolutionary War with revenue enhancements, call them taxes. Today, we’re using other peoples’ monies.

What can we do? Follow the lead of Betty Barell and millions of others.

I leave specifics up to our imaginations.

Friday, November 19, 2010

"How do you know?"

Upon reading Tom Friedman's column in yesterday's NY Times (11/17/10), I was reminded of my mother's oft-spoken question to me--"How do you know?" She first asked this when I showed her a picture of the Eagle Nebula on my computer and told her this was a “stellar nursery.”

In an unusual column about tv and cable news broadcasters/showmen, Friedman quoted at length a program by CNN's Anderson Cooper. Cooper evidently examined the claim made by many of one political persuasion that President Obama's recent trip to Asia would and did cost about $200 million per day. Yes, per diem.

When Cooper heard this claim he did some digging around and found that the first mention of this charge came from some not-well-known individual in India ("an alleged provincial Indian official") and then it made its way to the US, into the House of Representatives, onto cable tv news and the radio airwaves. No one could identify who this "official" is.

Like so many tall tales, new versions got added as people spread them: Obama's trip turned into a "vacation" guarded by ten percent (10%) of the entire United States Naval forces with an entourage of 3,000.

Cooper said on his CNN show: “. . . no one really seemed to care to check the facts." No one was curious enough to ask any one of the political figures, “How do you know it’s going to cost $200 million a day? Where did you get your information, your facts?”

Reminds me of the claims of WMD in Iraq. Who was fact checking the stories emanating from the same NY Times about their presence in Iraq before our invasion?

Friedman concluded, "When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem."

How did we get into this kind of situation--absent people who have a high regard for Elizabeth Barell's question--"How do you know? How do they know?"

Perhaps it’s the presence of the very 24/7 cable and radio news networks on which people of very strong political views voice their judgments. Or, can we really call them "judgments"? My definition of that term, especially when used to educate our young, involves drawing a reasonable conclusion supported by good reasons and very specific facts/data/evidence/information.

Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman wrote once that we need to "teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed." It's OK to say, "I don't know."

Some of us seem to be very certain of just about everything leaving no room for doubt nor for that confirmatory question that Elizabeth Barell used to ask, "How do you know?"

I’m often found ranting and raving at the television set where some politician is making a modest, grand or outlandish claim. “How do you know?” Tell me the facts behind your claim, if there are any.

Rigid certitude may be the hobgoblin of small minds and what we need are more skeptics in the press, in government, in politics, at home, in the world of work and at play.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

No frigate like a book

Emily Dickinson wrote "There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away. . ." And this was my feeling on first opening a new book yesterday, Madison and Jefferson by Burstein and Isenberg (2010).

As I read the Preface, there was a frisson of freshness that overcame me as I realized I was venturing back to the 18th century and the founding of our country. There is always such a thrill when reading about Washington, Adams, Jefferson and their forging a new nation out of the thirteen colonies.

The authors make a point of telling us what historians do, that is challenge conventional wisdoms, assumptions and preconceptions about people in history and the events they helped initiate. "The discipline of history exists to reexamine time-honored treatments of people and events, and to separate myth from reality."

They warn against celebrating these men "blindly," for this invites "massive self-deception."

In other words, what the authors want to do is take a fresh look at the relationship of these two former Presidents, third and fourth, to hold them up to the light of new scholarship, new questions about what they did and didn't do.

One thing we learn right off the bat is that "Jefferson sought to undermine the [Constitutional] ratification process--to Madison's severe embarrassment." (xix) But Madison went on to champion Jefferson for the presidency, to battle John Adams, thus becoming his "campaign manager."

What's exciting about this literary/historical adventure is to witness two first-rate historians using their craft to scrutinize old misconceptions about two very famous men, founders of our country.

If we think today's politics are sometime brutal, one should learn more about the battles amongst the early men of the Revolution and the founding of this country.

Questioning the common wisdoms might not always be popular, but we need men and women who will accept this challenge, not just as historians but as critical friends within the parlors and corridors of power.

In the recent past too few questions were asked about major policy undertakings and with new memoirs afoot, we need all the inquisitiveness we can muster lest we thickly varnish reality.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Chancellor's Realm

Here in NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has appointed Cathy Black as new school's chancellor. Already opponents are saying she's not qualified because she's never been an educator, doesn't have appropriate education credentials (degrees and the like).

The Mayor obviously prefers to run the schools with what he considers to be excellent managers, people who have a proven record of leading large groups of people toward organizational goals--in the world of business.

This appointment raises many questions:

Would a potential chancellor benefit from experience in teaching and running schools?

Does knowing something about how kids learn, how they grow intellectually and emotionally help us organize large numbers of teachers and administrators toward being successful in school and beyond?

Do we not have anybody within a school system across the US with leadership credentials to govern the NYC public schools?

Does an "outsider" have more potential for effecting change within a very complex organization than and "insider"?

Can such a person create a strong team of educators to school her in the complexities of curriculum, instruction, school change/management, negotiating with unions and setting a vision for the future?

These are some of the questions we might ask about Bloomberg's choice.

His choice seems to say that anybody like Gerstner (formerly IBM chief), Iacocca (Chrysler), Gates/Balmer (Microsoft) or Mulally (Ford) could lead the NYC school system.

It makes an educator like me take pause, wonder about what it takes to lead a complex organization of professionals who pride themselves on knowing how to challenge students to become deeply involved, intellectually and emotionally, in their own learning, setting goals for their own improvement, asking good questions and pursuing thoughtful answers.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Beyond Andromeda

During the summer I went out on our deck on eastern Long Island, looked up at the sky and surveyed the several constellations I'd learned back when I was a navigator in the Navy. There was Orion, the Big Dipper, Perseus, the Pleides, Gemini and Andromeda. And I looked for various stars I had used to navigate around the Pacific: Sirius, Rigel, Betelgeuse, Aldebaran, Arcturus, Capella and several others.

But it was Andromeda that captured my fancy, because with a pair of binoculars I spied the famous companion galaxy to our own Milky Way, Andromeda. There it was as a slight, black and white fuzzy presence in the sky, some 2.5 million light years distant.

And speaking of our galaxy there it was directly overhead. For some reason I had missed it during the more than 30 years Nancy and I have lived in Shinnecock Hills near Southampton, NY. An arching band of stars, unmistakable in its majesty and splendor, with our solar system about 25,000 light years from the turbulent center that houses a massive black hole.

I start this blog with "Beyond Andromeda," because on this early August evening at about 10 PM I wondered what lay beyond our nearest galaxy. I wanted to know more about the galaxies receding from us. While Andromeda and the Milky Way speed toward each other, other galaxies recede, thus, according to astronomers, giving us some evidence of the very existence of the Big Bang.

My wonderings on that peaceful led to this blog posting. For in the days to come, I want to share various wonderings on a wide range of subjects, trying always to identify my own perplexities as Socrates claimed was his only purpose, not to lecture but to infect the youth with the perplexities, mysteries, puzzles and doubts he felt himself.

Wondering is my stock and trade these days--about nature, politics, human life and the great beyond.